You, me, the music, and me.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

JOHN COLTRANE The John Coltrane Quartet Plays

Impulse! A-85 (1965)

Here's an album recorded during John Coltrane's transitional phase from traditional jazz and bebop into the more experimental sounds he would pursue up until his death only two years later. At the time, Coltrane was developing his trademark "sheets-of-sound" style, in which he would play rapid-fire arpeggiations that sometimes had little to do with the harmonies of the piece on which he was improvising. Coltrane was listening to and being influenced by avant-garde jazzers such as Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler and was looking for a way to express his emotions directly from his horn, and if traditional jazz harmonizations had to be abandoned along the way, so be it.

The album consists of two Coltrane originals and two unlikely standards; "Chim Chim Cheree" is indeed the chimney-sweep song from the film Mary Poppins, and, as he did earlier in his career with The Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things", Trane takes the song into unexplored sonic territory, using the mournful 6/8 melody as a basis for some extended soprano improvisations. "Brazilia" finds Coltrane once again on tenor and is a typically loose but hard-swinging later-Trane tune with little if any harmonic progression but plenty of rhythmic drive from all the instruments.

Side two opens with the popular ballad "Nature Boy"; Trane plays the melody over drummer Elvin Jones' cymbal washes and muted toms and McCoy Tyner's elegant stacked-fourth piano chords before the group ventures into free territory. This track is augmented by a second bassist, Art Davis, who here plays with a bow, creating a nice contrast to Jimmy Garrison's plucked lines (Ornette and Ayler frequently used two bassists in this fashion in their own groups). The album closes with "Song of Praise", which begins with a solo from Garrison (during which he strums his bass like a guitar) and builds slowly to a quiet but passionate climax.

Coltrane covered a lot of musical ground during his all-too-brief final years, and The John Coltrane Quartet Plays is an excellent jumping-off point in either direction of his development, containing elements of both his earlier bop and ballad style and of his later free-form work.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Beggars Banquet XBEG 20 (1980)

One of the most prominent and influential bands of the first wave of British punk, Wire quickly grew bored with the sounds they were making and set out to discover new textures by not only adding synthesizers to their sound but trying to make their guitars sound like synths through the use of repetitive, minimalist melodies. By doing this, they unwittingly became one of the first "new wave" bands, though their music remained just a little too complex and dense to crack the top 40.

Originally intended as the follow-up to their third LP 154, the material on A-Z became Wire frontman Colin Newman's solo debut after they broke up. Sonically and lyrically, the album picks right up where the band left off in 1979 (thanks in part to the presence of Wire drummer Robert Gotobed); "I've Waited Ages" kicks off the record with the same chattering sound effects and ploddingly propulsive rhythm that had come to be associated with the group by the time of their (temporary) disbanding.

Despite the typically obtuse lyrics and dark, foreboding textures, A-Z is generally an upbeat album, at least on the surface; even melancholy songs like "Seconds to Last" and "Alone" are lightened by a soaring synth solo here or a chugging guitar riff there. Newman's break from his bandmates seemed to have recharged his creative batteries, as even the most turgid songs here sound more energetic and uplifting than those on 154.

Wire reformed in 1985 and have continued to record and tour to the present day; Newman has released several more albums on his own (as have other members of the group), but fans of Wire's early material should definitely start with A-Z.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Capitol STAO-132 (1969)

How did a group that was four-fifths Canadian manage to capture the sound of America so completely in their music? From their origins as Ronnie Hawkins' backing band, to their seminal work with Bob Dylan during his conversion from acoustic folk to electric rock and roll, to their own timeless songs and albums, the Band have always had an uncanny knack for capturing the sound of the American heartland; their unique mix of country, folk, blues, and rock sounded like no one else at the time and remains immediately identifiable to this day.

The Band was the second album from the group and showed a marked increase in confidence and versatility. Songs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek" are such perfect representations of early American folk music that it's easy to forget that they were written by a young Robbie Robertson (credited here as "Jaime Robbie Robertson") at the end of the sixties (much the same way that people forget that "Ol' Man River" isn't actually an old Negro spiritual but a piece of modern musical theatre).

In addition to having one brilliant songwriter, the Band was blessed with three terrific singers. Drummer Levon Helm (the group's sole American) had a gruff but clear workingman's tenor that fit the roguish narrator of "Up on Cripple Creek" to a tee. Bassist Rick Danko possessed a rubbery, plaintive voice that was well-suited to the questioning uncertainties of "Across the Great Divide" and "Unfaithful Servant", and keyboardist Richard Manuel had a shivery, unearthly falsetto that could be moving and unsettling at the same time (as on "Whispering Pines").

Each member of the Band was able to play at least a couple of instruments, but their secret weapon was certainly organist Garth Hudson, who is credited on the album with "organ, clavinette, piano, accordion, soprano, tenor and baritone-sax and slide trumpet"! According to an anecdote from the concert film The Last Waltz, before going on tour with the group for the first time, Hudson had asked for an additional small stipend from each of the band members; the group later learned that this was so he could tell his mother that he was only going on the road with them so that he could give them music lessons!

The Band have several compilations and box sets on the market, but their second album is truly essential, a snapshot of a sound and a voice that is American in its nature but universal in its appeal.

Monday, April 17, 2006

DAVE BURRELL High Won - High Two

Arista-Freedom AL 1906 (1976)

In the world of avant-garde jazz piano, Dave Burrell's name is one that too often goes unmentioned; less flashy and percussive than Cecil Taylor, less quietly reflective than Paul Bley, yet more versatile than either, his music falls somewhere in between the stylistic cracks.

High Won - High Two is a double-album reissue of a pair of 1968 trio sessions on the Arista-Freedom label. Sirone plays bass on all tracks, and drums are handled by Bobby Kapp (except on "East Side Colors" which features Sunny Murray). Pharoah Sanders is credited on tambourine and can be heard on several tracks (though at times one wishes he could have brought along his tenor sax).

The album opens with "West Side Story Medley", a mostly straightforward reading of various themes (including "Somewhere", "Maria", "America", and "I Feel Pretty") from Leonard Bernstein's famous musical. Occasionally the group ventures into freakout territory, with Burrell hammering on the lower keys with the sustain pedal down, but, for the most part, this is a loose, swinging tribute to Bernstein's work. Side two consists of five shorter pieces: "Oozi Oozi"'s happy harmonies and shifting time signatures sound like pumped-up Dave Brubeck, while "Bittersweet Reminiscence" sounds pretty much like its title suggests; rolling piano chords over a shifting landscape of bass and drums that threaten to break apart into violent storms of notes but nevertheless maintain a balladic tonality. "Bobby and Si" recalls Paul Bley at his most upbeat with its off-kilter ascending hook and funky bassline, and "Dave Blue" is a bright, gospel-tinged waltz. "Margie Pargie (A.M. Rag)" closes the side with a display of Burrell's ragtime chops.

"East Side Colors" takes up side three and is easily the most "out" of the music on the album (thanks in large part to the presence of Murray at the drum kit). The cut opens with thundering keyboard smashes a la Cecil Taylor over frantic bass and percussion which quickly shift into an extended bass solo by Sirone. Burrell and Murray re-enter with Murray slashing away at his cymbals and Burrell continuing his atonal assault. The main difference between Burrell's style and Taylor's seems to be sustain; where Taylor favours short, staccato bursts, Burrell prefers a more sweeping attack, with more use of the sustain pedal. In short, if Taylor plays the piano like a drum, Burrell plays it like a harp.

Side four consists of another medley, this one consisting of all five pieces from side two in a different order plus an additional tune, the Monk-like "Inside Ouch", at the end. Aside from Sanders' prominent tambourine, there isn't much difference between these recordings and the versions on the second side; the medley may have been included in order to pad the album out to a double-LP (the original album consisted only of "West Side Story Medley", "Margie Pargie" and "East Side Colors"). Still, the track is a testament to the versatility of the group and their ability to switch quickly from one mood and/or style to another, and High Wan - High Two (available on CD) is worth owning for any fan of versatile, swinging jazz and improvisation.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


ECM-1-1055 (1975)

Gary Burton and Steve Swallow are two musicians who need no introduction on record, so personal and immediately identifiable is their sound. Burton was one of the pioneers of jazz fusion during the seventies, and Swallow is known for being one of the first jazz bassists to use the electric bass almost exclusively. The two have worked together on a number of projects, but Hotel Hello is their only album of duets.

The album opens with "Chelsea Bells (for Hern)"; over an elegant progression of block piano chords by Swallow, Burton adds tasteful, searching ornamentation on the vibes. "Hotel Overture - Vamp" switches things around as Burton provides a propulsive organ riff for Swallow to riff over on bass. As on most of his recordings, Swallow's tone is unmistakeable, due largely to his use of a copper pick and lots of upstrokes, mainly in the upper register of his instrument (often causing his bass to sound like a guitar). This track starts off sounding like the theme to a seventies TV drama before Burton overdubs some nice vibe playing in its latter half. It proceeds without interruption into the title track, with Burton soloing over a climbing harmonic pattern on piano and bass by Swallow. "Inside In" is a brief, wah-drenched funk tune with uncredited cymbal washes, and the pretty, elegiac "Domino Biscuit" closes the first side.

Side two opens with "Vashkar", a Carla Bley composition that is the highlight of the album. Swallow plays a plaintive bass melody over Burton's shifting, ethereal organ chords, then the piece shifts into a piano-vibes-bass arrangement over the same progression. "Sweet Henry" is another upbeat, organ-and-vibe tune that, like the others on the record, needs no percussion to give it rhythmic propulsion. "Impromptu" is a dreamy improvisation for bass and vibes, and "Sweeping Up" has a lovely, slowly ascending harmonic pattern that fades the album to a close.

Hotel Hello is essential listening for fans of either artist, or for fans of ECM Records, or for fans of good music in general. It provides an intimate look and listen into the musical relationship between these longtime collaborators and friends.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


A & M SP 5258 (1989)

This album was part of a brief, interesting series of records released by A & M in the late eighties titled the "Modern Masters Jazz Series". Its focus was on the avant garde and contained albums by artists with few to no previous major label recordings such as Max Roach, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and the late, great trumpet legend Don Cherry.

Cherry spent his formative years as part of Ornette Coleman's seminal quartet before striking out on his own with several notable releases for labels such as Blue Note and Actuel. By the eighties, his recordings had become fewer and farther between, so Art Deco was a welcome addition to the Cherry catalogue which received wide distribution thanks to its release on A & M.

For the album, Cherry reunited himself with the rhythm section of bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, with whom he had played in Ornette's aforementioned quartet. Taking the saxophone chair for this date was Ornette's fellow Texan (and former Ray Charles sideman) James Clay, who had played with the group for a while before they started recording in the fifties. Clay's tenor fits the quartet comfortably; his tone is deeper and more relaxed than Ornette's but shares the same bluesiness and searching quality.

The spirit of Ornette hangs over the recording, whether in the group's readings of his compositions ("When Will the Blues Leave", "The Blessing", "Compute"), the Ornette-ish title tune by Cherry, or even Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing". This is not to say that the quartet simply apes Ornette's sound; rather, it shows how essential these musicians were to what we think of today as "Ornette's sound". While side one is fairly traditional as far as "free jazz" goes (even the formerly outrageous Ornette tunes sound like standards by now), side two is more experimental, with solo outings by Cherry, Haden, and Higgins, a leisurely trio reading of "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" featuring Clay, and a wild version of Ornette's "Compute".

Cherry made one more album for A & M (the uneven Multikulti) before the label discontinued the series. Like the brief forays into avant garde jazz made by labels such as Arista in the seventies and Verve in the late nineties, the bottom line seemed to be sales, something free jazz never specialized in. Too bad, but at least every time this sort of thing happens, we end up getting great, widely distributed records like Art Deco.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Columbia FC 37972 (1982)

Here's an album with an intriguing concept; two sets of two generations of jazz musicians in which the second generation is more well known to the listening public than the first.

Fathers and Sons was recorded near the beginning of the "new traditionalist" movement in jazz in which the post-bop sound of the fifties and sixties was picked up by a new, young generation of players which included Wynton and Branford Marsalis. The two brothers achieved fame that grew throughout the eighties and nineties and extended itself to their father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, a respected musician with few fans outside his native New Orleans. Similarly, legendary Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman was little known outside his native city until his son Chico became a member of the A.A.C.M. and began making recordings with such names as Jack DeJohnette and Cecil McBee.

The first side of the record sticks with the neo-traditional sound that brought attention to the Marsalis brothers in the first place, while side two finds the Freemans playing in the bluesy Chicago style associated with papa Von (with a little bit of free-time improv thrown in on "Time Marches On"). Highlights of the album include Ellis' adventurous piano-and-bass treatment of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" at the end of side one and Chico's oddly Marsalis-like "Tribute to Our Fathers", which closes side two. From listening to this album, it would appear that (musically, at least) there is no generation gap in either the Marsalis or the Freeman household.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


ESP 1006 (1965)

Ornette Coleman has been name-checked on this blog so often that anyone who reads it on a semi-regular basis should already be familiar with who he is and what he does; his importance to the style of free, improvised jazz cannot be understated. His music is the model for just about everything in the genre that followed; what the Beatles were to rock and roll, Ornette was (and is) to free jazz. He even has an album titled Free Jazz, from which the music took its name (producing an effect similar to that of Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X).

Town Hall, 1962 was recorded live at Town Hall in New York City on December 21, 1962. It was at this concert that Ornette unveiled his new trio lineup, consisting of himself with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. Strangely, Ornette was to announce his retirement soon after this concert, only to resurface in 1965 with the same trio! Izenson and Moffett are ideal musical partners for Ornette; rather than serve as accompanists, they take an equal role in the music, giving support and taking the lead almost simultaneously. This works perfectly for the trio, producing a powerful, uncluttered sound. Izenson is essential to the stunning "Sadness", as his long bowed tones cushion and amplify the plaintiveness of Ornette's alto. Side two's "The Ark" never flags in energy or invention for all of it's twenty-three minutes, thanks largely to Moffett's propulsive, varied percussion.

The album also contains one of Ornette's pieces for string quartet, titled "Dedication to Poets and Writers". It's nice, but not in the same league as the trio pieces. Like Ornette's other string works, it contains angular melodies and clashing harmonies common to twentieth century art music, but the rhythms are fairly straightforward and baroque, and most of the piece has all four string players playing at once, producing a predictable homogeneity to the music.

Town Hall was released on the tiny independent label ESP; my copy identifies itself as an Italian import from Base Records. The sound quality is superb, even on my cheap stereo; it's been reissued several times on CD but is still hard to find. It can be downloaded from ESP here, and is well worth owning in any format.

Monday, April 03, 2006


Blue Note BST-84137 (1963)

Jackie McLean's death on Friday at the age of 73 marked the passing of one of jazz music's major voices. McLean recorded prolifically during the fifties and sixties, mostly for the Blue Note label; his piercing alto sax tone was heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, but he went on to find his own voice and make some of the most important hard bop recordings of the period. He would also become one of jazz's most influential educaters, founding the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford's Hartt School in Connecticut.

McLean's music of the sixties often incorporated elements of the avant garde movement of jazz that was forming at the time, and One Step Beyond shows the influence of artists such as Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman (whom McLean invited to play on his 1967 recording New and Old Gospel). The band is a top-notch line-up of forward-looking jazzmen of the time; Grachan Moncur III plays trombone and contributes two of the four compositions, Bobby Hutcherson plays vibes, Eddie Khan holds down the bass chair, and seventeen year-old drummer Tony Williams makes his recording debut (just before going on to play for Miles Davis' classic sixties quintet).

"Saturday and Sunday" opens the album with an alternately ascending and descending whole-tone line that moves quickly into a fast-paced bop tune featuring a typically searing solo from McLean. Moncur's "Frankenstein" slows things down a bit and contains a probing, economical solo from the soulful trombonist. "Blue Rondo" is a brief, swinging blues that features solos from Hutcherson, Moncur, and McLean, who begins his excursion in the vein of his idol Parker before branching out into some politely "out" phrasing. Hutcherson's vibes lend a spooky feel to the closing tune "Ghost Town", a long, mysterious tune with plenty of long tones and angular riffing.

McLean will be missed in the jazz community for his creativity and passion, both in his music and his teachings, but his legacy lives on in his vast discography. No collection is complete without at least one of his albums.