Among the many compelling jazz pianists still around, Ran Blake may be the oddest (and the most unjustly, though understandably, obscure). He can’t swing for more than a few bars; he tends to change keys at random intervals; for this reason, he usually plays solo, figuring that few musicians have the patience for his quirks (though some of his best albums—The Short Life of Barbara Monk, Suffield Gothic, That Certain Feeling, and Masters from Different Worlds—were collaborative efforts, involving such established artists as Steve Lacy, Clifford Jordan, and Houston Person). Yet there’s magic in Blake’s music; his chords, dissonant but heartfelt, seem to waft out of a dream. Now in his 70s, a longtime teacher at the New England Conservatory, Blake has called himself a filmmaker who doesn’t know how to hold a camera, and his albums all have a cinematic flavor. (Many years ago, he recorded the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and told me afterward that he could see scenes of the film in his head while he was playing.) Even when not playing movie themes, his songs possess a narrative impulse; he’s a very instinctive pianist (by his own admission, he’s not a strong sight-reader), and he seems to have some weird synaptic nerve that translates images in his brain to chords and intervals in his fingers.
The “Monk at Town Hall” tribute-concerts on Thursday and Friday night (which I previewed in my last blog) were as riveting as I’d expected—in the case of Charles Tolliver’s re-creation of Monk’s 1959 concert, much more so. Tolliver transcribed the original concert off the Monk LP, assembled a top-notch 10-piece band to play the parts, and conducted the score with precision except to let the hornmen improvise their solos. It’s a risky enterprise to invite comparison to a classic (cf. Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho), but Tolliver roared into the ring and more than held his own. It wasn’t quite the marvel of the original—nobody can do all the things Monk did on the piano, and Tolliver’s drummer held back too much (Monk’s drummer, Art Taylor, splashed around the trap set, heightening the tension and release)—but it came very close. Stanley Cowell shadowed Monk’s piano runs with startling fidelity. Rufus Reid plucked the bassline with authority and soul. Several of the soloists rocked the full house—especially Howard Johnson on bari sax, Aaron Johnson on tuba, and the young Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, who outdid Charlie Rouse for sheer verve. The whole band plowed through these absurdly difficult tunes with crackling aplomb, swinging like crazy, as Monk might have said.
It’s a bad idea to gin up expectations, but two concerts this week at Town Hall in New York City are worth the risk. Each commemorates Thelonious Monk’s big-band concert at the same Town Hall on Feb. 28, 1959—exactly 50 years ago—but in very different ways. This Thursday, Feb. 26, Charles Tolliver leads a 10-piece band on a straightforward (if that word can describe anything related to Monk) re-creation of the concert. The next night, Feb. 27, Jason Moran leads an octet on a bold re-conceptualization of the event, a sort of post-modern audio-video collage that aims to capture the spirit of Monk’s music while also tapping into its hidden roots and their links to Moran himself.
I’ve sometimes wondered how long The Bad Plus can keep up their high-concept mix of pop and punk covers, avant-classical harmonies, jazz cadences, kick-ass polyrhythms, and sly but un-ironic wit. Don’t get me wrong: I like their music a lot; each of the players (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; David King, drums) crackles with brio and virtuosity; their interplay is a delight. Still, in the six years since they improbably crashed onto the scene, there have been times when their conceit has seemed to reach its limit.
Keith Jarrett has also just released a trio CD called Yesterdays (on ECM), featuring Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, with whom he’s been playing for decades. The album might be described as outtakes from the group’s 2001 concert in Tokyo—portions of which were released the following year on a double-disc recording called Always Let Me Go—except that the new album is dramatically different. Always consisted almost entirely of improvisations; but it turns out the trio also played standards that night (the group is known as Jarrett’s “standards trio”), and they’re all assembled on Yesterdays. Often when a musician releases an album of previously unreleased takes, it’s clear why they didn’t make the original cut. But that’s not the case here. In fact, this is one of Jarrett’s loveliest albums, especially the ballads (“You’ve Changed,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “Stella by Starlight,” as well as the title tune). Whatever one might say about the man’s antics and idiosyncrasies, his artistry cannot be disputed. I can’t think of another jazz pianist alive, and only a few from any era, who displays such seamless virtuosity, across so many styles of music, and still conveys the vibrant rhythms and true emotion of a song.
I went to see Keith Jarrett play solo at Carnegie Hall last night. This may puzzle careful readers of this blog, who no doubt recall my boycott of Jarrett in August 2007 after his disgraceful behavior at the Umbria Jazz Festival, on top of a career of disgraceful behavior. Well, I decided to call an end my own pique. First, I’m told that Jarrett apologized to the people of Umbria. Second, now that Barack Obama is president, the tantrums of a piano player are more likely to be seen as a mere random annoyance than “yet another example” of American brutishness. Finally, I figured, it’s a new era, I’ll give the guy another chance. He’s too good an artist—too great, really—to ignore just because he’s a jerk. (Jackson Pollock was much more unpleasant, yet that doesn’t stop me from gazing at Number One (1950) every time I visit the Museum of Modern Art.)
At its best, there’s a quiet majesty to the music of Abdullah Ibrahim, the South African pianist-composer once known as Dollar Brand, and his new solo CD, Senzo (on the German WDR label’s Cologne Broadcasts series), is his most stirring album in years. He was discovered in 1963, at the age of 30, by no less than Duke Ellington, who produced his first recording, then lured him to the States, where he played with Elvin Jones before going on to form his own bands. In the ‘70s, he found his full voice—a swaying pastiche of jazz, spiritual and Capetown rhythms—and, over the course of a few years, recorded a staggering number of great albums: Live at Sweet Basil, Vol. 1 (there was no Vol. 2) and Duke’s Memories with the saxophonist Carlos Ward, Good News from Africa with the bassist Johnny Dyani, Streams of Consciousness with drummer Max Roach, Duet with saxophonist Archie Shepp (the most lyrical album Shepp ever made), and African Marketplace, The Mountain, and Ekaya with his octet known as Ekaya.
Be careful, the old saw has it, what you wish for. For a long time now, many of us boomers have wished that the mainstream record companies would rediscover the glories of the vinyl LP. Now, a few of them are doing just that. Sony has released new 33-1/3 rpm slabs of vinyl from Columbia’s classic jazz catalogue—Charles Mingus’ Ah Um and a bonus LP as part of the deluxe box commemorating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Blue Note has gone further still, reissuing a dozen of its old titles in vinyl, packing both a CD and an LP inside the 12” record jackets, presumably so you can hear a comparison.
Hemispheres, the new two-CD album by guitarists Jim Hall and Bill Frisell, is the year’s first jazz masterpiece, a work of spontaneous lyricism as glittering and joyful as anything either has recorded (and, given their histories, that’s saying a lot). Hall, who’s 78, and Frisell, who’s 57 and something of a protg, both have a tendency toward doodling when they’re not anchored by a rhythm section. But Disc One—10 tracks of barebones duets (including Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Hall’s anthemic “Bimini,” and several pure improvs)—are loose-limbered and air tight, the two trading harmony and melody, then merging the strands to the point where it’s unclear who’s playing what but it meshes and sings all the same. Disc Two—10 more tracks, mainly standards (“I’ll Remember April,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “My Funny Valentine,” “In a Sentimental Mood”), the guitarists joined by Scott Colley on bass and Joey Baron on drums—is no less free-spirited. Colley and Baron, who have played as sideman to both as well as many others, aren’t the sort to lay down rhythmic law; they splash color and weave textures along the leaders’ sinuous lines.
It’s fair to ask how many audiophile pressings of John Coltrane’s Blue Train do we need? Yet Mike Hobson of Classic Records makes a compelling case for this answer: one more. Classic is putting out a whole new type of LP, and though its technical tweak seems preposterous—a parody of vinylphilic obsession—it really does yield a substantial improvement; it makes the head spin.
Here’s my list of the 10 best jazz albums of 2008. An elaboration, with 30-second sound clips illustrating my points, will appear tomorrow in my column in Slate. (Some of you may notice that I’ve mentioned most of these CDs in this blog through this year.)
Wayne Shorter marked his 75th birthday with a concert at Carnegie Hall last night. The show began with the Imani Winds, a spirited quintet of woodwinds and French horn, briskly traversing Villa-Lobos’ “Quintette en Forme de Choros,” followed by the world premiere of Shorter’s own classicial composition, “Terra Incognito.” (Let’s just say Gunther Schuller has nothing to worry about.) Exit Imani Winds, enter the Wayne Shorter Quartet, sparking lusty applause but not much after. Shorter’s band was, as usual, great. Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums—not many rhythm sections can whip up such a turbulent swing. But it’s incomplete by design, it screams out for some saxophone colossus to rise up against the storm with a mind-blowing solo or a lyrical cri de coeur, something that sharpens the tension or takes your breath or simply excites. Shorter was once a master at this art, the designated heir to Coltrane and a more agile composer to boot. Check out his sessions with the early-‘60s Jazz Messengers and mid-‘60s Miles Davis, or his own albums, especially See No Evil and Juju or his 2001 recording with this same quartet, Footprints Live! But in recent years he’s been prone to laziness, and last night fit the bill. Occasionally, he’d lock into a groove and start to slide into a melody, a coherent passage that lasted a few bars, but then he’d back away and retreat to riding scales and wailing random whole notes. For the last few numbers, the Imani Winds returned, and the two ensembles played together. The arrangements, by Shorter, weren’t bad; his playing had its moments, but fell well below his peak potential. Toward the end of the quartet segment, Shorter quoted his old boss Art Blakey as saying, “When you get to a certain age, you don’t got to prove nothin’!” Maybe so, but, as Blakey demonstrated till the very end, when he was only a few years younger than Shorter is now, you’ve still got to come out and play.
Maria Schneider and her 18-piece orchestra play their annual Thanksgiving week gig at the Jazz Standard starting Nov. 25 and continuing till the 30th (except for Thursday, when the club is closed), and if you’re in the tri-State area, you should reserve seats now, as her shows usually sell out. Regular readers of this blog may recall my previous ravings about Schneider. A former student of Gil Evans and Bob Bookmeyer, she is the most sumptuous jazz arranger on the jazz scene today, having absorbed her teachers’ penchant for lush stacked harmonies and added a flair for Latin rhythms, a propulsive sway, and a dry wit. Her pieces are lyrical, even rhapsodic, but also taut, even muscular. Much of the band has been playing with her for over a decade, to the point where they’re nearly Basie-tight. Her most recent CD, Sky Blue, topped my 2007 list of best jazz albums (except for Charles Mingus’ previously unreleased Cornell 1964 concert-recording). I’m told she’ll be playing many songs from it and from her 1996 album, Coming About, which she’s just re-mastered and re-released. All of her albums are on the ArtistShare label, the artist-owned music collective, and are available only through her website, mariaschneider.com.
Last Friday at the Jazz Standard, I saw clarinetist Don Byron play compositions from his 1996 Bug Music, maybe his greatest album, certainly one of the most exciting jazz albums of that decade. It features music from the ‘30s by John Kirby, Raymond Scott, and Duke Ellington—an era largely neglected by jazz musicians and historians.