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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

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.

Jarrett & Haden revisited

Keith Jarrett:Charlie HadenI like Keith Jarrett best when he’s forced to deal with vulnerability. Sometimes it’s his own, as in the exquisite solo album called The Melody at Night, With You, which he recorded at his home in 1998 when his store of energy was still depleted after two years of musical inactivity caused by a persistent condition called chronic fatigue syndrome (he talked about it to me the following year, and you can find the interview here). In the case of his new album, Last Dance, it’s that of Charlie Haden, his long-time friend and musical partner.

Jarrett’s virtuosity is undeniable. No doubt it was hard-won, and it has led him to some interesting places, but I prefer it when he has to think about music from another perspective. To me, that’s when his real musicality becomes apparent: when the essence, rather than the surface, is all there is.

Last Dance is the second release from sessions he and Haden conducted in 2007, when they played standard tunes together in the relaxed environment of Jarrett’s home studio in New Jersey. The first, titled Jasmine, was released four years ago and, like The Melody at Night, With You, found a large and appreciative audience (beguiled not least by a brief but glowing reading of Joe Sample’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away”). I think Last Dance is the better of the two.

Haden, who suffered from polio as a child, has encountered further health problems in recent years, including a couple of conditions, tinnitus and hyperacousis, related to his hearing. His playing is no longer as strong as it was when he strummed that famous solo on Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin'” in 1959 or plucked the beautiful melody of his “Song for Che” on the classic Liberation Music Orchestra album 10 years later. When I listened to Jasmine on its release, I thought the signs of debilitation were evident: if his lines beneath Jarrett’s improvisations, were clear, they seemed to lack vitality.

I have no such problem with Last Dance. Whether it’s me, or whether Jarrett and Haden (or the executive producer, Manfred Eicher) selected tracks for the first release that expressed a certain mood, I can’t say. But the programming of the new album — including lengthy explorations of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, Richard Rodgers’ “It Might As Well Be Spring” and Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, with a change of pace on Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels” — creates an ambiance that, while no less reflective, seems to possess a greater degree of intellectual vigour.

For evidence, compare the two versions of Gordon Jenkins’s “Goodbye”, one on each album. It’s probably my favourite song, as I wrote here last year, so I always listen to it with special interest. Whereas the reading on Jasmine didn’t move me greatly, and still doesn’t, this alternative take seems absolutely perfect, drawing out the finest eloquence from both men (and Haden in particular). Maybe it’s a matter of context: the choice and sequencing of tracks. Maybe it’s just a mystery. Whatever it is, Last Dance is a wonderful album. A small masterpiece, in fact.

* The photograph of Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden is from the sleeve of Jasmine and was taken by Rose Anne Jarrett. Jasmine and Last Dance are on ECM Records.

For art’s sake

Rene Urtreger 2The French pianist René Urtreger, who celebrates his 80th birthday next month, was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet that recorded the celebrated soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold in 1957. He had become a frequent collaborator with Lester Young, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and many others during an era when his native Paris provided American jazz musicians with a warm welcome. Until now, however, his only appearance in Britain had been in the 1970s, when he visited London in his rather different capacity as Sacha Distel’s musical director.

Last night he and the other members of his trio — the bassist Yves Torchinsky and the drummer Eric Dervieu — performed in a small downstairs ballroom at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. They were playing to celebrate the opening of a new show, at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in Carlos Place, next door to the hotel, by the abstract expressionist painter Sean Scully, who was born in Dublin and brought up in South London, and now lives in New York and Bavaria. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a work titled Kind of Red, inspired by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: a series of five large paintings, in oil on aluminium, conceived as a single unit (you can see them on the gallery’s website, here).

Given the nature of the work’s origin, and Scully’s love of music (as a teenager he ran a blues club over a pub in Bromley High Street, and later named one of his paintings after John Coltrane’s “Dakar”), Timothy Taylor wanted something special to provide an unusual end to the conventional sequence of a private view followed by a small dinner. It seemed right to call on someone with a connection to the inspiration behind the paintings. The way Miles went about recording the music for Lift to the Scaffold — in particular the paring away of harmonic material — exerted a profound influence, two years later, on the concept of Kind of Blue. And Urtreger is now the only surviving member of the group that recorded the soundtrack to Malle’s noir classic.

His story is a fascinating one, revealed in an extensive interview with Pascal Anquetil in last January’s issue of the French monthly Jazz Magazine/Jazzman. To me the most striking single detail was his account of how, having waited day after day as an 11-year-old at the Gare de l’Est for the return of his Polish-Jewish mother, deported by the Nazis, only to discover that she had perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he responded a handful of years later to the discovery of bebop: a music without overt sentiment.

But not, of course, without feeling, as we discovered last night in his fluent, thoughtful versions of “Old Devil Moon”, “So What”, “The Duke” and a handful of bop themes. “I suffered during my youth from a shyness that led me to imagine that I wasn’t at the same level as my (musical) partners,” he told Anquetil. “Today, that’s over. I’ve reached an age at which I have nothing to prove, and everything to give.” Last night’s audience, in which gallerists and collectors were joined by Bryan Ferry (like Scully, a former art student in Newcastle) and several of the painter’s friends, including the former champion boxer Barry McGuigan and the poet Kelly Grovier, accepted the gift with warmth and gratitude.

* The photograph of René Urtreger was taking during the sound-check at the Connaught. His most recent solo piano album, Tentatives (Minium, 2006), is highly recommended, and there will be a new album by the trio this summer. The Kind of Red exhibition opens today, June 11, and is on show until July 12 at 15 Carlos Place, London W1. Thcatalogue is published by the Timothy Taylor Gallery. 

Orson Welles and Lady Day

Pierre Briancon coverTwo of the most interesting jazz-related books of recent years have an author in common. He is Pierre Briançon, a French journalist who lives in London and works as a senior financial commentator for the Reuters wire service. The first book, San Quentin Jazz Band, written in French and published by Editions Grasset in 2008, tells the story of some of the musicians who ended up in the eponymous California prison in the late 1950s and early 1960s, on a variety of drug-related charges. They included the saxophonists Frank Morgan and Earl Anderza, the trumpeters Dupree Bolton and Nathaniel Meeks, and the pianist Jimmy Bunn; it’s a pretty amazing and important piece of work, shining a light into the corners of the lives of some of the talented men who fell victim to what amounted to a plague.

While planning the book, Briançon came across the piece I’d written about the hitherto mysterious Bolton for Granta in 2000. (With the aid of a private investigator, I’d established for the first time that he was actually dead — and unearthed his birth and death certificates, plus other pieces of evidence from his life, including photographs from an old girlfriend.) Pierre and I met and shared information, and I was quickly impressed by his seriousness and willingness to do the necessary digging. During his research in the prison’s archives he uncovered a great deal of new information. It still surprises and disappoints me that no one has seen fit to publish an English translation of this remarkable work, written with an acute sensitivity to the social forces of the time.

His new book, written in English, is called Romance in the Dark. A novel, it is an imagined account of the relationship between Billie Holiday and Orson Welles, one that is mentioned by Holiday in her highly unreliable autobiography and appears to have begun in 1941. Briançon starts his narrative inside the head of the trumpeter Shad Collins, who is driving a New York City taxi cab one day in 1972 when his memories are triggered both by a chance remark from a passenger and the sight of the poster for the lamentable Lady Sings the Blues. He reminisces about witnessing that initial encounter between the singer and the director, a few days after he and Lester Young had recorded a handful of sides with Holiday, including “Romance in the Dark”. The meeting occurred at the Chicken Coop club in Harlem, at a party following the premiere of Welles’s production, with his Mercury Theatre company, of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which starred the Chicken Coop’s owner, the actor Canada Lee.

Here’s a paragraph from that opening chapter, to give you the flavour:

Billie was something else. Shad loved her, as a best friend. Used to call him Lester junior, even though she didn’t call the other Lester Lester. Prez was what she always called him. But Shad was born Lester Rallington Collins after all, didn’t even remember where the Shad came from except that Lester – Prez – had been the first to call him that, when he’d joined the Basie band and they became buddies. Had stuck ever since. Prez, that’s a man who would have done anything for Billie. Shad never knew whether they’d had a fling, never dared to ask. They weren’t the kind of people you’d question about it. Probably not. Once, as the band was chilling after a concert at Kelly’s Stables, one of the boys had tried to make a joke about it. Prez was cleaning his horn, shot him a glance you’d never forget. Silenced the dude right there and then.

Briançon brings other witnesses back to life to the page, including the philanthropist Caresse Crosby, the actor Everett Sloane, the dancer Ruby Helena, Billie’s husband Jimmy Monroe, the screenwriter Cy Endfield, the gofer Shorty Chirillo and the pianist Joe Springer. Their voices are heard in the form of interviews, diaries, unpublished autobiographical manuscripts — and, in the case of J. Edgar Hoover, in the form of FBI files on Welles’s professional and personal relationships with black people and his possible communist sympathies.

The book ends with the very noirish scene of the drummer Roy Harte (later a co-founder of Pacific Jazz Records in Los Angeles) scoring cocaine for Holiday in a Havana bar in 1943. Nineteen years old, befriended by the singer in New York, he is now accompanying her and her friend Greta Knox, an actress, around the clubs of the Cuban capital. Here, as everywhere, the level of historical and circumstantial detail is again impressive, contributing to the pungent period flavour and the inconclusive but nevertheless compelling story. By the time I’d read a few chapters, I’d completely stopped worrying about what was real and what was invented.

Briançon is looking for an English publisher. Meanwhile he’s put it up on Amazon in the form of a Kindle edition, which will cost you £2.99. The text is as it came off his keyboard, with the occasional little glitch and minor error that an editor would sort out (for instance, Richard Wright appears at the first mention as Robert Wright). But you can make allowances for that, as I was happy to do, in order to enjoy this valuable addition to the genre that includes Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful. I think it’s something special.

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