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.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Listening to Prestige 205: Prestige All Stars

Two groups of Prestige All Stars in two days, with only Art Farmer in common--and, curiously, Ed Thigpen. Thigpen's only previous Prestige connection was three sessions with Gil Mellé--although, like another Mellé-to-Ammons handoff, George Duvivier, he would be making funk for earth people with the Prestige funkmaster Gene Ammons in the early Sixties. Were it not for the fact that Thigpen hadn't been on Mellé's session of the previous Friday at Rudy's, one might have guessed that maybe this session had been plotted there, because both Farmer and Hal McKusick were holdovers.

Perhaps "Prestige All Stars" wasn't the best marketing strategy, since this first album is virtually nowhere to be found. Nowhere online. You can buy it from Amazon for $189, which is really weird considering that this isn't even for the vinyl--it's for the CD! And weirder yet, when you consider that you can buy the Complete Kenny Burrell 1957-62, on four CDs, including all the tunes from this session, for $11.99. It's a great lineup, and I wish I could say more about it.

Farmer is back again the next day with a different lineup, this time All Star regular Donald Byrd and All Star newcomer Idrees Sulieman, who'd done Prestige sessions with Mal Waldron and Joe Holiday: Three trumpets! Well, why not? They'd done well with two trumpets on the first All Stars session.

And they do damn well with three, here.

There's an excellent documentary by Stevenson Patti about his attempt to organize a concert featuring three New Orleans piano legends, Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint, titled after a quote from one of them, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. And this is mostly true, due to the unlikelihood of there being more than one piano at any given venue. There are exceptions, of course. We presented Dave and Don Grusin together at Opus 40, with two grand pianos out on the sculpture. The pianos were provided by Yamaha, who told us afterwards that it was the hardest moving and setup job they had ever done. And Daffy and Donald Duck have a memorable piano duel in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 

But it's much easier to get two or three players of a portable instrument together. J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding achieved their greatest success when they put two trombones together, and although two of the same instrument is not a rarity, it's a little rarer when both the instruments are trombones. Rarer is a group with four of the same instrument, but the World Saxophone Quartet put four saxes together. Even rarer is a group with six of the same instrument, and perhaps even rarer than that is a group composed of multiple tubas, so a rarity of rarities would be Howard Johnson's group Gravity -- six tubas and a rhythm section.

And of course, there was a time when this none of this was at all unusual--the big band era, with its horn sections. And one of those horn sections became particularly famous--Woody Herman's Four Brothers, who would go on to record in a small group setting for Prestige as Five Brothers: Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Alan Eager and Brew Moore.

More commonly, in a small group, you'll have representatives from different instrumental families, just as the balanced dinner (in those days) contained representatives of the Four Major Food Groups. Perhaps this was because the archetypal, legendary (even though it was real) bebop ensemble featured Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Perhaps it was because for the casual listener, with two or three different instruments as the front line, it was easier to tell who was playing at any given time. Scott Yanow, in his review of the Five Brothers session, admits that with five young Lester Young acolytes, it's hard to tell who's playing what.

Ira Gitler, in his liner notes to many Prestige albums, would list the order of soloists on every cut, and while this may have been a source of mild ridicule for jazz adepts, it was very useful for the casual fan striving to become more than a casual fan.

But I would think a session such as this one must have been very rewarding for the players: three guys using the same tool but finding individual approaches to improvised music, and all starting from the same melody--in this case, original compositions from each of them. And while I am one of those who really can't tell who's playing what part, I can certainly appreciate how one trumpet follows another, with a new approach, a new tonality, These three musicians are pushing and inspiring each other in a way that is perhaps unique to the situation of three or more soloing on the same instrument.

They share the composing chores too, with Sulieman contributing two tunes ("Palm Court Alley," with its opening Charlie Parker lick, and "Forty Quarters"), Farmer ("Who's Who") and Byrd ("You Gotta Dig It to Dig It") one each.
The Prestige cover, and the British Esquire label cover. From the
London Jazz Collector: "Uniquely among US overseas releases, Esquire
Records were pressed in the UK with original US supplied stampers and
not re-mastered locally, so are sonically the same as Prestige,  in most
cases showing van Gelder stamp and originating US matrix and
plant codes. What differs are the alternative covers, a mixture of quirky
native whimsy, kitsch graphics, alternative duotone colourings, and line-
drawings based on the originals: sometimes you can see the original
as inspiration, while others clearly start with different cultural reference
points, the denizens of London’s smoke-filled Soho clubs and  52nd Street
New York, two jazz-loving  communities separated by only  approximately
 the same language. Potayto, pottato. That is one of the things that
make Esquire covers so intriguiging.

The fifth number, "Diffusion of Beauty," was written by Hod O'Brien, who was a newcomer to the Prestige orbit, and did not remain in it for long--I think this is his only Prestige recording. O'Brien is one of those guys who successfully balanced dual careers. After playing with Oscar Pettiford, J. R. Monterose and others in the 50s and early 60s, he got a degree in psychology and mathematics from Columbia, and worked in statistical research in psychology at NYU. "Diffusion of Beauty" is the only composition from this session that has been recorded by others.

The album was released as Prestige All-Stars:Three Trumpets, with the names of the three--and only the three--prominently featured on both the American and British covers.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.