I’m going to say it was 1993 because who’s going to tell me it wasn’t, right? It was, in any case, one of those blessed years when a good chunk of my weekly salary was earned talking regularly to jazz musicians and I was having an especially jovial and illuminating conversation with McCoy Tyner about, mostly, the big band he sometimes, though not often enough, drove onto concert stages. Somewhere, the talk took a slight veer into the tricky issue of progenitors and I asked Tyner what he thought of Erroll Garner.
Why? This is where it gets hazy, because I’m not altogether sure how it came up unless Garner came to my packrat mind as an example of a jazz pianist who rarely (if ever) fronted or accompanied large ensembles, owing to a sprawling, multi-layered attack that telegraphed plenty of orchestration on its own. I also think that I was hearing much of the same lavish, often rousing ornamentation in Tyner’s late style – though I thought it prudent not to frame the question in this fashion.
Tatum, Monk, Bud Powell…these were the names Tyner was willing, even eager to claim as influences. But Erroll Garner? Not so much and, though I never used his remarks on this topic till now, I distinctly remember him saying of Garner, not unkindly, that unlike the others in his pantheon, “he never made the piano sound like anything other than a piano.”
I thought, back then, I knew what Tyner meant; that Garner, whatever his many attributes, wasn’t considered one of those innovators who transformed the landscape around them, and not just jazz, or the piano. As I say, I didn’t use the material in my piece, in large part because I thought Tyner’s estimation was a kinder, gentler variation of the ways in which Garner’s once-glowing reputation had dimmed along jazz’s upper reaches.
Not that plenty of people weren’t trying hard twenty-something years ago to stoke those fires again; esoteric classicists such as Dick Hyman would talk Garner up any chance he got. Always there were the inexhaustible efforts of Garner’s manager Martha Glaser, whose devotion to her client’s best interests endured well beyond her client’s death in 1977. She was always ready to talk on the phone about Garner and promote an event celebrating his legacy – and on those occasions when I obliged her, I routinely insisted to my readers that Erroll Garner deserved to remembered as much more than the man who wrote “Misty.”
My readers, I like to think, may have been smarter about such things than musicians since Garner’s crowd-pleasing, readily accessible swing left them feeling very happy. Glaser herself died a year ago next month at 93. What’s happened since would make her very happy.
For this has been the year that Erroll Garner’s reputation has been rejuvenated by the release in September of The Complete Concert by the Sea (Sony Legacy), a three-disc package that presents in unedited form on the first two discs the live performance on September 19, 1955 (yes, if you’re scoring, 60 years ago) by Garner, drummer Denzil Best and bassist Eddie Calhoun in what is now the Sunset Arts Center in Carmel, California. The third disc offers the same edited version of the concert that, along with Time Out and Kind of Blue, became one of Columbia’s evergreen jazz LPs of the decade.
Not everybody loved it, though I never quite understood the beefs since they seemed to have little if anything to do with the music. After I finally bought my own copy of the original LP in the mid-1970s having heard so much about it for years, a perpetually grouchy friend of mine sneered that it wasn’t an album so much as a mood-setting accessory for “swinging” bachelors. This jaundiced view, I’m embarrassed to say, held unjust dominion over my own; when at first, I was captivated by Garner’s high spirits, jaunty humor, and infectious cleverness, I would instead see these qualities as happy hour ruffles and flourishes intended to get a rise out of the Carmel crowd, which seemed cued to applaud every ornate lick and at every point when a familiar melody made its presence known. Then and now, I wondered what they were really clapping for: Garner’s prefatory inventions or their own ability to, so to speak, Name That Tune when it materialized.
And yet, my inner crank was at war with my even younger self, who was enchanted with Garner’s witty, crafty 1947 solo, “Frankie and Johnny Fantasy” or immersed myself in my parents’ 1967 LP, That’s My Kick, with its double conga drums and hooky original compositions, “Nervous Waltz” and “Like It Is.” A self-taught, ambidextrous pianist who couldn’t help growling at the keyboard seemed eccentric enough to avoid being diminished as lightweight. Yet as with such sui generis pianists as Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett (who also makes strange noises while he plays), Garner’s popularity with the public seemed something of an indictment to jazz snobs.
But as with the futile complaints against Ella Fitzgerald’s unfettered glee in invention, carping against Garner’s similar instincts for joy and fun is ultimately a losing battle. Also, Garner is held in high regard by such jazz-snob favorites as Martial Solal and Cecil Taylor, who (again, if memory serves) thought the free-form preludes Garner often indulged before he dug into a melody were too often overlooked on their own merits. The peerlessly resourceful contemporary pianist Geri Allen is one of the principal forces behind restoring The Complete Concert by the Sea to the marketplace and her contribution to the liner notes makes a persuasive case for “Mr. Garner’s innovative, singular piano technique and exuberant musicality personifies a joy of fearless virtuosity and exploration…the very spirit of swing, free improvisation and the blues.”
Suits me, and apparently it likewise suits the critical cognoscenti who have all but unanimously deemed this package the year’s best re-issue – though I suppose it’s not technically a reissue if it’s more than doubling the original LPs 11 tracks with previously unreleased pieces, including a near-breathtaking turn on “The Nearness of You” and a deeply satisfying run-through of “Bernie’s Tune.”
More than anything, the set has put Garner’s name back in play for pantheon status, though who really wants to engage in that game when Joy is the final arbiter? I’ll let that somewhat confounding question sit in mid-air while one begins reconsidering how much Erroll Garner lives in the spirits of jazz pianists past and present, young and old, “progressive” and “mainstream” (or however you make such distinctions in your own mind). Other than similar re-packaged goods it augurs, Complete Concert by the Sea opens up that potentially delicious discussion. And whatever its virtues of resiliency, “Misty” hasn’t all that much to do with it.
OK, Stranger Than Paradise, right? Jim Jarmusch? 1984? That one. See it soon, if you haven’t yet. Holds up pretty well.
That’s not the main reason I’m calling this meeting, but anyway…
Remember how Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original 1956 recording of “I Put A Spell On You” was a recurring motif because it was the only record that Eva (Eszter Balint), the movie’s truculent teen-aged Hungarian émigré, wanted to listen to? Now remember, also, when Eva gets into a car with Eddie (John Lurie), her lizard-cool cousin from the Lower East Side, and his not-quite-as-cool sidekick Eddie (Richard Edson) for a New York-to-Cleveland road trip and she insists they put on her Screamin’ Jay tape. And even though Willie’s borderline-sick of the tune, Eddie’s really into it.
By the time I crawled off the Van Wyck and squeezed myself onto the Jackie Robinson Parkway, I was struck dumb by the following revelation: Ornette Coleman is kickass driving music! It doesn’t matter whether you’re cruising through the woods or mired in gridlock. Coleman’s music in all his varied settings, even on his inflammatory -at-the-time tenor album from 1962, can transfix you into a state that’s somehow both chillaxed and vigilant. In some quadrants, it’s called being Very Much Alive To Your Moment. Whatever you call it, it’s odd (but not really) that I’m somehow more attentive to Coleman while in motion than when sitting still, either when watching him live or listening to his records.
Indeed, I was fond of telling city folk of varying ages claiming they could not, or would not ever engage Ornette Coleman’s compulsively renegade art that in the era of digital-portable music being piped inside one’s head, there were rewards and maybe even illumination to be found in letting, say, “Lonely Woman.” “Change of the Century,” or “Song X” weave through the beautiful mosaic of ambient urban sound. Whether your day needed added propulsion or a demilitarized zone, the music, at any tempo or tone, could provide both. To think that there are people who remember when all this music was able to do was make people mad — even those who should have known better, and eventually did.
Did anybody take me up on it? Don’t know, don’t care, because I kept at it even though I knew what I was up against: Trying to explain “harmolodics.” It was Coleman’s own term for his aesthetic principles, and while there is no altogether satisfying definition for the word, it may be characterized in part as organic music that invents and re-invents itself off improvisation itself and not on chords. Even though his music has been around for at least a couple generations, there are those who still have trouble with the harmolodic concept, however much the music associated with it evokes powerful strains of both bebop and the blues at full cry.
Listen to that saxophone! I would say to the hardheads. If a singer made those sounds, you’d be swooning, swaying and even rocking with it. Those sounds over time did make my point, and then some. I’m hardly the first to insist that, however much Coleman’s ringing, vibrating tone was associated with all things modern and abstract, there was also something about his phrasing that was deep-rooted, even embryonic. But then there was the music’s relationship with its rhythm section. What was there to hold onto? the hardheads complained. I insisted that were always beats you could not only ride, but also dance to, if you bothered to look for them.. The problem (I always added mostly for their benefit) was that the dancing that went along with those beats hadn’t been invented yet.
That last part, of course, is so very wrong. Lost of people I knew did dance to Coleman’s music; sometimes spontaneously, even organically off the improvisations as the music mandated; and sometimes, as they did at Lincoln Center in the summer of 1997 to the jams laid down by that aforementioned Prime Time band. This was at the climax of a weeklong tribute to All Things Ornette, whose sundry participants included the New York Philharmonic and the downtown power company known as Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. I reviewed that festival for Newsday, concluding somewhat cheekily that we’d all been living in Coleman’s world for decades now, only we’re now beginning to notice it.
I’d still like to believe that, especially given the play given last week to Coleman’s passing in major news outlets. Yet there somehow seemed greater attention paid in mass-market precincts to Christopher Lee, the venerable British character actor and horror-movie cult star, whose death was reported the same day. I’m as much in thrall to movie cults as any dork, but there’s a very big difference between being a reliably accomplished bogeyman and changing the furniture in people’s heads.
Yet the deep sadness that reverberates among those who do appreciate Coleman’s significance over his death comes from two places. One is the belief that, even at 85, he was ready and able to keep working in public. (There was at least one scheduled tour date for later this year, in Paris.) The other, more complicated, resides in a melancholy suspicion that with Ornette Coleman’s departure, we’re also saying goodbye to the future; or perhaps more to the point, a belief in the future’s possibilities. The risks he took back in the fifties embodied jazz’s last great modernist convulsion. As long as he was around, it was possible to imagine him still leading the charge for further discovery.
But as long as there remain multitudes out there who still don’t quite “get” what Coleman was up to, the future he mapped out will always be with us, indoctrinating new enlistees in the harmolodic cause, tempting fresh crops of painters, poets, dancers and, of course, musicians in all marketing categories to think organically – or think different, at least. As I wrote 18 years ago, it’s still Ornette’s world, no matter how long it takes for the rest of that world to figure it out.
In the meantime…If you think you’re missing something in Ornette’s music and really wish to “know” more, the way to do it is not by sitting rock-still and barber-close to the speakers hoping to somehow catch a key phrase or progression that will somehow reveal the universe’s secrets. Take the music with you when you move, whether on foot or in a vehicle. When his sounds merge with the colors, sensations, thoughts and white noise passing through you, they still may not make anything resembling what you consider “sense, but they may well pry open your senses to new ways of living and feeling your way through time. There are, as Art always knows, no conclusions and Art doesn’t want you to find them anyway. Art says: Here are new frequencies and stations for you to follow. Carry them with you and everything you think is old may turn out to be shrink-wrapped and shiny.
Each of us who loves Billie Holiday in all her mercurial variations favors the one we saw first. For me, it was a clip from the TV recital she gave in 1957 for the nonpareil CBS special, “The Sound of Jazz.” It was the kind of show my parents would have watched attentively with their friends in our living room if only because there were so few TV shows of any kind in those primordial days that featured so many black people in one place playing music. And I was the kind of five-year-old who’d have stopped and stared at it while all the grownups alternately chattered and listened. But I don’t remember much about the show’s first telecast and didn’t see Holiday’s performance until ten years later when her segment was excerpted on some black history special on the same network. And what I saw, however fleeting, haunted me forever.
For starters, I never heard a voice like hers before – and this was about the time that, according to conventional wisdom, that voice was less powerful, less robust and more frayed than it had been in its earlier bloom. It still sounded special to me; so much so, that I couldn’t find the words to characterize it. Even now, I feel myself groping for adjectives like “sultry,” “pliant,” or even “delicately spiced.” (Wince.) With any force of nature, to describe is to diminish its power.
Yet the voice was for me the least of it at that moment. What hit me in a deeper place was what my older, wiser self would now call her sang-froid. The composure, regal and raw, was a compound I’d seen before in dozens of singers, black and white, old and young, male and female. But never before had I been aware that such commanding presence could be as inscrutable as the main character in a mystery story; a master thief, say, blithely slipping into a dark alley concealing gilded swag, or a cynical detective who’d stumbled onto a solution she wished she hadn’t, but wasn’t going to let its horror trip her up — or keep rough justice at bay. She was fire and ice, calibrated with a perfection that I’d dimly suspected was harder to achieve than it looked.
And by “harder,” I am not speaking of the legendary tribulations of Holiday’s life. For too long, her heartbreak and (sometimes self-inflected) pain have been placed at the center of her story at the expense of her craft. Her 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, provided the lens through which people continue to view Holiday’s life and work, even if the intervening years have disclosed many flaws and inaccuracies, beginning with its memorable first sentence. I now believe that book has a lot in common with her rendition of a pop standard. They share many of the same attributes: dramatic timing, pungent lyricism and rueful wit coated with honey and bitters. Others may have used her music to wallow in their own sadness. She did not. The troubles were tools in her paint box along with all the other things at her disposal.
I`d rather hear her now. She`s become more mature. Sometimes you can sing words every night for five years, and all of a sudden it dawns on you what the song means. I played ‘My Funny Valentine’ for a long time – and didn’t like it – and all of a sudden it meant something. So with Billie, you know she’s not thinking now what she was in 1937, and she’s probably learned more about different things. And she still has control, probably more control now than she did back then. No, I don’t think she’s in decline.
“She sings way behind the beat and then brings it up – hitting right on the beat. You can play behind the beat, but every once in a while you have to cut into the rhythm section on a beat and that keeps everybody together. Sinatra does it by accenting a word. A lot of singers try to sing like Billie, but just the act of playing behind the beat doesn’t make it sound soulful.
“I don’t think that guys like Buck Clayton are the best possible accompanists for her. I’d rather hear her with Bobby Tucker, the pianist she used to have. She doesn’t need any horns. She sounds like one anyway.”
— MILES DAVIS ON BILLIE HOLIDAY, Jazz Review interview, 1958
I’m with Miles on this. I always have been. One’s first Billie, as I said earlier, is one’s best Billie. And it was with the later, presumably less vital Billie that I fell in love. For those like Nat Hentoff, with whom Davis was giving the interview, the younger, more buoyant Billie Holiday who broke into public consciousness in the mid-1930s singing with the likes of Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and, most especially, her musical soul mate Lester Young, was the best by far. And I get that. The Columbia recordings from that period attest to a sense of joy and discovery in Holiday’s singing that burst through even the tiniest reproductions of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” or “I’ll Never Be The Same.”
As she became older and life got tougher, the joy receded and something more acerbic and world-weary crept into her singing. Yet I now believe what many regarded as decline was more like adjustment, realignment and even growth. Cops and cabaret owners may have pummeled the swagger out of her. But in all her performances, including her book, Holiday never came across as someone who took shit indefinitely. The struggle toughened her. That’s what struggle tends to do. And she used what she learned to get a better handle on what she was doing. The worse it got, the better she got. That’s what Miles Davis was talking about. It’s how I prefer to think of her, whether she’s deep in thought listening to a playback, as in Milt Hinton’s mesmerizing photographs from the 1958 Lady in Satin sessions or making her way through an especially tricky passage across a song’s bridge.
And the joy never really went away. Look again at that clip from “Sound of Jazz.” Notice how her head shakes when she’s listening to the other musicians and how her eyes shimmer as each soloist cruises by. And When her once-beloved Prez steps to the plate and blows what I and many others believe to be his last great solo, her face glows brightest, the years fall away and you could swear you can feel the same energy she had in her 20s when everything that happened to her, good and bad, was still ahead.
A strange year, an exasperating year; maybe even an ominous one for jazz music’s already diminished stature in the marketplace. First this happened, followed closely by this. And then this came up and so did all the resulting cawing and cackling on the social media sites. When you add the very public, free-falling disgrace of the nation’s leading — or, at the very least, most famous — jazz devotee, you may as well shrink wrap and label 2014 as a bummer despite the varied finery listed below.
And I know what you saner, stoic ones are going to say: That a list such as mine, or anyone else’s, represents the best possible counterargument to the signifying-nothing that is sound-and-fury, on- or offline. Art doesn’t care what the Washington Post or New Yorker says or does – or mostly doesn’t. Art walks its own serene path through the fire towards high ground. Art is a ninja-warrior aristocrat with two layers of body armor and an unrelenting poker face. Art would assure me, in firm, modulated timbres, that just because some people think jazz stopped being cool doesn’t mean it has.
Knowing all that, however, doesn’t improve my end-of-the-year mood; one that can’t be quantified as good or bad, but is, all at once, restless, melancholy, somewhat manic and predominantly wary. All told, I’m just a little anxious to see what’s coming next – in jazz and everywhere else.
You ask: Dread or hope? I say: Turtles are cool.
1.) Ambrose Akinmusire, “The Imagined Savior is Far Easier To Paint” (Blue Note) – As with its illustrious Blue Note predecessors from fifty years ago, Akinmusire’s second effort for the label meshes with the subconscious fabric of its turbulent times without needing to be explicit in its content (except when it chooses to do so). Just as Donald Byrd’s “A New Perspective,” which brought this into the world, is still redolent of all that America was going through in the early sixties, so do the somber, mostly minor-key soundscapes in “The Imagined Savior…” reflect present-day sorrow, regret and barely-contained anger with thwarted possibilities. The anger breaks into full, unfettered view in the sepulchral “Rollcall for Those Absent” on which the voice of young Muna Blake, backed only by Akinmusire’s keyboard and Sam Harris’ Mellotron is heard reading the names of young black men shot to death by police, including Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin, whose names are intoned more than once. That more names could have been added to this roll since it was recorded only enhances the disc’s up-to-the-minute capital. Adding to this Tapestry of Now is “Our Basement (ed)”, written and sung by Becca Stevens, which is told from the perspective of a homeless man. What counters the ruminative gloom and anxiety of these and other pieces is the vigorous musicianship displayed by Akinmusire as both trumpeter and bandleader. In both capacities, he has a fluid command of phrase that comes across the way electricity would if you could hold it in your hands. Whether letting fly with his regular combo, including front-line partner Walter Smith on tenor sax, or blending with a string quartet, Akinmusire’s horn reaches for and often achieves attributes of the human voice, a quality that clearly marks him as one with all the greats on his instrument who preceded him. If you wonder (as my erstwhile colleague and friend A.O. Scott does) if there are artists who can speak directly and indirectly to the Way We Live Now, look in this corner of the room and get to know its dimensions. Be advised: They can only get bigger from here on.
2.) Allen Lowe, “Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4 (or: A Jew At Large in the Minstrel Diaspora”)(Constant Sorrow 101) – In the 32-page liner notes accompanying this package, which constitute some of the finest music criticism I’ve read all year, Lowe begins by talking about his “strange encounter” with fellow classicist/bandleader Wynton Marsalis, with whom he dared discuss “the modernist implications of minstrelsy,” which Marsalis pointedly refused to engage since he’s predisposed to regard hip-hop in general and ”Gangsta Rap” in particular as “neo-minstrelsy” catering to racial stereotypes. Which was far from the point that Lowe was attempting to make in the first place. In the six years since that brush-off, Lowe, a polymath who’s as incisive with his shtick as he is with his sax, dove headfirst into what some would consider the mongrelized, or creole-lized foundation of 20th century popular music where shotgun-shack juke joints and free-swinging black vernacular found communion with the tunesmiths piecing together their slick contraptions on Tin Pan Alley, or in the Brill Building. The result of Lowe’s restless search for a proper response to Marsalis is this four-disc omnibus of mostly home-cooked sessions (Lowe lives in Maine) in which several traditions – gutbucket, gospel, early New Orleans, ragtime, bebop, stride, avant-garde, nightclub swing, noir soundtrack, beat poetry and backwoods country – are probed, prodded and often pulled inside out (so to speak) with an eclectic array of musicians from saxophonist J.D. Allen, trumpeter Randy Sandke and clarinetist Ken Peplowski to saxophonist Noel Preminger, pianist Matthew Shipp and singer Dean Bowman. Along with other reeds, horns and rhythm players, there’s also a tuba (Christopher Meeder), a fellow musicologist (Lewis Porter) who plays wicked piano, alone or accompanied, and – of course, what else? – a novelist (Rick Moody). Even some of the titles of these pieces – “Jim Crow Variations”, “The Discreet Charm of the Underclass,” “When My Alarm Clock Rings on Central Park West” (Lowe’s variation of “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South”) – are provocative, mischievous throw-downs to whatever passes these days for dialogue about jazz. And after a year such as this, the prevailing conversation can use some spritzing and shaking-up. (Don’t try to get this through Amazon or I-Tunes. You’re better off ordering it this way.)
3.) Sonny Rollins, “Road Shows: Volume 3” (Okeh/Doxy)— I’m well aware that we who worship at the Altar of the Colossus often get carried away. My own effusions are tempered by what a fellow patron said about the GLTS (Greatest Living Tenor Saxophonist): that he’s a lot like Mickey Mantle because their strikeouts can be just as spectacular as their home runs. Still, you have to believe me when I tell you that this third installment of recent live Rollins feels richer, goes deeper and is altogether more rewarding than its predecessors. And I say this as somebody who tried, at first, to distract myself from its lure by doing…well I don’t remember exactly. But I do remember feeling my head swivel sharply upon hearing Rollins’ variations on “Someday I’ll Find You,” the album’s second track, from a 2006 performance in Toulouse. This Noel Coward ballad begs to be crooned in the grandest of tenor styles. Rollins never croons, at least not here. He asserts the theme while veering ever so modestly off its edges to let you know what’s coming as soon as he retrieves center stage from guitarist Bobby Broom. When it’s his turn to speak, Rollins slides into the first bars of the melody, pulling at its corners before he really gets to work somewhere around the third chorus. (Or is it the fourth? Never mind.) He’s clearing away open spaces for whatever direction he wants to go. At one point, he’s playing with the harmonies in the grand modernist manner of pulling them apart and rearranging them in different patters; maybe he’ll become fond of a riff and run with it to see if it opens still more territory, making just enough room for one of his licks to leap into the sky if only so he can find out where it lands. He’s trying to figure it all out as hard as we are. That’s why we’ve borne witness all these years: To collaborate in his process and share his potential surprise with what’s disclosed. There’s plenty more enlightenment to be found on these arias. And, jumping back a couple metaphors, there’s not a strikeout in the bunch.
4.) Kenny Barron & Dave Holland, “The Art of Conversation” (Blue Note) – Barron has proven to be such a compelling partner in previous recorded colloquies with Stan Getz, Charlie Haden and Regina Carter that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for him to have a sustained sit-down with the indefatigable Mr. H. To say their meeting doesn’t disappoint would be understating matters to a felonious degree. They engage in an organic, mutually respectful flow of ideas and storylines with each man giving leeway to the other seemingly by intuition more than design. They hit all the lights on such standards as Parker’s “Segment” (which, for this occasion, should have worn its alternate title, “Diversity”), Monk’s “In Walked Bud” and, especially, Strayhorn’s “Daydream.” The revelations are more pronounced when it comes to each player’s compositions: Barron’s “Rain” opens vistas of lyrical expression for Holland while the latter’s “Dr. Do Right” craftily indulges Barron’s affinity for the Latin beat. I’m especially partial to the opening track, Holland’s “The Oracle,” because it is so reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite trio albums of the same name led by the late great Hank Jones and featuring Holland and the also-now-departed Billy Higgins. That album is out of print. This one more than compensates for its absence.
5.) Marc Ribot Trio, “Live at the Village Vanguard” (PI) – I have for decades challenged those who love hard rock, but hate progressive jazz to imagine, when listening to an outer-limits tenor sax solo, that there’s an electric guitar laying down the same pipe. I’ve urged jazz heads to do the reverse for heavy-metal speed runs. No takers at either end. But who’s going to listen to me anyway? Better that they should all listen to this, because when guitarist Ribot, drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Henry Grimes Go Outside as did John Coltrane (“Dearly Beloved,” “Sun Ship”) and Albert Ayler (“The Wizard,” “Bells”), they don’t merely make my point. They drive it home like a high-performance car going down on a steep hill at top speed. This unit’s been mining such territory for some time now and the revelations burn hotter within the hallowed confines of jazz’s Holy Dive. Oddly enough, though, it’s when Ribot and company do a 180 and apply their eclectic chops to light-footed, more conventional renditions of “Old Man River” and “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” that they really seem to be taking chances; each man carefully spreading their range onto these chestnuts without unnecessary spillage. Their solicitousness within the body of each song gives greater magnitude to what they do outside the lines. Just to re-emphasize: Anything that’s done to amplify the enigmatic, yet persevering legacy of Grimes’ old boss Albert Ayler is worth the investment of energy; theirs, and yours.
6.) David Weiss, “When Words Fail” (Motema) – Most of the music here is so buoyant and luminous that you would never guess that the project is haunted by sadness and loss. Trumpeter Weiss, whose myriad activities include leadership of The Cookers, a septet formed in tribute to Freddie Hubbard, composed most of the pieces on this disc and writes in the liner notes of a full year of sudden, deepening tragedy beginning with the death of seven-year-old Ana Grace Marquez Greene, daughter of saxophonist Jimmy Greene, in the December, 2012 Sandy Hook School massacre. The father of the Motema label’s founder passed away during the ensuing year as did such jazz luminaries as Jim Hall, Donald Byrd, Mulgrew Miller, Butch Morris, George Duke and Cedar Walton. And just weeks after this session was completed, its bassist Dwayne Burro, died from pneumonia. The title track, named for the beginning of a Hans Christian Anderson quote that ends with “music speaks,” is dedicated to Burro while “Passage Into Eternity” was written with the Greene family in mind.. Here and elsewhere, you expect something somber and funereal, but instead find lively, propulsive small-group jazz that gives off warmth while staying resolutely cool. When the world keeps saying, “No,” music as joyfully rendered as this insists on saying, “Yes.”
7.) Mark Turner Quartet, “Lathe of Heaven” (ECM)— Somewhere in the alchemic Ursula K. Le Guin novel that gives this disc its title, there’s a quote from Victor Hugo that describes dreaming as “nothing other than the approach of an invisible reality.” As with the book, much of the music on this album, Turner’s first as a leader in 13 years, shifts time and space while somehow remaining self-contained and grounded. Not since the passing of Joe Henderson has there been a narrative artist on tenor saxophone such as Turner, who, as with Henderson, makes his statements through stealth, cunning and patience, his phrases cohering into shapes that are at once familiar and esoteric. He finds in trumpeter Avishai Cohen a worthy harmonic partner in thematic expression; Cohen bringing a fiery, full-bodied tone to compliment Turner’s cool, dry musings. The overall pace seems locked in neutral, the better to allow the mercurial front line to simulate invisible realities, though the rhythm section of bassist Joe Martin and, especially, drummer Marcus Gilmore execute throughout a slipstream swing compatible with weaving dreams. You couldn’t call this a comeback since Turner’s been quite busy in many venues and combos. But having him return out front, so to speak, affirms the hopes he inspired a decade-and-a-half ago as a tenor player skating to a softer drumbeat.
8.) Steve Lehman Octet, “Mise en Abime” (PI) – Though not packaged as such, Lehman’s latest series of experiments in sound mosaics represents a kind of deep-space 90th birthday party for Bud Powell, given that at least two of the tormented bop genius’s pieces, “Glass Enclosure” and “Parisian Thoroughfare,” are so drastically reinvented as to be barely recognizable, except for the angular dynamics Lehman applies to their abstract designs. Because his intellectual qualifications are part of Lehman’s hype, you’re tempted to think of his work as composer, arranger and altoist in purely cerebral terms. But given his all-star lineup of some of the brightest young players (trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright, saxophonist Mark Shim vibraphonist Chris Dingman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey among others), Lehman has too much firepower at his disposal to leave listeners on ice, so to speak. He’s so creative in his harmonic combinations and electronic enhancements that I’m a little curious to see what he does in more specified contexts; Christmas, say, or 1940s rhythm-and-blues, or the Sun Ra Songbook.
9.) Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski, “Gathering Call” (Palmetto) – I’ll just repeat what I posted back in January since a whole lot’s happened since then: Hard bop, late-1960s/early 1970s vintage, played without apologies and with an open-hearted joie de vivre that can make even the hardest of hard-core progressives wonder why they ever thought the genre was old news. I suppose some would still think it old news, even if they liked it. But there’s nothing musty or creaky about Wilson’s easygoing command of the trap set in all situations or his group’s saucy renditions of such Ellingtonia as “Main Stem” or “You Dirty Dog.” The quartet also pays homage to the recently departed bassist Butch Warren by playing the latter’s “Barack Obama” with the delicacy, wonder and cautious optimism you suspect the composer had in mind as he wrote it. You’re happy for the leader, one of the perennial Good Guys in the jazz business, which in turn makes you hopeful for the business itself.
10.) The Microscopic Septet, “Manhattan Moonrise”(Cuneiform) — Where in their 1980s flowering they suggested, as a perspicacious observer put it, a “wedding band from Mars,” these wily retro sharpies now look on the inside-cover photos of this disc like a weathered, motley council of wizards from a Tolkien homage hiding out from Sauron on a band bus touring the Dakotas in the winter of 1939. Yet even with added snow in some of their membership’s facial hair, the Micros still sound airtight, agile and ready for anything co-founders Joel Forrester and Philip Johnston toss into their playpen, whether it’s a funk stomp a la Johnston’s “Obeying the Chemicals,” a Monk-ish pastiche from Forrester, “A Snapshot of the Soul” or the snap-brim eminently danceable swinger, also from Forrester, that gives the disc its title. Cards on the table, I’m at a loss to explain what “MM” by TMS is doing here since it doesn’t exactly break new ground either for the group or for its genre. But it’s a genre that they, and they alone, own: Microscopic Septet music at its most proficient, inquisitive and enjoyable. There may have been more significant and ambitious albums I heard or missed out on this year, but few that had as much trouble staying out of my machines as this. Long Live The Micros! And Long Live Jazz – whatever the heck that means!
HONORABLE MENTION: “Frank Kimbrough Quartet” (Palmetto); Tyshawn Sorey, “Alloy” (PI); Regina Carter, “Southern Comfort” (Masterworks ); Omer Avital, “New Song” (Motema); Ron Miles, “Circuit Rider” (Enja); Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden, “Last Dance” (ECM); Randy Ingram, “Sky/Lift” (Sunnyside); Jason Jackson, “Inspiration” (Jack & Hill); Matthew Shipp, “I’ve Been To Many Places” (Thirsty Ear); Richard Galliano, “Sentimentale” (Resonance); Aaron Goldberg, “The Now” (Sunnyside).
BEST VOCAL ALBUM: Kendra Shank and John Stowell, “New York Conversations” (TCB)
BEST LATIN ALBUM: Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, “The Offense of the Drum” (Motema)
BEST REISSUE: John Coltrane, “Offering: Live at Temple University” (Impulse!)
HONORABLE MENTION: Charles Lloyd, “Manhattan Stories” (Resonance)
Back in the winter of 1993, I threw a newsroom tantrum over an article that appeared in Spy magazine under the title, “Admit It. Jazz Sucks.” Written by Joe Queenan, then riding the ascending curve as a go-to contrarian crank for major media outlets, the piece was a mordant rant against what he perceived as a stuffed-shirt conspiracy to shove jazz music down the zeitgeist’s collective throat.
Most readers, even those unsympathetic to Queenan’s sentiments (and no, he wasn’t kidding about those), found it relatively easy back then to take the whole thing as bilious faux-regular-guy philistinism and move on with their lives. But I’d come across this screed at a time when I was still struggling to convince my New York Newsday editors that jazz music deserved a broader, bigger regular presence in its pages. The last thing I needed to hear from a national magazine, ANY national magazine, was a brash, loud voice suggesting to the editors that, well, yeah, maybe we don’t need to deal with this intimidating, complicated, provocative music that isn’t even as popular as it used to be. In other words, I took the damn thing personally – and stomped my feet, bellowed out loud, pounded furniture, etc. to let everybody I worked for, and with, know of my purple-cheeked displeasure.
And another thing: How exactly did Queenan figure that jazz was this domineering entity imposing itself upon whatever culture he believed himself to represent? If anything, jazz was catching more hell from the mainstream than it was receiving. Why the hell didn’t Spy magazine pick on somebody/something its own size? On top of everything else, it wasn’t even funny. Or smart. Even one of my editors, a rock-and-roller who like to bait me with similar anti-jazz bombs, thought the piece was lame –and, therefore, not worth getting ulcers over.
Indeed, after I’d calmed down and realized that I was all alone not just in detesting, but even caring much about the piece, it occurred to me that the very lack of furor generated by the article was dismal proof that even if Queenan was right about this conspiracy, it was already failing.
So life did in fact go on: Spy eventually folded. Queenan wrote better, if more bilious pieces. Newsday ended its noble New York City-based experiment. And jazz still came out at the other end of the century barely breaking even in the music marketplace. So all I can say to all my friends and fellow-travelers in the jazz universe who’ve been seething since last week over what I’ve come to know as the “Unfunny Sonny” blog on The New Yorker’s web site is this: I been there already.
Briefly, for the rest of you: About a week ago (though it seems longer), a piece began circulating on the web under the New Yorker’s aegis under the title, “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.” Only it sure didn’t sound like Sonny Rollins; more like a whiny savant who likened the sound of a saxophone to a “scared pig” and doesn’t see the point of jazz and hates his whole life. “If I could do it all over again, I’d probably be a process server or an accountant. They make good money.” You get the idea. If you don’t, here’s the rest of it.
It now sounds weird, but more than a few people who first came across this thing on social media sites actually thought that this was Rollins’ voice. (I recall one musician first reacted by thinking that this outburst was the result of Rollins playing for too long with substandard backup musicians. Which was almost as funny – or not – as the piece itself.) As the civilized world now knows, a senior writer for The Onion named Django Gold wrote it and, as you’ll now notice, the blog now comes with disclaimers. Why? Partly because of this loud, resounding, universal outcry from the jazz musicians, fans and journalists that, collectively, made my office tantrum of twenty-one whole years ago seem like a sneeze in a noisy stadium. (By the way, after reading Gold’s piece again, make sure you watch this afterwards if only to make clearer whose voice is who’s.)
I suppose I, too, was more annoyed than amused by Gold’s little joke at jazz’s expense and the reasons are pretty much in line with those enumerated over the last few days. To wit:
1.) You mean The New Yorker no longer has the time or space to cover jazz on a regular basis and THIS is what they decide to contribute instead?
2.) Jazz is still fighting to hold on to its sliver of the music marketplace and here’s one of the leading publications in the country demeaning its greatest living improviser? How dare they! Would they do this to Tom Stoppard or Suzanne Farrell or anybody in opera?
3.) It’s not all that funny to begin with. Why waste the space, especially at jazz’s expense? I’m probably leaving out a few other complaints, but these three are among the more frequent, making it easier to take them each of them one at a time:
1.) That the New Yorker hasn’t bothered finding room for regular jazz coverage, especially after establishing a tradition for such through the late Whitney Balliett is, of course, an ongoing scandal. But no one else in the magazine world is bothering with it either. I can understand concerns among my fellow jazz lovers that the snide tone informing this parody will convince the music’s haters of their fine judgment and good taste. I don’t know. Outright jazz hate is annoying, but widespread indifference is worse. Does anyone besides me remember Stanley Crouch’s 2005 straight-ahead New Yorker profile of Rollins? Do I remember any profile of any jazz musician since then of similar heft and dimension? I do not. And whenever a newspaper or mainstream publication paid me to write about jazz, I often felt as if I were dropping pebbles down a deep, dark well waiting for the splash. I’d like to think the furor aroused by Gold’s prank would shame editors into changing this situation. I know better. They’d prefer more pranks. So does the Internet. So do the people who get caught up in the Internet. I play the sincerity card with jazz because I respect it too much to do otherwise. But when I praise Sonny Rollins, I’m basically telling people what they already know, whether they’ve heard him for themselves or not. Snide plays better than sincere. Or don’t you listen to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” every week on NPR? Figured as much.
2.) Nevertheless, I, too, would rather read or write about the latest installment of Rollins’ “Road Shows” albums than see somebody reduce Sonny to the rough equivalent of a petulant preppie. I’ve often said that while critics sometimes pump up everything Rollins does with little discrimination, the public-at-large seriously underrates or altogether ignores his glorious inventiveness. (Those who wonder why everybody in jazz got so riled by Gold’s piece should immediately buy Road Shows, Vol. 3 or, to get it all over with, Saxophone Colossus.) On the other hand, Gold or his editors must already think that Rollins has the kind of heft and dimension as a figure to be poked at and hazed in the public square, which is kinda sorta a backhanded acknowledgment of his significance. Would somebody do the same to Tom Stoppard or Suzanne Farrell or anybody in opera? You bet your sweet ass somebody would, anybody would, early and often! To say that jazz can’t take even the most half-baked pies tossed at its kisser is to make it seem as reductive as snobs in the higher elevations of Culture Gulch believe it to be.
3.) Then, too, opera buffs and balletomanes in those higher elevations are often regarded as humorless wet blankets who can’t abide the cheap jokes as their expense. The jazz cognoscenti may even acknowledge the irony that its collective cri-de-coeur over Gold’s blog only confirms the outer world’s suspicions that we’re all a bunch of insular, thin-skinned spoilsports who can’t take a joke. But that the joke in question needed a disclaimer to chill out the complainers may prove that the joke in question wasn’t all that funny to begin with. For what it’s worth, it’s a helluva lot funnier than Queenan’s smug tirade, though, unlike Queenan, Gold doesn’t seem at all sure of what he’s skewering in the first place — and neither does the reader. It’s a piece interested more in striking a pose than making a point. It assumes an attitude about something that isn’t the least bit connected or concerned with what its satirizing; unlike Donald Barthelme’s New Yorker story, “The King of Jazz,” which was the kind of blithe-but-pointed mockery that only a true fan (which Barthelme was) could pull off. Nevertheless, given the new-school dynamics of media transactions, strike a pose conspicuously enough and most of the gawkers will believe you’ve made your point anyway. And while jazz fans are shamed by Gold, he’s not shamed at all. He’s hearing tinkling sounds – bells, coins — whenever somebody mentions his name. If taking Gold to task for demeaning jazz makes me look like a slow-burning Edgar Kennedy to his blithe Harpo Marx, I’d just as soon go back to bed and wait for the wind to die down.
All this said, I’m glad, and even proud, that jazz got on its hind legs and roared back at this squib. The furor wont raise the music’s profile any higher than it is now. Too many other things have to happen for that to change. But as with that Spy magazine assault long ago, the effects of which I think I’m finally over by now, jazz under whatever name in whatever state will go on, oblivious to whatever the lovers and haters say about it. As I said earlier: I been here before. So will the divine mysteries of music. And so, I trust, will writers who can riff, lick and even vogue better than…no, sorry. I’m not going to mention the name again. I’d rather give my remaining time to this guy –– and, just as I eventually did twenty years ago, move on.
As of this Friday, Charlie Haden will have been off the planet for two weeks. Yet I’m still tripping over him in unexpected places. Earlier this week, for instance, I put on an ECM compilation of Carla Bley’s work and all of a sudden, this voice pours out of the speakers that sounded a lot like Linda Ronstadt’s from her daisy-fresh Stone Poneys days. Turned out that’s exactly who it was: Ronstadt doing lead vocals on Bley’s “Why?” from the 1971 jazz opera, Escalator Over The Hill. And who should be vocally harmonizing with her on this track, in what sounds like the bluegrass idiom of his childhood professional days, but Haden, who also played double-bass for Bley’s orchestra. A day later, I finally caught hold of Last Dance, the recently-released ECM album with Haden and one of his old bosses, Keith Jarrett, performing classic pop standards. Though these duets were recorded in 2007, the album’s ruminative tone and sepulchral title, augmented by having “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and, then, “Goodbye” as back-to-back concluding numbers, seem to emit melancholy prophesy. Except I don’t feel in any way saddened while listening to these intimate conversations between two veterans who, though working with traditional chord progressions and stone-ground rhythms, find new ways to make these warhorses enrapture and inspire. Which may be another way of saying that nothing much has changed and Charlie Haden will somehow always be with us, letting his romanticist’s gospel of Beauty and Truth filter through the world where, through most of his 76 years, he spread this gospel broadly, but never thinly. We could be spending almost as many years wandering through and assessing his prolific contributions as sideman, leader, composer, collaborator and movie director. You read right. Movie director. And while you wont find his name listed as such on the Internet Movie Database, Charlie Haden excelled at making movies of the mind, even when he wasn’t trying. Born in 1937, Haden was a child of both motion pictures and the radio and, thus, instinctively understood how the former so robustly fed people’s imaginations, which were comparably stimulated by the latter. Just as the movies could make you want to get up and dance, orchestrated sounds could make you lie back and dream. By the 1950s, the movies would help dictate how we listen to music. (Think of all those set-the-mood-for-making-out LPs of the era with lush strings.) And Haden became one of the auteurs of concept albums that, openly or otherwise, borrowed their tropes from cinema. Most especially, what became known as the Hollywood noir movies of the forties and fifties became a recurring motif with Haden’s Quartet West albums on Verve, beginning with 1986’s eponymous album introducing the quartet – saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent and drummer Billy Higgins, Haden’s onetime band mate with Ornette Coleman, replaced with Larance Marable on 1988’s In Angel City. The other Quartet West Verves – 1990’s Haunted Heart, 1993’s Always Say Goodbye, 1995’s Now is the Hour and 1999’s The Art of the Song – were more or less pastiches of movie soundtracks, vintage recordings by such diverse artists as Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. (In the last entry, a full orchestra and singers Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson joined the quartet in the studio.) Critics were mostly enchanted with these discs when they were first released, even though you could hear grousing from some corners that Haden was squandering his considerable energies on studio gimmickry; a kind of “sampling” for nostalgic grownups. But Haden had earned wellsprings of credibility that began to collect around his name in the late 1950s when he’d helped rearrange the furniture in listeners’ heads for all time as a member of Ornette Coleman’s epochal quartet. He’d also put his music where his progressive politics were as founder-leader of the Liberation Music Orchestra and burnished his reputation by helping enhance those of such diverse artists as Geri Allen, Kenny Barron, Hampton Hawes, Abbey Lincoln, Hank Jones, Paul Motian, Bley and Jarrett by sitting in or collaborating with them, live or on record. Whether you dug Haunted Heart or Always Say Goodbye depends on how much you happen to be into the same old movies that Haden was. And Haden’s affinity for Raymond Chandler and other SoCal literary lights was genuine enough to give added integrity and sturdiness to his dreamscapes. Unlike a lot of actual filmmakers, Haden didn’t see those crime melodramas as excuses for ironic reinvention or post-modern hijinks. He thought Chandler and his ilk were funny, incisive and, most of all, relevant enough for whatever present-day reality you inhabit. His perpetual sense of wonder with the sunset-infused landscape of modern jazz and tarnished dreams was infectious – and you were motivated as he seemed to be to imagine your own movies sequences to match the music. As fond as I am of the Quartet West discs, I’ve come to believe since his passing that Haden’s greatest achievement as a moviemaker-for-the-mind lies somewhere beyond its body of work. It took me a long time even to appreciate Beyond the Missouri Sky, Haden’s 1996 session with guitarist Pat Metheny as anything more than a decorative collection of spare, wide-open-spacey duets. I am now one with the eighth edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, which places Missouri Sky among its “Core Collection” rankings. Even as a studio artifact, this album handsomely rewards re-listening with its overdubs and harmonic tracks. Haden’s melodic tone on the bass achieves depth and richness that coax greater fluidity and fineness from Metheny’s playing. The landscapes they evoke have big skies and gilded shadows. The mind movies here are less rooted in genre and more reminiscent of Rohmer or Antonioni in an avuncular mood. The latter didn’t make Cinema Paradiso, but there are nonetheless two pieces from that movie’s soundtrack along with Henry Mancini’s poignant theme from Two for the Road. And it gets even more personal than usual here: Roy Acuff’s “The Precious Jewel,” the mountain folk song, “He’s Gone Away” and Haden’s haunting original hymn, “Spiritual” are clearly intended to be tributes to the bassist’s parents, with whom he’d performed bluegrass and country ballads on radio when he was a little boy. Beyond the Missouri Sky was the first thing I thought of playing when I’d heard he’d died – and the sun was actually setting by the time “Spiritual” had run its course. It was less a funereal experience than a healing one. And I suspect it wont be the last time it will help ease the sting of bad news. After all, the movies he made weren’t distractions. Charlie Haden intended for his music – all of it — to be of use. What else are Truth and Beauty for?
On the occasion of what would have been Ella Fitzgerald’s 97th birthday, I’m posting this mildly-annotated tribute I wrote for Newsday shortly after she died in July, 1996. Some of the questions raised in this piece remain open, except for whether she still matters to people today. She does. SIXTEEN DAYS have passed since Ella Fitzgerald died, and I still find prevailing among people of several generations a deep sadness over the loss. There’s wistfulness about Fitzgerald’s passing. I can’t recall encountering so many people in so many places who have spontaneously expressed their sense of loss for a departed jazz-pop icon – and I don’t expect to hear as many until we say farewell to Sinatra. (NOTE: Two years afterward, we did — and I did.)
What makes such an outpouring of grief more remarkable is that Fitzgerald spent most of her last years in the shadows of public life, stripped of her eyesight and physical mobility by several bouts with diabetes-related illnesses. In 1993 both of her legs were amputated. Yet, this slow fade seemed crueler than someone of Fitzgerald’s majestic effervescence and unfailing grace deserved. Which, in the hearts of many, only magnified the poignancy of her death. Now that tears have begun to dry, it seems time to assess the Ella Fitzgerald legacy.
I’ve encountered at least one skeptic in recent days. The opinion of this educated fellow – an exception to the widespread sentiment toward Fitzgerald following her death – is that she is a candidate for the century’s most overrated jazz singer. His reasons, roughly summarized: Don’t tell me how innovative she was as a scat singer! She did the same scatting on every song! Betty Carter is so much better! Ella was predictable by comparison! And don’t tell me she was a true artist! She was an entertainer at best! She never invested any song with true sensibility or meaning, like Billie Holiday! She just reached into the same bag of crowd-pleasing tricks. And you can’t deny that her vocal range wasn’t all that wide. She sounded like a little girl most of the time. People love that! No wonder she was popular! But greatness isn’t a popularity contest . . .
Well. Where does one begin to hack away at such ferocious revisionism? Probably by saying that none of his arguments are all that new.
I know this, because not so long ago I agreed with many of them, especially the stuff about Fitzgerald’s investing no true sensibility or meaning into a song. The technical proficiency that dazzled me as a child, the bubbly warmth she put forth in both her live and recorded performances seemed – as I grew older and compared her to other singers – to be manifestations of an emotionally evasive personality. Frequently, I wanted to shout back at the record player, “Come on, Ella! Give it up! Show us your scars!”
It didn’t help that there was much about her personal life that was mysterious, starting with her date of birth. (Though Fitzgerald’s age at the time of her death was reported by many to be 78, court records in her Newport News, Va., birthplace confirm that she was born April 25, 1917, making her a year older.) There was real drama in her meteoric rise from poverty to 1930s stardom with the Chick Webb orchestra, in her taking command of the band after Webb’s death and in her slow, steep ascension to international stardom. But if there was any trace of emotional tribulation or hardship that accompanied Fitzgerald on her life’s journey, forget about finding it in her music – or, for that matter, in anything written or published about her life. (British critic Stuart Nicholson’s 1993 biography, “Ella Fitzgerald,” available in DaCapo paperback, is the best available source – and even he had trouble breaking through the barrier of privacy that was diligently maintained by Fitzgerald practically to the very end.)
Fitzgerald’s limited vocal range is a point I’ll readily concede to our revisionist friend. I never quite bought the claims of those old Memorex recording-tape commercials that Fitzgerald could break a wine glass with the ballistic surge of her voice. Sarah Vaughan could, for sure. But Ella? Yes, she had perfect pitch, a clean, clear delivery and air-tight rhythmic control. But her voice never threatened the edges of outer space like that of a great soprano or contralto.
And so what? In jazz music, what matters is not what you bring to the table, but what you do with it when you arrive. Fitzgerald drew upon a seemingly inexhaustible supply of enthusiasm and ingenuity and, in the process, fashioned a persona that kept her concert audiences on the edge of their seats, wondering what turn of phrase or cheeky reference she’d throw out next. Such gifts, as critic Martin Williams once wrote, may belong more to melodrama than genuine tragedy. But not even Williams’ imperious standards could withstand the assaults of Fitzgerald’s dynamism.
“For me,” Williams wrote, “hers is the stuff of joy, a joy that is profound and ever replenished – perhaps from the self-discovery that, for all her equipment as a singer’s singer, she is absolutely incapable of holding anything back.” (Italics mine.) Even the “little girl” characteristics cited as grievances against Fitzgerald’s artistry can be used to support the case for her staying power.
As long as there is curiosity about the classic American popular song of the 20th Century, there will be listeners who want a singer who can convey their appeal of that music with a child’s unadorned sense of discovery. Many of us who grew up loving the songs of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins did so because of Fitzgerald’s inviting, affectionate and solicitous interpretations. Years from now those songbooks will be consulted about the great songs the way the dictionary is used to look up words.
So while I once wondered about Fitzgerald’s depth of passion or range of resources, I now believe there is emotional transcendence to be found in her euphoric invention. (A memo to our revisionist friend: Ask Betty Carter sometime whether she thinks Ella is overrated. Chances are good she’ll tell you no . . . and then rip your head off for suggesting otherwise.) Yet, this virtue, along with many others, doesn’t account for the widespread lingering sadness that people feel about Fitzgerald’s departure.
So what does? Nostalgia? We’re getting warmer, but the word alone doesn’t quite fit. I suspect what we mourn is more than the loss of a singer. Fitzgerald’s death is just part of our steadily eroding connection with the very notion of song as an ordered pattern of melody, harmony, emotion and intellect, expressing who we are and how we feel at any given moment. Nowadays, just a heavy beat with a few vague chords seems enough to satisfy those who want emotional and physical release – or, worse yet, simple gratification.
When Ella Fitzgerald or, indeed, any other icon from a more romantic and optimistic era leaves us, we feel abandoned – and a little panicky. We look around and wonder who’s able to connect with our emotions as they deepen and ripen to uneasy maturity.
Meanwhile, we’ll have the imposing pile of recordings Fitzgerald left behind. We’ll lose ourselves in them over and over again, while harboring the suspicion that she may have taken all the depth and most of the possibilities of American pop music with her to the grave. I was wrong about Ella. I hope I’m just as wrong about this. Copyright 1996 Newsday, Inc.
If you heard my annual song-and-dance on the Dec. 26 edition of “The Colin McEnroe Show” on Hartford’s WNPR-FM, you’re aware of at least one of my “oopsie” omissions from my Best-of-2013 jazz recordings list. And since that particular omission gets more embarrassing every time I listen to it, I am obliged to start 2014 by elaborating upon my mea culpa – and mention at least one other omission at length. And since we don’t want to be too negative with a clean slate, I’ll add some spare change on the first new disc of the year that’s got my (mostly appreciative) attention.
Cecile McLorin Salvant, “WomanChild” (Mack Avenue)— Whenever a vocalist catches fire on the jazz scene, it often happens after he or she has been out in the world for some time. In the nineties, as in the case of Shirley Horn or even Abbey Lincoln, there was the phenomenon of rediscovering artists who’ve found a glorious second wind carrying them late in life to unexpectedly fresh levels of expression and power. Rarely do young jazz singers make your head turn at Jump Street the way Willie Mays raised heart rates with his first-at-bat. Which makes Cecile McLorin Salvant, at just 24 years old, an especially rare talent. To repeat what I said on Colin’s show, she is simply the most exciting young jazz vocalist I’ve heard in at least a quarter-century, which I suppose constitutes a generation. To move down the checklist: Tone: Check; Dynamics: Check; Phrasing: Check – and she has the ineffable qualities that in their rawest form we recognize as “soulfulness.” But even with all those attributes in her tool kit, Salvant makes her biggest impression on “WomanChild” with the intelligence and breadth of her repertoire. She makes a couple of customary stops on the standards tour (“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”). But she also reaches waaaaay back to the less-travelled, but venerated pathways cleared by Bessie Smith (“St. Louis Woman”), Clarence Williams (“Baby Have Pity On Me”), Fats Waller (“Jitterbug Waltz”) and, most stirring of all, Bert Williams (“Nobody”). When someone so young can do so much at once, the immediate worry is that she’ll spread herself too broadly before she Finds Herself (whatever that means). I prefer to enjoy the rush of potential and possibility as she steps to the plate for another cut at history. I also want to shout-out to her comparably promising pianist Aaron Diehl, who flashes his own bright-burning composite of lyricism, eclecticism and dynamism.
Jane Ira Bloom “Sixteen Sunsets” (Outline) – You could more accurately title it, “Sixteen Ballads,” but “Sunsets” sounds more appropriate, metaphorically. And as with reach sunsets, each of these ballads enraptures in different ways. She uses what she loves about the classic melodists, including Gershwin (“But Not For Me”), Arlen (“Out of this World”) Waldron (“Left Alone”), Kern (“The Way You Look Tonight”) and Weill (“My Ship”) and brings their deceptively simple designs to her own compositions, including “Primary Colors,” “Too Many Reasons”, “Ice Dancing” and my own favorite, “What She Wanted.” Her soprano saxophone can make your skin tingle as few others on her instrument ever have. If this disc, as with Salvant’s, had arrived in my mailbox before I turned in my ballot to the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, my Top Ten List would have been very different.
Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski, “Gathering Call” (Palmetto) – What an pleasurable way to start the New Year: Hard bop, late-1960s/early 1970s vintage, played without apologies and with an open-hearted joie de vivre that can make even the hardest of hard-core progressives wonder why they ever thought the genre was old news. I suppose some would still think it old news, even if they liked it. But there’s nothing musty or creaky about Wilson’s easygoing command of the trap set in all situations or his group’s saucy renditions of such Ellingtonia as “Main Stem” or “You Dirty Dog.” The quartet also pays homage to the recently departed bassist Butch Warren by playing the latter’s “Barack Obama” with the delicacy, wonder and cautious optimism you suspect the composer had in mind as he wrote it. You’re happy for the leader, one of the perennial Good Guys in the jazz business, which in turn makes you happy – and hopeful – for the business itself.
Of the assorted cans of worms pried open among jazz heads on the Internet in recent years, my favorite comes from Branford Marsalis who has been calling out his peers (and, by implication, critics like me) for embracing virtuosity and harmonic invention at the expense of melodic content, which in turn was pushing more and more listeners away. “Harmonic music,” Marsalis said back in 2011, “tends to be very insular. It tends to be [like] you’re in the private club with a secret handshake.”
From that same interview: “When laypeople listen to records, there’re certain things they’re going to get to. First of all, how it sounds to them. If the value of the song is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed. Because people that buy records don’t know shit about music. When they put on ‘Kind of Blue’ and say they like it, I always ask people: What did you like about it? They describe it in physical terms, in visceral terms, but never in musical terms.”
The argument over whether jazz is hermetically sealing itself by being absorbed with invention-for-its-own-sake is as almost as old as jazz itself. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, for all their worship of literary modernism, snarled over most of the boundary-busting jazz music that came after the swing era. (People of varied generations and races are always shocked to find that Ellison disliked Charlie Parker almost as much as Philip Larkin.) Even Miles Davis at some point in the early1960s admitted that he didn’t buy jazz records of his era because “they make me too sad, man.”
I don’t get sad with what I hear lately. Once in a while, I even like being sad, and so do what Marsalis calls, “laypeople.” But there were times in the last several months when I was getting impatient with the new discs I was listening to. I was, like, OK, I’m impressed. But I’m not aroused. So you can make chord changes sit up, roll over and swim across a pond. But my question is the same one Lester Young asked long ago, “Can you sing a song?” I’ll throw another one out there: Can you handle a groove?
Maybe that’s why, even in a better-than-average year for product, I was drawn to those albums that gave me a bit more of what Marsalis describes as “physical” or “visceral” pleasure. I admit that in Larkin’s famous tautology, I still lean a little more towards intelligence-without-beat over beat-without-intelligence. But most of what I choose to venerate this year came close to achieving a balance between the two. The needle’s still stuck at the low end as far as jazz music’s presence in the marketplace is concerned. But maybe some of these will help nudge it a little higher and attract more people who search the clouds, or Cloud, for sounds that both please and challenge. Baby steps, I suppose; dance steps, I hope.
1.) Ahmad Jamal, “Saturday Morning” (Jazzbook) – You’re Ahmad Jamal and life right now couldn’t be more satisfying. You’ve outlasted almost all the pianists you’ve influenced since the 1950s who, fairly or not, received more critical approbation than you. You’ve also outlasted most of those critics who either demeaned or second-guessed your popularity and, in any case, never gave you the degree of respect you’ve received from audiences and fellow musicians. In the meantime, you’ve been putting out immaculately crafted recorded product for at least the last three decades. And at 83 years old, you’re playing with even greater vitality, invention and polish, submitting (for our approval) one of the crown jewels of your long career: A sweet-swinging session recorded at the Studio La Buissonne with the attentive support of bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley. As always, your trio keeps time like a handcrafted wristwatch. What broadens the package is the sparkling variety of tempo and mode. You seem even more engaged by the material, even with such familiar should-have-been-classics-long-ago as “The Line.” And though yours is the last such unit that would need extra percussion, the contributions of Manolo Badrena are seamlessly wired into your rhythm machine. You’re Ahmad Jamal and we’re just about as satisfied with your life right now as you are. (Thank you, Jimmy Cannon and may your own termite artistry soon be rediscovered.)
2.) Steve Coleman & Five Elements, “Functional Arrhythmias” (Pi) –And speaking of rhythm machines…First, though, a confession: Over the three or four decades alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman’s M-Base movement has been around, I could never cozy up to it; especially when it seemed intent on fashioning a kind of cerebral funk, as I prefer my funk to be pure and uncut. GIVE IT UP, PEOPLE, FOR BOOTSY’S RUBBER BAAAAAANNNND!!!! But I digress…If Coleman’s aesthetic principles have led to this ultra-sophisticated and fearsomely versatile aggregation of bassist Anthony Tidd, drummer Sean Rickman, guitarist Miles Okazaki and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, then I need to rethink, if not revoke, my earlier skepticism. As the titles of both the disc and its contents (e.g. “Sinews”, “Cerebrum Crossover”, “Cardiovascular”) imply, the intent here is to strike a polyrhythmic, harmonically complex connection with human physiology. It’s a smart idea (inspired, as Coleman says, by the example of drummer Milford Graves). But the intelligence behind the concept isn’t as conspicuous as its vigorous application. The band members are locked into each other’s frequencies and their interaction glides, strides, twists and meshes in the same manner as an abstract painting or modern dance piece. Coleman and Finlayson’s front-line conversations have a riveting yin-yang quality that places them at or near the high-end spectrum of such similar sax-horn confabs as Bird and Diz, Trane and Miles and Coleman’s namesake (if not relative) Ornette and Don Cherry. This disc has all the brains, and then some, of Coleman’s body-of-work. But it’s also got an unexpected surplus of — well, you know – heart.
3.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Brooklyn Babylon” (New Amsterdam) – Having spent twenty thrilling years inhabiting the Beautiful Borough as it made the awkward, irrepressible leap from hipster incubator to Promised Land, I can testify that one of the many things that fascinate even the most casual Brooklyn bystander is the ongoing tension between its gilded skyscraping aspirations and its wait-till-next-year past lives. This 17-part suite for an 18-piece orchestra conflates Brooklyn’s past, present and (potential) future into what amounts to a steampunk fantasy novel of the mind. Argue’s epic tells the story of a master carpenter named Lev who, in a dystopian future (or alternate present), is commissioned to build a carousel atop a tower whose immensity could obliterate whatever‘s left of Brooklyn’s old-soul romance. The music aims as high as that mythical tower and you can feel yourself ascending on its surging waves of energy. But the suite doesn’t just go up; it spreads out to encompass different cultures from Eastern Europe to Latin America to the Middle East, keeping a fingertip or two on all-American swing and/or rock. You could follow Argue’s story or project one of your own upon its volatile contours. As with the only science fiction that matters, “Brooklyn Babylon” is lavishly hypothetical, strangely familiar and recognizably human in the grandest and grubbiest terms.
4.) Etienne Charles, “Creole Soul” (Culture Shock) – Jazz’s grow-or-die imperative has found its most gratifying adherents among 30-and-under musicians willing to use what they’ve learned of the music’s basics as springboards to more adventurous or exotic compounds. Charles, who just turned 30 this year, is a Trinidad-born trumpeter who received much of his education at Florida State and Juilliard and was inspired by the examples set at both institutions respectively by Marcus Roberts and Wynton Marsalis in re-energizing the music’s mainstream traditions. He retains some of Marsalis’ sound in his horn. But it’s the multicultural, polyrhythmic setting of this zesty, spicy gumbo that makes Charles’ music sound like exactly no one else’s. With a formidable array of young instrumentalists and percussionists as backup, Charles immerses himself in the varied strains of Caribbean pop – reggae, mambo, conga, even Gulf Coast R&B – to put together an mélange of electro-boogie, calypso and funk. Traditionalists can growl, snap and dismiss it all as “slick” pop. But the music they cherish has a far better chance for long-term survival with a sensibility willing to invite Monk (“Green Chimneys”), Marley (“Turn Your Lights Down Low”) and Bo Diddley (“You Don’t Love Me”) to the same house party and give each of them the respect and elbowroom they deserve. And, by the way, he also serves up melodies that stick to your head like Post-It notes reminding you what music is for.
5.) David Weiss, “Endangered Species: The Music of Wayne Shorter” (Motema) –Weiss, who also holds down a trumpeter’s chair here, leads a 12-piece murderer’s row of first-rank instrumentalists that includes trombonist Steve Davis, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Tim Green, drummer E.J. Strickland and the incomparable pianist Geri Allen in celebrating the legacy and (though recorded live a year earlier at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola) 80th birthday of the Greatest Living Jazz Composer. They do not come to merely pay homage. That would be too much like church and the guy they’re honoring is far from finished. (See below.) Weiss instead leads his cadre on a reconnaissance mission probing the less-heralded (as in least-covered) pieces of the Shorter oeuvre as a means of illuminating its orchestral possibilities. The recital opens your eyes from the jump with “Nellie Bly,” which the always-surprising Mr. Weird wrote very early in his career when he was sitting in Maynard Ferguson’s reed section and now comes across as one of the more ornately conceived barn-burners ever lit. Even the most familiar of these selections, the inscrutably haunting ballad “Fall,” is given a rich, harmonically-layered treatment that inspires glistening fire-and-ice variations from Allen, Coltrane and, especially, Pelt. As widely acknowledged as Shorter’s writing brilliance has been over generations, it takes a classic setting such as this to reaffirm both the sturdiness and suppleness of Shorter’s melodies e.g., they endure and you can do almost anything you want with them.
6.) Matthew Shipp, “Piano Sutras” (Thirsty Ear) – If progressive jazz pianists carried the same renegade credibility in pop culture as heavy-metal rock guitarists, Matthew Shipp would be a biker’s tattoo by now. Twenty-something years is a long time to be an Angry Young Man. But the customary rules don’t apply to Shipp, who at age 53 can still wield a thorny club with swaggering panache, both on- and off-stage. His jazz-outlaw persona packs dual reserves of intensity and insolence; the latter, especially, gets him noticed in jazz circles when it’s directed at such elder statesmen as Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett – the latter of whom could, ironically enough, match Shipp on whatever Mr. Cranky meter that’s available. For whatever it’s worth, I think Shipp’s uncompromising, mostly unsung insurgency gives him better reason to complain than Jarrett. He even released a “Greatest Hits” compilation earlier this year that made an impassioned what-the-eff-more-do-I-have-to-do case for his artistry. Still, this solo recital, meditative, prickly and ingenious, is an even more persuasive brief on Shipp’s behalf. It literally stomps, like the step-master of an unruly fraternity, to its own beat, piling dense tone clusters and weaving thick harmonic passages into eccentric, arresting patterns. On such pieces as “Cosmic Shuffle” and “Uncreated Light,” Shipp indulges his combative impulses before giving way to lyrical rumination. Though he may seem at times to be an unrepentant churl, Shipp’s “Sutras” remind listeners that, whatever hard things he may have to say, or play, at a given moment, he’s not inclined to stay mad – or stay anything else – for very long. (I bet he’s still happy, though, that I ranked this disc ahead of the next one.)
7.) Wayne Shorter Quintet, “Without a Net” (Blue Note) –As I said (maybe) earlier this year, the more I’ve listen to it, the deeper its mysteries grow; almost to the point of making me wonder whether there’s anything more to this group’s colloquies than mysteries for their own sake. Then, I try to tell myself what Shorter, in his way, is telling everybody else: that questions and answers are often the same thing. And I’ll go, yes, but…This incessant give-and-take between my ears is why “Without a Net,” for all its insistence on keeping secrets, stays on this list, no matter what. Give me another month or two and it’ll likely be back in the top five, but for the moment….
8.) The Claudia Quintet, “September” (Cuneiform) – Because I am an easy mark for crafty historical gimmicks, I was piped aboard this vessel by a number called “September 29th, 1936: ‘Me Warn You’,” in which the voice of FDR, sarcastically chiding his Republican fat-cat opposition for their empty promises of out-dealing the New Deal, is carved up, sampled, mixed, mimicked and harmonized with throughout by this eclectic chamber ensemble led by percussionist John Hollenbeck and featuring Chris Speed on reeds, Matt Moran on vibes, Red Wierenga on accordion and either Drew Gress or Chris Tordini on bass. Once you get past the wonder of hearing instrumental correlatives to Roosevelt’s memorable pipes and recognize the sly contemporary references being made by this juxtaposition, you start to wonder if the joke is being carried a little too far – until, about seven minutes in, when the group, collectively and individually, starts laying down its own cheeky variations on the president’s joke. This open-ended interplay typifies the rest of the album – a series of sound mosaics and tone poems devoted to the month that Hollenbeck prefers to use as time for reflection and contemplation. There’s a witty birthday salute to the unavoidable Mr. Shorter (“September 9th Wayne Phases”), a deep-dyed autumnal ballad (“September 25th Somber Blanket”) and, inevitably, a 9/11 piece (“September 12th Coping Song”) that closes the disc on with introspection that never becomes maudlin. It’s taken me longer than it probably should to have climbed aboard Claudia’s bandwagon and I’m still not sure why this particular one did the trick. But I plan to check back with them.
9.) Chucho Valdes, “Border Free” (Jazz Village) – I hope he wont take this the wrong way, but it must be said up-front: This man is a beast, a monster, an unstoppable force-of-nature – and, to be sure, a supreme virtuoso. But his is the kind of virtuosity that, rather than swooping down from thin air, blows the doors open to his listeners, making them run en masse towards him and scream for more. (Just listen to the first five minutes of “Congadanza” and you’ll know exactly what I mean. The last four are pretty “wow”, too.) Valdes is also a paragon among 70-something artists who seem to be gaining in raw power and messianic force with age. He and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers aren’t just wearing down the all-but-fragmented barriers between hard bop and Latin jazz; they’re also expanding rhythmic horizons towards Native American (“Afro-Comanche”) and Andalusian (“Abdel”) sources of inspiration. He also takes time out to honor both his pianist father (“Bebo”) and his late mother (“Pilar”) in ways that make his Cuban homeland vivid and stirring. OK, so he gets a little carried away at times with the occasional Rachmaninoff reference and melodramatic flourish. So long as you can still keep up with the stories, what do they matter?
10.) Gerry Gibbs, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, “Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio” (Whaling City Sound) – If I had Barron, a grandmaster of jazz piano, and Carter, the greatest bassist alive, at my disposal, I bet even I could complete a dream trio with a frying pan, a crockpot and a pair of wooden spoons. But Gibbs, who’s been following in his vibraphonist father Terry’s footsteps by leading his own big band, brings his own aggressive sound, far-reaching chops and orchestrator’s instincts to this session, giving these two demigods a wide-open frame for their immense resources to roam like wolves. The result is a surprising rarity: a piano trio album delivering music with the heft and momentum of a larger ensemble, thanks mostly to the prodigious balance of power and flexibility coming through Gibbs’ trap set. Along with the usual stops (“Epistrophy,” “Impressions,”), the trio shines new light on works by McCoy Tyner (“When I Dream”) and Herbie Hancock (“The Eye of the Hurricane,” “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”). The biggest revelations, however, come from the pop book: that old mid-1960s warhorse, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and, most especially “Promises, Promises,” whose sleek mounting and seamless arrangement here showcase Carter and Barron’s mastery of tempo and changes while delivering what may be the most effective jazz take yet on a Burt Bacharach tune.
HONORABLE MENTION: Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw, “Winter Morning Walks” (ArtistShare) Marc Cary, “For the Love of Abbey” (Motema) Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran, “Hagar’s Song” (ECM) Joe Lovano UsFive, “Cross Culture” (Blue Note) Geri Allen, “Grand River Crossings” (Motema) Bill Frisell, “Big Sur” (Okeh) Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow, “Trios” (ECM) Wadada Leo Smith & Tumo, “Occupy the World” (Tum) Ben Allison, “The Stars Look Very Different Today” (Sonic Camera) Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Gamak” (ACT) Fred Hersch & Julian Lage, “Free Flying” (Palmetto) Art Pepper, “Unreleased Art, Vol. VIII: Live at the Winery, September 6, 1976” (Widow’s Taste) Matt Mitchell, “Fiction” (Pi)
BEST NEW ARTIST: Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, “Moment & the Message” (Pi)
BEST VOCALIST: Gregory Porter, “Liquid Spirit” (Blue Note) HONORABLE MENTION: Youn Sun Nah, “Lento” (ACT)
BEST LATIN ALBUM: “Creole Soul” HONORABLE MENTION: “Border-Free”
My live-music drought ended last week as I attended a couple of club dates associated with the DC Jazz Festival. I saw Cyrus Chestnut at the Hamilton and couldn’t decide whether I was more astonished at how much better he’s gotten at this piano-trio thing or that he’s now months shy of his 50th birthday. (Watching him be clever, engaging and soulful at the same time makes me think he not only compensates for Mulgrew Miller’s absence, but Dave Brubeck’s, too.) I also made my long-overdue first trip to the Bohemian Caverns on U Street to hear the seemingly unstoppable Pharaoh Sanders lead his secular-spiritual congregation in song. (His tenor doesn’t have a fastball any more, but it can still pull a high, hard one out of thin air when he needs it.)
But the best jazz performance I saw this past week wasn’t affiliated with the festival. It was Saturday night at Wolf Trap as Dr. William Henry Cosby Jr. had the Filene Center stage all to himself, sharing it with no one but a pair of sign-language specialists trading off translation duty for the whole two-and-a-half-hours-with-no-intermission-whatsoever show. He spent the whole time talking, just talking…in roughly the same manner that Ben Webster or Pee Wee Russell were just groping for notes on their respective instruments.
Now before I go on…
It’s become a conditioned reflex, especially on the Internet, to acknowledge anything with the words, “Bill Cosby”, as a prelude to (or occasion for) sanctimony or indignation. He has, within the last decade, gone from being an ecumenically beloved entertainer to a polarizing figure, especially within the African American community, whose adults he has challenged or chastised, depending on how you hear him submit his case, to take greater responsibility for their children’s well-being and education. Some believe he speaks the truth that few want to hear while others think he speaks with the haughty arrogance of the wealthy. Then again, even if he hadn’t brought all this up, people will still say he’s haughty and arrogant only because he IS wealthy. Take your pick, brothers and sisters: A passionate “race man” using his power and fame to staunch long-festering socio-cultural wounds with astringent medicine or just another plutocrat playing his own version of that venerable board game, “Blame the Victim.”
I say, with a clear conscience: Whatever. I’ve heard and, at times, even said some of the same things Cosby has about community responsibility — and been resoundingly, unanimously ignored for my trouble. On the other hand, if the Michael Eric Dysons of the world want to rip Cosby a new one, it’s no skin off my ass nose. I don’t have an investment in Bill Cosby the public scourge, philanthropist, educator and TV icon. I am, however, quite weary of the way all these other classifications further diminish or obscure the enduring artistry of a master storyteller adjusting his craft to the pressing demands of age and time.
After all, just about everything I’ve ever learned about narrative development didn’t begin with my reading Dickens or Chekhov or even Garcia Marquez. It began with my exposure to Cosby’s LPs of the 1960s. If all you remember of the first “Fat Albert” story from the 1967 LP, Revenge, is that damned “Hey-Hey-Hey!”, then you’re part of this problem. What I remember is that part of the track where Cosby’s recalling the time he tried to get a rise out of Albert by pushing, shoving and jamming him up several flights of stairs leading to a dimly-lit, horror-movie cut-out of a monster. All the while, the younger Cosby’s anticipating the hilarity that will ensue when jovial Albert is frightened out of his wits. The build-up climaxes with the appearance of the scarifying cutout, punctuated by this sound: “AAARRRRAAAUWWGH” (or something to that effect).
Then there’s a pause, not long, but spacious enough to allow Cosby to say, as blankly and blandly as possible: “I forgot I was behind him.” The sentence stands there, suspended in mid-air. Forty-plus years later, I’m still trying to write something as immaculately framed and timed as that.
Watching Cosby work at Wolf Trap (and he’s been touring with most of this material for some time now), I’m aware that, at 75, his build-ups and pay-offs don’t have that same giddyap they did when he was the 28-year-old phenom able to connect his North Philadelphia childhood memories with the world-at-large either through the telling little detail (“idiot mittens”) or the plausibly implausible exaggeration (“Nine-hundred cop cars!”) And yet, paraphrasing his late friend Dizzy Gillespie, Cosby has benefited from a lifetime’s experience in learning what NOT to say and when NOT to say it. So he now uses bigger frames and larger spaces, letting them do more of the work than the words. Most comedians (and musicians) temper their deliveries, slow their rolls as they age without showing any lapses in their command of time and space. And Cosby, a far more formidable rhythm master as a public speaker than as an actual drummer (by his own admission), can make an evening zoom by while seeming to amble along in measured, deliberate steps. How he’s managed to fill amphitheaters with this slow-hand delivery in the digital age is both a major mystery and a minor miracle.
I’d heard the centerpiece story before: An epic ramble about his eldest daughter’s misadventures with higher education – though I suspect he has by now conflated the experiences with other offspring. He braided this version with other, comparably familiar narrative strands. For instance, how a girlfriend, with the emphasis on the last syllable, changes everything, including the balance of domestic power, upon becoming a spouse. (Yes, Camille comes in for yet more ridicule, but something tells me she enables this treatment — up to what point I suppose we’ll never really know.) Then there are the vagaries of being rich and influential. (Upon asking the president of a college to which his daughter seeks admission whether he could use a hospital, the president asks, “And just how bad were those SAT scores, Mr. Cosby?”) He’s gotten cuffed over the last thirty years for leaning on this persona, to which one can only say that he has as much right, even a duty, to mine material from his rich-and-influential life. He was the lovable curmudgeon throughout, yet the evening was generally sanctimony-free – unless you count his rendering of a college graduation in which the top two students of the class, both foreign-born, accepted their diplomas with circumspection and restraint, while the relative underachievers went into ever-more-elaborate variations of the end-zone celebration. Grouchy or not, the displays made their point, each marking one of the precious few times he got up from his chair.
I’ve read elsewhere that 90 minutes is usually his limit. But the fact that he went over his anticipated two-hour time allotment suggests he was enjoying himself. And maybe these concerts are now his down time from being pressed for commentary about families and education. There are worse ways to blow off steam than frolicking with sound the way a painter plays with light. Hardly anyone thinks of Bill Cosby in such aesthetic terms. And it may be partly his fault that more people don’t. But they should.