Sunday, April 23, 2017

Listening to Prestige 256: Paul Quinichette

Some jazz labels are linked with a particular style. Blue Note, though it had a long life starting in the swing era and extending to the present day, is very much identified with hard bop. Pacific Jazz lived up to its name and became identified with the West Coast sound, or the birth of white cool. Windham Hill is so closely associated with New Age jazz that "Windham Hill" is virtually a synonym for New Age.

Prestige also recorded a lot of hard bop and bebop, but because it was so much a one-man operation, Bob Weinstock was able to indulge his enthusiasms across a wide spectrum. Paul Quinichette had come under the Prestige umbrella in 1957, recording bop albums with John Coltrane, with Webster Young (perhaps he misunderstood, and thought Weinstock was saying "Come in for a session with Webster and Young"), and even one under his own name with a group of boppers. That came out as Paul Quinichette's New Stars, and they were all newer than him, for sure. Like his mentor Lester Young, Quinichette was open to new sounds and new ideas, but he was a Basie-ite at heart, so why not record him in a Basie context? Prestige was a big tent.

The album is For Basie, the tunes are all from the Basie playbook, and the musicians are Basie veterans.

Shad Collins' ties to Basie go back to the 30s, and the Lester Young days. He also played with Cab Calloway (he replaced Dizzy Gillespie), Benny Carter, Don Redman, Jimmy Rushing, and Sam "The Man" Taylor, another jazz-to-rhythm and blues cat. He had an important reputation as an arranger and considerable success as a composer, including "Rock-a-Bye Basie." He also wrote Cozy Cole's Top Forty hit, "Topsy."

No musicians are more closely identified with Basie than Walter Page and Freddie Green, In fact, Basie was a member of Page's band, the Blue Devils, in Kansas City. Page is credited with being one of the first to shift the primary rhythmic responsibility in a band to the bass, thus freeing up the drummer and piano player to improvise more. When you hear a singer, like Lonette McKee in Round Midnight, talk about the importance of listening to the bass, she has Walter Page to thank for it. This may have been Page's last recording, as he died suddenly and unexpectedly in the winter of 1957.

Freddie Green joined Basie in 1937, and stayed with him for the next 50 years. Jo Jones joined Green and Page as integral figures in the creation of the Basie sound. He played with Basie until 1948, then freelanced with others, including Duke Ellington.

Nat Pierce is best known for his work with Woody Herman, but also for having an uncanny ability to recreate Basie's piano style, so during the late 50s he led a number of groups of Basie veterans.

No one can resist the sounds of Count Basie, and it's pretty damn hard to resist these guys, either.

So...a step backward? No. There's really no backward in jazz. Some may have still been talking about hipsters and moldy figs, but this was an era when Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory were still making music, when Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton were still making music, Machito and Tito Puente, the Count and the Duke, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. Probably no other art form has ever been so inclusive.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Listening to Prestige 255: Yusef Lateef

Yusef Lateef is, among his fellow Detroiters, a late arrival on the New York scene, and not because he represented a younger generation. Not at all. He was 37 when he first came to New York in the spring of 1957 to record for Savoy and Verve, and then to make this album for Prestige. And he wouldn't actually move Eest for good until 1960.

He had not been entirely homebound. He'd started playing professionally at 18, touring with swing bands and eventually with Dizzy Gillespie, but by 1950 concerns for his wife's health brought him off the road and home to Detroit, where he became an important figure, not only for his musicianship but also his cultural leadership. He was a founder and vice president of the New Music Society, an organization that reached out to younger jazz musicians and gave them a place to grow and develop. 1950 was also the year he converted to Islam.

His late arrival on the New York scene is part of the reason why, although he'd been an active musician for over 20 years by the time the decade turned, he is more associated with the jazz of the Sixties than the Fifties. The rest of that reason is his free-flying creativity, which seem like a Sixties thing, but was part of Lateef's creative personality even back in Detroit. Pianist Terry Pollard recalls that
He sometimes had me blow into a pop bottle. He'd fill it with get different sounds, to make the song sound like Yusef wanted it to be. And so I ended up blowing into these pop bottles. I didn't know how, and I would get dizzy every night.*
While he was still in Detroit, Lateef began to experiment with Middle Eastern music, turned on to it by a fellow assembly line worker at the Chrysler plant. He
realized I had to widen my canvas of expression. I spent many hours in the library...studying the music of other cultures. I met a man [at Chrysler] from Syria and he asked me if I knew about the rabat.
He would bring all of this knowledge, and all the instruments he was experimenting with, to his New
York recording sessions, along with his Detroit band from their regular gig at Klein's Showbar.
We were so tight we were able to go to New York on off nights and do two albums, easily...We got off Sunday nights and jumped in the...station wagon, and we would drive all the way to Hackensack, New Jersey, and record on Monday and we'd turn right back to Detroit and open up on Tuesday.
The October session with its twelve tunes would have been an impressive feat for a group motoring over from Weehawken, let alone five guys and their instruments packed into a station wagon and barreling in from Detroit. Impressive for the sheer amount of work, impressive for how good it was, and really impressive for its range.

"Playful Flute," the first tune laid down, was composed by brass player Wilbur Harden, but it embodies Lateef's love of Middle Eastern music, learned in the library, from his fellow Chrysler worker, and certainly also from his pilgrimages to Mecca. It incorporates the flute and the argol, or arghul, a two-tubed woodwind instrument that dates back to ancient Egypt.

"Taboo" is one of those tunes that's always used when a movie soundtrack wants something Latin and exotic. Either that or Margarita Lecuona's only other hit, "Babalu." Or one of the compositions of her cousin Ernesto, like "The Breeze and I" or "Malaguena." To refresh my memory, I listened to versions by Les Baxter (boring) and Cuban bandleader Jack Costanzo (not boring). But no one brings to it quite what Lateef does. From Oliver Jackson's arresting drum intro to Lateef's flute work, he turns what's generally an ersatz exotic into a genuine exotic. Which is no small feat.

And, of course, I'm not so much interested in a critique of the Lecuona cousins' oeuvre as I am in following my reactions to Lateef's range and the courage of his choices. "Taboo" is a tune that could easily be dismissed as kitsch. Not so here. And it's interesting to consider how it might have been chosen.

This was a quintet that Lateef held together for five years, working a regular five-night-a-week gig in a very hip jazz town. Five nights a week for five years means you work out a lot of material, and sometimes you're just goofing around. Hey, let's take a tune that's straight from Squaresville, and see how we can mess around with it. And if you're Yusef Lateef, and you're playing what some have described as "world music before there was world music," even goofing around can lead to new discoveries.

"Anastasia" might have been another one of those tunes. From an Oscar-nominated movie soundtrack by Alfred Newman, it had become a pop hit for Pat Boone, and you can't go much deeper into Squaresville than that. Here, Lateef does the really unexpected by staying quite faithful to the melody, but giving it a bit of a Middle Eastern twist, and a moody cast. Making it new.

Lateef's own compositions for this date are as eclectic as his covers. "Ecaps," in spite of its spacey title, is pretty much rooted on earth, with bop-influenced flute and tenor playing, and a very nice boppish piano solo by Hugh Lawson. Others range from boppish to proto-world music. And then there's "Love and Humor."

Most of the odd instruments listed in the session notes come into play here, including the balloons handed to Wilbur Harden and Hugh Lawson, for that unmistakeable sound of two balloons being rubbed together -- and Lawson is given Terry Pollard's 7-Up bottles. I couldn't help but think, as all of these unusual sounds wove their way into the mix, what kind of a challenge this session must have been for Rudy Van Gelder. The mood may be (sort of) Middle Eastern, with Lateef playing flute and argol, but the instrumentation is worthy of Spike Jones, who also knew something about love and humor. Lateef's humor is a little more subtle, and this is a very special cut, moving some distance away from jazz as we knew it, expanding our musical vocabulary. Lateef had used some of these instruments and sound effects on his earlier Savoy albums, but nothing quite like this.

I wonder if Bob Weinstock had entirely been expecting "Love and Humor." But he didn't shy away from it. It went onto his first Lateef release, The Sounds of Yusef, along with "Playful Flute," "Buckingham," "Meditation," and "Take the 'A' Train," and not only that, it was released as a 45 b/w "Meditation."

"Taboo," "All Alone," "Lambert's Joint," "Mahabs," "Minor Mood" and "Anastasia" all went onto the New Jazz album Other Sounds, released in 1959. "Ecaps" was held off until the 1960 New Jazz Cry!-Tender, the rest of which came from a later and much different session.

* This and all the other quotes -- in fact, much of the Detroit information -- from Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert's amazing book, Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Listening to Prestige 254: Prestige All Stars - John Coltrane

What to say about this session? I've already talked about the pleasures of a Coltrane-Quinichette collaboration, and they're here again in abundance, all the more pleasurable when Frank Wess is added to the mix. Wess, like Quinichette, was a Basie guy and a Lester Young guy on tenor. He also played the flute, an instrument that is finding its way more and more into Prestige sessions. The tenor saxophone is never going to go away. It's the beating heart of jazz and its rambunctious cousin rhythm and blues. But new colorations are finding their way into the music, and both the solid groove and the newer sound are featured here, as Wess plays both flute and tenor. The Basie swing of Quinichette and Wess is a part of the jazz vocabulary that Coltrane is internalizing, ready to burst forth.

And I've talked more than once about the brilliance of Mal Waldron as a composer, and as an interpreter of his own compositions. Very often, when a group is playing a Waldron tune, he'll take a late solo, or the last solo, and he'll add something that the other brilliant musicians on the take have missed -- something that goes to the heart of the song.

So what to talk about here? Well, one thing that you very rarely find on a Bob Weinstock recording, the existence of alternate takes. Weinstock, as we know, valued spontaneity and didn't encourage a lot of second and third tries on a tune. Also, as we know, he valued recording tape and didn't like to waste it, so most unused takes were taped over.

Alternate takes are often a treasure to the jazz scholar, just as often a pain in the neck to the jazz lover who just wants to hear music, not study it, and whose enjoyment of the CD version of an album he once loved is marred by having to listen to five different takes of some group's version of "Ornithology." But because they are so infrequent on Prestige, and because I am sort of pretending to be a jazz scholar in this project, they're a rare treat.

I listened to the final take of "Wheelin'" first, the alternate take second, wondering if I'd hear the difference, or get why they were dissatisfied with the first. And maybe I did. This is a very swinging group, with two Lester Young acolyte Basie-ites, and a piano player who would be tapped by Pres's soulmate Billie Holiday as her accompanist, and as great as the first version is, maybe they thought that they could swing harder.

Especially Mal Waldron. On the final take, I was blown away by his piano solo, hard as nails, played almost entirely on the topmost end of the piano. The earlier version is mellower, and it seems as though Waldron decided to trade sonority for percussiveness, not unlike what Illinois Jacquet did in his classic recording of "Flying Home" with the Lionel Hampton band, when he created the honking tenor sound, with all its emotional immediacy. Waldron is doing something a lot more complex, but no less immediate.

Other thoughts about this session: I was drawn in by the inescapable beat of the rhythm section on Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," one of the numbers that features Wess on flute. And speaking of Illinois Jacquet, his "Robbins Nest" is one of the great jazz standards, with an irresistible melody and ample room for improvisation, done proud by this ensemble. Jacquet's collaborators on "Robbins Nest" were Sir Charles Thompson and Bob Russell, a fine lyricist (Songwriters Hall of Fame) who seemed to have a penchant for writing lyrics that were rarely used, although there is a version of "Robbins Nest" by Ella Fitzgerald.

All of the final takes m this session were on the Prestige album Wheelin' and Dealin', credited to the All Stars. The two alternate takes made it to a budget Status album, The Dealers, credited to Waldron and also featuring two cuts from his April 19 session. The alternate takes inevitably made their way onto the CD reissue of Wheelin' and Dealin'. Weinstock must have been moved as I was by the irresistible beat of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," because it was released as a two-sided 45, under Coltrane's name.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Listening to Prestige 253: Gil Evans

Gil Evans is best known for his early work with Claude Thornhill, where he began to sow the seeds for modern jazz big band arranging; for his seminal work with Miles Davis on the Birth of the Cool sessions, thought by many to be the most important jazz album of the 50s (although recorded in the 40s); and the great orchestral albums he made with Miles for Columbia: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain. He had already recorded Miles Ahead at the time he went into Rudy Van Gelder's studio on three dates in September and October to record his first album as leader. He used 21 pieces on Miles Ahead.

According to the excellent Evans biography Castles Made of Sound, by Larry Hicock, Evans's work with Miles was far more extensive than the album credits would suggest. He had input into virtually every recording Miles made, and during his angriest, most anti-white periods, Miles still spoke to Gil nearly every day.

This is Evans's first album under his own name as leader, and if it doesn't register with the same historical force as the Miles Davis sides, it surely registers musically. Evans works with eleven instruments, including some of the Miles Ahead crew (John Carisi, Louis Mucci, Willie Ruff, Jimmy Cleveland, Lee Konitz and Paul Chambers), and including himself on piano (Wynton Kelly had done the Miles sessions). I hadn't realized what a good piano player he was.

But his greatest strength was as an arranger, and a group this size gives him all the room he needs to work with textures, dynamics, the shifting and balancing of parts.

The first day's work was two songs, Irving Berlin's "Remember," and "Ella Speed," a blues ballad best known in its 1944 recording by Lead Belly, and a continuing favorite of folk singers.

"Ella Speed" was rejected. Not "unissued," meaning put on the shelf, but sooner or later it might turn up on a later album or compilation. Rejected. One imagines Bob Weinstock's response: "Hey, Gil, what is this shit? We're a progressive jazz label. If you want to do folk songs, go over and see Moe Asch at Folkways."

But if such was the case, Evans was not dissuaded. He came back a week later for his second session, and this time led off with "Ella Speed." And this time, it was accepted, and it became a part of the Gil Evans canon.

And rightly so. There's something about a simple folk melody that lends itself to being a showcase for brilliant arrangements. Around the same time that Evans was recording "Ella Speed," British jazzman Johnny Dankworth made a record called "Experiments With Mice," in which he played "Three Blind Mice" in the styles of the great bandleaders and arrangers of the day: Billy May, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gerry Mulligan, Sauter-Finnegan, Stan Kenton. And Victor Borge, on Broadway, was doing baroque and romantic variations on "Happy Birthday to You." And so "Ella Speed" really shows off Evans at his best.

Miles Davis and Gil Evans
Leonard Bernstein's "Big Stuff" isn't quite a jazz standard, but it could be. It was written for Bernstein's first theatrical venture, the score for Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free. "Big Stuff" is the ballet's prologue, and was written with Billie Holliday in mind, but at the time Bernstein thought Lady Day was out of his league, and didn't show it to her. As it turned out, Bernstein was right. Holiday loved the song, and later recorded it. The Evans version is the only other jazz recording of it that I've found.

Some of Evans' musicians: Willie Ruff was already starting to make a name for himself as half of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, a name he was to continue to inhabit for the next 50 years. He and Dwike Mitchell became international ambassadors for jazz, the first jazz group to play in China and the Soviet Union.

Steve Lacy was at the beginning of a career that would make him one of the most versatile and widely recorded jazz stars of all time, and he was already showing his versatility, having recorded with Dixieland groups and with avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. He may have been the first significant musician to bring the soprano sax into modern jazz, well before John  Coltrane.

Of the lesser known players, Lou Mucci was revered as a teacher. I particularly loved this story from one of his students:
I went to see Louis Prima at the Paramount Theater. The trumpet players had very shiny trumpets and I wanted one. I asked Mr. Mucci if he would give me a note for my parents so that they would buy me a shiny trumpet. He tried my horn and said that I did not need a new horn and that he was doing the Patti Page TV show and he would use my horn.
That is a good man.

Gil Evans and Ten was released on Prestige, and later rereleased on New Jazz as Big Stuff.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Listening to Prestige 252: Jackie McLean

"Jazzy" is a slang term that's fairly commonplace in our national discourse, and as it's generally used, it has nothing to do with jazz. If jazz musicians don't care for the word "jazz," as many of them don't (perhaps not so many as at one time), maybe it's not just because of its origin as a slang term for sexual intercourse. After all, there are a lot worse things than having your art form compared to sexual intercourse. Maybe it's the ancillary meanings that have grown up around it. The Jazz Age -- drinking bathtub gin and shallow partying. Don't give me any of that jazz - don't give me any of your insincere bullshit. He's studying Greek literature and all that jazz -- and a lot of other stuff that's not really important enough to talk about.
Let's jazz it up -- let's add some bells and whistles.

And "jazzy" means showy, glitzy, with lots of surface flash. If it's used in connection with music--well, it almost never is--it's not related to jazz. Will Smith's hip hop partner, when he was starting out, was Jazzy Jeff. If you watch movies on TV with closed captioning, which some of us older folks have to do, sometimes a caption will inform you that a "jazzy theme" is being played, and if your hearing ain't all that bad, you can tell that the background music for the scene has about as much relationship to jazz as...well, as the "noirish jazz" that also pops up on closed captions.

That being said, Jackie McLean's version of "Chasin' the Bird" is jazzy. It starts out with an odd dirgelike intro from Curtis Fuller, and the whole ensemble bursts into a lively, glitzy, spirited rendition of the head. Proving that something can be jazzy and real jazz at the same time. "Chasin' the Bird" is one of the many jazz compositions based on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," which is one of the products of the Jazz Age.  And it's a joyous melody. We've heard it recently by Herbie Mann and Bobby Jaspar, and the joy comes through loud and clear in their version: chasin' a bird is a sunny, open pastime.

And "A Long Drink of the Blues" is bluesy. And long, And deeply satisfying: 20 minutes of jamming on the blues with a bunch of cats who know how to play the blues.

Gil Coggins is the newcomer on this session. He was raised in Harlem and Barbados by a mother
who played piano in church and encouraged him to play until he joined the army. Stationed in St. Louis, he received some encouragement from his tap-dancing sergeant, Honi Coles, but his real inspiration came when he met a jazz-loving 16-year-old kid who was playing trumpet with a local band in a bowling alley. Ten years later, he would reunite with that teenager in New York to record an album for Blue Note, the one called Miles Davis Volume 2.

Coggins was another one of those jazzmen, like Wendell Marshall, George Wallington and Teddy Charles, who gave himself a day job to fall back on. In 1954, he began selling real estate, and eventually he phased out of the music business and into real life, and realtor life. Like Wallington, he made a return to music later in life, recording his only two albums as a leader in 1990 and 2003. At the time of his death from an auto accident in 2004, he was playing regularly at an East Village club. His last album, Better Late Than Never, was released posthumously.

This is another one of those mix-and-match sessions. "What's New" was released first, on the Strange Blues" album. "Chasin' the Bird" and "Jackie's Ghost" both came out on a 1960 New Jazz release, Makin' the Changes, resulting in two dropped g's from the same session."A Long Drink of the Blues" waited until 1961 and the eponymous album, also on New Jazz. All three of these albums also included cuts from the earlier February 15 session.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Listening to Prestige 251: John Coltrane

This was the moment that changed my life. It was late winter or early spring of 1958. I was a freshman at Bard, and I was living in the Barracks. The barracks were really exactly that. From a 1954 article in the Harvard Crimson:
The girls' dormitories and one of the boys dormitories are excellent, both roomy and comfortable. Most of the men, however, live in barracks--wooden structures put up temporarily after the war and never replaced. 
I liked the Barracks. I probably would have liked them less if I were an actual World War II vet, but I wasn't. I was a kid away from home. Not for the first time, but these were not the boarding school dormitories that I'd hated. They were ramshackle and casual and casually named, and they were my first home away from home, and I could come in whenever I wanted to, including, this particular night, sometime after midnight.

I would have been just barely 18, the legal drinking age in those days, and would probably have been drinking, something I'd just learned to do. For sure, I was passionately in love with rhythm and blues. I was of the first rock and roll generation, raised on the Hound from WKBW in Buffalo, and, when I could get him (WINS' signal didn't travel well to upstate) Alan Freed, and when, even more rarely (WOV's signal was even more unlikely), I could get Jocko, your ace from outer space. Rock and roll made me passionate about music, and I learned quickly that I wanted the real thing. I wanted what Alan Freed played, the original records, the Chords' version of "Sh-Boom" and not the Crew-Cuts, LaVern Baker and not Georgia Gibbs singing "Tweedle Dee" (finding out about Red Garland's version came later). I discovered that the names in tiny letters below the titles of songs meant the person or persons who had written them, and "Lieber-Stoller" became my new heroes. And I discovered that, with the exception of Elvis and a few others (most of whom recorded on Sun Records), the music I loved was made by black people.

I lived in a Bohemian environment of artists and political leftists, so I discovered the folk music of the 50s, and a new writing role model to put alongside Lieber and Stoller -- Lead Belly. And then the other blues singers who had crossed over to that audience of leftists and other folk music enthusiasts -- Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Then somehow--I can't remember how, and I can't even imagine how, a white teenager in upstate New York--I discovered that there was a whole different kind of music out there, that was being made by black people and listened to by black people, and it was called rhythm and blues. Some of the rhythm and blues artists, like Larry Williams and Smiley Lewis, got some airplay on the hipper rock 'n roll stations. Some, like Magic Sam and Lightnin' Hopkins and even Muddy Waters, you just had to find. Some like Roy Brown and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup were covered by Elvis.

So in that spring of 1958, away at college, I was already passionate about music as only a seeker can be. My kind of music. Rhythm and blues, and the R&B artists like Little Richard who had made their mark in rock 'n roll. I didn't know anything about jazz. I had one Louis Armstrong record, Satch Plays Fats. I knew that jazz fans thought they were better than rock 'n roll fans, and maybe they were--if you were a rock 'n roller and traveled in intellectual bohemian circles, you always felt a little self-conscious. And neither the jazzers nor the rock 'n rollers knew much about rhythm and blues.

But sometimes you could find it on all-night radio, and that's what I was doing in those wee hours of the morning in my dorm room in the Barracks. Twisting the dial of my AM radio, looking for some far-off station that might be playing Varetta Dillard or Joe Turner or the Harptones.

And then I stopped. I didn't touch the dial of the radio again. And I couldn't even look away. I stopped and stared at the radio. I was suddenly and instantly under the spell of a music I had never heard before.

I remember everything about that moment in time. The station was CKLW in Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, and the disc jockey was Speed Anderson. Except I seem to remember it wrong. Ezra "Speed" Anderson was a late night jazz DJ in Boston. Maybe I might still be right. For a short time his program was syndicated nationally. Anyway, the place was the Barracks, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The disc jockey was Speed Anderson. And the music was John Coltrane and the Red Garland Trio.

I was struck by lightning as sure as Michael Corleone in Sicily in The Godfather, Part II.

Speed Anderson went on to become the most beloved hot dog vendor in Boston. John Coltrane went on to become one of the greatest jazzmen of his generation. And I went on to love jazz for the rest of my life.

The album, which I bought as soon as I could find it, was John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio. It had that red-on-black Abstract Expressionist cover. It was my first jazz record.

I was not hip enough, or experienced enough, to listen to the complex and subtle interactions of the instruments. Certainly not over a little dorm room AM radio. It was Coltrane that got to me.

And still does. To me, the five tracks, even though only two of the tunes were written by Coltrane, have always felt like an extended suite to me, to be listened to all the way through. So I'm listening and responding in the order they appear on the record, not, as I usually do, in the order they were recorded in the studio.

The suite begins with Red Garland, doing a nearly five-minute intro/solo on "Traneing In," the longest individual cut, after which Coltrane enters, and as great as the other musicians are, it's his voice that you hear the rest of the way.

Funny...I said this album has always felt to me like a suite, and the next track, "Slow Dance," actually was part of a suite: Manhattan Monodrama, written by contemporary composer Alonzo Levister for a group that included Teddy Charles. It was released on Charles Mingus's Debut label.

"Slow Dance" actually is kinda slow, but the climactic piece, "Soft Lights and Sweet Music," is anything but soft and sweet. It's an Irving Berlin tune, and though I often imagine the great American composers of popular song listening to modern jazz interpretations and approving, I'm not sure Coltrane's approach is exactly what Berlin had in mind. The tune, as recorded by singers like Lee Wiley and Barbara Lea, and swingers like Benny Goodman, is more sprightly than dreamy, but as Ira Gitler noted in his liner notes, this is more like the soft headlights of an express train roaring down the track.

Unlike most of Coltrane's work for Prestige, this wasn't held back for a more opportune time. It was released in early 1958, in time for Speed Anderson to play it and for a young rhythm and blues-loving college freshman to have his life changed irrevocably.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Listening to Prestige 250: John Coltrane

Bob Weinstock got several years worth of albums out of Miles Davis when he booked the Contractual Marathon sessions--the last one appearing in 1961, two years after he had changed the shape of jazz completely with Kind of Blue, for Columbia.

He scheduled those sessions because he knew Miles was leaving. He may not have known Coltrane was leaving, but perhaps he knew that this was an eagle in flight, and he wouldn't be in his eyrie long. He recorded a lot for Prestige--14 more sessions either as leader or sideman, through the end of 1958 (with some sessions for Blue Note and Savoy thrown in). Then, like the MJQ before him, he decamped for Atlantic, and his second Atlantic session, in April of 1959, was Giant Steps. Like Miles Kind of Blue, Coltrane changed the shape of jazz. (Ornette Coleman would record Tomorrow Is the Question!, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and Change of the Century in the same year.) And as with Miles, Weinstock made sure that the bebop/hard bop tradition in jazz didn't vanish right away even as its leading practitioners moved away from it: Prestige was still releasing its stockpile of Coltrane material for more than two decades. The tunes from this session bracketed that discography, first released on 1961's Lush Life album (all but "Slowtrane"), then again on the 1972 double album, More Lasting than Bronze. "Slowtrane," aka the alternate take of "Trane's Slo Blues." "Slowtrane" is also on The Last Trane (1965); "I Love You" and "Like Someone in Love" on John Coltrane Plays for Lovers (1966). "I Love You" was on the B side of a 45 in 1960, the A side in 1966.

I won't say a lot more about Coltrane's music because there are so many more sessions coming up, including Prestige's very next session, the following week, which is one that changed my life. But this great stuff: Coltrane in a trio setting, with Billy Taylor's Earl May on bass, Art Taylor on drums. They do everything asked of them, and Taylor's lead-in on Cole Porter's "I Love You," followed by his punctuation of Trane's first solo, is especially noteworthy. But Trane is the main event. The cuts are between five and six minutes long, showing that while Trane became famous for the long and very long forms, he could say a lot in a compact, and in some ways more listener-friendly setting.

"I Love You" and "Like Someone in Love" are probably included on a compilation called John Coltrane Plays for Lovers because of their titles. but they are as romantic as they come. Modern jazz is supposed to be cerebral and intellectually rigorous, and it is, but on Jimmy Van Heusen's "Like Someone in Love," especially, you can be listening to and appreciating the musical complexity of Coltrane's soloing, and then he'll cut through and hit you in the heart as immediately as anything by the Five Satins or Billy Eckstine. In Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise's friend gives him a Miles Davis and John Coltrane tape to play as an accompaniment to lovemaking. Cruise puts it on, but after a minute, he says, "What is this shit?" and rips it out of the tape player. Jerry Maguire had no taste and no soul.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Listening to Prestige 249: Tommy Flanagan

Tommy Flanagan went a long way to record this one: Sweden, which if it wasn't quite the Mecca for American jazz musicians that it had been a few years earlier, was still one of the great jazz centers of Europe. Stockholm was a long way from New York, where Flanagan, Wilbur Little and Elvin Jones had been playing in J. J. Johnson's group, and had joined Johnson's European tour. It was even farther from Detroit, where both Flanagan and Jones had gotten their start.

I've written a lot about Detroit in this blog, because it keeps coming up. Detroiters made such a contribution to Prestige Records, and to modern jazz as a whole. As Pepper Adams said, when he joined the army, he was thrown in with older and more experienced musicians, and he looked forward to learning from them, but he discovered that because of his apprenticeship in Detroit, he was more advanced than they were.

A history of jazz in Detroit was waiting to be written, and it waited a long time. It wasn't until 2001 that a book-length history of Detroit jazz was published, and it was worth the wait. The book is Before Motown,  by University of Michigan-Dearborn professor Lars Bjorn, with assistance from Jim Gallert, jazz DJ and journalist. I, of course, have been focused on the musicians (like Flanagan and Jones) who emigrated from Detroit to New York in the 1950s, but the book goes back to the 1920s--the society bands that morphed into jazz bands, and the contributions to music that the Motor City was making even then: Jean Goldkette's bands that were the first to feature Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, McKinney's Cotton Pickers with their great arranger Don Redman. The book is both scholarly and readable, Highly recommended.

J. J. Johnson's European tour may not have produced the number of splinter group recordings that Lionel Hampton's 1953 tour did, but this session makes up for it quality. It is the first recording by Tommy Flanagan as a leader, but certainly not the last. In a career spanning four decades, he became one of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed musicians of his time.

Most of the cuts here are Flanagan originals, the exceptions being "Willow Weep for Me," by Gershwin protégé Ann Ronell, "Chelsea Bridge" by Billy Strayhorn, and "Relaxin' at Camarillo" by Charlie Parker. Playing a Bird composition means that you still have at least one foot planted firmly in bebop, and if you're a piano player and have that planted foot, you've done a lot of listening to Bud Powell. Flanagan has named as his chief early influences Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, two masters of the piano, and Powell, the pianist who steered him to bebop.

I went back and listened to Bud Powell's version of "Relaxin' at Camarillo," and then to Flanagan's again. Both feature great piano, and certainly no one wrote springboards for improvisation like Charlie Parker, but the big difference between the two is Elvin Jones. Powell's "Relaxin'" was recorded at almost exactly the same time as Flanagan's, in late 1957, and with Art Taylor on drums, but Jones, who had been restrained on previous Prestige sessions, really breaks out here,

I went back and listened to some of Powell's earlier recordings, from the 40s, with Max Roach on drums. Roach was certainly one of the most important drummers in his day, one of the pioneers of modern bebop drumming, and in a club, in a trio setting, he must have been wonderful to hear, but on record, you can hear very little of him. And that makes you realize what a difference arriving on the scene in the era of advanced recording techniques pioneered by Rudy Van Gelder and others, when the bass and drums could be miked so as to show the full range of the players.

But the other difference in Jones's playing on this session is Tommy Flanagan, who brings him to the forefront, and provides a framework for him to show himself at best advantage. Flanagan was one of the great accompanists in jazz, working with Ella Fitzgerald for many years, and of course a vocalist like Ella is going to be able to find and hire the best accompanist, but it turns out that Flanagan is also a great accompanist to a drummer, which is a little more unusual.

Just listen to "Beat's Up," a Flanagan composition which is a showcase for Jones, and listen to the piano, the way Flanagan provides melodic and rhythmic prods that move Jones into new directions and new innovations.

You can tell this was recorded outside of Bob Weinstock's purview because there are alternate takes. It was released as Tommy Flanagan Trio on the Swedish Metronome label, then licensed to Prestige, where it became Overseas.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Listening to Prestige 248: Red Garland

Red Garland was Miles Davis's legacy to Prestige, as Miles sat out one of the tunes on one of his Contractual Marathon sessions and let Garland and his trio audition for a  regular gig with the label. This has to have been one of the most successful auditions of all time, because Garland, as leader of a trio or with the addition of a horn, would record close to thirty albums for Prestige and its subsidiaries, and with good reason. Garland was not only an important piano innovator, he was also consistently entertaining.

Riccardo Scivales, author of a number of books on jazz piano technique, analyzed Garland's piano technique as follows (and I quote this at some length because it relates to my listening experience as a fan):
 Garland...became especially famous and influential for his trademark “block chord” technique, which was very different from earlier “block chord” stylings devised by Milt Buckner, George Shearing and Nat “King” Cole, and was slightly different from [Ahmad] Jamal’s ...Garland’s innovative and distinctive “block chord” style was made of three notes in the right hand and four (rarely three) notes in the left hand, with the left hand playing around middle C and the right hand playing one octave above the left. In this style:
1.the right hand plays the melody in octaves, with a perfect 5th always placed above the lowest note of the octave. As a very important feature of this styling, note that perfect 5ths are played in the middle of right hand octaves even when they seem to not suit the underlying harmony...In fact, these perfect 5ths become virtually inaudible when left hand chords are played simultaneously, and above all they also give these voicings a particularly rich, distinctive and slightly out-of-tune delightful character;
2.the left hand mostly plays four-note (rarely three-note) “rootless chords” in exact rhythmic unison with the right hand. On this matter, it should also been noted that Garland was one of the earliest pianist to make extensive use of “rootless chords”. (Along with Gershwin, Ellington, Tatum and Garner’s pioneering examples of “synchronizing” the melody with left hand chords, “rootless chords” are discussed—with practical applications too—in my method Jazz Piano: The Left Hand, published by Ekay Music/Steinway & Sons.)
As testified by existing recordings, Garland seems to have perfected such voicing towards 1955, when he started using them extensively in his recordings with Davis. Compared to previous “block  chord” stylings, Garland’s had a brighter quality, slightly more dissonance, and more fullness in the upper register.
So how does this work out when you're actually listening to it? Well, playing the Duke Ellington/Barney Bigard classic "C-Jam Blues," Garland joins Paul Chambers in a lead-in vamp in which both piano and bass are functioning as rhythm instruments, and when that right hand, an octave higher as Scivales says, starts playing the melody, the piano is still working as a rhythm instrument.

Ellington's orchestra, of course, while making some of the greatest and most complex music of any era, was always a dance band. Modern jazz is supposed to have lost that danceability factor when the virtuoso soloists became the attraction, and drummers stopped keeping the beat with the bass drum, but Garland's "C-Jam" blues has as good a beat as anything a teenager ever gave a 93 to on American Bandstand, and the only thing that stopped me from getting up and dancing to it was that I was driving in traffic at the time.

Garland's sessions are full of variety. Here we have Ellington. We also have Matt Dennis ("Will You Still Be Mine?"), composer of quirky, wry romances, and Eddie deLange, perhaps not as well known as he should be, given that he gave us "Moonglow"  and "Darn That Dream," among others. "Lost April" comes from a Nat "King" Cole album cut ("Unforgettable" was the hit off the album). It's a beautiful melody, and if it hasn't exactly become a jazz standard after its discovery by Garland, it's had a few solid covers, by George Shearing, Sonny Red and Phil Woods among others.

If you were planning on using this session for a dance evening, "Lost April" makes a romantic, dreamy slow dance. Of course, with the right partner you can slow dance to anything, even a tornado, so you could probably grind along to "Will You Still Be Mine?", even though it's the most boppish of the cuts here.

You certainly ought to be able to dance to Lionel Hampton, and "Gone Again" provides another slow, dreamy sway, as does the bluesy, mood-enhancing Garland original, "The P. C. Blues." And "Tweedle Dee Dee," the Winfield Scott rhythm and blues classic that kids really did dance to on American Bandstand, will get you up and swinging those hips again. The kids on American Bandstand might have been dancing to either the Lavern Baker original or the Georgia Gibbs cover -- it wouldn't have much mattered which, since the Gibbs arrangement matched Baker's note for note and beat for beat. Baker sued but lost -- it was ruled that you can't copyright an arrangement. Garland had unerring taste and judgment in the songs he picked, and if there was a war between jazz and rock 'n' roll in the 50s, Garland may have been its no man's land, with the same generosity of spirit that led troops on either side to stop shooting and toss gifts across the trenches to each other on Christmas Eve, 1914.

Garland's popularity during this era, and his enduring legacy, comes from that unique block chording style, the depth of feeling he gave to his recordings, and his sheer piano wizardry. I got caught up in a dancing mood while writing this, but there is no track in this whole session where Garland doesn't surprise with a sudden run up into the upper register or a captivating blues variation.

And let's not forget his ability to choose material to put together a spellbinding set. And, it turns out, the set is just as spellbinding if Prestige chose to mix and match.

Which they did. "C Jam Blues," "Gone Again" and "Will You Still Be Mine" were released in 1957 on Garland's Groovy album, which also included one track from his May 24 recording date, and two from the previous December, and it's still a great album. The others were held off for a later release as The P. C. Blues.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Listening to Prestige 247: John Jenkins - Clifford Jordan - Bobby Timmons

John Jenkins, Clifford Jordan and Bobby Timmons were all young in 1957; they were barely out of short pants when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker first hit 52nd Street. Jordan and Jenkins, both 26, were newly arrived in New York from Chicago, where they had been classmates at DuSable High, and part of the Windy City jazz scene with Ira Sulivan, Johnny Griffin and others. Timmons, four years younger, had been the first one to arrive in New York, in 1954. He had played gigs with Kenny Dorham and Chet Baker among others, but 1957 was his breakout year.

They were heading in very different directions. Timmons would become associated with the soul jazz movement, and write some of its greatest hits, like "Moanin'," "Dis Here" and "Dat Dere." His compositions have become jazz standards, and "Moanin'" is probably still one of the most recognizable tunes in the jazz repertoire. As with "Moody's Mood For Love," its popularity was enhanced when lyrics were set to it (by Jon Hendricks), but the melody was ubiquitous before that.

Timmons was part of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers when he wrote "Moanin'," and he's probably mostly associated with that group, and its Blue Note recordings, but he would record several albums as a leader for Riverside, and then return to Prestige for several more in the mid-sixties. He would die young, at 34, another victim of heroin.

Jenkins would record only two more albums as a leader, both in 1957, but soon after circumstances in life forced him to the streets, where he would hustle a living as a pedlar and street musician for the next three decades.

Jordan would have a long and distinguished career, known as a musician's musician, not really associated with any one school, playing with funksters (Horace Silver), experimentalists (Eric Dolphy), funky experimentalists (Charles Mingus), touring Africa with Randy Weston. Jordan's style was strongly influenced by Lester Young, at a time when Young's influence was diminishing, but he drew from a multitude of sources, including Nobel Laureate Herman Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game, and the songs of folk blues artist Lead Belly.

The decades after the Prestige era. the 70s and 80s, saw a different breed of independent label, and Jordan recorded for several of them. Muse was the creation of Prestige alumni Joe Fields and Don Schlitten. Many of the later small indies were formed by musicians. One such was Strata-East (Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell), which released a number of Jordan titles. Others like SteepleChase and Soul Note came from the European love for American jazz. Jordan would ultimately make over 40 recordings, and in 1990. he would bring John Jenkins off the streets for a final recording.

Jenkins and Jordan would go out together, dying within a couple of months of each other in 1993, DuSable High School. Their shared background shows in the intuitive closeness they bring to this session, abetted by another DuSable graduate, Wilbur Ware. Dannie Richmond, who had just begun his long association with Charles Mingus, is on drums.
just as they had come in together from Chicago in 1957. Chicago is best known today as the cauldron of the postwar electric blues sound (and both these young horn players played in rhythm and blues bands in their home town), but it has a powerful jazz history too, beginning with the New Orleans diaspora of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, and their young white acolytes from a local high school. Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer. Later it was to become a hotbed of the avant-garde, with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But in between, as the bebop revolution inspired musicians throughout the country, it had a music scene to be reckoned with, with many of the young cats (including Jordan) getting their start at

The album was released on New Jazz as Jenkins, Jordan, Timmons.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Listening to Prestige 246: Phil Woods-Red Garland

Found "Sugan" on YouTube, hit "play," forgot what was I was doing, half-listening to great Phil Woods solo, then gradually found myself asking, "Wow...what's happening with the piano behind Phil? That's amazing."

Ah yes, as well it should be. A Phil Woods - Red Garland collaboration? You couldn't ask for better. And then, with my attention fully engaged, Red went into his solo.

Anyway, I got held up for a while. "Sugan" grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go, through four consecutive listenings, and since it's nine and a half minutes long. that meant a sustained half hour plus of "Sugan," every time marveling at it. Garland's solo is three minutes long, and with at least four unexpected twists and changes of direction. Ray Copeland does some fine solo work too, but even better are his duet exchanges with Woods. The number concludes with something you didn't hear all that often in jazz of the fifties, and that's a fadeout. Whether that was Rudy's or Weinstock's idea, it happened to work perfectly with Copeland's and Woods's exchanged phrases. Give a listen.

The session is half Woods originals, half Charlie Parker. A gutsy choice by Phil, for whom an exchange with Bird was a turning point in his career, and who would, in fact, marry his widow, Chan Parker. Maybe "gutsy choice"  isn't right. Maybe a natural choice. Anyway, a good choice.

I'd just be repeating myself if I went over every cut on this album. The level of inventiveness never flags. The musicians do everything you want jazz musicians to do. They go off on their own, they're always working with each other. They respect the melody, they're not limited by the melody. Ronny Graham, in his great comedy routine "Harry the Hipster's Commencement Address to the School for Modern Jazz Musicians" tells his graduating class, "When you cats came here, all you could play was the melody. Now you wouldn't know a melody if it hit you in the mouthpiece." These cats know the melody, and a whole lot more, and you don't even need a cache of stashay in your sachet to appreciate it.

It's good to hear Ray Copeland, who didn't record much. His only other Prestige outing was with Monk in 1954, and I commented about that session, "perhaps the only thing better than listening to Thelonious Monk is listening to Monk play with someone who really gets him." Monk was a rare and idiosyncratic talent, but Copeland gets Woods and Garland too, and their interplay is one of the joys of this album.

Copeland's most active collaboration was with Randy Weston, another visionary. He went on to have a distinguished career as an educator, teaching jazz composition at Hampshire College in Amherst Massachusetts, part of Amherst's five college consortium that was a pioneering center of jazz education (Max Roach taught at Amherst). In 1974, he published The Ray Copeland Method and Approach to the Creative Art of Jazz Improvisation.

You need to wonder about the marketing of this one. Was Prestige overloaded with product at this point? They did a lot of recording in 1957 -- 70 sessions, as compared to a little more than half of that the following year. How much is too much product? I guess it depends on your pressing capabilities and your distribution capabilities. Anyway, this wonderful record, titled Sugan and with nice but not really inspired cover art, was dumped into the budget bins as a Status release. It was also included as part of one of those weird 16 2/3 super-LPs, called George Wallington, Phil Woods, Donald Byrd, Red Garland - Modern Jazz Survey - New York Jazz. 

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Listening to Prestige 245: Jackie McLean

This is around the time when Bob Weinstock stops being the hands-on guy in the studio (although his idea of hands-on was mostly hands off), and starts turning some sessions over to other producers. He's had Teddy Charles produce a few, but those were really Teddy Charles projects.

Here he gives over some of his regulars to a new guy, Don Schlitten. And this is, in fact, a session that makes up part of an album begun back in February, with Weinstock at the helm. Schlitten was a young guy -- at 24, four years younger than Weinstock, and at the beginning of a long career in jazz. Like Weinstock, he had started his own label at a young age,

but perhaps had not had the business acumen, or perhaps just hadn't found his focus yet. His label, Signal, which he formed with Ira Gitler, did some significant work, recording Duke Jordan, Gigi Gryce, Red Rodney, Cecil Payne, and a live tribute to Charlie Parker from the Five Spot. They also put out an interesting series called Jazz Laboratory, which was sort of similar to Music Minus One. It featured quartets led by pianists like Duke Jordan and Hall Overton, with one horn player. On the reverse side of the album, the horn player dropped out, and the remaining trio did the same songs.

After a couple of years, Schlitten sold the label to Savoy, and went into independent production. He would go on to form other labels, and make a major contribution to jazz.

He brings a few faces to this session in the rhythm section. Jon Mayer didn't make much of a name for himself in the 1950s (and the name he did make was not entirely his own, if this session is an indication), but that would  change several decades later. He made one other album (with Coltrane), played on gigs with Ray Draper (who may have recommended him here, as he did earlier with Webster Young), Kenny  Dorham, Tony Scott and others, and in the 60s he performed with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band, and accompanied Dionne Warwick, Sarah Vaughan and the Manhattan Transfer. Then he dropped out of sight until the 1990s, when he made a series of highly regarded albums, including a couple with Mark Feldman's Reservoir Records, out of Kingston, NY. He is still active.

Bill Salter is probably best known for his years as bass player and musical director for Miriam Makeba, but he picked an odd route into jazz--his first professional job was with Pete Seeger. Salter sort of passed through jazz. It was only part of what he did. His folk music credentials included Harry Belafonte and John Prine as well as Seeger. He was in the pit for Broadway shows. He wrote hit songs for Shirley Bassey, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, Grover Washington, Jr. and Rod Stewart.  But as he passed through, he left a mark: recordings with Sabu, Herbie Mann,Yusef Lateef, David "Fathead" Newman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He currently plays traditional black vaudeville music with his own group, the Ebony Hillbillies.

Like Gil Melle and Larry Rivers, Larry Ritchie was torn between painting and music, and over time he drifted more into painting. He would be back in Hackensack one more time in 1957, recording with Ray Draper and John Coltrane.

Draper and Webster Young make up the rest of the sextet part of the session, and Draper contributed one tune, the oddly named  "Disciples Love Affair." McLean pairs down to a quartet for the final number of the day. "Not So Strange Blues" is sort of a companion piece to "Strange Blues," from the earlier session, and it may not be strange, but it sure is the blues.

If Schlitten was looking for instant recognition from his first Prestige session, he was doomed to disappointment. Strange Blues, which included these three tracks, would not be released for another ten years. But Weinstock was satisfied enough to hand him more assignments. And this whole McLean project was pretty weird. The long February session, which included "Strange Blues," would be released in dribs and drabs on New Jazz starting in 1959.