Wednesday, October 25, 2006
in college, when i was DJing at WKCR and when i was just generally starting to enjoy jazz, i developed this interest in "Lost Masters," as they were called in station parlance. basically this meant a musician who was really awesome but whose discography was, for one reason or another, very slim. the classic example would be Herbie Nichols, who's been called a lost master so many times that he's actually sort of famous. but the station had a festival dedicated to these players at one point; can't remember who was included, but i remember this pianist named Oscar Dennard for some reason.
anyway, i just became generally interested in the idea and WKCR's library had everything i needed to do the research. obviously, just because a player is scarce, doesn't mean he was a master. there are a bunch of guys i unearthed that sort of seem to me like curiosities, more interesting than truly great. an example of one of these would be this drummer Robert F. Pozar, who's on a few Bill Dixon records and has two LPs of his own, one of which "Good Golly, Miss Nancy" on Savoy is pretty cool. there's this crazy track where he plays a drum solo along with a computer that's sort of improvising with him. it sounds totally dated but it's a fun piece.
but there were also a few guys in this category who were just triumphantly amazing, one of them being Booker Little, whose disography is actually not that small. he's truly one of my favorite composers and improvisers and if you haven't heard "Out Front" or the Five Spot sessions w/ Eric Dolphy, you need to. amazingly sophisticated and heartfelt '60s jazz. he can make a sextet sound like an orchestra. my favorite piece by him is "Moods in Free Time," which breaks down into this almost unbearably intense dirge section over which Dolphy takes this solo that makes you want to die/cry/live/etc.
that dirge is in my mind related to "Evolution," a piece by another lost master (who truly deserves that title), the trombonist Grachan Moncur III. this is the title track of a 1963 Moncur record that became sort of a holy grail to me in my early days of loving jazz. basically i had picked up "Point of Departure" by Andrew Hill and flipped for it and i knew that that general period and style--sophisticated inside/outside postbop with avant-garde leanings, i guess you could call it--was really what i wanted to hear more of. my friends Joe and Russ told me of a few sessions i needed to check out and two of them were Jackie McLean's "One Step Beyond" and the aforementioned "Evolution."
i remember going to every record store in town searching for these on CD or LP and no one had them. the CD editions were long out of print and forget about the LPs. i remember at a few stores, like the now-closed Village Jazz Shop, i got a knowing nod and smile when i mentioned them, as if to affirm their mythic status.
anyway, i think Russ had the discs all along and just burned them for me at some point. can't remember which one i heard first, but "Evolution" was the one that stuck out as being a total masterpiece. i just completely glommed onto that thing and it remains one of my favorite jazz records ever, probably second to only "Point of Departure" but that's a real tight race.
"Evolution" has four pieces. i had been told to listen for "The Coaster," the third track, and that turned out to be a cool, snappy hard-boppish thing. but what really killed me were the first two tracks. the opener, "Air Raid," demonstrates why Moncur is one of the most formally innovative composers ever to record for Blue Note. the form of the tune is ingenious. basically the piece starts with this sort of holding pattern/drone with Bobby Hutcherson doing this kind of ominous roll on the vibes. then comes the solemn, midtempo head--really simple but really catchy--and then back down to the drone. Grachan starts blowing and gradually, you hear the rhythm section ramping up the tempo until it's totally racing underneath the trombone. and this pattern repeats for each soloist, so they each get to play over both this ominous free time section and like breakneck swing thing. kind of simple, but the effect is awesome, especially when so many tunes from this period/style really don't make use of dramatic shifts in tempo and mood.
the title track is this entirely different thing. dirge is the only word for it. it's basically these really long horn drones with Tony sort of playing this abstract march on the snare. the harmonies are really spooky and kind of humid, if that makes any sense. you just get this feeling of heat and sweat and building tension that never gets resolved. this must have been an incredibly daunting thing to solo over, but Jackie McLean just goes for it. he was unstoppable during this period and he just figures out this tune, knowing when to mirror it and when to soar away from. the solo sounds like he's describing the mood of the piece to you and can't quite get there but he's straining really hard. but there's no sense of hurriedness. overall, "Evolution" is just an insanely focused piece of music that kind of scares you. it's not entirely unique in the Blue Note catalog, b/c Grachan himself wrote a few more tunes like it, but it's by far the most successful of this style.
i interviewed Grachan on the air once at WKCR and as you might guess, i was grilling him about this particular piece b/c i was so fascinated by it. he told me an amazing story: it turns out that the piece was recorded the day before Kennedy shot and Grachan told me how when he was watching the funeral, a military band was playing taps and he was of course immediately reminded of his own piece that he had recorded the day before because it has that marchy, dirgey feel. he said that since then, listening to "Evolution" has made him cringe. i'll never forget that he actually used that word "cringe." even if you didn't see the Kennedy funeral, you can still get that feeling from the piece.
whew. anyway, so after hearing this remarkable record, i hunted down everything else the guy ever recorded. there's some amazing stuff--"Blue Free" from the "New Wave in Jazz" comp on Impulse, the Brazilian record he made for BYG--but nothing really comes close to "Evolution" in my opinion. i heard his other Blue Note session, "Some Other Stuff" way back then, but it didn't make much of an impression. since i've recently been in this deep Blue Note phase though, i knew i wanted to revisit that one. it's not in print on its own so i decided to spring for the Mosaic Select Moncur set, which has "Evolution" and "Some Other Stuff," plus all the Jackie McLean BN sessions he appears on: "One Step Beyond," "Destination Out," "Hipnosis," and part of "'Bout Soul."
checked out "Some Other Stuff" today and my feelings on it were pretty much the same. basically it's a flawed session--it kind of lives up to its offhanded title--but nevertheless fascinating if you're an enthusiast of the players, those being Grachan, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Cecil McBee and brother Tony.
the first and most serious problem i have with the record is the writing. the pieces are really conceptual, a la "Evolution," but they seem to be straining. there's just very little for the soloists to work with. the first song, "Gnostic," is kind of this marchy, dirgey thing that to me feels like an attempt to replicate "Evolution." it's a pretty simple, repetitive figure and it leads to a pretty cool solo from Grachan, but what Herbie's doing is to me really distracting. he keeps up these kind of gimmicky insistent patterns that kind of give the piece this sense of fake urgency when what it really needs is space. Wayne is having none of it, and he's definitely the highlight. he takes a completely amazing solo--slow, slurry and just kind of haunted and just really, really patient. it blows open into these deep blasts that Herbie insists on echoing with deep chords that again feel forced. without the piano, this part would be truly great, but as is, it's just kind of quizzical and weird. fascinating all the same though. Wayne ends with this weird outburst of disjointed phrases that kind of sounds like he's throwing up his hands, but maybe i'm reading too much in.
[do not mean to slag Herbie in general, obviously; i think it's as much the presence of piano at all that i dislike. Hutcherson's vibes work better for Grachan's wide-open sound. but then again, Herbie is one of those straight-ahead players who pop up on a few of the more out Blue Notes and don't always seem to be totally in synch with that school. Freddie Hubbard is another.]
anyway, the rest of the album has similar problems. the second track "Thandiwa," is a pretty tedious kind of straight-up midtempo hard-bop thing (if you haven't guessed, i just get kind of bummed when those kind of tunes end up on more out-type sessions). "The Twins" has this kind of goofy, bouncy head that's more quirky than actually cool. the solo parts are ok--McBee does a good job of keeping things interesting by kind of soloing alongside the soloists--but the whole thing just goes on too long and there's very little to the tune to actually inspire much.
"Nomadic" is another failed experiment. the head is this plodding straight-eighth-note thing that's split between the trombone and tenor so they rarely play at the same time. the kind of minimalist, droll obnoxiousness (that to me is totally not meant as a dis) of it reminds me a lot of some of those pulsating-up-and-down-and-up-and-down heads that Braxton was playing a lot in the '70s and '80s. but it's really just a drum solo by Tony. which one would think would be awesome but never really gets off the ground. Tony is a M A S T E R and as i have said, perhaps my favorite jazz musician, period. but he works best when playing with people, like really kicking a soloist in the ass. listen to the aforementioned "Air Raid" for a scalp-peeling example of this phenomenon.
ok, so am i sorry i bought the set b/c i don't like "Some Other Stuff" all that much? hell no. when it's players of this caliber, i love every second even if it doesn't agree with my tastes. i love figuring out why i think one session works and another with almost the same personnel tanks or works but in a totally different way. Blue Note gives you great bunches of opportunities to do this kind of comparative listening.
speaking of that, the other two sessions, "One Step Beyond" and "Destination Out" fall in between "Evolution" and "Some Other Stuff" in terms of awesomeness. but fortunately, they're much closer to the former in that sense. "Destination Out" is solid throughout but the entirety is overshadowed by the ridiculous beauty and grace of the opening track, "Love and Hate," which Grachan wrote. Roy Haynes plays on this, simmering ballad time; if it was Tony, it might almost feel totally avant-garde "Evolution" but with him it's jazz. exquisite, sad, complex, blue jazz. Jackie is again completely killing.
good shit on "One Step" too, especially the crazy last track, "Ghost Town"--what do you know: another dirgey thing; actually more of a spooky thing, in an almost but not quite hokey way--on which Tony does all this kind of knocking about to sort of evoke the title setting. it's funny b/c in the original liner notes, Jackie writes, [and this is sic] "Doors knock, things scrap as Tony falls in step with [Eddie] Khan [bass]." obviously he means "scrape." whatever, i just think that's funny. anyway, really good piece--kind of a gimmicky, conceptual thing that pays off in precisely the way that the "Some Other Stuff" tunes don't. the lack of a piano and cool, long chord structure definitely help.
Grachan recorded very little throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s. in fact, i was surprised to find he was still alive in '00 or '01 (can't remember) when i met him and did that interview. i have to thank Glo Harris, Beaver Harris's widow, for making the introduction; Grachan came to the station to talk about his experiences with Beaver on a tribute show we did, and i booked time to do an interview with just him. it went really well, though it was kind of sad b/c he was describing how teeth problems had kept him from playing as much as he wanted to.
he has played out a few times recently and a record called, i think, "Exploration" came out a few years back where he plays some of his old tunes with this ace midsize band. the shows i've seen have been kinda not so good, mainly b/c he sat out a lot and took very few substantial solos--again, it's probably chops problems, which is really too bad. i did hear him, Jackie and Bobby do "Love and Hate" together at Iridium though and that was mindblowing and deeply sad at the same time. since that one was slow, he could totally dig into it and his ideas were as patient and thoughtful and poignant as ever. he's a really deep-thinking soloist and he hasn't lost that quality.
anyway, he's at the Stone in December playing in a trio with just two saxists (i think that's configuration). hopefully that'll draw him out a little. you know i'm going to be there, calling for "Evolution" during the breaks.
[a crazy p.s. is that Grachan has a MySpace page! and if you look at the blog there, you'll see that it's actually him updating it. craziness. so go visit him here.]