Daily Archives: May 23, 2011

The Pile (#2): Two Recent Releases by The Cream of the AACM First Wave

The Association  for the Advancement of Creative Musicians means a lot to me.  I encountered a number of the members as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the middle ’70s.   The Art Ensemble of Chicago had recently returned from Europe, and Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman,  Don Moye, Henry Threadgill, Ajaramu, Amina Claudine Myers, Douglas Ewart, Wallace McMillan, Pete Cosey, and a bunch of others were living in proximity to Hyde Park and playing concerts locally, including the UC campus — the New York migration had not yet begun. Critics John Litweiler and Terry Martin were on the scene.  So was Chuck Nessa. So was Lorraine Black. One time in 1974 or 1975,  Fred Anderson brought his sextet to Reynolds Club, I think, for an afternoon concert, and on my way in I heard amazing, Coltrane-in-the-gutbucket trombone lines that traversed the horn’s registral range. Turned out they were from George Lewis, who had recently moved back to Chicago after graduating from Yale.

I’m a New Yorker, grew up on Bleecker and Thompson, and New York attitude bebop — Sonny Rollins, to be specific (friends used to tease me about my boast that I had all of his records—which, I’ll confess now,  I didn’t), not to mention Bud Powell and Bird and Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and ’50s Miles and Coltrane — spoke to me above all other music. I related to them, I think, because I spent so much time at the West Fourth Street basketball courts as a kid, and their music seemed like an analogue to the ballers I looked up to — among them, Billy, the fastest guard I’ve ever seen who could tomahawk at about 5’8″;  Valentino Willis from the Harlem Wizards; Butch Barbizat, who at 6’2 was the leading rebounder on  the Power Memorial team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played; Timmy, who had what I considered a superior bank shot to Sam Jones. On the musical tip, pop didn’t seem serious enough — as a wiseass Bleecker Street kid, the folkies seemed too self-satisfied, Dylan too solipsistic, Cream and the Rolling Stones too bridge-and-tunnel. I liked Motown and EW&F, and in Chicago I went to the South Side and West Side blues clubs with my friends, and checked out rootsy stuff by David Bromberg and Dan Hicks, but I couldn’t patch into funk.   Nor was I feeling out jazz then.

That afternoon at Reynolds Club,  my paradigm began to shift. New worlds opened up. Jarman did solo concerts that incorporated kabuki and Asian ritual. He performed on campus in duo with Leo Smith and Oliver Lake. George Lewis began learning how to develop improvising software, and  joined Braxton. I got into the magic of Von Freeman. I stopped believing in the sanctity of my personal taste, and began making an effort  to explore modes of expression  that fell outside of it.  I’ve never stopped loving the main-stem of jazz expression. But the aesthetics of speculative improvisation and experimental music mean every bit as much, and brought me into other areas that I once disdained from ignorance. Or, to cite one of my all-time favorite homilies, from Ellis Marsalis:  “son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.”

Muhal Richard Abrams:  Duos with Fred Anderson and George Lewis: SoundDance (Pi)

There’s an old master quality to these barely-roadmapped musical conversations between Abrams—elected  NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Famer last year at 80—and long-time AACM colleagues Anderson, the late outcat master  tenor saxophonist and  charter member of the organization (from 2009, a year before he passed), Lewis (recorded in 2010), the polymath trombonist, electronicist, improvising software creator, and professor of music at Columbia University, who met Abrams in 1971 while on sabbatical  from undergraduate duties at Yale. There’s a call-and-response quality to the former duo, as Abrams supports Anderson’s huge-toned idea development, then spins off variations of his own; whilst the latter performance is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite, transitioning from one concept — the range spans stride piano to post-serialism — to the next without a blink, as though the music were creating itself.

The proceedings bring to mind that one of the key tropes of Lewis’ magisterial history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself (U.Chicago Press),  is the autodidactic learning path that Abrams imparted to such ’60s members as  Roscoe Mitchell,  Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, John Stubblefield, Malachi Favors, Douglas Ewart, and on down the list. They also evoke an exchange I had with Abrams and Lewis in 2007, for a Downbeat piece framed around Streaming, a spontaneous triologue with  Mitchell, when I asked them about Quartet (Sackville), a 1975 encounter that marked the first recorded meeting of the three.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” asked Abrams.

    “It seems like we’re going too far back there,” Lewis said.

    “You were just talking about histories.”

    “Only in reference to coming together to perform,” Abrams explained calmly. “It’s very important to accept, if you can, how we view the basis of this. George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

    “Questions like that lead to a species of mythmaking,” Lewis added. “I’ll take it to the place of procedure. Whenever we first began to play with each other, what I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration. The sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multi-perspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Roscoe Mitchell Note Factory, Far Side (ECM)

The third and most cohesive recording by Mitchell’s Note Factory project, a kind of double quartet in which Mitchell on saxophones and flute and thirty-ish trumpeter Corey Wilkes (Lester Bowie’s replacement in the Art Ensemble of Chicago) interact with two pianists (Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer), two bassists (Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead, who also plays cello), and two drummers (Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis). It’s dense music, and though I’ve listened twice, I’d probably need another two or three to start breaking things down.  Suffice to say that Mitchell’s bandmates are sufficiently intimate with his intense concept as to be able to engage each other in what Iyer once described as “immersive counterpoint,” generating clear, non-imitative ideas simultaneously like a Dixieland band in a parallel galaxy. Although Mitchell, who turned 70 this year, offers healthy helpings of spirit-catching circular breathing and multiphonics, what comes through most palpably is the innate soulfulness and lyricism of his songs and his instrumental sound.

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Filed under AACM, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Piano, Roscoe Mitchell, Tenor Saxophone, Trombone

Raw Copy of A Late ’90s Blindfold Test with Ken Peplowski on his 52nd Birthday

Via Larry Appelbaum’s indefatigable birthday notifications to his  Facebook “friends,” I see that Ken Peplowski, the great clarinetist (tenor saxophone, too), hits 52 today. I conducted one of my first Downbeat Blindfold Tests with Ken — I think this was in 1998, maybe 1999.

1.    Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon (from “Hot Jazz on Blue Note,” Blue Note, 1996/rec. 1944).  Sidney Bechet, clarinet; Art Hodes, piano; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  [Immediately] Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon.”  From the first note you can identify his sound.  It’s that big vibrato and that big woody sound.  He had that unique clarinet style, and as distinctive of a clarinet sound as his clarinet playing.

TP:    Is he someone who influenced you at all in your approach?

PEPLOWSKI:  He didn’t influence me by the sound.  It’s a little bit much, to be honest, sometimes.  But his intensity kind of influenced me, and the way he plays ballads and the way he plays this Blues, for example, with just 100% feeling.  Also his rhythmic drive and his unbelievable technique.  He’s an example of a guy who had a lot of technique and knew when not to use it.  This solo is a really funky, real blues-oriented solo, and yet he could turn around and play a great technical tour de force on “China Boy” or something like that.  This is a classic record.  This would be 5 stars, no question.  It’s a perfect example of playing for yourself in a recording situation as opposed to playing for posterity, when you worry about every single note.  These guys are so relaxed, and it’s flowing, and obviously, whatever happens, happens.  There’s a lesson to be learned now.  There’s too much value put on perfection.
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2.    Artie Shaw, “Dancing On The Ceiling”  (from The Last Recordings of Artie Shaw,” MusicMasters, 1992/rec. 1954) Artie Shaw, clarinet; Hank Jones, piano; Joe Puma, guitar; Tommy Potter, bass; Irv Kluger, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I could be fooled right now.  It could be Artie Shaw doing his Bop thing.  It could be Buddy deFranco and it could possibly be Tony Scott.

TP:    You’re very warm.

PEPLOWSKI:  Hank Jones.  The light touch gave him away. [PAUSE] I know it’s not Artie because there’s some things he does that sound like a saxophone player playing the clarinet.  In other words, it’s not completely a Classical kind of clarinet sound.  It’s like Jimmy Giuffre. [PAUSE]

Well, I guess my first instinct was correct.  At first I said this sounds like it could be Artie or Buddy.  It’s very interesting playing, but overall I think it misses the boat.  There’s something that bothers me about certain clarinetists when they play this kind of music, more Bop-influenced.  All of a sudden they lose their tone.  Like, Artie is loosening up in places… He’s doing saxophonic things that don’t really work well on the clarinet.  That’s why, as we listened to it later, I thought this is a guy who sounds more like a saxophone player.  I think Benny did some of this, too.  When they tried to play this kind of music, instead of just doing it their own way, they tried to adjust their sound and some of their phrasing to this new style instead of just interpreting it through their own method.  So I think it’s a valiant effort, but to be quite honest, I prefer his earlier stuff.  so that would be about a 3½, I think.
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3.    Barney Bigard, “Clarinet Lament,” (from Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, Fargo, ND 1940, Stash, 1990/rec.1940)

PEPLOWSKI:  No question that that’s Barney Bigard with Duke’s band.  Another guy that you can pick out immediately. [PAUSE] Barney Bigard to me is one of the greats of the clarinet.  In fact, between him and Jimmy Hamilton, that covered a lot of jazz history on the clarinet.  That has to be a 5-star thing.  I think that was Barney’s finest period, too.  He played so inspired, and Duke wrote some great stuff for him, and he’s one of the greatest.  He’s so great that I don’t think he is a big influence on people because he’s so unique, that to try to take things from him, you wind up sounding like him.  So he stands alone.
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4.    Jimmy Hamilton, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from “Far East Suite-Special Mix,” RCA, 1995/rec.1966).  The Duke Ellington Orchestra.

PEPLOWSKI:  [IMMEDIATELY] “Far East Suite,” “Bluebird of Delhi.” From the introduction.  This record was a major thing for me when I was growing up.  Jimmy Hamilton, from the first time I heard him, I thought, “This is the direction I want to go.”  He combines the best of the classical clarinet approach with the improvisatory approach.   He could have played in an orchestra, yet he could swing like nobody else.  Plus, that’s got to be 5 stars for the record itself.  “The Far East Suite” is some of the best writing of Strayhorn (mostly) and Ellington.  It’s such a great example of how to write for specific soloists, and has some of the most beautiful clarinet writing.  I love that.  I listened to that over and over and over when I first heard it, and I would recommend it to anybody. [PAUSE] Also, I love the way the ensemble comes in and Jimmy Hamilton answers them.  There was a lot of Duke writing in that fashion for Jimmy.  And he had such great instinctive ears that he knew when to play and when not to play.  He complements the band and they complement him.  It’s beautiful.
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5.    Benny Goodman, “Shirley Steps Out” (from “Undercurrent Blues,” Capitol Jazz, 1995/rec.1947) with Alan Hendrickson, guitar; Mel Powell, piano, Red Norvo, vibes.

PEPLOWSKI:  As soon as they started improvising, I knew it was Benny.  This is one of his Bop experiments.  It’s pretty interesting.  It sounds like a guitarist who was influenced by Charlie, but I don’t think it is.  [VIBES SOLO] Who is this?  Is that Johnny White?

TP:    It’s Red Norvo.

PEPLOWSKI:  Red Norvo, wow. [PIANO] That sounds like Teddy.

TP:    Mel Powell.

PEPLOWSKI:  What is this record?  Is this a Commodore?

TP:    Capitol.

PEPLOWSKI:  It’s very nice.  This to me is a little more successful in this vein than what Artie was attempting.  Because Benny plays closer to himself… It still sounds like him.  It’s very nice.  That was a nice record.  I was surprised.  I don’t remember hearing that.  I’m sure I’ve got it, but I have to confess, I overlooked that period myself.  It was nice.  I’d give it 4 stars.  It was really refreshing.  It’s nice to hear Benny play some different material, too.

TP:    Do you find Benny’s style stays integral through all of his improvising?  Is that characteristic, that he keeps his sound through any situation?

PEPLOWSKI:  Pretty much, yeah.  Critics love to write about his double-lip embouchure period, and he allegedly changed and all this stuff.  But you could pretty much recognize him all the time.  When we first heard the head, then I was thinking this could obviously be Buddy De Franco.  But as soon as he started playing, the way he gets around the horn, that’s Benny.  First of all, there’s only a few people who sound like they really play it like a clarinet and not like a double, as opposed to if you heard somebody like Jimmy Giuffre.  I love the way he plays, I love the way Lester Young played, but they’re still saxophone players.  And Benny does some distinctly clarinet things that could only lend themselves to that instrument.  That was nice.
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6.    Jimmy Giuffre, “Conversations With A Goose” (from “Conversations With A Goose,” Soul Note, 1996), Giuffre, clarinet; Paul Bley, piano; Steve Swallow, electric bass.

PEPLOWSKI:  It sounds like Barney Bigard on acid! [AFTER A WHILE] I have no idea.  Who is this?

TP:    It’s Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Do you see any changes in his playing from the earlier things they did?

PEPLOWSKI:  Well, if anything, I think he’s into even more of a kind of primitive approach.  Actually, to be quite honest, it was more interesting to me what the piano was doing and the bass player, because they had a certain groove going on.  But that may be partly due to the way it’s recorded.  It kind of bothers me.  It sounds like the microphones are thrust right inside the piano, we’re hearing the piano so clear and loud, and the clarinet is kind of off in the distance a little bit in the mix.  So automatically, psychologically, he doesn’t feel like part of the ensemble.  It’s interesting.  Obviously, he’s heading into an ever more free zone than he ever was.

TP:    Is this music that’s appealed to you?

PEPLOWSKI:  I like the idea.  Sometimes I like the idea more than the execution, and this would be an example of that.  Obviously, it’s kind of a crap shoot when you’re just playing freely like this, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  This time it was kind of interesting, he got into some different sounds and things, but it was a little bit rambling for me.  I’d give that 2½ stars.  I don’t know if I’d listen to that over and over.
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7.    Bill Easley, “Come Sunday” (from “Wind Inventions,” Sunnyside, 1988) Easley, clarinet; James Williams, piano; Rufus Reid, bass, Tony Reedus, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  Obviously, I know “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington.  The clarinet has a little bit of a New Orleans type of approach, whether he’s from there or not.  Actually, he sounds a little bit like Barney Bigard in his sound.  But I don’t know who it is yet. The piano player is a little heavy-handed for me on this song.  He sounds a little bit like he’s playing with hammers instead of fingers. [THE SONG GOES INTO UP-TEMPO]
I really don’t know who it is, but they’ve got a very beautiful clarinet sound.  It’s a little curious to me to play this song like this.  Why not use anything else as a vehicle for improvisation.

TP:    Well, the interpretation could be the jubilation of…

PEPLOWSKI:  I know.  But sometimes it seems a little arbitrary, like “Gee, let’s pick this song and jazz it up.”  But it’s interesting.  The clarinet player sounds nice.  I have no idea who it is. [PAUSE] It bothers me that when you listen to the rhythm section improvising, the bassist is way ahead of the drummer… It’s not a very good rhythm section.  They sound kind of heavy-handed and definitely not together.  So I feel a little bad for the clarinet player.

TP:    It didn’t seem to faze him much.

PEPLOWSKI:  No.  He’s got a very even sound and even phrasing.  I would give it 3½, I think, because I like his playing, but I’m not completely happy with the overall performance. [PAUSE] One last comment.  Beautiful sound.  Beautiful clarinet approach.  I just wasn’t really nuts about the overall record, but he’s a great player.
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8.    Alvin Batiste, “Banjo Noir” (from “Late,” Columbia, rec. 1993), with Fred Sanders, piano; Elton Heron, bass; Herman Jackson, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  It’s a very nice record.  Whoever this is knows how to write for the instrument.  It’s a nice groove.  He’s playing a lot of stuff that comes right out of clarinet etudes.  I know this guy has studied the clarinet.  Nice, interesting tune.  Good groove.  Beautiful sound.  He’s a little bit controlled.  I wish he would open up a little bit more even during this.  I don’t know who it is.

TP:    Do you hear any particular lineage in clarinet improvising style?

PEPLOWSKI:  On this guy?  I don’t know where he comes from.  Also, this kind of recording is a little sterile for me — the recording itself.  Even if everybody was in the same room, whatever the engineer did, they sound like they were isolated and then remixed by him.  There’s a little bit too much of an upfront quality of every single instrument.  Especially when you want to have a nice groove like this, it should sound more like a band playing together instead of being able to pick out each individual instrument.  That’s not the fault of the musicians.  It’s the fault of the way it was recorded. [PAUSE]

This is after you told me who it is.  I am pleasantly surprised.  When you asked me did I detect any influence, I definitely didn’t detect any New Orleans influence in there.  A beautiful clarinet player.  I’ve heard a few things of his.  That was very nice record.  I’d give it 4 stars.
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9.    David Krakauer, “Africa Bulgar,” (from “Klezmer Madness,” Tzadik, 1995) with Michael Alpert, accordion; Dave Licht, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I asked first if that was Ivo Papasov.  It’s got that quality to it, but we’ll see what happens. [PAUSE] As he got into it, I realized this is more a Yiddish kind of a groove. [TEMPO CHANGE] This is just a wild guess, because I haven’t heard any of this stuff.  Is this Don Byron? [TP:  No.] [LATER] PEPLOWSKI:  I don’t really know who it is.  That was nice.  I’m not familiar with a lot of the klezmer guys.  I love Dave Tarras, the old school, and this has a lot of those elements.  It’s nice dance music, it’s kind of fun…

TP:    He was very influenced by Dave Tarras.

PEPLOWSKI:  Oh.  It’s nothing earth-shaking, but it’s fun music and…

TP:    You used to play this…well, Greek music.
PEPLOWSKI:  I used to play this and polka music.  I used to play Polish polka music.  It’s interesting to me that this music is so popular now, and people have overlooked that music, which is also a great showcase for the clarinet.  I think if I put a polka band together and did a gig at the Knitting Factory, we’d be as popular as anything.  I’m not trying to take away from this music because it’s great stuff, and it’s music for the masses.  But if you put a little bit of an ironic twist on it and work at a hip club, all of a sudden everybody starts paying attention.

TP:    Now, in their defense, that’s just one tune of a whole program of very different pieces.

PEPLOWSKI:  I know.  It’s a strange time for music, because… I bet I could do that.  If I’d put a polka band together and we dressed up in funny suits and worked at the Knitting Factory, and did exactly what I did in Cleveland when I was playing weddings, people would think, “Gee, this is the hippest music I can imagine.”  But if that’s a way for people to discover this stuff, that’s great because it is valid music and it’s great music.

TP:    This is the Millennium.  Marketing is everything.

PEPLOWSKI:  We’ve reached that stage where we’re just looking back at everything that’s happened and drawing from all these different sources.

TP:    How many stars?

PEPLOWSKI:  I would give it 3 stars.  I liked it, but I could listen to a hundred of those records — this doesn’t stand out, in other words.  I wish he might have played with a little bit more passion in some places and used more of the entire range of the clarinet.  He kind of stayed in one little area.  But I applaud him for what he’s trying to do, and I can hear the Dave Tarras thing.
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10.    John Carter, “Encounter” (from “Comin’ On,” Hat Art, 1988) Carter, clarinet; Bobby Bradford, cornet; Don Preston, synthesizer; Richard Davis, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I like this very much.  The writing sounds a little bit influenced by Miles, and I love the use of electronics as pure sound sometimes instead of trying to imitate another instrument. It’s pretty refreshing. [PAUSE]

John Carter.  Guessed it.  As soon as he started doing the upper register thing, I knew it was him. [PAUSE]

As most stars as I can give, 5-6, whatever.  This is very refreshing music to me.  I think it’s completely not pretentious.  It’s fresh, it’s exciting, interesting writing and playing, and the use of electronics is really well done and really integrated into the ensemble.  It’s really great. [PAUSE] The thing that strikes me is that it really sounds like a band playing together.  This is the way music is supposed to be.  And John Carter is completely unbridled.  It’s really open.  I have a feeling that he does exactly what he wants to do, and he doesn’t have any limits to what he’s trying to achieve.  It’s great.  I think his music is as important, maybe more so, than Ornette’s music as far as this kind of thing.  The writing is as interesting, and I just love the way they use the electronics.  It’s really free and open, and yet at the same time it’s got a structure to it, and everybody is listening and reacting to each other.

TP:    Talk about his clarinet style.  Is he an innovative clarinet player?

PEPLOWSKI:  He’s innovative in the sense that he does on the clarinet what people like Ornette and maybe Eric Dolphy did on the saxophone.  He kind of plays completely free and open… You know, a lot of clarinet players sound a little bit too controlled.  It’s part of the nature of the instrument.  You’re taught from the beginning that you have to play with this rigid embouchure, and the ideal sound on the clarinet is this wooden, kind of round sound, and as soon as you start fluctuating from that, the tone kind of goes.  The technique is a little bit difficult.  So it’s refreshing to hear somebody that’s gone past some of those restrictions.  The only way I can describe is he’s a completely open player, which on the clarinet is kind of rare to hear.

11.    Don Byron, “St. Louis Blues” (from “Bug Music,” Nonesuch, 1996).  Byron, clarinet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Kenny Davis, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  It sounds like Dan Block, but I’m not sure that it is.  In the beginning there was almost a klezmer kind of influence.  It was nice.  The band sounds good and tight.  Again, the recording quality bothers me.  It’s so sterile-sounding.  It’s this close, miking, separated sound of everything that kind of takes away a lot from the feel to me.  It really bothers me on more modern recordings.

TP:    Anything else about the clarinet player?

PEPLOWSKI:  He sounded nice.  There’s nothing distinctive there that I could pick him out?

TP:    Did he sound like he was in the bag of any of the older clarinet players?

PEPLOWSKI:  I can’t identify him.

TP:    It’s Don Byron.

PEPLOWSKI:  Don Byron.  Wow.  It’s a nice surprise.  It was good.  Like I say, there’s nothing there that would draw me and say I’ve got to go out and buy this record, but it was a nice record.  3 stars.
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12.    Buddy DeFranco, “I Got Rhythm” (from “Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin,” Verve, 1998/rec.1954) DeFranco, clarinet; Peterson, piano; Russell Garcia, arranger & conductor.

PEPLOWSKI:  An interesting thing is, I recorded this song with almost the same groove and the same tempo, and I haven’t heard this record.  That’s not Buddy, is it? [TP:  Yes.] It’s beautiful.  He’s one of the innovators.  Here’s an example of a great recording technique, too.  It sounds like the band is playing with a groove, they’re playing together.  It’s almost like in the late ’50s-early ’60s they really perfected the style of recording this kind of music, and ever since they’ve been trying to mess with it.  This is the way it would sound if you were standing this far away from a band playing.  This is the way it’s supposed to be.  Instead of the middle of an orchestra.

Obviously, Buddy came from a combination of Benny and Artie, but he forged his own style, and he’s got a unique sound and approach. And he was an innovator.  He turned a lot of people’s heads.  Because he was the only guy at this time who was playing real more Modern-influenced music.  And it’s a great combination to me of kind of Bop-influenced lines and real pretty phrasing.  It’s wonderful. This is 5 stars.  I love it.
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13.    Pee Wee Russell, “Wailin’ D.A. Blues” (from “Pee Wee Russell: Jazz Original,” 1997/rec. 1944) Russell, clarinet; Jess Stacy, piano; Sid Weiss, bass; George Wettling, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  Pee Wee.  From the first note.  A complete original.  I love him.  Mister Soulful.  Strangely enough, in the very early records, he did have a lot more technique — in the real early days.  But he just kind of threw everything out.  In his own way, as strange as it seems, he’s like the Thelonious Monk of the clarinet.  He pared everything down to real basics.  But obviously, he understands… He’s not simple player or a primitive player.  He understands all the harmonic ideas that are going on around him.  Like, he strips his own playing down to just the basics.  He’s a very intelligent player in my mind, with a lot of soul.  It’s great.  I would have to give that 5 stars.

TP:    Can you pinpoint this in time.

PEPLOWSKI:  Just from the sound of the recording, I would guess it’s got to be somewhere in the mid to late 1940’s.
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PEPLOWSKI:  There were some pleasant surprises in there; some eye-openers.  There does seem to be a little bit of a resurgence in the clarinet, and there are some people trying different things with it, which is refreshing.  My only general comments about that stuff is it’s nice to hear people try to break the preconceived boundaries of what the clarinet is supposed to be…

[ETC.]

The Bobby Bradford-John Carter was definitely the best thing I heard, because it’s the most refreshing.  Frankly, sometimes I get bored just hearing the same things over and over.  Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s all been played, and then you hear something like that, and you realize there’s life yet in music.  It’s an eye-opener.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Clarinet, DownBeat, Ken Peplowski

Artie Shaw’s 101st

To recognize the 101st birthday anniversary of Artie Shaw, here’s a piece I wrote for Jazziz in 2002 in conjunction with his self-picked box set, SELF-PORTRAIT (RCA).  Because of the allotted word length, I had to distill down two long phone interviews (I’ll save the raw transcripts, which are a hoot, for another occasion or forum).

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“Artie Shaw was to me the hippest clarinetist in that he played it straight.  His ideas would come straight out. He didn’t sound like he was studying from the book.” – Wayne Shorter

“I would occasionally play for black audiences,” says Artie Shaw, hearkening back to the 1930s, when he became a mega-celebrity. “It was always very liberating. You could do anything you want. They were much hipper than white audiences, much more musically aware.  That’s why Ellington and Lunceford and Chick Webb could get away with a lot that white bands couldn’t.

“Musically, we are an almost illiterate people. Audiences respond like apes; they get up and applaud after every solo, good or bad. The people who run the business do not insist on having any sort of dignity. Woody Herman would say, in the middle of the chorus, ‘And now, ladies and gentleman, Joe Miff-Miff played the trumpet, and this is so-and-so.’ I’d say, ‘Woody, why the hell don’t you wait til it’s over, tell the audience to sit down and introduce the soloists one-by-one?’  He said, ‘Well, this is what they want.’ I said, ‘What about what you want?’ He couldn’t understand that. Or didn’t want to. It’s very important that the leader of the band set an example, if he wants any kind of dignified response. Can you imagine a symphony audience applauding after each cadenza? But you can’t have a band if the audience won’t help you pay for them. So you’ve got to face the fact that you have to give them what I call ‘three chords for beauty’s sake and one to pay the rent.’”

Truculent and blunt, Shaw was never so cranky as to bite off the hand that fed him; now 92, out of the music business longer than he was in it, he pays the rent on royalties, residuals and investments from his glory years. Famously married to and divorced from actresses Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Evelyn Keyes, to Jerome Kern’s daughter, and three other women, he continues to possess what market researchers call a high name recognition quotient. That’s why last year’s SELF-PORTRAIT [RCA] — a 5-CD retrospective for which Shaw cherrypicked 95 performances from his vast storehouse of studio and remote recordings — stirred up as much attention as it did.

During two lengthy phone conversations last April, Shaw was loath to discuss oft-trod biographical territory, referring me to his books The Trouble With Cinderella and The Best Of Intentions rather than talk about how he came to earn $175 a week with a mediocre dance band as a 17-year-old in 1927, what it was like to sit in with Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone at the Apex Club in South Side Chicago and with Willie the Lion Smith and Billie Holiday at Pod & Jerry’s in Harlem, how he came to organize his first band, or the impact of his harrowing experiences during World War II. A staggeringly well-read autodidact and well-armoured misanthrope, he had plenty else to discuss. We excerpt the following comments.
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“The only thing worse than utter failure is unmitigated success.  I sure had that for a while.  And it was almost fatal. I lost my mind.  I lost all sense of purpose.  I didn’t know what I was doing any more. For the audience to stand up and applaud everything, how are you going to know what’s good or not? Then the War came, and that was a bath of cold reality. When I came back to so-called civilization, I went into analysis, five days a week, every morning, on the couch. First I did it in California. When I went to New York, I found that the West Coast analysis didn’t work on the East Coast!  I went to Abram Kardiner, a very famous man, one of the early cultural anthropologists, who trained Margaret Mead, etc. You’d come in in the morning and he said, ‘What happened?’ You’d tell him.  He’d say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ You’d say it, and he’d say, ‘Well, that’s not what you said.’ You’d go on and on, dissecting everything you thought. I learned a very important lesson. It can be summed up in three words. ‘Maybe it’s me.’

“I have a great distrust of authority.  That came I think out of my father telling me that the instrument I played was silly.  He called it a ‘blowzer.’  It means a blower, a thing you blow into.  Like a kazoo.  He classed it with nothing.  And he made his contempt for it very plain to me.  I’ve often thought since then, whenever some signal honor has been bestowed upon me, ‘If you were here, Pop, you’d learn what a blowser is.’ He was a frustrated inventor, artist, and ended up as a tailor.  His name was Arshawsky, and he came from Odessa. It took me fifty years to learn that. He left when I was 13, and I didn’t much care. I have no regard for antecedents or precursors. I have no family sense.  I feel as though I came out of whatever I came out of, and I managed to get to where I am in spite of anything.  There’s a line I cherish that George Bernard Shaw said.  He said, ‘Looking back at my life, I realize that whatever success I achieved was done in spite of all the good advice I received.’

“I got my name ‘Shaw’ from Robert Louis Stevenson, a book called Kidnapped, which I read when I was 7 or 8.  Kidnapped had a man living in the House of Shaws.  Shaw means a thicket of trees.  So I took the name when I went into show-biz.  When I decided to become a saxophone player and play in bands, it was easier to say ‘Art Shaw’ than Arthur Arshawsky.  Plus, in those days there was a great deal of anti-semitism, just as there is today.  But it was more overt in those days.

“I don’t know what being Jewish means. I certainly don’t believe in Jehovah, I don’t believe in the stone tablets, I don’t believe in the Burning Bush, and I don’t believe in any of the myths.  And I don’t know what it means to have a seder, because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting.  I mean, why is this day different from any others?  Well, Jesus, why is July 4th different?  They’re all different.  I don’t really care about these concretized myths that we deal with, called religion.

“I became Artie Shaw, and Artie Shaw leading a band was hardly Jewish.  I was on the ‘Tonight Show’ one time, and the question came up: What did you want to be when you were young?  What was your ambition?  When it got to me, I said, ‘I wanted to grow up and be a gentile.’  And the audience cracked up, and so did the band.  There were a lot of Jews in the band.  And then, the laughter died down, and I said, ‘And I made it.’ It was like a big trick on the world, and I was the only guy who could laugh at it.

“I think the family is a series of cannibals eating each other. My view is that if we had a reasonable society, we would pay people to take care of the raising of children. Four 6-hour shifts, and that’s it. They’d be totally devoid of all this subjective, sentimental flesh-and-blood horseshit that we get with the average family. There’s no reason why a society can’t raise children in a fairly reasonable and dispassionate and objective way.”
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“I think there were about five great bands in those days — Goodman, me, Basie, Ellington and Lunceford. Tommy Dorsey had a great band, but they weren’t playing jazz. Lunceford at his best was awfully good.  He had a lot of respect for what he did, and he imbued the men with that. And Ellington at times was very good.  He was interesting, a very smart guy. But he’s been hyped. In the last ten years, he’s become like the avatar. The long form things he did weren’t long forms; they were just pastiche, a lot of short forms put together. But the audience bought it. The band was like the little girl with the curl on the forehead.  When they were good, they were very good; when they were bad, they were horrid. He chose the personalities. It’s like saying the newspaper was a good newspaper, but the people couldn’t write. It’s under a rubric. Sometimes Ellington’s rubric worked, other times it didn’t. When I quit, he said, ‘You’ve got more guts than any of us.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? You could do the same thing if you wanted.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t know what else to do.’

“The band was my instrument; I played the clarinet with it. I tried to make the guys play better than they thought they could. I tried to be reasonable with them. But on the other hand, there’s an old saying, and I believe it’s true: Nothing of any lasting value is ever achieved by a reasonable man. I do know that if you were really reasonable, you’d go down the road and be a good insurance man. But if you’re unreasonable, you’re quarreling with everything that is, and you’re going to make it better. We rehearsed all the time. If one guy did something wrong one night, I’d call a rehearsal the next night and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to fix that.’ The guys didn’t mind. They liked the idea of the quest for perfection.

“Like everything else, jazz has had a crescendo and a decrescendo. It was an efflorescence. We grew and grew and grew, we finally reached an apogee, and now it’s gone downhill. I was interviewed by a guy who was doing a book on Sinatra. At the end, he said, ‘Are you in agreement that he was a perfect symbol of the decadence of the last half of the century?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think that says it very well.’ We took a plain, ordinary singer, a good singer, and we made him into an icon. We made him a crony of Presidents, and then when he couldn’t get along with the President because of his propensity for gangsters, he went to Spiro Agnew.  He was a man with utterly no principle.  That’s a form of decadence.

“When Ava was living with Sinatra, she asked me whether sex had been okay when we were together, because she said with Sinatra it was hopeless. Later Ava developed this great, peculiar thing about standing by her man.  So she’d make remarks like ‘he weighs 105, and 95 percent cock.’ I know damn well that wasn’t true, because I’ve heard it from other women.

“Once I worked with Tony Bennett on a series of half-a-dozen concerts, the big tents, those great big musical extravaganza places. My orchestra was rehearsing with him, and after they did ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco,’ he came over to sit with me.  He said, ‘The band is great’ and so on. I said, ‘Good, I’m glad you’re happy with it.’ Then I said, ‘Tony, what goes through your mind when you sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’?’  He looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, that song expresses at most a meager philosophical statement. Don’t you ever get a little bored with it?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m very lucky. The audience…’  I said, ‘I’m not talking about money or success. I’m talking about your inner view.’ He didn’t have one. I began to realize that this guy was intent on singing, like Goodman was intent on the clarinet. The philosophical basis for this was totally lost. They were not aware that there was such a thing. I think it denotes a lack of depth to thinking. A surface view of life. Things are not what they seem, and it’s the duty of any person who pretends to be aware to try to understand what it really represents in its deepest sense. What does it say about the human condition? The point of the words ‘human condition’ I think is lost on a lot of people. Also, people use language so imprecisely that their thought is imprecise. We say ‘jazz.’  What are we talking about? What is it and what isn’t it? I mean, the name of the magazine, Jazziz. Jazz is what? It’s like saying ‘Bird Lives.’ Well, in that case, Beethoven lives. What they mean is some of the music lasts.

“Language is wiser than the people who use it. Language has been used for a long, long time by a number of people in different ways. We are the heirs to that, and if we use language precisely, we have a little better chance of making ourselves clear and making other people understand what we’re doing than if we use it sloppily, as people do. We have three languages. There’s the oral-verbal one. There’s music. And there’s mathematics. I don’t know of any others.”

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Filed under Article, Artie Shaw, Clarinet, Jazziz

The Pile (#1)

As I’ve had a bit of down time recently, I’m trying to catch up on new releases, which arrive inexorably. It’s hard to make a dent—there’s only time to listen to a couple or three 60-70 minute recordings in a day, and that’s stretching it.   Then, too, as I’ve learned by experience from writing liner notes (not to mention just plain old common sense), recordings by serious master musicians demand multiple listenings to catch the nuances, the overall arc and intention. With that in mind, it’s important to self-remind that personal taste has nothing to do with the actual quality of the artifact. I may hear something that I’m not in the mood for, but two weeks later it’s just what I want to absorb.  Or perhaps the rhythmic feel aggravates me one time, but  resonates the next. One reason why I’m very cautious about making judgments — assessments are different — when I write reviews. I’m not a musician. I haven’t spent my life working up the knowledge/experience base that went into making this recording.

In any event, this is the first of hopefully a ongoing series of “Pile” columns (the accumulated stacks of CDs that are outside of my assignment purview pile up) on some items that have recently caught my ear. Unless the offense/offender is particularly egregious, I won’t go negative. That said, don’t assume that omission means distaste.

David Gibson, END OF THE TUNNEL (Posi-Tone)

A lot of individualistic trombone virtuosos emerged during the ‘70s and ‘80s—George Lewis, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson, Robin Eubanks, Conrad Herwig, Frank Lacy, Gary Valente…I could go on. But outside of Wycliffe Gordon, Clifton Anderson, Ronald Westray, and one or two others, trombone players don’t pop immediately to mind when you think of interesting slide improvisers over the last two decades. Maybe we’re in for a new wave. I’ve dug Marshall Gilkes in recent years, and Gibson has a similarly gorgeous sound and a solo conception that’s thematically cogent and also kinetic through a range of late 20th century food groups. Many dates that draw on the various mid-’60 Blue Note genres sound contrived and stale, but this one has a fresh feeling, as though the participants were recording something fresh contemporaneously — not unlike some of the bebop-oriented improvisers who’ve used Smalls as a base over the last 15 years.  In any event, Gibson dialogues throughout with the excellent alto saxophonist Julius Tolentino, his front line partner; organist Jared Gold, himself a leader on few Posi-Tone dates, combines point guard distribution duties with intelligent shot selection, laying down apropos comp and basslines but also creative solos; drummer Quincy Davis, an A-lister in my book, works the grooves with energy and taste.

James Carter, CARIBBEAN  RHAPSODY: CONCERTO FOR SAXOPHONE AND ORCHESTRA (Em-Arcy) – (composed by Roberto Sierra)

A tour de force. I can’t really review it properly without listening 3-4 more times, which I probably won’t be able to do without an assignment, but I can say that it’s one of the most synchronous collaborations I’ve heard between an orchestral (as opposed to big band…I hope I’m making myself clear) composer and improvising soloist—particularly a soloist as florid and adventurous as JC—that I can remember hearing. Sierra creates a series of felicitous environments in which Carter can soar, and soar he does, with ferocity and extraordinary craft on all the instruments.  I saw Carter at the Blue Note a few weeks ago with his organ trio, plus Nicholas Payton and Blood Ulmer, and was impressed by his complete command of his materials—the presentation and narrative arc came through as strongly as his considerable musical contents. Which can happen once a musician of Carter’s gifts and focus hits his forties and coalesces his various tributaries of expression into a clear path.

Gerald Clayton, BOND: THE PARIS SESSIONS (EmArcy)

Yes, I know, two EmArcy releases in one post…

I’ve dug Clayton for a couple of years, since  his trio was in residence for the entirety of the Perugia summer edition of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival, and I heard him play Duke Pearson’s “Is That So?” (Bradley’s denizens of old will remember that this was a John Hicks favorite) with complete idiomatic authority—he owned the language. Not long after that I heard him, at a Hank Jones festschrift concert, come out after Hank had played a few tunes, sit down with George Mraz and Willie Jones, and invent a variation on Cole Porter’s “I Love You” that I assumed had to be composed, everything was so perfectly in place and ingeniously constructed, but was told that he put it forth on the spot. That winter at Orvieto he did a series of duos with his father John Clayton that were on the very highest level of interaction and sophistication. So I know his scope.  Didn’t think he represented his breadth quite as effectively on his debut record, TWO SHADE, from 2009. BOND offers a much more complete portrait of his gifts—the beats are modern but also swinging, the trio has a one-voice flow, the new-jack originals and old-school standards interweave seamlessly. No showoffs here. In fact, it’s appropriate that he ends with John Clayton’s “Hank”; there isn’t really a discernible stylistic connection between Gerald and Hank Jones, but Gerald possesses a Hank Jones level of clarity and focus—an ability to cut to the chase and say something fresh in any environment. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I love his solo on “Nobody Else But Me”—a major league left-hand and a melodic spirit. Like James Carter, Gerald is in complete control of his materials, and at 26 or 27, he’s already recognizable as himself while engaging with the tradition on its own terms. He’s one of the very few under-30 pianists out there (Manuel Valera is another, but he’s 30) whose concept would have enabled him to fit with ease into the Bradley’s rotation.  (That’s a good thing.)

Alexis Cuadrado, NONETO IBÉRICO (BJU Records)

A well-wrought program of 8 tunes composed and arranged by bassist Alexis Cuadrado, a Barcelona-to-Brooklyn transplant, each of them built on a different rhythmic structure of the Iberian diaspora. Needs three or four listens (which I don’t have time for now) to say anything meaningful. Suffice to say that the soloing (Loren Stillman, Avishai [trumpet] Cohen, Brad Shepik, Dan Tepfer, as well as Piraña and Blas Cordoba and Tomatito) is inspired throughout, and the arrangements are fresh and cohesive, with ever shifting colors and intoxicating rhythms (Mark Ferber on drumkit and Marc Miralta on cajon and percussion lock in beautifully with Cuadrado).  Thought of in conjunction with Wynton Marsalis’ excellent VITORIA SUITE, with Chano Dominguez, it shows that Flamenco Jazz now has its drivers license—that’s to say, it’s  reached adulthood as a genre and become a mature pan-generational, trans-national idiom on the worldwide playing field.

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Filed under Alexis Cuadrado, Bass, David Gibson, Gerald Clayton, James Carter, Piano, Review, Tenor Saxophone, The Pile, Trombone