Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Listening to Prestige 266: Red Garland/John Coltrane

A long day for Messrs. Garland, Chambers and Taylor. Six songs on their own, then five more with John Coltrane. Good thing Bob Weinstock didn't believe in a lot of retakes. Good thing these great professionals could make it sound so easy.

Joyously easy, starting (in the order on the released album) with "This Can't Be Love," the Rodgers and Hart standard. There was always an ironic underpinning to Lorenz Hart's work. When he says "This can't be love, because I feel so well," he kinda means it. Love does really awful things to you, and since those things haven't happened--yet--
this probably isn't it. But this version is so joyous and upbeat that it could be a Rodgers and Hammerstein song. It also a lyrical, swinging, three minute bowed bass solo by Paul Chambers that'll lift your mood if it's not there already.

"Since I Fell For You" was written as a rhythm and blues number by bandleader Buddy Johnson for his sister Ella, and it's since become a beloved standard of R&B, pop and jazz, or, if you're Dinah Washington, all three. Garland and company give it a jazz treatment here, soulful and lovely.

"Crazy Rhythm" was written by Irving Caesar, Joseph Meyer and Roger Wolfe Kahn, who didn't generally write together, but if you take all the work they did with other collaborators, and lump it
together, you have one hell of a songwriter. Even separately, they're impressive. I've written about people who left music to become charter boat skippers, to run insurance agencies, to join family air conditioning businesses, but Roger Wolfe Kahn has them all beat. He left music to become a test pilot. The Garland trio can handle all rhythms, crazy or otherwise.

Garland always had the most eclectic tastes, and the ability to pull a great session together from disparate sources. "Teach Me Tonight" is a popular song from the 50s, that era on which the book of Great American Songs was supposed to have closed. But this is another that's received quite a bit of attention cross-genre (including, again, Dinah Washington, who crossed nearly every genre). In jazz, piano players have liked it -- Garland, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson.

"It's a Blue World" was written by Bob Wright and George Forrest, best known (basically only known) for the Broadway show Kismet. If Red Garland is an eclectic song-picker, "It's a Blue World" is an eclectic song, with versions by a wide range of jazz performers, including Glenn Miller, Billy Bauer, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Coleman Hawkins. It's been a favorite of jazz singers, too, including, most recently, Amy Winehouse.

Then Coltrane showed up.

I love Red Garland's trio work, always, but Coltrane is Coltrane.

If Garland, Chambers and Taylor were having a busy day, Garland, Chambers and Coltrane were having a busy week. Don't forget that while they had stayed behind at Prestige, they had also migrated to Columbia with Miles Davis, and three days before turning up on Rudy Van Gelder's doorstep, they had been in a Columbia studio recording one of Miles's classic albums, Milestones, the one that welcomed Cannonball Adderley to the group.

Trane was now pushing forward with more urgency, and starting to separate himself from the pack even more than he had done previously. This session is credited as his first exploration of the technique that came to be called "sheets of sound." I am not musicologist enough to understand its nuances, let alone explain them. Here's fromthejazzpianosite:

As we covered in a previous lesson, to improvise vertically means to think in terms of chords and chord progressions – so your solo traces out each individual chord in the progression. While to improvise horizontally means to think in terms of scales, modes and keys – so your solo isn’t tracing out each individual chord, but rather you are just playing a particular scale over the entire progression. The end result can be very similar. A vertical solo can sound exactly the same as a horizontal solo – it’s just a different way of thinking about improvisation.
And so the Sheets of Sound technique is a vertical improvisation technique; that is, it uses arpeggios, patterns, licks and scales that trace out each chord in a progression.

The writer goes on to explain that there are a plethora of scales and arpeggios "that you could plausibly use to improvise over this chord," and lists a number of them, but points out that

If you play all of these scales/arpeggios in their entirety over [your basic chord], you are playing Sheets of Sound. Now, obviously, this is impossible so you just try squeeze in as much as you can.
 Coltrane tried to squeeze every possible harmonic implication into his solo – play every possible chord and every possible scale for each chord.
 The same website quotes Coltrane:
About this time, I was trying for a sweeping sound. I started experimenting because I was striving for more individual development. I even tried long, rapid lines that Ira Gitler termed “sheets of sound” at that time. But actually, I was beginning to apply the three-on-one chord approach, and at that time the tendency was to play the entire scale of each chord. Therefore, they were usually played fast and sometimes sounded like glisses.
 I found there were a certain number of chord progressions to play in a given time, and sometimes what I played didn’t work out in eighth notes, 16th notes, or triplets. I had to put the notes in uneven groups like fives and sevens in order to get them all in.
 I could stack up chords, say on a C7, I sometimes superimposed an Eb7 up to an F#7, down to an F. That way I could play three chords on one. But on the other hand, if I wanted to, I could play melodically…
He does play melodically on this session, especially on Tadd Dameron's beautiful "Good Bait." Dameron was what might be called a musician's musician -- revered by the jazz community, not well known outside of it, so his compositions were special, not only because of how good they were, but also because jazz owed him a special debt.

And he plays out there, especially on an Irving Berlin standard. As Bob Weinstock recalled it,
We were doing a session and we were hung for a tune and I said, "Trane, why don't you think up some old standard?" He said, "OK I got it.["]...and they played "Russian Lullaby" at a real fast tempo. At the end I asked, "Trane, what was the name of that tune?" And he said, "Rushin' Lullaby". I cracked up.
The Trio session sat on the shelf for a long time, finally released in 1970 as It's a Blue World. "Crazy Rhythm" rushed the tempo on that, appearing on Garland's 1962 release, Dig It! as well as the later album.

The Coltrane session came out in 1958 as Soultrane, although it does not include the Tadd Dameron composition of the same name that was written for Coltrane. "Good Bait" and "I Want to Talk About You" were released on separate 45s, each divided into Parts 1 and 2.




Listening to Prestige Vol. 2, 1954-1956 is very close to release. Order your advance copy from tad@tadrichards.com




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Listening to Prestige 265: Mal Waldron

It's hard to say how many compositions came from the imagination of Mal Waldron, but they certainly numbered in the hundreds. Any session that hired Waldron as pianist was more than likely to want one or more original compositions from him, and he wrote most of the material on the albums he recorded as leader. If you're that prolific, one of two things is likely to happen. You're going to start repeating yourself -- not necessarily bad thing, if you're finding new ways to do things you've done before. Or you're going to keep finding new ground.

Waldron wasn't one to stay still. He had a wide range of passions and influences. He was still part of that generation, slipping away as the 50s played themselves out, that got its start in rhythm and blues. He was a lover of classical music, and recorded several pieces by classical and modernist composers. He worked with beboppers and the avant garde, and he was Billie Holiday's accompanist during the last two years of her life. And he brought all of that experience, and his own restless genius, to bear on his work as a composer.

When one starts to categorize music, one immediately runs into the futility of categorizing music. A jazz recording session in 1957-58: is it bop? Hard bop? Cool? Neo-swing? Third stream? The lion lies down with lamb, Mulligan meets Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie plays a duet with Louis Armstrong. And that's just jazz. What do we call that other music that was composed earlier in the 20th century by Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, later on by John Cage and Philip Glass and LaMonte Young? Contemporary classical music? That's not only moronic, it's oxymoronic. What else? Composed music? Duke Ellington composed his music, and so did film scorers from Korngold to Elmer Bernstein, not to mention Leonard Bernstein. Cage and Glass were avant garde, but so was Ives in his day, and nobody stays avant garde. So we're probably stuck with contemporary classical music.

And how is that different from what Mal Waldron is doing in this early 1958 session? It must be jazz,
because it's got that swing without which, the Duke tells us, it don't mean a thing? Elvin Jones, on drums, had that swing, and Waldron was already teamed up with Billie Holiday, who out of the era for which Swing was the name, not just a characteristic. But listen to the beginning of "Tension." The number will move into jazz improvisation, with great solos by Art Farmer and Eric Dixon, but the opening section -- I'm not even sure you'd call it a head -- has a lot of the tonality and feeling that we associate with what we call classical, oxy and moronic though we may be, and not just in what Waldron and Farmer and Dixon are doing -- Jones is very much a part of that stance.

"Ollie's Caravan" has a head that's very much in the bop tradition--and an arresting melody--but then it goes different places. Putting a caravan in the title can't help but make one think of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol, but while Eric Dixon's flute solos have an Eastern tinge, they make one think of Yusef Lateef's experiments more than "Caravan." And all the above ingredients come together again in "The Cattin' Toddler" -- a striking drum intro by Jones, a catchy riff head, Eastern-tinged flute by Dixon, plus a wonderful extended solo by Farmer and the kind of work one expects of Waldron in improvising off one of his own compositions--which is to say, something completely unexpected.

"Portrait of a Young Mother" provides a space for a wordless vocal by Waldron's wife Elaine, although the piece is by no means a song, or even primarily a vehicle for voice. At ten minutes long, it gives room for solos by everyone, including a wonderful pizzicato cello by Caio Scott. This and "The Cattin' Toddler" suggest a devotion to family life that Waldron, sadly, was not able to entirely sustain. In 1963, a heroin overdose led to a major breakdown that finally responded to shock treatments and a spinal tap. His marriage to Elaine did not last. But perhaps there was a happy ending after all, for which I am very glad. These folks give so much to us, it's good to know when they get some happiness back. Mal and Elaine had two children. He had five more with his second wife, and in 1995, to celebrate his 70th birthday, he took both wives, all seven children, and two grandchildren with him on a three week tour of Japan.

These were released on New Jazz as Mal/3 -- Sounds.



Listening to Prestige Vol. 2, 1954-1956 is very close to release. Order your advance copy from tad@tadrichards.com







Friday, August 11, 2017

A-Tisket, A-Tasket

A digression -- back to Prestige shortly. Thinking about a friend's comment that she hates gimmicky songs and can't stand Ella Fitzgerald's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," I felt this unaccountable urge to defend it, and to make the case that it's not gimmicky at all.

The old joke is that the most important thing is sincerity, and once you learn how to fake that, you've got it made. That's sort of what Ella Fitzgerald accomplishes in "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" -- using the most sophisticated technical skill to create not just the illusion, but the actual presence, of pure innocence.

Which means it is an illusion, of course. Real pure innocence is something like Rebecca Black's "Friday." But the illusion is complete. There's no knowing wink. Well, maybe there is from Chick Webb's band, but even the band succumbs to Ella's innocence.

How difficult is this to achieve? Well, consider the era. We always look back at any era as "a more innocent time," but times are never innocent. This was a complex moment in time. It was the Depression, and people were longing for innocent optimism. The biggest star of the decade was Shirley Temple, of whom her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "It is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles." Shirley Temple's appeal was that she tried to be smart and sassy and grown-up (i.e., sexy), but she couldn't be anything else but innocent.

But there'll always be a reverse side to the coin of innocence.  As Tex Avery pointed out, what everyone really wants to see is Red Riding Hood in bed with the wolf. And just as repressed Victorian England produced some of the most elaborate pornography, the era that made icons of Shirley Temple and the chaste romances of Fred and Ginger also did its best to get Red Riding Hood in bed with the wolf.

And as society's outcasts are also society's id, the escutcheons of hot sex and sexual innuendo were borne by African Americans, whether they liked it or not. Bessie Smith wasn't crazy about continually being asked to sing songs of sexual innuendo, but that was what the public, and the record companies, wanted. And jazz was associated with sex. If the stories of jazz being the music of whorehouses were overblown, that was still the perception. So the presupposition was that anything sung by a black jazz singer would carry a subtext of sexual availability.

It's been said that any object can be a metaphor for sex, and I should know. I've used most of them. And any concave object, a purse or a pocket, can be a metaphor for the vagina: viz., Bessie Smith's "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl." And Ella sings a song about losing her basket, which a girlie picks up and puts in her pocket. Imagine Alberta Hunter singing that lyric. Imagine Lucille Bogan singing it.

And you can start to get an idea of Ella's accomplishment. Never mind her incredible musical skills, her ability to use her voice as an instrument, her overall understanding of music that enabled her to take over the leadership of Chick Webb's band after his death. In this song, she breaks through a nearly unbreakable stereotype. She makes innocence swing. She doesn't get in bed with the wolf.