Thursday, September 25, 2008

THE Quintet

What's the greatest jazz band of all time? Well, in a lot of respects it's a silly question. But if one were to take it seriously, various bands led by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane (among others) all have a case for the title. But my vote would go to a band that changed the way "straight-ahead" and freer styles of jazz are played: the 1964-68 Miles Davis Quintet. You know, the one with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.

I bought the great Miles Smiles album by this group in 1978. To use a well-worn cliche, it changed my life. The "freebop" approach - swinging hard with no (or very abstract) chord changes - appealed to me as a vibrant, vital, contemporary approach to the jazz language. Even though I came upon this album 12 years after it was recorded, and it is now 42 years since the sessions, it seems just as vital today.

The band's approach to standards also remains unsurpassed. It was years before I could "drop the needle" in the middle of any of the 1965 Plugged Nickel sessions and have a reasonable chance of knowing what song they were playing. And I know all those chord changes! This band took the changes "out" to the limits of standard harmony, but could always bring them back to earth. I've heard lots of bands since use this approach, but none has ever gone further than The Quintet.

The outstanding Atlanta drummer Lee Goodness subbed with my quartet on several occasions back in the 90s. He was able to play my music, but it kind of puzzled him - it seemed kind of out in left field to him. A couple of years later, I saw Lee, and he said, "I got the Miles Smiles album and said, 'This is where Jeff Crompton gets that shit from!'"

A couple of nights ago I wanted to hear this band play "Footprints," but didn't want to hear the familiar Miles Smiles version. I had two live versions to choose from. (Ah, the joys of a ridiculously extensive recorded music collection!) I chose an Antwerp concert from October, 1967. What a band and what a show! Miles was great; the interaction of the band was amazing, and Wayne Shorter was just scary. He always sounded good in the studio, but there he never reached the heights he was capable of on a good night on stage. Listen to Shorter on the Plugged Nickel recordings - "armed and ready for battle," as one commentator said.

Before the last Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Ensemble gig, I was talking with Ben Gettys and bari saxist Bill Nittler. I told Bill that Ben had heard this Miles group in 1968. For a few seconds Bill just stared at Ben without saying a word. That's the way I feel about this group.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ah, Bach!

As I was driving around running errands yesterday, I had the Bach Brandenburg Concertos from the 1950 Prades Bach Festival in the CD player. These are some of the first LP recordings of Bach, conducted by the great Pablo Casals in the little town in which he was living at the time. By today's standards, these versions of the Brandenburgs are all wrong. The orchestra, although not that large, sounds heavy; Casals' approach is far too romantic; the tempos are not right (the first movement of the second concerto is as fast as I've ever heard it, while the opening of the third is slower than I've heard); the instrumentation has no regard for historical accuracy. Not only are modern instruments used, but the trumpet player at the festival was under contract to a different record company, so Marcel Mule's soprano (or sopranino) sax was substituted in the second concerto.

With the hindsight of fifty-plus years of music research and refinement of performance practice, we know that Casals' approach was all wrong. But I've got to say that Casals' Bach still sounds pretty good. Bach's music not only can survive a wide range of interpretation, it seems to thrive in all sorts of wayward renderings. I love Casals' Bach, as I love Joshua Rifkin's historically accurate readings of the cantatas, Glenn Gould's brilliant and eccentric versions of the keyboard music, and even Walter/Wendy Carlos' accurate, but strange-sounding electronic realizations. Bach shines through it all. I'm not really qualified to say why this is, but maybe it's because Bach's music has a certain objectivity to it - he wasn't trying to express himself as much as trying to produce works of beauty to glorify God. Whether or not that's what his music actually did, or what Bach's interpreters are trying to do, is beside the point. Paradoxically, Bach is all over and through his music at the same time he leaves himself out of it.

I don't know if that makes any sense, but in any case, Bach's music is as immediate to listeners today as it was 250 years ago. Maybe more so - Bach was admired at the time, but at his greatest fame was considered kind of old-fashioned. He's like King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which achieved the ultimate in perfection in the New Orleans jazz style just as that style was falling out of favor.

Here are my three favorite Bach recordings; two are rather eccentric, while the third is inevitable.

1. Chorale Prelude and Fugue from motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied," BWV 225 by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, from the album Music for Saxophones on the Cala label. I know, I know. This instrument wasn't even invented until a hundred years after Bach's death. But this version has a purity and beauty which is really touching. And the Music for Saxophones album is certainly in the running as the greatest classical saxophone recording of all time.

2. Choral-Prelude: "Allein Gott in der Hӧh, sei Ehr," BWV 622, 1952 and 1962 versions by Samuil Feinberg, from the album Russian Piano School: The Great Pianists (now out of print). Feinberg transcribed lots of Bach's organ music for piano, including this lovely Prelude. His first recording of the piece is beautiful, but the version he recorded two and a half weeks before his death in 1962 is heartbreaking. It's almost a full three minutes longer than the 1952 version, as Feinberg savors every harmony and every cadence; it's obvious to the listener that he knew his time wasn't long.

3. The Six Cello Suites by Pablo Casals, recorded for EMI between 1936 and 1939 and never out of print since. These readings are on many lists of the greatest classical recordings of all time. I fell in love with them on first hearing, but later decided that they weren't right - that they were too romantic and not "Baroque" enough. I've come full circle, and now pass up more "correct" versions for Casals, who gives these mysterious pieces a depth, nobility, and spiritual dimension which is hard to resist. These may be my favorite recordings in the western classical tradition.

As for the title of this post, who can sum up this great composer better than Radar O'Reilly?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

B, B & B

Any Ellington aficionado knows that the above initials stand for Black, Brown and Beige. B, B & B is Ellington's longest, most ambitious work, and I've spent lots of time over the last week listening to it, reading about it, and generally becoming reacquainted with it. Geek alert: heavy music history and musical analysis follow.

Black, Brown & Beige was composed for the Duke's first Carnegie Hall concert, which took place on January 23, 1943. Ellington described the piece as a "tone parallel to the history of the American Negro," and parts of the work fit this programatic idea very well. The "Work Song" section certainly sounds like the folk music of its title, and Johnny Hodges' reading of the "Come Sunday" melody evokes a spiritual longing, rather than the erotic longing Hodges was so good at expressing. But like any music, the piece stands or falls as music, not as a history lesson or a depiction of something concrete.

The history: Duke's band played the entire piece only at its Carnegie Hall premiere and at several other concerts around that time period. It was recorded at the premiere and was finally released on an album 34 years later. The critics who were at Carnegie Hall, in their infinite wisdom and after one hearing, pretty much ripped the piece apart, and Ellington never played or recorded the entire work again (although he came pretty close at times). At his Carnegie Hall concerts of the next few years, he played excerpts, and was in turn criticized for not playing the entire piece. Go figure. When the 1942-44 recording strike ended, he recorded about 22 minutes (the full piece is twice that long) of B, B & B for Victor, including the "Work Song," and "Come Sunday" sections of Black, "The Blues" and two short dance excerpts from Brown, and about a minute (the "Sugar Hill Penthouse" theme) of Beige. This recording is well worth hearing; the excerpts are well-chosen and well-performed. I probably listen to this recording more frequently than to the entire 1943 version.

Ellington couldn't get B, B & B out of his system, however, and continued performing parts of it throughout the rest of his career. The 1958 Black, Brown & Beige album he recorded for Columbia has the Black movement on side one and a version of "Come Sunday" with Mahalia Jackson on side two. He also featured Black during his 1965 European tour - I have a version from a concert in Paris in my collection. And he recorded the almost the entire piece - minus some introductions and transitions - in pieces between 1965 and 1971; this has been issued as Vol. 10 of The Private Collection.

Most of Ellington's longer works are suites - sets of short, loosely related movements which stand more or less on their own. There is no real musical precedent for B, B & B, but it's certainly more symphonic in its length and scope. Each of its three movements is composed of more or less three sections:

Black: Work Song; Spiritual (Come Sunday); Light
Brown: West Indian Dance; Emancipation Celebration (The Lighter Attitude); The Blues (Mauve)
Beige: Cy Runs Rock Waltz; Beige; Sugar Hill Penthouse (Creamy Brown).

Ellington used all of these subtitles at various times. And no, I have no idea what "Cy Runs Rock Waltz" means.

Black is the longest and most well-constructed movement. The "Work Song" has a couple of strong motives, like a symphonic work, rather than well-developed melodies. That's not a negative criticism, by the way - motives are easier to work with and develop than long melodies (think Beethoven's Fifth). The "Come Sunday" melody is, of course, one of the most beautiful written by Ellington or anyone else, and Hodges' rendering is ravishing. "Light" winds up the movement by combining elements of the "Work Song" with the "Come Sunday" melody. This is a well-constructed piece of music with little waste, despite its 20-minute length. Ellington must have felt that this was the strongest movement, since it formed the basis or the entirety of his later B, B & B performance.

Brown consists of some attractive parts that are not tied together as well. The transition between the "West Indian Dance" and the "Emancipation Proclamation" is kind of forced and trite, and there is no transition to "The Blues;" the "Emancipation Proclamation" just stops and "The Blues" starts. The latter section is excellent, however, especially in the original version with the great Betty Roche doing the vocal.

Beige is usually considered the weakest of the movements and the one most showing the pressures of Ellington's deadline. It sounds pretty good to me now, and has at least one outstanding melody: the one shared by the waltz (in 3/4 time, of course) and "Sugar Hill Penthouse" (in 4/4). The movement does ramble some, and it sounds to me as if the Duke didn't really know how to end the piece; the ending he came up with reeks of Hollywood. In any case, Ellington himself didn't seem to consider this movement up to the level of the other two; it got pretty short shrift in the "official" 1944 recording, and he left out the opening and closing passages when he recorded it in 1965.

Although B, B & B has enough flaws that it can't be considered Ellington's best extended work (The Tattooed Bride or Harlem, maybe?), it does have some of the Duke's finest writing, along with a certain amount of filler. It certainly deserves to be more well known than it is. Compare it to Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin's piece, much beloved by concertgoers and studied in music appreciation classes, has some great melodies linked by pretty lame transitions. Some of Ellington's transitions are weak, but overall, B, B & B has to be considered a more well-constructed piece than the more famous Rhapsody, and the melodies are just as good. Give it a listen: the 1943 premiere is on a Prestige CD, the 1944 "official" excerpts are on RCA/BMG, and the 1965-71 Private Collection version is on Saja, if you can still find it.