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.

McCoy Tyner plays like he means it

This article was originally published on OpenSalon

Caught McCoy Tyner at Regatta Bar the other night and it was a revelatory experience. Here’s a man looks like he’s not got long to live, who’s already lived a very full life, playing in his 70s with more verve than most guys half his age.

Gary Bartz was on the set too, and he played similarly convincingly. Thinking about it, these guys helped invent the music they’re playing. This is them, not something they’re trying to emulate. The difference between playing, say, Giant Steps, and being the guy who first played piano  on that is bigger than it looks, apparently. Not that Tyner played that tune, but the point is he plays what he plays straight from the heart.

My friend Steve, a good bass and guitar player, says sometimes musicians just have to get their heads out of the fake book. What I think he means is that jazz isn’t about reproducing a sound or a feel, it’s about finding them and then committing. If there’s one thing I came away from Tyner’s set with, it’s the belief that he plays with 100% intentionality — he means every note he plays.

Jazz is complex music, and lots of people get caught up in the complexity of it. Even for high-talent, high-profile musicians whose names we’ve heard, a tune can be a high-wire act. So many ways to fall!

For Tyner, Monk, Coltrane, Rollins, Davis, etc., their solution was to find their own wire, one they could walk, skip or run on. Today, with the weight of 80 years of jazz on them, and the added weight of jazz from around the world, I feel like even many great jazz musicians don’t have the intentionality and committment I got from Tyner and Bartz, or on other occasions, a Charles Lloyd, Sonny Rollins, Ahmad Jahmal.

That was one thing I liked about Michael Brecker. He took some shit during his day for not being John Coltrane, but when I saw him, he was all over it. Compare that to a Chris Potter, who’s great, but what is he feeling?

It’s not really a generational thing entirely. I feel like Terence Blanchard plays with heart, for example. Joe Lovano, too. Some guys, some days — John Scofield  comes to mind. But it’s hard to deny, jazz is more technical today and it’s taken it’s toll on the emotional force of the music.

So if Tyner comes to your town, see him. It’s one thing to see a reproduction, another the original. 

JULY 9, 2009 8:56AM

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 Coleman, 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 middle and 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.