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:

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:

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:

Joe Zawinul, Zawinul

Album of the Week, September 17, 2022.

We last met Austrian keyboard player and composer Joe Zawinul when he arrived, seemingly from nowhere, to explore the unknown realms of in a Silent Way. On this appropriately self-titled album, Zawinul continues the journey, this time as leader and not merely as mystic guide. The album is a journey into outer space; it is also an instructive guide in the different ways to create jazz music.

Zawinul’s approach to this album was less group improvisation and more Gil Evans. The group features both Miroslav Vitouš and Walter Booker on bass, multiple drummers and percussionists (on different tracks, Billy Hart, Joe Chambers, Jack Dejohnette, and David Lee can be heard, usually in combinations of two or three), and a front line including Woody Shaw on trumpet (with Jimmy Owens on one track), George Davis on flute, Earl Turbindon on soprano sax, and Herbie Hancock on the mighty Fender Rhodes, alongside Zawinul on acoustic and electric pianos. One track features Wayne Shorter, Hubert Laws, and Dejohnette in lieu of Turbindon, Davis, and the other drummers. And the whole group performs in through composed suites that are strongly reminiscent of Gil Evans’ style, though still keeping room for solos.

Doctor Honoris Causa” opens the album in a demonstration of this approach. The melody, written in honor of Herbie Hancock’s honorary doctorate from Grinnell University, is cut from the same cloth as “In a Silent Way,” with a slow chromatic drift of chords from the keyboards and the horns yielding to an insistent bass line supported by a steady backbeat. The front line then enters, with Turbindon, Shaw, and Davis playing the melody line with one voice as it circles the tonic before climbing up to a diminished sixth. There is a short break of around four measures before the second part of the melody returns, again in unison. Following the same arrangement pattern as some of Miles’ work on Nefertiti, the melody returns over and over again, with longer solos between. Shaw takes the first extended solo, his trumpet climbing over strong support from the Fender and Zawinul’s organ. Turbindon takes the next one, with his soprano sax exploring minor modes around the tonic and drifting away, with the Echoplexed Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock taking the next solo, reverberating through the cosmos. Zawinul takes the final solo, steering the group’s improvisations through turbulent air before gently bringing them to a landing. The work may celebrate Hancock’s accomplishments in title, but in execution it’s an evocation of flight.

In a Silent Way” returns to Zawinul’s iconic composition that lent its title to Miles’ pioneering fusion album. Here we hear the work in its full extended form. In doing so, he gives us an insight into Miles’ compositional methods. The original arrangement heard here takes us through an extended introduction in multiple modal chord changes before bringing us to the famous melody. In doing so, the work takes on a very different character from Miles’ wide-eyed, searching rendition. At the last Tanglewood weekend of this summer, I heard WCRB commentator Bryan McCreath point out that much of the power of the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony comes from the open fourths and fifths that constitute the opening theme, because of their harmonic ambiguity. Minus a third in the progression, they could either fall to a major or minor key. The same is true of the Miles version of “In a Silent Way,” which keeps its progressions open for as long as possible before finally revealing its mode. Zawinul’s original extended introduction, which pivots from major to minor with richer harmonies throughout, is more fully voiced, but the ambiguity is lost. It’s still a stunning performance, evoking the Swiss Alps of Zawinul’s youth, albeit with less mystery and more sentimentality.

His Last Journey” is a different animal altogether, a tone poem for bass, piano, chimes, and trumpet. The melody is played in the uppermost ranges of the arco bass over the second bass and a descending piano line, with the trumpet sketching an alternate melody around the edges. It’s a brief dream of a composition that is over all too soon.

Double Image” is the outlier here. Recorded in a different session in late August 1970 with Shorter and Laws, the work is more of a group improvisation than anything else on the record, with the two keyboardists and two bassists alternately working together and improvising separately, with the extended bass arco solo at the beginning exploring the outer reaches. (I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the players apart on these albums, but am not sure whether we’re hearing Vitouš or Booker there.) Zawinul takes the other solo on the track, with the horns and flute providing the echo of the melody in between. The energy level and level of abstraction comes closer here to the more frenetic tunes on Super Nova and Bitches Brew than anything else on the record; unsurprisingly, this is the one composition from this period that would later be recorded by Miles’ electric group on Live-Evil.

Arrival in New York” closes the album with something else again: a sound collage, with taped segments of bowed bass, organ, and percussion manipulated to evoke the cacophony of the New York streets, subways, and harbor as Zawinul remembered them from his arrival in the United States in 1959. As a composition it’s an island unto itself, but it would not be the last time Zawinul would embrace different studio techniques to discover new soundscapes.

So Zawinul points toward a different way to embody Miles’ searching while taking some of the great trumpeter’s collaborators in a different direction. He would continue working with Shorter and Vitouš; we will hear that collaboration next week.

You can hear the album here:

Miroslav Vitouš, Infinite Search

Album of the Week, September 10, 2022

We’ve been spending a lot of time with the members of Miles’ different groups in this thread. At first glance, the debut solo album of the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš would seem an odd fit. But there are a few reasons it’s the album of the week this week: there is substantial overlap with Miles’ sidemen, and because of what is coming next.

For his debut album on Embryo Records, Vitouš assembled an impressive list of musicians: Joe Henderson on tenor sax, John McLaughlin on guitar, Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Jack DeJohnette on drums (all except the last track, where Joe Chambers fills in). The recording was made October 8, 1969, several months after the Wayne Shorter sessions for Super Nova, on which McLaughlin and DeJohnette both played. But the sound they produce here, absent Shorter’s soprano saxophone, is very different. I should say sounds, because each of the six tracks on the album inhabits a different soundscape.

We’ve already heard Miles’ take on “Freedom Jazz Dance,” on his Miles Smiles. Here, after the introduction by the full band, Vitouš takes an extended bass solo accompanied only by DeJohnette, with interjections by McLaughlin on guitar. A solo by Herbie Hancock follows, with the chiming Fender sound climbing up into the upper octaves, followed by McLaughlin’s solo, over an increasingly frantic rhythm section. When Henderson enters, Hancock and McLaughlin drop out and the frenetic energy lessens, but only slightly before he takes his own frantic turn. Closing out with the theme, Vitouš and Hancock turn the reprise into an extended coda.

Mountain in the Clouds” foregrounds Vitouš and DeJohnette in a short fragment of a composition, as if to assert the bass’s primacy as a melodic instrument. It works, but is so brief the tune never fully develops.

When Face Gets Pale” is another bass-led melody with chordal support from Hancock entwined by McLaughlin’s twisting guitar lines. The composition circles the same chord progression over and over again, creating a meditative mood.

Infinite Search” is the track on the album that feels closest to what we’ve heard before. Here the dominant tone is Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, in duet with Vitouš’s deep bass lines. Together they produce music that reaches both up to the heavens on clouds of Echoplexed reverb and down deep into the earth, grounded by the deep roots of the bass and supported by a two note repeated figure as a ground throughout. The composition wouldn’t have been out of place on Water Babies, and is insistently memorable.

I Will Tell Him On You” is introduced by a theme by Henderson in diffuse clouds of chords from Hancock, which is then elaborated by Vitouš before Henderson returns in a swirling solo, using a technique that he returned to throughout his recording career. If Coltrane had “sheets of sound,” rapidly descending arpeggios, Henderson had whirlpools of sound that circled the tonal center. This effect can be heard to good effect here. McLaughlin follows, neatly mimicking Henderson’s technique before adding flourishes and bent notes that claim the ground as his own. Herbie’s piano solo elaborates the theme with the chiming upper octaves of the Fender before DeJohnette takes a crashing, rolling drum solo. The reprise is followed by a coda by McLaughlin and Hancock. It’s a bracing performance.

Epilogue” is opened by an extended bass solo from Vitouš, supported by Hancock and a bed of chimes and drums. The mood continues through a solo by Hancock, never losing the mystery, until it disappears into a cloud of chimes.

So with his first solo album, Vitouš demonstrated his compatibility with the players in Miles’ orbit who were moving fusion forward, while also proving his own voice. Next time we’ll hear another musician claiming his own leading role in the new sound.

You can listen to Infinite Search here:

Wayne Shorter, Super Nova

Album of the Week, September 3, 2022.

We’ve tipped over the edge of the world with today’s Album of the Week. Super Nova is our first post-Bitches Brew album, the first Wayne Shorter solo album to feature him on the soprano sax, the first album to tip from post-bop to free jazz that we’ve featured. It’s by turns intoxicating and disorienting. When I bought it in college, I had no idea what to make of it, and I’m still learning my way through it. It’s a ferocious album from an extraordinary group of musicians, deployed in a most unusual way.

For this session, recorded beginning eight days after the last session for Miles’ fusion masterpiece Bitches Brew, Wayne assembled an all-star cast of early fusion players. Guitarist John McLaughlin returned from Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, playing guitar; he was joined on drums and vibes by Chick Corea (!!). Chick brought Miroslav Vitouš, a young Czech bassist who had played on several of his recent recordings and done sessions with Herbie Mann and Roy Ayers. From Miles’ Bitches Brew band, Jack DeJohnette was the primary drummer for the sessions and also played the kalimba; he was joined on percussion by Airto, the mononymous percussionist that was starting to appear with regularity on jazz fusion albums. Rounding out the band were avant-garde electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock and Niels Jakobsen on claves. And Walter and Maria Booker would memorably appear on one track together as well, on acoustic guitar and vocals.

The title track opens the album in full free jazz mode. Part of the dislocation of the album is immediately apparent in the instrumentation. With no keyboard instrument to center the chords, the soprano sax is the focus of the tonal energy, serene above a swarm of guitar and bass. What sound like screams reveal themselves to be interjections from Sonny Sharrock’s electric guitar. The whole thing might be as close as Shorter gets to the energy of some of Coltrane’s post-A Love Supreme recordings.

Swee-Pea” opens more peacefully, with the vibes, chimes and guitars creating a bed for Shorter’s tranquil soprano sax melody. We’ve heard this tune before, as “Sweet Pea,” on the Miles compilation album Water Babies. Here, Shorter’s threnody for Billy Strayhorn subtracts much of the lushness of the arrangement of the earlier recording, revealing a melody simultaneously more powerful and more fragile on the soprano sax.

Dindi” is a completely different thing again. The opening gives us chaos, in the form of percussion and guitars underpinning the single note solo on the soprano saxophone, all riding over the ostinato bass note that pulses a relentless rhythm. Then everything falls away except for the acoustic guitar of Walter Booker, accompanying the plaintive Portuguese vocals of his wife Maria. Overcome as she begins the second chorus, Maria’s solo ends in a choked sob, and the chaos returns. This was the track that made me put the album down for several years when I heard it as a college student; I just wasn’t ready for the naked emotions at play here.

Water Babies” is sonically worlds away from the version recorded by Miles a few years earlier. And then again: many of the bones are there, only reconfigured. The pulsed base note of Miroslav Vitouš grounds us in waltz time, and the melody, here are in the soprano sax, retains some of its plaintiveness. But the performance is freer. And the ringing chords in the guitar, while continuing to locate the tone in the same minor mode as the prior performance, here leave more possibilities for the other players to explore.

Capricorn” seems destined to be another exploration into chaos, with the intensely powerful opening by bass, electric guitar and drums. Indeed, Jack DeJohnette‘s drums continue throughout the song to roll chaos in the deep. But Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin are up to something else. Shorter’s solo, by turns serene and fiercely impassioned, takes us to the emotional center of the album, and McLaughlin’s chords support the melody, turning it almost into a second conversation within the cacophony of the rhythm section. It’s a powerful contrast and a stunning performance.

More Than Human” closes the album, with Shorter’s melody seemingly having completely committed to the sonic world created by DeJohnette, Airto and Sharrock. The soprano melody descends chromatically as though landing on the surface of an alien world, buffeted by gusts from Sharrock’s guitar and Airto’s percussive attack. At the end, Shorter steps away from the microphone, still playing, as though exploring the new vista unfolding before him.

The final track’s title gives a clue to a thematic impulse behind the album. More Than Human, the Theodore Sturgeon novel that was published in 1953, is about the gestalt, humans who can pool their minds and abilities together into a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good description for what Shorter’s band accomplishes on this unusual outing. It also explains the album cover, which feels a bit like a pulp science fiction novel itself.

You can listen to the album here.

Herbie Hancock, Fat Albert Rotunda

Album of the Week, August 27, 2022

In 1969, NBC aired a half hour television special based on the stand-up comedy of Bill Cosby. Focused on Cos’ stories of his childhood in Philadelphia, the special, called Fat Albert and Friends, was a low-budget affair, with the animators drawing directly onto the cels with grease pencils and using actual photographs of the streets of Philadelphia for backgrounds. While the special inspired the later Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids series, it has languished in the vaults since its release.

As Cos would say, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. Because, while the budget for the special was low, it featured a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock that stands as an early milestone of jazz-funk.

Herbie hadn’t been idle since leaving Miles’ quintet. He had already recorded The Prisoner, a concept album for Blue Note with a large group of players that included Joe Henderson on sax, Johnny Coles on flugelhorn, Garnett Brown on trombone, Hubert Laws on flute, Buster Williams on bass, and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. The album, his final Blue Note recording, features the same core group (minus Laws) that came together on Fat Albert Rotunda, but featured a very different sound.

The opening track, “Wiggle-Waggle,” underscores the difference. With a blast of horns over a jangling guitar for an opening fanfare, it quickly moves into a tight, funky chart over a fat bass line that would not be out of place on a James Brown record. The core group here was augmented by a large group of session players, uncredited on the original release but including Joe Farrell on saxophone and the mighty Bernard Purdie on drums. (We’ll write more about Joe Farrell soon.) Anchoring the swirling chart is the Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock.

Hearing this recording, it’s hard to believe that Herbie initially approached the electric piano reluctantly. The chunky sound of the Fender in the opening track seems made for this new jazz-funk sound. It also provides most of the improvisatory energy; most of the horns stay in the charts for the whole track. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the compositional technique that Miles’s quintet began to adopt on Nefertiti, with the core group bookending relatively brief solos with frequent reprises of the main melody, surfaces again here, where it is more easily recognizable as pop-music style verse-chorus-verse writing.

The album continues throughout in this accessible vein, resulting in some of the most remarkably joyous music to come from Herbie’s pen to date. “Fat Mama” is a slow crescendo of a track building from another Buster Williams bass line and foregrounding Herbie’s piano and some rare flute work by Joe Henderson against the horns. “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” might be the most inspired cut on the album, with Johnny Coles’ flugelhorn opening setting the stage for a tender ballad, while “Tootie” Heath’s brisk drum work keeps the heartbeat of the song moving as the excitement of the bedtime story builds and recedes. “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes!” is another funk workout, serving as a theme for Fat Albert.

The one tune that entered Hancock’s repetoire longer-term is the ballad “Jessica,” here given a relatively lugubrious treatment thanks to the thick horn arrangements. He would later revisit this tune in the late 1970s with an acoustic group—we’ll hear that album another time—that stripped away some of the heavy chord voicings to reveal a plaintive melody. Here, after the tender opening, the tune drags—there is simply too much going on in the chart. It regains life in the solo, though, as Herbie uses acoustic piano for the only time on the album in a simple trio setting to explore the melody.

Shifting gears once again, the title track revisits the themes in “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes” as a funk-inflected march, with a blistering sax solo from Joe Henderson providing additional urgency. The set closes with “Little Brother,” a jovial jazz-funk workout for the same extended set of players as the opening track. Featuring some tasty guitar work throughout by the uncredited Eric Gale and Billy Butler and solos by Farrell and Herbie over Purdie’s legendary “Purdie Shuffle,” the track is a fitting romp to an unexpectedly rich and playful album.

Herbie has publicly said that he made Fat Albert Rotunda as the first album for his Warner Brothers contract to give him the artistic freedom to make more adventurous music. Perhaps. It’s undeniable that the follow up albums, Mwandishi and Crossing, are completely different and serve more as spiritual successors to In a Silent Way than to this album. (We’ll hear another album in that lineage from a different member of Miles’ quintet next time.) Still, it’s hard to hear Fat Albert Rotunda as anything but an expression of joy in music-making, however commercial it may be.

You can listen to the album here:

Miles Davis, In a Silent Way

Album of the Week, August 20, 2022

There are liminal moments in music history, moments that stand perched on the edge of a knife, where music stands to move one way or another. Where it can fall back and recapitulate that which came before, or fall forward into something strange and new. Miles Davis stands alone among 20th century musicians because he embraced these liminal moments, and his finest albums came from them. There may be no greater such moment in his lengthy discography than In a Silent Way.

We have heard him searching for a new sound through the last few weeks, with the addition of guitar on Miles in the Sky, the use of electric keyboards on Filles de Kilimanjaro, the use of two keyboardists on Water Babies, and throughout a shift toward songwriting that moved much of the complexity of the arrangements down into the rhythm section, leaving the horns free to embrace uncluttered melodic moments. Those movements in his writing came together as Miles continued to record through November of 1968, but none of the recordings would see the light of day until years later. However, the sessions added one important musician to the lineup on the second to last day, when the players were joined by Joe Zawinul on the organ.

Josef Zawinul was a Swiss-born musician and composer who had come to the United States in 1959 to attend the Berklee College of Music, but dropped out after a few weeks to tour with Maynard Ferguson. He came to the notice of audiences in Cannonball Adderley’s group, where he composed in a more harmonically advanced version of the soul jazz that Adderley was playing. He came to Miles’s attention and was asked to join him in the studio to contribute ideas. This swelled the number of keyboardists in the group assembled in the studio to three, since Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were still both working with Miles.

The group took a hiatus from the studio until February 18, 1969, where they came together with another new face: the English guitarist John McLaughlin, who had come to the States two weeks previously to play in The Tony Williams Lifetime. McLaughlin reportedly idolized Miles and was petrified to meet him in the studio. So these musicians, together with Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Dave Holland, formed the group with which Miles embarked into a new world.

The music that the group recorded on that day has the sound of exploration, but for years there was no way to hear the tracks as originally recorded, because Teo Macero was on hand to lend the finishing touch to the masterpiece by combining several songs into two album-side-long sonatas. (You can hear the individual tracks on The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, which I highly recommend.) Miles had paid close attention to the studio work of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix; this was the first recording where he embraced the studio as another instrument in the process.

Shhh/Peaceful” comprises the entirety of Side One, and opens with the sound of both new members at once: an arpeggiated chord in McLaughlin’s guitar over a suspended minor chord in Zawinul’s organ. From there the melody unfolds in the guitar over the three keyboardists, anchored by the relentless pulse of Holland’s bass coming up a fourth and by Williams’ consistently steady rock pulse. The group comes to a pause, a silence that’s broken by Williams and Holland, and then everything starts again, this time with Miles bringing a major-key melody to the front above all the complexity, over a bed of chords in the electric pianos and organ. The echoing effects created by Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes in particular lend a distinctive sound here, one that I’ve written about in the past as “jazz in inner space.” As with earlier works like “Fall,” the rhythm section circles around to the theme between solos, as Miles, then McLaughlin, and finally Wayne Shorter take a turn.

Because of Teo Macero’s work, when I first heard this music in my first year of college, I assumed that it must have been through-composed. How else could the musicians have recapitulated that opening so precisely? With the knowledge that the sonata form was constructed at the tape in the studio, rather than in sheet music, my astonishment at listening to the work is redirected to the brilliance of the improvisations that constitute the repeated sections. This is a group that listens closely to each other to produce those miracles of sound.

The second half of the album is a similar sonata, “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” constructed around two different soundscapes. The title song began life as a Joe Zawinul composition that was meant to evoke the sounds of the Swiss Alps. Translated into Miles’ horn and the electric keyboards and guitar, the music is less Alpenhorn (though that inspiration is unmistakable when you listen for it) and more Also Sprach Zarathustra. This is a statement of the discovery of a new world, and Miles is our guide.

Once Miles concludes his statement of the theme, there is a pause and a shift, and we are in a different place yet again. The “It’s About That Time” portion of the track is outwardly a more straightforward rock tune. But even here Miles plays against expectations, with the chorus shifting into a modal blues, in patterns of three measures stated in Chick Corea’s electric piano with support from Dave Holland and Joe Zawinul’s organ. John McLaughlin plays a free improvisation over the ground laid down by the rhythm section, and then Zawinul brings forward another counter-melody that locks into the groove.

It is at this point that Wayne Shorter steps forward with a dramatic solo, for the first time on record played on the soprano sax rather than the tenor. Wayne had started to play on the soprano in the very last 1968 recording session of Miles’s group, and it quickly became one of his signature sounds. Lines that in the tenor would have had a more searching, visceral quality here seem to float serenely, providing a powerful contrast to the rhythm section below. There may have well been a practical reason for the use of the soprano sax, as the higher register would have punched through the rest of the instrumentation more easily. Whatever the reason, Shorter’s work on the soprano sax became virtually synonymous with early jazz fusion. The improvisation draws to a close with Miles blowing an incandescent solo above the group motion. The side draws to a close with a restatement of the “In a Silent Way” theme, again cut together into the track by Teo.

In a Silent Way pointed the way to the sound of future Miles groups, while keeping one foot in the past with the yearning, open sound of the solos. In the early 1970s he would add additional percussionists, foreground the guitar more, and change the personnel frequently, but the basic combination of horns, electric keyboards, electric guitar and bass, and drums would be the instrumentation on which he built jazz fusion, starting with the very next album, Bitches Brew. My record collection is shy on Miles fusion recordings, though there will be one more before all is done. But we’ll hear from other members of the quintet, and other Miles alumni, in their solo recordings, starting with next week’s entry.

You can listen to the album here:

Miles Davis, Water Babies

Album of the Week, August 13, 2022

We’ve talked about how Miles and his band—er, bands—spent a lot of time in the studio between mid-1967 through 1968, recording the sessions that became Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. But those albums aren’t the whole story. There was enough material left uncollected from these sessions to fill several albums. And in 1975, Columbia Records began filling them.

At that point, Miles had retired—temporarily, it turns out—due to “health reasons.” In this case the euphemism was at least partly accurate. His hip pain, still present after the replacement he had done in 1965, was worsening. But he was also suffering from the rock and roll lifestyle that he embraced (spoiler alert) following Bitches Brew, and his addictions to alcohol and cocaine almost certainly played a role in the decision to retire.

Whatever the cause, Columbia started looking in its vaults and realized it had a huge number of unreleased tracks, so they queued up the process of releasing them. One of the first sets to come out is today’s album, Water Babies. Recorded in two sessions, one with the Second Great Quintet following Nefertiti and one with Chick Corea and Dave Holland joining Tony, Miles and Wayne following Filles, and with all but one track composed by Wayne Shorter, the album is a fantastic transitional document that sheds light on what the quintet got up to among the other sessions we’ve heard. (Note: this review was written from the LP, so omits “Splash,” another Wayne Shorter tune that closes out the CD and digital versions of the album.)

In the case of the title track, they were recording a masterpiece. “Water Babies,” recorded the same day as “Nefertiti,” is a tense modal waltz that features all the trademarks of the quintet: telepathic handoffs between the horns, brilliant solos, and a genius rhythm section that elevates the tune to the next level. Like some of Shorter’s other comppositions, this one was released in versions both with Miles and with his own band; we’ll hear a very different version of the track soon.

The same group recorded “Capricorn” six days later. It’s a looser track that ambles without rambling, somehow. Anchored by Ron Carter’s brilliant walking bass, both horns go far out in solos that are unanchored by chords, as Herbie lays out for all but the choruses and his right-hand solo. The stylistic approach is a more relaxed version of the quintet that both foretells the genial humor of “Pinocchio” and looks forward to some later

Sweet Pea,” the last of the numbers from the 1967 Nefertiti sessions, is a melancholy ballad that opens with Miles freely improvising over the rhythm section, and gradually moving into time, prodded by the accelerating exaltations of Tony Williams’ drums. Wayne Shorter’s solo is sublimely meditative in the spirit of “Iris” and “Miyako”; Herbie Hancock’s statement that follows is another in the series of proof points that the composer of “Blind Man, Blind Man” need cede no ground to Bill Evans or other subtle artists of the keyboard.

The second half of the album, recorded in a session in November 1968, features the Filles quintet, plus Herbie Hancock. At this point Miles had begun to explore the sound possibilities of multiple keyboard instruments, so we get to hear both Chick Corea’s chunky electric piano sound and Herbie’s Fender Rhodes under Miles’ initial free exploration of the harmonic space in the opening of “Two Faced.” An extended solo by Herbie follows, with the rhythm section leaning into a rock inspired riff by way of Tony Williams’ polyrhythms. A brisk Wayne Shorter solo follows over the sounds of the two electric pianos playing against each other, tossing riffs and sounds back and forth. When Miles’ trumpet returns, he and Shorter continue the duality theme by tossing phrases back and forth to each other, returning them extended, slurred, blurred, but otherwise still recognizable. Corea’s solo at the end seems to point the way to a different direction, with some of the atmosphere of Hancock’s electric piano but more of an incisive bite.

Dual Mr. Anthony Tillman Williams Process,” which is sometimes mislabeled as “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” on reissues, The solo non-shorter composition on the record, this appears to start as an improv by Miles and Williams passing bars back and forth, Holland and the rhythm section pick up on the idea and morph it into a blues that wouldn’t be out of place on a later Herbie Hancock record, as we’ll see in a few weeks. Miles doesn’t return to take a solo for another four or five minutes, and both he and Wayne lean into the blues. The track ends as a meditation on the theme by the rhythm section. It’s a brilliantly tossed off bit of joy.

For a “compilation album,” Water Babies hits some pretty high notes. Far from scraping the barrel, it appears to open the door to a vast storeroom of possible discoveries from this incredibly fertile period in Miles and the quintet’s discography. We’ll hear the next official release in that series next time.

You can listen to the album here: