Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Listening to Prestige 212: George Wallington

Strange coincidence -- or are the gods trying to tell me something? The last three recording sessions I've listened to have featured musicians who left the jazz life behind for something more respectable and secure. By the early 1960s, Teddy Charles would hie himself to the Caribbean to become a charter boat skipper, where he took many vacationers on a three hour cruise, and never stranded any of them on a deserted island. Wendell Marshall would hold out a little longer, but by the end of the decade, he would be back in his home town of St. Louis, opening his own insurance agency.

George Wallington may already have had one foot out the door when he walked into the Van Gelders' living room to record these tracks. He was nearing the end of his time in smoky clubs (and exclusive prep schools--one of his final albums was Live at Hotchkiss). He would make two more albums altogether in 1957, the Hotchkiss album for Savoy and one for the tiny East-West label. Then he would adjourn to Florida, and take his place in his family's air conditioning business, where he would remain until making a comeback in the 1980s.

Wallington had paid his dues. He had been around since the early days of bebop, as had bassist Teddy Kotick. Wallington made his first records in 1949 (with a sextet that included Gerry Mulligan and Brew Moore), but he'd already been around for a while. He was with the first bebop group that Dizzy Gillespie brought to 52nd Street,. Max Roach was in that band, and he said of Wallington:
We needed a piano player to stay outta the way. The one that stayed outta the way best was the best for us. That's why George Wallington fitted in so well with us, because he stayed outta the way, and when he played a solo, he'd fill it up; sounded just like Bud.
 And he'd made a powerful impact as a composer. His "Godchild" was one of the tunes on the historic Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions (perhaps brought by Mulligan?).

Teddy Kotick, who played with Stan Getz and was one of Charlie Parker's favorite bassists, also knew how to stay outta the way--keep time, understand the subtleties and complexities of bebop, don't solo.

Whoever took the notes or transcribed the notes for this session had a bit of a communication problem. The first track is listed as "In Sarah," but that didn't seem right -- a little too risqué -- and besides, it seemed very familiar. It's probably been 30 years since I played the album I first heard it it on, but back when I first heard it -- good Lord, 50 years ago--I wore it out. The correct title is "In Salah," and the composer is a young piano player who was sort of a protege of Wallington's. Wallington used this tune on this album, and a few more on his next album. The young composer would shortly sign with Prestige, and release his own first album: Back Country Suite, by Mose Allison. Wallington, Byrd and Woods take it at a more boppish tempo than the bluesy, laid back Mose. But we'll be getting to him soon.

The confusion expands with the next tune, a Phil Woods original, or maybe Phil wrote it down and he had really bad handwriting. On the set list, it's "Up Children Reel." The correct title is "Up Tohickon Creek," and unless you were from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, having a hard time with that would be understandable.

"In Salah" is a piano piece for Allison, but Wallington gives Byrd and Woods plenty to do on it. He doesn't stay outta the way, though. He doesn't intrude on their solos, but he goes all out on his own. Different from Allison's, but I'll get to that when I get to Mose. "Up Tohickon Creek" is another uptempo piece, with a killer drum solo by Nick Stabulas.

"Graduation Day" was a current hit for the Four Freshmen, who were always billed as a jazz vocal group, and they sorta were (their Four Freshmen and Five Trombones is considered a classic), but not exactly in step with the bebop era, or the rock 'n roll era. On this version, Byrd and Woods stay outta the way, and Wallington does it as a trio piece. It's taken slowly and dreamily, and with a lot more depth of feeling than the pop version, but what do Freshmen know about graduation day?

"Indian Summer" is the Victor Herbert chestnut turned jazz standard that we've heard before from Stan Getz and Lee Konitz. Teddy Kotick has not exactly stayed outta the way throughout this session, but here he steps forth with a full fledged solo. He should have done more.

The set winds up with compositions by Byrd and Woods. All good stuff.

The album is called George Wallington -- The New York Scene, and it was released on New Jazz. It also had a release as part of an album on the almost totally forgotten 16 2/3 RPM format, under the title George Wallington / Phil Woods / Donald Byrd / Red Garland -- Modern Jazz Survey -- New York Jazz.

The New York Scene.  A cool and catchy title that could have been given to nearly every album in the Prestige catalog. And it's interesting for another reason.

Genres of music get labeled, and sometimes the people who play that music hate those labels. Many jazz musicians hate the term "jazz" -- in Art Taylor's book of interviews, Notes and Tones, written in the 1970, he asks many musicians how they feel about the word, and most of them don't like it. But nothing better has come along. "Swing" wasn't always called "swing," and musical styles like the blues, ragtime and stride piano existed way before they had names. Rhythm and blues was once called "race music," and disc jockey Alan Freed called the contemporary rhythm and blues records that he played "moondog music" until he moved from Cleveland to New York and discovered that a blind street singer already used the name "Moondog," so he started calling the music he played rock 'n roll. In Art Taylor's book, the music that today we call "free jazz" had a slightly different name: Taylor asks his interviewees what they think of "freedom music" (opinions are mixed; he also asks them what they think of the Beatles and that's mostly negative). The music that began its life as "rap," and is still called "rap" by some, mostly goes now by "hip-hop," the name preferred by its practitioners.

So what about bebop? Some suggest it came from the nonsense syllables sung by scat singers (much like doowop). As such, it was also sometimes called "rebop." But before "bebop" caught on, was taken up in public print, and became the standard nomenclature, this music -- developed in Harlem and on 52nd Street, then exported to the world, was called "New York music." Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and, yes, George Wallington - the New York scene.

New York music. Why not? We have New Orleans jazz. Kinda too bad it didn't stick.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Listening to Prestige 211: Art Taylor's All Stars

This is not in any particular way noticeably different from a Prestige All Stars session. And it features Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean, both of whom have been leaders on previous Prestige recordings. So why is it Art Taylor's All Stars? Taylor ha been on a bunch of Prestige sessions -- a couple of dozen in all, led by such as Jackie McLean, Gene Ammons, Red Garland, Hank Mobley not to mention the various Prestige All Stars sessions.

So what makes this an Art Taylor session? More drum solos? There are some terrific ones.

Does it have a unique sound, something Taylor heard in his head and wanted to bring to fruition in a session that he directed? To these amateur ears, maybe yes. There's a quality...what's the opposite of strident? Mellow? It's anything but that. It has the urgency of the best jazz, especially given that it's propelled by Taylor's drumming. But there's a fullness and rightness to the sound. The fullness of course is helped by having three horns, but it's there in the solos, too.

Charlie Rouse is not entirely new to Prestige--he had done a couple of Bennie Green sessions and one with Gene Ammons. He was still a couple of years away from his most famous collaboration, the one with Thelonious Monk. He is one of relatively  few jazz musicians to have an asteroid named after him (asteroid 10426 was officially named Charlierouse by American astronomer Joe Montani of Spacewatch, who discovered it in 1999)  He is, however, not the only one --- Montani also named an asteroid after Monk. And Montani's cultural/astronomical reach is even more eclectic. He has named asteroids after Allen Ginsberg and Erik Satie.

Wendell Marshall had only one previous session on Prestige, backing up Earl Coleman, but he did not lack for work. After leaving Duke Ellington in 1955, he was featured on over 150 sessions up until about 1963, when he opted for steady employment as a Broadway pit musician--and eventually an even steadier life, as he returned to his native St. Louis and ran his own insurance business. If he had any business acumen, he probably didn't insure a lot of jazz musicians.

Ray Bryant was a good choice for a session led by a drummer. His rhythmic style was grounded in the blues and gospel and traditional jazz, opened up by bebop, and nourished by his continued exploration of all styles. During this period, he would often sit in with the trad guys at the Metropole in the afternoon, then go down to the Five Spot at night to play with Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller. A musical stretch? Bryant didn't think so: "A C chord is a C chord no matter where you find it. I never made a conscious effort to play differently with anyone."

And that rhythmic sureness and brilliance, combined with that sound for all seasons, translated into some hit records, including his own version of "Cubano Chant," "Little Susie,"  and his biggest hit, "Madison Time."

Taylor called upon the work of a couple of the finest composers in jazz for this session. There are two compositions by Gigi Gryce (as Lee Sears) and two by Monk. But if I were planning on issuing a single from this album, looking for a jukebox hit, I would definitely have gone with Bryant's "Cubano Chant." It's a great tune, catchy and meaty. And it's been recorded by artists as disparate as Harry James and Art Blakey, not to mention such Latin greats as Gato Barbieri, Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader (the only Swedish Latin bandleader). And a more contemporary version by Steely Dan. Here it has the great hooks that characterize the melody, some powerful solo work, and Taylor all the way through it, pushing and shaping it.

There were no singles from the album, which was released as Taylor's Wailers, including everything from this session and one cut from a later session with John Coltrane.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Listening to Prestige 210: Prestige All Stars

Some new additions to the All Star roster, and some new combinations of familiar faces, and I'll start with them, because one of the highlight of this session is a showcase of two of the best composers of this era. "Touche" and "Potpourri" were written by Mal Waldron. "Blues Without Woe," "Dakar" and "Hello Frisco" are all by Teddy Charles, who also produced the session.

I wondered if Thad Jones and Frank Wess were brought in by Charles because of past association, but such was not the case. Neither had ever recorded with Charles before, and it's unlikely that they'd ever done much, if any, playing with him. Both were regulars, all through this period, of the Count Basie orchestra. Jones did have a connection to this ensemble, but it wasn't Teddy Charles -- it was his own younger brother Elvin, making his third appearance on the label.

Charles was never a man to stand still, but for him, movement in a new direction could mean almost anything. When he moved to the West Coast to produce the new evolving West Coast sound for Bob Weinstock in 1953, his first move was to decide not to produce the new evolving West Coast sound. As he put it,
When I got out on the West Coast, I didn’t want to do the West Coast cool jazz thing that was so popular then. Frankly I didn’t care for the West Coast style of playing. The music was too laid back and didn’t have the sound. 
Instead, he put together a solid mainstream group featuring one of the finest swing-to-boppers, Wardell Gray, and a young Charlie Parker acolyte, Frank Morgan. After that, he made a second recording with Shorty Rogers, who would become identified with the West Coast sound, but was, at this point in his career, a dedicated avant-gardist.

Charles would continue move farther out, recording with experimentalists like Hall Overton and Gil Melle, And he'd hit the mainstream hard, with gritty soloists like J. R. Monterose.

And here, he goes even closer to the bone of mainstream jazz, bringing in two stalwarts from the Basie band. Avant garde music in general, and avant garde jazz in particular, is noted for all kinds of experimental approaches: experiments with tonality, with stretching the limits of harmony, with unusual or shifting time signatures, with textures of sound. But not necessarily with the rollicking swing of an ensemble like the Count Basie Orchestra.

So what would this session be? Avant garde, or Basie-esque swing?

Well, it's a Teddy Charles sesssion, which means none of the above. Or all of the above. It swings, but the ensemble sections have a tonality that nods to the avant garde, and the solos by Jones and Wess are not solos that they would have been likely to play in a Basie arrangement.

What they are, is amazing. If you were asked to pick the top ten Prestige albums, you'd likely start with something from the Miles Davis Contractual Marathon, or the MJQ's Django album, or Sonny and Trane's tenor duet, or King Pleasure / Annie Ross, or any one of a number of great albums we haven't gotten to yet. Probably not this one. Because unless you're really steeped in jazz lore, you might never have heard it. I'm moderately steeped in jazz lore, and I never had. Thad Jones is best known for his legendary Thad Jones - Mel Lewis big band; Frank Wess made a number of albums as leader, and won several Down Beat polls in the flute category, but is still probably most associated with Basie. Teddy Charles is a special talent who's probably known to a niche audience today, as well as to aficionados of charter sailing boats in the Caribbean. You won't find it in anyone's 100 essential jazz albums list, because the folks who make them gravitate, not unreasonably, to the top names. But I'd nominate it right now.

The flute was just beginning to come to the forefront as a jazz instrument, and Wess's solos,
particularly on the Mal Waldron compositions, are a powerful argument for the instrument. But if I were to pick one cut from this session, it would be the Charles tune "Blues Without Woe," on which Wess moves to tenor.

Without woe these blues may be, but they're certainly without "Whoa!" This track never lets up; it's one burning solo after another. In my entry on Kenny Burrell's "Drum Boogie," I commented that Elvin Jones seemed to have held back from the blistering solo one might have expected in a modern version of Gene Krupa's classic. Any such reticence is gone here, and he comes through with that powerhouse drumming that we've come to expect, but which must have been something of a revelation to a 1957 listener.

The album was released as a Prestige All Stars session, titled Olio. You'd expect the album title to be drawn from one of the cuts, but such is not the case here. Still, it's apt. What do get when you mix together a 50s avant-gardist, a soon-to-be 60s avant-gardist of the Coltrane school, two Basie-ites and two solid boppers. You get an admixture of heterogenous elements. An olio. Or a potpourri. Maybe it is drawn from one of the cuts after all. On the British Esquire release, Olio plays a tiny second fiddle to the musicians' names, and the cover is a very nice piece of work in the David Stone Martin tradition, though I don't think it is Martin, and it doesn't quite have room for Doug Watkins.

You'd have to call this a Teddy Charles session, but Charles, always generous, gives Jones and Wess room to shine, so the album is often credited to Thad Jones as leader.A later re-release credits Jones and Wess as co-leaders, and another, part of a double album (Olio / After Hours) is listed as by Thad Jones and the Prestige All Stars.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Listening to Prestige 209: Jackie McLean

We've heard a lot of Jackie McLean through 1956 and early 1957, sometimes with Gene Ammons, sometimes with his own group, or with the ubiquitous and amorphous Prestige All Stars, always in an ensemble. There are a couple of quintet sessions, but more often he's favored a sextet or septet. Here is our first chance to hear him carrying a whole session, and he is more than capable. His set list is mostly standards, mostly on the brooding end of the spectrum, and he has the sensitivity to make them cut through to the heart.

Reflections on a couple of the cuts: "These Foolish Things" has always been a favorite of mine. It turns out the Beatles weren't the first musical British Invasion -- Londoner Jack Strachey made a minor sortie into the Great American Songbook with this tune and a couple of others, including the closer to home-themed "A Nightingale Sang in Barclay Square." McLean gives it a sensitive rendition that stays close to the melody and the words, but it's definitely an instrumentalist's reading, not a line that a vocalist would take. It's very much his own--his and Mal Waldron's. Waldron contributes a solo with commentary by bassist Arthur Phipps, and McLean answers him with a concluding solo that's even more beautiful than what's gone before.

"Old Folks" has become a jazz standard, ever since it was recorded by Bird. That was on his ill-fated album Charlie Parker with Voices, but nothing done by Bird is ever totally ill-fated, and many others have been attracted to its haunting melody, including Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Dorham, Dexter Gordon, Pat Metheny--and Sonny Rollins, for his Prestige album Rollins Plays for Bird. The melody is by Willard Robison, and as a composer he was drawn to the melancholy--"A Cottage for Sale," "Don't Smoke in Bed." Lyrics to the tune were written by Dedette Lee Hill, and they capture the poignance of the melody, but the song hasn't been as widely recorded by vocalists. Carmen MacRae has a lovely version; so does Etta Jones. Hill was a professional songwriter, and racked up a lot of credits, but this is her only really memorable effort. Her husband, Billy Hill, was somewhat more successful, and he had his own rather different vein of melancholy: one of his hits was "I'm Headin' for the Last Roundup."

Arthur Phipps is the newcomer to Prestige here, though not unknown to McLean--they were both from the same Harlem neighborhood He had a solid career, and a varied one: in addition to the cream of the boppers, he also played with David Amram.

Jackie and his men cut eleven tunes on this session, but there was no Contractual Marathon about it. They just must have hit a groove, felt good, and kept going, Its release history, however, was more speed bumps than grooves. It ended up, like a corporation taken over by Carl Icahn, being carved up and distributed in pieces. "Strange Blues" was the first to make it to vinyl, and actually the only cut to  to be released on the Prestige Label -- all the rest bore the New Jazz imprimatur. It became the title cut of an album cut on three different dates and released in late 1957. McLean's Scene combined "Our Love is Here to Stay," "Old Folks" and "Outburst" with three cuts from the second session with pal Bill Hardman, and it came out from New Jazz in 1959. 1960 saw the New Jazz release of Makin' the Changes, which conflated tunes from this and an August '57 session, and included "Bean and the Boys," "What's New," "I Never Knew" and "I Hear a Rhapsody." I also learned a new word from this bit of research. A tune based on the chord changes of another tune is called a contrafact, as in  "Bean and the Boys" is Coleman Hawkins's contrafact of "Lover Come Back." Finally, A Long Drink of the Blues, using the same two sessions as the previous album, with Embraceable You." "I Cover the Waterfront" and "These Foolish Things" from the February session, was released from New Jazz in 1961.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Listening to Prestige 208: Prestige All Stars (Four Altos)

An interesting jazz factoid I just ran across: Ezzard Charles, heavyweight champion in the early 50s (between Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano) was also a gifted jazz bassist who frequently performed with groups at Birdland, and once sat in with Duke Ellington's orchestra. George Russell's classic composition "Ezz-thetic" is dedicated to him..

Back to Prestige. We are now in early February of 1957, and this is already the eighth recording session for Prestige. Fridays with Rudy had become a regular thing, and a few Saturdays were being added too. It's a good thing the Van Gelders weren't Orthodox Jews, Muslims or Seventh Day Adventists.

This was a busy schedule. To compare:in the first quarter of 1957, Prestige had scheduled 21 sessions, Blue Note 12, Riverside 5, Fantasy 4, Pacific Jazz 4.

Atlantic had 9 modern jazz sessions, 5 of them for the same album (Chris Connor sings Gershwin).
Only Norman Granz outdid Bob Weinstock, with 13 jazz albums on Verve (many of them covering several sessions, including 5 different sessions on consecutive day for one Billie Holiday album with Ben Webster and Harry "Sweets" Edison, so altogether it added up to a couple of dozen studio sessions). So in terms of actually turning out product, Prestige was way ahead of even Verve, but that seems to be related to Bob Weinstock's no rehearsal, very few takes philosophy.

Which means, for us, from the vantage point of the 21st Century, an incredible record of one of the most fertile and creative periods in jazz history. 1957 was Weinstock's eighth year running a jazz label and producing jazz records, and his enthusiasm hadn't flagged. If anything, he seems to have been more committed than ever to chronicling the music of his time.

He had his regulars. Gene Ammons, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd -- Kenny Burrell and Jackie McLean were new additions to that list--and the rhythm sections he called on over and over. Legends passed through and went on to other labels. But there was also all that urge to try different things, different combinations, to mix things up. I've quoted before from an interview with Weinstock, talking about working with Miles Davis:
 So, our basic idea was just to make records with different people, to record with the best people around. That's what we did until the end, when he had the quintet with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. But everything up to that point developed from where we would sit down and talk about it. Miles would mention who was in town, who he would like to record with. I'd say who I'd like to hear him record with. We'd kick ideas around.
 And that is one important part of the greatness of jazz as a genre. The history of any art form is oten the same: folk art, popular art, high art. In jazz it happened so quickly. You didn't have to look to the past for the tradition; it was right there next to you. In 1957 Louis Armstrong was still playing. Kid Ory was still playing. And Benny Goodman and Erskine Hawkins and Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and Dizzy Gillespie. John Coltrane was just beginning to hit his stride. Ornette Coleman was in LA, playing music that no one could understand, but he would start putting that music on record the following year. Eric Dolphy was getting his first major gigs with Chico Hamilton. Disciples of Lester Young like Red Prysock and Sam "The Man" Taylor were revitalizing the music scene playing rhythm and blues, and turning on teenagers as part of Alan Freed's rock 'n roll stage shows. And they crossed genres: Louis Armstrong played with Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton with Stan Getz. Hampton was a one-man genre-bending army, a swing era standout whose music became a gateway to both bebop and rhythm and blues.

And on Fridays (and sometimes Saturdays) in Hackensack, New Jersey, Bob Weinstock was mixing and matching, coming up with different combinations, creating a catalog gives us such a range, such a blend, of the jazz of the 1950s.

An All Star group with three trumpets worked out well, so why not up the ante to four, and make it saxophones this time? That, of course, has been done enough to make it a fairly classic lineup, but usually with tenors. Would four alto saxes be called the Four Kid Brothers?

Phil Woods and Gene Quill would record together a number of times, partly because of a brotherhood of tonality, partly because "Phil and Quill" sounded catchy. Sahib Shihab was one of the important saxophone players of his era, playing important dates with Thelonious Monk, Benny Golson, and fellow Islam convert Art Blakey. Hal Stein did next to no recording under his own name, so he's not as well known, but he was a highly respected side man who played with a host of jazz greats, on tenor and alto.

As with the three trumpets on the earlier All Star session, or for that matter the Four Brothers, it's not necessarily going to be clear who's playing which solo, unless you're a very trained ear (and maybe not even then--the greats didn't always get their identifications right on Leonard Feather's blindfold tests), but you can tell that there are different voices, and that they're engaging in some brilliant colloquia on how to interpret a tune on the alto saxophone.

And let's talk a little about the tunes they're interpreting. Mal Waldron continues to make his mark as a composer, "Pedal Eyes" and "Staggers." A bonus in listening to a Waldron composition is that Waldron is given a little more solo space, which is always a joy, but a particular joy when he's improvising on one of his own tunes. He approaches them with a keen, searching intelligence.

"Staggers" found its way onto a number of different recordings, including one by Teddy Charles, whose fingerprints can be found imprinted on this session. Two of the tunes are his, "Kokochee" and "No More Nights."

Mal Waldron had played on (and contributed a tune to) Charles's groundbreaking tentet album for Atlantic, in which Charles experimented with modal forms even before Miles Davis. Phil Woods had a connection of longer standing : both were from Springfield, Massachusetts, and had known each other even before they hit New York. Both had trained at Juilliard. Gene Quill and Woods actually met at a jam session at Charles's loft (there's no record of whether Ezzzard Charles ever showed up there). Hal Stein also played on the Atlantic tentet album.

Tommy Potter had played on some of the Teddy Charles/Wardell Gray sessions. Potter, one of the consummate bebop jazz bassists, was by this time being eclipsed by more assertive and virtuosic bassists, and by the early 60s he had decided to give up music to stay home and raise his family. But he gives this session a solid bebop grounding, as does Louis Hayes, who was starting to make a new kind of jazz with Horace Silver, but was thoroughly grounded in Detroit bebop.

"Kokochee" and "No More Nights" are on the mainstream bebop end of Charles's compositional sspectrum, and they turned out to be a fine couple of tunes for a bunch of alto players. Hal Stein contributed "Kinda Kanonic," and the final tune is a standard by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh.

The session notes list this as a Prestige All Stars date, but actually the album cover gives the title as Four Altos, and lists the four.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Listening to Prestige 207: Jackie McLean

Just a little digression at first to vent a bit. Jazz writing is full of cliches, and I'm sure I've used more than my share of them. But sometimes you get a little irked.  I hate to draw a bead on one other writer for what is really a cumulative irkedness, but an article on Miles Davis in a recent New York Review of Books starts off with the oft used observation that "the notes he chose not to play were almost as meaningful as those he did."

What does that mean, anyway? I know that heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. I know that one of the myriad reasons why the novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, is better than the movie is that you can imagine the unbearable sweetness of "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," whereas in the movie there's an actual song, composed by Robert Kraft, who's a perfectly good composer, but it's just another song, not the worst you've ever heard but not the best either.

But none of that is about the notes you don't play. When I first heard In a Silent Way, I was stunned by Miles's restraint--how much he held back from playing, and how powerful the parts that he did play. But I can't tell you anything about the notes he chose not to play, because I didn't hear them. And I'm not sure I believe that there were any notes that he chose not to play. There were times that he held back from playing, but that doesn't mean there were sequences of notes that he heard in his head and chose not to play.

And Miles didn't exactly invent not playing.  Max Roach, talking about how effective George Wallington was as a piano player in the early bebop groups, said
We needed a piano player to stay outta the way. The one that stayed outta the way best was the best for us. That's why George Wallington fitted in so well with us, because he stayed outta the way, and when he played a solo, he'd fill it up; sounded just like Bud.

And Miles, famously, told Monk to lay out while Miles was playing his solos. Monk, significantly, let Miles know that while he was laying out, he was just staying outta the way, he was not carefully choosing meaningful unplayed notes."

I used to tell my creative writing students "know everything, and write ten percent of what you know," which I either borrowed from Hemingway or pretended I had. But if you're doing that, what ultimately counts is the ten percent that you write, not the ninety percent you leave out.

The NYRB article goes on to say that
Davis shed styles as soon as they risked settling into formula. When “cool” lost its edge in the hands of white West Coast musicians, he pioneered hard bop, a simplified, funkier style of bop that reasserted jazz’s roots. When hard bop hardened into its own set of sweaty clichés, he gravitated to “modal” jazz, which used scales rather than chord changes as a harmonic frame. 
Miles had a restless muse, and it made him what he was, and some of his experiments were more successful than others, but a genre of music doesn't automatically become worthless just because Miles Davis stops playing it. "Cool" didn't simply lose its edge because Gerry Mulligan (who was in with Miles at the creation) went out to the West Coast and kept playing it, and when Jackie McLean's pal Bill Hardman led a hard bop group (with Junior Cook) into the early 1980s, he was playing exciting music, not sweaty clichés.

We are still relatively early in the hard bop era, an era defined by having no particular starting point and no particular ending point, and having no particular defining characteristics. It was jazz, or as Miles insists on calling it in the recent Don Cheadle movie (music direction brilliantly handled by my pal Ed Gerrard), "social music." The society of the men and woman who made this social music was eclectic and original and committed to musical exploration wherever it took them.

And there's an interesting bit of exploration here, right at the start of this set. We just recently listened to the Mal Waldron composition, "Flicker" (or "Flickers" -- it seems to go by both names) as played by a Prestige All Stars group augmented by Kenny Burrell and Jerome Richardson, and here we have it again by Prestige stars Jackie and his pal, the All Star Waldron-Watkins-Taylor rhythm section, this time augmented by tuba virtuoso Ray Draper. In the first version, the head is played as almost a fanfare, which then gives way to the nimble dexterity of Burrell's guitar and Richardson's flute.

In Jackie's version, the fanfare is still there, but he takes a more melodic approach. And where Burrell went into the air with a flute, McLean comes down to the ground with a tuba, providing an earthy cushion right from the start. He also takes a solo, between Bill Hardman and Mal Waldron, and all three of these solos add something new. It's fitting that Waldron, the composer, takes the last one, giving a special insight into the melody.

Draper is on two cuts: this one, and his own composition, "Minor Dreams." This is an impressive recording debut for a young musician, made all the more impressive when you consider how young: Draper was 16.

Jackie McLean, who knew something about how hard it is to break through in the music business, seems to have made a commitment, not only to introducing new talented musicians, but to making sure they got fulll recognition (Jackie certainly knew something about getting less than full recognition). We've seen how he introduced his pal, Bill Hardman, on Hardman's recording debut. The full title of this album is Jackie McLean and Co., Introducing Ray Draper and Tuba. The "introducing" part was left off when the album was rereleased on New Jazz, but by that time Draper had introduced himself on his own Prestige album.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Listening to Prestige 206: Kenny Burrell

Jazz writer Ted Gioia, in a recent article called "Does the Music Business Need Musicianship?" quoted a veteran producer as saying "Does anyone under 25 play an instrument any more?" Somewhere else, I read that the guitar has virtually disappeared from rock and roll. No more Chuck Berrys, no more Hendrixes, no more George Harrisons or Eddie Van Halens.

So a world and a time in which musicians did pick up instruments, and do the very hard work involved in learning to play them, has maybe more of an appeal that one would think. And interestingly, the genre of today's music that many would think did more than any other to destroy musicianship -- hip hop -- is the genre that's turning more and more to jazz.

Jackie McLean once said,
When I was coming up it was mandatory to know something about music and play an instrument. In order to do this it required hours and years of dedicated study and practice. Today if you can just rhyme and talk and have a talent for matching words and rhythms together you pretty much are on your way; it wasn’t quite that easy when I was coming along.
Well, it ain't necessarily all that easy to match words and rhymes together, which is why us poets make the big bucks. But of course McLean has a point.

Now, however, his grandson, Rene McLean, is a hip hop producer, as are the sons of Quincy Jones, Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes, Horace Silver, to name just a few. And hip hop, more than any other recent popular music form, has embraced jazz, with many rappers sampling the work of jazz musicians.

Still, there's something about those hours and years of dedicated study and practice that delivers to the audience in a way that no one else can. The impossibly fast tempi of Bird and Diz, or the impossibly weird tempi of Brubeck and Desmond. The strange and beautiful melodies of Thelonious Monk or Tadd Dameron.

Of course, the knowledge that someone has mastered incredibly difficult technical skills is not enough to make us love something. What makes an art like jazz, or like dance, elicit such love from its fans? It's knowing that it's mind-bogglingly difficult, but feeling it as something else. We feel that our better selves, in a parallel universe, could play a drum solo like Gene Krupa or execute eleven perfect pirouettes like Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights. They express our yearnings to be our best selves.

Which brings us, more or less, to Kenny Burrell. It's now February 1, and this is already his fifth session for Prestige: one with Gene Ammons, three with the Prestige All Stars, and now this one under his own name. So maybe that's why all the All Stars album credits -- so they wouldn't be putting "Kenny Burrell" on the cover of every album they put out.

There's a reason -- well, there are all sorts of reasons -- for this much excitement about Kenny Burrell. Mostly, that he was really that good. He was a new sound, a breath of fresh air. And in a way, a great guitarist brings us one step closer to those better selves in those parallel universes. A lot more of us have picked up a guitar and played a stumbling version of "This Land is Your Land" than have picked up a saxophone and tried to stumble through "Now's the Time."

This is a beautiful album, and an interesting lineup for Prestige. Doug Watkins represents the regulars. Tommy Flanagan was never quite a regular, but he did do several Prestige sessions. Cecil Payne had been on three Prestige recordings, the sort of sessions you would expect to find a baritone sax on -- octets with Joe Holiday, Gene Ammons and Tadd Dameron. Unless you're Gerry Mulligan, it's relatively rare for a baritone man to be the only horn on a date. The drummer was Elvin Jones, who was really starting to come into his own. He had been on a few important dates over the past couple of years, including an Art Farmer session on Prestige, and one with Miles Davis for Charles Mingus's short-lived Debut Records.

Payne appears on four of the five cuts, which means that the fifth -- Cole Porter's "All of You" -- is essentially a guitar-piano duet between Burrell and Flanagan, which you really don't hear all that often. The two instruments are so similar -- both percussive, both melodic, both played with single notes and with chords. And yet so different. They make a wonderful balance on this duet.

Having a baritone sax as your only horn on a session brings a certain gravitas, perhaps at the cost of a loss of flexibility? Not if the baritone is in the hands of Cecil Payne. Don't forget that the tenor saxophone was once relegated to the oom-pah section of marching brass bands, until Coleman Hawkins showed what could be done with it. Payne got his start playing in swing ensembles with J. J. Johnson and Roy Eldridge, then was introduced to bebop when he joined Dizzy Gillespie's band. His work in the late 40s and early 50s gives some idea of his range: bebop with Tadd Dameron, R&B/swing with Illinois Jacquet, and the adventurous African-influenced music of Randy Weston, with whom he was closely associated.

He gets a chance to show that range with Burrell's tune selections for the session. There is one of his own compositions, "Perception," which starts off with a gently swinging, Mulliganesque solo by Payne, and then gets edgier as it goes along.

From there, the selections get seriously eclectic. "Drum Boogie" reaches into the swing era. Composed by Roy Eldridge and Gene Krupa, it became a hit, and a classic, when recorded by Krupa and Anita O'Day, and reached Hollywood when Barbara Stanwyck lip-synched it to Martha Tilton's swinging vocal. Interestingly, they are the only composers credited. No lyricist, so Eldridge or Krupa must have handled the lyrics.

No lyrics here, and somewhat more surprising, no drum solo, especially since Elvin Jones is the  modern player who could well be voted Most Likely to Take On Gene Krupa. Jones was still something of a new kid on the block, but not that new. He'd been in New York longer than Kenny Burrell, and had recorded with Miles Davis, Thad Jones, J. J. Johnson and Art Farmer. And like Burrell, Flanagan and Watkins, he was from the jazz cauldron of Detroit. But for whatever reason, this could more appropriately have been called "Bass Boogie." Doug Watkins has a longer solo than Jones, and provides the main rhythmic propulsion.

"Don't Cry Baby" reaches even farther back. Co-written by stride piano legend James P. Johnson, it was first recorded by Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and it opens with a bluesy vamp from Tommy Flanagan that Bessie would have appreciated. Johnson's co-writers were Saul Bernie and Stella Unger. Unger had a pretty decent career in music, including writing the book and lyrics for a Broadway musical, Seventh Heaven, but I could find absolutely no biographical material about her. Such is fame.

Then we move forward to the bebop era, and one of its finest composers. "Strictly Confidential" is a bebop standard by Bud Powell, and Flanagan is given room to solo on it

Who could not like this album? The range of musical voices that go into the tunes that were chosen, the close-knit Detroit camaraderie among the players, the chance to hear Cecil Payne stand out as a solo voice. And Kenny Burrell, already a giant in the jazz world.

It was originally released as Kenny Burrell,  then rereleased as Blue Moods, a title that had been given to an earlier Miles Davis album that Elvin Jones also appeared on.