As an adjunct to the 2015 profile of Freddie Hubbard, New York Jazz Workshop at home offers up 5 of the most important solos for those new to the trumpeter. There are at least several more that were up for inclusion, but this strikes a nice balance as a primer for his groundbreaking Blue Note recordings and the CTI years when he became a superstar, his most well known music. The New York Jazz Workshop […]
As an adjunct to the 2015 profile of Freddie Hubbard, New York Jazz Workshop at home offers up 5 of the most important solos for those new to the trumpeter. There are at least several more that were up for inclusion, but this strikes a nice balance as a primer for his groundbreaking Blue Note recordings and the CTI years when he became a superstar, his most well known music. The New York Jazz Workshop continues to offer up workshops, master classes and intensives even at home, featuring faculty such as Marc Mommaas and Dave Ambrosio.
The jazz world mourns the passing of legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb. 2020, with the horrendous pandemic sweeping globally will go down as one of the worst years in history, if not the worst ever. The jazz world this year has lost some of the greatest musicians including pianist Mike Longo, trumpeter Wallace Roney, and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz as a result of the pandemic. Perhaps the biggest and most heartbreaking loss this year is the […]
The jazz world mourns the passing of legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb. 2020, with the horrendous pandemic sweeping globally will go down as one of the worst years in history, if not the worst ever. The jazz world this year has lost some of the greatest musicians including pianist Mike Longo, trumpeter Wallace Roney, and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz as a result of the pandemic. Perhaps the biggest and most heartbreaking loss this year is the loss of drummer Jimmy Cobb, the lone surviving member of Miles Davis’ legendary Kind of Blue session recorded over two dates in 1959. Cobb, whose resume includes Earl Bostic, Dinah Washington, Wes Montgomery, Wayne Shorter and Miles, and as well as leading his own bands for many years remained a strong player till the end, was known for his insuperable ride cymbal beat, incredible sensitivity to dynamics, fantastic brushwork and peerless ability to swing. Cobb passed away at his Manhattan home at 91 on May 24th.
Wilbur James Cobb was born in Washington, DC on January 20, 1929. Entirely self taught, the drummer was inspired to take up drumming from watching an older boy in his neighborhood, and by the age of 21, was already on the road with legendary R&B tenor saxophonist Earl Bostic. The drummer met Bostic through bassist Keter Betts, and began touring with the saxophonist after meeting him on 125th Street and St. Nicholas in Harlem and began touring one nighters with the saxophonist. Bostic, incidentally was a huge influence on John Coltrane, and the saxophonist along with others like Jay McNeely, through their use of extended techniques were tremendous influences on the avant garde movement that would occur in the 60’s. After the tenure with Bostic, the drummer later joined Dinah Washington, and her pianist was one, Wynton Kelly whom Cobb would play with until the pianist’s untimely death in 1971 with Paul Chambers, the drummer’s rhythm section mate with Miles Davis, and Wes Montgomery. Cobb had also spent one week playing with Charlie Parker as part of disc jockey Symphony Sid’s All Stars, a group that included a young Miles Davis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and the recently arrived Belgian sensation Toots Thielemans, then still on guitar before he picked up the instrument for which he is most known– harmonica.
1959 was a pivotal year in jazz. The music was rapidly changing, with directions moving from chord changes to modal based jazz, John Coltrane stretching harmony to the breaking point, Dave Brubeck introducing new time signatures into the form, and Ornette Coleman was discarding traditional melody, and harmony, into a unique blend he called harmolodics. Cobb had joined Miles Davis’ group formally in 1958, having been taped at the Newport Jazz Festival for Columbia in July, and having replaced Philly Joe Jones for half the sessions that produced Porgy and Bess when Jones had failed to show up. The trumpeter called Cobb one evening, and explained that Jones had left the group, and would he be interested in making the gig? Cobb said yes, according to an interview with NYU’s Jazz Department director David Shroeder and explained that Davis had called him at 6 PM, and the gig was at 9 PM! The drummer hurriedly packed a bag, his drums, and took a plane, a shuttle that went from NY to Boston in 55 minutes and arrived when the band had just been playing “Round Midnight” and entered following the iconic interlude section. Cobb was on Kind of Blue and recalled no one had anticipated the kind of success it had. His cymbal crash beginning the round of solos on “So What” is a perfect example of the kind of drive and swing he brought to the band, and his brush work on “Blue and Green” “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” are all textbook examples of supreme sensitivity, and the uplift he brought two years later to the recording of “Someday My Prince Will Come” with his brush to stick transition is absolutely magisterial.
After leaving Davis, the Kelly-Chambers-Cobb rhythm section went on to join guitarist Wes Montgomery. Though Cobb had participated in the 1963 session that produced Boss Guitar (Riverside) with organist Melvin Rhyne, the Kelly-Chambers-Cobb unit really found it’s stride the previous year when they taped Full House with the guitarist the previous year, featuring guest, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. Cobb’s driving pulse and relentless ride is behind Montgomery’s famous version of “No Blues” from Smokin At The Half Note (Verve, 1965) a half live, half studio album which influenced a whole new generation of guitarists. Cobb remained active, teaching, and being an incubator of young talent including those who have gone onto stardom like Brad Mehldau and tenorist Eric Alexander, releasing the albums The Original Mob (2014) and his final album Dis I Dig Of You earlier this year on Smoke Sessions, the label run by Smoke Jazz and Supper Club, Cobb’s strong pocket will never been forgotten and live on forever.
Welcome to the New York Jazz Workshop In Conversation at home podcast. The music you are hearing is “The Resistance” off vocalist Thana Alexa’s brand new recording ONA (Self produced, 2020). Her sophomore album celebrates not only the journey of herself as a woman, but women everywhere. In our interview, you’ll hear the Best Jazz Composition PORIN (Croatian Grammy equivalent) nominee and Alpe-Aldria International songwriting contest winner discuss her growth as an artist and human being […]
Welcome to the New York Jazz Workshop In Conversation at home podcast. The music you are hearing is “The Resistance” off vocalist Thana Alexa’s brand new recording ONA (Self produced, 2020). Her sophomore album celebrates not only the journey of herself as a woman, but women everywhere. In our interview, you’ll hear the Best Jazz Composition PORIN (Croatian Grammy equivalent) nominee and Alpe-Aldria International songwriting contest winner discuss her growth as an artist and human being between her 2015 debut Ode To Heroes and the new record; in addition to the people in her life that served as inspiration for tracks on the album, and her role in organizing the massively successful Live From Our Living Rooms music festival. The festival, which took place in April, was the first streaming music festival of the COVID-19 era, a fundraiser with vocalist Sirintip and saxophonist Owen Broder, that aims to help New York musicians out of work because of the pandemic.
Recorded May 1, 2020 in New York
Recording and post production: CJ Shearn
Podcast produced by: CJ Shearn and Thana Alexa
Music:”The Resistance” (feat. Stacey Ann Chin) (c) Thana Alexa
How should one approach listening to jazz? Listening to the genre itself is a fine art, and can seem like a huge wall to climb. Listening to jazz (as well as classical music) on paper seems like a rough task because it requires active listening. Plenty of people listen to it as background music, but learning to listen critically can yield a lifetime of pleasure and can allow a person to really begin to break […]
How should one approach listening to jazz? Listening to the genre itself is a fine art, and can seem like a huge wall to climb. Listening to jazz (as well as classical music) on paper seems like a rough task because it requires active listening. Plenty of people listen to it as background music, but learning to listen critically can yield a lifetime of pleasure and can allow a person to really begin to break down what goes on in the music. The backbone of the music is the rhythm section.
The rhythm section is the most basic unit of jazz timekeeping. The modern rhythm section consists of piano, bass and drums, with the addition of electric piano or synthesizers and guitars in many cases. In the pre bop days going back to New Orleans, the role of the bass was that of a tuba, and because recording technology was not as sophisticated in the early 1920’s the drummer was restricted to playing woodblocks with occasional interjections of cymbals. The drums quite obviously keep time, while the bass and keyboard instruments are there to mark sign posts in the harmony. In New Orleans style, the bass often would keep a two beat feel, while in swing, the bass would keep a walking rhythm– the template many know today. It really was not until Jimmy Blanton in Duke Ellington’s band that the role of the bass was freed up beyond rhythm; Blanton would not only keep time but throw in some adlibs or play melody. In the swing era, the rhythm section’s sole purpose was to keep time, the drummers, like Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson would very frequently feather the bass drum, four beats to the bar and keep a conventional spang-a-lang rhythm on the hi hat or later ride cymbal. In classic big band arrangements as Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” very rarely does the rhythm section deviate from the basic time keeping role, the function of swing was a dance music, and the four on the floor feeling of the music did it’s intended purpose– keep people dancing.
Once the bebop era arrived, things became a lot looser. Though pianists such as Count Basie had developed a highly syncopated way of approaching chord changes (“comping”) through the innovations of Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, comping became the preferred method of approaching the labyrinth of chord changes as the beds for soloists. It was here, particularly at brisk tempos that the bass would keep a steady rhythm, but the biggest changes came with the drums. Kenny Clarke, brought the classic swinging high hat pattern of the previous era to the ride cymbal, and brought the time keeping to 2 and 4 on the high hat. This emphasis up top allowed drummers like himself and Max Roach to create intricate improvised dialogues with soloists between the snare and bass drums, with the bass drums dropping bombs as unexpected accents.
Past the bop era, drummers such as Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, not to mention countless avant garde drummers would significantly relax timekeeping roles. For example, rather than the high hat always keeping time on 2 and 4,Haynes and Williams would insert the high hat on the “and” or “a” of the upbeat in a 4/4 bar, or in the case of DeJohnette, the high hat may not be used in a typical way at all, instead freely being splashed or “chicked” for a color in unexpected places. Drummers would take these innovations into the 70’s and apply them in jazz-rock and jazz-funk. In the present, drummers are greatly influenced by hip hop and emulate acoustically, the type of drum programming innovations made by producers like the late J. Dilla.
How to listen to the rhythm section
The most important tips for listening to a rhythm section: listen to the bass. Bassists like Ron Carter and Paul Chambers are excellent because of their harmonic clarity, you always know where the 1 is. Even when Carter would get more abstract with harmony in the Miles Davis Quintet, there would always be guideposts to the changes. Listening to the bass in tandem with piano comping is also a surefire way to be able to hear the form, and keep track of form. Also, the drummers clearly mark the top of the form, take for example. Listening to organ groups is a great way to tune into rhythm section intricacies because they are all about the groove, and in the case of Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Charles Earland, all have arrangements that are as tight as a big band, or Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The New York Jazz Workshop is now offering online classes during the quarantine time, and every week presents live concerts with faculty from 5:30-6:30 PM. Sessions with Marc Momaas, Mark Sherman and others can illuminate the concepts discussed here
The jazz landscape has been rapidly changing over the past thirty years. What styles of jazz are most enduring? Every style of the music is played around the world, but certain styles seem to endure. What are some reasons for that? As stated before on this blog, there is a linear historical narrative in the music that is often regurgitated and can be problematic because it leaves out historically important events, or musicians. Within that […]
The jazz landscape has been rapidly changing over the past thirty years. What styles of jazz are most enduring? Every style of the music is played around the world, but certain styles seem to endure. What are some reasons for that? As stated before on this blog, there is a linear historical narrative in the music that is often regurgitated and can be problematic because it leaves out historically important events, or musicians. Within that problematic narrative at times, it dictates what styles of jazz are most popular, and that in some cases has bearing on what type of jazz is played.
Once the swing and New Orleans jazz styles fell out of the lexicon for the groundbreaking modernism of bebop, those styles fell out of favor but never stopped being played. In the 1950’s, the term “moldy fig” was coined for those from the New Orleans side that dismissed bebop. The innovations of bebop in regards to harmony, previously only heard in the music of Stravinsky for example were so game changing that they set the template for everything afterward. Most of the time, though beboppers did use swing era tunes as a base, much of the original tunes from the likes of Gillespie, Parker, Powell, and Monk were contrafacts, new melodies written over existing chord changes. The practice was used to navigate copyright control, and like classical composers who quoted previous works in new compositions, can be analogous to sampling in hip hop. One reason these songs continue to endure for generations is because of the simplicity of the forms: standard 32 bar A-A-B-A structures with common II-V-I structures that musicians can use, both newcomers, experienced and masters alike can improvise on. The same could be said for the labyrinth of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, that while incredibly daunting still, a litmus test especially in jazz education, it is frequently played at jam sessions to this day. Modal compositions like “So What”, “Inner Urge” by Joe Henderson, and “Impressions” again, are rich at jam sessions and learning tools for students for their simplicity in structure and maximum improvising potential. Standards as well.
To summarize, though every style of jazz is played across the world, bebop, hard bop and modal compositions are played for their utility of form. Much of the modern era of jazz composition the past 25 years because composition is such a part of the era of today’s musician, borrowing forms from European classical and world musics, the tunes require much rehearsal to navigate the complex forms. and harmonic material. The New York Jazz Workshop offers courses such as The Poetic Language of Jazz Improvisation taught by Marc Mommaas, and From Bebop to Hard Bop taught by Mark Sherman, as well as numerous other workshops that explore tunes like these for improvising musicians on all levels.
The New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a reflection on the passing of jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner. Below are Shearn’s words. The legends who have made significant contributions to this music within the linear historical narrative are leaving the earthly realm one by one. March 6th saw the passing of an absolute giant: McCoy Tyner. The groundbreaking piano titan passed away at home peacefully, leaving a legacy as vast as it was […]
The New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a reflection on the passing of jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner. Below are Shearn’s words.
The legends who have made significant contributions to this music within the linear historical narrative are leaving the earthly realm one by one. March 6th saw the passing of an absolute giant: McCoy Tyner. The groundbreaking piano titan passed away at home peacefully, leaving a legacy as vast as it was influential. My initial entry to Tyner’s work was at five or six years of age when my aunt got me the album Milestone Jazzstars In Concert (1978) my first exposure as well, to Sonny Rollins. I always loved this particular double album because I felt the group dynamic was very strong and it introduced me to Tyner’s inimitable walloping, but also subtle playing.
Tyner was born in Philadelphia on December 11, 1938. The house where he grew up was downstairs from his mother’s beauty salon and it was there from the age of 13 that the pianist developed his craft. In a heartwarming way, in a 1999 interview with Owen McNally that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Tyner described a typical scenario at his mother’s salon:
“My mother’s customers would be patting their feet right next to my band’s baritone saxophone player, never missing a beat,” Tyner recalls, speaking by phone from his Manhattan apartment.
“My mother would walk into her shop–we lived over the parlor on the second floor–and say, ‘Wow, McCoy! You got a big band there! Go ahead and play!’ ” From early on, the environment he grew up in was conducive to honing his chops; studying both classical and jazz. Richie Powell, Bud Powell’s younger brother who was tragically killed in the same car wreck as Clifford Brown, lived around the corner, and Bud would frequently play at the family’s home.
In 1959, he joined Benny Golson’s Jazztet, and at a matinee bill he shared with Cal Massey, the legendary Philadelphia trumpeter and composer a chance meeting would be something that would define his career.:a chance meeting with John Coltrane. For five years from 1961-1965 in the classic John Coltrane Quartet, Tyner aided in the redefinition of what a jazz quartet was and could be. The quartet, first with Art Davis on bass, Reggie Workman and crystallizing with Jimmy Garrison, was a unit of indescribable energy, but also capable of wonderful subtlety as Plays The Blues, Ballads and the recent finds Both Directions At Once and Blue World demonstrated. It was Coltrane’s stripping down of “My Favorite Things” to find Eastern sonorities, that really showcased Tyner’s innovations. Though the use of perfect fourths and fifths had been in use prior to Tyner, the application in his playing was game changing. In his fingers, the fourth voicing achieved a pillowy character that was somehow massive, and the sudden slamming of fifths, also in the left hand just freed up the harmony in a unique way. His skittering diminished lines in the right hand suggested something other than a piano– something more like a guitar, harp or zither. Tyner’s application of this style of playing added so much to albums such as Juju by Wayne Shorter, Tom Cat by Lee Morgan, and Matador by Grant Green just to name a few. It would be foolish here to list a traditional career narrative here, but compositions such as “Passion Dance” from the landmark The Real McCoy (1967) are so fascinating for the mileage he gets from the F Mixolydian scale and the use of an Fsus4 chord underneath, nothing ever gets tired in his solo from the use of that one scale. The solo version on the Milestone album of the same name, recorded live in Japan makes intriguing comparative listening to how he approaches the melody, and alters the harmony.
As with a lot of his Milestone recordings, the pianist sought to increase the sound palette, as with his final Blue Note albums of 1968-1970. These albums, Cosmos, Expansions, Extensions, and Asante (unreleased until 1973) found Tyner using diverse instrumentation such as Wayne Shorter on tenor, (and his first instrument, clarinet), Gary Bartz’ alto, Herbie Lewis’ bass augmented by Ron Carter’s cello, Hubert Laws’ flute, and a string quartet among others. Tyner expanded the harmonic palette by employing these various colors, and taking cues from Indian and African music with some of the tunes. One of the most memorable aspects of the track “Vision” is the balance between the tonal and atonal, particularly on the bridge. Herbie Lewis holds down a vamp, while Carter goes on some surreal micro tonal flights. While this contrast may seem jarring to listeners only familiar with his work with Coltrane, the early Shorter Blue Notes, and vice versa, it showed how he moved forward to create new ground from the experiences that shaped John Coltrane’s music. From the Milestone period, Tyner carved his stake in the burgeoning so called “spiritual jazz” movement, the albums taking on Afrocentric ideals, and the sing song melodies of many pieces, like “Ebony Queen” and “Fly Like The Wind” were canvases for stirring modal improvisation. Tyner experimented further with instrumentation, such as his appearances on flute, koto and celeste, never quite approaching jazz-rock or jazz-funk, but recordings like the seminal Enlightenment (1973) and Atlantis (1975) bristle with an overwhelmingly intense rockish energy. “Valley Of Life”, from Sahara, his 1972 Milestone debut found him overdubbing koto, percussion and flute in his own idiosyncratic way, a meditative reflection long before “new age” was a category. To be fair, as a piece it is far more interesting than a lot of what comes out of that genre.
As a solo pianist, Tyner was simply superb. His sense of dynamics were incredible, like Cecil Taylor, truly treating the piano as a percussion instrument, yet at the same time demonstrating thorough grasp of the entire piano lineage from Earl “Fatha” Hines to the present. Milestone recordings as well as later period Blue Note, Impulse and Telarc offerings captured the massive dynamic range of his solo performances in a way his classic Blue Note albums do not, with their square mid range piano. As the pianist entered his later years, he pared down the frenetic energy of his right hand runs mixing in some chordal passages, never losing sight of the powerful fourths and fifths in the left hand.
The legacy of McCoy Tyner is one that will live on through the multitudes of pianists that followed in his footsteps. The Poetic Language of Jazz Improvisation taught by Marc Mommaas, at New York Jazz Workshop can give greater into Tyner’s innovations.
What is soul jazz? For individuals getting into jazz, this is a good question. Jazz (or Black American Music depending on who you ask) has a myriad of genre designations that can be quite confusing, or in the modern era, useless. Soul jazz is an odd designation that came in a relatively brief period of little over a decade plus that included a fusillade of innovation: bebop, cool jazz and hard bop. Soul jazz became […]
What is soul jazz? For individuals getting into jazz, this is a good question. Jazz (or Black American Music depending on who you ask) has a myriad of genre designations that can be quite confusing, or in the modern era, useless. Soul jazz is an odd designation that came in a relatively brief period of little over a decade plus that included a fusillade of innovation: bebop, cool jazz and hard bop. Soul jazz became most popular at the onset of the early 60’s when Jimmy Smith pared down his style to a funky essence, moving from the bop and hard bop of his 1956-58 albums on Blue Note, beginning with Home Cookin’ released in 1959. Other significant organists followed over the next decade such Jimmy McGriff, the great Brother Jack McDuff, Johnny Hammond Smith, John Patton, Shirley Scott, Rhoda Scott (no relation) Charles Earland, Don Patterson and Richard “Groove” Holmes among many others; all of whom had unique approaches on offer. Classic Horace Silver compositions like “The Preacher” and Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'” were popular soul jazz vehicles as well, but the genre has a history that has it’s roots in the church, and further, with pre Jimmy Smith organists. Cannonball Adderley, by the early to mid 60’s was one of the biggest soul jazz draws. The alto saxophonist once remarked that the genre term was marketing, that Riverside felt the music was jazz but also soul. Soul jazz also introduced the public to some of the all time great guitarists, Grant Green, a 21 year old phenom by the name of George Benson, and another prodigious talent: Pat Martino.
St. Louis’ Milt Buckner, ebullient, ferocious, short statured, after Fats Waller and Count Basie had dabbled in jazz organ, was an early Hammond organ proponent. Initially a pianist, Buckner’s pianistic innovation was the use of block chords that influenced legions of pianists from Red Garland, to Bill Evans. Buckner’s career took off with the McKinney Cotton pickers, followed by an 1941 stint in the band of Cab Calloway, but he was most known for his Lionel Hampton association. When Buckner transferred to the Hammond organ, like his contemporaries Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis, he primarily utilized the instrument showcasing the huge sound obtained with every drawbar out to act as a big band In later years, Buckner adopted a modern post Jimmy Smith approach utilizing leaner registrations and less heavy vibrato. In 1956 when Smith arrived on the jazz scene, his very first recording A New Sound, A New Star heavily drew on the Bill Davis influence as far organ sound, but the ideas integrating, the blues, Charlie Parker, Horace Silver and Bud Powell, were unheard of for the time.
The key with much of soul jazz was that it was dance able. In most cases, the song forms were relatively simple, A-A-B-A song forms, and standard 12 bar blues forms. Horace Silver’s “The Preacher” was a bit different: a 16 bar form with heavy doses of gospel and R&B. Many tunes played by Jack McDuff and Charles Earland, were a bit more complex with post solo interludes and shout choruses as big bands would do. In the case of Jimmy McGriff’s many singles initially recorded for the Sue label beginning in 1962 with his smash version of Ray Charles “I Got A Woman”, and later tracks like “Cashbox” they relied heavily on the blues, the emotional fervor of gospel, and gospel rhythms. Much like how bebop and hard bop were dance musics in the black community, artists filled organ rooms in inner city clubs and the music was made for these audiences. Particularly in the mid 60’s, Prestige became a soul jazz factory producing records like Black Feeling (1969) by Johnny Hammond and Black Talk from Charles Earland, which were thematically named to tie into the civil rights and rising Afrocentric climates. Much of this music was reviewed relatively lukewarm within mainstream jazz media in the midst of the innovations from Miles Davis, and the jazz-funk and jazz-rock music coming from Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, but soul jazz was pure people music at the core. Musically there were some very subtle things of interest– for example the bass lines of John Patton differed from other organist’s bass lines by being highly syncopated and on the upbeat with tracks such as “Latona” and “Ding Dong” providing wonderful examples. Jack McDuff’s tight arrangements made him something akin to an Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers of organ. Eventually though as jazz paradigms began to shift into more abstract territory, many turned to R&B, funk or smooth jazz. Miles Davis, as the Second Great Quintet was nearing it’s close, one of his initial experiments with electric instruments, “Stuff” from Miles In The Sky (1968) was a soul jazz homage of sorts with a boogaloo rhythm.
The mainstream jazz media is/was somewhat indifferent to soul jazz, because as stated earlier, amidst the innovations of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and others the music was designed for the black community. If one were to look at All Music Guide reviews written by critics such as Scott Yanow, Michael G. Nastos they, frequently dismiss the music as being predictable or having “throwaway” tunes, but such statements are cursory and ignored the layers of the music. On one level, from 1965 on, Prestige organ based albums are predictable in that you know the kind of repertoire will be played, but within that, several albums by Don Patterson, Johnny “Hammond” Smith and Richard “Groove” Holmes were truly special, as were the Blue Note albums of Lonnie Smith– all of these musicians have unique voices, instantly identifiable voices. Jimmy Smith’s Verve recordings made him a superstar, while his Blue Note albums have his most adventurous playing– there are moments of such during the Verve era and his genius was always on display. Hammond organ scholars such as Pete Fallico and Youtube jazz personality The Jazz Shepherd are ardent soul jazz supporters and seek to correctly posit the music’s social and historical status– this was people music, the grooves, and solo intensity are some of jazz’s greatest pleasures. The New York Jazz Workshop offers several workshops that can edify the historical concepts discussed in this article.
In this blog post, New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a personal, heartfelt statement on the brilliant pianist Lyle Mays, who passed away February 10th in Los Angeles, after a long fight battling a recurrent illness. The jazz and music world is much poorer now that he is gone. Shearn’s words are written below: I am still trying to process the news that one of the greatest pianists, improvisers and keyboard players in ALL […]
In this blog post, New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a personal, heartfelt statement on the brilliant pianist Lyle Mays, who passed away February 10th in Los Angeles, after a long fight battling a recurrent illness. The jazz and music world is much poorer now that he is gone. Shearn’s words are written below:
I am still trying to process the news that one of the greatest pianists, improvisers and keyboard players in ALL of music left us yesterday, February 10th… the incredible Lyle Mays. He was absolutely incomparable, his synth orchestrations and harmonic acuity were absolutely non pareil, both in the context of the Pat Metheny Group and his solo work. He was a man of many interests: programmer, architect and pool pro! Like Jimmy Smith, as a listener, Mays had a HUGE impact on me. Not only is his stone classic self titled masterpiece a virtual manifesto on what can be done with composition and orchestration in an area that keyboardist Jim Alfredson once remarked to me was rarely explored, it was new terrain. The music on Lyle Mays didn’t sound like anything going on at the time from the significant advancements the music made in the 70’s and 80’s– something with his keyboard textures that influenced music as a whole. It was not (by then) banal jazz rock, or anything one could name; it was it’s own universe. His famous flutophone (as he termed it) synth lead, in which he aimed to devise something that would start sharp and gradually move into pitch was magisterial.
Mays was born in Wausaukee, WI on November 27, 1953 and had grown up playing piano, and organ in his early years, his mother was a pianist, and father a guitarist. He had shown signs very early in development of his brilliance having outstanding relative pitch, as well as heavy interests in math and architecture, at one point even being asked to teach his high school’s math class. Having largely grown up on classical music, being influenced by Webern, Berg and others– Bill Evans’ At The Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve, 1968) was a huge turning point for him, as was Keith Jarrett’s Facing You (ECM, 1972). Musically, his big breakthrough commenced in 1975 when he was a student at North Texas State University, and directing the One O Clock Lab Band, composing for, and writing their arrangements, then moving on to tour with Woody Herman. His meeting with Pat Metheny at the Wichita Jazz Festival in 1974, while the guitarist was still a member of Gary Burton’s band, was an association which would last more than thirty years. In Metheny, he had found an ideal partner who thought about music, melody and harmony in much the same way, while having been heavily influenced by contemporary music breakthroughs such as those from the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and contemporary soul and R&B.
Though initially approached by Manfred Eicher in 1982 to record a solo album for ECM after his work for the label with Metheny and Eberhard Weber, Mays recorded his first album, self titled, originally released on Geffen in 1986. He lined up a powerhouse ensemble: saxophonist Billy Drewes, Bill Frisell on guitar, Marc Johnson on bass, Nana Vasconcelos on percussion and Alex Acuna on drums. This was a strong band, it was not just a collection of big name NY and LA session aces that graced the sophomore Street Dreams. Each musician in Lyle’s group had built some sort of previous playing relationship with each other, and the compositions soared. It was also the second recording after Metheny’s Song X with Ornette Coleman that was under the auspices of the guitarist’s newly formed Metheny Group Productions banner. Geffen offered Metheny a deal that was unheard of for jazz artists in that era. He was given unprecedented artistic and creative control which meant that not only did he not have to consider commercial concerns, he would own his own masters, and the label would distribute him and associated acts without regard to narrowed genre boxes, thus widening the audience. Metheny’s production company maintains the same practice to the present day under Nonesuch. The keyboardist’s self titled, the first of 5 as a leader, was a stunning unified vision. While there were some similarities with synth textures as found in Pat Metheny Group albums, Mays’ compositions shared more of a kinship with his classical upbringing, and he utilized intriguing colors such as the Uellean pipes to flavor the Gaelic twinge of “Highland Aire”, and the stark, cinematic “Teiko” utilizes the bass riff from Weather Report’s “Black Market” in a unique, fresh way. The increased production budget and time to record allowed for the studio to be used as an instrument in a way Metheny and Mays’ previous ECM recordings hinted at but could not fully accomplish. ECM’s one day to record, two days to mix ethos was one that made Metheny consider other options, as uniformly excellent his ECM output had been.
The follow up, Street Dreams in 1988, was a vast departure. The lead off “Feet First” showed Mays’ love of Steely Dan’s music, even employing Steve Gadd on the track on drums. The rest of the album was a striking mix of through composed pieces, and tone poems, both in small groups and orchestral settings. The film like four part “Street Dreams” suite was the album center: an enthralling, at times surreal piece, enhanced by percolating Brazilian rhythms, and 12 tone modern classical music. While the album has been viewed as inconsistent by some critics and fans due to an almost dizzying array of stylistic breadth, it contains marvels of compositional wonder. It holds up just as well as Lyle Mays, just a different shade, musically. From there, he released Fictionary in 1993 with a dynamite trio of Marc Johnson and Jack DeJohnette, which in terms of the ridiculous world of jazz purists raised his stock as a “legitimate” jazz player. SOLO: Improvisations For Expanded Piano released in 2000,is an album that is as much a brilliant technological statement as musical. In addition to the previous unreleased Ludwigsburg Concert in 2015, a double album with his touring group of Bob Sheppard, Marc Johnson and Mark Walker, the keyboardist had written chamber music and scores for children’s books, and participated in a TED Talks event in 2011, one of his final performances.
As a pianist, he was instantly recognizable, and absolutely selfless in his pursuit of contributing to a musical whole, a fresh improviser who again, thought in terms of orchestral potential. His famous solo on “First Circle” for example was a mini composition in itself, a solo of lean logic, and clear structure, it’s goose bump inducing drama perfectly placed. His improvisations were always cliché free and imbued a powerful confidence. He never considered himself a jazz player ironically enough but when called upon, he was a phenomenal swinger– as the solos in “Street Dreams: 2”, the Ludwigsburg Concert album, and “Episode D’Azur” can attest. I’d spend hours with the CD player search function going over certain synth lead sections (such as “As It Is”) and chord voicings because they sounded so great and invoked an intense emotional response in me. The motivic development of “Ascent” is heavenly, the way it builds till everything explodes, as another example.
Mr. Mays was unfairly glossed over in terms of the problematic, linear historical narrative. Very frequently in serious critical discussion outside Pat Metheny fans, the response to him was at times indifferent, wrongly viewed as a Keith Jarrett or Bill Evans clone. Sure, he had those influences, but he had an instantly identifiable voice, and following Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul the next in line of the most significant synthesizer innovators in jazz. He employed an organic sound palette first on Prophet 5, then Oberheim four and eight voice synths, then most famously Korg DW8000 and the Roland JX-10 (later ported to the Korg Triton and I believe Arturia virtual soft synths) that sounded like an orchestra, and less dated than some of the popular digital synths of the time. He is one of the most significant post Corea/Hancock pianists whose influence is heard all over the entire music world, whether people know it or not. All that adds to another mark of his astonishing genius. Let the history books show right now, Lyle Mays as a major innovator. Thank you for everything!
NEA Jazz master Jimmy Heath, one of the all time greats of the saxophone, and of composing and arranging left this plane earlier this week on January 19, 2020. The trailblazers of the bebop era are slowly leaving this world, only do Barry Harris and Roy Haynes remain of those who played with Charlie Parker. What made Heath so special, is his knack for composing and arranging memorable melodies, in an era where the small […]
NEA Jazz master Jimmy Heath, one of the all time greats of the saxophone, and of composing and arranging left this plane earlier this week on January 19, 2020. The trailblazers of the bebop era are slowly leaving this world, only do Barry Harris and Roy Haynes remain of those who played with Charlie Parker. What made Heath so special, is his knack for composing and arranging memorable melodies, in an era where the small group was the lingua franca of jazz– he made a big band swing like a quintet or sextet. The list of luminaries he was associated with was long, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Barry Harris, Sam Jones, Kenny Burrell, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Higgins. Perhaps there was no other family famous in jazz next to the Jones family, Hank, Elvin and Thad, than the the Heath Brothers, Jimmy, Percy and Albert, better known as “Tootie”.
Heath was born in Philadelphia in 1926, grew up in a musical household. His mother sang in the church choir, and his mechanic father, was a weekend clarinetist occasionally playing in marching bands, and together the family listened to the latest music from all the great big bands of the day. It was the sound of the big band that really captured him.and he applied the big band in a modern conception on his classic Riverside recordings in the sixties. Originally an alto saxophonist, he switched to tenor after gaining the nickname Little Bird. Heath had written the classic composition “C.T.A.” which Miles Davis recorded in 1953, and John Coltrane in 1957, but spent the majority of the 1950’s in jail for heroin. He cleaned himself up, and was released in 1959, remaining drug free as a staunch anti drug advocate for the rest of his life. His big band from 1947-8 had such future luminaries as Coltrane, Benny Golson, trumpeter Johnny Coles, and Heath had also spent time in the Dizzy Gillespie band, though he was a brief substitute in the Miles Davis quintet once Coltrane left.
The Riverside recordings such as, Really Big! (1960) and The Quota (1961) found the saxophonist in his element, escaping the rut that many A-A-B-A and hard bop compositions had fallen into by that time. Rather than resort to cliches, the tenor saxophonist utilized intriguing instrumental colors like a tenor, trumpet and french horn front line. Freddie Hubbard, who appeared on The Quota, Heath’s third Riverside album, used a similar sounding front line with Wayne Shorter and Bernard McKinney (later Kiane Zawadi) on euphonium, on Ready For Freddie (Blue Note, 1961) but Heath’s use of Hubbard, and Julius Watkins on french horn was simply brilliant, using wonderful textures that sounded much larger than three horns. The trend continued with Triple Threat in 1962, great melodies framed with attractive interludes and orchestration. Really Big! featured what would be now a dream band with soloists like Clark Terry, Cannonball Adderley and Nat Adderley.
In the 1970’s Heath along with Percy and Albert formed The Heath Brothers with Stanley Cowell on piano. Their Strata East album Marchin’ On in 1975, is famous for many hip hop groups sampling “Smilin’ Billy Suite”. Around this time, he recorded the Xanadu set A Picture of Heath (1975) an album of hard bop classics featuring previously recorded tunes such as “Bruh Slim” in a quartet with Barry Harris, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins. The Gap Sealer (Muse, 1974) was another popular recording.
As an educator, Heath, was honest, open and eager to pass on the traditions he learned from greats. However, he remained incredibly open minded towards hip hop and contemporary music development.he joined the Aaron Copland School of Music at City College in Queens, and his passion for education, like that of Barry Harris, was second to none. Jimmy Heath will always be remembered in this music and he will be sorely missed..