Every month JazzTimes informs readers about tons of music, covering between 100 and 200 CDs in reviews, features, news items, etc. Around 95 percent of those discs are new releases because we like to keep up with the modern scene. But one of the joys of being a music fan is turning friends onto albums that you adore, no matter the era. For our 35th anniversary issue we asked our writers to pick one album that he or she wanted to inform the world about-as long as it was released between 1970 and 2005-and write a mini-essay about it. The aim was not to define the jazz canon of the past 35 years, which is why you’ll see in these pages an idiosyncratic collection of recordings-some popular, many obscure-that in their own way helped define, inspire or enrapture our writers. The goal was simply to express love for the music that has powered this magazine, and our contributors, through the past three and a half decades.
More “bizarre” and “fusiony” than he had hoped, John Abercrombie’s callus-ripping debut is nonetheless one of the best jazz guitar discs of the past 35 years. For Abercrombie enthusiasts, 1974’s Timeless has it all: Oregon-esque acoustic numbers (“Love Song”), Johnny “Hammond” Smith-influenced organ bop (“Ralph’s Piano Waltz”) and, most important, Abercrombie’s post-Hendrix guitar shred (“Red and Orange”). For those who think of the crystal-toned six-stringer as too mellow or, to quote the International Herald Tribune, “too…white,” the latter especially should prove to be a head-cleaning experience.
The album, which also features keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette, was originally intended to highlight Abercrombie’s organ-trio roots. But what the band captured on tape was, as DeJohnette is wont to say, much more “multidimensional.” Kick-off track “Lungs” alone is like a survey of great ’70s electric whatsis: the three-part performance explores connections between Mahavishnu-fingered speed-jazz, Miles-adelic NASA-rock and Hancock-worthy street-funk-and all that within just 12 minutes. Even more impressive is the thoroughly modern-sounding title track, a Jim Hall-meets-Pink Floyd ballad that somehow mashes up all of the above into a quarter-hour of gorgeous, genre-free jamming.
Abercrombie worries that “spacey and nonharmonic” guitar-work such as this gives him a weird reputation-like standards are beyond him or something. However, fans of the recent Stark Reality reissue, the circa-’70 Now, know that Abercrombie can make Hoagy Carmichael swing like mad (and sound like acid rock, to boot). Truth be told, Abercrombie could use more of a weird rep. Then maybe the hipsters who tuned into Now might discover that Timeless is every bit as wild-an electric-jazz classic ripe for some new hype.
Inspired by Santana’s performance at Woodstock in 1969, as well as by hippies, the Black Panthers and activist Cesar Chavez, a Latin-rock revolution occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1973 the rock impresario Bill Graham presented a Latin music show at Winterland in San Francisco that reflected some of movement’s leading lights. Malo headlined, supported by the Tito Puente Orchestra and Azteca, the Latin-fusion band led by percussionist Coke Escovedo, with brother Pete on lead vocals. While Malo rocked with sit-ins by Puente and Carlos Santana, it was Azteca who stole the show.
The 17-piece ensemble was sprawled across the ample stage, playing jazz-oriented Latin funk-rock in front of a psychedelic light show. Azteca’s music, arranged by Coke and Tom Harrell, who played trumpet in the band, was performed by a high-caliber cast, including Paul Jackson (bass), Lenny White (drums), Neal Schon (guitar), Mel Martin (sax), Victor Pantoja (congas), Rico Reyes (vocals), Jules Rowell (trombone) and other strong Bay Area musicians. Drums, voices and horns combined with contemporary harmonies to create a soulful collective sound.
Azteca released its debut album only a few months prior to the Winterland show. The cover art was an adaptation of the ancient Aztec calendar with musical instruments surrounding the cycle of life. From hippie groove tunes like “Ain’t Got No Special Woman” and “Peace Everybody” to superb instrumental forays like Harrell and Martin’s “Non Pacem,” to lovely songs like “Love Not Then” by the unsung composer Flip Nuñez, Azteca’s debut is diverse and original. As when played live, the songs on the LP groove hard through a variety of Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban styles, but they also possess extraordinary jazz-rock interplay. Magic abounds in Wendy Haas’ soprano voice, in the extraordinary horns that rival vintage Tower of Power and in the Hendrix-inspired guitar of a teenage Schon, years before he broke big with Journey.
“La Piedra del Sol” (“Stone of the Sun”) opens and closes the album. An impressionistic Latin-jazz piece cowritten by Harrell and White, it conjures an indigenous theme. Meanwhile, Al Bent’s composition “Azteca” captures the infectious spirit of the 6/8 rhythms used by Mexican danzantes (native dancers), while Pantoja, who played with Willie Bobo, injects a perfectly swinging Afro-Cuban feeling on congas.
“Mamita Linda” is an uptempo salsa tune sung in English and Spanish by Pete and highlighted by a blistering timbales solo by Coke. “Ah, Ah” is a Puente cover and testament to the greatest influence on the Escovedo family. Bassist Jackson, who would soon become an integral part of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, contributes “You Can’t Take the Funk Out of Me.”
In 1973 Azteca cut its second and last record, Pyramid of the Moon. But in its short life, the band provided a funky mambo that went beyond the dancehall and served as soundtrack to the Chicano Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests and the plight of farm workers.
There are surely worse things than moving from a culture-rich European city like Frankfurt, Germany, to San Bernardino, a smog-filled town kindly known as “the armpit of Southern California.” But as a 16-year-old amateur drummer who made just such a move in late 1972, I couldn’t imagine a grimmer fate.
What sustained me, at least until I graduated early and returned to Frankfurt, was music. And while I savored such then-current releases as Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction, Art Blakey’s Child’s Dance and the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire, no album gave me as much pleasure as Back Door, the self-titled debut by a young English trio whose vision and skill was matched only by its obscurity.
Now as then, it’s an album I can rely on to inspire at least mild astonishment in those hearing it for the first time. Originally released on a tiny English indie label in 1972, it was rereleased by Warner Bros. a year later (albeit with the song titles reversed from side 1 and 2). It was issued on CD by WEA in Germany in 2001, again with the titles reversed.
A punk-funk jazz group years before the term existed, Back Door teamed saxophonist-flutist Ron Aspery, drummer Tony Hicks and the remarkable Colin Hodgkinson. The missing link between Larry Graham and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Hodgkinson was surely the finest electric bassist of the 1970s who wasn’t named Jaco, thanks to an ingenious, chordal-based style that saw him simultaneously playing lead and rhythm with equal taste and fire on his left-handed Fender Jazz Bass. Aspery, who died in late 2003 at 59, deftly fused Ornette Coleman with the two Parkers (Charlie and Maceo), while Hicks provided a propulsive foundation.
A marvel of blues-drenched soul, postbop dexterity and vibrant concision, Back Door’s dozen songs clock in at a Ramones-like 31 minutes. But the trio packs a wealth of ideas into each cut, from the avant jazz-funk of “Slivadiv” (later sampled by the Beastie Boys for their song “Stand Together” on Check Your Head) and the beguiling balladry of “Waltz for a Wollum,” to the exquisite alto sax and bass dialogue in the flamenco-tinged “Turning Point.” A second album, 1973’s 8th Street Nites, features Hodgkinson’s jaw-dropping, triple-time bass and vocal version of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues.”
Back Door’s few U.S. tours, as the misplaced opening act for King Crimson and ELP, ensured most jazz fans here were kept in the dark-though not the bassist, whose name escapes me, in Dizzy Gillespie’s 1982 band, who at a San Diego gig that year played a solo taken, note for note, from Back Door’s debut release.
After the group broke up in 1977, Hodgkinson worked with everyone from Jan Hammer and Charlie Mariano to (ahem!) Whitesnake, and released a self-produced 1998 solo album, The Bottom Line. Back Door reunited briefly in 1986 and again in 2003, when it recorded a new indie album, Askin’ the Way. (All three Back Door albums are available from Cultfound.org.)
But the trio never soared as high as on its first album, an overlooked gem that never fails to make me smile.
(Criss Cross, 1985)
In 1977, A&M put Chet Baker in a recording studio with a jazz-fusion band. Like more than a few foolish record labels before it, A&M hoped it could scrape away Baker’s wasted junkie exterior and expose a little of the old gleam (and, of course, sell a few records in the process). At the session, Baker surprised his younger bandmates by playing in a harder, punchier style, which fit with their funk- and rock-influenced sound. But according to James Gavin’s Baker bio, Deep in a Dream (which reads a bit like a very long police blotter), the trumpeter hated the subsequent release, You Can’t Go Home Again.
Something of that session must have stuck in his head, though. Baker played a funked-out, 13-minute version of “Love for Sale” on the LP, and he returned to it in 1985 for the wholly satisfying trio record Chet’s Choice. On just this one tune, bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse trades his acoustic for electric and repeats a funky, spacious five-note figure for nearly nine minutes. Guitarist Philip Catherine alternates pedal-aided swells and dives with chunky syncopated chording, and Baker adapts-ever so slightly-his breathy, melodic lines to the funky outlay of the music. The exposition of the theme, like so many felicitous details on this recording, comes with a creative twist. It takes off from a Miles Davis minimalist cool but contains an unexpectedly playful B section. Rassinfosse suddenly breaks into a walk and Catherine and Baker spin contrapuntal lines, West Coast-style, like the trumpeter had done with Gerry Mulligan back at the beginning of his career.
If the glamorous image of the young Chet Baker threatened to overshadow his music, the wreckage of the older Baker’s life nearly obliterates it. With his skull-head on a shrunken frame, his dentures and his wandering junkie lifestyle, Baker seemed more like an oblivious lead in his own tragic movie than a real person. His late-period music, though, was cannier, cagier and more mutable than his detractors or devoted admirers give him credit for.
Baker planned his life around his drug habit, which made it nearly impossible to keep a group together. This trio, which lasted from 1981 through 1985, proved a very welcome exception. As Gavin relays in his book, a Spanish television reporter once asked Baker why he often didn’t use drummers. “Because they make too much goddamn noise, that’s why!” Well, he sounds stunning and strong in this drummerless trio-especially in the company of an incisive guitarist like Catherine. Chet’s Choice is one recording I listen to over and over.
Django Bates’ wonderfully strange and strangely moving album Quiet Nights is an underrated treasure in the specialty genre of deconstructed standards. You’ve never heard standards quite like this, from the reggaefied semiabstraction of “Teach Me Tonight” and a celestial, dream-worldly “Over the Rainbow” to a mind-altering, hyperkinetic “Like Someone in Love.” In Bates’ scheme, tunes are sung with pearly crispness by young Swedish vocalist Josefin Cronholm, who is flung into swirls of reharmonized and rerhythmicized settings by pianist and keyboardist Bates, reedist Iain Ballamy and drummer Martin France. It works, miraculously.
At the time of this project, Bates had just won the Danish Jazzpar prize. In response, Bates opted to address (and undress) the world of standards, which he’d mostly managed to avoid playing in his offbeat musical life. Opening with a seductively percolating but harmless version of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low,” the album doesn’t start on its strongest footing. But the adventure heats up: “Hi Lili Hi Lo” turns, with poetic aptness, toward Fellini-esque psycho-circus colorations, and the enigmatic Ellingtonia of “Solitude” comes equipped with John Cage-like prepared piano.
The album’s real prize is the weirdly mesmerizing version of the sublime Antonio Carlos Jobim and Gene Lees bossa nova classic “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.” Keyboard and sax weave a harmonically asymmetrical web around Cronholm’s lovely melodic reading. Jobim’s languid descending chords, slowly tumbling beneath the fairly static melody, leads into a disarming decelerando. The slowing effect is rarely used in jazz-or to such a hypnotic an effect. It’s as if we’re slipping into a not-unpleasant dreamland or into a fatalistic wash of love.
Smitten, I played Bates’ haunting “Quiet Nights” for Al Jarreau one evening in 2000, during a Before & After session. I had deemed it appropriate to pull one track from out of left field. Around the decelerando, Jarreau’s already wide eyes grew yet wider, and he laughed with delight: “Wow, well, there’s a step out there…. I admire the taking on of that, being willing to step that far out there, but except for the rare listener, it’s a real stretch.” I confessed to Jarreau that I had fallen deeply in love with the album, and didn’t know if that said something about me. “Oh,” he said, and let out his infectious laugh, “it speaks volumes.”
Because Quiet Nights is so unique, so strange, Bates kept running into a wall of indifference while trying to license the recording. But then altoist and diehard indie operator Tim Berne suddenly “got it,” and he insisted on putting it out on his Screwgun label. Never mind that it sounds radically different than much of the Screwgun catalog.
At the time, Berne said, “A lot of people, who are into so-called avant-garde jazz, might see it as being commercial in the bad sense of the word. But you can really get fooled, including me. The first time I listened to the CD, I thought it was really nice, but I didn’t really hear it. I played it a bunch of times and couldn’t believe it. I listened to that record 30 to 50 times before I put it out, and it always grabbed me.” Me, too.
Tony Bennett & Bill Evans
The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album
The mid-’70s was a particularly dismal time to be a jazz singer. Overwhelmed by the pop debris that defined music’s most cacophonously ugly decade, the biggest names in vocal jazz were struggling to be heard. Even the mighty Frank Sinatra was ready to throw in the towel. Then, like a delicately scented rose in the midst of endless desert, emerged a work of quietly assured genius.
Tony Bennett and Bill Evans had been maintaining a mutual admiration society ever since their first formal meeting at the White House in 1962. Each respected the other’s unflagging musical integrity, taste in songs and keen instincts for creative self-reinvention. In a 1968 Billboard tribute to Bennett, Evans sized him up as “my favorite singer. Tony really has knocked me out more than anybody. The reason is that he has developed through a long, hard process of pure dedication to music and to his own talent.” The equally infatuated Bennett summarized Evans as “the greatest and most influential jazz pianist of his generation.” Yet, it was neither Bennett nor Evans who came up with the idea of collaboration. Annie Ross, seated ringside with Bennett during an Evans date at Ronnie Scott’s, suggested they’d be “a perfect combination.”
Rarely throughout his remarkably prolific career had Evans worked with vocalists. When he did, he opted for only the best, supporting a 1958 Helen Merrill session, toiling alongside Jon Hendricks on George Russell’s boldly ambitious New York, N.Y., stepping in for Wynton Kelly for three of the tracks on Mark Murphy’s Rah and teaming with Monica Zetterlund in 1964 for the ice-cool Swede’s richly accomplished Waltz for Debby.
Bennett, then ending his decades-long association with Columbia and on the verge of launching his own Improv Records, agreed to a quid pro quo deal that included first an album for Evans’ label, Fantasy, and a subsequent pairing for Improv, 1976’s Together Again. The two albums represent not only Evans’ best but also his last studio work with a singer.
Choosing tunes long familiar to both, including Cy Coleman’s delicious jet set anthem “When In Rome,” Johnny Mercer’s hauntingly beautiful “Days of Wine and Roses” and the sublimely heartrending “Some Other Time,” the duo entered Fantasy’s Berkeley studios on June 10, 1975. As Bennett later recalled the process to vocal historian Will Friedwald, “We’d find a key and the two of us would work it out. For about 45 minutes, we’d work out the arrangement and he’d say, ‘Do you want to modulate here? How many choruses do you want?’ And then we would play it through and work out all the changes and all that. We spent three days doing that, until we had nine songs in the can.” Sixteen years later, in the liner notes for a career retrospective box set, Bennett would exalt it as “the most prestigious album I ever made. What a joy to have something come out just right.”
Lenox Avenue Breakdown
During the summer of ’79 I was in Dallas, home from college in New York, when I stumbled onto alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown at Metamorphosis Records, an epicenter of cool sounds in Big D’s only hip enclave. I was struck by the cover, which seemed like a savvy updating of the Reid Miles Blue Note covers I was eagerly collecting, and the title grabbed me as I took to anything Gotham-oriented-even reruns of Kojak.
Once I put on the record, I was even more hooked. The size and dimension of the ensemble was unlike anything else I’d heard. There was a tuba playing a bass line, but a bass was too; a flute floated over a lilting Caribbean rhythm, then they played something a bit more straightahead, then something more Middle Eastern. The overall ensemble, with flutist James Newton, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist Cecil McBee, tubaist Bob Stewart, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Guilherme Franco, is still forward-looking 27 years later.
Before buying this LP I had heard Blythe play only once, on the radio; it was a track with alto, tuba and congas (as it turns out, it was from his disc Metamorphosis on India Navigation), and I was struck by how his sound seemed to sum up everything that came before him: Johnny Hodges’ suave tone, Cannonball Adderley’s keen sense of rhythm and Ornette Coleman’s thirst for exploration were just a few of the touchstones, and they were all apparent in the music on Lenox Avenue Breakdown. The sound of Blythe’s band enlarged his solo style, which was bold, diverse, experimental and imminently accessible. As I had drifted further into jazz and away from my teenage diet of Bruce Springsteen, Roxy Music, punk and new wave, I wondered if my friends would follow. Some did, and Blythe’s sound provided the on-ramp.
The record wasn’t a commercial success, however, and within five years or so, the suits at Columbia were shoehorning the alto saxophonist’s bright sound into whatever they deemed marketable. Although it failed to get the recognition it deserved, Lenox Avenue Breakdown stands tall as one of the great records of the era.
When musical worlds collide the results are rarely viewed with ambivalence. That’s especially true when Lester Bowie stood, as he often did, as the mastermind of an event.
I was already a Bowie fan, but upon hearing the trumpeter’s The Great Pretender for the first time in 1981 it was a dancing, throw-my-arms-in-the-air, laughing occasion. For others, Bowie’s fusion of the Platters’ doo-wop hit with jazz and an array of his other musical interests and influences must have been a fingernails-on-a-blackboard experience.
But no matter your point of view, the trumpeter’s mournful opening on the title cut could not and cannot be ignored. There’s just too much drama for nonchalance.
With great brilliance and signature theatrics, Bowie’s horn calls out in the tradition of a jazz funeral before leading the procession in a slow dirge. It also acts as lead vocalist, passionately relating the lyrics in a spree of squeezed, crunched and roared notes. Bowie and the group take the tune to church on the strength of Donald Smith’s gospel-flavored piano and the “choir” of vocalist Fontella Bass and David Peaston. All this and we’ve barely delved into the 16-minute excursion. Then baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett enters “The Great Pretender,” which swings hard before the group takes the song out.
This one cut embodies so many of Bowie’s faces: He references his hero, Louis Armstrong, and speaks of his R&B past and his stints in circus and carnival bands; he’s the free player of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and a trumpeter with licks capable of producing melancholy and infectious laughter. He makes us see him standing there with his long white lab coat and flat-top hair cut-a stance of defiance and fun. He captures it all on this one song.
While The Great Pretender boasts more than this one cut, including an uproarious “It’s Howdy Doody Time,” the title track defines the album and hints of things to come with a zoot-suited Lester Bowie and his Brass Fantasy band.
The Great Pretender remains as musically vital, unique and memorable as its creator. Upon hearing of Bowie’s death on November 8, 1999, The Great Pretender undoubtedly wound up on turntables around the globe, just as it did mine.
Dollar Brand +3 With Kippie Moeketsi
Those who knew him and played with him say reedman Kippie Morolong Moeketsi was a little guy. But little wasn’t what I’d have guessed when I first heard that alto, on an album lent to me by one of my South African students some time in the mid-’70s.
I knew, of course, about South African jazz. Lots of exiled players had made their homes in London; there were gigs, and every jazz-piano fan was beginning to sit up and notice the album’s other principal, Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim), since his Newport debut in 1965.
White critics in apartheid South Africa said that Moeketsi was nothing more than a Charlie Parker copyist. Fortunately, I’d never heard that before I heard the album, because what I heard was no copyist. Here was a man who could honk and bray big, rousing choruses: part down-and-dirty mbaqanga blues; part get-up-and-bash-your-tambourine hymns of praise. Then-maybe even on the same track-he’d pull back the dynamics to utter muted, terse, ironic phrases. If you thought that was all, it was because you hadn’t yet heard the crooning, velvety dance-hall choruses, the abstract crescendos of pain and the stunningly intricate speed-merchant runs where every note had something to say. Schizophrenic? You bet-but all in one beautiful, unique voice. There’s a reason why Ibrahim considered Moeketsi one of his musical heroes and Hugh Masekela called him “among the most brilliant musicians we’ve ever had.”
Moeketsi’s first instrument was clarinet, and you can hear that in his playing. His training came in fragments from professional teachers, and from his older brother, Jacob, a pianist. Moeketsi played in the musical King Kong, traveled with it to London but had what he described as a breakdown there. The show’s management committed him to an institution, and Moeketsi lived with the effects of electroconvulsive therapy for the rest of his life.
This isn’t a typical recording to feature Moeketsi, who, considering his stature, recorded little under his own name. Much of what else survives is way more commercial or rootsy; there isn’t another outing with quite so many ballads. This album was made shortly after Moeketsi had picked up a sax again after a six-year lay-off: colonial customs officers had confiscated his instrument during an African tour and as a result he’d lost his permit to work. (Dollar Brand +3 is out of print, but its “African Sun,” “Bra’ Joe,” “Rolling” and “Memories” appear on the Ibrahim compilation CD African Sun.)
But those who’ve shared a bandstand with him say this is the closest to how they remember him live: the little guy with, said one fellow musician, “crinkly Japanese eyes, bubbling with excitement and jokes,” a wicked sense of humor, a gentle hand as a teacher, proud, defiant nationalist politics and a despairing, destructive taste for the bottle. (This was apartheid South Africa, where a black musician could be officially classified only as a day-laborer-or a vagrant.)
If I had a musical ambition when I started traveling, it was to hear Moeketsi live. But by the time I got to southern Africa in 1983, Moeketsi was dead, not yet 60. They say it was Johannesburg’s biggest jazz funeral ever.
Benny Carter 4: Montreux ’77
(Pablo Live, 1977)
When Norman Granz began recording Benny Carter for Pablo in the mid-1970s, Carter had not had a record as a leader in a decade. After settling in Hollywood in 1942, Carter devoted himself primarily to writing for film and television, leaving comparatively little time for jazz activity. But by the 1970s the demands of film music were changing, and Carter reactivated his jazz-performer life.
Montreux ’77 was not his “comeback” album. That honor belongs to The King, recorded the year before. While that album, a studio effort, was by no means disappointing (“Malibu” is a bona fide masterpiece), the Montreux live recording was the first to fully capture the energy and drive that was thrilling audiences worldwide as Carter returned to regular touring.
There is nothing startling about the repertoire: seven standards that would become part of Carter’s usual set list of the period. What is startling is the playing. At 70, Carter did not merely recapture his past but showed that he was very much of the present. While remaining true to the musical verities that had guided him since he first attracted attention in the 1920s, Carter showed just how much he had continued to listen and absorb. Carter even brought out his trumpet for two tracks. His technique on alto was astonishing. As Gary Giddins wrote of this performance in the Village Voice: “Excepting pianists and Joe Venuti, I don’t think that any septuagenarian jazzman has ever played with such unimpeded authority.” Little did we know that Carter would continue to create at this level for another two decades.
Pianist Ray Bryant’s contributions should not be overlooked. Bryant had the harmonic sophistication that Carter demanded, but he also brought a blues and gospel sensibility that countered the altoist’s more cerebral tendencies and undoubtedly moved him in a new direction.
Drummer Jimmie Smith was the type of solid timekeeper Carter preferred, but he also found the company of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen stimulating. Throughout his career, Carter enjoyed the challenge of working with younger musicians, especially those who pushed the boundaries of their instruments (after all, he hired Dizzy Gillespie for his sextet in 1941).
The original LP packaging was completely utilitarian and did little to sell the album. The cover consisted entirely of typography, although given the unappealing nature of the photography on many Pablo albums this may have been an improvement. There were no liner notes, only a producer’s note in which Granz explains that he has nothing new to say. (The Fantasy/OJC CD reissue at least uses a nice photo on the cover.)
Every track has at one time been my favorite, but I keep coming back to “Wave” for the sheer majesty of the melody statements, the facility of execution and, above all, the rare combination of logic and spontaneity governing Carter’s overall vision.
The release of the DVD of this performance, as part of the Norman Granz: Jazz in Montreux series, some 25 years after the LP was somewhat disconcerting for me. Something so familiar as a purely aural experience suddenly took on an entirely new dimension that in some ways diverted my attention from the sound itself. The fact that the DVD appeared so soon after Carter’s death in 2003 may have added to my initial sadness at viewing it.
The Audience With Betty Carter
Buying albums on the Internet is not half as much fun as it used to be going down to the local record store on a Saturday morning. When I first got this album in 1982 it was a double LP on the BetCar label. I can remember falling on it in the record shop-an American import, and on a label I had never heard of! At the time not many people in England knew much about Betty Carter, least of all me. Even so, I paid far more than I could comfortably afford for it and almost ran out of the shop in case somebody claimed they had sold it to me by mistake. Later I would learn of a rather gloomy feature on Carter in the Village Voice in the late 1970s that feared she might die an unknown genius.
When The Audience With Betty Carter was recorded in 1979, no record company would touch her, so Carter was forced to form her own self-produced label. But I knew none of this when I rushed home to play it. There are several albums in my collection where I wish I could hear them again for the very first time. This is one of them.
I can still remember the sheer jaw-dropping disbelief at the aural evidence entering my brain. There was a tingling through my whole body knowing I was listening to something special and unique. Listening to this album was a cathartic experience, and it left me drained. I played “Sounds”-a tour de force of scat through shifting tempos and meters that lasts 25 minutes and 20 seconds-over and over again. Looking back it’s easy to see why: Carter embraces a panoply of phonemes, from plosives and fricatives to nasals and glides, articulated in every possible way. Yet she is not trying to jam the entire alphabet into each measure; her spirit is free and floating, associating snippets of melody with pitch-slides, bends and weaving a wide range of vocal timbres into what she does while superbly interacting with her trio: pianist John Hicks, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Kenny Washington. Is it possible they ever played better than this? On one section of “Sounds,” Carter, Hicks, Lundy and Washington are actually playing in a different meters.
But the album highlight is Carter’s version of “My Favorite Things.” I still approach this track with a sense of awe, because no matter how many times I play it I never fail to marvel at how this performance takes flight. It’s at a ludicrously fast tempo, yet Lundy and Washington exert impeccable control while Hicks is at his most explosive, his energy overflowing in torrents of notes as his accompaniment blossoms into a counterline to Carter’s singing at the coda-who can say whether voice or piano predominates?
The Audience With Betty Carter is jazz of the highest order, and it can be returned to time and time again. Has there ever been a finer jazz vocal performance than this? Yet to say this is one of the finest of all jazz vocal performances is limiting; it is among the great contemporary jazz albums, period.
The first time I heard Stanley Clarke’s legendary jazz-fusion album School Days I was with my oldest brother, Keith. He had an 8-track cassette player in his car, with Jensen speakers in the back, and we would often hop in his car, cruise the city and take in the latest sounds of the day. Listening to Clarke was a bit of a leap back then, too.
In 1976, the dominant bands in our listening circle were funk ensembles: Parliament-Funkadelic, Kool and the Gang, the Ohio Players. But Stanley, as my brother called him, was a jazz artist of the time. School Days is an album full of the funk, yet it still possesses high emotional moments, passion, an excellent core of musicians, improvisation and stalwart leadership.
From the opening title track, Clarke’s statement was clear: This is the funk era, and though my allegiance is to jazz it’s impossible to ignore the music of today’s young people. His now famous clean-plucking bass work was by his own admission a take-off from funk bassist Larry Graham of Graham Central Station. But Clarke took Graham’s technique to another level, using it to solidify the electric bass as a melodic solo instrument as well as a timekeeper. Much in the way that Jimmy Blanton and others began to step out on acoustic bass back in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Clarke stepped out on electric bass in the 1970s with an abiding confidence. It didn’t hurt that he trained at the Philadelphia Academy of Music and had spent time in New York playing with some of traditional jazz’s most celebrated players.
The passion and emotional energy of School Days’ six tracks exemplify Clarke’s moment, too. The hard-driving opener is contrasted by the mellowness of “Quiet Afternoon.” “Desert Song” returns Clarke to acoustic bass, where he plays call-and-response with guitarist John McLaughlin. There are simply no lost moments on this album. Even now as I listen to School Days (on CD, not 8-track with those interruptions), I am struck by how the album perfectly captures the time in which it was recorded. Yet at the same time, if the record were released today it would hold its own easily.
In All Languages
(Caravan of Dreams, 1987)
The title Ornette Coleman chose for his 1987 album, In All Languages, was no less boastful-and no less justified-than the title for his 1959 record, The Shape of Jazz to Come. By recording with both an acoustic quartet and an electric septet, even performing seven of the 16 new compositions with both bands, the saxophonist seemed to declare that he could express himself in all styles, in all languages. He declared that his quest for the emotionally vivid moment would not be limited by instrumentation or jazz factionalism any more than it would be by conventional notions of harmony and swing.
Originally issued as a two-LP set, In All Languages devoted its first disc to Coleman’s reunion with the quartet from that 1959 album-trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins-and the second disc to the 1986 version of Prime Time: guitarists Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbe, drummers Denardo Coleman and Calvin Weston and bassists Al MacDowell and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. There are obvious differences between the two groups-the amplified, effects-laden septet has a denser sound than the leaner quartet; Cherry is more likely to engage Coleman in similar, elongated phrases, while the guitarists are more likely to jab nervously.
More interesting, however, are the similarities. If one plays the different versions of the seven common tunes back-to-back, one is struck by the way Coleman’s sharply defined themes-both melodic and rhythmic-dominate both renditions. His bandmates enjoy the freedom-or, rather, face the challenge-of playing without conventional chord changes or verse/chorus structure, but it’s easier to improvise and modulate simultaneously with the leader when the compositional material is this rich.
In other words, what allows Coleman’s harmolodic theory to work in all languages is the sheer lyricism and emotional wallop of his writing and playing. The jittery babble on “Cloning” suggests nervous conversation and laughter whether played with Higgins’ patient drum rolls or Prime Time’s frantic charge. The slow, hymnlike theme of “Space Church (Continuous Services)” yields a palpable yearning whether accompanied by Cherry’s echoed trumpet or guitar-triggered synths. And the irrepressible optimism of the title track comes across whether the main theme is struggling through Haden’s harshly bowed bass or through Prime Time’s pounding funk.
When everyone is essentially playing their solos at once, there’s no need for a piece to stretch on and on. All but two of the tracks on In All Languages are under four minutes, but with so much going on they never seem foreshortened. This approach may sound very avant-garde, but it’s not so different from a Dixieland combo that stands to solo all at once on the final chorus or from a pre-war blues band that shifts from D to D-flat and from 12 bars to 13 in pursuit of a song. In that sense, Coleman plays not only in all languages but also in all eras.
This was my introduction to Michael Brecker; Metheny’s 80/81 would soon follow. I was about 16, all I cared about was the guitar and my only serious exposure to jazz had been Joe Pass’ Virtuoso series. Three Quartets, recorded for Warner in early 1981, was in fact the first guitar-free jazz album that ever knocked me to the ground. With Corea on Bösendorfer grand piano, Brecker on tenor sax, Eddie Gomez on bass and Steve Gadd on drums, this was a group that combined studio-cat savvy with bandstand-warping heat. The album may have been cut in Los Angeles, but to me it represented nearby New York City, where I would soon make my home.
Compact discs were still some years away when I first heard Three Quartets. A friend lent me his library LP copy, which I promptly transferred to cassette. If memory serves, “Quartet No. 1” and “Quartet No. 3” were on side A, and parts one and two of “Quartet No. 2” were on side B, disrupting the numerical sequence of the pieces. Stretch’s 1992 reissue preserved that playing order and added four previously unreleased bonus tracks. The last of these found Brecker and Gadd dueting with casual brilliance on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” The other three, “Folk Song,” “Hairy Canary” and “Slippery When Wet,” made it into the book of Corea’s transitional band with Joe Henderson, Gary Peacock and Roy Haynes, which toured in the summer of 1981 (hear Live in Montreux, reissued by Stretch in 1994).
I didn’t manage to catch the one and only reunion of the Three Quartets band, at New York’s Blue Note in December 2001, but luckily the tape was rolling. “Quartet No. 2, Part 1” is the final track on Corea’s live two-disc retrospective, Rendezvous in New York, and I’m struck by the fidelity to the original-although Gadd swings more emphatically under Brecker’s solo and Gomez favors a far more acoustic sound than he used to. Another nice surprise: The new take ends not just with a ritardando, but also with a second duo passage from Brecker and Corea.
The semiclassical conceit of the title Three Quartets wasn’t lost on me back in the ’80s, but I didn’t make too much of it-and still don’t. To this day, the severe chromatic ascent that kicks off “Quartet No. 1” is enough to drive me wild. Ditto the segue from Brecker’s terrifying solo to the indigo lyricism of the movement’s second theme. I’m reminded how and why this music expanded my impressionable ears: the extended forms, the dissonant harmony, the instantly accessible melody, the burning swing, the noise, the funk. Jazz seemed impenetrable, but after Three Quartets, I was in. I got it.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson
Like a lot of people coming of age in the late ’60s, I became aware of Miles Davis through Bitches Brew. That double LP, with its mind-blowing psychedelic cover art, could be found in every hippie pad along Brady Street, that notorious strip of head shops, water bed outlets and underground bookstores located on Milwaukee’s East Side. Back in 1970, Bitches Brew was standard issue in every self-respecting hippie’s crash pad, occupying a prime spot near the turntable (and the household bong), right alongside copies of the Woodstock soundtrack, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys and other psych-rock classics.
But truth be told, I didn’t really “get” Bitches Brew. I knew that I was supposed to like it, that there was a certain mystique connected to this Miles release that instantly conveyed hip status upon the owner of said vinyl. But it didn’t reach out and grab me like Jack Johnson did the following year. Released on February 24, 1971, Jack Johnson was the one that blew the fusion floodgates wide open, launching a whole new genre in its wake. While Bitches Brew may be cited as lighting the fuse, Jack Johnson was Davis’ most blatant and successful stride into the rock camp.
Looking back on it now, 34 years later, it was John McLaughlin’s opening salvo of vicious power chording on “Right Off” that initially sold me on the LP. Coming right out of the gate with such ferocious intensity and proto-punk attitude, McLaughlin quickly grabbed my attention with grungey tones and slashing attack in a way that no other “jazz” guitar player had up to that point. His playing on Bitches Brew certainly hadn’t registered with me in the same way. But McLaughlin went directly for the throat with his lacerating chords and vicious string bends throughout “Right Off,” spurred by Michael Henderson’s menacing electric bass groove and Billy Cobham’s muscular shuffle-swing feel. From start to finish of that 26-minute track, which occupied an entire side of the original vinyl disc, McLaughlin’s angry, snarling tones-overdriven to the point where it sounds like the speakers of his amplifier will surely rip-carried the same visceral appeal to me as the Who’s Pete Townshend windmilling power chords on “My Generation.” Add Miles’ extroverted, white-hot trumpet work to the raucous mix, along with Teo Macero’s brilliant cut-and-paste job on the studio tape, and the results were life-altering for a 17-year-old kid raised on rock and hungry for something that pushed the envelope a bit further.
Jack Johnson grabbed me by the heels and shook me upside down until the very chemistry of my being had altered. It was a sonic mugging, the effects of which still resonate with me to this day.
(Warner Bros., 1986)
I was few months away from getting married in the summer of 1991 when I purchased Miles Davis’ Tutu. Arguably, I was solidifying one love relationship and revisiting another, although I acknowledge my relationship with jazz was not nearly as passionate as the one with my fiancé.
Having been exposed to jazz early in childhood, I’d spent much of the ’80s-then a teenager-in a prolonged dalliance with hip-hop, R&B, house, go-go, etc. But what is it about Tutu, released five years prior, that made it possible for me to reconnect with the likes of Milestones and Miles Ahead? Certainly, as a Jamaican, the presence of heavy drum and bass on tracks like “Tomaas” and the title track was a welcome attraction. I also won’t deny that Irving Penn’s stark cover photo (later copied by dancehall deejay Buju Banton for his Voice of Jamaica album) exerted a considerable pull. But beyond that esoterica, Tutu offers some subtle pleasures that only emerged to me after repeat listenings, especially in Marcus Miller’s bass and production work and the gusto in Davis’ trumpet playing despite his failing health.
I’ve long since dismissed much of the negative critical flood to which Tutu (and much of Davis’ latter work) has been subjected. Some of it, such as the suggestion that this was as much Miller’s album as it was Davis’, is only partly valid, while much of it, like the tired bromide of Tutu being “too ’80s-sounding,” is hardly worth considering for its frivolity.
Miles died on September 28, 1991; my nuptials took place in October. I was stunned by his passing, but I was glad that I had rediscovered jazz while he was still alive. Indeed, even as my jazz cosmology expands, Tutu remains the record that reasserted jazz as the center of my personal cultural frame.
It’s amazing, listening to Tutu again now, to find how a passion long subdued can be renewed-or as some older folks around here might say, “Ol’ fire stick easy fi ketch.”
The place and time I began studying jazz-central Oklahoma in the late ’70s-were not conducive to learning a great deal about the music’s avant-garde. Ornette Coleman was a rumor (even though he came from a similar cultural milieu: Ft. Worth, Texas, a short ramble down I-35), the Art Ensemble a well-kept secret. I was lucky. My dad was (and is) a jazz saxophonist with hipper tastes than most of the musicians on the Oklahoma City scene. He turned me on to Bird and early-to-mid-period Coltrane, and the best fusion: pre- and post-Headhunters Herbie Hancock, early Brecker Brothers and electric Miles. Our house was always filled with the finest records the Columbia Record and Tape Club had to offer, but the coolest free-jazz stuff seldom found its way to Oklahoma. I knew I was missing something special. I was determined to find it-whatever it was.
My great enlightenment came in 1980, the summer after my freshman year in college. I discovered a local record store that-eureka!-stocked the hopelessly exotic ECM label. Faced with an abundance of riches, and limited in what I could afford, I chose Special Edition by drummer Jack DeJohnette. (“It’s pronounced ‘Dee-jaw-nay,'” drawled the tragically hip record store clerk.)
Special Edition is DeJohnette at his most creative. “One for Eric” and “Zoot Suite” set exalted standards in small-group writing, combining his impossibly sophisticated rhythmic approach with an adventurous yet refined harmonic palette. DeJohnette’s arrangements of Coltrane’s “Central Park West” and “India” improved on the originals, and his leadership is impeccable. Few leaders this side of Ellington have elicited from his group such a combination of fire and precision. Needless to say, DeJohnette’s drumming is phenomenal. His flexible approach to time is arguably his greatest contribution: No drummer has ever played over-under-and-around the beat so imaginatively and yet still swung so hard.
As great as DeJohnette is-and bassist/cellist Peter Warren is also superb-it was the front line that blew my mind. For an aspiring saxophonist who’d never heard anything more “out” than Coltrane’s Live at Birdland, Arthur Blythe and David Murray were twin revelations. At that point I’d been playing jazz for only a short time; I was still trying to reconcile the disconnect between expressing myself freely while adhering to a set of harmonic and rhythmic rules that made razor-sharp distinctions between what was “wrong” and what was “right.” Blythe and Murray obviously had no such concerns. They knew the conventions but weren’t hung up by them. Murray, in particular, was the most spontaneous improviser I’d ever heard. His every note seemed fraught with infinite possibilities.
Later, of course, I’d learn about the precursors to Murray and Blythe. Lifelong infatuations with Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and a deeper appreciation of Trane would transform me further. In 1980, however, as a 19-year-old who’d been looking for something that would make sense of what he was hearing in his head, Special Edition was the Rosetta Stone.