26 September 2008

Bonus Joe Henderson

To continue with the Joe Henderson appreciation this week, here's a clip of Joe playing the Monk classic "Ask Me Now" in 1993 with Dave Holland on bass and Al Foster on drums. Sadly, Holland's bass solo is edited down in the middle of the clip, but check out Joe's cadenza at the beginning of the tune.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Friday Album Cover: Page One

Joe Henderson
Jazz was full of suave men who exuded cool, think of Diz, Miles, Dex, Duke. Joe Henderson was no square either; check out the cover to Page One, his first album for Blue Note from 1963. It is an underrated gem from the Blue Note catalogue, and makes a great first impression.

Album cover photo via Vintage Vanguard

25 September 2008

Under the Radar: In 'N Out

Joe Henderson
In 'n Out

Ask a group of jazz fans to name their favorite tenor saxophonist of the 1960s, and it is likely that no one in the group will mention Joe Henderson. He had the misfortune of coming of age as an improviser during the heyday of John Coltrane and the ascension of Wayne Shorter. This is unfortunate. Henderson recorded a number of stellar albums during the decade, in addition to appearing as a sideman on The Sidewinder, Song For My Father, Point of Departure, and a whole host of other classic albums. Even though I had listened to Henderson plenty of times as a sideman, I had not heard any of his own albums until I picked up a copy of In 'N Out at a used music shop my freshman year of college. Once I found out about his solo albums, though, they became a regular feature of my listening rotation.

Henderson surrounded himself with familiar coconspirators for his fourth album as a leader in 1964, including McCoy Tyner and Kenny Dorham, who originally discovered the tenorman for Blue Note Records. The album features three originals by Henderson and two by Dorham. What immediately drew me to this album (besides the great typography on the album cover), was the way Henderson's compositions featured melodies that were at the same time intricately structured and immediately singable (the bridge on "Punjab" is a perfect example). Henderson had an uncanny way of stretching out a phrase for an extra bar or two farther than the listener expects him to without making it sound like a runon. He displays this skill to the extreme on "Punjab," one of my favorite Henderson solos. He crafts a masterpiece of postbop improvisation behind Tyner and Jones, who push him at all the right moments. Dorham and Tyner also give enjoyable solos on the track before Henderson takes one more chorus and the entire quintet closes with the head.

The fluid phrasing and subtle swing of "Punjab are also highlighted on "Serenity," another Henderson original. Like the rest of the music on In 'N Out, this tune is solid, workmanlike jazz, and keeps the listener hanging on every phrase. Tyner puts forth the kind of solo that sounds familiar to modern listeners, but only because his phrasing and piano voicings were adopted by practically every pianist that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s.

When I think of the great albums produced by Blue Note during the 1960s, In 'N Out always comes up pretty quickly, with the likes of The Sidewinder and Maiden Voyage. Between the sophisticated harmony, understated swing, and complex melodicism, the album embodies the evolution of the "Blue Note" sound up to that point in time. In 'N Out serves as a perfect introduction to Henderson's work and the classic Blue Note albums of the midsixties.

Personnel: Joe Henderson, saxophone; Kenny Dorham, trumpet; McCoy Tyner, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums
Track Listing: In 'N Out; Punjab; Serenity; Short Story; Brown's Town

Album cover photo via Vintage Vanguard

22 September 2008

I am linked, therefore I exist.

While scanning over my hit stats on Sitemeter the other day, I noticed that a few people were coming to the site from a link at jazz.com. From there I discovered that a post from a few weeks ago (on the best working groups in jazz) was included on their links page. So thanks to jazz.com for the support (it figures that the one week I don't visit the site is the week I get linked). For those of you new to the site, feel free to stay awhile...

19 September 2008

Friday Album Cover: Everybody Digs Bill Evans

Bill Evans
Everybody Digs Bill Evans
In the midst of a big Presidential election, endorsements can be key to a candidate's momentum. With that in mind, let's look at an album cover with some endorsements intended to swing another kind of momentum. In the liner notes to Bill Evans' second album, Everybody Digs Bill Evans , Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews writes,
The unusual cover of this album is designed to make completely clear one of the most startling facts about BILL EVANS: that this extraordinarily talented young pianist, although still virtually unknown to the jazz public, is already the object of a truly amazing degree of admiration and respect on the part of some of the most highly regarded of today's jazz musicians.
This seems like a pretty inventive use of the album cover as a marketing tool. Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Ahmad Jamal, and George Shearing all give glowing reviews of Bill Evans. These were four of the brightest stars in jazz in 1958, the year the album was released. But still, the concept seems a little gimmicky. These are the kind of testimonials one might expect to hear on a late-night infomercial. It's as if Miles and Cannonball are shilling for Ginsu knives. If the purpose an the album cover is to attract attention and boost sales of the album, then this is definitely a great cover. However if you think an album cover should add artistic value to the overall product, or become itself a standalone piece of art, then this cover fails to do that. I think my feelings on the Everybody Digs Bill Evans cover are clear, what do you think?

16 September 2008


Here's a YouTube of Stefon Harris, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, and some other unidentified musicians at the Jazz Standard in NYC.

Under the Radar: New Directions

New Directions
New Directions

The early 1960s were a veritable golden age for Blue Note records. The independent label churned out album after album characterized by the tried-and-true "Blue Note sound," many of which sold well in urban black neighborhoods. Allowing for exploration that streched the boundaries of postwar bebop, undergirded by a heavy dose of the blues, Blue Note created a sound characterized by the stars of hard bop it frequently recorded: Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, and others. It is not surprising, then, that just before 2000, the record label sought to revisit its backcatalogue in a way that revitalized the tunes for the next century of jazz.

Blue Note entrusted the task to Greg Osby, a veteran of the label who then selected some of the label's up-and-coming talents to fill out the group, including pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. The album is full of classics from the Blue Note catalogue, like "The Sidewinder" and "Recorda Me," reharmonized and reworked to sound fresh without losing the adventurous and organic spirit of the originals. Many of the members of this sextet have worked with Osby before. Moran was Osby's regular pianist at the time, while Harris, Shim, and Mateen had played on a number of Osby's albums. This group makeup resembles Blue Note's style of assembling recording ensembles during the early 1960s, in which the label would gather sidemen from Blue Note's stable of musicians who was familiar with the leader for that particular day's sessions, underscoring the familial aspect of Blue Note records at the time.

The Lee Morgan classic "The Sidewinder" epitomizes the feel of the album. After Osby riffs on the familiar lead-in to the melody, the full ensemble plays a reworked melody. The boogaloo rhythm of the original is replaced by a more jagged, on-top-of-the-beat feel. The melody is played with a sense of time that is both freer and more spontaneous, while staying in lock-step with the rhythm section. Osby solos first, giving an adventurous take on the tune's blues-based harmony. Harris follows with a chorus, as does Shim. Both solos have the feeling of an overworked variation on the melody, and offer little surprise. Moran, however, concludes with a gem of a solo, shifting between amelodic clusters of chords and angular runs with his right hand. Moran's solo best achieves the goal of presenting familiar tunes in an updated context. The group closes with a restatement of the melody, with Harris hanging ominous long tones over the punctuated eighth notes of Osby and Shim.

Though "The Sidewinder" is a mixed bag, Jason Moran's arrangement of the Wayne Shorter tune "Tom Thumb" is a highlight. Selecting a Wayne Shorter tune is a brave move, considering how inimitable his writing style had become by the time he wrote the tune. Moran wisely tries not to do too much with the arrangement, adding a bossa nova beat in the piano and giving the tune a more relaxed rhythmic feel. This allows Shorter's harmonies to sound new without actually changing them. Moran begins the solo sections with a well-conceived solo that shows why he is perhaps the most exciting young pianist in jazz today. Shim follows with a solo that sounds like in the beginning like vintage Joe Henderson, and it sounds surprisingly enjoyable. After a quick restatement of the melody, the tune is finished in just over five minutes.
This highlights one of the shortcomings of the disc. Because Osby wanted to fit in twelve tunes and five sidemen, we are deprived of the chance of hearing the band stretch out. Most of the classic Blue Note sessions had the feel of a blowing session; tracks stretched on for eight-plus minutes at a time, and soloists could get in three or four choruses per tune. Because of the packed program, I am left wanting more after listening to this album, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but not optimal.

Sadly, the overlords at Blue Note have let New Directions go out of print (you can buy a used copy here). Though the album will not become a classic with age, it is still worth buying, if only to hear some of today's young up-and-comers like Harris and Moran while they were still paying their dues (Harris and Moran's duet on "Beatrice" is especially enjoyable). Grab a copy if you can, you won't be disappointed.

Personnel: Greg Osby, alto saxophone; Mark Shim, tenor saxophone; Stefon Harris, vibes; Jason Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums
Track Listing: Theme from Blow Up, The Sidewinder, Ping Pong, Beatrice, No Room for Squares, Song for My Father, Tom Thumb, Commentary on Electrical Switches, Big Bertha, Recorda Me, Song of the Whispering Banshee, False Start, 20 Questions

11 September 2008

iTunes Genius

Apple released the newest version of iTunes this week, which includes a new feature called Genius. Genius allows a you to automatically generate a playlist simply by selecting one song in the your iTunes library. As Apple explains in on their website,
Play a song, click the Genius button, and iTunes creates a playlist of other songs from your library that go great together. Genius playlists help you discover songs in your library you never knew you had — and rediscover forgotten favorites.
Genius hooks up your iTunes library to Apple's database of other iTunes users, and identifies songs that other users have bought or listened two in conjunction with the song you have selected. If any matching songs are in your library, then they are added to a playlist, which you can either save or discard. Resembling both Amazon.com's recomendations system and the popular web-radio site Pandora, Genius promises to mix up your listening habits and maybe turn you on to a forgotten or overlooked track in your library.

Interested in a shortcut that could give me some nice playlists, I tried it out. I used three jazz tracks to start playlists: Afro Blue by John Coltrane, Chameleon by Herbie Hancock, and Bachelor's III by Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau. The Coltrane playlist best fit the things I would put on a list of my own, some Miles Davis, Kenny Garrett, and Freddie Hubbard, for instance. The Hancock list was all over the map, featuring the Quincy Jones Big Band, Billie Holiday, and Dexter Gordon, among some other fusion and 60s postbop. The Metheny/Mehldau playlist had some good choices that fit the mood of the track, like Bill Frisell, Kenny Garrett, and Michael Brecker selections, but some puzzling choices as well, including a Mahavishnu track. Every playlist had a few tracks I would remove if I saved the playlist, but all pulled in tracks that I would have put in my own playlists.

Genius is not without its programming issues. If you select a song that is not available for sale at the iTunes store (like anything from the Beatles' catalogue), then Genius will not create a playlist, giving a vague error message. The first song I tried on Genius, Horace Silver's "Song For My Father," came up with this problem. Hopefully, with Apple's library expanding rapidly, this problem will correct itself over time.

The major problem with Genius, though, is fairly evident to me. What happens if Genius puts something on a playlist that you don't want to include? When I created a playlist based on fusion-era Herbie Hancock, Genius included a Benny Goodman track. When you create a "station" on Pandora, you are given the ability to approve or dismiss any song suggested by Pandora. For instance, if I start a station with a Bad Plus track, I can select the thumbs-down icon if Pandora pulls up another track that I don't want to include a track by Rush. That way, I can steer the playlist towards fusion-oriented jazz and away from prog rock. It would be nice if such a feature could be worked into Genius. It gives the program a lot of versatility (see, for instance, how Howard Mandel created a "Jazz Beyond Jazz" playlist).

So Apple has some work to do to make Genius good enough to keep up with Pandora, but it will do for now...

05 September 2008

Friday Album Cover: Channel Three

Greg Osby
Channel Three

Greg Osby's 2005 Blue Note album Channel Three does not fit the Blue Note archetype (discussed earlier) at all. Other than the simple typography listing the artist and album title, there is almost no resemblance to the classic Reid Miles covers of the 1950s and 1960s. In many ways it is an anti-Blue Note cover: the cover is superimposed onto a vintage television screen, giving it a mixed-media feel. Additionally the image on the screen is really two images superimposed to resemble a busted television screen. There is also no hue to the black-and-white photo, which is a rarity for Blue Note covers.

Even so, the cover is in some ways a perfect fit for the album. Osby is playing in a pianoless trio (with drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts and bassist Matt Brewer), and plays the kind of dark, pensive music often associated with the romantic image of the jazz musician as a singular, contemplative individual (Think Sonny Rollins woodshedding on the Williamsburg bridge circa 1959). Osby is playing the type of music that makes you think of quiet, late nights alone with one's thoughts. Similarly, the dark image of a saxophonist on a tv with a broken picture, to me, conjures up a similar, somewhat desolate image of someone alone with his own thoughts.

04 September 2008

Update and Links

My posting has been a bit erratic (or absent) lately, and I will be back up to speed starting tomorrow with a Friday Album Cover.

In the meantime, check out Vintage Vanguard (h/t Dial M for Musicology). It is a Japanese site with a bunch of hi-res scans of Blue Note album covers, along with scans of the liner notes on the back of the cover. You could easily waste hours staring at all these covers and reading the notes. What a great find...Also, while it's still up, listen to two great cuts of avant-garde supergroup Air on Destination: OUT.