Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day (Revisited)

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All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

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, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill 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.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

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.

Entire piece here.

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

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Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

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.

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All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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Coltrane: Ascent

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First there’s the solo by Jimmy Garrison; actually it’s a soliloquy, as eloquent and convincing –urgent yet calm in its confidence– as any extended statement on bass by anyone in the idiom: five minutes; its own statement but still, obviously, an introduction, like an MC announcing the main event. Then, the sly, almost flirtatious overtures from Elvin Jones (suddenly the silent right channel becomes a reassuring friend in a dark alley), and finally, he establishes a swinging accompaniment, and they’re off. But as soon as they accelerate they slow down…and stop. Enter Coltrane, with one of his ultimate top-of-the-mountain sermons. There is, as usual (and this being late-era Coltrane, one of the final recordings from the “Classic Quartet”), brimstone, hail, and chunks of molten energy shorn from the sun. And by the time McCoy Tyner climbs aboard (like Elvin, capable of opening the floodgates at any time, but here content to ride shotgun, providing comradery via counterpoint), the engine’s already cooling off, the race already run, and won. Then it’s a Garrison, alone again, making sure you’re safely grounded on terra firma. You try to account for what just happened, at once reckoning and reconciliation, believing once more in a miracle truer than Truth as the ship ascends into ether, leaving orange contrails glowing in its wake.

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John Coltrane at 90

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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’s among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and the skills he developed in their 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. Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Jimmy Heath once recalled. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unsurpassed 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.

In his compositions, the quest was salvation through music: initially celebrated for his famous “sheets of sound”, Coltrane continued to expand and grow, incorporating Eastern elements and extended improvisations. His live performances became legendary endurance tests, for the audience more than the performer. Coltrane was restless, but not because he was otherwise preoccupied or tortured; indeed he was the rarest of artistic breeds: focused and serene, uncomfortable only when he was unable to practice. By all accounts, his dedication to his craft remains unrivaled.

It’s worth quoting, in full, these observations by drummer Rashied Ali, (from an interview with Howard Mandel), who played with Coltrane in the last years of his life.

He never stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me. Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless.

He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people…the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing.

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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, has likened 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; too much for the human ear. Coltrane contained multitudes, but his music, after 1964, was often uncontainable.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he couldn’t quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarked that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary, but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke.

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 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.

To understand the trajectory that took Coltrane from sheets of sound to A Love Supreme, it’s instructive to consider his composition “Alabama”, recorded in 1963. Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of his enduring and devastating performances wherein Coltrane, already considered amongst jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, manages to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane conveys the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also hints at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. As only he could, Coltrane crafts a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

A quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.” It’s clear that, for O’Connor, the journey was as important as the destination: being a good Catholic, she not only accepted that she’d have to suffer, she expected it. Coltrane’s suffering, for some time, involved the self-imposed heroin addiction he finally kicked in 1957 (years of alcohol abuse undoubtedly contributed to his eventual liver cancer). The liner notes to A Love Supreme, written by Coltrane and addressed to the audience (Dear Listener, they begin) leave little doubt what the album was “about” and exactly what inspired its creation—and its creator:

ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD TO WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall find.” Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal. During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

It might be suggested we’ve never seen, in modern art, more abundant or eloquent evidence of Art leading to God than A Love Supreme. (And, if we can collectively embrace the notion that “God is Love”, no ecclesiastical concerns need sully the discussion.) It serves as a consecration of sorts, a personal yet intensely spiritual expression: finally, Coltrane was able to filter all that intensity into a perfect chalice, never before, or after, was his vision so focused yet peaceful. The music—and message—is a force of nature the listener must let wash over them, while repeated listens will refresh and renew.

Coltrane reached a point where he attempted to achieve some type of artistic if not spiritual consecration. He then went even further and sought to transcend the insanity altogether, altering consciousness through a profoundly moving colloquy. That he attempted this is remarkable; that he was able to achieve it remains miraculous.

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10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

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New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .02: 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.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: 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.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums of 2011 (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone fourteen years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

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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.

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ALL HAIL THE KING: Happy Birthday, Chazz!

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Today would have been (and, still is) Charles Mingus’s 94th birthday.

I’ve written about him often and I’ll continue to write about him, not only because he is one of my all-time favorite musicians, but his work warrants mention and constant attention.

As readers of this blog know, while I don’t go out of my way to convert the uninitiated, I am always happy to commence the conversation. If you consider yourself even somewhat open-minded, and a moderate fan of music, you need to get your mind around jazz. You don’t need to have a special appreciation or understanding of it (though that’s likely to take care of itself, once you open the door), but you do need to acknowledge it. Disabuse yourself of any ridiculous stereotypes, like how this is whacked out music by drug-addled freaks (a long-standing critique that is wrong-headed as it is racist), or else corny music by old-time bands that could not possibly translate to 21st Century sensibilities. Wrong. This music is engaging, intelligent and utterly alive. Indeed, it is ageless the way classical music manages to be: few, if any words and just a direct line from instrument to ear, conveying things language can’t approximate. It aims for the gut, but gets you in the head and heart. There is a feeling jazz music conjures that nothing else can touch (especially performed live).

Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

Above everything else, he endures.

I’ve written a great deal about Mingus, and in 2009 I did my best to properly appreciate his masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um. The piece is entitled “An Open Letter to the 20th Century” and it explores not only the nuts and bolts of one of music’s great albums, but the man who was put on this earth to make it.

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1959 was, by any measure, a watershed year for jazz music. Some all-time great recordings were released during this year, including Kind Of Blue (Miles Davis), Giant Steps (John Coltrane), The Shape of Jazz To Come (Ornette Coleman), Time Out (Dave Brubeck) and, of course, Mingus Ah Um. Although Charles Mingus’s masterpiece received the full remastering treatment for its fortieth anniversary, it is entirely appropriate to revisit (and reassess) the sessions for Columbia Records that resulted in both Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. This was Mingus’s first opportunity to record for a major label, and it goes without saying that he made the most of his opportunity. Mingus Ah Um: Legacy Edition could (should?) be named The Mingus Columbia Sessions, since the entire Mingus Dynasty album is included in this (quite reasonably priced) special edition.

Mingus Ah Um is rightly regarded as a seminal jazz recording, and it signals the full flowering of Mingus’s development as a bassist and composer. Even by jazz musician standards, he had paid substantial dues in his extended apprenticeship years, struggling to find a sympathetic label and always worried about money. Of course he also endured the non-musical outrages of the time, being an outspoken and brilliant black man in a country that considered him at best a second-rate citizen. Mingus bristled at the ignorance and intolerance that sometimes suffocated him, and his work can be viewed as an ongoing dialogue between himself and the world. All the passions that informed his underdog triumphs are inextricable from the music he made: as much as any other artist from the last century, his life was his music.

Mingus worshipped Duke Ellington and emulated the great bandleader’s aesthetic, to a fault a times, begging the question of whether he could ever entirely escape the long shadow cast by his hero. All through the ‘50s he refined his chops and expanded on an increasingly exhaustive musical palette, but remained unable to attract a meaningful audience. Slowly but steadily his confidence grew, and the resulting material demonstrated the cultivation of a style that was as distinctive as it was encompassing. Mingus devoured the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as Ellington (and Charlie Parker and contemporaries like Monk and Gillespie). Once he began to assemble the pieces of his developmental puzzle, the results—although a long time in gestation—seemed to come in an astonishing burst.

His first major breakthrough was Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), and while he was satisfied with the recording, even he could not have fully anticipated the ways in which the floodgates were about to open. What Mingus accomplished in 1957 still staggers the mind: in addition to Mingus Three and East Coasting, Mingus recorded a trio of albums that incorporated crucial components of his maturation. Most musicians would be ecstatic to list A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry, Tijuana Moods and The Clown on their career resumes; the fact that Mingus delivered all of them in a single year puts his superhuman productivity in proper context. In addition to the eclectic styles and concepts found on these aforementioned albums, Mingus was getting more comfortable achieving an ideal balance of composition and improvisation. He was beginning to write material with certain musicians in mind, so that when it came time to record, he could convey the sounds he was looking for without necessarily handing the sheet music over; he would play it on piano or sing the notes out loud. The confidence this practice required (in his music, in the musicians he selected) was the final ingredient that made his arsenal complete. Henceforth, he was able to harness the best of both worlds, employing a strategy that enabled his detailed arrangements to retain a vitality that an over-rehearsed studio band could never approximate.

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The landmark Blues and Roots, recorded just before Mingus Ah Um but released afterward, showcased Mingus’s desire to embrace the blues alongside traditional cultural and musical elements, specifically gospel and church music. Blues and Roots is effective but a tad raw (in a mostly good way); it’s polished but dirty and in hindsight seems like a test run for what turned out to be his tour de force. By the time Mingus entered the studios to work with the legendary producer Teo Macero (a man celebrated for his ability to wrangle superlative material from irascible musicians, as his subsequent, extended relationship with Miles Davis affirms), he understood that this affiliation with an established record label was the opportunity he had long dreamt about. Mingus, like Miles, not only had an uncanny, often unerring eye for talent, he was able to inspire, and sometimes cajole, stellar performances from the men he assembled. The stakes, therefore, could not be more unambiguous: Mingus Ah Um features one of the preeminent composers of his era at the pinnacle of his game with (arguably) the best band he ever worked with.

Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Special tributes are offered up to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, and, of course, Duke Ellington. For this work, which was profoundly personal to him for obvious reasons, he embellished his quintet with new faces and old friends. Of the many bands Mingus led, the one that made history in Europe during 1964 (featuring Eric Dolphy) is tough to top, but in terms of sheer versatility and expertise, the individuals handpicked for this session represent an unparalleled collective. Shafi Hadi (alto sax) and Jimmie Knepper (trombone) had already made memorable contributions throughout ’57, and they adapted deftly to the larger ensemble. Booker Ervin (tenor sax) would go on to make many remarkable albums of his own, but it’s likely that his best work is contained on this outing—a circumstance not atypical for so many of the excellent musicians who played with Mingus over the years. Special mention must be made for drummer Dannie Richmond. Mingus is quoted in the album’s original liner notes as claiming he “would rather have no drummer at all if Dannie weren’t available.” Suffice it to say, coming from the notoriously exacting—and occasionally self-destructive—standards Mingus set, this sentiment speaks volumes. Richmond was impressive from the moment he worked with Mingus, and while he shines on the ’57 recordings, he truly comes into his own on this set. Beyond impeccable timekeeping, his lock-step accompaniment with Mingus is almost inexplicable; both men were quick to acknowledge that they seemed destined to work together.

Okay, so for those not already in the know, what does Mingus Ah Um sound like? Plain and simple, it sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

“Better Git It In Your Soul”, introduced by Mingus’s muscular bass lines, brims with confidence and purpose right out of the gate. This is possibly the first time the blues have been incorporated so seamlessly with gospel and folk: from the congregation-like conversations between the horns to Knepper’s authoritative outbursts to the syncopated hand-claps to Richmond’s propulsive backbeat, this is celebration in music. Mingus literally cannot contain himself, repeatedly crying “Hallelujah” and “Lord I Know!” throughout the piece. This song sets a forceful tone, and over the course of 50 years it has never lost its capacity to delight or surprise.

Mingus moves from the ecstatic to the restrained on the album’s first tribute, 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. Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

Mingus turns back again to early roots with “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, an ideal vehicle that displays his ability to commemorate the past with a contemporary imprint. Booker Ervin and John Handy each turn in delightfully buoyant solos while Mingus and Richmond lock in with Horace Parlan (piano). Next up is the composition intended for use in John Cassevete’s first feature, Shadows. When it did not find its way into the film, Mingus retitled it “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”. It can never be overstated how sophisticated and dexterous Mingus’s compositional skills were at this juncture: this short piece can easily be imagined as a string quartet, or as the foundation for a big band’s deconstruction. As it plays on the album, it remains a delicately understated tone poem. Knepper’s trombone restates the plaintive theme as the saxophones subtly comment on and around it, while Richmond’s brushwork gives the entire piece its peaceful, almost elegiac air.

For the next tribute, “Open Letter to Duke”, Mingus revisits three pieces from his (overlooked) album A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry: “Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”, all of which are worked into a showcase for the entire band. Horace Parlan carries the momentum as Mingus and Richmond lay back, providing an uptempo pulse for the others to expand upon. Once again, all the horns are utilized in a manner that affords ample opportunity for individual commentary while maintaining the collective integrity of the piece. This piece is followed by another installment of Mingus’s series of odes to Charlie Parker. Unlike “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” (from The Clown), “Bird Calls” is at once a figurative nod to Parker’s bebop stylings as well as a literal (via the horns) approximation of an aviary: each saxophone states the theme in unison, then the soloists are given free rein to improvise. It turns into an amiable cutting session with each voice outdoing the previous one, adding up to six minutes of exuberant abandon.

For a “tribute” of a different sort, Mingus takes aim at Orville Faubus, the Arkansas governor who forcibly resisted integration in Little Rock, prompting President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. “Fables of Faubus”, beyond being a masterpiece, epitomizes the power and purpose the best music is capable of achieving: it is a rollicking cherry bomb that combines righteous indignation with contemptuous mockery. Knepper’s exaggerated trombone blasts invoke a carnivalesque atmosphere, and Mingus eagerly steps in as ringleader, his bass-slapping equal parts violent and sardonic, while everyone joins in the merriment: they are having fun at Faubus’s expense, celebrating this well-warranted smackdown. The tune romps along, Richmond urging the band into double time throughout, while the horns function as sarcastic crows, looking down and chirping their amusement. Accounts vary as to whether the shouted lyrics (heard on subsequent live versions) were already written and omitted, or if they simply developed while Mingus performed in concert. Let it be opined that the “lyrics”, while enjoyable enough, are overly literal and not particularly original; the band is able to “say” everything that needs to be said in this take, and that remains the enduring achievement of this recording. Only Mingus could take such a distressingly serious topic and deflate the backward status quo that put a clown like Faubus in public office in the first place. This song stands alongside “Haitian Fight Song” and “Meditations (of Integration)” as Mingus’s abiding social statements.


“Pussy Cat Dues” is another stroll down memory lane, with Handy’s clarinet invoking early Ellington and an earlier America. Knepper’s trombone floats above the procession like clouds escaping a steam grate, and Parlan’s ultra-laid back solo invokes saloons, moonshine and cigar smoke. Fittingly, Mingus ends the album by going back to the very beginning, paying respects to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, the ragtime genius who is generally considered the first authentic jazz composer. A refined version of “My Jelly Roll Soul” (from Blues and Roots), “Jelly Roll” is an ebullient homage, complete with slapped bass, trombone flourishes, and more inspired soloing from Ervin and Handy. Appropriately, Horace Parlan moves to the forefront on this track, and his solo is a wink and a nod to the great old days while remaining rooted in the here and now. Mingus’s playful plucking and countdown at the song’s conclusion reiterates the spirit of celebration and good cheer that permeates the album.

For those who slept on the 40th anniversary edition of Mingus Ah Um, this new version is indispensable. Like the previous reissue, the pieces feature remastered sound and the original versions (edited due to LP time constraints) are all lovingly restored: the songs truly sound the way they were meant to be heard. In addition to the cleaner sound and reinserted solos, there are a handful of alternate takes (“Bird Calls”, “Jelly Roll” and “Better Git It In Your Soul”), as well as bonus material. Of these, both “Pedal Point Blues” and “GG Train” are consistent in feel and spirit with the proper album, but neither match the levels of brilliance contained on the original nine tracks. The third “bonus” track, a cover of the 1920s classic “Girl of My Dreams” (a song used to mesmerizing effect as a leitmotif in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart), could easily have found a place on the album, as it represents yet another reimagining of a tune from jazz’s earliest days (and would have constituted the only cover). Mingus’s arrangement turns this old chestnut into a miniature epic, packing an incredible amount of music into four minutes: he and Richmond are so locked in that they sound like the same person with four arms, and the rest of the band is scorching; it is an absolute jackpot.

A few months after Mingus Ah Um hit the streets (September ’59), Mingus entered the studio with many of the same musicians and recorded the tracks later released as Mingus Dynasty. This material, taken by itself, is typically solid and occasionally ingenious work, but it can’t help but suffer by comparison with its predecessor. Nevertheless, it contains some of Mingus’s more satisfying compositions, including “Song With Orange”, “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, and “Put Me In That Dungeon”. There are elements that recall Blues and Roots (especially the astutely titled “Slop”, which sounds like a messier, less successful version of “Better Git It In Your Soul”) and, obviously, the previous album, but Mingus opens things up a bit with the inclusion of vibes (courtesy of Teddy Charles), giving several of the songs a slightly more formal, old-school feel. Yet another Charlie Parker tribute appears, the very satisfactory “Gunslinging Bird” (which was originally entitled “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”). The Ellington influence is in full effect—perhaps too much for comfort, considering the quantum leap made on the last recording—with covers of “Mood Indigo” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. One senses an emphasis on composition with less opportunity for the improvised flashes of heat that spiced up Mingus Ah Um. On the other hand, Mingus Dynasty can also be viewed as a very successful step toward Mingus’s next landmark opus (and the undeniable apex of his compositional prowess), The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady.

A few closing thoughts concerning this indelible record, half a century later. There are arguably better albums (Kind of Blue and Giant Steps are well-loved and oft-invoked touchstones whenever these discussions arise), or albums with more emotional import (A Love Supreme or Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village), but it would be next to impossible to find a more suitable candidate that summarizes virtually everything jazz music is about than Mingus Ah Um. This is material that can truly be savored, every individual moment, each note, all the ideas as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Those of us whose lives are enriched by music should remain eternally grateful for the miracle that was Charles Mingus.

 

Extra bonus for the curious, but uninitiated:

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(*Saxophone player Shafi Hadi, born Curtis Porter, is best-known for his association with jazz legend Charles Mingus, and played on the seminal recording Mingus Ah Um, from 1959. He dropped out of the scene in the early ‘60s and the reasons why, and his current whereabouts, are unknown.)

i.

Those sounds, not falling on enough ears
Then. Inaccessible, unknown, unwanted—now.
Today, where audiences vote for winners
hand-picked by specialists called consultants and
Marketing departments with both barrels aimed
Beneath the bottom line, a nothing-in-common
Denominator for something once considered sacred,
Art—or was it something else altogether, something
Important? Jazz was actually a matter of life and death,
Beautiful but always too short: the note, the feeling,
The connection, the song, the show, this life.
Made in America: a way to relate invented
By the people, for the people, for sale, forever.
Because it was meant to last it could never last,
At least long enough to survive our obsession for
New things and the old-fashioned notion of
Interests and attention spans that are longer
Than shadows cast in a smoke-soaked nightclub.

ii.

Who did we become? Over-rehearsed and under-employed,
Outcast or worse, obscure enough to not warrant a second
Look: unrecognized in familiar places no one knows about
Or bothers to go because nothing happens there anymore.
Where did we go? Into used record bins and basements,
Burn-outs or bums, teachers or else repurposed as working
Stiffs, at offices or in asylums or out on the streets, the ones
Who knew they were never going nowhere,
Tripping always over those sticks and stones that
Kept us high and put us under the earth,
The slings & arrows of outrageous misfortune: All
The Effort, All The Energy, All The Discipline, All For Nothing.
What did you think? We could eat the air and drink up
The Nothing like nourishment? No, it was sketchy enough
When we looked into the dark and eyes looked back at us,
Two-drink minimums and overpriced appetizers keeping
The front of the house solvent for a few more evenings.
Even then we shuffled & scrapped and kept hoping that
These works-in-progress—also called our lives—would
Mean enough to enough of you that we could keep
The act intact long enough to do something more than survive,
Or else avoid seeing the light that meant everything was
Over: the gig up, the profits gone, the sounds expired.

iii.

What the hell, I say, the world never owed none of us
A living, and who said anyone should feel sympathy
For men making sounds no one asked to hear?
For solidarity with a handful of humans exploring
The spaces in between us and what we used to call
The underground: that backstage some are born into,
Asking, Are great artists born or made? Or else,
Who cares, the best ones find their way, always, or
Get found, discovered, rescued, rehabilitated even
After they die. But what about the ones left behind
The seen, the ones keeping the beat or blasting
The melody, the ones on the front lines behind
The Man, side-men no one would know, in the grooves or
On the bus: How could you say you know me when
I don’t even know myself (no more)? No more time,
No more chances, No more luck, No more life.
So when do we go? Is it that same old song
And dance with Death? The unhappy ending all of us
Nod off to, humming some tired tune when time’s up and
The band plays on around us while we stumble or stretch,
Happy, blind, scared or sensing something sort of like bliss,
Into the dark? Is it, in the end, the opposite of that sound we spent
A lifetime learning and playing and loving and lamenting?
The one sound we all reckoned would still linger
After the last encore of the greatest show on earth:
Silence.

My gratitude to Empty Mirror for publishing this poem on 3/10/15.
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Orrin Keepnews: Hero for America’s Music (Revisited)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published at PopMatters, 3/18/2015.

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Where the Hell is Shafi Hadi?: A Poem (Revisited)

Shafi-H

(*Saxophone player Shafi Hadi, born Curtis Porter, is best-known for his association with jazz legend Charles Mingus, and played on the seminal recording Mingus Ah Um, from 1959. He dropped out of the scene in the early ‘60s and the reasons why, and his current whereabouts, are unknown.)

i.

Those sounds, not falling on enough ears
Then. Inaccessible, unknown, unwanted—now.
Today, where audiences vote for winners
hand-picked by specialists called consultants and
Marketing departments with both barrels aimed
Beneath the bottom line, a nothing-in-common
Denominator for something once considered sacred,
Art—or was it something else altogether, something
Important? Jazz was actually a matter of life and death,
Beautiful but always too short: the note, the feeling,
The connection, the song, the show, this life.
Made in America: a way to relate invented
By the people, for the people, for sale, forever.
Because it was meant to last it could never last,
At least long enough to survive our obsession for
New things and the old-fashioned notion of
Interests and attention spans that are longer
Than shadows cast in a smoke-soaked nightclub.

ii.

Who did we become? Over-rehearsed and under-employed,
Outcast or worse, obscure enough to not warrant a second
Look: unrecognized in familiar places no one knows about
Or bothers to go because nothing happens there anymore.
Where did we go? Into used record bins and basements,
Burn-outs or bums, teachers or else repurposed as working
Stiffs, at offices or in asylums or out on the streets, the ones
Who knew they were never going nowhere,
Tripping always over those sticks and stones that
Kept us high and put us under the earth,
The slings & arrows of outrageous misfortune: All
The Effort, All The Energy, All The Discipline, All For Nothing.
What did you think? We could eat the air and drink up
The Nothing like nourishment? No, it was sketchy enough
When we looked into the dark and eyes looked back at us,
Two-drink minimums and overpriced appetizers keeping
The front of the house solvent for a few more evenings.
Even then we shuffled & scrapped and kept hoping that
These works-in-progress—also called our lives—would
Mean enough to enough of you that we could keep
The act intact long enough to do something more than survive,
Or else avoid seeing the light that meant everything was
Over: the gig up, the profits gone, the sounds expired.

iii.

What the hell, I say, the world never owed none of us
A living, and who said anyone should feel sympathy
For men making sounds no one asked to hear?
For solidarity with a handful of humans exploring
The spaces in between us and what we used to call
The underground: that backstage some are born into,
Asking, Are great artists born or made? Or else,
Who cares, the best ones find their way, always, or
Get found, discovered, rescued, rehabilitated even
After they die. But what about the ones left behind
The seen, the ones keeping the beat or blasting
The melody, the ones on the front lines behind
The Man, side-men no one would know, in the grooves or
On the bus: How could you say you know me when
I don’t even know myself (no more)? No more time,
No more chances, No more luck, No more life.
So when do we go? Is it that same old song
And dance with Death? The unhappy ending all of us
Nod off to, humming some tired tune when time’s up and
The band plays on around us while we stumble or stretch,
Happy, blind, scared or sensing something sort of like bliss,
Into the dark? Is it, in the end, the opposite of that sound we spent
A lifetime learning and playing and loving and lamenting?
The one sound we all reckoned would still linger
After the last encore of the greatest show on earth:
Silence.

My gratitude to Empty Mirror for publishing this poem on 3/10/15.
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Ask The Ages: Revisiting Sonny Sharrock’s Masterful Swan Song

sonnybw4

The name alone is epic: Sonny Sharrock.

I won’t resist the urge, because I can’t, to pick a low-hanging pun and opine that Sonny put the rock back in jazz.

Still blazing down the trail Miles helped forge with the genre-obliterating Jack Johnson sessions (which Sharrock made an appearance at), Sonny seamlessly wove angular, concrete-hard riffs into compositions that were just on this side of free jazz. He was recognized as a genius fairly early on, which naturally meant he had no chance to make a decent living as a musician.

He dropped out of the scene for many years and came back (and/or was goaded back by the indefatigable Bill Laswell, not only one of the all-time heroes of postmodern jazz, but a man who has helped create, collaborate on and produce more albums than some people will ever listen to), invigorated and en fuego. He made, arguably, his best music at the end. Just as he was on the precipice of way-overdue major label acclaim he was felled by a heart attack. He remains not only a guitarist’s guitarist, but a jazz guitarist’s guitarist, which naturally means not nearly enough folks know about him.

ATA

In late 2015 we finally got an appropriately remastered reissue of his masterpiece, and swan song, Ask The Ages.

It’s well worth reaquiring for anyone who has earlier, inferior pressings, and obligatory –as in, drop everything, take my word for it, and just go buy this– for the uninitiated. Get initiated, and then take a deeper dive into Sharrock’s oeuvre.

Consider this a primer.

Anyone with ears can understand the beauty there. But Sonny was also a beast, and he brought the pain with an intensity that has not been rivaled by many names outside of Greek mythology.

Exhibit A: From the same album, this one really showcases the incomparable Elvin Jones and Sharrock’s closest aesthetic compatriot, Pharoah Sanders. It’s okay to be afraid; that is what happens just before you break through to the bright lights.

Whenever a remarkable artist is taken from us entirely too soon, there’s all the more reason to savor (and yes, celebrate) whatever scraps they left behind, making sure we appreciate all there is to get. And for the major works they gifted the world? These are to be treasured, studied, absorbed, and imitated. Yeah right, imitated? Well, no one can duplicate the kind of majesty on display here, but when I say imitate, I mean incorporate this type of honesty and passion, realize what things you were put on this earth to accomplish, and use a man like Sharrock as a motivating force for good. It’s the least any of us can do, considering what he’s already done for us.

There is music we rightly esteem, and keep close to our hearts. There is music, whatever its original intent, that can inspire or console us, or make us a bit more grateful to have been born. And then there is the rarest work, the stuff we can only call other. It is, as is always the case with geniuses stolen years or even decades before it made any sense, bewildering and confounding to contemplate what else might have been in store (for them, for us). But there is a surreal sort of symmetry when a singular artist’s final statement becomes instantly elegiac and immortal. Ask The Ages is a definitive document of Sharrock’s imagination; it’s also a living document of what humankind, at its best, is capable of achieving.

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