6. Billie Holiday – May 24, 1947 – Carnegie Hall
This wonderful, short set comes from an early Norman Granz Jazz At the Philharmonic concert. Apart from her immortal Columbia recordings with Teddy Wilson, Lester Young et al in the late 1930s, these are the Holiday sides I find myself turning to most often. She does just four songs here – “You’d Better Go Now”, “You’re Driving Me Crazy”, “There Is No Greater Love” and “I Cover the Waterfront”. Each is beautiful, but my favourite here is the first and least-known of the tunes “You’d Better…”. Jeri Southern made a celebrated recording of this torch song some years later, but this is the one for me.
The timeless and graceful quality of these performances is remarkable given all the trying circumstances surrounding them. For one, they came during the most difficult period of Holiday’s life, right between her arrest for drug possession in Philadelphia and her sentencing to 366 days in the Federal Prison for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. Furthermore, she was appearing that night at the Club 18 on 52nd St. and between sets rushed over to Carnegie Hall with her pianist Bobby Tucker to make this unadvertised guest appearance. Luckily it was recorded and these tracks appear on the 10-CD Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-59.
Billie could be unpredictable and considering the conditions one might expect a more distracted or erratic performance, but all is poise and tranquil lyricism here, she rarely sounded better. Her voice and pitch are clear, her phrasing delicate and lilting; she’s vulnerable as always, yet in absolute control here. Her handling of certain lyrics, such as “There’s a moon above, and it gives my heart a lot of swing” from “‘You’d Better Go Now” never fail to touch, the sound and phrasing just seem to be incandescent, to glow.
Bobby Tucker is just superb here, a big part of the overall magic taking place. He offers Billie the kind of tasteful, delicate-but-firm support only the best piano accompanists can – Ellis Larkins, Hank Jones, Jimmy Rowles, maybe a handful of others. Billie never had a better pianist. The fact that it’s just him backing Billie brings the intimacy and her sureness here into sharper focus. Miles Davis has been quoted as saying she was best heard in a spare musical setting. He said, “She doesn’t need any horns. She sounds like one anyway.”
It’s a happy miracle that this performance happened at all and was recorded to boot, but one wishes they’d stayed longer. It’s always that way with magic though, you always want more. We must be grateful to be able to turn to these at all, to hear a unique and great artist with all her cares and woes packed up and melting away for once, if only for a few moments.
7. Bud Powell – April 2, 1960 – Essen Jazz Festival
Bud Powell’s standing as one of the preeminent and seminal geniuses of jazz piano is unquestionable, and his influence is still keenly felt today. He made many great recordings early in his career, but his myriad and well-documented personal problems rendered his playing – at least past the early 1950s – inconsistent, if not downright erratic. To be sure, there are rewarding moments even on his most flawed records, he’s always worth hearing. But as the ’50s wore on and his problems worsened, there were some painful moments on record where Bud sounds as though he’s been suddenly short-circuited, where the co-ordination between mind and fingers is just gone.
On this day in West Germany though, it’s as if all the stars magically aligned and Bud’s circuit board was rewired to 1947 voltage, he’s just blistering here. His trio-mates – fellow bebop pioneers and expatriots Oscar Pettiford on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, certainly help out. The three of them had played together at various times dating back to the early 1940s days of Minton’s and it’s hard to imagine a more compatible combination. The 1953 Toronto voters blew it – Pettiford and Clarke should have been the rhythm section for the historic Jazz at Massey Hall concert.
Bud doesn’t beat around the bush but gets right down to business with the first number, the murderously difficult “Shaw Nuff” taken at a breakneck tempo, including the macabre, silent-movie intro with its treacherous stops and breaks. It takes some virtuosity for a horn player to negotiate all this plus the tune’s head and Powell tosses it off easily from the piano with great power and articulation. His soloing here turns back the clock to his glory days – the bristling, cliche-free, single-note lines, the piston-like accents and rhythmic intensity, the pile-driving, barking left hand – are all delivered with feverish speed and joy. It’s edge-of-the-seat, sweaty stuff and you’re not quite sure if he’ll be able to sustain it, but he does, there’s no faltering at all.
A medium-tempo version of Pettiford’s “Blues In the Closet” follows, almost a relief after the relentlessness of the “Shaw Nuff”, and I could listen to these masters play the blues all day. They get at the essence and feeling of it without resorting to any blues-scale trickery, it’s all 100% musical content.
Pettiford is featured next on “Willow Weep For Me”, a brilliant, bluesy outing on a tune well suited for the bass. It’s saying something, but Oscar Pettiford is my favourite bassist and this particular performance has bittersweet meaning for me. He would be dead in just five months at 38 and this would be one of his last great moments on stage or record.
The trio close out their first set with sparkling takes on Powell’s “John’s Abbey” and a fast “Salt Peanuts” featuring Clarke and rightly so, he’s the co-composer. This is prototypical, first-generation bebop of the highest order and I wish this classic trio had been a regular unit for years and made more records.
There is more here though, in the second set the great Coleman Hawkins joins the trio for four longer numbers – “All the Things You Are”, “Just You, Just Me”, “Yesterdays” and “Stuffy.” Hawkins and Pettiford had a long history dating back to about 1940, and Hawk was always equally comfortable among bop or swing players. He’s in terrific form here, the early ’60s were a great period for him. His playing is a little more relaxed at this point, he’s more in touch with the blues than before and his physical decline wouldn’t start for another five years or so. There’s nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking here, just four all-time jazz masters practicing their craft together at a very high level; I’ll take that every day. All of this music is available on the Black Lion CD called “Bud Powell – the Essen Jazz Festival Concert”.
8. The Modern Jazz Quartet and Sonny Rollins – Aug, 1957 – Lennox, Mass.
This was a difficult choice because the MJQ, as pioneers of the small-group jazz concert, made many great live recordings, and Sonny Rollins would make some very celebrated ones later that year at the Village Vanguard. These two tracks (“Bags’ Groove” and “Night in Tunisia”) have always been very special to me though, because there’s a unique chemistry at work here. The MJQ never quite sounded like this and neither did Rollins, despite being in the middle of his amazing peak from 1956-59, a run of greatness ended only by his self-imposed retirement from 1959-61.
The venue is Music Inn, an arts complex with a converted barn which was used for both classical and jazz music festivals and for many recordings around this time, it had wonderful natural acoustics. John Lewis (the MJQ’s pianist and chief composer) ran a summer jazz school there called The New School of Music for several years and Rollins was a member of the faculty. The unique interest of these performances lies in the tension and interplay between Rollins the improviser – who could be either wildly spontaneous or thematically disciplined in his approach – and the interactive stimulus provided by Lewis’s incisive accompaniment, underpinned by the deeply committed, stark pulse of Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums. (This is not to downplay the part played by Milt Jackson, but he’s present mostly as a soloist and contributes what he always does – a shimmering brilliance, tremendously swinging lines and an utter mastery of the blues vocabulary.)
Lewis rarely comped conventionally by simply feeding the soloist chord changes – he always thought like a contrapuntal composer even when accompanying – playing linear counter-melodies, using all manner of variation in dynamics, texture, register and weight to give the music form, development and interest. I often think of his comping as being like the saxophone section of the Basie band, playing riff backgrounds to the soloist. As for Heath and Kay, they provide both the space and buoyancy which make all this possible; their pulse is so elemental and spartan as to be almost severe, yet they swing very deeply. They not only leave room to allow a soloist to play well, but almost force him to, as if to say by way of a dare, “Well… here it is, now do something with it.”
They begin with Jackson’s classic blues “Bags’ Groove” at a tempo just below medium. After two theme choruses, Bags solos first with eight wonderful choruses; at this point we have a typical MJQ blues performance, although they’re a little looser and wilder here than usual. When Jackson is finished, Lewis abruptly changes comping gears before Rollins even begins, with a stately string of chords moving in quarter notes; the effect is that of a more weighty and somber Freddie Greene. Rollins enters and starts slowly and spaciously, seemingly ignoring the gravity of what Lewis is playing.
Sonny seems to be in one of his sardonic kidding moods initially, spending most of his first few choruses playing variations of the theme in an insinuating, mocking tone, luxuriating in the bedrock of time being laid down by Heath and Kay. Lewis abruptly changes tack and begins prodding at Rollins with playful chord-cluster ‘bleeps’ which he builds into a provocative Charleston rhythmic figure, the piano sounding like a blinking light. Rollins responds to this by knuckling under and blowing with greater abandon and intensity, taking the gloves off as if to say, “OK, you asked for it, here it comes.” This climaxes in some double-time choruses of great urgency and invention, with Kay’s ride-cymbal doubling up behind him and Lewis playing ingenious cross-rhythms against them. A lot of heat and tension builds here and the release when Rollins and Kay eventually return to half-time is palpably delicious, the groove just massive at this point. Rollins continues with some trenchant blues choruses after this, some of them angular, some quite pretty, all of them passionate. He often played this well, but the accompaniment here heightens the drama in his playing – and I mean drama in the best sense of the word. Rollins here gives a blues oration of surpassing sweep and eloquence.
There’s so much going on in the cat-and-mouse between Lewis and Rollins here it’s almost like hearing a friendly musical debate; the result is not always orderly, but definitely fascinating. I’ve often speculated on some of the possible psychological background at work in this dynamic. About a year earlier, Rollins recorded his celebrated album “Saxophone Colossus” with the long, organically developed blues solo on “Blue Seven”. The composer Gunther Schuller (who wrote the liner notes to this Music Inn record and was a noted associate of both Lewis and the MJQ) published an in-depth, scholarly essay in The Jazz Review about this solo, analyzing Sonny’s thematic methodology in exhaustive detail, which created something of a stir in jazz circles.
Schuller’s piece got into Sonny’s head a little, raised expectations while also making him self-conscious about his playing, as though he had to adhere to this template from then on. Indeed this may have had something to do with his future sabbatical and I’ve always wondered if this was also somehow in play during these performances. When Rollins begins his solo by toying around with the riff of Bags’ Groove, maybe he was going to embark on one of his patient, thematically developed solos. Lewis’s comping here almost seems to carry the implicit message, “Sonny, don’t think, just play, react and have some fun.” In his liner notes, Schuller’s take is that Lewis’s comping more or less forced Rollins to stop fooling around and do some serious playing. My take is that Sonny’s seeming initial jocularity may have been the beginning of one of his motivic outings and that Lewis preempted it, instead goading him into simply letting go and doing some straight-ahead blowing; it sure sounds that way to me. We’ll never know, and certainly both sides of Sonny’s improvisational nature are immensely satisfying. Either way, the result is to me one of the more interesting jazz tracks ever and a reminder of how much music can be made on “just a blues” when geniuses are at work.
“Night in Tunisia” is faster, more straight-ahead and not quite as dynamic, but nearly as good. The head is played in a very abstract way, the melody and Afro-Cuban rhythms fragmented. Rollins takes the first solo after a serpentine, rhythmically ambiguous four-bar break that is nearly the equal of Charlie Parker’s celebrated one from a decade earlier. Sonny is again in vicious, swaggering form here, the tune’s bridge in particular seems to inspire him and Jackson follows with a superlative, cascading solo of his own. Lewis’s solo is brief but suspenseful, full of dramatic suspensions over pedal-points. The shout chorus is played very dynamically before the closing head and they end the tune with a series of rubato cadenzas between Rollins and Jackson over 7th chords in a cycle-of-fifths pattern before hitting the final minor chord. It’s one of the most memorable of countless versions of “Tunisia” on record and a reminder that, all their fugues and suites aside, the MJQ could be a superb blowing band, swinging and thoughtful; Sonny Rollins certainly seemed to enjoy their company.
A word has to be said about the special sound on these recordings, probably the result of the venue itself. It’s by no means perfect, the bass and vibes are down in the mix a bit, but the piano sound is superb and Connie Kay’s ride cymbal is beautifully recorded, just glistening platinum throughout. Much has been said of Sonny’s majestic tone in this period – virile and mahogany in its depth, but I’ve never heard it captured better on record – he sounds like a molten cello here and this has a lot to do with the success of the music overall.
There are more tracks from this concert, minus Milt Jackson, issued on the M-G-M version of “Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass” (as opposed to the Verve release of it.) Rollins plays four tunes with Lewis, Heath and Kay – a very fast “Limehouse Blues”, “Doxy”, Noel Coward’s “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart” and “You Are Too Beautiful For One Man Alone”. He’s just fabulous here, in fact “Doxy” and “Beautiful” are among my favourite Rollins tracks ever, even though I didn’t discover them until I’d been listening to him for many years.
The Village Vanguard recordings made by Rollins with just bass and drums on Nov. 3, 1957 were mentioned earlier and are essential, not to be missed. They were first issued on a Blue Note LP “A Night at the Village Vanguard”, later expanded to a two-CD set. Live jazz records from the Vanguard have become commonplace but these are the first ones. They are remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is that Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones – the bass-drum tandem on most of the issued tracks – were not part of Sonny’s working trio that night (Donald Bailey and Pete La Roca), but were just sitting in. The chemistry between the three is immediate and deep, more lightning in a bottle. Rollins and Ware had played together before with Thelonious Monk, but Jones had mostly been working with J.J. Johnson’s quintet and hadn’t played with either man before that I’m aware of.
At any rate, the music is remarkable and would eventually influence the course of both improvisation and rhythm section playing forever; the interactive work of Jones and Ware would form the template for playing in a horn-bass-drums trio in the future. Although Jones did a lot of great playing later that would make him famous, I find the pre-Coltrane years of 1957-60 to be the most interesting period of his career, before he became ELVIN JONES, so to speak. These tracks also cemented Ware’s reputation as an innovator. He was primitive and wildly unreliable, but also very original, inventive and powerful, he played the bass as if it were a drum. He was the “anti-La Faro” and I hear his influence in later bassists of note such as Charlie Haden, Jimmy Garrison and Henry Grimes. As for Rollins, well, he was at this point one of the greatest pure improvisers jazz has ever known and the stripped-down context allowed him to have his way with the material here and he does, he’s magnificent.
As for the MJQ, I think their finest moments on record as a group come from a concert (or concerts) recorded in Sweden in April of 1960, issued on the two-volume “European Concert”. The playing and recorded sound are just sublime and evidently Connie Kay agreed, commenting that these were his favourite recordings by the band and that the music here sounded “juiced” to him. Highlights abound, including a surprisingly fast and aggressive “Django”, superb versions of “It Don’t Mean A Thing”, “Vendome”, “Festival Sketch” and a reading of “Odds Against Tomorrow” that shows the quartet’s entire range maybe as well as anything they ever played. I’ve listened to these records many, many times and apart from these major moments and some great solos, there are dozens and dozens of tiny musical gems throughout: a snapping rimshot here, a perfect bass note there, a piano gliss, a ringing, single vibraphone note, a switch from brushes to sticks and on and on, all delivered at precisely the right instant. It’s alchemy defined.
It must have been quite a tour, because many years later John Lewis came across some tapes of a concert from the same spring, done in Slovenia. As he listened, he became more and more convinced that this was the best playing the quartet had ever done, he was astonished. This music was released by Atlantic Records as a two-CD set after Kay’s death in late 1994, entitled “Dedicated To Connie”. It’s a lovely and fitting memorial and the music is on the same level as described above, though there are more of the MJQ’s suites and intricate pieces and the recording is not quite as good. It’s a remarkable addition to the discography of this great group, which is already an embarrassment of riches.
© 2013 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.