Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mo' Jass

I don't pretend to be a jazz expert. I remarked to my sweetie this afternoon that the way I listen to jazz is comparable to, say, someone who keeps reading Ulysses and Moby Dick over and over, and nothing else. It's taken me 40 years to absorb Ornette and Cecil, and now I'm really just getting started on the AACM. For shame. A few other way stations on the journey:

1) FZ. I've written elsewhere about how Weasels Ripped My Flesh prepared me to hear Ascension. Other important gateways were Waka/Jawaka and the second side of The Grand Wazoo. Listening to live bootlegs of Zappa's '72 "music music," one realizes how at sea he was, on the mend from near-fatal injuries in between the end of the Flo and Eddie band and the one with George Duke, Ruth Underwood, and Napoleon Murphy Brock that caused his cult to balloon.

2) Fuzak. Being a rockarolla of a certain age, I was once a sucker for what St. Lester referred to in print as "Mahaherbiehancockorea." Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow alerted my high school guitar mentor and me to the idea that maybe we should learn how to play good. We were wrong, of course, but the ex-Yardbird (whom I admire as much for Truth as for anything else) did go on to become a Zen master of guitar in spite of us. Personally I found John McLaughlin, Beck's avowed inspiration in this move, to be a mixed bag: I liked his early albums Extrapolation and especially Devotion (with Buddy Miles and Larry Young) fine, but to my then-less-feedback-scorched ears, the Mahavishnu Orchestra sounded like nothing more than the music one would hear in an elevator descending to Hell. (In this regard, it was not unlike King Crimson.) That said, I liked his drummer Billy Cobham's album Spectrum real much, especially a tune called "Stratus" that Beck actually covered on his Live At Ronnie Scott's DVD a couple of years ago. During my three semesters at SUNY Albany, I attended performances by Weather Report (the Alphonso Johnson lineup) and Larry Coryell's Eleventh House (my friends and I were obnoxiously drunk and yelled "ROCK AND ROLL!" throughout the opening set by violinist Michael Urbaniak and his scat-singing wife Ursula Dudziak; Larry -- who had once foolishly thought he could cut Hendrix with his bebop chops -- used a device called a Mu-Tron excessively, while his drummer Alphonze Mouzon ran laps on his double bass pedals). Later, I witnessed the New Tony Williams Lifetime with Allan Holdsworth. Tony was the loudest drummer I ever heard until I met Jon Teague; it wasn't until I heard him on Miles Davis' Filles de Kilimanjaro and Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch that I came to appreciate his musicality. Holdsworth -- whom we have to blame, at least in part, for Eddie Van Halen (and Bill Pohl) -- was technically astonishing but also kind of monochromatic. Probably the best of this bunch was the Gateway Trio that teamed guitarist John Abercrombie with the ex-Miles Davis riddim team of Dave Holland (bs) and Jack DeJohnette (ds). Abercrombie was a little more subtle and slippery than Beck, McLaughlin, Coryell, or Holdsworth. I hear echoes of him in the latter-day work of Nels Cline and Bill Frisell, who both emerged in the late '70s but didn't enter my consciousness until much, much later. Holland was the leader on Conference of the Birds, an era-defining sesh that teamed AACM figurehead Anthony Braxton with Blue Note/loft eminence Sam Rivers, and now leads a big band of note. DeJohnette went on to make lots of interesting records, my favorite of which is New Edition (not the boy band), with David Murray and Arthur Blythe (see below).

3) The Fifties. What a year 1959 was: Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, Mingus Ah Um, The Shape of Jazz To Come and Change of the Century. I love the Sonny Rollins of 1957, the Miles Davis Quintet of 1956, and all of Thelonious Monk. But I'm not an aficionado of the period. I remember a coworker at a record store where I moonlighted in the late '90s asking me what my "favorite obscure Blue Note album" was. I muttered something about Fuschia Swing Song, busied myself stocking CDs, and went red.

4) Ornette alumni. As important a figure as he's been in my life, I'm ashamed to say I've never seen Ornette Coleman live. I had tickets to see him once in New York but the show was canceled, and when he and his harmolodic progeny were regular visitors to Caravan of Dreams, I was busy being in the Air Force and starting a family. But I did see Old and New Dreams the first time I visited New York after moving to Texas. I'd been a Don Cherry fan since hearing Eternal Rhythm (Don and Sonny Sharrock with European free improvisers in 1968, and an important influence on my part, at least, of HIO), Brown Rice (which was simply called Don Cherry when I had it on vinyl ca. '76, a funky harmolodic world music record with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins), Relativity Suite (with the Jazz Composers Orchestra), and the first Old and New Dreams record on Black Saint (which I recently found on CD while crate-digging at Recycled). Charlie Haden, who grew up playing in a family bluegrass band like Matt Hembree and whose daughter Petra has made a couple of records that I really like, recorded a great series of duet albums back in the '70s: Closeness and The Golden Number (mentioned in a previous post), As Long As There's Music with pianist Hampton Hawes, and Soapsuds, Soapsuds with Ornette. I missed out on his Liberation Music Orchestra records until the G.W. Bush-era Not In Our Name, and now like Ballad of the Fallen even better. My favorite Haden, though, remains Haunted Heart, the '92 release by his L.A. noir-themed band Quartet West which I was able to buy in an Air Force base exchange the year I got out. Ronald Shannon Jackson, who drummed in Ornette's original Prime Time and one of Cecil Taylor's most demanding and rewarding Units, made great records throughout the '80s with his own Decoding Society, including Eye On You, Mandance (which remains a regular spin at mi casa), and When Colors Play. He's still playing and composing here in the Fort. I never really "got" James "Blood" Ulmer's '70s albums, and didn't hear his magnum opus Odyssey until many years after its '84 release.

5) "Great men." Before there was Wynton Marsalis, CBS tried to market Arthur Blythe, a good alto saxophonist from California via Lower Manhattan, as the Next Big Thing in Jazz. Blythe made good records, too. His major label debut Lenox Avenue Breakdown was a breath of fresh air in '79, a marriage of exploratory freedom and accessability; you could even dance to the title track, if you were so inclined. The follow-up collection of standards suffered from an ugly, shrill mastering job, but Blythe's masterpiece was probably his third album, Illusions, which alternated selections by a band featuring tuba, cello, and electric guitar with a straight-ahead quartet featuring Air's rhythm team of Fred Hopkins (bs) and Steve McCall (ds). Hopkins is all over the Wildflowers set referred to in a previous post, and I was a fan of Air's Air Lore (wherein they reimagined Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton) when it was new; since then, leader Henry Threadgill has gone on to do even more interesting things. (Burn me that Zooid album, Terry?) The best recorded performance I've ever heard by Hopkins and McCall is "Miss Nancy," a track from Blythe's Illusions. While I was stationed in Louisiana in '91, I somehow managed to stumble on a copy of Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages, simultaneously a great guitar record (the master of skronk had really gotten his tone together in the '80s -- see his overdubbed solo Guitar) and the closest thing you could find at that late date to a new Coltrane record (Elvin Jones and Pharaoh Sanders in full effect, along with Charnett Moffett, whom I'd once seen levitate the Recovery Room in Dallas with his brothers when he was _almost_ in his teens). The records Sharrock made with Last Exit (which also included Shannon Jackson and saxophonist Peter Brotzmann) are almost too intense to listen to, in the same way that Fushitsusha is. It's sad that Sonny passed in 1994, on the verge of signing with RCA. Another improbable find of my last year in the Air Force was Joe Henderson's Lush Life, the estimable tenorman's tribute to Ellington's collaborator Billy Strayhorn, and So Near, So Far, wherein he explored Miles Davis' music (having had the shortest tenure in Miles' band of anyone since Sam Rivers) in the company of ex-Miles sidemen Al Foster and John Scofield. Speaking of Miles, while his '80s resurgence never really did it for me, I became a fan of his '73-'75 period my last year on active duty, when I heard Agharta and Pangaea for the first time and discovered Pete Cosey. Finally, I've heard a smidgin of the prodigious recorded outputs of David Murray and David S. Ware, but I'm more impressed than moved by their achievements. Maybe I just haven't heard the right records. Now back to trying to parse George Lewis' very select AACM discography.


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