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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

Helen Sung
Helen Sung (photo: Margot Schulman)

HELEN SUNG (September 2013) by Larry Appelbaum

Mary Lou Williams
“Play It Momma” (Zoning, Smithsonian Folkways). Williams, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: [chuckles with grunts of appreciation] Was this recorded in the ’70s? With that bass, I thought we were getting into Shaft and “Pusherman.” I kept waiting for them to get into a walking bass, but they never did, which was nice. That’s just music you can groove to. That was fun. Makes you feel good. There was restraint, but it’s obvious this pianist could play a whole lot of piano with those chords, those voicings, and the whole bluesy thing.

AFTER: Was this before her sacred period? I can see why all those pianists [Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Tadd Dameron] went by her house. There’s so much music there, so much to learn from.

Melissa Aldana
Melissa Aldana (photo courtesy of UNESCO)

MELISSA ALDANA (March 2016) by Ashley Kahn

Coleman Hawkins
“Samba Para Bean” (Desafinado, Impulse!). Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Howard Collins, Barry Galbraith, guitars; Major Holley, bass; Eddie Locke, drums; Tommy Flanagan, Willie Rodriguez, percussion. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: It sounds a lot like Coleman Hawkins, but I never heard him playing in that style. But he could be playing Brazilian music, because time-wise he was around with the coming of bossa nova. It could be Zoot Sims, and it sounds like later Stan Getz too, so I’m really between all those guys. I would say Coleman because of the phrasing and the rattle and the way he’s playing the arpeggios.

AFTER: I never heard this. You’re going to have to give me [your copy] [laughs]. Stan Getz was my first thought, and I was very confused but I like it a lot. [Hawkins] just played the most beautiful melodies, and I think the way he was playing, even though he’s from the ’30s and ’40s, it’s super hip for the time. It’s just the sound and the vibrato that makes it seem old, but it feels like a lot of what all the modern players are doing, playing arpeggios—their voicings on the saxophone are coming from this.

In my personal experience we never talked that much about folkloric music in Chile, or even any music with Latin-American roots. In that sense Chile may be a bit different from Argentina, Brazil, and Peru, which are countries that are very strong with the folkloric music. Probably due to the dictatorship of [Augusto] Pinochet, the Chilean people may have to an extent avoided their own culture. Plus my dad’s a fanatic [for] American jazz, so most of the information we had was directly coming from the States.

Bossa nova found a home in America in the ’60s. Did it eventually ricochet back down to Chile?

Not that I remember, at least not in the way that I grew up. I did know about it from Stan Getz, Hermeto Pascoal. But in high school and my music education in Santiago, there wasn’t much of that.

Bria Skonberg
Bria Skonberg (photo: Carolina Palmgren)

BRIA SKONBERG (October 2016) by David R. Adler

Gene Krupa & His Orchestra
“Let Me Off Uptown” (OKeh). Krupa, drums; Roy Eldridge, trumpet/vocals; Anita O’Day, vocals; with big-band horn and rhythm sections. Recorded in 1941.

BEFORE: [Sings along with the reed-section riff as soon as it starts] Gene Krupa Orchestra. When I hear this song in my head I don’t think of it being this relaxed. [Mimics the O’Day/Eldridge banter, then Krupa’s loud snare-drum crack before O’Day sings] I love that there’s this resurgence of drummer-led bands. These leaders, they give that energy to the band, they know how to drop bombs in places that are really effective. I saw Jamison Ross’ show recently, and it was so great to see a drummer who could build the drama however he wanted. You’re never like, “Hey, stay and play under the vocal!”

I love this song for many reasons. I did a show several years ago called “Brass and Belles,” and I did a collection of vocalists that were paired with trumpet players, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that patter [on this song] very well. “Hey Bria, how’s it goin’?” “Oh, ya know, I’m doin’ okay!” Which is probably how I speak to myself. [Laughs] So I just used the song to introduce the band. [Listens to Eldridge’s trumpet solo]

Has Eldridge been influential for you?

Yeah! Louis has been my favorite for a long time, but everybody around that era. Charlie Shavers is one of my all-time favorites. Roy’s “Heckler’s Hop” and all that stuff, it epitomized really hot, swingin’ stuff. Total fire, searing.

Lisa Fischer
Lisa Fischer (photo: Djeneba Aduayom)

LISA FISCHER (September 2017) by Larry Appelbaum

Nat “King” Cole & Nellie Lutcher
“Can I Come in for a Second?” (Jazz Encounters, Capitol). Cole, piano, vocal; Lutcher, vocal; Ernie Royal, trumpet; Charlie Barnet, tenor saxophone; Irving Ashby, guitar; Joe Comfort, bass; Earl Hyde, drums. Recorded in 1950; released in 1992.

BEFORE: I love it. I love the storytelling; I can see the whole scene. I can see them at the door. It’s so funny. She’s saying no but her heart’s saying yes. I love her feistiness. And I love his smoothness; he’s just trying to get in. Ha-ha, touchdown! I’m not sure who the singers are, but the whole vibe of the singers is conversational. It’s such a mirror into the times, when things were a lot subtler, when men used to have to have conversations with women and a woman’s virtue was her currency. As much as you need to guard it, you had to fight this other side of yourself that wants to be conquered on some level.

It’s just so much fun to listen to. Again, I’m showing my age, but I like the subtleness, and it allows my mind to paint the picture. If you weren’t interested, you only needed to push back a little bit. Now, when people say, “Yo baby, can I have your phone number?,” it’s a harder push and it becomes uncomfortable to say no. But back then things were slower and with a bit more intrigue.

AFTER: Smooth, like cognac. I love the clips from his television show. Back then you didn’t see a lot of black men on TV.

As Nat said at the time, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

Sherrie Maricle
Sherrie Maricle (photo: Garth Woods)

SHERRIE MARICLE (March 2018) by Aidan Levy

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra
“Tiptoe” (Consummation, Solid State). Jones, flugelhorn; Lewis, drums; Danny Moore, Al Porinco, Marvin Stamm, Snooky Young, trumpets; Eddie Bert, Cliff Heather, Jimmy Knepper, Benny Powell, trombones; Eddie Daniels, Jerry Dodgion, Jerome Richardson, reeds; Roland Hanna, piano; Richard Davis, bass. Recorded in 1970.

BEFORE: Thad Jones and Mel Lewis! I hate when people ask, “Who are your top 10 favorite drummers?” But if I had such a thing, Mel is definitely way up there on the list. Is this “Tiptoe”? That’s got the great album cover too. When I moved to New York in 1985, Mel was my teacher at NYU for a year. My lessons with him would be at his house, but twice my drum lesson was playing the third set at the [Village] Vanguard. You’d think it would be fun, but I was 21 or 22. I knew a lot of this music, and I was just petrified out of my mind. That’s when they used to do three sets. Mel said, “What do you want to play?” And I said, “You know, I’ll play anything as long as there’s music,” because I’m a fairly good reader, and he goes, “Yeah, it’s all back there.” Of course I went back and sat at his drums and there’s no music anywhere. And I’d never played on [calfskin] heads before, and it was really like playing on wet dishtowels. But what a life-altering experience that Mel gave me.

I don’t know what the word is for powerful and subtle—we need to come up with a better adjective for this. He swung so hard without ever being overpowering or overbearing in any way. When Mel hit that Chinese cymbal, in my mind that’s like when you’re shifting into the highest, most powerful gear that you have, just to send it over the edge. So I call it “Mel Lewis overdrive,” when he went to that. His brushwork too, so extraordinary and smooth as glass. Sometimes I used to think of it as an ice-skating rink or a hockey arena, when the Zamboni machine just glides over the ice and it’s perfectly smooth. Everything he plays on brushes sounds like that.

Nicole Mitchell (photo by Kristi Sutton Elias)
Nicole Mitchell (photo: Kristi Sutton Elias)

NICOLE MITCHELL (June 2018) by George Varga

Sun Ra & His Intergalaxtic Arkestra
“The Forest of No Return” (Second Star to the Right: Salute to Walt Disney, Leo). Sun Ra, piano, synthesizer, vocals; Marshall Allen, alto saxophone; June Tyson, violin, vocals; Michael Ray, trumpet, vocals; Julian Priester, Tyrone Hill, trombones; Eloe Omoe, alto saxophone, flute; James Jackson, bassoon, oboe, vocals; Arthur Joonie Booth, electric bass; Earl “Buster” Smith, drums; Nelson Nascimento Santos, percussion. Recorded in 1989.

BEFORE: Well, it’s good to have fun with music! A lot of the times we take it way too seriously. I knew it was a live album, because somebody was hitting that mic. There weren’t a lot of instruments playing. So in trying to distinguish some of the voices—and with that sense of humor—I could easily be tricked into thinking it was the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But then some people might think it was Sun Ra.

It was. What made you think so?

They were singing “no one is allowed in here,” and it was too many people for it to be the Art Ensemble. I was listening for the piano, but I could tell they were marching around and leaving the stage. Sun Ra pioneered a lot of performance art in jazz and lots of things people take for granted now, like improvising with electronics, which he was doing in real time. He had an amazing mind.

Did you ever meet him?

I had two meetings with Sun Ra, and the first was really intense. He was playing in Los Angeles, when I was 19, and someone told me, “You have to go!” When I went to the ticket booth, the lady said, “The rest of the band is backstage. Just go through the door over there.” So I went back and got to meet June Tyson, Marshall Allen and the band. The trumpeter from Kool & the Gang was also back there. And I talked to Sun Ra. It was amazing, because my mom had a lot of Afrofuturistic ideas and she was from Chicago but had never heard Sun Ra, or even knew what the AACM was. But she definitely had a lot of parallel ideas as a self-taught writer. Sun Ra told me, “You should come to Philadelphia when you’re ready to join the band.” I ended up going to Chicago and joined the AACM. If not, I would have gone to Philadelphia and joined Sun Ra’s band!