Freddie Hubbard, First Light

Album of the Week, May 13, 2023

In the first two Freddie Hubbard albums that we’ve heard in our exploration of the CTI Records discography, we’ve heard straight-ahead small group jazz, though colored with fusion and jazz-funk. On First Light, his third outing as leader for CTI, his works take on a little more of the colors of Creed Taylor’s universe, with strings, pop music covers, classical arrangements, and casts of thousands, including Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Airto, George Benson, joined by Phil Kraus on vibes and a 20 piece orchestra. Throughout it all soars his serene trumpet and flugelhorn, marking this record as undeniably Freddie despite the new ingredients.

The title track is a classic Hubbard composition, with a floating minor-key melody played by the bandleader across a repeating funk accompaniment. Hubbard’s form is without par throughout his solo, beginning with the achingly beautiful opening solo that precedes the first statement of the theme. Unusually for Hubbard, there is an interlude for Hubert Laws and strings in the middle of the first statement before Hubbard returns with the theme once more, then ventures into the solo proper. Here the motifs are more subtle than in some of his solos, featuring some extended passages played on a single note, one stretching as far as 16 bars and punctuated by a sting from the orchestra, which otherwise supports the sound without calling attention to itself. George Benson and Hubert Laws also have solo moments, but for the most part this one is all Freddie, and it fades out the last closing vamp of the music.

What comes back in is unexpected. Unlike the rest of the CTI stable, Hubbard had not really played much contemporary pop music on record, which makes his introductory notes to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” even more startling. The Paul and Linda McCartney single made its first chart appearance on August 2, 1971, a mere six weeks before Hubbard entered the studio to record First Light, so this may have felt to the trumpeter like striking while the iron was hot. The work, legendarily cobbled together from three different proto-songs, is here played in three different styles: a pure ballad for the opening “we’re so sorry, Uncle Albert,” a funk-jazz voice on “Admiral Halsey notified me,” and an ecstatically free take on “hands across the water.” Throughout it all Hubbard and his band are foregrounded, with the orchestra adding only spots of color throughout. There are so many quotable moments throughout the arrangement, including Ron Carter’s mic-dropping solo halfway through as the rest of the orchestra falls away (later sampled by the Beastie Boys for 1992’s “Professor Booty”!). It’s an exciting and thoughtful arrangement, as striking today as it must have been in 1971.

Moment to Moment,” a quieter ballad by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, opens with a pensive dialog between Ron Carter’s bass and Hubert Laws’ flute, underscored by the string section. Hubbard plays the melody straight, but here the real star is Sebesky’s sensitive orchestration. He may have been notorious for working so fast that his scores were sometimes as unreadable as a physician’s handwriting, but at his peak there was no one better, as this track shows.

Yesterday’s Dreams” continues with the orchestra taking a more prominent role, as Hubbard, here playing a muted trumpet, states the melody of one of the few tracks credited to Sebesky as co-composer. Ron Carter’s bass is a prominent heartbeat throughout, with Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes adding a plaintive note. Hubert Laws and the woodwinds in the orchestra call to each other under the last bit of Hubbard’s solo, with Carter adding portamento to his bass obbligato as the track fades.

Lonely Town” is an unexpected conclusion to the album, with the woodwinds and strings stating the melody of the Leonard Bernstein show tune, then suddenly giving way to Herbie and Ron Carter laying down a groove under Hubbard’s flugelhorn, accompanied only by the lightest of cymbal work from DeJohnette. The second verse picks up steam and features a magnificent bit of improvisation from Hubbard with imaginative underpinnings by Herbie and Carter. At the end the orchestra has the final word, closing out the track with notes of pensiveness and hope.

Hubbard’s work on First Light shows the trumpeter evolving and growing, and gaining a new audience in the process. The trilogy of albums we’ve listened to so far, beginning with Red Clay and continuing with Straight Life, is brought to a natural conclusion here, with all facets of the trumpeter represented. While Hubbard would continue to record for CTI, this three-album stretch is arguably unequalled in his discography for excellence and range. We’ll listen to some of those later performances soon, but next week we’ll check in with another CTI veteran as he journeys into less-traveled realms.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, Straight Life

Album of the Week, May 6, 2023

Hubert Laws’ Afro-Classic may have been the last album recorded for CTI Records in Rudy Van Gelder’s studios in 1970, but it was not the last album recorded in 1970 to be released. A month before Laws’ session, Freddie Hubbard returned to the studio where he had previously cut the instant classic Red Clay for a follow-up session. Again featuring Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and “Pablo” Landrum, the session also saw the addition of Jack DeJohnette on drums, Weldon Irvine on tambourine, and George Benson on guitar. Together the band recorded a session that was more spontaneous, took more risks, and ultimately may have been more successful than its predecessor.

The album opens with the title track, and it’s immediately arresting, with Hubbard’s fierce articulation of a rapidly tongued fanfare alternating with eruptions from DeJohnette. The tune then abruptly swings into a Latin-tinged funk groove, anchored by Herbie’s Fender and Ron Carter’s bass line, which alternates arpeggiated fifths, octaves and diminished sevenths. Joe Henderson takes the first solo, playing bold runs and then repeating the theme in ascending keys. This session was recorded a few months after his 1970 legendary live session for Milestone, which was released as If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and he is at the top of his improvisatory game here, transitioning seamlessly from ferocious runs into more serene reflections before handing over to Hubbard. Freddie’s trumpet tone was flawless at this point, pivoting from relaxed, precisely articulated runs to screaming blues shouts within a few bars. Along the way the music slips out of the funky groove into a more abstract utterance, then quietly returns to the groove with the burble of Herbie’s solo. He begins by taking a key from Freddie’s solo, but then takes off in a more abstract direction, playing against the rhythm and finally landing in time for George Benson to pick up the thread. You can hear players shouting encouragement behind Benson’s solo, as his soul-inflected licks shift into funk, then like Herbie shift out of time for sixteen bars or so before crashing back into the rhythm of the groove. The band then locks into the groove as DeJohnette and Landrum trade polyrhythms underneath. Hubbard returns with a high keening line that echoes his opening statement before bringing the volume down for a restatement of the theme. If certain performances of “Red Clay” leave one with the impression that Hubbard had given his all and could not possibly play more, “Straight Life”’s insistent groove and the fade-out insist that he could keep playing all day.

Weldon Irvine’s “Mr. Clean” follows. A grimier funk workout that sees the bass clinging to the tonic like a life raft, the horns call to mind a James Brown line before Freddie makes like Miles with a high lonesome call, as George Benson and Herbie Hancock trade licks beneath. Joe Henderson’s solo explores the tonality of the theme in an abstract workout as the band digs deeper into the groove. Van Gelder’s engineering here is amazing as the bass seems to deepen the further out Henderson goes, followed by Hancock, who innovates both in rhythm and in tonality. Hancock’s solo continues after Henderson drops back, continuing to echo into outer space yet still rooted in the groove. Benson’s solo is similarly deep, bridging over from soul to funk to abstraction in the same breath. Throughout the rhythm section of DeJohnette and Carter stay locked into the groove.

For the final track, a rendition of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke standard “Here’s That Rainy Day,” Freddie switches to the flugelhorn. In a 1973 interview, he noted that he had been playing the more mellow cousin of the trumpet for “about three or four years” (though his earliest recording credit on the instrument came on 1967’s Backlash). He claimed in the interview, “Now I can play it better than the trumpet, because it’s so much easier to play.” The creamy tone of his flugelhorn became one of Freddie’s signature sounds, and here it is put to superb use in a stripped down setting, recording the ballad with sensitive accompaniment from Benson on the guitar, for an effect that is reminiscent of “Why Was I Born?,” the duet that Coltrane recorded with Kenny Burrell on their 1962 collaboration. Hubbard closes the track with a long coda that seems to float effortlessly and eternally.

This second Hubbard album on CTI established his role as a leader among the label’s artists, and he would continue to record groundbreaking sets throughout the next few years. We’ll hear another, very different one next time.

You can listen to the album here:

Hubert Laws, Afro-Classic

Album of the Week, April 29, 2023

It’s hard to believe, but the four albums we’ve covered so far since the founding of Creed Taylor’s CTI label—Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, the Joe Farrell Quartet, and Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, plus the earlier reviewed Bill Evans Montreux II— were all recorded in 1970. Taylor kept an incredibly busy recording and release schedule with engineer Rudy Van Gelder in the latter’s studies in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and the label’s recordings in the first year were something of a who’s who of the early label. The last recording made in 1970 at Englewood Cliffs introduces another important artist on the CTI roster to this column, though it was actually his second recording for the label, as well as introducing another musical genre to the new label’s tapestry.

Flautist Hubert Laws was, by 1970, one of the most significant proponents of the jazz flute, having appeared on sessions with James Moody, Mongo Santamaria, Kai Winding, Bobby Timmons, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson, and Quincy Jones, as well as on Joe Zawinul’s self-titled masterpiece and Herbie Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda. He had recorded his debut as leader, The Laws of Jazz, in 1964 (which we’ll review another time), and his recording Crying Song was the first official release on the CTI label. But his approach to the instrument was still evolving, and Afro-Classic revealed a new facet of Laws’ work, with the introduction of classical music to the recording.

The combination of jazz and classical was not new; Gunther Schuller had introduced the concept in a 1957 lecture that named the combination third stream. True to the concept, Afro-Classic includes pop music treated like classical and jazz, and classical treated like jazz and blues, all wrapped in the now-trademark CTI gatefold cover with a brilliant Pete Turner photo.

The opening track, a cover of James Taylor’s then four-month-old “Fire and Rain,” presents the tune almost as a rondo, with an opening statement that in retrospect anticipates the synth-flute in Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and echoes spiritual jazz practice, before Bob James’ electric piano presents the opening verse as a sonata. Ron Carter’s bass and Fred Waits’ drums (with an assist from Airto on percussion) then alter the template again, with a second statement of the melody as a blues groove. It all swirls together into a greasy, funky reverie, before returning to the more sonata-like form of the beginning and fading out on a revisitation of the groove. Don Sebesky is credited with arrangements on the album, but he keeps a light touch throughout.

From this opening, Laws pivots into a more pure classical approach with an arrangement of the Allegro from Bach’s Concerto No. 3 in D (BWV 1054). Except for the use of electric piano, and the addition of Gene Bertoncini’s acoustic guitar, the arrangement is taken straight, with a bassoon added to fill out the arrangement with some of the woodwind parts. The recording would not have been out of place on my childhood classical radio station—or as incidental music for one of the later Charlie Brown TV specials. In fact, I kept thinking about the score to “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,” which supplemented Vince Guaraldi’s iconic compositions with a Bach sonata for the characters in the department store scene.

The “Theme from Love Story” is likewise played “straight” for its opening, the theme—familiar to those who suffered through hours of easy-listening orchestral arrangements in the late 1970s—stated by Laws on the baritone flute. Sebesky’s arrangement is mercifully understated, allowing Laws’ gentle jazz inflections on the chorus to play out in counterpoint with the bassoon and acoustic guitar, before the entrance of Ron Carter’s bass pedal point signals a variation with a gentle Latin groove. The next verse digs deeper into this concept, with Laws and the percussionists creating a swirling minor-key soundscape over the grounding of Ron Carter’s bass and Bob James’ piano, before returning to a recapitulation of the melody. It’s a great example of Laws’ talent for beginning with familiar, unprepossessing melodies and taking them into highly interesting places.

Returning to Bach with “Passacaglia in C Minor” (BWV 582), the opening statement is sketched by Carter’s bass line, then elaborated by James with light accompaniment from the percussion. Laws and James trade the theme back and forth, effectively serving as the right and left hand of the keyboard part, before the ensemble chases the tune down to the tonic. Subsequent verses explore jazz improvisations on the theme, with increasingly strong jazz inflections, before a reverb-heavy flute solo and a grooved-out statement by James—in 6/8 time—take us over the edge into a modal workout. As the piece passes the ten-minute mark, Van Gelder and the musicians find some remarkable new tones, with arco cello, treated electric piano, and reverb-heavy flute noise swirling the melody into something like an exploration of inner space. The recapitulation of the theme is once more taken straight, re-grounding the work in the original composition. It’s a masterful unification of the differing approaches to music on the album into a single artistic statement.

The album concludes with Mozart’s “Flute Sonata in F” (K.13), which—like the Bach Allegro—could be mistaken for a classical recital but for the prominent bass and James’ electric piano. Coming after the phantasmagoria of “Passacaglia,” it’s a cheeky punctuation point on an album that quietly upsets any pre-conceived notions the listener might have regarding the lines of separation between jazz and classical music.

Laws brought a significant new stream of influence to CTI with this record, one that he and other performers on the label would revisit throughout the rest of its run. We’ll hear from Laws, and classical influences again. In the meantime, if you are intrigued by his approach to jazz flute, you might want to check out my Exfiltration Radio show “Flute’n the Blues.”

You can listen to the album here:

Stanley Turrentine, Sugar

Album of the Week, April 22, 2023

Creed Taylor, and CTI Records, had a way of changing the way that musicians approached the world. We’ve seen how Antônio Carlos Jobim and Wes Montgomery transitioned to something like instrumental pop, and how Freddie Hubbard went from a post-bop young lion to something like a John the Baptist of jazz-funk. Today we’ll meet another young player whose trajectory followed a very similar path to Hubbard’s. He left behind a conventional recording career with Blue Note to become something like a sex symbol.

When I first started listening to jazz, I was conscious of the “smooth jazz” phenomenon. While there was a whole lot of Kenny G about it, smooth jazz could also manifest as “quiet storm,” a name bestowed by a Washington, DC area DJ. This sub-genre blended jazz and easy listening into a broth that seemed to be designed for playing late at night, with the lights low and someone with a Barry White voice murmuring unspeakably sexy things. 

Anyway. The point is that, by that date, some 25 years after Stanley Turrentine released Sugar as the sixth release on the new CTI Records label, you probably knew him as a smooth jazz, or even quiet storm, artist. But if you listened to his output through the 1960s on Blue Note Records, there was none of that in his sound. Sugar, recorded as his first date as a leader after leaving Blue Note, is where it all began—not least of which in the album cover.

It must be said that neither of the individuals on the cover of Sugar is Stanley Turrentine. It must also, in fairness, be said that there is very little of the licentiousness suggested by the cover present in the music. But the association of Turrentine with something incredibly sexy was begun with this cover, and it stuck.

Let’s talk about the music now (for heaven’s sake), because it’s profoundly different from what the cover would suggest. Far from a smooth jazz sound, it is a heck of a combo that assembles at Englewood Cliffs in November 1970: Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Butch Cornell on organ, George Benson on guitar; the redoubtable Ron Carter on bass; and Billy Kaye on drums and “Pablo” Landrum on congas. The great Lonnie Liston Smith plays electric piano on the title track, replacing Cornell. 

There are just three tracks on the album. “Sugar” is a slow blues that’s delivered in an understated way by all but Kaye, who uses the lower end of the drum kit to great effect on the opening to set up a dramatic foil. Benson, who will appear again in this series, lays back behind Turrentine’s opening solo, commenting and providing counterpoint, slowly bringing his part up into a coequal voice. Van Gelder and Taylor get the stereo separation just right, situating him in the right channel so that you can close your eyes and see the interplay between the two musicians. Turrentine’s solo is heavily influenced by soul jazz here, with riffs that would not be out of place on one of Benson’s recordings with “Brother” Jack McDuff. Hubbard arrives after the saxophonist finishes, with a relaxed opening that slowly turns up the heat until he fairly boils over. Benson’s touch on the guitar brings some of the same soul-jazz experience to the track; he began his career at 21 recording with “Brother” Jack and Lonnie Liston Smith, and you can hear some of that sanctified groove in his approach, especially as the horns play in concert. Throughout, the rhythm section is in the pocket, delivering the asked-for groove.

Sunshine Alley” is a Butch Cornell tune, and announces the organist’s approach through a modal Hammond riff that shifts through three chord transitions into the relative major, a nifty trick that sets up a lengthy workout for the band as Turrentine lays back. In fact, for the first four minutes, you could be forgiven for mistaking the track for an organ trio performance. Benson’s arrival does little to diminish the overall impression, as he plays with an easy virtuosity that showcases why Miles tapped him for Miles in the Sky. Hubbard follows with a blistering solo that demonstrates multiple timbres, new harmonic sequences that lurk unimagined in the deceptively complicated blues, and generally remind one that this was recorded in the same calendar year as Red Clay. Turrentine finally steps up for a solo, at seven minutes and 55 seconds into this ten-minute long track, and opens the track up harmonically and rhythmically while still playing into the groove. He plays not so much with greater virtuosity as with greater heat, bringing the bubbling congas up to the fore and generally reclaiming the track as his own before bringing it to a close. 

It might raise an eyebrow to note John Coltrane’s “Impressions” on this album and with these players. It’s no sloughed-off performance, either. Cornell gives it a fierce fanfare on the Hammond, and the band states the famous theme in a slightly swung time, putting their own stamp on the great Trane original. Turrentine takes the first solo and plays over six choruses, in what amounts to a virtuosic demonstration of the church-shouting power of his soul jazz formulation. His solo slips into different tempi and performance styles, in the transition between the second and third choruses echoing Trane’s “sheets of sound,” then sixteen bars later slipping in a quick quote from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” before bending the time as if about to take flight. But the most impressive thing about the solo is the deliberate groundedness of it all. Turrentine is not going to disappear into the overblown harmonics that Trane (or his disciple Pharoah Sanders) would bring to performances of this tune, but he’s also not going to let you think of him as merely a soul player. The next few choruses, led by Cornell, similarly play with expectations, going from a straight organ trio to a complex set of call-and-response shouts with the horns and back into the organ. When Hubbard takes the next solo, it’s to throw in some casually brilliant triple-tongued moments of excitement that seem to pick up the music and shift it into a different realm for a quick moment. Benson’s solo picks up some of the rhythmic shifts that Hubbard introduces and lands a few of his own, dropping in a polyrhythmic syncopated pattern that bends the time. The horns introduce a countermelody at the top of the next chorus that was clearly written out but in context feels slyly thrown in as though to say, there is more than one definitive reading of this tune. The overall effect, when considering Trane’s performance of his early magnum opus, is happily dislocating, as though one had showed up at a Ramones concert only to find them playing Bach fugues instead. Turrentine does us the favor of explicitly illustrating the deep connection between the elder saxophonist’s flights of spiritual ecstasy and the deceptively approachable soul and blues traditions from which they sprouted.

Turrentine’s first album as a leader for CTI was the beginning of two features of the rest of the label’s discography: a series of highly regarded sets as leader, and a working partnership with Freddie Hubbard that saw both of them appearing on each other’s recordings throughout the rest of the 1970s. We’ll hear from Turrentine again in this column. But first, we’ll return to the more crossover-focused side of the roster and hear from another significant player in the label’s evolution.

You can listen to the album here:

Joe Farrell, Joe Farrell Quartet

Album of the Week, April 15, 2023

While we’ve heard a few different musical styles on our tour of CTI Records’ catalog so far, most of the bandleaders have been established musical names. Today’s record shows that not only could Creed Taylor boost the careers of already-well-known musicians, but he could also give a start to lesser-known musicians.

Joe Farrell (born Joseph Carl Firrantello in 1937) got his start as a twenty-year-old saxophonist in the Ralph Materie band and went on to record with a number of bands and small groups during the 1960s, most notably with Charles Mingus and Andrew Hill. His breakthrough during the late 1960s came when Elvin Jones, following John Coltrane’s death, formed a trio with Farrell and Jimmy Garrison; the trio recorded Puttin’ It Together and The Ultimate for Blue Note Records.

But Farrell is perhaps best known for his work with Chick Corea and his Return to Forever band, most notably recording the flute solo on “Spain” on Corea’s 1973 album Light As A Feather. On this recording, only the fourth to be released on CTI, we catch the partnership close to its beginning, with Farrell and Corea joined by frequent Corea collaborator Dave Holland on bass and the redoubtable Jack DeJohnette on drums. That the band is joined by fellow electric-period Miles associate John McLaughlin on two tracks would tend to suggest a certain direction for the sound of the album, and you’d be partly right.

Indeed, the opening track, “Follow Your Heart,” is a tasty post-Bitches Brew fusion classic, written by McLaughlin and powered by his guitar and DeJohnette’s drums, with Holland’s bass line providing a consistent heartbeat. Farrell begins with a statement of the tune and then slowly deconstructs it, in a solo augmented in its final verse with some light but noticeable reverb. McLaughlin’s solo follows Farrell’s lead, playing around the tune in two- and three-note groupings, again with the reverb, which Taylor seems to add expressly for the purpose of thumbing his nose at acoustic music purists.

Collage for Polly” is a much more experimental track that, for two minutes, layers echoing washes of flute and saxophone sound over sound effects from Corea, Holland and DeJohnette. It starts out in the same vein as some of the more experimental tracks on Weather Report but spins out into a more unstructured jam, leaving one slightly relieved when it’s over.

Circle in the Square,” conversely, would have been at home on most of Miles’ Second Great Quintet albums. Beginning with a repeated descending theme in the bass by Holland, A McCoy Tyner-esque statement of theme is followed by a Farrell solo on soprano saxophone over a free workout by Corea and DeJohnette that increases in intensity and ferocity throughout. The track underscores Farrell’s affinity for Coltrane-like modal workouts and is a slow burn.

Molten Glass” switches gears as it opens the second side to a piano-and-bass driven melody, over which Farrell’s flute travels fluidly. Though the work is a Farrell original, it bears some affinity to Corea’s “Windows,” as memorably recorded in a group with the great Hubert Laws on flute (about whom, more later). It’s a sunny little workout and genuinely fun to listen to.

This track also gives us the concept for the cover, and we really should talk about the cover. The quiet black Helvetica on white background of the early CTI records that we’ve seen is well and truly gone, in favor of evocative, highly saturated photography (in this case, red glass apparently fresh out of the furnace). We’ll see a lot more of this, in less abstract ways, in the next few weeks.

The next track, “Alter Ego,” brings us back to the same concept as “Collage for Polly” — lots of reverb-y flute over a Dave Holland bass line. Points for experimentation but I wouldn’t call this track essential. By contrast, “Song of the Wind” is another duo track, this time with Chick Corea. Here the song sounds like a Chick composition because it is a Chick composition, but Farrell’s opening soprano sax solo and mid-tune flute solo are gorgeously meditative.

Motion” wraps up the album with another full group (plus McLaughlin) workout that takes us solidly into free jazz territory. Here McLaughlin’s guitar chirps and groans over a screaming soprano line from Farrell and absolute chaos in the rhythm section: lots of high octaves in the piano contrasted against screaming arco bass and the most explosive drumming from DeJohnette of the record. It all ends with a descending glissando scraping the strings of the guitar. As free jazz workouts go, it’s invigorating in execution, if a little lightweight in concept.

This first album from Joe Farrell sees him staking a distinct corner that explores aspects of fusion, free jazz, and experimental noise making. Some aspects of those elements will follow him into his next albums for CTI, but first we’ll dive straight back into soul-jazz and the surprising career evolution of another Blue Note Records alumnus.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, Red Clay

Album of the Week, April 8, 2023

We’ve heard one side of Creed Taylor’s new CTI label in the past few weeks as we listened to how he brought impeccable personnel and lush orchestrations to bear on Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Wave and Wes Montgomery’s Road Song. What we will hear today is something else: a record with no strings, just five players in the studio stretching out into loose 7 to 12 minute long jams. And at the center is a player we’ve heard from before: Freddie Hubbard.

Before this point, we’ve mostly encountered Hubbard as a sideman, in some of the great early recordings of both Herbie Hancock (Takin’ Off, My Point of View, Maiden Voyage) and Wayne Shorter (Speak No Evil, The All Seeing Eye). But at the same time that these recordings were happening, he had a productive and prolific career as a leader, recording nine sessions for Blue Note, three for Atlantic, and two for Impulse! between 1960 and 1969. Most of these sessions are classic hard bop or post bop, with Hubbard’s fiercely precise tone at the center of them. But in January 1970, Hubbard entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio at Englewood Cliffs to make a different sort of session, his first for CTI. He was joined by a formidable lineup of players: Herbie Hancock on electric piano and Hammond organ, Ron Carter on bass, Joe Henderson on tenor sax, and the young Lenny White on drums.

White was no novice, having already appeared on Miles’ fusion masterpiece Bitches Brew, but he was only 20 years old and still getting started. He has noted that it’s something of a miracle that he was on the session at all; apparently Hubbard had originally called Tony Williams to do the record, but Williams begged off, citing Miles’ growing irritation at the number of players who recorded with “his” rhythm section to make their albums sound good. So White got the call. He would continue to record with Miles following this record (as we’ve heard on Champions), so apparently the decision was a good one for all concerned.

It’s hard to imagine the finished product without White’s drums at the center. The title track, which opens the album, is a funky jam that’s kept tight by Ron Carter’s insanely earworm-y bass line and at the same time kept loose by White’s drumming, which seem equally informed by Tony Williams’ inventions and Clyde Stubblefield’s “funky drummer” approach on the records James Brown was making at the time. The tune, supposedly based on the changes to “Sunny,” circles around the same changes for the entirety of the 12+ minute song, trading chordal complexity for the pure joy of the jam. Especially notable here are the solos from the two horns, with Hubbard hitting effortless highs and Henderson bringing a level of darkness and complexity to his solo that is reminiscent of some of his own early 1970s masterpieces. At 9 minutes in, the rest of the players and Carter and White take us into the engine room to unveil the heart of the groove. It’s a complete lesson in the power of the bass in funk-jazz music, and one that features prominently on my mix highlighting jazz bassists, “the low end theory.”

Delphia” starts out as a ballad with a sensitive introduction by Hubbard and Henderson (on flute), but soon morphs into a swinging blues. Unusually, Herbie Hancock plays Hammond organ on the entirety of the tune, which includes some wonderful syncopation on the chorus and some attentive accompaniment behind Hubbard’s solo. Henderson’s flute, only heard on the opening and closing verses, is brilliantly sensitive here, as is Carter’s bass.

Suite Sioux” opens with a riff by Hancock on the Fender Rhodes, leading into the opening statement of the theme by Henderson and Hubbard. This arrangement is notable for both the use of space—the dialog between Fender and horns is set off by ample beats of silence each time—and Hubbard’s eloquent solo. Hancock’s solo floats over White’s cymbal work until the drummer steps up to his own solo spotlight, highlighting one of the oddities of the recording: the bass drum, which has very little resonance and sounds as though it’s stuffed full of socks. Apparently the young drummer had brought his own kit, which included a bass drum that had been cut down from an oil can; while he preferred the resonant sound, Van Gelder couldn’t or wouldn’t get it to record in the studio, so they had to use another drum that White couldn’t stand but at least didn’t overshadow the rest of the band.

The Intrepid Fox” returns to the fiery material of the opening for another extended jazz-funk jam. Another cut that would, like “Red Clay,” be a highlight of Hubbard’s live sets for years to come, this one is less groove oriented and more incendiary, and features a wicked groove from the bass together with a complex interlocking melodic statement from the horns. In some ways reminiscent of Henderson’s recently recorded “Power to the People” and “Isotope,” the saxophonist’s solo on this tune threatens to steal the show as he plays with rhythmic and chordal structures throughout. Hancock’s solo takes us into slightly more meditative territory, until Hubbard returns with a reprise of the melody.

The record as a whole was a hit for Hubbard and for the young CTI label, and helped to shape some of the sound of the coming decade. We’ll hear a lot more from Freddie in the coming weeks. But first we’ll hear from some other Miles-adjacent musicians exploring a slightly different side of the electric jazz future.

You can listen to the album here:

Wes Montgomery, Road Song

Album of the Week, April 1, 2023

Though still technically under the banner of A&M Records, Creed Taylor’s CTI had already firmly established its visual identity by the late 1960s, as we saw with last week’s look at Wave. Today we explore some of the development of its sound by looking at the twelfth record in the catalog, a posthumous release from guitarist Wes Montgomery.

Montgomery had begun his career in the late 1940s with Lionel Hampton, having taught himself the guitar at night while working during the day for the milk company. When the big band gig didn’t pan out, he returned to working day jobs while forming a combo with his brothers and playing small clubs. He was discovered in 1958 by Cannonball Adderley, who recommended to Orrin Keepnews that he sign Montgomery to his Riverside Records label. Montgomery went on to record a well regarded string of albums on Riverside before leaving in 1963 for Verve to record with Creed Taylor.

Taylor saw the potential for Montgomery’s clean, melodic style to cross over into the instrumental pop market and recorded a series of albums that established him as a bankable star, beginning with Movin’ Wes and including the great Bumpin’, which featured the guitarist with one of the great over the top ‘60s pop string sections on the title track. The orchestra on this recording was arranged by Don Sebesky. We’ll hear a lot about Sebesky over the course of these reviews; for now I’ll just observe that this is the first name in this column that I first saw in a Boston Pops program.

So it was that, following a string of recordings for Verve that include some great small group sessions with Jimmy Smith and a lot of instrumental pop, Montgomery recorded several sessions for Taylor’s sub-label CTI, leading off the label’s discography with A Day in the Life and returning to Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio on May 7 and 8, 1968 to record this album. Just over a month later he was dead, having suffered a heart attack at home in Indianapolis at the age of 45. Was the final recording he made in his lifetime worthy of his legacy?

I think it kind of depends on how you look at it. A jazz session it’s not, and it’s not the best instrumental pop he ever recorded either. Sebesky’s arrangement on “Bumpin’” is so legendary that it led off a 1990s Verve compilation of “acid jazz.” The arrangements on Road Song, alas, are not quite so stunning. Montgomery’s guitar does not quite engage with the strings and horns and harpsichord(!) around him. But the band that Taylor assembled here is no group of slouches, with Herbie Hancock, drummer Grady Tate, pianist Hank Jones (that’s him on the harpsichord), and the great bassist Richard Davis joining the strings. The overall effect is pleasant enough, though it must be said that the main pleasures of the album are Montgomery’s legendary touch with the guitar and not the setting Taylor puts him in.

So far we’ve heard the more instrumental pop, almost easy listening side of the CTI label. We’ll hear a very different sound next time, one that would come to dominate the way the label was perceived—and change the course of jazz as it entered the 1970s.

You can listen to the album here:

Antônio Carlos Jobim: Wave

Album of the Week, March 25, 2023

We’re going to enter a new sonic space for the next stretch of this column. While it’s still jazz by most definitions of the word, some of the albums might be in a hyphenated genre. Some of them might even have strings and feel a little more like “smooth” than most of the recordings we’ve featured so far. That’s certainly true of the first recording from the CTI label that we will feature in this series.

Antônio Carlos Jobim was 31 when his music came to worldwide attention, through recordings made by the Brazilian singer/guitarist João Gilberto, but he didn’t become really famous until five years later, when Gilberto teamed up with saxophonist Stan Getz for one of the most famous albums of all time. I can’t overemphasize how pivotal 1963’s Getz/Gilberto was. Featuring a full slate of Jobim’s compositions, as well as the composer himself at the piano, two of the tracks,“Corcovado” and “The Girl from Ipanema,” became international hits. If earlier recordings like Vince Guaraldi’s Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus and Getz’s Jazz Samba had lit a small flame beneath the kindling of America’s appetite for Brazilian music, Getz/Gilberto blew on the fire until it became a roaring inferno. The trend was not lost on the producer of Getz/Gilberto, Creed Taylor.

We’ve met Taylor before, and have talked about the first label he founded, the seminal Impulse! Records, as well as the work he began at Verve where he recorded Bill Evans as well as Getz and Gilberto—and Jobim. By 1967 Taylor was beginning to take increasing creative control of the recordings he issued at Verve, going so far as to start a sub-label, CTI (for Creed Taylor Incorporated) at which he could exert a significant amount of influence over everything from the graphic identity (always a priority for Taylor from the earliest orange and black days of Impulse!) to the sound.

The CTI graphic identity changed slightly over the years of the label, but the foundations—strong typography (initially, Helvetica), use of white (or black) space on the cover to set off striking photographs, heavy gatefold jackets with more photos (usually black and white) inside—remained consistent throughout the label’s run. I’ve made a point to seek out CTI recordings in used record shops and they always have a substantial-ness to them that anticipates the solidity of modern reissues. Taylor was disinterested in cutting corners.

The same applies to the musicians that Taylor brought to the studio. There was often (but not always) a string section; in this recording the string arrangements and conducting is by Claus Ogerman, who had previously worked with Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra and who scored some 60-70 albums with Taylor. The rest of the orchestra with Jobim is unusual: no trumpets, no saxophones, but trombone, French horn, flute, drums and bass, the latter played by the great Ron Carter. And Jobim plays piano, but also guitar and harpsichord. Taylor was going for a definitive kind of sound. There is no edge to this sound, only the swelling and receding of the compositions. In lesser hands, this formula might easily disintegrate into “easy listening” pablum, but with Jobim at the keyboard and the intelligence of Ogerman in the arrangements, the sound sparkles and pulses with interest.

The record does not feature Jobim’s earlier bossa nova hits; there’s no “Desafinado,” no “Ipanema.” But what’s here is highly rewarding as well. The title track is a quietly soulful meditation, enlivened by flute and the harpsichord playing of Jobim. “The Red Blouse” is more in the classic samba mode, with its dancelike rhythms anchored by the redoubtable Ron Carter and the drummer, whose inventive snare work keeps everything hopping. (There are three percussionists credited, Bobby Rosengarden, Domum Romāo, and Claudio Slon; Slon is called out as a “mastermind” of the recording in the liner notes and is the one behind the drum kit.) Many of the tracks, including “Look to the Sky,” feature soulful trombone work by Urbie Green, with assistance from Jimmy Cleveland.

If one is to criticize any aspect of the recording, which was engineered by the great Rudy Van Gelder, it is the sound of Jobim’s piano, which sometimes lacks the punch and clarity that we hear in other RVG recordings; this may be due to the strings in the mix. By contrast, Jobim’s guitar, front and center on “Batidinha” and “Triste,” is recorded clearly and is a model of rhythmic and chordal precision, a cool center around which the rest of the tracks are built. “Captain Bacardi” closes out with a pulsing bossa nova rhythm on the drums, piano and guitar, a brisk trombone solo, percussive notes from the cuíca, and a seriously funky Ron Carter bass line. The track simmers along, threatening to bubble over at any moment and belying any thought that we’ve

We are likely to hear more Jobim as I continue my survey of jazz records, but our next stop on our tour through CTI will take us in a slightly different direction. We’ll check that out next time.

You can listen to the album here:

Kronos Quartet, Pieces of Africa

Album of the Week, March 18, 2023

Coming from the austerity of Black Angels, you might be forgiven for thinking of the Kronos Quartet as a Very Serious Ensemble™. So the opening track on Pieces of Africa, the driving “Mai Nozipo,” might come as a shock. There’s not much austerity here. Instead, there are Ngoma drums and shakers (hosho) from Zimbabwe, played by the composer Dumisani Maraire, and a melody, in a major key, that seems as much driven by the rhythm as floating above it. But Pieces of Africa wasn’t a departure for Kronos; it was the logical outcome of their practice of commissioning new works for string quartet—and the growing accessibility of “world music” as a viable market segment.

All of Kronos’s recordings on the Nonesuch label, where they rubbed shoulders with late 20th century giants like Steve Reich, championed new music and new composers. This was partly born from ideological bent and partly from necessity, given a gap in the market between the existing repertoire for string quartet and Kronos’ aspirations. On their second album for Nonesuch, titled White Man Sleeps, the title work was a commission by South African/Swiss composer Kevin Volans, who sought to reconcile the music of Black South Africa with European 20th century compositional forms. Only the first and fifth movements of the quartet appeared on the album, however. But in the year following Black Angels the quartet released a series of “CD singles” of individual compositions, including Volans’ String Quartet No. 2 “Hunting/Gathering.” One supposes the renewed collaboration may have spurred the idea of recording the entirety of “White Man Sleeps,” which found its way onto the album.

Kronos founder David Harrington has also commented that the piece had roots in his tenth grade music class, when he heard recordings of music from Ghana that touched him and inspired the thought that “I really want my violin to have that kind of a sound someday.” He built relationships with other African composers over the years, resulting in the works on the album.

Indeed, the Volans quartet is something of an outlier on the album. Most of the works here are more like “Mai Nozipo”: melodic, joyous, rhythmic, and written for quartet augmented with other sounds including percussion, African string instruments, and voice. The second work is in a minor mode but no less buoyant for that, and features the first vocals, by the Moroccan composer Hassan Hakmoun and his party.

The third, “Tilliboyo,” is a work that I have some personal history with. Written for kora and string quartet by Gambian composer Foday Musa Suso, it’s a meditative but quietly bright work that burbles along on the strength of the interaction between the plucked lower strings and kora and the bowed first violin melody. I have, at various times, put it on mix tapes and used it as radio intro music for a radio commercial on WTJU asking community-area writers to send in their poetry and prose to the literary magazine I was trying to get off the ground, Rag & Bone. The fourth track, Ugandan composer Justinian Tamusuza’s “Ekitundu Ekisooka,” continues in a similar optimistic vein, but with a stronger rhythmic drive.

Escalay (Waterwheel),” by the late Nubian Egyptian composer Hamza El Din, is a horse of a different color. Beginning with a slow introduction on the lute, first solo then accompanied by pizzicato strings, one hears the water start to drip slowly into the raceway of the mill, before the tempo picks up and a driving theme enters in the cello. The violin plays a meditative exploration of the theme above the other strings as the piece stretches into a long coda (this is the longest single track on the record, at over twelve minutes). The effect is trance-inducing and almost minimalist. It’s another work that found its way onto mix tapes, despite its length, as is the following song, Obo Addy’s “Wawshishijay (Our Beginning)” (which featured on my 1992 mix “Sing into my mouth”). “Wawshishijay” includes polyrhythms on various percussion instruments played by the composer, and a sung chorus in the second “verse.”

“White Man Sleeps” follows (on the CD track list, which I believe to be the original sequence), and what is immediately apparent in the first movement is Volans’ affinity for the minimalist composers. If you’re not prepared for the high repetition of the theme in the violins at the end, it might drive you to distraction. But the second and fourth movements have more traditional melodies and are almost surprisingly sweet after the austerity of the first movement. The third and fifth movements return to the more minimal statements, here played in the lowest strings. At the time, I found it the least compelling music on the album, but now the second movement in particular strikes me as standing alongside some of the strongest melodic statements for string quartet that Kronos ever made.

The final track (in the CD sequence; on the LP it closes out side three) is the hymn-like singalong “Kutambarara (Spreading),” again by Maraire. This one is truly the summation: polyrhythms in the percussion and mbira, lead vocals by the composer, a full on African choir. What it doesn’t have is much of a soloistic presence from the Kronos Quartet, who are here strictly to provide the chords and carry a constant rhythmic pulse. They seem pretty happy to be along for the ride, though, and inevitably this was another track that my 20-year-old self splashed onto mix tapes.

Granted that I was always a little weird about putting whatever genre I wanted onto a mix tape, but that fact that I’ve used that phrase about multiple tracks on a string quartet album suggests there is definitely something unusual about this one. The listening public thought so too: it became the first album to top the Billboard charts for both classical and world music recordings. I haven’t bought much Kronos on vinyl; they were already firmly into the CD age at their beginning. But the fact that this album was reissued a few years ago speaks to its appeal. It’s a jubilant record from start to finish and one well worth spending time with.

You can listen to the album here:

Kronos Quartet, Black Angels

Album of the Week, March 11, 2023

I’ve written about my experience finding Black Angels before, in the year of the 30th anniversary of the release of the album. Everything about what I wrote then remains true now: the searing intensity of the performances, the indelible impression it made on my memory. But how did Kronos get into the place where they made this recording?

It starts with the title piece. David Harrington has said that a 1973 performance of George Crumb’s quartet in protest of the Vietnam War was his inspiration to found Kronos, and you can hear his love for the work in the intensity of the performance. You can also hear something else: the degree of studio engineering it took to realize the experience. “Black Angels” features amplified string instruments, a gong and other percussion instruments as well as chanting and other sounds, and the recording brings all the unusual sound to the fore and, well, beats the listener about the head and shoulder with it. It’s inescapable and haunting, and the quiet opening of the middle movement is as powerfully contemplative as anything on record. The middle movement also features the chanted “Ein, zwei, drei, veir” (here pronounced fear) and a moment of contemplative requiem performed by the lower strings, with the high strings sounding horror-movie scratches above. The final movement features the “God music” in which the quartet is joined by music from crystal glasses.

Which makes the transition into the next work, a studio version of Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet “Spem in Alium” rearranged for overdubbed string quartet, slightly less bewildering than it appears on paper. I talked a lot with singer friends about this performance when I was in college; the concept of a string quartet playing 40 different parts from one massive score was as novel to us as, I suspect, the existence of the motet itself. (I grew up on classical radio, but even our relatively cerebral channels WGH (and subsequently WHRO) played very little repertoire that was older than Bach.)

Is the Kronos adaptation of the motet successful? I’d have to say it’s mixed. Certainly the depth of sound from the overdubbed strings is powerful, but nowhere near as impactful as a performance with choir. The studio magic that Kronos employed did not extend to creating the spatial illusion of being surrounded in a cathedral with eight vocal quintets, which is much of the “shock and awe” of the original motet. But it does powerfully convey the sense of colossal loss that seems to underlie so many of Tallis’s works, as a crypto-Catholic at the court of the King of England.

Doom. A Sigh” is in another space entirely, but maintains the thread of lament. Here the quartet seems to play mostly ambient or electrically amplified sounds, accompanying field recordings of folk songs from Hungary made by the composer István Márta that speak of the loss of the nation’s traditions under Communist rule.

The performance on Black Angels rarely lapses into irony, which makes the one exception, Charles Ives’ “They Are There!,” all the more striking. Accompanying a recording of Ives playing and singing his own composition, the effect of the piece appears to be to skewer the patriotism of the call to war that appears in the text of the work. One interpretation is that Ives, a pacifist, could “get fightin’ mad about his pacifism.” As a teenager coming out of the Reagan years of the Cold War, I tended to interpret Ives’ performance, recorded during the height of World War II, through a heavy lens of irony, keenly aware as I was of the cost of the massive military machine that kept the state of war simmering for more than forty years. Now that we know the cost of the fascism that the troops were fighting at the time, and have seen its resurgence in the last ten years, the ironic reading feels less true for me.

The record closes with a performance of the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8, which has been variously interpreted as being dedicated to the victims of fascism (a dedication endorsed and perhaps applied by the official Soviet regime on the quartet’s publication in 1960) and to an overwhelmed soul who contemplated suicide. The work pulls together all the threads from the other works, including threnodic passages that point back (forward?) to “Black Angels,” the requiem-like sadness of the opening movement, and an overwhelming sense of dread and loss.

The overall impact of Black Angels can be overwhelming, but it is highly recommended. After several albums of commissioned works, it earned the quartet many awards and nominations, and put Kronos firmly on the map as an essential, innovative ensemble, a reputation that the quartet would continue to re-earn through the following decade. That’s especially true with the album that we’ll review next week.

You can listen to the album here:

Kronos Quartet, Music of Bill Evans

Album of the Week, March 4, 2023

Over the albums of the past few weeks we’ve listened to the Bill Evans Trio play an assortment of covers and original Evans compositions. Today’s record pays tribute to Evans the composer—with help from of his collaborators—in an unusual form: the string quartet.

Violinist David Harrington formed the Kronos Quartet in Seattle in 1973, but soon relocated to San Francisco and the classic line-up—John Sherba on second violin, Hank Dutt on viola, and Jean Jeanrenaud on cello—was in place by 1978. The group focused on modern repertoire but did not limit itself to classical music, and its second major label release was 1985’s Monk Suite: Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk, featuring arrangements by Tom Darter and guest appearances by Ron Carter and Chuck Israels on bass. The album was a surprise hit, and the group followed it in 1986 with Music of Bill Evans, which also featured arrangements by Darter and guest appearances by Eddie Gómez and by guitarist Jim Hall. In another connection to Evans, the record was produced by Riverside Records founder Orrin Keepnews.

The arrangements throughout begin as transcriptions of the original trio performances, then branch out to add some solo opportunities for members of the quartet and their guests. The solos by Gómez on “Waltz for Debby” and “Very Early” shine brilliantly in this context, with a bite and snap on the opening number and a meditative glow on the second. A little seems lost in translation in the string solos in “Debby,” though, where the tone feels a little like a hoedown. One thing the quartet gets right in the opening number, though, is the fluidity of the time in the chorus, with the first rendition coming across as a bouncy swing and the second as a time-shifted, smeary triple rhythm.

Nardis” is a showcase for Gómez, who takes the opening solo with some ferocity. The intensity diminishes a little with the entrance of the violin solo, but overall it’s a fine rendition of the Miles/Evans classic, particularly the finale. “Re: Person I Knew” captures the shifting harmonic colors of the Evans classic (anagrammatically named for Keepnews), with Jeanrenaud’s cello ably providing the melodic and harmonic grounding originally provided by Chuck Israels’ bass. Of all the performances here, it translates best to the quartet form.

Time Remembered” is an exploration of the harmonic depths of Evans’ ballad playing. Hearing the string parts, one is tempted to go back and listen to the original recordings and revel in the newly clarified harmonies and chords, which sometimes seem to pass by too quickly and unremarked-upon in the trio recordings.

Jim Hall joins the quartet for the next three works: “Walking Up,” “Turn Out the Stars,” and “Fire.” As Keepnews writes in the liner notes, the outer two works of this “mini-suite” “could help destroy the myth that Evans was merely a master of slow tempos”; though the performance of “Walking Up” does not reach the velocity that Evans reached in his short-lived quartet with Jack DeJohnette, the energy is there, especially when Hall’s guitar begins to explore the harmonic complexities of the tune. “Turn Out the Stars,” by contrast, is a deeply introspective work, made all the more poignant by Hall’s unaccompanied, spontaneous closing solo in memory of his friend.

Peace Piece” closes the album. The quartet unhurriedly explores this great work by Evans that would later be mined by Miles Davis for “Flamenco Sketches,” with the second violin, viola and cello sketching the hypnotically repeating chords of the left hand and Harrington playing a transcription of Evans’ right hand. Here again in the string transcription, the brilliant strangeness of Evans’ harmonic senses shine more clearly, giving us a better appreciation for the genius of his conception.

Though the recording succeeds brilliantly both at illuminating Evans the composer and the performer, this would be the last of the Kronos albums to be devoted entirely to jazz. In subsequent albums they would lean into the contemporary repertoire for string quartets. We’ll hear a particularly notable performance from them next time.

You can listen to the album here:

Bill Evans, Montreux II

Album of the Week, February 25, 2023

It’s a little unfair to say that Bill Evans’ best albums were recorded in the 1960s. He had a productive decade in the 1970s, recording for Columbia, Milestone and Fantasy. But his most enduring compositions were written in the 1960s. We’ve already heard many of them; they continued to feature on the many live albums he recorded during the decade. Picking up a Bill Evans recording from the 1970s, therefore, the odds were that it was live and covered familiar ground… mostly.

Much of Evans’ creativity during these years, ultimately, was in his interpretation and in his song choices. Both elements are broadly on display in Montreux II, Evans’ second live recording from the Montreux Jazz Festival and his final recording for producer Creed Taylor, this time on Taylor’s own CTI label.

We’re going to hear a lot more about CTI in coming weeks (spoiler alert!), but in this early stage of evolution the label was a bright cross-section of straight ahead jazz, proto-jazz-funk, and some reasonably out-there avant-garde stuff. Consider that the first recorded artists in the CTI 6000 series included flautist Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard in an early jazz-funk masterpiece, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joe Farrell, and this Evans date. There is, however, very little of the hallmarks of the classic CTI period here – no big string section orchestrated by Don Sebesky, no jazz-funk, very little in the way of nods to popular music. There’s just the Bill Evans Trio, doing what they did best.

This incarnation of the trio saw Jack Dejohnette (who had left to join Miles following At the Montreux Jazz Festival) with drummer Marty Morell, who would work with Evans and bassist Eddie Gómez from 1968 to 1974. Morell brought steady support and a solid presence behind the kit; while his level of creativity was not as high as Dejohnette, his fills and statements were more assertive than those that Paul Motian, for instance, had brought to some of the earlier trio recordings.

The tone, overall, is jubilant. Evans was playing in an extroverted manner here (relatively speaking). Tempos are brighter and even the ballads have the hint of a smile at the corner of their mouths, metaphorically speaking. The repertoire, as noted above, is a combination of familiar Evans compositions (“Very Early,” “34 Skidoo,” “Peri’s Scope”), covers of well loved favorites (“How My Heart Sings,” “I Hear a Rhapsody,” “Israel”), and a surprise. Starting in the 1970s Evans began to turn toward modern pop songs for repertoire, and this record features a surprisingly tender cover of the 1966 Bacharach/David hit “Alfie.” The first half of the ballad is entirely Evans and Gómez, but Morell joins them for a rhythmically jubilant verse before the trio returns to the more contemplative tone of the opening, with Gómez’s bass providing propulsive energy under the melody. It serves as a blueprint for the whole album.

One of the saddest questions we must ask about Evans’ career is where he would be without his crippling heroin addiction. Unlike past addicts we’ve seen like Philly Joe Jones, John Coltrane, and others, Evans was always careful not to let his habit interfere with his performances or his studio work (except for one memorable occasion when he accidentally hit a nerve with the needle and had to play largely one-handed for a week), but it clearly became an escape for him, and one that was only replaced by cocaine or alcohol on the brief occasions when he managed to get off the drug, from the time he got hooked in 1958 to his death in 1980. It has been described as the “slowest suicide in history,” and there’s no doubt that it interfered with his compositional creativity. But throughout that incredible ear remained as the hallmark of this most sensitive pianist. And his work remains as an influential milestone on jazz, one that a variety of unlikely musicians would pay tribute to after his death. We’ll hear one of those recordings next time.

You can listen to the album here:

Bill Evans, At the Montreux Jazz Festival

Album of the Week, February 18, 2023

Bill Evans played in plenty of other formats than the piano trio. We first met him in this column as part of Miles Davis’ sextet. He also recorded with symphonic orchestra, backing up Herbie Mann and Don Eliott, and solo. But piano trio was by far his favorite configuration, and one can trace a lot of his development as a musician by listening to how his playing responds to changes of personnel in his trios over the years. We’ve heard some of those changes already, but none were more significant than the change of players heard on this recording.

Chuck Israels, who played bass in the trio off and on from 1962 to early 1966, was gone; his last recording (save a one-off 1975 date) with Evans was the 1966 Bill Evans at Town Hall concert. And Larry Bunker’s last recording with the trio was last week’s Trio ’65. In their places were two significant musicians who would play pivotal roles in Evans’ development.

Evans met bassist Eddie Gómez in 1966, when the latter was just 22 years old and recently graduated from Juilliard. The bassist would spend the next 11 years working with Evans, forming far and away the pianist’s longest lasting musical partnership. But Evans was to record with a rotating chair at drummer for several years, doing a few albums with Shelly Manne, another duo album with Jim Hall in the mode of Undercurrent, and a solo recording. Finally in 1968, Evans met the young drummer Jack DeJohnette, who was just coming off a celebrated stint as a member of Charles Lloyd’s quartet.

The galvanic impact that DeJohnette had on Evans’s sound can be heard from the opening tune, “One for Helen,” where the drummer’s sound seems to spur Evans to greater harmonic and rhythmic innovation. While the opening tempo and dynamic is already more extroverted than the performances on the preceding trio records, the excitement ratchets up another notch with the entrances of Gómez and DeJohnette. For one thing, the drummer’s fills are noticeable here, instead of genteelly blending in as did Motian’s, with small explosions on cymbal or snare bursting from the line from time to time. Gómez gets a lion’s share of the excitement, though, with a bass solo that manages to be both melodic and percussive at once. When Evans re-enters, he’s recharged, playing rhythmic variations back to back into the close of the tune.

A Sleepin’ Bee” retains some of the introspective hush of the performance on Trio 64, but Gómez and DeJohnette enliven it with their first entrance. Gómez’s entrance neatly echoes the descending left hand line in the piano before taking voice with a countermelody, while DeJohnette drops bombs and underscores the melodic exploration with rolls, excursions on the tom, and other outbursts, all while keeping a proverbial eye on Evans. The bass solo in the back half of the track is a neat trick, being both fully metrically and harmonically aligned with Evans’ take on the tune while simultaneously opening up the sound world of the piece with different chord voicings.

Earl Zindars’ “Mother of Earl” is a quieter ballad, here given a somber introduction by Evans that gives way to a more deliberate statement of the melody, and an extended bass solo in triplets. DeJohnette’s drums are mostly limited here to atmosphere, with some gentle work on the cymbals throughout.

Where things really start to get into gear is “Nardis.” Composed by Miles, the tune found its way into Evans’ repertoire in 1958 while he was playing in Cannonball Adderley’s band. First appearing on a Bill Evans Trio record with 1961’s Explorations, it remained a highlight of his live shows for the rest of his career, and this performance is a key argument for why. The performance here ably represents the model that so many preceding and subsequent takes would follow: a “straight” reading of the chorus by the full band, followed by an extended solo, here given to Gómez. In the liner notes to the album, the bassist notes that he views his instrument as a horn, and the solo here bears that out as an extended meditation on the tune. Evans follows with his own solo, picking up the rhythmic drive of Gómez’s bass line, as splashes on the cymbals and rolls on the snare and tom pour kerosene on the fire. DeJohnette then gets his own solo and takes some of the fill devices into a free exploration of time and tonality, wringing new colors out of the drum kit and revising the melody in a sort of slow motion fog before roaring back in a blistering crash of cymbals. The band close out with a recapitulation of the melody, trying on four closing chords before running up the scale and into the applause of the audience.

I Loves You, Porgy” finds Evans catching his proverbial breath, taking a solo exploration of the tune that is by turns introspective and extroverted. Starting about two minutes in, the free chordal explorations of the opening give way to a syncopated rhythm that seems to light up the keys under the pianist’s fingers, spurring an exploration of the tune in rhythm that lasts through most of the rest of the piece. The next track, “The Touch of Your Lips,” is in a similarly introspective mood until Gómez and DeJohnette rejoin about halfway through, when the temperature kicks up again.

Embraceable You” is a solo feature for Gómez, who freely explores the colors and range of the bass with soft accompaniment from Evans and DeJohnette. Evoking by turns the sound of a Spanish guitar, a Miles Davis solo line, and the most swinging bass line ever played by Milt Hinton, the bassist plays a sweetly introspective version of the tune, ending with rapt applause from the Montreux festival crowd.

Evans’ version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” is far less wistful than the version we last heard from Miles’ group (with Wynton Kelly on piano). If Miles’s version is hopeful, Evans’ version is positively jubilant. Gómez takes an extended bass solo in the lower range of the instrument, and DeJohnette trades eights with Evans, until finally the band crashes through the finale and the festival crowd goes wild. Evans and company return for a romp through “Walkin’ Up” at a breakneck pace to close out, leaving the audience roaring for more.

DeJohnette wouldn’t stay long with Evans, despite the sound the trio developed (which won Evans his second Grammy award). He played with Stan Getz briefly in November 1968, and was performing with Getz’s group at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London that month when he was discovered by Miles Davis. He went on to Miles’ band, performing alongside bassist Dave Holland in what has been dubbed the “lost” quintet, since none of that line-up’s music ever made it onto a studio recording. As for Evans, he would continue in the trio format, and we’ll hear one more outing from his trio next time.

You can listen to the album here:

Bill Evans Trio, Trio ’65

Album of the Week, February 11, 2023

Bill Evans didn’t record much in 1964—he was too busy touring. Aside from a studio session with Stan Getz, Ron Carter (alternating with Richard Davis) and Elvin Jones, his only recorded output from the year was a session with singer Monica Zetterlund (appearing under her name as Waltz for Debby) and live sessions in California and Europe. None of those sessions included Gary Peacock, whose contributions to Evans’ catalog began and ended with Trio 64. Instead, Evans was back touring with Chuck Israels and a new drummer, Larry Bunker.

The new album, which like its predecessor was recorded in one session in New York City, on February 3, 1965, follows a similar format: all standards, no originals, and more than a few numbers that Evans had recorded before. As for the players, we’ve met Israels before; Bunker is new to this column, but not to jazz. He had one of the most varied careers of a jazz drummer ever, having appeared on records over the course of his career for (deep breath): Peggy Lee including Black Coffee, Buddy Collette, Stan Getz, Stan Kenton including A Merry Christmas!, Gary Burton, Chet Baker, Benny Carter, Clare Fischer, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Plas Johnson, Johnny Mandel, Shelly Manne, Carmen McRae, Oliver Nelson, Paul Horn, Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Pete Rugolo, Bud Shank, Lalo Schifrin, Sarah Vaughan, Wendy Waldman, the Fifth Dimension including Stoned Soul Picnic, Tim Buckley on Sefronia, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Franks, Diane Schuur, Kenny Rogers, Walter Murphy, Barry Manilow, Michael Bolton, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, Diana Kraal, Cheryl Bentyne, Vince Gill, Robert Palmer, U2 (he is the timpani player on “Hawkmoon 269,” from Rattle & Hum), and Christina Aguilera, on My Kind of Christmas. A session drummer at heart, he nevertheless made six recordings with Evans, appearing on two Milestone sessions (Time Remembered and At Shelly’s Manne-Hole), the Zetterlund record, a live trio recording, and an odd session with symphony orchestra, in addition to Trio ’65.

The opener, “Israel,” is a fast moving modal blues that starts out swinging and then doubles down. Evans plays rapidly descending arpeggios in his first solo that are a little reminiscent of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” Israels takes two solo choruses, and Bunker takes a solo chorus and then trades eights for a bit with Evans, echoing some of the rhythms from the pianist’s solo along the way.

Elsa” is a classic Bill Evans Trio ballad, with Israels leveraging the suspended note on the 5th to good effect in his introduction. The arrangement moves in a sort of shuffling waltz, with brisk patterns on Bunker’s brushes surrounding Evans and Israel’s playing like a filigree. Throughout, Israels alternates a simple underpinning of the chords with a more elaborate descending bass line that reinforces the melody, switching with Evans seemingly telepathically.

This version of “Round Midnight” plays the much-loved and oft-played Thelonious Monk standard in an intimate, but not simple arrangement. Indeed, the trio seems to manifest all the parts of a more elaborate quintet performance among themselves. Israel’s playing in the middle choruses takes more and more prominence until it seems to spontaneously morph into a bass solo.

Love is Here to Stay” is an unsentimental but jovial romp through the old Gershwin standard. Ella Fitzgerald may have done the definitive version of this tune in her Song Books, but she’d need to hold onto her hat to keep up with the trio here. The effective use of space in the arrangement of the chorus and the outro that shifts the song into a different key are both worth listening for.

How My Heart Sings” is a brisk reprise of the title song from his earlier Riverside session. Here you can really hear the difference made by Bunker’s contribution to the trio’s sound, his brisk snare and hi-hat work urging Evans and Israels along. Israels is a particular delight on this track, with a lyrical bass melody under the chorus that sings. The whole track is over in less than three minutes.

Who Can I Turn To” is a contemplative ballad, with Evans taking the first chorus out of time before a transition into a swinging second verse. The transition between verses hangs suspended in harmony each time, as Israels pauses on the fifth before dropping back down to underpin the chords. Evans shifts both time, moving rhythmically around the chords, and harmony in his solo.

Come Rain or Come Shine” begins as a more melancholy iteration of the group dynamic from the prior track, but where “Who Can I Turn To” eventually finds a sunny mood, here the clouds stay stubbornly overhead. Minor key aside, Israels’ solo here is almost as brilliant as his subtle playing behind Evans; the pizzicato chords he plays ever so slightly out of time behind Evans in the intro to the last verse are stunning.

If You Could See Me Now” becomes a showcase for the trio as they shift the rhythmic emphasis of the tune with each verse, keeping the chord progressions the same but playing swung eighth notes in one iteration, legato runs in another, marcato progressions in the third, and on for each evolution of the tune. Each verse seems to turn the kaleidoscope another fraction, revealing new highlights in the tune.

Trio ’65 would be the penultimate album for this incarnation of the Evans trio; they would play together just once more on Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra. The trio we’ll hear next time has some fresh faces at both bass and drums who would bring new energy to Evans’ approach.

You can listen to the full album here:

Bill Evans, Trio 64

Album of the Week, February 4, 2023

Bill Evans was having a good year (or two) in 1962 and 1963. Following the sessions that produced Moon Beams and How My Heart Sings!, his contract was picked up by Verve Records, where Creed Taylor was still in full swing. He recorded a handful of additional sessions for Riverside in , including material that appeared on Interplay and on the great posthumous release Loose Blues. He then started his Verve recording career in two sessions as a sideman, one backing West Coast drummer Shelley Manne and one with the Gary McFarland Orchestra. He recorded a set of solo piano sessions, with overdubs, that became the Grammy award winning Conversations with Myself. And he played on some clunkers of albums with orchestra, performing current movie themes (hey, nobody’s perfect).

But he was never too far from his trio. In mid-1963 he recorded live sessions with Chuck Israels and Paul Motian at Manne’s club, “Shelly’s Manne-Hole,” that were later released on Milestone as Time Remembered. And on December 18, 1963, he entered Verve’s studios in New York City with Motian and the 28-year-old bassist Gary Peacock to record what would become Trio 64.

I haven’t been able to find any information to explain why these sessions had Peacock on bass, rather than Israels. The latter continued to work with Evans for several more years, as we’ll see in next week’s recording. And while Peacock went on to have a long career, recording many albums with Motian and (most notably) anchoring another piano trio, the famous Keith Jarrett Standards Trio with Jack DeJohnette, he only did this one session with Evans. (A possible reason: he went on to join Miles Davis’ band, but briefly, in early 1964.) But because Peacock did record this session, we have a rare opportunity to compare and contrast the difference that his style makes in Evans’ trio. Answer: not much, and a lot.

One thing you’ll hear immediately in the performances is that Peacock’s bass has a woodier, more percussive sound, possibly due to Taylor’s production choices. But Peacock also performs, on this outing, much more like a traditional bassist, anchoring the bottom of the harmonies rather than the more vocal-style countermelodies that Israels provided. In this trio, Evans was fully in charge, and there’s less of the give and take that characterizes his performances with Israels.

The repertoire on the album is also slightly unusual. Unlike the last sessions for Riverside, which featured Evans’ own compositions alongside standards from the Song Book, this album is entirely comprised of standards, albeit a few that are a little less than standard. For instance, the opening track — the theme to the “Little Lulu” cartoon shorts from Paramount that aired between 1943 and 1948 — has rarely been heard in other jazz contexts. And the trio’s performance of J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” reminds us that, as I’ve written before, most memorable 20th century Christmas songs are not only de facto part of the Great American Song Book, they’re often by Song Book songwriters.

Trio 64 is overall an engaging, even-keeled listen. While I don’t consider it essential in the way its predecessor albums are, it’s still fun—buoyant, even. Sadly, it was to be Paul Motian’s last performance with the trio. We’ll hear from a different incarnation of the group next time.

You can listen to the album here: