An incredibly luscious, stirring song whose ambience is delicate and nuanced, all 13 minutes of the new song “Eberhard” from recently passed pianist/composer Lyle Mays are like a much-anticipated train excursion through picture-perfect landscapes. The breadth of instrumentation adds to the journey as the listener is treated lovingly with a softly intricate sax solo, flavorful… Continue Reading →
An incredibly luscious, stirring song whose ambience is delicate and nuanced, all 13 minutes of the new song “Eberhard” from recently passed pianist/composer Lyle Mays are like a much-anticipated train excursion through picture-perfect landscapes. The breadth of instrumentation adds to the journey as the listener is treated lovingly with a softly intricate sax solo, flavorful notes from the marimba and vibes, and multiple meandering textural contributions from cello, bass clarinet, flute and more.
Vocalist Aubrey Johnson is featured on the song, Lyle Mays having been her uncle and musical mentor. He wrote her part, she said, to specifically fit her voice, which it does like a hand in a glove. Mays died in 2020, and Johnson (who is in charge of his estate’s intellectual property) says that every bit of what he taught her, including the intangibles, have been woven into the fabric of the music.
Mays, who was a member of the Pat Metheny Group, wrote the song as a “humble tribute” to bassist Eberhard Weber.
When did you become interested in jazz?
Aubrey Johnson: I first became seriously interested in jazz when I heard Dianne Reeves perform live in Green Bay, WI (my hometown) while I was in high school. I had fallen in love with her singing after listening to her album “The Calling”, a tribute to Sarah Vaughan with orchestral arrangements by Billy Childs. Though I had been playing (on piano) and singing jazz for several years at that point, hearing a jazz singer of Dianne’s mastery for the first time was life-altering; it made me realize I wanted to be a jazz vocalist.
What was your first public performance as a vocalist?
I performed a solo piece in front of my church congregation when I was six years old.
Major takeaways from your formal music education?
My time studying music in school greatly expanded my idea of what is possible as a vocalist. Being around other musicians who were better than I was and who had more experience and knowledge inspired me in ways I’d never imagined.
I learned the value of collaboration in music through the jazz choirs, classical choirs and jazz combos I was a part of, and grew as a musician through the wide variety of repertoire and genres I was exposed to. Classes in composition, arranging, improvisation, theory, history, ear training as well as classical and jazz voice lessons helped make me a well-informed and versatile musician.
After receiving a solid foundational education in music as an undergraduate student at Western Michigan University, I was able to develop my artistry and personal style and sound in a deeper way in graduate school at the New England Conservatory.
How do you take care of your voice?
I warm up and work on vocal technique most days, and make sure I spend enough time singing some kind of repertoire (whether it’s my own music, music for someone else’s project, jazz standards, pop, or Brazilian music) to keep my voice in shape. I also exercise regularly, generally eat well, and *try* to get enough sleep in order to care for my body, which of course affects my voice. I also study intermittently with an excellent opera teacher in New York City, Tami Petty, and with an amazing jazz singer who teaches at the University of North Texas (and who also sings on “Eberhard”), Rosana Eckert.
What do you like about the music of Jobim and other Brazilian artists?
I love the grooves, harmony, and melodic construction of Brazilian music, as well as the joyfulness and soulfulness of the compositions and the artists who perform them. I also love the unique sounds of the Portuguese language and how those sounds fit together with and accentuate the rhythms inherent in the music. I enjoy the frequent dichotomy between the lyrical meaning of a song and the grooves and harmonies. Often a song will sound very happy and fun but the lyrics will be incredibly sad. I love the idea that music can be joyful while also expressing darker emotions. It makes sense to me that the two can exist together, though I don’t hear it very often in other kinds of music.
What was it like working with Lyle Mays? How did you come to be involved in “Eberhard”?
My experiences performing and recording with Lyle will always be among the highlights of my career, and of my life. Lyle was an incredibly generous and incredibly exacting bandleader. His standards were other-worldly, but his music is so good and he knew so clearly what he wanted that he inspired everyone to be their best and to enjoy doing it. The way he worked with me showed me that I was capable of much more than I had imagined.
I became involved in “Eberhard” in 2009 when Lyle wrote the piece for the Zeltsman Marimba Festival. The parts that I sang on that concert, and later on the recording, were written specifically for my voice. Lyle was excellent at writing for individual instruments and for individual players/singers. He took the time to ask me in-depth questions about my singing and listened to a wide variety of my recordings, so that what he wrote for me both showcased my capabilities and challenged me but also felt good and easy in my voice.
What is involved in handling your mentor’s musical estate?
Managing Lyle’s musical estate is a tremendous honor that I take very seriously. All of my attention is on the release of “Eberhard” at the moment–I have self-released the album, which is quite a time-consuming process. Moving forward I’ll be working on other ways to further Lyle’s legacy and to keep his memory alive.
How would you characterize his creative process?
Lyle spoke often of the composition process having two distinct phases. The first phase consisted of a lot of improvisation and creative exploration. Then, once he was happy with a particular melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic cell or motif, he would move to the second phase which he liked to call “mining your material”–taking the idea or ideas and studying them and experimenting with them like a scientist. He imparted to me how important it is to develop new material based on the original material, as opposed to trying to generate a bunch of different ideas.
How would you describe your creative process?
My own process is very much the same (albeit considerably less advanced), due to my time studying with him. I usually sit down at the piano and play and sing until I find some good ideas that feel interesting and inspired, and then move to work on exploration and exploitation of the material. Some parts of the process occur very quickly and some are painstaking, but together I think the resulting music feels organic and interesting, as well as logical and connected.
Explain “singing wordlessly” – are you talking about scatting or something else?
Singing wordlessly could include scatting, but generally it’s singing a melody (or counterline, soli, background part, etc.) without lyrics that’s already been composed. Scatting typically refers to improvisation.
How did you keep musically busy during lockdown?
My circumstances as a teacher during the pandemic necessitated learning new technology; I was leading a few different vocal jazz ensembles online and I realized quickly that the best way to work with those ensembles online was through remote video and audio recordings. I would record demos of myself singing all of the vocal parts of the arrangements we worked on, they’d record, and then I would mix and edit their audio in Logic and assemble and sync the videos in Adobe Premiere Pro (both programs I knew little about prior to the pandemic). I also performed solo concerts for several concert series and organizations from home, sang at a few outdoor live-streamed concerts in the warmer months, and collaborated virtually with several different artists/ensembles.
What venues are opening back up and what is gigging like now?
Many of the venues in New York City are open again, though there are several important ones that are either permanently closed or haven’t yet reopened. I just found out the Village Vanguard is reopening in September, which is very exciting. Gigging feels fairly normal at this point–people generally don’t wear masks on stage or inside the venues, which have become quite packed again (because most places have a vaccine requirement to enter), though it’s becoming clear that we might be shifting back to more precautions in the coming months.
Lyle gave every last bit of the time and energy he had during the last months of his life to the completion of Eberhard. I’m extremely excited for the world to hear the music and to enjoy this incredible final gift that he left for us. Thank you for taking the time to listen!
In this post, we list the 2021 Grammy nominees in the jazz and jazz related categories. The awards will be presented on Sunday, January 31. 2021. Congratulations to all nominees!
This is something that I usually do when the Grammy nominations are first announced, each November but I took a little unscheduled break from blogging and the awards still aren’t going to be presented for another four weeks, so I have (a little) time.
Here’s a listing of all of the nominees for 2021 Grammys, in the jazz categories AND in the categories that are jazz related, such as Contemporary Instrumental (aka Contemporary/Smooth Jazz). Also, some of the artists from the jazz world, have started to drift into the R & B categories, such as Robert Glasper, Thundercat and Gregory Porter, so I want to at least give them a shoutout for their noms.
The awards will be presented on Sunday, January 31. The awards in all of the categories below will be handed out, beginning at 3pm (ET) during the Grammy Premiere Show, prior to the prime-time telecast, which will begin at 8pm (ET)
As usual, we will have a lot more to say about the nominated jazz music during the weeks prior to the awards. Until then, for those of you who were unaware, here are the nominated performances. Congratulations to all!
Best Improvised Jazz Solo For an instrumental jazz solo performance. Two equal performers on one recording may be eligible as one entry. If the soloist listed appears on a recording billed to another artist, the latter’s name is in parenthesis for identification. Singles or Tracks only.
GUINNEVERE Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, soloist Track from: Axiom
PACHAMAMA Regina Carter, soloist Track from: Ona (Thana Alexa)
CELIA Gerald Clayton, soloist
ALL BLUES Chick Corea, soloist Track from: Trilogy 2 (Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade)
Best Jazz Vocal Album For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new vocal jazz recordings.
ONA Thana Alexa
SECRETS ARE THE BEST STORIES Kurt Elling Featuring Danilo Pérez
MODERN ANCESTORS Carmen Lundy
HOLY ROOM: LIVE AT ALTE OPER Somi With Frankfurt Radio Big Band Conducted By John Beasley
WHAT’S THE HURRY Kenny Washington
Best Jazz Instrumental Album For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new instrumental jazz recordings.
ON THE TENDER SPOT OF EVERY CALLOUSED MOMENT Ambrose Akinmusire
WAITING GAME Terri Lyne Carrington And Social Science
HAPPENING: LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD Gerald Clayton
TRILOGY 2 Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade
ROUNDAGAIN Redman Mehldau McBride Blade
Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new ensemble jazz recordings.
DIALOGUES ON RACE Gregg August
MONK’ESTRA PLAYS JOHN BEASLEY John Beasley’s MONK’estra
THE INTANGIBLE BETWEEN Orrin Evans And the Captain Black Big Band
SONGS YOU LIKE A LOT John Hollenbeck with Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry, Gary Versace And the Frankfurt Radio Big Band
DATA LORDS Maria Schneider Orchestra
Best Latin Jazz Album For vocal or instrumental albums containing at least 51% playing time of newly recorded material. The intent of this category is to recognize recordings that represent the blending of jazz with Latin, Iberian-American, Brazilian, and Argentinian tango music.
TRADICIONES Afro-Peruvian Jazz Orchestra
FOUR QUESTIONS Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Best Contemporary Instrumental Album For albums containing approximately 51% or more playing time of instrumental material. For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new recordings.
AXIOM Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
CHRONOLOGY OF A DREAM: LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD Jon Batiste
TAKE THE STAIRS Black Violin
AMERICANA Grégoire Maret, Romain Collin & Bill Frisell
LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL Snarky Puppy
Best R&B Song A Songwriter(s) Award. A song is eligible if it was first released or if it first achieved prominence during the Eligibility Year. (Artist names appear in parentheses.) Singles or Tracks only.
BETTER THAN I IMAGINE Robert Glasper, Meshell Ndegeocello & Gabriella Wilson, songwriters (Robert Glasper Featuring H.E.R. & Meshell Ndegeocello)
BLACK PARADE Denisia Andrews, Beyoncé, Stephen Bray, Shawn Carter, Brittany Coney, Derek James Dixie, Akil King, Kim “Kaydence” Krysiuk & Rickie “Caso” Tice, songwriters (Beyoncé)
A complete list of CurtJazz’s 30 favorite jazz albums of 2020. Includes a Spotify playlist sampler
In the three previous posts, I’ve listed and discussed my favorite jazz albums of 2020. Bright musical oases, in this otherwise miserable year.
In this post, we bring all 30 of them together, in one place. In each album title is embedded a link to the album’s page on Amazon. In these extraordinarily difficult times, we encourage you to purchase these albums, if there’s something that you like. Streaming is nice but the financial support that it provides to the artists, is laughable. So we provide the Amazon links as a first alternative. However, many of the artists also have their own websites, through which you can purchase the music directly from them. If you are so inclined, I encourage you to go that route. It can provide maximum remuneration for the artists that you love. We will also feature tracks from each of these albums, throughout January 2021, on CurtJazz Radio. Click HERE to listen now.
We’ve also created another Spotify playlist, featuring selections from a dozen of the 30 albums on the list, to give those of you who have not yet visited the prior posts, an opportunity to sample the artistry represented here. I can’t say it enough. Streaming is nice but buying is better.
Here are my 30 for ’20, in alphabetical order, by artist name:
In our last set of my favorite jazz albums of 2020, we’ve got a reunion from a group of musicians who made remarkable music a quarter century ago, a very impressive debut album by a promising young pianist and a vocalist who delivers the remarkable album that we’ve been waiting for from them.
In our last set of my favorite jazz albums of 2020, we’ve got a reunion from a group of musicians who made remarkable music a quarter century ago, a very impressive debut album by a promising young pianist and a vocalist who delivers the remarkable album that we’ve been waiting for from them. Let’s take a look.
Once again, the albums are in alphabetical order, by artist name. We will also try hard again, to adhere to the three-sentence rule. So far, we’ve been mostly unsuccessful.
Joshua Redman’s 1994 album MoodSwing remains in my top three all time favorite discs by the prolific saxophone master. Redman was but 25 at the time of the album’s release (his third). He was joined by a trio of young (under 25) musicians, who held promise for what they could bring to jazz’s future: Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade, on drums. They dropped one exceptionally fine album and disbanded, all going on to fulfill their promise and become four of the most respected musicians in jazz today. Twenty-six years later, Redman reunited the group to deliver RoundAgain. Whereas Redman was the star the first time around, they have all returned as equals, each getting co-billing and contributing as composers. Other than that, absolutely nothing has changed. The four are still as swinging, tight and fiery as they were in 1994. Their work is now, as then, exemplary, and highly recommended.
It happens to me every year. I will have carefully selected the music to be included on this list by around the end of November. But there’s always some artist who will release an album, late in the year, that doesn’t reach my ears until December. Invariably, the music will be excellent and cause me to reconsider my “Best ofs”. This year, that artist is my old friend, Eric Reed. His new album, For Such a Time as This, is hands down, his best in over half a decade. This album was recorded in late June of this year, during the pandemic related lockdown, in Los Angeles. Mr. Reed assembled a hand-picked quartet of local musicians, and away they went. With all going on, this year, from COVID-19 to racism and racial injustice, to our fraught political environment, this became a very personal musical statement, for the pianist. I felt that. But I also felt that because it was so personal, his musicianship and those of his bandmates, moved to a higher level. Well done.
The most welcome sophomore release of the year for me, turned bittersweet, when I learned that one of the members of this wonderful vocal group, Holli Ross, had succumbed to cancer, between the completion of the album and its release. The album itself, is just as great as their stunning 2015 debut. The group’s harmonies are drum tight and joyous, even on the ballads. Guest spots by Christian McBride, Sheila Jordan, and the late Bob Dorough, enliven the proceedings even more. Ms. Ross, you have left us a beautiful memory, Rest in Peace.
This is the album that I’ve been waiting for from Kandace Springs, since she first grabbed my attention on her compelling but uneven debut album Soul Eyes. Perhaps because on The Women Who Raised Me, which is a tribute to the vocalists who influenced her, she finally has an album’s worth of material worthy of her stunning talent. Her honest, soul drenched voice, has never sounded better. With guest appearances by Norah Jones, David Sanborn, Chris Potter, Christian McBride and others, this album has placed her in the upper echelon of young soul-jazz vocalists.
Another on the growingly impressive list of jazz artists, under 30, who a creating a bright future for jazz, Alexa Tarantino is a multi-reed player, who demonstrates stunning proficiency on flutes, and soprano and alto saxophones, on this, her second album. Ms. Tarantino also wrote four of the nine selections, including two of the best performances, “Through”, which features her on flute and “A Race Against Yourself”, on which Tarantino delivers a blistering turn on alto sax. Two albums, in two years, each better than the last. I’m looking forward to hearing what next year will bring.
I’ve been an admirer of this big-toned tenor, ever since his impressive debut for Impulse! Records, 22 years ago. On this date, his first for Willie Jones III’s fine WJ3 label, he wraps that tone around seven originals and one standard. Mr. Tardy is an intelligent soloist and an excellent composer. His name should be far better known than it is. If Time Could Stand Still, is another winner in his catalog, a fine straight-ahead date with excellent solos from Tardy, guest star Alex Norris on trumpet and pianist Keith Brown, son of the piano master, Donald Brown. Keith is new to me and very impressive. I look forward to hearing more from him, in the future.
Oh my! I had no idea that Ms. Brianna Thomas existed until a few tracks from this album appeared in my new release file, a few months ago. Her voice is a marvel. It’s a blend of soul, blues, jazz, and world-weary heartbreak, that gives her a sound like no one else working today. Ms. Thomas delivers a cooking set, that straddles the line between blues and jazz, doing both idioms proud. Any vocalist who can pull off “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”, “Mississippi Goddam” and the slightly raunchy “My Stove’s in Good Condition”, with equal aplomb, on the same album, is my kind of singer. Nice to meet you, Brianna Thomas. Let’s do this again, soon.
I first heard the young, brilliant pianist, Isaiah J. Thompson, on Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s release A Handful of Keys, which featured several pianists of various ages and experience levels. Though Mr. Thompson was the youngest of the group, he managed to stand out among his seasoned colleagues. On his full album debut as a leader, he tackles the music of the youngest of the Montgomery Brothers, pianist Buddy. Mr. Montgomery wrote some fine and so far, under-recorded tunes, which makes this album quite appropriate. It’s also quite good. Mr. Thompson has impeccable taste as a soloist. He avoids the unnecessary runs and flourishes that plague many keyboardists of his age. This album is an outstanding start for an artist who has a very bright future.
This is the New Orleans native’s debut album, as a leader, at the tender age of 63 (thus the tongue-in-cheek title). He has often been confused with the popular jazz drummer of the same name (they are no relation) and during his 35-year career, Mr. Washington has often been shy about promoting himself and his considerable talents. Like the man himself, this album is not going to get in your face. It is low key, it swings, and it will insidiously wrap itself around your brain. Washington’s intonation and phrasing are excellent, and he has a marvelous way with the standards that make up most of the selections on the album. An excellent debut. Let’s hope a follow-up is forthcoming, soon.
Bobby Watson, who has had a long and storied career, as a musician, bandleader, and educator, has been on a hot streak of late, especially from a recorded perspective. The superb Keepin’ It Real, is the third critically acclaimed Smoke Sessions release that Mr. Watson has been a part of, in the last three years. Here, he just continues to do what he has been doing so well, since his days as musical director of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and then with his own group, Horizon; create catchy and memorable hard bop arrangements and infuse them with his inimitable sound and swing on alto sax. Now that he has retired from the education field, Mr. Watson has spoken of having more time for touring and recording. If he keeps producing music of this quality, the jazz world will be incredibly pleased. [Bobby Watson joined me, to discuss this album and his career, on Conversations with Curtis. Click HERE to view that interview, on You Tube].
A reminder, if you are interested in purchasing any of the music that we’ve discussed in these posts, clicking on the album title, will take you to the album’s page on Amazon.com. There is also a Spotify playlist below, which includes a track from each of the albums discussed here, for you to sample. And we’ll be featuring many of these albums throughout January 2021 on CurtJazz Radio. But please don’t just stream. During these tough times, these musicians can use your support more than ever, so if you like it, buy it.
Our next post will be a summary listing of all 30 albums, in our 30 for ’20 list. It will be up on the site, tomorrow.
Thoughts and opinions are welcome, as always, in the comments.
Our second set of ten of the best jazz albums of 2020, includes a brilliant final musical statement from a true jazz great, a trumpet master, who is still creating incredible music, in his eighth decade; an exciting South African pianist, who is setting the jazz world aflame and a sparkling tribute to some legendary ancestors by a few modern masters.
Our second set of ten discs, includes a brilliant final musical statement from a true jazz great, a trumpet master, who is still creating incredible music, in his eighth decade; an exciting South African pianist, who is setting the jazz world aflame and a sparkling tribute to some legendary ancestors by a few modern masters. Let’s dig in.
Once again, the albums are in alphabetical order, by artist name. We will also try hard again, to adhere to the three-sentence rule (but don’t bet on it!).
Jeff Hamilton is a drummer of impeccable swing and unerring sensibility. He is one of those cats who elevates any of his bandmates by his mere presence behind the kit; not that his mates in this trio, bassist Jon Hamar and pianist Tamir Hendelman, need any help. On this sublime date, which includes a nice mix of originals and standards that have not worn out their welcome, the Hamilton trio produces an album fondly reminiscent of the Oscar Peterson trio, in their prime days. That group also had a master of taste on the skins, the late, great Ed Thigpen. An album absolutely worth your time.
Jimmy Heath, a saxophonist whose stellar career included being on the stand with virtually every jazz great, from Charlie Parker through today’s up and coming stars, who learned at his feet, passed away last January, at age 93. He left us, as a final gift, Love Letter, an achingly beautiful album of ballads that he worked on, until just weeks before his death. With guest appearances by Wynton Marsalis, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Gregory Porter and a stellar group of sidemen, that included Kenny Barron on piano, Russell Malone on guitar and the wonderful and woefully under recorded Monte Croft, on vibes, this a fitting valedictory, to a jazz life, well-lived.
Dr. Eddie Henderson turned 80 years old, last October. From the way he looks on the cover of Shuffle and Deal and the way he sounds on the music inside, it is clear, that the good doctor, has found the Fountain of Youth. His trumpet attack is as blistering and energetic as it was when he was first heard, in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, in the early ‘70’s. With Kenny Barron and “Big Chief” Donald Harrison, alongside him as composers and bandmates, Dr. Henderson, has produced his second straight brilliant album for Smoke Sessions records. Age ain’t nothing but a number, doctor. Keep going for as long as you’ve got masterful music, in your soul.
Reality Check is pianist Theo Hill’s third album for PosiTone Records. While the prior two were good piano trio dates, Mr. Hill’s decision to expand to a quartet, with rising star vibraphonist Joel Ross, may have been what was needed to move the group from good to great. The instrumentation will draw natural comparisons, to the MJQ but the young members of this group are far more forward thinking and dare I say, modern, in their approach. And when Mr. Hill switches to Rhodes, he elevates this fine group, even higher.
Christopher Hollyday’s comeback, has been one of the feel-good stories in jazz, in the last few years. Signed by Novus/RCA, as part of the jazz young-lions craze of the early ‘90’s, while still in his teens, the young alto saxophonist was earnest but frankly, not yet ready for prime-time. When his career foundered in 1993, Mr. Hollyday returned to teaching and studying, becoming a highly respected educator in San Diego. He made his first record in 25 years, in 2018, the critically acclaimed Telepathy. This year, he followed up with Dialogue, every bit as good as its immediate predecessor. Itcrackles with the energy and self-assurance of a gifted, mature artist. Christopher Hollyday is back and better than ever. Hopefully, this time, it is to stay.
From the moment that I first heard Nduduzo Makhathini’s Blue Note debut, I knew that I had some homework to do. A pianist, Mr. Makhathini has been a force on the South African jazz scene for several years. Influenced by Americans such as McCoy Tyner and Andrew Hill, as well as by his countrymen, Abdullah Ibrahim and Bheki Mseleku, he has taken the essence of his homeland’s music and melded it with American jazz, in a way that I’ve heard others attempt but no other has succeeded on such a high artistic level. His was one of the truly fresh and exciting voices that I heard in jazz this year and I look forward to hearing more.
Since switching to the vibraphone from the drums, a few years back, it has been fascinating to watch the musical growth of the youngest musical Marsalis brother. On this set, recorded live three years ago, at the famed Little Gems Saloon, Marsalis is more relaxed and in the pocket, than I’ve ever heard him on this instrument. Maybe it’s because he is working with his regular working group or perhaps it is because the set consists of all Jason Marsalis originals. Whatever the reason, he has stepped up his vibraphone artistry, to the next level and this is a very high-quality album.
If you’re like me and a fan of the two classic recordings that Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery made in 1966, you know every note of those gems by heart. And like me, when you heard of this project, you wondered what could McBride’s Big Band bring to the table, on a tribute to those albums (and their arranger, Oliver Nelson), that could be fresh and new. For starters, organist Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Mark Whitfield, are both season veterans, who greatly admire the legends that they are standing in for but smart (and gifted) enough, not to be reduced to imitation. Second, the song selection includes only four tracks from the original two albums and finally, the arrangers only used Oliver Nelson’s charts on the tunes not on the Jimmy and Wes originals. The result is one hell of a good album. Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver would be pleased.
Cornetist Ron Miles’ prior album I Am a Man, brought him near universal acclaim, in the world of jazz and an opportunity to record for Blue Note Records. While Rainbow Sign employs the same musicians as its predecessor, for me, the writing went much deeper and the arrangements were denser. A couple of the songs even swung, in a relatively traditional sense. Mr. Miles composed the music for this album, while caring for his ailing father, up until the time of dad’s passing. That difficult situation may have infused Miles’ writing process. Whether it did or not, the music here, is the best of Ron Miles’ career.
On his second album for Marc Free’s PosiTone Records, trumpeter Farnell Newton has a decidedly groovier sound, precipitated by the presence of organist Brian Charrette. But this is not an all-out Earland/McDuff soul-jazz fest. In fact, this date sounds to these ears, like a more soulful version of Unity, the classic Larry Young album. Charrette is kept grounded by the hard driving but traditional drumming of the great Rudy Royston, while Newton and saxophonist Brandon Wright are flying high. The tension between the conventional and the greasy is palpable, throughout the project and it is what makes the music special.
A reminder, if you are interested in purchasing any of the music that we discuss in these posts, clicking on the album title, will take you to the album’s page on Amazon.com. There is also a Spotify playlist below, which includes a track from each of the albums discussed here, for you to sample. But please don’t just stream. During these tough times, these musicians can use your support more than ever, so if you like it, buy it.
Our next post will feature the final ten of our 30 for ’20. It will be up, tomorrow.
Thoughts and opinions are welcome, as always, in the comments.
Herbie Hancock is a restless visionary and groundbreaking artist. This year marks the 80th birthday of one of music’s most important innovators. Growing up in Chicago, being a classical piano prodigy, and having an insatiable appetite for curiosity, both as a player and technological innovator the keyboardist has pushed the boundaries of genre and collaboration for over 50 years. From his beginnings with Donald Byrd, to his life changing experience as a member of the […]
Herbie Hancock is a restless visionary and groundbreaking artist. This year marks the 80th birthday of one of music’s most important innovators. Growing up in Chicago, being a classical piano prodigy, and having an insatiable appetite for curiosity, both as a player and technological innovator the keyboardist has pushed the boundaries of genre and collaboration for over 50 years. From his beginnings with Donald Byrd, to his life changing experience as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet for five years, Hancock has walked a musical tightrope of creation.
This piece focuses on a carefully curated selection of eight groundbreaking Hancock tracks that go beyond the borders of jazz and are significant for their enduring influence, and use of new technologies at the time: the Arp, Moog, Prophet and Oberheim synthesizers, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the Sennheiser vocoder, the Linn LM-1 drum machine and the parents of modern digital audio workstations, the Fairlight and Synclavier synthesizers. One track, “Harvest Time” while acoustic in nature, is included for it’s use of then new digital recording technology and the audiophile direct to disc recording system.
Rain Dance from Sextant (Columbia, 1972). Hancock left Blue Note in 1969, and signed with Warner Bros for three albums. Following Fat Albert Rotunda, a soundtrack for Bill Cosby’s television show that introduced funk into Herbie’s repertoire moreso than an initially rejected (but later released) track “Don’t Even Go There” or his soundtrack for the Italian cult classic film Blow Up. Fat Albert Rotunda still retained the lush rich orchestrations of his final Blue Note albums Speak Like A Child (1968) and The Prisoner (1969) but Mwandishi, consisting of Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Bennie Maupin on reeds, Julian Priester on trombones, Buster Williams on bass and Billy Hart on drums and Dr. Patrick Gleeson on synthesizer. the band sought something different. From Crossings (1972) the band’s second album, and the ensemble freely explored avant leaning improvisations, treacherous odd meters and textures influenced by musique concrete and composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. Additionally, with burgeoning black consciousness expanding following the civil rights movement each musician adopted African names– Mwandishi, Hancock’s chosen moniker meant teacher or leader in Swahili. A huge reason for the bands success as a working unit t was not just Hancock, it was the man who introduced him to synthesis, Dr. Patrick Gleeson who not only provided ground breaking and other worldly synth textures to Crossings, and Sextant but also toured with the ensemble . Background on Dr. Gleeson is critically important to understanding why “Rain Dance” is such a pivotal track. Hancock’s primary use of Fender Rhodes electric piano as opposed to his customary acoustic, fitted with an echo plex tape device permitted cosmic and under water like textures that sounded unlike anything else at the time.
Gleeson’s goal was to originally play jazz piano. Hailing from Seattle, he eventually forged an academic career teaching English literature and was also a significant political activist. The time of the late 1960’s was a new cultural frontier with Eastern spirituality, the traumas and outrage from the Vietnam war, and growing tensions from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. While teaching, Gleeson’s experience of tripping on acid, led him to return to music in a roundabout way. These events lead to the creation of Different Fur Trading a community funded studio which Hancock also used for Headhunters. Further, Gleeson’s challenges as a political activist and strong conviction against practices at the university landed him an unjust arrest record, and following leaving the university began his quest of integrating music and technology in unprecedented ways. His mission was to investigate synthesis in a manner that would eventually lead to innovative, practical applications beyond the walls of an academic institution.
The professor’s first forays into synthesis began while he used San Francisco State’s AV facilities department to record mundane sounds which would be later edited, and used as transitional material between rock groups at local SF venues such as the Avalon Ballroom and the Haight Theater. As Gleeson noted in a 2015 interview with Red Bull Music Academy:
“It was electronic music, not jazz. And when I say electronic music, I really mean musique concrète – tape manipulations and that sort of thing. There was no real distinction at the time,” he recalls. He began using equipment from San Francisco State’s AV department to go out and record sounds from his everyday life, which he would then splice with a razorblade. “We’d put on performances of this stuff at places like The Avalon Ballroom or at some theater in the Haight. We’d do it between rock groups. You know? You’d bring your shit in and turn it on. And everyone was out of their heads on acid, so no matter what you did they’d say, ‘Wow, this sounds great!’”
These experiments would later foster a relationship with the Divisadero Street Tape Music Center where Dr. Gleeson would encounter avant garde luminaries such as pioneer composers of so called “minimal” music, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and also Don Buchla of whom he acquired the first Buchla synth unit. Without Gleeson, or Bwana as he was known in the band, the music of Mwandishi would not have turned out as it did. During the sessions for Crossings, the final album for Warner Brothers and arguably the group’s most adventurous album, Gleeson further explained in the Red Bull Academy interview:
“I told him about what I’d been doing with Bitches Brew and said, ‘I’d like to get in on this. I can do this.’ And so, David went to Herbie and (I later found out) said, ‘Look, there’s this guy, he’s not in your league – which, fair enough, who is – but he’s been doing synthesizer programming for me and he can play. But what he can really do is set the machine up for you.’”
At the time, Hancock and the Mwandishi band were recording Crossings, the daring follow-up to Mwandishi. Rubinson advised Hancock to bring some of the already recorded material to Different Fur to see what they might add. “So Herbie comes down to the studio with the material they’d already recorded. I’d just bought a 16 track, and it had a loop function. So he tells me to set everything up and he puts on ‘Quasar.’ So we’re listening and he says, ‘Can we hear that again?’ We loop it. He says, ‘I’m thinking of something we can add here.’ So I start patching the Moog 3, and I’m just rushing like crazy because I think I have no time to get this shit together. And then he says, ‘Okay, did you record that?’ And I tell him no because I was setting up the synthesizer for him to play. And Herbie being Herbie, he liked what I was doing and says, ‘Well, why don’t you just keep playing, I’ll be back later, just keep going.’ And by the time he’d come back the next day I’d overdubbed an entire side of the album.”
Hancock’s Milesian instincts to let Gleeson just be himself, set the stage for some of the most intriguing music yet heard in the keyboardist’s oeuvre. “Quasar” alternates odd meters, swing, unusual electronic textures with voices for something sounding like a soundtrack for a super hero epic, while Bennie Maupin’s strange “Water Torture” lays a few thematic elements that mood wise would resurface on “Vein Melter” the last cut on Headhunters and intense dramatic arc from Gleeson’s synth work amidst highly conversational rubato playing. Gleeson’s overdubs in a marvel of post production sound absolutely as if he was playing with the band in the studio in real time.
“Rain Dance” was the opening track on Hancock’s first Columbia album Sextant (1972). Aside from Robert Springett’s futuristic cover art continued from Crossings , the track is a microcosm of the keyboardist’s fascination with technology and genre blurring. Kraftwerk had also laid the template for electronic music producers in the ensuing decades in the 1960’s, but “Rain Dance” with it’s use of analog synth sequencing at the cut’s opening, hand claps, and panoply of electronic sounds juxtaposed with the acoustic sounds of bass and drums, with Henderson’s heavily reverberant trumpet sounded of the the future. The burbling, occasionally discordant synth blasts from Gleeson (who also makes brilliant textural contributions to Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus) firmly rooted in the tradition of pieces such as Edgar Varese’s “Poeme Electronique” (1958) but also pointing to untraveled places, forming a wall of noise were also ahead of their time and a blueprint for a lot of current trends in electronic music. The overall sound of Sextant did signal some changes in that it was leaning towards in some respects the funkier direction of Headhunters. It is the most accessible of all the Mwandishi recordings but no less challenging and rewarding. Dr. Gleeson has recently released an electronic interpretation of Holst’s The Planets and for further reading on Mwandishi, Bob Gluck’s You Know When You’ll Get There: Herbie Hancock and The Mwandishi Band is available.
Chameleon from Headhunters (Columbia, 1973)
Hancock’s Mwandishi group, despite being some of the most satisfying artistic work of his entire career was unsustainable commercially. Their live shows, (of which no tapes reportedly survive of officially recorded material) were legendary for traveling to unknown vistas. Much like former boss Miles Davis, Hancock was looking at new ways of reinventing his sound and gaining a new audience. He took interest in the music of Sly Stone, and James Brown and sought to reconcile that with his own conception. Bennie Maupin remained on saxophones, while Hancock added bassist Paul Jackson, the specialist maestro of African percussion, Bill Summers, and drummer Harvey Mason. The result was Headhunters, a journey into in the pocket but simultaneously elastic funk, jazz improvisation and advanced harmony. The music was such a change for Hancock in the eyes of Columbia record executives, that he and manager David Rubinson had to fight to get it released. Also, “Chameleon” itself had to be edited down to 7 minutes from 15 and a half minutes to accommodate single release.
The track’s iconic bass line with Hancock on an Arp Odyssey synthesizer was a bit of a role reversal. As the Miles Davis Quintet reversed roles with the rhythm section leading Wayne Shorter’s classic “Nefertiti”, Hancock took an active role as a bass player AND guitarist through guitar like comping on the Hohner D-6 clavinet via overdubs. Bassist Paul Jackson, a former acoustic bassist whose electric bass lines captured an agility of an acoustic, tuned up the electric bass and used it as an electric guitar adding more counterpoint in the thick polyrhythmic stew. Hancock’s Arp Odyssey solo on the first section explored it’s timbral and textural capacity. On the third section of the track with rich harmonies often omitted when bands cover the track, the keyboardist has yet another iconic moment with his rich, pillowy Fender Rhodes electric piano solo. Ironically, the Fender Rhodes was developed in the 1940’s but did not see widespread popular music use until the late 60’s and by the early 70’s, had become the de facto keyboard sound of a decade. Hancock, along with Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul had developed an immensely personal voice on the instrument, and along with Corea has been for years one of the most imitated and emulated sounds in all of music. While Hancock’s solo made use of the stereo tremolo on the Rhodes, his Arp string ensemble orchestrations were so organic they sounded like a real string section– even more convincing than the analog tape loops used for the mellotron, which can be viewed as one of the world’s first sampling keyboards long before the Fairlight and Synclavier entered the digital realm.
Come Running To Me from Sunlight (Columbia, 1977)
Sunlight followed several albums that included the Headhunters line up Thrust (1974) and the live initially only released in Japan Flood (1975) with the exception of Mike Clark adding his innovative funk conception based out of Oakland replacing Harvey Mason. Man Child (1975)and Secrets (1976) refined the R&B and funk that Hancock first explored with Headhunters with vestiges of the Headhunters lineups mixed with the cream of the crop of LA studio pros. The productions became slicker, and more commercial with the aim of really crossing over to the popular music tastes in the black community that were captured by Sly Stone, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire just to name a few. With Sunlight, Hancock aimed at the disco crowd with it’s title track and thumping lead single “I Thought It Was You”; but there was a distinct difference this time around. Not only did Hancock play keyboards, but also became a lead singer.
If the thought of Hancock becoming a vocalist seems like a paradox viewed from a jazz purist perspective, it is the root of his next sonic and technological innovation. Vocoders seem like just a normal part of the musical landscape today, as well as being the technology that is at the core of Autotune, Melodyne and other pitch correction software- but it was quite fresh in the 1970’s. The vocoder was developed by Homer Dudley, who worked at Bell Labs, first patented in 1928 and used for military use. The function of the vocoder was to convert human speech and break it down as digital bits garbling, distorting it, giving a robotic sound. The intended use of the vocoder originally was for underwater communication. Kraftwerk was a huge proponent of the instrument, the same time as Hancock. Avant garde icon Laurie Anderson also had a major mainstream hit with 1983’s “O Superman” in which the vocoder was used to transmit a cold, harsh, robotized voice that satirized the corporate nature that society had morphed into. The Sennheiser vocoder offered the keyboardist a chance to sing with his imperfect voice.
“Come Running To Me” was a lush love song co written with hit maker Allee Willis, and also contained orchestration from brass, reeds and strings. Hancock’s arrangement recalled the gorgeous dark instrumental timbres found on Speak Like A Child, The Prisoner and “Tell Me A Bed Time Story” on Fat Albert Rotunda. The vocoded singing seemed to portray an extra feeling of longing, the detached humanity adding melancholy. The track has been incredibly popular with hip hoppers, especially the late J Dilla ingeniously slowing it down in a track, and long before Daft Punk, Sunlight was a shining example of vocoder use in popular music. Hancock would continue to use the vocoder to varying degrees of success on future albums, and as recently as a few years ago began using it again in live concerts reprising “Come Running to Me”.
The Piano (CBS/Sony, 1978)
There is a reason for including an entire album in this list of eight tracks, because it is of a piece. The Piano was one of eight albums that Hancock recorded for Columbia’s Japanese affiliate CBS/Sony. Prior to it’s debut U.S. CD release in 2004, and subsequent reissue in The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988 the album was also one of the rarest and hardest to find in Hancock’s discography. The CBS/Sony connection allowed the keyboardist to record straight ahead albums that the U.S. Columbia branch deemed not as profitable, but they also gave him the opportunity to test out emerging technologies. Sony had developed the PCM 1600 for digital recording one of the first widely available digital recording systems, and also were actively involved in the audiophile direct to disc process in which a performer played live in real time as a vinyl album was being cut, by a stylus cutting into a lathe, not unlike early pre magnetic tape recording at the start of recorded music. A back up digital tape was made of the session, but the direct to disc process forced Hancock to cut a precise error free suite of songs without stopping, enough to cover an LP side. Hancock played a variety of tunes, both standards associated with Miles Davis, and recent originals. The album sounds absolutely incredible, and is a rare example of him as a solo pianist.
Textures from Mr. Hands (Columbia, 1980)
Mr Hands was Hancock’s last funk album before the next stylistic change into pop, rock and R&B. The brief stylistic detour would ultimately culminate in his electro and techno based trilogy with Bill Laswell that through the smash “Rockit” would make Hancock a household name for an entire new generation that did not grow up on jazz. “Textures” book ended an album that saw Hancock reunite with the original Headhunters lineup with Harvey Mason, Ron Carter and Tony Williams whom he had been playing with in the VSOP Quintet, and Jaco Pastorius. The track was significant because not only did the keyboardist play all instruments himself, but he debuted a new piece of gear into his arsenal– the digital, sample based Linn LM-1 drum machine. The LM-1, while not the first drum machine to exist, did change the face of pop music forever as it was prominent throughout the new decade of the 80’s. Hancock programmed a relatively simple, subtly swinging beat, but it’s striking in the context of the moody sound scape the track created, which also included his trusty Sennheiser vocoder.
The TwilightClone from Magic Windows (Columbia, 1981)
The album Magic Windows was the second in a triptych that saw Hancock interested in more of an L.A. rock, R&B and funk based sound but also still contained disco elements with the track “Magic Number” featuring Sylvester on vocals. “The Twilight Clone”, the final track is a fascinating pre Future Shock glimpse into the musical world Hancock would inhabit a year and a half later with Bill Laswell. In some ways the track is even more effective than the Laswell collaborations because there is a real post futurist dystopian grit through the use of the LM-1, Hancock’s synthesizers and the otherwordly tones of King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew that seemingly suggest a neon industrial city, the stuff of cyberpunk stories like Blade Runner or Japanese animation classics like Akira.
Rockit from Future Shock (Columbia, 1983)
“Rockit” from the first album with producer/bassist Bill Laswell and his collective Material was a game changing track in a lot of ways. Not only did it elevate Hancock to household name status, he was one of the first artists with a jazz background to take on the young genre of hip hop on it’s own terms. Previously Fab Five Freddy collaborated with Max Roach, but in it’s scope seemed to be more of something to connect the roots of hip hop to jazz. With “Rockit”, Hancock was willing to take the music on it’s own terms, and after his string of pop and R&B albums wished to try something new. Hancock had heard a tape of Material, was blown away by that and the use of early turntablism on a track from Malcolm McLaren and agreed to collaborate with Laswell and together incorporated these elements into the track. As Hancock detailed in his memoir Possibilities once Columbia executives were presented with the track at a meeting, they heard the sound of a record scratching courtesy of Grand Mixer D. ST (now DXT) at the start of the track, and could not make sense of it.
As with Headhunters ten years earlier, the label felt that this new sound had nothing to do with Hancock’s previous work, had no idea how to market it and Hancock had to once more fight to have the album released. Perhaps more than the hip hop and b-boy culture embracing the song, it’s video with robotic mannequins created by Jim Whiting had the biggest culture impact. Hancock won an MTV video award for the bizarre, memorable video, as well as a Grammy, and as MTV was first starting, they refused to play black artists on TV, which is why Hancock only appeared on a video screen. Along with Michael Jackson, Hancock was the other prominent black artist to get played on MTV, a major achievement that would pave the way for Prince, various hip hop artists and in future generations, Beyonce and Kanye West. The mechanized feel of the track was also accomplished through the use of the Fairlight CMI, E-Mu digital keyboard and a host of other devices. The Fairlight, along with it’s competitor New England Digital’s Synclavier were some of the main production tools in pop music in the 80’s and their host of recognizable timbres and samples can be found on countless recordings of the era.
Dis Is Da Drum from Dis Is Da Drum (Mercury, 1994)
A decade after “Rockit”, Herbie Hancock began a deal with a new label and was searching once more to update his sound. For non jazz projects, he signed with Mercury, and for jazz oriented projects he signed with the legendary Verve Records. The bulk of his most path breaking music was on Columbia, a tenure that ended with Perfect Machine the final collaboration for the label with Bill Laswell in 1988. This new deal offered some intriguing possibilities that would once again place Hancock at the forefront of technical innovation. The initial concept for Dis Is Da Drum started as an interactive multimedia album, in which the user could choose different mixes, and make choices in the direction of the recording. The idea/format never really took off in the form it was intended, but Hancock did innovate this 90’s hip hop and dance flavored track with another visionary video that used CGI and early facial motion capture.
(c)2020, CJ Shearn for New York Jazz Workshop, LLC
The New York Jazz Workshop is offering online courses post pandemic with world class instructors and catering to many levels of musicians. The school has recently upgraded it’s streaming capabilities as well.
Covid-19 has been especially hard on musicians and for The New York Jazz Workshop. Just as we invested $100,000 on a lease downpayment and soundproofing for our new location we are unable to use it due to Covid-19 We have transitioned some of our classes online, but our most important programs in the spring and summer are postponed indefinitely. Many students and friends have been contributing to our casue and we are deeply grateful. Please […]
Covid-19 has been especially hard on musicians and for The New York Jazz Workshop.
Just as we invested $100,000 on a lease downpayment and soundproofing for our new location we are unable to use it due to Covid-19
We have transitioned some of our classes online, but our most important programs in the spring and summer are postponed indefinitely. Many students and friends have been contributing to our casue and we are deeply grateful. Please contribute if you can.
Ellington playing the electric piano, Billy Strayhorn on harpsichord and the 1932 band in stereo are just some of the different items you’ll hear from the Ellington oeuvre. Continue reading →
“Moon Maiden represents my public debut as a vocalist, but I don’t really sing. I’m a pencil cat. My other number will be I Want To See The Dark Side Of Your Moon, Baby. Everybody dreams about going to the moon, but I have too many obligations here, too many projects I haven’t completed.”
The recordings heard on this podcast episode:
Moon Maiden (LP: “The Intimate Ellington” Pablo 2310-787)
Recorded 14 July 1969, New York City
Duke Ellington – vocal, celeste.
Moon Maiden (CD: “Live and Rare” Bluebird 09026-63953-2)
Recorded 4 September 1969, New York City
Cootie Williams, Willie Cook, Lloyd Michaels – trumpet; Lawrence Brown, Benny Green, Chuck Connors – trombone; Norris Turney, Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Harold Ashby, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney – reeds; Duke Ellington – piano, vocal; Wild Bill Davis – organ;Paul Kondziela, Victor Gaskin – bass; Rufus Jones – drums.
Black and Tan Fantasy (CD: “Jump for Joy” Jazz Life CD CD 15012)
Recorded 25 May 1962, New York City
Bill Berry, Roy Burrowes, Cat Anderson, Ray Nance – trumpet; Leon Cox, Lawrence Brown, Chuck Connors – trombone; Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney – reeds; Duke Ellington – piano; Aaron Bell – bass; Sam Woodyard – drums.
Discontented Blues / Once In A Blue Mood (CD: “The Complete Capitol Recordings of Duke Ellington” Mosaic Records MD5-160)
Recorded 19 May 1955, Chicago
Ray Nance – trumpet; Quentin Jackson – trombone; Russell Procope – clarinet, alto sax; Duke Ellington – electric piano; Jimmy Woode – bass; Dave Black – drums.
East St. Louis Toodle-O/Lot O’ Fingers/Black And Tan Fantasy
Recorded 9 February 1932, New York City
Arthur Whetsel, Freddie Jenkins, Cootie Williams – trumpet; Joe Nanton, Juan Tizol – trombone; Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney – reeds; Duke Ellington – piano; Fred Guy – banjo; Wellman Braud – bass; Sonny Greer – drums.
— Our closing music —-
It’s Something You Ought To Know (Paul Gonsalves – “Ellingtonia Moods and Blues,” RCA Victor / RCA63562)
Recorded 29 February 1960, New York City
Paul Gonsalves- tenor sax; Johnny Hodges – alto sax; Ray Nance – cornet; Mitchell “Booty” Wood – trombone; Jimmy Jones – piano; Al Hall – bass; Oliver Jackson – drums.