21 August 2008

Under the Radar: Genious + Soul = Jazz

Ray Charles

Supergroups rarely live up to expectations. For every Blind Faith, there are about ten Journeys (I still can't believe half that band was in Santana). So it is always a pleasant surprise when an all-star grouping lives up to expectations. Such is the case with Genius + Soul = Jazz, a collaboration between Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and the Count Basie band. The album features Charles on the Hammond B-3 organ backed alternately by the Count Basie band (sans Basie) and by another group featuring Clark Terry, Budd Johnson, and Roy Haynes, among others. With charts arranged by Quincy Jones (who at that point was one of the key arrangers for Basie's "New Testament" band) and Ralph Burns (who cut his teeth writing arrangements for Woddy Herman's band), Charles was set up with some of the strongest personalities in jazz backing him on the album.

Genius + Soul = Jazz does not disappoint. The tracks with the Basie band swing hard, and the familiar comping of Freddie Green on guitar more than makes up for the abscence of Basie's piano. The other band also holds its own against Charles strong organ playing. Though he made a name for himself playing R&B, Charles had the chops to play jazz, and demonstrates his ability to the fullest on the album. "One Mint Julep," a song originally recorded by The Clovers, is a highlight, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1961, the year the album was released. Like many of the tracks on the album, "One Mint Julep" is an instrumental, allowing Charles to show off his organ chops. The tune blurs the line between jazz and R&B, in the vein of Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder" or Cannonball Adderley's "Work Song." It is solid, workmanlike jazz with a driving pulse and memorable melody.

Also notable is "I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town,"a slow-burning blues sung by Charles. Unlik much of his R&B vocals, Charles is subdued here, singing in almost a whisper. The effect is intriguing. We're used to hearing very powerful singers with the Basie band, think of Joe Williams or Jimmy Rushing. But Charles' soft timbre also works quite well against the Basie band, adding nuance to the band's famously powerful sense of swing. Charles also adds a heightened sense of drama to the tune by laying back.

While Genius + Soul = Jazz will not make many desert island lists, it is nonetheless a thoroughly entertaining album featuring a few of the most distinctive and soulful voices of jazz.

Track Listing: From the Heart; I've Got News for You Alfred; Moanin'; Let's Go; One Mint Julep; I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town; Stompin' Room Only; Mister C.; Strike Up the Band; Birth of the Blues; Alabamy Bound; Basin Street Blues; New York's My Home

11 August 2008

Friday Album Cover: Cookin'

Better late than never...
Miles Davis
Cookin' with The Miles Davis Quintet

One of the many legends that arose from Miles Davis' life was the story that he would often turn his back on the crowd during a performance. This story is not so accurate; Davis often faced slightly askew from the audience in order to better communicate with his sidemen during performances. However, the story was often employed to prove one of two points, that he did not care about audiences' approval, or that while playing, he was intently focused on his music and did not want to be distracted. Though the former distorts more than it illuminates, the latter is an accurate assessment of Davis' onstage demeanor. A quick search through Google Images shows that while playing, Davis often had his gaze focused on his trumpet, as if he were trying to pull music out of his trumpet.

Miles' habit of staring at his trumpet was visually reproduced on the album cover of Cookin' with The Miles Davis Quintet. Designed by regular Blue Note contributor Reid Miles, the cover features a doodle of a trumpet seen through the eyes of Miles in mid-performance, by Phil Hayes. It's not a visually stunning piece of album art, but considering the muse, it is quite an apt piece of imagery.

05 August 2008


In reference to last weekend's post, here are a couple of clips of Void.

02 August 2008

List: Best Working Groups in Jazz

One of the things I like about jazz is the ease with which total strangers can come together and play quality music with little or no rehearsal, thanks to the shared language of jazz. As a result, supergroup recordings abound in this art. If a few star performers want to get together to produce an album, the only thing standing in their way is scheduling. However, though the possibility of fantasy groupings will perpetually tantalize jazz fans, the fact remains that in jazz, the intimacy afforded by regular work together facilitates artful music. As such, much of the best jazz produced comes at the hands of a longstanding working groups, whose musicians know each other as well as they know themselves.

So without further ado, below are my favorite current working bands, in a completely random order, with a recommended recording thrown in for good measure:
  1. Dave Holland Quintet (Robin Eubanks, trombone; Chris Potter, saxophone; Steve Nelson, mallets; Holland, bass; Nate Smith, drums): The lineup has shifted a bit in the past few years, with Smith replacing Billy Kilson on drums, but the fact remains that this group plays some of the most exciting music in jazz. The group excels at collective improvisation, and the interplay between Eubanks and Potter is often exquisite. Check them out on Extended Play, a double live disc from 2003.
  2. Medeski Martin & Wood (John Medeski, keyboards; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums, percussion): Though some may argue that this group does not actually play jazz, I disagree. Electric or acoustic, this trio can swing with the best of them (in their inimitable way) and brings an incredible sense of energy to their music. I recommend Tonic, a live acoustic album from 2000.
  3. The Bad Plus (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums): The band has yet to release a live album in the U.S., so I've embedded a YouTube clip below of a live performance. I also heartily recommend the band's blog.
  4. Wayne Shorter Quartet (Shorter, saxophone; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums): Like many of the other bandleaders in this list, Wayne Shorter has pulled off the impressive coup of hiring sidemen who all lead stellar groups of their own. Whether reimagining Shorter's compositions or playing newer material, this quartet is not afraid to explore and reach outside of their comfort zone to produce great art. Shorter's quartet excels on the live discs Footprints Live! and Beyond the Sound Barrier.
  5. Void (Troy Roberts, saxophone; Tom O'Hallaran, keys; Dane Alderson, bass; Andrew Fisenden, drums): You probably have not heard of them, but this group from Australia can play. They do not perform regularly anymore (which should disqualify them from the list, but I make the rules, so they're in), but when they do get together, it is an event of epic proportions. Check out their website, and give them a listen.
  6. Pat Metheny Trio (Metheny, guitar; Christian McBride, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums): As I've written in this space before, Pat Metheny thrives in the trio setting due in no small part to the fact that he can surround himself with some of the best musicians around. I saw this trio play in Gainesville, Florida in 2005, and it totally hooked me on Metheny. I had never been a huge fan of his, but after seeing him live (for $10 - thanks UF student government!), I could not get enough Metheny. Be sure to check out the recent live EP Tokyo Day Trip.
  7. Keith Jarrett Standards Trio (Jarrett, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums): When Jarrett is not being an insufferable ass, this group produces more moements of surprise and genius with well-worn standards in one night than most groups could hope to make over a career. Along with Wynton Marsalis' championing of standards around the same time, this group made standards cool again, and we have them to thank for reinvigorating the genre. They have so many quality live performances out there for sale, but two of my favorite are Whisper Not, from 2000, and Inside Out, from 2001.
The Bad Plus: Flim

01 August 2008

Friday Album Cover: Blue Note Special

John Coltrane
Blue Train
This week, let us examine one of Blue Note Records' most widely-employed album-cover motifs. For simplicity's sake, I will refer to the motif as the "Blue Note Special." The ingredients for the Blue Note Special are quite simple: One black-and-white photograph, tinting, and text. In-house graphic designer Reid Miles often utilized the photography of Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff, who was often in the studio during recording sessions with his camera in hand. Wolff's collection is full of candid shots of musicians playing and thinking, like the shot used above on the cover to John Coltrane's Blue Train. Miles often employed these shots in his cover art, often giving the photo a tint (with blue being one of the most frequent choices) and using a sans-serif font for the album credits.

As mentioned earlier, blue is one of the most common hues added to Blue Note albums. This has a dual effect. Not only does it present a nice branding synergy with the label name, but it adds a certain amount of feeling to the photos. Blue is often associated with jazz, both because it has roots in the blues and because the mood created by blue light often matches the feeling of jazz. Even now, Blue Note continues to use this theme on its album art (see Greg Osby's 2000 album The Invisible Hand, below). However, Miles was not afraid to adjust the Blue Note Special for variety, whether it meant using different colors on the hue, adding some white space to juxtapose the photo, or using a tinted photo against geometric figures. All these treatments share one common characteristic, they place the musician in the forefront of the album, and display the musician as an artist at work or in contemplation, lending credibility to jazz as an art form. Being such a useful template, it is no surprise that the Blue Note Special became one of the defining archetypes in jazz album art.

Greg Osby
The Invisible Hand