Archives for category: Jazz

I missed that jazz musician/composer/poet Cecil Taylor passed away last week at the age of 89. I’ve listened to some of his music (and will listen more today), but not very much. I did see him perform his poetry one night at a tiny art/music venue in San Francisco called the Luggage Store Gallery. The performance was scheduled for after a sold out music gig somewhere else in the City and started late. LSG was on the second floor of a building on near 6th on the south side of Market. I lived at the time in a tiny studio right on the corner, so gigs there were easy for me. Usually experimental music of various kinds. I saw Henry Kaiser, Steev Hise, John Tchicai and a dozen others over the two years I lived in that neighbourhood, in a room that was probably zoned for no more than 100 people. It was generally brightly lit – as the name implies, it was a place for displaying art as much as for music, but the track lighting would be turned down for performance.  Taylor brought along several musicians to a packed gallery – they played percussion while he read this insane poetry sat at a desk in front of them. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time and watching and listening, I knew I had a long way to go. From what I can tell, he lived his art and his artistic life to the fullest. Here’s an example from a couple of years later…

Island Records, 1970

Released only six months after In the Wake of Poseidon (and only 14 months after their debut), Lizard is a definite continuation of the improvisational jazz/rock found on the first two LPs. Almost all of the vocal work has been taken on by Gordon Haskell (whose voice graced the released version of Cadence and Cascade on Poseidon). One of the main changes in sound is the full-time presence of Mel Collins on flute and sax. Lyric duties are still being handled by Pete Sinfield.

In rough structure, we get three uptempo songs on side 1 followed by a ballad. Side 2 consists of the multi-part Lizard Suite. The first thing to catch is that the more rocking of the songs don’t really resemble much from the previous albums, except for the maybe the jazz inflections of Cat Food.

At a finer level, there seems to be both a lyrical and a musical plan to the whole thing. Almost, but not quite, a concept album in much the same way that Court seemed to follow an interlocking plan, but wasn’t a single story carried through.

Cirkus musically feels on the one hand like four verses in search of a chorus, until the crashing cadences of the first three verses cross-fade into a soprano sax and Mellotron-led bridge that feel more a part of some AM radio soft rock hit. This doesn’t last. The fourth verse collapses into a crash of noise which evolves through several phases and concludes with what sounds perhaps like the ‘megaphonium fanfare’ referenced in the second verse.

Indoor Games feels much the same as Cirkus, both musically and in terms of wild lyrics that come from all over the place and might reflect how a writer who has never taken psychedelics might script a trip: ‘One string puppet shows amuse / Your sycophantic friends…Whilst you loaf on your sofa / Sporting falsies and a toga-Playing Indoor Games’.

Happy Family features Haskell’s voice run through a vocoder most of the time (in the second and third verses sounding almost like a dalek), arrayed against some flute and organ. Some of the instrumentation again brings the midway to mind. The bridge is again a controlled madness of improvisation, anchored primarily by Collins’ flute work.

Lyrically, we hear of four men, Uncle Rufus, Brother Judas, Cousin Silas, Nasty Jonah, who grow rich (whipped the world and beat the clock / wound up with their share of stock), perform (Uncle Rufus grew his nose / threw away his circus clothes), and presumably go to war. Four times the lyrics repeat ‘four went on (or ‘by’ in the first verse) and none came back’. Thematically, this points backwards to the opening track and forward to the Battle of Glass Tears, again suggesting that perhaps there’s a plan in all this madness.

Side 1 closes with Lady of the Dancing Water which at less than three minutes and only ten lines, is the shortest of of the tracks on Lizard. It also seems the most like the easy folk Haskell would do a couple of years later. Lovely as it is, Lady doesn’t seem to fit with anything else on the album. On the other hand, it’s not as though a little respite doesn’t add poignancy to the proceedings.

KingCrimson-Lizard-backRight then. On to side 2, the Lizard Suite.

The first section, Prince Rupert Awakes, features an unadorned and untreated vocal from Jon Anderson of Yes, which also sounds like he’s handling his own harmonies. Before getting into the lyrics and the structure of the piece, I’ve got to say that this must have been particularly galling to Haskell, who cited his treated vocals as one of the reasons he left KC following this album. Haskell at the time had a strong voice, though not one with much expressed range. (His 1974 album It Is and It Isn’t features some lovely work, such as this piece.)

Lyrically, it’s more Pete Sinfield mush, but there’s a wonderful contrast between the verses in which the vocals play against dissonant instrumentation – piano in one channel and bells and synth flourishes in the other, while the choruses feature almost Spanish-style guitar runs and Mellotron.

The suite continues with Bolero – The Peacock’s Tale, which is a nice little pun that references the last verse of the opening, ‘Now tales Prince Rupert’s peacock brings / Of walls and trumpets thousand fold’. It’s an interesting instrumental that I suppose is mostly a jazz battle between pianist Keith Tippet and Collins. The bolero sounds like it’s closing about a minute before it should, and the the flute rises in a crescendo joined by a quieter piano accompaniment and finally kettle drums. The Battle of Glass Tears, the third part of the suite, is itself divided into three parts. The name of this section again draws from Prince Rupert Awakes, in which ‘Prince Rupert’s tears of glass / Make saffron sabbath eyelids bleed’. Dawn Song, a vocal, describes armies preparing themselves for battle, ‘Three hills apart great armies stir / Spit oath and curse as day breaks. / Forming lines of horse and steel / By even yards march forward.

It’s interesting to note that with Mel Collins’ 2015 return to active service in King Crimson, Cirkus and The Battle of Glass Tears (along with Pictures of a City from the last album, and The Letters from the next one) have become regular features of the band’s live sets.

With the lyrics to hand, the plan behind the whole thing seems obvious. The first verse of Cirkus concludes ‘Bid me face the east closed me in questions / Built the sky for my dawn’, suggesting that perhaps the battle is just another aspect of a cosmic ringmaster’s production.

Fairly straightforward, the aptly titled Last Skirmish finds the band at its most dissonant. Prince Rupert’s Lament builds a high wail from the guitar balanced against metronomic notes from Haskell’s bass.

In true King Crimson style, the album doesn’t end on this note of despair. Big Top, which sounds like a demented fun fair carousel committed to tape, slowed and sped up, fades out in just over a minute. When the album is played on repeat, it feels as though it really is a circular experience as Cirkus starts up again.

It’s possible I had this album during my 90s period of KC fascination, but there was nothing for me to grab on to – it was far too late for my prog-bound adolescence on the one hand and the jazz and improvisation didn’t seem of a piece with anything else I knew in the rest of the work. That said, having listened to it at least once a day for the last week, it’s a strong offering and well worth checking out. (And because there don’t seem to be any live versions of songs from this album on YouTube, here’s an 8-bit rendition of Happy Family.)

Next up: Islands.

Friends and others recommend musical goodies to me all the time. This is probably not surprising. This morning, my friend Rusty suggests Darkthrone, a black metal/punk band. I’m sure the moment will come when that satisfies my musical desires. On this foggy Friday morning, the music of choice is The Jazz Crusaders at the Lighthouse (the first one recorded in ’62) featuring the recently departed Joe Sample on keys.  I know there’s much to be written about the early 60s West Coast sound, but several help files on cost analysis beckon.

Prior to the 1950s, Billie Holiday recorded primarily singles. From 1952 until her death at the age of 44 in 1959, Lady Day recorded ten studio albums and three live albums, primarily for the Verve label (and its Clef subsidiary). She recorded her final album, 1958’s Lady in Satin, for Columbia.

This last period of her life was marked by a lot of personal strife, including abusive relationships, as well as heroin addiction, but even on that final album, she’s well in control of her talents, though her voice had lost a lot of its range.

The thing to remember about these albums is that, unlike her earlier work, these are their own set pieces, not standalone singles, or collections of singles. Of course, this isn’t true only of Billie’s work – it’s the nature of the music business in general in the 1950s– with the advent of LPs, artists, label, and producers began to conceive of pieces listeners would enjoy at a sitting, generally in front of a large console hi-fi system.

By this period, the recording art had become such that the instrumental solos get as much attention as Holiday’s vocals. I don’t think in recording she was ever less than generous with the people who played with her, but on these late albums the band members all get a chance to shine.

1952    Billie Holiday Sings / Recorded: March 26, 1952 (Clef)

This eight-song 10” (extended to 12 and renamed Solitude for the 12” 1956 rerelease) maintains a mostly upbeat take on love with gently swinging arrangements. On the one hand, producer Norman Granz keeps the instrumentation light and Billie’s voice to the front. On the other, her interplay with the musicians, notably Charlie Shaver’s muted trumpet on Solitude and Oscar Peterson’s piano on Blue Moon, highlight how well she used her voice as an instrument in much the way Ella and Sarah Vaughan did. I recall hearing her version I Only Have Eyes For You sometime in the 90s and falling in love with it. I was already familiar with a lot of her work, but only knew the slower 1959 version by the Flamingos.

1953    An Evening with BilliImagee Holiday / Recorded: April 1, 1952 & July 27, 1952 (Clef)

This is an altogether more down affair than Billie Holiday Sings. Stormy Weather sets the tone – this is a collection of lost love and love on the rocks songs. While My Man, He’s Funny That Way, and Tenderly address love as a good thing, the tempo and timing are as sad as those on opener Stormy Weather. On the other side of the coin, closer Remember addresses a lover who has strayed, but with a much happier the tempo. This track also features a pair of really nice solos from Peterson and Barney Kessel. (At the time Kessel and bassist Ray Brown rounded out the Oscar Peterson Trio, though Kessel only stayed a year.)

1954    Billie Holiday / Recorded: April 1, 1952 & April 14, 1954 (Clef)

As you can see all three of these albums came out of sessions that occurred in a four month period, and with many of the same players on all sessions. That said, the musicians are all at the top of the game. The playlist has all eight tracks because they weren’t obviously available on Spotify in sequence. Listen, in particular to Everything I Have Is Yours. Billie and tenor man Flip Philips are engaging in a sweet dialogue. As with the first two sets, the songs strike a melancholy balance between love and lost love. The closing tracks, however, positively swing. What a Little Moonlight Can Do features another fantastic solo from Peterson and some sweet trumpet work from Charlie Shavers while I Cried For You, a defiant kiss-off to a faithless lover is notable for its building intensity.

1955    Stay with Me / Recorded: February 14, 1955 (Verve)

This seven-song result of a single recording session with Tony Scott’s orchestra and features on side A a couple of longer pieces (each well over six minutes) sandwiching a modern take on Fats Waller’s 1929 hit Ain’t Misbehavin’. (I’ve added a Waller rendition to the playlist as well, for a contrast.) These are strange recordings in that the solos really stretch out. Everything Happens To Me, with its line “I’m just a girl who never looks before she jumps” has the not quite defeated feeling of the classic recordings of Good Morning Heartache and Travelin’ Light off Lady Sings The Blues recorded the following year. The sequencing of the album reflects that of Billie Holiday, with two swingers on side B, I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm and Irving Berlin’s Always, though it closes with a thoughtful rendition of Ellington’s Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me.

Joe’s History of Jazz
Lesson 5A

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There’s no real delineation between the decades. Those zero years are just easy markers.

In the early 50s, Miles Davis didn’t exactly drop out of the scene, but following his return from a 1949 tour of Paris, fell into heroin addiction. For about four years he performed a bit, recorded quite a lot, and “lived the life of a hustler” (Wikipedia’s phrase – I don’t know what this means in context, however). In the late 1980s I read a biography of Miles that suggested he played in a recording session with Billie Holiday during this period, but I’ve never identified what those recordings might have been. He finally quit cold turkey in 1954. While his work from the late 40s and early 50s (addiction or no) show him to be a musician of incredible talent and vision. I’d argue that from 1955’s first quintet sessions through to 1975’s Agharta and Pangaea live albums, Miles was the center around which everything new in jazz revolved/evolved. (Between 1975 and 1981 he recorded little and didn’t perform in public at all, due primarily to illness and exhaustion. Many of his recordings and performances after returning to the public eye are less innovative and very much of their time, but there are still some intriguing gems in that late work.)

In 1951 he signed with Prestige records and recorded with a revolving cast of musicians that often included Art Blakey on drums and Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. Blakey later led the Jazz Messengers and Rollins led his own bands from 1957 onward.

Harold Arlen’s It’s Only a Paper Moon, from 1951’s Dig with Rollins was a hit in the 40s for Nat King Cole. While Miles’ lines hew to Cole’s vocal version, we get long improvisatory solos from Rollins and Davis.

On the subject of improvisation, in a recent interview with the All About Jazz web site, Kawabata Makoto of the Japanese psychedelic collective Acid Mothers Temple had this to say:

 AAJ: How do you go about staying creative as a musician? What inspires you to play?

 KM: I believe I haven’t created any music. Always, my cosmos teaches me what I should play. I don’t need to be inspired by anybody. I just try to be the best radio tuner for my cosmic that gives me music all the time. I try to play with “self-annihilation.” Any personal, egoistical idea makes the pure music [I think there might be a translation error in that last sentence. -JS]. I have to play without any of my personality or my own ideas. So I’ve tried to be a better tuner to receive and replay— to recreate—this music for people. But if I add any of my ego—my personal ideas of this music—this pure music will be a different thing. For example, if a musician gets any new technique, they want to show it to other people. Then this musician tries to add this new technique to his music. But I believe music must be played without any musicians’ egos. Music must be played as pure!

 While this may apply to certain more recent schools of music than 50s era Miles, Makoto is not the only one to suggest that he is only a conduit for his virtuosity. John Coltrane made similar assertions. It’s worth keeping in mind as we delve into the improvisational nature of jazz as the form moves on from 3-minute recordings to longer forms.

Bluing was recorded at one of two 1951 sessions from which the Dig album was compiled, though originally released as part of the Blue Period 10” album (along with Blue Room and Out of the Blue). At almost ten minutes long, Miles and Rollins both take the space to get into this Davis composition. Rollins’ tenor sax solo starts at about the 4 minute mark. He and Miles alternate for a bit before Jackie McLean’s alto comes in at about 6 minutes. Each one takes a route around the theme before Miles takes it back around the 8th minute. He finally restates the theme, introduced by Walter Bishop’s piano in the opening, in the piece’s closing bars.

Smooch, recorded in 1953 and released on Blue Haze is notable, again, for the line-up. Charles Mingus (who usually plays bass, but plays piano on this track) would soon record a string of influential albums starting with Mingus Ah Um in ’59. Drummer Max Roach, who founded the Debut record label together with Mingus in ’52 ,continued to record and perform with figures including Duke Ellington (1962’s Money Jungle, also with Mingus). Bassist Percy Heath and pianist John Lewis (not on this track, but on the rest of Blue Haze) had co-founded the Modern Jazz Quartet (usually abbreviated MJQ) the previous year and would continue to perform and record under that moniker on and off until the early 1990s.

Around the same time as the Blue Haze recordings, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Mingus, Roach, and pianist Bud Powell released Jazz at Massey Hall, Toronto. The show is remarkable for a number of reasons; one is that it was the last time Gillespie and Parker shared a stage. I’ve included a smoking rendition of Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia (which you heard first back one of the 1940s entries). Again, we get extended solos from many of the participants – Powell’s is particularly tasty. I’d like to be able to point to the interplay between Powell and Mingus, but in the original release of the album, the bass was overdubbed because it had been too low in the mix. A later reissue removed the overdubbing. I’m pretty sure the one in the Spotify playlist is an overdubbed version.

Django, a Lewis composition and early MJQ recording, is a tribute to Django Reinhardt who passed away in 1953. Despite having no guitar, it has the feeling of some of Reinhardt’s tunes especially in the closing movement. I think it’s fair to say that this song progresses through distinct phases that might be called movements akin to those in a sonata. The song isn’t relaxed but has a distinct lack of hurry that’s very appealing.

Art Blakey, the drummer on the Dig sessions, first recorded under the name Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with the Café Bohemia albums recorded in 1955. Their rendition of the 1939 hit What’s New is almost a duet between Doug Watkins’ bass and Horace Silver’s piano – Blakey really only comes to the fore at the end of the song. On the other hand, the band’s rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen’s Like Someone in Love shows off each musician’s talent. Kenny Dorham’s trumpet work is well balanced against Hank Mobley’s sax. Dorham’s another journeyman who led his own small groups and was a sideman for many others. A few years later Mobley would join the Miles Davis Quintet for Someday My Prince Will Come (but I get ahead of myself).

Coming around the other way, we have John Coltrane whose tenor saxophone would grace the work of the first great Miles Davis Quintet from ’55 to ’57, was already recording in the early 50s. Between 1949 and 1951, Coltrane recorded several sessions with Dizzy Gillespie (including one which featured Dinah Washington, which I can’t find the Washington tracks on Spotify), but We Love to Boogie gives a taste of the power he was already showing pretty early in his career. The swinging Used to Be Duke, is from a 1954 stint with Johnny Hodges (an alto sax player who worked with Ellington in the 30s and participated in that great Benny Goodman show at Carnegie Hall). Miles admired Coltrane for, among other things his ability to play both loud and fast, while maintaining complete control of the instrument. You get a taste of that in both of these tracks.

There’s more to say about Coltrane and the other people who played with Miles during this very rich period. In a couple of massive sessions in 1956, Miles and Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones would record enough material for four albums, enough to fulfil Davis’ contract with Prestige and allow him to jump to Columbia Records in ’57.

Next up, however, we’ll visit Billie Holiday’s later work.