50 LPs from 35 Years of JazzTimes, Part III
Changes One & Changes Two
The first time I heard Mingus’ music I couldn’t believe it. It was 1964, I was listening to my old cracker-box AM radio, and suddenly Mingus was on the air. I didn’t know you could do that with music. So much texture, so much emotion, so much audacity.
In 1975, in Bloomington, Ind., I finally heard Mingus in person. He was with his last great quintet, the same group that recorded the Changes LPs: tenor saxophonist George Adams, trumpeter Jack Walrath, pianist Don Pullen, drummer Dannie Richmond and Mingus up front. The band played “Free Cell Block F,” “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress” and “Fables of Faubus,” and once again I couldn’t believe it. The next and final night of Mingus’ Bloomington gig was sold out, so with my wife and her sister I climbed to the roof of the club and listened through the air vents.
The Changes recordings do justice to the performances that sent us up that fire escape. (It must have been late in September 1975, just after the otherwise hapless Gerald Ford managed to survive two separate assassination attempts by women. Mingus announced a number as “Remember Rockefeller at Attica and Look Who’s Blastin’ at Ford.”)
Despite rumors to the contrary, jazz was flourishing in the 1970s. Mingus’ work alone redeems the decade. His music looked back to jazz history at the same time that it looked ahead. As always, Ellington and the blues were central, but Mingus had also absorbed gospel, mariachi, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Eric Dolphy and Stravinsky, to name just a few.
Nevertheless, there was no museum dust on Mingus. His classicizing tendencies were always tempered by his avant-garde inclinations. On the Changes recordings, Adams channels Coleman, and Pullen deploys his Cecil Taylor chops. As a vocalist, Adams boisterously parodies blues shouters on “Devil Blues.” But listen also to the elegiac “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” both the instrumental version on Changes One and the guest vocal by Jackie Paris on Changes Two.
Mingus is especially eclectic and affecting on “Sue’s Changes,” perhaps the most elaborate love letter a man has written to a woman. In 1966, while Allen Ginsberg chanted, Charles Mingus married Susan Graham. She would be with him in Mexico in 1979 when he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The title for “Sue’s Changes” as well as for the two LPs is a tribute to Sue’s magazine Changes, which once published a fragment of Mingus’ autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, surely the most extraordinary book by a major jazz artist.
But the drastic shifts in meter and mood throughout “Sue’s Changes” suggest something more than an advertisement for a journal. Each of the solos begins with lavish lyricism and then rushes at full speed toward intense energy music. It’s a 17-minute tour de force. The Mingus Big Band, which Sue Mingus has presented at least once a week in New York clubs for 14 years now, is a small but fortuitous portion of her response to that love letter.
Papa Lips: Horn Man Band
I don’t even remember how I happened to run across Bob Mintzer’s first big band album, Papa Lips: Horn Man Band. But I do recall vividly that soon after it came out I took a tape of it on a weeklong vacation to the South Carolina coast and played it every time I got in the car. Turning it up high while cruising along that picturesque coastline provided a thrill I hadn’t experienced with a new recording in years.
A big band I had played with featured some of Mintzer’s earlier arrangements, but that didn’t prepare me for the delightful melodic, harmonic and rhythmic surprises of charts like “Papa Lips,” “Lazy Day” and “Latin Dance.” First-rate solos by Mintzer and Michael Brecker on tenor, David Sanborn on alto, Randy Brecker and Marvin Stamm on trumpet, Dave Bergeron on trombone and Don Grolnick on piano just iced the cake. When some of the arrangements became available for purchase, I had the pleasure of performing them live with the university jazz ensemble I directed.
CDs eventually replaced vinyl and tapes in my library, and regrettably Papa Lips was never reissued on disc. Recently, though, the home CD burner came to the rescue, allowing me finally to have a digital copy of the album. Ironically, this transpired just as I was about to head for the beach again, so, of course, I took the disc with me. And, you bet, it sounded every bit as fresh and exciting this time as it did more than 20 years earlier.
(Blue Note, 2003)
“Jazz is America’s classical music”: five oft-repeated words by well-meaning advocates who seek to elevate jazz to the same canonized, calcified status from which classical music in America is now struggling to break free. When I began listening to jazz after a decade of classical study, the varied geniuses of icons like Bird, Trane and Miles spoke directly to me, but the jazz establishment seemed to be permanently celebrating its own past—an unending stream of tribute albums, young musicians playing old styles, lavish reissues from labels that were paring back their active-artist rosters and a common well of repertoire dipped into over and over again. In getting into jazz, I wondered if I wasn’t just learning about another genre of music whose inexhaustible history had squelched everyone’s appetite for new creations.
Then the editor of this fine magazine slipped me a promo copy of Jason Moran’s The Bandwagon so I could have a listen—and by the end of the album I knew it wouldn’t leave my changer for weeks.
After the bump of the intro, the trio of pianist Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits slides into “Another One.” The song begins as if in the middle of a thought with a slouchy melody and explores its possibilities without getting rushed about it, the tricky balance of rigor and spontaneity keeps me listening attentively.
The Bandwagon has a rendition of “Body and Soul,” but one in which Moran plucks an eight-note phraselet that’s used as a transition in the song to make it into a rhapsody. Another ballad, Johannes Brahms’ “Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2,” features Moran playing with a pearlescent tone that Wilhelm Kempff would have envied, before the pianist deconstructs it with the help of Mateen and Waits.
Two tracks on the album feature the trio scramming, dashing and punctuating alongside recorded voice: the surprisingly lyrical “Ringing My Phone” and the more abstract “Infospace,” each of which draws music from speech through astonishing virtuosity from the trio. And Moran’s steely tone and rugged phrasing on “Planet Rock,” a song from another genre I had loved before jazz, reminds all concerned that the piano is a percussion instrument: Moran’s interlocking rhythms elaborate incisively on Afrika Bambaataa’s original. The music on The Bandwagon has a past, but it carries on the traditions of its predecessors by making something new of its own.
Prior to this, I had reviewed a few jazz CDs, but The Bandwagon was one of the records that convinced me that I wanted to be a jazz critic: There were indeed exciting things happening right smack now in jazz, and I wanted to help get the word out when I could.
-Andrew Lindemann Malone
Bop for Kerouac
In 1981, when he made his definitive album, Bop for Kerouac, Mark Murphy called San Francisco home. But he was living the vagabond life depicted in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a novel he’d read in the ’50s, when he was a scuffling jazz singer renting a coldwater flat in Manhattan. He’d been lugging a suitcase ever since as he took his world-weary ballad singing and wild bebop all over the globe.
Before recording this LP, Murphy thought of the growing interest in the jazz-loving Kerouac, whose Benzedrine-fueled, rambling prose was like a bop solo. “A lot of people put him down—for one thing because he was good-looking and they were jealous,” Murphy told me recently. “And for another because they didn’t understand why he was considered an innovator, because they weren’t. I thought, ‘Why should I do another bebop album and leave out the man who re-created the bop era for us all?’”
The result was an aching portrait of the Beat life and one of the most moving vocal albums in jazz. In song and in readings from On the Road and The Subterraneans, it evokes the midnight-blue, hothouse atmosphere of the ’50s jazz clubs, where a pinspot cut a ray through the smoke and lit on Charlie Parker, Lester Young or Sonny Stitt, blowing each solo as if it were their last. As always, Murphy is as much storyteller as improviser, and the craggy velvet of his voice opens the door to an emotional place where hardly any other male jazz singer has dared to go.
From Mingus, Joni Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration with the bassist, Murphy borrowed “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a slow, bluesy portrait of Young that takes in the sting of racism and the pain (and ultimate triumph) of those who spoke a musical language few understood. Alto saxophonist Richie Cole, with his icy wail, is to Murphy what Young was to Billie Holiday: a shadow voice that follows his every swagger, dip, and glide.
Other songs capture the loneliness of the transient, self-involved Beat lifestyle. “You Better Go Now” finds Murphy singing of one-night stands cut short before anyone can get too close. On “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” the album’s searing finale, poet-lyricist Fran Landesman, a friend of Kerouac’s, wrote of a scene she had seen too often: “All the sad young men, sitting in the bars / Knowing neon lights, missing all the stars.” To preface it, Murphy, as vocally expressive as Montgomery Clift, reads On the Road’s closing, in which the main characters continue to grope for the meaning of life. “Nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody,” Murphy intones, “besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”
The album helped make him the embodiment of an era that forever attracts those who search of truths they can’t find at home. “I never knew it would create such excitement,” he said of Bop for Kerouac. The Beats are nearly all gone, but Murphy, at 73, is still on the road, restless as ever.
In 1974 I was a teenage outsider, a semidetached music nerd who listened to free jazz, pre-“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” Frank Zappa and the Stooges while my contemporaries listened to Grand Funk or the Marshall Tucker Band. I hung out in record stores, checked LPs out from the library and pored obsessively over music magazines.
I initially got into jazz via early fusion (Mahavishnu Orchestra, electric Miles, Soft Machine) and the avant-garde (its outsider status and cathartic potential appealed to me) and was working my way backward through bebop. I’d grown up with a tiny transistor AM radio, back when one could hear the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Motown, Johnny Cash and Hugo Montenegro’s way-cool version of “Theme From ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’” on the same station, and I heard swing jazz in old movies I saw on TV.
Consequently, as a teen, I had this vaguely utopian notion of music as a whole and how it connected with and affected people. So Oregon, who combined jazz improvisation with folk, classical and sounds from other cultures (we called it “ethnic music” then), and whose members each played several instruments, was a must-hear in my book. But which album to start with?
I settled on Winter Light because I liked the somewhat melancholic cover art and title. It was to become a turntable favorite—whereas John Cale’s album Fear and Gato Barbieri’s saxophone could do my screaming for me, Winter Light was equally intense in an opposite manner. It contains subtly engaging, soaring, sometimes cinematic-sounding melodies, and while it could indeed be a balm to soothe the raging hormones, there’s a stark inner tension to it to go along with the overcast ambiance associated with the state from which came their name.
Winter Light has a distant, haunting cry embodying both sorrow and resilience. Ralph Towner’s brittle 12-string guitar tone is counterbalanced by his lyrical, elegiac piano, and Paul McCandless’ oboe seems to distill the grim beauty of late autumn in my Western Pennsylvanian hometown. Meanwhile, the shortest track, “Street Dance,” is a kaleidoscope of rhythms from, seemingly, the whole wide world.
Unlike many albums in many genres from that era, Winter Light’s radiance is undimmed.
Evan Parker, Derek Bailey & Han Bennink
Topography of the Lungs
(Incus 1, 1970)
I don’t remember who first introduced me to Henry Kuntz, editor in the mid-’70s of a newsletter dedicated to avant-garde jazz called Bells. But I do recall my first visit to Henry’s apartment near the U.C. Berkeley campus, because we listened to some great albums I had never heard before. I remember finally getting to hear Sunny Murray’s Sunny’s Time Now, and being impressed by a wild Anthony Braxton record from Japan, but it was another record that really got my attention that afternoon. I was vaguely aware of Derek Bailey because Braxton had begun to tout him as “the heaviest guitar player on the planet,” but Evan Parker’s name was new. Han Bennink, on the other hand, was slightly familiar as one of those European guys who had played with Eric Dolphy. But that was the trouble: free jazz was felt to be an American thing—and really, a black American thing that maybe a few white cats could figure out—and we weren’t necessarily open to the idea that Europeans could contribute something original to its development. Well, it took about five seconds from the time Henry said, “You really should know what these people are doing,” and set the needle into the grooves of Topography of the Lungs, to explode any such half-baked notions.
Someone once described free jazz as sounding like a sustained cry. But as wild as this music can be, it has always seemed to me to be fundamentally related to American folk styles personified by the likes of Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Roscoe Holcomb. But this new European thing was different; not only were the sounds on the record often unidentifiable as coming from tenor sax, guitar and drums, it was as if the music was driven by emotions that were themselves abstracted. Where Ayler, Coltrane or Taylor might conjure up an irresistible flow of lava erupting from the earth, this stuff seemed to materialize in midair from an unknown dimension. Yet it was just as communicative as any jazz and depended just as much on improvised interaction—more so, actually, since there was nothing familiar to guide the listener through the otherworldly new musical landscape unfolding before his or her ears: no melody or even notes, usually; no rhythm as divisible by any but imaginary numbers; no harmony in any accepted sense of the word.
When listening to Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman today, it can be difficult to imagine what visceral reactions their music once provoked, but Topography still has the same bracing effect today that it did 35 years ago. Of all the manifestos of musical modernism, only Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 atonal landmark Pierot Lunaire is comparable. Unfortunately, however, Topography has been unavailable for decades, and owing to personal differences between Parker and Bailey, there are no plans to remedy the situation—at least for now.
Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard
(Warner Bros., 1995)
Entering my sophomore year of high school, jazz band and varsity soccer were battling it out for my affections. Both the varsity soccer coach and the band director, as subtle as they tried to be, made it clear that at some point a decision had to be made. These two after-school activities simply could not coexist, and I was at the age where I had to prioritize one over the other. Enter Joshua Redman’s Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard.
Perhaps recognizing that my chances at playing professional soccer were slim to none, my father, a big jazz fan himself, had always strongly supported my interest in music. When he brought this album home to me, he recognized that all it would likely take to spark my interest in jazz was one album that touched something inside of me—and at 15 I had yet to feel such inspiration from a jazz record. Dad made a wise selection: Within a year I was applying to music school and planning my career as a musician.
Spirit of the Moment is that rare live album that catches a supremely talented young musician in his prime, playing to a knowledgeable, respectful and enthusiastic audience. Redman had already released three studio albums by 1995. But jazzmen are defined by their live performances, and Spirit of the Moment confirms what those albums had only hinted at: Redman had the talent, charisma and chops to be a true force in the jazz world.
These dates were recorded in March 1995, when Redman had just turned 26. His quartet, comprised of pianist Peter Martin, drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christopher Thomas, plays its supporting role perfectly. Within the first two minutes of the opening track, “Jig-a-Jug,” I’m immediately reminded of something that Redman had written in the liner notes to his 1994 album Moodswing: Jazz is supposed to be fun. Of the 14 tracks, nine are Redman originals, and he shows that not only can he play in all styles but he can also write in most as well. From the playful “Count Me Out” to his beautiful ballad “Neverend,” Redman’s originals are fresh and spirited. And on the few covers, the tenor saxophonist stays true to the original versions of the tunes while putting his own stamp on them. Redman’s take on Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” with his a capella intro, is a virtuosic ode to one of his greatest influences, and his cadenza on “My One and Only Love” is worthy of infinite repeat listenings.
In the end, I didn’t become a professional musician (or a professional soccer player). But this album made me go back and find out where this music came from, turning me on to Rollins, Coltrane, et al. Only time will tell where Redman’s music stands in the annals of jazz, but for me Spirit of the Moment will always be one of those CDs that never sounds old.
Hal Russell NRG Ensemble
The Finnish/Swiss Tour
Hal Russell’s fascinating story never gets old: a drummer from age 4, he played with Duke Ellington in the ’40s, Miles Davis in the ’50s and heroin addiction in the ’60s. Rebounding, he took up sax in the ’70s (while in his 50s) in order to show members of his NRG Ensemble what to play. From then until his passing in 1992, horns rarely left Russell’s white-bearded mouth. His hyperactivity accelerated to the end—he even moonlit in a punk band, the Flying Luttenbachers—and peaked with three great ECM albums recorded in the final three years of his life. The best is The Finnish/Swiss Tour, a riotous document of a 1990 European jaunt that still vibrates with gleeful abandon.
After a meek Finnish introduction, the Ensemble rips into “Monica’s Having a Baby,” a frenetic carnival of blaring horns and sprinting drums that quickly sets the album’s delirious, dizzying tone. Russell’s quintet of multi-instrumental wizards is led by sparring partner Mars Williams, whose rock experience (including a stint with the the Psychedelic Furs) helped mash the Ensemble’s free-blare into a pounding, brazen punk-jazz. Tunes like “Dance of the Spider People” and the stair-climbing “Raining Violets” cram rock’s stomping thud into a fiery free-jazz pit. Other tracks simply stun with eclecticism: “Aila” boasts a virtuoso vibe solo by Russell, while “For MC” weaves his trumpet through a triumvirate of didgeridoos, and the raucous closer “Mars Theme” lands him back in the drummer’s seat.
Russell’s favorite player was Albert Ayler, and perhaps his cleverest trick was the way he morphed Ayler’s sorrowful tone into a scream of joy. As a result, the deliriously happy sound of The Finnish/Swiss Tour is equally worthy of reverent veneration and ecstatic celebration.
Lotus is a portrait of a band at a crossroads. It was recorded live over a two-night period in Osaka, Japan, during July 1973. Just four years before this LP, Santana lit up Woodstock, performing with an unbridled raw energy that was almost punklike in its ferociousness—and in the limited technical skills of the musicians. That performance catapulted the first Santana band to all the trappings of stardom: massive sales, exhausting touring and the madness of drugs and the road.
Carlos Santana and drummer Michael Shrieve looked for an escape from that madness, and they found it in jazz—specifically the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The 1972 LP Caravanserai launched Santana and Shrieve on their path toward jazz: The volume came down, the chords and voicings became more refined and the musicians sounded inspired.
Other albums that Santana and Shrieve recorded during that period—Love Devotion Surrender (1973), Welcome (1973), Illuminations (1974) and Borboletta (1974)—featured jazz musicians (Stanley Clark, Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Alice Coltrane) who helped the duo achieve their vision of passion, discovery and Afro-Cuban-propelled intensity.
But it’s Lotus that reflects that moment when the Santana band sheds its rock skin and rediscovers itself in the spirits of Coltrane and Miles. It is also a remarkable musical snapshot of a band that had advanced drastically in such a short period of time: Santana was in the midst of a transformation from being a good guitar player into one of the true legends of the instrument; drummer Shrieve was as good as any jazz drummer of that time and an innovator in applying the trap set to Afro-Cuban rhythms; bassist Doug Rauch was deftly combining the Cuban tumbao with funk and Brazilian samba; Richard Kermode (Fender Rhodes) and Tom Coster (Hammond organ) fused guajeo piano patterns of the best Cuban dance music with the explorations of B3 pioneer Larry Young; and timbalero Jose “Chepito” Areas was a rhythmic dynamo whose playing had become disciplined and refined.
But it’s conga drummer Armando Peraza who is the true hero of Lotus. His jazz credentials were firmly in place after playing with George Shearing, Cal Tjader and Charlie Parker. In 1973 Peraza was 49 years old, and his technique, stamina and creative use of rhythm made him one of the best drummers of that era—or any era. Throughout Lotus, Peraza matches Santana’s incendiary guitar heroics with a percussion power that is majestic and exhilarating.
There is a stunning moment about four and a half minutes into “Incident at Neshabur” when Santana finishes a long solo and then power chords a 6/8 Afro Cuban cowbell pattern that literally launches the whole band forward. Underneath it all, Peraza’s improvisation channels Africa and Coltrane simultaneously. Even now it still moves me physically and spiritually.
While Lotus is forgotten by all but Santana diehards, it’s a pivotal part of the band’s story. More important it is an insight into a mindset where jazz, rock and world music are actually on speaking terms and not segregated by record labels, radio stations and uninspired music fans. Lotus is one of the few records in my collection that I consider perfect: no missteps or glitches, every note an inspiration.
I first discovered Shakti—both the group and its first, eponymous 1975 release—as an undergrad in the early 1990s, rifling through the thousands upon thousands of dusty LPs in the archives of Columbia University’s WKCR-FM. But I went looking for Shakti’s recordings not to play on a jazz show, but for a program called Garam Masala that I hosted for several years, focusing on music from South Asia.
So while many other listeners probably came to Shakti via English guitarist John McLaughlin and the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, my avenue in was Shakti’s Indian membership: tabliya Zakir Hussain; violinist L. Shankar; ghatam, or clay pot, player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram; and mrindangam (double-headed drum) player Ramnad V. Raghavan.
These musicians were inarguably virtuosos of the highest order, and hearing them recorded by an American record company, in compositions that positioned them in parity with their British colleague, was in many ways a quantum leap forward from the way that Indian and other ethnic music was packaged as an exotic novelty even a few short years before. (For example, sitarist Ravi Shankar at Monterey in 1968.) Even the group’s name had positive cultural resonance: for Hindus, “shakti” refers to the feminine energy and power in the universe—the creative, divine spark.
In the end, though, it was the music—by turns thrillingly intense, with mind-bogglingly complex rhythms and melodic interplays, and peacefully serene—that grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. Shakti also demonstrates one of the most enticing aspects of Indian classical music: an almost tangible sense of intimacy and camaraderie between the musicians themselves, and in turn between the artists and audience. It still delights me to hear John McLaughlin open the album with the warm greeting, “Good evening, friends.”
That first Shakti album provided a grounding connection not just for me as a listener, but for generations of Indo-jazz fusion and other multicultural experimenters to follow. While the original group released only three albums within as many years, its lasting influence has been colossal. And whether or not many listeners were aware of it in 1975, Shakti represented another cross-cultural dialog beyond the East/West divide: while Zakir Hussain hails from the Hindustani, or North Indian, classical tradition, his South Asian Shakti brethren all came from the distinctly different—yet equally vibrant, exciting and ancient—Carnatic, or South Indian, tradition. Even today, Carnatic musicians tend to get far less attention outside India then their northern brothers and sisters.
These days, McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain occasionally tour and record as Remember Shakti, joined by Indian musicians like the brilliant flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia, the stellar slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, santur (hammered dulcimer) virtuoso Shivkumar Sharma, fiery percussionist V. Selvaganesh (who happens to be Vikku’s son), and the amazing U. Srinivas, who can pick a mandolin like no one else alive. I’ve never been quite sure if the new group’s name is a question or a directive, but I’m more than happy to take it as the latter.
Little Red’s Fantasy
As a freshman at the University of Illinois in 1981, I asked my parents for $90 to buy football tickets. Rah-rah and all that. It was a ruse: I bought records instead, among them trumpeter Woody Shaw’s Little Red’s Fantasy, a blistering and profound 1976 quintet date that defines mainstream modal postbop. It has also become my default response to the canard that straightahead jazz died in the 1970s.
I was an American history major in 1981 but also a budding alto saxophonist. At 18, I knew my way around bebop tunes like “Confirmation,” “Yardbird Suite” and “Oleo.” But modal harmony was a mystery. When I tried to tackle the Jamey Aebersold play-along set devoted to Shaw’s music, the music’s formal riddles proved way too complex for my elementary skills. I was speaking one language; Shaw spoke another.
I bought Little Red’s Fantasy because I recognized three tunes as beguiling Shaw originals that had stumped me, and I was intrigued by Frank Strozier, an alto player unknown to me. Pianist Ronnie Mathews, bassist Stafford James and the late drummer Eddie Moore complete the group. Still underrated, Shaw was the next (and so far last) link in the trumpet chain after Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little. He applied the lessons of Coltrane and Dolphy to hard-bop roots, and the result was an angular but swinging style spiked by dissonance, pentatonic scales, wide intervals and a disciplined inside-outside approach anchored in history but never limited by it. Shaw’s music speaks of the eternal quest.
Each tune here is a melodic and memorable journey. Execution snaps to attention. Shaw’s corpulent and burnished copper tone and Strozier’s darkly plangent sound merge into thick expression; the splashy rhythm section creates a tidal-pool churn. Side 1 is given to the exploratory vamps of Mathews’ waltz “Jean Marie” and James’ lyrically edgy bossa “Sashianova.” Side 2 opens and closes with Shaw’s steeplechase structures “In Case You Haven’t Heard” (with solos based on a revolving series of four Lydian scales) and “Tomorrow’s Destiny” (intervallic melody, shifting Latin and swing rhythms, pedal points, advanced harmony). Shaw weaves in and out of chords like a Manhattan taxi barreling down 7th Avenue, creating tension and release through chromatic side-slipping, clipped ferocity and maniacal spikes of volume and range. Strozier complements him with deviously original phrasing that should have made him a star. The title track, Shaw’s signature ballad, exposes his psyche with a gentle melody framed by a heart-of-darkness bridge.
Issued on Muse in 1978 as Shaw was reaching peak visibility with a newly minted Columbia contract, Little Red’s Fantasy remains the definitive document of his art. The record is thrilling, brainy, risky, brawny, soulful and sweeping in its aesthetic field of vision. Head, heart, tradition and innovation are held in alchemist proportion. Nearly 30 years later, the music remains state-of-the-art. It helped teach me to play modern jazz—and it still has much to teach us all.
The only time I saw Woody Shaw live was in 1979, in a very cool club in the Pioneer Square district of Seattle called Parnell’s. It had little couches instead of chairs. You could really settle into the music in Parnell’s. It was an unforgettable night.
The band had Carter Jefferson on reeds and Victor Lewis on drums. Pianist Larry Willis and bassist Stafford James had recently replaced Onaje Allan Gumbs and Clint Houston. Individually and collectively, the group was on fire, nailing the complex material from Shaw’s latest album, Rosewood. Shaw’s trumpet flew over his signature open intervals, and Jefferson’s soprano spilled maniacal, musical arpeggios. I can still see Shaw, swaying slightly to the music when he was not playing, staring fixedly into space. (He was legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa.)
I distinctly remember that Shaw made an announcement that night. He must have received a phone call between sets. He had just learned that Rosewood had been voted “Record of the Year” in the Down Beat Readers’ Poll, and that he had taken first place in the trumpet category. (Later, Rosewood received two Grammy nominations.) Woody Shaw was on a roll.
Rosewood was the reason I was in Parnell’s that night. I owned Shaw’s earlier albums on Muse, but Rosewood was a breakthrough. I had been wearing out my copy. It was his major-label debut, on Columbia. Its core was Shaw’s working quintet of 1977, with Jefferson, Gumbs, Houston and Lewis. But Columbia had financed additional personnel to make a 13- or 15-piece concert ensemble on four of the six pieces. One of the extra horns was the tenor saxophone of Joe Henderson, and he took two of the solos of his life on the title track and “Theme for Maxine.” Rosewood had ambitious, fresh writing, a wealth of elegant detail (harp, flute, piccolo, percussion) and surging, irrepressible joie de vivre. Most of all, it had brilliant, crackling, singing proof of Woody Shaw’s place in history as a major trumpet stylist and innovator. (It is available in a Columbia/Legacy reissue with three bonus tracks and excellent sound thanks to Mark Wilder’s 24-bit remastering.)
Now, that night in a long-defunct jazz club seems very far away. What is most poignant about Rosewood is that it was not a new beginning, but the beginning of the end. Columbia and Bruce Lundvall, to their everlasting credit, had signed Shaw to a contract in 1977, a time when major labels were not recording pure jazz. Shaw recorded five strong albums for Columbia. But when his contract was not renewed in 1981, his career and his personal life entered a downward spiral. He disbanded his quintet in 1983, and spent his last years as a rootless freelancer. He died in 1989, at 44, from injuries sustained when he fell into a passing train in a Brooklyn subway station.
What is most important about Rosewood, Woody Shaw’s finest hour, is that it keeps a great American artist from being forgotten.
Atlantis marked the beginning of my geeky fascination with Wayne Shorter’s music. Before purchasing this LP during my freshman year at Mississippi State University, I associated Shorter with Weather Report and some guest appearances on Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana albums. The neotraditional jazz renaissance was picking up steam, but my taste for bebop hadn’t grown beyond mere appreciation, so Shorter’s legendary tenures with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ mid-’60s quintet, as well as his own Blue Note albums, were distant to me at that time. But like most people who enter college, I came wide-eyed, willing to sample almost anything new.
In addition to music, reading Marvel comic books occupied much of my leisure time during college. I bought X-Men, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The Avengers just as rapidly as I purchased music. As with comics, I often bought music on a whim, and one day I found myself buying Atlantis for no particular reason. Not having any of the neocon biases popular in the jazz world at that time, I found myself slowly seduced by Shorter’s off-kilter funky, electronic-tinged music.
From the start Atlantis was pleasant enough, but it took a while to truly grab me. Much of the music is antivirtuosic, resembling little of the chest-thumping pyrotechnics associated with fusion or the improvisational interplay of hard bop. The driving opening cut, “Endangered Species,” has electronic flourishes, and there are faint sprinkles of big band swing on “The Last Silk Hat,” plus a nod to samba with “Crianças,” but there are no solos on the LP that make you sit up and take notice.
Naive as I was, I initially pegged Atlantis as hip background music, something to have on while I studied—or read comic books. In fact, it was while reading Marvel Comics’ Secret Wars II that I made a connection between Shorter’s music, science fiction and cinema. The more I delved into my weekly supply of comics, the more seductive Atlantis became, and Shorter’s picturesque music and serpentine soprano-sax lines eventually conquered my heart.
I soon associated certain melodies with various Marvel characters. The spiky, serrated melody that soars across the rumbling, elastic rhythms on “Endangered Species” suggests X-Men’s Storm taking flight high above the skies, while the title track, with its floating, descending melody, evokes the mythical land for which its named—and where the Sub-Mariner reigns.
After Atlantis finally hit me, I bought the succeeding albums, Phantom Navigator and Joy Ryde, finding myself just as mesmerized. Then I read about Shorter’s love for sci-fi and comic books, and I felt a kindred spirit. It wasn’t until I read Footprints, Michelle Mercer’s biography of Shorter, that I learned that Shorter viewed Atlantis as a soundtrack to an imaginary film.
Atlantis didn’t fare well with many critics at the time, and to this day some still view it as the nadir of his solo career. But for this comic-book geek, Atlantis was (and still is) a beguiling musical voyage.
Henry Threadgill Sextett
Easily Slip Into Another World
Reedist and composer Henry Threadgill has used his various bands—Air, Very Very Circus, Make a Move, Zooid—to alter and advance his dazzling, peripatetic vision, forever elucidating new methods of rich polyphony and stylistic synthesis. During the ’80s it was his Sextett—actually a septet, but the leader counted his twin drummers as a single entity—that got the job done, its Ellingtonian splendor asserting itself as Threadgill’s last explicit manifestation of jazz qua jazz. That’s not to say that jazz hallmarks like extended improvisation, swing and killer counterpoint haven’t vanished from his subsequent work, but they became couched within increasingly global-sounding forms and grooves.
Easily Slip Into Another World was the second to last Sextett album, and it not only captures the group at its best but also serves as one of the most poignant and enjoyable statements of the late-’80s New York City vanguard, where free-jazz hunger was fully reconciled with forms and styles from the past. The album opens with the sole non-Threadgill original, an impossibly deep blues groove penned by Olu Dara called “I Can’t Wait Till I Get Home,” which propels the leader’s incendiary alto solo higher and higher with punchy but funereal trumpet and trombone figures—played by Rasul Siddik and Frank Lacy, respectively—and descending licks from that singular string machine, bassist Fred Hopkins and cellist Diedre Murray. Then things get wonderfully murky in terms of delineation.
“Black Hands Bejewelled” brilliantly exploits the group’s orchestral range for a raucous, brassy blast of some hazy Afro-Cuban strain, while the equally exuberant “Spotted Dick Is Pudding” brings a stutter-step to a New Orleans second-line strut. “My Rock” is the album’s most abstract entry, a brooding, wide-open ballad featuring expansive vocals from Asha Puthli, the Indian singer who appeared on Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction, while the ferociously driving “Hall” rides on frenzied bowing from Murray and the splattery beats of Pheeroan akLaff and Reggie Nicholson before descending on some great blubbery blowing by Lacy. Humor always makes its presence felt in Threadgill’s music, and there are plenty of puckish march influences in the faux-militaristic closer “Award the Squadtett,” which breaks free of the rigidity for some wild modernistic swing.
Threadgill’s indelible writing is perfectly matched to the band personnel, who, as with nearly all of the leader’s ensembles, go beyond the call of duty in guaranteeing individual work served group concerns. At the risk of sounding reactionary, this album reminds me of a fleeting moment when adventurous jazz could still be genuinely accessible. It’s been a very long time since I’ve believed in that possibility.
James “Blood” Ulmer
In late 1985 I had just moved to New Orleans from New York City. Fascinated as I was by the local musical and cultural flavors, I was already craving tastes I had left behind: Good uptown bagels, good Downtown jazz. That’s when I found Ulmer’s 1983 album Odyssey in a used store on Decatur Street.
Through my undergrad years and after (from ’78 to ’85) I DJ’d at Columbia University’s student-run WKCR, and I tried to keep pace with the latest in jazz. Wynton Marsalis was then beginning his ascendancy. Henry Threadgill, David Murray and the World Saxophone Quartet were big on the Downtown scene. And there was James Ulmer, a guitarist I knew from LPs but not live. Vernon Reid—then with Ronald Shannon Jackson—came up to the station for an interview, and he went on about “Blood.”
My ears pricked up when other DJs would spin Tales of Captain Black or Are You Glad to Be in America? Ulmer’s guitar sounded avant-garde, rootsy and exotic, like Ornette Coleman free-styling on electric six-string after a Howlin’ Wolf listening session. Ulmer often draws Hendrix comparisons, but I’ve always heard more Hubert Sumlin and John Lee Hooker in his raw tone and choppy attack. And his singing voice—throaty, half-spoken—was drenched in the blues, just as much as the Charley Patton and Fred McDowell records that lived on my Technics turntable.
I liked Ulmer’s larger ensemble work but was sent spinning by the mystical effect of the Odyssey trio. There was Blood’s signature mix of Downtown and Delta, weaving itself around the intermittently folksy, then Eastern drone of Charlie Burnham’s amplified violin. Both liberally used wah-wahs. Underneath was Warren Benbow’s precise yet wide-open groove, his crisp snare shots punctuating sing-songy tunes.
“Church” is a hybrid of the earthy and ethereal, channeling ’60s spirituality. “Love Dance” is an Eastern-tinged and foot-elevating tune that lives up to its title. “Little Red House,” a loose country blues, is spiced with marching rhythms. “Please Tell Her” is a sweetly sung ode of longing (the Hendrix parallel works here), while “Election” is an other-worldly reinvention of “Frere Jacques,” with possible political commentary in the “Are you sleeping?” reference. A new, sparse version of “Are You Glad to Be in America?” gained a new relevance during Round Two of Reagan.
To my historian sensibility, so much on Odyssey marks it a crowning overlap of two important jazz eras: the dusk of New York’s loft scene, heavily swayed by Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic ideas and the ’80s resurgence of roots influences, from gutbucket blues to foreign folk forms (“world beat” was then a new term).
To my ears today, Odyssey is a crowning achievement in Ulmer’s catalog. I have since learned it was his third of three for Columbia, recalling a brief period when the Tiffany label had warmed to cutting-edge jazz, releasing titles by Miles Davis (in his synthesizer phase) and Arthur Blythe (remember Blythe Spirit?) in addition to Ulmer.
I still have my Technics and play the LP with the bold, handsome photos of Blood by David Gahr on the cover. But hearing it now takes me back to New Orleans. Funny how that works.
Randy Weston & Melba Liston
Every aspect of Melba Liston’s life as a musician was a triumph over ridiculous and occasionally brutal obstacles. Virtually the only female horn player to perform regularly alongside her best male peers in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Liston thought of herself as an arranger first and a player second, though she was an ace trombonist who held her own with Jimmy Cleveland, Al Grey and Curtis Fuller.
By the time I met her in Los Angeles in 1990, she hadn’t played the horn for years and had recently started working again with pianist-composer Randy Weston after an almost two-decade hiatus, renewing a partnership that dated back to the mid-1950s. Liston had suffered a stroke in 1985 that disabled her left hand and made speech difficult. A badly healed broken leg left her dependent on a wheelchair. But Melba’s mind still flowed with music, and after several attempts she learned how to use a composition program for the Mac that allowed her to keep writing.
Living with her aunts in the once grand West Adams neighborhood, Liston was mostly housebound. So the jazz photographer Paula Ross and I came by regularly to hang out and made sure Liston got out to see old friends when they were working in L.A. Blossom Dearie once came by the house to spend an afternoon with Liston, but mostly we took her out to Catalina Bar & Grill and the Jazz Bakery, where Elvin Jones enveloped her in a bear hug. Abbey Lincoln sang “Rainbow,” the song she wrote with Liston, never breaking eye contact with her, and Clark Terry sat and held her hand as they beamed at each other.
No creative relationship meant more to her than the connection with Weston, and after decades of quietly playing Billy Strayhorn to his Duke Ellington she was gratified when he finally gave her costar billing on their 1993 masterpiece Volcano Blues. Weston would send Liston tapes of the tunes he wanted to record, and she would start developing the arrangements, which were mostly for a nine-piece band. When she returned from the recording session, she couldn’t stop smiling.
A discursive study of the blues, the album seems to sum up Weston and Liston’s entire relationship, from their seminal African-influenced sessions Uhuru Africa and Highlife to their love of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Count Basie (who wrote the title track). Liston’s intricate but loose-limbed charts inspired veteran players such as Benny Powell, Hamiet Bluiett, Teddy Edwards and Ted Dunbar into some of their strongest work, while Weston’s charismatic piano guides the ensemble passages with aplomb until emerging from the mix for a riveting solo.
Whenever I hear the bright brass intro of “Chalabati Blues,” the lush voicings of “Blues for Strayhorn” or the strangely celebratory wail of “In Memory Of,” I think about Melba shut away in her dark studio, staring at her computer screen and sounding out chords on her keyboard, conjuring a vast, luxurious world of sound connecting Casablanca and Ghana with New Orleans and New York City.
Originally published in September 2005