Monk’s Music: Thelonious Monk

From time to time it takes me an age to write a post. Monk’s Music is a recording that is too good to hurry over but equally two months between posts is too much of a gap to be happy with. I’ve many other things to write about (not in the least the copy of Monk’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses which I managed to purchase on Record Store Day UK 2017 and which I will write about very soon). So here goes with a look at a one of the great works from a musical genius.

Recorded sixty years ago this year (2017), in his own 40th year, Monk’s Music is a masterpiece. The album was the product of a landmark recording session for which Monk engaged that trailblazer of jazz saxophone, Coleman Hawkins, alongside John Coltrane who was in the midst of a crucial, transformative phase and was yet to emerge as one of the key figures of modern jazz.

Although 1957 was to be his finest year, things had started very badly for Monk. In his definitive biography, Robin D.G. Kelley explains that during the 1956 Christmas holiday period Monk was involved in a minor car crash in New York City. Although nobody was physically injured, the incident caused Monk to suffer a mental breakdown, reception into custody for his own safety and an immediate admission as an inpatient at New York’s notorious Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. He was resident for between two and three weeks before being discharged without a diagnosis.

The period in hospital sharpened his desire to work, earn some money and, crucially, to put together a sextet with three horns: “…the right amount of horns”, as he told Ira Gitler in mid-January 1957. First came a six-night engagement in Philadelphia, being driven back and forth from New York each night by his firm friend and supporter, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

Monk spent the next couple of months with his wife and children. He countered his depression with hours of practice on the fine Steinway baby grand piano that he had rented at the end of 1956 and shoe-horned into his apartment. When he was not at home he was at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street, where Pannonica had settled and held an open musical salon in her suite. It was during this period that Monk and Coltrane began to work closely together. Monk became the saxophonist’s mentor as Coltrane attempted to improve his musicianship while struggling to overcome his addiction to heroin. Surely at that stage, the two artists could not imagine the legacies that each would go on to leave for us?

Along the way, in mid-April, Monk recorded another of his key works, Thelonious Himself, largely a solo work but with Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware contributing to a version of Monk’s Mood. A couple of days later Coltrane was fired by Miles Davis, who exasperated by Coltrane’s playing in the midst of withdrawal, may also have slapped and punched his band member. Apparently, this was witnessed by Monk who tried, without success, to intercede before offering Coltrane a job.

Their live partnership could not begin immediately as Monk was still without an all-important New York Cabaret Card which prevented him from playing in NYC. His card had been cancelled following a drugs bust several years before but his manager was working hard to get him a new one.

Just before the Monk’s Music session, his wife was admitted to hospital for treatment of an acute thyroid condition and this caused Monk an overwhelming sense of distress. In keeping with the adage ‘every cloud…’, the silver lining that was his gift to posterity was the beautiful Crepuscule With Nellie, which we will get to in a while. This was the product of sleepless nights, countless revisions and Baroness Nica’s suggestion that Crepuscule (the late Middle English word for twilight) was a better and more evocative alternative to evening for the title.

The recording begins with a short yet exquisite arrangement of Abide With Me. The hymn, which has a particular resonance for anybody who has attended an FA Cup Final was written by Monk’s namesake, British organist, William Henry Monk and entitled Eventide. Indeed there is a possibility that Monk may have made a connection with his own Crepuscule. This gem is only 55 seconds long and leaves this listener wanting more but very pleased with what has been served up in a short span.

Next up, Well, You Needn’t, starts with a swing before Monk calls on John Coltrane who delivers and exceptional solo which must have sounded like something from the future when the recording was released. The take extends to just under eleven and a half minutes and all of the musicians have space to solo.

Amongst Monk’s finest ballads, the recording of Ruby, My Dear presents a beautiful dialogue between Monk’s piano and Coleman Hawkins’ mellifluous tenor. The Ruby in question was Ruby Richardson, a significant girlfriend from Monk’s teenage years, which is when he first wrote the tune.

Off Minor has a jagged beauty that is full of surprises and is played with what my lack of theoretical musicianship leads me to venture to describe as a staccato angularity. In his sleeve notes for the 2010 CD reissue, Ashley Kahn notes that Kelley states that the tune is in G minor but that it ‘…never resolves to the tonic.’ This probably explains why it leaves us expecting something extra. The version used on the original release was the 5th take and the CD provides the bonus of an alternative version, the 4th take, which features strong though slightly less fluent and ‘worked out’ tenor and trumpet solos from Coleman and Copeland. We are lucky to have both to listen to.

Epistrophy was written by Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke in the early 1940s and it was to remain as an often visited staple of Monk’s repertoire (with Ted Gioia recording in ‘The Jazz Standards’ that over 50 recordings of the tune by Monk are known to survive). On Monk’s Music the version is a seamless splice of two takes with solos from each of the musicians starting with a fluent opening statement from Coltrane, before working through Copeland, Gryce, Ware, Blakey, Hawkins and finally Monk. Hawkins’ solo draws on his tenor’s lower register and is particularly full-bodied and robust, before Monk plays briefly and then ushers in the ensemble with an insistent caterwaul.

The afore-mentioned Crepuscule with Nellie closes the original recording. Kelley explains that unique amongst his recordings, Monk always played this without improvisation or embellishment. It is rendered as though the distilled feelings that he was conveying were sacrosanct and deeply personal. You can listen courtesy of YouTube:-

To play: touch or click on the arrow

On the CD there is an extra alternate edited version, which amalgamated the best of the 4th and 5th takes and is a welcome addition. I would venture that it possibly wasn’t selected as the master take as Blakey’s brushwork sounds a little intrusive.

As mentioned, in the lead-up to the session Monk had several sleepless nights due to worries about the poor state of his wife’s health and his search for perfection in the composition of Crepuscule. On the first day Art Blakey was an hour late and then took a further hour to set up his drum kit. Although a couple of unused takes of Crepuscule were recorded, Monk was exhausted and went home to sleep, with nothing that was used in the can. With precious studio time remaining, the other musicians rapidly rehearsed and recorded an improvisation on a Count Basie influenced blues written on the spot by Gigi Gryce. Blues For Tomorrow was subsequently released on a compilation under Coleman Hawkins name. It is fascinating to compare Hawkins solo to Coltrane’s, which he follows on from. Once again, playing in the tenor’s lower register, it almost sounds (to these ears) as though Hawkins is playing a baritone sax and he really makes the piece his own.

Monk was back next day, rested and ready to go. It was his session and he pushed his sidemen to deliver exactly what he wanted. Gryce had been tasked with arranging the horn parts and there was a gap between what he had written and what Monk had asked for. Kelley memorably recounts Monk saying to Hawkins and Coltrane:-
“You’re the great Coleman Hawkins, right? You’re the guy who invented the tenor saxophone, right?” Hawk agreed. Then Monk said to Trane, “You’re the great John Coltrane, right?” Trane blushed, and mumbled, “Aw…I’m not so great.” Then Monk said to both of them, “You both play saxophone, right?” They nodded. “Well, the music is on the horn. Between the two of you, you should be able to find it.”
Find it, they all did and the entire issued album was taped on 26 June 1957

With the session in the bag, the producer, Orrin Keepnews and label boss Bill Grauer felt that they had captured something special. Cover art was conceived but Monk hated what was proposed and was angry with the designer. The original idea was to feature a photograph of him wearing a monk’s robe, standing in a pulpit and holding a glass of whisky but Monk rejected it out of hand. He went to another part of the studio where he rested on the photographer’s trolley. The unposed image was a striking one and surprisingly Monk was happy to be photographed, adding his briefcase, music paper and a pencil and explaining that he had previously composed while sitting outside his home on his child’s wagon.

Monk got his cabaret card back in May 1957 and was booked into New York’s Five Spot venue from 4th July for what turned into a 6 month residency. He was able to honour his commitment to John Coltrane who joined him on the stage from Tuesday 16 July 1957. The classic album that is Monk’s Music was released in early 1958 and acclaimed as one of the year’s top five albums by Downbeat. I cannot recommend that you listen to it too highly. The session that produced Monk’s Music is exceptional so don’t miss the version supplemented by the additional tracks on CD.

Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original was first published by Free Press (New York) in 2009. I am grateful to have benefitted from Kelley’s scholarship and insights and commend it as an essential purchase and great read for those who are interested in Monk.

The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano); Ray Copeland (trumpet); Gigi Gryce (alto sax); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax); Wilbur Ware (bass); Art Blakey (drums ). Recorded: June 26 1957 (Blues For Tomorrow 25.06.57). Produced: Orrin Keepnews. Studio: Reeves Sound, New York City. Released: 1958. Cover photo: Paul Weller. Sleeve notes: Orrin Keepnews. Riverside RLP 12 242. Additional sleeve notes on CD release: Ashley Kahn 2010.

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Horace Parlan: 1931 to 2017

I was sorry to learn of the passing of pianist Horace Parlan on 23 February 2017, aged 86. Over the last few years, I’ve heard and enjoyed much of his work. Since writing about him in 2014, in addition to other recordings by him, I have obtained and rate highly the two albums of traditional blues and gospel songs that he recorded with Archie Shepp and released on Steeplechase in the 1970s.

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Chris Batchelor, Mark Lockheart, Liam Noble, Steve Watts & Clive Fenner: Live at East Side Jazz Club: 21 February 2017

It was astonishing! Did they really play that? You must be joking. If I hadn’t witnessed the performance given by Chris Batchelor, Mark Lockheart and their pickup rhythm section of Noble, Watts and Fenner, I wouldn’t believe the breadth of material that was covered. Although it could have been a dogs breakfast, this gig at Leytonstone’s East Side Jazz Club was a feast of many flavours, which resulted in a memorable meal with ingredients from Hollywood, New Orleans, South Africa and New York blended and served up with brilliance.

Batchelor (trumpet) and Lockheart (tenor saxophone) had played together in the 1980’s as members of the British big band Loose Tubes in a lineup that was a who’s who of emerging talents. Despite the passing of the years and involvement in multiple projects as diverse as Microgroove and Polar Bear, they demonstrate a deep understanding and connection with each other in their musical dialogue.

The band eased into the set with Angel Eyes and if they hadn’t been heard sound checking with what could have been a lively John Coltrane blues, there would be reason to fear that they would not be straying too far from well-worn standards from the 1940s and 1950s. This was followed by Fat’s Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz from 1942, the first jazz waltz to gain widespread acclaim and a ballad which could have been either Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes or Jimmy Van Heusen’s Nancy With The Laughing Face (although it could have been something else entirely- let me know if you know what it was).

Each number was given new life by the energy transfused into it by the two front men, before the fourth selection introduced a real element of surprise with Batchelor venturing back to the era of trad jazz with a Louis Armstrong tune. It wasn’t simply a case of getting away with an interesting anomaly as these musicians brought freshness to a style that I associate with a ancient breed of men playing on Sunday afternoons in dingy pubs, sometimes with banjos! (I may be unfair here). Any remaining sense of a set overly dependent on tired icons was well and truly smashed into clast fragments with an audacious version of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. I’m not regular enough at East Side to state categorically that free jazz has never featured there but I’ll wager that Batchelor, Lockheart et al took us as close to the territory favoured at Dalston’s Cafe Oto as the Leytonstone Ex-Servicemen’s club may have ever been.

After the interval expectations were further confounded with two Thelonious Monk tunes, Bemsha Swing from Brilliant Corners and the later Ugly Beauty from 1968s Underground. The band tackled these with skill and aplomb before Batchelor introduced Ages Of Mali, a township jazz tune composed by the great Dudu Pukwana who he played with in Zila when he was 17. This brought back many memories of those stalwarts of the 1980’s London scene (from the audience response, I was not alone in my enjoyment) and a dedication to Zila’s singer, the late Pinise Saul who passed away in October 2016 followed.

A further shift in mood and tempo was crafted with Jobim’s smooth I You Ever Come To Me before Harry Beckett’s Harambee was chosen as the penultimate piece. Although I did not know Harry Beckett personally I gained the deepest respect for him as, despite his eminence as an artist, he worked with and shared his love of music with the rawest of raw beginners at the much-missed Lewisham Academy Of Music, a community project which worked with all-comers walking in from 1980 to 2000. Finally, the gig concluded with Come Ye Disconsolate, a traditional gospel anthem recorded by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, which you can listen to courtesy of Youtube:-

To play click on or touch the arrow

Once again, East Side Jazz Club presented the cream of British Jazz to spice up this quiet and unpretentious part of town and Clive Fenner and his crew are to be commended for their consistent hard work to ensure that the flag is kept flying. We’ll be back there again very soon.

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The Blackbyrds: Ronnie Scott’s 15 February 2017

Although 2017 is not a leap year, here at downwithit we’ve sprung like a feisty feline on the hunt. The great Donald Byrd has led us from The Catwalk to a sellout first night of a residency at Ronnie Scott’s, costing me more of a song than sixpence and featuring The Blackbyrds as the main course.

While working on my consideration of The Catwalk and explaining how I had first started to listen to Donald Byrd when his Best Of compilation was released in 1992, I noticed that his protégés, The Blackbyrds, were playing in London in mid-February. It took seconds to hit the club website and reserve a couple of tickets. A month passed quickly and a night on the town came along to add a bit of sparkle to a late winter’s evening.

There’s always a bit of a gamble involved in going to see bands that have reformed. The Blackbyrds did so in 2012 and feature three original members in the form of powerhouse vocalist and drummer, Keith Killgo, the mighty Joe Hall on six string electric bass and Orville Saunders playing a very funky guitar.

Any misgivings were left behind at the door and a satisfying starter was served up by saxophonist Christian Brewer and his band, Brewer’s Crew. Their lively jazz funk was well received by an appreciative audience out to enjoy themselves.

After a quick rearrangement of the small stage, the main course was delivered by an octet who paved the way with their anthem, Black Byrd, which you can listen to (in the form of the original featuring Donald Byrd) courtesy of Youtube:

To play click on or touch the arrow

After a great opener, one of my personal favourites, Dominoes, followed. It led onto a delicious smorgasbord of hits including Think Twice, Time is Movin’, the inevitable Walking in Rhythm, Do It Fluid and Happy Music, not forgetting the well-loved Rock Creek Park.

There isn’t a weak link in the current Blackbyrds line-up and it is very much in keeping with Donald Byrd’s legacy as a great and inspirational music educator, that they include young talent. Paul Spires on lead vocal has a unique voice that the smart money says we will hear more of, while the sax and flute duties were delivered without fault by Elijah Balbed, a recent graduate of Washington’s Howard University, where Donald Byrd formed the band in 1973.

As the set progressed, a trickle of members of the audience began to dance and that rapidly turned into a flood as The Blackbyrds infectious and tightly delivered songbook worked its magic. Although this is their first residency there, this will surely not be the last engagement at Ronnie Scott’s for The Blackbyrds.

The gig also offered the opportunity for me to say hello to Carl Hyde, the in-house photographer at Ronnie Scott’s. I have been aware of Carl’s work for some time and you can see a sample of it for yourself on his website.

All in all, another great night at Ronnie’s!

If you like what you have read, please touch or click on the ‘like’ box. Comments are also very welcome. downwithit.info contains over 150 individual posts about Modern Jazz, which can be found by using the search box at the top of this page or by making a selection of your choice from the list at the bottom of this page, where you will also find links to other blogs and websites.

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Coltrane Plays The Blues: John Coltrane


Are you one of the many fortunate readers who has reason to visit a barber or hairdresser? If you are and they are any good, take a moment to salute them. Maria at The Clipper keeps her scissors as sharp as how I think my hairstyle looks when I walk out through her salon door. Why start with this you may wonder? Well, the reason will become clear as you read on.

John Coltrane’s life was eventful though his star burned brightly and briefly, as he passed away at the age of 41. 1960 was a particularly busy and momentous year for him though. Giant Steps was released in late January and he spent March and April touring Europe with Miles Davis. During this tour he spent hours practising soprano saxophone (some accounts say that Miles Davis bought one for him in a Paris antique store although Coltrane also said that he has bought his own instrument earlier in the year after first starting to play on one that belonged to a fellow musician).

By May 1960 he had handed his notice in to Miles Davis and his own quartet opened a 9 week residence at the Jazz Gallery in New York’s Jazz Gallery (housed in a Greenwich Village building in which Leon Trotsky had briefly lived). On the first night, Thelonious Monk and a man dressed only in a loincloth and shouting ‘Coltrane, Coltrane!’ rushed towards the stage in salutation.

He recruited McCoy Tyner in the summer and later, in September he hired Elvin Jones, who he first met in 1957. On 21 and 24 October they went into the studios to record sessions which were to yield tracks for no less than four major albums (not including compilations and retrospectives).

Amongst them was Coltrane Plays The Blues. It is often overlooked by people exploring Coltrane’s discography, perhaps because the title may make it appear to be a generic career-spanning compilation rather than as a discrete work, recorded at one particularly important time in Coltrane’s development as a leader.

Blues To Elvin is as straightforward a blues as they come, except that we are in the company of masters, with solos from Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.

Coltrane plays his soprano saxophone on Blues To Bechet, opting for a pianoless trio with Tyner sitting out. Coltrane had been working towards mastery of his soprano saxophone, a horn previously seldom heard in a modern jazz context since the late 1950s. During that period he had visited the Blue Note offices to obtain copies of Sidney Bechet recordings (you can read about this, how Blue Train came to be recorded and the strange tale of the Blue Note office cat here).

Blues To You harks back to Giant Steps with busy Coltrane solo in which he is running through the chord changes.

Delivered at a brisk tempo, Coltrane leads out on Mr Day over a piano theme tastefully played by Tyner.

The identities of the three men that Coltrane honoured in the titles of the songs on side 2 of the original vinyl release are obscured. Messrs Day and Knight may be self-explanatory (probably relating to different times of day, although if you know anything more, please let us know). Mr Syms, however, could only be linked to an actual individual and my quest to uncover who this was resulted in a long unfruitful and frustrating internet trawl. It was only when I managed to consult Porter’s excellent book that I discovered that the Mr Syms that Coltrane had in mind was his barber in Philadelphia (although Sims was also the middle name of drummer Pete La Roca). So that explains the dedication of this review to my hairdresser. The solos from Coltrane echo elements of Summertime, version of which was recorded on the same day, in the same session, and appeared on My Favorite Things.

The highlight of the set, for me, is Mr Knight, a brilliant composition on which Elvin Jones’ drumming is of particular note. It can be enjoyed on YouTube courtesy of monomotapa15

To listen touch or click on the arrow.

The CD reissue delivers five extra tracks with two alternative versions of both Blues For Elvin and Blues To You with a further number known as Untitled Original which sits in contrast to the rest of the album with its modal feel.

Coltrane Plays The Blues is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying recording which repays repeated listening and which deserves a place in any modern jazz collection. If you haven’t sought it out, you should. Of course, if you can prove to us that Mr Day and Mr Knight were people, rather than conceptual titles, please let us know without delay.

The band etc: John Coltrane (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone); McCoy Tyner (piano); Elvin Jones (drums); Steve Davis (bass). Produced: Nesuhi Ertegun. Engineer: Tom Dowd. Recorded: Rudy Atlantic Studios, New York City. 24 October 1960. Cover Design: Marty Norman- Bob Slutzky Graphics. Released: 1962. Original release: Atlantic Records 1382.

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Beyond Now: Donny McCaslin

Spare a thought for the chameleon and, perhaps a little later, after reading further, some praise. Why? Because it was the chameleon that brought us here.

The changeling that I have in mind is the late David Bowie. His 2014 single release, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) utilised a big band with Donny McCaslin to the fore on tenor saxophone. McCaslin was later to play on Bowie’s Blackstar (which contains a different rock version of Sue without much sax) where he was showcased with a solo on Dollar Days (and to a lesser extent I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Beyond Now was recorded in April 2016 following Bowie’s death in January 2016 and McCaslin states on the sleeve:-
“It was like a dream, except it was something that I could never have dreamed of. David Bowie was a visionary artist whose generosity, creative spirit, and fearlessness will stay with me the rest of my days. This recording is dedicated to him and all who loved him.”

Since the 1970s I’ve always been ready to listen to Bowie because he was a truly innovative and compelling artist. In mid-2014 I looked at a reprise of his Berlin songs recorded by Dylan Howe and it was my favourite contemporary set of the year for 2014. I’m therefore delighted that this jazz saxophonist who worked with Bowie has produced an album that he influenced. Beyond Now, which was released at the end of 2016, will be the first contemporary recording to be reviewed on downwithit.info in 2017.

Proceedings get underway with Shake Loose, a staccato funk piece that offers a great warm-up for McCaslin who covers the full range of his tenor saxophone, from high to low and back again with every stop in between. This could be a set opener as it certainly seizes the attention. I particularly enjoy the second phase, where things slow down a bit, the keyboards come in and longer notes are played.

McCaslin is content to operate as the lead accompanist on A Small Plot of Land, the first of two David Bowie tracks. Jeff Taylor supplies vocals on this ponderous version of a composition which was originally used as background to the funeral of Andy Warhol segment in the film Basquiat. The elegiac quality may possibly go some way to explaining why McCaslin chose to cover it here on an album recorded so soon after Bowie’s passing. It is a good choice, which repays repeated airings and which adds further layer of variety and texture to the album.

I need listeners to help me out on the title track, Beyond Now, as I think McCaslin is playing clarinet on the opening of this fine ballad. Jason Linder gets space to play a rather good piano solo here too.

Coelacanth 1 is a tune originally composed by Grammy Award nominated DJ and producer Deadmau5. McCaslin’s tenor paints a soundscape over long drone notes delivered from the keyboards. It is a contemplative piece in the style of so much that appears on ECM albums by the likes of Jan Gabarek.

On Bright Abyss McCaslin ranges over both the upper and lower registers of his tenor and shows that he is comfortable with the lower notes, which can often expose the limitations of lesser musicians.

McCaslin solos inventively over the increasingly frenzied straight ahead rock rhythms on FACEPLANT (uppercase sic). If Neil Cowley was to collaborate with a saxophonist, DMc would be a shoe-in for the job as this track has the same feel as some of the rockier pieces on Spacebound Apes.

With Warszawa, from Low, David Bowie and Brian Eno took us into new territory that seemed strange and somewhat challenging on a 1970’s rock album. Here, Donny McCaslin’s mournful tenor is played beautifully and this is a worthy homage to The Thin White Duke.

Glory builds slowly towards an engaging keyboard bridging section, before the saxophone comes in with overtones and sparkling upper register runs concluding with an exciting finish.

The Great American Songbook, that loose mishmash canon of jazz standards, is not known to have expanded to include the final track, but perhaps it should. Remain, originally written and recorded by Mutemath, is an exceptionally beautiful ballad, almost wistful in tone and the highlight of the album for me. It is just the sort of tune that Miles Davis could conceivably have chosen to cover in the twilight of his life. It is worth the price of admission to this set by itself. Although there are currently plenty of Donny McCaslin tracks on YouTube, at the time of writing, Remain was not one of them. However, you can hear a short slice of it on the album sampler:-

Treat yourself and play it now courtesy of YouTube. You won’t regret it.

To play, touch or click on the arrow

Donny McCaslin was born in 1966 in Santa Clara, California and was the son of a vibraphonist. He won a full scholarship to the world famous Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1984 before touring with Gary Burton’s band from 1987. In 1991 he replaced the eminent horn player, Michael Brecker in Steps Ahead and in 1998 he recorded the first of his 12 albums released to date. The Bowie link began when he was recommended by composer Maria Schneider and Bowie watched him and his band play in 55 Bar, New York City (which sounds like a must visit place in Greenwich Village).

downwithit.info will continue to cover selected contemporary CDs and Beyond Now has certainly got 2017 off to a great start. I wholeheartedly recommend this recording which has confirmed that David Bowie made an excellent choice of saxophonist for his last known projects. Cheers to The Chameleon for that and so much more!

The band etc.:- Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, clarinet); Jason Linder (keyboards); Tim Lefebvre (electric bass); Mark Guiliana (drums); supported by: Jeff Taylor (vocals- track 2); David Binney (additional synths and vocals, tracks 5 & ); Nate Wood (guitar, track 2). Recorded 4-6 April 2016. Systems Two, Brooklyn, New York. Produced by: David Binney. Recording Engineer: Mike Marciano. Mixed by: Nate Wood. Cover photo: Jimmy King. Art Direction and Design: Rebecca Meek. Issued as Motema 234310.

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The Cat Walk: Donald Byrd


Shame on me. I’m surprised to discover that I’ve not written about a session led by the great Donald Byrd here yet. Time to put that right with this set from 1961.

I searched for this recording for several years after I first heard the title track on Gilles Peterson’s shows sometime in the 1990’s. I can remember hunting through the CD racks every time I visited a shop with a sufficiently strong Jazz presence, in the hope that it would be released, before finally obtaining an expensive Japanese import when it came out there in 2000. I suppose I could have sought out a copy on vinyl but that was in pre-EBay days. Never mind, it came my way eventually.

The Cat Walk is an audible treat which melds Donald Byrd’s trumpet, the baritone of regular band mate Art Pepper and the piano, compositional and arranging skills of Duke Pearson.

Byrd’s musical output spanned a lengthy period from the early 1950’s through hard bop and then perhaps most notably, onto jazz funk. Although, most of my listening to Byrd as a leader has centred on his wonderful Best of Donald Byrd which features tracks from his later jazz funk Blue Note albums, it is this classic 1961 outing that we will take a look at here. We will start, without further ado. with the title track playing in the background.

To play, click on or touch the arrow

Say You’re Mine is one of four tunes on this set that Duke Pearson wrote or collaborated on. Donald Byrd opens with the theme and plays a lengthy solo on his muted trumpet before giving way to the rasping woody tones of Adams’ baritone saxophone. Pearson’s short solo is both delicate and delicious.

Duke’s Mixture is infused with the blues and strikes me as a tightly arranged tune rather than being a soloists vehicle. Although Byrd, Adams and Pearson get a chorus each, this is essentially a big band number played by a quintet.

The joint Duke Pearson and Donald Byrd composition Each Time I Think Of You sounds like an old school swing tune, with some great playing including a fluent, unmuted solo from Byrd.

Byrd’s own tune, The Cat Walk was inspired by the slinky, insouciant lope of a Tomcat. It is the very sort of tune that could have formed the soundtrack for a 1960’s modern dance piece and one wonders if it ever came to the attention of Donald Byrd’s namesake, an eminent choreographer. It is perhaps an earlier, second-cousin example of a jazz dance piece pre dating Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, which will probably make some explore further, while others recoil. I like it!

Cute was written by Neal Hefti, himself a trumpeter (although this was overshadowed by his contribution as an arranger for Count Basie). Philly Joe Jones is to the fore on this pacy rendition with Byrd laying down a deft solo before Adams comes in, playing lines on his baritone of a type and fluency we are more accustomed to hearing on the much smaller alto saxophone.

The set closes with Hello Bright Sunflower a final Byrd composition. It is a light and joyful breeze of a tune that, to my ears, is vaguely reminiscent of ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon.’

During the 1970’s and 1980’s a cohort of Jazz purists of a certain type were highly critical of Donald Byrd’s later work and this left his reputation somewhat tarnished in mainstream quarters. A re-read of the late Richard Cook’s Blue Note Records, The Biography suggests that Cook viewed Byrd as one of the lesser talents on the label and his playing is given little praise. He states: ‘Byrd’s problem was that he was nearly always going to come off second-best on a label that had trumpeters of the calibre of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Dorham.’ I’m not going to dwell on this curiously imprecise verdict, since, surely we should appreciate each of these great artists on their own merits without attempting to impose a hierarchy. For the record, I’m confident that I’ll be returning to the later works on these pages in due course.

Mention should also be made of Donald Byrd’s great contribution as a jazz educator. He continued his academic studies throughout his career before submitting his PhD and gaining his Doctorate. Dr Byrd was the first director of a new Jazz Studies course at Howard University (where, in the 1960’s, students were forbidden to play Jazz in the Music Department and were expelled for practising on campus) before teaching in other universities. In addition to his eminence as an academic he also qualified as a pilot and as a lawyer. I’m not sure if Dr Byrd is posing next to his own Jaguar on the sleeve? If I had taken the photo I think I would shot from an angle that placed a little more emphasis on Jaguar’s symbolic ‘leaper’ on the bonnet.

Finally, the original sleeve notes were written by Nat Hentoff who passed away last week. He was responsible for numerous cover commentaries and always seemed to me to have been positive, informative and fair-minded. His Wikipedia entry offers a synopsis of the full life of a remarkable man. RIP Nat.

The band etc.:- Donald Byrd (trumpet); Pepper Adams (baritone sax); Duke Pearson (piano); Laymon Jackson (bass); Philly Joe Jones (drums). Recorded 2 May 1961. Rudy Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey. Produced by: Alfred Lion. Sleeve Notes: Nat Hentoff. Cover photo: Francis Wolff. Cover Design: Reid Miles. Issued as Blue Note 84075.

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A Man With A Horn: Lou Donaldson

2017 has dawned. The World is still spinning. I’m delighted to declare that after an abstemious Festive Season, my head isn’t. So, Happy New Year everybody and let’s hope it turns out to be much less ‘interesting’ (in the sense of the Chinese curse) than 2016. Here’s a fresh post to get matters underway at downwithit.

Over the last two months A Man With a Horn has been the most played album on my system and it has led me to an even greater respect for Lou Donaldson.

It is not one of Donaldson’s better-known albums, mainly because it was not released in the early sixties. The two sessions that make up this recording were from 1961 and 1963 and they remained in the vaults until 1999. It was over 35 years before they were dusted down as part of the Blue Note Connoisseur CD series, a conduit for rare and previously unissued material. As far as I am aware, this set has never been issued on vinyl but that does not mean it should not merit attention.

Both sessions featured guitarist Grant Green who was encouraged to move to New York and introduced to the Blue Note label by Donaldson. The earlier session utilises Jack McDuff on Hammond organ in a rare Blue Note outing, whilst John Patton, another Donaldson protege, plays the keyboard on the 1963 date. McDuff is used as an accompaniest, playing understated swirling chords on the five ballads from ’61, while John Patton is given more space to solo.

The CD alternates between songs from each of the sessions and I have marked 1961 tunes with a single asterix (*) and 1963 with double asterixes (**). I initially wondered why the set had been sequenced in this way. I eventually grouped and played through the tracks in the two discrete sessions. This leads me to the conclusion that while the 1961 session, which consists of mellifluous ballads is strong, the tunes benefit from being interspersed with the more uptempo offerings from 1963. As presented there is the variety and texture to turn this CD into a more rewarding listening experience.

The Errol Garner standard Misty* is given a lush rendition as opener. The purity of tone from Lou Donaldson’s alto sax is exceptional and is well-matched by the sensitive contributions from the other three musicians, especially Grant Green. It is currently on Youtube courtesy of Zateuz and you can watch here:-

To play, touch or click on the arrow

Hipity Hop** starts off in the manner of a 1950’s swing tune before John Patton plays an incredible solo starting with a Morse code like trill held for a full 24 bars. It certainly catches the attention. This Donaldson composition is an uptempo and funky toe-tapper and he plays an assertive and exemplary alto sax solo before Grant Green and Patton contribute to a rich confection flavoured by Irvin Stoke’s wah-wah muted trumpet.

It is then back to 1961 for Please*, a second delicate romantic ballad on which all four musicians acquit themselves well.

On My Melancholy Baby** Lou Donaldson builds on riffs that owe much to Charlie Parker’s school of soloing, with an engaging contribution delivered from the trumpet of Stokes.

Man With A Horn* features more delectable and sensitive playing from the 1961 quartet in a track that is a bit of a smoocher.

Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White** is delivered over a playful cha cha rhythm and contains a solid portion of Grant Green’s ever-tasteful guitar.

Prisoner Of Love* is a standard which was in the charts courtesy of James Brown and The Famous Flames (If still on YouTube this is too good to miss) when this was recorded.

Then it is off to the church of funk with Soul Meetin’**, the second Donaldson composition here and one of those great finger-snapping ‘Baptist Beat’ numbers. I’m very fond of them when they occasionally appear on Blue Note sets. As a New Year bonus this is the second YouTube post courtesy of The Nada73

To play, touch or click on the arrow

The set closes with Star Dust*, a fifth ballad that maintains the high standards of the other four. In his excellent and informative ‘The Jazz Standards’ Ted Gioia refers to it as’…the song to which their parents and grandparents courted, romanced and wed’ and traces the history of this formally much-loved song which is slowly fading into obscurity (in the way of all things).

If you come across this set on CD (and it is relatively rare) don’t hesitate to purchase it as it captures Lou Donaldson playing on the ballads with a very clear and intense tone and also includes a good balance of more uptempo tunes from the 1963 date. Grant Green is on great form, as is John Patton on this very worthwhile jewel from the vaults.

The band etc: Tracks marked * Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone); Grant Green (guitar); Jack McDuff (organ); Joe Dukes (drums). Recorded: 25 September 1961
Tracks marked ** Irvin Stokes (trumpet); Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone); Grant Green (guitar); John Patton (organ); Ben Dixon (drums). Recorded: 7 June 1963.
Both session recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Produced: Alfred Lion. Recorded: Rudy Van Gelder. Sleeve Notes: Ed Hamilton. Cover design: Patrick Roques. Cover photo: Francis Wolff. Issued as Blue Note 21436.

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Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party

johnny-griffin-studio-jazz-party-1

In September 1960 Johnny Griffin led this session which sought to capture the spontaneity of a live recording in a studio environment where the sound quality could be controlled and shaped to a much greater degree than in most live venues. Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party is exactly what the title says it is. An audience was invited to the Plaza Sounds Studio in New York where they were treated to drinks and a buffet and encouraged to respond to the music as though they were in a club setting.

Writing posts for downwithit.info would be far more difficult if, like many fellow Jazz site authors, I was to confine myself to recordings that I owned in a vinyl format. Most of my posts are based on listening to FLAC sound files that I have ripped from CDs that I have purchased. I enjoy the freedom to roam that this offers and it is a freedom that I wouldn’t have if I was to only write about vinyl records. I can’t afford top quality early pressings and usually lack the time it takes to dig through crates of second hand vinyl in search of rare bargains. I’m not sure if this offends the purists but if it does then too bad.

So what has this look at Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party to do with this?

Well! It represents a rare consideration on this site of a vinyl LP. I have a regular cursory flick through the jazz section of my local music and DVD shop and once in a while I come across an affordable record that I am prepared to stump up the cash for.

Back in August 2014 I wrote about another Johnny Griffin recording:- his Big Soul Band set. By coincidence that was also a vinyl record from the same shop.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the fare that is served up here:-

After an extended introduction from Babs Gonzales, in which the invited audience are encouraged to settle in and avail themselves of the food and drinks, the session proper gets underway.

The opener is a lengthy rendition of Tad Dameron / Count Basie’s Good Bait. After a brief and moody swing-influenced head the band hit double time and Griffin is away with a lively solo before bringing in Dave Burns on trumpet. Griffin’s second solo is a little ragged as is his playing when he trades verses with Burns but overall there is little not to enjoy.

You can take a listen courtesy of ‘Umo’ at Youtube here:-

To play click or touch the arrow.

There Will Never Be Another You features Burns on the head and first solo. Simmons acquits himself well on piano. Griffin’s notes are voiced swiftly as bursts of sound, before, in conclusion Griffen and Burns again trade phrases with each other, before receiving deserved applause.

Toe-Tappin’ is a Burns composition that displays more than a nod towards Moanin’, although unlike that classic it is played at a brisk tempo. There’s space for a short bass solo from Vic Sproules which fits well.

You’ve Changed is introduced by Gonzalves in basic French as a version of the ballad associated with Billie Holiday. Burns plays beautifully on this.

Low Gravy is a strolling blues number written for the session by Gonzales, which closes the recording.

My copy is a Japanese pressing and this initially made me think twice about the purchase. Any doubts were set aside when I examined the back cover and discovered that the copy on sale had been previously owned by ‘Schmidt’ a well-known British jazz collector (London Jazz Collector owns several records from the same source). As you will see he had the habit of adding his name in his distinctive script. Although embellishments to the sleeve usually reduce its value, an exception can be made for him.

I pointed the signature out to the extremely knowledgeable shopkeeper who said that he remembered meeting Schmidt and thought that he had something to do with the audio or hifi business. I intend to have a chat with him to try to get some more information when I next see him and the shop is not busy.

Although I admire Johnny Griffin for being adventurous with the concept of this release, Studio Jazz Party is not the greatest album with a live feel to it but it is worth a listen and I am pleased to have added a first ‘Schmidt’ to my collection.

The band etc: Johnny Griffin (tenor saxophone); Norman Simmons (piano); Dave Burns (trumpet); Vic Sproules (bass); Ben Riley (drums). Recorded: September 27 1960. Plaza Sounds Studio, New York City. Produced: Orrin Keepnews. Sleeve Notes: Chris Albertson. Cover photos: Lawrence Shustak. Cover Design: Ken Deardoff. Original Stereo copy issued as Riverside 9338.

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Whatever happened to Freddie Roach?

freddie-roach-portrait

Here at downwithit.info I’ve always attempted to explode the notion that ‘jazz’ is music that listeners have to have a special understanding of before they can listen to it. It is most definitely not the case that the music is a monolithic block that you have to either fully appreciate or fully reject. You don’t have to devote yourself to the study of music and artist biographies to actually listen and decide whether you like or dislike what you hear. How you respond is up to you, the listener.

Alongside this great tide of music, however, there are lots of interesting anecdotes and stories that deserve to be known about. I wanted to learn more about Freddie Roach because it seemed that there was a risk that a remarkable man was slowly being forgotten. It was an unsatisfactory biography that set me off down the track.

As of February 2014, Freddie Roach’s Wikipedia entry still stated that, after abandoning his recording career at the end of the 1960’s, he had moved to France and was never heard of again.

This left me wondering how a recording artist of Freddie Roach’s stature could disappear, seemingly without trace, and I set out to try to find the answer. You can read about some of the information that I uncovered in my posts about FR’s work.

My internet searches led me to several places on both sides of the Atlantic. I followed a promising lead about a mystery Hammond organist, which took me to the South of France and Barcelona, before I learned that it was Lou Bennett and not FR.

The French link took us to The American Centre for Students and Artists in Paris and a 1974 performance which almost certainly featured our main man FR. You can read a little more about this information here.

My investigation returned to New Jersey, where FR had lived and I sought out information about FR’s band mates and local clubs in the hope of finding some answers. I found out that FR had a rehearsal space and studio theatre in his former home in Newark and Internet mapping and images enabled me to take a virtual walk through a neighbourhood that has now changed significantly.

Then, suddenly, the biggest breakthrough in my search happened. Somebody else had uncovered and reported the answer! Jazz broadcaster, podcaster and historian, Pete Fallico had spoken to friends of FR and had discovered that he had actually moved to California where he had suffered a fatal heart attack and died in 1980.

As Pete Fallico’s excellent piece (which he has kindly given me permission to publish here) explains, there was far more to say than that. It is with great pleasure that I have been able to publish downwithit’s first guest contributor. A mystery becomes less mysterious- what a way to start!

Earlier this week (in November 2016) there was more news. A fellow writer, the excellent Francois from FlophouseMagazine had kept his eye on the ball when mine had strayed. He informed me that Pete Fallico had recently posted a podcast which featured an interview with one of FR’s sons, Gregory Payton Roach. In an superb broadcast which runs for nearly an hour, Mr Roach graciously tells us about his father’s last years. Mr Roach confirms that FR spent time working in France and Japan before moving to California, where, by the time of his death he had established links with Smokey Robinson and others in the musical community.

I have also discovered that FR’s grandson has been in touch with downwithit recently and I will invite him to add any further information that he may be willing to share with us, provided he is willing to forgive my regrettably slow response to his message.

I’m delighted that I can inform readers of what I hope you will view as a more satisfactory account of the mysterious later years of Freddie Roach’s life, although the really hard work was completed by Pete Fallico and the willingness of Mr Roach to tell the nub of the story through the podcast.

In addition to the story as outlined above on this static page, I have posted the information above as a regular blog entry on 25 November 2016.

Perhaps one day there may be a reissue and overdue revaluation of Freddie Roach’s music or perhaps even more? For that we will have to wait, since, as Joe Strummer once said: ‘The future remains unwritten.’

To play us out, here’s a link to Freddie Roach playing One Track Mind from The Freddie Roach Soul Book set:-

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