Does it taste like jazz or classical?

In a room full of people, are you part of a gang or alone in a crowd? The distinction between jazz and classical musicians, players and composers, to their respective tasks offer up an interesting question. The jazz musician has to adapt his playing to the boys-in-the-band, and usually on the fly, while the classical musician stays on task no matter what happens around him. Is there a musically definable middle ground?

With jazz the focus is more often on what the player brings to a composition (consider old warhorses like Basin Street Blues, Cherokee, Body and Soul). Do you prefer Lester Young or John Coltrane, Chet Baker or Miles Davis? Sometimes it doesn’t even sound like the same song as musicians apply their personal touch to a tune. The acknowledged jazz greats known for their orchestral compositions and arrangements, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones come easily to mind, specifically describe thinking about particular players when writing or arranging for large ensembles. Consider Ellington and Hodges or Jones and Sinatra.

It seems to work differently within classical music circles.  Rarely do individual players achieve notoriety, such as Goldberg playing Bach or Yo-Yo Ma on cello. A specific orchestra like the London Philharmonic or Boston Pops (aka, the Boston Symphony Orchestra) are more likely referenced when discussing a classical performance than their famous conductors, let alone the first chair violin by name. For example, we tend to think of Mozart’s music in relation to the instruments (Flute Concerto #2 in D), but rarely associate that same composition with a particular musician.

Jan Swafford’s terrific new book, Language of the Spirit (subtitled, An Introduction to Classical Music) inspired me to create a playlist of exceptional classical music. The first surprise was how much of the music Swafford recommended was already in my collection. Recordings by David Munrow with the Early Music Consort of London and the Goldberg Variations on Bach had been, regrettably, gathering dust. Conversely, lots of music by Mozart and Stravinsky are in regular rotation on my daily soundtrack. The complete Beethoven symphonies, well, not so much.

Going in chronological order, I added works by Berlioz, Ravel and Bartok. Not among the music mentioned by Swafford that made my list is a personal favorite, Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (context is important to fully appreciate this work, composed in a Nazi death camp, so check out this link: http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/04/quartet_for_the_2.html ). Finally, though Swafford probably wouldn’t approve, I finished out my seven-hour survey of classical music with some Phillip Glass, the Saxophone Quartet Concerto all movements. This playlist is an absolute delight to play, especially for friends not expecting classical music from a jazz enthusiast.

So classical music was much on my mind as I recently watched an interview with Dizzy Gillespie from 1990 (during a made for TV documentary by Norwegian Jan Horne, To Bop or Not to Be: A Jazz Life, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdQf1EHlrKc). A curios segue was provided by trumpeter Red Rodney as he explained why hard bop is the hardest form of jazz to play well (cut to Gillespie), “Because you got to think all the time.” Gillespie went on to observe that, “Classical musicians just play that (points to a sheet of music), period. No added notes, no nothing else.”

As Swafford closes his book, notable for being both erudite and entertaining, he describes recent American contributions to the classical canon as being predominantly in a minimalist and post-minimalist vein. I agree. Yet there is a line from the last page of Swafford’s book that shouldn’t go unremarked, “It (classical music) has also shown an ability to absorb into itself ideas and voices from around the world, and from popular music and jazz, while still remaining itself.” I disagree. After sampling far more of the classical music Swafford recommends than I finally ended up adding to my collection, in only one instance did I truly taste a flavor of jazz; Aaron Copland (with his magisterial Fanfare for the Common Man, a long-time favorite of rock fans). Not even Glass makes the cut here.

If we accept Gillespie’s distinction between technical mastery (classical) and improvisational excellence (jazz) what comes to my mind is the idea of an American Orchestral Music (AOM) distinct from Western Classical Music (WCM). Arguably missing from Swafford’s overview are the later orchestras of jazz icons like Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson and Gerald Wilson. With nothing in the real world simply black or white, I’ll suggest AOM occupies a definable, grayish intersection between jazz and classical. And what we hear is jazz showing the influence of classical music to a far greater degree than vice versa.

A stunning example of a straightforward intersection between AOM and WCM will found listening to the relatively obscure 1960 recording by Duke Ellington (arranged by Billy Strayhorn) of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. The story is told that Ellington and Tchaikovsky met in Las Vegas where the classical guy gave his assurance to the jazz guy that a jazz treatment of his classical composition would be appreciated. No finer example of what classical music sounds like through a jazz filter is known to me.

Two other examples demonstrating remarkable fusions of jazz and classical are also worth a listen to for comparison. First, the album Creation, a 2001 release by Branford Marsalis performing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Debussy, Satie, Ravel and Milhaud, among others, get a gorgeous jazz-tinged treatment. Second, Nostalgic Journey: Tykocin Jazz Suite featuring jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker, the Wlodek Pawlik Trio and the Symphony Orchestra of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Bialystok. From 2008 we hear this moving and uplifting tribute to a family’s quest to reclaim their Polish heritage. We also hear a jazz soloist, a jazz trio and a classical orchestra interacting in unexpected ways with modern compositions having clear WCM roots.

In contrast to these suggestions, the extended suite A Tone Parallel to Harlem, finds Ellington in a space uncomfortable for both jazz and classical enthusiasts. The music is daring and challenging as it moves over evolving textures inspired by the daily sounds of life in New York City. Frankly this music is distinct even from other, more popular Ellington compositions for orchestra, such as The Liberian Suite. Harlem may most perfectly embody my definition of AOM. This is not background music, it is rarely played on the radio and never heard live, so again, another relatively obscure performance. The music here floats above any jazz/classical debate, comfortable in being neither. A circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

These days the term Big Band is regularly used to reference orchestral performances in jazz circles. Heavy hitters like Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride have produced big band albums recently, and these recordings sound great as they carry on in the jazz tradition, but mostly without reference to classical music. With the compositions and arrangements created by Ellington and Oliver not so much heard these days, it is difficult to compare Big Band with AOM. Which is regrettable. The epic sweep of traditional classical music can most readily be found with a taste of jazz in the works of American Orchestral Music composers and arrangers, of which this millennium has not yet heard much from.

Lots of Miles between us

Finding myself home alone for a long weekend, I determined to play as much of my Miles Davis album collection as time would permit. There was not enough time to hear all 42 titles. Which was fine since many of these albums are played frequently, with Jack Johnson, Seven Steps to Heaven and Miles Ahead at the top of my usual playlists. This allowed me to focus on CDs that had not been heard in a long time. For the half-dozen albums that contain two, or more, CD’s I just played the first disc. That list included Circle in the Round, Agharta, Big Fun and the Bootleg Sessions.

The experiment was a raging success and there will be some changes to the usual suspects that end up in my car and office over the next few months. For today’s Jazz-Notes I’m going to make some observations, many likely to be inflammatory for hard core fans.

The best surprises were two albums separated by thirty years; Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants that included recording sessions from 1954 and 1956, and Tutu from 1986. We’ll start with Jazz Giants since it needs some context. There are, in fact, two albums with this name, both released by Prestige and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder. The first was recorded during two separate sessions in 1954 and ultimately titled Bags Groove (though the actual song title is Bags’ Groove) with Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. A reissue in 1987 included multiple takes of Bags’ Groove and But Not For Me. A terrific album, but less impressive than the album released in 1956 with cuts from one of the 1954 sessions and another from 1956. It was remastered in 2008 by Rudy Van Gelder.

Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants provided an unexpected jolt. As happened often over the weekend, a song would pop out and send me to the liner notes. Here the line-up on a single tune, ‘Round Midnight, was John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones. The difference between the sound of the earlier session in December of 1954 and the ‘Round Midnight session of 1956 was incredible. If there was ever a question regarding Miles ability to evolve intelligently, it is answered by this album. The journey to Kind of Blue seems inevitable.

Tutu, on the other hand, is more about the destination than the journey. Having played this early in the listening session, and being so impressed that it was the only album getting a repeat during the weekend, it was clear how this music resolved problems with  songs during that difficult transition period post-Bitches Brew. Specifically, the wildly uneven album The Man With the Golden Horn saw some of its best moments finally realized on Tutu. With Marcus Miller as the undisputed sideman on this CD (with props to George Duke) we have a master work of jazz featuring brilliant elements of funk and fusion. And the striking photography of Irving Penn is a breathtaking bonus.

Another surprising contrast was the live album Agharta followed by Porgy and Bess. Recorded in 1975 during an appearance in Japan, Agharta defines the crazy shit Miles was doing with percussionist Mtume and guitar great Pete Cosey. For critics of Bitches Brew this had to be the ultimate insult. In fairness, Miles was dealing with some serious health issues at this time which had to have influenced his performance. But this album, which I enjoyed again immensely, is an acquired taste and challenging piece of work.

Porgy and Bess was just a great listen, and a gentle reminder that Miles wasn’t selling-out anything by covering Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper thirty years later. One of Miles best-selling albums, Gil Evans does a yeoman’s job in scoring and directing a full orchestra in support of Miles’ rendition of this Gershwin classic. Show tunes have never sounded better.

A light also needs to be shined on another outlier from the Miles cannon, Ascenseur pour l’echafaud was the soundtrack from a movie made in 1957. There are twenty-six cuts on this album with all but four lasting less than 3-minutes each. Ultimately, ten of these improvisational works were edited to create the soundtrack for a movie by French director Louis Malle. A beautiful, haunting album sounding very much like a single song, it makes anywhere at any time become 2:00 am in a sketchy jazz bar near the wrong part of town. Every time I hear this CD I wonder why I don’t play it more often.

All of the live albums were disappointing. Setting aside the quality of the actual recordings, which varied across a nearly inconceivable range from really good to truly terrible, there was something missing in these CDs. For all the grief Miles has received about turning his back on the audience or wandering off the stage during sideman solos, I have always enjoyed watching his concert footage, and do frequently. Today I watched a 1988 performance of Tutu from a short lived TV show hosted by David Sanborn that was terrific. But the live recordings felt disjointed and seemed to be missing some element to give the performance the intensity of recording sessions. Hard to explain, but play the concert My Funny Valentine adjacent to Milestones, and think about this missing link.

In A Silent Way and Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux played as I wrote this summary. The first of these two albums saw the final break for Miles from his storied past as he moved into the new world of jazz fusion, and like Jazz Giants is a magical example of Miles as an innovator. The second – reviewed below in detail, if you are interested – was recorded just a couple of months before Miles died in 1991. It was the first time he had revisited the music created with his early partner, Gil Evans, in almost forty years. The music from Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess feature prominently in his touching final performance.

The Evolution of Grachan Moncur III

The name Grachan Moncur III floats mostly unremarked through the music of post-bop jazz, not unlike his opening notes on the title cut of his second album as a leader, Some Other Stuff. Despite walk-on roles in biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter, and mentioned favorably in interviews with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean, Moncur remains mostly a shadow from the 1960’s even with his trombone and compositions appearing on the recordings of not just McLean and Shorter, but also Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Art Farmer.

Due to myriad problems both personal and professional, Moncur’s first and most satisfying album, Evolution from 1963, proved to be a high water mark. Until the new millennium Moncur was only occasionally to be heard, and mostly on albums by artists such as Archie Shepp and Cassandra Wilson. While Moncur did have an important comeback with Exploration in 2004, featuring trumpeter Tom Hagans and reedman Gary Bartz, this album is hardly a simple reprise of his earlier success. Exploration requires a taste for the avant-garde and can be challenging for the casual listener. Which might also be said for much of Moncur’s music after Evolution. And just perhaps, is one of the reasons he has struggled to gain wider appreciation.

After high school, Moncur went on the road with the Ray Charles Big Band in 1959, a time he recalls fondly in later interviews. Leaving the band a couple of years later for health reasons, Moncur spent the next several months woodshedding and experimenting with other musicians. It was his friend, sax man Jackie McLean, who helped kick-start a journey of musical exploration still underway, Moncur now 79 years old. This turning point would be McLean’s 1963 Blue Note release One Step Beyond.

Both McLean and Moncur were working to stretch beyond hard bop, yet perhaps without really thinking so much about just being different, as often suggested. Moncur recalls in an All•About•Jazz interview from 2003: “…when Jackie called me (about playing on One Step Beyond), he happened to call me on the same night that I had finished writing “Frankenstein” and “Ghost Town.” Moncur was also spending a lot of time jamming with vibes great, Bobby Hutcherson, who in turn had recently been playing with John Coltrane. Perhaps at Moncur’s suggestion, Hutcherson also appeared on One Step Beyond, his first time to record with McLean as well. The invitation to Moncur was, in fact, a gutsy move on McLean’s part.

Though McLean had first recorded as a leader in 1956, by 1963 he had around 20 albums to his credit. But the release of One Step Beyond was intended to live up to its title by allowing McLean to explore new ideas. Beyond choosing to record with a couple of relatively unknown players – and using Moncur’s edgy compositions for two of the four cuts – McLean was also experimenting by adding a vibraphone instead of a piano. With Tony Williams on drums and Eddie Khan on bass, this quintet swings hard, though clearly more so with the compositions of Moncur than those of McLean.

A few months later, given an opportunity to record under his own name on Blue Note, Moncur was explicit about his intentions with Explorations, demonstrated by the composition of both music and band. Other than the addition of Lee Morgan on trumpet and Bob Cranshaw instead of Khan on bass, the band remained the same. And the music continued to move toward a sound that could not be confused as simply variations on hard bop themes. Moncur had this to say about Evolution: “I had no thoughts in my mind of this being revolutionary. I thought the way I named the album Evolution, I was thinking of the music evolving from the mainstream.”

Moncur’s follow up album the next year, Some Other Stuff, saw a new, tighter line-up with heavy-hitters Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock joining Cecil McBee on bass and only Tony Williams remaining from the Evolution session. With the first track, Gnostic, the distance traveled between Moncur’s work on One Step Ahead and Some Other Stuff, is obvious. Listening to Wayne Shorter’s 1965 release, The All Seeing Eye, Moncur’s presence, if not his influence, abounds. Interestingly, the two had played together during Shorter’s college career in the band of Nat Phipps in Newark.

And it should be noted that Lee Morgan was also interested in stretching out, but was hampered by his unexpected popular success with the crossover pop hit Sidewinder, recorded a month after the Evolution session. Morgan reportedly commented that he considered the work with Moncur to be more advanced than his albums around the same time. Just prior to his senseless death eight years later at age 33, Morgan demonstrates his continued efforts to find new directions for his music. Morgan’s final album, The Last Sessions, was the only one to feature his long time friend Moncur.

Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, among others, created jazz for audiences looking to be challenged. And while their avant-garde and free jazz works are inspirational beyond jazz circles – just check out the terrific new book The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander – this music arguably remains an acquired taste. It might be that Moncur moved forcefully enough away from mainstream jazz too early in his career, finding himself in a spot where there just wasn’t enough audience to go around. His free jazz playing with fellow trombonist Roswell Rudd and one-time Coltrane sideman Archie Shepp did more for their careers than his.

Ironically, despite the accolades for his two comeback albums in 2004 and 2007, Moncur remains most often remembered for his playing with straight ahead players in the early 1960’s like McLean and The Jazztet. With both Evolution and Some Other Stuff still easily available, this is a trip down memory lane sure to offer up some new paths to explore.

Listening criticalLee

Trumpeter Lee Morgan was killed on stage during a performance at Slug’s in NYC on Feb 18, 1972. His common law wife, Helen More, shot Morgan in the chest with a .32 Harrington & Richardson revolver. He was 33 years old.

A bright light early on, Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band at age 18. 1956 also saw Morgan’s first album as leader, Indeed!, with original compositions from Horace Silver and Donald Byrd on the Blue Note label. Morgan’s solo on John Coltrane’s 1957 “Blue Trane” remains a highlight of his early career and proof of his growing reputation. He joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1958 and subsequently played on several albums by the under appreciated sax player Hank Mobley. After several more solid albums on the Blue Note label, the crossover hit, “Sidewinder” put Morgan on the pop charts in 1963, finding him an audience beyond jazz circles.

Lee Morgan hit my radar about a dozen years ago while waiting for takeout at a Sushi bar and hearing the song “Sidewinder,” from the album of the same name, for the first time. After purchasing that album, I quickly bought many more, and have made Morgan a staple on playlists ever since. However, it was only after reading the terrific 2008 biography by Jeffery S. McMillan, Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan, that revealed the extent of Morgan’s skills as a composer, band leader and sideman. His discography is breathtaking considering how short his career ended up being.

Two albums are highlighted here for those interested in some of the more forward facing of Morgan’s later music. First, the Blue Note album “Caramba!” from 1968, often described as interesting but not essential, is a collection of songs showing clearly the shift in Morgan’s playing as he stretched to move beyond the label of a “hard bop” stylist. Check out “Suicide City” (his nickname for New York City) as a good example of his sound becoming different from his more well known work of the early 1960’s. As a bonus, the album cover features a Francis Wolff photo of Mimi Sanchez. In his 2015 autobiography, The Universal Tone (highly recommended), Carlos Santana fondly recalls Ms. Sanchez, a friend of his during this period.

Second, and a bit off the beaten path, is Morgan’s performance on the album “Evolution” by trombonist Grachan Moncur III from 1963. Moncur would go on to be mostly remembered for a career in free jazz circles, with a later focus on teaching. So as “Sidewinder” was going mainstream, Morgan played with Moncur on an album that is still considered as on the edges of the jazz avant-garde. Also featuring Jackie McLean on sax and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, “Evolution” is a transitional album at a time jazz was finding itself competing with the new kid on the block, rock and roll.

“Music is the only thing that spans across all ethnic groups and all languages. Music is the only thing that awakens the dead man and charms the savage beast. Without it, this would be a hell of a world.” Lee Morgan, from “The Last Interview” in Down Beat, 1972.

The Jazz of Physics

Both erudite and entertaining, The Jazz of Physics is an intriguing book that most people will likely find very challenging to get through, and that is a shame. Subtitled, The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, this doesn’t really play to the books strengths as a descriptor. Stephon Alexander – a professor of physics at Brown University in Rhode Island, and sax player on the 2014 release Here Comes Now – blends cutting-edge theories about the origin and structure of the universe with intelligent explorations of improvised jazz, inside of a surprisingly rich autobiography.

Now, though this is a book whose two major themes are broad and deep, it hovers around the fringes and mostly stays away from the mainstream. While correctly asserting in the introduction that a deep knowledge of math and science is not a prerequisite to appreciating the more technical aspects of the book, anyone who is not at least an enthusiast of modern physics will likely struggle.

Likewise, for the jazz aficionado, be aware that the focus here is on improvisational and free jazz with John Coltrane’s late work and artists like Yusef Lateef and Ornette Coleman taking center stage. Even Brian Eno has a featured solo, well played, but somewhat outside what is generally regarded as mainstream jazz.

None of this in any way blunts the power or brilliance of the book, but awareness of this would have helped me be better prepared for the task of making connections within the narrative. As Alexander states right up front, “This book is also an exercise in the power of analogies.” In fact, it is largely because of Alexander’s skill at linking disparate ideas to create new ones that this book is so powerful.

First, while I have no right to argue against any of the ideas put forth (and I won’t), it does seem reasonable to talk about what did resonate in the discussions of theoretical physics. Alexander’s final, grand idea seems almost magical. If the diagram on page 209 is a reasonable representation of “The Cyclical (rhythmic) Universe” then the idea of a universe that expands and contracts – rather than doing a “Big Bang” thing – begins to make sense.

The idea of forces that can interact with each other across galaxies and within finite spaces is nicely demonstrated with an analogy using magnetic force. He also provides a beautiful canvas for painting some the technical stuff about the first 400 million years after the beginning of the most recent expansion. The concept of inflation has taken on a whole new meaning after struggling to fully grasp the idea as explained by Einstein and Feynman. That measurements of the current status of the universe (as it is still in an expansion mode) seem to corroborate much of his current speculation about how it got that way.

Second, while I have no right to argue against any of the ideas put forth (and I won’t), it does seem reasonable to talk about what did resonate in the discussions of jazz. Having long wanted to like the John Coltrane classic Love Supreme, it remains an enigma to me. However, Alexander provided two genuinely profound “Ah-ha” moments around Coltrane’s music that I’d like to share.

About half way through the book, and after hearing Alexander talk about several contemporary jazz players that were relatively unfamiliar, I created a playlist that became the soundtrack for the second half of the book. So, recent music from Alexander, Mark Turner and Donald Harrison, Jr were included along with classics from Coltrane, Lennie Tristano and Grachan Moncur III. To my delight, hearing folks like Coltrane and Donald Harrison, Jr within this context led to a very different appreciation of what they are playing.

This coupled with the story of Alexander’s journey to understand the musical mandala that Coltrane gave to Yusef Lateef has led me to reconsider how I should approach improvisational music. The book literally opens and closes with Coltrane’s diagram of “scales and melodic patterns” which Alexander views as Coltrane’s way of having a dialog with a man they both admired, Albert Einstein. Perhaps the penultimate analogy, Alexander explains, “What the Coltrane mandala made me realize was that improvisation is a characteristic of both music and physics.”

The Jazz of Physics is a very smart analysis of the many ways to think about “the music of spheres” within the realms of both theory and practice, especially when applied in equal measure to physics and music.

Miles and Quincy

Serendipity is a beautiful thing. With over three dozen works by Miles Davis in my collection (many requiring multiple CDs), other than new releases of music not previously made public, it’s rare to stumble onto something I haven’t heard. Further, there are only a handful of live recordings in my collection, none of which appear on even my top twenty list. So reading a review recently of a twenty-year old recording of a live Miles performance that didn’t ring any bells should have been a non-event.

It was likely the fact it featured the only time Miles and Quincy Jones played together that made me look it up on Amazon. For $10 it seemed like a deal, especially since it featured recordings of Miles playing classics from decades earlier, and Miles never reprised the old tunes. The CD sat around here for over a week before I even gave it a listen.

Quincy Jones doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves for shaping popular music, and here I refer to jazz, pop and rap. He is the ultimate collaborator as a listen to any of the signature Michael Jackson albums, his work with Bill Cosby (yeah, a big jazz fan) or his terrific Back on the Block will testify. My introduction to Quincy came with the 1973 release You’ve Got It Bad Girl, this one featuring Stevie Wonder and Hubert Laws, and the classic hit that went on to become the theme song for the sitcom Sanford and Son. Been a fan of Quincy Jones since before I ever heard a Miles Davis album.

Okay, the CD I purchased was Miles & Quincy Live At Montreux, featuring the classic arrangements of Gil Evans, with music from Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Just the liner notes by Leonard Feather are worth the price of the CD. It was recorded at the 25th Anniversary of the Montreux Jazz Festival in July of 1991. Miles Dewey Davis died on September 28. This is a beautiful curtain call for a man who reinvented both himself and jazz, over and over again. That he sounds so good on these classic numbers, still making music just weeks before his death, is confirmed by the audience response. When ready to change your stars, read a Miles Davis biography.

But wait, there’s more. A couple of years ago, while attending the Portland Jazz Festival, serendipity struck again. David, Scot and I caught some good music, as always, but agreed the best show we saw was Kenny Garrett. While the name was familiar, the artist was not. That he played with Miles was interesting but in those last decades Miles played with a lot of people. Yet the band was so tight, the music so good that I purchased a copy of Garrett’s CD, Seeds from the Underground, as soon as I got home.

Turns out Kenny Garrett provided some of the most powerful playing on Live at Montreux. Miles shared the stage with John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter in his halcyon years. That he knew to share it with Kenny Garrett in his last says a lot about both of them. Don’t miss hearing these two recordings.

Duke Ellington

Though not so new, I’ve recently worked through some really good books about jazz greats and their lives in music. While I can’t claim to be a fan of John Edward Hasse’s writing style, Beyond Category, The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington is nonetheless a terrific read and the larger-than-life story of Edward Kennedy Ellington and should provide inspiration for anybody that needs some. One of the more interesting aspects of the book were the ways in which Duke Ellington demonstrated his abilities as the consummate entrepreneur. The ability to fulfill his musical ambitions while making a good living for himself and his band, stands in contrast to so many great musicians who struggled to succeed financial.

Perhaps the best part of Beyond Category was discovering Some Sweet Thunder, a collection of music based on the work of Shakespeare from 1956 that defines Ellington’s move to music beyond jazz (playing as I write this). And I’ll add that I played the 1969 All-Star White House Tribute to Duke Ellington almost exclusively while reading the book. Yes, that’s Richard Nixon in the audience, enjoying the heck out of the concert. Both albums are highly recommended.

And a couple of other impressive reads, both Footprints, The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter by Michelle Mercer as well as Walk Tall, The Music & Life of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley by Cary Ginell with a forward by Quincy Jones., are worth a read.

Always nice to know folks are listening

A big thanks for the text, TZ: “Great show this morning! From your D.C. audience.”

Thank you for listening

“Saturday AM jazz brunch from San Antonio and beyond wafting out the window in South Boston. Perfect flavor for my weekend workday…” Bruce P

“As for me, tuned into your show this morning while wrapping up a 5 mile walk on the Mt Vernon trail.” Kate Z

Great minds think alike

A great catch by my long-serving friend David in Portland.

“Mind blowing. (At least the small part that I could understand….)”

And a shout out for the note from B after this morning’s show:

“Nice way to start the Saturday. Biru Kirusai was an unexpected treat, now on my iPod.”

David Sanborn, again

My appreciation of saxophonist David Sanborn began before knowing who he was. Bruce and I ended up with a copy of his breakout album, Hideaway, it college in 1980 and became big fans. A decade later Double Vision, his first collaboration with Bob James was another knockout. Imagine my surprise to find out just last week that Sanborn had a starring role in one of my favorite albums, David Bowie’s Young Americans from 1975. So one of the first times a saxophone made an impression on me it was being played by a guy I would come to love.

The Bowie connection helped me contextualize the three most recent Sanborn albums in an unexpected way. When first hearing Quartette Humaine – another collaboration with Bob James from 2013 – my surprise was again in full play. Humaine was a straight ahead jazz album by two people intimately linked to the smooth jazz genre. The reviews were uncomfortable since most folks expected a reprise of Double Vision. The comparison is completely unfair since the two albums could not be more different. While Humaine is a solid work, I find the album quite challenging and don’t play it as often as I would have expected.

Last year Sanborn was a “member of the band” when Joey De Francesco recorded the fabulous Enjoy the View (see note below). A tremendous success, including a starring role by Bobby Hutcherson, who is once again king of the vibraphone. Listening to View, there is no question Sanborn has some serious jazz chops.

And now we have the 2015 release of Time & The River. It is completely unfair to talk about a melding of straight ahead and smooth jazz (as I have recently read). While the album contains bits of both, there is no obvious effort to create some kind of hybrid music embodying the best of both worlds. Instead, we hear individual songs of one genre or the other, staged to provide an access point to both, from either.

Never a fan of jazz covers of pop songs – and this includes the original, Miles Davis covering Porgy & Bess, and later Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, all of which I own and play occasionally – Sanborn doesn’t do much for me on his attempts here, either. Even as big fan of Randy Crawford, her singing sounds rather listless. Larry Braggs does a serviceable job, but again, not much to recommend these versions over the originals. Which is the point of recording well-known music, putting a personal touch on a standard. Jazz is, of course, rife with this idea, but it just doesn’t work so well with music that has words.

So, in the final analysis, Sanborn retains his place among jazz masters by once again making music that interest him, regardless of the expectations of his varied audiences. Time & The River follows a course that meanders through the many, many albums Sanborn has recorded – as both leader and sideman – to deliver music that is more about where he is today than where he has travelled in the past.

Sunday Jazz at the McNay

Caught Henry Brun and his International Trio (with a guest horn player who was terrific) at the McNay Museum today. Henry is an incredibly versatile musician, with this Trio focusing on Bossa Nova (and the lighter side of Charlie Parker!). I walked in to a standing room only crowd enjoying a beautiful rendition of The Girl from Ipanema.

My son Conrad, at the time in Junior High, used to work the phones during fund drive weeks when I was station manager at KRTU 91.7 and I remember overhearing a conversation. When an Antonio Carlos Jobim song played, Conrad knew the name and album, much to the surprise of an adult volunteer. When asked how he had come to know so much about Jobim, Conrad replied, “My dad has played Jobim every Sunday morning since I was born.”

My friend Daniela Oliver de Portillo, Director of Marketing for the McNay, reminded me today that she and I had originally dreamed up the Summer Jazz Festival many years ago, and we never expected to see crowds like the one today. Just another data point showing jazz lives.

Blakey Rules

After reading Alan Goldsher’s really terrific book, Hard Bop Academy, The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Hal Leonard, 2002) I was left trying to figure out what seminal jazz figures didn’t play with the Messenger’s. Rather than list the 39 artists profiled in the book, I’m going to talk about a couple of the albums that it inspired me to add to a collection already much too big. (Much to my surprise, Chuck Mangione and Keith Jarrett are alumni of Bu U).

I purchased copies of A Night in Tunisia (Blue Note, 1960) and Free For All (Blue Note, 1964). This is not an arbitrary pairing. Tunisia features Lee Morgan on trumpet while Free features Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and both have Wayne Shorter on the saxophone (no doubt the playing that Miles Davis heard). Here we have two fine jazz trumpeters, each with vastly different playing styles, paired with one of the most thoughtful player/composer ever. Both albums sound great, both sound like Messenger albums and yet this shouldn’t be possible.

First, it should be pointed out that Morgan toured with Dizzy Gillespie (composer of A Night in Tunisia) where his playing on this particular song has long been considered nothing short of masterful by critics as perceptive as Nat Hentoff.

The cut Free For All is an 11-minute Shorter composition that let’s both Hubbard and Blakey strut their stuff. A hard driving number where Hubbard hits those high notes he’s famous for, it also has him playing in a groove that would make any trumpeter shine. And you just gotta love the Blakey shout-outs, “Blow your horn,” almost sounds like a live album, “alright.”

And maybe the best quote ever, mentioned by Branford Marsalis in a recent interview, Blakey explains why innovation in anything, and not just jazz, is so difficult. Practicing the music of John Coltrane, over and over, Blakey asked a very young Marsalis what he thought he was accomplishing. Marsalis replied, “I’m trying to play like Coltrane,” to which Blakey replied, “No you’re not.” Then Blakey continued, “Well let me ask you this: When Coltrane was your age, what the f**k do you think he was listening to, tapes of himself from the future?”

Your best bet? Listen to a Blakey album while reading the book.

Bye, Bye BlackByrd

As a big fan of jazz musician biographies* the absence of a work on trumpeter and arranger Donald Byrd is disappointing. Now, with his death last month at age 80, it appears unlikely the full story can ever be told as it might have been. As one of the few bebop greats to make the transition to, and back from, more popular music styles, Byrd has not received the accolades he deserves. Sadly, this fact is, perhaps, a reason for this oversight?

Introduced to Byrd’s music by my great friend Scot while still in high school, I was playing that 1973 album, Stepping Into Tomorrow, the week he died. It has remained on my playlist for decades. So it was, with great sadness, during my time working at jazz station KRTU, that I discovered our music directory making his periodic purge of music from a collection growing too big to manage and including Stepping Into Tomorrow on both purge lists; the digital and the physical. When questioning this decision I was simply told, “He’s not really a jazz guy.” Really? A guy invited to join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers while still in college as a replacement for Clifford Brown, and who then went on to play with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and even Cal Tjader isn’t really a “jazz guy”? Oh yeah, and Herbie Hancock’s Blue Note debut was on a Byrd album.

At issue were albums recorded by Byrd in the 1970’s that veered away from familiar jazz territory and into rhythm and blues, plus, let’s just be honest, pop music, with Stepping Into Tomorrow one of a string of albums starting with Blackbird. Apparently once you start hitting the top ten on the pop music charts (Walking in Rhythm) you forfeit your jazz credentials.

Apparently, though, Byrd appears not to have noticed. In fact, Byrd went on to earn a master’s degree, a law degree and a doctorate while also teaching at a dozen universities, demonstrating a willingness to embrace a life beyond jazz. Okay, so that’s not quite right. I’ll argue that Byrd’s A City Called Heaven is as mainstream an album as you are going to find in the bebop tradition, and it was released in 1991.

Thanks to a nifty little app from Blue Note I have been able to listen recently to much of Byrd’s vast output. In the last couple of weeks, both Blackbird and Street Lady have been added to my collection, the two albums that immediately preceded Stepping Into Tomorrow. I’ve been listening to both of these new additions as I write this, and hope you, too, will give Byrd a listen.

*Note: The fine book Paris Without Regret: James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Kenny Clarke, and Donald Byrd doesn’t count because it only covers a part of Byrd’s early career.

Joshua Redman and Strings

When Joshua Redman released Beyond in 2000 it proved an epiphany, the moment my interest in jazz became intellectual. Enjoying both serious and smooth jazz since my early teens, at age 40 it certainly felt that I knew a lot about what jazz was all about. Ah, the folly of the dilettante.

Over the intervening years I made a point to purchase all of his releases, finding, as I well knew that some would be better than others. He has always made a point of covering pop tunes – as did Miles Davis – which has never been much to my taste. Critically he took hits for Elastic, though it is a favorite of mine. In 2005 Momentum featured both a cover of Led Zeppelin and the bass player from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flea, on a damn fine recording. All the while, his public face was most often found on the road, as Artistic Director of the SF Jazz Collective. I had the good fortune to catch more than one of these performances that featured rotating stellar line-ups including Dave Douglas, Stefon Harris, Brian Blade and Rene Rosnes.

After leaving the SF Jazz Collective in 2007 to focus on “new projects,” the first of which was the (personally) less than satisfying Back East. Since then, Redman has done some fine work, most notably James Farm. With his most recent release, Walking Shadows, he again provides a reference point for me to consider other new jazz recordings.

Not just current popular music, but also jazz standards have a way of wandering in and out of Redman’s repertoire. This feel for both the new and the old manifest themselves beautifully on his latest recording, Walking Shadows. Charlie Parker has taken his share of criticism for his most commercially successful album, Charlie Parker with Strings, from 1950. A favorite of mine, the sax playing of Parker wrapped in the loving embrace of an orchestra is delightful. Redman has done the same, with perhaps even better results. Check it out.

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