Orrin Keepnews: Hero for America’s Music (Revisited)

orrinkeepnews_blog_splash650

Orrin Keepnews frequently talked about jazz the way war veterans will talk about experiences on the front lines. There were at least two reasons for this. One, it was never strictly business with him; it was always personal. More importantly, it was necessary.

See, Keepnews didn’t gravitate toward a career in jazz—as producer, writer and battle-scarred raconteur—because it was fashionable or profitable. He immersed himself in the idiom for the same reasons any of us who make the music and those who become enchanted, then obsessed by it do: because there is no choice in the matter. Once you get in, as a fan but especially as an artist or producer, you don’t get out easily. You don’t want to. In Keepnews’s case, he didn’t know how to.

To get a handle on the debt we owe him, it must be adequately understood that Keepnews didn’t merely oversee some of the seminal sessions in jazz history (e.g., American history); he did not just encourage some of jazz music’s (e.g., American music’s) most significant players; he was hands on, sleeves rolled up and directly involved in ensuring the tunes came out the way they did.

Exhibit A, and it’s one for all-time: the perfectly titled composition by Thelonious Monk, one of music’s most sublime iconoclasts, “Brilliant Corners”. This masterwork, the recording of which confounded two of the most adept and astute men who ever walked into a studio, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, was ultimately spliced together from multiple takes by Keepnews.

That Keepnews was one of the foremost ambassadors for jazz is common knowledge to anyone who knows anything. His street cred dates back to the great old days when giants roamed the earth, when he produced and championed geniuses like Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery. He was properly lauded by people who had a handle on jazz, history and—most importantly—propriety. That he wasn’t remunerated or revered in a fashion commensurate with his achievements underscores a truth almost frivolous in its familiarity: like the artists he advocated, the riches attained were rare, obscurity was all but inevitable and disappointment often the reward for a lifetime dedicated to stalking an increasingly unappreciated sort of brilliance.

As such, Keepnews could talk about racism. He could comment on an industry where banality flourishes and genius is ill-understood, if it’s recognized at all. He could tell stories from a very unique period in American history where, when it came to the intersection of art and culture, it was at once the best and worst of times. What Keepnews eventually grasped, and what historians will confirm, is that as challenging and confrontational as the scene could be in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was as good as it would ever get, and jazz will never have that type of audience again.

Almost a decade before the Summer of Love, Keepnews produced, and wrote the epic liner notes, for Sonny Rollins’s tour-de-force The Freedom Suite. In other words, Keepnews was literally on the front line of the struggles inherent in everything that came to the fore during America’s Civil Rights movement. This was music as statement, and it was not fashionable or facile; it was in almost every sense, a matter of life and death, as livelihood and a way of living. Jazz was music with a social conscience before it was cool.

Keepnews took the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll personally. More than once he correctly claimed that the Beatles and everything that came after changed things, forever. When I had the opportunity to chat with him, we agreed to disagree that music changed, for the worse. Yes, the rise of rock certainly didn’t bolster the prospects for jazz (music or musicians), but the artistic and societal shifts were, in many ways, attributable to the doors of perception that rock and the attitude it embraced blew open.

While I was young and more foolish than I apprehended, I realize now, more than I did in my mid-‘20s, that Keepnews was not just lamenting a cultural revolution that dumbed down the discourse, even as it elevated consciousness in many non-clichéd ways. Rock, and the eruption of talent, including both listeners and players who may otherwise have gravitated toward jazz, inexorably sucked oxygen out of an already tiny space. Jazz could not compete, which meant the music didn’t get to flourish at the same rate, for the same-sized audience. As a result, many of these men and women would have a harder time making a living. It wasn’t just business; it was personal for all involved.

Keepnews never retired and he never went away. Active, interested and engaged until the end, he continued doing what all great producers do: discovering new talent and celebrating the old masters. What Keepnews did for jazz music was a form of dedication that bordered on the heroic, but it’s a mistake to view his life’s work through this narrow if elemental lens. Rather, we should acknowledge the ways he held himself to a relentless standard of excellence. He accepted the challenges, embraced the lack of easy solutions and, in the process, advanced the music. He is a rare example of what we hope to emulate when we invoke the best American tradition of invention, discovery and improvement. He is a model for how to follow one’s purpose, with a lack of fear and passion that only death can extinguish.

He lives on, of course, in our memories and always, forever, in the miraculous sounds that, without his guidance and collaboration, we may otherwise never have heard.

Originally published at PopMatters, 3/18/2015.

Share

Orrin Keepnews: Hero for America’s Music

orrinkeepnews_blog_splash650

Orrin Keepnews frequently talked about jazz the way war veterans will talk about experiences on the front lines. There were at least two reasons for this. One, it was never strictly business with him; it was always personal. More importantly, it was necessary.

See, Keepnews didn’t gravitate toward a career in jazz—as producer, writer and battle-scarred raconteur—because it was fashionable or profitable. He immersed himself in the idiom for the same reasons any of us who make the music and those who become enchanted, then obsessed by it do: because there is no choice in the matter. Once you get in, as a fan but especially as an artist or producer, you don’t get out easily. You don’t want to. In Keepnews’s case, he didn’t know how to.

To get a handle on the debt we owe him, it must be adequately understood that Keepnews didn’t merely oversee some of the seminal sessions in jazz history (e.g., American history); he did not just encourage some of jazz music’s (e.g., American music’s) most significant players; he was hands on, sleeves rolled up and directly involved in ensuring the tunes came out the way they did.

Exhibit A, and it’s one for all-time: the perfectly titled composition by Thelonious Monk, one of music’s most sublime iconoclasts, “Brilliant Corners”. This masterwork, the recording of which confounded two of the most adept and astute men who ever walked into a studio, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, was ultimately spliced together from multiple takes by Keepnews.

That Keepnews was one of the foremost ambassadors for jazz is common knowledge to anyone who knows anything. His street cred dates back to the great old days when giants roamed the earth, when he produced and championed geniuses like Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery. He was properly lauded by people who had a handle on jazz, history and—most importantly—propriety. That he wasn’t remunerated or revered in a fashion commensurate with his achievements underscores a truth almost frivolous in its familiarity: like the artists he advocated, the riches attained were rare, obscurity was all but inevitable and disappointment often the reward for a lifetime dedicated to stalking an increasingly unappreciated sort of brilliance.

As such, Keepnews could talk about racism. He could comment on an industry where banality flourishes and genius is ill-understood, if it’s recognized at all. He could tell stories from a very unique period in American history where, when it came to the intersection of art and culture, it was at once the best and worst of times. What Keepnews eventually grasped, and what historians will confirm, is that as challenging and confrontational as the scene could be in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was as good as it would ever get, and jazz will never have that type of audience again.

Almost a decade before the Summer of Love, Keepnews produced, and wrote the epic liner notes, for Sonny Rollins’s tour-de-force The Freedom Suite. In other words, Keepnews was literally on the front line of the struggles inherent in everything that came to the fore during America’s Civil Rights movement. This was music as statement, and it was not fashionable or facile; it was in almost every sense, a matter of life and death, as livelihood and a way of living. Jazz was music with a social conscience before it was cool.

Keepnews took the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll personally. More than once he correctly claimed that the Beatles and everything that came after changed things, forever. When I had the opportunity to chat with him, we agreed to disagree that music changed, for the worse. Yes, the rise of rock certainly didn’t bolster the prospects for jazz (music or musicians), but the artistic and societal shifts were, in many ways, attributable to the doors of perception that rock and the attitude it embraced blew open.

While I was young and more foolish than I apprehended, I realize now, more than I did in my mid-‘20s, that Keepnews was not just lamenting a cultural revolution that dumbed down the discourse, even as it elevated consciousness in many non-clichéd ways. Rock, and the eruption of talent, including both listeners and players who may otherwise have gravitated toward jazz, inexorably sucked oxygen out of an already tiny space. Jazz could not compete, which meant the music didn’t get to flourish at the same rate, for the same-sized audience. As a result, many of these men and women would have a harder time making a living. It wasn’t just business; it was personal for all involved.

Keepnews never retired and he never went away. Active, interested and engaged until the end, he continued doing what all great producers do: discovering new talent and celebrating the old masters. What Keepnews did for jazz music was a form of dedication that bordered on the heroic, but it’s a mistake to view his life’s work through this narrow if elemental lens. Rather, we should acknowledge the ways he held himself to a relentless standard of excellence. He accepted the challenges, embraced the lack of easy solutions and, in the process, advanced the music. He is a rare example of what we hope to emulate when we invoke the best American tradition of invention, discovery and improvement. He is a model for how to follow one’s purpose, with a lack of fear and passion that only death can extinguish.

He lives on, of course, in our memories and always, forever, in the miraculous sounds that, without his guidance and collaboration, we may otherwise never have heard.

Originally published at PopMatters, 3/18/2015.

Share

Bill Evans: The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy

The way the piano was played, like almost everything else in jazz, changed during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. With a new crop of young virtuosos churning out one momentous work after another, the piano arguably reached a level of prominence that was never duplicated. It was during these years when legends like McCoy Tyner (who also famously worked with John Coltrane) and Herbie Hancock (who also famously worked with Miles Davis) established themselves as major figures on the scene.

While there were plenty of other notable players who made their mark (and icons like Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk who had each already taken the instrument to unprecedented levels of brilliance and glory), Bill Evans is one of the most important, if somewhat overlooked, geniuses in jazz history. This is in part because, despite the universal and enduring appeal and praise his work engenders, his personal story generally lacks the drama and mystique so inextricably associated with many (if not most) of the jazz icons of that era. Indeed, everything about Evans could easily, if facilely be described as understated. Everything, that is, except for his legacy and influence. Indelible, in his way, as Coltrane or Coleman, Evans helped instigate a calm and very cool revolution that subtly but unquestionably helped shape the jazz that came.

Certain words are invariably used when discussing Evans, and they are often meant well: introspective, intellectual, impressionistic, serene, understated. These descriptions, however genuine their intent, are inadequate. Think about how frequently the words quirky or irreverent are used in discussions of Monk or the words bombastic or passionate are used to describe Mingus. In each of these instances, the man’s craft and complexity gets shortchanged.

Much rightly gets said about Evans and the impact he had on piano, but not enough is perhaps said about how musicians, regardless of what instrument they played, were profoundly impacted by his style. Not for nothing was his second album as leader—and first masterpiece—entitled Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Evans remains a challenge for any writer who hopes to avoid uncritical acclaim or worse, cliché. The reality is that the depth of feeling and emotion in his work is difficult to adequately convey, but it’s all there in the recordings. The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy does a commendable job of assembling, on two discs, some of his most memorable and important work.

Bill Evans, whose life was abbreviated as the result of extended drug abuse, made music in three decades, but it his work in the last years of the ‘50s and the first years of the ‘60s that garners the most discussion and approbation. No serious jazz collection can be considered complete without copies of the aforementioned Everybody Digs Bill Evans, as well as Portrait In Jazz, Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The last three, all recorded with Paul Motian (drums) and Scott LaFaro (bass) as part of the Bill Evans trio, represent high points not only in Evans’s career, but in all of jazz.

Before forming his first—and best—trio, Evans had already made a considerable impression. Even before his revolutionary work on Kind of Blue (1959), Evans had played on Charles Mingus’s minor masterpiece East Coasting (1957). He would later make contributions on some of the crucial albums of the ‘60s, including George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age (1960) and Oliver Nelson’s  The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961). It is possible that Evans would warrant discussion even if he had only recorded “Peace Piece”, a solo piece from Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958). Not only is it a perfectly realized composition, it is an ideal point of entry for the Evans aesthetic. The second selection on this set, following “Speak Low” (from his debut New Jazz Conceptions), “Peace Piece” is an early culmination of the type of sound Evans was working toward. This was, not coincidentally, during the same time he was employed by Miles Davis. Both men, circa 1958, were bored with convention and obsessed with freedom. The aim was to elevate feeling above all else; to achieve an unfettered, inevitable style that could only be the result of seamless improvisation. This, of course, is only possible through the result of ceaseless practice and reflection.

The masterworks ensued. Those trio albums continue to be cited by critics and musicians alike. The almost telepathic interplay achieved a pinnacle of sorts for the form. Jazz history is, unfortunately, replete with truncated careers, but the Bill Evans Trio must be ranked near the top of this dubious list of what-might-have-beens. When Scott LaFaro died in a car accident, jazz lost one of its best bass players, and the trio instantly became another tantalizing story interrupted by tragedy. Like Charles Mingus after Eric Dolphy died, Evans was inconsolable. It could be proposed, for understandable reasons, that this was a loss he could never fully recover from.

His supporting cast changed often during the next decade and a half, but Evans continued to make remarkable music. It’s his work after the trio, and all through the ‘70s, that tends to get short shrift. This collection does a commendable job showcasing how productive and significant he remained, right up to his death in 1980. Songs from more than a dozen subsequent albums are collected (one from each), providing a more than adequate sampler of lesser-known Evans. Some highlights have to include the spectacular “Medley: ‘Spartacus Love Theme’/Nardis” (from The Solo Sessions, Vol. 1), “On Green Dolphin Street” (from The Tokyo Concert), “Re: Person I Knew” (from Re: Person I Knew) and “The Touch of Your Lips” (from Alone (Again)).

This collection may serve as a timely refresher course for the fans, but it is an ideal primer for would-be enthusiasts. If you are among that latter group, pick this up without reservation or delay. Allow the rest of us to envy you for being on the verge of falling under the spell of Bill Evans for the first time. Enjoy the journey; it will last the rest of your life.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/144375-bill-evans-the-definitive-bill-evans-on-riverside-and-fantasy/

Share