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.