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SILENCE IS GOLDEN

Some fans followed Art Blakey just to hear those seismic press rolls — sticks and snare meeting in a tension-building tsunami. There are a handful of modern improv zealots who feel the same about Tyshawn Sorey’s mallets, brushes, and tom-toms. The drummer’s textural gambits are some of the most provocative sounds in NYC clubs these days — especially when he’s waxing seductive and mysterious, as he is on the new Alloy. Informed by Stockhausen’s steely piano pieces as much as they are the wily maneuvers of Andrew Hill and Bill Evans, Sorey’s latest works owe a lot to stealth. Eerie, unsettling, resolute — he has his team of pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini double down on incorporating silence, creating something truly ravishing. Tonight he plays the new pieces at Roulette, the music space that commissioned them.

Wed., Dec. 10, 8 p.m., 2014

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‘Jazz in July’ 2012

Under pianist Bill Charlap’s purview, the annual festival celebrates the brilliance of mainstream jazz, offering deep swing and overt lyricism. Homages dot the landscape, and highlights include a celebration of Bill Evans’s majestic élan, an intergenerational hat-tip to Richard Rogers, a romp through the brusque beauty of Art Blakey’s book, and an excursion into the world of Count Basie. Expect a fair amount of genuflection to be accompanied by oodles of craft.

Wed., July 18, 8 p.m.; Thu., July 19, 8 p.m.; Tue., July 24, 8 p.m.; Wed., July 25, 8 p.m.; Thu., July 26, 8 p.m., 2012

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Less Is More for Paul Motian

Paul Motian was the drummer in the Bill Evans Trio of the early 1960s, Evans and Scott LaFaro’s co-equal in song-based, improvisational epiphany. Yet everything written about the group’s four Riverside LPs over the decades might lead you to believe that Motian was just along for the ride. When those classic albums were new, the word most commonly employed to describe his efforts in support of the pianist and bassist’s roving harmony and counterpoint was “unobtrusive”—no fainter praise for a drummer in an era when bandstands quaked under the brunt of Elvin Jones’s cataclysms below John Coltrane.

So how did this alleged bystander become the imposing presence heard on his own albums since the late 1970s, including the new Lost in a Dream (ECM), recorded at the Village Vanguard early last year and introducing the latest edition of his trio, with pianist Jason Moran and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter? A convenient explanation—perhaps too convenient—is that between leaving Evans and joining Keith Jarrett, Motian worked regularly with pianist Paul Bley in various small groups whose ultimate goal seemed to involve tempering free jazz’s excesses of sound and fury by scaling down its maximalist impulses.

For Motian, this meant absorbing a lot of Sunny Murray to go with his foundational Max Roach and Kenny Clarke. Murray once likened his persistent cymbal chatter behind Albert Ayler to “the continuous cracking of glass.” Along with adding highlight colors to that limited tonal palette, Motian drew on the entire bebop stylebook of paradiddles and pirouettes that Murray had either renounced or never mastered. But that wasn’t all, because Motian also seemed to take a tip from Thelonious Monk. Using silence as a photographer or painter would negative space—to give added definition and depth to drum patterns that were both a rhythmic complement to solos and independent melodic phrases in themselves—he showed that a discontinuous percussion accompaniment could be just as good. Maybe even better.

In hindsight, one could argue that Motian was already doing something along these lines with Evans, albeit within the dictates of a tempo he eventually abandoned and at a conversational whisper. But the group’s hushed intimacy precluded drum solos that might have put the matter in sharper perspective, as LaFaro’s aggressively virtuosic bass solos did for his departures from traditional accompaniment. Not that Motian has ever seemed much concerned with soloing, anyway, even on his own albums. His only solo as such on Lost in a Dream comes at the beginning of the aptly titled “Drum Song,” almost 45 minutes in; given the way the live set has been tensing to a crescendo—beginning with two numbers similar to each other in their church-mode underpinnings and their sense of vague disquiet (theme music for Michael Haneke, should he ever decide to go hardboiled)—the first harrumph of Motian’s bass drum carries a sundering inevitability.

“Drum Song” seems to climax two previous numbers that have grown increasingly agitated—whether this is the exact order in which the set went down at the Vanguard or a tribute to producer Manfred Eicher’s narrative sequencing is finally irrelevant. Amid the wild applause when it’s over, following a heated game of Trane-and-Elvin between Potter and Motian (and crashing clusters from Moran), someone in the audience lets loose with a relieved “Whew!” It’s as if the crowd has been holding its collective breath till then, fearful of intruding. Fine though they are, the remaining two performances—the folksy, Ornette-ish “Abacus” and the graceful “Cathedral Song”—come off as anticlimactic. Then again, encores inevitably do.

Motian is a colorist, not a timekeeper. He doesn’t set a tempo behind a soloist or mark the chorus or even so much as imply a basic beat. This can result in irreconcilable differences in a conventional rhythm section with players close to his own age (79 last month)—witness his failure to click with Hank Jones on a pair of albums by Joe Lovano a few years ago, or with Ron Carter on an ’06 record with Bill Frisell. But he does set a path, if not always a straightforward one, for improvisation, and the players willing to follow him tend to be younger, including Moran and Potter on Lost in a Dream (and Lovano and Frisell themselves in a previous edition of the trio). Moran’s own affinity for Monkian dissonances and gaps make him Motian’s perfect match. And Potter, a superior technician whose licks can outrace his thoughts, meets the drummer’s challenge with what might be his best recorded work so far. His upper-register cry is not just deft but moving, and if it occasionally echoes Coltrane’s or Jan Garbarek’s, it’s Coltrane without the breast-beating of most saxophonists under the influence, and Garbarek without all the Hamlet.

This Motian trio—which figures to convene as irregularly as the earlier one with Lovano and Frisell, given that both Moran and Potter also front their own bands—shouldn’t be confused with the Paul Motian Trio 2000+, an amorphous ensemble (you’re never quite certain who’s a regular member and who’s a +) that records for another German label, Winter & Winter. Except for Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”—offered as a breather of sorts midway through—Lost in a Dream consists entirely of Motian originals: The most finely crafted is “Casino,” whose suspense and thrust recall both Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and Miles Davis’s “Flamenco Sketches.” Trio 2000+’s On Broadway, Vol. 5, released last summer and featuring saxophonists Loren Stillman and Michael Attias, bassist Thomas Morgan, and Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, is the ECM album’s mirror opposite—all standards after the opening “Morrock,” which is essentially a concerto for the 70-year-old Kikuchi, the only bandmember close in age to the leader (lovely voicings, if only he’d stop with the Keith Jarrett–like groaning).

With even Frank Loesser’s “Sue Me” (from Guys and Dolls) treated dolorously, the tempo throughout On Broadway is just short of funereal—made to seem even more so by Motian’s fast sticks and brushes’ arhythmic counterpoint. Just as it was with Monk, it’s always fun to hear what Motian has in mind in dragging an old song into his own sphere, and even though “Just a Gigolo” isn’t going to yield any new wrinkles not already fully explored by Monk and Louis Armstrong, a gorgeous but neglected Jimmy McHugh song called “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening” benefits greatly from the application of what can only be described as leisurely tension.

The most diverting soloist here is Stillman, whose pellucid tone and deceptively slack phrasing immediately identify him as a Lee Konitz disciple with plenty of ideas of his own. But the date’s real heroes are Morgan and Attias, both of whom I’m used to hearing in much freer settings. On ballads like the ones here, liberating drums from strict timekeeping shifts the responsibility of maintaining a steady tempo to bass, and Morgan shoulders the additional burden as gracefully as Motian himself did in holding down the bottom for Evans and LaFaro back in the day. And it was a stroke of inspiration on Motian’s part—testimony to his acumen as a bandleader—to assign “Something I Dreamed Last Night” and “I See Your Face Before Me,” melodies full of delicate longing and implicitly feminine in their point of view, to Attias’s whiskered baritone. Embellishing a pretty melody is no longer the emotional outlet that it was for earlier generations of jazz musicians, and even with Stillman adding a touch of double-time wanderlust on the bridge, this “Something I Dreamed” won’t stop you dead in your tracks the way both Miles Davis’s 1956 version and Jeri Southern’s lispy version from four years earlier still do. But it sure as hell stays with you—or why would I be mentioning it now, almost a year after its release?

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The American Dance Guild Honors Murray Louis

In his heyday as a performer in Alwin Nikolais’ company and later with his own group, Murray Louis truly sang the “body electric,” but not in Walt Whitman’s sense of himself as charging with his soul those he loved and pressed close to. Louis danced as a man electrified by small currents that rippled through one joint and out another. He could seem like a scamp—delighted by the impulses that caused a wrist to flick, a leg to fly up, a shoulder to roll—but also like an explorer in shaky terrain and, even at times, as a person besieged, betrayed, by his body and the magical environments of light created by Nikolais.

Louis was honored at the opening night of the American Dance Guild’s Performance Festival 2008. Hale and energetic, with a bit less hair and a bit more bulk than he had 40 years ago, he stood up in his first-row seat to express his delight. He also compared Dance New Amsterdam’s unpretentious studio-turned-black-box theater to the Henry Street Playhouse (now the Abrons Art Center), where Nikolais’ magical experiments with light, space, and human bodies were spawned. Both spaces, he said, were similar hotbeds for invention.

The Guild was founded in 1956, primarily as a dance teachers’ organization, but soon expanded to attract and benefit dancers and choreographers. Its budget may be small, but its current fundraising projects are notable: If you purchase the major-brand products available through its website (americandanceguild.org), the association gets a kickback. As it does when you sign up for an American Dance Guild Custom Visa Card (!), and on your every purchase with it.

The 44 choreographers presented over five festival performances ranged from just-starting-out through accomplished mid-career artists to modern-dance luminaries like Louis and Anna Sokolow. (I unfortunately had to miss the evening that honored her, but Jim May, director of the Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble, is staging her great 1955 Rooms for the José Limón Dance Company, and it’ll be on view during the company’s Joyce sesson in December.)

The first program featured excerpts from two solos choreographed by Louis. I remember seeing his Figura when the wonderful Limón dancer Nina Watt performed it at its 1978 premiere. At DNA, Betsy Fisher, a member of Louis’s company in the 1980s, also renders it with wisdom and charm, picking up on the Spanish nuances dictated by the Ernesto Lecuona music. Striking a movement and then melting into it, she regards her own swaying hips with surprise and pleasure. When a man strolls through, she scampers offstage in pursuit. Peter Kyle, also a former Louis dancer, and, like Fisher, director of his own group, has learned Louis’s four-part solo, Frail Demons (1984). It’s an arresting piece, with subtly varying moods underscored by Nikolais electronic soundscape. Kyle is taller and more stalwart than Louis, but he captures both the softer dynamics and the flippy little impulses excellently. The piece is full of trademark Louis movements: the tiny, tiptoe steps with which he glides as if on ball bearings; the leg that swings like a pendulum; the occasional illusion that an unseen puppeteer is pulling his limbs up by strings. These “demons” aren’t vengeful stalkers; they’re adventurous creatures who sneak into your house by night to toy with your possessions and pretend to be you.

An absurd fragment of a solo—an excerpt from Yung-li Chen’s The Pursuit of Balloons—offered the evening’s most lightweight moment, with the very engaging performer Christopher Ralph being pulled on atop a teetery little metal cart and then bounding about twisting a balloon into naughty shapes to what sounds like an old Heidelberg drinking song. Dirge, by relative newcomer Danielle Russo, takes a darker view of life. The emotions are elusive, and made more so by the presence of two chairs (Alexander Schwartz begins standing on one of them slowly putting on a belt and ends on a differently situated chair removing it). To two of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello, Schwartz and Joshua Palmer perform with dramatically eloquent athleticism, although I find myself wondering why they are together and what they mean to each other. I don’t, however, wonder about the pair in Bill Evans’s Alternating Current. Here electricity seems to be administering almost constant small shocks, making Don Halquist’s head and limbs quiver and jolting Heather Roffe out of the wings and into a sitting position in his arms. Sometimes they’re alone, sometimes together, and their white unitards with patches of color tell us they’re two of a kind. They don’t seem to be agents of their own activities. Evans, who ran his own company (primarily in Seattle) for 30 years, is now a visiting professor-artist at SUNY-Brockport.

Design principles govern Impromptu by Claudia Gitelman (a dance writer and, for 24 years, a teacher at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Theatre Lab) and Traces, Marks, a New York premiere by Gloria McLean (once a leading dancer in Erick Hawkins’s company, now a director of her own group). Both choreographers create several striking images. In Impromptu, to Schubert’s Piano Impromptu No. 3, Lynn Lesniak Needle, former Nikolais dancer, sits on a small metal drum wearing a long, blood-red gown, and rotating slowly. From time to time, she molds herself into a pose, the final one collapsed, but there’s nothing spontaneous or impromptu about what she does. She seems to be a woman recreating familiar positions, now drained of significance. From several rows back, I can’t see what McClean is doing on the floor, scrabbling around on a white sheet of paper, while four others—a brusque chorus —jolt around in disunion and semi-harmony. When a video of her working on a similar paper is projected on the back wall, we discover that she’s been drawing around her body parts but in a scattershot way, changing positions, guessing at what she’s left out. The video is the best part, although I suspect a connection that I can’t quite make between the choreographer and her colleagues.

The final piece, The Way of Five—Fire (an excerpt from a longer piece by Nai-Ni Chen) draws on Chen’s background in Chinese traditional dance and martial arts, although she formed her company in the U.S. in 1988 and modern dance is also part of her heritage. Three women wield large fans, but not always with delicacy. A certain fierceness creeps in via Tan Dun’s music and a fiery, slashing combat between one of the women and Noibid Licea excites the crowd.

Some of the pieces on the program reveal the kind of craftsmanship that informs Louis’s work but seldom match his powers of invention. Pooh Kaye’s 1983 The River Sticks, however, began the evening on a very smart note. In making it, Kaye employed considerable skill to shake up the idea of predictable craft. She has been a maverick imp in dance and film dance since the 1970s, and maturity hasn’t dimmed her adventurousness. Catherine Kernan’s set is a playground of slender boards, gathered into tottery tunnels and tepees. Kaye sets herself tasks that often misfire. Order and disorder go to war. She adjusts. What? A bunch of short painted sticks that she’s manipulated into a fan shape won’t conform? She takes one of them and whips it around. Boards falling on her head don’t faze her. Intrigued by one, she rubs it against her face (leaving smudges), and gives it a lick. The tunnel she’s attempting to crawl through collapses on her. Never mind, two boards make skis. One of the tepees topples when she’s nowhere near it, and she’s still—with an occasional squeal—trying to gather up all the fallen wood when the lights dim and a hoop rolls across the stage. Lucky she doesn’t see it.

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Heartfelt Songs From the Unsung

Though Monk was the first pianist to delight me and Bud Powell the first to thrill me back in the ’60s, from the moment I heard Bill Evans’s introduction to “On Green Dolphin Street” on Miles Davis’s Jazz Track, I identified with him. For a while I feared it must be because he was white, and that may have been part of it. But I think the real reason I had dreams where it was me waiting my turn after Miles, Cannonball, and Coltrane was the illusion Evans created of tapping voicings and rhythms already there on the piano, waiting to be beckoned by anybody’s fingers. What drew me right away was his swing, the ease and momentum of his phrases as they crossed bar lines, or pulled up short of them. Evans’s reputation as a rhythmic weakling would seem to be based entirely on appearance—the rhythm was in his hands, nowhere else on his body.

In his duets with tenor saxophonist Houston Person on You Taught My Heart to Sing, it’s as if Bill Charlap is dreaming he’s Bill Evans. Without the wiggle of Charlap’s arpeggios on the quietly stunning “Where Is Love” (an urchin’s ballad from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! twice misidentified as Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway’s “Where Is the Love” in the track listings), the lineage might never have occurred to me—it certainly hasn’t been obvious on Charlap’s sedate Blue Notes, or how could I have missed it? You want more evidence? Consider the melodic tolling reminiscent of Evans’s “Peace Piece” on “Where Is Love,” the curving grace of Charlap’s theme statement on the title track (a McCoy Tyner ballad worthy of Sondheim), and the spareness and depth of his voicings behind Person throughout. For all of that, the strongest likeness is in Charlap’s rhythmic self-sufficency: Forgoing bass and drums has lured many a pianist into fussy rhapsody, but here’s one instance where it reveals unsuspected strength. I’m guessing Charlap finally feels comfortable exposing Evans’s influence because he’s fully absorbed it. Never at all imitative, he’s announcing that he’s entered the same league.

You Taught My Heart to Sing is the most buoyant program of tenor-and-piano duets since Zoot Sims and Jimmy Rowles’s 1977 If I’m Lucky, whose opening number was Buddy Johnson’s “(I Wonder) Where Our Love Has Gone,” Person and Charlap’s closer. Torchy ballads like this beauty introduced by Arthur Prysock with Johnson’s orchestra in 1948 still tempt Charlap to cliché (Evans knew to avoid them), and the Person original that precedes it shows he’s still unsure of himself on the blues. Fortunately, the gently emotive Person, to whom such material is second nature, is there to save the day.

Since the late 1960s, first on Prestige and then on Muse and its successor HighNote, Person has been churning out albums like the ones Gene Ammons used to make, all featuring tough-tenor riffs and strong-man-hides-his-tears ballads—the sort of stuff you used to hear on jukeboxes in black neighborhood bars. Satisfying as these have been, together with his many recordings in support of the late Etta Jones, such workmanlike affairs typecast Person as strictly grits-and-gravy. But his discography also includes two circa-1990 Muse albums, limber duos with bassist Ron Carter that were close to what you and I keep wishing Sonny Rollins would do. On another surprising duet LP, released in 1984, he almost persuaded the introspective pianist Ran Blake to play the dozens after deadlocking him in chess.

There’s more to Person than his limited reputation suggests, and Charlap knows how to draw it out of him—if this lovely encounter with a younger “name” doesn’t bring Person wider recognition, nothing can. Person’s approach to ballads hasn’t changed all that much, but the pellucid setting capitalizes on virtues his more typical releases take for granted, beginning with his gift for implying harmonic variation through sensitive melodic embellishment and subtle manipulation of timbre. Along with that song from
Oliver! (the show from which Jay-Z sampled “I’d Do Anything” from, kids), Person and Charlap also redeem Leslie Bricusse’s “If I Ruled the World,” from Pickwick—Dickensian treacle came as part of the bargain with the Zombies, Kinks, and Julie Christie during the 1960s British Invasion. Person is so much like a crooner on this you can practically tell the consonants from the vowels in his lovely delineation of the melody— forget Ammons, he’s in touch with Prysock, Billy Eckstine, and other bygone black-tie balladeers. The only track where he leaves me wanting more is “Where Are You,” and then only because Ben Webster owns the song in perpetuity and nobody beats Ben Webster on a ballad. Not even Houston Person at his most transcendent.


Person is the quintessential Muse/High Note artist. For upwards of 20 years, until Joe Fields sold the catalog and started over again with HighNote and Savant in the early ’90s, Muse (itself a spawn of the short-lived Cobblestone) issued a steady stream of organ combos and other product that seemed geared to service radio formats and a jukebox trade that no longer existed, as if the label’s raison d’être was to make sure Sonny Stitt got paid for another few dozen blowing dates before he blew his last. But Fields, whose background was in sales and promotion, proved receptive to the ideas of independent producers like Don Schlitten and Michael Cuscuna, so from the beginning there would also be the occasional Jaki Byard or Lester Bowie. Fields has continued this policy with his current labels, for which Person and others, including drummer Cecil Brooks III, effectively double as contract artists and staff producers. In addition to providing safe landing for performers dropped by majors (Arthur Blythe, Wallace Roney, Frank Morgan, Steve Turre), HighNote is also becoming a home for side projects dear to the hearts of musicians still on major rosters, like Charlap (granted, Person produced You Taught My Heart to Sing) and pianist Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus.

Billy Hart Quartet, a stunner that might set your brain and pulse racing more than you want in this summer heat, features a band that started off as Iverson’s before he, bassist Ben Street, and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner unanimously voted Hart leader in recognition of his seniority and the sizzle and spread of his beat. Though the ear is drawn to Turner as the only horn—it helps that he’s in top form, simultaneously cerebral and hard-charging—Hart earns his billing by following the drummer’s creed and dedicating himself to making everyone else sound good. One way to do this is by synching accelerations and suspensions of tempo to a solo’s modulations, and Hart’s quick response time on his own “Lorca” is a bracing example. His pieces tend to elicit the CD’s most stirring and dramatic performances, but two tunes in everybody’s fakebook are given novel, diametrically opposed twists: Turner opens Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” with an alarming fly swatter of an overblown low note, the theme appearing in recognizable form only at the end, whereas on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” the theme is stated thrice with only slight variation, which takes up over two minutes and tricks you into believing that’s all there’s going to be the rest of the way. Then the fun begins, with Turner and then Iverson orbiting the highest intervals of Parker’s changes for five minutes and no recapitulation of the theme at the end—except in your head.

Roy Haynes was famous for being underrated so long he’s now a little overrated. Hart, who’s been around since the early ’70s, when he was one of the drummers on Miles Davis’s On the Corner, is merely underrated. Congrats to his younger bandmates if Billy Hart Quartet helps make him famous for it.

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Great White Mope

My father-in-law was in the hospital with pneumonia when I heard Brad Mehldau at the Village Vanguard in late September, so I left my cell phone on. That nobody called was a double blessing—no troubling updates from Florida and no petulant scolding from the bandstand. Don’t get me wrong: that theatrical sigh of exasperation you hear when someone’s cell twitters during a concert is very likely to be mine. But the second time it happened during a Mehldau set in an Oakland nightclub a few years ago, his reaction was so out of proportion—and so prissy—that I couldn’t help laughing in agreement with another writer at my table who leaned close and whispered, “Aw, poor baby.”

Like Keith Jarrett, whom he resembles in his sacramental approach to jazz and faith in the ways of the hand, Mehldau sure makes it difficult for a critic to be on his side. The last time I heard Jarrett’s Standards Trio, one tune concluded with him raising his plastic water bottle in a toast to Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette; you’d have thought they’d just achieved transubstantiation rather than a reasonably swinging “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Like high fives after a home run, it seemed the masculine equivalent of “You go, girl,” bespeaking a rah-rah affirmation as foreign to Hank Jones as it would have been to Joe DiMaggio. Mehldau’s preening is more subtle. Among the forms it takes are his wordy essays on the creative process for JazzTimes and his liner-note beefing with writers who liken him to Bill Evans. Mehldau is right to insist that he has little in common with Evans (for starters, his beat isn’t nearly as lithe), and right that the comparison amounts to racial profiling—a point of view that casts white jazzmen as “introspective,” in contrast to their “expressive” black counterparts. Then again, a pianist who hunches over the keys exactly as Evans did and assigns his copyrights to Werther Music probably has it coming.

None of this would be worth talking about if Mehldau’s solos weren’t also a little too fussy and self-involved, and if—again, in common with Jarrett—he weren’t prodigiously talented despite it all. My biggest quarrel with Mehldau’s Art of the Trio series—dominated by standards, usually recorded at the Vanguard—is that your early thirties is awfully young to start releasing the same album over and over again. The occasional solo album, two featuring only his originals, and the Jon Brion–produced (and oversweetened) Largo were inconsequential variations on the formula. As if to add spice, Mehldau occasionally interprets newer pop songs alongside golden-age ones, but because he favors Nick Drake, Thom Yorke, and other great white mopes like himself, this hasn’t exactly drawn him out.

Live in Tokyo, Mehldau’s new solo album, starts with Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun” and ends with a brooding “River Man,” a song whose newfound popularity with jazz performers (Andy Bey has also recorded it) is puzzling, given that Drake hinted at jazz in his supple phrasing, not in his barren melodies. Radiohead has become a Mehldau specialty, but once you remove its apocalyptic production and Yorke’s boy-in-a-bubble vocal, there’s not much left to “Paranoid Android”—certainly not enough to justify Mehldau’s nearly 20 minutes of vamping and Chopin arpeggios. He’d be better off sticking to the standard repertoire, especially Thelonious Monk and Cole Porter. “Monk’s Dream” is this recital’s master stroke, a rigorous examination of the composer’s pouncing melody and each of its underlying rhythms that finds Mehldau putting his abundant technique to a higher purpose than showing off. He turns two Gershwin tunes into overwrought études, and recasts Porter’s “From This Moment On” as a semi-dirge, foolishly resisting the lyric’s call for “only whoop-dee-do songs.” But for confirmation of Mehldau’s insight into Porter, go to the title track of Anything Goes, from earlier this year.

You might never guess it from the execrable De-Lovely, but behind their sophistication, some of Porter’s best numbers were rhythm songs, and this is the angle from which Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jorge Rossy approach “Anything Goes,” teasing the melody along by syncopating it and postponing its cadences—a device pleasantly reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s trios in this context, and one that Mehldau frequently draws on even when playing unaccompanied, possibly his modernist adaptation of stride. Other highlights from Mehldau’s liveliest trio album so far—not to say it doesn’t have its longueurs—include a sprint through Monk’s “Skippy” and a version of Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (the background music Peter Gunn and Edie Hart chilled to) so swanky Rossy might be keeping time with a swizzle stick instead of brushes.

Which brings us back to the Vanguard a few weeks ago. There were two ways of viewing the personnel on this gig: as a new edition of Mehldau’s trio with a replacement drummer (Jeff Ballard) and saxophonist Mark Turner sitting in, or as Mehldau guesting with Turner, Ballard, and Grenadier’s group Fly. Either way, Mehldau was a revelation. Adding a horn to the fray silenced the pretentious hush that often surrounds his piano, and itchy solos that made stops in the church and the barrelhouse as well as the recital hall recalled the promise he showed in the early ’90s as a member of Joshua Redman’s band. But the alchemy worked both ways. Fly is a potentially great band with which the unassertive Turner tends to float ethereally over bass and drums; Mehldau’s vigorous comping and tricky counter-rhythms brought him down-to-earth now and then, without demanding he stay put, and he responded with uncharacteristically heated blowing. The set I heard consisted of three complex Mehldau originals that went untitled—”some things I’ve been working on.” I hope they turn up on his next CD, along with Turner, Grenadier, and Ballard.

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Continuing Education

Marian McPartland’s learning curve is apparently infinite, an Escher-like, Velcro-covered loop that keeps picking up incremental details as it winds its way through jazz for six decades, turning what began as a generic approach into something personal. Her early-’50s records, made at the start of her eight-year engagement at the Hickory House, reveal a gifted pianist with accomplished technique and a passable understanding of contemporary currents. But her playing was often polite—stylish without suggesting much individual style. Yet even by that time, Margaret Marian Turner of Windsor, England, had wended her way through much music history, forging her approach with at least as much stubborn persistence as natural talent.

She was born in 1918, and began playing by ear; years of formal study followed, but in her early teens she discovered jazz and begin imitating records. “I just played everything,” she told me a few years ago, on the occasion of her widely celebrated 80th birthday: “Duke Ellington was my big inspiration, and then I tried to play like Teddy Wilson.” She won a few scholarships, including one that enrolled her in London’s Guildhall School of Music, which she abandoned before graduation to go out on a tour in vaudeville. In 1944, while entertaining troops in Belgium, she met trumpeter and Beiderbecke acolyte Jimmy McPartland. Stationed deep in the Ardennes, he came to her rescue by commandeering a grand piano from a family of Nazi sympathizers so that she could play a concert. They married and settled in New York in 1946, and though her work with Jimmy was Dixieland, she instantly began to soak up the forces of modernism, asking and receiving advice from Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano, among others, and leading her own trio with Bill Crow and Joe Morello.

“Starting out with Jimmy was a great way to break into show business, so on any day I can play in his Dixieland style, but I’m also part Teddy Wilson, part bebop, part Bill Evans. I’d like to be part Wayne Shorter.” By the 1970s, those parts and others had contributed to a redefinition of her playing—ballads slowed to a meditative crawl and parsed with extended rests; medium-tempo flourishes spelled with blues locutions and a near-rococo infusion of passing chords; uptempo aggression in which time is spiked with occasionally pugnacious syncopations. Her improvisations hadn’t lost an iota of charm, but were no longer reliably decorous or even-tempered. She developed an unusually expansive book that included the expected standards, with a particular accent on Alec Wilder (her self-produced 1973 Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Alec Wilder, with bassist Michael Moore, marked a turning point), as well as originals and a plethora of jazz works that few others bothered to investigate.

McPartland’s individuality accrued, partly a result of discriminating add-ons; she doesn’t leap out like McCoy Tyner or Bill Evans, unmistakable from the first note. Yet, like them, she plays with a clarity that allows you to hear her think. A relatively trite instance occurs at the end of “While We’re Young,” on her Piano Jazz entry with Evans, when she plays what you expect to be the penultimate note and sits on it, pondering whether or not to resolve it, and finally deciding not. A more telling example is her smashing 1991 Live at Maybeck recital, a rare instance of McPartland alone. Her thought processes are on tap throughout a thoroughly engaging “Willow Weep for Me,” the requisite funk tonality used sparingly, dressed in the finery of richly hued chords. A passage in “My Funny Valentine” gets down with a Dave McKenna-like bassline, but not for long, because she is more interested in a rhapsodic extension of the melody and its harmonies. She revives Ellington’s “Clothed Woman,” which combines a striding melody (reminiscent of “Black Beauty”) with a modernist framework, and offers something similar on her own in “Theme From Piano Jazz,” mixing boogie woogie and dissonance. For an example of her clean, decisive, rigorous blues work, she chooses as her starting gate Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround.”

Taking an opposite tack, she merged her trio with a 20-piece string orchestra in 1996 for Silent Pool, commenting at the time, “I was afraid people would say I sounded like Mantovani or something.” Alan Broadbent’s dark, stately arrangements of a dozen McPartland originals forestall that, but the main interest is the lucid way she navigates her part, taking stock every measure, a quality no less evident on her latest recording, Live at Shanghai Jazz, taped last year with Rufus Reid and Joe Morello; it begins with Mary Lou Williams’s cheerful “Scratchin’ in the Gravel” and settles into a vividly contemplative de facto trilogy of “Moon and Sand,” “Prelude to a Kiss” (she’s inhabited its harmonies for so long that she can bend them in any direction), and “All the Things You Are.”

McPartland’s running dialogue with jazz has also taken shape in educational and literary pursuits—an anthology of the latter was published as All in Good Time. But the truest measure of her involvement is the incomparable Piano Jazz series, with which she has served NPR since 1978. Like many people who haven’t turned on a radio in years, I know the show because dozens of installments appeared as CDs on Jazz Alliance—a wing of Concord Jazz, which released all the albums mentioned here. They’ve now gone out of catalog, but on August 27 Jazz Alliance will put out four volumes: reissues of Bill Evans (1978) and Oscar Peterson (1980) and, for the first time, Carmen McRae (1985) and Chick Corea (2001). They are oddly intimate portraits, combining music and conversation as McPartland and guest sit at two Baldwins (she has also done shows with nonpianists), exchanging pleasantries yet somehow getting to deeper levels of jazz talk than you expect. The courtliness of it all, and the focus on music-making with only scattered touches of biography, elicit an ingenuous desire to reveal and explain. McPartland, who has chatted and duetted with everyone from Eubie Blake to Cecil Taylor, never gets technical, though first-name references are not uncommon. The drama takes place during duets, as the game host attempts to blend in with the guest, soaking up the unusual chord or key change.

All are worth hearing, and the Evans is a classic. It begins with him playing the original written version of “Waltz With Debbie” and quickly evolves into a demonstration of Evans’s ideas about displacing rhythms. A born teacher, he discusses the need to know a tune’s changes (“Intuition has to lead knowledge, but it can’t be out there alone”), while dismissing the need for group rehearsal—everything develops on the job, he says; in 20 years, the trio rehearsed maybe four times, usually before concert recordings. Most of the Piano Jazz shows have sent me back to records I’d forgotten or overlooked. For one example, while insisting he lacks the “dimension” to be a solo pianist, Evans laughingly refers to the endlessly repeated melody of his 1975 “People” (Alone Again on Fantasy); lo and behold, a performance I once thought dreary re-emerges, “Nefertiti”-like, as a subtly impassioned tour de force—albeit not one I’m likely to play very often. He speaks of his early idols, of how he started off with boogie woogie, of the weddings and socials he played, including a polka band at Manville Polish Home, then plays Toots Thieleman’s alternating-keys arrangement of “Days of Wine and Roses,” transfigures Ellington’s “Reflections in D,” and raves about Marian’s “While We’re Young.”

Peterson begins with a highly Tatum-esque reading of “Old Folks,” and shows how he uses minor seconds to “thicken” the harmony. McPartland picks it up and says, “See, already I copped something and it’s only the first tune.” He says most pianists are ambidextrous, at least in their thoughts. She says, “I am in my thoughts, but watch me when I get to the piano.” Peterson’s in a stomping mood, demonstrating broken tenths as compared with striding octaves, telling funny anecdotes, chivalrously cradling McPartland’s choruses, which are sometimes shaky, though she adds pretty chords to “Like Someone in Love.” He reveals that what she thought was his variation on “Satin Doll” is an interpolation of an old and obscure song: “You mean you don’t recall ‘Auf Wiedersehen’?” (Who knew he was a wit? Yet other examples abound in his remarkable memoir, A Jazz Odyssey, published by Continuum; his comments about Bud Powell are ludicrous, but his Lester Young stories more than compensate.) McPartland’s best showing, not surprisingly, is her solo, “Willow Creek.” Carmen McRae was in great voice for her hour, and the sound balance and casualness underscore its crisp directness. Clearly enjoying McPartland, she is uncharacteristically genial. Though her piano is percussive and efficient, each note struck with confidence, it’s no match for McPartland’s technique, which supplies her with a gently radiant boost. They talk about modern tunes and McRae pays homage to James Taylor (“Fire and Rain” is a “cute tune,” McPartland avers); yet when asked to perform a new song, she prefers Jule Styne and Harold Arlen. Chick Corea’s hour begins with platitudes (“music is life”) and the through-composed “Brasilia,” but grows deeper and more candid as he is encouraged to explore Monk and Waller and a few of his own early benchmarks. Blue Note has just reissued his masterly 1968 trio album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which had a huge impact in its day and stands up as well as anything he’s done. It was a favorite of McPartland’s (she concedes less interest in his fusion period), but although she can’t get him to revisit “Matrix” or “Windows,” her limpid version of “Crystal Silence” stimulates them both, leading to a completely free piece and a redoubtable capper in “Spain”—from which Marian McPartland no doubt picked up a few more tricks.

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Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Road Map

The initial idea was to create an overview of jazz (and jazz-related) records from 1900 to 2001. After several weeks of revelatory listening to music from the dark ages—rags, marches, cakewalks, minstrel and music hall turns—in an attempt to find appropriate selections for the years 1900-1920, I realized that, for reasons of space and time, the project would have to be abbreviated. I had bit off more than I could chew or the Voice could accommodate. Still, having narrowed the scope to 1945-2001, I spent nearly five months groping for solutions to the labyrinth I was intent on building; the writing was, relatively, a snap compared to the process of selecting representative recordings, given my self-imposed rules, about which more anon.


I wanted, for my own illumination, to posit a jazz map. By selecting one track (always a track, never an album, though the album on which the track can be found is included at the end of each entry) to represent each year, I hoped to offer a purview that balanced achievement and innovation. Given my rules, however, I soon realized that nothing remotely like objectivity was attainable. An infinite number of maps were possible, all of them valid. Some years and periods—1928, 1936-41, 1957, 1961-65, 1980, 1988, and 1999, among others—are so bountiful with masterworks that choosing was an exercise in frustration, even heartbreak. What I thought at first had at least a whiff of scholastic gravity revealed itself as a shameless parlor game. (Advanced classes might attempt lists made up entirely of non-Americans or guitarists or under-30s, etc.) Though it gives me pleasure to look over this particular terrain, I refuse to defend it against others I drew, or to those you might design. When you’ve worn yourself out ranting at the insanity of my selections, you might give it a try.


For me, the key reward was in exploring hundreds of records I hadn’t revisited in years. Some records that I expected to include no longer sounded as good; others I had previously neglected now filled me with admiration. Since the final draft says more about me than jazz, it doesn’t bear analysis, except to mention the obvious. In narrowing my options, I decided to stick with American jazz, an act of inexcusable chauvinism; also, the ages of musicians skewed older as I closed in on the new century—I can’t understand that at all. Choosing the best of anything, let alone the most important, is rarely possible. In the end, I simply settled on 57 tracks I cherish. That they also suggest how we got from there to here is of less interest to me than their consistent excellence, exuberance, and diversity. Jazz’s bounty continues to astonish me.


If you want to play, you have to abide by the rules, mainly one big rule: A musician may be listed only once as a leader. The alternative is to allow a musician—an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Davis or a Coleman, etc.— to reappear over and over; that approach might be more suitable if the goal is to identify favorite or historically crucial performances, but I sought variety as well, which demanded frantic juggling and endless compromises.When I began, I dashed off paragraphs on random faves: Duke Ellington’s “Harlem,” Stan Getz’s “Diaper Pin,” James Moody’s “Moody’s Mood for Love,” Ornette Coleman’s “RPDD,” George Russell’s “All About Rosie,” Sonny Rollins’s “Three Little Words,” Pee Wee Russell’s “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain,” Al Cohn and Jimmy Rowles’s “Them There Eyes,” Count Basie’s “Little Pony,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Emanon,” David Murray’s “Blues for My Sister,” Thelonious Monk’s “I Should Care,” Lennie Tristano’s “Becoming,” John Lewis’s “For Ellington,” Cecil Taylor’s “3 Phasis,” Henry Threadgill’s “100 Year Old Game,” and Arthur Blythe’s “Sister Daisy,” to mention just a few of the post-war sides that were ultimately discarded because of conflicting dates or second-guessing. The only way to proceed was to organize an overall grid, plug in possibilities for each year, mix and match, and pray for the best.


Supplementary rules: Each work had to be tied to the year it was recorded, not released, which might create a disparity of a few years. Tracks that were not released for decades, however, were not eligible. I knew that I would cross generations, acknowledging masterly performances by older players amid new wrinkles by younger ones, but didn’t make that a rule. Anyone who thinks that the following comprehensively depicts the post-war jazz era is not paying attention. But are they great records? Every last one.


1945

Charlie Parker, “Koko”

By no means the first bebop or modern jazz record, this is the one that cracked the firmament. Parker showed how to make music with advanced harmonies and tumultuous rhythms, creating a tuneful new lexicon in the process. He unleashed a virtuoso universe in which post-war musicians could reinvent themselves and their place in society. They could and often did play for dancing, laughs, and entertainment, but they no longer had to. For jazz, the noir years were golden. Not the least amazing thing about “Koko” is that it continues to overwhelm. Only after one has lived with it awhile does Parker’s blade-like articulation and incredible velocity give up its melodic secrets; Parker’s alto sax was nothing if not a melody maker. Built on the chords of “Cherokee,” it opens with a jolting eight-bar unison theme, coupled with exchanges between Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Then Bird flies: two choruses of staggering invention, his tone fat and sensuous, jagged and hard. Drummer Max Roach holds the fort for a chorus, before the head is reprised. In 2:50, the world is remade. *The Charlie Parker Story (Savoy)

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1946

Woody Herman, “Sidewalks of Cuba”

After leading a band associated with blues for 10 years, Herman suddenly leaped to the forefront of swing’s twilight years; like Gillespie, who had written for him in 1942, Herman’s big band embraced the modernistic spirit with wit and daring. But where Gillespie turned to modes and Afro-Cuban rhythms, Herman looked to Stravinsky and r&b—and to Parker and Gillespie. Handed a prosaic ’30s song, arranger Ralph Burns imbued it with the Herd’s trademark fervor, reeds strutting as boldly as brasses and drummer Don Lamond on red alert. Herman plays clarinet, and guitarist Chuck Wayne reveals the influence of Charlie Christian and bop. But the heart of the performance is a crazed “Bumble Bee” break and half-chorus trumpet solo by Sonny Berman, whose drug-related death a few months later, at 21, was the wake-up call no one heeded. Berman had absorbed Roy Eldridge and Gillespie while still in his teens, and his phrasing is emphatic, personal, and wry. *Blowin’ Up a Storm (Columbia/Legacy)


1947

Dizzy Gillespie, “Manteca”

No one accomplished more in the post-war era than its clown prince. Of the founding fathers, only Dizzy could have launched a hot-blooded big band—one that introduced saxophonist James Moody and a foursome later known as the Modern Jazz Quartet. And only he persistently sought ideas beyond U.S. borders. “A Night in Tunisia” established him as the most gorgeously spellbinding trumpet player in a generation, and a composer of promise. With George Russell’s “Cubana Be”/”Cubana Bop,” he fused jazz, modalism, and Caribbean rhythms. The more accessible “Manteca,” however, grounded an enduring Cuban-American merger. Percussionist Chano Pozo brought him the idea for a piece that employs three interdependent vamps, to which Dizzy added a contrastingly melodic 16-bar bridge and two short, breakneck solos. “Manteca” doesn’t disguise its dual patrimony—the two cultures exist side by side with equal integrity. Gillespie continued to play it for 45 years. *The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (Bluebird)


1948

Tadd Dameron, “Lady Bird”

When the Royal Roost, a Broadway chicken joint with music, switched from swing to bop, Dameron was installed as leader. The gig ran nearly 10 months, confirming the composer, arranger, and reluctant pianist as an original who knew how to spur good musicians. “Lady Bird” is only 16 bars, but suggests—with its AABC form—a full-blown song. Unlike his unmistakable bop pieces (“Hot House,” “Symphonette”), it has a suave, mellow theme that reflects his apprenticeship with swing bands, yet sounds no less modern. After a tricky intro, the dapper drumming of Kenny Clarke guides the ensemble, which boasts two Lestorian tenors—celestial Allen Eager and earthly Wardell Gray. Dameron’s greatest interpreter, though, was Fats Navarro, whose trumpet solo opens with a nine-bar phrase, soaring over turnbacks with matchless ease and grace and a tone of transporting beauty. The careers of Dameron, Eager, Gray, and Navarro were devastated by drugs; jazz was devastated by Navarro’s absurd loss, at 26. *The Fabulous Fats Navarro (Blue Note)


1949

Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugue-It”

As much if not more than Parker and Gillespie, Powell represents a line of demarcation for his instrument. The difference between pre-Bud piano and post-Bud piano is categorical. He played impossibly fast or slow, with obsessive fury or meditative detachment; he used the left hand for bracing, kindling chords that fed the right, which expressed a percussive rage equalled only by his gentle raptures. In its economy, hurtling power, and infallible precision, the minor key “Tempus Fugue-It” (originally released as “Tempus Fugit”) is a head-banging wonder: the crashing Lisztian chords in which the relatively conventional melody is swaddled, the close harmonies of the release, the thrilling riff configurations of the solo, the smashed arpeggio just before the out-chorus. Yet each detail rings clear as a bell, with sensational logic. It’s not that he plays so fast, but that he thinks so coherently, balanced on a moonbeam. *Jazz Giant (Verve)

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1950

Sarah Vaughan, “Mean to Me”

The voice that dropped a thousand jaws helped pave the way for bop in 1944-45 with her recordings of “East of the Sun,” “Lover Man,” and this song, backed by Parker and Gillespie; but they were just a whisper of where she was headed. At a 1949 Carnegie Hall concert, she introduced a second-chorus variation on “Mean to Me,” a fantastic vocal swan-dive that completely revamped the melody without retouching the lyric—without resorting to scat. A year later, she recorded it with a Jimmy Jones band, allowing Budd Johnson a noble half-chorus before embarking on her embellishments, egged on by Miles Davis’s obbligato. Her voluptuous, resolute, winged phrasing adjourns high in the sky. By now management was grooming this formerly gawky, church-trained phenomenon for stardom; but they couldn’t temper her musicality, much as they tried. *Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi (Columbia/Legacy)


1951

Stan Getz, “Mosquito Knees”

Having achieved glory with an eight-bar solo on Herman’s “Early Autumn,” Getz became an overnight star—one of many tenor saxophonists who brought the Lester Young template into modern jazz. He eschewed the heavier attack of, say, Wardell Gray (whose solo this year on Basie’s “Little Pony” is itself monumental), in favor of a sighing dry-ice lyricism that was occasionally derided as a “white tenor” sound. Yet no one who heard his live 1951 sides could have failed to recognize that his breezy timbre was backed by heroic force. He was in peak form at Storyville, colluding with a dream team: guitarist Jimmy Raney, pianist Al Haig, bassist Teddy Kotick, and drummer Tiny Kahn. He was also armed with an impressive book, including six pieces by Gigi Gryce; a “Honeysuckle Rose” derivation, “Mosquito Knees,” propels him into a blistering rampage, revealing a trove of melodic riffs, capped by exchanges with the rousing Kahn. *The Complete Roost Recordings (Blue Note)


1952

Thelonious Monk, “Little Rootie Tootie”

Lost between the Blue Notes that established him as a cult figure and the Riversides that would soon win him a popular following were the trio sessions that ought to have closed the case on him as a pianist of nerve and genius. Other pianists are obliged to make bad instruments sound good; Monk, with his clattering dissonances (consider the opening of the incredibly swinging “These Foolish Things”), made good instruments sound unstrung. His train song is typical: funny, rambunctious, and starkly rhythmic, with three dissonant chords clanging at the end of alternate bars. He begins the last chorus with a bearded cliché—deedledee-deedledee up, deedledee-deedledee down—and brings it home with hilarious ingenuity. Art Blakey (dig him on the second bridge) was Monk’s perfect drummer. *The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige)


1953

Gerry Mulligan, “My Funny Valentine”






© Gerry Mulligan
photo: 2002 Jerry Dantzic Archives

Meanwhile, a new school was born on the left coast, and though much of the attention went to George Shearing’s bop-lite and Stan Kenton’s bop-ballistics, the prince of the realm was an exiled New Yorker who had taken a job at an L.A. club with a bandstand too small to fit a piano. Mulligan’s love for big bands was apparent in his charts for Kenton and his own Tentette, but he became famous due to the pianoless quartet with Chet Baker, who never sounded more individual than in those early years, before he became enamored of Miles. The live, extended version of “My Funny Valentine,” recorded at the cozy Haig, is more evocative than the studio hit of the year before. After a drumroll and an ominous two-note bass vamp, Baker wanders into the chords and by bar three (no baritone support either) is on the green; Mulligan follows suit, gingerly stepping through the clover. *The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of The Gerry Mulligan Quartet (Pacific Jazz)


1954

Brown & Roach Inc., “Delilah”

The quintet founded by Max Roach and Clifford Brown in the spring of 1954 ended on June 26, 1956, when Brown, pianist Richie Powell, and Powell’s wife were killed in a highway accident. Brown was 25, and he is still mourned. “Delilah,” the most unlikely of vehicles (an undulating Hedy Lamarr prop), begins single-file—bass vamp, cymbals, piano vamp, tenor vamp—before Brown states the theme as though staring down the throat of the cobra he’s charming. Harold Land, who had much of Wardell Gray’s sandy sound and finesse, offers a bouquet of melodies; then Brown enters with a three-note figure that he develops through the bridge. He ends the chorus blazing and detonates the next one with a heart-stopping rip. Powell, who wrote the inventive chart, plays trebly chords, neat modulations, and a Grieg finish, followed by fours with Roach, who adds a melodic chorus of his own. *Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Emarcy)

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1955

The Jazz Messengers, “Prince Albert”

For one year and one live recording, Art Blakey pretended non-leadership in the hope of creating a genuine cooperative, like the Modern Jazz Quartet, which had been picking up speed since 1954. With an ideal lineup—pianist-composer Horace Silver, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hank Mobley, bassist Doug Watkins—the drummer press-rolled the Messengers into a new idiom that established itself as a permanent alternative to cool, modal, and avant-garde, and as a predecessor of soul-jazz and funk. Dorham’s much played theme is a variation on “All the Things You Are,” and Silver playfully introduces it with the requisite Charlie Parker vamp. Dorham’s distinctly smoky tone and sleek phrasing are flexible enough to permit a “Camptown Races” joke, and Mobley’s reedy authority steps evenly with the time, then doubles it. *At the Café Bohemia, Volume 1 (Blue Note)


1956

George Russell, “Concerto for Billy the Kid”






Cecil Taylor, James Lyons, Andrew Cyrille
photo: Fred McDarrah

A major theorist, instigator, and gadfly, as well as one of the most original of jazz composers, Russell had been making his mark behind the scenes for a decade when he finally got the chance to record his own album. It was a turning point for him and the pianist for whom he conceived his dazzling mini-concerto. Bill Evans had appeared on a few sessions but was virtually unknown until he embarked on the avid, single-handed, stop-time whirlwind cadenza at this work’s center. Russell, who preferred modes to chords and published several editions of his explanatory Zen-like treatise, Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, aligned each musician like a layer in a cake, making the sextet resound with startling freshness. He and Evans continued to collaborate (“All About Rosie,” Living Time), and their first meeting—in the same year that Cecil Taylor debuted and Art Tatum bowed out—affirmed the rise of the new jazz intellectual. *Jazz Workshop (RCA Bluebird)


1957

Charles Mingus, “Haitian Fight Song”

After apprenticing himself in swing, bop, r&b, and pop, Mingus worked his way through a labyrinth of academic compositional techniques, which earned him the accusation of failing to swing. “Haitian Fight Song” was his response. A more thunderous bass intro has not been heard; he sounds like a giant plucking ropes against a tree trunk, albeit with perfect intonation. Leading a solid but hardly all-star quintet with written material that amounts to no more than eight bars (two canonical riffs), plus an orthodox blues for the improvisational grid, he herds (le mot juste) his men through double-time and stop-time rhythms for a riveting 12 minutes that feel more like three. Trombonist Jimmy Knepper makes his bones here; the others—altoist Shafi Hadi, pianist Wade Legge, and, in a fabled debut, drummer Dannie Richmond—play over their heads. Mingus’s astounding solo obviated further criticism. *The Clown (Atlantic)


1958

Sun Ra, “Saturn”

In the year of Ornette Coleman’s debut, no one paid much mind to the former Sonny Blount; critics sniffed at the eclecticism, the cultism, the garage sonics. Who can blame them? Compared to Coleman, Taylor, Russell, and Mingus, his bop was distilled with a touch of corn and more than a touch of doo-wop. He looked forward, back, and across the way to the r&b bars. He wrote painstaking charts and involved good musicians, but was a do-it-yourself type who bided his time until the mountain came to him. His theme song, recorded in different versions, combines a six-beat piano intro, a 14-bar contrapuntal 7/4 setup melody, and the hooky main theme (in four and based on conventional changes). The latter may sound a bit too enchanted, but it generates energetic solos from tenor John Gilmore and baritone Pat Patrick, who along with the ensemble sway merrily. *Jazz in Silhouette (Evidence)


1959

Miles Davis, “So What”

The track (and album) opens with a hushed prelude, reportedly contributed by Gil Evans; Paul Chambers’s bass prompts a three-note Bill Evans phrase, leading to a unison bass-like figure played by those two, followed by Evans’s enigmatic Spanish-style chords and, finally, Chambers’s introduction of a beat and a theme, which is punctuated by unison chords from the three winds. The head couldn’t be more basic: a 32-bar AABA song. But instead of chord changes, it offers two scales for the improvisers—D minor with an E-flat bridge. Modalism has now found an accessible context and will soon be everywhere. Davis’s solo sticks to the scales and is a lyrical marvel, immaculate in form and execution. Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane are far more prolix, but they too are focused by the harmonic austerity, and Evans finishes with tightly ground chords, showing that Monk didn’t have a patent on minor seconds. It’s the most enduringly popular jazz album of the LP era. *Kind of Blue (Columbia)

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1960

Gil Evans, “Le Nevada”

Speaking of minimalism, Evans, nearing 50 and having gained some marquee value for his work with Miles, initiated a big band “head” arrangement, something that had rarely been heard since Basie’s days in Kansas City. All he had for “Le Nevada” was a hooky four-bar riff and a tempo, yet after several unsuccessful tries, he eked out a 15-minute bobbing fantasia with exuberant improvs by Johnny Coles, Jimmy Knepper, and, chiefly, ageless tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson. Typically, Evans had strolled over to the trombone section while the recording was in progress and wrote on a matchbook a riff that sent the performance into high gear. Elvin Jones contributed, too, by shaking shakers throughout. In the year of Ornette’s Free Jazz and Eric Dolphy’s Out There, this performance walked a tightrope between old (which bop had become) and new, auguring the spontaneous big bands Evans perfected a decade later. *Out of the Cool (Impulse)


1961

John Coltrane, “Chasin’ the Trane”

Coltrane enjoyed an authentic hit with “My Favorite Things,” and would soon foster the apex of boudoir crooning with Johnny Hartman, before achieving mythic standing with A Love Supreme. This 16-minute blues in F, though, was the Rubicon many of his old admirers could not cross. Coltrane’s break with convention didn’t encourage dissertations on modes or free time; it elicited ecstasy or wrath. His battle, during 80 or so choruses, against the 12-bar structure that Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison maintain with yeoman determination, is a prodigal display of unbridled emotion: a howl, a mutiny, an invocation in the higher frequencies—the informal beginning of expressionism in jazz, and an unforgettable performance in a year brimming with them. Armstrong and Ellington, Bill Evans, Davis, Gillespie, Getz and Eddie Sauter, Lee Konitz, Mulligan, Blakey, and others all released classics. *Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!)


1962

Dexter Gordon, “Love for Sale”

In a prominent year for tenors—Sonny Rollins home from the bridge, Stan Getz at home with Brazil—Gordon, relishing one of his many comebacks, helped put the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and temporal restraints of bop back on the map, though he, too, was playing long and would soon find himself edging toward modes. He was at a personal peak for two sessions backed by a model trio (pianist Sonny Clarke, bassist Butch Warren, drummer Billy Higgins), and though their music lacked the novel lilt of bossa nova, it had the catalytic power and rousing ingenuity of musicians brimming with ideas and having tremendous fun expressing them. Dexter had Coltrane’s authority without the panic. “Love for Sale” is a fast hardball hit way out of the park, yet filled with bemused and melodic details; Gordon’s broadsword sound exudes dignity, and not one measure of his long solo is superfluous. *Go (Blue Note)


1963

Jackie McLean, “Love and Hate”

McLean, a Parker acolyte who had proven his bop precocity in the ’50s with pungent timbre and razor-sharp acumen, got caught up in and animated by the turbulence of the ’60s. On one of his most dramatic albums, he recorded three works by trombonist Grachan Moncur III (whose Evolution is something of a companion disc). “Love and Hate” is the most ardent and compelling. It opens with a mourning gait, accented by Bobby Hutcherson’s tamped vibraphone chords. After the memorable theme, McLean’s caustic alto saxophone commences with a provocative phrase and then explores the harmonically spare terrain with wounded resolve. He sustains absolute emotional pitch, which is extended by Moncur and Hutcherson, while bassist Larry Ridley and drummer Roy Haynes steer a steady course. One way or another, almost everyone was responding to the new avant-garde. *Destination Out! (Blue Note)


1964

Wayne Shorter, “Infant Eyes”

Working his way through a Coltrane influence, Shorter demonstrated pensive originality as tenor saxophonist and composer with a stellar edition of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Then he blossomed with Davis’s bruising second great quintet, whose members enjoyed a life apart, mostly at Blue Note—a record label that enjoyed an unlikely flurry of hits with Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” and Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.” “Infant Eyes,” a ballad written for his daughter, brings out Shorter’s raw, unaffected tenderness. It recycles a quote from Gershwin’s “Soon” in a 27-bar ABA structure with one chord per measure. Shorter’s improvisation ranges over three octaves, yet it consists of few notes, and each one counts for timbre as well as melody. He later developed an equally expressive approach to the soprano sax, conspicuously evading Coltrane’s shadow, while writing a body of sly tunes unlike anything anywhere. *Speak No Evil (Blue Note)

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1965

Archie Shepp, “Hambone”

Shepp’s militancy was too shrewd to be one-dimensional, his music too generous to be exclusively strident. The album that produced “Malcolm, Malcolm—Semper Malcolm,” almost certainly the best poetry-and-jazz side ever made (some voice, some reading), also offered sextet arrangements of Ellington and bossa nova, a poised response to Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, and the multi-themed “Hambone,” based on a character in a kiddie show. It begins with a familiar mariachi theme and proceeds to a passage that alternates measures in seven and five. The fine solos by trumpeter Ted Curson, altoist Marion Brown, and Shepp—with his raspy, skittery, anxious tenor sax sound—are subordinate to the ensemble, which comes on like a crazed marching band. Yet the new thing, new wave, new music, or new jazz, as it was variously called, was as much derided as Monk had been a decade earlier. *Fire Music (Impulse!)


1966

Albert Ayler, “Our Prayer/Spirits Rejoice”

He replaced notes with glossolalia and made a band music out of raucous disharmonies, folk melodies, marches, hymns, and bugle calls; his trumpet-playing brother, Donald, had an appropriately tinny sound for the latter. Ayler’s grinding tenor saxophone threatened to burst asunder from the effusiveness of his playing. He scared the hell out of people, yet radiated a wildly optimistic passion. The optimism was manic. Dead at 34, in 1970, he never found the acceptance here that he won in Europe—some folks figured he was putting everyone on, among them true believers who were mortified by his later au courant compromises. Yet even in flower-child mode, he carried a cello and howled at the moon; he was never cut out for the Fillmore. Still, his mid-’60s bands electrify, and his medley of two original themes, complete with an interpolation of the “Marseillaise,” suggests an old New Orleans parade band brought to a peak of revivalist hysteria.*Lorrach, Paris 1966 (Hatology)


1967

Sonny Criss, “Willow Weep for Me”

Few people noticed Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1 & 2 or acknowledged Far East Suite as one of Ellington’s masterworks, both recorded this year. But for a brief span, modest attention was paid a blues-driven altoist who had created his own lapidary version of Charlie Parker, yet had not recorded at home in seven years. The third album of his comeback reflected a siege mentality by covering two hits (jazz musicians and producers always went for the most banal chart toppers). Criss’s creamy proficiency had no trouble riding roughshod over the Fifth Dimension, but he was in his glory with great tunes. The pitfall of drenching a ballad in minor-thirds and other blues devices is the potential for cliché. Criss—alertly supported by guitarist Tal Farlow and pianist Cedar Walton—averts the danger with infallible taste and gleaming technique, producing a flawless gem, right down to the lustrous cadenza. *Up, Up and Away (Prestige)


1968

Jaki Byard, “Memories of You”

Byard and Roland Kirk were made for each other—savoring the past as a cocktail of irreverence and sentiment. Byard contributed to Kirk’s Rip, Rig and Panic, and now Kirk repaid the favor. The rhythm section brought together for Booker Ervin’s Book series—Byard, bassist Richard Davis, drummer Alan Dawson—was present on all but one old tune by Eubie Blake, who, at 85, was a year away from his famous comeback. Kirk sticks to tenor and, whether soloing or backing Byard, rarely pauses to breathe. Byard’s ebullient take on stride piano is emboldened by his peerless, tumbling arpeggios: Tatum-esque in concept, Taylor-esque in touch. If the most ambitious release of the year was The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, this duet was perhaps the most serendipitous. Not much noted at the time, it exercised an influence that would be evident 30 years later. *The Jaki Byard Experience (Prestige)


1969

Tony Williams, “Spectrum”

As rock pushed jazz aside, a few musicians sought common ground not in dinky tunes or soul-brother affectations, but in energy, electricity, and coloration. Miles’s Bitches Brew and Williams’s Emergency! were as shocking to some as Ayler had been, yet for the drummer, born in 1945, fusion held the promise of destiny, if not of commercial salvation. He had joined McLean and Miles at 17, had recorded with cutting-edge players like Sam Rivers; to him, rock was a natural challenge and an opportunity. So he took the standard organ-trio instrumentation and maxed it out, fusing free improvisation to blistering rhythms. It pleased hardly anyone—his Hendrixian singing was ill-advised—yet a track like “Spectrum,” admittedly more jazz than rock, suggests exciting possibilities. The cymbals’ lightning response to the first figure of John McLaughlin’s guitar improv prepares you for the alert vitality that abides during Larry Young’s organ spot as well as in their signature wrap-up crescendo. *Spectrum: The Anthology (Verve).

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Post-War Jazz, Continued: 1970-2001

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Apostle of LS&N

In making his brief for Kipling, Randall Jarrell wrote of those oppressively mighty figures in politics and art upon whose leave-taking the world—”tired of being their pedestal”—gives “a great oof of relief,” only to elevate its own personage of equal weight. Jazz’s last Napoleonic (or Kipling-esque) figure was Miles Davis, and no one since has offered a plausible succession—certainly not Wynton Marsalis, whose musical impact withered in direct proportion to his aspiration. Yet if jazz no longer presents an orderly chain of command, it holds out the possibility of contrasting empires. During the past couple of decades, the best and largest part of jazz struck with teeming, clamorous urgency: the legacy of hard bop as multiplied by the avant-garde, fusion, and the swinging strut of recycled repertory. The net effect was to drown out, marginalize, and even belittle middle-aged fancies like Lyricism, Sentiment, and Nostalgia.

This was, more often than not, a good and necessary thing. The fragility of LS&N made it vulnerable to such horrifying mutations as New Age and Jazz Lite, and the talented middle-aged as well as the middle-aged young had their own enclaves and record labels where salutes to the sainted dead would always be welcome. For every Doc Cheatham or Ruby Braff, authentic sun gods, there were a dozen retired podiatrists ready to hit the stage—actually they were local pros who merely sounded like retired podiatrists. Mainstream exile was no more onerous than avant-garde door-money gigs and vanity labels. But lately, a renewed longing for the cooler precincts of melody and rhythm has become apparent, and not just in the fixation on blasé blonds and brunets with go-thither stares. It can be heard—not always, but often—in the music of Mark Turner, Stefon Harris, Dave Douglas, Ethan Iverson, Mark Copeland, Jason Moran, and Matthew Shipp, as well as inveterate downtowners like Roy Campbell and William Parker, among others.

LS&N is the territory mined by Bill Charlap, the 35-year-old pianist who has been playing prominent sideman gigs for more than a dozen years, but recently clicked with something larger than himself: the Bill Charlap Trio. With bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, two mainstays of the New York circuit whose résumés include time with Tommy Flanagan, he has over the course of three albums and several engagements, including a recent week at the Jazz Standard, created something more than a stellar trio. He has himself a band, a unit, a trinity larger than its parts. They are all throwbacks. Peter W., at 37, favors the low, Paul Chambers register and is not only content to play one note where a dozen could be squeezed, but to repeat the note and let it reverberate; his concise and pointed phrases do the work of the bass while maintaining a subtle, almost reticent interest in their own right. Kenny W., at 43, has similarly no need to show off his technique except in the finesse with which he employs it; he has listened to Jo Jones and Kenny Clarke, and his brushes have their polish, his sticks their crisp resolve—switching from one to the other, he jolts the group.

Charlap clearly enjoys listening to them and, having no need to show off his considerable technique, allows whole episodes to pass with the mutuality of a Count Basie rhythm interlude. On “The Nearness of You,” a slo-mo highlight of his new album, Stardust, the equitable mix gives the brushes a crackling, electric pizzazz; and on the bridge of the piano solo, Charlap suggests a phrase and lets the bass finish it. Conversely, on “Georgia on My Mind,” he sometimes follows the bass’s lead. One gets the impression that the three musicians are as intent on each other as on the tunes. That’s how it’s supposed to be and usually isn’t. Most trios are content to play the arrangement; when the leader solos, the others back him. Charlap looks to the others for ideas he can spin. His m.o. includes a second chorus, after the head, in which he seems to noodle for several measures, looking for ground on which to build. Although unlike Ahmad Jamal he is a linear player and unlike Bill Evans a laconic one, he has borrowed from both the idea of a fully interactive band, albeit in a less formalized version.

That Charlap presently records for Blue Note is itself interesting. He has absorbed a great deal of the history of jazz piano, including aspects—block chords, ripe melodies, dilatory tempos—that lead you to expect him to record for specialty labels like Chiaroscuro, Progressive, and Nagel Heyer, for which he has indeed made memorable albums, which include among their tracks two strangely romantic versions of the knuckle-busting “Donna Lee.” His breakthrough albums are on Criss Cross. The exceptional Souvenir (1995), with Scott Colley and Dennis Mackrel (an alert and sage drummer), opens with an assured Ornette Coleman blues, as if to obviate questions about how much piano he can play, then gets really interesting as he makes Benny Carter’s rarely heard “Souvenir” sound like an Alec Wilder standard; begins “Confirmation” as though fooling around, skirting the tune while prodding the changes (a “Donna Lee”-type cascade, a fillip from Monk’s “Criss Cross”—favorite tune? pun?), stating the theme only in the last 30 seconds for a Memento effect; voices “Godchild” with gracious, Mulligan-esque harmonies (his big break was in Gerry Mulligan’s 1988-90 quartet). An astonishing “Alone Together” opens with harplike a cappella arpeggios and evolves through Jimmy Rowles crushed chords; equitable interaction with melody, chords, and bassist; a chorus with a storming Tyner-esque left hand, leading to a crescendo and a skittering arpeggio that gives pause as Colley begins his turn.

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All Through the Night (1997) introduced the Washingtons and is in some ways a more mature if less startling effort (he stamps Wilder’s “It’s So Peaceful in the Country” indelibly), but the trio’s rigors come to fruition on the two Blue Notes. I misprized Written on the Wind the first time around, hearing a cocktailish pithiness that, in light of Stardust and the Jazz Standard set, I now see as a core virtue in a stubbornly autonomous style that is at once beholden to and liberated from a ’50s aesthetic. This style is exemplified by “In the Still of the Night,” in which he refuses to hurry and finds his way from hesitant embellishments to puckish lightning-bug flight, winking in and out of the changes. He also makes “Blue Skies” romp, “One for My Baby” dawdle, and “Lorelie” twinkle the way they oughta.

One expects Charlap to know the jazz piano hierarchy from Wilson to Hancock. But what other young musician claims Jimmy Rowles, whose ironic fragments, touches of stride, closed chords, spare phrases, dynamic touch, and imperturbable patience he has assimilated; he lacks Rowles’s third-martini drolleries, but everyone does. Those qualities are evident in the imaginative accompaniment he renders Warren Vache in their duets on last year’s 2Gether (Nagel Heyer), an inspired jaunt for both, and an object lesson in distinguishing sentiment from molasses; with “Dancing on the Ceiling,” they attain conversational perfection—somehow the piano takes on a touch of the trumpet’s glimmer, auguring Vache’s perfect concluding note. On “Prelude to a Kiss,” Charlap’s rubato theme leads him to think Miles’s “Round Midnight” intro, which he cuts off with a tremolo—I’m surprised they didn’t start again, but it’s a funny, human, spontaneous moment. On the other hand, “Nip-Hoc Waltz” (ad hoc Chopin) justifies Charlap’s practice of leaving the composing to others.

Stardust should enlarge his audience; it’s the quintessential well-made album, the Hoagy Carmichael songbook augmented by four guests—all, like Charlap, shrewd economizers. No one will be surprised that Tony Bennett and Shirley Horn are in their element on comfortably protracted ballads. But when has Frank Wess had a better showcase? Humming “Rockin’ Chair” with a Ben Webster-ish croon, he blends with the trio to create a plush groove, articulated by four-to-the-bar cymbals; this kind of playing comes with age, and the sentiment is historical only to the degree that few people dare play with such modesty anymore. Jim Hall opens “Two Sleepy People” with a loose solo variation that ends with a crafty phrase for Charlap to extend; a contrapuntal passage may remind you of Hall’s two LPs with Bill Evans, but the net effect is quite different—a quietly jaunty chat between two self-possessed people at dawn’s early light.

Hall sat in for Charlap’s sold-out Wednesday set at the Jazz Standard and left the impression of playing a total of maybe 100 notes in the hour. Not that anything was missing. But if playing the bare minimum requires the same sense of adventure as kitchen-sink extravaganzas, then no one is more daring than this veteran guitarist who takes melody seriously enough not to overdress it; you get the feeling he’d rather unplug than play an unnecessary note. On tunes like “Without a Song” and “Blue Skies,” as well as solid originals by Hall (“Bon Ami,” “All Across the City”), they sparked polite dissonances and contrapuntal discourses that never descended to faux classicism. Refreshingly, Charlap didn’t call a single song from the new album—they would have worked as well, but how novel that he wasn’t thinking commerce.

In that regard, it’s a pleasure to report that the renovated Jazz Standard is, along with the recently renovated Iridium, the best thing to happen on the club scene since the long-ago spurt of venues that produced Fat Tuesday’s, Sweet Basil, Seventh Avenue South, Lush Life, Carlos 1, Greene Street, and others—all gone. The sound and lighting are superb, the sight lines are unimpeded, and the menu (high-end barbecue, if that isn’t an oxymoron) and temper reflect the involvement of Danny Meyer, the restaurateur, who insists his employees act like they’re glad to see you.

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Strictly Solalian

Probably the worst label one can stick on a jazz musician is Intellectual, a nebulous term that almost always serves as a warning: You may be expected to do some work—if you consider close listening work. The second most insidious label is Virtuoso, which is invariably smudged with special pleading. Combine the two and you may be left with an artist who requires rapt attention while compensating for emotional reserve with technical dazzle. You might well call it spinach and say the hell with it. But your roughage might be Jack Daniel’s to me. At one time, Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans were characterized as skillfully complex, usually to hold them at bay, yet each man attracted a passionate cult that fermented into substantial popularity. Jamal usually keeps me at arm’s length, while Evans often invites me in; it may be the opposite with you. Lennie Tristano is still routinely described as cerebral, which once seemed tenable to me, yet now I find his Atlantic sessions flat-out thrilling. We could make this a parlor game, identifying undoubtedly brilliant musicians—Benny Carter, Lee Konitz, Herbie Nichols, Henry Threadgill—who remain alien to a broad audience.

It may seem inconceivable today that Parker, Gillespie, and Monk were initially derided as spinach, and yet they did contribute to the dismantling of the audience that embraced jazz in the 1930s, much as Coleman, Taylor, and Coltrane wore out many who came aboard in the 1950s. But they’re in the pantheon. I’m concerned here with those who keep circling Olympus without quite getting a foothold, of whom the patron saint is Art Tatum—the virtuoso’s virtuoso, the pianist’s pianist, the musician’s musician, who to this day, because he rejected a standard approach to linear improvisation, preferring juxtapositions that demand serious attention, worries many listeners into hapless indifference. His primary heir is the astonishing French pianist and composer Martial Solal, whose appearance at the Village Vanguard during the week of September 18 began with a half-filled house only partly attributable to the events of the preceding Tuesday.

Around the time Solal first visited America, in 1963, the forever staid Martin Williams got so heated that he closed his review alarmed that he might have written a “panegyric.” “I do not mean that,” he apologized, then cast about for a caveat—something about Solal not being a natural blues player. He closed with reference to “Solalian lyricism,” coining an adjective that has become so widespead in European jazzcrit that it sometimes gets a small s, though it refers less to lyricism than to a timeless fluency that transcends genre and idiom. Williams subsequently interviewed Solal for the Saturday Review. The pianist affirmed the influence of the bright, orchestral keyboard stylists—Tatum, Waller, Garner—before absorbing Powell, from whom, he conceded, he took more than from anyone else save Tatum. He said he knew little of classical music after Debussy, putting to rest assumptions of an au courant academic education—in fact, like Monk, another influence, he found his method largely through the grammar of jazz. He also noted that he had not heard Bill Evans’s records with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian (a frequent Solal drummer) until arriving in New York, underscoring what his 1960 trio sessions with Guy Pedersen and Daniel Humair prove—that he was striving for a triangular, equal-participation approach to the piano trio at the same time as Evans and Jamal.

Solal had been around. He was born in Algiers in 1927, and according to an old liner note was expelled from school in 1942 because of race laws (his father was Jewish). He turned to jazz after hearing Goodman, Waller, and Reinhardt, among others, and played piano, saxophone, and clarinet professionally, eventually realizing he would have to relocate to Paris to have a career. He made the move in 1950 and soon earned a reputation, appearing on Reinhardt’s last session in 1953, working with visiting American players, writing orchestra charts, and scoring New Wave films by Melville and Godard. His 1960 trio made a tremendous impression, as did his ability to spontaneously recompose familiar themes. Solal’s unaccompanied 1960 version of Tadd Dameron’s “The Squirrel,” for example, is a rigorous paradigm of virtuoso exultation kept in check by his uncanny control of form—just when you think the fingers will fly away, the gravity of the piece and his sense of proportion bring them home.

As of 1963, Solal was known here, if at all, for the movie Breathless and two enduring if little-remembered albums. In 1957, he had recorded with the New Orleans guru Sidney Bechet, at the older man’s request; their mutual give-and-take, shown to advantage in robust exchanges on “These Foolish Things,” proved that the generations could meet profitably at a time when they barely glanced at each other. Throughout, Solal shows originality, clarity, empathy, and a signal cleverness, as in the reharmonization of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” or a “Rose Room” solo that simply extends his comping behind an uncharacteristically overwrought Bechet. The other album documented a 1962 concert at Paris’s Salle Gaveau, beginning with a rhythmic deconstruction of “Jordu” and building tension with six knotty originals, including the dreamy ballad “Aigue Marine” (revived with greater radiance and polish in the 1979 version included in his invaluable out-of-print Radio France anthology, Live 1959/85), and “Nos Smoking,” with its long exposition—a crazy quilt of quick tempo adjustments, fleeting references that mate a silent comedy riff with bop changes—that caroms into an extraordinarily fast blues passage. The album was released here by Liberty (now owned by EMI, so a Blue Note reissue is in order), and it should have become a classic—it’s unlike anything else of the period—and established his stateside presence.

That didn’t happen. Over the past 38 years, Solal has performed at festivals in Chicago and Monterey, but has rarely appeared in New York—the Vanguard gig represented his first visit in two decades and his first club date since he hit the Hickory House in 1963. His records are often hard to find here, though a few have crossed the Atlantic, including the 1983 Soul Note, Bluesine, and the current series on Dreyfus: In & Out with Johnny Griffin; the stunning Just Friends with Motian and Gary Peacock, an ideal introduction; and the new Dodecaband Plays Ellington, which shows off his arranging skills at the helm of a band he has led since 1980. Solal’s writing, like his playing, never stands still. They are alike in other ways—the saxophone that skitters away from the theme might be a right-hand arpeggio; the high voicing of two soprano saxes might be a dissonant thumping in the treble and the trombone slur a bass-clef response. Occasional episodes are too intricate for their own good, but like they say about the weather in the plains, if you don’t like it, wait eight bars. Solal shows no interest in aping Ellington. He is attracted to tunes we know so well that they can flit in and out of view (along with odd quotes, like “Reveille” in “Satin Doll”), always centered in his broad variational dramas: How timely are those impending storm clouds at the start of “Caravan,” a 15-minute stream-of-consciousness desert song with who knows how many references to Solal’s years in Africa.

Still, the Dodecaband lacks the romping joy and surprise of his trio, which, with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist François Mouton, gave the Vanguard a palpable lift. Sticking to standards, he played a vivacious shell game with the themes, sometimes keeping them hidden until well into the piece, yet filling out the changes so comprehensively that the melody, when it did appear, seemed his only natural conclusion. Solal’s virtuosity is inescapable. I think the intellectual aspect that either draws your attention like steel filings to a magnet or leaves you on the outside is his devotion to good old theme-and-variations. Most jazz performances follow that dictate, but so often the improvisation abandons the theme that we tend to think of the result as head-and-solo, which is very different. Solal, like Monk or Rollins, is constantly playing with the piece under scrutiny. Obviously, you don’t have to know the song to find his inventions spellbinding—his original pieces are just as compelling. But you do need to know “The Song Is You,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “Tea for Two” to keep up with the wit, caprice, mystery, and implacable sense of structure that informs every selection.

Even then, he will throw a wrench into the mix, usually to leaven the set, for example, a brief, faithful rendering of “La Vie en Rose,” in which the real variations were assigned Mouton, who has a neat trick of rapidly sliding a fretting finger down a string while plucking melody notes that seem to sparkle like a percussive piano arpeggio; or opening a number with Stewart playing buoyant triplets as prelude to “Round Midnight” (the source of several Solal triumphs, all strikingly different), treated as a waltz—a fast waltz at that. “What Is This Thing Called Love” and its shadow melody “Hot House” became a world of fragments while sustaining, measure for measure, the logic of a theorem. Using chords as a grounding point, he is as free in his movements as free jazz can be. His influences were assimilated so long ago that you would be hard-pressed to hear a touch of Tatum or Powell or Garner or Monk. What you do hear of them, beautifully transmuted, is a lineage—the whimsy, spark, and bemused craft of the inspired quick-change artist. Everyone around me was smiling.