Wednesday, December 13, 2006

And then there weren't two...




was hoping to come home tonight and rattle on a little bit about two old-timers who haven't lost their spark. i will in fact be discussing a pair of veterans, but unfortunately, only one of them is still really in the game.

i'm talking about trombonist Grachan Moncur III and pianist Dave Burrell, two musicians who came of age in the '60s. Moncur was more associated with the edgier faction of the Blue Note crowd, while Burrell was more part of the Impulse/BYG free jazz crew, but the two did cross paths on several Marion Brown and Archie Shepp sessions in the '60s and were both part of Beaver Harris's 360-Degree Musical Experience, though they don't seem to have ever recorded together as part of that group.

anyway, so a lot has happened in the meantime, both to jazz and to these two, but circa now, they're both still active, at least in some respect. Burrell is, frankly, kicking ass--he's got a great new label, High Two, and is really challenging himself to keep evolving. i wrote about his latest disc, Momentum, in the preceding post--look for a full review soon in Time Out--and i highly recommend it; definitely one of the most engaging jazz discs of the year.

Moncur on the other hand has been plagued by chops problems and has, again frankly, barely been showing up to recent gigs. i saw him play a few years back with Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd and he sat out most of the time and played very tentatively whenever it was his turn. a more recent gig w/ Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson--with whom he made a series of unbelievable records in the mid-'60s--was a bit better, if only because it featured a version of Moncur's devastating ballad "Love and Hate," from the record Destination Out. Moncur took a beautiful solo on that; i think he fared better b/c the tempo was slow, and speed and stamina seem to be his main issues.

anyway, i just returned from a really unsatisfying Moncur appearance at the Stone and as much as i hate to say it, i'm not sure i'll be giving him another chance for a long while. basically, i was very excited about the show b/c it was advertised as an all-horn affair, with Moncur, Michael Blake and James Spaulding, the latter saxist being an awesome yet underrated sideman on a ton of great '60s Blue Notes. but it was not to be: a note posted on the door of the Stone before the show said that Blake and Spaulding wouldn't be there and that was a big letdown. from those previous gigs, i got the feeling that Grachan was pretty reticent to take on a challenge and i was hoping that playing with serious dudes like Blake and Spaulding would draw him out more.

the fill-ins were a keyboardist and a drummer whose names i didn't catch. they weren't bad musicians, per se, but in all honesty, the gig was pretty terrible--just tepid, Kind of Blue-style swingin' with some very tentative solos from Moncur. it was remarkably safe, unchallenging and unengaging. the most frustrating thing about this and many of Moncur's latter-day performances is that he completely avoids performing any original compositions. and if you know Moncur's tunes, you know this is a HUGE letdown, because he's honestly one of the most engaging jazz composers i've ever heard, even if he's only got a few albums out of his own stuff. a while back, i gushed about his record Evolution and the Jackie McLean dates One Step Beyond and Destination Out, for which he wrote a whole bunch of eccentric, haunting and just staight-up gorgeous tunes. but he comes to gigs now with nothing more than the desire to blow tepidly over "So What." that pretty much sums it up right there.

i mean no disrespect, but it pains me to see this. there are a million alternatives. why not just get a killer band to play his tunes and take the solo burden off him, like on the 2004 session Exploration? this guy's music needs to be heard, and if he can't play it, someone else should. Andrew Hill has recently been reclaimed by Nels Cline, now i challenge some ambitious young jazz dudes to take a stab at "Air Raid," "Evolution," "Ghost Town," "Love and Hate," etc. it's essential jazz, and just straight-up some of the coolest music i know.

ANNNNNNNNNYway, now for what i really meant to write about, which is something of an addition to that whole '70s/'80s jazz business that will henceforth be called the DIS(that's Douglas, Iverson, Smith)canonization of '06--that whole long-overdue reclamation of the '70s and '80s as fertile periods for jazz. so while researching my review of the new Burrell disc, i was reminded of his older stuff and in particular, Windward Passages, a 1979 live solo piano thing on Hat, which i must say is one of the most gorgeous musical phenomena i've ever frickin' heard.

so Dave Burrell is one of that whole crew of what i'd call TOTAL pianists. you know what i mean, the whole Jaki Byard/Bobby Few/Don Pullen axis of dudes that can play absolutely anything and love to mash together all of jazz history in these crazy juxtaposition-filled apotheoses of total music. i think Randy Weston may be sort of on this tip too, but i haven't heard enough to say. anyway, Windward Passages is Burrell's definitive statement, the place where he really shows that he can do it all.

so basically Windward Passages is some sort of jazz opera that is meant to be this big multimedia thing with dancers, singers, an orchestra, the whole works. but as far as i know, a version like this has never been recorded, and i'm not even entirely sure it's ever been performed, but don't quote me on that (or anything else). but that's fine by me, b/c i can't ever imagine wanting to hear it any other way than the way it's done on this record.

here's the deal with Burrell: he's a consummate romantic. he writes these impossibly gorgeous, swooning themes that make you feel like you're in some kind of period drama, but you don't really know what period--it's just grand, sweeping, gorgeous, swooning music that brings up images of spinning around in a field or a ballroom with your hands pressed to your chest, just this dizzy feeling of pure emoting. and then he mixes that together with percussive flurries and these irreverent free squiggles and jaunty 2/4 swing, with the left hand just jiving away on this old-timey jazz tip. it all happens in rapid succession and you just feel like you're inside Burrell's mind.

i was thinking about the whole genre juxtaposition thing and how thanks to John Zorn and others it's become this whole rib-nudging thing of "Look how cute i can be." and yeah, ok, sometimes with Burrell there's the slightest sense that the "sabotaging" of the gorgeous stuff with the free stuff is obligatory, but i have to say that most of the time, you feel like you're being carried along on the stream of his thoughts. for him ragtime suggests free, which in turn suggests swooning melody, which in turn suggests percussive thunder. he has a total mind and this is music outside of style and fashion and genre. it is certainly not jazz or classical or soundtrack music or anything else. it's just real.

my friend recently burned me a Terry Riley disc called Lisbon and even though i wouldn't yet say i hold Riley in as high esteem as Burrell, i got to thinking the same thoughts, about dudes who play music rather than style. there sure aren't a heck of a lot of them. i'll say that i think John Fahey is one--he's ostensibly a folk musician, just the way that Burrell is ostensibly a jazz one. but really they're both total musicians, who have all history in their brains and at their fingertips. these are the real gods, the ones who can do everything in a solo setting. i'm not even sure i'd put Cecil in this category.

you need to be able to go to a conventional place, to meet your audience halfway, give them something to latch onto, in order to really touch their hearts. with Cecil, it's always you going to him, and i'm totally happy to do that. but with Burrell, you often get your pleasure buttons pushed in very conventional ways and then there's that immense tension in knowing that he could snatch that beauty away and wondering when that's going to happen and when it does, then comes the unbearable tension of when he's going to bring it back. this is the experience of listening to Windward Passages, my next humble nomination to the DIScanon. Amazon has two copies for like $20, which is a steal for something of this magnitude, but it's hard one to find otherwise [note, there is a Burrell/David Murray duo disc that's also called Windward Passages, and even though i'm sure it's good, don't mistake it for the solo one]. i'm going to give you a taste here, the first and probably most potent track, in which is contained the kernel of the entire recital, but you really need to dig the whole thing.

before i forget, i need to tell you that one of the tracks--not the one i'm posting-- is called "I Want to See You Everyday of Your Life," which i find to be one of the most awesomely beautiful verbal statements i've ever heard, just a deep, deep concept. and even though that's not the one you'll hear here, that title sums up the deep, heady beauty that's contained on this disc. so anyway, here's "Overture: Windward Passages," an absolutely vital statement of total music that ought to make you ravenous for the whole session:

Dave Burrell - "Overture: Windward Passages" (1979)

ps: another Burrell that i'm still digesting is La Vie de Boheme, his adaptation of the Puccini opera made for BYG during the great blowup of '69. so while everyone else was doing balls-out, Pan-African free jazz, Burrell was doing Puccini--figures. what a crazy, awesome dude; like i said, he's a romantic at heart.

7 comments:

Mwanji Ezana said...

Burrell and Moncur are together on Moncur's "New Africa" on BYG.

I saw Burrell's trio not too long ago (reviewed on my blog) and totally agree with your description, except that I found the stride-to-free thing verging on the systematic, though it never lost its charm.

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