Jazz String Theory

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – William Shakespeare, from Hamlet.

Yesterday a friend sent me a YouTube clip of Paul Gonsalves and Chick Corea playing Corea’s signature “Windows” in 1966, with Aaron Bell on bass and Louie Bellson on drums. No, that’s not a typo………. even before listening to it, I was astonished by its mere existence. I mean, Paul Gonsalves and Chick Corea?!? They’re not a pair you’d put together in a million years; they’re at least a generation apart and would seem to be oil and water, musically speaking.

When you think Gonsalves, you think Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Newport ’56, Billy Strayhorn, Clark Terry, Sam Woodyard, innumerable scenes of wanton inebriation and one of the most relentlessly original tenor saxophone voices of all time.Think Corea and you think Blue Mitchell Quintet, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, NOW HE SINGS, NOW HE SOBS, Return to Forever, “Spain”, the Elektric Band and many other things, none of them remotely Ellingtonian.

And yet, here they are, from a four-tune Mercer Ellington session (Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney are on the other three numbers.) Here’s “Windows” – the only thing wrong with it is that, like most good things, it’s too short:

This is the first recording of “Windows”, a full year before Corea and Stan Getz tackled it on Getz’s SWEET RAIN album. There’s a Microsoft joke in there somewhere, think of this as Windows 1.0. The song was still a work in progress for Corea – those familiar with it will notice that the chords in the final sixteen bars are different, more spacious and open than in subsequent versions.

I find this version both beautiful and fascinating. Beautiful because of Gonsalves’ warm, slithering sound playing the melody, Corea’s lovely impressionistic chords and the almost shy deference each shows the other in this one-off meeting; there’s plenty of restraint and wide open space here. And fascinating because it offers such an unexpected snapshot of what might have been, of the lovely things that can sometimes happen when great players who don’t seem to fit together find common ground and just make music together.

As often is the case, I came away from listening to this thinking that, in jazz you just never know, there’s always much more out there than you realize, there are always surprises which challenge our preconceptions. And this made me think of the quote from Hamlet, with me cast as Horatio.

***

Last night I played the first of two nights at The Rex with Mark Eisenman’s quintet – John MacLeod on trumpet, Pat LaBarbera on tenor saxophone, Mark on piano, me on bass and Mark Micklethwaite doing an admirable job of filling in on drums for John Sumner. As usual, Pat was a fertile source of good lines even before we started playing. Tiring of odd time signatures, Pat revealed that he’s writing a tune called “Beat Me Daddy, Seven To the Bar”. I’ve since learned that Don Ellis – who else? – already wrote a tune with this title and I’ve suggested to Pat that he try writing one called “Four Steps to Heaven”. As we were about to start, Ted O’Reilly turned up to hear a set and drop off some photographs for Mark and me.

On the break I joined Ted and John MacLeod at the bar; among other things they were in the middle of a conversation about Ellington. When there was a gap, I mentioned hearing the Gonsalves/Corea version of “Windows” earlier in the day and like me, neither man had ever heard of it and both were very surprised. It was the same later when I mentioned the clip to Pat and Mark. This is saying something, these guys are not that easy to stump.

The mention of the “Windows” clip prompted a great story from Ted about hanging out with Clark Terry and Paul Gonsalves. Clark and Ted grew to be close friends over the years and one time Clark was playing the Colonial Tavern in the late ’60s when the Ellington band was also in town. After his gig Clark said to Ted, “Let’s go hang out with Mex, he’s at the Lord Simcoe.” So they went over and knocked on his door and Gonsalves answered in a wife-beater and boxer shorts, already pretty loaded but overjoyed to see Clark and very welcoming to Ted once introductions were made. He insisted they have a drink but only had two glasses. So he poured a glass of scotch for himself and Clark and gave Ted one of those big ice cubes with a dimple-like indentation, carefully filling it with whisky, saying “I hope this isn’t too cold for ya.” Of course the ice cube melted eventually and Gonsalves said, “Oh, sorry man, lemme get you a fresh glass”, reaching for the ice bucket. Ted said Paul was one of the happiest drunks he ever met and they stayed and had a great time until about three in the morning, at which point the bottle was empty and Paul was out cold.

Ellington saxophonists now being the topic, I told a story about meeting Harold Ashby in 1985 at a jazz festival in Nice, France. I was playing in a small group led by Woody Herman, with John Bunch on piano. John and Harold were old friends and knowing that I loved Ellington as much as he did, Bunch called me one day around noon and invited me to his room to have a beer with Ashby, a tall, soft-spoken man with a large buffalo-shaped head. He was also very nice and quite modest and seemed pleased when I mentioned some of his lesser-known recordings that I’d enjoyed. I think he was surprised that a young white guy from Canada even knew who he was.

Anyway, we got on well and later in the day Harold suggested we take a stroll along the main street, which overlooked a topless beach, with the Mediterranean off in the distance. So we’re walking along and talking when suddenly we saw two very attractive, tanned and bare-breasted young ladies playing table tennis on the beach just below us. Harold said, “Hmmmm…………a sporting contest, let’s pause and see how this game turns out”, while I doubled over.

I don’t have to paint you a picture, let’s just say the Ping-Pong ball wasn’t the only orb bouncing around. So we stood there with our heads bobbing back and forth, our eyes going in and out of focus. Harold made it seem respectable by occasionally feigning interest in the “game” with something dry like, “I think the darker-haired one has a better backhand, don’t you? She’s up 15-11.”  It was very funny and quite surreal, standing with a veteran of Ellington’s band who I’d just met and watching the most salacious table tennis match in history. I won’t soon forget it, that’s for sure.

***

Even after so many years I’m still amazed at how information is spread among friends like this in jazz, and how one thing leads to another. Small random connections form into strings, which join and make an ever-expanding circle. In just one day the string went from hearing the Corea/Gonsalves clip to telling some friends about it, which led to hearing Ted’s funny story, which in turn led me to tell the story of Ashby and the Ping-Pong nymphs. Sometimes these strings end happily, other times not. A smile crossed my face first thing this morning as the Ashby/Nice story passed through my mind again. Then I went out to pick up the paper from the porch and its headline screamed the terrible news: 80 people killed in Nice on Bastille Day by a lunatic driving a truck.

What a fucked-up world this is. Hang in for the beauty and to hell with the rest of it, I say.

In the spirit of this, here are two pieces of unsurpassed beauty to help us over the angst of yesterday’s madness……………. First, Duke Ellington’s classic recording of his immortal “All Too Soon”. You’ll hear Lawrence Brown playing the melody with Otto “Toby” Hardwicke weaving an ethereal counter-melody around him. Then, after the key change, Ben Webster enters against the wah-wah trumpets. I never tire of hearing this record:

And Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte”, performed by Walter Gieseking. I’ve yet to hear anyone play it better.

 

© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Jazz String Theory

  1. Another good one. Well done. This version of Windows is new to me. And Gonsalves’ tone – nice! I would have to say Stan listened to him too, along with Young.

  2. Thank you for the ride on two different planets Stevo. You are so descriptive with your writing chops, I can’t get enough. Have you started the book yet? Best to you & Anna. Ciao for now, xogb.

  3. HI, Steve,
    I’ve been reading (and enjoying) your blog through posts on Facebook, but it’s time to follow so I don’t miss any in future. Keep up the great work.

  4. Hi Steve..Loved it, love Ellington since I saw the band 1946 or 47 at the London Little Theatre in London Ontario. The last time I saw the band it was led by Mercer and it was still a good band but without Ellington’s persona it just did not seem the same. Enjoyed the Corea/Gonsalves thing, first time I’d heard the tune and it has that nice 1920s dated ballad sound, wonder if it has lyrics?

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