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Joel Harrison 19

We know he’s a killer guitarist, but evidently he’s got an inner Gil Evans that’s been waiting to emerge. The music on the new Infinite Possibility flows through myriad scenarios, and each waxes lush and engaging, even when it speaks in a series of murmurs. It dodges dissonance, yet feels modern. Neat tricks from a magical composer.

Tue., July 16, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Wed., July 17, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2013

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The Gil Evans Project

Ryan Truesdell’s disc of previously unrecorded Gil Evans arrangements floored most of those who heard it and was recently named “Record of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association. A scholar whose approach to music has lots of heart, the young conductor breathes new life into classic Gil works this week, from the bouncy Claude Thornhill charts to the airy designs that made Sketches Of Spain timeless. If repertory aims to capture an emotional essence while revealing the rigor of the original art, Truesdell’s victories are major. Go every night.

May 14-19, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2013

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IMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR

You can spot the orange-and-black spines of the Impulse! label in any record collection, but their impact goes beyond design. The music, which defined ’60s jazz, still feels terrifically present tense. To celebrate the imprint’s 50th anniversary, the Standard takes a repertory romp with Impulse! Nights, a string of shows dedicated to key titles. Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth is both moody and playful, and Roy Hargrove’s update should make ditties like “Hoe-Down” crackle. Gil Evans’s cinematic charts for Out of the Cool will be plushly re-upholdstered by Ryan Truesdell’s large ensemble. A two-trombone team led by Robin Eubanks zigzags through the tunes on The Great Kai & J.J., and there’s even a math lesson: Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul = Jazz was the label’s first hit. Wonder if Henry Butler will have any trouble duping it sans orchestra?

April 20-24, 2011

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Darcy James Argue’s Metal Machine Music

Nobody sets a better context for the challenging yet inviting music of composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue than the man himself. Blogging in 2005—the year he formed Secret Society, his 18-piece “steampunk big band”—Argue suggested to his jazz colleagues, “You don’t establish your indie-rock cred by, say, coming out with a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah cover record. You do it by taking whatever you value in that music and making it yours.” Four years, hundreds of refreshingly astute posts, and several critically acclaimed Secret Society gigs later, his first album, Infernal Machines, arrives just in time to bring one of the most intriguing cases of artistic foreplay in jazz history to a deeply satisfying resolution.

The big bands of the 1930s and ’40s were wind-powered heavy-metal ensembles that whipped ballroom dancers into a frenzy with sophisticated arrangements and high-volume riffage. And while a combination of new amplification technology, economics, and changing tastes led to their transformation into more rarefied vehicles of artistic expression, Argue strives to rejuvenate the form with a sound that’s remarkably personal while evoking Gil Evans returning to Cookie Mountain with Steve Reich. He embodies the omnivorous modern music fan: The ruminative conclusion to “Redeye,” he explains over the phone from his Carroll Gardens abode, “is kind of a shout-out to the first track on Tortoise’s TNT.” While growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Argue listened to Guns N’ Roses when he wasn’t playing piano to stripped-down Thad Jones–Mel Lewis charts in his junior-high jazz band.

Leading a contemporary big band has to be a Sisyphean struggle at the best of times. “It’s never a walk in the park,” agrees Argue, who still holds a day job as a music transcriber (at least until some wise institution snags him as a prof). Inspired by Alan Moore’s second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic, he borrowed signifiers from the steampunk scene’s romantic retrofuturism. The metaphor is apt: As anachronistic as big bands may be, they harbor the potential to unleash surprisingly modern sounds. The first thing you’ll hear on Infernal Machines, for example, is the sound of a cajón drum filtered through a delay pedal. “Basically,” Argue says, “we were just really trying to fuck with people’s ideas of, ‘Hey, I thought this was going to be a big-band record!’ ”

With Infernal Machines (the title echoes a tart John Philip Sousa comment regarding the radio), Argue joins a group of composer-bandleaders—including Maria Schneider, John Hollenbeck, Chris Jentsch, J.C. Sanford, and other disciples of Evans and Bob Brookmeyer—for whom big bands offer big palettes for work that blurs the distinction between jazz and classical. Secret Society’s May 8 gig at Galapagos kicks off Undiscovered Islands, a four-week festival devoted to new music by artists on the indie-classical New Amsterdam label. And Argue is a perceptive and plucky enthusiast for those colleagues toiling, often brilliantly, in the big-band backwater. Who else is going to hype this creative caterwaul? Pitchfork?

The first four tracks on Infernal Machines—”Phobos,” “Zeno,” “Transit,” and “Redeye”—resemble a complex yet viscerally persuasive meditation on big-band movement, as in buses, planes, astrophysics, and quantum mechanics. Solos emerge out of necessity rather than obligation, and grooves tend toward the 14-beat and 18-bar variety, yet the gut-punch immediacy of vintage big-band pleasure is never very far away. The same, surprisingly, goes for the politically freighted “Jacobin Club” and “Habeas Corpus,” a pair of tautly controlled 11-minute compositions with twists and turns aplenty. It’s maximalist music of impressive complexity and immense entertainment value, in your face and then in your head.

“It’s weird to take the instrumentation associated with, say, the Glenn Miller sound and try to make contemporary music with it,” Argue says. “There’s no school much older than big band. Some people try to get around that with euphemisms like ‘jazz orchestra’ or ‘large ensemble.’ There’s not a lot of point in doing that. It’s a big band, and that’s the least pretentious name for it, I guess.”

Secret Society play Galapagos May 8, galapagosartspace.com

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HORNS O’ PLENTY

Figuring out what to play and how to play it has never been a problem for John Scofield; the veteran jazz guitarist is an omnivore when it comes to contextual switcheroos, moving from small combo swing to jam-a-delic extrapolations to gritty r&b romps. His current band is a trio deal aided and abetted by a brass ‘n’ reeds micro orchestra called the Sco Horns. Versatility is their signature: Whether easing up on a guitar passage with a moody aura à la Gil Evans, or throwing Amen Corner shouts back at the band during a feverish peak, their embellishments and energy widen the trio’s pallet. That means the piercing stuff is as riveting as the poignant stuff; those contextual switcheroos now take place in a single program. No wonder they call their disc This Meets That.

Wed., Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m., 2009

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Jazz Repertory Starts Here

Without Miles Ahead, there might not have been New Bottle, Old Bottle and Great Jazz Standards, the Gil Evans LPs from ’58 and ’59 combined here. Evans’s first LP collaboration with Miles Davis made him an unlikely star, the first arranger to gain public recognition without separate standing as a composer or soloist. His Pacific Jazz LPs presaged today’s jazz repertory movement by initiating a dialogue with the past; along with then current items like “Django,” “Round Midnight,” and “Joy Spring,” the program features Handy, Morton, Armstrong, Waller, Bix, and Don Redman. The earlier session is a partial misfire for which Cannonball Adderley, who can’t stop himself from bopping, isn’t entirely to blame—only Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” is fully reimagined, and the older material occasionally smacks of gimmickry (tuba lead on “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”?). The ’59 session is the one that lifts this CD near the top of this year’s reissues. “Django” is transmuted into Pictures at an Exhibition, “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” into a tone poem, and “Joy Spring” into a euphoric series of theme and variations, with the theme coming last. Evans’s own “La Nevada (Theme)” drives hardest of all, and amid a parade of inspired soloists—among them Steve Lacy, Johnny Coles, and the inimitable Budd Johnson (on clarinet as well as tenor)—it’s Evans who catches you short, his itchy piano on Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” eerily close to what Cecil Taylor was doing in 1959.

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Dancing in Her Head

Duke Ellington’s real instrument was his orchestra, Billy Strayhorn once said, echoing the maestro’s own modest assessment of himself as a pianist. This was part truth, part subterfuge. A descendant of James P. Johnson and other Harlem ticklers for whom piano was an orchestra within hands’ reach, Ellington was no slouch. Not every important jazz composer has also qualified as a seminal improviser like Benny Carter, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus, or Ornette Coleman. But it’s tough to name many who didn’t play at all, even if some abandoned their horns after finding themselves on paper and a few sat themselves at a piano just to see to it that their music got performed frequently and performed right.

Maria Schneider’s orchestra is her only instrument, which in addition to making Schneider something of a curiosity means it’s big band or nothing for her. As a non-performer, she can’t try out ideas on jobs with small groups, and although she did arrange a ballad on Phish’s Undermind, she’s apparently uninterested in the sort of work-for-hire that sustained Gil Evans prior to his LP collaborations with Miles Davis. Like Evans—her chief mentor, along with Bob Brookmeyer—Schneider is a perfectionist who takes pride in not being prolific: She was just as glad when she lost her regular Monday-night gig at a downtown club a few years ago, she told me after the fact, because not feeling pressured to introduce new material gave her the luxury of taking her time. Fortunately, her pieces are usually worth the wait—never more so than with the stunning new Concert in the Garden, her first release in four years and her fifth in 12 years, counting a 2000 live CD distributed by a winery.

Available only online, Concert in the Garden is a studio recording despite its title, taken from a poem by Octavio Paz. Given Schneider’s tinkering with such dance forms as choro and flamenco—along with an “imaginary foxtrot” more evocative of Brazil than of Fred and Ginger—it’s tempting to describe this as her Latin album. But Schneider’s harmonic textures and rhythmic motifs suggest Evans’s Sketches of Spain, Mingus’s Tijuana Moods, and portions of his Black Saint and the Sinner Lady rather than anything by Eddie Palmieri or Chucho Valdés. Evans’s residual influence is most discernible in the blend of nostalgia and existential chill on the aforementioned foxtrot, “Dança Illusoria,” the final movement of a three-part suite that also includes “Choro Dançado” and “Pas de Deux,” an improvised duet between Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet and Charles Pillow’s soprano that could be unfolding in midair. The resemblance to Mingus is probably coincidental, but it’s impossible not to think of him instructing Charlie Mariano to play tears at a pivotal moment on Black Saint as you listen to Donny McCaslin wailing at length over a suspended chord on “Buleria, Solea y Rumba”—like Rich Perry’s quicksilver tenor solo on “Choro Dançado” and the running of the bulls at the end, an exciting moment on an album that spills over with them.

That I should mention Mingus along with Evans will give you an idea of the company Schneider now belongs in. The soloists here convey an immediacy that was frequently lacking on her earlier recordings, which is to her credit as well as theirs; she’s learned how to showcase improvisers, perhaps the truest measure of a jazz composer’s skills. Another sign of growth is her inspired use of Luciana Souza’s voice as a kind of highlighting pen on three numbers, which allows the ear to isolate the melodies from a network of competing harmonic details (and Schneider’s unconventional groupings of horns across sections sing so readily on their own you sometimes imagine you’re hearing Souza when she’s not there). The title opener is the only performance that wants for momentum, although it boasts especially imaginative writing for accordion and low brass, along with shapely, reflective solos by pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Ben Monder. Having danced only in her head on the CD, Schneider added flamenco dancer La Conja to “Buleria, Solea y Rumba” for her JVC concert at the Kaye Playhouse last month.

La Conja’s crisp handclaps and precise body language emboldened Schneider’s rhythms and made them more vivid, though the trade-off was reducing the musicians to onlookers for a short stretch. The normally judicious Ben Ratliff gushed that a new piece inspired by a Kandinsky painting of intersecting circles conveyed “what it feels like to be intersecting circles” (italics in original). Sounds like something on Sesame Street, but I agree with what Ratliff was getting at—Schneider’s musical subjectivity, which reveals itself most clearly in the autobiographical strain running through her pieces, many of which revolve around childhood memories. I hesitate to label these feminine characteristics, because few jazz composers were more subjective than Mingus, and Ellington never shied away from autobiography (except in Music Is My Mistress). On the other hand, I doubt a sideman ever asked Mingus for a date during a set, as happened to Schneider years ago, or that Ellington ever broke down and sobbed onstage, as Schneider did at Kaye in announcing a piece dedicated to a recently deceased friend. When prompting from the piano failed to elicit the exact tempo he desired from his band, Ellington would stand up and conduct with his hips. We haven’t yet progressed to the point where an attractive woman like Schneider could wiggle hers without being accused of exploiting her wiles. Besides, she’s much too inhibited a conductor to serve as an audience’s onstage proxy, as Ellington happily did. And yet she’s no less forcefully there in her music than he was, even though not one note issues directly from her.

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Scoring With Slide Hampton’s Color, Swing, and Simple Riffs

Slide Hampton, the veteran trombonist who guested with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the IAJE last month and wrote all the music on their The Way, is a J.J. Johnson man, although he uses more multiphonics than Johnson did. As a composer and orchestrator, he’s far more conventional than Bob Brookmeyer—rather than voicing across sections, à la Ellington or Gil Evans, he’ll pit brass against reeds in predictable fashion. But his charts swing like crazy, and few writers active today get as much color out of a handful of simple riffs or push soloists along with less fuss. As it did at the IAJE, “Frame for the Blues” sends the VJO into orbit. Knowingly similar to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in both format and swank—on some level an attempt to reclaim this material for jazz—the piece was a vehicle for Maynard Ferguson’s nosebleed trumpet when Hampton worked for Ferguson in the early 1960s.

Revamped for the VJO, it becomes a donnybrook between Hampton and fellow trombonist Jason Jackson. The album’s newer pieces are a mixed lot: “Suite for Jazz Orchestra” fails to evoke its honorees—Thad Jones, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, and Tadd Dameron—and never really coalesces into a suite (the Jones dedication is just “Giant Steps” in disguise, as to a lesser extent is the Dameron, which might explain why the subtitle is “Inspired by John Coltrane”). But Hampton’s three other new pieces are winners—especially “Past Present and Future,” with its infectious fanfares and Gary Smulyan’s croaking baritone solo—and the VJO proves itself at least the equal of any other big band in New York, including the better-publicized ones indentured to Mingus and Marsalis.

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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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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Bob Dorough Endures

I was having a high old time listening to Bob Dorough’s new record, Too Much Coffee Man (Blue Note), which may be his best, when my assistant Elora walked in and exclaimed with a slight interrogatory, “Schoolhouse Rock!?” She had never heard of Dorough, but she recognized the voice. I had never heard of Schoolhouse Rock, so she brought in her four-disc Rhino set and played her favorites, including a masterpiece, “My Hero, Zero,” noting, “You will not find anyone of my generation who does not know the words to ‘Electricity Electricity’ and ‘Conjunction Junction.’ ” She proved the point with a recitation augmented by a description of the animation that accompanied the songs when the short instructive cartoons appeared on television. Dorough was the series’ music director and wrote most of the songs. “I learned the multiplication tables from him,” Elora marveled. “We had great TV then.”

Well, every generation thinks it had great TV. But it occurred to me that many people over the past 50 years have heard Bob Dorough without knowing it. He has cast a pretty long shadow since he left Cherry Hill, Arkansas, got a degree in composition at North Texas State, moved to New York to be part of the jazz scene, and served two years as music director for—no kidding—Sugar Ray Robinson. In the ’60s, for example, he pulled strings for Spanky and Our Gang and Chad Mitchell, wrote arrangements for the Fugs, and helped create Allen Ginsberg’s wheezing album of William Blake’s poetry.

I can tell you exactly how a few thousand young jazz fans first heard him in 1967. For some reason, producer Teo Macero was putting out jazz records without personnel listings. This had its comical side: After I loaned a friend Monk., he called excitedly to tell me how wonderful Monk was, adding, “I like the piano player, too.” With Miles, however, who was recording erratically with his new quintet, the absence of info lent an air of mystery. You had no idea what to expect of Sorcerer, with its drop-dead cover profile of the then little-known Cicely Tyson and a Ralph J. Gleason, um, poem on the back. Not much longer than 30 minutes, the album was a strangely sleepy collection of originals, and Miles didn’t even play on one. Then, just as you were nodding out to “Vonetta,” you heard a high-pitched, nerdy male voice singing a 115-second panegyric, “Nothing Like You,” backed by winds and bongos. I like to think of Miles fans in dens and bedrooms across the country saying in perfect unison, “Hunh?”

We later learned that the singer was Bob Dorough and that the track was left over from a 1962 Davis session arranged by Gil Evans; it required 45 takes to get right. Davis had admired Dorough’s debut album on Bethlehem, the 1956 Devil May Care, and when Columbia insisted he participate in a Christmas album, he tracked Dorough down in California and asked him to write a Christmas song (“Blue Xmas”). Dorough flew to New York and they recorded three tunes. Listening to Sorcerer now, I find that Dorough’s use of diminished chords sort of fits in with the pieces by Wayne Shorter, who, coincidentally, had played on the “Nothing Like You” date, two years before joining Miles’s band. Gil Evans liked the tune enough to record an orchestral version for a 1964 Verve album, though no one knew about it until it turned up on the 1988 CD The Individualism of Gil Evans.

Shortly after Sorcerer, I came across the 1966 Just About Everything, on Focus—Dorough’s first album (except for a Music Minus One project) since Devil May Care, and the last until his self-produced Beginning to See the Light in 1976. That was his recording schedule for the first 30 years of his career—one album per decade, like clockwork. Just About Everything is irresistible. Jazz musicians usually come a cropper when they try to get down with rock tunes; yet Dorough begins with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in a version I prefer to Dylan’s. The rhythm is exactly right, but what locks it down for me is the way he phrases “Don’t think twice, baby, it’s all right”—the last three words emitted in a rapid bullfrog croak. Dorough is every bit as eccentric a singer as Dylan; one comes from Woody Guthrie and the other from Charlie Parker, but they strike me as fraternal small-town outsiders. When I first heard Dylan’s Self-Portrait, it reminded me of Just About Everything, which includes four distinct originals (not least the weirdly echoing “The Message,” written with bassist Ben Tucker), as well as “The Crawdad Song,” the best rendition ever of “Baltimore Oriole” (though the Tangipahoa is in Louisiana, not Baltimore, as Dorough interpolates), and ” ‘Tis Autumn,” all of which he makes sound like eccentric originals.

I suppose it’s the eccentricity that inclines me to approach Dorough in an autobiographical mode. The trouble with eccentrics is that you can never be sure if they know how strange they seem, and for a long time I was uneasy about whether I was always laughing with him. Then, toward the end of what turned out to be his Schoolhouse Rock days (1973-85), he made a few appearances in New York, and I got really uneasy. He is now 76, but he has not changed appreciably in the past 20 years and maybe a lot longer—witness the cover of the 1976 reissue of Devil May Care, retitled Yardbird Suite (he sings Parker’s theme and solo delightfully), on which he poses with the original jacket. He has always been rail thin, his face an open, eager, goofily boyish circle, occasionally split by an Alfred E. Neumanish grin. I assume he didn’t have the ponytail in the 1950s, but he’s had it the few times I’ve seen him. Backed by the late Bill Takas, his longtime bassist, he revealed laudable bop piano chops, confirmed my impression that he was at home with diverse rhythms, and sang with creaky indifference to conventional musical protocol.

But after giggling at Dorough’s craggy swoops and idiosyncratic melodies, which have Escher-like loops, I was invariably brought up short by “Winter Moon” or “Lazy Afternoon,” both mined for much unexpected emotion. He can interpret a lyric as though it were an anecdote. When he goes into bopping swingers, he seems almost indifferent to how much energy he can generate. The whole effect has freaked many, and he has endured some of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever read. It’s not just because he spent so much time writing songs explaining multiplication that Dorough is only infrequently booked in the nightclubs he once hoped to make his habitat. In his notes to his 1997 Blue Note album, Right on My Way Home, he gives as one of his ambitions “to sing you a song and have you not walk out on me.”

Had I known Schoolhouse Rock, I’d have been hipper sooner. What finally convinced me he was totally in on the joke was his indispensable self-produced 1990 album entitled This Is A Recording of Pop Art Songs By Bob Dorough and friends produced and copyright by Scharf/Dorough for distribution on their label, Laissez-Faire Records. The songs combine classical, jazz, and pop settings with found lyrics: He sings, verbatim and with no embellishments, a weather report, a collection letter, a recipe for apple pie, a draft card notice, a social security card, Webster’s definitions of love, and three particular favorites—a laundry ticket (“Not Responsible for Shrink”), airline passenger instructions (“Should the Need Arise”), and an upholstery label (“Do Not Remove This Tag”). At no time does he even hint that any of this is funny.

Dorough’s new album, which he is promoting this week in a rare appearance at Deanna’s (an attractive room on Rivington), opens like a house afire with “The Coffee Song.” His jumping recitation is as serious as, say, “A Plea of Guilty” (his traffic ticket song), complete with the aside “thought I told you” when the lyric is repeated. One big reason the record roars is the presence of Phil Woods. Too bad he’s only on four tracks, but he is inspired on all of them, including a new version of “I’ve Got Just About Everything.” Dorough’s more recent pieces include a dedication to his wife, “Wake Up Sally, It’s Saturday,” constructed to resolve on a froggy two-note ribit phrase; a solo meditation, “Yesterday, I Made Your Breakfast”; and the heavily caffeinated title number, “Too Much Coffee Man.” Best of all, though, is a performance of “Fish for Supper,” by Cootie Williams, though I don’t think he ever recorded it, with Woods, Ray Drummond, and Billy Hart. The lyric goes, “We got fish for suppah, first one thing then anothah,” and damned if Dorough doesn’t make it rhyme; after a very smooth piano solo, he and Woods interject Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait.” The nerd of yesteryear is one of the last hipsters standing.