Listen to this track, an extended arrangement of the second movement of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”, as featured on the landmark 1960 album Sketches of Spain. The arrangement features Gil Evans’ orchestra with jazz pioneer Miles Davis playing trumpet, improvising around Evans’ charts.
Recorded at the tail end of 1959, and released at the beginning of the next decade, it marked something of a new era, like Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come that same year. Arguably unlike the Coleman record, the Evans-Davis collaboration produced music which is highly accessible as well as challenging to the expectations of listeners. But, is it jazz? Read more
Here’s a clip of tragic yet innovative jazz pianist Bud Powell with his “Cleopatra’s Dream”. The tragic was originally featured on the 1958 The Scene Changes album,the last record Powell would record on the Blue Note Label.
Bud Powell was an enormous force in jazz in the post-swing era, making a name for himself primarily as a contemporary of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as one of the key players in be-bop. He had the ability of playing single note solos just as quickly and creatively as any solo either Parker or Gillespie could lay down on their horns, while also changing the rules with the left hand in terms of chording.
Where in the past the piano was looked upon as something of an anchor for the chords of a piece the rest of the band is playing, Powell used the left hand to ‘quote’ the chords intermittently, rather than playing them constantly. He effectively made the piano more than an accompaniment to soloing instruments. He made it into a pure soloing instrument itself. Along with fellow pianist and friend Thelonius Monk’s innovations with harmony, Powell’s technique would influence pretty much every post-Swing jazz pianist, making Powell something of an architect of modern jazz.
But Powell was a troubled man, with problems with alcohol and drugs. Even small amounts of intoxicants would bring out Powell’s dark side, perhaps due to his clinical mental instability. In 1945, he took a beating in a racially motivated incident, which is theorized to have exacerbated his mental problems which plagued him for the rest of his life. Powell would check in and out of mental institutions regularly from the late 40s until the end of his life. And although his talent was enormous, it is argued by many that there is a notable decline in quality by the end of the 1950s, a result of his personal deterioration.
In 1959, Powell moved to Paris where there was a vital jazz scene. Powell would perform live and record there for five years. While in France, he met Francis Paudras, a fan, who eventually came to be a close friend and protector. When visiting Powell in a Parisian mental hospital, Paudras decided to take Powell into his own home, and to personally help get the ailing musician back on his feet. The two lived together for two years, with Powell using the home as a base for recording and composing, two activities denied to him while he was in hospital. It has been argued that Paudras’ intervention most likely extended Powell’s life.
The two returned to New York in 1964, with the intent that their stay there would be temporary. It was hoped that Powell could re-establish himself as a name and musical force in New York, which remained to be an important center for jazz. And upon such a return to the public eye in New York, the two could return to their idyllic life in France. Yet, Powell would remain in the States, having contracted tuberculosis and being plagued once again with the same erratic behaviour for which he’d been hospitalized so many times before.
Here’s a clip of pick-dissing, thumb-picking jazz guitar savant Wes Montgomery with one of my favourite numbers of his, a take on John Coltrane’s “Impressions”. The most famous version of Montgomery’s can be found on the live album Willow Weep for Me featuring his work from the seminal Smokin’ At the Half Note sessions, also featuring Paul Chambers on bass, Wynton Kelly on piano, and James Cobb on drums – the same rhythm section Miles Davis employed on his landmark album Kind of Blue.
In this clip, Montgomery is on tour later in the year with an entirely different group of musicians (Harold Mabern on piano, Arthur Harper on bass, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums, all pictured in the clip). Nineteen Sixty-Five was a busy year for Montgomery, putting out several albums and touring them abroad as well as on domestic club dates.
By the time touring commenced, he had something to prove to jazz critics, who’d all thought he’d gone soft by putting out more instrumental pop-oriented material. But, the tour blew any doubts out of the water, as did his live albums recorded during that period. Montgomery was at the height of his powers here, with his unique thumb-picking style that denied all logic, but was undeniable in terms of execution.
He had less than three years to live by the time this footage was recorded, dying too soon and very suddenly in 1968 as the result of a heart attack at the age of 43. But, he made the most out of his last years by being one of the most influential jazz guitarists ever to have drawn breath, up there with his heroes Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, both of whom also revolutionized jazz guitar. Montgomery continues to influence guitarists today, with his approach to tone and phrasing being a part of the unwritten textbook of jazz improvisation.
For more about Wes Montgomery, check out actor Anthony Montgomery’s site, Wes’ grandson. You may recognize him as Ensign Travis Merriweather from the television series Star Trek:Enterprise, among other roles.
Here’s a clip featuring an excerpt of jazz pianist and improvisational virtuoso Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, recorded in January 1975. The concert was recorded in three segments, with a fourth track edited for the album. It’s this fourth track you’re hearing here – my favourite part of the record.
By the 1970s, after playing in various jazz groups with Miles Davis and Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett wanted to explore the range of his own improvisational excursions as a soloist. In trying to to go beyond traditional improvising around an established musical theme in an ensemble setting, Jarrett decided that he’d improvise everything, going onstage without any idea of what he’d play until it was just him, the piano, and a (very quiet!!) audience. So, what you hear on the record is what came into his head as it was recorded; a second by second process of improv and execution. He made a number of albums this way, not to mention scores of unrecorded concert appearances. The Köln Concert is arguably the best example of this approach, and certainly his most popular recording.
According to the Mojo Collection: The Greatest Albums of All Time, the concert has an interesting back story, although I can’t seem to find a corroborating article or site that backs it up [ED: May 29, 2013 – see this article]. Still it’s a pretty cool tale of artistry over adversity, true or not. Here it is. It seems that while on tour, Jarrett was suffering from fatigue that was due to insomnia. As such, his physical condition was not at its best, trying to catch cat naps while traveling to make up for his lack of sleep at night with not much success. The problem reached its height when arriving in the city of Cologne, Germany where he was scheduled to play a concert. Jarrett had been awake for 24 hours by then.
Further to this, a Bösendorfer piano, Jarrett’s piano of choice, had been rented for the date from a local firm. There were only two instruments available and one was severely out of tune in the upper two octaves. And of course, the rental company had shipped the wrong one to the hall. The movers had left and there was no time to tune it. So, Jarrett was severely sleep deprived, had no music prepared as it was an improvisational show, and the piano he had to work with was unreliable in the upper octaves. They almost canceled the recording of the show, the decision to record also being made previously, and with an engineer waiting to do the job. Jarrett decided to do the show, and to go ahead with the recording anyway. Maybe if he’d been well-rested, he would have chosen a different path – who knows? If the results of the recording are breathtaking, think of the conditions under which it is reported to have been recorded! Yet, there again, maybe those less than ideal conditions and the limitations they put on Jarrett is actually a big part of what made this performance so special. It’s hard to know for sure. But, it’s not an unreasonable theory.
The music Jarrett came up with comes out of a simple structure of only a few chords, growing outward in melodic complexity and mixing traditional jazz, a smattering of classical influences, and not just a little bit of gospel and blues references too. The music is generally classified as jazz, yet it’s breadth seems to go beyond jazz. It sort of becomes it’s own thing as it goes, with a sort of hypnotic quality in places, and lots of contrasting harmonic structures that give it a pretty rich spectrum of effects, both sonic and emotional. And as is his custom when in concert, you can hear Jarrett himself responding to what he’s creating; the vocal whoops and sighs as he himself gets pulled into to where the music is going. A lot of people find this kind of distracting. I find it to be another example of how passionate the guy is about what he’s doing.
There’s a lot of music out there that was an attempt to do the same thing as this music does – basically a lot of limp new age solo piano designed to be ‘soothing’. But, Jarrett manages to put real heart into this, real warmth, and sometimes real aggression too. This is not background music, or music meant to serve some other purpose beyond itself. This is among the best examples of artistic spontaneity ever recorded for posterity, quite simply. As such, every note demands attention. This is not passive music in any sense, and I think that’s part of the reason I find it so compelling, and so far removed from tinkly, nothing, new age fodder to which it is erroneously compared by hack critics. Back story or no, this music is as raw as it comes, pure artistry in action. It is like a living creature, different every time you hear it. I wish I could have seen it live.