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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Soft tissues

Artchipel Orchestra 3If you happen to be in Italy, and you get a move on, you can probably still buy the September issue of the monthly magazine Musica Jazz, which has a cover-mounted CD: Ferdinando Faraò & Artchipel Orchestra Play Soft Machine. For several reasons, this is a good thing to own.

Faraò set up the orchestra four years ago, with an unusual mission: to reinterpret the work of British jazz and jazz-rock composers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After making a start on Mike Westbrook, Fred Frith, Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen, he moved on to the Soft Machine. Most recently, in June, the orchestra’s guests at the Fasano festival were Keith and Julie Tippetts. Their leader obviously sees something he likes in the music being made in London during an all too brief era when young rock and jazz musicians worked freely together and anything seemed possible.

The CD that comes with Musica Jazz concentrates in particular on the compositions of the late Hugh Hopper, the Softs’ bass guitarist from 1968 to 1973. Five of Hopper’s tunes — “Facelift”, “Kings and Queens”, “Noisette”, “Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening” and “Moustrap” — are among the seven tracks on the 55-minute CD, which was recorded in a Milan studio last December. The other two are Faraò’s “Facelift: Prelude”, an atmospheric introduction to the set , and Robert Wyatt’s classic “Moon in June”, concluding the album in a loose but well organised interpretation featuring Filippo Pascuzzi and Serena Ferrara, two of the ensemble’s four singers.

Faraò and his fellow arranger, Beppe Barbera, aren’t making carbon copies of the originals here. They’re devising revisions that bring unusual resources to bear on the material, exposing facets of beauty that we might not have imagined to be present, even in embryo. To “Kings and Queens”, first heard on Soft Machine’s 4 in 1971, they bring the vocal quartet, a bass riff doubled by Simone Mauri’s bass clarinet, and colouristic interventions by Flavio Minardo’s sitar, Eloisa Manera’s violin and Paolo Botti’s viola. “Dedicated to You…”, which dates from 1969, is successfully rearranged for acapella voices in a treatment inspired by the Delta Saxophone Quartet’s version.

This band has improvisers of substance, too, as we learn from the thoughtful contributions of Germano Zenga’s tenor saxophone, Felice Clemente’s soprano and in particular Massimo Falascone’s unaccompanied alto on an expansive reading of “Noisette”, which Hopper wrote in 1969 and which first appeared on the Softs’ Third in 1970.

I’ve been listening recently listening to Hopper’s solo album, 1984 (released in 1973), and to Canterburied Sounds, the four-CD set of archive material recorded between 1962 and 1972 in mostly informal situations by the various early members of the Softs, and released in full last on the Floating World label. The Artchipel Orchestra’s album presents another perspective on the work of a fascinating musician, and deserves a proper commercial release.

(Addendum: See Alessandro’s reply for information on how to get hold of the relevant issue of Musica Jazz.)

* The photograph of Ferdinando Faraò and the Artchipel Orchestra was taken by Angela Bartolo at the Ah Um festival in Milan in 2011 and is taken from the band’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/artchipelorchestra/

 

 

Gerald Wilson 1918-2014

Gerald Wilson PortraitsThe news of Gerald Wilson’s death this week at the age of 96 reminds us of the sheer scale of his career: he wrote his first arrangement in 1939 (for Jimmie Lunceford) and was still making fine records with his own large ensemble well after the turn of the millennium. In between times he produced an enormous amount of worthwhile music, as is recounted in a good Los Angeles Times obituary by Don Heckman here. But three albums that he made with his own big band for Pacific Jazz in the early ’60s — You Better Believe It!, Moment of Truth and Portraits — have always been particularly precious to me, for the way they blend the influences of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans with a receptiveness to then-current developments in modal jazz and the avant-garde, and for the presence of a bunch of smoking soloists.

Wilson wrote music that swung hard, but he never disengaged his brain or his imagination — Portraits includes tracks dedicated to Aram Khachaturian, Ravi Shankar and Eric Dolphy — and he provided a stimulating framework for such hand-picked improvisers as the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonist Lou Blackburn, the altoist Jimmy Woods and the tenorists Teddy Edwards and Harold Land.

Here’s a clip from the episode of Frankly Jazz, a Hollywood TV show sponsored by Pacific Jazz, that featured Wilson’s band. It shows them performing a snatch of “Blues for Yna Yna”, the hit tune from You Better Believe It! (on which it featured the organist Richard “Groove” Holmes), before going into Wilson’s storming arrangement of Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, from Moment of Truth. The leader picks up his trumpet to kick off a solo sequence that also features Buddy Collette on alto, Blackburn on trombone, Edwards on tenor and Jack Wilson on piano. The drummer is Mel Lewis, the bassist is Jimmy Bond and other recognisable faces include the altoist Joe Maini and the baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz.

If you want more, here’s Wilson’s original version of “Viva Tirado“, also from Moment of Truth, with Joe Pass on guitar and Carmell Jones on trumpet. It’s how one part of LA sounded in 1963. Still pretty hip, if you ask me.

* The photograph of Gerald Wilson is from the cover of Portrait and was taken by Woody Woodward.

Strings attached

Bird with strings 2Charlie Parker’s album with strings was the record that persuaded Gilad Atzmon to become a jazz musician. “Now I wish I’d never heard it,” the Israeli-born, London-based alto saxophonist and bandleader announced at Ronnie Scott’s last night, giving his listeners a reminder of the sort of sardonic humour not regularly heard at 47 Frith Street since the club’s founder died in 1996.

Supervised by Norman Granz in 1949, and also featuring oboe, French horn and harp along with a five- or six-piece string section, the Bird with Strings sessions broadened Parker’s audience but were despised by critics. You can see why: on the face of it, this is the equivalent of covering a monastery refectory’s fine, plain oak table with a fancy lace cloth. And there’s no Bud Powell or Dizzy Gillespie or Max Roach to interact with the greatest improviser of his age. But the weird thing is how great the records sound today: Parker, who never spoke ill of the project, soars above the background, his inventions dizzyingly crammed with substance and always propelled by that extraordinary life-force.

Atzmon was performing some of the pieces from those recordings with his quartet, the Orient House Ensemble (Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums), and the Sigamos Quartet (violinists Ros Stephen and Marianne Haynes, viola-player Felix Tanner and cellist Laura Moody). Stephen’s arrangements update the work done on the original sessions by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, making effective use of the pared-down resources and creating a strong bond between the two sides of what is in effect a double quartet. They recorded some of them in the same format on Atzmon’s album In Loving Memory of America in 2009, and the following year Atzmon and Stephen joined Robert Wyatt on For the Ghosts Within, where the ghosts included the spirit of Bird with Strings.

At Ronnie’s they featured “Everything Happens to Me”, “April in Paris” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, all of which featured Atzmon’s pungent sound and urgent triple-time flurries, with Harrison’s delicate soloing providing the occasional oasis of calm reflection. Unlike those pieces, which remained close to the approach and mood of the Parker recordings, “If I Should Lose You” contained noir-ish sound effects from the string quartet while “What Is This Thing Called Love” came retrofitted with a trip-hop beat and deadpan string riffs. Several of Atzmon’s own compositions also varied the mix, including one called “Moscow”, from a recent album devoted to portraits of major cities, its hint of bombast capturing the sometimes oppressive ambiance of the Russian capital.

They finished with a piece that is, as Atzmon observed, one of the most beautiful of all jazz-associated tunes: David Raksin’s “Laura”, composed for Otto Preminger’s 1945 movie but transformed four years later into a vehicle for Parker’s genius, and the perfect way to end an enormously enjoyable evening of homage and rebirth.

* The photograph of Charlie Parker with his string players is taken from Gary Giddins’s book Celebrating Bird (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), where it was used by permission of Maely Daniele Dufty and the Bevan Dufty Collection. 

Marius Neset / Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

http://youtu.be/watDRZJLB6U

It was a liberating moment for large jazz ensembles in general when Carla Bley and Charlie Haden decided, while putting together the first Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1968, that big bands no longer had to operate according to a policy of strict precision. The informality of the amateur bands assembled for Balkan weddings, Sicilian funerals or Andalucian saints’ day parades seemed more appropriate to the spirit of jazz than the militaristic discipline associated with, say, the Buddy Rich Orchestra. It was something that Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus had always known, but they were thought to be exceptions to the rule that if you have four trumpeters, they should start and finish a phrase as if they were four mouthpieces attached to a single instrument, rather than the voices of four individuals.

Something similar happened in rock music when the Band came along. The voices of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm were distinct from each other, each with its own tone and grain. This cross-textured quality set their harmonies apart from those of, say, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons, who aimed to produce a unified, homogenised choral sound.

I was thinking about that while listening to the saxophonist Marius Neset and the 11-piece Trondheim Jazz Orchestra perform pieces from their recent ACT album, Lion, at Ronnie Scott’s last night. These conservatory-trained Norwegians are phenomenal technicians, and the compositions Neset has provided for them are complex and challenging, to say the least, but the collective attack of the ensemble has nothing to do with nanosecond exactness and everything to do with the human element of a dozen people playing together. That humanity was the overriding impression left by an hour and a half of exceptional music.

The breadth and subtlety of Neset’s writing for this usual ensemble (two trumpets, trombone, tuba, three saxophones, accordion, piano, bass and drums) demonstrates that he is a musical thinker of great qualities, with a gift for unexpected combinations of instrumental timbres that is handed down from Ellington and Gil Evans (the opening of the ballad titled “Raining”, for instance, was ravishing). His long, often discursive pieces left plenty of room for solos by each of the musicians, all of whom made handsome use of the opportunity. Eivind Loning’s trumpet multiphonics, Eirik Hegdal’s rampaging baritone saxophone (imagine John Surman after swallowing a bag of rusty nails), Jovan Pavlovic’s delicate accordion and Espen Berg’s discreet piano — occupying a clearing that suddenly appeared in the middle of the otherwise densely eventful “Weight of the World” — were outstanding. The individual highlight of the whole night, however, was a long, long bass solo by Petter Eldh, whose energy and inventiveness seemed inexhaustible; somewhere inside my head, his sprung rhythms were still unwinding themselves the next morning.

I don’t think Neset himself is a great improviser yet. He has all the equipment, but in the arc of his solos and his mannerisms — the horn comes out of his mouth and his left hand flies off the keys at regular intervals, while his blond hair flops rather fetchingly as his body flexes in ecstasy — he’s less like a conventional jazz musician than a lead guitarist in a prog-rock band, whose playing always has to build inexorably to a climax guaranteed to lift listeners from their seats. Which, in his case, it does. But once a night is enough. After that it begins to feel predictable. At 29, however, he has time on his side.

The New Yorker vs Sonny Rollins

Sonny RollinsI grew up reading Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker, admiring the work of a writer who, with infinite sensitivity and imagination, used words to evoke the sound and humanity of jazz and of the individuals who played it. Balliett died in 2008, aged 80; whenever I open his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, I learn something about how to listen and how to write.

So it was with horror that I read the other day, on the New Yorker‘s website, a spoof interview with Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist. Under the headline “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words”, someone calling himself Django Gold invented an interview in which the musician trashes his own life and work in the most caustically dismissive terms. Here it is.

A lot of people were upset, leading to the insertion of the italic paragraph indicating that the piece was intended to be a work of satire. But damage had been done, and not all of it can be undone by hurried clarifications. On their respective blogs, the trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the critic Howard Mandel expressed their anger with considerable eloquence.

I associate myself with their sentiments. Whether or not Rollins is one of your favourite saxophonists, few have worked with greater dedication to extend a command of both instrumental technique and the idiom’s inner workings. In this connection it’s still worth reading Gunther Schuller’s ground-breaking essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation”, published in the first issue of the short-lived Jazz Review in 1958. Whatever its intention, Django Gold’s piece insults a great and much revered artist.

Rollins, who turns 84 next month and has not been in great health lately, was given the chance to express his feelings in a video interview with Doug Yoel. It’s half an hour long and sometimes repetitive, but stick with it. Looking back over a career that began in the late 1940s, Rollins says he remembers articles proclaiming “Jazz is dead” in magazines every five or 10 years throughout that time. “Jazz has been mocked, minimalised and marginalised throughout its history,” he says. Now Django Gold and the editors of a magazine’s website have done their bit. Jazz is still a part of New York, but evidently no longer an important part of the New Yorker.

Zen archer

Charles Lloyd 1There’s a poignant moment during Arrows into Infinity, a new biographical film about Charles Lloyd, when the saxophonist recalls a conversation by the bedside of his old friend and colleague Billy Higgins in 2001. The great drummer, who is close to death, declares that they’ve got to keep working on the music. “He’s like 90lb,” Lloyd says. “I said, ‘Are you going to get off this bed and come back and play with me?’ He said, ‘I didn’t say I’d be there, but I’ll always be with you.'”

Lloyd is a spiritual man, which accounts for his absence from music for several years in the 1970s. In conventional career terms, his withdrawal made no sense. His late-’60s quartet, with Keith Jarrett on piano, had sold plenty of records and made connections beyond the usual jazz audience; they had played the Fillmore and toured behind the Iron Curtain. He had appeared as a guest on recordings by the Beach Boys (Holland, 15 Big Ones, MIU) and the post-Morrison Doors (Full Circle). Nevertheless he chose to drop out, in response to the music industry’s unwelcome expectations. “They wanted me to become a product,” he says in the film. “And to become a product, I would have to be predictable. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. I was looking for the zone, the holy grail of music. That was my salvation, because I had heard it and I knew what it was. That was my saviour. It was the light.”

He moved from Malibu to Big Sur, married an artist named Dorothy Darr, and established a different sort of life, his performing for a while largely restricted to playing the oboe at readings by his neighbours Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Not until 1980 did the French pianist Michel Petrucciani pay him a visit and entice him back to the public stage. Since then he has re-established himself as an important figure, recording a series of albums for the ECM label, where he was teamed first in a quartet with the pianist Bobo Stenson and then with other partners including Higgins, the guitarist John Abercrombie, the pianist Geri Allen, the tabla master Zakir Hussain and the singer Maria Farantouri.

His current quartet features Jason Moran (piano), Ruben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums), young men who clearly relish their interaction with a veteran whose sound and ideas become more exquisitely distilled with each passing year. It’s a fine band, a perfect setting for his breadth of vision. Here they are at a French jazz festival in 2011, giving Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” a rather different treatment.

Born in Memphis in 1938, Lloyd listened to Lester Young and Charlie Parker as a teenager and played R&B with Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker before leaving for Los Angeles. I first heard him as a key member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet of 1962-63, one of my favourite groups of the time. Lloyd wrote virtually all of the group’s material, which — like his own tenor-playing — took its inspiration from John Coltrane’s innovations and marked a fruitful change of direction for Hamilton, away from chamber jazz and towards something more robust. The distinctive flavour of the quintet’s sound came from the guitar of Gabor Szabo, who loved drones and could summon the effect of a sitar, a koto, an oud or a saz, blending particularly well with Lloyd’s flute. They made three albums as a quintet — Drumfusion for Columbia, Passin’ Thru for Impulse and A Different Journey for Reprise — and one as a quartet, Impulse’s Man from Two Worlds, which also included the first version of Lloyd’s “Forest Flower”, which became a hit for his own quartet a few years later.

The recordings with Hamilton are all available on CD, and Passin’ Thru remains one of my favourite albums of the era, not least thanks to the powerful grooves sustained by the phenomenal young bassist Albert Stinson. Here’s a track called “El Toro”, which shows why Stinson was good enough to sub for Ron Carter with Miles Davis and would surely have become a major figure on his instrument had he not died from a heroin overdose while touring with Larry Coryell in 1969, aged 24.

Drugs were another reason why Lloyd dropped out. “I hit a wall and I couldn’t really function,” he says. “At a certain point I began to suffer musically and I began to suffer spiritually. I had to go away.” His studies in philosophy and religion got him through it, with the help of Dorothy Darr, who has produced and directed Arrows into Infinity with Jeffery Morse, gathering historic TV and concert footage from the ’60s (London, Newport, Antibes, Tallinn etc), film of recent performances with the current quartet, and of duets with Billy Higgins, giving us a chance to enjoy again the drummer’s matchless sense of swing and unforgettable smile. There are interviews with Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Robbie Robertson, Jim Keltner, Don Was, Zakir Hussain, Geri Allen and many others — including, amazingly, Lewis Steinberg, the original bass player with Booker T and the MGs, who knew the young Lloyd in Memphis. There’s also a delightful sequence of Lloyd playing pool with Ornette Coleman; the two were friends in LA in the ’50s.

Lloyd himself, however, is the most interesting witness to the journey that took him from Howlin’ Wolf to Zakir Hussain. The film tells a fascinating story of survival and self-realisation in which his gentle wisdom is as impressive as his music.

* The photograph of Charles Lloyd is from the booklet accompanying Arrows into Infinity, which is released by ECM.

 

Vibes man

Bobby HutchersonThe last time I saw Bobby Hutcherson, during a short season at Ronnie Scott’s in 2009, I came away convinced that he is the finest living ballad player in all of jazz. It was a Saturday night, the club was packed, and not every member of the audience could have been relied upon to recite the titles of his early Blue Note albums in sequence. Barely seeming to touch the vibes as he spun out glorious melodic variations on “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and other beautiful songs, he held the place in a spellbound silence purely through the beauty of his turn of phrase. A similar subtlety informed his performance of several John Coltrane tunes drawn from his then-current album, titled Wise One — after one of those tunes — and released on the Kind of Blue label.

The ulterior motive for my presence that night was to persuade Hutcherson to talk to me about the trumpeter Dupree Bolton. He was courteously reluctant at first, but eventually gave way and presented me with a long and colourful account of their association back when the vibes man was a teenager and still at school while playing in a band with Bolton, Frank Morgan and Elmo Hope at the It Club in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. When I get around to writing my book about Dupree (a promise to myself, if to no one else), that story will find its way into the public domain.

His playing has always been important to me. Andrew Hill’s Judgment!, on which he played in a quartet completed by Richard Davis and Elvin Jones, is probably my favourite Blue Note album of all. His contributions to Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond and Destination Out!, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Grant Green’s Idle Moments and Street of Dreams and his own Happenings — one of the great Sunday-morning albums — and the superlative Oblique, all recorded for that same label in the mid-1960s, are records I wouldn’t be without, largely thanks to him. But almost anything with his name on it, whether he’s stroking the contours of a ballad or feeling his way out on to a musical precipice, has always been worth hearing.

That night when I went to see him at Ronnie’s, emphysema was forcing him to leave the stage every 10 minutes or so to take a hit from his oxygen tank. It had no effect whatsoever on his playing, which was of the very highest quality. He’s 73 now, and the respiratory condition has apparently taken foreign travel off the schedule, but it has not stopped him playing occasional club dates in the US and making some extremely fine records.

The latest of them is called Enjoy the View, and it finds him back home on the revived Blue Note label, under the supervision of its new president, Don Was. Anyone fearful that Was’s background might compromise the jazz content of the label’s new releases can stop worrying now: this album is nothing but jazz, coming from a lovely and completely uncompromised place somewhere between the more adventurous and the more conservative examples of his earlier Blue Note output.

Hutcherson is joined by the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the alto saxophonist Dave Sanborn and the drummer Billy Hart: it’s a line-up from heaven, playing a bunch of originals (by all participants except Hart) which combine fine grooves with the sort of acute melodic and harmonic angles likely to provoke thoughtful improvisers into producing their best work. I can’t really pick out an individual contribution because they’re all exceptional, although perhaps I should say that this is the best I’ve ever heard Sanborn play, and detail inside Hart’s propulsive drumming will astonish those who’ve never listened to him properly.

Recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood by Frank Wolf, the album has a clarity, depth and warmth that, even on CD, evokes the matchless sound Rudy Van Gelder bestowed on all the legendary sessions held for Blue Note at his place in Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: a special quality for which the label became famous.

I read a review in an American publication that awarded this album three stars (out of five) and dismissed it as run-of-the mill-stuff. I can’t buy that. This is a very good Bobby Hutcherson album, which means it’s as good as it gets. Here’s one of the gentler tracks, a Hutcherson composition called “Montara”, so you can decide for yourself.

* The photograph is from the cover of Bobby Hutcherson’s For Sentimental Reasons, released in 2007 on the Kind of Blue label, and was taken by Jimmy Katz.

Ella and Nelson on Park Lane

Ella with NelsonThirty years ago this month — on July 26, 1984 — I sat down at the next table to Princess Margaret and her entourage in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. Not my usual company, but this was a special occasion: Ella Fitzgerald, making what I’m pretty certain was her final appearance in London, with an orchestra conducted by the great arranger Nelson Riddle.

It was a charity gig, the first of three nights in aid of the NSPCC, hence the presence of royalty and courtiers. But it was clearly something not to be missed, since it united two figures of great significance whose work together in the Gershwin Songbook series of albums — five LPs containing 53 songs, recorded over an eight-month period in 1959 for Norman Granz’s Verve label — remains a landmark of the genre and the era.

Ella brought her own first-class rhythm section: Paul Smith (piano), Keter Betts (bass) and Bobby Durham (drums). The rest of the large orchestra was assembled by Johnny Howard, the British saxophonist, bandleader and session contractor. It included Mitch Dalton on guitar and the young saxophonist Jamie Talbot, to whom I’d been listening in the very different environment of Clark Tracey’s hard-bop quintet.

Dalton had recorded with Riddle in London a few months earlier as part of another band put together by Howard for a Decca album called Blue Skies, in which Riddle’s orchestra accompanied the opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa. When I asked him about the gig with Ella, he responded with a lovely anecdote.

“My one abiding memory of the gig,” he told me, “is of rehearsing the overture — Nelson’s arrangement of ‘The Sheik Of Araby’. I was seated right in front of the conductor’s rostrum, no more than three feet from him. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Great Man had not necessarily committed his all to this particular commission, possibly because it might have been a last-minute (and inconvenient) request to provide Ella with an introduction. Anyhow, I was required to play the banjo in cod ’20s style. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a rhythmic feel which fitted the chart. Each time that we played it down I tried a different approach. During my third attempt to create something passable, Mr Riddle leaned across to me and intoned: ‘Ah, I see that you have an excellent ear for shit when you hear it!’ I’m not sure if his poker face and laconic delivery translate well off the page but I’ve never forgotten that phrase. It certainly encapsulates his modesty. An endearing trait in a genius, I find!”

And a genius he certainly was: a genius of popular music. He was aged 64 then, and taking time out from a tour to promote Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New, the first of three hugely successful albums they made together. He and Ella had recorded their final collaborative album, The Best is Yet to Come, two years earlier, for Granz’s last label, Pablo. Fifteen months after the Grosvenor House shows, Riddle would die as a result of problems caused by cirrhosis of the liver. Ella’s long-term health problems were about to become more serious; in and out of hospital throughout her last years, she died in 1996.

At Grosvenor House, aged 67, she was no longer in full command of the powers of vocal expression and agility that had made her such a great artist. But that didn’t seem to matter too much. Although I wasn’t taking notes that night (in those days, before Live Aid, there was a rather civilised convention that charity concerts were not reviewed), I have a clear memory of a wonderful recital, including a particularly lustrous reading of “Blue Moon”. And Princess Margaret, who liked a bit of night life herself, certainly seemed to enjoy it. 

* The photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle is by Phil Stern and is taken from September in the Rain, Peter J Levinson’s excellent biography of Riddle, published by Billboard Books in 2001.

Wardell’s last stand

Moulin Rouge 1In the days when I covered the big fights in Las Vegas, I always tried to persuade the newspaper to let me have a rental car. As budgets tightened, that became increasingly difficult. Why would you need to spend the department’s money when the only essential travel expenditure, apart from the plane ticket, was the price of a taxi to and from McCarran airport? If you were staying at, say, the MGM Grand, and that’s where the fight was being held, then it was a hard argument to make. But the key to getting the best out of Vegas, it always seemed to me, involved possessing the means to get away from it.

Not that I actually disliked the place. Disapproved of it, maybe, but I was always fascinated by the dark history of how a desert truck stop became the fastest growing city in the US. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I found myself wishing I’d gone to the Mayweather fight, simply to get a Vegas fix. But had I been there, I’d have been itching to get into a car and head as far away from the Strip as newspaper deadlines allowed — perhaps to the Red Rock Canyon state park, or more probably to the Mexican swap-meet on the north-eastern edge of town, out towards Nellis Air Force Base, a giant open-air weekend bazaar where you can buy anything from a cassette of norteño music to a tyre for your earthmover.

I was always a little sad that Vegas’s eye for future profit had led it to blow up the past behind it. I was there just in time to see the old Sands, for example, still in operation; on my next visit, the former Rat Pack playground was just another vacant lot, waiting for redevelopment. That sensational example of ’50s modern resort architecture — slogan: “A Place in the Sun” — was torn down in 1996. It seemed very short-sighted. If they’d been smarter, the city fathers would have preserved one of those old hotels as a living memorial.

Such thoughts were on my mind when I got in the car on a hot afternoon one day about 10 years ago and headed for Vegas’s Westside, the remote black section of town. I was looking for whatever was left of the Moulin Rouge, opened in May 1955 as the town’s only non-segregated casino hotel. This was a time when black entertainers performing on the Strip were barred from staying in the establishments that employed them; famously, after Sammy Davis Jr went for a swim in the pool at the New Frontier, the management had it drained. Not surprisingly, the Moulin Rouge was a great success.  Some of the great stars of the era played there, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, and among those who headed across town to enjoy the shows and the relaxed ambiance were Frank Sinatra, Tallulah Bankhead, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Gregory Peck. They were greeted by the former world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, who had been given a small ownership stake by the project’s white backers.

After six months, however, the place was suddenly closed, overnight, without warning or explanation. The croupiers, the cocktail waitresses and the dancers were paid off. The belief has always been that the Mob didn’t like the idea of customers being drawn away from their places on the Strip, and took appropriate action.

I’d heard that, half a century later, it was still standing, so I drove around the Westside, where some of the streets were still unpaved and the visitor felt a world away from the neat and ever proliferating suburban estates housing most of Vegas’s well heeled incomers. And when I found my way to 900 West Bonanza Road, there it was: the low buildings and its high landmark tower still intact, and most of all the giant neon sign, 60ft high and a classic of its type.

I drove in through a gate in the wire fence, parked the car and approached a group of workmen. They told me that it had been used as welfare apartments for some years, and that it had gone through a period when it was notorious as a kind of crack supermarket. Now, following a bad fire a couple of years earlier, it was almost deserted. The workmen told me that plans were under way for it to be refurbished and reopened, more or less as per its original incarnation.

A few calls confirmed that such optimistic plans did indeed exist. The building had already been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that turned out to be a meaningless gesture. Further fires, a failed foreclosure sale and pressure from vested interests persuaded the local authorities to issue a demolition permit, and the most significant parts of the property were torn down in 2010. The giant sign, designed by Betty Willis, a local woman, was removed to the city’s Neon Museum, where 150 such relics are preserved.

All this came to mind the other day when an album called Way Out Wardell came through the post. This is a CD reissue, on Ace Records’ Boplicity imprint, of an LP — originally on the Modern label — made up of two recordings from two 1947 concerts, at Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Shrine in Los Angeles, both featuring the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray with a couple of all-star groups including Erroll Garner on piano, Howard McGhee on trumpet and Benny Carter on alto saxophone, under the banner of Gene Norman’s “Just Jazz” concert series. It was Carter who, eight years later, was hired as the musical director of the Moulin Rouge, and his big band was the main attraction during the gala launch week.

On the opening night, Wardell Gray was present and correct in the reed section. At 34, born in Oklahoma City but raised in Detroit, and a Los Angeles resident since 1946, he was a player with a substantial reputation. He had made his recording debut in 1944 with Billy Eckstine, appeared on Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” date, and become a favourite sideman of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. The two-part 78 of “The Chase”, his duel with his friend and fellow tenorist Dexter Gordon, a recreation of their marathon battles in the clubs of Central Avenue, had been a hit in 1947. His career stalled a little in the early ’50s, perhaps thanks in part to the acquisition of a heroin habit, but he was still playing clubs and making the occasional record date when he took Carter’s call and headed for Vegas.

On the Moulin Rouge’s second night, however, he didn’t turn up. The band waited, knowing that his habit had rendered him not entirely reliable, but eventually went ahead without him. The next day his body was found in the desert on the outskirts of town. It was assumed that he had died of an overdose, either accidental or administered as a “hot shot” by a dealer to whom he owed money, but the police investigation was cursory at best and no one was ever able to come up with an explanation for marks of blows to his head or exactly how the body might have found its way to its last resting place.

The story was explored at some length back in 1995 in Death of a Tenor Man, one of a series of atmospheric and entertaining crime novels by the American musician and author Bill Moody, whose fictional protagonist is a jazz pianist and amateur detective called Evan Horne. Moody grew up in Southern California but lived for some years in Vegas, where he taught English at the university as well as playing the drums with bands on the Strip, and the local colour is authentic.

So many jazz musicians perished as a direct or indirect result of the heroin plague of the 1950s. Gray’s demise has always seemed one of the most poignant, particularly since the town in which he died was built largely on the laundered profits of a narcotics trade pioneered by the likes of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, the principal founders of modern Las Vegas. Which is just one of the reasons why I find it hard to warm to the place.

As with Chet Baker, it’s impossible now to assemble the individual components of Gray’s tragedy into a definitive account. So we’ll never know the truth. But Way Out Wardell finds him at full strength, playing for enthusiastic audiences. Maybe this is how he sounded — confident and full of ideas — on that opening night at the Moulin Rouge, before the curtain came down.

Parallel voices

parallel  moments  blueFrom the very first notes of “Longing”, the opening track of Parallel Moments, a new album by the saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and the pianist Marilyn Crispell, there’s an awareness that that you’re in the presence of something special. MacDonald’s sound carries such poise and pathos, Crispell’s chords are so sensitively voiced and weighted. The arc of the piece, as they increase the intensity before releasing the tension, is simply perfect. I don’t think I’ve been so moved by the interplay between an alto saxophone and a pianist since Carlos Ward and Carla Bley duetted (with the help of a string quartet) on “Desireless”, from Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite, back in 1973. “Longing” is here, if you want to try it.

Each of the four surfaces of the CD’s mini-gatefold sleeve carries a detail of a painting by MacDonald. The one on the inner spread, as seen above, is my favourite. I like what I imagine to be the symbolism of it: the strokes of cerise and ochre represent the players, while the white is the intangible third element created by their collaboration. But you don’t need to bother with such a clumsy interpretation. It’s my guess that if you respond to the painting in any way, you’ll like the music: a kind of abstract expressionism in search of unobvious beauty.

MacDonald, who is Scottish and lives in Edinburgh, has collaborated with many leading European and American free jazz musicians and writes music for film, theatre and dance. Crispell, who was born in Philadelphia, came to prominence in the groups of Anthony Braxton in the 1970s and has made many noteworthy albums, including Nothing Ever Was, Anyway (ECM, 1997), in which she interpreted the extraordinary compositions of Annette Peacock.

Their collaboration on these 10 pieces, which range in length from under two minutes to 11 minutes, is a thing of constant and unfolding wonder. On a track such as the lengthy “Conversation” they make highly personal adaptations of the sort of instrumental techniques associated with Cecil Taylor and Evan Parker, including bright upper-register splashes of great precision from Crispell and involuted rapid-fire flurries from MacDonald, to create a completely satisfying dialogue. Minimal resources, but a vast scope of emotion — and, pervading the whole album, a rarified and very precious lyricism.

* Parallel Moments is released on the Babel label.

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