Marc Copland & Gary Peacock: Blue in Green

In a more discerning universe, Marc Copland would be far better known. I first encountered his music in the mid-1980s, when an acquaintance sent me an amateur tape of a NY club gig by the pianist. I was deeply impressed then, and expected a grand career from this artist. Copland has not disappointed me—his music-making has repeatedly lived up to the highest expectations—however the jazz audience has surprised me by not embracing his bracing pianism. Copland has recorded extensively, invariably drawing on the finest collaborators, and has proven again and again that his own playing is at the same world class level as his better known associates. Yet, despite his considerable musical achievements, Marc's name recognition, outside of a small, knowledgeable inner circle of musicians and admirers, is modest.

One cannot say the same for his music, which is probing and provocative, more a dissection of compositional structures than the usual tributes at the shrine of the American songbook. Here Copland and Peacock take a very familiar jazz tune, already burned into our collective consciousness in definitive performances by the standard-bearers of the art form, and manage to stretch it into limber, new shapes. The duo adopt such an elongated sense of time, that the pulse is more an occasional reminder of the beat rather than a constant timekeeping. Copland doesn't so much reharmonize the song as impose new chordal structures on top of the old ones, which exist concurrently. His solo structure has plenty of drama, but no false bravado, and some of the strongest effects come through the juxtaposition of silence rather than the assertion of sound. Peacock, for his part, plays with a zen sureness that is centering even as it adds to the deconstructive spirit of the date. The result is that charming exception: a cover version that somehow manages to sound like its own original.

November 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Jeff Hamilton: The Serpent's Tooth

Miles Davis wrote "The Serpent's Tooth" for a 1953 recording date he led featuring the enviable two-tenor lineup of Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. Unfortunately, neither tenor man was at his best that day, and MIles' fine composition has not been covered much in the intervening years. Jeff Hamilton used it as the closing number on his trio CD, Symbiosis, and bassist Christoph Luty's ingenious arrangement abruptly takes the tempo down to half-speed at the beginning of the bridge, only to gradually accelerate back to the original fast tempo in the first four bars of the final A section. While the tempo changes do not occur during the solos, the two appearances of the accelerating passage show just how well this group plays together. All three members of the group solo here. Pianist Tamir Hendelman gets the lion's share (or serpent's share?) with a dazzling solo that starts in straight-ahead bop style but moves in and out of more advanced harmonic territory. In his last chorus, Hendelman incorporates an exciting shout chorus to offset his improvised ideas and to offer a thrilling conclusion to his solo. Luty's solo sticks in the bebop style and features stunningly articulated hornlike lines which most bass players wouldn't dream of trying. Hamilton roars through his spots with rapid-fire movement between his toms and tenor drums. An excellent performance by one of the best mainstream groups in jazz today.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Bill Evans & Jeremy Steig: So What

When Denny Zeitlin was brought in by producer John Hammond to play piano on Jeremy Steig's 1963 debut recording, Flute Fever, as Zeitlin recalled in a recent interview (see Marc Myers' JazzWax blog), Steig "was very frank about his raw emotional approach to playing. He said to me, 'Sometimes I just like to have a tantrum out there.' " Bill Evans first met and heard Steig in 1964, and in his original liner notes for the 1969 What's New album wrote, "Jeremy's playing also has a side of intensity that occasionally might defy belief. I played flute and piccolo for fourteen years and therefore feel a justification for my high estimation of Jeremy's exceptional scope as a flutist." Evans, who had once recorded with flutist Herbie Mann (Nirvana), was well aware that Steig was taking the instrument to places untouched emotionally and technically by even Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It wasn't until 1968 that Evans and Steig played together, Steig sitting in with the Evans trio at club dates in New York, which logically led to their recorded collaboration on What's New.

Steig had already performed "So What" on his Flute Fever session with Zeitlin [see review], and of course Evans had played it on the album that introduced the now jazz standard, Miles Davis' revered Kind of Blue. Evans and Steig essay a diverting free-form intro and play the theme together alongside Eddie Gomez's bass vamp. Steig's breathy tone and swirling, tenacious attack is encapsulated in his first brief solo, which gives way to Evans' lengthier improv. Evans' pronounced McCoy Tyner-like left-hand figures, two-handed unison exclamations, and unyielding momentum are all a far cry from the pianist's contemplative, subdued side. Steig's second solo seems to be propelled to greater and greater heights by Gomez's driving, variegated bass lines. The flutist's tonal inventiveness is boundless, including the use of overblowing, humming, and vocalized overtones. Even at his most possessed, however, Steig's phrasing retains logic and relevance. Gomez's feature prior to the theme restatement is an excellent early example of his deliberate yet elaborate modus operandi.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Jeremy Steig (with Denny Zeitlin): So What

This was the debut recording of two precocious talents, Jeremy Steig (then 21) and Denny Zeitlin (then 25 and on the verge of completing Johns Hopkins Medical School). Producer John Hammond paired them with the seasoned Ben Tucker (b. 1930) and Ben Riley (b. 1933).

Flute Fever is an inspired ”blowing session” with a repertoire of standards and 1950s jazz classics. Steig’s personal spin on the Roland Kirk/Yusef Lateef school of jazz flute probably will not appeal to those who relish a pristine “classical” approach to the instrument, but on his own terms Steig is a more-than-convincing player. Zeitlin does ear-catching things on every selection, but his most forward-looking solo is on “So What”. The highlight of this track is a piano/drums duet perhaps inspired by John Coltrane and Elvin Jones—Coltrane was already one of Zeitlin’s varied influences.

Though briefly reissued on CD, Flute Fever is hard-to-find and a collector’s item. Here’s hoping that some label will make it available once again.

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


John McLaughlin and Chick Corea: In A Silent Way / It's About That Time

Here’s a recent, live all-star recreation of the entire backside of Miles Davis’ classic early fusion platter, In A Silent Way. For Joe Zawinul’s sublimely pretty melody, McLaughlin sensitively renders it as he did in the original, with Corea gently coaxing cozy accents from his electronic keyboards.

The temporary addition of Hancock to the Five Peace Band for this number is notable, as it’s the first time he, Corea and McLaughlin have played “In A Silent Way” together since they recorded the song with Miles back in January, 1969. The magic of the moment isn’t just rooted in symbolism: Hancock came as an equal participant. While McLaughlin muses over the theme, his attentive comping reads the guitarist’s mind like a book, and even leads the co-leaders into a brief, impromptu dark passage before McLaughlin signals the band to the “It’s About That Time” segment with that signature three-note vamp. Not long after that, the entire band is padlocked into the song’s solid rock groove while Hancock launches into one of his more spirited acoustic piano solos in recent memory. McLaughlin and Garrett make their own blue-ribbon statements later on, but Herbie had already stolen the show.

Rock-jazz these days has got nothing on this.

April 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Various Artists: Blue in Green

Can anyone doubt that, had he lived longer, Miles Davis would have been a major player in the Indo-jazz fusion movement that has come to the fore in recent years? Producer Bob Belden here makes sure Davis was part of it anyway. For Miles From India, Belden assembled an impressive cast of Western musicians who'd collaborated with Davis. Many were part of Miles's most historic recordings. Belden then paired them with established and up-&-coming Indian musicians to interpret some of Miles's greatest works. Belden sees Miles's music as a common language. More and more, Indian musicians are becoming fluent in this language.

Dilshad Khan's sarangi hangs over "Blue in Green's" intro like a protective shroud. The sarangi is an ancient Indian stringed instrument mastered by few musicians, Khan clearly being one. Free-floating elements are added by trumpeter Wallace Roney, sounding like Miles himself, guitarist Mike Stern and keyboardist Louiz Banks. Vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, best known in the West as a frequent guest with John McLaughlin's Remember Shakti, acts as the lead melodic instrument, his wordless vocalizations imbuing the piece with a haunting beauty. The tune's midsection provides a venue for some fine jazz explorations from Banks and Stern. They are propelled throughout by the rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb, drummer on the original "Blue In Green" from Kind of Blue. An abrupt change in direction occurs that ushers in Roney and Khan for some spacey and moving interplay. (The sudden shift is reminiscent of what producer Teo Macero had sometimes created in the editing room on Miles's A Tribute to Jack Johnson and other records.) The musicians return en masse to bring the 13-minute excursion to a pleasing end. By communicating across two global hemispheres, this music takes another important step forward in the natural extension of jazz through cultural understanding.

March 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Roy Haynes: Sippin' at Bells

This trio record, a half-studio, half-live date in which Roy Haynes dedicates each tune to one of his favorite past musical partners, began the self-revitalizing, career-reflecting period of Roy Haynes's career. Most importantly, it asserted that Haynes's drumming had not deteriorated with age. In fact, the electricity heard throughout the live half of this album reveals some of Haynes's finest playing ever – recorded while in his mid 70s! It therefore comes as no surprise that his longstanding current band, formed slightly after this '99 date, is called the Fountain of Youth. If anyone has discovered that mythical spring, Roy Haynes has.

Danilo Perez and John Patitucci, who have since gone on to form half of the Wayne Shorter quartet, connect skillfully throughout this disc, weaving in and out of brief, open solo segments, while always leaving enough space for Haynes's drumming to remain front and center. Their quick reaction time, combined with a willingness to playfully engage in Haynes's every leading stroke, leads to exhilarating rhythmic improvisation.

Of special note here are the extended fours between Patitucci and Haynes that begin directly after the statement of the Miles Davis melody. Check out the two Haynes breaks starting at 1:20 and 1:42, respectively. In the first, he plays his trademark groupings of threes, broken up between his hands and left foot. Nine measures into the 12-measure break, he begins his run of threes again – this time shifted a beat back in time – so the placement isn't where you expect it until he reestablishes the beat at the very end. The second break has it all: Latin-influenced rhythms, rapid-fire 16th notes, and four final measures where he flips his rhythm between the downbeats and upbeats – and then flips those rhythms between his hands and his feet!

March 01, 2009 · 0 comments


Katia & Marielle Labèque: Blue in Green

Love of Colours is dedicated to Miles Davis. That had to do with more than how much duo-pianists/sisters Katia & Marielle Labèque liked "Blue in Green." After all, former Davis sideman and partner in fusion crime John McLaughlin produced this album. And through the McLaughlin association, Katia came to know Miles himself, who thought enough of her to name not one but two songs after her on You're Under Arrest. The Labèques acknowledge they are not jazz artists. The classical 4-hand duo has performed with symphony orchestras all over the world for three decades. But they also love jazz and believe it deserves classical interpretation, an idea that has been growing in the classical community. There is a school of opinion, in which I am enrolled, that holds jazz will become the classical music of the future.

The Labèques try something on "Blue In Green" that for them was quite different. Both players use a MIDI piano. Katia also plays a synthesizer. She was familiar with that because of her stint in McLaughlin's band The Translators in the early '80s. But certainly keyboards that controlled other sounds and created electronic swaths were not in the arsenal of these grand-piano ladies. The MIDI piano controls a lush, breathy sound. The reverberating MIDI notes, which sound like they have built-in drum brushes, levitate over new piano notes. As each tone decays, it is replaced with the silent texture of sadness. This performance, which is slower than usual for "Blue In Green," is a beautiful and sad rendition. I wonder if Miles had a chance to hear it.

February 28, 2009 · 0 comments


Marc Copland: So What

Pianist/composer Marc Copland and his trio's interpretation of Miles Davis's "So What" doesn't jibe with the expected. Sure, Drew Gress's opening bass pattern is familiar. (You can compare it with Miles's arrangement, circa five years after his original recording, for as long as YouTube maintains this clip of his 1964 appearance on the Steve Allen Show.) But that pretty much ends the similarities. Copland takes the staccato opening chords, makes some minor, adds legato and a spacey feel. Miles's approach was direct. Copland comes in through a crack in a side door. His notes waft head-high to be breathed in. The tune's midsection features a long and exploratory Gress solo, as drummer Bill Stewart brushes his way through. Copland, a truly gifted musician and interpreter, then offers a lengthy melancholic mood to song's end. The famous head of the arrangement is never revisited. It just floats in the air of your memory.

I don't know about you, but I love the unexpected. The more surprising a jazz standard's treatment, the better. Taking a musical masterpiece to places previously unknown is the sign of someone, or a group, unsatisfied with playing by rote. Copland and his New York Trio take this music out for a long and rewarding walk. I suggest you tag along.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Pat Martino: Blue in Green

Pat Martino fans rejoiced when this CD arrived in 1994. After his long recovery from a brain aneurysm and other personal setbacks, the guitarist was finally back to the brilliant form he had exhibited in the '60s and '70s. In fact, if you compare his versions of "Catch" and "Blue in Green" from Interchange with those on the widely acclaimed Live at Yoshi's six years later in 2000, it would be fair to say that Martino has been again at the top of his game since the mid-'90s, and that Interchange was his coming-out party.

"Blue in Green" captures Martino's lyrical and soulful sides, with an unhurried lucidity and discernment. Martino plays the calming, circular theme with a dampened yet penetrating tone, elongating notes for dramatic emphasis and leaving open space to effectively frame the gradually increasing ardor of his heartfelt and surging extended runs. Ridl's comping is both purposeful and unobtrusive, and the pianist's neatly constructed solo reveals a particularly strong and creative left hand. Martino's reprise draws on bent notes and darkly throbbing chords far more than did his opening treatment, as he closes out a lovely interpretation of the ballad Miles Davis first introduced on Kind of Blue.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Bill Evans: So What

Sometimes I wonder how hip a crowd is. If I were there for this concert, I would have started applauding when bassist Eddie Gomez kicked into the famous opening "So What" riffs that give the song its identity. There was only silence from this audience. From all accounts, it was a very chilly evening. Perhaps that explains things.

Evans, Gomez and drummer Marty Morell do Miles Davis proud with this aggressive rendition. The trio plays a swinging version full of creative improvising from Evans and Gomez. The best musicians play with a flowing ease that makes it all seem so simple. You don't think until afterward what great skill was required to pull off what you just heard. You too get caught in the flow. The finest music happens when you are bowled over without realizing it. The greatest musicians understand that and exploit it.

As this performance ends, the audience finally erupts. I guess they just needed to be warmed up a bit.

January 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Vince Mendoza: All Blues

Stuart Nicholson sang the praises of this CD on the blog in November 2008. And for good reason. Blauklang features some of the most creative writing for large jazz ensemble in recent memory. If you enjoy Maria Schneider or continue to listen to the old Gil Evans-Miles Davis collaborations, you'll want this CD. Like Evans, Mendoza knows how to shape orchestral colors that are more sound textures than harmonies. The intro is a minimalist buzzing, a postmodern nature walk, that eventually settles into that perhaps-too-familiar "All Blues" vamp. Familiar, but only briefly . . . Mendoza now unpacks his own bag of tricks, fake modulations, oddball counterpoint, surprising chords, novel mix-and-match instrumental combinations. Not just this track, but the entire CD is a real pleasure. Credit must be given to Nguyên Lê and Markus Stockhausen (son of the famous composer), but especially to Vince Mendoza, who can no longer be typecast as a behind-the-scenes orchestrator of commercial projects for singers. On the basis of this release, Mendoza has moved into a select group, and deserves recognition as one of the finest living jazz arrangers.

December 08, 2008 · 1 comment


Miles From India: All Blues

Miles had a cool period, and a fusion period, but the Prince of Darkness never went through a Carnatic phase. Even so, his music, especially from the modal period, is well suited for the multicultural angle of the Miles From India project. For my part, I give high marks to any session that puts the great ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram in a rhythm section alongside Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb, and mixes sitar and alto sax in the front line. (Front line? Perhaps I should call it the front half lotus position.) Producer Bob Belden gets high marks just for the bravado of his vision. But the fun doesn't stop there. The band tackles "All Blues" in 5/4 just to add some more curry into an already spicy mix. In an age of tribute projects that are as tasty as last week's leftovers, this one delights the palette.

July 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Gary Burton & Stéphane Grappelli: Blue in Green

One of the greatest joys of jazz is unexpected collaboration. In no other genre do artists of varied ages, cultures and musical backgrounds meet to play as often. To be honest, not all of these get- togethers end with successful music. But in almost every case, these attempts are to be admired for the effort. Luckily, when legendary Gypsy jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli met with one of jazz's greatest vibists, Gary Burton, things worked out just fine. Grappelli is ostensibly a guest star on this recording, which features a variation of the classic Gary Burton Quartet.

Conventional wisdom would say that an interpretation of "Blue in Green" would be more suited to the modern jazz that Burton was known for. And indeed Burton plays the introduction and the first solo over Swallow's slow, throbbing bass with a comforting ease. His confidence is even more impressive when you realize that this Gary Burton was only 29 years old. Meanwhile, his iconic melodic foil Stéphane Grappelli was 64. How would Grappelli approach the tune? Would he give it a bit of European swing? No. A bit of the Gypsy? Well, maybe a little. But what he mostly delivers is a thought-provoking and touching display of what jazz interpretation is all about. The collaborative process requires players to fully understand the music and the varying dynamics in play. Musicians of this quality can perform any type of music because they respect it. And they can perform it effectively together because they listen to and respect each other.

July 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock & John McLaughlin: It's About That Time

The 50th Anniversary concert of Verve Records was celebrated at Carnegie Hall in 1994. It contained many high moments. One of these was a revisiting of Miles Davis's "It's About That Time" from the legendary In A Silent Way album. This performance of the tune is noteworthy because Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin, who appeared on the original sessions, reprise their roles. Earlier in the evening, at least judging from the DVD order of the concert, the two had played a gentle Bill Evans piece in duet. In a true indication of their broad capabilities the two then turned on a dime to lead a stellar group of well-versed modern players in this fusion rendition. The song is really one movement of a larger piece from In a Silent Way. For this event, the movement was plucked out as a standalone piece. Hancock is now on synthesizer. He and McLaughlin take sharp jabs punctuating the infectious jazz-funk rhythm. Saxophonist Gary Thomas takes a star turn over the ingratiating groove. Herbie, John and the entire band are smiling and laughing as they dig deeper into the gritty underpinning of the composition. (You'll have to see those smiles on the DVD.) Finally, after several minutes of fascinating but purposely directionless motion, the rave-up closing theme is introduced. The band plays it in full unison building tension with each pass until it's about that time to end the thing with a sudden thump.

July 03, 2008 · 0 comments


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