A long while ago – more than a year – a friend asked me to put together a CD of jazz tunes; she liked jazz – she liked the idea of jazz – but she felt she wanted to know more, to listen to a variety of tunes and people, to experiment a bit. I was rather reticent – the last time I had done something like this was years ago, making mix-tapes as a step on the way to seduction.
But I started to think – what tracks would I include? I like to proselytise – I can be quite evangelical about music (hell, it is important) – but I also knew I couldn’t include everything, both because there wouldn’t be space for all the tunes I wanted to include, and because some of the music isn’t easy – sometimes you need some history, sometimes it is only knowing other stuff that it makes sense.
I decided it was impossible to do the subject – jazz – any justice on only one CD; so I would make two: one of older tunes, one of more modern. I checked what she already had, and safe in the knowledge that (like everyone else) she had Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain (and therefore I could free up valuable space that I would have had to dedicate to Miles – and knowing he would appear in other guises, anyway) [the anarchic guitarist Billy Jenkins released an album called Scratches of Spain, which I instinctively adore, although I have never heard it], I started to chose.
What I left off is almost as interesting as what I chose. There is nothing pre-1945; no bebop, no hard bop. (Monk, though he played with the boppers, is really in a class of his own.) No jazz rock (though its influence is probably clear in lots of the newer tunes). Oh, and no vocals.
All the tracks I chose I chose for a reason: they all had a story to tell, either their own, or mine. So here are those stories. (They may well be wrong; or I might have made them; but this is why I chose each track.) I always meant to write an explanation of why I had picked these tracks for my friend; so here it is.
Such Sweet Thunder; Sonnet for Caesar; and The Star Crossed Lovers – Duke Ellington Orchestra (from Such Sweet Thunder; Ellington/Strayhorn). There had to be some Ellington, of course; and it had to be Ellington-Strayhorn, their symbiosis so complete that one cannot tell who wrote which bits. Such Sweet Thunder is a suite based on characters or scenes from Shakespeare, originally performed for a festival in Canada; Ellington later recorded a tune about Shakespeare, since the suite wasn’t quite long enough for two sides of an LP – the filler, the last track on the LP, shows – it feels quite different from the rest of the album. There are themes working throughout the suite – repeated on bass here, flute there, just a few notes of piano… It is a lovely album, by turns exciting, romantic, slow, fast… Magic.
Better Git It Into Your Soul; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat; and Boogie Stomp Shuffle – Charles Mingus Septet (from the album Mingus Ah Um): the first three tunes from a classic album – up there with Kind of Blue (and released at about the same time); two lively, hollering tunes sandwiching the gentle romanticism of Pork Pie Hat, Mingus’ memorial to Lester Young (who habitually wore a pork-pie hat) – apparently, this was written the night that Mingus learnt of Prez’s death. (I want this tune played at my funeral.) All three of these tunes are in 3/4 or 6/8 – Mingus favoured three. Ah Um was also the first jazz record I owned* – well, one of them – my father was a jazz fan, and when I went to university, I realised that I actually missed this music that I thought I didn’t like: I had inherited a taste in jazz, as much else. So my father gave me Ah Um for Christmas. The tunes are highly evocative; brilliant music. Pork Pie Hat always make me think of my father, too; I remember whistling it to myself as I walked down Cromwell Road one winter’s night, the rain hiding my tears.
In Walked Bud; Misterioso; and I Mean You – Thelonious Monk (from Genius Of Modern Music Vol 1). Monk used to be seen as difficult music – jarring and angular. But his tunes are beautiful, too. In Walked Bud is dedicated to the pianist Bud Powell who died in Paris (the character played by long tall Dexter Gordon in the movie Round Midnight – named after a Monk tune – was a composite of Prez and Powell). It is a lovely but slightly melancholic tune. Misterioso is more typical Monk, almost atonal – the notes almost not working together, but then they just pull through; two parallel sequences of chords (often played by different instruments when people play this live). And I Mean You has an onomatopoeic chorus, a jaunty tune lolloping along.
St Louis Blues; and Willow Tree – Gil Evans Orchestra with Cannonball Adderley (from Old Wine, New Bottle). Old Wine, New Bottle was the first CD I ever bought. I had been over staying with Donna in New York for a week over Easter in 1988. Gil Evans had just died, and listening to one of the jazz radio stations – Phil Schaap’s (WKCR – and I’ll bet that is somewhere on the internet!) – I heard that there was going to be a memorial service and concert for him. I didn’t know his music, but I thought Miles might be there, so I headed along to the “jazz church” on 52nd Street, hidden in the basement of the CitiBank Building. It was a very foggy Sunday morning; New York was deserted. The church was full, though. Miles didn’t show, but the music was wonderful. It was Evans’ Monday Night Orchestra (Monday nights are quiet in New York jazz clubs, so many of them open their doors to practicing big bands, just to get punters in to buy drinks at the bar; the Monday Night Orchestra played at Sweet Basil, I think.) David Sanborn played alto and Gils’ son Miles (named after Miles) played trumpet, along with Hannibal Peterson. They played several numbers, including Gils’ arrangement of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. It was beautiful – a wonderful occasion. So when I got a CD player a month or so later, I bought this CD. Which is also wonderful – it is one I come back to time and time again. The orchestral dynamics on Willow Tree are superb.
Naima; and Spiritual – John Coltrane Quartet (from Afro Blue Impressions). Really, I wanted to include A Love Supreme; but that would used up half the first CD; then I thought about My Favourite Things from this album, but that would still have used up more than a quarter of the CD. So I plumped for these two, back to back: the romantic lyricism of Naima (named for Coltrane’s first wife) and the – well, spiritual energy of Spiritual. The quartet were so together, so in tune with each other’s thoughts, they created some very powerful music, intense and rhythmic. The combination of Elvin Jones’ drumming and McCoy Tyner’s piano playing allowed Coltrane to go wherever he wanted, freed from the constraints of the music. (I always feel sorry for Jimmy Garrison – the last of the classic quartet, the bass player – who is always there, but doesn’t shine as brightly as his colleagues.)
Summertime; and Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus) – Gil Evans Orchestra with Miles Davis (from Porgy and Bess). See, I told you Miles would make an appearance. This is the classic arrangement of Summertime – now taken as the standard. And Prayer is the tune I want played at my funeral. It is deeply beautiful – ailing call-and-response, building up to a powerful climax. Nuff said.
Lotus Blossom – Duke Ellington (solo piano – from And His Mother Called Him Bill). This is a haunting, mournful, beautiful tune; written by Strayhorn, Ellington took the band into the studios just after his death from leukaemia. Strayhorn clearly had a wicked sense of humour – whilst he was in hospital, he wrote tunes like Blood Count and UMMG (Upper Manhattan Medical Group – the doctors and nurses who were caring for him). This track was an outtake – just Duke playing around on the piano; and it is hauntingly beautiful. A wonderful, sad epitaph for Strayhorn.
MRA – The Dedication Orchestra (from Ixesha [Time]). The Dedication Orchestra were set up to play the music of the late Chris McGregor and his big band, The Brotherhood of Breath. McGregor was a South African exile – he settled in London with his small band, The Blue Notes; and the Blue Notes became the centre of the Brotherhood of Breath. One by one, the Blue Notes died – and after the death in close succession of saxophonist Dudu Pudkwana and McGregor, the one remaining Blue Note, Louis Moholo, set up the Dedication Orchestra to keep the music alive. They had their debut on New Year’s Day, 1989 at the 100 Club – it was a wonderful gig, packed out, and really swinging. This track, off their second album, is one of the Brotherhood’s themes; an insistent, pulsing rhythm from Moholo (who wrote the track), bass and piano, and then the band come in. Glorious and loud.
It Was A Lonely Day In Selma, Alabama/Freedom – Mingus Big Band (from Blues & Politics). This is a new(ish) version of an old(ish) tune. The Mingus Big Band were set up as a repertory band to play the music of Mingus; in his lifetime, Mingus played for big bands – including Ellington (he was fired after chasing another musician around the bandstand with a knife, threatening to kill him) – but he could never afford to run his own big band; instead he would get his small groups – sextets, usually – to sound like a big band. His wife set up the Mingus Big Band to realise his vision. And they sound tremendous. A lot of Mingus’ music has a political basis (the one time I saw him play, a year or so before his death, he harangued the audience for being white – he ranted more than he played; it was only later that I came to realise his genius); and the chant in Freedom, after a spoken intro about a fire bomb on a church in Selma, Alabama (two young children died in the fire) is a cry for – freedom.
Adventures in the Rave Trade (Smoking/Burning) – Andy Sheppard Big Band (from Soft on the Inside). Did you notice I like big bands? There is something about the glorious sound of all that brass belting it out. Andy Sheppard ran a big band for a while in the late eighties, when there was yet another British jazz revival and his stock was riding high on the back of two successful records. He had the pick of the UK jazz scene, plus a handful of European musicians – including the manic Han Bennick on drums (he also had the drummer from his quintet playing, allowing Bennink to take a more free, random approach to time). They were a superb band live, and this record captures some of that energy, the emotional intensity.
Bedside Manner – John Scofield Quintet (plus) (from Quiet): just beautiful. An album recorded with quintet and brass, the arrangements bring to mind Gil Evans’. This is a lovely, moody tune; and it is quiet. When the brass pick out the riff from Sco’s solo – just beautiful.
Let’s Say We Did – John Scofield Quartet (from Time On My Hands): a different kind of Sco, from the late 80s or early 90s. I saw Scofield tour this album at the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town, maybe 1987; and this is my favourite tune from it. Gentle brilliance.
From Gagarin’s Point of View – Esbjorn Svensson Trio (EST) (from From Gagarin’s Point of View). Brooding minimalist piano; the bass plugging away; the drums so slow they barely keep up. This is haunting music.
Edge of Happiness – Tord Gustavsen Trio (from The Ground): after EST, the new hope of European piano. Very quiet, but with a brooding intensity.
My Love And I (Love Theme from “Apache”) – Charlie Haden and John Taylor (from Nightfall). More piano – a duet this time. It is a beautiful tune, and the arrangement is so simple that the beauty shines through.
Smile for Me – Dave Milligan Trio (from Late Show). Milligan is part of the burgeoning Scottish jazz scene. He plays in bands with all sorts of formats, and his music incorporates elements of folk and classical into his jazz. He is a modest player, but he should be hailed as a national treasure.
Dodge the Dodo – Esbjorn Svensson Trio (EST) (from From Gagarin’s Point of View). EST in rockier mode – they are hailed as the jazz band that rock fans like, and their audience is generally a lot younger than most jazz bands’. They have been together years (they are much older than their audience!), and they have developed the instinctive feel for where the others are in the music. This is great, storming stuff.
A Wee Prayer; and When In Rome – Colin Steele Quintet (from Twilight Dreams). A Wee Prayer is haunting, gentle little small tune
You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cause You Think You Know Me – The Dedication Orchestra (from Spirits Rejoice). From the first Dedication Orchestra CD, this tunes starts with a simple bass line, and builds and builds and builds. The energy increases, the brass comes in and out, and the bass plugs away through it all. It climaxes with a key change (heralded by Moholo hitting out on his snare), which releases the tension and – wow.
*Actually, I think the Birth of the Cool was the first jazz record I bought – from Garon Records in the covered market; I was a very cool student…