28 February 2010

27 February 2010

24 February 2010

Dave Holland: A Latter Day Art Blakey

Of the generation of musicians who came of age during the development of bebop, Art Blakey is remembered as the great teacher of subsequent generations of jazz musicians. His band, The Jazz Messengers, are frequently referred to as a university of jazz in the historical literature. And his place in this slightly mythologized narrative is secure. His former sidemen, which includes Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Donald Harrison, and Terence Blanchard, all credit Blakey to their developments as musicians. Blakey is the classic evangelist, as the tall tale goes:
Art was driving to an out-of-town job and passed through a village where traffic was completely tied up because of a funeral procession. Since he couldn't get past the cemetery until the service was over, he got out and listened to the eulogy. The minister spoke at length about the virtues of the deceased, and then asked if anyone had anything else to add. After a silence during which nobody spoke up, Art said, "If nobody has anything to say about the deceased, I'd like to say a few words about jazz!"1
Such was Blakey, always educating. And he is not the only musician who should be championed for his role as a bandstand professor. Dave Holland has served as a kind of Dean of Postbop for the past 30 years. His working bands, while they lack the brand name of Blakey's Messengers, have nonetheless served as a revolving door of talent which Holland nurtures. Like Blakey, Holland has an impressive record of graduates: Chris Potter, Steve Coleman, Eric Harland, and Kenny Wheeler, to name but a few.

But the analogy runs deeper than that. It is one thing to hire a bunch of up-and-coming sidemen, but quite another to let them develop as individuals while keeping your own stamp on the band at the same time. Holland and Blakey were both members of their respective rhythm sections; they could not be as overtly dominant as a front line player. Indeed, both men also recorded many original compositions written by their sidemen, and are remembered by their sidemen for their encouragement in contributing tunes to the book. But at the same time, the recorded outputs of Blakey and Holland each bear a distinctive sound. You know whose band is on the stand anytime either plays. It takes a special kind of musical leader to develop such a recognizable style with a continually changing cast of musicians passing through their bands.

Holland's recordings always seem to be well-received, but he has not quite reached the historical status of Blakey. Of course Blakey had the benefit of one of his sidemen acquiring an incredibly powerful position for mythmaking (ahem), but that's not territory I wish to cover here. Blakey also played during a time when stylistic categories within jazz were less complicated (it's much easier to approach a definition of hard bop than it is for postbop). However, if we can call the Jazz Messengers Hard Bop Academy, I think it's about time we start calling Holland's quintet the School for Postbop Studies.

Bonus material after the jump.

22 February 2010


Robin D.G. Kelley

Despite the rise of jazz studies, the history of jazz remains wound up with a great deal of mythology (not that its the fault of the jazz studies field; these processes take time to unwind). And within The Jazz Tradition, no figure is more heavily mythologized than Thelonious Monk (save for Buddy Bolden, and, perhaps, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane). As Robin Kelley points out in his new biography of Monk, this process of mythologizing began even before Monk became notable outside of a circle of jazz musicians. The image of Monk the disaffected was essentially invented by Bill Gottlieb, a writer and photographer for Down Beat assigned to write about Monk in 1947. Having heard Monk's name dropped in interviews with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Gottlieb envisioned Monk as "the George Washington of bebop," a Bolden-like figure who was pivotal to the bebop revolution.

His profile, which appeared in the September 24 (1947) issue of Down Beat, "set in motion the image of Monk as a mysterious, eccentric figure," asserts Kelley. It was an image against which Kelley tries to set the record straight. Unlike previous Monk biographers, Kelley had access to scores of private home recordings made by Monk and his wife Nellie, which present the image of Monk as a man of wide interests who was not indifferent to musical traditions, Western and otherwise, as the popular image of Monk asserts. Kelley paints a vivid portrait of Monk, the well-informed artist who struggled to make a living, but had the determination and self-assuredness to persist, knowing his music was both important and accessible.

Especially poignant are the scenes in which Monk struggles to deal with what was likely an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder, which led to stints at psychiatric wards and regimens of amphetamine-laced vitamin shots and Thorazine which made his condition worse, not to mention countless manic episodes. This is a warts-and-all treatment of Monk, who leaned on the women in his life (including his mother, his wife, and confidant the baroness Nica de Koenigswarter) to take care of him while he focused much of his energy on his music and other diversions.

However, this is not to say that Monk does not emerge from the book as a triumphant figure. Kelley does not dispute the importance of Monk in the history of jazz, though he does rightfully critique Monk's complaints during the height of bebop's popularity that he did not get enough credit for his role in the development of the music. In the end, though, Monk seems more like a tragic figure than a triumphant one. While some of his peers like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie thrived in the late-1950s and beyond, Monk frequently studied to make ends meet or even get gigs, on top of his psychological disorder.

If I may be slightly tendentious here, it is fitting that Kelley, a professional historian, wrote such a book as this. It takes the kind of person who thrives sifting through archives and staring at as few as three documents in one day to achieve this precision of the events covered in this book while also painting a coherent portrait of the man. With access to a treasure trove of personal recordings, which more than make up for the fact that Monk left no personal papers or journals to posterity, Kelley digs deep and sifts through the clutter to give us a story of a musician whose work remains a vital toucstone to jazz in the 21st century.

Willis Conover introduces Monk at Newport in 1958, clearly referencing the image of Monk the eccentric.

Bonus Material: Bop and Beyond interviews Kelley and has a few more words from the author.
Extra credit: Gabriel Solis' Monk's Music pairs quite nicely with Kelley's biography.

18 February 2010

Gem from the Bargain Bin

I bought one of my favorite jazz books for $4 at the bargain table at a Barnes & Noble in the late-90s. The Jazz Musician, a collection of interviews with jazz musicians from the 1980s, was compiled from the pages of Musician Magazine (not this one). I would have never found out about had I not seen it on that table; it is one reason why I continue to shop at used book stores. A few excerpts are below after the jump.

17 February 2010

Today's Reading Assignment

This month in The Atlantic, Joshua Green discusses the opening of the Grateful Dead archive at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the band's influence on the business world, which "may turn out to be a significant part of its legacy." In short, the Grateful Dead (including the band and its stakeholders) were shrewd businesspeople who knew how to create value for their band and brand, predating “Internet business models,” under which free content is used to stimulate brand loyalty and awareness, by a few decades.

As Green notes, researchers and academics have only scratched the surface of Dead scholarship so far, especially with regards to the economics of the band, so there is still much more to know about the band's business model. Jazz musicians would be wise to keep up with this scholarship, as they can certainly learn a thing or two from the band. True, the Grateful Dead was a rock band, so it drew from a wider audience base, but the band eventually developed a subculture that allowed the organization to thrive with very little publicity outside its own newsletters.

Today I can think of a few jazz musicians whose own promotional efforts recall those of the Dead (Jason Parker is the first that comes to mind). What is often lost in the uproar of the constant "Is Jazz Dead?" debates is the fact that there is a huge population of listeners who would be open to the music if they only were able to hear it. Perhaps by picking up a few pointers from the Grateful Dead, the jazz world can reinvigorate its listener base and make it a little easier for musicians to make a living.

UPDATE: Turns out I'm not the only person thinking about the business of jazz these days. I'll be reviewing The Jazz Process at some point, I'm sure.

15 February 2010

Remembering the First Miles Davis Quintet

This weekend's post on Red Garland and Charlie Parker at JazzWax had me reminiscing about the mid-1950s Miles Davis quintet with Garland, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Back when I was initially exploring jazz in middle school and high school, this band was the first of the canonical ensembles that I fell in love with. Having read a glowing review of Workin' With the Miles Davis Quintet in a book I had, I quickly bought copies of it and three other albums, Steamin', Cookin', and Relaxin', all of which were recorded over two sessions in 1956 as Miles wanted to fulfill obligations with Prestige Records before recording with Columbia. They were among the dozen or so albums that I listened to continually in high school as I developed my taste in jazz. Miles' playing during this period was also a major influence on my jazz improvisation at the time (I was quite taken by his lyricism, and leaned on him heavily as I developed my own sense of melodicism).

In his autobiography, Miles remembers that this band made him a star:
Wherever we played the clubs were packed, overflowing back into the streets, with long lines of people standing out in the rain and snow and cold and heat. It was something else, man, man. And a whole lot of famous people were coming every night to hear us play. People like Frank Sinatra, Dorothy Kilgallen, Tony Bennett (who got up on the stage and sang with my band one night), Ava Gardner, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Richard Burton, Sugar Ray Robinson, just to mention a few.
The band earned this star power, to be sure. Miles remembers "It was so bad that it used to send chills through me at night, and it did the same thing to the audiences, too." Miles had just recently made his mythologized "comeback performance" at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, playing Monk's 'Round Midnight to a captivated crowd. He had also kicked his heroin habit just before this period, and he had found a new energy which drove him to conquer the ears of jazz listeners. He had one of the all-time great rhythm sections behind him: The swinging Red Garland on piano, whose block chords and light touch glued the rhythm section; the fiery Philly Joe Jones on drums, who felt what Miles was thinking, and who Miles described as "the fire that was making a lot of shit happen;" and the extremely hip Paul Chambers on bass, who could make quarter notes swing like you could not believe.

Then there was Coltrane, commonly described as a diamond in the rough during this period in jazz histories. He was still putting his improvisational style together; it was only after his stint with Thelonious Monk a year later that he really sounds like the Coltrane who was the king of jazz in the early 1960s. But his often unmoored, searching solos managed to confound me and captivate me, though I only later really understood what he was trying to do at the time. And Miles himself was on top of his game, fragile and beautiful when playing ballads with a Harmon mute and powerfully melodic when playing without the mute. This band is overshadowed by Miles' later quintet with Herbie, Ron, Tony, and Wayne, but even 50+ years after these recordings were made, they are still engaging to contemporary ears.

The repertoire on these four albums balanced Miles' originals with standards that the band used at clubs regularly, allowing them to use the first complete take of each tune at the sessions. Sadly, a quick YouTube search yields no video of this band, but plenty of audio excerpts from these albums, which follow after the jump.

12 February 2010

Four & More

Miles Davis made one of his most acclaimed recordings 46 years ago today. On February 12, 1964, Miles Davis and his quintet (then featuring George Colemanon tenor saxophone with the now-legendary Tony Williams-Ron Carter-Herbie Hancock rhythm section) played a benefit at Philharmonic Hall in New York's Lincoln Center for a coalition of civil rights groups including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the recording of which (The Complete Concert 1964) is among his best. But it could have turned out differently:
We just blew the top off that place that night. It was a motherfucker the way everybody played -- and I mean everybody. A lot of the tunes we played were done up-tempo and the time never did fall, not even once. George Coleman played better that night than I have ever heard him play. There was a lot of creative tension happening that night that the people out front didn't know about. We had been off for a while as a band, each doing other things. Plus it was a benefit and some of the guys didn't like the fact that they weren't getting paid. One guy -- and I won't call his name because he has a great reputation and I don't want to cause him no grief, plus he's a very nice guy on top of everything else -- said to me, "Look, man, give me my money and I'll contribute what I want to them; I'm not playing no benefit. Miles, I don't make as much money as you do." The discussion went back and forth. Everyone decided that they were going to do it, but only this one time. When we came out to play everybody was madder than a motherfucker with each other and so I think the anger created a fire, a tension that got into everybody's playing, and maybe that's one of the reasons everybody played with such intensity.
...And that's just one of the qualities that earned Miles the French Legion of Honor.

08 February 2010

Links From Out In The Cold

Wein photo via New York Times

06 February 2010

The "Is X Dead?" Meme Is Not Unique To Jazz

Even NPR is not a safe haven from the last volleys of the Jazz Wars, as the comment section of a recent blog post at A Blog Supreme showed. As David Adler points out, the post itself is innocuous, but the comment section quickly spun into a round of contradictory accusations.
Why can't jazz still sound like Dexter Gordon? Why does jazz still sound like Dexter Gordon? Why are young musicians so afraid to break the rules? Why are young musicians so heedless of the rules?
But this somewhat reactionary tendency to lament the loss of a golden age is not limited to the jazz world. Last week Rachel Maddux asked in the pages of Paste Magazine, Is Indie Dead?. Hey, at least this pathology isn't limited to jazz listeners...

Image via JazzTimes

02 February 2010

Review: Purpose Built

Michael Janisch
Purpose Built

I don't get a chance to cover much of the diverse European jazz scene in this space, so I was pleased to receive a promotional copy of London-based bassist Michael Janisch's debut album, Purpose Built, which was released last week. Jansich is joined by a rotating cast on the album, save for drummer Johnathan Blake, who provides steady ballast throughout.

Purpose Built features a number of Janisch originals as well as some choice renderings of standards. Janisch's trio version of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing ranks among my favorite takes on the standard, on par with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach version. The trio (with pianist Aaron Goldberg) reveals a nuanced interplay with sustained energy throughout. Goldberg is restrained at first, but as the tune builds steam he unleashes a flurry of angular lines which reflect the unbridled joy of the song's title. Also inspired was Janisch's choice to include the obscure Miles Davis tune Milestones (no, not that Milestones), a lovely little bebop tune that seems to have been forgotten by posterity, as well as the Billy Strayhorn gem Blood Count. The former features a deft solo from Janisch, while the latter again finds Goldberg displaying some expressive brilliance which allows for Strayhorn's masterful construction to shine.

Janisch's own compositions are dense and boisterous; a less charitable reviewer may think they are in fact too busy. Case in point, Precisely Now sounds like a Dave Holland tune, and uses collective improvisation much in the same way Holland does in his great quintet (Janisch even has vibraphonist Jim Hart comp freely behind the soloists, a vehicle Holland has used to great effect). Of course, there are also tunes like Lost Creek, which, despite containing many notes in the melody, still manage to feel subdued and spare.

Janisch surrounds himself with able sidemen, including the aforementioned Goldberg and Blake, as well as rising guitarist Mike Moreno, who shines on his three contributions (especially the uptempo Adelante, on which Janisch provides a bouncy platform on electric bass). All in all, Purpose Built is an admirable opening statement from an expatriate musician who could make waves if he were to ever return stateside for an extended stay.

Track Listing: Precisely Now; Adelante; Love Is A Many Splendored Thing; Shumshi; Milestones; Serenade Of The Seas; Puk-n-Pappo; Sofa Stomp; Lost Creek; Blood Count; Beep; Moment's Notice
Personnel: Michael Janisch, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums; Patrick Cornelius, alto saxophone (5, 11); Paul Booth, tenor saxophone (1, 2, 6); Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone (1, 8, 11); Jason Palmer, trumpet (2, 7, 8, 11); Jim Hart, vibraphone (1, 4, 6,11); Mike Moreno, guitar (2, 7, 8); Phil Robson, guitar (5, 9); Aaron Goldberg, piano (3, 9, 10)