Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Blumenthal on Thelonious

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“He dealt in phrases with odd shapes, placed into odd niches on the bar line, stressed in odd places. Melodically, he created tight, stark nuggets that served as seeds for complete musical statements once cultivated through his surprising use of modulation and accent. Monk's strong, aggressive touch produced tones of hornlike boldness on the piano, and his rhythmic patience highlighted the rich overtones this attack produced.

When he worked with horns, this tonal character carried over to the rough-edged ensembles he preferred to bebop's characteristic unison lines. And there was Monk's dense and pungent harmonic palette, which Andre Hodeir likened to an acid bath when applied to popular material. These various techniques functioned so integrally as to seem inseparable.

These attributes of Monk’s music, so familiar to us now and more central to the ongoing evolution of Jazz with each passing day, took an uncommonly long time for the public to grasp.”
- Bob Blumenthal, Jazz writer, columnist and critic

During the many years that he wrote about Jazz for The Boston Globe, CD Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Downbeat and numerous other publications, Grammy-Award winning author, columnist and critic Bob Blumenthal became one of my most consistent teachers about all-things-Jazz

For his long affiliation with it and studied application of it, Bob knows the music.

Equally important is his ability to communicate this knowledge and awareness in a writing style that is clear, cogent and concise.

Bob’s a mensch and a mentor.

My first awareness of Thelonious Monk’s music was based on the LPs he recorded for Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records from approximately 1955-1960. The significance of these recordings was that they helped make the Jazz public of that period aware of Monk’s genius, such that Thelonious career was set on a path that would lead to fame and fortune.

The Riverside albums were a renaissance of sorts for Monk who, although he was one of the originators of modern Jazz along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Clarke and others from the Minton's Playhouse days of the early 1940’s, had largely become a forgotten man by the end of that decade.

In 1994, Blue Note Records issued a boxed set of the music that Thelonious had recorded for the label under his own name and as sideman on a 1957 date with Sonny Rollins as the leader. The set also includes the five tracks that were recorded by John Coltrane's wife Naima at the Five Spot in NYC during Coltrane's tenure with Monk's quartet in 1958.

This reissued set provided a sort of missing link in my quest to appreciate the early years of Monk’s music.

And if that wasn’t enough, wouldn’t you know that the insert notes to the four CD’s that make up Thelonious Monk: The Complete Blue Note Recordings [CDP 7243 8 30363 2 5] were written by none other than … you guessed it … Bob Blumenthal.

Bob has kindly granted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles permission to use the introductory portion of his Blue Note annotations on these pages.

© -  Bob Blumenthal, copyright protected, all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“Thelonious Sphere Monk inherited his striking name, yet it is doubtful that the collective energy of all the slogan-makers could have devised a more appropriate appellation. Never has a moniker so perfectly reflected someone's music. "Thelonious" announces imposing complexity and originality with roots in tradition, "Monk" signals abrupt angularity, and the rhythmic impact of the two in juxtaposition is indelible and unique. The rich internal detail was frequently lost on others in the past, who tended to fashion the first name as "Thelonius," mirroring the confusion that surrounded Monk's music (fortunately, misunderstandings of both types have diminished over time). Most revealing of all, though, is "Sphere," with its intimations of rounded, three-dimensional completeness, of a self-contained planet pursuing its own course in the musical universe.

That sense of fullness, together with Monk's brilliant use of sound, silence, dissonance, rhythmic surprise and melodic cogency, marked the music in this collection from its initial appearance as something exceptional. For many, musicians as well as listeners, it was also somewhat undecipherable when first released on a series of 78 rpm records taken from the six sessions that form the bulk of this collection. At the time, Monk was considered the jazz world's primary enigma, the farthest out of the far out. He was said to be one of the fountainheads of bebop, its "high priest"; yet his music did not sound like bebop. The breathless, arpeggio-driven virtuosity of bop that was already becoming cliche when Monk recorded his first sessions as a leader was replaced in his music by a concept of space that was poetic. He dealt in phrases with odd shapes, placed into odd niches on the bar line, stressed in odd places. Melodically, he created tight, stark nuggets that served as seeds for complete musical statements once cultivated through his surprising use of modulation and accent. Monk's strong, aggressive touch produced tones of hornlike boldness on the piano, and his rhythmic patience highlighted the rich overtones this attack produced. When he worked with horns, this tonal character carried over to the rough-edged ensembles he preferred to bebop's characteristic unison lines. And there was Monk's dense and pungent harmonic palette, which Andre Hodeir likened to an acid bath when applied to popular material. These various techniques functioned so integrally as to seem inseparable.

These attributes of Monk’s music, so familiar to us now and more central to the ongoing evolution of Jazz with each passing day, took an uncommonly long time for the public to grasp The uniqueness of his music was reinforced by the eccentricities of his personality. He may have been the "genius of modern music," as Blue Note proclaimed when it first reissued some of the enclosed performances on 10-inch IPs in the early '50s; but to many he was a mad genius, given to wearing odd hats and sunglasses and with what his wife Nellie once described as a "marvelous sense of withdrawal." When he cut his first session as a leader in October 1947, he was five days past his 30th birthday, a point at which too many of the music's innovators had exhausted both their creative and biological spans. By the time of his sixth and final Blue Note date as a leader in 1952, he was nearly 35 and, thanks to public indifference and his willingness to take a drug possession rap for a friend, seemingly even further from the acclaim that would put him on the cover of Time Magazine little more than a decade later and elevate him still further in the years following his death in 1982.

Of course, Monk was nothing if not patient. At the time of his first Blue Note session, he had been a key figure in the emergence of the modern style for years; yet all he had to show for his efforts on record were four titles cut in 1944 with Coleman Hawkins and some samples of the already legendary jam sessions at Minton's taped at the club and issued under Charlie Christian's name. As a composer he fared better, with Hawkins, Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell already having introduced several of his most famous compositions. The three sessions he led for Blue Note in a span of 38 days in 1947, which included 10 of his compositions, might be viewed as one of the greatest bursts of creative energy in history if Monk had not been waiting to unleash this brilliant music for a decade. On record at least, he began fully formed and more than ready.

Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and was named after his father. (His son, the drummer T. S. Monk, is actually Monk III.) His family moved to New York City in 1923, occupying a house on West 63rd Street in the San Juan Hill neighborhood that would remain Monk's home for much of his life. His musical career began typically enough for an African-American youth of the time: piano lessons at 11, rent parties and amateur contests three years later, and regular work in church, where he accompanied his mother. Despite excelling in math and science at Stuyvesant High School, Monk dropped out in 1934 to accompany an evangelist on a tour that ultimately took him to the Midwest. Mary Lou Williams, one of his earliest champions, heard him at the time and later reported that he displayed a fluid swing piano technique, with touches of Teddy Wilson.

Back in New York by 1936, Monk studied briefly at Juilliard and began taking the diverse gigs that are a young musician's lot. He also quickly immersed himself in the Harlem after-hours scene, landing a job in the house rhythm section at Minton's Playhouse in 1940. This was the period during which young musicians began developing a more technically advanced approach that went beyond the conventions of swing music, in clubs like Minton's and Monroe's Uptown House. At Minton's, Monk and his rhythm section mate Kenny Clarke jammed with such sympathetic contemporaries as Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

The pianist also began introducing his compositions to the sessions, and encouraged a second generation of even younger players, especially his protege Bud Powell. These efforts continued when Monk moved with Clarke to Kelly's Stables in 1942.

Gillespie and others have verified that Monk participated actively in the give-and-take of these sessions, and the music that evolved from this period expressed, especially in its harmonic approach, certain aspects of Monk's thinking. The rapid tempos and arpeggiated melodies generally identified with bebop are far removed from Monk's aesthetic, however, and he quickly distanced himself from the center of bop activity. Although he did some work with Lucky Millinder, Coleman Hawkins and both the early combo and big band of Dizzy Gillespie, much of his time in the remainder of the '40s was spent organizing his own groups, often with young players like the teenaged Sonny Rollins. A few jobs cropped up, but his bands spent much of their time rehearsing in Monk's kitchen (where he kept his piano), even after he began recording for Blue Note.

The notoriety of his accompanists was less important to Monk than their ability to learn his music correctly. He had little tolerance for complaints about his music's difficulty - he famously told Sahib Shihab at one of the Blue Note sessions, "You a musician? You got a union card? Then play it!" - his insistence on writing little down and forcing players to use their ears only heightened the challenge. Most responded surprisingly well, whether they turned out to be giants like Art Blakey and Milt Jackson, or obscure journeymen who would be totally forgotten if not for their role in the documentation of Monk's music.

Saxophonist Ike Quebec, a Blue Note leader and adviser to label owners Alfred Lion arid Francis Wolff, was

instrumental in bringing Monk to their attention when they expressed interest in documenting modern jazz. His input is most obvious on Monk's initial session, recorded on October 15, 1947, where Quebec takes composer credit on two of the four titles and where his 17-year-old cousin Danny Quebec West is the alto saxophonist. The other saxophonist, tenor man Billy Smith, is similarly unknown, while the remaining sidemen proved to have greater longevity. Trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, born Leonard Graham in 1923, worked in various big bands and combos before moving to Europe in 1961 and is still playing in 1994. Bassist Gene Ramey (1913-84) was a colleague of Charlie Parker's in the Jay McShann orchestra and became one of the most widely recorded players of the period. Art Blakey (1919-90), soon to be identified as Monk's perfect drummer, would begin his own career as a leader for Blue Note before the year was out. …”

At this point, Bob begins a session-by-session analysis of the tunes and musicians that make up the music on the four Blue Note CD’s and concluded his essay with the following observations about the importance of Monk’s music on Blue Note in the evolution of Monk’s own career and to the development of modern Jazz in the 1950s and beyond.

“Some might consider the lengthier tracks with Rollins and Coltrane extraneous additions to what otherwise would be a perfectly acceptable set of "complete" Blue Note Monk. Given that Monk's music grew and expanded, though, sounding ever more clearly in the ears of musicians and listeners, these later performances strike me as essential complements to the groundbreaking sessions of 1947-52.

They take us into the future, where Monk becomes more and more central to jazz of the late 20th century and where, in the years following the issuance of this collection, he will no doubt assume his rightful place as one of the greatest contributors to American culture.”

- Bob Blumenthal

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mr. Satch and Mr. Cros - Will Friedwald on Jazz Singing

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Mention Jazz singing in the context of books on the subject and the name “Will Friedwald” immediately springs up, no doubt because many Jazz fans consider him to be the ranking authority on the subject.

Whether it's Bessie, Bailey or Billie; Teagarden, Turner or Torme; Will is the “go to” guy for information on all aspects of Jazz Singing - not to mention - his definitive writings on Frank Sinatra.

If you think about it, it’s kind of tragic that the two men largely responsible for much of the vocal direction in American Popular Music in the 20th century are largely forgotten these days.

With Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby in mind, I went to Will's seminal Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond, and found these thoughts by him on the significance of Pops and Der Bingle.

“Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, the two most important figures in jazz-derived popular singing, both went to their graves without the world knowing when they were born. Only in a 1988 Village Voice article did Gary Giddins, author of Satchmo (New York: Dolphin, Doubleday, 1989), the finest study of Armstrong yet, reveal that the date of Armstrong's birth was August 4, 1901, and only in the eighties did Ken Twiss, president of the Bing Crosby Historical Society, prove beyond all doubt that Crosby was born on May 3, 1903 (baptismal certificates held the answer in both instances).

We know also that both came from poor families— Armstrong's hardly a family at all. In the late forties, when Crosby was seen as the ultimate American everyman, the writers of his broadcasts and his press releases tried to create a middle-class background for him. Ironically, this was the one stratum to which he had never belonged. Raised at near-poverty level in Tacoma, Washington, he became one of the wealthiest men in show business before he was forty. Crosby's father, when he worked, held down a job in a brewery and was barely able to support his wife, seven children (of which Bing—originally Harry—was the fourth), and the various other relatives who lived with them. Crosby later admitted that while his father succeeded in feeding and sheltering them all, the children had to work for everything else, including clothes, shoes, and school-books. Armstrong's upbringing was even bleaker. He was raised in the most squalid, desolate area of New Orleans—it would make a contemporary black ghetto seem like Shangri-la by comparison—by a mother who was barely around. His father wasn't there at all.

Both men became attracted to music and entertainment early on and each grew up determined to make it his career. In New Orleans' Negro red light district, where Armstrong was born and raised and where diversions of every sort were the principal trade, even danger (to use Armstrong's metaphor) "was dancing all around you then." "Little Louis" sang in a vocal quartet in his early teens; no casual affair this, since there was money to be made by poor boys on the Storyville streets and almost no place else. Armstrong's group faced much competition and had to rehearse and make an informal study of harmony and part-singing. "He could sing real well, too," remembered Peter Davis, bandleader in the Colored Waif's Home where the teen-aged Armstrong learned to play cornet, "even though his voice was coarse."

From the beginning, Armstrong's interest in singing and songs equaled his enthusiasm for the cornet and instrumental jazz, the music he more than anyone else would turn into a international art form. Shortly after leaving the orphanage, in fact, Armstrong composed what would later become the popular standard "I Wish I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate." Still, for the next dozen or so years of his life, singing took a backseat to the trumpet.

His rise to the top of the New Orleans music scene, though not overnight, occurred quickly, and over the next few years he played with virtually all the major bands in the city, including Fate Marable's riverboat groups and Kid Ory's. In 1922, Armstrong's mentor, King Oliver, invited him to work with his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, and after playing and recording with Oliver for over a year, Armstrong moved into what, thanks largely to him, would become the most important early-jazz big band, Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. Armstrong had recorded dozens of discs as a sideman with Oliver, Henderson, Clarence Williams, and a dozen or so blues singers (including the greatest, Bessie Smith) by the time he began his most important series of records in 1925. Collectively known as the Hot Fives, a term that refers to all the small-group sessions under Armstrong's leadership between 1925 and 1928, these are by general consensus the most influential of Armstrong's accomplishments and quite likely the most significant body of work in all jazz.

Here he changes the face of jazz on every conceivable level: Rhythmically, he establishes the soon-to-be standard 4/4 "swing" tempo; structurally, he solidifies use of the theme-solos-theme format; conceptually, he defines the idea of jazz itself with the soloist at the center, from playing short, simple "breaks" of slight melodic embellishments to fully improvised chord-based solos of a whole chorus or longer. And in the strategy he describes as progressing from the melody to routine-ing the melody to routine-ing the routine, he sets down the basic model as well as the vocabulary most, if not all, jazz soloists would use from then on. Even before 1928, Armstrong's achievements begin to elevate from a purely musical plane to a social one, as he launches the shifts in the music that would enable it to become both a high-brow art form and an international pop entertainment. To use Lester Bowie's phrase, Louis Armstrong created "jazz as we know it."

How to top an act like that? For Armstrong, the logical next step after reinventing jazz was to reinvent popular music in his own image—to apply his discoveries as a jazz musician to mass-market pop. To speak diagrammatically, from 1929 onward Armstrong works just as hard at expanding outwardly as a performer as he had at growing upwardly from 1925 to 1928, the years of the Hot Fives. The opinion of some of his critics to the contrary, this expansion did nothing to lessen the internal content of Armstrong's art; it altered his music only in terms of its outward manifestations in three specific areas: On records especially, Armstrong now works almost exclusively with big dance bands as opposed to Hot Fives and Sevens; he concentrates more on popular songs instead of original compositions and material out of the jazz tradition; and he gives equal time to singing.

To be sure, Armstrong had sung quite a bit on his earlier small-band records, his vocals on these coming off more like a direct extension of his horn work than the other way around (as was actually the case). On "Hotter Than That" (1927) and "West End Blues" (1928), for example, Armstrong experiments with transposing the functions of the voice and the trumpet: He trades call-and-response phrases with another musician, but sings back his answers where you expect him to play them.

Armstrong also sings a trumpet-style obbligato behind Lillie Delk Christian, the main vocalist on "Too Busy" (1928). Many Hot Five sides also contain stop-time breaks sung instead of played, but the most revealing glimpses into the future occur on Armstrong's longer scat choruses. As we have seen, Cliff Edwards had been the first to apply scat to pop singing, and he had done as much as it was possible to do with the technique in the pre-Armstrong world. Armstrong not only brought scatting into his universe, he devised new contexts for it. "Heebie Jeebies" (1926), the most celebrated of his vocal improvisations, transliterated patterns Armstrong had conceived for instrumental music very directly into vocal terms, starting with lyrics, then modulating into scat phrases, and returning to the words at the conclusion, which all lends credence to the trumped-up tale of the record's scat sequence not being deliberate (as rehashed by Armstrong and Crosby in the broadcast excerpt at the beginning of this chapter). No one could make such a claim with Armstrong's two equally remarkable 1928 scat vocals, "Basin Street Blues" and "Squeeze Me"; so in place of an extra musical explanation, Armstrong "excuses" his scat episodes by having two other members of the band hum in harmony behind him—as if to somehow normalize them. In doing so, Armstrong unearths the folk origins of each tune, investigating what they might have sounded like before W. C, Handy and Clarence Williams codified them into song form.

Other indications of things to come can be found on his more or less conventional vocal refrains. There's the monumental sense of humor that produced the comic duet of Mr. and Mrs. Lil Armstrong (then also his pianist) on "That's When I'll Come Back to You," and the mastery of the blues in spirit and form on "I'm Not Rough" {both 1927), which contains the single most powerful blues ever sung by a man (or anyone besides Bessie Smith) in this period, authenticated by the presence of blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, here serving as guest accompanist.

By 1929, Armstrong had all the elements necessary to become a great singer. The next move in the evolution of jazz-influenced popular singing would then be a matter of integration. Fortunately (as Armstrong once later said of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke), Bing Crosby happened to be "working on the same thing."

The story of Crosby giving up law school to play drums and sing in a jazz band ("I'd rather sing than eat," he reportedly told his disappointed parents) and the one about his trip from his native Washington to find big-time showbiz in Los Angeles in a beat-up old jalopy, are as much a part of the mythology of popular music as the tale of little Louis Armstrong firing a gun and winding up in the orphanage is to that of jazz.

A few months after Armstrong cut "Heebie Jeebies" in 1926, Paul Whiteman, who had been one of the first popular bandleaders to show an interest in jazz and, as we have seen, in vocalists, hired Crosby and his partner, Al Rinker, as the industry's first full-time recording band singers. The mere act of signing on someone who did nothing but sing seemed strange enough in those days, but the choice of Crosby proved to be nothing less than radical. Crosby did not fit into either of the two molds that had been established for non-classical singers by this point. He was not a noisy Jolson clone like Billy Murray or Irving Kaufman. Nor did he act like the equally affected zombies of the early post-microphone period, like Ruth Etting, Whispering Jack Smith, and Gene Austin, who overdid the understatements to such a degree that they were even farther away from jazz than the belters had been. Even his voice, a steadily deepening baritone with a husky rasp and an occasional trill, sounded as far removed from the popular tenors and falsettos of the time as Armstrong's vocal gravel pit.

The pop music world must have wondered what Whiteman saw in Crosby. My guess is that Whiteman realized that Crosby had the potential ability to accomplish one of the basic functions of an artist, one that was particularly germane to what Whiteman himself aspired to: to recognize what was valid in contemporary popular music, to preserve the best parts of it, and to integrate them all into a cohesive whole by filtering them through his own personality. Integration, in fact, represents the single most important element of Crosby's accomplishments. In this sense, integration means more than a union of African and American elements; it means art as a whole being, as a series of connections, of making seemingly disparate forms fit together in new ways. And in the traditional sense, integration signifies the single most crucial element of American music, the very basis of its existence.

In Crosby's earliest recordings, made with the Whiteman orchestra, Crosby puts together the various ingredients as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle; but in each case, what Crosby adds of his own is equally important. The classic blues singers, especially the phonetically correct but no less blue Ethel Waters (who, in turn, would learn a thing from both Armstrong and Crosby), had already adapted blues feeling to the harmonic practices of Western music, but not, as Crosby did, to the American pop song. Jolson and Marion Harris provided a model for energetic charisma and the concept of black imitation, but Crosby would firstly remove all traces of the minstrel show, fitting and Austin and the other early microphone singers demonstrated how the new electric recording technique could be used, but left it to Crosby to prove that subtlety didn't have to mean somnambulance.

Edwards had demonstrated the relevance of scatting to pop singing but never really developed it as Crosby and Armstrong would, simultaneously taking the technique forward into the new world of post-Armstrong rhythm. Most importantly, Crosby absorbed the new instrumental soloists, especially Armstrong and, to a lesser extent, Beiderbecke: their approach to melodic organization, their use of rhythm, and their concept and vocabulary of improvisation.

Crosby's greatest accomplishment—the result of all this alchemy—was the application of jazz to the music of Tin Pan Alley. The significance of "hot" music to ballads, in particular, had been a nut that no one had been able to crack, especially vocally. Certainly Crosby's assimilation of Armstrong's rhythmic advances gave him a major jump on the competition. On White-man's records of "I'm Afraid of You" (1928, Victor) and "T'aint So, Honey, T'aint So" (1928, Columbia), he introduces the device of holding notes at the end of phrases as a means of playing with the time. On "Make Believe" (1928, Victor), Crosby goes even farther, leaving his colleagues in the orchestra behind. To reduce the risk of the elephantine Whiteman entourage getting in his way, the strings and the horns lay out while Crosby takes his chorus with just the rhythm section. And not even all of them: The piano, banjo, and drums keep fairly quiet while Crosby performs what amounts to a duet with the band's New Orleanian string bassist, Steve Brown.  While the piano, banjo, drums, and Whiteman's other bass (tuba actually) churn out dated oom-pah chunks, Crosby and Brown genuinely swing and at times they even ease into surprisingly modern 4/4 time. (Brown later described this time signature as one of the cornerstone elements of "modern" jazz.)

The success of the other half of Crosby's achievement, his use of lower pitches, can't be explained in strictly musical terms. The twenties were great years for "naturalism," but their idea of natural differed drastically from any that has come since—and Crosby represents the line of demarcation. He was the one who came up with the kind of "natural" that worked: the warm B-flat baritone with a little hair on it, the perfect balance between conversational and purely musical singing, the personality and the character. Crosby was the first singer to truly glorify and exalt the American popular melody, and his deep, perfectly intone resonance gave American music the wherewithal at last to compete with (and, in my ears at least, surpass) opera and the European art-song tradition. It became the sound that defined generation after generation of pop singing, largely because of its jazz origins: The single most identifiable characteristic of Crosby's style, in fact, was as a jazz device, namely, the use of trills and what classical music crit Henry Pleasants describes as mordants or satellite notes, which serve as grace notes* or syncopes employed to break up the time.

This takes us ahead of our story but not by all that much. Once Crosby had conquered the new rhythm, all the other elements began to fall into place; after 1929, both he and Armstrong could finally perform jazz-ballads that meet all the requirements of both sides of the hyphen. While Crosby's earliest solo outings (outside dance-band refrains and vocal groups), such as "Till We Meet" (1929, Columbia), reveal a not-surprising apprehension about how he's going to fill all two hundred seconds by himself, his later vocal refrains, like "Oh! Miss Hannah," "Waiting at the End of the Road" (both with Whiteman [both 1929, Columbia]), and "It Must Be True" (with Gus Arnheim's Coconut Grove Orchestra [1930, Victor]) show considerable progress and characteristic confidence.

Simultaneously, Armstrong's 1929 recordings, especially "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" (Okeh), show that interpreting lyrics is gradually becoming as important to him as scarring, though at this early stage his vocals still serve as mere interludes between more crucial trumpet solos. Armstrong's 1930 "I'm Confessin' " (Okeh), selected by Gary Giddins as the Armstrong record that most strongly reflects Crosby's reciprocated influence, represents a milestone of the latest stages of the new art's development Armstrong gives out with as many Bing-ish trills and extended line-ending notes as he does his own devices, like roars, repeated phrases, and personal interjections, playing off the guitar accompaniment in the same manner that Crosby had done with his guitarist, Eddie Lang. (Armstrong's November 1931 "Star Dust" includes a line of "boo-boo-boo"-ing inspired by Crosby's May 1931 record of "Just One More Chance.")

The early thirties saw the Crosby and Armstrong styles at their most convergent, although their individual personalities were strong enough to pull them away before too long. Nevertheless, they would retain enough of their mutually developed bag of tricks to make their later performances together high points of both careers. More importantly, now that they had put all the pieces together, no man could tear them asunder, and hundreds and hundreds of singers, arrangers, and songwriters would use the vocabulary developed by Armstrong and Crosby in the late twenties and early thirties. The spread of the new language was hastened by the rising popularity of each man in two of the only cases in Western history where an artist's fame and fortune came to equal his talent. They were so perfectly a part of their time and culture. By the mid-1930s all of the problems had been solved. …”

Monday, March 20, 2017

"Dexter Gordon: Both Sides of Midnight" - Stretching Out and Saying Something

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Stretch out. To improvise for an extended period, sufficiently long to allow a thorough working out of the possibilities offered by a theme. The term implies an unexpectedly lengthy, inventive, even self-indulgent solo in a context in which a short improvisation would be normal, and presumably derives from the consequent "stretching out" or extension of the piece as a whole. A renowned example of such a solo is Paul Gonsalves's 27-chorus improvisation on Duke Ellington's Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 [the recording of which was issued on the album Ellington at Newport Columbia CL934.”
- Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

“When a musician successfully reaches a discerning audience, moves its members to applaud or shout praises, raises the energy to dramatic proportions, and leaves a sonorous memory that lingers long after, he or she has moved beyond technical competence, beyond the chord changes, and into the realm of "saying something." Since Saying something—or "sayin' something," as it's usually pronounced—requires soloists who can play, accompanists who can respond, and audiences who can hear within the context of the richly textured aural legacy of jazz ..., this verbal aesthetic image underscores the collaborative and communicative quality of improvisation.”
- Ingrid Monson, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction

“Stretching out” by playing multiple, improvised choruses became more of a feature of Jazz with the advent of the long-playing record in the 1950’s, but musicians like John Coltrane certainly expanded it to new levels in the 1960, especially in the context of “live” performances.

And to mix metaphors even further, “stretching out” takes the concept of “telling a story,” in some cases, to the point of writing a novel - or, at least, a novella - when some solos run over 45 minutes and can exceed an hour.

But take it from me as a former drummer who had to sit back there keeping time while these sonic odysseys were undertaken, soloists who can take extended solos while keeping it interesting to the point of “saying something,” are few and far between.  Running scales up-and-down a soprano saxophone for 30 minutes is not - saying something - it’s practicing.

If you want to listen a quintessential correlation between “stretching out” and “saying something,” them by all means get yourself a copy of the recently released Dexter Gordon Quartet Both Sides of Midnight and sit back and hear how it’s done on the four exquisite tracks that form this recording.
Both Sides of Midnight  - Black Lion Essential Reissue Series BLP 60103/Orgm-1062  - features iconic tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon with Kenny Drew on piano, Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums on music that was recorded at the Montmartre Jazzhuis, Copenhagen, on July 20, 1967.

This music is from a time in Dexter’s career when he was back on the scene and had just culminated working on a series of six very successful LP’s for Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff at Blue Note Records. Some of the music that appeared on these albums was from 1963 and 1964 recording sessions that took place in Paris [one of which included Drew and Orsted Pederson with Arthur Taylor on drums] as Dexter began to explore the European Jazz scene with an eye toward making it his permanent home later in that decade.

With the advent of the Beatles and the English rock groups plus the US-based, psychedelic rock bands, all of which captured the musical interests of younger listening audiences in the US [while, at the same time, the Free Jazz movement was turning off older, more established Jazz audiences], many Jazz musicians, as Mike Zwerin, the longtime International Herald Tribune Jazz columnist maintained, “moved to Europe to live,” Dexter among them.

Alun Morgan, the noted Jazz author and critic, who over the course of his long and distinguished career, contributed the liner notes to over 2,500 recordings, the following from Both Sides of Midnight among them:

“I am constantly surprised-although experience should have taught me otherwise-by the number of American jazz musicians who chose to live in Europe. A soloist previously known from his work on records turns up for a booking at Ronnie Scott's. Where did he come from. New York City? Very often the answer is no. lie has been living on the Continent for some time. When Blue Mole recorded Hank Mobley in Paris in the summer of 1969 five of the six men on the date - Mobley. Dizzy Reece. Philly Joe Jones. Slide Hampton and pianist Vince Benedetti - happened to be in France although they are better known for their American ties.

Since 1962 Dexter Gordon has been one of the most commanding and familiar figures in the jazz clubs and jazz festivals of London, Paris. Copenhagen. Stockholm. Lugano. Molde and anywhere else where jazz is appreciated. His attachment to Europe and Copenhagen-more so than any other city-is clearly defined. By coincidence he shares the same birthdate. February 27th with another great American tenor saxophonist once domiciled in Copenhagen, the late Ben Webster. (Ben was born in 1909. Dexter in 1923.) Both Gordon and Webster played many times at the Montmartre Jazzhuis and each chose to be accompanied by Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson. Al Heath, brother of bass player Percy and saxophonist Jimmy, was not always available. In terms of European residency Al was the newcomer at the time of the Dexter Gordon Montmartre sessions. He left America in the summer of 1965 and elected to return home in October. 1968. ("I miss the scene" he said when he left. "I have lost all my fearss about the U.S. and I can understand the whole situation a little better now.")

Pianist Kenny Drew, who's playing on this and so many other European-recorded albums, is so essential to the group, was born in New York City in 1928. He left America in June, 1960 with the cast of the play The Connection. It was ostensibly, for a mere six weeks work but Drew knew when he left that he would not return to America. True to his beliefs he has lived and worked in Europe ever since, at first in Paris but latterly in Denmark where he married the daughter of the Danish band leader Leo Mathisen. The fourth member of the quartet is a European. Bass player Niels- Henning Orsted Pedersen was bom in Denmark in 1946 and was offered a job in the Count Basie band at the age of 17. Only a complication involving a work permit for one so young prevented him from taking up the offer. Dexter rates him very highly; indeed he thinks he is the best bass player in Europe.

This disc is the first in a series emanating from a highly productive engagement at the Montmartre Jazzhuis. Alan Bates arranged to record the quartet as it played a series of sets at the club. The four musicians gelled into a remarkably cohesive and consistently empathetic unit First out of the bag was "Devilette," akin to the throbbing, modal style of composition associated with Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue album. In this case it is a nine written by bassist Ben Tucker, a jazzman well known on the West Coast and a veteran of many recording sessions. Gordon likes to lace his sets , with ballads, sometimes throwing in a tear-jerker such as "Heartaches" but in this instance he turns in a beautiful and sensitive "For All We Know," making full use of that incredibly huge tone which has become so much an identifying part of his style.

Two of the tunes were written by Sonny Rollins, a tenor saxophonist who has an unabashed admiration for Dexter's own playing. "Doxy," first recorded at a Miles Davis session on which Rollins played tenor, is a contemporary treatment of what is often referred to as the "JaDa" sequence for the two tunes share the same structure and chord progression.

The lengthy "Sonnymoon For Two" is the first and last resort for the jazzman for it is a basic twelve-bar blues. Dexter is at his finest when he is allowed to stretch out on a number such as this. I remember talking to drummer Stan Levey about one of his record dates at which he was the leader; Dexter, Conte Candoli and Frank Rosolino comprised the front-line and during the course of the session Gordon told Levey he had a time which might be suitable for recording purposes. "How long is it?" asked Stan. Dexter said, "Oh, about this length", holding his hands some three feet apart. That tune turned out to be "Stanley The Steamer," a long but totally relaxed blues which was the highspot of that particular album.

Similarly "Sonnymoon For Two" is a seemingly endless, timeless examination of the blues. After two theme choruses Dexter plunges into no less than twenty-eight inspired and spontaneously improvised choruses, maintaining an incredibly high level of performance. Kenny Drew, who's playing adds so much to the success of the entire LP, embarks on some twenty choruses of his own (and note his two-fisted "stride" approach around chorus sixteen!). When Dexter returns after the bass solo he plays one chorus then indulges in a favourite whim, that of introducing a quotation into his solo. In this case his second chorus after the piano and bass interludes is prefaced with "You Won't Be Satisfied Until You Break My Heart," a mid "forties song forgotten by most who heard it at the time.”

The CD is available from Amazon, or from

The following video is from the August 5, 1967 appearance by Dexter, Kenny, Niels Henning and “Tootie” at the Montmartre Jazzhuis, Copenhagen.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Kennedy Dream - Oliver Nelson [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"In February of 1967, Oliver Nelson recognized Kennedy’s contributions and assembled a big band to play music in his honor, with taped segments of his speeches as preludes. The result is a heartfelt yet eerie combination, perhaps a bit off-putting, but absolutely relevant decades later. The music is reflective of the changing times as identified by Nelson, ranging from commercial movie score-type music, to soulful or straight-ahead jazz, bop, and the modern big-band sound that the leader, composer, and orchestrator owned... it's a stark reminder of how one man can positively influence the human condition aside from politics and corporate greed, and how another can change his world musically.”
- Michael G. Nastos,

Recorded on February 16 and 17 in Capitol Studios, the eight tracks that were subsequently issued on Impulse! Records as The Kennedy Dream [AS-9144] “contain only a modicum of big band Jazz,” according to Kenny Berger, “since part of the album is written for a string-and woodwind based studio orchestra. In addition, seven of the eight tracks begin with recorded excerpts from Kennedy’s best known speeches.”

Of the eight movements, Berger goes on to say in his insert notes to Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Studio Sessions [Mosaic MD6-233]:

LET THE WORD GO FORTH begins with a somber introduction which segues into an ear-catching sequential figure in 7/8 meter. This figure is derived from another example in Oliver’s Book Patterns for Saxophone (...), and is based on a series of altered pentatonic scales that descend in whole steps. Next comes a dramatic-sounding theme in 9/4, stated by the low brass, followed by the full ensemble. Clarinets restate the 7/8 theme, which builds in tension till a return of the 9/4 theme. Nelson's imaginative use of the tuba here is noteworthy, as is Don Butterfield's flawless execution.

A GENUINE PEACE begins as a straight waltz stated by Phil Bodner on oboe. The low brass then take over, and the rhythmic feel begins to take on a martial quality, especially when the drums begin a rhythmic pattern that feels like a cross between a march and a waltz. This section segues into a jazz waltz with unison brass stating a theme that bears a strong resemblance to GREENSLEEVES. Two English horns take over the theme and the mood darkens as the intervallic tension between the melody and the bass line increases.

The melody of THE RIGHTS OF ALL is stated by Bodner on English horn followed by the album's first jazz solo, by Phil Woods on alto saxophone.

THE ARTISTS' RIGHTFUL PLACE is actually PATTERNS FOR ORCHESTRA wisely reorchestrated so that only the saxes play the wide skips in the melody, which hung the trumpet section out to dry on PATTERNS.

DAY IN DALLAS begins with a sense of foreboding, segues into a conventionally tuneful ballad, and then takes on a dirge-like atmosphere. This last section is a good illustration of the ways in which Nelson's compositional skills allowed him to make use of harmonic devices outside the realm of conventional jazz harmony. The increase in disquiet as the piece develops is achieved with subtlety, though carefully controlled increases in intervallic tension [intervals in pitch usually expressed in semitones].”

In his review of The Kennedy Dream for, Michael G. Nastos offered the following views of the suite and its significance.

When the late President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, the world lost not only a prominent politician, but one who truly championed the arts and civil rights. In February of 1967, Oliver Nelson recognized Kennedy’s contributions and assembled a big band to play music in his honor, with taped segments of his speeches as preludes.

The result is a heartfelt yet eerie combination, perhaps a bit off-putting, but absolutely relevant decades later. The music is reflective of the changing times as identified by Nelson, ranging from commercial movie score-type music, to soulful or straight-ahead jazz, bop, and the modern big-band sound that the leader, composer, and orchestrator owned. Kennedy's most famous speech about fellow Americans, asking what they can do for their country, is folded into the last track "John Kennedy Memory Waltz" with a string quartet and the regret-tinged alto sax of Phil Woods.

The 35th President's oratorios on human rights act as prelude to the soft clarion horns, 7/8 beat, flutes, and vibes, giving way to the modal and serene passages of "Let the Word Go Forth," or the cinematic, military beat, harpsichord-shaded, plucked-guitar-and-streaming-oboe-accented "The Rights of All," which is also reflective of the immortal spiritual song "Wade in the Water." Where "Tolerance" has a similar verbal tone, the mood is much more ethereal between the flutes, oboe, and strings, while the two-minute etude for the first lady and widow,

"Jacqueline," is in a loping stride, reflective of how much longer it always took her to get dressed and organized. "A Genuine Peace" is an anthem for all time in a soul-jazz mode that parallels Aaron Copeland's Americana moods, while "Day in Dallas" is the expectant, ominous, foreboding calm before the chaos. Nelson's straight-ahead jazz exercise is "The Artists' Rightful Place," a spoken word tonic for musical troops in a bop framework that has the horn section jumping for joy.

As always, Nelson surrounds himself with the very best musicians like Woods and Phil Bodner in the reed section, tuba player Don Butterfiled, bassist George Duvivier, pianist Hank Jones, and all produced by Bob Thiele.

Now reissued on CD some 40 years later, it's a stark reminder of how one man can positively influence the human condition aside from politics and corporate greed, and how another can change his world musically.

On August 26, 2009, Douglas Payne published this review of The Kennedy Dream on his Sound Insights blog.

“At a time when most of what used to be called “record companies,” are slashing budgets, cutting staff or going out of business altogether, Universal Music has been doing a superb job reissuing their huge treasure trove of jazz on CD. Through its Originals program, dozens of nearly forgotten jazz gems from the old Verve, Impulse, A&M, Philips, MGM, Mercury and Limelight catalogs are finding their way back onto the nearly 30-year old CD format.

The other majors (WEA, Sony, EMI) are either (thankfully) licensing albums out to boutique reissue labels like Water, Wounded Bird, Collector’s Choice and Collectables or making the music available for download only. Universal Music’s Original series is catering its great wealth of music to what has become an appreciative, though small and shrinking, market base that still likes to have and hold music with great cover art, musical credits and, in some cases, liner notes (which CDs tend to make almost impossible to read).

To get an idea of just how obscure some of these Originals releases are, take the Oliver Nelson (1932-75) album The Kennedy Dream: A Musical Tribute To John Fitzgerald Kennedy, originally released in 1967 by the Impulse Records label. Even in 1967, hardly anyone knew the record existed. These days, Oliver Nelson’s name barely registers. Sadly, he does not get the recognition he so richly deserves outside of the required nod to “Stolen Moments,” Blues and the Abstract Truth, the brilliant 1961 album “Stolen Moments” appeared on, and – often snidely – a handful of Jimmy Smith’s Verve albums.

The release of Oliver Nelson’s The Kennedy Dream is, indeed, cause for celebration. It is a masterful work that ranks high among the composer’s very best work. This tribute is probably one of the most personal, deeply felt pieces he was ever asked to do outside ofAfro/American Sketches (Prestige, 1961) or Black Brown and Beautiful (Flying Dutchman, 1969). And the sincerity of his conviction shines through, producing an impassioned tribute to an inspired leader who inspired much hope for a brighter future and a better world.

The Kennedy Dream is a semi-orchestral suite in which seven of the eight compositions are launched by brief, yet memorable sections of John Kennedy’s speeches about equality and positive change. The recording was made over two days in February 1967, with a small, uncredited cast of New York’s finest session men, including Snooky Young on trumpet, Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion on reeds, Phil Woods on alto sax (and solos), Phil Bodner on English horn, Danny Bank on bass clarinet, Don Butterfield on tuba, Hank Jones on piano and harpsichord, George Duvivier on bass and Grady Tate on drums.

Despite the stirring of Kennedy’s words and the rush of the occasional solo, one’s attention and admiration is drawn throughout to Nelson’s beautiful melodies, constructed with evocative passages and very personable turns of phrase. His writing for strings, for which he never got his proper due, is remarkable; filled with a purposeful passion and a rare and poetic restraint.

Each of the suite’s eight pieces have a chapter-like quality in what could be considered a musical novella – not quite the magnum opus it might have been under different circumstances (thanks to producer Bob Thiele, Nelson was probably lucky to get this record made at all) but certainly more reflective and insightful than a mere song could have ever conveyed. Still, the album’s highlights include “Let The Word Go Forth” (based on Example 45 from Nelson’s instruction Book Patterns For Saxophone), “The Artist’s Rightful Place,” known elsewhere as “Patterns For Orchestra” and, most notably, the outstanding “The Rights of All,” featuring a pizzicato strings rhythm and a gripping Phil Woods solo.

Released on CD* in what would have been Kennedy’s 82nd year – and during the first year into the term of a president who presents as much hope for positive change as Kennedy once did - The Kennedy Dream is a remarkable work from a period when orchestral jazz was not all that uncommon. It is as much a musical tribute to the presidential legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as it is a documented tribute to the beautiful musical legacy of Oliver Edward Nelson.

* The Kennedy Dream was included on the 6-CD Mosaic boxset, Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Studio Sessions issued in February 2006.”

While it is heartbreaking to recall the events of that fateful day in Dallas, TX, we couldn’t let the 50th anniversary of what took place there on November 22, 1963 go unacknowledged without turning once again to Jazz to ease our solace.

So with the help of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles developed this video tribute to both John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Oliver Edward Nelson which features The Artist’s Rightful Place track from The Kennedy Dream.