Saturday, March 05, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 174: Phil Woods

All right, it's mid-1956, which means we are smack dab in the middle of the hard bop era, and I haven't really talked about hard bop, or what makes it different from bebop, or where one leaves off and the other starts, and actually don't really intend to, because I don't know and don't care. There are two pretty standard definitions of hard bop. One is "what the Miles Davis Quintet played," and that obviously isn't much of a definition, but it more or less means the 1955-56 sessions for Prestige, which makes Prestige the quintessential hard bop label. The other definition has to do with getting funky, and mostly centers around Horace Silver and Art Blakey, which makes Blue Note the quintessential hard bop label, which is probably closer to the target.

One definition of the distinction is that bebop is more of a player-centric music, and hard bop a more listener-centric: "players like Diz, Bird, and Monk would play through a tune without playing the "head" first. They approached the music thinking that the listener had already digested the standards of the day and would recognize them by their chord structure. Hard Bop is based more around the melody in that you usually hear the melody at least one time, then the performer(s) will start in on a (usually) technically challenging solo."

And there may be something to be said for that, although musicians of the bebop era who were trying to pull away from it, like John Lewis, were specifically trying to move away from the head-solo-solo-solo-head template, and in a way the hard boppers, or neo-beboppers,were actually coming back to it. But the idea of hard bop being a more listener-friendly music makes sense.

It's a truism of jazz history that jazz went from being America's popular music, in the 30s, to being an art form that was not especially popular in the 40s. And like many truisms, it's mostly true. The musically and intellectually challenging concepts of the beboppers were not likely to go to the top of anyone's hit parade. It's even harder to imagine Snooky Lanson or Dorothy Collins singing "Scrapple from the Apple" or "Moody's Mood for Love" than it was to hear them singing "Sh-Boom" or "Heartbreak Hotel."

But it's less commented on that jazz made something of a commercial comeback in the 50s. It still wasn't challenging Elvis and Fats Domino, or even Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens, for top 40 ascendancy, but it wasn't scaring people away in droves.

Jazz was still a hipster's music, but as the Eisenhower era moved on, the hipster (not today's gourmet chocolate makers in Brooklyn, but the real hipster) became a more approachable outlaw.  Jack Kerouac became the Errol Flynn of a new generation, the buccaneer with a twinkle in his eye, living outside the mainstream, and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were the Erich Korngold and Bernard Hermann of the Beat Generation soundtrack.

Jazz came to television with Peter Gunn, to Hollywood with Anatomy of a Murder. Steve Allen featured jazz musicians on his popular network show.

Playboy played a big part in bringing modern jazz into the mainstream. Playboy in the 50s offered its readers a shortcut to sophistication, and jazz was a part of that sophistication.

And it worked, for one reason or another. George Wein opened up a new audience by bringing jazz to Newport, Dave Brubeck by bringing jazz to college. Did it make a difference that a lot of white people were playing jazz? Probably. It certainly made a difference to the popularity of what had once been called rhythm and blues. But there weren't any Fabians in jazz. It was essentially a meritocracy. Was Brubeck really better than Oscar Peterson? It's a fair question, and the answer is no, and that's an important answer. The economic story of American music is inextricably tied up with racism. But in another way, it's the wrong question. Here's another one: was Brubeck deserving of the accolades and rewards he got? Yeah, he was. I applaud every dollar that went into Dave Brubeck's pocket as opposed to Dick Cheney's, and people aren't going to forget his music in a hurry.

Brubeck, Playboy, Peter Gunn, the Beats, Steve Allen. In 1955, Billboard reported that jazz was loud at the cash register. And a 1959 album, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, is by most accountings considered to be the biggest selling album of all time, although it's also considered to be a break from all things bop, although that's a bit of an overstatement.

So, the difference between bebop and hard bop? Maybe it's a generational thing? The beboppers grew up playing big band swing, and for them modern jazz was a revolution...for a younger generation, it was just what they played. Which doesn't explain Art Blakey.,

Or how about this? If it made money, it's hard bop. If it didn't, it's bebop. Or free jazz.

Or how about this? It mox nix. It's all music.

This Phil Woods septet is made up of musicians from either side of the divide. Woods, Kenny Dorham, Gene Quill and Philly Joe Jones on the older side, Donald Byrd and Tommy Flanagan on the younger. So is their music bebop or hard bop?

Two answers. (a) I don't care, and (b) this is the last time I will ever raise that question.

I'm more interested in comparing this session to two others we've listened to recently -- the Sonny Rollins/John Coltrane duet of May 24, and the Elmo Hope Sextet session of May 7. Coltrane stayed around from that session to record with Miles and then with Sonny; Donald Byrd didn't stray far either. And Philly Joe Jones virtually never left the studio.

But it's the horns that mostly hold my interest here. Three of them on the Hope session, four of them here with Woods. You'd think that would require some serious arranging, especially here, with mini-reed and mini-brass sections, but the casualness of the Hope session seems to be the order of the day here, too. Maybe there's something about getting a bunch of musicians together that inspires a sort of collective camaraderie. There's a brotherhood in the Coltrane-Rollins collaboration, but at the same time a competitive edge. They each know what the other is doing, and neither is going to be left behind. Here, as in the Hope session, there's that fluidity. And perhaps as a result, though there's great virtuoso playing, and I mean great virtuoso playing, by all concerned, you're not really going to walk away whistling any one of the horn parts in particular. You might, instead...all right, you can't walk away whistling a drum solo, but Philly Joe Jones gets the real bravura parts.
Cover design by Harry Peck, who did some very nice work for the
British Esquire label releases of Prestige product.

Three of the tunes are Phil Woods compositions. They're vehicles for jamming: none of them has seen much recording by other artists. So it's worth noting how good some of these composed-on-the-spot vehicles for jamming in the modern jazz era were. Each of these has an arresting melody, and each provides a framework for inspired soloing by seven different guys,

'Suddenly It's Spring" is the one standard here, and if you were doing a blindfold test, and were asked to pick out the standard, you might not guess it. The guys here do all the things that give Chuck Berry his kick against modern jazz: they play it pretty darn fast, and they don't worry much about the beauty of the Jimmy Van Heusen melody. They come into it jamming, horns blazing, maybe more than on any of the spur-of-the moment compositions. There's none of the yearning romanticism that you get from the vocal versions, and it's not missed.

"Pairing Off" is the tune that gave the album its title, appropriately referencing the instrumentation.


Anonymous said...

Dear Tad--Many thanks for drawing the distinction: "...the hipster (not today's gourmet chocolate makers in Brooklyn, but the real hipster) became a more approachable outlaw." The original, of course, was defined in Norman Mailer's THE WHITE NEGRO. Today's hipster in more likely to be a 20-something with three days' growth of beard, $2 in his pocket, a stocking cap on his head in mid-July, and a $600 cell-phone in his hand--a far cry from the Ginsberg/Kerouac prototype.
Bird Lives,
Bob B.

Tad Richards said...

The only thing I hate more than seeing a word that once meant Dizzy Gillespie applied to the chocolate makers is seeing "R&B" applied to contemporary watered-down music. R&B means Amos Milburn or the Johnny Otis Show with Little Esther Phillips.

Tad Richards said...

I looked it up. Goes back to 1944, and Harry "the hipster" Gibson. At least that's one theory. "Hipster" replacing "hep cat."

Anonymous said...

Lord knows what all kind of stuff is being passed off as "R&B" these days, but the real deal, even in hopelessly white southwestern Iowa back in the early to mid-50s, could be had: Hank Ballard and The Midnighters doing "Annie Had A Baby" or "Work With Me, Annie" weren't on the radio, but you could get the records at local shops.
The latter tune got cleaned-up and bleached and went on the air as "Dance With Me, Henry."
No self-respecting hipster would have been caught dead listening to Pat Boone or Ricky Nelson when there were Little Anthony and The Imperials or Little Richard on the juke-box.
Bob B.

Anonymous said...

Add to the above list two of my favorite tunes from that mid-50s era, "Young Blood" and "Searchin'" by The Coasters. Call it what you will, R & B, Rock and Roll, Doo- Wop, whatever, how can you resist "I couldn't keep myself from shoutin',/Ah, looka there, ah, looka there, ah, looka there"?
Bob B.