Herbie Nichols: The Gig

Two of Herbie Nichols' most evocative recorded tracks (each cut on the same day), are "House Party Starting" and "The Gig," both piano trio equivalents of the kind of aural picture Duke Ellington painted with his orchestral "Harlem Air Shaft." The title, "The Gig," in itself reminds one of Nichols' comment to trombonist Roswell Rudd not long before the frustrated pianist died of leukemia at just 44 years of age. "I can't get work because I don't act weird, don't clown around enough," he told Rudd. "You have to be some kind of a freak to get a gig nowadays." Unless you were content to play with R & B and Dixieland groups, which Nichols wasn't.

"The Gig" contains a theme that seems to alternately stalk, stomp, or prance, depending on Nichols' nuanced tonal inflections and alterations in rhythm. In his solo, Nichols takes the theme's repeating motif through fascinating permutations, utilizing jubilant runs, jabbing phrases, and hard-edged left hand accents. It's almost impossible to listen to "The Gig" without nodding your head or tapping your feet—or maybe both—especially as Roach maintains an insistent tempo in addition to his dramatically affirmative fills. Nichols must have written this tune after one of his better gigs.

April 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: A Gal In Calico

"A Gal in Calico" is one of a number of Williams' recorded tracks over the years that can rightfully be called a tour de force. Both Dave Brubeck (Jessica's earliest influence) and Williams herself wrote separate liner notes for her In the Pocket CD on which this selection appears. Brubeck writes, "She treats the melody like Stravinsky approached the theme of 'Star Spangled Banner,' skipping all over the octaves of the original theme, instead of the sequential melodic notes of the normal range." Williams observed, "There's a place in 'Gal in Calico' where the left hand plays a bass line in the middle of the piano and Jeff's bass line is in the lower register and Dick's just wailing along. Now that works because it doesn't get so cluttered that it gets confusing."

Musical analysis aside, "A Gal in Calico" works because of its freshness, constant element of surprise, and clarity of vision. Williams' deconstruction of the melody is daring and yet remarkably easy to follow and appreciate. Her long solo features quick, nervous flurries, impish arpeggios and runs, breathtaking block chords, and a supremely flexible rhythmic pulse. Johnson's resoundingly assured bass solo and Berk's thematic drum exploration are each augmented by Williams' very imaginative commentary. The pianist's subsequent trades with Berk are dazzling, with Williams playing some dexterous two-handed counterpoint and even reaching up to pluck part of the theme on the piano's strings. Few jazz pianists could match, much less top, this virtuoso performance.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Alone Together

Sometime after Williams recorded this absorbing extended live version of "Alone Together," she surprisingly wrote the following on her website: "I've probably played 'Alone Together' for the last time, but the last time I played it, I forgot entirely about those extra bars tacked onto the A sections—the major-minor thing. It's one of those tunes that has fascinated me for a long time and then suddenly I lost interest. Maybe I just thought I liked it. Looking back, I don't think I ever did." Hopefully she'll reconsider, but until then we can enjoy this classic Williams' track (not to mention her previously recorded renditions), with a state-of-the-art rhythm team of Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis.

Williams typically breaks up the rhythm before flowing unaccompanied into the melody and embellishing it with interesting harmonic alterations. This leads to interlacing contrapuntal lines that reach a satisfying resolution signaling the entry of Drummond and Lewis at the three-minute mark. She now adds long, serpentine runs to the mix, and for a time utilizes a continuous and varying left-hand bass line that nearly makes Drummond superfluous. When Williams initiates a sustained swinging medium-tempo groove, this allows bass and drums to finally lock gears with the pianist as she continues to explore the many nuances of the elegant Dietz-Schwartz standard. Her lavish block chords set the stage for Drummond's resolutely lyrical solo. Williams' swift, swirling interlude that follows is thrilling, and her deftly elaborate coda gives way to well-deserved, generous applause from the audience at Yoshi's.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Straight, No Chaser

"I seem to be in my Johnny Griffin bag here," Williams wrote of this stunning 13-minute track, "chorus after chorus after chorus, exploring one idea after another." The pianist starts off her solo with frolicking staccato runs after only briefly hinting at the well-known Monk theme, using a resounding left-hand bass figure to provide the momentum until the full trio robustly launches into the melody proper. Williams' marathon solo is a lesson in how not to repeat oneself and still remain fluidly and cogently in control. Captein and Brown provide encouraging and compelling support, and the leader's ongoing interplay with Brown in particular is remarkably intuitive. Williams' inventiveness nearly overwhelms, as she succeeds in reaching successive, diverse peaks of creativity. Brown's ecstatic drum solo, and his following delightful trades with Williams, are prime examples of his polished percussive talent and consummate Max Roach-influenced approach. Williams tosses in an appropriate nod to "Blue Monk" as she draws to a close this wonderful performance by arguably the best trio she's ever led.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Solitude

"Solitude," which Ellington wrote in just 20 minutes under deadline pressure, was a key component of Duke's playlist from 1934 up to his death in 1974, when Ella Fitzgerald sang it movingly at his funeral. The tune has, of course, lived on to this day, but in the wrong hands can sound overly sentimental or wooden. Williams' version, on the other hand, seems at times to open up the standard to new possibilities, while also remaining refreshingly in the tradition. "Higher Standards" indeed, as Williams' first all-standards CD is entitled.

Williams begins unaccompanied and rubato, with headlong runs and filigreed arpeggios. Upon introducing the melody, she heartily embellishes it, going into stride mode for good measure. When Captein and Brown make their first entry, Williams reenters the theme with a quickly passing allusion to "Four" by Miles Davis, before briefly adopting Ellington's keyboard style, only to surge off into an up-tempo solo that we can imagine Duke would have "loved madly." The pianist's two-handed swing-fest contains blues-tinged angularity, technically impressive parallel lines drawn from her early classical training, her always welcome block chords, and intriguing left-hand adornments. Williams' exchanges with Brown delve into stride and Monkish inflections, and even include a quote from "Exactly Like You." The out-chorus is a take-no-prisoners romp that unexpectedly evokes Count Basie in its very last notes.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: If I Were A Bell

"He definitely brought out a lot of my influences, " Williams said about playing with bassist Leroy Vinnegar during this live club session, adding, "At one point I felt like Wynton Kelly." She was likely referring to the track "If I Were a Bell," which recalls the many Miles Davis performances of the tune with not only Wynton Kelly at the piano, but also Red Garland. Williams' 13-minute interpretation swings like mad, and showcases the trio at its best, both as individual soloists and in rapt group interaction.

Williams glides jubilantly over the rhythm team's relaxed yet driving cadence. Her bluesy, singing lines bubble over with engaging creativity, supplemented by her indomitable, often spiky left-hand voicings. Monkish dissonance and Garland-like block chords filter through the unrelenting Kelly-inspired propulsion. When Williams suddenly turns pianissimo, wittily quoting from "I Get a Kick Out of You," this allows Vinnegar to move up-front and go on one of his inimitable "walking tours," graced by the pianist's simpatico comping. Williams then hooks up with Brown for exchanges that emphatically confirm the drummer's substantial skills, capped by a solo exhibiting a melodicism that compares favorably with the similar approach of Max Roach. Williams returns with a spacy free-fall concluding fantasia that never loses its inventive way.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: The Sheikh

"The Sheikh" was written for veteran bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who joined WIlliams and drummer Mel Brown for the pianist's first live club recording. Williams prefers not to rehearse bands in order to ensure freshness and spontaneity, and those two words greatly apply to what is heard here. "The Sheikh" has gone on to become a staple in Williams' repertoire, and is among the original compositions she has most frequently recorded.

Vinnegar's bass figure and Williams' complementary chords lead to the concise, fetching vamp that essentially comprises the theme. Williams both dampens and strums the piano strings, developing percussive patterns, as Vinnegar maintains the insinuating bass line. The pianist now alternates between strummed strings, chirping phrases, and forceful chords, before bluesy passages and insistent block chords dominate the remainder of her solo. Brown in his improv makes inventive use of sundry parts of his kit, from bass drum to rims, and he also seems to employ a hand or elbow to create effective muffled textures. After Williams revisits the theme, Vinnegar, fittingly, is left alone to to carry the piece to its satisfying conclusion.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Kristen

The Williams trio with Witala and Spangler had been playing together for about six years when the Nothin' but the Truth album was recorded. For the session, Williams introduced one of her loveliest compositions, "Kristen," which she had written for artist Kristen Wetterhahn while she was the house pianist at the Keysone Korner in San Francisco in the late '70's. The trio give the tune a treatment that brings out all of its inherent grace and beauty.

The melody of "Kristen" is an ethereal wonder that is heightened by Williams' ringing tone, trilling ornamentations, and warmth of expression, as well as by the intuitive support of Wiitala and Spangler. The pianist's solo is sweepingly lyrical, ranging from resonant chords—both gentle and powerful—to feverish extended lines. Think Hampton Hawes meets Bill Evans. Her return to the poignant theme after this variegated and inspired statement offers a pleasing contrast, but her out-chorus contains still more surging, technically masterful passages. Still relatively unknown except on the West Coast at the time of this performance, Williams' inimitable style was already pretty much fully-formed.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Jackrabbit

This track is taken from Inventions and Dimensions, one of Herbie’s earliest recordings as a leader for Blue Note in August, 1963. There’s an introductory four-bar pedal tone, established by Paul Chambers, then sixteen bars of time, with Chambers walking. At the end of the sixteen bars, Chambers picks another pedal tone, then there’s another sixteen bars of time. It’s a very interesting strategy for a tune, because there's neither a written melody nor chord changes. Paul Chambers can choose whatever note he wants to play for the pedal tone, which then dictates the harmony over the next sixteen bars. Herbie plays beautiful, swinging, darting lines throughout this completely improvised yet thoroughly coherent piece, with Willie Bobo on drums and Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez on congas and bongos.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Chick Corea: My One and Only Love

This track comes from my favorite Chick Corea session, which incredibly was awarded NO stars in a Downbeat review soon after it was released in the late 60’s. History, however, has proved this to be one of the greatest piano trio recordings of the past fifty years.

This track wasn’t included on the initial LP release, but appears on subsequent CD releases. It’s the most beautiful version of this tune I’ve ever heard. Taken more up-tempo than usual, it contains elegant, joyous, interactive playing by Chick, Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herbie Nichols: Beyond Recall

“Beyond Recall” is from Herbie Nichols’ last recording date as a leader, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, recorded in 1957 with bassist George Duvivier and drummer Dannie Richmond. With dark chords in the left hand and a blues-based melody, it’s almost like a combination of the blues form and “Rhythm” changes. Like many of Nichols’ other compositions, this tune uses an extended AABA form, with a few harmonic twists and turns along the way. When I first heard Herbie’s music, this track grabbed my ear right away, and it was among the first tunes of his that I transcribed. This eventually led to the formation of the Jazz Composers Collective’s Herbie Nichols Project.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Erato

“Erato” is a masterpiece, one of many by Andrew Hill that I could have chosen for this list. It’s named for the Greek goddess of love poetry, and more than lives up to its name. When Ben Allison, Ron Horton and I were playing the sessions that were the genesis of what became the Jazz Composers Collective, we discovered that we had each transcribed this tune. Comparing our transcriptions, we realized that even though the notes were the same, each of them was different in terms of how time signatures and chord changes were notated. This speaks to the inherent mystery of Andrew’s music. It’s hard to put your finger on it sometimes, but his tunes have an inner logic and architecture that is very strong. On this track from a 1965 quintet date (with Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson), Andrew plays in a trio format with Richard Davis and Joe Chambers.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Watusi Drums

As the story goes, recounted by Dave Brubeck in his liner notes for the Quartet's In Europe album, he had written a number to feature tricky-time master Joe Morello, based on some half-remembered African rhythm. At first the tune had a changeable title, "Drums Along the …", with the final word filled in on stage, naming whatever river flowed near the city the four were playing in, from the Thames to the Vistula. Then in Iraq (yes, there were such tours), Dave heard again the original African recording and realized he had channeled some Watusi tribal music. So the "rivers" disappeared and the right name was affixed.

But the music flows on and on, in bubbling 6/4 time, no matter what the title. While the live performance on In Europe clocks in at 8 minutes – too much of a good thing – the shorter version appended to the CD reissue of Time In offers solid evidence that less can be more. This simplified studio take (with Paul Desmond silent) moves out right from the start, Morello's rippling, perpetual-motion power and Eugene Wright's stalwart walk freeing Dave to comment and punctuate, to dance all over the piano and even play some work-song blues, till the tuned-up trio engine chugs to a halt. Just 2+ minutes but well-nigh perfect.

April 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Robert Glasper: J Dillalude

Robert Glasper is the champion of jazz and hip-hop. Who do the hip-hop musicians go to when they need that steady riff or consistent phrase? Houston born pianist Robert Glasper. After entering the jazz world performing with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Glasper has equally established himself as one of the main musicians for rapper/actor Mos Def, Common and A Tribe Called Quest front man Q-Tip. On this track, Glasper pays tribute to the late great hip-hop producer Jay-Dee aka J-Dilla with the song "J Dillalude." Though the nature of the song is very simple and doesn't feature much soloing, Glasper's trio cook up the perfect homage to J-Dilla, who died in 2006, with a nice blend of soulful harmonies and head nodding drum beats and bass lines. The song is a montage of different Dilla beats but features the wonderful inflections that Glasper is known for providing. A wonderful song from one of the most promising and up and coming talents in all of music.

March 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Avery Sharpe: Fire and Rain

I never really thought of James Taylor's legendary pop hit "Fire and Rain" as a candidate for a jazz treatment. But before writing about how unusual this was, I decided to cover my ass and research it a bit. Glad I did! The song has been interpreted by Herb Alpert, Maynard Ferguson, Al Jarreau, Keith Jarrett, Hubert Laws and some Smooth Jazz (Stand clear! Barf attack…) performers. Luckily though, I can find no other bass players who have covered the tune. So, until I am informed otherwise, bassist Avery Sharp's rendition is unique.

The intro has Sharpe playing an infectious riff with some legato. The trio kicks in almost immediately with a treatment reminiscent of Ramsey Lewis's approach to Beatles songs. There is less of that Lewis funk groove here, but the formula is similar: (a) gather some really great jazz musicians; (b) take a really good pop melody and have them give it a swinging jazz vibe that makes it even better. Sharpe, drummer Winard Harper and pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs know how to do that. I suspect they could take songs of lesser quality and do the same.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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