Archive | Jazz RSS feed for this section

Don Byron: Next Love

14 Dec


My better half is gone for three days, and who can blame her: the wind from outside is louder than the clarinet from the digital device inside.

But this means that she can’t critique what’s on the CD player from 1,000 miles away, and that Don Byron’s Tuskegee Experiments, which met with less than positive reviews from her, is back on. Last time I played it she heard six notes of the first song, said it hurt her ears and exercised the power of a veto.

This isn’t the first time we’ve navigated a tenuous truce on what comes out of the speakers and won’t be the last. Her taste in the arts runs more to Garth Brooks, mine to Mel Brooks; her taste in accompaniment while driving runs more to NPR; mine to NRBQ.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also makes the ear more appreciative.

Tuskegee Experiments from 1992  was Byron’s first album as leader, and the clarinetist is joined by guitarist Bill Frisell, among others. The music befits its title, which derives its name not just from the infamous study conducted on African-American men for untreated syphilis, but from the Tuskegee Airmen, the aviation group which fought World War II in a segregated U.S. armed services. Hence the plural.

From Byron’s liner notes to the album: “To me, these two experiments are metaphors for African-American life. In one, we saw once again that black life is cheap, and that a person of color can be enlisted to work against the best interests of his group, for nothing more than a brief ‘vacation’ from the pain of invisibility or the pressure of being seen as part of the ‘inferior’ group. The aviation experiment reflects the struggle black people constantly face: having to be smarter, better, more qualified simply to justify being given any opportunity.”

The album has nine cuts, a couple of covers and a poem by Sadiq for the title piece. “The strong themes … the advanced yet logical improvising, and the often-dramatic music make this a particularly memorable set,” wrote Scott Yanow in his review for

The best of the nine, to these ears, is Next Love, linked below. “To this day (Frisell’s) extended solo on Byron’s ‘Next Love’—one of his most moving compositions ever—remains one of my favorite: perfection in tone, construction, choice and sheer emotion,” wrote John Kelman on

Of course if you’re in auditory distress after the first six notes of the first cut (Kelman: “Byron’s a cappaella solo … opens the album on a particularly poignant note.” Go figure), you won’t make it that far.

“a row of crows on a rickety fence.
no book learnin’.
po’ as dirt.
never heard Monsieur Bechet
play the clarinet.
this experiment is not a crime,
but a rite of sacrifice”
— Sadiq





Joe Bonner: Impressions of Copenhagen

15 Dec
Joe Bonner New Beginnings

Joe Bonner’s album New Beginnings

Joe Bonner died at age 66 last month, and if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve probably never heard his best-known song Impressions of Copenhagen.

There aren’t one-hit wonders in jazz, but Bonner was most-easily recognized by his beautiful song about a beautiful city.

The 1981 album of the same name sold 35,000 copies in its first printing, according to a piece on Bonner’s death at the blog, but good luck to anyone searching for any of Bonner’s other albums. I know, because I did, and I spent more nights in Copenhagen (two) than I found additional Bonner albums (one) in the bargain bins in the 33 years since.

Joe Bonner

Joe Bonner at the piano, from the inside cover of New Beginnings

Bonner is only the second-most famous pianist born in Rocky Mount, N.C., behind Thelonious Monk. It’s indicative of Bonner’s lack of fame and appeciation that Monk is listed as a notable resident on Rocky Mount’s Wikipedia page, but Bonner is not.

But the pianist Bonner was most often compared to was not Monk but McCoy Tyner. Scott Yanow’s review of Impressions of Copenhagen said Bonner’s piano playing was “McCoy Tyner-inspired.” Bonner’s admittedly biased drummer, Tom Tilton, even felt Bonner surpassed Tyner. “Joe Bonner has all the power of McCoy, he has all the capability of McCoy, but he’s so much more romantic,” Tilton said, according to “I mean, I’ve been there time after time where there were tears running down people’s faces when he would play a ballad. He could captivate a room like nobody I’ve ever experienced before.”

Bonner did most of his playing over the last two decades in Denver, where he was beloved and appreciated. Even Gov. John Hickenlooper was a Bonner fan. “He was without question, the most talented piano player I’ve ever heard,” the governor told the website in a remembrance of Bonner. “… I want people to know that I loved Joe Bonner.”

On the inside cover of the CD version of New Beginnings, is a poem by Devorah Major:

some nights
ivory keys
must echo through his dreams
while the wooden piano frame
creaks inside his belly
waking him up, demanding to be played

Below is a link to Bonner’s Impressions of Copenhagen. Wrote Yanow: “Bonner is an underrated talent, and this is one of his finest recordings,” and he’s right on both counts.

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 “‘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

“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

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 interview his father played his banjo with the latter.

Said Muhammad, in an interview with, 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’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


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, 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 “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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: