Friday, August 22, 2008

Red Rodney - Red Alert! (Pt. 2)

I didn't really learn about Red Rodney until after he was gone. Of course I knew of him through the Charlie Parker sessions on Verve (Swedish Schnapps, 1949), and especially the Carnegie Hall concert from 1949, which I felt was exceptional. But it wasn't until after seeing Clint Eastwood's biopic Bird that I began to seek out and listen to the music of "Albino Red."

At the time there was very little of his fifties materila on CD, and mostly what was available were later 70s and 80s sessions, some of them great--Bird Lives! with Charles McPherson on alto--and some not so great--Red Alert!. There was, however, through all of his playing, the link with Charlie Parker that was undeniably appealing. One of my favorite memories was listening to a cassette tape I had of Parker's Washington D.C. big band recording and hearing Red's voice come on at the end: "Now, this Washington date . . ." And I've always appreciated and enjoyed the fact that it's Red's himself that can be heard playing on "Now's the Time" from the Bird Soundtrack. None of that, though, prepared me for the brutal truth about his life as told to Gene Lees in his book Cats Of Any Color. Easily one of my favorite books on jazz, it's well worth seeking out.

Though most of the recordings done late in his career are wonderful, I was most interested in the early dates for Prestige and Keystone. Then, I happened on a 2001 release of two dates from Chicago, one in 1951 and the other in 1955, both on a single CD entitled Red Rodney Quintets. Featuring original bop tunes and standards, it's a great example of the music before Parker's death. In spite of the title of the disc, "The Song is You" from the later session is all Red. Great music from one of the all time greats, and hopefully not the last of his earlier recordings to be reissued. The ultimate tribute, for which Red seems like a perfect candidate, would be a Mosaic box set. Let's hope it happens soon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Isaac Hayes

I've been spending so much time watching the Olympics the past few days that I didn't find out until Wednesday of the passing of Isaac Hayes. Of course, being relatively young, my first exposure to Hayes didn't come until the 70s in high school, playing the "Theme from Shaft" in the pep band. Even so, I wasn't actually conscious of the Black Moses until I began examining the composer credits on my Sam & Dave albums. It wasn't long after that Stax became my favorite record label, and Hayes one of my favorite musicians. The soundtrack to Shaft is still one of my favorite albums . . . ever . . . in any genre. There have been numerous versions of Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" but I wanted to share with you one of my favorites. It's from the 1974 album by Maynard Ferguson MF Horn 2. In terms of fusion/big band sessions from the 70s, this has to be near the top of the list in terms of both song selection and solos. The opener, "Give It One," is probably the best Ferguson track from the entire decade.

The Shaft theme is great not only because of the unique arrangement by Keith Mansfield, but also the funky piano by Pete Jackson, gritty alto solo by Jeff Daly, and a valve trombone solo by Ferguson himself. Although, having a great tune to cover is what finally makes it all come together. One of my favorite stories about Hayes was how, in the old days at Stax, they used to double-book Booker T. & the M.G.s into two clubs on the same night. Booker would go out with the second-string rhythm section--some of whom would go on to form the Bar-Kays. And at the other show would be Al Jackson, Duck Dunn, and Steve Cropper along with--you guessed it--Isaac Hayes at the organ. Isaac Hayes was a tremendous talent and a real driving force in soul music, especially the transition into the 1970s, and he'll be missed by many.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Gerry Mulligan - Age of Music Blogs

If you read my earlier post on Blue Mitchell, then you know of my recent reassessment of the fusion period of jazz in the 1970s. The proliferation of music blogs and the ability to sample much of the music before searching out a hard copy has been a real boon to the expansion of my musical tastes. I mean, let's be truthful here, sixty-second samples of jazz tunes on any retail site are almost worthless. In most instances the sample either begins with the head and we hear none of the solos, or the sample begins in mid-solo and we have no idea of the context (or the other soloists). It's never been a worthwile expenditure of time. Therefore, the purchase of CDs has always come down to familiarity. And while the fear of buying something you hate has diminished with availability of sites like eBay or to unload clunkers, there is still the disappointment factor and the feeling of getting burned that keeps me coming back to the tried and true. Another Lee Morgan or Hank Mobley reissue? Great, toss it in the basket. But once you have every Blue Note and OJC reissue, what's next?

What the music blog allows me to do differently, is to listen to the entire album, in context, and then decide if this is something I'd like to have in my collection, with art, liner notes, etc. It's because of this that I have recently not only purchased a bunch of fusion CDs, but also a batch of West Coast and avant-garde sessions that I never would have glanced at in the old days while looking through the racks at Tower Records or Borders. Combining these new (to me) spheres of music is an LP that I find absolutely wonderful: Gerry Mulligan's The Age of Steam. For one thing--and probably the most important--this session finds Mulligan abandoning his effete counterpoint for a more robust style that is incredibly satisfying. For another, he shares solo duties equally with the other members of the group: Bob Brookmeyer, Roger Kellaway, Tom Scott, and Stephen Goldman. Great music, and great solos, with the Fender Rhodes about the only thing that dates it in any way.

But it gets better. The DVD of Age of Steam has a fantastic documentary Listen: Gerry Mulligan, a section with Gerry himself leading viewers through a master class, other contributors to his album giving interviews, lead sheets to the tunes and a ton of other stuff. In addition, the DVD also comes with a copy of the CD--for the price, it's a nice set. Not only has this become a satisfying addition to my DVD music library, more importantly, I never would have looked twice at it had I not been able to download the album first from a music blog. And while there are plenty of albums that we all have that we don't like well enough to buy but don't hate enough to delete, the music blog serves an important function that I hope is allowed to continue for a long time.