Wednesday, September 23, 2020

CD Review: Bob James - Once Upon A Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions

Bob James
Once Upon A Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions

The Eric Dolphy boxset Musical Prophet (released in 2018) solved a mystery over a track that first appeared on the album Other Aspects. "Jim Crow" was the opening track on that collection of unreleased Dolphy works, in the early 1990s, presenting his reeds together with a piano trio in an avant garde piece complete with operatic vocals. 

Other Aspects didn't credit the personnel on the recording. That information came to light on Musical Prophet, which listed the proper title of the piece, "A Personal Statement." The more revealing factoid was that the composer and pianist of the group was none other than Bob James, who would go on to become the unofficial king of Smooth Jazz. (If you've ever watched an episode of Taxi, you know his opening theme song, "Angela," which probably makes him the most heard jazz musician on television, aside from Mister Rogers Neighborhood pianist Johnny Costa.)

"A Personal Statement" sounds today like a curious time piece, combining free jazz, new music and opera along with a Message, delivering it all with little subtlety. But it proves that James had a keen sense of adventure during his college days and wasn't just traveling the yellow brick road to pop-jazz stardom.

The sessions on Once Upon A Time happened two years after "A Personal Statement." James, by then living in New York, was approached by a Columbia University freshman and budding engineer named George Klabin. He wanted to record the pianist and play the results on his radio show at WKCR-FM. They ended up recording two sessions with two different trios, which varied a bit in their approach. An honorable man who launched Resonance years later, Klabin never let the recordings slip out of his care, so they're being released on his label for the first time.

The first four tracks were made in January of that year at Columbia's Wollman Auditorium. Bassist Larry Rockwell and drummer Robert Pozer complete the trio. After a straightforward, brisk reading of "Serenata," the group pushes forward on the other tracks. "Once a Upon a Time," a James original rather than the ballad done by Tony Bennett and others, has a fairly loose structure, allowing the group to toy with the space, never leaping off into freedom but enjoying the possibilities. 

Joe Zawinul's "Lateef Minor 7th" introduces pre-recorded tapes of piano string noise, breaking the tempo apart. The sound of the tapes - seeping in from the background, as if the player was onstage with them instead of run directly into the recording system - gives the music a surreal layer. James frequently blurts out nonsense words, like a beat poet. Thankfully they're not cutesy, insipid or an attempt to incorporate the music into language. Free though it is, it still has a lyrical quality, even with James gets heavy at the piano. "Variations" begins as a pastoral solo piece but James is soon joined by more tapes and his bandmates join him. The open space and quick exclamations recall a George Crumb composition. The piano melody returns, and its pensive quality makes the whole thing feel like it could have worked as a soundtrack. 

That same year, James would record Explosions for ESP-Disk', a deal which came about supposedly after Bernard Stollman heard these recordings, though some of those music-and-tape combinations got a little heavy handed. (A few years later, a similar musique concrete experiment for Phil Ochs' "The Crucifixion" rendered one of the folk singer's most intense songs unlistenable, in an attempt to add apocalyptic effects to the lyrics.)

When James and Klabin returned to Wollman that October, the pianist had a new rhythm section and a more streamlined attitude. Bill Wood (bass) and Otis Clay (drums) were in the trio, who sound a bit closer perhaps to a Bill Evans group. They tear through Sonny Rollins' "Airegin" at a rapid pace without forsaking any of the tune's nuances. The ballad "Indian Summer" feels a little too relaxed without as much spark carrying through the wide open spaces. Miles Davis' "Solar" and the uncredited "Long Forgotten Blues" give Wood and Clay a chance to stretch out a little more, the latter adding a subtle groove akin to Vernell Fournier in Ahmad Jamal's group - not aggressive but grooving with subtlety.

The second session really seems to capture James at a crossroads. He got the avant garde out of his system with the first session and Explosions, as was now playing it straight. Of course, that's oversimplifying it, but the second session coincided with the start of four years with Sarah Vaughn as her music director, a band which included Clay on drums. 

Because this album comes from Resonance, it features a deluxe package with a 40-page booklet loaded with an interview with James, an excerpt of an interview with Robert "Cleve" Pozar and recollections by Klabin and pianist Makoto Ozone. James makes an interesting observation in his interview. He hadn't heard these tapes in decades and was surprised to hear his younger self playing some piano licks that still factor into his music more than half a century later. It goes a long way toward showing that this music was just as much a part of him as what he played in the ensuing years, even if "Angela" sounds light years removed "Lateef Minor 7th." 

Monday, September 21, 2020

CD Review: Joe Fielder's Big Sackbut - Live In Graz

Joe Fielder's Big Sackbut
Live in Graz
(Multiphonics Music)

A choir requires more than four people to produce a big, impressive sound. Yet while listening to Live in Graz, the latest by trombonist Joe Fiedler's three 'bones/one tuba group, the sound produced by just a quartet of brass sounds rich and expansive, like it emanated for a bigger group. 

Even more impressive is that the player with the foundational responsibility, Jon Sass, was filling in for Big Sackbut's regular tuba player Marcus Rojas. He sounds like a natural as he supports the other players, grooves along or takes a solo. (The album begins with an unaccompanied solo from him.) 

Although it's tempting to draw numerous parallels between the group and choirs, Joe Fiedler's intention with Big Sackbut is more concerned with the sum of the parts (i.e. each player's musical personality) than the whole (the one big sound). Live in Graz also acts as a tribute to the late Roswell Rudd, a trombonist whose sense of adventure is reflected in Big Sackbut. Three of the nine tracks were Rudd compositions. Among the others, Fielder's "Tonal Proportions" was inspired by lessons from Rudd, and the group tackles a track from Charles Mingus' gutsy Oh Yeah album.

Ryan Keberle and Luis Bonilla are Fielder's 'bone brothers in the group. Each gets to put his personality on display. Fiedler sounds especially astounding in "Yankee No-How" during a rapidly-executed ran across his instrument's range, much of tongued and not slurred, following already solid work by Keberle and Bonilla. The latter opens Mingus' "Devil Woman" with a raunchy, unaccompanied solo that has some vocal qualities due his deft use of a mute. At times he approximates a distortion pedal, a characteristic that shows up in "Su Blah Blah Buh Sibi," another Rudd tune with a low deep groove from Sass.

The group's tone experiments could digress into parlor tricks, but Big Sackbut will have none of that. Fiedler's upper register solo in "Peekskill" keeps things serious, never digressing into squawks. His tonguing skills are put on display again in "Ways" as he engages in high swoops. For Bonilla's work, he uses space expertly during "Bethesda Fountain," adding to the impact of the band. 

Whether or not a listener chooses to track which trombonist is soloing when (the cover provides an order), the group itself comes across as a strong and powerful, spilling from one tightly arranged section into solos with ease and energy.

Monday, September 14, 2020

But I Always Thought I'd See You Again (Reflections on My High School Friend and Gary Peacock)

I'm not much of a James Taylor fan but I've always felt the the first verse and chorus of "Fire and Rain" do a really good job of poetically capturing the feeling of losing someone. Having a letter and not knowing where to send it, now that the person can't receive it; thinking that you'd always see someone again - and coming to the realization that you won't anymore - it's kind heartbreaking. If the song just stopped there after "But I always thought I'd see you again," leaving you dangling, it would have been perfect. It leaves it to the listener to figure out the implication themselves. The hardest thing about losing someone is figuring out what to do next.

Those thoughts about "Fire and Rain" have been going through my head off and on for the past 48 hours. On Saturday, Facebook reminded me that it was the birthday of my middle and high school pal Mark Wilson. (Taylor Allderdice, Class of 1985) I went on his personal FB page to leave him a message. We aren't really closely in touch, but we keep tabs on each other and get together every few years when he gets to town. 

Like most FB profiles, it was filled with birthday wishes for Mark, but some of them followed it with "you will be missed." I scrolled through and thought that can't possible mean what I think it means. After a few, there was confirmation - Mark had died. No explanation. No foreshadowing in posts from him. Nothing. He had surgery on his vertebrae back in June and there were some complications from it. He had gone into rehab for a bit, but the last time he wrote, he was headed home. 

Yesterday morning a friend of his in Fort Worth (where he's lived for the last few years) replied to my post where I asked what happened. It turned out Mark had a pulmonary embolism and died in his sleep at home. I'm not sure how soon it happened after he got home but it seemed to be within a couple weeks. 

As if this year couldn't get more depressing.

Mark and I met in eighth grade at Reizenstein Middle school. We weren't in the same class but he was in one of the two scholars classes in House B at the school (the school was divided into three "houses") and so was I, so we saw each other pretty often. I think we were in the same gym class. We became tighter friends in high school. He probably didn't know what to think about my crazy musical tastes back then, but he put up with them and seemed vaguely interested at times. When I discovered William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, it gave us something to talk about, since he was a book person too. He was really freakin' smart too. I remember him saying he was reading the dictionary to prepare for the SATs. I thought that was a little extreme but then again, I had no clue on how to prep for the tests, and I bombed them. Mark got into Johns Hopkins. 

Over the years, Mark and I would lose touch and then get back in touch. When we did, things always seemed to pick up where they left off. There was never any awkwardness about how we had changed in different ways or grew apart from one another. He did come out to me at some point but I was fine with that and respected him for telling me and felt even more supportive of him. 

He reconnected with me about 10 years ago after his mother had died. When he and his brother were cleaning out his Mom's house, he came across a stash of her records and thought about giving me a call. Time was of the essence in getting the place cleared so the vinyl ended up going in the dumpster. We laughed about it because I remembered the collection from my high school years. In included a Fugs album as well as a couple Miles Davis albums on Prestige. Hard to give your grieving friend a hard time for not getting them too me, but oh well. 

The last time I saw him, we met up at Gooski's, the bar around the corner from my house. Mark was glad that he could smoke in the bar, but I can't remember if he had a drink or not. (I certainly did.) But he was happy to be in place where you could light up. Plus, the bar was owned by a guy who had gone to school with us. 

One of the consolations to all this is that Mark's other high school friends didn't know that he had died either, until they saw my post on our class' FB page. Some reached out and we're talking about doing a Zoom chat to reminiscence about him. Hopefully we'll find closure that way.


When Gary Peacock took a solo on the second version of "Ghosts" on Albert Ayler's Vibrations album, he works his bow roughly over the strings. Initially it sounds like some non-musical scrapes, but as he continues, the melody of "Ghosts" takes shape. To my 15-year-old ears, things were being to make more musical sense to me. I began hearing connections to things that would have seemed simply like noodling before. 

After much speculation and retracted statements by some people, it was confirmed that Peacock did indeed pass away on September 4. He was 85.

Peacock has a remarkably varied musical life. He was the first simpatico bassist that Albert Ayler played with, and he appeared on several of his albums, including the aforementioned Vibrations as well as groundbreakers like Spirits Rejoice and Spiritual Unity. The bassist went on to work closely with pianist Paul Bley, who married Annette Peacock, Gary's ex-wife. Their work together helped to usher in the classic sound of ECM Records, leading to his work as one-third of Keith Jarrett's trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette.

But what really rounds his musical life out for me is something no one seems to be bothered to list in the obits. He played on a couple pretty solid Bud Shank albums on Pacific Jazz before he made it to New York and hooked up with Ayler. (My love of Shank came from my dad and I have written about him here too.) Maybe that part of his career is too vanilla for Ayler or Jarrett fans but the album New Groove isn't just standard West Coast jazz lite. It even features a tune written by Peacock, "Liddledabllduya," which is more impressive than the title might imply. 

Back in high school, I probably tried to get Mark to listen to Albert Ayler, fearing the worst. But maybe he would have heard something in Gary Peacock's playing. (Mark played the cello in orchestra.) Maybe somewhere, they'll cross paths with each other and talk music. Or philosophy. Or something. I just wish I was there with them.

Monday, September 07, 2020

CD Review: Okuden (Mat Walerian/ Matthew Shipp/ William Parker/ Hamid Drake) - Every Dog Has Its Day But It Doesn't Matter Because Fat Cat is Getting Fatter

Okuden (Mat Walerian/ Matthew Shipp/ William Parker/ Hamid Drake)
Every Dog Has It's Day But It Doesn't Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter

Multi-reedist Mat Walerian (who hails from Poland) leads this quartet of long time friends through two discs of music that fits comfortably into the free improvisation realm. At the same time, the group also shows that they know how to excel within a more structured setting. 

"The Forest Council" serves as evocative title because the music evokes a scene in the wilderness, unfolding slowly, with Parker acting as a guide during the 18-minute epic. When Walerian finally makes his appearance, his bass clarinet continues calls out from a distance, heightened by some reverb. This sonic touch adds another visual layer to the music, as if to indicate that free blowing doesn't always have to be a no-frills production, documenting it exactly as it sounded in the room.

Drake sticks primarily to hand drum and some cymbals on "The Forest Council" but he works on the trap kit in "Thelonious Forever" when he finally joins Parker, Shipp and Walerian, the latter on alto saxophone. The homage that doesn't necessarily have a Monkian feel, but Shipp and Walerian do touch on his angularity and boldness before Parker's bowing pumps up the frenzy. 

Disc One also features "Magic World,"  a suite broken into three tracks which each average 12 minutes a piece. Walerian begins each one on bass clarinet with a simple, repetitive line, later switching to alto, which he plays with a rugged tone that is ready to growl but just as likely to blow something thick and penetrating in the upper range. Shipp really shines in Part One ("Study") in a solo full of arpeggiated cartwheels. Parker holds down a rather funky vamp in Part Two ("Work"), adding some choice variations as well. The bassist prefers to walk a bit in Part Three ("Life"), giving it a loose but swinging feel that Drake holds together.

The second disc continues the close connection between Walerian and Parker. Half of "Business with William" features a soprano clarinet/bass duet. On "Lesson II" the bassist plays shakuhachi together with Walerian's clarinet and flute. Things move in long tones, to the extent that it's hard to tell what Walerian is playing at certain points. With Drake back on hand drums, the track virtually brings the whole set full circle, back to the setting of "The Forest Council," the setting now sounding a little more minor.

Mat Walerian has indicated in his previous albums (which have all appeared on ESP) that he is capable of creating some pointed free blowing. While things never quite settle into a straightahead structure on Every Dog, Walerian goes to great length to prove his flexibility as a player. As a musical narrator and leader, he continuing to grow. His alto saxophone playing in particular reveals a unique tone, hard and dry but thoughtful. (Next time I wouldn't mind more of that particular horn.) 

And also, the album title proves that there is room for humor in this kind of music as well.