Alfred Deller, Carols & Motets for the Nativity of Medieval and Tudor England

Album of the Week, December 3, 2022

We shift gears this week to start a short series on Christmas records. This’ll go some different places, but if you’re just with me for jazz, hang in there—we’ll get to some holiday jazz recordings during the series. Today, though, takes us to a very different place—almost to a beginning.

Living in the Boston area in the early 21st century, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when no one was really performing early music. But that was exactly the situation as recently as 80 years ago. It took the work of today’s featured artist, alongside other like-minded English musicians, to change that. Alfred Deller’s and the Deller Consort not only brought countertenor performance out of the English choral tradition and back onto concert stages, he also brought about a serious revival of early music repertoire and helped launch the careers of other like-minded singers and musicians, including Rogers Covey-Crump and David Elliott of the Hilliard Ensemble, and singers Mark Deller (his son), Robert Tear and Maurice Bevan; the latter three appear on this album.

Deller’s countertenor voice doesn’t sound exceptional today, if you’re familiar with the work of the Hilliard Ensemble or other early music ensembles, but it must have been shocking at the time. I like the anecdote quoted in his Wikipedia article:

Michael Chance tells the story that once, a French woman, upon hearing Deller sing, exclaimed “Monsieur, vous êtes eunuque”—to which Deller replied, “I think you mean ‘unique’, Madam.”

But how is the record? I think it’s fair to say that the performance is an acquired taste. The instrumentation of Musica Antiqua—here under the direction of the great René Clemencic—is heavy on period instruments, with plenty of crumhorn, recorder, positive organ and bells, and maybe even a sackbut or two lurking around the edges. The instrumental numbers are accordingly unusual in timbre to modern ears; both the “Carol with Burden” and the “Angelus ad Virginem” had me checking my watch a few times.

The vocal music is why one listens to this record. And while some of the performance practices are unusual by current “early music” standards—there’s nary a straight tone to be found, and most of the works are sung in modern English rather than the Middle English that would be more authentic—the quality of the singing is still uniformly high. The “Nova, Nova” which can be heard in Middle English on the Boston Camerata’s Sing We Noel is performed in modern English here but with fully appropriate enthusiasm. Fifteenth century composer Richard Pygott’s ten-minute-long “Quid Petis O Fili” engages the listener throughout.

And a number of the songs approach definitive performances. “Hail, Mary, Full of Grace” and the medieval carol “Edi Beo Thu Hevene Quene” (here sung in modern English as “Blessed, Be Thou Heavenly Queen”) are both tenderly and sensitively performed. The “In Die Nativitas” is sung with more vigor, but comes across with a little less balance. Of the more sturdy numbers, “Nowell, Nowell: Out of Your Sleep” is perhaps more successful. But the standout is “There is no Rose of Such Virtue,” sung with a great amount of rubato and delicacy. It single-handedly vaults this record to my annual Christmas list, and I hope you’ll find it on yours as well.

You can listen to the record here:

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, Ella & Duke at the Côte d’Azur

Album of the Week, November 26, 2022

Duke Ellington, in 1967, was in the prime of his post-peak creative years. Having spent some time between labels building his reputation as an elder statesman, as we saw last week with Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, he was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1965 (though ironically no award was given that year; he is said to have joked “Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young”). He was still recording major works, including the Far East Suite in 1966. And he was touring and performing with dozens of other musicians. I’ve reviewed a record from that period, when he performed with the Boston Pops; see my write up of The Duke at Tanglewood, which I found ultimately dissatisfying due to the lack of simpatico between Ellington and his competent, yet square, stage-mates.

No such problem exists between the performers in today’s recording. Ella & Duke at the Côte d’Azur feels as though it ought to have been a bootleg due to the electricity of the crowd energy that’s captured and that clearly infects the performers. It is, in a word, jumpin’.

Ella and Duke had recorded several times together by the time this recording was made in 1966, starting in 1957 when she collaborated with Ellington on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book. Part of her great Song Book series in which she elevated the work of American songwriters from Tin Pan Alley to canon, this was the only record in which she performed with the songwriter himself. She had also recorded Ella at Duke’s Place in the studio in 1965, and The Stockholm Concert, 1966 was cut earlier the same summer that the two met at the International Festival of Jazz for a series of concerts. The double LP here is apparently only a taste of the combined performances; together they recorded some 80-plus tracks, which eventually saw release in an 8 CD Verve set in 1998 as the Côte d’Azur Concerts.

What’s striking is how much fun Ella, in particular, seems to be having. She gets a full two choruses into “Mack the Knife” before she starts scatting and improvising over the band. According to the liner notes, there was no arrangement for the tune—they just started playing, and it’s audible in the music as it goes through multiple key changes. At one point, Ella sings “We’re making a record of the same old song… we swung old Mackie down for you people here at the Jazz Festival! We’re going to sing, we’re going to swing, we’re going to add one more chorus!” And she adds another two choruses, then a third, going up a half step in between each one. You can hear the socks of the crowd being blown off.

While Ella and Duke play together on the first track, many of the remaining numbers are played only by one group or the other, starting with Ellington’s usual group—Paul Gonsalves, Cat Anderson, Harry Carney, Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges, Mercer Ellington, Buster Cooper, Sam Woodyard, etc.— on “The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues.” The liner notes call out the tune’s similarity to “Night Train,” but it’s a fun enough romp nonetheless.

Ella’s group takes the stage next. She’s backed by the Jimmy Jones piano trio featuring Jim Hughart on bass and the mighty Grady Tate on drums. Her “Lullaby of Birdland” is not very lullaby-like, but it’s delightful nonetheless. This is followed by Ellington’s group, with Ellington announcing, “Buster Cooper will be the virtuosoist in ‘Trombonio-Bustiosso-Issimo.’” Cooper is hot indeed in the solo, with the band lighting a fire underneath him.

Ella’s group switches things up a bit with “Goin’ Out of My Head,” the newest composition on the record and a reminder of her late-sixties pop work on albums like her 1969 Ella. But if the tune sounds a little dated to modern ears, she gives it her all here. Ella never really belts on her records, but she certainly comes close on this one. Grady Tate provides a slightly samba-inflected beat behind the tune, swinging back into a rock beat in the chorus and keeping things lively throughout. She continues with “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” singing the Gershwin standard with nuance and subtlety and taking us into a different world for an all too brief moment.

Ellington’s band returns for a medley of “Diminuendo in Blue/Blow by Blow,” with Ellington growling and shouting encouragement to his players above the fray. Paul Gonsalves reprises an abbreviated version of his infinite solo from the famed Newport 1956 concerts. Next the band begins a performance of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing” that has the crowd applauding from the first chords of the tune, and Ella joins them in, breaking up as Ellington shouts inaudible encouragement from the piano. After a few verses and some spectacular scatting from Ella, another from Ellington’s band steps up and trades scat bars with her. But Ella cannot be imitated or brushed off, and she carries the rest of the song, dropping in a reference to “A Hard Day’s Night” before driving the song to closure. The Ellington band concludes this set with “All Too Soon,” providing Ray Nance an opportunity to show off his violin playing together with Ben Webster and Buster Cooper. There’s no showboating here, just solid solos from all three protagonists.

Ella’s band returns with settings of “Misty” and “So Danço Samba,” called “Jazz Samba” on the original label but corrected on my copy. “Misty” is played straight and sensitively, with a closing straight out of the Sarah Vaughan playbook, but “So Danço Samba” is something else again. Combining a sensitive approach to the Brazilian original with interspersed scatting, a touch of “The Girl from Ipanema,” and ending with a whispered beat-box of a vocal solo that has her trading percussive licks with Grady Tate before she takes a resurgent and triumphant sung conclusion, she cracks up the band and takes the crowd by storm.

The Ellington band returns with a request, a “totally unprepared, unrehearsed, no arrangement” version of “Rose of the Rio Grande.” Buster Cooper takes the solo on his trombone, duetting with Sam Woodyard’s bass in a brief interlude and closing the whole work out in a roaring crescendo. Ella’s band then takes over with an achingly tender “The More I See You” before yielding again to Ellington for “The Matador (El Viti).” Ella rejoins Duke for a final performance of “Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me),” where she trades scat syllables and bluesy growls with the great pianist and trades verses with Ben Webster, and finally addresses the audience, “You’ve made us sentimental, the way you received our show/We’d love to squeeze you, really don’t want to tease you.” The audience returns the expressed affection with a roar of applause, bringing the set to an end.

This brings our series on Duke Ellington to a fitting close, as I’ve run out of vinyl with his compositions. We’ve heard many different sides of the man: the innovative composer, the bandleader who played the orchestra like a piano, the sensitive, intuitive collaborator, and finally the master showman. There’s a lot more Ellington to explore, but the calendar is turning. Next week we’ll be exploring something very different.

You can listen to the album here:

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Album of the Week, November 19, 2022

Duke Ellington’s run of albums for Columbia Records in the mid to late 1950s was spectacular. In addition to Masterpieces by EllingtonEllington at NewportBlack, Brown and Beige, and Ellington Indigos, the run also included such classics as Ellington UptownA Drum is a WomanSuch Sweet ThunderJazz Party (featuring the debut of the Billy Strayhorn tune “U.M.M.G.”), and the soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder

However, by 1962 his contract with Columbia had come to an end, and in a way this ushered in an even more significant period in Ellington’s development, as he began to record sessions for other labels with an array of artists. From this period came his great collaboration with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Money Jungle, and two collaboration albums on Impulse! Records, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

It’s worth pausing for a second to acknowledge that we have stepped into the timeline of Impulse! Records. One of the undisputedly great jazz labels alongside Blue Note and Verve (and later, CTI), Impulse! was established in 1960 by producer Creed Taylor, who may be the most significant contribution to jazz music to have come from Pearlsburg, Virginia. At Bethlehem Records, his first recording, a session backing vocalist Chris Connors with Ellis Larkins’ piano trio, earned him the position of head of A&R for the label. He parlayed this brief but successful stint into a role at ABC-Paramount, where he created Impulse! as a subsidiary label with the tagline “The New Wave in Jazz.” Creating immediate success with records by Gil Evans, Kai Winding, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson and others, Taylor’s lasting accomplishment was to sign John Coltrane to the label in 1960. Due to Coltrane’s long association with the label, it became known as “The House That Trane Built.” Taylor left Impulse! for Verve in 1961, leaving the session Coltrane recorded with Ellington to Trane’s long-time producer Bob Thiele and engineer Rudy Van Gelder. (We’ll see Creed Taylor again.)

Ellington did not bring along his orchestra, or even his usual horn players, to the session. Without a regular record contract, he could not keep the band together indefinitely. Instead, bringing drummer Sam Woodyard and bassist Aaron Bell, he met Coltrane on more or less equal footing.

This recording found Coltrane at an interesting point in his development. While still performing with the Miles Davis Sextet, he had recorded music with an increasingly avant-garde flavor, perhaps culminating in the residency at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy, Reggie Workman, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner that saw a release as Impressions. Critics were bitterly divided over the work, misunderstanding Trane’s searching approach, and 1962 apparently brought some retrenchment, with a greater focus on ballads, but no lack of innovation in the playing. Trane had just stabilized the membership in his own Great Quartet, with Jimmy Garrison replacing Workman on bass; Garrison and Jones join Coltrane on this session, and indeed support Ellington on all but two of the numbers.

As with Money Jungle, Ellington paired with the new players brings a sense of fresh spontaneity and depth to the album, many of the selections on which are familiar Ellington standards. The opener, “In a Sentimental Mood,” could not be performed more delicately by the band, with Jones’ muscular but nuanced hand at the drums joining Aaron Bell on bass. Trane’s melodic playing seems to search through the key changes of the tune, but never goes “out” in the way some of his earlier work stretches beyond space and time. Instead, he seems anchored to our world through the combination of Ellington’s gentle arpeggiated introduction and Jones and Bell’s steady, subtle pulse.

Take the Coltrane” is one in a series of Ellington compositions devoted to musicians with whom he collaborated, and it’s a remarkable achievement, highlighting both Trane’s arpeggiated “sheets of sound” and a slyly modal melody. Elvin Jones does unnaturally wonderful things on the hi-hat throughout, and Trane’s solo is of a piece with the work he was recording on his own Impulse! recordings. This recording features both Bell and Garrison on bass, and both plus Jones support Trane under his solo while Ellington steps aside. When Duke returns, he slyly drops in a little “Ooh Pa Pa Da” as though in reference to the bop origins of the tune. It’s genuinely fun.

Big Nick,” the sole Coltrane original on the record, is a fun, loping melody that takes the harmonic ideas of “Giant Steps” and swings them, creating a slow blues that rides on Jimmy Garrison’s loping bass line. Coltrane’s solo takes off for something like the outer stratosphere but never loses the blues progression, so that when he yields the floor to Duke his more straightforward take on the blues feels like a continuation of the conversation, rather than a rebuke. But it really all comes back to the melody, one of the quirkiest and most fun that Coltrane authored.

Stevie” carries on the swing but in a more Ellingtonian harmonic language, swerving from a minor blues into a major key. His introductory choruses veer through at least three different modes before returning to the original minor. Trane mostly stays within the first minor mode for his solo, which carries flavors of “Impressions” in its blistering runs but never goes too far outside. Ellington’s initial take on the melody stays cool in contrast to Coltrane’s heat, finishing with a low tolling note to close out the first side.

My Little Brown Book” is one of the most gorgeous ballads on the record. The Ellington introduction, with Woodyard and Bell backing, revisits the feeling of “In a Sentimental Mood,” but when Coltrane enters on the melody of this Strayhorn composition, we’re suddenly swaying to a half heard melody on an empty dance floor somewhere near midnight. This is Trane at his most romantic, with echoes of his performance of “I’ll Wait and Pray” from Coltrane Jazz, and the rest of the band is there for him, with only small ripples from Ellington disturbing the serenity of the track.

Angelica” is, for me, the standout track here. Just listen to that opening beat from Elvin Jones, and the bounce that carries over to Ellington’s opening choruses, backed up by a jubilant Garrison. Coltrane’s entry keeps the swing going, and he plays it pretty safe for the first few choruses. Then on that fourth, after Ellington drops out and it’s just him and the rhythm, he cuts loose, with sheets of sound swirling around the beat, never losing the swing but somehow taking a step left through a door into, well, a John Coltrane record. After that chorus, he brings it back to the melody, and you can hear Ellington recalibrating his approach before he re-enters. It sums up so much about the connection between Coltrane’s approach and the harmonic and rhythmic innovations that had come before him, and is a complete blast to listen to. And maybe even dance: I want Elvin Jones playing that beat for my entry music as I stroll, sashay and jitterbug into heaven.

The Feeling of Jazz” brings us back to a slow blues to close out the album. True to its title, it bridges both Trane’s searching quality and Ellington’s formalism to give us something that feels like a little of both worlds. Trane’s solo continues throughout most of the song; we are reminded of the time he told Miles, the latter having asked why he played such a long solo, that “it took that long to get it all in.” At the end, Trane finally steps back from the microphone and Ellington and his rhythm section play through the fade-out, the elder titan getting the last word.

In the liner notes to the album, Trane famously remarked, “I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn’t have had the same spontaneity.” The whole session was recorded in a single day on September 26, 1962 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, just eight days after the recording of “Up ’Gainst the Wall” that rounds out Impressions. But the album speaks for itself, the meeting of two giants and of two sympathetic musicians who bring their separate conceptions of the music into a unified whole. It remains as spontaneous and fresh for me today as when I first heard it almost thirty years ago.

You can listen to the album here:

Duke Ellington, Ellington Indigos

Album of the Week, November 12, 2022

I may have given the impression that, following Duke Ellington’s career resuscitation at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, he recorded nothing but works aimed at solidifying his artistic credentials. Certainly Black, Brown and Beige fits that description. But he—and Columbia Records—were not averse to recording more commercial music, either. Today’s record has eight* ballads, only three closely associated with Duke Ellington and his band, played in dance-friendly format. There are no sixteen minute suites here; exotic key changes are held to a minimum. For the most part this is just Ellington’s band playing it straight. And that’s the appeal of the record, because this band could play it straight and still zigzag your socks right off.

The opening is one of the great performances of Ellington’s signature “Solitude,” with the composer himself at the piano. He takes it freely for the first minute or so, until the arrival of Jimmy Woode on bass and Sam Woodyard on drums clicks things into tempo, followed by an entrance by the horns en masse. (It’s hard to resist the idea that they all came in from the subway at the same time, and snuck into the studio where Ellington was already hard at work.) The arrival of the trumpets about three minutes in is appropriately fanfare like, but the whole arrangement is remarkable. I’d really like to hear a version of this that’s just Ellington’s piano; he does some astonishing things behind the band, and brings the tune back into focus in a solo conclusion. It’s a four minute long symphony.

Richard Rodgers’ “Where or When” features a breathy Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, with interjections from the other horns providing punctuation throughout. This tune has always struck me as feeling like a single sentence, and here the sentence builds to a joyous rhapsody for solo saxophone. It’s a quiet showstopper.

Mood Indigo” begins with a statement of purpose from Ellington on the piano, but quickly yields the floor to Shorty Baker’s trumpet. Following his verse, the entire band takes up the chorus, spotlighting the amazing unity and singleness of purpose of this ensemble. Baker’s trumpet returns over the horns, who pause to let him speak before everyone comes back together.

Autumn Leaves” is one of the tunes that is considerably different depending on which version of the record you hear. My CD copy* had a lengthy rendition with verses sung in both French and English by Ozzie Bailey, while the LP omits the French verse entirely. Both versions feature a poignant violin solo by Ray Nance both opening and closing the track. The longest performance on the album, it carries a deep melancholy.

Prelude to a Kiss” has some of the same energy of the A-side’s opening “Solitude,” with the horns hinting at some of the energy of that number, but ultimately proves to be a more intimate number, with Johnny Hodges’ alto romancing the listener all the way through.

The next number on the vinyl release, “Willow Weep for Me,” brings back Shorty Baker on trumpet, but effectively functions as a solo for the entire band, with the saxophones providing an introduction that slides down the scale into the key. The pianist states the theme, followed by Baker’s forthright trumpet response, and they continue to trade bars of the melody throughout, with the rest of the horns serving as a Greek chorus commenting on the solos.

Tenderly” is conceived as a duet for Ellington and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, and the first two chorus is taken out of time. The following calls the dancers to the floor, with Woode and Woodyard underpinning their steps. Finally, when the band comes in, Hamilton takes flight, his obligato entwining the final chorus, which ends on a moment of seeming finality—until Hamilton and Ellington return to tag the final eight bars again in free time, as a sort of final signature.

The last track on the stereo vinyl release, Arthur Schwartz’s “Dancing in the Dark,” is nominally a solo for Harry Carney on baritone saxophone, but also features some fine trumpet playing in the second verse, and closes out the album as a swooning dance number. The album itself repays listening closely to see how Ellington put his orchestra together, as well as how he and Strayhorn got the maximum emotional impact from each tune. Highly recommended for late night listening.

You can listen to the album here:

*I first came across this recording a year or so after graduating from UVA, in the 1987 CD reissue, which has ten tracks and a different running order. And apparently the mono release has different performances than the stereo release. So the point is, if you see a copy in a different format, it’s worth picking it up and listening to see what’s different.

Duke Ellington, Black, Brown and Beige

Black, Brown and Beige (1958) by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra Featuring Mahalia Jackson.

Album of the Week, November 5, 2022

We rejoin Duke Ellington in 1958, and much has changed from the 1951 release of Masterpieces by Ellington. Following the long-form recording breakthroughs of that album, Duke dove into avant garde compositional forms (Uptown), re-recordings of his own music as solo piano arrangements (The Duke Plays Ellington, later reissued as Piano Reflections), and relative obscurity. At this point in his career, his main income was compositional royalties, and he didn’t have a record deal. He is said to have booked his band into ice skating rinks so that he could keep them busy enough to pay them.

Then came the band’s 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, captured in the famous Ellington at Newport recording, and suddenly Ellington was hot again. I won’t be writing about that album at length (at least not right now), as I don’t have a vinyl copy, but it utterly jump-started his career, leading to a recording contract with Columbia Records. Columbia lost no time in capitalizing on his new popularity, and a series of recordings followed that mark some of the high points of the Duke’s output. One of them was Black, Brown and Beige, which revisited a work that Ellington had composed in 1943 for his first-ever appearance at Carnegie Hall.

Leonard Feather’s notes for the original suite describe a hugely ambitious work: “Black, the first movement, is divided into three parts: the Work Song; the spiritual Come Sunday; and LightBrown also has three parts: West Indian Influence (or West Indian Dance); Emancipation Celebration (reworked as Lighter Attitude); and The BluesBeige depicts ‘the Afro-American of the 1920s, 30s and World War II’.” The original performance received a lukewarm reaction, with critics objecting to the attempt to blend jazz and classical music. But when Ellington revised the suite in 1958, these objections were largely by the wayside, as the growing “third stream” movement had opened the door for jazz to cross over into other genres.

Still, Ellington did simplify the concept of the suite even as he expanded it. The 1958 revision essentially stripped the suite back to focus primarily on the themes from Black, “Work Song” and “Come Sunday.” In doing so, the suite becomes a meditation on the contrast of the African-American slave experience and the the Church, a point underscored by the groundbreaking inclusion of Mahalia Jackson as the vocalist.

It’s tempting to skip directly to “Come Sunday” in reviewing the album, but the degree to which “Work Song” shapes the suite and lays out Duke’s narrative intention should not be overlooked. The opening pounding drums of Part I are all that remain of the original narrative opening of the suite, and a peek at the score here is revelatory. The opening notes state:

A message is shot through the jungle by drums.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Like a tom-tom in steady precision.
Like the slapping of bare black feet across the desert wastes.
Like hunger pains.
Like lash after lash as they crash and they curl and they cut. DEEP!

Ellington, opening notes to Black, Brown and Beige

Ellington was firmly grounding “Work Song” in the context of dislocation and enslaved labor, and returns to this theme over and over to emphasize this opening fact of African-American history.

In this context, “Come Sunday” comes as an almost revolutionary statement of hope. In the first statement, in Part II of the suite, the theme is played by the band, with an interpolation of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by the trombones making explicit the connection to African-American spirituals. And it is visited by all the members of the orchestra in turn going into Part III, alternating with “Work Song,” as the first half of the album ends.

Part IV”, opening the second side of the record, begins with just Ellington and Mahalia Jackson. At this point we should acknowledge how groundbreaking this moment was. Gospel singers didn’t cross over to other musical forms, at least not still remaining gospel singers. There were plenty who left the form, Sam Cooke and some of the other early soul singers among them, but for Mahalia Jackson, at this point indisputably the greatest living gospel artist, to collaborate with Ellington on this record was unprecedented. One suspects that producer Irving Townshend, who also had produced Jackson since her Columbia debut in 1955, had something to do with it.

Whatever the origin, this recording, and “Part IV,” mark the debut of Ellington’s lyrics for “Come Sunday.” And some lyrics they are. They are essentially a gospel statement of faith in the face of racial oppression:

Lord, dear Lord I've loved, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

I believe that sun and moon up in the sky
When the day is gray
I know it, clouds passing by

He'll give peace and comfort
To every troubled mind
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday
That's the day

Often we feel weary
But he knows our every care
Go to him in secret
He will hear your every prayer

After a reprise of the “Come Sunday” theme by Ray Nance’s violin (Part V), the suite concludes with Jackson’s improvised rendition of Psalm 23 in Part VI. The liner notes claim “on the last afternoon, Duke asked Mahalia to bring her Bible with her. He opened it to the Twenty-Third Psalm, played a chord, and asked her to sing.” The presence of orchestra accompaniment on this track suggest that the degree of improvisation in the final movement may be overstated here; still it’s a stunning vocal performance.

Ellington recorded the work on four days from February 4 to February 12, 1958. Six months before, the Little Rock Nine had entered Little Rock Central High School for the first time, and five months later, the first sit-ins were held at Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kansas. It’s tempting to just hear this iteration of Black, Brown and Beige as a gospel meets jazz performance, but the full story places it solidly as a statement of solidarity with the Civil Rights movement and an important precursor to more explicit Civil Rights themed jazz suites like Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” (June 1958) and Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now” (1960).

You can listen to the album here:

Duke Ellington, Masterpieces by Ellington

Album of the Week, October 29, 2022

I’ve written a little about Duke Ellington before, but not yet in this series. But he’s been at the back of much of what we’ve listened to, however distantly. When the pianist and composer Marcus Roberts (of whom we’ll hear more later) chose three composers to pay tribute to in his first solo jazz album, he chose Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and Ellington, and it’s that foundational compositional genius that’s on display in this record.

Ellington’s music grew to fit the recording space allotted. Much of the earliest Ellington recordings, on 78 RPM records, were dance songs, constrained by the space available in the technology format but also by the genre. My late father-in-law used to talk about going dancing when Ellington’s band was playing (though he preferred Tommy Dorsey). But as the technology for recorded sound changed, Ellington shifted to longer forms: suites, expanded arrangements, and more orchestral-sounding performances. This record, released in 1951, was one of the first 12” LPs offering an unprecedented twenty-plus minutes per side. Ellington and his longtime arranger Billy Strayhorn, together with his standing band including (among others) Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonzales, Ray Nance, and Mercer Ellington, took full advantage of the space provided. (I’m reviewing a 2017 reissue of the album on 12” 45RPM heavyweight vinyl, released by Analogue Productions. It sounds incredible.)

Mood Indigo” opens the album, and is one of the dance numbers that Ellington is best known for. Here it is revelatory, with the horns introducing the theme and yielding to a lugubrious solo reading of the theme by Harry Carney on the baritone sax, with Ellington’s piano gently accompanying. And then it gets interesting. The next chorus sees the horns return, but in a higher harmonization. Hodges takes the next two choruses, with the second one breaking the general legatissimo as Ellington stabs the chords beneath him. Another horn chorus seems to break free of time and tonality, but stays anchored in B♭. Ellington’s next solo tugs again at the key and finally pivots it upwards to E♭, where it stays as the vocalist Eve Duke (here credited as Yvonne Lanauze) takes a chorus and a verse, the horns underneath helping her shift into E♭minor and then back to the major, and finally back down to B♭. And so the arrangement goes for nearly 16 minutes, with additional surprises ahead including two choruses of growler muted trumpet, another free exploration that seems to break free of key, an excursion into waltz time, a trombone solo, and even more.

Sophisticated Lady” is another Ellington dance number that becomes a suite in this reading. A brisk piano introduction yields to the bass clarinet of Harry Carney and back to Ellington’s phantasmagorical chords. When Ray Nance’s trumpet steps in, it’s a clarion call, like the sun coming through the clouds. Eve Duke’s returning vocals shift the key from A♭up to D♭. Ellington takes a free solo that is capped with the horns entering in a fanfare that becomes a recapitulation, and the band takes it to a climactic resolution.

The Tattooed Bride” is the most recent of Ellington’s compositions on this record. Written in 1948, it becomes a showcase here for Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet, which opens the first statement of the chorus. The band embraces the brisker tempo, with the horns throwing bits of the melody to each other, and then shifting into a minor key as the bride, apparently, begins swing dancing. Hamilton’s clarinet returns in a meditation on the theme that’s punctuated by a blast from the horns, and finishes the tune on a high, sustained F as the horns anchor the tune.

The record closes with “Solitude,” another blue Ellington ballad. Here Ellington introduces the melody almost at a trot, and then the band arrives and settles the tempo down to a more meditative stroll for the first chorus. When they drop out entirely, the piano solo stops time for an eternity before Johnny Hodges returns to take us back into chronology. The trumpet underscores the intensity of the moment before the band shifts once more, this time bringing forward the clarinet and trombone, who picks up the tempo for the final chorus before swooning to the finish.

Listening to this album, it’s easy to hear the truth of the old saying about Ellington: that he played the orchestra like a piano, and played the piano like an orchestra. The album captures Ellington in true high fidelity, as the transition to the LP and to recording on magnetic tape offered himsonic palette of seemingly unlimited color, with which to paint his masterpiece. But this would not be the last time Ellington adjusted his approach to recording. When we hear him next week, he will be in very different surroundings.

You can listen to the album here:

Change

I was at the Virginia Glee Club annual dinner last night, and as always it was the perfect combination of reconnection and reminders of the passing of time. The more often I come to these things, the more the members of the Club and their guests look like my friends, and also like they could be my children. (One young woman at our table, whom I had first met at last year’s dinner, let me know that her mother was UVA class of 1989, or just a few years older than me; then there was the mother of another member who was herself class of 1993.)

The University itself is in constant change; as my cab driver remarked on the way into town from the airport, “It wouldn’t be Charlottesville without something under construction.” This time of course it was Alderman Library, which is famously losing its incredibly dense and labyrinthine stacks and gaining … something. But also it was the building to the right of New Cabell Hall that was under reconstruction, and the myriad of businesses that didn’t survive the pandemic. And even the inn I stayed at, which when I was in school was student apartments; a friend lived there for a few years.

So it was in a pensive mood as I walked back to my hotel from breakfast, and decided to take a different route around Grounds. And found myself walking through Dawson’s Row. I’ve only written a little bit about the Row — all that remains of a set of buildings of varying purposes and origins that originally stretched in an arc from Monroe Hill to where the front steps of New Cabell Hall now stand. Some were originally constructed as dormitories; these were demolished over the years, and no trace of them remains.

One housed Arthur Fickénscher, the first professor of music at the University and conductor of the Virginia Glee Club from 1932 to 1933.

One was built as the parsonage for the University, becoming the first building constructed for religious purposes on Grounds. Built in 1850, it appears to have been expanded in the later 19th century, gaining Italianate porches and roof brackets and possibly losing a rear porch (seen as the black line across the brickwork in the second photo).

And one, inevitably, was slave quarters for James Monroe’s house across the way at Monroe Hill, or so oral tradition says:

The latter buildings, along with a late 19th century cottage, comprise the Office of African American Affairs at the University. I never saw the buildings as an undergraduate; I knew they were there but had no reason to engage with them. It was only recently, as I was writing Ten Thousand Voices and reading works about the University to inform my research, that I thought about why the OAAA was so important. It came as I was reading The Key to the Door, which I highly recommend for those looking to understand how UVA integrated in the 1950s and 1960s—and, to be honest, through the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

And through that research, the way I view the University has changed. I still feel it is my home; in some ways, I belong to it more than ever. But I now can see where the footprints of enslaved laborers were. And yes, some aspects of the University have changed. But that’s not where the most important changes have been. As I learn, as I dig, as I acknowledge that I am old enough to be these young adults’ parents, I feel even more keenly the responsibility of the past, the need to own this story and tell it and compel action from it.

The Best of the Phenomenal Dukes of Dixieland

Album of the Week, October 22, 2022.

The hazard of going alphabetically through a large collection of music is that sometimes you can’t see when you are about to step on a land mine. That’s what Dixieland, and the Dukes of Dixieland, represents in a collection of jazz music: to put your foot down here is to step around three or four land mines all at once, or risk them blowing up on you.

Let’s start with the facts: The Dukes of Dixieland were founded as an old time jazz revival band in 1947 by brothers Frank (trumpet) and Fred (trombone) Assunto with their father Papa Jac on trombone and banjo. Originally called the Basin Street 4, then 5, 6, and so on, they changed their name after going on tour with Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights, a big band radio and vaudeville circuit performer, in tribute to their home city and its tradition of jazz royalty—thus becoming the first Dixieland revival band. They recorded the first ever stereo record, released in 1957 on the Audio Fidelity label. They recorded several albums on which they backed Louis Armstrong. The Assunto brothers died in 1966 (Fred) and 1973 (Frank), and the name (if not the remaining performers) was picked up by producer John Shoup under disputed circumstances, with the new group, called the DUKES of Dixieland, apparently under the belief that the law is case sensitive, continuing to perform to this day.

So, the land mines: old-time jazz revival; Italian immigration in New Orleans; white appropriation of black culture; and of course disputed legacy band history (fair warning: I’m not getting into the arguments about the name). Let’s, for the moment, take those as stepped around (though we may find ourselves treading on one or more of them again soon). The question is: could they play? And the answer is: yes, but with considerably less swing and more self-consciousness than the men whose music they were preserving.

The sound overall of the record is precise, cleanly recorded, and well articulated. It’s all a little too careful, a little too on the nose. But there’s also a pleasure of a particular kind in hearing this music played carefully and well; what it loses in spontaneity and passion it gains in clarity. Tunes like “South” are played competently in their slow tempo, without ever risking taking off.

“Down By the Riverside” fares better, with the clarinetist keeping some heat under the the group as they move briskly through the arrangement. (One challenge with this recording: there isn’t a good sessionography, so I’m forced to guess at the identity of players who weren’t the Assunto family.) Indeed, the rule of thumb for quality on this record seems to be “the faster the tempo, the better the music,” as the opening number, “South Rampart Street Parade,” demonstrates.

So, about that appropriation thing. Generally, I don’t lean too hard against musicians who play in a tradition that isn’t their own, but as a white Protestant who sometimes sings gospel or South African music in church, I’ve learned to be careful about how I perform. There aren’t a lot of rules other than “be sensitive.” I’m therefore forced to look askance at a few numbers on this recording, including the interpolations of 32 bars or more of “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” “There’s a Place in France…” and “Dixie” in “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the presence of the song “Dixie,” at all.

There’s a great story that Nat Hentoff tells about watching the Dukes record one of their sessions with Louis Armstrong:

“Dixie” was proposed as the next tune. Louis began to read the lyrics, but stopped, chuckling. “No, I can’t sing that. The colored cats would put me down.

Nat Hentoff,

Nevertheless, that session did feature an instrumental version of “Dixie,” and Hentoff has written, “Hearing ‘Dixie’ with Louis leading the way, I was reminded of Louis’ uncompromising statement about Little Rock and also of the student sit-in leader I had met a few weeks before this session. I also remembered a white Southern historian who was proud of the sit-ins and said, ‘These students are also Southerners, and they are being true to the best Southern traditions of self-assertion and courage.’ ‘Dixie’ will never be the same again.”

Unfortunately that isn’t the version of “Dixie” on this record, which doesn’t feature any of the collaborations with Louis Armstrong. So we’re left with a group of white Southerners playing the song that begins “Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton…”

Which brings me to the point about appropriation and immigration. What’s really interesting about the music of the Assuntos and the band they assembled is that it recapitulates the journey of Italian Americans to New Orleans. That there were Assuntos in the Big Easy at all was a direct consequence of the American Civil War, and the resulting collapse of the labor “market” in the South — if you’ve been an enslaved laborer all your life, when freedom comes along you’re unlikely to want to work in the places that enslaved you, even for pay — as well as of the Italian Risorgimento and the destabilization of the Southern Italian economy that followed.

While Northern Italy had factories and could offer good paying jobs, southern Italy (including Campania, from which my in-laws immigrated) and Sicily, home to the Assuntos and thousands of others, was left in poverty due to the continuation of the peasant labor system under absentee landlords. So planters in New Orleans ended up advertising in Sicily for workers, and many emigrated, leading to such a concentration of Italian Americans in New Orleans that at the turn of the century the joke went that the French Quarter ought to be renamed. And the immigrants picked up the culture of the place, including its music.

And ironically, the place picked up their music as well. Among the musicians in the Original Dixieland Jass Band, credited with releasing the first commercial jazz record in 1917, was Nick LaRocca, a Sicilian cornetist. So it appears that Dixieland was even more of a New Orleans melting pot than is normally known. But the all-white Dukes were not a good representation of that melting pot, by any stretch. There were other revival groups that managed to achieve a better blending of the streams of immigration and culture in the city, and eventually in this column we will get to one of them.

Where does this leave us? The common thread between LaRocca and the Assuntos lends resonance to the Dukes’ revival of the sound in the 1940s. And there’s no denying the craftsmanship of the bands featured in this best-of. In the back of my mind, though, every time I listen to a Dixieland record is the knowledge that this was throwback music made in deliberate rejection of the bebop jazz emerging from the black jazz musicians of the time, and that is why this admittedly well-made record doesn’t get much play in my house.

You can listen to the record here:

New mix: Exfiltration Radio: cuisine internationale

Image courtesy Rod Waddington, Flickr

Another Hackathon mix! This one is about finding different states of mind in music from around the world. The mix is heavy on African music from different countries, but there’s a healthy dose of other stuff too. Track notes below.

“Ali’s Here,” Ali Farka Toure (Niafunke). I learned about Ali from his collaboration with Ry Cooder in the 1990s, Talking Timbuktu. But this solo album is grittier and deeply, deeply funky.

“Durgen Chugaa,” Shu-De (Voices from the Distant Steppe). This album of Tuvan throat singing is infamous in my family; I was blasting it in my first post-college apartment when a knock came at my door, and the melodious sounds of throat singing were the first things that Lisa heard when she met me for the first time as she and our mutual friend Shel met me at my door. Reader, she married me anyway.

“Shamas-Ud-Doha, Badar-Ud-Doja,” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Shahen-Shah). My favorite of Nusrat’s albums for Real World. I began to learn vocal improvisation technique from listening to him on this track.

Wagane Faye,” Youssou N’Dour (Badou). An early recording of Youssou from the mid-1980s, parts of this song would end up reprised on his Set album from 1990 as “Medina.” This version skips the xylophone-like synths and saxes and just goes full-out as a live band cut, much heavier on the percussion and other dance elements.

“Living Together,” Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila (Mambo). I slept on this early-90s Real World album and am sorry I did. Great Tanzanian funk that fits nicely with the Senegalese sound around it.

“Gainde,” Omar Pene & Super Diamono (Direct from Dakar). Late-1990s Senegalese mbalax from the great rival to Youssou N’Dour.

“Na Teef Know De Road of Teef,” Pax Nicholas (Daptone Records’ Rhythm Showcase). A legendary track. Nicholas was a member of Fela Kuti’s band Africa 70 who recorded this solo album in 1973 in Ginger Baker’s well-equipped Nigerian studio with many of Fela’s musicians. Apparently Fela didn’t like the competition, and told him, “Don’t you ever, EVER play it again!” And thus the recording remained underground for more than 30 years.

“Pop Makossa Invasion,” Dream Stars (Pop Makossa – The Invasive Dance Beat of Cameroon). A great song from a great compilation of highly danceable funk from Cameroon, all following the original release of Manu Dibango’s legendary “Soul Makossa.”

“Lonyaka,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Classic Tracks). I love the mbube style showcased in this track. There’s a reason that so many people fell in love with this band when they heard it on Graceland.

“On the Street,” The Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble (The Wild Field). A completely different singing style from Pokrovsky’s pioneering folk ensemble, this traditional song comes from a region of Russia that adjoins Ukraine, and so has a completely different meaning today than when it was released over 30 years ago.

“San Vicente,” Milton Nascimento (Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical). There was a pretty notorious cartoon that ran in a student magazine when I was an undergrad, picturing Peter Gabriel and David Byrne as carpetbaggers due to their leveraging world music sounds in their pop music. The accusation has a ring of truth to it, but both musicians did their best to provide the musicians with whom they collaborated with a broader platform, Gabriel through his still-vital Real World label, and Byrne through Luaka Bop, a more eclectic group that began with this release. Brazil Classics 1 highlights some of the musicians who worked with Byrne on the Talking Heads release Naked and Byrne’s solo debut Rei Momo, including Nascimento, a dean of Brazilian folk music.

“Voyager,” Kudsi Ergüner & Süleyman Ergüner (Sufi Music of Turkey). A hypnotic album I found in college showcasing the ney flute of Kudsi Ergüner and a very different sound from the Sufi tradition that manifests in the qawwali singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

“T’Amo,” Tenores di Bitti (S’amore ’e mama). Lest we think that remarkable vocal styles are a strictly extra-European phenomenon, give this track a listen. The Sardinian ensemble on display here does things with overtones that you normally have to travel to Tuva to hear.

“Svatba,” Bulgarian State Television Female Choir (Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares). Still hair-raising more than 30 years after these recordings hit the United States.

“En Mana Kuoyo,” Ayub Ogada (En Mana Kuoyo). The liner notes for the album describe this song as a “parable suggesting that the person who hurries eats his sesame seeds with sand.” I feel seen.

“Gut pluriarc with one man’s voice” (Instrumental Music of the Kalahari San). This uncredited performance, just a man and a stringed instrument, reminds us that there is still so much to listen to and learn.

Anyway: Enjoy!

New mix: Exfiltration Radio, Cooking With Fat

It’s a Veracode Hackathon, so it must be time for an Exfiltration Radio playlist! This time, naturally, the musical choices were influenced by all the Miles-related jazz I’ve been writing about over the last few months, as well as an unlikely source: my Apple Music library maintenance.

So, when you source your library from iTunes Store purchases, third-party high-res music providers like HDTracks and Bandcamp, and CD and vinyl rips, you end up with pretty big music files and a lot of music. Too much music to fit on the internal hard drive of most Macs. I’ve been using an external drive for my media for many years now. Mostly it works fine. When it doesn’t, though, it’s disastrous. There is some kind of error condition in Apple Music that causes it to freak out when the external drive is temporarily unavailable and re-download all the music in the iCloud library. Which is OK, I guess, except when the external drive comes back online, you now have two copies of all the music in your library. Or, if it happens again, three.

I’ve figured out a rubric for cleaning this up, which will be the subject of another post. But I’ve been going through all the music in my library album by album, and in the process creating new genres to make it easier to find some types of music. In particular, the genres that inspired this mix were Jazz Funk and Fusion. The latter needs no explanation due to our journey with Miles; jazz funk is just the hybrid of a bunch of different strains of African American music with a heavy focus on improvisation over a funky beat. The end mix combines some tracks I’ve already written about with some more modern jazz from my collection; I’ll provide notes for each track below.

“Wiggle-Waggle,” from Fat Albert Rotunda: the track that got the most comments from my write-up of Herbie Hancock’s TV show soundtrack, with friends noting how it sounds like this track dropped in from another dimension.

“Chunky,” from Live: Cookin’ with Blue Note at the Montreux Jazz Festival, by Ronnie Foster. I’ve programmed Foster’s great “Mystic Brew” in past Exfiltration Radio segments, including the Hammond special. This is a live version of the opening track from the same album, Foster’s great Blue Note debut Two Headed Freap. There’s a lot that’s different about his approach to the Hammond organ compared to earlier artists, but all I can say is: he funky.

“Flat Backin’,” from Moon Rappin’ by Brother Jack McDuff. Speaking of earlier artists, a lot of McDuff’s early work was squarely in the “soul jazz” category (like his great Hot Barbecue), but by the time of this 1969 album McDuff was on another planet, and the electric guitar and bass land the music in Funklandia.

“Funky Finger,” from The Essence of Mystery by Alphonse Mouzon. We have seen Mouzon on the first Weather Report album, but his solo debut for Blue Note is another thing entirely. Despite the name, it’s got less of the mystery of Weather Report and more of the funk, and this track is a great example.

“Sugar Ray,” from Champions by Miles Davis. “That’s some raunchy sh*t, y’all.” Listen to how the chord changes are so wrong, the way they just walk over to an adjacent major key and then settle back into the original as though nothing happened. Also note the remarkable Wayne Shorter solo.

“Superfluous,” from Instant Death by Eddie Harris. Sampled on “What Cool Breezes Do” from Digable Planets’ Reachin’, this is an instant classic.

“The Griot,” from Henry Franklin: JID014 by Henry Franklin, Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Composer Younge and former Tribe Called Quest member Shaheed Muhammad have been having a blast recording albums with their jazz idols in the Jazz is Dead series, and this newer release with bassist Franklin, who played with Freddie Hubbard, Bobbi Humphrey, Archie Shepp, Willie Bobo, Stevie Wonder and others, is a tasty slice of funk anchored by his acoustic double bass.

“Tell Me a Bedtime Story,” from Fly Moon Die Soon by Takuya Kuroda. This funky cover of Herbie Hancock’s original from Fat Albert Rotunda is a great example of latter-day jazz-funk, with the arrangement draped (or smothered, depending on your taste) in layers of Fender Rhodes, synths, and electric bass. Kuroda’s incisive trumpet anchors the arrangement and lifts the funk to another level.

“Timelord,” from Inflection in the Sentence by Sarah Tandy. A great 21st century London jazz album, featuring Tandy on both acoustic piano and electric keys, the latter notably apparent in this moody track.

“Where to Find It,” from SuperBlue by Kurt Elling. I’ll write more about this track another time, but it’s worth noting that Elling is one of the few vocalists to brave the task of putting lyrics to modern jazz tracks like this one, Wayne Shorter’s Grammy award winning “Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Enough words. “We have taken control as to bring you this special show, and we will return it to you as soon as you are exfiltrated.”

Kenny Dorham, Afro-Cuban

Album of the Week, October 15, 2022

We’ve seen a lot of different influences in jazz: classical music, blues, rock. But one big strain that didn’t really touch Miles, but influenced a lot of other jazz musicians, is Cuban music. Arriving in the US in the 1940s, by the mid-1950s it was a well established strain of jazz music, championed by Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, among others. And trumpeter and composer Kenny Durham dove into the music for this, his second album as a leader and first for Blue Note Records.

As we’ve seen with Herbie Hancock’s early Blue Note recordings, dates for the label often drew on different groups of players who were also recording for the roster, meaning that when you pick up a Blue Note recording made in 1955, you stand a very good chance of seeing familiar names in the line-up. Afro-Cuban is no exception, with a group boasting J. J. Johnson on trombone, the great Horace Silver on piano, Hank Mobley on tenor sax, Cecil Payne on baritone, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. To this assemblage were added Carlos “Patato” Valdes on conga and Richie Goldberg on cowbell. The album was actually recorded in two sessions, with the musicians above appearing in session on March 29, 1955, and the first four tracks on the album were originally released on a 10” LP. Blue Note decided to reissue the record in 1957, adding three tracks from an earlier session recorded January 30, 1955 without Valdes and Goldberg, and substituting Percy Heath for Pettiford on bass.

The album opens with strong Afro-Cuban flavor with “Afrodisia,” the congas telegraphing the artistic direction of the album at once. After the brass line states the opening theme, Dorham’s trumpet provides a solo that combines the Cuban flavor with his own hard bop approach to the music, with hard bop changes alternating with the melodic licks across several choruses. Mobley’s refined sax follows, kicking the group briefly into a different unsyncopated pattern before he settles back into the swing of things and passes it to J.J. Johnson, who takes two choruses before letting Blakey and Valdes trade eights with the entire horn line.

Lotus Flower” is a slower ballad, with the horns introducing the melody over a gently loping bass and conga pattern. Dorham provides a good opportunity to hear the differences in his approach to the horn from other players like Miles. There’s no mute here, and a good deal more motion in the line; Miles would likely have played half as many notes, but Dorham’s approach is equally lovely. The interlude is brief; “Minor’s Holiday” returns to the Cuban dance rhythms of the opening, with Dorham briskly soloing over Valdes’ Cuban rhythms and Blakey’s customarily volcanic drumming. Indeed, while Blakey is normally no slouch in bringing energy to the recording session, here he sounds positively charged by Valdes.

The only composition not by Dorham on the record, “Basheer’s Dream” (written by the redoubtable Gigi Gryce, some seven years before he adopted the Islamic name Basheer Qusim) is here steeped both in the Cuban rhythms of the opening and the post-bop approach that Gryce introduced in his work with Miles on Birth of the Cool. Johnson’s trombone solo is especially tasty here, as he pulls a minor countermelody out of the chord progressions of the song, contrasting with the high solo lines of both Dorham and Mobley.

The second side of the album reads as more straight-ahead hard bop, but it’s no less delightful, thanks to the continued excellent work of the front line. “K.D.’s Motion,” true to its name, roams all over the chords in the opening chorus and in Dorham’s solo before he passes to Cecil Payne for a rare baritone solo. The transition between Payne and Mobley is almost telepathic, with the latter picking up Payne’s swing for a brief turn before passing it to Silver who gets a relatively rare moment atop the rhythm section before the chorus returns.

Dorham’s “La Villa” begins where “K.D.’s Motion” ended, with a propulsive statement on the drums from Blakey. The tune, which can also be found under Sonny Rollins’ name in several compilations thanks to his presence on a later Dorham session, is blistering throughout as the band navigates through the changes. Solos from Dorham, Mobley and Payne are followed by a spate of trading fours with Blakey and a final statement of the theme. “Venita’s Dance” closes the second side in a mid-tempo statement that’s kept lively by Blakey and Silver’s insistent underpinnings; indeed, it’s eye-widening to listen to Silver’s melodic approach to the chords underneath each of the soloists and to reflect on the two completely different melodies at work each time.

Dorham was perpetually underrated, a situation not helped by his movement across several labels during his career in the 1950s and 1960s; he recorded four more sessions for Blue Note in between records for Riverside, Time, Prestige/New Jazz, and (after he moved to Europe) SteepleChase. He ultimately died young of kidney disease in 1972. But sessions like Afro Cuban offer tantalizing glimpses of what might have been, and are a good reminder of the pleasures to be found in what might otherwise seem to be just another Blue Note session.

You can listen to the album here:

Vince Guaraldi, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Original Soundtrack Recording

Album of the Week, October 8, 2022

I suspect most of my readers of the Generation X or late Boomer variety have a common introduction to jazz. A jaunty melody made out of rising fifths and fourths, a syncopated dance in the right hand, an excited shout to a sibling to come downstairs to watch the latest Charlie Brown television special. Vince Guaraldi made music that was synonymous with those characters. So much so, perhaps, that it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t only music for television. But over the years most of the recordings of the soundtracks for the Charlie Brown specials were only available as the full soundtrack minus the dialog, meaning that if you wanted to listen to the music, you had to tolerate the intrusion of sound effects.

That changed for me a few weeks ago, when a record I had pre-ordered showed up, containing the original recordings, alternate takes, and even some session chatter from the recording sessions for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Producer Lee Mendelson’s children went through his effects over the pandemic lockdown and unearthed a box of tapes labeled “Big Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” The record itself is impeccable: a 12” 45RPM record on heavyweight vinyl. The recordings sound alive, and because they aren’t truncated or faded out, you can hear more of the original music. I sat up straighter in my chair on the first play of the “Great Pumpkin Waltz” as it passed the point in the record where I’ve always heard it begin to fade … and kept going.

(Side note: Heavyweight vinyl, usually 180 or 200 grams, means that the record is less likely to warp or transmit vibration during playback. And 45RPM records, due to the physics of their rotation, can play back a higher range of frequencies all the way to the innermost groove of the disk, meaning you get better sounding music.)

The compositions, by both Guaraldi and arranger and composer John Scott Trotter, are evocative as well. “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” manages to simultaneously capture the anticipation of Halloween day, the delicious feeling of a shiver looking out the window at frosted grass and brightly colored foliage from a warm house, and a certain wistfulness that seems to appear without cause. The “Graveyard Theme,” co-composed by Mendelson, is jaunty and also eerie, and sounds much better without the cackling ghouls from the soundtrack. And “Breathless,” a Trotter composition that soundtracks Snoopy’s imaginary journey as the World War One Flying Ace, is downright harrowing, with Ronald Lang’s flute accompanied only by the rapid light footsteps of Colin Bailey’s drums.

The performances overall, in fact, are remarkable. The added range provided by the supplemental instruments, both Lang’s flute and Emmanuel Klein’s guitar, casts familiar numbers like “Linus and Lucy” in Technicolor. There are other touches throughout: the timpani underneath Snoopy’s adventures, the trumpet fanfare. But the most delightful bits are in Guaraldi’s trio with Bailey and Monty Budwig on bass, supplemented by flute lines that sound as though Woodstock was flying overhead, supervising the action. (Ironic that Woodstock wouldn’t appear until several years after these sessions were recorded, on October 4, 1966—a few weeks before Miles pulled his band back together for a residency at the Plugged Nickel.)

I probably could leave this record on the turntable for all of October. The performances sparkle, the mood is precisely autumnal, and it makes me feel like I’m about nine years old again. Not bad for music recorded more than half a century ago.

You can listen to the album here:

Mystery traces

UVA Today (um, four years ago): What We Found in Alderman Library. This tab has been sitting open in my iPad since the week it was published, and I haven’t been quite sure why. But there’s something about a University library for the sheer heart-clutching density of human knowledge. And mystery.

This was maybe the thing about Alderman Library. More than the merciful solitude it offered to stop, think, right, read, study. (I translated more than a few works from Old English there because the deafening quiet allowed me finally to speak the words to myself in my head.) More than the memories of happy discoveries — like digging out the Alderman bound copy of the 1870-1871 archive of the Virginia University Magazine, opening it to the January issue, and reading “Music: There is one point on which we are deficient, and that is college musical clubs… We know of but one exception to this rule. Those gentlemen rooming at the Cabell House, and in that neighborhood, have made great efforts, and we understand tolerably successful ones, to form a Glee Club.

But even more there was the sense that in any room, you could climb a narrow set of stairs (oh, those submarine-scale stairs between the half floors in the Stacks!), sidle down a row of shelves, pick up a book, and find something miraculous.

I get a little thrill when I turn up new Glee Club material via Google, but it doesn’t compare to perusing the library stacks. It’ll be interesting to check out the new experience when it reopens.

Miles Davis, Champions

Album of the Week, October 1, 2022

As a jazz fan, for years I largely wrote off Miles after Bitches Brew. Everything before was transcendent; what came after was … well, something else. Granted, there were moments that captured my curiosity, like the incredible “Sivad” from Live Evil, but I couldn’t make myself dig into them. I almost ended my series on Miles and his sidemen with Weather Report.

But there was a part of me that said, go on. That reminded me how blown away I was by “He Loved Him Madly” and by Big Fun. That said, we shouldn’t deny the funk. So today we’re going to listen to a recent record that illuminates some of what Miles got up to in the early 1970s.

Champions is an archival release, of course, like every other “new” Miles record, but it comes from sessions that produced an album, Jack Johnson, that famed critic Robert Christgau called his favorite recording from Miles since Kind of Blue and Milestones. Miles assembled many of his best players in the studio, many of whom are familiar names to us—Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Airto—but also new names, including reed players Bennie Maupin (here on bass clarinet) and Steve Grossman (soprano sax), drummers Billy Cobham and Lenny White, bassists Gene Perla and Mike Henderson, the latter fresh off a stint with Stevie Wonder, and Keith Jarrett, here on the electric piano. But though many of the players overlapped with In a Silent Way (among other records), the style was much more straight-ahead funk than the mysterious jazz of that album.

The shift was deliberate. In 1969 Miles told a Rolling Stone reviewer, “I could put together the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band you ever heard,” and if you listen through that lens the affinity of this record for the chugging sound of early Funkadelic and late 1960s counterculture becomes apparent. The connection to rhythm was also deliberate, making a political point. Miles was uninterested in making art music; he wanted to make Black music for Black people. And he wanted to play loud. Chick Corea has said that during this period Miles was in the greatest shape of his life: clean, sober, exercising — in fact, he was working out in the gym with a boxing trainer every day, as he worked on music for this documentary on the great African American boxer Jack Johnson.

All of this comes together in the music on Champions, which is taken from the sessions that led up to the released Jack Johnson album (and which also appears on Columbia’s massive The Complete Jack Johnson box set). “Duran (Take 4)” is an extended groove over a monster rhythm section, with Miles’ trumpet wailing over a rubbery descending bass line and John McLaughlin’s guitar filling in the blank spaces. The overall rhythm is pretty foursquare, but where Miles and company go around it is where the magic is.

“That’s some raunchy sh*t, y’all,” Miles says as the band transitions into “Sugar Ray.” Here the rhythm is bent, and the harmonic progressions bend to match, as Miles’ trumpet bends into the adjacent major keys for a patch of the chorus. The effect is simultaneously disorienting and intoxicating, the latter especially when Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax arrives to soar over the groove.

Johnny Bratton (Take 4)” is the hardest rocking of the tunes on the album, and possibly the most egalitarian in terms of group improvisation; both are largely due to Jack DeJohnette’s monster drumming and Steve Grossman’s extended soprano sax solo, which steps a little to the side of Shorter’s mysticism and into something closer to a blend of Pharoah Sanders and Raphael Ravenscroft (of “Baker Street” fame). Miles’ solo sketches a sizzling ascendant line above the group, contributing a bluer note above the 1-5-4-diminished 3rd chords that form the main progression of the song. John McLaughlin’s guitar solo actually switches into a different key entirely for the first part of his solo, dislocating the harmony in unexpected ways. It’s a workout. Miles returns, bringing the temperature down to a simmer punctuated by more unexpected guitar chords from McLaughlin and a fade-out.

Ali (Take 3)” and “Ali (Take 4)” are two different takes on the same song, with the melody stated in the bass by Gene Perla; this was Perla’s only appearance with Miles, though he would go on to a long association with Elvin Jones and would later form a group with Don Alias and Steve Grossman. Take 3 opens up like a gutbucket funk tune that wouldn’t be out of place on Free Your Mind…, with mind-blowing distortion in the organ courtesy of Herbie Hancock, playing alongside Keith Jarrett’s relatively more conventional electric piano line. The solitary solo comes from the trumpet, with a tight doubling in the organ. “Take 4” is an entirely different thing, and is almost like a dub reggae version of the same tune. Opening with only the bass line, and interjections from John McLaughlin with barely audible sounds on the pickups of his guitar and Airto on the berimbau, the band improvises bits of the opening with barely audible coaching from Miles in the background (“Why you play that there?” “Now play it loud!”). When the band comes in, it’s with a nasty organ line over a restrained funk drum courtesy of Steve Grossman. The band was edging closer to the mindbending sounds that would elsewhere appear on tunes like “Honky Tonk.”

The compilation closes out with “Right Off (Take 11),” with a smaller, tighter group playing through a scorching funk instrumental, anchored by Hancock on organ, Henderson on bass, and Cobham on drums. Sounding a bit like a set-closing outro, the tune notably does not feature Miles, with the lead horn part instead going to Grossman. It’s probably the least essential of the tunes collected here, but is still a seriously groovy work, and a good way to close out the set.

Miles had come a long way from the days of Dig, and we leave him here, primarily because my record collection doesn’t have any of his later work. But I hope that as we’ve undertaken this survey of records from Miles and his sidemen throughout the past 33 weeks that you’ve found something new to dig into. I’ll continue to write this weekly review—I’m having way too much fun to give up now!—but we’ll be digging into some entirely different vinyl next week.

You can listen to the album here:

Weather Report, Weather Report

Album of the Week, September 24, 2022.

It’s not clear how it was that Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, and Miroslav Vitouš got together to form the jazz-fusion supergroup Weather Report. One story has it that Shorter and Zawinul, who we last saw together recording on Miles’ In a Silent Way, started working together and then recruited Vitouš. Another story has it that it was Shorter and Vitouš, fresh off their collaboration on Super Nova, recruited Zawinul (who had collaborated with the Czech bassist on his eponymous album Zawinul). Regardless of who recruited whom, the three together then were joined by drummer Alphonse Mouzon, who had been working with pianist and Coltrane collaborator McCoy Tyner, and the percussionists Don Alias and Barbara Burton. As the recording progressed, Alias found Zawinul’s directive tendencies constraining and left, to be replaced by Davis collaborator Airto Moreira, otherwise mononymically known as Airto. So it goes.

But what was the music like?

I will be honest: growing up, I thought I knew what the music was like, and I avoided it for as long as possible. My earliest exposure to live jazz came from the inclusion of a jazz-fusion band, which if memory serves was called TRADOC Rock, at the US Army Fourth of July concerts at historic Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, where my family would inevitably go to celebrate the holiday. I remember as a kid liking the rhythmic, guitar-heavy music, but as I grew older I found it increasingly cheesy. I thought that was what fusion was. And I knew that Omar Hakim, from Sting’s first band, had played in Weather Report, so I assumed that the band had that same kind of rock inflected jazz through

Then of course I heard Miles. First In a Silent Way, which I loved, and then Bitches Brew, which I was more ambivalent about; then tracks from Live-Evil on the Columbia compilation that covered Miles’s whole career with that label (highly recommended, if you can get your hands on it), which I found utterly fascinating for its combination of rock, funk, and electronic augmentation. When I reflected that Weather Report contained the mastermind behind In a Silent Way and the equally mesmerizing Wayne Shorter, I decided to check out their first album. It was completely different from my expectations in every way.

The first track, “Milky Way,” sounds like a transmission from Voyager. The sound is otherworldly, with distant echoes of harp and wind; I’ve read that they made the sound by closely miking piano strings, then having Zawinul hold down chords while Shorter blew his soprano sax directly at the soundboard, invoking sympathetic resonance. Whatever they did, it’s an utterly unique sound and completely hypnotic. In another world, they would have recorded whole albums with this technique; here, after just over two and a half minutes of transmissions from the Solar System, they’re on to…

Umbrellas,” which more nearly fits the fusion stereotype, and features a severely fuzzed out electric bass, which (it’s hard to tell) may or may not be doubled by distorted synth lines from Zawinul, over a driving rock backbeat from Mouton and Airto. Shorter’s soprano sax plays the melody over a series of chords from Zawinul, then the beat abruptly shifts into a slightly faster, fatter funk groove, with Shorter and Vitouš trading phrases over Zawinul’s chords. Shorter’s solo comes in as if transmitting from another world, the soprano sax descending in a different mode, and passes into silence before the group drops back into the opening beat and theme. The sound world passes quickly, in only three minutes—a theme on the album, which seems determined to fit in as much experimentation as possible.

Seventh Arrow” opens with a brisk burst of sound led by Shorter over a Zawinul electric piano line that you’d be forgiven for mistaking for Herbie Hancock. It’s the tune most like Miles’ work on the album, sounding a little like a group improvisation from the Bitches Brew sessions; that it was composed by Vitouš, who never collaborated with Miles, seems beside the point. Unlike the first two tracks this is a group workout, with each of the three lead players throwing licks back and forth over a ferocious bed of percussion.

The shift into the reverie of “Orange Lady” is a complete contrast. Zawinul’s echoing Fender Rhodes line, possibly supplemented with additional effects, leads into a plaintive solo line played on unison soprano sax and Rhodes. This might be the track closest in its genetic makeup both to In a Silent Way and the experiments on Zawinul’s self-titled album; unsurprisingly it is the first track on the album solely credited to him. After the contemplative opening, the gears shift and Vitouš lays down a bass line that climbs in open fifths back and forth, while Shorter plays a modal line that descends from the fifth of the scale down to the second and back, before the group comes back together to the opening reverie. It’s a stunning work closing out side 1.

Morning Lake”, the second of the two Vitouš compositions on the album, sounds a lot like Zawinul with a funk twist and is a spiritual cousin to the more contemplative numbers on Infinite Search. With Airto (and possibly Alias and Burton) conjuring bird sounds and the bass line rippling out like circles in the water, the effect is a tone poem that sounds like a continuation of “Orange Lady.” Indeed, if there’s a criticism to be levied at the album, it’s the similarity of the tunes at its center, but the trance they induce is rewarding in its own way.

Waterfall,” Zawinul’s turn at evoking this evolving musical concept, centers on a rhythmic repetition of the third of the scale in the piano while the other players explore around it. In some ways the composition anticipates minimalism and the works of John Adams, or even some of the later, more lyrical works of Philip Glass, as the bass and soprano sax alternate in an octaves-apart duet. It’s a more delicate and in some ways optimistic exploration, with Zawinul’s keyboard line evoking, in turns, a stream, an oboe, and a music box.

Tears,” the first of two Wayne Shorter compositions on the album, eschews some of the avant-garde explorations from Super Nova in favor of pure melody — first lyrical in the saxophone, then a swerve into funk, then wordless song, courtesy of Alphonse Mouton. The overall effect is stunning and anticipates Shorter’s later 1970s work with Milton Nascimento. The track transitions seamlessly into “Eurydice,” which dives into the world of Super Nova with a group improvisation on a chromatic theme. The album ends with the group still searching.

With Weather Report, Zawinul, Shorter and Vitouš invented a new tonal language and created a new jazz brand. The original band would not stay together—Vitouš left during the recording of the third album and a rotating cast of percussionists played with the band during this career. But the group would stay together for nearly 15 years, promoting a brand of jazz fusion that was heavily influenced by R&B and world music. The tonal language that they invented—synths and keyboards, innovative percussion, serene soprano sax—stood well apart from many of the other practitioners of jazz fusion, not coincidentally including Miles Davis, who continued to explore his own fierce brand of musical innovation. We’ll hear from him next time as we close out this long series on Miles and his legacy.

You can listen to the album here: