Bobby Hutcherson: Thanks for the Good Vibes

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Bobby Hutcherson was not just a major, and positive force for good in the jazz idiom, he was a genuine innovator. Before him, the vibraphone was largely considered a novelty instrument and, despite the obvious advancements of the incomparable Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, Hutcherson was part of the post-bop vanguard, and he made the vibes not only acceptable, but cool.

And, of the many accolades Hutcherson deserves, being cool defines both the man and the era he became an indispensable part of. After the high water mark of 1959, the avant-garde moved, increasingly, to the forefront and with this “new thing”, epitomized by Ornette Coleman and the polarizing free-jazz he pioneered, jazz became, take your pick: less cool, less accessible, more adventurous, more encompassing. It was all those things, and many more.

If Miles Davis and — at least for a couple of years before he blasted into the stratosphere — John Coltrane, were ambassadors for the future of this music while remaining mostly within the orthodox or accepted bounds of jazz, the aforementioned Coleman along with, just to name a handful, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, were already straining at convention and taking jazz places even ardent fans found difficult to follow.

Somewhere in the middle, another young breed of innovators arrived on the scene: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson were among the better regarded (and received) practitioners of new jazz with old(er) school appeal. And like Shorter and Hancock, Hutcherson established himself first as an invaluable session player (doing remarkable work with Jackie McLean, Grant Green and Eric Dolphy) and, eventually, emerging as a leader to be reckoned with.

In hindsight, Hutcherson had the perfect approach for the perfect instrument: his work has aged extraordinarily well (not unlike Shorter’s and Hancock’s, for that matter) and what once pushed some boundaries now seems accessible without feeling conservative, it’s conversant without a hint a cliché, and it’s mellow without ever being predictable. This is the type of jazz you can put on for the proverbial dinner party (assuming anyone has dinner parties or listens to jazz; if anyone listens to jazz at dinner parties, please invite me.) In short, it’s cool.

His work is worth exploring, and will reward even a slightly sensitive listener. Virtually any session he led or participated in throughout the ’60s is recommended without reservation.

Speaking personally, the pleasures his work has provided me are too extensive to count; suffice it to say, I’ve cherished him and will continue to do so, while being grateful we had him amongst us as long as we did. Here then are five personal favorites, any of which should prove addictive.

bh

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Four: Separating The Best of The Best

Jackie-McLean

Best sax solos ever?

That is kind of like choosing the best sunset; it’s impossible.

But some do stand out apart from the rest, and beauty is always in the ears of the behearer.

5. John Coltrane: “The Last Blues”.

Of course it would be possible to make a list without including Coltrane; it just wouldn’t feel right. His entire career is an extended highlight reel, a hall-of-fame enshrinement in real time. Also, as at least one person has opined, no one has ever done anything as well as John Coltrane played the saxophone.

Even on tunes like “Russian Lullaby” (arguably the apotheosis of his famous “sheets of sound”) or “Countdown” (where, after having learned to fly, he finally broke the sound barrier), other players get a say, however briefly. On “The Last Blues” it’s all Trane from start to stop, and even though Elvin Jones is in typical form, dropping sonic booms from every conceivable angle, this is Trane preaching from the mountaintop: this is the tide crashing and receding –and everything in between.

*Proceed to the 46:56 point and then go to the very beginning and listen to the entire album. Twice.

4. Jackie McLean: “Plight”.

For my money, probably the single-most underrated musician in jazz history. Listen: the streak Jackie Mac went on from the late ’50s to the late ’60s can stand toe-to-toe with what anyone else has done in any era; just one masterpiece after another. Also, Dr. Jackyll discovered –and promoted– more amazing young talent than anyone not named Miles Davis or Art Blakey.

“Plight” is from his enthusiastically recommended album Action, featuring as solid a line-up as Blue Note ever boasted: Cecil McBee on bass, the estimable (and also severely under-appreciated) Charles Tolliver –who composed most of the material– on trumpet, “Smiling” Billy Higgins (who is without any question on the short list of all-time great jazz drummers) and, added bonus, the incomparable Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. Add Mac’s alto, at once searing and then soothing, and you have a tune that can –and should– convert anyone with the slightest bit of sense, or soul. This also is just about as cool as it gets.

3. Charles Mingus: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.

It’s not just that I’ll take any opportunity available to discuss Charles Mingus (I will); it’s that he can’t be talked about enough. He was sufficiently god-like in his time that he always was able to assemble top-tier talent; part of his enduring legacy (aside from his musicianship and compositional prowess) is that he consistently got the best performances out of so many of the men he employed. Simply put, too many great players to count did their finest work on sessions led by Mingus.

From the immortal Mingus Ah Um, this is an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Teo Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

2. Ornette Coleman: “Civilization Day”.

This one is for all the uninformed haters. Black beret this, bitches.

Punk rock? Please. This shit makes that slop sound like what it mostly was: a bunch of spindly misfits playing their instruments poorly but passionately. Child’s play, musically speaking. This is the truth that a whole lot of people can’t handle. In part, because it makes so much other material sound like little boys playing with toy soldiers. This is a report from the frontlines, with real bullets flying and the sort of shrapnel that gets stuck in your soul. Can you dig it?

As Charlie Haden and (the aforementioned) Billy Higgins double-time the soundtrack of the end of the world as we know it (try to wrap your mind around what is happening during the 4:36-4:51 section), Coleman remains impossibly calm and collected, because that’s how he’s always rolled. In his own elegant way he makes a compelling case for why the skies of America shouldn’t come crashing down on a 20th Century spun all out of control. You don’t need to try and understand what he’s saying; just be thankful that he said it.

1. Sonny Rollins: “East Broadway Rundown”.

Sonny. One of the last still-living links to the great old days. Like Coltrane (and every other player on this particular list), it is too easy to pick a representative solo –which makes it difficult to isolate just one.

So it seems a bit appropriate to choose one from the album where Rollins “borrowed” Coltrane’s rhythm section (Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones). A special guest appearance from the remarkable Freddie Hubbard (who also augmented the collective genius on Coltrane’s Ole Coltrane disc) makes this one of the seminal recordings of the ’60s.

Along with the epic side-long “Freedom Suite” this title track represents Rollins doing an extended improv in the studio, and in many ways it remains his most satisfying, if unorthodox performance. Rollins was not as quick to embrace the free jazz ethos as his compatriots, Coltrane and Coleman were, but once he let his guard down he proved, once again, that he could be the best at whatever he set his mind to doing.

Perhaps the most notable playing Rollins does here occurs when, having seemingly taken the instrument as far as he can take it, Sonny starts blowing through his mouthpiece (!!). The resulting sounds are many things: spooky, surreal, unsettling and awe-inspiring. Nothing else anyone has ever done sounds anything like this, and it’s ceaselessly exciting to hear Garrison and Jones hold down the fort while Sonny leaves the room for a while and goes to that sacred other place where very few artists are capable of going.

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Malcolm, Malcolm – Semper Malcolm*

On Feb. 21, 1965, former Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was shot and killed by assassins identified as Black Muslims as he was about to address a rally in New York City; he was 39. (NYT story here.)

(The blog’s title comes from the great Archie Shepp album, Fire Music: check it out and see what it’s all about.)

Plenty has been written about Malcolm, but (as always) some of the most eloquent words were never actually spoken; they were sung. As such, I eagerly cede the floor to the incomparably cool and soulful Jackie McLean:

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Following These Footprints

Check this out.

A few years back I opined that the second great Miles Davis quintet was the greatest group of musicians ever assembled in one collective. I stand by that, and reprint the piece, below.

Listening to what they do on the seminal Wayne Shorter composition, “Footprints”, is as good a case that can be made for their sublime status.

Even after 20+ years, I find myself out-and-out marveling at what Tony Williams does on this track. The double-time, the outside-the-pocket pyrotechnics, the swing and the mother-loving soul. This is, truly, as good as it gets.

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

Miles and Herbie need little, if any introduction or elaboration. They were gods then and they remain gods, now. Seriously, you could spend years studying and absorbing the almost overwhelming volume of music they’ve made. And while the sheer quantity is impressive, the quality is astonishing.

Ron Carter (who, like Hancock and Shorter, is still with us) is certainly one of the best loved and highly regarded bassists. He also plays a mean cello (check him out making some of the most beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear with the immaculate Eric Dolphy on Out There). To get a handle on his legacy, take a peak at his Wikipedia page. Just look at the number of albums –and the variety of brilliant musicians– his name is associated with.

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

And finally, the wunderkind. If you were to make a short list –and I will, someday soon– of the best drummers (I won’t say “in jazz” because the best drummers in jazz are, virtually without exception, the best drummers period), Williams would be difficult to top. He is generally regarded as one of the most exciting and original drummers (and if you think the invocation of the word “original” –that most unoriginal of invocations– is facile, just listen to him: few, if any, drummers could change tempos and go from smooth to scorching like him). Discovered by (the great) Jackie McLean, he played on his first session as a sixteen year old (on Vertigo, along with Herbie Hancock). Check him out on McLean’s next album, One Step Beyond:

Whenever the topic of Jazz comes up (why I love it; why anyone else should like it), I invariably mention John Coltrane since he is, in many regards, the ideal starting point and the one you always, always come back to. And then there is Mingus. And Monk. And many others (obviously).

But aside from John Coltrane’s classic quartet, there is no jazz band that can hold a candle to the second Miles Davis quintet. And if their time together was brief (relatively speaking), they more than made the most of their partnership. And, needless to say, they all went on to make several more decades of miraculous music.

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

(Wait, I’m not going to elaborate on why this music is exceptional or what makes it indelible? Of course not. I’m not inclined to embarrass myself, or the musicians, attempting to unravel the inscrutable or explain the lightning-in-a-recording-studio chemistry that blessed these sessions. And, as (the great) Dewey Redman said, it’s all, ultimately, in “The Ear of the Behearer”.)

If this is the first time you are hearing this music, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s not your last. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?

“Circle”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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Pas de deux: Outside the Text*

 

Il n’y a pas de hors-texte

–Jacques Derrida

An elderly man, thinking about nothing in particular, walks casually down the Champs Elysees, as he has done countless times, on his way to meet an acquaintance when he experiences a sudden, familiar sensation—a vague remembrance:  recherché du temps perdu, when he was a much younger man, a boy even—and he finds himself automatically reciting, like a child memorizing a psalm, those profound lines he had first encountered in his youth (which now seemed like so many lifetimes ago):  “nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada…” and as he whispers these reassuring words, undesirable images begin to crowd his aging mind and he is startled to find that the defenses are not as quick in coming:  this was not as he had trained and mastered himself to be—or not to be—he thinks, and before he can suppress it, a quick, shrill laughter escapes him, coming from he knew not where; somewhere deep, somewhere he did not until that moment know existed and as he stands motionless on the familiar Parisian street with the mild breeze blowing the leaves delicately over his freshly polished shoes, for the first time in his extremely secure life, he fears, or rather, he entertains the fear that his fac—his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s were not intact.

“It shall pass,” he murmurs, closing his eyes and deciding that the only reasonable course of action is to remain calm and try to think about nothing

but he can’t stop shaking, in spite of himself.  “Well no wonder I am trembling, the snow is falling down like I have never seen it before, and here am I, totally unprepared for these wretched conditions.”  He sighs, looking at his silk trousers and sports coat, which were offering pitiful protection from the shrieking wind.  “Why did I not hire a cab, and now it is so late,” he thinks, looking wistfully ahead at Izmailovsky Bridge, its enormous frame scarcely discernible in the distance:  no more than a mile away, mockingly close, and yet such a far walk in this frigid, filthy slush.  And so our hero resolutely exhales, deciding that it was all for the best, after all, and that all the wrongs would soon be righted.  And with this conviction, he begins walking again

gazing up at the wall of ice that surrounds him on all sides, and above it all, Mont Blanc, its solemn sheen glistening:  silence.  Then there is a noise behind him and he looks at what appears to be the figure of a man running toward him, descending the mountain with superhuman speed, covering in seconds the ground it had just taken him nearly two hours to traverse, and he thinks desperately:  It is me—it is for me that he is coming.  He prepares to flee, but realizes that if he moves quickly he will lose his footing and topple to his death among the icy crags.  He watches the distant form sprinting toward him and is surprised by the indignant fury he suddenly feels—unsure how his emotions had so quickly changed from one extreme to the other, because he is now ready, and welcomes the confrontation as he stands rooted to the spot, all thoughts of flight extinguished.  The creature approaches and stands in front of its adversary, towering over him.  It says nothing, but stands silently with a malevolent grimace, apparently waiting for a response to its unheeded appearance.  The elder man measures his opponent and feels a lifetime of dialogue welling up inside him, and speaks thus:  “Devil, you dare to approach me…I had hoped this moment would never come to pass; in fact, I must confess that I have meditated less frequently than I care to admit about its inevitability.  But this is insignificant, because you do not exist and therefore cannot threaten me.”

The creature receives this and responds bitterly:  “You know very well of my existence, doctor, as it was you who created me.  I live and I think… and that is why you fear me!”

The elder man breathes deeply, drawing himself up to his full height, and looks up at his enemy.  “You say I gave you life,” he hisses.  “Very well.  Undoubtedly, I have the power to take that which I have so rashly bestowed…”

“You have run doctor, and I have followed.  Verily, I have followed you to the ends of the earth.  And now you shall satisfy me.”

The elder man hears this and then the harsh, hollow laughter, and realizes wearily that his powers are waning, and that he may have only one remaining chance to escape.  “If I close my eyes and ignore it, it will disappear,” he thinks.  “And when I awaken again, he shall be gone…”

After what seems a lifetime of vacuous silence, he opens his eyes and

there is nothing there; nothing at all but darkness.  He feels a faint sickness in his heart—on account of the dampness of the catacombs.  “Now if only I might find my way out of this cave, so that I may return to the carnival and those that await me there…”

“But you cannot leave—not yet!” a voice calls out behind him in the still, dark air. “You have not yet tasted the Amontillado!”

As the elder man turns the opaque air is suddenly illuminated, revealing a hooded figure, which holds a torch in one hand and a bottle, raised expectantly, in the other.  “Come, let us sample at once.  I believe it to be an excellent vintage, but you must inform me if I have been duped!”

The elder gentleman assesses this development and feels a sluggish panic overcoming him as he stares at the uncanny presence before him:  a garish red mask draped over its face, a ridiculous costume capable of frightening only the young or the feeble-minded. Yes, the disguise, in and of itself was so preposterous and unoriginal it could only evoke laughter, yet, as is the case with all successful ruses, it was the identity which the mask concealed that inspired fear in the heart of the elder gentleman.

“Excuse me, let me pass,” he says, invoking the authoritative tone he has relied upon in so many previous formal lectures, readings and personal confrontations.  But the stranger, unabashed, steps in front of him and blocks his way.

“I cannot allow that,” the costumed man cries, throwing the bottle forcefully against the wall, where it crashes in a crimson spray.  “Not until you answer me one question.”

Now the elder man is extremely nervous:  that strange foreboding he felt earlier— which seems somehow to be playing itself out in such an inconceivable fashion, even as he wishes against it—has him at a loss for the first time in what seems like several lifetimes, but he realizes he has only one chance and struggles to maintain his composure.

“I am a busy man…what is it I can do for you?  Be brief please.”

The unidentified man snickers and stands closely until his face is inches away.  “Look in my eyes,” he says, reaching out.  The old man tries to step away and feels himself being grabbed with an agility and force that has long since become a shady memory of a distant past.

“Mon frère,” the older man starts, reeling inwardly at the unthinkable subservience of his tone and amazed at the sound of these simple, but scarcely recognizable words of gentility—the common courtesy he was once taught to value and had chosen to shun—these words which he has not uttered in so many lifetimes.

The stranger takes hold of his arm and with one hand reveals his grinning, leering face.  “Look at my eyes and tell me who you see!”

And the older man cannot resist and he looks, and sees, and calls out urgently in a voice very unlike his own:

“For the love of God, Montresor!”

“Yes,” the other replies, nodding his head.  “For the love of God,” and he kisses the old man on the lips and then disappears

in the bright and suddenly crowded Parisian street, he is quickly lost among the throng of university students.  Presently, a colleague and dear friend approaches and sees the older man sprawled out on the pavement, staring blankly at the sky.  He bends down and calls out in alarm:  before his eyes his mentor seems to have transformed into a gigantic insect.  He rubs his eyes and the bizarre miracle passes as abruptly as it came, and once again he is looking down at his comrade, who seems to have aged several years and looks pitifully defenseless, supine on the cobblestones.

“Qu’est-ce que passe, mon ami?”

And the old man awakens from uneasy dreams and gazes up at the familiar face, hearing the undisguised contempt of his voice:  “Hypocrite lecteur!–mon semblable, mon frère…” while        

he looks up and it seems there is a mirror being held over his face:  for a moment he sees himself, but then the image moves and he fancies he can see not one, but many figures huddled around him, tittering and pointing.  Despite this humiliation, he finds it oddly comforting that every one of their faces is obscured:  he looks at their clouded, blank visages and welcomes their undeniable nonexistence.  “It is nothing,” he thinks calmly. “All nothing at all.”  But then before his eyes the men surrounding him begin to twitch and shake and amidst the sudden, horrible laughter he watches as their true, real identities are revealed to him and he must confront this irreversible reality as he feels himself slipping into the heart of an immense darkness.

       ***

When he opens his eyes he is staring expressively at the world around him:  at the verdant trees which loom overhead, and the inestimable expanse of lucid skies that stretch up and away from him.  He hears strange birds calling, and he can somehow understand this other language and in the last moment he comprehends how simple it all actually was, and how it could have been for him.  But he sees that the wall before him is too high.  In his youth he could have scaled it easily:  now he is old and too mired in his soft flesh to master this ivory wall, this wall which he can only lie and look up at—the infallible fruit of a life’s labors—all for naught as he fades away into the nothingness that he always desperately feared would be waiting for him.

 

*This short story, an exorcism of sorts, was first written in 1994, when I was struggling to determine if I wanted to continue staggering up that ivory tower, theory books in hand and deconstruction in my head. It’s too romantic by more than half to imply that this piece, conceived and written in one single burst of inspiration, effectively provided me with direction, a divine intervention of sorts. The writer saved by his muse, exiled to the oft-fallow fields of creative writing instead of the more secure environs of academia. It’s more than half-true, but it took a while longer for me to make my decision. That day came when I found myself able to write fiction again, and it gradually dawned on me that the decision had already made itself. (More on that HERE.)

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Four: Separating The Best of The Best

Best sax solos ever?

That is kind of like choosing the best sunset; it’s impossible.

But some do stand out apart from the rest, and beauty is always in the ears of the behearer.

5. John Coltrane: “The Last Blues”.

Of course it would be possible to make a list without including Coltrane; it just wouldn’t feel right. His entire career is an extended highlight reel, a hall-of-fame enshrinement in real time. Also, as at least one person has opined, no one has ever done anything as well as John Coltrane played the saxophone.

Even on tunes like “Russian Lullaby” (arguably the apotheosis of his famous “sheets of sound”) or “Countdown” (where, after having learned to fly, he finally broke the sound barrier), other players get a say, however briefly. On “The Last Blues” it’s all Trane from start to stop, and even though Elvin Jones is in typical form, dropping sonic booms from every conceivable angle, this is Trane preaching from the mountaintop: this is the tide crashing and receding –and everything in between.

*Update. The clip from YouTube has been removed, so find a copy of “The Last Blues” any way you can and in the meantime, savor some prime sheets of sound from the wonderful ‘SoulTrane’.

4. Jackie McLean: “Plight”.

For my money, probably the single-most underrated musician in jazz history. Listen: the streak Jackie Mac went on from the late ’50s to the late ’60s can stand toe-to-toe with what anyone else has done in any era; just one masterpiece after another. Also, Dr. Jackyll discovered –and promoted– more amazing young talent than anyone not named Miles Davis or Art Blakey.

“Plight” is from his enthusiastically recommended album Action, featuring as solid a line-up as Blue Note ever boasted: Cecil McBee on bass, the estimable (and also severely under-appreciated) Charles Tolliver –who composed most of the material– on trumpet, “Smiling” Billy Higgins (who is without any question on the short list of all-time great jazz drummers) and, added bonus, the incomparable Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. Add Mac’s alto, at once searing and then soothing, and you have a tune that can –and should– convert anyone with the slightest bit of sense, or soul. This also is just about as cool as it gets.

3. Charles Mingus: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.

It’s not just that I’ll take any opportunity available to discuss Charles Mingus (I will); it’s that he can’t be talked about enough. He was sufficiently god-like in his time that he always was able to assemble top-tier talent; part of his enduring legacy (aside from his musicianship and compositional prowess) is that he consistently got the best performances out of so many of the men he employed. Simply put, too many great players to count did their finest work on sessions led by Mingus.

From the immortal Mingus Ah Um, this is an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Teo Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

2. Ornette Coleman: “Civilization Day”.

This one is for all the uninformed haters. Black beret this, bitches.

Punk rock? Please. This shit makes that slop sound like what it mostly was: a bunch of spindly misfits playing their instruments poorly but passionately. Child’s play, musically speaking. This is the truth that a whole lot of people can’t handle. In part, because it makes so much other material sound like little boys playing with toy soldiers. This is a report from the frontlines, with real bullets flying and the sort of shrapnel that gets stuck in your soul. Can you dig it?

As Charlie Haden and (the aforementioned) Billy Higgins double-time the soundtrack of the end of the world as we know it (try to wrap your mind around what is happening during the 4:36-4:51 section), Coleman remains impossibly calm and collected, because that’s how he’s always rolled. In his own elegant way he makes a compelling case for why the skies of America shouldn’t come crashing down on a 20th Century spun all out of control. You don’t need to try and understand what he’s saying; just be thankful that he said it.

1. Sonny Rollins: “East Broadway Rundown”.

Sonny. One of the last still-living links to the great old days. Like Coltrane (and every other player on this particular list), it is too easy to pick a representative solo –which makes it difficult to isolate just one.

So it seems a bit appropriate to choose one from the album where Rollins “borrowed” Coltrane’s rhythm section (Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones). A special guest appearance from the remarkable Freddie Hubbard (who also augmented the collective genius on Coltrane’s Ole Coltrane disc) makes this one of the seminal recordings of the ’60s.

Along with the epic side-long “Freedom Suite” this title track represents Rollins doing an extended improv in the studio, and in many ways it remains his most satisfying, if unorthodox performance. Rollins was not as quick to embrace the free jazz ethos as his compatriots, Coltrane and Coleman were, but once he let his guard down he proved, once again, that he could be the best at whatever he set his mind to doing.

Perhaps the most notable playing Rollins does here occurs when, having seemingly taken the instrument as far as he can take it, Sonny starts blowing through his mouthpiece (!!). The resulting sounds are many things: spooky, surreal, unsettling and awe-inspiring. Nothing else anyone has ever done sounds anything like this, and it’s ceaselessly exciting to hear Garrison and Jones hold down the fort while Sonny leaves the room for a while and goes to that sacred other place where very few artists are capable of going.

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Five Guys or, The Greatest Band of All Time (No, Really)

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

Miles and Herbie need little, if any introduction or elaboration. They were gods then and they remain gods, now. Seriously, you could spend years studying and absorbing the almost overwhelming volume of music they’ve made. And while the sheer quantity is impressive, the quality is astonishing.

Ron Carter (who, like Hancock and Shorter, is still with us) is certainly one of the best loved and highly regarded bassists. He also plays a mean cello (check him out making some of the most beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear with the immaculate Eric Dolphy on Out There). To get a handle on his legacy, take a peak at his Wikipedia page. Just look at the number of albums –and the variety of brilliant musicians– his name is associated with.

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

And finally, the wunderkind. If you were to make a short list –and I will, someday soon– of the best drummers (I won’t say “in jazz” because the best drummers in jazz are, virtually without exception, the best drummers period), Williams would be difficult to top. He is generally regarded as one of the most exciting and original drummers (and if you think the invocation of the word “original” –that most unoriginal of invocations– is facile, just listen to him: few, if any, drummers could change tempos and go from smooth to scorching like him). Discovered by (the great) Jackie McLean, he played on his first session as a sixteen year old (on Vertigo, along with Herbie Hancock). Check him out on McLean’s next album, One Step Beyond:

 

Whenever the topic of Jazz comes up (why I love it; why anyone else should like it), I invariably mention John Coltrane since he is, in many regards, the ideal starting point and the one you always, always come back to. And then there is Mingus. And Monk. And many others (obviously).

But aside from John Coltrane’s classic quartet, there is no jazz band that can hold a candle to the second Miles Davis quintet. And if their time together was brief (relatively speaking), they more than made the most of their partnership. And, needless to say, they all went on to make several more decades of miraculous music.

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

(Wait, I’m not going to elaborate on why this music is exceptional or what makes it indelible? Of course not. I’m not inclined to embarrass myself, or the musicians, attempting to unravel the inscrutable or explain the lightning-in-a-recording-studio chemistry that blessed these sessions. And, as (the great) Dewey Redman said, it’s all, ultimately, in “The Ear of the Behearer”.)

If this is the first time you are hearing this music, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s not your last. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?

“Footprints”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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Malcolm, Malcolm – Semper Malcolm*

 

On Feb. 21, 1965, former Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was shot and killed by assassins identified as Black Muslims as he was about to address a rally in New York City; he was 39. (NYT story here.)

(The blog’s title comes from the great Archie Shepp album, Fire Music: check it out and see what it’s all about.)

Plenty has been written about Malcolm, but (as always) some of the most eloquent words were never actually spoken; they were sung. As such, I eagerly cede the floor to the incomparably cool and soulful Jackie McLean:

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