Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Eddie the Eccentric

The line between individuality and sheer eccentricity can become mighty porous sometimes. Take the late pianist and vibraphonist Eddie Costa. If remembered only by aficionados today, Costa, judging by the myriad sessions he appears on during a brief (1956-1962) recording career, was a well-respected and in-demand player. And versatile as well; he can be found alongside giants as diverse as Coleman Hawkins and Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans and Benny Goodman, Gunther Schuller and Tony Bennett. Yet for all his adaptability, scooting blithely from mainstream dates to avant-garde projects, Costa was anything but a proficient, faceless musician.In fact, given the opportunity, exhibited here on one of his few album as a leader, he shows himself as among the most unconventional, near strange, stylists of the era.It's difficult to pin down Costas's piano influences; sometimes traces of his friend Bill Evans can be detected, other times, Monk, Tristano, Silver and Brubeck rear their heads. Antecedents are immaterial though when it comes to character-filled playing like this. Costa is no one so much as himself, a player who obviously adored risk and its unpredictable rewards. The breaks in particular are jolted by his weird sense of time, darting rhythms and those gothic rumblings in the deep bass region that became a trademark of sorts. That Costa avoids willful oddness for its own sake is the secret to his distinction. No doubt about it, he was an authentic eccentric.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jimi Forty Years On

1970 was the year that Jimi Hendrix both left this world, and, nine months earlier, recorded his greatest performance. First take a moment to appreciate the fact that the late show performance of "Machine Gun" -- the New Year's Eve take that was included on the album "Band of Gypsys" --was captured on videotape. (Do we have footage of Charlie Parker stealing the show at J.A.T.P with "Lady Be Good" or John Coltrane tearing through "Chasin' the Trane" at the Village Vanguard?) Let's just give thanks for the technology that's allowed us to experience this epochal moment.
Jimi left us much, much too soon, but this terrifyingly vivid performance proves that he didn't leave us with promises unfulfilled. "Machine Gun" is the climax of his too short career, a summing up of all that he had achieved as a guitarist and sonic mastermind, as well as a gift to future musicians. It can also be heard as Hendrix's unspoken challenge to those who would follow: "This is what can be done with an electrical instrument -- now where are you going to take it?"
The beauty and musical significance of "Machine Gun" lies in Jimi's expressive use of technology. Never had a guitar been made to cry with the pain that he extracts from it. An electric guitar that is, one hooked up to an arsenal of amplifiers and effect boxes, all in Hendrix's unerring control. The machine was essential, but the man told it what to do.