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119: Tom Harrell, ‘Train Shuffle’

Posted by jeff on Sep 27, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Loath as I am to resort to gimmickry in matters as serious as jazz biography, (in contrast to the NY Times profile of jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s recovery from the muscular amnesia he suffered as a result of a two-month HIV-related coma), it’s hard to ignore the back-story of trumpeter Tom Harrell’s mental illness.

Harrell (b. 1946) has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since the 1960s. He hears voices, maintains (in his words) ‘a tenuous contact with reality’, is heavily medicated, and speaks like a zombie who’s just seen a ghost. Until he puts his horn to his lips, when he’s instantly and magically possessed by an utterly coherent aesthetic expressiveness.  If you want to see how that works on stage, check out this clip.

The bio on Harrell’s official site tastefully avoids mentioning his ‘deficiency’. But neither does he shy away from it in interviews. Well, it’s harder to hide than a hunchback. If you have a morbid fascination with the mental illness, watch him struggle to piece thoughts together, to elicit the words from out of the jumble of his mind in this interview:

Q: Has schizophrenia enabled you to paint a more serene picture musically? Your music is so different from that of all the other jazz trumpeters out there. It’s like your deficiency has been your strength.

A: That’s how I view it. The fact that I can’t always relate to people socially – I’ve spent a lot of time alone ever since the 60s, and that has enabled me to focus more on music, and also the feelings I’ve experienced have given me insights. The feelings that come out when I play, different social themes, it is a blessing… But schizophrenia can be a drag because of the tenuous reality contact thing. But as long as I take the medication I feel alright, because I’m able to do my work.

Riveting as Harrell’s background may be, it is of course the foreground that deserves the spotlight, his wonderful 40-year musical career. He’s worked in a very wide range of formats. As guest/session man/band member, he’s played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Dizzie Gillespie, Bill Evans, George Russell, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Sam Jones, Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, Phil Woods, Joe Lovano and Charles McPherson, and especially Phil Woods and Horace Silver. Wow!

He’s recorded close to 30 albums as a leader in a wide variety of formats, as big-band leader, orchestra leader, and especially combos from quartets to nonets. In recent years he’s developed a remarkably stable, tight quintet – with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Johnathan Blake, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo.

Critics and musicians admire him unanimously. I once asked Billy Hart, a legendary jazz session drummer in jazz for the past 50 years, what it was like to play with him. He became very quiet, and responded in a hushed, reverent voice that playing with Harrell had been one of the most moving experiences for him in his entire career.

Harrell is a most generous leader. As a player, he never hogs the limelight, frequently soloing less than the piano or saxophone. His real forte is as a composer, the polar opposite of a leader playing the guys a riff and saying “Let’s blow.” The music is always controlled, structured, sophisticated, composed (in both senses). His composer’s voice is unmistakably contemporary, a savvy, open-eyed, challenging and restless explorer, but never straying far from his very melodic premise. Here’s a pretty characteristic cut from the 2010 CD “Roman Nights”, ‘Let the Children Play’.  Here’s the very next cut, Harrell at his most serene and romantic, the title cut, ‘Roman Nights’.

But for our Song of The Week, we’re going for a tune that’s captured our hearts and ears for years now, ‘Train Shuffle’. Harrell is never mordant, but this piece is unusually ebullient. Here’s the version from the 1999 big-band album, “Time’s Mirror”.  And here it is from the 1993 sextet album “Upswing” (I guess a loony can be as witty as the next guy), featuring Phil Wood, Joe Lovano and Danilo Perez. It’s a favorite of mine. I revisit it regularly, and it never fails to get me grinning and my foot tapping. Fine, fun, intelligent post-bop jazz at its best. No gimmicks.

For further listening:

Upswing’,  title cut from the 1993 album

Sail Away’,  title cut from the 1989 album

Rapture’, from “Moon Alley” (1985, with Kenny Garrett and Kenny Barron)

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

104: Charles Mingus, ‘Myself When I Am Real’/’Adagio Ma Non Troppo’

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

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

 

 

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2

281: Carla Bley with Steve Swallow, ‘Lawns’

Posted by jeff on Apr 27, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

You have two options:

  • You can look at the picture of Carla Bley, say to yourself “Well, she just looks silly”, click Delete and spend the next seven minutes listening to a digital organ play Chinese torture music while you wait on the phone to make an appointment for the orthodontist.
  • You can watch this clip of Carla Bley and her partner Steve Swallow playing her composition ‘Lawns’, and witness as true an expression of love as can be made through music.

I’ve watched this clip of ‘Lawns’ maybe 30 times in the last month. I mean, I really like it.

She’s a character, a dynamo, hilarious and wacky and imposing. But she is first and foremost a singular composer of elusive, intriguing, beautiful songs.

Her partner Steve Swallow eschewed the double bass for an electric bass in the late 1960s, a pioneering move for a progressive jazz musician. It’s true that the bass traditionally and by nature provides support for a lead instrument. And the fact that Carla is such a strong composer (and imposing figure) that she might seem to ‘wear the pants’ (jeez, you can probably get arrested today for using that phrase) in the relationship. But when you actually listen, you see that he more than holds his own. First of all, he’s more of an instrumentalist than Carla. She’s plays a songwriter’s piano. He is a full partner in making the music.

It’s a voyeuristic experience, watching this couple making musical love. It’s not a Hollywood Barbie and Ken Get It On scene. It’s about real humans, serious and mature and wrinkled, and real love.

This is what love at 60 should be. Not screaming and strutting or popping buttons and groaning. It’s the gentle, warm intimacy born of years of two very individual individuals living together, creating a world bigger than the sum of their own selves.

It’s love.

‘Ladies in Mercedes’–from “Duets”

Carla

At 17, in 1955, Carla hitchhiked from California to New York, where she got a job as a cigarette girl in Birdland, a leading jazz venue. At 19 she married dour avant garde Montreal pianist Paul Bley for a while. Then she was married to Austrian avant garde trumpeter Michael Mantler from 1965 to 1991, with whom she pioneered the independent free jazz scene, establishing an artist-owned big band, record label and distribution agency for progressive jazz. And since then, from what I can gather, she’s been with bassist extraordinaire Steve Swallow, with whom she’d been collaborating musically since the late 70s.

She’s also recorded well over 30 albums in a wide variety of contexts–big band, smaller ensembles, and in recent years duets with Swallow and trios with him and saxophonist Andy Sheppard.

I’ve been listening to nothing but Carla for the last month, and I feel that I’m still far from having absorbed the life’s work of this major artist.

Although her reputation is primarily as a composer in the world of free jazz, I’ve found her oeuvre to be surprisingly diverse. And accessible. And fun. And rewarding.

‘Ups & Downs’–from “Duets”

The Route

Kurt Elling — ‘Endless Lawns’

Kurt Elling just released “The Questions”, a typically eclectic, surprising and serious theme album–this time probing “the big questions – What is this life? Does meaning have being? Why is there such suffering and pain? Where is the wellspring of wisdom?”

“We’re two musicians who have dedicated ourselves to a similar task – to be jazz musicians to the greatest extent of our abilities. We pay attention to the real heroes of the music, we play in the style and spirit of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived, and we don’t cut corners. We’re here to play great melodies and express authentic emotion – to be the real deal as much as we can.” [On his second consecutive collaboration with Bradford Marsalis; we discussed in SoTW 261 Elling’s treatment of Sting’s ‘Practical Arrangement’]

Here Carla Bley’s ‘Lawns’ becomes ‘Endless Lawns,’ with Elling’s new lyric interposed with a poem by Sara Teasdale. Thank you Kurt, both for your reading, and for getting me to go back and get past the hair.

‘Lawns’–from “Sextet”

Free Jazz

I was quite aware of Carla before this. First of all as the composer of a cut that’s long been very close to my heart–‘Jesus Maria’:

I listen to a fair amount of free jazz. I’m not opposed to dissonance, grit, or taking a leap of faith to follow a demanding artist. But my feet are placed firmly in the camp of “I’ll give it a 9—it’s got a good melody and you can dance to it,” just like most normal humans.

But here and there, there’s difficult music that grabs me.

021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’

037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)

178: The Claudia Quintet +1 feat. Kurt Elling, ‘Showtime’ (“What is the Beautiful?”)

In the early 1960s, the trio of Jimmy Giuffre (reeds), Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, made a series of free jazz recordings that speak to me very directly and strongly. Here are two versions of ‘Jesus Maria’ by that trio — from ‘Emphasis‘ (live) and from ‘Fusion‘, both 1961.

And here’s Carla’s own septet version. What can I say? I connect to Giuffre’s trio readings, not to the trombone-based septet. And if I’d stopped listening to Carla at this point, I’d have remained convinced that she’s a composer.

But there’s so much more.

Carla’s Music

As I said, I’ve been listening to her non-stop for a month now, but she’s been recording prolifically for 50 years, and it would be a serious injustice to think that one can fully digest the life’s work of a serious artist in a few weeks.

So I’m going to present you with a pile of music, and cordially invite you to do some exploring on your own.

Throughout much of her career, Carla’s main vehicle has been her big band. Here’s a fine blog posting reviewing that whole period. I’ll bring a few examples from those recordings below, but I’ve been mostly drawn in by her duets with Swallow and trios with him and Sheppard.

 

Here’s her song ‘The Girl Who Cried Champagne’ in three very different versions:

 

Here’s her beautiful ballad ‘Utviklingssang’ (‘Song in development’ in Norwegian)

 

Here are some interpretations of her “Ad Infinitum”:

 

And here are readings by three different artists of her ‘Ida Lupino’ (a hard-headed 1950s actress turned director of socially-conscious films, the first female to break into the Hollywood director Boy’s Club):

And here’s ‘Peau Douce’

Of this entire treasure chest, I keep going back to “Duets”. So I’ll leave you with one last taste of the musical intercourse these two artists share with us, ‘Romantic Notion #3’. Listen to the interplay between them. She puts up the coffee, he goes for the newspaper. After breakfast, they make music. Two distinct and distinctive personalities. Sharing a life. Making joyous music.

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4

027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’

Posted by jeff on Apr 4, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Lennie Tristano. I’m probably not going too far out on a limb if I assume that very few of you have ever heard of him.

Chicago pianist, blind from birth, 1919-1978. Moved to NYC 1946, at the height of the bebop’s popularity. Made a few recordings. Made friends and enemies with his pioneering experiments in overdubbing and tape manipulation. Recorded the very first experiments in free jazz (turn on tape, pay attention, start playing without the safety net of a song, and good luck). He was just a little popular in the early 50s. From 1951 he concentrated on teaching.

He was also an obstreperous, obnoxious opinionated bastard, a dictator of a teacher who inspired both cultish loyalty and great resentment among his former students.

Bebop was Charlie Parker, Bird–frenetic, fast, adventurous, impassioned. He would stagger onstage at gigs, hours late if he appeared at all, drunk and high and dissolute, grab the nearest sax and blow his heart out.

Lennie Tristano was the antithesis to Bird. He demanded rigorous practice, intense concentration and discipline. He insisted that the musician take responsibility for every note he played.

Tristano forced his rhythm section to serve as a metronome, providing a regular, mechanical pulse. Remarkably, such creative musicians as bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach were Tristano supporters. Because on top of that pulse, he would reorganize the bar, displace the metric system, create a disjointed and constantly surprising world. You can count tick-tick-tick without problems, but try one-two-three-four and at some point you’ll find yourself in a world of temporal relativity. It’s a shame Tristano never invited Einstein to sit in on violin. He would have felt very much at home, I think. Well, Aaron Copland was a big fan, if that counts.

The cut we’re presenting this week is called ‘Wow’, from an obscure recording of the same name, from an undocumented date live in New York in 1950. For those of you who can’t take the excitement, here’s a tamer version of the same song in a studio recording from the same period.

Tristano often took popular songs and transmogrified them beyond recognition, mostly for copyright reasons (that way the musicians were also paid as composers). ‘Wow’ is based on the chord progression of ‘You Can Depend on Me,’ an old standard. Here’s a version by Count Basie, and here’s one by beboppers Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

Eunmi Shim, in her book on Tristano, has this to say about ‘Wow’: “This intricate melody is linearly constructed and thematically developed through polyrythmic figures and varied phrase lengths, which undermine the modular phrase structure of its model.” Thanks, Eunmi. Couldn’t have said that better myself.

The group here is Tristano’s core sextet, with Billy Bauer on guitar and one-track tape recorder, and an unknown bassist and drummer. The saxophonists here are his regulars, his prize students, two of my very favorite musicians: Lee Konitz on alto sax, Warne Marsh on tenor sax. Marsh remained a loyal devotee of Tristano throughout a commercially mediocre but critically acclaimed career up to 1987, when he died on stage playing ‘Out of Nowhere’. Lee Konitz left the Tristano circle in 1953. He maintained his admiration for his teacher but felt he needed to try new, less stringent waters, although he continued to play and record with Tristano and Marsh intermittently for many years. He is still going incredibly strong at 82, having released close to 40 CDs in the last decade! And I can testify, each one is a new, ballsy experiment. No resting on the laurels for Lee.

If you’re interested, here’s the Lennie Tristano Quintet playing Subconscious-Lee in a pretty rare clip from a 1964 Sunday-morning Christian-content television show exploring the subject of inspiration in jazz. Cool!

So what are we going to hear here in ‘Wow’? It starts with a group statement of the theme. At 0:45 Warne Marsh plays a solo, which at 2:00 he passes to Bauer in mid-phrase. At 3:15 Konitz plays his lovely, oblique, solo. ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream’, in W.B. Yeats’ words. And at 4:30 Tristano takes the reins. Ah, the beauty of form. At 7:00 the saxes and guitar return, passing the melody lightly between themselves. At 7:43 a group restatement of the theme. And then, miracle of miracles, listen to the phrase at 8:03 (well, a phrase in Tristano’s language can go on for many, many bars). All 4 lead instruments playing that wild, slippery equation, the alto a third up from the tenor at a speed that defies comprehension, as if that’s the sort of thing that humans are actually capable of doing.

And it all makes sense.

Over the last decade, I’ve spent an awful lot of hours listening to Lennie Tristano and his disciples. I often ask myself why. What is the pleasure in these cool, mathematical abstractions? The best answer is a phrase I wish I’d coined:

Ice also burns.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

SoTW 40: Lennie Tristano Quintet, ‘317 East 32nd’ (Live in Toronto 1952)

SoTWs on Lee Konitz

 

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7

105: The Boswell Sisters, ‘Crazy People’

Posted by jeff on Mar 20, 2018 in A Cappella, Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Whoopee, new discovery!! I returned from jaunt to the US with a treasure chest of CDs. I’ve been slogging through them slowly and methodically and thematically and chronologically (as is my compulsive wont). This week I got to the pile of Vocal Jazz Groups.

There have been remarkably few really important vocal jazz groups, and a couple of the more popular ones don’t speak much to me. I have touted here the a cappella jazz scene, (The Real Group, The Idea of North, Pust) especially the Scandinavians, but I’ve been trying to expand my horizons backwards. Among the CDs I’ve been studying are The Four Freshmen (1960s–snore) and The Mills Brothers (too tame).

Eureka! The Boswell Sisters!!

Raised in New Orleans, Martha Boswell (1905–58), Connee (1907–76), andHelvetia”Vet” (1911–88), they achieved local success in the mid/late 1920s. By 1929 they were appearing 5 nights a week on radio inLos Angeles. From 1930-35 they recorded in NYC with support of the leading jazz luminaries of the era (Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman), appeared in movies (The Marx Brothers, depression-era extravaganzas), had 20 hit records, and inspired a street kid named Ella (who made her stage debut at17 in1934 singing two of their songs).

In 1936, all three sisters got married. Martha and Vet retired from show biz, leaving wheelchair-bound (some sources say polio, some say childhood accident) lead singer Connee to follow a reasonably successful solo career for the next 25 years.

They have been called one of the very best vocal jazz groups ever, maybe THE best. I’ve been listening for a week now, and I’m of the mind that that’s no exaggeration. Their vocals were often so hot that the girls were assumed to be black. They scat with the best of them, and do some knock-out imitations of instruments or nonsense sounds. But most important, their 3-part harmonies are tighter than Aunt Bertha’s girdle. They make CS&N sound like YY&Y. Their arrangements are constantly chock full of unexpected shifts in tempo, major/minor mode, key, and tone, flipping cheekily from dead serious to insouciant comic and back. They have a wicked and sometimes rather racy sense of humor.

Here are the Mills Brothers, also early 1930s, ohsobland in comparison.

Here are The Andrews Sisters, who started their careers in the mid/late 1930s as Boswell Sister imitators. As charming as they are, and with all their stage presence, the Andrews Sisters’ music is unspectacular, predictable in comparison to our Boswells. Well, and while we’re on the Sister Act page, here are the incredible Ross Sisters, whose vocals are certainly respectable, but whose fame lies elsewhere. Check them out, a hair-raising experience is guaranteed.

Enough talk, let’s give you some fine music to listen to.

Here’s one of their most famous songs, ‘Crazy People’. It’s fun, it’s fine, it’s very, very impressive technically.

Crazy people, crazy people
Crazy people like me go crazy over people like you
Goofy people, daffy people
Daffy people like me go crazy over things you do.

The Boswell Sisters with Bing Crosby

First of all, it’s a very cheeky song. Using derogatories in a positive sense was, to my mind, an invention of the 1960s. There’s nothing ironic about ‘hip’ or ‘cool’. But ‘freaks’ and ‘bad’ are ironic. Our sisters here are praising a state of frenzy (in love). It seems to me that this is a loosening of corset restraints that only occurs in the 1920s, especially in dance and jazz music.

What else do we have here? The airtight harmonies. Connee’s solo at 17″. The vocal instrumentals at 30″. The syncopation at 45″. The cut-time section starting at 1’00″—if you listen closely, you’ll hear at least two more shifts in tempo within that section! Connee’s scat at 1’20”, leading into a magical shift on the chorus from major to minor. Some very dark, soulful harmony singing towards the end, then a precise wah-wah finish.

I want to tell you, sports fans, you listen to The Mills Brothers, Lambert Hendricks & Ross (admittedly a different bag, not close harmony), Manhattan Transfer and The Real Group (okay, they come close), you don’t find that kind of value for your money all in 2’01”.

Here’s another one of big hits of The Boswell Sisters, ‘Everybody Loves My Baby‘, cut from the same cloth as ‘Crazy People’. Try to count the number of different tempi they employ here. It’s like counting jellybeans in a jar.

Here’s another cut, ‘I Hate Myself (for Being Mean to You)‘. Note the bouncy opening, followed by the mock-tragic intro. Check the lyrics: “I slap my face for saying the things I do…”, “I’m gonna send myself a telegram and tell myself what a fool I am”, “If you stay away another day, I’ll kiss myself goodbye…” And the pastiche of wild, incongruous elements (instrumental and vocal) in the middle of the song, each one a gem in and of itself.

Here are a few more of my favorites, for your listening edification:

‘Shout, Sister, Shout

‘Was That the Human Thing to Do?

‘What’d You Do to Me?

We’re in the Money‘, a Great Depression anthem

‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo‘, with lyrics as subtly suggestive as an Ernst Lubitsch film

Here’s an interesting trailer for a yet-to-be released documentary about The Boswell Sisters.

Listen to what they do with a well-known standard, Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek‘. According to Wikipedia, “They were among the very few performers who were allowed to make changes to current popular tunes during this era, as music publishers and record companies pressured performers not to alter current popular song arrangements.” Change it they do. Not as adventurous as some of the other cuts here, it’s still an education in itself for vocal groups 80 years later. (By the way, HaBanot Nechama, a very talented young Israeli chick trio also with very tight harmony and lots of humor and lots of shifting gears, do sound to me like they’ve been doing their homework here.)

Here’s another one, albeit light, but we can’t not mention it, ‘Rock and Roll’. I admit I thought Alan Freed had coined the term in the early 1950s to describe the new music. But it turns out that early in twentieth century the phrase was used to describe the movement of a ship on the ocean, but it carried connotations of both sexual fervor and the spiritual fervor of black church rituals.

I assume a lot of very serious, politically conscious ladies and gents will find ‘Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)‘ objectionable, but I think there were three tongues in three cheeks when The Boswells were singing this:

I’ve got a mission, it’s just a simple thing
I’ve only one ambition, to have the right to bring you
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night

It’s my desire to do as I am told
To have what you require, and never have it cold, dear
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night 

Though wedding bells sound sad and dirgy
Though wedding ties may spoil the fun
Without helping hand of clergy
Oh, I’m afraid it can’t be done

It isn’t formal, but with a wedding ring
It’s natural, it’s normal to give you everything from
From coffee in the morning
To kisses in the night

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two

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