Jaki Byard: Twelve

Pianist/composer Jaki Byard was so rambunctiously creative, it's no surprise he caught the ear of Charles Mingus, with whom he played off and on during the 1960s. Recorded in 1965 at a place called Lennie's on the Turnpike outside Boston, "Twelve" opens a transcendent album. A knotty, medium-up, asymmetrical 12-bar non-blues to begin, the tune kicks into a cooking, Mingus-like 6/8 blues underneath Farrell's inside/out tenor solo, before morphing into a straight-ahead 4/4 blues. Farrell is his usual extraordinary self—a tenor saxophonist blessed with monster chops and an even more profound imagination, whose unflagging energy levitates the bandstand. Byard follows with a discursive, yet fiercely swinging piano solo, following the form and harmonic contour with the loose assurance of someone who knows his destination well and is determined to enjoy the ride. The piano sounds like a slightly out-of-tune upright, yet somehow the instrument's homeliness fits Byard's guileless, joyful style. Bassist Tucker is a bit far back in the mix, but his percussive, swinging presence is felt. Dawson plays as if he's thinking Byard's thoughts, so closely does he follow and complement the pianist's whims. A confab of underappreciated jazzers if ever there was one, this was a tremendous band.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Joe Lovano: Six and Four

Although this CD's title comes from Joe Lovano's composition "Joyous Encounter," those words apply even more to the sheer fun the quartet has in performing Oliver Nelson's "Six and Four." Hank Jones probably brought this tune to Lovano's attention, seeing as how the pianist recorded it with his brothers Elvin and Thad back in 1961 (Elvin!), and again during his solo Maybeck Recital Hall program in 1991. By the time they recorded this version in 2004, Lovano, Jones, George Mraz and Paul Motian had a summer tour under their belts promoting the saxophonist's I'm All For You release, and the relaxed yet robust rapport they now shared more than ever as an interactive, dynamic unit is quite evident on this track.

That six-four beat is infectious right from the start, as Lovano intones the riff-obsessed theme. Motian and Mraz provide a persistently animated underpinning for Jones's prancing and bluesy opening solo. Lovano's gruff tone, slurred lines, and dissonant overtones and shrieks are key components of the leader's playful improv. He seamlessly segues back to Nelson's theme, concluding with an earthy exclamation that is answered by Motian's unbridled, free-form closing drum pattern.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Alan Sondheim: 776

Ah, the commune. Ah, the incense. Ah, the ... sorry, I was just flashing back to the '60s for a moment. Seriously, though, this unruly bit of improvised guitar and percussion does have the stamp of that era. Multi-instrumentalist Alan Sondheim improvises his way over a rippling bed of percussion provided by Sugarman and J.P. At first it seems that Sondheim might be heading toward an off-kilter bossa nova of sorts, but as time progresses and as the percussion becomes more insistent, "776" dives straight into "Miserlou" territory. Well, maybe "Miserlou" run through a blender. Surf music for hippies? Eh, why not?!

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Eric Dolphy: 245

I've always thought of this track as the sleeper from Outward Bound, Eric Dolphy's debut recording as a leader. Though hearing such great music is one of life's supreme joys, it is also a sobering reminder that in today's jazz world, the ability to look simultaneously forward and backward has become a lost art. For too many musicians and fans alike, It's an either/or proposition.

Return with me now to the thrilling days of yesteryear (any Lone Ranger fans still alive?) when the most exciting jazz was produced by players who didn't have to choose between making every note a tribute to a dead guy, or learning the fundamentals of grant writing rather than the fundamentals of music.

Here we have some of the most forward-thinking players of the time exploring one of jazz's most classic forms, the slow blues. The theme features a mournful, wailing melody over some interesting substitute chord changes. All three soloists dig in deeply, maintaining the theme's dark, probing mood without gratuitous double-timing or change-running.

Hubbard at the ripe old age of 22 was already speaking in his own voice, employing a fat, singing tone combined with the technical virtuosity needed to transfer some of John Coltrane's harmonic and rhythmic concepts to the trumpet. Byard, who had several centuries of piano music at his fingertips, sustains the mood, sounding like a Klingon version of James P. Johnson. Dolphy's own solo strikes a perfect balance between control and abandon, pushing the envelope while acknowledging his debt to both Bird and Hodges.

October 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Bill Bruford: (square root) q.e.d.

square root q.e.d.

The title of the cut refers to the Latin "quod erat demonstrandum," which means basically that the evidence in a mathematical proof or philosophical argument has been demonstrated to be true or proven. Or, to put it more simply, the proof is in the pudding. Understanding why one would request the square-root of the proof is a question for John Forbes Nash or Russell Crowe. Take your pick.

In this case you would have to disprove the theorem that this is Weather Report with a guest guitarist. Even further you would have to disprove that Bruford borrowed a bit from the spirit of "Birdland." This is not an accusation of pilfering in any way. I see it more as homage. The piece is an in-depth investigation into the layers of music. This is something Weather Report lived. Bruford's band offers its own proof that they are highly capable musicians who could dissect music and rearrange its DNA. There is no pretense that this is the progressive rock that was much expected from Bruford at this time. This is investigative journalism. I suggest it is some of Bruford's most interesting work.

Reviewer's Fun Fact: The only other artist I remember who used mathematical formulas in his song titles was free jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. In fact, he used all sorts of symbols and drawings that seemed disconnected from his material. When I was jazz disc jockey, I had more trouble conveying the titles of his tunes than I did understanding his music – which wasn't easy either!

October 20, 2008 · 1 comment


Yusef Lateef: Number 7

This terrific set from Yusef Lateef's mid-'60's residency at Pep's Lounge in Philadelphia reveals a handful of fine, relatively unknown musicians performing with a multi-instrumentalist at the top of his creative game. "Number 7" is the perfect place to start if you are unfamiliar with Lateef's playing and compositional style. It begins with a fine, up-tempo bop tenor statement, followed by a slower, gospel/blues tenor statement that riles the crowd to a roaring ovation. Just when you think the tune is about to end, a bass vamp/solo begins and Lateef picks up the flute for a concluding statement. While the world music elements that have come to define Lateef's work as a leader don't reveal themselves here, his soulful tenor playing reached its career apex on Live at Pep's, a memorable live date recorded shortly after he'd completed a 2-year stint with Cannonball Adderley.

September 16, 2008 · 296 comments


Booker Ervin: Number Two

By the time this album was recorded in 1964, tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin had achieved some renown as a member of the extraordinary Charles Mingus group that also included multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Ted Curson. That band is said to have been Mingus's answer to Ornette Coleman's revolutionary quartet. Certainly Mingus's music was then heavily influenced by the intensely melodic, harmonically ambiguous music made by Coleman. While not an experimentalist originally, Ervin's concept evolved while a member of the Mingus ensemble. On performances such as this one, Ervin garnished his earthy straight-ahead concept with some of the openness favored by the free players, with excellent results.

"Number Two" seemingly attempts to evoke the outer-space zeitgeist implied by the album's title. Indeed, pianist Jaki Byard's introductory whole-tone motive sounds like something one might hear on the soundtrack to an episode of Lost in Space. The tempo burns. Drummer Alan Dawson's dancing ride cymbal is simultaneously a catalyst and the music's central organizing element. Byard and bassist Richard Davis treat the descending chord sequence with an air of casual relevance. Both stretch the harmonies as far as they dare without having it snap back in their faces. Ervin adheres more closely to the structure, but he's not overly beholden to it, from either a harmonic or rhythmic standpoint. His attack is characteristically hard-bitten, his forward momentum unrelenting. Ervin's type of "free" is based more on an embrace of conventional harmony and bebop rhythms than is Coleman's. As a consequence, it is not as striking. The way he combines a hard-bop tenor sensibility with free jazz elements is unique, however, and often very compelling in its own right. For the '60s jazz listener who found Coleman's music daunting, this music might have served as a gateway to freedom—slightly experimental, yet retaining the gospel/blues essence that made hard bop so attractive.

September 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Maryland (featuring Maria Neckam): 55

During a recent trip to New York, I wandered into the cellar of an Italian eatery just off Washington Square, where I was fortunate to discover an enigmatic young singer-composer named Maria Neckam. It wasn't just the unaffected clarity or refreshing timbre of her voice, nor her remarkable range that captured my imagination; it was the fearless integrity of her musical ideas.

A Viennese expatriate who now calls Brooklyn home, Maria has broken the mold in many ways, and admits that people either love or hate her voice. I would say that, if you have an extensive Britney Spears record collection, you're not likely to be a huge fan. For the rest of us, there's no denying the purity of her pipes or the control of her technique. The tone of her voice suggests a violin with a hint of soprano sax coloration and no hint of affectation. She writes quirky, provoking, poetic lyrics. Some of her compositions have a decided Weill-Brechtian flavor, as if written for a 21st-century Threepenny Opera.

This particular track offers a wistful, spirited head over a Latin 5/4 feel with tasty Indian tabla texturing. There are no lyrics to divert attention from her unique voice as it glides above a Lydian dreamscape, backed by an assured, tight group of multinational musicians. The recording is vibrant, the playing strong and intuitively supportive.

"How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?" wrote Oscar Hammerstein about another Austrian songbird named Maria. The answer is simply…don't. Just open your mind and enjoy.

August 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Steve Lacy (featuring Elvin Jones): Four in One

After a Roy Haynes/Max Roach-influenced drum break to open "Four in One," Elvin Jones declares his singular presence with his multi-layered approach of building broken-triplets (with his snare and bass drums) on top of his complete cymbal/hi-hat pattern (00:07). Elvin (and his many talented disciples) play this pattern so often that it's easy to forget how much skill it requires. Note the brief yet revealing polyrhythmic fill that giftedly turns the beat around at the conclusion of Lacy's improvisation (2:20-2:23). This is just a glimpse of the heightened focus on polyrhythm that would increasingly define Jones's playing. Also note Elvin's energetic, "try-to-find-beat-one!" fills during the fours section at the tune's conclusion.

August 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Gary McFarland: Theme from <i>13</i>

Gary McFarland's main theme for the 1967 film 13 (later retitled Eye of the Devil) is one of his most recorded pieces, though under several different titles (e.g., "One I Could Have Loved," "Eye of the Devil," "Death March"). Here we hear it in a relatively straightforward version with strings, voices and rhythm (the former two overdubbed in London). Many of McFarland's recorded efforts later in the '60s reflected his interest in current pop-flavored music, often with him singing wordlessly in unison with his vibraphone. We hear a sample of that here. In a sense, it's unfortunate that his efforts to reach a wider audience went mostly unfulfilled—he was a charismatic, strikingly handsome figure, a natural for pop stardom.

July 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Miles Davis: Four

If there's one rhythm section that can rival the influence of the Classic Coltrane Quartet, it is Miles Davis's Second Quintet – performing during the same time period and offering a sound that is equally inventive yet poles apart yet. In contrast to the raw power of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams provided Miles with only the highest level of innate musical ability. Hancock took piano comping to new levels of harmonic, and most ingeniously rhythmic sophistication. Carter's perfection compelled listeners to concentrate on the bass (while Miles, Herbie, Wayne and Tony were playing!). And simply put, Tony Williams executed ideas with all four limbs that most only dreamed of. Miles plays with an uncharted freedom on this version of "Four," and it must be in large part because he senses that his rhythm section will support his every (unexpected) move.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments


John Abercrombie: Number 9

In a 2007 interview discussing his then brand-new CD, John Abercrombie said that he named this composition "Number 9" simply because "it's nine measures long." He also said, "This ballad just seemed to play itself. I sat down one day at the piano, and within five minutes, the tune was finished." A more appropriate title for this tune might have been "After Nefertiti," or "Another Ode to a Queen," or perhaps just "Thanks, Wayne." A 7-note segment of the theme comes right out of Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti," but apparently (and surprisingly) Abercrombie never noticed.

Regardless, "Number 9" is one of the CD's best tracks. Feldman plays the winsome theme twice in this out-of-tempo arrangement. Abercrombie then engages in a gracefully subdued melodic embellishment based on the tune's harmonic structure. Feldman follows in a similar vein, but with more intense feeling, while sounding at times like Regina Carter. Abercrombie returns to play the theme as Feldman's tremolo provides moving counterpoint. The violinist then takes over for his own soothing and heartfelt reiteration of the pretty melody. The essence of "Nefertiti" is never far from the surface, but despite this, or because of it, "Number 9" is a lovely ballad performance.

May 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Glenn Miller: Pennsylvania 6-5000

In ancient times, telephone prefixes were mnemonic, not numeric. PE 6-5000 in Manhattan, for example, rang up the Hotel Pennsylvania, in whose Café Rouge the Glenn Miller Orchestra nightly performed. That such minutia became grist for Miller's mill of pop hits presaged the pretzel logic of Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" (1974), in which seven digits assume talismanic importance. Glenn Miller goes Steely Dan one better, though, by incorporating a tinkling bell, the prehistoric ringtone so compelling to primitives. Miller's dynamics, encasing straitlaced solos by trumpeter Hurley and tenorman Beneke, are calculated as usual to produce prissy room-service Swing.

April 04, 2008 · 1 comment


Wes Montgomery with Wynton Kelly: Four on Six

With its catchy bass intro by the unmistakable Paul Chambers, comped in perfect sync by Wynton Kelly's piano, this Montgomery-penned smoker delivers nonstop swing from the very first note. Jimmy Cobb's sure snare and cymbal work drive the relentless beat to its natural level while Chambers anchors throughout. Montgomery's patented octave chording takes over in a stirring solo only to be followed by Kelly's brilliantly dancing response on the ivories. This piano man can surely swing. Chambers offers up a signature bowed bass solo that could easily slow the tempo, but somehow it just allows the tune to temporarily simmer, followed by a brilliantly counterpointed drum solo from the normally reserved Cobb. This is one group that plays completely in sync. Throughout, the normally showcased Montgomery seems, for once, to be seamlessly integrated into the total band concept and to great effect. The totality of purpose that these musicians so effectively demonstrate serves this classic well.

February 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Modul 39_8

You wouldn't think that a discussion of minimalism and funk would be a very long one. On "Modul 39_8," Nik Bärtsch's Ronin takes what might seem like two orthogonal musical substances and fits them together in a very natural way. Beginning with a cycling and moody piano figure, there's absolutely no hint of the changes to come. As the pace picks up (glacially), subtle bits of percussion are the only indication that the band will kick off at the 2-minute mark. Björn Meyer's bass drives lifts the mood for just a few moments before it is again just piano and percussion and mood. With just a few minutes left in the composition, we again shift up with piano notes showering all over a repeated horn figure and Meyer's bass popping away. I can imagine a discussion about this music lasting for days.

February 12, 2008 · 0 comments


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