Ain't It Funky Now

One of the oft-overlooked facets of funk is the need to "keep it in the pocket." James Brown (the JB's for that matter) really had this down - just holding a groove solid behind a soloist. Not getting louder or more dense as the solo builds. Not following every little ebb and flow. A lot of classic hard bop (even early bebop) rolls this way too - the rhythm section just hunkers down, cookin' along, leaving the bulk of the embellishments and dynamic/density variations to the soloist and the drummers' fills. And I'll tell you: As a soloist, this can be a really liberating situation, and also, one that's not as common as one might expect. Many sidemen feel the need to (over)react to everything the soloist does - so much so, that they're practically soling themselves. Chalk it up to misinterpretation of the Coltrane quartet, Ornette, free jazz, and collateral damage from the Berklee grad pyrotechnics and the "jam band" mentalities - everyone blowing all their chops all at once, all the time.

On 1970's "Green is Beautiful" Grant and company provide a study in how not to succumb to this unfunky fate of being "out of the pocket." The organist Emmanuel Riggins hangs tenaciously on the vamp, along with Jimmy Lewis keepin' it on the one with the electric bass. Percussionists Candido Camero and Richie "Pablo" Landrum sit tight in the groove as well - it's really only drummer Idris Muhammad that steps it out a bit withe soloists. Muhammad's playing really kicks it - striking me at times as an Elvin Jones type of approach to funk - visceral, raw and undeniably propulsive. Even under Blue Mitchell, Claude Bartee and Riggins' solos, Grant himself schools us on how to hold it down, sticking to a percussive octave and chordal pattern to punctuate the groove.

Green's soloing here is of course the standout here. His blues-inflected riffing, gradually developing a phrase or motif as a theme is really in fine form. He never needs to resort to any dazzling runs or complex harmonic machinations to maintain interest - instead Grant just patiently spins out phrase after phrase, developing his ideas with what seems like an inexorable logic and economy. Moreover, his timing, accents and placements keep it funky. While he doesn't use space nearly as much, his time evokes Miles in the sense of dropping the note (or phrase) right where it needs to land. Perhaps the essence of funk, right there.

Ain't It Funky Now
Grant Green - Green Is Beautiful (Blue Note BST 84342)
January 30, 1970

It's Your Thing

While we've all heard countless lackluster renditions of this tune (there was a rash of them in TV commercials during the summer & fall of last year, it seemed), this take of "It's Your Thing" stands apart. I'm a big fan of Idris Muhammad's drumming on this take - it seems near ready to boil over at times, simmering nicely throughout, keeping the otherwise pretty static vamp from bogging down. As in the studio take of "Ain't It Funky Now" from earlier in '71, the key element here of Idris' playing - and the band's as a whole - is keeping it in the pocket. Perhaps more admirable in this instance, as it's a live gig. Certainly the ostinato pattern held down by Green, Bartee, vibist Bill Bivens and organist Ronnie Foster (at turns) does a lot to hold the groove in place. I'm also struck by the inclusion of vibes in a "funk" setting - actually more struck by the fact that this group makes it work as part of the orchestration on more up tune like this - vibes have always seemed to have a certain mellowing effect to me, but here Bivens makes it happen in a percussive sense.

The tune opens up right into the solos from tight, concisely arranged melody. Overall, Grant makes use of his mastery of timing and thematic development, utilizing space nicely to drop his terse phrases just so. Green's playing here is somewhat more animated than the "Ain't it Funky" session - Grant even hustles through an uncharacteristically fleet descending triplet lick about a minute and a half in to his solo - a flurry of notes that in the context of the rest of his solo comes off as faster and more pyrotechnical than it really is. Bartee also cuts loose a little more, moving into some wailing spirals in his solo (not quite as heavy as St. Clair Pinckney's Ayler-esque, upper register harmonic flights in response to James Brown's "blow me some Trane" on some "Superbad" takes from this period) - yet still comes off as a bit restrained, as if he's not quite willing to let go . Seems the energy is certainly there behind him in the band, with Muhammad chomping at the bit, and the rest of the band locked in on the vamp. All in all, another great example of how to keep it "in the pocket" - a lesson ironically lost on many of the "acid jazz" groups that professed to follow in Green's stylistic footsteps.

It's Your Thing
Grant Green - Alive! (Blue Note CDP 7243 5 25650-2)
"Cliche Lounge", Newark, NJ, August 15, 1970

The Freedom Suite - Sonny Rollins

Being a musician who usually plays with the trio orchestration - and having a great deal of respect for Sonny Rollins - this album has always been of particular interest to me. Playing in a trio (especially without a chordal instrument such as a piano) requires a different approach than larger groups - variety must be created by means other than simply switching to another soloist, harmony must be more sketched out by lines than chords, etc.

Tackling an extended work like this suite (clocking in at nearly 20 minutes) only magnifies some of these challenges - and really calls upon the musicians to exploit all manner of textural, dynamic and melodic variations (great and small) to keep the music interesting and engaging. It's all too easy for a trio to lapse into a sort of monotone, two-dimensional sound if the playing isn't inspired. Fortunately, the "Freedom Suite" doesn't suffer from any lack of inspiration.

As can be surmised from the title, "The Freedom Suite" has the overtones of a political statement - Sonny's commentary on the burgeoning civil rights movement. Having come from a "free jazz" background, I was initially drawn to the title of the suite for other reasons as well, being curious as to whether or not this was also indicative that some especially unique example of Rollins' playing that I'd yet to hear.

As even a cursory listen will reveal, there's nothing particularly "out" or "free" about the playing here (certainly Sonny's collaborations with Don Cherry in '63 or 1966's East Broadway Run Down are further "out"), but "Freedom Suite" is nonetheless brimming with wonderful examples of Sonny's playing during this period. A bit less fiery than the Vanguard live recordings of the previous year, but be all means worth the listen. (Several listens in fact: there's no shortage of great playing here). No matter where this album stands in the continuum of bop to free, Rollins was clearly blazing the trail in the late 50's, providing a blueprint for generations of horn-led trios to follow, a roadmap of how to work with this orchestration and integrate elements from the different stylistic camps evolving in the music at the time.

The opening theme is some is something few could pull off with the utter cool that Rollins does (Dexter Gordon maybe) - it's a potentially hokey little melody in the wrong hands. What Sonny and the band does with it alludes to "free" jazz more than explicitly embodying it's aesthetic: the theme is merely used as launching pad, albeit one that Sonny deftly refers back to with a number of clever turns of the line in his subsequent solo(s). Max Roach really does the work of several band members, using his polyrhythmic style to really work the form. In many ways, Max's playing comes off as the most "free" of the group, less constrained by the "tyranny of the bar line" and sundry post-bop conventions and cliches in general. For his part, Pettiford compliments this seamlessly by interspersing pedal tones and ostinato riffs with walking lines. Rollins can just sing above it all, and does, sailing over the shifting textures with cohesive lines that unify the whole. While all of the playing is still rooted in the post-bop vocabulary (and far from being "outside") "Freedom Suite" strikes me as more of a "shape of jazz to come" phenomenon: the way the trio is playing together - and how they're approaching the tune - is all indicative of the more adventurous ensemble playing that many would explore in the sixties. Fanning the flames of the revolution.

Sonny Rollins - The Freedom Suite (Riverside RLP 12-258)
NYC, March 7, 1958

Here's a somewhat related morsel - an interview with producer Orrin Keepnews regarding the "Freedom Suite" sessions:

State of the Tenor - Joe Henderson

Stella By Starlight
For me, there aren't really any versions of Stella by Starlight that compare with Miles' Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel in '65, but that's not to say Joe Henderson's read of Stella on the seminal State of the Tenor album doesn't have it's own merits. The rhythm section (Ron Carter and Al Foster) work here may not be as adventurous as Carter with Williams & Hancock, but it's Henderson who really carries this one anyway with his strident, effortless blowing. Punctuated with dense flurries, and the periodic high wail or guttural multiphonic, Joe's solo mostly sails over the changes with a certain continuity that points out the fundamental differences in his approach and that of Miles. Henderson (along with most of the rest of the world, apart from 60's Mingus & Dolphy groups and Rollins, Ware and Elvin Jones (in particular) evoke a much deeper sense of funky, soulful groove and outright wailing swing. The recording of Henderson and Co. here seems much more restrained - not tentative by any means, but just dialed back a few notches. Still technically brilliant and harmonically deft, but just not as raw or fiery as Sonny's trio at the Vanguard. Perhaps a sign of the times - or perhaps an unintended commentary on the State of the Tenor - and State of the Trio - in 1985...

The State Of The Tenor Live At The Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (Blue Note CDP 7 46296-2)
"Village Vanguard", NYC
1st set, November 15, 1985

The Real McCoy - McCoy Tyner

Passion Dance
After the exquisite, deftly constructed melody statement of the tune's head, opening solo is a tour de force, and a study in Tyner's unique vocabulary of the late sixties (often imitated, never duplicated, as the saying goes): the dazzling, crystalline runs, the brilliant harmonic permutations, and (of course) the signature voicings. Not dissimilar to much of his late work with the quartet - it's very reminiscent of his playing on - it's great to hear on this recording, on which McCoy doesn't seem to be really straining to rise above the volume or density. bass seems to add a bit of extra buoyancy to the groove, keeping the tune swinging along without the full measure of freight train intensity of the Coltrane quartet.

solo is truly inspired, making great use of multiphonics and deft modulations in his fragmented pattern runs. It's a succinct solo that's clearly standing in the long shadow of (which had been evident in Henderson's playing prior to this date). As the tunes fades out, Joe really lets go with some upper register, spiraling lines while McCoy hammers out intricate lines of his own simultaneously. A perfect end to a timeless tune, that leaves one feeling it hasn't really ended, but continues on eternally - and that you've just experienced a glimpse through Tyner & Co's astute vision into the beautiful dreamscape of a cosmic dance.

(Blue Note BLP 4264)
Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, April 21, 1967