May 2020

Miles Davis ‘Sorcerer’

Happy 94th birthday to the Prince of Darkness, Miles Davis! It wasn’t hard to pick an album for today’s post—‘Sorcerer’ has been in heavy rotation for the last couple of weeks. My deep appreciation (bordering on obsession) with the Second Great Quintet is no secret, and each of the six albums they released between 1965–1968 is a gift that keeps on giving. ‘Sorcerer’ from 1967 is a middle child and one that some of my jazz pals rank slightly lower than the others. As everyone is entitled to their opinion, *MY* belief is that those pals should pull the cotton out of their ears, open their minds, and listen again. They view the lack of compositions from Miles and the perception that “he doesn’t play enough” on ‘Sorcerer’ as a reason to criticize. Opinions vary—I see this as one of the most significant examples of Miles’ drive towards “letting go” and making this a team effort. After all, hiring a band half his age as a catalyst towards pushing himself to be better was one of his core strategies, and there’s a lesson in that for us all. Besides, how do you argue with the nocturnal, brooding “Prince of Darkness,” which worms its way into your soul like a spirit that’s equally sinister and benevolent? How does one not sit in awe of the mighty “Masqualero,” a sprawling composition of enigmatic, interlocking complexity that remained a part of Miles’ live book for years? Plus, I just love the note in “Masqualero” at around 4:21 that Wayne Shorter coaxes into existence—you can hear him putting the breath of life into it with such thought and deliberation, and it’s just, exactly, perfect. It’s one of my favorite moments in jazz. In textbook Second Great Quintet fashion, the group excels at defying rhythmic conventions, but the pulse throughout is healthy if you’re willing to invest the time in finding it. Pulse leads to the heartbeat, and that’s ultimately where this and all of Miles’ music is rooted—in the heart. The cerebral “music as contact sport” fun of the Second Great Quintet is one reason I love listening to it so much, but equally important is how often this music gives me the feels. Mad respect and appreciation to birthday boy @milesdavis today

Wes Montgomery / Wynton Kelly Trio ‘Smokin at the Half Note’

I was saddened to hear that drummer Jimmy Cobb has flown from the world on Sunday at age 91. Many are rightly posting about his legendary contributions to ‘Kind of Blue,’ and he was the last surviving member of the group that brought that game-changing record to life. Mad respect! That rhythm section—Cobb on drums, bassist Paul Chambers, and pianist Wynton Kelly—made contributions to plenty of other top-shelf jazz records, like Art Pepper’s ‘Gettin Together,’ and this bad boy with Wes Montgomery, ‘Smokin at the Half Note.’ There’s incredible chemistry here between Montgomery and this rhythm section, and you can hear his confidence in their ability to change their state of matter effortlessly: solid groove, liquid solos, and high speed interplay that floats like hydrogen. RIP Jimmy Cobb, and thanks for all the music. You’ve left an amazing legacy for so many to enjoy

Freddie Hubbard ‘Hub-Tones’

Dateline: 10 Oct 1962. 24-year-old Freddie Hubbard had already put a jaw-dropping number of points on the board. He’d joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the wake of Lee Morgan’s departure, working the frontline on the bandstand alongside Wayne Shorter. Hubbard had already recorded with John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Oliver Nelson, Jackie McLean, Dexter Gordon, and Duke Pearson. He’d led over a half dozen sessions himself, absorbing influences from his peers and mentors into both his writing and his playing. So he was well-primed to knock it out of the park at this session, and he did so with style. Leading a quintet that featured Herbie Hancock-piano, James Spaulding-alto sax/flute, Reggie Workman-bass, and Clifford Jarvis-drums, Hubbard navigates the hard-bop highway with finesse on the uptempo numbers and sensitivity on the ballads. ‘Hub-Tones’ contains a couple of Hubbard’s most excellent originals, including the title track, as well as the beautiful “Lament for Booker” (written for his close friend Booker Little). It’s hard to go wrong with any of Hubbard’s run of albums on Blue Note—they’re all high quality, but I’m partial to this one for three reasons:
1. ”Lament for Booker”—this tune just kills me.
2. I love the way this album sounds—the Notorious RVG was having a great day in the studio, and the sonic assassins at Music Matters must have sprinkled some extra sonic fairy dust on this one to make it leap from the speakers so strikingly.
3. The striking artwork never ceases to amaze. ‘Hub-Tones’ has one of my favorite—and most iconic—Reid Miles Blue Note LP jackets ever.
There’s a lot to love about this record—think I’ll spin it again

Sam Rivers ‘Contours’

Post-bop bliss! The beautifully demented solo Herbie Hancock plays in “Dance of the Tripedal” alone makes this record worth owning. It’s fearless, captivating, moving, and each bar feels like a new tale of the unexpected. There are many thrilling moments just like it throughout Sam Rivers ‘Contours’, recorded in May 1965. Rivers (sax/flute) composed all four long tracks and led a stellar quintet. Joining Rivers and Hancock are Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Ron Carter (bass), and Joe Chambers (drums). With song titles like “Mellifluous Cacophony,” it would be understandable that less adventurous ears might whistle past the graveyard on ’Contours.’ But you’d be missing out on one of the great mid-60s sessions…one that was increasingly difficult to come by on LP until reissued as part of the series last year. Now, to be honest, it’s still a challenging listen, and there there are a few moments with sharp edges. But those moments don’t show up often, and much of this music is truly MESMERIZING. It’s also a record with a very high replayability factor—the interplay can be so subtle and understated (or on the other end of the spectrum, so fast and furious) that it doesn’t register on the first spin. Or tenth. I dig this one more with each spin. Highest recommendation bop

Bill Bruford ‘One of a Kind’

Bruford’s ‘One of a Kind’ is in the #1 slot on my list of favorite fusion albums (well, this week anyway). It isn’t a pure fusion record which is one of its appeals—it’s the perfect blend of progressive rock and jazz/rock fusion, without falling into the bad habits of either. This formidable quartet was led by ex-Yes, ex-King Crimson drummer/composer Bill Bruford, along with guitarist supreme Allan Holdsworth, bassist Jeff Berlin and composer/keyboardist Dave Stewart. This is one WILD record with edge-of-your-seat solos and intricate basslines galore. Killer drumming as one would expect is front and center, leading me to the other thing I love about this record which is how it sounds. Bruford’s rototoms and snare drum have a power and finesse that you can actually feel, and they are mixed perfectly. Allan Holdsworth’s guitar retains its trademark sonic footprint, with a fluid, legato sound. But there’s an additional edge to it—some of his lines go down incredibly smooth, but others have serious teeth. And mad props to Dave Stewart who eschews all forms of period-appropriate prog rock fromage in his choice of keyboard sounds—those very choices are big part of what keeps this record sounding fresh, even now. So it doesn’t sound anything like Yes, or King Crimson, nor does it sound as raw and powerful as Mahavishnu, or lean as jazzy as Weather Report. If anything, echoes of Stewart’s previous gigs with National Health/Hatfield & the North, and Bruford/Holdsworth’s recent experiences with U.K. are a closer reference point. Terrific record. This is the copy I’ve had with me since high school, with the original price tag from Stamford Records still attached…Happy Fusion Friday

Sonny Clark ‘Cool Struttin’

It takes bravado to call your album ‘Cool Struttin’. It’s a perfect title for this essential record though, summarizing the swagger, swing, and attitude of the music succinctly, and with iconic artwork to complete the package. It seems like everybody woke up to the brilliance of this LP over the last decade. Blues and chemistry are the core drivers here: bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones were a well-oiled rhythm machine, sharing a bandstand with Miles Davis almost nightly, and having worked with pianist Sonny Clark on prior sessions. Trumpeter Art Farmer and alto saxophonist Jackie McLean had also done sessions with Clark, Chambers, and Jones, and the two of them had played together for a while with tenorist Gene Ammons, so there was a solid foundation upon which these four long tracks are built. Art Farmer’s tone is refined, and his lines are sophisticated. McLeans’ tone is fiery, and his lines have a youthful urgency—the pairing works brilliantly. Clark’s playing is elegant, soulful, and beautiful, with a bounce that’s accented by a rhythm section who know exactly when to step on the gas with a bit of encouragement, and when to give a wide berth to the soloists. Speaking of driving, that brings me to the album cover, which has always fascinated me. Based on the direction the man and the woman (Ruth Lion, wife of Blue Note exec Alfred) are walking, it seems inevitable that they would meet off-frame. Or would they? The slightly blurry automobile on the opposite side of the street in the background appears to be pulling out into traffic. Where to? Is there a connection to the man? The woman? Both? Was it intentional or a happy accident that the bottom hem of her skirt and his overcoat line up perfectly? Great photo! This record is the total package—the two Clark originals are excellent, the take on Miles’ “Sippin’ at Bells” is wonderful, and the Chuck Henderson/Rudy Vallee standard “Deep Night” is a joy. It’s beautifully recorded, expertly played, and has a vibe that goes down smooth with morning coffee or a nighttime whiskey. Jazz newbies and veterans rave about ‘Cool Struttin’ for good reason

Jackie McLean ‘Demon Dance’

Don’t judge a book by its cover. The artwork on the jacket might give one the impression that the music within falls somewhere on the electric/funkified/psych-tinged end of the late 60s/early 70s jazz spectrum, but that is *NOT* what’s going on here. ‘Demon’s Dance’ is a terrific acoustic jazz record that sits right on the border of hard-bop and post-bop. On the one hand, it’s not as far out as some of McLean’s inside/outside records of the early 60s like ‘Destination…Out!’ or ‘One Step Beyond,’ which some may view as a step backward. On the other hand, I’d argue that this was progressive hard/post-bop of the highest caliber and very advanced, even if it was more accessible. The session is led by Jackie McLean’s alto sax, though the record could just as easily have been co-billed with young trumpet virtuoso Woody Shaw who has as many stellar, spotlight moments as McLean. Props also to the perpetual motion artistry of young Jack DeJohnette on drums, which blends swing and propulsion in equal measure without ever sounding show-off-y or heavy-handed. Scott Holt (bass) and LaMont Johnson (piano) complete the quintet. McLean and Shaw each contribute two compositions, and there are also two tunes written by trumpeter/composer Cal Massey. ‘Demon’s Dance’ was McLean’s 21st and final album for Blue Note after an incredible decade of releases. McLean would shift his focus to educational pursuits for the rest of the decade and then began a series of releases on Steeplechase in the early 1970s. I missed acknowledging Jackie McLean’s birthday yesterday and was reaching for ‘Consequence’ (Lee Morgan’s playing is just devastating on that LP) to spin and review, but as you can see from the album artwork, ‘Demon’s Dance’ does tend to draw the eye! This record has gotten ridiculously difficult to find on vinyl, but it is available on streaming services. ‘Demon’s Dance’ would make a great release

Bill Evans Trio ‘How My Heart Sings!’

Dateline: 17 May 1962. Bill Evans returns to the studio to lead a new trio after nearly a year of self-imposed isolation. Evans had become depressed and found himself in the clutches of heroin addiction following the tragic death of bassist Scott LaFaro. LaFaro—1/3 of Evans’ first iconic trio—had died in a car accident ten days after the shows that produced the iconic recordings ‘Waltz For Debby’ and ‘Live at the Village Vanguard.’ This trio and the music they produced was the stuff of legend, having developed a near-telepathic interplay that sounded like one musician in three bodies. I can only imagine the emotional weight Evans felt in putting a new trio together…the expectations that fans and critics had—or that Evans perceived—must have been a crushing weight. Despite this pressure, the May/June sessions were fruitful, and a Riverside decided to split the music between two releases, with the ballads appearing on ‘Moonbeams,’ and the more uptempo material appearing here on ‘How My Heart Sings!’ New bassist Chuck Israels joined Evans and returning drummer Paul Motian on a program of Evans originals, and a bunch of standards, and the results are superb. Fast forward to right now: the news is awful to read, and all of us are living/working under difficult, unprecedented circumstances, physically isolated from family & friends. Going down a rabbit hole of sadness and dark thoughts is so easy, and so understandable. But today, the weather and the music are sunny, and I am grateful for the smiles of my family, the kind words of friends and colleagues, and the many, many supportive comments/DMs from so many of you. Thank you all…my heart sings! This is an original stereo pressing, Riverside RS 9473

Woody Shaw ‘In My Own Sweet Way’

Woody Shaw is my favorite trumpet player, and I’m also blown away by his skills as an arranger, composer and bandleader. This was one of his final recordings, a live album recorded in Switzerland in February of 1987. Shaw leads a quartet featuring Fred Henke (piano), Neil Swainson (bass), and Alexander Deutsch (drums) through a program that’s leans heavily on ballads, though Shaw’s playing does get fiery, particularly on “Sippin’ at Bells”. Henke’s “The Dragon” also has killer solos, as does the bonus track on the CD/digital version of the record, which is the Shaw original “Joshua C.” The entire record is a showcase for Shaw’s tone, phrasing, and mastery of dynamics—as the sole horn player, a lot of the heavy lifting falls upon him and he delivers with style, fluidity, passion, and power at every opportunity. This is a record that doesn’t often get brought up in conversations about Shaw’s best work, and it should. There’s no shortage of live Woody Shaw records to choose from, and I’d list this as one of the top three. That said, I cannot recommend the vinyl edition which sounds rather thin. The CD/digital versions sound much more robust, and give you a better “you are THERE” vibe. Additionally, the CD/digital bonus track “Joshua C” really completes the set. This is an exquisite performance, and a must for Woody Shaw fans

Mahavishnu Orchestra ‘Birds of Fire’

Never has brutality sounded so beautiful or precise. ‘Birds of Fire’ is considered by many to be the slightly tamer, more compositionally mature brother of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut LP ‘The Inner Mounting Flame,’ but I don’t know about this notion of “tamer.” Sure, it’s a bit less raw in terms of production values, and as a band, their relentless touring had made them impossibly tighter. But the molten core of nuclear energy that powered the Mahavishnu Orchestra was hotter than ever, making them one of the few jazz/rock bands that—when in beast mode—could make even the mighty Black Sabbath piss their pants and beg for mercy. At the same time, they could also toss a dozen eggs between them without cracking a single shell, playing with a delicacy and sensitivity that made them one of the most dynamic acts ever to set foot on stage, or enter a recording studio. In the 30 months they recorded and toured together before imploding, they left in their wake a long trail of blown speakers and blown minds. On this I’m thinking strategically: *THIS* is how we defeat the Murder Hornets, people….BIRDS OF FIRE