Tag Archives: Jim Hall

For Bill Frisell’s 63rd Birthday, A DownBeat Article, An Uncut Blindfold Test, and A Few Other Pieces

Best of birthdays to guitarist Bill Frisell, who turns 63 today. Most people who would read this blog don’t need me to say much about him. But on the personal tip, I’ve admired Frisell’s unique sound and concept since the  early ’80s, when he first recorded with Joe Lovano in the Paul Motian Trio, and that decade with John Zorn’s Naked City. During my years at WKCR, I was fortunate  to have a number of opportunities to host him on-air, several times by himself, once in dialogue with Paul Motian, another time in dialogue with trumpeter Ron Miles, his old friend and fellow son of Denver.

I’ve posted below my “directors’ cut” (about 1500 words longer) of a DownBeat cover piece I wrote about Bill and his long-standing trio partners Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, during a week in Perugia for the 2008 Umbria Summer Jazz Festival. I’ve also appended the uncut proceedings of  a Blindfold Test that he took with me around 2000 or 2001, in his extraordinarily cramped room at the former Earle Hotel on the corner of Waverly Place & MacDougal, on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Bill Frisell Trio in Perugia, Downbeat, 2008:

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestoned  streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel with with a giant sunflower chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  It opened in 1740, when Perugia was still an independent city-state, as the gathering place for the local aristocracy. In response, forty years later, a consortium of Perugia’s merchants converted an abandoned nunnery perhaps a quarter mile down the hill into the grander, showier Teatro Morlacchi, a 785-seater with ceiling frescoes.

Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, positioned themselves on stage to begin a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his black-shoed foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialog with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce from rubato to meter. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This launched a free-associative, genre-spanning suite of songs, each declarative melody transitioning into another—“Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialog, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment. If you thought about it a certain way, you might reflect on how the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 12th and 18th centuries responded to the particular light of the Perugian sky and the planes of its topography when they conjured their images and structures. You might also reflect on the ingenuity and learning that went into their designs, and the amount of labor that went into actualizing the final product.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seven-tune set. Dressed in a crisp white-on-white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
Throughout the week in July, the daily juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.
“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the following day. We sat in a walled-off space in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, situated down the block from Teatro Pavone. Frisell wore a white t-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops, and horizontally striped socks in bright colors. As we spoke, the kitchen staff prepared a luncheon buffet as diverse as the program he had presented the previous evening.
“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he continued. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ‘70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out, and  it was this moment of despair. I realized that I’d never, ever be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Wow, here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I really want to play, but my hands are like…I haven’t been playing my guitar very much. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”
Perhaps more in touch with formative memories than he might otherwise be because of his mother’s recent passing, Frisell mentioned reconnecting with painter Charles Cajori, now 87, an active member of New York’s art world since the early ‘40s, and a family friend. “His father worked with my father in Denver in medical school, and when he was in Denver he’d come over for dinner,” he recalled. “He’d tell me all this New York stuff: ‘I heard this incredible drummer—I went to the Village Vanguard and I was sitting right under his cymbal.’ That was Tony Williams when he first started playing with Miles. The first Monk record I ever saw was from this guy.“Forty years go by, I’m in New York, and I thought about him. I looked him up on the Internet, and he was teaching at the Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. I hadn’t talked to him since I was 14. I wrote a note, and brought it to the front desk at the school, which is around the corner from my hotel. A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. He’d seen me play at the Vanguard, and knew me through Paul Motian and so on, but didn’t connect that I was that kid from way back. Now we’re friends, and he comes when I play. There’s a picture of Monk playing at the Five Spot, and right behind him is a poster that says ‘Cajori’. He was friends with Morton Feldman. He’s in his late eighties, and he said this amazing thing: ‘One thing I’m certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor.’ He teaches, and he sees that some of these things are slipping. To be able to draw is important. To be able to play an instrument. The fact that your fingers have to move around. Just that one little thing he said—it’s a worthy endeavor.”
[BREAK]
The first half of Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery [Nonesuch], consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a Fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Scherr and Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton, and several years ago he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, both figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.
“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music I’d probably do something like that. We probably have some instinct or motivation coming from the same place. I’ve said before that when I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”
In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldbergesque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.Frisell’s father was a biochemist, and I asked whether, in any way, he references that aspect of his background in his musical production. He demurred.
“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.
“Bill totally embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City band, after spending her early twenties mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead, when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”
By his account, Frisell began using effects towards improvisational imperatives in 1975. “I heard Santana play this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” he said. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
He remarked that he practices neither the sonic combinations that he conjures up nor the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘okay, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.”
To avoid the predictability pitfall, and break things open, Frisell frames himself with numerous configurations drawn from what is now a repertory company of musicians familiar with his language. Since 1996, when his long-time trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron dissolved, he’s triangulated Scherr and Viktor Krauss with drummers Wollesen, Jim Keltner, Rudy Royston, and Matt Chamberlin; used several rhythm sections to propel ensembles of varying size with violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang, lap steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Leisz, trumpeter Ron Miles, and reedmen-woodwindists Billy Drewes and Greg Tardy. He’s developed a corpus of string quartet music and formed a quasi-world music ensemble (the Intercontinentals). Then there are the one-off projects—a trio CD with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, a standards duo with Fred Hersch, a more recent trio date with Ron Carter and Paul Motian, the latter his employer since 1981 with the Paul Motian Trio, with which he continues to perform annually around Labor Day at the Village Vanguard. Still, as he puts it, the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard, and performs on Unspeakable, East, West, and History, Mystery—feels like “home base.”
“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter, but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, and your mind has been obliterated…,” he said animatedly, before breaking off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. Then along come Tony and Kenny. By this time I’d been looking at a lot of other music, songs with words, listening to Hank Williams songs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs—things I hadn’t listened to much before. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from—when thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing. I did a record in Nashville, played with a banjo player for the first time. Some people said, ‘Wow, he went to Nashville, and he’s selling out,’ and so on, but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really weird.’ I was stretching myself, playing with people I’d never met before, people who come from different places, people who didn’t think about music or learn music the same way I did. I couldn’t write out charts for them, the way I used to. It was a whole different way of playing, and I learned so much. Still am.
“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers. In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song, ‘Mood.’ Tony’s heard that, and he knows 20 different versions of it, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, who came out of nowhere for me. Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But then at the same time they respect me! They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”
[BREAK]
“Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” said Scherr the following morning. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. It’s sincere. If somebody is playing an instrument, that’s music—if it’s musical. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.”
The sky was clear, facilitating a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside the Hotel Brufani, the festival’s nerve center. It stands atop the remnants of Rocca Paulina, a massive fortress constructed in 1543 on the order of Pope Paul III to show the town’s staunchly anti-clerical citizens—who had battled for autonomy against Papal authority since the 11th century—who was boss. To emphasize the point, Farnese, then 75, commanded that 138 buildings belonging to the Baglione family, Perugia’s most powerful clan, be razed to the ground.
“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” said Scherr. Early in his teens, he played guitar in a rock band in which his older brother, Peter—now a Hong Kong-based classical contrabassist—played bass. “I heard rock-and-roll and soul and all kinds of other music. That’s when I got bitten by the bug of playing with other people—that feeling of discovery and learning how to play together. When I was 14, my brother brought home Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, and we went backwards from there. Around then I met a guy who would take me to his house, and we’d play guitar. He showed me who Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were. We would play vamps, what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then we’d turn off the lights and play free. In my mind, it all lived in the same room, because that’s the guy I was in contact with. I suppose it took me a while to recognize that ultimately I was looking for that kind of guy. I never really thought about the difference between the genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people hear them, and want to interpret them and be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”
Scherr wore a retroish short-sleeved shirt over black jeans, the way young Manhattan hipsters dressed in the ‘80s, when Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ‘90s, he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider, and joined Wollesen in Stephen Bernstein’s Sex Mob Quartet.`
“Maria Schneider started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he related with a laugh. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist in the Wind, on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, which is a kind of a combination of Louis Armstrong and Led Zeppelin, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle, and Bill came to the gig, and called me up soon after, and we started playing. I’m glad that it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like. At that point, I had been a fan of Bill’s music for quite a long time, and would check out every album, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about. It was very comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is very sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language that I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”
As if on cue, a slender, elderly man in gray shorts, a sleeveless sweater and walking boots appeared before us, took a breath, and began to sing a tarentella of indistinct origin in a clear tenor. He finished, began another, halted, said, “Gusto. Musica.” Then he walked off. Scherr laughed and applauded. “I couldn’t have said better than that,” he said. “Music. Love music.”
About half-an-hour later, Wollesen and I were strolling through the narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, and taverns setting up for lunch. We settled on a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. It was a touristy place, and his red wine was served cold. In the background, you could hear the Coolbone Brass Band, out of New Orleans, warming up for their daily noontime ballyhoo.
“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “I think his ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. I think Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s kind of uncanny.“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music. I don’t think he’s ever said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange to me, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”
Perhaps Wollesen  was referring to John Zorn, with whom, several weeks before, he’d played two concerts in Paris, one placing him alongside Joey Baron; or to Butch Morris, whose conduction projects he frequently participates in; or to Stephen Bernstein in Sex Mob; or to Norah Jones and Sean Lennon. “Stephen often tells me exactly what beat to play, and he conducts the band on the bandstand,” he said. “It’s a totally different aesthetic somehow. It’s also a lot louder.”Because of these associations, listeners tend to peg Wollesen as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, he played in a popular local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a peer, and, at the Kuumba Jazz Workshop, where he worked as a janitor in order to gain free admission, observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Paul Motian on weekly Monday night concerts.
“I wasn’t into pop music as a kid,” he said. “It was just stuff that was on the radio. I was into Elvin Jones. All my friends were into that, and so was I. But I listened to a lot of different music—I played in klezmer bands, and I was really into Cecil Taylor and a lot of the really out stuff.”
Towards the end of the ‘80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York, moving into a funky apartment once occupied by Deborah Harry. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a conscious decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, a bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business, make the shit happen somehow. That means ultimately being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something that you learned or something that you already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, then you lost it. You’re not there.“I think about painters. They’ll spend hours and hours by themselves, but when it comes down to it, there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. But they spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”
[BREAK]

In November, the Bill Frisell Trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new film by Bill Morrison, who on a previous work used Frisell’s eponymously entitled 2001 encounter with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones as soundtrack music. “It will completely take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “In some ways, it’s more restrictive, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night.”

Frisell, Scherr, and Wolleson sat around the same table in the same wood-paneled adjunct of the Rosetta Hotel dining room. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.

“I’m writing music with no parameters, which I love,” Frisell continued. “Having the film there boxes you in, in a certain way, but those limitations sometimes will push you out into someplace you’ve never been. It’s another way to get pushed into moving ahead.”They quickly turned the subject matter to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations—mutual intuition, shared language, trust.”

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “The conversation just keeps going. I’ve always liked being in bands that really develop something together, like when my brother and I would put together a rock band. and we’d find a drummer, and play, and it would really click, and we’d learn a lot all of a sudden and be real excited about it, and you just couldn’t wait til the next time you played. When people play music together and travel, you get in close quarters, and people’s personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip or something, a running joke or a running topic. Then the next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets totally ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those kinds of things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes, and you’re coming up with ridiculous things because it’s fun. The music becomes less precious and opens up— you feel free to demolish stuff together, and it’s totally okay.”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he continued. “For instance, at a certain point on ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody, and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s almost unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just SEE how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear, whatever it is, and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, the air, the humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “To me, listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003-2005 engagement as musical director of the Germany concert series, Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers—among them Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chestnutt, Loudon Wainwright, and Chip Taylor—in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played “Lovesick Blues” a couple of times  and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is sort of impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways, a bunch of times. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out, get on with the day, prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird, super-intimate thing that we don’t talk about. For me, playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.”

* * * *

Bill Frisell Blindfold Test:

1.    Richard Leo Johnson, “Sweet Jane Thyme,” LANGUAGE (Blue Note, 2000) (Johnson, 12-string and pedal steel guitar) – (4 stars)

Holy moly!  Oh my God.  I have no idea who that is.  [How did it sound to you?] It was…nice.  I’m trying to…I’m baffled by… It reminded me of some things that I’ve heard, like, Leo Kottke do, and there was a tiny bit of some of the things that Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno back a ways, like the sort of secondary…whether it was a steel guitar or the kind of echoey, shadowy guitar behind the acoustic guitar.  But I have no idea who that is. [Was it one or two players?  How many guitarists?] I don’t know if it was overdubbed.  But there were at least two, I think. [LAUGHS] There was…was it a 12-string? [There was one guy on a 12-string in real time.] It sounded like there was a 12-string and then some kind of more atmospheric electric guitar as a background, the sort of cloudy sound… [He was playing a pedal steel and a 12-string, so there were two guitars overdubbed.] But there was one person. [One person.  He has a technique to create several voices.  Did you like the song?] Yeah, it was nice.  It didn’t like knock me out.  It was really cool and pleasant to listen to.

I have to think about how I’m going to do the stars.  Because to me, anybody who has decided to play music should get five stars, I think. [That said, there are gradations and…] [LOUD LAUGH] You’re trying to get me to… [I’m not trying to get you to slam anybody.  But the Blindfold Test is what it is.  If you want to give everyone a blanket five stars…] I really don’t like… Well, there’s things I like and things I don’t like, and I think certain things suck, just like everybody else.  But I still…somehow… I don’t like the idea of competition in music.  Also, with what I just heard, it kind of…I couldn’t place what… I don’t know where it’s coming from or what it is.  I don’t know if I would think it was better or worse depending on where it was coming from.  I could almost hear in a film. [He laid down guitar tracks, then he sent the guitar tracks to various improvisers, and they each laid down their tracks on top of his guitar track.  (ETC.) His name is Richard Leo Johnson.] I’ve never heard of him. [This is his second record.  He plays different guitars, and he’s a virtuoso, but he only started playing full-time four years ago.  He’s 45.  And he’s from Arkansas, the north Delta.  He’s self-taught.]

It made me be curious to hear how that is juxtaposed to other things on the record.  That’s something I would go do on my own now.  I guess I’m going to have to give it five stars… [If you give 4 stars to something that doesn’t knock you out, but you like and respect it, you’re really not insulting the musician.] Okay, I’ll give it four stars. [I think if you’re going to agree to do the Blindfold Test…] I did it once before, and I gave everybody 5 stars.  But also, everything was Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.  Maybe I’ll give it 4.  Maybe that rating system will assert itself as we go along.

But a lot of it is context.  I could see this being in a film or something, or seeing it up against something else where it might be very powerful…

2.    Jim Hall-Pat Metheny, “Django,” BY ARRANGEMENT (Telarc, 1995) (Hall-Metheny, acoustic guitars) (5 stars)

That’s “Django,” I can tell you that. [at 3:35] Oh, I think I finally got who this is.  [at 5 minutes] I guess I’m ready to talk.  Is there a string quartet?  From the first moments of these strings, I thought…Jim Hall was what came into my mind, something in the sound of the writing.  Then I started listening, and I hear one guitar and another guitar, and I didn’t recognize the sound.  But when the first guitarist started playing nylon string guitar, it took me longer than what I thought it should too… I heard a bit of Pat Metheny stuff going on in there, and then I figured that’s got to be Pat playing nylon string guitar.  Then I figured… They did a duet record, but this isn’t that, so this must be Jim’s record where he did these arrangements, and the song, “Django”… [Absolutely.] Thank God I got that right.  But it was kind of confusing, because sonically it was so strange.  First I thought it was an old recording… I thought Jim Hall, and I heard the strings and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those things Jim did with Gunther Schuller years ago or something like that.  But it’s interesting how, without him playing, it fired some kind of response in my brain that me think Jim Hall right away.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting at some point I’m going to hear Jim Hall in a blindfold test.  So I figured out it was Pat playing nylon string, and then Jim later playing acoustic guitar, which you don’t hear that often.  Also, I’ve never heard him make that much racket, singing along, groaning… Sonically they both sounded quite a bit different than you’re used to hearing.  But that was cool.  So now I have to give it stars.  That I’ve got to give 5.  The tune and that he could figure out something else to do with that tune, and those guys… That was great.  And it was cool to be that confused by… Those guys I’d figure I could recognize in two notes anywhere.  Is that on the record “By Arrangement”?  I should have known it right away.

3.    John McLaughlin, “Only Child,” TIME REMEMBERED (Verve, 1993). (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, The Aighetta Quartet, acoustic guitars, Yan Maresz, acoustic bass guitar) – (5 stars)

The first thing that came into my mind was I couldn’t tell how many guitars were playing, and there’s a very low-tuned guitar, and I didn’t recognize the tune.  But then as soon as the soloist started… I was thinking, “What is this?”  Does someone have a 7-string?  It almost sounded like it could have been Johnny Smith or George Van Epps, that beautiful, just lush… I couldn’t tell how many guitars were in there.  Then as soon as my man started playing, I knew it was John McLaughlin playing Bill Evans songs with a guitar quartet.  I might even have this record. [You played some of these songs with Paul Motian.] Well, I’m not sure if I played this tune.  But I thought it sounded just exquisitely beautiful.  He keeps on being one of my heroes.  He keeps holding up.  Every time I hear him…sometimes I think he gets taken for granted a little bit.  He’s just a monster.  I remember going to hear him in Seattle a couple of years ago, and it kind of hit me in the face how heavy he is!  I don’t know what to say.  It was so beautiful to hear that orchestration, lush, thick… Whoever arranged that, it was really beautiful, just listening to the kind of written part and then real kind of moving, and when he started playing it was… He always blows my brains out.  There was one moment when I went to a Shakti concert, and I almost quit playing the guitar.  I just thought, “Man, this is hopeless.”  But it was a good moment because it made me figure out that I had to figure out something else to do other than that.  I’ll never be able to… But he’s so much more… He’s known for being, you know, fast, but he’s a soulful… And rhythmically and harmonically, so…it’s some far-out stuff he’s doing.  I can’t figure out why people don’t… He’s right in there in that line of… There’s Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Jim and whoever all other guys, and he’s one of those main guys for me.  Five stars.

4.    Derek Bailey, “Tears of Astral Rain,” ARCANA: THE LAST WAVE (DIW, 1995) (Bill Laswell, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s hard to talk and listen.  I think it’s Derek.  The thing that’s confusing me is… I’m going to just guess.  There’s Derek who I sort of got right away.  The other is maybe a guitar, but sounds… Is it Bill Laswell?  Because it sounds like a 6-string… It’s higher than a bass.  The distorted one is sort of… And I know Bill Laswell does that 6-string bass thing, so it must be that.  Then I know that they did a thing with Tony Williams.  I kept thinking that sounds like Tony Williams’ tom-tom or something.  It sounds like Tony Williams.  But I didn’t hear him do his Tony Williams yet!  I kept listening to be sure is that Tony.  The sound of the drums, it sounds like Tony Williams, but he was playing so
minimally.  This was also really cool, the way the thing moved forward.  There was this feel, this forward rhythmic motion.  You can’t say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.  It’s interesting how just with the sound, they have that…a person’s sound… I heard a tom-tom, and it sounded like Tony Williams.  Is there more than one… I heard some of this, and it was really edited, and it sounded like they didn’t really put… The other thing about what I just heard is it really sounded like they were playing together in the same room.  The thing that I heard sounded much more pieced-together, like Derek overdubbed or they used a Tony drum track.  Maybe this was done that way, too.  I’m not sure.  But as I was listening, I at least felt like I was in the world of being in the same room with these guys playing.  Either it was pieced together really great or they were actually playing together.  But I think I heard that they weren’t all playing together when they did this.  That’s got to be 5 stars.

5.    Jimmy Bruno-Joe Beck, “Lazy Afternoon,” POLARITY (Concord, 2000) – (Bruno, acoustic 6-string; Beck, alto guitar) – (4 stars)

I don’t know what the tune is, but I know I’ve heard it somewhere.  I’m going to make a wild guess.  I don’t really know these people.  One of the guitars has to be a 7-string or something; it sounds really low.  I heard something on the radio, and this sort of reminds me of it.  It’s not Joe Beck and Jimmy Bruno?  I might even have heard this song on the radio.  I don’t know Joe Beck’s playing… He’s one of those guys who’s been around forever, and he’s been on a lot of records in real supportive ways, since the ’60s.  His name is always around, but it’s not like I hear a sound. Recently I’ve been hearing about Jimmy Bruno.  Talk about technique, he’s probably the most monstrous… But then I had heard a little bit of Jimmy Bruno, and I was surprised that he seemed more restrained… See, I don’t know him well enough even to know… I’m sort of assuming that on this tune Joe Beck was probably playing the melodic part and Jimmy Bruno was doing a lot of quite involved bassline and… [Oh, Joe Beck was playing that on the alto guitar.] Oh, he was.  I was thinking that if Jimmy Bruno had been playing the melodic part, it would have been twice as fast.  I heard some live thing with a bass-drum trio that was just off the scale of super fast tempo which was like how could you possibly do that… So I figured out what it was.  But that’s one of those guesses, thinking I’d heard this on the radio and I’d kind of heard about this guy.  It wasn’t based on knowing their sound; it was more an intellectual piecing-together.  It was pleasant.  It didn’t kill me or anything.  It was kind of easy… It didn’t wrench my guts out, so I’ll have to go 4.  But they definitely certainly play their instruments.  I guess there’s a thing with the guitar.  I mean, who am I to say… They can play circles around me as a guitarist.  I mean, they really play their instruments.  But I would maybe have liked to hear… The tune didn’t kill me or something.  Maybe if I’d heard them playing a tune that was richer, it would have been…

6.    A.D.D. Trio, “Three Characters, A.D.D. TRIO: SIC BISQUITIS DISINTEGRAT (Enja, 2000) (Christy Doran, guitar; Robert Dick, flutes; Steve Arguelles, drums) – (5 stars)

This is a guess again.  Is it Sonny Sharrock?  Then I’m lost.  I don’t know.  I really like the feel of the drummer, but I’m pretty well lost on this.  I might be getting in trouble here?  Is it possible that that’s Kenny playing drums?  I like this piece a lot.  But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Oh, Steve Arguelles!  I know him and I like him.  There was one moment I thought Robert Dick, but most of what I’ve heard of him is solo things or concert recitals, not in this… I like the feel.  Was the guitar generating some kind of loop?  I like the way the drums were interacting with that…the bass drum.  There was a moment where I thought about Joey Baron.  He had this super-low-tuned bass drum that’s really cool.  I like the feel of the drums.  That confused me, though Robert Dick flashed through my mind.  Then when he did these sort of slide things, something about the tone made me think about Sonny Sharrock.  But it was maybe a bit more reined-in than Sonny Sharrock.  I hate to give it less than 5 stars… I really liked that.  I’ll give it 5.

7.    Bar Kokhba, “Hazor,” ZEVULUN (DIW, 1997) (Marc Ribot, guitar; Eric Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Batista, percussion, John Zorn, composer) – (5 stars)

Again, this is an intellectual piecing-together.  Is it Ribot?  So it’s the Prosthetic Cubans.  Then what is it?  The cello player… [Who do you think wrote the music?] I don’t really recognize it. [AFTER] Oh, okay!  Wow, now it all comes in there!  I haven’t listened to this stuff.  Now that you say it, I recognize the melodic…the thing with all the sort of Latin stuff, I’m thinking, “What…”  I recognize Ribot.  So that’s that!  That’s Cyro, and Eric Friedlander on cello.  I’ve heard so much about that band, and I think I have the CD at home in my pile of… I liked it a lot.  And Ribot sounded really cool.  He really got the killer tone on there.  I can hear that melody being played by the other Masada.  Aren’t some of these reorchestrations of that material? [He pools the book.] Right, but orchestrates it differently.  I should have known the melody.  But with that kind of Latiny stuff going on, I got sidetracked.  5 stars.  The guitar seemed sort of dominant, so I thought it was the guitar player’s thing.  He got a great tone on that.  There’s a couple of times I’ve heard him… He said he was going to give it to me.  I think he made a solo record of standard songs.  We were in the middle of the night driving somewhere, like to the airport somewhere, and Kenny Wolleson had this tape, and this thing came on, and it was “Body and Soul,” and I thought, “Who is this guy?”  It sounded like an old guy.  I mean, in a good way.  It sounded like some kind of old real guy that I’d never heard of before, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and he was playing “Body and Soul.”  It turned out to be Ribot.  This had some of that real clean-enough but fat and kind of dirty, real good sound he got on there.  I really liked that. Oh my God. [Think older.] Well, the reason I thought Mark… I’m really going to stick my wiener out!  I heard bit of George Benson in there… [LAUGHS] I thought he’s had some impact on Mark.  Okay.  Wow!

8.    George Benson, “Hipping The Hop” (#6), ABSOLUTE BENSON (Verve, 2000) (Benson, guitar Joe Sample, piano, composer; Chris McBride, bass; Cindy Blackman, drums) (5/4 stars)

[GRIMACES] Man!  This is kind of a strange juxtaposition of things.  When it first came on, I thought it was going to be some smooth jazz thing, then it goes into… It’s an odd convergence of styles.  I’m going to guess Mark Whitfield.  The reason I say that is I heard maybe some of… Most of what I’ve heard of Mark has been more straight-ahead, and I knew he recently did something that I hadn’t heard, and I wondered if that could be it.  Wow!  Is this from George Benson’s new one?  Because I heard another thing on the radio, one song, I don’t know what it was, from George Benson’s new record.  Man, what a monster player!  The other thing I heard was a little more straight-ahead, and it reminded me of what a giant great player he is.  Christian can go from this funk thing to the straight-ahead thing, but it didn’t… It seemed a little on the light side.  The funk thing… It didn’t totally go to the straight-ahead thing and it didn’t go to the funk thing either.  The two things that were going on, going back and forth, sort of caused some restraint on either end.  It was really interesting, though.  Oh, boy, I can’t… So it was George Benson.  How is it that I get in a position that I’m sitting here talking about George Benson like I’m some kind of big-shot?  He’s a giant.  I guess it’s one of those things…the context is… He always sounds good.  It would be great to hear him play with Ron Carter and whomever and just play some tunes.  But who am I to say that?  5 stars for him and 4 stars for the arrangement.  Those guys are great.  Cindy plays great and Christian plays great.  Who knows what was going on in the…

9.    Duduka DaFonseca, “Por Flavio,” THE ART OF SAMBA JAZZ (self-produced ,2000) (Romero Lubambo & John Scofield, guitars; Nilson Matta, bass; Duduku Dafonseca, drums & percussion; Valtinho, percussion) – (

I’m getting confused.  I have to start guessing… I guess I’m obsessing over who… The guitars are very separated.  I really thought the one on the left was John Scofield.  It is John Scofield?  But I couldn’t quite get… Then I started thinking who is this other guy?  He’s playing a nylon string guitar.  I was kind of going off on who’s the drummer.  Then it sounded like there was  a percussionist.  I was thinking about Jack De Johnette for a second, but that didn’t seem right.  It’s getting more confusing.  Then I thought maybe it’s not Scofield.  There’s a lot of guys out there who picked up on some of his stuff.  It doesn’t seem quite like a Scofield record.  [It’s not.] The kind of dialogue between the two guitarists was cool.  I like that. [AFTER] I don’t know Romero Lubambo or Nilson Matta.  I knew it was Scofield, but the context seemed so… The piece was great.  I liked the two guitars going off of each other.  5 stars.  It felt great.  Oh, that’s bad.  Did I say Jack de Johnette?  I guess I was thinking too much, “if that’s him, then this must be that.”

10.    Liberty Ellman, “Blood Count,” ORTHODOXY (Red Giant, 1997) (Vijay Ayer, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure it’s Steve Swallow.  It’s not?  Oh, my God.  That was a guitar?  It was an awful low-pitched guitar.  But it sounded like a 6-string bass to me.  Now you’ve got me really screwed up!  I just got it fixed in my brain that it was… [So it didn’t sound like any guitarist you could pinpoint.] No.  Also because it went much lower than a guitar.  I didn’t know the tune. [AFTER] I should know that tune.  I was thinking this was Steve Swallow playing his 6-string bass, just the sort of pure tone where Swallow gets this sound in between a guitar and a bass.  Now I’m really confused, because it didn’t sound like a guitar to me. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him.  I really liked it.  I had it totally planted in my brain… I thought it was Swallow playing with Carla Bley or something.  Who was the piano player? [LAUGHS] I don’t know him either!  I heard this chord on the piano and I thought Paul Bley.  I thought Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Then I thought, no, that’s not Paul Bley, it’s Carla Bley.  Then I just settled into thinking that’s what it was.  I’d like to check out these guys some more.  5 stars.  Definitely his guitar was tuned…there was some super-low stuff going on there.  I’ve got to check him out.  Moments like that I really notice maybe I’ve been away from New York too much or something.  I don’t even know who any of these people are.  Not one person on this record I’ve ever heard of.  I’m old.  I’m a has-been.

11.    Kevin Breit-Cyro Baptista, “Sao Paulo Slim,” SUPERGENEROUS (Blue Note, 2000) – (4 stars)

I like it.  It’s another one of those weird juxtapositions of things.  It sounds like two kind of slide guitar guys.  Oh, it’s only one?  There’s a statement of the melody and then it sounded like another guy.  It sounded almost like another personality.  But maybe not.  Maybe it’s just the sound.  But he had sort of a… I didn’t sense it right away, but then when he played the solo I got a bit more of that country thing in there.  But then with the…I don’t know what this was.  He sounded, I thought, like somebody from down South, but then the rhythm section I couldn’t… The bass player playing all this little chordal stuff.  I think it was a bass player.  An electric bass player.  Maybe it was a rhythm guitar part that was hidden away in there.  So a kind of active… I’m just lost.  I don’t know this.  I guess I have to… Everybody sounded really great.  The tune didn’t kill me.  So I guess I’ll have to say 4.  But everybody played cool. [AFTER] Oh, shit! Oh, fuck!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!!  I asked him to send me this record.  Oh, shit!  Oh, fuck!  I love him!  I did a gig with him…we did a gig in Seattle where I had Greg Liesz… It was a thing where I had four guitarists.  I had Greg Lies, and Kevin, who has played a lot with Greg, like with k.d. Lang and… Man, I can’t believe it.  And Brandon Ross.  We sort of did a lot of my music that I had already arranged like for horns and stuff, but I had these four guitars.  And Kevin played sort of everything that anyone else wouldn’t play. Like, he had a low-tuned guitar.  So there’s a lot of overdubs on here.  Because it sounded like a band actually playing.  And he’s like a killer… Oh, he plays everything — mandolin, banjo.  I just love him, and I had such a good time playing with him.  I felt a real strong hookup playing with him.  But I never heard him play slide guitar at all, I don’t think.  It was like lap steel or whatever it was.  I don’t know how he can play all these instruments.  I’ve heard him play regular guitar, I’ve heard him play mandolin, I’ve heard him play this kind of 6-string bass guitar, and he KILLS on banjo — he really plays great banjo.  But I’ve never heard him play that slide stuff.  Wow.  Anyway, I really like him.

12.    Tim Berne-Marc Ducret-Tom Rainey, “Scrap Metal,” BIG SATAN (Winter & Winter, 1996) – (5 stars)

Well, it first came on and I thought it was Tim.  Then the guitar player started playing.  It’s interesting.  The writing is very cool, the first statement.  Is it Tim?  Thank God.  It’s weird how things… It’s cool to hear somebody after… I played with him a lot, and we’ve sort of gone on our separate ways, and I haven’t kept track of a lot of what he’s done.  This was really strong.  The writing and how the group was… This is stuff that had always been there in his music.  It’s real distinctive… It’s weird, these little electronic or whatever impulses that shoot through your brain.  Like, the first instant the thing came on, Julius went through my mind.  But then almost immediately, then, I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be Tim.”  Then I started thinking it’s really inspiring the way he… He’s stayed on his writing and…he’s stayed on this path all this time.  I felt really strong that compositionally, whatever was going… I don’t know what that was.  It’s stuff that was going on a long time ago, but you can hear how it’s…it’s just clear and it’s strange and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

There’s a lot of guitar players I’m not quite sure…I haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  Brad Schoeppach passed through my mind at one point, and then I thought Marc Ducret.  It must be Jim Black.  No?  Is it Previte?  Then I don’t know who the drummer is. [AFTER] Oh, shit!  Somehow I was thinking about Jim Black.  That’s embarrassing, because that’s another person I played with… We played a lot, like REALLY a lot, not so much gigs, but we’d get together and play for hours and hours, and I should know him.  But it’s strange, what goes on in my mind, because a lot of time has gone by, and we’re sort of off on these different… I’m over, wherever I’m playing, doing some hillbilly song, and he’s doing this.  It’s kind of…it’s weird.   5 stars.  It sounded great.  I haven’t heard Marc enough to always instantly know that’s him, but every time I’ve heard him, he’s kind of flipped me out. . I heard one time I think in Italy with this group where he just played acoustic guitar with no pickup or anything.  I’ve heard him in a lot of different contexts, and he’s just an off-the-scale great guitar player.  In this context, I thought he really sounded… There’s a kind of soulfulness in there that’s… Different people set people off in different ways.  There’s a feel Tom has that maybe makes Mark play in a certain way.  Anyway, I thought he sounded really great on that.

13.    Attila Zoller-Jimmy Raney, “Scherz 1,” JIM AND I  (Bellaphon, 1980/1995) – (4 stars)

What in the world… You’ve got me there.  I’m lost.  The recording was a little distracting to me.  The guitar in the left ear in the headphones was louder.  I mean, I’m not one to…I use a lot of reverb.  But it sounded like the reverb was kind of hitting on some stuff that was in the headphones.  Sometimes the headphones kind of amplify that stuff.  The one on the left was a lot louder.  And I kept thinking, is this overdubbed with the same guy?  Then right at the very end, the guy on the right, who was softer, came out for a moment by himself.  And I couldn’t recognize the tune.  I just felt lost, kind of.  I kept hearing little bits of something; I thought of a tune, then it sort of went off and I couldn’t follow it.  I liked the idea that there was all this dialogue going on.  It was never clear who was… I almost thought it was the same person.  Sometimes they were so on top of each other that then… Okay, tell me who it is. [AFTER] Attila crossed my mind.  Jimmy Raney was the one on the right.  I know that.  Because right at the very end he played this little phrase by himself, and it had the feel, the eighth note thing.  But the guitar player on the left, which was Attila, I don’t know his stuff that well, but… I guess it was the recording.  It was louder, and it kept sort of dominating the… I wish I could have heard it with Jimmy Raney being louder, because for me the actual rhythmic… Okay, I’ll be critical.  It was just that moment where Jimmy Raney played alone that the feel was killing.  For me, on this particular thing… Maybe it was the recording or the sound…he had also a brighter sound.  Attila seemed to dominate the whole thing.  Maybe Jimmy Raney was sort of following him.  That’s how I would critique it.  I love Jimmy Raney.  But that’s why it made sense when you said that.  4 stars.  Those guys were great, though.

14.    Brad Shepik, “Zdravo,” THE LOAN (Songlines, 1997) (Peter Epstein, alto sax; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums; Seido Salifoski, percussion).

Got me again.  When it first came on… For a moment I… I’m guessing.  It doesn’t sound old guys to me.  It sounds like young guys.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting old; it seemed kind of hyper, like “let’s play this thing in 7.”  But they play great.  It just had this kind of real energetic thing that… I guess maybe it’s this being the last thing, we’ve listened to all this music, and I’m ready to cool out and relax.  And there’s people… See, there’s all these guys who I should… There’s people who went through my mind.  I mean, there’s people I still haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  There was a moment I thought of Briggan Krauss when they were playing the melody, but then when he started soloing I didn’t think it was Briggan.  For a moment I thought Briggan, then again I thought Brad Schoeppach.  It was Brad?  But I don’t really know his… It’s more like an intellectual thing.  Then I thought about this group of guys who haven’t fully formed in my brain when I hear them, like Jim Black… [It was your rhythm section.] It was MY rhythm section.  Oh my God!  Now I’m really… If I say Jim Black… I didn’t recognize who it was, and so let’s think who would be playing with who.  But I also have to say that for a moment Kurt Rosenwinkel went through my mind.  So I hope these guys don’t get pissed at me for this.  I guess so much of the music that I play with Kenny and Tony is so different than that.  But I thought I would know those guys, because I’ve listened to other things they do.  When I say energetic, they’ve got a lot of energy, but a lot of stuff they play is slowpoke, right, or Sex Mob.  A lot of stuff is about these kind of slower feels.  Was this Brad’s stuff?  It sounded live.
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There were guitar players in everything, and a lot of the music I listen to is not guitar-based.  On the last blindfold test I did, there was something, and I said, “Well, that was Paul Chambers on bass and that was Philly Joe Jones… But I screwed that up bad on this one, too; saying that was Jack de Johnette.  I guess it’s weird to zero in just on guitars.  I guess there’s so many different ways.  No one has ever done a Blindfold Test with me and played Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.  Those are the things that have affected me.  But this is good.  I hope I didn’t say anything bad about anybody.  As I get older, it’s frightening how much… There’s more and more music accumulating, and less and less I feel like I can hear it.  It seemed like 20 years ago I would spend thousands of hours with one album, listening to it over and over again, and now it’s like you’re sort of flitting from one thing to another fairly quickly. [The music is sort of like that, too.  A lot of people don’t go into one sound so much as they delve into a lot of different ways…] But it seems like a lot of people are able to actually absorb and retain a lot of stuff.  I’m less and less able to do that, and there’s more and more stuff piling up.  I have piles of stuff at home that I think “I’ve got to listen to this or that.”

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, WKCR

R.I.P. Jim Hall (Dec. 4, 1930-Dec. 10, 2013)

Very sad to hear of the passing of Jim Hall, the master guitarist-composer who was a universal influence on guitar sound and practice post-1965. He was playing wonderfully as recently as Nov. 22 and 23rd at a Jazz at Lincoln Center event with two of his acolytes, John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein. I’d like to share three items documenting separate encounters with Mr. Hall (who I first had the opportunity to meet during the ’90s on several WKCR encounters), most recently in October for the program notes for the aforementioned concert. I’ve also appended the proceedings of a public DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in Orvieto—where he was performing all week in a two-guitar context with Bill Frisell, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron—right after New Year’s Day in 2010, and a conversation for a piece I wrote for DownBeat about the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village during the ’50s. I haven’t transcribed the proceedings of our WKCR shows, in which he related his personal history in some depth. You’ll be able to find biographical particulars elsewhere, but this documentary from the late ’90s, written by his daughter, Devra Hall, is a great place to start, as is this conversation with Larry Appelbaum. So are these DownBeat articles, from 1962 and 1965, respectively.

* * *

Jim Hall Concert with Peter Bernstein & John Abercrombie – Program Notes:

“Jim Hall is, in many ways, to me, the father of modern jazz guitar.”–Pat Metheny

“I used to focus on playing like Jim Hall, trying to play slow and really hear whatever I was doing, not let my fingers get ahead of me. I love Jim because it’s not a whole lot of notes, but he generates so much intensity with such a poetic vibe.”—Mike Stern

“Jim Hall is like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat. He’s so quirky and unorthodox, but always musical, with a purpose to everything that he plays and does. There’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein. Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too.”—Russell Malone

“Jim plays the baddest stuff I’ve ever heard. It’s like guitar playing from the future, but yet it’s happening right now.”—Julian Lage

* * * *

On this evening’s concert, guitarist Jim Hall, 82 years young, augments his trio with fellow plectrists John Abercrombie, 69, and Peter Bernstein, 46. Both regard the elder maestro as a preeminent signpost figure in their stylistic development, while most closely resembling him in the individuality of their respective voices.

A game-changer for the last four decades, a key figure in assimilating and coalescing the various streams that entered jazz expression during the ’70s, Abercrombie—like Hall—remains a work in progress in his golden years, as is evident on 39 Steps, his lyric, harmonically erudite 2013 release on ECM (his 24th for the label since 1974), and on its immediate predecessor, Within A Song. On the latter date, Abercrombie reconfigures in his own argot four songs from ‘60s recordings by Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer and Bill Evans to which Hall made consequential contributions. Among them is “Without A Song,” from Rollins’ 1961 masterpiece The Bridge.

“I heard it in a record store when I was 17, and had an epiphany,” Abercrombie told me last year. “I didn’t know what he was doing, but it sounded so perfect. That was the strongest reaction I’ve had to any piece of music from the jazz world.”

Bernstein experienced his own epiphanies as Hall’s student at the New School during the latter ‘80s. “Playing duo with him then, I’d wonder how he kept the harmony and time so clear,” he recalls. “He’s such a great listener, so supportive, so empathetic—all the things that he is as a human being come through when he accompanies.” Over the subsequent quarter-century, he’s  earned the esteem of peer-groupers like Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman, and elder masters like Rollins, Jimmy Cobb and Lou Donaldson for his touch, the voice-like quality of his tone, the melodic and harmonic clarity of his solo declamations, and, as Hall notes, “his complete avoidance of cliches.”

“Jim introduced a completely new aesthetic,” Bernstein says of his mentor. “He came out of Charlie Christian and Freddie Green, and doesn’t shy away from playing the blues and bebop, and doing things that the guitar wants to do as an instrument. At the same time he’s a very intellectual musician with an advanced harmonic concept.”

As always, Hall will follow the core principles by which he’s operated since his debut recording with Chico Hamilton in 1955. “I try to make each performance kind of a composition,” he says. “The idea of improvising in the first place is doing whatever it takes to appropriately get out of the guitar whatever goes through your mind. Ideally, all of us on stage—whether it’s three or four or five—will always be listening with that same target in mind, to make it into a nice composition.

“I picture myself as a listener when I’m playing or writing. That’s one reason why I solo the way I do. I like to leave space for the listener to reflect on what’s been played already, and then take them some place else.”

Ted Panken

* * *

Jim Hall Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Julian Lage, “Lil’ Darlin” (from SOUNDING POINT, Decca, 2009) (Lage, guitar; Jamie Roeder, bass; Tupac Mantilla, percussion; Neal Hefti, composer)

I actually know him. That’s Julian Lage. I’ve known him since he was 11 years old. I think he’s 21 or something now. I really admire him. He’s very different. A lovely young guy. On this record also, although not on this track, he has a banjo player, Bela Fleck, who is outstanding. That was a Basie tune, right? Right, “Lil’ Darling.” It was a completely unique treatment of a standard jazz tune. Basie’s guitarist, Freddie Greene, was amazing. He really kept the Count Basie band together. When Freddie left, they sounded great, but it just was not the same without Freddie Greene on guitar. In fact, I wrote a piece which we’ll play this evening called “OwedTo Freddie Greene,”

2.   Egberto Gismonti-Alexandre Gismonti, “Aguas & Dança” (from SAUDAÇÕES, ECM, 2009) (Egberto Gismonti, acoustic guitar, composer; Alexandre Gismonti, acoustic guitar)

That’s amazing guitar playing, and I have no idea who it is. Egberto Gismonti wrote it and played it? I know Egberto Gismonti, and he is a fantastic musician. He plays fantastic piano, and he’s a composition… I think he lives in Rio still. That’s one of the marvelous things about music. You just played a record by a very young guitarist, and now you played one by a slightly older Brazilian guitar player. [Brazilian music has been in your repertoire for many years.] It’s kind of a gringo version! I just admire Brazilian music so much. We’re playing a piece this week called “Cavaquinho.” I was in Brazil several times, starting in 1959 or 1960. It felt like everybody in Rio played the guitar. Music was coming out from everywhere. It was a great experience.

3.  Bobby Broom, “In Walked Bud” (from PLAYS FOR MONK, Origin, 2009) (Broom, guitar; Dennis Carroll, bass; Kobie Watkins, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I don’t know who that is either. [SINGS REFRAIN] I’ve forgotten the name of the tune. “In Walked Bud,” that’s right. Fantastic guitar playing. I could have used a little more harmonic sense, maybe a chord now and then just filling in, but it sounded great. Tell us who it was. Bobby Broom? I just know the name. [He’s played with Sonny Rollins since the early ‘80s.] I know Sonny Rollins. [LAUGHTER] That’s why Sonny doesn’t call me any more. Working with Sonny was probably my most important job. I first heard him with Max Roach’s group with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell, and I admired his playing. I joined Sonny in early 1961. I was only 12 years old. It was very challenging, because it got me practicing. I’m serious. Sonny was and is one of my heroes. I was in the hospital for a long time this year with back surgery, and Sonny called. He never talks very much, but in the hospital we talked for 45 minutes on the phone one day. I almost hesitate to get into this, but in those days there was still a lot of racial crap going on, and Sonny made me aware of it. All of my early heroes were African-American—Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and then Sonny later. It was just fascinating. I was so honored to play with him. This may not be appropriate to say, but I think with our new American President, it’s gotten so much better just in terms of getting along together.

4.  Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Fall” (from REFLECTIONS, Word of Mouth, 2009) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Eric Revis, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

I don’t have any idea who that is. It seemed like it was in an odd meter, 7/4 or 5/4.. I don’t know what they were performing. . It sounded a great ensemble, and I admire the guitar player—it sounded good to me, but I don’t know anything about it. Oh, it’s Kurt. It’s interesting. A lot of this is brand-new to me. If I listen to music, generally it’s classical music. If I listened to great guitar players, it would be depressing. Bela Bartok. He plays good guitar. It’s amazing how guitar playing has just opened up and gotten better. Bill Frisell and I have known each other since Bill was a teenager, I think. Now I’m learning from him. That’s how it goes. It seems to me that one of the requisites of being involved in music, or any art form, is that it keeps growing, and if you’re open, then you will grow as well, and not stop someplace and say, “Well, that’s over; now I’m just going to keep playing this G-7 chord.”

5. John McLaughlin, “Stella By Starlight”(from THIEVES AND POETS, Verve, 2003) (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, arranger)

Again, I don’t know who that is, but it was an amazing guitar player. I know it’s “Stella By Starlight.” It sounded like B-flat. For me, I love that melody so much, I think that I would not have put all that filigree. I would have concentrated on the melody and the words to the song. I think that needs to be presented. It seems like each piece, especially if it’s a song, should probably be presented in a different way, and this is a love song, and it has nothing to do with flashy picking like “I Got Rhythm” or something. This is an amazing guitar player; again, I didn’t particularly like the way the song was treated. This song came from a period where there were so many fantastic songs that I think need to be played more. I feel like, in a lot of ways, younger people are cheated because recording stuff all got into the hands of marketing people. It’s great to hear lovely compositions performed and recorded again. [AFTER] That was John? I knew I’d insult a friend. Again, I wish I could do that. I’m sure I have a lot of things which would embarrass me.

6. Wolfgang Muthspiel-Brian Blade, “Heavy Song” (from FRIENDLY TRAVELERS, Material, 2006) (Muthspiel, guitar, composer; Blade, drums)

Again, I don’t know who that is. It’s interesting, and it made me think about amplification. It sounded like an excellent guitar player. It’s funny. I still like the sound of the acoustic guitar just being amplified a little bit, but that was a whole different genre, I guess. I hope you’ll hear, when we play later, that I like to be able to hear Scott Colley on bass fiddle, not necessarily amplified, and Joey Baron, who is close to me and I can hear everything he plays. I understand amplification and the need for it, but I think it needs to be, in general, kind of tuned down a bit. Maybe start over with Andres Segovia or something—I don’t know. Because when you perform as a quartet, you’re part of a group of four people, and I like to be able to react to what Scott plays in the bottom of the texture, and then what Joey does. That’s just my personal preference. On the other hand, I don’t want to sound like some old fogey up here. I enjoy all of this music. It’s just that my feeling about music is different. Because I couldn’t hear the individuals in the group at all, and it puzzled me. [AFTER] It would probably make one interesting track on a CD, I guess. Again, I love all the guitar playing. [It’s interesting. I’m selecting one piece from a CD that reflects a broad spectrum of music.]

7.  Adam Rogers, “Sight” (from SIGHT, Criss Cross, 2009) (Rogers, guitar, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Clarence Penn, drums)

That one I really enjoyed. Again, I have no idea who it is, but in relation to what I was saying earlier, I could hear the whole texture very clearly. Marvelous guitar playing, and he or she… Do you know Sheryl Bailey? She’s a great guitar player, too—I hate to say “he” all the time. The guitarist would listen to what was happening and react. It seemed like people were listening. I love that. And it sounded very original, too. The shape of the piece, the chord changes, the bassline—it really kept my attention. It wasn’t Les Paul, was it. [LAUGHS] I loved Les Paul.

8. Pat Metheny-Brad Mehldau, “Ahmid-6″ (from METHENY MEHLDAU, Nonesuch, 2006) (Metheny, guitar, composer; Mehldau, piano)

Again, I do not know who it is, but it’s another amazing guitar player. Again, I wish that somehow or other, there was some clarity at the beginning of the piece, so I would know what they were improvising on. The playing was amazing, but it just sounded like playing over chord changes pretty much, and I would like to have… Like with a painting—you have a background and then some stuff added. But I thought it was great playing. I never had great facility, so I just play slowly, and then, when I play a little bit faster, they say, ”ooh, it’s fantastic.” [AFTER] I’ve known Pat since he was about 15 years old. He’s done so well.
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9. Jonathan Kreisberg, “The Best Thing For You” (from THE SOUTH OF EVERYWHERE, Mel Bay, 2007) (Kreisberg, guitar; Matt Penman, bass; Mark Ferber, drums; Irving Berlin, composer)

That I enjoyed a lot, too. Whoever it was really presented “The Best Things Thing For You Is Me,” presented the tune very clearly—and again, the guitar player was amazing. I enjoyed it. On every selection you played, I thought the guitar playing was pretty stunning. But that one was clearer to me, because whoever it was played the melody so well.

* * *

Jim Hall (Vanguard 70th) – (Jan. 30, 2005):

TP:   70 years in one place in Manhattan. It’s staggering.

HALL:   I agree.  I don’t know how old he was when he died…

TP:   He was born in 1903. He was close to 90.

HALL:   I remember when he had the Blue Angel uptown.

TP:   And he had it for 20 years. He got it when the Vanguard was already ten years old.  Billy Taylor, Jimmy Heath and Roy Haynes all were here before you.

HALL:   Yeah. I visited with Chico Hamilton and played at Basin Street East, but I finally moved here around 1960.

TP:   The clubs I can ask you about would be the Five Spot, the Bohemia…

HALL:   I played the Bohemia with Jim Giuffre and Bob Brookmeyer, and we played opposite Miles’ sextet.

TP:   So it was a trip to New York before you moved.

HALL:   Right.

TP:   I can ask you about the Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Half Note, and Bradley’s.

HALL:   The place where I first worked with Sonny Rollins was owned by the Termini Brothers – the Jazz Gallery.

TP:   Let’s start with your first trip to New York with Chico Hamilton and Basin Street, and the Bohemia. What was Basin Street like?  Do you recall the layout of the room or the ambiance?

HALL:   It was my first trip to New York as a musician, and the whole thing was kind of overwhelming.  It was Chico’s quintet, and I think Jerome Richardson played with us instead of Buddy Collette, because Buddy was doing the Groucho Marx television show or something. We played opposite Max Roach with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, Richie Powell and George Morrow. As I remember, it was laid out like a big board meeting room or something, and there was a bar and lots of tables.  All kinds of people came in. One time I looked up, and Richie Powell was sitting there with his brother, Bud Powell.  Erroll Garner came in. Sammy Davis, Jr., came in and sat in on drums one night!  I don’t know how long the place lasted, though.

When I was with Jimmy Giuffre… Later on he was managed by Norman Granz. But there was a guy doing the booking whose name I can’t remember, but he also managed Mort Sahl, and Mort had a show on Broadway for about three weeks called The Next President.  Jimmy, Bob and I played there with Mort Sahl, and then we’d go down to the Bohemia and worked there, too.

TP:   What was the Bohemia like?  It was a big room on Barrow Street?

HALL:   Exactly.  It looked like a high school auditorium.  I remember there were lots of tables set up, and the bandstand was kind of raised in the back, like an auditorium, kind of.  As I said, we worked opposite Miles’ great group with Bill Evans.

TP:   What was the atmosphere like, the clientele?  I guess it was a lot different than Basin Street. Maybe not.

HALL:   This was all so new to me… I remember Stan Getz came in one night, and down in the dressing room he was trying out one of John Coltrane’s horns, and I played a couple of tunes with Stan.  Another time I remember Neshui and Ahmet Ertegun came in with Queen somebody… Her husband was King Hussein of Jordan, I think, and he had fired her because they couldn’t have kids together. So the Ertegun brothers came in with her, and I was sitting with Charlie Persip.  Charlie was working with Art Farmer someplace, and he came in to hear Miles’ band.  I said to Charlie, “You see that beautiful lady? That’s Queen Saroya (I think) of Jordan.” Charlie said, “No shit?”

Anyway, it was great working opposite Miles and…

TP:  Was the place full all the time?  I get the feeling reading about it that it was a very popular room, and all the cats would go down there to hear.

HALL:   Probably.  It was hard to have a perspective.  First of all, I did the show with Mort Sahl.  David Allyn sang on Mort’s show, too. The club didn’t have the coziness of the Vanguard, certainly, or the magic, I think.  It was more like a theater, I felt.  So was the Jazz Gallery, a bit.  They had an interesting background at the Gallery, though, with moving lights or something behind us.

TP:   Did you also play the Five Spot?

HALL:   Yes.  I remember it being crowded all the time, and very… I was staying at the Van Rensselaer Hotel in the Village at the time, and I worked opposite Ornette Coleman’s group there once with Jimmy.  It was Ornette and Charlie Haden and either Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins, probably Billy. That was a thrill.  I also remember hearing George Russell play with a ten-piece group or so there. I remember the Five Spot as being small and kind of dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness, sort of.  Thelonious Monk came in one night. Then Leonard Bernstein came in; that was the time he jumped up on the stage and kissed Ornette or something. Cecil Taylor would sometimes come in late at night.  He and Buell Neidlinger were buddies, I think, and Cecil would play sometimes after work, or…
TP:   Sit in after the last set?
HALL:   Yeah.  It just seemed like an extremely hip place, that’s all.

TP:   The epitome of hipness is a nice phrase. What do you remember about Ornette being there?  That’s an engagement that sort of rocked the world.

HALL:   I guess.  I had known Ornette in California.  Actually, he was doing a date with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne and Don Cherry.  Red was a close friend, and he invited me to the record date.  When I got there, I was in the control booth, and Red was sitting in the control booth, and they were playing without him.  Red was very controlling, and he kept asking Ornette, “Well, how many measures before this? How many bars?”  Ornette would say, “Just trust me.”  So Red got frustrated, and he bailed.  He was sitting in the control booth for a while. But I loved Ornette’s playing right away. I’d gone to a conservatory of music, and I heard Bartok and Hindemith and Schoenberg and all those people, so it didn’t surprise me.  But I loved his playing right from the start.  But it was great being around Ornette when he was kind of breaking ground.

Then John Lewis had Ornette and Don both up at the School of Jazz at Lenox…

TP:   Oh, I forgot that you were on Jazz Abstractions.

HALL:   Right.  And John would bring in ringers to go to this music school.  It was every summer for two or three weeks, I think, at the end of the summer up at Lenox.  He got Don Cherry and Ornette there as students, and Attila Zoller was there as a student, Gary McFarland… It was kind of a rich period. But obviously, you don’t realize it when you’re living it.

TP:   Of course not.  What were the Termini Brothers like?

HALL:   They were great.

TP:   Soulful guys?

HALL:   Yeah, they were just nice guys. When I was a kid, all the club owners were these guys with the broken nose and cigars and stuff, and the Termini Brothers seemed like they would have been good neighbors or they could run a grocery store, or something like that.  Really nice.

TP:   And you played with Sonny at the Jazz Gallery.

HALL:   I  did. It was on St. Marks Place just east of the Bowery.

TP:   I know you played at the Half Note quite a bit.

HALL:   Yes.

TP:   It seems that all the musicians enjoyed playing there.

HALL:  It was really relaxed, and the Canterinos, Mike and Sonny, they were great. The bar made a sort of oval around the bandstand, and they had this great guy, Al the waiter, who wore this tuxedo all the time, and he would kind of drag his feet when he walked, and he would call out orders. It’s probably on some records. He’d say, “Son-ny!!” when he wanted beers or something.

TP:   Is he the guy who would always light people’s cigarettes?

HALL:   Yes.  We called him “the torch” sometimes.

TP:   Back when you got to town, all the clubs went to 4 a.m., right? Three sets, 2 a.m. last set?

HALL:   Yeah.  When I worked at the Five Spot, they had this Budweiser clock right above the bandstand that would kind of circle around slowly, and I’d look at the clock and it would say 20 of 3, and I’d play about an hour, we’d play an hour, and I’d look up and it would say 15 minutes to 3!  I think it went to 4.  You played long.

TP:   And the Half Note was isolated, so it had to be a destination.

HALL:   That’s right.  It wasn’t in the heart of things at all.

TP:   It seems the mid ‘60s is when a lot of the small piano rooms downtown cropped up.  But Bradley’s, the Knickerbocker, Village Corner.

HALL:   I wasn’t a regular at Bradley’s, but I did hear a lot of… I heard Jimmy Rowles there with Red Mitchell, and stuff like that.  The Knickerbocker somehow seemed not as important to me. Bradley’s was a fun hangout, and I liked Bradley, and I got to know Sam Jones really well there.  In fact, when Sam was dying… Sam was a big fan of boxing, so anything having to do with boxing, I cut it out of the newspaper and would mail it to him.

TP: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, were there other places you’d wind up trying to get to?

HALL:   Just to hear music?  On the one hand, I loved Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and they were at the Half Note a lot.  The Half Note moved uptown or to midtown for a while, but it didn’t seem to gel. I played there with Paul Desmond, Ben Riley and Ron Carter, and we played opposite the Bill Evans Trio there.  I remember the Cantorino brothers and the old man wearing tuxedos. They were all dressed up. That seemed kind of weird to me.

TP: How did the clubs in New York differ from the clubs in L.A. and Cleveland?

HALL:   I’m not sure. In Cleveland there was a club called Lindsay’s Sky Bar that was very hip. I heard everybody there. It was a bit like the Vanguard.  It was small and dark, and I heard Charlie Parker there. I heard Art Tatum. I heard Red Norvo with Tal Farlow; that’s where I heard Tal.  I heard Stuff Smith; that was great.  That was a very hip club. There were a couple of them in Cleveland. Later I heard Charlie Parker with Miles Davis and Max Roach at a different club. So there was stuff to hear.

But for some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard.  The sinkhole!  I mean that in a good way.  You go down there, and you’re in an environment. After I spoke with you the first time, I made a list of all the people I had heard there and stuff.  I lost part of it.  But Jesus, I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there, and Slam Stewart was playing with him. I heard Ben Webster there. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over before I knew him.  Oh, and I think I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May.  Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce there.  I think Mort Sahl, but I’m not sure.  I heard Wes Montgomery there with Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly, I think. And I worked in a duet with Miles’ group with Wynton and Jimmy Cobb and Paul and Hank Mobley.

TP:   So you’ve been working at the Vanguard for almost fifty years.

HALL:   Seems like it!

TP:   Has it changed?  New sound system, they removed a post…

HALL:   I’ll have to check with Jed about this, or maybe you could, but there was a Japanese company that came in, and they wanted to get the sound of the Village Vanguard somehow, and they measured it from top to bottom, everything, and then as a payoff they gave them a new sound system.  So that changed the whole thing!  It cracked me up.

TP:   For better or worse?

HALL:   I really don’t know. I’ve just always enjoyed playing there somehow.

TP:   What does it? Is it the spirit?  The sound?

HALL:   The sound is good. It’s mostly just the ambiance, all the pictures on the wall.  So many memories.  And Max Gordon sitting in the back there.  And that kitchen is… Talk about magic meeting.  One time, on Paul Desmond’s birthday, my daughter cooked something for his birthday, and afterwards my wife and I and Paul went to the Vanguard. Thelonious Monk was working there before his son. I think Thelonious was not doing too well then. It’s the only time I’ve ever had a conversation with Monk, was with Paul Desmond and Thelonious.

TP:   And you’ve continued to play there steadily since ‘57 or ‘58.

HALL:   Right.  I remember hearing Joe Lovano with Bill Frisell and Motian there. That almost got me in a fight with Stanley Crouch later on. He put them down… I saw Stanley and Wynton Marsalis on Charlie Rose, and Stanley was pontificating, and they started putting down Miles Davis by his later bands. Stanley said, “I could tell he was going out by the way he was dressing?”  I thought, “Shit, what about Duke Ellington?” That really infuriated me, and I thought especially Wynton to say anything negative about Miles, and Miles opened so many doors for people… I always thought Miles could play silence better than most people could play notes. So I went in to hear the trio with Lovano and Bill Frisell and Paul Motian, and I was knocked out. I came outside, and Stanley was outside.  He said , “Oh, Jim Hall, down there listening to that junior music, huh.” So that got me bugged, and I started arguing with him.   P.S., Stanley called me the next day to have lunch after we had a shout-out!

TP:   Are clubs different now than they were when you first hit New York?  Are the audiences different? The general run of clubowners… But you don’t play that many other clubs.

HALL:   The Blue Note sometimes, and the new Birdland. Somehow the Vanguard… Maybe it’s because it’s underground. But somehow it seems like home to me.

TP:   There’s something about it that is jazz, nothing but jazz…

HALL:   Exactly.  I was working there once with Don Thompson and either Elliott Zigmund, or maybe Ben Riley, a trio, and some guy came down the stairs and robbed Cliff Lauder at the door with a gun while we were playing “Body and Soul” or something.

TP:   But the Vanguard has stayed the same pretty much.

HALL:   It really has.

TP:   It’s so rare in 2004-05 to have anything similar to what it was 20 years ago, even 50 years ago.

HALL:   Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.  Did I tell you about Lorraine Gordon and Henry Kissinger? Jed told me that Havel was there, and a few minutes into the set Henry Kissinger came down the stairs and Lorraine wouldn’t let him in!  She said, “You can’t come in; the set’s already started.”

TP:   I think eventually she let him in, but made him pay.

HALL:   She said, “Okay, that will be thirty dollars.”

TP:   Who are you going to play with on your night?

HALL:   I’m not sure yet.  I might just do it as a duo. Maybe Henry Kissinger will come in and make a speech.  He says, “Perhaps you don’t know who I am.” She said,”Oh, I know all about you; that’s part of the problem.” You’ve got to love that, no matter what kind of pain in the ass she is.

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John Abercrombie’s Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test

It’s John Abercrombie’s birthday, giving me an excuse to post the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test I conducted with him about ten years ago.  His responses were terrific.

* * *

John Abercrombie Blindfold Test (Raw Copy):

1.    James Blood Ulmer, “Sphinx” (from MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS, DIW/Koch, 1995/1997) (James Blood Ulmer, g.; Calvin Jones, b.; Rashied Ali, d.) – (5 stars)

I love the feel of this piece.  It reminds me a little bit of something from sort of semi Sonny Sharrock, but not really.  It could be one of these Albert Ayler tunes or something like that, something in that vein.  It sounds like somebody who’s playing with their thumb a little bit, but it’s not Wes!  It doesn’t really sound like him, I didn’t know he played anything this out, but it could be… Could it be Kevin Eubanks?  It sounds too harmonically oriented to be Sonny Sharrock, but that was still my first take on it.  It still could even be somebody like that, but… James Blood?  Wow!  This is great.  I don’t know that tune.  I have to get this.  I’ve heard some other stuff by Blood and I liked it.  I have some of this stuff where he was singing that I enjoyed, but I’ll have to get this.  This definitely sounds very hip to me.  Very open.  And it’s kind of funny; that’s why I thought it was Sonny Sharrock, because of some of the similarities.  He sounds to me more harmonic.  I hear more harmonic information in his playing.  It’s cool.  And I think he does sort of play with his thumb a little bit, because it’s got a little bit of that feel.  It’s plucky.  He chokes the notes a little bit, so it… I’ll give this 5 stars.  I still like it. [AFTER] Now that you tell me it was Rashied Ali, it makes total sense, because I played with him once, and he has a great way of playing a sort of open music.  you really feel like they’re playing on a form or something.  It really has a great swing, a pulse to it.  It’s not just free.  I think that’s what makes it work.  That’s what makes everything sound so great.

2.    Gerardo Nunez, “Calima” (from CALIMA, Alula, 1998) (Nunez, guitar; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, b; Arto Tuncboyaci, d) – (4 stars)

An acoustic guitar.  Two players or it’s overdubbed.  I hear other parts.  That first part with just the guitar overdubs was just impeccable technique, whoever it is.  I mean, it’s almost perfect technically.  But I can’t tell from that who it is.  I might know, not by the content of what he’s playing, but just somebody playing the guitar that well.  This sounds like a Spanish Classical piece.  I’ll make a stab.  It’s not that guy Fareed Haque, is it?  Fareed is so technically proficient, that that’s what this kind of reminded me of.  The little bit I’ve heard him play Classical stuff, he has that kind of flawless technique.  I like it.  The beginning was beautiful, and this has a nice rhythm feel.  The approach of the guitar player… It sounds like everything’s almost kind of written, or it’s things you would include in a Classical or a Flamenco technique.  But it’s not a famous Flamenco player, I don’t think.  Now you’ve piqued my interest.  It’s not Paco, is it?  I’ve heard Paco do things that are kind of like this, with hand drums and of course that kind of technique is akin to a Flamenco player.  So it’s definitely somebody Spanish.  I can’t guess.  It’s very nice, but I can’t figure out who it is.  I’ll give it 4 stars for the really great feel.  Flawless guitar technique.  Wow.

3.    Jim Hall-Dave Holland, “End The Beguine” (from JIM HALL & BASSES, Telarc, 2001) (Hall, g; Holland, b) – (3-1/2 stars)

The bass player almost sounds like it could be Dave Holland, playing one of his little… But it’s probably not.  The only reason I mentioned Dave Holland (and I don’t think it’s Dave) is because I’ve played little pieces with Dave where it has this kind of feel.  Dave writes some of these little Indianesque-sounding, Arabian… The bass player does sound like he has some of Dave’s rhythmic concept, but I don’t know who… [Why don’t you think it’s Dave?] I don’t know.  I have to listen more.  I have to hear him solo to really know.  [Can you glean anything from the guitar player?] I’m not gleaning well right now.  It’s someone who’s Dave-like, but I don’t think it’s Dave.  The sound is not quite what I’m used to hearing; Dave has a bigger sound.  But then, he could be recorded differently.  And Dave usually sounds a little punchier.  And also Dave has certain rhythmic phrases that he does, because I’ve played with him so much, and I didn’t hear any of those.  But it does have an aura of that. It’s Dave?  Wow.  The guitar sounds like a 12-string.  I thought maybe it was Gismonti playing the 12-string, but I don’t think he and Dave ever played together. But the opening thing didn’t sound anything like something Gismonti would play.  That sounded more jazzy.  This is definitely somebody who’s a jazz player of sorts.  I know it’s not Ralph Towner, because it’s not good enough to be Ralph Towner playing 12-string. [LAUGHS] It’s good, but it’s not like what Ralph would play.  I don’t know if he started out on this instrument.  Did he change… No, there it is.  It’s all the same instrument.  I’m not going to get it. Can you give me a hint? [You’re going to feel bad if you don’t know who it is.] Oh, I think I know who it is now.  See, that’s all you had to say.  It’s Jim.  This sounds so different than what I’m used to hearing Jim play.  Harmonically and rhythmically, some of the chords… Now it does make sense that it’s Jim to me.  But at first it didn’t.  Maybe I still have Blood’s music in my head.  Because the opening, the first reading of the opening sounded a little Delta-like.  I got Dave, though.  I was pretty sure.  This is that album where Jim plays all the different duets.  I haven’t heard it.  Not that I have to, but I’ve never heard Jim play a 12-string guitar.  It’s not the instrument he normally would play.  It’s not the most interesting thing I’ve heard Jim do, but it’s still good, and I needed a hint from you to actually figure out who it was, although I was pretty good about Dave.  3-1/2 stars.  I think if I had heard him play on an electric guitar, with his more rounded tone and the tone I’m used to, playing a similar thing, I would have probably nailed it.  But like you said, it was hearing him play that instrument.

4.    Arsenio Rodriguez, “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” (from Sabu, PALO CONGO, Blue Note, 1957/1999) (Rodriguez, guitar; “Sabu” L. Martinez, Raul Travieso, Israel Travieso, Ray Romero, congas; Ernesto Baro, bass) – (5 stars)

That’s a different instrument, too.  That’s either a 12-string or a tres.  A tres.  I got it.  That’s not Arsenio Rodriguez, is it?  I love this stuff.  The main reason I know about him, when I used to work years ago in a band called Dreams, was a trombone player who passed away named Barry Rogers, and Barry’s second instrument was the tres.  He used to play trombone and tres with a lot of the Latin bands, and he played me some Arsenio Rodriguez and said this was the cat.  This is more in the context of a rhythm section, but the bass player is very strongly prominent here, too.  This sounds not unlike the duet with Jim Hall and Dave Holland, in a strange way, because the tres is a double-stringed kind of instrument, if I’m not mistaken.  This gets 5 stars.  I’m not surprised I got it. But once I figured out what the instrument was… I know Wes didn’t record on tres!  I can make jokes.  But I know that other people didn’t, so it has to be either the heavyweight guy or somebody I didn’t know.  Beautiful music.

5.    Nels Cline-Gregg Bendian, “Mars” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Atavistic, 1999) (Cline, el.g; Bendian, drums) – (3 stars)

Definitely sounds like a real free electric guitar player, but somebody with a lot of chops.  I don’t recognize… Wow.  Twisted.  I like it.  I can’t tell from the content of what he’s playing who it is. [Do you have any idea of what it is they’re playing?] I may know it.  I’ll listen a little bit more.  That part sounds like a tune!  There are a lot of guys I haven’t heard maybe that much.  Could it be Vernon Reid?  I don’t know.  It’s too jazzy to be Vernon.  Vernon would be more like Hendrix and Rock.  This has that tone, but it’s obviously somebody who’s played… [It’s a West Coast player.] Now I know who it is.  Nels Cline.  Nels is the only guy I know on the West Coast guitar-wise who would play something that might sound like this.  It sounds great.  For my ears there could be a little more dynamics, but I’m not playing it.  It maintains a real high density level at all times.  Which I enjoy playing more than I enjoy listening to, I think.  But I like it.  It’s definitely got some harmonic knowledge and some lines that he’s using… I’ll give it 3 stars. [This is “Mars” from INTERSTELLAR SPACE] Oh, I would never get that!

6.    David Fiuczynski, “Down Under” (from CHARTBUSTERS, Hip-Bop, 1995) (Fiuczynski, guitar; Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ; Lenny White, drums) – (4 stars)

Nice guitar tone.  I like the tone.  It’s over-driven, but in a nice sort of sweet way.  I like that. That part sounded like something Scofield would play.  Amazing technique.  All these lines here are pure Scofield.  Pretty pure.  But the other stuff isn’t.  He’s a funny composite of things, real blues-drenched, a great tone, some real heavy… Those lines didn’t sound… Super slinky technique.  Amazing.  Some of it sounds pretty original.  He definitely sounds like a pastiche of a lot of different players, but amazing control.  This sounds like Larry Young almost.  Dr. Lonnie.  I could tell by these sort of broken arpeggiated things he does that kind of go across the keys.  That’s beautiful.  Now I can guess on the guitar player, and it may be a wrong guess.  Is it Paul Bollenbeck?  I’ve heard Paul play things that are technically like speed of light.  This guy’s got speed-of-light technique.  Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fiuczynski!  He sounds amazing.  He really does.  It’s amazing technique.  Great lines.  Some of them directly culled from the Scofield vocabulary.  Sounds great.  Like I say, he’s a pastiche of many things.  But he sure has picked some good things to put in his trick bag.

7.    Russell Malone, “Heartstrings” (from HEARTSTRINGS, Verve, 2001) (Russell Malone, g.; Kenny Barron, p.; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d.; strings; arr. Johnny Mandel) – (4-1/2 stars)

Another great guitar sound.  I like this sound.  This sounds a little more familiar to me.  I think I know who this is.  Is it Russell Malone?  I heard this actually driving in a car one time, and I was so taken with the pretty sound he got… It really is a lovely sound.  I distinctly remember it.  When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure who it was, so it was like in a blindfold test.  I was driving my car waiting for the announcer, and I was kind of going through my mind, and Russell’s name was one of the names that popped into my head.  I don’t know his playing that well.  I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, but this is the best thing I’ve heard him do with his tone.  His solo is very bluesy, more than I’m used to hearing him play.  Maybe he’s more of a bluesy player than I realize.  I haven’t checked him out that much.  Isn’t he from Georgia?  I thought the solo was really good.  The time when I did hear this record in my car, this is exactly the tune I heard, and I was struck not only by the sound, but by some really interesting parts in the solo that I wasn’t expecting.  Because the solo has kind of a very laid-back, bluesy feel, and all of a sudden there’s these oddball notes and a couple of funny phrases.  So I thought it was a very good solo, well-constructed and a beautiful tone.  I’ll give it 4-1/2.

8.    Simon Shaheen, “Blue Flame” (from BLUE FLAME, 2001, Ark-21) (Simon Shaheen, oud; Bassam Saba, nay & fl.; Billy Drewes, ss; Adam Rodgers, ag; Francois Moutin, b; Lorenzo Martinez, bongos; Steve Sheehan, caxixi, brushes, cymbals, diembe, durbakka; Jamie Haddad, hadjira drum, cymbals, hadgini) – (5 stars)

It’s an oud.  There’s a couple of oud players I’ve heard, and one is the guy who records… I’ve heard a few.  I brought back some music from Istanbul.  But I can never pronounce this guy’s name.  Isn’t this Rabih… No?  Then maybe I don’t know who this person is.  There’s a couple of guys I used to listen to.  There’s a guy who records for ECM, Anwar, but he wouldn’t play this kind of stuff. This is more rhythmic; he’s more floaty, from what I’ve heard.  Then there’s the guy that used to make the records for Enja years ago, Rabih ..(?).. This is what it reminds me of.  I like the solo a lot, maybe more than the composition.  I like the feel of the composition, but I like the sound of the solo.  I like this part.  It’s really open. It’s almost like a jazz player playing oud.  But it’s not.  It’s an oud player playing oud.  It’s got a looseness to it, though.  Makes me want to play with a pick again, hearing some of these fast lines.  The solo was absolutely beautiful with the rhythm section.  It’s so loose.  It sounds like they’re playing in 5/4.  It takes me a while to figure out sometimes what the odd time signature is, but I’m pretty sure it was 5, which is a very hard time signature to play in — at least for me.  But it was so loose and so effortless.  And the sound of the oud, it’s like one of my favorite instruments.  It almost sounds like somebody took a classical guitar and tuned it down real low so the strings are really elastic.  It’s really one of the warmest instruments.  But this guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him.  Now I’ll have to go and listen more to him.  5 stars.  It’s totally happening.  I wish I knew him.  Now I will know.

9.    Joe Morris, “Manipulatives” (from UNDERTHRU, Omnitone, 1999) (Morris, guitar; Mat Maneri, violin; Chris Lightcap, b.; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (3 stars)

This almost reminds me of something I did years ago with Barre Phillips and John Surman and Stu Martin.  I played on a couple of tunes on Barre’s record.  The rhythm section sounded like this, kind of in time but really kind of wacky.  This is kind of how I played back then!  It’s interesting, but I wish it was a little more cohesive somehow.  The rhythm section seems to be almost overpowering the soloist a bit.  It also could be the mix.  If you heard these guys play live, maybe it would be the opposite, or maybe it’s perfectly balanced, but it sounds a little more… The thing about this kind of playing to me is… Which is what I liked more about, say, the Blood Ulmer thing.  Even though that was rambling and a little wacky, it’s clear somehow.  It has a real cohesiveness.  This doesn’t have that.  This feels scattered, kind of.  It’s not my most favorite stuff.  It’s probably me!  I have no idea who he is.  I could make an educated guess. Joe Morris.  Wow!  I’m a good educated guesser.  I like this, but for me it lacks the cohesiveness of the Blood Ulmer thing or maybe even the Nels Cline thing you played me.  It’s in that same genre.  Well, my band can no doubt at times sound like this!  It sounds more balanced during the violin solo in terms of the actual sonic density of it.  This is another kind of music that maybe I like to play a little more than actually sit down and listen to it.  But because I play this way, I can appreciate it.  It’s fun to play this way and they sound good.  My educated guess for the violin player is Maneri.  But I don’t know him.  He sounds good.  Now the music is starting to gel for me.  Even though it’s more dense, it sounds better now.  3 stars. I like what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t sound as cohesive as some of the other stuff to me.

10.    Kurt Rosenwinkel, “A Life Unfolds” (from THE NEXT STEP, Verve, 2000) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Mark Turner, ts; Ben Street, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums) – (5 stars)

I’ve got to know this.  It’s probably a 7-string guitar.  Very nice.  Again, sometimes I go for the tone first.  Even if I’m not trying to figure out who it, almost all the players… Actually, everybody you played me today has a good tone, in their own way.  They’re all different, too.  Every one of them had a completely different approach to the tone of the guitar.  This sounds so familiar to me.  It’s a very nice composition.  It’s beautiful.  I think I know who this is.  I think it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.  I know this.  This is from his second CD.  This is gorgeous.  I remember when bought this CD, and I liked the whole CD, but I remember when I got to this tune, I played it three or four times.  I had to hear it that many times.  This guy has got something that’s different.  I don’t know what the tuning is.  He’s definitely got the guitar retuned on the bottom on some lower strings.  You can hear them… A very clear but warm tone.  Again, I’m attracted to the tone, but he also is a very fluid, melodic player — lyrical, let’s say.  He also sings when he plays.  When I’ve heard him, he sings these little falsetto things.  Sometimes he’ll actually sing the lines, and he’s not just playing some blues ideas.  He’s playing some complicated lines and he sings with it.  So the response to that is he actually hears what he plays!  It’s amazing.  This is a great composition.  5 stars all the way.  Playing, composition…this is great.

11.    St. Germain, “Montego Bay Spleen” (from TOURIST, Blue Note, 2000) (Ernest Ranglin, g.; Ludovic Navarre, conductor; Alexandre Destrez, keyboards; Idresse Diop, talking drum; Carneiro, percussion) – (3 stars)

Nice groove, nice atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to tell who the guitar player is.  The actual guitar playing sounds a little more mainstream than I thought it would sound hearing the rhythm.  I thought the guitar player might play further out, but this is more in playing.  Very sparse.  He’s not playing a lot.  Sure it’s not one of my records?  No… What the hell was that?  That sounded like an edit.  I couldn’t tell; it was so strange. It’s strange, because most of what he’s playing is kind of straight, and then when he played these quirky lines, it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of what he was playing.  This is a hard one to even make an educated guess at.  The tone is like a jazz guitar tone, a sort of brighter sound.  It’s not my favorite; I like a darker sound.  Well, that’s HIS sound.  I shouldn’t comment. But it sounds like a big guitar with sort of a bright sound, like a big jazz box — or at least a medium-size jazz box.  This one completely stumps me. 3 stars. Ernest Ranglin!  Sorry.  There’s no way I could get it.  I know the name.  Is he from Jamaica?

12.    Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (from DUET, Dreyfuss, 1999) (Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene, guitars) – (4 stars)

Acoustic guitar duo.  Wow, he’s so astute!  I like the way they’re breaking it up. The one guy is playing almost like a percussion instrument, tapping.  The guy playing the solo sounds very blues-like.  Good blues player.  Mmm!  I like this guitar player a lot.  Whoo!  I want to steal some of his lines.  Impeccable kind of technique, but very bluesy at the same time.  I mean, he’s not like somebody who I’d all of a sudden go, “Oh, that’s Wes or Kenny or Sco or Bill Frisell or Grant Green.”  A lot of this kind of playing… I think it’s great.  I totally admire it, and think it’s fantastic.  But it doesn’t have as much of an instantly identifiable thing.  It’s like amazingly great guitar playing.  Is this the second guy playing now?  I can’t tell.  I think maybe it’s the second guy.  It almost sounds like something I’ve heard before, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, it’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”  I know the tune, but I don’t know the… Some of the other things you played me, I might know the player but not the tune.  Here I know the tune but not the players.  Is it Bireli Lagrene?  Yeah, and there’s another guy on this.  I’ve heard this before.  I think this is the other guy playing, but I can’t remember who it is.  Sylvain Luc.  Okay.  I may even have this.  It’s amazing playing. I’ll give it 4 stars because it maybe didn’t sound as original as some of the other things, but man, I wish I had those chops.

13.    Derek Bailey-John Butcher, “High Vortex” (from VORTICES AND ANGELS, Emanem, 1992/2001) (Bailey, guitar; Butcher, ss) – (4 stars)

Sounds like my train is here!  I’d better run and get to the platform.  It’s the 5:07; it’s in early.  I’m trying to figure out if the instrument on the right is actually a guitar, whether it’s processed, or if the bass is being bowed… Derek Bailey?  It’s a horn.  Is it a horn?  I can’t tell. Soprano saxophone?  Then maybe it’s somebody like Evan Parker.  No?  Somebody whose name I probably know, but wouldn’t be able to… [He’s English] I figured he’d be a gentleman.  I’m sure when I hear his name, I’ll know it.  I may even have played with the guy, because I’ve played with some English musicians.  This is the kind of thing that unless you really listen to this music a lot, it would be hard to tell.  But it’s instantly identifiable as Derek Bailey…because he’s instantly identifiable! [LAUGHS] It’s the least guitar-like in terms of what most of the world thinks of as guitar playing, but I knew who it was pretty quickly, whereas some of the other things I wouldn’t know, especially when it’s amazing feats of technique.  I’m impressed with that.  But I know who he is when I hear him.  So that’s kind of an interesting take on it all — style or being able to recognize somebody, even if it’s just abstract, in comparison to what you played before. I’m really nice today.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I like it.  He sustains a mood that’s kind of interesting. It’s like free playing that’s sort of… You can go on for a long time, because the density is not so dense as a couple of the other things you played for me, that are hard to listen to.  It’s very quiet, it’s almost chamber-like, so you can listen to it and get inside it.

14.    Mark Elf, “Cheek To Cheek” (from DREAM STEPPIN’, Jen-Bay, 2002) (Elf, guitar; Neal Miner, b; Lewis Nash, d.) – (3 stars)

“Cheek to Cheek.”  Again, I know the tune.  We’ll see if I know the player.  But this sounds like somebody, just from the outset, who’s a real traditionalist.  Nice-a feel, like Lawrence Welk used to say.  They’ve got a good feeling.  This could be a lot of different people.  Again, it’s not one of the major guys that I grew up listening to.  It’s not Tal or Jimmy Raney, but it has that kind of sound.  It sounds like a more modern recording.  Nice.  It’s someone who kind of bridges.. They’re a bebopper, but they’ve also got a swing kind of feel to it.  Is it somebody like Howard Alden?  It’s great playing.  I just don’t know… It could be several different people.  That’s why I mentioned Howard.  But yeah, this is maybe a little more bebop than Howard, a little more Howard.  This has a little bit of that swing feel.  He loves the eighth note, and he manages to play just about every one.  There’s a little space.  It’s not somebody like Cal Collins, is it?  There’s a lot of these guys whose playing I’m sort of familiar with, but I don’t really know them that well. [He’s not a Concord artist] Then I wouldn’t know him.  If it’s not ECM or Concord, I’m screwed.  It’s none of the guys I really know.  And I don’t think it’s someone like Bucky Pizzarelli, because he doesn’t play this many lines.  It’s not someone I know.  It’s not Jack Wilkins.  That’s a modern voicing.  Wow!  It’s got me stumped.  I don’t recognize the bass player and drummer particularly.  Everybody is good, but nothing is grabbing me.  It’s funny, he sort of ends with something a little more modern, a little harmonically different.  The other playing was pretty inside, in a way.  It’s very good, but it didn’t strike a bell with me.  3 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, John Abercrombie

It’s Joey Baron’s 56th Birthday

On July 10, 1996, two weeks after his fortieth birthday, drummer Joey Baron joined me on WKCR for a Musician’s Show, presenting tracks by drummers who, in the totality of their sounds, comprised his personal influence tree.  They included Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Grady Tate and Ed Thigpen, Max Roach and Paul Motian, Donald Bailey and Roy Haynes. A bit past the midway p0int, Baron—though he’d played consequentially with Carmen McRae, Stan Getz, and Jim Hall, and had subbed for Mel Lewis with the Monday night Village Vanguard Orchestra, he was by then best known for propelling the non-traditional units of Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, and John Zorn—started speaking about Billy Higgins (1936-2001), a universally beloved figure, and perhaps the hardest-swinging drummer who ever lived.

“He a supreme master of time,” Baron said. “He can make time live and breathe.   He’s got a real patience in his playing. He’s got a very unique, identifiable sound and style. One main characteristic is that you’ll never hear Billy bash.  That’s part of his sound.  I’m sure he’s listened to people who crash and bash and all that stuff, but in his own playing he can extract what he likes about that stuff and channel it through his own style.  Beautiful touch.  It took me a while to appreciate what he did.  When you come from being first wowed by somebody like Buddy Rich, all you focus on is what they’re playing in their solo, and you don’t think too much about the subtler things.  But the longer I spent playing and listening to more music I was exposed to, I really got to appreciate just what it is that Billy  does.”

Although Baron might object to my so characterizing him, I took this as self-description. Like Higgins, who swung with equal panache navigating the open spaces with Ornette Coleman and Charles Lloyd or a bebop date with Cedar Walton and Barry Harris, Baron is beyond category, a shamanistic musician who retains his sound in any context. He turns 56 today (1955 is a good jazz vintage, including Mulgrew Miller, David Murray, Gerry Hemingway, Santi Debriano, and, dare I say, this writer). To observe the occasion, I’ll share a feature piece that I wrote about him in 2001 for Jazziz.

* * * *

Sipping a blueberry yogurt shake, Joey Baron stands in the hallway of his West Side highrise taking in a Manhattan cityscape of diorama-like clarity. To his left, toy-sized ferries dart towards the dock at Weehawken through north-south Hudson River traffic. Northbound jets whiz toward LaGuardia Airport up above, while on the ground cars clog the immediately surrounding streets, which overhang the deserted Eleventh Avenue railroad tracks that a century ago were New York’s lifeblood.

The image is peculiarly apropos; Baron understands how the various epochs of jazz music dealt with motion and velocity, and navigates them along personal pathways that are idiomatic, functional and fresh.  Over the past decade resolute futurists like John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne and Dave Douglas have marched to his animating pulse. Brian Eno called him for guest appearances on mid-‘90s sessions by David Bowie and Laurie Anderson.  In 1991, Baron organized the starkly-configured trio Baron Down (trombone-tenor sax-drums), a Punk-to-R&B unit which worked steadily for most of the decade.  Hardcore jazz was the passion of Baron’s earlier career, and several recent projects — to wit, “Soul On Soul,” Douglas’ far-flung homage to Mary Lou Williams, and “Chasin’ The Gypsy,” James Carter’s idiomatic paean to Django Reinhardt — showcase his penchant for sustaining an ebullient, dancing beat while detailing ensemble flow with exquisitely calibrated trapset timbre.

We’ll Soon Find Out, the recent recording by Down Home, a Baron-led all-star quartet comprising Frisell, bass icon Ron Carter and big-sound alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who in the normal course of events would not be sharing a stage, denotes the respect Baron commands throughout the jazz community.  It follows an eponymous 1997 Rhythm-and-Blues-inflected session marked by clever melodies and propulsive, off-kilter beats performed with a by-the-numbers quality denoting first-time-out studio stiffness.  Round two is another story altogether.  Under Baron’s gentle conjuration, Down Home finds its pocket, coalescing as a fluid unit, playing Baron’s subtle originals with finesse and funk, oozing vernacular grit but never dumbing down.

“Joey had a very clear conception,” Frisell remarks.  “He wanted to focus on aspects in each of our playing.  He’s listened closely to Ron Carter all these years, and he centered a lot of the music around the feel of the grooves of Ron Carter’s basslines.  He wanted to bring out a rhythmic quality in my playing. That’s cool, because people usually think of me as playing noise or atmospheric, floaty stuff.”

Transitioning to the small bedroom in Baron’s apartment that serves as his office-studio, the jockey-framed drummer sits legs akimbo in a chair placed between a barebones drumkit and an upright Yamaha piano.  To his left, tacked to the wall, is a weathered sheet of paper with a list of drummers “to pay attention to,” among them Donald Bailey (“he really knows about being creative”), Han Bennink (“absolutely fearless, bordering on the absurd”), Billy Hart (“his expression and touch; he’s able to take everything he has and make music with it”), Ricky Wellman (“his groove is very profound”), Milford Graves (“just earth — the energy, the commitment”), Ikue Mori (“when I get down on myself for everything that I can’t do and don’t know, I think about what she does with what she does know; she brings me out of any tendency to not listen to different kinds of music”) and David Garibaldi and Ed Blackwell (“the conversation between the limbs”).  Towards the door are two bookcases chock-a-block with tapes and LPs; two shelves contain books on magic, with an emphasis on coin and card tricks.

As I peruse the book spines, Baron mentions that as a kid in Richmond, Virginia, before he took up drumming, he aspired to be a magician, and retains an informed interest.  I pounce, asking whether he connects the aesthetic of magic and music-making.  “Only in the sense that you shouldn’t make your audience feel like idiots, which is very easy to do in magic,” he responds.  “A great magician will make someone feel welcome and included.  They know when to reveal the card that’s been selected or when to end the solo.  They know how much is enough.”

Which describes the effect of his music for Down Home.  “I wanted to contradict the misconception that I play out, and can’t establish a feeling from a groove,” Baron states.  “I’m drawing on all kinds of music, including James Brown and even Messaien, the way his melodies can dart off and take a left turn.  Some tunes might have one chord change, but I’ve worked out the rhythmic phrasing of the melody, and how the guitar and bass should comp to get the essence of this feel.  I thought about this music, I heard it, I wrote it, then we all played it.  It was not an accident.”

Baron’s connoisseurship of the nuances of groove stems from deep roots in the musical culture of the South.  Born to a working-class Orthodox Jewish family, the teenage Buddy Rich devotee learned how to make rhythm speak on an array of artisanal gigs with older musicians in Richmond, soaking up information wherever he could find it, from the “Ed Sullivan Show” to unformatted late ‘60s radio — “you might hear Ray Charles, then Charlie Pride, then Buddy Rich, then Miles Davis with the Classic ‘50s Quintet, then a cut from Miles At the Fillmore and Tony Williams’ Emergency.”

“When you’re working class, you’re not analyzing anything from an art standpoint,” Baron states.  “Any chance or reason I had to play, I took.  I played at a country club that didn’t allow Blacks or Jews  with Joe Kennedy [a black, Pittsburgh-born violinist who had recorded with Ahmad Jamal in the ‘50s] and a great guitarist.  It was work; we were there to do a gig and play tunes.  These guys were very supportive.  They wouldn’t give me private lessons or tell me to listen to anyone in particular; all they’d say was, ‘Man, just give me that Eddy Arnold backbeat’ or ‘Just lay in the time,’ stuff like that, common things drummers need to hear so they know what their job is.  I got my experience doing the work before me.”

Baron steps to the bookshelf to extract an LP.  On the cover is a long shot photograph of some 60 teenage musicians assembled on an auditorium stage.  Three black faces are visible, including Baron’s band director, Tuscan Jasper.  “I was fortunate to be welcomed into the black community in Richmond,” the drummer continues.  “Mr. Jasper took me under his wing, and was wonderful to me; he never put down anything I was excited about.  This was the first year of bussing, and I was bussed to Maggie Walker High School, which had been all-black.  I spent every day I could in that band room, and Mr. Jasper, who had been in the Army with Wynton Kelly, would play Clifford Brown records for me and say, ‘Did you like that drummer?’ ‘Yeah.’  ‘Do you know who that is?’  ‘No.’  ‘That’s a guy named Philly Joe Jones.’”

While earning a GED, Baron skipped senior year to earn a year’s tuition for Berklee, often working with a slightly older pianist named Bill Lohr, who helped further the young aspirant’s aesthetic education.  “Bill had 33 Oscar Peterson Trio records; he was not impressed by drum solos and the Buddy Rich school of playing!”  Baron jokes.  “He pulled my head out of the drum and got me listening to music; he exposed me to people like Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ed Thigpen and Grady Tate, who could play with more finesse in intimate groups.  I became aware that you don’t necessarily need to do a blindingly fast single stroke roll to make music with another musician.  I began to use the time I’d normally spent practicing technique to sit and listen, without playing, and was able to get more balance between my creative ideas and the chops I’d need to execute them.”

Strapped for cash after 15 months at Berklee, Baron went on the road with Lohr in a lounge group; towards the end of 1975 he received a telegram that Carmen McRae was looking for a drummer and made a beeline for Los Angeles.  His first L.A. gig was with Helen Merrill (“Leonard Feather wrote me up as ‘Young, spirited, 19-year-old Joey Baron’ — he was nice”); he joined McRae a few months later.  “Not a lot of drummers can accompany a singer,” he stresses.  “You have to be sensitive to the lyric and not resort to licks; you have to get intensity at a low volume.  One reason I went after playing with Carmen is that it was a context where I could play with that kind of discipline.  Carmen always kept things in balance.  Her songs were concise, and she didn’t waste a lot of time or notes.”

L.A.’s superb swing-to-bop oriented talent pool welcomed the newcomer with open arms.  Cosigned by first-call drummers Frank Severino and Donald Bailey, Baron landed frequent work with the likes of Teddy Edwards, Blue Mitchell, Harold Land, Plas Johnson, Hampton Hawes, Victor Feldman and Chet Baker.  He went through the union book, “calling people I’d heard about, telling them I’d just moved to town, and if they ever needed a drummer to rehearse anything, I’d be willing to come and do it.  Los Angeles was a looser, more laid-back social scene than New York.  There’s something about being able to call Harold Land and say, ‘Hey, Harold, I got your number,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, come on over today; we’re going to look at a few tunes.’  I called Hampton Hawes, and he called me back.  I left my beans which I was cooking on my hot plate, put my drums in the car, drove to his house, and played until 6 in the morning.  We worked a few gigs at Donte’s.”

Baron describes his ‘70s stance as “total jazz snob.”  He studied voraciously.  “I put myself on a regimen where for a month I would listen just to Wes Montgomery with Jimmy Cobb, or Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey, not so much to copy the style, but to get it in my head and apply it directly — in some situations with people who were on the records.  I went through my stages — and still do — of imitating drummers I love — like Buddy Rich or Tony Williams or Jack de Johnette — and memorizing what they played.  But I kept listening until I understood WHY they did a particular thing.  Why did Art Blakey hit that cymbal?  It was the beginning of the chorus.  He played his figure three times because he was signalling to bring the band in from a free-form solo.  Once I understood that, I could make it my own.”

One day in Chicago, Carmen McRae presented her young drummer a small jewelry box containing a Star of David.  “That fucked me up so bad,” Baron says urgently.  “Carmen was so confident, commanded so much respect, was so proud of her culture, she had the total balance of elegance, soul and class, and she stepped forward and across a lot of shit to do that for me.  When I was a kid, it was not cool to say you were Jewish.  You’d get the living shit kicked out of you.  I went to Hebrew School and hated it.  I believed every bit of hate mail that the KKK shoved under our door.  There would be something about Communists, and then ‘look at these people,’ and they’d have this picture of people with huge noses and ‘they could be in your neighborhood.’”

As long-buried aspects of Jewish identity stirred up Baron’s consciousness, he began to think about music in terms of personal identity.  He was familiar with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and an Andrew Cyrille solo drum record, knew of Tony Oxley through his work with Stan Getz and John McLaughlin, and was particularly taken with Han Bennink’s solo recital Balls [FMP] “because it was so unafraid and un-timid; to this day, when I get lost for inspiration, or scared, I’ll put that on.”  In time, he began participating in a workshop trio project with Carl Schroeder, Sarah Vaughan’s pianist of the ‘70s — Baron’s tapes of the band sound like a cross between Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions and Chick Corea at his most abstract.  “Carl is responsible for my thinking of myself as an artist,” Baron affirms.  “I needed to be in a community where people were doing something, and I did not want to be in Los Angeles.  My wife was a painter; she was excited about the idea of going to New York.  We packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies, put all of our shit in the van, all her paintings, all my drums, and came here in October 1983.”

After lean times, Baron began to establish himself in the New York sharkpit; by the mid-‘80s master improvisers like Red Rodney-Ira Sullivan, Jim Hall, Tom Harrell, Pat Martino and Toots Thielemans were hiring him regularly.  During this time drummer Mel Lewis, facing hand surgery, asked his thirtyish colleague to be his sub in the Monday Night Orchestra at the Village Vanguard.  “It was the most incredible drum lesson I’ve ever had in my life,” Baron affirms.  “It gave me a lot of strength.  It taught me to take charge when dealing with a large group, to be committed and confident, to set things up, to make a move even if it’s wrong.  I loved the way Mel got inside of the band from the center, how he lifted the whole band from underneath.”

Baron became increasingly frustrated with the creative roadblocks he encountered in New York’s cliquish, balkanized ‘80s jazz culture.  “I was shocked at how staid some of the situations were,” he remarks.  “I wanted to be playing with Kenny Kirkland, that kind of post-Miles thing; it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be able to do it.  I was seeing myself as a victim.  I lost confidence on how to fit in here, where everything is so fast and hard.  I was trying to shed this image of a nice sideperson.  I wanted to play where you could emotionally express yourself rather than accompany all the time; I decided to try things I wouldn’t normally do.”

Baron shaved his head, and began to shed the skin of a freelance musician, shifting to situations that involved long-term aesthetic commitments.  He said no to singer gigs, played once a week with Mike Stern’s workshop big band, and joined Bill Frisell’s ensemble.  “I first met Joey not long after we came to New York at a large session where there was a lot of confusion,” Frisell recalls.  “There was this little space, and Joey played a backbeat, just one note that was the baddest note.  Right at that moment I turned to him.  We smiled at each other like we KNEW.  There was this weird connection.  I started going over to his apartment, and we would improvise for hours — just play.  I set up sessions where we played with Arto Lindsay, who was unlike anyone Joey had played with.  I remember the first time he came to Roulette and heard me with Ikue Mori, and it was like, ‘What are you trying to…’  But then he started to kind of get it.”

Baron began to make feelers to “a whole crowd of people who at that time I didn’t even think could play.”  One was the alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, who came to Baron’s loft with cellist Hank Roberts for a session.  “It was very strange for me,” Baron laughs.  “Not unfriendly.  But musically, I just went, ‘Man, what is this?   Doesn’t he play any tunes?’  It was hard music, but communicative and conversational, and I liked doing it.  Everybody was scuffling at that point, but they wanted to do their music; I’d rehearse with Tim’s band, or with Hank, or with Herb Robertson.  All of a sudden, they got record deals with JMT, and I was the guy who knew the music, which was complicated, not music that you could call someone in to sight-read.”

Baron met John Zorn in 1987 when both were playing in Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers; he joined Zorn’s surf-to-thrash all-star group Naked City a year later, beginning an intense, symbiotic relationship that remains close through Baron’s participation in Zorn’s popular Masada and Bar Kokhba ensembles.  “I have one indelible image in my head,” Zorn relates.  “I had just finished a set with my News For Lulu project at one of the European festivals, and Tim Berne and Mark Dresser happened to be around.  The promoter cajoled us into getting on stage and doing a few pieces, and Joey played with us.  We did a couple of Ornette pieces in a pretty out-of-control way.  Though Joey had never seen the music, he had an incredible ability to follow wherever I went musically, even the most intense shit.  All of a sudden, it was a full four-way conversation.  It was an unbelievable rush, an incredible inspiration.”

As Baron recalls it, Zorn heard Frisell’s band play in Bremen.  “He was fascinated about how we went so many different places in one song, how we were free to shape the tune, but it still remained a tune — it wasn’t just free improv.  He arrived at that same place by composing, having things written out and pre-planned.  He was thinking of it presentationally.  He asked me and Bill and Wayne Horwitz and Fred Frith to be in this band with him, and that was how Naked City started — along with other projects, like different East Asian Bar Band pieces or pieces with spoken word.”

Baron recalls urging Zorn to acknowledge Jewish roots.  “On my first gig with John we were sidemen for Arto Lindsay.  We were in Italy, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and we were talking in his room.  I mentioned being from Richmond, and that I’d had to go in the back door at gigs because I was Jewish.  John said, ‘What?’  I said, ‘Well, you’re Jewish, aren’t you?’  He said, ‘No.’  At that time he did not identify at all with Judaism.  I would talk to him and say, ‘Whether or not you identify, you are Jewish.’  I think I lit the fire for him to look at this culture and embrace it.”

If Baron pushed Zorn to consider his Jewishness, Zorn prodded Baron to expand his aesthetic scope.  Baron evolved and personalized his approach, attacking the drumset like a contraption, individualizing each component, learning to shape rhythm-timbre with the elastic precision of a sculptor, finding startling, humorous figures to prod improvisers from complacency.

“In our early years working together,” Zorn says, “I was presenting so many different styles of music, including some that had never existed before, and it was sometimes difficult trying to get Joey there.  He’d never played Hardcore before; he’d never thought about that music seriously before.  I can be very specific about what I’m looking for; I know what I need and I go out to get it.  I gave Joey tapes, we talked about technique, whether to use a match-grip or the grip he’d been using, whether he’d use a double-pedal, to use mallets on one tune or play with his hands on another.  Eventually it became part of his style; he uses it now in his solo stuff, in his own bands.

“I can’t imagine doing a project without Joey.  I’ve been spoiled.  I’ve never met a drummer who does so much and works so hard.  As a matter of pride, he wants to be able to do absolutely everything on the drums, and he mixes it all up in an organic way that I’ve never heard anybody do.  I feel he intuitively knows what I’m looking for.  If he is confronted with something that he doesn’t think he can do, he will go home and WORK on it.  What he did was a matter of will!  It didn’t just happen.  He made a conscious decision to put tape on his cymbals.  He decided to cut down his set.  I really respect that.  It’s easy to fly around like a dry leaf in the wind going wherever it blows.  It’s difficult in this world to make a stand and say, ‘THIS is what I’m going to do.  This has not happened before.  I am going to take a chance.’”

Baron made his stand in 1991, after three years of hearing his compositions played by Miniature, a collective trio with Berne and Roberts that recorded twice for JMT.  “It was the first time I brought in tunes, had them played and wasn’t ridiculed about them,” Baron says.  “These guys kicked my ass and supported me, I started writing more, and realized that I had to start my own band.  I wrote a whole book for Baron Down.  I had the harmony in my head, but didn’t have the technique or terminology to name the chord changes, so I’d only pick the two notes of the chord that depicted what I was hearing — the instrumentation of trombone and tenor sax gave them a sound of their own.  I figured it out slowly, and through four or five tours and three records developed the confidence to flesh out the harmony to create the lush sounds I originally heard.  The Down Home band is an extension of Baron Down.  It’s still funky and swinging, but deals with textures more richly.  Now I can’t wait to have a block of time to sit and write some more.

“The rhythms and shapes that musicians like Carmen McRae, Ray Charles, Aretha, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner put on record are so untapped by drummers as a basis for ideas.  Drummers mostly stick to things that fall easily on the instrument, and they rarely deal with, for instance, phrasing eighth notes the way a great saxophone player can phrase them.  I relate to the power of the drums and maintaining the rhythm as well.  But I draw inspiration from the vocal aspect, the lyricism of the great musicians.  I’ll go into my studio, think of a tune and a feeling, and play tempo for a half-hour, trying to keep the time going with a light touch.  That’s an endless study.”

As we reprise the view while waiting for the downstairs elevator, Baron murmurs, “Believe me, I never take this for granted.”   Outside, as we prepare to go our separate ways, the drummer gives me a taste of that light touch and flycatcher-quick sleight-of-hand.  He displays two fuzzy, light-as-a-feather red balls, has me authenticate their feel.  “Close your hands.”  Dutifully, I make two fists.  Baron presents the balls like a sommelier, then envelops them, executes a few criss-crosses and swirls, and unveils his empty palms.  A few more moves culminate in a feathery touch.  “Open your hands.”  Inevitably, the balls are nestled in my closed left fist.  “You did that very well, Joey.”  “That’s what I say when people ask me how I did that trick,” Baron chortles.  “‘Very well!’”

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Filed under Article, Drummer, Jazziz, Joey Baron

Modern Jazz in Greenwich Village

Yesterday morning,  I received an invitation to join a Facebook group comprised of people who grew up in Greenwich Village, many of them from my elementary school alma mater, P.S. 41, on 11th Street and 6th Avenue, and my junior high school, I.S. 70., on 17th Street between 8th and 9th Aves. In going through the many threads, it’s fascinating to take in the testimony of such a diverse group of people who share the experience of having grown up and come of age during the 1960s and early ’70s in this singular, culturally influential community.

As a jazz guy, I couldn’t help but notice that, on a thread asking people to talk about the music that shook their world, not one respondent — except me, of course, ever the oddball –made a single mention of jazz. The  one exception is a woman who heard Miles at the Fillmore and also the Gaslight circa 1969 or 1970, when she would have been 15 or 16. Which is natural, since so many of the musicians who shaped the course of rock and pop were living and performing in the Village (one thread related that  Hendrix, then residing on W. 12th St., would practice with his amp by an open window; another gentleman posted a photograph of himself and his brother, barely 10, playing banjo on the grass in Washington Square Park next to a smiling, embarrassed Bob Dylan).

Six years ago, on the occasion of the Village Vanguard’s 70th anniversary, I wrote a feature piece for DownBeat on the halcyon years of jazz in the Village, which  waned—though the scene was by no means dormant—as the ’60s progressed. Unfortunately, for space reasons, DB had to excise much  of the third section. I’m running my own final cut below.

* * *

On a frigid afternoon in January, a few weeks before the seventieth anniversary festivities of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon, the proprietor, sat in the triangular basement for a chat. The heating unit was off, and she was fighting a cold. Wearing a sweater and down jacket, she stayed close to a lukewarm radiator near the coat-check room, sipping water and nibbling on takeout fried rice.

Gordon looked across to the bar, and recalled a moment more than 60 years ago, when she sat there with friends from the Newark Hot Jazz Club as Leadbelly sing the blues from the Vanguard stage. “Everything was as you see it now,” she said. “We had a couple of beers and passed them between us. I saw a little man by the cash register. I thought I heard him say, ‘Get rid of those kids.’ Whoa! I vowed revenge.”

The “little man” was Max Gordon, the owner. Some years later, Lorraine married him. When he died in 1989, she took over the business.

As she spoke, the ice machine spewed out a load of cubes.

“The ice revue!” she laughed. “We need a big facelift, but I don’t want to do it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s Max Gordon’s school, which I carry on to the best of my ability.”

Lorraine Gordon wasn’t joking. The Vanguard, which under her guidance  follows a booking policy as progressive as any New York venue, operates on principles opposite to modern notions of hospitality management. They don’t take credit cards and don’t serve food. The tables are tiny. The red banquettes are less than plush. Hot water in the restrooms is a recent innovation. [note: The Vanguard began to take credit cards last year.]

Gordon evoked another incident, perhaps in 1949 or 1950. “I brought Thelonious Monk here before he had any public at all,” she said. “Only some musicians knew him. Monk gets up, walks around and says, ‘And now, human beings, I’m going to play.’  He laid a big egg. Max was furious with me. ‘What kind of announcement is that?’ he said. ‘You’re ruining my business. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Mr. Gordon, please. Be quiet. This man is a genius.’ Some years later, when Max brought him back, he told  people, ‘Hey, I want you to hear this genius.’”

“I was playing a gig with a singer for Max when Lorraine brought Monk in,”  pianist Billy Taylor corroborates. “Lorraine was pretty, and anything she told him, he was buying. At that particular time, it was the most unlikely thing he would have done.”

During the Vanguard’s first two decades, Max Gordon regarded jazz as a minor option on his entertainment menu. But as the ‘50s progressed, Gordon, sensing that television would soon outbid him for his artists, decided to make a move.

“In 1955 Max told me he was thinking of switching to a jazz policy,” says veteran producer Orrin Keepnews. “‘Stick with what you’ve got,’ I said, ‘and don’t give yourself a lot of trouble.’ Subsequently we talked about how fortunate it was that he paid me no attention.”

Fortunate indeed. Gordon signed on for the jazz wars at the precise moment when Greenwich Village was replacing 52nd Street and Harlem as the turf on which such efflorescent modernists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans established the vocabulary that continues to bedrock today’s sound. He shared the territory with clubs like the Café Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Jazz Showplace, and the Half Note, environments that now exist only in the memories of witnesses and through iconic location recordings. Those venues withered. The Vanguard flourished. Now, it’s the last survivor of the era.

* * * *
From today’s perspective, it seems odd that in 1955 the Village Vanguard and such venerable Greenwich Village establishments as Nick’s Tavern and Eddie Condon’s were inhospitable to modern developments in jazz. Yet, forward-thinking young musicians and a new generation of artists, writers, poets and theater people were settling in the Village, augmented by a flood of G.I. Bill sponsored students at New York University and numerous middle-class professionals moving into old brownstones and new highrises. All were looking for something different, and their soundtrack was modern jazz. But they could only hear it at informal sessions in lofts, storefront back rooms,  local restaurants, strip clubs (Phil Woods held court for several years at the Nut Club, a Sheridan Square boite in a space now occupied by The Garage), and saloons, like a raunchy East Fourth Street bar called the Open Door, where Robert Reisner booked jazz on Sunday afternoons.

In late 1954, Ted Joans, the black surrealist poet, moved from a MacDougal Street tenement into a barely heated Barrow Street flat, a five-minute walk from the Vanguard. Often boarding with him was Charlie Parker, his marriage shattered and health failing. Bird began to gravitate to the Bohemia, a former strip joint across the street at 15 Barrow—a decade before, the premises, known as the Pied Piper, boasted a house band with Wilbur DeParis and James P. Johnson—to drink and jam. James Garofalo, the manager, decided to reinstate the music policy, and hired Bird to kick things off.

Parker died on March 12, 1955, and never made the gig. Garofalo hired bassist Oscar Pettiford, who composed the anthemic “Bohemia After Dark” and attracted the best and brightest of Parker’s acolytes and contemporaries to hear him. Cannonball Adderley famously debuted there in June, sitting in on a Pettiford gig with Kenny Clarke. George Wallington recorded at the Bohemia that September for Progressive with Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd. In October, Blue Note recorded the Art Blakey-Horace Silver edition of the Jazz Messengers, and in December Charles Mingus and Max Roach did the same for Debut. Among the intermission pianists were Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, and Bobby Scott.

In October 1955, Miles Davis, just signed to Columbia, entered the Bohemia with a new quintet comprised of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

“The Bohemia’s audience reminded me of cafes in Europe, where people were serious and intense, and paid attention,” states George Avakian, who signed Miles to the label and coordinated the publicity campaign that transformed his image. “They regarded the music as an art form, and even acted, oh, a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles.”

“It was a hip place,” adds Billy Taylor, “more like a club in Harlem than anything on 52nd Street.  People who lived or worked in or frequented the Village considered themselves a lot hipper than other people in town. In many cases, they were!”

“The Village was a section of acceptance for anything—any form of art, any form of people,” says Sheila Jordan, who sang during these years Monday nights at the Page Three, a gay bar on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street where Herbie Nichols played piano for a motley array of performers, including Tiny Tim. “Live your life. Play what you play. Paint what you paint. Dance what you dance. They accepted it.”

“Because of the mixed audience, people came from all over and did different things,” remarks Randy Weston, who performed in 1943 with guitarist Huey Long at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street. “In Harlem and Brooklyn the black audiences were very critical. You better feel the blues and swing or else! It was more flexible in the Village.”

The music at the Bohemia satisfied on both levels. “It was a rectangular room, with the bar and bandstand the long way,” says Roswell Rudd. “The music was right in your face. It was great to be 10 feet from Coltrane, and hear how he’d put himself into the most unbelievable corners and punch his way out. Saxophone players sat at the bar with their jaws down. They couldn’t believe anybody would challenge himself that way.”

Villager Bob Brookmeyer worked opposite Miles in 1956 on a Bohemia job with Gerry Mulligan, and again in 1958 as a member of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Jim Hall. “We had 8 weeks,” he recalls, “including two opposite Wynton Kelly’s Trio, another two opposite the Wilbur Ware Quartet, and Miles and Coltrane the last two weeks. I thought we’d get killed, that the Birdland crowd would come down, talk through us and listen to Miles. But the opposite happened. Miles asked me why. I said, ‘We play quiet, so they have to listen.’”

“A tough little Italian-American cat,” in Weston’s words, Garofalo would not tolerate inattentive patrons. “Garofalo was an old-school Village bartender-proprietor and a real jazz fan,” says David Amram, who beelined to the Bohemia directly after arriving in New York in September 1955. A few weeks later, Mingus hired him to play french horn on a Bohemia gig “If a customer had a bad attitude, he might jump over the bar and attack them.”

At the beginning of 1957, Amram took an 11-week engagement across town at the Five Spot, a Skid Row saloon at Fourth Street and the Bowery with sawdust on the floor. Artists were starting to gravitate there from the already touristy Cedar Tavern on University Place.

“In the summer of ‘56, I scored a documentary film about the Third Avenue Elevated line, which had been torn down the year before, and persuaded Cecil Taylor to play on the soundtrack,” Amram relates. “I was around the Bowery every day. Joan Mitchell, a painter I knew, told me I had to come to this bar called the Five Spot, where she, Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning were bringing their friends. Don Shoemaker, who was a merchant seaman, played this wretched, beat-up old piano, and Dale Wales, who was a bass trumpet player and a chef, were playing there for kicks. All the painters knew me, and I sat in. Then I told Cecil to come down. He sat in, played his stuff, and broke about five keys. The proprietor, Joe Termini, said, ‘Get him out of here; he’s ruining my piano!’ But the painters said, ‘This guy is a genius. If you don’t bring him back, we’re not coming any more.’ So Joe hired Cecil for five weeks, with Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles. Then I went in. All these different poets came to read with me, and so did Jack Kerouac. It was like a Renaissance.”

“The first time I met Steve Lacy, we did jazz and poetry at the Five Spot, with Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg,” pianist Mal Waldron told me in 2001. “All these people ganged together because we were on the outer edges of the status quo. We were the outlaws!”

“There were painters, sculptors, derelicts staggering in completely drunk,” says Randy Weston, who followed Amram that spring with a trio. In June, he ceded the bandstand to Thelonious Monk’s newly-formed quartet, featuring John Coltrane, whom Miles Davis had recently fired, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson. In honor of the event, which quickly entered the annals of jazz legend, the Terminis replaced the upright piano with a mini grand.

“The place was packed every night, and it was utter joy,” says Weston. Joyful, perhaps, but not hygienic. “The place was not clean at all,” he continues. “Sometimes when the toilet door opened, you would smell pee, and this guy made funky hamburgers in a little bitty kitchen.”

“We’d be back there eating them,” says Roy Haynes, who worked for most of the summer of 1958 at the Five Spot with Monk and Johnny Griffin, and “sat in once or twice” with the Monk and Coltrane the previous year. Naima Coltrane taped one session, which Blue Note issued a few years ago. “I didn’t care about the dirt. A lot of places were dirty. Playing with Monk at the Five Spot, there was no money made at all. But I loved to go to work. That’s when the word beatnik became popular and the look of the audiences started changing. We wore suits and ties when I worked the Five Spot with Monk. Sooner or later, that stopped. I couldn’t wait to take off a tie and play drums!”

“The place was small and dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness—sort of,” says Jim Hall. Hall notes that the personality of the proprietors set the tone. “When I was a kid, all the club owners were guys with the broken nose and cigars,” he notes. “But the Termini Brothers seemed like they’d be good neighbors or could run a grocery store.”

“The place had a certain warmth,” Weston acknowledges. “You can feel the bonhomie on Weston’s live Five Spot recording with Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Dorham from October 26, 1959. The other band was the Ornette Coleman Quartet, with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, in week three of Coleman’s explosive New York debut engagement.

“Hearing Ornette was a new experience in music,” says Weston. “I had the same impression when I heard Dizzy and Bird. What are these guys playing?! I didn’t know it was great. I just knew it was different.”

“Ornette immediately antiquated three-quarters of the musicians in New York,” says Bley, for whom Coleman had sidemanned in Los Angeles. “A lot of them proceeded to ask me what was going on, and I tried to help. I talked about microtonality—every kind of explanation, all at the same time. Ornette threatened almost everybody, including all the famous players.”

“I’d heard about Ornette through Neshui Ertegun, who had recorded him in California, and Neshui asked me to join him on opening night,” Avakian recalls. “It was electric. Word had gotten out, and the place was jammed. Ornette played the first set for about two hours, only three compositions, and virtually no solos. It was an ensemble feel from start to finish. Later it became more orthodox with individual solos. But that was the first impact, and it was very powerful.”

During the final month of Coleman’s initial Five Spot run, Bill Evans was firming up a new trio at the Jazz Showplace, on Third Street, near the current Blue Note. The bassist was a recent arrival from the West Coast named Scott LaFaro and the drummer was Paul Motian, an established young veteran on the New York scene. “Bill started with Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis at Basin Street East in November, and they quit on him,” says Motian. “I was working a rock-and-roll gig in New Jersey when he called me. Then Scott sat in with us, and that was it.” Evans brought the trio into the Showplace on Tuesday, December 1st, and left on Sunday, December 27th. That night they went the studio to record the iconic trio album Portrait In Jazz.

Prior to joining Bill Evans, Motian worked most of August 1959 with Lennie Tristano at the Showplace. But his home away from home for much of the preceding year was the Half Note, two blocks north of the Holland Tunnel at Hudson and Spring, across from the loft building that houses today’s Jazz Gallery. Run by the Cantarino family, it was an old-style Village Italian restaurant, with red-and-white tablecloths, that inaugurated a jazz policy in September 1957, with an appearance by Randy Weston.

According to Motian’s detailed gig books, he played the Half Note in June 1958 with Lee Konitz, and spent August through October on a 13-week run with Lennie Tristano. After three weeks in January 1959 with the bibulous tenor tandem of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and four with Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh (the front line, with Evans in the piano chair, is in fine form on LIVE AT THE HALF-NOTE [Verve]), he joined Cohn and Sims again for April, and spent three weeks in June with pianist-vibraphonist Eddie Costa.

The area now has an active nightlife, but in 1960, Brookmeyer notes, “the only other thing there was a rough gay bar two blocks over on the river. You had to really want to go. But people came, because the food and atmosphere and music were so good. They had a regular music clientele, and we built up our own audiences. For example, Clark Terry and I were there four times a year, and John Coltrane played there often.”

“You couldn’t stumble out and go into another club, like on 52nd Street,” states Jimmy Heath, who worked there in the mid ’60s with Art Farmer, a frequent Half Note artist. Nor was it a good idea to stumble on the bandstand, a raised platform within the oval bar, facing diners in the front. “Zoot and Al learned to catch shots that the bartender would throw up to them in shot glasses,” says Mark Murphy. “They’d down them, and throw back the glasses.”

One attraction was Al the Waiter, a.k.a. “The Torch,” who wore a tuxedo and never allowed a cigarette to go unlit. “Wherever you were,” says Steve Swallow, “he would streak across the room, grabbing at his belt where he kept a pack of matches affixed, and in one smooth motion, like a gunslinger, he’d reach down, grab a cardboard match, strike it, and have it at the point of your cigarette in less than a second.”

“Once I walked in when Coltrane and Elvin were late in the set, doing a tenor and drums duo,” relates Bley of a moment when sparks of a different connotation flew. “When I opened the door there were purple lights flashing all over the club—and I wasn’t smoking. There was such a frenzy that it changed not only the atmosphere, but one’s vision.”

* * * * *
In his recent memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan recalls singing “The Water Is Wide” at “a creepy but convenient little coffeehouse on Bleecker Street near Thompson” in early 1961. Playing piano was Cecil Taylor. “I also played with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins there,” Dylan adds.

Dylan paints a vivid portrait of the louche, carnival atmosphere that prevailed in the coffeehouses, Italian restaurants, and saloons that lined Bleecker, MacDougal, Thompson and West Third Streets in this period. They serviced a mix of college students, bridge-and-tunnel slummers, art-oriented Villagers, Italian-American tough guys, Washington Square Park strollers, and the alcoholics, drug addicts and other lost souls who populated the Mills Hotel, an imposing 1400-unit flophouse that occupied an entire Bleecker Street block.

“I didn’t book Dylan,” says Art D’Lugoff, who ran the Village Gate, a three-tiered space below the Mills. “He was too much like Woody Guthrie. I knew a lot about Woody Guthrie, because I was a folkie before I got involved with other things.”

In 1955, D’Lugoff, an NYU alumnus, promoted concerts by Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand and Earl Robinson at the Circle In The Square Theater, opposite the Mills. He opened the Gate—the premises had housed a commercial laundry—in 1958. Initially, he booked folk and blues acts, and even musical theater, moving into jazz in a big way in 1960, and remaining staunchly in the game until 1996, when he lost his lease.

“We were the first to bring minor or major entertainment to Bleecker Street,” D’Lugoff states in a staccato Brooklyn accent. “At first, the coffeehouses were primarily places to hang out, pick up, meet people, and so on. The coffee was the attraction. Traffic began to develop along MacDougal, and then people made the curve to Bleecker. Then things began to open up.”

As Amram relates, all streams converged at the circular fountain in the center of Washington Square Park. “Gigantic crowds would gather in the summer,” he says. “Every 4 feet, somebody was playing a boom-box, somebody else a radio, someone would be screaming about overthrowing the government, and then a banjo player from the south was singing songs about whiskey and tobacco, then some old blues player, then somebody wailing some post-Charlie Parker free style all by themselves for an hour—a different genre of music, all of it at the same time. Somehow, it all fit into this wonderful kind of great Greenwich Village-New York-American sound.”

Although the coffee houses presented primarily folk music, enterprising jazz experimentalists were able to slip through the cracks. Consider the Phase Two, a coffee house at Bleecker and Seventh Avenue, best known as the spot where, in 1963, poet Paul Haines recorded a recital of Monk compositions by Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd.

“It was totally open.” says Rudd, noting that the group first performed publicly in the basement of an Armenian restaurant called Harut’s on Waverly Place, and subsequently played “at least half-a-dozen rooms along MacDougal and Bleecker.” “There were no lawyers, no money, no agencies, no management. If you had the energy, or the need to get exposure, you would find a way to do it through one of these places, and pass the hat.”

In early 1960, bassist Steve Swallow, 20 and fresh from Yale, began to play with Bley and trumpeter Don Ellis Saturday afternoons at the Phase Two. After Ellis left, Bley and Swallow remained there for many months as a piano-bass duo. “It paid $5 and a lot of coffee,” says Swallow, who notes that he paid 15 cents for a subway ride and $45 rent on his spacious Flower District loft. “It was a sitting-in situation. Al Foster lugged his drums over now and then. Albert Ayler a couple of times. Bill Dixon. The usual cast of characters. I even remember Lamonte Young coming by to play.”

“A pianist and bassist won’t upset anybody, so we didn’t make an impression,” says Bley. “The performers were the wallpaper. But at coffeehouses you had a license to do whatever you wanted.”

In early 1961 Bley brought Swallow into the Jimmy Giuffre Three, which made two pathbreaking recordings for Verve that spring. The following winter, they accepted an engagement at the Take Three, located above the Bitter End about a half-mile east down Bleecker Street. For second sets, Swallow played bass-vocal duos with Sheila Jordan; Ornette Coleman came out to hear them.

“We played several weeks for the door,” Swallow says. “On one particular night we’d made less than a dollar each—and Wilbur Ware had stopped by, so I didn’t even have that. After the gig we went to a late night eatery called the Hip Bagel, which named bagels after Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and decided we’d better bag it, that it wasn’t working. The music was glorious, but it seemed futile to continue.”

Foreshadowing the British Invasion, the South Village milieu shifted from Beat to Pop in a flash.

“One singular event perfectly encapsulates the very swift change that blew through Bleecker Street,” says Swallow, referring to a jazz-and-poetry gig at the Bitter End with a straight-looking poet named Hugh Romney, who subsequently changed his name to Wavy Gravy and became the symbol of ‘60s commune culture with the Hog Farm. “One night management told us that there was another act, two guys with a guitar and a girl. After we finished our set, we encountered them in the kitchen before they were about to go on, and the two guys were arguing about the third of the four chords in the piece they were about to play, and they had a repertoire of five or six tunes. We were utterly contemptuous. A little concerned, too. Something did seem to be in the air. Within a couple of weeks, we were gone, and they were carrying on. They were Peter, Paul and Mary.”

* * * * *
“Everything wasn’t just peachy-dandy here,” says Lorraine Gordon. “Plenty of slow times. Who knew if Max was going to hang on? But he did. Don’t ask me how. He was a very tenacious man.”

Thousands of musical explosions have transpired on the Vanguard bandstand since 1957, when Gordon started to “use a provocative mixture of the greatest in modern jazz, from Chico Hamilton and Stan Getz to J.J. Johnson interspersed with verbal entertainment by performers who…were hip enough or sufficiently jazz-associated to please the audiences who had come primarily to inspect the music.” The words are Leonard Feather’s, from the liner notes to Live At The Village Vanguard, a Sonny Rollins classic from that year. It’s the first in a succession of legend-building location recordings by—the list merely scratches the surface—Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Earl Hines, Albert Ayler, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Keith Jarrett, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Motian, Josh Redman, Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau, and Jim Hall.

“For some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard,” says Hall, who was married during a Vanguard engagement in 1965. “The sinkhole! I mean that in a good way. You go down there, and you’re in an environment. I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there with Slam Stewart. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over. I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and also in a duet opposite Miles’ group with Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Hank Mobley. Professor Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, too. Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.”

But when asked to recall the years when modern jazz stamped the Vanguard’s identity, most musicians don’t speak about the music. Instead, they talk about Max Gordon.

Ironic and philosophical, Gordon never mired himself in the status quo, and sustained equanimity whether the house was full or empty. “Max had a great sense of humor and resilience,” says Nat Hentoff. “He often had to deal with fractious personalities, but he always stayed calm, and he was a decent guy. You could trust him.”

In point of fact, as Keepnews states, “A tremendous variety of people, some of whom can’t stand each other, have very fond recollections of Max. If you were to take a poll—though you can’t because most of the people are dead by now—this is easily the best-liked club owner there ever was.”

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