Posts Tagged ‘Jazz’

Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century

July 16, 2008

Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century

I wasn’t always into avant garde jazz. In fact, Oliver Lake and his no-holds-barred free jazz actually put me off jazz for a good long while. So as I made my way back into jazz, I gave alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement, a wide berth.

I’ve since embraced the avant garde, thanks in no small part to Chicago reed player Ken Vandermark. Still, Coleman’s reputation as an inventive and often challenging experimenter with sound is legendary. So when I came across an album of his titled Change of the Century, I was excited to see what all the, um, noise was about. I mean, we’re talking about a man who, early in his career, was assaulted after a performance and his saxophone destroyed.

What I found in this 1959 release was another example of the need for reliable, affordable time travel. My first couple/few listens, it was hard for my less than trained ear to pick up much difference from be bop being played at the time. I’ve heard enough of what has come since that this was just not the revolution I was expecting.

But what I heard from the first listen was really exciting jazz. And the more I listen to it, the more innovative and even angular some of it indeed sounds. Like much of the best jazz I’ve heard, the music is a true collaboration and conversation among all four musicians. There is no leader/sidemen vibe. You couldn’t ask for better collaborators either: Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Small wonder that Amazon has named it an essential recording. Maybe Change of the Century isn’t quite what the name promises, but it is part of a sea change in music. Just as important, it’s some great, listenable jazz.

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Jump jazz keeps the kitchen hopping

July 9, 2008

The Mighty Blue kings: Meet Me In Uptown

The kitchen boombox is nothing if not eclectic. Depending on my mood, energy level and even what I’m cooking, it can be playing anything from opera to punk to avant garde jazz to you name it. When I’m looking for high-energy fun to get me going, this album always delivers.

The Mighty Blue Kings debuted in 1995, opening for Junior Wells at Buddy Guy’s club Legends. They soon had a weekly gig at Chicago’s vaunted Green Mill. A renewed interest in jump jazz and swing dancing was just heating up, and these boys were nailing it. Ross Bon’s spot on period vocals backed by tight horn and rhythm sections perfectly captured a vintage sound as they performed a mix of old songs and original tunes that seemed right out of the 40s. The vibe of their live performances was loose-hipped fun.

Soon they were touring more than they were at the Green Mill, and when they did get back to Chicago, the Green Mill was too small to accommodate their crowds. These YouTube clips are from a performance at a larger Chicago venue, Metro. They’ll give you a sense of their style and sound, if not of the energy of those nights in Uptown at the Green Mill.

There are 14 tracks in all on Meet Me In Uptown, a fun mix of uptempo swing and boozy ballads. Together, they’re guaranteed to get me and any visitors to my kitchen moving. You’ll find new and used CDs on Amazon as well as downloadable MP3s. Give them a listen—I think you’ll want to bring a little Uptown to your kitchen too.

Stay tuned—the delight of discovery on the radio

April 30, 2008

Teddy Edwards & Houston Person: Horn to Horn

I love my iPod. I really do. It’s compact and there’s no need to fumble with—or haul around—CDs. And I admit it, there’s something very cool about wearing those iconic white earbuds. As one technowonk put it, leave it to Steve Jobs to make a hard drive sexy.

But there’s one thing it’s missing. A radio. Yeah, I know you can download podcasts, but that’s not the same. There’s no random element in that—you’re still listening to something you’ve chosen. What the radio gives you is surprises. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something on the radio, usually in the car, and have called the radio station to find out what it was, who did it, what album it was on. I’ve made some amazing discoveries this way. Jack O’ Fire, for instance. Brit punk rockers Wire too.

And this gem of an album, Horn to Horn, with the twin tenor saxophones of Teddy Edwards and Houston Person. The track that caught my ear on the radio [our ears—Marion and I were driving to work] was an inspired rendition of Gene Ammons’ Red Top. It was reason enough for me to buy the disk. Funny thing, though, as much as I still like Red Top, it was immediately supplanted as my favorite by the first cut on the album, Coltrane’s Equinox. They come out swinging hard, and you feel like you’ve walked into a little out of the way jazz club on a very good night indeed.

Released in 1999, the album is a tribute to eight tenor sax legends. There’s a track each for Ammons and Coltrane as well as Ben Webster, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

For me, the album works best on the uptempo tracks, despite the fact that Edwards and Person were both self-professed lovers of ballads [Edwards passed away in 2003]. The ballads just feel a little too consciously pretty to me at times. But after multiple active listenings, I’ve started getting into some of the complexity of the jazz conversation going on in them.

Okay, full disclosure time. I’m listening to the album as I write this and have been discounting the ballads even as that old warhorse of a jazz standard, Hawkins’ Body and Soul, is playing. It is amazing. Disregard the previous paragraph.

As much as I’m excited by the avant garde movement in jazz these days, Horn to Horn makes a strong argument for the pleasures of straightahead jazz. It also makes a very strong argument for listening to the radio for that occasional surprise.

Dexter Gordon’s Ballads: Smoke gets in your ears

February 6, 2008

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Ballads: Dexter Gordon

Chicago jazz sax player Frank Catalano isn’t a big fan of ballads, so you rarely hear them at his Green Mill gigs. And more often than not, I agree with him. Generally, I want my knee bouncing involuntarily as I lean into the music from my barstool; I want to be suppressing the urge to snap my fingers to the sheer energy of some breakneck-paced sax solo, straining to keep up with where it’s going.

But then there are those other times. Like last Saturday afternoon when I was pulling things together in the kitchen to start marinating the beef for this week’s post on stew. Outside the kitchen window I could see big fat snowflakes falling, piling up in my neighbor’s yard. It was a day made for simple chores and quiet introspection. Still, I dropped some avant garde jazz into the Kitchen boombox—Blue Universe Trio’s NYC Free Jazz, an obscure, probably self-produced disk given to me by the bassist’s uncle with a “you like this sort of thing, don’t you?” I do. A lot. But halfway through the first track, I popped it back out and put on this disk instead.

Dexter Gordon’s album Ballads is a collection of eight tunes culled from as many different albums, recorded mostly in the early 60s, with the lone live track being recorded in 1978. The personnel varies from track to track—sometimes there’s a trumpet, sometimes a piano, sometimes both. Six different drummers and seven different bassists play on this album. But thanks to Gordon’s unmistakable smoky tenor sax, it all hangs together beautifully.

Gordon embraced bebop completely and was one of its key figures. Some even include him among its founders. That’s not always apparent as you listen to these ballads. He spends a lot of time coloring within the lines, sticking close to the melody line—embellishing it beautifully, to be sure, but not often straying far. But then suddenly, he stretches out and takes you unexpected places. That’s when Ballads shines for me.

Probably the best track on the entire disk for me is, ironically enough, one of the jazz standards I’ve grown the weariest of: Body and Soul. But drummer Eddie Gladden and bassist Rufus Reid lift it out of its usual sultry torpor with an insistent, syncopated beat that invites Gordon and pianist George Cables to wander way far afield. Even when Gordon is playing pretty close to the melody, his hard, muscular notes strain to break away. The track is a generous 17 minutes long, and it keeps covering new ground and bringing the listener right along with it. Late in the track, it sounds as if everyone’s bringing it home; but suddenly it morphs into a nearly four-minute tenor solo, the other musicians silent as Gordon weaves and invents and flirts with the melody. Absolutely brilliant.

There are a couple of ways to listen to this album. One is actively, listening to all the many nuances as I did Saturday afternoon. I am never the speediest of prep cooks—I wouldn’t last a day in a professional kitchen. But as the snow fell outside my kitchen window, I positively dawdled, savoring the smells and textures of the food, the weight of the knife in my hand, as the music filled the room. Then Sunday evening, as we had friends over for one of our not frequent enough Sunday dinners, Ballads became a beautiful, unhurried backdrop to conversation, clinking wine glasses and the clatter of china around the table. Again, absolutely brilliant.

Is it jazz? Is it hip-hop? Is it rap? “Yes.”

January 23, 2008

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Us3: Hand on the Torch

In 1991, London-based producer Geoff Wilkinson was summoned to EMI Music’s London offices. He had released a 12-inch dance single that was getting a lot of airplay, The Band Played The Boogie. On it, he’d sampled a jazz tune originally released on Blue Note Records, now owned by EMI. Instead of getting sued, he somehow managed to talk his way into Blue Note’s vaunted jazz vaults.

The result for Us3—Wilkinson and production partner Mel Simpson—was the groundbreaking Hand on the Torch, originally released in 1993. The result for Blue Note was its first album ever to hit Platinum [selling one million copies].

The whole idea of teaming with hip-hop and rap artists was a risky one for the venerable jazz label. “It was a brave decision by [Blue Note President] Bruce Lundvall,” Wilkinson said, “but he made me record some demos first, to prove I could do it.” One of those demos became the first track of the album and my personal favorite, Cantaloop [Flip Fantasia]. It combines heavy samples from Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island and a sampled intro from an Art Blakey album with vocals by rapper Rahsaan Kelly and trumpet by Gerard Presencer.

Simpson does all the keyboard work on the album; Wilkinson handles samples and scratches, and the two share programming credits. Other personnel include rappers Kobie Powell and Tukka Yoot, sax players Ed Jones and Mike Smith, trombonist Dennis Rollins, guitarist Tony Remy, pianist Matt Cooper and backing vocalist Marie Harper.

Blue Notes’ vaults provide the talents of the aforementioned Hancock and Blakey as well as Lou Donaldson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Reuben Wilson and Donald Byrd, all jazz luminaries.

What could have been a musical trainwreck is instead a brilliant conversation between two very different music genres. The music video above [thank you, YouTube] of Cantaloop [Flip Fantasia] demonstrates the careful intertwining beautifully. As with many music videos, though, the visuals don’t live up to the music. You’ll probably get more from the music if you close your eyes. Seriously.

Throughout Hand on the Torch, the musicians show a real sensitivity to the jazz samples. They bring some nice surprises to it too. On the cut Eleven Long Years, they actually uncover a reggae-friendly rhythm in Horace Silver’s Song for my Father. The result is electrifying.

Maybe it’s because this album is already nearly 15 years old, but the lyrics show refreshing restraint when it comes to glorifying violence and the gangsta lifestyle. The subjects are there, of course—they’re part of urban life. But tracks like Just Another Brother are typical of their take on the topic; it tells stories that show how whatever circumstances brought someone to violence, the result is always the same—he becomes “just another brother on lock-down.” The bragging and posturing inherent in much of hip-hop and rap is of course there too, but even this is mostly and refreshingly free of misogyny.

There’s also a two-disk import version of The Hand on the Torch; the second disk contains the original jazz tracks that Wilkinson and company sampled. As much as I love jazz, I have to think that hearing them might be like having a magician explain how he does a trick. We always beg to know the secret, but when the magic is explained, we’re always disappointed.

Oscar Peterson: Grace and elegant virtuosity

January 2, 2008

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Oscar Peterson: Summer Night in Munich

When I heard that jazz piano giant Oscar Peterson had died recently, this was the album I wanted to hear to remember him by. I had first heard part of it the night the death of Peterson’s longtime bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was announced on a local jazz radio station. The dj played the third track of the album, Nigerian Marketplace, because it began with a long bass solo. I was in the car at the time and had just gotten where I was going when the tune started. I sat there in the car until it ended nearly ten minutes later.

Like much of Peterson’s vast library of recordings, Summer Night in Munich is a stunning display of technical mastery and eminently listenable jazz. Peterson rarely pushed the envelope stylistically. As the New York Times obit points out, “rather than expand the boundaries of jazz, he used his gifts in the service of moderation and reliability, gratifying his devoted audiences whether he was playing in a trio or solo or accompanying some of the most famous names of jazz.” Some critics felt that he traded virtuosity for emotion or tension in his playing.

Listening to this disk again this week [and again and again], I’ll have to admit it doesn’t challenge me, doesn’t stretch my ear as free jazz—or even some old school be-bop—does. But the music has such grace and polish and elegant, intimate conversation going on among the musicians that I don’t miss the challenges.

Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 that diminished the skills of his left hand. He responded by finding ways to make his right hand do more. It is evident in this 1998 recording. You don’t hear a lot in the way of the lower notes of the left hand; the piano is a bright, lively presence made up mostly of the higher register notes of the right. But bassist Pedersen steps up beautifully, supplying not only the stellar bass technique he was known for, but occasionally adding almost pianolike playing, particularly on the ballads. Drummer Martin Drew and guitarist Ulf Wakenius round out the quartet.

Seven of the eight tracks are Oscar Peterson compositions. For me, these are the best work on the disk. But even his take on Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll satisfies. No, Summer Night in Munich doesn’t take jazz in any new directions. But it shows how, with the right musicians, there’s still much to be explored in the places jazz has already been.