Listen to this track by powerhouse jazz-pop crooner Tony Bennett, and impressionistic ivory-tinkler Bill Evans. It’s “Waltz For Debby”, an original melody written by Evans that turned into something of a jazz standard from when it was first recorded in the mid-fifties.
This version appears on the pair’s 1975 collaborative effort, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album, which was the first of two albums from them. It represents a high watermark in the catalogues of both men, which considering the calibre of talent at work here, is really saying something. In some ways, the likelihood of this record being as transcendent as it is seems unlikely on paper. As dextrous as Bennett has always been as a vocalist, by this time in his career he was a traditional pop singer, and not noted for a pure jazz style. In contrast to that, Evans was known for his complex and even cerebral approach to jazz. Although like Bennett, he’d traded in the interpretation of jazz standards for a good deal of his career by this time, Evans’ tendencies to deconstruct those melodies stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the vocalist.
With all that said, this album works anyway, and gloriously so. And this rendition of Evans’ tune, with lyrics written by Gene Lees is one of the most powerful. This is down to the strength of the song as interpreted by Evans for this duet. But, Bennett does more than his part to bring it to life, a story about childhood, adulthood, and the bittersweet process of seeing one fade to make room for the other. Read more
Listen to this track by South African horn master and jazz crossover champeen, Hugh Masekela. It’s “Part Of A Whole”, the opening track on his 1972 landmark album Home Is Where The Music Is.
This cut is practically seething with joy, full of his own lilting trumpet, the energetic and versatile drumming of Makaya Ntshoko and the playful alto sax lines of Dudu Pakwana, along with American jazz musician Larry Willis on Fender Rhodes, and Puerto Rican-born bassist Eddie Gomez filling out the lineup.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of joie d’vive coming out of musicians that hailed from a region of the world that suffered under the oppression of Apartheid. As a musical figure, Masekela rallyed against this dangerous and oppressive political climate that also housed a hotbed of musical delights. In this way this is music that is, in its own way, very political. Further to that, I think that political reach extends outside of South Africa to regions closer to home, too. Read more
Listen to this track by gravelly-voiced troubadour and downtown Saturday night mythologist Tom Waits. It’s “I Wish I Was In New Orleans”, a sumptuous tune as taken from his 1976 album, Small Change. The album was recorded quickly in the last two weeks of July of that year.
This record represents a high point in Waits’ initial foray into a unique and signature take on the emerging singer-songwriter “genre”of the early-to-mid-seventies, in Waits’ case complete with heavy jazz flourishes and hard-boiled lyrical imagery to go along with his distinctive and texturally complex singing voice. Additionally, some high profile West Coast Jazz musicians back him up on this one, including renowned drummer Shelly Manne who’s intricate brushwork is a highlight through out, coupled with warm acoustic bass, and a lot (a lot!) of tenor saxophone that provides an effective musical foil to Waits’ voice.
“I Wish I Was In New Orleans” includes this jazz dynamic, but centers on Waits’ piano and voice, contrasted with a string arrangement that seems to weep with melancholy. On this one, you can almost see Waits leaning in close to the microphone while hunched at the piano, eyes closed and brow furrowed. This has always been one of his strengths; vivid and wholly embodied performances, even on a studio recording. It’s not just the arrangements, the playing, and the production we get, either. It’s another element that is common to many successful singer-songwriters and bands of that era — the evocation of a mythological world within the music. In this case, it’s a world that is in the process passing, or has passed entirely. Read more
Listen to this track by jazz-enthusiast and singer songwriter Joni Mitchell. It’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” as taken from her 1979 LP Mingus named after her artistic patron at the time, the incomparable Charles Mingus.
This song is a jazz standard, first appearing in its original instrumental form on Mingus’ 1959 album Ah Um, and a tribute to saxophone legend Lester Young, the wearer of the signature headwear who died that year at the age of forty-nine.
Mitchell had veered into jazz territory on a number of albums previous to this one, working with several jazz musicians who were skilled enough to work within the framework of her penchant for open tunings. Despite its very experimental and non-commercial nature, the Mingus album still managed to peak in the top twenty on Billboard. This is possibly due to the fact that Mingus himself had died after contributing to six new songs on the album, plus two others from his existing portfolio, including this one. After a career of pushing the envelope musically speaking, this was his last musical pursuit.
Perhaps it’s fitting that “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was the closer of this record, originally a tribute to one musician becoming something of a tribute to another years later, complete with lyrics by Mitchell especially for the project. But, I think this song evokes something else, too.
Listen to this track by great American composer and supreme jazz immortal Duke Ellington. It’s “Diminuendo” and “Crescendo in Blue”, two compositions dating back to 1937 and re-positioned here from the band’s book (aka their catalogue of songs) on the 1956 “live” release Ellington At Newport.
This was a game-changing date for Ellington and his guys, and I put the quotation marks around the word live because it was pieced together after the fact, supplemented by studio recordings and with audience applause. Duke felt that the band wasn’t properly prepared for their appearance to the point that he felt it might not make for a good recording. He made the suggestion of a studio album and live album hybrid to paper over what he felt were some of the cracks. But, that’s not the big story here.
The big story is what happened to the real audience, and how it became a vital chapter in the career of one of the greatest American composers of all-time, actually ensuring his success for the remainder of his life – including a cover shot in Time Magazine.
Listen to this track by jazz saxphonist, arranger, and latter day TV soundtrack composer Oliver Nelson. It’s “Stolen Moments”, an established jazz standard covered by many since, and the centerpiece to his celebrated 1961 album The Blues And The Abstract Truth.
Nelson is joined on this song by a selection of some of the greatest musicians in jazz at the time; Paul Chambers on bass, Roy Haynes on drums, Eric Dolphy on flute, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Bill Evans on piano. Nelson’s septet is rounded out by George Barrow, who holds down the low end on baritone sax, even if he doesn’t take a solo. With this tune, it’s the voices of the horns working together to bring out the harmonic beauty found in the theme of the song that makes it such a work of note.
Much in the same way horns would be tightly arranged later in the decade on significant jazz releases like Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”, and Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”, the horns here on this piece are interlocked in the same way they are on a lot of R&B tunes. Perhaps this sheds some light on where Nelson had come from as a musician, and perhaps pointed to where he was going, too. Read more
There have been many vital legendary musical venues that have helped to shape the destiny of pop music. But, few have the pedigree of the immortal Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York City.
Since it was founded in 1934, several of the musical acts that now stand as pioneers in jazz, blues, soul, funk, rock, and hip hop got their start in this otherwise humble theatre located at 253 West 125th Street. And while these artists developed from beginners, to practicioners, to exemplars, and onto immortality, the world changed as a result.
Their work helped in breaking down barriers between musical styles, and also between groups of people who had been separated by the oppressive social norms of their times. As these norms were torn down (and good riddance), the music they made has endured, and the lives of music fans everywhere have been enriched.
Listing every artist that came out of the Apollo Theatre, or had career-defining shows there, would make for a very long read, indeed. So, as is my custom here at the Delete Bin, here is a list of 10 that I hope will suggest the wide spectrum of talent they represent. Take a look!
Listen to this track by acid jazz six-string slinger Ronny Jordan. It’s “So What”, a single as taken from his 1992 record The Antidote. The album was a part of a movement to link post-bop jazz with early ’90s hip hop and R&B of which Ronny Jordan was a major player, based in Britain but making impact in North America too.
This piece is well established in jazz history, originally the centerpiece and lead track to 1959’s Kind of Blue album by Miles Davis, a game-changing release that led jazz into a new era in the 1960s. Jordan wasn’t the first guitarist to cover the song. Grant Green and George Benson would both release versions of the song, two guitarists that Jordan would count among his musical forebears. But, Jordan’s innovation was in bringing it into a new milieu outside of jazz that included hip hop beats and a distinctive R&B feel.
Jazz has always been treated as a sacred trust, by critics and by musicians too. The attempts to marry other music to how jazz is defined has had a mixed history, celebrated by many, and condemned by others. The conflict around it has mostly been about preserving a tradition. But, the attempts to push it in new directions had to do with bringing it new life, in turn by making it culturally available to new audiences.
Listen to this track by towering spiritual saxophonist and jazz immortal John Coltrane. It’s “Psalm”, the last movement in his 1965 magnum opus A Love Supreme.
The track, along with the rest of the record was recorded with what is now known as his classic quartet; Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums. With the almost psychic connection between these musicians, the whole record gels gloriously, coming to be what it was intended to be; a statement of ultimate gratitude by its author.
But, before the music was laid down on an album that is now considered to be Coltrane’s artistic pinnacle, it required one thing before it could be born: solitude. Read more
Listen to this track by jazz-funk pioneer, future electro innovator, and all-around influential musical barrier-breaker-downer Herbie Hancock. It’s “Chameleon”, a key track on his seminal 1973 album Head Hunters.
That record would spin the heads of many who’d first heard it, perhaps not being able to immediately figure out whether or not it was a jazz record. Many of these people would be the critics. Well, it certainly is a jazz record. But, it also carries with it influences that stood apart from the traditions of the jazz world at the time too; Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and the funk genre in general, which is in turn very much influenced by jazz. Talk about spinning heads!
The barriers between the musical forms expressed here had always been fairly permeable. But, as jazz expanded its borders by the end of the ’60s, the definition of jazz as a musical form became harder to ascertain. It had shifted, and morphed, having taken on new influences, as it had done since it was first recorded.
In the middle of all of that, this record was a big seller, standing as a sign of the musical times where the evolution of jazz was concerned. And it would provide an avenue that would open things up for Hancock, and for other musicians down the road. Read more