Back in 2002, when he was recording for Atlantic Records, trumpeter Olu Dara, who turned 73 today, sat with me at Atlantic’s offices for a DownBeat Blindfold Test. Here are the unedited proceedings.
Olu Dara Blindfold Test:
1. Louis Armstrong, “You Go To My Head” (from LOUIS ARMSTRONG MEETS OSCAR PETERSON, Verve, 1956) (5 stars)
From the first couple of notes, although he has a cup mute, if it’s not Satch, it’s someone who’s been living with him all his life in the back room somewhere. [AFTER] Of course that was Louis Armstrong. A lot of the trumpet players from that era had a certain sound, it was a staccato, but you know it’s Satch with the vibrato at the end of his phrases. That’s how you can really tell. And the tone. I usually prefer Satch playing other type of songs, not these conventional standard type songs. It’s a strange thing for me. It’s like a hybrid of something… Knowing where he came from, New Orleans, the Southern thing, him doing this is like a Chinese singing a Puerto Rican song. You know what I mean? It’s hard to describe. Now, the piano player sounds exactly like something McCoy Tyner played, almost note for note. I don’t know who came first, this piano player or McCoy, but it’s an exact duplicate of the way McCoy played behind Coltrane on “Ballads.” [This piano player came first?] Who is he? Oscar Peterson? Amazing. In instrumental music there’s a lot of…it’s not copying, but they almost cookie-cutter each other. It’s amazing how that happens, especially in jazz music. Anyway, just because it’s Satch, I would give him everything. 5 stars, 6 or 7. Because I know he can do that laying on his back.
2. Leo Smith, “Anoa’s Prophecy” (#8) (from DREAMS AND SECRETS, Anonym, 2000) (5 stars)
It sounds like a jazz bass player and a jazz drummer trying to play funk. But that is Miles Davis…or someone close to him. No? [LAUGHS] That’s deep! Keep playing it! Is that the trumpet player who writes in film? [Not Mark Isham.] It’s not Mark Isham. [AFTER A HINT] Oh, that’s Leo Smith. It’s funny about horn players from… I didn’t know who the other people were, but I do recognize horn players close to the Mississippi River. There are certain things we do…we can do a lot of things, and that’s one of the things we can do. We can go that way, we can do the Satchmo thing, we can do the Miles Davis thing, we can do the Clark Terry thing, we can do the avant-garde thing. You’ll find that most trumpeters from this area, where we’re from, we’re documented playing all types of music. This is close. That’s why I thought it was Miles at first, because the sound is so real. It’s authentic, his sound. The concept also. Now, the rhythm section is another story. I’ll give this five stars because of Leo’s conceptual ability to play any type of trumpet style and really play it authentically, like it should be played. I would say he’s one of the most creative musicians I’ve met, especially on the trumpet. Period.
3. Tremé Brass Band, “Gimme My Money Back” (from GIMME MY MONEY BACK, Arhoolie, 1995) (Kermit Ruffins, tp.) (3 stars)
I’ve heard this live in New Orleans. The Dirty Dozen. It’s not the Dirty Dozen? [There are people in this band from the Dirty Dozen, but it’s not the Dirty Dozen.] That makes a difference. That’s not Brass Fantasy, is it? The saxophonist sounds like Maceo Parker. The trumpet player sounds like Gregory Williams who plays with the Dirty Dozen. I can’t identify the horns. The horns sound like conventional trumpeters. It’s hard to play anything other than conventional type trumpet on this type of beat. So I’m sure I won’t be able to identify the trumpet player. [AFTER] That did sound like the Dirty Dozen, but not the real Dirty Dozen. Some of the Dirty Dozen you could feel in there. I couldn’t identify the horn player. I know the tuba player, Kirk Joseph. He’s one of the finest tuba players I’ve heard. I couldn’t identify the trumpet player, because as I said, it’s hard on that type of beat…a trumpet player would have to be extraordinary to be able to create something on that kind of beat other than what trumpet players create on that beat. But I’m quite sure I may know the trumpet players. [Kermit Ruffins] Oh, I’ve never heard his music. For being able to play that music in this day and time, I give them 3 stars for just the idea of keeping it around.
4. David Murray, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” (from SPEAKING IN TONGUES, Just In Time, 1997) (Hugh Ragin, tp.; Fontella Bass, vocals) (3 stars)
I don’t know who it is, but it’s…I don’t know what you can call it. It’s “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”. I know it wasn’t produced in the South. They wouldn’t do that with that beat on it, and especially playing a lot of notes on the solo, since it’s a lament. So it seems like a strange way to do that. I’m quite sure they’re young musicians, but were young musicians doing it. Let me see what else you got there. Right now the introduction was too long, so I didn’t want to hear more. Sounds like Mavis Staples singing. But it’s not Mavis. I can’t identify anybody. I can’t really feel it. That’s David Murray right there. [AFTER] Fontella Bass. I was in the ballgame! I didn’t know who the trumpet player was. But he didn’t grow up in that environment with that kind of music. But you could clearly hear David. David has a very distinctive concept and tone. I didn’t know Fontella, because I hadn’t heard her since “Rescue Me.” That’s been a jillion years ago. She reminded me of Mavis in a way. Just for the idea itself, once we got past the introduction [LAUGHS] and got to Fontella and David’s solo, then it made sense. I’ll give it 3 stars for all of that.
5. Fred McDowell, “Going Down The River” (from THE FIRST RECORDINGS, Rounder, 1959/1997) (5 stars)
[TO HIS SON] We may have it at home, but I probably haven’t listened to it. I know it’s out of Mississippi. That’s one of our people. But it could be anybody. I don’t listen to a lot of CDs as it is. But I know he’s from Mississippi. But there are hundreds of us who can sing like that down there. So I wouldn’t be able to identify this man at all. That’s creative music right there. That’s where a lot of jazz comes from. If you listen closely, you can hear a saxophone solo in the guitar work. You can hear Monk in this man’s voice, you can hear big band arrangements, everything right here. You can hear Miles Davis, “Freddie Freeloader” — BANH-BAM, it was the same note. A good band! Sounds very Mississippi. Very. But I don’t know who he is. Mmm! I probably know who he is and don’t know who he is at the same time. [AFTER] That was beautiful music of the best kind. Who he was… Fred McDowell. I have heard him before, but I didn’t recognize him. That’s a 5-star for the whole outfit, from the drummer, guitar players — extraordinary music. Like I said, you can hear all types of music from right there. You can hear Duke’s band, you can hear Monk, you can hear Louis, you can hear everybody with that one song.
6. Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In The Dark” (from THE COMPLETE TOWN HALL CONCERT, Blue Note, 1962/1994) (3 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] Is that Duke Ellington? It sounds like Clark Terry playing the trumpet. Sounds like Duke’s band. Mingus? Okay.. Duke or Mingus, because they had a tendency to use arbitrary notes in their ensemble playing. That’s what I heard. They were one of the few bands that would use just arbitrary notes. They’re called arbitrary notes by some, but to me it’s proof that all notes go together if they’re done with the right people playing them and the right attitude. It’s not the kind of music I like to listen to, but I would give it 3 stars for being able to make instrumental music sound real soulful.
7. Chocolate Armenteros, “Choco’s Guajira” (from GRUPO FOLKLORICO EXPERIMENTAL NUEVOYORQUINO: CONCEPTS IN UNITY, Evidence, 1975/1994) (5 stars)
Is that Cuban music? Is it Sandoval on trumpet? I love this kind of groove. when I first heard this kind of sound, I was in Cuba many years ago. [TO HIS SON] The vocalists sound Puerto Rican. It’s hard for me to identify a Spanish-speaking band, very difficult because I don’t speak the language. I can’t identify the soloists at all. They have a certain solo style that’s kind of similar, which is why it’s hard for me to identify the musicians. But they have a Congolese-Cuban kind of feeling to it. Sounds like they’re making music in New York City. I can tell because of the claves and the conga drums. Because the Cubans and the Congolese have a much heavier congo sound, but here they use timbales. The claves are a central instrument. But I have no idea who they are. [AFTER] Jerry and Andy Gonzalez are excellent musicians. Not only do they play the music of their people, but they can give a feeling of Cubano and also the jazz music. They know how to do very good mixes on music here. I liked the trumpet player. Was he Jerry? Oh, Chocolate. I don’t know if he’s from Cuba or not. But I could recognize that pure Cuban trumpet style. That’s why I said Cuban in the beginning. [Do you feel a connection to that style?] Yeah, there’s a connection. Armstrong had that style, and early trumpeters had that style, and I feel that style is still in me. I feel a connection with the Cuban trumpet style or Hugh Masakela. Those styles are not spoken about much, but they are not as easy to play as people think they are. You have to have a real feeling for it to play that trumpet style. 5 stars all the way.
8. Blue Mitchell, “Hootie Blues” (from A SURE THING, Riverside, 1960/1994) (Jimmy Heath, ts., arranger) (3 stars) (Wynton Kelly, piano; Jimmy Heath, arr.)
Sounds like Wynton Kelly on the piano, which makes it a stronger blues. The blues was kind of lightweight with the head and everything. Wynton Kelly is one of the few pianists who plays contemporary jazz that could be identified not only by musicians, but the masses, so to speak — the listeners, the non-musicians, whatever. He had a certain signature. The trumpeter came in with a Miles Davis lick, but I’m quite sure it’s not Miles! He came in with a Miles Davis lick that civilians know! [LAUGHS] I wouldn’t have done that. Now, who could that be? Sounds like Blue Mitchell. [AFTER] I don’t really like the tune that much. It’s a lightweight blues head. The recording isn’t that good because I can’t hear Wynton’s real sound, nor Blue’s. But it shows you how great they were. With that thin recorded sound, you still can identify Blue Mitchell and Wynton Kelly. I’ll give it 3 stars for them. Without Wynton and Blue, I don’t think I could have listened to it.
9. Sidney DeParis, “The Call Of The Blues” (#16) (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, 1944/1998) (5 stars) (Jimmy Shirley, guitar; Ed Hall, clarinet; Vic Dickenson, tb.)
Cootie Williams? Bubber Miley? It’s a very interesting concept he has, the trumpet player. He didn’t play the lick form, which is very unusual. Charlie Christian? Is this the ’40s? It’s really difficult for me to identify any of these people because I was only a mere child, and then I didn’t listen… The rhythmic concept is unusual, because there’s a boogie-woogie beat, there’s a straight jazz beat, and there’s a rhythm-and-blues beat mixed up in it. An old jazz sound coming from…now they mixed that with a Dixieland sound. So it has multiple concepts in it. The way they do the solos is not conventional, not as conventional as famous people who will solo? Is the trombonist Trummy Young? Dickie Wills? I would never guess the trombone player. Not Al Gray? Not Vic Dickenson? Okay. Sounds like somebody Clark Terry might have listened to. Did this trumpet player ever play with Duke’s band? [Yes.] It’s not Artie Whetsol. It’s not Cat Anderson! Ray Nance? Sounded like Hot Lips or Red Allen for a while. Guy’s great, whoever he is. Just right. But I never heard him, ever. But that was a beautiful record. That’s when creative music I thought was at its best. The horn players really played. Everybody played what should be played, nothing more and nothing less. 5 stars.
10. Wynton Marsalis, “Sunflowers” (#13) (from THE MARCIAC SUITE, Columbia, 1999) (3 stars)
Are all these guys under 40? I can hear the youth. They sound like college players. In the tones, yeah. Sounds like they all went to the same institution, either college or music school. You can tell by the tone. The tones sound similar. You don’t hear any individual tone. You’d have to know them personally to know their tone. And there’s not much space in the music. That’s another way you can tell. Then they have the pianissimo things, the forte things, so I can tell they’re university or music school. Then they’ve got that Miles Davis “All Blues” thing hidden in there somewhere! But I don’t know who they are. There are a lot of glissandos and triplets. They don’t sound relaxed. They’re young, under 40. That’s enough of that one. [AFTER] I don’t know who they are, but I would give them 3 stars just for wanting to be musicians.
11. Craig Harris, “Harlem” (#5) (from ISTANBUL, Double Moon, 1998) (Carla Cook, vocals; Craig Harris, tb., arr.) (3 stars)
Sounds like Craig Harris on trombone. That’s one of his licks. I probably know the singer personally, but I don’t recognize her. I know Carla Cook, I’ve ever worked with her, but on the CD I didn’t recognize her voice. I don’t know what they were doing. I live in Harlem, too, so I understand what they were saying. It’s nice. I’d give them 3 stars for trying to do what they were trying to do. [What were they trying to do?] I don’t know yet! [LAUGHS]
12. Cootie Williams, “Dooji Wooji” (from THE DUKE’S MEN, VOL.2, Columbia, 1939/1993) (5 stars) (Johnny Hodges, as)
Is that Duke Ellington? It’s part of his group. Somebody has broken away, Johnny Hodges or somebody. But who? Could it be Cootie? It sounds like Cootie’s band away from the Duke, with Duke on the piano. It’s excellent. This is top-grade, high-quality stuff. I had never heard Cootie’s group, but you could just feel it! I hear Johnny Hodges there. This is excellent. That’s what I mean you can tell between the old heads and the young heads. There’s a certain feeling. You can dance to this. You can get images of people, not just men, but women, children, food and drink. You can hear church and nightclub. It takes you there. Really, to me it’s all about tone. The tone has to have that real feeling, and not just academic. That’s beautiful. 5 stars. You know that. That’s it! That’s the stuff right there. It doesn’t even exist any more. It’s not here any more..
13. Neville Marcano, “Senorita Panchita” (from THE GROWLING TIGER OF CALYPSO, Rounder, 1962/1998) (5 stars)
Sounds South American. But then it sounds Cuban also. I’m especially attracted to this kind of music because it has so many mixtures in it. To me, this is one of the first multicultural musics. I hear many cultures in it. Spanish, the island people, the African, the Cape Verdean people I hear. Now, who this is, I have no idea. Sounds raw. The bass almost sounds like he’s playing a tub. I’m sure it’s a real bass, but just the way he hits it. And how loose the rhythm is, but still in rhythm. It sounds like a neighborhood band. I like that sound also! And this type of vocalization is excellent. It’s what the young people are doing now. I like to vocalize like this also. Free form vocalization is beautiful. There’s a musician named Garth something from England. He’s a singer-rapper. He’s very popular now. He’s got a vocal style that’s just exactly like him. This kid must be 21-22 years old. He has a moustache, like that. He’s from England and he’s a rapper. He’s talking about being at his girlfriend’s house and his parents don’t know he’s there, he don’t mean any harm. He wears a little white kufi. This is old, right? Ah, ’60s. This is excellent stuff. Because the kids are using it now. [Any idea where he’s from?] It sounds like Martinique…not Martinique or Surinam or somewhere like that. [KUFI: It sounds like from the islands.] It’s an island sound. To me it sounds like Cuba. Trinidad? That’s definitely 5 stars. The vocal alone, just the style of it alone. The looseness of it is beautiful.
14. Art Blakey & Jazz Messengers, “Afrique” (from THE WITCH DOCTOR, Blue Note, 1961/1999) (Lee Morgan, trumpet) (5 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] Lee Morgan! The greatest!! This is a man who’s an unsung hero in the history of jazz. There’s none like him. They talk about Dizzy, Miles, a lot of them. But this man here, he’s the only trumpet player I know, back in the day, who had direct fans, people who SCREAMED when he came on. Just the average man on the street liked Lee Morgan. He’s the only trumpet player I know in the history of the music that the common man on the street liked, the man who was not a jazz fan. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Now, who Lee Morgan is with I have no idea. Is that Billy Higgins on drums? Wait a minute. Is the tenor player Billy Harper? Not Frank Mitchell? Whoo, who is this? John Gilmore? Oh, Wayne Shorter! I got it now! [LAUGHS] Wayne threw me off for a minute because Wayne is so… I’m talking about in the past. It sounded like Wayne in the past, when he played more street; he had a street sound to him. Tenor saxophone. No soprano. Beautiful. This dude right here brought a lot of young people into jazz music. Is that Buhaina? [You didn’t recognize Buhaina right away.] Well, because I was listening for something else. When they came in, it was an unusual gathering of the musical instruments together doing something they didn’t normally do. So I didn’t listen for Bu until they got to the solos. Drummers don’t play that beat. These are the guys who brought people of my generation into jazz who may not have wanted to go into jazz. The tone of Lee Morgan — impeccable. He was straight-out. He didn’t try to do anything else but play straight out. He didn’t try to fool you with anything or try to be different or even try to be intellectual. To me, he was intellectual and street-wise at the same time. A brilliant man. The whole group. Is that Timmons on piano? The whole group. Philadelphia bass player. Jymie Merritt. For jazz in that era, that was it. Five stars. Of course! All the way.