|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.
As a founding member of the rock band YES, drummer Bill Bruford subsequently went on to a sophisticated engagement with straight ahead and several of its iterations through his evolving jazz group Earthworks. Yet on his way to becoming a jazzman, Bruford left YES, played with the band Genesis (as a friend of Phil Collins) and joined King Crimson (as a nemesis of Robert Fripp). He tells his story in Bill Bruford – The Autobiography, originally published in 2009. This marks Bruford as more of a musical flaneur than journeyman drummer.
|That a jazz player engages with a rock band is not surprising, but completely changing one’s skin is a different matter.|
That a jazz player engages with a rock band is not surprising. Sonny Rollins plays lyrically (and uncredited) with the Rolling Stones on Tattoo You and then there is Branford Marsalis’ extensive touring with Sting. Even a hootenanny is possible with Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson recording two successful albums together. Conversely, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea recording with Joshua Redman on Momentum shows the musical collaborations flow in both directions.
But completely changing one’s skin is a different matter. Though rockers like Peter White (collaborator with Al Stewart) and Craig Chaquiso (Jefferson Starship stalwart) both chose to pursue a different sound and enjoy influential smooth jazz careers. Even a rock legend, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, has been a leader on several jazz albums (most recently with the Danish Radio Big Band). Yet Bruford’s evolution as a jazz musician has a different feel to it. I recently played the two albums Close to the Edge (YES, 1972), and Random Acts of Happiness (Earthworks, 2004), back to back. Perhaps Bruford’s career doesn’t ever really bifurcate with rock and pop segregated from modern jazz?
The name Grachan Moncur III floats mostly unremarked through the music of post-bop jazz, not unlike his opening notes on the title cut of his second album as a leader, Some Other Stuff. Despite walk-on roles in biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter, and mentioned favorably in interviews with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean, Moncur remains mostly a shadow from the 1960’s even with his trombone and compositions appearing on the recordings of not just McLean and Shorter, but also Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Art Farmer.
Grachan Moncur III: The Beginning of an Evolution
Due to myriad problems both personal and professional, Grachan Moncur’s first and most satisfying album, Evolution from 1963, proved to be a high water mark. Until the new millennium, Moncur was only occasionally to be heard, and mostly on albums by artists such as Archie Shepp and Cassandra Wilson. While Moncur did have an important comeback with Exploration in 2004, featuring trumpeter Tom Hagans and reedman Gary Bartz, this album is hardly a simple reprise of his earlier success. Exploration requires a taste for the avant-garde and can be challenging for the casual listener. Which might also be said for much of Moncur’s music after Evolution. And just perhaps, is one of the reasons he has struggled to gain wider appreciation.
After high school, Grachan Moncur went on the road with the Ray Charles Big Band in 1959, a time he recalls fondly in later interviews. Leaving the band a couple of years later for health reasons, Moncur spent the next several months woodshedding and experimenting with other musicians. It was his friend, sax man Jackie McLean, who helped kick-start a journey of musical exploration still underway, Moncur now 79 years old. This turning point would be McLean’s 1963 Blue Note release One Step Beyond.