Monthly Archives: October 2009

Cracking The Egg…

KeithJarrettThis interview with Keith Jarrett by Ethan Iverson is by far the best (and most revealing) interview I have ever seen with the pianist. Specifically golden is Iverson’s ability to get Jarrett to talk about other pianists than himself (and get him to say good things no less!).

The one thing I don’t really understand is the seemingly ‘understood’ notion between Iverson and his cronies that the European Quartet is not worth discussing (or even listening to). It would have been nice to hear a little more about that period of Jarrett’s career.


Standard Time ~~ “You’ve Got a Friend”

Carole-KingCarole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” may not be the most covered pop song of the second half of the 20th century, (that title is often said to belong to McCartney’s “Yesterday”), but it may be the most successfully covered. I say this because despite Carole King having written and initially recorded it, the most famous version remains James Taylor’s. In addition, countless other versions exist from artists who have since made it staples of their own. The wide array of interpretations help show that besides being a superbly written song, it is remarkably flexible. Taylor’s version is, true to form, very low-key, with little more than guitar, percussion, and beautifully sung backup-vocals (courtesy of Joni Mitchell); quite different than the original. But, as we will see, the song has the ability to convey all types of emotions and styles.

Carole King

[Audio https://savagemusic.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/youve-got-a-friend.mp3%5D

Despite it being composed and often performed by Carole King, many have not heard her original version. In comparison to where it would eventually go, this is a rather tame take. Take note of the short introductory tag, which is only otherwise utilized by James Taylor. The form is unusually long, and we can either see it as a an ABABCB form or AABBAABBCBB, because the verses and choruses turn around on themselves without really reaching a cadence. The style and tempo falls somewhere between a ballad and a medium soul tune, both of which we will see fully realized later. In addition to the heavy soul inflections provided by King, there is a strongly implied backbeat that never manifests itself. It can be assumed that King certainly approached this song as a ballad, but others, such as Donny Hathaway, took it into a more driving, soulful direction.

Donny Hathaway

[Audio https://savagemusic.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/01-youve-got-a-friend.mp3%5D

hathawayThere were many soul artists of the 70’s who covered “You’ve Got a Friend,” including Al Green and Aretha Franklin. It was even included on an expanded reissue of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. But of all of them, the Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack duet version was probably the most well known. While this recording of Donny Hathaway performing the song live does not include Flack, it is based on the same arrangement and features an incredible performance by Hathaway. Hearing this song live shows how powerful Hathaway was able to make the song, this time including a heavy backbeat and lots of soulful melismas and crowd-participation. It is in this version that we see the song as more of a crowd pleasing soul standard as opposed to a ballad, and the effect is significant. It’s hard to believe that this song wasn’t written specifically for Hathway; it fits his voice and style perfectly, and this still stands as one of his best recorded performances.

Jacky Terrasson

[Audio https://savagemusic.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/04-youve-got-a-friend.mp3%5D

Like its utilization in the soul community, there are many jazz musicians who have interpreted “You’ve Got a Friend.” Some were recorded as early as its release, including a version by Ella Fitzgerald with the Count Basie Orchestra. It has actually become more increasingly popular in recent years, especially with pianists. Kevin Hays, for one, recorded it for his album of the same name, which featured other newly interpreted modern standards.

jackieterrasson

Jacky Terrasson’s recent solo version is especially interesting. Going more in the ballad direction, the french pianist mixes classical flourishes with beautiful harmonies to create a genuinely emotional version of this classic. The length of the form is certainly felt in his slower take, but without much cost. The verses and choruses are performed with such tasteful refrain that when the bridge finally does arrive (over 4 minutes into the song) it is all the more powerful. Terrasson’s interpretation is of particular interest because, surely as a testament to the song’s quality and longevity, for the most part very few have taken it very far from its initial harmonic form. Still, much of the form remains the same, but Terrasson adds new and vibrant harmonic colors to the climax of the chorus as well as the intro and outro.

These three versions of “You’ve Got a Friend”, with the addition of the probably too-often heard James Taylor version, clearly illustrate a song that has rightfully earned a place in the library of “modern standards.” It has still been under 50 years since its initial recording, but the obvious power and distinction this song holds show it will continue to be covered for a long time.


Influence

pianoThis is bizarre. These two tracks, recorded 14 years apart, sound incredibly similar. One is a standard and the other is an original, but the pianist who recorded the latter piece is clearly strongly influenced by the former. Not only are their styles remarkably alike but the tracks are almost exactly the same length.

Interesting side note: The latter pianist’s track was recorded the same year that the former pianist died. Coincidence?

If anyone wants to take a guess as to who these two pianists are, please let your presence be known!

Track 1

[Audio https://savagemusic.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/03-lush-life-2.mp3%5D

Track 2

[Audio https://savagemusic.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/03-pleasure-pain-and-me.mp3%5D


The Problem With John Coltrane ~~ Part 1: The Audience

JohnColtrane1Many people today argue that jazz is dead. Many people who actively perform, listen to or support jazz scoff at this notion. But there is no denying that if not dead, the music that can be broadly considered “jazz” occupies a far-removed, niche area in the current landscape of popular art in America. What seems especially strange, however, in recent years is that despite the fact that jazz education has increased significantly and the relative musical communities within cities like New York and Chicago (among others) are thriving, the bridge between the music and the conscience of the public mind is weaker than ever. As the music grows, the ties that bind it with a general audience become weaker and, among many specific reasons for this, I think there is a broader, more loosely-based cause. That would be John Coltrane.

Now before you write this off you must understand that this is a correlative, not causal, relationship. But a strong one at that. All of the problems that I associate with the current state of jazz do generally tie back to the effect that John Coltrane had on this music. Today I focus on the issue of the audience.

the audience ~~

There are three phases in John Coltrane’s career that are most commonly cited. Phase 1 starts with the beginning of his career through 1961, essentially until the beginning of the classic quartet era. Phase 2 is the era of the classic quartet, and phase 3 is marked by the increasingly aggressive experimentations of Coltrane and the gradual dissemination of his classic quartet into a larger, more unconventional ensemble and eventually until his death. The relationship that Coltrane had with his audience throughout these three phases are, on a grander scale, the same that jazz as a whole has had with its audience since the beginning of the 20th century.

Phase 1, when John Coltrane was a member of the enormously popular Miles Davis quintet, was when he was a public and media darling. Less than a year after leaving the quintet, upon forming his new group as a leader for a 10-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery in New York, he was still much in public eye, performing sold out concerts to raving crowds.

Run, do not walk or otherwise loiter on your way down to the Jazz Gallery. The reason is John Coltrane, a tenor saxophonist who has the future coming out of his horn. – The New York Daily News, 1960

It was at this time that he was respected as much for his modern approach to playing as his nods to the tradition, always a concern to critics and purists. This attention surely affected Coltrane and the approach he had to his own music. Who would have thought that Coltrane, now an icon of unrepentant experimentation and development, was once concerned with not pushing too far ahead due to concerns of losing his audience? But to George Russell he explained his anxieties, lamenting that he was afraid of going too much in the direction of Ornette Colemen over fears of alienating the public. (Thus we find the utilization of a group other than his own quartet on 1960’s release The Avant Garde as a conscious move, clearly showing the divide he saw between two types of music he cared about, his own and that of Coleman).

But despite his concerns, Coltrane was unintentionally losing portions of his audience already. Saxophonist Evan Parker, often described as one of the few remaining true disciples of Coltrane’s 3rd phase, explains that even in England, where Coltrane’s popularity lingered longer due to his lack of live performances there, many people were beginning to think he had gone too far by 1961.

I remember in ‘61, the time that he did come with his own group to England, I think the only time that he did play in England, there was already a division of ‘this is going too far…we liked Milestones, we liked Kind of Blue, we liked those things but this is too much’…At the time, many people thought Coltrane’s “Chasin’ The Trane,” which was included on the original Village Vanguard LP [1961], was his most radical performance to date because of what was considered its extraordinary length and intensity, and the fact that Coltrane was accompanied by only bass and drums. – Evan Parker, 2006

So by the early 1960’s there already existed a dichotomy between jazz followers and players and of Coltrane himself. So where did this leave the general public? Not too close. It is around the same time that John Coltrane, among others, is considered to have helped push the music into a new frontier. We see now that this frontier was not just musical, but also a conscious move from contract artistry to status artistry. From more concert halls to more clubs. From 5 minute songs to 20 minute songs. From chordal to non-chordal relationships. From rave reviews and album sales to hostility and indifference. The audience began to find its way out.

And so what is wrong with this? The music, now into the second half of a century of existence, was still growing, still moving forward. The problem is not with the players then, but rather with the players now and their relationship to this period. Many of the people who don’t understand why someone would think jazz is dead, who don’t get why the general public isn’t lining up outside the Village Vanguard on any given night, and are bitterly confused about why they or their favorite artists aren’t more generally accepted and respected, are the same people who consider this era beginning in 1960 to be the most important one in the history of jazz.

audienceAnd yes, of course there are those people who don’t care for an audience, who find the approval of the general public to be almost an insult to their work. But the fact is that as mentioned before, jazz education is growing significantly, with thousands of students currently enrolled for bachelors and masters in an art form that the public considers dead. And with this growing market comes a dilution of the self-reliant, self-satisfied avant-garde. If jazz has reached a point where it was content with its unpopularity, these days will soon be over. Most of the current students are expecting an audience; they’re expecting to make a living and expecting to be understood. But unlike John Coltrane they are not beginning their careers playing rhythm and blues, and they will most likely not have a career that involves playing sold out concert halls with a Miles Davis-like quintet and recording one of the best-selling jazz records of all time. They instead study what Coltrane did after all of this, what he began in 1960 and what came after he was afraid of losing his own audience.

I recently asked a friend of mine, a very humble, eager and promising young saxophonist a question: “What if I told you that starting right now, you could never listen to John Coltrane again?” His reply was as much in his face as his words: “That would be a very, VERY bad thing.” To students of jazz, the popularity of John Coltrane cannot (and should not) be cut down. But with these mid-1960 records there should come a disclaimer, and this disclaimer should be studied just as much as the music on the recordings: “For Students: Beware of adverse effects on the size and composition of your audience.” John Coltrane understood it, but most of the people who respect him for this period do not, and as long as this continues the ties between this music and its audience become weaker by the day, until eventually even those of us who take part in it will admit we are just among gravestones.

(See Part 2)


Quick Listen – Walt Dickerson “Jazz Impressions of Lawrence From Arabia”

DickersonLawrenceThis is a curious record. For someone who worked with such avant-garde luminaries as Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Andrew Hill, this album is remarkably straight-laced. The tracks that attempt to create a middle-eastern sound essentially end up sounding like a drawn-out take on the last movement of Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, (“Arabesque Cookie”) which debuted three years prior to this (the influence cannot be denied). The others use Maurice Jarre’s themes very lightly and end up just being simple vehichles for open soloing. If interesting for any reason it would be to hear Andrew Cyrille featured in one of his few traditional hard-bop outings.


A ~~ Z – The Grays – Ro Sham Bo

graysThe Grays were the most unexpected “supergroup” of the 90’s. Unexpected because, well, none of them were at all famous at the time of the recording. And, to be completely truthful, none of them are that famous even today. Jon Brion is the most well-known of The Grays’, having established himself as not only a successful pop producer (contributing to the likes of Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, the Crystal Method, and even Kanye West), but also as a film score composer (for films like Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I [Heart] Huckabees), and (to a lesser extent) as a pop artist himself. But the Grays aren’t about one person, and by no means is their sound the result of one musician. The second most currently established former member of the band is Jason Falkner. Falkner, while taking a path similar to that of Mr. Brion, is now more renowned as an ace studio musician in addition to his output as a leader. While not as recognized in his home country for his solo work, he is quite established abroad as a pop singer, having released over 6 records in the last 15 years. The third “leg” of the grays was Buddy Judge, a singer/songwriter whose own wave of success has largely been boosted by help from both formerly mentioned artists. The forming of the Grays was essentially about three singer/songwriters in LA, frustrated with their previous exploits and failed bands, hoping to form a “more perfect union.” They hoped to form a group where everyone’s submissions and contributions were treated equally, a sort of democratic enclave within what was a highly feudal musical society. A noble idea, no doubt, and one that did actually work, for a brief period.

Jason Falkner Live

In the recruitment of their friend Dan McCarroll on drums, the Grays set out to evenly split their album into 4 original songs each. In the end, Falkner got a fifth, and 13 tracks were presented as 1994’s Ro Sham Bo. The opening track, Falkner’s “Very Best Years,” is as illustrative of the guitarist’s style as you will find. In hindsight, it really epitomizes 90’s pop/alternative rock (so if you have any friends who are obsessed with 90’s era radio, this will most likely strike their fancy), but despite its retrospectively typical sound, at the time it was quite a new style. I mean, essentially we are dealing with studio legends on this album, so it is no surprise to hear that they were one step ahead of everyone else.

“Very Best Years”

This studio-friendly sound really rings true on Buddy Judge’s debut track, “Everybody’s World.” The first minute and thirty seconds act as an exposé of the band’s talent in the studio. It is actually kind of creepy listening to today, to think that such a well-written, expertly produced and radio-friendly album could be so under the radar and then go out of print, and still, to this day, be relatively unknown.

But as well-intentioned as the Grays were, they were also essentially doomed from the start. Having three massively talented musicians trying to form a band that is completely democratic in nature is extremely oxymoronic. And for listeners, the seams show. Falkner, Judge, and Brion may all be coming from similar places and striving for similar sounds, but stacked side by side they couldn’t sound more different. Judge clearly is the weakest writer: his songs stand out the least on the album and ultimately act as fillers. Contrastingly, Falkner has an incredible knack for writing verse hooks and melodies, and his voice is certainly the strongest of the three, but his ability to string together entire well-rounded songs is lacking, and thus his input suffers. jonbrionJon Brion is not only the most talented member of the Grays, but he also is the most devoted to their concept. His first track on the album, “The Same Thing,” features verses and choruses sung by himself, but a bridge sung by Falkner, a guitar solo by Falkner, and even a curious little drum interlude by McCarroll. Not only are Brion’s songs the best on the album, but they’re also the most unconventional, which on an album like this is far more of a blessing than a curse. Even when taking a step away from conventionality doesn’t workout as planned, it ends up leaving a stronger mark when the album is all said and done.

“The Same Thing”

Like its finest parts, I like to treat this album as a deviation from what it was supposed to be. Think of it as a compilation: “Where were they then? Works by three of the last decade’s best pop producers/songwriters.” The album sounds a lot better this way, and it will make a lot more sense.


Live Review ~~ Kurt Rosenwinkel “Standards Trio” at the Village Vanguard, New York, NY

IMG_0216Kurt Rosenwinkel is known as much for his staggering technical prowess as his tireless efforts to pave a new path of modern music. In jazz circles, much of his output is now considered classic (despite only being released since the mid 90’s), and his original sound and style has inspired a countless number of imitators. In fact, “kurt-clones” have become so ubiquitous that the description has become moot for many current guitar players. As one friend pointed out, he has had the same effect that John Coltrane had: his influence is something that cannot be avoided, and that has consequently become accepted as a norm.

So the fact that Rosenwinkel decided to form a “standards” trio is all the more interesting. Oftentimes, musicians who are so committed to being original and modern make a conscious effort to seperate themselves from what is traditional. I, however, find Rosenwinke’s efforts in this regard a more clear indicator of his ability than anything else. Anyone who can so seamlessly and expertly return to their roots reveals that they have nothing to hide.

Rosenwinkel selected some real workhorses for his trio, supporting musicians whose resumes establish them as two of the most tried and true “straight-ahead” players on the scene. Drummer Rodney Green and bassist Eric Revis were, in essence, Kurt Rosenwinkel’s personal sherpas for the evening. Green and Revis are the kind of players that straight ahead magnates call to ensure a smooth gig: they are consistent, reliable and tasteful. And while their confidence may sometimes come into conflict with their roles as supporting legs when uninspired or unconvinced of ‘warrant’, there was certainly none of that on this occasion. Rosenwinkel himself may not be the weathered climber that Revis and Green are, but he was certainly paving the way tonight.

They opened with Cleo Henry’s significantly under-appreciated “Boplicity,” made famous from The Birth of the Cool. Immediately it was clear that Rosenwinkel was the band’s leader. His extended solo intro to the second piece, Benny Golson’s “Stablemates” showed his mastery in the traditional idiom. But this was by no means a cakewalk for the guitarist. As a fellow concert-goer pointed out, Rosenwinkel ened the piece sweating and breathing heavily, a testament to the longevity and legitimacy of the standards he chose. It was on the band’s third selection, Duke Ellington’s “Passion Flower” that things really started to heat up. After a bass solo, Rosenwinkel launched into a staggering chordal solo that seemed to endlessly build, until he finally returned to the melody statement. There was no mistaking that by this time in the show, he had everyone’s attention focused on stage.kurt-rosenwinkel5 One of the guitarist’s most impressive attributes is his ability to accompany himself in a completely original fashion. He may play a lot of notes, but his masterful use of dynamics in his own counterpoint makes every one count. By constantly taking a step forward and then taking a step back, Rosenwinkel is able to let the music breathe and sound paced even while he barely leaves any room for silence.

Eric Revis contributed a powerful intro into the fourth song of the night, another Benny Golson standard, “Along Came Betty,” and the band closed out the set with a blistering (even for this band) reading of “Dexterity.” There are dozens of musicians in New York city performing “standards” during any given week, and in the last 15 years Kurt Rosenwinkel was not among them. But while this was a return to tradition for the guitarist, the concert was by no means traditional. These standards became not cliches, but rather reference points for an extremely multi-faceted player. If a tree without roots withers and dies, then based on this performance we can be assured that Kurt Rosenwinkel will remain a strong, growing musical force in years to come.