Charlie Parker: Blues for Alice

"Blues for Alice" is a classic old-school jazz jam that showcases Charlie Parker's innovative sax style within a context that he singlehandedly pioneered. He blows his heart out for you, reveling in some imaginative musical statements along the way, and is followed ably by his collaborators. The track is upbeat and swingin', as the immediately identifiable tenor Parker sound cuts through the mix and squawks out of the box with force.

The sound of the cut is stereotypical of the limitations engineers encountered while recording bands long ago, but the rough edges and slightly imbalanced presentation (Parker is obviously standing closer to his microphone than the others are standing in relation to theirs) do not stop the music from gliding atop the sounds of tonal elation. The chord changes are atypical of what is commonly known as "blues," in that the form is extended beyond the genre's regularly expected form. Also, the tone of the recording is much more positive than is normal for such a genre as "blues." However, transforming the aural character of pre-established musical forms into something uncharacteristically offbeat was one of the things that Parker did best, and, here, no exceptions to the rule are made.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Charlie Parker: Laird Baird

Charlie Parker's "Laird Baird" contains quite a few awesome solo passages by the jazz legend even though the music is less visual than is normal for a player whose reputation rests upon his pushing of musical boundaries. The tune is played at mid-tempo, and, while slower tunes usually require some form of intensity to validate them, this one lacks it.

Almost sounding like a rehearsal take, the tune follows a predictable pattern: solo piano improvisation starts it, followed by open, swing-time hi-hats and a round of ensemble solos. Since Charlie Parker is obviously not the sole focus of this recording (given the equality of space that each player is allowed), no one is left out as each band member takes a turn at showcasing. An indistinct Parker riff bookends the solos, and listeners are left without a sense of why the saxman was regarded as a creative genius.

Of course, Bird's catalog contains a wide variety of sounds, recording approaches, and performance techniques, but, as far as this track is concerned, it sounds like the group knocked this off in under ten minutes. Unfortunately, you will not consider this track amongst the top hundred in the Charlie Parker canon.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Stan Getz: I Remember When

From the opening bar of “I’m Late, I’m Late,” you knew you were listening to something very special.  Focus, the 1961 breakthrough Third Stream collaboration between composer Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz, marked a striking departure from the tenor titan’s bossa nova and cool sessions. The vibrancy of the original recording has been lovingly preserved in this must-have CD reissue, which faithfully recaptures the unmistakable velvet timbre of Getz’s Selmer.  The concept was ambitious and fearless: to create a suite of tone poems over which Getz would improvise, without any prior exposure — and without any written sax melody to follow.  The results were breathtaking.

“I Remember When” is a Debussy-like dreamscape where dusky tenor phrases waft through an enchanted orchestral forest, chased by random gusts of strings and harp.  Stan Getz is at the top of his form, blowing effortless, perfectly sculpted lines over the languid, impressionistic framework. This is the art of improvisation at its best, cliché-free, inspired and cerebral — and it offers a unique glimpse into the depths of a brilliant and complicated jazzman’s soul.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Oscar Peterson: Night Train

In a recent interview, Diana Krall said that Oscar Peterson’s Night Train was the album that made her want to be a jazz pianist and specifically made her want to play with Ray Brown. That Ms. Krall achieved those goals and much more only adds to this album’s merits. Peterson seemed to hit commercial and artistic peaks at the same time, and the early sixties was one of those periods. The trio got tighter and more musical as the pressure for larger album sales increased from Verve, and sometimes the results were of the best trio in jazz playing dumbed-down songs to attract more listeners. While the worst offender was We Get Requests, Night Train has received its share of critical brickbats. However, the performance of the tune “Night Train” may be evidence that Peterson could balance the two factions without compromising either side.

Since “Night Train” is a blues, it would have been simple enough to just blow through a few choruses and call it done. But Peterson devised a marvelous arrangement instead, one so subtle that it’s easily missed by casual listeners. After the opening theme choruses, Peterson slips into a 2-chorus solo. Then the theme returns, and we realize that all the while, the band has gotten softer and softer. This leads into Brown’s solo, which is unaccompanied to start, and then adds, in turn, Peterson and Thigpen. When Peterson comes in for another chorus of solo, everything starts to build again. Peterson plays a boogie figure in the bass to build the intensity, and then the trio plays a simple but effective shout chorus and then goes back to the theme with a strong crescendo to nearly the end, with a traditional Count Basie tag to close the track. By using the basic elements of crescendo and diminuendo, and arranged sections to set off the parts, Peterson turns what could have been a throwaway into a minor masterpiece.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Dizzy Gillespie: The Eternal Triangle

The 2006 recording by James Moody and Hank Jones of Sonny Stitt's "[The] Eternal Triangle" brings to mind this 1957 version featuring Stitt with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. It's been said that Gillespie slyly tried to stir up the competitive juices between Rollins and Stitt by telling each beforehand that the other intended to outplay him, although the naturally combative Stitt would have needed little prodding in that regard. By 1957, finally stepping out from behind Charlie Parker's shadow, Stitt was considered a prime contender for Bird's vacated bebop throne, whereas Rollins was the winner of Downbeat's "New Star" award (Way Out West, Newk's Time and A Night at the Village Vanguard all came out that year). With or without Dizzy's scheming, the stage was set for excitement.

The title, "The Eternal Triangle," is a perfect description of the threesome's interaction on this memorably scorching 14-minute track. The stirring theme is forcefully handled by the horns, after which Rollins is off and running, his biting tone hurling the listener through a nonstop series of sinuous extended lines played with a darting and dazzling rhythmic vitality. Stitt follows with a density and inventiveness of phrasing that resembles more than differs from Rollins's own. The boisterous exchanges between the two tenors mesh without any friction, as they appear to be responding to one another in concrete and sensitive ways, rather than trying to impress with empty displays of flashy technique. The momentum and fresh creativity each sustains is admirable. Gillespie's own solo is softly articulated before accelerating brashly to the upper register and then developing into a number of striking motifs and clarion calls. Ray Bryant's boppish blues-inflected solo, and Dizzy's fiery trades with Persip are still other highlights of this fully packed performance.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Ella Fitzgerald (with Duke Ellington): Take the 'A' Train

Matching Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on its signature tune is a surefire winner. But when you add Dizzy Gillespie to the band, this goes from "A Train" to "A+ Train" with extra AP credits to boot. Everybody is in fine form, and Dizzy shines. But Ella returns after the trumpet interlude and declares that she is taking over this "A Train" and all its passengers. She seems undecided whether she should scat or sing the lyrics, so she settles the matter by doing lots of both, but even when the song seems over and the train is pulling into the station, she stretches out the coda for a full extra minute, and her closing exchanges with the horns are an absolute delight. If I were a passenger, I'd stay on for at least five more stops.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Oscar Peterson: Things Ain't What They Used to Be

Miles Davis once famously suggested that Oscar Peterson sounded like he had to learn how to play the blues. To which I reply: dang, he certainly learned 'em. There are flashier blues by Peterson available on the marketplace—for example, check out "Blues Etude" if you want fireworks. But this version of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" shows that this pianist could also play a more subdued blues. This is Oscar in a Basie vein, just strutting over the changes. Bassist Ray Brown does not solo, but you will be forgiven if you find yourself focusing on his walking lines, as reliable as Greenwich Mean Time, and much, much hipper. The piano trio has changed a lot since this band recorded Night Train, but this music is timeless.

September 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Ella Fitzgerald: Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me

Jazz players often perform this song in a glib, jaunty manner. But this Ellington standard needs to be handled with care. The equivocal lyrics, which seem to suggest the admission of an infidelity ("some kiss may cloud my infidelity"), present a psychological labyrinth. They allow the singer to adopt a pose or dig in deep. Ella takes the harder path and chooses to probe the pathos behind the words -- a decision all the more commendable given the fact that this artist often slides along the surface of her songs. Here Ella shows how acute she could be as an interpreter of brokenhearted ballads. Of course, no vocalist of her generation had greater technical command than Ella, and when she marries her prepossessing skill to a deep penetration into the inner meaning of the material, the results are magical. All that said, Ben Webster plays a perfect solo that is every bit as brilliant as the vocal. This ranks among the finest of songbook performances.

July 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Tony Scott: Is Not All One?

Some people will tell you that this album represents the birth of New Age music, back in 1964. Or is it a pioneering World Music collaboration between East and West? Or, as I prefer to see it, a forerunner of "Ambient Music" before Brian Eno coined the term? Alas, the jazz world has never taken much interest in this release, even though it represents collective improvisation of a very high order. Of course, the jazz folks have never really come to grips with Tony Scott in any shape or form. Here was a guy who thwarted all their expectations, spending time in all the wrong places to build a jazz career . . . from his early training at Juilliard to his time overseas immersing himself in Asian musical and mystical traditions; from his trips to South American and Africa to his final move to Italy. Another mark against Mr. Scott: he played the clarinet, championing it when almost every other reed player signed up in the camp of Adolphe Sax. Someday the jazz world will achieve blissful Zen enlightenment and figure out that someone this creative and daring should be championed as a hero of the art form. But you don't need to wait for that to happen. You can check out Scott's oeuvre, and this fresh, beautiful recording, right now. Happy satori!

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Benny Carter: I Got it Bad (And That Ain't Good)

You could admire Benny Carter for many things -- his composing or arranging, or his work on a half dozen or so instruments. But this track will tell you why he is considered one of the finest alto sax soloists in the history of jazz. His improvisation on the Ellington standard has it all: a rich, creamy tone, fresh ideas, relaxed phrasing and a delicate sense of swing. Above all, the performance is perfectly aligned with the emotional landscape Ellington intended for this song. The rhythm section is packed with Hall of Famers, but they know to lay low and let Carter run the show. If you don't know Mr. Carter, this track is a perfect place to make his acquaintance.

June 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Benny Carter: A Foggy Day

Charlie Parker was the king of the saxophone when this track was recorded, and every alto player was under Bird's sway. Well, not every one . . . Benny Carter was laying down some heavy alto lines like bebop never happened. And it's hard not to be captivated by the proceedings here. Carter's tone, his ideas, his sense of swing were delightful then, and still are today. As with so many Carter solos, this is one that, after you hear it a few times, you will start singing along with the record. And if Carter is the Cosmopolite that gives this project its name, then Oscar Peterson is the ultimate gentleman, pulling out the Nat King Cole imitation that he saved for moments such as this, guiding the rhythm section and maintaining the Swing Era ambiance of the date.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Dizzy Gillespie & Stan Getz: It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)

Whenever Getz and Gillespie shared the same stage, it was more than music . . . it was a battle. Was there some bad blood between these two jazz giants? I was around Gillespie and Getz back when the two long time friend-adversaries were planning an ill-starred mid-'80s live recording with Gillespie that—alas!—was torpedoed at the very last moment; and Getz's private comments at the time made it clear how much respect he had for Dizzy. Yet if you listen to the recordings they made together, you can't miss the combative atmosphere. Their 1953 and 1956 sessions for Verve rank among the most intense dates of the decade. One senses that Gillespie is calling tempos as fast as possible, and trying to disrupt the serenity of the king of cool sax playing. Dizzy's trumpet work on this track is fiery and unrelenting. Getz, for his part, refuses to back down, and plays with an aggressiveness and speed that was out of character for this disciple of Prez. The proceedings are further enlivened by one of the fastest rhythm sections on the planet, circa '53. By my scorecard, Gillespie wins by the narrowest of margins on this encounter, but Getz comes back strong and wins the 1956 rematch—which may be even more impressive, since he takes on both Gillespie and the speed racer of the alto sax, Sonny Stitt.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Bill Evans: Just You, Just Me

Bill Evans's idea for his 1963 Conversations With Myself sessions may have seemed like a perfect "concept" for this introspective artist. Instead of bringing in a band for the date, Evans would play multiple piano parts, blended together through the miracle of studio overdubbing. But what seems like a good idea in theory turns into an exercise in jazz solipsism. This track, like many of the other performances from this project, sounds too busy, and the thick textures of the over-layered piano parts negate two of Evans's greatest virtues: his use of space and the open, uncluttered clarity of his phrases. The song itself, a lilting Jazz Age standard from 1929, doesn't help. Its simple and bouncy attitudes are not a good fit with this deep and moody musician. If you want to hear Evans without a band, check out the Alone LP from 1968 or "Reflections in D" from his 1978 New Conversations release before dipping into this LP.

May 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Bill Evans: I Should Care

Here Bill Evans revisits his musical ties to bop piano pioneer Bud Powell, who also liked to play (and sometimes sing) this melancholy song with its contradictory lyrics. The irony is that Evans's version sounds more like classic Powell than Powell does himself. This track from Evans's Town Hall live recording has more bite in it than the pianist usually shows. Even his comping chords have an extra kick to them.

You know how people say "I could care less" when they really mean "I couldn't care less"? Sammy Cahn's words to this tune, with their peculiar closing line ("I should care . . and I do"), capture both meanings at once, caring and not caring. Evans's performance is much the same: on the surface it sounds tossed off without a second thought, but underneath it you can hear how much care went into this apparent indifference. This is not quite an Evans masterpiece, but it provides interesting perspective on the rougher and ruggeder side of a deep musical thinker.

May 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Charlie Parker: Just Friends

Parker was delighted with this track, and cited it as one of his favorite performances. Certainly he enjoyed the apparent legitimization of his artistry by the presence of a small string orchestra, But the arrangement is insipid, and effectively destroys the value of matching this bebop legend with a quasi-classical ensemble. The altoist, for his part, plays smoothly and with a sure technical command, but nothing here will make you forget his finer Savoy or Dial sides. True, there is a certain fascination in hearing Bird take wing in such an unusual setting, yet I suspect that this recording will be remembered by later generations of jazz fans as a curio rather than a legitimate jazz masterpiece.

May 08, 2008 · 0 comments


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