This song really sums up the whole ’60s Blue Note sound for me, which is one of my favourite jazz labels which was at its peak in its first incarnation when jazz was, to my ears, at its most vital. There’s just a comfortable groove set here, clearly thanks to Horace Silver’s interest in putting across more than a standard set of what his audience expected of him. This piece goes well beyond just an excuse for his guys to slap down a bunch of dexterous solos. Here, the instruments sound more like singers, conveying the melody in cooperation. And as such, it’s all the stronger for it.
Horace Silver had been an active musician since the early 50s, playing some legendary dates with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Later, he formed a version of the Jazz Messengers himself. But, by the 1960s, Silver had become interested in other forms, particularly in bossa nova music. This interest sprung partially from a recent tour of Brazil.
But, it also came out of his own heritage, since he was born on the island of Maio, Cape Verde which is also a Portuguese-derived culture much like Brazil, and whose folk music is similar even if it is thousands of miles away. This piece was Silver’s attempt to capture the music of his youth, in which his dad and their relatives would play music in informal sessions at family get-togethers – hence the title of this piece.
Where Silver had been one of the architects of the hard bop strain of jazz, his interest in capturing all kinds of textures while largely ignoring his obligations to genre continued in earnest after creating this, his signature piece. Much like labelmate Cannonball Adderley, Silver would make soul and r&b albums which confounded his jazz audience. And because of his reach as an artist, he was able to influence many in the pop world too, not the least of whom was Steely Dan who borrowed the opening of “Song For My Father” for their 1974 hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”.
Even after Blue Note went on hiatus, Silver continued to explore different genres well into the 1980s and ’90s. Horace Silver is an active musician today.
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 four man jazz institution, the classic line-up the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing Brubeck’s piece “40 Days” live in Berlin (Brubeck: piano, Paul Desmond: alto saxophone, Eugene Wright: double bass, and Joe Morello: drums).
I first heard “40 Days” on a thrown-together live compilation. I loved how sad it seems to sound, with all of those minor chords that makes it feel more like a pop melody than a jazz or classical piece. This track sounds so modern; to me it could have been recorded yesterday. It originally comes from the 1965 album Time In, the last in the series of “time” albums on which the quartet experimented with multiple time signatures, sometimes in the same piece, and played simultaneously.
Brubeck was the first stop during my initial excursion into the vast musical world that is jazz. In many ways, it was Brubeck’s interest in rhythm and interdependent melody lines and the skills he and his group had to make it interesting which allowed me access to the music, I think.
As a young pop fan in the 1980s, this was a whole new world opened up for me when I pulled a frayed and yellow copy of Brubeck’s The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe (now frustratingly out of print!) from the racks of my Dad’s record collection. There was something familiar about what I was hearing, even though it was as far from anything I’d ever really listened to up until that point.
There was something about the warmth of the bass sounds from Gene Wright, and with Brubeck’s rhythmic piano almost played like a percussion instrument in places where in others it was delicate, as if waiting for my virgin ears to catch up with it. Joe Morello’s drums were absolutely steadfast, subtle, and crisp. And Desmond’s alto sax was like nothing I’d ever heard. Desmond had once described his patented pure tone as “the sound of a dry martini”. But to me, it was like the essence of a beautiful woman’s voice. These four square guys in suits and coke-bottle glasses had me hooked.
Brubeck studied composition formally under composer Darius Milhaud at the Mills College of Music in the 1940s after a stint as a part of Patton’s army in World War II. Before then, he studied music at the College of the Pacific, an institution where he would often return when he began touring professionally, and where he would become an active patron of fellowships, educational programs and jazz festivals.
The Brubeck quartet was one of the first bands to focus on gigs at college campuses instead of traditional club circuits. This move gained them a massive following. By 1954, Dave Brubeck was on the cover of Time magazine. But by 1959, he realized that rhythm and time had not really been fully explored in the jazz world to the extent many other aspects had.
Luckily, he had a kindred spirit in Desmond, who contributed the Quartet’s most famous piece, “Take Five”. The tune was a centerpiece on the Time Out album which remains to be a must-have record for anyone interested in jazz, composition, or music in general. That tune, along with many of the others on the album, played with shifting time signatures, sometimes with one musician playing in common time, while another played off it in 3/4 or 6/8 time.
As complicated and academic as this sounds written down, the quartet managed to make an immensely entertaining record. This ability to deliver complex music which is as accesible as any pop record would be Brubeck’s genius.
Jazz critics were initially scornful about how much Brubeck appealed to the masses, especially when “Take Five” saw some success on the pop charts. However, the group continued to build an audience and sell records, taking their brand of accessible and classically influenced jazz to nearly every continent with little regard to the increasingly insular and elitist nature of jazz criticism.
The classic Brubeck quartet line-up would break up in 1967, after Brubeck and Desmond had been playing together non-exclusively for seventeen years. The break-up was amicable. Brubeck would work with Gerry Mulligan by the end of the 1960s, and form groups well into the next few decades, including line-ups with his sons Darius, Chris, and Dan Brubeck. Sadly, Paul Desmond died in 1977, well remembered as not only a consummate musician and innovative soloist, but also as a singular wit.
Now at age 87 (88 in December), Dave Brubeck still playing regularly.
[UPDATE: December, 2012. This year, Dave Brubeck passed away, one day before his 92nd birthday. His influence on my appreciation for jazz, and for music in general, cannot be calculated. And he left behind a multi-faceted legacy that went beyond the musical realm.
One aspect of this is an idea that we rightly take for granted today – the interracial band. During World War II, Brubeck’s band that he formed to entertain the troops included black musicians. He’d continue in this tradition, even before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Here’s an article about Dave Brubeck and his approach and influence to the question of jazz, race, democracy, and how he forsaw a future world where difference isn’t something to be feared, but rather to be embraced for the benefit of everyone.
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.
Here’s a clip of jazz egghead and piano innovator Bill Evans with his 1965 trio performing what was to become a jazz standard – “Someday My Prince Will Come”. The piece was originally featured in the 1938 Disney version of the children’s folk tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and would be covered by many other jazz artists including the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Miles Davis.
There’s something about Bill Evans as a pianist which appeals to me even though it shouldn’t. His approach sounds very academic at times, and on the surface he’s more the technician than the emotive interpreter. This would normally turn me right off. But, what Evans had was a strong sense of musical history and development of form backing him up, and his passion springs out of it when you stop and listen. There’s an awful lot of impressionism in his playing, very influenced by another favourite of mine, Claude Debussy. As such, there’s a lot to admire, and plenty to love too, about his playing; the lightness of touch, the subtlety, and his amazing sense of interplay with his rhythm section. This piece shows his ability to swing, but another piece of his, “Blue and Green”could be an impressionist piece just as easily as it is a part of the jazz idiom. In this respect, Evans had tremendous range as a musician.
Evans’ talent made him a sought after sideman from the 50s onwards. His work can be heard on records by Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, and later in his significant contributions to many albums by Miles Davis including the 1959 masterpiece Kind of Blue. A popular period for Evans was his recordings on the Riverside label, on which he worked with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. This was arguably his definitive partnership as the leader of a trio. With LaFaro and Motian, Evans recorded the sublime Portrait in Jazz, which included the cut “Someday My Prince Will Come”, along with a version of “Blue n Green” which had appeared on Kind of Blue. The trio also recorded the seminal Sunday at the Village Vanguard, a high point in Evans’ career, and for jazz in general. At the height of the trio’s popularity in 1961, LaFaro was killed in a car accident.
Evans spent the remainder of the decade and the one to follow working with a variety of collaborators, including (oddly, some would say) Tony Bennett in 1975 on their Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album. On paper it was an odd pairing, given that Evans is noted to be at the more studied and cerebral end of the jazz spectrum, while Bennett occupies a more instinctive and feel-oriented space. Yet, the album works and stands as a unique statement. Evans also recorded a number of solo pieces from the 60s onward, and maintained versions of his trio which included long-term bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummers Phily Joe Jones and Jack DeJohnette.
A long term drug user, Evans died in 1980 due to complications arising from his habit. Yet his work with other artists and through his own albums as leader helped to draw out the range of jazz, delving as it did into the world of classical impressionism and in world music.