Sunday, November 29, 2015

Listening to Prestige part 154: Elmo Hope - Frank Foster

There probably isn't any time in the troubled life of Elmo Hope that can really be described as good, but these couple of years in the mid-50s, when he recorded first for Blue Note and then for Prestige, were at least productive.

Hope's youth included a brush with the law that rings a sadly familiar bell in the context of today's headlines: young black man shot in the back by the cops.

He was 17. He was treated for a bullet that narrowly missed his spine, and when he was released from the hospital six weeks later, he became the scapegoat of the incident, as he was arrested for assault, attempted robbery and violation of the Sullivan Law . He was charged with having participated in a mugging of three whites. Hope claimed in court that he had not been involved in any way with the mugging, but had been nearby, and, like others at the scene, had started running when the police started shooting. All charges were dismissed.

He served in the army in World War II, then returned to New York, where he was part of an emerging generation of bebop musicians. One was Johnny Griffin. who reminisced to Peter Watrous of the New York Times (quoted in Wikipedia):

We'd go to Monk's house in Harlem or to Elmo's house in the Bronx, we just did a lot of playing. I played piano a bit, too, so I could hear what they were all doing harmonically. But if something stumped me, I'd ask and Elmo would spell out harmonies. We'd play Dizzy's tunes or Charlie Parker's.

This was the second of three sessions for Prestige, and it's a strong showcase for Hope as pianist, leader and composer. His originals here are "Wail, Frank, Wail" and "Yaho." "Zarou" gets co-composer credit for Hope and Foster.

Freeman Lee plays on the first three tunes; the last two are a quartet.

Lee (also known as Charles Freeman Lee) had some good gigs during the bebop/hard bop era, playing with Snooky Young (on piano), with Sonny Stitt, Joe Holiday, James Moody and others on trumpet, and as a member of a vocal group backing up Babs Gonzalez. After his music career ended, he returned to the Midwest and joined his two schoolteacher sisters, teaching junior high school science. I hope is career as a teacher was as rewarding as his music career. It certainly was for his students. Here's a tribute from a student, at the Find a Grave website:

Mr. Lee was my Science teacher. He was a great educator. This was in the 70's in Michigan City Indiana, where his sister, Mrs Mary White, also lived and taught. He was a great and famous trumpeter and played with Duke Ellington. He used to tell us stories about his jazz days. He passed away in Ohio where his other sister, the famous educator Jane Lee Ball lived.
- donna shindler 
I got interested in the sister, and I discovered that she was an educator of some note: she had a thirty year career as a professor and chair of the humanities division at Wilberforce University in Ohio And from her 2011 obituary:
As much as she loved education, Mrs. Ball enjoyed fiction and non-fiction writing as well. Despite the demands of career and family, she found time to turn her lively imagination and teaching gifts into words on paper. She wrote more than 100 articles for Salem Press, which publishes award-winning reference works, and also published five books: Toole, Arrigo, A Flea in the Ear, After the Split and ­Glorious to View — the latter two being carefully researched histories of her beloved Wilberforce University. At the time of her death, she had put the finishing touches on her memoir, Ebony Sweet, or Growing Up Colored Before Black Got Beautiful.
This was a family that gave much to the world.

Elmo Hope's life was short and painful. I don't begin to know the reasons why people become addicted to heroin, but I'm sure that masking pain must be one of the main ones. So I can't help but be struck by how much joy there is in this music. With Foster (and Lee) the joy is boisterous and celebratory. In Hope's playing, it's very close to pure and unalloyed. especially on "Zarou," but really throughout.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Listening to Prestige part 153: Bennie Green

About the only thing I have to say about this session is how good it is, so I'll get down to it.

This is an extension of the June session, minus Candido, and it appears, along with the June session on the album variously titled Bennie Green Blows His Horn and  Bennie Green Blows His Horn in Hi-Fi.

It begins with the aptly titled "Groovin' the Blues," in which the band lays down a great groove, particularly the young Paul Chambers on bass, and Green and Charlie Rouse play the hell out of the blues. There are two different versions of this, one clocking in at 5:31 and the other at 3:13. Both of them appear on the album, and one was also released as a single, presumably the shorter one. The longer version seems to have been recorded first, so I'm guessing that it sounded so good that they decided it had to be a single, and they should cut it down to 45 RPM length. Good choice as far as I'm concerned, because I get to listen to both. Both versions are that R&B-to-bebop that I love, with the shorter leaving out a little of the extended beboppery, but still enough to be extremely pleasing.

"Travelin' Light" is the one standard, and the one ballad, in the set. It's a beautiful composition by Harry Akst, who was completely unfamiliar to me, but who began his career during World War I, writing a song with fellow doughboy Irving Berlin, and went on to write some great songs, including "Am I Blue?", "Dinah," and "Baby Face," as well as composing countless movie scores. "Travelin' Light," in 1937, was his last hit. He lived until 1973, and if I hadn't heard of him, my loss. He was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1973. Bennie Green does this lovely melody justice, and more.

Maybe Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker was right, "anyone can sing the blues." But maybe not. Bennie Green certainly makes it sound easy. But anyone who's really good can make it sound easy. As W. B. Yeats said, "A line may take us hours maybe / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." And so with Bennie Green. Just when you thought he could do everything, he turns around and makes you realize you were even more right than you knew. Green shows on "Hi-Yo Silver" that if he'd decided to drop the trombone and make a career as a rhythm and blues singer, he could have been one of the good ones.

"On the Track" is bebop, and everyone on it is good. Great work by Paul Chambers. by Cliff Smalls, by Osie Johnson, by Charlie Rouse. And by Bennie. And it works as rhythm and blues, too.

"Hi-Yo Silver" was the flip side of the short version of "Groovin' the Blues." All the tunes appeared on the album.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Listening to Prestige part 152: James Moody

I had not known that James Moody was partially deaf--and that as a child, he was put in a school for retarded children because school administrators didn't believe he was deaf. Fortunately, his mother moved him to a different school district, and fortunately, he didn't let hearing loss stand in the way of his love for music, or his desire to play it. It also wasn't enough to keep him out of the Air Force, in which he served during World War II. The Air Force had a band, but it was whites only. Moody has spoken in a video interview of his experiences in the segregated Air Force.

He found the unauthorized "Negro Air Force Band" led by trumpeter Dave Burns, with whom he remained close, first in the postwar Dizzy Gillespie band and then in the septet he organized, which played these Prestige dates among others. Burns is heard to good effect in these two sessions.

I've written a lot about James Moody, first in relation to his Swedish sessions for Metronome/Prestige, then in these septet sessions in Hackensack at the Van Gelder studio, and I'm not sure I have much more to say, which is one of the reasons I've held off writing a blog entry for a couple of weeks--the other being that I've gotten caught up gathering my first five years' worth of entries into book form, and that's almost ready.

But I was struck by this quote from Jimmy Heath, about a somewhat older Moody:

Over the years, Moody has become so free--not in a random fashion, but a scientific freedom--that he can do anything he wants with the saxophone.... He has true knowledge. He is in complete control.
I think this is a great distinction...scientific freedom vs. random freedom. I remember hearing Steve
Allen introducing Miles Davis on his tv show, and saying that Miles was not, as your grandmother might say, "just blowin' a lot of notes." Steve's grandmother must have had a somewhat different vocabulary than mine did, but we'll pass over that. Steve went on to say that "every note has a precise musical meaning and, uh, you could prove it with mathematics if need be." Well, I suppose you could, although mathematics might not be the best proof. But for sure, there's freedom and there's freedom. The scientific freedom, the kind that you could prove with mathematics if you needed to, is the kind of freedom that allowed Shakespeare to probe every shading and subtlety of human emotion, within the confines of iambic pentameter. The geniuses of free jazz, like Coleman and Coltrane and Dolphy, found their own kind of scientific freedom, even though Allen's mother might have said they were just blowin' a lot of notes. But as for random freedom...

There's a story abut Buck Clayton playing a Jazzmobile concert in New York. A young guy hopped up on the stage next to him, said he'd like to jam with him. Clayton said OK, let's play a little blues in B-flat. He started playing, the kid started screeching and caterwauling, blowin' a bunch of notes all over the map, never mind the scale.

"What's that?" Clayton demanded.

"Man, I'm just playing what I feel."

"Well, feel something in B-flat, motherfucker."

In 1955, Moody is already a master of scientific freedom, and he and his septet of Gillespie alumni feel plenty, and they feel it all in the same key. Eddie Jefferson joins them again for one number -- "Disappointed" -- and he meshes brilliantly. He doesn't make it a band backing up a vocalist, he adds one more instrument to a brilliant ensemble.