Archive | December, 2013

John Coltrane: Greensleeves

25 Dec

The song Greensleeves can be traced back more than 500 years, got a few mentions in Shakespeare and became a Christmas carol called What Child Is This in the 19th century, with words penned by William Chatterton Dix.

More recently, it made it into the 1962 movie How The West Was Won. That’s a journey of a few centuries and thousands of miles: from Elizabethan England to 20th-century Hollywood.

We can guess that no one made the song — whatever the name or origins — sound like John Coltrane, whose quartet played it on the 1961 album Africa Brass. It’s also included on the live Complete 1961 Village Vanguard recordings.

From Steve Greenlee’s 2007 review, on the latter: “Coltrane’s jukebox-friendly interpretation of the show tune My Favorite Things has always overshadowed his overhaul of the English folk song Greensleeves, also known as the Christmas song What Child Is This? but this is the superior performance. This wasn’t the first time he recorded it, but he really nailed it here. The first few notes out of Coltrane’s sax come crashing down more than an octave as he states the melody once and then sends it caroming all over the place, augmenting its simple beauty with squeals and phrases that seem gorgeously out of place.”

Click the link above to listen.

And Merry Christmas.


Yusef Lateef: The Plum Blossom

24 Dec

Yusef Lateef was born in the final months Woodrow Wilson was president; he died this week in the first year of the second term of the first African-American president, 93 years later.

Lateef’s life spanned 17 presidents, his music spanned the globe. Born William Huddleston in Tennessee, he died Yusef Lateef, his last name meaning gentle or kind, in Massachusetts, having migrated by way of Detroit in the ’20s (Coolidge).

Lateef, according to a 2006 (Bush II) Ottawa Citizen article by Doug Fischer, said “Islam has a saying that life from the cradle to the grave should be a search for knowledge.” Lateef’s was, as his listeners know.

Lateef released his first album as a leader in 1957 (Eisenhower); his most recent in 2012 (Obama), 55 years later. He converted to Islam in the early ’50s (Truman) and twice made a pilgrimmage to Mecca; musically he explored the globe.

From the late Gil Scott-Heron’s song Plastic Pattern People off the 1970 album (Nixon) Small Talk at 125th and Lennox:

“The third world arrives, with Yusef Lateef, and Pharaoh Sanders.
With oboes straining to touch the core of your unknown soul.”

Lateef didn’t always idenitfy himself as a jazz musician, but as an “autophysiopsychic” musician. He played tenor sax, flute, oboe, bassoon and instruments from around the world which he learned about in his musical travels. “He played world music before world music had a name,” wrote Peter Keepnews in his New York Times obit Wednesday.

In 1980 (Carter) Lateef stopped performing in clubs where alcohol was served. ““Too much blood, sweat and tears have been spilled creating this music to play it where people are smoking, drinking and talking,” he told the Boston Globe in 1999 (Clinton), according to Keepnews’ story.

In Lateef’s own words, from his website: “When the soul looks out of its body, it should see only beauty in its path. These are the sights we must hold in mind, in order to move to a higher place. Time after time in our hearts and soul we find love. No static, no pain – so pure, so happy to be alive. Waves of love consume us. We find no hatred – just love for all.”

The link above is from Lateef’s 1961 (Kennedy) album Eastern Sounds; Lateef plays a Chinese flute on the piece.

George Winston: Joy

16 Dec


George Winston has titled albums after a month (December), a state (Montana) and all four seasons, overlapping two of them, has named a song after a holiday, and done tributes to musicians from Vince Guaraldi to The Doors.

This month he played a concert in Boulder, Colo., and then another in Alberta, presumably because the former wasn’t the right temperature — he doesn’t perform often in flannel shirts for nothing.

Yet Winston attended college in Florida (Stetson University) and counts among his influences music from warm-weather sites — New Orleans piano and the Hawaiian slack-key guitarists. He may not want to live in Margaritaville, but he’s not above listening to its music.

The song Joy, link below, is from his December album, released in 1982. It’s a movement from an 18th-century cantata composed by J.S. Bach, and, according to the album notes, inspired by an arrangement by guitarist David Qualey.

“Any other labels, including anything “philosophical” or “spiritual” are also not accurate, as I have no interest whatsoever in those subjects,” Winston says in an answer to a question on his website about whether his music has ever been mislabeled. “I just play the songs the best I can, inspired by the seasons, the topographies, and thirdly, sociological elements, and try to improve as a player over time.”

(The picture above is from December in a cold-weather clime far east of Winston’s beloved Montana, but seems right for his music).

Jim Hall: Blues In The Closet

11 Dec

Jim Hall was a pre-teen when he started playing guitar; he was living with a single mother in a Cleveland housing project, according to an NPR profile.

Hall, who died this week at age 83 less than a month after his last live performance, became one of the 25 guitar players “who shook up the world,” according to Guitar Player magazine, the kind of honor usually accorded to rock and blues guitarists.

“Jim is father of modern jazz guitar to me,” said Pat Metheny, who knows a thing or two about jazz guitar, on the liner notes from a 1999 collaboration with Hall. “He’s the guy who invented a conception that has allowed guitar to function in a lot of musical situations that just weren’t thought of as a possibility prior to his emergence as a player. He reinvented what the guitar could be as a jazz instrument … Jim transcends the instrument … the meaning behind the notes is what speaks to people.”

It’s ironic that Hall influenced Metheny, and so many other jazz guitarists, when he didn’t always aspire to be one, according to an interview on his website.

“I had to try being a guitarist or else it would trouble me for the rest of my life,” he said.

The above link is to a 1973 recording Hall made with fellow guitarist Attila Zoller, bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Daniel Humair (wait for the credits).

Abdullah Ibrahim: Mandela

6 Dec

Nelson Mandela couldn’t easily access the song bearing his name when Abdullah Ibrahim recorded and released it on the album Water From an Ancient Well in the mid-1980s. Mandela was in jail.

But a decade or so earlier Ibrahim’s Mannenberg reached him, smuggled into prison by a lawyer and played for the prisoners. “Liberation is near,” Mandela reportedly said when he heard Mannenberg. It was not so near — Mandela was only halfway through the 27 years he spent in prison, but in his situation, hope was not the thing with feathers but an Abdullah Ibrahim melody.

Mandela had been a fan of Ibrahim’s before he was jailed, though the musician went by Dollar Brand before his conversion to Islam (Duke Ellington, upon meeting Dollar Brand, said jokingly, ”You come from South Africa with a name like Dollar Brand. I’m only a penny brand.” Ellington went on to champion Dollar Brand; Ibrahim thanked him and more with his album Ode to Duke Ellington, among others).

Biographies of both Mandela and Winnie Mandela reference their common interest in music and jazz, including Dollar Brand, before he was imprisoned.

It was another decade or more before Ibrahim recorded Mannenberg, during the height of the Soweto uprisings. Mandela was in jail. Ibrahim was in and out of jail. In the studio, Ibrahim and his fellow musicians recorded Mannenberg in one take. It took, he said, about 17 minutes. “But something had happened with that recording,” he said. They replayed the recording and listened.

“We realized what had happened is that we had captured the spirit and the mood of the nation at that time, and it was confirmation and affirmation of our cultural and political inheritance,” said Ibrahim in an interview with voice of america. “And the public and the people picked up the song, and it was played and sung everywhere.”

Even in Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. One of the prisoner’s wives was a lawyer, and Ibrahim credited her with smuggling in his music. First, he said in the interview with, she took a song called Peace-Salaam, and Mandela requested it be played. Then came Mannenberg. “Apparently,” Ibrahim said, “when President Mandela heard this, he said, ‘Liberation is near.’ That was the song of hope.”

It took another decade and a half before hope was fulfilled. Mandela had been transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, but was still imprisoned when Ibrahim’s Water From an Ancient Well was released in 1986. The song Mandela was the first cut, Mannenberg (Revisited) the third cut.

In 1990 Mandela was released from jail, and he invited Ibrahim to come home to South Africa. In 1994, Ibrahim performed at Mandela’s inauguration as president, and dedicated a song to him. From Maya Jaggi’s 2001 Guardian profile of Ibrahim: “Backstage, Mandela returned the compliment. ‘Bach? Beethoven? We’ve got better,’ he said.”


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