Archive for April, 2007

When New York hard bop met West Coast cool

April 25, 2007

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley: Somethin’ Else

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Bassist, composer and bandleader Oscar Pettiford was not what you’d call a people person. In fact, he was known for his temper and personnel problems throughout his brief career. So on that fateful night in 1957 at Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village when the sax player was late and a high school band teacher from Fort Lauderdale found himself up on the stage ready to fill in, Pettiford counted off I Remember April at a breakneck tempo, probably figuring he would send the country boy packing.

But this high school band teacher was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, brother of cornetist Nat Adderley and a firm believer in the Charlie Parker school of thought that there was no such thing as too fast. As jazz historian Leonard Feather puts it in the liner notes, Cannonball “met the challenge with a long solo that just about knocked Pettiford off the stand.” Two days later, he was working full time with the band. Soon after that, he signed with the Savoy label.

Miles Davis regularly attended the band’s performances at the Café Bohemia. “Everybody knew right away that [Cannonball] was one of the best players around,” Davis said in his autobiography, Miles. He and Cannonball went on to play and record together. The 1958 album Somethin’ Else shows what a true collaboration it was—Cannonball was the bandleader, but he and Miles trade solos equally. In fact, when I first heard the disk, I thought it was a collection of Miles Davis repackaged under Cannonball’s name.

Also interesting is how well Cannonball’s hard bop approach and Davis’ cool sound mesh. As a major fan of hard bop’s energy and sharp corners, I can definitely hear the restraint in this album. There are none of the high-speed fireworks that made Cannonball an instant sensation that night at Café Bohemia. But there is amazing, beautiful music, created by two groundbreaking artists.

There is also a palpable sense of time and place, particularly on Davis’ Somethin’ Else and on Alison’s Uncle, a bonus track that didn’t appear on the original album. Close your eyes and you’re in a New York jazz club, probably in some cellar in the Village. The men all sport narrow-brimmed fedoras and Buddy Holly glasses. The women, off-the-shoulder cocktail dresses and Mamie Eisenhower bangs. Everyone is laughing and drinking and smoking, and it’s all in black and white. Yeah.

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The kitchen boombox goes out

April 18, 2007

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Last week I wrote about my favorite avant garde jazz group, The Vandermark 5. This past weekend, they played at the Green Mill. Even though they’re based in Chicago, they rarely play anywhere locally these days, and here they were playing my favorite jazz venue in the city. I of course went.

The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge sits squarely in the heart of Chicago’s Uptown, on Broadway at Lawrence. Both the bar and the neighborhood have seen their share of ups and downs. Now, both are on the upswing again but stubbornly maintain just the right amount of seediness. Probably the neighborhood more so than the Green Mill, to be honest. But despite owner Dave Jemilo’s best upgrading efforts, the place has a welcoming scruffiness to it.

The place has been a bar for about a century now, but it hit its stride as a jazz club as a Depression-era speakeasy. Notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone frequented the place, and one of the partners allegedly helped orchestrate the Valentine’s Day Massacre in a southside garage. A door in the floor behind the bar now leads down to a beer cooler. During Prohibition days, it led to a tunnel that would deposit guests on the sidewalk some distance from the bar in case of raids.

All cool, interesting history, but what keeps me coming back is the music, seven nights a week. Weekends are usually for national acts—or local performers of national stature, like The Vandermark 5. Local [but internationally renowned] vocalists Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling have standing gigs Mondays and Wednesdays respectively when they’re not touring. I’m generally not big on jazz vocalists, but Kurt Elling is amazing—singers are sometimes described as using their voices as musical instruments. He is one of the few I’ve heard who live up to that description. And at the Green Mill, you can catch all three sets of this magic for seven bucks.

Tuesday nights feature the Deep Blue Organ Trio—after falling out of favor for a while, the Hammond B3 has made a huge comeback, and this group makes good use of it. Thursdays, the Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra transports the audience [complete with enthusiastic dancers] back to the big band swing era. Fun music, but with a slightly self-conscious earnestness to it all, not unlike Civil War re-enacters. Sunday nights, music starts late as the Green Mill hosts the Uptown Poetry Slam, run by the originator of poetry slams, Marc Smith. Haven’t made it there for that yet, but everyone who does loves it.

Going to the Green Mill. A few tips for visiting this must-see club for jazz fans. First, bring cash or an American Express card, the only forms of currency accepted there. Second, get there for the first set. For some reason, the place fills up later with hipsters who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the music, but just want to make the scene—loudly. Then they get indignant when the door guy and the owner shush them. Still, their cover charges and drinks help keep the doors open, so I just tolerate them for the most part. And if you sit anywhere but way down front, assume that at some point, people will be standing in front of you and you won’t see the band. For that reason, I generally choose to stand.

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But most of all, go. Friday night, Ken Vandermark smiled as he talked to the audience from the bandstand about playing there. He called it the best jazz gig in Chicago. He was right.

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No sleepy time music here

April 11, 2007

The Vandermark 5: Burn the Incline

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I woke up in the middle of the night last Friday and couldn’t get back to sleep. My wife Marion and I had been to some gallery openings that evening, catching up with old friends, meeting some interesting new ones and seeing some really great local art. All of which stirred lots of ideas in the middle of the night.

Finally, I gave in and got up and poured myself a glass of wine. Rather than sit at the computer or turn on the TV, I sat in the dark in our new living room and popped this disk into my Discman. Big mistake.

From the first notes, it was clear that this was not the music to lull me back to sleep. Ken Vandermark is the MacArthur Fellowship-winning local jazz reed player and composer. He collaborates with musicians from around the world in a wide range of settings and styles, but to my ear, The Vandermark 5 is the most exciting.

Burn the Incline, a 2000 release, is a prime example. As Amazon.com’s Tad Hendrickson puts it, it features “a smart mix of noirish balladry, intense freetime improvisation, and snappy bop charts, but the quintet’s smart playing always manages to avoid giving listeners whiplash.” For me, while it doesn’t give you whiplash, it constantly makes twists and turns to keep you actively listening, waiting to see how a sudden curve of a solo will resolve back into the structure of the piece.

And it does it while staying solidly in the jazz genre. I find myself listening to a lot of improvisational and avant garde music these days. Some of it can go pretty darned abstract on you.

If you’re into free jazz—or if you want to stretch your ear a little—Burn the Incline is a great album to do it. Exciting and challenging, but accessible. Just don’t listen to it before bedtime.

 

Exploring ‘Your Brain on Music’—With all the shiny things it offers, the Internet has made magpies of all of us. Among the best is my friend Carolyn in St. Louis. She’s often sending me sparkly little links to catch my attention. Like this one, a link to an interview she heard on NPR.

In his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, author Daniel Levitin writes about how the brain responds to sound. He says that our brains are prediction factories. Our neurons and synapses race ahead to predict what will happen next and plan for action we should take in response. Levitin said that people like music because it is predictable—up to a point. If it’s too predictable, we get bored. In the interview, he compares rapper Ludacris to Frank Sinatra in their ability to manipulate time, singing things a little early or a little late, stretching out words to play with the tempo. This unpredictability challenges our brains and keeps us engaged.

An interesting interview—give it a listen. Thanks, Carolyn.

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Miles Davis—a definite first choice

April 4, 2007

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

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An important moment of every move I’ve made as an adult is setting up the stereo in the new place. There’s just something about doing this that makes the place feel like home to me. So Sunday night, after we’d spent a bone-wearying weekend of hauling things around, unpacking and organizing, I assembled the low shelving unit where the stereo lives and put it together. Miles of tangled wires and cables were involved, as were equally long strings of expletives—the kitchen isn’t the only thing that is sometimes blue in our household.

But finally it was done. And it was time to pick the first piece of music to play on it in the new place.

We own a lot of Miles Davis, perhaps more than any other single musician. This surprises me, thinking of it now, because I can go for long stretches without listening to Miles or even thinking of him. But during the move, an old cassette of his music made it into the car. I mentioned recently [and will again, I’m sure] how much Chicago commercial radio sucks. And on the weekends, even my semi-reliable college stations head south. Since a good chunk of the weekend was spent in the car running errands, the cassette got a lot of play and reminded me of why we have so much Miles. So when I needed that important first piece of music to play in the new apartment on a rainy Sunday night, I knew where to turn.

First released in 1959, Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time. It is also a watershed moment in jazz. Miles had begun experimenting with “modal” jazz—in which musicians are given a scale or series of scales [or modes] to improvise from, instead of chords—with his tune Milestones in 1958. But this was the first album to totally embrace this approach. Since we’ve all heard so much jazz influenced by this album, it’s hard to understand how revolutionary it was. But it fundamentally changed jazz.

And what a stellar line-up. Miles on trumpet, John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on saxophones, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

The first track on Kind of Blue, Miles’ So What, opens with Evans’ solo piano sounding at first like it’s going to take an introspective, contemplative turn. But within a few notes, it’s already signaling the energy that will keep propelling the music forward, keep it building, leaning into what comes next.

With all its popularity, there have been many reissues of this disk. This 1997 release is the one to look for. It was remastered on an all-tube three-track machine that restores the rich, full sound of the recording sessions. Other CDs—and apparently even some of the vinyl releases—have had a tinny sound.

On a recent rainy Sunday night in Chicago, that rich, full sound filled our new apartment beautifully.

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