Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On Returning to Jazz

All of a sudden, I find myself listening to a lot of jazz again. I posted before about my exhaustion with jazz, which resulted in my not buying a lot of it anymore. This is still true, though I retain the habit, wherever I go, of looking for recordings by certain musicians (usually Anthony Braxton, Paul Bley, Joe McPhee, and William Parker); for the most part I can count on nothing being available, so I'm safe. But, as previously mentioned, I've been digging the stuff posted over at Destination: Out. Recent posts about Marion Brown, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Don Cherry, as well as Sunday's on Sam Rivers, have been illuminating and a lot of fun. And besides, I have a bunch of recordings that I've barely absorbed, so there's plenty to investigate in my own collection. The other night, I dragged out my copy of Ornette Coleman's Beauty Is a Rare Thing, one of the cooler box sets I own, and listened to that classic stuff for the first time in a few years. Always an enjoyable experience.

So, that's been part of it. As it happens, though, I did buy a few jazz cds when we were in France. I'd compiled a short list of record stores in Paris before we left, but it turned out that I didn't bother seeking any of them out. However, I did pop into the monstrously massive Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees. I didn't really have a lot of time to kill there, and the pop/rock section was completely overwhelming, so I gave up and moved on to the jazz room. The selection was not as deep as I would have expected, and anyway price was an issue. Nevertheless, I walked out with four cds:
  • Paul Bley, Homage to Carla
  • Paul Bley/Evan Parker/Barre Phillips, Time Will Tell
  • Joe Harriott, Genius
  • Max Roach, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.
This was pretty much all the music we had to listen to as we drove around the country-side and up into the mountains in Provence. We listened to each cd five or six times or more. I recommend it: It was a great soundtrack to a great trip.

Anyway, the four cds. They're all good.

We Insist! is a classic, from 1960, with Abbey Lincoln on vocals and a band that includes, aside from Roach on drums and as bandleader, Coleman Hawkins, Booker Little, and Julian Priester. I'd read about it in Robert Cook and Brian Morton's Penguin Guide to Jazz, in which it was one of the few records to be awarded their coveted crown rating (is it wrong that I've tried to get as many of the crowned records as I could? I know they're supposed to be idiosyncratic choices, but I haven't really been steered wrong yet...), but I'd never been able to find it. The record is an explicitly political statement, with lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr.. It's certainly of its period, but it never feels dated. The band burns, and Abbey Lincoln is excellent. I've never listened to her before, but I like her voice and the power and emotion of her singing. I'll have to keep her in mind in the future.

I first heard of Joe Harriott when Ken Vandermark released his tribute album a few years ago, then I looked him up in Penguin, but I'd never seen his own records anywhere (admittedly, I did not look very hard), so I snapped this one up, even though I knew it wasn't one of "the ones to get", which I understand to be Free Form or Abstract. Genius is kind of a hodge-podge of stuff. Put out by the UK label Jazz Academy (which appears to have specifically educational goals), it gathers various performances from two different sets with Harriott and his 1961 quintet, as well as two other performances featuring Harriott as a sideman in bands led by Michael Garrick (about whom I know nothing). The Harriott groups play nice versions of "Moanin'", "Round About Midnight", "Love For Sale", and "Body and Soul", as well as some of Harriott's own compositions, which he introduces as "abstract". It's an enjoyable recording. (One weird thing about it: in the second grouping, comprising tracks 5-9, the bass was over-dubbed in 1999.)

Then there's Paul Bley. My interest in Bley came about entirely by way of reading the Penguin Guide. Bley has a huge discography, covering more than 50 years (!), and Cook and Morton are fans. I quickly compiled a sizable list of Bley albums to look out for. Probably the first Bley performance I actually heard was "Ramblin'", his lone song on the excellent Jazzactuel box, compiled by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley. The first Bley cd I bought was a reissue of the fantastic ESP album, Closer, not covered in my edition of the Guide. Over time I have assembled a decent cross-section of albums from throughout his career (though this still amounts to only like eleven cds), including the absolutely essential solo piano recording, Open, To Love.

Of the two new ones, the solo Homage to Carla was the first one we listened to, and it's quite good. Right away we were treated to Bley's characteristic clustered notes and melodic structured-yet-free playing. As might have been guessed from the title, here he is playing songs written by his ex-wife, Carla Bley. I'm not familiar with much of her work (I have one LP), so I can't say anything about how the interpretations stack up against the originals or other versions.

Time Will Tell was the true gem, though. Of all of the cds, we listened to this one the most. I'd already had the later Sankt Gerold cd featuring the same grouping, and the setup is the same: several trio performances, with the members of the trio splitting off into duos for a handful of tracks, as appears to be common in recent ECM sessions. As with Sankt Gerold, the album is more mellow than a freely improvised record featuring Evan Parker might lead one to believe. There are a few instances of Parker going off on one of his circular-breathing exercises, by they don't last too long, and are anyway typically virtuosic. There will be moments where it sounds like the music is falling down a hill (perfect for driving in the mountains!), or Bley's piano sounds delicate, like wind chimes, which mixes with Parker's sax and Phillips' often-bowed bass to create some truly spooky atmospherics. At times the music will sound chaotic, with the musicians trying to find each other, then Bley will seem to erupt into a beautiful melodic figure--I'm always amazed by this with Bley, what I perceive to be his ability to produce spontaneous melodies, melodies that stay with me. Time Will Tell is a great, great modern jazz album.

Elsewhere, I came across this guest post by Destination: Out's Chilly Jay Chill over at Marathonpacks, an mp3 blog that is new to me. He is there to talk about the recent Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid collaborations, but along the way the takes the time to offer up a brief primer and needed corrective on people's expectations of "free jazz", including the idea that it's all just "cacophonous noise":
Well yeah, some of it is really noisy. That’s the strain of the music that’s influenced Sonic Youth, Black Dice, The Boredoms, Wolf Eyes, The Stooges, Lightning Bolt, MC5, and the like. Think of it as ecstatic freak-out music. The sort of thing that will peel back the lid of your skull and rearrange your atoms. BUT that’s only one small part of the music. Free Jazz spans 50 years and numerous countries and includes music that’s so delicate it’s practically ambient as well as tunes with a funk beat strong enough to shake the dance floor. Not to mention the pieces that showcase echoes of melodic folk music, Indian rhythms, minimalist repetitions, gutbucket blues, Hendrixian squalls, orchestral grandeur, big band exotica, electronic beats, proto-punk swagger, and much more. It’s an entire continent of sound represented by tens of thousands of albums and approaches. Once you start digging, you’ll be amazed by the sheer variety and vitality of the genre. There’s something for just about every taste – all you need is a slightly open mind.
An excellent read. I'd like to suggest that the music of Paul Bley, particularly as represented on these two cds with Evan Parker and Barre Phillips, is a great way to approach some of this music, especially if you're wary of saxophone skronk and marathon noise sessions.

In the course of writing this, I came across another blog that's new to me, Different Waters, which has had two recent posts on Bley, specifically on Open, To Love and Sankt Gerold (this one mostly quotes from a Pop Matters review). Also, moving away from Bley, I am grateful to Carl Wilson at Zoilus for linking to this wonderful interview with Joe McPhee from 2000.


Scraps said...

Ronald Shannon Jackson's Man Dance -- very much in the Ornette Coleman harmolodic mold -- was one of the first five jazz albums to blow me away. I still like his stuff a lot, though his discography is a mess, thanks to the Knitting Factory reissue series on which he changed song and even album titles in some cases.

I came to Paul Bley via Carla Bley. I like Paul Bley, especially his solo stuff, and have accumulated quite a bit. But Carla Bley is still one of my favorites. Her stuff is not very much like his; she's more of a composer and arranger than a brilliant soloist, and over time she's moved toward an increasingly melodic and mellow style. I know people who can't stand her stuff, think it's jazz lite, etc, and it's true that her music has the feel of soft jazz, if you're just plaing it in the background and not paying attention. I don't care, I think it's gorgeous. Probably her best albums in that mode are Heavy Heart and Sextet. If you want things a little edgier and more peculier, Social Studies is the place to go. She also wrote all the songs for an oddball rock album, Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports (yes, that Nick Mason).

I don't have Homage to Carla, dammit, and need to track that down.

Broadsheet said...

I agree with scraps. Don't miss Carla Bley in her own right. Reading your post brought back a flood of memories of haunting old record shops while living in Vienna and listening to these recordings driving through the alps.

And if you like kind of classic jazz you descrbie, don't miss people like Franz Kolglmann, Lee Konitz (who has some stuff Paul Bley and Gary Peacock on his albums), Joe McPhee, the incomparable Jimmy Guiffre, and of course, Gil Evans. I adore his album "Paris Blues".

Thanks for a great post of great memories....

Scraps said...

The Jimmy Giuffre trio albums with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow are excellent.

Richard said...

I have Free Fall, but I need to give it some more attention and look for the others... thanks.