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?
Pure Pleasure Records is a British audiophile-label that—like the stateside Analogue Productions, Classic Records, and Cisco Recordings—reissues blue-chip jazz albums on pristine virgin vinyl. Pure Pleasure’s focus is the catalogue of Candid Records, an adventurous label that lasted only from 1960-61, with critic Nat Hentoff in charge of A&R. In the past few years, PPR has released such essential works of modern jazz as The Newport Rebels, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, and Max Roach’s We Insist! But its latest reissue, trumpeter Booker Little’s Out Front, is a revelation. Little was 23 when he recorded this, his fourth and final album as a leader; he died of uremia just six months later—a huge loss for the music.
A quick, final word on Fred Hersch’s week of piano duets at the Jazz Standard. His early set last night with Jason Moran was one of the most enthralling concerts I’ve seen in a long time. At its peak moments (and there were several of them), the two settled into such a head-spinning groove, they sounded like one pianist playing magically with four hands. Moran, as I’ve noted in an earlier entry, may be the jazz pianist of our times, the supreme post-modernist who appropriates everything around him—musical traditions from Schumann and Jelly Roll Morton to Afrika Bambaata and Jaki Byard, as well as random sounds from movies, streets, and Chinese stock-market reports. Hersch matched his intervals, leap for leap. It’s been well over a decade since Hersch could be tagged a merely “lyrical” pianist in, say, the vein of Bill Evans, but even so, it was a jolt to see him tackle a frantic tune like Mingus’ “Jump Monk” (a natural Moran pick) with such finely disciplined abandon. It was an equal delight to watch Moran delve into the rhythmic crevices of an old-hat standard like “If I Had You” with such swaying jigsaw strokes.
Fred Hersch is playing six nights of piano duets at the Jazz Standard in New York City this week, pairing off with a different pianist each night, and Tuesday’s opening set was a marvel, further evidence that Hersch, not quite 52, is one of the two or three most harmonically imaginative jazz pianists on the scene and keeps carving new pathways—more intricate and probing, but no less swaying or lyrical.
I’ve listened several times these past few weeks to Erik Friedlander’s new CD, Block Ice & Propane (on the Skipstone Records label), a haunting, sprawling, majestic piece of Americana. The album is subtitled “Taking Trips to America: Compositions and Improvisations for Solo Cello,” and that sums it up. The cellist’s father is the master photographer, Lee Friedlander. When Erik was growing up, Lee would spend summers driving a 1966 Chevy pickup truck around the country, taking pictures, and he’d take the family along: he and his wife in the front, often blasting the radio, Erik and his sister in the thin shelled-box camper up above, watching the clouds and the road markers flash by. Block Ice & Propane—named after the old techniques for keeping food chilled and gas stoves lit—is a remembrance of those summers, an elegy for innocent adventure, a musical road trip in its own right.
I have a Slatecolumn today, an appreciation of Max Roach, who died last week at age 83. (Sometimes my editors let me break away from war and peace, though I have one of those columns today, too.) The headline writer has me calling Roach the “greatest drummer” in jazz. I think Billy Higgins was probably better, but I didn’t make a fuss. In any case, all great jazz drummers who came up after the mid-1940s, Higgins included, leaned or built on Max Roach’s innovations. Listen to the sound-clips that I link to in the column, and be sure to watch the YouTube clip toward the end. If you didn’t know before, you’ll see and hear what we’re all now missing.
Sky Blue, Maria Schneider’s sixth album in 13 years, is at once her most ambitious and most fulfilled, a sweeping, gorgeous work about memory, dreams, love, life, death, the joys of birding…but I’m getting ahead of myself.