John Coltrane, Sun Ship

Album of the Week, April 6, 2024

Like all great things, the classic John Coltrane Quartet was not to last. Trane’s restless searching, which we’ve seen in Evenings at the Village Gate and A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, was constantly seeking new sounds and new instrumentation. This started with more drums and bass, and extended to bringing in additional horns, either individual saxophonists like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders (heard on Meditations, recorded November 23, 1965), or whole horn sections as heard in Ascension (recorded June 28, 1965).

But the classic quartet continued to be a performing and recording unit throughout this pivotal year; indeed, Trane hardly stopped recording, not even letting obstacles like the unavailability of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio slow him down. As a result, many of the sessions recorded during this period were not released until years after his death, including Transition and Living Space (recorded in June 1965) and today’s record Sun Ship, recorded at the RCA Victor Studios on August 26, 1965.

Sun Ship” begins with a blast, Trane blowing rapid four-note patterns while the rhythm section follows his staccato lead, then four bars of apocalyptic drums from Elvin Jones, a repetition of all of the above, and then an extended solo from McCoy Tyner. Tyner here is far from the mannered player of Reaching Fourth or Nights of Ballads and Blues; while rooted in chords, he nimbly shifts the focus of his solo from racing arpeggios to bomb-dropping block chords to blistering rhythmic patterns that recall Trane’s opening salvo, all egged on by Jones’ massive drum presence. Jimmy Garrison holds on throughout it all, providing running commentary and suspended fifths. When Trane reenters, he is in full prophetic mode, the tone of his saxophone fraying and smearing as he plays extended runs that blow right past the metrical bounds of the composition. He finds honking, bleating tones at both the high and low end of his range and keeps pushing the limits of his instrument’s sound right up until the track stops abruptly just past the six-minute mark.

Dearly Beloved” starts with a rare snippet of studio chatter from Trane to his band: “then you can go into it later… well, I think it would better to keep pressing, so we will keep a thing happenin’ all through it, but you can go through it when you feel like it. Ready?” At which point Trane introduces a broad, dramatic minor-key melody that would have been at home between the “Resolution” and “Psalm” movements of A Love Supreme. Jones and Garrison provide a heartbeat beneath Trane’s melody. Tyner, meanwhile, sketches the chord progressions with alternating block chords and ornaments, at points barely audible beneath Trane’s onslaught. When Trane subsides, we hear what Tyner has been doing: he has his own melody against a brook-like obbligato that captures a serene pause before racing back through Trane’s chords, to return once more to the C♯ tonality from the beginning. The track is full of movement but returns again and again to this serene center. “Amen” follows a similar structure, though the melody and chords bear a family resemblance to “Resolution.” At one point Tyner’s crashing chords roll forward into a triple meter, a sort of frenzied waltz, before falling back to Trane. Coltrane’s closing solo seems to take the form of a wailing prayer before tapering off to a quieter conclusion; the crashing wave of Elvin Jones’ drums brings the track to a conclusion.

Side two opens with the quiet melodic statement of “Attaining,” played freely over the quartet’s oceanic explorations with a statement reminiscent of “Lonnie’s Lament” from Crescent. After the introduction, though, the quartet drops into a lower key, with Trane speaking the words of an unknown poem through his horn over a relentless triplet rhythm in Elvin Jones’ drums. (A listen to the complete Sun Ship recordings, released a few years ago, shows that the key change is actually the result of a splice of two different takes!) When the group coalesces into a forward beat, it’s driven forward by a prominent pizzicato part from Garrison over bursts on the cymbals and snare from Jones, while Tyner takes an extended solo. The brilliant bit of the track, though, is the way that Tyner and Jones collectively slow the heartbeat through their use of polyrhythms without appreciably slowing the actual tempo of the underlying pulse. There’s one more statement of the psalm followed by another roaring wave from Jones before the quartet changes key down once more, with psalm in saxophone over a bowed line in the bass. The whole thing is breathtaking.

And then Jimmy Garrison begins “Ascent” with a simple six-note ascending chromatic figure, alternating with patterns of descending thirds, then the chromatic figure played in parallel on adjoining strings a fourth apart. Garrison continues with his solo exploring different melodic patterns around the chords implied by the chromatic scale. After about five minutes—halfway through the track—Jones joins with a bouncing figure on the cymbals and snare, and he and Garrison slow to a halt. Then Trane joins with a version of the chromatic theme played in the original lower key, and Tyner splashes blocks of chords underneath everything. Together, they take the quietly spoken prayer and make it a group cry, before Garrison repeats the theme one last time.

“Ascent” serves as a fitting send-off for the quartet in its original form. Tyner, Jones and Garrison were clearly the only group on the planet that could keep up with his energy, but the writing was already on the wall that their time together was limited. In early 1966, Elvin Jones left, feeling that his polyrhythmic style was clashing with the more omnidirectional approach of Rashied Ali, who had joined as a second drummer. McCoy Tyner had already left in December 1965, saying something similar about Ali and the other percussionists who joined: “I didn’t see myself making any contribution to that music… All I could hear was a lot of noise. I didn’t have any feeling for the music, and when I don’t have feelings, I don’t play.”

Trane continued to add more avant-garde players to his sound in the last years of his life. We’re going to hear from some of them, but next week we’ll listen to one of the members of the Classic Quartet in his rejuvenated career as a leader.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Archie Shepp, On This Night

Album of the Week, March 30, 2024

Though their playing time together was limited, Archie Shepp would forever be linked to his mentor John Coltrane, in no small part because of the record that the two of them shared, New Thing at Newport. Recorded July 2, 1965, the record featured the two quartets performing independently, rather than together, but demonstrated the affinity between the two saxophonists’ styles. But for me, Shepp’s group is interesting because it features his performing partnership with another undersung musician, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, a partnership documented more fully on today’s record, On This Night.

Hutcherson (born in 1941 in Los Angeles) was just 24 the year that both New Thing at Newport and On This Night were recorded, but he had already been playing professionally for years, recording his first session at the age of 19 with the Les McCann Trio. Sessions with Herbie Lewis followed and led to Hutcherson joining Jackie McLean’s group on the Blue Note recording One Step Beyond. More Blue Note sessions followed, including collaborations with Grachan Moncure, Eric Dolphy, Tony Williams, and Grant Green. The rest of the players on this session, Hutcherson’s first with Shepp, included J.C. Moses and David Izenson on the closing track, which was recorded at the same session that yielded “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” on last week’s Fire Music, as well as Henry Grimes on bass, Ed Blackwell on rhythm logs, and both Joe Chambers and Rashied Ali on drums. (We’ll hear more about Ali another time.)

As with Fire Music, Shepp recorded the album in two sessions, the March 9 session shared with Fire Music and an August 12 session that yielded the rest of the tracks, save one. “The Mac Man,” from the second session, starts the album with a post-bop flavor, Hutcherson and Shepp playing the short theme and immediately dropping into mutual improvisation, Shepp blowing sheets of sound while Hutcherson surfs chromatic waves through the cosmos and Grimes explores different modal scales on the bass. The group comes together into something like a blues that just as quickly morphs into a ballad, if only for a moment, before returning to the blues shuffle that reveals itself as the main tune. The blues morphs back into the opening cosmic exploration over what can only be described as a percussion freak-out led by Ed Blackwell’s rhythm logs, before settling into a final loping exploration in a minor key.

Hutcherson modulates into the opening chords of “In a Sentimental Mood,” conjuring a more familiar tonality out of the chaos, as Shepp’s free explorations similarly lead into a statement of the melody of the Ellington/Kurtz/Mills standard that manages to be both delicate and woozy at the same time, evoking the robust articulation of Johnny Hodges. It’s a stunning tonal shift after “The Mac Man.”

Gingerbread, Gingerbread Boy,” recorded live at Newport, is much freer. Beginning with a bass line from Barre Phillips, the ensemble improvises around major and diminished minor chords from Hutcherson before abruptly shifting into a fast melody that alternates with a slower section. The band then enters hyperspace, collectively exploring the chordal space of the fast section as Shepp overblows his horn over sustained notes in the vibes. The exploration continues as Hutcherson surrounds the group with clouds of vibes, and Shepp ends his solo with a repeated melodic line (VIII – V – VI – III – IV – VI – II – VII). After Hutcherson takes a turn, the melodic line returns, now played over a slow blues. A burst of the fast melody closes the performance, and the side.

On This Night (If That Day Would Come)” is another thing entirely. A tribute to W.E.B. Dubois, the opening could easily be a 20th century classical art song, in this case performed by Christine Spencer and accompanied by Shepp on piano. The soprano performs Shepp’s poem that calls for the end of racial injustice: “Now is the time for all men to stand/Rise up you starved and toiling masses/My brothers sister all/We cannot fail, justice is our avenging angel/All hail the birth of truth … And the worker’s voice resounds: Give back the valleys, steppes and the plains./They are mine, they are mine./On this night (if that great day would come)/The dawn of freedom/For the people shall take arms as one/No power can prevail/We cannot fail now…” After the soprano leads out of the melody, the band, now joined by Hutcherson, plays a howl before Grimes leads them into a blues, over which Shepp blows a cool solo that rapidly heats up before relaxing back into the blues. Spencer returns with a reprise of the poem, asking, “Behold the blood from my brother’s veins/How will we remember?” and accompanied by Shepp, this time on the saxophone. It’s moving and completely unlike anything else that we will hear from Shepp.

The Original Mr. Sonny Boy Williamson,” named after the famed blues harmonica player and singer (of “Bring It On Home” fame), is not a blues, but the melody is easily the most quotable on the record before Shepp begins his improvisation. He burns out over chords that seem slightly familiar—is that a touch of “So What” in Hutcherson’s lines?—before the band comes back to the theme once more. It’s an almost peaceful tune, a peace that’s promptly shattered by the last track, “The Pickaninny (picked clean — no more — or can you back back doodlebug).” Starting with a clownish theme, the band shifts into new melodies and improvisations that take us into new places. As Nat Hentoff says in the liner notes, “Having been picked clean, the Pickaninny now knows where he’s at — and he’s moving.”

Assembled though it may be from a grab bag of recording sessions, On This Night still stands for me as a monument, though admittedly sometimes an inscrutable one. Held together by the interplay between Shepp and Hutcherson, and the mighty rhythm sections on each track, it’s well worth seeking out in the original LP form.* As for Shepp, he’s still recording, putting out new records every few years, many on his Paris-based Archieball label. The 2017 joint recording with Jason Moran, Let My People Go, was a highlight of that year in jazz for me. But his influence on Trane acted like an orbital boost, slingshotting Trane’s exploratory tendencies into a higher gear. We’ll hear an outcome from all that exploration next time.

You can listen to the album here:

* When On This Night was reissued on CD alongside New Thing at Newport, the reissue producers moved “Gingerbread, Gingerbread Boy” onto the latter recording along with the rest of Shepp’s Newport set. They then filled the void in the set with several alternate takes and outtakes from the session, as well as bringing “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” from Fire Music. While the resulting compilation makes some sense, it hardly resembles the original intention of the compilation. The original LP is worth seeking out—as the price tag on my 1974 reissue copy (top) indicates, it’s even affordable.

P.S. – If Bobby Hutcherson’s playing intrigues you, you can check him out as both a sideman and a leader on the “Positive Vibrations” edition of Exfiltration Radio.

Archie Shepp, Fire Music

Album of the Week, March 23, 2024

Without John Coltrane, Archie Shepp’s career would have been very different. We’ve already encountered the young saxophonist in the liner notes of A Love Supreme, where Trane mentioned recordings made with Shepp that wouldn’t see the light of day for many years. But Shepp would never have recorded his sessions for Impulse! Records as a leader without Coltrane’s recommendation to producer Bob Thiele.

Shepp had been trying to talk to Thiele for months, to convince him to record Shepp, but over a three month period Shepp was repeatedly told that Thiele was not available; he was “gone out to lunch” or “gone home and not coming back.” Finally Shepp asked Trane to intercede, and Thiele said, “You guys are avant-garde… If you do this recording you’ll have to record all of John’s music.” That led to Shepp’s first album for impulse, Four for Trane, which was viewed as a milestone record that illustrated the depth of Coltrane’s compositions.

For Fire Music, Shepp put together a band consisting of Ted Curson (who had played with Cecil Taylor) on trumpet, Joseph Orange on trombone, Marion Brown (who appeared with Shepp on Trane’s Ascension) on alto saxophone, Reggie Johnson (who would later play with Keith Jarrett, Art Blakey, Sun Ra, Lonnie Liston Smith, Bobby Hutcherson, and others) on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums; David Izenson and J.C. Moses replace Johnson and Chambers, respectively, on the third track of the album. The band entered the Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on February 16 and March 9, 1965, just months after the recording of A Love Supreme in that same space (and more than half a year before Trane played the suite live in Seattle).

Hambone” is the longest and most ambitious of the works on the album. One of the three Shepp compositions that make up the first side, the work is structured around two different themes and features both tight group performances and extended solos from Orange, Curson, Brown and Shepp. The soloists perform freely against an extended riff from the band that morphs into the second theme, a blues riff that sees the band lay down alternating strutting melodic solos, before the first theme returns.

Los Olvidados” is another densely written group track, with an extended drum solo from Chambers introducing the improvisational middle section, which features a blazing trumpet solo from Curson and a distinctive tenor solo from Shepp that seems to bleat, cry and prophesy all at once. The moving “Malcolm, Malcolm – Semper Malcolm” follows. Shepp’s original poem, recorded just weeks after Malcolm X’s assassination, is recited by Shepp, accompanied by David Izenson and J.C. Moses on bass and drums. “We are murdered in amphitheaters, on the podium of the Audubon,” says Shepp, and then plays a mournful solo over a cello-like arco bass line from Izenson and the crash of Moses’s drums.

Prelude to a Kiss” returns to the stacked brass chords of the beginning of the album and features a genuinely Ellingtonian solo from Shepp. This leads, via a riff by Orange on the trombone, into “The Girl from Ipanema,” definitely the oddest work on the album. After a freely played intro, the brass section collectively plays the famous “tall and tan and dark and lovely” melody over a samba rhythm from Chambers before Shepp solos on the melody in his distinctive tenor sound. Besides Trane’s sheets of sound, Shepp also brings a rough edged energy to his solos, shaped into bursts of energy that growl like shouts from an angry preacher.

Fire Music is a profound introduction to Archie Shepp, both melodic and hair-raisingly free. It showcases Shepp’s talents at writing for larger groups and his willingness to explicitly lean into more political content. We’ll hear both of those as well as an evolution of Shepp’s sound in the next album he released for Impulse, next week.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

Album of the Week, March 9, 2024

Inside the gatefold cover of the John Coltrane Quartet’s early 1965 release A Love Supreme are two passages by Coltrane. One is an epistle from the saxophonist to the listener that is equal parts confessional and prayer. The other is a prayer to God. Both provide the missing ingredients that would tip the alchemical brew being created by the Quartet over into something legendary.

A while back, in a review of Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, I wrote: “Miles had struggled with heroin early in his career… Unfortunately, his saxophone player, John Coltrane, was still in the thralls of the drug, and left after these recording sessions for a period. He would get clean in 1957 (which is a story for another day) and rejoin the band in 1958.” In these liner notes, Trane writes: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life… As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase that was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of his OMNIPOTENCE… This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD’ through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues.”

What is sometimes missed in the reading of A Love Supreme as gratitude is that Trane was giving thanks not just for one salvation but for two: the 1957 awakening that saved him from heroin, and an unnamed second event (or events) that helped him along the path. The album, therefore, is not a commemoration; it’s a practice of gratitude, and prayer, and an acknowledgement of the mystery of higher power.

Part of the power of A Love Supreme is that it retains the searching that is the core of Trane’s greatest work, rather than settling for simple praise. Indeed, “Part I: Acknowledgment” seems to be at once solidly in one key and in every key at once. It opens with a pentatonic statement from Trane and what appears to be a cluster of B major chords from McCoy Tyner under a flurry of cymbals from Elvin Jones and a bowed tonic drone from Jimmy Garrison. When Garrison enters a moment later, though, he drops down a fifth and plays the famous opening in F minor:

Trane enters on the fifth, still in F but now playing with mixolydian mode, and Garrison stays in this tonality throughout. Trane’s solo stays grounded here as well, though it does explore modal connections. At the end of his solo, he takes the passage up an octave, overblowing a bit to mark the top, then runs back down and scales up chromatically. He seems to bring his solo to resolution, but then at 4:58 in the track, something funny happens. Biographer Lewis Porter notes that the score for the work says, “Move in 12 keys — move freely in all 12 keys — solo in 12 keys.” And that’s what Trane does — he takes the four note motif and moves through all twelve minor keys as Tyner stays with him and Garrison stays grounded.

He then returns to the theme, and then something that had never happened in his work enters: we hear the sound of Trane’s voice, chanting “A Love Supreme” on the tune of the motif. There are fifteen repetitions of the motif in F minor, followed by four in E♭ minor, as the chanting fades out and Garrison plays a different but related motif, from the fifth up to the seventh and octave. According to Porter, the chant is an overdub, indicating again that Trane had a specific idea of how he wanted the performance to go and that he was looking for a particular conception. Trane seems to invoke a vision of a God who is everywhere at once, or of an angel looking in all directions at the same time yet is grounded in one place.

Garrison opens “Part II: Resolution” in E♭ minor, picking up the key from “Acknowledgement.” He uses a different technique here, sounding a chord on two adjacent strings at once to sound out something like a prophetic utterance. When Trane enters, he is in full apocalyptic mode, playing the melody four times and then yielding to Tyner for the solo. Tyner is in classic form here, soloing in different rhythms and exploring adjacent voicings as he drops bombshell chords with his left hand, all while Elvin Jones pours gas on the fire. Trane returns to state the melody but doesn’t really get a full solo here. While very much a piece of the whole, “Resolution” is the one movement that feels like it could be picked up and dropped onto Crescent or another mid-1960s Trane album. More than anything else this points out the consistent theme of searching that stretched from his early works through to the very end.

Part III: Pursuance” opens with a propulsive Elvin Jones solo that breaks everything open, leading into Trane’s statement of the tune. Tyner again takes first solo, alternating between following Trane’s blues and quoting bits of the “Acknowledgement” motif. As Porter says, this quartet owned these high velocity treatments of the blues, and no moment represents that statement so much as Tyner’s alternate melody that he states just before Trane enters to take his solo. Trane is jet propelled here, keying off Jones’ fierce energy, and tireless; after two and a half minutes of his solo, he starts to overblow the reed, getting a mighty Pentecostal honk, before he and Tyner step back to let Jones’ volcanic energy erupt one more time, then fade back. Jimmy Garrison now takes a solo that recapitulates moments from both “Resolution” and “Acknowledgement,” eventually landing back in C minor.

Part IV: Psalm” is many things: a culmination and coda of the suite; a free, melodic solo by Trane; and, in all likelihood (as documented, again, by Porter), a direct translation, note-for-syllable, of the poem that Trane places on the other side of the gatefold. It is at this point in the suite that the purpose of the ballad albums that the Quartet recorded from 1962 to 1963 becomes clear. Without that immersion in melody, “Psalm” (and its spiritual predecessor, “Alabama”) could never have happened. The quartet provides powerful accompaniment underneath Trane’s recitation, Jones on timpani, Tyner with washes of block chords, Garrison with a long subterranean rumbling. Trane concludes with a reading through the horn of the final words of his poem, “Thank you God. Amen,” and then a brief recapitulation of the opening flourish of the work.

One of the reasons that A Love Supreme still seems to connect with listeners all these years later is surely this combination of mystical reach and absolute accessibility. The “a love supreme” chant at the beginning is a prayer, a mantra, and a hook that catches the listener. Even without the words, the strongly rhythmic playing of Jimmy Garrison, in particular, throughout the album gives the listener something to catch onto amid the blistering improvisation coming from the quarter.

Regarding that second salvation event I mentioned earlier. While unclear whether it’s connected to Trane’s straying “away from the esteemed path,” in the summer of 1963 he left Naima, his first wife, and his adopted daughter Syeeda (born Antonia) and stayed “in a hotel sometimes, other times with his mother in Philadelphia. All he said was, ‘Naima, I’m going to make a change.’” Around this time, he met the pianist Alice McLeod, who shared his interest in spirituality, and their paths would remain connected for the rest of his life, both personally and in his music. We will hear more of her music later.

He was working with other musicians as well. In fact, on December 10, 1964, a day after recording the tracks that became this album with his Classic Quartet, he recorded it again, with the addition of second bassist Art Davis (last heard with the quartet at the Village Gate) and saxophonist Archie Shepp. Both are thanked in the liner notes for their work “on a track that will regrettably not be released at this time.” Shepp in particular would go on to be a part of Trane’s sound in the following years. And Trane would take A Love Supreme not as a finished blueprint, but as a starting point to build even higher and stranger things. We’ll start to hear that next week.

You can hear this week’s album here:

Postscript: Later in 1965, Franzo and Marina King heard Coltrane play “A Love Supreme” in one of a handful of live performances. It moved them so deeply that they established a church in their home city of San Francisco dedicated to the spiritual teachings of Coltrane, known today as the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, or simply the Coltrane Church. They’re still going today, and Trane’s “A Love Supreme” poem is their central text.

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:

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:

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry and songs intersect with jazz, funk and the blues to paint a rich portrait of black poverty and despair.

Album of the Week, September 23, 2023

In this short series about funk, Gil Scott-Heron would seem to be an unlikely choice. A poet, militant, novelist, spoken-word artist, Scott-Heron was not a musician by calling. Indeed, he called himself a “bluesologist,” a scientist concerned with the origin of the blues. But, thanks to two important collaborations, Scott-Heron has a place not only among the progenitors of funk but among the ancestors of hip-hop.

Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949, to an opera singer mother and a Jamaican soccer player. His parents separated when he was young, and he went to live with his grandmother Bobbie Scott, a civil rights activist who introduced him to the works of Langston Hughes and to the piano, in Jackson, Tennessee. On his grandmother’s death, he moved to live with his mother in The Bronx. He went to DeWitt Clinton High School but transferred to the Fieldston School on a full scholarship for writing. He was known as much for his acerbic wit and keen sense of social irony as his writing; when asked in an admissions interview how he would feel if he saw one of his classmates drive by in an limousine while he walked, he asked the interviewer, “Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?” He attended Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania, because Langston Hughes had done so.

It was at Lincoln University that he met one of his most important collaborators, the musician Brian Jackson, with whom he formed a band. Jackson was to collaborate with him throughout the 1970s. At Lincoln, he also attended a performance by the Last Poets, an incendiary spoken word ensemble who are today held to be among the forerunners of hip-hop, and asked them “Listen, can I start a group like you guys?” He left school to work on his debut novel, Vulture, and moved to New York City, where he met the other significant collaborator, jazz musician and producer Bob Thiele.

Thiele had gotten his start in the record business working for Creed Taylor, and served as the head of Impulse Records following Taylor’s departure for Verve. In his eight years at Impulse, he produced the most significant of John Coltrane’s late works, including Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, Impressions, Crescent, A Love Supreme, Meditations, and Ascension. He also produced many other significant albums for Impulse, which was by this point a division of ABC Records, including Freddie Hubbard’s The Body and the Soul, and co-wrote the song “What a Wonderful World.”

The collaboration with Louis Armstrong on this (eventual) hit song led to a breakdown in relations between Thiele and ABC Records president Larry Newton. Apparently Newton was expecting a Dixieland style album from Armstrong, and when he learned that Thiele was recording him performing “Wonderful World,” a ballad, an argument began that escalated into a screaming match, with Newton ultimately being ejected from the recording studio and left yelling and banging on the door outside. Thiele left ABC shortly after and started his own label, Flying Dutchman. One of the first artists he convinced to record with him was Gil Scott-Heron.

The artist recorded three albums for Flying Dutchman, as well as today’s release, a 1974 compilation drawn from the first three releases after Scott-Heron departed for the Strata-East label. Gil’s debut album on Flying Dutchman, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, was a live session of poetry with accompaniment from Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barnes on percussion and vocals, as well as Thiele himself on piano and guitar. The album did not chart, but it did feature the poems “Whitey on the Moon” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” performed as spoken word pieces with percussion accompaniment.

The two albums that followed were entirely different. For Pieces of a Man, Brian Jackson joined as musical director, and Thiele assembled an enviable cast of musicians to join them, including Ron Carter on electric bass, Hubert Laws on flute, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Burt Jones on electric guitar. Jackson’s musical perspective combined with Scott-Heron’s bluesy melodic writing is what connects this album to the funk of Sly and the Family Stone—along with a similar perspective on race relations. For the album, Scott-Heron re-recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with the new band, and the combination of Carter on bass, Purdie on drums, Hubert Laws’ anxious flute obbligato, and Scott-Heron’s intense spoken word work laid the blueprint for hip-hop. Carter’s bass in particular is tense and apocalyptic throughout the track, underscoring the fierce conflict in Scott-Heron’s poem between our commercial culture and the economic struggles of Black people:

The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

As if to underscore the diversity of Scott-Heron’s lyrical agenda, “Sex Education: Ghetto Style”, from his third album Free Will, is another spoken word poem that slyly pokes fun at his own sexual coming of age. The performance style is closer to the music of Small Talk with the important addition of Jackson on flute. The rest of the Pieces of a Man band, except for Carter, returned for this album, and it featured a blend of spoken word and more traditional songs, including the next track, “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues,” with Jackson’s bluesy piano complemented by David Spinozza’s guitar.

No Knock” comes from the same sessions, but is spiritually closer to “Revolution” in spirit and to “Sex Education” in conception, with Jackson on flute alongside percussionists and Scott-Heron’s rap. The original album features a spoken word intro to the performance from Scott-Heron that sets the context:

Um, we want to do a poem for one of our unfavorite people, um, who’s now the head of the, uh, Nixon campaign. He was formerly the Attorney General named John Mitchell. … no-knock, the law in particular, was allegedly, um, aheh, legislated for black people rather than, you know, for their destruction. And it means, simply, that authorities and members of the police force no longer have to knock on your door before entering. They can now knock your door down. This is No Knock. 

Gil Scott-Heron, “No Knock”

The compilation now transitions into one of Scott-Heron’s greatest collaborations with Jackson, the great “Lady Day and John Coltrane” from Pieces. Scott-Heron’s second album was the most introspective of his works, featuring multiple songs from the perspective of different sides of the Black experience, as well as this joyful, bluesy celebration of the power of jazz music. For me, the musical highlights are Carter’s bass line and Jackson’s Fender Rhodes solo after the second verse.

The compilation follows this track with the title track to “Pieces of a Man,” a ballad on acoustic piano and bass that tracks the disintegration of the narrator’s father, describing his violent outbursts and his despair at being fired from his job, leading to his arrest. The song might be Scott-Heron’s masterwork, fusing powerful metaphoric writing with an impassioned vocal. Scott-Heron’s narrator is only one of the examples of broken Black males to be found in his writing; “Home is Where the Hatred Is” (the following track) is written from the point of view of a heroin addict, who struggles to get clean while recognizing that returning “home” to his sobriety means having to confront the pain of his existence: “Home is where the needle marks/Tried to heal my broken heart/And it might not be such a bad idea if I never/Went home again.”

Brother” flips the perspective again, calling out hypocritical Black men who take on the outward trappings of Black liberation while not actually helping their brothers and sisters, in one of the earliest spoken recordings on this set. The compilation pairs the poem with another track from Pieces, but “Save the Children” is short on specifics on how exactly the children should be saved from the harsh reality of African-American life that will confront them when they grow up, though it’s another gorgeous collaboration with Jackson.

Whitey on the Moon” might be the most famous of Scott-Heron’s poems after “Revolution,” and for good reason, as he points out the uncomfortable gulf between the accomplishments of the Apollo program and the economic state of Black America. As I’ve written before, I’m a NASA kid, and proud of our accomplishments in space, but Scott-Heron’s poem points out that in our national choices on spending priorities in the 1960s between the space race, Vietnam, and Johnson’s War on Poverty, he could only see outcomes from two of the three.

The compilation closes with “Did You Hear What They Said?” from Free Will. The darkest of Scott-Heron’s early collaborations with Brian Jackson, the paean for a dead Black man—“They said another brother’s dead/They said he’s dead but he can’t be buried”—might be the most desolate lines he wrote. Accompanied by Hubert Laws’ flute, the closing thought, “This can’t be real,” reflects Scott-Heron’s loss of hope following the death, which evokes both Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the deaths of Black men from crime and police brutality.

The compilation as a whole is a powerful and complex representation of Scott-Heron’s legacy, and a good introduction to his work. But it deliberately ends in denial of the hope represented by some of his early songs, foreshadowing Scott-Heron’s own journey. His post-Flying Dutchman recordings with Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band were triumphant, but they acrimoniously split in 1980. Scott-Heron recorded sporadically after, and seemed to spiral slowly downward. Addicted to crack cocaine, he spent time in prison for drug possession, and recorded one last album in 2010, the harrowing I’m New Here, before his death in 2011, following reports of pneumonia and that he was HIV positive.

There are no easy answers in Gil Scott-Heron’s story, but I prefer to hold onto the gestures toward hope in his best songs. Next week we’ll visit another album from a performer struggling with addiction, who nevertheless continued to make vital, even joyous music.

There wasn’t an official playlist or full-album version of this compilation on YouTube, oddly, so I made my own. You can listen to it here: