I saw Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra at the Jazz Standard last night, for at least the 12th time in as many years, and they—both she and the band—get more and more dazzling with each visit. As I noted a couple months back, with the release of her latest CD, Sky Blue (available only from ArtistShare.com or MariaSchneider.com), Schneider’s compositions have grown both denser and airier—rich harmonies stacked on brisk, flowing melodies, swaying to rhythms at once buoyant, complex, and danceable. Her ballads are sweet and lovely without oozing into sentimentality. Her upbeat numbers are snappy without drifting into banality. In recent years, she’s been exploring Latin rhythms and styles—in Saturday night’s early set, she played compositions inspired by Brazil, Spain, and Peru, and it seemed absolutely authentic. Her band—17 members, many of whom have played with her for over 15 years—is drum-tight, and, perhaps because of this, the soloists soar more lyrically to more adventurous heights.
Speaking of Carla Bley, her ex-husband, Paul Bley, has a new CD, Solo in Mondsee (ECM), and it’s quietly stunning. I’m a bit late with this—the album came out last summer—but then again, it was recorded in 2001, so who’s counting? Paul Bley has been one of the piano giants in jazz for over a half-century. He may be more famous for those he’s introduced to the jazz scene. He led, I think, the first jazz trio that featured Charles Mingus on bass. While house pianist at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles in 1958, he hired Ornette Coleman to play with him (when nobody else would); in fact, what became, a few months later, the first Ornette Coleman Quartet started out as the Paul Bley Quintet, minus Bley. Over the years, he’s frequently played with Ornette’s bassist, Charlie Haden, most recently in a night of riveting duets at the Blue Note in New York. (A couple decades ago, the Montreal Jazz Festival held a weeklong celebration in which Haden led a variety of ensembles; all the sessions were eventually released on CD by Verve; the best of the bunch was a trio session with Bley and Paul Motian.)
It’s a mystery how Carla Bley’s new CD, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (ECM), achieves its greatness. Even the word seems too freighted for music so minimal. A scale segues into a simple melody, followed by a straight harmony, some swishes on snare and hi-hat, a bass line that follows an equally simple counterpoint. Yet some quirky gravity holds these strands in magical equipoise, like a Calder mobile.
Music Matters Jazz, a new audiophile label, starts up this month, reissuing classic Blue Note albums on 180-gram virgin-vinyl LPs pressed at 45 rpm. The test pressings I’ve heard sound extremely promising. The people involved in the company certainly know what they’re doing (Joe Harley of AudioQuest, Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray of AcousTech, Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records, who is more familiar with the Blue Note vaults than anybody).
Audiophiles well know the glories of a 12-inch slab of 180-gram virgin vinyl cut for 45-rpm playback. Compared with a normal LP’s 33-1/3 revolutions per minute, the grooves on a 45 are stretched out over a wider space, allowing the stylus to track them more accurately and to give voice to the music’s minutest details. The non-‘philes among you may be shaking your heads (Oh, no, Is this guy a nutball?) but, believe me, it’s true. A few years back, Classic Records, Mike Hobson’s L.A.-based audiophile label, put out a series of limited-edition single-sided 45 rpm LPs, one album stretched out on four slabs of vinyl, each of which had grooves on one side but nothing, just plain black vinyl, on the other. The theory was that a perfectly flat bottom surface would couple more firmly to the turntable’s mat, eliminating the distortion of vinyl resonances. That may sound nuttier still, but, believe me, it’s true, too. (I’ve compared single-sided and double-sided 45 rpms of several albums that Hobson released in both formats—especially Sonny Rollins’ Our Man in Jazz and the Chicago Symphony’s performance of Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije, conducted by Fritz Reiner. The differences were not subtle. I value those albums as much as any in my collection, for musical and sonic reasons.)
The first thing that strikes you about A Life in Time: The Roy Haynes Story—a 3-CD (plus a bonus DVD) box-set that spans the career of drummer Roy Haynes—is just how wide and varied a span it is. It opens in 1949, with Haynes as a sideman to Lester Young, proceeds to sessions with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat Adderley; moves into ‘60s avant-modernism with John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill, and Chick Corea; and cruises into the ‘70s and beyond (he is still very active at age 82) with bands under his own leadership.
I’ve listened to Herbie Hancock’s new CD, River: The Joni Letters (on Verve), three times now, and it gets better with each spin. This is a Joni Mitchell tribute album, with Hancock on acoustic piano heading a straight-ahead jazz quintet (including Wayne Shorter on soprano sax and Dave Holland on bass), fronted on six of the 10 tracks by various singers.
I forgot to note Thelonious Monk’s 90th birthday on Oct. 10. Some advice for a lifetime: If you come across people who doubt his mastery as not only a composer but also a pianist, don’t trust their judgment on anything. Linked below, from the early-to-mid ‘60s, is an especially Monkish clip.
Martial Solal’s early set at the Village Vanguard tonight was as exuberant as expected. The ghost of Tatum was riding high, as the French pianist, celebrating his 80th birthday with only his third appearance in New York City in the past 44 years, mad-dashed through a dozen or so standards—including “Caravan,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” even “Body & Soul”—in ways that no one has ever heard them, carving up the scores like a Cubist (more Braque than Picasso, with shards of Duchamp tossed in for wit), stretching and squeezing bars, yet somehow sustaining the tempo and the melody with tenuous but seamless aplomb. His music might be a mere virtuosic lark, were it not for his harmonies—brooding, bristling, caramel-rich chords, clusters of them, alternately embellishing, paring down, or playing against the conventional changes.
Martial Solal starts a week of solo piano at the Village Vanguard tonight, and that’s a double eye-opener. It’s only the second time in its 72-year history that the club has featured a pianist playing solo. (The first, Fred Hersch, was in 2006.) More striking, it marks just the third time since 1963 that Martial Solal has played in New York City under any circumstances. The last time was four years ago at the Iridium, with his trio and saxophonist Lee Konitz, and it was a marvel, the fleetest and most lyrical I’d seen Konitz play in years. The time before that, just with his trio, was at the Vanguard—but the shows were in mid-September 2001, a couple weeks after the attacks of 9/11; few ventured into lower Manhattan for anything, much less to see an obscure French jazz pianist. Luckily, the sessions were recorded; Blue Note put out a CD of highlights called NY-1; finally, we could all hear the music behind the legend.
Steely Dan’s Aja isn’t exactly jazz, but given (a) the presence of such jazz luminaries as Wayne Shorter and Victor Feldman, (b) the jazz sensibility of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, (c) my blogger’s prerogative to step outside genres once in a while, and (d) the fact that my host, Stereophile, is, after all, an audiophile magazine, I feel entitled to mention—and wholeheartedly recommend—Cisco Music's LP
In some of the standard histories, jazz went to hell in the 1970s—first losing its structure to the avant-garde, then losing its harmony and rhythm to rock-funk fusion—before recovering its senses and sensibility in the ‘80s, thanks mainly to Wynton Marsalis. As with most myths, there’s a little bit of truth to this chronicle; things did take a bumpy turn in the ‘70s (though some of the avant-garde and the fusion was a lot more interesting than the broad-brush detractors would have you believe). But the revival of melody, structure, beauty and wit was hardly the doings of Mr. Marsalis. A movement was well afoot—the critic Gary Giddins called it “neo-classicism”—a few years before the young trumpeter moved from New Orleans to New York. Many other, somewhat older musicians had already been making their ways to “the jazz tradition” through the path of the avant-garde. It was on that anti-traditional road that they found their voices; so when they shifted course, they had something distinctive to say. They breathed life into the music of old and so, ironically, embodied the creative impulses at the heart of jazz with far greater fidelity than those who solemnly recited the phrasebooks of Pops, Bird, and Miles.
I haven’t watched all seven of Naxos’ Jazz Icons discs—a DVD box-set of televised European concerts by great jazz musicians in the 1960s—but one of them, Charles Mingus: Live in ’64, is a must-have: two hours of music, videotaped in Belgium, Norway, and Sweden in April 1964, featuring one of Mingus’ most electrifying sextets, including Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Coles, Dannie Richmond, and Jaki Byard.
I reviewed Sonny Rollins’ Carnegie Hall concert last Tuesday for the New York Times. Short version: The first half, when Rollins played in trio with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride, was wondrous; the second half, with his usual sextet, had its moments but was comparatively a drag. I only hinted at this in the review, but the concert typified the puzzle that is Rollins’ career: why, in the past 40 of its 50-plus years, has this titan of the tenor saxophone—the most inventive living improviser in jazz—chosen to play so often with musicians so clearly beneath him?