Archive for Jazz

R.I.P. Gary Peacock (1935-2020)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on September 8, 2020 by telescoper

I heard on Saturday via social media that the great bass player Gary Peacock had passed away on 4th September, only to see other posts claiming that the rumours of his death were a hoax. I was relieved about that but then it turns out that the hoax reports were themselves a hoax and Gary Peacock had indeed died. He was 85 years old.

Gary Peacock is probably best known for his work with the likes of Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Jack DeJohnette but as a tribute I thought I would post an example of his earlier work with Albert Ayler. I think the album Spiritual Unity with Gary Peacock on bass and Sonny Murray on drums is one of the highlights of 1960s free jazz.

This tune, the shorter of two versions on Spiritual Unity of an original composition by Albert Ayler called Ghosts, is a great example how he could make coherent what at first hearing sounds like disassociated bursts of sound. It involves remarkable improvised melodies based on short thematic lines designed to evoke unsophisticated  folk music or nursery tunes. It may sound primitive on the surface, but it’s very complex underneath and creating this extraordinary sound world clearly required great technical mastery from Ayler and his supporting musicians, especially Gary Peacock, who plays wonderfully on this track.

Rest in peace, Gary Peacock (1935-2020)

 

Bird 100: Kim

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on August 29, 2020 by telescoper

Still going with posts to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Charlie Parker, aka Bird, a musical genius on the saxophone whose influence not only on jazz but on twentieth century music is incalculable. I’ve posted quite a few tracks by Bird over the years and one thing I’ve learned from doing that is that he’s by no means everyone’s cup of tea. I can’t do anything about that, of course, but I can at least point out the existence of his wonderful legacy to those (regrettably many) people who’ve never heard of him or his music I still remember the mixture of astonishment and exhilaration I felt when I first heard him on record and if I can give that sense of joy to just one person via the blogosphere then it’s worth a hundred posts.

Here’s Kim, another one of Bird’s tunes based on the rhythm changes, with an alto sax solo improvised at breakneck speed and with incredible virtuosity. The other day I was talking to a friend of mine who only has a passing interest in jazz and he asked me whether Charlie Parker really was that good. Well, if you’re asking that question to yourself, listen to this and then you’ll have the answer. As far as I’m concerned this is three minutes of pure awesome….

Bird 100: Bloomdido

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 29, 2020 by telescoper

Here is another bit of music to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great saxophonist Charlie Parker (“Bird”) on 29th August 1920.

bird

I’ve written quite a few posts relating to Charlie Parker over the years but today has provided a good excuse to spend my lunchtime writing another one, this time featuring one of my favourite tracks from one of my favourite albums. First released in 1952 but in fact recorded in two separate sessions in 1949 and 1950, the album Bird and Diz was actually the last studio album made under the joint leadership of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the two main architects of the bebop revolution; the track I’ve picked has the added advantage of featuring another great musical genius on piano, Thelonious Monk.

The Charlie Parker composition Bloomdido is yet another of his variations on the blues, though this one is a bit less intricate than some of the others he wrote. Here are the chords for Bloomdido:

Bloomdido

You can see that the progression is based around the standard three chords of a blues in B♭. The foundation is a “tonic” chord (T) based on the root note of whatever key it’s played in, in this case B♭. This sometimes a basic triad consisting of the first, third and five notes of a major scale starting on that note or, as in this example, including the dominant 7th so it’s B♭7. The next chord is the subdominant chord (S), shifting things up by a perfect fourth relative to the tonic, in this case an E♭7 and then finally we have the dominant (D) which brings us up by a fifth from the original root note, in this case F7.

The basic blues sequence in B♭ would be four bars of B♭7 (T), two of E♭7 (S), back to B♭7 (T) for two, then the characteristic bluesy cadence returning to two bars of B♭7 (T) via one bar each of F7 (D) and E♭7 (S). The sequence for Bloomdido has a few alterations, including a characteristic turnaround at the end, but is otherwise fairly recognizable. I guess the first part of the title is a play on the blues origin too, though I wonder if the second part suggests that some of the alterations are inspired by the A-section of the Juan Tizol standard Perdido?

Some people tell me they find Charlie Parker’s music “too technical” and that somehow if music “needs to be explained” it’s not good music. I don’t understand that attitude at all. I find this music so fascinating and exciting to listen to that I want to try to dig a little bit into it and find out what’s going underneath the surface. It’s particularly striking what a difference a few substitutions and passing chords can make to the overall harmonic “feel” of a piece like this compared to a standard blues sequence, for example. But you don’t need to study the chords to appreciate the sheer beauty of the music that Charlie Parker built on these harmonic foundations; his solo on this track, as on so many others he recorded in his short life, is just sublime even if you don’t realise how hard it is to play! I guess it all depends whether your way of enjoying a thing is to sit back and let it wash over you, or for it to inspire you to find out more. Many of the physicists I know are deeply interested in music. Perhaps that’s because they’re the sort of people who don’t just think “wow that’s beautiful”, they tend to think “wow that’s beautiful – how does it work?”.

Charlie Parker and Albert Einstein died in the same year, just over a month apart, the former in March 1955 and the latter in April. They were two very different geniuses but it’s as difficult to imagine physics without Einstein as jazz without Bird.

Bird 100: The Quintet at Massey Hall

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2020 by telescoper

For my next piece in celebration of the centenary of the birth of Charlie Parker I thought I’d pick a classic live performance from May 15th 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto. Originally released as a vinyl LP with only 6 tracks on it, and called The Quintet of the Year, but subsequently re-released in various versions on CD, with various titles including Jazz at Massey Hall. The whole concert is available on Youtube here:

This concert was planned to unite the greatest stars of the bebop era who had performed together earlier in their careers but had gradually evolved different styles over the intervening years. The line-up is Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and the great Max Roach on drums which is stellar by any criterion!

Gatherings of star jazz players have often turned out to be disappointing, largely because very great musicians can sometimes interfere negatively rather than positively with each other, not necessarily consciously but because they can have ideas incompatible with one another. This evening, however, was a glorious exception to this rule, doubtless because all the musicians had worked together in the past, and their subsequent individual development had not taken them too far beyond their shared musical background. It is true that the ensemble passages are slight, but that doesn’t matter much because the solos are of such a remarkable and consistently high standard. Charlie Parker turns in some of the very best of his later recorded work, giving the lie to those who argue that his musical abilities were in decline at this time. He might not play as elegantly as he did on the classic Dial and Savoy sessions, but he is significantly more adventurous, with startling melodic contrasts in much of his work. At times this is a bit of a problem in that he seems to full of ideas that what comes out is a sequence of breathtaking fragments rather than a cohesive solo. This happens on A Night in Tunisia, for example, which never quite fulfills the promise of its magnificent opening break. On other tracks, though, especially Hot House his improvisations are just brilliant. It’s hard to imagine listening to this that in less than two years he would be dead.

Dizzy Gillespie matches Parker in superb fashion, betraying none of the offhandedness that often afflicted his later recorded performances, and the pyrotechnical quality of his playing is as exhilarating as it is instantly recognizable. Gillespie was an extrovert on stage and his frequent dancing around on the stage results in him going on and off mike from time to time, but it doesn’t detract from the performance once you realize why he’s fading in and out. It is, after all, a live performance and if you shut your eyes you can imagine Dizzy Gillespie the showman without any difficulty at all!

Most Jazz reviewers confine their comments on the rhythm section to a few kind words, but in this case that would be a travesty. The limitations of live recording technology in 1953 result in a rather unbalanced mix, but the flip side of that is that you can hear particularly well the pivotal importance of the bass playing of Charles Mingus. Between them Mingus and Max Roach lay down a relentlessly propulsive beat as well as taking gripping solos; the drum workouts in Wee and Salt Peanuts are astonishing in their interplay of rhythm and texture. Trumping even them, however, is the genius of Bud Powell who plays at a level consistently high even by his own standards.

Bud Powell is a fascinating musician for many reasons. Much less of a formalist than many Jazz pianists he nevertheless seems to generate a real sense of unity, more through the emotional drive underpinning his phrases than by imposing any set structure on his improvisations. His solo on Wee offers a fine example of this: moving inexorably towards a shattering climax as the right hand figures vary ceaselessly in their length and the chords punched out by the left hand grow more frequent and more percussive.

This album is another must-have for any serious collector of post-War jazz. The individual parts are all superb, but the whole is even greater than their sum.

PS. I had the pleasure of attending a concert at Massey Hall myself, when I was on sabbatical in Toronto in 2005/6.

But Beautiful – Tony Bennett & Bill Evans

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on August 4, 2020 by telescoper

I’m kicking myself for having forgotten that yesterday, August 3rd, was the 94th birthday of that great jazz singer Tony Bennett so I’m correcting that omission today by posting one of my favourite recordings of his, a tune written by the famous songwriting pair of Johnny Burke and Jimmy van Heusen, recorded in 1975 with Bill Evans on piano. When one of the greatest ever jazz singers gets together with one of the greatest ever jazz pianists, what could the result be But Beautiful?

Happy Birthday, Tony Bennett!

Jordu

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on July 30, 2020 by telescoper

Now for one of those jazz posts that people don’t seem to like and which will no doubt reduce today’s blog traffic even further. This is a very nice version of a tune called Jordu which was written by pianist Irving “Duke” Jordan in 1953 and which became part of the standard jazz repertoire after a wonderful version was recorded by Clifford Brown and Max Roach in 1954. It’s not hard to figure out where the title comes from. The version I’ve picked is much later, and features a trio with the great Ed Thigpen on drums and Mads Vinding.

Duke Jordan began his recording career with the brilliant Dial sessions with Charlie Parker in 1947 and he carried on making great music after he moved to Denmark in the 1970s until his death in 2006. The Steeplechase label on which this record was released is actually based in Copenhagen too. He is buried in Vestre Kirkegard in Copenhagen. He was in my opinion one of the most consistently underrated pianists of his era.

When I was younger I used to try to figure out by ear the chord changes in Jazz standards. Nowadays you can find cheat sheets all over the internet, which rather takes the fun out of it. This tune is a particularly interesting challenge to unravel as well as to perform  but if I ever got a band together we would definitely (try to) play it!

Jordu is in a standard AABA form. The A sections are constructed from dominant chords in a pattern based on the ii-V-I progression which is very common in jazz. The variation introduced here is to use a major II instead of a minor ii and add a dominant 7th to the basic triad, which makes a much richer sound. The eight bars of the A section are divided into four pairs, the first of which finds the theme played without backing chords or rhythm accompaniment, the second having the backing instruments accent beats 1, 3 and 4. The first sequence is a II/V/I in C minor, using a D7 instead of a minor ii chord. Then it’s a similar sequence in in Eb major (F7/Bb7/EbMaj7). After a repeat of the first II/V/I, the A sections ends with Ab7 – G7 (bVII7 – V7). Every chord but one in the entire section is a dominant 7th.

Since the A section ends in an unresolved way on the V chord (G7), a device used quite a lot in music stylistically based in the bebop era, Duke Jordan devised  a two-bar coda to be played at the end of a performance that resolves to the tonic (Cm), bringing everything gently back to Earth to finish.

The B section is based on the Circle of Fourths, another standard jazz device but still a challenging pattern to improvise on. If you want to learn to play jazz most tutors will have you practicing a lot on the Circle of Fifths (clockwise) and Circle of Fourths (anticlockwise) trips around this diagram showing all the major and minor keys:

Anyway, you don’t have to know anything about the harmonic structure of this piece to enjoy this lovely playing. Duke Jordan’s solo finds him completely at home in this tune, and why shouldn’t he? He wrote it!

Remembering Johnny Hodges – Jeep’s Blues (Live at Newport, 1956)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 11, 2020 by telescoper

The great alto saxophonist and long-term mainstay of the Duke Ellington Orchestra Johnny Hodges passed away 50 years ago today, on 11th May 1970.

Here’s the piece that was his signature tune, Jeep’s Blues – played during a very famous live concert by the Ellington band at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956.

Feast your ears on that huge soulful sound that was perfect for playing the blues!

Bright Mississippi – Allen Toussaint

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on May 7, 2020 by telescoper

I have, on a few occasions posted pieces of Jazz that cross over different eras and here’s a wonderful example that has been in my head for a while. Bright Mississippi is a typically quirky composition by Thelonious Monk, a man often described as the ‘High Priest of Bop’. This version in a live performance by a band led in 2009 by Allen Toussaint, however, gives it a joyously carefree New Orleans treatment.

R.I.P. Henry Grimes (1935-2020)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on April 19, 2020 by telescoper

The Coronavirus continues to cut a swathe through a generation of great Jazz musicians. The latest sad news is of the passing of bass player Henry Grimes at the age of 84.

Henry Grimes was very active in the 50s and 60s, playing with such luminaries as Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk, and appearing on some classic recordings, but he dropped out of the music scene as a performer for roughly thirty years from about 1970 during which time he was virtually destitute. He returned to music around 2002 after a Jazz fan tracked him down and bought him a double bass to play – he had sold his instrument decades earlier – and remained active until his death.

When I heard last night of the death of Henry Grimes the first thing that popped into my mind was this sequence from the movie Jazz On A Summer’s Day. You can see shot of the young Henry Grimes right at the beginning in this clip of the Thelonious Monk trio playing Blue Monk at the Newport JJazz Festival in 1958; Roy Haynes was the drummer.

Rest in peace, Henry Grimes (1935-2020)

R. I. P. Lee Konitz (1927-2020)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on April 16, 2020 by telescoper

My word this Covid-19 pandemic is having a terrible effect on the Jazz world. I heard this evening that it has now taken from us the great alto saxophonist Lee Konitz at the age of 92 after a career lasting 75 years.

I can’t possibly do justice here to the memory of such a legend but at least I can post one of my favourite tracks of his, a live performance from the 1950s of a tune called Ablution. If Lee Konitz hadn’t announced it at the start the comping of pianist Ronnie Ball would have told you straight away that this is a contrafact built on the chords of the famous Jerome Kern tune All The Things You Are, the unusual chords of which have made it a popular vehicle for jazz musicians to improvise on ever since it was written back in 1939.

In the bebop era it was typical practice to base original compositions on top of the chord sequences of standard tunes in such a way as to hide their foundations from the casual listener. A famous example of this was the Charlie Parker – Dizzy Gillespie session in which they decided to play a variation on the standard Cherokee. It went well until they absent-mindedly played the actual theme of Cherokee at which point there was a cry of anguish from the control room from a producer who had obviously hoped that if they stayed off the original melody he wouldn’t have to pay composer’s royalties. So off they went again called the next take Ko Ko and created one of the Charlie Parker classics.

Although Lee Konitz had a tone much more reminiscent of Paul Desmond than Charlie Parker he had a wonderfully agile and inventive way of playing that had echoes of Bird at the same time as being definitely his own style, as I hope you will agree after listening to this!

Here are just two classic albums that Lee Konitz played on relatively early in his career, if you want to check them out

R.I.P. Lee Konitz (1927-2020)