Thursday, March 16, 2006


Jazz geek-out

Before 2005 becomes too much of a distant memory, I have been wanting to mention what a bumper year it was for jazz fans. As numerous columnists noted, the three best releases of the year were all classic albums recorded decades ago, only to be lost in various vaults until 2005.

The critics' consensus favorite for the year was a 1957 recording at Carnegie Hall by a legendary quartet led by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Before this release, jazz fans and musicologists had only a handful of tracks to document this collaboration, even though the band was universally seen as a turning point in the careers of both Monk and Coltrane. If you don't believe in serendipity, try this one on for size: the Monk-Coltrane record was unearthed when an archivist at the Library of Congress just happened to find it sitting in a nondescript box deep in bowels of the Library. It was a little bit more serendipitous when a couple of Bedouin shepherds threw a rock into a random cave and discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, but only a little. To diehard historians of jazz, finding this recording has been like finding a Q text for the Gospel of John.

The two other jazz discoveries from 2005 don't justify quite as much hyperbole, but they were archaeological gems in their own right. Here was Fred Kaplan's summary over at Slate:
It's a mere, if wondrous, coincidence that those three recordings of yore were all discovered this year. And they are discoveries; nobody had even known they existed. Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker, New York, Town Hall, June 22, 1945 (Uptown Jazz), recorded shortly after the two fathers of be-bop formed their quintet with Max Roach on drums, is as electrifying as anything they would set down ever again. Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note), made in November 1957 shortly before that group broke up, finds Monk playing his most archly elegant piano and Coltrane his most relaxed yet searching tenor sax. John Coltrane's One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse!), recorded in the spring of 1965, in a Manhattan club that Trane used as a sort of workshop, captures his great quartet streaking on the knife-edge between structure and freedom.
All three of these albums have gotten a lot of play chez McDaniel during the Great Blog Silence. Aside from The Historic Significance of all three, all of them go far towards proving the dictum that the best jazz albums are live jazz albums, a point that Fred Kaplan made at length in another column.

Kaplan's column had to do mainly with the musical value of live albums, but one of the things that makes a live jazz album great for me is the audience. I love the ambient noise of a jazz club or concert hall. To me, the tinkling of glasses heard on Sunday at the Village Vanguard is as important to the album as Scott LeFaro or Paul Motian, just as this other Vanguard classic simply would not be the same without Sonny Rollins' witty exchange with the audience about whether "Old Devil Moon" was from the score of Finian's Rainbow or Kiss Me, Kate.

It occurs to me that my jazz geekiness and my history geekiness are related here: I get jazzed by the radical uniqueness of historical moments. And nothing underlines the irreproducible quality of a musical performance more than the interjection of an audience: even if a band could get together again and copy its own improvisation, note for note, it could never get back the ca-ching of the cash register that often interrupts the Miles Davis Quintet at the Plugged Nickel, or the patron who was indignantly shushing a fellow patron during Wayne Shorter's solo on "Yesterdays." So here's a shout out to the shouting, hooting, and hollering on the The In Crowd. I applaud you, anonymous person on The Out of Towners who accidentally clapped during a particularly quiet solo by Jack DeJohnette: you deserved to be listed in the credits. To the audiences on Without a Song and Live at the House of Tribes: without you, they wouldn't have been the "Best Albums of 2005 Actually Recorded in This Millennium."

Now, I don't want to make it sound like mere antiquarianism is the reason why live albums are so important to jazz fans. Another reason has to do with the fact that jazz fans of my generation have usually exposed themselves to the great artists of the past haphazardly and episodically. We weren't there to hear the successive transformations of the music as they actually happened. Geoff Dyer makes this point brilliantly in the critical essay that concludes But Beautiful, his entrancing book on jazz:
Jorge Luis Borges has pointed out that Ulysses now seems to come--because we encounter it first--before The Odyssey, and in exactly the same way Miles comes before Armstrong, Coltrane before Hawkins. Typically, the person coming to jazz plunges in somewhere (Kind of Blue is a frequent starting point but for many it will, increasingly, be John Zorn or Courtney Pine) and then goes both forward and back. This is a shame since jazz is best appreciated chronologically (Parker seems less startling when we come to him via the screams of Pharoah Sanders). More generally, even if we have never actually heard their records, we hear Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell in almost every piece of jazz we come across. When we do get around to listening to Bud Powell it is difficult to see what is so special about him: he sounds like any other pianist (though really what we mean is that every other pianist sounds like Bud Powell).
The listening itinerary that Dyer describes matches my own experience. I think my first jazz album was either Kind of Blue or Crescent, two very different places to jump into the river. But for a young listener like me, one of the things a live album can do is help to recuperate a sense of what was "startling" in someone like Parker or Coltrane. Here again, the audience adds to the value of the piece. On the best kinds of live album, you can hear the listeners reacting to the newness of the music. On the Town Hall recording of Dizzy and Parker released last year, you can sense the audience's enthusiasm for what was then a very new band gradually rising over the course of the concert. When the crowd gives a polite welcome to a young Max Roach on drums, but roars for the already familiar favorite Sidney Catlett, you immediately grasp how new this band was and how relatively obscure its now legendary members were. Likewise, when Coltrane unleashes a sprawling fifteen minute solo to kick off One Up, One Down, you can hear the palpable incredulity in the announcer's voice when he returns to give the next number.

Well, if after reading all of that, you still actually want to read some more about jazz, you are a reader after my own heart. Here's some other good stuff I've noted recently: The New York Times had a great interview with drummer Roy Haynes, who, by the way, recorded one of my favorite live trio albums in 2000. (Hat tip: Tim Niland.) Also in the Times, Ben Ratliff wrote a provocative column about the induction of Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And don't miss the response to the column by the members of The Bad Plus.

And yes, for those of you who are wondering, writing this post was a therapeutic way to keep the nerves down for tomorrow's Big Defense.

Collective Improvisation:
Thanks for this! I LOVE the Monk-Coltrane release. I was so pleasantly surprised at how good it is (incl sound quality) after buying it sight unseen (or, is it "sound unheard").

In between working on my own dissertation I have been researching my maternal grandfather (Anderson Lacy), who played jazz violin. For a sneak preview, you can hear him play and sing here: (Scroll down: "I Found a New Baby")It's not Miles or Monk, but it's fun cuz it's my grandpa!

Hey, by this time you should have passed your defense. Maybe I should have addressed this to *Dr.* Caleb! Congrats in advance.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/17/2006 11:13:00 AM : Permalink  

Even though on a daily basis I'd rather listen to Coltrane or Monk, I've enjoyed the Dizzy/Bird discovery more than the JC/TM. Hearing DG/CP live around the time they recorded some of their most famous records gave me that "startling" sense more so than the JC/TM record. The length of the tracks, the clarity (sounding better than some of the studio sessions). I just found more of that live energy, which might have something to do with the incredible tempos. But also the story in the liner notes of CP arriving late to the gig, etc. Definitely holy grail.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/17/2006 04:21:00 PM : Permalink  

Yvette: Thanks for the recommendation about your grandfather. The track you mentioned is great, and with "Sweets" Edison on trumpet too. Wow! I'll look forward to listening to the others.

Wayne: I agree, the Coltrane and Monk recording doesn't have the same "live energy" as the other two. I guess it's to be expected that a Carnegie Hall audience would be more staid. I also agree with you about the sound quality of the DG/CP album: except for a few moments at the beginning, amazing.

One thing I do find interesting about the JC/TM album is the way you get glimpses of Coltrane in transition from his Prestige ballad days to his more famous "sheets of sound" days. The first track on the album sounds more like the typical work he'd done before this date, but by the end of the album you have definitely heard the new sound starting to poke out.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 3/17/2006 06:10:00 PM : Permalink  

This post was very awesome. I'd love to see more like it.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/03/2006 10:14:00 PM : Permalink  

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