A really good, Half-White Album

The release of a re-mastered White Album by The Beatles reminds me of all the mixed emotions I have about this album. Leaving aside Magical Mystery Tour, essentially a soundtrack for a British TV special, The Beatles, as the White Album is officially known, came in 1968 on the heels of Revolver and Sergeant Peppers. I, and I think many Beatles fans, consider those two their finest work. Some people consider The Beatles or 1969’s Abbey Road (again, after an intervening soundtrack, Yellow Submarine) to be that.

But for me, the White Album has always been massively frustrating. It has some really great songs, but like Abbey Road, some that feel to me entirely disposable. There’s long been a truism in rock that most double albums are failures to edit down to a good single album. I don’t recall, but I suspect the White Album is the source of that idea. But what about the good stuff? What would a really great single album — let’s call it The Half-White Album — comprise?

Before giving my list, I do want to say that this album is a college course in 1968, a year like few others. To list just the more obvious things: the United States essentially lost the war in Vietnam during the Tet offensive, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election after being elected in 1964 in the largest landslide in history. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. The Cultural Revolution began in China. Czechoslovakia defied Russia which then invaded it. French workers and students struck and the nation was plunged into a violent conflict for 6 weeks. The Democratic Party national convention in Chicago was consumed by a demonstration of more than 20,000 anti-war, anti-racism protesters and the police riot that followed. Hubert Humphrey backed the repression and effectively ended the Democratic Party’s long, historical dominance dating back to FDR. And I’m sure there are more consequential things that happened that year, but you get the idea.

The White Album reflects many of these things but that may not be obvious to those who didn’t live through the times. There is a great deal of “beginning of the end” in the album. Emotionally, it contrasts a great deal with early and mid-Beatles, which are drenched in youthful optimism. I’ve long felt that a good deal of the Fab Four’s appeal was just that brash, confident, forward looking cheeky feel. (Later, there would be a whole subgenre of “end of the end” songs as the ’60s disappeared in the rearview mirror — I’m thinking of Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Gil-Scott Heron’s Winter in America)

On the White Album, though, we get the warning signs. Psychedelic fervor has turned to downers and suicidal thoughts  on Yer Blues. We get the out of control Helter Skelter. There’s the sarcastic frustration with America of Happiness is a Warm Gun, but matching disillusionment with the youth culture in Revolution. Taken together, there’s a feeling of being hemmed in, seeing few ways out. A number of songs go in a different direction, bespeaking a need to look deeper inward to personal history and conflicts (Julia, for example). Ultimately, that was the path for the Beatles, but not one they were able to walk together for much longer.

Yet the album also has real power, strength and art if you ignore the whimsical experiments that didn’t quite pan out (but kudos for trying!). So here goes my playlist for a single, LP-length Half-White Album. Listen to it on Tidal!

Side 1

1, Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey. This has both the optimism of early Beatles with the musical sophistication and edge of the later albums. And it rocks! (3:03)

2. Back in the USSR. Replacing the US with the USSR was a brilliant way to poke fun at American self-satisfaction. And who doesn’t want to hear The Beatles do Chuck Berry tunes? (2:43)

3. Dear Prudence. The segue between the prior song and this so great, I don’t want to break it up. Otherwise, this song might not have made it. (3:54)

4. Martha My Dear. Paul’s fascination with music hall songs eventually became annoying, but here this is just a nice acoustic number. As always, experimenting with various non-rock instruments and then having the electric guitars rescuing it just in the nick of time. (2:48)

5. Blackbird. I had no idea at the time that this was a comment on Rosa Parks, but it’s a beautiful tune and the context further cements its place. (2:18)

6. Piggies. Just to be true to the spirit of the times and for the harpsichord fans in the audience. (2:04)

7. Julia. This is one of John’s great works. The lyrics are a brilliant poem, powerfully evoking both a young boy’s impressions of the mother he adored and a young man’s mourning of the mother he never had. The music and the playing are achingly sad. I can think of few tunes as emotionally honest in both words and music as this. (2:56)

8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (4:45). Of course.

Side 2

1. Glass Onion. Well, it’s either this or Rocky Raccoon, but I went with this for its energy. (2:17)

2. Yer Blues. Under-appreciated. The Beatles didn’t do the blues that often, but this has all the down home you could want without just blindly copying Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. The lyrics are a kind of white, psychedelic evocation of Delta hoodoo. (4:01)

3. I Will. A nice little throwback to the Beatles 65/Rubber Soul sound. (1:45)

4. Happiness is a Warm Gun. More biting satire. (2:44)

5. Revolution 1. The Beatles, like Dylan, were often described in revolutionary terms that both were uncomfortable with. By 1968, the more radical youth no longer see The Beatles as all that and John clearly knows it. Here he tries to come to terms with a youth movement he can’t relate to and whom, he suspects, can’t relate to him. His plea for an inward focus sounds sad in retrospect. (4:15)

6. Mother Nature’s Son. Another of the albums acoustic, folk rock gems, Paul’s plaintive paen to the power of music and nature. Maybe a kind of portend of Let it Be. (2:47)

7. Helter Skelter. If Revolution 1 was a reaction to protest, this seems to just react to the general tearing apart that 1968 was. The manic and sinister feel of it is so startling coming from The Beatles and especially cuddle-bear Paul who returns to his Little Richard vocal roots. (4:29)

8. Revolution 9. And so we end in an electronic collage, a fog that envelops us in which we struggle to glimpse all sorts of things. A fitting end. (8:20)

Well, that’s 49:25 minutes of music, which was on the high end of LPs in those days. And for the CD, of course, bonus tracks.

CD bonus tracks

Rocky Raccoon
Sexy Sadie
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Birthday

You can and should argue with this list! Let the fun begin.

This Woman’s Got Soul

I wrote this song sometime in the early 1990s as part of a project to explore how black and white musicians influenced each other during the formative days of rock ‘n roll. The rest of the project never really happened. All of the events in this story are imagined.

Carole was on her third cigarette and still waiting for Moe to bring her sandwich. What’d it take to smoke three Kools? Maybe 20 minutes? Shit, used to be you could pass that amount of time at Moe’s no problem. The Brill Building used to empty into Moe’s at lunch, lured by fat sandwiches and an atmosphere that always felt like night, no matter how hard the day tried to impose its square cheeriness. Some wiseguy would always be holding forth on something, the Pope of 54th Street.

The place was quiet now, nothing but her own thoughts keeping time waiting for Lenny, her agent, rapping her nails on the table, nervous and bored.

“Hey, Moe, some coffee while you pluck the feathers off that turkey?”

“I tell you what, hon, you have another cup, and by then you’ll be ready for a good pee, and when you come back, you’ll have a turkey club fit for a queen like you.”

You couldn’t rattle Moe. He’d been feeding the hacks, hopheads, and hepcats of Broadway since Ziegfield realized his folly.

“You got an answer for everything Moe.”

“Hon, I had the answers before you were old enough to have the questions. Anyway, your sandwich’s up now.”

Three Kools, two coffee’s, one turkey club. Her foot tapped drums to a tentative piano line. No good—the second syllable in coffee through it off. Three Kools, two drinks, one guy…well, something for the subway ride home. Probably nothing. It felt old anyway, like that novelty song whatshisname did about a lifetime ago about that little car. Beep, beep, honk, honk, something like that. Who the hell could you get to do a song like that in 1966 anyway? Maybe Bobby Rydell could stage his comeback on the Sullivan show with a number like that. Joey Dee could reopen the Peppermint Lounge.

Or maybe Carole could climb out of the Billboard basement, even if it was with some pompadoured creep has-been. She caught a glimpse of her bouffant in Moe’s window and winced. Maybe Lenny had some good news. He was supposed to have been here 15 minutes ago, which meant he’d show up in about ten minutes. The only thing on-time about Lenny was his watch. Always had to have a Swiss watch, one of those beautiful thin Longines. Always fiddling with the stem, resetting it every time he heard the time on the radio. And never less than 25 minutes late for an appointment.

Sure enough, there he was, hurrying down Broadway, narrowly avoiding death by taxi as he ignored the light at 54th. Carole yelled over to Moe to get Lenny’s pastrami ready. Lenny was very predictable once you knew his system: at Moe’s he always ate pastrami. At the Carnegie, he had the corn beef. Lasagna was Mama Leone’s. He didn’t need a menu, he needed a map.

“What’s shakin, doll?”

“Same old same old Lenny. You got any reason I should go back up to my little rat hole office after lunch?”

“Carole, it hurts me to hear you talk like that. You’re an artiste.”

“Yeah, well, even Michaelangelo painted ceilings for a living. How many ways can I write ‘do wop?’”

“A million, babe, and it would still sound good from you. Stick with it: these kids from England can’t last. You wait, the good music always comes back. Look at Gershwin, Porter, Berlin.”

“Lenny, what are you smoking? Go down to Sam Goode’s in Times Square and ask the first teenager you find who George Gershwin is. I’ll give you a fin if he doesn’t think he plays for the Yankees. Anyway, I’m no Gershwin. Berlin maybe. At least I can carry a tune.”

“What’s go you so down? Rock and roll baby, you’ll always be rock and roll, just with that New York twist. You’re the best.”

Carole stared out the window again, looking for redemption on Broadway. It didn’t even feel like home anymore. In 1962 she could sit in this window and watch the people flow by and feel like she knew all the people who really belonged, who made the Brill Building and its little universe of hitmakers. They had a shared secret, this backroom brethren of songwriters who told a hundred and one hormone-struck, vibrating teen idols what to sing and how to sing it. Now most of them were tired repeats, their fire having burned out after just a few 2 minute and thirty-four second singles. And the secret priesthood of rock ‘n roll? They were having trouble remembering the secret themselves.

“Yeah, yeah, Lenny. Thanks for the flattery. Now, what am I gonna do to pay the bills?”

“I got something for you. It’s just an idea. You know how you always liked Phil Spector?”

“Sure Lenny. Phil looking for some tunes?”

“Tunes, tunes are a dime a dozen. This is more than that. He’s putting together a show at the Fox with Murray and they need some music to hold it together.”

So it’s come to this, she thought. Doing charts for the house band at a Murray the K show in fucking Brooklyn. She ought to scratch his eyes out, but she already knew she’d say yes. She decided to make him wait, staring out the window again, waiting until her cigarette almost burned her nails.

“Where and when?” She jabbed the butt out for punctuation.

“I know that look, doll. I’m just saying think about it. Phil loves your stuff. Ronnie, Darlene, they’re your kind of chicks. Why don’t you check it out? They’re rehearsing this week. If the show goes on the road, they’ll make you musical director and it’s a steady gig. A nice change from that,” he cocked his head down Broadway toward the Brill.

Lenny was so full of shit. Ronnie and Darlene were gone from the charts and the hearts. Murray the K’s show would hit the road about the same time Liberace got married. Murray was living the same nightmare as her—the Mersey misery. Oh well, misery loves company.

“Do I need shots and a passport to get to Brooklyn?”

“Nah, just a token. Take the GG to Flatbush. On second thought, shots wouldn’t hurt.”

*****

Put Murray Kauffman down blindfolded in the middle of Arabia, he could find a dive in an hour. Brooklyn,  ten minutes was all he needed. After 2 hours of listening to Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love catfight, Carole needed a joint. But a drink would do.

“So whaddya think, Carole?”

“I think you’re the greatest Murray, and Phil’s a genius. But Ronnie and Darlene—they’re both the same washed-up, pain-in-the-ass, queen-for-a-day singers. They even wear the same white boots, the same fake wig, the same sequined skirt. If one wasn’t white and one black, I couldn’t tell ‘em apart on the street”

Murray laughed. “But when they open their mouths, it’s all worth it.”

“Really, Murray? I’m not getting that chill anymore. Remember when you used to have Dionne Warwick in your shows, when she first came up, and she would walk to the edge of the stage, and the crowd would get all quiet and goose bumpey? And when she sang that first chorus of ‘Walk On By,’ every kid in the audience who ever had a crush and got dumped connected with that scorn, that hurt. Hell, same thing when Darlene used to sing ‘Uptown.’ That was no different than Elvis, that was the most. Now they sound like they’re doing their nails while their singing. What happened, Murray? Is it them or me?”

Murray eyes stared out under his porkpie hat and over his highball glass. They’d maintained a casual, occasional work relationship over the years. He’d always thought of her as irrepressible. Now she was crying in her Gibson to him.

“Yeah, those were good times. But hey babe, it’s a business now. And a lot of it is an import business from across the Atlantic.”

Murray had tried to ride out the English invasion for awhile, doing his Fifth Beatle act until his station got shot out from under him by a brand new invention, all-news radio. He was a strange cat. If you mixed a beatnik with an appliance salesman, you’d get close to Murray. Somehow, he always turned up hip, though.

“Murray, I lost my virginity on the business angle along time ago. But I’m talking about something more. You know the Beatles did one of my tunes. How come it sounds fresh out of their mouths? Something’s up, Murray. They can sing my old shit and it sounds good. But I can’t write stuff like them. We lost it somewhere, only we can’t let go. When the station went all-news, did you think about doing something different?”

“Like what, sell hats?” Murray said, tipping his trademark porkpie.

“How much you want for that?” she deadpanned.

“Seriously, though, baby, it ain’t just you that’s changed. Don’t forget, when you used to go to those Alan Freed shows, it was a sin to swivel your hips in public. We had to have a secret code. We were putting people on, like me with my submarine race watchers. You had that same cool way of delivering the message so only certain people would get it.”

“Sitting in the back of the Fox tonight, Murray, I wasn’t getting any message.”

“Babe, you ain’t even thirty yet. You’re just hitting a dry spell. Happened to all the greats.”

She labored for two weeks trying to put something into the charts, some spark. In the end, she did what she knew would work, what she’d done before. The show opened to a half-packed house of housewives and construction workers from Queens. Darlene and Ronnie were polished, professional. After 10 days, the show closed, never to leave Brooklyn.

*****

Used to be getting laid was a sure ticket to a good night’s sleep. Not tonight. Carole left Alan’s skinny body looking like a ghost under the sheets, wrapped her old chenille robe around her and went out to the piano in the living room. No rest for the wicked.

Guys like Alan were haunting her life now. Maybe if she had someone dependable she could see herself through all this. Meanwhile, she had her Alans to scratch the itch until something better came along. What was that old line? The darkest hour was just before the dawn…

She found herself playing some old bar blues, then laughing at herself. Darkest hour. She wanted to know when the brightest hour was. Was there some dawn ahead? Her fingers kept playing the blues.

A pink rose broke the horizon outside the big picture window in the living room. Even with all Carole’s restless nights, it had been awhile since she’d seen the dawn. A line came to her. “Looking out at the morning sun, I used to feel so inspired.” Often when she wrote, she heard a real voice singing a song. This time it was Shirley Ellis from the Shirelles. Her fingers moved into some Shirelles-type chords, she strained to hear Shirley sing it. It was all wrong. She couldn’t make the words fit the chord progression.

She sat in the big armchair in her bedroom, looking at Alan the Ghost. What had she been thinking? A man playing the sax always sounded like a man you wanted to make love to. With the horn back in the case, the vibrations weren’t always there. She didn’t even feel like sleeping in the same bed with him anymore. The chair would do.

Hours later, Alan gone and the day fading, Carole was still hanging around the house in a fog. Even Eva, her housekeeper and friend, had been keeping her distance. Finally, she sat down across from her, staring her right in the face.

“Girl, what were you playing last night?”

“Sorry, Eva, did I wake you up?”

“Not for long. Where’d you learn the blues, girl?”

“Julliard.”

They laughed, trying to picture Carole in her pedal pushers and teased up hair uptown with the symphony crowd.

“Must be, ‘cause I never heard you playing that before. You all right?”

“Sure, I’m OK. I haven’t had a hit since Kennedy was killed, I ain’t had a good man since…shit, when was the last time I had a good man? Sure, everything’s just peachy.”

“Well alright then, I obviously didn’t need to ask. Somehow I got the mistaken impression something was bothering you. But don’t let me interrupt your wonderful life, child, with any of my silly questions.”

“Nah, you got me, Eva. I don’t know what it is, exactly. Seems like when someone good sang one of my songs, it used to be a thrill. Just hearing my little creation come to life, to hear those thrilling harmonies…”

“You still got it, girl.”

“Thanks, Eva, but the world just doesn’t seem to agree anymore. And when I’m not crying in my beer about it, I’m wasting my time with no-count guys like Alan.”

“You ain’t gettin it at home and you ain’t gettin it at work.”

“Exactly.”

“You need to come to church with me.”

“Eva, you have truly lost your mind. A nice Jewish girl like me?”

“No, no, I ain’t going all religious on y’all. When I get like that, I go to this one church uptown. They always have the best choir, the best singers. When they’re done with you, you’ll see GAWD. And if you don’t, a look at that fine Reverend Townsend will do.”

“Now I know why you’re going. But you’re not trying to get me baptized here, are you?”

“Carole, you can wear one of them yamulkas, for all I care. When you get the blues, you got to take care of the soul. Trust me.”

Sunday morning they went uptown together. All her life, Carole had trafficked in the ghetto, moving in and out of clubs all night without a second thought. In the quiet bustle of Sunday, she felt so obviously out of place surrounded by this other side of Harlem. It was a new feeling too, to do something like this with Eva.

Eva and Carole had a complicated relationship. Ten years ago, Eva had been a knocked-up high school girl. Her aunt was a backup singer in one of the many girl groups that did Carole’s songs. When Carole’s first husband and writing partner had taken flight, leaving her alone with her newborn daughter, she took in Eva, and their kids had been growing up together since.

Later, Eva hit big with Carole’s “Locomotion” and moved out to her own place. Eventually, the train slowed down and Eva was broke again. The second time around, she went to work for Carole, getting real money to look after the house and the kids. She was part maid, part friend, part sister.

Carole had been expecting a sweaty little storefront, but the Mt. Carmel Abyssinian Church, A.M.E. was a good sized brick church with maybe 300 people in it, all spiffed up and in a good mood. She watched Eva for when to open the book, when to stand, when to sit, and after awhile it started to feel less strange.

Eva was right. Reverend Townsend was a looker: he had those Billy Eckstine smooth pencil brows, and piercing eyes. He had a voice that reached right inside you. The choir was good, and she tried to let herself sway into it, to let go. But she felt the same disquiet as with her own music. If she couldn’t get off on Little Richard anymore, why was the gospel version gonna do the trick?

Just before the sermon, the Reverend brought up a guest soloist, a young black woman with straightened hair and something about her eyes. She hummed a bit with the choir through the first chorus, and then opened up in the second.

Carole was stunned. The girl hit her right between the eyes, just reached down into her guts and grabbed them. Carole barely heard the words, just feeling the way the syllables  slipped in between the beats, the way her voice soared unexpectedly, the way she snapped your head back with the richness, the sensuality of her singing. It was like sitting listening to her daughter’s school orchestra, and all of a sudden Charlie Parker’s playing. She looked over at Eva, who had been sitting watching Carole and almost laughing.

“Now you know why I brought you,” she whispered.

It turned out that Eva knew the girl. Afterwards they went out for coffee.

“Carole, this is Aretha Franklin. Aretha, this is the songwriter lady I told you about.”

“Nice to meet you, m’am.”

“Pleasure’s all mine, Aretha. I really enjoyed you’re singing. How long have you been doing this?”

“Oh, since I was kneehigh. My daddy’s a pastor in Detroit and my sisters and I always sang in the choir.”

“Are you thinking about turning professional?”

Aretha gave her a cool look.

Eva laughed. “Carole’s pretty hip for a white chick, Aretha, but she don’t know nothing about gospel. Carole, Aretha’s been on the road since she was 12. She’s something of a star on the gospel circuit.”

Carole blushed. “Well, I’m glad. I’d hate to think anyone was singing that well for free.”

“Well, the way they pay gospel singers, might as well be. Anyway, I’m thinking about getting a new groove. Mr. John Hammond, over at Columbia, he signed me up, thinks I’m the next Billie Holiday. Truth is, I could never lay back like she could. I like to hit the beat harder, I like to shout now and then. I’m more Lady Night than Lady Day, if you get my drift. Atlantic Records, they did right by Ray Charles, and Mr. Ahmet Ertegun, I think I can work with him.”

Carole didn’t impress easy, but anyone who had impressed both John Hammond and Ahmet Ertegun had her attention.

“You should talk to Carole, Aretha. She been around the block a lot of times.”

“Nice of you to say, Eva, but I don’t think I have much advice to offer. Honey, just sing. Nothing I could tell you is going to help you as much as that.”

****

Later, Eva said that Aretha was born the same year as Carole. Their lives had gone in parallel for awhile, both singing as teens, then Carole retiring from the stage to write, Aretha going on the road. Somewhere along the line, Carole had lost it, and Aretha had found it. That “it” was in her singing, the same kind of force that Carole and Murray cried about missing over their beers, that was missing from everything she touched these days. She knew she would never write gospel, but if she could tap into that force, it would transform her music, lead to something new.

She had been heading somewhere new, anyway. How else to explain sitting up all night playing the blues? She never played the real old time blues, just that sped up new kind that they renamed rock ‘n roll. Now her fingers were taking her new places, all on their own.

She decided that Alan was a bad dream, that writing that one line of bluesy music had been like waking up from a bad dream. Trying to make a Shirelles song out of it was her big mistake. Stick with her first instinct.

Every time she brought him home, she waited for him to fall asleep. Then she sat down at the piano and thought about everything they weren’t together, everything she wanted and slowly, the words emerged, like a polished oak splinter slowly being pulled from her fingers. She changed the opening line to “Looking out at the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired,” to keep her away from the relentless teen upbeatness that always pulled at pop music. She savored that slowness, that pleasant pain that made her forget ten years of automatic cliches, of facile rhymes. Her left hand felt like a blacksmith’s hammer, beating the slow bluesy rhythm of the words into finished shape, her right hand like glowing embers flying off hot metal with each strike of the hammer.

After three months, she had a song. If she had to fuck Alan one more time, she’d scream. But she had a song. A real godamm song , a Carole fucking King song, not a Brill Building hack job.

“Eva, you know that friend of yours, Aretha Franklin? You hear from her at all?”

“Yeah, she doing OK. They got her a new producer at Atlantic, supposed to be more modern and shit.”

Carole knew all the people at Atlantic. She pulled a few strings and showed the song to Aretha’s new producer. He was impressed. Aretha was going to be in New York next month, they should get together. But Carole couldn’t wait.

She arrived at Reverend Franklin’s church in Detroit the next Sunday. She hardly noticed the stares, the service, the sermon. She knew she had done the right thing when the Franklin sisters came on. They sang all different songs than Aretha had sung in Harlem, but they had that same undeniable feel. Afterwards, she rushed up to Aretha.

“Hi. I hope you don’t mind my coming. I wanted to ask you something and it’s important.”

“Sure. Just wait a minute and you can come home with me.”

They drove to a prosperous looking area in a Black section of Detroit. The rest of the family was still at church, but Aretha sat Carole down on the sofa in the front room. It was an old-fashioned parlor, with dark wallpaper and glass-paneled wood doors and a baby grand piano. Aretha sat across from her in an old-stuffed armchair, her face betraying no emotions.

“You said you had something important to ask me, Miss King.”

“Not ask you exactly. You know I write songs. I often write songs for people, but they’re not really for people. Just sort of with them in mind. But after hearing you sing, I wanted to write a very different kind of song. I had a lot things on my mind…” Aretha’s face was impassive. She was intensely self-conscious, hearing hearself ramble on. “Well, that’s a long story. Anyway, you said you’re looking for a change of style, and the Atlantic people thought this song might work for you. But you’re too good to let some A&R man hand you a song and then you don’t feel it. So, I’m asking you personally if you’d consider recording my song.”

Aretha nodded. “I’d like to hear it.”

Carole sat at the piano with her chart, more nervous than she’d been since Jerry Mortenstein asked her to the Junior Prom. She played the intro, calming her nerves, opened her mouth and sang.

Lookin out on the morning rain

I used to feel so uninspired

And when I knew I had to face another day

Lord, it made me feel so tired

 

Before the day I met you

Life was so unkind

You’re the key to my peace of mind

Cause you made me feel

Like a natural woman

You make me feel

Like a natural woman

 

When my soul was in the lost and found

You came along to claim it

I didn’t know

Just what was wrong with me

Until your kiss helped me name it

 

Now I’m no longer doubtful

Of what I’m living for

And if I make you happy I don’t need to do more

Cause you make me feel

Like a natural woman

You make me feel

Like a natural woman

 

Aretha was smiling. “Eva was right. You are alright for a white lady. That’s a beautiful song. But I don’t know if it’s for me. See, when I’m not doing gospel, I’m a soul singer. I don’t do the blues.”

Carole was crushed. “Funny thing is, I don’t do the blues either. I’m a rock ‘n roller. But I needed another way to write this.”

“Miss King, you’re a nice person. I guess you had a dry spell. Man trouble, maybe you ain’t got the touch you used to. Do I have that right?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with obvious. You think you need to be all deep and shit, and you think the blues is like that. But the blues isn’t about being deep. The blues is what you sing about when you’re hurting and you can’t do nothing about it. What I mean is, the blues is all you can do about it.”

“Right, I think that’s why I’m attracted to it now. My whole world’s turned upside down, I don’t know what’s up. I guess I could do something about it, if I knew what it was.”

“See that’s the difference between the deep blues and what you got—not being able to say and not knowing what to say. My daddy’s people, they lived in a world of hurt, but they couldn’t really tell it like it was. Nobody tells me what I can and can’t say, and nobody’s going to tell me that I might as well just sing the blues because nothing’s ever going to change. Sam Cooke said it: a change is gonna come. When you got soul, you can feel that same hurt, but you’re going to beat it. So now, what is it got you that you can’t beat?”

“I don’t know exactly.”

“That’s right, you don’t, because you don’t really have the blues. You’re singing ‘You make me feel like a natural woman’ and you’re playing the blues. How’s that? Even a white girl has to feel good about that.”

That was right, she thought, I do have to feel good about this. That’s why I wrote this, because somewhere inside, I still feel that way. Damm, this was getting harder by the minute.  “Maybe I should try and rewrite this as a soul song.”

“Rewrite it? It ain’t about that. It’s not the notes, it’s the attitude, it’s the way you play it. You see an old man shuffling down the street, all beat from life—that’s the blues. You see a young brother, strutting his stuff—that’s soul. They’re both picking up the same two feet and putting ‘em down. You got soul, you just put ‘em down a different way.”

Carole suddenly had the feeling that she was about to learn something very important. “OK, so how would you ‘put ‘em down?’ How would you sing this song?”

“Oh no, I ain’t gonna sing it, not just yet. See, it’s your song, you got to find you own soul in it. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll play the piano like I would play it, get that old bluesy feeling out, and you sing along. See how it feels to you.”

Aretha was as big a surprise at the piano as at the mike. She took Carole’s bluesy chart and gave it a staccato majesty that was overpowering. Suddenly Carole was swimming in a fast, twisty river, scared of the rocks, but exhilirated by the ride. She felt transformed. Was that her song? She laughed, thinking about Eva saying she’d find GAWD in this music.

“Wow. I think you know what I was really trying to say better than I do.”

“I don’t have no idea what you were trying to say. But I know what you did say in these words and I like the feel you put into it. It’s got some soul. One thing though, when I was playing it, I noticed. It’s just got one speed, one groove. I can feel there’s this war going on in the notes, one minute it’s all major, the next minute you want to just go off into this discord,” and she rattled off a seventh chord. “You got to put that other feeling into it more. Rock and roll, you can go straight ahead. This song, you need a bridge or some kind of B part that rides that other feeling.”

Aretha hadn’t said yes or no about singing it, only that she’d think about it. Carole was haunted by her comment about the bridge. She knew exactly what she meant, exactly what the other feeling was—the feeling of coming alive. She started with that—“You make me feel so alive”—sitting night after night at the piano, hearing Aretha’s piano in her head, tightening and tuning the words and the timing, letting that feeling of a new day, a new life, shape the phrasing and the notes. She went to Atlantic and cut a demo tape of the reworked version. She didn’t have the nerve to watch Aretha listen to it, so she left it with the producer, telling him “I don’t even want to know.”

Three months later, she was sitting in her living room in her chenille bathrobe, three in the morning, just staring out the window. Alan was long gone, his replacement, a trumpet player named Gil, snoring in her bed. She had the radio on low, listening to a little Black station from Newark. She sat bolt upright. It was Aretha, singing her song.

Oh baby, what you done to me

You made me feel so good inside

And I just want to be

Close to you

You make me feel so alive

You make me feel

Like a natural woman

 She rocked in her chair, tears streaming down her face. It was the most beautiful song she had ever written.

“I got soul!” She yelled to anyone who was listening “I got soul!”

She called Lenny up and yelled into the phone “I quit! I’m not writing another half-assed do-wop song! Burn my office at the Brill Building! I got soul!”

She called Murray and told him to get some soul.

She ran into the bedroom, yanked the covers off Gil. “Get up, get up. Get out of here now!”

“What, what,” he mumbled. “What I’d do?”

“Nothing, you lousy fuck. Get out of here. I got soul, you hear. I got soul! Find some other washed-up, has-been, dish rag to clean your pipes, you third-rate imitation of Miles Davis, son of a bitch. Because I ain’t doing it anymore. I got soul! I got life!”

And she and Eva and the girls sang her song over and over, until the sun came up.

What to listen for when you listen to jazz

This article originally appeared on Medium.

This series on listening to jazz opened with an introduction to some of the greatest jazz musicians and works of the last 60 years. Many people listen to jazz and feel torn — there’s something they like about it, but they’re also a bit confused. Some parts seem to repeat, some don’t repeat at all. In the same song, you might have parts that are very structured followed by parts that seem chaotic and random. It’s hard to enjoy the music if you feel confused by it.

So let’s clear up some of the confusion.

First, what is jazz? There’s no one answer to that, but the overwhelming majority of jazz played in modern times starts with an organized song. That is, a tune with a fixed number of measures, a repeating rhythm, a melody, and a harmony. At some point, one or more of the musicians will begin to improvise, to spontaneously play new notes and even chords. After awhile, the band will likely go back to playing the recognizable tune that the song started on.

Often, the tune is organized into sections, which is true of many popular music forms. In fact, most jazz fits one of these two models:

A blues. Like jazz, there’s no one definition of the blues, but there are some things that most blues share when it comes to the musical aspect. Most have only one section, made of three lines, each four measures of four beats long. The lyrics fit this pattern, too. Here, for example, are the lyrics to Robert Johnson’s famous Crossroads:

I went down to the crossroads, tried to beg a ride
I went down to the crossroads, tried to beg a ride
Nobody seemed to know me, everyone just passed me by

This is a classic blues because the first line makes a statement. The second line is very similar except that its sung higher, so it sounds like a response. The third line starts higher still, but takes us down and back to the first line. You could say the third line is a response to the first two. So this pattern of call and response in both the lyrics, melody and harmony permeates the blues.

Many jazz songs are blues. Charlie Parker is a great example of a jazz musician who elaborated on the blues. Famous Parker tunes like Au Privave, Blues for Alice, and Billie’s Bounce are blues tunes that Parker has “jazzed up.” Parker’s playing career overlapped, for example, with blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. What’s the difference between their versions of the blues? Largely, that Parker has taken the basic chords (the harmony) of the kind of blues Waters and Wolf played and added many more chords that provide a more fluid and dynamic background to the tune. Parker was one of the great geniuses of expanding the blues that ever played.

Standard tunes. The word standard in this context has two means. Mostly, it means the assemblage of popular tunes taken from shows and movies that were standard fare for singers and bands in the 1930s and ’40s. It has an additional sense of being written in a standard way.

That standard way is often referred to AABA. What that means is that the first verse of the song (the A section) repeats twice. This A section is generally going to be between 8 measures and 24, with 12 or 16 the most common. Then there will be a new section — called the bridge — which has a different melody, harmony and often mood. Then the A section will repeat, and we’ve finished one cycle of the song, one full chorus.

If you listened to The Bridge by Sonny Rollins on our list of great jazz by great artists, you heard God Bless the Child, written by Billie Holliday. You might have heard Blood, Sweat and Tears do this as well back in the 1960s. In any vocal version, you will find these lyrics:

Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible says and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own

Yes the strong get smart
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
They’re crowding around your door
But when you’re gone and spending ends
They don’t come no more

Rich relations give crusts of bread and such
You can help yourself, but don’t take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own

The first two stanzas are A sections. The B section begins with Money. Musically, it’s different than the prior two stanzas — the A sections start with major chords, the B with minor chords, and are otherwise different.

The part of the song that begins Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose is the A section.

In modern popular music, the Beatles are a great example of a band that often had bridges in their songs. For example, in the song Michelle, when Paul sings “I need you, I need you, I need you,” that’s the bridge.

Like most things musical, there are many variants to the AABA form, but most of them are just variations between the A sections.

The most notable exception to the above is free jazz, in which to one degree or another there is no fixed melody, harmony, rhythm or number of measures. Players just react to each other. In practice, much free jazz has a structure, it’s just minimal. Perhaps the bass player lays down a groove, and everyone goes from there. Then at some point, one of the players plays something noticeably out of that groove, and the band follows. But free jazz actually makes up a small portion of jazz. Many people mistake structured jazz that has very long solo, improvisational sections for free jazz. Both Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady are examples of this. In truth, the soloist is playing over structured rhythms and chords played by the rest of the band. The sections may not repeat as much, and the whole composition is more like a classical one where themes appear and reappear. The difference is that the thematic development in jazz happens through both composed sections and improvised sections.

That brings us to the next thing to listen for — how does the band work?

Let’s start with smaller jazz bands that have six of fewer members. The band is typically divided into a front line and a back line. The back line is referred to as the rhythm section — minimally bass and drums, but possibly a chordal instrument like piano, guitar, vibes or organ. The rhythm section provides a steady beat and between the bass and any chordal instruments (instruments that can play more than one note at a time), lays down the basic harmony.

The front line — typically saxophones or trumpet — will usually play the melody over the rhythm section.

As the tune begins, the band will play the tune with the arrangement described above. In jazz the tune is often described as “the head.” These are the notes written on sheet music, if that exists. The band will often play the tune twice through.

After that, the rhythm section will continue playing something similar to what they played behind the head. In turn, one or more of the front line players, and potentially some of the rhythm players, will solo while the rhythm section plays.

In jazz, solos are improvised — the player makes them up as he or she goes along. That’s very different than in classical music, where the composer has written the solo as part of the composition.

So how can a player make something up while they are playing that still sounds like it belongs to the song? They use the harmony that the rhythm section is playing as a starting point. As each chord transitions to the next, some notes may stay the same and some may change. The soloist can use either the steady note or the changing one as a stepping stone to create a new melody. The soloist can also add notes to the chords, or play notes that suggest a different, but equally valid, chord.

Try it yourself. Put any kind of song on you like and try and hum or sing an alternate melody to it. Just do that “doobee doobee do” thing. You may be surprised to find that you can occasionally improvise something that you think sounds cool. If you practiced and observed what works and doesn’t work, you’d get better at it.

And that’s how jazz musicians get better. Some tunes are very easy to improvise on, some are quite difficult. Some are easy to play something that doesn’t sound terrible, but hard to play something that sounds like music and has a real feel to it. You probably know people who can speak very well but don’t seem to say much. The same is true in jazz! But it’s also true that over years many players hone their skills and can just find amazing new melodies, harmonies and rhythms hiding in familiar tunes.

I’d be remiss not to note that with some jazz tunes, the improvisation takes place over a different set of chords than the melody. This is usually because the chords to the melody don’t lend themselves that well to improvising. A good example of this is the tune Stolen Moments by Oliver Nelson, featured on the album The Blues and the Abstract Truth (great title!). It has a cool head but the solos are just over a blues in the same key as the head.

Improvisation is the single most important creative act that makes jazz what it is. As you listen to a tune, notice how each succeeding soloist is different. Some may add a lot of flavor to the tune by adding key notes into the harmony that make it sound edgier or more diffuse or sadder or happier. Others may change the rhythmic feel entirely — a ballad can become a march, a swinging dance tune can become a Latin dance tune. The soloist is free to try a lot of things, but also needs the rhythm section to not get in the way, at the minimum, or to bring out the soloists interpretation in the best case.

This is where jazz solos tend to differ from rock or blues solo. For example, Eric Clapton probably became broadly famous first for playing a long fiery solo on the same Crossroads we discussed earlier on the Cream album Wheels of Fire. It’s a really great blues/rock solo, but he does nothing to develop the melody, harmony or rhythm. Great jazz solos tend to be more exploratory, although it can be hard as listener to described how the tune is changing. You just feel that the soloist has gone somewhere new.

Let’s go back to Kind of Blue as an example. The first song, So What, starts with some interplay between bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans for the first 34 seconds. They probably made that up on the spot. At 35 seconds, the two begin the theme that is the melody of the song. At 50 seconds, the horns join in as a kind of chorus, adding to the chordal notes that Evans is playing.

This goes on as they play through the tune once. At 1:28, Miles begins his solo. The bass is no longer playing the melody, but playing what’s called a walking bass — four notes per measure that outline the chords. Evans continues to play the chords in the background. They’re very simple chords, so he focuses more on rhythmic stabs that contrast with Chambers’ steady bass. Miles’ solo is very controlled — he plays a limited set of notes that, for me, give a soulful tinge to the driving bass line. If Miles’ solo was a painting, it might be a Cezanne — angular and spare, yet striving for a fuller dimensionality by stripping away the extraneous.

At 3:22, Coltrane starts his solo. It starts out not that different than Miles does, but within 15 seconds has developed a very different feel. Evans changes the way he plays chords behind it. Coltrane continues to develop his solo, pausing occasionally for contrast. He plays many more notes than Davis, but his solo also has a very different feel — tenser, more searching. Evans’ chords complement that. Whereas Miles is playing Japanese brush strokes that hint at a more complex framework, Coltrane is playing Jackson Pollack — he’s laying down string after string of notes that comprise dissident chords not being played by the rhythm section. At the same time, the rhythm section maintains their steady presence. The contrast between the two drives this section.

At 5:13, Adderley comes in with his solo. His is quite different than either of the two. It has more of a bluesy, swinging feeling. It’s also very masterfully constructed of a set of phrases that lead to each other. For me, this section has an almost R&B or gospel feel to it. It sounds almost written out, yet that’s highly unlikely. He doesn’t evoke a painter for me because he feels direct — like he’s just talking to me. Adderley (and Coltrane) had most likely never played this tune before, or if he had, as kind of a fragment.

At 7:02, it’s Evans’ turn. Because there’s no longer a chordal instrument, the three horns play some notes in unison behind him, forming chords. It’s just like singers in a chorus singing the do-me-so of a chord. Evans is the first chordal solo, and he makes the most of Miles’ tune to give an impressionistic rendering. For me, he’s Mark Rothko.

Evans only takes one chorus and hands it over to Paul Chambers at 8:15. Chambers plays the head again. In jazz, this is known as the head out, as in taking the song out to the end.

All four soloists play very different notes to the same rhythm and harmony. Each brought different temperaments and discovered something different when they soloed, and for the horn players who took multiple choruses, each chorus built on the last. That’s the whole point. For you as the listener, it’s like being able to look at a great painting from the front, back, and side, in bright light, in dim light, and so on.

Miles’ bands played this tune live for at least five more years. As time went by, his bands played it faster and faster, until it was actually too fast for the bass to play the entire melody line. The whole feel of the tune changed and evolved over time. For many great jazz musicians, playing the same tune the same way for years goes against the grain. They want to push the envelope, find new sounds. If you hear a jazz record and then go see the artists live, don’t be surprised if they play your favorite tunes completely differently.

Both on record and live, you may find some jazz bands caught in a sort of round robin formality to the solos. The band plays the same behind each, as if they were in a different room. Some soloists are just showing off — they have a technique that will work with this tune and they want to show how fast, smooth, edgey, loud or whatever they can be. As a listener, you want to hang loose and give your brain a chance to absorb the music, but you don’t have to like it. You may, over time, want to get a better sense of why and what you do or don’t like. That may take some knowledge, though, and you may not want to or be able to technically analyze what you hear. So it’s OK to think “I liked that, even if I don’t know why” or the reverse. But in time, you’ll likely realize that you do or don’t like certain approaches: jumpy rhythms, jangly chords, long fluid melodies, or whatever. No worries — taste is valid.

For now, if this is all new to you, just let it happen. Feel the groove, feel how the tensions in the chords and the melody, how they resolve and evolve. Feel the energy of the music and how it makes you feel. That is, after all, the point.

Seven great records by seven great jazz artists

This article was originally posted on Medium.

Jazz is a vast musical realm, stretching over many countries and a full century. It encompasses everything from New Orleans street bands of the 1920s to Robert Glaspar’s electronic mashups, from Harlem to Havana and every continent. So getting started with jazz can be overwhelming.

The following list has several thoughts behind it. For one, all of these albums were made using modern, stereo recording technology, which became mainstream in jazz around 1959. By and large, they were made before multitrack recording became the thing (late ’60s, early ‘70s), so the recordings are basically live, one take recordings in which each instrument has a distinct place left to right, front to back. To modern ears, the recording itself will not be the distraction that earlier ones might be.

That leaves out much of bebop, big band, and trad jazz that came before it, but we will address them later. We are also stopping short of electrified jazz (except for electric guitar) and the whole rock/jazz intersection, which will also be the subject of a future article. Ditto for jazz from Brazil, Cuba, Africa and Europe.

Instead, we’ll start in the middle, in the period between 1956 and 1966, for me a kind of Golden Age. Most of the musicians represented here cut their teeth on bebop, some actually playing with Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and the other lions of bebop. They took that music, its spirit, and found ways to give it more colors, flavors and freedom by further exploring African and Latin scales and rhythms, European modal music, and by remixing the blues and even R&B music. These musicians were highly influential, most of them known also as composers, others as band leaders who nurtured multiple generations of great players.

I’ve also left out vocalists. This era featured some great ones: Billie Holiday for a bit, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae and many others. But vocal jazz is its own thing, and we’ll try and get their eventually.

So for now, if you want to start to develop a taste for jazz, try these seven albums. Rollins and Hancock are still alive, so go see them if you can (I’m not sure if Rollins is still performing, but Hancock definitely is).

Miles Davis — Kind of Blue

People often say that if you have only one jazz album, this should be it. And yet, it is a somewhat singular album. The very first tune, So What, announces itself with a singular little byplay between bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans. And then it launches into a bass riff that sounds like the very first funk tune ever and at the same time announces a new, more relaxed (compared to bebop) approach to jazz. Technically, it’s called modal jazz, but for the novice listener, that’s not that important.

Most of the tunes on this album were being played for the very first time by anyone when this was recorded. The horn playing by alto sax Cannonball Adderley and tenor John Coltrane is as good as it gets, each launching great solo after great solo on this new music. Miles stakes out his claim as well, his minimalist brush strokes simultaneously illustrating the key musical stepping stones for the band and the painting an emotional picture with great skill.

Pianist Bill Evans probably embraced Miles’ modal vision more than anyone else in the band at that point in time, and both his playing behind the solos (comping, as musicians call it) and his solos are masterful. Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb provide perfect time and feel. All in all, this sexted is probably the greatest jazz sextet ever recorded.

It’s become a bit fashionable to knock this album as overrated, but if you take this out twice a year, pour a glass of wine, and listen undistracted, you will always find new pleasures.

Further listening. If you find that Freddy the Freeloader is your favorite tune, you may want to look backward in Miles’ catalog to the Walkin’/Cookin/Relaxin’/Workin’ quintet that immediately preceded it. If you find yourself more entranced by Blue in Green, check out Miles’ last great acoustic quintet from the early to mid ’60s, where he works out with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. ESP, Miles Smiles and Nefertiti all work for me. If Flamenco Sketches touches your heartstrings, try Sketches of Spain.

John Coltrane — A Love Supreme

This 1964 record is the Hallelujah Chorus of jazz. Trane was arguably the greatest musician of his time (in any genre), harnessing his immense technique to a deep and abiding search for meaning and expression in life and through music. This record has only three songs, really three movements of a single work, that expresses his deeply held spiritual beliefs. It doesn’t have repeating choruses, like most songs, but themes and motifs that come up periodically. It’s more like a classical composition that way.

The piece is played by arguably the greatest jazz quartet ever, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) joining Trane’s soprano sax.

It’s a work that’s rarely performed live (Trane himself only played it live once) and the recorded version is the canonical one, a treasure to be experienced with some concentration. Not much point in describing it — it speaks for itself. If you don’t get it right away, come back to it later.

Further listening. If you’re intrigued by the sound of Trane but are looking for more conventional compositions, not to worry, there are many directions to go in. If you want to hear these guys play tunes, check out Giant Steps, which has much of what made Coltrane a giant in his own time. My Favorite Things is pretty great, too. If you want a real treat, listen to any version of 1961’s Live at the Village Vanguard. The force, the optimism, the willingness to go beyond that was so much of the first part of 1960s culture bursts from every seam. If you’re looking for sheer beauty and romance, try Coltrane’s collaborations with singer Johnny Hartmann (John Coltrane & Jonny Hartman) or the man himself, Duke Ellington (John Coltrane & Duke Ellington. I personally love the Hartman version of Lush Life and the duet the Trane and Ellington do on In a Sentimental Mood. If you want to hear the farthest reaches of Coltrane’s music, try Ascension.

Charles Mingus — The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Mingus was a rarity — a bass player who was a band leader. And what a band leader he was! His imagination drew together every form of African-American music, from store-front church gospel to free jazz, and he drove his bands with feeling and groove. He began as classical cellist in the 1930s, not an easy road for a Black musician at the time. He switched to bass, spent some time in the Ellington band, and soon was at the forefront of NY’s jazz scene. Always pushing the envelope, he was part of the Beat scene where jazz mixed with drama and poetry, as well.

This album is from 1963. Like Trane, he was interested in the long form. The album should really be considered a symphony, a la some of Ellington’s long works. Like Ellington, Mingus generally had a lot of instruments in his work, and they are very artfully arranged. You will hear 1920s New Orleans, the Harlem Rennaissance, bebop and the early ’60s all coexisting in a compelling and moving work of great genius. If you’ve ever thought that Gershwin and Bernstein did some nice things with jazz, but wondered what would a more central jazz composer do in that vein, your search is ended. This is a record that will bear new revelations at every listening.

Further listening. Mingus has a vast catalog, and frankly, I haven’t heard all of it. I recommend 1959’s Mingus Ah Um if you want to hear a more straight ahead set built around typical tunes. If you’re particularly drawn to the greasier side of Mingus, Blues & Roots is a joy. Git it in Your Soul features Fables of Faubus, Mingus’ broadside against the Arkansas governor and rabid segregationist. For more adventure, any of his work with avant garde phenom Eric Dolphy in the 1960s is worth listening to.

Sonny Rollins — The Bridge

Rollins is The Other Great Tenor player of this era. He never had the cultural influence that Trane had, but he remains to this day a force of nature with a horn in his mouth. His early work with Max Roach and Clifford Brown is pretty great. But this album is most satisfying to me because of the duet work with Jim Hall and the freshness of some of it.

It’s a legendary record. Rollins was feeling somewhat at a loss in his playing and had basically taken time off performing and recording to “shed” — short for “woodshedding” as in “going back to the woodshed to practice.” His favored location for shedding was the walkway on the Williamsburg Bridge, near his Manhattan apartment. Hence the title of the album.

The title cut is a fresh take on classic post-bop ideas — continued rhythmic syncopation and a propulsive melody that evokes urban life.

The surprise element was Jim Hall, at that time a little known guitar player who was working out on guitar some of the same kinds of harmonic ideas that Bill Evans was using on piano. Hall is able to both back up Rollins and challenge him (gently) at the same time. Their work together on “God Bless the Child” is among the finest dual improvising you’ll hear.

Not that evident on this album, Rollins is one of the great blowers of all time. Probably the greatest single performance I’ve ever seen was him playing with a bass player and drummer at Boston’s Paradise, a rock club, in the early ’80s. Specifically, he played “Here You Come Again,” made famous by Dolly Parton, for what seemed like 20 minutes (it was probably 10). He took this somewhat corny tune and played it sideways, upside down, set it on fire, just did everything that could be done to this melody as if it were totally natural. And with fire!

I witnessed his love of melody more recently, about 10 years ago, at a more conventional concert in Boston. He mentioned that earlier in the day he had remembered a tune that his mother loved to listen to on the radio in the late 1940s. He hadn’t heard it since, but remembered it and had written out charts for the band that afternoon. He then proceeded to turn this 1940s calypsoish pop tune into a masterpiece.

Further listening. The early period featured a number of great sessions. I’m partial to Saxophone Colossus (where Sonny first indulged his love of Caribbean music with St. Thomas) and Plus Four (Valse Hot is a classic on that album). There are many mid-60s fiery, avant-gardish Rollins albums — check out East Broadway Rundown for that flavor. And then Sonny kind of settled into being Sonny. Like many great musicians, by that time he had a list of tunes that he liked to explore — A Nightingale Sings in Berkely Square, Without a Song, and a number of others — and he did. You can hear what might be considered his valedictory address in 2001’s Without a Song, the 9/11 Concert, recorded in the days after. I often wish that Sonny had challenged himself later in life by playing with the kind of top flight musicians he played with up until the mid ’60s, but by and large his post-1990 work is with a competent, comfortable but unexciting (except for Sonny) group.

An exception to that are the cuts on his series of Road Show releases. These are bootlegs that a devoted fan has made and Sonny has authorized for release. Many of the cuts feature him with topflight musicians in one-off collaborations, and for that alone, these albums delight.

Herbie Hancock — Maiden Voyage

If Kind of Blue signaled a new approach to jazz, 1965’s Maiden Voyage is one of its most famous and brightest children. Both the title tune and Dolphin Dance have become jazz standards, and the other tunes are great, too.

Hancock’s compositions are almost all modal, his rhythms include not only swing but New York Latin (think Watermelon Man, which he wrote earlier while with Mongo Santamaria) and I hear R&B poking through here and there, too. So this is post-bop with the emphasis on post.

I hope you’ll enjoy the moody, impressionistic quality of Hancock’s chords. George Coleman on tenor and the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard add their own lyricism to the mix. Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums are an advancement of the kind of rhythm section that Scot LeFaro and Paul Motian first pioneered with Bill Evans. They’re not content to just play the beat and simply outline the chords — the wring much more tension out of both with their sophisticated playing. All in all, this is one of the most beautiful jazz albums I know, and never veers into precious.

If you replaced Coleman and Hubbard with Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, you’d have the second great Davis quintet that reigned from 1964 to 1968.

Further listening. Where to start! All of Hancock’s work with Davis is worth listening to, must listening if you like that era. Later, Hancock became a pioneer of fusion with The Headhunters and other lineups and even had a Top 40 hit with Canteloupe Island. He also worked up a funk version of Watermelon Man. Even if you’ve never heard this music, you’ll find you probably have, as Hancock’s fusion work is among the most heavily sampled by hip-hop artists of the last 25 years.

In recent years, he’s focused a lot on bridging jazz and popular music, notably rock. He’s done a series of albums with guest performers, including vocalists, that are household names to younger audiences (John Legend, Joss Stone, Derek Trucks, etc.). My favorite of these is The Joni Letters, where he and Wayne Shorter team up with vocalists on Joni Mitchell tunes. Their instrumental duet version of Both Sides Now is pretty special, too.

Bill Evans — The Complete Village Vanguard Records, 1961

This recording showcases several things. First, there’s Evans, who as much as anyone explored where jazz could go on the piano after bebop. His innovations are difficult to explain without getting into a very technical discussion of harmony and the piano, but you’ll hear the feel of it right away. Chords flow one in to the other as if a constant river of harmony, rather than abrupt changes. I don’t think of Evans as a highly rhythmic player, but he was a great champion of the jazz waltz, which is its own little world.

By the way, this recording was originally released as two separate albums: Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. They’re both good in their own right.

Beyond Evans, this trio really was a template for trios to come with its emphasis on equal importance for all three members and constant interplay between them. Many jazz bands play through the melody and then begin solos; during the solos, the rest of the band plays in the background and doesn’t react much to the solo. In the Evans trio, there’s more of partnership between all three, constantly adjusting to each other. In a way, the trio played tunes but almost as free jazz. This requires a very high level of musical ability, but these guys have got it covered.

Scot LeFaro was a true pioneer on the standup bass, breaking free of some of the conventional ways that bass players functioned as basically the left hand of the piano. Later, players like Jaco Pastorious would build on this freedom on the electric, but LeFaro rewrote the rules. Motian also eschewed a strict timekeeping role, and players like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette took that further a well.

Further listening. Sadly, LeFaro died 10 days after Sunday at the Village Vanguard in a car accident. The band’s catalog on Riverside leading up to it is all worth listening to. Evans repeats certain tunes –Waltz for Debby, Israel, My Romance, My Foolish Heart tend to show up now and again. But I also like another Evans lineup, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morrell on drums. There are two Live at Montreux albums with them that I quite like.

Thelonius Monk — Brilliant Corners

Monk was the quirky, brilliant manic depressive often caricatured by ignorant critics. By now, most of the “he played that way because that’s all he could do” comments have been discredited, but during his life they plagued him.

To me, Monk is sort of the pure beating heart of jazz. He came of age in New York when boogie woogie piano players dazzled nightly. A player who copped another guy’s licks on a gig would likely find that guy was not only sitting in the club, but would thank him for the imitation with a beat down. All of that is to say that he developed in a time when originality was at a premium. He was an unsung (for many years) founder of bebop, but outlived and outlasted it. Even today, learning how to play Monk tunes is a right of passage and a bit scary.

For me, his contribution to jazz was to combine constant syncopation with constant harmonic tension. After many years, I’ve come to hear him as a Duke Ellington whose melodies and harmonies were built around the very tension notes that bebop had highlighted. Unlike the Parker/Gillespie flavor of bebop, he was less concerned with playing up tempo than with a highly syncopated, herky jerky rhythm and that highlighted those tensions. Whereas Parker would circle the tensions, Monk would creep right up to them, half step by half step. He wrote many famous tunes — Ruby My Dear, Epistrophy, ‘Round Midnight, Crepuscule with Nellie and many more — that embody that.

That fundamental approach to harmony and melody is not that different than Davis, in my opinion. If Monk is Ellington with more tensions and syncopation, Miles is Monk with just the tensions. Both evoke Ellington, both were minimalists in their own way.

It’s hard to pick Monk’s best album, but many people do pick this one. The title tune and Bemsha Swing are among my favorite Monk tunes.

Further listening. One of the great lost but discovered albums in jazz is Thelonius Monk With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, a 1957 radio concert not released until 2000. It’s the only real record of Trane’s brief tenure with Monk and a wonderful collaboration. Monk’s Time is also fine, as are a good deal of his 1960s Columbia catalog. He’s a little like Evans — it’s tough to pick a standout album, as most have moments of brilliance among moments of just goodness.

In a future article we’ll delve into more great albums by other great and very good artists — Cannonball Adderly, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter and who knows who else. But these seven albums will give you a foundation in the working vocabulary of the post-bop jazz that dominated the jazz scene, and a point of departure for what came later.

Sit back, turn up the volume a tad, and enjoy! After these seven albums, you will have heard the greatest tenors (Coltrane and Rollins), trumpet player (Davis and Freddie Hubbard), drummer (Elvin Jones with Coltrane, runner up to Tony Williams), piano players (Monk, Evans, Hancock and McCoy Tyner with Coltrane), and bass players (Mingus and LeFaro) of their era and frankly, of most eras. You will have heard some of the most classic modern jazz tunes. And you will have heard how the music invented by the grandchildren of slaves reacted to the civil rights and Black Liberation movements of the late ’50s and ‘60s.

Why I worship Jeff Beck

This article was originally published on OpenSalon.

If you’re an electric guitar player, forget reading this. Just go get the DVD and watch it. You’ll probably have to watch it in halves, as I did, because you’re likely to be overwhelmed by  two and a half hours of it. If you’re not sure whether to laugh, cry or put your guitar up for sale, do the first two. Then realize that you have much more to learn about your instrument and just being a musician.

For the rest of you, Jeff Beck performing this week…live at Ronnie Scott’s is a valedictory performance by one of the world’s great ignored guitar players. Although there are others — Ronnie Earl comes to mind — few have held the status for so long.

That wasn’t always the case. If you were a guitar player in the ’60s, you cut your teeth playing covers. Who you could cop was a mark of how good you were. The best guitar player in my high school was a kid named Randy Santoruffo. He was the only person who could play Roger McGuinn’s 8 Miles High solo note for note. Randy was the guy who first told me about Jeff Beck and all of the crazy things he could make a guitar do.

Watch this and you will understand that Jeff Beck had as much to do with shaping rock guitar as anyone alive or dead and seems not to care — he’s still searching for new sounds and grooves, not resting on his laurels.

If you’ve never heard Beck (as he was known before the kid fron LA), the DVD is backwards. You’ll want to listen to the two penultimate cuts where he and Clapton blaze through two Muddy Waters tunes, trading solos (inexplicably, these cuts are missing from the CD version). In particular, “You Need Love” is the kind of tune that tells you their respect and love for the blues, and even more, their knowlege and authenticity. Jimmy Page turned a lot of Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon tunes into histrionic little melodramas, making them safe for white kids in the heartland, but Beck and Clapton dig deep and retain the dangerousness, the rawness, the pain, even the African rhythms of 1950s Chicago blues.

Once you understand that, Beck is an open book. The 19 or so other tunes recorded over the course of a week in December 2007 are a great sampling of his career long ramblings through blues, rock, metal, funk, fusion, electronica and whatever else struck his fancy. In all of them, he makes the Stratocaster sing.  Eddie Van Halen was probably as good as Beck at all the techniques of making an overamped electric guitar do strange things, but Beck does it merely as a means to an end. And the end, for this silent performer, is to sing out his heart, his guts, and all the rest of him.

Nowhere is that better displayed than on his lyrical ballads. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” is a tune Stevie Wonder wrote but didn’t record (he gave it to Beck in exchange for Beck’s solo on “Looking for Another Pure Love” onTalking Book) and it was the anchor of Beck’s most successful album, 1975’sBlow by Blow. This version hues fairly close to the original. The tune is, for me, equalled only by the Allman’s “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” among rock instrumentals for sheer beauty.

As beautiful is “Nadia” from 2001’s You Had It Coming. Apparently it began life as an Indian pop song. Here it is an achingly beautiful classic, like Miles playing My Funny Valentine or Coltrane playing In a Sentimental Mood. As with “Because…”, Beck plays largely single notes, using his mastery of the whammy bar and the volume knob swell. More than the gimmicks, his spare phrasing, his willingness to play soft, his sense of when to play fast and when to play slow, his use of the rich harmonics his massive Marshalls produce — all of it come together in breathtaking beauty.

There are other beautiful tracks, too: a fine take on the Beatles “Day in the Life,” a soulful version of “People Get Ready” with Joss Stone on vocals (make up your own mind — I liked Rod Stewart better on their early ’90s collaboration).

There are a few nods to Beck’s periodic infatuations with major chord rock, notably Big Block. Most of the rest of the cuts draw on his funk and fusion chops and whatever you might call the last 10 years of his catalog. It’s all good, it’s all great.

Chuck Berry took the newly electrified guitar of the early 1950s and laid the foundation for most of rock guitar with tunes like Johnny B. Goode, Maybelline, and Sweet Little Sixteen. It was fast, rhythmic, sly, hip and good to dance to. A decade later, young white kids in England wanted to turn up dial on frustration and rage and they began turning their more powerful amps and more tolerant guitars onto the blues they had been soaking up from America.

At the same time, Hendrix began experimenting with this new found electronic freedom in the context of the funk and soul bands he had been backing. All of this started to explode in the London of the mid-60s, with bands like Cream, The Yardbirds, The Who (pre-Tommy), Fleetwood Mac (the Peter Green edition), The Bluesbreakers, and so on creating the rock equivalent of free jazz. Suddenly, rock guitar players were doing more than fills at the end of the chorus.

Listen to Clapton’s legendary solos on “Crossroads” or “Spoonful” on Wheels of Fire and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Across the musical street, so to speak, Hendrix had created out of feedback a wholly different guitar sound. It was Beck, for me, who succesfully absorbed and bridged these two streams. Later, Santana would do something similar.

Part of the Hendrix legend is that he was supposed to record with Miles Davis the day he died.  Alas, we’ll never know how cool that might have been. But both Beck and Santana did creat real jazz in the 1970s and into the 80s. Sadly, no one was really listening that much. Both found their way back to  popular music, but Beck never really recaptured the audience interest nor certainly the financial success.

I never saw Beck back in the day, but have seen him 3 times over the last 15 years. Every time, he came out in blue jeans and a T-shit, plugged in and played his ass off for 90 minutes. No fog machines, dancing routines or other extraneous crap: just insanely good playing.

Nonetheless, Clapton, Beck and Hendrix remain for me the foundation of modern rock guitar. No Page, no Van Halen, no Satriani — well, the list goes on — without those three. Clapton long ago retired from the rock pioneer business, but Beck, he’s still the got the spirit.

One last note:  The DVD is also a great chance to see and hear Tal Wilkenfeld, the 22-year old Aussie bass phenom. You can get a taste of that in this clip from the Crossroads Festival.

Sarah Vaughan deserves more recognition

This article was originally published on OpenSalon.

The three big divas of jazz are unquestionably Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. Yet Vaughan seems to have been relegated to the status of insider’s gem. Think of Ken Burn’s Jazz series; you came away with a strong sense of Billy and Ella, but Sassy? Not so much.

For the uninitiated, Vaughan had an enormous range that she used flawlessly and at will. Like Holiday, she sang like a horn, often departing mightily both tonally and rhythmically from the melody and truly improvised, not only from one performance of a song to the next, but even from beginning to end. Like Ella, she could scat to beat the band.

I’ve been a fan for decades, but watching the Jazz Icons DVD of her live in Europe in 1958 and 1964, I was just blown away. Vaughan has had the rap with some people that her awesome technique got in the way of expressing the song. Seeing her live, not so. You can connect with her face and see the expressions change with the words and feel her moods change as she smiles, or becomes pensive.

You can also see that she’s somewhat shy and awkward, not a big secret. And here in lies the source, I believe, of her reduced posthumous popularity. She has no personal hook to hang on to. Billy is the archetypal black jazz story: poor, addicted, overcoming those to become a great artist, Lady Day. Ella, the crossover star. Sarah? Just another ordinary Afro-American singer, albeit with arguably the greatest popular singing talent of the 20th century.

And I wonder how much our twisted racial sensibilities play into this, at least for white folks. All three of these singers deserve adulation on their merit. But does Billy’s tragic life help us confront our tragic history? Is Ella easier to take? Does Sarah fit into that no-man’s land, like maybe Dinah Washington, of the black singer who sang on her own terms, whose only attraction is talent? Yes, it’s a strange country we live in.

Anyway, listen to Sarah Vaughan sing two very familiar tunes, signature tunes of other singers (always a brave act!)  — Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Lover Man — from her 1958 Dutch tour and see if you’re not bowled over not just by her talent, but by the aching beauty of her interpretation. Listen to Lullaby of Birdland on her 1954 album with Clifford Brown and see if you don’t think she could swing as well as anyone; listen to the delicate interplay with Brown on the break of Jim and see if you don’t think she was one of the great musicians of jazz history.

Reconsidering Herbie Hancock

 

This article orginally appeared on OpenSalon.

In the last year, I’ve purchased LPs of Hancock’s first two albums (Takin’ Off, Maiden Voyage) and the remastered CD of Empyrean Isles, his third. It’s given me a chance to hear the early Hancock in a concentrated dose and reconsider his place in the evolution of jazz. And a lofty place it is, I’ve decided.

Each has a tune or two that everyone knows, in one way or another. Takin’ Off starts off with Watermelon Man, Herbie’s signature take on Mongo Santamaria’s classic. Maiden Voyage has the title cut and Dolphin Dance, two tunes you’ve heard even if you don’t know it, as they’re often used in movies and such to denote hip sophisticated ’60s scenes. Empyrean Isles has Cantaloupe Island, sampled extensively (as are the other tunes I’ve mentioned) by funksters and hip-hoppers. It was the underlying loop for a big hip-hop hit by someone I can’t remember, but you’ve heard them.

Hancock came on the scene at a pivotal time in jazz history. The golden era of post-bop music that grew up around Monk, Coltrane, Davis, Rollins and others was essentially over. Free jazz, whether the Ornette Coleman strain or the John Coltrane strain, was just building up steam, to be headed off into the wild blues yonder. Many of the former era’s second tier was creating very nice but not so innovative music under the various umbrellas of hard bop, soul jazz and so on (Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderely, Horace Parlan, and so on).

There were a lot of idiosyncratic innovators — Bill Evans comes to mind — and the Brazilian/Latin fusion thing was also going on. But jazz lacked a center that was both innovative and accessible.

So let me suggest that in retrospect, it was Hancock who created that, or at least tried.

The first album only hints at it. Hancock mostly comps great  behind the great Dexter Gordon, who himself was among the most soulful of the older generation. But Watermelon Man puts a marker down for funky syncopated rhythms played over simple chord progressions.

It’s on Maiden Voyage that Hancock lays his cards down. He takes on Blue Note session trumpeter Freddie Hubbard as co-conspirator and along with tenorman George Russell, they wind their way through a series of tunes that combines Blakey like rhythms with some of Davis’ modal ideas.

Looking back, it seems to me that Davis looked at modal jazz as a way to simplify soloing. Evans, McCoy Tyner, and especially Hancock, took that idea and wrote tunes that started with the chords that Miles would hint at in his solos, so to speak.

OK, so that’s a lot of music theory speak for saying that Hancock started writing tunes that were not dedicated to all sorts of torturous chord changes in the bop style but rather to a smaller number of more interesting chords that let solos breath.  Somedays I hear it as an updating of the blues — a way to approach chords that gives a song a readily comprehensible structure, creates tension and release, and leaves room for a lot of creative improvisation.

Before giving Hancock all the credit, it’s worth noting that So What, Davis’ masterful opener to Kind of Blue, is really the mother of all of these tunes. You have to pinch yourself when you realize that Davis wrote a tune in 1957 that set the tone for so much of music from then until now.

But it’s Hancock, on Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles, that turned that idea into a repertoire. Listen to Oliloqui Valley on Empyrean Isles and you’ll hear a kind of music that’s at once hip and accessible. Gathering around him topflight Blue Note session men Hubbard and bassist Ron Carter and enfant terrible Tony Williams on drums, he creates music that’s the jazz companion to James Brown — tight, hip and listenable.

It was this group that Miles essentially adopted after several years wandering in the wilderness looking for a replacement to his second great group, the Kind of Blue ensemble (Evans, Adderley, Coltrane, Paul Chambers (b) and  Jimmy Cobb (d)). Davis’ also added saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who in the Blakey band had also been writing these kind of new tunes, although often his tunes are somewhat more complex and idiosyncratic. I guess I should also point out that Adderley keyboardist Joe Zwainul (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy) was into similar things, later to anchor Weather Report with Shorter and bassist Jaco Pastorious.

In interviews,  Hancock is always deferential to Davis’ legacy. You might get the impression that the band were a bunch of talented kids molded by the master. Listen to Hancock’s early work and you can see how wrong that would be. This group brought with it 50% of what Davis was looking for in the late ’60s, easily. That he later pushed into electric music and so on is a subject for another post, but in bringing on the Hancock ensemble, he must have learned from them, too.

Hancock has gotten a lot of props this year for his wonderful Joni Letters album. I hope some people have had a chance to go back over his body of work. Whether its the early period, his Headhunters stuff, or gems like The New Standards, Hancock has been much more than a great piano player. Check it out.