Coltrane: Ascent

image

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

monk

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 10 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. Also, this:

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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7 + 1 From McCoy Tyner For His 76th

tyner

McCoy Tyner turns 76 years young today.

In a saner and more soulful world, Tyner would be a household name. As it is, he remains an American treasure, a remarkable human being and one of the singularly rewarding musicians the 20th Century produced. As a tribute I revisit a piece I wrote in 2010.

***

It occurs to me that I’ve said little, on the record, about McCoy Tyner.

This is a shame, since he is one of my all-time favorite musicians and a case could be made that he has, pound for pound, been the most prolific, consistently brilliant and straight-out important jazz musician of the last half-century.

That he made music (and history) as part of the “Classic Quartet” with John Coltrane is enough to ensure his immortality in jazz circles. That he simultaneously was making remarkable albums under his own name only adds to his legend. That he was also appearing with compatriots (like Wayne Shorter) and appearing on masterpiece after masterpiece for the Blue Note label would seal the deal. But that all occurred in the ’60s. Not enough people know that Tyner continued to make astonishing music into the ’70s and has not slowed down since. Indeed, his streak of albums from the late ’60s (starting with Expansions through the mid-to-late ’70s with Trident) represents a body of work that, by itself, can stand alongside anything anyone has ever done (in any genre, by the way).

Hyperbole? Hardly. Tyner epitomizes the restless spirit and inspiration that characterizes all of our great artists: he was already a master (for whatever that’s worth –and for the purposes of any discussion about jazz, it’s worth a great deal) by the mid-’60s; his work with Coltrane could be studied and analyzed the way entire catalogs of music get dissected by critics.

Check him out in all his glory, here:

He was neither sated nor satisfied, so he kept pushing and his work became increasingly ambitious, wide in scope and rewarding. His playing on albums like Expansions, Extensions, Enlightenment or Sahara is extraordinary, combining the proficiency and power with the uniquely affirmative expression he ceaselessly conjures up and conveys. It does, at times, sound like two people are playing two different pianos: there is so much going on, such emotion and feeling, but with little if any of the harshness or imperial perfection of late Coltrane. Similar in this regard to Mingus, there is a constant intensity and enormity in the playing, but instead of overwhelming it buoys you and carries you along.

In the ’70s, he began incorporating a far-reaching (literally) sensibility into his compositions, and there are traces of Africa and the far East interwoven into the mix. This is World music with a capital-W and much of the material on the aforementioned Asante and Sahara (both revealing titles on multiple levels) sound less like jazz and more like an uncategorizable other type of music: deeply spiritual and incredibly powerful, yet engaging and even, at times, ebullient.

Here is a brief tour of the progressions Tyner was making from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s. Enjoy the ride and go seek more.

Peresina (1968):

Message from the Nile (1970):

Malika (1970):

Valley of Life (1972)

Celestial Chant (1975)

BONUS!
Live McCoy from ’73:

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

trane1

9/23/14: Today would have been the great one’s 88th birthday. Respect.

***

5/1/2010:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wayne Shorter: JuJu at 50

Wayne Shorter - Juju - Front

Fifty years ago, today, this masterpiece dropped on an unworthy world.

Borrowing Coltrane’s band, Wayne Shorter proved he could bring the ruckus like the best of them. This, in fact, was the album that at once paid homage to Trane and also was Wayne’s coming-of-age: no longer could/should he be compared, he was a first-rate player and composer in his own right. Fifty years later he’s still proving that.

With all love and respect to Led Zeppelin, THIS is the hammer of the gods. McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones providing the beefy back-end, this is hurricane music, a tsunami of notes and the sheer power of this quartet, operating at the height of their considerable power. It must be heard to be believed and even then, it remains unbelievable.

Check it out:

A lot more on Shorter, here.

We remain unworthy of this genius. I am so grateful we’ve had Wayne in our world.

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

monk

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. Also, this:

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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7 From McCoy Tyner For His 75th

McCoy Tyner turns 75 years young today.

In a saner and more soulful world, Tyner would be a household name. As it is, he remains an American treasure, a remarkable human being and one of the singularly rewarding musicians the 20th Century produced. As a tribute I revisit a piece I wrote in 2010.

***

It occurs to me that I’ve said little, on the record, about McCoy Tyner.

This is a shame, since he is one of my all-time favorite musicians and a case could be made that he has, pound for pound, been the most prolific, consistently brilliant and straight-out important jazz musician of the last half-century.

That he made music (and history) as part of the “Classic Quartet” with John Coltrane is enough to ensure his immortality in jazz circles. That he simultaneously was making remarkable albums under his own name only adds to his legend. That he was also appearing with compatriots (like Wayne Shorter) and appearing on masterpiece after masterpiece for the Blue Note label would seal the deal. But that all occurred in the ’60s. Not enough people know that Tyner continued to make astonishing music into the ’70s and has not slowed down since. Indeed, his streak of albums from the late ’60s (starting with Expansions through the mid-to-late ’70s with Trident) represents a body of work that, by itself, can stand alongside anything anyone has ever done (in any genre, by the way).

Hyperbole? Hardly. Tyner epitomizes the restless spirit and inspiration that characterizes all of our great artists: he was already a master (for whatever that’s worth –and for the purposes of any discussion about jazz, it’s worth a great deal) by the mid-’60s; his work with Coltrane could be studied and analyzed the way entire catalogs of music get dissected by critics.

Check him out in all his glory, here:

He was neither sated nor satisfied, so he kept pushing and his work became increasingly ambitious, wide in scope and rewarding. His playing on albums like Expansions, Extensions, Enlightenment or Sahara is extraordinary, combining the proficiency and power with the uniquely affirmative expression he ceaselessly conjures up and conveys. It does, at times, sound like two people are playing two different pianos: there is so much going on, such emotion and feeling, but with little if any of the harshness or imperial perfection of late Coltrane. Similar in this regard to Mingus, there is a constant intensity and enormity in the playing, but instead of overwhelming it buoys you and carries you along.

In the ’70s, he began incorporating a far-reaching (literally) sensibility into his compositions, and there are traces of Africa and the far East interwoven into the mix. This is World music with a capital-W and much of the material on the aforementioned Asante and Sahara (both revealing titles on multiple levels) sound less like jazz and more like an uncategorizable other type of music: deeply spiritual and incredibly powerful, yet engaging and even, at times, ebullient.

Here is a brief tour of the progressions Tyner was making from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s. Enjoy the ride and go seek more.

Peresina (1968):

Message from the Nile (1970):

Malika (1970):

Valley of Life (1972)

Celestial Chant (1975)

BONUS!
Live McCoy from ’73:

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Four: Jazz, Featuring McCoy Tyner (Revisited)

It occurs to me that I’ve said little, on the record, about McCoy Tyner.

This is a shame, since he is one of my all-time favorite musicians and a case could be made that he has, pound for pound, been the most prolific, consistently brilliant and straight-out important jazz musician of the last half-century.

That he made music (and history) as part of the “Classic Quartet” with John Coltrane is enough to ensure his immortality in jazz circles. That he simultaneously was making remarkable albums under his own name only adds to his legend. That he was also appearing with compatriots (like Wayne Shorter) and appearing on masterpiece after masterpiece for the Blue Note label would seal the deal. But that all occurred in the ’60s. Not enough people know that Tyner continued to make astonishing music into the ’70s and has not slowed down since. Indeed, his streak of albums from the late ’60s (starting with Expansions through the mid-to-late ’70s with Trident) represents a body of work that, by itself, can stand alongside anything anyone has ever done (in any genre, by the way).

Hyperbole? Hardly. Tyner epitomizes the restless spirit and inspiration that characterizes all of our great artists: he was already a master (for whatever that’s worth –and for the purposes of any discussion about jazz, it’s worth a great deal) by the mid-’60s; his work with Coltrane could be studied and analyzed the way entire catalogs of music get dissected by critics. He was neither sated nor satisfied, so he kept pushing and his work became increasingly ambitious, wide in scope and rewarding. His playing on albums like Expansions, Extensions, Enlightenment or Sahara is extraordinary, combining the proficiency and power with the uniquely affirmative expression he ceaselessly conjures up and conveys. It does, at times, sound like two people are playing two different pianos: there is so much going on, such emotion and feeling, but with little if any of the harshness or imperial perfection of late Coltrane. Similar in this regard to Mingus, there is a constant intensity and enormity in the playing, but instead of overwhelming it buoys you and carries you along.

In the ’70s, he began incorporating a far-reaching (literally) sensibility into his compositions, and there are traces of Africa and the far East interwoven into the mix. This is World music with a capital-W and much of the material on the aforementioned Asante and Sahara (both revealing titles on multiple levels) sound less like jazz and more like an uncategorizable other type of music: deeply spiritual and incredibly powerful, yet engaging and even, at times, ebullient.

Here is a brief tour of the progressions Tyner was making from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s. Enjoy the ride and go seek more.

Peresina (1968):

Message from the Nile (1970):

Malika (1970):

Valley of Life (1972)

Celestial Chant (1975)

BONUS!
Sunset (Entire Inception album embedded –which you should listen to– but skip to the 15.16 mark to hear one of my all-time favorite Tyner pieces): (1962):

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

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. Also, this:

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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Q & A* (Revisited)

Question: What would you do differently?

Answer: Nothing.

True answer: Everything.

Truest answer: I don’t know.

***

If the death of a loved one provides the ultimate answer it also prompts all sorts of questions.

There are the universal ones, for starters: When will I die? How will I die? Why do we die? There are the personal ones: What will I remember? What might I regret? And ultimately the question that could define the rest of your life: What would I do differently?

What would you do differently?

I’ve never asked my sister this question. She did everything she could, and in many ways she did more than any of us. She worked the Internet like it was a convention and introduced herself to every article she could find. She obsessively sought all the inside information she could uncover, even if so many short cuts to insight led to locked doors and dead-ends.

(Our mother had been left with the unyielding aftershock of sorrow. When her own mother died everything happened too quickly, there was no time to facilitate any sort of strategy. She and her siblings hardly had time to react, much less regret what could have transpired; they never knew what hit them. The cancer that took their mother was like an anonymous assassin: before anyone could look for faces or fingerprints the crime scene was already in the past tense.)

What could we have done differently?

We knew what we were up against, yet still had no idea how little we knew. “If this had been ten years ago I would send you on your way,” the surgeon said after the first surgery, in ’97. “But knowing what we know now, I’m recommending a round of chemotherapy. Let’s blast your system so it doesn’t have a chance to come back.”

We wouldn’t worry about what we could have done (we thought), we did it.

The cancer came back, of course. A second, successful surgery in 2000 did not give us false hope and it could not lull us into a false sense of security. This time the surgeon advised radiation followed by chemotherapy, and we knew we were doing all we could do.

Do you think it’s going to come back?

That was the question my sister asked me, in July 2001, just before my mother returned for her annual check-up. “No,” I told her, truthfully. “She looks good, she feels healthy, we did everything we could do.”

This is what I said to my sister, and to myself. They caught it before it spread—again—and then her system got the chemical scrub, again. What possible chance was there that it could find another foothold?

The cancer came back, of course. A third, not entirely successful surgery left us no chance to kid ourselves. The prognosis was ugly but not impossible: she was still ready to fight and we would back her up as far down that road as we could go.

Do you think it will ever go away?

That is the question none of us ever asked. We knew it was in there and we knew it was not going anywhere. But it could be stalled, it could shrink, it could, hopefully, be managed. There were clinical trials to consider, there were reasons to think positive thoughts, and there was always the chance that a miracle might occur.

Here’s the thing: what you don’t know will hurt you, whether it involves cancer or used cars. Here’s another thing: my sister learned more about cancer, symptoms, treatments, and clinical trials in a little over a year than most people could—or could want to—learn in a lifetime. One of my good friends is an oncologist, another had been a hospice nurse. We also lived in an era where the click of a mouse could uncover more detail than a thousand old medical journals. And still, looking back, it’s disconcerting how little we knew; how little we still know. how much more we could learn, and how awful it would be if we were ever obliged to do so.

So: we can’t change what we could not do, or know, or ask, or say. And we collectively recognize, and accept, that all the information in the world may have done next to nothing to change what happened to my mother. We knew enough, and were fortunate enough, to sign her up for some experimental treatments. The fact that they ultimately proved unsuccessful (too little, too late?) does not mean we should not have explored those options; perhaps we could have explored other ones as well.

What could you have done differently?

This is the question we were never able to ask the assorted surgeons, doctors and administrators. And what would they say, if we had? What could they say?

How much more time does she have?

This is the question we asked, as directly as possible, always leaving enough room—for the doctors, for ourselves—to avoid predictions that might be too true or come too soon. The surgeons told us, depending on the way you hear the words (especially in hindsight) as little as they could get away with or as much as they dared while steering us as far as possible from an answer we would figure out on our own, eventually.

*excerpted from a memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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