Archive for March, 2008

Big band giant thinks small, plays big.

March 26, 2008


Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Writing about a Duke Ellington big band album a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned an album I’d discovered in the process, a collaboration with John Coltrane. At the time, I said I thought I’d be buying it soon. Turns out I was right.

Ellington’s name being synonymous with big band, the mere existence of this album stripped down to a quartet setting—piano, sax, bass and drums—was a surprise to me. This despite the fact that I’d heard the opening track countless times, perhaps the most beautiful recording of Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood ever made. I guess I just hadn’t ever stuck around to hear whatever radio DJ read the credits. But according to noted jazz writer A.B. Spellman, late in his life, Ellington started “having collaborations with some of the other musicians who were of his stature, particularly some of the modernists.”

interstellar_space_sm.jpgAnd Coltrane was arguably the quintessential modernist. Even though he died in 1967, there is music of his I would hold up against the most out there avant garde saxophone being played today. The adventurous—even savage—all out blowing on Interstellar Space, for instance. But he was also capable of heartachingly beautiful lyricism, and Ellington brings it out in this fine album. Coltrane himself said of the recording date, “I’d really like to get into all Duke’s songs. I’ve a feeling there’s a lot to find out in his music. He has covered so much ground, and if you could work at it you maybe could really relate to it in five years or so.”

For the 1962 recording date, Ellington and Coltrane each brought their own rhythm sections. Bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Sam Woodyard for Ellington, bassist Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones on drums for Coltrane. Accomplished musicians all, they swapped out rhythm duties from track to track. More finely tuned jazz ears than mine can and have pointed out differences in their playing on the album. For me, the bigger marvel is just how seamless it all sounds.

And the sound? The best of straightahead jazz, tinged with the understanding and love of blues both giants had. Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is a mix of jumping uptempo tunes and stellar ballads. My only serious complaint is it’s over too soon, clocking in at just under 40 minutes.

The saxophone is such a dominant instrument—and Coltrane such a dominant sax player—that it’s easy to overlook Ellington’s contributions on this album. Especially when it’s on the kitchen boombox and you’re busy slicing/stirring/measuring/mixing. And throughout much of the music, Ellington is happy to remain in the background, giving Coltrane his head. His role is more that of composer and instigator. Five of the seven tracks are Ellington compositions, in fact, including a tune written specifically for the session, Take the Coltrane [as one writer said, “get it?”]. One of the two remaining tunes is by longtime Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, the other by Coltrane.

But active listening yields beautifully spare, modern solos by Ellington. And his playing in support of Coltrane’s solos is brilliant, beautiful but restrained, never getting in the way, but—in true jazz conversation—sometimes nudging his saxophone in certain directions. Small wonder then that noted jazz critic and historian Gene Lees said that Coltrane’s playing may have “undergone another spurt of rapid evolution” as a result of this relatively brief association with Ellington.

For my part, my appreciation of these two jazz giants has undergone its own spurt of rapid evolution since buying to this album. Use this link to listen to some samples of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. You just might undergo an evolution of your own.


Rock-based jazz and Dick Cheney’s hidey hole

March 19, 2008


Ben Allison & Man Size Safe: Little Things Run the World

At last. An actual new release on the kitchen boombox. The 2007 Little Things Run the World is the latest release for New York jazz bassist Ben Allison and his quartet Man Size Safe. They were in town last weekend in support of the album, and we caught a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center.

We lucked into going to this performance when I came across a glowing write-up in the Chicago Reader; jazz critic Pete Margasak had named them his Critic’s Choice for the week. Here’s what he had to say:

What sets New York bassist Ben Allison apart from nearly every other jazz composer active today isn’t the influence of African music, electronica, and funk on his work—it’s the way he’s internalized the introspective melodicism of contemporary rock. (Here I’m thinking specifically of Radiohead.) His compact tunes are consistently so catchy and propulsive that you could easily overlook their subtlety and rhythmic elasticity: the new album from his band Man Size Safe, Little Things Run the World (Palmetto), may be his hookiest and most rock flavored yet, but the grooves he pounds out with drummer Michael Sarin constantly change shape and tempo, belying their rugged directness. The improvisations by trumpeter Ron Horton, saxophonist Michael Blake, and guitarist Steve Cardenas (who maintains a cool tone and attack even when it’d be easy to crank it) seal the deal—this is jazz all right, and played on a very high level. It’s a treat to hear soloists this good challenged by material this strong.

And if all this praise weren’t enough, the show in the Cultural Center’s intimate, acoustically wonderful Claudia Cassidy Theater was free. How could we not go?

Allison and his group delivered on the promise and then some. They stuck to tracks from the new album for the hour and change show, with the exception of a single tune. The music was smart, complex and engaging, if more melodic than the avant garde jazz I tend to seek out these days. And while the group’s leader is a bassist, he resisted the urge to play frontman with his rhythm instrument, always a potential danger with groups led by bassists or drummers.

On the other hand, because of his leadership—and the great work of drummer Michael Sarin—rhythms and tempos shifted freely from piece to piece and within individual tunes, often veering off in exciting directions. This, coupled with great performances by guitarist Steve Cardenas and sax player Michael Blake and particularly by trumpeter Ron Horton made for an excellent show. It also gave me plenty of reason to but the album.

Even without Pete Margasak’s comments, there’s no missing the rock influence on the music. Occasional fuzz-toned moments in Cardenas’ guitar solos make the point, as do the driving bass lines by Allison. But a real giveaway is Sarin’s drumming. A rock drummer friend once talked about trying to sit in at a jazz jam session. He lost his nerve when he saw that the other drummers rarely touched the pedal for the bass drum, a staple in rock drumming. Sarin’s bass drum sees plenty of action.

Another hint that rock informs their sound? The only cover on the album is John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. It’s also one of the standout tracks. With all this talk of rock helping shape the sound of the group, let me make one thing clear: This is not jazz fusion. That particular musical travesty is all but dead, I’m happy to say. This is solid jazz, beautifully performed.

Is it possible for a song with no words to be political? The tune that gives the band its name, Man Size Safe, refers to just such an object in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. The music begins with solo guitar picking out a melody line that is pure 60s caper film; it smacks of darkness, imminent danger and nefarious activity. Jewel thieves, spies and crooked dealings. You would feel this even without the back story. Allison describes the song perfectly in his entertaining liner notes: “Part of my ongoing Dick Cheney Suite. Dick—a modern corporate man steps off a plane, his scarred heart crackles and fizzles. He must believe his own psychosis. Sneering secrets create empires. The business of war drives the economy. It all makes sense in his mind. After all, he’s the policeman policing himself. But I can’t help wondering what the man size safe in his office is for.”

The album isn’t without its problems. Saxophonist Blake, who played an integral part in the musical conversation at the show is only a guest on the album, meaning that, on too many of the eight tracks, the trumpet has to do too much of the heavy lifting solowise. And sometimes when musicians get into the studio, there is a tendency to polish and tweak and produce the life right out of the music. For me, the recording lacks a little of the energy and edge that the live performance had.

Then again, maybe this is just one of those recordings that demands active listening, much like the show itself. I find when I put Little Things Run the World on the kitchen boombox, it tends to slip too easily into the background as I get involved in cooking. But listening to it in the car or on my iPod, it takes center stage, and I find myself delighting in complex moments and subtle exchanges.

Old school jazz, saved by newfangled technology

March 12, 2008

In which YouTube and a humble bit of aftermarket technology bring an out-of-print Duke Ellington album back to life.


This video is from one of the original recording dates of the out-of-print album
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra/Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra, January 9, 1962. The track, Blow Boy Blow, features a bebop-flavored solo by tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves.

One of the college stations I listen to for jazz really likes to mix it up. They play mostly avant garde stuff, the music that’s really catching my ear these days. But occasionally, they’ll throw it something really old school. I think that’s great—partly because it gives you these wonderful Aha! moments, getting some sense of where certain things came from, and partly because, for a lot of younger college listeners, it may turn them onto something they’d never heard before.

Which brings me to another point. In opening ourselves up to all kinds of music, there’s an argument out there that doesn’t hold water and, quite frankly, really pisses me off: “That was before my time.” If you lived, oh, in the time of Mozart, you might have gotten away with saying that about the music of Bach. But now in the time of recorded music, that excuse just doesn’t fly. Not only are you free to explore music from other times now—you can explore music from distant places and cultures. Gamelan music from Indonesia. Pan flutes from Peru. Or big band music from the end of its heyday.

Last Friday morning, WNUR dj Flavian Wallis put this particular bee in my bonnet. I’d been wondering what to write about this week when he played a wonderful track from Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges’ Side By Side. First released in 1958, it put me in mind of an Ellington/Hodges album gathering dust in my collection, and suddenly I knew what I would be listening to.

imic.jpgAnd to make this old vinyl album easier to cart around and listen to everywhere—on the kitchen boombox, in the car, on my iPod—I knew I would be hauling out a fairly recent bit of technology, the Griffin iMic/USB Audio Interface. This little gadget lets you plug a turntable directly into your computer and burn vinyl [or old cassette tapes] onto your computer as mp3s or other digital music files. It sells for 40 bucks or less at Apple stores or at Amazon and works with software you download for free. I’ve already used it to make a bunch of old vinyl more portable [we have a not inconsiderable collection of vinyl I can’t bring myself to part with yet, partly because of the simple pleasures of the ritual of the turntable]. Marion’s even found rare old opera albums at thrift stores that are currently waiting to be cued up and brought back to life.

One album I revived this past weekend was this delightful mix of big band and jazz. Released on the Storyville label in 1978, after Ellington’s death, the album is simply called Duke Ellington and his Orchestra/Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra. It came out of two recording dates—Duke’s happening in 1962 and Hodges’ two years later. By the time of these recordings, big bands had mostly fallen out of favor, replaced by smaller jazz groups. And they were no longer economically sensible—Ellington kept his 17-piece orchestra going pretty much out of his own pocket, just because this music is what he did. The Johnny Hodges orchestra was really an octet, a splinter group made up of Ellington musicians.

This tune, All of Me, doesn’t appear on the album, but it features Johnny Hodges on alto sax.

Honestly, Ellington and Hodges both have far superior recordings to this one. But there’s something quite interesting about it, particularly the seven sides by the Ellington Orchestra. I originally bought the album for the first two tracks, classic Ellington: Take the A Train and Satin Doll. ellington-coltrane.jpgThey don’t disappoint. But more interesting are less famous tracks. In Blow Boy Blow and VIP’s Boogie/Jam with Sam, soloists reach beyond standard big band riffs, bringing definite bebop chops to the sound. When they weren’t touring with Ellington, they were probably gigging in New York clubs, playing straightahead jazz, and it shows. Further, Ellington must have encouraged it and incorporated it into his sound. Poking around on YouTube for this post, I heard him doing some out there stuff in his later years. I also came across an amazing album he did with John Coltrane called, originally enough, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. I think I’m going to be buying this one soon.

By contrast, the tracks by Hodges cleave much more to the old big band sound and, for the most part, sound as if they could have been recorded in the 40s or even the 30s. This is all the more interesting because he led a smaller group that could have exploited what was going on all around them.

While not the recording from the album, this track, VIP’s Boogie/Jam with Sam, appears on it. You also get to meet many of Ellington’s musicians.

So I only have one sample track from this actual album for you. Well, that and perhaps the inspiration to step outside your comfort zone. Stretch your ear. Seek out something old, something obscure, even something in a music genre you haven’t explored. Libraries are a great place to do this on someone else’s nickel, by the way. So is YouTube. I’d love to hear where your musical adventure takes you.

Inventive, smart rock from CAKE. Sweet.

March 5, 2008


CAKE: Fashion Nugget

If you visit the kitchen boombox much at all, you know it’s often Old Releases Wednesday around here. Today’s pick is no exception—but it is an exceptional disk. Since the early ’90s, CAKE [the band insists on the all caps, not me] has created inventive rock music that defies categorization and ventures all over the map stylistically, but hangs together as unmistakably CAKE.

The track Frank Sinatra is typical of CAKE’s adventurous, inventive music.

The fabulous 1996 release Fashion Nugget does this in spades. The music flows seamlessly from white boy rap to pedal steel to a cha-cha beat cover of a song originally written in Spanish in the 1940s as Quizás, Quizás, Quizás, then rerecorded in English as Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps by, among others, Doris Day. There is also a standout cover of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

In their original tunes, the band casts a glib gimlet eye on life, love and pretense. Italian Leather Sofa beautifully tells the story of a financially successful but morally bankrupt man and woman who totally deserve each other. Here is how her ability to get what she wants is described:

She’s got a serrated edge
that she moves back and forth.
It’s such a simple machine,
she doesn’t have to use force.

Many rock and pop bands have included or worked with horn sections. CAKE’s horn section is trumpeter Vince DiFiore. His talented horn moves as effortlessly from style to style as does the rest of the music. And it is as much a part of the signature sound of CAKE as John McCrea’s vocals.

There are some albums I’ve bought for a single song. And with most albums, there’s at least a song or two you skip, every time you play it. Not this one. Anytime I pop Fashion Nugget into the boombox—or into the car’s CD player or dial it up on the iPod—I’m there for all 14 amazing songs.