Sunday, January 02, 2005

Artie Shaw

Last week, the great clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw passed away.

WAMU, one of DC's public radio stations, has a long-running old time/big band jazz program, Hot Jazz Saturday Night. The DJ is very knowlegable and has a huge record collection -- I learned a lot listening to his show. On New Year’s Day, he did a nice tribute to Artie Shaw. To listen, click here.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Best Jazz CDs of 2004

STRANGE LIBERATIONS, Dave Douglas. Beautiful and witty. At times reminiscent of Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, yet original and innovative. (More here.)

SUSPENDED NIGHT, Tomasz Stanko Quartet. New Europe does jazz right. Polish trumpeter Stanko has produced a powerful, lyrically intense gem.

CHANGING PLACES, Tord Gustaven Trio. A 2003 release, but on Amazon it is currently the #2 CD in Chile, and I bought it this year, so I am counting it. Norwegian pianists Gustaven’s most recent release is beautiful and haunting. Bill Evans would approve.

CELESTIAL MECHANIX: BLUE SERIES MASTERMIX. DJ Spooky works his magic on tracks from Mathew Shipp’s innovative Blue Series. Postmodern jazz meets hip-hop electronica.

MYLAB, Mylab. Eclectic wonder. If you took jazz, funk, pop, electronica, samples, amazing musicians and threw them in an aural mixer, you would get Mylab – the future of jazz.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Straightaway Dangerous: Theolonius Monk’s CRISS-CROSS

Thelonious Monk, Criss-Cross
(Monk, piano; Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; John Ore, bass; Frankie Dunlop, drums)

Originally released in 1963, Criss-Cross shows Monk at his playful and deconstructive best. Of particular note is Monk’s take on the standard Tea for Two. He breaks the melody down to its essence and rebuilds it with his own quirky harmonies—not Monk’s most radical performance, but it provides real insight into his style and, if you have never heard Monk, it is a great introduction to this innovative jazz master.

Oddly, Monk’s aesthetic approach often reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s. They were both playful and innovative, and they both remained attuned to traditional forms while making them radically unique:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the MajorityIn this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

--Emily Dickinson, 1890

Workin' It with Nat Adderley

Nat Adderley couldn’t have picked a better name for his 1960 recording, Work Song. This disc is classic straight-ahead, hard-working jazz. Nat, Cannonball’s (of Kind of Blue fame) younger brother, tears it up on coronet. Joined by the incomparable Wes Montgomery on guitar, the work horse Bobby Timmons on piano, Percy Heath on bass, Louis Hayes on drums, and Sam Jones or Ketter Betts on cello or bass, this merry band of workaholics delivers concise linear attacks that remind you of blue neon, an upbeat waitress, scrambled eggs, and tapping work boots. Need a boast after a hard day? Then slide this disc in the player. You won’t regret it, or forget it.

Saving Eric Dolphy from Plastics

Imagine my delight and then chagrin when sitting in my hotel room in Amarillo, TX--the heart of the high plains, flat as a mattress, home of cattle auctions and the National Quarter Horse museum--I heard a snippet of 60’s avant-garde jazz coming from the television. I was pretty sure it was Eric Dolphy with Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. I reached for my iPod, dialed up Dolphy and sure enough the phrase I heard was from Hat and Bread the opening cut on the great Out to Lunch. The commercial was for (long pause) The American Plastics Council—how mundane. Was Benjamin Braddock listening after all? And they could have at least sampled Ornette Coleman. He did use a plastic sax.

But this disconcerting moment, does give me an opportunity to write about one of the great all time jazz albums—Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. Eric Dolphy was a hyper-talented, mutli-instrumental reed man (alto sax, flute, bass clarinet, clarinet) who died tragically in 1964 at the age of 36 from undiagnosed diabetes. Had Dolphy lived he may have been as well known as Coltrane and Mingus. He played with both, was influenced by and influenced both, and was as talented as both. As this album, recorded the year he died, witnesses he was at the height of his short career and clearly entering the modern pantheon that included not only Coltrane and Mingus, but Monk and Miles as well.

Featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, the amazing Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Richard Davis on bass, and muscular speedster Tony Williams on drums, Out To Lunch explores the dissonance between tone, rhythm, and melody creating a driving, dynamic lyricism that rivals Pollock or DeKooning at their abstract best. From the opening horn burst on Hat and Bread (a tribute to Monk) that leads to a driving base line, then a melodic interplay between Dolphy on bass clarinet to and Hutherson on vibes to the final notes on Straight Up and Down this album is amazing. I could go on an on but just go out and buy it (or stay home and down load it). And remember when you are fingering the jewel case or cradling your iPod the future of jazz isn’t plastics, but was, and is, Eric Dolphy.

If you want to hear more Dolphy, I highly recommend Dolphy’s Live at the Five Spot, Vol. 1, John Coltrane’s The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard (Dolphy is integral on one the greatest live recordings of all time), and Charles Mingus’s Town Hall Concert 1964 (another great live disc recorded a couple of months before Dolphy died).

To see pictures of Dolphy, click here.

K-Mart co-opts Coltrane

Kmart is using Cotrane’s My Favorite Things in a holiday commercial. What next? Target using samples from Ascension.

The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel

I've been listening to Miles Davis' The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel all week. Awesome. A tour-de-force. Recorded in Dec. 1965 during a two-night gig at Chicago's legendary Plugged Nickel, it features Davis' best quintet--Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. As much as I love Davis' earlier quintets and sextets with Coltrane, this quintet is tighter and musician-for-musician more talented. At his peak, Coltrane had no peers, but Coltrane was still coming into is own when he was with Miles. And it is a toss up between Bill Evans and Hancock, but Evans really only played on Kind of Blue. But comparing these two great combos is like comparing King Lear to Hamlet. The music on these 8 cds ranges from lyrical to avant-garde, from stark and singular to lush and multifaceted. But most of all the music is a collection of improvisational masterpieces.I highly recommend it. Give it a listen. Put it on your Christmas list (it isn't cheap).


Recorded 3 years before his landmark Kind of Blue (the bestselling jazz album of all time), Miles Davis’ ‘ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT would be a seminal work for most artists, but for a master like Davis it counts as transitional. After a monumental last session that finished his contractual obligations to Prestige (a session that produce four great albums), this was Davis’ first album with his new label, Columbia. Featuring a classic quintet made of Davis, John Coltrane on tenor; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums, Miles is still experimenting with traditional bop, developing what would be come hard bop, but he hadn’t yet fully discovered the beautiful modality that characterized his breakthrough, Kind of Blue. Yet you can hear the origins, especially in Davis’ beautiful interpretation of Monk’s classic, ‘Round Midnight. On the album’s second track the quintet reworks Charlie Parker’s bop classic Ah-Leu-Cha and lays the foundation for many hard bop cuts that follow. On the third track, they tackle Cole Porter’s great standard, All of You, and again you can hear in Davis’ plaintive opening solo and in Contrane’s solo not only great balladering, but the tonal qualities that would be explored and expanded on Kind of Blue. In this album of standards (there is not one original by a quintet member), Davis paid tribute to the past while once again creating the future. A classic. Every jazz collection should include this disc.

Point of Departure

Pianist Andrew Hill’s POINT OF DEPARTURE (Blue Note, recorded March 21, 1964) is one of the all time great jazz recordings. Hill’s abstract, yet lyrical, compositions deftly weave the avant-garde with bop to produce some of the most engaging, intelligent, and beautiful jazz of the 1960’s (and this decade provides a lot of competition). He is backed by a great set of players who complement Hill’s wonderful performance: the great Eric Dolphy on reeds, tenor sax legend Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorhman on trumpet, Richard Davis on bass, and Miles Davis’ great drummer Tony Williams. For anyone who wants to start exploring the avant-garde side of jazz this is a great place to start. Hill has managed to do the almost impossible, create accessible, yet abstract, music. A great album, I highly recommend it.

To learn more about Andrew Hill, visit his web site at:

The Tenor Scene

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’ and Johnny Griffin’s THE TENOR SCENE, recorded live at Minton’s Playhouse on Jan. 6th, 1961, is a hard-driving classic. These two great tenor men loved playing and it shows on this album. They are having a great time blowing hard and fast. This is just good ole’ playing—nothing fancy (except that you can tell they have great skill and technique), just some great straight-ahead jazz.

Strange Liberations

Trumpet player Dave Douglas's most recent release is witty and beautiful—at times reminiscent of Miles Davis's IN A SILENT WAY. Douglas leads his sextet (which includes Bill Frisell, guitar; Chris Potter, tenor sax, bass clarinet; Uri Caine, Fender Rhodes; James Genus, acoustic and electric bass; Clarence Penn; drums percussion) through an agile blend of acoustic and electric jazz. A Single Sky & the title track, Strange Liberation are subtle beauties, Skeeter-ism is a postmodern, ironic, humorous take on a nourish movie soundtrack, with Douglas showing some amazing chops. Currently, my favorite tracks are Mountains From The Train—a wonderful lyrical piece, and Rock of Billy—pure, postmodern, hard-driving, hard bop. STRANGE LIBERATION is a great album, and if you want to check out the latest in jazz, you can’t go wrong starting with this CD.

To hear some sample clips, click here.

To learn more about Dave Douglas, visit his web site: