Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim

|Duke Ellington Presents from 1963 introduces the world to Abdullah Ibrahim, then living in Switzerland. Nelson Mandela invites the prodigal son back to South Africa in 1990. Subsequently, Ibrahim performs at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Since then he has continued to find his own way toward new musical worlds.|

In 2019 Abdullah Ibrahim produced The Balance, his first recording as a leader since 2014. I found the music to be remarkable. While searching his discography for other albums offering his warm, melodic sound, the discovery that Ibrahim was a bandleader starting in 1963 left me feeling pretty stupid. Perhaps this pianist and composer had not appeared on my jazz radar because of how his music is most often described and labeled.

 

Best guess is that previously reading about Abdullah Ibrahim being connected with Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Archie Shepp would imply a free jazz orientation – not a genre I listen to much. Then again, talk of Cape Jazz from South Africa favoring gospel influences was also not so interesting. Ditto for his important works like Mannenberg, being described as a major part of the anti-apartheid sound – if we can assume there really was one sound to describe that heady time in South Africa. Then there are the movie soundtracks. Oh, and born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1936 then going by the name Dollar Brand on his earliest recordings, finally becoming Abdullah Ibrahim in 1968 when he converted to Islam made recognition challenging. Also, as we will reference, he has maintained a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism even after his conversion to Islam.

His first, eponymous album, The Dollar Brand Trio, was produced by Duke Ellington in 1963. It is an impressive freshman performance and in hindsight clearly points in the direction Ibrahim has pursued for decades. The real surprise is that through all the so-called Cape jazz-free jazz-protest jazz-soundtrack jazz phases, Abdullah Ibrahim’s sound has been remarkably consistent, and certainly not defined by any of these labels. For a discussion of his music, where I will make my own assertions as to his influences, we’ll focus on two albums: the 2011 release Sotho Blue and Mukashi from 2013.

Abdullah Ibrahim - Sotho BlueSotho Blue is a collection of Ibrahim original compositions that include one song by Bud Powell. We hear the influences of Ellington, Powell, New Orleans, and the West Coast jazz of the 1960s. Sounds of the orient and surprisingly contemporary jazz references speak to an open mind, enjoying without embracing. The saxophone, flute, and trombone trade places as lead vocals to Ibrahim’s piano from song to song taking the music from highs to lows. It can remind us of the emotions engendered when we travel as flaneurs rather than tourists. Yet the album is described as “background music” and for “private rumination and meditation” by a resource I usually respect. Neither of these comments rings even remotely relevant when listening to the album. Again, labels and comparisons can be misleading and even unfair.

1. Calypso Minor 4. Nisa 7. Glass Enclosure
2. Sotho Blue 5. The Mountain 8. Star Dance
3. Abide 6. The Wedding 9. Joan Capetown Flower

Consider this, a hot new trumpeter is on the scene and we ask someone recently having heard the player live what she sounds like. A response of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis provides little insight. Dizzy hard bop or big band? Miles first quintet or electric? Using Dizzy and Salt Peanuts or Miles and Kind of Blue makes it clear what to expect. Free jazz? Have you actually listened to one of his recordings? The piano of Ahmad Jamal? Too cerebral, Abdullah Ibrahim is more playful. The piano of Chick Corea? Too muscular, Ibrahim is more lyrical. The influences of Ellington and Monk are assumed by his own admission. With Ibrahim offering so many references that are, quite frankly, somewhat tangential to the music he plays proves a distraction. Though I can’t offer a good point of reference.  (Note to self; listen before assuming.)

Abdullah Ibrahim MukashiMukashi, named for a Zen master Ibrahim deeply respects, is an album that might be more appropriate for meditation, assuming forceful solos don’t harsh your mellow. This music inspires thought not introspection. The recording doesn’t sound oriental though it includes the sound of traditional Japanese flute playing. Perhaps some bright spots reflect the definitions of World Music, while he also plays at the fringes of traditional American jazz. All the labels, the genres, and definitions blur in Mukashi. The most interesting of the Ibrahim recordings currently on my playlist, it is also the most challenging.

Sotho Blue and the piano solo album from 2008, Senzo (mostly his greatest hits), are getting the most playtime these days. I prefer music without words so that it doesn’t distract me while reading books and magazines. Curiously, I have found myself pausing mid-sentence upon hearing a phrase or block of notes in Ibrahim’s playing. He definitely has something to say and doesn’t need words to express an idea.

For those interested in hearing Abdullah Ibrahim, a good start would be with The Balance. An elegant and confident album, once again featuring compositions by Ibrahim, with one by Monk. Ellington would be a proud and happy mentor hearing Ibrahim at 86 still playing like a seeker of new worlds.

 

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Joshua Redman Quartet

Joshua_Redman

|The Joshua Redman Quartet seem to have taken the suggestion of Miles Davis to heart, “First play what you know, then play beyond what you know.”|

The new album by saxophonist Joshua Redman, Come What May (2019), features a band Redman first recorded within 2000. In a Wall Street Journal interview from May of that year discussing the recording of Beyond (2000) Redman said, “In many ways, it’s the joshua-redman-quartet-come-what-mayrecord I’m proudest of so far as really capturing the sound of a band.” That article led me to purchase the CD without hearing any of it beforehand. The music relit my passion for straight-ahead jazz and remains a touchstone for what defines contemporary jazz. A few years later I finally had a chance to see Joshua Redman perform live as part of the SF Jazz Collective while he was the Artistic Director. Whether live or recorded, Redman is a delight to hear.

After Beyond, the quartet featuring Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, recorded another gem Passage of Time (2001). Both of these albums feature only compositions by Redman and demonstrate his strengths as both player and creator. Come What May reunites this group who again play only Redman originals. All three have continued to play with Redman in various settings and ensembles over the last 18 years, but there is no question that this line-up is much more than the sum of its players.

Joshua-Redman-james-farmIn fact, Redman has made many fine albums with outstanding bands. MoodSwing (1994) features Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums. Or listen to the edgier music from his trio on Elastic (2002) with Sam Yahel on various keyboards and Brian Blade, again on the drums. A few personal favorites are the two albums from quartet James Farm. (2011). Featuring Redman with Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Eric Harland on drums, their eponymous first release has a feel tangential to Beyond. Considering the ground that’s been covered, in finding his way back to that sound from 2000 Redman seems very comfortable.

Other than one song, “Leap of Faith” on Beyond, which features tenor player Mark Turner in a remarkable performance, all three of these sessions only include this iteration of the Joshua Redman Quartet. You’ll find this recording offers some of Redman’s most fluid and technically challenging music. Enhancing the quality of the compositions, the players are in top form. While this quartet was clearly up to the task in 2000, here on Come What May they are now a more seasoned group of musicians bringing a wider range of musical intelligence to this task. They seem to have taken the suggestion of Miles Davis to heart, “First play what you know, then play beyond what you know.”

Much like on Beyond, Redman ranges across a spectrum of jazz styles on Come What May from the driving “I’ll Go Mine” to the contemplative “Vast.” To my ear, these three recordings make up a distinct sound that stands apart from the many other albums with Redman as leader, yet without sounding the same. Once again, Redman has really captured the sound of this band.

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Tenor Conclave

Tenor Conclave Group Image Full Edit

The output of the Rolling Stones rolled off my radar a couple of decades ago. Hearing some newer music recently it was not difficult to recognize the sound, even if it has evolved somewhat since I last tuned in (around the release of Steel Wheels in 1989). So why does it surprise people that the sound of John Coltrane is just as identifiable to a fan? For someone even mildly familiar with the music of the Rolling Stones and Beatles it is hard to believe the difference wouldn’t be immediately obvious. Ditto for Coltrane and Hank Mobley despite their playing the same instrument.

Tenor Conclave Ira Gitler 1Reading the liner notes from a 1956 release from the Prestige All-Stars we find this to be a tired conversation. Ira Gitler opens his note with the following comment; ‘Last year a writer on jazz posed a question to me. It was, “How do you dig both Sonny Rollins and Zoot Sims?” and I answered, “Because I dig both Bird and Pres” (i.e., Charlie Parker and Lester Young).

The album referenced here is “Tenor Conclave” featuring John Coltrane, Zoot Sims, Hank Mobley and Al Cohn on tenor saxophones, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on the drums. While Gitler focuses mostly on contrasting the two “schools” of sax represented – that of the hard bop (Parker) and the modernists (Young) – this still seems too broad of a distinction. Yet Gitler is correct when describes this album as not a “cutting session”, something that could have easily occurred, where players push each other to show-off. As he correctly states, “Each of the four showed admiration for the other three…”

For the interested, or discerning, listener “Tenor Conclave” offers a chance to really hear the distinct sounds of each tenor. The title cut, an original composition by Mobley, is a swinging affair, where personalities and sounds are distinct. Followed by the standard, Just You, Just Me, at the opening we hear the ensemble, then a bridge with only Mobley and Sims. After another 8-bars of the ensemble, in sequence, we hear the solos of Mobley, Sims, Coltrane, and Cohn. The second Mobley composition, Bob’s Boys, plays to the strengths of Sims and Cohn. In the last of four songs on the album, How Deep is the Ocean, we hear an achingly lyrical rendition of another jazz standard. Hard to believe even a novice couldn’t hear the difference between Coltrane and Cohn here, despite the lighter touch.

Of particular note is the fact this recording pre-dates the Blue Note albums for which Coltrane and Mobley are so well known. Here Gitler’s two schools are further subdivided to provide additional commentary about each player. For Coltrane, there are already hints of the “sheets of sound” to come. The Coltrane sound has also been described as very muscular, which sounds about right. In contrast, Mobley’s most successful album to my ears is “Soul Station” with “Workout” a very close second. Gitler uses the term “sinewy” to describe Mobley’s playing.

The players usually associated with the East Coast, Cohn and Sims, find a reflection of their work with jazzmen like Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, and Shelly Manne. Theirs is a more swinging sound influenced by the classic big bands of Woody Herman and Count Basie. In the most complimentary sense, Sims is more smooth than muscular with Cohn more fluid than sinewy. The contrast between bop and modernist is not as obvious here as is the stylistic preferences of each player. While this distinction between schools becomes more pronounced over time, here we listen to an ensemble working hard to achieve harmony and a blending of personalities through this music. It is not clear to me that the Prestige All-Stars would have sounded so cohesive if they had first recorded together in 1966.

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The Many Passions of Gerald Wilson

Gerald Wilson Career Jazz Musician

|Talk about a career in jazz, Wilson’s first album as a leader was released in 1961 and his last recording was released in 2011.|

First hearing the big band sound of Gerald Wilson was a revelation. Talk about a career in jazz, Wilson played trumpet in the Jimmie Lunceford Band back in 1936. A mainstay of West Coast jazz players, he wandered in and out of the limelight for 50 years, his first album as a leader, You Better Believe It being released in 1961. He died in 2014 at age 96, with his last recording, Legacy, released in 2011.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that he was not only a big fan of the bullfight, but many of his signature works (two of which are reprised on “Detroit” from 2009) are Gerald Wilson honorary member of Los Aficionados de Los Angelesnamed after famous bullfighters of the 1960s. He considered matadors and jazz musicians to be kindred spirits engaged in a similar kind of art form.

Wilson was befriended by bullfighting professionals and is an honorary life member of Los Aficionados de Los Angeles (sort of like the Bullfighter’s Union of the U.S). The complete oeuvre of Wilson’s tributes to the corrida is listed below. I deliberately chose to only include the original of each song, and encourage you to check out some of the later versions on your own.

1962
Viva Tirado
This song is named for Jose Ramon Tirado. “He was a young matador I first saw at the bullfights in Tijuana, Mexico,” Gerald says. “He was sensational, had a lot of style, reminds me of one of the young trumpeters today. I was so impressed that I wanted to do my impression jazz-wise of what was going on with him.”

1963
Paco
This song is named for Paco Camino. “Paco Camino became the biggest man in the bull ring during that period. He came on with some new stuff that was out of sight. Bullfighting is not a sport, you know. It’s an art, continually evolving with new passes, new uses of the cape, new ways of confronting the bull, adding to the repertoire. It’s very much like jazz. Paco was an artist. He improvised. He was the best,” said Wilson in 2004.

Featured in Sports Illustrated in 1963, ” Paco Camino is the greatest torero of the past 20 years,” said Antonio Diaz-Canabate, one of Spain’s foremost authorities, writing in Madrid’s influential newspaper, the A.B.C. “He leads the bull with the muleta where the bull does not want to go. That is the most difficult thing in the art of bullfighting because it involves the total domination of man over beast.” And a well-known Barcelona critic, Jose Maria Hernandez, wrote of Camino, “He does everything to perfection. He has an indefinable magic. People will remember Camino, like Manolete, not for any one pass or quality, but for his general art and technique.”

El Viti
This song is named for Santiago Martín, known as El Viti. This is the only recording Wilson made where he played with the band. “El Viti was a great matador, different from any other I ever saw. He never smiled, and he was tough. I tried to trace a picture of him, as it gets down into a unique part where his stuff in the ring would get, wild but not overbearing. It was a place for me to use my eight-part harmony.” Wilson claimed to invent eight-part harmony. El Viti was considered to be the “master of the Verónica.”

1966
The Golden Sword
Dedicated to the pageantry of the bullring.

Carlos
This song is named for Carlos Arruza, known as “El Ciclón” (“the cyclone”). Retiring after a successful career bullfighting on foot, he came back to start an even more spectacular career on horseback. “He was one of the greatest of all time,” said Wilson. Arruza appeared in two Mexican films about bullfighting and had a part in the 1960 version of “The Alamo” starring John Wayne.

1968
Capetillo
This song is named for M. Capetillo, who performed frequently in Tijuana from the 1960s through the 1980s. He was celebrated as the greatest muletero in Mexican bullfight history. Wilson watched Capetillo fight his last bull on the eve of his retirement.

Del Olivar
This song is named for Antonio Del Olivar and was the last of Wilson’s tributes to famous bullfighters. Considered one of the most graceful matadors, Del Olivar once honored Wilson by presenting him with the ear of a bull he had killed.

 

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The Bigness of Kamasi Washington

|Moments of brilliance, moments of bombast and moments of madness give people a reason to talk about jazz, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the music.|

Half listening to the radio, my full attention turned suddenly to a song I hadn’t heard before. After a couple of minutes, I guessed it must be from a new album from Kamasi Washington. Turns out there is a recent release from Washington, Heaven and Earth, that came out in June. Though relatively new to the scene as a leader, there is a lot of personality in Washington’s music. His sound is distinct, much more so than many other musicians with a larger jazz catalog.

There was tremendous hype, even internationally, surrounding the release of Washington’s 2015 album The Epic. I found it to be a huge, chaotic, sprawling and often frustrating work. Clocking in at almost 3-hours, the range of his music touched on everything, from old jazz standards to Debussy’s Claire de Lune, from free jazz to musically challenging sounds hard to classify. Whether you find his music exhilarating or exasperating, it demands attention. So, it was a surprise to read a review of Heaven and Earth in a mainstream jazz publication that sounded more like a critique of Washington than his new album.

Washington’s sensibilities are clearly on display with this new album.

Brash horns and choirs often fill curious corners of his music. In some ways, it is difficult to think that Washington even has a “sound” since the music stretches to include so many styles and motifs. And yet, there I was certain this song was by Washington and must be something new, rather than a song from his other post-Epic release, Throttle Elevator Music IV (which includes music recorded during the Epic sessions). Of course, he has a sound, a big one, and it is recognizable.

Yet the gist of the review article was a complaint that Washington wasn’t adding anything new to the “jazz canon.” There was, it claimed, no new insights being delivered, just variations on existing themes with the juxtaposition of straight ahead, free jazz and everything in between giving the impression of “new things.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Washington’s jazz mash-ups are attention-getting because of their sprawling sounds. We do hear old things performed in new ways that sound interesting because of their often odd juxtapositions. I can’t speak to cannons – other than to say their sound might make an interesting punctuation in some of the more aggressive Washington recordings.

The Kamasi Washington Sound.

A comparison of Washington’s rendition of Cherokee with those of widely respected players provides for a striking example of his “sound.” Listen to versions of the Ray Noble jazz standard by sax players Charlie Parker in 1942 (which he remade into KoKo) and Stan Getz in 1960, or from a vocalist like Dee Dee Bridgewater in 1998. Nothing in Washington’s version sounds derivative that I can tell.

Then, right after you play Cherokee, listen to Washington’s Miss Understanding, also from The Epic, and the range of his musical vision is clearly on display. Seemingly, every song needs its own “sound” and Washington strives, and mostly succeeds, in putting a personal touch on every number. Even when that personal touch is at odds with other songs sitting in the same queue.

In a significant way, Kamasi Washington reminds me of Dizzy Gillespie.

Dizzy Gillespie grayscaleFor folks outside of the jazz orbit, the image of Dizzy embodied the spirit of jazz. The beret and goatee, the puffed-up cheeks, the boisterous laugh and welcoming personality. Yet even hardcore jazz fans can be challenged by some of his more aggressive music – “jeez, how does he get to a register that high? And why does he play so shrill for so long?” Salt Peanuts was important but is also an acquired taste. People talked about the man, not so much his music.

It now feels like for many Kamasi fills the role of what jazz should look like. A review of The Epic in The Economist and a more recent interview this summer in Monocle, heralded this new savior of jazz: The big man with the big hair and even bigger sound, facing the world head-on and coincidently plays jazz. But Washington’s music doesn’t get much discussion in these conversations. Moments of brilliance, moments of bombast and moments of madness give people a reason to talk about jazz, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the music.

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The Many Tangents of Jimmy Giuffre

Jimmy Giuffre bbc

|“Like his more celebrated contemporary Miles Davis, Giuffre remains a musical chameleon, a distinctive stylist who constantly feels compelled to change his sonic setting.”  -Ted Gioia |

Jimmy Giuffre: The Headstream of Divergent Tangents

Jimmy Giuffre is not much heard these days. In fact, I’ll argue that the handful of jazz chroniclers who even dwell on his work are mostly focused on the wrong music. Much is made of Giuffre “anticipating forms of free improvisation” through his thoughtful experimentation within the jazz idiom. Specifically, his work with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow are consistently mentioned as a seminal moment in jazz; an anticipation and then foundation-setting music associated with the later works of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. It is not clear this emphasis on the free jazz aspect of Giuffre’s career isn’t more a case of sources repeating each other, rather than a result of critical listening to his music. This work is not so interesting to me.

JimmyGiuffreThe most intelligent and sympathetic discussion of Jimmy Giuffre and his life in music will be found in Ted Gioia’s terrific book, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 and originally published in 1992. Giuffre’s music included many strikingly distinct periods, many difficult for even a hardcore fan to appreciate. Stories emanate from a stint at North Texas State, when the school was in its formative years in becoming a beacon of jazz education, followed then by the heady influence of a religious mystic (a decade before it was the trendy thing to seek). Later would come Giuffre’s early success as a composer, rather than player, with Woody Herman providing some interesting context for the career that would follow.

Jimmy Giuffre Goes Experimental

The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet from 1956 is a touchstone for understanding Giuffre’s development as a player and composer. The controlled transition from straight ahead to a more experimental style of jazz is what makes it sound so rich. Thirteen musicians participate on this album, but none play on more than three of the songs. No more than six musicians are ever included in a single track. And the first number, “So Low” is a solo piece, featuring just a clarinet and leather shoe. Only the third album with Giuffre as the leader, the future begins to come into focus. Here is a crisp, quiet, somewhat dissonant sound that is unique to the time. Even the pop music covers convey a special interpretation.

Next in line was The Jimmy Giuffre 3 also from 1956, when Jim Hall joins Giuffre, along with bassist Ralph Pena, who now comprise the entire ensemble. This music, without piano or drums, and such limited orchestration, offers a surprisingly full sound. The distance between the numbers “The Song is You” and “Forty-Second Street” is long, though not hard to follow. The music is experimental but still filled with playfulness and jazz motifs easy to digest. While other fine music from Giuffre, in the vicinity of these two recordings would appear, his desire to explore moved inexorably into uncharted waters.

Jimmy Giuffre’s Journey Continues

As the journey continued, the role of bass always played a prominent role. Later trios included some outstanding bass players including Ray Brown, Steve Swallow, Bob Nieske, and Red Mitchell. Even using Bob Brookmeyer on trombone in place of a bass creates a striking, but satisfying sound. Ultimately, while chasing some of the ideas first explored in his music from the late 1950’s, Giuffre ran down some rabbit holes that others couldn’t follow. This can be clearly heard in an often-mentioned album from 1962, Free Fall. Dissonant is the word that comes to mind when hearing music untethered from a jazz mooring.

JimmyGiuffreQuasarFinally, I have to mention Quasar from 1985, a personal favorite. Jimmy Giuffre plays clarinet, but also soprano and tenor sax, flute and bass flute. It’s an electric keyboard, not piano, lighting up the sound. Here the jazz is also not straight ahead, yet still accessible. Another thoughtful, thought-provoking recording offering a different kind of quiet intensity than Free Fall.  

All Tangents Lead Back to Something

The magic of jazz is often found in a musician’s ability to turn one sound into another. While this experimentation can often make sonic turns hard to follow, the result is almost always a more sophisticated artist. That one phase of a long career is not personally satisfying doesn’t mean another phase won’t be. And what one critic calls a “crowning achievement” may not be. The trick is to try and not judge or focus on the sounds of a single tangent from a long career in jazz.

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Electricity, Miles and Byrd

Donald Byrd and Miles Davis

Electricity was in the air when trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd heard a buzz. Miles was first to noticeably respond to the stimulus with his 1968 release, In A Silent Way. Though George Benson had appeared on one cut from Miles previous album, Miles in the Sky (“Paraphernalia”), it was on In A Silent Way that the electric guitar of John McLaughlin made Miles’ jazz start to rock. The impact of McLaughlin being turned loose on Bitches Brew – along with three electric keyboards, and one electric bass – reverberates among jazz aficionados even today. No need to run down that voodoo here since the story of Bitches Brew and its aftermath is an oft-told tale.

Donald Byrd was also moving away from hard bop at this time, recording some exciting music equally as controversial if less remarked upon. With the 1970 release of Fancy Free (recorded in the spring of 1969), Byrd uses an electric piano (played by Duke Pearson) for the first time. Subsequently, it is often suggested that Byrd was mostly emulating what he heard on Bitches Brew with his exploratory album Electric Byrd in 1970. I disagree.

Miles Davis and Donald Byrd’s Drawn Influences

Donald Byrd Electric Byrd Album CoverThat many of Byrd’s sounds from the addition of electric instrumentation reflect some influences from Miles at this time is certainly correct. Yet Byrd was moving in a very different direction than Miles, as a critical listening of their music reflects clearly. Not only was the composition of the band’s instruments distinct, more important is the way each went with their subsequent output. And the case can be made it was In A Silent Way that Byrd referenced while recording Electric Byrd. Bitches Brew was released less than a month before Byrd recorded Electric Byrd, hardly enough time to have been an influence.  

Much is made, especially by Miles himself, of the impact musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone had on Miles’ music of this period. Yet for a guy who was reputed to have fired band members for “practicing” between gigs, Miles’ music doesn’t really reflect the sound of a Sly Stone or James Brown number, just their attitude. Byrd on the other hand, actually plays the groove, rhythm and funk heard on Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Which, it should be noted, came out in 1971.

 

A quick look at “who played what instrument” on the two albums, Bitches Brew and Electric Byrd, make comparisons difficult to support. Byrd credits nine musicians, with one flute player appearing on a single song. Again, Duke Pearson on electric piano is the only electric sound. Though it could be argued that Airto, an artist appearing on many Miles recordings, brought a certain sensibility influenced by Miles. Yet it only takes a couple of minutes to get past the space-rock to find a funky jazz groove in Estavancio”, Electric Byrd’s opening cut. Then along comes two flutes, reverb notwithstanding, to fully ground a jazz fan and later provide a Latin tinge. “Essence” plays with some of the Bitches Brew tropes, but without ever getting lost in them. The closer, “The Dude” speaks to what comes next in Byrd’s output.

The title cut of Bitches Brew has an entirely different sensibility. Nearly three times longer than “Estavancio”, “Bitches Brew” covers an extreme range of velocity and timing without ever finding a groove. Uncomfortable at times, the song glorifies an improvisational method that verges on cacophony as each musician blazes his own trail. Three electric pianos and a bass with McLaughlin again on electric guitar drive this crowd of thirteen. Oh yeah, and two drummers. The music on this album is magical, maddening, often incomprehensible and cannot be hummed.  The biggest difference between these two pivotal albums is what happened next.

A variance in approach

Miles Davis Jack Johnson iTunesMiles chased his electric bunny down a hole most people had a hard time fitting into. His next recording, Jack Johnson, remains a personal favorite and is a more listener-friendly effort likely for being a movie soundtrack. As for Live-Evil and On the Corner, 1972 and 1973 respectively, history has not been so kind. I listen to a lot of jazz with a lot of jazz enthusiasts far more sophisticated than me, and I cannot ever recall somebody playing either of these two albums, even during Miles music marathons. Frankly, these albums don’t sound so good today, just harsh. This was not music for the hoi polloi, an audience Miles sought, but instead suitable mostly for the jazz cognoscenti and die-hard fans.

In contrast, Byrd next released Ethiopian Knights, where groove and funk moved back into the forefront. The addition of Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land helping to move the dial back toward a more approachable jazz sound. In 1972 Byrd managed to find a sound that would drive his next musical phase with the release of Black Byrd. This album, panned in the community of traditionally minded jazz fans, went on to become for decades the biggest selling album in the Blue Note catalog. With help from the Mizell brothers, Byrd started playing a music everyone seemingly wanted to hear – except hardcore jazz-heads.

Interestingly, a look at the time demonstrates that the 1969 album In A Silent Way was also a likely influence for other terrific musicians like Freddie Hubbard and Carlos Santana. Hubbard’s 1970 Red Clay is widely considered one of his stand-out efforts and features Herbie Hancock on electric organ and Ron Carter on electric bass. Santana’s 1972 release Caravanserai is considered a turning point in his career, jazz sensibilities clearly on display. In 1973 Santana recorded an album with John McLaughlin (famous for his edgy work on Bitches Brew) called Love, Devotion, Surrender that couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the electric guitar McLaughlin played while with Miles.

Donald Byrd understood that it was incumbent upon musicians – whether jazz, rock, or pop – to create pathways to their music using every means possible. Miles made music for his muse, ultimately at the expense of many fans. As he stated on the cover of Bitches Brew, his was new “Directions in Music.” For Byrd, this period was about bringing future jazz enthusiasts into the club, with a kind of music that’s inclusive, not exclusive.

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A World of Glass

Phillip Glass by Chuck Close

Phillip Glass by Chuck Close

|It was a presentation Glass gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits.|

A recent rereading of his 2015 biography, Words Without Music: A Memoir, served up a reminder of the many ways in which Phillip Glass has had an outsized impact on my life. His music is, of course, fascinating and often very good. Though it really started with the movie Koyaanisqatsi which I had the good fortune to watch accompanied by a live orchestra playing the soundtrack, it was the discovery of the album Glassworks around the same time that kick-started a collection that has since grown substantially.

Personal favorites also include collaborations with Brian Eno and David Bowie, Low and Heroes, as well as the Concertos and other works conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, with the oddly titled Saxophone Quartet Concerto being quite engaging. However, despite the effort expended, his operas (like those of another favorite composer of both Glass and myself, Mozart) have just never found a place in my musical world.

Richard Serra, Phillip Glass, and Robert Fiore 1969

Richard Serra, Phillip Glass, and Robert Fiore 1969

The book describes in vivid detail what living in New York was like at a time when fine art and music were undergoing huge shifts in form and function.  Phillip Glass worked to pay the bills as a studio assistant with artists like Richard Serra. Glass did some of the heavy lifting involved with creating some of Serra’s early molten metal works. The involvement of Glass within the New York dance scene of the 1970s was a surprise. His subsequent visibility and ultimately well-deserved respect and commercial success were hard earned and long in coming, with bills being paid by doing manual labor and driving a taxi instead of earning music royalties. An early interest in Buddhism and work with Tibetan refugees, set in motion passions that have endured throughout his life and career. Glass talks about his spirituality in an engaging manner that persuades without lecturing.

Philip_Glass_Florence 1993

Philip_Glass_Florence 1993

It was a presentation Phillip Glass gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits. Coming a few years after the (relative) success around 1976 of his first major opera, Einstein on the Beach, he was at the time of the lecture working on another major project, the opera Akhnaten, which would debut in 1984. His discussion of Akhenaten’s life and place in history stoked the fires of both my imagination and intellect. That his account turned out to be more fanciful than factual proved unimportant. The life and times of Akhenaten remain an enduring interest of mine.

His conversation also provided a back-handed endorsement of the interest I had been developing in the Kabbalah. My mentor and friend Frank Gaard would facilitate a fascination within me of Jewish mysticism to the point that it is a formidable influence on my thinking about religion to this day. In tandem with Taoism – another topic that fully manifested itself during my time in college and resonates with Glass – thinking about the variety of religious experiences found a permanent place in my studies. I attribute these near obsessions in my life largely to Glass by accident, and Gaard by intent.

Glass narrates a life well lived and worth thinking about. The biography is accessible and highly recommended, as is a sampling of his music. Plus, Glass looks so very cool in so many works by artist Chuck Close.

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Bill Bruford

As a founding member of the rock band YES, drummer Bill Bruford subsequently went on to a sophisticated engagement with straight ahead and several of its iterations through his evolving jazz group Earthworks. Yet on his way to becoming a jazzman, Bruford left YES, played with the band Genesis (as a friend of Phil Collins) and joined King Crimson (as a nemesis of Robert Fripp). He tells his story in Bill Bruford – The Autobiographyoriginally published in 2009. This marks Bruford as more of a musical flaneur than journeyman drummer.

Journeyman Drummer to Musical Flaneur

That a jazz player engages with a rock band is not surprising. Sonny Rollins plays lyrically Bill Bruford Earthworks(and uncredited) with the Rolling Stones on Tattoo You and then there is Branford Marsalis’ extensive touring with Sting. Even a hootenanny is possible with Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson recording two successful albums together. Conversely, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea recording with Joshua Redman on Momentum shows the musical collaborations flow in both directions. But completely changing one’s skin is a different matter.

Though rockers like Peter White (collaborator with Al Stewart) and Craig Chaquiso (Jefferson Starship stalwart) both chose to pursue a different sound and enjoy influential smooth jazz careers. Even a rock legend, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, has been a leader on several jazz albums (most recently with the Danish Radio Big Band). Yet Bruford’s evolution as a jazz musician has a different feel to it. I recently played the two albums Close to the Edge (YES, 1972), and Random Acts of Happiness (Earthworks, 2004), back to back. Perhaps Bruford’s career doesn’t ever really bifurcate with rock and pop segregated from modern jazz?

Bill Bruford’s first foray into Jazz

While earlier works such as Gradually Going Tornado from 1980 are often described as Bruford’s first foray into the jazz idiom, I’ll argue that the first, eponymous release of Earthworks from 1987 definitively marks the beginning of a career in jazz. My introduction to his jazz side came much later with If Summer Had Its Ghosts from 1997, featuring Eddie Gomez (bassist for the Bill Evans Trio) and Ralph Towner (piano and guitars).

I did not immediately make the connection of Bruford and YES on this recording. A bit quirky at times, this is nonetheless a solid jazz trio playing in a straight-ahead style.  There is a confidence in this music that often eludes earlier Earthworks recordings. A decade after Buford’s first Earthworks release, Ghosts marks a significant milestone in Bruford’s engagement with jazz.

Bill Bruford’s Jazz Career Highlights

Bruford would perform with several iterations of the band Earthworks, ultimately recording nine albums. Their fifth album, The Sound of Surprise from 2001 remains my favorite of the Earthworks catalog. Featuring Steve Hamilton on piano, Patrick Clahar on saxophones and Mark Hodgson on bass, Bruford’s playing under-grids the music rather than driving it. Surprise unsurprisingly led the band to both financial success and critical accolades, particularly in America where concert opportunities for British jazz quartets were pretty much non-existent. The opening number, Revel Without a Pause, is a testament to the band’s jazz credentials. A live recording, as were many of the Earthworks releases, the playing is tight and forceful.

Finally, I’ll mention Random Acts of Happiness, 2004, with Earthworks now featuring Tim Garland on sax, joining regulars Steve Hamilton and Mark Hodgson. Garland plays a strong, muscular sax, flute and clarinet making this the edgiest of Earthworks albums. In some ways, Random represents the many influences across the jazz spectrum that must have impacted Bruford. Compared with Close to the Edge from 1972 I was reminded of the quote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The distance between these bookends of Bruford’s career is both great and small.

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Does it taste like jazz or classical?

In a room full of people, are you part of a gang or alone in a crowd? The distinction between jazz and classical musicians, players, and composers, to their respective tasks, offer up an interesting question. The jazz musician has to adapt his playing to the boys-in-the-band, and usually on the fly, while the classical musician stays on task no matter what happens around him. Is there a musically definable middle ground?

With jazz, the focus is more often on what the player brings to a composition (consider old warhorses like Basin Street Blues, Cherokee, Body and Soul). Do you prefer Lester Young Jazz and Classical - John Coltraneor John Coltrane, Chet Baker or Miles Davis? Sometimes it doesn’t even sound like the same song as musicians apply their personal touch to a tune. The acknowledged jazz greats known for their orchestral compositions and arrangements, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones come easily to mind, specifically describe thinking about particular players when writing or arranging for large ensembles. Consider Ellington and Hodges or Jones and Sinatra.

It seems to work differently within classical music circles.  Rarely do individual players achieve notoriety, such as Goldberg playing Bach or Yo-Yo Ma on cello. A specific Jazz and Classical - BOPSorchestra like the London Philharmonic or Boston Pops (aka, the Boston Symphony Orchestra) is more likely referenced when discussing a classical performance than their famous conductors, let alone the first chair violin by name. For example, we tend to think of Mozart’s music in relation to the instruments (Flute Concerto #2 in D), but rarely associate that same composition with a particular musician.

An Intro to Classical Music from a Jazz Enthusiast’s Perspective

Jan Swafford’s terrific new book, Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music inspired me to create a playlist of exceptional classical music. The first surprise was how much of the music Swafford recommended was already in my collection. Recordings by David Munrow with the Early Music Consort of London and the Goldberg Variations on Bach had been, regrettably, gathering dust. Conversely, lots of music by Mozart and Stravinsky are in regular rotation on my daily soundtrack. The complete Beethoven symphonies, well, not so much.

Going in chronological order, I added works by Berlioz, Ravel, and Bartok. Not among the music mentioned by Swafford that made my list is a personal favorite, Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (context is important to fully appreciate this work, composed in a Nazi death camp, so check out this link). Finally, though Swafford probably wouldn’t approve, I finished out my seven-hour survey of classical music with some Phillip Glass, the Saxophone Quartet Concerto all movements. This playlist is an absolute delight to play, especially for friends not expecting classical music from a jazz enthusiast; and also another example of the intersection between elements of jazz and classical music.

So classical music was much on my mind as I recently watched an interview with Dizzy Gillespie from 1990 (during a made for TV documentary by Norwegian Jan Horne, To Bop or Not to Be: A Jazz Life).

A curious segue was provided by trumpeter Red Rodney as he explained why hard bop is the hardest form of jazz to play well (cut to Gillespie), “Because you got to think all the time.” Gillespie went on to observe that, “Classical musicians just play that (points to a sheet of music), period. No added notes, no nothing else.”

As Swafford closes his book, notable for being both erudite and entertaining, he describes recent American contributions to the classical canon as being predominantly in a minimalist and post-minimalist vein. I agree. Yet there is a line from the last page of Swafford’s book that shouldn’t go unremarked, “It (classical music) has also shown an ability to absorb into itself ideas and voices from around the world, and from popular music and jazz, while still remaining itself.” I disagree. After sampling far more of the classical music Swafford recommends than I finally ended up adding to my collection, in only one instance did I truly taste a flavor of jazz; Aaron Copland (with his magisterial Fanfare for the Common Man, a long-time favorite of rock fans). Not even Glass makes the cut here.

Jazz and Classical: A Gray Intersection

If we accept Gillespie’s distinction between technical mastery (classical) and improvisational excellence (jazz) what comes to my mind is the idea of an American Orchestral Music (AOM) distinct from Western Classical Music (WCM). Arguably missing from Swafford’s overview is the later orchestras of jazz icons like Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, and Gerald Wilson. With nothing in the real world simply black or white, I’ll suggest AOM occupies a definable, grayish intersection between jazz and classical. And what we hear is jazz showing the influence of classical music to a far greater degree than vice versa.

A stunning example of a straightforward intersection between AOM and WCM will be found listening to the relatively obscure 1960 recording by Duke Ellington (arranged by Billy Strayhorn) of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. The story is told that Ellington and Tchaikovsky met in Las Vegas where the classical guy gave his assurance to the jazz guy that a jazz treatment of his classical composition would be appreciated. No finer example of what classical music sounds like through a jazz filter is known to me.

Two other examples demonstrating remarkable fusions of jazz and classical are also worth a listen to for comparison. First, the album Creation, a 2001 release by Branford Marsalis Jazz and Classical - Branford Marsalisperforming with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Debussy, Satie, Ravel and Milhaud, among others, get a gorgeous jazz-tinged treatment. Second, Nostalgic Journey: Tykocin Jazz Suite featuring jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker, the Wlodek Pawlik Trio and the Symphony Orchestra of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Bialystok. From 2008 we hear this moving and uplifting tribute to a family’s quest to reclaim their Polish heritage. We also hear a jazz soloist, a jazz trio and a classical orchestra interacting in unexpected ways with modern compositions having clear WCM roots.

Jazz and Classical: Evolving Textures

In contrast to these suggestions, the extended suite A Tone Parallel to Harlem finds Ellington in a space uncomfortable for both jazz and classical enthusiasts. The music is daring and challenging as it moves over evolving textures inspired by the daily sounds of life in New York City. Frankly, this music is distinct even from other, more popular Ellington compositions for orchestra, such as The Liberian Suite. Harlem may most perfectly embody my definition of AOM. This is not background music, it is rarely played on the radio and never heard live, so again, another relatively obscure performance. The music here floats above any debate distinguishing the jazz and classical music chasm, comfortable in being neither. A circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

These days the term Big Band is regularly used to reference orchestral performances in jazz circles. Heavy hitters like Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride have produced big band albums recently, and these recordings sound great as they carry on in the jazz tradition, but mostly without reference to classical music. With the compositions and arrangements created by Ellington and Oliver not so much heard these days, it is difficult to compare Big Band with AOM. Which is regrettable. The epic sweep of traditional classical music can most readily be found with a taste of jazz in the works of American Orchestral Music composers and arrangers, of which this millennium has not yet heard much from.

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