Category Archives: Jazz

Horace Silver – Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers – Classic Music Review

horace-silver

I didn’t want to end the year without doing at least ONE jazz review, and out of the hundreds of jazz albums on my to-do list, I chose the one I would characterize as “most exuberant.”

Horace Silver was a pretty exuberant guy, with a smile to match. When you read descriptions of his piano style, you see words and phrases  like “crisp,” “chipper,” “idiosyncratic,” “colorful,” “upbeat,” “exciting,” “uplifting,” and “generous good humor.” I suppose how you react to that last tag depends upon your sense of humor. Monk is the only pianist who makes me laugh, but Horace does make me smile.

Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers was an important and influential album, but before I get to that aspect of the work, I have to stress that it’s also an extremely enjoyable album. Jazz critics turn a lot of people off to jazz by droning on and on about the technical aspects of major developments in jazz, placing the aesthetic experience on the back burner. I will now harken back to the vernacular of the time and tell you that Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers is an absolute gas.

Its influence owed a lot to perfect timing. The post-war years of jazz involved the sharp departure from the rhythmic emphasis of swing to the harmonic emphasis of bebop. In simple terms, you can dance to swing but you can’t dance—at least in the conventional sense—to bebop (and because a lot of bebop is played at breakneck speed, you’d probably die of a coronary). Bebop made things even more complicated because the harmonies the beboppers created were complex, non-standard harmonies—harmonies that sounded strange to the ears of anyone raised on classical music or The Andrews Sisters. In a muted response to bebop, some jazz musicians (particularly on the West Coast, but also Miles Davis) decided they wanted to slow the tempo and ease up on the intensity to produce a lighter sound while still embracing the harmonic connections bebop made possible. The critics named this style cool jazz (and in a fit of classification madness, later “discovered” a sub-genre of cool jazz called “West Coast Jazz.”) If you’re familiar with Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, that record is allegedly a marriage of cool jazz and West Coast Jazz (said the critics, ignoring the Turkish influences).

The thing with bebop and cool jazz is that both had moved jazz a long way from its rhythmic origins, particularly blues and gospel. Jazz lost a good chunk of its audience during these years in part because the music lacked what the average person would identify as rhythm. “Fer chrissakes, can’t ya gimme somethin’ I can at least snap my fingers to?” cried frustrated jazz fans.

“Sure thing!” said Horace Silver and Art Blakey, the masterminds behind a newly-formed jazz combo called the Jazz Messengers (the name had been around for a while, in Art’s possession). What Horace and Art did is inject contemporary R&B along with the early rhythmic underpinnings of jazz (gospel and blues) into their music. Horace (who composed most of the work) also shifted the emphasis from harmony back to melody, giving the average listener patterns they could easily recognize and recall. They didn’t abandon all the lessons from bebop, but integrated those lessons into compositions characterized by melody and rhythm to make the music more appealing to an audience.

The critics had to name it something, so they called it hard bop.

If you’ve never heard Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, I’m going to tell you right now that you’re wrong. I am 100% positive you have heard snippets of several of the songs on this album—maybe in a film, maybe on television, maybe in the background music that accompanies your shopping spree if you’re lucky to shop in a place that doesn’t buy the cheapest muzak available. I would guess the two you’ve heard are “Doodlin'” and “The Preacher,” but “Creepin’ In” is also a safe bet. When Horace Silver set out to create memorable songs, he did not fuck around. The melodic phrases will stick in your head forever.

“Room 608” kickstarts the album with a high-speed swing (240bpm) that certainly fits the bop paradigm. After a memorable introduction heavy on bluesy major and minor seventh chords (with some fascinating 6/9 variations and a loaded G7 at the finish), the quintet takes flight in a classic unison arrangement. A thunderous—and I mean fucking THUNDEROUS—drumroll from Art Blakey announces the shift from unison playing to soloists, and first up is the amazing and classically underrated Kenny Dorham on trumpet. With Horace Silver pushing him with assertive rhythmic support, Kenny flies like an eagle, completely in command of his instrument despite the breakneck speed. Combining bright clear notes with high-speed trills isn’t easy, but Kenny makes it all sound like a walk in the park. I hate to see him go, but the disappointment is fleeting as Horace Silver takes us on a solo loaded with bright melody and spiced with a short series of intensely played blue notes that certify the piece as hard bop. Although a pianist can’t  bend notes, you can achieve a similar effect with a quick run that ends on a flattened fifth or seventh (or a flattened sixth if you’re really evil), and Horace had the speed, discipline and percussive ability to pull it off with gusto. A stop time unison segment follows with a saxophone teaser in the middle, indicating Hank Mobley is next up. I’ve always felt that Hank should have taken the first solo, saving Kenny for last, simply because Hank was from the laid-back school while Kenny Dorham had greater dynamic range and command. I do notice that Horace seems to intensify his playing during Hank’s solo, placing himself closer to the center of attention by focusing on the upper end of the keyboard. Hank gives way to Art Blakey, who restores the balance with a thumping drum solo that only hints at his virtuosity but successfully restores the intensity of the piece. All’s well that ends well as the quintet returns in tight unison, the last note going to bassist Doug Watkins, who has matched Art beat for beat to keep this sucker moving. “Room 608” is a knockout opening piece that displays the talents of the soloists and the absolute commitment of the band to the music.

“Creepin’ In” is a late-night mood piece that seems to begin as a minor blues but expands to include a larger chord palate as it moves forward, with A-flat minor serving as the anchor. Here Hank Mobley comes first after the unison introduction, his mellow tone reinforcing the smoky bar ambience. Kenny follows his lead by restraining his blow, happy to explore the myriad possibilities inside and outside of the baseline chord progression. Great contributions by both gentlemen, but throughout the piece I’ve had one ear focused solely on what Horace Silver is doing, and while it may be pianist favoritism, I find his work absolutely riveting. During the introduction, he serves as call-and-response to the main theme, providing a rather loping counterpoint that inspires a picture of a patron who’s had a bit too much of the sauce. Every now and then, though, he throws in a riff that strengthens the progression at just the right moment. During Hank’s solo, Horace turns up the brightness while shifting from chords in the pattern to slight variants that are complementary only within the larger harmonic palette of bebop. All brilliantly connective, but when it’s turn for his solo, he shifts to Count Basie minimalism with a series of eventually descending blue note duplets before latching onto the main chord pattern. His next descent sounds almost classical, with formal-sounding trills that magically lead back to a more bluesy feel. His last descent combines a daring run down the keyboard before he reinforces the theme and ends in one beautiful flurry of blue. Although Monk is my favorite pianist, on the rare but pleasant occasions when I sit in with a jazz combo, I use Horace Silver as my model for sustaining an unbroken connection with the theme. While “Creepin’ In” is the longest piece on album, clocking in at 7:27, it never drags thanks to the combination of discipline and diversity of the combo and Horace Silver’s ability to pull it all together.

“Stop Time” ratchets up the tempo and gives everyone in the band a place in the spotlight, where they all shine. Art Blakey’s solo is framed within brief phrases from Dorham and Mobley on the first few rounds, but when they break the frame and let him go, he pounds those skins like there’s no tomorrow. Critics and fans have noted the relative restraint Art Blakey displays on this album, making moments like this solo all the more special. It’s followed by “To Whom It May Concern,” an interesting piece incorporating flamenco rhythm influences in the “chorus” and “urban cool” in the “verses.” “Hippy” gives the combo another chance to display their tightness in unison and the soloists another chance to riff off a straightforward chord pattern and the Blakey-Watkins rhythm section. Blakey’s solo here features one of his marvelous drum rolls, leading to a strong finish.

My first reaction to “The Preacher” is usually disorientation—something along the lines of “What the fuck?” Here I am digging the hard bop sounds mid-50’s America and all of a sudden I’m yanked back in space in time to Dixieland in the 1920’s. What the hell is “The Preacher” doing here?

My reaction is understandable and supported by precedent: producer Alfred Lion didn’t want the song on the album either. Horace Silver held his ground, and lo and behold, “The Preacher” became the album’s hit: another entry in my “What the fuck do I know?” journal.

Interestingly, the song did not originate anywhere near the bayou, but on an English train. Silver took the chords from a 1926 novelty hit called “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” written by two enterprising gents who wrote under the synonym “Irving King.” They were on a train heading out of London one evening, got likkered up and wrote a song about the numbing effects of alcohol. Back in the days when sheet music still held sway with the music-purchasing public, “Show Me the Way to Go Home” sold over two million copies, making the fake Irvings rich and respectable. The song has been recorded by many artists over the years, and modern listeners probably know the song from the movie Jaws.

Jazz composers often borrow chords from old songs as a starting point for new compositions, so it wasn’t unusual that Horace Silver found inspiration in this bit of Vaudeville.  Where he differed from his contemporaries was in his straightforward approach—instead of deconstructing the piece à la Charlie Parker, he changed the rhythm to a good old Dixieland strut . . . well, kinda sorta. The first two passages are positively prehistoric, classic New Orleans jazz à la the Jazz Preservation Hall Band. After that, it’s smooth sailing on a looser rhythm where the soloists pay due respect to the melodic structure of the song while removing the starch, creating in effect a delightful tribute to the origins of jazz that clearly establishes the genetic connection to this newfangled hard bop stuff. When the combo returns to the main theme, the reaction is a smile instead of a jerk, and you appreciate the ingenuity that went into the arrangement.

The only non-Silver composition on the album is Hank Mobley’s piece, “Hankerin’.” This nice, breezy uptempo piece is a good intro to hard bop for the neophyte because of its cheerful major key melodic lines. Hank’s solo is relatively brief but helps temper the speed of the piece through his “no sweat” approach to the sax. Kenny Dorham absorbs the cue and delivers his solo without a lot of drama. Horace gets the bulk of the attention with a nimble, melodic solo that might sound sweet in a slower tempo. All through the piece, Art Blakey has expressed a certain restlessness, adding unexpected thumps and rolls in spots. When he finally gets his turn, you can hear him muttering to himself as enters the drummer’s trance and lays out a series of rolls and combinations over an ever-steady hi-hat beat. Blakey was Monk’s favorite drummer, and his versatility and ability to immerse himself in the flow demonstrated here shows how he earned that status.

The album closes with the familiar sounds of “Doodlin’.” Ira Gitler’s liner notes emphasize the inherent humor of the piece, an effect achieved by Mobley and Dorham playing in unison separated by an octave and a series of staccato notes in the third segment of this twelve-bar blues. When I hear the dominant line, I hear echoes of the Dizzy Gillespie-Kenny Clarke-Charlie Parker derivative piece, “Salt Peanuts,” an equally humorous morsel of music. “Doodlin'” also features Horace Silver’s slickest solo—urbane, confident and minimalistic. Once he leaves the spotlight, he remains in the perceptual field with superb rhythmic support that varies between chords, extended riffs and strong punctuation. Mobley follows Silver with an elegant passage, perfectly setting up Kenny Dorham’s sexy-as-fuck solo. He could have gone on forever as a far as this chick is concerned, but he graciously gives way to Art Blakey’s multifaceted attack, and I forget all about Kenny. Yes, I’m a musical slut! The record ends and you think to yourself, “Man, what a great combo!”

Too bad they only recorded the songs you hear on this album and a couple of live gigs. While The Jazz Messengers lived on for decades in various configurations under Art Blakey, this group lasted less than two years. Both Blakey and Silver achieved the status of jazz legends; in Horace’s case more for his compositions than his piano, but I still consider him one of the best who ever put fingers to a keyboard. His joyful expressiveness—his exuberance—shines through in every performance. When you listen to Horace Silver, you may not hear a man who could play with the dexterity of Art Tatum or delight you with surprising choices like Monk, but you hear the sound of a man who couldn’t be happier to be alive and making music.

Les McCann and Eddie Harris – Swiss Movement – Classic Music Review

swiss movement

Despite Wynton Marsalis’ valiant efforts over the past couple of decades to reignite interest in jazz, the worldwide audience for jazz continues to decline. According to a piece on thejazzline.com, Nielsen’s 2014 Year-End Report showed that jazz accounted for 1.4% of the music consumption in the United States, tied with classical for last place.

Yes, Nielsen actually used the phrase “music consumption,” which tells you everything you need to know about the state of music today.

Jazz is not just losing popularity in the States. Major jazz festivals all over the world have adapted to the new emphasis on consumable music. Check out who’s appearing the major jazz festivals and you’ll see what I mean:

  • Montreal 2016: George Thorogood and the Destroyers, John Fogerty, Lauryn Hill, Noel Gallagher.
  • Montreux 2015: Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, Lenny Kravitz, Toto, Sinéad O’Connor, Jackson Browne.
  • New Orleans 2016: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Snoop Dogg, Beck, Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket, Brandi Carlile, Arlo Guthrie

I can’t count how many times I used my favorite phrase, “Oh, for fuck’s sake” while reading those lists.

Jazz remains more popular in Europe than the USA, but since moving to France I really haven’t met too many Europeans in my generation who give a shit about jazz . . . certainly not as many as I expected to meet. The worldwide epicenter of jazz today is Japan, not Europe and certainly not the United States.

There has been a lot of speculation about why jazz is comparatively unpopular in its place of origin. Some believe that Americans prefer music with lyrics over instrumental music—hence the incredible popularity of rap and hip-hop. That assertion finds support in Americans’ relatively weak interest in classical music, another primarily instrumental form. Some blame Charlie Parker and his pals for disconnecting jazz from danceable rhythms and making it too “esoteric.” There’s some truth in that assertion—I don’t know anyone today who associates jazz with nightclub dancing. “Jazz dance” in the United States today is either a performance art or a form of exercise, not swinging your hips to Cab Calloway or Benny Goodman.

One cause I haven’t seen mentioned is the insufferable snobbery of many jazz critics and fans. I think a lot of the reason jazz is a niche art form today is because the people who most appreciate it want it to remain a niche, an exclusive club open to the select few who display the correct sense of aesthetics and have mastered the esoteric vocabulary of the genre. Being a jazz fan is a way to separate oneself from the uncouth and unacceptable.

When the uncouth and unacceptable think about jazz, what comes to mind is something called “smooth jazz,” the kind of stuff you hear from Kenny G. Smooth jazz is kind of like Wonder Bread: all the texture and variation has been removed. Smooth jazz is another compromise in a series of compromises to make jazz more accessible to the masses so that jazz artists can make a living somewhere north of the poverty level.

Miles Davis was one of the first to recognize that jazz needed to expand beyond the cul-de-sac, and you can hear his efforts in the recordings In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Thoroughly confused by the direction he was taking, the critics labeled his work fusion. While Miles managed to turn some people into jazz buffs (and piss off a whole lot of purists), the value of the recordings proved to be the influence they had on a generation of rock and funk musicians, opening up new directions in those fields.

Even before Miles forged his unique and controversial path there was another attempt to increase the population of jazz aficionados. This was a marketing-term-turned-genre called soul jazz. It started when Riverside Records decided to market one of Cannonball Adderley’s records with that moniker. The most popular soul jazz recording (according to the Cashbox charts of the day) was “The In Crowd” by The Ramsey Lewis Trio, but you can hear soul jazz influence in many recordings, from Steely Dan’s efforts to the more recent releases from Lake Street Dive.

The first album of the new genre to make a splash was the subject of this review: Swiss Movement. Performed live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969 without benefit of rehearsal, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Benny Bailey, Leroy Vinnegar and Donald Dean helped put Montreux on the map as a jazz mecca. The album was a crossover hit, topping the jazz charts and winding up #2 and #29 on the Billboard R&B and LP charts, respectively. Swiss Movement is a fabulous listening experience, primarily because there was a whole lot of improvisation going on, and regardless of what Donald Fagan and Walter Becker think, the essence of jazz is improvisation.

The concert opens with one of the greatest protest songs ever written, Gene McDaniels’ “Compared to What?” Some of the older baby boomers and students of pop music history in the audience may read that name and say, “Wait a minute—you mean Gene McDaniels—the guy who did “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” back in 1961?” Yep! After his fifteen minutes of fame, Gene cashed in and moved to Scandinavia to focus on songwriting. With the perspective of a black man freed from the institutional racism that dominates the scene in the land of the free, and seeing his home country coming apart because of an insane war in Southeast Asia, Gene let it all out in “Compared to What?” The song was originally recorded by Roberta Flack, whose manager at the time happened to be Les McCann. Roberta’s version is very smooth and down-tempo; in Les McCann’s hands, it’s explosive.

Les establishes the soul-funk beat on his piano with a repeated percussive riff before letting bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Donald Dean take over the rhythm. Les establishes the musical themes, riding a beat that will sound very Ramsey Lewis to anyone who remembers his work. As the music builds, Eddie Harris enters in the background with a warm up riff that’s more hard bop than soul jazz, eventually settling down to a two-note oscillation as the rest of the combo ramps up the volume, then a single BAM! on the snare (a sound that will become an important punctuation point in the verses) and the music settles into an easy groove while Les leans into the mike:

I love the lie and lie the love
A-hangin’ on, with push and shove
Possession is the motivation
That is hangin’ up the goddamn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!) BAM!
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

Les McCann’s voice is warm and husky, and his syncopated phrasing is spot-on, especially on the key line “Possession is the motivation that is hanging up (pause) the goddamn nation.” Gene McDaniels nailed the essence of the USA with those words, and Les McCann infused them with a combination of disgust and urgency, like a man who is sick to death of all the bullshit.

After a brief interlude featuring the two horn soloists playing in tandem, Les continues the narrative:

Slaughterhouse is a-killin’ hogs
Twisted children killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin’ logs
Tired old lady kissin’ dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt (I can’t use it!) BAM!
Try to make it real — compared to what?

Before you go into a PETA-inspired rant, McDaniels wasn’t saying that animals don’t deserve your smoochies. He inserted the word “human” before describing that love, making the point that people often use pets as substitutes for human contact, a way to avoid the challenging world of human communication. Les delivers that line with force and conviction, and even though I luvvy-duvvy my widdle baby miniature schnauzer (mwah! mwah! mwah!), she is in no way a stand-in for the real and wonderful people in my life. She’s not even a stand in for the assholes in my life—and assholes are a critical component of the human experience.

I shouda been a philosopher.

The horns are a little more warmed-up for the second instrumental passage, with Eddie Harris leaping octaves with ease. The third verse of the song deals with the Vietnam War . . . but it could have been written about Iraq, Afghanistan or any of the other silly and sordid adventures that turn the USA into a collective of blind, patriotic morons instead of a country where differences of opinion are respected and honored:

The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us a rhyme or reason
Half of one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it! BAM!
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

God damn, I love the way Les McCann explodes with that “God damn it!” It expresses the hatred of war and the absurdity of macho patriotism as effectively as any anti-war song or novel. God damn it! Knock it the fuck off! Killing doesn’t solve a goddamn thing, people!

Benny Bailey is feeling it on the trumpet during the next instrumental passage and earns a well-deserved round of applause as Les takes up the topic of religion:

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preachers fillin’ us with fright
They all tryin’ to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can’t use it!)
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

Amen, brother!

Benny comes back with some more shimmering riffs, then the combo takes it down a notch to leave some space for Eddie Harris to do a more complex solo than the one we heard during the intro. Les delivers the final verse before taking off on a fabulous piano solo:

Where’s that bee and where’s that honey?
Where’s my God and where’s my money?
Unreal values, crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortion
Kind of brings to mind ol’ young King Tut (He did it now)
Tried to make it real — compared to what?!

Eddie Harris delivers a lengthy and superb tenor sax solo before Les wraps it up with the single line, “Tryin’ to make it real compared to what?” I join the long-gone crowd at Montreux in joyous and grateful applause.

Les introduces the follow-up song by saying, “This is a song written by Eddie Harris, and today was the first time we ever saw it—so with your help, we might do it.” The song is “Cold Duck Time,” a song titled after a horrid sparkling libation invented by a winemaker in Detroit (!) based on a “recipe” from an 18th century Saxon prince who liked to mix all the dregs in the bottom of the wine bottles with Champagne. My French mother calls it “putain dégueulasse” (fucking disgusting) and my father remembers that a version by the Paul Masson winery became quite popular and was often handed out to guests during intermission at winery concerts. This would have been in the early 70’s when Americans had yet to discover they had a potentially world-class wine region in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, and generally drank wine of the genre known as “sweet and sickening.” I’ll forgive Eddie Harris for his lack of oenophilia and move on to his composition.

Opening with a nice little bass pattern from Leroy Vinnegar, the combo takes a few seconds to find the groove, but come together pretty quickly around the motif. Eddie Harris dominates the early proceedings with a relaxed, mellow tone; as the solo proceeds, he adds some stop-time growls that are to die for before handing things over to Benny Bailey. Benny really gets the crowd into this one with some superb flights of chromatic fancy on his trumpet. Les McCann brings it down slightly but still throws in a few nimble piano runs to keep the piece on simmer. We return to the main theme, played in tandem by Eddie and Benny, who end with a surprisingly strong flourish. “Cold Duck Time” proves to be a gas, despite its titular origins, and a great dance number to boot. If you can’t shake your hips to this one, you may want to check your testosterone or estrogen levels, as the case may be.

Les McCann’s “Kathleen’s Theme,” comes next, opening in a more reflective, reserved mood. Once the core theme is established, the rhythm shifts to light finger-snapping mode featuring Eddie Harris feeding off McCann’s comps. Eddie had been playing in more of a bop style in the years before this record, and you can definitely hear the influence in the whirling melody, even with the slower tempo. Despite the lack of rehearsal time, Eddie comes through big here, and the warm applause he receives when the piece shifts back to the intro is well-earned.

The more energetic “You Got It in Your Soulness” comes next, basically a 12-bar blues with a brief transition chord to the V. The combo varies the pattern a couple of minutes into the song to a repeated root chord with occasional modification that allows Eddie Harris to riff a while, with slightly less intensity than the rhythm section. Benny Bailey gets his turn and delivers a solo that sounds like a combination of bird melody and hard kisses that knocks it out of the park. Behind both solos, Leroy Vinnegar does some very nimble work on the bass. Right before the return to the main theme, Les does some low-level scat . . . more like satisfied grunts than formed sounds . . . and you know he’s feeling it. With all the musicians in the groove, “You Got It in Your Soulness” qualifies as an absolute stunner.

The original album ends with “The Generation Gap,” the phrase used to define the faux crisis between the war generation and the Baby Boomers. The gap disappeared when most of the Baby Boomers grew up and became greedy stick-in-the-muds just like their parents. Jazz titles are usually off-the-top-of-my-head creations and I don’t really hear anything in the musical structure of the piece that reflects a stylistic gap symbolically representing a generation gap. The combo really uses the piece as a platform for the band members to show their stuff, and since the chord structure is similar to “Compared to What?” with its series of rising chords, I’ve always considered this piece to be the instrumental version of the opener. This may imply that the piece is boring and repetitive, but it isn’t—the instrumentalists have a greater opportunity to explore the musical theme. The horn solos here are as strong as anything else on the album, and the command of dynamics is much stronger than on any other of the pieces—they’ve had time to warm up and connect with each other, and it shows.

For all its “soul jazz” trappings, Swiss Movement remains both an accessible and appealing jazz record. The rhythms aren’t as intense as Coltrane’s and the melodies aren’t as brilliantly unpredictable as Monk’s, but all these guys were accomplished jazz musicians who knew their stuff. Les McCann did more crossover work than the others, but even the novice listener should be able to appreciate the hard bop style of Benny Bailey in the context of more familiar rhythms. Swiss Movement also confirms the longstanding truth that jazz is an exciting live performance medium open to more frequent improvisation than rock or soul. There’s nothing like sharing a moment of music when the players are also the creators, for that moment is a blessed form of intimacy that stays with you forever.

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