John Coltrane Quartet, Crescent

Album of the Week, February 24, 2024

After a European tour, the blistering Live at Birdland recording, and a little downtime, Trane and his quartet entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs for a new recording session on April 27, 1964, with a subsequent one following on June 1. Unlike the prior session with Johnny Hartman, and the two studio albums preceding it, these sessions contained nothing but Coltrane originals. But, perhaps unlike the earlier sessions featuring Trane’s writing such as Giant Steps, these new sessions were infused with a deep sense of melody and a searching new tone.

The core inside these recordings arguably stretches back to Trane’s prior album, the misleadingly named Live at Birdland. Three of the tracks came from a live session recorded October 8, 1963 at the Birdland Club, but two were recorded on November 18 in the Van Gelder studio, and one of those tracks was “Alabama.” Trane’s memorial for the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which had happened just 63 days prior, has a darkness and intensity to it that repays repeated listening. Like his arrangements of “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves,” there is a modal core to the performance, but unlike those there is a depth of melodic line and searching that calls back to the ballad albums before. Suddenly the elements of the quartet — Elvin Jones’ explosive energy, Jimmy Garrison’s ascetic, precise, suspended bass lines, and McCoy Tyner’s block chords — gel around Trane’s sound to make something deeper and more … well, spiritual.

The phrase “spiritual jazz” was coined to describe the sound coming from Trane’s quartet at this time, and while it may smack uncomfortably of marketing, it’s not wrong. Trane is searching in these recordings for something that seems just out of reach, but when found brings a sense of deep joy.

Crescent”’s opening seems to encapsulate that search, as Trane conjures the melody out of a storm of clouds and a string of chords. While the chords of the tune come slowly, they are placed precisely, as though Trane and the band are carving them from stone. The solo has blistering runs, but also short passages of melodic variation so intense that Tyner drops out for a bit to give him more space. In some of the passages you hear Trane overblowing the horn, reaching beyond the normal tones of the saxophone into squeaks and smears and shouts of sound. Just as the tenor seems to have found a new shore, the band re-enters for a restatement of the opening, and where the first statement felt emergent, the reprise feels deliberate, a statement of affirmation, of discovery.

Wise One” is a ballad in a minor mode, opened by Trane with a reflective solo taken out of time. McCoy Tyner picks up the tempo as the verse begins; his solo vamps in and out of the mode while Garrison plays suspensions on the fifth and octave and Elvin Jones provides a running pattern of regular eighth notes on the cymbals and syncopated hits on the tom. Trane picks up Tyner’s modulation when he picks up the tune from the middle eight, and then returns to the minor mode to close. It’s a stunningly reflective and lovely performance.

It’s ironic that “Bessie’s Blues” is the brightest, most uptempo work on the record, while maintaining the blues form. It’s also by far the shortest and happiest-sounding. Trane explores a set of different modes as he improvises, moving in and out of the chord structure so that Tyner lays out during the solo to give him the harmonic freedom to explore. The whole thing is loose and fun and has the feeling of something that emerged spontaneously in the studio, but in fact it is the second take of the tune, coming from the June sessions; the first take from April 27 wouldn’t appear until the 1998 Complete Impulse Recordings.

Lonnie’s Lament” feels like a continuation of “Crescent,” which is more to say that Trane and his group were in a consistent mood for this album than to say anything about the melodies per se. The actual melody is nothing like “Crescent, “ but both open with a slow moving minor-key melodic line. Interestingly, “Lonnie’s Lament” came first, originating in shows that the Quartet played in late 1963, and its melody most closely shows the influence of the process that led to “Alabama.” The band follows Trane’s mood, staying subdued throughout the tune, pausing on the suspension that leads into the last corner of the melody, then charging ahead with a melodic bass solo from Jimmy Garrison, who seamlessly interchanges ideas with McCoy Tyner, soloing primarily in the right hand, then punctuating with big block chords in the left. Tyner’s solo takes off into a more rhythmic exploration of Trane’s melody, seamlessly passing to Garrison for an extended solo in triplets alternating with syncopated, loping steps, then transitioning into a freer rhythmic exploration of the tune. His solo here establishes him firmly as an equally contributing member of the quartet, with his distinctive contribution being the sense of space that he introduces throughout the solo. Trane takes no solo, returning to restate the melody at the end over rolls of thunder from Elvin Jones.

Jones, appropriately enough, opens the last track on the album, “The Drum Thing,” with a pulsing rhythm on the toms and bass drum, punctuated by a repeated bass pattern from Jimmy Garrison, an eighth-note upbeat on the fifth of the scale followed by a quarter on the upper tonic, repeating with the last upper tonic held as a dotted quarter. It’s hard to write it out, but you might vocalize it as “da-dum-da-dumm.” (You might also think it presages another famous bass melody in Trane’s work, and you’d be right, but that’s a story for another time.) Here it stays in the background as Trane enters, improvising a melody around the inverted fifth as Jones steps forward, playing a truly thunderous, explosive melody against the bass ground and exploring different timbres in the kit. He returns to his original pattern as Trane re-enters on a major key inspired version of the opening melody that modulates back to a recapitulation. The heartbeat carries throughout until the end, and it draws to a sudden close as if the only way to stop it was simply to stop.

There are multiple threads that come together in an ingenious, absorbing way on Crescent: the dark, mournful balladic melodies previously heard in “Alabama,” a new sense of space in Trane’s performance, a greater sense of independent voice from the other quartet members combined with some truly telepathic moments. It’s a brilliant record that deserves to be better known. Only the even greater brilliance of its successor stands in the way of that broader recognition, and we’ll hear why in due time. Next week, though, we’ll hear a little of what Trane and his group got up to in mid-1964.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Album of the Week, February 17, 2024

When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to have a tenor voice. My dad had a beautiful tenor voice that could ring the room. I listened to a lot of Sting, whose tenor voice seemed to dwell perpetually in a higher octave (and whose songs garnered me some much welcomed attention when I performed them). … And then l went to college and picked up John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman at Plan 9 Records, and decided maybe being a baritone was more desirable after all.

Coltrane and Hartman had both played in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the late 1940s, but their time didn’t overlap; they shared a stage once in Harlem at the Apollo Theatre in 1950; but it’s still not known exactly how the singer came to Coltrane’s attention. But Trane has told us why he recorded with him. The Paris Review recounts a 1966 interview with the saxophonist, who told the interviewer, Frank Kofksky: “Johnny Hartman—a man that I’d had stuck up in my mind somewhere—I just felt something about him, you know, I don’t know what it was. And I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear, you know, so I looked him up and did that other one, see.”

That sound, incidentally, might be better thought of as crooning than jazz vocals. Colgate University professor Michael Coyle places Hartman in the crooning tradition, as a follower of Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée, and points out his innovation was the ability to stretch the melodic line, introducing space and drama into the melodies. I dispute the point a bit—Hartman’s tone is solid and his control is completely impeccable—but there’s no doubt he’s a much more subtle singer than the performers who came before him.

That point is brought home in “They Say It’s Wonderful,” the first track on the album. After a brief introduction from McCoy Tyner, Hartman sings “They say that falling in love is wonderful.” But that quote is insufficient to convey the subtlety of his phrasing, as he leans on “say,” ever so briefly pauses after “that,” elongates “love,” and diminuendos ever so slightly on “wonderful” while still holding the note, creating a suspension on the seventh of the chord and making you hang on his words to hear what comes next. It’s a masterclass in vocal control, and it’s just the first phrase. Trane stays under Hartman’s line, providing accents at the end of lines but otherwise staying out of the way. When he takes a solo, he picks up some of the vocal inflections and phrasing of the singer, elaborating them a little with some of his characteristic flourishes but mostly staying in the pocket. While there are traces of the technically brilliant sheets of sound, they’re constrained within the boundaries of the melody, serving as accents rather than the main thrust of the sound. Hartman returns for a tag of the bridge and takes a breathtaking break in the rhythm, seeming to soar weightless over the band for a moment.

Hartman opens “Dedicated to You” with a simple declaration of the first quatrain of the melody, and Trane picks it up, playing the rest of the verse as a straight melody. At almost exactly the halfway point, Hartman picks it up seamlessly, singing it straight until the coda when he repeats the words “dedicated to you” as an out-of-time riff. It’s a sincere and simple, but not simple-minded performance. “My One and Only Love” is flipped around, with Trane taking the first verse with the quartet, taking a rubato measure to close the melody out, then inserting two bars in which the band seems to hover over a suspended fifth in the bass. Hartman enters after that moment of suspension and seems to restart all the clocks, taking the verse in time and stretching the meter in the final chorus just ever so slightly. The band returns to the suspended chords for a final two measures before resolving the tune.

Lush Life” was reportedly a late addition to the track list; apparently Trane and Hartman were on their way to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in a car when Nat King Cole’s version of the tune came on the radio, and Hartman decided on the spot to perform it. Trane of course had performed the tune years before, but you can definitely hear traces of Cole’s version in Hartman’s brisk introduction, which moves unsentimentally through the verse, accompanied only by Tyner, until he sings “washed away/by too many through the day” and holds “too” for an extra beat or two, accentuating the melancholy under the surface joys of the lush life. When the chorus begins, the rest of the quartet joins but stays in the background. Garrison’s bass spells out the roots of the chords and accentuates the changes with subtle arpeggios, and follows Hartman’s chromatic ascending scale on “those whose lives are lonely too”; Tyner continues the ascending scale after Hartman stops and Trane picks up the solo seamlessly, playing a breathless double-time through the melody until he gets to the final chorus, when Hartman rejoins to close it out. It’s a briefer version of the tune than Trane’s 1958 magnum opus but seems to hit all the high points.

Famously, Hartman claimed that the whole album was recorded in a single take, except “You Are Too Beautiful,” which had to be restarted when Elvin Jones dropped a brush. It’s a great story, if untrue (alternate takes are available for each track). The Rodgers and Hart tune gallops all over the octave, but Hartman makes it seem easy. Tyner gets the solo, playing through the tune as a syncopated stretto against Jones’ shuffle until the final four bars when he matches velocity with the main tune once again. In the reprise, Hartman’s careful use of legato is apparent in the first phrase, where he enters from above and uses a little melisma around the edges of the tune; his final phrase holds the supertonic just long enough for you to notice before he resolves.

The final track is, as far as I know, the only rumba that the classic Coltrane quartet ever recorded, so of course Trane deconstructs it in his solo. “Autumn Serenade” opens with the bass doubling Tyner, playing a rumba rhythm under Hartman. When Trane joins he turns the melody into a series of cascading sixteenth notes in groups of three, pausing between each and playing with the modal melody. This is the one place on the album where you can hear some of Trane’s searching runs, and the end of his solo feels as though it could keep going on that search forever, but he pulls back just enough. At the end, Hartman sings “serenade” and holds the top note while Trane plays a few more of the trios of sixteenth notes, as though turning away from the resolution to continue the search.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was the third of Trane’s great ballads albums of the early 1960s, following Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and Ballads. Whatever the great saxophonist felt he had to prove to his critics or to himself, he appears to have done it with this album; the following recordings would return to some of the wilder searching we heard on Evenings at the Village Gate, but with a new sense of melodic core. We’ll hear one of the first outings of this next phase of Trane’s career next time.

You can listen to today’s album here:

McCoy Tyner, Nights of Ballads & Blues

Album of the Week, February 10, 2024

On March 4, 1963, McCoy Tyner was in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey with Steve Davis on bass and Lex Humphries on drums. Unlike his prior session for Impulse!, this was going to be a session entirely of ballads. Who knows why—perhaps because Bob Thiele liked the results of the sessions, finished the previous year, that led to John Coltrane’s Ballads album; perhaps because Thiele wanted to balance Trane’s avant garde tendencies with more albums for more conservative jazz listeners. For whatever reason, two weeks before Herbie Hancock entered Van Gelder’s domain to record My Point of View, this single session of ballads yielded one of the most approachable records of Tyner’s early career.

The Ellington/Strayhorn/Johnny Mercer classic “Satin Doll” was by this point something of a chestnut, having been recorded by dozens of musicians despite having been written only in 1953. Tyner’s approach to the chords of the tune and his use of unusual rhythms in his solo helps keep the song fresh here. Steve Davis’ walking bass and Lex Humphries’ brush-forward drumming both keep the piano in the foreground, though Humphries has some inventive patterns for the drums throughout.

We’ll Be Together Again,” written by Carl Fischer with lyrics by Frankie Laine, is far less well known, and the band takes advantage of the comparative freshness of the tune to create a sound that is more distinctive. The descending chords of the melody here create an effect not unlike a Bill Evans composition, with more than a hint of melancholy peeking out from behind the sunny melody. It’s a striking tune, and Tyner eschews the use of his customary block chords to let the melody speak more directly; he deploys unusual arpeggios that draw out darker shadows in the chords as accents to the melody on the head, but stays closer to the chords in the solos. It’s a good illustration of Coltrane’s observation, quoted in the liner notes: “He gets a personal sound from his instrument; and because of the clusters he uses and the way he voices them, that sound is brighter than what would normally be expected from most of the chord patterns he plays.”

If anything should belie the perception that Tyner was simply a conservative musician, it might be the presence of two Thelonious Monk compositions on the album. “Round Midnight” was of course a famous part of the jazz canon by now, following covers by Miles and others. His version of the standard opens with a solo verse on the theme that demonstrates some of those “personal clusters” as well as Tyner’s renowned sensitive touch. When the rest of the trio comes in, it’s with a rhythmic approach that pivots between major and modal, bringing a new feeling to the standard rather than echoing Miles’ arrangement.

For Heaven’s Sake” is a little-known ballad by Sherman Edwards, Elise Bretton and Donald Meyer. Tyner gives it a straight reading that, in the last verse, opens some space between the chords, letting the tune breathe. It’s a striking moment, particularly as his final chords veer into a different tonality.

Gene DePaul and Don Raye’s “Star Eyes,” first given a jazz reading by Charlie Parker, here opens with a set of modal chords that seem likely to take us in a different direction, before the main tune comes in. Here Tyner displays a virtuoso flourish by taking the solo in double time, then layering dizzying arpeggios over the chords. It’s far from a laid back ballad reading, and the combination of his flourishes and Humphries’ occasional jab on the drums causes one to sit up a little straighter and listen.

Blue Monk” is the second Monk composition on the album, and Tyner gives it a straight-ahead blues reading that features more of the pianist’s unusual chord voicings. Davis is a little more foregrounded here with a forthright walking bass that ventures into some unusual chords in the last four bars of the tune, as well as his only solo on the album. Tyner explores some unusual modal corners in his solo, and Humphries plays with the meter, joining the pianist on some of the triplets in the tune and dropping the occasional bomb. But it’s still a fundamentally conservative approach to the tune, albeit a pleasant one.

Tyner’s “Groove Waltz” is the only original on the album, and it’s a doozy, a modal waltz that follows twelve-bar blues form. The band sits up a little straighter for this one, with Humphries coming a little more to the fore with some inventive explosions and Davis keeping things pinned to the straight-ahead rhythmic heartbeat. Tyner’s melody wouldn’t be out of place on a Herbie Hancock record, but his densely voiced clusters—and that waltz—create a sound that’s distinctively his. It’s by far the highlight of the album for me, and producer Bob Thiele’s fadeout makes me want to listen to the original session tapes to hear how the band brought this one to a close.

The Mancini/Mercer standard “Days of Wine and Roses” closes out the album in a more familiar place with a gentle arrangement of the ballad. Tyner’s trick of introducing brief passages in a different mode surfaces here toward the end of the first and last verse, briefly lifting the tune into a different sound world. His use of a different rhythmic direction in the final chorus likewise sets this apart from a routine reading, as does the conclusion, in which Davis anchors the key with a bowed tonic note while the band concludes the tune.

Tyner wasn’t done with exploring the traditional ballad repertoire, and neither was Coltrane. Next week’s record is perhaps the most spectacular example of the journey through the discovery of melody that Trane’s quartet took in 1962 and 1963, on which they’re joined by an unlikely collaborator.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, Ballads

Album of the Week, February 3, 2024

John Coltrane appears to have taken the criticism of his avant-garde work in the early 1960s to heart. In fairness, being called “anti-jazz” cannot have been good for the tenor’s ego. But Trane was self-aware enough about his work, and conscious enough about his progression as a performer, to have taken a more deliberate step into a different sonic world on this album. Or, as he told critic Gene Lees (as told in the liner notes to this album) when he asked why the change in sound, “‘Variety.’ Meaning a change of pace. And perhaps he wanted to apprise [sic] those who haven’t discovered it [sic] that he can be lyrical.”

Whatever the reason, Ballads is about as lovely and straightforward a reading from the Great American Song Book as you’re likely to find. Recorded in three sessions beginning December 21, 1961, about six weeks after the final recordings at the Village Vanguard that yielded Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions and still featuring Reggie Workman on bass, and continuing into late 1962 (with the classic quartet featuring Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones), the sessions interleaved with recordings for other projects, including Coltrane, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, and some of the studio recordings for Impressions. Legendarily, the quartet walked into the sessions with a pile of music-store sheet music for the songs, never having played any of them before. Overwhelmingly, the impression is of Coltrane treating his saxophone like a voice and his solos like song.

Say It (Over & Over Again),” a Jimmy McHugh classic, sounds superficially in arrangement like the ballads we’ve just heard on McCoy Tyner’s solo albums, but listen closely and there are cues that Trane is still at the wheel. The suspensions in the pedal bass through the verse, the restraint of the group’s sound overall even as Tyner brings a gentle glissando through the middle of his solo, the opening feels tentative and even a little melancholy. But then comes the key change in the bridge and suddenly there are echoes of some of the soloistic choices on Coltrane’s Sound. The saxophonist’s solo trails off, as if in a reverie, and Tyner follows.

You Don’t Know What Love Is,” by contrast, brings some of the energy in the reading of the head that Trane used in My Favorite Things. But while the vocal sound of the track is full and warm, he keeps the pyrotechnics hidden away in favor of a straightforward reading of the tune. Not to say it’s boring. The syncopation he brings in the major-key middle eight of the tune, the explosions from Elvin Jones’ kit, and most of all the modal rocking in the piano as the group transitions out of the head and into the first solo all place this in the lineage of “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves.” Trane’s solo gets more impassioned, bringing bursts of sound from Jones, but then he reels it back in on the final statement of the head, with only (only!) one final octave jump and descending arpeggio to hint at the pathos of the tune. By comparison, “Too Young to Go Steady” is a cheery, straightforward reading of the Jimmy McHugh tune made famous by Nat “King” Cole. Only Jones’ slightly wide-eyed double-time snare work hints at anything more than the tune itself. You’d never know the tune was written (by Gene DePaul, lyrics by Don Raye) for an Abbott and Costello film.

Jones kicks off “All or Nothing At All” with a full kit workout that leads into a modal bass line and comping piano chords. Lees’ liner notes indicate that Trane was trying for an Arabic feeling in this cover of the Arthur Altman tune, and there’s certainly more development in the solo, with hints of the “sheets of sound” glissandos at phrase ends and in the minute-long outro. But where earlier recordings might have had those glissandos climbing for the stars, here they seem to turn inward as the track gradually fades out. It’s another one where you get a sense of the Coltrane of “My Favorite Things” waiting in the wings, but he never quite steps into the spotlight.

Harry Warren’s “I Wish I Knew” gets a quiet and contemplative treatment. Both Jones and Jimmy Garrison are relatively restrained in their accompaniment, while Tyner shows his well-earned reputation for elegance in his brief solo. Trane plays a little with the time in the return of the head, but otherwise plays it absolutely straight. The finest moment of the arrangement might be the two arrivals of a new key in the coda, hinting that the band might just explore the tune forever if you let them.

Bob Haggart’s “What’s New” is given a full verse intro by Tyner playing solo, before Coltrane joins on the melody. While the overall tempo is subdued, Jones keeps just enough pots boiling on the kit that things continue moving into the solo, where Coltrane picks up the energy as well. The band ramps things down almost as quickly as they start. “It’s Easy to Remember (But So Hard to Forget),” a Rodgers and Hart classic, follows closely behind. The only track from that 1961 session on the record, and the only one featuring Reggie Workman, the sound is remarkably of a piece with the rest of the album. Trane perhaps incorporates a little more flourish into some of his playing in the middle chorus, but it’s otherwise a concise statement of the tune, given presence by an Elvin Jones roll of thunder at the end.

Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” was originally recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1944 and is named after his daughter, but there are no boots, made for walking or otherwise, in Trane’s treatment of the tune. Trane’s saxophone seems to breathe like a singer, achieving an almost vocal tone. Garrison’s bass is a subtle accompaniment throughout. The band picks up the energy a little in the second bridge, but ultimately closes the tune, and the album, as gently as it started.

Ballads accomplishes its goal of showing a different side of Coltrane. He trades flashy technique for constrained intensity and achieves a different kind of mastery of his instrument in moments like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “All or Nothing at All.” Compare the performance to some of Trane’s earlier ballad work, for instance on Lush Life—there’s many fewer notes here, saying just as much if not more. By subtracting some of the complexity of the earlier performances, Trane seems to gain depth and intensity in each of the notes he does play. We’ll continue in this vein with another album from his band next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

P.D.Q. Bach, An Hysteric Return: P.D.Q. Bach at Carnegie Hall

Bonus Album of the Week, week of February 3, 2024

When I last wrote about Peter Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach, I didn’t write very much about the music. It’s hard to write about funny stuff, it turns out! And P.D.Q. Bach was solidly in that camp; as Schickele once said, where other composers wrote in the musica seria tradition, P.D.Q. Bach wrote in the musica funnia. This album proves that, maybe even more dramatically than the debut record.

Schickele (born in 1935) had been writing parodic music in the Baroque vein since he was a teenager; his earliest work, the “Sanka” Cantata, was recorded with his brother David in 1954, when he was just 19. The first P.D.Q. Bach concert recording, reviewed last week, happened when Schickele was 30, at which point a good part of the musical identity of the composer had been established: familiar or familiar-sounding themes, upended by comic settings that never quite seemed to do the expected thing, or by the equivalent of orchestral slapstick (deliberately wrong notes, jarring chords, the orchestra losing its place), or by some of the many unique instruments that Schickele invented: the tromboon, the double-reed slide music stand, the windbreaker. There was even the omnipresent “bargain counter tenor,” John Ferrante.

But for my money, P.D.Q. Bach didn’t become legendary until the publication of his first works for chorus. That may be because the P.D.Q. album my family owned, A Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach, begins and ends with choral works (the “Missa Hilarious” and “A Consort of Choral Christmas Carols”). Or it may be because the additional dimension of demented libretti causes ganglions in the left brain to giggle. Whatever the reason, the arrival of the Okay Chorale on the first track of An Hysteric Return is cause for rejoicing.

The chorus is here to perform P.D.Q.’s oratorio The Seasonings (S. 1/2 tsp.). Like the cantata “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” from the debut album, the oratorio features John Ferrante, whose recitatives set up the plot, such as it is, of the oratorio, and drive the encounters with soloists Lorna Haywood, Marlena Kleinman and William Woolf. The oratorio is full of groaning puns that are the equivalent of baroque “dad jokes” — “Open sesame seeds,” “Bide thy thyme,” “Tarragon of virtue it is full.” But the chorus steals the show on the slow movement “By the leeks of Babylon” and in the finale, “To curry favor, favor curry.”

As on the first album, Schickele takes the opportunity to “slip a little something of my own on… which I also wrote,” and as with his Quodlibet, the “Unbegun” Symphony is a collection of famous themes, expertly woven together in indescribably funny ways. To this day, I can’t hear the theme of Brahms’ second symphony without overlaying “Beautiful Dreamer” on it… or expecting it to segue into “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.”

The concert concludes with the “Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons” (S. 66), a work which substantially expands the concert repertoire for bagpipes while attempting to establish the bicycle (here used to power a siren—the faster the performer pedals, the higher the pitch) or the balloons as viable solo instruments, an effort that is a complete and utter failure. As comedy instruments, though, they’re pure gold, and the ending, featuring three balloons exhausting their air through pitch pipes in a major chord, is worth the price of admission over and over again.

With An Hysteric Return, Schickele established that P.D.Q.’s hilarity wasn’t just an interesting accident, but a formula that could reliably deliver laugh after laugh. He went on to prove this in a series of nine additional albums for Vanguard records, some of which were absolutely hysterical (see: Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach) and some of which were less so (for my money, Music You Can’t Get Out of Your Head risks riding the joke too long). But he still had enough gas in the tank for at least one more masterpiece, and we’ll hear it the next time this bonus feature returns.

You can listen to this album here:

McCoy Tyner, Reaching Fourth

Album of the Week, January 27, 2024

The repercussions of John Coltrane’s reach into avant-garde jazz, and subsequent backlash from some critics, can be traced in his early career in the 1960s, as albums after Africa/Brass took a different approach and recordings from the 1961 residencies went unpublished for several years. It’s tempting to read McCoy Tyner’s Impulse! recordings through the same lens, imagining that his substantial talents in forcefully modal jazz were suppressed by the label. Some critics have read the early Tyner recordings as evidence that he was insufficiently innovative for Coltrane’s group, foresaging his eventual departure.

The truth of the matter appears to have been mundanely commercial. Creed Taylor had left Impulse! in the summer of 1961, and his successor, Bob Thiele, asked Tyner to record more straightforward jazz albums. —I should note something about the classic Impulse! recordings before I go any further. Like Blue Note before it and CTI after, Impulse! under Taylor and his successors created a distinctive graphic identity through the use of photography, typography, design, and the overall excellence of the physical package, and Reaching Fourth is no exception. Released in a gatefold cover with striking photography and text against a black background, and the orange, black and white “house style” design on the back, it’s a gorgeous package, and the design holds up even in my 1974 reissued copy.

Whatever the impetus of the album, Reaching Fourth is a mix of standards and intriguing Tyner originals, recorded as a trio with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Roy Haynes. Grimes, who would go on to build an important career in free jazz as a member of groups led by Pharaoh Sanders, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, and others had come to fame at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and its accompanying documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Word spread about his amazing playing and he ended up playing with six different groups throughout the festival. Haynes, who had been playing since his debut in his native Boston in 1942, had recorded with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell, and Sarah Vaughan. (He is still going strong; his 95th birthday party in 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19. I saw him play in that same 1993 jazz festival at UVA, where he clearly could outplay all the young musicians in his band.)

The title track is a Tyner composition that seems designed to showcase the more imaginative side of his writing and performance. It bears some of his early hallmarks—unusual modal voicings, a brisk tempo, high velocity runs. But it also benefits from the excellence of his collaborators. Haynes’ drumming stays on the off beat and punctuates Tyner’s solo with brisk snare rolls, while Grimes’ fiercely percussive plucked accompaniment turns into a fiery bowed solo. Haynes trades eights with both Grimes and Tyner, exploring the full tonal color of his kit in the process.

Goodbye”, written by Gordon Jenkins after the death of his first wife, changes the pace to a meditative rumination. The tune and chords swing from minor in the verse to major in the chorus and back, as though discovering different facets of grief in each new bar. Tyner’s playing has a sensitive touch even as he traces the contours and changes of the tune, and Haynes and Grimes are quietly supportive. It’s a deep sigh of a tune.

Theme for Ernie,” written by guitarist Fred Lacey for saxophonist Ernie Henry, is a bubbly tune that’s given a bouncy reading. Tyner’s playing pulls at the corners of the melody with brisk runs, accompanied by Grimes at his most buoyant. Grimes’ solo is melodically indebted to Scott LaFaro; indeed, this track brings to mind some of the telepathic interchange between LaFaro and Bill Evans on their trio recordings.

Tyner’s other original, “Blues Back,” is a straight blues, and Grimes especially plays it straight, sounding each note as though tolling a bell. Tyner, by contrast, shows how this blues swings into different modes almost with every measure, even creating a Mixolydian counter-melody in the fourth chorus of his solo. Grimes takes a two-chorus solo that explores some of Tyner’s melodic ideas before the trio returns to the theme once more.

Old Devil Moon” (which the track listing tells us is from the 1947 Broadway show Finian’s Rainbow) is more commonly remembered as a tune in Frank Sinatra’s catalog; before Sinatra, Miles recorded it in 1953 on his Prestige Records release The Miles Davis Quartet. Tyner takes the tune in a completely different direction, opening with a modal progression between bass and piano, before returning to the main melody. Grimes’ bass line remains constant between the more traditional sections and the modal interludes, providing a pedal point against which Tyner stretches the melody. Haynes helps the forward motion, keeping a steady rhythm with a little trip against the snare in the fourth beat of each measure. Together, the group seems to lean from the straight and narrow into more exciting territory, then to settle back into the straight paths as though with a grin.

Have You Met Miss Jones” closes out the album; Tyner takes the Rodgers and Hart classic from 1937’s I’d Rather Be Right and dispatches it at breakneck speed. In the coda, Grimes plays octaves around which Tyner improvises a modal melody, wrapping up the whole thing in less than four minutes. It’s a remarkable exercise in economy and a lot of fun too.

After listening to Tyner’s early work with Coltrane, listening to his early trio recordings for Impulse! can initially feel like a step back to an earlier, simpler conception of jazz. Reaching Fourth repays careful listening, showing off his innovative ear and unique compositional gifts; we’ll hear more of both as we listen to more of the recordings in the catalog. Next week we’ll pick up Coltrane’s story where we left off, finding him in a very different territory than the New York clubs that hosted his last explorations.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Peter Schickele Presenting P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?)

Bonus Album of the Week, January 21, 2024

When I read this week that Peter Schickele had died at the age of 88, it felt like a part of my childhood had been ended. My parents had the Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach album which we listened to incessantly, and it became part of my formative education in comedy, alongside records from the Smothers Brothers and Bill Cosby (I know, I know). We went to see Schickele perform with the Norfolk Symphony in Chrysler Hall sometime in the late 1980s. I had taken the PSAT earlier that day, and felt a little woozy watching the concert from the balcony; came home and realized I was running a 103º fever — so I don’t have clear memories of the performance. What I do remember is that it was slapstick funny, clever funny, and sometimes both at once.

That holds true for most of Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach recordings, and maybe especially for the first two. Peter Schickele Presenting P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?) was recorded live in concert at Town Hall in New York, with a chamber orchestra under the direction of Jorge Mester. The program consists of three works from the high flowering of P.D.Q.’s dubious genius; in addition, Schickele notes in the hilarious introduction to the second side, “I convinced them to let me put something of my own on.”

The “Concerto for Horn and Hardart (S.27)” could be the quintessential P.D.Q. orchestral work: suspiciously familiar themes, obnoxious instruments, odd harmonizations, “mistakes” from the orchestra (I have always laughed uproariously that the broken cadenza from the strings in the first movement that is set right by the conductor yelling “One, two, three, four!”). By contrast, the “Cantata: Iphigenia in Brooklyn (S. 53,162)” provides the added dimension of comic vocal performance, courtesy of the late lamented “bargain counter tenor” John Ferrante and some truly inspired mangled writing (“Oh, ye gods! Who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running, running, running, knows…”)

Schickele’s “Quodlibet for Small Orchestra” exploits the brilliant professor’s talent for comic juxtaposition of familiar themes in unfamiliar ways. Finally, the “Sinfonia Concertante (S.98.6)” derives much of its humor from the weird array of instruments on stage; as Schickele observes, the bagpipes present a serious “problem of balance which P.D.Q. made no attempt whatsoever to resolve,” while the lute was so quiet that “you can’t hear it if there’s another instrument in the room with it, regardless of whether it’s playing or not.” The work is notable for the first appearance of the double-reed slide music stand, pictured below:

All in all, the record is a great intro to the lunacy that is P.D.Q. Bach and a subtle testament to the genius of his “discoverer,” Peter Schickele. I have a few more of the original records in my collection that we’ll spin in the coming days.

You can listen to this album here:

John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy, Evenings at the Village Gate

Album of the Week, January 20, 2024

In the early 1960s, John Coltrane’s studio recordings were expressive and harmonically innovative, but still followed a recognizable jazz form: statement of the melody, or head; solos that were structured around the chords of the melody; a recapitulation of the head. But other musicians were starting to innovate on that form, moving away from the structure of playing over the chord changes. Miles moved to improvisation over modal scales, as we’ve seen. And other musicians went even further, rejecting consistent chords in favor of more unlimited explorations. Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Free Jazz gave the movement a name, and others explored its ideas. One of the most promising of them was saxophonist and flautist Eric Dolphy. And when Dolphy met Trane, it changed the older composer’s trajectory.

Trane and Dolphy had met years previously in Los Angeles, and when Trane began performing in New York in the summer of 1961, he invited Dolphy to join his group. Additionally, his group included two bassists; Trane liked the freedom the second bass offered to have both a constant “ground” or repeated fundamental note in the chord, while the other bassist was free to be a more melodic voice. So the group included Dolphy, Reggie Workman (who had replaced Steve Davis), Art Davis, and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner from Trane’s quartet, last heard on Coltrane’s Sound.

Until recently, the main documentation for Trane’s New York sessions with Dolphy consisted of recordings from his residencies at the Village Vanguard in the fall of 1961, including 1962’s Live! At the Village Vanguard and half the tracks on 1963’s Impressions; both recordings have Jimmy Garrison replacing Art Davis. But last year a recording was found at the New York Public Library of an earlier residency, from July 1961, at the Village Gate. The recording shows off Trane’s emerging free concept at a transitional moment. Much of the repertoire is familiar from his 1961 releases, but the performances are very different.

Where the studio version of “My Favorite Things” begins with a modal progression and a clear statement of the theme, this live version jumps right in with an extended Eric Dolphy flute solo. It’s actually not clear from the recording whether the song begins here or if the recording started after the statement of the theme, but he improvises for an extended period over the minor chords of theme, eventually coming into a statement of the second eight bars of the melody (ending in “these are a few of my favorite things”) before entering another extended improvisation. He finally brings this solo to a close some six minutes in, and Trane steps up on soprano sax, stating the theme before signalling the beginning of his improvisation with a sustained blast on the tonic. His solo hugs the high end of the range, stretching out the ideas in his solos on the studio version. A phrase that might have occupied a measure or two on My Favorite Things here gets extended to 16 or 32 bars, with Trane continually extending and searching forward. Beneath the solos, Elvin Jones continually propels the beat forward. On this archival recording live recording, the bass is less audible than if Rudy Van Gelder were taping, but you can hear both the constant ground and the melodic improvisation of the two players.

When Lights are Low” has both a straight version of the melody and a keening dervish-like improvisation from Trane’s soprano sax. Dolphy anchors the low end of the line with his bass clarinet, underpinning the dizzying improvisation of Trane’s soprano sax with an earthier tone. Tyner gets a solo that sounds more conventionally structural than anything else in the 80 minute long set, but which is almost as equally searching within the limits of chromatic tonality as some of Trane’s Pentecostal honks. Throughout, Jones continues to drop explosions. I once saw the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, in 1993; at the age of 66, he was easily the most muscular and dramatic player I saw that weekend, and you can hear his work throughout this set.

Impressions” is a track that Trane never released on a studio album; the only two studio recordings extant weren’t released until 2018—but the many live performances he did often featured the track, including its appearance on the 1963 half-live album that is its namesake. Here the track has all its hallmark features—the use of the “So What” chords, especially the uptempo live version that Miles preferred and that features on the Live in Copenhagen recording. Trane takes a shorter solo here and lets Dolphy and Tyner explore the sounds before stepping back up to close out the tune. It feels more formal and less wild than the version from Impressions, recorded just four months later, but the seeds of the approach were clearly already planted.

Trane finished the set with “Greensleeves” and “Africa,” both of which featured on his Africa/Brass album, which was still about six weeks from release at the time of these sessions. “Greensleeves” feels a lot like the “My Favorite Things” arrangement, anchored in a modal two-chord pivot that Tyner keeps going throughout the arrangement, but made wild and new by Trane’s explorations. Dolphy is mostly in the background on bass clarinet for these cuts as Trane explores the sound being created by the group. When the horns drop away, leaving a Tyner-anchored piano trio, it’s almost a shock, even as Tyner’s powerful clustered chords keep the momentum of the full band track going. “Africa” is a wilder, looser tune, less anchored in chords and more a free modal exploration. It also features the one part of the set where you can clearly hear what Reggie Workman and Art Davis were up to, in an eight minute long duet. Workman’s melodic playing explored the upper end of the instrument’s register before finding a rhythmic dance against percussive string slaps and a grounding thrum from Davis. Jones takes center stage as well, dislodging the pulse in space and time, before Dolphy and Trane return for a final hurrah—and applause from what sounds like a small audience in the club.

Trane’s group with Dolphy would last almost through the end of the year. Ultimately Dolphy moved on to play with Charles Mingus, where he could play a more central role in the sound of the group; Reggie Workman would move on as well following a European tour. Ultimately Trane found a mixed reception for his experiments with Dolphy, with some critics calling the sound “anti-jazz.” He would regroup in the following year and take his sound in another very different direction. Before we check in on the outcomes of those explorations, though, we’ll listen a little more closely to what some of his sidemen were bringing to the table.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, Coltrane’s Sound

Album of the Week, January 13, 2024

John Coltrane’s stay on Atlantic Records, which started with a bang with Giant Steps, was ultimately brief. Signed in 1959, he recorded Steps, an excellent follow-up (Coltrane Jazz), and then a blockbuster (My Favorite Things) in the span of about 15 months… while also touring with Miles’s quintet (the tour which yielded the Copenhagen performance we’ve looked at recently). My Favorite Things was a hit, yielding the enduringly popular modal version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein title track, which recasts Julie Andrews’ “whiskers on kittens” into a modal exercise in musical ecstasy that calls to mind nothing so much as qawwali chants (about which, more later).

Several things happened as a result of Trane’s rising popularity. First, even before the release of Things in March 1961, Trane’s previous label Prestige Records realized they had hours of recordings by Trane in the can. They began packaging those sessions for re-release, and issued a series of records under Trane’s name but without his approval. (The series began with Lush Life, released shortly before Things in February or early March 1961.) The second thing was that Trane came to the attention of a young Creed Taylor, who had established the Impulse! Records label the year before. Impulse bought out Trane’s contract in May 1961 and he began a historic association with that label after recording one more session for Atlantic, which yielded Olé Coltrane.

Not to be outdone by Prestige, Atlantic followed their playbook and issued their own set of unauthorized Trane albums, assembling them from unused recordings from the sessions for the earlier albums. Coltrane Plays the Blues was the first to be released, in 1962. The second was Coltrane’s Sound, released in the summer of 1964. The album, recorded during the My Favorite Things sessions in October 1960, featured the earliest stable incarnation of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. Jones had come to Trane’s band earlier in 1960, following time in Sonny Rollins’ quartet. Tyner had been friends with Coltrane for years, both hailing from Philadelphia, and also joined in 1960. Davis was Tyner’s brother-in-law and had joined the band for the My Favorite Things session. The checkered history of this album aside, it plays like a coherent concept from start to finish, wrapped in an unusual painted cover by Marvin Israel, Atlantic’s art director at the time (who must have liked the technique he used for the cover; he used it again for albums by Sonny Stitt, Charles Mingus, and Milt Jackson).

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” composed by Jerry Brainin, opens the album with a bold, major key statement. Trane blows the head melody over a percolating accompaniment from Tyner and Jones; Davis keeps the tune rooted, alternating between a walking bassline on the B section and a suspended D (a fourth down from the tonic) on the A section. Trane’s solo is classic “sheets of sound,” but with a greater emphasis on melodic development. Tyner’s, by contrast, leans into the chords percussively, sounding a distinctly different approach to the melody. Where Tommy Flanagan sometimes kept himself elegantly in the background on Giant Steps, Tyner’s melodic development and forthright chords announce him as an equal partner in Trane’s overall sound. Throughout it all, Jones matches Tyner’s percussive power, delivering bursts of sound on off beats and generally throwing gasoline on the collective fire. And yet, despite all the collective propulsion, the track also reads as a happy melody. It’s a neat trick that Wayne Shorter would nick years later for “Yes and No” on his album Juju.

In the liner notes to the album, jazz critic Ralph Gleason notes that Cannonball Adderley recounted a conversation between Trane and Miles in which Miles asked him “Why you play so long, man?” and Trane responded, “It took that long to get it all in.” As if to refute that earlier conception of jazz, as well as Gleason’s note that there are “those who claim that he will not play ballads,” “Central Park West” is a laconic ballad of Trane’s own composition, featuring an unhurried melody over a meditative set of chord changes. In addition to featuring Tyner’s most outstanding moment on the record in the introduction to his solo, the work also features some truly gorgeous, delicate playing from Trane on soprano sax, as well as the rest of the quartet.

The mood shifts as the quartet plays the opening notes of “Liberia” over a thunderous roll of Jones’ drums. The tune, another Trane composition, is in the same mode as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” and bears other similarities — right up until the point where Trane enters the B part of the head, transforms the tonality into a different mode, and starts stretching up. The rest of his solo is played as a series of attempts to take flight and scale beyond the limits of the tune. It’s a scorcher, and it points the way forward to where Trane would be going in just a few short years.

The second side opens with the other cover on the album. Tyner opens Johnny Green and Edward Heyman’s “Body and Soul” with a modal chord progression that seems to hang Trane’s melody in the storm tossed air, a ray of light through the clouds. Here Coltrane’s ballad playing is a little more loquacious than on “Central Park West,” but still has that note of yearning. McCoy Tyner’s solo is sketched out in block chords in both hands for the first chorus, then shifts to a more melodic approach in the right hand. In the bridge he shifts to playing triplets for a few bars, responding to some of the rhythms introduced by Elvin Jones underneath. Jones’ playing deserves its own paragraph. No mere dusting with brushes here! He provides a counter-rhythm to Tyner’s strong rhythm in the block chords, complete with small explosions of sound as the tune shifts from chorus to bridge. At the end the entire rhythm section is in rhythmic unison under Trane’s unexpectedly tender closing.

The opening of “Equinox” features more of the rhythmic interplay between Tyner and Jones. The pianist’s four-square chords, doubled by Davis, are filled in by Jones’ counterpoint in an eight-bar intro. The band then shifts into eight bars of a syncopated blues rhythm on the tonic chord before Trane enters, blowing the blues. As with “Central Park West,” the opening statement is almost terse, but Trane’s first solo opens up the top end of the scale and begins to hang sheets of sound across the chords. In the fourth chorus we begin to get more of Jones’ rolling thunder, but it’s drawn back as Tyner hits gentle notes under Trane’s final bars. Tyner’s solo opens again with block chords, here less pounding and more tender. He plays with the rhythm of the blues as well as with the melodic center, introducing countermelodies centered on the sixth and seventh degrees of the scale, then launches runs of triplets that seem to take flight like birds. His final chorus is almost entirely on the tonic chord, a neat trick that refocuses the tune into the ominous storm clouds.

Trane returns to the pianoless trio form for only the second time (after “Lush Life”) on “Satellite.” The sax and bass sketch out the melody in a square quarter note rhythm, but Trane is quickly in flight over the walking — running, really — bass line and the rollicking cannon fire laid down by Jones on the drums. While the changes bring “Giant Steps” to life, the overall impression is more playful as the trio springs from melody into shimmering exploration and back. Even without Tyner, there’s no mistaking Trane’s approach here, a sort of joyous exploration of the possibilities of the sound of his new small group.

The group with Davis was short lived, and there will be a different bassist in the chair (or two!) when we listen to the next Trane album. But the sessions recorded by this formation stand as high points in Trane’s early output, even as he was already restlessly moving beyond this sound. We’ll be in a very different place next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

John Coltrane, Giant Steps

Album of the Week, January 6, 2024

When we last saw John Coltrane, the tenor saxophonist was taking extended solos and testing his freedom from the bandstand while ostensibly on a tour of Europe with Miles Davis. That session was recorded on March 24, 1960, and it came just weeks after the release of today’s album, Trane’s first for Atlantic Records. But the sessions for Giant Steps started years earlier — just a month after the last session for Kind of Blue. The recordings here demonstrate a jazz composer and performer just beginning to stretch out and realize that his span was far greater than previously demonstrated.

In 1959, Trane signed a contract as a leader with Atlantic Records. The label, founded by Turkish-American businessman and music fan Ahmet Ertegun with record executive Herb Abrahamson, had its roots in the R&B music that Ertegun loved; among its first hits was a re-recording of a hit song from his prior label Harlem Records, the McGhee Brothers “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” But jazz was always one of Ertegun’s favored genres, and when he brought his older brother Nesuhi into the label as head of A&R in January 1955, the label expanded its focus on jazz artists, bringing in Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Herbie Mann, Les McCann, Charles Mingus, and, in 1959, Coltrane.

The first sessions for Giant Steps actually took place in between sessions for Kind of Blue, on April 1, 1959, in Atlantic Studios in New York City. The band included Cedar Walton on piano, Lex Humphries on drums, and Trane’s bandmate from Miles’ group Paul Chambers on bass. The session yielded recordings of three tracks, but Trane didn’t like the results and they weren’t heard until they began surfacing as alternate takes on CD reissues of the albums years later.

Trane returned to the studio two weeks after the last Kind of Blue sessions, on May 4 and 5, 1959, with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Art Taylor on drums alongside Chambers. This configuration was more successful, recording “Spiral,” “Cousin Mary,” “Countdown,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Mr. P.C.”, and “Giant Steps.” To complete the album, Trane re-entered the studio on December 2, 1959 to record “Naima,” this time with Miles’ entire rhythm section—Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Chambers.

You can read a lot about the music theory behind “Giant Steps.” Trane’s innovative series of chord changes, moving through changes of thirds and fifths, and the bass line which descended in larger intervals than normal, would be the foundation for much of his early sound. Listening to the track without one’s music theory ears on, two things stand out: the tune is remarkably catchy, with the rising cadence that brings it back to the tonic suggesting a sprightly, upbeat dance; and the tempo is fearsome, particularly as Coltrane’s solo takes flight. Alternate recordings for the session reveal that Trane worked out the melodic patterns that he would play over the chords in advance; by contrast, Tommy Flanagan’s solo in the master take sounds unrehearsed, with hesitant right hand runs over each of the chords separated by gaps at each chord change. At least Flanagan attempted a solo: it is speculated that one of the reasons Trane didn’t use the sessions with Walton and Humphries was that Walton refused to solo on “Giant Steps,” despite having been given the chords in advance.

Cousin Mary,” by contrast, plays like a more straight ahead modal blues, largely staying in the same tonality throughout, and accompanied by a killer walking bass line by Chambers and brisk snare and bass drum work by Taylor. Flanagan provides elegant stabs at the chords under the horn section and takes a solo that digs into the minor second transition in the last measures of the tune. Chambers’ solo starts as a straightforward “walk” of the blues but soon broadens as he leans into the blue note. Listen for the way the rhythm section leaves space at the end of each phrase in the final chorus, as though they are breathing with Trane.

Taylor’s drums open “Countdown” with a fierce solo; he steps back to cymbals and snare as Trane enters, seemingly playing a headlong free stream of notes outside of a melodic structure. When Flanagan and Chambers enter, it becomes apparent that the whole thing is an improvisation off a set of chords that are strongly influenced by the “Giant Steps” chords. Finally Trane blows the melody, and the song is out in less than two minutes and 30 seconds. It’s a mind blower.

By contrast, “Spiral” is more measured, but no less innovative. Trane’s melody is built around a descending chromatic scale, with ornamentation at each step that implies the spiral of the title. The chords descend as well, but the bass stays on a suspended fourth below the tonic. Trane’s “sheets of sound” solo stays pretty close to the chords in the first go round, but by the third chorus he’s regularly ascending up to a minor third above the tonic, then back down. Flanagan’s solo is surer here, leaning into the minor mode. The pianist steps back to just sketching out the chords as Chambers plays a counter-melody around the changes.

Syeeda’s Song Flute,” opening Side 2, is the longest composition on the album and the most unusual. The tune (named after Coltrane’s adopted daughter) is deceptively simple, beginning with the rhythm section playing only on the second (later second and fourth) beat of each measure, and Trane playing a melody primarily consisting of even 8th notes. As the tune comes into the last four measures it changes key, moving from G down to E, before returning to the tonic. Tommy Flanagan’s solo moves nimbly around the changes, sounding at home in this setting; it’s the best work he does on the record. Paul Chambers gets a lengthy solo here as well, elaborating the gnomic wisdom in those chord changes, and bringing not only a more elaborate meter but also strategically timed moments of breath throughout the solo. When Trane returns, he plays the changes as a single note, on the downbeat of each measure, before leaning into the chorus.

Naima” is named after and dedicated to Coltrane’s first wife. It’s a ballad, played slowly and sensitively (no sheets of sound here) above an E♭pedal tone that moves to a B♭ in the middle bars. The performance here, the only one from that December 2 session with Miles’ band, is one of those moments in Trane’s discography where you can hear him subtracting elements from the song to get to the core of what he had to say. It feels centered and quiet from beginning to end, including in Wynton Kelly’s piano solo after the first chorus.

Mr. P.C.” wraps the album as a fast blues. Named after Chambers, it’s a straight ahead tune that hides tricky changes and fast exchanges in its solos. It also bears a strong familial resemblance in its first four bars to Robert MacGimsey’s 1931 song “Shadrack,” especially as performed by Sonny Rollins on his 1951 Sonny Rollins Quartet album. But Trane’s tune takes those four bars, transposes them and lands the tune someplace entirely different; his solo ends up exploring more of the outer reaches of the cosmos than the inside of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Flanagan’s piano takes over the exploration, elegantly exploring the edges of the chords and slipping in a passing Bach reference at one point. Trane returns and trades fours with Taylor for an entire chorus. Throughout, Chambers provides a consistently elevated, but even, pulse; he does not take a solo on the tune named for him.

Trane’s first Atlantic album, and the first solo recording of his post-Miles career, hints at some of the wide open vistas ahead of him. With one foot in the modal statements of Miles’ band at the time and the other foot embarking on a long search for unique expression, Giant Steps promises many moments of exploration ahead. We’ll dig into another moment in those early explorations next time.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Dylan Thomas, Reading (Vol. 1)

Album of the Week, December 30, 2023

It’s the shoulder season of the year, when the Christmas trees are still up but everyone has been Whamageddoned, most of the leftovers from the holiday meal have been eaten, and one could be forgiven for yearning for something to listen to that’s not holiday music. Time for something different, and this record, while still seasonally appropriate, certainly fits the bill.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas might be best remembered (rightly so) for “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” but it is his story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that links today’s record with our holiday theme. And what a story it is, especially read in Thomas’s Welsh baritone. The record at hand, Reading Vol. 1, was originally released in 1952, a year before the poet’s death at age 39 from an undiagnosed bronchial infection, complicated by his heavy drinking.

Reading (Vol. 1) is significant in a few other ways. First, it was recorded during the poet’s second American tour, which established his reputation as a poet and as an unpredictably drunken performer. Second, it was the first recording on a new record label. Named after the oldest known English poet, Caedmon Records was founded on a shoestring budget by Barbara Holdridge and Marianne (Roney) Mantell, when both were two years out of Hunter College. They approached Thomas while he was on tour, and convinced him to record his poems.

Thomas recorded five of his best known poems for the record. Different versions have different running orders, but in my copy (released in 1958), the first poem to appear is “Fern Hill.” Written in 1945 as a memory of a farm Thomas visited when a boy, the poem features an unusual nine-line stanza with internal slanted rhyme, and mourns the poet’s inability to escape the passing of time: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

The second poem on the record is “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Probably the most famous villanelle in the English language, Thomas’s fierce address to a dying man, named in the last stanza as his father, has been interpreted both literally and metaphorically over the years as an ode and exhortation to everything from dying relatives to endangered democratic ideals. Thomas’s reading here is both mellifluous and brief, but no less devastating for the brevity.

Less familiar is “In the white giant’s thigh,” which is differently devastating, as the poet’s memory of the carnal, physical joys of better times (summer? Youth?) contrasts with the stark reality of the (cold, aged) present: “And the mole snout blunt under his pilgrimage of domes,/Or, butter fat goosegirls, bounced in a gambo bed,/Their breasts full of honey, under their gander king/Trounced by his wings in the hissing shippen, long dead/And gone that barley dark where their clogs danced in the spring…” The pure pleasure of the language itself holds the dusty fate of the goosegirls at bay; these are no dead thoughts.

The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait” is the longest poem on the record, and the second longest work after “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” An epic ode to a fisherman who now seems stranded on dry land, the poem both celebrates the wild hunt of the fisherman at the sea and mourns his stranding on land, which not only domesticates him but somehow plants the sea itself with crops: “Good-bye, good luck, struck the sun and the moon,/To the fisherman lost on the land./He stands alone in the door of his home,/With his long-legged heart in his hand.”

The final poem on the record, “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” continues in the bleak mood of the other tracks, but here at last there is an apocalypse, as the land is scoured clean after the wreckage of the bombing incendiary damage of the air raid: “The masses of the infant-bearing sea/Erupt, fountain, and enter to utter for ever/Glory glory glory.”

Thomas could be apocalyptic when the mood took him, which is why the irony stands that the first part of the album, with his wryly observed portrait of childhood, recorded only to fill the album, is the best-known recording on the album. I deliberately saved the first track for last, as “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was not only recorded last, it was added as an afterthought. After recording the five poems above, Thomas was told that they needed more material to fill the album, and he suggested this story, originally published in Harper’s Bazaar and redacted together from a radio broadcast he wrote for the BBC and a 1947 essay written for Picture Post Magazine. The resulting work is delightfully episodic, with the unforgettable episode of the burned Christmas dinner at the Protheros leading off—the dialog between the narrator and young Jim Prothero stands as an economical masterpiece of wry comedy. (Sent to call the fire brigade, they say, “Let’s call the police as well…” “And the ambulance.” “And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires.”) There follows the exhausted and stuffed uncles, the tipsy aunts, the caroling to the haunted house. The whole thing is a closely observed piece of brilliance, a celebration of the delights of festival excess and idle childhood free-range play.

Little wonder that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” led to the establishment of Caedmon Records as a successful enterprise. The new label went on to record many great midcentury poets and to pave the way for later audio innovations—audiobooks, anyone? We’ll hear more from Caedmon another time. Next week, though, we’ll dive into a different journey.

You can listen to the album here:

Virginia Women’s Chorus, Candlelight Christmas

Album of the Week, December 23, 2023

Sometimes you grow up with your favorite holiday albums, and sometimes you find them on eBay. Today’s record falls in the latter category, and it also marks the intersection of two of my obsessions, vinyl and choral music at the University of Virginia.

The Virginia Women’s Chorus was founded at the University of Virginia in 1974, a few years after undergraduate coeducation had finally reached Mr. Jefferson’s University, courtesy of a lawsuit. Women had performed in choruses at the University before then; graduate students appeared in the University Singers, and during the World War II years the music department had pulled together the Madrigal Group, which appeared several times between 1944 and 1946 and then disappeared entirely. The Women’s Chorus was founded to give women similar choral opportunities to those enjoyed by the Virginia Glee Club; their first director was James Dearing, and later Doug Hargrove; Katherine (KaeRenae) Mitchell, then a graduate student, worked alongside him from 1977 to 1981. She was then hired as a part time faculty member in 1982 and took on the independent directorship of the chorus.

It was under Mitchell’s direction that the group recorded this set, released in 1983, with assistance from harpist Caroline Gregg and faculty member and organist Yvaine Duisit. Mme. Duisit, who was born in France in 1930, attended the National Conservatory in Paris, where she studied piano with Armand Ferté and organ with Maurice Duruflé. She was a piano instructor at the University for years, playing the organ for the first Messiah Sing-In in 1968, and was also the organist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Charlottesville until her resignation in 2006 shortly before her death.

But it is the student voices that greet us in the first side of Candlelight Christmas, performing Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. As the album was not recorded as a “live in concert” performance (at least, not that I can tell from the audio), the chorus does not process during the opening, allowing the warm acoustic of St. Paul’s to reflect the a cappella performance. The Women’s Chorus is in fine voice throughout, performing with good balance and precise pitch; when the harp enters at the beginning of “Wolcom, Yule!,” it is precisely in the key in which the students finished the Processional. Speaking of harp, Gregg’s solo in the “Interlude” and her accompaniment alongside “In Freezing Winter Night” are meditative, moving, and chilling in equal turns. There are a great many moments of excitement alongside the meditative moments, and the climactic moments of “This Little Babe” and “Deo Gracias” are sung precisely in time and with a great propulsive energy.

Listen to the soloists throughout, who are credited collectively rather than with their individual movements: altos Margaret Callery and Patricia Smith, and sopranos Penny Pennington, Melody Sweeney, Abrielle Taylor-Levine and Sarah Mouzon. In particular, the alto soloist on “That Yonge Child” does a superb job with the difficult tonality and melodic line, and the soprano on “Balulalow” sings with a piercingly pure tone.

The second half of the record features an assortment of traditional carols accompanied by Duisit, including two Wassails, but opens with the Morales “O Magnum Mysterium.” With the Women’s Chorus capable of this level of polyphonic performance, alongside Donald Loach’s Virginia Glee Club of the era, the University must really have been an amazing place for Renaissance performance.

Also of note on this record are the two songs performed by the Virginia Belles. Like their counterparts the Virginia Gentlemen, the Belles were originally formed by Mitchell in 1977 as a small group a cappella subset of the Women’s Chorus before becoming a standalone group. Here they perform an “Angelus ad Virginem” by Williametta Spencer and the two Wassails.

The Virginia Women’s Chorus, like the Glee Club, ceased to be a curricular organization at UVA when the Music Department stopped sponsoring single-sex choruses in 1989. The Women’s Chorus was inactive for several years until a group of women (including my sister Esta Jarrett) reformed the group in 1994. Some of the group’s subsequent history is told in Ten Thousand Voices, my history of the Virginia Glee Club, which makes an excellent Christmas or New Years present for the Hoo or men’s glee club fan in your life. 🙂

There are no copies of this record online, so I’ve posted it here for your listening pleasure. Please enjoy! (I hope to post a better picture of the album soon … as soon as I figure out which shelf my copy is on…)

Postscript: thanks to KaeRenae Mitchell for providing a few factual corrections for this write-up.

Ramsey Lewis, Sound of Christmas

Album of the Week, December 16, 2023

There are some jazz performers who make a career out of breaking boundaries, who record staggering works of genius that don’t connect with the public in their lifetimes but who are celebrated only by a marginally small audience. Ramsey Lewis is not among those performers. A classically trained pianist with populist instincts, he made a career over more than sixty years of recording popular, crowd pleasing jazz influenced by blues, soul, and pop. That’s not to say they weren’t also staggering works of genius in their own right. Case in point: his 1961 holiday album Sound of Christmas, which combines all those influences with the Christmas songbook, in both piano trio and orchestral arrangements.

Ramsey Lewis was born in 1935, half a generation younger than many of the 1960s jazz luminaries we’ve explored in this column, in Chicago to parents who had both migrated from the South. His father was a church choir director, and young Ramsey wanted to follow in his footsteps; when piano lessons were offered to his older sister but not to him, Lewis threw a fit until he was able to take lessons as well. He studied classical piano performance, played in a number of ensembles, and eventually formed his own trio. In October 1961, the trio entered the studio to record their ninth album, and first holiday-themed record. In addition to Lewis, the players included Issac “Red” Holt on drums and Eldee Young on bass, as they had since 1958. In addition to the trio, there was also a string section arranged by Riley Hampton, who was the house bandleader at Chess Records. Hampton had just provided Etta James with the string arrangements behind her career-making smash hit “At Last,” and his skills are on full display on this album… or at least on the second half; the first half is just the trio.

Merry Christmas, Baby” is a low-key opener. A blues written by Charles Brown and Lou Baxter and recorded by Brown when Baxter needed money for medical care, the lyrics of the song (“Merry Christmas, baby/You sure did treat me nice”) are what distinguish it from any other mid-tempo blues, and they’re not evident in this recording. But the performance here is sprightly and the interaction between Lewis, Holt and Young is electric.

Winter Wonderland” was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard, with lyrics by Richard Bernhard Smith; originally about a couple’s romance, later lyrics added in 1947 remade the song into a children’s winter fable. Lewis’s version rollicks all over, with help from “Red” Holt’s drumming.

We’ve written about the origins of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” before, when Bill Evans featured it on Trio 64. Unlike Evans’ brisk romp, Lewis takes the song as a bluesy ballad, lending a late-night feel to the classic Christmas tune.

The Christmas Blues” should not be confused with the other “Christmas Blues,” written by Sammy Cahn and David Jack Holt. This version is written by the pianist and composer Skitch Henderson, and is a straightforward major blues, introduced by a mean Eldee Young bass solo with jingle bells added for flavor.

Here Comes Santa Claus” was written by Gene Autry, to a tune composed by Oakley Haldeman. Autry was no stranger to Christmas music, having written “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1939—and he would go on to debut “Frosty the Snowman” in 1950, making him the single most Christmassy cowboy in America. Lewis’s rendition adds a little boogie-woogie and stride to the performance.

Flipping the record over puts us in a different soundscape, with Lewis’ composition “The Sound of Christmas” introduced by Riley Hampton’s string section and the sound of Lewis on the Celeste. But “Red” Holt’s syncopated beat links it with the first side, and the composition is a jaunty little holiday bop, mingling the flavors of traditional Christmas pop music with Lewis’s blues-flavored piano.

We wrote a bit about the origins of “The Christmas Song” a few weeks ago, and this is a more traditional rendition than Guaraldi’s, with the melody played first in the Celeste, then in the violin before Lewis’s piano takes over with some octave-spanning soulful flavor. The Celeste returns at the end to gently play us out.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is introduced on tubular bells, and then a hard cut into Lewis’s piano and the strings (so hard a cut that it sounds like it might have been an edit rather than part of the original arrangement). Lewis plays a set of blues variations on the ancient melody, bringing in snippets of “My Favorite Things” and a few other standards along the way. The arrangement swings hard, with the strings sounding like they had just come off a Wes Montgomery record.

Lewis’s version of “Sleigh Ride,” by contrast, is pretty straightforward, with the strings doing much of the heavy lifting in recreating the Leroy Anderson composition. Lewis blues some of the chords around the edges a little in his solo but otherwise plays it straight—appropriate since the original number swings pretty hard already.

The record closes with Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve?,” surely the most lovesick of the traditional holiday songs. As Loesser’s daughter Susan explained, her father intended that the narrator was asking for a commitment many months in advance: “It always annoyed my father when the song was sung during the holidays.” Lewis’s version incorporates jazz ballad style alongside a snippet of “Für Elise” to close out this bluesy, soulful romp through the Christmas songbook.

Lewis would go on to have a long and varied career in jazz, performing with both jazz trio and extended fusion ensembles (which we’ll hear later). Along the way he recorded a sequel to Sounds of Christmas, which we’ll hear another time. Next week we’ll veer back into the traditional lane for a personal favorite of mine.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

King’s College Choir, O Come All Ye Faithful

Album of the Week, December 9, 2023

Today we go from one of the most popular albums I’ve ever reviewed (judging from the number of complete strangers who have visited my site to read about it) to one of the more obscure, sort of. I say “sort of” because while not a lot of people may have this particular record (to be precise, right now I’m one of seven folks on Discogs who own a copy of this pressing), it’s the most traditional of Christmas traditions: the English cathedral carol album. And it’s by a completely top-notch group with a top-shelf conductor.

Of the musical groups I’ve reviewed on this page, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is undoubtedly the oldest and most established, having been created by King Henry VI to provide daily singing in his chapel (he is the “King” in King’s College, having founded it in 1441). The men and boys choir has from its inception consisted of 16 boy choristers accompanied by adult male voices, and at least throughout the last four hundred years by organ, though the form and particulars have changed over time. The first recorded director of music was one John Tomkins, the half-brother of composer Thomas Tomkins, who was the successor to Orlando Gibbons as the organist at King’s College.

Between Tomkins’ appointment in 1606 and the late 20th century there were fourteen directors of the choir, most notably including Sir David Willcocks, who directed the choir from 1957 to 1974 and in numerous recordings and broadcasts (and wrote numerous descants which are memorialized in the collections Carols for Choirs). Willcocks was succeeded by Sir Philip Ledger, who conducted the choir for nine years before taking the reins of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Ledger was succeeded by Stephen Cleobury, who directed the choir from 1982 until 2019, a few months before his death from cancer at age 70. Today’s album was recorded in 1984, a few short years into his tenure.

There is something quintessentially English about the King’s College Christmas Eve services, in the form of “lessons in songs and carols,” that have been broadcast worldwide by the BBC for at least the entire time I’ve been alive. A good amount of it has to do with the precise Received Pronunciation of the speakers, but perhaps equally much has to do with the English choral tradition— the clarity of the voices of the trebles, the precision of the diction, and the very English musical choices. This record is a good example of all of the above. It is full of great carol arrangements, but I’ll pick out a few:

“Once in Royal David’s City” is famous for beginning the Lessons services, as it has done since 1918. Written by organist Henry Gauntlett to a text by Cecil Frances Alexander, the carol, originally written for a child’s songbook, is here heard in the expansive arrangement by King’s organist Dr. Arthur Henry Mann which, Erik Routley has written, “turns the homely children’s hymn into a processional of immense spaciousness.” One of the other legendary bits about the carol is that the boy soloist who sings the first verse is only told that he will sing the solo a few minutes before the start of the service; we trust that the unnamed soloist on this recording got a little more notice.

I sometimes forget that Ralph Vaughan Williams, in addition to his considerable talents as a composer, was also a folklorist and song collector, much as Arthur Kyle Davis or Bascom Lamar Lunsford were on this side of the Atlantic. “On Christmas Night” is also known as the “Sussex Carol” after the location where Vaughan Williams heard it sung, in the hamlet of Monk’s Gate in Horsham by Harriett Verrell. It might be one of the definitive English carols, featuring the adult and treble voices in dialog with each other and then in harmony at the end. You can hear more English oral tradition at work in “The Seven Joys of Mary,” which was collected as an anonymous folk song as #278 in the Roud index.

“Ding dong! merrily on high” consists of words written by English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934) to a secular tune by 16th century French composer Thoinot Arbeau. Woodward directed bell choirs, and you can hear the tintinnabulations in his writing.

Cleobury’s version of the Kings College Choir is the one I grew up listening to every Christmas Eve, but it’s worth reflecting that his version is in some ways also Willcocks’, and Tomkins’, and indeed all the different masters of the choir to this point, all blended into one continuous tradition.

We’ll continue to veer all over the map in our appreciation of Christmas music for the next few weeks, jumping back over to the American side of the pond to check out a different take on the holiday. Until then, you can listen to today’s album, which I’ve posted here since there are no streams to be found of it anywhere.

Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Christmas

Album of the Week, December 2, 2023

It seems to have come from nowhere and to always have been here. For my lifetime, there has always been A Charlie Brown Christmas, and there has always been a jazz piano trio in the background playing to underscore Schulz’s scenes of comedy and pathos, as Charlie Brown and Linus (and Schroeder, Shermy, Violet, Pig-Pen, Frieda, Sally, Lucy and Snoopy) grapple with finding deeper meaning in a holiday designed to stay flashy and shallow at every turn. But it was by no means a destined work, and it was only through the happiest of accidents that Vince Guaraldi was signed up to write the soundtrack that made him famous, and brought jazz into the hearts of countless kids.

Charles Schulz started Peanuts in 1950, after several failed starts in comics (of which the single-panel strip “Li’l Folks” is probably the most worth seeking out). By the early 1960s, the strip was a complete phenomenon, having originated collections of books and merchandise as well as reaching broad nationwide syndication. But television had mostly eluded Schulz. Animated segments featuring the characters were produced for the Tennessee Ernie Ford TV show, but a documentary special, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was produced in 1963 but never picked up.

It was in the construction of that special that producer Lee Mendelson happened to be listening to the radio and heard Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (from the album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus and never intended as a single— it was released in 1962 as the b-side to the bossa nova “Samba de Orpheus”) and hired him to record cues for the documentary. Guaraldi, excited, called Mendelson one night and played him “Linus and Lucy,” which apparently came to him fully formed. While the documentary was never released, Guaraldi released the album Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and this association set him up to continue working with Mendelson when the Coca-Cola Company agreed to sponsor A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Guaraldi convened a few different recording sessions between September 17 and October 28, 1965; the players were not noted on the session reels, but it appears Jerry Granelli and Fred Marshall played drums and bass on most of the session, with Colin Bailey and Monty Budwig appearing on a few tracks. Listening to the full sessions, which were released in a super deluxe edition last year, it’s apparent that Guaraldi brought most of the arrangements with him to the group, only working out a few in the studio.

O Tannenbaum” captures the vibe of the sessions from the beginning. Played solo by Guaraldi on the piano in free time during the first chorus, the drums and bass enter behind him at the beginning to the second and the piece clicks into a jazz shuffle. The sound is kept mellow; the drummer sticks to brushes throughout and the bassist stays to a simple walked line for the next few choruses. When the bass gets a solo chorus, the drummer adds some hits on the hi-hat and snare, but is still kept back in the mix, keeping the overall feeling mellow and contemplative.

What Child is This” appears late in the recording sessions. The traditional English carol, based on the tune “Greensleeves,” is opened with a rippling arpeggio that introduces the tune and repeats between verses; the tune is otherwise played straight by the combo, and the minor key reinforces the wistful feeling of the album. It’s a quick performance, over in only a few verses.

My Little Drum” sees the appearance of a lighter tone, with a children’s chorus (the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California) providing a vocalise over the trio. Credited to Guaraldi, the tune is a re-working of Katherine Davis’s “Carol of the Drum” aka “The Little Drummer Boy,” with the drummer adding some subtle salsa flavor behind the bass and piano, who mostly play the melody straight.

The more upbeat feeling continues with the soundtrack’s most famous song (and the first real Guaraldi composition), “Linus and Lucy.” The famous walking bass arpeggio is doubled in the left hand of the piano and the acoustic bass, while the drummer mostly keeps time with hits on 2 and 4 and a shaker. The first bridge veers over into samba territory, with the ensemble relaxing into the tune; the second bridge does a more straightforward blues with a walking bass line. It is more complicated to describe than it is to listen to; aurally it’s like a straight shot of dopamine to my Gen-X cortex.

Christmas Time is Here (instrumental)” appears twice on the album. The first rendition is kept simple by the trio, with the bass taking the second verse as a walking solo. The drum sticks to brushwork throughout; the final verse has a tremolo effect in both the piano and the arco bass. It’s delicate and wonderful, and more than a little wistful in the chord progression. The vocal version follows as the lead track of Side 2, and features the children’s choir singing lyrics that Lee Mendelson claims to have written on the back of an envelope in “about ten minutes.” The song has become a standard, having been covered by David Benoit, Ron Escheté, Patti Austin, Debby Boone, Mel Tormé, Rosemary Clooney, R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots, Khruangbin, Sarah McLachlan, Diana Krall, and El Vez, among others. Jerry Granelli once commented, “Vince always wanted to write a standard. So he made it.”

Skating,” another Guaraldi original, is less widely covered but no less delightful. A study in the use of arpeggios in melody, it’s a relaxed, jaunty melody that soundtracks one of the best physical comedy moments in the special, as Snoopy lures the kids out to skate on the ice only to play “crack the whip” and send them flying.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” the number that closes the actual television special, here appears partway through side 2, with a children’s choir in full “loo loo loo” mode and Guaraldi on the Wurlitzer organ. It’s charming and you can hear the late night of the recording session in the kids’ voices; they were apparently taken for ice cream after the session concluded to compensate.

Christmas is Coming” is the last of the Guaraldi originals, and it’s a bop. The drummer is let off the leash as the band leans into the tune, bouncing between straight ahead jazz and the samba-inflected bridge. It would have been interesting to hear some of Guaraldi’s later bands, like the one on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, tackle this tune with a horn section.

Für Elise” signals one of the few appearances of Schroder as anything other than a background character, as he plays the Beethoven melody while Lucy tries vainly to get his attention. Robert Wells and Mel Tormé’s classic “The Christmas Song” follows, with a solo rendition by Guaraldi for the first verse and chorus; the bass and drums join quietly behind him for the second verse and chorus. Tormé and Wells’ classic has received many cover performances, definitively by Nat King Cole; this version plays it straight and it’s completely unaffected.

Greensleeves” was added to the definitive running order of the album with the first CD recording in 1988. An alternate version of “What Child Is This,” it was recorded late in the sessions, along with “The Christmas Song,” when the team realized they needed some additional songs to fill out the album. “Greensleeves” returns to the sound world of the second track with a slightly different arpeggiated interlude used in place of the triplets from the earlier track. Listening to the alternate tracks, it’s clear that Guaraldi and Mendelson were looking for a particular mood, trying and discarding arrangements that owed debts to Coltrane and to bossa nova. The band is allowed to stretch out more in this final track, adding a depth of exploratory sound to the album’s final four minutes and playing into different tonalities before concluding.

So we’ve wandered through Vince Guaraldi’s music, forwards and backwards, until we arrived at his most spectacular and most humble production. A Charlie Brown Christmas feels like a standard that has always existed because it captures the peaceful, meditative nature of the holiday alongside the frantic, mysterious, and joyful. Three of the tunes—“Skating,” “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Linus and Lucy”—can be said to have ascended to the realm of jazz and holiday standards. Not bad for 30 minutes of television anchored by a simple jazz piano trio. We’ll come back to Guaraldi once more at some point in the future as we wander through my collection; next week, though, we’ll touch a different Christmas tradition.

You can listen to today’s album here: