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.


Rest in Peace, James Moody

 


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.


A ~~ Z – Jim O’Rourke “Insignificance” (2001)

Most musicians desire to be labeled ‘original’ or ‘uncategorizable’, but few actually warrant such a characterization. Jim O’Rourke, however, would satisfy the qualifications for such a description. Allmusic.com labels him as a “post-classical composer”, but depending on the context from which you know him, he could be considered a pop producer, an alternative-rock bassist, a jazz musician, an electronic artist, an avante-garde musician…the list goes on. But what is most fascinating among all of this multi-faceted artist’s output is his own. Alone, O’rourke really is a sum of all his parts. He has a natural songwriting ability, but he can’t help but push the boundaries of convential form. He has a knack for straight-forward alternative pop, but at the same time feels the need to express his more creative components. And he understands the importance of a cohesive, artistic statement, but that doesn’t prevent him from wandering from what is expected. Among his many solo albums, Jim O’Rourke’s “Insignifance” stands as his magnum opus. Not because it is overtly adventurous or groundbreaking, but rather because it is a seamlessly concocted combination of a seemingly incompatible variety of sources and influences, and because in the end it just sounds so good.

And again, think of what sum all of O’Rourke’s parts generates: Imagine Wilco meets Tortoise meets Sonic Youth meet Gastr del Sol with splashes of the Beatles and electronic surges straight out of Edgard Varese or Paul Lansky. That statement alone sounds overwhelming and seemingly impossible, but O’Rourke achieves it. It is easy, upon first listen, to discard this work as unambitious, considering what O’Rourke has strived for in the past, but that would be missing the point. O’Rourke might have expected such a reaction; after all, the title of the album seems to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own ‘backwards step’. But the beauty in this record actually lies in it’s ability to deceive. The music sounds so simple and familiar, but it is so rich in texture and individuality that the more one digs in, the more one realizes there isn’t anything else quite like it.

“Therefore I Am”

“Therefore I Am” hits you early on in the album. Much of the song is a repetitive guitar riff that sounds like the best of an amateur garage band, but it is exactly this repetition, and what comes out of it, that makes the song so entrancing. When O’Rourke finally gets to the end of the chorus, what seemed to begin with one drummer and one guitarist has evolved into an orchestra of multiple drum sets, hand claps, layers upon layers of interlocking guitar parts, all complete with the obligatory “ooohs” and “aahhs”, only to resolve right back to where it started from.

“Memory Lame”

The layering of instruments continues into the beginning of “Memory Lame”, whose first minute is built out of a very Steve Reich-esque tapestry of guitars, eukeles, mandolins and god knows what else, before falling into an all too familiar pop sequence. O’Rourke uses the opposite approach with the final track, “Life Goes Off”, which begins with familiar movements but evolves into an extremely rich amalgam of instruments and harmonies before fluttering out in an electronic buzz.

“Life Goes Off”

What the album as a whole communicates after even a single listen is that O’Rourke has an innate talent, respect, and love for pop music, enough so that he can leave it at its heart unchanged but also put in so much of his own effort and individual touches as to make it unique, special, and his own.


Influence…

As I have mentioned before, it’s pretty easy to mask the influence of others’ music on your own and call it an original composition. Whether this is done intentionally or innocently (or both), it still surprises me when I find antecedents to songs which show that, in essence, they were essentially already written.

Maybe I’m a little out of the loop on this one, but in all my years, no one has brought this to my attention:

1. Written: 1938

This 20th century composer was popular in the early to mid 50’s among jazz musicians, enough to inspire this interpretation:

2. Recorded: October, 1955

Now, if you haven’t noticed it already, check out 1:36-2:17 on the first track, and 1:36-1:56 on the second…

It’s really interesting to see the progression of influences that helped lend a hand to the development of modalism. It would be interesting to know if Coltrane wrote “Impressions” based on the latter or the former, but its far more likely that it was from the latter (which should be a hint).

Oh, and if you’re wondering, October 1955 was certainly prior to the writing of Coltrane’s “Impressions”. November 1955 was the first recording session John Coltrane had with Miles, meaning he was at least two or three years from beginning to explore modalism.

So does anyone know the sources?