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Blue Note - The Dark Days

Or should that be the ‘difficult’ days? In terms of musical Sat Navs, listening to the music of pianist Andrew Hill, who died in 2007 at the age of 76, has re-directed me towards the recordings that emerged from the Blue Note stable in the years of around 1963-66. Hill I will address separately in another blog, but he was perhaps the apogee of what could well be called ‘free bop’, a vocabulary that emerged from the blending of 50s hard bop and the challenges provoked from the free jazz of the early 60s. Dense, complex and, yes indeed, dark, Blue Note produced a stunning collection of recordings in those years, from their nonpareil family of adventurous jazz composers and improvisers.

At the heart of this family were, in no particular order, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Hill himself, Sam Rivers, Don Cherry, Joe Chambers, Larry Young, Sam Rivers, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson, ably backed, on multiple recordings, by the likes of Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Richard Davis, Hank Mobley and Freddie Hubbard, all of whom could write to a high standard in that post-Monk, post-Parker world. Ironically though, as Blue Note biographer Richard pointed out - there is a “…discomforting paradox in the new jazz: the better it was, the less people liked it”.

Jazz was in the doldrums in the post-Beatles world, and the new, ‘abstract’ jazz of the players cited proved a little bit too opaque for many jazz fans of the time - the tunes were tricky, the solos apparently random, and there were large spaces of non-metrical, seemingly un-teathered group interplay which could disorientate the listener. The success of Lee Morgan’s big hit, The Sidewinder, eventually signalled a shift in Blue Notes direction, as the expectations became more explicit for both beat and bounce and a more funked-up sound, and this precious time of experiment and challenge was soon over. This was a free music without the post-Ayler and -Shepp wail, a music that Miles began exploring at the same time with his second quintet, and which received similar opprobrium in many quarters for its perceived over-arcane approach.

A lot of the album titles of the time reflected the aspirations of the musicians, and were replete with questing and exploratory imagery, as did their sleeve notes - “by the sixties, jazz had assumed the growth of a culture of intellectual commentary to go with its every new step” (Cook). When one listens to the evidence in LP form, it is retrospectively a pretty much unparalleled run of sheer quality: fantastic ensemble passages, virtuosic solo and interactive sections and a generic ‘sound’ which was even more impressive given that these were not ‘working groups’, and were often only together for the length of their particular sessions. The following are, for me, the cynosure of this sixties free bop, and I cannot recommend them  highly enough: Point of Departure (Hill), Out to Lunch (Dolphy), Maiden Voyage (Hancock), Dialogue (Hutcherson), The All-Seeing Eye (Shorter), Unity (Young). Almost anything on Blue Note between 1963 and 1966 is worth hearing though. We had the Blue Note ‘revival ’of the 1980s (associated with the London club scene mostly, dancing to Art Blakey and Horace Silver), now lets have the other, more fascinating side of the label.

Why Do We Need An Avant-Garde?,  Part 2

1981 saw the release of Of Human Feelings by Ornette Coleman and Prime Time, recordings made two years earlier, in April 1979. This was an acerbic jazz-funk juxtaposition (or a jazz punk one, as some journalists called it at the time), which Ornette entitled Harmolodics.  As far as anyone could understand, it was largely-improvisational, and gave equal importance to melody, harmony and rhythm,  emerging as a dense, some would say turgid, mixture of usually fast, frantic and seemingly chaotic group interplay, a sort of free Weather Report. Along with the equally frenetic Are You Glad To Be In America?, released and recorded in 1980 by Ornette acolyte and guitarist James Blood Ulmer, Of Human Feelings provided an alternative to limpid acoustic and inoffensive bop-influenced records that the seventies had loaded onto us

As well as punk-funk (or whatever one wishes to call this slippery music), the 1980-1 period produced  some additional signposts to put next to Harmolodics - the Black Artists Group (BAG) from Saint Louis; the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), from which emerged the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC); the New York ‘downtown’ group of improvisers, whose best known member was John Zorn; and the ‘Loft Jazz’ scene, also from New York (which was dying by this point). Not only did these conglomerations keep the Free Jazz/Improvisation flag flying, but they readily acknowledged the influence of the jazz canon, in a more creative and challenging way than did the competing school of the traditionalists, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsails and critic Stanley Crouch. This debt of gratitude could be summed up by the Chicago avant trio Air, and their tribute to and development of, the work of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin, on 1979′s Air Lore. To cap it all, the album’s cover said goodbye to  the seventies by dressing the three improvisers to look just like Chic.

Around the time of the disintegration of the punk scene in 1981/2 (which had formed a four-year caesura in my jazz listening), I began to explore some of these avenues, including that of English free improvisation, for the first real time. In accord with this new generation of improvisers, I began to get a sense of the history of jazz in general, and spent about the next three or so years getting the relevant recordings, from King Oliver onward, which immeasurably enriched my listening experience and understanding. According to conservative critical voices, the more avant-garde voices mentioned above hardly figured as jazz at all, which was a ridiculous proposition when one listened to the music, and flew in the face of their various salutes to the ‘masters’. In these sort of situations, we badly need the avant-garde to reassure us that jazz is not, in fact, dead. It doesn’t even smell funny, despite Zappa’s 1974 asseveration (which was, however, perfectly forgivable, given the year that he made it).

The OED defines the avant-garde as “new and experimental”, and one could be forgiven for saying that most of the artists cited here were not particularly ‘new’. They were experimental though, as their work was inherently unstable and risk-taking. Jazz is still an embracing, open genre at its best, which lives and thrives outside of the concert hall and expensive clubs, which is where the traditionalists would entomb it, forever revolving round the ‘standards’ repertoire. Man people hear it in their minds as either early New Orleans ensembles, big swing orchestra or bebop small groups, and these forms are the ones that are usually ransacked for sampling purposes. Certainly not as Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler. Without the avant-garde, where would jazz have gone, say in 1980? Basically, without it, we would still be in 1980, with eleven more years of Margaret Thatcher to look forward to and Kenny G’s rise to President all to come.

Why Do We Need An Avant- Garde?

I’d like to try to answer that question by reference to my own listening history, the one aspect of all this about which I can claim to be an authority. I hope you will bear with me.

My initial interest in jazz forms came out of extended listening to what we know call jazz-rock. In particular, King Crimson (who featured Keith Tippett occasionally), Soft Machine (the great Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean) and the early incarnations of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention (Ian Underwood, Don Preston and the Gardner brothers) all used jazz styling and timbres within their overall sound fields. Of most importance, though, was exposure to Miler Davis, who I tried out in 1972. with, initially, Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way. I even got hold of a copy of Four and More, which at the time seemed to have been recorded in the far past (1964 in actual fact), and which gave a small window into pre-electric times. As in the case of so many other fans, Miles gave us a considerable number of musicians that could checked out for their own music - Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Bennie Maupin, Dave Holland, just off the top of my head. This was enough to keep a cash-strapped listener busy for some time, records being about the only way to source this material.

Jarrett was my own gateway into ECM Records, which was then only a couple of years old. As well as many of the musicians just cited, the ever-increasing list of must-hears extended to Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton and Music Improvisation Company, the latter of which was my first exposure to English free improvisation, a later preoccupation. These musical families became the prima materia of my jazz collection and they remained the basic building blocks thereafter. It’s probable that many people of my age will have similar experiences, i.e. starting with electric manifestations of the music, perhaps leavened by early exposure to more acoustic work, Jarrett and Bley being particular examples. Similarly, it is likely that mid seventies listeners may have been exploring what can be termed jazz-lite material (which is not a criticism in these two cases), through such artists as Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell. 

Perhaps the most representative of what could be called a latter day soul-jazz development in the music were The Crusaders and the CTI label. The Crusaders were a highly tuned and experienced hard bop outfit, who managed to cross over into a popular, ultimately chart-bound, music machine. They released many interchangeable records throughout the seventies. CTI was the ultimate in jazz-lite, but was nevertheless very popular, with the likes of Grover Washington and Bob James. They filed for bankruptcy in 1978. It was generally a fairly moribund scene at the time: Punk/New Wave had provided a more energetic, confrontational culture, which I became absorbed in, but ironically it was one of the older avant-garde masters who became part of the rescue team at the turn of the decade.

To be continued in next blog

Everyday I Read A Book

I’ve always got a book or two on the go, and I commented a few weeks back about the huge amount of pop/rock musical material that confronts the interested reader nowadays. Usually, I aim to finish a book once I’ve properly started it, but I’m afraid that I backslided with my last read, Elvis Costello’s autobiography Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. It’s highly possible that the current one that I’ve just started, Paul Morley’s Bowie biography, The Age of Bowie, will suffer a similar fate.

Both are works that eschew chronology, with the narrative flitting between past, present and future tense, which of course is the writer’s right, but a style that I tend to find irritating and intrusive. Costello has decided to follow this schema, that one of his most famous fellow musician colleagues also chose, fairly successfully, for his particular autobiog - Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which zoomed in on a few key moments in his like and examined these in great deal. One of the main reasons that I chose to read Costello’s immensely long (far too long, in fact, weighing in at 688 pages) account is that I was such a huge fan during his early years of fame (1977-82), and of the seven albums he released in that short time.

Costello’s output will need little introduction to my peer group of listeners, a fusillade of short, sharp songs of “revenge and guilt”, as he described then at the time. Like Milton’s Satan, he got all the best tunes in this period of negativity. Post - King of America, I began to lose interest, as I suspect many of his fans did (although he is one of those artists who have an intensely dedicated core fan base, who want everything he has ever released). Once he started to emerge as the musical hyper-nerd that he always indicated he was, and started hanging out with the likes of Burt Bacharach, my exit clause was optioned. Similarly once I had got two-thirds through his book, wading through starry-eyed chapters exploring his relationships with Allen Toussaint, Van Morrison and the Carter Family, I decided that enough is enough. Name-dropping is rarely dignified and this is no exception. This is even before his opera work with Sting comes into the picture.

It’s funny though to remember, how artists like Costello rode into town on the crest of the Punk/New Wave ‘movements’, musical styles that encouraged loud, sneery and aggressive songs, which the former Declan McManus specialised in at the time. Other bands on this crest , for example, were The Boomtown Rats, The Police, Squeeze and The Stranglers, an ideal environment for blowhards like Bob Geldoff and Sting himself. It’s a bit of a shame, however, that these hasn’t, as far as I know, been an Elvis Costello re-appraisal or ‘rediscovery’, as, for a few years, he and The Attractions, took their place as one of the very great English bands, both live and on record. The records have all been sumptuously re-released, with all the extra non-LP tracks which we used to track down with the zeal of the completist collector. Unfortunately, their appeal doesn’t seem to have been discovered by younger generations, which is a bit surprising given their hip quotient at the time.

What’s In A Name? - Dick Twardzik and Peers

Whilst chatting with a friend the other day about obscure bop musicians of the late 40s/early 50s, the name of  pianist Mike ‘Dodo’ Marmarosa (1925-2002) cropped up. 

Dodo is probably best known for his work on Charlie Parker’s Dial Sessions, and it is noteworthy, among this group of jazz musicians of this time frame well known for its early mortality rate, that he lived to the relatively grand old age of 76. Another little-known white bebop pianist of the time, Bill Triglia (1924-2011), lived even longer, in musical obscurity for almost all of his life but reaching the even grander age of 86.

Triglia played on the only session led by trumpeter Tony Fruscella (1927-69). Now, not only do these guys pretty much share the same dates of birth (1925/6/7), but they also share great ‘jazz names’ - Fruscella /Triglia/ Marmorosa: surnames that conjure up images of smoky clubs, tinkling glasses and inebriated exchanges,  “that really laid back New York junkie feel” that John Zorn described and attempted to replicate on material like “End Titles on his Filmtracks VIII. Without attempting too much to make a big deal about obscurity in itself, these were certainly angular names for a so-called angular music, but they do repay serious investigation. And as these guys recorded so little music, tracking their best work is relatively easy.

Most jazz fans will have Parker’s Dial recordings (Triaglia also played live with Bird), so Marmarosa’s contributions to tracks like “Relaxin At Camarillo” will thus be well known, even if his name isn’t. Both Fruscella and Triglia are best heard on the former’s eponymous solo offering on Atlantic, which happens to be one of my favourite mainstream jazz albums of all, recorded in 1955 and re-released on CD on the occasion of the label’s 50th anniversary. Neither of them did anything near as good again. For me, however, the most interesting ‘obscure name’ of all is Boston’s Richard Twardzik (1931-1954), only 24 when he was found overdosed in a Paris hotel, allegedly with his hypo still in his arm. He was on tour will fellow bad boy Chet Baker, which was probably his best shot at fame. It is another ‘what if?’ situation.

Twardzik demonstrated a perceptive understanding of Tatum, Powell, Tristano and Monk, in his shifting harmonies and ruptured melodies, and was apparently was a significant influence on the young Cecil Taylor, who was studying in Boston at the time. Listen to his composition “A Crutch For The Crab”, with its constantly shifting texture, which seems to abandon chord changes briefly, anticipating later developments in the music, and hear how Cecil might have been taking notes. His other compositions “Fable of Mabel” (recorded with another Boston opiate fan, Serge Chaloff) and “Albuquerque Social Swing” are further examples of his richly ingenious imagination. Sadly, little exists outside of his work with Chaloff and Baker (and Charlie Mariano). For me, there are two albums to seek: one side of an album shared with fellow pianist Russ Freeman (Twardzik is in his own trio), originally released on Pacific Jazz, and the rather mysterious and difficult-to-source, mostly solo, recording called 1954 Improvisations (half the tracks played on a untuned upright, giving it a real ‘4 in the morning’ wonky feel).

All four of these magnificently-monikered musicians deserve your attention, but Twardzik is the one to prioritise, imho.

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