0

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.

 
1

Hello world!

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

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

 
0

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.

 
0

SoTW 16: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’

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

A real good thing happened to a real good friend this week. Neal Hendel was appointed to the Supreme Court here in Israel. It’s a little hard for me to digest. I don’t know a lot about the judging business, but I have an awful lot of respect for his judgment about things like morality and right and wrong, and the subtle modalities thereof.

I trust him a little bit less on things musical. On the one hand, he does have some seriously quirky tastes (Whitney Houston’s high notes, Aaron Neville glissandos, and I’ve forgotten a few of the more extreme aberrations and blocked out some others), but he can also pick up on some really fine things as well. He’s a big Bob Dylan fan. So big that he chose to walk down the aisle to ‘I Shall Be Released’, Dylan’s masterpiece about escaping the pain of the world. Well, he married a lovely woman, so I guess he knew what he was doing.

In his honor, I would have loved to talk about Dylan’s newest CD, a collection of Yuletide songs entitled “Christmas in the Heart”, but it won’t be released till mid-October, so we’ll all have to just bide our time till then. So I figured this would at least be an opportunity to pay a visit to one of Dylan’s central recurrent metaphors: judges.

It seems Bob has a bit of a fixation on them. They appear directly in almost 30 of his songs (‘Angelina’, ‘The Ballad of Donald White’, ‘Bob Dylan’s Blues’, ‘Brownsville Girl’, ‘Day of the Locusts’, ‘Delia’, ‘Drifter’s Escape’, ‘Frankie and Albert’, ‘High Water’, ‘Hurricane’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, ‘It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding’, ‘Jim Jones’, ‘Joey’, ‘Jokerman’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and The Jack Of Hearts’, ‘Little Sadie’, ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’, ‘Nettie Moore’, ‘No Time To Think’, ‘Percy’s Song’, ‘Ring Them Bells’, ‘Seven Curses’, ‘Shake Shake Mama’, ‘She’s Your Lover Now’, ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’), not to mention the various judgment days, the “don’t you judge me and I won’t judge you”s, and the involvement with justice and the breach thereof, sin, the impingement of civil and emotional freedoms, and moral accountability.

Bob’s not a big fan of judges. He usually portrays them as symbols of all that’s heartless and fossilized in our society. Our SoTW is an atypical example of that motif. ‘Percy’s Song’ is from 1963 or 1964, the same period and very much the same place as a SoTW from a few weeks ago, ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. Neither was released on an official album at the time. And both are unusual in approaching some very harsh pain in a most gentle manner. ‘Percy’s Song’ makes me think a lot of ‘Blowing in the Wind’—all about the indignation of social injustice, but without the strident soapboxing that so often characterizes–I cringe as I write the word–’protest songs’. In a 1965 interview, Dylan was asked if he thought writing ‘finger-pointing’ songs was superficial. “No, it’s not superficial, it’s just motivated. Motivated. Uncontrollable motivation. Which anyone can do, once they get uncontrollably motivated.”

I think those are very, very wise words. I’ve thought about them often, quoted them, ever since back then when I read them. Words that early Bob should have listened to more often. ‘Hattie Carroll’, ‘Seven Curses’ and ‘Donald White’ (pre-1964) have certainly lost control. Not to mention ‘Joey’ and ‘Hurricane’ (1976). But Percy’s Song is a protest song of a different level. It masterfully avoids moral simplification, much more successfully I think than ‘Blowing in the Wind’.

The persona’s friend caused the death of 4 people in a traffic accident. The driver’s friend says to the judge, “He’s got a sentence to serve…, but ninety-nine years he just don’t deserve… What happened to him could happen to anyone.” Usually the Dylan persona would let loose a strident harangue at the cold-hearted judge. But the judge has closed the case, and the persona’s only recourse is to play the pained, wistful refrain “Oh, the Cruel Rain and the Wind.”

Well, it’s true that Dylan paints judges as heartless and haughty. But let’s keep in mind that the very fact that he harps on the point obsessively indicates how passionately he feels that such should not be the case. That the ultimate just judgment is what Godliness is all about, and that a judge having people’s fate in his hands is the closest to that that human society comes.

Just a year after writing all those songs about judgment, Dylan stepped back and wrote the memorable line “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Well, neither Neal nor I are so young anymore. We may still feel like denizens of the ’60s in some corner of our soul, but the fact is that somewhere along the way, while we weren’t looking, we’ve become adults. Well, Neal has, anyway. And I can’t help feeling that if Bob knew Neal and saw him sitting up there on the highest bench in the land, he’d chuckle to himself with no small degree of satisfaction that someone who howled along with “How does it fee-eel?” has grown up and grown into a place where he can actually effect the times a‑changing for the better.

Copyright © 2019 Jeff Meshel's World. All Rights Reserved.