Teddy Charles: Nostalgia In Times Square

Teddy Charles might well be the only jazz musician to have given up a successful career in music to become a sea captain. In the '50s, he recorded a series of excellent, forward-looking albums with such giants of West Coast jazz as Shelly Manne, Jimmy Giuffre, and Shorty Rogers. Since the mid-1960s, however, his primary gig has been as an owner/operator of charter sea vessels. As of early 2009, he's playing music once again, backed by saxophonist Chris Byars's group. "Nostalgia In Times Square" was composed by another of Charles's former musical associates, Charles Mingus. Byars's arrangement is a bit more elaborate than Mingus's best-known recorded version of the tune. The opening arco solo by bassist Ari Roland (obviously meant to evoke the spirit of Mingus) leads into the bluesy theme. It's taken at a slow '50s-strip-joint tempo that Byars milks for ironic possibilities. Charles is in excellent form: the ideas flow, the touch is assured. Pianist Harold Danko takes top solo honors, however; his rhythmically and melodically unhinged spot stands out like Tom Hanks at a Bosom Buddies reunion.

March 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Billet-Deux: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

The promo material asks the listener to consider what a modern take on Django Reinhardt might sound like. Well, I have to say that hearing Mingus given the gypsy jazz treatment takes nothing away from either genre. (Yeah, Mingus really was his own genre.) This tune's modern blues becomes more introspective as guitars take a first pass at the well-worn theme. The introduction and truly swingin' gypsy jazz segments are bridged by a short passage featuring long cello lines and circular guitar figures, the brooding nature of which totally enhances the uplift to follow. I'm not sure what was more fun: hearing the two guitars play off each other, or witnessing the cello taking on the role of Stéphane Grappelli. You'll have to decide for yourself.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Vienna Art Orchestra: Jelly Roll, But Mingus Rolls Better

Despite two obscure recordings that preceded it, Concerto Piccolo is widely considered the Vienna Art Orchestra's (VAO) debut release, featuring them live in all their unpredictable, eccentric, eclectic, irreverent and musically accomplished glory. Leader, composer and arranger Mathias Rüegg assembled a fearless group of gifted musicians, whom he challenged as much as they so often challenged themselves and each other. While Duke Ellington, Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman would be among those receiving Rüegg's attentions over the years (at least from the jazz world), Charles Mingus was on his mind from the start.

The appealingly titled "Jelly Roll, but Mingus Rolls Better" opens with sinister-sounding harmonized horns leading up to a free-form duet between Scherer's whirlwind piano and Wuchner's thumping bass, before Dudli's high-impact drums join the fray. The horns, along with Newton's amazing voice, perform the first of a series of infectious vamps (mostly derived from Mingus compositions) to appear periodically during the course of the piece. Schwaller's tenor solo is forcefully modal in attack and remindful of Michael Brecker in terms of vibrato, command and intensity, with Scherer's tenacious accompaniment adding greatly to its momentum. Puschnig's brilliant alto next takes over, fleet and exciting, followed by Fian's exuberantly blaring trumpet solo. This is just about the quickest, most diverting 12 minutes you'll ever spend.

Note: The VAO's complete instrumentation has been listed here, since it's impossible with this orchestra to know for sure which of their many instruments are actually being played on a given track, unless you are seeing them in person—and what a treat that has always been!

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Joe Lovano: Duke Ellington Sound of Love

This ballad is a late Mingus composition, which the bassist recorded in two versions (an instrumental as well as vocal featuring Jackie Paris) on his double-LP Changes project for Atlantic. I am not sure why more people don't play this lovely tune, which (despite the title) is much closer to Strayhorn than to Ellington—you might even call it Mingus's "Lush Life."

But Joe Lovano is no stranger to these changes, having covered the piece on his must-have live recording from the Village Vanguard. Yet this new version is completely fresh and different, featuring a very intelligent arrangement by Michael Abene. The intro is haunting and only gets better when Lovano enters in an attenuated dialogue with the orchestra. The rhythm section arrives 1½ minutes into the piece, but Abene uses it sparingly and to good effect. The textures and rhythmic sensibility are constantly shifting on this lengthy performance, and Lovano navigates through all of it with perfection. While I am usually wary of attempts to pair jazz sax with strings, Lovano shows here (as on his earlier Rush Hour project, a modern masterpiece in my opinion) that he handles this type of setting as well as any living jazz horn player.

September 08, 2008 · 1 comment


Charles McPherson: Nostalgia In Times Square

Charles Mingus wrote "Nostalgia in Times Square" for Shadows, John Cassavetes's 1960 improvisational film about race. McPherson knew the piece well from his dozen or so years performing with Mingus, and, more than 20 years after leaving the bassist's group in 1972, he recorded it as a leader. By the '90's, McPherson's playing had taken on even greater authority, confidence and inventiveness, his tone fuller and more robust, his mastery of the bebop-based idiom unsurpassed by any other saxophonist. Yet even with his significant contribution to the score of Clint Eastwood's 1988 film Bird!, McPherson was still not receiving the recognition he deserved.

Be that as it may, McPherson's 1994 "Nostalgia in Times Square" is a wonderful example of his refined playing at its best, with the added bonus of Tom Harrell's bracing trumpet work. Bassist Washington plays the blues-derived theme first, as Mingus would have, before alto and trumpet repeat it. Weiss solos with a touch of the swagger that Mingus expected from his pianists, with Washington's resounding Mingus-like support. The bassist takes the next expressive solo, played with a heavy yet floating timbre. McPherson succeeds him, and the altoist's honey-coated tone captures your attention immediately, before you become further entranced by his clearly articulated flurries, flawlessly executed extended lines, and ardently delivered riffs, all naturally flowing and creatively nuanced. Harrell's big brassy sound contrasts nicely with McPherson's, the trumpeter's assertive phrases and ricocheting runs continuously fresh and exciting. Washington concludes the track alone, replaying the head in a final salute to the composer.

August 09, 2008 · 0 comments


Larry Coryell: Variations on Good-Bye Pork Pie Hat

In 1969, Larry Coryell gathered together future fusion superstars John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Chick Corea and Miroslav Vitous to record Spaces. Released in 1970, the album was one of jazz-rock's landmark recordings. Within two years after its release, McLaughlin and Cobham were in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea had founded Return to Forever, and Vitous was in the first incarnation of Weather Report. In 1973, Coryell formed his own fusion unit, the Eleventh House.

The original Spaces did not fully integrate the rock sound into its milieu. However, the energy generated provided more than a hint that true fusion music was just around the corner. It was all very exciting. It appeared that Coryell would be one of the new music's leading exponents. But personal problems and addictions haunted Coryell for many years. This unfortunate situation made it virtually impossible for him to be a consistent musician or to choose a career path and stick to it. Coryell speaks very openly of these problems in his autobiography, Improvising: My Life in Music.

"Variations on Good-Bye Pork Pie Hat" is quite varied. It begins as a slow swing with Cobham's cymbal work leading the rhythm. Then Cobham kicks the piece into an odd meter for some crafty guitar work. Variation #3 is a slow section featuring a series of tasty blues and jazz licks expertly performed by Coryell and Lagrène. Bassist Bona is also a reliable contributor. The band falls-in to bring back the head arrangement to end yet another version of this ode to Lester Young. All in all, the tune is impressive and pleasing, if maybe a little too diverse.

Coryell is a wonderful and important jazz guitarist, and his personal problems seem to be a thing of the past. I'm still not sure he makes the right choices, though. Take the title of this album. Maybe his management suggested the name Spaces Revisited to lend it a little extra commercial appeal for fans of the original Spaces? Maybe it was Coryell himself. Either way, it was false advertising, which is too bad because this is a good straight-ahead jazz outing. But in no way does it resemble or even remotely refer to the earlier groundbreaking release. Many people were disappointed. The hook was that Billy Cobham and Larry are on both recordings. But please, where is John McLaughlin, Chick Corea or Miroslav? It is hard enough living up to high expectations. Why set yourself up for a fall by raising them yourself?

April 01, 2008 · 0 comments


John McLaughlin: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

Mention Charlie Mingus's tribute to Lester Young these days and most people will associate it with Jeff Beck's electric version on his album Wired. That performance was good enough, but did not really please Charlie. He wanted it played with the jazz changes he had written. John McLaughlin played those changes. He also played the tune on a steel-stringed acoustic guitar. Fans familiar only with his jarring electric work from this period were stunned and then quickly enchanted by just how beautiful distortion-master McLaughlin could make an acoustic guitar sound. His exacting jazz chords, clean fleet-fingered runs snapped off like dry branches, and subtle harmonic nuances showed a mastery of the guitar that wasn't known at that time. McLaughlin's emotive performance of "Pork Pie" betrayed a player who, despite his growing fame in the rock world, was really carrying on a tradition.

January 26, 2008 · 0 comments


Gil Evans & Steve Lacy: Reincarnation of a Lovebird

Steve Lacy’s association with Gil Evans was three decades strong in 1987 when the two met for what would be Evans’ final recording. The resulting Paris Blues is an intimate performance that finds the two breathing new life into familiar material. “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” is a highlight of the session, featuring Lacy’s wry soprano over the ethereal tones of Evans’ electric keyboard. It’s a rare treat to hear Evans the accompanist behind Lacy, laying down basslines and gnarly voicings before delivering an unaccompanied solo that delightfully abstracts on Mingus’ unforgettable melody.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Joni Mitchell: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

Non-jazz artists flirting with jazz are usually slumming. Not so Joni Mitchell, whose respect for the art led her to collaborate with a dying Charles Mingus. Financially, Mingus was for Mitchell a paean in the ass, shooting down her high-flying popularity faster than a surface-to-air missile. Artistically, however, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" hit the moon. Mitchell's ode set to Mingus's 1959 instrumental is, fittingly under the circumstances, more about him than about the song's nominal subject, Lester Young. Her reference to "dangerous clowns, balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions" is a haunting epitaph for a dreadful and wonderful giant of jazz, who died on January 5, 1979, a few months prior to Joni's recording.

November 08, 2007 · 1 comment


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