Max Roach-Anthony Braxton: Tropical Forest

My younger brother is like a renaissance man; he does all kinds of things. A few years ago, some of his friends would come by our studio and hang out, playing chess, and they’d put on this record. These people were in their early twenties, they weren’t musicians, though some of them were dancers, and they really got into the music. I found that very interesting. This date is a set of extemporaneous compositions. They’re just hitting. But man, these people played this thing over and over again. It spoke to them in a very powerful way. So I guess music can transcend boundaries of the acceptable or the unacceptable, or what people call “avant-garde” or “free.” This is a jewel right here!

It’s all beautiful to me, but on this particular cut what strikes me is that Braxton is playing clarinet, and Max is only playing the hi-hat and also a pitch-bending floor-tom, almost reminiscent of the tympany. Max wasn’t afraid to take chances. I don’t know anybody else who had that on their set—the pitch-bending floor tom with the tympany-like pedal. This piece sounds like, I would think, cut-and-splice—they went in and hit for however long a period of time, and took what they liked. “Ok, this is kind of a song form; let’s deal with this one right here.” This one starts out like that. Max initiates a basic phrase on the hi-hat, Braxton comes in and starts responding to that, they’re still having a conversation, and then Max opens up a little bit to the cymbals, and then he goes to the floor tom and alternates between the floor tom and the hi-hat. That’s it. He doesn’t touch any other part of the set for a little over five minutes. But he creates such a wonderful setting.

In a lot of Max’s tunes, the title creates a certain image, and I wondered why they called this “Tropical Forest.” But then I realized that Braxton sounds almost reminiscent of those crying birds, like a toucan. I started seeing a rainforest setting—tropical colors, yellows and oranges.

This made about as powerful an impression on me as when I heard Roy Haynes play “Subterfuge” on Andrew Hill’s Black Fire. Roy just plays hi-hat the whole track, but still projects the force and drive as if he was playing the ride cymbal. Just that same phrase. I got the same feeling when I heard this track. Sonically, it’s almost a three-part structure, but they transmitted the feeling so effectively. That’s one I’m going to have to go back and revisit a lot.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


M'Boom: Onomatopoeia

M’Boom is an all-percussion ensemble, a special group formed in 1970; this recording is from 1979, so it was a while in the making. The initial members were Omar Clay, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Max, Freddy King, and Freddie Waits, who was my father. Ray Mantilla came in later.

“Onomatopoeia” is a word that describes a sound. M’Boom is an onomatopoeic expression. I’ve always thought of it as bass drum to floor tom and cymbal — MMMM-BUM. Tympany. This piece is a perfect example of seamless transition; not a lot of stops and starts. Themes and phrases overlap and others emerge—one thing happens, an undercurrent of something under it comes to the forefront, this recedes, something else comes in. Polyphony all the time, shifting dynamics, the different instruments introduced in a staggered way. The piece is in 11, it starts off with the chimes, then the vibes and marimba enter, then after that’s established, the tympany and drumset come in, which kind of solo over that hemiola that’s repeating in 11—that’s Omar and Joe on drums, I believe, and Warren on tympany. That’s the first portion of the song. Then they make a transition. They stay in 11, but instead of playing 11 quarter notes, they start playing 4 half-notes and 3 eighth-notes, and they go from the marimba and vibes to membrane. I remember playing this song, and they would always be like, ‘Membrane! Membrane!”—meaning going to the skins. If you’re playing a timbale, play the center of the timbale; if you’re playing congas, the center of the conga. No rims. That creates an interesting counter to the xylophone, which is in a different type of register. Max takes the xylophone solo.

Max always used to tell me, “Get to your shit quick” when you’re soloing. He’d go, “Yeah, you’re making some nice statements, but get to your shit quick.” In live performances it might have been different, but for this recording everyone gets their ideas out quick. Regardless how wild or expressive they may be, there’s always that very clear message, to me—not only from Max, but everybody. Warren Smith takes a solo on tympany after Max, then they transfer the phrase from the membrane to the rims—in other words, to the metal. Then he takes a solo on the membrane of a tympany. It switches up. That theme also occurs in a lot of Max’s work, whether solo or with bands—a juxtaposition of different feelings or sounds or meters against each other.

All the members of M’Boom were adept at making those types of rhythmic changes and comfortable with that variation, to the point where the transition from one to the other was seamless. The different textures create a different feeling for the listener. In certain instances, it creates a sense of power, and then when they go to the metal, it sounds a little more frenetic, more like an anticipation of the climax, which is coming next.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Max Roach-Dollar Brand: Streams of Consciousness

This is another one of Max’s many extemporaneous compositions. On the jacket he writes: “This music is an expression of pure improvisation. Mr. Brand (this is when he was still Dollar Brand) and I had no rehearsals or plans, written or otherwise, as to how or what we were going to record...the resulting cohesiveness, I am sure, had much to do with our environmental similarities.” Another piece on this album is titled “Consanguinity,” and that’s what Max was talking about—the connection between people who are descended from the same ancestry. He’s talking about the fact that he and Abdullah Ibrahim, who was a South African pianist, were equally involved in the struggle for the freedom of their people—or had been involved, because by this time conditions had changed in America, though not in South Africa yet.

But the first cut, which runs about 21 minutes, is called “Stream of Consciousness.” To a certain degree, it’s a spontaneously organized suite that occurs in different movements. They definitely played some construct songs; I don’t know if Abdullah Ibrahim had previously played them, but they were definitely tunes. In between the tunes, a drum solo brings about the transition. That is, in between each statement, there’s a small drum solo, then there was another idea collectively expressed. There are 5 or 6 movements. It goes from drum solo, to interlude, to a 7/4 thing, then the drums initiate a faster 7/4, then they play a couple of blues, a solo—not really any solo piano except when Abdullah Ibrahim plays a little solo at the beginning, and then Max plays some. There are some church inferences after that. You can hear some South African themes, but not as pronounced as you might expect.

It’s another example of Max’s social consciousness and awareness, and also his ability to put himself in an unconventional situation—duo with drums and piano isn’t done that much. In all honesty, the sound is terrible. The bass sounds like a big drum, like he might be using some oil heads or something. The drums themselves don’t sound that good. But the magic between Max and Abdullah is pretty special. It’s obvious that they have a kinship in what’s being played. I think it’s ultimate artistry, not to plan or discuss what’s going to happen, to feel each other out, to let it fly and be open to whatever happens.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Archie Shepp-Horace Parlan: Go Down Moses

Archie Shepp is no stranger to the duo, having performed/recorded in direct dialogue with Max Roach, Charlie Haden, Dollar Brand, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, and Richard Davis, among others, throughout his career. His most common duet partner, though, was pianist Horace Parlan, and this groundbreaking 1977 duet performance, consisting entirely of spirituals and black folk songs, represents a career highlight for both players. While the song formula from track to track here is fairly static, with Shepp stating the melody and building to a primal climax, the exclusivity of the project, the eloquence of Parlan's support, and Shepp's heart-rendering deliveries yield an intensely affecting listening experience from beginning to end. As with only the best music, "Go Down Moses" has such emotional depth that it's up to the listener to discern whether sorrow or splendor ultimately reign here. It's not an easy task, perhaps because Shepp was pondering just that during his performance, of which he once said: "I was afraid for a moment that I wouldn't be able to make the recording because I felt so full, so full of tears." The most forceful of jazz tracks.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Frank Rosolino: I Love You

Frank Rosolino could burn through a jazz standard in a way that few other trombonists could. "I Love You", recorded in the Netherlands with a Dutch rhythm section five years before his death, stands as one of the most stunning documentations of Rosolino's prodigious talent.

Rosolino pulls no punches from the opening solo trombone intro; however, we soon discover that he's just getting started. His presentation of the melody sits perfectly within the tempo laid down by the rhythm section. Rosolino launches into a five-minute solo, implying the melody while engaging in nonstop trombone acrobatics. He spends most of the time in the upper register of the horn, creating an exciting effect that he sustains throughout the entire solo.

But it doesn't stop there: Rosolino takes the head out after short solos by van Dyke, Schols and Engels, but instead of stopping at the end of the form, he keeps blowing for another minute, just in case anyone thought he might be getting tired. As the track fades out to Rosolino's continuous burn, we're left wondering just how long he might have kept going were it not for the recording engineer's fade-out!

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington-Ray Brown: Pitter, Panther, Patter

I almost purposely decided to leave This One’s For Blanton off the list, because the whole album is so completely perfect. But I would have to pick “Pitter, Panther, Patter,” because that is the track that almost defines the Ellington-Blanton duets, and to hear Ray Brown interpret it note-for-note, you really did get a clear picture of, had Jimmy Blanton lived and he and Ellington were to do that stuff again, it probably would have had that same sound, that same kind of feel. Jimmy Blanton, of course, was Ray Brown’s number-one main man, and it shows blatantly on this recording. I also think that is a case study, maybe, just maybe, on the most perfect acoustic bass sound ever produced in the recording studio. Considering that was in late 1972, during the era when they said jazz died and there was nothing hip going on, it just so happens that one of the greatest bass sounds ever produced in the studio was done. Every single note that Ray Brown produces out of that instrument rings like a bell, from the low E all the way up to the top of the bass. You can tell it was just miked. There was no pickup, just a really perfect-perfect sound. You could almost hear the affection and the humility Ray has playing with Ellington, this joy of, “Wow, I’m playing Jimmy Blanton’s original part.” It really does sound like Jimmy Blanton in a time capsule.

From Blanton, Ray got the way he constructed his basslines, the power in his basslines. When you listen to Blanton on “In a Mellow Tone,” “Ko-Ko,” things like that, the way he’s putting his notes was very linear, much more forward-thinking, I believe, than any other bass players of that era—even Milt Hinton, God rest his soul. Jimmy Blanton was definitely from another planet. He set the pace for modern bass playing. But the thing that Ray Brown always admired most about Blanton, I know for certain, was his sound. He said when he was a kid delivering papers in Pittsburgh, there was this big jukebox in the neighborhood, and “Jack The Bear” was playing out of this jukebox, and the thing he remembered most was the bass. He said the bass was just rocking! He was like, “Man, who is that bass player?" Of course, he found out it was Jimmy Blanton and decided to learn every note that he ever played on those Ellington records. So year, Blanton was the genesis.

Ray also made a lot of records with Count Basie on Pablo in the ‘70s. Well, actually he made records with Basie in the ‘60s that weren’t credited. The famous record with Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Basie band has Ray Brown. But Ray heard Walter Page early on, when he was 11, at Pittsburgh’s William Penn Ballroom, when Basie was coming east, and he soaked up all of that Blanton language and the Walter Page language. Walter Page was much more of talk about a piledriving bass player! Didn’t have a lot of technique, didn’t have much melody in his basslines, but I mean, it’s like running a truck through the wall, he was so strong. He and Papa Jo Jones... Even Ellington said in Music is My Mistress, “if I had that rhythm section with my horn section, it would be all over”—something to that effect. So Ray Brown was very much able to prove that notion that you can’t really create anything new until you have absorbed all that has come before you.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Jaki Byard: To Bob Vatel of Paris

This version of “To Bob Vatel Of Paris,” from Empirical, is a favorite piece in my repertoire. I'm not sure who Bob Vatel is, but this is a lovely one on which to hear the unadulterated contemporary stride master. Jaki said his father sat him by the radio one day and said, “I want you to play like this guy.” "This guy" was Teddy Wilson. Jaki is big on history, and it's always evident in his sound. I love how his hands seem to roll through the phrases. Another piano student of Jaki’s, Eric Lewis, really has taken Jaki's techniques to new places. Jaki always talked about ways to make a song interesting, and one of the ways to do this was to modulate the piece. Jaki does this here before segueing into “Blues for Jennie,” a very slow blues. Then he returns to Bob Vatel briefly. The main thing I remember about Jaki and his music was that he always brought his joy to it. He wouldn't play it if he didn't enjoy it. And if he didn't enjoy it, he would let you know verbally.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Jaki Byard: Willow Weep For Me

This solo piano version somewhat references the Art Tatum version. When Jaki hits his solo, it's so well paced and beautiful, it makes me want to go to the piano. He has a way of giving me everything I want to hear in a song when he's at the piano. I love the ending of this with the tremolo in the left hand; it's as if a ghost is still playing the bass line. This is a great way for one to approach solo piano. It's difficult, but it's a form that I am blessed to say that I learned directly from Jaki.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Jaki Byard: Blues au Gratin

I have my students listen to this track. The humor in Jaki's music is always apparent, but he was not above putting a joke in his music. I remember seeing he and Greg Osby play a duet concert at the Brooklyn Museum, and as Jaki was taking a solo, an airplane flew overhead. He stopped, and stared at the airplane until it was out of sight and out of earshot. then he continued. He had the most wonderful laugh. Anyway, he really deconstructs this blues. I totally come out of his style of presentation. He lets his left hand really fly freely, before jumping into some heavy stride, before launching into a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” quote. The bit at the end sounds like Sam Rivers playing piano. He and Sam lived together for a while in Boston, and you can hear the similarity in their contrapuntal approach to the piano.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Sam Jones: Visitation

With the application of the cello into the jazz ensemble, many used the instrument to explore new melodic terrain. Sam Jones took it in a different direction by playing walking bass lines on the cello. Sam’s technique of using the cello as an accompanying instrument can be best represented by the title song from his album “Visitation”.

Jones and Berg play the melody in unison with their tones blending seamlessly into one cohesive sound. Jones displays a straightforward, yet intricate touch during his solo from :37-1:53 by taking small ideas from the melody and incorporating them into his solo. Equally impressive are Jones’ accompanying skills, which he modifies depending upon which member is soloing. For Berg, he tends to stick to the root of the chord and for Hino he performs higher on the neck in order to match the timbre of the trumpet. At times, Jones’ slides sound more like a fretless electric bass than a cello. A great song by a great band, “Visitation” is highly recommended for its use of the cello in modern jazz accompaniment.

September 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Johnny Griffin: Blues For Harvey

At the time of this 1973 recording, expatriates Johnny Griffin (Paris) and Kenny Drew (Copenhagen) had been living in Europe since the early '60's, while Ed Thigpen had only just relocated to Copenhagen a year earlier. Mads Vinding was the "house bassist" at the esteemed Jazzhus Montmartre, where this very tight quartet convened for a lively July 4th weekend. A great photo on the original LP dust jacket depicts Griffin, in a dashiki, bell bottoms, and sandals, waving his saxophone case while standing alongside a rather disheveled, liquor bottle-toting Harvey Sand, Johnny's "favorite Danish bartender." Both are apparently feeling no pain, nor will you after listening to the album's title track, "Blues for Harvey."

The emphatic, staccato riff-blues theme is spare but ample enough fodder for Griffin's dazzling extended solo, which is propelled by Vinding's surging bass line and Thigpen's variously accented shuffle rhythm. Griffin offers up droll Sonny Rollins-like phrases, hard-edged exclamations, free-boppish distorted intonations, unadorned bluesy riffs, ascending squeals, guttural honks, and more, all executed with his trademark sharp and precise articulation. Drew's succeeding solo possesses a kind of Wynton Kellyesque low-keyed swagger and burn, his prancing runs interspersed with vibrant chords. Griffin returns in full flight, showing once again how much meat can be carved out of a simple blues line. His tenor then begins compelling trades with Thigpen, who has been such a driving force thus far, until the drummer takes centerstage on his own and proves just how dynamic and inventive he can be free of the type of relatively restricted role he had for years as part of the Oscar Peterson trio.

September 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Ruby Braff & Ellis Larkins: Exactly Like You

Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins were great duet partners, bringing out the best qualities in each other. Braff could always spin gorgeous melodies from the lower range of his cornet, and Larkins could always create beautiful harmonic backgrounds, but together, there was spontaneity and humor that added to the interplay. “Exactly Like You” was recorded for their 1972 LP The Grand Reunion but not released until the album was reissued on CD a quarter-century later. Larkins plays the introduction and first chorus solo. For the most part, he plays the melody in parallel thirds in his right hand while walking in parallel tenths with his left. Larkins doesn’t keep this pattern throughout the chorus, as he freely breaks it to comment on the melody and to add variety. When Braff enters, Larkins seems transformed and he plays an animated accompaniment with delightful walking bass lines and bright splashes of chordal color. Braff’s solo starts off with poignant lines, but as he listens and responds to Larkins’ commentary, he adds stunning runs and gets sassier as the solo continues. Larkins takes an 8-bar solo on the bridge with a pithy remark in his right hand and classic stride in the left. In the next 8 bars, it sounds like Larkins wants to lead Braff into a more serious mood, but neither seems ready to give up the lighter mood entirely. As the performance winds down, the last comments of each player seems to reflect the playful mood evoked earlier.

September 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Gato Barbieri: El Sertao

It's a shame that Barbieri, after rediscovering his South American musical roots in the '70's after flirting with the jazz avant-garde the decade earlier, never got to hook up with his fellow Argentinian Astor Piazzolla. The modern concepts and powerful lyricism of both artists might have produced a fruitful collaboration, but when Bernardo Bertolucci chose Barbieri instead of Piazzolla to compose and play the music for his 1973 film Last Tango in Paris (Piazzolla reportedly wanted too high a fee), a verbal feud ensued between Gato and Astor. Be that as it may, the Last Tango soundtrack made Barbieri an international star (at least for a while), enabling him to expose many more listeners to his bracing potion of jazz and Latin melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and textures.

Barbieri's 1973 release, Under Fire, focused on Brazil, and the title of the piece "El Sertao" referred to the dry, poverty-stricken northwestern part of that country. Stanley Clarke's resounding bass ostinato, Lonnie Liston Smith's trills, and John Abercrombie's insistent chords are the first sounds heard, in addition to Airto Moreira's zestful rhythmic colorations. Barbieri plays the multi-faceted thematic material with a hard-edged, virile tone, but is able to convey elements of warmth and tenderness as well. Despite an intense, nearly screeching attack at times, on the whole his phrasing maintains an alluringly melodic consistency of expression. Smith's Fender Rhodes interlude is sparse but tonally poignant. Abercrombie's strummed pattern leads to Barbieri's climactic crescendo and decrescendo. This track is an example of Barbieri stripped of all the turbulent and distancing free jazz affectations he had exhibited but a few years earlier. He had found himself at last.

September 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Albert Mangelsdorff: Ant Stepped On An Elephant's Toe

Albert Mangelsdorff's unique approach to the trombone is abundantly displayed in this trio performance. His aggressive use of advanced multiphonic techniques is featured from his rubato solo introduction through his wild and unrestrained improvisation. Mouzon follows his cues excellently, complementing Mangelsdorff's flourishes with perfectly-placed rhythmic responses. The tune relaxes into a funky groove as Pastorius takes center stage with his own solo. Mangelsdorff comes back in and blows behind him before the group transitions back into the head, this time noticably faster than the introduction. Rather than end there though, the melody unravels slowly. The track ends humorously with Mangelsdorff playing a figure across the entire range of his instrument, before a single unison note ends the song.

August 31, 2009 · 0 comments


Bob James: Westchester Lady

Since being "discovered" by Quincy Jones some forty years ago and composing music for television and film, Bob James has come a long way in his career. On his 1976 album Three, James constructed a jazz-funk-fusion opus that has had a huge impact on music well beyond jazz and easy listening. Some readers might recognize the bass groove on this song as the inspiration for many well-known hip-hop breaks. Featuring a brass and wind section that included Jon Faddis, Hubert Laws and Grover Washington, "Westchester Lady" is a disco fueled number that's full of heavy string work and modulated chord changes.

The orchestral element of this song can be a little too much at times but that was just a thing that they did in the 1970s. Everything was over the top, including the recording. When you get down to the meat of this track, you have a funky bass line played by Will Lee and a moving solo by James on the Fender Rhodes. What does tend to get annoying are the string backgrounds during James's solo but he overcomes them with his solid blues work. Bob James is a musician that is all too often put in the light jazz category, especially for his later work with Fourplay, but his output from the 70s is very inspiring. Take note, many others have. Bob James has got that funk!

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments


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