Saturday, August 29, 2020

CD Review: Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers - Just Coolin'

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
Just Coolin' 
(Blue Note)

In some ways, it's hard to believe that a prime Art Blakey session has been sitting in the Blue Note vaults for 60 years. It would have been a perfect candidate to surface either during the '70s series of lost sessions or the wave of CD reissues that unearthed myriad Blue Note lost tracks. Maybe the abundance of Jazz Messengers recordings already available put it on the backburner indefinitely. Whatever the reason, it represents an A-list version of the Messengers which all but the biggest Blue Note fanatics might not realize only lasted a few months.

Lee Morgan (trumpet) and Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone) both made their mark with the Jazz Messengers, but they each did it at separate times. Mobley was a member of the initial version of the group from 1954 to 1956, which included pianist Horace Silver. He went on to release several albums under his own name for the label, frequently using Blakey as his drummer and often including Morgan as his frontline foil. 

Morgan was one year into his three-year tenure in the Messengers at the time of this recording. Benny Golson had just left the group, a spot that would be filled before long by Wayne Shorter, whose writing would advance the group's hard bop approach even further. In the meantime, Mobley was brought back into the band in early 1959, which at that time included pianist Bobby Timmons - another important composer to the Messengers - and bassist Jymie Merritt.

The story goes that the six tracks on Just Coolin' were abandoned because the quintet recorded four of them live at Birdland a month after this studio session and the live set was considered superior to these. Maybe so, but the music recorded on March 8, 1959 by Rudy Van Gelder is nothing to sneeze at. This was clearly a band that got down to business quickly. When Mobley quotes the melody of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," the title was not yet a cliche could be construed as much as a personal statement as a clever musical quip. Because these guys swing plenty hard.

It's interesting to note that the week before this session took place, Miles Davis' sextet recorded the first session for what would become Kind of Blue. While that group was looking towards newer foundations for improvisation, this lineup of the Jazz Messengers could still find plenty of potential in driving jazz that relied heavily on blues changes delivered over a heavy beat with some gospel roots. 

Considering the brevity of this Jazz Messengers lineup, this album could be considered a meeting of the minds of some of the best hard bop players at that time. It's tempting to express how underrated players like Mobley and Timmons are. The former is probably better known for compositing "Moanin'," for the Messengers than for his skill at creating dynamics with fast right-handed chords in the middle of a chorus, and just as quickly switching to light single note lines, which can be heard in "Jimerick." 

Mobley, whose myriad albums for Blue Note (many of which have variations on his name as the title) get mentioned only after his brief tenure with another famous trumpet player, was an extremely creative improviser who knew how to spin a long idea-filled line. As a composer, he was top shelf too, as "Hipsippy Blues" indicates here. It doesn't hurt that he tosses in another sharp paraphrase ("Why Don't You Do Right") during his solo in that song.  

Morgan, not quite as underappreciated as the other two thanks in part to "The Sidewinder" a few years later, is naturally on fire here with his bright, ripping tone. Never one to rely on flash, he begins his testimony on "Hipsippy Blues" sounding puckish and thoughtful. "Close Your Eyes" which would become a standard in the Messengers repertoire, also shows him to good degree as well as Merritt, whose his rich tone also gets some room on the title track. 

Maybe the group outdid this session when they hit Birdland stage a few weeks later and got it all on tape. But after all that time, Just Coolin', which includes a previously unheard Timmons track "Quick Trick" should be heard if nothing else for an additional document of what this A-list group could accomplish. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

My ESP-Disk' Article Is Online Now

I've been writing for JazzTimes for almost 19 years and, outside of the Marshall Allen/Sun Ra Arkestra that marked my debut for the magazine, the article of which I'm proudest is on the site right now (there are no print copies being made at the moment). That would be a story about the ESP-Disk' label, its history and its current status as a living, breathing label that is still releasing music. You can find it right here. 

The article was a long time in the making. And I'm not just saying that because I interviewed ESP label manager Steve Holtje back in January (with a follow-up chat in May). When I was in high school, a used record store near to my house often stocked ESP reissues on the Base label. As a budding Albert Ayler fan, I snatched up New York Eye and Ear Control (the somewhat shambolic group improvisation album that featured his quartet, plus a few more guys) and Spirits Rejoice. Then there were the Fugs. Then there were other albums that I'd ponder and think I'd need to hear someday (Burton Greene, who reminded me of James Chance on the cover of the former's debut album). I've blogged at length on the label and various releases. In fact, my uncut talk with founder Bernard Stollman appears here too. 

Along with the story, there is a sidebar mentioning five choice albums in the ESP discography that don't always get mentioned but should be explored, four from the '60s and one from just a few years ago. Click here to read it.  You have to click through all the dots to see all five, plus pass a few ads, but the magazine could use the revenue so an extra click won't kill you. 

While you're there, also check out an article I wrote about Tropos, a group of younger musicians who just released a debut album, half of which consists of Anthony Braxton compositions. The issue also has a cover story on Pittsburgh's native son Errol Garner and a piece by bassist Melvin Gibbs on the changing nature of protests in jazz. All can be found on the main page.  

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Creem Magazine and Why I'm Here

The documentary Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine was made available for streaming online on Friday evening, August 7. When I heard about it, I made a point to block out some time that evening (I wasn't working the closing shift!) to watch it, even if it meant only viewing it on a laptop screen. 

Many things have come together throughout my life to send me on the path (dubious or otherwise) where I am now. When it comes to being a music writer, Creem planted that seed. I started reading it regularly in 1980, after occasionally skimming it at the newsstand, wondering what was up with all those ridiculous captions beneath the photos. (The only one I can recall from that time is a picture of the Knack's Doug Feiger looking pained as he sang into the mic. The caption? "I gotta pee!!" It was juvenile even to my 12-year old mind but still kind of funny but.....what was going on here? And the claim that they were America's ONLY rock 'n' roll magazine - how can they say that? What about Circus and Rolling Stone? I had a lot learn.

The first issue I bought had the Pretenders were on the cover. I'm pretty sure there was also an article about Public Image Ltd., in the same issue, which shocked me because of all the f-bombs in it. Sure, I had seen such language in Circus Magazine but still. Now that I think about it, one of the photo captions in the Pretenders article still resides in the memory banks - a photo of Chrissie Hynde onstage, playing guitar had the caption, "The E chord that rocked the nation?" They weren't all laugh riots.

As I continued buying Creem it soon became clear that reverence and irreverence could sit side by side in music journalism. Some album reviews indicated that the performers were really onto something, tapping into elements that elevated rock music to a higher, literate level, like a review of Sparks' A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing that I discovered nearly two decades after the fact in a borrowed '70s issue. If a band was full of crap, reviewers weren't afraid to let the band have it either. That summer of 1980 Pretenders issue had a review of a Journey album that, if my timing is right, was probably Departure. The reviewer tore it apart, saying something about the only thing written on his notepad consisted of the word "Sucko" scribbled on every page. 

Let's back up a second. That issue came out 40 years ago. I haven't looked at it in over 30 years. (It's still at my mom's house, I believe.) But it's still relatively fresh and preserved in my brain. Maybe that says something about my brain's m.o. but it says even more about Creem. They wrote the manual on modern journalism, although if you asked anyone at the time (except perhaps Dave Marsh), they probably wouldn't lay claim to such a feat. You might get insight into Rick Wakeman's head in Circus or an in-depth analysis of John Lennon in Rolling Stone but Creem wrote in a way that you could relate to personally. Further - in examining my long sentences in this piece, I think Creem proved that run-ons aren't a bad thing. 

A few other things about the record reviews. That section proved that a review didn't have to be a straight up and down description and analysis of a record. It could be done in metaphor or parable. Or it could be done in a cartoon, as Robot A. Hull did in several issues. When Black Flag came out with Damaged in 1982, it was the lead review in that issue. The reviewer might not have gotten it (that I can't recall for sure) but the space and the photo of the band was remarkable. They also gave a good space to Joy Division's Still in tandem with New Order's Movement. The visual description of the JD album helped me get a grasp on this music that I was hearing for the first time with no reference points. Whoever wrote it said that one might think that a Joy Division concert would be the band surrounded by a bunch of hooded monks, seated and crying. (Remember, on these shores in 1982 there were few photos and no album info about the band). But what a surprise it was to hear people cheering and whooping for them, and to hear Ian Curtis laugh and quip, "You ought to hear our version of 'Louie Louie," after they slaughtered "Sister Ray." Finally, the reviews in Creem motivated me to buy the Smiths' debut album and the Dream Syndicate's The Days of Wine and Roses.

By the time I jumped onto the Creem bandwagon, the early heyday was winding down, from what I gathered from the documentary Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine. Within a year, founder Barry Kramer would be dead. I missed out on Lester Bangs' prime writing, catching up on it years later with the infamous collection of articles Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. By 1982 he had left us too. 

Watching the documentary, it seems amazing that these people were able to get anything done on a regular basis. They would spar over everything little thing, it seems. And truth be told, many of them seemed like assholes. Creative ones, but assholes nonetheless. It's sort of interesting to wonder where ego stopped and work ethic took over. But it did. One of the most poignant moments comes when Dave Marsh reflects on Bangs' death, which he's still angry about today. He says that Bangs was writing constantly, often only for himself, and the reason Marsh is still pissed that Bangs had so much more to put out there. 

One of the more refreshing things about the documentary is that it doesn't just focus on the dudes of the magazine, like Kramer, Marsh and Bangs, though they're the ones who are most often remembered. Writer Jann Uhelszki and Kramer's widow Connie do a lot of the story telling. They reflect on how what might have been simply "irreverent" back then can be seen as "politically incorrect" or just plain tasteless by 21st century standards. They don't dismiss it as "those were different times" but they make it clear that it was different mindframe then. Confession: I did hang several of the pin-up style "Creem Dreem" photos in my room as a young teen, but more than just thinking they were hot, I thought Rachel Sweet, Tina Turner, Wendy O. Williams and Poison Ivy Rohrschach were also cool musicians who someday (especially in the case of Rachel), I thought I might meet. 

The years that I read Creem religiously are pretty much glossed over in the documentary. No mention is made of writer J. Kordosh or Eduoard "The Dauph" Dauphin (who a quick Google search just revealed was the pen name of Edward Kelleher), the latter who wrote a column called Eleganza and did a really good job of starting in one place, going off on a major tangent only to reinforce the idea he first proposed - something that I later noticed in the work of Magnet columnist Phil Sheridan. I suppose you can't get everything in there. Luckily there's no mention of the late '80s sub-magazine Creem Rock Shots which put image over substance in a move that smacked of desperation (and also included several photos printed in reverse). 

The point is driven home in the documentary that Creem writers had the attitude that they were just as much a star as anyone they wrote about, which might have been presumptuous but has a great level of truth to it. That attitude also fueled fanzines in the wake of punk rock, fanzine being a "magazine made by fans." As if to reinforce this blurring of stars and writers, I discovered while fact-checking this blog entry that I actually have one degree of separation from the documentary itself. Director Scott Crawford launched Blurt the (now online) music magazine that followed his magazine Harp. I contributed to both of them, dealing more with Fred Mills than Crawford, but still I think we might have exchanged an email or two. 

The inspiration continues.

Don't miss the documentary.

Monday, August 10, 2020

CD Review: Thumbscrew - The Anthony Braxton Project & Michael Formanek Quartet - Pre-Apocalyptic

The Anthony Braxton Project

Michael Formanek Quartet

To celebrate Anthony Braxton's 75th birthday, a band could express their wishes for the composer/reed master in several ways. The group Topas (profiled by yours truly in the September 2020 issue of JazzTimes) devoted half of their debut album to compositions by Braxton from the '70s and '80s. Since interpreting Anthony Braxton is much different that interpreting Charlie Parker, for instance, the music relies just as much on the interpreters' personality as much as the sketches that they utilize. Although a piece like "Composition 23B," (a reworking of Parker's "Donna Lee") could be done a relatively straightforward manner. 

Thumbscrew - the trio of Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums, vibraphone, percussion) - went one bold step further for The Anthony Braxton Project. Rather than pull out personal Braxton favorites or some "greatest hits," (I'm sure Braxton heads consider some this way) the trio chose nine compositions that have rarely been performed and, with a few exceptions, have never been recorded. 

The potential for such a project could be overwhelming in scope but the trio found works that adapted to their instrumentation. Whether or not they had this goal in mind, the set reveals a good deal about Braxton's musical mindframe, with moods that goes from abstract to works that have a serious swing to them. The opening "Composition 52" has a theme that moves somewhat like a mutant bop line, coming to a quick stop after Halvorson and Formanek play it in unison. Of course that's just the opening and closing moments. What comes in between are bent guitar lines, a bass tries out a groove quickly and drums that also have a groove.

Each member of the group gets a chance to tackle "Composition 14" alone, coming up with a performances that sound vastly from the other two: Havorson bends and loops notes that dangle in the air; Fujiwara creates a composition for drums rather than a solo, with mallets on toms; and Formanek begins pensively and builds to a rich climax.

Fujiwara often moves between vibes and trap kit, adding strong definition to pieces like "Composition 68" rousing it from a dreamscape quality. "Composition 150" might be the "jazziest" tune of the set, thanks to a walking bass line underneath the clean vibes. The trio also tapes into Braxton's Ghost Trance series with "Composition No. 274." Things begin and end with the players moving in staccato lock step (on an angular melody that moves like Monk's "Evidence") but pulls in three directions shortly thereafter.

In addition to the engrossing set of music (which was recorded here in Pittsburgh at Mr. Smalls Studios, like several Thumbscrew albums), the Braxton Project booklet contains large renderings of the images that serve as the "official" composition titles. While some continue the tradition of geometric shapes and numbers attached to them, "Composition No. 150" depicts a street scene of buildings and trucks while "Composition No. 157" features a primitive rendering of a basketball game. They have to be seen to be fully appreciated. (My graphic limitations prevent that from happening here.) Never let it be said that Anthony Braxton doesn't know how to have fun. Hopefully he had a good birthday.

Michael Formanek's writing skills have received as much praise as his bass playing thanks to his ECM albums Small Places and The Rub and Spare Change, both recorded with a quartet that included Gerald Cleaver (drums), Craig Taborn (piano) and Tim Berne (alto saxophone). In fact - for what it's worth - both album received five star reviews in downbeat, a distinction usually reserved only for lost John Coltrane albums and the like. 

But one listen to Pre-Apocalyptic reveals why that group received such kudos. Recorded live "somewhere in 2014," the disc depicts a band on fire, playing a set drawn largely from those two albums. Formanek's opening bass solo on "Rising Tensions and Awesome Light" is worth the price of the album, but that's just the beginning. with a roaring solo from Taborn just around the corner.

Berne as always plays with invention but he comes across as a little more methodical than usual. He digs deeper into Formanek's compositions, staying away from the brawny wails of his own work, though he does emit some altissimo wails in "Twenty Three Neo." The duet of him and Formanek on "The Distance" (first recorded with the large group Ensemble Kolossus) sounds stunning. Listening to pieces like "Pong," where the accents seem to shift the focus away from its 6/8 base, or "Intro and Real Action," a previously unreleased tune, inspire me to pull those earlier albums off the shelf to rediscover them. 

OOYH is releasing the album digitally only. The sound might not be studio clean (some of the bass presence and Cleaver's sound each lose a little depth), it retains the "you-are-there" immediacy of the recording, live in a good room.