‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sunday Music: Jazz Piano 3, by Wiggia

Art Tatum
You may or may not be wondering why the piano is getting more coverage from me than any other area or instrument in modern jazz. It is quite simply that when going through my recordings the piano has more prominence than I had expected and the piano is the one instrument that has solo recordings in abundance in the genre.

If you add in the two greatest bands Ellington and Basie being led by two more than accomplished piano players and the fact that most arrangements and scores are written at the piano, you can see why the piano has such prominence. As with previous pieces even taking into account the extra space I have given the piano many great artists will be left out for purely practical reasons, there simply is not space to include all even when justified.

For that reason the likes of Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, and Ahmad Jamal are left out, but of course almost certainly will feature in other recordings noted in this series.

McCoy Tyner was born in 1938. He grew up in Philadelphia and was encouraged to play the piano at home. By fifteen he knew that music was going to be his vocation. Influenced by Bud Powell, he was early into the be bop scene. After playing with Benny Golson and Art Farmer's Jazztet he joined John Coltrane in 1960 and stayed until ‘65; during that period apart from touring he was on the influential My Favorite Things album, A Love Supreme and all the other great Coltrane albums in that period.

He did make some albums in his own “name” at that time but because of contractual ties could not use his real name. He left Coltrane in ‘65 when he said, "I didn't see myself making any contribution to that music... All I could hear was a lot of noise. I didn't have any feeling for the music, and when I don't have feelings, I don't play." This was when Coltrane started down the free jazz route, not his most successful period with good reason. From ‘67 - ‘70 he was with Blue Note recording with his group and then joined Milestone for a period, when he experimented with different instruments and stayed with them until ‘81. He still records and tours.

I start with one of his later works, Fly With the Wind from the album of the same name from’76. His quartet of Billy Cobham (drums), Ron Carter (bass) and Hubert Laws (alto and flute) is augmented by strings, oboe, harp … a commercial success, it holds up well after all these years.

and here a Jobin Latin American tune, “Wave”:

Dave Brubeck has the distinction ? of being the first recipient of my hard-earned moolah in the jazz world when I purchased his Jazz at Oberlin album and joined the modern jazz world as an enthusiast. Thereafter a lot of Brubeck's work had little effect on me but his overall effect on jazz of the period was immense. You could say he was a “populist” as the public certainly went in droves to his concerts and purchased his albums in large quantities. Too much to put in here but his Wiki page is worth a read……


It was a combination of unusual time signatures and the use of block chording along with his smooth alto player Paul Desmond that kept Brubeck at the top of the jazz ratings for many years. Even after Desmond left his groups still toured to large audiences and his records still sold well, yet it was his ‘57 album Time Out containing all original compositions including the hit Take Five that he will be remembered for by most. Did the Oberlin album stand the test of time? To me it did as for obvious reasons it has a place in my appreciation of the genre; whether it actually stands the test is for you to decide.

How High the Moon from the Oberlin album, still a “tour de force” in my view and it still has the same effect when I listen to it now as then:

Ray Bryant earns a place on here for one reason: I liked him. His 1958 album “Alone with the Blues” is one of those records that I always return to and for that alone he gets his place, in a long career in which he was also a composer of several well known jazz number. He played with many of the greats of the be bop period: Parker, Davis, Hawkins and Sonny Rollins plus the singers Carmen McRae and Aretha Franklin.

From that album a solo masterpiece of blues playing My Blues (Blues No 5):

Herbie Hancock is best known for his fusion smash hit “Headhunters” and much of his fusion cum rock / jazz African music, but he started out as a classically trained pianist and was considered a child prodigy playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No 26 in D major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of eleven!

In 1960 at the age of twenty he heard Chris Anderson play and begged him to be accepted as his student. He then left college and moved to Chicago where he worked with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, took further courses at Roosevelt University and got a degree in Fine Art to add to his degree in music and electronics he got from his other uni.

After playing with Phil Woods and Oliver Nelson he caught the eye of Miles Davis and joined his second quintet in ‘63. It was here he developed his style, and I quote: “Not only did he find new ways to use common chords, but he also popularized chords that had not previously been used in jazz. Hancock also developed a unique taste for "orchestral" accompaniment – using quartal harmony and Debussy-like harmonies, with stark contrasts then unheard of in jazz.“

He stayed with Davis until ‘68 and during that period made many albums under his own name as well as a sideman with many others on the Blue Note label. His two albums Empyrean Isles ‘64 and Maiden Voyage in ‘65 were to many his zenith in modern jazz as post be bop standards; after this time he started to experiment with larger ensembles using different instruments.

His branching out continued unabated, writing the score for Antonioni’s film Blowup (1966) and several TV commercials. He also started his route where he was incorporating popular music and rock into his work and electronic keyboards. He left Davis in ‘68 and formed his own sextet.

Leaving Blue Note a year after Davis and joining Warner Bros was the start of his electronic voyage. Mwandishi in ‘71 started the ball rolling but was not a success and more followed: it was in ‘73 with his new band The Headhunters that Head Hunters was released; a huge hit maybe, but the jazz world thought he had sold out to commercialism.

Since then he has worked in both the fusion pop rock world and returned to jazz. Much of his “popular music” has been slated but he never stood still and has always mixed the genres with a variable success rate with much of it incorporating electronics.

I own none of his more current work, to me most is interchangeable with almost any fusion/rock/ items out there, little has any point over buying an earlier Rick Wakeman album, but that’s just me.

This is from his Taking Off album of ‘62, Water Melon Man, his own composition recorded when he was just 22, with Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon:

I was going to put up for comparison the later version with his Head Hunters band with Miles Davis in his fusion lost mode, but to me it is self indulgent rubbish; it seems many have gone this route, sadly.

Horace Silver was always a favourite of mine. One of the founders of hard bop, he grew up playing the piano and tenor sax at school. In 1950 he was recruited by Stan Getz and then he moved to NY. His co-founding of the Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey is what brought Silver and his compositions with that group to the public eye. He left the Messengers in ‘56 and formed his own group. In the ‘70s he not only disbanded his group as touring was interfering with his composing and his home life but he also went on a spiritual track. His output in this vein with Blue Note was not successful yet the company indulged him to a degree, though the titles were dropped from the catalogue later. His Silver albums from’75 on were a return to the group and sounds we knew and he finally left Blue Note in ‘78, the longest run (28 years) by any artist. According to Silver the new owners were not interested in jazz so he formed his own record company, toured for six months of the year and composed for the rest. Later he cut back the touring and his royalties from a substantial song book kept him going. Ill health in later life struck several times and his performances became sparser. After suffering undiagnosed blood clots he then contracted Alzheimer's; he died in 2014.

This is the ‘64 version of A Song for my Father, his own composition featuring Joe Henderson on tenor, lovely number and a jazz standard:


From the above it is obvious I have included little or nothing from the current crop of piano players, I have listened to the likes of Brad Mehidau, Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor Paul Bley and there is much to admire, the technical ability, the sounds, all can produce stunning music; but overall I find their albums hard work, and if they are hard work to listen to, 15 minute solos of 5 minute standards, then I don’t enjoy and don’t purchase. Yet not all is one beautiful note and a ten second pause: this Paul Bley from ‘62 When Will The Blues Leave with his trio is terrific.

I will leave it there.


James Higham said...

A goodish collection, maybe a bit later than I listen to.

Demetrius said...

I saw Brubeck live once, a little time ago.