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

Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2016 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Hi Everyone out in SongofTheWeekland. As I’m sure all of you remember, way back in SoTW 035, we made a promise to stroll through Miles Davis’ remarkable voyage through the 1950s.

In 035 we talked about the reactionary revolution of his “Tuba Band” of 1947, better known as “Birth of the Cool”. Then in 041 we visited his remarkable series of albums with his first quintet, focusing on melodic, sweet, laid-back treatments of standards. And in 055, we took a look at “Sketches in Spain”, one of three stunning large-canvas collaborations with Gil Evans (who was also an inspiring force behind “Birth of the Cool”). We even recently dug up the first bud of what was to come in SoTW 244, ‘Green Dolphin Street‘, Miles’ very first recording of note with his brand-new replacement for pianist Red Garland, a young Caucasian dude named Bill Evans, precursing by 10 months the album we’re discussing. (And just a bit of subtle foreshadowing, way back in SoTW 003 we wrote about Jerry Garcia & Dave Grisman’s version of ‘So What’.)

We’ve been getting piles of letters asking for some sort of closure to this cliffhanger, so this week we’re going to close the decade with the masterpiece of masterpieces, the coup de grace of the whole shmeer, “Kind of Blue”.

How good is this album? A few quotes:
Duane Allman: “I haven’t hardly listened to anything else for the last couple of years.”
Chick Corea: “It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music.”
Hip hop artist and rapper Q-Tip: “It’s like the Bible—you just have one in your house.”
US House of Representatives: “A national treasure.”

But my favorite appraisal is from critic Robert Palmer (liner notes from a remastered re-release):
[For music fans and critics] “no ‘great work’ is sacrosanct. Not all rock aficionados share a high opinion of Sgt. Pepper; to some, it’s uneven, self-indulgent, overproduced, underwritten—and dated.” But “Kind of Blue” is unique, he says. It has no detractors.

It’s universally acknowledged to be a masterpiece. By rockers, by rappers, by jazzists, by aficionados and snobs, by layfolk and casual listeners. By those of wooden ears. By elevator riders. It’s the prettiest background music you’ll ever not listen to. But if you do, it’s a monolith of lyric beauty and depth.

It is perfect.

It is so subtle, so nuanced, that you can listen to it several trillion times (as many have) with it sounding wholly fresh and vital every time. Ask Q-Tip.

Miles’ 1955 quintet was still playing in the throes of post bebop, complex, dense, chord-laden music, which Miles now labeled “thick”. His band was falling apart, due to a fatal mix of drugs and ego. Pianist Red Garland went his way. Drummer Philly Joe Jones was grooving in his own vein. John Coltrane was bounced from the band for abuse and unreliability. While Miles was in France, Coltrane served a tour of duty with Thelonious Monk and got himself clean. Miles returned, rehired all three in addition to new-on-the-scene alto sax Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, recording with them the experimental album “Milestones,” and then fired the drummer and pianist. So we’re left with Miles on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor, Cannonball on alto, and good old Paul Chambers on bass. Jimmy Cobb came in on drums.

L to R: Cobb, Adderley, Evans, Davis, Coltrane

Via Gil Evans, Miles had read and been deeply influenced by a book called “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization”, which posited an entirely new approach to what notes are played. It created Modal jazz. Jazz prior to this had been based on chord changes. Modal music talked about playing within a scale, free of the fetters of chords. The artist improvises melody, without the strictures of the over-evolved, ‘thick’ post-bebop music. Think of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. No chords, just a series of modulating scales. Miles:

“No chords … gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords… there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”

Okay, that may be a bit dry for a lot of normal people. But listen to this! “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” was written by George Russell, a 25-year old black drummer who was hospitalized in 1945 for 16 months with tuberculosis. To wile away the time, he wrote this theoretical work. Gil Evans turned all the cool young musicians onto it. So now, in 1958, Miles asked George Russell to recommend a pianist who could play this modal stuff. (Russell had just finished recording a jazz concept album/composition entitled “New York, N.Y.” Participating in the session were Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Hal McKusick, John Coltrane, Milt Hinton, Barry Galbraith, Jon Hendricks, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Max Roach, and Benny Golson, Oh, yeah, and a young honky pianist named Bill Evans.) Russell:

I recommended Bill.
“Is he white?” asked Miles.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Does he wear glasses?”
“Yeah.”
“I know that motherfucker. I heard him at Birdland—he can play his ass off. Bring him over to the Colony in Brooklyn on Thursday night.”

The club was in Bedford Stuyvesant, a neighborhood whites didn’t ordinarily enter. But George and Bill did, Bill sat in and got his white ass hired, and the classically-trained wimp became the pianist for the coolest jazz band in the world. Miles:

When Bill Evans—we sometimes called him Moe—first got with the band, he was so quiet, man. One day, just to see what he could do, I told him [and you have to know Miles’ raspy whisper to really appreciate this], “Bill, you know what you have to do, don’t you, to be in this band?”
He looked at me all puzzled and shit and shook his head and said, “No, Miles, what do I have to do?”
I said, “Bill, now you know we all brothers and shit and every­body’s in this thing together and so what I came up with for you is that you got to make it with everybody, you know what I mean? You got to fuck the band.” Now, I was kidding, but Bill was real serious, like Trane.
He thought about it for about fifteen minutes and then came back and told me, “Miles, I thought about what you said and I just can’t do it, I just can’t do that. I’d like to please everyone and make every­one happy here, but I just can’t do that.”
I looked at him and smiled and said, “My man!” And then he knew I was teasing.

 

Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first. Bill played underneath the rhythm and I liked that, the way he played scales with the band. Red’s playing had carried the rhythm but Bill underplayed it and for what I was doing now with the modal thing, I liked what Bill was doing better.

This Miles Davis sextet played standards and material from “Milestones” through most of 1958 without making any significant recordings. Miles:

Some of the things that caused Bill to leave the band hurt me, like that shit some black people put on him about being a white boy in our band. Many blacks felt that since I had the top small group in jazz and was paying the most money that I should have a black piano player. Now, I don’t go for that kind of shit; I have always wanted just the best players in my group and I don’t care about whether they’re black, white, blue, red or yellow. As long as they can play what I want that’s it. But I know this stuff got up under Bill’s skin and made him feel bad. Bill was a very sensitive person it didn’t take much to set him off.”

Bill wanted desperately to please everybody and to fit in. So although he didn’t actually service the guys, what he did learn during that time was how to shoot heroin. After seven months, he’d had it with the road. He was replaced in the band by the very competent if uninspired blues-oriented pianist Wynton Kelly. In March, 1959, Miles brought Evans back for a couple of recording sessions. Wynton was the sitting pianist in the group—Miles liked to do that, to set one band member near another, to get them nervous. Fun guy, that Miles Davis.

Only hours before the session, Miles wrote down some sketches and taught them to the musicians during the sessions themselves. No rehearsals. Here’s the modal framework, go. Five songs for release in six takes.

The very eloquent Bill Evans, from the original liner notes of “Kind of Blue” (you’ll pardon me for the extensive quote, but I have read these words hundreds of times, and find them an unplumbable source of wisdom and inspiration):

“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.
As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”

I’m not going to wax poetic here trying to replicate in mere words the beauty that is “Kind of Blue.” If you want to read more about it, Ashley Kahn wrote an entire book called “The Making of ‘Kind of Blue’“. But if you don’t own the album, you really should. Remember what Q-Tip said? One phrase of the first song on the album, ‘So What’, is worth a thousand words. The entire song is worth a book. The album is worth a library. It’s an education in itself. And if, as one assumes, you do own the album, give it a spin. It will sound as fresh as it always does. And thanks be to He Who Created jazz musicians for instilling in these six guys the talent to create such magical beauty. Humans creating perfection. Not something you run into everyday.

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080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’

Posted by jeff on Sep 14, 2016 in Jazz, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

We here at SoTW love getting readers’ letters. Well, usually we do. Last week we received one which we didn’t make us feel too good:

“Dear SoTW, Jeez, you know dude, you can really be a pain in the butt with all your talk and ideas and analyzing and history and shit. I mean, you know a lot of stuff and all, and it can even be a little interesting on occasion, but what happened to the music? You’re so heavy, man. Can’t you ever just kick off your shoes, lean back, and enjoy some music? And your choices? Where do you live? Don’t you get it that not everyone is into Bulgarian women’s choirs or albino Brazilian mystics or WWII contortionists? How about some NICE music for a change? Just something PLEASANT? Do you even know those words? How the hell do the people around you put up with you? Yours truly, F.Y.”

Ok, granted, F.Y. has a point or two there, although I don’t think he really needed to get that abusive or personal. But we really do take seriously what our loyal readers have to say, and F.Y. seems to be one of them. So, F. (you don’t mind if I call you that?), this week we’re going for NICE.

And there’s nothing NICEr than a pretty girl singing a pretty song, right? And there’s definitely no one prettier than the very lovely Miss Norah Jones (b. 1979).

Everyone says so. She’s a really big star, and justifiably so. Her first album, 2001’s “Come Away With Me” won all the Grammies in the world and remains the Blue Note label’s biggest-selling album. It includes the megahit ‘Don’t Know Why‘, as well as a whole bunch of other fine songs, and is probably the best ultrapopular and most listenable album by an intelligent female artist since Carol King’s “Tapestry”.

Norah Jones often sounds familiar, a refugee of the 70s, but she’s only 31, and her style really is her own—country jazz, with a twist of blues and an ample dose of pop hooks. Ear candy that doesn’t insult the brain. Not to mention a pair of lips and a pair of eyes and a figure and an attitude that can make a man lose sleep at night. A fetching beauty with a catchy song. What more could one ask for?

Here’s a video clip of the song ‘Sunrise’ that I for one would certainly prefer watching a whole lot more than reading what I have to say about her. I think it’s witty and charming and she’s breathtakingly sexy. It’s from her second album, “Feels Like Home,” which was just as successful as the first.

Who is this Norah Jones? Well, surprisingly, she’s not just a pretty face. For one, she was raised in Texas by her dancer/nurse/concert promoter mother, Sue, who had had a nine-year relationship with Ravi Shankar, towards the end of which Norah was born.

Ravi Shankar (b. 1920), of course, introduced classical Indian sitar music to Yehudi Menuhin, John Coltrane, George Harrison, and the rest of the Western world. He was one of the stars of the Woodstock Festival (I’m not imagining that, I saw him there). Norah was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar (or in the original Bengali: গীথালি নরাহ জন্স শঙ্কর)). She only saw her father a few times a year until she was nine, and then not until she was 18, when he introduced her to her 16-year-old half-sister Anoushka, now a successful Shankar-trained sitar player.

Norah plays down the father connection, but she has pursued lots of other musical directions. She recorded “The Fall” at home in 2009, a darker, more personal, laid-back album, including ‘Chasing Pirates‘. Last month (Nov 2010) she released ” …Featuring Norah Jones,” a collection of 18 duets she’s made over the last few years with artists such as Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Herbie Hancock, Foo Fighters and Q-Tip. That’s one eclectic broad.

She’s even starred in a very respectable movie, “My Blueberry Nights,” directed by Wong Kar-Wai with supporting roles from Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz. And with all of that, Norah Jones seems determined to avoid the pitfalls of celebrity and stardom. In spite of her incredible box office and cash register appeal, she consistently involves herself in small, personal, quality projects. Well, more power to you Norah. Not only an eclectic broad, but apparently a very spiffy and tasteful one.

For our SoTW, we’re going to a pretty obscure cut of hers, a collaboration that didn’t even make it onto her collaboration CD. But to get there, we’re going to have to go on a little detour (okay, FY, F.Y.).

Tim Ries (b. circa 1959) is a very respectable jazz soprano saxophonist who’s studied under Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman and Bob Brookmeyer. He’s played with everyone from Steely Dan to Stevie Wonder to Paul Simon, as well as one of my very favorite musicians, Maria Schneider. He’s currently a professor of jazz at the University of Toronto. In 1999 he gigged in the horn section (and occasional keyboards) on The Rolling Stones No Security tour. After the tour, he recorded three Stones’ songs to see how they’d sound in a jazz context.  He gave them the demo. Keith Richards:

I thought what Tim recorded was amazing, and I’m sort of jealous of him. When we wrote those songs, there was a lot of pressure on us to keep them as short as possible for the singles market. With what Tim does, he has the luxury to stretch out the melodies and play with the different chords and harmonies. Instead of the sketches that we basically recorded, Tim’s versions are more like fully finished things. The playing is beautiful too. Tim always has such a beautiful sound.

The Stones enthusiastically supported the project, which gave birth to 2 CDs, “The Rolling Stones Project” (2005) and the double-CD “Stones World” (2008). Pitching in were Bill Frisell, Milton Nascimento, Eddie Palmieri, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Frisell, Bernard Fowler, the divine Luciana Souza, Sheryl Crow, John Scofield, and Wayne Shorter’s bass-drum team John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Oh, and The Rolling Stones themselves. Here’s Watts/Wood/Richards and Sheryl Crow helping Tim Ries out on ‘Slipping Away.’

And here’s Bernard Fowler singing ‘Wild Horses’ live on a Tim Ries tour, a bit overdone for my tastes. Here’s a better clip, Tim Ries talking about the project and the recording session from the studio of a flamenco-informed ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Fellas, if you’ve ever taken my advice about anything, watch this clip. If it doesn’t make your blood boil, you’re probably dead. And here’s Tim Ries recorded version of ‘Paint It Black’, and you’ll find lots more live performances from the project on YouTube. Here’s ‘Salt of the Earth’, sung in a number of languages and styles by a number of singers, one of whom is Ahinoam Nini’s sister Odeya doing Stones in Hebrew!

And here’s my pick of the lot, Norah Jones singing ‘Wild Horses’, backed by Bill Frisell and the whole Tim Ries crew. It’s not the best cut from Tim Ries’ Rolling Stones Project, and it’s not Norah Jones’ best cut. But it’s a really, really NICE cut, and I hope F.Y. and everyone else out there enjoys it as much as I do. So there!

Childhood living is easy to do
The things you want

ed I bought them for you
Graceless lady, you know who I am
You know I can’t let you slide through my hands
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you’ve decided to show me the same
But no sweet, vain exits or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

I know I dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom, but I don’t have much time
Faith has been broken, tears must be cried
Let’s do some living after love dies
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

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244: Bill Evans/Miles Davis, ‘On Green Dolphin Street’

Posted by jeff on Aug 26, 2016 in Jazz, Song Of the week

‘On Green Dolphin Street’, the Miles Davis quintet (1958), featuring Bill Evans

‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Bill Evans Trio, evening set 2

tumblr_m92nuqvor51r30xm8_1345496839_cover

I learned a new word this week. “Moledro”.

Well, it’s not really a word (apparently there’s a really cool guy who makes up these emotionally-laden situation-specific terms based on authentic etemologies) and I didn’t really learn it (keep mixing up the consonants), but it’s a zinger, especially when you’re in a Bill Evans state of mind:

n. a feeling of resonant connection with an author or artist you’ll never meet, who may have lived centuries ago and thousands of miles away but can still get inside your head and leave behind morsels of their experience, like the little piles of stones left by hikers that mark a hidden path through unfamiliar territory.

That sure resonates.
I was introduced to the word by M.E., a new reader who’s been sharing with me her experiences of digging deeper and deeper into Evans’ ouvre, into his soul. I sure appreciate her passion for Bill’s music, and it’s been a pleasure to have my own flame for him fanned.

daee8e3071147eb12bee08060aa663be

Young Bill with glasses and shadow.

Bill Evans is a stable staple of my musical diet, the soundtrack to the first couple of hours of most of my days. Those are the colors of the world I choose to inhabit (when life allows me the choice).

I find myself listening more and more exclusively to a small number of his works, from the very beginning and the very end of his career. I’m going to share a few somewhat disparate thoughts with you today:

  • 4 cuts Evans made as brand-new pianist for the Miles Davis quintet, 10 months before “Kind of Blue”
  • The background noise in “Live at the Village Vanguard”
  • A comparison of Evans last two bassists, Eddie Gomez (1966-77) and Marc Johnson (1978-80)
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Adult Bill with glasses and shadow.

This ain’t the place for Evans beginners. I’ve blabbered on about him at length, covering all the basses:

Bill Evans was with Miles’ band from April till October, 1958, replacing Red Garland, the pianist of The First Quintet. He quit the band (tired of the racial prejudice against a white boy in a black environment and exhausted from his new junk habit), but was called back in March, 1959, for the “Kind of Blue” sessions. The working band recorded one live session at a Columbia records party, never intended for release (rightfully so).

200109_050So we have the Mile-Evans meeting of colossi, resulting in the indelible “Kind of Blue”, universally acclaimed as one of the most significant works of art of our time. Miles was at the top of his game, Bill was a virtual unknown, just beginning to make a name for himself in the New York jazz scene.

Many people have spent many hours and pages deliberating over that meeting of minds. The relatively well-known live session from September, 1958, “Jazz at the Plaza”, an exercise in gratuitous blowing, offers only frustration.

But then I recently rediscovered four tracks the same group had recorded in May, 1958, which I had previously glossed over. The tracks have been buried on a bunch of minor Miles compilation albums, so I’m guessing I’m not the only one to have overlooked them.

Stella By Starlight’ and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ are stunning. ‘Love for Sale’ and ‘Fran-Dance’ ain’t bad. It’s tracks like this that feed our compulsive impulses, that give ‘trolling the trash’ a good name.

AACCBA62-3C09-49C2-9750-20319411A734_w610_r0_sFrom Peter Pettinger’s indespensible musical biography, “How My Heart Sings”:
“For all kinds of reasons the musicians coalesced in an extraordinary way. Evans’ burning message – lyrical, textural, sensual – had to be released; it had long been smoldering within him, the very core of his musicality. His first studio setup with Davis gave him the freedom to express himself with some refinement away from the rough and tumble of the bandstand, and this, along with a fresh repertoire of intriguing chord sequences, lent the atmosphere an air of untapped promise. Until this moment, the world did not know the magic that Evas was holding. Perhaps only Davis suspected.”

‘On Green Dolphin Street’ (from the 1947 film of almost the same name, here in Jimmy Dorsey’s original) was introduced to the jazz repertoire in this session.

Miles’ first quintet was a seminal band, creating a stunning corpus of standards written by Jews and Cole Porter, presented in a refined but innovatively soulful context. Listen to Red Garland’s piano on a similarly melancholy tune, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’. Now listen to Evans’ piano on ‘On Green Dolphin Street’. It’s the difference between dexterity and depth, goodness and greatness, professionalism and profundity.

Four cuts from an obscure session. This isn’t a trivial pursuit. It’s a diamond in the rough, precursor of an iconic visit to the divine. Now go listen to “Kind of Blue”

***

villagevanguardtrio1I’ve discussed Evans’ first trio’s “Live at the Village Vanguard” at some length. As have many other people. (Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, 2001; Michael Bailey in All About Jazz; Orrin Keepnews, producer of the recording, in a video interview).

If I could take one album to a desert island, it would be this one, hands down. I don’t have words to describe the solace, inspiration, utter astonishment at sheer beauty that I’ve gotten from these recordings.

Well, perhaps I do. Moledero.

downloadThroughout these recordings, two afternoon and three evening sets from June 25, 1961, you can hear the audience chatting, tittering, clinking martini glasses. Check out ‘Alice in Wonderland’, written by Sammy Fain for the 1951 Disney movie, introduced to jazz by Dave Brubeck in 1957.

Lots of great jazz was created spontaneously (duh). Both “Kind of Blue” and the Village Voice recordings were “just another date”. So I suppose it’s hard to blame that lady with the beehive hair, red nails and lips, for clinking and tittering, unaware of the momentousness of the moment. That’s nothing new.

XIR3675 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); 73.5x112 cm; Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium; (add.info.: Icarus seen with his legs thrashing in the sea;); Giraudon; Flemish, out of copyright

Icarus tried to fly, fashioning wings made of feathers and wax. But he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he drowned. The difference between Icarus and Bill Evans is that the former didn’t wear glasses.

In Bruegel’s famous painting (circa 1560), Icarus plunges into the sea unnoticed by the ploughman digging his earth with his horse, both equally unaware of anything beyond the current furrow, placid in their ignorance. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Evans’ music is so subtle, so restrained, so gentle and quiet – would I not have been drinking a martini on that evening? Would I not have shared a joke with my friends? Ah, Icarus.

***

84892698Eddie Gomez was Bill Evans’ bassist for 12 years, more than half of his career as a band leader. They were also the nadir of his career. Students of Evans have long asked who’s to blame. Did Gomez drag Evans down, a sin of commission? Did he fail to inspire him, a sin of omission? Or does the blame lie with Evans himself and his monkey? Perhaps Gomez deserves mountains of credit for keeping Evans going during those long years of self-abusive addiction?

I don’t know, and I certainly have no interesting in bashing Gomez’s sterling reputation. But the confluence of their association and Evans’ doldrums is a fact. As is Evans’ musical rejuvenation when Marc Johnson came in, with Joe LaBarbera forming The Last Trio.

I can’t help but mention here the very talented, very beautiful Brazilian/American pianist/singer Eliane Elias, who has had intimate relationships with both Gomez and Johnson and recorded a tribute album to Bill Evans. She gets my vote as Most Committed Evans Fan Ever.

I have written an exhaustive piece on Evans’ treatment of ‘Nardis’ throughout his career, especially as the showpiece of the last trio, beginning with Bill’s solo introductions (some of the most moving, harrowing music ever recorded), followed by a bass and then a drum solo.

I recently revisited this fine video of Evans, Gomez and Marty Morell in a home concert in Helsinki, 1970. It includes an extended ‘Nardis’ (after a great interview), complete with a somewhat extended solo piano intro, followed by a 3-minute bass solo, the earliest such treatment I’ve found.

maxresdefaultCompare Gomez’s solo there to Johnson’s here, also ‘Nardis’ in Helsinki, 1980. There’s a quantum difference. I don’t want to diss Eddie Gomez. You listen and judge.

Bass solos are tough. There’s never been a bassist who could fill a hall playing solo – not Jaco, not Ron Carter, not Mingus. (McCartney comes close here.) But Marc Johnson here? He’s got game. It’s worth listening to.

***

So, thanks to M.E. for inspiring me to a renewed turn around the dance floor with some of my favorite music in the world. Thanks to Bill Evans and associates for making the music. And thanks to the guy for putting a word to the experience.

Moledro.

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242: Dhafer Youssef, ‘Les Ondes Orientales’ (with Tigran Hamasyan)

Posted by jeff on Jul 29, 2016 in Jazz, Song Of the week

x_0e1c7b05‘Les Ondes Orientales’ (live video)

‘Odd Elegy’ (live video)

 ‘Hayastan Dance’ (studio)

Shatha’ (studio), with alternating measures of 5, 7, 11, 13, 17 and 19 beats, somehow swaying like a samba

Sura’ (studio)

Summer, 1968, I’m volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel. There’s a copy of “Sgt Pepper” (only a year old,  less of a household ikon than it is today). There’s a cool Indian guy on ulpan. He’s heard of The Beatles, but not of Sgt P. “You have to hear it!” I tell him. “George Harrison, the guitarist, plays sitar, and they use a tabla and a tamboura and stuff. They’re playing Indian music!”

Dhafer Youssef (14)I drag him. He listens attentively, lolling his head sagaciously. At the end he looks up with a big grin shiningly displaying his pearly teeth and chirps affirmingly “Rock and roll!

Since then, 48 years now, I’ve been very careful not to make assumptions or judgments in cultures (musics) whose basic vocabulary is foreign to me.

That being said, the Dhafer Youssef quartet, with Tigran Hamasyan on piano, creates the best music I’ve heard in years. If I gave grades, I would give it 100.

But if I can do it, so can you. It’s true that I live approximately midway between Tunisia and Armenia, but I speak neither language. I do speak some jazz, though, and have no difficulty following their quatralogue. Even if some of it is in an exotic accent. Who knows, perhaps due to that.

29-07-2016 12-41-51About a year and a half ago I wrote a post about Tigran Hamasyan in which I was rather overwhelmed by the breadth and variety of his musical projects. I’ve been listening to him ever since, of course, and this collaboration with Dhafer brings a critical point into clearer focus for me: Tigran Hamasyan is the most interesting jazz pianist working today. I say that having just seen a few weeks ago an thoroughly uninspired Brad Mehldau in concert (with John Scofield and Mark Guiliana— in retrospect, I should have stayed home and watched clips of the Dhafer Youssef-Tigran Hamasyan quartet.)

Guiliana there provided 5 minutes of interest with an electronic percussion solo in an otherwise soporific concert. Here, as the motor of Dhafer’s quartet, he’s solid liquid nitroglycerin, ready to explode at the merest pretext. No one sleeps on Mark Guiliana’s watch. If, like me, you usually find drummers a necessary evil and drum solos an unnecessary one, check out Guiliana here. He’s a brilliant, exciting musician, period.

4429451232_92fe607c93_zChris Jennings is the designated driver of the group – rock solid, Always Prepared, holding it all together. With three such volatile partners around him, you need a responsible, grounded adult.

Dhafer Youssef (b. 1967) grew up in a fishing village, from a long line of muezzins (leaders of prayer in the mosque). His grandfather exposed him to religious vocal music, which he practiced in his kitchen and refined in the cavernous hammam of the village. The resonances produced by his voice were his favorite toy.

He began singing with a local liturgical singing troupe, learned oud and then moved on to electric bass, playing at weddings and singing music from the radio in the traditional liturgical style. (Remind anyone of Ray Charles?) From the music conservatory in Tunis, he moved on to Paris and Vienna, where he’s been based since.

ad86f57229d126800af91dbc523ecHe recorded his first album in 1996, and since then has moved from project to project, each one exploring new territories, new sonorities, including the juxtaposition of the oud and northern European electronic-jazz textures.

From 2009-2012, his quartet was composed of Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, Canadian bassist Chris Jennings and American drummer of everyone’s choice Mark Guiliana. Inspired by texts from the seventh century Persian poet known for his odes to wine, Abu Nawas, the collaboration produced a number of high-quality filmed performances, as well as the album “Abu Nawas Rhapsody” (2010).

Dhafer Youssef Quartet – ‘Abu Nawas Rhapsody’ (full concert)

Dhafer Youssef (10)His latest project is fascinating in itself. “Birds Requiem” takes a more Western, exploratory look at the Eastern materials. It employs an Estonian pianist, an incredible Turkish clarinetist, a British bassist, an Indonesian-Dutch drummer, a Norwegian rock-oriented guitarist, and a knockout virtuoso Turkish kanunist. Tigran’s latest, by the way, is “Luys i Luso”, an exploration of Armenian sacred music from the 5th through the 20th centuries, arranged for piano and chorus.

Both artists are well worth following in every project they do. But when they joined together, they reached a pinnacle, higher than Tunis’ Atlas Mountains, higher than Armenia’s Mt. Ararat (yes, the one where Noah got stuck), certainly higher than Mont Blanc. I urge you to take the time and have the patience to expose yourself to this quartet’s music at leisure. They make great, great music. I don’t give out 100’s lightly.

They can be just purely entertaining, providing unadulteratedly pleasurable, accessible-without-borders music. Like you can enjoy The Four Tops.
They can be emotionally wrenching, especially Dhafer’s vocal flights into nasal, hyper-falsetto stratospheres. Like Janis Joplin at her rawest, purest, most expressive.
They can be mindbogglingly, jawdroppingly dexterous, especially when Tigran gets that Keith Moon look in his eye and starts taking you places on the keyboard that no one’s ever been before.

dhafer_youssef_1_c_hassen_soufanTake for example ‘Les Ondes Orientales’ (‘Oriental Waves’). It begins with an oud/piano exposition, improvising on what will become the theme with utter gentleness, a warm group embrace. In the third minute it begins to accrue energy, then at about 4:20 begins to rock the theme a tempo.

At 5:30 Dhafer lays down the oud for his rubato vocal ‘solo’, backed by Tigran. The interplay between them half reminds me, surprisingly, of the legendary Bill Evans/Tony Benett duets. Nowhere else have I ever heard a pianist providing such eloquent support for a vocalist. But Dhafer ain’t singing ‘The Touch of Your Lips’. Check out the vocal climax at 8:45. Tony Benett never scaled those heights. And I’m not talking pitch.

The next section features Tigran. It is the finest piano trio music I’ve heard since Bill Evans died. Passionate, brilliant. At 12:30 Dhafer joins them to revisit the theme. It’s not George Harrison dabbling in sitar. It’s not pandering with exotica. It’s new, great music.

Dhafer: “Old meters are inspiring for me. It gives me the possibility to think the melody and bass line differently and opens doors. The most I hate in music is when it doesn’t groove. Old is really groove.”

Do yourself a favor, venture out of that old comfort zone, check out this quartet. Open your ears, I’ll betcha it’ll speak to you. Their language is universal – both within you and without you.

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