Monday, August 22, 2016

Listening to Prestige 200: Moondog

In perfect symmetry, I'm finishing up 1956 with blog entry 200. In perfect asymmetry, I'm finishing up 1956 with something completely different.

Growing up in this era, even though I didn't live in New York City and visited it only sporadically, I knew about Moondog. Everyone did. The giant bearded street musician, who wore a viking helmet and carried a spear  He was a New York character, one who stood out even in a city full of eight million stories and at least a few thousand eccentrics.

As a devotee and somewhat serious student of rock and roll (I was turned down for a faculty grant in 1965 to do a study of doo-wop, surely the first such request they had ever gotten), I knew that Alan Freed had called himself Moondog when he began playing rhythm and blues music on the radio in Cleveland, but had had to change it when he arrived in New York, home of the real and original Moondog. That's when Freed began calling the music he played rock 'n roll.

But I never knew anything about Moondog's music.

Alan Freed did. He had taken the name from an early 78 RPM recording called "Moondog Symphony," one of Moondog's first.

It was a curious choice in every way. It was a symphony of percussion: Drums, maracas, claves, gourds, hollow log, Chinese block and cymbals. All Moondog. And there wasn't much in the way of multitracking for a self-made 78 in 1949, so he invented his own system, working back and forth between two tape recorders.

It was curious that Freed found it at all. The record only sold a few hundred copies.

It was perhaps even more curious that he liked it, and used it as the theme song for a radio show playing black rhythm and blues for white teenagers. One might have expected that a swing-era cat like Freed would have chosen a Gene Krupa recording as theme music, but Moondog's was as far from swing as could be imagined. He called it snaketime music:  "a slithery rhythm, in times that are not ordinary ... I'm not gonna die in 4/4 time."

I knew that Freed had had to stop using Moondog's name. I didn't know that he had taken Freed to court, and that the case had gone all the way to the New York State Supreme Court. Moondog himself later said that the courts would most likely have ruled against a Viking-accoutred street person, had not Benny Goodman and Arturo Toscanini testified to his importance as a composer.

I didn't know lots of other things. That his real name was Louis Hardin, that he was related to the old Western gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, that he had gone blind at age 16, that he had married a socially prominent older woman in Arkansas but had left her to come to New York, live on the street and make music.

Mostly, I didn't know his music. I had never listened to it until encountering it as the next step in my
Prestige journey. And a surprising step it was. My general policy has been not to look ahead, preferring to take the music as it comes. So where did Moondog fit into Bob Weinstock's universe?

It's hard to say. There don't seem to exist any interviews with Weinstock where he discusses this particular choice, but actually there's more of Moondog on Prestige than anywhere else, and these recordings capture an important part of his oeuvre. He had actually recorded for a jazz label once before--Woody Herman's short-lived Mars label.

The music amazed me. I'm a fan of the avant-garde music of the mid- and late-twentieth century: Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Pauline Oliveros, Gavin Bryars. And Moondog is one of the finest avant-garde composers I have ever heard.

As other avant-garde composers have done, and as was certainly appropriate for a street musician, he used a lot of ambient sound. There's the Queen Elizabeth in the harbor, its "deep-throated whistle" blending with, and extended by, Moondog's bamboo pipe. There's the horn of a tugboat, as eerily melodic as the songs of the humpbacked whale that would become popular a generation or so later, blended into an almost, but not exactly orchestral blend of instruments. And the sounds move away from the street, too. Moondog was married for a second time in 1952, to a Japanese-American woman named Suzuko Whiteing, so he wasn't entirely homeless, though he still lived, by choice, mostly on the streets. "Lullabye" combines the cries of their six-week-old baby with Suzuko singing (or chanting) a lullabye in what I guess is Japanese, and music by a sextet composed in something like a pentatonic Japanese scale.

The trimba

Moondog also experimented with a wide variety of instruments, many of his own invention. He was particularly drawn to the oo, a triangular-shaped 25-string harp struck with a clava. He also created a variety of percussion instruments, and percussion played an important part in his compositions. His music was always rhythmic, but rhythmic in his own way, with the slithery snaketime rhythms. On Oo Debut," a short piece (as were most of his compositions), he simultaneously played the oo and the trimba, a triangular drum that is still used by musicians today.

The "and other" musicians that are mentioned in the session notes are also varied. Sometimes he worked alone, sometimes with a quintet or sextet. Most of the compositions are quite short, "Surf Session" being the exception at nearly seven minutes.

The first of these sessions was released by Prestige as Moondog, the second as More Moondog. More Moondog was largely recorded by Tony Schwartz, who was known as a sound archivist, and whose collections of street sounds were released by Folkways. One would have thought of Folkways as a more likely home for Moondog, but his work was much admired by Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, and Folkways is the richer for it.

The first album sold respectably--enough for Moondog to buy property upstate near Owego, which became his retreat from the city. Probably its sales were due to its novelty value, as there isn't much of a market for serious avant garde music. The second two -- there would be one more -- did not do so well.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Listening to Prestige 199: The Prestige All-Stars

This is the familiar -- and magnificent -- core of the Prestige All-Stars, with two new additions, and what a difference they make! The veterans are Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, and the rhythm section of Mal Waldron, Doug Watkins and Art Taylor. The new additions are Jerome Richardson and Kenny Burrell, and with them, Prestige takes a step forward into what will become the jazz sound of the Sixties.

A lot of this has to do with the instrumentation. Richardson was proficient on pretty much anything that could be played with a reed, and a few instruments that couldn't. On this album he doubles on flute and tenor sax, but it's the flute that really stands out.

These aren't the first instance of flute and guitar playing a major role on a Prestige recording session. Herbie Mann, Sam Most and Bobby Jaspar all recorded for Prestige. The label's most prominent guitarist was probably Jimmy Raney, who recorded with his own group, and played with Bob Brookmeyer and Teddy Charles (and who would later do an album with Kenny Burrell for Prestige). Billy Bauer also contributed some memorable sessions with Lee Konitz.

But this is different, and different all around. The instrumentation makes it different, but that's not all. It's a sound that's really looking toward the future. That future would be irrevocably ushered in the following year, with a recording made in 1949, but buried by Capitol Records until it finally got its LP release in 1957: the Miles Davis nonet's Birth of the Cool.

This session still has all the passionate heat of bop, but the flute is an instrument that lends itself to the cool sound, and jazz is forever evolving. It's interesting that this session was recorded under the Prestige All-Stars banner, but fitting. The Prestige veterans were not standing still, either. Donald Byd in particular, was still at the cusp of a career that would see him in more than one vanguard.

The opening salvo of "All Night Long" is by Art Taylor, and creates a different rhythmic pattern from any we've heard before, which leads right into a Kenny Burrell solo, followed by Richardson on flute. By this time, we're well into the LP era, and long cuts are common, but "All Night Long" is long even by 1956 standards, checking at 17:11, and giving all the All-Stars plenty of room to develop. Which they do. Every solo on it is wonderful. Burrell and Richardson stand out, but it's hard to take the record off without marveling at Mal Waldron's solo.

"All Night Long" is a Burrell original, and Burrell was hitting the scene hard. He was born and raised
in the jazz hotbed of Detroit, and went to college there, at Wayne State, where he studied music composition and theory, and founded an organization called the New World Music Society, which included fellow Detroiters Pepper Adams, Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd and Elvin Jones.

He graduated in 1955 and joined the Oscar Peterson Trio, a gig for which his early admiration for guitarist Oscar Moore of the Nat "King" Cole Trio and Johnny Moore's Three Blazers had well prepared him.

He then headed for New York where his reputation preceded him. As well it might have. As a 19-year-old, he had already recorded with a group including Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane in Detroit, but had resisted the invitation to tour with Dizzy. opting for college and music theory. He hit New York right after graduation, and not only did he find work right away, he found a leader's role right away, recording three albums under his own name for Blue Note (one of his later Blue Note albums, Midnight Blue, was such a favorite of Alfred Lion's that it was one of the albums he was buried with). He also joined the house band at Minton's Playhouse (Minton's is best known as the birthplace of bebop in the 1940s, but it continued to be a jazz proving ground through the 50sand 60s), which was led at the time by Jerome Richardson.

The first Blue Note album featured all original Burrell compositions, showing that those years at Wayne State paid off.

The rest of this album is given over to two other world class composers, Mal Waldron and Hank Mobley. I particularly loved "Boo-Lu" and the irresistible riff it's built around. One (or two) more numbers were included on the session, but not on the album. One or two because on the session notes, they're listed as a medley: "Body and Soul" and "Tune Up." Which is a cool and unusual medley -- a standard from the Great American Songbook and a jazz standard by Miles Davis. But when they were included as bonus tracks on a CD release of the album, they became separate tunes. "Body and Soul" was also released as part of a compilation album of various artists doing the Eyton/Green/Heyman/Sour composition, on the Prestige subsidiary label Status, which the invaluable  London Jazz Collector describes as:

Difficult to see what was budget apart from saving on ink, providing minimal information saved nothing, but made it look budget. Working in Marketing in the Seventies, the big fear was always “cannibalisation”. You wanted all the sales you could get at the premium price, and extra sales at the budget price, without losing the one to the other. Extra effort was incurred to make things look less attractive. More marketing genius from Weinstock.

The original release was called All Night Long and credited to the Prestige All-Stars, but then, when subsequent Burrell session became All Day Long, the Night version was rereleased as a Kenny Burrell album.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Listening to Prestige 198: Red Garland

This is what happened after Jackie and his pal left to down a couple of cold ones and talk about what they could have done better (hint: not much). The rest of the afternoon was given over to Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor: once again, not a full album's worth of music, so the session would be issued piecemeal.

Garland had just recorded Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell" three months earlier as part of the final Miles Davis contractual marathon series. He opens his version of it with the same memorable chime-like intro, so I went back to listen to that version.

Garland actually had relatively little solo space on the Miles recording--when you have Miles and Trane, there's not a lot of space left oer--and what there was, was mostly duets with Chambers, so here he really has room to stretch out and show what he can do, which is a lot. Fascinating to listen to both versions.

"Willow Weep for Me" is a great standard both for singers and instrumentalists, and both have a debt
to Ann Ronell, who wrote words and music. You might guess that "Willow Weep for Me" is Ronell's best known song, and it sort of is, but that depends on who you talk to. She also wrote "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf." A protege of George Gershwin, Ronell was one of the first women to break into the boys' club of popular songwriting. Along with Loesser, she was one of the few composers who wrote their own lyrics.

Like the McLean session, this was broken up and mixed with a later date. "If I Were a Bell" and "I Know Why" came out on Red Garland's Piano, "Willow Weep for Me" and "What Can I Say Dear" on Groovy, another one of my purchases in my very early days of jazz collecting.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Listening to Prestige 197: Jackie McLean

Jackie McLean was by now a veteran of Prestige sessions, but not quite as much of a veteran as you'd think. Yes, he goes back to the early days--1951, and the notorious Miles Davis "Dig" session (notorious for Miles having appropriated the composition as his own). But after that, a long hiatus, not just from Prestige, but from recording altogether. There was a live recording of a couple of nights at Birdland, and session a few days later for Blue Note, all in 1952 but not, I believe, released till much later. Then nothing at all until 1955, and it's hard to say why not. He was battling addiction, but lots of musicians were fighting this fight at the time, and many of them still recorded. When Jackie did come back into the studio in 1955, with Miles again, he was only used on two tunes of a four-tune session, and Miles said later that Jackie was so high, he could barely play. Miles never used him again.

He played on a couple more sessions in '55--one with George Wallington, the other under his own leadership, Both were released on tiny labels: the Wallington live album on Progressive, the McLean Sextet album on Ad Lib. This one, according to the Rare Vinyl Jazz Collector (and aren't you glad such people exist), is "possibly the rarest of all the jazz collectibles out there." So since, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, it may never actually be seen in the wild, here's a picture of the album cover. I don't know who did the art, but it's a gem.

So, veteran or no, 1956 was really his debut year as a jazz force. He recorded for Prestige, Atlantic (with Mingus) and Columbia (with Blakey). By August, he was considered enough of a star that Bill Hardman was introduced on his first recording session as ""Jackie's Pal."

Jackie's pal is back with him for this abbreviated session, along with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, who would take center stage as a trio for the rest of the afternoon. They do two standards and an original.

It's wonderful listening. The interplay between the two pals is intricate and yet straightforward, especially on "McLean's Scene." And this rhythm section continues to reward, every time out. Some great solos by Red Garland and Art Taylor, but it's Paul Chambers who takes your breath away. You expect a bass solo to come somewhere in the middle of a quintet piece, but on "Gone With the Wind" Chambers is the penultimate solo, right before McLean and and the restatement of the head.

You expect a piano vamp to begin a jazz quartet or quintet number--sometimes an extended vamp that becomes the head and an improvised solo. On "Mean to Me," though the first notes one hears are Garland's, Paul Chambers steps in and takes over that job. Cool.

Because this was an abbreviated session, it had to wait for LP release. It was combined with a 1957 McLean session with a different lineup, and released in 1959 on New Jazz.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Listening to Prestige 196: Sonny Rollins

Am I getting too much 1950s jazz? Is it all starting to sound alike?

No, and no.

Every album, every recording session, has been a unique and uniquely satisfying experience, and I continue to find this one of the most rewarding projects I have ever undertaken.

Obviously, I can't say that some sessions have been more uniquely satisfying than others, not if I have any respect for the English language. Each has been unique; each has given me something new and significant in my understanding and appreciation of jazz. But some have leapt out at me with particular force. Like the one before this, making me appreciate the richness of Tadd Dameron's compositions, made all the more special because he recorded so seldom.

On the other hand, I'm very familiar with Sonny Rollins's gifts as a composer and an improviser, and Lord knows his recording career has been prolific. But this one leapt out at me nonetheless. Why? Just because. Because his playing is so hot on this session: so creative, such high energy. Another reason could be that this is my farewell to Sonny on Prestige. He'll move on to a number of different labels: Blue Note and Riverside in New York, Contemporary on the West Coast. He'll record for RCA Victor for a while, and for various European labels. Then for Impulse, for Milestone, for lots of other folks. Anyway, I only found this out after I started reading background stuff, so it wasn't part of my immediate response.

The session contains three compositions by Sonny, and three songs by others. The Rollins compositions are the ones where the energy level really goes through the roof. "Ee-ah," in particular, combines the honking urgency of rhythm and blues with the creative daring of bop. I love it. 'B Quick" and "B Swift" are, if anything, taken at an even higher level of intensity, propelled by an unflagging and unforgiving Max Roach, over an incredible nine minutes for the first number. I like to imagine a spectator in the booth, drenched with sweat and exhausted just from listening to what these cats are doing, saying, "I betcha you can't do that again." "I betcha we can," Max retorts..."but maybe a little shorter this time." "B Swift is just as intense, but clocks in at five minutes."

And so to "Sonny Boy," which does what only jazz can do--it takes a familiar melody and turns into something entirely new. Screenwriter William Goldman, in his fascinating book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, discusses a screenplay he wrote for Gene Hackman, about a druggist who tries to break up an affair between his son and a married woman, but ends up having an affair with her himself. Goldman points out that the story is what it is because of a set of decisions that could as easily have gone in different directions. Instead of being a drama, it could have been a bedroom farce, which lovers hiding in closet s and under beds. If, instead of Gene Hackman, the producers had cast Faye Dunaway as the lead, it would have been story of a wife having to juggle not just one lover, but two, and then finding out that they were father and son. Or they could have cast John Travolta as a boy whose Oedipal problems take on a whole new twist. Or maybe they could cast Robert Duvall as the husband, a macho firefighter who loves his wife but has neglected her...

"Sonny Boy" was written by Tin Pan Alley stalwarts DaSylva, Brown and Henderson as a tearjerking vehicle for Al Jolson, and the emotional center of the song is the doting father. But in Sonny's version, we've changed the focus. Jolson as kindly, sentimental old father figure is no longer the star. Now it's Rollins as Sonny Boy, and he's not climbing up on anyone's knee. The song is completely transformed. It's macho, it swaggers...and it works. A number of jazz musicians, most notably Lester Young, have said that they always hear the words of a ballad when they play it. My guess is that Sonny pretty much tossed out the words when he did this one.

The two Earl Coleman cuts don't work quite as well, Coleman had cut loose from his Billy Eckstine roots in his last outing for Prestige, and was really beginning to develop as a contemporary jazz singer. Here, in spite of having Rollins, Drew and Roach to inspire him, he's back in the Mr. B. groove.

He's also working with not the best material. Every now and then, Prestige would give a contemporary hit ballad to one of its jazz acts, and they do that here with "Two Different Worlds," a 1956 chart hit for Don Rondo. The Great American Songbook had mostly closed by 1956, and a lot ballads from those years simply weren't that good. "Two Different Worlds," written by Al Frisch, known for not much besides this song (he did write "Broadway at Basin Street," an early Cannonball Adderley recording) and Sid Wayne, known for writing most of the really second rate songs that weighed down the Elvis movies, is one of those not very good ballads, and maybe a lush Mr. B-type approach is all you can do with it.

His second song is "My Ideal," written by Richard Whiting, one of the A-list tunesmiths. It's become a standard, and there have been some great jazz recordings, but for me the version that stands out is the one by Whiting's daughter Margaret, with the pure and lyrical innocence of a young girl yet to find her first love. That's not Mr. B., and it's not Earl Coleman.

Perhaps Bob Weinstock was looking for a cover record to Don Rondo's hit (Roger Williams / Jane Morgan and Nat "King" Cole also covered it), but if so, he must have changed his mind, because Coleman's numbers never were released on 45. "Ee-Ah" was, with "They Can't Take That Away from Me" from the Bird tribute album on the flip side. Let's hope that got some play on the rhythm and blues stations. It deserved to.

"Ee-Ah," the two "B" cuts, and the two Earl Coleman cuts were released in 1957 as Tour de Force. The same tracks plus "Sonny Boy" and minus Coleman came out as Sonny Boy" in 1961. Also on the latter album: "The House I Live In,"  written as a leftist anthem by Earl Robinson but co-opted as a patriotic ditty by Columbia and Frank Sinatra, and recorded earlier in 1956 by Rollins on the Bird session.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Listening to Prestige 195: Tadd Dameron

I spent some time in my just-finished entry on Art Farmer talking about the considerable composing talents of Farmer, Hank Mobley, Gigi Gryce and Kenny Drew. Then I turn around and run smack into one of the great composers of American music: Tadd Dameron.

Dameron is sufficiently highly regarded in the jazz world to have merited a tribute band (Dameronia, formed by Philly Joe Jones, which released three albums of Dameron's compositions during the 1980s), but nowhere near as well known to the general public as he should be. He has said his greatest influences were George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, both of whom are household names. And maybe Dameron isn't quite in that pantheon because maybe no one is, but certainly he deserves to be named among the elite.

 Part of the reason Dameron isn't better known is that his own output is very slim. 1956 may have been his banner year, with this and another album for Prestige. They were very close to his last recordings. There would be one more for Riverside in 1962, making his total output five albums, one of which was released postunously, plus isolated tracks on a few other albums released after his death.

Dameron wrote and arranged for a number of big bands, including those of Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Jimmie Lunceford, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, and Sarah Vaughan, and he liked that big sound. Most of his recordings are with eight to ten pieces, which makes this quartet album all the more unusual.

But with John Coltrane's tenor and Dameron's compositions, what more do you really need? This is a great album, one that I couldn't listen to enough.  "Mating Call" and "Soultrane" may be the ones that grab a listener first, but if I were a practitioner of vocalese, and were looking for a piece to write lyrics to, I might choose "Gnid." It is so melodic. I'd probably have to change the title, if I were looking for a catchy lyric.

Coltrane is as good a choice as you could make to round out this quintet: because he's Coltrane, and a brilliant improviser, but also because he has great respect for Dameron's melodies, and lets them shine through at all times.

Dameron contributes some great solos too, giving his own interpretation to his compositions. Philly Joe Jones contributes some brilliant solos. John Simmons was a frequent contributor to Dameron's music, and if his solos here suggest that the art of bass soloing has gone a little beyond him by the mid-1950s, he's still a strong anchor to a rhythm section.

The session was booked as the Tadd Dameron Quartet, but the initial prestige release calls it Tadd Dameron with John Coltrane, which becomes, on subsequent releases, John Coltrane with Tadd Dameron, and some cuts are included on other Coltrane repackagings.

Dameron's tunes have been widely recorded. On Chet Baker's 1964 comeback album, he included a number of Dameron compositions, including "Mating Call," "Soultrane" and "Gnid."


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Listening to Prestige 194: Art Farmer

This album was recorded in late November of 1956, but it appears not to have been released until 1959, not unlike some of Farmer's other early Prestige sessions, which languished on the back shelves even longer, which may have been one of the reasons why Farmer would soon leave the label.

 Farmer was very active for Prestige during this period. Like many of the young artists who had toured Europe with Lionel Hampton in 1953, he had returned with a burnished reputation and a number of closely forged musical relationships, two of the foremost being Quincy Jones and Gigi Gryce--his first session as leader, in 1953, was released as Art Farmer Plays the Arrangements and Compositions of Quincy Jones and Gigi Gryce, An early 1954 session featuring Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver wasn't actually released until 1962, and it's hard to figure out why (a quartet session from 1955 was also shelved until this release, as Early Art). Next he was reunited with Gigi Gryce for the album titled When Farmer Met Gryce, although this was scarcely a first meeting.

In 1955 he recorded with a septet, an augmented small group (or truncated big band) situation that Farmer thrived in, then with Gryce again, and with Donald Byrd (released as 2 Trumpets). He would also record as a sideman --with Gene Ammons a couple of times, backing up singer Earl Coleman (Gryce was on that session too), with Bennie Green, and with Gil Melle, and if that's not range, I don't know what is.

This session is part quintet (with Hank Mobley), and part quartet. Gigi Gryce is present again, but only as composer: the beautiful "Reminiscing," one of the quartet pieces, which affords Farmer the space for some marvelously lyrical ballad work, and does the same for Kenny Drew.

Drew is also represented with two originals on the session, which is pretty much a showcase for some of the best young composers of the era, as Farmer also weighs in with a tune--in his case, one that was already on its way to becoming a classic: "Farmer's Market." This is a very different treatment than the one Farmer gave it with Wardell Gray in his recording debut, and while it features some outstanding work by Farmer and Hank Mobley (who also contributed an original), Drew takes the first solo, and he's the one you walk away remembering most vividly.

Elvin Jones was just beginning to make his mark. He had recorded once in 1948, as part of the legendary Blue Bird Inn house band in Detroit, but his first New York recording had been in 1955, on a Miles Davis session for Charles Mingus's Debut label. He would make several contributions to Prestige and New Jazz over the next couple of years, before taking his music in a different direction and becoming one of the most important drummers of the 1960s and 70s.

In spite of the fact that one of Drew's compositions is "With Prestige," this turns out not quite to have been with Prestige. The label had come into existence, a decade earlier, as New Jazz, and in 1958, Bob Weinstock decided to revive the New Jazz label as a subsidiary (there would be a handful of other subsidiaries launched around the same time). Farmer's Market would be the third New Jazz release, following a Mal Waldron album and a Prestige All-Stars session which Farmer was not a part of. It's hard to exactly make sense of New Jazz. Maybe Weinstock was recording artists faster than he could release them? The Waldron album (Mal-3) seems to have been released fairly promptly, and may have been recorded with this new imprint in mind, but the next several were sessions that had been on the shelf for a couple of years. Anyway, the good news is, they did see the light of day, and we have this music now.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.