‘Hot & Cool: 40 Years of Jazz at the New England Conservatory’

Don’t believe the naysayers: Academia isn’t antithetical to artistic expression—developing technique and studying theory helps nurture a performer’s eloquence. Boston’s NEC has been sending well-schooled improvisers to New York for decades, and for the next seven days, teachers and students take over clubland. From pianist Anthony Coleman and saxophonist Jeremy Udden at Cornelia Street tonight, to Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Jazz Standard on the 23rd, the action is thick. The must-see gigs include the coolest faculty meeting ever (McNeil, McBee, Garzone, Hart, Carlberg) and a multi-artist bash with a cast that stretches from Ran Blake to Joe Morris to Jason Moran to Matthew Shipp. Don’t forget the nod to big band theorist George Russell. Full schedule and venues list at

Sat., March 20, 9 & 10:30 p.m., 2010


Among the Living

The votes are in: Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall in 1957, my choice as the best jazz CD released in 2005, is the winner in JazzTimes‘ critics’ poll, scoring 165 points to 87 for Dizzy and Bird at Town Hall in 1945—my runner-up as well. Number three with 73 points is Coltrane at the Half Note in ’65, followed by the highest-ranking living performers: Sonny Rollins (40 points) and Wayne Shorter (34), both septuagenarians.

Who could’ve imagined that finally becoming part of a critical consensus would leave me feeling so blue? If anything, the average age of the musicians on my list is higher, by virtue of including Gerald Wilson—at 87, only a year younger than Monk and Gillespie would be, and older than Parker or Coltrane. Wilson’s In My Time, a sequel to 2004’s New York New Sound, again featuring the Southern California–based bandleader with East Coast sidemen, was one of several triumphant 2005 orchestral releases by composer-arrangers pushing 80 or well past.

The most charming is Bebo Valdés’s Bebo de Cuba, a double CD of mambos and bembés and gorgeous, unabashedly romantic ballads by a pioneering Cuban jazz pianist (long ago emigrated to Sweden) old enough to remember when dancing meant holding someone in your arms. Being a little old-fashioned works to Valdés’s advantage in terms of melodic authenticity: Minus Coltranisms and an exaggerated clave, his music never sounds like the subgenre implied by the term “Latin jazz.” On these New York sessions, two different assemblages of Cuban exiles and white Americans with experience in Latin bands interpret his charts with flair—the standout soloists are Paquito D’Rivera, lyrical and dashing on both alto and clarinet, and Valdés, so sure of himself he can get away with quoting “The Theme From ‘A Summer Place.’ ”

Bill Holman, a West Coaster like Wilson, was the arranger who coaxed Stan Kenton’s 1950 behemoth to swing—no mean feat—and he hasn’t lost the knack; The Bill Holman Band Live‘s version of Parker’s “Donna Lee” is as impressive for its ease and unhurried momentum at a rapid tempo as it is for its embedded counterpoint and the maze of inner voicings behind the solos by trombonist Bob Enevoldsen and tenor saxophonist Doug Webb. Recorded in an airport Sheraton, of all places, Live isn’t as ambitious as Holman’s much admired 1997 album of Monk deconstructions, but it’s sleeker, and its more modest scale is truer to Holman’s gifts. And even if “A Day in the Life” at first seems to suggest only that practically any melody can be rearranged to sound like Basie, it’s no clunker—the moment the angular variations begin, we’re in Holman’s world, not Basie’s or Lennon and McCartney’s.

George Russell, his generation’s leading jazz theorist, celebrated his 80th birthday three years ago by taking a big band to Europe in 2003 and recording what amounts to a partial career retrospective—though Russell’s reputation as a visionary began with “Cubana Be” and “Cubana Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1948, the earliest chart here is “Electric Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature,” from 1966. The synthesizer and electric-bass riffs in this and Russell’s subsequent works have become dated, and so has his boogaloo—but not the dissonant swagger that has always characterized his approach to modal harmony. His pieces receive crisper, more confident readings on The 80th Birthday Concert than they got on the original recordings, and this is especially true of his buoyant orchestration of Miles Davis’s trumpet choruses on “So What.” A piece that once seemed a toss-off stands revealed as major Russell.

Though Wilson’s In My Time also includes a version of “So What,” his arrangement is really just a vamp for solos, and if this and “Love for Sale” were all you heard from the CD, you might never guess how terrific the rest is. The track you should hear is “Dorian,” a modal romp (and opening movement of a three-part suite) whose headlong saxophone section writing and overall urbanity are worthy of comparison to ’60s Ellington. A product of the late swing era (he joined Jimmie Lunceford on trumpet in 1939, before “Yard Dog Mazurka” made it obvious that his real talent was as a composer and arranger), Wilson is best known for the numerous big-band LPs he recorded for Pacific Jazz in the 1960s, a decade during which he was also a pen for hire, arranging albums for Ray Charles and a variety of lesser singers. But In My Time is the one I’d reach for to persuade a skeptic that we’re talking about an overlooked major figure. With the usually drifty pianist Renee Rosnes digging in behind the horns, and Russell Malone, who usually tends toward the humdrum, strumming up suspense on his feature “Musette,” the ultimate proof of Wilson’s talent as a composer might be the way he gooses players to heights you didn’t know they could reach. Beginning with “Dizzier and Dizzier” for Gillespie in 1949, Wilson has always been especially deft at showcasing trumpeters, and some of the most penetrating moments here are from Jeremy Pelt, Jimmy Owens, Jon Faddis (fanning flames on the conquistadorial “Lomelin”), and Sean Jones (pride of place for his savvy quote from Gigi Gryce’s “Minority” on “Dorian”). It’s all beautifully recorded too.

Jazz musicians who are primarily writers—Wilson put his trumpet away years ago, ditto for Holman and his tenor, and Russell hasn’t played piano in ages, which leaves only Valdés—have been a breed apart since the 1920s, when working largely behind the scenes allowed them to cross color lines undetected. It somehow figures that many of them would slip into old age just as gracefully, unobstructed by the many infirmities (arthritis, emphysema, dentures) that wreak havoc on instrumentalists. Playing the optimist for once, I’d say that the vitality of these albums by four old men demonstrates why the spark still burns for jazz. Maybe the news last year wasn’t so alarming after all.

Gerald Wilson performs with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at Rose Theater February 23 through 25.


Fascinating Rhythms

A trumpeter who dealt in compound time signatures and died of an irregular heartbeat at 44—it sounds like I’m making it up, especially because Don Ellis’s name has become so obscure. He’s remembered now, if at all, as the leader of a splashy late-’60s West Coast big band that briefly established him as the heir to Stan Kenton’s hectoring progressivism. Better he should be remembered for the three engrossing small-group LPs he made after leaving George Russell earlier in the same decade. The rarest, a 1962 quartet date for Pacific Jazz with Paul Bley on piano called Essence, has finally been reissued, and I bet it prompts some re-evaluation. It has an after-hours feeling, but with a difference—by ’62, instead of jamming on the blues for their mutual satisfaction, musicians were going over ideas gleaned from Schoenberg, Cage, and early world music recordings. Ellis’s lightning-fast lines on the densely percussive “Ostinato” should be all you need to pique your interest, and the piece itself represents an intellectual approach to African music that contrasts tantalizingly to the emotional response of that era’s black musicians. But along with tunes by Rodgers and Hart, Strayhorn, and Carla Bley, there are also Ellis originals based on theories of tonality not yet absorbed into jazz—all of it amounting to a fascinating alternative history, answering the question of what free jazz might have sounded like had it evolved directly from Stravinsky and Shorty Rogers.


Theory and Practice

When Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were honing their skills as sidemen in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the composer-arranger George Russell was already changing the course of jazz with his music and the theory that grounds it. Yet while the cognoscenti may have heard about his Lydian Chromatic Concept and its influence, Russell remains a cipher to most jazz fans. This is surprising, for he has pioneered a fresh approach to playing jazz that inspired several legendary musicians to realize some of their finest work. Even today, though his hearing has diminished (Russell blames his many years on bandstands), his schedule

hasn’t; it encompasses teaching, touring, and the continual honing of his theory, which is at once scientific and spiritual.

Discussing his career in a Central Park West hotel last fall, he occasionally apologized for his careful deliberations: “I got a lot up here,” he explained, pointing to his brain. Many times he referred to a book on the table, a book he’s been writing and rewriting for over 50 years. The cover is illustrated with a jagged mountaintop against a cloudy sky. It’s the fourth edition of his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, an imposing 268-page volume made even more imposing by the subtitle: “Volume One: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity.” Even when delving into his childhood, Russell returns to the book: “I always had an inner voice that I developed in the Concept.”

And so the Cincinnati native (born 80 years ago this month) began on his musical path. He started with drums, which took him from a Boy Scout band to nightclub gigs to a college band, before landing in Benny Carter’s group and moving to Manhattan. When Max Roach proved more versatile, Carter canned him in 1944. Russell took the dismissal in stride, and decided that he’d focus on composition instead.

Russell found himself at the center of a creative hot spot. With the post-war jazz movement in full bloom, he was soon rubbing elbows with everyone from Charlie Parker and Miles Davis to Bill Evans and John Coltrane. And what did these exalted figures discuss? “Mostly women! It was about music, too. The question was always, ‘Where do we go from here?’ There was no looking back. The whole atmosphere was wonderful.” He had a particularly significant conversation with Davis. When Russell asked him what his aim was, Davis said, “I want to learn all the chords.” Russell (who assumed that he already knew the chords) kept that in mind. It would ultimately provide the means for him to realize the Concept.

During this time, Russell wrote the groundbreaking Latin-jazz classic “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band (1947) and the jazz-classical pastiche “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” for a Buddy DeFranco ensemble (1949); the latter, Russell’s attempt to combine the influences of Parker and Stravinsky, was considered so daring that the label refused to release it for more than two decades.

Just when he was beginning to achieve recognition as a major young composer, tuberculosis sidelined Russell—at one point, he was hemorrhaging so bad he was given last rights. He spent 15 months recuperating in a Bronx hospital, but his determination never waned. “I said to myself, there’s a way out of this. I kept dwelling on what Miles said, how he wanted to learn all the chords, wondering how you’d go about that. So I started out with the major chords.” As Russell repeatedly ran through scales on the hospital’s solarium piano, other patients threw bananas at him. “It’d drive me nuts too!” he confessed. “But in the end, it saved my life.”

Out of his obsession came the Lydian Concept. Though spoken of reverently for its influence, many found it an intellectually rigorous, occasionally impenetrable theory—not unlike Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, many years later. Russell scrupulously examined centuries-old music theories, including church modes, which provided the basis for most early composition. A mode is basically a scale distinguished by its tonic and dominant notes; but whereas a scale is identified with one key, a mode denotes the characteristics of a particular scale transposed to any key. By the 15th century, the Ionian mode in the key of C (with its tonic C and dominant G) had been established as the primary scale for music in the Western world.

For Russell, the Lydian mode (with, in the key of C, its tonic F and dominant C) was a more logical candidate to become the primary scale because it suggests a greater degree of unity between chords and scales. Russell argues that a major scale, for example C, consists of two tetrachords that embody two tonalities, not one. But if you adapt the major scale to Lydian mode (in the key of C that would be a C major scale with F-sharp instead of F), it removes the duality of conflicting tonics, and more fully satisfies the tonality of the major chord. With one tonic used for each respective scale, Russell reasoned that a greater variety of chords could be stacked. This offered a new path for adventurous musicians: Standard chord progressions need not dictate the course of an improvisation, as each note is equidistant from a single tonic center. Notes could flow more freely beyond the strictures of a song’s chords.

In discussing the Lydian Concept, Russell cites players who exemplified different approaches to improvisation. “Coleman Hawkins played ‘vertically,’ using a systematic style of working through a chosen chord structure—there was instant unity formed between a chord and its melody. John Coltrane inherited what Hawkins did and ventured way out beyond it. Now, Lester Young was playing ‘horizontally,’ over the chords, using time, forward movement to determine his playing. Then you have supra-vertical players that embrace both styles, like Bill Evans.” It was Russell’s intention to offer, as he wrote in an early edition of The Lydian Chromatic Concept, “a view or philosophy of tonality in which the student . . . will find his own identity.”

Once his idea evolved, Russell realized, “This is not meant to be kept a secret. It proves that gravity exists in the universe as a force. I have to let this go.” In 1953, he published the first edition of the book. Miles and Coltrane in particular took his work to heart and helped bring modality to jazz’s center stage; it was soon taken up by ’60s rock bands, including the Grateful Dead, and jam bands. Russell was praised for the Concept’s far-reaching nature by Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Gil Evans, and the man who inspired it all: “Miles once introduced me, saying, ‘This is the motherfucker who taught me how to write!’ ”

By then Russell had shifted from composing and arranging for others to leading and recording his own bands. He did so with style and sophistication, hiring such distinguished players as Dolphy and Evans (then unknown) for his Smalltet. His most prodigious output of studio releases began in the mid ’50s and lasted through the early ’60s. In those years, he crafted a remarkable string of lyrical, emotional albums, including Jazz Workshop (1956), New York, New York (1958, featuring Coltrane), Jazz in the Space Age (1960), Ezz-Thetics (1961), and The Stratus Seekers (1962). Yet despite the admiration of musicians and critics, they were often overlooked in later years. To some, Russell himself was daunting—an intellectual theorist and composer at a time when the romantic figure of the soloist overshadowed every other aspect of jazz. No achievement in jazz is more deserving of rediscovery and reassessment than Russell’s.

Russell’s distinctive skills as a writer-arranger are evident in all his work; he conceives music as a play with well-defined scenes. Of 1957’s “All About Rosie” (based on a children’s song), he says, “The first part is fast and stern, while the second is soulful and then the third part is really cooking. I told the band to think about the tempo, the modes, the emotions there.” Although surface aspects of Russell’s approach changed when he began using electric instruments and musicians who were raised with the modalism he had reintroduced, little changed in terms of Russell’s meticulous methods. It’s About Time, from 1995, is no less carefully structured. “I wrote out the solo for saxophonist Andy Sheppard and told the drummer not to play on the 2-4 beat as it’s usually done. The first movement is all rhythm, the second is the band itself, and the third movement is one of the most beautiful things I’ve written. It goes from lyrical to thunder and develops into a Miles ending—it always brings the house down.”

In the early ’60s, Russell found himself in total disagreement with what he calls “the lawlessness” of the emerging free jazz scene: “I didn’t feel that I fit in to what was going on.”

He left for an extended stay in Europe in 1965, garnering extraordinary acclaim and support for his big-band concerts. Gratifying as that was, he returned home in 1969, when, as he puts it, “America seemed to be searching for its identity,” and jazz was out of favor. He took a teaching post at the New England Conservatory at Gunther Schuller’s invitation, a job that he still holds 34 years later. “It’s security for me, and I like working with such serious and committed students.”

Teaching didn’t stand in the way of his other activities. He never stopped composing or forming ensembles to play his ingenious music, including such ambitious genre-bending projects as Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (1968), The African Game, which was nominated for a Grammy (1983), and An American Trilogy (1992). To help him realize those and other pieces, he formed the 14-piece Living Time Orchestra in 1978, which has performed at the Smithsonian, Newport Jazz Festival, and Carnegie Hall, as well as the Village Vanguard and other clubs. The group toured Europe last year, and triumphed at the Umbria Jazz Festival; it is now headed for London’s Barbican Centre. New York is another story. Russell was stung when Jazz at Lincoln Center canceled plans for a 70th birthday concert because he uses electric bass. Understandable maybe in 1952, but in 1992? “They’ve traveled back to the bad old days—they believe that they are in 1952,” laments Alice Russell, his wife of 26 years and assistant manager.

Though he’s received fellowships from the NEA, Guggenheim, and the MacArthur Foundation, he remains most proud of his Lydian Concept. The first volume of the greatly expanded new edition appeared in 2001; the second volume now awaits publication, and the third is nearing completion. “It still evolves. It’s ongoing, still in progress. If someone asked me what I have to show for my life, I’ve got this to show,” Russell says, pointing to the book. “I hope that the Concept will be remembered as my gift and that I was someone that brought music closer to unity.”

For more information about Russell’s work, see


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.


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)



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)


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)


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)


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)



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)


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)


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)


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)


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)



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)


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)


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)


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)


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)



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)


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!)


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)


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)


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)



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!)


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)


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)


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)


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).


Post-War Jazz, Continued: 1970-2001


Still on His Own Page

A hundred years into its history, and the definition of jazz remains a matter for contention. Traditions are invented, rules delineated, absolutes postulated, and no one agrees on anything except that it must be an improvised, intuitive music. But even this simple piety is contradicted by the fact that jazz can be composed, and even arranged, to sound improvised. Three of the greatest jazz musicians were writers and arrangers of improvisation: Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, and, still making the point, George Russell.

Starting as a drummer in the 1940s, Russell later became an arranger of pop tunes for dance bands like Artie Shaw’s, Charlie Ventura’s, and Claude Thornhill’s. Yet even his journeyman writing for those groups was so distinctive that his pieces helped shaped the jazz to come. His “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie in 1947, for example, introduced hardcore Afro-Cuban religious chanting and drumming into American popular music. “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” for Buddy DeFranco’s 1949 band included passages of suspended or displaced rhythms, melodies begun by one horn section and completed by another, bass lines with lives of their own, all of it uncategorizable. Later, during a long illness, Russell developed a radical critique of harmony which argued that not only jazz but all Western music was wrongly conceived and self-limiting, and he offered a theory which promised that melody could to some degree move independently from harmony (somewhat akin to speaking without worrying about grammar). It was this analysis that incited Miles Davis to record the floating melodies of Kind of Blue.

But there was more to come: with the sonically startling Jazz in the Space Age in 1960, and New York, N.Y.— a really old-school rap-suite with singer Jon Hendricks— in 1961, it was clear that Russell was on his own page. After some years in Europe, he recorded the 1968 Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature, mixing together live jazz, African and Moroccan field recordings, prepared tapes, and Terje Rypdal’s ring-modulated guitar into an ocean of sound he called “panstylistic collage.” It anticipated Holger Czukay’s shortwave appropriations in Can and Lee Perry’s TV samples, and laid the groundwork for the musical dislocations we now expect of the best DJs. No surprise then that he next added the back-crack of rock rhythm to his mix, demonstrating— like Miles, Gil Evans, and even Ellington— that whatever jazz is, it was never simply a matter of a particular beat.

But restless innovation like Russell’s does not go unpunished. Fans fell by the wayside, writers began to stumble over the usual career-summary paragraph, his use of electronics reportedly cost him a tribute at Lincoln Center, and until this month he hadn’t appeared here for almost 20 years. But he still records and performs abroad, he’s won the Guggenheim (twice!) and MacArthur awards, he teaches at New England Conservatory, and his records are back in print.

It was the Lost Shrines of Jazz series (currently celebrating the long-gone Five Spot Cafe) that brought Russell’s 15-piece International Living Time Orchestra on May 8 to the Tribeca Arts Center, where he revisited some of his landmark compositions: “All About Rosie” (1957), three variations on an African American children’s game song that progress through shifting meters and pan-tonal blues, then end with roiling polyphony and breathtaking swing; Gil Evans’s arrangement of Russell’s own “Stratusphunk,” a blues pushed to the limits of the form; and “An American Trilogy,” a reworking of his dense and tart treatments of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and his own multi-themed “The Ballad of Hix Blewitt.”

He ended the evening with a cheerful “It’s About Time” from his new CD of the same name, but what he didn’t play from that recording is “Living Time,” a 50-minute suite he first issued in 1972 under Bill Evans’s name. It was a record much reviled in its day, and possibly the only Evans album never reissued on CD— critics trashed it, fans wrote threatening letters, even the liner notes warned listeners off. Now with better sound, and with an expanded orchestra including French pianist Paul-Christian Staicu, it seems very much of its time, capturing the musical ferment from fusion to free jazz in a panoramic sweep. It’s also obvious now that those reassuring rock rhythms make Russell’s compositions seem more innocent than they really are: underneath lie shifting moods and tone centers, overlapping contrapuntal figures, and riffs which skip across the beat and erode tonality. Even deeper yet, there are his serpentine, rumbling, 5/2 bass lines: perhaps subsonic representations of a musical world to which jazz— whatever that is— is still afraid to commit.