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081: Maria Schneider, ‘The Pretty Road’

Posted by jeff on Jun 28, 2017 in Jazz, Other, Song Of the week

Our Song of The Week is ‘The Pretty Road’, by Maria Schneider. Here’s a teaser of the recording, from the CD “Sky Blue” (2007).

You can and should purchase this CD (and all her others) from her official Website or from ArtistShare or another vendor.

While you’re reading about Ms Schneider’s airborne music, you can listen to samples of it here, from her official Website.

Over the last four or five years, my musical tastes have become more eclectic, roaming far afield, exploring some rather arcane corners (Scandinavian Neo-Trad, Minimalism, Newgrass, a wide range of Brazilian styles, A Cappella Jazz), places where most boys weaned on Motown and The Four Seasons don’t go walking at night. But there have been four artists that I’ve encountered over the past five years who stand out in my mind as rising above the field, four artists who make worthwhile this constant, compulsive searching for interesting new music.

They are Kurt Elling (b. 1967) of Chicago, the best male jazz vocalist ever, period; Luciana Souza (b. 1966), a Brazilian singer, who turns to gold everything she touches; Esperanza Spalding (b. 1984), hailing from Portland, Oregon, a jazz-bassist/singer/composer prodigy; and Maria Schneider (b. 1960), a bandleader/composer of music residing somewhere between avant-garde jazz and modern classical, and the lady we’re button-popping proud to say a few words about in this week’s SoTW.

As I write these four names together for the first time, it occurs to me that they have much more in common than I’d previously noticed. Obviously, they all make (to my mind and ears) great, great, great music, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about them. But they all happen to be great innovators.

Not all great artists are innovators. There are plenty who are content to dig their own groove, conservative though it may be. Think of Bill Evans. Think of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. No revolutions there. Heck, as far as I understand, JS Bach dealt almost exclusively with existing formats.

The least adventuresome of my four, generically speaking, is Mr Elling. He is ‘merely’ reinventing what a jazz singer can be, expanding the boundaries that have been observed since people like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald invented jazz singing in the 1930s.

The other three, the ladies? What a remarkable three they are. Each one of them has invented an entirely new mindset, her own new genre. These are explorers on the level of Amelia Earhart and Pocahontas, aural aviatrices, creative artists on a par with—well, sorry, I’m not going to compare them to anyone. I’m not sure I could. They are fine, fine, fine artists, each of the three.

I’ve been writing SoTW for close to two years now, and I’m very much aware that I’ve shied away from these, the greatest artists I know of now at the height of their powers. (although I did dedicate a post to Esperanza Spalding; Kurt and Luciana, I promise I shall do my best to give you the unbounded credit you deserve). I guess I’m daunted, afraid I won’t be able to do them justice. Well, tough, Jeff, that’s why you’re here. And if there are some people out there who are serious about music and who read your ramblings and listen to your links, you’re damn lucky, and you have an obligation to tell them about an artist like Maria Schneider.

Well, sportsfans, there is this lady who hails from rural Minnesota and lives in New York. She studied under and worked with the great Gil Evans, whom we’ve discussed in SoTWs via his collaborations with Miles Davis in “Birth of the Cool” and “Sketches of Spain“, as well as his behind-the-scenes impact on the modal jazz of “Kind of Blue“.

(Just to clarify things, if the name Maria Schneider is ringing some deja vu bell, it’s also the name of the French actress who played with Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris”. For my money, Ms Schneider the composer holds a much more subtle and enticing sex appeal.)

To talk about Gil Evans and Maria Schneider, we need to explain what they’re not. And to do that, we need to define the term ‘Big Band’. The standard format for a Big Band is 17-pieces: five saxophones (most often two altos, two tenors, and one baritone), four trumpets, three or four trombones (often including one bass trombone) and a four-piece rhythm section (composed of drums, acoustic bass or electric bass, piano and guitar). The first incarnation of The Big Band was Swing, a melodic, ebullient dance-styled music which captured the world’s ears and feet from the mid-1930s till after WWII. The most famous Swing Bands were white, led by bandleaders such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, with vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. A number of black Big Bands were less dance hall, more jazz oriented, and continued working into the 1950s and even 1960s, most notably Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Gil Evans arranged for the Claude Thornhill big band during the 1940s, providing dreamy, slow, rich charts, as opposed to the swinging dance sound more prevalent among the white bands. Throughout the 1950s his best work was by, for and with Miles Davis. He was the musical spirit behind the Birth of the Cool grouping (his apartment was the meeting place for all the adherents). In fact, he’s often credited for being the spiritual father of Cool, an aesthetic that has dominated much of the arts for the last 60 years. He made three great collaborations with Miles (“Porgy and Bess“, “Sketches of Spain” and “Miles Ahead“, as well as one very much in the same vein under his own name, “Out of the Cool”. During the 1960s he made several very fine albums with smaller ensembles (10-piece), planned a collaboration with Jimi Hendrix till the latter ODed, and in the 1970s continued to explore the use of electric instruments within the context of his big band.

Maria Schneider is very much Gil Evans’ pupil. She worked on a number of projects with him as his assistant, and very much carries his mantle stylistically. The ‘sound’ of the two is very close–dreamy, floating, cloudy, rich, infinitely intricate.

But Ms Schneider has gone so much further. Evans was primarily a promulgator of an aesthetic. His major achievements were brought to fruition in collaboration with Miles, and indirectly on generations of artists from all fields. Maria Schneider has opened up entirely new vistas. There are a number of contemporary big bands working today. It’s a genre I’m quite fond of, large-palette, orchestrated jazz, and there are some fine artists working in this medium. But none has reached the breadth of context or the heights of musical achievements that Ms Schneider has. No one in the jazz or contemporary classical media has found such a relevant, thoroughly contemporary mode for expressing such a large, ambitious vision. This is the big-time, folks.

Maria Schneider recorded six full CDs from 1992-2007 (where’s a new one?), despite all the financial and logistic difficulties of maintaining a large ensemble. Her band, by the way, has remained remarkably stable. It is said that the members don’t just play her music–they would take a bullet for her.

Her last two albums have been released via ArtistShare, where musicians finance their projects outside the traditional recording industry via “fan-funding,” with supporters directly contributing to the project invited in to follow the creative process (how far depending on the level of contribution–give enough, you’re even invited to the recording session).

Maria Schneider is managing reasonably well financially in this way, artistically even better. In 2005, her “Concert in the Garden” became the first album to win a Grammy without being available in retail stores. She’s been nominated for and won many more since. The critics adore her, as do the lucky fans who’ve discovered her.

But we’re neglecting the music. It’s been called “evocative, majestic, magical, heart-stoppingly gorgeous.” It defies genre-categorization. In format, it’s standard Big Band, but the music exhibits a symphonic palette, broad and complex and rich and intriguing. Her compositions are often compared to those of Mahler and Copland. They’re ephemeral, transcendental and melodic, often simultaneously. Not impressionistic, but carefully thought out and planned and considered. Incorporating the vast, open, airy Minnesota landscape where she was raised. Thoroughly modern, thoroughly American, thoroughly personal. She’s even been called Nabokovian! A brainy romantic, passionate, an aural aviatrix.

Her music is a wonder to me. Take for example her sense of pulse. Often there’s a drum playing straightforward rhythmic riffs. But there’s never a beat. You’ll never tap your foot. Your soul will soar with the music, not bounce around the dance floor. I don’t know how she does it. The drums don’t provide a beat, they provide a pulse. They propel it without anchoring to the ground. The music moves, but it floats. Can you dance to the wind propelling a cloud?

Here is a segment of a beautiful composition in a remarkable ArtistShare collaboration, “Vertical Voices“, in which two vocalists, Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh, perform most of the parts of Ms Schneider’s scores vocally, accompanied by the rhythm section from the original band.

Here’s Ms Schneider describing the project. This is groundbreaking stuff. And it’s beautiful. But still, the original, for my money, is the sublimely exquisite music.

And here’s a glorious clip of her conducting her orchestra in 2007:

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Maria Schneider’s music may be deceptively light at first. It’s very easy on the ear. It’s beautiful and gentle on the ear. But I’ve been listening to it for several years now, a lot. And I’ve yet to plumb its depths. I listen to it over and over, always discovering new nuances and colorings and shadings. I never tire of it, and it never fails to make me feel as though I’ve been airborne.

In addition to her exceptional talents, Maria Schneider also seems to be a charming person. Here she is talking about her CD “Sky Blue“. And here’s a fascinating interview about her creative process.

Maria Schneider is a passionate bird-watcher. She often incorporates bird songs in her compositions. If you ask me, there are many birds who could learn a lot from her about how to fly.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’

SoTW 035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)

SoTW 041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

SoTW 055: Miles Davis/Gil Evens, “Sketches of Spain”

SoTW 079: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (“Kind of Blue”)

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236: Jacob Collier, ‘Hideaway’

Posted by jeff on May 14, 2017 in A Cappella, Jazz, Rock, Song Of the week

 

jacobcgreg_gormanThere’s this kid from London, Jacob Collier. He’s 22.

Since achieving majority, he’s been releasing videos he’s produced and recorded all by himself. In his room in his parents’ home. Alone, as it were.

At least that’s his cover story. I don’t believe a word of it. I’ve been watching his videos, and I’m convinced he’s an alien. He displays musical and visual abilities way beyond the ken of Homo sapiens from Planet Earth. It wouldn’t surprise me if he turns out to be the front man for some nefarious intergalactic conspiracy to invade our minds.

Skeptical? Watch ‘Hideaway’, the first video for his debut album “In My Room”, due July 1.

See what I mean? The superhuman, multi-octave, mind-bogglingly rich vocals? His prowess on every instrument you’ve heard of and a few he seems to have invented (a miniature acoustic bass)?  The outlandishly inventive visuals?

The humans I’ve encountered, even the musically gifted ones, can’t conceive of stuff like that, let alone execute it. By themselves. At the age of 22. Alone in their room in their parents’ house.

I remember, for example, hearing The Beatles’ ‘Rain’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ for the first time. I remember the quantum shock in my brain experienced witnessing the leap of imagination those recordings presented:
This is something new.
This is a new world of aural and conceptual possibilities.
Jacob Collier brings to mind that degree of innovation.

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Jacobs

One of his favorite formats has been multitracked videos of jazz and pop standards, driven by (by his own account) Brian Wilson-inspired vocals, often a cappella but occasionally garnished with a knockout lead instrument or five. I wanna tell you, this is seriously impressive stuff.

But he’s also been venturing out into the big world, starting at the top – here he is guesting with the hottest, coolest band in the world today, Snarky Puppy:

QuarterMaster’, a live performance in which he solos on the melodica. Seriously.

Don’t You Know’, from Snarky Puppy’s new DVD/CD “Family Dinner – Volume Two” in which he plays piano and sings multi-tracked, live!!, using a device he invented with a team at MIT, the ‘harmoniser’ – a thingie that enables him to sing in chords that he’s playing on a keyboard. Huh? Did we mention that he’s 22?

L2R: Jacob, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Chick Corea

L2R: Jacob, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Chick Corea

But he’s also been starting to appear live, using another home-made invention in collaboration with the MIT guys, a  one-man, multi-instrumental, multi-visual tool that allows him to simulate on stage the multi-track vocals/videos.

This is the kind of impression he’s been making on people:

“Talent oozing out of every pore”— Jamie Cullum
“Fucking unbelievable” — David Crosby
“The most talented kid on Earth today” — K.D. Lang
“Magnificent!” — Chick Corea
“Blown away” — Steve Vai
“I have never in my life seen a talent like this… Beyond category. One of my favourite young artists on the planet – absolutely mind-blowing” — Quincy Jones
“Wow!! Jacob, your stuff is amazing” — Herbie Hancock
“Staggering and unique… Jazz’s new messiah” — The Guardian

Conquering the world

Conquering the world

I don’t know how far he’ll go, this alien whippersnapper.

His guiding light is Brian Wilson. His new album is named after the Beach Boys’ song, ‘In My Room’. Here’s Jacob’s ruminative piano treatment of the Brian song. (For comparison, check out Paul Simon’s solo treatment of ‘Surfer Girl’).

Gary Usher, co-writer of the lyrics with Brian: “‘In My Room’ found us taking our craft a little more seriously. I played bass and Brian was on organ. The song was written in an hour… Brian’s melody all the way. The sensitivity… the concept meant a lot to him. When we finished, it was late, after our midnight curfew. In fact, Murry [the Wilson brothers’ father] came in a couple of times and wanted me to leave. Anyway, we got Audree [the Wilson brothers’ mother], who was putting her hair up before bed, and we played it for her. She said, ‘That’s the most beautiful song you’ve ever written.'”

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Brian at 22

Brian: “I had a room, and I thought of it as my kingdom. And I wrote that song, very definitely, that you’re not afraid when you’re in your room. It’s absolutely true.”
Jacob echoes not only Brian’s harmonic and orchestrational genius. He also speaks of ‘his room’ as his natural environment.

One of the innumerable talents of Squire Jacob that I find profoundly unsettling is his self-assurance. He’s out there doing mind-bogglingly new and exciting stuff with folks like Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock and Jamie Cullum, and he behaves with aplomb and confidence as if  as if he’s been selling tens of thousands of copies of this stuff for 10 years.

Let’s step for a moment into the form/content dichotomy.

Jacob at 22

Jacob at 22

In purely musical terms, at 22 Jacob is way beyond Brian. He’s not churning out the original surfing/hot rod hits that Brian was at that age; but he is going to town harmonically in a way Brian would only begin to attempt several years and several albums later in “Beach Boys Today!” But as an innovator of sound, technique, tools? Jacob is standing on Brian’s shoulders. The Wilson brothers had a midnight curfew, and the personal computer was 30 years away. I don’t know if Brian even had a reel-to-reel machine when he wrote ‘In My Room’. Jacob really does create a new world every three or four days (that’s how long it takes him to make a multitracked ‘cube’ vocal video).

I see Jacob potentially playing in a league with Brian Wilson, even John and Paul, some day. Why maybe? At the same time that they were creating new worlds of options, they were creating indelible, lasting music. Jacob’s not doing that yet. My sense is that he’s still rather overwhelmed by the tools and techniques he’s inventing as he goes along.

‘Hideaway’ is a big step forward. It’s an original song, although I admit that I thought at first it was penned by that prolific songwriter Trad, sort of like James Taylor’s ‘That Lonesome Road’. (I don’t think I was thinking of Bing Crosby’s 1933 ‘In My Hideaway’.) After you’ve amazed your brain a few times watching the video of ‘Hideaway’, try listening to it without the carnival of lights and images and personae and invention.

The song. It’s almost as good as the video.

imageBrian Wilson’s genius goes beyond those harmonies and that orchestration. Both serve to celebrate the core, the song. As brilliant as is the whole of each of the worlds contained on the Beach Boys’ finest songs, it’s all finally in service of the song, even “Pet Sounds”, even ‘Good Vibrations’.

As a musician, Jacob Collier is still a kid, albeit a prodigiously gifted one. He’s just beginning to venture outside his room, almost literally. If he has the focus, the fiber, the soul, to concentrate on core values – melody, lyric, song structure – Jacob Collier could well be one of the major musical voices of his generation.

Here’s a fine video of Jacob explaining how and why you should consider reaching into your pocket and supporting him. Know what? I did. It makes me a patron of the arts, to kick in a little dough for a kid I have so much respect and hopes for. Think about joining me in supporting him.

If you liked this post, you may like enjoy these previous Songs of The Week:

230: The Beach Boys, ‘Here Today’ (“Pet Sounds” Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 14)

118: Brian Wilson, ‘Surf’s Up’ (“SMiLE”)

004: The Beach Boys, ‘Kiss Me Baby’

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

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094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)

Posted by jeff on May 4, 2017 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Brad Mehldau has just released a new solo double-CD, “Live in Marciac“, and that’s reason to prick up our ears and take a good listen, because he’s one of the most interesting young musicians around. To put it in full blasphemy, I find him more engaging than any of the Jarrett/Hancock/Corea triumvirate. To tell the truth, I listen to him more than to any pianist since Bill Evans.

I rarely listen to Brad Mehldau without thinking about Bill Evans, a habit I wish I could break, because it’s really unfair to the young Brad. It’s not his fault that the late Mr Evans is so monolithic, nor does it diminish his significant achievements. Brad Mehldau is no Bill Evans. No one is. For most of his career, Bill wasn’t himself.

What Brad Mehldau is is an extremely intelligent, sharp, focused, ballsy young artist who speaks with an individual voice. Not just an individual technique or a musical style (in fact, he has adopted more musical personae than your average schizophrenic), but a world view that’s uniquely his. He’s an artist whose works express an entire take on the universe around us, and a very interesting one at that.

He’s young (he’s got a big tattoo on his forearm). He’s eclectic, blending standards, newer pop and originals into one coherent voice (Beatles, Nick Drake, Radiohead, in addition to the Great American Songbook). He’s handsome and shy and spiritual and articulate and spooky intelligent. Some songs he’s composed: ‘Fear and Trembling‘ (a la Swedish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard), ‘Trailer Park Ghost’, ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again‘. Oh, yeah, and he plays with two different hands. I mean, they’re independent of each other, connected by chance to one torso. His left hand alone can play what most fine jazz pianists can do with both. Leaving his right hand to explore another alternative tonal world. Check out this solo treatment of ‘Alone Together‘.

Brad Mehldau is 41, raised in Connecticut, and since 1994 he’s put about 25 albums. He’s best known as leader of his trio, but he’s made some successful CDs as co-leader (Pat Metheny, Renee Fleming and most notably with Lee Konitz and Charlie Haden) and recently a great one (“Highway Rider“) that defies genre-ization, where Mehldau did all the orchestration.

“Live in Marciac” is only his third solo CD, and it’s worth getting excited about, because that’s where Mehldau really opens up and struts his vision. I’m not the only person to notice how differently he plays in his trio compared to on his own.

Joseph Vella asked him in a recent interview about the ‘challenge and thrill’ of playing solo? “The challenge and the thrill are one and the same – there is no net; there is absolute freedom. When jazz musicians improvise in a group setting, they are often following some sort of schema – often it’s variations on the initial theme of whatever they are playing. When you are playing solo, you don’t have to correspond to what someone else is doing. So you might take that approach, but you might decide to chuck it out at a certain point and go off on a tangent that doesn’t formally adhere to what you’ve just been doing. That can be exciting and rewarding. The challenge there though is to make something with integrity – something that has a story to tell.”

Brad Mehldau makes so much intriguing music in so many contexts that it’s really quite impossible to single out any one exemplary style. I’d really like to cajole some of you non-jazzers into trying him out, so we’ll start with our SoTW selection, “Martha, My Dear” (a love song Paul McCartney wrote for his sheepdog). Give a listen. This isn’t some aging jazz musician pathetically attempting to be young and cool, pandering to a wider audience. It’s a wholly sincere, wholly hip guy who grew up on The Beatles, dissembling one of their great songs in a wholly new context, in an absolutely convincing treatment. Brad’s been playing ‘Martha’ for years (here’s one from about 10 years ago), as one of the lighter peaces in his program, what might be called an ‘entertainment’ or a ‘divertissement’. Give a listen, please. Betcha you’ll find it as witty and wise and charming as I do.

Here are a couple more treats from the DVD of “Live in Marciac” (2011):

  • A complete transcription of his original composition ‘Resignation’, note-for-note as he improvises it on stage. A treat, I promise, for those of you who read music.
  • And his completely improvised ‘My Favorite Things’
    I have several ideas before I go out on the stage, and I usually stick to around half of them. “My Favorite Things” was not something I had played before – the Coltrane version is sacred to me. But I was going out for an encore and thought of it at the last moment, and it turned out to be for me anyways, one of the more compelling performances in the set – it had that story to it; it just kind of unfolded. Sometimes you find that and sometimes you don’t; sometimes you find it with no preparation or context at all and those moments are always great for me. I suppose there is a broader context – there’s the context of the Coltrane version that I heard when I was 13 for the first time and really changed my life; there’s the context of the original from the movie, The Sound of Music, that I grew up watching as a kid. There’s probably some sort of harkening back to childhood going on in my performance.

And here are some samplings from the not-exactly-jazz “Highway Rider” (2010):

Some very, very exciting news for me about Brad Mehldau. In 1996, he was invited to join two jazz legends twice his age, Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Charlie Haden (bass). Two CDs of my favorite music in the whole world resulted from those two evenings. They took a free-jazz look at a number of standards, and the product is breathtaking—floating through the air with no net. I had the wonderful fortune to be able to discuss that session with Lee Konitz, which I wrote about here. Here’s ‘Round Midnight‘ from that meeting. So what’s the news? In 2009 the trio reunioned with the addition of no less than drummer Paul Motian, and the resulting CD will be released next month. Who’s excited, me?

All you ‘I really don’t like too much jazz’ folks out there, do yourselves a favor – youtube Brad Mehldau, listen to him playing anything at all–Jerome Kern, John Lennon, Cole Porter, Paul Simon, Radiohead, hell, Brad Mehldau!–betcha you’ll have a great listen.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”
026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

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091: Herbie Nichols, ‘House Party Starting’

Posted by jeff on Apr 6, 2017 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Herbie Nichols, ‘House Party Starting’

Here comes the story of the most universally respected unknown jazz pianist from the 1950s. If you think there’s a heady mix of oxymoron and rarified obscurantism there, you might just be right. But there’s also some pretty fine music hiding in Herbie Nichols’ miniscule oeuvre.

Herbie Nichols (1919-1963) grew up in Harlem, studied a bit of piano at CCNY, served in the army (where, unable to play music, he turned his attention to reading and writing poetry). After the war he bounced around musically, playing in everything from Dixieland to Rhythm and Blues settings in order to pay the bills. He liked to hang out in public libraries and died at 44 from leukemia, a bachelor.

His only public exposure worth mentioning was when Billie Holiday added lyrics to his song ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, making it a signature song of hers and title of her autobiography. But I’m guessing that didn’t pay a lot of Herbie’s bills. By the time Diana Ross got to it, he was long gone. Here’s Lady Day’s version, and here’s Herbie Nichols’ original.

After years of pestering Alfred Lion at Blue Note, they finally agreed to let him record a couple of sessions in 1955 and 1956. They were trio sessions (it’s widely assumed that Nichols envisioned a richer setting for his very complex music), but he did have the gift of excellent bassists (Al McKibbon and Teddy Kotick) and legendary drummers (Art Blakey and Max Roach) accompanying him on these sessions. He recorded once more in 1957 with a smaller label, backed by George Duvivier (b) and Mingus’s Danny Richmond (d). This session has the best title of anything ever: “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love”.

His music is ambiguous, filled with warm dissonances and subtle rhythmic twists and harmonic turns. There’s a pervasive sharp intellect tempered with great warmth and a lot of resigned humor.

He saw himself not as a jazz player but as a composer. “My earliest ambition was to become a Prokofiev, but later decided to become an Ellington.” Jazz is widely perceived to be a fundamentally improvised medium, but there’s a rich tradition of composed jazz, which I frequently find riveting and to which Nichols belongs. The guy even scores the drum parts!

He’s as much influenced by primitive African rhythms as he is by Bartók’s harmonic aesthetic. “I keep remembering that the overtones of fifths created by the beautiful tones of any ordinary drum was surely the first music, the precursor of the historic major scale, no less, which was built on the same principles. That is why the cycle of fifths is so prevalent in elemental jazz.” Hmmm.

This guy knows what he’s doing. “Rhythms and patterns seem to be endless and I find them in boxing, architecture, literature, vaudeville, the dancing art of [Pearl] Primus, [legendary tap dancer Teddy] Hale and [Katherine] Dunham [pioneers of Black dance during the New Deal]. All the world’s a stage for the jazz pundit.”

Herbie Nichols’ music is often compared with that of Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). They’re roughly contemporaries, both with strong roots in the bebop movement, sharply angular, brilliant, humorous, inimitable. But whereas Monk was quirky, self-absorbed in his personal life and in his music, Nichols comes across as a really nice, normal guy who never got the break he deserved, the prototypical neglected genius. His music, for all its complexity and intricacy, is really quite fun. Monk finally achieved his recognition as a bona fide genius after languishing in obscurity for decades.

Herbie continues to languish, despite a rabid cult following struggling to keep his musical legacy alive.

One musician on whom Herbie clearly has had a great influence is another favorite of mine, Andrew Hill (1937-2007), to whom I promise to devote his very own SoTW. Check out ‘Pumpkin’ from “Black Fire”. Strong melody line, enticing but elusive. The big difference is Herbie’s good nature and warmth, as opposed to Hill’s very dark, lunar landscape.

“Laughter is like a religion to me. Sometimes I may seem low…so low nothing will lift me up again…but really, I’m laughing like hell inside. This music is something to live for…something to be taken seriously, but not serious. Those musicians who get up on the stand and look they’re undertakers bother me. If I want to cry, I’ll cry in a corner, and cry to myself. Music is joy, and living—not death.”

In the early 1980s, Dutch avant garde pianist/arranger Misha Mengelberg got together a bunch of like-minded musicians (including Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy) to cast some Nichols compositions in a medium-sized group. Here’s their stellar take on ‘House Party Starting‘, from their album “Change of Season”. And here’s Duck Baker, a real fine acoustic fingerpicker, doing his version of ‘House Party Starting‘ from his 1996 album of solo guitar Herbie Nichols covers, “Spinning Song“.

Here’s Steve Lacy (soprano sax) and Mal Waldron’s (piano) 1994 version of the song from the album “Hot House”. I’ve written about this duo before. They’re incredible – intense, lyrical, brilliant, passionate, and I just love them both to death for making such beautiful music. This cut, Lacy’s mournful soprano sax the perfect voice for Nichols’ grin-through-it-all irrepressibility, just bowls me over. The way his straight horn elicits the melody, the sweetness from the original. Oh, my my.

In 1994, pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison formed a floating group of highly respected avant garde jazz musicians called “The Herbie Nichols Project” to promulgate his ‘lesser-known compositions’ (yes, they really said that) and to couch them in a setting with horns, which the composer never had the opportunity to do in his lifetime. They’ve recorded three albums, titled after the Nichols’ songs “Strange City”, “Dr. Cyclops’ Dream”, and “Love Is Proximity” (they deserve a prize for album titles).

But we’re not going to deny Herbie a chance to stand in the spotlight. So here you go folks, Mr Nichols himself playing his composition ‘House Party Starting’, backed by McKibbon and Max Roach. It’s a wonder of ebullience, wit, panache and taste. Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of your attention please for the most famous unknown jazz pianist of the 1950s, the wonderful forgotten but unforgettable Mr Herbie Nichols. Heck, you could even invite some of your friends over to listen to him. You could start a house party.

Here are some more YouTube clips of Herbie for your further listening edification: ‘Sunday Stroll, ‘Infatuation Eyes’, ‘The Third World’, ‘Applejackin‘, ‘Love, Gloom, Cash, Love‘.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’
027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’
073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

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