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The Best of Before & After: #TimesUp Edition

For our 50th anniversary, we selected our favorite excerpts from listening sessions on jazz’s distaff side

Jessica Williams
Jessica Williams

JESSICA WILLIAMS (May 2007) by Doug Ramsey

Fats Waller
“Smashin’ Thirds” (If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It, Bluebird/Legacy). Waller, piano. Recorded in 1929.

BEFORE: Fats Waller. That was deep. That was beautiful. It has all the elements of great music, just as if you listened to Bach or Beethoven or Rachmaninoff played by a great pianist. It’s together, it swings. It reached a crescendo, a pinnacle. Then it switched gears unexpectedly and came home and resolved itself. It had humor, drama, amazing technique. It’s a great piece of art.

AFTER: 1929! Almost 20 years before I was born. Amazing. There have been a couple of times when I’ve got into that space and played stride, but it’s not easy to do. There are only a few people who can do it today.

Anat Cohen, August 2009
Anat Cohen, August 2009 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

ANAT COHEN (March 2010) by Larry Appelbaum

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane
“Big Nick” (Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, Impulse!). Ellington, piano; Coltrane, soprano sax; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: Thank you for playing that. “Big Nick,” Coltrane. I remember the first time I really heard this recording. I got sucked inside it when I was jogging. I was so into his tenor playing, and then when I heard this I really heard his soprano playing, and the language and personality he used with it. Coltrane’s sound on this is so sweet yet it’s so complex, and he’s playing all over the horn, harmonically. The soprano is challenging that way, not just to keep in tune, but to sound effortless in the whole range.

I heard this when I was jogging and my feet stopped and I had to just stand and listen by that Muddy River in Boston. It changed my life. Coltrane changed my life. It wasn’t the notes, it was the spirit: to be so pure to express who they are, to be themselves. That’s what I listen to music for. I want to feel something. And in our culture, there’s so much materialism, we need to stop and take a breath and create a moment that we can experience together.

Terri Lyne Carrington
Terri Lyne Carrington

TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON (November 2010) by Larry Appelbaum

The Great Jazz Trio
“Rhythm-A-Ning” (Autumn Leaves, 441). Hank Jones, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 2002.=

BEFORE: That’s beautiful. If it wasn’t Elvin Jones, it’s somebody who’s listened to a lot of Elvin. His vocabulary and soloing with the left hand is so loose. Elvin approached the drums with urgency and a raw sensibility. Because I produce and I’m into the sound of things, it didn’t sound like the old Elvin Jones. On this recording, the snare was a lot louder the way it was mic’d. It’s not warm like those classic recordings from the ’60s, so it was throwing me off a little. Certain microphones pick up more of the detail of the snare, so if you have a busy left hand, which sounds great live, and if you have a certain kind of mic on it, you’ll hear certain details which can be distracting. So that’s what I was hearing, and I’m not used to hearing that sound from Elvin. I noticed that the hi-hat was right on the 2 and the 4, which is uncharacteristic of Elvin, but his left hand was pulling back to produce a kind of tension. I enjoyed that. I tend to listen analytically, which can be a curse if you just want to sit back and enjoy. So if I just want to feel it, I like to listen to a good singer or some hip-hop, where I don’t have to analyze. The swing was cool. The pianist was nice, traditional. I could really feel the love of that idiom, and when I listen to that style, that’s what I like to listen for.

AFTER: It’s funny, I was thinking it might be that trio. I love Hank Jones, the ease of how he plays; it’s steeped in the tradition. Hank and Tommy Flanagan both seemed timeless. You can almost play anything, and if the feeling and the sound are right it always sounds good.

Gretchen Parlato, August 2010
Gretchen Parlato, August 2010 (photo: Melissa Mergner)

GRETCHEN PARLATO (September 2011) by Larry Appelbaum

Carmen McRae
“Satin Doll” (The Great American Songbook, Atlantic). McRae, vocal; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Chuck Domanico, bass; Joe Pass, guitar; Chuck Flores, drums. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: I love Carmen. She’s got that grit in her voice; I could tell immediately from her entrance that this is a jazz singer. I love the bass-voice duet. My dad’s a bass player and we used to sing and play together. And Tierney [Sutton] was an advocate for gaining that intimacy from the beginning. It keeps the music and listener in the palm of your hand. It’s very powerful. You have to know the changes to sing with just bass, but you can take it anywhere. It’s a great way for singers to expose that they really know their stuff. You could tell that these guys are the real deal.

Mary Halvorson, 2009
Mary Halvorson, 2009 (photo: Hllary McHone)

MARY HALVORSON (September 2012) by Bill Milkowski

Jim Hall
“1953 Thesis” (Jim Hall and Friends: Live at Town Hall, Volume One, Music Masters). Hall, guitar; Don Thompson, piano, arranger; Steve LaSpina, bass; Terry Clarke, drums; Kermit Moore, cello; Shem Guibbory, Richard Henrickson, violins; Diedra Lawrence, viola. Recorded in 1990.

BEFORE: Well, so far I’m just hearing a string quartet, I think. No guitar. This is beautiful, though. I love string quartets. I’m a big fan of just that sound and all the possibilities you can get from it. I like the arrangement. When the rhythm section came in I totally wasn’t expecting that. It feels very structured and also really loose and free within that, which is nice. I especially like the blend that the guitar and piano get here. I don’t know who this is, but it’s beautiful. This now reminds me of some early Braxton Ghost Trance Music, in a sense—just the rhythmic propulsion of it and the staccato unisons with the strings.

AFTER: It’s Jim Hall? Wow!

Dee Dee Bridgewater, September 2012
Dee Dee Bridgewater, September 2012 (photo: Tomas Ovalle/courtesy of the Monterey Jazz Festival)

DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER (May 2013) by Larry Appelbaum

Billie Holiday
“Everything Happens to Me” (Rare Live Recordings, 1935-1959, ESP-Disk’). Holiday, vocal; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Artie Bernstein, bass. Recorded in 1955.

BEFORE: Where’d you find this? She could take any song, and once she sang it … this is, wow. Is that Jimmy? What is that?

It’s a rehearsal.

Get out of here. I need that. It’s like being there with her. It’s interesting when Jimmy Rowles suggested she sing that phrase differently. I know when we did the Billie record [Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater, EmArcy, 2009], the guys would go off into a corner and listen to her phrasing and analyze it, along with what the musicians did behind her. I said to the guys, “Really? Why do you do that?” So hearing Jimmy make that suggestion was like opening the window a little crack. It was also interesting because I’ve listened to her so much that I can anticipate how she’s gonna phrase. I did a serious analysis in the four months I [portrayed] her [in the play Lady Day]. Listening to this reminded me of Thad [Jones]’s advice: Don’t listen to singers. If I had listened to Billie, I would have sung like Billie. My ear is like a sponge and I’m good at imitating. So listening to that brought it all back to me.

She had such an unusual voice. Just the sound of it, and the texture of it after the drugging, smoking and drinking, gave it an interesting quality. It was nasal and whiny and husky, but she had a way of phrasing that was unique to her. Her sense of time was impeccable. She is singularly the jazz singer who has influenced the most jazz singers. When you talk to pop singers, if they’ve listened to anyone in jazz, they’ve listened to Billie Holiday. I don’t know if it’s the pathos in her life or the aura she’s been given. There’s Billie Holiday, there’s James Dean, there’s Marilyn Monroe. There’s this myth around her, and it keeps drawing every generation. I don’t know what it is. I’m fascinated with it too.

So what speaks to you about Billie?

It’s the sensibility of the woman. I don’t listen to Billie. When I listen to Billie I get sad. She was a woman who died so young, 49. She had such a hard life and she was militant, kind of a rebel during her time period. And I just can’t imagine living how she lived. Can you imagine driving in a car down the road in the South and seeing black bodies strung up, that have been lynched, that have been hung? And this is your view going to the venue where you’re supposed to perform, not being allowed in the front door, and then having to find a place to stay every night? Now what does that do to one’s psyche? I hear anger in her voice. I hear frustration in her voice. I hear hurt. I hear so many things and it conjures up so much that it’s hard for me to listen to.

She’s hard for me to listen to, like Abbey Lincoln is hard for me to listen to. I feel that Abbey is the extension of Billie. Abbey was more prolific as a fighter, but Billie wrote “God Bless the Child.” I couldn’t sing for four months after I did the play. She consumed me. I was truly possessed by Billie Holiday, so I don’t like to go to that place. When I listen to Billie, it dredges up stuff that I’ve tried to push into a dark, dark corner of my life.