Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

The six months that John Coltrane spent with Thelonious Monk in the latter part of 1957 has long been heralded as one of the great partnerships in jazz and for good reason.  Coltrane finally kicked a longtime heroin habit earlier in the year after being fired by Miles Davis, under whom the tenor saxophonist had gotten his first major recognition.  Monk, after years as an under-recognized innovator of the so-called "bop" movement, was also starting to get long overdue attention for his work, including the amazing 1956 record, Brilliant Corners, with the tenor giant Sonny Rollins.  When Davis fired Coltrane, Monk was quick to get the sax player to join his quartet.

For most of the last part of 1957, the quartet had a residency at the Five Spot Café and as the year closed the band's legend grew.  While Coltrane had to calibrate his staggering work ethic to the demands of playing with the highly unorthodox Monk, the rapport and effort the two put forward paid off handsomely during the engagement.  Less talked about, however, was the solid backing of bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and, especially, drummer Shadow Wilson.

Unfortunately, the quartet was at all well recorded--Trane made appearances on the Monk's Music  record, but it was not until 1961 that producer Orrin Keepnews cobbled together a few unreleased studio pieces from July 1957, at the beginning of Coltrane's tenure and some outtakes from the Monk's Music record along with one solo performance from the leader's Thelonious Alone album for the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, which was released in 1961 when Trane had become a major star.

The result was that the legend of the Monk/Coltrane outfit was one perpetuated by those who had seen the band live, particularly as the six-month residency matured and developed.  This was especially noteworthy as the studio recordings all came when Trane was still learning to play with Monk's singular style and complex arrangements.

Then, in early 2005 a stunning discovery was made at the Library of Congress and its Voice of America international radio program collection.  the LOC's recording lab supervisor Larry Appelbaum, as he explains in his short note, was "thumbing through some VOA acetate tapes awaiting digitization" when he "noticed several reels labeled 'Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957." 

There was a Thanksgiving performance on 29 November at the famed New York venue with a stunning lineup of Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker with Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, and "Thelonious Monk quartet with John Coltrane."  And, one of the tape boxes, Appelbaum found, was labeled "T. Monk" and listed song titles.  As he remembered, "When we played it, I recognized both Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and my heart started racing." 

Appelbaum had found a "holy grail" that had been searched for diligently by Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter, who contributed his own essay, as did Amiri Baraka (the former LeRoi Jones), Ira Gitler, Ashley Kahn, Stanley Crouch and Robin D. G. Kelley.  This is a formidable lineup of jazz critics and writers testifying to the importance of this astonishing discovery.

There were two shows recorded that day for broadcast on the Voice of America and the music is just spectacular.  These are fully realized versions of some of Monk's greatest compositions, from "Crepuscule with Nellie" to "Epistrophy" to "Sweet and Lovely" to "Monk's Mood."  The leader sparkles throughout with his unique way of writing, arranging, soloing and comping behind Trane, while the latter appeared totally comfortable with his surroundings and displays much of that rapid-fire, intricately developed, and carefully orchestrated soloing style that Gitler, to his regret, termed, at that time, as "sheets of sound."

Again, though, it's easy to overlook the rhythm section--guys who were not given the kind of attention provided to others of the time, but whose way of supporting Monk and Trane were perfectly suited for the tunes, the sound and the personnel.  Wilson, in particular, is fine form.

This is one of those rare recordings that matches its historical significance with peak performance.  Not long after, however, Coltrane would return to work with Miles Davis on some of that trumpeter's greatest albums, including Milestones, recorded just a few months after this performance, and 1959's Kind of Blue, just highlighted on this blog, while also moving closer to establishing himself as a major leader, beginning with Blue Train, also with Blue Note and recorded in 1957, and leading to Giant Steps in 1959 and everything that came after.

Monk and Coltrane only played together for six months, mostly unrecorded at the Five Spot residency, but this hidden gem shows just what they had accomplished towards the end of their partnership.  It is one of the high points in all of jazz, without exception.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Wailers: Burnin'

On the spine of the deluxe editions of the first two Island records of this staggering reggae band, it reads, "Bob Marley and the Wailers," while on the discs and cover art it, as it should, sports the name "The Wailers."  This was undoubtedly due to some contractual stipulation that existed after the great original line-up broke up shortly after this 1973 album was released. 

Of course, it was certain that, once The Wailers began to achieve success outside Jamaica with their Catch a Fire and, especially, Burnin' albums, the band was going to be driven by Bob Marley and this led Bunny Wailer, first, and then Peter Tosh to pursue their own solo careers.  While these latter two had moments of great success in the 1970s, the Marley phenomenon skyrocketed and led to some of the greatest music made anywhere through his untimely death from cancer in 1981.

And, in listening to this record, it is also obvious that the best tracks are from Marley, even though there are some fine contributions by Wailer and Tosh, and that three genuine classics come from his work (one of them, however, was co-written by Tosh.)  Essential, also, to the success of this great band was the rhythm section of bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett and his brother Carlton on drums and the keyboardist Earl "Wire" Lindo.

The first track is one of those timeless works, the commanding "Get Up, Stand Up," which was a collaboration between Marley and Tosh.  This is followed by Wailer's "Hallelujah Time," which starts off in a middling fashion, but becomes a stronger track later. 

Then comes the most famous Wailers tune of all, though it took a cover by Eric Clapton (which, while a good rendering, cannot come close to the brilliance of the original--but this is usually so and Clapton deserves credit for his excellent taste and in helping to spread the word about the originators!) to get it international attention.  "I Shot the Sheriff" is a tour-de-force and testament to Marley's genius.

Hardly less impressive to this listener, though, is the sublime "Burnin' and Lootin'" which established Marley as a political tunesmith without peer in the Jamaican reggae scene.  And, what could perhaps be termed "minor classics" followed with the excellent Marley pieces, "Put It On" and "Small Axe."

Then, it was time for Wailer's strongest contribution, the gospel-tinged and soulful "Pass It On," which also highlights the phenomenal harmonies that made the Wailers the best of the best in their genre.  Truthfully, the harmonizing is strong throughout the record, but it seems to have peaked on this excellent tune.

Marley's "Duppy Conqueror" is another of those "minor classics" with a catchy chorus that is among the most memorable of the many that the master composed over his long career and it is followed by Tosh's strong chorus and organ-drenched opening in the very strong "One Foundation."  The closer, the traditional "Rasta Man Chant" as arranged by Marley, ends the album with that pointed religious vibe inherent in Rastafarianism, including the nyabinghi drumming part of that system's rituals.

The deluxe edition features some additional tracks by Wailer and Tosh that featured strongly in their subsequent solo work, including Wailer's excellent "Reincarnated Souls," which was a centerpiece of his awesome Blackheart Man album; Tosh's "No Sympathy," another strong track, excepting perhaps some harsh synthesizer accents, which was on the fantastic Legalize It record; and Wailer's "The Oppressed Song," another stunning work with an acoustic guitar opening that may be one of his best compositions and which also was a standout on Blackheart Man.  The extras are rounded out with an alternate take and edited single version of "Get Up, Stand Up."  That's an amazing roster of extras, for sure!

As if that weren't enough, the second disc includes a live performance at Leeds, England in late November 1973, as part of a short American and British jaunt.  Wailer had departed the band after making the Burnin' record in April and during the tour, called the Catch A Fire Tour, that followed.  So, for the Leeds Polytechnic gig, Marley and Tosh shared lead vocal duties, with Tosh abandoning the bass range from the trio's work and focusing on the higher notes in harmonizing with Marley's lead vocals.  Tosh, however, does some solo guitar work that was not heard on the studio recordings.

The performance features classics from the two Island recordings and is a nice extra to have after hearing both Catch A Fire and Burnin' in their studio incarnations.  It's a shame that Bunny Wailer didn't remain with the band through the 1973 tours, but this is still a strong performance with the longer playing times reflecting the band's ability to stretch out, play with great soul, tightness, and unity, and not fall prey to too much noodling, wandering and tangential playing, even though "Lively Up Yourself" does run almost 14 minutes!

So, while it was inevitable that Bob Marley's ascendency would lead to the departures of Wailer and Tosh after nearly a decade together, Burnin' shows just how awesome this band was when clicking on all cylinders and, for the most part, it was on this record.  Tosh and Wailer went on to some success in their solo careers, but the retooled Bob Marley and The Wailers became an international phenomenon under the charismatic leadership and vocalizing and strong songwriting of its undisputed leader.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Charles Ives: An American Journey

Charles Ives was the head of a successful insurance agency in Connecticut who happened to also be a masterful composer, though this was largely unknown until the 1930s and afterward.  He produced a body of work through 1926 that was a striking combination of modern experimentalism and eclecticism with a timely concern for older American music traditions that were disappearing as American modernized, industrialized and urbanized.

It was not until he was in his early seventies that real recognition came, thanks for the tireless work of his admirer, the California composer Lou Harrison, who conducted a performance of Ives' Third Symphony, which was then given a Pulitzer Prize in 1947.  Ives gave Harrison half the money that came with the honor and waved off the attention.  Slowly, however, Ives' work began to be performed more often, mainly in Europe, although Michael Tilson Thomas, who has been the music director at the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, has been a champion of the composer.

Hence this interesting compilation that gives some idea of the vast range of types of music created by Ives from the 1890s to the mid-1920s.  Much of these have march-like qualities, not surprising since Ives' father was a band master and, during the Civil War, led a Union Army band.  A number of these are songs with vocals by baritone Thomas Hampson and they are redolent of Ives' fascination with everyday people and their lives.  One piece, "Charlie Rutlage: is about a cowboy; another evokes popular music played in what appears to be a small-town opera house; there is one about a circus band; a couple deal with the horrors of the First World War; and so on. 

The opening piece, "From the Steeples and the Mountains," has the soaring quality the title implies, but there are interesting contrasts between tolling bells and wild and wonderful brass playing.  The Things Our Fathers Loved," with its brief lyrics referencing small town bands, religion and patriotism, is a subtle and beautiful work.

The staggering "Three Places in New England" include a dreamy, atmospheric first section dedicated to a monument that commemorated a segregated black military unit in the Union Army during the Civil War; a wildly diverging second movement with dramatic shifts that almost seems like a travelogue through the bracing combination of traditional and new forms of music that Ives championed and which took its theme from the Revolutionary War.  The third returns to a quieter, stately mood with a chorus beautifully singing "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," which was inspired by a walk by the composer on his honeymoon along the titular river in Massachusetts.  This movement was initially instrumental, but Tilson Thomas recorded the choral element in the spirit of what Ives had done elsewhere by adding choral performance to instrumental works.

Other works include lyrics directly from Ives' childhood or are religious expositions with one of these based on the poet John Greenleaf Whittier or pay tribute, via the poem of Vachel Lindsay, to the founder of The Salvation Army (General William Booth.)  These are the kinds of themes that animated so much of Ives' work as he surveyed the landscape of American society through new, evocative forms of music fused with earlier styles.

The liners are very helpful in understanding the amazing breadth and depth of what Ives did in his three or so decades of active composition, with one written by Tilson Thomas and the other Jan Swafford.  To a novice like YHB, they were exceedingly helpful in identifying what motivated Ives in his fascinating work and this album is a remarkable survey of the long and diverse career of one of America's great musical masters.

Charles Ives:  An American Journey (RCA, 2002)

1.  From the Steeples and the Mountains  4:15
2.  The Things Our Fathers Loved  1:47
3.  The Pond (Remembrance)  1:42
4.  Memories  2:30
5.  Charles Rutlage  2:38
6.  The Circus Band  3:02
7-9.  Three Places in New England  18:19
10.  In Flanders Fields  2:41
11.  They Are There!  2:52
12.  Tom Sails Away  2:48
13.  Symphony No. 4—III: Fugue  6:38
14.  Psalm 100  1:35
15.  Serenity  2:00
16.  General William Booth Enters Into Heaven  5:42
17.  The Unanswered Question  6:19

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Art of Paco Peña

Flamenco music is a newfound interest and this 1993 compilation from the British label Nimbus gathers material from several recordings for that label by the Spanish maestro, Paco Peña. 

A generous 65-minute album culls 15 tracks, including a collaboration with Eduardo Falú. a noted guitarist, composer and singer from Argentina with whom Peña extensively toured Europe in the mid-1980s. 

Several tracks are pieces from pioneers in the flamenco style, namely Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo. 

The remainder of the pieces are Peña's own work and he is joined on some of these by Tito Losada.  Finally, there is an excerpt from the unusual religious work, the Misa Flamenco, or Flamenco Mass, composed by Peña and premiered at Wroclaw, Poland in 1988, though the version on this record came from a London presentation a few years later.  In this sampling, there are four flamenco singers, four guitarists, two percussionists, and the chorus of The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Peña is heralded for not only his superlative technique, but for his firm grasp of traditional methods with modern conceptual attributes.  This is an enjoyable record, probably, for even the most seasoned fan of flamenco music, but it is a great introduction for greenhorns like yours truly.

The Art of Paco Peña (Nimbus Records, 1993)

1.  Solquena  5:04
2.  La Rosa  4:31
3.  Milonga Uruguaya  1:58
4.  Seguiriyas  6:03
5.  Gloria  4:13
6.  Salobre  5:06
7.  La Cuartelera  2:59
8.  Alegrías  3:54
9.  Riomar  4:05
10.  Santo  2:55
11.  Soleá  4:28
12.  Claroscuro  5:25
13.  Valse Criollo  3:11
14.  Tarantas  5:17
15.  Canto Eucaristico y Despedida (excerpt)  6:17

Monday, June 17, 2013

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Miles Davis's landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue is so commonly cited as one of the great recordings in jazz, if not just American music generally, that there seems to be little necessary to say about it.  An entire book by Eric Nisenson has been written about it for those (moi, for example) who just had to get deeply into the background, events and personalities involved in this spectacular masterwork.

Suffice to say that the sextet of Davis, tenor sax giant John Coltrane, alto sax titan Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb (pianist Wynton Kelly appears on the blues "Freddie Freeloader," apparently because Evans' softer approach didn't work well for that piece) melded perfectly on five sublime pieces that are all classic works, these being "So What;" "Freddie Freeloader;" "Blue in Green;" "Flamenco Sketches;" and "All Blues."

The opening track is probably the most well-known, deriving its title from one of Davis's pat phrases, but its memorable two-note horn phrase with Chambers' distinctive bass riff is one of jazz's most easily recognizable snippets.  "All Blues" is likely the piece that gets the most attention after "So What" with its catchy melodic line (again two notes from the horns with Evans' light touch on piano) being another classic phrase.

Also highly regarded is the gorgeous "Flamenco Sketches" and anyone familiar with Davis's sublime work with the great arranger Gil Evans, which dated to 1948, will know of the fantastic Sketches of Spain which the two created a couple of years after Kind of Blue. That interest in Spanish music "sketched" here developed into full flower with the later masterpiece.
While "Freddie Freeloader," another blues and "Blue and Green" are not as well-known, they are fine pieces that seamlessly work with the more famous tracks.  The record, then, has the "modal" element of working of a given key and a group of scales, rather than chord changes, that gives more space for soloists and develops an atmosphere and an ambience in tandem with the relaxed mid-tempo feel that permeates the record.  Simply put, the record flows effortlessly from one tune to the next.
Tellingly, Davis brought rough sketches of tunes to the session without the band members having heard or seen anything of them before.  This forced the group to develop its improvisatory skills and keen group dynamics to full focus in the recording.  Notably, when Coltrane began recording his famed Giant Steps album just a couple of weeks later, he employed the same strategy.
1959 was a year of masterpieces in the jazz world: the aforementioned Coltrane record and Ornette Coleman's mind-blowing The Shape of Jazz to Come, which was recorded a month after Kind of Blue come immediately to mind.  While those two works were considered in the so-called "avant garde," Davis's Kind of Blue was a more refined album and its popularity was such that it became the highest-selling jazz record of all time, selling a staggering 4 million copies in a genre where tens of thousands in sales is considered a success.
Yet, Kind of Blue also marked the end of an era for Davis and the start of new ones for three of his band members.  Coltrane soon left the group to embark on a seven-year odyssey that put him at the pinnacle of the jazz world's experimental domain.  Adderley also soon left to front his own band and became a success with the so-called "Soul Jazz."  Bill Evans, meanwhile, who had already left Davis but returned for these sessions, formed a trio with bass wizard Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian (later known for his work with Keith Jarrett and his own bands) that made memorable music for two years before LaFaro's untimely death in 1961.
Today, Jimmy Cobb, at 84, is the sole surviving member of the seven musicians who worked on Kind of Blue and still plays, working with his "So What" band as a tribute to his work on the album and with Davis.
A 1997 reissue with 20-bit remastering features Evans's original liner notes about group improvisation more than the personalities or the songs as well as critic Robert Palmer interesting observations.
Miles Davis:  Kind of Blue (Columbia Records, 1959)
1.  So What  9:22
2.  Freddie Freeloader  9:46
3.  Blue in Green  5:37
4.  All Blues  11:37
5.  Flamenco Sketches  9:26
6.  Flamenco Sketches (alternate on a 1997 remastered reissue)  9:32