Sunday, July 27, 2008

Johnny Griffin

The attrition of jazz greats continued Friday with the passing of Johnny Griffin. The oft-proclaimed "fastest saxophonist in the world" also had one of the world's greatest careers. From his first sessions on Blue Note, a stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, to a lengthy residence at Riverside, recording sessions with all the greats, and eventual ex-patriat status in France, Griffin continued to play his effervescent brand of hard bop right up to the end. The death of Johnny Griffin is also a sobering reminder of the precarious position of jazz in America as the numbers of great players dwindles even further and its presence on major record labels is all but non-existent.

My favorite session of Griffin's has always been the Johnny Griffin Sextet for Riverside with the Donald Byrd--Pepper Adams Quintet. Not only are the songs great, but the solos are excellent and the sound quality is better than usual for a Riverside LP. While all of the independent labels used Rudy Van Gelder's studio back then, the Riverside sessions often used other studios and therefore never had the big, open sound of the Blue Note or Prestige from the same time. The opening track, "Stix Trix" is the highlight for me. Written by drummer Wilbur Campbell, the tune first appeared on the LP Nicky's Tune by Ira Sullivan recorded in Chicago--Griffin's home town--by the title "Wilbur's Tune." That was something Griffin also liked to do, use tunes by fellow Chicagoans on his albums, like "Latin Quarters" by John Jenkins which Griffin used on his Blue Note session The Congregation in 1957 and then again with the composer on the Wilbur Ware session The Chicago Sound.

Griffin's sextet session comes just a few months after his association with Blue Note ended. Other tunes include a Griffin original entitled "Catharsis," the Burke-Haggart standard "What's New," and an interesting quartet take of Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody'n You." What's interesting about the arrangement is how Griffin--as the only horn--plays the counterpoint to the melody instead of the melody itself. The genesis of this would seem to be the Coleman Hawkins' version from 1944. With Hawkins front and center at the mike, Gillespie's melody statement can barely be heard in the background. It is undoubtedly this "mistake" that Griffin emulated on tune, and to pleasing effect.

The other session I would like to mention is a live concert from France that was recorded in 1989 on the LP Birdology. With fellow bebopers Jackie McLean, Cecil Payne, Duke Jordan and Roy Haynes, it is a masterful tribute not only to Charlie Parker, but to the musical prowess of all involved. The "Little Giant" was truly one of the tenor giants of his day. Along with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley he defined the hard bop tenor sound of the 1960s, specifically the Chicago style heard in other tenors like Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, and his edgy, frenetic playing on countless recording sessions over the past five decades will be treasured as long as the music survives..

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Blue Mitchell - Fun With Fusion

If you had told me a year ago that I would have a genre on my iPod called "Fusion" I'd have told you you were crazy. While I like a good soul jazz album as much as the next person (Jimmy Smith, Lonnie Smith, Houston Person, Boogaloo Joe Jones, et al.) once you start adding strings and vocals, that's where I draw the line. Unfortunately, it's the worst examples of fusion that tend to be the ones record companies make available to us in great numbers (Kenny G., Kirk Whalum, Tom Scott, et al), and in any case I've always found that a little Crusaders can go a long way. But recently, with the proliferation of music blogs like My Jazz World, such an incredible number of fusion albums have been made available to the public that it forced me into a re-examination of the whole genre.

The fact that for decades the CTI catalog has been the most visible (read avalable) fusion on the market has done a real disservice to everyone, from the record companies right down to the consumer. In the first place, I find the CTI sessions the least compelling fusion albums that I've heard over the last year. Just one example of this phenomenon is the great Blue Mitchell. After his tenure with Riverside in the early sixties, he signed with Blue Note when he and Junior Cook were let go of the Horace Silver quintet. After some terrific quintet albums he recorded a couple of funky big-band type sessions before his first out-and-out fusion session, Bantu Village, in 1969. After that, he recorded sessions for a number of labels (Impulse, Roulette, RCA) that are notable for their incredible consistency of quality jazz--albeit in a fusion style. Which means, if you hate Isaac Hayes, Booker T., and The Crusaders, you're probably going to hate these records too. But . . . if you've secretly kept all of your Blackbyrds, John Klemmer, and Maynard Ferguson vinyl, you'll LOVE Blue Mitchell's fusion sessions.

The thing that makes these sessions so great are the players, from pop/fusion stallwarts like Chuck Rainey and Lee Ritenour to hard bop greats like Harold Land, Cedar Walton, Hampton Hawes, and Eddie Harris. The solos are fantastic, and to lump these kinds of sessions in with no-talend smooth jazz of the last thirty years borders on the criminal. The only one of Mitchell's sessions that is available on CD is, of course, not one of his best. Though Graffiti Blues is a worthy pickup, my favorite album is Stratosonic Nuances with the great Harold Land on tenor and Cedar Walton on electric piano. But there is equally great music to be had elsewhere, as evidenced by this cover of Horace Silver's "Peace" on the Roulette album Last Tango Blues.

Why, in this day and age, record companies can't make all of their sessions available as downloads is beyond me. I understand them not wanting to put out money and time to produce all of those lost sessions on CD, but it can't take that much effort to make albums available on iTunes, or similar sites. Fortunately, most of those lost albums are out there if you do a bit of searching. So, if you enjoy the occasional Wah-Wah pedal guitar, thumb-slapping bass, and Fender Rhodes piano, check out some of the many music blogs out there offering up hundreds of 70s fusion albums--albums that also happen to contain some fantastic jazz solos by the sixties hard bop greats who, it turns out, never really stopped playing after all.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Cecil Payne - BeBop Baritone

When I was in eighth grade I was invided to join the Jr. High jazz band after only two years of playing alto sax. What surprised me most was that the band director wanted to allow one of the clarinet players to switch to alto and have me play the baritone sax. Not only was I not offended, I was fascinated by the big, school horn I was given and found the lower register quite appealing--not to mention the parts significanly easier to play. Ever since that time I've been in love with the bari sax. So it should be no surprise then, that one of the first jazz CDs I ever purchased was by the late, great, Cecil Payne.

What was a surprise for me, though, what just how great Payne was. Not only could he navigate effortlessly on the big horn, but did so playing some of the most challenging music ever: straigh-ahead bebop. Like fellow saxophonist Sonny Stitt, Cecil Payne played bebop his entire career, an unabashed exponant of Charlie Parker's legacy. Payne's most definitive statement came early on in his lengthy career. The two sessions that comprise Patterns of Jazz on Savoy Records. Recorded in 1956, just a year after Parker's death, they are nothing short of stunning. The first session is a quartet, with Duke Jordan on piano and Tommy Potter on bass (both recently with Parker's band), in which Payne performs tunes associated with Parker, including "This Time The Dream's On Me," and "How Deep Is The Ocean" in addition to two distinctive originals. The second set adds yet another Parker sideman, Kenny Dorham on trumpet. Three more infectious Payne originals lead off this session with highlight of the entire album being Payne's solo opening to "Man of Moods." Fittingly, the album ends on a high note with Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High."

Cecil Payne would appear on countless sessions in the fifties and sixties, on albums as diverse as Kenny Dorham's Afro-Cuban and Jimmy Smith's Six Views of the Blues on Blue Note, John Coltrane's Dakar on Prestige and Clark Terry's self-titled debut [Clark Terry] on EmArcy. He was one of the all-time great jazz musicians--on any instrument--and continued to appear on quality albums and tour throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Cecil Payne passed away just last November and he is greatly missed.

I'll never forget the day a few years ago when I was looking through a friend's stack of old magazines and happened upon a review for the closing of Birdland back in the late 70s. The author was lamenting the sorry state of the club--having been turned into a disco a few years earlier--and at the same time the sorry state of jazz, in that none of the musicians assembled to pay tribute to the namesake of the club actually played bebop . . . except for one, and that musician was Cecil Payne.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Red Garland - Red Alert!

Until recently I had always associated Red Garland's piano playing with Miles Davis's rather stodgy attempts at hard bop, and his emphasis on block-chording in that context rather than single-note lines never really grabbed me. But my attitude toward Red changed when I picked up a copy of Phil Woods' Sugan. I already had a couple of Garland albums with John Coltrane, but they seemed a bit more subdued as well, tending toward slow, blues numbers. The set with Woods and trumpeter Ray Copeland is a no-frills Prestige blowing session, but seems to have nonetheless been an inspired date that surpasses the usual rote playing that figures into a lot of those kinds of sessions by both Woods and Garland.

Three of the tunes are by Charlie Parker and it's there where the stength of set lies--and also its superiority in comparison with similar dates. One in particular I'm thinking of is another Phil Woods bebop date produced by Leonard Feather entitled Bop!. Recorded only a month after Sugan, it seems especially tired and forced (in the way most Feather sessions were--this one featuring Parker's son shouting out an atonal "Salt pea-nuts! Salt pea-nuts!"). On the earlier session Woods seems bright and energetic on "Au Privave," "Steplechase" and "Scrapple from the Apple." And, of course, Garland's spot-on accompaniment holds the proceedings together extremely well. One of the real treats, however, is Ray Copeland's trumpet work. Much more appropriate than Thad Jones' work on the Feather session, it nearly equals that of Carmel Jones on arguably the best of the post-bop retrospective albums ever recorded: Charles McPherson's Bebop Revisited. Finally, there are also three Woods-penned numbers that have more of a hard bop feel to them, the best being the title track.

Sparking a renewed interest in Red Garland, I have recently obtained several more discs of his and have been enjoying them all. And while I find his piano trios less interesting that say, Elmo Hope, or Ray Bryant's, many of his larger groups are quite good, the ones with Coltrane, of course, but also a terrific sextet date on Jazzland with Pepper Adams and Blue Mitchell called Red's Good Groove that contains his signature block-chord work rather than the more bopish lines of the Wood date, but does sound better than many Riverside sextet sessions from the same era. Way to go, Red.