30 May 2008

Review

Charles Lloyd Quartet
Rabo de Nube


With so many past masters of jazz passing away these days, I pay attention when an old lion releases a new recording - indeed, morbid as the thought may be, we have no way of knowing if each recording will be that particular musicians' final album. So you can understand why my interest was piqued when I heard that Charles Lloyd had released a live album recorded last year in Europe. Rabo de Nube, his latest offering, serves as a fond look back for Lloyd, in which he and his band run through a series of tunes from various stages of his vast career. Showing the introspective maturity one would expect of a lion in winter, Lloyd constantly pulls moments of surprise and beauty out of some familiar tunes, including "Sweet Georgia Bright," first heard on the 1964 Cannonball Adderley album Fiddler on The Roof. He and his band put into practice Ralph Ellison's dictum that jazz can put people directly in the present moment, where they can reflect on the past while also looking forward.

And what a band it is, with piano wunderkind Jason Moran injecting much energy into Lloyd's frequent sidemen Ruben Rogers and Eric Harland. This quartet lives up to the standard set by Lloyd's past ensembles with Keith Jarrett, Billy Hart, and others, and pushes Lloyd into heady territory. Jason Moran may be the best young pianist in jazz, who already has an impressive discography to his own credit. His uses of complex rhythmic and harmonic devices, combined with his percussive style and historically-minded approach to piano, make this album more than just a blowing session. He and his former schoolmate, Harland, drive Lloyd during his solos. Combined with Lloyd's characteristic warm tone, Harland and Moran balance out the ensemble, giving pulse and drive to Lloyd's Coltrane-inspired melodicism. Rogers, a newcomer to Lloyd's quartet as well, more than holds his own, letting Moran and Harland lead the comping during Lloyd's solos without disappearing behind them. His soloing is also impressive and melodically fresh.

Highlights on this disc include the opening track, "Prometheus," as well as the aforementioned "Sweet Georgia Bright," in which Lloyd and his band let loose. Also of note is "La Colline de Monk," the lead-in to "Sweet Georgia Bright," in which Moran channels Thelonious Monk in new and surprising ways (no small feat), filtering stride foundations and Monkish harmonies through his own inventive rhythms. Moran's monologue on "La Colline de Monk" is emblematic of the album, reworking familiar material with a new approach which challenges the listener and personifies the Ellisonian stance of looking forward while also looking back. Released a few days shy of his seventieth birthday, Charles Lloyd has shown with Rabo de Nube that he is still Charles Lloyd, and his listeners are all the better for it.

Track Listing: Prometheus; Migration of Spirit; Booker's Garden; Ramanujan; La Colline de Monk; Sweet Georgia Bright; Rabo de Nube
Personnel: Lloyd, saxophone, flute; Jason Moran, piano; Ruben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums

23 May 2008

Friday Album Cover: Cool Struttin'

Sonny Clark
Cool Struttin'

It's back to Blue Note this week for the Friday album cover with Sonny Clark's Cool Struttin'. Recorded in 1958, it is a notable example of the hard bop style prevalent during the mid-1950s, and also epitomizes the "Blue Note Sound." Hard Bop was clearly the most danceable style of postwar jazz, as evident in its popularity in ghetto jukeboxes between the mid-fifties and mid-sixties. The legs on this cover aptly display the feeling Clark imparts on the album: cool, swinging, and stylish.

17 May 2008

Out of Office

I'll be out of town and without internet access until Friday, so until then, enjoy some Miles Davis.


16 May 2008

Friday Album Cover: Oh!

ScoLoHoFo
Oh!


For this week's album cover, I'm going with Oh!, the 2003 recording of ScoLoHoFo, a supergroup consisting of John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, and Al Foster. Like some of our other Friday album covers, this one comes courtesy of Blue Note, proving that the label is still dedicated to presenting distinctive album art in the 21st century. This cover is reminiscent of the Beatles' Let it Be in its compartmentalization of the four principles of the group, represented here by their respective instruments.

The comparison to Let It Be also provides an interesting insight into the jazz group. Many rock critics have pointed out that the presentation of the Beatles in individual frames on Let It Be is quite significant, being that it was the last album the band would release together before breaking up. It is now well-known that the band was under considerable tension by this point in its history. Indeed, the project had to be salvaged in post-production by Phil Spector, since the band members were not talking to each other by the end of the Let it Be sessions. Considering this interpersonal strife, the layout of the album cover seems like a telling omen in hindsight, with John, Paul, George, and Ringo just breaking free of each other before calling it quits for good.

This is clearly not the case with ScoLoHoFo. True, they only came together for one album, and did not suffer from the pressure of stardom like the Beatles did. But even so, for these four musicians, all of whom are masters of their instruments on the present jazz scene, and lead well-regarded bands of their own, coming together for an album such as this requires a certain amount of pride swallowed. But is indicative of jazz that such individuals could come together and create a work of art free of egotism. That is why it is significant that the instruments are presented on the cover to Oh!. Whereas the Beatles (or more likely their record company) employed headshots to present great individuals at work, ScoLoHoFo (or more likely Blue Note) chose to simply present the instruments in a (kind of) use of negative space. The absence of their faces says more about this album than their presence would. Alone they are individuals, together they are a jazz band, whose sound is greater than the sum of its parts.

15 May 2008

On Medeski Martin & Wood




Medeski Martin & Wood have been the most difficult to classify group in jazz for the better part of two decades. They have won legions of followers coming from diverse corners of the musical world by embracing an ecumenical approach to music, combining avant-garde harmony, hard-driving rhythm, refreshing spontaneity, and soulful sense of funk. Their music often shows up on my iPod, and I often think about the ongoing debate over "What is Jazz?" while listening to them. The trio occupies an interesting space in this debate. Though they may not be too concerned with the question, their music reveals the limitations of a restrictive definition of jazz, and highlights the difficulties encountered when trying to define a music so diverse as jazz.

Wynton Marsalis made a name for himself in the 1980s as the wunderkind who took the jazz world by storm, both with his virtuosity and his knack for publicity. Through interviews in Down Beat and articles written for publications including the New York Times, Marsalis argued for a definition of jazz which some criticized as rigid and somewhat arbitrary. In a 1988 op-ed piece for the New York Times, "What is Jazz - And Isn't," Marsalis complained, "Too often, what is represented as jazz isn't jazz at all." He argued that earlier practitioners of jazz had "created rules... that were so specific, so thorough and so demanding that a great art resulted." Marsalis elaborated to delineate a "purist ethic in jazz," which is built upon the twin pillars of blues and swing. To put it briefly, jazz music, by definition, swings and reflects a blues aesthetic. For Marsalis, swing and the blues are the sine qua non of jazz.

This by necessity caused Marsalis to dismiss large portions of the avant-garde and jazz fusion as non-jazz, a distraction from the true tradition initiated and propelled forward by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Using his post as artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis was the chief agent promulgating this strict definition of jazz, promoting the works of artists like Tadd Dameron or Duke Ellington, among many others, who easily fit into this definition. As a result, he and Jazz at Lincoln Center came under criticism from other artists and critics for ignoring artists like Muhal Richard Abrams or John McLaughlin, to name but a few, whose work falls outside Marsalis' traditional definition of jazz.

The music of Medeski Martin & Wood adds an interesting dimension to Marsalis' definition of jazz as an art built upon the twin pillars of blues and swing. Listen to the above recording of Medeski Martin & Wood playing their composition "Big Time;" one can easily hear the qualities deemed essential to jazz by Marsalis. The blues aesthetic is always present in Medeski Martin & Wood's compositions, filtered through layers of funk and dressed up with complex harmonies, giving the blues a more modern hue. This blues feeling is not contrived, either. I saw them play live in Miami Beach in 2006, and the highlight of the show was a cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” drenched in blues.

That Medeski Martin & Wood are well-versed in the blues is likely not something Marsalis would dispute. Their sense of swing, though, falls outside the boundaries of what one would expect to hear from a jazz group. Despite this, they still swing. Medeski Martin & Wood do not swing in the way that Count Basie or John Coltrane swing. They impart a more funky kind of swing, with precedents in R&B, hip hop, and rock and roll. Wynton Marsalis would not swing this way, but that does not mean Medeski Martin & Wood do not swing.

By incorporating their own take on swing, Medeski Martin & Wood reveal a multifaceted dimension of jazz which does not necessarily overturn Wynton Marsalis’ “purist ethic,” but instead arrives at that ethic from a different direction. Marsalis’ definition of jazz (blues + swing = jazz) posits a linear relationship between jazz and non jazz, with the two at opposite ends of a straight line. However, this definition does not account for a group like Medeski Martin & Wood (though, admittedly, Marsalis would probably not consider their music to be jazz). I am not of the opinion that any improvised music that claims to be jazz is jazz. There are certain qualities and stylistic elements that should be present. However, I find Marsalis’ insistence on a particular type of swing and blues to be too one-dimensional. Instead of jazz being on a line opposite non-jazz, I conceptualize jazz as an area on a plane surrounded by non-jazz. Thus, artists like Medeski Martin & Wood could occupy a different zone than, say, J.J. Johnson, but both could still be jazz.

09 May 2008

Friday Album Cover: Unity

Larry Young
Unity

It's back to Blue Note this week for the Friday Album Cover, with Larry Young's seminal 1965 album Unity. Whereas our previous Blue Note covers (A New Perspective and Out to Lunch) utilized photography to give a visual representation of the music on the respective albums, on this cover Reid Miles eschews photographs for simple text and geometric figures. A few years after making this album, Young would team up with Tony Williams and John McLaughlin to form the Tony Williams Lifetime, a major force of the jazz fusion movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By 1965, Young had not fully developed the driving sound that would characterize his work with Lifetime, but on Unity, he shows off a new conception of jazz organ which was free of the (by that time) clich├ęd groove-oriented sound pioneered by Jimmy Smith. Thus, the figure of the U with spheres rising out of the top is fitting, evoking a overflowing test tube. Young shows his mettle by leading a reknowned group of sidemen, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, and Elvin Jones, all the while demonstrating new possibilities for the Hammond B3 organ.

08 May 2008

Review

Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making
Gabriel Solis


Thelonious Monk is a curious figure in jazz history. Revered by his peers and other musicians, he did not receive the recognition he deserved from a mainstream audience until the 1960s, when he appeared on the cover of Time and was able to play regularly in the New York jazz scene again after a forced hiatus related to legal troubles. This was a full twenty years after he made his debut on the New York scene, playing in bands with Cootie Williams and Coleman Hawkins, and taking part in the jam sessions with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Christian, among others, at Minton's Playhouse where bebop was developed. It is not surprising, though, that it took awhile for the public to fully appreciate Monk, being that he was the supreme iconoclast of modern jazz. While he was often referred to as the High Priest of Bop, his own style was too unique to be lumped in with bebop, and most piano players of his day developed a style more closely related to Bud Powell's style than Monk's.

Ask any musician or jazz fan today about Monk, though, and you will likely hear that Monk is a seminal influence on most jazz musicians who came after him, and that his own idiosyncratic style is something that any jazz musician must contend with at some point in his or her musical development. In his provocative new study, Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making, musicologist Gabriel Solis examines the transformation of opinion surrounding Monk's music, and how jazz musicians of all stripes utilize Monk's music in the formation of both their own voice and competing jazz traditions. Though he begins with a cursory review of Monk's life, Solis' book is less about Monk and more about the way his jazz musicians engage with past masters in order to cultivate a personal style which drives the music forward. Solis uses the music of Thelonious Monk to demonstrate how jazz musicians make music which is "conscious of the past while simultaneously seeking to develop its impact on the present."

Solis is masterful in his analysis of recorded performances of Monk's music from artists across a broad range of styles, including Wynton Marsalis, Danilo Perez, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Solis takes the analysis further by placing Monk's music in the context of the debate between mainstream traditionalists like Marsalis and the avant garde over the definition of jazz and the role of tradition in jazz. Because Monk was an iconoclast in his own time whose ideas were later adopted and examined by a wide variety of musicians, it seems quite logical to Solis that Marsalis can claim Monk as a pillar of The Jazz Tradition, while other artists outside the jazz musician can argue that Monk is the type of artist whose existence negates a unified jazz tradition. Solis leaves the reader with a nuanced understanding of the mainstream-avant garde debate, and uses performances of Monk to illustrate the complexities of the debate.

Solis does not escape this review unscathed, though. One of his strong points is his multidisciplinary approach to jazz studies. Take a look at Solis' bibliography, and you will find Hegel, Foucault, and Erik Erikson scattered in with the usual jazz studies fare. However, while Solis can handily parse and analyze jazz musicians and their work, he has more trouble digesting Foucault. Despite this shortcoming, Solis has made a strong opening statement in his first book. He is an original thinker who can push the still-nascent field of jazz studies into new arenas and dimensions, and Monk's Music is illustrative of his academic potential, in addition to being a solid work of scholarship.

02 May 2008

Friday Album Cover: Prime Directive

Dave Holland Quintet
Prime Directive


Since the first three Friday album covers have come from old recordings, I opted for an album cover of more recent vintage this week. Dave Hollands 1999 quintet recording Prime Directive opts for a simple cover theme. The use of what looks to be a simple stoop on a city brownstone evokes a certain familiarity, which is representative of the sympatico relationship between the members of Holland's band. Holland's quintet has been one of the most exciting groups in jazz for the past decade, largely because he manages to keep a stable lineup that plays and records together often enough to develop an impressive cohesion. Indeed, a recording from this quintet often feels like a meeting among friends on the stoop; the group sounds like they have been playing together their entire lives, but continue to interest each other (and their audience) because they can explore sides of each others' personality that can only be revealed through close contact over a period of years.

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