Saturday, October 10, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 149: Elmo Hope

We're on a run of piano players here, from the almost completely forgotten (Sanford Gold) to the Olympian (John Lewis) to somewhere in between.

Elmo Hope is an elusive creature in jazz lore, like the yeti, or like B. Traven. Or B. Traven in reverse -- no one knows who he was, but everyone has seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre. With Elmo Hope, the opposite. I'd certainly heard of him -- tortured soul, short life, heroin, underground reputation. WBGO, the nation's premier jazz station, remembers him on his birthday, and plays him one or two times a month, but he's not a part of their regular rotation to the degree that his contemporaries like Thelonious Monk or his lifelong friend Bud Powell are. And this is actually a good job by WBGO, keeping a flame flickering, but alive, that otherwise might be completely extinguished.

His Wikipedia entry theorizes that "he remains little known, despite, or because of, the individuality of his playing and composing, which were complex and stressed subtlety and variation rather than the virtuosity predominant in bebop." But that doesn't sound right. Hope had plenty of virtuosity, and neither Monk nor Powell was a stranger to subtlety and variation.

The jazz life is a hard one. I mentioned Mike Cuozzo in my last entry, on the MJQ, who left music to become a building contractor. Mark Myers of Jazzwax wrote glowingly of Cuozzo's abillity, and later received a letter from Michael Cuozzo, Jr., explaining that while his dad loved music, he loved his family more, and made the decision to provide for them.

John Ore, who played bass on this session, and who later spent three years as Thelonious Monk's bassist, was the subject of a 2004 profile by Reil Lazarus on the All About Jazz web page. Lazarus, reflecting on the musicians who created jazz in the 40s and 50s, noted that
today, those youngsters are aging men - gifted masters who have long since paid their dues - and many, especially those with failing health, find themselves victims of past exploitation and failure to plan....
 “I haven’t had much work,” says Ore. “In the last five or six years, I’ve had glaucoma, and that’s cut down on my ability to [find work].” This, paired with a dwindling number of venues currently catering to jazz, has made it more and more challenging for him to perform. 
“I don’t get out there to play very often,” Ore laments, “And that’s the main thing. Playing at home all by myself just isn’t the same. A musician should be playing at least two, three to four times a week with other musicians.” 
Add to this the absence of proper benefits and pensions plans for veteran musicians, and the road to a relaxed retirement appears muddier by the day. Organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America, whose monthly jam sessions Ore participates in, have worked ceaselessly to ease these unfortunate fiscal woes. Nevertheless, the lack of a substantial safety net for aging artists like Ore continues to be a major problem in jazz. 
And these are the guys who survived. Ore told Lazarus:
Not too long before Elmo Hope died, I saw him on Seventh Avenue. And he was walking in the rain with no hat on, someone else’s shoes, and he was sick. Now I don’t blame that on anyone, but there should be something, someone, somewhere we people can go.
The music remains, and this album is beautiful. I was awed by Hope's piano playing, but I was also struck by the way he uses the potential of all three instruments, bringing bass and drums to the fore in a way that not every piano session leader does. "I'm in the Mood for Love" is a little over four minutes long, and how do you do "I'm in the Mood for Love" after James Moody and King Pleasure/Eddie Jefferson have taken ownership of it? Hope does something completely unexpected. He gives the first two minutes to John Ore, who does a solo bass interpretation of "Moody's Mood." Then, with the bass still audible in the mix, and the echo of Ore's Mood still pulsing through, Hope creates his own solo, and makes the song his own.

In "Blue Mo," he brings Willie Jones to the front, with hard-edged stick work on the ride cymbal.

I was surprised to see "It's a Lovely Day Today" in the set list. It's a sprightly and hummable Irving Berlin tune, best known for a perky, optimistic rendition by Doris Day, but I wouldn't have thought of it as a bebop vehicle, and in fact I can't find any other instrumental jazz version, although Ella Fitzgerald, Astrud Gilberto and Jackie and Roy have all sung it. Hope takes it at a breakneck bebop tempo, and tears it up.

This became the fourth made-for-12-inch Prestige session, and was released as PRLP 7010 - Elmo Hope--Meditations.

PRLP 7008 and 7009 were the Wardell Gray memorial albums. Gray died on May 25, 1955, in Las Vegas. He was probably murdered, but the case was never investigated. No one cared what happened to a black man in 1950s Vegas.

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