Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Sonny Rollins - Without a Song - The 9/11 Concert

The occasion of a new Sonny Rollins album is unlike anything else in jazz. A true saxophone colossus, now perhaps more than ever, Rollins towers over every other improvisor in jazz. His magisterial performances actually ARE the stuff of legend, in an era where that word is so often overused. Thus the release of Rollins' new album, which comes out August 30th, just days before his 75th birthday is likely to cause quite a commotion. I was lucky enough to obtain an advance copy this week, and have some observations to share about what surely must be the most eagerly anticipated jazz release of the year.

First of all, Sonny is in such a class of his own, it's not even funny. You can count on your fingers the number of other improvisors in jazz history who deserve to be ranked with the man they call "Newk" - and Sonny is the only one alive, someone truly on par with Armstrong, Coltrane, Monk, Tatum and Parker. People have often complained that Sonny doesn't play with musicians who are "up to his level." Of course they totally miss the point that NO ONE is up to Sonny's level, and if anything Rollins' seemingly endless creativity and inventiveness seems to make the disparity even more vast. I'm sure many fans get one of his cds, listen to Sonny's solo, then hit the scan button, until Rollins returns, heck, even I'm guilty of that! It's kind of like Barry Bonds making the rest of the San Francisco Giants lineup look like a washed up collection of A-ball talent (steroids aside, Bonds is dominant in his field as Rollins is in his), and you certainly don't get up from your seat to get a soda or beer when Bonds is at the plate. The same goes for Rollins. This new record, which features pianist Stephen Scott , trombonist Clifton Anderson, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Perry Wilson, and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, won't do anything to to change the minds of those people who complain about the setting Rollins puts himself in. Scott is the most remarkable, and on any other record, with any other leader, would steal the show. He's very inventive and has some nice solos, even playing one tune on kalimba. Clifton Anderson has some nice, but unremarkable solos that remind me of Curtis Fuller at times. The rhythm sections holds things down, and lays down the groove for Rollins, (who better to do this than Cranshaw) and doesn't get in the way. It's a different sort of group than, say the quintet Rollins played in with Max Roach and Clifford Brown. Rollins is the focus, without a doubt, it's his show.

The concert on this new cd, (Rollins first live session in 20 years of so since "G-Man") was recorded at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, four days after the attacks of 9/11/2001. Rollins, who lived blocks from the World Trade Center was seen on CNN that day being evacuated from his apartment building, and witnessed the tragic events of that day. His wife Lucille conviced him to follow through with the concert plans in Boston, and it was recorded, both directly off the sound board, and via some sort of amateur recording from the audience, (more on this later). Listening to the concert, the somber tone of that week isn't readily apparent from the music, though if one closes ones eyes, and remembers what those days short after the attacks felt like, it helps put the sometimes surprisingly happy music in context.

Rollins opens with what is likely his best performance on the record, the title track, Without A Song, which he recorded on his famous RCA debut album, The Bridge. Rollins' glowing, brassy tone is in fine form, as he logically and methodically lays down a solo as only "Newk" can. The shortest track on the album is 10:00, but Rollins never bores the listener, he's always finding something new to say, building upon his initial exposition, and the melody of the song itself, throwing in a playful quote here and there, including even "Oh Susannah"! I really like the title track, though the second tune, Global Warming, isn't quite as memorable. It's another Rollins calypso, and while good doesn't seem to have that special quality of the previous track. Rollins follows with introductions of the band (he has a "unique" speaking voice!) and then goes right into an emotionally heart wrenching version of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.

Rollins continues with a long solo introduction to an uptempo sixteen minute version of Why Was I Born, which generates the biggest reaction from the crowd of the record. After the head, Rollins begins to solo, only to fall back to "comping" behind Stephen Scott, who turns in another fine performance. Why Scott doesn't have a recording deal today is one of the great mysteries of the jazz world. Rollins really smokes on this track, and turns in what may be his best performance of the record. The title track will likely get more radio airplay, and is more "composed" with it's more relaxed tempo and it's less complex solo, but Why Was I Born it the real tour de force. Like with the previous track, Rollins doesn't bother to play the out chorus, wisely, his solo ends the song, to what sounds like a standing ovation. What more can you say!

The concert closes with a medium uptempo version of Where or When, with a typically deconstructionist (yet still swinging) solo by Rollins. Yet again, here is something unique. Instead of starting out with a simple melody fragment and building upon it, evenutally winding up with a torrent of notes, Rollins does the reverse, and slowly reveals the melody in a relatively short solo that reveals why he is so revered as "the last of the titans" of jazz. Here's to many more excellent recordings and concerts by this unquestioned "heavy weight champion" of the art of improvisation. Without doubt, this is THE album of the year, it's not perfect, it's not some grand conceptual project, or even innovative mix of tuvan throat singers, hip-hop and jazz, being touted as "the next big thing." There's simply no one better than Sonny Rollins at his best, and this is as close to his best as we've heard in a long time.

A note on the recording quality. This concert was not recorded with the intent that it would be released commercially. There were two tapes made - one apparently direct from the sound board, and another made by a friend of Rollins and a collector, (with the saxophonists permission), made with what sounds to my ears like a stereo condenser mic plugged into a consumer grade DAT or Minidisc recorder. The album uses both of these sources, they are mixed together quite well, but those who fancy themselves as audio experts will get a kick out of figuring out where one tape merges and (somewhat) seamlessly meets the other. For example, the concert starts with Rollins (off mic) with an announcment to the crowd about the opening song. This comes from the audience tape, and has a definite "bootleg" sound to it, with plenty of room echo, etc. They continue to use this source as the band plays the melody of Without A Song, slowly, very slowly, bringing in the house system, which is in 100 percent by the time Rollins solo begins. That's probably the most obvious case on the record of a transition from one source to another. All in all, I think they did a pretty good job. It's preferable to using the house system recording 100 percent, which I suspect had some distortion problems at times, and doesn't sound like it picked up any of the audience applause of room ambience, not to mention, think the drums might not have been mic'ed well, given the concert nature of the recording. It's not a "perfect" recording like something Al Schmitt would produce, but it's better than some of the recent live albums I've heard where the effort is to make them sound like studio sessions.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Singing Between the Notes?

I must admit I'm not a huge fan of Nnenna Freelon at the start of this post. In my humble opinion, she's a middle of the road singer in a lot of ways. Not only does her music sometime straddle the line between lite jazz and more straight head music, she's sort of middle of the pack, as far as female vocalists go. There's a LOT, (a ton to be frank) who are worse, but there are a lot who are better, bonafide stars like Cassandra Wilson, Shirley Horn, and Dianne Reeves, plus lesser known talents like Dena DeRose, Karrin Allyson, Carolyn Leonhart, and Luciana Souza.

But I'm not here to really critique Nnenna's singing, her approach or her new album, which is called "Blueprint of A Lady" (you guessed it) is a tribute to the music of Billie Holiday. I will say that it's good to see that Nnenna didn't try to replicate Lady Day's vocal style, as seems to be the fashion these days, it's merely a collection of Holiday associated tunes.

Now, on to the subject at hand, intonation. One of the things that bugs me about a lot of singers, even VERY well known ones (ahem, Kurt Elling, etc) is the old issue of intonation. It's not just singers, as I recently had a cd by saxophonist Matt Criscuolo which I simply had to set aside, as he was so flat on the FIRST TRACK (Lotus Blossom) of his new cd he sent us. He starts out ok, but a few bars into the song, I find myself yelling at the cd player, "come on! get that note up there!" In the case of Criscuolo, it sounds like some sort of embrouchure problem or something, though perhaps he's going it on purpose, like Jackie McLean, who has been scolded on occasion for playing a few cents sharp, intentionally, to give his sound a little more "edge".

But again, I'm not here to critique Criscuolo either, rather to talk about something very odd I've noticed in Nnenna Freelon's singing, and upon getting the new cd, I was prepared for it, and listened for it, and it in fact was there! It's not so much an issue of singing out of key, but rather, if you listen closely, Nnenna has a tendency to sing a sort of ambiguous pitch. So much so that if I were transcribing one of her vocal lines (like most true jazz singers, Nneena deviates from the written melody on occasion), I'm not sure how I would notate it. It doesn't drive me up the wall quite like Criscuolo's oh so flat alto tone on Lotus Blossom, but it sort of catches your ear and makes you sit up and listen.

Nnenna's not the only one to do this, I've heard others, even other great singers do this. It's almost an example of a singer "talking" through the lyrics with their speaking voice, rather than "singing" the pitch dead on. If you listen to the new record, you'll hear Nnenna sort of dance around the pitch, hint at it; it's elusive. If you take it to the extreme, you have something like Rex Harrison, talking his way through the Lerner and Lowe songs of My Fair Lady. I really can't say Nnenna is singing "out" of tune, nor is it some Don Ellis-esque quarter tone thing. But it's not like most singers, and depending on your mood, can either catch your ear (in a good way) or make you change the station.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Jazz in China?

I just got off the phone with a listener and friend who is moving to China for a couple of years to take a job teaching there, and the subject of jazz came up. I realized then that I had never really heard much about jazz in China! We all know about the thriving European jazz scene, the one in South Africa, of course Japan and South Korea, even Russia, India and Australia - but China, no I can honestly say that I have never heard any jazz from China, nor of any Chinese jazz musicians. So a Google search was in order, and quite promptly, here are some links of interest-

CNN on jazz in Shanghai
All About Jazz on Chinese Jazz
Hong Kong Jazz Association

Given the huge population of China, it's rapid westernization, and inklings of democracy, I would not be surprised to see the Chinese jazz scene not only grow internally, but to eventually become a major part of the international jazz community. Jazz musicians are always looking at new places to play, new ways to innovate, and new audiences to support jazz, and perhaps China is the next place to take jazz in a new direction? I think it would be great to see major American and European jazz stars expose Chinese audiences to jazz at the highest level, and vice versa as well. It would certainly be a worthy diplomatic effort, as the State Department sponsored tours of major jazz artists (Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band, Dave Brubeck's quartet, etc) were back in the 50's and 60's.

Perhaps some readers out there who have some knowledge of the Chinese jazz scene can provide further comments?

Lucky Thompson and Al McKibbon

Two of the last surviving musicians who took part in the birth of bebop passed away recently - bassist Al McKibbon and saxophonist Lucky Thompson. McKibbon replaced Ray Brown in Dizzy Gillespie's band, was on the famous "Birth of the Cool" sessions, worked with Thelonious Monk, and was an innovator in latin jazz. He made his first album as a leader in 1999. He was 86 years old.

Lucky Thompson was one of the first tenor players (along with Dexter Gordon) to adapt the larger saxophone to the bebop ideas of Charlie Parker, and his revolutionary style on alto. He recorded with Charlie Parker on Bird's famous "Dial" sessions, was on the classic Miles Davis hard bop album "Walkin", and was an innovator in bringing the soprano saxophone back into modern jazz (before John Coltrane). After a decade or so spent living in Europe, Thomspon's late career was somewhat tragic, as he left the musical world decades ago and later faced a long battle with Alzheimer'’s disease. He was 81 years old.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Tim Ries - The Rolling Stones Project -or- six degrees of Bill Charlap?

For those jazz fans out there playing six degrees of Bill Charlap (instead of Kevin Bacon) the new cd by saxophonist Tim Ries is going to be pretty handy. Rarely does an album come out that can be a true trump card in linking people you would never even think could have anything even remotely in common. - Oh, I should explain, Ries, who is a really talented and underrated saxophonist, working with folks like Maria Schneider, has since 1999 been the sax player with the Rolling Stones. His new album of Stones tunes, "The Rolling Stones Project" started out as a "simple" jazz album with the likes of Larry Goldings, Charlap, Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, Ben Monder, and John Patitucci, turned into a much bigger project, featuring Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Darryl Jones, Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones.

It's a pretty good record, if a bit mellow. More mellow and less rocking than I expected it would be, which may or may not be a good thing. Ries sounds very good, and there's some good jazz arrangements, but with all the star power, Ries might be overshadowed a bit at times. It's hard to tell sometimes who the spotlight is on. There's a funky John Scofield feature on Satisfaction, both jazz organ trio and rock versions of Honky Tonk Women, and a mellow Norah Jones feature on Wild Horses. It's a fun record, which a lot of jazz albums today aren't. Perhaps most importantly, it'll turn on more casual jazz fans to Tim's playing, and maybe some of his other records too.