Coltrane - John Coltrane Quartet

Coltrane - John Coltrane Quartet
Apty titled, Soul Eyes is full of soul, a window into the lovely, delicate, melancholy & complex soul of the Coltrane Quartet. statement of the melody on this track really captures the sophisticated romanticism that seems the essence of this Dameron ballad - while subsequent solo brims with a quiet, subtle joyousness, sparkling from the outset with crisp, articulated runs - uplifting in their buoyancy. Trane's solo begins briskly, interspersing restrained longer singing wails, punctuated with dense flourishes and his signature fragmented motifs. All seamlessly float atop the tune's complex changes, with the quartet gracefully dropping back into legato for the closing statement of the melody. Soul Eyes is not just a rare and wonderful interpretation of a an obscure Tadd Dameron treasure, but also a captivating glimpse into the Coltrane Quartet's masterful powers, specifically their artistry with ballads and chord changes - something not as extensively documented as their recordings of modal material during this period.

Not everyone - perhaps not anyone else - can take an almost absurdly mundane and trite little ditty like Inchworm and infuse it with the staggering, apocalyptic beauty that Trane did. Soaring off into the upper reaches of his soprano even during break that punctuates his initial statements of the melody, Trane by turns wails, sings, and cries through this tune all the while unleashing the floodgates of a strangely beautific cosmic angst that surfaces often his work of this period. Sort of an aesthetic oxymoron: a paradoxical interweaving of joy and grief, at once celebratory shouting and a cry of despair, yin and yang, light and dark... This piece stills sends chills up my spine - decades after the first listening - not just Trane's magnificent solo, but little details like his series of trills during and after his last statements of the melody, the pulling back of the whole Quartet during the melody, and Trane's final word, his harmonically dazzling cadenza at the end, spiralling off into a stark tonality before careening back to resolution...

Coltrane (Impulse A 21)
Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
April 11; June 19, 20, 29 1962

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Monk & Trane at Carnegie Hall
Being a devotee of classic jazz, it's not often that I find myself on the edge of my seat with anticipation of a new release. Such momentous events as the the coming to light of a rarity like this & Trane set doesn't happen every day - come to think of it, I still remember getting fired up when the Five Spot recordings surfaced. Though the music on from the Five Spot recordings was electrifying, the fidelity of the recordings themselves left a bit to be desired. No so with The Thelonious Monk Quartet at Carnegie Hall CD - this is the next best thing to studio quality (bass is a little weak, and drums a bit loud and boomy at times - these being rather realistic characteristics of the Hall though).

"Early Show"
Whatever the case, the music recorded that night in '57 is as magical today as it was then. Monk's Mood here is played here with an incredible poignancy: Thelonious' solo intro chorus shows the pianist at the height of his powers, manipulating time and harmony brilliantly. Trane comes in with his statement of the melody after a breathtaking duet of cascading, fluid, intertwining lines exchanged with Monk - then the two proceed through staggeringly beautiful interpretation of the melody. Time is elastic, yet the pulse remains firmly implied as Monk & Trane (and ) continue to reiterate the melody, embellishing it with ever-more dazzling interplays of runs with each successive chorus. Always one of my favorite Monk tunes, this version stands out amongst recordings I've heard - Monk & Trane are truly playing as one here, completely inside the tune, inside the moment, inside each other's ideas. This piece alone is worth the price of admission: One of the most beautiful pieces of music one could ever hope to hear.

This of course, is just the beginning. After the transcendent, cathartic, timeless moments of Monk's Mood, the quartet launches into Evidence. After a few choruses, Trane is up to speed, "sheets of sound" unfurling effortlessly, pushing the progression ahead with a gloriously relentless inevitability. A deceptively simple (or seemingly standard) A section of the progression is transformed by Coltrane into stunning, brilliant architecture of arpeggios and dizzying runs. Monk delivers a what can only be described as a perfectly Monkish solo: an idiom unto himself, he fully exploits his singular vocabulary here. Trane's subtle (almost tentative?) return with the melody finds Monk setting up a great, funky offbeat accompaniment - comping in between the accents of the melody, maximizing the angularity and propulsive nature of the line.

We're treated to some more unaccompanied Monk for the first chorus of Crepuscle With Nellie (wouldn't want it any other way). Coltrane enters with the rhythm section, languidly stating the melody in unison with Monk, Thelonious interjecting the occasional, ideally timed cluster comps that leap up from the mix, jagged accents in the otherwise still soundscape of the piece.

Nutty abruptly changes the mood - making his presence known with some well-placed accents (a la famous "bombs") - and Trane barging in for a few searing choruses leading up to Monk's spartan solo, lines of fragile, delicate beauty that never stray far from the melody. The theme reemerges effortlessly and the quartet wraps up this succinct (and comparatively "sane") version of Nutty before the closing number of the "Early Show."

& set up a sizzling polyrhythmic groove against the melody of Epistrophy, as Monk & Trane state the melody together. This tune seems tailor-made for Trane - the progression ideally suited for his harmonic explorations and spiraling patterns. Thelonious again juxtaposes the roiling density of Trane's closing solo statements with a sparse entrance. Monk takes a brief solo punctuated with a few deftly placed careening runs, before the group cooks their way through the closing melody.

"Late Show"
...coming soon...

The Thelonious Monk Quartet at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note 0946)
Carnegie Hall, NYC
November 29, 1957

Go - Dexter Gordon

Go - Dexter Gordon
Right from and ' entrance over descending bass line on Cheese Cake, this album lives up to its name, and goes. Dexter wades right into his solo with a self-assured and confidence that leaves no question that this is going to be smokin set. His tone is expansive and majestic throughout - follows with a brief, terse and somewhat restrained post-boppish, post- solo before comes sailing back in for a few choruses, keeping the energy of the piece intact. It's easy to hear from the broad, rich tone plays with why is considered one of influences - check out the higher register wails works in.

The ballad that follows - I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry - again seems reminiscent of . Like Soul Eyes, (perhaps somewhat inexplicably for myself - and myself alone) it vividly conjures up the image/sensation of a late night cab ride in NYC - say, speeding uptown on Lexington in the pouring rain on one of those first fall nights, when that first chill cuts through the damp air, yet the insular environs of that cab's back seat hold the cold at bay, and the city streams by serenely in a watery blur of bending light and shadow... Such obtuse imagery and metaphor aside, rich tone overflows from this tune, drawing the listener in, immersing you in a curious ennui...

The more rollicking Second Balcony Jump changes the pace to more of a straight-up, joyous blowing session. nimbly timekeeping keeps a slightly loose pulse - creating an infectious swing on this tune. draws us into the groove further with the latin intro on Love For Sale. Dexter's statement of the melody - and his soaring, caterwauling, singing solo that follow conspire to make this perhaps my favorite recording of this piece. sounds at once majestic and sarcastic: injecting wry turns of phrase into lines that evoke a sense of grandeur that transcends the tune itself. His mariachi-esque entrance after solo soon gives way to brilliant ascending arpeggios nearly spanning the range of the horn, replete with fat, bulbous low register honks (again bringing to mind playing of this period) to keening, almost vocal upper-register wails.

Where Are You brings me back to those autumnal, rain-slicked city streets, with Dexter again conjuring a sense of a kind of regal loneliness - that incomparable realization of aloneness that the city can evoke at times...

Announcing its arrival with a quote from ' classic If I Were A Bell, Three In The Morning is another mid tempo number that shines on: Asserting his cool, confident mastery of the instrument and the idiom. As described Dexter's style of dress - "cleaner than a broke-dick dog" - this tune (an otherwise typical, forgettable hard-bop vehicle) is transformed at Gordon's hands into something with much more class - again, transcendent. One only need listen to Clarke's perfectly adroit and idiomatic solo in contrast to Gordon's playing, and Dexter's greatness is evident. Once more, Gordon enters after Sonny's solo with a tongue-in-cheek quote from Take Me Out To The Ballgame - almost trivializing Clarke's solo. Not to undermine Sonny - he's one of my favorite pianists of this period and style - just that the clarity of Dexter's inspiration on this date is in such a league of its own, rather overshadowing the playing of the rest of the band. From the perspective of being "Dexter's band," however, their performance is stellar all around. Completely supportive as a rhythm section, they lay down an infallible groove throughout, and deliver a few more modest solos that set off Gordon's work as all the more dazzling - solos that in other contexts that in their own right are nothing to be scoffed at.

What's important here, is that Go! is clearly a Dexter Gordon album - a wonderful documentation of a man playing at the height of his powers. Go! is definitely one that should be on the short list for any fan of hard-bop, 60s jazz - or for that matter, anybody with ears.

Go! (Blue Note - BLP 4112)
Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
August 27, 1962

Back At The Chicken Shack - Jimmy Smith

Back At The Chicken Shack - Jimmy Smith
Just in case this album's name doesn't tip you off, Back At The Chicken Shack is some down-home, funky music. The title track opens with groovin on a mid tempo blues riff, taken at a perfect tempo to extract every last once of funk from the tune. follows Smith's understated solo with one of his own, keeping the vibe of this piece subdued, yet building slowly into sax solo. Stanley - who really shines on this record - maintains the slow, simmering groove without overdoing it. Chicken Shack epitomizes the funky, cool blues - and sets the stage for the rest of the record.

When I Grow Too Old To Dream begins in a similar vein, with Smith laying down a loping half-time bass line beneath Turrentine's comfortably laid-back statement of the melody. As Turrentine eases into his solo, we catch a few glimpses of a more expansive sound, as he builds through one bluesy chorus after another, opening up the sound of the groove. Smith's comping echoes the occasional soaring, searing held notes Turrentine works into at points, punctuating and shaping his solo. Jimmy's solos reel things back in a bit to a tighter groove, still steeped in down home blues. Turrentine returns for another taste after Smith's solo, again gradually pushing towards some more wailing, plaintive cries. Donald Bailey keeps pace with all of this without being in the least bit intrusive - moving between an easygoing swing and funkier back beats without missing a beat.

The pace picks up a few more notches, as Minor Chant begins simmering along. Turrentine's breathy first notes soon give way to more of the expansive tones we were teased with on Too Old To Dream - combined with Smith's percolating accompaniment beneath his solo, Chant is cookin along nicely by the time Stanley wraps his solo. Smith comes in right on it (he and Bailey tightening up the groove a bit again here) - venturing more into his faster, denser lines as his solo progresses. Smith manages to sustain a great ahead of the beat sense through this solo with his walking bass line sitting just ahead of Bailey's pulse.

Messy Bessie starts off similarly to Too Old To Dream - a down, halftime midtempo groove that opens up in to a relaxed swing with Turrentine's solo. Stanley's sounding very limbered up and fluid at this point - his solo marked by faster runs, still punctuated with fat, bluesy wails at just the right times to keep things interesting. Burrell jumps in afterwards with a well-constructed solo that progresses from sparing, blues-tinged phrases to some smokin lines and back again. Smith follows up with more of the same, and then some. Jimmy had a great knack for exploiting his instrument's character: Sitting on a single note through a whole chorus or more - either as a held note, or brilliantly placed rhythmic accents. Not to mention his use of chord-melody phrases - in the bluest thirds or sixths intervals you could hope to find for any given moment.

While generally showing a more laid-back side of his playing, Chicken Shack has all the classic elements of Smith's style - everything needed for a comprehensive course of study from Organist 101 up through a Phd. After all, he is humbly referred to on the LP's cover as "The Incredible Jimmy Smith" for a reason... If you're not convinced just listen to any jazz organist since (for that matter, take a listen to the prog-rock rambling of musicians as far afield as ELP - maybe Keith Emerson wasn't quite the innovator some thought...)

In many ways (at least for me), it's really Turrentine that makes this record - his playing acts as a perfect foil for Smith, playing off Jimmy's more in-the-pocket funk with a broader, bluesier wail - this interplay's what keeps me coming Back to The Chicken Shack, as it were. Stanley's playing on this album really captures the essence of the genre, and seems the most inspired playing in the session - what makes this more than just another hard-bop organ trio/quartet-type date, and a classic.

Back At The Chicken Shack (Blue Note BLP 4117)
Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
April 25, 1960

Inception - McCoy Tyner

Inception - McCoy Tyner
From the first solo chorus McCoy rips into on the title track Inception, it's clear that this record will be a tour de force by a pianist at the height of his powers. Building up to the fours exchanges with Elvin (lead into by a subtly polytonal ascending chordal line), McCoy unwinds an increasingly intricate series of lines, showcasing his technical prowess and harmonic insight.

There is No Greater Love features some great interplay with bassist in the melody, as Art alternates between a cleverly staggered/delayed statement of the line that resolves to a unison with McCoy. McCoy's solo on this piece is less modal than that of Inception - he exploits the changes more, while still retaining the flavor of his work with concurrent to this record. delivers masterful brushwork throughout - allowing Tyner to shine, Jones keeps his characteristic, highly propulsive accompaniment at just the right level not be intrusive, but quite sufficient to make it's presence known (the it seems safe to suspect that Jones was deliberately recorded "down" in the mix, judging from live recordings and firsthand accounts of Trane's group at this time).

Perhaps most reminiscent of Coltrane Quartet playing of this period, Blues For Gwen cooks along nicely throughout - not a standout, but another textbook example of Tyner's style at the time.

Art's use of arco on Sunset goes well with Tyner's more rhapsodic voicings and runs to create a an interlude of real grandeur, really changing the pace for this number. Lapses in and out of an explicitly pulse and more legato sections make for an enthralling interpretation of the melody - literally evocative of a stunning sunset. Elvin remains all but inaudible - even through the piano solo - easing in for part of the theme at the end before Tyner and Davis shift back to their looser tempo as a duet to close. In all, a refreshing take on a classic tune - an interpretation that really seems to get at the essence of the tune, something missed by many lesser artists, who merely read a song, even if it is to deliver dazzling (albeit not necessarily so relevant) solos. Just goes to show the power of orchestration and arrangement, devices made even more potent in a trio setting (like this one) that know how make the most of it.

For Effendi McCoy digs in for a smokin' mid-tempo romp on a tune that's an ideal launching point for some signature modal explorations. The melody is tailor-made for Tyner, neatly symmetrical patterns/motifs in the left hand (in unison with Davis) alternating with melodic chordal statements. Built on an interesting twist of the Impressions/So What progression (ABA), the group make the piece sound natural and right (i.e. not as if there's 8 bars missing). Again evidencing their mastery: Getting inside the tune, and playing to it's fullest.

Beginning with a an ostinato bass riff and Elvin's signature polyrhythmic latin pulse, Speak Low is a (not exactly understated) showcase of the trio in full form, Tyner streaming out meticulously constructed lines of brilliant harmonic detail - at once modal-sounding and simultaneously riding and substituting the changes. This tune is taken at a perfect tempo, up enough that it cooks along, rolling forward as if by it's own momentum. Elvin nuances the pulse, creating an ahead of the beat impression, adding to this sense of propulsion.

As the name implies, Inception was Tyner's debut recording effort as a leader. Without question, the record is a testament to the notion that there's nothing wrong with waiting til you're ready. Inception is largely a showcase for Tyner, and as such provides a wonderful documentation of his playing during this period, in particular his playing outside of the Coltrane Quartet. With inception, we're treated to some insights as to McCoy's individual aesthetic, with his modal vocabulary being applied to more standard tunes/progressions. Definitely essential listening for Tyner fans and Trane Quartet devotees.

Inception (Impulse A 18)
Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
January 10 & 11, 1962

The Bridge - Sonny Rollins

The Bridge - Sonny Rollins
"Take me to the bridge!" - James Brown

The hardest working man in show business knew where it was at (in more ways than one). The Bridge, ' landmark "comeback" album after his self-imposed exile, is the album I'd put at the top of my indispensable list for Sonny<. From the opening bars of Without A Song you know you're in for a treat: Sonny's expansive and rich tone - tasteful, minimalist entrance - Ben Riley's dancing brushwork and Bob Cranshaw's loping bass all set a cool, comfortable tone for the masterful record that follows. Rollins takes a brief yet elegant cadenza after Hall's solo that leads perfectly back into the theme. Hall's solo itself builds nicely from concise single note statements to wonderfully constructed chord solo that shows that he's a player to be reckoned with, with overstating the point. The kind of playing that makes The Bridge the essential Jim Hall album for me as well.

Where Are You
and God Bless the Child are classic Rollins ballads - brimming with the full, liquid, singing tone that came to characterize such works of Sonny's in the 60s. In Where Are You, Rollins glides in after the guitar solo for a gorgeous legato duet with Hall that leads us gracefully back to the melody, with the rhythm section rejoining. Again (as in Without A Song) Sonny manages to keep the melody ever-present and close at hand during his somewhat sparing solo - a solo that's not lacking, but just enough. God Bless the Child is tailor-made for Rollins - his interpretation of this tune here is perhaps the only one that rivals the ennui of Billie Holiday's version. Once more, he makes very effective use of legato duet passages with Hall - keeping a slow tempo completely engaging with astute orchestral choices and lines steeped in the melody of the tune.

The intriguing fragmented line of John S. perfectly sets the stage for Sonny's subsequent solo. He and the band brilliantly build up the momentum during this solo - which starts from a germ of an idea in Rollins' opening phrases/motifs - a solo that creates the sensation that the tempo is accelerating throughout, as Rollins slowly and deftly builds the energy without ever sounding the slightest bit strained.

The effortlessness continues as Rollins rips into The Bridge - the album's uptempo number. The head and early solo choruses are punctuated with lapses into three which Sonny uses the explore a descending, cascading motif that creates wonderful opportunities to create and release tension, contrasting with the simmering uptempo 4/4 portions of the tune. Rollins exploits these opportunities well, closing his solo out with a return to this motif - as in God Bless the Child Rollins' affinity for the melody underlies his entire solo, and pervades the whole piece.

You Do Something To Me returns to the cool, in-the-pocket loping groove of the opener, reinforcing the sense of an effortlessly intense performance that characterizes this whole record. Having been introduced to Sonny Rollins through his Village Vanguard recordings, I tend to see any other Sonny recordings through the lens of that album. The Vanguard sets have a different, more obvious kind of energy - a more palpable, visceral feel - as do most records with Elvin Jones (not that Wilbur Ware doesn't contribute to this, as well). What's interesting about The Bridge is the superficially calm nature of the music, music that's simmering with intensity, energy and creativity. Turn it up a bit, it's just as smokin' as the Vanguard, just in it's own more quiet way.

The Bridge (RCA Victor LPM 2527)
January 30 & February 13 & 14, 1962

A full take of the quartet smokin' though the title cut on Jazz Casual (check the interplay between Rollins & Hall after the drum solo):

More on "the Bridge" period - some words from Sonny himself, and footage of the quartet burnin' it up:

Little Barefoot Soul - Bobby Timmons

Little Barefoot Soul - Bobby Timmons
Probably most widely known for being the composer of the Art Blakey (Jazz Messengers) classic Moanin', Bobby Timmons lays down some equally (if not more) funky tracks on these Prestige sides, originally released as Little Barefoot Soul and Chun-King. The opening title track gets off to solid, soulful groove simply stated by Sam Jones and and Ray Lucas - Timmons< strolls for a chorus and then enters with the the melody and doubles the bass riff with his left hand. The solo to follow is classic hard-bop of the period: The first few choruses a bit Monkish with some nicely percussive clusters and fragmentations of the line as the vamp continues underneath. The tension created has the energy built up nicely by the time Jones settles into a walking line. Timmons continues a his bluesy solo, punctuating with some interesting descending diminished lines (that set the stage for more explorations in this tonality) and other brief forays away from the standard blues changes that one would anticipate - all working together to keep the tune fresh and engaging.

Little One opens with an infectious riff on top of which Timmons lays down a brilliantly voiced theme. His use of dense, clustered chords to state this theme sets up wonderful tension that's released as the group launches into the bridge. The openeing vamp is returned to and is held through Timmons' solo (reminiscent of Bud Powell's classic Una Poco Loco, though noticeably less searing/pyrotechinically dazzling) which again makes use of clever and sparing departures from the basic tonality.

Timmons sticks close to the melody on his solo interpretation of Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen. Apart from not being a blues, this change in orchestrations helps to change up the mood - while still a bluesy reading of the tune, this piece stands out nicely just by dint of not being a blues form. Bobby makes some tasteful nods to Monk on this track - but the tune is a good example of Timmons somewhat unique way of approaching a ballad as a solo. On the Prestige Trio sessions reissue, this tune is placed 5th - it appeared third on the original Little Barefoot Soul (Prestige PR 7335), a placement which did a lot more to break up the blues progression-based pieces on the record.

Cut Me Loose Charlie - yet another blues form - also opens with a propulsive bass and drum vamp, a motif that's used throughout the tune, both as a device to create some tension under Bobby's solo, and a way to differentiate the tune's feel from that of the other blues progression-based songs on the album.

Ain't Thinkin' 'Bout It is another blues, rendered in a more standard fashion (no vamp, that is) - and though highlighted by some interesting, clustered chord voicings in the opening theme statement, this tune soon becomes the most forgettable number on the record: A typical arrangement and interpretation of the blues form in the soul-jazz/hard-bop vocabulary that Timmons was speaking in at the time. This said, the tune is nonetheless a great study of Timmons' playing form this period - full of textbook examples (along with some not-so-textbook, more atonal ventures) of the post-Powell, funkier school of piano playing that Timmons was defining in the early 60s.

Another blues, Walkin'-Wadin'-Sittin'-Ridin' closes the set with an easy groove - Bobby's solo is marked by some nice uses of space, interspersed with some faster Powell-flavored runs that seem to want to push the rhythm section into double-time. Jones & Lucas hold it steady, with Timmons reeling it back in to bluesy statements and more occasionally Monkish lines & clusters. (This tune is presented 2nd on the Prestige reissue - again, it's placement as the final cut on Little Barefoot Soul seems to better suit the arc of the album as a whole).

Apart from being a groovin and enjoyable record to listen to as well a crash course in how to play funky, soulful hard-bop piano, Little Barefoot Soul is also a fine example of how to keep what's essentially an album full of blues from sounding stale. Timmons steers clear of dazzling technical displays or complex arrangements to get his point across while keeping it fresh. Instead, his generally sparing solos make deft use of thematic development, well-placed blues cliches and sporadic dashes of unexpected harmonies and tonalities - all mixing up into a recipe for an album full of blues that comes off as much more than I-IV-V progressions and tired blues licks.

Little Barefoot Soul (Prestige PR 7335)
Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
June 18, 1964

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy - Cannonball Adderley

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy - Cannonball Adderley
There was a time in my card-carrying free-jazz crusader days when I'd have all but turned up my nose at Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. Woulda been my loss. A few choruses into Fun (after a cleverly modulated Bird paraphrase) and Cannonball Adderley is screaming with the rawness of Trane, Shepp or Pharoah. Before going over the top and launching into the realm of Interstellar Space that Trane et al were approaching at this time, Cannonball hands it off to brother Nat, who follows with an energetic, albeit somewhat less inspiring solo. Somewhat unfortunately, as with much of this album, Zawinal follows with what is a comparatively lackluster solo.

Games picks up the pace again, with Cannonball's solo heating up to a nice boil over a rhythm section that builds up to a funky back beat and alternatively backs down to more of a percolating groove. Cannonball makes the most of this rise and fall, driving it with his solo. After this, Nat's solo - although a bit stronger than on Fun - comes off more as riding the fluctuations in the groove, more than pushing them. Zawinal too is sounding warmed up here, but still not up to par with Cannonball.

Joe's contribution of the title track overshadows any gripes one could have with his playing (he is up against a pretty heavy hitter in Cannonball, anyhow - I sure wouldn't want to follow a Cannonball< solo). His entrance on the electric piano - and the whole solo that follows - is classic: cliches and all, it's perfectly appropriate for the laid-back, funky vibe of the tune. His relatively understated solo keeps this flavor, with some nice energy building up without overdoing it, or over stretching it's bounds.

Sticks contains some of the raunchiest, baddest Cannonball playing on this record. From his deliberately stuttering ascending opening line, you can tell he's going to bring it on in his solo. Bring it he does with some wailing harmonics and searing Parker-esque runs - all in a masterfully constructed succinct solo that says all that needs to be said on the topic. Some serious funk ladled on some simmering gut-bucket laced with a dash of bop - something that pulls together flavors from Shepp to Maceo.

Hippodelphia seems somewhat incongruous in context with the rest of this album - it's more of the standard issue 60s "progressive hard bop" type date (or whatever you want to call it). Sack O' Woe returns more to the feel of the rest of the date, Cannonball< wailing over a back beat more like the earlier tracks. Nat's solo has a good dose of the kinda of bravura playing heard elsewhere on this record - and some enthusiastic hand-clapping from the well-lubricated crowd helps things cook along nicely during by Zawinal and bassist Victor Gaskin. Overall, though, this piece doesn't quite achieve liftoff as well as the first few numbers - it sounds like the set it drawing to a close, but I suppose that's on target with a studio recording designed to simulate a live date.

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live at "The Club" (Capitol ST 2663)
"The Club", Chicago, IL
July, 1966

Boss Guitar - Wes Montgomery

Boss Guitar - Wes Montgomery
Not everybody can pull off a opening vamp like the one for Besame Mucho - but Mel Rhyne & Jimmy Cobb make it happen. For that matter, not many can pull off a tune like Besame Mucho, but Wes, Mel & Jimmy are just the guys for the job.
Boss Guitar is one of Wes Montgomery's classic Riverside albums - a must-have for any guitarist, jazz player or not. Apart being a tour de force on the guitar, this record also highlights Wes' great ability to take tunes like Besame Mucho - that can be painfully square if one isn't careful - and make them respectably hip. After all, it's not the song, but how you play it - an art Wes had clearly mastered (some of his later work, like Tequila notwithstanding, but that's another story...)

Besame Mucho isn't the only such potentially hazardous "ole chestnut" on this record. Canadian Sunset and Dearly Beloved can be easily mishandled, and oftentimes have at the hands of less gifted musicians. Wes, however, simply simmers his way through these more uptempo numbers (the choice of these tempos doesn't hurt the hipness quotient) with his characteristic aplomb. One of the great hallmarks of Montgomery's virtuosity is the effortlessness with which he plays, particularly at medium to up tempos. Not just his much-lauded switching from single note lines to octaves and on to chord solos, but the ease and melodicism which which the solos flow, all technical prowess aside.

Listen closely to Wes' lines and melodies: like Miles and Bird solos, these lines has a certain inevitable quality, playing out the way they do as if by destiny, as if there was no better way to do so. Wes has a uncanny knack for getting lines to "land on their feet" no what what unexpected twists and turns they may take on the way. Also evident on these tunes - Dearly Beloved and Canadian Sunset especially - is Wes ' remarkable ability to interject and punctuate open, soaring melodies with blues phrases that are organic parts of the line, and not hackneyed cliches. (No wonder Montgomery was Trane's pick as a guitarist for his early 60s group).

The tune that really takes the "chestnut" prize on this record is Dearly Beloved. Talk about a number that's no picnic to pull off - take any tune at a tempo this slow, and most groups are asking for trouble. Add to that the fact that half of your rhythm section is an organist, and most listeners will be dozing off before you're done counting in the opening bar... Again, the group (Wes in particular) rises to occasion and makes it work. Mel's solo has a few faltering moments on the harmonic thin ice, but overall, Mel's the man on this tune, his accompaniment sustaining the momentum of the piece and doing a lot to define the mood. Jimmy Cobb's tastefully obsequious playing doesn't hurt either.

Boss Guitar (Riverside RLP 459)
Plaza Sound Studios, NYC
April 22, 1963

Kind of Blue - Miles Davis

Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
How many times have we been subjected to remake after unmemorable remake of the tunes on Kind of Blue? Most readings of these songs are largely forgettable, especially when held up alongside the originals - seems Miles and his subsequent groups were the only ones that consistently did these pieces justice. This said, it goes without saying that this album was, still is and will always be an indispensable cornerstone of any jazz collection - one of those records I'd venture to say "If you could only have one jazz CD, make sure it's..."

What really makes it hold up as a timeless classic is the all-around stellar playing of the group, no doubt in part inspired by Miles' selection of material: His "introduction" of modal harmonic structures in these pieces, and the fresh ideas the material elicited in the quintet's playing. The most oft-cited piece in this regard is the (in)famous So What, for obvious reasons. We all know this became a Trane standard as Impressions - and a blazing uptempo romp for the 60s Miles quintets - and was recycled as a number of other tunes by other groups. So What is one of the quintessential tunes in every aspiring jazz player's book (required reading for Jazz 101, that only gets more enigmatic and challenging for PhD's - hence the myriad half-assed versions of this song that have been recorded and played of the years).

Interestingly, it's always struck me that the other really "modal" piece on the record is largely overlooked and underplayed (though that may be a blessing in disguise). To me, Flamenco Sketches allows the group to stretch out even more and really immerse themselves in modal improvisations. The solos are a bit more raw and vulnerable - without as steady a pulse, momentum is generated more by the line of the soloist's melody that the rhythm section - there's a uncommonly delicate, fragile beauty to both Miles and Coltrane's solos. While so much 60s Trane has been traced back to So What, in Flamenco Sketches I hear early strains of that more elusive, haunting quality that reappears later in Expression and pieces like Wise One, Crescent, Meditations, etc.

Cannonball's playing on Flamenco is equally intriguing - imbued with a ecstatic yet poignant drive, it almost captures the joyous energy of his later Live at The Club classics, but in the more subdued context of this recording. Evans seems in his element here - if anyone's later work can be traced back to anything on Kind of Blue, the moods and colors Evans creates on Sketches seem most evocative of the shape of things to come...

Of course, I'm as guilty as the next guy with regards to having committed countless crimes in the name of So What - dunno how many times I've played it, but do know of only a few where I've even come close to really playing it. A recent listen to Kind of Blue rekindled my interest in Flamenco Sketches, and have been delightedly working on the tune ever since. Best part is: Flamenco feels fresh. Every time I play through it, the tune's full of new possibilities and surprises. Maybe that's more of how the group was hearing things back in '59. Whatever the case, the sextet's version still sounds fresh as ever - and I have renewed faith that these songs are far from played out. Avante-garde is more a state of mind, not a sound at a particular place in time...

Kind of Blue (Columbia CL 1355)
March 2 & April 6, 1959
Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC