Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Band That Could Have Been?

I don't think there were any solid plans to ever bring together Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Zoot Sims, Ron Carter and Philly Joe Jones in a working band, but wouldn't that assemblage of like-minded players have been something to experience? A tantalizing taste of what could have been can be found on the handful of tracks that this ad-hoc quintet recorded in 1962. Evans rarely employed a horn (be it saxophone, trumpet or, in that very special case, harmonica, as played by Toots Theilemans on the 1978 Affinity album) for his own recording sessions. Although there are numerous examples of his inspired interaction with horn men throughout his early career, by the time he starting running the show in 1959, Evans was loath to bring in extra artillery. And for good reason; apart from Affinity, few of his albums featuring expanded ensembles really comes off. Evans had refined the trio format to a fine art and interlopers seemed to upset the calibrated balance. Something tells me he was also a creature of habit who enjoyed the comfort zone of the compact threesome.
This session, unreleased at the time, is a noteworthy exception. Sims is the perfect saxophonist for Evans, a lyrical, melody-obsessed improviser who mates a gorgeous tone with virile, yet always relaxed, swing. And, as an older stylist who grew up worshipping at the altars of Lester Young and Ben Webster, Sims was anything but a frenetic hard bopper. Although obviously touched by bop, Sim's closest allegiance was to the rhythmic verities of the swing era, a grounded approach that suits Evans well.
Could this band have existed outside the controlled walls of a recording studio? Considering that -- as far as I know -- Carter was the only ensemble member who wasn't either plagued by drugs, drink or both, the chances of success might have been slim. Let's just be thankful we've got what we've got and cherish it.
The seven tunes (one in two takes) can be found on the album Loose Blues.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shining Silver

Was the government slipping something into the water supply in 1959? Or was it something that only jazz musicians were drinking? Let's just say it was a zeitgeist thing; change was in the air and the excitement of it all was energizing all the best players. The great Horace Silver wasn't among the cutting edge artists of the time, but if he wasn't shaking things up in the manner of Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, Brubeck, and Ornette, he was certainly honing his special artistry to a rare level of achievement. This edition of his rip-roaring hard bop ensemble was among his best. Saxophonist Jr. Cook and trumpeter Blue Mitchel get only a slice of solo time yet they make the most of it, not by cramming in all they can and racing to a blistering climax, but by constructing cogent statements that impressive through judicious concision. The leader then jumps in and stretches out, constructing a brick-by-brick improvisation that's a model of near abstract funk. His left hand never wavers from the monstrous vamp while compact melodic phrases build one on top of another, spelled by crazy quotations and off-kilter traps that the pianist seems to be setting for himself. Cliches, delightfully employed, are set against twisted phrases that suggest the ruminations of a very funky four-year-old let loose on the family keyboard. And what about the steaming groove that drummer Louis Hayes and the underrated bassist Doug Watkins lay down? Yes, '59 was a very good year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Loaded Bass

Bassist Gary Peacock certainly gets his licks in when working with his chief employer Keith Jarrett, alongside drummer Jack DeJohnette in the so-called "Standards Trio." Despite the many solos that the superstar pianist allots Peacock, there's still significant aspects of his musical personality that remain hidden. To hear the bassist in all his multi-dimensional glory these days, you have to turn to his work with others. I find his interplay with pianist Marc Copland -- particularly in a duet setting -- to be specially rewarding. There's a sense of yearning and deep mystery to a performance like this that you hear far too rarely with the Jarrett trio. Peacock's woody sound is also fully captured here in a way that even escapes the pristine fidelity of the Jarrett ECM recordings. Much like Jarrett, Peacock has his prolix tendencies, but both men convey the most expressive depth when paring their technique down and concentrating on extracting the juice from every well-chosen note.
"Calls and Answers" can be found on the Copland-Peacock recording "What It Says" on the Sketch label.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Fancy Footwork

Unlike the late President Gerald Ford, I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but the most physically coordinated person I admittedly am not. So I come to the first generation Hammond organ players with much respect and not a little wonder at their multi-limbed dexterity. Although all kinds of weaving bop lines and greasy blues phrases are emanating from the dual keyboards, the sounds generated from the instrument's lower extremities are what tend to grip my attention. Did these guys have eyes in their feet? How do you keep those swinging bass lines popping from the pedals below while grooving on the keys above? To me it seems a minor miracle, but then again manipulating the vacuum cleaner correctly can strike me as a triumphant act as well.
Be that as it may, Don Patterson was really quite the juggler, keeping hands and feet independently alert and working overtime. The throbbing bass undercurrent that he lays down, grounding this "Impressions" -like workout, is thrilling in its rhythmic solidity and unerring harmonic accuracy. Not to ignore all the activity on the surface, but the substrata action, at least for this flabbergasted listener, is just as riveting. Booker Ervin takes a typically vivid solo that strikes me as being just the right length, considering that modal pieces like this tend to encourage elephant age improvisations. And drummer Billy James, the unsung champion of this performance, exhibits the supportive swing of such 1960s peers as Grady Tate and Al Harewood: utterly dependable, ever-elegant, rhythmic engines steaming behind the onrushing trains. And when the mighty Ervin drops out, the fun really begins. Patterson and James go to town, more than happy to prove that the melodic interjections of a horn or the chordal underpinning of a guitar are unnecessary for them to generate a full-rounded sound or to maintain intensity and interest. A performance like this inspires me to possibly consider clog dancing lessons. Well, maybe not.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Taking the Time

The 1954 Bethlehem album "Basically Duke" isn't a full-fledged Ellington tribute, but it includes a smattering of Duke classics and the presence of three players associated with the band: Pettiford, Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton. I don't own the album -- too bad, because I'd love to know who's responsible for this attractive arrangement. Hamilton, the featured soloist, couldn't have possessed a more mellifluous tone and fluid approach; this is the epitome of effortless playing. Pettiford, for his part, is pure class. His interweaving lines during the theme statement and firm support throughout Hamilton's solo turn are evidence of the selfless contributions he could dependably provide. That is, when he wasn't grabbing the spotlight with his flashing bass and cello solos. Indeed, Pettiford was a strange figure whose historic role is difficult to assess. Although routinely acknowledged as the pioneer of bebop bass playing -- he can be heard on important nascent bop sessions with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and others -- O.P. is conspicuously absent from the Parker-Gillespie axis during the major years of the musical firmament. (Pettiford sequesters himself away in Ellington's band from 1945 to 1948, bebop's peak years of fertile innovation.) He demonstrates his true gifts as a player,composer and occasional bandleader in the 1950s; particularly impressive is a 1956 trio date that finds him with tenorist Lucky Thompson and guitarist Skeeter Betts. Pettiford was also instrumental in introducing the cello to jazz, but to err, it must be remembered, is only human.