The Modern Jazz Quartet: Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise

This song stayed in the repertoire of The Modern Jazz Quartet for many years—they would play it again at their so-called "last concert" recording almost twenty years after this rendition. Although the composition follows a standard AABA form, the quartet evokes the flavor of the minor blues in this lightly swinging version from 1955. The opening is handled with the kind of chamber music restraint we have come to expect from this band, but the tempo accelerates and the conception gets looser during Jackson's solo. But Lewis brings down the intensity level with a smartly-crafted improvisation which is one of his finest. The character of this tune has changed over the years—it started life as a tango and has evolved into a hotter blowing number with a modal flavor. But the Modern Jazz Quartet balances the two extremes, playing off hot against cool and showing off the chemistry between the two lead soloists. And don't miss the counterpoint in the closing melody restatement, which is handled very effectively.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman (with Stan Getz): Early Autumn

When asked about this solo years later, Getz noted that he didn't own copies of his old recordings, then added: "I don't remember what I played on it. . . . My music is something that's done and forgotten about." Yet this was the performance that created the first buzz of fame that would establish Getz as a name attraction in the jazz world. And if Getz didn't recall what he played on the date, many musicians and fans committed his phrases to memory. Ralph Burns's chart is a perfect vehicle for the tenorist, and the sax section is luminous even before Getz steps forward. But his solo is a perfectly poised statement, and an important milestone in the development of the cool jazz idiom.

Is Getz a Lester Young disciple? Certainly. A Lester clone? Not by a mile. No matter what you might have heard elsewhere, there is nothing in Prez's body of work quite like this performance. You could teach a classroom of six-year-olds how to distinguish between the two artists, and they would never make a mistake on a blindfold test. Even at 21 years of age, Getz had staked out his territory, and he would never relinquish it. It's not just his tone, a delectable concoction that never gets heavier than a Julia Chid meringue, but even more the freedom of his phrasing, which always makes clear that Getz is playing what he hears in his head, not what he worked on in the practice room, and in his case he hears deep and wondrous possibilities, some of which he shares with his audience. No surprise, then, that when Metronome published the results of its 1949 poll, the young Getz was atop the tenor sax rankings. And despite his assessment of a solo that was "done and forgotten," this one has no shortage of admirers more than sixty years after it was recorded. Mark my words: fans will still be listening sixty years hence.

September 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mel Torme & The Marty Paich Dek-tette: Lullaby Of Birdland

"Lullaby of Birdland" is an anomaly in the recordings of Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette. Although Mel's scat singing was prominently featured on the Reunion albums of the late 1980s, "Lullaby" was the only cut from the original set of recordings to feature a scat solo. At nearly 5 minutes, "Lullaby" was the longest track on the first Dek-tette LP, and it features Mel's scatting for most of its length. It starts with Mel and Red Mitchell in duet with Mel Lewis joining in at the bridge. As Tormé starts scatting, the saxes enter, backing the singer with a unison figure. As usual with Tormé, his improvisations are an even mix of original ideas and song quotes, but he puts the ideas together so skillfully, the listener loses track of each idea's paternity. In the next chorus, Torm� trades ideas with Pete Candoli, Don Fagerquist and Bob Enevoldsen (the latter on valve trombone - for the moment). Then the saxes return (with Enevoldsen on tenor) with a tightly-arranged figure, to which Tormé offers a scatted response. The figure is repeated for the next 8 bars. The sax figure is a Paich self-quote - it was originally the introduction for his arrangement of "You.re My Thrill", written for a Shelly Manne LP a couple of years earlier. Tormé said that hearing that recording inspired him to work with Paich. As an acknowledgement of that inspiration, Paich included the figure in the "Lullaby" arrangement. After a brass-dominated bridge, we return to Tormé, Mitchell and Lewis with a short reprise of the opening chorus. Lewis drops out after 8 bars as Tormé and Mitchell fade into the distance.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Modern Jazz Quartet: The Golden Striker

"The Golden Striker" was a staple of the Modern Jazz Quartet's live repertoire, and this rousing version adds a sheen of perfection to it. On this rendition, it sounds as if the improvisations are meant to remain in check, as, though Milt Jackson generally plays solos that compliment the arrangement, the boundaries are not bent in any significant way. However, this does not take away from the power of the music; Jackson's vibes and John Lewis' intricate piano fills consume the spaces in the upper registers while Connie Kay's trebly percussion chimes in.

Because of this, things do sound quite "golden," as the title implies, and, as Jackson strikes his vibraphone keys with sympathetic pads, the sustain that he and Lewis are able to generate throughout this concert recording helps the composition and this subsequent rendition remain both fluid and luminous. Recordings of the MJQ are usually not as commercial as other competing chart entries from their day from the likes of Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader, but this particular tune sounds like it could have competed well. It is not as challenging as usual for the group, but the simplicity allows a different side of the MJQ to shine.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Modern Jazz Quartet: The Cylinder

The Modern Jazz Quartet's "The Cylinder" is constructed around a single chord, and the form does not change until Milt Jackson has exhausted his full canon of effervescent sounding vibraphone riffs. As he solos, the other musicians keep things low key, matching him note for note and pulse for pulse with terrific timing. As Jackson swings, the music comes alive even though it is controlled fiercely by the others.

Halfway through, Milt steps aside and gives pianist John Lewis some breathing room to improvise over a brand new chord sequence that changes up the main key. Jackson adds some dissonance in the background, which is quite deviant from the general use of the vibraphone in modern jazz music.

So, to summarize, the first half is a rather normal swinging jam led by Milt Jackson's good vibes, and the second half features some improvisation anchored by pianist John Lewis while the chords are modulated upwards so that somewhat unrelatied variations to the main theme are added to the multi-part chord sequence. The ensemble playing is solid, and it is certain that the musicians are intrinsically feeding each other with ideas that all seem to deviate far from the established norm.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Modern Jazz Quartet: Concorde

"Jazz fugue" . . . the very name sounds oxymoronic. One wonders: are there country-and-western fugues or hip-hop fugues? Then again, jazz is the musical style that digests all the other styles, and as such the jazz fugue proved to be as inevitable as it was peculiar. This was not the first example, and even John Lewis had tackled the form before on his less swinging "Vendome." "Concorde" reveals a smoother blending between classical form and cool jazz content. Chalk it up as a success. But much of the credit here belongs to the four men in tuxedos, rather than to the counterpoint written on the staff lines.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Jimmy Giuffre 4: Cool

On an album packed with elaborately composed and arranged fusion tunes, "Cool" is a relative throwback to what Jimmy Giuffre did best. The laid-back, medium-tempo blues provides Giuffre a platform for some superb inside/outside blowing on what is arguably his best horn, the Bb clarinet. Of course, the presence of Bob Nieske's electric bass, Pete Levin's electric piano and synthesizer, and the reverb-laden recording technique dates the music. It's very much of a particular era: the early 1980s, a time when many veteran jazz musicians of Giuffre's generation were still experimenting with electronics, with varying degrees of success. Giuffre's solo is magnificent, but the artifice imposed by the instrumentation stands between his artistry and this listener's full enjoyment. Still, it's to his credit that Giuffre continued to stretch at such a relatively late stage in his career. That impulse served him well, ensuring his continued relevance to the end of his life.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Trumbauer: I Never Miss the Sunshine

When this record was released in 1923, other sax players quickly took notice. Trumbauer stretches out for a full chorus solo on his C-melody sax, and his mixture of melodicism and light swing was different from the hotter styles of New Orleans jazz then sweeping the nation. (Louis Armstrong and King Oliver had made their first recordings exactly ten weeks before this Trumbauer date.)

With the passage of time, we can see this record as a key moment in the birth of "cool jazz," but that term didn't exist back in 1923. Nonetheless other sax players didn't need a label to hear how they could learn from this solo, and adapt its lessons to their work in countless dance bands gigging across the nation. Trumbauer's most famous student was Lester Young, who memorized Tram's solos and tried to emulate his sound. Young offers more eloquent testimony than any critic could muster, and often testified in word (and song) to the importance of this largely forgotten soloist. "Trumbauer was my idol," Young noted years later. "When I had just started to play, I bought all his records. I imagine I can still play all those solos off the record. He played the C-melody saxophone. I tried to get the sound of a C-melody on the tenor. That's why I don't sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story."

This track is a good starting point for jazz fans who want to hear one of the most influential of these little stories from the early period of Trumbauer's career.

March 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Venus De Milo

Gerry Mulligan began his career writing for local bands in Philadelphia, then hit the big time playing and writing for the Gene Krupa Orchestra. Krupa thought him a bit brash and cocky, but loved his music and played everything he wrote. (A dozen such arrangements were recorded for Verve in 1958, and sound just as fresh as when first played.) It was clear that Mulligan was a major compositional voice, and Gil Evans convinced him to move to New York and got him a gig writing for Claude Thornhill. Mulligan later said that Evans was his last important influence. One of the few pieces for the Miles Davis Nonet that Mulligan never redid later for big band, "Venus De Milo" is an elegant gem, spontaneous sounding, yet with every musical element carefully chosen. Davis is featured, as well as Mulligan himself. (Lee Konitz's 16-bar solo before Mulligan's was cut for the recording.) As an improviser, Mulligan was still finding his way, and his solo is a bit awkward. By 1952, however, when he joined forces with Chet Baker on the West Coast, Gerry had become an instrumental master as well.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: S'il Vous Plait

When I was preparing edited scores for the Birth of the Cool folio, one of my hopes was that enough parts still existed for John Lewis's "S'il Vous Plait" so that it could be included. Alas, this was not the case and the title had to be dropped. Lewis's blues with a bridge is an up-tempo piece that could be opened for solo space, and on this occasion, Konitz, Davis and Mulligan (a bit awkward here) really jump.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Rouge

John Lewis throws us off track at the beginning of this charming piece by not only writing an introduction in 3/4, but starting it on beat three. Soon the piece goes into 4/4 and really swings. Technically an exercise in half-step cadence movement, some of the writing is awkward, particularly during the second measure of the bridge. Lewis later corrected this for the 1991 album Re-Birth of the Cool, and that became the definitive version. Lewis also used part of the chordal structure of "Rouge" for "The Queen's Fancy," recorded in 1954 by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Solos here are by Lewis, Konitz, Miles and Clarke.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Rocker

"Rocker" exemplifies Gerry Mulligan's linear thinking versus chordal block writing. ("Thank goodness," he once told me, "I was never a slave to chord changes.") Gerry creates some soft dissonances as the voices move, but they go by so quickly so that the ear is not disturbed by the sound, and hears a non-moving melody against moving parts. Mulligan later arranged this for Charlie Parker with strings, and wrote a big band version for Elliot Lawrence (although he complained that the tempo on the Lawrence recording was too fast). Davis, Konitz and Mulligan solo. And just to set the record straight, "Rock Salt" was the original title of this piece, according to a conversation I had with its composer in 1995 when I prepared lead sheets of his music for a play-along book-CD project.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Move

Written by drummer Denzil Best, this is one of the Birth of the Cool arrangements that could be naturally opened up for solos, and Miles, Konitz and Roach deliver. Arranger John Lewis writes driving musical figures with economy of orchestration, and it says a great deal about Collins and Barber that they could play such exciting musical lines on instruments that "spoke" slowly – one of the challenges this ensemble had to rise above. That they did it so well is a testament to the excellence of these musicians.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Moon Dreams (live)

Claude Thornhill's big band featured extended medleys for dancing. One of these, arranged by Gil Evans, consisted of "Easy Living," "Everything Happens to Me," and "Moon Dreams." Extracted for what was perhaps the Miles Davis Nonet's first arrangement, "Moon Dreams" is essentially a re-orchestration of Gil's Thornhill arrangement, with a few changes in harmony. Incidentally, Evans originally envisioned clarinet instead of alto sax in the instrumentation, and while such a part exists, the Nonet (here actually an octet with pianist John Lewis sitting out) settled on alto sax. This live recording comes from a broadcast at the Royal Roost during the ensemble's only extended live gig. The band never did play this arrangement – one of Evans's most dissonant settings to that time – correctly; when it was over, audiences must have been totally bewildered.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Jeru

Gerry Mulligan wrote more music for this ensemble than any other writer save John Lewis, and most of his contributions were played and recorded. "Jeru" is another example of Mulligan expanding his linear thinking, the harmony derived from the part writing rather than chordal blocks. Mulligan also indulges in changing time signatures – the 12-bar bridge is written as one 4/4 bar, one 3/4, one 2/4, four 3/4, one 6/4 and finally four bars of 4/4. The band obviously rehearsed this piece carefully, as they play this section with authority and confidence. Davis and Mulligan solo. Mulligan would write a version of this piece for Claude Thornhill's band, although a recording for Trend has a cut that misrepresents the arrangement.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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