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027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’

Posted by jeff on Mar 9, 2010 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.

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Bob Dylan has a new CD “Christmas in the Heart”. To tell you the truth, I haven’t been able to listen to it for more than a couple of moments at a time. But there’s a new clip from it, ‘Must Be Santa’. I watched it once, thought I was going to pass out. I wrote a friend, “I don’t know what it is, but one thing I am sure of–I’m never going to watch it again in my life.” Then I watched it three more times. I’m not recommending it, just telling you it’s out there. It takes the concept ‘bizarre’ to an entirely new level. Two ordinarily serious friends of mine say they sense a great deal of Jewish content in it. I ain’t touching that with a ten-foot Pole.

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024: Oi Va Voi, ‘Refugee’

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

Three facts:

  • I admire a British ‘world/klezmer’ band called Oi Va Voi.
  • When I tell most of my friends that, they take off in the opposite direction.
  • After I corral them, beg/bribe/coerce them to try it, they agree.

Let me clarify a couple more points:

  • I’m Jewish, I’m proud of it, and I can’t stand any klezmer music (although I think guys like Andy Statman and Dave Grisman are going in interesting directions).
  • The chances that I would be pushing a young British band with the name ‘Oi Va Voi’ are about as great as the chances of me beginning to fly or adhering to a serious diet. For the uninitiated out there, oi va voi in Yiddish denotes ‘Oh, dear!’ but connotes ‘Ay, all the woes of the world and hardships of history are on my shoulders!’ It would be equivalent to naming a Gentile band ‘Aren’t They Cute?’

Wait!!! The fact is that I have indeed foisted them on innumerable friends, the great majority of whom actually appreciated the gesture. So before you Delete me and them, give a listen to their song ‘Refugee’ from their first CD, “Laughter Through Tears” (2003).

The make-up of the group seems rather amorphous, more a scene than a band. The extravagant violin and all the charisma seem to have been supplied by Sophie Solomon, and the talent by Lemez Lovas, both of whom subsequently left the bash, after which the party crashed musically.

They call themselves a klezmer band. But it turns out that when they say klezmer, they mean Jewish ethnic, and when they say ethnic they mean ‘world’. Uh-oh.

The term world music used to make me extremely uncomfortable. I always figured that anything that big can’t mean anything other than ‘part-of-the-universe’ pablum. But then I saw somewhere a definition that gave me great comfort – it’s music you can dance to, with some Balkan and Afro-Cuban ingredients and maybe a shot of Arabic. That’s comforting because it excludes a whole lot more than it includes. No Japanese Gagaku. No Mongolian Khöömii. No Andean Sikú. Okay, now I have some idea of what I’m getting. I can do Balkan.

So how does Sophie Solomon, a young half-Jewish British violinist become a klezmerite? >From a BBC interview with her:

[In the 1950’s] my uncle Harold was very into Yiddish song and trying to revive it. He cut a 78rpm recording of himself singing Yiddish and Hebrew songs. He was a really bright guy who went up to Oxford to read philosophy at 16 and was really good friends with Bertrand Russell. He immersed himself in Yiddish culture and wrote a contemporary “Third Seder “(Passover supper) piece with Yiddish music. But his father told him that if he continued his relationship with his non-Jewish girlfriend, he would say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) for him. So in 1954, instead of coming home for the Passover supper, he turned on the gas in his Oxford flat and that was that. He left behind the old 78 of him singing the songs.

Of course he died 24 years before I was born in 1978 and I didn’t know much about him until I got into klezmer. Then my dad told me more about him and found his old record. It was an amazing discovery for me and I got more and more intrigued. And recently I was commissioned by the Jewish Institute, funded by the National Lottery’s Milennium Award scheme, to write a piece based round my Uncle Harold’s story for string trio, accordion, clarinet and the samples of my uncle’s vocals. I called it Feter Chaim Moyshe (feter = uncle), his Hebrew name. Its first performance was at Trinity College in London in March 2003

What can I tell you? It’s not life-changing music. Well, I guess for Sophie it was. But everyone who hears it says, ‘Hey!’, and dances a little Balkan jig.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”)
071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’
030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’

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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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Hello world!

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

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