Thursday, September 30, 2010

One Degree of Separation

from Chico Hamilton that is. It's been rough period; first Buddy Collette and now Tony Curtis. And what do these two dissimilar artists have in common? CH.
Collette is heard here in fine form with Hamilton's 1955 quintet. (To understand why guitarist Jim Hall cites Charlie Christian as a major influence, just listen up.) Buddy's been listening to Lester Young and has assimilated the tenor giant with great style. In all, a breezy example of West Coast cool before it got frigid and rigid.

Tony Curtis crossed paths with Hamilton a few years later on "The Sweet Smell of Success." I've not seen all of either Tony or Chico's film appearances, but it's likely that neither was ever more riveting than in this cinematic gem. (Alright, Chico was more effective in "Jazz On a Summer's Day" -- he didn't have any lines)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Count's Cojones

Where did Count Basie get his nerve? Among the many felicities to be found on the original version of "Lester Leaps In," few are as exhilarating as Basie's utterly original, stripped-to-the-bone piano work. The man of the hour, Lester Young, indeed leaps and lopes,sounding not a wit like any of his peers. Basie is just as audacious, just as anxious to calmly spit in the eye of swing conventions.If, say, Teddy Wilson's elegant improvisations were finely crafted sentences, Basie's keyboard utterances were a sprinkling of vowels. How did he get away with it? It all comes down to the brilliant, wild moment at 2:45 when he begins his solo. Following the horn riff that sets up the break, Basie gets ready for his closeup. "Ding-dong, Ding-dong." Four notes, a mere two notes repeated. Call it telegraphic, minimalist,frugal, aphoristic, whatever -- it's just plain ballsy. (Try to imagine what Waller or Tatum might have fit into that moment in the sun.) Everything about this "Lester Leaps In" is gorgeous, but Basie's revolutionary contributions ( later to offer inspiration to such giants as John Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Rowles, and Thelonious Monk) are so off-the-wall, yet so right -- they can make you laugh out loud.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Accompany This!

I'm not in the running for president of the current John Scofield fan club. His tone grates on me and I don't find his improvisations terribly compelling. But that is now and this (clip) was then. Brookmeyer may be the featured artist here, but for me, Scofield is the star. He shadows the valve trombonist so adroitly and with such deference that you could focus on his just-right accompaniment and be well satisfied. There's a lovely sense of modesty, mated with genuine respect for an older master, on display here.
(To counterbalance my initial Scofield-bashing, I have to praise to the skies his thoroughly atypical "Quiet" album of 1996, which finds him sticking exclusively to acoustic guitar. His playing and writing is exceptional, as is the occasional contribution of guest soloist Wayne Shorter on, thankfully, tenor saxophone.I adore this under-the-radar masterwork.)

Fusion Pipe Dreams: Part Two

Miles Davis delved into the David Crosby songbook with his 1970 recording of "Guinnevere," originally heard on the C,S,N debut album of the previous year. If only he had taken the plunge with this earlier Crosby classic as well -- Its minor key moodiness and arresting changes would have suited Davis and the rest of the "Second Great Quintet" perfectly. Davis on muted horn, Shorter on tenor, Hancock insinuating the harmony, Carter and Williams stirring up a suggestive rhythmic pulse...ah, pipe dreams.
The Byrd's 1967 performance is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. Crosby inhabits the misty poetry at the core of his song, while bassist Chris Hillman is simply outrageous, careening off into space yet somehow anchoring the piece. Unfortunately guitarist McGuinn doesn't seem to have a handle on the song's fragile mood -- his solo turn meanders where it should sing -- and the group remains grounded. Nonetheless this classic album cut is an unacknowledged high point of proto-fusion; a promising, if tentative, blend of folk-rock, Indian exoticism and jazz.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Beyond Jimmy Smith

The Hammond organ, electric guitar and drums combo that brought Jimmy Smith to fame in the mid-1950s needed a kick in the pants by the time the Seventies rolled around. Larry Young's groundbreaking work with the Tony Williams Lifetime on the 1969 release "Emergency!" was certainly a sonic declaration that the rules had dramatically changed for the basic organ trio. Applying Rock-era energy and amplification to the mix, Williams, Young and John McLaughlin emphatically stated that the good old ballad-blues-and bop days were a done deal.
"Timeless" a one-off 1974 project that united guitarist and leader John Abercrombie, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and keyboardist Jan Hammer (here relying on the Hammond) certainly draws on a post-"Emergency!" vibe, but also takes its own swerves in the road. As befits an ECM project of the time, there's a more ethereal quality to the music. "Ralph's Piano Waltz" inhabits a spacious sonic landscape that evokes mystery and drama. There's a haunting ebb and flow to the piece, enhanced by DeJohette's brilliant sense of dynamics. And that unexpected bridge -- the hook of the tune -- gets you every time.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


When Lee Konitz is on, no one can touch him for pensive playing. He's certainly on for this "What's New" duet with Bill Frisell. The contrast between the improvisers is beguiling. Lee avoids stating the melody as assiduously as Frisell keeps circling back to it. Both methods work beautifully. The full band "What Is This Thing Called Love" fragment that follows is fun, but the Konitz-Frisell get together is profound.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Getting It Right

Not long ago I attended the opening set of the Charlie Haden Quartet West at Birdland. Although the news that longtime member Ernie Watts was being replaced by Ravi Coltrane was encouraging, neither Coltrane nor the band itself ever really found the groove that set. Far too many long, unfocused solos clotted the atmosphere. If there were few involving moments, there were quite a few instances when things went off the rail completely. A self indulgent tenor soliloquy by Coltrane was, well, self indulgent; just because Dad pulled that feat off with honors doesn't mean his offspring are obliged to try. But nothing came close to pianist Alan Broadbent's strikingly inappropriate solo piano outing on Ornete Coleman's "Lonely Woman." Cloyingly rhapsodic and laden with brocaded passages, the just-plain-wrong improvisation practically begged to be taken out of its misery. What was he thinking?
Here, Broadbent, a stylist whose early trio albums I admire, particularly "Personal Standards," gets it right. If his interpretation veers away from Silver's lusty funkiness it takes on a suitable spirit of its own. Foster, no funkmesiter either, nails it as well.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cause You've Got -- Personality

This remarkably warm performance is from a generally remarkable performance film of Duke Ellington with seven eminent members of his 1967 band, including alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, trumpeter Cat Anderson, trombonist Lawrence Brown and the man of the hour, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves (bassist John Lamb, and drummer Rufus Jones round out the ensemble). Each of the horn soloists, and, of course, the leader himself, were utterly distinctive instrumental stylists for whom personality was a given. You knew each of these men from their first note forward. Their sounds were their ID cards; their solos, chapters from their autobiographies. And yet when they conjoined these individual approaches, the result was somehow indivisible. Such was the magic of Ellingtonia.
The great Gonsalves may be best known for his epic, combustible improvisation on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, but I wish this -- and other thoughtfully impassioned ballad performances like it-- would register as his recognized legacy.To hear how elegantly he combines the breathy sensuality that was Ben Webster's gift to tenor saxophonists with authoritative touches of bebop's rhythmic drive, was to experience a player who had carved out his own identity from the disparate resources the jazz tradition had offered. Gonsalves could swing his tail off when called on, but few could also caress a ballad with his concentrated ardor.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pure Blue

Is this what it sounds like when a musician has distilled his art down to its very core? When he knows that one note more, one tone less distinct, would dash the crystal to bits? But listening to a career-defining performance like this, you understand that Baker's not going to let that happen. On a night like this, it can't happen. The stars have aligned, at least for this performance, and the trumpeter is being protected by the jazz gods. They are speaking through his horn and his wounded vocals and they won't let anything go awry. Their beneficence even extends to Harold Danko's spare, heartbreaking piano solo and adroit accompaniment.
You hear this and wonder how Baker could have done anything but immediately announce his retirement right onstage in Tokyo. But he didn't and we got another year of scarred beauty from him. Don't listen to this too often, you wouldn't want to risk comparing all music to it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Benny's Bugle

By all accounts, Benny Goodman wasn't the kind to spare anyone's feelings if his neurotic dander was up. So we can assume that he wanted the younger cornetist Ruby Braff at his side for this informal 1968 romp through "Avalon," although he could have retained the original clarinet-piano-vibes-drums configuration of the quartet with which Goodman broke up Carnegie Hall thirty years before. That Braff fits the bass-less outfit like a glove is no surprise, he was a consistently marvelous mainstream player throughout his six-decade career. (If anything, you wonder how the famously prickly brassman got along personally with Goodman, the master of insensitivity. Dan Morgenstern and Loren Schoenberg will have to pony up any anecdotes.) No matter, the music is sheer fun, buoyed by comradely good spirits. Goodman and Hampton are out to show that time hadn’t diminished their swing; Braff, again, no surprise, is a model of melodious tact. Pianist Stacy’s resourcefulness covers for the missing bottom, while Krupa exhibits the aggressive bass drum oomph that endeared him to generations of proudly assertive drummers including Tony Williams. I’ll surely be singing Braff’s praises in the future, but for now hear him in tandem with another great reedman, Bob Wilber, on the Arbors release: “Soprano Summit - 1975 and More!”