A considerable talent as a composer and altoist, Gigi Gryce produced a largely unnoticed discography that, although all recorded in a relatively short period throughout the 1950s, highlights some legit hard-bop gems. After touring with Lionel Hampton
and freelancing with Clifford Brown
, Thelonious Monk
, and Max Roach in the early to mid ‘50s, Gryce landed two long-standing, largely concurrent gigs from 1955-1958 as a member of Oscar Pettiford’s
working band and as a leader of the Jazz Lab Quintet, which (usually) featured trumpeter Donald Byrd and drummer Art Taylor. Until a recent three-disc release of The Complete Jazz Lab
sessions, this recording was the go-to Jazz Lab set, featuring sharp alto work from Gryce. Of special note on this version of the Gryce-penned standard, “Minority,” is Byrd’s compact, efficient, melodic solo (he would soon begin stretching out far more than he is here) and Art Taylor’s interesting propulsion on beat four throughout some of the soloing
Blue Mitchell assembled a stellar hard-bop band for his Blue Soul
LP. But there is not much soul or bluesiness on this low-key ballad. Philly Joe Jones is very subdued and does little more than tap out the beat. Moreover, the arrangement comes across as formulaic, and makes one wonder whether this track might not have sounded better if (as with several other songs on Blue Soul
) tenor and trombone had laid out. Mitchell offers up a lyrical improvisation that almost saves the day. The first 16 bars of his solo are the song's high point, but when the other horns enter at the bridge they dispel the mood that Mitchell has lovingly established. There are some fine moments here, but not enough to put this ballad on a list of essential Mitchell performances.
presents some of Monk's finest work in a combo setting, but don't ignore the album's one solo piano track. This version of "I Surrender, Dear" is vintage Monk. Here we have hints of Harlem stride mixed with whole-tone runs, acerbic chords that hang above the piano sounding board like a worrisome fog, and that sputtering stop-and-start sensibility which always seems to threaten to derail the song, yet never really does. There are a couple points when I feel that Monk is about ready to walk away from the piano in mid-track, go outside for a breather, and then try another take. But no, he's just thrown me a head fake, and keeps on moving to the destination only he knows, and the rest of us must accept on blind faith. All I can say is "I Surrender, Oh Dear!"
This is a unique entry in the Bill Evans discography: a pastoral improvisation built on a gentle two-chord vamp. "Peace Piece" is more a mood than a composition. Evans was often asked to perform this work in later years, but he usually resisted, claiming that it had been the inspiration of the moment, and not something that could be recreated.
Yet there are many ways of fitting this lovely, if peculiar, performance, into the overall flow of Evans's life and times. He would rely on a similar harmonic structure in other settings -- for example, on "Flamenco Sketches"
from the seminal Kind of Blue
album or in Evans's moving interpretation of Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time."
We can also look at this work as anticipating the trend toward fewer chord changes that Miles and Trane would champion over the next several years. One could even focus on "Peace Piece" as the birth of New Age music, where sweet, two-chord vamps would come to reign supreme.
But Evans is not interested in providing unobtrusive background music or exploring simple modal improvisation. Halfway through his performance he starts incorporating more and more dissonance into his right hand lines. Soon we are in deep polytonal waters where the Windham Hills are just a blurry dot on the horizon. This is jazz
music, my friends . . . But a type of jazz that no one else was playing, circa 1958. If more people had been listening, the jazz idiom might have been influenced by this
performance. As it stands, only a few thousand copies of Everybody Digs Bill Evans
were sold at the time of first release. But a few months later, when Evans participated on the Kind of Blue
sessions, he would find a setting that would not only display his artistry but also change the art form.
"The Freedom Suite" is a monument that fully belongs to the history of African-American music. It is not the first trio piece by Rollins – but it's the longest – neither the first tune of his where he shows social/political concerns, but it stands as a particularly bold statement. The simple melodic structure of the suite's movements and the invention that Rollins, Pettiford and Roach display on this minimal basis make it hard to imagine anybody but these three giants reproducing this miracle. Hence the uniqueness of this master- work, which few have dared to interpret in the intervening years. But little wonder that among those few is David S. Ware
, a tenor player and former protégé of the "saxophone colossus."
"My Foolish Heart" is another landmark performance from the June 25, 1961 live recording at the Village Vanguard. This trio altered the rhythmic essence of modern jazz with its use of space and time. This was evident in virtually every track recorded at the Village Vanguard on this date, but the ballad performances are especially noteworthy. I am unaware of any previous piano trio attempting a ballad at such a slow tempo -- if the beats were any farther apart you might doubt that there was any
strict tempo on this track.
Many otherwise stellar 1950s and 1960s jazz bands would have died trying to attempt this in live performance. But Evans, Motian and LaFaro are liberated by this slo-mo approach. This ballad breathes in a way that few jazz performances have ever achieved. If musicians such as Parker and Gillespie showed how jazz could move faster than anyone thought possible, this trio achieved the same extraordinary results at the other end of the metronome range. But, as with other Evans tracks from this period, the music itself is much more than an experiment or attempt to prove some theory about jazz performance. The sheer beauty of this version of "My Foolish Heart" transcends its origin as a sentimental soundtrack theme from a Hollywood film and transforms the piece into art song of the highest order.
This underrated 1961 session presents Blakey/Adderley alumnus Bobby Timmons in a trio format with Albert “Tootie” Heath and a young, understated Ron Carter on bass. A Philadelphia native with a penchant for blues and gospel-influenced playing and composing, Timmons alternates hard-bop compositions (“Topsy,” “So Tired”) with standards (“Autumn Leaves,” “They Didn’t Believe Me”) on this date. The chosen track, “Dat Dere,” is one of two Timmons hard-bop classics (alongside “Moanin’”), and is performed tastefully and flawlessly, if perhaps in need of some Jazz Messenger guest appearances.
The summer and fall of 1961 at the Village Vanguard marked one of the greatest musical runs in jazz history. In just a matter of months, Bill Evans and John Coltrane would release some of their most revered music, all captured live at 178 Seventh Avenue South. The Evans recordings are complete master classes in the art of the piano trio – all three players communicate brilliantly and seem to know exactly when to play, and more importantly, exactly when to leave space for their trio-mates. While Evans and Motian are both in fine form, it is LaFaro’s exquisite decision making on the bandstand that places these recordings on the edge of (dare I say) jazz perfection.
Producer Orrin Keepnews always did a brilliant job of putting his star musicians into interesting settings that tended to display new facets of their talent. As a result, the Monk recordings on Riverside represent a far more vital body of work than the later releases the pianist made when he switched to a major label. But matching Monk with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan was an especially daring move. The folks at eHarmony would never approve. Who would think that the "High Priest of Bop" (as Monk was sometimes known at the time) and the fair-haired boy of the cool school (who made his reputation by getting rid of the piano in his band
) could connect on the same wavelength? But judging by the results, Monk and Mulligan get along like carrots and peas. The opening is mostly cool school restraint, but the intensity ratchets up over the course of the song, and by the time we get to the final melody restatement, Monk is at his most dissonant. Mulligan seems to thrive on this battlefield, where the comping chords come flying like shrapnel. A peculiar moment in the discographies of both musicians, but a great date by any measure.
Sometimes Toots Thielemans plays so soulfully that you forget his "instrument" came from Woolworth's toy department. His agility, of course, was not so readily acquired. This 2½-minute track amply illustrates both aspects of Toots's craft. As he movingly interprets an old standard, the tooter's technical mastery serves rather than subsumes his lyrical objectives. Indeed, Toots's imagination is even more impressive than his deftness. From conceiving that full-blown jazz might be played on a gadget that fits in the palm of your hand, to exercising such expressive control over said gizmo, Toots Thielemans reigns as the Wilbur Wright of palm pilots.
It could happen. A great jazzman at the height of his powers might inexplicably retire to his Brooklyn apartment, emerging after dark to practice on the little-used pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. It not only could happen, it did! This track offers a stunning preview, sans traffic noise, two years before Sonny's sudden sabbatical. Rollins later likened his thematic improvisations to a jeweler, "holding the melody up to the light and rotating it. There's no limit to what you can do." Motorists crossing the East River never dreamt that, perched alone overhead in the middle of the night, a master jeweler honed gems such as this.
Thelonious Monk at Salle Pleyel (1954)
Photo by Marcel Fleiss
To truly appreciate Monk's most famous and most revered composition, "'Round Midnight," one must hear one of his solo recordings of it. This one is painfully beautiful, as Monk plays it softly and without a lot of fancy tricks or spiked notes. The CD Thelonious Himself
includes one heck of a bonus track, too: 22 minutes of Monk working on the tune, trying to find the right groove and exploring its nooks and crannies. Another (better-recorded) version of the tune came 11 years later and can be found on the two-CD Sony release Monk Alone
. It's a totally different beast. Less introspective and more powerful, Monk jabs the keys with a vengeance, as though telling the listener in no uncertain terms that this four-minute gem is an important piece of music.
Claiming their bluegrass neighbors couldn't differentiate between seafood and hog guts, Indianans made "Kentucky Oysters" slang for the soul food delicacy chitlins. The slander, as celebrated in this dual-tempo blues waltz by Hoosier David Baker, seems good-natured. (No truth to the rumor that Baker's dislocated jaw, forcing him to abandon the trombone, was applied by an irate Kentuckian.) The ensemble reverb is overdone, and there's an awkward splice between trumpet and piano solos—the latter an especially interesting contribution from leader Russell, best known as theorist/composer. But this is nonetheless an outstanding example of early-'60s jazz, simultaneously searching and funky.
The Latin ballad “Besame Mucho” is taken at a very quick 6/8 here. Jimmy Cobb starts with his brushes, pauses for two bars, and then picks up his sticks, which alters the complexion of the piece at the same time organist Melvin Rhyne intensifies his own playing, which is the current that carries the tune along. It’s nothing fancy, but it gives Montgomery exactly the underpinning he needs to showcase his own lyrical ability. At 4:05, Montgomery and Rhyne engage in eight measures of tandem counter-rhythmic attack that forces the listener’s fingers and toes into an involuntarily tap-along. As the tune comes to a close, Rhyne – not exactly a household name among organ players – slips in an effective solo that displays his imagination.
Like Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard did not make Harmon a habit, but when he used the mute his affinity was apparent. On this Swing Era leftover (a #1 hit in 1940 for Tommy Dorsey courtesy of Frank Sinatra's vocal), Hubbard shows his familiarity with Harmon's history
via an uncanny resemblance to Chet Baker on "Love Nest" (1956). Freddie also displays admirable adaptability for a 24-year-old, jelling with musicians a decade older and vastly more experienced. Neither Evans nor Hall was renowned for hard swinging, but here everybody cooks with gas thanks to firebrand Philly Joe. They make us smile again and again.
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