Bud Powell: Un Poco Loco

On “Un Poco Loco,” Max played one of the greatest beats ever on a jazz recording, in the same category as the beat Vernell Fournier plays on “Poinciana,” or the beat that Art Blakey plays on “Pensativa.” Max told me that in the studio, he was playing some variations on Caribbean-Afro Cuban rhythms, and Bud said, “You’re supposed to be Max Roach. Can’t you come up with anything slicker than that?” So Max went home and shedded it out, and he came back with this phenomenal beat. Months later he ran into Bud in the street after not seeing him for a while, and Bud said, “Man, you fucked up my record!” I didn’t understand it. I was wondering what about what Max did destroyed it for Bud Powell, because it’s one of my favorites.

A lot of people have studied the “Un Poco Loco” beat, because it’s in phrases of 5 over the 4, which was way ahead of the curve at the time. Also, that he’s using that cowbell; the sound he’s getting out of the cowbell. It’s obvious that he spent some time dealing with those rhythms. Max had been spending time in Haiti, where he went to study with a guy named Tiroro, who had told him that he was greatest drummer in the world. The guy would tell him, “Come here, meet me right here on this corner at 2 o’clock,” Max would get there at 2, and the guy wouldn’t come until 7—he’d leave him waiting! But he said that the guy gave him invaluable information.

Max did a lot of teaching, but he treated his one-on-one drum instruction like oral tradition. He studied from books, and I’ve studied from books, but that’s only a small component of it. Books will give you the facility to execute the stuff that you hear and feel already, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the creativity. This is a perfect example. Max distilled all this stuff and immediately hooked it up into an original beat—you’d never heard anything like it before. It’s the beginning of all those phrases based on rhythmic permutations of five over the four—a step into the future in 1951. A lot of people are playing those types of rhythmic permutations now, almost sixty years later. It sounds like he pulled it together the night before, because it’s right on the edge of almost sounding fucked-up. Then when he comes in, what he plays isn’t clean, the way it was clean with Clifford Brown and that band. It’s right on the edge of almost second-take quality. I’m talking about everybody. It sounds like it’s not quite settled and comfortable. But I think that quality is what makes it a great recording, and the fact that he was able to superimpose that feeling and beat at that particular time and have it work, keep it happening for almost five minutes. Amazing.

January 28, 2010 · 0 comments

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Mike Longo: Tell Me a Bedtime Story

Pianist Mike Longo must be in a pugilistic frame of mind. He follows up his 2007 CD Float Like a Butterfly with his current effort Sting Like a Bee—both titles coming from a famous self-description by boxer Muhammad Ali. On "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" the emphasis is more on float than sting. Yes, the boxing gloves need to come off at bedtime. After a fortissimo intro, the trio settles into a languid and nuanced rendition of the Hancock piece. Longo has picked some fine sparring partners here, and Cranshaw and Nash play with such relaxed swing that it would be easy to overlook their contributions, but the success of this track is very much centered in the pulse. I played it for a listener who knew little about jazz, who responded to the beat first and foremost. But musicians are more likely to enjoy the crisp chord changes and the subtle way blue notes are integrated into the melody line. Longo is willing to stretch the harmonies with his phrases, which sometimes bristle in an arrangement that seems to invite gentle tinkling. Definitely a heavyweight contender.

November 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stefano Bollani: Orvieto

The Italian jazz piano tradition is especially distinguished, with artists such as Enrico Pieranunzi, Franco D'Andrea, Dado Moroni, and Giorgio Gaslini having set the standard, over a period of years, with an impressive body of work. Despite the quality of their music, however, these artists are still mostly forgotten when American critics vote in their various polls and hand out "best of year" honors. But Stefano Bollani, the relative youngster here, is proving harder to ignore, and even the jingoistic reviewers who seem to root invariably for home town talent need to pay attention to this exemplary pianist from Milan, whose improvisations are so fresh and untethered to the conventional. Once again on this track from his 2009 CD Stone in the Water, Bollani puts together the whole package. His touch is clear and crisp yet with almost no unpleasant bite or aftertaste, none of the brittleness one hears in so many of his peers. He works with bass and drums and never tries to dominate them, yet he doesn't need to, given the forcefulness inherent in his method of understatement. He brings an advanced sense of rhythmic phrasing to his music, but never tries to show off with eccentric displacements. Instead he lets the intentionality of his melodic lines find their own paths, based on musicality not licks. Probably his only limitation is the audience—can they dig an artist who does not resort to flamboyant methods and flashy tricks? Only time will tell, but count me in as an admirer.

November 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ray Brown Trio: F.S.R.

“F.S.R.” was one of the Ray Brown Trio’s most popular songs. The story is: It was a Milt Jackson record for Pablo called A London Bridge with Monty Alexander, Ray, and Mickey Roker, and they were recording “Doxy.” Ray, of course, always in arranging mode, came up with a shout chorus to play after the solos. Apparently, Ray and all of the guys liked the shout chorus so much they said, “Well, why play ‘Doxy’? Let’s just make the shout chorus the actual chorus.” Allegedly, Ray said, “Yeah, that’s right. F— Sonny Rollins.” So that’s where “FSR" came from. So this is Ray’s take on “Doxy.”

Once he made that transition as the teacher, always hiring guys like Keezer and Benny Green and Larry Fuller, and Kareem Riggins and Greg Hutchinson and George Fludas, it was great to hear Ray keep these cats on their toes---almost like Betty Carter and Art Blakey did. These guys would be sweating hard. They had that look on their face, like “I’d really better come through, or I’m gonna be flat on my ass.” This is a really good example of Ray just in the pocket with these young cats for a good 7 to 8 minutes, walking his ass off. It was beautiful to hear them pushing Ray, and Ray pushing them back, and this real hard-core swinging tension in the middle of it all.

October 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach-Hassan Ibn Ali: Din-Ka Street

Jason Moran brought The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan to my attention, and it really speaks to me---one of my favorite records, period. The whole record is a departure from traditional piano trio playing I’ve heard up to late 1964, when that was recorded. It isn’t the piano player solos, and then the drummer and bass player are in support mode, like the Oscar Peterson Trio, or any other trio. Everybody is soloing almost at the same time, or collectively, in the sense of New Orleans collective improvisation. That’s the historical reference I draw from it. Max never just plays the swing pattern and comps for Hassan while he takes a solo. They’re always back and forth, a true conversation. Everybody has individual responsibility as to what’s going on.

The tune starts with an arco bass thing at the beginning, he plays the melody, then a solo section. There’s no real TING, TING-TA-DING, TING-TA-DING swing going on through it. It’s referenced, it’s intimated, but it’s not really that. Max isn’t really playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4 either. There’s no regimented feel throughout the course of the piece. The rhythm they're all using is pretty advanced. Hassan is playing phrases in 5 and in 7, and they’re all playing over the bar, even on the trading. It's all right on the edge. All of them are virtuosos, but they’re taking it to the apex in terms of creativity within the framework of a trio. Even Elvin Jones, as influential as he was in terms of phrasing, generally rooted everything with a 2-and-4 thing on the hi-hat. Max abandoned that in certain situations---this, as you can clearly hear, was one of them. He told me there were certain techniques you could use to play that way and still maintain the groove—the groove isn’t abandoned, but he’s still not playing 2 and 4 on the hi-hat. It’s more of a dancing feel. I’ve heard older musicians say that to drummers and to bass players, like, “Yeah, ok, we’re walking, but I want you to dance.” So everyone in the group has more freedom in approaching the rhythm.

Max also makes some ride cymbal distinctions on this tune which reference back to Kenny Clarke. In terms of the music’s evolution, I always think of Papa Jo Jones establishing that ride cymbal pattern, and then Kenny Clarke embellishing on that with techniques like “dropping bombs,” syncopating more between the bass drum and the snare drum, and also varying the ride cymbal pattern, using the ride cymbal more in terms of accents—meaning not playing four-on-the-floor all the time. On this particular cut, as on the whole recording, Max takes these ideas to another level in the phrases he’s playing in conjunction with what Hassan and Dr. Davis are playing, in the ride cymbal pattern associated with the omission of the 2-and-4 on the hi-hat. Everybody is listening hard, too, responding and reacting to each other. It’s not like anybody is just doing their own thing. There’s a true synergy. No automatic pilot.

Max changes the texture when the bass solo occurs by switching to the brushes. That takes the flow from a more interactive quality to just straight quarter notes, and changes the dynamic of the piece—more like a movement in a symphony. They’re constructing the music in a way that goes out of the framework of the regular song. From the bass solo in the introduction, to the piano rubato, to the tune, then back to the bass solo—the form is pointing forward, elongating. It’s different than the regular 32-bar or 12-bar blues that some people associate with “jazz music.”

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Fleurette Africaine

“Fleurette Africaine” is my favorite song off the legendary Money Jungle record with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. So how can I not include it as one of my favorite cuts that Max was involved in? The great star power of those three individuals together on a record is phenomenal. Actually, to be truthful, I don’t know if Max and Mingus really had that great a connection in terms of the rhythm section. In fact, Max told me about some things that happened at the session... What happened is probably legendary.

Max was connected to Duke; he’d played with him at 16, his first gig with a signature person, sitting in for Papa Greer [Sonny Greer] for a few nights while Sonny wasn’t feeling well. Here, twenty years later, Max is somewhat of a star himself, and of course, Duke influenced Mingus so much as a composer. To have them all there is special thing. A lot of times, those kind of pulled-together all-star situations don’t work, but this is one of the best dates of that kind.

The Bandwagon recorded “Wig Wise” from this session. I’d never heard it before we recorded, but when I listened, it definitely sounded like they’re at odds, and there’s a lot of aggression coming from Mingus. I dug it, though! It definitely sounds frantic and tense. But this song doesn’t have that quality, which is maybe why it’s my favorite from the album. It’s melancholy, in a way, almost softly sad.

To me, Max provides that calmness. He’s playing mallets, and the feel is subdued throughout. The whole piece sounds like a ballad-fairy-tale song. This is 1962, still the era of the Civil Rights movement, so the fact that they’re referencing something African as beautiful, and equating that with black people, was important. Nowadays it might not necessarily be as important, but then it really was. The “Fleurette Africaine” title references the times—1962 is the year Algeria got its independence from France, and the African nations generally were coming out of the colonial grip. I think the musicians were conscious of that, and were using their music to convey a kinship to those people who were struggling for their independence, because we were doing the same thing over here.

A lot of times it seems that Max is playing the opposite of what Mingus is playing. Mingus goes DING-DING, DING-DING, he’s up in there, and then Max is playing longer. When Mingus is doing the opposite, then Max is rolling. The sound of Max’s playing gives me an image of water in a shallow river bed over small rocks. It sounds like there’s small rocks under what he’s doing. Gentle, sensitive, inobtrusive playing. Very simple melody. Beautiful.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bobo Stenson: Send in the Clowns

The blend of Bobo Stenson’s pensive delivery of this famed melancholy melody and the freely moving, pulsating bed of rhythm that Jormin and Motian provide bears one of the more striking opening tracks in recent memory. As the melody unfolds and casts a gradually darker shadow, the dynamic variation intensifies, with each player choosing their own space to claim temporary headship before recoiling to concentrate on mood and texture. The spontaneous rhythmic output ranges from quick bursts, as evidenced by the perfectly poked-out bass line at 1:18, to extended runs, exemplified by Motian’s web of polymetric thoughtfulness from 1:32 to 1:42, at once intensely daring and elegant as only this drummer can supply. Far from your typical “get through the head” mentality in order to usher in the improvisation, this four-minute extended statement of “Send in the Clowns” proves that, when in doubt, melody is enough.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Oliver Jones: I Love You

Oliver Jones, who turned 75 this month (9-11-09), has always played second fiddle to Oscar Peterson amongst mainstream Canadian jazz pianists, although he's widely admired by his countrymen, winning several Juno Awards and the 1990 Prix de Oscar Peterson, among other honors. Like Peterson, Jones was born in Montreal, and even studied piano with Oscar's sister Daisy, as did Oscar himself. Jones didn't begin focusing on jazz until the early '80's, having been the musical director for the Jamaican pop singer Ken Hamilton from 1962 until 1980. The Northern Summit album is one of his many for Canada's Justin Time label, and the instrumentation on it resembles that of Peterson's trio in the '50's, with Herb Ellis simulating his role with Oscar and Red Mitchell taking the place of Ray Brown.

The rapport between these three musicians on the opening track, "I Love You," is exceptional. Jones bouncily expounds upon the Cole Porter theme with Ellis breezing lightly through the bridge. The pianist's solo is backed at first by a percussively tapping Ellis in the manner of Tal Farlow, as Mitchell churns out deeply resonant bass lines. Jones' richly voiced chords and shimmering runs show little obvious sign of Peterson, his acknowledged greatest influence. Ellis solos with his customary twangy tone and agile bluesy runs, bending notes for added color. The clearly articulated formulations of Mitchell's compelling improv explode from his specially tuned (in fifths) bass, with never an instance of hesitation or murkiness. Jones and Ellis exchange passages and then engage in elaborate contrapuntal weavings, and finally, after completing another thematic reading, a tirelessly inventive and jubilant out chorus.

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Oscar Peterson Trio: Wheatland

I think this is the next-to-last recording that Ray did with the Oscar Peterson trio, the classic trio with Ed Thigpen. This is one of my favorite recordings, because it’s Ray, Oscar and Ed cooking at a low volume throughout that whole performance. It’s one of these classic, mid-tempo swingers, kind of like they do on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “FSR,” which are all full-out, head-banging swingers—but “Wheatland” stays low-volume pretty much throughout the whole performance. These guys are cooking on a slow, slow burn. It’s all that real heavy swinging that Ray Brown usually does, but at low volume, which to me makes it swing even harder. When you listen to it, you’re waiting for Ed Thigpen to go to the sticks, which he does at a certain point, but it’s still like TING, TING, TA-TING, TING, and Ray is just kind of creepin’, and you’re just like, “give it to me, give it to me!” They never quite give it to you, but you love that. Because after the track is over, you’re like, “Aw, man, what a big tease.” So that’s one of my favorite tracks, to hear those guys burning at a slow fire. A great concept, to swing really hard at low volume. Very Basieish of them.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Oscar Peterson: Sometimes I'm Happy

“Sometimes I’m Happy” is one of the few tracks that I know on many Oscar Peterson records where the trio actually just stretches out. There’s really not much of an arrangement...well, only a slight arrangement (Oscar Peterson plays Lester Young’s famous solo as an intro, but then for the rest of the way they’re just blowing. The track is 11˝ minutes, and it’s just Oscar, Ray Brown, and Ed Thigpen blowing the whole way. To me, not only is it a great Ray Brown track, but but also because the Oscar Peterson Trio is always known for their surgical execution of all of these difficult soli passages, and their almost gymnastic-like technique on all of their instruments, and trhis is one of the few tracks I can think of where everybody is not doing that. It’s almost like a Bradley’s gig. They’re just in the pocket, having a good time, and Ray Brown stretches out and takes a very, very long solo which is very melodic. I've always loved listening to this track just for the fact they’re all stretching out, having a good time, and not particularly playing a difficult arrangement as they were accustomed to doing in that trio.

Someone once asked Oscar Peterson what was the difference with Ray Brown before and after the drummer. He said that he found that Ray’s notes got longer once Ed Thigpen joined the trio. But when I listen to Ray before Ed Thigpen, when it was just Herb Ellis on guitar, to me his notes were still much more elongated than his peers. When you listen to a lot of bass players from the mid and late ‘50s, the notes were very short. Everybody used gut strings at that time. Everybody had pretty high action, where you get that real percussive sound on the bass. But to me Ray always had a nice balance between that percussive sound and a very ringing, melodic sound. I’ve always felt he had that in the trio, even before the drums. His time was always impeccable---you could set your pacemaker to him in the trio before Ed joined. Of course, his time feel was much more exposed without the drums, which I think is a great study, particularly for bass players learning how to strengthen their time. Ray was the master of that.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ray Brown Trio: Lady Be Good

When I was just getting really serious about the music, and going out and buying records with the allowance my mother would give me every week, I remember going to the store specifically saying, “I’ve got to buy a Ray Brown record.” Don’t know why I didn’t buy an Oscar Peterson record. But instead, I went right to the Ray Brown section, I’m kind of thumbing through the records, and I saw Soular Energy, I saw Don’t Forget the Blues, I saw Something For Lester, and I saw The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio. I just liked the cover. It was red, had this yellow writing, and it said “red-hot,” so I thought, “Well, it must be swinging.” So I picked up that one. So that has a REAL soft spot in my heart because it was my first Ray Brown recording. Not the best record to listen to if you really want to get a good dose of Ray Brown, because he’s not really playing very much on it. It’s Gene Harris’ record almost, Mickey Roker is playing drums, and Ray and Mickey are swinging real hard. But "Lady Be Good" is the one track where you get that classic Ray Brown intro... There’s a little inside joke with people in the Ray Brown family. He had this one intro that he put on almost every song he ever arranged. If he couldn’t think of an intro, he would play this. He would slap his E-string real hard, he’d play a low G on the E-string, and it was BOHM-BOHM, MMM, MMM-HMM, MMM-HMM, MMM-HMM, MMM...BOHM-BOHM. DE-MMM, MMM-HMM... He plays that intro on about 50 different arrangements he has, and that might have been one of the first times he used that intro. All of us in the Ray Brown family, John Clayton, Benny Green, Diana Krall, Geoff Keezer, Geoff Hutchinson, Kareem Riggins, Russell Malone...we all hear that intro, and we just die laughing.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jaki Byard: Garnerin' A Bit

This is Jaki giving tribute to one of his favorite pianists, Errol Garner. His other favorite was Earl Hines, as they have two amazing records together, as well as some great Youtube clips online. Anyway, back to “Garnerin”: Jaki uses that laid-back feel of Errol's on this track, even down to the quick, sparse block chords during the first chorus of his solo. It's so laid back. He even has the four-on-the-floor in the left hand, a trademark of Garner's. It's so authentic, and so genuine. And after that opening tribute chorus, Jaki gets back to what he does, big phrases and strong ideas that are here and there, but never where they "should" be. It's extremely "soulful ."

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jaki Byard: Giant Steps

I love this arrangement of “Giant Steps.” The pace is nice and easy. The thing to listen to is how Jaki animates his phrases with very quick crescendos and decrescendos. Also his ease with jumping into some very big block chords. Then in the last 30 seconds of the performance, he goes into double time, and his fingers are just flying through the melody. It's ridiculous. He taught me an arrangement of “Giant Steps” that is in 3/4, and extremely difficult, equivalent to a Brahms piano exercise.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jaki Byard: Out Front

Out Front is one of my favorite Jaki Byard albums, though it doesn't really get to his wilder side. I love hearing him play with Bob Cranshaw and Walter Perkins on this track—they lay down some serious music. Jaki has a certain way of playing his bebop knowledge—he’s able to turn the phrases to make them feel just a bit off. That’s to say, he switches the phrase to the other side of the beat with such ease, and then switches it back. Also, I remember him telling me that he wrote this piece with Herbie Nichols' touch in mind. I thought that was such a great way to start a composition, with "touch" in mind.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Robert Glasper: No Worries

On his high-profile new CD Double Booked, Robert Glasper draws on jazz and hip-hop elements. But what should we infer from the fact that he keeps them segregated on separate tracks? In the past, jazz artists created a fusion of different genres, but here is it really a juxtaposition. How would fans have responded if Miles had mixed songs from Bitches Brew with extracts from Live at the Plugged Nickel on a single LP? Yet Glasper's results here are intriguing, if inevitably disjunctive.

This track falls into the jazz camp, and is a high energy outing by Glasper's acoustic trio, with nary a sample or scratch anywhere to be found. There is much to admire here. The trio plays with coherence and flexibility, and I especially like how Chris Dave adjusts his dynamics to the development of the performance. Glasper has a strong, clean touch on the instrument, and his right hand lines are well-conceived. But his left hand comping relies too much, for my tastes, on an oft-repeated suspended sound—a hip combination of notes that the pianist uses over and over. Didn't McCoy Tyner show us long ago that you could play a whole song on a single chord, yet impart variety and texture by employing dozens of different voicings? But this track has plenty of drive to compensate, and Glasper's solo effectively builds to a climax before easing down again into its appealing melody. I'll give it high marks, especially for the pacing, but I wonder what the hip-hop crowd will think of it.

September 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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