Wednesday, December 16, 2009

George Baquet

In the last 24 hours, I've listened to complete recorded works of George Baquet, the New Orleans Creole clarinetist who lived from 1883 to 1949. Not that it was time-consuming - Baquet only made four or five issued sessions. His playing fascinates me, although I suspect that many listeners will probably find it less than enthralling.

Baquet was the clarinetist with the legendary Creole Band, which was led by bassist Bill Johnson and which was extremely successful in vaudeville well before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first jazz records in 1917. (Larry Gushee's Pioneers of Jazz tells their story in detail.) He settled in Philadelphia in 1923 and spent the rest of his life there.

Baquet was the son of the well-respected New Orleans clarinetist Theogene Baquet, who taught George and his brother Achille, also a professional clarinetist. The Baquets were Creoles, with French and African ancestry; I've always thought that it was an interesting statement on the meaning of racial identity that, when they came of age, George decided to be black and Achille decided to be white. Achille played and recorded with Jimmy Durante's New Orleans Jazz Band in 1918-1919; Durante felt obliged on at least one occasion to deny the rumors that his clarinetist was, in fact, black.

Brian Rust's jazz discography credits Baquet with the clarinet work on Bessie Smith's October 15, 1923 session. The booklet of the Columbia Complete Sessions Vol. 1 booklet is more cautious: George Baquet or Ernest Elliott. The clarinet is prominent on "Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time," and it certainly sounds like it could be Baquet, based on his later recordings.

Baquet shows up again on Jelly Roll Morton's three July, 1929 big band sessions. This is Jelly's touring band with Baquet added, probably because Morton and Baquet were old friends and because the recordings were made in Camden, New Jersey, just across the river from Philly. Baquet sounds kind of odd in this context. Morton's arrangements were not state-of-the-art, like Ellington's or Don Redman's, but they were fairly modern for the time. Baquet sounds like he stepped out of another era. He's got the odd, old-fashioned tone that many older New Orleans clarinetists exhibit, derived at least partly from the double-lip embouchure (no teeth on the mouthpiece) they used. His articulation is also very 19th-century, and he doesn't really swing at all, at least in the way jazz musicians were expected to by 1929.

All that being said, I love these recordings. The contrast between the up-to-date band and the antique clarinet style just kills me, although it doesn't make any sense objectively. "New Orleans Bump" in particular is a delight - Baquet has a very cool flutter-tongued solo.

John Reid made some informal recordings of Baquet in 1940 that were released on an American Music CD, The John Reid Collection, in 1992. There are two selections by the jivey swing band Baquet was leading at the time; he plays clarinet and tenor sax in the ensembles, but lets the younger guys take the solos. But Reid also recorded two amazing documents - a slow blues on clarinet with just the rhythm section accompanying, and another version of the same blues with Baquet's former student Sidney Bechet added on soprano sax. Like some other early Creole musicians (Peter Bocage comes to mind) Baquet treats the blues as a chord progression rather than as a style; his playing is somewhat formal and detached. This must be how some of the earliest New Orleans blues sounded. When Bechet is added, Baquet ups his ante somewhat; without really changing his style, his playing becomes hotter and more involved. He and Bechet trade choruses; each plays beautiful, spare accompaniments to the other's melodies.

I love George Baquet's playing - not just for what it is, but for what it represents. Hearing his clarinet is like catching a glimpse of the light from a distant star - one we know has burned out, but whose light still reaches us. In his music we hear those first, halting steps of the musicians who first put together the music we call jazz.

Friday, November 13, 2009


There's a new Von Freeman album out. In a just world, this would mean that the legendary 87-year-old Chicago tenor saxophonist would be making the rounds of the talk shows - playing on Good Morning America and trading quips with Letterman and Leno; the news would be splashed on the arts sections of every paper in the country. As it is, Von Freeman's audience is a minority within a minority; a small subsection of the already small jazz audience. How many people are going to notice a new Freeman album?

Twenty years or so ago, my band of the time, the Bazooka Ants, opened Chicago Day at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, for some reason - we certainly had no link to Chicago. I guess we were picked because we were kind of avant-garde, but also accessible - a good lead-in to the first two of the Chicago acts that filled the rest of the day: Douglas Ewart's clarinet ensemble (with Anthony Braxton) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It was an amazing day, and seeing/hearing the Art Ensemble's set from the side of the stage was like going to church. But the highlight was the appearance of Von Freeman. I was standing near Ewart and Roscoe Mitchell while Von was deep into a medium-up tune on Rhythm changes. Mitchell turned to Ewart, laughed and shook his head, and said, "Now that's a real saxophone player!"

Freeman's playing is unusual and highly individual; he has a very personal tone, sense of rhythm, and style of phrasing, as well a flexibility with pitch which allows him to bend notes "into the cracks" between the tempered pitches of Western music. His music is so interesting and moving in part because he's always improvising. That may seem like a simplistic thing to say about a jazz musician - isn't that what they all do? But so many "improvising" musicians are just recycling their licks; it's easy to predict what they're going to play next. Not so with Von - he continually takes the music in surprising and unexpected directions. His version of "Footprints," from Live at the Dakota, is as strange and beautiful as any music I've ever heard. His tortured phrases slide around and between the pitches of the chromatic scale, and he plays with amazing drive and intensity - he was a mere 73 years old at the time. And his spoken introduction to the tune is both funny and sobering - I'll let you track down the album and check it out yourself.

Von didn't record an album of his own until he almost 50. What is often considered his best record was made a couple of years after that - Have No Fear came out on Nessa, Chuck Nessa's label. (Disclaimer - While we've never met, Mr. Nessa and I are slightly acquainted through the tubes of the internet.) Nessa's output has been small, but uncompromisingly excellent - 25 or so albums over the past 30 years. Nessa's latest release is Vonski Speaks, by Freeman and the quartet that accompanies him on his regular Tuesday night gig at the New Apartment Lounge in Chicago. The CD is both joyous and achingly beautiful. On the uptempo title cut, Von's phrases often begin like conventional bebop phrases before they are twisted into unexpected directions, ending on unusual notes. I was less than excited to see yet another recorded version of "Summertime," but this is the most challenging reading of the Gershwin song I've ever heard, with the possible exception of Albert Ayler's. The young band which accompanies him is worthy of Freeman's great performance; I imagine playing with Von stretches them to play above themselves. This is great jazz.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this album, but to me Freeman's work on Vonski Speaks perfectly captures both the wonder and brevity of our moment on this planet - it reminds us that life is complex, beautiful, and short. While we and Von are still on this side of the grass, hear his music. Von Freeman is a national treasure.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Everybody's Talking About Sammy

In reading interviews with old New Orleans musicians, names of great, unrecorded trumpet players like Buddy Bolden, Buddy Petit, and Chris Kelly keep coming up. But the band that inspires awe, admiration, and even fear in those interviews is Sam Morgan's Jazz Band, which recorded eight titles for Columbia Records in 1927. Those 24 minutes of music represent some of the most exciting New Orleans jazz ever put down.

Sam Morgan's was a musical family; he and his brother Isiah played cornet in the band, another brother, Andrew, played clarinet and tenor sax, and brother Al was an accomplished bassist. (Al Morgan went north and made a name for himself before the band recorded.) Alto saxophonist Earl Fouche and Big Jim Robinson on trombone were the other horns on the Columbia records, and a strong four-piece rhythm section provided the foundation. That rhythm section drives the band like a diesel engine, playing a strong four beats to the bar, as opposed to the two-beat rhythm of many "dixieland" bands.

The whole band swings very hard, and surprisingly makes no concessions to the fashions of popular music at large, unless you consider the presence of saxophones in the ensemble a trendy 1920s element. (I don't.) Compare the Morgans' approach to other New Orleans bands who recorded around the same time: Oscar Celestin's band or the Halfway House Orchestra, for instance. Those band were adopting the scored ensemble passages and "modern" harmonies of the northern bands of the time, but not the Morgan band. They continued to play old-style New Orleans improvised polyphony.

The tunes are mostly originals; the most impressive as a composition is "Bogalousa Stomp," a multi-strain piece which is still played fairly frequently by New Orleans bands. (Kermit Ruffins has recorded a nice version.) Sam Morgan sings "Everybody's Talking About Sammy" and the racy "Short Dress Gal" in a rough, cawing voice; I can only understand some of the words. In addition to the jazz stomps, the band also recorded three spirituals; they were the first jazz band to do so. "Sing On" and "Over in the Gloryland" are still played by New Orleans jazz and brass bands; I don't know whether this is because the Morgan recordings were influential or because the tunes have always been popular in the city. There is a touching passage in "Down by the Riverside when all the instruments except the piano drop out and some of the band sing the spiritual in harmony. It's a beautiful down-home moment from this swinging group.

The Morgan recordings, particularly the spirituals, also demonstrate the cross-pollination that was going on between the jazz bands (which played mostly for dancing) and the brass bands which played on the street. On "Sing On" and "Gloryland," the band is basically playing brass band style with a rhythm section. Take away the trap set, string bass, piano, and banjo and replace them with tuba, snare drum, and bass drum, and this band could have played the same notes at a funeral parade.

Perhaps the most impressive musician in the band was alto saxophonist Earl Fouche. He never recorded again, and that's something of a tragedy, because he really shines on the Morgan sides. He's all over the place - doubling the first cornet, harmonizing with the cornets, playing countermelodies, and contributing killer solos to "Mobile Stomp" and "Bogalousa Strut." Fouche obviously had a real command of the saxophone and of harmony, something that can't be said of everyone in the band. (You'll hear some poor note choices by Andrew Morgan in "Over in the Gloryland" and a spectacularly wrong note by Jim Robinson in the introduction to "Steppin' on the Gas," where he plays a D against an A flat major chord.) Based on these eight recordings, Fouche was probably the best saxophonist in New Orleans during that period.

Ill health dogged Sam Morgan, and the band fell apart when he died in the mid 1930s. Only Robinson, Andrew Morgan, and bassist Sidney Brown recorded commercially after this, and only Jim Robinson really gained any fame. Brother Isiah continued to play, and a field recording made at a dance in Mississippi in the 1950s showed him to be an able, swinging, but unspectacular trumpeter. There have been several recorded tributes to the Morgan band, but by far the best is the Sam Morgan Revisited session made under Kid Howard's name for the Icon label. The record was reissued on the Jazzology family of labels, and features five absolutely smoking versions of Morgan's tunes. The band includes Jim Robinson and Andrew Morgan, as well as other musicians who played with Sam Morgan at various times, but who weren't on the Columbia sessions. They play with an abandon which makes this session one of the most exciting of the so-called "New Orleans Revival" of the sixties.

The eight Morgan sides have been reissued on Azure and Jazz Oracle CDs, and probably elsewhere. I'll always be grateful that they jammed into the upstairs room of Werlein's Music Store on Canal Street to play into the inadequate recording equipment of the time. The myth that all the good musicians left New Orleans by 1920 is blown out of the water by these stirring, amazing 24 minutes of music.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

All Around Man

Lexington, Mississippi bluesman Lonnie Pitchford died of AIDS in 1998, a month beyond his 43rd birthday. If you've read the chapter on Pitchford in Robert Nicholson's book Mississippi Blues Today!, you might find it amazing that he lived as long as he did. Nicholson recounts, in jaw-dropping fashion, his unsuccesful attempt to keep up with the hard-living, pleasure-seeking Pitchford for 24 hours. Nicholson's night with Pitchford involved copious amounts of lying and alcohol, refueled by a visit to the bootlegger in the middle of the night. Although Pitchford stayed up until dawn drinking, Nicholson was amazed that he was up at 9:00 AM with a bottle of Colt 45 and Oprah on the TV.

At the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale one year (I don't quite remember which) in the early nineties, Pitchford was all over the place - performing, listening, helping out, wandering around. And every time I saw him, he always seemed pretty drunk. But he was incredibly patient with one of his mentors, Eugene Powell, who recorded before World War II as Sonny Boy Nelson. The very elderly Powell was still able to play sing his blues and play guitar, but was no longer able to tune his instrument. When Pitchford realized that Powell was having trouble, he mounted the stage, tuned his teacher's guitar, and handed it back. Powell, probably acting on instinct, immediately reached out and turned one of the tuning pegs, destroying the younger man's work. Pitchford sighed, took the guitar back, and retuned it.

Pitchford's other mentor was the great Robert Lockwood, Jr., often called "Robert Junior" Lockwood, since his mother was the girlfriend of Robert Johnson. Many bluesmen hung around Robert Johnson and picked up licks and techniques. Lockwood was, however, apparently the only musician whom Johnson taught directly. He learned well, amplified Johnson's lessons (listen to "Talk a Little Walk With Me" from Lockwood's first recording session in 1941), and, years later, passed the lessons on to Lonnie. The beautiful "See See Rider" from Pitchford's only full-length album, All Around Man, illustrates the Lockwood influence on Lonnie's playing.

The name of that Rooster Blues album is appropriate - not only because Pitchford performs Bo Carter's wonderfully dirty song of the same name, but because he covers so many musical bases. When he first came to the attention of the larger blues community, Pitchford was known for two things: his moving, virtuoso performances on the "diddley bow," the one-string guitar, and for his precise and passionate renditions of Robert Johnson's songs. All Around Man presents Pitchford in those two settings, as well as the Robert Lockwood-influenced style mentioned above, the haunting hill country style he apparently learned from his father, as a modern blues electric guitarist in front of a band, and even as a jazz/funk soloist (on Donnie Hathaway's "The Ghetto"). And he's the best of the three bassists that appear on the album. He sounds totally natural and convincing on all of this. The only setting in which he disappoints is as a jazzy piano soloist; he doesn't have either the chops or musical knowledge to make much of "My Sunny," his simplification of the Bobby Hebb tune.

Although All Around Man is his only album, Pitchford contributed tracks to the German "Living Country Blues" series (partially reissued on Evidence), the concert that produced the Columbia album Roots of Rhythm & Blues: A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era, the Deep Blues soundtrack, and volume one of the National Downhome Blues Festival albums on Southland. But one of my most highly prized records is an LP of gorgeous Mississippi gospel by The Star Lite Singers. One of the Star Lites was the Rev. Charles Pitchford; he recruited his brother to play guitar and bass on their Footprint of Jesus album. I bought this record in Clarksdale around 1992; I suspect that not many people outside of Mississippi have heard it. Lonnie doesn't solo, but every shuffle rhythm and fill he plays is just perfect.

Charles officiated at his brother's funeral when the end came. Years ago, I read an online account of the service, but it has since been lost somewhere in the tubes of the interweb. But from what I remember, Rev. Pitchford's funeral sermon was unapologetic, even defiant, about his brother's lifestyle, taking the position that Lonnie was given the talent to play and sing the blues by God, and that he followed his path as well he was able. With any great artist, it's hard to know how much we can separate the man and music. If Lonnie Pitchford hadn't lived so fast and so hard, maybe his music wouldn't be so moving. But, hearing "See See Rider," "Lonesome Blues," or "Don't You Do That No More," it's hard not to regret the mode of living that brought early death to such a talent.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008) was on a different level than the general run of jazz musicians; he was one of those rare individuals who could create a musical universe or change the direction of a piece with one note. Giuffre ranks so highly in my esteem that his death, like Steve Lacy's passing, is still a little difficult for me to process; I have to force myself to realize that we no longer share the same planet.

My first encounter with Jimmy Giuffre's music came when I was in the eighth or ninth grade and was invited to attend the first rehearsal of my high school's newly formed "stage band." The school’s band director, Leon Cole, was remarkably visionary and open-eared, and was anxious to expose us to as many different types of music as possible. He really didn't know how to teach us improvisation, but it was at that rehearsal that I became aware of the concept. And Mr. Cole brought in a couple of books to teach us jazz style and phrasing. One was by Lennie Niehaus, if I remember correctly, but the other was Jazz Phrasing and Interpretation by Jimmy Giuffre, published in 1969.

The exercises in the Giuffre book were odd, conceptual, and difficult. We quickly gave up on it and concentrated on the Niehaus method. But I took my copy of the Giuffre home, and pored over it. It was way beyond me at the time, but I was fascinated, particularly by the final exercise, which was atonal and written without barlines. Several years ago I found another copy, and I still find it very challenging.

Jimmy Giuffre first came to the attention of the larger jazz world when Woody Herman recorded his "Four Brothers" back in 1947. The piece featured a saxophone section of unusual instrumentation: three tenors and a baritone. The first recording, featuring Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, was enough of a musical and commercial success that Herman played the piece for the rest of his life, and used the three-tenors-and-a-bari sax section from then on.

Although Giuffre was active in a variety of settings in the late forties and early fifties, he only found his true musical personality with a series recordings for Atlantic Records and with the formation of The Jimmy Giuffre 3 in the middle of that decade. The first Atlantic recording, The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet, exhibited the unusual, breathy sound that Giuffre had developed on that instrument. During this period he played the clarinet almost exclusively in the lower register, which led to one of the great sarcastic putdowns of jazz history; when it was announced that Giuffre would be teaching at the Lenox School of Jazz, critic Andre Hodier asked, "Who will be teaching the upper register?"

But a more important aspect of the Clarinet album was the variety and imagination of the settings which Giuffre composed or arranged for himself. It was obvious that Giuffre considered himself a composer as much as an instrumentalist. And although he contributed works to various large ensemble projects during this period, his most important compositional canvas was The 3, with Jim Hall on guitar and Ralph Pena on bass. This group was highly controversial at the time, in part because it didn't include a drummer. Giuffe had become increasingly dissatisfied with the role of drums in jazz, and had experimented (unsuccessfully, in my opinion) with an approach wherein the drummer played fills, but dispensed with conventional timekeeping. But those with ears to hear found the Jimmy Giuffre 3 a particularly intelligent and heartening example of that blending of composition and improvisation which was one of the overlooked subtexts of jazz in the 1950s. Pieces like "The Train and the River" and "Two Kinds of Blues" are good examples of the best work of this group.

When Pena left, Giuffre couldn't find another bassist that suited him, so he added valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer as the third member of the group. On the surface, this seemed like an even more radical instrumentation, but in reality this version of The 3 swung harder, while taking even more chances compositionally. Their definitive album paired Giuffre's four-part "Western Suite" with wonderful, loose versions of "Topsy" and "Blue Monk."

Toward the end of the fifties, and possibly influenced by some of the criticism he was receiving, Giuffre became unhappy with the direction of his music. The playing of Monk and Sonny Rollins seemed more direct and emotional to him, and he drifted for awhile before getting his bearings again. During this period he recorded a live album with Hall on guitar and a hard-swinging rhythm section. It didn't quite work, and critic Max Harrison has blamed the rhythm section, saying that they didn't understand what Giuffre needed. Harrison is the critic I most admire, and I hate to disagree with him, but it's obvious to me that Giuffre is forcing; he's trying to play hard and emotionally, but it's equally obvious to me that he's not being himself.

The answer came with the formation of a new Jimmy Giuffre 3 in 1961. Pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow were Giuffre's new partners; during the short life of the group they recorded three studio albums and impacted jazz in ways which only became apparent in retrospect. The new trio played music in which tonality, conventional jazz rhythms, and closed structures were only options, not givens. The result was a sometimes atonal jazz chamber music which, to many listeners, seemed to have more in common with contemporary classical music than jazz. Although influential and widely praised (musicians as diverse as Evan Parker and Joe McPhee have talked about this group’s impact on them), they never attracted much of an audience; Steve Swallow has written that they disbanded after a gig on which they each made 35 cents.

Giuffre continued playing uncompromising, individual free jazz with various partners. One of the few recorded examples of The 3 from later in the decade is a 1965 Paris set; it can be found on a French CD. With Don Friedman and Barre Phillips, Giuffre plays fearless, abstract music. The audience quickly loses patience and makes its displeasure known, but the hisses and catcalls seem to spur Giuffre on to new heights; he improvises with great intensity on both saxophone and clarinet.

In the seventies he continued to play with Paul Bley at times (Quiet Song is particularly beautiful) and lead his own groups, usually with bass and drums. He formed a new 4 (he didn't seem to care for the terms "trio" and "quartet") after hearing Weather Report and being impressed with its palette of electronic sounds. The new group included Pete Levin on synthesizers and keyboards and made three albums for Soul Note. Although my friend Robo finds the keyboard sounds too dated to enjoy this group, I like their music, which combines the lyrical feel of Giuffre's early 3 with a new strength and excitement.

Jimmy Giuffre continued to perform and record until the early nineties. Some of the most intriguing later work is by the reunited trio of Giuffre, Bley and Swallow. They made four albums between 1989 and 1993, and it's interesting to hear what elements of their earlier music they retained and which they discarded or reconsidered. Much of their later work was completely improvised, and they often broke into duets or solos.

Parkinson's Disease finally made it impossible for Giuffre to perform, and like all Parkinson's sufferers, he continued to decline until his death a couple of years ago. He left an amazing body of work, though. And he still kicks my ass every couple of days when I attempt to practice out of Jazz Phrasing and Interpretation.

Monday, August 31, 2009


This post represents my attempt to sum up Louis Armstrong in a few paragraphs. That can't be done, of course, and the result is so simplistic that any readers who are at all familiar with Armstrong and his genius can safely ignore what follows. I've found, though, that many jazz listeners, and even musicians, don't understand what all the fuss is about - they consider Louis old-fashioned at best.

At some point in my high school band career, I was given the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award for being the best jazz musician in the school. However, that wasn't saying much in the semi-rural school I attended - it's not like there was a lot of competition. But it got me thinking, perhaps for the first time, about the paradox of Louis Armstrong.

When I was a kid (and still today), the most powerful AM radio station in Atlanta was WSB. But while WSB is now a talk radio station featuring unreflective right-wing mouths, it used to be the adult "easy listening" station. And I'll admit that I kind of liked it as a kid, and that I learned a lot from listening to it. They played crap like Lennie Dee and Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, but they also played Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck. And they played Louis Armstrong records: "Mack the Knife," "Cabaret," and "Blueberry Hill."

By the time I was playing in my high school's "stage band," as school big bands were usually called in those days, I vaguely knew that Armstrong was supposed to be one of the jazz greats - possibly the jazz great. But I couldn't reconcile that image with the pleasant, genial music I heard by Louis on the radio - that music didn't seem like the work of a genius. Understanding and appreciating Armstrong was a slow process, and was part of the journey of appreciating and enjoying early jazz styles in general.

A little investigation, a little exploration of the records in the local library, and I started to get it. As I explored Louis' early output, I found some stunning music: "West End Blues," with its amazingly complex opening cadenza, "Potato Head Blues," with a solo that dances over a stop-time rhythm, and "Beau Koo Jack," with trumpeting as virtuosic as any ever recorded in jazz.

The late-twenties Okeh records like these, collectively known as the Hot Fives, since most of them featured that band name, are usually considered to be Armstrong's pinnacle. But the best of his slightly later recordings for the Victor label are no less amazing. These records were made with pretty mediocre big bands, and the material is mostly pop songs of the time - good ones like "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and lousy ones like "That's My Home." But the material is immaterial - on both of these sides Louis acheives a soaring eloquence unlike anything else in jazz; his playing on these tunes reminds me more of Beethoven than King Oliver.

The conventional wisdom is the rest of Armstrong's career represented decline and compromise. Certainly his later trumpet playing never again reached the heights of the Hot Fives and best Victors. But later recordings such as "I Double Dare You" feature brilliantly constructed improvisation with a somewhat more subdued, pared-down trumpet style. And even near the end of his career, when his ability to play the trumpet was limited, he could create solos that show his genius. I've always been struck by his playing on the 1968 "Dream a Little Dream of Me" - it's spare, using short phrases and few notes, but each note is carefully chosen and placed for maximum expressive effect. It's one the most moving of Armstrong solos.

By the time he recorded "Dream a Little Dream of Me," Louis had been fronting his constantly touring band, known as the All Stars, for 20 years or so. During this time, he became one of America's foremost entertainers; it was in this role that I first became aware of Armstrong. If it is difficult to understand how the first and greatest genius of jazz could settle for being a mere entertainer, well, that's a distinction which Louis never made for himself. In all stages of his career, he played music which he hoped people would like. Yes, his days of jazz innovation were long behind him by the time he knocked the Beatles out of the number one spot on the pop charts with "Hello Dolly," but he was still trying to create good music, and usually succeeding.

Gary Giddins' book on Armstrong, Satchmo, has chapters titled "The Artist as Entertainer" and "The Entertainer as Artist." This summarizes Louis - he was both, and didn't see a division. If you don't know Armstrong's music, check out the early masterpieces, but don't stop there. Listeners who can open themselves to Louis' music at all stages of his career will find lots of rewards waiting for them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Real Improvising

I have a longer post waiting in the wings, but I just came across a beautiful Lee Konitz quote:

As soon as I hear myself play a melodic segment that I already know, I take the mouthpiece out. The art of improvising implies, from the first note onward, that the slate is clean. What interests me is the procedure that falls into place without premeditation. The important thing is to flee the task that's assigned to you.

I love that, particularly the paradoxical last sentence. When I read something like this, or when I hear Konitz play, I am filled with admiration. And I'm a little chagrined about my own playing. Konitz and Steve Lacy are two of my heroes, and they both exhibit the same pure esthetic in their playing. They are (or were, in Lacy's case) interested in improvising melody, not in creating excitement, not in working up the audience, and certainly not in running through predictable patterns. Lacy, unlike Konitz, sometimes ventured from melodic improvising into sound exploration, but he even did that his own way - no screaming, no "finger-wiggling," but an exploration of the saxophone's sound capabilities that was just as thoughtful as his melodic playing.

Not many players in jazz have maintained such a pure approach to improvising. There have been numerous published studies of Charlie Parker's music showing how he combined his favorite licks and devices in different ways time and time again. Parker, of course, was a genius, and his solos were so brilliantly constructed that his use of set material didn't weaken his incredible music. But we've all heard lesser players who keep coming back to the same licks. And Johnny Hodges was one of the most amazing saxophonists in the history of jazz, but he often used the same set solos every night for many tunes.

I certainly don't come close to the melodic purity of Konitz or Lacy. With the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra, I only get a few solos per night, and I often plan the opening phrase of a solo before I start to play. And I do resort to devices that I know will "work" - building my solo gradually to a high point, then tapering off fairly quickly, for example.

There are lots of ways to improvise, and few of us have the musical and personal strength to improvise the way Konitz does. But I've found that the closer I keep his example (as well as Lacy's), the stronger my own music is. I'll make sure to keep them close.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Original Memphis Five

Since I've gotten back into 78s, I have "adopted" the Original Memphis Five. Trumpeter Phil Napoleon's early-1920's jazz band was not particularly original, and none of them were Southerners, but there were five of them. One out of three ain't bad.

Okay, I couldn't resist parsing their name, but I don't mean to be derogatory - I like the OM5 a lot. No, they weren't ground-breaking or original, but they were consistently good - more consistent, in my opinion, than some more talented bands of the time, like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. No, they never reached the heights of the NORK's best work, but they deserve to be remembered more than they have been.

From a 78 RPM record collector's standpoint, being an Original Memphis Five fan works out pretty well. They recorded a lot - way more the the Rhythm Kings or King Oliver's band. And their records are not in high demand by collectors, which means that I can get an excellent 78 by the OM5 for two or three bucks rather than the 50, 100, or more dollars a pristine original issue by Oliver's Creole Jazz Band or the NORK would set me back.

That wouldn't make any difference if the music wasn't worth tracking down, but the Original Memphis Five was a really good band. They started recording in 1922, a year before Oliver, and continued in more or less their original formation until 1925. Besides Napoleon, the band included Frank Signorelli on piano, drummer Jack Roth, Jimmy Lytell on clarinet, and alternating trombonists Miff Mole and Charlie Panelli. The band carefully worked out their tunes and came to the studio prepared, but they swung harder than their obvious model, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and seem to have used more real improvisation than the ODJB. The OM5 concentrated on the pop tunes of the day, rather than jazz specialties, although they did record some originals. The emphasis on pop tunes was deliberate, according to Napoleon, and allowed them to reach a wide audience without sacrificing the quality of the music; they "jazzed" the pop tunes pretty hard. The Memphis Five's music was only weakened when vaudeville vocalists like Billy Jones were added to the band.

At least four members of the band were outstanding talents. Napoleon's trumpet lead was a little stiff on the 1922 recordings I've heard, but it had loosened up nicely by the middle of 1923. His first-choice trombonist, Miff Mole, was simply the first great trombone soloist of jazz. His real maturity came later in the decade, but he is excellent on the OM5 records, playing interesting, wide-ranging lines. Since he got busier and busier doing studio work as the decade wore on, he was often replaced by Panelli, who was not in the same league. Frank Signorelli's piano pretty much was the rhythm section, since most of whatever Jack Roth was doing didn't make onto the records. Signorelli's accompaniments are solid and full-sounding, and his solos are impressive. But the real surprise of the band, to me, anyway, was Jimmy Lytell. As I explored the band's work, I had the growing realization that Lytell is one of the unsung heroes of the early jazz clarinet. As early as 1922 or 1923 he had developed an original sound and style. I assume that he was somewhat influenced by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's Larry Shields, but he doesn't sound like anyone but himself. Well, he sounds a little like Larry's brother Harry Shields, who is one of my favorite New Orleans clarinetists. But the chances that Lytell was influenced by Harry Shields are pretty slim, since Harry hardly ever left New Orleans and didn't record until 1925. But sometimes, like during the 1924 "My Papa Doesn't Two Time No Time,"* Lytell starts a phrase with a hair-raising scoop up to a long high-register note in a way that Harry Shields favored. Anyway, Jimmy Lytell may not have been a near-genius clarinetist like Leon Rappolo, but he sure was good.

I've got over an hour's worth of OM5 78 RPM records on the Broadway, Banner, Pathe Actuelle, Vocalion, Perfect, Cameo, Regal, and Grey Gull labels. And luckily, they also recorded for Victor, who in my opinion, put out the best-sounding 78s. (I've got three of their Victors.) Since they tried to reach a "general" audience, as opposed to just jazz fans, some of their records are paired with more pedestrian dance bands on the flip side. (If any of you have been dying to hear "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" by the Majestic Dance Orchestra, come by my house - I have it on the back of a Memphis Five record.) But they were hip enough to back up the African-American blues/vaudeville singer Lena Wilson - the label reads "Lena Wilson and Her Nubian Five"(!)

If you are intelligent and mentally stable enough not to collect 78s, there are a few CD reissues of the OM5 out there. The most readily available seem to be a collection on the Timeless label (which I haven't heard) and a set of all their Columbia recordings on Retrieval (which I have heard). There are too many vocals for comfort on the Columbia sides, but otherwise, the Retrieval CD is an excellent reissue.

These days many jazz fans are exploring the work of excellent, long-forgotten, second-tier talents of the fifties and sixties. I hope those with a taste for early jazz will similarly give an ear to the Original Memphis Five - one of those solid, professional, journeyman bands that jazz would be poorer without.

*This was recorded for the Emerson label, but also issued on a bewildering variety of labels. I have it on Grey Gull.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Fifes and Drums From the Hill Country

I like all kinds of music, although anyone who has read many entries of this blog knows that I'm most partial to jazz of various stripes. But there is one family of music that has always touched me deeply in a strong, primal way. I'm talking about early black American music - music that echoes, at least to some extent, the music of nineteenth-century African-Americans. Amazingly, some of this pre-blues, pre-jazz, pre-ragtime music survived well into the twentieth century, at least in scattered corners of the South. This web of music includes field hollers, work songs, ring shouts, and banjo music. Maybe I'll write about some of these branches of the early African-American music tree later, but right now I want to talk about fifes and drums.

The Africans who were enslaved in The Land of the Free were not allowed, for the most part, to practice the musical, religious, and cultural traditions of their homelands, but they were allowed, even encouraged, to adopt the musical culture of their "owners." This they did, but with their own twists. A simple way to look at early black American music is to say that African music didn't survive in the new world, but African ways of making music did. The reluctant new Americans played music from the European-American tradition, but played it their own way.

Fife and drum bands have a history in America which predates the formation of the United States, so it's no surprise that black Americans took up this instrumentation. We can only guess what early black fife and drum bands sounded like and how the African-American fife and drum tradition developed over the years before they were first recorded. And it seems that this kind of band mostly died out sometime in the nineteenth century - but it didn't die completely.

Folklorists have pointed out that the oldest traditions survive the longest in the most isolated areas. There are a few spots in the American south that, well into the twentieth century, were populated by a fairly isolated black population. These include the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, where a rich heritage of spirituals and ring shouts survived, and the Mississippi hill country east of the Delta. The farmland in the hill country is not as rich as that of the Delta, so the white cotton planters of the Delta had no interest in snatching up the hill country land; this area was settled by small farmers, black and white. The hill country gave rise to such amazing African-American musicians as Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. And it is the last place in America where black fife and drum music survives - not as a museum piece, but as a living, breathing music.*

Music from this tradition was first recorded in 1942 by Alan Lomax, who preserved quite a few selections by the great hill country musician Sid Hemphill. Hemphill** had a fife and drum band as well as string band, and was apparently the most popular musician (with both black and white audiences) around Tate and Panola Counties. The Lomax/Hemphill recordings sound like a strange hybrid music drawn partly from a world I recognize and partly from some alien world. The two snare drums, bass drum, and cane fife play nineteenth-century folk ballads and pop songs like "Jesse James" and "The Sidewalks of New York" as well as an unearthly "Death March," which reminds us that this type of ensemble sometimes provided funeral music in the rural South. Hemphill (or his bandmate Alec Askew) was also recorded playing a haunting, very African-sounding "Emmaline, Take Your Time" on the the four-note "quills," or pan-pipe; the notes of the melody (which doesn't match up with any tempered scale) are interspersed with falsetto whoops - an apparently African musical practice which also shows up in the music of blues harpist Sonny Terry.***

Lomax returned to the hill country in 1959 and recorded more tracks by the now-elderly Hemphill, but more importantly, recorded the next generation of fife and drum music. Ed and Lonnie Young's music was harder, funkier, bluesier than Hemphill's. Several of their recordings showed up in Lomax's Sounds of the South series, issued on Atlantic. Tunes like "Jim and John," "Chevrolet," and "Oree," with the fife and drums accompanied by several local women clapping complex cross-rhythms, are extremely powerful, and still seem somewhat other-worldly, even to a Southerner like me.

The distillation and toughening up of the black fife and drum tradition continued in Mississippi through the work of Napoleon Strickland, who retired from playing in the 1980's. But the figure most associated with Mississippi fife and drum music is the legendary Othar Turner, who died in 2003 at the age of 94. Turner farmed the challenging soil of the hill country from his teenage years, and his farm was the site of many legendary fife and drum picnics. On holidays such as Independence Day and Labor Day, Turner would get up early, kill and barbecue a goat, and host an outdoor party featuring non-stop dancing to the fife and drums.

I never attended one of his picnics, but it wasn't for lack of trying. R.L. Boyce, one of the drummers in Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, gave me detailed, semi-intelligible directions to Turner's farm, and I tried to find the place one July 4th about 15 years ago, but I got hopelessly lost driving around the hill country outside of Senatobia. I did hear the Rising Star band a couple of times at the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, and both times the impact of the music was strong, visceral, and almost overwhelming. After one of the performances, I bought a tape from Othar's daughter Bernice, who played drums in the band. (Strangely, Bernice died from cancer on the same day her father died; she was only 48.) I found Mr. Turner and asked him to autograph the tape, and he got a strange look on his face. But he took my pen and laboriously wrote a "T" on the card. I thanked him and hoped I had not embarrassed him.

Othar Turner was a somewhat more limited fife player than any of the others I've mentioned. He only had a handful of tunes, and about half of what he played turned into the repeated two-bar riff known as "Shimmy She Wobble." But his limitations were also his strengths; his music was like sunlight through a lens - focused onto such a small area, it emerged as a extremely powerful and haunting expression of a man and a tradition.

When Othar died, it was feared that the Mississippi fife and drum tradition would die with him - there were lots of drummers, but few fife players. But he had been teaching his granddaughter, Sharde Thomas. She was only 13 years old at the time of her grandfather's death, and has only recorded a few scattered tracks that have been issued so far. But she loves the music, and is now carrying a tradition on her back by herself. A heavy burden for someone not yet 20.****

*African-American fife and drum music could still be heard into the mid-twentieth century in western Tennessee and 90 miles southwest of my house, in the countryside outside of Columbus, Georgia. It has since died out in both places.

**Sid Hemphill's granddaughter was the She-Wolf, the great Jessie Mae Hemphill. Jessie Mae was a powerful blues and gospel musician who, luckily, was recorded quite a few times.

***These recordings can be found on Traveling Through the Jungle: Fife and Drum Band Music From the Deep South (Testament), an album which also includes recordings by Napoleon Strickland, Othar Turner, and a Georgia fife and drum band.

****Othar Turner can be heard on two CDs on the Birdman label: Everybody Hollerin' Goat and Othar Turner and Afrossippi All Stars, on which the Rising Star band collaborates with West African musicians. His music in perhaps its purest form can be heard on the Rising Star's cassette For the Times Beyond and a 7" EP on the Sugar Ditch label. Sarde Thomas's most prominent recorded appearance so far comes on two tracks of Corey Harris's truly remarkable 2003 album Mississippi to Mali. The album also contains Harris's moving dedication to Othar, "Mr. Turner."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Recent Listening

A couple of more well-developed posts are waiting in the wings, but in the meantime, here are some ramblings about some of the music that has particularly gotten under my skin in the past few days. Some of this stuff is new to me; some I’m known for awhile.

Tony Parenti – Tony Parenti’s New Orleans Shufflers (Jazzology). Parenti was one of the good, not great, New Orleans clarinetists, but this 1954 album is more than the sum of its parts. I love the band he put together; it’s half young musicians, half older veterans; half black, half white; half New Orleanians, half Northerners. Well, it’s a seven-piece band, so each split is not exactly half and half, but it’s a four/three (or vice versa) on each. The music is relaxed, sounding more like New Orleans than New York dixieland. My man Danny Barker is on hand – he sure had a springy beat on rhythm banjo. The young cornetist Jack Fine made his recording debut here; 54 years later I was in Donna’s on Rampart Street in New Orleans when he came in, set his horn on the bar, and ordered a drink. For the rest of the evening, whenever he felt like playing along with the band (Tom McDermott and Loose Marbles), he’d pick up his horn and start blowing from his barstool, much to the delight of the musicians on the bandstand.

Cecil Taylor – Algonquin (Bridge). This music, a duet between Taylor and violinist Mat Maneri, was recorded in concert at the Library of Congress about 10 years ago and issued on a classical label a few years later. It’s a lovely concert; the music belies the perception of Taylor’s music as unremittingly thunderous and intense. (Of course, that perception doesn’t hold up to much actual contact with Taylor’s music.) Maneri seems to totally inhabit Taylor’s world, while, at the same time, Taylor bends his music to Maneri’s sound and style. This beautiful performance further deepens the mystery of how Taylor’s music is put together: what’s composed, what’s improvised, and what’s the difference in Taylor’s world, anyway?

John Patton – That Certain Feeling (Blue Note). I’m using this wonderful record to represent Patton’s Blue Note recordings in general. I’ve had a couple of them for years, but my recent exploration of the Blue Note organ scene of the 1960’s has led me to realize what an interesting musician Patton is. I’ve been tracking down more of his Blue Notes, and find myself going back to them often. Big John could play standard organ funk with the best of them, but was not content to stay in that bag for very long. While perhaps not a great improviser, Patton composed or chose settings that would allow him and the other soloists to stretch quite a bit further than was typical on an "organ grinder" date. “I Want to Go Home," from That Certain Feeling, is an interesting tune in 5/4. It doesn’t have an obvious groove like “Take Five” – it took a little while to reveal itself to me.

Roscoe Mitchell – Nonaah (Nessa). Specifically, the 1977 solo alto saxophone set from Willisau, which is the only part of the double CD I’ve had the stones to listen to so far. This music knocked me on my ass. The first several minutes consist of the same short, jagged phrase played over and over, while the audience gets increasingly (and vocally) more restless. To quote Mitchell from the liner notes: “It was a battle. I had to make the noise and whatever was going on with the audience part of the piece. The music couldn’t move till they respected me, until they realized that I wasn’t going anywhere, and if someone was going it would have to be them.” When the tension is almost unbearable, Mitchell finally begins to develop the piece, and does so in amazing ways. Several more minutes in, and he has the audience with him; the catcalls have subsided, and there is total, mesmerized silence behind Mitchell’s softest passages. At the end of the 30-plus minute set, the crowd erupts. This is some of the most intense, stunning music I’ve heard for quite a while, and I regret waiting 32 years after it was first issued to experience it.

I should be ready to tackle the rest of Nonaah tomorrow….

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Magic Slim

I don't often read music magazines anymore. At one time I had subscriptions to several, including Downbeat, Cadence, and Living Blues. I'm not sure why they don't interest me anymore; I know that I no longer try to keep up with up with the latest news and latest new names in the kinds of music I like. (Sometimes this is to my detriment - I'm a year or two behind the curve concerning saxophonist Steve Lehman, whom I heard about just a few days ago. I've got some catching up to do there.) But I was in a bookstore yesterday and took a look at the music magazines; there, smiling up at me from the new Living Blues, was my favorite living bluesman, Magic Slim.

Well, you know how it is. In a couple of days, I might name someone else as my favorite living blues musician - Honeyboy Edwards, B.B. King, or even Corey Harris. But Morris Holt, aka Magic Slim, is certainly up at the top of the list. Magic Slim and the Teardrops play straight, unadorned Chicago blues - the kind of Mississippi blues overlaid with big city energy that you might have heard in the Windy City back in the fifties or sixties. But I hope that doesn't give the wrong impression - there is nothing "retro" or nostalgic about the Slim and the Teardrops. Even if they are playing a 50-year-old variant of a 110-year-old style, they play it with a strictly contemporary energy. This is music for tonight!

Slim is 72 now, but is still hitting it as hard as ever. He was born in Grenada, Mississippi, at the edge of the Delta, and took up guitar when he lost a finger on his right hand in a cotton gin accident, putting an end to his budding piano career. After playing local juke joints and house parties, he moved to Chicago when he was in his early twenties and apprenticed with Magic Sam Maghett, who gave him his nickname. About 15 years ago, tired of the crime in his Chicago neighborhood, Slim settled his family into the least bluesy spot on earth - Lincoln, Nebraska. Except that in Lincoln you can find more than just rabid Nebraska Cornhusker fans and the Penis on the Prairie (as the irreverent call the Nebraska Capitol building); you can find the Zoo Bar, one of the country's great blues bars.

I've been lucky enough to hear Magic Slim and the Teardrops at the Zoo Bar and another one of America's great blues bars, Blind Willie's in Atlanta. Slim (who hasn't lived up to the second half of his nickname in years) is pretty unprepossessing until he climbs onto the bandstand and plugs his Fender Jazzmaster directly into the amp - no pedals or effects for him, thank you. His guitar sound is as raw as you might expect, his vocals are strong and basic, and the Teardrops rock the Chicago shuffle like no other band around. The resulting sound isn't fancy, but it sure is strong. Slim's music has a directness and purity that make "revivalist" blues bands sound phony.

There are quite a few recordings by Slim and the Teardrops out there. I can't claim to have heard them all, but my favorite out of the ones I am familiar with is Black Tornado, on Blind Pig. Two tracks, "Wake Me Up Early" and "She's Got Bad Intentions," could serve as a two-part primer in Chicago blues grooves. "Early" is a perfect Chicago shuffle - intense, yet relaxed, while "Intentions" has a groove that the blues guys call a "flat tire shuffle" - the last triplet of every beat is accented. The result is a loping groove that is incredibly laid-back, yet at the same times moves forward like a freight train.

Magic Slim is a treasure. I hope he stays around for a long time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Holy Ghost

"Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I was the Holy Ghost."
-saxophonist Albert Ayler

The first time I heard Albert Ayler I was horrified. I was 17; my mom used to frequent junk stores, looking for bargains, and she would bring home any records that looked like they might be jazz. I've mentioned the Arista/Freedom Sampler album that she picked up for me in a previous post. As I said before, the Anthony Braxton and Oliver Lake tracks got to me right away, but the Ayler track, "Saints," was just repellent. I couldn't believe anyone would want to play like that. But, being a curious guy, I also wondered why anyone would play like that - what was Ayler getting at? So I listened again, and then again. On the third listen, a light bulb went off - the piece was a rondo. Ayler kept coming back to the same melodic material. And there was a melody - I could hear it. I was fascinated. Once I knew that the piece made "sense" - it had form and logic - I wanted to hear more Albert Ayler and understand his message.

Thirty-something years later, I sometimes feel that I'm not much closer to "understanding" Ayler, but I love his music - the best of it, anyway. Albert Ayler represents the furthest extreme of jazz; the most "advanced" music (in terms of language) created in the name of jazz. It's difficult to imagine how anyone could take the musical language of jazz further than Ayler did, and almost 40 years after his death, no one has. At its most extreme, Ayler's music was harsh, atonal, and devoid of regular pulse. It makes for very intense and demanding listening.

If you have access to the Revenant Holy Ghost box set of Ayler's work, listen to his first small-group recordings, with Herbert Katz's Finnish group. He plays the written melodies of these conventional tunes with assurance, but once his solos start, he is in another place than the rest of the group. It's easy to understand why some of the group thought he didn't know what he was doing, since his improvisations have little relationship to the harmonies of the pieces. But it's also apparent, at least in hindsight, that they were wrong. As odd and unexpected as some of Ayler's note choices were, it's obvious that he knew exactly where he was in the structure of the tunes all the time. And it's equally obvious that Ayler needed a less conventional setting in order to get his message across.

In practice, Ayler's mature music was not unrelentingly harsh or demanding. Many of his improvisations, no matter how intense and abstract they were, were launched by simple, singable "heads," often marchlike. And as his career went on, the tonal, folkish melodies became longer, while the atonal solos got shorter. And pieces like the beautiful "For John Coltrane" had an identifiable key center throughout.

But in my opinion, the music he recorded in 1964 represents Ayler at his purest. The heads are short and the improvisations are frightening, accomplished, and utterly unlike anything heard up that time in jazz or any other music. His colleagues (usually Gary Peacock on bass, Sunny Murray on drums, and sometimes Don Cherry on trumpet) are totally in tune with Ayler's aims. He created some wonderful music after that, but for a taste of the "real" Ayler, hear Spiritual Unity, Prophecy, Vibrations (also known as Ghosts), or The Hilversum Session.

Although Cherry came from a somewhat different place than Ayler, musically speaking, his work with Ayler showed how adaptable he was - he adjusted his playing so that it fit perfectly with Ayler's. Later, Albert tried to create a trumpet player in his own image by bringing his brother Donald into his band. This was valuable as a negative example; Donald's one-dimensional playing showed that Albert, in contrast, was really onto something. On any record on which they play together, compare Donald's blaring, monochromatic playing to the range, variety of phrase shapes, and dynamics of Albert's improvisations.

Ayler's intense music came from a pretty intense individual. As might be deduced from the titles of his pieces ("Holy Holy," "Spirits Rejoice," "Zion Hill"), Ayler's music was largely inspired by his strong religious feelings. The Holy Ghost box set contains a 1966 interview in which Ayler frankly sounds a little crazy; he is so full of pseudo-biblical sayings that's it's a little scary. He sounds somewhat more in control in the 1970 interviews; he is still pretty intense, but also amiable. But in November of that year, his body was found in the East River; the circumstances of his death have never been completely explained.

This post has been difficult to write, and I'm still not satisfied with it. Ayler's music is so complex and demanding that's it's difficult to talk about. So I'm going to end with a copout. Here is perhaps the best paragraph ever written about Albert Ayler, by Max Harrison. Reading the first sentence here always gives me a chill.

Even decades later, on listening to Ayler's courageous, bewitched, desperate music, we are haunted by the strange and disquieting impression that we are out on the very limits of the expressible, out on the last dangerous fringes where the ice of what we normally call art is so thin that we can almost see through into the depths below, into the mysterious thing-in-itself from which we abstract the all-too-human conventions of music. What he did in his best moments seemed like a further attempt at exploding the language of music so that it might eventually approximate to the mind's complexity. To those who say that language, even musical language, is a social contract which cannot be broken without loss of communication, Ayler would maybe have replied that his aim was less communication that communion in the appreciation of mystery.

from The Essential Jazz Records, Volume 2; p. 502.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Art In Spite of Itself

"Morning Dove Blues" by Sippie Wallace is a perfect work of art. Every detail is just right, and each works to heighten the emotional affect of the song: Wallace's strong voice, with its pleasing Texas accent, the rich piano accompaniment by her nephew, Hersal Thomas, and the simple, well-chosen fills provided by King Oliver on cornet. It's all just perfect.

And the amazing thing is that nobody involved, from the musicians to the Okeh record company officials who set up the date in 1925, had any thoughts of creating a work of art. Yes, they wanted to make a quality product, but product it was - designed to fill the demand for "race" records. It took record companies until 1920 to realize that African-Americans would buy records, wanted to buy records, if the recording industry would give them something they liked. For the next nine years, until the depression all but wiped out the record business, the companies threw an astonishing variety of black music into the marketplace, with no idea what would sell. Much forgettable music resulted, but they also recorded, almost in spite of themselves, some masterpieces like this one.

Some of Sippie's records sold pretty well, but "Morning Dove Blues" apparently didn't - not many copies have survived, and all the LP and CD issues I've heard have lots of surface noise competing with the music. For those with ears to hear, though, it doesn't matter. 84 years after this performance was recorded, I'm able to hear Sippie sing "Early in the morning, I rise like a mourning dove...." King Oliver answers her with his muted cornet, and my heart constricts. Art in spite of itself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gil Evans and the Magic Moment

I discovered two of my heroes, Steve Lacy and Gil Evans, at one fell swoop at age 18 when I bought a reissue of Gil's first album as leader, Gil Evans & Ten. I've loved Gil's music ever since, from the highly detailed charts he created for Miles Davis in the late fifties and early sixties, to the loose, improvising big band he had late in his career. Evans had many strengths, but one of them was the knack for creating the magic moment that would lift the music to another plane.

Gil spoke on several occasions about his debt to Louis Armstrong. In a 1986 interview with Ben Sidran, he said, "I bought every one of his records from 1927 till around 1936.... In every one of those three-minute records, there's a magic moment somewhere. Every one of them." And he's right. No matter how lame the song, how clunky the rhythm section, how corny the arrangement, Louis was always able to lift it to another level, even if only for a moment.

Gil apparently learned this lesson well. Of course, many of his great recordings don't need the magic moment, because they are incredible from beginning to end. But when they weren't, Gil could make something magical happen. An unlikely example is the main title theme from the movie The Color of Money. I don't know how much Evans contributed to this film's music (his name is barely to be found on the soundtrack album), but the exact moment he took over the arranging of the main title is apparent. 45 seconds in, the trendy (mid-1980's style), ordinary music we have heard so far takes a darker turn. The real magic moment comes about 10 seconds later, when an ominous bass clarinet riff, a trombone lip trill, and a tightly muted trumpet solo occur simultaneously. It's an unexpected combination of sounds that only someone of Evans' genius could have conceived.

Often, especially in later years, the magic moment manifested itself by Evans simply knowing which soloist to point to. Listen to "Half Man, Half Cookie," from Bud & Bird from 1986. This comes from the period in which Evans' band played at Sweet Basil every Monday night. He encouraged his band members to contribute to the book, so that they would have plenty of different material to play. Saxophonist Bill Evans wrote "Half Man, Half Cookie," a big-band funk piece that is competent rather than outstanding. That is, until guest star Johnny Coles, an Evans associate for years, steps up to solo about two-thirds of the way through the piece. The atmosphere instantly changes, becomes more mysterious and unpredictable. Coles, of course, deserves much of the credit for raising the musical level, but Evans chose to have him on hand and knew just when to add him to the mix.

Like I said, most of Gil Evans' music was all magic. But when it wasn't, he could make that magic moment happen.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Cecil Taylor, I have read, is ill and has canceled a concert tour. Here's hoping he has a speedy recovery. And without wishing to be morbid, I decided that now would be a good time to write something about this great musician, who is 80 years old; I don't particularly want to write a memorial piece about him, and I hope this doesn't turn out to be one.

I'm not sure if I remember the first what the first Cecil Taylor music I heard was. It may have been Indent, a protean solo piano piece from the early seventies. I picked up that album in a junk store, and I remember being awestruck with Taylor's ability to improvise atonally at such length, with such intensity, and with such logic. The music made sense to me right away, even if I didn't (and still don't) always understand the principles that guide the construction of CT's music.

And it's obvious that the music is carefully constructed, even when it's mostly improvised. Taylor has made it clear over the years that he considers the idea of "composing" music in the western sense to be a highly dubious concept. But at the same time, his music hangs together in a compositional way - he seems to control the predetermined and spontaneous elements of his music in such a way that they form a unified whole. I feel this, even if I am not always able to look back at a Taylor piece when it is over and describe how that compositional unity was achieved. And others who have attempted to analyze CT's music have made similar observations. There's a wholeness to his music, and a mystery as to how that wholeness is achieved.

I have been lucky enough to hear Cecil Taylor perform only once, when he presented a solo concert in Atlanta in 1986. Taylor is also a trained dancer, and he began the concert, as he often does, with a series of ritualistic movements that slowly brought him from the wings to the piano bench. (He has said that "you don't just walk up to a piano.") At the same time, he intoned words and phrases, sounds and poetry; some of these vocalizations were intelligible and some were not. When he reached the keyboard, he began playing fairly sparely, but the music quickly increased in intensity and complexity. After about five minutes of atonal piano fireworks, large parts of the audience gave up and started leaving in droves. The rest of us were enthralled.

Listening to the recorded music of Cecil Taylor presents certain challenges. It's intense, the pieces are usually quite long, and the recordings are often hard to find. His two mid-sixties Blue Note albums (Unit Structures and Conquistador) are usually easy to find and are excellent representations of Taylor's music. They both feature his longtime musical partner, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, and no piece on them is over 20 minutes long. Other Cecil Taylor recordings may feature one piece which lasts for an hour or two, spread over a couple of CDs or several LPs. Listening to these obviously requires an investment of time and concentration, which, however, is always rewarded.

It has struck me that the titles of Taylor's pieces can be seen as little poems, as mysterious as the music itself: "Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)," "With (Exit)," "It is in the Brewing Luminous." The title which keeps coming to my mind, given the state of Taylor's health, is "One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Matt Perrine

New Orleans is full of incredible musicians who are hardly known outside the Crescent City. One of these remarkable musicians is bassist/sousaphone player Matt Perrine. With all due respect to Kirk Joseph, etc., Perrine is my favorite New Orleans tuba player, and with all due respect to James Singleton, etc., he is my favorite NOLA acoustic bassist – I try to hear him play every time I visit the city. On my recent trip (only four days long) to New Orleans, I heard Perrine play three times. That seems about right. Perrine plays regularly with several different bands and always seems to be playing somewhere with somebody. He is a member of the Tom McDermott/Evan Christopher Danza Quartet, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers brass band, Bonerama, and the Tin Men, which of course is “New Orleans' premiere guitar/tuba/washboard trio.” As busy as he is, Perrine doesn’t seem inclined to coast - whoever he’s playing with, and whatever kind of music they’re playing, Perrine's playing is imaginative and fully involved.

About a year ago I picked up the first CD under his name, Sunflower City. The cover actually put me off for a minute – it’s features a close-up photo of a large sunflower. I thought, “Great – this is just good-time happy music.” But then I looked at the picture again, and saw that in the background, to the right of the flower, you can see an “X” and some numbers painted on the front of a house. This, of course, is the code sign used by the search and rescue teams after Katrina; the “X” shows that the house was searched, and the numbers indicate how many living people, bodies, and pets were found in the house. Perrine has explained in interviews that sunflowers were the first wild plants to grow in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s a great cover, symbolizing rebirth and renewal after disaster.

The music is, for the most part, joyous rather than happy, if that distinction makes any sense.* There is traditional jazz, straight-ahead jazz, Caribbean music, and even a touch of avant-garde. The opening track is the most elaborate arrangement of the hoary old New Orleans warhorse “Muskrat Ramble” that I’ve ever heard. The instrumentation and color of the track is constantly changing. But it works – it's one of the most enjoyable “Muskrat Rambles” I’ve heard. Perrine plays a stunning solo on this track; the range, technique, and conception of this tuba solo must be heard to be believed. I played it for a friend who is a low brass specialist, and he was convinced that it must have been played on a higher, four-valve tuba in E flat or F. He actually wrote Perrine to ask; MP confirmed that it was played, as were all of his tuba parts, on a standard double B flat sousaphone.

I definitely recommend hearing on of Matt Perrine’s bands when visiting New Orleans. He shouldn’t be hard to find.

*To me, “happy music” is mindless music. Much New Orleans music, however, is full of the joy of life, but seems to have an underlying awareness of how short that life is.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fleas Come With the Dog

I have felt kind of out of touch with the rest of the jazz world lately. I’ve been listening to (and writing about) a lot of older jazz – 1940 and earlier. Comments from friends and on my favorite jazz forum have let me know that a lot of folks just don’t relate to the older stuff at all.

Enjoying early jazz has never been a problem for me. Yeah, my first jazz album was a Budd Johnson album which featured a really out-there, avant bass solo by Richard Davis, but after that, I learned about jazz more or less chronologically. My grandmother gave me a stack of 78s, mostly pre-WWII. And the first jazz album I ever bought was a collection of Bix Beiderbecke’s 1924 recordings. I liked some tracks better than others, but I responded to the music right away. I knew Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five before I knew the Miles Davis Quintet, Coleman Hawkins before I knew Ornette Coleman, and Sidney Bechet before I knew John Coltrane.

Anyone who loves early jazz knows that fleas come with the dog; you have to put up with a lot in order to enjoy the music. For some people, just the sound of the music prevents them from enjoying it – it just sounds like “old folks’ music” to them. To them I would say: keep listening; get past the surface into the substance of the music. It’s not exactly like learning a new language, but maybe it’s like becoming familiar with a different dialect – once it no longer sounds “funny” you can start to hear what the musicians are really saying.

And the quality of the recordings themselves can be pretty grim. Before 1925, everything was recorded acoustically – the music was played into horns, which had tubes leading to membranes which vibrated the recording needle. You can imagine how little of the music actually made it to the records. Even after microphones were common in recording studios, the music was still recorded onto wax or acetate discs instead of tape until after World War II, so there was plenty of surface noise, and frequency response was limited.

Then there are the strictly musical issues. If you want to listen to the great improvised solos of the 1920's, 1930's, and before, you're going to have to put up with lame sidemen, clunky rhythm sections, sappy arrangements, and (worst of all), incredibly bad vocals. The best (worst) example of this is "Sweet Sue," by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. This 1928 recording contains one of Bix Beiderbecke's greatest recorded solos near the end, but before that... well, allow me to quote from myself, from my blog entry on Beiderbecke:

It is an act of faith to listen to this recording. The first three and a half minutes of this portentous and pretentious arrangement are so bad that it's hard to believe that anything could be worth enduring them. Jack Fulton's singing is like nothing you're ever heard, and like nothing you'll ever want to hear again. But if you make it through all that, there is a magnificent 32-bar Bix solo that floats and dances over the rhythm section. It's one of the most "modern" and imaginative things he ever played.

It could be argued that Bix, along with Louis Armstrong and some of the other giants, seldom or never recorded with adequate musicians. In Louis’ case, how could it be otherwise? He was head and shoulders above almost everyone else in jazz. Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory, from the early Hot Five sessions, are fine early jazzers. But they’re just not on the same page as Louis – he was a few chapters ahead.

I’ve also always sensed the connections between jazz from different eras. Baby Dodds, Big Sid Catlett, and Philly Joe Jones don’t sound very much alike, but they were all trying to do a lot of the same things: keep the music moving forward, inspire the soloists, change the color of the music. And I’ve said before that I never liked the old-time New Orleans trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine until I heard Lester Bowie – they were doing a lot of the same things. To me early jazz and contemporary jazz are two points on a continuous line, and I like them equally well.

So, fleas come with the dog. Many early jazz classics are mixed bags – the sublime and the painful are side by side. If cut yourself off from those classics, though, you’ll miss out on some incredible music. And those who ignore the past will be unable to repeat the cool parts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Hipper-Than-Thou Geek and Willie Lewis

Sometimes I worry a little about the tone of this blog, or the way people might take it: “Oh, great – another post about an obscure musician. What an annoying, hipper-than-thou geek!” Well, that’s not my intention – I write about what I’m interested in, but I am a geek. From the time I discovered jazz at the age of 15, I’ve wanted to know it all: all the history, all the musicians, and to understand how it all fits together. I remember (I was about 20) reading about pianist Elmo Hope, and thinking, “Great – I just got a grasp on Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Dodo Marmarosa, and now I’ve got to check out Elmo Hope. Does it ever end?”

No, it doesn’t, and that’s the cool thing about exploring jazz – new discoveries are always waiting just around the corner, even for an old dude like me who has been listening to and reading about jazz for 35 years. I recently picked up an LP of mid-thirties recordings by Willie Lewis and His Entertainers. I listened to it for the first time last night, and my reaction was, “Jesus, this is incredible!” How could I have never heard this music before now?

Well, at least I was aware of this stuff before, mostly from articles about Benny Carter, who plays and arranges on one of the sessions. But Lewis, although African-American, was based in Paris and recorded for French labels, so he has remained obscure. I remember seeing a reissue album of his stuff back in the 70’s, but didn’t pay attention at the time. The album I have is on the French Pathe label. I poked around Amazon and the Red Hot Jazz Archive a little, and Lewis’s mid-thirties material doesn’t seem to be available at all at the moment.

But this music knocked me out – not so much for originality or quality of the arrangements (they’re pretty pedestrian, except for those Carter did), but because of the spirit of the band and the incredible soloists. Carter’s alto playing is superb, as usual, but he also contributes several trumpet solos which are just stunning, considering that trumpet was probably his third instrument, after alto and clarinet. And his excellent arranging features those delicious saxophone soli passages that he was famous for.

Carter was only around for one session (six tunes), but the rest of the tracks feature Bill Coleman on trumpet and two excellent, although almost forgotten musicians: New Orleans reedman Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and pianist Herman Chittison. Just as these tracks convinced me that Carter was really a trumpet player (as opposed to a dabbler), they put me on notice that Bill Coleman was one of the greats. Why didn’t I realize that before? Goudie and Chittison deserve to be better remembered, but from what I could tell, they also spent most of their careers in Europe, so they were pretty much forgotten here.

I would say to check out Willie Lewis and His Entertainers, but I’m not sure how you’re going to be able to. Damn! There’s so much incredible music out there.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Don, John, and the Cotton Pickers

In the last few days, I've listened to all the recordings I have by McKinney's Cotton Pickers, the great band with the unfortunate name. Anyone with a taste for early jazz should check out this band, if you don't already know them. The Cotton Pickers were one of the great early big bands, and in their brief heyday could almost rival Fletcher Henderson's band. But jeez, that name!

William McKinney, a drummer, had a little Midwestern jazz band in the early 1920's called the Synco Jazz Band. It grew into a full-size big band for the time (11 pieces), based out of Detroit. There they were heard by Jean Goldkette, a (white) big band impessario of the the time. He signed a management contract with the band, changed the name (Dan Morgenstern has written, with some understatement, that the new name was "not well received by the band members"), and got them a recording contract with Victor records.

The records, made between 1928 and 1931, sound great today. The band swung hard for the late twenties and featured a four-piece saxophone section, as opposed to the then-standard trio of reeds. Don Redman, who had been writing most of Henderson's charts, was music director of the band and did about half of the arrangements, while John Nesbitt, almost forgotten today, wrote most of the rest. The work of both men sounds very modern for the time, with lots of tricky rhythmic displacement and full, imaginative harmonies. Redman knew how to rehearse a band, and the ensemble work was tight and impressive.

What the Cotton Pickers didn't have was a set of great soloists, although it could be argued that trombonist Claude Jones achieved greatness during his tenure with the band.* Jones, Redman (on alto sax and clarinet), Nesbitt (on trumpet), and Prince Robinson on tenor and clarinet were the main soloists; they were usually adequate rather than inspired. To counter this weakness, Redman arranged three days of recording in November, 1929 with some of the band replaced by the cream of the New York City's jazz talent: Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, Benny Carter, Joe Smith, Kaiser Marshall. Hawkins and Carter came up with some of their best early solos on record - hear Hawkins' frighteningly virtuosic playing on "Plain Dirt." Claude Jones was retained on trombone for this session, and was seemingly inspired - his solos had always been good, but here his playing is truly distinguished; in solo after solo he creates unusual, original, and very satisfying melodies.

When Redman left to form his own band in 1931, the band was never again the force it had been. Like I said, you've got to have a feel for early big-band jazz to appreciate the music. But in their prime, occasional silly vocals and all, this was one of the great big bands.

*By the way, the underrated Jones is one of my very favorite jazz trombonists; in my opinion he is the equal of better known players of the time like J.C. Higginbotham and Benny Morton.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Report From the Deep End

Like I said in my last post, I've gone off the deep end. The 78 RPM Boyce Brown record I bought hasn't come yet, but I've pulled out my old box of 78's, and I'm having a blast. My old 78 turntable proved to be noisy and unreliable, so I picked up a reasonably-priced vintage Miracord table and a cartridge designed for 78's.

I remember some of my 78's being this cool, but there are others I didn't remember at all, and which I don't think I ever listened to. So far the coolest discoveries I've listened to are:

A Paul Bley single on the Emarcy label. Even when playing a standard ("Autumn Breeze"), Bley is concerned more with melody than chords. Could this be Bley's only 78?

A Kenny Clarke side, with mostly French musicians, on Dizzy Gillespie's Dee Gee label. Early bebop just sounds cool at 78 RPM - very organic.

A two-sided tune ("That's My Baby") by saxophonist Marvin Johnson, who was the in Les Hite band that backed up Louis Armstrong in the early thirties. This blues features punning, double-entendre lyrics and some nice, Benny Carter-like alto sax solos.

West Coast blues singer Estelle Edson, on the Black & White label. Yeah, who's she? But she's backed by the Oscar Pettiford All Stars with Lucky Thompson on tenor sax.

Two red-label Okehs by Sara Martin, from 1922. She wasn't the greatest of the classic female blues singers, but on one of these the accompaniment is by young Thomas "Fats" Waller. Too cool.

Okay, I'm gone; I know it. I checked Ebay tonight, and I've got my eye on a 78 by the great jazz pianist Dodo Marmarosa (on the Atomic label) and one on the Trumpet label by Mississippi bluesman Willie Love. I'm gone.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jeffery Finally Descends Into Madness

I have officially gone off the deep end.

Everybody who knows me is aware that I am an obsessed record collector. I have more jazz records and CDs than anyone should be allowed to have. I’ve known for years that I’m slightly crazy in this regard. But I have always reassured myself with one fact: at least I don’t collect 78's.

I just shake my head at people who collect 78 RPM records. I mean, those folks are nuts. They’ll pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for a rare, but highly breakable, piece of shellac containing six minutes of music. That’s crazy. And do you know how much room a collection of 78’s takes up? Aside from that, most worthwhile 78’s have been reissued on LP or CD, anyway.

Yeah, I know I’ve had a box of 78’s for years; my grandmother gave it to me when I was a teenager. And I learned a lot about jazz and classic pop music from those records – I first heard Sidney Bechet, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins, among others, on records from this stack. But I haven’t played any of those records for at least ten years. I don’t even know if the only turntable I own that will play 78’s even works any more. And it doesn’t matter anyway, because I don’t collect 78's.

But yesterday I bid on, and won, a 78 on Ebay. No, wait – let me explain! I have long been fascinated by an obscure jazz saxophonist who was active in Chicago in the 1930’s and 1940’s: Boyce Brown. And one of his sessions produced a 78 on the Collector’s Item label. I’ve been trying for years to find these two sides on an album, but according to Tom Lord’s jazz discography, they have never been reissued. So….

Well, you know the rest. And no, I didn’t pay three or four figures for this record – barely into two. So I’ll be digging out my old 78 RPM turntable to see if it works. When the record arrives, I’ll write something about the great Boyce Brown. In the meantime, think of me as I descend into madness.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lessons From Sidney

A couple of years ago I was talking to one of Atlanta’s first-call saxophonists. We were talking about what music we like to listen to, and I said that I tended to play Sidney Bechet or so-called free jazz more often than mainstream hard bop. He replied that he had never heard Bechet.

In spite of being dumbfounded, I think that I was able to respond politely, suggesting that he might find Sidney’s music worth checking out. But trying to play jazz without knowing the work of the early giants seems like, I don’t know – studying physics without reading Newton. You’re just cutting yourself off from a lot of possibilities.

That got me thinking about what, if anything, I’ve learned from Sidney Bechet. I’ve been listening to his music for 35 years, and aside from the enjoyment I’ve gotten from it, I’ve picked up some musical lessons along the way – some obvious, some subtle; some general, some specific. What Sidney has taught me:

Know the melody, know the chords, and know how and why they fit together.

Don’t try to sound like anyone except yourself.

The descending tritone (six to flat three) is a powerful interval. (But don’t overdo it.)

Playing with conviction can paper over a lot of cracks.

Be your own rhythm section.

You can turn a note into a blue note by messing with the pitch, messing with the timbre, or both.

Whenever possible, play with musicians better than you. (Sidney was only able to do this when he played with Louis Armstrong, and maybe not even then. But his records with Louis certainly find him more involved than when he recorded with young revivalist bands.)

Whenever possible, sleep with Tallulah Bankhead. (Note to self: no longer practical. Ann Hathaway?)

Don’t run changes, improvise melodies. Although…

Sometimes running changes can be effective. (But don’t overdo it.)

Tuning is both absolute and relative.

Mix it up – long notes, fast notes, pretty notes, growled notes.

Always try to hold the last note of “Saints” longer than everyone else. (Okay, perhaps this is not Sidney’s best lesson.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

So Long, Snooks

To those of us who don’t play it, the guitar can be an intimidating instrument in the hands of a master. The best guitarists always sound to me like they have at least three hands. I seldom listen to Robert Johnson or Joe Pass without thinking, “How do they do that?” New Orleans R & B guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who died Wednesday at the age of 72, was one of those frighteningly accomplished players. To a non-guitarist such as myself, Snooks’ solo versions of “High Society” (complete with the clarinet solo) and “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” are jaw-dropping.

It has always amused me that Eaglin was “discovered” playing on the streets of New Orleans by folklorists, who recorded him and issued several albums (including an amazing set on Folkways) by Blind Snooks Eaglin, the unspoiled folk/blues guitarist and singer. What his “discoverers” didn’t realize was that he was recording rhythm-and-blues singles for Imperial around the same time. If you can find his early Imperial recordings, listen to the first session, the one with “Nobody Knows” and “That Certain Door.” Snooks is accompanied only by bass and drums; the songs seem modeled on Ray Charles’ gospel-tinged R & B style, but Snooks’ raw vocals and impassioned guitar playing make Ray sound positively slick in comparison. This is great New Orleans music.

I was visiting New Orleans in 1995, when Snooks’ version of “Josephine” was a local hit; it seemed like it was on the radio every time I turned it on. Instead of the genial bounce Fats Domino gave it, Snooks set the song over one of the deepest, nastiest New Orleans second-line grooves I’ve ever heard. The bass line is extremely spare, and no less powerful for that. Halfway through the song, Snooks unleashes a choppy, intense, somewhat out-there guitar solo which raises the groove to a positively ecstatic level. Although nothing else on the Soul’s Edge album reaches the heights of that amazing opening track, the entire disc is worth hearing.

I was fortunate enough to hear Snooks several times at the Rock-N-Bowl in uptown New Orleans. He sounded great when paired with Eddie Bo, as he often was, but he was at his best stretching out with a trio, like on his early Imperial recordings. To fans of New Orleans music, it seemed like Eaglin had always been around and would always be around. That, of course, is not true of any of us. So long, Snooks.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, Volume II

After 24 more hours of thinking about/listening to/reading about Herbie Nichols, here are a few more observations:

Introductions: Nichols often used short, composed introductions to his pieces, and a four- or eight-measure introduction by Herbie Nichols is often more interesting than an entire composition by someone else. Listen to the intro of “Cro-Magnon Nights,” with its hammering low-register tritones, which are answered by Art Blakey’s drums. The first four notes of “Blue Chopsticks” echo the children’s piano ditty, but the introduction quickly goes into distant harmonic territory. These intros are little gems.

Biography: The best source for information on Nichols’ life is still probably A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business. (What a great title!) This 1966 book profiles Nichols, along with Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Jackie McLean. The Nichols chapter is kind of depressing, though; it’s largely a litany of failure - a listing of all the unrewarding gigs Nichols took in order to stay alive.

Mary Lou: The list of other musicians who have recorded Nichols’ music in my last post was not meant to be complete, but I should make special mention of the outstanding, open-eared pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was an early champion of Herbie Nichols. She recorded several of his tunes in the early fifties, before he had the opportunity to record any of them himself. She was particularly fond of “The Bebop Waltz,” written when jazz in ¾ time was still kind of daring.

Recording debut: WARNING! If you have no interest in the historical/discographical minutiae of jazz, stop reading now – you will be bored.

Rereading Spellman’s chapter on Nichols last night reminded me that Herbie told Spellman that he first recorded in 1946 with Danny Barker on the Apollo label. But in my conversation with Barker in 1992, Danny was adamant that he had not recorded with Nichols. He did add that Herbie had recorded with his wife, Blue Lu Barker, when he (Danny) was not present. Well, Blue Lu recorded twice for Apollo, in August and October of 1946. All the reissues and discographies I have seen list Norman Lester on piano and Danny Barker on guitar for both sessions. But after listening to the Apollo recordings carefully, I suspect that it might not be the same piano player on both sessions. I could be wrong, of course, but the pianist on the earlier session sounds more adventurous harmonically.

More importantly, I’m convinced that Danny Barker is not the guitarist on either session. The guitar is not prominent, but when it can be heard clearly, it’s obvious that it’s an electric guitar. I’m not aware of Danny ever recording on anything but an acoustic instrument, and it just doesn’t sound like him.

So keeping in mind what Nichols told Spellman and what Danny told me, my best guess is that Herbie Nichols is the pianist on at least one of Blue Lu’s Apollo sessions, and that Danny is not present on either one. If Danny set up the date and contracted the personnel, Nichols might well have remembered it as a Danny Barker session, even if Danny was out on the road with some band at the time of the session. I know that this is just speculation, but at least it’s informed speculation. Discographers take note.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Prophetic Herbie Nichols

Who is the greatest jazz musician you’ve never heard of? The answer just might be Herbie Nichols, the incredibly talented pianist and composer who died in 1963 at the age of 44. Nichols always seemed on the verge of breakthrough, but it never happened – he was nearly unknown when he died. He made three albums for Blue Note (two had the same title as this post) and one for Bethlehem, but they made almost no impact at the time. Nichols made his living in settings not suited to his talents: playing in dixieland bands, backing up greasy R & B tenor players, playing cocktail piano gigs.

The lack of regard from his peers and the jazz public seemed to be due to the fact that his music just didn’t sound like what modern jazz was supposed to sound like. His compositions were unusual, oddly structured, and highly detailed. They had wonderful titles: “House Party Starting,” “Blue Chopsticks,” Cro-Magnon Nights,” “Amoeba’s Dance.” When he improvised on them, his playing was often based on the melody more than on the chords. His style fell somewhere between Teddy Wilson and Thelonious Monk, if you can imagine that. His touch and oblique approach remind me a little of Andrew Hill. But he really didn’t sound like anyone but himself.

Some of his pieces are descriptive – “House Party Starting” starts quietly, then becomes increasingly, drunkenly, more insistent, while Nichols keeps the melody in sight throughout. “The Gig” (maybe my favorite Nichols composition) is an affectionate portrait of a somewhat inept pickup band who doesn’t quite know the tune they’re attempting on the bandstand. The A section is based on a common chord progression, but the last chord is “wrong.” The melody starts, hesitates, starts, stops, and starts again; it ends up being nine bars long instead of the standard eight – the band has added a measure.

“Shuffle Montgomery” is an AABA tune that has one the coolest/funniest bridges ever: it’s the same two-bar blues-cliché lick played four times in a row, regardless of how the harmony changes underneath it. Then Nichols throws in the same lick as a tag at the end of the tune. Too cool.

Although Nichols was not really accepted by his peers during his lifetime, he attracted a small coterie of younger followers/students, including some who went on to greater fame, like Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd. Rudd has probably done more to keep Nichols’ legacy alive than anyone; he has recorded many of Herbie’s tunes, including two volumes of The Unheard Herbie Nichols, previously unrecorded pieces that he learned directly from Nichols. Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg has recorded several albums of Nichols, both with his ICP orchestra and with smaller groups. And The Herbie Nichols Project, a collective band built around pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison, has recorded three albums of Herbie’s tunes, including some that had not been recorded before.

But you should check out the original. As of right now the complete Blue Note recordings are still in print – all three original albums plus many tracks that were not released until years later. And Art Blakey and Max Roach are the drummers! Buy this stuff, borrow it, download it, steal it - just hear it while you can.

And all of you jazz history/discography geeks out there, check out the definitive answer, straight from the horse’s mouth, about Nichols and Danny Barker recording together, from a previous post.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Steve and Roz

I haven't written, except in passing, about my biggest musical hero, Steve Lacy, in a while. So here are some thoughts on the Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd Quartet in its various incarnations.

I don't know exactly when soprano saxist Lacy met trombonist Rudd, but it must have been in the late 1950's, when both men had one foot in traditional jazz and one foot in the avant-garde of the time, such as it was. Both of them recorded early on with Cecil Taylor - Lacy played on Taylor's first album, Jazz Advance. Somewhere along the line they started exchanging ideas and learning tunes together. They eventually decided to form a band - a pianoless quartet - that would concentrate on the great compositions of the jazz repertoire. They played Ellington/Strayhorn, Monk, Herbie Nichols,* Cecil Taylor, etc. Eventually all of that music proved to be unwieldy, and they pared it down to just Monk, learning everything he wrote.

They rehearsed incessantly and scared up a few gigs, but the band never made any money or achieved any level of recognition. It lasted about three years, from late 1961 to 1964. Besides Lacy and Rudd, the band consisted of drummer Dennis Charles and, as Lacy later said, 28 different bassists, including John Ore, Wilbur Ware, and Steve Swallow. Since the gigs were extremely low-paying, the bassists would desert them as soon as something better came along. They recorded for Verve and Columbia, but nothing was released at the time.

But one evening in 1963, the poet Paul Haines borrowed Jimmy Giuffre's tape recorder and took it the a coffee house where the band was playing. Twelve years later, the recordings were released as School Days on the Emanem label; years later they came out on CD on the Swiss HAT label, but the album now seems to be out of print. Low fidelity and all, this is one of the great live jazz albums. The amazing bassist Henry Grimes was on the gig, but was late, so the first two tunes don't have bass. The tunes are all by Monk, but include such rarely-heard pieces as "Skippy," "Brilliant Corners," and "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are." Lacy and Rudd obviously know the music backwards and forwards, and feel free enough to take some liberties with it, including some oddly dixieland-sounding counterpoint. The rhythm section has an appealing tension between Grimes' rock-solid bass lines and Charles' drumming, which seems to always be leaning forward. It's an instructive and inspiring 50 minutes of music.

A couple of years ago, 23 minutes or so of studio recordings by this band were issued on Early and Late on the Cuneiform label. It's not clear whether this music is from the Verve or Columbia sessions or from a demo session. It's excellent music, although not quite at the high level as the School Days session. In addition to a couple of Monk tunes, the band (with Bob Cunningham on bass) plays Cecil Taylor's "Tune Two."**

Lacy finally got fed up with trying to make a living as a jazz musician in New York, and left for Europe - Rome, then Paris. There were a few encounters between Rudd and Lacy over the years, including an excellent one-off reunion album on Black Saint, Trickles. The two hornmen, with Kent Carter on bass and Beaver Harris on drums, play a program of Lacy's compositions - no Monk. That was pretty much it until 1999, when Rudd joined Lacy's trio (Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and John Betsch on drums) for a studio album (Monk's Dream) and a tour. They sounded better than ever, playing a book of Lacy originals and Monk tunes, with a few Rudd originals and Nichols tunes thrown in. I heard this band at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta in 2000; the music was incredible, although the theatre was only about one-fourth full.

The contrast between Lacy and Rudd was more pronounced with this later quartet. Lacy's playing was passionate, but controlled, thoughtful, and deliberate. Rudd could be just as thoughtful, but his playing was more extroverted; he made use of devices from his dixieland past, like plunger mutes and tailgate glissandos. I remember Lacy shaking his head and laughing at some of Rudd's outrageous ideas.

It all worked, though, and it can be heard on the rest of Early and Late. The first disc of that album is from the 1999 tour, and most of disc two is from a 2002 show at Iridium in New York. Rudd and Lacy recorded together on a few other occasions over the years (Monk's "Pannonica," played as a duet on Lacy's Associates is a prime example), but the quartets they co-led, early and late, remain some of the highest points of both musician's careers.

*If you don't know who Herbie Nichols was, look him up - now! I'll devote a post to his incredible music soon.

**Lacy recorded "Tune Two" a couple of times over the years, as well as Taylor's early pieces "Louise" and "Air." Besides Ken Vandermark, who else has recorded any of Taylor's music? Oh, that's right - the on-again, off-again duo RoboCromp recorded "After All" on their CD But Does It Swing?