Archives for category: Jazz

offrampThis is relatively early Metheny (from his third album, Offramp), but it’s one of his best and has stood the test of time.  It’s a slow-burner lasting more than eight minutes – perhaps that’s the reason for the title as the listener must be patient while the underlying changes work through.  Acting like a continuo part, the rhythm guitar, bass and percussion provide the harmonic basis for improvisation, but also (along with some wispy counter-melodies on top) sets the mood and the pace of the piece from the outset. It’s more than a riff, it’s an ostinato that plays out over a very long timescale. Compared to a typical 12 bar blues, the complete cycle of changes spans 48 bars before it repeats, divided (after the eight bars of introduction) into two sections of sixteen bars followed by two sections of eight bars.  The entire 48 bar sequence is used three times, the first as backing for a harmonica-sounding keyboard solo, and the second and third for Metheny’s extended guitar-synth solo. Because of this timespan it’s hard to keep track of exactly where you are until you get to know the piece.

The overall architecture is a gradual build up to a climax, and then a slight easing off at the end (at least in the recorded version – played live the build is often maintained right until the slow coda). Aside from the obvious rise in volume and the growing intensity of Metheny’s solo, this is achieved by various means. The ostinato part changes gradually, for instance with additional rhythm on high keyboards for the second repeat, and the bass part gradually broadens out until it’s revealed as a full bossa-nova like line (a little reminiscent of Horace Silver’s Song For My Father).  Then there are two modulations as the sequences complete, racking the key up a semitone each time.

There are comparisons to be made here with minimalist music, perhaps, but also with Ravel’s Bolero, in which the melody lines similarly unwind over very long phrases on top of an ostinato grouped over two 18-bar sections which alternate. Interestingly, “Are You Going With Me?” also works surprisingly well as an orchestral piece – at least when lovingly transcribed and played (in 2003) by the Netherlands-based Metropole Orchestra with Pat Metheny himself as the soloist.

ShawThe clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw was born in 1910 and lived right through to the end of 2004, when he died aged 94. His recording career, however, was much shorter. Shaw was never comfortable with the idea of fame and never got on well with the music industry and his record labels. He even had to fight RCA over the idea of recording his biggest hit “Begin the Beguine” in 1938, which they would only issue as a “B” side. Ironically, when it became a huge seller anyway, Shaw couldn’t handle all the attention, and in November 1939 he walked off the bandstand at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania and disappeared to Mexico for a few months to escape. That time, however, he was back within a year, performing and recording again. But he couldn’t bear the idea of having to play his popular successes again and again, and always resented audiences that wanted to hear “Beguine” rather than anything new he was working on.

So, in 1954, after a 30 year playing career, he put down his clarinet and never played it again. The final gig, with his quintet The Gramercy Five, was in October 1954 at the Embers Club in New York on 52nd Street. Four months earlier, while the group (with a slightly different lineup) was playing in one of the less important bars within the Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas, Shaw had booked a studio in Hollywood and made his last records. These eventually appeared on a ten-inch LP, Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five (volume 3), issued by Clef Records. (They have since been remastered and reissued as a collection). Initially, however, Shaw had to fund the session himself because no record company was interested.

“Yesterdays” is a Jerome Kern ballad that Shaw had previously played in orchestral guise (He was for a while Kern’s son-in-law). The song, which comes from the same show as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, has been popular with jazz musicians because of its strong chord progression, including the distinctive chromatic descent in the second four bars. Shaw, as well as Hank Jones on piano and Joe Puma on guitar, play freely and fluidly well beyond the melody, but best of all is the sound – they are playing quietly with the blend of a chamber ensemble in mind. Shaw had already recorded classical repertoire, but was more eclectic and thoughtful in his classical activities than his rival Benny Goodman. The influence shows here, along with elements of bebob – this was five years before Miles Davis brought the idea of chamber jazz to the attention of a wider audience with Kind of Blue. It shows Shaw at the very peak of his form – which appears to be one of the reasons why he quit. “There comes a point at which you say, Holy Christ, that’s all you can do on this instrument,” Shaw told Gary Giddins. ”There was no point after that”.

thedukeRegular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy finding influences that cross musical genres and boundaries. Dave Brubeck, a classically-trained jazz musician, should be ideal subject matter – but in the case of this piece I think the received wisdom has gone a bit too far. “The Duke”, dedicated to Duke Ellington, was first recorded on Brubeck’s 1955 LP Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool, but probably the best version is the one for solo piano on Brubeck Plays Brubeck, issued by Columbia Records a year later. That’s the version that Miles Davis heard and gave to Gil Evans to orchestrate for a 19 piece band on the Miles Ahead album of 1957 – an arrangement which Brubeck loved. It’s a beautifully relaxed piece with an inventive bass line combined with a melody that often moves in block, parallel triads, almost as if the spread of the right hand just remains in a single position as it moves up and down the keyboard. The effect is a blurring of the harmonies and a feeling of laziness – the chords fit the convenience of the hand rather than the strict laws of harmony.

All the more surprising then, that this piece has come to be known as a relatively rare example of jazz that uses a 12-tone row (here in the opening section’s bass line). Brubeck has related how, when playing it a college concert, the head of the jazz department came up and pointed it out to him, so it seems that it was done unconsciously. But if it can be regarded as a tone row at all, it’s certainly not used in the manner of Schoenberg. The strict rules are that no notes should be repeated before the full row has been used (the underlying idea being that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are given equal weight). Brubeck does use all 12 notes but takes 21 notes to do so, with nine repeated. And one of the reasons that all the 12 notes are used up so quickly is that the predominant motion is in chromatic, semitone steps. Most importantly of all, the line is harmonized diatonically – despite the blurring effect mentioned above the underlying chord sequence itself is relatively conventional.

“The Duke” is an early Brubeck composition and it wasn’t until his later work that some of the “classical” techniques he learnt from Milhaud’s composition classes at Mills College in the 1940s started showing up. But it was clearly on his mind even then – the original title of this piece was “The Duke Meets Darius Milhaud.” In one interview, Brubeck recalled that his first group (an octet) was started in 1946 when Milhaud asked “How many of you can play jazz?” When eight raised their hands he assigned them all to write a jazz piece. They called the group Les Eight in tribute to Milhaud (who was, of course, a member of Les Six). But Milhaud wasn’t a serialist, and neither, at least at this stage in his career, was Brubeck.

Maceo Parker 03.06.2009 Opderschmelz DudelangeThis is one of those pieces that, once you’ve seen it performed live, a recording just won’t do. I saw Maceo Parker at the Monterey Jazz Festival on Saturday, September 20 2008, and it was the first time I really understood what funk was about. Parker, a saxophonist, was a sideman for James Brown before he went solo. His music sets up a groove and then explores it, usually over a period of eight to ten minutes. At Monterey I particularly remember the performance of “To be or not to be”, something of a set piece for him. Parker occasionally says the words “To be or not to be – what?”, and towards the end (in many performances, including at Monterey in 2008) he brings out his manager, Natasha Maddison, to recite the whole soliloquy in her English accent while the groove continues underneath. After a while the (somewhat redundant) chant “we’re gonna make it funky, now”, is introduced.

The song – if that’s what it is – has one chord throughout, but it never needs to modulate. The tension ebbs and flows through a variety of means – dynamics, instrumentation and utter preciseness from the brass section contrasted with free jazz improvisation from the sax and guitar, for instance. So many elements, including the sparse vocals, contribute to the complexity of the rhythm. At the performance I remember thinking that the 65 year-old Parker was controlling everything, including the choreography of the band, as strictly as any conductor. The energy was astonishing and the audience completely captured. A recording can’t duplicate that. Luckily there are some videos of live performances, and this one, dating from three years before the appearance I saw, gives at least some idea of what it was like to be there – although unfortunately it doesn’t include the soliloquy.

9781843838982I was completely surprised this morning by an article in the Wall Street Journal reviewing a new book: Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande, by Stephen Lloyd. Although I was aware Lloyd had been researching Lambert, I didn’t realize that the book was due out. I ordered a copy immediately.

This isn’t the only book on Lambert. Richard Shead wrote the first biography in 1973 – it was good, but rather brief, and probably constrained as to what he could say, as many of those featured in it were still alive. Poet Andrew Motion published a much larger tome – The Lamberts – in 1986, but in that book Constant had to share the limelight with his painter father George and his son Kit (best known as manager of The Who). I haven’t seen Lloyd’s book yet, but the page count (622!), the table of contents and the author’s musical credentials suggest that this will be the most thorough account yet.

My own interest in Lambert dates from a tour I took part in of his Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments (1931) at the University of Keele in the early 1980s – Peter Dickinson was the pianist. I played percussion. The Concerto is a jazz-influenced chamber work that’s savage rather than smooth and with instrumentation influenced as much by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire than by jazz bands – although Lambert was also a huge enthusiast of the music of Duke Ellington. From there I wrote a thesis on Lambert and reconstructed the score of his final ballet Tiresias, which was missing at the time. That work eventually resulted in a performance (in 1996, I think) of Tiresias on Radio 3, organized by Piers Burton Page (the first performance since the early 1950s), and in turn that piqued the interest of David Lloyd Jones, who went on to record the work for Hyperion in 1999. I was lucky enough to be at the recording session in Leeds Town Hall. So I’m really looking forward to reading the new book.

joemeekLonnie Donnegan’s skiffle cover of Rock Island Line, recorded with the Chris Barber Jazz Band in July 1954, is often credited as the cornerstone of the boom in UK blues and rock that emerged in the 1960s. That interest was also marked by Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock reaching the UK charts in January 1955, four months before it made the charts in the US. But a year later came a third landmark, which like Rock Island Line came from the jazz world. Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues was recorded in London on April 20, 1956 at Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park. After the recording, Lyttleton promptly went on holiday and left the mixing of the record to producer Denis Preston – who in turn left the work to his engineer, Joe Meek (shown above at the Lansdowne Studio mixing desk).

Meek – who went on to become a seminal producer of pop records in the 1960s – boosted up the bottom end of the distinctive piano riff played by Johnny Parker, and also pushed Stan Greig’s brushes right up in the mix. Lyttleton says he would have stopped the recording going out if he’d heard a test pressing, but by the time he got back from his holiday it was number 19 in the charts, and stayed there for six weeks – the first British jazz record to reach the Top Twenty – so he kept his mouth shut.

The immediate thing that strikes you on listening to the piece today is the resemblance of the piano riff to Paul McCartney’s playing on Lady Madonna. McCartney always cited Fats Domino as his main influence for the song. But Bad Penny Blues came out on the Beatles’ Parlophone label, where George Martin was the A&R man at the time. And British jazzers Ronnie Scott and Harry Klein were also brought in to play saxophone on Lady Madonna.

under milkThe suite Under Milk Wood is often cited as evidence that not all British Jazz in the 1950s and 1960s was just a pale imitation of its US counterpart. In fact Stan Tracey – who sadly died, aged 86, on December 6th – cited Duke Ellington as his biggest influence, and while house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s from 1959 until the late 1960s provided backing for some of the biggest US front men, including Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster. (Getz was unappreciative, prompting on stage bickering, but Rollins was the opposite, commenting to the audience: “Doesn’t anyone here know how good he is?”). Despite that, in the 1960s Tracey began forging a very un-American sounding jazz, first with the New Departures Quartet LP (particularly the evocative “Culloden Moor”), and then with Under Milk Wood, inspired by Dylan Thomas.

It’s perhaps dangerous to make too much of the poetry-jazz connection. Certainly some joint gigs with poet Michael Horowitz encouraged the kind of improvisation-based mood pieces found on both LPs. And the prose that inspired the best known track of the suite, “Starless and Black Bible”, is every bit as musical in its effect as Thomas’s poetry:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping

But Tracey – famously a man of very few words – was dismissive of any kind of close link between the music and the literature. He first heard the audio recording made by the author himself. “I was very taken with it and thought it would be a good idea to base a suite on the characters or places”, he told Alyn Shipton. But, he went on, “you end up with the music….and you make your own pictures”. And it’s hard to hear any specific influence on the music from the rhythm of the words, as some commentators have suggested. The importance, though, is that the starting point results in a very different perspective from any US models.

Essentially an improvisation with close interplay between Tracey’s distinctive and slightly menacing piano and the lyrical playing of tenor sax player Bobby Wellins, “Starless and Black Bible” establishes an appropriately melancholy mood using the slightest of means – an initial theme and short chord sequence, followed by a series of downward scales from Wellins that soon leads to a harmonic resting point on what sounds something like the dominant harmony. Then there’s a return to the opening theme and sequence. The music has survived to this day, despite patchy availability, with Tracey in the end having to issue the piece on his own record label.

Ash and KleinBritish jazz, like British rock and roll, often gets a bad press, or no press at all. Rob Young’s excellent book on folk music, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, includes a chapter on the rise of the outdoor music festival, culminating in Glastonbury. These now blockbusting events evolved from early jazz meetings in the 1950s and early 1960s such as the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. Young recounts that the fifth Beaulieu Festival, held over the Bank Holiday weekend in July 1960 (on the private grounds of Lord Montagu’s Hampshire estate) was the scene of some agitation over the so-called “jazz wars”, prompting Lord Montagu to discontinue the festival and Melody Maker to accuse some audience members as being “weirdies”. He writes:

It’s hard to credit now, but the riot that gave rise to the Maker’s condemnation was a clash between fans of trad-jazz clarinetist Acker ‘Stranger on the Shore’ Bilk and adherents of the foundation-shaking new thing of …Johnny Dankworth.

Accounts differ, but it seems that the band that initially sparked off the trouble was not in fact Dankworth, but the Jazz Five, headed by tenor sax player Vic Ash and baritone player Harry Klein. Teenagers stormed the stage and tried to grab hold of Klein. Acker Bilk’s trad band was called on to play for over an hour to pacify the protestors. Two months later, the Jazz Five recorded The Five of Us in London, so we have a contemporary record of the music they were playing at Beaulieu. The group (which also included Brian Dee on piano, Malcome Cecil on bass and Tony Mann on drums), were influenced by Horace Silver, and used the interplay between Ash’s tenor sax and Klein’s surprisingly agile baritone as their distinctive calling-card. These extended, inventive sets include plenty of originals, such as “Hootin’ (from Ash), which inspired the retitling of the LP for its US release as The Hooter.

Although largely forgotten today, The Jazz Five were the most prominent jazz group in the UK after the demise of the Jazz Couriers. They lasted until 1962, playing on the UK tours of the Miles Davis Quintet in 1960 – Davis apparently commented “I dig your group” – and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Later in their careers Klein and Ash made their livings as fairly anonymous session musicians. Klein was one of the sax players on “Lady Madonna” by The Beatles, and Ash played for Frank Sinatra on his European and Middle Eastern tours from 1970 up until Sinatra’s death.

Ironically Bilk (supposedly representing the fading music of the past in the jazz wars), is still well known to this day. In January 1960, a year before Stranger brought him international fame, his more typical trad style single “Summer Set” (word play referring to his home county, Somerset – Bilk’s nickname ‘Acker’ is Somerset slang for ‘friend’), reached number five in the British charts. It was the first of a run of eleven Top 50 hit singles. Now in his eighties, Bilk continues to tour today, despite some ill health recently.

Update 1 This neglected period of British music is covered in-depth by the book Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975, by Duncan Heining. Unfortunately it’s very expensive and (one year after its original publication) there’s no indication that a paperback is on its way.

Update 2 Acker Bilk sadly died on November 2, 2014. His last concert was in August 2013.

sundayA short visit to the London Library recently yielded a few more details about the elusive amateur song composer Wallace Southam. I still don’t have his dates, but trawling through books on his friend Lawrence Durrell reveals that he and his wife Anne were in Athens in the late 1930s, where they met Durrell and his wife Nancy. Southam was apparently an executive with Shell Oil at the time, but one reference maintains that he was working for the British Council, and helped Durrell gets some temporary work there. After Durrell’s daughter Penelope was born on June 4, 1940, the Southams opened up their house to Nancy and Larry for a few weeks while Nancy was recuperating. After that, there’s nothing in the Durrell literature until the late 1960s, when Southam re-emerges in London, this time helping Durrell put together a musical (both words and music by Durrell) called Ulysses Come Back.

That reference led to a few other threads. The most interesting was his apparent association with Bernard Stone, the poet, bookshop owner and publisher. Stone (1924-2005) ran the Turret Book Shop on Kensington Church Walk in London (where Durrell was a regular visitor), and Southam apparently set up his own recording company, Jupiter Records, in the same place. In February 1967 Durrell, then living in France, visited London to meet with Southam and Stone to discuss bringing out some of Southam’s settings of Durrell’s poetry. A year later, on February 15, 1968, a concert was held – Jupiter and Turret at the Wigmore Hall: New Jazz and Modern Poetry – featuring two settings of Durrell poems, Lesbos and In Arcadia, along with other songs by Erich Fried, George Rapp, John Tavener, George MacBeth and Patrick Gowers. Turret Records was also the issuer – in May 1969 – of Southam’s most substantial publication – Songs of a Sunday Composer, containing settings of Auden, Belloc, Donne, Housman, Yeats and others, as well as Durrell. It was issued in a limited edition of 300 copies.

There’s little else I can find other than a few additional publications. Play Songs, a score with percussion parts by the music educationalist Avril Dankworth (sister of John Dankworth) came out in 1967, published by Feldman. A Day to Remember is a children’s picture book by Bernard Stone with a carol by Southam (“The Christmas Message”) included at the end. It was published by the Four Winds Press in 1981. And finally, so far as I can see, was the 1986 publication of Poems for Clocks by the poet Edward Lucie-Smith (Southam had already set Lucie-Smith’s poem Silence in 1967), again published by Turret Books.

sweet1My image of Mike Gibbs as a “difficult” jazz composer took a bit of a knock as I was researching this piece. It turns out that, early in his career, Gibbs was asked by Bill Oddie to act as the musical director of the BBC television comedy show The Goodies, a task he undertook for five years between 1969 and 1974. (There wasn’t a great deal of music in The Goodies aside from the theme music and the fake adverts they used to include).

There’s no doubt that Gibbs has some pretty serious influences though – Gil Evans, Charles Ives and Messiaen are three often cited, and Gibbs studied at the Berklee School of Music from 1959 where he became friends with the vibraphonist Gary Burton and studied with Gunther Schuller and George Russell. In 1966 he had the chance for further study at the famous Tanglewood Summer School with Aaron Copland, Xenakis, Schuller and Lukas Foss. I was reminded of Gibbs while revisiting Sweet Rain, the 1967 album by Stan Getz . The title track, brought to Getz’s attention by Burton, is a Gibbs composition, later also recorded by Burton and by Gibbs himself.

Getz’s version is something of a miracle, effortlessly spanning the gap between free jazz and gentle ballad. Getz achieves this partly because of his beautiful sound, but also through his effortless improvisation over the complex, ambiguous harmonies. Beguiled by the sound, we don’t notice the distance we are traveling. The theme itself is an unusual ten bars long, and while the first four bars are the most distinctive part of the melody, it plays above a harmonic no-mans land. Only at bar 4 do we get to a recognizable cadence, establishing what turns out to be the tonic key, Db. Then follows a sequence, upwards in the melody, downwards in the bass spanning the next two bars, then back to the “tonic” Db major 7th chord on bar 7. Bars 7 to 10 linger on four rich jazz chords with a pedal note held on the tonic Db. In one interview, Gibbs called these ‘Hollywood chords’: “I know it’s syrupy, but I love it”, he said.

These three more easily recognizable signposts – the first cadence, the sequence, and the Hollywood chords – serve as anchor points for the improvisations that follow – Getz over the next four 10-bar changes, Corea for the following three, then back to Getz for one more change of improvisation before the theme returns. They counteract the instability of the 10 bar change length (rather than the expected 12), and those first three bars of floating tonality (which we would typically expect to start in the home key). And the start of each set of changes is disguised even further by the fluidity of Getz’s melodic invention, backed ably by a young, pre-electric Chick Corea on piano, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Grady Tate. The album Sweet Rain, and the earlier Focus of 1961 – on which Getz improvises freely above a very strictly written out string chart composed by Eddie Sauter – are two of his greatest recordings. (The score shown above is available from this site.