Following These Footprints

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

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

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

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

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

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

“Circle”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

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

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

“Footprints”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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Songs of the Day: Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman, 1959

Ornette Coleman, 1959


When Obama takes office in January of 2009, it will be a half-century since Free Jazz forefather Ornette Coleman dropped the provocatively titled “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. 1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a LOT). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, John Coltrane “Giant Steps”, Charles Mingus “Ah Um”. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to fire the musical shot heard ’round the world–a shot that still reverberates today. “Kind of Blue” is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; “Giant Steps” is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; “Ah Um” is an enyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But “The Shape of Jazz to Come” was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins–representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene. Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes–if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclast of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane–the all-time heavyweight champion–embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ’59.

Coleman’s compositions are nakedy emotional, unabashedly intense, totally human. Like the best jazz music, all of the instruments are communicating. What they are saying are different things, at different times, to different people. That is the power of this music. It was the soundtrack for a truly unique and momentous time in American history. It remains, more so than ever, the soundtrack of now.

1. Congeniality

2. Focus on Sanity

3. Peace

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

 

The only thing more impressive than the acting is the direction.

The only thing more astonishing than the direction is the story.

The only thing more miraculous than the story is the fact that it got told.

And there is something slightly more than miraculous about the simple, profound reality that there are people (always, there are these people) who donate their time and their energies toward helping the helpless (but not hopeless) human beings live their lives with some semblance of dignity, and purpose. And with that love, and patience and–no other word will do–faith, they might make something impossible happen.

That a man like Jean-Dominique Bauby was able to translate his tale without speaking or writing is a testament to his humanity; that he had dedicated nurses (and speech therapist and stenographer) is a tribute to the selflessness that makes a mockery of vanity and solipsism. Bauby’s accomplishment ended up as something more substantial than art: his efforts and the assistance of his caregivers are life-affirming in ways that words are unable to articulate. The blessing was reciprocal, and it’s humbling to behold.

At times like this, besides being grateful and inspired, I can only turn to music to express what only music is capable of expressing. Gratitude to Bauby, Mathieu Amalric, Julian Schnabel and, of course, Mingus.

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Mingus and Coltrane: Protest Music

1957
Charles Mingus: “Haitian Fight Song”
From the album The Clown (Atlantic)
Charles Mingus had many things to say, and he used his mouth, his pen, his fists, and mostly his music to say them. Of the myriad words that describe Mingus, passionate would trump all others. Mingus cared—deeply. Of the many compositions that could be chosen to define him, “Haitian Fight Song” endures as the best articulation of the inequities that consistently inspired his best work. The song is, of course, about everything (as is pretty much all of Mingus’s music), but it is mostly about the tensions and turmoil inherent in the lives of the dispossessed. Not for nothing was his autobiography entitled Beneath the Underdog. The momentum of the song (after a snake-charming sax solo from Shafi Hadi) stops in its tracks when Mingus breaks it down and, as the band slowly drops out, deconstructs the theme with only his bass, then goes on to say some of the things that needed to be said in 1957. And for anyone who understandably does not wish to analyze or sterilize music that can easily account for itself, let’s cut to the chase: “Haitian Fight Song” is one of the most angry yet eloquent, ardent yet erudite and—this is the key—most jaw-droppingly swinging and kickass compositions ever. It is a statement that speaks volumes and not a single word is spoken. Significantly, this was quite a few years before artists’ statements regarding racial strife became commonplace or mainstream. But this is just one of many instances where Mingus was ahead of the crowd. Mingus led several big bands later in his career, but listening half a century later to the sheer force of sound this quintet made remains a revelation. It is a hurricane that blows through your life and changes everything.
—Sean Murphy

1963
John Coltrane: “Alabama”
From the album Live at Birdland (Impulse!)
Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of Coltrane’s enduring and devastating performances. Recorded with the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass), Coltrane, already considered one of jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, managed to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane also conveyed the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also, miraculously, managed to hint at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. If Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” in part predicted the turmoil around the corner, “Alabama” was directly inspired by an actual event that demanded an outraged reaction. As only he could, Coltrane crafted 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.
—Sean Murphy

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Oliver Nelson: Screamin’ The Blues

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/music/reviews/8354/oliver-nelson-screamin-the-blues/
Oliver Nelson
Screamin’ the Blues
(Prestige)
US release date: 18 July 2006
UK release date: 28 August 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

Screamin’ the Blues: Nothing Abstract About This Truth

This welcome installment in the Rudy Van Gelder Remasters series is essential for at least two reasons. First, it proves that Oliver Nelson should not be remembered only for what is inarguably his masterpiece, The Blues and the Abstract Truth . Second, it features a young and typically tenacious Eric Dolphy, who acquits himself wonderfully, as always.
Ironies abound on this album, beginning with its title: Oliver Nelson is quite rightly revered for his mastery of the blues form, but it was his sensitive and intelligent renderings that tended to use the blues as a springboard for his fertile mind and considerable arranging skills. A screamer he was not. Indeed, it is interesting—and instructive—to consider that only one year before The Blues and the Abstract Truth (henceforth TBATAT), which is hailed as the epitome of smooth (from an era, difficult as it is to conceive, when the word “smooth” could be used in a complimentary fashion while describing jazz), Nelson brought together a band that would record this down and dirty old(er) school session. It is not the all-star lineup of TBATAT (what else could be?), but this group is tight and very much on time, with the estimable Roy Haynes on drums and the still underrated George Duvivier on bass. The wildcards are Richard Wyands and Richard Williams, on piano and trumpet respectively. And, of course, Dolphy.
The tone is set immediately and authoritatively, with the group tearing into the eleven-minute title track, a vehicle that offers ample evidence of Nelson’s songwriting craft. But as is the case throughout these proceedings, the inescapable focus is on the fact that he could blow the roof off when he wanted to. Haynes and Duvivier hold down the fort, allowing Wyands to stretch out with a Bobby Timmins-esque solo (indeed, the influence of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers subtly pervades the proceedings). Then Nelson reenters with that shimmering, supple tone, giving way to Williams, who takes an enervated turn at the pulpit. And then, six minutes in, the guest preacher, Reverend Dolphy, blasts a bass clarinet sermon that interprets tradition in his inimitable way, all the while edging ever outward, moving into more free and formless—but always intelligible and accessible—territory.
An air of restrained celebration, of cerebral abandon, is maintained throughout, and it’s only on the stirring “Three Seconds” that we hear the obvious blueprint for the immaculate orchestration of unique voices that elevate TBATAT. And for anyone who has ever struggled to explain the wonders of jazz to a potential fan, cue up “The Meetin’” and if that doesn’t do the trick, it’s doubtful anything will. This is cool, classy stuff, a tad looser, a bit ballsier and a little more edgy than the work Nelson is mostly remembered for. Where one may envision TBATAT being recorded in a clean studio with pros in suits punching the clock, Screamin’ The Blues has the vibe of a smoke-filled, windowless room.
A few more words about Dolphy: with all due respect to the demonstrable talents and leadership of Nelson, Eric Dolphy is always going to stand apart as the superstar of any recording in which he is involved. Listening to him on this set is not unlike revisiting the watershed work of John Coltrane, circa 1957, specifically on Lush Life and Soultrane, where he fortified his celebrated “sheets of sound”, and knowing how that would evolve into his modal work with Miles Davis, then Giant Steps, and then the door to infinity he cracked open after that. Likewise, Dolphy is exhibiting his fluency of the hard-bop stylings that signified the better jazz from the mid-to-late ‘50’s: his alto work in “Alto-itis” nods to Charlie Parker yet exudes an openness that, say, Ornette Coleman could not approximate. He is already straining at the reins of convention, already figuring out, like Coltrane and, of course, Thelonious Monk, his way around the brilliant corners that lead to real innovation. It is no coincidence that in the years after this recording, Dolphy would align himself with both Coltrane and Charles Mingus, while continuing to push the envelope that eventually resulted in his own masterpiece, Out to Lunch. The interplay and overtones of true originality beginning to boil on Screamin’ The Blues are very much a premonition of even bigger and better things to come, but this album utterly succeeds as a collection of cats, in the back of the church, conversing about the past while pointing toward the future.

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