Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Miles Davis - Sketches of Spain

Miles Davis and the brilliant jazz composer/arranger Gil Evans found each other in the late 1940s, and remained friends and collaborators for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, that collaboration was sporadic and occasional, except for one glorious period - 1957 through 1960 - when Davis and Evans produced three masterpieces: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. Sketches was inspired by Miles' love of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra, and by the Spanish volume of the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, a massive anthology of the world's folk music compiled by Alan Lomax. The Adagio movement of the guitar concerto is recomposed, not "jazzed up," and it works beautifully. Davis' playing on "Saeta," Evans' recreation of a religious procession with a brass band, is some of his most moving work on records.

I have been listening to this music for about 40 years, and it floors me every time. I just found a nice mono ("regular," the cover says) Columbia 6-eye copy. I'm enjoying discovering Sketches of Spain all over again.

Friday, August 11, 2017

James Booker - Gonzo

James Booker (1939-1983) was a troubled man - he had drug problems for most of his life, and was certainly mentally ill to some extent. He was also a genius - one of the best piano players New Orleans ever produced.  As I've listened to his recordings over the years, I've often experienced the aural illusion of hearing three hands.

Booker recorded or toured with Aretha Franklin, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, and other luminaries, but his unpredictability meant that these jobs usually didn't last long. But he had one hit. In 1960, he was in Houston, doing session work for Don Robey's Peacock label. Robey suggested that Booker come up with some organ instrumentals, and Booker responded with "Gonzo" and "Cool Turkey." "Gonzo" reached #3 on the Billboard R & B chart, and #43 on the pop chart.

Both titles are drug references, which nobody much noticed at the time. Musically, they certainly don't represent the full range of what Booker could do, but they are unusual, catchy, and enjoyable. Incidentally, I tracked this single down in the pre-internet days, when looking for a rare 45 consisted of looking at the ads in record collection magazines, writing various stores with your wantlist, and waiting weeks for the replies to come in.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Pharoah Sanders - Live at the East

Pharoah Sanders was a compatriot and protege of the great John Coltrane for the last couple of years of Coltrane's life. That association led to a recording contract with Impulse Records. Sanders' Impulse releases can be characterized as smoothed-out late Coltrane - more accessible "spiritual jazz" than Coltrane's demanding music. Modal improvisations and vocals were often part of Sanders' music. This 1972 release is generally considered one of Sanders' best Impulse records, but it has never had a U.S. reissue.

The East was an arts center in Brooklyn, but this is actually a studio recording, with some of the regulars from The East invited to provide a "live" atmosphere. It's a large ensemble, with bassists Stanley Clarke and Cecil McBee providing very impressive interplay. Besides Sanders, the most impressive soloist is trumpeter Marvin "Hannibal" Peterson, who plays impressively on "Healing Song."

At some point in the production process, Impulse apparently changed their mind about the album's lineup and editing. The back cover lists the 21-minute "Healing Song" and a short part one of "Lumkili," with "Lumkili's" part two and an 18-minute "Memories of J. W. Coltrane" on side two. In actuality (matched by the record labels), "Healing Song" is by itself on side one. A 13-minute "Memories" starts side two, with "Lumkili" finishing out the side in one unbroken piece.

Friday, August 4, 2017

A Miles Davis Single - Friday Miles / Saturday Miles

For four nights, from June 17 to June 20, 1970, Miles Davis played at New York's Fillmore East, opening for Laura Nyro. Each night, Davis and his band played an hour-long (more or less) medley of the psychedelic free-jazz fusion they were exploring at the time. Columbia, Miles' record label, recorded all four nights, and from that four hours of music, issued a double album called Miles Davis at Fillmore. Each side of the album was edited down from a single night's performance and given a title that indicated which night it was recorded: "Wednesday Miles," "Thursday Miles," "Friday Miles," and "Saturday Miles." These edited medleys range from 22 to 28 minutes in length.

The Fillmore album is raw and complex, and although some of the splices are awkward and all too obvious, it represents what Davis' band was capable of more than the studio recordings of the time (many of which weren't released until later). Miles Davis at Fillmore got a lot of play on my turntable for many years.

Finally, in 2014, Columbia released Volume 3 of the Miles Davis Bootleg Series. This was a four-CD set with all four nights' medleys at last presented intact, with no editing. The full picture of the band (Steve Grossman, soprano saxophone; Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, keyboards; Dave Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums; Airto Moreira, percussion) was now available.

But I recently came across Columbia's single from the Fillmore East sessions - "Friday Miles" backed with "Saturday Miles." The idea of four hours of music edited down to an hour and a half, then edited down to under seven minutes appealed to my sense of the ridiculous, so I bought a copy of the 1970 single. "Friday Miles" is a 3:14 chunk of "Bitches Brew" from that night, but the 3:27 "Saturday Miles" is an edit unique to this record, with parts of Saturday's "Bitches Brew," "Yesternow," "Willie Nelson," and "The Theme." I'll add the audio when I have the chance.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Max Roach - Jazz in 3/4 Time

Max Roach was one of the greatest of jazz drummers - swinging, responsive, virtuosic, and paradoxically for a drummer, extremely melodic. The quintet he co-led with trumpeter Clifford Brown in the mid-1950s was one of the very best small jazz groups of the time before Sonny Rollins replaced Harold Land as the tenor saxophonist; after that the band was a frighteningly powerful force of nature. Unfortunately, that edition of the band didn't last long - Brown and pianist Richie Powell were killed in a car accident while on tour. Kenny Dorham, a tasteful player with a unique sound and style, replaced Clifford Brown, and the band remained one of the best in jazz, although no other trumpet player at the time could match Clifford's power and imagination.

While Brown was still alive, Sonny Rollins had written a jazz waltz for the group, "Valse Hot." Later, in the fall of 1956, during sessions for the Max Roach + 4 album, the quintet recorded a version of the waltz "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." This apparently gave producer Bob Shad the idea of making an entire album of jazz waltzes. This was an unusual idea, since at the time, almost all jazz was in 4/4 time. There had been a handful of 3/4 jazz pieces before that, but Dave Brubeck's supposedly groundbreaking Time Out album was still three years in the future.

It was a good idea, and this was the right group to make it work. They swing hard, and it all seems natural and unforced. There is a new version of Rollins' "Valse Hot," and Sonny is inspired to contribute a long, intense solo.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Luis Gasca on Blue Thumb

This album, by trumpeter Luis Gasca, was released in 1972 on the Blue Thumb label. It's called either simply Luis Gasca or For Those Who Chant. I vote for the former - the latter motto appears inside the gatefold cover, but not on the front, the spine, or the labels.  

I found this LP in the cutout racks of a discount department store in Athens, Georgia in the late 1970s. I was in college, and I had been exploring the work of tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. He name was among the personnel listed on the back cover, and that was enough for me. In addition to Gasca and Henderson, some other fine jazz musicians are on board - pianist George Cables, Hadley Caliman on flute, Stanley Clarke on bass, and drummer Lenny White. In addition, almost the entire band Santana is on present, including guitarist Carlos Santana. Only bassist David Brown is absent - Clarke is the only bassist on the album.

As it turns out, though, this album is somewhat diffuse - more interesting than great. The intent seems to be to create a sort of Latino Bitches Brew, but the focus is just not there, for the most part. Joe Henderson is excellent throughout, but his solos are mostly short. There are long-ish passages during which nothing much happens. The best track is probably "La Raza," which has Henderson's longest solo. I like that one a lot.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Louis Armstrong - Disney Songs the Satchmo Way

One can be forgiven for looking askance at this album - a 1968 offering with a somewhat
unfortunate cover painting, which comes dangerously close to reducing an American musical genius to an Uncle Tom-ish stereotype. Of course, for much of his career, Louis Armstrong seemed like a sellout, an Uncle Tom, or worse to those who didn't take the time to really examine what he was about musically and socially.

In short, Armstrong's music took on an increasingly crowd-pleasing, pop-ish surface veneer as he got older. But scratch that surface, and there was much brilliant music all the way to the end of his career. This collection of songs from Disney movies (on Disney's Buena Vista record label) is a case in point. Many of the songs are excellent, but most of them are saddled with hokey arrangements and background choirs. No matter - Armstrong's singing is touching and personal throughout, and this album contains some of his last great trumpet solos.

I'm particularly fond of "Chim Chim Cheree." Both vocally and instrumentally, Armstrong finds the dark center of what could be a silly throwaway tune. His first trumpet solo is just stunning and heartbreaking to these ears.

I didn't know until examining the liner notes of this gatefold album that Louis Armstrong was meant
to be part of the 1970 Disney feature "The Aristocats." Inside the album is an artist's sketch of his proposed character. By the time production got underway, Armstrong was in ill health, and the part was changed to Scat Cat, voiced by Scatman Crothers.