Saturday, January 10, 2015

Blue: The Murder of Jazz (1997)

In 1997 I started a website called The Hard Bop Homepage as a lark. I had been listening to classic jazz from the 1950s and 1960s for a dozen or so years and during a media course in college in which we were to create a website, I played around with the idea, posted the main page on Tripod, and received an A in the course. But the more I began to think about the idea, the more intrigued I became with going ahead and making the site something real and useful for other people. It took a while, but some ten years later I completed my list of the 100 greatest hard bop albums of all time and had a lot of positive feedback from novices and fans alike for my efforts. I even started a list of another hundred albums. But it’s been at least six years since I have done anything with the site. I began a blog, but even as diverse as the entries were, it soon bored me for one simple reason: jazz is dead.

What’s interesting is that the very same year I began my website, Eric Nisenson published his book Blue: The Murder of Jazz. Apparently, jazz had been it its first death throes back then, but while I was still in the process of discovering so much of its history through reissues, it didn’t seem that way to me. By the turn of the century, however, it was more than clear that there was no new jazz being created. And with the massive attrition through death of veteran musicians there was less teaching and touring going on as well. Schools all over the country have jazz programs, but the kids don’t know how to solo. And for those who do, once they leave school there is absolutely no infrastructure in place to allow them to make a living at it. Nisenson’s book is a look at the controversy back then--the same exact controversy that there has always been in jazz--between the traditionalist “moldy figs” and the avant-garde. For traditionalists the path is clear: there is no path. The music is a series of cul-de-sacs. You pick the kind you like to play and, along with the traditional repertoire of jazz compositions and Tin Pan Alley standards, you create music in your chosen style and record and gig and have a career. For the avant-garde, however, traditionalism is akin to playing classical music, with no inventiveness and no creativity. To them, if something isn’t new and different, it can’t be good.

Unfortunately, Nisenson falls into the later camp. He is a member of the cult of the new, a Miles Davis--John Coltrane--Sonny Rollins devote who looks at bebop and hard bop the way boppers of the 1940s looked at Dixieland jazz, something hopelessly outdated and preserved in amber. The thing is, just because someone plays in a bebop or hard bop style, doesn’t make them unoriginal. In fact, most of the real working jazz musicians that play in that style today have a wealth of original material in their books, and writing original compositions for their groups is one of the real joys of being a jazz musician. Nisenson begins his book by being incredibly disingenuous, taking attempts at defining jazz and acting like an idiot who doesn’t understand what the definers are talking about. This is the definition from critic Tom Piazza that Nisenson quotes in his book.

               Stanley Crouch has made a short but useful list of the essential musical elements that jazz musicians deal with:
               the blues, the romantic ballad, Afro-Hispanic rhythms, and the attitude toward the passage of time (at slow,
               medium, and fast tempos) that is called swing. To these I would add that jazz always demonstrates a call-and-
               response sensibility derived originally from the African-American church and which is present in the music’s
               most basic structures.

Beginning with his final point, here’s an example of Nisenson’s criticism about just one element of this tradition as articulated by Piazza:

               I have no idea what Piazza means when he says he hears “call and response” in most jazz performances. Does
               he mean that all soloing and accompaniment is essentially call and response? . . . Stating that call and response
               can--and therefore must--be heard in every “authentic” jazz performance is a great exaggeration, and again it
               limits rather than frees the musician: in order to create “authentic” jazz, according to Piazza, a musician has to
               make sure his music includes that quality that can be called call and response.

In the first place, Piazza never once uses the word “authentic” in his definition. Why Nisenson chooses to put quotes around it as though he does is highly misleading. Secondly, he also uses the word “must,” another word Piazza never uses. In fact, Piazza states very clearly that these are “elements that jazz musicians deal with,” which in no way comes close to implying exclusivity.

The only explanation for this rant is that Nisenson is being purposefully obtuse. While there are jazz composers like Horace Silver who deal explicitly with call and response—and whom Nisenson does mention--there are plenty of other examples in jazz that are less explicit. Trading fours, for example, is one use of call and response that is heard in many jazz performances. But expanding that idea further, the entire act of soloing can be seen as call and response as each player in turn takes the microphone to solo, some of them even repeating the last phrase of the soloist before them to star their own. And the solo sections in their entirety can be seen as a particular response to the melody, or head, of the number as well as the underlying chord progression. So for someone who claims to be a jazz aficionado to say he has “no idea what Piazza means” by call and response, is patently insulting to the reader and fatally undercuts his argument . . . if it can even be called that. He continues with his abstruse reasoning with another of Piazza’s elements of jazz, the blues. “Does the blues have to be part of a jazz performance? Of course not. There are even some undeniably great jazz performers who, although they could play within the blues form, nevertheless had little affinity for the blues.” But Piazza isn’t talking about playing “the blues,” and Nisenson knows this full well. Piazza is talking about blues tonalities being one element of a jazz performance, one that is nearly universally used by jazz musicians. Blue notes are a vital component of improvisation and composition for musicians on any instrument, even those who rarely play songs in the 12-bar blues form.

What’s absolutely laughable, though, is that Nisenson denigrates Piazza’s contention that swing, “an attitude toward the passage of time” at various tempos, is a major element of jazz. This is his criticism: “The concept of swing is very confusing to say the least; the first three items in the list are musical forms that are, according to Crouch/Piazza, used by jazz musicians, but the fourth, the element of swing, is not a musical form at all but refers to the supposed rhythmic attack of all ‘true’ jazz performances.” Where do we begin? Piazza never uses the word “true” any more than he used the word “authentic.” Nisenson had previously stated in his own definition of jazz that it must be based on “individual expression,” but then goes on later to support his criticism of Piazza by citing Andre Hodeir’s belief “that jazz does not even have to involve improvisation.” Not only that, but in his defense of through-written works as jazz he states, “However, I do believe that both the feeling of improvisation, which is essential for the creation of jazz, and the musical philosophy that lies behind improvisation are essential factors that make jazz both unique and relevant to our time.” So, swing, as a “supposed rhythmic attack” is apparently “very confusing to say the least, “ for poor Mr. Nisenson, and yet the feeling of improvisation even where there is none is an “essential factor” in the relevance of the music. I believe the relevant idiom at work here is talking out both sides of your mouth.

It’s bad enough when Nisenson pretends he doesn’t know what Piazza is talking about, but it gets even worse when he puts words in the other author’s mouth. In continuing his criticism of the concept of swing, Nisenson says, “The neos are always insisting on the primacy of swing in a jazz performance—‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’; to them, music without swing simply is not jazz. But what is swing? I usually take swing to mean music played in the straight-ahead 4/4 meter that conveys a sense of linear movement forward. Most jazz performances do swing in this fashion, but what about other meters, such as 3/4 or 6/8 or 5/4? Are pieces played in these meters not jazz? This would mean that Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” Miles Davis’s “All Blues,” Sonny Rollins’s “Valse Hot,” and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” are not jazz, an absurd premise.” What is actually absurd is Nisenson’s argument. The only one who said anything about 4/4 time was Nisenson himself. But he doesn’t even realize what he’s done. By naming famous jazz tunes in other meters, and feigning indignance that they are excluded from being called jazz, what he is actually saying is that he believes those very songs don’t actually swing. Shame on him.

The real fatal flaw in Nisenson’s entire argument is that the Free Jazz or avant-garde movement that began in the late fifties is what essentially ended jazz in the way he defines it. Nisenson states, “the truth is, the only real tradition in jazz has been no tradition at all, or rather, the tradition of individual expression and constant change and growth . . . that not only is there no real jazz tradition (except the continual breaking down of the perimeters of that supposed tradition), but that jazz itself is almost impossible to define in any narrow, dogmatic fashion.” What Nisenson doesn’t realize is that his definition is every bit as dogmatic as Piazza’s, and yet goes nowhere. Free Jazz actually succeeded in breaking down all of the perimeters there were in music, not just jazz, and thereby ended the very experimentation that he espouses. Free Jazz took jazz to its logical conclusion, just as atonal music did in the classical sphere, leaving musicians nowhere else to go but backward. Though that’s not entirely true. Atonal music didn’t kill new classical composition any more than avant-garde novelists like James Joyce or Henry Miller destroyed literature. For creators innovation may be an admirable goal, but for the audience it never was. Like all art, that which is created must be appreciated in order to obtain any kind of validity. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Therefore the real creative process takes place within boundaries, not outside of them. All one has to do is look at a Jackson Pollock painting to realize that.

But I’m no fan of Wynton Marsalis either, the poster-boy for Nisenson’s ire, and the leader of what he calls neo-classicists. This is a situation he blames on record labels. “Most of them have gotten on the neo bandwagon, signing young players to large contracts despite the fact that most of these youngsters have not found an individual voice or discovered an innovative way to express their own lives in music based in the here and now.” This certainly fits Marsalis, who has never had an individual voice. But at the time there were plenty of other young musicians who did have a voice, people like tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore and Trumpeter Brian Lynch who played with Horace Silver and Art Blakey, and Benny Green, who played with Ray Brown. Where the record labels failed, is in their insistence on sales beyond what an average jazz record normally earns. Thus musicians were urged to bring in electronic instruments and pander to the Hip-Hop market in order to boost sales. This is the same situation that plagued jazz in the late sixties when young musicians began taking up guitars and playing soul music rather than band instruments and playing jazz. So, without any kind of system in place for young musicians to put a band together, have a recording career, and become an elder teacher themselves, jazz as a viable musical form in this country ceased to exist.

So while Nisenson bemoans the end of the kind of boundary pushing jazz that he favors--something that he calls “white noise” when trying to put words in the mouth of critics of the style, but is more apt than he realizes--the issue is far more overarching than that. Jazz venues, jazz record labels, jazz clubs, and jazz audiences have all completely dried up, and with absolutely no way for jazz musicians to make a living, there is absolutely no reason for musicians to go into jazz in any meaningful way. Throughout the history of jazz there has always been an infrastructure in place for working musicians, even in the seventies. But those days are completely gone and thus jazz itself is at an end. To be fair, Nisenson’s book is now dated, but he makes some incredibly specious arguments, and doesn’t even make those very well. He is the emperor with no clothes, and he believes in the kind of squeaking and squawking that passes for “individual expression,” when in fact it is just noise. He loves the supposed “innovations” of Miles Davis who, in reality, changed styles so often because he couldn’t actually play bebop, or hard bop, or anything else except tepid cool jazz. The first time Davis ever played with Tony Williams, the eighteen-year-old drummer said to him, “Man, don’t you ever practice?” Not only is jazz dead, but so are the arguments made in Nisenson’s book.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Jazz Project - Fangs

One of my great pleasures in life is discovering new jazz albums. I don't think I have to tell anyone who knows anything about jazz that major-label jazz is dead. No labored breathing, no last gasps, it's just gone. If you like the smooth suff . . . well, you can stick it in your Amazon cart along with the latest Britney Spears album in full confidence that there will be plenty more where that came from. But I haven't heard anything new on a major label that I really liked since Horace Silver's last album came out on Verve in 1999. Reissues? Well, now that the Blue Note and OJC catalogues have been pretty well exhausted, what remains might be interesting (Chess, Duke/Peacock, etc.) but I don't think there are any hidden Sidewinder's or Soul Station's left out there. (Unless you count Sonny Criss's At The Crossroads, which has been released in Japan.)

In some respects I've been very fortunate in that my Hard Bop site has been fairly popular. As a result I've received numerous copies of CDs I never would have stumbled across in a million years. Yoav Polachek's Standards First and Stacie McGregor's Straight Up came to me through eager press agents who were willing to send me promo discs. Both were fantastic and I have been effusive supporters of both on my site. But the most exciting revelation came with guitarist Jake Langley. As a fan for years of Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, I obviously wanted a younger representative of the hard bop guitar style on my site, and for a while I had to settle for Mark Whitfield, though I was never really enamored of his playing. All of that changed, however, when I stumbled across Doug's Garage in doing research for my book on Horace Silver. Jake Langley is the real deal, and why he is not yet a world-wide jazz phenomenon never fails to astound me.

All of which brings me to Fangs. A couple of years ago now, the oldest son of my best friend made me a CD with a variety of jazz things that he liked and wanted to share with me. One of them was an old Harold Mabern tune called "Rakin' and Scrapin'" that had a classic, late-60s Blue Note/Prestige tenor-and-organ sound. I naturally assumed it was one of the dozens of albums of that era that Prestige has been slowly leaking into the market, first in their gawd-awfully marketed "Legends of Acid Jazz" series and subsequently in less embarrasing two-fers. But no, it turned out that this was recent release by his saxophone teacher, Garry Hammond, and the great Hadley Caliman. I immediately bought a copy of it on CD Baby and could hardly stop listening to it. Fangs is, pure and simple, a great jazz album. But you don't need to take my word for it. Listen for yourself to Hammond's "Slightly In The Tradition" and I dare you not to buy the album.

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.

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.