Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window

Album of the Week, July 13, 2024

Cécile McLorin Salvant was on a roll. She had just picked up her second Grammy award for best jazz vocal album for Dreams and Daggers. No less a luminary than Wynton Marsalis had tapped her to tour with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, saying, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” You’d be forgiven for thinking that she would rest on her laurels, or at least continue in the same path that had brought her to this point of success.

But being Cécile McLorin Salvant, this must have looked like a good time to start to make some changes. She began booking and playing dates without her longtime trio (Aaron Diehl on piano, Lawrence Leathers on drums, Paul Sikivie on bass)—instead, she and Sullivan Fortner appeared as a duo.

Fortner’s arrangements, orchestral in imagination and execution, meant that her musical horizons were not constrained; on the contrary, her new sound was freer and more wide ranging, borrowing from cabaret and stage even as she reached beyond the Great American Songbook for material. So Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” becomes something like lieder, her vocals alternately fierce and tender as Fortner’s piano sounds echoes of Brahms and Schubert, while “One Step Ahead” resonates with the sound of the R&B club with Fortner’s Hammond B3 organ, swinging against the merry waltz of the piano. We get a scampering, ominous undercurrent in Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s “By Myself” that turns into a solo that sounds like both parts of Bill Evans improvising in overdubs on Conversations With Myself. And Richard Rodgers’ 1962 song “The Sweetest Sounds” (from No Strings) has healthy dollops of boogie-woogie and Brahms forming a substantial solo number, introduced by Salvant’s wistful introductory reading of the tune.

This isn’t to say that the album is all Fortner, all the time. Indeed, Buddy Johnson’s “Ever Since the One I Love’s Been Gone” provides a vehicle for Cécile’s voice to spin a dark tale of sorrow and regret with subdued accompaniment in a live performance from the Village Vanguard, while the original “À Clef” hypnotizes with Salvant’s chanson performance, balanced with a touch of Nadia Boulanger in the accompaniment. Dori Caymmi’s “Obsession” is a breathtaking miniature of desire. And Dorothy Wayne and Ray Rusch’s “Wild Is Love” balances a nonchalant vocal delivery against the sound of an accompaniment that seems at imminent risk of tumbling down the stairs.

The jaunty organ of “J’Ai L’Cafard,” a 1930 French song by Louis Daspax and Jean Eugene Charles Eblinger, belies the darkness in Salvant’s performance of the desperate tale of a drug addict, a darkness that appears only in the final snarl of the chorus. For my ear, Salvant’s live reading of “Somewhere” could use a little of that snarl; for my taste, there’s a little too much portamento and rubato in her reading. But there are pleasures aplenty in Sullivan’s accompaniment, which finds an Ornette Coleman-like intensity in the long solo, and in Salvant’s hushed, unaccompanied final verse.

The Gentleman is a Dope” finds Cécile back in delightfully familiar territory, with a swinging accompaniment underscoring a scornfully joyous narration over the Rodgers and Hammerstein original; the tune could easily have fit on any of her earlier albums, save for the thunderously cockeyed sonata of a solo between the first verse and the reprise. Alec Wilder’s “Trouble is a Man” is in more mature territory, a straight-up ballad sung with defiance and heartbreak in approximately equal measures. Cole Porter’s “Were Thine That Special Face” falls somewhere in between, as Salvant’s Petruchio attempts but fails to woo his Kate. “I’ve Got Your Number” starts as a cool rebuff that breaks down Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s cocky narrator before proposing that the two join forces; it’s enhanced by Fortner’s solo, which sounds a bit like Thelonious Monk sideswiping Bill Evans on a bicycle before riding off into the wobbling night.

Tell Me Why,” the old Four Aces song, is given a tender balladic performance here, with Salvant’s reading of the line “Suddenly I’m feeling happy, so happy I want to cry, oh tell me why” shifting from joy to lump in the throat within the same phrase. Salvant returns to Rodgers and Hart for “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You,” digging into lines like “I’ve got a powerful anesthesia in my fist/and the perfect wrist to give your neck a twist” with relish.

The album finishes with an ambitious live reading of “The Peacocks” that is both helped and hurt by Melissa Andana’s presence on saxophone; both she and Cécile want to take a fair amount of portamento on the chorus and they aren’t quite in sync, resulting in some clashes. But Andana’s saxophone solo is simpatico and gorgeous, and thematically the song, presenting the clash between the beautiful surface and the unknowable inner life of the loved one, is a good summation of the album. With it Salvant rounds out her survey of different modes of failure and joy from romantic love, presenting a more cohesive and wilder artistic statement than on her previous outings.

This was Cécile McLorin Salvant’s last album for Mack Avenue. As she won a Grammy for each of her preceding albums as well as this one, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world was running out of superlatives to give her. And you’d be wrong, but she shifted to a new label before we would learn about it. We’ll hear about that journey soon. Next time, we’ll talk a bit about another jazz vocalist who was shaking up his career, and his band.

You can buy or stream this week’s album on Bandcamp or listen to it on YouTube:

Cécile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers

Album of the Week, July 6, 2024

A lot of vocal talents took the stage from the 1980s, when we checked in on the end of Johnny Hartman’s career, to the 2010s when we continue our story. Zion this series I’m skipping over a bunch of talented performers, including Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, and others, but an awful lot of those intervening vocalists were relegated to the easy-listening side of the charts. Cécile McLorin-Salvant is not easy-listening. Brilliant, yes, with a gorgeous voice, but not easy.

Salvant grew up in Miami to Haitian and French parents, and was bilingual from a young age. Studying law and voice in Aix-en-Provence, she quickly built a career as an innovative singer, winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. She made a series of albums that won critical acclaim; by the time this album was released in 2018 she had a Grammy nomination and an award for Best Vocal Jazz Album, for her 2016 For One to Love, under her belt. She was by this time steadily working with a piano trio featuring Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums, and led by Aaron Diehl.

Dreams and Daggers serves as a live document of Salvant’s evolution with this working band… with some tantalizing hints of bigger things to come. Not all of the 23 tracks on this triple album are live, and the studio recordings, like “And Yet” which opens the album, often feature a string quartet instead of the trio. But the bulk of the album is devoted to the interplay of the trio with Salvant’s voice, and it’s glorious.

I’m not going track by track through this album, but there are a few numbers that merit special mention. Bob Dorough’s “Devil May Care,” one of two Dorough numbers on the album, is given an off-kilter propulsive energy thanks to Salvant’s delivery, which tumbles headlong past bar lines and stretches out the chorus until it lands at Diehl’s feet. He plays with tempo but also with quotations, dropping a little Ferde Grofé (which to be fair is more than implied by Dorough’s melody) before proceeding into a sonata-like improvisation that concludes with a quotation from Beethoven’s Fifth (not the most famous motif, but part of the development). Bassist Sikivie plays with meter, going from common time to a version of Salvant’s skewed bars, before handing to Lawrence Leathers for a solo that calls up hints of New Orleans amid the general bombast. The group comes back, finishing in a different key, to general applause.

One of the numbers with strings alongside the trio, “You’re My Thrill” takes the Sidney Clare/Jay Gorney standard from a pretty but restrained opening to an increasingly naked expression of desire and longing, all on the strength of Salvant’s emotional range and the the spiraling tonality of the string arrangement, which seems to shift from one key to another with each bar. As does Salvant; one moment she’s Sarah Vaughan, the next she’s Marlene Dietrich. It’s gorgeous and over too soon.

And then there’s “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” a bald faced reading of the bawdy Spencer Williams blues standard that was originally recorded by the great Bessie Smith. A big part of Salvant’s book to this point has been taking standards and reading them deeply through a woman’s perspective, and this fits that formula, and then some. This is the only number in which the piano is played by Sullivan Fortner instead of Aaron Diehl; he would go on to be her principal collaborator following this album, and he follows her closely throughout the verses and then turns into a complete beast on his solo. Of course, that’s not the reason to listen to this rendition; it’s her knowingly (and winkingly) horny delivery of every double entendre in the books, and then some. (Actually, the very best part might be her thanking her mother at the end for supporting her through eight shows, and then saying, “and I’m sorry, Mom, I’m sorry, Mom! Sorry.”)

Dreams and Daggers is a great summation of the first part of Salvant’s career, a sprawling survey that captured her unique voice, idiosyncratic taste, and ability to see deeply into the Great American Songbook. She was to dial all of those strengths up in her next album for Mack Avenue, which we’ll listen to next time.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

* PS – I try to keep to a regular schedule with these, but a one-two punch of vacation travel following business travel, plus a strained right elbow, made me decide that I would ultimately take a mulligan for last week. But I’ll see you in a week with the next album.

New Glee Club live recording: 53rd Annual Christmas Concert

When I was at my reunion earlier this month at the University of Virginia, we hosted a Virginia Glee Club and Virginia Women’s Chorus reception at 3 and 5 West Lawn. The Club’s manager Travis brought some refreshments (we had an abundance of charcuterie for some strange reason) and some Club swag – stuffed Wafnas (Wafnæ?), branded stress balls, etc. He also had a tattered cardboard box that had been in the Club’s storage unit for years.

He said, “I think you might be able to make use of this.”

Inside? Cassettes, CDs, two VHS tapes (!) and a handful of DATs. Including this one—the recording of the second night of the Glee Club’s Christmas concerts from my fourth and final year in the group, recorded December 11, 1993 at University Baptist Church in Charlottesville.

As Stefon would say, this one has it all: many settings of the Ave Maria including a world premiere of a setting by Alice Parker; almost the entire Missa Ave Maria by Cristóbal de Morales (the group hadn’t learned the “Credo” yet at this point in the season); and an incandescent version of “Betelehemu” by Babatunde Olatunji with William Whalen that included polyrhythmic drumming, forthright vocal performances and some … eccentric solos.

Aside: I previously wrote about how listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan informed my solo strategy for this work. The other part of my strategy consisted of picking a couple of words in Yoruba that looked like they belonged together and improvising vocally on those. It must have worked since a young woman from Nigeria came up to me after the show and thanked me for singing in her language.

The other soloists on “Betelehemu” were Tyler Magill, who memorably flubbed part of his solo and shouted “Whoopee!” before recovering and doing an extended improvised trio with me and the third soloist (uncredited, but we think it was probably Tom Nassif).

There were no recordings released from my fourth year. Club director John Liepold intended to produce a CD (which would have been our first) of music commissioned by the Glee Club around the Ave Maria theme, but the project never came to fruition. Releasing this live recording from that Christmas concert feels a little like correcting a long-overdue imbalance, as well as revisiting voices I haven’t heard in many years.

You can stream the album below or purchase it on Bandcamp.

Johnny Hartman, This One’s for Tedi

Album of the Week, June 12, 2024

Singers are unique in that their instrument ages with them. For instance, Ron Carter’s bass has no less range than it did when he was a twenty-something playing with Miles. (A flawed comparison, I suppose, since you can hear the effects of age on brass and wind players as their lung capacity and embouchure age.) But with singers you can hear every effect of age on the instrument—even if the singer is as careful a performer as Johnny Hartman.

In 1980, fifteen hears after we last heard him, Hartman was 57 years old—not what you might consider “old” today, but you could definitely hear the almost 20 years of additional age in his voice. The phrases are less carefree, less burnished. And they’re shorter; one of the biggest impacts of his life on his instrument was the emphysema from years of smoking that would claim his life three years later, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. But they’re still recognizably Hartman, and the way he uses the low range of his voice for emphasis and turns a phrase into gold with dynamics and rubato is still as magical here—even if he leaves you anxious to hear how he’ll get some of the longer phrases across the finish line. The accompaniment is simple, with Lorne Lofsky (who would spend much of the subsequent decade performing with Oscar Peterson) on guitar, Chris Conner on bass, Craig “Buff” Allen on drums, and Tony Monte on piano and arranging. The recording was apparently the first all-digital recording (which was then a desirable thing!) to be made in Canada.

Hartman’s performance of the Alan Brandt/Bob Haymes standard “That’s All” displays some of the weaknesses of his voice as well as the remaining strengths. Hartman’s voice is less present the higher it climbs above the staff, and there is some minor inaccuracy in pitch in a few places. But his lower register is still rich and resonant, and the ensemble provides sympathetic backing that supports rather than overwhelms his voice, particularly from Lofsky’s guitar.

By contrast, his performance of the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is surer, and rendered infinitely cooler by Chris Conner’s walking bass line, which is his only accompaniment for the first verse. Monte gets in a solid verse of a piano solo, cuing up Hartman’s re-entry on the bridge. His swing at “we may never, never meet again” is loose and fluid, and his final “they can’t take that away from me,” which unexpectedly lands on the leading tone, leaving the question, and the chord, teasingly unresolved.

More I Cannot Wish You” (by Frank Loesser, from Guys and Dolls) has one of the most subtle and affecting performances on the album. With just Monte’s piano behind him, Hartman tells the story of an aging man wistfully wishing that his young beloved will find her own love and “strong arms to carry you away.” Paul McCartney, on his standards album (hilariously entitled Kisses on the Bottom), talked about this song as though it were sung by a father to his daughter. Perhaps; there’s an awful lot of regret in Hartman’s reading that suggests a different relationship.

Rodgers and Hart’s supple “Wait Til You See Her” might be the most accomplished of all the performances on the album. Monte’s piano keeps things moving through in a brisk 6/8, which Hartman’s voice nimbly dances through on the first verse. Lofsky’s solo sneaks in a deft quotation from Sonny Rollins’ “Valse Hot,” moving the arrangement quickly into Hartman’s reprise. It’s a delightful reading and shows that Hartman still had some fire in him.

Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” has been covered many different ways, including Kirsty MacColl’s cockeyed waltz (leading into the brilliant headlong swirl of the Pogues’ “Just One of Those Things”) on the Red Hot and Blue compilation. Hartman starts it as a tender ballad, then transitions it into a swinging waltz worthy of Sinatra.

Then I’ll Be Tired of You,” by Arthur Schwartz and “Yip” Harburg, gives away the central theme of the album as it starts side two: “If my throbbing heart/Should ever start repeating/That it is tired, tired of beating/Then I’ll be tired… then I’ll be tired of you.” It helps to know that Tedi was Hartman’s wife of many years. This is a deeply tender performance by the whole band. The performance seems tenderer in contrast to the more uptempo “It Could Happen to You” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke).

A contemporary review of the album in Fanfare noted that it featured a “haunting fresh rendition of ‘Send in the Clowns’ with a truly singular piano accompaniment by Monte,” and it’s hard to argue. This is one of the standards that I’ve always struggled with, having heard many hackneyed versions thanks to easy listening radio in the early 1980s, but here it’s truly affecting thanks to the depths of Hartman’s voice, his powerful rubato, and the accents from Monte’s piano.

You Stepped Out of a Dream,” by Nacio Herb Brown and Gus Kahn, brings the tempo back up, featuring a briskly brilliant guitar solo from Lofsky. Here Hartman seems weightless, especially on the line “Have you all to myself, alone and apart/Out of a dream, safe in my heart.” Only the slightly abrupt end of his final sustained note gives away the great singer’s vocal challenges.

The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is the most challenging song, lyrically, on the album. Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s ballad could be read of a piece with the great Sinatra dark ballads on In the Wee Small Hours or No One Cares. But Hartman’s voice imbues not only pathos into the song (“Sad young men are growing old/That’s the saddest part”) but also benediction (“Misbegotten moon shine for sad young men/Let your gentle light guide them home again”), before the final “All the sad young men” betrays a slight smile in Hartman’s voice as he looks back at the inevitable dramas of youth from the perspective of age.

Hartman’s passing came at something of an inflection point in jazz song, as the old guard of singers were retiring, passing the torch, and passing on. My highly selective survey jumps forward next time to some folks who are carrying the art along in some very distinctive ways.

You can hear this week’s album here:

Johnny Hartman, The Voice That Is!

Album of the Week, June 15, 2024

Johnny Hartman, as we’ve discussed before, was essentially plucked from obscurity by John Coltrane in March of 1963 and catapulted to the next tier of jazz prominence—not exactly to stardom but at least much closer to being a household name. Among other effects on his life, the success of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman got him a brief recording contract on Impulse! Records, this week’s album is the final entry in that series. Recorded in two separate sessions on September 22 and 24, 1964 at Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, the sessions were backed by the Hank Jones quartet and by an octet arranged by Bob Hammer.

The More I See You,” a Mack Gordon/Harry Warren song from the film Diamond Horseshoe and subsequently a jazz standard. is one of the quartet sessions. Hartman’s cheery, easy delivery is underscored by Hank Jones’ piano and the breezy guitar of Barry Galbraith. The performance stays mostly in Hartman’s mid-range, only occasionally dipping into the velvet end of the baritone that made his performances with Coltrane so memorable. But there’s still some signs of the distinctive performance style, especially his tendency to dip down into the low end of his range (rather than the high) to emphasize a musical idea on the last chorus.

The jacket calls the next track, an octet performance, “the first vocal interpretation” of “A Slow Hot Wind,” a Henry Mancini track with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. The track features a percussive idiophone part, originally performed on the lujon and here played on the marimba by Phil Kraus, and a vocal line anchored in that deep end where Hartman’s voice is so effective. The second chorus after the sax solo is brilliantly phrased: “There in the shade with a cool drink … waiting…”

Bart Howard, who authored the next track “Let Me Love You,” also wrote “Fly Me to the Moon,” and the walking bass intro shows it. This is Hartman in upbeat swinging mode, and it’s pleasant enough, but doesn’t show off his strengths nearly as well as the next track. “Funny World (the theme from Malamondo)” is an Ennio Morricone composition given a gentle exotic tinge by the octet, especially the maracas and other “Latin percussion” by Willie Rodriguez and by Howard Collins’ guitar. Hartman’s entrance reveals that the tune is actually in 6/8, and more surprises lie ahead, including a brilliant flute line from Dick Hafer and the brilliant dip down to the tonic in Hartman’s bridge as he sings “Funny thing, I should choose you.” This song was later performed by Astrud Gilberto, and it sounds at once idiomatically Brazilian and naturally Hartman in this performance.

I can’t listen to “These Foolish Things,” by Jack Strachey and Holt Marvell with Harry Link, without thinking of the perfume ad for “Nostalgia” in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ The Watchmen, thanks to the lyric “Silk stockings thrown aside/Dance invitations/Oh how the ghost of you clings.” But that’s not the most jaw-dropping lyrical moment in the song; that would have to be: “You came/You saw/You conquered me… When you did that to me/I knew somehow this had to be/The winds of march that made my heart a dancer/A telephone that rings but who’s to answer…” It’s a brilliant ballad performance by Hartman throughout, with sensitive timing and that brilliant voice.

My Ship,” by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Ira Gershwin from the musical Lady in the Dark, is another great ballad given greater scope by Hartman’s lyric timing. When he sings “the sun sits high/in a sapphire sky,” it’s a perfect word painting. He starts “the sun” a fourth below the tonic, comes up a whole step, and then jumps an octave on “sits high” but is still in his upper middle range thanks to that low start. He never uncorks his high range until the end: “If the ship I sing/Doesn’t also bring/My own true love to me.”

The Day The World Stopped Turning,” by Buddy Kaye and Phillip Springer, is more richly orchestrated, with a flute part that seems to flutter out of tune for a half a measure until the rest of the arrangement shows that the whole band is shifting through key changes with every measure. The gentle Latin flavor is here in spades, but the song comes and goes quickly. The Frank Loesser standard “Joey, Joey, Joey,” by contrast, is given a one minute intro by just Hartman and Rodriguez, the former singing through the verse phrase by phrase and receiving answers from Rodriguez’s percussion. When the chorus comes, Hartman shifts into a slow samba, then back into the free unaccompanied rhythm of the second verse.

Sunrise, Sunset” is surely one of the better-known (and newest) standards in this collection. Written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock for Fiddler on the Roof, the song here opens with guitar alone accompanying Hartman on the verse. Hartman unsurprisingly finds new depths of pathos even in this saddest of the songs from the musical; his reading of “When did he grow to be … so tall” wrecks me. On the verse the rest of the band is subtle, with careful addition of marimba and bass to the guitar so as to not crowd the great voice. It’s a devastating performance.

Waltz for Debby,” the Bill Evans classic here given lyrics by Evans’ friend Gene Lees, continues the theme of childhood in a somewhat happier though still nostalgic vein. His line “they will miss her I know/but then so will I” is given more bounce and less poignancy by the drums of Osie Johnson, who seems to skitter and bounce along the outlines of the great tune.

Hartman closes the album with “It Never Entered My Mind,” the Rodgers and Hart classic from Higher and Higher. It’s a bluesy ballad written for Hartman’s strengths with the dip down below the tonic on “If you scorn me/I’ll sing a loser’s prayer again.” His time-stopping cadenza on the closing “It never entered my mind” is breathtaking. I find myself flipping the record (or, honestly, just replaying the album on Apple Music) to hear it all again.

After this album, the singer moved to Impulse’s parent label, ABC-Paramount, to try to reach a wider audience. He was dropped after his second album for ABC in 1967 flopped, and recorded albums for several smaller labels in the following decade-plus. Next week we’ll listen to a studio recording from the end of his career.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

P.D.Q. Bach, A Little Nightmare Music

Album of the Week, June 8, 2024

No one can execute perfectly, every time, along the arc of a career. Shostakovich had Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which got him exiled. Mariah Carey had Glitter and Charmbracelet. And Peter Schickele had A Little Nightmare Music. It’s not that this, his last album for Vanguard Records, was bad, exactly; it’s just that the jokes don’t land.

Schickele was in a different place by 1983 when this album was released. The music was recorded in the studio, so didn’t have any “punch” from the audience laughing. Also, longtime collaborator and “bargain counter tenor” John Ferrante is not to be found on the recording. I used to wonder \ if he had died, but he was still performing later in 1983; a falling out? At any rate, his absence is felt.

(Ferrante would, in fact, pass away four years later, on May 28, 1987, so perhaps he was simply not well enough to record. I always find it sad that I have to search for that newspaper article; if any countertenor deserves a Wikipedia page, it’s him. Hmm…)

At any rate, hot on the heels of the 1979 Broadway production of Amadeus (and actually anticipating the theatrical release of the movie adaptation by a few months), which clearly inspired the cover art, we have “A Little Nightmare Music” (S.35), representing a purported actual nightmare of P.D.Q. Bach. In the dream, he was a servant at a meeting between Mozart, Salieri, and the mysterious writer Peter Schlafer, who appears by his dress to have come from another century, “perhaps the twentieth.” Schlafer irritates Salieri by casting aspersions on his compositional career and unfavorably comparing him to Mozart, and Salieri is finally enraged enough to pour poison into Schlafer’s wine—only to watch horrified as the buffoonish P.D.Q. trips and accidentally gives the poisoned wine to Mozart instead. There are recriminations and violence all around.

The actual work is composed almost entirely of the actual “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” with vocal lines for Salieri (James Billings, baritone) and Schlafer (Bruce Ford, tenor) above. The lines are occasionally funny, but the burden of the plot and the lack of swerves into the rich nonsense that characterized some of the earlier P.D.Q. outings make it one of the lesser numbers in the Schickele catalog.

Which is a shame, because “Octoot” (S. 8) is a genuine riot. Written for a woodwind octet, the writing is sharp and funny, and Schickele brings back some of the brilliant instrumentation for which his best P.D.Q. numbers were famous. The writing for double reeds without the use of the oboes in the fourth movement “Chanson: ‘Tout l’année, hey, hey, hey” brings back a favorite P.D.Q. weird timbre, as does the requirement for the first bassoonist to play her reed and bocal alone and the second bassoonist to play the last two joints of the instrument by itself. And if you can get through the final movement, “Tout à coup le bout,” without reciting “Shave and a haircut” alongside the instrumentalists, you’re a better man than I am (Gunga Din).

The final composition, “Royal Firewater Musick” (S. 1/5), is five movements of more ambitious writing and orchestration. The first, “Long, neat, long,” seems as though it’s destined to play on indefinitely into the sunset, as what starts out as a nifty bit of imitative writing for the winds goes off the rails in its reprise, finally requiring a conductorial intervention to land. The “March on the rocks” is a more straightforward number, as is the “Minuet with a twist” (the twist is a massive blow on the gran cassa). The “Sarabande straight up” is an unexpectedly sweet melancholic bit of writing, or at least it would be without the solo parts for double reeds without the encumbrance of oboes or bassoons. In “One for the road” we find a rare bit of orchestral writing for ten wine bottlists, playing an assortment of sizes of wine bottles (and occasionally de-tuning the instruments). There is some virtuoso writing for the bottlists between all the other bits, including quotations from “Aloha ‘Oe” and additional solo parts for duck call. It’s a good choice to close the record, and the Vanguard chapter of P.D.Q. Bach.

Schickele would continue to record P.D.Q. Bach records after a six year hiatus, signing with the Telarc label and releasing six more studio albums, two compilations, and a live recording of newly discovered P.D.Q. music in the years between 1989 and 2007. Some of the individual works along the way were absolutely brilliant (“Einstein on the Fritz,” “Four Folk Song Upsettings,” “Lip My Reeds,” and Schickele’s own “Last Tango in Bayreuth,” which I think highly enough of to have put it on a mix years ago,) but some of the albums were unlistenable due to the run-amuck sketches that fight for time with the compositions (I’m lookin’ at you, WTWP: Classical Talkety-Talk Radio, though I have to admit that the central conceit, a relentlessly upbeat classical music station whose programming is literally WTWP, “wall to wall Pachelbel,” is kind of brilliant).

I remain disappointed that I never got to perform in one of Schickele’s performances; I would have given anything to get a group together to work on the “Missa Hilarious” or “Consort of Choral Christmas Carols,” or “The Art of the Ground Round.” It’s too late to collaborate with the man himself, who passed away on January 16, 2024, but I have the sheet music for some of his works somewhere in my basement. Hmmm…

You can listen to this week’s album here:

P.D.Q. Bach, Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach

Album of the Week, June 1, 2024

I meant for there to be a trilogy of P.D.Q. Bach reviews and knew that I would come back to the last record in my collection when the time was right. Now, five months later, having finished the Coltrane series, I return to my P.D.Q. Bach records only to find that they’ve multiplied in the interim. So the series becomes a quartet. I’m not sad about it, though, because Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach was the first of the great(?) composer’s albums I ever heard, at the tender age of about six or seven.

Our family affinity for this particular album was almost certainly due to the musical contents: a full album of choral music. My background in choral music was seemingly predestined, since my parents were both directing church choirs when they met at a music and worship conference at Montreat, and I ended up singing in the church choir alongside them by the time I was in high school. So we were primed for the utter silliness of the P.D.Q. musical lens applied to the latent silliness that lurked beneath the seriousness of sacred choral music.

We were also primed for the visual humor on the jacket. The “portrait,” shown in the garbage outside a New York City restaurant from which it was “rescued,” is of course the same image used on The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach, published the year before. And the back jacket photo, showing Schickele demonstrating how to play organ music on the piano, with his bare toes performing the pedal notes on the keyboard, is unforgettable. I should know; I’ve been trying to forget it for over 40 years.

As he did for many of the 1970s P.D.Q. albums, discoverer and impresario Peter Schickele introduces each of the works in turn, beginning with the Missa Hilarious (S. N2O). The mass begins, as is traditional, with a Kyrie, though here sung in Pig Latin as “Yriekay.” The music begins as a parody of baroque mass settings, but following the Christe, the reprise of the Kyrie is sung as a parody of “K-k-k-Katy.”

The “Gloria,” sung as a duet—or maybe more accurately, a hand-off—between basso blotto Harris Poor and bargain counter-tenor John Ferrante incorporates bits of West Side Story and “Laugh-In” in one neat little bundle. It leads into the “Credo,” which begins as a fugue that progresses from Credo to Cre-so to Cre-le to Cre-fa as the fugue subject progresses around the scale. There follows a very funny, very weird solo by Ferrante, accompanied by the “corrugahorn,” a piece of corrugated tubing that serves as an odd wind instrument. As this is the only substantial text in the piece, I reproduce it here: “Et in spirito inner sanctum, et in spirit gum inner sanc-Tums, et in Spiro Agnew.”

The “Sanctus” features an extended introduction on odd reeds and a parody of the “Hare Krishna” from Hair, with a little “ho-jo-to-yo” thrown in. To say there is something for everyone in this movement is an understatement. Maybe it’s more accurate to say there’s at least one thing in this movement for everyone to grimace at. It’s also the only movement that has no significant part for the chorus.

I blame the final movement of the Missa, “Angus Dei,” for my tendency even still to misspell the Agnus Dei in normal masses. But the work’s cockeyed take on the text, sung to a variation of the “Hallelujah Chorus”—“Angus Dei! Angus Dei! She looks so nice just standing there/All covered with the dew! Angus Dei! Angus Dei! She’s the prettiest cow I’ve ever seen and I have seen a few!”—redefines “commitment to the bit.” Add in interpolations of the Batman theme and you have something that still brings me almost to tears laughing. Ultimately it’s no wonder that, as Schickele claims during the introduction, that not only was the Missa Hilarious the reason for P.D.Q.’s excommunication, but that he became the only composer to have all his works placed on the Index by the Vatican.

Eine Kleine Nichtmusik” is the one work on the album for which Schickele claims compositional credit. A purely orchestral pastiche, it incorporates so many different classical works over top (literally—look at the score in the linked video above) Mozart’s classic work that it can become a party game of “Name That Sample.”

The “Echo Sonata for Two Unfriendly Groups of Instruments” (S. 99999999) is something of a retread from an earlier P.D.Q. recording, Report from Hoople: P.D.Q. Bach on the Air. However, where the earlier recording leaned heavily on tape manipulation and sound effects to achieve the humor, here Schickele wisely lets the woodwinds and brass fight it out among themselves.

The record closes with something of a family favorite, “A Consort of Choral Christmas Carols” (S. 359). The unaccompanied performance by Duh Brooklyn Boys Chorus of “Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John,” “O Little Town of Hackensack,” and “Good King Kong Looked Out” was among the first choral works I could sing with from beginning to end from memory, much to my parents’ chagrin. (It helped that I really did have an Uncle John.)

For a choral singer, Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach gives the listener something to aspire to, if only that something is making it stop. But in all seriousness, I think I could still sing most of the parts of the album by heart, and to my ear it’s one of the most consistently funny recordings in his oeuvre. Next week we’ll get a listen to the end of Schickele’s (and P.D.Q.’s) run on Vanguard Records, with another work of great plagiarism composition from the last and oddest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty-odd children.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, Interstellar Space

Album of the Week, May 25, 2024

When I think about the final years of John Coltrane’s life, of the flurry of recording sessions from the end of 1965 to his death in 1967, many of which would not see the light of day until years afterward, I am reminded of Anne Sexton’s poem: “The story ends with me still rowing.”

In February 1967, a week after he played on the recordings that resulted in the posthumous albums Expression and Stellar Regions, Trane’s new regular drummer Rashied Ali drove with his friend Jimmy Vass to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, expecting to record a session with the band. (Ali, another Philadelphia player, had joined Trane on Meditations, after studying with Philly Joe Jones and playing with Sonny Rollins, Bill Dixon and Paul Bley). But when they arrived at the studio, no one was there. Biographer Ben Ratliff relates:

“Ain’t nobody coming?” [Ali] said to Coltrane.

“No, it’s just you and me.”

“What are we playing? Is it fast? Is it slow?”

“Whatever you want it to be. Come on. I’m going to ring some bells. You can do an 8-bar intro.”

Though everything was recorded with no rehearsal and in only a single take, the opening track, “Mars,” sounds as though it burst fully formed from Ali and Trane. With an opening invocation on shaken sleigh bells, Trane seems to be summoning all the gods at once. Ali answers with a mighty crash of drums, and then Trane enters with a four note theme (I – IV – IIIm – I) that he immediately begins improvising on. Ali does not stick to a single rhythm, offering Trane the flexibility to sing (and scream, and chant) through his saxophone in whatever rhythm he wants. Which is not to say that Trane performs in an unstructured way. Free from conventional meter, he responds by constructing his own patterns from the basic repeated rhythmic motif, which, as in the beginning of A Love Supreme, he explores in multiple different tonalities, seeming to circle the harmonic wheel until he exhausts it, then taking a break and turning once more to the bells. Ali burns out his drums with relentless polyrhythms, accompanied by Trane on bells, to the end of the track.

The opening of “Venus” picks up where “Mars” left off, only instead of burning out on the drums, Ali seems to speak to the bells with cymbals and short bursts of the snare, as Trane plays… a melody? Here we get Trane the inspired balladeer, only instead of a standard or even the tender originals on Crescent, here he seems to be playing a hymn of love and praise. This isn’t a soppy love ballad; indeed, after the initial statement it seems to rise in ecstatic chanting, slowly escalating through different keys until it reaches a fever pitch. But Trane somehow lands the plane, bringing it back down from that plane of intensity into a finish that would have been at home on Lush Life.

Another invocation of the deity opens “Jupiter,” and this time Ali seems to call for the skies to open with crackling snare work. Trane’s melody here sounds a bit like something from Sun Ship, and as before, he creates a structure around him, this time with descending sheets of sound and a riff around a descending minor second. Following this he seems to take off, ascending into the highest reaches of his horn, then creating new noises as he pushes beyond. As if pulled down by Jupiter’s massive gravity, he descends again, then slingshots backup to the opening orbit and beyond in a soft chorus of bells.

Ali’s drums seem to search across the emptiness of space at the opening of “Saturn,” bursting with small pockets of life separated by irregular stretches of silence. He settles into a loping beat in which Trane’s saxophone finds, improbably, a bluesy waltz. The tune serves as a jumping off point for Trane to circle the center of chaos once more, alternating between flights of tonality and bursts of ecstatic wailing. At one point, his searing bursts of notes seemingly leaving vapor trails, he wanders away from the microphone for just a minute, as though his relentless searching is finally causing him to pull away from this plane of existence. But he circles back, snaps into the tune once more, and seemingly reveals the boundless exploration to have been bounded within this earth after all.

And so, with the utmost regret, we come to the end of our exploration of the music and influence of John Coltrane. And as we have heard today, no matter how far out his disciples got, Trane had already gone there, and farther. Were it not for the liver cancer that claimed his life at the age of 40 just five months after this recording was made, one wonder just how far out he would have gone. But in recordings like Interstellar Space, we get to hear how he brought together all the strands of his musical curiosity, from sheets of sound to intense lyricism to improvisation without a net to, above all, the endless search, and practiced them up until the very end.

We can continue the journey no further, so next week we’ll move onto something completely different. In the meantime, you can listen to this week’s album here:

Note: CD versions of Interstellar Space contain two additional tracks: a rendition of “Leo,” which would feature in many live recordings in the last 18 months of his life, and a longer version of “Jupiter,” called “Jupiter Variations.” The original release, constrained to the duration of an LP, contained only the tracks we’ve reviewed today.

McCoy Tyner, Sahara

Album of the Week, May 18, 2024

In the early 1970s, several of the stalwart jazz labels we’ve followed for a while, including Impulse! and Blue Note, were in trouble. Jazz records were no longer selling the way they did previously, and the jazz audience was splintering, leaning away from the acoustic jazz we’ve been writing about so far and into various forms of fusion, thanks in no small part to Miles’ In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. But the artists we’ve followed were still around, and they found their way to smaller, scrappier labels. One of those was Milestone.

Producer Orrin Keepnews, who we met thanks to the great Bill Evans sessions he recorded (including Moon Beams, which featured the anagrammatic dedication “Re: Person I Knew”) started Milestone in 1966, and it was bought by Fantasy Records in 1972, the year it released McCoy Tyner’s first record for the label, Sahara. The label would prove to be fertile ground for Tyner and for other musicians in the early 1970s, including Joe Henderson. Keepnews recorded Tyner and his band, including saxophonist and flautist Sonny Fortune, bassist Calvin Hill, and drummer Alphonse Mouton, in January 1972 in New York City, where they laid down the five tracks on the album in a single session.

(Fortune was at the early stages of his career in January 1972, having first appeared on the jazz scene in New York in 1967 with Elvin Jones’ group, and playing with Mongo Santamaria and Pharoah Sanders collaborator Leon Thomas in the interim. Alphonse Mouton we’ve previously met, on the 1971 debut of Weather Report. And Calvin Hill, who has played with just about everyone, is the sole living member of the quartet.)

Ebony Queen” starts off where Extensions left off, a strongly rhythmic modal romp that is led off by Tyner. As on so many of the Extensions cuts, the horn plays the opening melody next. Sonny Fortune’s tone is easily distinguished from Wayne Shorter or Joe Henderson on the prior album, particularly when he transitions from the melody into a high wail on his soprano sax following the first chorus. Also notable is the impact that Alphonse Mouton’s drumming makes. While sympathetic with the overall performance, he brings a lot of cymbal splashes and snare rolls that hint at some of his fusion performances. Here it makes for an almost overwhelmingly intense presence in the rhythm section beneath Tyner’s continual melodic improvisation. Unusually for Tyner, the track fades out as the song reaches its end.

A Prayer for My Family” provides a strong contrast. A solo performance by Tyner, it’s played freely, out of time, and seems to be a meditation. Tyner picks up the pulse of the track at about the two minute mark with a set of strong chords, but this is alternated with chime-like runs which morph into a quiet conclusion. It’s continued almost seamlessly in “Valley of Life,” but the opening instrument is the koto, a Japanese dulcimer-like instrument that is plucked. Sonny Fortune enters on flute over the koto and percussion played by Mouton for a four minute long meditation that is unlike anything that Tyner had recorded to this point: experimental without being free, still anchored in rhythm and chord. At one point Tyner’s strumming of the koto finds a counter melody that is supported by Hill’s bass and cymbal splashes from Mouton, before Fortune re-enters on flute to recapitulate the opening melody. It’s a stunning performance.

The quartet reassumes more familiar instruments and compositional direction on “Rebirth,” seemingly reclaiming a more traditional ground but still bearing the marks of the works that came before. Tyner’s solo features rolling arpeggios in the right hand that echo his koto work on the prior track. Fortune returns to the stratosphere in his solo before ceding to Tyner, who takes the final solo, improvising around the melody as Mouton raises holy hell and Hill plays a bowed tonic note as the track, and side 1 of the album, closes.

Side two is taken entirely by “Sahara,” at 23 minutes the longest single track in his oeuvre, and almost his longest work (only the title suite from his live performance Enlightenment, recorded at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival, is longer). The work features percussion, flute and reeds from almost every member of the band in a ninety second opening, before Tyner plays the opening statement of the work on the piano with great crashing chords, ultimately locking into a groove that seems to be in a couple of different time signatures, eventually settling into 6/8, with Tyner playing in two and Fortune’s melody blowing in 3. Fortune, then Tyner take a solo, but the real delight here is Hill’s bass solo, which re-establishes the pulse and sings alongside contributions from the reeds and flutes. The unusual wind accompaniment continues over Mouton’s drum solo, which plays propulsively into the return of Tyner’s piano, which revisits the first theme and the second 6/8 one.

Tyner would continue to record mind-blowing albums for Milestone until 1981. In addition to Enlightenment, his Song for My Lady and Echoes of a Friend are strongly recommended, but there really isn’t a bad one in the bunch. His later recordings could be a little less focused—I don’t really care for his final studio recording, Guitars—but he continued to play and record well into his 70s, always in the modal and post-bop traditions that were audible in his earliest 1960s recordings, solo and with Coltrane.

We’ve almost come to the end of our exploration of Trane’s music and influence. But recordings from the great musician continued to surface in the decades following his death. We’ve heard a few of them already, and next week we’ll close the series with one of the most astonishing of these posthumous recordings.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Exfiltration Radio: All the Downtown Lights

It feels like everyone is talking about the Blue Nile and their 1989 song “The Downtown Lights,” possibly thanks to that Taylor Swift shout-out. As it turns out, I’ve been collecting cover versions of this song for several years, and so it felt like the right time to do one big mega-mix of “Downtown Lights” covers.

The original song starts us off, and then we roll into a series of covers of greater or lesser fidelity. I tried to use cover versions that stayed in the same key, and mostly succeeded, with just one exception, the very last version that fades out the mix. I hope you’ll find something in the mix you like, even if it’s just tranquility… or catharsis.

Versions of “The Downtown Lights” in this mix are by:

  • The Blue Nile (the original)
  • Annie Lennox
  • Pure Bathing Culture with Ben Gibbard
  • Louise Burns
  • Collapsing Scenery
  • Rob Noakes
  • Kathy Kosins
  • Full Dark
  • Kevin Mackenzie & Steve Hamilton
  • Scala & Kolacny Brothers

We have taken control as to bring you a special show…

Exfiltration Radio: “…and then he wrote Meditations”

Amiri Baraka

When I was about 14 years old, riding in the car with my dad and doing errands, we were listening to a Saturday morning jazz show on WHRO (an infrequent occurrence for our mostly classical family) when I heard something fascinating: a jazz quartet playing behind, not a singer, but a poet. The idea that poetry was not just words on a page, but something that could be performed, was a new idea to me, and the connection between some kinds of poems and some kinds of jazz was electrifying.

It took me years to find the piece, and I’m not 100% sure I did, but I’m pretty sure it’s one of the works on this mix. There’s a lot of obscure stuff here, so I’m going to give you a track by track breakdown.

The intro comes from e.e. cummings’ great Six Nonlectures: i, the first of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. The lectures were not only published but also recorded, released on Caedmon Records, and I’m looking forward to doing an Album of the Week series on them at some point once I track down volumes 4 – 6.

Philip Levine’s “Gin,” which I heard him read live at the University of Virginia as a still-practicing poet in the early 1990s, is conversational and funny, but also deep. He recorded dozens of his poems with saxophonist Benjamin Boone before his death in 2015, and they’ve been released in two albums (so far) of jazz/poetry bliss. “Gin” and the version of Levine’s great “They Feed They Lion” later on the mix both come from the first volume.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind is one of those great New Directions paperbacks that you can easily find in used bookshops, and it’s a great read. It’s a great read, very fun (as the first excerpt indicates), and has some great things to show about poetic diction.

I’ve featured Gil Scott-Heron on other mixes, but this one highlights more of his spoken word performance. He’s a fiery speaker and anchors his sometimes hopeful, sometimes despairing performance of “The New Deal” in the condition of black Americans — and all Americans as a whole.

Ronald Stone is a lesser known performer, but the New Jazz Poets anthology this is drawn from is a must-have. While there’s no jazz accompaniment here, Stone’s delivery draws both from jazz song and birdsong in an homage to Billie Holiday (among other subtexts).

Bob Hardaway’s performance of William Carlos Williams’ “Young Sycamore,” with none other than Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, comes from one of the earliest jazz poetry anthologies. It’s a little more dramatic than some of the more conversational spoken word of a Gil Scott-Heron, but still fascinating listening.

Charles Mingus’ “Scenes in the City,” with a Langston Hughes and Lonne Elder text narrated by Mel Stewart, is one of the two candidates for the performance I heard on WHRO all those years ago. It’s a narrative that touches on poverty, jazz music, love, the desire for greatness, and other universal themes, and is a fun listen to boot. Branford Marsalis covered it on his very first album for Columbia Records, years later.

Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen’s “Sounds of the Universe Coming In My Window” is a fun read, and Allen is an unexpectedly sympathetic collaborator with the great Beat poet. Similarly rewarding is Langston Hughes’ performance with the pianist (and frequent Mingus collaborator) Horace Parlan, in which there are frequently recurring themes of the dream deferred but also of city life.

There are a few tracks featuring poems written and performed by jazz players. Hasaan Ibn Ali’s “Extemporaneous Prose-Poem” is just that, a brief moment of unaccompanied verse from the eccentric pianist. I’ve written about Archie Shepp’s “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” before; his threnody for the slain civil rights leader is powerful both lyrically and musically here.

None of this prepares one for Marion Brown’s “Karintha,” a musical setting of a poem by Harlem Renaissance author Jean Toomer and the other candidate for that poem I heard on WHRO all those years ago. An uncomfortable exploration of gender relations, female sexuality and its consequences, it’s riveting and not an easy listen.

After one more Ferlinghetti interlude, we get “At Night,” an unpublished John Coltrane poem read by American author and performer Julie Patton with a quartet led by Coltrane’s son Ravi. Released on the 2005 compilation Impulsive!, the musical setting is as playful as the cosmological contents of the poem are grand; one suspects the senior Coltrane might have done something different with the setting, but it’s still a good, and respectful, listen.

The final track on the album, “And Then He Wrote ‘Meditations’” brings together a number of these themes, including civil rights, poetry for its own sake, and jazz musicians (particularly Coltrane) into a single heady brew. The great Gil Scott-Heron is our spiritual guide here, on a track that for my money is an under-appreciated masterpiece.

Listen!

We have taken control as to bring you this special show!

  1. GinBenjamin Boone and Philip Levine (The Poetry of Jazz)
  2. Coney Island of the Mind, Pt. 20Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Beatnik)
  3. The New DealGil Scott-Heron (The Mind Of Gil Scott Heron: A Collection Of Poetry And Musi)
  4. Lady Day SpringRonald Stone (New Jazz Poets)
  5. Young SycamoreBob Hardaway (Jazz Canto Vol. 1)
  6. Scenes in the CityCharles Mingus (A Modern Symposium of Music and Poetry (Remastered 2013))
  7. They Feed They LionBenjamin Boone and Philip Levine (The Poetry of Jazz)
  8. Sounds of the Universe Coming In My WindowJack Kerouac & Steve Allen (Beatnik)
  9. Double G TrainLangston Hughes & Horace Parlan Quintet (The Weary Blues With Langston Hughes)
  10. Extemporaneous Prose-PoemHasaan Ibn Ali (Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings)
  11. Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper MalcolmArchie Shepp (Fire Music)
  12. KarinthaMarion Brown (Geechee Recollections)
  13. Coney Island of the Mind, Pt. 26Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Beatnik)
  14. At Night (A Poem featuring Ravi Coltrane with Julie Patton)John Coltrane (Impulsive! Revolutionary Jazz Reworked)
  15. …And Then He Wrote MeditationsGil Scott-Heron (Free Will)

Exfiltration Radio: Musical Piracy 2

A Veracode Hackathon has started and it’s pirates! Just as with our abortive pirate-themed Hackathon of the annus horribilis 2020, this one has occasioned a mix of cover songs! Cover songs consist of one artist performing the music of another, which sometimes feels like “love and theft,” as Bob Dylan once wrote, hence the name.

The prior mix was strictly themed, featuring reggae covers of pop songs—and reggae originals that later became pop songs in famous covers. This new one is a little more freewheeling, but that’s not to say it’s not equally fun. Just be prepared for that last cover at the end.

Listen here:

Do not adjust your set; there is nothing wrong.

  1. I Am I SaidBunny Scott (To Love Somebody)
  2. SomethingBooker T. and the M.G.s (McLemore Avenue)
  3. Do Right Woman, Do Right ManThe Flying Burrito Brothers (The Oxford American Southern Sampler 1999)
  4. Golden LadyLambchop (TRIP)
  5. Ziggy StardustBauhaus (Swing the Heartache: The BBC Sessions)
  6. Love Will Tear Us ApartHot 8 Brass Band (Love Will Tear Us Apart)
  7. Ashes to AshesTears for Fears (Saturnine Martial & Lunatic)
  8. Love and Anger (Kate Bush)Nada Surf (if I had a hi-fi)
  9. I Wanna Be AdoredThe Raveonettes (I Wanna Be Adored – Single)
  10. Where Is My MindBobby Bare, Jr. (The Longest Meow)
  11. Five YearsCowboy Junkies (Songs of the Recollection)
  12. Born Under PunchesGood in the Dark (If You Feel It – EP)
  13. There Is a Light That Never Goes OutDum Dum Girls (He Gets Me High – EP)
  14. I Can’t Give Everything AwaySpoon
  15. Fitter HappierSamson Dalonoga (Feat. The Found Sound Orchestra) (Stereogum Presents… OKX: A Tribute To OK Computer)

Pharoah Sanders, Black Unity

Album of the Week, May 11, 2024

When I was listening to free jazz in college and the years after, I had a fairly narrow conception of Pharoah Sanders’ contribution to the art. On the basis of performances like Meditations and Karma, I assumed that all his work was out there, shamanistic, wild. And while that is indeed a good description of some of his playing, it’s far from the whole story. Some of his performances preceding and following Karma are good jumping off points to make the story delightfully complex, starting with this one, recorded in November 1971.

We’ve seen before how issues of black power and civil rights influenced some of this music, particularly in John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (discussed in the context of Trane’s follow-up album Crescent) and in Archie Shepp’s poem for Malcolm X and elegiac salute to W.E.B. Dubois. Black Unity seems at once to be a nod to the Black Unity and Freedom Party, a Black Power political party in the UK, and a statement of musical purpose that underpins the group improvisation recorded here.

The group is top-notch, with Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson on trumpet, Carlos Garnett on flute and tenor sax, Joe Bonner on piano, Stanley Clarke and Cecil McBee on bass, Norman Connors and Billy Hart on drums, and Lawrence Killian on percussion. Bonner was an underappreciated hard bop pianist from Rocky Mount, North Carolina who had a series of collaborations with Hart and saxophonist Billy Harper in the 1970s as well as solo outings. Garnett played with Freddie Hubbard and with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Stanley Clarke might be the best known name on the album, having come to prominence as a founding member of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and winning five Grammy awards for his jazz fusion work over the years. And Norman Connors had a varied career, sitting in for Elvin Jones with the John Coltrane Quartet when the group performed at his middle school (!), playing with Sanders, recording as a leader on Cobblestone Records, and switching to R&B in the mid-1970s.

The variety of talent that Sanders’ group brought to the collective improvisation accounts for some of its sheer exuberance. The entire album is one long 37-minute collective exploration of sound, most but not all centered around a deep-grooving three-note theme that emerges within the first minute out of a cluster of sound from the Stanley Clarke, Joe Bonner and the collective percussion section. From the groove, though, emerge other sounds – a sustained wash of what sounds like a hurdy-gurdy, the balafon, and finally a version of the groove theme from the three horns, played in unison. From there the music seems to overflow outward, with all the players going in different directions over the continued groove.

The first moment of “breakage” into free jazz in the collective comes from Sanders, whose horn begins to climb a rocky hill about eight minutes in. “Hannibal” Peterson plays with fierce intensity, alternating between chromatically ascending the scale and then playing an extended improvisation around the supertonic. And Garnett grounds his playing in the original key, bringing it back to the tonic. The horns pause for a second and a relatively brief moment of respite in which the forward pulse of the bass is the main motion gives us the breath we need to flip the record.

Side two opens with a Joe Bonney solo that leans into the upper reaches of the melody. Bonney’s work with other artists ran the gamut from wild to celebratory, but his playing here is solidly in the post-McCoy Tyner world; while a good chunk of his solo firmly subscribes to the Tyner block chords model, there’s also a moment of complete and utter freedom that seems to stop time before he shifts back into a more melodic mode that calls to mind some of Herbie Hancock’s mid-1960s Blue Note output. Sanders follows Bonney, this time on the balafon. The percussive nature of the instrument, which Wikipedia helpfully describes as a “gourd-resonated xylophone”, means that its sound is approximately equal parts tone and wooden thud, and the bassists and percussion step up to support and enhance the sound.

The last part of the work is driven by the basses and percussion. McBee gets a solo that quietly underscores the similarity of the main theme to the “A Love Supreme” theme and time stops for a minute as the two bassists trade ideas against each other. When the beat comes back, emerging from a cloud of clicking percussion, dueling pizzicato, and drone, it’s less frantic, more assured. There’s a higher pitched string instrument in the mix as well, perhaps a harp or koto, that together with the basses transports the entire soundscape for a few minutes to a different world. This entire section is the most eye opening, as the collective groove that has underpinned all the free exploration and melodic expansion seems to stand revealed. If Sanders was making a philosophical—or political—statement on this album, it might be in this revelation of common cause underneath many different expressions of black musical identity In the last three and a half minutes, the rest of the band re-enters to quietly bring the theme back home. When they stop, we hear a crowd burst into applause and calls of “Right on!,” providing the final mind-blowing moment of the album—that it was recorded as a single live performance.

Sanders would explore the axis between group improvisation, deep melodies, and ecstatic free jazz throughout the rest of his career. You can find more examples of any of the sides of his work throughout his discography; for more like Karma, check out “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah” on his Jewels of Thought. By the mid-1970s he was playing more melodically (as you can hear in this great 1975 live set from Transversales Disques), and it’s that Pharoah that appears in his last recording, the 2021 Floating Points collaboration Promises. But regardless of whether he was playing fierce and free or achingly sweetly, the common core of all the work is searching (and finding) transcendence, putting him firmly in line with the work of his mentor Coltrane. We’ll get one last check-in with another Trane associate next week as we see how McCoy Tyner continued to evolve following his departure from Blue Note.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Alice Coltrane, Ptah the El Daoud

Album of the Week, May 4, 2024

We heard Alice Coltrane on McCoy Tyner’s Extensions last week—and she had played in her husband John Coltrane’s quartet until the end of his life—but her solo career didn’t really take off until this 1970 album. Yet it wasn’t her first album, nor even her first for Impulse. Following John’s death, in early January and again in June 1968, she and members of his quartet and quintet recorded a tribute to him in the couple’s home studio in Dix Hills, New York, which was released as A Monastic Trio later that year. Huntington Ashram Monastery followed in 1969, which was a simpler trio with just Ron Carter and Rashied Ali, again recorded in the home studio.

While Ptah, the El Daoud was recorded in the same home studio (a choice perhaps necessitated by her family; she was taking care of four children, all under the age of ten), it’s a very different record. While Pharoah Sanders appeared on her first album, he only played on one track; here he and Joe Henderson both perform, with Sanders in the right channel and Henderson in the left. Ron Carter returns and they are joined by drummer Ben Riley. Perhaps most importantly, here Alice turns to the harp as a primary instrument; as we’ve heard on Extensions, this was an instrument that would be a key part of her sound and which allowed her to claim a distinctive voice all her own.

Literally meaning “Ptah [the supreme Egyptian deity] the beloved,” “Ptah, the El Daoud” begins with Ron Carter playing a march figure that’s joined by Ben Riley’s drums and the piano, then by the saxophones playing in unison. Joe Henderson takes the first solo, with a fleet approach to the instrument that circles around the key pitches, rather than generating ascending or descending “sheets of sound” arpeggios; Alice Coltrane accompanies with sharp stabs at the chords. Pharoah Sanders’ solo ascends relentlessly, embracing the groan of his instrument as he generates harmonics with overblowing, but also playing through a series of modulations with precision and clarity, somewhat belying Alice’s description of him as the more intuitive player compared to Henderson’s more cerebral approach. When Alice Coltrane takes the solo, she shifts from the sharp chords to glissandi in the upper octaves, an approach to soloing that seems to echo her style on the harp. And Ben Riley’s solo on the drums, accompanied by Pharoah Sanders on the bells, is sharply rhythmic and precise in a way that hearkens back to the opening march of the tune, leading into a recapitulation.

Turiya and Ramakrishna” is a title that provides clues to the deep mysticism that pervaded Coltrane’s work, with Turiya defined as “a state of consciousness—the high state of Nirvana, the goal of human life,” and Ramakrishna referring to the Hindu mystic and spiritual leader. The tune itself is a blues, but a blues informed by Coltrane’s cascading scales and accompanied by Sanders’ bells. The horns stay out for this one, and we hear Carter and Coltrane circling around the central “three notes” of the tune, gradually turning the blues into a repetitive mantra. Carter’s solo is delicate, gently moving down the octave and circling back up to the top of the tune, playing only a few notes, but the right notes.

Blue Nile” is the standout track from this set. Featuring Coltrane on harp and Sanders and Henderson on flute, the spiritual influences hinted at by the first side of the record are here laid bare. Henderson’s playing finds a few outer regions, while Sanders’ is unexpectedly tender and romantic; Carter plays a repeated rhythm on octaves, occasionally slipping in a supertonic or subtonic, while Coltrane’s harp warps the fabric of the cosmos. Riley’s drums seem to scuffle like the wings of a bird across the top of all the other moving pieces. It’s an amazing performance and one unlike anything else Alice Coltrane had played to this point.

Mantra” puts the horns front and center, opening with an abstract wash of noise before Alice Coltrane enters with a brief theme. There is less in the way of a central melody here, and the musicians improvise in a more purely “free jazz” context. That’s not to say the playing is atonal; Sanders, in particular, moves in and out of several tunes before reaching an ecstatic and powerful peak, then stepping back into tonality over rolling chords from Coltrane. Her solo begins with those rolling chords over a bowed ground from the bass, and gradually the right hand evolves into a sort of ecstatic hovering flight as the left continues to hold firmly to the ground. The horns re-enter, seemingly taking to the same ecstatic flight, albeit in the lower register, before resolving to the irresolution of the dominant.

Alice Coltrane’s work was for years ranked, when discussed at all, as a lesser shadow of her husband’s, a dismissal that unfairly minimizes her own compositional and performing strengths. While Ptah was not reissued on CD until 1996, and didn’t see a proper remastering until 2022 (the source of my copy of the album), her music was nevertheless profoundly influential, and new discoveries from her extensive discography continue to appear. The release of her Carnegie Hall Concert this year is cause for definite celebration, and there appears to be more to come. Next week, though, we’ll check in once more with Pharoah Sanders for a different sort of performance.

You can listen to today’s album here:

McCoy Tyner, Extensions

Album of the Week, April 27, 2024

As McCoy Tyner continued on his post-Coltrane career, his version of the modal jazz that he had begun playing with Trane from the earliest days continued to evolve. We saw some of the developing hallmarks of the style with Expansions: use of minor modes, unusual percussion, and drones. These continue on Extensions, recorded by Tyner on February 9, 1970 at Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, but not released by Blue Note until 1973, after he had already left the label.

Tyner brought to the sessions not only his compositional A game but an incredible band. Returning from Extensions were Gary Bartz, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter; new members included his old bandmate Elvin Jones on drums, and another Coltrane—Alice—on harp.

Alice McLeod, born 1937 in Detroit, began her jazz career at an early age, performing on piano in Detroit clubs in the late 1950s and moving to Paris to study with the great Bud Powell. She married a jazz musician there, trumpeter Kenny “Pancho” Hagood, and had a daughter, but was forced to return to the States as Hagood’s heroin addiction worsened. She performed with her own trio and with vibraphonist Terry Pollard; she was playing in Terry Gibbs’ quartet in 1962-1963 when she met John Coltrane. They married in 1965, and Coltrane became her daughter’s stepfather; they had three children together. Alice joined Coltrane’s band in 1966 after McCoy Tyner’s departure and played piano in the quartet until Trane’s 1967 death. She encouraged Trane’s growing interest in spiritual matters from as early as A Love Supreme, and he encouraged her musical development, even ordering a full sized concert harp for her without her knowledge which was delivered after his death.

Alice Coltrane wasn’t the first to adopt the concert harp as a jazz instrument; others, notably Dorothy Ashby, pioneered the instrument in a jazz setting. But she was the first to bring its sound into spiritual jazz, where she denuded it of any classical affectations. The harp sound that she adds to the album evokes music from earlier traditions, including African and Middle Eastern, a connection reinforced by the album’s National Geographic inspired cover.

Together on Extensions, Tyner and Alice Coltrane conjured a jazz sound that took the hallmarks of Tyner’s spiritual jazz style and added an element of repetition, almost to the point of mantra, and groove. Trane had all but abandoned traditional meters by the time of his death, but the form of spiritual jazz that Tyner plays here is anchored in a constant heartbeat.

That heartbeat begins with Ron Carter, who opens “Message from the Nile” with a pulse on an open fifth. Alice Coltrane follows after four bars, adding harmonic complexity by bringing out the supertonic and seventh notes of the chord in her rhythmic harp patterns as Elvin Jones enters on cymbal and snare. Tyner enters, stating the melody with repeated, strongly rhythmic piano chords. Shorter and Bartz join at the second chorus, playing the melodic pattern in parallel fifths. The whole tune essentially consists of two tonal centers a minor sixth apart, and in each part of the tune the same melodic patterns are repeated four times, as if establishing a mantra for meditation; the static melodic and harmonic pattern still moves thanks to the strong rhythm established by piano, bass, drums and harp. Tyner solos, exploring the corners of the tonality established at the top, and then passes to Shorter, whose soprano saxophone echoes some of Coltrane’s melodic searching without dipping into the growled or smeared tones practiced by Trane. Those effects appear in Bartz’s solo as he returns over and over to the tonic. Alice Coltrane’s harp solo returns some measure of the opening ethereal meditation, underscored by a high-pitched wooden flute, uncredited but possibly played by Tyner himself (he was credited with playing the instrument on a subsequent Blue Note date). The whole thing is an active meditation, which WHUR-FM music director André Perry argued in the liner notes was influenced by the “history of the Black man … deeply rooted in the experiences that transpired on and along the Nile river.”

The Wanderer” takes a more straightforward compositional approach and is the only track on the album on which Alice Coltrane does not appear. In contrast to “Message from the Nile,” the tune moves through eight chord changes in as many measures, the restlessness giving the tune its name. There’s a thematic connection to the prior tune, though, in the strong rhythmic pulse and in the playing of the theme in parallel fifths by the saxophones. However, there’s an abrupt gear shift about one minute in following the third statement of the melody, as Wayne Shorter takes off on a tenor exploration around the melody that’s underscored by Ron Carter’s running bass line. Carter indeed seems to find new tonal centers as he grounds the line in a sustained pulse on the tonic and the seventh. Shorter tapers off in a series of triple note runs, at which point Bartz picks up the solo torch in the alto that explores the ideas that Shorter was just playing with before returning to the melody, shifting it into a few different keys and then passing to Tyner. Tyner’s solo continues shifting the tonal center around until the players fall away and Jones wanders into several different rhythmic patterns, before transitioning back to the strong beat of the beginning as the band recapitulates the opening.

By contrast, “Survival Blues” begins with Tyner playing solo, an opening that seemingly straddles the spiritual jazz in which the record is centered with more traditional blues chords, even seeming to reach into some Duke Ellington inspired moments around the 30 second mark. At about the one minute mark, he settles into a strong rhythm backed by a repeated bass ground and supported by Jones in full polyrhythmic splendor, as well as by Alice Coltrane, who provides both chordal continuity and moments of chromatic accent. The tenor saxophone states the melody, which runs an octave via the seventh, three times before Shorter begins to shift things around, both chordally and rhythmically. His lines explore the entirety of the space around the melody before handing off to Tyner, who finds secondary rhythms and a second center of gravity around the fifth of the chord. Coltrane joins him on the second half of the solo, as she both picks up some of the secondary rhythms and reinforces the underlying chords with carefully chosen accenting notes in the upper octaves. Ron Carter takes a solo, accompanied by shaken sleigh bells, that walks the core rhythm around the entirety of the octave, finding unsettling tensions in the slide from the second to the third and down to the octave. The introductory melody returns before Jones takes an extended solo that explores the core pulse. The band returns, including Coltrane who performs an extended glissando into the restatement of the opening theme before Shorter returns once more to state the opening theme. (Bartz appears to have sat this one out.)

Coltrane brings that magnificent glissando back to open “His Blessings,” as Tyner explores the opening chord while Carter’s arco bass plays a melody that expands into a tremolo, Bartz pulses small fountains of sound, and Jones’ oceanic rolls keep things moving along. Shorter plays a line in the soprano saxophone that brings John Coltrane’s melodies on Sun Ship to mind while simultaneously calling back to In a Silent Way. Alice Coltrane takes a solo, performing glissandi in the upper strings while playing a melodic line with her other hand in the middle strings, over Carter and Tyner. Shorter returns for one more extended solo over a tremolo bass solo that hangs suspended on the fifth. If other tracks on the album call to mind some of Tyner’s earlier compositions, this one is unique, a spiritual meditation that seems to hang like a sphere in the air. The liner notes credit this as “the reflections of my life and the time afforded me with John Coltrane.”

In early 1970, Tyner was at the peak of his compositional and performing career, and Extensions reflects it. This was a peak period for his writing and performance that would continue even as he left Blue Note, a transition that delayed the release of Extensions for several years. But part of the credit for this album inevitably accrues to his players, especially Alice Coltrane. That debt becomes clearer when we listen to her work next week.

You can listen to the album here: