29 May 2009

Ornette's Children

The fiftieth anniversary of the recording of Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come has come and gone, and while other sites have offered their own tributes, I thought I would share an iTunes playlist I call "Ornette's Children." Some of the selections on the playlist are Coleman tunes reimagined by his artistic heirs, some are originals composed and performed by some of his disciples and former sidemen, and others are merely tunes that could not have happened without Ornette. I like to throw it on the iPod and shuffle it, so the tracks are in no particular order. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, just tracks from my own library that I particularly like.
What would you add to the list? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

26 May 2009

A Non-Jazz Recommendation

Juana Molina
Don't call Juana Molina a one person band. The term "one man band" carries with it plenty of bad connotations, but Molina fashions the one person band into a riveting experience. Molina creates rich tapestries of sound, weaving together vocals, guitars, keyboards, percussion and myriad other noises into haunting melodies. Molina's vocals are especially intriguing, weaving in and out of tune on purpose, alternately building and releasing tension in a manner reminiscent of Albert Ayler's screaming tenor saxophone. Listen to the album on headphones, and let the pillowy sound envelope you.

Major h/t: Radiolab

Track Listing
: Día; Vive Solo, Lo Dejamos; Los Hongos de Marosa; Quién? (Suite); El Vestido; No Llama; Dar (Qué Difícil)

22 May 2009

Out There...

Eric Dolphy
Out There

Sun Ra gets all the credit for fostering an Afronaut aesthetic within jazz, but one look at this cover from Eric Dolphy's 1960 album Out There shows that other musicians were also thinking about boldly going where no man had gone before. The metronome weirdly foreshadows the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, don't you think?

Elsewhere in the jazz world...
  • Howard Mandel ponders the dearth of female jazz fans, asking men to perhaps be a bit more inclusive and less misogynistic when it comes to jazz.
  • Groove Notes posted an audio interview with Billy Hart on the murder of Lee Morgan.
  • Philip Stein, an artist who created the mural that graces the back wall of the Village Vanguard, died last month. He was 90. He was the sister of current Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon.
  • You can now listen to archived performances from Smalls Jazz Club online (h/t All Music Blog).
  • NPR has started its own jazz blog, and came up with a fantastic name, A Blog Supreme.
  • Coming Soon! Kind of Bloop: An 8-Bit Tribute To Miles Davis.
  • ESPN.com Special Correspondent Paul Shirley on basketball and jazz. The basketball/jazz comparison can be a bit tired, but Shirley adds new depth to the relationship. Now I have an excuse to post one of my favorite quotes from the American version of The Office. In a deleted scene from episode 1.05 ("Basketball"), Michael Scott ruminates:
    And basketball is like jazz, you know. To like pertipify it there's a jazz musician, a guy, you know... if you know jazz you know who I mean. He's uh, God what was his name? Um, he plays one of those curly horns, like those really shiny curly horns that's used in jazz a lot.

Image via Monthly Top Ten

16 May 2009

Listening to Free Jazz

If one record can be said to be responsible for the Jazz Wars, then Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (A Collective Improvisation) would surely have to be a candidate. Along with John Coltrane's Ascension, Free Jazz is one of the more radical points of departure in the avant-garde canon. Instead of one quartet, it features two. Instead of individual tunes, it features two takes of collective improvisation. It is definitely the most provocative jazz album ever released. It even featured a Jackson Pollack print on the album cover to up the ante. If The Shape of Jazz to come and Change of the Century were were warning shots, Free Jazz must have seemed like an atomic bomb when it was released in 1960.

But despite its notariety and reputation, I have never listened to the album. It is perhaps the most glaring hole in the jazz canon to which I have not been exposed. I have no good reason not to have heard it before. Since I first began to enjoy Ornette's music in college, I have listened to much of his catalogue, and liked much of it. Free Jazz always seemed like such a daunting listening task, though. It is not the kind of album you can throw on any day and check out. With all its baggage, Free Jazz carries with it a weight of responsibility; you cannot simply listen to it, you must take it in and contemplate it. For that reason, I had always put off listening to the album.

But no longer. I had sacrificed my own credibility too long, having not even sat through Coleman's first magnum opus. So the other night I sat down and listened to the entire album in one sitting. Below are my thoughts as I listened, condensed with some after-the-fact edits for clarity's sake.

This album belies the stereotype of free jazz as a caterwauling nonmusical free-for-all. Though the album is frenetic, there is also a lot of order. You could not make an album like this without some good listeners. Also, despite the reputations of Coleman, Dolphy, and Hubbard, there is a lot of space in these tracks from the winds. With steady rhythm underneath, each front-line player gives ample space to the rest of the front line most of the time.

The term "Collective Improvisation" is a misnomer; There is way more arranging on this album than you would expect.

When I listen to this, I think of jazz being broken down only partially, in big chunks, then rebuilt. Each instrument on the album sounds like jazz on its own, and collected together they build an entirely new structure out of the original parts; like deconstructing Huck Finn and rewriting it as On the Road. Free Jazz is still jazz, like On the Road is still a novel. But still, it feels like an entirely new style regardless.

The album was most definitely a worthy experiment, but not the most essential Ornette album on my list. One wonders what this album would have sounded like had Ornette only used his regular quartet at the time (with Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, and Don Cherry). Could four voices be as effective as eight? This is not to say that it is not a good album, just not an ideal introduction to Ornette Coleman for novices.

Other Resources
Jazz.com reviews First Take
Do the Math on early Ornette Coleman: "Free Jazz has some great moments but is too monochromatic. As I speculated before about the two Contemporary albums, I wonder if Free Jazz has harmed Ornette’s reputation, especially at the time it was released."

15 May 2009

Jaki Byard

Like his protege Jason Moran, Jaki Byard possessed a thorough understanding of the history of jazz piano, and could unfurl his vast pianistic knowledge at will with grace and wit. This solo on So Long Eric, from the Jazz Icons DVD series (it begins at the 5:40 mark), represents to me the Platonic ideal of the blues, and is proof of Byard's artistry and wizardry. If you do not like this, then you do not like jazz, and we could never be friends.

Another thought: I've seen video of Mingus playing bass before, but even now, I am struck by how strongly he played the instrument. His right hand was like five hammers; he beat the crap out of his bass, but kept perfect time with impeccable swing.

06 May 2009

Bonus Material

Some Dave Holland videos from the YouTube universe:

The Dave Holland Quintet plays Metamorphos at the 2002 Newport Jazz Festival. With Holland are Chris Potter on alto, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on mallets, and Billy Kilson on drums.

Here Holland plays "Cantaloupe Island" with Pat Metheny and Roy Haynes in 1992.

Here is Holland's quintet in 1986, with Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Coleman on saxophone, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith on drums.

And finally, a snippet of Holland with Miles Davis in 1971. Also on the date were Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, and Gary Bartz

Review: Pass It On

Dave Holland Sextet

The other day, I realized that (the inefficacy of historical analogies aside) Dave Holland is kind of like the Art Blakey of postbop. Like Blakey, Holland has become an Old Lion who continues to surround himself with younger musicians. Not necessarily a talent scout, Holland does not discover new stars so much as create an environment to which they are attracted and in which they thrive. Holland's alumni association is quite impressive: it includes Steve Coleman, Kenny Wheeler, Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith, among others. Maybe not as impressive as the volume of sidemen who passed through Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but about as good a roster as you will find in contemporary jazz.

Despite a constantly evolving working ensemble, Holland manages to craft albums that are both representative of his own style and refreshingly different from anything he has recorded before. That Mr. Holland has not been afforded the stature among casual jazz fans that Blakey is given is unfortunate, but I doubt he would care much for my mythologizing. I was first exposed to Holland's music in high school when I bought a copy of Prime Directive. I bought it having never heard Holland - I liked the album cover and remember the album getting a five-star review in DownBeat, so I figured it was worth the money. I was immediately taken by the record, and have since gotten my hands on much more of Holland's work.

Pass It On features Holland in a different setting than most of his albums. Instead of his normal quintet, he is joined by longtime sideman Robin Eubanks with Eric Harland on drums, Antonio Hart on saxophone, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, and Mulgrew Miller on piano. The presence of Mulgrew is interesting, considering that Holland rarely uses a pianist, even on his big band albums, usually opting for a vibraphone instead. The album leads off with "The Sum of All Parts," a Eubanks tune that flows from an extended drums-and-trombone duet by Eubanks and Harland into a group improvisation featuring the entire front line. From here the tune commences, with snaking syncopated lines adhering into a beautiful fugue. After a minute-long melodic sequence, Holland begins a solo that is reminiscent of the highly logical melodies which grace so many of his albums. The tune is representative of the Holland's milieu: tightly-orchestrated melodies over a distinctive harmonic structure.

The remaining tunes on the album are all Holland compositions, most of which have appeared in different forms on previous Holland efforts. Nearly every one is a winner. "Modern Times" is the best of the bunch, though, featuring a very tight arrangement with wonderful timbres. Against a backdrop of Eubanks' trombone and Sipiagin's trumpet (which sounds about as mellow as a trumpet can sound), Hart and Miller unfurl a sinuous melody which on paper may look like an exercise from a method book, but on record sounds sublime.

As is so often the case, Holland's sidemen are top notch. Frequent collaborator Robin Eubanks is in his usual virtuosic form, and his command over the trombone pays vast dividends on the album. Hart and Sipiagin are two who I have not listened to much in the past, but both won me over on this album. Eric Harland is Eric Harland, and frankly, if he is good enough for Holland, Charles Lloyd, Jason Moran, and Terence Blanchard, then he is surely good enough for me. Pass It On slipped a bit under the radar last year, and did not appear on many year-end best-of lists, which is a shame. The album makes a great primer on the Dave Holland Graduate School of Jazz Performance.

Track Listing: The Sum of All Parts; Fast Track; Lazy Snake; Double Vision; Equality; Modern Times; Rivers Run; Processional; Pass It On
Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Antonio Hart, saxophone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Eric Harland, drums