Monday, August 27, 2012

The drummer, given some: Albert "Tootie" Heath with Ethan Iverson at the Vanguard

What do we mean when we say "Give the drummer some"? The trio of Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Albert "Tootie" Heath—which I heard at the Village Vanguard last night—is one answer. The band grows out of Iverson's "Seek out your heroes and play with them" initiative, also the engine behind the pianist's ongoing Billy Hart collaboration. The idea isn't simply that you give the drummer a lot of solo space; it's more that you simply play really great jazz in the company of the musician in question, while drawing the listeners' attention, both verbally and through sympathetic arrangements, to their brilliance.

I knew Tootie's name before attending last night's show, but I didn't know his work and his sound the way I know, say, Roy Haynes's. I may have even seen him play one other time—as part of the Heath Brothers, I believe, at a Jazz Foundation of America event—but he wasn't really on my radar in the way he ought to have been. And this is sort of the point re: the aforementioned "Seek out your heroes" initiative: The gig—in this case, a run at the Vanguard‚is no longer just a gig; it's a work of advocacy. What it says, is, "This masterful musician walks among us; he's playing better than ever; come pay your respects."(One of Iverson's many Heath intros last night went like this: "As we live and breathe, 'Tootie' Heath on drums!")

I heard such wonders coming from the drum kit last night that I felt embarrassed by my prior ignorance of Mr. Heath's work, by the fact that I'd never deliberately set aside a night, or ten, to go hear him play. There was the wicked bouncing march he laid down on "The Charleston," a quasi-backbeat—I think I remember a 16th-note feel, played with the left hand on the hi-hat—that reminded me of the Purdie Shuffle (see around 3:30 here) on Sonny Rollins's "No Moe" and some of the most exquisitely swinging brushwork I've ever heard on the head of "Shiny Stockings." (The way Heath's wire brushes grabbed the snare and lifted out the sound on the latter piece made me feel like I understood for the first time what was really meant by the term "trap set.")

But it was the mallet playing that really floored me. In his recap of Tuesday night's sets, Iverson mentioned Heath's "African mallet patterns" on Paul Motian's "It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago." I wouldn't have been knowledgeable enough to identify the beat in question—played with one mallet on the untightened snare, the other on the rack tom—as African, but that description makes perfect sense; relistening to the pattern in my head now, I'm pretty sure there was some three-against-four going on. Technicalities aside, though, the important thing about the beat was how it fit into the arrangement. Much of the rest of the set had to do with swinging in the conventional sense, pieces in which Iverson and Street reveled in Heath's spacious, gracious pocket, in which the trio grooved as one entity. But "It Should've Happened…" was something different. The performance was about coexistence rather than straightforward agreement. Iverson's melody floated over Heath's mallet pattern, the two seeming totally independent of one another but totally attuned. It's the kind of arrangement that, it seems to me, has to just sort of happen. It's like, "I'll play this, you play that, and I'll see you at the end of the tune." The parts jelled beautifully, even though their actual relationship was a mystery. And thus, as a Motian tribute, it made perfect sense. If that mallet episode played to me like a little mind puzzle, the one on "How Insensitive" was an exercise in simplicity. I'm not sure I've ever seen a drummer make more poetic use of minimal materials than Heath did on this piece. He held the mallet in his right hand, using it to lightly strike the floor tom while he rustled the fingers of his left hand over the head of the same drum. There were variations in the pattern, but mostly it was just pure pulse, with ever-so-slight embellishment. You heard the piano and the bass, but what you felt was the drum, a plush murmur in time. If I had to guess, I'd say that the piece lasted two minutes, maybe two and a half (all the pieces were brief, which made for excellent variety), but it felt so generous in its lulling hush. As with the brushwork, what I really felt here was a new understanding of the materials of jazz drumming: why you use brushes here, sticks there, mallets in this other context. The kit can speak in so many different tongues, and Albert Heath is fluent in them all.

Heath's witty banter was a show unto itself. The bowtied drummer was obviously in high spirits last night—though I'd venture to say that he probably is every night he's onstage—cracking constant jokes in between and even during the pieces. He'd turn constantly to the young man seated immediately to his left and offer commentary on the music as it was happening. One of my favorite of these moments was when Iverson was playing an eerie uncaccompanied intro to the ballad "Memories of You"; Heath leaned toward the audience member in question and stage-whispered "Frankenstein!" Then he pantomimed a scary monster, curling his hands into claws and baring his teeth. He was obviously poking fun at Iverson's love of the esoteric flourish, but in a loving, old-school way, the way one seasoned comedian might roast another. And after Iverson announced "Shiny Stockings," Heath turned to the young man and asked, "You know 'Thong Song'?" He explained that "Shiny Stockings" was pretty much analogous to that Sisqo favorite, before singing a little snippet of the immortal chorus ("Thong-th-thong-thong-thong") for the benefit of the entire crowd. Then, after Iverson spoke about Heath's association with Mal Waldron—the trio had either just played or was about to play Waldron's "Fire Waltz," the killer opener to the classic Dolphy/Little/Waldron/Davis/Blackwell Five Spot recordings, with Heath unleashing a merciless series of triplets on the snare—and recommended the Waldron record Impressions as a good example of that partnership, Heath said, "I think that record went rust instead of gold… or maybe it went mold."

As if it wasn't clear whose show it really was, Iverson and Street both sported "Tootie" buttons, with Street even wearing a Heath-style bowtie. This dynamic, i.e., generations mixing onstage, with the younger element (namely Iverson) making it very plain how thrilled they are to be onstage with the elder, has the potential to be corny or cloying. But the reason it's not in this case is that however worshipful Iverson's intros of Heath are, once the music begins, he's performing as an equal. Often, you'll see younger sidemen to distinguished older musicians playing a sort of "Yes man" role. Here, it's almost the opposite; Iverson's job in this trio seems to be to keep Heath surprised and energized. You can tell it's working because Heath plays in a constant state of delight, smiling and letting out appreciative whoops. Sure the style and the repertoire—familiar standards like "Now's the Time" and "All the Things You Are" alongside eccentric choices like the aforementioned "Fire Waltz" and the Motian—are designed to flatter, but in the end, the point is not simply to cater to the drummer but to stimulate him and thus to give the listener a sense of his breadth, to cultivate in the audience the kind of appreciation for this great man that Iverson himself harbors. And in all those senses, this project is entirely successful.

When you see this ingenerational link done right—i.e., when there's mutual respect, but also a real head-on engagement between equals—it's one of most inspiring, satisfying phenomena in jazz. I think about Jon Irabagon and Barry Altschul, or Darius Jones and Cooper-Moore, or Anthony Braxton and any one of his current much-younger collaborators. The Iverson/Heath hook-up (and I mean no disrespect to Ben Street; his role is vital—not to mention clearly impressive to Heath, who listened to the bassist's solos with rapt attention last night—and my discussion here is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complex dynamic of this particular trio) is one of the most successful examples of this that I've seen, a partnership that makes "old" jazz feel entirely new. I'm not sure I can remember enjoying a set of so-called straight-ahead jazz more than this one, and it's because the setting encouraged me to focus on the nuts and bolts, to not take for granted the decades' worth of class and experience and good humor and skill seated behind the drums. In short, the set made me a Tootie fan for life. Mission accomplished.


*If anyone can think of other great intergenerational collaborations, either current (like the ones mentioned above) or past (Miles Davis and Tony Williams, say), I'd love to hear about ’em in the comments.

*It's interesting to think about how the Iverson/Heath partnership differs from the Iverson/Hart one. Hart is just five years older than Heath (the men were born in 1940 and 1935, respectively), but that gap is important. The current Billy Hart Quartet is playing a much more, for lack of a better word, modern strain of jazz than this Iverson/Street/Heath group, focused on long, exploratory performances and mostly original repertoire. The bands sound nothing alike, and they complement each other beautifully.

*Here is Steve Smith's sharp appreciation of the Iverson/Street/Heath trio, which he caught this past Thursday. I'd like to thank Steve for the tip, which spurred me to attend last night.

 *As is customary with the Iverson collaborations, there's an extended interview on file.


UPDATE: Thanks, Mark Stryker, for his informative intergenerational-collabo overview, which you'll find in the comments. I know a few of those examples well (Shorter, Haynes, etc., and the Cookers absolutely rule!), but some are new to me. Psyched to look into the Louis Hayes group in particular.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

List-o-mania: 1996–2011

Over the past week or so, Pitchfork has been polling readers, staffers and contributors re: their favorite albums from the years 1996 through 2011, i.e., the 15-years-and-counting lifespan of the site, via a project called the People's List. My friend and former TONY staffer Colin St. John tipped me off to the project—check out his own list and commentary—and after a little procrastination, I began frantically compiling my top 100 in time for yesterday's deadline. You can view my list here, and those of other Pitchfork writers here.

Lists of this nature are strange; that fact is well established. They are strange because when it comes to such a vast and vastly diverse art form as music or movies or books, consensus is pretty damn near impossible. Phil Freeman wrote passionately and persuasively on this topic last January, with regard to his feelings of alienation from the Kanye-obsessed hordes of fellow Pazz and Jop voters. In one sense, I do not share Phil's feelings; I really enjoyed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the consensus critical pick for best album of 2010), and I included it on both my year-end top 10 list, and this most recent 15-year-spanning list. On the other hand, when I view friends' and colleagues' contributions to the People's List—here's a typically well-rounded one from another FAFTS ("friend and former TONY staffer"), Corban Goble—I can't help but feel a little apart from the Conversation at Large.

Again, this not out of hostility or reactionary-ness re: what I'll call the Indie-Rock Canon that has cohered during this Pitchfork lifespan (and which has in recent years expanded to included hip-hop/R&B—both mainstream and underground—as well as certain strains of metal, electronica, experimental music, etc.). I included quite a few records in that zone, including three Strokes albums, a bunch of Will Oldham selections, LPs by Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, Dinosaur Jr., Battles, Dr. Octagon, Deerhoof and Sia, and a few more. And I like a lot of the other consensus faves, albums by Radiohead (I haven't listened to OK Computer in a good while, but I got really into it in college), Joanna Newsom (Ys is a beautiful, epic album), Built to Spill (ditto re: Keep It Like a Secret), Modest Mouse (the first song on The Lonesome Crowded West destroys me, but on the whole, I like This Is a Long Drive… better; didn't realize that was from ’96—probably should've included it!), Yeah Yeah Yeahs, White Stripes, Japandroids, Fucked Up, Wavves, the Flaming Lips, Animal Collective and on and on. But it would've been disingenuous for me to include any of those latter albums on my top 100, because none of them has captured my heart and mind the way that, say, Colossamite's Economy of Motion (to pick one great yet largely off-the-radar album from my list) has. So my list is simply what it is, all that it really could be, i.e., a totally subjective catalog of normalcies, idiosyncrasies and, in some cases, by virtue of what is not included, blind spots, one very major one being hip-hop.

Over the past couple years, I've definitely tuned in to hip-hop more than I had in the previous decade. But I'm still no expert, and that's much of the reason why even in the case of a lot of rap I know I like (Ghostface, Outkast, Eminem), I didn't include those records; I simply haven't put in the time that in and of itself is an indication of love for an artwork. That is to say, when compiling my year-end best-of lists each December, I try not to overthink them, i.e., I simply reflect back on what I spent the most time voluntary listening to throughout that time period. In other words, you don't pick your favorites; they pick you. Last year, the Frank Ocean was a no-brainer, as was the Francis and the Lights the year before that, and the Propagandhi the year before that (speaking of Supporting Caste, which came in at No. 5 on my People's List ballot, I've started to think of this as an all-time-great album, certainly the best new record I've heard since I started to work as a full-time writer-about-music). These are simply the newly released albums that demanded my sustained attention, obsession, care, zeal, etc. during this time period. And that is all I have tried to do with this 1996–2011 list: catalog, in hasty digest form, that sustained attention over these past 15 years. I speak for no one other than myself, which is why I prefer to consider lists of this sort as lists of "favorites" rather than reflections of some monolithic "best"-ness. Taken as honest reflections of a single person's tastes, they become a whole lot less threatening and a whole lot more fun. Coming upon a list like Colin's and Corban's, where in the case of about half the selections, I know them only by title or maybe a lone track, is a chance to know more. Conversely, if even one person who checked out my picks was inspired to take a first listen to John Fahey's Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites (in TONY, I said: "During five lengthy ruminations, in which original and public-domain material mingles with Ellington, Artie Shaw and Bola Sete, you hear the haunted, heartbreaking sweep of American music as filtered through a single encyclopedic mind"), Tim Berne's The Shell Game, or anything by craw [sic], Keelhaul or Cheer-Accident, that would make me extraordinarily happy.

And that possibility, of turning someone on to something new, or inspiring them to reconsider something they thought they knew fully, is really the only reason I can see for this whole writing-about-art thing to exist in the first place. These albums speak for themselves, but for some reason, the babble of history drowns them out and we have to dig them up and praise them and let them reiterate what it is they have to teach us. Which brings me to Colin's final point, i.e., what are the sleeper 1996–2011 picks, the great albums, in any style, yet uncovered by any of the participants in this hive-mind People's List exercise? I'd be grateful for any readers' comments.

P.S. I'm already kicking myself over the purely accidental omission of Boys Life's Departures and Landfalls. I did include a record by the related Farewell Bend (Brandon Butler and John Rejba were in both bands), but Departures is a true all-time fave ’round these parts. And all of the following were records I intended to include but had to cut to get myself down to a nice, round 100:

William Parker Clarinet Trio Bob's Pink Cadillac
The Octagon Nothing But Change
Cannibal Corpse Evisceration Plague
June of 44 Tropics and Meridians
Behold… the Arctopus Skullgrid
Yukon Mortar
Territory Band–2 [Ken Vandermark] Atlas
Dan Weiss Trio Timshel 
Obituary Darkest Day 
Charred Walls of the Damned Charred Walls of the Damned
Ornette Coleman Sound Grammar 
Axis of Advance Obey

Also a shout-out to Nicki Minaj's mixtape Beam Me Up, Scotty, a shrewd selection by Corban that I totally forgot about.

P.P.S. The 1996 cut-off point was interesting for me, as it comes just a few years after the release dates of some of my favorite records of all time, albums that surely would've ended up near the top of the list had the initial year parameter been, say, 1993: two more masterpieces by craw (craw and Lost Nation Road), Morbid Angel's Covenant, Face of Collapse by Dazzling Killmen, Slip by Quicksand, Helmet's Betty, Death's Symbolic and many more.

P.P.P.S. There isn't a whole lot of jazz or improvised music on this list. I'd attribute that to a couple of factors: I didn't start listening to jazz seriously till about 1999, and much of my jazz attention up through about 2005 was devoted to playing catch-up, i.e., schooling myself on the music's vast recorded history, a project that still persists: I'd estimate that older, non-contemporary jazz still accounts for about two thirds of my current jazz intake. Also, I'd say that on the whole, album-oriented lists favor song-based, i.e., largely non-improvisatory, music. It's a silly generalization to make, I know—I'm already second-guessing it—but it's the best way I can think of to account for the fact that there's nothing by, say, Joe McPhee, Wadada Leo Smith, Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Henry Threadgill, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton on my list. All of these artists have meant a lot to me over the past 15 years, but my high estimations of their work have formed from a composite impression of live performances I've seen, records I've heard new and old, interviews I've conducted  and just a general kind of "living with" the work and attendant philosophies of figures such as these. But on the other hand, the jazz records I did include—albums by Andrew Hill, Tim Berne, the Bad Plus and others—are all albums I've savored in much the same way as the mostly rock-oriented selections on my People's List ballot: via repeated, sustained, voluntary attention. I'd like to hear folks' thoughts re: great 1996–2011 jazz records I might have overlooked; I'm sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, especially from the period before ’05, when keeping up with current jazz releases wasn't yet part of my job.

P.P.P.P.S A running list of other worthy records from this time period, listed as I think of them:

Henry Threadgill Where's Your Cup? 
Anthrax Worship Music 
The Raconteurs Broken Boy Soldiers 
Weezer Pinkerton 
One Day as a Lion One Day as a Lion 
Björk Medúlla 
Xiu Xiu The Air Force
Coptic Light EP and LP

P.P.P.P.P.S Here's a great, jazz-heavy list by Destination: Out's Jeff Golick. Wadada Leo Smith's Tabligh is one of many shrewd selections here.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #8: Damión Reid

The eighth installment of my jazz/metal interview series is now live in both extended and abridged versions. I've loved Damión Reid's drumming ever since I first heard him with Robert Glasper (it was either 2005's Canvas or 2007's In My Element), and more recently, his work with Steve Lehman and Greg Ward has been blowing my mind. But I had no idea he was a metal fan until Matt Merewitz, who had been keeping up with Heavy Metal Be-Bop, suggested that I talk to him for the series. So a big thank you to Matt for the tip, and to Damión for being so generous with his time. I had an awesome time working on this one.

Monday, August 06, 2012

The pleasures of post-purism: Joe Henderson in the ’70s

 My latest listening jag concerns the saxophonist Joe Henderson. For the past five days or so, pretty much all my recreational music intake has centered around him. The phase is a follow-up investigation to a flea-market LP purchase I made a couple months ago: Henderson's Black Narcissus, from 1976.

The fact that I picked up that record—an highly unusual and indisputably of-its-time session, slathered in a thick vintage-synth glaze—and my intense enjoyment of it speaks to a change in my jazz tastes over the last few years. To put it concisely, I've thrown what I now identify as my former snobby purism out the window. When I was first getting into jazz, in college, I developed a series of parameters about what periods and aesthetics interested me. Maybe this walling-off was merely practical then; getting my head around the genre was such a vast undertaking that I had to set some limits. Anyway, guided by my own innate taste and also likely by the general critical bias—shared by some of my then-colleagues at WKCR—against fusion or what I'd call posthippie jazz of any kind, I homed in on the mid-’60s Blue Note aesthetic, exemplified by Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III, Sam Rivers, Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Young, Wayne Shorter and others, as my personal gold standard. For many reasons, records from that pool have aged incredibly well: They sound amazing, thanks to Rudy Van Gelder; they embody the most appealing characteristics of so-called "in" and "out" jazz aesthetics; the leaders and the sidemen are all virtuosos, who came up in the trenches, so to speak, and who took improvisational originality seriously; and they were made before rock, funk and pop influences whooshed into jazz, muddying the gene pool. (Rudy Van Gelder aside, the same could of course be said for the Miles quintet records of the same period.)

Simply put, I learned then a kind of prejudice against the ’70s and ’80s. What you wanted, it seemed to me, were those beautifully designed Blue Notes of the Lion/Wolff period, not the garish—visually and sonically—jazz records of the ’70s, with their super-dated graphic design and equally outmoded fashion statements in the artist photos, with subpar production values, either too clunky or too thin, to match. To bring my main point back around, I'm pretty sure I would've picked up a record like Black Narcissus out of the used bin a decade ago, noted its vintage and instrumentation (synths! congas!), and thrown it right back, confident that I wouldn't be missing out on any of what I loved about Joe Henderson's work on Pete La Roca's Basra, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure or Larry Young's Unity. (For whatever reason, I've only studied up on Henderson's great leader records for Blue Note more recently; I spent time with In ’n Out this past weekend and adored it.) I'll admit that I'm still wary of this whole "Deep Jazz"/"Rare Groove" aesthetic, as popularized by outlets like Soul Jazz Records (any longtime Wire reader will recognize their back-cover advertisements), but somewhere along the way, I realized that to wall myself from what I'll call, for my own purposes, the post–Blue Note years in jazz—i.e., post-1967, say, the year when Alfred Lion retired from Blue Note, John Coltrane died and Miles was in the process of bidding farewell to acoustic jazz—was a mistake. Sure, many musicians, maybe even Henderson himself, were swept up by the current in the ensuing decade or so; sure, the rigorous quality control that prevailed at Blue Note wasn't necessarily in evidence during Henderson's stint at Milestone (1967–1976); sure, records like Black Narcissus, and some other Milestone Hendersons I've been loving over the past few days—Black Is the Color, Canyon Lady, In Pursuit of Blackness, Power to the People—don't seem as uncannily undated as the mid-’60s Blue Note catalog does. But what I'm realizing is that purism-for-its-own-sake just isn't as interesting to me anymore; or rather, maybe it is, but I'm just as excited about jazz that is of its time, jazz where you sense a strange kind of friction between artist integrity and label bottom line; jazz where producers were setting soloists against all kinds of faddish backdrops to see what might sell; jazz, like Black Narcissus, where the confluence of free-jazzy experimentation and DJ-friendly grooving-ness makes your head spin. The title track (a piece that also appears on Power to the People, in a much more conventionally "tasteful" version) is one of the less audacious pieces on the record, but it still gives you an idea of the album's general bent, the way in which it reflects the jazz-industry climate that spawned it:

That "tasteful" I wrote above is important; in many ways, it strikes at the core of the point I'm trying to make. Is this a dated recording? Sure. It's unlikely you'd hear synths applied so liberally on a 2012 jazz album, and if you did, there would probably be some very deliberate kitsch-ification going on. Does this record have the unadorned elegance of a classic Blue Note recording? Certainly not. But then comes the trump card: Does Joe Henderson slay on this record? Absolutely. Listen as he heats up from about 2:50 on (I love that tranced-out tic around 3:10). Sure the synths are swarming around him, threatening to drown him out, but he's pushing back mightily, asserting his trademark grit and agility with as much potency as ever. In short, despite the eyebrow-raising sonic wallpaper, there's no mistaking this for anything other than a Joe Henderson record, and given what a tough-and-tender monster Joe Henderson was (RIP), a true force from the ’60s through the ’90s, for a fan of Henderson, and more broadly, of jazz to wall him/herself off from the man's output during the ’70s due to some straitjacketed notions of "good taste" seems like an aesthetic crime. Does everything on these records work? Of course not. (Some of the meandering cosmic-free-jazz abstraction on Black Is the Color springs to mind as an example thereof.) But is there some absolutely dynamite Henderson, some of the best playing I've ever heard from him, playing that's far more intense and unhinged than what you'll hear on his Blue Note recordings, on these records? Indeed. In short, any serious jazz fan needs to eventually learn to toss their superficial aesthetic hang-ups out the window if they're going to really wade neck-deep in this glorious music. Everyone loves the ’60s (and, for that matter, the ’50s); they're an easy sell—pure class, no funny stuff. But the ’70s offer a very different kind of pleasure; in the case of Henderson records like Black Narcissus, they're excessive, scattershot, confounding and also bubbling over with joy and invention. As you can see from the back-cover portrait, Henderson isn't sweating the sea change in the music:

 He's going with the flow, yes, but he's also standing his ground. Many of the great ones did the same during the ’70s and ’80s. I think of Sonny Sharrock, whose Highlife I once disdained for its aggressively poppy, borderline smooth-jazz sound palette. But there comes a time when you realize that you'll follow certain artists anywhere and that you usually won't be disappointed when you do. Is Highlife on the same level as Ask the Ages? (With Sharrock, the Henderson timeline above is reversed; Ask the Ages, his last album, is the most "Blue Note," that is to say "pure," recording he ever made and certainly one of his best.) Perhaps not, but you're depriving yourself of some highly enjoyable Sonny if you skip it. And more importantly, in walling yourself off from where your ’60s heroes went in the ’70s and ’80s, you're over-idealizing them, making believe that they didn't have to struggle to find their way during those uncertain times for jazz, that they didn't have to reckon with the industry at large and the public's changing tastes. In the case of artists as raw yet adaptable as Henderson and Sharrock (recall that the latter played in Herbie Mann's band for years), that kind of negotiation was a central fact in their career and a principal reason why their respective discographies can seem so unwieldy. But we should embrace that unwieldiness, embrace the fact that the Henderson fossil record includes exquisite specimens such as In ’n Out up as well as more transitional, rougher-hewn ones such as Black Narcissus or Canyon Lady (a lush, soundtracky, Latin-centric session, released the year before Narcissus). As I suggested above, it's all Joe Henderson, and thus it's all great. As with Sharrock, it didn't really matter what was going on around him; when he played, he spoke the truth.

A couple caveats/clarifications:

1) Granted, we're talking about very high-caliber players here; I wouldn't adopt this "I'd follow you anywhere logic" with respect to just anyone.

2) Though it touches on the same period championed in the great Behearer revolution of 2006—that is, the overdue glorification of the best jazz of the ’73–’90 period—the point I'm making above isn't the same one being made during that hive-mind blogathon. Personally, my main takeaway from the Behearer episode was an appreciation for masters such as Henry Threadgill and Keith Jarrett, artists who made their first essential statements as composers/improvisers/bandleaders during this period (give or take a couple years). In other words, neither of these artists had, like Henderson, established himself during the era of Blue Note purism. (With Sharrock, it was more an Impulse/ESP purism, e.g., as established on Pharoah Sanders's Tauhid and Marzette Watts's & Company; he does appear on a Blue Note record, Wayne Shorter's Super Nova from ’69, but there's nothing conventionally pure about that wild, esoteric-yet-rewarding LP.) "The ’70s in jazz" wasn't something that Threadgill and Jarrett had to reckon with, react to, assimilate in particular; it was simply their breeding ground. Whereas Henderson, an artist who made his name in that golden era of jazz purism, was exactly the kind of jazz musician who is often thought to have "lost his way" in the ’70s, to have bowed to the aesthetics of the time rather than helped shape them. And while it may be true that Joe Henderson was no Miles Davis, in terms of forging ahead with a clear idea of what he wanted out of his post-purist jazz, what I'm saying is that that matters less to me now than it once did. As long as I'm hearing Joe Henderson play tenor, I'm happy, whether that's in a classically styled quintet in 1964 with Kenny Dorham, McCoy Tyner, Richard Davis and Elvin Jones (damn, that lineup…) or at the center of a synth-drenched post-fusion maelstrom in 1976. I understand now that each is enriched by the other.

3) I don't mean to suggest that all of Joe Henderson's Milestone records are as aggressively non-purist as Black Narcissus or Black Is the Color. There are plenty of more-or-less straight-ahead, or inside-outside, if you will, LPs among them, In Pursuit of Blackness and Tetragon being two that stand out among my recent listening. Power to the People (1969) is another one that, while certainly funk-oriented, nicely encapsulates the more conservative (i.e., hard-/postbop-informed) brand of electric jazz that flourished at the time.

I'd love to hear about readers' similar experiences re: "How I learned to stop worrying and love the ’70s/’80s output of Jazz Musician X." I'm very curious about, e.g., the CTI catalog. Which of those records are, as they are rumored to be, poppy and slight, and which of them are rewarding in the same way that Henderson's Milestone releases are?

P.S. This clip doesn't relate to Joe Henderson in the ’70s, but I can't resist linking to the man's appearance on Charlie Rose in 1997.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The spirit of radio: WKCR's blessing

Last evening I drove to Westchester with my wife to celebrate a happy family event. On the way, we listened to WKCR, catching the tail end of Afternoon New Music (featuring side A of Distinction Without Difference, an intense 1979 Billy Bang solo set I'd never heard before) and the first chunk of Jazz Alternatives.

The show began with Chico Hamilton's Man from Two Worlds, a 1963 record that was also new to me. The title track started with a shifting bed of uptempo rhythm from Hamilton (sounding more Elvin Jones–like than I've ever heard him) and bassist Albert Stinson—a carpet of almost Indian-esque drone. Charles Lloyd and Gábor Szabo drifted in with tranced-out tenor and guitar, engaging in a brief improv tangle before launching into the sing-songy, unmistakably Ornette-ish head (written by Lloyd, I'm now finding out). It was classic inside-outside jazz: steady and propulsive underneath and ear-bending up top. Unlike the Bang, it made sense as drive-time music, but the calories weren't empty. The same went for the next selection: side B of Jimmy Smith's Got My Mojo Workin'. I wasn't in love with the title track (a showcase for Smith's gruff vocals), but the Ellington (Strayhorn?) pieces that followed, "Johnny Come Lately" and "C Jam Blues," killed me with their combination of sass and class; the rhythm section alone—Kenny Burrell, George Duvivier and Grady Tate—had me doing internal cartwheels.

I didn't get to listen beyond that, but what a pleasure: to tune in at random and hear this wonderful—and in the case of the Hamilton, fairly obscure—vintage jazz, not being played to celebrate an anniversary or a new reissue, or to commemorate a passing, but spun just because. A set of music that challenged but didn't alienate, that, in the end, served the function you'd hope radio would serve around 6 p.m. on a weeknight.

For maybe a year and a half in college, I hosted a show on WKCR, the 5–8:20 a.m. Daybreak Express program, which segued right into Phil Schaap's Bird Flight (thus giving me ample opportunity to learn firsthand from the sensei). These days, I'm more a WKCR appreciator than a participant; I still host the occasional show, but whenever I tune in to the station and hear something great, I can't help but wish I still spun there regularly. I spent so many hours in that incredible library, scanning the LPs from A to Z, writing down the names of hundreds of titles that interested me (I did the same at Jazz Record Mart in Chicago around the same time), and checking out five or so at a time for dorm-room research.

Some of my happiest times at WKCR were when listeners would call in to say, "I dig what you're playing," or some variation thereof. (Plenty of times, you'd get the opposite: "This isn't jazz!" etc.) One instance in particular stands out: It must have been about 7 a.m., and I was playing "Who Does She Hope to Be?"—that gorgeous and perfectly accessible ballad from Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages. A man called the studio and said, with genuine rapture in his voice, "I love this song." It was a brief exchange—I'm pretty sure I thanked him sincerely for listening and that was pretty much it—but it planted a vivid picture in my mind. I heard background noise that suggested a car, and I imagined him cruising across one of the NYC bridges, convertible top down, just drinking in the Sonny and the sunlight and smiling contentedly. Sure, I spun plenty of "out" records during my time at WKCR, but it was at moments like this when I felt most deeply connected to the DJ's trade and to the glory of jazz radio. I felt like I was both meeting my own needs, i.e., those of a discerning curator, and the customer's, as it were, i.e., giving this kind man something beautiful to listen to on his a.m. drive. It's like Neil Peart said in "The Spirit of Radio":

Begin the day with a friendly voice,
A companion unobtrusive
Plays that song that's so elusive
And the magic music makes your morning mood

We are all our own DJs, scouring the internet, cramming our hard drives full of obscurities. But sometimes you want to surrender to a trusted source, tap into something communal, let the current carry you. Do not take WKCR for granted. To be able to turn on the radio at random on a weeknight and hear Billy Bang, Chico Hamilton and Jimmy Smith consecutively, from original LP sources and without commercial interruption? That is what is called a blessing.