Miles Davis: All Blues

7 Aug

The jazz group Mostly Other People Do The Killing is recording Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and The Jazz Times asked: “What’s Your Take?”

My take? Why bother? If you want to hear Kind of Blue, there’s plenty of ways to hear Miles Davis and his group do it.

I don’t get the point of cover bands or tributes. They’re music’s version of decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer. The real thing is better and has the intended impact.

Good for MOPDK if they want to play Kind of Blue, and good for the group for bringing attention to the album. But why settle for a copy when you can get the original?

Said Quincy Jones, according to Ashley Kahn’s book on the album, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece: “I play Kind of Blue every day—it’s my orange juice. It still sounds like it was made yesterday.”

You think Jones wants some artificial orange drink instead? Kind of Blue is 55 years old. If Quincy Jones hears the copy rather than Miles, he’ll be likely to spit out whatever he’s drinking as if it was 55 years old.

It may be that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And that the album is meant as tribute. But if they copy it note for absolute note, timed to the tenth of a second, it’s no more jazz than Kenny G. Doesn’t that miss the point of the music?

I’m not sure how Miles would feel about it, whether he’d be flattered or slighted.

My guess? He’d turn his back on it.

That’s good enough for me.

The link above is to All Blues, song one on side two of the album. From allmusic.com: “‘All Blues’ was a live staple throughout much of Davis’ career, and it’s easy to see why – the tune is built upon the melodic brilliance of Davis’ trumpet, which even Coltrane fails to upstage during his solo. ‘All Blues’ is also a testament to Jimmy Cobb’s light, fluid drumming, a rather unsung hero of the Kind of Blue sessions, but a most vital member of the group.”

Idris Muhammad: Kabsha

4 Aug


Idris Muhammad died last month at age 74 and the bassist Christian McBride asked shortly thereafter: “Does anyone realize what a true drum hero this man was?”

Apparently not, if the dearth of news — from points other than Muhammad’s native New Orleans — was any indication.

The careers of some jazz musicians, like Dave Brubeck and Charlie Haden, are appropriately celebrated. Others, like Muhammad, are barely acknowledged widely, the acclaim faint, like a note not played loudly enough.

Muhammad was 16, and still known as Leo Morris when he played with Fats Domino on Blueberry Hill. In the next half century he accompanied scores of jazz musicians, led his own band, delved into funk and R&B, produced Turn This Mutha Out and grew to appreciate hip-hop, according to an interview Muhammad did with waxpoetics.com.

“Even though hip-hop musicians appropriate your music? And you’re not necessarily getting paid for it?,” he was asked by interviewer Eothen Alapatt.

Answered Muhammad: “It don’t really belong to me, man; I’m only the creator. If you take something I create, and you do something with it, then someone else will take it and move it to another stage. And this is what happened with hip-hop. This is in my aura. I’m doing stuff for people to put out there so people can grab it. The gift the Creator has given me, I can’t be selfish with. If I keep it in my pocket, it’s not going to go anyplace. It doesn’t matter if a guy stole from me. I’d say, ‘Well, what did you do? Okay, let me show you this.’ This is how I live.”

The New Orleans radio host George Ingmire said he’d put Muhammad on his “Mount Rushmore of New Orleans drummers along with Smokey Johnson, Johnny Vidacovich and Herlin Riley,” according to nola.com

It might be worth checking the other three out, especially since New Orleans gave us Muhammad, and in no particular order Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, the Marsalises and Louis Armstrong. Muhammad said in the waxpoetics.com interview his father played his banjo with the latter.

Said Muhammad, in an interview with waxpoetics.com, on his music: “Well, you see, man, it don’t belong to us. Secretly, whatever you have is gonna come out anyhow. If you think you are hiding something—you have a private vault that you have stuff in—when you leave this world your wife is going to open it up and sell everything. She’s gonna sell everything in that vault! It’s gonna come out anyway. So why not be free with it while you’re here and share it with other people? ’Cause it don’t belong to you.”

Kabsha, the cut above, is from Muhammad’s 1980 album of the same name. From the review by allmusic.com’s Scott Yanow: “Muhammad, who had often been heard in funky or more commercial settings, really excels in this sparse setting, showing off what he learned from hearing bands in his native New Orleans.”

Billy Eckstine: Rhythm in a Riff

10 Jul

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The 100th anniversary of Billy Eckstine’s birthday passed this week with far less fanfare than the singer once attracted.

Once he rivaled Frank Sinatra in popularity; today he’s remembered by niche jazz audiences, if at all.

Eckstine is to music what Jim Thorpe, once voted the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century, is to sports. Today Thorpe would be lucky if he were in the top 100. Eckstine’s centennial anniversary was barely acknowledged (Sinatra’s is next year, but we don’t need to wait to know what a difference it will be).

Eckstine sang richly, played brass, dressed nattily and taught Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie in his band. He had his own nickname, Mr. B, which is how the famous disc jockey Symphony Sid referred to him. At his peak, some music historians say he was more popular than Sinatra, That should be worth more than a footnote in musical history.

But according to his biographer, Cary Ginnell, who wrote Mr. B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine, Eckstine was a victim of his success, and the bigotry of 1950 America. A magazine feature of that time included a picture showing Eckstine and his fans, who were the same demographic as those who adored Sinatra and later, Elvis and The Beatles: white teenage females.

“If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent,” said Ginnell, according to npr.com, which had one of the very few remembrances of the 100th anniversary of Eckstine’s birth. “It’s actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation — just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn’t ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstine dating their daughters.”

Sinatra got that permission, starred in movies, kept singing and died still an idol to many. Eckstine’s career ebbed and he became a guest on late-night talk shows. Sinatra played leading roles and was nominated for Oscars; Eckstine appeared in a cameo on Sanford and Son. Sinatra came back again and again. Eckstine faded, unable to hold the note of his popularity.

But his example hit a high note for many.

Said Quincy Jones to Billboard magazine in 1993: “I wanted to dress like him, talk like him, pattern my whole life as a musician and as a complete person in the image of dignity that he projected …”

“I consider Billy Eckstine the Jackie Robinson of popular music,” said Ginell to npr.com. “Before Billy Eckstine came along, blacks, they would either sing blues or they would be in jazz bands, or they would sing in vocal groups, like The Mills Brothers or The Ink Spots. Or as a novelty singer. But they were not permitted to enter the domain of Perry Como and Bing Crosby. And Eckstine was the first one to successfully do that.”

In 1999, an Eckstine song was honored by the Grammys, six years after he died. No word on how many got the irony of it being I Apologize.

Horace Silver: Liberated Brother

3 Jul

Horace Silver, a pianist who watched Art Tatum play and whose music was played in tribute generations later, died last month at age 85.

I once saw Silver many years ago, in a tiny club on the beach near Los Angeles. I had little more idea of how to find the club than I did of who Silver was. I knew Silver only in the vague way you know of an author and a book title you haven’t read but should — say Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove.

I didn’t know Senor Blues or Song For My Father, or that Silver had once been a Jazz Messenger, or that he had once been a saxophonist, or that his father was from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa and that the island’s influence was in Silver’s music, or that Silver had seen Tatum as a youngster and said it was “like watching and listening to a miracle in progress.” I only knew it was a bit of a miracle to see Silver smile and play in such a small club.

At the intermission I wound up in the men’s room next to a member of the band. I asked him why Silver was playing here and why now. Silver had a home locally, he said (Redondo Beach?), and sometimes wanted to get out and play. Those of us in the audience were the ones who should have been smiling even more.

I can’t remember too much more of the specifics of that evening, but every so often over the last 30 years, I would hear something Silver played that night. And smile again.

“Horace Silver’s music has always represented what jazz musicians preach but don’t necessarily practice, and that’s simplicity,” the bassist Christian McBride said, according to npr. “It sticks to the memory; it’s very singable. It gets in your blood easily; you can comprehend it easily. It’s very rooted, very soulful.”

There’s a reason for that, of course, which Silver explained when he was asked about his music and his influences in a 2003 interview with All About Jazz.

“It’s like making a stew,” Silver said. “You put all these various ingredients in it. You season it with this. You put that in it. You put the other in it. You mix it all up and it comes out something neat, something that you created.”

Above is a cut of Weldon Irvine’s song Liberated Brother off the album In Pursuit of the 27th Man. Said Scott Yanow at allmusic.com in his review of the album: “. . . no matter what the instrumentation, the style is pure Silver, hard-driving and melodic hard bop with a strong dose of funky soul.”

John McLaughlin: Belo Horizonte

22 Jun

Belo Horizonte is one of 12 sites for this year’s World Cup in Brazil, a city whose name means Beautiful Horizon, which seems like a good spot for the beautiful game.

Perhaps not to the English, whose team was eliminated there in the 1950 World Cup by the United States — musically, this would be somewhat akin to the Monkees outperforming the Beatles — and whose team returns there Tuesday for the first time since, having already been eliminated from this one.

If the World Cup brings attention to the city, perhaps it could trickle down to the album of the same name by English guitarist John McLaughlin, which is beautiful music, as the title track of the album above demonstrates.

The album was released in 1981, shortly before Friday Night In San Francisco, which featured McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola. de Lucia plays on Belo Horizonte — the last song is dedicated to him — but all of the songs are written by McLaughlin and the band is mostly French.

“Belo features some of the best compositions John McLaughlin has ever written,” wrote Walter Kolosky in a 2002 allaboutjazz.com review of the album. “It also showcases some of the most unbelievable acoustic guitar playing ever put onto record. ‘Stardust On Your Sleeve’ should be required listening for anyone who wants to know what a brilliant guitarist can do with his instrument. It is an outstanding piece that ranks among the higher moments of guitar history. This is not hyperbole. McLaughlin is literally able to bend time. Missing this tune would truly deprive you of a great pleasure in your life.”

John Kelman, reviewing for the same website two years later, called the album, “one of McLaughlin’s most enduring works.” He went on to talk about lightning-fast runs — those of McLaughlin’s, not on the pitch — and said “while undoubtedly influenced by the music of Brazil, (Belo Horizonte) also reflected a Mediterranean disposition and a new-found lyricism.” (A good formula for music, not bad for football).

“Belo Horizonte demonstrates another side of McLaughlin that, at the time, came as a bit of a surprise,” Kelman wrote. “Pat Metheny once said that ‘McLaughlin has changed the evolution of the guitar at least three times,’ and it is clear that refreshed, reinvigorated and relocated, he did it once again with Belo Horizonte, an album that sounds as fresh and important today as it did twenty-three years ago.”

Paco de Lucia: Playa Del Carmen

28 Feb
Paco de Lucia: Zyryab

Paco de Lucia said the 1990 album Zyryab, with pianist Chick Correa, is one of his few albums that he liked. It’s named for a Persian poet-musician of the eighth and ninth centuries. From pacodelucia.org: “Zyryab —blackbird— nickname given to the Baghdadi-Cordoban Abu Al-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi who lived between the years of 789 and 857 AD and decisively influenced the development of traditional Arab music on the Iberian peninsula. To him are credited, variously: the invention of the plectrum using the front feathers of an eagle; adding the fifth string to the lute; and the establishment of a music school, which was without precedent. He is traditionally considered to have been the father of the music of Al Andalus, music that brought together the wisdom of that magnificent cultural melting pot.”

Paco de Lucia died this week of a heart attack at age 66, while on vacation in Mexico.

de Lucia was a Spanish Flamenco guitarist whose varied collaborations were reflected in the Facebook tributes: from jazz bassists Christian McBride and Charlie Haden to rock bassist and singer/song writer Jack Bruce (Cream) and many others.

Said pianist Chick Corea, according to the New York Times’ obit: “Paco inspired me in the construction of my own musical world as much as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, or Bartok and Mozart.”

In 1981, de Lucia played on the album Friday Night in San Francisco with fellow guitarists John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, which jazz critic Walter Kolosoky called “a musical event that could be compared to the Benny Goodman Band’s performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938 … [it] may be considered the most influential of all live acoustic guitar albums.”

It introduced de Lucia to a new audience, much of it here in the States. But as he was being discovered by it, he was also being criticized “by flamenco die hards for his forays into other styles,” according to his website, pacodelucia.org, much as Dylan was when he went electric at Newport or Miles when he went fusion.

Said de Lucia, in a 2004 interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, according to the New York Times: “I am a purist within my aura of revolutionary, vanguardist or creator. I’m still a purist because I have always respected what I think is respectable. What I have is not the obedience the purists continue to have, but the respect for the essence, the old, the valid. Memory.”

(The original interview is in Spanish; we’re going to trust the Times’ translation).

According to euronews.com, de Lucia’s final album will be released, posthumously in April. From the website: “This work, dedicated to the copla, the traditional Spanish song, will, without a doubt, be one last revolution.”

The cut below is from de Lucia’s 1990 album Zyryab. de Lucia on the album, in a 2012 interview with the Associated Press, according to his obit on yahoo.com: “I am a perfectionist — sometimes it’s sick. I don’t like any of my albums. The ones I like, I mean, that I can stand to hear are Siroco and Zyryab, possibly because they are more flamenco and among the purest in my career.”

Sonny Rollins: Don’t Stop The Carnival

10 Jan


Jazz made an appearance last month on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. You can blame (or credit) the writer Ishmael Reed for this rare foray into the intellectual high-rent district.

Reed opined on jazz and cool and President Obama, and how the latter has it, and how the musicians both Reed and Obama watched at a 2013 event at the San Francisco Jazz Center had it, too.

The op-ed is unabashedly partisan: after all, JFK pardoned pianist Hampton Hawes, Jimmy Carter had Dizzy Gillespie over to the White House to sing Salt Peanuts and Obama honored Sonny Rollins.

Republicans and jazz? Well, Louis Armstrong, who famously said, “I don’t get involved in politics, I just blow my horn,” made one exception. He called Dwight Eisenhower “two-faced” and said Eisenhower had “no guts.” Less than a week later, the commander of World War II sent troops to Little Rock, Ark. Reed said Armstrong wasn’t cool until he was hot. Then he was cool.

Politics aside, Reed paid tribute in the piece to Rollins, now 83 and who made the Willamsburg Bridge famous.

“Like the president, cool musicians carried themselves with a regal bearing,” wrote Reed. “Some members of the generation before them had to engage in minstrel-like antics to make a living. Cool musicians demanded respect, and when attacked didn’t blow up, but, like the president, responded stoically. One of (Obama’s) favorite words is ‘persistence,’ the attitude of his hero, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the greatest surviving bebopper.”

In 2011, as Reed noted, Obama awarded Rollins the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, along with Quincy Jones and James Taylor. But among even those, Obama cited Rollins as an “inspiration.” That was cool.

“I speak personally here,” Obama said “because there are people here whose works shaped me. I’ve got these thumbworn editions of these works of arts, and these old records from when they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital, that helped inspire me, or get me through a tough day, or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken, and I think what’s true for me is true for everyone here and true for our country.”

Reed is the poet laureate of the San Francisco Jazz Center, and his poem, When I Die I Will Go To Jazz is on one of the building’s walls.

The residents of Jazz are
Bopping in the aisles
As Diz and Bird swap
Fours with Miles
And spare me the sounds
Of celestial harmonics

I prefer something like
Jazz at the Philharmonic
Jumping with my boy Sid
In the city

That’s cool, too.

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