Beginning in the '70s, some of the most consistently interesting soprano saxophonists could be found in Europe. One of the first and best was Jan Garbarek. Initially inspired by the expressionist tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler
, Garbarek recorded with composer/theorist George Russell in the mid-to-late '60s. By the mid '70s, Garbarek had evolved into a disciplined, post-bop melodist, recording a series of fine leftward-leaning albums under his own name for ECM. However, some of his best—-and jazziest—work came as a member of pianist Keith Jarrett
's "European Quartet," with whom he recorded this track. "The Windup" is driven by Jarrett's gospel-ish piano vamp and drummer Jon Christensen's chattering snare, which lead into a cheerful odd-time melody played by Garbarek on curved soprano. Garbarek's sound is less like that of a straight soprano than it is the musette
sometimes favored by saxophonist Dewey Redman
. Nasal in character but full-bodied, it's one of the most distinctive soprano sax sounds in all of jazz. After Jarrett's solo, Garbarek enters unaccompanied. His solo is almost Ornette-ish in character. Singing and melodic, strongly rhythmic but harmonically unfettered, it's a joyful sound, not least because of its sheer individuality. Not many soprano saxophonists took the route suggested by Garbarek here, which not coincidentally adds to the music's appeal.
When Keith Jarrett left behind his highly esteemed American quartet for a new band of Norwegians, the jazz world was puzzled and a little bit skeptical. Yet this groupâ€”the so-called European quartetâ€”produced some of the most successful music of Jarrett's career, and had a very big seller with the My Song
album. Even today, critics are quicker to praise the looser, more unpredictable American quartet; and, certainly, if jazz were sports, you would get fired from the GM job for trading Paul Motian for Jon Christensen, etc. But jazz is not
sports, and this band achieved a holistic transcendence that made them an ideal ensemble for realizing Jarrett's compositions of the period.
"The Journey Home" is a case in point. The star here is Jarrett's composition, which moves through several distinct moods, from a melancholy rubato which leads into a spirited folksy melody with a very danceable beat (one of this composer's most inspired moments) before the piece settles into a slow 9/8 section that could stand on its own as a significant composition. The four musicians enter into the inner workings of this music with perfect sympathy andâ€”that great rarity in the jazz worldâ€”almost no signs of ego. The whole My Song
album is essential listening for Jarrett fans, and perhaps came the closest of any Jarrett quartet album to matching the type of musical personality he showed when playing his famous solo piano concerts. But if you want to start out with a single track as introduction to the European quartet, this is a very good place to begin.
Keith Jarrett's work as an orchestral composer is documented in a series of releases, including In the Light
(1974), Arbour Zena
(1975), and The Celestial Hawk
(1980). And these exist alongside potent recordings of Jarrett performing Bach, Mozart, Harrison, Hovhaness and Shostakovich in an almost unprecedented move from jazz to classical music at mid-career. One can chart Jarrett's increasing comfort and skill in channeling his musical vision into written scores, and by the time we arrive at Bridge of Light
(1990) we have a work that stands comparison with Jarrett's finest jazz music, and does not require his own presence on piano to achieve its sublime effects. The pastoral temperament that infuses much of his piano work rises to the fore here, but is transmuted in shimmering sound colors that sometimes take on an austere neo-medieval cast and elsewhere embrace a rhapsodic immediacy. With an artist so prolific as Jarrett, it is hard to make the claim that he hasn't given us enough music, but I would trade several dozen CDs from my collection for a few more orchestral works of this caliber.
For much of the 1970s, Keith Jarrett was releasing so much music that few fans or critics could keep up with him. He was recording with his American quartet and his European quartet, doing solo piano projects, composing quasi-classical works, and pursuing other miscellaneous projects. If you saw him in concert at that time, you might hear Jarrett playing soprano sax or percussion, as well as piano. Just a few weeks before this concert in Tokyo, he recorded an album of organ music, followed a few days later by the quartet session featured on the Impulse release Byablue.
In the midst of this flurry of activity, Jarrett tossed off the Sun Bear Concerts as though they were just a passing whim, and the high price tag attached when this music was released (originally in a box set of 10 LPs) limited sales to a select few. But this project (now available on six CDs)—comprising the music performed at five solo piano concerts in Japan—must be considered one of the high points of Jarrett's career. This encore from his Tokyo concert finds the pianist at top form, constructing a taut, lyrical improvisation in E minor over a filigree of mostly sixteenth notes in the left hand. At first, one expects Jarrett to move into a repeating pattern or vamp, as he often does on these solo outings, yet instead he pushes the harmonies in surprising ways. The effect is much like hearing a classical composer, working within a late Romantic or early Impressionist tonal palette, in the midst of creating a new piece. Only a few years earlier, music of this sort would hardly have been considered jazz, yet Jarrett, through his visionary conception of improvisation, was pushing the art form on to new terrain.
The jazz trio Fly considers itself to have three co-leaders. You've heard of group think? This is group-think music. Much of "Sky and Country" is a study in the subdued. Saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Larry Grenadier play several melody lines in unison as drummer Jeff Ballard plays a jam-band beat almost as slowly as you can. "Sky and Country" is about the vastness of open space. Turner amps it up a bit to fill some of that space, but never strays too close to the ground or too high in the air. There is a steadiness to the task. The band creates a slow groove, but doesn't fall in love with it. This is a thinking person's music. The degree of effort you put into listening will determine your reward.
Later in the year of this recording, saxophonist Mark Turner had a terrible accident in which he badly damaged two of his fingers while using a power saw. Prognoses varied from bad to somewhat OK. But even the best case scenario suggested that after major surgery, Turner would require about 8 months even to hope to play again. He was at in half that time. He has to relearn his fingering touch because of nerve damage to his index and middle fingers. But he is back playing publicly, showing great fortitude and love of the art.
Saxophone, bass, drums. I immediately think of Sonny Rollins, or maybe even Branford Marsalis in a more modern context. For the new trio Fly, a more apt point of comparison might be Ornette Coleman. The link is the egalitarian relationships between the instruments. While the bass
can provide harmonic structure, it can also take the lead. Extend this idea to the sax and drums and you've got Fly. The great (and perhaps surprising) outcome is that "Super Sister" sets up and maintains an incredible groove while this musical shape-shifting has its way with the sonic palette. I took a look at their (quite long) list of playing credits, wondering if the influences would be obvious. The musical clues end up being less obvious (and less important) than this: these guys have big ears. That they can so easily create this new kind of jazz architecture is a testament to that fact.
This is very much an ensemble performance. And these guys are really serious about that. An email went out from Fly's publicist asking, basically, that reviewers not single out any of the players as taking the lead role. That being the case, I am happy to give 33.3% of the credit for the organic creation that is "Lady B" to each player. (The leftover .1% can hang there in the air. Better yet, I'll give it to the publicist.) The fact is that this performance is as described. Saxophonist Mark Turner does take a thought-provoking solo. But it is not as if bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard remain behind just to provide support. They are constantly doing interesting things of their own. Your ears might wander, perhaps even to different places every time you hear the performance. That is always a good thing. Instead of choosing a standout performer, then, I will just say that these guys are an ensemble in every sense, and as such create rewarding music.
"Class Trip" is a mood-piece ballad. Violinist Mark Feldman spends a lot of time plucking a round-robin arpeggio pattern with bassist Marc Johnson and occasionally guitarist John Abercrombie. This motif alone makes the cut worthwhile. It is a toned-down Mahavishnu-like pattern, but just as ingratiating. An easy-to-aggressive European swing dominates the rest of the piece. Abercrombie has some of finest jazz chops ever. In the more energetic sections, the tune takes on a Hot Club of France touch. There is great interplay among the participants, especially Abercrombie and Feldman. I would describe "Class Trip" as a middling swing piece, in tempo only, if it were not for the frequent recurrence of the opening pattern. It serves both to set a mood and as a transitional device. When the tune is over, you will remember that series of notes. As one would expect from such a talented aggregation, this is wonderful music containing both direct statements and nuance.
Since the late 1960s, guitarist John Abercrombie has been a fixture. He was in the band Dreams, one of the earliest jazz-rock hybrid combos, along with Billy Cobham. In 1974 he released the very important fusion record Timeless
, featuring Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer. Abercrombie went on to successfully play with the Brecker Brothers as well. Over the years, he has performed with many of the finest jazz players. More recently he has put out three quartet albums featuring violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron; Class Trip
was the second.
ECM albums still have their own distinct sound, which for some reason was easier to describe a couple of decades ago. Today I would describe the fusion music that appears on the label as "tasteful fusion." This band plays a type of fusion that includes no distortion. That is how I characterize Abercrombie's guitar playing, too. On the intro, he deftly plays Middle Eastern scales over Baron's restrained cymbal work and Johnson's accented bass. Feldman joins in to seamlessly play the introspective melody in unison with Abercrombie. The theme is international in scope, part Middle Eastern jazz and part Gypsy folk song. Feldman and Abercrombie engage in some understated calls and responses. A slight carnatic feel appears, but soon disappears as Abercrombie takes a Western blues-influenced solo. Johnson too offers a worthwhile exploration. The folk nature returns to carry us home after touring the world in first-class luxury. "Dansir" is a wonderful performance from a quartet with fine taste and the ability to present it.
The larger the ensemble, the more tonal variety is possible—that's certainly a big reason why most of those who are considered jazz's greatest composers wrote for big bands. Trumpeter Lester Bowie eschewed reeds and strings in the makeup of his Brass Fantasy, but the nonet nevertheless provided its arrangers and composers with a wide array of possibilities. Composer/trumpeter Malachi Thompson takes good advantage of the tools at his disposal, exploiting unusual instruments (didgeridoo), the capacity of the individual musicians to create unusual sounds (Bowie himself wrote the book on that), writing attractive voicings, and using various combinations to produce interesting sonorities. Essentially a bossa nova bookended by free and chorale-like episodes, "Lament" doesn't offer much in the way of melody, but it does evoke a series of progressively complex if harmonically static atmospheres that, taken in total, constitute a work of some modest beauty.
Trumpeter Lester Bowie's love for '50s pop found an outlet in his Brass Fantasy, a nonet consisting of four trumpets, two trombones, a French horn, tuba and drums. The music the group made for ECM in the '80s was, in general, good-humored without being jokey, reasonably demanding without being pedantic. "I Only Have Eyes For You" was written for the 1934 Hollywood film Dames
and sung by the then-famous screen couple, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. Bowie's arrangement draws on the 1959 version by The Flamingos
—easily the best known, thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack of George Lucas's 1973 film, American Graffiti
. The notoriously wacky Bowie is respectful in his treatment, his arrangement following the general outline of The Flamingos' version with only the faintest hint of tongue in cheek. Indeed, the performance is straightforward to the point of being a bit dull, with only Bowie's pliable improvising being of much interest. The music is adequately performed—you'd expect nothing less from a group that includes the likes of Steve Turre, Bob Stewart
and the leader—but it lacks anything resembling a spark. Brass Fantasy could (and did) do better elsewhere.
The first wave of electronics on the jazz world was big and brash, with banks of keyboards, noisy guitars, and speakers stacked to the rafters in a D-Day assault on the listeners' virgin ears. The new generation is more subtle, mixing in "effects" (what a quaint term . . . I can't wait until someone starts applying it to the culinary arts or money management) with traditional acoustic sounds. Sound painter Jon Hassell belongs to the second wave, boasting an odd pedigree that few jazz players can grok—when the rest of the cats were jamming on 'Rhythm' changes, Hassell was translating ragas to the trumpet, changing the shape of composed music with Terry Riley
, mixing it up with Brian Eno, and studying the work of (the all-too-under-recorded) Pandit Pran Nath. The result is a highly stylized and peculiar body of work. Here Hassell is cooking up a thick aural soup, one that is just barely jazz, with touches of World Music, New Age and ambient sound. "Abu Gil," a 13-minute track, demonstrates Hassell's core strengths, especially his haunting trumpet sound—imagine a Miles Davis who practices Sufism—and the whizzing, buzzing, nature-walk textures of his accompanying ensemble. I would prefer a slightly crisper sound and more dynamic variety from the band—the waters get a little murky, and the rhythm section is very tame. But Hassell's trumpet work is heard to good effect here. I'm not sure "Abu Gil" would cut the mustard at the Village Vanguard, but it would get a standing ovation (or at least a lotus position ovation) at your local meditation center.
In this Bill Frisell composition, Bob Stewart's tuba is the perfect backdrop for an unlikely excursion into the alien and unknown. Frisell's guitar synthesizer is tuned to an otherworldly frequency that is strangely organic yet confoundedly unfamiliar. He bends and extends the decay of his notes in a masterful display of electronic technique and harmonic appeal. He and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler match notes perfectly, letting them wistfully fade to their own demise. This Roswellian adventure (that's New Mexico, not Rudd) is at once playful and mysterious. It draws you in by the creative exploitation of the various sounds that Frisell and Co. skillfully weave into an overall Outer Limits
-like quality. Abduction is a possibility during this strange encounter of the Frisell kind. But beware: you may find it so intoxicating that you'll never return.
Bill Frisell refuses to be pigeonholed into a particular genre or style. For this adventure into ethnically inspired music, he joins forces with the equally eclectic trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, drum colorist Paul Motian and bassist Jerome Harris, plus the unlikely addition of Bob Stewart's tuba. "Rambler" has the swagger of a young Clint Eastwood riding into a sleepy Mexican border town with a 6-gun at his side and an appetite for the local senoritas. Frisell uses his echo-filled guitar synthesizer and Wheeler's wailing Mariachi-inspired trumpet to create the aural equivalent of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, and it works marvelously. Stewart's tuba adds a welcome earthy tone to this vibrant palette. Deceptively simple, cleverly conceived, and masterfully executed, this inspired hybrid effectively transports you to a scene normally available only in the recesses of your subconscious.
There are many ways to turn a pop song into a lush jazz tune. Here, without being academic or pompous, German pianist Julia Hülsmann teaches us one such way, carving a highly enjoyable piece that reveals its delicately swinging beauty second after second. Hülsmann knows this terrain: her first three records (on the German ACT label) saw her accompanying Norwegian
, Italian Anna Lauvergnac
and German Roger Cicero
, who all sing on the border between jazz and pop. Invited by ECM to record with her trio alone, Hülsmann tackles this hit by British pop star Seal
Right from the start, the song's three basic chords are stated twice by the piano, with slight dissonance and much space between them. Even before the bass introduces the chorus, followed by the whole trio dealing with the melody, we're far from the overproduced original pop song, and deep into jazz playing. Each instrument, by the quality of its timbre and phrasing, is a true voice, and space is the keyword. The space between each player allows them to fully interact, and space between notes lets those resonate, suggesting the harmonic atmosphere rather than stuffing it with sounds. And the paradox is that, at a slower pace and with fewer instruments than the original, this cover more firmly grips the listener's attention, unfolding its harmonic, melodic and rhythmic surprises at a slow, majestically swinging pace. A beautiful lesson in transforming pop songs into jazz tunes, indeed!
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