Sonny Rollins: You Don't Know What Love Is

From the moment Rollins barks out the opening note of his unaccompanied intro, the listener understands that this won't be your typical melancholy love ballad. The tenorist roughs up this tune with a muscular performance that befits a saxophone colossus. Moments of tenderness bubble up from time to time, but before long some angular phrase or barrage of notes or honk in the low register will assert its mantra of tough love. Rollins's solo is commanding, and Flanagan finds himself (as on his "Giant Steps" outing with Coltrane some time later) left to clean up the battlefield after the general has departed. For those who want a smoother, more sentimental ballad, Rollins has announced: "You don't know what love is."

May 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Yusef Lateef: Playful Flute

"Mohammedan leanings are shown by many bebop musicians," Life magazine reported in 1948 at the height of a short-lived bop craze. Among the first-generation boppers who embraced Islam during that period was Yusef Lateef. We mention this because, far from being the evidence of kookiness that Life implied, Lateef's spirituality has thoroughly informed his music. Exotic modes and unusual instruments reflect Lateef's unquenchable cross-cultural curiosity. Here, from opening trills to climactic passages of simultaneous humming and playing, Lateef ranges from Africa to the Amazon by way of the Middle East. A fascinating 4-minute excursion by a unique musical explorer.

November 30, 2007 · 1 comment


Thelonious Monk: Nutty

     Charles Delaunay and Thelonious Monk, 1954
                   Photo by Marcel Fleiss

The eccentricities of certain artists are essential to their mystique. One such is Thelonious Monk. Despite an unfailingly protective family, the so-called "Mad Monk" had repeated run-ins with psychiatry. During one 30-day hospitalization, he was diagnosed with "unclassified schizophrenia." Evidently Monk's madness, like his music, was too weird to categorize. "Nutty" shows why shrinks threw up their hands when confronted with the peculiar potentate of percussive dissonance. Trying to pigeonhole Monk is as futile as tossing Cracker Jack at your mouth on an upside-down merry-go-round. Here, Art Blakey's drumming shows he understood Monk better than a phalanx of physicians. Suspend analysis, kick back and groove.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Yusef Lateef: The Plum Blossom

Master reedman Yusef Lateef was playing “world music” before the genre had a title. As early as the mid-1950s African, Near and Far Eastern influences are heard in his compositions and improvisations; by the end of the decade his records included many foreign instruments. On “The Plum Blossom” Lateef opts for the Chinese globular flute—which allowed him the use of only five pitches. He works within this limitation magnificently, constructing a concise improvisation that continuously evolves the simple, buoyant theme. Though the piece is built on only two chords and a repetitive rhythmic vamp, its exotic, minimalist qualities are compelling.

November 19, 2007 · 0 comments


Richard 'Groove' Holmes: Indiana

Now here is a burning number. Richard “Groove” Holmes pulls out all the stops in leading his trio through a riotous take of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” to open a stand at Count Basie’s in New York. He does everything imaginable to his B-3 over the course of these nine and a half minutes – dazzling runs up and down the keys, pulse-quickening arpeggios and glissandos, hair-raising sustains. The drummer, George Randall, churns and churns the rhythm, eliciting sympathy for his poor drum kit, which is having its senses knocked out. Guitarist Gene Edwards, who had been comping ably with chords, strikes forth with a blistering, single-note solo, and then Holmes is at it again, soloing in double time. What a romp.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Red Garland: He's a Real Gone Guy

"He's a Real Gone Guy" was a jumpin' 1947 R&B hit by singer-pianist Nellie Lutcher. In those days, "gone" meant superlative. Twelve years later, jive talk was archaic, but Red Garland's lively cover shows why he was one of the 1950s' classiest keyboardists—a worthy successor to his role model Nat King Cole. With single-note lines bubbling like champagne and block chords as tasty as caviar, Red was the Fred Astaire of jazz piano. He never missed a step. If you're after adventurous, go elsewhere. But if you savor warmth, wit, swing and soulfulness, go Garland. A real gone guy, indeed.

November 05, 2007 · 3 comments


Miles Davis: Oleo

Miles Davis first recorded "Oleo" in 1954 with its composer Sonny Rollins on tenor. Two years later, Miles was leading the era's most arresting quintet, built around a good cop/bad cop routine where, after Miles softened you up, Coltrane zeroed in for the kill. Revisiting "Oleo," Miles's improved arrangement features a distinctive Jones-Garland rhythmic figure and trumpet solos sandwiching terrific turns by Coltrane and Red. Trane's sound is as sharply honed as a Japanese kitchen knife advertised on late-night TV, slicing through rebar the way an ordinary knife slides through butter. Or, make that Oleo. Act now—supplies are limited!

October 25, 2007 · 2 comments


Miles Davis: Conception

Smack in the middle of his self-described "four-year horror show" of heroin addiction, and a year after disguising George Shearing's "Conception" (1949) as "Deception" (1950) for Birth of the Cool, Miles restored its original title but retained the six bars he'd appended to Shearing's tune. George cheerfully quipped that Miles was "a master of playing the wrong bridge." But there was something more troubling here than the bridge. The 21-year-old Rollins's unfocused solo can be ascribed to growing pains, but Davis at 25 was an established star whose uncertain, aimless solo renders this track a cautionary portrait of heroin's debilitation.

October 25, 2007 · 0 comments


Miles Davis: Surrey with the Fringe on Top

       Miles Davis, artwork by Michael Symonds

With a new contract and limitless opportunities waiting for him at Columbia Records, Miles Davis cut four albums in two marathon sessions to honor his existing contract with Prestige. While the albums may have been hastily recorded, the results were nothing less than spectacular. Davis asserts himself as the ultimate melodist on “Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” demonstrating his astonishing ability to capture the essence of any theme and make it his own. His interpretation of the melody blends seamlessly into his spacious improvisation, during which his muted trumpet speaks with warmth and elegance and an ever-present casual coolness.

October 24, 2007 · 0 comments


Miles Davis: Bemsha Swing

Miles Davis’s Christmas Eve 1954 session was the one where, legend had it, Miles instructed Monk to “lay out” while the trumpeter soloed. It’s hard to believe – really, if Miles was offended by Monk’s playing, why would he hire him for the date? But that’s not the point. This may be Miles’s record, but “Bemsha Swing” is Monk’s song (well, Monk’s and Denzil Best’s). Monk comps like a yeoman while the others solo, but when it comes his turn to solo he turns in a beauty – faithful to the composition, faithful to Miles’s desires, but Monkish all the way in its off-kilter rhythmic feel and contrapuntal notes. A rare, wonderful glimpse at Monk as sideman.

October 23, 2007 · 0 comments


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