|Chick Corea was on my turntable decades before I knew who he was. Albums like The Leprechaun and Romantic Warrior have been staples of my jazz soundtrack since critical listening became a treasured habit.|
A keyboard player who worked with all the greats and pretty much played it all, Corea has spent the last couple of years revisiting bands and compositions from across a full career. This article is far from comprehensive, limiting discussion of his vast output and talking about only a handful of his music. Having seen Corea play live in numerous settings, most of the albums reviewed here have been savored both at home and in concert.
Kicking off his career in the early 1960’s Corea played across jazz genres; Latin, straight ahead, west coast. His debut album as a leader was released in 1968 (actually recorded in 1966). At the same time, he began recording and then touring with Miles Davis until 1972. A couple of free-jazz albums followed as Corea simultaneously began recording duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton and started the ensemble Return to Forever. By the time The Leprechaun was released in 1976 Corea already had a full catalog of albums both as leader and sideman.
Okay, during his early years as a leader I didn’t catch any concerts. In fact, much of this music from the 1970s still doesn’t do much for me. But The Leprechaun did, and it is only recently that I began to appreciate why. In the liner notes Corea says making this recording was, “…a way of working that was unusual for me at that time.” It is more than just a tuba and cello mixed with Moog synthesizers that shine on this jazz album. It is a surprisingly coherent blend of the many influences Corea had been exposed to over the first decade of his career.
Another release from 1976 was Romantic Warrior by his band Return to Forever. Granted, I didn’t see Return to Forever live until just a few years ago at the Portland Jazz Festival. But the original band – Corea, Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White – played the entire album and it sounded wonderful. Yet Romantic Warrior is distinct from The Leprechaun and the follow-on albums for Polydor that have been described as “belonging together.” In contrast, albums by Return to Forever, both preceding and following Romantic Warrior do not form a cohesive sound.
Herein lies the magic of Corea’s oeuvre; much like Miles Davis, Corea is a musical chameleon whose compositions cannot be constrained by traditional labels. His art needs different forms of expression, a variety of musicians, and distinct themes. Whether derived from the formal, lowkey sound of Crystal Silence duets with Burton, the bombastic recasting of books by L. Ron Hubbard, or the classical jazz sound on Like Minds with an all-star cast of jazz giants, Corea is a consummate tour guide of very different musical landscapes.
I have seen Corea and Burton perform live on two occasions. Corea on the piano (mallets bouncing off metal wire) and Gary Burton on the vibraphone (mallets bouncing off metal plates) with this instrumentation creating a sound unlike any other. Crystal Silence (1973), Duet (1979) and Native Sense (1997) are all thoughtful albums. Crystal Silence is a special favorite, with its cerebral, lyrical music. Like Minds from 1998 is another remarkable recording with Pat Metheny, Dave Holland and Roy Haynes joining Burton and Corea, and features original compositions by both. Here we have more strings – guitar and bass – with one of the hardest working men in jazz keeping the beat. To my ear, this album is neither traditional nor contemporary, but simply timeless. A must-listen for any fan of any of the band members.
The Ultimate Adventure from 2007 is a very good album, but it was the live performance that caught me by surprise and upped my appreciation. The flamenco dancing was a particularly entertaining segment of a show filled with visual surprises. Jazz shows as a theatrical enterprise are not something I’ve much encountered (Jason Moran’s tribute to Fats Waller being another outstanding example). Along similar lines, and my preference of the two albums, To The Stars featuring Corea’s Elektric Band, is also based on an L. Ron Hubbard book. As Corea has reportedly said, Hubbard was a very good science fiction writer, and these albums do a great job of describing the narratives musically. Both remind me of The Leprechaun, a sound of summation after much experimentation.
The latest addition to my collection is Chinese Butterfly, a double album from Chick Corea & Steve Gadd in 2018. Gadd has recorded with Corea for decades and appears on a couple of the albums listed above. One of the best journeyman drummers, and a true jazz gadfly who can play smooth, straight ahead, Avantgarde and all jazz in between, Gadd is joined here with a group that includes guitarist Lionel Loueke, sax man Steve Wilson and even former Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Phillip Bailey. Hopefully, there’s still time to catch this one live. A playful album full of surprises, Corea is still the chameleon 50-years after his first recording as a leader.
Finally, check out the DVD Miles Electric; a different kind of blue. Released in 2004 it features the live performance of Miles Davis and band at the Isle of Wright Festival from 1970 in front of an audience estimated at 600,000 people. While Corea is featured playing electric keyboards during the performance, more interesting is the interview he gave. All surviving band members of the concert performance were asked to talk about their time with Davis while sitting with/at/around their respective instruments.
In the early 1980’s I was heading to a concert and spotted Chick Corea crossing Broadway, also on his way to the venue where he would shortly be playing. I pointed him out to my friend Paul, who had joined me for the show. Seeing us point in his direction from the opposite side of the street, he raised his eyebrows, then made a break for the theatre entrance. That’s as close as I ever got to being able to tell Corea just how much joy his music has brought me over so many years. No hard feelings, but it would have been nice to tell him personally.
|The last couple of years has witnessed some very good music standing on the corner of Jazz and Classical.|
When the riot broke out on May 28, 1913, during the first public performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris, it’s hard to believe the spirit of the new jazz music in America wasn’t standing backstage in the shadows. Charlie Parker was a big fan of Stravinsky and his Rites, and it just might be that Salt Peanuts found inspiration in its vicinity. The dissonance we associate with seismic shifts in the landscape of 20th-century music can be clearly heard in compositions and performances of both men. Yet as we have discussed here on several occasions, the intersection of jazz and classical music has found fertile ground even among more straight-ahead jazz players.
“We cannot observe the creative phenomenon independently of the form in which it is made manifest.” Stravinsky
The last couple of years has witnessed some very good music standing on the corner of Jazz and Classical. What might be most interesting about the albums mentioned below is that each includes a current mainstay from the straight-ahead jazz scene. More so than other jazz/classical works discussed here at Jazz-Notes, the classical influences of this younger generation are clearly heard in these songs. This can be partially explained by their having been trained as classical musicians before embracing jazz.
Let’s start with the well-known string quartet Brooklyn Rider and their collaboration with tenor great Joshua Redman (one our favorites here at Jazz-Notes). The album Sun on Sand was released in 2019 and is singularly successful in blending genres. First, the Riders can hold their own whether acting as a rhythm section or “solo” voice. Second, Redman also moves smoothly through both roles, as comfortable behind the band as fronting it. Finally, all tunes are original compositions of Patrick Zimmerli who is well regarded in both classical and jazz circles.
The opening number, “Flash”, does not immediately play to either side of the jazz/classical divide. Likewise, the slightly tremulous “Starbursts and Haloes” manages the same feat of being neither fish nor fowl. But the album’s closer, “Between Dog and Wolf: Reprise”, might just be the closest we’ll ever come to hearing echoes of what that collaboration between Stravinsky and Parker could have been.
The latest release by pianist and composer Victor Gould, “When Thoughts Become Things“, also includes a string quartet, as well as trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (whose powerful 2019 release, The Artist, pays tribute to sculptor Auguste Rodin). The title cut that opens the album sways back and forth between strings and piano, without staking a claim to preference. Likewise, the piano solo-track, “Brand New” finds Gould in a contemplative mood that carries through in his piano/trumpet duet with Pelt on the classic jazz number, “Polkadots and Moonbeams”. This is a thoughtful and contemplative sounding collection.
Finally, Meg Okura’s 2018 release, Ima Ima, featuring the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble may offer the most curious blend of jazz and classical sensibilities. With help from another Jazz-Notes favorite, trumpet player Tom Harrell (whose 2015 release, First Impressions, includes compositions by Debussy and Ravel) Okura creates a wide-ranging sonic spectrum full of interesting sounds. In fact, the musical flourishes that appear around the edges of the music create atmospheres as varied as theatrical soundtracks, angelic choirs, classical chamber music, and straight-ahead jazz – and all this just in the song “A Summer in Jerusalem.” Even after repeated listens it feels like I hear something new every time Okura’s music plays.
|Duke Ellington Presents from 1963 introduces the world to Abdullah Ibrahim, then living in Switzerland. Nelson Mandela invites the prodigal son back to South Africa in 1990. Subsequently, Ibrahim performs at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Since then he has continued to find his own way toward new musical worlds.|
In 2019 Abdullah Ibrahim produced The Balance, his first recording as a leader since 2014.
I found the music to be remarkable. While searching his discography for other albums offering his warm, melodic sound, the discovery that Ibrahim was a bandleader starting in 1963 left me feeling pretty stupid. Perhaps this pianist and composer had not appeared on my jazz radar because of how his music is most often described and labeled.
Best guess is that previously reading about Abdullah Ibrahim being connected with Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Archie Shepp would imply a free jazz orientation – not a genre I listen to much. Then again, talk of Cape Jazz from South Africa favoring gospel influences was also not so interesting. Ditto for his important works like Mannenberg, being described as a major part of the anti-apartheid sound – if we can assume there really was one sound to describe that heady time in South Africa. Then there are the movie soundtracks. Oh, and born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1936 then going by the name Dollar Brand on his earliest recordings, finally becoming Abdullah Ibrahim in 1968 when he converted to Islam made recognition challenging. Also, as we will reference, he has maintained a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism even after his conversion to Islam.
His first, eponymous album, The Dollar Brand Trio, was produced by Duke Ellington in 1963.
It is an impressive freshman performance and in hindsight clearly points in the direction Ibrahim has pursued for decades. The real surprise is that through all the so-called Cape jazz-free jazz-protest jazz-soundtrack jazz phases, Abdullah Ibrahim’s sound has been remarkably consistent, and certainly not defined by any of these labels. For a discussion of his music, where I will make my own assertions as to his influences, we’ll focus on two albums: the 2011 release Sotho Blue and Mukashi from 2013.
Sotho Blue is a collection of Ibrahim original compositions that include one song by Bud Powell. We hear the influences of Ellington, Powell, New Orleans, and the West Coast jazz of the 1960s. Sounds of the orient and surprisingly contemporary jazz references speak to an open mind, enjoying without embracing. The saxophone, flute, and trombone trade places as lead vocals to Ibrahim’s piano from song to song taking the music from highs to lows. It can remind us of the emotions engendered when we travel as flaneurs rather than tourists. Yet the album is described as “background music” and for “private rumination and meditation” by a resource I usually respect. Neither of these comments rings even remotely relevant when listening to the album. Again, labels and comparisons can be misleading and even unfair.
|1. Calypso Minor||4. Nisa||7. Glass Enclosure|
|2. Sotho Blue||5. The Mountain||8. Star Dance|
|3. Abide||6. The Wedding||9. Joan Capetown Flower|
Consider this, a hot new trumpeter is on the scene and we ask someone recently having heard the player live what she sounds like. A response of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis provides little insight. Dizzy hard bop or big band? Miles first quintet or electric? Using Dizzy and Salt Peanuts or Miles and Kind of Blue makes it clear what to expect. Free jazz? Have you actually listened to one of his recordings? The piano of Ahmad Jamal? Too cerebral, Abdullah Ibrahim is more playful. The piano of Chick Corea? Too muscular, Ibrahim is more lyrical. The influences of Ellington and Monk are assumed by his own admission. With Ibrahim offering so many references that are, quite frankly, somewhat tangential to the music he plays proves a distraction. Though I can’t offer a good point of reference. (Note to self; listen before assuming.)
Mukashi, named for a Zen master Ibrahim deeply respects, is an album that might be more appropriate for meditation, assuming forceful solos don’t harsh your mellow. This music inspires thought not introspection. The recording doesn’t sound oriental though it includes the sound of traditional Japanese flute playing. Perhaps some bright spots reflect the definitions of World Music, while he also plays at the fringes of traditional American jazz. All the labels, the genres, and definitions blur in Mukashi. The most interesting of the Ibrahim recordings currently on my playlist, it is also the most challenging.
Sotho Blue and the piano solo album from 2008, Senzo (mostly his greatest hits), are getting the most playtime these days. I prefer music without words so that it doesn’t distract me while reading books and magazines. Curiously, I have found myself pausing mid-sentence upon hearing a phrase or block of notes in Ibrahim’s playing. He definitely has something to say and doesn’t need words to express an idea.
For those interested in hearing Abdullah Ibrahim, a good start would be with The Balance. An elegant and confident album, once again featuring compositions by Ibrahim, with one by Monk. Ellington would be a proud and happy mentor hearing Ibrahim at 86 still playing like a seeker of new worlds.
|The Joshua Redman Quartet seem to have taken the suggestion of Miles Davis to heart, “First play what you know, then play beyond what you know.”|
The new album by saxophonist Joshua Redman, Come What May (2019), features a band Redman first recorded within 2000. In a Wall Street Journal interview from May of that year discussing the recording of Beyond (2000) Redman said, “In many ways, it’s the record I’m proudest of so far as really capturing the sound of a band.” That article led me to purchase the CD without hearing any of it beforehand. The music relit my passion for straight-ahead jazz and remains a touchstone for what defines contemporary jazz. A few years later I finally had a chance to see Joshua Redman perform live as part of the SF Jazz Collective while he was the Artistic Director. Whether live or recorded, Redman is a delight to hear.
After Beyond, the quartet featuring Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, recorded another gem Passage of Time (2001). Both of these albums feature only compositions by Redman and demonstrate his strengths as both player and creator. Come What May reunites this group who again play only Redman originals. All three have continued to play with Redman in various settings and ensembles over the last 18 years, but there is no question that this line-up is much more than the sum of its players.
In fact, Redman has made many fine albums with outstanding bands. MoodSwing (1994) features Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums. Or listen to the edgier music from his trio on Elastic (2002) with Sam Yahel on various keyboards and Brian Blade, again on the drums. A few personal favorites are the two albums from quartet James Farm. (2011). Featuring Redman with Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Eric Harland on drums, their eponymous first release has a feel tangential to Beyond. Considering the ground that’s been covered, in finding his way back to that sound from 2000 Redman seems very comfortable.
Other than one song, “Leap of Faith” on Beyond, which features tenor player Mark Turner in a remarkable performance, all three of these sessions only include this iteration of the Joshua Redman Quartet. You’ll find this recording offers some of Redman’s most fluid and technically challenging music. Enhancing the quality of the compositions, the players are in top form. While this quartet was clearly up to the task in 2000, here on Come What May they are now a more seasoned group of musicians bringing a wider range of musical intelligence to this task. They seem to have taken the suggestion of Miles Davis to heart, “First play what you know, then play beyond what you know.”
Much like on Beyond, Redman ranges across a spectrum of jazz styles on Come What May from the driving “I’ll Go Mine” to the contemplative “Vast.” To my ear, these three recordings make up a distinct sound that stands apart from the many other albums with Redman as leader, yet without sounding the same. Once again, Redman has really captured the sound of this band.
|For the interested, or discerning, listener “Tenor Conclave” offers a chance to really hear the distinct sounds of John Coltrane, Zoot Sims, Hank Mobley, and Al Cohn.|
The output of the Rolling Stones rolled off my radar a couple of decades ago. Hearing some newer music recently it was not difficult to recognize the sound, even if it has evolved somewhat since I last tuned in (around the release of Steel Wheels in 1989). So why does it surprise people that the sound of John Coltrane is just as identifiable to a fan? For someone even mildly familiar with the music of the Rolling Stones and Beatles it is hard to believe the difference wouldn’t be immediately obvious. Ditto for Coltrane and Hank Mobley despite their playing the same instrument.
Reading the liner notes from a 1956 release from the Prestige All-Stars we find this to be a tired conversation. Ira Gitler opens his note with the following comment; ‘Last year a writer on jazz posed a question to me. It was, “How do you dig both Sonny Rollins and Zoot Sims?” and I answered, “Because I dig both Bird and Pres” (i.e., Charlie Parker and Lester Young).
The album referenced here is “Tenor Conclave” featuring John Coltrane, Zoot Sims, Hank Mobley and Al Cohn on tenor saxophones, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on the drums. While Gitler focuses mostly on contrasting the two “schools” of sax represented – that of the hard bop (Parker) and the modernists (Young) – this still seems too broad of a distinction. Yet Gitler is correct when describes this album as not a “cutting session”, something that could have easily occurred, where players push each other to show-off. As he correctly states, “Each of the four showed admiration for the other three…”
For the interested, or discerning, listener “Tenor Conclave” offers a chance to really hear the distinct sounds of each tenor. The title cut, an original composition by Mobley, is a swinging affair, where personalities and sounds are distinct. Followed by the standard, Just You, Just Me, at the opening we hear the ensemble, then a bridge with only Mobley and Sims. After another 8-bars of the ensemble, in sequence, we hear the solos of Mobley, Sims, Coltrane, and Cohn. The second Mobley composition, Bob’s Boys, plays to the strengths of Sims and Cohn. In the last of four songs on the album, How Deep is the Ocean, we hear an achingly lyrical rendition of another jazz standard. Hard to believe even a novice couldn’t hear the difference between Coltrane and Cohn here, despite the lighter touch.
Of particular note is the fact this recording pre-dates the Blue Note albums for which Coltrane and Mobley are so well known. Here Gitler’s two schools are further subdivided to provide additional commentary about each player. For Coltrane, there are already hints of the “sheets of sound” to come. The Coltrane sound has also been described as very muscular, which sounds about right. In contrast, Mobley’s most successful album to my ears is “Soul Station” with “Workout” a very close second. Gitler uses the term “sinewy” to describe Mobley’s playing.
The players usually associated with the East Coast, Cohn and Sims, find a reflection of their work with jazzmen like Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, and Shelly Manne. Theirs is a more swinging sound influenced by the classic big bands of Woody Herman and Count Basie. In the most complimentary sense, Sims is more smooth than muscular with Cohn more fluid than sinewy. The contrast between bop and modernist is not as obvious here as is the stylistic preferences of each player. While this distinction between schools becomes more pronounced over time, here we listen to an ensemble working hard to achieve harmony and a blending of personalities through this music. It is not clear to me that the Prestige All-Stars would have sounded so cohesive if they had first recorded together in 1966.
|Talk about a career in jazz… Gerald Wilson’s first album as a leader was released in 1961 and his last recording was released in 2011.|
First hearing the big band sound of Gerald Wilson was a revelation. Talk about a career in jazz, Wilson played trumpet in the Jimmie Lunceford Band back in 1936. A mainstay of West Coast jazz players, he wandered in and out of the limelight for 50 years, his first album as a leader, You Better Believe It being released in 1961. He died in 2014 at age 96, with his last recording, Legacy, released in 2011.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover that he was not only a big fan of the bullfight, but many of his signature works (two of which are reprised on “Detroit” from 2009) are named after famous bullfighters of the 1960s. He considered matadors and jazz musicians to be kindred spirits engaged in a similar kind of art form. Wilson was befriended by bullfighting professionals and is an honorary life member of Los Aficionados de Los Angeles (sort of like the Bullfighter’s Union of the U.S). The complete oeuvre of Wilson’s tributes to the corrida is listed below. I deliberately chose to only include the original of each song, and encourage you to check out some of the later versions on your own.
This song is named for Jose Ramon Tirado. “He was a young matador I first saw at the bullfights in Tijuana, Mexico,” Gerald says. “He was sensational, had a lot of style, reminds me of one of the young trumpeters today. I was so impressed that I wanted to do my impression jazz-wise of what was going on with him.”
This song is named for Paco Camino. “Paco Camino became the biggest man in the bull ring during that period. He came on with some new stuff that was out of sight. Bullfighting is not a sport, you know. It’s an art, continually evolving with new passes, new uses of the cape, new ways of confronting the bull, adding to the repertoire. It’s very much like jazz. Paco was an artist. He improvised. He was the best,” said Wilson in 2004.
Featured in Sports Illustrated in 1963, ” Paco Camino is the greatest torero of the past 20 years,” said Antonio Diaz-Canabate, one of Spain’s foremost authorities, writing in Madrid’s influential newspaper, the A.B.C. “He leads the bull with the muleta where the bull does not want to go. That is the most difficult thing in the art of bullfighting because it involves the total domination of man over beast.” And a well-known Barcelona critic, Jose Maria Hernandez, wrote of Camino, “He does everything to perfection. He has an indefinable magic. People will remember Camino, like Manolete, not for any one pass or quality, but for his general art and technique.”
This song is named for Santiago Martín, known as El Viti. This is the only recording Wilson made where he played with the band. “El Viti was a great matador, different from any other I ever saw. He never smiled, and he was tough. I tried to trace a picture of him, as it gets down into a unique part where his stuff in the ring would get, wild but not overbearing. It was a place for me to use my eight-part harmony.” Wilson claimed to invent eight-part harmony. El Viti was considered to be the “master of the Verónica.”
The Golden Sword
Dedicated to the pageantry of the bullring.
This song is named for Carlos Arruza, known as “El Ciclón” (“the cyclone”). Retiring after a successful career bullfighting on foot, he came back to start an even more spectacular career on horseback. “He was one of the greatest of all time,” said Wilson. Arruza appeared in two Mexican films about bullfighting and had a part in the 1960 version of “The Alamo” starring John Wayne.
This song is named for M. Capetillo, who performed frequently in Tijuana from the 1960s through the 1980s. He was celebrated as the greatest muletero in Mexican bullfight history. Wilson watched Capetillo fight his last bull on the eve of his retirement.
This song is named for Antonio Del Olivar and was the last of Wilson’s tributes to famous bullfighters. Considered one of the most graceful matadors, Del Olivar once honored Wilson by presenting him with the ear of a bull he had killed.
|Moments of brilliance, moments of bombast and moments of madness give people a reason to talk about jazz, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the music.|
Half listening to the radio, my full attention turned suddenly to a song I hadn’t heard before. After a couple of minutes, I guessed it must be from a new album from Kamasi Washington. Turns out there is a recent release from Washington, Heaven and Earth, that came out in June. Though relatively new to the scene as a leader, there is a lot of personality in Washington’s music. His sound is distinct, much more so than many other musicians with a larger jazz catalog.
There was tremendous hype, even internationally, surrounding the release of Washington’s 2015 album The Epic. I found it to be a huge, chaotic, sprawling and often frustrating work. Clocking in at almost 3-hours, the range of his music touched on everything, from old jazz standards to Debussy’s Claire de Lune, from free jazz to musically challenging sounds hard to classify. Whether you find his music exhilarating or exasperating, it demands attention. So, it was a surprise to read a review of Heaven and Earth in a mainstream jazz publication that sounded more like a critique of Washington than his new album.
Washington’s sensibilities are clearly on display with this new album.
Brash horns and choirs often fill curious corners of his music. In some ways, it is difficult to think that Washington even has a “sound” since the music stretches to include so many styles and motifs. And yet, there I was certain this song was by Washington and must be something new, rather than a song from his other post-Epic release, Throttle Elevator Music IV (which includes music recorded during the Epic sessions). Of course, he has a sound, a big one, and it is recognizable.
Yet the gist of the review article was a complaint that Washington wasn’t adding anything new to the “jazz canon.” There was, it claimed, no new insights being delivered, just variations on existing themes with the juxtaposition of straight ahead, free jazz and everything in between giving the impression of “new things.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Washington’s jazz mash-ups are attention-getting because of their sprawling sounds. We do hear old things performed in new ways that sound interesting because of their often odd juxtapositions. I can’t speak to cannons – other than to say their sound might make an interesting punctuation in some of the more aggressive Washington recordings.
The Kamasi Washington Sound.
A comparison of Washington’s rendition of Cherokee with those of widely respected players provides for a striking example of his “sound.” Listen to versions of the Ray Noble jazz standard by sax players Charlie Parker in 1942 (which he remade into KoKo) and Stan Getz in 1960, or from a vocalist like Dee Dee Bridgewater in 1998. Nothing in Washington’s version sounds derivative that I can tell.
Then, right after you play Cherokee, listen to Washington’s Miss Understanding, also from The Epic, and the range of his musical vision is clearly on display. Seemingly, every song needs its own “sound” and Washington strives, and mostly succeeds, in putting a personal touch on every number. Even when that personal touch is at odds with other songs sitting in the same queue.
In a significant way, Kamasi Washington reminds me of Dizzy Gillespie.
For folks outside of the jazz orbit, the image of Dizzy embodied the spirit of jazz. The beret and goatee, the puffed-up cheeks, the boisterous laugh and welcoming personality. Yet even hardcore jazz fans can be challenged by some of his more aggressive music – “jeez, how does he get to a register that high? And why does he play so shrill for so long?” Salt Peanuts was important but is also an acquired taste. People talked about the man, not so much his music.
It now feels like for many Kamasi fills the role of what jazz should look like. A review of The Epic in The Economist and a more recent interview this summer in Monocle, heralded this new savior of jazz: The big man with the big hair and even bigger sound, facing the world head-on and coincidently plays jazz. But Washington’s music doesn’t get much discussion in these conversations. Moments of brilliance, moments of bombast and moments of madness give people a reason to talk about jazz, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the music.
|“Like his more celebrated contemporary Miles Davis, Giuffre remains a musical chameleon, a distinctive stylist who constantly feels compelled to change his sonic setting.” -Ted Gioia |
Jimmy Giuffre: The Headstream of Divergent Tangents
Jimmy Giuffre is not much heard these days. In fact, I’ll argue that the handful of jazz chroniclers who even dwell on his work are mostly focused on the wrong music. Much is made of Giuffre “anticipating forms of free improvisation” through his thoughtful experimentation within the jazz idiom. Specifically, his work with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow are consistently mentioned as a seminal moment in jazz; an anticipation and then foundation-setting music associated with the later works of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. It is not clear this emphasis on the free jazz aspect of Giuffre’s career isn’t more a case of sources repeating each other, rather than a result of critical listening to his music. This work is not so interesting to me.
The most intelligent and sympathetic discussion of Jimmy Giuffre and his life in music will be found in Ted Gioia’s terrific book, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 and originally published in 1992. Giuffre’s music included many strikingly distinct periods, many difficult for even a hardcore fan to appreciate. Stories emanate from a stint at North Texas State, when the school was in its formative years in becoming a beacon of jazz education, followed then by the heady influence of a religious mystic (a decade before it was the trendy thing to seek). Later would come Giuffre’s early success as a composer, rather than player, with Woody Herman providing some interesting context for the career that would follow.
Jimmy Giuffre Goes Experimental
The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet from 1956 is a touchstone for understanding Giuffre’s development as a player and composer. The controlled transition from straight ahead to a more experimental style of jazz is what makes it sound so rich. Thirteen musicians participate on this album, but none play on more than three of the songs. No more than six musicians are ever included in a single track. And the first number, “So Low” is a solo piece, featuring just a clarinet and leather shoe. Only the third album with Giuffre as the leader, the future begins to come into focus. Here is a crisp, quiet, somewhat dissonant sound that is unique to the time. Even the pop music covers convey a special interpretation.
Next in line was The Jimmy Giuffre 3 also from 1956, when Jim Hall joins Giuffre, along with bassist Ralph Pena, who now comprise the entire ensemble. This music, without piano or drums, and such limited orchestration, offers a surprisingly full sound. The distance between the numbers “The Song is You” and “Forty-Second Street” is long, though not hard to follow. The music is experimental but still filled with playfulness and jazz motifs easy to digest. While other fine music from Giuffre, in the vicinity of these two recordings would appear, his desire to explore moved inexorably into uncharted waters.
Electricity was in the air when trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd heard a buzz. Miles was first to noticeably respond to the stimulus with his 1968 release, In A Silent Way. Though George Benson had appeared on one cut from Miles previous album, Miles in the Sky (“Paraphernalia”), it was on In A Silent Way that the electric guitar of John McLaughlin made Miles’ jazz start to rock. The impact of McLaughlin being turned loose on Bitches Brew – along with three electric keyboards, and one electric bass – reverberates among jazz aficionados even today. No need to run down that voodoo here since the story of Bitches Brew and its aftermath is an oft-told tale.
Donald Byrd was also moving away from hard bop at this time, recording some exciting music equally as controversial if less remarked upon. With the 1970 release of Fancy Free (recorded in the spring of 1969), Byrd uses an electric piano (played by Duke Pearson) for the first time. Subsequently, it is often suggested that Byrd was mostly emulating what he heard on Bitches Brew with his exploratory album Electric Byrd in 1970. I disagree.
Miles Davis and Donald Byrd’s Drawn Influences
That many of Byrd’s sounds from the addition of electric instrumentation reflect some influences from Miles at this time is certainly correct. Yet Byrd was moving in a very different direction than Miles, as a critical listening of their music reflects clearly. Not only was the composition of the band’s instruments distinct, more important is the way each went with their subsequent output. And the case can be made it was In A Silent Way that Byrd referenced while recording Electric Byrd. Bitches Brew was released less than a month before Byrd recorded Electric Byrd, hardly enough time to have been an influence.
Much is made, especially by Miles himself, of the impact musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone had on Miles’ music of this period. Yet for a guy who was reputed to have fired band members for “practicing” between gigs, Miles’ music doesn’t really reflect the sound of a Sly Stone or James Brown number, just their attitude. Byrd on the other hand, actually plays the groove, rhythm and funk heard on Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Which, it should be noted, came out in 1971.
A quick look at “who played what instrument” on the two albums, Bitches Brew and Electric Byrd, make comparisons difficult to support. Byrd credits nine musicians, with one flute player appearing on a single song. Again, Duke Pearson on electric piano is the only electric sound. Though it could be argued that Airto, an artist appearing on many Miles recordings, brought a certain sensibility influenced by Miles. Yet it only takes a couple of minutes to get past the space-rock to find a funky jazz groove in “Estavancio”, Electric Byrd’s opening cut. Then along comes two flutes, reverb notwithstanding, to fully ground a jazz fan and later provide a Latin tinge. “Essence” plays with some of the Bitches Brew tropes, but without ever getting lost in them. The closer, “The Dude” speaks to what comes next in Byrd’s output.
The title cut of Bitches Brew has an entirely different sensibility. Nearly three times longer than “Estavancio”, “Bitches Brew” covers an extreme range of velocity and timing without ever finding a groove. Uncomfortable at times, the song glorifies an improvisational method that verges on cacophony as each musician blazes his own trail. Three electric pianos and a bass with McLaughlin again on electric guitar drive this crowd of thirteen. Oh yeah, and two drummers. The music on this album is magical, maddening, often incomprehensible and cannot be hummed. The biggest difference between these two pivotal albums is what happened next.
A variance in approach
Miles chased his electric bunny down a hole most people had a hard time fitting into. His next recording, Jack Johnson, remains a personal favorite and is a more listener-friendly effort likely for being a movie soundtrack. As for Live-Evil and On the Corner, 1972 and 1973 respectively, history has not been so kind. I listen to a lot of jazz with a lot of jazz enthusiasts far more sophisticated than me, and I cannot ever recall somebody playing either of these two albums, even during Miles music marathons. Frankly, these albums don’t sound so good today, just harsh. This was not music for the hoi polloi, an audience Miles sought, but instead suitable mostly for the jazz cognoscenti and die-hard fans.
In contrast, Byrd next released Ethiopian Knights, where groove and funk moved back into the forefront. The addition of Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land helping to move the dial back toward a more approachable jazz sound. In 1972 Byrd managed to find a sound that would drive his next musical phase with the release of Black Byrd. This album, panned in the community of traditionally minded jazz fans, went on to become for decades the biggest selling album in the Blue Note catalog. With help from the Mizell brothers, Byrd started playing a music everyone seemingly wanted to hear – except hardcore jazz-heads.
Interestingly, a look at the time demonstrates that the 1969 album In A Silent Way was also a likely influence for other terrific musicians like Freddie Hubbard and Carlos Santana. Hubbard’s 1970 Red Clay is widely considered one of his stand-out efforts and features Herbie Hancock on electric organ and Ron Carter on electric bass. Santana’s 1972 release Caravanserai is considered a turning point in his career, jazz sensibilities clearly on display. In 1973 Santana recorded an album with John McLaughlin (famous for his edgy work on Bitches Brew) called Love, Devotion, Surrender that couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the electric guitar McLaughlin played while with Miles.
Donald Byrd understood that it was incumbent upon musicians – whether jazz, rock, or pop – to create pathways to their music using every means possible. Miles made music for his muse, ultimately at the expense of many fans. As he stated on the cover of Bitches Brew, his was new “Directions in Music.” For Byrd, this period was about bringing future jazz enthusiasts into the club, with a kind of music that’s inclusive, not exclusive.
|It was a presentation Glass gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits.|
A recent rereading of his 2015 biography, Words Without Music: A Memoir, served up a reminder of the many ways in which Phillip Glass has had an outsized impact on my life. His music is, of course, fascinating and often very good. Though it really started with the movie Koyaanisqatsi which I had the good fortune to watch accompanied by a live orchestra playing the soundtrack, it was the discovery of the album Glassworks around the same time that kick-started a collection that has since grown substantially.
Personal favorites also include collaborations with Brian Eno and David Bowie, Low and Heroes, as well as the Concertos and other works conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, with the oddly titled Saxophone Quartet Concerto being quite engaging. However, despite the effort expended, his operas (like those of another favorite composer of both Glass and myself, Mozart) have just never found a place in my musical world.
The book describes in vivid detail what living in New York was like at a time when fine art and music were undergoing huge shifts in form and function. Phillip Glass worked to pay the bills as a studio assistant with artists like Richard Serra. Glass did some of the heavy lifting involved with creating some of Serra’s early molten metal works. The involvement of Glass within the New York dance scene of the 1970s was a surprise. His subsequent visibility and ultimately well-deserved respect and commercial success were hard earned and long in coming, with bills being paid by doing manual labor and driving a taxi instead of earning music royalties. An early interest in Buddhism and work with Tibetan refugees, set in motion passions that have endured throughout his life and career. Glass talks about his spirituality in an engaging manner that persuades without lecturing.
It was a presentation Phillip Glass gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits. Coming a few years after the (relative) success around 1976 of his first major opera, Einstein on the Beach, he was at the time of the lecture working on another major project, the opera Akhnaten, which would debut in 1984. His discussion of Akhenaten’s life and place in history stoked the fires of both my imagination and intellect. That his account turned out to be more fanciful than factual proved unimportant. The life and times of Akhenaten remain an enduring interest of mine.