Dexter Gordon: Kong Neptune

Recorded in Paris in 1964 and featuring two of Gordon’s most familiar European sidemen (pianist Kenny Drew and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen), One Flight Up reveals one of the more intriguing relationships in the history of jazz influence—Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane. Dexter Gordon’s line construction and big, open sound was a major early influence on Coltrane. And while Trane initially took a little while to develop his craft, we all know that once he did, he altered the course of how just about everyone—Gordon included—approached their instrument. At the height of Coltrane’s creative powers in 1964, Gordon, in turn, released One Flight Up, and while it’s certainly not free or avant-garde, it features a kicked-in-the-rear Gordon eager to stretch out more than ever before.

Whether listening to the 18+ minute “Tanya,” the 11+ minute “Coppin’ the Haven,” or the 11+ minute “Kong Neptune,” one gets a glimpse of a Gordon who is relying a bit more on energy, texture, and mood than on careful construction of bop lines. While “Tanya” may be the most adventurous and Trane-like (although it proves that not even Art Taylor could pull off a legit Elvin Jones imitation), “Kong Neptune” comes closest to achieving a fully cohesive atmosphere. Note how Gordon utilizes the full range of his horn for certain lines and then alternately focuses on repetitive, single-note lines to provide a more-tension-than-release feel. A rigorous, self-aware performance featuring Gordon at his most creative.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: Cheese Cake

Once asked which of his own Blue Note albums his personal favorite was, Gordon rather surprisingly offered a response, declaring: “I would have to say it is Go!—the perfect rhythm section…made it possible for me to play whatever I wanted to play.”

One listen to “Cheese Cake” reveals that Dexter’s comment really isn’t much of an overstatement. Right off the bat, one can’t help but notice the magnetism of Billy Higgins’s and Dexter Gordon’s shared proclivity towards vigorous playing with a tender touch. They are perfect foils for one another, and it’s no surprise that Higgins became the saxophonist’s drummer of choice for much of the remainder of his Blue Note period and during years beyond.

Clark is also in fine form here, comping at a somewhat softer, entirely perfect volume (an art unto itself) that allows him to busily predict Gordon’s moves without stepping on his toes. What’s then left to discuss is whatever Dexter wanted to play. In typical Gordon form, his improvisation begins with some standard, unhurried bebop fare and is slowly but surely enhanced by quotes, hints of the blues, and sudden vertical leaps that Gordon unpacks and prolongs along the way. Finally, note how Gordon adds a bit more length to the end of many of his eighth notes to achieve a deep, straightened-out-swing feel. A textbook bebop/hard-bop performance.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Clifford Brown & Max Roach: Take The 'A' Train

Of the four studio albums by the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet (including “Sonny Rollins Plus 4”), “Study In Brown” is doubtlessly the weakest. Most of the songs are short and the performances seem less committed than on the other albums. On “Cherokee,” Brown seems unable to match his earlier Blue Note performance, and this version of “Take The' A' Train” tries to pack in as much arrangement as possible to the detriment of the soloists. While Brown, Roach and Harold Land all acquit themselves well in their 2-chorus solos, one wishes for more, especially at the fire-breathing tempo set by Roach. When the solo time is so truncated, it’s easy to lose patience with the long intro and coda that portrays the starting, speeding, slowing and stopping of the train. I suspect this may be an arrangement by pianist Richie Powell, who wrote many fine charts for the quintet, but whose musical immaturity in soloing and writing sometimes put a drag on the entire group.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Horace Silver: The African Queen

This was a breakthrough recording for Woody Shaw—for me, the first fully realized representation of the innovations that he would bring to the jazz trumpet vocabulary. Many of Woody’s signature melodic “formations” are present in his solo, such as his systematic use of pentatonic and fourth-based permutations leading to wider interval jumps, and the “in-to-out” sequencing and side-slipping. And the poise of his playing is beautiful; everything Woody’s going for is coming off here, with beautiful sound and pinpoint, nuanced articulation. It’s a truly incredible achievement for a 20-year-old player to have his own vocabulary and style so fully formed so quick!

September 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Horace Silver: Nica's Dream

Some people called her the 'jazz baroness': the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. But to the jazz greats she was Nica. She befriended some of jazz's most important figures, Bird and Monk included, and justly found her place in the musical history books as a result. But the recordings she inspired serve as even more fitting tributes, for example this great Horace Silver track from 1960. During this era, Silver had a golden touch (no pun intended), and filled his LPs with many inspired charts, but this is one of his finest, a hard-driving song with a simple A theme backed by a relentless groove, countered by an effective mood (and rhythmic) shift for the bridge. Silver adds nice touches, interludes, intro, brief backbeat pedal points . . . all the clever nuances that set his recordings apart. The soloists are definitely inspired by the chart, with Mitchell and Silver offering especially funky solos. So hot, so cool, so Nica-delic (can I coin a new word?) . . . She must have been a very hip baroness.

September 01, 2008 · 1 comment

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Horace Silver: Sister Sadie

This irresistible gospel-inflected piece is one of Horace Silver's most popular and enduring compositions. It's also probably as close as five musicians will ever come to sounding like a big band—a tribute to Silver's writing. It's no coincidence that at least three big bands (Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, and the University of Illinois Jazz Band) followed in the 1960s with recorded arrangements of this tune. But it's hard to beat Silver's own treatment; his quintet shouts, dances and roars.

August 27, 2008 · 1 comment

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Horace Silver: Cookin' at the Continental

The album Finger Poppin' introduced Horace Silver's longest-lasting front line, Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook, who worked with the pianist from 1959 to 1964. However, the highlight of "Cookin' at the Continental," a medium-up blues, is Silver's piano solo, one of his most harmonically adventurous on record. Silver's use of fourths in his lines must have intrigued such gifted then-up-and-comers as McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and especially Chick Corea. (Want a revealing comparison? Play this recording back to back with Corea's 1968 version of "Matrix"—also a medium-up blues—on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. You'll hear an interesting lineage.)

In 1994, the GRP All-Star Big Band recorded an arrangement of "Cookin' at the Continental" by Michael Abene on the album All Blues. The climax of the chart is Abene's orchestration of a transcription of Silver's recorded piano solo—a textbook example of the value of an improvisation as composition.

August 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Horace Silver: Cool Eyes

From the same Horace Silver album as his hit "Señor Blues," "Cool Eyes," with its 32-bar AABA theme, is a delightful example of Silver's much-heralded craftsmanship. The harmonies are among the most basic in jazz: "I Got Rhythm" in the A sections, "Honeysuckle Rose" in the B section. What Silver does with them, though, is highly original. Note the last eight bars of the theme, for example, where he doubles the two horns with his piano, changing the color of the line in a fresh and unexpected way. Add to that a catchy written interlude between solos, plus a surprise ending, and the result is one of the most attractive "Rhythm"/"Honeysuckle Rose" contrafacts.

August 27, 2008 · 1 comment

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Horace Silver: Señor Blues

After the demise of the cooperative group known as The Jazz Messengers (Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Doug Watkins, Art Blakey), Silver put together his own quintet and recorded Six Pieces of Silver. He hadn't intended to become a working bandleader, but the success of "Señor Blues" created a demand for the Horace Silver Quintet and launched Silver as a leader.

"Señor Blues" is a 12/8 Latin piece with a dark, exotic flavor that recalls no other jazz composer as much as Duke Ellington. The first two chords are E-flat minor and B7, resembling (whether consciously intended or not) one of Ellington's favorite harmonic gestures. Donald Byrd, Mobley and Silver carefully maintain the atmosphere of the piece in their solos. In that respect, Silver's dense chording behind the two horns is an enormous help; his own solo, after a written interlude by the horns, is an effective contrast.

August 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Horace Silver: Doodlin'

From one of the classic hard-bop albums comes Horace Silver's first hit. Take a simple riff, rhythmically displace it several times over D-flat blues harmonies, resolve it with a staccato, quasi-humorous phrase, and you have "Doodlin'." (It's far less easy to do than that sounds.) Silver's solo is the highlight of this performance—the essence of inspired simplicity. Jon Hendricks later wrote engaging lyrics to the theme and piano solo; they can be heard on Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan at Basin Street East.

August 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jackie McLean: Fidel

Ten days before 27-year-old Jackie McLean's first Blue Note recording session as a leader, another first-time leader made his own mark, as guerrilla forces commanded by 32-year-old lawyer-turned-rebel Fidel Castro triumphantly entered Havana, consummating their overthrow of Cuba's military dictatorship. During the brutal 7-year reign of General Fulgencio Batista, the tropical island had become the Las Vegas of the Caribbean, home to lavish casinos, mobster Meyer Lansky, widespread corruption, government- censored media, protest demonstrations, general strikes by workers, riots in the streets, police terrorism, and the suspension of such constitutional niceties as free elections. (See The Godfather, Part II for picturesque milieu.) Naturally Castro's ragtag but victorious army was welcomed by jubilant crowds, relieved to be out from under the dictator's iron thumb yet little suspecting what lay ahead.

As charismatic leader of the Cuban Revolution, the scruffy, full-bearded Castro instantly became a folk hero to hemispheric militants from Havana to Harlem, cementing his appeal in the latter community during an eventful September 1960 visit. In town to address the U.N. General Assembly, the Third World's newly anointed apostle of the proletariat—perennially clad in combat fatigues—felt a chill of inhospitality amid the gracious 19th-century brownstones of midtown Manhattan's Shelburne Murray Hill hostelry, and with characteristic antibourgeois panache relocated himself and his retinue to Harlem's storied Hotel Theresa, where he received such solicitous dignitaries as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X, the latter proclaiming his Cuban host the only white person he ever liked. Meanwhile that month the CIA, less in accord with Malcolm's sanguine assessment than with President Eisenhower's denunciation of Castro as an international troublemaker, commissioned Sam Giancana, boss of organized crime's notorious Chicago Outfit, and his Miami counterpart Santos Trafficante to assassinate Castro upon the Bearded One's return home. And speaking of returns, Jackie McLean was again in Van Gelder Studios to complete his album Jackie's Bag. (As we said, it was an eventful month.)

Having grown up in Harlem, where he still resided, McLean must've felt vindicated when his tribute's namesake checked into the Hotel Theresa, presumably confirming McLean's prescience in recognizing Castro as one of history's good guys. In any case, Jackie's tune "Fidel" is exceptionally attractive, and McLean puts his familiar off-kilter intonation to expressive solo use. The overall performance, however, is far from Blue Note's best. In particular, trumpeter Donald Byrd and pianist Sonny Clark seem out of sorts, justifying producer Alfred Lion's decision to keep this session in the can until more representative McLean albums could be released (to wit New Soil, Swing, Swang, Swingin' and Capuchin Swing).

As for Castro, he went on to outlive Batista, Khrushchev, Eisenhower, Meyer Lansky, Malcolm X, Sam Giancana, Santos Trafficante, Alfred Lion, Sonny Clark and even Jackie McLean. Must be something about those fine Habanos cigars.

July 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Pensativa

The addition of trombonist Curtis Fuller as a third member of the Jazz Messengers' front line allowed for some unique three-part writing and arranging in this chapter of the band's story. Hence the Latin-inspired, highly arranged "Pensativa," representing a calmer and cooler version of the Messengers. All three frontline players trade off sections of the lengthy bossa-nova melody. Blakey himself is subdued yet still strongly swinging throughout, and Cedar Walton takes the opportunity to perform an outstanding solo after fine Hubbard and Shorter offerings. A welcomed development to the Jazz Messengers sound.

April 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Bu's Delight

In 1961, Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller and Cedar Walton joined the Jazz Messengers, with Shorter and Merritt remaining on board from the previous lineup. While the Morgan/Shorter front line released some of Blakey's most highly revered material, this group was up to the challenge of following, and at some points surpassing the high musical quality of previous Messengers lineups. Buhaina's Delight, Three Blind Mice, Mosaic, Caravan (now with Reggie Workman on bass), Ugetsu, Free for All and Kyoto all exemplify this fine version of the Messengers between 1961 and 1964. Freddie Hubbard is one of the few trumpeters who could have stepped into Lee Morgan's footprints and not make us think of him solely as Morgan's successor. Hubbard's muscular solo here declares his arrival in the band, and Blakey's extended solo stretches beyond his usual formula and flirts with moments of "free jazz" drumming.

April 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Art Blakey: The Freedom Rider

"The Freedom Rider" is a 7½-minute unaccompanied drum solo from the final record made by the Shorter/Morgan/Timmons/Merritt installment of the Jazz Messengers. Blakey strictly adheres to his solo formula here, laying down his signature Latin-inspired ride cymbal/tom groove and alternating it with tom-and-snare based improvisations. One could almost imagine that Blakey is playing along to a Messengers track here and only the drums were recorded – his extended solo statement is essentially a song-oriented composition. For this reason, "The Freedom Rider" is an essential addition to the Blakey discography, giving listeners a glimpse into the entire range of Blakey's playing without distraction.

April 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: A Night in Tunisia

Is there a more intense, energetic single track anywhere out there? The Messengers absolutely tear through the head of this tune, replete with Blakey's blistering fills throughout the "pre-sax-break" vamp. Shorter offers up a fine solo, opting for a minimalist, harmonic approach to filling up Bird's revolutionary break of 14 years before. Morgan blazes through his solo space, and Blakey's energetic hi-hat and clever Latin-percussion-drenched background figures allow bassist Jymie Merritt to solo without sacrificing the tremendous momentum that has built up. The presence of Latin percussion underneath what would normally be Blakey's unaccompanied drum solo frees him to experiment with melodic rhythms that make this one of his finest and most unique solos. Cadenzas by Morgan, Shorter and Blakey top off this classic, intense, energetic performance.

April 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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