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?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Horo Records, part 2

I don’t know how many of my thousands of readers saw this comment on my post about Horo Records:

I was assistant producer at HORO Records for several years, when I was in my teens. Aldo Sinesio, the producer, is on the verge of reissuing most of the HORO catalogue on CD, and I will produce the reissues. Lonehill Records has just ripped off a Teddy Wilson record from HORO, so, in order to avoid other "fakes" (the guys at Lonehill have just copied an LP), the catalogue wll be reissued almost in its entirety. Within May/June a series of recordings live by Freddie Hubbard, and an unissued recording, by pianist Dave Burrell and legendary drummer Sam Woodyard, will be out. I think you're the first person to get the news...
Cordially yours, Gianni Morelenbaum Gualberto

This is very good news for the jazz world. A lot of people have been waiting for this catalogue to be reissued on CD.

I can’t let the subject of the Horo label go without talking a little more about the three Sun Ra double albums the label released. Unity is a live album by the full band, and is a typical Ra mixture of originals, swing-era standards, and free improvisations. But New Steps and Other Voices, Other Blues are two of the most unusual items in the Ra discography, although Media Dream and Disco 3000 on the Saturn label were recorded around the same time and are somewhat similar. All of these are quartet albums which feature the mighty John Gilmore on tenor, Michael Ray on trumpet, and Luqman Ali on drums. Ra plays piano (with a strong left hand to make up for the lack of bass) on some tracks, but the most interesting music on these albums finds Sonny behind a Crumar Mainman, one of those electronic keyboards that seemed like a good idea at the time. It had a built-in drum box, and apparently had some elementary sequencing capability – Ra uses programmed bass ostinatos on some tunes. The music that he wrests from this cheesy instrument is really remarkable – at times it is hard to believe that no overdubbing is involved, but it apparently wasn’t. The rest of the quartet rises to the occasion with some inspired playing. This is some truly weird and wonderful music.

And when the Horo catalogue is reissued, it will be a lot easier to get me Steve Lacy’s Eronel for Christmas.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Middleweight Champ

I have been very taken lately with the playing of the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone, Hank Mobley (1930-1984). In a previous post, I said that Dexter Gordon had first referred to Mobley that way, but since then I have seen the phrase attributed to critic Leonard Feather. But whoever said it, it's an apt description. Mobley was an excellent, assured, but not brilliant, improviser. His saxophone tone was soft (I mean the opposite of hard, not the opposite of loud), with an oddly hollow quality; he certainly had nothing of the in-your-face, aggresive sound of Coltrane or Joe Henderson, both contemporaries of his. The fact that his sound doesn't immediately command attention forces the listener to concentrate on Mobley's improvised lines, which swing hard and are interesting without being innovative.

Mobley made many excellent albums, mostly for Blue Note, but most fans and critics agree that he hit his peak with Soul Station from 1960, with his next two albums, Roll Call and Workout only slightly less sublime. This seems about right to me, although I would hate to have to choose between the first two in calling one the best. On all of these, his technique, imagination, and sense of swing are all perfectly in balance. On his earlier and later albums, as good as most of them are, this equilibrium is not quite as gratifying. But all of the Mobley albums I've heard are worth hearing - the earlier ones have an appealing relaxation, and the later ones have a harder, Trane-tinged edge.

Even though Mobley replaced Coltrane in Miles Davis's quintet,* I've never been crazy about his playing in Miles' group. Maybe he just sounds too earthbound next to Miles' horn. It's telling, though, that according to Eddie Henderson, the African-American fans that were still the core of Miles' nightclub audience much preferred the group with Mobley over the Coltrane edition of the quintet.

A personal connection - Hank Mobley was born in Eastman, Georgia, my grandmother's hometown. I doubt that the Mobleys and the Hursts had much contact, unless some of the former worked for some of the latter. Hank's parents were smart enough to get the hell out of Dodge County when he was just a kid. Good thing for him, and good thing for jazz.

*Actually, he replaced Sonny Stitt, who replaced Trane. Not many people remember Stitt's short stint in that band. Miles' response to Stitt's demands for more money was to show him the door.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ya! Ya! or Mama Tried

This is about Budd Johnson, Richard Davis, and my mom.

Budd Johnson (1910-1984) was a jazz saxophonist who played and recorded with Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but who is probably best known for his long association with Earl Hines. He was a big-toned, swing-era player, but he enthusiastically embraced bebop in the forties - he participated in what has been called the first bop recording session, a Coleman Hawkins date that also included Gillespie and Max Roach, and he played with and wrote arrangements for Billy Eckstine's pioneering bop big band.

Richard Davis (b. 1930) was the favorite bassist of both Eric Dolphy and Stravinsky. He was associated with the avant-garde during the sixties, but in more recent years his music has tended to be more mainstream. In any case, he is a player of matchless technique and taste.

My mom, who died in 2005, fostered my interest in jazz, sometimes influencing my tastes in ways she didn't realize. When I was 12 and had just taken up the saxophone, one of my Christmas presents from her was the first record I owned - Budd Johnson's Ya! Ya! on the Argo label. She found it in the cut-out rack of Treasure Island (yes, there was a department store called Treasure Island) and bought it for me because the cover had a picture of Johnson holding a tenor sax.

My first reaction was of disappointment. I had just discovered rock music (a few years later than most of my friends) and I wanted a rock album like my brother got that Christmas. But I gave it a listen, and liked about half of the tracks right away. They were, of course, the most obvious, bluesy tunes on the album. Even though I didn't know anything about jazz, I could tell that the bass playing was good - George Duvivier played on half of the album, replaced by Richard Davis on the rest. One of the pieces that I liked, "Exotique," had a bass solo by Davis that can only be described as bizarre. It's played arco, with microtonal glissandos, quarter tones, and dissonant double-stops. It seemed a little strange to me at the time, but I didn't know anything about music, and figured, hey, these are professional musicians - they know what they're doing. I liked it.

My acceptance of this bass solo stood in good stead later, as I started to explore free jazz. Another way to look at it is that this strange solo screwed me up for life. It's like the pop psycologists say - it's all my mom's fault.

I listened to Ya! Ya! today. It still sounds pretty good.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Horo Records

Okay, this is a geeky record collector's post.

Around 1977, when I was a student at the University of Georgia, I used to haunt the library, devouring all the books and magazines about jazz that I could find. The periodicals room carried a couple of European jazz magazines that I never would have discovered otherwise. One day a found an ad (I think in Jazz Journal International) that fascinated me. It was a listing of the Horo Records catalog, with instructions on how to order directly from their office in Rome. I photocopied the page and kept it all these years.

The record listing was mouth-watering. Lacy, Konitz, Sun Ra, Don Pullen.... I didn't have much money at the time, but what disposable income I had all went to records. I ordered Gil Evans' Parabola and Steve Lacy's Threads, and sure enough, several weeks later a box from Italy arrived on my doorstep.

I learned some things about Horo records right away: first, the music was incredible. One side of the Lacy album was solo - not an unusual setting for Lacy - but the other side found him collaborating with Alvin Curran and Frederic Rzewski (from the legendary live electronic group MEV) in an electro-acoustic trio. The Evans album was recorded while he was touring Europe with an eight-piece band. The voicings and textures Evans got with only four horns (including Lacy and Arthur Blythe) were amazing. I also learned pretty quickly, though, that Horo records were cheaply pressed and that the covers tended to come unglued and fall apart.

After that first order, I always meant to place another order or two, but somehow never did - maybe I didn't have the money, or maybe something else seemed more important at the time. And all of a sudden, Horo Records seemed to disappear. You couldn't mail-order them or special-order them - they were just gone.

I picked up a few more of Horo's issues at used record stores over the years, but I always kicked myself for not getting more of them when I had the chance. Many of them became highly prized collectors' items, particularly the three Sun Ra double albums. Then, while Googling around the internet tubes one evening about five years ago, I found a website that Aldo Sinesio, the owner of Horo, had set up. He was selling off the remaining stock of his records at prices which, while not cheap, were not unreasonable, considering the demand. I bit the bullet and picked out a handful, including the three Sun Ra albums, Max Roach's The Lodestar, another Lacy (his solo album on the label was already sold out), some George Adams/Don Pullen, MEV's United Patchwork (again with Lacy), and Konitz with Martial Solal. Once again, I intended to place another order when I could afford it, but by the time I tried again, the website was gone.

My latest Horo came in the mail today. I found Sam Rivers' Black Africa - Perugia on Ebay. Much to my surprise, no one else bid on it, so I got it at a decent price. I'm enjoying the familiar shiny and attractive, but flimsy , jacket, and the great music with the usual background crackle of the cheap vinyl.

And if anyone wants to know what to get me for Christmas, well, Steve Lacy's Eronel or Roy Haynes' Jazz a Confronto would be nice.