Tag Archives: Bird

Opine, Y’All: M. Figg’s Desert Island Jazz at the Moment

In an effort to keep International Jazz Day going and keep my money where my mouth is, here’s a few suggestions for weekend or anytime listening.  They’re completely a matter of opinion, in no particular order and categorized in a completely subjective manner.  So start drafting those syllabi and get thee to the library/download queue!

The Stuff We All (Are Told We Should) Know (and Maybe) Love
-Louis Armstrong, The Hot Fives and Sevens: the first jazz soloist that sounds like “jazz” to most listeners.
-Charlie Parker, on Savoy, Dial, Verve, etc., take your pick: finding an off-day is hard, but not impossible, and not even really that “off.”
-Duke Ellington, any of the Suites: Ellington as a mature composer, weaving textures and colors jazz could never look back from.
-Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um: experimentation rooted in history.
-The (Old or New) Smithsonian Anthology of Jazz: love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s hard to argue with the music packed into these collections.

Big Bands (A Choice of Instruments, Not an Era)
-Count Basie’s recordings for Decca: as swinging and soloistic as it gets!
-Benny Goodman, The Harry James Year, Volume I: also as swinging and soloistic as it gets, just different!
– Fletcher Henderson, A Study in Frustration: there is simply no music that sounds like Henderson’s late twenties sides, period, and his band’s alumni roster reads like a who’s-who of jazz greats.
-Don Ellis, Electric Bath: jazz that made electric sounds work, before “jazz got electric,” as well as often cluttered, static, fuzzy and unswinging.
-Miles Davis with Gil Evans’ Orchestra, Porgy and Bess: a jazz concerto with orchestrated improvisation, courtesy of jazz’s Debussy and its prince of darkness.

Chinese Music*
*Cab Calloway’s clever term and this blog’s leanings aside, the following albums feature lucid phrases and swinging rhythm, as well as a lot of fancy scales.
-Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, Sonny Side Up: worth it for “The Eternal Triangle” alone.
-John Coltrane, Blue Train: blues, ballads and blistering, balanced bebop; could there be a more perfect album?
-Clifford Brown with the Max Roach/Sonny Rollins Quintet, Complete Studio Recordings: CAUTION, might make you want to give up playing, or learn how to play!
-Miles Davis, Milestones: Davis’ melodic sense, Coltrane’s harmonic deconstructions and Cannonball Adderley‘s bluesy runs, all on top of an ideal rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones; could there be a more perfect album?

Goodies but Never Oldies
-Jelly Roll Morton‘s Red Hot Peppers: swinging, imaginative and just plain good music, no flatted fifths* or bass drum bombs* needed.
-Louis Armstrong, name something made before 1930: not to demean his later work, but his recordings as a sideman and developing bandleader are simply an entity unto themselves.
-King Oliver‘s Creole Jazz Band: the Plato‘s Republic of jazz, filled with phrases and rhythms that laid the foundation for jazz as a distinct art form.

Ballads
-John Coltrane, Ballads: the man not only knew how to play a melody, he positively relishes it on this album.
-Charlie Parker, Bird with Strings: an enchanting but commercial aspect of Parker’s career? Bold experiment with lyricism and texture? Either way a wholly unique experience.
-Benny Goodman’s  Trios, Quartets and Sextets:Body and Soul,” “Moonglow,” “Memories of You,”Stardust,” “Poor Butterfly,” and others, with Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian and others stretching out…could there be a more…what?  I said that already?  Twice?

Unsung Heroes
-Clarence WilliamsColumbia sides, washboard groups or any of a thousand pseudonymous groups: jazz polymath Williams led some of the most exciting, unique groups in the twenties, more than worth the search through Amazon to hear.
-Red NicholsRed Heads, Five Pennies, with Miff Mole’s Molers or any of a million pseudonymous groups: unfortunately marching to the beat of your own horn and making a living while doing it doesn’t often lend itself to jazz posterity.  One of the most unique and despised musicians in history who’s only now beginning to get some long overdue credit.
-New Orleans Rhythm Kings: a joyous, airy beat, transparent ensembles and great soloists (playing in the twenties and who aren’t Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet!)
-Sahib Shihab & The Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra: if this collection of dynamic soloists and intriguing charts set to a juggernaut rhythm had been created and released by an American group under the name of a more well-known bopper, it would still be a shame to miss out on.
-King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators: Oliver led this big band after his legendary Creole Jazz Band broke up, filled with a variety of soloists and a decidedly earthy touch to dance band arrangements.
-Buster Bailey: clarinetist with a stunning technique, tossing out endlessly sunny lines that rarely gets his due.  See also “Don Murray.”
-Don Murray: clarinetist with a stunning technique, tossing out endlessly sunny lines that rarely gets his due.  See also “Buster Bailey.”
-Ed Allen: brilliant for a clean ensemble lead or rhythmically loose solo, no wonder Clarence Williams used him on so many sessions.

New Stuff (i.e. Released Within the Past Year)
-Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society: imaginative arrangements and clear production only add to the sheer catchy joy of this album.
-Vicious World, Plays the Music of Rufus Wainwright: heartbreakingly beautiful songs given tasteful, airy arrangements.
-Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening: admittedly an album I’m only now getting around to, filled with massive emotions that make it kryptonite for concentrating on anything else.
-Terrel Stafford, This Side of Strayhorn: melody and swing, great tunes…melody and swing, unfamiliar material from a gifted composer…melody and swing, a leader who understands his sidemen and vice versa…melody and swing

Once in a while us hobbyists come in handy.  Have a great weekend and happy listening!

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In Praise of Dead Ends

Hawkins. Young. George Johnson.

Don’t worry if that last name doesn’t sound familiar, or if it sticks out when saddled next to the two most influential saxophonists in jazz history.

George Johnson is best (and perhaps only) known for the tenor sax buried behind layers of youthfully busy polyphony and 78rpm static on Bix Beiderbecke‘s first recordings with the Wolverines in 1924.  If not for the influential cornetist’s presence, these fifteen sides would be downplayed as period pop ephemera, the work of rambunctious, untrained kids, unworthy of the continuous remastering and reissue they receive to this day.  If Johnson’s moaning behind Beiderbecke on “Tiger Rag” and “Royal Garden Blues,” or his straight-laced lead and wooden tone on two takes of “Susie” (at about 0:26 in the following clip) didn’t generate any imitators, his playing is all the more charming because it’s such a singular sound:

The only thing jazz may love more than hearing its saxophone royalty is writing their family trees.  Many jazz histories outline a teleology of influences leading inexorably to jazz modernity: Hawkins begat Webster and Berry, who begat Byas, who begat Rollins, who begat Coltrane…and Trumbauer begat Young, who begat Parker, who begat everyone…Earlier artists are just that: musicians who were around earlier than the mold musicians we all know.  Just like a Model A or blunderbuss, they might be interesting historical figures but somehow they’re not a fully “developed” product.

Don’t take my word for it, just listen to Dan Morgenstern discussing the intrinsic beauties of Duke Ellington‘s early recordings:

Jazz history, with its obsession for developmental theories, tends to handle music with hindsight and has categorized most pre-1940 Ellingtonia as “leading up to” the indisputable plateau of ‘Ko-Ko,’ ‘Main Stem,’ etc…what strikes me most forcibly upon rehearing [Ellington's recordings from the twenties]…is how much each individual piece has to offer just in itself…it is the greatest possible tribute to the genius of Ellington and his famous men that this should be so, for after all, at each given moment of playing, they were making music and not writing chapters n the history of jazz.

For further perspective from another source wiser than this blogger, and regarding a figure who never had the fortune (or PR) to found a lineage, Michael Steinman offers his thoughts on neglected saxophonist Boyce Brown…

The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing [Brown's] volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker.  I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat.  More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis [Armstrong] and Frank Teschemacher.  Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”

Steinman’s language is as insightful as his ideas: all great players have a “deep understanding” of their peers and forefathers, but understanding ain’t imitation, or for that matter explanation.

Players like George Johnson and Boyce Brown, or Buster Bailey, Don Murray, Leonard Davis, Cyrus St. Clair and many others are a blessing, because they force the listener to be just that, a listening audience, receptive to what they’ve never heard and might never hear again, rather than a catalog of sounds and inspirations heard elsewhere.  Play it again, George…

The Wolverines, with George Johnson Standing Third from the Left

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Birthday Bird

He would practice the same tune in every key, major and minor, woodshedding for hours every day after he was thrown off a bandstand as a teenager.  He drew inspiration as easily from Stravinsky and Enrico Caruso as Lester Young and Art Tatum.  Supposedly he was just as likely to chat about Einstein or international affairs as music.

He also forever changed the way we play, hear and understand jazz.  Yet like all great artists, he understood the music’s past even as he designed its future.  Not that he thought of it that way.  For him, he was just playing “music.”

Honoring the birth of the one, the only Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, here’s some very early Bird from 1940:

The band’s light Kansas City swing immediately recalls the great Count Basie band.  Tenor saxist Bob Mabane was obviously listening to Lester Young, and the leader’s piano marries Basie’s plinking touch to McShann’s boisterous (at times too speedy) sense of humor.  And Parker? At twenty years old, he’s already showing the quicksilver tone and effortless roulades that would herald modernism in jazz.

It’s no wonder musicians and fans scrawled “Bird Lives” when Parker passed away in 1955.  The world will forever be Charlie Parker’s; we’re just lucky to be on it.

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