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

Posted by jeff on Feb 28, 2010 in Jazz, Song Of the week

A serendipitous happenstance, as my mother used to say.

On the one hand, I just returned from a short visit to Paris (hence my absence last week), and was looking for a  French connection Song of The Week, having quite a hard time of it. It says a lot about my lack of appreciation for le scene that I couldn’t think of a single piece more recent than Eric Satie that speaks to me (with the glaring exception of James Taylor’s lovely tune ‘Chanson Française’, which probably doesn’t count).

And on the other hand, I got a lot of flack about SoTW 19, the free jazz bass player playing with Mal Waldron, sounding like chickens being beheaded right there in the studio. And I feel very bad about that, not for the chickens, not even for the bassist, but because I didn’t give Mal Waldron his proper respect.

So, a confluence of interests–I’ve been listening to Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy’s 4-CD “Live at Dreher, Paris 1981” on the hatology label for years now, and every single time, it’s a trip.

I raised the subject of ‘free jazz’ in the previous mailing, and I’d like to try to present a bit of a defense of it here, if you’ll bear with me. I know it’s an uphill fight, because normal people aren’t predisposed to subject themselves to music which is a priori painful to the ears. But really, it’s not that simple.

What are we talking about? It’s music that’s highly improvisational, usually starting from a pre-composed theme and then typically flying off into extreme improvisation. It’s often hard on the ear, aggressive, non-melodic, even atonal.

So what’s the attraction? There are times when ‘nice’ just doesn’t do it. When you feel you need a challenge, something larger and more weighty to wrap your mind around. Not necessarily ponderous or profound or pompous or pompommed (sorry for that last one). Something with grit and gristle.

I’m hoping you’ll have the courage and patience to give our Song of The Week a good listen. It’s 15 minutes long, and it’s definitely not background music for riding an elevator or shopping for groceries or talking to your mother-in-law on the phone. Know what? If you’re not willing to give it a good, serious listen, don’t even turn it on, because it’ll just annoy you. But I do urge you to try it. Learning takes work. I don’t enjoy a lot of what I listen to, but I work at it. What can you do? Listening to music is serious business.

This piece is called ‘Snake Out’, written by Waldron. A song is worth a thousand words, even if it’s 15 minutes long. It needs space to, if you’ll pardon the eponymousness, ‘snake out’. This week’s SoTW does just that. I find it hypnotic, engaging, passionate, dignified. And extremely edifying.

Mal Waldron (piano) has worked in a whole range of styles and contexts. In the 1950s he was house pianist and composer for the Prestige label, played in many dozens of sessions (including Coltrane, and in Mingus’s band), and one session entirely of Thelonious Monk compositions led by the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1958. In the late 50s he accompanied Billie Holiday on stage and in the boudoir till her death. In 1961 he recorded ‘The Quest’ with Eric Dolphy and Ron Carter, an avant-garde classic. He then emigrated to Europe, suffered a breakdown, returned to record prolifically, mostly on small European labels, often in his very personal, dark, brooding, insistently percussive style. I’ve heard one CD of him playing Brahms and Chopin, and even they sound like good old obsessive, depressive Mal. He met up again with Lacy in the 1970s, and over the years they recorded over half a dozen albums together, sometimes as leaders of a hard-bop/avant-garde group, sometimes with Lacy’s very open jazz ensemble, and several times as a duo, which are some of my favorite music, especially this set. Waldron spent most of his time in Europe till his death in 2002, with some 70 recordings under his name.

Steve Lacy was born Steven Norman Lackritz. Not an auspicious name for an entertainer, huh? But from 1957 till his death in 2004 he also recorded some 70 albums, also mostly for small European labels. He’s been the leading proponent of the soprano sax, an instrument for which I hold a very strong predilection. It has a sweet mournful sound, and seems to cause people playing it to go in that direction, even more than flautists are drawn to the flighty and bouncy, or cellists to the thoughtful and poetic.

Both Waldron and Lacy have a strong personal voice, and play in contexts ranging from the ‘pretty’ to the horrifying (for the unaccustomed ear). I’ve deliberately chosen a piece from the Dreher set which isn’t too easy, melodic, or accessible. But neither, I think, is it impenetrable or painful to the ears. It’s intense, focused, insistent. Both Waldron and Lacy will grab a phrase, work it and rework it, knead it and probe it and dissect it and squeeze it and exhaust it to a point of catharsis. It’s an arduous trip (like mine to Paris), but enriching. Bon voyage.

 
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SoTW 17: Chano Dominguez, ‘Tangos del Fuego’ (Red Sea Jazz Festival)

Posted by jeff on Dec 27, 2009 in Jazz, Song Of the week


This week’s SoTW is by Chano Dominguez, a Spanish jazz pianist (b. 1960) who’s carved a successful career of fusing a modern jazz sensibility with traditional flamenco music (palos), dance (baile) and song (cante).

Unfortunately, I can’t even spell Andalusian without peeking, and I know virtually nothing about flamenco or Chano, so you’re not going to learn anything of substance about him here.

But I spent last week at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, four long warm summer nights of immersion in live music at the lovely port venue. Chano was hands-down Best in Show there, so I’ll just have to try to say a few words about him without embarrassing myself or misleading you.

The two acts which outshone all the others for me and many others were Paquito D’Rivera, a wily old Cuban saxophonist who played with Dizzy Gillespie for years, and put on a great show of sophisticated, fun, intelligent, Latin-infused jazz of the Afro-Cuban flavor. And Chano did the same on the next night with his New Flamenco Jazz.

Scott Yanow of All Music Guide (a site I virtually reside in and heartily recommend) writes, “Of all the post-swing styles, Latin Jazz has been the most consistently popular… The emphasis on percussion and Cuban rhythms make the style quite danceable and accessible. The style has not changed much during the past 40 years but it still communicates to today’s listeners.” I have been making an effort to educate myself in all sorts of Brazilian music in recent years, but Afro-Cuban is still pretty much off my radar, infectious though it may be.

Chano began most pieces with a lovely, lyric, Bill Evans-influenced piano solo that absolutely charmed and captivated me. Then the bass and drum joined in behind him, and it all began to swing. And then, slipping in unobtrusively were the hand-clappers—three guys sitting next to each other opposite the piano: a singer, a dancer, and a percussionist playing on the box he was sitting on. Crazy, wild rhythms, complementing and enhancing the lovely American-informed jazz coming from the piano. Then the whole business got Latin. The singer (who looked like a Columbian drug soldier, you can see him in the clip) sang in what I assume is traditional cante style. The dancer (who looked like a bantamweight gay waiter in a seedy restaurant in the port of Valencia) danced what I assume was traditional baile. It was all quite intoxicating. Made the whole trip to Eilat worthwhile.

I couldn’t find anything among the 9 CDs of Chano’s that I’ve accumulated which really reflects the music we heard. Attached is the closest I could find, ‘Tangos del fuego’, from the CD “New Flamenco Sound”. And here’s a clip (Oye Cómo Viene) made in a studio which gives you a bit of a visual picture of a tamed-down version of what was going on at 3 AM in the Eilat port. It will give you some taste of the music and the sprit, but to be honest, the live music really was–alive.

I have very little experience listening to live jazz. I live in a place where it’s about as common as Martian field hockey, and I’m a snob to boot. I don’t like sharing my musical experiences with anyone other than my headphones (see SoTW 14 on my experiences at the Woodstock festival, for those of you who read Hebrew). But what the heck, a chance to hang with my buddy Mike for four days and see some bands, what could be bad?

To be true to my effetist, kvetching roots, I’ll tell you what could be bad. The hotel was from hell (30,000 children, a guest bashing the maitre d’ over the head with a broomstick). The selection of kosher restaurants in Eilat rivals that in Dnipropetrovsk, and most don’t open till 8 PM (the festival goes from 8 in the evening till 3 in the morning). The best music was at the jam sessions from 3 to 6 AM (I don’t know about you, but decades of conditioning have trained me to provide for a basic need other than listening to music at that hour). The seats were made out of special industrial-hardened plastic. The bathrooms at the site weren’t fit for swine. And almost none of the music was really first-rate.

Marina Maximilian was immature and unfocused, but was conducting admirable experiments in open vocal jazz. Dee Dee Bridgewater and Robin McKelle were polished. The crowd loved Danny Sanderson and John Scofield. HaBanot Nehama were received very warmly. (You’ll note that I didn’t include myself in any of the above.) Eli Degibri and Dafnis Prieto provided some real, challenging, mainstream jazz (a surprisingly small minority of the music presented). Rob Ickes is a fine bluegrass dobro player, just now learning the language of jazz, but I did enjoy both his concert and master class. We heard another really fascinating class with drummer Billy Hart, who’s made 600 CDs with all the greats of our time.

But in spite of all, I really did have a fine time. It’s great to get away with a friend of the male persuasion (bromance, in today’s jargon), the hotel room was fine, and all that professional, live music in a really simpatico atmosphere is a trip. Going through the list of performers, I find myself being pretty critical of almost all of them. But the sum really was greater than the parts. I wasn’t able to make the trip last year, missing one of my recent discoveries, bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, as well as one of my very favorite artists, the incredible vocal artist Kurt Elling. Don’t know who’ll be there next year, but I sure hope it will include me, waiting up all night, looking for that elusive musical grail.

 
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007: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, ‘My One and Only Love’

Posted by jeff on Dec 24, 2009 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman

Oh, am I excited!

A new CD was released last week by my favoritest ‘singer’ – “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman“. So I’m just popping with anticipation.
Kurt Elling is 42, from Chicago, and this is his 8th CD in 14 years. It’s a re-recording (with a few tasteful additions) of the 1963 classic “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”. Mr. Elling is an artist of amazing versatility, not just a singer. But he’s also a great crooner, as this CD will undoubtedly prove–when I manage to get my hands on it, here in the wholly holey Holy Land. But in the meantime, let’s revisit the source.

John Coltrane is a monumental figure in modern jazz. He started out as an untried, technically limited tenor saxophonist in Miles Davis’ first quintet in the mid-50s. Eventually Miles had to throw him out of the band for drug abuse. Then he cut his chops for a while with Thelonious Monk and got himself off drugs. Then he rejoined Miles in the late 50s for the “Kind of Blue” period, then went solo. In 1961 he started moving towards spiritual, ‘free’ jazz, developing a commercially disastrous technique of “sheets of sound” and a lot of the most astounding music in jazz ever. To appease the record company, he recorded a couple of more palatable LPs, including an eponymous 1963 collaboration with balladeer Johnny Hartman.

Ballads are to Coltrane as political protest songs are to Dylan–they constitute the backbone of his popular reputation, while actually constituting a rather insignificant place in his corpus. In subsequent years, Trane’s playing became so intense and his development as an artist so rapid that enthusiasts track his growth by the month, even by the week. He died in 1967 at the age of 40.

Johnny Hartman had a respectable though not brilliant career as a crooner contemporaneously with and then beyond Coltrane. His voice is so smooth it makes Billy Eckstine sound like Mick Jagger, Nat Cole like Joe Cocker. He recorded sporadically, and his acknowledged masterpiece is their joint venture, “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”. Only 30 minutes long, it’s enough of a classic to warrant an homage by as fine an artist as Kurt Elling.

Of the six songs on the LP, each one a gem, I’ve chosen the lovely standard ‘My One and Only Love’. The performance here is the epitome of elegance and warmth, yet intelligent and musically substantial. So lower the lights, put on your smoking jacket, take a brandy glass in your hand, and enjoy.

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SoTW 27: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’

Posted by jeff on Dec 6, 2009 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:

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