Friday, October 8, 2010

The Golden Age of Post Bop

Back in 2009, there was a lot of commotion over Kind of Blue's 50th anniversary, from a self-satisfied Congressional resolution to yet another book (ok, it was actually released last year), to this. More generally, there was a lot of meditation on the year 1959 in jazz and, more broadly, in American society.

Doubtless, much of the hype was just a corporate plot to sell more shit.

Still, 1959 was a watershed and it got me thinking about where jazz was, where it was headed, and about the 50th anniversary of a moment in jazz I consider equally significant.

In 1959, Trane stretched bop harmonies to their logical limit, while Ornette and Miles explored melodic alternatives. Meanwhile, Mingus' survey of styles offered an early post-modern touchstone for its mix and match approach to the jazz tradition.

Those albums share something: they represent jazz gone utterly personal. There was a shift underway in 1959, from an emphasis on virtuosity or mastery of a particular idiom toward a more individual artistry.

The masterpieces released that year reveal artists taking a holistic approach to their music--conceptually, compositionally, tonally. Each album mentioned above consists entirely of original compositions—still unusual for the time. Moreover, a thematic thread ties each album together. By time the 60s rolled around, jazz musicians were deep into exploration of the 'concept album', years before rockers popularized it.

Not that there's anything essential about 1959 that definitively demarcates this approach in jazz. Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, for example, are two artists who come immediately to mind who took the holistic approach to their music much earlier.

Duke Ellington wrote “my men and my race are the inspiration of my work…I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people.” Though that statement was written more or less retrospectively (1973), there's really no doubt that Duke thought metaphysically, not just musically, when he composed.

Monk's music had a feel, just a uniqueness that I don't think has ever been matched.

Mingus's music, too, already exhibited a strong coherence by this time (Tijuana Moods, for example).

But, broadly speaking, before 1959, the main currency in jazz was ability to master and, I'd say, to incrementally build upon a common style. Any given style was like a language—learnable and teachable.

Here's what I mean:

Revolutionaries like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins innovated in ways previously unimagined. Yet, each of their breakthroughs contained something that was, in a sense, formulaic.

Charlie Parker's language was bebop. His execution was unmatched, but his genius contained discrete elements—the technical parts, at least—that could be deciphered and digitized for widespread use. We don't tend to think of everyone who plays bebop as merely a Charlie Parker (or Dizzy Gillespie, or Kenny Clarke, etc.) imitator. They're indebted to those guys, to be sure, but bebop accommodates new contributors and interpreters.

By the early 1960s, however, jazz was experiencing an more pronounced auteurism, which produced music that that was inseparable from its creator.

Miles, Trane and Ornette innovated in ways that defied adoption. Yes, there are imitators, but they are just thatimitators, not adopters, because those guys' powers were purely personal.

Compare charlie parker, who more or less gave us bebop, to mid-60’s, Miles Davis, who gave us…well…the ever-evolving genius of Miles Davis. There's nothing in it that can be parsed out and put to use without producing an homage at best and a knockoff at worst (See, e.g., the early Marsalis band).

Another example:

Over three inspired minutes in October 1939, Coleman Hawkins set out the blueprint for tenor sax's role in jazz. Hawk's genius, everyone's gain.

In his opening salvo on Atlantic, on the other hand, Ornette Coleman set out the blueprint for harmolodics, which, for all of its theoretical pretense, is mostly just a shorthand for the singular brilliance of Ornette Coleman.

Even when one of these guys deliberately slaps a name on his style, inviting adopters, we're still unable to properly describe it, let alone play it, 50 years later.

1959 ushered in jazz’s 'post-' period, during which artists reworked a half-century of tradition into a more personal approach to the music. Indeed, that was the shape of jazz to come.

After what I intended as a brief introduction, I want to skip ahead to the year in which post-bop truly came of age: 1964.

Much like it is today, America in 1964 was changing. The Vietnam War was formally green-lighted; Malcolm X's talked ballots and bullets amidst racial violence; the Beatles' arrival stateside starkly, if tunefully pointed up an increasingly bitter generation gap. The social changes that began at the end of the 50’s were slowly, painfully gearing up.

America was breaking down. At the same time, jazz was breaking through.

Amazingly, in just five years, the musical stirrings from the turn of the decade coalesced into a number of jazz’s masterworks. Some traditionalists surely view this as the petering out of jazz's golden age (Ken Burns, for instance, jams this entire period and everything after it into a single episode of his 10 part series). For me, it's the pinnacle. What follows are my favorite albums from that year:

Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity/Witches and Devils/Vibrations (ESP/Transatlantic/Debut)

Take your pick. Any way you go, this trinity—to borrow from the man’s own spiritually-tinged lexicon—finds Albert Ayler at an early peak. Though Spiritual Unity seems to have emerged as a rallying point for Ayler enthusiasts, I think I prefer him with a trumpeter, as it heightens that brass band feeling his melodies and (intermittent) rhythms evoke.

In fact, none of these are my favorite Ayler album—that distinction belongs to the downright otherworldly In Greenwich Village (1967). Still, 1964 is the year in which Ayler first deployed, on record, the full force of his expressive apparatus.

Aching sonorities, haunting melodies, the joyous cacophony of turn of the century New Orleans retooled for the powder keg of mid-century New York. It's all there.

Albert Ayler was a visionary. Here, he lays out the vision he would restate and refine for the rest of his sadly short life.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Impulse)

Has anyone ever written or played a more personal piece of music?

Enough ink has been spilled about this album and what it meant to Coltrane. Trane himself wrote, in the album’s liner notes, that it was his humble offering to God.

I remember reading that at one time in the 1960's, in Haight Ashbury, you could hear Trane's masterpiece pouring out of every window. That is to say that this is one of the few jazz albums that transcends the genre and appeals to anyone who can appreciate the sound of a brilliant and beautiful person bearing his soul.

Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil (Blue Note)

I have a serious soft spot for this one. No other album so completely engulfs me in its world. Speak No Evil is a devious fantasy, concocted by Shorter and laid down by a truly world class quintet. Maybe it's the song titles—Witch Hunt, Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, Dance Cadaverous--or maybe the mysterious woman depicted on the album cover, but there's an enchantment that underlies this whole album and pours out in the music. But that's part of it; song titles, liner notes, album art—it's the entire package's theme, the attention to detail, that makes all of these albums special. That, and in this case, Shorter's brooding compositions and Elvin Jones' hypnotic, ride-based swing. Shorter's accompanied perfectly by Jones, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Freddie Hubbard.

Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch (Blue Note)

I wrote a bit about this one in an earlier post. It's so utterly weird, but so perfectly crafted. It is, in my opinion, Dolphy's only masterpiece, but one of the greatest of all time. It just feels like everything he'd been tireless building toward, woodshedding and side-manning and in that way, it's a total triumph. The band is absolutely perfect (though I can only imagine what it might have sounded like had Booker Little survived to take on trumpet duties), especially Tony Williams, who turns in one of the most exciting and inventive drum performances I've ever heard, hands down.

And some honorable mentions:

Don Cherry, Complete Communion (Blue Note)

I'm throwing this one in because it's one of my personal favorite albums. I can't say, though, that's it's all Cherry, as that Ornette sound still dominates. But check out the dashing interplay between Cherry and Gato Barbieri, driven by a fleet and upbeat Ed Blackwell. Cherry packs a surprising number of memorable melodies into these two long tracks. He continued to develop his style, moving toward the more eclectic, worldly sound for which he's perhaps better known. This one, though, remains one of my favorites.

Charles Mingus, Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse)

This qualifies in almost every way: a magnificently ambitious suite, a massive, tumultuous performance (down to Mingus' audible "Goddamnit!" in the background of one of the tracks) and liner notes that stand alone as a work of art. It amounts to a glimpse into into the true, turbulent psyche of a genius.

Only problem—it was recorded in 1963. Obviously, since Mingus was always ahead of his time.

Herbie Hancock, Empyrean Island (Blue Note)

Close, but it feels like Herbie Hancock was still working things out, as evidenced by the uncharacteristically avant The Egg. His post-bop masterpiece, recorded a year later, was Maiden Voyage, which rivals Speak No Evil for its atmospherics.

Lee Morgan, Search for a New Land (Blue Note)

This one's interesting as a sort of missing link. It's a testament to the power of post-bop that even a hard-core hard bopper like Lee Morgan was looking for something new. As evidenced by the title and the extended title track, this is a sort of spiritual undertaking for Morgan, and it works. On the rest of the album, Lee returns to his hard-bopping, boogaloo-ing comfort zone (though Mr. Kenyatta is another interesting interesting piece that gets a pretty extensive treatment). Still, all tracks are Morgan originals, which he tried for the first time on 1963's The Sidewinder.

Check out 1970's Live at the Lighthouse for what I think is Lee Morgan's post-bop best (and an overlooked album generally).

Ultimately, of course, post-bop's golden age was short-lived. The triumph of 1964 soon devolved into the blah of 1970's fusion and the ever-more isolated cries of the avant-garde—all giving rise to the neo-blah of the 1980' Young Lions. Other contributing factors include Charles Mingus's personal problems, Max Roach's (whose Percussion Bittersweet is another, unjustly overlooked post-bop pleasure) political problems, and the tragic, tragic deaths of Eric Dolphy and Booker Little at creative peaks.

It was a brief moment in time, but the jazz of the mid-1960's was as important and enjoyable a creative outburst as any in this country's artistic history.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Speaking of Eric Dolphy...

That earlier list is only a partial discography from 1961. He recorded other albums and classic shows with Trane, with Ron Carter, Mal Waldron, etc. I wonder if anyone else has ever had a hand in so many classic albums in such a short period.

What was it about Dolphy that made him so desirable as a sideman? After all, he isn't the kind of musician you'd necessarily choose if you're trying to assert your own voice. Dolphy's sound, on all of his instruments, is so distinct that his deep musical imprint is left indelibly on anything with which he's involved. Yet, some of the most powerful and personal, and yes assertive voices in the history of the music--Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman--chose Dolphy as their foil. Why?

Some musicians can immerse themselves in piece of music--really get inside it, become it. Seems to me Dolphy did the opposite. It was the music that was swallowed up by Dolphy. He was like a black box, a trip through which was apparently a rite of passage for those 60's searchers. Feed him any idea you've got and, i don't know what goes on in there, but Dolphy's fearless fire music invariably emerges. Congrats, your tunes now are tempered and ready for modern times.

I guess the greats preferred a sideman who would confront and maybe confound their musical sensibility, rather than disappear into it.

I remember reading a Stanley Crouch piece in which he calls Dolphy repetitive. Though I see it, I also think I understand why. I chalk it up to two factors: (1) that Dolphy was in fact so prolific. Recording as often as he did, more often than not someone else's music, it's not surprising that he fell back on a number of devices, phrases, quotes, etc. Tellingly, the better the raw material, the more original the result (see, e.g., any collaboration with Mingus).

More importantly, (2) Dolphy spoke his very own musical language, one that he constructed himself, which he honed ceaselessly. Innovators on that scale often spend a lifetime revisiting and fine-tuning their initial breakthrough. Dolphy did that. So I don't hold his repetition against him. His message bears repeating.

But for all the Dolphy we have on record, it wasn't until a few months before his death that we got his first masterpiece and one of my favorite albums of all time. Out to Lunch is a triumph of all the ideas Dolphy developed. It's just so perfectly off. For me, it stirs up a sort of paranoia, like wandering down some strange alley in the dead of a rainy night. It puts all of Dolphy's tendency to angularity, jagged rhythms, vocalizations to perfect thematic use. I love it.

It's the album by which I think Dolphy needs to be judged and far from repetition, it's unlike anything that came before it.

I had planned on writing something longer on Eric Dolphy, but just as I started drafting it, Matt Lavelle posted this. And he said everything I could have hoped to say, better than I could have hoped to say it. So I'll leave it at that.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

R.I.P. Abbey Lincoln

Been listening to her absolute masterpiece, Straight Ahead, on repeat. For $6 on itunes and amazon, it's well worth picking up if you don't already own it.

On a related note, Max Roach's bands from this period deserve more attention. Consider that in 1961, Max Roach and some variation of his working band recorded Straight Ahead, Booker Little's Out Front Roach's own Percussion Bitter Sweet and Eric Dolphy's immortal Five Spot performances.

Eric Dolphy, by the way, played on all four records and, in the same year, played on Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth and played on and arranged Trane's Africa/Brass. Oh, and stopped in for a few sets at the Vanguard..

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

WAKE UP!!! (MK Groove Orchestra @ Blue Note)

Ravi Coltrane went late on this Saturday night at the Blue Note--Brooklyn based MK Groove Orchestra, already slotted for the late night set, didn't go on until at least 1am. With Marco Benevento sitting in, they killed, especially that raucous second set.

What transpired below was funny as hell and pretty sick musically. Some more of the show is up on youtube. Marco, you are the man..

(watch the whole thing)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Liner Notes

I'd love to see a jazz liner notes archive. Somewhere on the internet. I've always enjoyed reading them. Good liner notes put an album in context. They're a little piece of history like the music itself. Pretty frequently it happens that a piece of music was approached or received differently when it was made than it is now. The notes preserve that. Yeah, sometimes they're formulaic or otherwise uninteresting -- this song has a 5/4 time signature, that one's a slow blues (aka stuff we can figure out ourselves) -- but sometimes you get a cohesive, thoughtful essay on the artist (or by the artist) and his work.

It's one things that's been lost with the shift to digital music. I always wished apple would include original liner notes with their downloads, but I guess there was never much demand for it and certainly no money in it.

I understand they're including liner notes with they're new 'lp' format, but i can't see too many old jazz records finding the light of day that way. Maybe they should though, decked out in that classic Francis Wolff photography or slick Impulse design..

I don't know what the deal is with copyrights on that stuff, but I'd certainly love to see it go up somewhere. I'd even buy it in a nice coffee table book.

Someone please get on this or tell me it's already been done. Anyway, I'll leave you with an excerpt from a classic (grammy nominated, in case anyone gives a shit), courtesy of Charles Mingus:

I, myself, came to enjoy the players who didn't only just swing but who invented new rhythmic patterns, along with new melodic concepts. And those people are: Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Parker, who is the greatest genius of all to me because he changed the whole era around. But there is no need to compare composers. If you like Beethoven, Bach or Brahms, that's okay. They were all pencil composers. I always wanted to be a spontaneous composer. I thought I was, although no one's mentioned that. I mean critics or musicians. Now, what I'm getting at is that I know I'm a composer. I marvel at composition, at people who are able to take diatonic scales, chromatics, 12-tone scales, or even quarter-tone scales. I admire anyone who can come up with something original. But not originality alone, because there can be originality in stupidity, with no musical description of any emotion or any beauty the man has seen, or any kind of life he has lived. For instance, a man says he played with feeling. Now he can play with feeling and have no melodic concept at all. That's often what happens in jazz: I have found very little value left after the average guy takes his first eight bars-not to mention two or three choruses, because then it just becomes repetition, riffs and patterns, instead of spontaneous creativity, I could never get Bird to play over two choruses. Now, kids play fifty thousand if you let them. Who is that good?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Love this Trane post at Brilliant Corners. This is one of so many earth shattering Coltrane moments it can get lost in the shuffle. Don't let it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley

Jazz history is mired in myth. Storyville to Minton's; Buddy Bolden as pied piper to Bird as tragic hero; kings, dukes and dark princes. Thankfully, a number of diligent scholars have disentangled some truth from the myriad tall tales (Garry Giddins and Scott Deveaux are the latest to offer up a substantial work, titled simply Jazz.)

Still, there's that Monk, the enigmatic high priest of bop. Monk's endured as more of a hazy archetype than flesh and blood. Impenetrably hip, indecipherably eccentric, with a born, black musicality, Monk is both the ultimate hipster and an unadulterated artist. Of course, that Monk is largely just an amalgam of everything from played out racial stereotypes to misunderstandings about mental illness. Here, Robin D.G. Kelley tries his hand at retrieving Monk the man from the heap of reductive and often demeaning stories that give us Monk the legend. He succeeds.

First thing's first, we're lucky to get a Monk biography from a practiced historian, rather than a critic or hobbyist. That Kelley's painstaking research and sourcing is the work of a pro is reinforced on every page. He proves that it takes more than passion or a way with words to do justice to a subject like Monk. Kelley shows the judgment of a person who's made a career, not just an occasional go, of poring over documents. At least this reader believes we're getting close to the best construction possible from the available material. And Monk certainly deserves the treatment Kelly gives him. Starting with the book's title, the straightforward and definitive Thelonious Monk, rather than some cliched song title, Round Midnight maybe, or Monk's Dream, we get a work that treats its subject as a matter of serious scholarship. Kelly distances himself sufficiently to give us that scholarship, but not so much that we can't enjoy it. There's a healthy reverence, to be sure, but happily, it falls short of that tired worship that gave us a lot of the bullshit to begin with.

We're all familiar with Monk's place in the pantheon of jazz composers, as well as his singular style at the keys. What struck me over and over again in this book is his legacy as both a teacher and ally to so many of his contemporaries, especially the younger, rawer talent around him. Monk tutored to varying degrees the likes of Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, David Amram, Gigi Gryce, Jaki Byard, Trane and Miles of course, and on and on endlessly. The story is always the same: he didn't say much, just let you know when you were playing it wrong. He was especially keen on the great, sometimes under-appreciated pianists of his day; besides Powell and Hope, Monk was close with Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Nichols and others. When a bunch of journalists hounded Monk for word on injuries he sustained when a stoop on which he was sitting collapsed, he offered only, after a long silence, that Elmo Hope is the greatest pianist in the world. He confounded not only the questioners, but Hope's mother, who was in the room at the time. That was Monk's sense of humor, but also his fierce loyalty.

Monk may not have invented bebop, but he certainly disseminated it, at the retail level that is, like none other. When the trumped up tales fall away, the most common recollection of Monk by people who knew him best is as a great fountainhead from which the language and posture of modern jazz flowed.

The importance of Monk's own teachers weren't lost on him either. One of the more touching episodes in the book is Monk's reaction to Coleman Hawkins's death. Of his many fallen comrades, Monk seemed to take Bean's death particularly hard, no doubt in part because he looked to Bean as one of his few teachers in a life full of students.

Rather than unpack the whole book, I'll just recommend it highly. If there's one trouble I had, it's that for all of Kelley's efforts to humanize Monk, it remains hard to get into his head. Kelley succeeds more in giving us Monk through the eyes of those around him. I guess the fact is that Monk did suffer from a debilitating, often untreated or mistreated mental illness, so his head is simply hard to get into. Some events like, for instance, Monk's mental breaks, his sudden separation from his wife Nellie snuck up on me, because we're not fully along for the psychic rides that led to the events. Kelley most succeeds in relating deeply personal and revealing moments in his descriptions of the home recordings of Monk at his piano with Nellie, or arranging his music for a big band with Hall Overton. Kelley puts those moments to paper beautifully and it's just a pleasure to live with Monk at those times. I'd love to hear the tapes myself.

So many artists deserve a proper bio like this (anyone want to tackle Mingus, I'd be grateful). The portrait of Monk here is full, fair, and warm but honest. I recommend the book.