Woody Shaw: Isabel the Liberator

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Woody Shaw had arguably the finest touring jazz (straight ahead) small group on the scene, only rivaled by Betty Carter’s trio and of course Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It’s fortunate that a number of performances by his band have been documented on CD, notably the four volumes from the Keystone Korner. Here is Woody at his absolute peak as a player and bandleader. The live version of pianist Larry Willis’s “Isabel the Liberator” (originally recorded on Woody’s third CBS release For Sure!) is a tautly driving performance, and Woody’s solo on here is on a magisterial tip, building from a calm, reflective yet rhythmically assured opening to a number of successive peaks of shattering impact. This solo exemplifies for me that quality of Woody’s playing narrative in which he’s able to sustain a long solo through a sure control and exploitation of contrasts (intensity and complexity, inside and outside harmonic motion, chromatic and intervallic line construction, short rhythmic jabs and long legato phrases). Also check out Larry Willis’s playing, behind Woody and on his solo—out of sight! His comping really inspires Woody here.

September 17, 2008 · 0 comments


McCoy Tyner: In a Sentimental Mood

Musicians today have little sense of the pressure on jazz artists to jump on board the Free Jazz bandwagon during the late 1960s and 1970s. It was leaving town, turbocharged by the inexorable force of History with a capital H, and you didn't want to be left behind, stuck with old-fashioned chord changes. ("Chord changes, we don't need no stinkin' chord changes.") McCoy Tyner had helped set the Free Jazz movement in motion with his 1960s work alongside John Coltrane, but the pianist mostly remained within the bounds of tonality during his post-Coltrane career. Yet even an artist of this stature wrestled with the conflict between staying inside or moving beyond the harmonies.

No Tyner performance is more revealing of this tension than his solo piano rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood" from the memorable Atlantis live date from the summer 1974. There are long stretches here where Cecil Taylor seems to have taken over the keyboard, buzzing and hammering and obliterating the tonal center. Then Ellington's beautiful pentatonic melody will rise above the fray, like some towering monument to structure and order. But Tyner eventually moves beyond these external influences, and constructs his own rhapsodic vision of this song. This music is intense and beautiful by turns, and some moments are absolutely breathtaking. Solo acoustic jazz piano was making a comeback during this decade under the influence of Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Cecil Taylor and others, but even in an era of keyboard masterpieces this track stands out from the crowd.

September 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Freddie Hubbard: Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise

This CD probably is less well known than it should be. I recollect that someone handed it to me on an airplane. It documents Freddie Hubbard live at Todd Barkan’s Keystone Korner, where he did many excellent live recordings. This extended up-tempo version of "Softly" is relentless. Freddie pushes himself to his outer limits; just when you think he’s going to come crashing down, he somehow reinvigorates himself and comes up with another bunch of choruses. This is how I remember Freddie live—simply mind-boggling.

April 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Art Blakey (featuring Wynton Marsalis): How Deep Is the Ocean?

I still remember the intense buzz when Art Blakey brought this band to San Francisco's Keystone Korner. The jazz cognoscenti were flocking to the club, and I heard them proclaiming: "I'm going to see Wynton." Not, "I'm going to hear Art Blakey." Or: "I'm going to check out the Jazz Messengers." Marsalis may have been a sideman and only 19 years old, and he had yet to release his first CD as a leader . . . but already word of mouth was spreading like a wildfire.

Marsalis did not disappoint, as this track will make clear. Wynton himself has sometimes made dismissive comments about his early work, but I still get jazzed every time I listen to his performance of "How Deep Is the Ocean?" In an era in which most trumpeters preferred to play fast rather than clean, with intensity rather than control, Wynton showed you could have it all. His sound is gorgeous on the slow, rubato opening, but even when the tempo accelerates and he starts dishing out fast, curlicue runs, he still gets that big, burnished tone. There are a few rough moments, for example when Marsalis and pianist James Williams appear to clash in their choice of a chord, but even this miscue adds to the sense of spontaneity of this live performance.

This period in Marsalis's career was almost over before it began. He was soon going beyond Brownie and Navarro, ready to assimilate Miles and Ornette, and then launch into his own Wynton-esque bag. But even if Marsalis had retired after his stint with Blakey, he would deserve consideration as one of the finest hard-bop trumpeters on the strength of performances such as this one.

January 07, 2008 · 0 comments


Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Bright Moments (live)

Rahsaan Roland Kirk ranks among the finest soloists of his generation. But when you bought one of his records you never knew what you might get. First, there was that strange three-sided LP. What about those times he played three horns at once? And don't forget those bizarre instruments, the manzello and the stritch. And I loved it when he played the nose flute (but you wouldn't catch me sitting in the front row at the club when he blew it). If Kirk had just focused on tenor sax, he would have ranked with the finest, but that was just a sideline in his traveling one-man show. Where should the uninitiated start with this wide-ranging artist? The Bright Moments recording in San Francisco ranks first and foremost in my Kirk CD collection, and this wild title track is about as good as it gets. Kirk talks, sings, and grooves in high gear with his inimitable over-blowing technique on the flute. A bright moment all should enjoy.

November 24, 2007 · 0 comments


Stan Getz: A Time for Love

Early in his career, Stan Getz was dubbed The Sound, just as Sinatra was The Voice. Small wonder. Getz's tenor tone was among Western Civilization's crowning glories, right up there with Shakespeare's quill, Rembrandt's brush and Edison's lab. Thirty-one years after Getz recorded Johnny Mandel's "Hershey Bar," the rematch of musician and composer was still sweet. "A Time for Love," written for the forgettable movie An American Dream (1966), is unforgettable Getz. Instead of the customary ballad order of sax, piano, and sax again to close, Getz and Levy render one gorgeous 40-bar chorus apiece, giving us a 6½-minute preview of Heaven.

October 26, 2007 · 0 comments


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