Monthly Archives: April 2011

Bird speaks!

Found a link to a REALLY old interview:

This interview is amazing for a variety of reasons.

For one, I had never heard Parker’s voice before. I know it sounds strange, but hearing his voice on tape was very eye-opening; it was like a confirmation that he really existed.

And to hear how smart, humble and gracious he was! Oftentimes when thinking of Bird I think two things: his music and his drug addiction. To hear that behind the horn and behind the legend and infamy lay a real person, one with deep thoughts and real issues, was amazing.

Secondly, it was really interesting to hear his relationship with Paul Desmond. If one week ago you had asked me if Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker ever crossed paths, I would have said “doubtful”, let alone that they knew each other and had a mutual respect for each others playing.

Most interesting of all, though, is Parker’s plans and hopes for his future. Clearly, Parker did not foresee his health’s decline, and had many interesting plans for the future.

To qualify his comments in this regard to the right degree, it is important to contextualize Parker at the time of this interview in his own life as well as in the jazz scene in general:

If by “early 1954” we are to assume sometime between January and March 1954, this interview was conducted around the exact time that the first lineup of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger’s were recording their legendary Birdland sets, with Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson taking what Dizzy and Bird had down and developing it slowly, planting the very first seeds of Hard Bop. Miles was about to record Walkin’, still a few years from forming his first great quartet. Sonny Rollins had just recorded his first album, taking the saxophone in a slightly different direction, and Lee Konitz, who had diverged from Parker’s omnipresent style very early on was just coming out as a leader after years engrossed with Lennie Tristano.

As for Paul Desmond, this time may have been at the peak of his first round of fame (the second being after Time Out) as Jazz at Oberlin had just been released and the famous Brubeck college touring was well under way. This might explain why the radio station chose Desmond to be the interviewer: Desmond was most likely the most famous white jazz saxophonist (and thus probably the most famous jazz saxophonist overall) at the time.

Parker was truly in his last days, though. This is just a few months after the recording of Jazz at Massey Hall, and only a few before his last known recordings. His health was most likely already deteriorating, but from the way he speaks, you can’t tell that he’s realized yet.

Parker sounds extremely optimistic, and this comment, in particular, makes me wonder, as probably so many others have, what might have come about if Parker even had just another 5 years:

Well, seriously speaking I mean I’m going to try to go to Europe to study. I had the pleasure to meet one Edgar Varese in New York City; he’s a classical composer from Europe, he’s a Frenchman, very nice fellow and he wants to teach me; in fact he wants to write for me because he thinks I’m more for, more or less on a serious basis you know, and if he takes me over, I mean after he’s finished with me I might have the chance to go to the Academy of Music out in Paris itself and study, you know. My prime interest still is learning to play music, you know.

– Charlie Parker

Parker was clearly still trying to develop as a musician, and just to think about what could have come of him leaving new york and digging into new ideas in Europe with Varese is overwhelming.


Quick Listen ~~ Ambrose Akinmusire – When the Heart Emerges Glistening

I Got a hold of Ambrose Akinmusire’s sophomore effort, When the Heart Emerges Glistening. I have to admit, I was not much of a fan of his debut Prelude: To Cora, (I actually think the best tune on it is one written by a sideman), but was at least somewhat pleased to hear that he himself is not much of a fan of it anymore either (although everyone says they hate their first record). But at least Ambrose is being given a second chance at a debut: When the Heart Emerges Glistening is his first on Blue Note, and thus he can convince himself and others that this is, in fact, the real, debut.

Ambrose Akinmusire has been running a consistent band for a few years now, so I was not surprised to feel their presence immediately on the album. “Urgency” is a word used too much to describe this type of music, but you really can hear it here: Akinmusire, saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown have something to prove, and are trying to push into new places.

Many of the compositions, despite clearly having been written with strict forms and traditional assignments, have grown out of their constraints into more loose, flowing vehicles. This applies as much to melody statements as to solo sections. There is a lot of back and forth between the horns, as well as with the pianist. Boundaries that many are familiar with are loosening up, and the band is so comfortable with each other that they don’t mind stepping on each others feet in unexpected and constructive ways.

If the album and track titles hint at pretentiousness, Ambrose’s trumpet playing is void of it. He is certainly striving for a new sound: his heavily intervalic playing is quite unprecedented and requires a deep ear for harmony. But even though his ability lends itself to perfectionism, there is nothing “perfect” about it. His notes still crack and his leaps of faith sometimes fail, but when they do it just makes it all the more evident that his goal is to push himself constantly, even in the recording studio, and that in turn makes his playing very exciting to listen to.

Six songs into the album, however, few curveballs have been thrown. The band settles into a consistency that may or may not have been intended. “Confessions To My Unborn Daughter”, “Jaya”,  and “Henya” all have a loose groove, mild, lumbering tempos and very similar, dark harmonic timbres. But the second half of the disc changes things up a little. The use of the celeste  on “Ayneh (Cora)” is interesting, and makes for a nice contrast to a still similar tone. On “My Name Is Oscar”, Ambrose ventures into poetry on what was a pre-recorded drum solo. Its a unique use of recording-session-runoff, but I’m not sure that the result is consistent with the remainder of the album.

Tempos and instrumentations continue to change, with the trumpet/piano duet on “What’s New” an especially nice touch. But much of the second half in the end seems like a series of interludes, with few if any concrete statements. This isn’t exactly justified with the album’s closing either, which is on a low-note despite not really coming down from anywhere. In the end it seems as if the disc is split in half, with a Part 1 and a Part 2 having completely different purposes. When taken as a whole, i’m not entirely convinced it works, but if you subconsciously separate them, their statement becomes more powerful.

Jason Moran had some good ideas on the production end; I particularly like the use of panning, which adds even more atmosphere to the relaxed banter between the horns during solos and trading. The translation of both Smith’s tenor and Akinmusire’s trumpet through the studio was done very well, I don’t think much was lost there in terms of tone quality.

I think it’s hard with a band with so much to offer to come out of the studio with a clear and concise message, and in fact I think the inconsistency of it coupled with the band’s emphatic risk-taking makes When The Heart Emerges Glistening way more exciting as a record than something that works right off the bat, and I can’t wait to listen again.


Hearing Bley

Paul Bley is an interesting and elusive figure in jazz. Yet somehow it’s hard to even avoid hearing people talk about him and his music. Just the other day I came across a version of Jazz.com’s “The Dozens” featuring Aaron Parks on Paul Bley. “The Dozens” is an occasional feature that lets musicians and/or critics pick 12 tracks representative of a particular artist or theme. Sometimes the choices and commentary can be very bland (the Steely Dan Dozens is terrible), but there are also some very worthwhile and illuminating posts. One of those is Aaron Parks on Paul Bley.

I am by no means an expert on Paul Bley. I mean, how can you be? With over 130 recordings to his name, and having recorded everything form solo piano records to live synthesizer shows, Bley’s discography is one of the most physically and aesthetically daunting of any musician’s in the past century (Bley himself could only compare the sheer mass of his discography to that of Louis Armstrong). But still, I would say i’m pretty knowledgeable about his most important recordings. Yet Parks managed to come up with a list that I was mostly unfamiliar with, which is pretty exciting. And of course, no comprehensive Bley list could be complete without the famous solo on “All the Things You Are.” It’s interesting to hear Parks’ take on it.

I also recently came across a very interesting radio interview with Mr. Bley from 2000. This was my first time hearing the pianist speak, and I was surprised (based on a lot of the stories I’ve heard about him) at how cordial and open he was. It’s not uncommon for artists who have been around and through as much as Bley has to be quite obtuse and prevaricatory in interviews that ask pretty basic questions, but Bley was more than willing to answer very open-ended and straightforward questions regarding his own development and the effect other artists have had on him and expound upon similar topics in very concise ways.

There were a few moments in this hour-long interview that stood out:

  1. I’ve always known that Bley has had experience playing with a veritable ‘who’s who’ of jazz throughout his career, but I was amazed at the sheer breadth of individuals that he mentioned having been lucky enough to play with. They included Ben Webster, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Evan Parker, Jaco Pastorious, Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie and even poets Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs. A lot of these weren’t just one-off’s either. He recorded with Parker, hired Don Cherry and Ornette coleman for a band that became Ornette’s famous quartet after Bley left, ‘discovered’ Pat Metheny and even mentioned being quite close with Miles Davis.
  2. Bley had an interesting take on the development of free jazz, which he mentioned twice. According to Bley, there were two stages in this development. One occurred in 1958, when jazz began to lose form. The other occurred in 1964, when it began to lose meter. He loosely associates Coleman and Cherry with the former, and Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp with the latter.
  3. Bley also had an interesting take on the role of the piano in free jazz. He seems to agree with Keith Jarrett (or Keith Jarrett agrees with him) that it is ‘impossible’ to play ‘free’ on piano. In his interview with Ethan Iverson, Jarrett says that Cecil Taylor ‘did everything he could’ in this regard. Bley seems to agree, and the interviewer contrasts Bley’s approach with that of Taylor’s. Bley talks about how the challenge of the pianist when Ornette’s group came out was to create sounds with the piano that could be altered/adjusted after they were created (I’m assuming he means the act of bending notes/creating polytones with one sonic output). He then briefly explains the difference between trying to do this with the piano itself as oppossed to using prepared piano.
  4. Bley offers the most concise explanation of why jazz is considered “America’s classical music” that I’ve ever heard. Responding to a comment about how his most recent work sounds very much like the work of early 20th century European classical composers for piano (Schoenberg, Webern), Bley remarked that his music was innately separate from classical music because what we call “classical music” is actually European classical music. What he means by this is that these composers were of a European influence. Bartok, for example, derived a lot of his compositions from European folk music, and Tchaikovsky from Russian folk music, etc. Jazz musicians, on the other hand, draw their influence from American folk music. Thus it is immediately a different type of music, if not just in name only. So, even though some of it might sound similar to European Classical music (Bley’s later work in particular), it is by definition jazz because it has grown out of an American Folk tradition: the blues.

When I re-find the link to this radio interview, I’ll post it. It’s more than worth an hour of your time. This, in the meantime, is worth 6 minutes of your time for sure:


American Idol: Miseducating the Masses

I don’t watch American Idol. I have, in the past, but these days I occasionally will just watch a YouTube clip of a finalist when it comes up. Truth is, they do sometimes manage to come across some good singers. But in the grand scheme of things, the producers, judges and anyone else involved in putting the show together are complicit in a large campaign of misinformation being disseminated to their millions of viewers.

As you may expect, my main anger arises at the complete disregard for the writers and original performers of some of the older songs performed on the program.

Due to its performance at Michael Jackson’s funeral, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” has become forever associated with the King of Pop. When I first heard it sung at his funeral, I was very surprised and extremely happy, because its a great and underappreciated song. Unfortunately, it has since been falsely attributed to MJ by aspiring, uneducated singers everywhere.

It has also been licensed by American Idol and added to their ‘stock’ list of songs to be performed at any time, and I can’t tell you how many times I have seen contestants pick it, and open by stating how much they were inspired by Michael Jackson and how they wanted to sing one of his songs. While looking for a particular instance of this that I remembered from a few seasons ago, low and behold I found a contestant from this season doing the exact same thing:

Now, i’m going to give a TINY bit of credit to the producers this time, because at least they show themselves trying to inform the contestant in question, but it just becomes even more infuriating when it becomes clear that she a) clearly doesn’t care and b) doesn’t even know who Charlie Chaplin is. They have let this and much worse slip many times before. Is it too much to ask that a program with such a huge reach across the country could at least help inform its viewers (and at the very least the singers themselves) about the music?

I was particularly angered just last week when I saw an article with links to the most recent episode’s tribute to Elton John. Not once on the program or in the video notes did anyone mention that 99% of Elton John’s lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin. To be honest, I am surprised that John himself would let this pass, because by all accounts he seems like a very gracious person. But with each clip you hear, the contestants talk about how moved they are by ‘Elton’s music’ and ‘Elton’s lyrics’ and it seems like such an injustice done to his partner.

And perhaps Taupin doesn’t like the spotlight, maybe he’s content without being recognized. But that isn’t the point: the viewers and the contestants need to know whose music they’re listening to and performing. By not giving credit where it’s due, American Idol disrespects the thousands of artists it licenses from and just promotes misinformation and laziness to a whole generation of aspiring music lovers. But perhaps thats what they want.