Category Archives: Video

A 300 Year-Old Interpretation

Jeff Buckley is one of those artists who, because of his untimely death, left a million what if’s floating around. The canonization of such artists helps magnify and mystify even their smallest efforts. Sure, it’s terrifying to think that Clifford Brown was only 25 when he died, or that Kurt Cobain was able to have such a huge effect on an entire generation without living past 27, but it is only because they’re gone that we’re able to wonder (or care). If Radiohead died in a plane crash after OK Computer, their legacy would of course be much different.

However I really can’t hep myself with the ‘what if’ with Jeff Buckley. The only full record he left with us is amazingly daring, well-rounded and accessible. I have ventured little outside this official collection of songs because most of what remains are either demos or incomplete recordings, and they were never given the go-ahead by Buckley himself to be released, so I think it’s unfair to associate these tracks with him.

But recently, I was reading up on the history of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and I noticed that particularly popular rendition of the most famous movement, “When I am Laid In Earth” was that of Jeff Buckley. Now, I’m having a hard time thinking of even a single other pop/rock artist of the last 20 years who has even attempted an opera cover, let alone successfully, or of one from the 17th century. It’s a perfect example of how fearless Buckley really was, as well as a great sign of his abilities and (lost) potential.

Unlearning the Learned and Thoughts on Exercises…

Watching this video interview with Michael Wolff, I was struck by a story he told about Cannonball Adderley:

He said “You know you’re so lucky you’re not hung up with the bebop style.” He said “Quincy Jones and I are trying to get that last food out of Birdland. He said “Bebop is hanging me up. I wanna soar with my music and i’m stuck with this saxophone style.” And he was really frustrated. So I was coming from a post-bop thing. I came up more with Bitches Brew and Headhunters and, you know, the straight ahead stuff would have been more like A.R.C. by Chick and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and that kind of stuff, you know, more free. And Keith Jarrett and all that.

Bird is (perhaps incorrectly) famous for saying something along the lines of “First you have to learn the music, then you have to forget it”. This could mean a lot of different things. In relation to what Cannonball is saying, I think it means that to fully master the music you play, it has to be natural and inherent in you. This is, in one way, a asset, but as Cannonball illustrates above, it can also be a burden. Some artists were able to get past this, Miles, Coltrane, Herbie, by relentlessly pushing themselves into new areas, but it seems that it was harder for others.

What makes Wolff different, it seems, is that he wasn’t brought up in the same “tradition”. To him, coming out of Keith and Chick makes him more flexible. But aren’t Keith and Chick themselves just extensions of the same “tradition” that Cannonball is? How can this extra degree of separation make such a difference?

Another interesting quote from this brief interview shed some light on how Cannonball viewed certain aspects of Coltrane’s legacy:

So Cannon was trying to get free and I was so impressed. When I first joined the band I said “Well, Cannon”, you know I had been in New York, scuffling to learn Moment’s Notice and Giant Steps and all the things everybody was learning at the jam sessions and I said “Cannon, can we play Moment’s Notice or Giant Steps?” And he said “No. We don’t play exercises on our bandstand. Why don’t you write me some music…John Coltrane was my favorite saxophonist, but those were exercises for him.”

It’s nice to hear, even third hand, that even Coltrane himself (as well as his contemporaries) viewed songs like “Moment’s Notice” and “Giant Steps” as ‘exercises’. This is exactly what a lot of young musicians today don’t realize. If more young musicians approached these songs the way Coltrane himself clearly approached them, perhaps it would alter the trajectory of much of their music in a positive way. I’ve opined on this before…

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’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:

Strange Occurrences ~~ Miles in Tokyo w/ Sam Rivers

This recording from June 1964 is a strange one. Miles had thought he had finally settled on his new quintet after discovering Herbie and Tony (after Frank Butler was nixed and Victor Feldman decided to return to LA), but then George Coleman left the band. I’m still not quite sure why George Coleman left the band, although I have heard that he is a strange (and rather cocky) fellow, so if anyone has any insight into this it would be interesting to hear.

What would be even more interesting to hear is who recommended Sam Rivers. Not to say that Sam Rivers isn’t worthy of being recommended, but it just doesn’t seem to be a good match for this band. Sure, it was 1964 and Miles had yet to really break ‘free’, Ornette Coleman was already well established and this was only 6 months or so before A Love Supreme was recorded, but Sam Rivers just seems like an aggressive push when Miles was still playing standards.

Much has been said about how Miles slowly opened up as the band members around him pushed him further and further, but we’re not quite there yet on this recording. George Coleman played very much inside the harmony, a natural progression after Coltrane left, but Rivers abandons it completely. His style is not very reminiscent of Ornette’s, which was much more blues based; I’d say Rivers holds much more in common with Dewey Redman than anyone else, and if there is any good example of this comparison it is this record.

On the slower numbers, such as “My Funny Valentine”, Rivers plays much more within the harmony, but clearly only by ear. When the tempo jumps and the energy climbs, he veers off almost completely. But alas even Herbie, Ron and Tony weren’t ready for this lack of boundaries. There certainly is a lot of excitement and energy when Rivers solos, but most of it is rhythmic rather than harmonic experimentation.

This is the only official release with Rivers on it, and if anyone knows of any bootlegs I’d be very much interested to hear about them. But even as an official release it escapes many people’s catalogs and memories; few people have it or discuss it. I would recommend it if you’re a fan of Miles OR Rivers, but mostly if you’re just interested in hearing the gradual development of Miles classic quintet from standards and changes to originals and freer forms.

Philly soul…

It’s interesting to hear Brian McKnight cover this Hall & Oates classic. You begin to forget it was written by two skinny white guys from Philadelphia…

Stripped down revelations…

Many thanks to a friend of mine for giving me this solo, acoustic version of “Africa.” Comparing this version to the studio version helps illustrate a lot interesting things about both D’Angelo and his seminal album,Voodoo.

First of all, hearing D’Angelo alone at his piano helps reaffirm how great of a musician he really is. “Africa” has always been one of my favorite songs of his, and I was always curious about how much of it he actually wrote and how much came through in the studio. This version shows that D’Angelo pretty much had an exact idea of how he wanted the song to be presented. Everything that appears on the recording is here on the acoustic version, from the piano arpeggios in the beginning, to the descending hook the precedes each verse, to the call-and-response-type bridge. The composition was finished, but now it had to be given a nice ‘neo-soul’ gloss, and therein lies the problem.

I’m not saying that the final take of “Africa’ is bad by any means; as I said before, It has always been one of my favorites. But comparing the acoustic piano version to the studio version shows that a lot of the original nuances and beauty are lost in attempting to commercialize and radio-prepare the song. First of all, listen to the choice of keyboards for the final take. Oh how I long for the musical limitations of the 70’s again. But do I? Neo-soul artists are exactly what they say they are. They are a modern-day resurgence of the classic soul composers and singers of the late 60’s and 70’s. But in those days, moving from the piano to the studio wasn’t as much of a drastic change. A fender Rhodes, an electric bass, some guitars, and some clever drum mic placements were the only the things that changed. But today, the choices studios present to artists are endless. From the mic choices to the keyboard choices to the endless post-production options, the amount of possibilities presented to artists make some things a lot easier and others infinitely harder. So, what is that keyboard sound they settled on? And why did they choose it? I don’t really know. It’s certainly not a Rhodes, and it bears very little resemblance to a piano. But does it work? Certainly.

However other production decisions didn’t go down as well. One that stands out throughout the entire album, and something that had crossed my mind before, is the use of D’angelo’s main instrument: his voice. If someone who had never heard D’Angelo before picked up Voodoo, I doubt one of the first things they would say about him is that he is a great singer. That seems a strange thing to say about a successful neo-soul artist, but it’s not because D’angelo isn’t a good singer, it’s just about the way the producers decided to utilize his voice on this album. He is almost always singing in falsetto, and when he isn’t, his voice is often layered, at least 3 times. This choice wasn’t necessarily a bad one, it was just a theme they were going for. But listening to D’angelo sing alone at the piano shows that he has a much greater range than is audible on the recording, and it makes me wish that they had left some room for his lower register to ring out on the final takes.

Also, the harmonies, which are supposed to highlight specific areas, tend to do the exact opposite. When singing alone on the acoustic version, you hear the call at the beginning of the bridge “and this day will come” come up from the lower register and be responded to by a descending falsetto. Cleary, D’Angelo was trying to illustrate that this would perhaps be a call-and-response between backup singers and himself, but there were no backup singers on the final take. Just D’Angelo himself. And so in the end the “and this day will come” call becomes a cloudy layer of his own voice, and I had actually never felt the full effect of this repeating call until I heard just D’Angelo alone at the piano.

What hearing this acoustic take shows most of all though, is how good of a songwriter D’angelo is. “Africa” shows simple influences, but is masterful in its final harmonic form. There is no clear ‘melody’, but the varying melodies that D’angelo sings over the strict harmonic structure all create a perfect balance. The bridge is especially powerful, with the slight modulation at the end of the form highlighting a very clever use of tension.   Really, this is the quintessential neo-soul song. The composition itself sounds like it could have been written in the heyday of soul, but D’Angelo made a conscious and pain-staking effort to modernize and individualize it, and in the end he did achieve a great balance between traditional song-writing and modern production.