“I mean, there is theoretically, possibly a mind-blowing version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ that has not been played.” Fred Hersch
I subscribe to three monthly jazz magazines. In ascending order of longevity, Downbeat which has been covering jazz from the U.S. since the mid-30’s The French Jazz Magazine which has recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. And the less venerable but readable and influential Jazzwise based here in the U.K.
In a future blog I plan to delve into how these three jazz publications approach their core subject, and associated subjects, and to ponder on the cultural backgrounds and distinctiveness that influences the three magazines’ coverage of jazz.
Improvisation lies at the very heart of the jazz idiom. Rhythm, compositions, tone, harmony, groove and pulse are all essential contributors to the core art of improvisation. Improvisation is what makes jazz compelling and distinctive. Lee Konitz spent more than 60 years mining the harmonic vocabulary of All The Things You Are, consistently finding new improvisational possibilities
A recent edition of Jazz Magazine set its writers the task of identifying the 500 most important solos in the hundred years of recorded jazz. Quite a task! Reading it got me thinking, taking me back to recordings that were both new to me and very familiar. While the editor candidly admits that no three jazz aficionados would come up with an identical list what their published selection provokes in me is a realization of the historic lineages of this great music and how the crucial developments in the music were not exclusively driven by the best-known jazz titans. So, the list includes relatively obscure and even forgotten jazz stylists such as guitarist Tal Farlow, pianist Phineas Newborn (what a great name!) and saxophonist and Monk devotee Steve Lacey, in addition to the star players you would expect to populate such a selection.
My own jazz interest really began with Charlie Parker and the revolutionary bebop era in the 40’s and 50’s. It is only recently that I have scrolled back to examine the swing era and am still shamefully under-appreciative of the main movers and shakers in early jazz, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke. So, the Jazz Magazine survey took me back, often for the first time to listen to historic recordings from the 1920’s and 30’s.
Hopefully my playlist will have a similar impact on you.
Given the sheer range of the material covered in 100 years of jazz recordings I needed to put some limits on the construction of the playlist that accompanies this blog. I have decided, at least for now to focus on recordings from the mid-20’s up to 1959- arguably the most important single year in the history of modern jazz. The Jazz Magazine choices take us right up to the present day, so I plan to return to some of these selections in a future blog.
The playlist weighs in at just over three and a half hours of recorded music. I’d like to comment on just a handful of these recordings to share the impacts they have had on my jazz listening
Check out Fats Waller and Art Tatum. Waller is often remembered as a showman, which obscures hisprodigious technique and very wide musical interests. Art Tatum, who was blind, is regarded by many critics as the most gifted pianist in jazz history. He chose to play solo because so few sidemen could keep up with him.
Have a listen to Lester Young on Lady Be Good and Coleman Hawkins’s monumental take on Body and Soul. What is so unusual about both interpretations is that neither Lester nor Hawk bother with the tune going straight into their improvisations, an unheard of development within the mainstream of jazz. And these recordings date back to the 1930’s, truly revolutionary.
Of course, the 500 selected solos could easily have selected 100 from Charlie Parker alone. Their selection focuses on Bird’s fluency at slower tempos in addition to providing an opportunity to marvel at his legendary 4 bar break leading into his solo on Night in Tunisia. Jazz musicians continue to study and marvel over 60 years later at how many ideas Bird was able to incorporate into 4 bars of music.
The selection also allows us to focus on some of the great outliers within jazz, great musicians who defy classification. Lee Konitz the legendary re-inventor of jazz standards and Gil Evans and George Russell among the most distinctive, sensitive, and complex arrangers and orchestrators of large ensembles in jazz.
And two astonishing trumpeters who both died tragically young. Clifford Brown who lived like a monk. with no interest in alcohol or narcotics, died in a car crash between gigs along with Bud Powell’s brother Richie just as he was poised to achieve legendary status. And Lee Morgan, whose life was characterized by drug addiction and was shot to death in his early 30’s at a small club in New York’s Bowery as he was launching his return to the jazz world. Marvel at the fact that both players were only in their early twenties when these recordings were made.
Stand out tracks from early and mid-career Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman Bill Evans and John Coltrane, with Cousin Mary showing Trane at the height of his “sheets of sound “period with ideas pouring out of his horn in a seemingly unstoppable deluge of notes, while at the same time showing that he could equally showcase luminescent, light touch ballad-playing on Naima. Tenor Madness is, sadly the only known recording of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane playing together. Trane is the first to solo. Listen to the two giants of the tenor saxophone trading 4 and 8 bar breaks as the recording races to its conclusion.
These musicians were all in their different ways jazz revolutionaries and these selections record each of them at the launch of their status as jazz giants.
I want to end with a redolent memory. Going to Ronnie Scott’s in the mid-70’s to hear Lee Konitz with tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, UK bassist Peter Ind and drummer Al Leavitt. They played Lady Be Good a tune indelibly associated with Lester Young and then proceeded to play Lester’s 1936 solo in unison, note-for-note before moving on to their individual solos. Now that’s jazz tradition; that’s what I call improvisation!
And here’s a video of Lee Konitz late in life working through the changes on All The Things You Are.