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.