Miles: Still The Baddest (and Meanest) MF on the Planet

Lots of Miles in the sky lately.

Just saw this hilarious (and oddly moving) story online today from the great old days when, in no particular order, Davis was alive, certain types of people drove around with stacks of cocaine in their Lamborghinis, and people drove Lamborghinis, period. Check it out, here

I saw this gem a few weeks back and did not comment, in part because what can you say? Miles doing a blind listening test? Give the man a mic and hilarity ensues. But I’m still fuming a bit about what a prick he could be (and the best artists tend to be the hugest assholes, particularly the ones who can brook no competition). In short, even though he was arguably (along with Art Blakey, Charles Mingus and Jackie McLean) one of the all-time magnets for –and advocates of– young talent, he was dead wrong on Eric Dolphy and he was embarrassingly –and revealingly– blind about Booker Little (who, had he lived for another few decades, would be on the short-list of not only trumpet players, but jazz composers, period). But he was honest, amusing and gave no quarter (or plugged nickel, for that matter), as always.

It’s been two years (already?) since the masterful Bitches Brew turned 40. On that occasion, I wrote a celebration entitled “The Shock Heard ‘Round The World”. It’s reproduced, in its entirety, below.

Shortly before his death in 1991, Miles Davis remarked “You don’t change music, music changes you.” While that statement is unassailable regarding the vast majority of artists, no matter how influential, Miles Davis was definitely an exception. Indeed, the Man with the Horn was being uncharacteristically modest, and he knew it. He did, after all, actually change music several times, and he was normally the first person to remind doubters and neophytes of this fact. His ultimate achievement—beyond the staggering scope of his recorded works—may have been providing a forum where the best players could congregate. In this creative cauldron that he tended to over the better part of four decades, Miles served as inventor, instigator and mentor. The list of legends that cut their teeth in his employ remains astounding: John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin, just to name a handful.

Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.

At no point did Miles risk more—while most profoundly influencing the shape of jazz to come—than in the second half of 1969, when he oversaw the sessions that would eventually drop Bitches Brew on a wide-eyed world. Perhaps the grandest irony of all the misguided hot air surrounding the origins, intent and influence of Bitches Brew is the chuckleheaded charge that Miles had somehow “sold out”. Sure, 20-minute psychedelic funk mash-ups through the amp darkly were squarely aimed at the pop consumer circles. It was a ludicrous charge, then and it remains more than a little offensive, today.

Certainly, the fact that jazz and rock took a few pages from this script only augments the lightning Miles snared in his recording studio. The subsequent misfortune that an increasingly watered-down devolution of this sound mutated into the saccharine miasma called “smooth jazz” should be laid at Davis’s doorstep about as reasonably as we can blame Einstein for man’s detonation of nuclear weapons. This album found its audience the second it hit the streets and it continues to attract new converts every day. It does not receive the universal approbation accorded to Birth of the Cool or Kind of Blue, and it was not necessarily intended to. Miles was happy with it, the fans remain infatuated with it, and like any worthwhile work of art, it can—and does—speak for itself.

A few words are nevertheless warranted for the folks who, opportunistically or ignorantly, dismiss the album and consider it a blight that signaled the beginning of the end of a so-called golden era of jazz. The problem here lies mainly with the self-appointed culture cops, our ever-shrinking jazz intelligentsia and the hipper-than-thou historians who won’t accept that they simply don’t get it. Let’s name names: cantankerous blowhards like Stanley Crouch and clueless if influential neophytes like Ken Burns have either damned Bitches Brew (and post-‘60s Miles work in general) with faint praise or dismissed it altogether. For a lot of the critics with whom this work never registered, Bitches Brew signified the first time a butterfly turned back into a caterpillar.

And here we are, forty years later, celebrating what is commonly considered one of the seminal long-players in all music. All of which simply illustrates that Miles was miles ahead of the crowd, as usual. As always, he was less interested in following trends as he was in establishing them. Finally, as it relates to jazz music, this is where B.C. becomes A.D.

Here’s the thing: it wasn’t as though Davis dropped Bitches Brew on an unsuspecting public. Unprepared, possibly; but anyone who had listened to the previous three albums knew Miles was up to something. Certainly, someone who had not followed his work after Seven Steps to Heaven was in for a nice surprise; even anyone unfamiliar with the albums that came after 1968’s Nefertiti could not have been adequately up to speed. In actuality, the albums that led up to Bitches Brew are like a trail of breadcrumbs tracing the path to an inevitable house party. The twenty-six minute “Circle in the Round” made it clear that Miles would—and could—stretch out to ecstatic effect. The electric piano (and electric guitar) on Miles in the Sky were harbingers of the (semi) plugged-in and sustained compositions on Filles de Kilimanjaro. The languid pace, “modern” instrumentation and incorporation of rock and R&B (James Brown, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix were all implicit and explicit—and important—sources of inspiration) elements set in place the template for the new formula. This approach reached a preliminary apex during the In A Silent Way sessions, which saw the pace turn cool bordering on glacial. Despite the augmented band and instrumentation, the sound is crystalline (the triple-keyboard assault of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul remains revelatory): listening to any section of this album is still a bit like walking barefoot in the dark on a frozen lake—only warmer. All of which is to say Bitches Brew may not have been a predictable next step, but it was the inexorable one.

And this all went down forty years ago, which means The Age of Aquarius is officially middle-aged (never mind how old the young and middle-aged hippies who rang it in have become). Perhaps the world’s ears have matured—and heard—enough over these decades to understand—and appreciate—Bitches Brew. Either way, if any album obliges the by-now requisite milestone/anniversary reissue, it’s this one. The great news is that this 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition has all the original (remastered) tracks, some bonus cuts and two extra discs. The first is a live set recorded at Tanglewood in August, 1970. The second is a DVD featuring a never-before-seen concert from November, 1969. Needless to say, for jazz fans, Miles freaks and music aficionados, this must be considered an imperative acquisition.

And for the uninitiated? There is no better time to jump in; this brew tastes as good as it ever did. And regarding the stylistic and cultural changes that have ensued since late ’69, what might have once sounded scary should seem almost accessible. To listeners who have absorbed progressive rock, world music, trip-hop and the ambient dreamscapes that drugs and technology have helped create, this experience might impart the shock of recognition: this is the primordial stew that all of these advancements oozed out of. (For the full and unfettered experience, you need to acquire the box set that includes the complete Bitches Brew sessions, which was released several years back.)

Start with the artwork. Innovative and incendiary then, this double-gatefold LP—which would have (and still could) convey an insider’s sort of solidarity if taped to a dorm-room wall—could now be respectably framed in an office or living room. Miles, utilizing the considerable skills of artist Abdul Mati Klarwein, took James Brown one step further and the immediate visual message here shouts out Say it once, say it loud, I am African and I’m proud. Of course the mission statement above the title declaring that this effort signifies “Directions In Music By Miles Davis” is both a boast and a simple declaration of fact. If we no longer sit around and stare at album covers while we absorb the sounds (we may still stare at album covers but do we absorb the sounds?), we always have YouTube.

Regarding these “new directions”, music was already changing (it always is); Miles was clever enough to understand the new possibilities being made possible by the aforementioned Mr. Brown, as well as Sly Stone and especially Jimi Hendrix. Miles, always trusting his ever-keen instincts, incorporated some of this freedom into his approach; he just happened to have the biggest and boldest freak flag, and as such he was able—and obliged—to fly it higher than anyone else. In the process he dragged jazz music, kicking and screeching, into the ‘70s—and beyond.

Let’s look at a few of the elements that were so innovative (if unsettling, or both) circa 1970. The wah-wah effects Miles used to create a surreal but visceral—even intense—sound with his horn. The 27-minute title track is “Exhibit A” of this experiment, and it is one that remains boundary-busting and slightly intimidating. The funk elements inch their way to the forefront (they would arguably reach a fruition during the subsequent Jack Johnson sessions), incorporating the R&B-meets-Rock & Roll approach epitomized by Miles’s extended reworking of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” on Filles de Kilimanjaro’s “Mademoiselle Mabry”. These elements are all channeled through a sprawling, pan-cultural perspective on tracks like “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Spanish Key.”

Producer Teo Macero (ever reliable, patient and encouraging—as the hysterical studio chatter before the “Part Something” take of “Corrado”, from the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set illustrates: (Teo) “Okay, is this gonna’ be part two, or…?” (Miles, hissing) “It’s gonna’ be PART NINE WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE MUTHAFUCKA?”) continues the heavy lifting he did during the post-recording edits for In A Silent Way. Like George Martin with The Beatles, enough can never be said about how crucial Macero’s contributions were to the final products. The extended, but never aimless improvisatory jams were meticulously multi-tracked, then spliced, and resorted, providing both boundary and momentum (if not necessarily any sort of musical “logic” that contemporary ears were accustomed to).

The augmented personnel impart an obvious heft to the proceedings, but it never feels crowded. Indeed, it never even feels busy, primarily because Miles was always after feeling above all else, and no musician other than the young Coltrane ever attempted to “overplay” in his presence. For instance, Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet adds a beefy bottom, underneath the bass, giving this postmodern music an almost prehistoric vibe. Young drummer Lenny White was brought in to (as Miles dictated) serve as the “salt and spices” to accompany Jack DeJohnette’s muscular groove. Dave Holland provides an anchor for this rollicking ship with his acoustic bass, while Harvey Brooks bobs and weaves around the rhythm with his Fender Bass. Chick Corea provides ongoing color commentary via electric piano, and is joined by Joe Zawinul and Larry Young (each also using electric pianos) on several tracks. John McLaughlin is the secret weapon throughout, consistently providing subtle but unmistakable embellishment. Most of these moving parts mingle to sublime effect on the beyond-cool “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down”, where the band stalks the groove like a snake, moving calmly and assuredly by instinct through the darkening woods.

The star, besides Miles, remains the stalwart Wayne Shorter who, at this point in his career, continued (however improbably) to astonish each time out. His ethereal soprano saxophone on In A Silent Way would seem unimprovable, but here he lends a grace and class that elevates what would otherwise only be a near-perfect recording. Like Miles, Shorter (a master composer himself) was obsessed with texture and atmosphere. His presence makes a track like “Spanish Key” almost impossible to dislike: his graceful runs soar above the din and certainly point the way toward the truly gorgeous work he would do on Moto Grosso Feio and The Odyssey of Iska the following year. The mood over the course of the first five songs is alternately foreboding and restless, like a massive storm slowly building. It finally breaks on the magisterial album-closer, “Sanctuary”, which finally provides a manner of relief—however tentative. The song sounds like a plugged-in outtake from Sketches of Spain, and features some of Davis and Shorter’s greatest work. If most of the proceedings remain music that one can’t (shouldn’t?) listen to on a regular rotation, “Sanctuary” sits near the summit and can subsist in peace alongside anything else Miles ever did (you got that, Stanley Crouch?).

Still on the fence? The one-two punch of live material bookend this material brilliantly, and are both worthy additions to your collection. The DVD, filmed during a concert in Copenhagen on November 4, 1969 (about five months before Bitches Brew was officially unleashed), previews what is just around the corner. It’s not unlike a jazz Altamont; it signals the end of an amazing decade but the only casualty captured on tape is convention. The performance, lasting just over an hour, is one continuous flow of music with songs spilling over and into one another. The curtain opens and the band is already playing: it is almost unreal how unvarnished live acts (especially jazz) were back then—no dry ice, no pyrotechnics, no fake heroics or dubbed in embellishment; it’s just a live jam. The crowd is quiet, respectful, and almost entirely white. On most of the selections Wayne Shorter functions as a sort of chaser to Miles’s 180 Proof solos, restoring a semblance of collected calm after The Sorcerer’s short blasts of piss and vinegar. Jack DeJohnette maintains a pulsating beat, sounding like a slightly more muscular Tony Williams. If it’s possible for a man with a beard to have a baby face, it is the young Dave Holland, who suffuses restraint behind his upright bass. On the front line, Chick Corea fills out the contours in between Miles’s focused and powerful runs. Every time Shorter drops in his soprano cascades with placid, almost cerebral intensity, his eyes shut tight in composed concentration. It is a delight to have access to this footage.

The concert recorded at Tanglewood, on August 18, 1970, takes stock of what has gone down and offers Field Notes from the future. Gary Bartz replaces Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett adds organ to bolster Corea’s electric piano. Holland and DeJohnette are still holding down the fort, augmented by the percussion of Airto Moreira. A filthy funk abounds and the band keeps the pedal to the metal throughout this abbreviated (43 minute) set. One can appreciate how the origins of “jam band” took firm root in this era: like the DVD, this is one extended groove. The band locks in and runs through the numbers in a deliberate but not choreographed fashion. There is no doubt that Miles feels invigorated by the youthful excitement around him, and the team is obviously eager to earn the maestro’s favor. It works.

And so, once the fairy dust settles and all is played and done, you may find yourself—here in the yesternow of 2010—asking what all the fuss was about. The question, of course, is the answer: this is what all the fuss was about. Same as it ever was.

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Mo Max

Last time I celebrated the mighty Max Roach (check out the glory, here) there was not a ton of material on YouTube. A couple of years later and all kinds of goodies are uploaded.

Hear me now and believe me later, you need some Max Roach in your life.

Arguably the best drummer in terms of stamina, versatility and mind-bending dexterity, he also was a brilliant composer.

Check out a sampler here that illustrates a little bit of what he was capable of doing. And he did it longer and better than anyone else ever did.

Whether or not you believe in a supreme power you can –and you must– believe in Max.

“You Stepped Out of a Dream” (with the two young supernovas Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, as well as Ray Draper on tuba (!!)):

“Garvey’s Ghost” (more Dolphy and Little, as well as a star-turn from vocalist–and then-wife–Abbey Lincoln):

“Pay Not Play Not” (with the legendary Hasaan):

“We Speak” (with Booker Little, from one of the all-time hard bop masterpieces, Out Front):

“Epistrophy” (an all-percussion version of Monk’s tune, with his band M’Boom):

Bonus: Max doing more with one hi-hat than most mortals can do with two kits:

As if more proof was needed, remember: THE DRUM ALSO WALTZES!!!

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Lighting The Night: For Herbie, My Brother and Someone You Love (Revisited)

First of all, just stop and listen to this:

Maybe you’re hearing that for the first time and thinking, like I did about a decade or so when I was lucky enough to discover Herbie Nichols, how have I never lived with this music until now?

If so, I’m delighted to be the humble middleman, doing some small part to make more folks aware of this man’s miraculous work. Incidentally, I don’t use the word “miraculous” lightly. It is that, on several levels. The first is obvious to anyone with ears: truly original and, once heard, unforgettable music, plain and simple. The second is that it ever got recorded.

And you may have heard this one before, without realizing Herbie wrote it (it was initially entitled “Serenade”; only later when words were added did it become “Lady Sings the Blues”, immortalized by Billie Holiday):

You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music. So how to talk about jazz music? Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. Trust me. But first, eradicate cliché. Possibly the most despicable myth (that, fortunately doesn’t seem as widespread, perhaps –sigh– because less people talk or care about jazz music in 2010) is one I found myself ceaselessly rebutting back in the bad old days. You know which one: that lazy, anecdotally innacurate and often racist assumption that all jazz artists are (or at least were) heroin addicts. That’s like saying all pro athletes are steroid abusers. Oh wait…

Anyway, the major reason so many people have never heard of Herbie Nichols –aside from the unfortunate fact that entirely too many jazz musicians, no matter who they are or what they did, are increasingly forgotten in a world where the word “jazz” causes so much confusion and consternation, and that is just for the people who may be open to it in the first place– is because he died so young. In 1963, aged 44. Of leukemia. (Yet another genius who died not by his own hand or due to drugs, just to make sure there is no confusion). This is one of the more Tragic (with a capital T) stories in an art form that is full of them.

I’ve written with love and at length of the saint-like Eric Dolphy who, if I were ever inclined to make such a list (and I’m not, particularly), would easily rank in the Top 5 in terms of untimely artistic departures from our planet. What he had left to give is tantalizing as it is incomprehensible; that the fickle forces of fate prevented him from making his joyous noises for several more decades is infuriating. But, as always, it is ludicrous to rail at the silent skies when we can turn to the considerable bounty of Treasure (with a capital T) he left us. Even Booker Little, who was stolen (there is no other word that will do) from us at 23, at least (thank those same fickle forces…) left a tolerably rich body of work –including some majestic music with Dolphy. (That is not a typo, incidentally: 23. Twenty-three. That is the musical equivalent of John Keats, who died at 25 and may well have become the most prominent poet of the 19th Century– if he isn’t already).

Nichols, on the other hand, fell prey to the proverbial fate worse than death: he was unappreciated, and largely ignored for most of his career –if one could even call it that. There are (too) many examples, crossing all musical (and literary) genres of this failure of a worthy artist to find his or her audience. But Nichols, now justly acknowledged as a wholly original and crucially important genius, is one of the more painful instances to consider. His angular and ostensibly arrhythmic playing was, simply, too advanced and ahead of its time for even the most forward-thinking producers of the time to apprehend. At best, he was casually dismissed as sounding too much like Thelonious Monk and although he’d paid dues for almost two decades, it wasn’t until 1955 that he was able to lead his own sessions for Blue Note Records. Better, as they say, late than never, and the work he did during 1955 and 1956 is collected in the must-own Complete Blue Note Recordings.

What else is there to say? Here are a few quotes from the man himself, which should leave little doubt as to the stature of what we lost (but should be grateful to have had in the first place):

What I feel most deeply is that I, everyone, has to keep delving. If you don’t keep delving and examining things in your mind, that’s the end of civilization.

I’m a guy who’s been broke all my life, and music is a release for me. It’s the way I can keep on living. And also, I want to give a rounded picture of life, and happiness is a part of that. My desire is to dig behind the surface and get the feel of what’s actually happening, and I know basically there’s going to be a love involved in it, whatever it is, when you do go beneath the surface.

This music is something to live for…something to be taken seriously, but not serious. Music is joy, and living–not death.

 

“Love, Gloom, Cash, Love”:

I was thinking of Herbie Nichols today, knowing he died of leukemia, and that I plan to participate in the Light The Night walk this weekend. This is an annual event my family and several friends never miss, for a variety of reasons. First, it’s impossible not to get behind an organization like The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Second, the work and research these people have done are making a difference.

How about a story with a happy ending?

After watching our grandmother and then her daughter (our mother) die of cancer, the Murphy family was done with that disease for a while. Of course, life seldom works that way. Less than six months after my mother’s funeral, my sister’s husband Scott (who is not my brother-in-law; he’s my brother) was diagnosed with leukemia. Thankfully, it was caught quickly and what was at that time a trial medication effectively put the smack down on the disease. It made a lot of sense for us to show our gratitude for the cause, and all this work, to do some small part to share the love, spread the word and light the night. And so we do.

Our team page is here. If you want to learn more about the event, or how to get involved, I encourage you to check it out. Let me add that this is not a solicitation, and I’m not trolling for donations. Rather, it’s intended as an awareness campaign. Let’s face it: there is not an overabundance of feel-good stories in our society right now, and it’s easier than ever to let apathy or cynicism sink their claws into your soul. To consider that there are scores of people (professionals and volunteers) dedicated to eradicating a disease that, unchecked, would continue to rob families of loved ones, and all of us of someone (or something) we love, is inspirational. I am humbled by those efforts and celebrate that they have, in part, helped save the life of a person I could not fathom being without. He turned 44 last year.

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When I have fears that I may cease to be…*

I. Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charact’ry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain…

If you are a certain age, or a certain type of person (or both) when you first encounter these lines, they lodge themselves somewhere deep and remain there forever. That is the gift the poet gives you; your gift in return is to read and receive the work and by never forgetting it you ensure that the artist never dies.

John Keats will remain immortal as long as humans are capable of reading words. Had he been aware of this while he struggled with the tuberculosis that would take his life at 25, perhaps it might have offered a consolation money, fame and even health could never approximate.

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance…

This particular work resonates with each successive generation because it grapples with the most profound fear any of us will ever experience: the acknowledgment that we will inexorably perish, not knowing what actually awaits us once we’re gone. That Keats, easily one of the incontestable geniuses of any era, had several decades—at least—of his life stolen by a vulgar disease tends to augment the import of his solemn meditation. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize this travesty of karmic justice, this affront to life. It is the intolerable enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify this madness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never subdue all that we received.

Does it make a difference if he is no longer around, if he never knew his words would be read, studied and savored centuries after he drew his last breath? Was he hoping he might witness that as he wrote the words; are we hoping we might see it when we read them? The questions are unanswerable, and the only thing we can be certain about is that he did live, he did write, and we do read. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for his death, and our loss, but it helps. As always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It is never enough; it is more than enough.

It is enough to make one consider asking more unanswerable—and unsatisfying—questions, like: “What kind of God would take a poet like Keats from us?”

Asking questions like that can lead one to answers that are at once the easiest and most difficult—to understand or accept: “The same one who gave him to us?”

This, of course, is not enough. It is never enough.

But somehow, it will have to do.

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

 II. Strength and Sanity

Eric Dolphy & Booker Little, “Fire Waltz”:

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills, Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I quickly came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling. Of the many worth mentioning, two tend to stand out because of their brilliance, potential and clean and sober lifestyles: Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan—both trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose. Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

And then there is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from euremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

“Strength and Sanity” (from Out Front):

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive –much less thrive– in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

“Man of Words” (also from Out Front, but no comment on the unrelated, albeit not unpleasant accompanying YouTube image; I challenge you to close your eyes for five minutes, listen, and not think about what he saw and is saying: about his life, and how it causes you to contemplate your own):

*another installment from a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Three For J.C.

It’s a big day for J.C.

In the spirit of Christmas, I’d like to celebrate J.C. with some…J.C.

I’m speaking, of course, about John Coltrane.

And I’ll try to resist the urge to make any potentially upsetting observations about the relative merits of music vs. religion, or the ways in which Coltrane’s message can never be corrupted. Instead, I’ll just offer thanks and praises (and anyone who knows me knows I’m not being sardonic). I also will point out that some people take this very seriously indeed.

“My Favorite Things” (with Eric Dolphy):

“Central Park West”:

“Dear Lord”:

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Three: Jazz, Featuring Five Of My Favorite Things

Just before my birthday, on the subject of Eric Dolphy (who I’m happy to call attention to anytime the opportunity presents itself), I had the following to say about what the ways music affects and moves me (I had more to say, about a month later, on the subject of Wayne Shorter, here):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

On the other hand, back in the day I was obliged to talk about music using only words. Now there is YouTube. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

How to talk about jazz music? Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. Trust me.

So, let’s get it on. I wouldn’t say these are my five favorite pieces, or necessarily my five favorite artists, but they are some of my all-time favorite tunes by some of my all-time favorite jazz musicians. I also happen to think that these are all representative of the type of work these men did, and should serve as easy gateways to deeper study for those who are inclined or intrigued. Contact me directly if you want some suggestions on which albums to pick up (or go to Amazon.com and see which albums generate the most enthusiasm; or check out YouTube and type in an artist’s name and just see what happens).

1. Jimmy McGriff, “Back On The Track” (Though not nearly as famous or prolific as the “other” Jimmy, Jimmy Smith, McGriff had considerable game and he got down with the funk as well as any of his fellow organists did. This is an obscure song from an obscure album –and to be honest, the whole album ain’t that great– but what a song. This is happiness in musical form, and you can hear the words through the music, particularly during the wave-crashing choruses. I love how the song shifts from ever-so-slightly melancholic and introspective to ebullient. This is music to put a smile on your face and all up and down your soul…and it’s addictive as all get-out):

 

2. Herbie Hancock, “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” (I’m officially on record declaring Herbie Hancock one of the coolest human beings to ever walk the earth, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about him, building in part on observations like this. For now, let it simply be stated that while I could never, under any circumstances, consider actually trying to cull down a universe of music into some type of ultimate list, if I was forced under penalty of painful death to do so (having to do so would be its own sort of painful death, but at least at the end I’d still be alive and I’d still have the music I chose) I would have to put this song very near the top of that list. If “Back On The Track” is readymade bliss for whatever ails you –and it is– “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” has functioned, in my adult life, the way an ice cream cone or the thrill of the diving board were when I was a child: in the air or in my mouth, the delights were expected, and consistently satisfying. This song has never ceased to soothe and exhilarate me, and I’ve been listening to it with regularity for at least a decade and a half. You could spend an entire afternoon trying to sort through just the better music Herbie has provided, and picking one penultimate piece is pointless…but all of his compositional acumen and unmatched ear for melody –and above all, that ineffable feeling the best music delivers are on display here. This is the sort of magic you need not be a wide-eyed kid to behold, or believe in):

3. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, “Three For The Festival” (I have a much longer piece in the works –it’s been a long-standing work-in-progress– celebrating the life and music of this truly unique artist. If there was any justice in this whacked-out world, Kirk would have been a superstar during his life and his likeness would be printed on our currency today. He could play anything you can blow air through: sax, clarinet, conch shell; he even invented new instruments to satisfy his prodigious imagination. Whether soaring off on his own engine or more than holding his own with blues (and rock) legends or appropriating Christmas music and making it really sacred, Kirk is a singular –and irreplaceable– legend that America should be proud to have produced. I’m not going to suggest that there is something seriously wrong with you if you don’t feel this, but…well, yes I am):

4. McCoy Tyner, “Valley Of Life” (I’ve celebrated Tyner’s work as 1/4 of the great Coltrane Quartet –my vote for second best jazz collective of all time, just –and I mean just– behind the second Miles Davis quintet (link to discussion of that band above). McCoy, of course, continued to make remarkable music after Coltrane departed this planet, and he is still on the scene, gracing the rest of his with his elegant presence. Picking a favorite Tyner release would be agonizing, but anyone who is interested in learning more can –and should– look for anything from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s: this is when he was utterly locked in and dropping masterpiece after masterpiece, including Expansions, Extensions, Asante, Sahara, Enlightenment and Trident. “Valley of Life” from 1972’s Sahara, is a personal touchstone and one of the premier examples I would offer of what some people (like me) tend to call “other” music: moments that are impossible to define, unfamiliar yet recognizable, and seemingly in touch with sensations we are not accustomed to accessing. This is a meditation of tranquility, harmony and a real spiritual sense of unity: it is from another place and transports you there. In other words, it’s impossible; a miracle):

5. Grant Green, “Round About Midnight” (Grant Green is another genius I have a long overdue appraisal of that needs to be completed: for now it can suffice to say that he is definitely my favorite jazz guitarist. For my money, no one else had a run as long, productive and enduring as he did for Blue Note all through the ’60s: album after album of ideas, energy and innovation. Consider his (way underappreciated) rendition of the immortal Thelonious Monk’s “Round About Midnight”: if you didn’t know Monk’s version it would be difficult to understand that this is a cover of one of jazz’s top-shelf compositions (in other words, it’s not a by-the-numbers reproduction; Green imbues it with his own distinctive elan). The tone Green gets from his guitar is so full of feeling and grace it is sometimes overwhelming. When it comes to jazz, Green is one of my secret weapons: there are few people I’ve introduced to his music who have not subsequently fallen under the spell. I hope if you are reading this and are hearing him for the first time, this marks the beginning of a lifelong love affair) :

Stay tuned for part four (and more…)

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Lighting The Night: For Herbie, My Brother and Someone You Love

First of all, just stop and listen to this:

 

Maybe you’re hearing that for the first time and thinking, like I did about a decade or so when I was lucky enough to discover Herbie Nichols, how have I never lived with this music until now?

If so, I’m delighted to be the humble middleman, doing some small part to make more folks aware of this man’s miraculous work. Incidentally, I don’t use the word “miraculous” lightly. It is that, on several levels. The first is obvious to anyone with ears: truly original and, once heard, unforgettable music, plain and simple. The second is that it ever got recorded.

And you may have heard this one before, without realizing Herbie wrote it (it was initially entitled “Serenade”; only later when words were added did it become “Lady Sings the Blues”, immortalized by Billie Holiday):

You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music. So how to talk about jazz music? Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. Trust me. But first, eradicate cliché. Possibly the most despicable myth (that, fortunately doesn’t seem as widespread, perhaps –sigh– because less people talk or care about jazz music in 2010) is one I found myself ceaselessly rebutting back in the bad old days. You know which one: that lazy, anecdotally innacurate and often racist assumption that all jazz artists are (or at least were) heroin addicts. That’s like saying all pro athletes are steroid abusers. Oh wait…

Anyway, the major reason so many people have never heard of Herbie Nichols –aside from the unfortunate fact that entirely too many jazz musicians, no matter who they are or what they did, are increasingly forgotten in a world where the word “jazz” causes so much confusion and consternation, and that is just for the people who may be open to it in the first place– is because he died so young. In 1963, aged 44. Of leukemia. (Yet another genius who died not by his own hand or due to drugs, just to make sure there is no confusion). This is one of the more Tragic (with a capital T) stories in an art form that is full of them.

I’ve written with love and at length of the saint-like Eric Dolphy who, if I were ever inclined to make such a list (and I’m not, particularly), would easily rank in the Top 5 in terms of untimely artistic departures from our planet. What he had left to give is tantalizing as it is incomprehensible; that the fickle forces of fate prevented him from making his joyous noises for several more decades is infuriating. But, as always, it is ludicrous to rail at the silent skies when we can turn to the considerable bounty of Treasure (with a capital T) he left us. Even Booker Little, who was stolen (there is no other word that will do) from us at 23, at least (thank those same fickle forces…) left a tolerably rich body of work –including some majestic music with Dolphy. (That is not a typo, incidentally: 23. Twenty-three. That is the musical equivalent of John Keats, who died at 25 and may well have become the most prominent poet of the 19th Century– if he isn’t already).

Nichols, on the other hand, fell prey to the proverbial fate worse than death: he was unappreciated, and largely ignored for most of his career –if one could even call it that. There are (too) many examples, crossing all musical (and literary) genres of this failure of a worthy artist to find his or her audience. But Nichols, now justly acknowledged as a wholly original and crucially important genius, is one of the more painful instances to consider. His angular and ostensibly arrhythmic playing was, simply, too advanced and ahead of its time for even the most forward-thinking producers of the time to apprehend. At best, he was casually dismissed as sounding too much like Thelonious Monk and although he’d paid dues for almost two decades, it wasn’t until 1955 that he was able to lead his own sessions for Blue Note Records. Better, as they say, late than never, and the work he did during 1955 and 1956 is collected in the must-own Complete Blue Note Recordings.

What else is there to say? Here are a few quotes from the man himself, which should leave little doubt as to the stature of what we lost (but should be grateful to have had in the first place):

What I feel most deeply is that I, everyone, has to keep delving. If you don’t keep delving and examining things in your mind, that’s the end of civilization.

I’m a guy who’s been broke all my life, and music is a release for me. It’s the way I can keep on living. And also, I want to give a rounded picture of life, and happiness is a part of that. My desire is to dig behind the surface and get the feel of what’s actually happening, and I know basically there’s going to be a love involved in it, whatever it is, when you do go beneath the surface.

This music is something to live for…something to be taken seriously, but not serious. Music is joy, and living–not death.

 

“Love, Gloom, Cash, Love”:

I was thinking of Herbie Nichols today, knowing he died of leukemia, and that I plan to participate in the Light The Night walk this weekend. This is an annual event my family and several friends never miss, for a variety of reasons. First, it’s impossible not to get behind an organization like The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Second, the work and research these people have done are making a difference.

How about a story with a happy ending?

After watching our grandmother and then her daughter (our mother) die of cancer, the Murphy family was done with that disease for a while. Of course, life seldom works that way. Less than six months after my mother’s funeral, my sister’s husband Scott (who is not my brother-in-law; he’s my brother) was diagnosed with leukemia. Thankfully, it was caught quickly and what was at that time a trial medication effectively put the smack down on the disease. It made a lot of sense for us to show our gratitude for the cause, and all this work, to do some small part to share the love, spread the word and light the night. And so we do.

Our team page is here. If you want to learn more about the event, or how to get involved, I encourage you to check it out. Let me add that this is not a solicitation, and I’m not trolling for donations. Rather, it’s intended as an awareness campaign. Let’s face it: there is not an overabundance of feel-good stories in our society right now, and it’s easier than ever to let apathy or cynicism sink their claws into your soul. To consider that there are scores of people (professionals and volunteers) dedicated to eradicating a disease that, unchecked, would continue to rob families of loved ones, and all of us of someone (or something) we love, is inspirational. I am humbled by those efforts and celebrate that they have, in part, helped save the life of a person I could not fathom being without. He will turn 44 this year.

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Summertime is Reggae Time (Revisited)– Part Four: ‘The Same Song’ by Israel Vibration

The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.

The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).

And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).

Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.

They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.

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What’s It All About, Then? Part One: Jazz, Featuring Eric Dolphy

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

On the other hand, back in the day I was obliged to talk about music using only words. Now there is YouTube. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

How to talk about jazz music? Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. Trust me. But first, eradicate cliché. Possibly the most despicable myth (that, fortunately doesn’t seem as widespread, perhaps –sigh– because less people talk or care about jazz music in 2010) is one I found myself ceaselessly rebutting back in the bad old days. You know which one: that lazy, anecdotally innacurate and often racist assumption that all jazz artists are (or at least were) heroin addicts. That’s like saying all pro athletes are steroid abusers. Oh wait…

There are several dozen top-tier jazz musicians whose artistic (and personal) lives could be held up as examples any sane person should want to emulate. And while geniuses like Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Henry Threadgill and Sonny Rollins all spring immediately to mind, the one I believe serves as the ultimate example of everything sublime about jazz music is Eric Dolphy. I’ve discussed –and celebrated– the man at length here, as well as here, here and here.

This is an excerpt from my review of Dolphy’s Outward Bound:

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Booker Little and Lee Morgan—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose. Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since…Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

So: a sample of some of Dolphy’s finer moments

1. “Hat And Beard” from Out To Lunch.

This song, the first track from his last proper album, can serve as well as virtually any other composition I can think of to best illustrate what jazz is; what it is capable of conveying. In this song, the primary feeling is ecstasy. The ecstasy of discovery; the ecstasy of shared purpose amongst the musicians (and this is an unbelievable group of masters, including Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams and Bobby Hutcherson) and the ecstasy of expression. This song’s title is a tribute to Thelonious Monk, but the notes are all Dolphy. Here is his slightly surreal, intentionally off-kilter, totally focused and deeply, darkly beautiful vision fully developed and delivered. This is not the easiest music to absorb, at least initially, but once you “get it”, you stay got.

 

2. “Come Sunday” from Iron Man.

That Dolphy is able to cover the immortal Duke Ellington so convincingly is remarkable; that he is able to do it so indelibly with only one other musician (Richard Davis) is more than a little miraculous. The sheer volume of feeling in this performance is mind boggling, and life changing. Dolphy’s bass clarinet sings, cries and cajoles. It whispers and it pleads, and then it sighs. By the end, it has exhausted itself; it has said everything there is to say.

3. “Eclipse” from Out There.

Another tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. Writing recently about Jimi Hendrix, I observed that “The Wind Cries Mary” captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. And it does. But to do similar work without words, as Dolphy does here, is a truly staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and (the word has to be used again) so surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

4. “Left Alone” from Far Cry.

So, you might ask, are you really telling me I should want to listen to music that is capable of making me cry?

Yes, I would reply.

And, you might add, why would I want to do such a thing?

It’s simple, I’d say. So that you know you are alive.

5. “Miss Ann” from Last Date.

Eric Dolphy, dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the intolerable enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify this madness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

After the final cut of his final recording, Dolphy offers the following observation: “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air…you can never capture it again.”

What he said.

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No One Has Ever Done Anything as Well as John Coltrane Played the Saxophone

The question isn’t, really, about who might be interested in this documentary; it is about who might not be. For fans who already know everything, or those indifferent to jazz music altogether, this would not qualify as essential viewing. For everyone and anyone else, how on Earth could you pass up the opportunity to better understand one of the top-tier jazz geniuses of the last century—or any century?

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact—in a single documentary. It is, therefore, a severe limitation attempting to present any type of overview in 60-minutes, which is precisely what The World According to John Coltrane does.

One wishes the original material (this reissue was initially released in 1990) could have been expanded, or at least embellished with additional concert footage. On the other hand, even an hour of Coltrane is, in a sense, overwhelming. Considering that consequential projects could be undertaken to address Coltrane’s years on the Prestige label (late ‘50s), his momentous collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, his years on the Atlantic label (early ‘60s) and especially his years on the Impulse! label up to, and after, A Love Supreme (in ’65), a 60-minute effort is at once ludicrous and, to be fair, probably necessary.


The World According to John Coltrane follows the obligatory chronological timeline, briefly passing through his youth (the influence of his deeply faithful mother and the church music that filled his childhood were significant sources of inspiration throughout his career), then his post-military dues paying on the live circuit. Several of his contemporaries, such as Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell and Rashied Ali are interviewed, all lending insight and echoing the unanimous awe with which so many musicians regard Coltrane.

Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Heath recalls. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unparalleled proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument. According to Wayne Shorter, “he played the saxophone more like a piano or even a violin.”

Working in the first classic Miles Davis quintet while also recording his first sessions (for Prestige) as a leader, Coltrane steadily developed his fluid, exuberant style which famously came to be known as “sheets of sound”. The apotheosis of this evolution occurred in the miraculous year of 1959, which, among several other classic recordings, witnessed the releases of both Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The footage, albeit awfully brief, of Miles’ solo casually sliding into Trane’s on “So What” is a bit more than simply historic: we didn’t get to see Notre Dame being built or The Statue of David being sculpted, but we do have the opportunity to witness some of the most brilliant musicians on the planet performing one of our best-loved albums. In the context of that seminal year, and this documentary, these are not simply all-time masterpieces so much as material that functioned as an obvious culmination of sorts as well as a point of departure (for both Davis and Coltrane).

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument. The footage of the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) tearing into this piece is more than worth the paltry price of admission. It is exhilarating to watch Coltrane—at his peak— in action, while the band steams in support. Literally. This particular clip was recorded in black-and-white at an outdoor festival, and throughout the performance it appears a smoke machine has been set up on stage until, after a while, it becomes apparent that actual waves of steam are pouring off Garrison and especially Jones.

There is more footage, including the quartet augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy—who collaborated and performed with Coltrane throughout 1960 and 1961—which is priceless and, considering how prematurely both these men left the world, more than a little heartbreaking. The highlight, however, has to be the full performance of Coltrane’s epic protest piece “Alabama”: what Coltrane accomplishes here could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, likens Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he could not quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarks that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary (this being the ‘60s, etc.) but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke. Not for nothing is A Love Supreme considered one of the most important, and affecting, albums in all of jazz. And later, even amidst the sonic uproar, came majestic and tranquil offerings like “Dear Lord” and “To Be”.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

The World According to John Coltrane is an anti-documentary of sorts in the sense that we don’t have scholars or critics opining on who the man was and what he meant. Rather, we have the crucial and illuminating insight of contemporaries reminiscing about what it was like to be there, and what it’s like now, having lived through it all. That, along with the invaluable footage of the music being performed, speaks more eloquently and appropriately than even the most well-meaning expert (or DVD review, for that matter) is capable of doing.

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