Thursday, June 22, 2017

Tom Harrell, Like Night and Day by Jonathan Eig, Esquire, December 1998

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



The editorial staff has received a number of requests to select out of our longer profile on Tom Harrell the following Like Night and Day interview by Jonathan Eig which appeared in Esquire, December 1998.

"The [schizophrenia] disorder is such that Tommy's mind can deal with only one thing at a time, be it answering a question, playing a solo, or something as simple as pouring a glass of water.

Tom is perfectly aware of his own con­dition, and is quite droll about it. He is well read, gentle, highly perceptive. And he is held in enormous affection and respect by other musicians.

Phil's evaluation: 'Tom Harrell is the best musician I ever worked with.’

Tom's art remains a thing of beauty, his life an act of courage.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author

Tommy’s  sense of melodic development is astounding — pure genius.
- Phil Woods, alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader

“TOM HARRELL, dressed all in black, stands in a dark corner of a crowded Chicago nightclub. Sometimes he prefers a closet, but tonight the corner will do. He's clearing the voices from his head, trying to stay cool. Don't worry, he tells himself over and over, be positive...believe in yourself...count your blessings....The banalities don't stick, but they help push aside the voices a bit, and now he is ready to go to work.

Harrell shuffles out of the darkness and onto the stage, where the four members of his band wait, and he begins shaking. His eyebrows twitch. His lips smack. He stares at the ground, trying hard not to make eye contact with his audience. He doesn't want to give the voices or the hallucinations a chance to pop back into his head. "I apologize for my lack of charisma," he once told a club full of people. As he raises his trumpet, the golden spotlight strikes stars on the horn's bell. Even as he puts the cold mouthpiece to his lips, his twitching never quite stops. He takes a deep breath, and for one frozen moment, all is quiet. Tranquillity hangs on an unplayed note.

The trumpeter begins to blow, playing silky ribbons of sixteenth notes that rise and fall. Behind him, the band beats a latin-jazz rhythm. Then he tosses in a handful of slower, cloudier notes that curl and fade away.

Harrell is one of the finest jazz trumpeters in the world. He is also schizophrenic. Backstage after the set, he is impossible to talk to. He sits alone on a ragged sofa in a small dressing room. His wife, Angela, ushers me into the room and makes the introduction. I try small talk, but he is unable to speak. His head shakes, and his lips move as if he's trying to release trapped words.

"Jonathan plays the trumpet," Angela tells her husband, trying to break the ice.
I tell him that I would like to interview him at his home in New York.

He tries again to form sounds. Nothing. Fifteen seconds of silence pass, and I am tempted several times to fill the empty space with babble.
"Bring your trumpet," he finally says.

I arrive on a hot Friday afternoon in August, trumpet case slung over my shoulder. Harrell lives in Washington Heights, and his apartment has a gorgeous view of the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River, and the Palisades. But on the day of my visit, as on most days, the curtains are drawn. The place smells of grilled steak, which Harrell eats, entirely without seasoning, at least once a day. He puts away his dishes and walks slowly out of the kitchen to shake my hand and lead me to a chair. Most of the walls are lined with dark wooden cabinets that hold Harrell's music. Each drawer contains the score for a different composition, and by a quick count, there are at least two hundred drawers.

After saying hello, Harrell vanishes for fifteen minutes, then suddenly joins me at a darkwood dining room table. He appears much as he did in the club: nervous, shaky, and reluctant or unable to communicate. He is dressed all in black, same as always, and he is even taller than I remembered. His shaggy hair and beard have begun turning gray. His lips are purple and moist, like thin slices of raw sirloin, and his pale-blue eyes match almost perfectly the clear sky beyond his curtained windows.

Even though there are no buildings within sight of the apartment, Harrell sometimes believes he is being watched. At other times, he believes his home has been bugged. Quite often, he hears voices. Tom Harrell did this to somebody. Tom Harrell did that to somebody, they say, and those voices sometimes hurl him deep into a ravine of guilt and depression. When the voices speak, or when visual hallucinations beset him, his shaking worsens. Angela advises me not to use a tape recorder during the interview and to be prepared to come back another day if he doesn't want to talk.

Tom Harrell was born in 1946 in Urbana, Illinois, and grew up in Los Altos, California. His father taught business psychology at Stanford, and his mother worked as a statistician. Tom topped his father's IQ of 146, and he early on showed extraordinary talent in music and art. By the time he was eight, he was writing and illustrating his own children's books, which revealed the work of a precocious, original mind. In one book, young Tom told the story of a little boy who goes to a doctor for treatment of a mosquito bite and gets diagnosed with '< and scissor-birds, dog-turtles, as such animals hybrid invented he another, In neurosis.?>

It was his father's constant whistling and his impressive jazz record collection that inspired Tom to begin playing the trumpet. By the time he turned thirteen, he was jamming with professional bands around the Bay Area. When he was seventeen, he went off to Stanford, and it was at about that time that his parents and sister began to notice that the buoyancy was draining from his personality. He became surly and aloof, a social misfit, and, at one very low point, he tried to kill himself.

When he was in his early twenties, Harrell was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, which combines the paranoia of schizophrenia with the wild mood swings of manic depression, and he was given drugs to help control the condition. The medication slowed his speech, gave him headaches, and robbed him of sleep, but he was able to carry on as a professional musician, working his way from band to band.

Only in the world of jazz, where abnormal behavior has always been the tradition, could Harrell fit so nicely. After all, Charles Mingus spent time in the mental ward at Bellevue, Bud Powell did his own tour of psychiatric hospitals, the great Sun Ra thought he came from another planet, and Thelonious Monk probably did.

Harrell has recorded a dozen albums for small record companies. But in the past two years, since he signed a contract with the RCA Victor label, he's begun to gain recognition outside the hardcore group of fans who had previously followed his work. The readers of Down Beat recently voted him the world's best trumpet player. With his major-label releases, most recently The Art of Rhythm, even the mainstream press has begun to take note. "Pure melodic genius," declared one discerning newsmagazine.

And the melodies are the genius's own. Harrell prefers his original compositions to standards, He warns listeners to work as they listen, to attempt to understand the feelings behind his songs.

The musicians who have worked with Harrell report some odd moments as well as magical ones. In an airport, if the hustle and bustle become too much for him, he might wander off to a quiet spot in a parking garage and blow his trumpet until the noises in his head hush. Sometimes he will hear a chord in the hum of the refrigerator or the engine of a passing jet and work the rest of the day writing a composition based on what he has heard. Once, on a cab ride in Los Angeles with bandmate Gregory Tardy, Harrell began weeping uncontrollably because he was struck by the beauty of a tune on the cabbies radio. Tardy can't remember the song, but he says it was some Top Forty pop number he had heard a hundred times and never paid attention to before.

Angela travels with Harrell and helps keep him from getting distracted. His need for intense periods of quiet concentration guides almost every moment of his life. When he has a gig, he won't leave his apartment or his hotel room until it is time to play. He sends Angela to do the sound check and bring him food. Harrell says he feels awfully alone at times. He sometimes thinks life would be easier if he were to work full-time as a composer and arranger, because he wouldn't have to face the pressures of travel and three-set-a-night gigs. But Angela and his band-mates account for almost all the human companionship he's got, and he can't stand the thought of being isolated.

Once, a few years ago, after his medicine caused a toxic reaction and nearly killed him, Harrell stopped taking it. The results were fascinating and frightening. His moods changed more quickly and furiously than ever, from happy to sad, confident to insecure. His posture improved, his tremors vanished, and he became something close to affable. He would buy bags of groceries and leave them in front of his neighbors' doors as anonymous gifts. On the bandstand, when his turn came to solo, he would stun his audiences by scat singing in falsetto. His emergent personality was wonderful, and it was terrifying. He would go for five-hour walks in the middle of the night, and he would frequently leave all the taps in the apartment running, in tribute, he said, to the Water God.

Harrell never quite looks me in the eye. He stares at his lap, hops quickly from one thought to the next, and raises his eyelids only briefly. At one point, he says he doesn't think he should go on speaking to me, because he feels tremendous guilt for not having been born black. Jazz is black music, he says, and it seems unfair for a white man to be celebrated for his work. He can't separate himself from these thoughts, and all my attempts to change the subject are in vain. He begins to cry, and he lets the tears roll into his beard. He excuses himself, and twenty minutes later he returns with a tall glass of milk and acts as if nothing had happened. He glances at my trumpet case and a book of music paper I have with me. "Do you compose?" he asks.

"No," I say. "But my teacher wants me to write a new melody based on the chords to 'Night and Day.' "

He looks at my weak attempt.

"Oh, this is really nice," he says. His voice is high and pinched in the throat, and my mind scrambles from one television cartoon character to another, trying to place it. "You have some nice ideas here,"

He is incapable of criticizing, except when it applies to himself, but we are off and running, at least, talking about flat nines and flat flat nines and some other nines I pretend to understand. He is most comfortable on the subject of music, about the lovely way Louis Armstrong used scat singing to show that words were not needed to communicate feelings, about how Miles Davis played many of the same rhythms as Armstrong yet cast them in darker colors, and about Charlie Parker's belief that great music is born when musicians forget their long hours of study at the moment of creation.

"You merge with the infinite and transcend your ego," he says, describing how it feels to play. He takes a long, shaky pause. "Sometimes it seems to flow without any conscious effort."

All music has the human cry at its base, he says, and even the saddest songs can lead people out of the darkness of depression. "I think the more emotion you experience, the more you can bring to the music," he says. "Some people say you don't have to suffer to play music...." He takes another long pause. "I don't know, but, umm..." His eyebrows begin leaping wildly, his mouth moves in silence, and his head shakes side to side so much I begin to think he's stable now and the whole room is moving behind him. "That's a really difficult question. You don't want to be self-destructive. At the same time, sadness is a part of everyone's life, and music can express the sadness people are feeling and bring them together. You shouldn't hide from your feelings.

"Sometimes, I guess when I get paranoid, it can make me distracted," he continues. "But sometimes, if I feel really depressed, it can give me humility, which makes it sometimes easier to concentrate, which makes it easier to transcend my ego. I may be drawn to worrying because it's a form of excitement."

When Harrell runs out of words, he takes me into his music studio, a sound-proof extra bedroom with double-paned windows and closed curtains. There are dozens of tubes of lip balm and hundreds of sheets of handwritten music scattered about. He sits at his keyboard and stares at a work in progress for trumpet and strings.

"Play it," Angela gently requests.

The opening chords are very sad. The music moves slowly, by half steps and subtle shades. The key signature is in a constant state of flux, like a chameleon moving from plant to wall, sunlight to shade. Harrell's spine curls into a question mark. He stares straight ahead at the lightly penciled notes, concentrating intensely as his milk-white fingers move slowly over the keys. I hear dark holes without bottom and chaos brought barely under the control of the composer's hand. This is the source of the strength in Harrell's music. He shows us the darkness and confusion, and he makes beauty from it.

Harrell is at peace now. When he finishes, he looks at me and holds his gaze.

"That was so sad," I say.

He smiles, for the first time.

"Thanks," he says. He takes a long pause. The twitching has almost vanished.

"Wanna do 'Night and Day'?" he asks.”




Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What Coltrane Wanted by Edward Strickland - The Atlantic Monthly, 1987

Copyright © 1987 by Edward Strickland. All rights reserved.


“Coltrane never found the one line. Nor was he ever to achieve the "more beautiful … more lyrical" sound he aspired to. He complicated rather than simplified his art, making it more visceral, raw, and wild. And even to his greatest fans it was anything but easily understood. In this failure, however, Coltrane contributed far more than he could have in success, for above all, his legacy to his followers is the abiding sense of search, of the musical quest as its own fulfillment.”
- Edward Strickland

This is one of the most interesting pieces on John Coltrane that I have ever come across, both from the standpoint of the quality of the writing, which is superb, and the uniqueness of the analysis, which reveals what Mr. Strickland thought Coltrane wanted to achieve from his musical quest.

The legendary saxophonist forsook lyricism for the quest for ecstasy

by Edward Strickland as originally published in The Atlantic Monthly December 1987

“JOHN COLTRANE died twenty years ago, on July 17, 1967, at the age of forty. In the years since, his influence has only grown, and the stellar avant-garde saxophonist has become a jazz legend of a stature shared only by Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. As an instrumentalist Coltrane was technically and imaginatively equal to both; as a composer he was superior, although he has not received the recognition he deserves for this aspect of his work. In composition he excelled in an astonishing number of forms--blues, ballads, spirituals, rhapsodies, elegies, suites, and free-form and cross-cultural works.

The closest contemporary analogy to Coltrane's relentless search for possibilities was the Beatles' redefinition of rock from one album to the next. Yet the distance they traveled from conventional hard rock through sitars and Baroque obligatos to Sergeant Pepper psychedelia and the musical shards of Abbey Road seems short by comparison with Coltrane's journey from hard-bop saxist to daring harmonic and modal improviser to dying prophet speaking in tongues.

Asked by a Swedish disc jockey in 1960 if he was trying to "play what you hear," he said that he was working off set harmonic devices while experimenting with others of which he was not yet certain. Although he was trying to "get the one essential... the one single line," he felt forced to play everything, for he was unable to "work what I know down into a more lyrical line" that would be "easily understood."

Coltrane never found the one line. Nor was he ever to achieve the "more beautiful … more lyrical" sound he aspired to. He complicated rather than simplified his art, making it more visceral, raw, and wild. And even to his greatest fans it was anything but easily understood. In this failure, however, Coltrane contributed far more than he could have in success, for above all, his legacy to his followers is the abiding sense of search, of the musical quest as its own fulfillment.

BORN and raised in North Carolina, Coltrane studied in Philadelphia and after working as a clarinetist in Navy marching and dance bands in 1945-1946 he began a decade of playing with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges, and also such undistinguished rhythm-and-blues artists as King Kolax, Bull Moose Jackson, and Daisy Mae and the Hepcats. He came to wide notice in 1955 in the now legendary Miles Davis Quintet and was immediately acknowledged as an original--or an oddity. Critics who in Coltrane's last years all but waved banners to show their devotion to him were among those casting stones for much of his career.

At first many urged Davis to fire the weird tenor, but when, in April of 1957, after a year and a half with the quintet, Coltrane left or was dropped (the truth remains unclear), the reason seems to have been indulgence not in stylistic extremism but in heroin and alcohol, problems he conquered that same year. The controversy had to do not only with his harmonic experimentation, on which Dexter Gordon was initially the chief influence, but with the speed (to some, purely chaotic) of his playing and the jaggedness (to some, unmusical) of his phrasing.

All three characteristics were intensified in 1957 during several months with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, after which he rejoined Davis, who was now experimenting with sparer chord changes, and became fully involved in what Ira Gitler, in Down Beat, called the "sheets of sound" approach. This technique of runs so rapid as to make the notes virtually indistinguishable seems itself to have been a by-product of Coltrane's harmonic exploration. Coltrane spoke of playing the same chord three or four different ways within a measure or overlapping chords before the change, advancing further the investigation of upper harmonic intervals begun by Charlie Parker and the boppers. Attempting to articulate so many harmonic variants before the change, Coltrane was necessarily led to preternatural velocity and occasionally to asymmetrical subdivision of the beat. Despite Davis's suggestion that Coltrane could trim his twenty-seven or twenty-eight choruses if he tried taking the saxophone out of his mouth, Coltrane's attempt "to explore all the avenues" made him the perfect stylistic complement to Davis, with his cooler style, which featured sustained blue notes and brief cascades of sixteenths almost willfully retreating into silence, and also Monk, with his spare and unpredictable chords and clusters. Davis, characteristically, paid the tersest homage, when, on being told that his music was so complex that it required five saxophonists, he replied that he'd once had Coltrane.

Although in the late fifties Coltrane released a number of sessions for Prestige (and, more notably, Blue Train and Giant Steps for Blue Note and Atlantic respectively) in which he was the nominal bandleader, it was really after leaving Davis for the second time, in 1960, shortly after a European tour, that he came into his own as a creative as well as an interpretive force. His first recording session as leader after the break, on October 21, 1960, produced "My Favorite Things," an astonishing fourteen-minute reinterpretation, or overhaul, of the saccharine show tune, which thrilled jazz fans with its Oriental modalism and Atlantic executives with its unexpected commercial success. In it Coltrane revived the straight soprano sax (whose only previous master in jazz had been Sidney Bechet), and in so doing led a generation of young musicians, from Wayne Shorter to Keith Jarrett to Jon Gibson, to explore the instrument. The work remained Coltrane's signature piece until his death (of liver disease) despite bizarre stylistic metamorphoses in the next five and a half years.

Coltrane signed with Impulse Records in April of 1961 and the next month began rehearsing and playing the long studio sessions for Africa/Brass, a large-band experiment with arrangements by his close friend Eric Dolphy. This was in part an extension of the modal experimentation in which he had been involved with Davis in the late fifties, notably on the landmark Kind of Blue. The modal style replaced chordal progressions as the basis for improvisation, with a slower harmonic rhythm and patterns of intervals corresponding only vaguely to traditional major and minor scales. The modal approach proved to be the modulation from bop to free jazz, as is clear in Coltrane's revolutionary use of a single mode throughout "Africa," the piece that takes up all of side one of the album. Just as his prolonged modal solos were emulated by rock guitarists (the Grateful Dead, the Byrds of "Eight Miles High," the unlamented Iron Butterfly, and others), so the astonishing variety Coltrane superimposed on that single F was, according to the composer Steve Reich, a significant, if ostensibly an unlikely, influence on the development of minimalism. The originator of minimalism, La Monte Young, acknowledges the influence of Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" on his use of rapid permutations and combinations of pitches on sopranino sax to simulate chords as sustained tones.

From the start, and especially from the opening notes of Coltrane's solo, which bursts forth like a tribal summons, "Africa" is the aural equivalent of a journey upriver. The elemental force of this polyrhythmic modalism was unknown in the popular music that came before it. Coltrane experimented with two bassists--a hint of wilder things to come, as he sought progressively to submerge himself in rhythm. He was later to employ congas, bata, various other Latin and African percussion instruments, and, incredibly, two drummers--incredibly insofar as Coltrane already had, in Elvin Jones, the most overpowering drummer in jazz. The addition of Rashied Ali to the drum corps, in November of 1965, made for a short-lived collaboration or, rather, competition between Jones and Ali; a disgruntled Jones left the Coltrane band in March of 1966 to join Duke Ellington's.

But it was the culmination of Coltrane's search for the rhythmic equivalent of the oceanic feeling of visionary experience. Having employed the gifted accompanists McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison during the years of the "classic quartet" (late 1961 to mid-1965), Coltrane tended to subordinate them, preferring that his accompanists play spare wide-interval chords and a solid rather than showy bass, which would permit him a maximum of flexibility as a soloist. Coltrane would often take long solos accompanied only by his drummer, and in his penultimate recording session, which produced the posthumous Interstellar Space, he is supported only by Ali. Solo sax against drums (against may be all too accurate a word to describe Coltrane's concert duets with the almost maniacal Jones) was Coltrane's conception of naked music, the lone voice crying not in the wilderness but from some primordial chaos. His music evokes not only the jungle but all that existed before the jungle.

COLTRANE'S spiritual concerns led him to a study of Indian music, some elements of which are present in the album Africa/Brass and more of which are in the cut from the album Impressions titled "India," which was recorded in November of 1961. The same month saw the birth of "Spiritual," featuring exotic and otherworldly solos by Coltrane on soprano sax and Dolphy on bass clarinet. Recorded at the Village Vanguard, the piece made clear, if any doubts remained, that Coltrane was attempting to raise jazz from the saloons to the heavens. No jazzman had attempted so overtly to offer his work as a form of religious expression. If Ornette Coleman was, as some have argued, the seminal stylistic force in sixties avant-garde jazz, Coltrane's Eastern imports were the main influence on the East-West "fusion" in the jazz and rock of the late sixties and afterward. In his use of jazz as prayer and meditation Coltrane was beyond all doubt the principal spiritual force in music.

This is further evident in "Alabama," a riveting elegy for the victims of the infamous Sunday-morning church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. Here, as in the early version of his most famous ballad, "Naima," Coltrane is as spare in phrasing as he is bleak in tone. That tone, criticized by many as hard-edged and emotionally impoverished, is inseparable from Coltrane's achievement, conveying as it does a sense of absolute purity through the abnegation of sentimentality. Sonny Rollins, the contemporary tenor most admired by Coltrane, always had a richer tone, and Coltrane himself said of the mellifluous Stan Getz, "Let's face it--we'd all sound like that if we could." Despite these frequent and generous tributes, Coltrane's aim was different, as is clear in his revival of the soprano sax. Rather than lushness he sought clarity and incisiveness. As with pre-nineteenth-century string players, the rare vibrato was dramatic ornamentation.

Coltrane's religious dedication, which as much as his music made him a role model, especially but by no means exclusively among young blacks, is clearest of all in the album titled A Love Supreme, recorded in late 1964 with Tyner, Jones, and Garrison. The album appeared in early 1965 to great popular and critical acclaim and remains generally acknowledged as Coltrane's masterpiece. In a sense, though, it is stylistically as much a summation as a new direction, for its modalism and incantatory style recall "Spiritual," "India," and the world-weary lyricism of his preceding and still underrated album, Crescent. Within months Coltrane was to shift his emphasis from incantation to the freer-form glossolalia of his last period--a transition evident in a European concert performance of A Love Supreme in mid-1965.

Meditations, recorded a year after A Love Supreme, is the finest creation of the late Coltrane, and possibly of any Coltrane. It may never be as accessible as A Love Supreme, but it is the more revolutionary and compelling work. While some of the creations of Coltrane's last two years are all but amorphous, Meditations succeeds not only for the transcendental force it shares with A Love Supreme but by virtue of the contrasts among the shamanistic frenzy of Coltrane and fellow tenor Pharoah Sanders in the opening movement "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" and elsewhere, the sense of stoic resignation and perseverance in the solos of Garrison and Tyner, and the repeated, spiraling phrases of yearning in Coltrane's "Love" and the concluding "Serenity." This unity, encompassing radical stylistic and affective diversity, is the unique feature of Meditations, even in relation to its Ur-version for quartet, which has an additional and quite obtrusive movement. Nothing that came after Meditations approached it in structural complexity and subtlety.

These may be the missing ingredients in the music of Coltrane's final period. The drummer Elvin Jones said, "Only poets can understand it," though maybe only mystics could, for until his final album Coltrane seemingly forsook lyricism for an unfettered quest for ecstasy. The results remain virtually indescribable, and they forestall criticism with the furious directness of their energy. Yet their effect depends more on the abandonment of rationality, which most listeners achieve only intermittently if at all. In fact, it may be the listener himself who is abandoned, for it seems clear that Coltrane is no longer primarily concerned with a human audience. His final recording of "My Favorite Things" and "Naima," at the Village Vanguard in 1966, uses the musical texts as springboards to visionary rhapsody--almost, in fact, as pretexts. All songs become virtually interchangeable, and there is really no point any longer in requests. The only favorite thing he is playing about now is salvation. Coltrane's second wife, Alice, who had by then replaced Tyner as the group's pianist, has remarked, "Some of his latest works aren't musical compositions." This may be their glory and their limitation, the latter progressively more evident in the uninspired emulation by the so-called "Coltrane machines" who followed the last footsteps of the master, and also in the current dismissal of free jazz as a dead end by both jazz mainstreamers and the experimental composer Anthony Davis (who nonetheless recently used Coltrane as a model in the "Mecca" section of his opera X).

The last album that Coltrane recorded was Expression, in February and March of 1967. The album has an aura of twilight, of limbo, particularly in the piece "To Be," in which Coltrane and Sanders play spectral flute and piccolo respectively. The sixteen ametrical minutes of "To Be," which could readily have added to its title the second part of Hamlet's question, are as eerie as any in music.

The most striking characteristic of the album is its sense of consummation, which is clear in the abandonment of developmental structure and often bar divisions, and in the phantasmal rather than propulsive lines that pervade the work. There had always been in Coltrane a profound tension between the pure virtuosity of his elongated phrases and the high sustained cries or eloquent rests that followed. The cries, wails, and shrieks remain in Expression but they are subsumed by the hard-won simplicity that predominates in the album--the lyricism not of "the one essential" line he had sought seven years earlier and never found but one born of courageous resignation. Pater said that all art aspires to the condition of music. Coltrane seems to suggest here that music in turn aspires to the condition of silence.

Those who criticize Coltrane's virtuosic profusion are of the same party as those who found Van Gogh's canvases "too full of paint"--a criticism Henry Miller once compared to the dismissal of a mystic as "too full of God." In Coltrane, sound--often discordant, chaotic, almost unbearable--became the spiritual form of the man, an identification perhaps possible only with a wind instrument, with which the player is of necessity fused more intimately than with strings or percussion. This physical intimacy was all the more intense for his characteristically tight embouchure, the preternatural duration and complexity of his phrases, and his increasing use of overblowing techniques. The whole spectrum of Coltrane's music--the world-weary melancholy and transcendental yearning that ultimately recall Bach more than Parker, the jungle calls and glossolalic shrieks, the whirlwind runs and spare elegies for murdered children and a murderous planet--is at root merely a suffering man's breath. The quality of that music reminds us that the root of the word inspiration is "breathing upon." This country has not produced a greater musician.

Copyright © 1987 by Edward Strickland. All rights reserved.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1987; "What Coltrane Wanted"; Volume 260, No. 6; pages 100-102.










Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Fabio Zeppetella - Chansons! [e Canzoni] - Via Veneto Jazz and Jando Music

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


The editorial offices of JazzProfiles has recently received a number of new and forthcoming recordings and we’d like to share some information with you about certain of these that we have found particularly appealing.

The Italian word for songs is “Canzoni” and it seems fitting that it so closely resembles that of the French word for songs - “Chansons!” because of the geographical proximity of Italy and France and because the two countries share a quest for beauty in all aspects of Arts and Letters in the broadest sense of those terms.

This French-Italian cultural and artistic affinity is on display in Chansons! Guitarist Fabio Zeppetella’s latest CD for Via Veneto Jazz and Jando music [VVJ 113] on which he is joined by his countryman Roberto Gatto on drums and two, excellent French Jazz musicians: Emmanuel Bex on organ and voice and Géraldine Laurent alto sax.

There is a further meshing of en Francais and Italiano in the eleven song selections that make up this album as six are by Italian composers while the remaining five feature tunes penned by French songwriters.

The press release that accompanied Chansons! It as “a musical conception similar to a diplomatic treaty or melodious embrace between cousins. Essentially, it’s an innovative exchange between two neighboring worlds that have always eyed and inspired one other with reciprocal curiosity. Italy and France unite as allies on the musical front, gathering on the field four extraordinary talents: Fabio Zeppetella, Roberto Gatto, Géraldine Laurent and Emmanuel Bex.

The group employs a variety of musical devices to keep the music based on these familiar melodies interesting. For example:

This original quartet uniquely interprets eleven songs that best reflect the musical tradition of singer-songwriters belonging to these two countries. Starting from the highly popular jazz composer Bruno Martino, passing through the ever-present De André and De Gregori and arriving to Pino Daniele, another milestone; on the French scene are idols such as Jacques Brel, Leo Ferré, Yves Montand and Joe Dassin.”

The quartet’s interpretation is extraordinary and the songs in “Chansons!” enchant from beginning to end. While the harmonious complicity of Gatto, Bex and Zeppetella is a well-known fact, the musical fluency added by the involvement of Laurent is unexpected, further enriching this innovative project.”

The music on Chansons! [VVJ 113] is Jazz but played in a manner that compliments a basic facet of the music historically: its receptiveness to a variety of influences. In this case, Zeppetella and company infuse Jazz with a variety of French and Italian popular tunes which they alter melodically, harmonically and rhythmically.

For example, on Track one - E la chiamano estate - opens as a slow tempo rhumba with a rock ‘n roll backbeat which is understated because of Roberto Gatto’s uses of brushes to establish this pulse.
Bocca di rosa Gatto plays a 6/8 triplet figure behind Géraldine Laurent’s improvised introduction before she states the melody in unison with Zeppetella which launches a magnificent Bex organ solo.

Fabio switches to acoustic guitar to frame the chords for Buonanotte fiorellino over which Géraldine plays a beautiful one chorus statement of the melody to create the ultimate lullaby.

With its Jazz-Rock fusion beat A me me piace o’ blues hits the ultimate groove that really locks the musicians into some inspired soloing.

This is followed by the startling contrast created by a church-like choir introduction to Napule è which is formed by a Bex voice-over organ effect that creates a sonority underpinning improvised statements by Laurent and Zeppetella.

My favorite is a Latin Jazz version of Luna Rossa which you can check out on the video that closes this review along with an audiofile only version of Bocca di rosa.

Chansons!
(VVJ 113– barcode 8013358201137)
Fabio Zeppetella | guitar
Emmanuel Bex | organ and voice
Géraldine Laurent | sax alto
Roberto Gatto | drums

The full track list is as follows:

01 -  E la chiamano estate (Bruno Martino)
02 -  Bocca di rosa (Fabrizio De André)
03 -  Buonanotte fiorellino (Francesco De Gregori)
04 -  A me me piace o’ blues (Pino Daniele)
05 -  Napule è (Pino Daniele)
06 -  Luna Rossa (V. De Crescenzo-A. Vian)
07 -  Avec le temp (Leo Ferré)
08 -  C’est si bon (Henri Betti-André Hornez)
09 -  L’été indien (Joe Dassin)
10 -  Les temps des cerises (J.B. Clément-A. Renard)
11 -  Le bon dieu (Jacques Brel)

Chansons! (VVJ 113) is available through www.viavenetojazz.it, Amazon.com or www.forcedexpsoure.com



Monday, June 19, 2017

Harry Bäcklund: 1936 - 1978 - "I Remember You"

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


West Coast Jazz or Jazz on the West Coast, the style of Jazz that existed primarily in California from about 1945 - 1965, and the majority of whose recordings were purported to be little more than “... bloodless museum pieces” by one Jazz critic, had an influence well beyond the confines of the Golden State during this same time period.


Most of the Jazz musicians in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway were influenced by it as were the Italians led by Oscar Valdambrini on trumpet and Gianni Basso on tenor saxophone and the French led by the tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen.


The cool wave of the bossa nova broke under the West Coast Jazz spell, too, with Jobim and Gilberto riding the crest of this music’s worldwide popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.


In Sweden, the cool school banner was initially carried by baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin, which was somewhat appropriate in that one of the characteristic sounds of West Coast Jazz owed so much to the piano-less quartet led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker featured on trumpet.


Another distinguishing feature of Jazz West Coast was the dominant influence of Lester Young on the tenor saxophone sound of many of players such as Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Perkins, Bob Cooper, Richie Kamuca and, of course, Stan Getz.


When beginning research on some extended future blog postings about the Swedish “cool school of Jazz” in general and the music of Lars Gullin in particular, I came across the tenor saxophone playing of Harry Bäcklund [1936 - 1978] on some of Lars’ recordings and it completely knocked me out. So I decided to find out more about Harry Bäcklund.


Well, to use a current phrase - “Good luck with that.” There was almost nothing to research about Harry Bäcklund, at least, not that I could find in English.


I was able to locate this background information on www.orkesterjournalen.com:


"Harry Bäcklund was a brilliant musician who played in the style of Sonny Stitt and Stan Get and who is unjustly overlooked today" writes Gunnar Lindqvist in his book about the Golden Circle Gyllene Cirkeln.  [Besides managing the Golden Circle Jazz Club in Stockholm for a number of years Lindqvist was also a tenor saxophone and flute player was responsible for the launch of the then EMI-owned hi-fi firm Bang & Olufsen and also produced many Jazz recordings featuring Swedish Jazz musicians including baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin, trombonist Eje Thelin and vocalist Monica Zetterlund].


Harry Bäcklund was born in Mora where he began his musical career by playing with pianist Nils Lindberg, before serving in the military as a musician stationed Östersund and Falun. He began his professional career in 1950.


He settled shortly afterwards in Stockholm and played with several orchestras, including a longer time with Putte Wickman and again with Nils Lindberg. In the late 1950s, he also worked as a role of rock n' roll-saxophonist with various bands and artists.


After some time in Copenhagen, he returned to Stockholm and worked a lot with Lars Gullin, including in the quintet format on tours and at several gigs at the Golden Circle. In 1965 he received Swedish Jazz Clubs scholarship. During his last years he was not active as a musician as a consequence of a disease [which is unstated].”


That’s it!


The only other reference I could locate was in these insert notes that accompanied Lars Gullin: Alma Mater Featuring Harry Bäcklund [Anagram Records ANACD 10] by David Reid:


“When the Long Playing record Columbia SSX 1010 Portrait of my Pals was released in 1964 the accompanying press release written by -- described Lars Gullin's music as "a climate, an atmosphere that bids you to step inside to experience and absorb it. What you feel is the sound", it is hard to imagine any better description.


1964 was a vintage year for Lars Guilin, which he spent mainly in Stockholm, although he performed in concert all over Sweden. Recordings were limited to the classic Portrait of my Pals and the session from the Modern  Museum partly released by Sonet and with two further tracks on Anagram CD 7, Rolf Billberg Altosupremo.


On the present CD all the tracks are from live concerts. One played at the Golden Circle in Stockholm but otherwise at gigs played at student gatherings, which explains the wonky piano, or the occasional bottle clink, if you listen hard enough, but then you might miss the genius of the music.


The range of Gullin's consummate skillful playing is demonstrated superbly, from his free and easy style, to the dark sensitive tones where you can almost feel the pain.


"I've seen" is pure drama and "What's New" contains a magic, rarely on display in the studio or for that matter from few musicians.


The presence of his alter ego  Harry Bäcklund brings the perfect partnership together, interacting and coaxing before he takes off on his own flights of fancy. [Emphasis mine.]


The present CD was made very much as part of a set of three the Rolf Billberg already mentioned and Anagram CD 8  Harry Bäcklund "Rembering Harry". These soulmates where a phenomena of Swedish jazz which was under recorded but should never be forgotten. [Emphasis mine.]


  • David Reid


Now if I could only find a copy of the obscure Anagram CD 8 "Harry Bäcklund Rembering Harry".


In the meantime, please enjoy a sampling of Harry Bäcklund’s marvelous tenor playing on the I Remember You cut from Lars Gullin: Alma Mater Featuring Harry Bäcklund which forms the soundtrack to the following video tribute to Swedish Jazz in the 1950s.