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.