50 LPs from 35 Years of JazzTimes, Part II
Roy Eldridge 4: Montreux ’77
(Pablo Live, 1977)
Though he had three more years left to play before his horn was stilled by a heart attack, and almost a dozen more to live (he would sometimes sing, or play piano or drums), this was Roy Eldridge’s last record as a leader. Fittingly, it was a great one.
Eldridge loved to play with Oscar Peterson; they had worked and recorded together for some 25 years. Both were great competitors, both loved speed and both had energy to spare. But while the trumpet is a tougher physical taskmaster than the piano, it was Peterson who came off stage that July night in Montreux wringing wet, proclaiming it was the best set he’d ever played with Eldridge.
While the interaction between trumpeter and pianist is the mainspring of this outing, the contributions of drummer Bobby Durham and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen are far from negligible, the former providing the steady beat Eldridge thrived on, and the great Dane rising to the occasion with splendid technique at the service of splendid support.
There is nothing experimental about the repertoire: two original blues, a ballad and three staple standards, all dear to Eldridge’s warm heart. For starters, there’s Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” put on the jazz map by Louis Armstrong and arranged by Eldridge back in 1935 for the Teddy Hill band; the riff he made up then still sounds good. When you think Eldridge is heading home, he surprises you (and probably himself) by surging on. Only in live performances do such things happen, and while Eldridge made brilliant studio things, live performances were his natural habitat. The blues “Gofor” rocks from bar 1 and never lets up, while “I Surrender Dear” begins with a lovely, long cadenza, with Eldridge in a reflective mood that turns passionate as he launches the melody. He double-times, returns to ballad tempo and creates a sensational ending. Pedersen walks on “Joie de Roy,” which lives up to its title in the five ensuing trumpet choruses, followed by some caloric piano—and then more high-calorie Eldridge, who had his chops just where he wanted them.
“Perdido” shows how well Eldridge could construct at fast tempos; he’s in command of ideas and execution. On “Bye Bye Blackbird,” the foursome come together as one, and Eldridge (who plays open horn throughout, an indication of how confident he was) displays his unique trumpet sound, with that special buzz—a jazz sound. You don’t learn that in school.
Here, Eldridge is jazz personified—as summed up by his nickname, Little Jazz. We are blessed that Norman Granz, to whom Eldridge’s playing “better defines and typifies the spirit of jazz” than anyone elses, had the tape rolling on a night when Little Jazz had it all working for him. Joie de Roy indeed! This is one to “gofor.”
Stan Getz & Jimmy Rowles
The majority of the ’70s—the decade we love to hate—was one loud time in jazz. Between fusion groups asserting the right to jack up their amps to 11, and pumped-up Coltrane-inspired units ramming home the modal message with “Oooh, somebody stop me” fervor, subtlety wasn’t high on the priority list.
Not that there weren’t both mainstream and avant-garde musicians demonstrating delicacy and discretion, but for the most part, they existed below the radar. Somehow, the 1977 release The Peacocks drew the attention it deserved. It didn’t hurt that the album was under the aegis of a major label, and that Rowles’ “rediscovery” had generated extensive press, including a New Yorker profile by Whitney Balliett. (Though Columbia did hedge its bets by issuing the album under Stan Getz’s name.) Still, it’s always news when a supremely gifted player seems to spring forth unannounced, jolting the scene with idiosyncratic originality. Yet Rowles was the quietest of sensations.
A consciously subtle pianist and sometime singer, Rowles had a strong West Coast reputation as a soloist of considerable style and wit—and as one of the great accompanists. Recordings with Red Norvo, Gerry Mulligan and such vocal legends as Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan attested to his unerring, if deliberately low-key strengths. Rowles’ move to New York City in the early ’70s prompted Getz to train the spotlight on his old associate while the saxophonist still had the industry clout to do it. The resulting album remains one of the mainstream highlights of the decade, filled with music that still retains every bit of its initial delight and charm.
No, Rowles wasn’t loud. Neither was Getz, and even the human dynamo, Elvin Jones, displays some of the most sensitive drumming of his mid-career. What is in evidence throughout is sly wit, tonal splendor—Getz is simply magisterial—a refusal to kowtow to musical fashion and a commitment to lyricism and melody, both formal and improvised. Rowles is impossible to classify. He could make magic from Tin Pan Alley standards or Wayne Shorter (“Lester Left Town,” “The Chess Players”) or obscure Ellington (“Serenade to Sweden”). And he even threw in a classic of his own to boot, “The Peacocks,” one of the most beautiful of all original jazz ballads. With his harmonic ingenuity and skewed rhythmic approach, Rowles was as hip as any contemporary player of the time, yet he kept his subversive nature close to the vest. On The Peacocks you can hear how steeped he was in the tradition—and how compelled he was to mess with it.
In his steadfast refusal to be anyone but who he was, Rowles represented all the superb players, those living and those gone, who formed the bedrock of classic jazz. The Peacocks signaled, at least for this 20-year-old jazz listener ready to experience what was on the other side of the sonic blast, an undiscovered world.
Liberation Music Orchestra
“The music in this album is dedicated to creating a better world; a world without war and killing, without poverty and exploitation,” Charlie Haden explained in the liner notes to Liberation Music Orchestra. Conceiving it after hearing songs from the Spanish Civil War of the late ’30s, the bassist recruited 12 other musicians to create an intense homage to the fallen soldiers of that war, while capturing the fear and uncertainty that was felt as the turbulent 1960s came to a close. The music starts out ominous, conjures the apocalypse and ends with a note of determination, and in between it still remembers to show a lighter, almost humorous side. (Is someone really yelling, “Get Reagan” during Roswell Rudd’s solo on “Los Cuatro Generales”?)
Side 1 centers around a medley of three Spanish folk songs, each segued together with open-ended improvisation and tapes of the original recordings spliced in throughout. The 20-minute piece comes to a boiling point when Gato Barbieri takes a tenor solo before “Viva La Quince Brigada,” the final tune. Altissimo shrieks were Barbieri’s calling card at the time, but they take on a deeper meaning in this context. As the original “Viva” plays in the background and Haden bows fiercely, the saxophonist reaches higher and screams louder, approximating the voices of families mourning their loved ones lost to war. His final notes seem to scream, “Why? Why? Why?”
Haden’s “Song for Che” might be the best known track on the album, wherein the bassist’s thought process seems to unfold as he plucks and strums, cuing in Don Cherry’s wood flutes and Dewey Redman’s gruff tenor sax, the latter breaking the serenity without ruining the pensive mood.
“Circus ’68 ’69” is bold music “ripped from the headlines,” to borrow a modern phrase. Haden wanted to re-create a moment at the 1968 Democratic National Convention when the orchestra launched into “Happy Days Are Here Again” after conventioneers began singing “We Shall Overcome” following a defeat of a vote regarding Vietnam. The bassist divides the orchestra into two groups, who at first almost sound comical, like a spoof of the then-suspiciously regarded free jazz. Perry Robinson’s bouncy clarinet dances around Barbieri’s elephant screams. Then Bley, presumably, begins playing “We Shall Overcome” on organ, giving shape to the chaos. Bob Northern puts down his French horn to blow a police whistle, and the sound evokes the riots that took place outside of the convention that year. When the group plays a minor closing theme, they sound downtrodden and defeated, the way battered protesters looked.
But wait—it’s not over!
Rudd closes the album by leading the group through a one-chorus, unembellished reading of “We Shall Overcome.” With the country still deep in Vietnam, it ends the set with a glimmer of hope and determination. Today, the Liberation Music Orchestra’s message still rings true.
The coupling of jazz and electronics often turns out either Weather Channel schmaltz or acid jazz, which contains very little acid and no jazz. But in 1996 computer technology and live jams were smartly being fused by musicians like saxophonists Steve Williamson and Courtney Pine, who were not content to rehash bebop or indulge in the vapidly commercial. Once, technology and jazz made a poor fit, but thanks to dance music, dub and hip-hop, and the increasing malleability and power of computers, they started to go hand in glove—albeit then, as now, it was a tight new glove that hadn’t been broken in enough to give proper space to either live musicians or program-dependent technology. But the promise, then and now, of jazztronica is as enticing to me as a first kiss, and Graham Haynes’ Transition feels like a very successful first date—if a little nervous and fumbly.
Cornetist Haynes, who has been relatively quiet the past few years, is a skilled jazz musician who embraces technology to spur his improvisations and augment his arrangements. His is a truly balanced fusion in which neither the technology nor the musicians function autonomously. On Transition Haynes creates acidic jazz in which the chemistry of the bandstand is ignited by technology’s electrical jolt.
His first two albums, while inchoate, hinted at a defiant talent disclosed on his third record, The Griots Footsteps. That 1994 album marked Haynes as the momentary avatar of Miles Davis. The 26-minute, anodyne drone “Enlightenment” bears the distinct influence of Davis’ interpretation of David Crosby’s “Guinnevere” from Circle in the Round. As in Davis’ piece, “Enlightenment”’s buzzing sitars and undulating African percussion offer spiritual succor. The whole record is a mix of dark polyrhythms, crepuscular keyboards and Haynes’ own serene soloing.
The Griots Footsteps is a perfect consolidation of the global rhythms Haynes used on his first two records, but Transition is just what its name indicates. He throws hip-hop and rock into his world-funk brew, making both the backbeat and the groove intoxicatingly strong. Where Griots invokes the pastoral “Guinnevere,” Transition recalls the sexy cyberfunk of Davis’ classic On the Corner album. Transition has a distinctly urban edge, represented in its title track and the near-jungle techno of “Freestylin’,” as opposed to the more urbane nature of Griots.
Haynes begins the album with its Coltrane-penned namesake, in honor of a fellow explorer of new musical approaches. But other than in “Transition”’s theme, tersely stated by Vernon Reid’s hypomanic guitar, it is barely recognizable as a Coltrane number. “Transition” is steeped in ’90s city swagger, with hard hip-hop beats and DJ scratching supporting Reid’s ferocious noodling. Several minutes into the song, Haynes finally comes in, but he sounds delightfully passive next to the Living Colour ax-grinder. In fact, Haynes’ presence as a player is nearly hidden throughout much of Transition. But so was Davis’ through much of his electric period. In the ’70s, Davis’ playing was more understated than ever; he would often drop out of tracks for extended stretches, content to let his expertly picked sidemen interpret his ideas. What Haynes shares with Davis, the man to whom his second record was dedicated, is an innate ability to control the flow, attitude and focus of a piece without being an extroverted player.
The Indian drone and modern psychedelia that informs such Transition tracks as “Walidiya” and “South Node” are continuations of ideas from Griots Footsteps’ title song and its “R.H. (for Roy Haynes).” The latter song is dedicated to Haynes’ drummer father, whose own eclecticism led him to work with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Davis as well as his own jazz-rock unit, Hip Ensemble. In 1968, the elder Haynes had a gig with Monk at the Fillmore East, which his young son attended. Despite the presence of a jazz band, the venue retained its psychedelic lighting and fuzzy ambience during the Monk concert. As the younger Haynes watched Monk perform his trademark manic dancing while his band soloed, a projected image of Superman whizzed across the stage; the future cornet player remembers it being entirely reasonable.
Perhaps inspired by Monk’s hanging out with Superman, disparate elements converge on Transition, plausibly fitting together to form a cohesive album. An off-kilter, circus-funk workout like “Mars Triangle Jupiter” slides easily into the lyrical bliss of the free-floating ballad “Harmonic Convergence.” Haynes deftly manipulates dynamics without falling prey to coarse, jarring effects. Featuring tremoloed guitar, murky synths and Haynes’ most confident playing, “Harmonic Convergence” conjures the sound of the ocean floor moving slowly to the surface. The song’s vast spaces and quiet arrangement provide Haynes a completely open canvas. His melodic lines are short and colorful, soft and assured, again bringing Davis to mind.
“Transition,” “Freestylin’” and the loping funk of “Facing the East” are Transition’s most forceful tracks, but they are slightly restrained by their acceptance of technology into their free-funk frameworks. While he had mastered the slow jams, Haynes was still figuring out how to get the upbeat numbers to truly swing. No one has, and possibly no one will, match the sinister majesty of the Prince of Darkness’ electric power jams, but give Haynes props for trying.
In 1996 it seemed like Davis’ jazz-rock would never be recognized for being the prescient work it is—a silly thought nearly 10 years and several box sets later—but then a new generation of progressive musicians, postrockers and technocrats were buying Japanese imports of electric-era Miles, listening for Davis’ ghost and interpreting what they heard. Among them, Graham Haynes, a bright Magus who presaged the jazztronica trend, was channeling Davis’ indefatigable spirit—and coming remarkably close to capturing it for his own.
The State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard, Vols. 1 & 2
(Blue Note, 1985)
I’m mildly embarrassed to admit that it took a while for me to get cozy with what I have come to accept as an indispensable work. The qualms had nothing to do with the music or, least of all, the man. Indeed, I wouldn’t have grabbed Volume One off the shelves so quickly if I weren’t delighted that Henderson had reupped at Blue Note, site of his earliest and greatest triumphs up to that mid-1980s point of his career.
No, my initial misgivings were with the packaging, the whole concept of the thing: The State of the Tenor. However hushed and intimate the setting, the album all but blared its importance, screaming its presumptions of definitiveness and rigor. It was, at best, an intimidating notion: That an improvised solo could be a finely wrought artifact, like bone china or crystal figurines. On face value, I was more prepared to admire the recordings than love them—a recurring symptom of the ambivalence many jazz fans were already bringing to the then-burgeoning “neoclassical” movement.
But, together or singly, Henderson, Ron Carter and Al Foster aren’t the kind of guys that keep you on the outside looking in for very long. Over time, I’ve crawled deeper into the performances and come up with fresh revelations every time. What I once took for approach-avoidance maneuverings on Henderson’s part, I have by now embraced as ruminative, cunning and, at times, startling narrative skill. Carter and Foster, the best on-the-spot listeners among their respective peers, give each other room for shadows and highlights, often coming up with subplots so deep and absorbing they can gently pilfer your attention without shortchanging the other storytellers.
When I started catching Henderson live in similar tenor-bass-drum settings, I’d allow myself to get even more wrapped up in his thought processes. Those were the years when I would have these vivid dreams of playing tenor saxophone, my own fingers tapping out secrets in swirling, lucid blue code. I miss those dreams.
I was seduced by Four Brothers. It happened in early autumn. I was 15 and had just begun to go steady with this golden, curvaceous siren. The Brothers used such types to entice innocent youth. They worked for a two-timer named Woody, whose main squeeze was ebony and straight-as-a-stick. But he always kept a sinuous, sweet-talking honey in E-flat nearby.
Woody used bovine numerology—First Herd, Second Herd, Third Herd, etc—to keep track of his successive ventures. Before this, he led “the Band That Plays the Blues”—always an honorable appellation. And then when the Herd lineage needed to exceed the typical band count-off—1, 2, 3, 4—he switched to the Swingin’ Herd and later the Thundering Herd. (But as far as I know, he never employed J.C. Heard or John Heard.)
The Four Brothers, who belonged to the Second Herd, set the tone for all of Woody’s subsequent aggregations. Although I came of age on the front of the Swingin’ Herd era of the ’60s, I vinylly tracked down the Brothers. It was not a misspent quest, as it led to certain high school bandroom trivia, like Alan Zoot, the four-handed tenor player; requests for “Whatever Stan Wants, Stan Getz”; and the are-we-ready? question, “Chaloff, y’all?” (And its answer, “Serge!”)
Woody had a history of modernity. “We never had a style, we always depended on a sound,” he told a trembling interviewer much later, in 1986. It included the mellifluous, seductive sonority of three tenors-and-a-baritone—the Four Brothers legacy—but also an electrifying brass attack and charging rhythmic drive. Woody knew how to pace excitement so it didn’t peak—ahem—prematurely.
That’s what Brand New is mostly about, delicious tension and ecstatic release as lots of slow, bluesy material issues: “After Hours,” “Since I Fell for You,” “Hitch Hike on the Possum Trot Line” and “I Almost Lost My Mind.” Mike Bloomfield, the blues-rock guitarist from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag, tears it up on four cuts. What other leader from the swing era would allow such a guest?
Woody shows off his new, vogue-ish mistress, a soprano saxophone, with deep note-bends. Tenor soloist Frank Tiberi sheds waves of Coltrane-like energy on a rousing “Proud Mary.” Electric bass and electric piano—how audacious for a big band!—color the groove a new earthy shade. Drummer Ed Soph piles on the intensity. The lead trumpeter hungers for every note.
Woody proves hip without compromise. He sings here, too, pouring his soul into it. (I remember a night at the old Frog and Nightgown when he sang “Blues in the Night,” vibrato raining down—but that’s another story….)
Band pianist Alan Broadbent’s “Love in Silent Amber,” a ballad with Bobby Burgess soloing on trombone and hint of the Four Brothers sound in the background, brings back a different emotion. ’Tis autumn, and I am thrilled to be here.
Conference of the Birds
Though he had already established his credentials as a tremendous accompanist and soloist during his stint with Miles Davis, Dave Holland’s magnificent 1972 quartet session Conference of the Birds established the bassist as a distinctive bandleader and composer. The set superbly balances standout individual contributions and cohesive ensemble interaction, fast-paced aggressive numbers and engaging, sentimental pieces.
The six-song album features an outstanding rhythm section of Holland and percussionist/vibist Barry Altschul, who’d previously joined forces as the rhythmic foundation for Chick Corea’s superb avant-garde collective Circle. Together again, the duo is sometimes combative, other times complementary. The frontline pairing of multi-instrumentalists Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers is both inspired and surprising. Braxton was then arguably jazz’s most controversial figure, with supporters touting him as an imaginative maverick and detractors labeling him a stiff, overly cerebral fraud. By contrast, while some savvy critics had touted Rivers’ fluidity on soprano and flute, and praised his spirited blend of traditional swing and futuristic outside influences on tenor, the general jazz audience mainly knew him from his own brief stint with Miles Davis in the mid-’60s.
Adding to the prerelease intrigue was the fact this was an ECM release. Manfred Eicher’s label had cultivated a reputation for great engineering and thematic conservatism, but it was hardly the type of company that would release music that so deliberately and continually obliterated categorization and genre boundaries. The opening moments of the album’s first song, “Four Winds,” shatters any notions this would be a light, contemplative date. While Rivers and Braxton exchange whiplash ideas, Altschul’s cymbals swirl in the background, and Holland’s tight, prominent bass lines add a unifying link. By contrast, the title track offers a soothing, enthralling melody that unfolds into a tender yet evocative twin-flute dialog from Braxton and Rivers, embellished by gorgeous marimba licks from Altschul.
The entire album fully showcases each player’s personal greatness, yet retains a strong group feel and sound. At no time does Braxton’s playing become wooden or detached, and Rivers’ torrid performance on “See-Saw” superbly blends blues fervor with experimental sensibilities.
Holland wrote all six pieces, and they stand as early indicators of the free-wheeling material that is now commonplace on his small- and large-group releases. Neither completely outside nor remotely retro, Conference of the Birds stands as not just a great ’70s record, but a modern jazz classic.
Death and the Flower
Keith Jarrett maintains the lofty position of being the world’s most celebrated and commercially viable jazz pianist. In the course of his solo career, two very popular aspects of his playing developed: totally improvised unaccompanied performances and superb versions of standards by his dream-team trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock. Nevertheless, I favor his ensemble work in the ’70s with both American and European counterparts, especially Death and the Flower, which continues to fascinate me 30 years after it was recorded.
The title composition is nearly 23 minutes and evolves slowly, which for today’s attention-deficient audiences is several lifetimes. To me, possibly because I know every passage, it is short and could easily be twice as long, especially the stunning closing segment. Essentially, every quality I desire in a jazz recording can be found on this track and, to a lesser degree, on the other two LP cuts, “Prayer” and “Great Bird.”
First and foremost, “Death and the Flower” is an original work—it isn’t derived from a standard, a pop song or a classical composition. Second, it intermeshes tinges of classical music, free jazz, Africa, Brazil and earthy swinging. Third, it’s exciting and dynamic yet also sophisticated and not in your face. In the hands of mere musical mortals, that range of powerful ingredients can clash and brew up an indigestible stew. But these involved numbers are masterful in the firm grasp of Jarrett, reedist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Paul Motian and percussionist Guilherme Franco.
Death and the Flower is challenging, but the LP generously compensates for that by also being inspirational. This type of music can’t be taught, but this album stands as a true challenge to which all jazz artists should aspire.
-Chris J. Walker
I Saw Stars
Eight years ago my wife suggested we defect from Los Angeles and seek healthy asylum in Seattle, “where you can’t see the air you breathe.” Considering the vocal riches in the area, I know now why Lewis and Clark made the same decision: I’ve heard some great Northwest “passages” here from singers who obviously thrive on the environment. One of the most consistent musical rewards for moving from La-La Land to Latte Land has been a singer with a most unusual pedigree, Rebecca Kilgore.
She hails from Waltham, Mass., which may account for her impeccable sense of time. As a teenager in Portland, Ore., she delved into folk music, giving her an ability to concentrate on lyrics and tell a story. By 30 her love affair with jazz was flourishing, extending from her attraction to Bob Willis-style Western swing (she plays and teaches guitar) to her real forte: mainstream combo jazz.
In 1994, at the peak of her skills (which continue to peak as prominently as Mt. Rainier), Kilgore and a half-dozen like-minded mainstream monsters recorded I Saw Stars, demonstrating precisely why she flourishes in the Northwest: Like her chosen base, her vocals are pristine, uncluttered and unpretentious. To put it simply: Kilgore is a pure, laid-back swinger. She boasts a thoroughly reliable intonation, a range that can surprise you and the ability to phrase without getting syrupy. It’s that kind of honesty that draws me to Kilgore in general and this album in particular. She reminds me very much of Ruth Price when it comes to repertoire and the late Irene Kral in purity of tone. Like another departed jazz vocalist, Teddi King, Kilgore knows her limitations, yet she’s fearless enough to take chances.
There are minefields for Kilgore scattered among trombonist Dan Barrett’s arrangements. How she can negotiate the lyrics for the way-up “Happy as the Day Is Long” is anyone’s guess, yet she enunciates with enviable clarity. Another puzzle is how she can focus on “This Is No Laughing Matter” when pianist Dave Frishberg interpolates “Vesti La Giubba” from Pagliacci. And on “Exactly Like You,” Kilgore holds her own as she and her Gibson L-7 challenge guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli.
What is most remarkable throughout the album is the chemistry between Kilgore and Frishberg. They worked together in a Portland hotel before this recording, and eventually recorded three albums in duo format, establishing a musical bond that allows them to anticipate each other’s whims and to search for unique pathways. Sounds like they’re as close as, well, Lewis and Clark.
Love Cry Want
Love Cry Want
Richard Nixon has heard Love Cry Want; you probably haven’t. The story: In June 1972, Nixon ordered aide J.R. Haldeman to cut short a concert in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Park because the president feared that Love Cry Want’s roiling sounds would trigger rioting and possibly levitate the White House. It may have been the disgraced leader’s most astute decision ever.
For Love Cry Want’s lone recorded artifact harnesses a scary power that rightfully put the fear in corrupt politicians—and in law-abiding citizens, too. It’s apt that Love Cry Want is this band’s sole recording: A follow-up inevitably would’ve seemed anticlimactic. The six pupil-dilating tracks here still strike the ear as alien and terrifyingly wild. Even during that heady era of jazz experimentation, no record company had the guts to release Love Cry Want. It languished in vaults until Newjazz.com issued it on CD in 1997.
Love Cry Want consisted of Joe Gallivan (drums, steel guitar, Moog synth, percussion), Nicholas (guitar synthesizer, ring modulator), Jimmy Molneiri (drums, percussion) and Larry Young (Hammond organ). After establishing himself as a leader throughout the ’60s, Young played on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana’s Love Surrender Devotion and the first three Tony Williams Lifetime albums. Consequently, he was no stranger to bombast and psychedelic extrapolation. He emerged from those sessions at an exalted level of inspiration and with a formidable fire in his belly, and these traits helped shape Love Cry Want into a sui generis classic—a tone poem expressed with a flamethrower. It may be glib to equate the controlled chaos and rage of this music with the tenor of many American cities of the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s false.
It must be stressed that Love Cry Want is not strictly the Larry Young show, as Nicholas and Gallivan more than rise to the occasion. Using a self-built guitar synthesizer, Nicholas stuns throughout the disc with brash flashes of Hendrix-ian extravagance. Gallivan displays both inventive exoticness and cyclonic power as he and Molneiri deftly guide the group through its furious paces.
“Peace (For Dakota and Jason)” kicks things off with a sirocco, frenetic percussion rattles and Young’s urgent Hammond organ comping. A jaguar-snarl guitar soon enters the fray and a frantic free-for-all ensues, with everyone vibrating with feral, revolutionary energy. “Ancient Place” evokes Sun Ra’s spaceways with bizarrely jagged and twisted Moog emissions. “The Great Medicine Dance” is a shamanic eruption of intense frequencies and pressurized chord clusters created to exorcise the most tenacious demons.
Unsurprisingly, this cacophonous cauldron of out-jazz and psych-rock appeals more to acid heads and extreme-music aficionados than it does to jazz purists. Equally exhausting and exhilarating, Love Cry Want demands the sort of vigilant attention and overamped energy of soldiers poised to enter battle. But you emerge from the other side of its 52 minutes a changed and, I daresay, better person. It’s a purifying ordeal of an album, the kind of listening experience that’s too rare, no matter what the genre.
Get Away From Me
The wild commercial and critical success of Norah Jones’ 2002 album Come Away With Me proved there was a broad audience for jazz as popular music—providing the songs were sufficiently accessible and pretty enough. The industry opened the door just wide enough to let in another few chanteuses in hope of seeing lightning strike twice. By far the most interesting of these is from the twentysomething pianist and singer Nellie McKay, who baldly declared her opposition to Jones with the none-too-subtly titled Get Away From Me. (McKay originally wanted the album named Black America before a nonplussed Sony forced a compromise). The album is a rich mix of jazz and rock that neatly escapes the label of fusion by refusing to conform to the laws of either fish or fowl; her sometimes aggressive and often absurd songs are something less than readily accessible and only pretty when they want to be.
An ex-conservatory student turned nightclub diva, McKay trades on talent, redheaded sex appeal, sheer lyrical precociousness and mock naiveté. Many a critic made hay of the fact that Get Away From Me, clocking in at just over an hour, was inexplicably packaged as a two disc set, but McKay also flaunts her eccentric tendencies in performance: Her raucous live sets often involve staggered “row-row-row-your-boat” style audience singalongs, detours into charming, rambling monologues and songs stopped in media res only to be restarted in a new key or with a new wrinkle. Those who took the time to actually listen to Get Away From Me discovered that McKay’s somewhat contrived mannerisms were simply a red herring; her real appeal was far more than skin-deep.
McKay’s voice is an unpredictable instrument; she’s just as likely to employ a Paul McCartney lilt (as on the remarkable “Ding Dong”) as a huffy snarl (on the out-of-breath, neurotic “Inner Peace”) or an endearingly nasal cabaret croon (the delightfully cocky “It’s a Pose”). But it’s McKay’s skill as a songwriter that is her greatest asset as an artist.
The sardonic “I Wanna Get Married” recalls the wry wit of Cole Porter; the wild dadaistic shtick of “Change the World” (“God, I’m so German / Have to have a plan / Please! Ethel Merman / Help me out this jam!”) smacks of Annie Ross; the raucous show tune “Wont U Please B Nice” offers a sharp stab of Brecht-Weill-esque cruelty and the soft-exotica samba of “Suitcase Song” sounds uncannily like Martin Denny. Still, McKay is more than just the sum of her many influences. By integrating traditional jazz style vocals, modern-rock song-crafting and a healthy collection of pop culture flourishes (references to the Oxygen Network, fen-phen, Monty Python and Backstage magazine are par for the course), McKay has created something fresh. Call it Broadway without the Broadway, silly storytelling steeped in joie de musique that avoids cliché or formula.
All this isn’t to suggest that Get Away From Me is a flawless album; in fact it’s often patchy, a tetch too precious and flailingly overproduced. (Much of her live material, available at Nelliemckay.net, far outstrips the recorded songs for power, innovation and verve). But perfection wasn’t the goal: Get Away takes too many chances to remain pristine; what it offers in place of polish is heart. For a freshman try, it’s a breathtakingly innovative attempt; even, and sometimes especially, when it fails. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited after hearing a first album to listen to the next. Thankfully, McKay promises great and exciting things in the near future: Her next album is scheduled for a late September release.
Symbols of Hopi
There have been few intersections of Native American music with jazz. Big Chief Russell Moore, Oscar Pettiford, John Lewis, Doc Cheatham, Art Farmer and Don Cherry were a few major jazz musicians with Indian blood. If they combined their art with native music in a meaningful way, it was in passing. Don Pullen’s Sacred Common Ground was a multicultural hodgepodge. The tenor saxophonist Jim Pepper played jazz and Native American music side by side in his “Witchi Tai To.” Dave Brubeck, who thinks he may be part Miwok, used Indian themes and rhythms in “Earth Is Our Mother,” an extended work for chorus and his quartet that was never commercially recorded.
The pianist and composer Jill McManus may be the only other living artist who has taken a deep, studious interest in Native American music and produced an album melding it with jazz. Her Symbols of Hopi brought together her cultural and musical sensibilities with first-rate jazz players. She used trumpeter Tom Harrell, saxophonist and flutist Dave Liebman, bassist Marc Johnson, drummer Billy Hart, plus the Hopi/Winnebago drummer Louis Mofsie and Alan Star, a Canadian Cree, playing bells and rattles.
Two decades later, the album of four Hopi songs and three McManus compositions reflecting the spirit of the Hopi remains one of the most stimulating and least known bodies of work in all of American music. The Arizona mesa peoples’ music is subtle, complex, and mysterious; its rhythms and microtonal melodies are wedded to the spiritual basis of their agricultural, and notably peaceful, way of life. The Hopis are stoically dedicated to protecting their songs. Jill McManus told me recently that after several trips to Hopi country in the early 1980s she gained the confidence of two composers, Mark Lomayestewa and Terrance Honvantewa. They eventually allowed her to learn some of their songs and to arrange them.
“Harrell came to rehearse a few times. We sharped and flatted notes. ‘Tom, this is just a quarter tone sharp here.’ ‘Tom, this should be just a little flat here,’” McManus said. “Well, that really went against the grain, but he kind of got it, and I don’t think he remembered it in the studio,” she said, laughing. Nonetheless, the album has some of Harrell’s most intensely lyrical playing, over the Zen-like economy of McManus’ charts.
“Liebman had been in India, been all over the place. He was very open to it. And this was five years before the world-music trend. Liebman was cool.”
McManus keeps the songs in her repertoire for concerts. “I don’t really do them much in clubs, unless it’s a very special event,” she said. “I cherish them. They’re not just ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird.’”
In the new century, the Hopis are less open to disclosing their music to outsiders. It is unlikely that there will be another project like Symbols of Hopi, which is out of print. A spokesman for Concord told me the company does not plan to reissue the album, but added, “You know, eventually all our music will be available for download via the Web.”
Some of my fondest early memories regarding music come from riding around in my dad’s 1970 Emerald Green Mercury Cougar. White leather interior and an 8-track: Yep, dad was a player even if he was a married, early-thirtysomething insurance agent with two kids in grade school. I heard lots of great music in that car—Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding—and dad was also hip to jazz, which meant that Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ Swiss Movement was his favorite, as was Herbie Mann’s Push Push. I was too young at the time to understand the sexual nature of the title, but I thought the music was cool.
I dug the LP because it seemed to say everything that needed to be said even if no one was singing. I knew the original version of Bread’s soft-rock hit “If,” and thought Mann’s was better. I also knew that the band was hot, and a big part of that was the guitarist, Duane Allman, whose stinging solo on the title cut I had memorized. Now I can look back and say that Push Push is a prime example of how versatile and soulful Allman was. The others players included the MG’s Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums) as well as drummer Bernard Purdie, keyboardist Richard Tee, guitarist David Spinoza and more.
I moved on to Kiss a few years later, but I eventually ended up buying the album myself when I was 16 or so. I had forgotten about Push Push, and then heard it over at a friend’s house. By then I had a better understanding of the title and kind of laughed that the record sounded like hippie makeout music. I also got a good look at the hideous album art in full LP-sized glory: Here was a 40-ish and balding Mann posed naked, at least from the waist up. He’s hairy enough to be a missing link to primordial man, and he’s got his flute slung over his shoulder like he’s holding an ax. There’s a slight smirk on his face, and his relaxed body language says, “Come here, baby, let me show you my flute.” Apparently Herbie was a player, too—no wonder dad liked him.
Now looking back to this album that came into my life twice, it’s hard to argue with the brilliance of it. Side 1 goes from the slammin’ title cut to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark.” The other side, cleverly called “Side A,” closes with Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” and has Bread’s “If” and the Jackson Five’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” as well as Mann original “Man’s Hope.” (The CD reissue tacks on “Funky Nassau.”)
Essentially a soul-jazz version of pop hits of the day, Push Push is no guilty pleasure. Instead, it’s a fine reworking of some great tunes by an outstanding band. Dad was right.
Crazy People Music
On a bitterly cold evening early this year, Branford Marsalis lifted horn to lips at the Village Vanguard and played the simplest of phrases: three notes, descending from the fifth to the third to the second of a D-major scale. That scrap of melody was the key motif of “Spartacus”—a realization that prompted knowing glances around the room. Cornered after the set, Marsalis said that the band had played the song earlier in the week. “But before that,” he added, “it had been years.”
“Spartacus” was the opening salvo of Crazy People Music, which heralded a significant leap in Marsalis’ maturation as an artist. Released in 1990, just after a stint with Sting and not long before the disastrous Tonight Show gig, the album crackles with intensity and purpose. Take that first tune, for instance. Those aforementioned three notes—also the beginning of Buddy Bernier’s “Poinciana,” by the way—are conjugated several ways before yielding to a solo section, on which Marsalis’ brawny tenor traces tight circles and wider, wilder arcs. What’s more, Marsalis is very nearly overshadowed by a stormy Kenny Kirkland piano improvisation, and the swirling, stutter-stepping undercurrent of bassist Robert Hurst III and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.
In other words, Crazy People Music really introduces a band, and one of the very best of the era. It also introduces a concept: a mainstream yet deeply exploratory strain of modern jazz that extended various improvisational dialects, mainly those of saxophonists. “Spartacus” and “Mr. Steepee” are indebted to John Coltrane, the latter obviously and explicitly. “The Dark Knight,” an ostinato-based Hurst original, bears traces of Dewey Redman, especially during a woolly tenor solo. “Wolverine” signifies on the oblique but jaunty swing of early Ornette Coleman. And of course there’s Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins, lurking behind each keening wail and turn of phrase. Enumerating such influences may seem a backhanded way to praise a record, but with this one it’s almost the point; Marsalis was engaging in a dialogue with his history, and managing an appropriation that betrayed no one, not even himself.
In a good many ways, the Branford Marsalis Quartet of our time is a superior beast to the one that closed this disc with Quincy Jones and Bill Cosby’s “The Ballad of Chet Kincaid.” Still, Crazy People Music ranks among the saxophonist’s most fully realized artistic statements, and not just for its negotiation of abstraction and coherence. There’s also one of the best sustained performances on record by the dearly missed Kirkland; “Diddle-It,” a delightful, phonetically titled freeform excursion; and Keith Jarrett’s “Rose Petals,” strewn here with passion and dramatic flair. All told, the album is an ode to what Leonard Feather termed “the Janus-faced personality of Branford” in a liner essay. “It is as if he were capable of playing simultaneously in a major and a minor key,” Feather rightly mused. The statement may be even truer today, but that hardly diminishes the power of this record.
Tune in Tomorrow
While working as a publishing-house secretary in the early ’80s, I came across the 1977 Mario Vargas Llosa novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. I was charmed by the tale of a 1950s Argentine university student’s hilarious adventures working at a Lima radio station where he befriends an eccentric serials writer, while romancing a beautiful divorcée who’s also a distant relative.
The novel’s rich language, depiction of Argentine social customs and sheer comedy was brilliant, so I was excited to learn that Vargas’ semiautobiographical book was being made into a movie. Now titled Tune in Tomorrow, the story’s setting was transferred to 1950s New Orleans, losing all of the novel’s Latin American charm along the way. The 1990 film with Keanu Reeves, Barbara Hershey and Peter Falk was just…forgettable. What was unforgettable was the atmospheric perfection of its soundtrack, composed and performed by Wynton Marsalis with his septet.
I don’t know what made Marsalis—then the linchpin of the celebrated cadre of bebop young lions—commit to composing for such a trifle as the film turned out the be. But the multilayered story, set in a nostalgic time and place close to this Crescent City son’s heart, must have unleashed such previously untapped stores of imagination that Marsalis was willing to make a deal with Hollywood.
The music he created for Tune in Tomorrow had the soul, grit, magic and elegance of old-time New Orleans itself. Tunes were crafted to reflect its characters, with different instruments sometimes taking a Peter and the Wolf-like voicing for each. The album has a raw quality to it, much as a live club band in the ’50s would sound. That rawness conveys the state of the young student’s nerves as he tries to hide his illicit affair, and the mad scriptwriter’s jangled brain as his comic insanity intensifies. Marsalis romps through a varied palette that includes ragtime, blues, klezmer, tango, Dixieland, gospel and swing, seemingly taking a cue from the matchless Duke Ellington’s vivid orchestral style to articulate every nuance of the script. Further, the album contains two flawless ballads sung by Shirley Horn: “I Can’t Get Started” and the breathtaking “The Ways of Love,” whose haunting melody I can’t get out of my head.
Listening to this soundtrack always gives me enormous pleasure. It makes me laugh, it makes me experience the Vargas story in a new way and it reminds me of the music my parents and their friends listened to when I was small. At a time when I was writing about rap, pop and R&B for a big-time trade magazine, the soundtrack reminded me that there was inventive, thrilling acoustic music being made, and I began to pay more attention to jazz releases. I was grateful to Marsalis, whom I had thought of as too serious and intellectual, for giving me a taste of his New Orleans—a town whose food, music and culture this Bronx native happens to love. Fifteen years later, Marsalis’ Tune in Tomorrow is something I still tune into today.
With apologies to Forrest Gump’s momma, life is a lot like Pat Metheny: You never know what you’re gonna get. A hushed solo album of guitar music like One Quiet Night, or a noisy solo guitar album like Zero Tolerance for Silence? A jazz album with out-there saxophonist Ornette Coleman like Song X, or a beautifully lyrical album inspired by Brazilian music like Still Life (Talking)?
Then there’s Secret Story. Keyboardist Lyle Mays shows up, of course, as do previous and present Pat Metheny Group members. But Metheny steps into the spotlight with these 14 songs on electric, acoustic and synthesized guitars, piano, percussion, electric bass and electric sitar. It’s his tale, after all, and Secret Story speaks to Metheny’s personal soul—and to mine—like nothing else he’s done over the course of 30 years.
Metheny’s lyrical contemporary-jazz masterpieces may still be 1987’s Still Life (Talking), 1989’s Letter From Home and 1994’s We Live Here. But Secret Story is the one Metheny album I tell people about who have never experienced his magic. The recording is an hour and 15 minutes, but that length is needed to spin the full yarn. It’s all musically connected, and there are so many exotic sounds messaging your ears that you’ll be filled with a delightful sensory overload.
I listened in bits and pieces the first few times. Then, on one quiet night, I retired to the dark, closed my eyes and took a deep dive into Secret Story with headphones. There have been several life-changing moments in my life. This is one of them.
Secret Story delivers you the world, musically speaking, assisted by Jeremy Lubbock and the London Orchestra. The adventure begins with “Above the Treetops” and the otherworldly Choir of the Cambodian Royal Palace and the Pinpeat Orchestra of the Royal Ballet giving way to Metheny’s soft picking. When the story segues into “Facing West,” you’re begging for the buildup to end and the resulting first explosive solo. Metheny does this slow burn again later with “The Truth Will Always Be,” which teases with six minutes of foreplay before climaxing with one of the guitarist’s greatest rock-god explosions.
Of course, Metheny is a master at building suspense. The late Mark Ledford’s amazingly acrobatic scatting on “Finding and Believing” is foreshadowed on the track preceding it, “Cathedral in a Suitcase.” “Finding and Believing” and, to a lesser extent “Above the Treetrops,” are songs nonbelievers may find too weird, but just take the time to truly listen to them and their greatness will become clear. Keep the headphones on and listen to Metheny’s beautiful acoustic piano on “The Longest Summer,” “Sunlight”—the catchiest song he’s ever recorded—the intimate “Always and Forever and the wistful “Antonia.”
If you stick with it, by the time last orchestral notes fade on “Not to Be Forgotten (Our Final Hour),” you’ll realize the full power of Metheny’s ability to toy with your emotions. After sharing Secret Story with your soul, you understand why Metheny is one of jazz’s greatest storytellers.
Pat Metheny Group
Still Life (Talking)
In late 1987, while I was a graduate student, I got my first job as an on-air personality at a jazz station in central New York. The Pat Metheny Group had recently released the album Still Life (Talking), a skillful blend of jazz and Brazilian elements. While I found the entire album captivating, it was the track “Last Train Home” that particularly grabbed me. Maybe that was because “Last Train Home” happened to be the first Metheny track I ever played on radio, but more likely it was because it’s an outstanding piece of music, with its haunting, unforgettable Metheny melody complemented by Lyle Mays’ unobtrusive piano accompaniment, drummer Paul Wertico, percussionist Armando Marcal and bassist Steve Rodby’s steady, trainlike rhythms and David Blamires’ and Mark Ledford’s ethereal vocal harmonies. To this day, I love “Last Train Home” so much that if I were to be exiled to a desert island permanently and could take only one piece of music with me, that song might very well be it, partly because of the beauty of the tune and partly because of the memories it inspires.
The time I spent in grad school was among the happiest of my life, filled with great friends, lots of laughs—oh yes, and some coursework—and somehow “Last Train Home” became, for me, the soundtrack for all those wonderful times. Not only did I play it on the radio, I also played Still Life (Talking) all the time when I was off-air, and nearly 20 years later, I still associate “Last Train Home” with the fun I had then.
Inevitably, as the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end, and much too soon, it seemed: my grad-school program concluded, and my friends and I made plans to return to our respective homes—in some cases, as it turned out, never to see one another again. I was the last of my circle to leave, and late my last night—when I probably should have been getting a good night’s sleep before the drive home—I took my car out for one last bit of unfinished business. With “Last Train Home” playing on my car stereo, I drove past the now-dark houses where my friends had lived, to say goodbye.
Originally published in September 2005