Sunday, June 21, 2009

Baby Face Willette - Stop and Listen (1961)

Predicting a rosy future for a jazz musician has never been a safe call, even when the track record of Blue Note producer Alfred Lion is taken into account. Original annotator Joe Goldberg heard the music on this album as strong evidence that Baby Face Willette would make "a continuing contribution". As things worked out, he barely surfaced again on the national jazz scene.
Willette first appeared at the beginning of 1961 as one of Blue Note's new stars, and the empathy he displayed with Grant Green and Ben Dixon here and on the earlier albums cited by Goldberg suggested that the unit was poised to become one of the label's house rhythm sections. But Willette had been a creature of the road in his earlier professional life, and chose to travel once again rather than remain in New York. By the end of 1963 he had settled in Chicago, formed a trio, and begun appearing in local clubs, including the Moroccan Village. Two LPs were cut for Argo in 1964, after which little is known beyond the information contained on a Cook County, Illionis death certificate, which indicates that Roosevelt James Willett (sic) died on April 1, 1971.
There is little point in speculating on what happened to Willette on this scant record, but his musical preferences suggest that, had he lived a longer and more productive life, it would not necessarily have been spent as a jazz musician. As both Goldberg and Robert Levin (in the notes to the organist's earlier album Face to Face) point out, rhythm & blues and gospel music were Willette's true foundation. This was the reason that Lou Donaldson originally recruited the organist for Here 'Tis, an album the saxophonist described as an attempt "to keep everything as simple and basic as possible, without getting involved in anything intricate or experimantal". Not that Willette found popular song forms intimidating, as he demonstrates here on "Willow Weep for Me", "At Last", and the bonus track, "They Can't Take That Away From Me"; yet his inclination appears to have been to simplify, which may explain why he chose a 12-bar blues chorus for Nat Adderley's "Work Song" rather than the composition's 16-bar structure, and why Willette employed his first four bars of "Blues March" for his line "Soul Walk" instead of simply playing the more sculpted arrangement and substitute harmonics of the Benny Golson classic.
The point is not that Willette should have made himself into something that he was not. As Goldberg and British critic Francis Newton (the nom de jazz of historian Eric Hobsbawm) emphasize, he played a style of music that resonated within the African-American community yet escaped the appreciation of the music's more intellectual commentators. This more populist (urban, working-class, call it what you will) style was merging with modern jazz and popular music at the time, thanks to earlier versions of songs in this collection like the Adderley opus and "At Last", which Etta James had taken far from its origins in the Glenn Miller band. With hindsight, especially after so much of popular music has moved in other directions, the proximity of what Willette played to, say, Lou Donaldson's more "intricate" acoustic quartet music, appears even more obvious. So it remains unclear whether, had he chosen or been able to stay in the fray, Willette would have fulfilled the prophecy with which Goldberg concludes.
Grant Green and Ben Dixon did stay in the fray, often in tandem and frequently with other organists. They were heard supporting Brother Jack McDuff at the time of this recording, and a year later would strike another memorable partnership (again at the instigation of Donaldson) with Big John Patton that yielded more than a dozen recordings in a five-year period. Larry Young and Billy Gardner also kept company with Green and Dixon on record. Green, of course, did have a significant impact on the jazz world, although one often ignored for the reasons Goldberg and Newton emphasize, at least until time provided the necessary perspective.
In the end, what might have been can not detract from what was some very good music that Roosevelt "Baby Face" Willette recorded in Rudy van Gelder's studio in 1961. Without a horn soloist in the band, as he is heard here and on the earlier Grant's First Stand, he had no problem carrying the additional solo and ensemble responsibilities, and clearly knew how to set and maintain a groove. It can only be considered music's loss that Baby never grew up.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Lee Morgan - Indeed! (1956)

The present music represents Lee Morgan's first trip to a recording studio and first album as a leader, though the evidence on these points at the time of original issue was confusing. Morgan returned to Rudy Van Gelder's a mere day after these tracks were taped for the first of two quintet sessions organized by tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley for Savoy. Some of that music appeared on a Savoy album picturing Morgan and his Gillespie-model trumpet alone in the cover photo. Introducing Lee Morgan blared the title, with Hank Mobley's Quintet added in a small print. Whether this influenced producer Alfred Lion in choosing his own title for Morgan's true introduction is unclear, but the original Blue Note LP did offer the alternative Presenting Lee Morgan on its back cover.
While Morgan recorded no original compositions on any of these first studio visits, Lion clearly gave the trumpeter more direct input in terms of a front line partner and the program. C.Sharpe's later recorded appearances can be counted on the fingers of one hand, yet until his death in 1990, he was intermittently on the periphery of the jazz scene, often in the company of his wife, vocalist Chinalin Sharpe. The rhythm section, which had been heard as a unit two weeks earlier on the J.R.Monterose album Leonard Feather mentions, looks more like Lion's call, despite the inclusion of another Philadelphian in its midst. Comparing this trio with the Hank Jones, Doug Watkins, Art Taylor unit on Savoy underscores the more assertive rhythmic feel that had already become a Blue Note trademark.
Morgan gave particular distinction to this and his next three collections on Blue Note through his emphasis on original material from talented young writers, especially one particular hometown friend. Benny Golson would ultimately contribute 14 compositions to these early Morgan dates, including such classics as "Whisper Not" and "I Remember Clifford". His offerings here reflect the influence of two important modern writers; his early boss, Tadd Dameron, and early section mate, Gigi Gryce. The 42-bar form (10/10/8/14) on "Reggie of Chester" is a sign of Golson's ability to make unusual structures sound logical. Two more Owen Marshall scores also appear on Morgan's next album, but Marshall disappeared after contributing a few more tunes to albums by Art Blakey, Chet Baker, and Philly Joe. The session's ballad "The Lady" is not to be confused with the Rudy Stephenson opus Morgan blew so beautifully on his 1965 album The Rumproller.
Of the remaining titles, "Roccus" was the first track Horace Silver recorded for Blue Note (with Lou Donaldson in June 1952) and his first composition to appear on the label. Donald Byrd's "Little T", heard in two takes, has a history as convoluted as any Golson composition. The composer first recorded the melody as "The New Message" on a Jazz Messengers session the previous June, along with a completely different theme called "L'il T". "The New Message" then became "Little T" here and on the 1957 Kenny Brew disc This Is New. The tune originally called "L'il T" returned on the Art Blakey's Ritual under its original title but as "The Third" on the Byrd/Art Farmer Prestige joust Two Trumpeters and the Monterose Blue Note date. The master take of "Little T" here was the first version to be released, while the alternate track first appeared on a 1995 Mosaic boxed set. The alternate is the superior take, despite hesitant moments in both theme choruses and during Morgan's first solo. The Sharpe solo is his best on record, with a brighter tone and dodging accents that recall Sahib Shibab with Thelonious Monk. Morgan is muted in the beautiful second solo, and Ware's statements are a treat. This take, with its variety of new insights, is as far from superfluous as an alternate can get.
Lee Morgan clearly fulfilled the precocious promise on display here, and it takes nothing away from the 18 year old's achievement to acknowledge that this is clearly a freshman effort. Clifford Brown's imprint is particularly clear on these early performances. Still, Morgan is supremely confident, rhythmically adept, willing to put his technique to the test, and (despite excessive quoting that infects his fellow soloists as well) a convincing soloist on the ballad. The need for seasoning may account for producer Lion's preference for more detailed sextet settings on the next three Morgan albums. It was not until his fifth collection, The Cooker, that the trumpeter returned to the more open blowing terrain that would become his forte.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers - The Big Beat (1960)

The classic edition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers originally took shape at the Canadian Exposition in the summer of 1959 when Wayne Shorter, then a member of Maynard Ferguson's reed section, was recruited by Lee Morgan to substitute for an absent Hank Mobley. In the six months seperating that event and the recording of The Big Beat much had transpired. Shorter, with Morgan alongside, made his recording debut on Wynton Kelly's first Vee Jay album, which in turn led both horn players to sign contracts with the Chicago-based label. Pianist Bobby Timmons took what proved to be a brief leave of absence from the Messengers to help Cannonball Adderley launch his new quintet. It was the Timmons sanctified composition "This Here" that helped turn Adderley's new unit into an instant sensation. Blakey did bring the Messengers, with Walter Davis Jr. on piano, into Rudy van Gelder's studio on November 10 (the same day on which the Vee Jay album Introducing Wayne Shorter was completed); but the resulting Africaine was initially rejected by producer Alfred Lion because it lacked a track with the crossover potential of Timmons's earlier "Moanin'". The Messengers left for Europe immediately after the Africaine date, where they taped in various performances on their own and with guests such as Bud Powell. Meanwhile, Timmons signed a recording contract with Riverside and cut his composition "Dat Dere" twice -in a trio version for his This Here Is Bobby Timmons date in January, and in his final appearance with Adderley for the Them Dirty Blues album a month later.
Lion must have been overjoyed when Timmons returned to the Messengers with "Dat Dere", for it is both the most impressive composition Timmons ever wrote and one of the greatest works to emerge during the soul-jazz craze. The melody is taken through some sophisticated development without ever losing its funky feeling, and the out chorus -perhaps a sign of former Jazz Messenger Benny Golson's residual influence- is equally inspired. The lyrics that Oscar Brown Jr. added several months later had a great deal to do with turning "Dat Dere" into a jazz classic, yet this version by the Messengers played a role as well. It is particularly enlightening to compare the solos by Morgan, whose half-valve effects and vocalized inflections could stand as a definition of soul music, and Shorter, who frets like a more contemporary, perhaps existential skeptic.
From a compositional standpoint, however, The Big Beat is best remembered for serving notive that Shorter wsa a master in the making. "The Chess Players", his version of soul music, received a lyric as well (from Joe Hendricks), while "Sakeena's Vision" manages to function as both a structural brain-twister and the kind of percussion-punctuated opus that displayed leader Blakey at his best. "Lester Left Town", Shorter's first masterpiece, had been recorded on the Africaine date, and led to a heated argument between bandleader and producer. "I think my tune was too new" Shorter explained to Conrad Silvert in 1981. "The modernity, all those chromatics were too much for Alfred". No such problems occured on the present session, which finds Blakey bringing the tempo up from the earlier version. While the opening melodic phrase is extremely Lestorian, suggesting Young's solo on the Count Basie recording "Jive at Five", Shorter has again deployed space in a manner that tailors the piece to Blakey's personality.
"It's Only a Paper Moon", the lone standard, is heard in two takes cut at the beginning of the session, and provides a fine illustration of why producers sometimes insist hat a band go back and give a piece one more try. While there is nothing fatally wrong with the alternate, it was the first performance recorded that afternoon and the musicians were taking a relatively curious approach. Still, the bonus track has its charms, including Shorter's wild quote at the top of his second chorus, Morgan sounding as if he is backing into his trumpet solo, and evidence in the first piano chorus that Timmons absorbed Bud Powell in part through the example of Red Garland. The master take is much more intense affair, and worth hearing if only for an indication of how Jymie Merritt's strength was so essential to this band.
For more comparative listening, check out composer Bill Hardman playing "Politely" on the Lou Donaldson album Sunny Side Up, recorded for Blue Note a month before the present version; Sheila Jordan's extraordinary reading of "Dat Dere" on her 1962 Blue Note album Portrait of Sheila, and Miles Davis's 1951 take on "It's Only a Paper Moon" for Prestige, which is swung at an impeccable medium tempo by Blakey.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers - Mosaic (1960)

Adding a sixth musician to the Jazz Messengers proved to be one of the most momentous decisions of Art Blakey's career. It was not entirely unprecedented (Leonard Feather to the contrary notwithstanding), as the Messengers did field a team of six briefly in 1957. That edition, featured on the Vik album A Night in Tunisia, featured a front line of trumpet, alto sax, and tenor sax, a three-horn blend that Blakey favored in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after economic constraints had forced him to revert to a quintet setup for roughly a decade. During the final few years of his life, the drummer even found occasion to carry trumpet, trombone, and two saxophones in the Messengers. Yet the configuration that earned the right to be considered classic, thanks to the musicians heard on the present recording, featured trumpet, trombone, and tenor sax in the front line.
At the time these tracks were recorded in 1961, one could be forgiven for believing that this particular sextet blend would become the standart across the spectrum of modern jazz ensembles. The edition of JJ Johnson's band from which Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton emerged employed the same lineup, as did the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet that, at seperate points, included Walton and Curtis Fuller. When Johnson disbanded his own unit, he briefly joined Miles Davis and turned that group into a trumpet/trombone/tenor outfit. It could be that this particular instrumentation, with each of a big band's three horn sections represented, particular a natural environment for scaled-down jazz writing, but a more likely factor in the sudden emergence of sextets was the availability of Johnson and Fuller, two virtuosos who could blow toe-to-toe with their trumpet and sax-playing peers.
Blakey had first used trombone as a third horn in June 1961, when Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons were still aboard, for his Impulse album Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. In the notes to that set, Dick Katz states that Fuller "was engaged especially for this album", but the trombonist's strong soloing and his Messengers-friendly composition "Alamode" made an immediate impression upon Blakey, who brought the trombonist on as a permanent member two months later when Hubbard and Walton joined the group. The new sextet attempted to cut its first recording at the Village Gate on August the 17th, but the session was rejected (two tracks included "Arabia", did finally surface on the 1990 CD Three Blind Mice Vol 2). Less than two months later, when the band recorded Mosaic on its first visit to Rudy van Gelder's studio, the results were far superior, and the Messengers were immediately refashioned in the eyes of its fans as a six-piece band.
All five of the compositions included here became Jazz Messengers classics, yet it appears that at least three of them were not written with Blakey's band in mind. The title track, which seems custom-made for the leader's percussive fire, was actually part of the Jazztet's book when composer Walton was with that band, and had received its debut recording four months earlier on Clifford Jordan's Jazzland album, Starting Time. "Arabia", another of Fuller's modal efforts, was first heard on his August 1959 Savoy album The Curtis Fuller Jazztet with Benny Golson, which also featured a three-horn front line completed by then-Messenger Lee Morgan. Hubbard also employed a sextet, albeit with euphonium and tenor sax, when he cut a slower version of "Crisis" on 21 August 1961, date that produced his Blue Note album Ready for Freddie.
As to the other titles, Shorter has said that, "I was thinking about Bela Lugosi in Dracula when I wrote Children of the Night, but the children also became astronauts, going out into the unknown." And Hubbard's "Down Under" with its comfortable blues groove and break figures that recall Lee Morgan's "What Know", is most reminiscent of the already established Messengers tradition. It is also what may have been considered the album's soul track, at a point when something soulful was de rigueur on a jazz album. It is one measure of the expanded Messengers' success that they were able to thrive without relying on music calculated to meet some standart of ersatz sanctification. All of Blakey's music possessed soul, but this band and this album offered so much more.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Kenny Burrell - Midnight Blue (1967)

To describe Kenny Burrell as an integral part of the Blue Note story is to sell this still-thriving guitarist short. Perhaps better than any of his contemporaries, Burrell represents the level of versatility and consistent quality that transcended individual record labels and created the fertile jazz recording scene of the 12-inch LP's first decade.
He was everywhere, as a sideman and a leader, after launching his East Coast career with two Blue Note albums in 1956. And one suspects that certain excellent sessions he cut for other companies with Coleman Hawkins in place of Turrentine; or A Night at the Vanguard -classic trio Burrell- might have more substantial reputations today if they had been issued under the Blue Note logo. Consider such gems as Bluesy Burrell, cut for Prestige/Moodsville four months before the present session with Holley and Barretto aboard, Tommy Flanagan's piano added and Coleman Hawkins in place of Turrentine, or A Night at the Vanguard with Richard Davis and Roy Haynes that Argo taped in 1959 less than a month after Blue Note had documented a Burrell quintet (with Tina Brooks and Art Blakey), On View at the Five Spot Cafe.
Yet if such masterpieces from other catalogues (and others like Kenny Burrell with John Coltrane and The Tender Gender) can be imagined as Blue Note releases, no rival label could possibly have provided as fitting a home for Midnight Blue. Leonard Feather's notes report what the music so clearly reveals; that Burrell had a clear overall vision for the album, involving a program of blues and related material that might shout (but only in context) yet would also explore the feelings to be uncovered at lower volumes and slower tempos. It was a concept that must have taken producer Alfred Lion back to his earliest ensemble project with the Port of Harlem Jazzmen.
Given the particular affinity of the guitar and the blues, space was needed to allow the instrument its full expressive potential. Lion was willing to give Burrell the necessary room where other producers of the time might have insisted upon a piano or, especially given the album's theme, an organ. Taking further advantage of the textural possibilities by adding Ray Barretto's conga drums to Bill English's trap set was also within the Blue Note tradition. Candido had teamed with Kenny Clarke on the label's Introducing Kenny Burrell, and Barretto had assumed the role of house conguero for both Blue Note and Prestige since important 1958 recordings with Lou Donaldson, Red Garland and Gene Ammons. Bassist Major Holley Jr and English were Burrell regulars who worked and recorded frequently with the guitarist in these years, while Stanley Turrentine, the only Blue Note leader among the supporting artists, had first shown a penchant for making indelible music with Burrell on the 1960 session that produced Jimmy Smith's Midnight Special and Back at the Chicken Shack.
In various combinations, Burrell, Turrentine, Holley, English, and Barretto brilliantly realize the original goal. While the album is filled with great moments, like the guitarist's naked emoting on "Soul Lament" and the propulsion he generates while locking into tempo on "Midnight Blue", the overall plan and pace create one of the most subtle cumulative moods ever conjured on two sides of vinyl. Hear how the waltz tempo of "Wavy Gravy" arrives like a seismic shift in terrain, and how affirmatively things are concluded on "Saturday Night Blues". The seven original tracks form a complete statement, a considered presentation that in no way contained the spontaneity at the music's heart. The bonus track "Kenny's Sound" is particularly enlightening in this regard. It was the first piece done at the session and clearly did not enhance the aura of the final album, yet it served as a perfect muscle-flexer that allowed the musicians to loosen up and prepare for the highly focused task ahead. The other added title "K Twist", was recorded again nearly two years later on a session designed to produce material for release on 45. The later personnel is quite similar, with everyone from this session save Holley returning, but the addition of Herbie Hancock's piano creates a less fluent if more commercial veneer.
Midnight Blue did not need "K Twist" in order to generate a hit, since in "Chitlins Con Carne" it had one of the most ingratiating blues lines of the periods. "Chitlins Con Carne" might seem rather basic to some players and listeners more impressed by complex scales and harmonic substitutions, yet it holds profound lessons about telling a story through music and functioning as a collective unit missing from most texts and exercise books. It also establishes a level of music discourse that is sustained over the remainder of this timeless album.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The JazzTimes Superband (2000)

An all-star aggregation put together by Sabin and Nick Phillips of Concord Jazz, the JazzTimes Superband stands as a testament to the chemistry and high level of musicianship of all the players involved -Randy Brecker on trumpet, Bob Berg on tenor saxophone, Dennis Chambers on drums, Paul Bollenbeck on guitar and Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 organ. With virtually no rehearsal time, this abundantly talented crew gathered in the studio and tackled a set of forcefully swinging originals and two notable covers. The result was pure, unadulterated burn with plenty of virtuostic turns along the way.
The remarkable chemistry heard on this hard-swinging session comes from the longstanding relationships that some of the playeres have had with each other over the years. Berg's connection to Brecker goes back to the early 1970s, when the two used to participate in loft jam sessions with the likes of Dave Liebman and another Coltrane-inspired tenor player named Michael Brecker.
"There was an organization that Liebman started called Free Life Communications" recalls Randy. "We were born in that and played together a lot in these days. I remember playing with Bob in lofts, at a few jam sessions and on a couple of record dates. And he was pretty close to my brother too. They'd practice together. So I've known him for a long time". Berg played on Brecker's bop-inspired quintet offering from 1991, Live at Sweet Basil, and subsequently toured with Randy's band, which also featured Dave Kikoski on piano, Dieter Ilg on bass and either Dennis Chambers or Joey Baron on drums. More recently, Brecker returned the favor by guesting with Berg's group on a number of gigs. The two also played side by side on Marc Copland's 1995 recording, Stompin' With Savoy, which featured Chambers on drums.
Brecker's history with Chambers includes a 1990 solo recording, Toe to Toe and two early 1990s recordings and subsequent tours with a reunited The Brecker Brothers band. Berg and Chambers first established their intense chemistry together in the powerhouse Bob Berg/Mike Stern band from the late 1980s, one of the first vehicles in which Chambers was able to showcase his stellar swing chops on a smaller jazz kit as opposed to the thunderous funk style he was so noted for in previous stints with Parliament-Funkadelic and John Scofield's fusion of the mid-80s. The saxophonist and drummer have collaborated on a number of recordings since that first encounter, including Berg's 1993 Stretch Records debut, Enter the Spirit.
"I don't get a chance to do this kind of straight ahead playing as much anymore" says the in-demand drummer who is also a charter member of the fusion power trio Niacin. "That's why I dove at the chance of doing this Superband project. My real love is more or less into the jazz, bebop, straight ahead kind of thing. I grew up doing that. I'm mostly known for my playing on the fusion side and the funk side, which I love too. But if I had a choice, I would just play straight ahead."
This Superband recording represents the first time that either Brecker or Berg have played with organ, great Joey DeFrancesco. As Randy explains "I may have played with Joey in Philly some years ago when he was still a kid. They have an Organ Night at the annual Mellon Festival and I did that a couple of times, so I probably played with him on one of those, but it was kind of from afar, so to speak."
While Berg had never played with DeFrancesco, his own musical roots are deeply entwined with the Hammond B-3 organ. "The professional jazz gig that I ever did was with Jack McDuff in 1969" he explains. "I was 18 and had never been on the road before but I grew up fast on that gig. Playing the organ circuit back then was really an eye-opening experience. So Joey's coming from kind of a familiar place for me. He's the real McCoy, the real deal. He plays the Hammond organ in that real tradition. So for me, it was pretty natural playing with him on this session."
Yet another harmonious hookup within the JazzTimes Superband is the longstanding relationship between DeFrancesco and guitarist Paul Bollenback, who was a regular in Joey's band throughout the 1990s and appears on a string of five superbly swinging Columbia recordings from that period. Bollenback's connection to Chambers goes back even further to a trio they had together in Baltimore during the early 1980s with bassist Gary Grainger, pre-dating Dennis' higher profile work with Scofield's group. DeFrancesco and Chambers first established their rhythmic rapport back in 1993 while working together in John McLaughlin's rollicking Free Spirits trio. With Joey's agile foot pumping the bass pedals while alternately waking basslines in the left hand and Dennis providing a propulsive momentum on the kit, they make a formidable rhythm team.
The album opens on a jaunty note with Randy Brecker's "Dirty Dogs", an earthy shuffle with allusions to Benny Golson's "Blues March". As the composer explains, "That was written recently in Japan while I was in the middle of an Art Blakey tribute band tour, so it has a little of that Jazz Messengers quality in it". Everybody gets a taste here, starting with a sparkling Brecker trumpet solo and followed by an intense Bob Berg tenor solo. Guitarist Paul Bollenback adds some bluesy statements of his own before Joey enters with his signature burn.
"Silverado" is a modern sounding number that Berg had previously recorded on his 1990 Denon album, Back Roads. This highly changed version is fueled by Chambers' insistent swing factor in tandem with DeFrancesco's surging bass pulse on the pedals. After navigating the harmonically involved head, Berg launches into a heroic tenor solo that bristles with fierce conviction. Randy gets off a brilliant solo here, sounding more Woody Shaw than Jazz Messengers. The energy level spikes with Joey's wicked solo, which leans more toward Larry Young territory than the blues-based stylings of Jimmy Smith, and Dennis traverses the kit with polyrhythmic aplomb at the tag.
"Jones Street" is another swinging Brecker offering which he had originally written for saxophonist Lew Tabackin and had previously recorded on an album by Tony Lakatos, a gifted Hungarian gypsy tenor saxophonist currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Randy's vibrant energy here is matched by Joey's B-3 sizzle and Berg's gutsy tenor wail. Bollenback also contributes a far-reaching solo that stretches into some adventurous harmonic territory while remaining rhythmically in the pocket.
The Superband collectively wails with abandon on Sonny Rollins' "Oleo", a quintessential jamming vehicle that brings out the best in all the soloists. Chambers' playing is particularly astounding here as he plays the familiar melody on his kit before heading into hyperdrive with the ride cymbal, hi-hat and snare, setting a blistering pace for a string of incandescent solos to follow. Joey unleashes at this blazing tempo, flashing the fastest right hand in the business while walking furious basslines in his left hand. Randy follows with what amounts to a hard boppish rendition of "Flight of the Bumble Bee" then Berg turns in an astounding solo of his own, summoning up an intense torrent of power at such an impossible pace. Think Booker Ervin played at 45 rpms. The exchange of eights here with Chambers is absolutely white hot.
Berg's "Friday Night at the Cadillac Club" is greasy ribs-and-greens-eating fare harkens back to the saxophonist's formative years with B-3 organ great Jack McDuff. "The title refers to a place in Newark, New Jersey called the Cadillac Club, which was the first gig I had with the band" he recalls. "There were thre clubs at that one intersection. There was a place across the street called the Key Club and there was Jimmy McGriff's, which was an organ club too. At that time, I had been mostly checking out Coltrane and Miles, and here I found myself in a situation where I'm standing on a corner and anywhere I looked there were organ clubs. So we played this place and it was so different from anything that I had ever experienced. It was a lot of gangster types hanging out there and hookers. You know, players. Just really people I had never been around in my little neighbourhood in Brooklyn that I grew up in. It made such an impression on me that years later when I was writing music for the Short Stories record, I wrote this tune. It really brought to mind the feeling of that time -that shuffle kind of dirty bluesy thing. And I knew that would be an automatic for Joey". Berg turns in an appropriately blustery, big-toned solo here. Brecker outlines the harmony with his own adventurous solo while Joey digs into this lusty vehicle with fangs bared, offering another blues-drenched show-stopping turn on the B-3.
The moody "SoHo Sole" is Berg's nod to the innovative organ style of Larry Young. "One of my favorite records of all time is Larry Young's Unity" he says. "To me, that's the icon of organ quartet records. I just love that record, I remember hearing it when it came out. Larry played so hip on it and I loved the way Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw and Elvin Jones sounded on it too. So I was kind of thinking along those lines when I wrote this tune". Berg uses the harmonic implications of his own composition to launch into his most daring solo on the record while DeFrancesco pushes the envelope as well.
Brecker turns in some of his most dynamic playing on his own Latin flavored composition, "The Ada Strut", a tune he wrote on a bus in England while on tour with his brother Michael in honor of percussionist Don Alias's 60th birthday.
DeFrancesco's rousing "Blue Goo" is an angular mid-tempo blues line that he figured out in his head on the way to the session. Guitarist Bollenback explodes out of the block on his solo here, flowing with the kind of facility, rhythmic assuredness and harmonic inventiveness that have marked him as one of the most exciting jazz guitarists on the New York scene. Randy's swaggering solo statement on this blues bristles with sparks of spontaneous invention, Berg enters by echoing tha last four notes of Brecker's solo, develops the idea, and then launches into an inspired blues-drenched solo on top of the relaxed, swinging groove. Joey ups the ante, laying back at first before busting loose and frantically double-timing the tempo on his own exhilarating solo.
Bollenback contributes the evocative "Seven A.M. Special", a minor key blues he wrote while in the throes of jet lag after a return trip home from Japan.
The collection closes on an energized note with a free-blowing extrapolation on Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance". The Superband pulls out all the stops on this chops-busting anthem.
The results of this all-star session are purely scintillating, as one can hear by cueing up any of the ten tracks at random. Savor the burn of their studio debut.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Chick Corea - The Best of Chick Corea (1993)

Any retrospective of Chick Corea's Blue Note recordings rightly begins with his work while a member of Blue Mitchell's group of mid 1960s. Armando Anthony Corea, born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on 12 June 1941, had gravitated to New York in 1962 after establishing himself in the Boston scene. In New York, he found work with Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria and others before landing in the straight-ahead groove of Blue Mitchell Quintet. That soulful ensemble was actually the nucleus of Horace Silver Quintet but became Blue's group when Horace left, and after visits by Walter Bishop and Ronnie Matthews, Chick Corea was hired. He stayed on for two years and three great Blue Note albums. Corea's growing skills as a composer was recognized by Mitchell who used Corea's "Straight Up and Down" and "Tones for Joan's Bones" on his 1966 album Boss Horn.
Corea's first solo album was made for Atlantic in 1966, and his career began to accelerate as his artistic power blossomed. After recording with Stan Getz and Donald Byrd in 1967, he hired drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Miroslav Vitous for his second album, Now He Sings Now He Sobs recorded in 1968 for Solid State. Selections 3 to 8 are taken from that session which was issued in its entirety only with the release under Blue Note label in 1988. On the four originals and two cover tunes we can hear a talent that expands and reaches as the tape rolls. Already solid in assurance and confidence, Corea begins to push the artistic borders that he would later completely rearrange.
A few months after Now He was recorded. Corea replaced Herbie Hancock in the Miles Davis Quintet where he found a kindred musical spirit in bassist Dave Holland. Two years later, Corea returned to the studio to record The Song of Singing for Blue Note (Solid State, a branch of United Artists, was swallowed up by Liberty Records, who already owned Blue Note). Using Holland and the progressive eclectic drummer Barry Altschul, Corea forged into the avantgarde jazz scene of the time, reaching a peak when Anthony Braxton joined them a few months later. The three selections included here are most noteworthy for the space and expansion allowed for three players, yet the songs never lose the sense of swing that always marked Corea's best work.
In 1972 Corea formed Return to Forever and the rest is jazz history. Corea's association with Blue Note continues into the 1990s as noted by Play, the Grammy-winning album of duets with Bobby McFerrin. Always growing, forever full of surprises, Chick Corea continues to amaze and impress.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Medeski Martin & Wood - Note Bleu (2006)

Since its inception in 1991, when they played their first gig together under the tony lawfirmish moniker of Medeski Martin & Wood (at the historic Village Gate in New York City), t his talented triumvirate has demonstrated an uncommon chemistry on the bandstand along with an almost unquenchable desire to play strictly on the improvisational edge and in the moment. As Rolling Stone's David Fricke once urged readers, "Go out on a limb with them; you'll always find a reason to dance".
It's no surprise, then, that the unorthodox trio built up a cult following - through tireless road work during the early 90's (as many as 200 dates a year)- comprised of Phish fans, Deadheads, and assorted neo-hippies who flocked to their cause, galvanized by the group's irrepressible groove-power and intrigued by the band's willingness to push the envelope to heightened levels on a nightly basis.
After documenting their signature amalgam of funk, jazz, avantgarde, hip-hop, neo-punk, and improvisatory expansiveness on their ambitious, self-produced 1992 debut, Notes from the Underground (on the independent Hap-Jones label), Medeski Martin & Wood were signed by Gramavision Records and began developing a wider audience on the strength of three potent offerings in 1993's It's a Jungle in Here, 1994's Friday Afternoon in the Universe, and 1996's Shack Man (recorded entirely in the remote jungles of Hawaii in their jam parlor affectionately known as "The Shack").
Critics pegged them as walking a fine line between Weather Report and the Meters. Josef Woodard in Jazziz called them "groove merchants of a new-old order", a reference to their reverence for the organ trio tradition and their simultaneous eagerness to push the music forward into the great beyond. Boston Globe critic Bob Blumenthal called them "too audacious to be mere fusion, too infectious to be overlooked".
After signing in November 1997 with Blue Note, a label that afforded them a higher profile and came with an incredibly rich legacy to boot. Medeski Martin & Wood continued to pull no punches in its pursuit of pure, spontaneous artistic expression. Indeed, their first album for the label, 1998's Combustication, was almost defiantly umcompromising in its overall scope. While another band in that same position might have gone for something a bit more accessible on its first offering out of the gate with a new label (and one so conspicuosly associated with the hallowed jazz tradition, no less), Medeski Martin & Wood pushed the envelope with subversive glee on that edgy experiment in nasty tonalities, reveling in the resultant outburst of creative energy.
"Sugar Craft" from that initial Blue Note outing is grounded by Chris Wood's minimalist groove-anchor on electric bass and fueled by Billy Martin's slyly syncopated, Clyde Stubblefield/Jabbo Starks-informed funky drummer backbeats. Keyboardist John Medeski works his own funky magic on top of that popping undercurrent with grunge-toned Hammond B3 organ while turntablist DJ Logic (Jason Kibler) layers on provocative little ear cookies and wacky funhouse screams that dance in and out of the boogaloo mix. As Martin noted of Logic, an honorary Medeski Martin & Wood member who toured with the band that year: "He's a quintessential musician. He's always looking for sounds, rhythms, and textures. His personality comes right through, you can hear it".
Wood's melodic electric bass lines open the spacious and moody "Nocturne", a chamber-like piece from Combustication that unfolds with the meditative calm of a Chopin nocturne (with some characteristic Medeski Martin & Wood tweakage along the way). Medeski's solovox can be heard fluttering in the mix, alternating with ethereal strains from a mellotron as Martin underscores the textures with subtle brushwork and some coloristic playing on the kit. The other piece here from Combustication is the shuffling groover "Hypnotized", in which Medeski dials up some of his sickest, most severely effected, wah-wah inflected, ring-moduled organ tones while also underscoring the dissonant proceedings with some soulful Les McCann-styled comping on a warm-tuned Wurlitzer piano. And "Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho" (heard here in its illy B remix form) is an infectious dancefloor number of a funky clavinet and Meters-inspired organ riffs. Martin also engages in a spirited percussion jam on this number which harkens back to his street samba work with Brazilian ensembles like Pei De Boi and Batacuda.
For their follow-up, Medeski Martin & Wood documented an extended all-acoustic engagement at Tonic, New York's premier venue for alternative jazz and edgy experimentalism located on the Lower East Side. The solo tune culled here from that organic session, "Hey Joe", was written by W.M. Roberts bt later transformed into an emotionally-charged, anthemic ballad by Jimi Hendrix on his landmark debut. It's handled here with zen-like restrained and crystalline delicacy by Medeski on piano, Wood on the doublebass, and Martin adding a sensitive, supportive touch on the kit.
Medeski Martin & Wood returned to its improvisatory, groove-oriented agenda with 2000's The Dropper, an expansive exercise in sonic extremism which was co-produced by Scotty Hard (Scott Harding), whose credits included engineering hip-hop sessions for the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, PM Dawn, and Kool Keith. On the album's title track, keyboardist Medeski, and guitarist Marc Ribot exchange ambient-noise statements in the foreground while Wood holds the center with funky, muted electric basslines coming out of the great tradition of James Brown bassists like Charles Sherrell, Bernard Odum, and Bootsy Collins. The party groover "Partido Alto" opens with Medeski on piano before he switches to burning Jimmy Smith organ mode and finishes with some soulful piano flourishes. Wood covers the bottom on electric bass while Martin works more infectious samba drumming into the fabric of this funky vamp. Medeski's composition "Note Bleu" (title track for this Blue Note retrospective) is a bouyant bossa featuring his bluesy wailing on organ, augmented by rich chordal voicing from guest guitarist Marc Ribot.
Following the critical success of The Dropper, Medeski Martin & Wood pushed the envelope even further on 2002's Uninvisible, a Scotty Hard production which combined horns and turntables with a futuristic groove-oriented twist. That landmark offering is represented here by four tunes. Medeski's "I Wanna Ride You" is an insistent boogaloo with a gospel-soaked intro that showcases the organist wailing in a funky Jimmy McGriff vein. The soulful groove "Pappy Check" features some slick turntable scratching from special gues DJ P Love while the powerfully dissonant "Off the Table" includes DJ Olive's verité sounds of a ping-pong match in the background. And the aggressively grooving title track is brimming with James Brown-styled grooves, Meters-esque organ riffs, spacey dub effects, and punchy horn pads.
Medeski Martin & Wood's swan song on Blue Note, 2004's End of the World Party presents a compelling amalgam of melodies, textures, and beats. This edgy opus, produced by John King of the Dust Brothers is represented here by the catchy "Mami Gato", underscored by Wood's humungous bass tones on the doublebass and some particularly hip, polyrhythmic playing on the kit from Martin. Medeski plays strictly piano on this rumba-flavored number, affecting an authentic Cuban sensibility on the keys as laid down by such pioneers as Bebo Valdes and Rubén Gonzalez of the Buena Vista Social Club. The raucuous "Queen Bee" is a thrashing, 1960's garage band funk rave-up fueled by Medeski's wailing organ work and a ripping guitar solo from guest Marc Ribot. And the title track from the band's final Blue Note recording is an ambitious number brimming with strings and anchored by Wood's deep doublebass tones. Medeski plays some soulful Wurlitzer electric piano here, conjuring up distant memories of 1960's soul anthems on top of Martin's insistently funky backbeat.
Today, 15 years after its inception, Medeski Martin & Wood continues its mission of pushing the envelope sonically, artistically, collectively. Thousands upon thousands of miles into their long and strange trip, these three old-school funkateers with jazz pedigrees and wide-open, forward thinking sensibilities remain humble ambassadors of the groove. Their next chapter is already being written. But for now, this collection spanning seven years captures a golden period when Medeski Martin & Wood was steadily building on its reputation as godfathers of the burgeoning jam band scene, and breaking new ground in the process.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Donald Byrd - Byrd In Hand (1959)

As the five-star Down Beat review that this album garnered at the time of its release indicates, Ira Girler was not alone in feeling that Byrd In Hand represented a new plateau for its trumpet-playing leader. The session's inspired music represents the conjunction of several critic associations that brought Byrd into his most productive and influential period as a recording artist.
The most sustained and prolific of these relationships was the one Byrd shared with his old friend from Detroit, Pepper Adams. They had started working in New York and recording together a year earlier, and would continue to co-lead bands through late 1961. While Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan had already displayed how well trumpet and baritone sax could blend in a small group, Byrd and Adams were clearly something else. The saxophonist, an acerbic dervish with a brawny tone who mixed streams of bebop and caustic quotes, was the perfect complement to Byrd's more thoughtful and tender inventions. This album, their third together and second on Blue Note (after Off to the Races), was the first to fully display the range of moods they were capable of producing. An excellent example is Byrd's haunting "Here Am I", with an atmospheric blend of vamp and melody so strong it was reprised almost verbatim two years later in Duke Pearson's composition "Say You're Mine", which was heard on another of Byrd's best Blute Note sessions, The Cat Walk.
A second important connection represented Byrd In Hand involves Thelonious Monk, a musician who is not even present. Four months before this session, Monk presented his first orchestral concert at New York's Town Hall by augmenting his working quartet (which included Charlie Rouse, Sam Jones and Art Taylor) with six additional musicians including Byrd and Adams. The Riverside album that the concert produced features strong playing from the trumpeter (a product perhaps in part of Monk's threat to replace Byrd with Lee Morgan when the former was late for a rehearsal), and Byrd was clearly satisfied enough with the experience to bring Monk's sidemen into his next project. Rouse, with his immediately identifiable sound and phraseology, is a delight here, and further complements the leader's warmth with his flinty inventions. The day after this session, Rouse, Jones and Taylor began work with their regular boss and Thad Jones on 5 By Monk By 5 of which the British critic Jack Cooke astutely observed that "The times were beginning to catch up with Monk... for a generation well versed in the search for fresh harmonic relationships through their experience of hard bop, and stimulated by that style's rhythmic devices, found themselves with a key to his music". Here we have more proof that Monk's aesthetic was spreading, even in the absence of his compositions.
For this reason, pianist Walter Davis Jr. was an ideal choice for the piano chair, given his friendship with Monk and Bud Powell. Davis was also in the midst of a period during which he collaborated frequently with Byrd. The two, plus Doug Watkins and Art Taylor, had traveled to and recorded in Europe during 1958. Upon their return, Davis began turning up on Blue Note sessions with Byrd, including Jackie McLean's New Soil (cut a month before this date) and his own Davis Cup (recorded two months later, with Jones and Taylor also present). While these albums gave the pianist far more solo space than he had enjoyed on his early recordings with Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie, they were even more important in announcing Davis's talents as a composer. His writing here is notable in terms of both lyricism and structural originality. "Bronze Dance" shifts moods and meters seamlessly over a unique 28-bar chorus that allows Rouse to display his strong sense of contrast to particularly good effect, while the 44-bar form of "Clarion Calls" is handled by Adams and Byrd without strain. When Rouse gets confused during his "Clarion Calls" solo and stays on for four extra bars, Davis simply omits four bars of his own chorus and sustains a see-saw figure until he is sure that the structure is secure.
One additional point of comparison this album calls to mind involves Clifford Brown, whose influence on Byrd was receding here as Byrd establishes a deeper sense of his own personality. In this regard, the brisk yet relaxed trumpet solo on "The Injuns" should be heard next to Brown's more bravura 1953 reading of the tune on which it is based, "Cherokee", now available on Clifford Brown Memorial Album in the RVG series, from a sextet date that also finds Rouse in the tenor chair.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Melvin Sparks - This Is It (2005)

Melvin Sparks does not care much what you call his funkified approach to playing guitar: 21st century acid-jazz, jam-band nirvana, soul-city hard-groovin', whatever.
A legend to a old school soul-jazz lovers and a funk-father to young hipsters, Sparks has sketched a bluesy line that runs from Jack McDuff to Galactic, and he's still doing his thing his way. This Is It, his third recording on Savant label, is the proof.
"What I did on the last two records and not on this one is what I've done over the years ever since my days with the Upsetters" says the Houston native. "It just so happens that the music has been rediscovered by the young people. They started from the stuff that I do. Many of them have moved on and discovered themselves and left me with my music for me to play."
And play it he does. Sparks has convened a group of old and new friends including organist Jerry Z, drummer Justin Tomsovic, and saxophonist Cochemea Gastellum from Robert Walters' 20th Congress band and lets loose on a mix of original and covers that spans the stylistic horizon.
At 59, the guitarist with the grease-meets-sleek sound continues to carve out a niche for himself after complementing many of the giants of jazz, blues, rock, and funk for decades. Whoelse has performed or recorded with Little Richard, Lonnie Smith, Charles Earland, DJ Logic, Idris Muhammad, Richard Sam Cooke, Soulive and Grover Washington Jr.?
Sparks in unnecessarily modest when he talks about he hopes his listeners will get out of This Is It.
"They might be jogging or riding home, on the bus or subway with headphones and if they are in the mood for a little funky jazz, they can put this album on, and say Yeah." Yeah, indeed.
Sparks lays down a weather map's world of temperatures on this album, from deep heat to cool breezes, while never straying far from the funk that's his calling card. A few of the tunes have a bright, almost contemporary jazz feel, including the title cut, "Give Your Life to G-d" and "Watch Yo Step". He wrote several nearly a decade ago in one intense day-long stretch while he was fasting for the religion he practices, Islam.
"I started early in the day, by the time the sun went down, and when it was time to eat, I had completed them." he recalls. "It was very special and productive."
And there are the covers, including a rendition of the Temptations "My Girl" like you've never heard before, replete with a driving organ opener, quicksilver guitar improvisations and a gruff voiced and entertaining Sparks briefly closing things out with some vocalizing of his own.
"I'm no singer, I know that" the guitarist admits. "But I'm trying to make it fun. That's one thing I learned when I was in the Upsetters backing Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, who were real singers. They knew how to make the music fun."
Sparks cover of "Hot Barbeque" is nothing but fast, funky horn-fueled fun. And his own "Bounce" with its deep R&B simmering grooves, is a lesson in history. "When I wrote that I had early Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in mind" Sparks says. "The harmony is the same as Moanin', but with a boogaloo beat."
A boogaloo beat also propels his "Bambu" which he originally recorded back in the 1970s with organist Rueben Wilson. Sparks' ringing guitar excursions on "The Light Is On" remind listeners that his ideas are as facile and original as they come. And "Heavy Fallin Out" shifts the mood again, this time with a cooler shade of blue on the mid-70s Stylistics tune.
On more than 100 albums he has appeared on, and the scores of hip hop tracks that have sampled his sound, Sparks' guitar contributions have never failed to pump the rhythms and juice the soul of every song. At the helm of his own bands and in control of the Melvin Sparks legacy, he has a straightforward vision."
"I just hope I can progress on for the rest of my life and whatever changes I make, will be natural" he says. "I won't be trying to adjust because the music has gone this way, that way or the other way. I want to grow into what's next for me. And I just love to see people have a good time. They don't have to dance if they don't want to as long as they leave happy and as long as it helps them get through whateever it is they're trying to get through."
And that's what Melvin accomplishes so well.

Scott Hamilton - Jazz Signatures (2001)

Composers write songs, musicians play them. Truth or truism? It took the pop world a few generations to acknowledge the singer/songwriter, but in jazz, the player/writer was always a recognized force. Here, Scott Hamilton -a Concord artist for more than twenty years- places his stamp on several tunes of some of jazz's best players.
With typical candor, Scott explains: "I usually fight the idea of concept albums, because they limit the material, and may end up sounding forced and uncomfortable. But this date was just a happy coincidence. I'd been playing all these tunes with this quartet last year. Most are numbers that John Bunch and I worked up on our annual Christmas gig at London's Pizza Express. When it came time to record something new, I really wanted to use John, Dave and Steve; we toured the continent to very good public reaction."
A little digging into personal history shows that Scott's coming up with this present repertoire has been a lifelong research project. The Hamiltons lived on the East Side where dad Robert, a painter, taught at nearby Rhode Island School of Design. Their house overflowed with art on the walls and music in the air. Scott would commandeer the upright piano in the hall, and proudly play his latest pieces for all who'd listen.
"When I was eight" recalls Scott, "I started clarinet lessons with Frank Marinacchio of the Rhode Island Philharmonic. He was a wonderful, legit clarinetist and I got to hear him play a little jazz on a gig. I studied a few years, but never tried to play jazz. But I was already listening to Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker."
Scott was soon wailing on tenor saxophone with guys like guitarist Fred Bates, bassist Phil Flanigan, and drummer Chuck Riggs. Providence in the 1970s no longer had the Celebrity Club, a rough-and-tumble bar where you could see Bill Doggett, Gerry Mulligan, Count Basie, Dinah Washington. But it did have Alarie's, a semi-upscale white restaurant for pianists like Mike Renzi; Bovi's Town Tavern for Duke Bellarie, and Fred Grady was still a beacon of bop and swing on late-night radio. Still, Scott and friends idolized the tenor sax led small bands of the swing era, and stood as stalwart throwbacks to an earlier age.
"I listened to tenor sax players for years before I began playing seriously" recalls Scott. "Ben, Hawk, Lester, Bud Freeman. When I took up tenor sax at 16, I was particularly interested in Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Lockjaw Davis, Red Prysock, Jimmy Forrest, Paul Gonsalves, and Fred Phillips. They're still the guys I listen to. Nothing compared to seeing a great player live. The times I saw Illinois play in the early 70s in Boston, are still my most truly thrilling musical experiences. Later in New York, I heard Zoot Sims and Stan Getz, who made great impressions on my playing."
Scott owned the reverence and keen ear for the sounds of Ben and Hawk, and the melodies of Illinois and Byas that he exhibits here, albeit with more savvy and suavity.
Strayhorn's masterpiece "Raincheck" starts like a riff tune, but then takes a sly slide into 16+16 song form with a hooting tag. Scott refers to Ben Webster in both content and tune, and John Bunch and Dave Green have their says.
Scott treats the Brubeck favorite "In Your Own Sweet Way", written early (1952) in his long, mellowing career, and ekes Zoot-like heat from his choruses. John's choruses span Teddy Wilson pizzazz and Hank Jones charm. The tag is played amoroso, with smears.
Waller's waltz is a waltz, a lively one, with Steve Brown whacking rimshots and tom-tom accents, as well as a capable solo. "I've recorded Jitterburg Waltz with Bucky Pizzarelli" says Scott, "but John's arrangement is so strong, we felt it was like an entirely different tune."
"If You Could See Me Now" excels a sweet ballad moan. "I've always loved Sarah Vaughan's recording" says Scott, "and I've been trying to learn it for years."
"Move" moves in forward bop fashion speedily to its conclusion, propelled by Steve Brown's snappy stick-work. Long in Scott's repertoire but premiered here on an album, it's by drummer Denzil Best, bet heard for fine brushwork in George Shering's early quintets.
Scott affords "When Lights Are Low" it's composer's wonted jaunty manner and elegant melodicism, so far as to inserting, on his last eight bars, a typically Cartesque flippant fillip. John takes a tasty bite, and Scott and Steve engage in lusty exchanges before all exit politely.
"Byas A Drink" is a variation on "Stomping at the Savoy" made in the 1940s under various titles; the riff was used years later by Clifford Brown and Max Roach.
"You Left Me Alone" is one of the first ballads I ever learned to play" recalls Scott. "Illinois wrote it in the 40s and recorded it with an all-star band in an arrangement by Tadd Dameron, who may have had a hand in this arrangement. I never had the nerve to record it before, as Illinois played it so definitively. I feel like I've figured out a way now to put a little of myself into it without losing it too much of Jacquet's original version. The number is meant as a tribute to the tenor player who I've always admired at most."
Hank Jones wrote "Angel Face" for a 1947 Coleman Hawkins date; Lucky Thompson and Milt Jackson recorded it in the 1950s, as one of Hank's most beautiful songs.
"The ringer here is John's Bunch" claims Scott. "John wrote this years ago, but it came out sounding so natural, we had to include it."
Actually, John's inclusion is a perfect capper, a bluesy bit of personal history from a composer who's been first and foremost a solid piano player. He's worked the big bands of Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, played hard for Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and led his own tight bunches. John signes his closing stomper with a boogie flourish.
And thus have the moving fingers of veterans Scott and John, and youngsters Dave and Steve, played for us yet and another chapter in the book of jazz.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Stanley Turrentine - Sugar (1970)

During the 1960s, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine had amassed a solid if unspectacular track record both as a leader and sideman for the Blue Note label. The Pittsburgh native might be likened to a ball-player who for a decade hits .285 without making the all-star team, or to an actor who's usually third-billed but occasionally gets to play the lead, always to favorable notices.
While never an innovator, Turrentine was surely one of Blue Note's key players in the field of soul-jazz, the strongly blues-based, gospel-influenced branch of hard bop, which itself was a simplified take on the vertiginiously complex bebop form. Fans and critics alike responded warmly to his juicy (but never overripe) tone, bluesy economy, unstinting sense of swing and soulful ballads. Most importantly, there was the unaffected way in which his solos told a story without talking down to the listener.
Turrentine, then, was a worthy choice, but by no means an obvious one, to be signed by Creed Taylor when in 1970 the successful entrepreneur and music producer launched his own CTI label. Yet Sugar -whose shortest track was 10:09 long- was a surprise hit album. The Turrentine-composed title theme, a minor-key 16-bar blues with modal implications, has become something of a jazz standart.
Lengthy selections notwithstanding, Sugar's three studio cuts constitute a sleeker, more radio-friendly version of a typical Blue Note session from the early-to-mid 1960s. Sustained grooves, tuneful solos, and the use of the then-fashionable electric piano are of the essence. Three members of both of the octets heard herein (Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard and Ron Carter) were mainstays of Blue Note in the 1960s, while guitarist George Benson had occasionally turned up as a sideman. Plus, the masterful Rudy Van Gelder, with whom Taylor created the designer sound that would come to be associated with CTI, had engineered numerous classic Blue Note 1950s and 1960s dates.
CTI, like Blue Note, had a "look" as well. As he had at Impulse and A&M, Taylor favored gatefold sleeves for his LPs. CTI's covers featured color compositions of gallery quality by some of America's leading photographers. The pictures were often slightly mysterious and/or slyly sexy. Upon scanning the LP bins, one could immediately seperate a CTI product from the rest of the pack.
But even during the peak of the psychedelic era, most people did not purchase a disc to groove on its cover graphics, however artistic. Once one got past Sugar's erotic cover, the set's seductive grooves, both straight ahead or, as on organist Butch Cornell's "Sunshine Alley", post-boogaloo, were deep and adroitly dug. And its solos, particularly the leader's exultant tenor and Benson's flowing guitar, were repeatedly rewarding.
Turrentine's segment on "Impressions" is most instructive. Coltrane's oft-covered blues is in this case taken at finger-snapping medium tempo, rather than at the great man's gallop, with Ron Carter's bass, Billy Kaye's drums and Richard Landrum's congas doing the New York Latin-tinged bounce. Turrentine strings together phrase after piquantly bluesy phrase, resulting not only in a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts but a wholly relaxed, non-virtuosic take on a tune that's synonymous with relentless virtuosity. It's this kind of unpretentiousness that makes "Impressions", and all of Sugar, as sweet and tasty as homemade strawberry short cake.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Miles Davis - The Best of Miles Davis & John Coltrane (2000)

Miles Davis and John Coltrane were 29 years old when the first of these tracks were recorded. Davis had been a notable jazz figure since his first recording with Charlie Parker nearly a decade earlier, and an influence at least since the formation of his short-lived Birth of the Cool nonet in 1948. John Coltrane's odyssey in the same period had been little noted, despite impressive names on his resumé such as Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges. If Davis was already a man to watch, Coltrane was "John who?". Yet together they created some of the most important music in jazz history.
The pair began clicking almost immediately when Coltrane called to join the then-new Miles Davis Quintet in 1955. They would continue to do so on record for more than five years. Most of their documented collaborations are contained in the six-disc Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961. This collection represents an overview of these essential encounters.
"Two Bass Hit" (26 October 1955) was the first track recorded on the original quintet's first visit to a recording studio, and also features pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The Dizzy Gillespie/John Lewis bebop classic gave Coltrane his first real opportunity to stretch out on tape. He begins with a quote from Gillespie's solo on the classic 1947 recording, then quickly shows his commitment to more personal and explaratory ideas. Jones' drums are also in the spotlight, igniting the entire performance.
"Dear Old Stockholm" (5 June 1956) and the next two tracks were part of Davis' first Columbia album, 'Round About Midnight. Originally a Swedish folk song called "Ack, Varmeland du Skona", Stockholm had been recorded by Stan Getz during a Scandinavian tour in 1951, then covered by Davis a year later in an arrangement that included the dramatic harmonic suspensions heard here. The rhythm section explodes at Coltrane's entrance, then downshifts for Davis' moodier inventions. The air of drama that characterizes so much of the quintet's music is present from beginning to end.
"Bye Bye Blackbird" (5 June 1956) was the kind of old pop tune that Davis loved to recast. He makes use of the expanded playing time available on the then-new 12" LP by stretching out while still retaining an overall focus. The track also features a major early solo from Coltrane and Garland's affirmative groove.
"'Round Midnight" (10 September 1956) is now as closely identified with Davis as with its composer, Thelonious Monk. It had brought new attention to the trumpeter when he played the ballad in an all-star jamsession at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, though even that reading pales next to this classic studio take. Every member of the quintet makes a critical contribution to the arrangement, which has been credited to Gil Evans, and Davis' muted sound is at its most penetrating. Coltrane's brilliant solo drew many listeners to the saxophonist, in the same way that the earlier Newport performance had inspired a reconsideration of Davis.
"Straight, No Chaser" (4 February 1958) and the next two track come from one of the two sessions that produced the album Milestones. Davis had broken up and reformed his band in the intervening months, making it a sextet with the addition of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. This version of Monk's blues is an alternate take that made its first appearance in the boxed set. It features a beautifully relaxed statement by the leader, while Garland's choruses include snippets of the solo a 19-year old Davis played on Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" -a solo that Garland quotes in its entirety on the master take.
"Milestones" was cited by Davis in his autobiography as, "Where I really started to write in the modal form". This reduction of harmonic motion by employing a scale rather than more frequently shifting chords liberates the soloists, and leads them each on highly personal paths. Note the contrast between the complex lines of the saxophonists and the distilled lyricism of the leader.
The next two tracks (recorded 2 March 1959) are taken from Kind of Blue, an album beloved as any in jazz history. It was planned around the participation of pianist Bill Evans, who had worked with Davis though much of 1958 and would soon launch his own influential trio (Jimmy Cobb had also replaced Jones on drums). Each of the album's five performances was based on brief sketches that the musicians saw in the recording studio for the first time. "So What" is simply two modes organized in the form of a typical popular song, a sequence that became the "I Got Rhythm" of modal jazz. The piano/bass introduction is another contribution of arranger Gil Evans, and each soloist confronts the challenge of blowing over the skeletal form brilliantly.
Adderley is not heard on "Blue In Green". Bill Evans claimed to have written the piece after Davis gave him some manuscript paper that contained only two chord symbols, G-minor and A-augmented. What resulted was a unique structure that the pianist described as "a ten-measure circular form". The eloquence of Evans, Coltrane and especially Davis yields one of the most beautiful performances in all music.
Coltrane formed his own quartet in 1960, but returned as a guest in the following year to record "Some Day My Prince Will Come" (20 March 1961) with a Davis unit that now included Hank Mobley on tenor sax and Wynton Kelly on piano. The performance finds the trumpeter sustaining the yearning quality at the heart of the tune, even as Kelly's solos and support impart an elfin twinkle. Coltrane, who takes the second tenor solo, had not played the piece before, and improvised while reading the chord changes off to a sheet of paper. His opening phrase provided Chick Corea with the thematic seed for the release of "La Fiesta".
Other tracks arguably might have been included in the set, such as "All of You", the master take of "Straight, No Chaser", "On Green Dolphin Set", "Stella By Starlight", All Blues", and "Teo". Such differences of opinion are, as the saying goes, what make horse racing. What Miles Davis and John Coltrane made together was immortal music, and nine of the absolutely best examples are right here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Wayne Shorter - Adam's Apple (1966)

No slight on the four musicians who directly contribute to making Adam's Apple such a memorable experience, but hearing this intriguing program of music in light of subsequent history brings to mind three additional associates of Wayne Shorter who were not present at the February 1966 session.
First and foremost is Miles Davis, whose then-current band featuring Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams was in its second year together and well on its way to being recognized as the second classic Miles Davis quintet. The legendary fivesome recorded "Footprints" eight months later on Miles's Columbia album Miles Smiles, and the success of that version (which actually saw release before the present take) helped to make the blues easily Shorter's most popular composition. Here, in its original arrangement, "Footprints" is in 6/8 meter throughout, and the heavy, pendular piano vamp suggests the feeling of the John Coltrane quartet. Davis recast the rhythmic terrain with Williams imposing an 8/8 meter against the original 6/8 as the band drifted between the three and four feelings for a more fluid and mysterious groove. Hancock's composition "The Collector" (a bonus track which first appeared in Japan) was also recorded under the name "Teo's Bag" by the Davis quintet two years after this performance, but in this instance the open form 4/4 swing feels conventional next to the version's unpredictable energy. Joe Chambers's contribution plays a critical role in generating that energy, and in the overall cohesion of all the present performances. While Chambers's name does not spring to mind as quickly as those of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams when considering Shorter's music in the 1960s, he did participate on four of the saxophonist's Blue Note albums of the period, where he proved equally sympathetic to Shorter's vision.
Jimmy Rowles, the second absent presence, wrote the haunting "502 Blues (Drinkin' and Drivin')" which could be described as a very Shorteresque ballad. The tune was originally recorded by the Bill Holman-Mel Lewis Quintet on the 1958 Andex album Jive For Five with the composer on piano and haunting muted trumpet by Lee Katzman. Here, it provides the first recorded sign of the mutual admiration in which Shorter and Rowles held each other. In the subsequent decade, Rowles returned the compliment on several of his own recordings by covering "Lester Left Town" (with Stan Getz), "The Chess Players" (in two versions), and three other Shorter compositions on a duo album with bassist George Mraz. It's a shame that Shorter and Rowles never found the opportunity to record together.
Finally, the spirit of Shorter's former frontline partner in Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, hovers over the title track. "Adam's Apple" the tune proves that even an artist as singular as Shorter to bend to the soulful vamp formulations that made Morgan's hit "The Sidewinder" a template for so many subsequent Blue Note recordings. This is not one of the genre's notable successes, and one wonders if Shorter and company really had their hearts in the effort. That said, the saxophonist's use of the same riff as both entrance point to his solo and coda is a notable touch, and Hancock's ability to extend funk into outward-bound territory with his comping and improvisations is once again on display. When it comes to writing a catchy soul anthem, however, Shorter's magnum opus is "Tom Thumb" which he recorded with Bobby Timmons for Prestige a month before this session and reprised on his own 1967 Schizophrenia date - and which happens to be among the tunes reprised by the Rowlez/Mraz duo.
The remaining three compositions deserve far more attention than they have received in subsequent years. "Chief Crazy Horse" shows how the familiar 32-bar AABA form could still be empolyed with distinctive results, "Teru" is one of Shorter's most gorgeous ballads, and "El Gaucho" connects with Brazilian samba in both its rhythm and its manner of spinning fixed melodic material over elegantly mutating chords. It is rather startling to realize that all three of these gems have with rare exception been neglected during the past two decades, a period during which it has seemed that half of all new jazz albums have contained at least one Shorter composition. "El Gaucho" did get a twin-piano reading from Harold Danko and Kirk Lightsey on Shorter By Two in 1983, that Rowles's earlier efforts notwithstanding, can be seen in retrospect to have started the deluge of Shorter covers.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Lee Morgan - The Gigolo (1965)

Nat Hentoff was right on target when he predicted that The Gigolo would come to be regarded in a timeless session. Many Lee Morgan fans have cited the album as one of the trumpeter's best, and it needed features inspired playing on superior program of music. It has also won a special place in listeners' hearts because, as Hentoff could not have known at the time, it represents the final recorded example of one of the greatest trumpet/tenor sax front lines in jazz history.
Morgan and Wayne Shorter first joined forces in the summer of 1959 in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, where their combination of fire, feeling, wit, and iconoclasm made instant magic. For next two years (until Blakey added trombonist Curtis Fuller to the band shortly before Morgan's departure), their conjoined sound defined one of the greatest periods in Jazz Messenger music on a series of Blue Note albums. As the leading voices in a quintet, they were also featured on albums at the time under the leadership of Wynton Kelly and Shorter on Vee Jay, and on Morgan's own release for Roulette. The Morgan/Shorter partnership on Blue Note, on hiatus for a period while the trumpeter battled personal demons, was reestablished in 1964 and continued intermittenly through 1967. Most of these later encounters involved sextet instrumentations, as on Morgan's Search For the New Land and The Procrastinator, and Blakey's Indestructible; but Night Dreamer (Shorter's first date as a leader), as well as the present sessions, gave us two more quintet gems.
Taken together, Night Dreamer and The Gigolo confirm that Morgan and Shorter remained eminently compatible despite developments in their respective careers that seemed to find them headed in seperate directions. Morgan was enjoying his greatest commercial success with his funky blues hit "The Sidewinder", recorded at the end of 1963, while Shorter was focused on more open and exploratory material as the new member and primary composer in Miles Davis's quintet, which he joined in the summer of 1964. Yet Morgan displays no hesitation in dealing with Shorter's haunting compositions on Night Dreamer, and the music there anticipates ideas Morgan would pursue in his own bands at the end of the decade. Shorter is similarly assured here, in what even at the time were considered the more traditional contours of the present music.
One major change that had taken place since the pair first met was Morgan's growing focus on composition. Unlike his early albums between 1956-1960, in which the vast majority of the writing was left to others, Morgan's Blue Note dates of the 1960s tended to focus heavily and sometimes exclusively on the trumpeter's own creations. His compositions here define a style that, while narrower and more familiar than that of Shorter, encompassed a range of forms and feelings. "Speedball" is the most famous of the originals (it quickly became Morgan's theme in live performances) and the most straighthead, and it includes a 16-bar interlude/coda that is as memorable as the primary 12-bar blues melody. The other two Morgan originals hark back to earlier works by the trumpeter without sounding like mere echoes. "Yes I Can, No You Can't" is clearly fashioned in the mood of "The Sidewinder", but employs a different chorus structure and some of its own harmonic wrinkles. "The Gigolo", heard here in two takes, brings the open 6/8 feel of Morgan's "Search For the New Land" into a structured chorus with a bridge, resulting in a form that recalls a contemporary Freddie Hubbard composition, "Blue Spirits". Each of Morgan's pieces contains a melody that stays in the listener's ear, the true sign of an accomplished writer.
The arrangement of "You Go to My Head" has also become a classic, and remade the standard for many subsequent musicians, in the way that John Coltrane did when he recast "Body and Soul" in 1960. Note also that "Trapped", the only issued performance from the first of the album's two sessions, was listed as Morgan's composition at the time of release but it is actually a Wayne Shorter piece. It might be described as a patterned blues, with ensemble choruses that underscore the rich blends the trumpeter and saxophonist archieved with regularity.
Little need to be added regarding the excellent performances here of the primary horns and the rhythm section. This was a highly compatible group, with each musician at the top of his game and clearly inspired by his partners. Morgan, Mabern, and Higgins had made similar magic earlier in June 1965 on Hank Mobley's Dippin', another title available in a RVG Edition.