Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Listening to Prestige 244: Prestige Jazz Quartet

There are many things that can be said about this meeting of four minds, but let's start with asserting that it's a composer's album. This should be stated at the outset, because it's important, and its importance is one of the reasons why I continue to believe that looking at the history of jazz in the 1950s through the lens of one label is worth the undertaking.

So let's start with the jazz figures who made a major contribution not just to jazz, but to composed music of the 20th century. You know the names. Duke Ellington, of course, heads the list--the same Duke Ellington who was not awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1965 by a pusillanimous committee that knew he deserved it but didn't dare nominate him. Instead, they recommended a "special citation," which the Pulitzer Board, having the courage of its racism and cultural snobbery, rejected.

The composers who did win Pulitzers in those days were people like Gian Carlo Menotti, Elliot Carter, Samuel Barber, Walter Piston--names that even I'm familiar with. And people like Ernst Toch, Norman Dello Joio, John La Montaine, names that mean nothing to me, but I'm sure they mean something to people who really follow contemporary classical music. What''s more, I'm sure they cared passionately about the music they were making, and they were creating work of value.

So, never having met a digression I didn't like, I looked up John La Montaine, and I'm now a fan. For one thing, he took and passed the New York State licensing exam to become a stockbroker, theorizing, "what can I do that will make me the most amount of money in the least amount of time, so I can stop earning money and just write music?" For another, he never did become a stockbroker.

For another, his music is beautiful. I listened to his piano concerto No. 9, and couldn't help thinking how much he, Teddy Charles and Mal Waldron would have enjoyed each other's company.

And so it goes. John La Montaine is not necessarily a household name even to people who know who Samuel Barber was, and just because jazz listeners of today can name Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk as major jazz composers, there's no guarantee that they'll come up with Mal Waldron or Teddy Charles.

Anybody who's read any of this blog knows how I feel about both of these guys, particularly Mal Waldron. These are major composers. That they are not more widely recognized as such can probaby be attributed to the reality that no one cares about jazz composers. Jazz...oh, yeah. It's that music where guys improvise on a bunch of show tunes. Or else they make up a riff and improvise on that. Or on the blues, and the blues is the blues, right?

Well, this is a recording session featuring the compositions of two of the principals and one of the acknowledged masters of twentieth century composition, and for all that you want to listen to the playing, and the improvisation, and the immediate creativity that jazz offers, you have to listen to what these guys wrote.

"Friday the Thirteenth" was a spur-of-the-moment, in-studio composition for a 1953 Prestige session featuring Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, and it took its title from the day of the session, one of the Prestige Fridays With Rudy. That kind of spur-of-the-moment work can be a one-off: good for the date, but then you go on to other things. Or, if the composer is Monk, maybe there's more to it, and it doesn't just get forgotten. Teddy Charles picked it up for this session four years later, and in 1959, it was one of the compositions that Monk and Hall Overton developed for Monk's orchestral concert at Town Hall. What strikes me most, listening to the Charles/Waldron version, is how close Waldron sticks to the melody, which fits right in with Monk's classic advice to musicians, as strange and original and insightful as Monk's own music. Here's a selection from that handwritten list of instructions:
And one more:
Chances are, Charles and Waldron never saw Monk's instructions, but they're spot on anyway. Waldron is with the melody all the time (and he's playing the piano part); Charles is always aware of it, which doesn't mean he's playing it. He's probably listening to it, but not in the limiting way Monk warns against.

Neither of Waldron's compositions have been picked up by other performers, but Waldron wrote so much (he's credited with over 400 compositions) that anyone looking to showcase his work as a composer would have a lot to choose from (and someone should, in the way that Philly Joe Jones created an ensemble to play the works of Tadd Dameron). Thom Jurek, in his perceptive review of the album at AllMusic.com, cites the "odd meters and drastic melodic interventions" of the two Waldron compositions.

But "Dear Elaine" and "Meta-Waltz" were written with this quartet in mind, and this quartet was a very particular one. You can't say that the instrumentation hadn't been tried before -- piano, bass, drums, vibes, making up the (something) Jazz Quartet -- where have we heard that before? But that was a large part of the point--to go where the MJQ had not gone.

Jurek referenced Ira Gitler's liner notes to the album,
 while the players in the PJQ are as influenced by classical music as the MJQ, they are interested "in the more contemporary developments...with more regard to devices and spirit than actual form." Sure, but what he is really saying is that these cats are pure jazz players who understand the understated dynamic of the MJQ and can make it just as seamless, just as smooth, just as adventurous, and still make it swing like hell. 
He went on to say that Waldron
may indeed have had ideas of the piano pieces of Webern in his head when he was
composing, but it's more likely he was thinking of Art Tatum and Bud Powell. 
It is, for whatever reason, hard to talk about contemporary composed music without talking about classical composers. Even I did it, which may undercut my argument about composers in the jazz realm being judged on their own merits, but I hope not. They should be.

Teddy Charles's "Take Three Parts Jazz" is a particularly ambitious piece, a three part suite measuring fourteen and a half minutes. It's been recorded by others, including Booker Ervin and the Australian Jazz Quartet, and parts of it have held up when recorded separately. John Coltrane recorded "Route 4," the first movement. The second, "Lyriste," was done by the Prestige All Stars group led by Curtis Fuller and Hampton Hawes.

The group made a second trip to the studio to cut "Meta-Waltz," but all were included on the self-titled LP. 

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

No comments: