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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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041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

Posted by jeff on Aug 31, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week

A few weeks ago (SoTW 35) we promised a series of posts which would walk through Miles Davis’ career in the 1950s. Well, we aim to keep that promise, so here goes the second installment.

In 1955 Miles Davis was 29 years old. At 18 he had begun playing second fiddle (well, trumpet actually, second lead voice to Bird’s alto sax) to Charlie Parker, the acknowledged genius and leading light of modern jazz. At 22, overwhelmed by Bird’s degenerate lifestyle, Miles struck out on his own and coalesced the Birth of the Cool nonet (along with Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and others), recording one ultra-white LP, one of the most beautiful and most influential records in all of modern music.

Then in 1951, Miles – the son of a wealthy, cultured St. Louis dentist – finally succumbed to drug addiction. For several years he wallowed in heroin, recording for the Prestige label the occasional desultory session with flashes of brilliance. Then he took himself to a small apartment above the stable on his father’s horse farm, went cold turkey all by himself. Clean, he returned to New York in 1955, aged 28, an ex-star bursting with arrogant self-confidence.

Jazz was having a heyday. Bird had just died (at 35). Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro were the leading trumpeters of the day (with Chet Baker beginning to make a name out in California); the Modern Jazz Quartet was playing elegant, classically-influenced jazz in concert halls wearing tuxedos; the Dave Brubeck quartet was bringing jazz to college campuses and the living rooms of respectable suburban (white) homes; the Newport Jazz Festival was serving as an annual focal point and showcase for the leading acts.

It was there that Columbia Records heard Miles, was knocked out by his great charisma, and signed him to a contract. But he had no working group, and he owed Prestige 4 records on his old contract, the money for which had long disappeared into the black holes in his veins.

The standard modern jazz combo consists of two lead voices—saxophone and trumpet—backed by a rhythm section of piano (which could also serve as a melodic, lead voice), bass, and drums.

So Miles gathered around him a group of upstarts (“Coleman Hawkins told me never to play with someone older than me”). One veteran, Philly Joe Jones, a wily old polyrhythmic fox, crony of Miles, a musician’s musician; Red Garland, a young Texan pianist, influenced by Ahmad Jamal’s cocktail piano repertoire and style; Paul Chambers, a 19-year old bassist;  and John Coltrane, a young saxophonist from Philadelphia. All four were junkies.

Coltrane’s playing was harsh, squeaky and often out-of-tune. His solos started and stopped in fits. He was technically limited, but a serious musician (he would practice endlessly), a genius in an early, chaotic stage in his development. He was widely criticized at the time as an inferior musician, but Miles stuck with him. The parallel with his own past was remarkable.

In 1946, Charlie Parker was at the top of his game, but his trumpeter, Dizzie Gillespie had left him (couldn’t take Bird’s addictions). To replace him, Bird hired Miles – a young, unproven, greenhorn, with limited technique and a promise of genius that only Bird himself could detect. Ten years later, Miles did the same for Coltrane. Like Miles, it would be several years of addiction, coming clean, and remarkable musical growth, before Coltrane would become Coltrane.

But at the time, in 1956, perhaps what attracted Miles was that the hard edge of Coltrane’s tone made his own sound that much more sensuous. And sensuous it was.

So before he could start recording for Columbia, Miles owed Prestige 4 albums. What he did was to take this new quintet for 2 marathon sessions at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. This group is today known as ‘The First Miles Davis Quintet’. These 2 sessions were eventually packaged as 4 LPs: “Workin’/Cookin’/Steamin’/Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”. They contain a wealth of material that is generally considered to be one of the pinnacles of modern jazz.

Unembellished story: When I was just learning this music, about a dozen years ago, I was riding the bus back from the big city, where I had purchased one of the CDs. I was reading the liner notes when the bus stopped and a few people got off. One soldier saw me holding the CD and said, “Ah, Miles’ first quintet, great stuff.” The soldier behind him said, “How can you say that? They can’t compare to the second quintet.”

This is time-capsule music, in the sense that if I had to play one single cut to a Martian music lover to show him what ‘jazz’ is, it would be almost any cut from this group. It’s maddeningly ‘standard’. Medium tempo, musically conservative. The repertoire is some popular tunes, some restrained blues, but mostly standards from the Great American Songbook, which we look forward to discussing some other time. Suffice it to say here that these songs are elegant, sophisticated, commercially appealing, of Jewish authorship, and most of all WHITE.

Which leads one to ask why Miles Davis, a belligerent black ex-junkie would choose this material. Well, because for all his belligerent bravado, Miles (at this period at least) was playing the most poignant, melodic, romantic music imaginable. Music of a tender sweetness that has rarely been matched in the popular idiom.

I think Miles was a closet Republican. He used the $4000 advance he got from Columbia on a fancy apartment on 57th Street, a white Ferrari, imported Italian suits and shoes. He was cultivating a persona as far from Bird as possible, both personally and musically.

Everything about this music is conservative. It’s the standard bebop quintet, standard repertoire, standard format – Miles’ statement of the theme, trumpet solo, sax solo, piano solo, bass and/or drum solos, restatement of theme, and ‘Bye, baby’. The two lead instruments almost never play together. Everything at an unhurried medium tempo. But Miles mutes his trumpet, and he makes love to the microphone. The rhythm section is the epitome of restrained, focused, beautiful musicianship. Everybody knows that it was Bird who first broke the sound barrier, several years before Chuck Yaeger. Well, Miles had graduated from Birdschool: “Man, you don’t have to play a whole lot of notes. You just have to play the pretty ones.”

The dynamics of the group are pretty intriguing. Miles never told other players what to do. In concert, he would play his solo (often with his back to the audience), then leave the stage with no directions as to how to continue; but as his musicians attested, his presence remained on the stage. Sometimes, when one soloist was playing, he would go up to another member of the band and whisper in his ear. It was to make the soloist nervous, what was Miles saying about him? Done to keep everyone on edge. Sweet guy, that Miles.

The 25 or so songs recorded in those two marathon sessions were almost all done in a single take. Miles felt it gave the music a creative tension, if the players knew there was no going back to correct mistakes.

The song we’ve chosen here is ‘It Never Entered My Mind‘, by Rogers and Hart, originally from the 1940 musical “Higher and Higher”. (There are many, many lovely treatments of the song–here’s Johnny Hartman singing it.) Coltrane doesn’t play a single note on it, so it’s perhaps not the most representative recording from these sessions. But it’s a piece of such heartrending beauty that I figure you’ll forgive me.

But do go listen to lots of these recordings. Some of my other favorites are ‘Diane‘, ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’, ‘My Funny Valentine‘, ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top‘. Everyone has their own favorites from these four CDs. And no one is impervious to their very special beauty.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)

055: Miles Davis/Gil Evans, ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’

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

 

 

 

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035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)

Posted by jeff on Jul 31, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week

This week we’re going to make our first stop in a planned series (though not consecutive), following Miles Davis’ remarkable voyage through the 1950s.

Let’s take 1947 as our starting point, when the WWII swing bands were dropping like brontosauri (all the young folk who had frequented clubs were staying at home nights parenting us baby-boom babies). The music that was thriving on 52nd street was bebop–fast, frenetic, insolent, wild and witty, indulgent, brilliant, and not to be danced to! The Man was Charlie (Bird) Parker (b 1920), whose music and life were the epitome of freedom – loose, unconstrained abandon.

Miles Davis (b 1926) was raised in the very bourgeois home of a St Louis dentist. Much to his father’s chagrin, he took to jazz trumpet. A tender 18-year old in 1944, he joined the traveling Billy Eckstine big band in which Bird was playing alto sax. When they finally landed in New York, Charlie wanted to rebuild his old bebop quintet (here on film). But his old playmate Dizzy Gillespie refused to play with him any more because of Bird’s impossibly dissolute lifestyle, so Bird gave young Miles his big break.

Les Double Six–‘Boplicity‘ (here’s a whole post on their music)

Mark Murphy–‘Boplicity

Miles Davis Nonet–‘Move

Miles Davis Nonet–‘Jeru

Miles Davis Nonet–‘Israel

Miles was never the greatest trumpeter around. He had very limited technique, so he stuck to playing select notes in the middle register of his trumpet simply because he couldn’t play as fast or as high as many of his contemporaries. Bird apparently didn’t mind, and Miles was happy to be in the company of the most renowned jazz musician of the era. Throughout the two years he played with Bird, Miles stayed clear of drugs and booze (though not of women). But Bird’s penchant for damaging himself and those around him was as great as his genius as a musician, and Miles left him in 1949.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Claude Thornhill was a dinosaur in the post-WWII years, maintaining a Swing-era style dance band whose distinguishing style was slow, dreamy ballads. Gil Evans (b 1912), wanted to write an arrangement of a Bird song for Thornhill, (here’s Bird’s version of “Anthropology”, here’s Gil Evans’ arrangement) and approached Miles to get some help with the charts. So began a legendary partnership.

In 1948, Miles was hanging out with a group of young musicians at Gil Evans’ apartment behind a Chinese laundry. They exchanged ideas and played together informally. Evans was the guru, Miles was the driving force, but the music was a group effort according to the many accounts. They played a couple of gigs opening for Count Basie, and recorded 12 sides. They were so insignificant commercially that they had no real name (The Miles Davis Group, The Miles Davis Nonet, The Miles Davis Tuba Band). But over the years this effort became a legend, known as The Birth of the Cool.

The 12 cuts recorded in 3 sessions in 1949 were originally released as 78 RPM singles; 8 of them were released on a 10″ record in 1954, 11 of them on a 12″ LP in 1957 under name “Birth of the Cool”. Numerous versions have been released since. In 1998 they were released together with the (inferior) live performances, called “The Complete Birth of the Cool”. In recent years, Gerry Mulligan created a “The Rebirth of the Cool” group; the reconstructed scores were released in book form; and bands and combos all over the world play the charts regularly.

Miles Davis was an angry young man. He fought with police and the white music business establishment. In the early 1950s he displayed angry Black Pride almost a generation before that mindset gained wide currency. And yet, paradoxically, his great music from the 1950s was sweet, poignant, romantic, a monumental marriage of the black jazz tradition with white European music.

I don’t know how to explain that. Critics don’t address the subject very much. But the music, all agree, is heavenly. It’s also commonly called ‘pivotal’ and ‘seminal’, because it pretty much single-handedly established Cool Jazz–the predominant mindset of modern jazz.

Miles (and Evans) used a nonet for these recordings–trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto sax, baritone sax, piano, bass and drums. (as opposed to the typical bebop quintet or swing band of at least 16 musicians). The use of French horn and a tuba for tonal breadth was unique in jazz, the latter employed for the first time not as a bass/rhythm instrument, but as a melodic one. In reaction to both bebop and swing, the sound they created displayed a light, vibratoless tonality, subtle rhythm, pure tone, legato phrasing. They stressed the seamless integration of scored sections with improvised elements.

The song we’ve chosen from the collection is “Boplicity”, written by Miles (under his mother’s maiden name, Cleo Henry) and Evans (uncredited), arranged by Evans. Solos are (in order) by Mulligan (baritone sax), Miles, and John Lewis (piano).

The influence of these recordings cannot be overstated. Gerry Mulligan soon split for California (a la Jack Kerouac), forming there a pianoless quartet with young Chet Baker and starting the first school of white jazz, West Coast cool. John Lewis formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lee Konitz, the only musician participating in all three recording sessions, has had a magnificently varied career, and is still going strong at 82. (He’s one of my favorite musicians, and you’ll surely be hearing a lot more of him.) Miles had already begun dabbling in heroin at this time, and would soon sink into a 3-year abyss. But he would go cold turkey on his father’s horse farm and return to form his first quintet (with young John Coltrane), and record 2 masterpieces in collaboration with Gil Evans (‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Sketches of Spain’) and one of the great albums of modern music, ‘Kind of Blue’–all before the decade was out.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just pause for a moment here and treat ourselves to 2’58” of heaven.

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

Posted by jeff on May 13, 2015 in Jazz, Personal, Song Of the week

A wonderful thing happened to me this week.

I guess it’s pretty obvious that there’s nothing I enjoy more in the world than talking about music.
My hands-down favorite living jazz musician is the wise, wily, wizened Lee Konitz.
And this week I had the experience of a lifetime sitting for three hours and shmoozing with Lee about music.

I wasn’t at all star-struck talking to Lee. He’s a human being, 83 years old; and as the saying goes, he puts his pants on one leg at a time. He’s just a jazz musician, he’s not a star or anything. But he’s had an incredible career. Preparing for the meeting with him, I actually counted the number of Lee Konitz CDs in my collection. There are 91, beginning from 1947 as a kid soloing on the alto sax with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra; the Birth of the Cool sessions; the leading disciple of Lennie Tristano, the father of cool, intelligent modern jazz. And that just takes him up to the early 1950s.

He did great stuff in the 1950s, recorded relatively little in the 1960s (here in a wonderful, bizarre clip with the Tristano group, here with Bill Evans playing with one hand!, but in each decade since the 1970s his activity has increased, to the point where in the years 2000-2008, according to the All Music Guide data base, Lee released 34 new CDs under his name. New CDs.

And you have to understand, Lee Konitz isn’t some bloated old legend treading the same waters. He’s found himself a groove that is for me mind-boggling: constant experimentation, newness, challenge. An 83-year old waking up every single morning, saying “Ok, let’s see what new territories we can explore today.” My mind just doesn’t grasp that. Here are some amusing recent short clips of Lee talking about fame and fortune and music.

He says that he’s more popular today than he ever was, that he’s always being invited all over the world, and he likes playing with local musicians, that that refreshes him. This may be true, but he’s also constantly initiating new projects, new collaborations, new contexts. Someone should teach the guy that people his age are supposed to lose energy, not pick up speed.

Lee’s not a star. ‘He can walk down the street without being identified’? Let me tell you a little story. I’m sitting in the restaurant talking to him. I had taken out of my bag to make some point the fine critical biography “Lee Konitz” by Andy Hamilton. The man behind me bumped my chair when he stood up, turned around to apologize, and saw the book lying on the table.

“Oh, Lee Konitz!” he said. “I saw him last year in Louisville.”

“How was he?” I asked, straight-faced.

“Oh, he was really great!” the man replied.

“Well, this is him,” I said, pointing at my lunch partner.

“What?” said the Louisvillian.

“This is him. This is Lee Konitz, the man.”

“Oh,” said the Louisvillian. “Oh. But. I–. Uh–. Huh? Oh.”

So he can sit in a restaurant and not be recognized even by a fan. We’re not talking here Soulja Boy, Ashlee Simpson or Heidi Montag. (Just for the record, I googled ‘most popular musicians 2009’. I have no idea who these people are.)

Lee asked me, “You listen to so much of my music. What attracts you to it? What do you like about it?” I was very flattered to be asked such a question. Flattered and flustered. After I’ve had now a couple of days to collect my thoughts, I’d like to answer a bit more coherently. (I’ll mail him a copy of this. He doesn’t own a computer.)

We were talking about Kurt Elling, the Chicago jazz vocalist whom I admire greatly and Lee also respects. He won a Grammy award last week, and I told Lee that I was disappointed. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘Because he won it for a CD that is aimed at popular reception, the music market, more than anything he’d done in the past, and I’m afraid his success will only draw him further towards pandering to popular tastes, away from a dedication to pure, honest musicianship’.

© Terry Cryer 2007

That’s what attracts me so much to Lee Konitz’s music. No gimmicks. Not in marketing, not in celebrity, and most of all not in music. Every single project, every cut, every note is honest, intelligent, restrained, refined, well-considered, responsible. There just aren’t many artists who bring such intelligence, honesty to the table—and at his best, married to very great passion. Lee isn’t always a romantic, but I suppose looking over all those 60+ years of great music-making that he’s done, I’d have to say that most of my favorites (though not all–there’s about 3 tons of his more difficult, abstract music that I find absolutely riveting) are those that balance the mind with the heart, his more emotionally expressive music. He’s always intelligent and honest, always an absolute master musician, and frequently invites his heart onto the stage with him.

Let me give you an example, one that we discussed at length in our meeting. In 1996, Lee (b. 1927) was scheduled to perform with fellow veteran bassist Charlie Haden (b. 1937). Charlie came from a country & western background, played in Ornette Coleman’s seminal free jazz quartet, and has recently made a series of ‘jazz noir’ CDs, revisiting the sounds and aesthetic of 1940s Hollywood B-movies. He’s known as a non-virtuoso bassist. No flashy solos, no grandstanding. In fact, he plays very few notes, frequently ‘on four’, just the first beat of the measure.

Lee was looking forward to the gig. “I thought I can finally play with someone I’m faster than. I had been working on becoming the slowest saxophone player around–I’m being serious. [If you want to hear just how untrue that is, check out classic Lee Konitz with Lennie Tristano circa 1949–JM] Anyway, Charlie called me a week before and said that Brad could use a gig.” Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) is young enough to be Haden’s son, Lee’s grandson. “I had never played with Brad, and didn’t really know how special he was. So here I was playing with another virtuoso, and I was a bit disturbed–it’s impossible for me to play faster than a piano player! But by the second set, Brad was listening and changing his playing, and I appreciated that very much… We ended up making three CDs in two days.”

That’s what Lee’s all about, listening. No grandstanding, no virtuosity, no preconceptions or credos. Empathy. On this trio date, there was nothing planned. Lee just called out standards on stage. It seems to me that if you pay close attention to this music, you can hear the three musicians listening to each other. There’s an electrical magic in the silences. Three free-floating acrobats with no safety net. Every moment, the miracle of music being created out of a void, made into a coherent tapestry of magical beauty, right before our very eyes and ears.

Lee asked me what I liked so much about this CD. I told him it was the freedom from tempo, no forward driving beat, no obligation to get anywhere. The freedom to float and explore the moment. He said something like, “No, we were just listening to each other because we hadn’t played together before.” Maybe he was just being disingenuous, maybe I’m reading into it. Or maybe we were saying the same thing. The wonder of the moment of discovering something new. “The sound of surprise.” That’s what jazz is all about.

Lee Konitz was 70 when he recorded this. He told me that last month he had a reunion gig, at the Village Vanguard I think he said, with Haden and Mehldau, and with the addition of the magnificently modest drummer Paul Motion, four years younger than Lee. It was recorded by EMC and will be released soon. I can’t wait to add it to the 91 CDs on my shelf and hard disk. The ‘Alone Together’ trio with the perfect drummer. Lee Konitz breaking new ground, improvising the most fascinating, magical music I can imagine. I hope when I’m 83 I’ll be able to find my slippers. And maybe if I’m really fortunate, I’ll still be able to summon up the energy necessary to focus on this beautiful, moving music.

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