Archive for the Jazz Category

Free Jazz – A Collective Improvisation

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2022 by telescoper

In late 1960 the great saxophonist Ornette Coleman did a recording session with a stellar band of eight musicians: Coleman himself (alto sax); Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet); Freddie Hubbard and Don Cherry (trumpets); Charlie Haden and Scott Lafaro (both on bass); Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell (both on Drums). The octet thus formed is actually two quartets and these are presented one on each stereo channel.

What Ornette Coleman did with these musicians on that day was extraordinary, a piece of collective improvisation that lasted almost 40 minutes duration and which had never been attempted before on record. It’s not entirely improvised – there is a brief introduction and some pre-arranged polyphonic passages (some just an individual chord) between the soloists – but other than that the soloists were told to take turns playing whatever they liked while the rest of the band should accompany as they saw fit. The intervals between solos are largely dissonant which produces an interesting challenge for the soloists in deciding exactly how to start.

One aspect of this otherwise superb album that doesn’t work consistently for me is the inclusion of two drummers; tt least at the start they seem to get in each other’s way more than anything else but as the piece develops they seem to understand that a more subdued approach is needed and that makes it easier for the soloists as well as making the atmosphere looser and more relaxed. Listening to this track just now it struck me how much it is dominated by Ornette Coleman who directs the traffic as well as playing a terrific solo of his own in the middle.

This track was Free Jazz was originally released in two parts on a vinyl LP but it’s now available on CD in one track, along with the originally discarded first take. Not surprisingly given the nature of the piece, critics were divided, with some recognizing it as an important new development, and others hating it. This record is not exactly easy listening and when I first heard this about 40 years ago I didn’t get it at all, but now I think that for all its unevenness it’s a superb record. If you’ve got 40 minutes to spare you can now listen to it and make your own mind up!

R.I.P. Pharaoh Sanders (1940-2022)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on September 25, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I heard the sad news that yet another legendary jazz musician – the tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders – has passed away at the age of 81. As well as having one of the iconic beards of jazz, he had a unique and instantly recognizable style on tenor sax, heavily influenced by African and Asian music, sometimes involving raucous flurries of notes, sometimes overblowing, biting the reed or growling into the horn to achieve unusual effects, and sometimes playing with a contemplative lyricism evoking a deep sense of spirituality.

Pharaoh Sanders began his recording career in the 1960s with John Coltrane on the great albums Ascension and Meditation. His playing then was avant-garde free jazz somewhat reminiscent of Albert Ayler but with a strong influence of Coltrane whom he influenced in return. Later on he embraced wider influences, including electronic instruments, as exemplified by the album Thembi. Later he moved away from free jazz improvisation to more traditional approaches. His recorded output decreased from the end of the 1980s but he carried on touring extensively and still creating wonderful music.

I’ve had the great privilege to hear Pharaoh Sanders play live on a number of occasions and he was terrific every time. He played at the National Concert Hall in Dublin just a few years ago but I was unable to make it to the concert.

I’ve been listening to Pharaoh Sanders tracks all morning to remind myself what a great musician he was. Out of all the superb tracks I could have picked going back to the mid-60s I picked this one, from the 1987 album Africa which I think exemplifies his later style very well. The track is You’ve got to have freedom:

P.S. You might be interested to know that the drummer on this track, Idris Muhammed, also played the drums on Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill way back in 1956…

Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke: Singin’ the Blues

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , on September 4, 2022 by telescoper

 Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke became a jazz-age romantic legend not only by playing brilliant cornet but also by drinking too much bad prohibition liquor resulting his premature death in 1931, at the age of only 28. His short life was punctuated by episodes of very bad health caused by chronic alcoholism in an era when the only booze that was available was bathtub gin or rotgut whisky. Despite all his problems, Bix still gave us some of the greatest ever jazz records.

Although he was of middle-class white origins, Bix’s playing was deeply admired by leading black musicians of the day notably the great Louis Armstrong. Some years ago I listened to a radio play called Bix: Singing the Blues which is a fictional account of the only occasion in which Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong played together, in a private, after-hours session. Given the description of that as “fictional” I assumed that Bix and Satchmo didn’t know each other well. Recently, however, I came across a recording of Louis Armstrong talking about Bix Beiderbecke that shows I was wrong:

(There is one little bit of confusion in the discussion: Bix wasn’t 31 when he died: he died in 1931, at the age of 28. )

So how good was Bix? Well, make your own mind up. Here is his classic version of Singing the Blues, with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra in 1927, a three minute track in which Bix’s stunning solo starts a minute in and lasts a minute.

Jazz being largely improvised music, it is often a bit rough around the edges; even the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens have their share of duff notes. Bix’s solo on this record with that beautiful ringing, bell-like tone, and effortless swing at what is quite a slow tempo, is as close to perfection as you’ll ever find.

But you don’t need to take my word for it.

During his heyday in the1920s Louis Armstrong played virtually every popular tune that was put in front of him, including many songs that seemed unpromising from a jazz perspective, and in the process turned any amount of base metal into solid gold. Singin’ the Blues was a smash hit, but Louis Armstrong refused to play it. When asked why he replied that he didn’t think he could play it as well as Bix. There is no higher praise.

Dizzy on the French Riviera

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on July 18, 2022 by telescoper

Today’s high temperatures provide me with an excuse to post my favourite hot-weather music, the 1962 album Dizzy on the French Riviera. Can this really have been recorded 60 years ago?

Anyway, the album features the great Dizzy Gillespie Quintet of that time which was heavily influenced by Latin American sounds and had Argentinian Lalo Schifrin on piano, a man best known as a prolific composer of film and TV scores. The band also featured Leo Wright, a very under-rated saxophonist and flautist, and is augmented on some of the tracks by various percussionists. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve listened to the happy seaside sounds of children playing leading into to the opening track No More Blues

John McLaughlin

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on June 12, 2022 by telescoper

It’s Sunday and I’ve just finished work for the day. Too tired to write anything substantial I thought I’d share a track featuring and named after the guitarist I went to see at the National Concert Hall a few weeks ago. John McLaughlin is the 4th track on the Miles Davis (double) album Bitches Brew. It doesn’t feature Miles Davis on trumpet nor Wayne Shorter on saxophone but does involve the electric pianos of Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, the bass of Dave Holland, the drums of Lenny White and Jack de Johnette, other percussion by Don Alias and Juma Santos and Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet; the latter addition to the ensemble being a stroke of genius by Miles Davis. I know quite a lot of fans of Miles Davis don’t like this album at all, finding it all a bit perplexing but I don’t mind music that’s a bit perplexing and I think it’s great. Most of the tracks are very long but this one is only four and a half minutes or so in duration, built around a simple riff laid over a loose and very dynamic rhythmic accompaniment. Like the other numbers, it’s almost entirely improvised.

Jubilee Stomp – Duke Ellington

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on June 5, 2022 by telescoper

As my only contribution to the ongoing Platinum Jubilee celebrations, here’s a classic record that’s almost as old as Queen Elizabeth II and is by a prominent member of the Jazz nobility, the Duke of Ellington.

As far as I know this is the first recording of Jubilee Stomp, made in early 1928, though the band made several other versions. At the time this one was made, Duke Ellington’s Orchestra had just started as the house band at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem which soon established the venue as the hottest nightspot in New York. That almost didn’t happen: the residency was initially offered to King Oliver, but he wanted too much money and so it passed to the second choice, Duke Ellington. The rest, as they say, his history.

Anyway, this is a digitally remastered version of the original Okeh recording, which brings out the best of the Ellington Band of that time, especially the great Wellman Braud who introduced the style of walking bass that quickly established itself as a mainstay of every rhythm section.

This version of Ellington’s Orchestra was actually only a ten-piece band, but it was packed with great soloists and you’ll hear superb growl trumpet from James “Bubber” Miley, clarinet from Barney Bigard, and trombone from Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, among others. There’s also a nice example of the piano style of the young Duke Ellington himself. Enjoy!

John McLaughlin & The Fourth Dimension

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on May 27, 2022 by telescoper
John McLaughlin last night (Picture Credit National Concert Hall)

Last night I went to the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a superb gig by guitarist John McLaughlin with his band The Fourth Dimension. This was the first time I’d seen him live though I have known some of his music on disc, especially two albums he made with Miles Davis in the late Sixties, Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way. Since then John McLaughlin has been consistently regarded as one of the best jazz guitarists ever. He is now eighty years old but apart from the fact that his hair is white you would never guess that. He looks as fit as a fiddle, and last the band played for over 90 minutes without a break.

John McLaughlin (who was born in Doncaster but who referred to Ireland as “the land of my ancestors”) is currently on a European tour and he began his concert last night with a heartfelt expression of his gratitude for being able to perform in person with his band after a gap of over two years. This period has been particularly difficult for Jazz musicians who depend so much on mutual interaction when performing. The first number they played was called Lockdown Blues

The band The 4th Dimension brings together excellent musicians from different cultures and musical traditions, integrating their all cultural influences in a unique way while at the same time preserving the spontaneity of jazz. The result is hard to classify – there’s definitely more than an echo of McLaughlin’s earlier musical work in jazz/rock fusion, but with diverse elements of world music thrown in. His own musical style is instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard music from his back catalogue, but subtly altered to suit his current band.

Gary Husband (right in the picture), who is from the UK, played keyboards (and drums on a couple of numbers). Ranjit Barot – Indian by birth and living in Mumbai – was the main drummer (sometimes playing together with Husband, hence the two kits in the picture); he also made various vocal contributions. On electric bass (left) was the extraordinarily virtuosic Étienne M’Bappé who is of Senegalese origins. The band played collectively but also in various combinations with and without McLaughlin, who tended to move around the stage generally encouraging and directing the traffic.

It was a fantastic gig with a wide range of musical influences being evidence. I noticed two pieces made famous by Pharaoh Sanders – The Creator has a Master Plan and The Light at the Edge of the World – but there were also numerous references to McLaughlin’s work with Indian musicians.

It was a very enjoyable performance that generated a huge response from the audience. The NCH wasn’t quite full, but it was a good crowd. I think I was in danger of forgetting how much I enjoy watching musicians as well as listening to their music.

So after a break since February 2020 I’ve finally resumed concert-going. It’s not only the musicians who have missed live music! As a matter of fact I’ll be back at the National Concert Hall this very evening after the final day of ITP2022, for a very different concert…

Ah Um! 100 Years of Mingus

Posted in Jazz with tags , on April 22, 2022 by telescoper

I discovered this morning that the great bass player, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus was born one hundred years ago today (on April 22nd 1922 in Nogales, Arizona). That gives me a great excuse to end the week by posting some music by him. The 1959 album Mingus Ah Um is one of my favourite albums not only in jazz but in any musical genre, and I think it’s a must-have for anyone interested in “modern” (i.e. post-War) jazz, so that’s what I’ve picked.

There are many great things about this album but probably the greatest of them is the extraordinary blend of thematic material and musical styles in represents. It would take a very long essay or even a book to pay appropriate homage to the kaleidoscopic variety of the shifting patterns and textures Mingus creates from ensemble and solo passages. Mingus’s compositional techniques allowed his musicians a remarkable freedom to express themselves which, together with the constant rhythmic and melodic variation, inspires them to great heights of inventiveness. Jimmy Knepper’s trombone solo on Pussy Cat Dues is really superb, as is the long sax solo on Goodbye, Porkpie Hat (a eulogy for Lester Young) which is usually attributed to Booker Ervin but I think is actually played by John Handy. Mingus himself introduces the first number Better git it in your soul, a wonderfully riotous Gospel-inspired creation, that explodes into life after his opening statements on bass.

There are not many albums that comprise traditional elements such as swing riffs, bop lines, and Gospel inflections alongside avant garde ideas like the intro and coda to Bird Calls, which sound like premonitions of the free jazz of Albert Ayler and others. A number of fine jazz composers inherited the legacy of Jelly Roll Morton (to whom Mingus doffs his cap in the last track) and Duke Ellington, including Gil Evans and Tadd Dameron, but in my view none was finer than Mingus.

Here is the whole album. Listen to the first track, and if you’re not hooked you can have your money back.

The Old Rugged Cross – George Lewis

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , on April 15, 2022 by telescoper

A descendant of Senegalese slaves, George Lewis was born in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1900 where he learned to play the clarinet and started to play with jazz bands in the 1920s. Many musicians left New Orleans for Chicago during that period but Lewis stayed and lived on in relatively obscurity until the New Orleans “revival” began in the 1940s. After appearing on records with likes of Bunk Johnson, Lewis became a sort of Patron Saint of traditional jazz, with a style rooted in the home-town traditions of Gospel Music and Street Parades that was very different from that of the popular clarinetists of the Swing Era such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Lewis was never a great player from a technical point of view, but he was an authentic emblem of early Jazz and the back-to-basics move he represented proved very popular especially in Western Europe and Lewis had a late renaissance in his career in which he travelled widely playing with “traditional” bands around the world during the height of the “trad” boom of the fifties and sixties. He died in 1968.

Anyway, because it’s Good Friday I thought I would post this video of him in his later years playing the hymn The Old Rugged Cross, which was written in 1912 and has been a staple of New Orleans funeral processions ever since:

Blues Yesterday – Art Hodes

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on March 22, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve long been a fan of Art Hodes, a brilliant jazz and blues pianist, whose self-taught style reminds me quite a lot of Thelonious Monk, although Monk was a modernist and Hodes a traditionalist. It was only tonight however that I was reminded that he was actually born in Mykolaiv (Ukraine), in 1904, although he moved to America when he was only a few months old. He’s probably best remembered for some of the great early records of the Blue Note label, including some with Sidney Bechet, made in New York in the late 30s and early 40s, but he spent much of his later life playing and recording and living in and around Chicago. He died in 1993.

Anyway, here’s a record that wasn’t released until 1994, after his death, which is typical of his relaxed yet slightly quirky take on the blues and which I couldn’t resist sharing today because of the Ukrainian connection.