The jazz internet recently touched gloves over a question posed by Roanna Forman: "Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?"
Judging by my post on favorite jazz books, I don't think so. More specifically, "The Gathering of Stones" by Gerald Early and "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go" by Whitney Balliett were cherry-picked for my (still imaginary) Jazz and Race Reader. Neither Early or Balliett could play. (UPDATE: Whoops, I forgot that Balliett played a little drums, which is why he profiled people like Sidney Catlett, of course. According to this interview with Lee Lorenz by Richard Gehr, "...We used to have jam sessions in my Manhattan loft all the time...there were a lot of New Yorker guys who weren’t professional level but liked jazz. [Cartoonist] Warren Miller played trumpet, [jazz critic] Whitney Balliett played drums, and [staff writer] Paul Brodeur played clarinet." Thanks to Gehr for sending this great interview along.)
Without concrete examples, answers can be pretty bland. Unfortunately, the naming of names was almost completely missing from last month’s discussion. While some of the responses to Forman were good, many were political and forgettable: “Supply your two cents on a hot topic in order to be mentioned today -- and let’s all link to something equally transient tomorrow.”
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Undoubtedly, some consider me an avatar of transient internet blather. Apologies. My current crankiness is informed by the sobering Ken Gray article about Gay Talese, “The Sad Triumph of the Tweet,” attached to Talese’s famous essay, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
It has always been difficult to discuss the nuts and bolts of sublimity. Those that can should be critics, regardless of how well they seem to be qualified otherwise. As I’ve noted here before, George Lewis has called Whitney Balliett’s 1977 New Yorker article, “One of the most meticulous and richly contextualized accounts of AACM musical performances to appear in any American publication." I agree with Lewis, it’s a great piece. Perhaps it is even a tour de force, because Balliett had little sympathy for the avant-garde.
Speaking of the avant-garde, two of the best current advocates are Jeff Golick and Jeff Jackson, proprietors of Destination: Out!
What I do on DTM can be pretty good on the analytical side, but I also regret the frequent implied warning sticker, “No Trespassing Except for Fellow Players.” There are no warning signs at D: O! because Golick and Jackson are not musicians. They are deep fans and deep listeners, now even selling rare FMP albums and hosting a NYC performance series.
DTM and D: O! started around the same time at the beginning of the jazz internet. I’d hate to enter the ring to determine who has been better for the future of creative music.
Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell by Francis Paudras. As an unreliable Boswell sworn to both protect and interfere with their hero’s posthumous reputation, Paudras ranks somewhere between Charles Kinbote and Robert Craft. There is no way the reader can take anything at face value. I hope some of these tales are true and hope that some of them aren’t.
Paudras could play piano a little bit and recorded himself thwacking brushes along with solo Powell at his Parisian apartment. Unfortunately, Paudras has terrible rhythm. (Try “Shaw Nuff” on Eternity.) Unfazed, Bud places his nonchalant yet propulsive beat against Paudras’s amateurism in a professional and non-combative way. More then anything I’ve read, these recordings show how much Bud appreciated Paudras’s friendship.
The Glass Enclosure: The Life of Bud Powell by Alan Groves and Alyn Shipton. Among other gaffes, Groves and Shipton roughly dismiss all of post-1953 Powell. At one point they even write that a tape, “Should have been destroyed and never considered for commercial release.” Destroy a Bud Powell recording? Who do they think they are?
Shipton plays bass, so presumably his partner perpetrated the following paragraphs on page 54:
In Shearing’s “Conception,” Powell experiments with tempo in a manner only possible with a drummer as firm and on form as Haynes. In the first and last statements of the theme, Powell takes the “channel” (the middle eight bars of the piece) and plays it almost out of time. Compared with his usual headlong rush, it is a very interesting effect, and creates a sensation of space normally only achievable by a pianist playing entirely solo.
Most noticeable of all is the concentration of intellectual energy into Powell’s playing. Even when Mingus (normally a most interesting and compelling soloist) is soloing, the listener is drawn to the fill-ins and accompaniments played by Powell. Very few jazzmen had the ability to draw attention from the other soloists by the quality of the accompaniments, but here Bud does it repeatedly, just as Louis Armstrong was so often to do behind Velma Middleton or Jewel Brown.
I’m reminded of Hammett’s Continental Op waiting for a contact in Tijuana:
I was reading a sign high on the wall behind the bar:
ONLY GENUINE PRE-WAR AMERICAN AND BRITISH WHISKEYS SERVED HERE
I was trying to count how many lies could be found in those nine words, and had reached four, with promise of more.
There are not “tempo experiments” or bridges “out of time” in that “Conception,” there’s a bit of 3/4 written into the tune by Shearing. (It’s an incredibly swinging track. Powell’s first improvised phrase sounds like a drum choir, and Roy Haynes pushes right back.)
As for Powell’s comping behind bass solos, he was usually too busy for my taste. Frankly, I think he was bored during bass solos. At any rate, the sound of the music during Mingus’s choruses has nothing to do with Powell’s “concentration of intellectual energy.” What pianist couldn’t cover up an un-amplified bass solo if they wanted to? It wouldn’t matter if it was a heavyweight like Mingus! (As a bassist, Shipton must know this.) And the non-sequitur to Armstrong behind singers tells us nothing except that these critics love the sound of their own writing. “Don't tell everything you know,” is one of Terry Teachout's critical commandments -- and good advice I keep on trying to follow better myself.
Bouncing with Bud: All the Recordings of Bud Powell by Carl Smith. Not all of Smith’s assessments are correct but this honorable undertaking is still a valuable read. At least he appreciates post-1953 Powell. The music is cataloged by issue instead of by session date, a frustrating approach that Smith probably wants to redo in light so many newer issues and the internet. Not a musician or even really a critic, Smith is a former lawyer whose trove of live Sonny Rollins is the source of Road Shows Vol. 1.
Road Shows Vol. 2 has the famous moment when Ornette Coleman sat in last year at the Beacon Theatre. The stream at NPR First Listen will expire but the album comes out September 13.
In “This is Our Mystic” I contend that Percy Heath and Red Mitchell, while two of the greatest jazz bassists, didn’t know how to provide the correct accompaniment for Ornette the way Charlie Haden could.
Both blues [on Tomorrow is the Question] are good examples of the Ornette/band conflict. Don Cherry plays the forms on them beautifully, hurrying back to hold our hand if we think he is lost. But Ornette is done with handholding. Ornette's solos have wonderful blues phrases and those magical leaps away into new keys, but the rigorous bassists don’t support his digressions. The feeling gets diffuse and directionless. Ornette’s solo on “Tears Inside” ends awkwardly, and on “Turnaround” there’s a terrible edit as the head comes back in.
If Charlie Haden had been on this date, he would have solved these formal issues. There is no studio recording of "Turnaround" with Ornette and Charlie together, but it was part of the repertoire on the Song X tour (Pat Metheny, Ornette, Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Denardo Coleman). Bootlegs are revealing: Metheny plays the 12-bar form on “Turnaround” accurately, just like with the same rhythm section on 80-81. When Ornette solos, Haden and Ornette leave the form to soar in great whoops of blues. It's incredibly swinging -- not just the beat, but the overall feel: It's not just blues, it's all of humanity blues.
Ornette’s performance on “Sonnymoon for Two” with Rollins shows that he still can shock and disorient conventional jazz. His peerless melodies sing out despite the fact that Christian McBride doesn’t let go of the B-flat blues once. When McBride pedals for a moment during Ornette’s first solo it is quite a relief. But McBride is still in the tonality and resolves the 12-bars accurately. In my opinion, too accurately! It’s sort of like he is asking Ornette, “Do jazz musicians need to know how to play jazz?”
As everyone knows, McBride is a great bassist. (To be fair, beginning with a clear form behind one old master and abandoning it behind another -- in the same song, without rehearsal, alongside yet another old master on drums! -- requires a leap of faith that few in McBride’s immediate circle of peers could do.) But I heard tell about how straight-ahead cats stood around afterwards backstage at the Beacon and dissed Ornette like it was 1959 again, and there will be more misunderstandings from square johns now that the performance is readily available. Let me set the record straight: Ornette is exactly himself here. Only one man gives us this music. If it sounds like this, who cares if it’s jazz?
Sonny is obviously fascinated by Ornette’s first solo because he answers with one in that style himself. Therefore he has also stopped following McBride’s form, so when he plays the head briefly, the beat is turned around, just like Ornette with an early rhythm section. I love it! (It’s also a reminder that Sonny was first fascinated by Ornette a long time ago: for me, some of the 60s-era Sonny with freer melodic phrasing is some of his greatest work.) After Sonny encourages Ornette to play another solo Sonny takes another Ornette-ish one. During all this untethered activity McBride finally loosens up with fabulous double stops and rhythmic variation. He’s still keeping the form, though, so when Sonny brings in the final head, the beat is turned around. I love it.