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.