For our latest installment, Prof. Kopp takes a look at titles from Motéma Music, Mack Avenue, Hot Club, Intuition, One Note and Challenge.[Go HERE for previous installments of the Jazz Desk.]
BY BILL KOPP
Gerald Clayton – Tributary Tales (Motéma Music)
Clayton (album cover pictured above) has an impressive family pedigree in music, but his own career deserves serious attention. As Musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, Clayton rubs elbows with some of the biggest names in jazz. But the pianist’s work holds up – and quite often towers above – that of many of his contemporaries. Tributary Tales is his fourth album as bandleader, and his first for hip label Motéma. Folding in influences from well outside jazz, on Tributary Tales Clayton creates modern jazz for the 21st century. Walking a fine line between ear candy and abstract, Clayton manages to have it both ways: he is music is adventurous and accessible at once. (Music is here.)
Kevin Eubanks – East West Time Line (Mack Avenue)
Eubanks’ 15-year tenure as Music Director of the house band for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno was a two-edged sword: one one hand, it raised the guitarist’s profile unusually high in the mainstream world for a jazz musician, and afforded him untold opportunities to interact with his musical peers (and lesser musicians) in front of a large and varied audience. But it also gave him at least a bit of a whiff of commercialism, a quality that is often fatal in the rarefied and somewhat insular world of jazz. On East West Time Line, Eubanks embraces that reality, crafting an album divided into two pieces (which can be thought of as A- and B- sides, he readily acknowledges). The first is a set of tasty original tracks cut in New York City; listen for Dave Holland on bass. The second is a set of standards (covers, favorites, whatever) recorded in California. Both build upon his Wes Montgomery influences, and both extend beyond those into something that’s – happily, as he’s earned it – Eubanks’ own bag. (Music is here.)
Hot Club of San Francisco – John Paul George & Django (Hot Club)
Prewar jazz manouche is not this reviewer’s favored substyle in the genre; too often its modern-day exponents betray a lack of imagination; despite opportunities for improvisation, in the hands of far too many current artists relies on rote licks. Against that backdrop, John Paul George & Django stands out like the brightest star. Not only is the basic concept a solid one – it builds upon the old saw that a great song is a great song no matter how it’s recast – but Hot Club reinvent the music of the Beatles in clever ways. If the goal of a jazz reading of someone else’s song is to make it one’s own, to take it where it hasn’t already gone, then this album is an unqualified success. Some of the songs are nearly unrecognizable – Abbey Road‘s “Because,” for example – but that’s fine. Hot Club is both true to the inner light (so to speak) of the originals while embossing the songs with their own brand of originality. Bravo. And bonus points for both the decision to release on vinyl and for commissioning some very clever cover art. (Music is here.)
Günter Baby Sommer – Le Piccole Cose (Intuition)
In the right circumstances, jazz can indeed rock. And it needn’t be fusion to do so. Case in point is Sommer’s latest album. The 73-year-old German drummer swings as he leads a quartet through seven songs that evoke the uptempo, boundary-pushing yet traditional vibe of Art Blakey and His Jazz Messengers. There’s a very playful mindset at work here, as evidenced by the off vocalisms which Sommer employs throughout “Inside Outside Shout”: the tune has as much in common with late 1960s Frank Zappa (Lumpy Gravy and Uncle Meat era) as it does with more conventional jazz traditions. Even the subtler tracks (the aptly-titled “Mellow Mood,” for example) have an adventurous spirit that rewards close listening. The band’s makeup (drums, alto sax and clarinet, trumpet and flugelhorn, bass) is just unusual enough to be interesting on its own; the music takes things to another level. (Music is here.)
Melvin Sparks – Live at Nectar’s (One Note Records)
This one’s not so much jazz as it is soul/r&b/boogaloo. Modern-day fans of bands like The New Mastersounds, Soulive and other current purveyors of the timeless style owe it to themselves to seek out this tasty live date featuring veteran rhythm guitarist Sparks with a stellar band. The guitarist cedes the soloing to his band mates, but he shows can be done within the context of so-called “rhythm” guitar playing. Live at Nectar’s is greasy, sweaty, emotion-filled, high octane instrumental music of the highest order. And the recording also represents one of the last performances by Sparks before his untimely death at age 64 in 2011. (Speaking of New Mastersounds, Eddie Roberts produced and mixed the sessions for release.) (Music is here.)
Trichotomy – Known-Unknown(Challenge Records)
The disc’s cover art may suggest that Known-Unknown is going to be a collection of outré progressive jazz, full of atonalities and skronk. Alas, no: Trichotomy is a relatively straightforward piano/bass/drums trio, albeit one that incorporates electronics into its sonic palette. At least that’s what the back cover tells us. In practice, electronics are far from the defining characteristic of this album. It’s a fine collection of impressionistic and evocative jazz instrumentals, but the trio’s use of electronics is fairly subdued; were one not to read otherwise, one might come away form a listen to Known-Unknown thinking it’s a wholly acoustic album. And while there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that – especially when it’s done as well as it is here – the electronics angle is more than a bit oversold. (Listen to the band live here.)
For our latest installment, Prof. Kopp takes a look at titles from Omnivore Recordings, Real Gone Music, TCB Music, Resonance Records and Concord Bicycle Music.[Go HERE for previous installments of the Jazz Desk.]
BY BILL KOPP
Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer – Two of a Kind (Omnivore Recordings)
Founded in 2010, Omnivore Recordings is a boutique label that quickly became renowned for its thoughtful and carefully-curated reissues and archival releases; the release schedule of the Grammy-winning label reflects the impeccable taste of its head, industry veteran Cheryl Pawelski. But this project is something of a left-turn, even for the reliably eclectic Omnivore. A 1961 collaboration between one of music’s top vocalists (Darin) and one of its finest songwriters (Mercer), Two of a Kind is a swingin’ big-band affair. The two men are clearly having the time of their lives as they trade vocal lines, backed by an explosive band conducted by the inimitable Billy May. The set list is dizzyingly varied, featuring originals (“Two of a Kind”), show tunes and jazz classics. In its character, Two of a Kind is not far removed from the camaraderie of Bob Hope/Bing Crosby projects, but with a couple of helluva-lot-better singers. Get yourself a bottle of rye, some sweet vermouth; mix up some Manhattans, and sit back and enjoy this seemingly effortless musical summit.
Alice Babs & Duke Ellington – Serenade to Sweden (Real Gone Music)
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington wasn’t just one of the 20th century’s most important composers and bandleaders; he was one of the era’s most prolific artists. His big-band work is the best-known part of his catalog, but it represents a mere fraction of his prodigious output. This 1966 album finds Ellington conducting an orchestra while Alice Babs – Sweden’s most popular singer of that era – plays the part of siren. Her ability to tackle the highest notes without betraying the slightest trace of effort is a hallmark of her work, and her deliciously clear vocal enunciation is beguiling. Some of the tunes focus on a smaller instrumental ensemble, while others make full use of the big orchestra. But the focus is always squarely on Babs’ superbly nimble (but never showy) vocals. Until this, its first-ever CD-era reissue, Serenade to Sweden was among the rarest and hard-to-find items in the catalog of either artist; Real Gone Music’s reissue features flawless remastering from Aaron Kannowski, and informative liner notes form jazz authority Scott Yanow.
The latest entry in TCB’s “Swiss Radio Days” Jazz Series, Zurich 1959 highlights one set each from Rollins’ trio (with Henry Grimes on bass, and drummer Pete La Roca) and pianist Silver’s quintet (Blue Mitchell on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Junior Cook, bassist Gene Taylor and the inimitable Louis Hayes on drums), recorded at Radio Studio Zurich on March 5, 1959. The sound is superb – those postwar Europeans demonstrated a keen skill at recording jazz – and it should go without saying that both bands perform beautifully. Rollins’ group turns in lovely, uptempo readings of standard including “I Remember You,” and Rollins’ original tune, “Oleo.” Silver’s quintet is exotic and assured on five originals from its bandleader. All the players are on fire, but Mitchell and Hayes are perhaps even a notch or two above their band mates on this blowing sessions.
The Three Sounds – Groovin’ Hard: Live At The Penthouse 1964-1968 (Resonance Records)
The title of this set is perhaps a tad misleading: while Gene Harris, bassist Andy Simpkins and – depending on the track – Bill Dowdy, Kalil Madi or Carl Burnett on drums play with skill, finesse and power, this set leans more toward assured understatement than fiery soul-jazz readings. The Three Sounds were together 1956-73, and these archival recordings date from the middle-period (and arguably creative height) of the group, 1964-68. As was often the case, the trio’s sound was best documented live in front of an audience, and this collection – curated by Zev Feldman, perhaps current day’s most important jazz archivist – is no exception. The interplay between the players borders on the telepathic; the music is at once loose and free yet meticulously arranged. Without a doubt, the highlight of this stellar set is “Blue Genes,” with Harris’ deft piano work at its center.
Art Pepper Presents “West Coast Sessions!” Volume 2: Pete Jolly (Omnivore Recordings)
The estate of alto and tenor saxophonist Art Pepper is responsible for bringing these long-unheard recordings back to light. Led by Pepper’s widow Laurie, and working with Omnivore, a series of the man’s sessions are receiving thoughtful reissue in the 21st century. These volumes are perhaps the most intriguing of what’s come out of the project so far: dates recorded in and around 1980, but featuring players from 1950s jazz. Happily, there’s absolutely nothing “80s” about these sessions other than their recording date. Because Pepper was under contract to Atlantic at the time, these recordings – originally issued on the small Atlas label – don’t feature him as official bandleader, but make no mistake: he’s in charge. The Stitt sessions are spread across two discs, and bring together recordings originally released on three separate albums, adding three previously unheard tracks. The Pete Jolly sessions are a single-disc set, and feature two alternate takes of Pepper’s original “Y.I. Blues.” Booklets include not only short essays from Laurie Pepper, but also diagrams depicting the studio instrument setup for the recordings. Both sets are essential for fans of 1950s jazz.
The Bill Evans Trio – On a Monday Evening (Concord Bicycle Music)
Bill Evans was one of the most distinctive pianists in all of music; his command of the keyboard was such that to the untrained listener, his sound seemed to be that of two different musicians. His left and right hand often seemed to operate completely separate from one another, yet they were always musically connected. The revered pianist was at his best in the context of a trio, and this 1976 recording captures him onstage with drummer Eliot Zigmund and longtime associate Eddie Gomez on upright bass. The monaural recording made at Madison, Wisconsin’s Union Theatre has never been bootlegged, so this vinyl (and CD, and digital) release marks its debut. Typical of an Evans set, the album is a mixture of originals and readings of contemporary tunes. The sound is superb, the performances are flawless, and the vinyl edition is pressed on 180g and comes in a sturdy gatefold sleeve.
Bill Kopp is the Blurt Jazz Desk editor. You can bug him directly at his most excellent music blog, Musoscribe.
Germany’s MPS label has just dropped a quintet of 180-gram vinyl reissues. According to MPS, “Edel:Kultur unties another bundle of re-releases from the catalogue of the iconic MPS label situated in Germany’s Black Forest. The newest package from the Reforest the Legend series embraces the decade of 1970-1980, and covers a wide diversity of styles. Once again sound engineers Christoph Stickel and Dirk Sommer have scrupulously remastered the original recordings. The resulting Edel:Kultur releases are high quality 180g Vinyl pressings enclosed in record jackets containing the original artwork.” Our Jazz Desk editor takes a closer look (and listen)… [Go HERE for previous installments of the Jazz Desk.]
BY BILL KOPP
Monty Alexander Trio – Montreux Alexander
Alexander’s seventh release for MPS, Montreux Alexander is a document of the pianist’s trio live at the Montreux, Switzerland Jazz Festival in June 1976. As the liner notes explain, neither Alexander nor his rhythm section – bassist John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton on drums – had any advance idea of what songs they would perform. The sharpness of the performances belies that; while there’s a palpable sense of spontaneity on the six well-known tunes in the trio’s set, it’s all impeccably played. A ten-minute reading of Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist Blues” is an effective melding of smoky, late-night club ambience and sophisticated polish. Every now and then, Alexander breaks out of the bluesy mold – often for a mere measure or two – and delivers his melodic lines in another style.
Perhaps Morris Albert’s “Feelings” was less of a cliché in the mid ’70s than it is today, but Alexander’s trio gives the song a suitably understated reading that makes it more effective than it would otherwise be. Still, it’s the weak point of the set, veering uncomfortably close to easy-listening lounge jazz. It’s redeemed slightly by Alexander’s silky-smooth delivery.
Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” enlivens things greatly. The tune jumps and swings, and the uptempo blues arrangement features some tasty three-way musical dialogue between the musicians, eliciting applause less than a minute into the tune.
Nat Adderley’s classic “Work Song” is oddly understated for its first 20 seconds or so; from there it blasts out of the gate. Playing more subtly than in the typical readings of the song, Alexander’s trio still has some fun with playful key changes. Clayton’s bass is showcased here.
Henry Glover’s 1956 composition “Drown in My Own Tears” had, by 1976, been recorded by many artists including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Alexander mines the tune’s gospel roots, calling to mind – but not aping – Charles’ reading of the chestnut.
The set closes with the American traditional “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” After Alexander plays a brief melodic figure, Hamilton takes the cue and dives in with some nice brush work of his own. After a minute or so of back-and-forth, the band kicks into a swinging rendition that brings the house down. Deftly-placed glissandi up the ante, and the crowd responds in kind. Nearly 30 seconds of applause wraps up the release, available on 180-gram vinyl in a beautiful, sturdy (albeit non-gatefold) sleeve.
Joe Henderson et. al. – Mirror, Mirror
Joe Henderson – tenor saxophone
Chick Corea – piano
Ron Carter – bass
Billy Higgins – drums
One of the most consistently thrilling qualities of jazz is the manner in which artists team up in different combinations, often just for a single session. Whether onstage or within the confines of the recording studio, the result of these musical summits is always open to chance and circumstance; therein lies much of its appeal.
And while 1980 was nobody’s idea of a high point in jazz, this set for MPS – recorded not in Germany’s Black Forest but in a Los Angeles studio – has all the thrill and musical interplay one could hope for from the four superb artists who took part.
There are no electronics to be found here: the piano and bass are acoustic instruments, and the live-in-the-studio vibe is very much apparent. Six numbers – three per vinyl side – are on offer: one by nominal bandleader Henderson (Joe’s Bolero”), two each from the pens of Corea and Carter, and one standard, “What’s New.”
Ron Carter’s “Candlelight” is primarily a showcase for Joe Henderson’s mellifluous sax work, though near the song’s end Corea takes a largely unaccompanied solo turn. The bassist’s “Keystone” features some appealing unison playing from Corea and Henderson. Higgins turns in some splashy yet controlled drumming.
As one might expect from reading the title, that drumming is at the center of “Joe’s Bolero.” But there’s much more in the way of melody here than in Ravel’s somewhat monotonous classical piece. Henderson’s sax here is unbridled – detractors might suggest “out of tune” – but the one-chord workout is fascinating in its own way.
“What’s New” is the shortest cut on Mirror, Mirror; it’s also among the most tradition-minded reading in the set. Placed between “Joe’s Bolero” and the final track, it’s an example of thoughtful sequencing. The record closes with “Blues for Liebestraum,” a lengthy workout in which all four players push the boundaries of the blues form, often all “soloing” at once. It’s a tasty closing to an album that may have escaped the notice of many jazz fans on its original release. The 2016 MPS reissue is 180g vinyl inside the label’s customary high-quality packaging.
Freddie Hubbard – The Hub of Hubbard
Don’t let the relatively generic cover art of The Hub of Hubbard dissuade you from checking out this 2016 reissue of an album originally released in Germany in 1970 (and in the US two years later). Cut in the Black Forest for the German MPS label, this four-tune set features trumpeter Hubbard blowing impressively while backed by pianist (Sir) Roland Hanna, Richard Davis on bass, and drummer extraordinaire Louis Hayes. (Eddie Daniels is on hand for tenor sax, too.)
The ensemble charges right out of the gate with Vincent Youmans’ “Without a Song,” an example of deceptive labeling if there ever was one. It’s a song and a half. Hubbard and Daniels trade licks throughout.
Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” is controlled cacophony, a fine example of jazz’s technique of using a song as little more than a mere canvas upon which to paint an original work. All five players are in fine form as they blast full speed ahead through the seven-plus minute performance.
“Blues for Duane” – a Hubbard original composition – is sexy and swaggering, yet still somehow subtle. Davis’ bass holds things together nicely, and the tune has an even more “live” feel than the record’s other cuts.
Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne’s “The Things We Did Last Summer” ends the album on a sultry, romantic note. A bit of (natural?) reverb on Hubbard’s horn lends just the right melancholy air to this understated piece. Hanna occasionally reaches inside his piano for some clever and effective strumming of the strings; that zither-like effect would be used to good effect at roughly the same time (1969) by Keith Emerson on ELP’s “Take a Pebble.”
The album’s original gatefold sleeve is reproduced here, with a liner note essay in both German and English. Oddly, the essay doesn’t match up with the record’s sequencing, but that shouldn’t take away from the listener’s enjoyment.
Note that since this is a straight reissue of the original LP, the bonus track found on CD releases (Hanna’s “Muses for Richard Davis”) is not included here.
Baden Powell – Images on Guitar
This 1973 album for MPS is listed on Wikipedia as a live recording; it’s “live” only in the sense that it was cut that way in the studio. Recorded October 1971 at MPS’ Black Forest studio, Images on Guitar features Brazilian guitarist Powell (born Baden Powell de Aquino) backed by Ernesto Gonsalves (bass), Joaquim Paes Henriques (drums) and Alfredo Bessa on atabaque and other percussion. Janine de Waleyne shares vocals with Powell.
Four of the tunes here are vocal-led, four are instrumental. One of the latter – “Sentimentos – Se Voce Pergunta, Nunca Vai Saber” is a Baden Powell solo. All tunes are very much in the acoustic Brazilian style made popular by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Powell and a select few others.
“Petit Waltz” is perhaps the disc’s most effective number: its first half features a finely-textured performance by Powell and Bessa; only after that has run its course does the rest of the band join in. Powell accents his precise and expressive chording with a bit of picking, but it’s mostly a showcase for the effective uses to which guitar chords can be applied.
The crystalline voice of Waleyne is equally evocative when warbling wordlessly (“Ate-Eu”) or singing in Portuguese (“Violao Vagabundo”). On the latter, she engages in some scat vocalizing; even if we don’t understand her language, the emotions come through loud and clear.
The most playful and upbeat tune on the set is “Blues a Volonté.” Its composers – Powell and Waleyne – smartly hybridize Brazilian musical forms with North American blues structure; the result is thrilling and invites repeat plays. It’s the clear highlight of Images on Guitar.
Powell’s solo “Sentimentos” slows things back down, presenting an intricate and pensive performance from the guitarist. “E de Lei” features a descending melodic line that gives Powell plenty of room in which to do some interesting things with his instrument; it’s also the least “Brazilian-sounding” tune in this collection.
Images on Guitar closes with the unimaginatively-named “Canto.” Thankfully the song is more creative than its title. With a Spanish feel, it’s mysterious and slightly foreboding tune with lots of space between the notes; those spaces – and Waleyne’s wordless vocals – only add to the mystery.
The 2016 reissue features a gatefold sleeve with black-and-white photos plus liner notes in German and English.
The Oscar Peterson Trio – Walking the Line
Recorded in MPS Records’ Villingen, Germany studio over four days in November 1969 (and released the next year), Walking the Line features pianist Oscar Peterson joined by bassist Jiri Mraz and drummer Ray Price.
Peterson is absolutely on fire from the very start, with a reading of Cole Porter’s “I Love You.” There’s a sense of subconscious connection among the three musicians as they charge through eight tunes, most taken from the pages of the Great American Songbook.
The pianist shows that – had he wanted to – he could have been a soul-jazz giant by showcasing the record’s sole original composition, “Rock of Ages.” Playing a mile-a-minute, Peterson never misses a beat on the ivories. It’s a five-and-a-half minute thrill ride that will leave the listener wanting more.
But the trio shifts gears for “Once Upon a Summertime,” wherein Mraz shares the spotlight with Peterson. The kinetic “Just Friends” is the briefest track on Walking the Line, but in terms of notes played, it’s among the fullest. Price’s drums propel the tune along at a high rate of speed.
The high energy performance continues on Side Two with “Teach Me Tonight,” a bluesy, swinging number. “The Windmills of Your Mind” is built upon a challenging percussion foundation courtesy of Price. Peterson and Mraz glide effortlessly across that tricky foundation, turning in engaging performances.
“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” finds Peterson simultaneously intricate and understated; his band mates even more so. The number would serve as a fine set closer. But instead that honor goes to a reading of Cole Porter’s “All of Me,” delivered in style.
The Oscar Peterson Trio recorded and released several albums in the very early 1970s; all are recommended. There have been many reissues of Walking the Line since its original release, but the 2016 gatefold-sleeved vinyl reissue from MPS will be hard to beat.
Bill Kopp is the Blurt Jazz Desk editor. You can bug him directly at his most excellent music blog, Musoscribe.
Presenting installment #4 of the Blurt Jazz Desk—go HERE to access the previous editions. For this installment, our Jazz Editor sat down with sax legend Sonny Rollins for a lengthy, career-spanning conversation.
BY BILL KOPP
Among jazz fans, Sonny Rollins needs no introduction. For everyone else, here’s a quick thumbnail bio. Born in New York City in 1930, Rollins began his career as a tenor jazz saxophonist in the 1940s. A contemporary of many jazz greats including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk—all of with whom he worked and recorded—Sonny Rollins is considered one of the most important instrumentalists in jazz. He has released more than 60 albums under his own name, and is a sideman/collaborator on countless classic jazz recordings. Though health problems currently preclude his playing, the now 85-year-old Rollins has embarked on a series of archival releases, a series of CDs under the Road Shows banner. For our BLURT Jazz Desk feature, Rollins discussed his career, philosophy, the music industry, and much more.
BLURT: Holding the Stage is the fourth in your series of Road Shows CDs. Have you been recording all of your shows for decades now? [Go HERE to see details of Holding the Stage, including a video trailer.]
SONNY ROLLINS: I have not. But I am amazed that other people have been recording many of my shows; I find out about them later. Other people have been surreptitious.
So are these Road Shows recordings ones that you made, or are they ones that you have collected from other people that made the recordings?
Some of them are [from] collectors; one who was credited on the album. And some I made myself.
One of the things that is remarkable to me listening to Holding the Stage is the way that it flows. It really does feel like an entire concert, a single concert, even though clearly it is not. Do you have plans to release more albums in this series?
(Laughs) Well, I don’t know. I really don’t know at this point. I had intended to record a studio album, but I had a few little health issues that prevented me from doing that. In order to fulfill a contract, I did another Road Shows [release]. But will I do any more in the future? I don’t know; I cannot answer that.
The medley that closes Holding the Stage represents the previously-unheard part of your 2001 Berkeley concert. Some of the reviews I read call the recording of that show among the finest work you have ever done. As I understand it, that set was informed by your firsthand experience of living in Manhattan when the Towers came down. Would you say that the emotional backdrop or context for your performances and recordings is important to the music that you make?
In that case it was. I mean, it definitely did. I had just experienced that, and everyone had experienced that. I was closer to it and had to be evacuated. But most of the guys were living in New York, so we all went through that whole deal. So that was definitely very important to that particular record.
But in general, you know, Charlie Parker used to say that when he played in a concert he was expressing what he lived through that day. And that’s sort of the way it really is. It’s all coming together through our music; everything that happens to us that day, and really everything that happens to us in our life is what we are playing. When you get to the level of being an improviser and a musician on that level, then you are really expressing your whole life. Everything that happens to you comes out through your music, and that’s what you are playing. The so-called good, the so-called bad, the love affairs, anything. Your whole life comes out through your music.
In that particular case, of course, that was a very horrific event, and I happened to be right there at the time it happened. So I was particularly shaken. But everyone was shaken: the audience was shaken, the band was shaken. It was some experience. So maybe that came out; I am sure that must have expressed itself somehow in the performance that we did.
The Holding the Stage press kit makes mention of the virtue of you having taken control of your musical output. Lack of control over one’s catalog is certainly a common theme among musicians in most every genre. The unfairness of that seems to have been visited disproportionately upon artists of color. Especially for music from the ’50s and ’60s, there are countless stories of artists recording their material and then having no control over what happens with it after that. How important has it been to you to be able to exercise control over your releases?
Well, it’s really something which is endemic in the society. It dates back to slavery, really. And in this music business, everyone is a slave: white and black are a slave to the industry. But of course black people are more prone to get taken advantage of. In my case – and in many cases – they tell you how many records you’ve sold, and you have to agree with them. Some people have been really ripped off in music.
One kid I used to be with, Joe Glaser, a very famous entrepreneur, used to be Louis Armstrong’s management. I was with his agency one time when I first left the Max Roach band, and I was working there with one of his agents. I had actually caught them ripping me off with a deal, and one of his agents was a very honest guy. He told me, “You know, Sonny, I have been in the boxing business and I have been in the music business, and the music business is worse than the boxing business.”
That’s pretty heavy stuff. I knew the music business was crooked, but I did not realize it was that crooked. So that’s the way it’s been: guys get ripped off. Even today – and, y’know, I am not Prince or Jay Z or somebody that sells these huge amounts of records – but even so, I realize. I have my company now, Doxy Records, but I still have to go to the big distributors to sell my records. So in a sense, I don’t really have control of my own product, because it still has to be distributed.
Now, in the future there may be ways to have more control of your own product with all of the new technology that’s coming up, streaming and all of this stuff. But somehow I doubt that I will ever have complete control of what I do. Somehow I think it’s just a dream. So I don’t dream that dream anymore. I just forget about the business part, and try and produce music. That’s a long answer.
To your knowledge, have pieces from your back catalog been sampled by hip hop artists? Do you get compensated for that?
I have had some songs being sampled but I don’t get any … I don’t know if it’s a large amount and if it produces any really recognizable stream of money. But some guys have.
Even when many of your contemporaries were going in a more, shall we say, abstract direction – and here I’m thinking of some of Miles Davis’ work, and Ornette Coleman – you made music that was somehow both ambitious and accessible. Is it by design or default that your music has such a strong melodic sense?
I think it’s by the way things worked out. As a kid I was much influenced by one of my favorite people, Fats Waller. I heard a lot of that music. I was born in Harlem, surrounded by a lot of melodic music. Louis Armstrong, all of those people, I consider them melodic music, yet they had the jazz tinge. I just consider myself that type of a player.
My early influences were people like Louis Jordan, the great rhythm and blues player. I used to get everything he made. And this was like, when I was 7 or 8 years old.
I think that you are correct. Some of my contemporaries might have a different style of playing. I might have thought [at one time] “Hey, I’m not really in the groove, but then these guys all like my playing.” Coltrane and Ornette Colman, all those guys whose playing could be considered more “outside,” they all were very big fans of mine.
I guess, even though my repertoire – in the large sense I’ll use that word – might be something which is melodic, it has the jazz element to it. The surprise that is emphasized in jazz, it has that to it. So that’s who I am. I love melodies. I used to go the movies a lot when I was a kid. Every week there was a new movie. It was way before television. So I heard a lot of the American Songbook. As a child I heard the Grand Old Opry. But I loved melodies, you know? I love Stevie Wonder when I hear some of his songs. So … guilty!
You mentioned Louis Jordan. When I talk to my friends who are mostly into rock music, I say, “you’ve got to listen to this guy,” because I think he is as important to the development of rock and R&B as all of the people who are normally associated with that: Fats Domino, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and people like that. I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, even though he wasn’t going for the same thing. I hear that in his music.
Louis Jordan was also a very popular guy. He did a lot of pop songs and he recorded with Bing Crosby, he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald. He was a very eclectic guy in the sense that he was rhythm and blues for sure, but he did a lot of pop music which was also very commercial. But still it was good stuff. [Below: Sonny Rollins Trio – “Weaver of Dreams” (1959)]
Recently, a good friend of mine gave me a gift. It’s a coffee table book called New York Hot – East Coast Jazz of the 1950s and ’60s. What it is, really, is a book full of notable album cover reproductions, just great album cover art. One thing that is so remarkable about the book is just how many of those records are Sonny Rollins titles. Back in the day, did you get involved in any way with things like album titles, album art and packaging, or was that completely the realm of others?
That was out of my hands, completely. Back in the day, we just came into the picture as artists and musicians. I can’t speak for everybody, but I think most of the guys just did the music, and then there were other departments which handed the designs of the covers and everything.
The only thing I was involved with was my Way Out West album. It was my idea to dress in the cowboy suit. But most of the other albums that I was involved with, it was the art department that did that work.
I would say that with the benefit of hindsight, in that regard anyway, I think you were perhaps better served than a lot of your contemporaries. Because some of those album covers are just wonderful. It’s wholly separate from the music, but they’re nice to look at, too.
I agree. I agree! That’s one thing we lost with the advent of CDs. We’ve lost the big album covers because the CD, even though it’s the same picture, is not as attractive. It does not look like art. These album covers are pieces of artwork.
And it has gotten even more so now, with things going to digital. There is no longer anything you even hold in your hand; it’s just files.
Yeah. But you know, it is funny you say that. You know, of course, that they are coming out with vinyl now. And I just got a few copies of Holding the Stage on vinyl. And so the albums look more like a work of art than the CD did. I guess now with the files and all that you don’t even get a picture. With this vinyl production, it really looks like the old days with nice artwork. [Below: Sonny Rollins & Don Cherry (1960s)]
Both of my kids, who are both in their 20s, have fairly extensive vinyl collections. A lot of times they will go to concerts, and there will be a merch table in the back of the room where you can buy a t-shirt or whatever, and they will buy vinyl of new recordings. Neither one of them owns a single CD; they only have vinyl. I don’t think records are ever going to be the primary physical format again, but I think vinyl is back in a way that we might not have …
… Predicted. It’s amazing.
Like much of your work, Holding the Stage features your original compositions along with readings of standards. When you’re composing music, do you come up with a melodic line for the head and then build a song around that, or do you use some other approach?
Well, that’s a tough question to answer. I think melodically, of course. And sometimes a melody will come to me, sometimes the whole concept will come to me. Sometimes I start with the melody and fill in the rest of it. Stuff comes at different times.
Sometimes I’ll get a whole melody. And that’s why I always carry around manuscript paper, because things come to me. And at night when I am sleeping, I always have manuscript paper right around. If I get a thought, an idea, I better put it down right away. Because if you don’t, it’s gone.
Music comes from … you are influenced by things you don’t remember. And it’s a matter of putting together things that you’ve heard. It’s very hard to say where music really comes from to you; how do you get music? I don’t know. It comes from what you have heard, of course, and some of it’s more invented. You hear things which are sort of more unusual than [by] other composers.
It comes to me in many different ways … just a phrase here which reminds me of something, maybe in this life, maybe in another life. In fact, I believe in reincarnation. It might be a thousand lives ago I might have heard a melody, and now here I am today writing it down. Who knows? I don’t know where music comes from, you know? But we’re all humans, so we are influenced by what we hear. And then we are putting it down as we remember it.
Only rarely have you played any other instrument besides tenor sax. Have you felt that there was enough to explore on tenor that there was no need to move beyond it, or is there some other reason?
The saxophone, my instrument, is, for me, a very difficult instrument. I think every instrument is difficult. I love the saxophone. As I said, my idol was Louis Jordan and then I gravitated to Coleman Hawkins, and then I gravitated to Lester Young. There were all these various styles that the saxophone could elicit. All these different ways of playing. I took piano [briefly] when I was a kid, and I could play a few chords on the piano.
But the saxophone was all that I could handle; it’s more than I can handle. I never felt a need to … I’m not that talented. There are some guys I know that can play many instruments. There’s a guy I know named Ira Sullivan, he’s a musician who was around … sorta my era. Ira plays great trumpet and great saxophone. That’s special. The great Benny Carter played trumpet and saxophone. Miles Davis used to play piano, enough that it could help him help his trumpet [playing]. Dizzy Gillespie was able to play enough piano to help his harmonic sense when he played the trumpet. So I can do a little bit, I can play some chords. But no, the saxophone is still my dream instrument; it’s still the thing that I am trying to conquer. And that’s that, I’m still in that. I’m still trying to get that right.
Throughout your career, in addition to enlisting a lot of fine and very, very notable side men, you’ve played and recorded with a lot of other legendary musicians. Is there anyone with whom you never got the chance to play that you wish you had?
I wish I played with Fats Waller. And I wish I had played with Louis Armstrong.
And I wished I had played with Count Basie. Now, Count Basie liked my playing; I know that. We played on the same bill, so that was good; it was nice to know that great Count Basie, but I never got a chance to play with him. Duke Ellington, of course: I would have loved to have been able to play with that great band, you know.
One of the great American composers …
Oh, boy! And the harmony and the harmonic adventures that he embarked on … I’m telling you, that was really great, great stuff. [Below: Sonny Rollins Quintet – “Don’t Stop the Carnival” (1976)]
One of the things that has always intrigued me about instrumental jazz, or any instrumental music for that matter, is how even without words it can be “about something.” Because you are so successful at conveying thoughts and moods musically, how do you set out to express ideas and emotions via your instrument?
Well, that’s another tough question. I’ve heard the words to the songs I have played. When I was about 3 years old my mother took me to hear “Pirates of Penzance.”
Gilbert and Sullivan …
Do you remember them?
But just historically.
Exactly right. I know you didn’t know them [laughs]. Anyway, so I heard that “Pirates of Penzance” at a performance in a park up in upper Harlem where we lived. So I always heard music and lyrics together. As I became a jazz musician, I guess that was always in my mind. I remember the great saxophonist Ben Webster used to always know the lyrics of what he played. And I think Lester Young also knew the lyrics of some of these beautiful ballads that they played. It would be in their head while they were playing.
I knew most of the lyrics of some of the popular songs that I played, those ballads. I knew most of the lyrics, not all of them like Ben Webster and Lester Young and others might have. But that was the way we went about it. [Below: Rollins w/Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Jones, Rufus Reid & Mickey Roker (1987)]
Many musicians remark upon the difference in atmosphere between a live show and a studio session. Perhaps more than any other style of music, I think jazz seems best represented by live recordings. Is that your sense as well?
Well, it’s hard to say that. Back in the day when I first started recording – and I have been recording now since the late ‘40s – in those days there were a lot of great records being made, and they didn’t depend upon a live atmosphere, so it’s hard to say that.
When the technology came in to overdub and do a lot of technological things, I began taking advantage of that. I used to do a lot of extra takes on one track, for instance. And then I realized, well, somebody said: “the first track is your best track, so don’t waste time doing a million tracks.” But technology allowed us to do that, and I took advantage of it.
But a lot of great records – all the great records I heard – were done in studio situations. Very few were done live. I mean, there were some, but that was not the norm. I got sort of seduced by that and I liked playing live because I thought the studio was a very stultifying place to create music. You would always be looking for the red light to go on: “okay, recording.” So that was sort of a drag to me.
I always felt that when I was playing, not only could I get a lot from the audience, but it freed my inhibitions. So I do feel that, in my case – and it’s probably a detriment of mine – I like playing live. I always feel better when I am playing live under the sky, and I can get closer to Mother Nature, if you will. I just feel more with it. I prefer that to the constrictions, in a way, of a studio.
That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned about overdubbing and multi tracking. If I recall, in the late ’60s and early ’70s Miles Davis and his producer Teo Macero would often build entire tracks out of a little bit from here, a little bit from there. They would piece it together afterwards so that it didn’t even really resemble what they had originally recorded. And that’s just a different approach, I guess.
Yeah, I would say it’s a different approach. Originally, no one did that, so in a way it can be thought of as artificial, and in a way it can be thought of as just another way of doing something. They both have merit. But you know, Miles had to play first before he and Teo Macero could go and put stuff together. What comes first is his ability to create something. [Below: Rollins – “Falling In Love With Love” (Tokyo 1997)]
Even the shortest biography of you makes note of the periods in which you seemingly took time off from performance so that you could hone your skills, or engage in personal development, or however one might want to phrase it. I suppose that jazz is no different from other genres in that when an artist stops releasing material or stops appearing in public for a time, they’re quickly forgotten. Obviously that never happened to you, but one supposes that it could have. At the time you took each of those sabbaticals, did it feel like a risky move?
No, it didn’t to me, because I always had a sense of myself. I was cautioned by some people “Sonny, don’t leave the scene; they’ll forget about you! It’s a highly competitive field of music and you know, if you leave the scene you are going to destroy the fan base you’ve built up.” But of course in my case it did not matter, because I wasn’t really interested in trying to maintain something that I wasn’t sure about.
I wanted to get myself together and then be able to work. It’s a good model for anybody. Really make sure that what you are doing is what you want to do. Don’t get caught up in what other people expect of you [or else] you’re lost when they don’t like you; you’re just out there all alone. So you have to know what you are doing. That was a good lesson in life, and I didn’t pay any attention to people who cautioned me not to get away, that I would be forgotten.
The things that you studied during those times – yoga, zen meditation and so forth – can you tell me a little bit about how those studies affected your approach to making music?
They affected my approach to the meaning of life and what life is. I have always had this certain, for lack of a better word, religious feeling about an afterlife or a god. That was when I was a kid, going to church. As I grew up, of course, then we have to face the real world and we realize that it is not so easy. That’s when I began getting interested in yoga, just as a way of getting inside of myself, having some control of my own thoughts against the world; the world will lead you in a lot of ways.
I studied Rosicrucianism and thought that was fascinating. And then I saw this movie Annie Hall with Woody Allen. He made fun of Rosicrucianism: “Anything that you can find on the back of a comic book…” That was funny. And that’s all good; it wasn’t really about Rosicrucianism. It was a search for something beside the norm. I learned a lot out of Rosicrucianism, as a matter of a fact.
And then I began studying yoga; that helped me to stop smoking cigarettes. All these things helped me to get through life. I began studying Buddhism. All of these things helped me to sort of center myself and get some kind of control over my own mind. I think it was in the ’50s when I first really got into those things. And I’ve done them all my life.
Now, when I say that I’m doing yoga, I’m not doing the kind of yoga where you are doing exercises or twisting your body. I did that, and that is called Hatha Yoga. I did study that, but the other kind of yoga has to do with the mind; that’s the kind of yoga that I am more into now at this advanced age that I am. I am more into the mental disciplines, the mind rather than the body, at this stage. [Below: Rollins – “Nishi” (Orange County 2009)]
So you still find benefit in it, even now?
Oh, definitely. It’s learning. There are great teachers through history. Jesus Christ, all of these great teachers. And life is learning. We are here to learn. We are not here to eat ice cream and drive the cars. That’s something you find out. What you have in this world are some people that feel, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” That’s one way of looking at life.
There are other people that feel like me, that there’s something else. That there is some other reason for living. Life has some other purpose than for a sense of enjoyment. I fall into that other category. I believe life is here to learn something, to try and understand why we are here, what it means. And therefore to have a way of living.
Who knows what is right? I am not proselytizing at all, but for me, I am very, very happy with my study of the ancient scriptures and these rules, I could say, for living. It’s learning … it’s a learning experience for me. I am very happy. And if other people think that it’s about having fun and enjoying the senses and that’s what life is about, and there is no afterlife and that … well, okay. That’s fine.
Above: Rollins in the Fifties (photo from Rollins’ official website, which also has a remarkable trove of live videos and filmed interviews with the musician). Bill Kopp is BLURT’s Jazz Desk editor. He knows more about music than the entire office staff, so feel free to post him a comment here, or visit him at his most excellent Musoscribe music magazine.
Presenting installment #3 of the Blurt Jazz Desk—go HERE to access the previous editions—and our Jazz Editor’s top picks of some new and recent titles from respected labels Mack Avenue, International Anthem Recording Co., Whaling City Sound, Onyx Productions, Ropeadope, Same Island Music, Okeh, Jazzelm Music, and Orleans Records. Guarantee: all sounds are final—and if you wanna debate that, you can find Dr. Kopp at his Musoscribe blog, natch.
BY BILL KOPP
Mack Avenue Records
Bromberg has recorded at least 12 albums prior to Full Circle. The disc opens with a rare archival recording made some 65 years ago; it features his drummer father with a trumpeter and trombonist. Bromberg has added his bass to the recording; it’s delightful. The rest of the disc is much more in a modern vibe; it swings and is full of energy and intensity. Even more impressive, these recordings feature overdubs – still not so common in jazz – so listeners get to hear Bromberg’s sizzling fretwork and his nimble, propulsive bass playing. Arturo Sandoval guests on “Havana Nights.” – Bill Kopp
Nick Mazzarella Trio
International Anthem Recording Co.
This disc of seven originals features the trio of Mazzarella on alto sax plus bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly. The instrumentals fall on various points along the spectrum between hard bop (“Neutron Star”) and the more abstract sounds of Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman (“Abacus and Astrolabe”). “Luminous Dials” might remind rock-oriented listeners of Frank Zappa’s jazz-leaning work. Things get wild and atonal on the title track, then the aptly-named “Outlier” reins things in (but just a bit). The rhythm section’s main role is to provide a canvas upon which Mazarella can apply his splashes of wild saxophone. – Bill Kopp
To Grover with Love: Live in Japan
Whaling City Sound
Miles is a New York-based keyboardist and bandleader who – among an impressive list of credits – was a trusted collaborator of late-period Miles Davis. This live set captures Jason Miles and his band paying tribute to Grover Washington. At their best – which is most of the disc’s run time – these tunes are funky and engaging. At their weakest – which is not often – the performances lean perilously close to “smooth jazz.” Andy Snitzer and Eric Darius take on the challenge of the sax parts, and Nick Moroch’s fiery guitar solo on “Lorans Dance” is a highlight. – Bill Kopp
This live set was recorded at New Haven CT’s Firehouse 12 in October 2015, and features Ralph Peterson on drums, pianist Zaccai Curtis, and Luques Curtis on bass. The recording has a very live and dynamic feel, capturing the intensity and excitement of this superb trio. As often as not, Z. Curtis’ piano is the centerpiece, but the other two players more than hold their own. A mix of original compositions and the occasional standard (Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”) makes for an engaging set of music. The exotic “Inner Urge” is the most thrilling number, but the entire album is worthwhile. – Bill Kopp
Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin
Bye Bye Blackbird
Some tasty soul jazz in the vein of Les McCann is the order of the day on this set. Those who enjoy Dr. Lonnie Smith and/or The New Mastersounds will dig this set of a half dozen instrumentals from a crack set of jazz players. Alto saxophonist David Sanborn guests on two tracks, but Demos Petropoulos’ expressive Hammond B3 is often the star. And while you could be forgiven for shuddering at the sight of yet another reading of “At Last,” Catalano shines on the track. The band cuts loose for the closer, sounding like they’re recording live for “Shakin’.” – Bill Kopp
Hymn for the Happy Man
Same Island Music
Pratt plays alto and tenor sax, backed by a piano/bass/drums ensemble; bassist Christian McBride is the most high-profile member of the group. The set is varied, featuring challenging numbers like “Gross Blues” and more straight-ahead offerings such as the piano-centric “New Day.” The album’s longest piece, “River” is also its most atmospheric and contemplative. It’s also perhaps the best track. “Speak Low” is occasionally reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s deft combinations of classical and jazz. While the more intense numbers are fascinating, this aggregation seems at its best when the players go for subtlety, as they do on the title track. – Bill Kopp
If you’re the kind of listener who was disappointed when the fusion movement petered out and dissolved into soft jazz, then you owe it to yourself to check out this disc. The spoken word intro might conjure memories of Nat Adderley’s early 1970s Soul Zodiac, and there’s a vaguely Bitches Brew-flavored aesthetic at work throughout. But the whole affair sounds decidedly modern and forward-looking. Escape Velocity is informed by many genres: jazz, of course, but rock, reggae and hip hop too; Croker has a strong sense of melody that keeps things rooted in accessibility while still creating an ambitious work. – Bill Kopp
Mack Avenue Records
Wolf’s buttery vibes and marimba work are guaranteed ear candy, and here he’s aided and abetted by a group that includes bassist Christian McBride and (on two tracks) guitarist John Scofield. The eleven tracks are very melody-forward; while there’s no great exploration happening here, Convergence is perhaps more consistently enjoying than any recently-released jazz album I’ve had the occasion to hear. The album is assured and thrilling in its low-key sort of way, and while it rewards close, intent listening, it makes tasty background music too. The grooves are often deeper and more soulful than they initially appear to be. – Bill Kopp
Australian jazz pianist Baker relocated to New York City in 2010, to swim with “the big fishes,” as the liner notes say. This set is greatly influenced by Baker’s love of Herbie Hancock, but the tunes themselves are primarily from the Great American Songbook. Joel Frahm’s sax often takes the spotlight, but Baker’s assured and nimble piano playing is always present. Two very different readings of “Theme from The Apartment” are among the highlights, and Baker sings a romantic version of Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” “The End of a Love Affair” is the disc’s most effective track overall. – Bill Kopp
What I’m Talkin’ About
This disc is difficult to classify: sometimes it’s gritty, greasy soul jazz, featuring guitarist/vocalist Ditta backed by a funk band, highlighted by some sexy flute that recalls Herbie Mann. Other times it feels like New Orleans jazz/blues. The production aesthetic is decidedly odd, with certain elements (often Ditta’s voice and/or guitar) far too out-front in the mix; it’s almost as if they skipped the mastering step in production. That makes What I’m Talkin’ About an unnecessarily difficult listen. It’s varied and intriguing throughout, but requires much of the listener. Be warned that this album often sounds quite like a bootleg. – Bill Kopp
THE BLURT JAZZ DESK IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS! Announcing our newest department, which we hope will intrigue, enthuse, energize and – if we do our job correctly – even aggravate, thereby prompting a back-and-forth dialogue. Please say hello to veteran Asheville-based music journalist BILL KOPP, the editor of the Jazz Desk.
Up first from Dr. Kopp: “Jazz Nazis, Fuck Off: Herbie Mann”, in which he offers the late jazz flautist a reappraisal through the lens of a crucial new archival release, Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters, and interviews with compiler Pat Thomas and Mann biographer Cary Ginell. “Herbie’s efforts helped call attention to jazz among young listeners,” summarizes Ginell. “He always had his ear to the ground to see about the new styles of music that were coming into vogue and what young people were listening to.”
Installment #2: Latest Archival Releases (via the Resonance & Elemental labels). Examined: Sarah Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, João Gilberto & Getz, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Art Pepper.
Installment #3: New Releases, via respected labels Mack Avenue, International Anthem Recording Co., Whaling City Sound, Onyx Productions, Ropeadope, Same Island Music, Okeh, Jazzelm Music, and Orleans Records.