It was once said of ex-President Gerald Ford – perhaps unfairly – that he was “too dumb to chew gum and fart at the same time.”
And as Yogi Berra, that undisputed king of syntax-mangling one-liners once said, “Think!? How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?”
Well….Odd as it may sound – or maybe not – I’m finding I can’t think and write at the same time, it’s a case of think first, write later. Admittedly, I’ve been known to reverse that order from time to time. My recent visit with Bill Kirchner in New York provided me with so much food for thought – both from him and the city itself – that I can barely digest it, can’t seem to stop thinking long enough to write. Mind you, no deep thoughts or anything – but a feverish, disorganized tangle of cranial activity nonetheless.
It’s a kind of writer’s block in reverse – not a shortage of ideas or subjects to write about, but rather too many, coming too fast to get them down. Maybe I should invest in one of those digital voice-recorder thingies, then I could fit right in with all the “phone-zombies” I see downtown, droning on and on into their hand-held devices while bumping into unsuspecting fellow-pedestrians, buildings, hot-dog stands, and whatever else happens to be in their sleepwalking, idiocy-strewn paths.
Anyway, to kick-start my languishing “writing career”, I thought I’d initiate a series of semi-regular, brief posts about randomly selected, single pieces of music. Almost a track-of-the-day sort of thing, with some commentary and description, while I continue to chip away at some longer pieces. (OK, OK, I hear you, this being the inaugural post in this series, it won’t be all that brief – so what else is new? If brevity really is the soul of wit, then I’m clearly a half-wit.) If this series proves too annoying or frequent, or if I break my promise of concision, one of you can always send an “e-assassin” to put me out of my misery – and yours.
To lead off, I’ve chosen a version of Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism” which teams up two of my favourite musicians – Pettiford on bass and tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, with guitarist Skeeter Best – not to be confused with bassist Keeter Betts – completing the trio in a supporting role. (Actually, for some reason, I often get Skeeter Best confused with Les Spann, who, between playing the guitar and the flute, was confused enough already.) This “Tricotism” is from a marvelous album recorded by this trio on January 24, 1956 for ABC-Paramount, originally issued as Lucky Thompson, Vol. 1, or L.T. Meets O.P. Without drums or a second horn, it offers a rare kind of chamber-bebop – intimate and spare, yet hard-swinging and intensely inventive, with Pettiford very up-front.
The thirty-two bar “Tricotism” is aptly named, it’s a very tricky tune to play, a kind of test-piece for bassists. It’s in the key of D-flat, a difficult one for the bass, and its darting lines contain some wide interval leaps and snarly passages; the last four bars of the bridge are particularly finger-busting. The opening melody line echoes itself in the first two bars and sets the tone for the whole piece; the bridge, starting as it does on the unrelated A7 chord, is also attractive and refreshing. There are other recorded versions at faster tempos, including one by trombonist Jimmy Cleveland that’s too fast to catch the nuances of the melodic line, he was built for speed. This loping, “thinking man’s” tempo is perfect and highlights the intricate, dense contours of the tune. There are also versions by other artists with slight variations of the melody in both notes and rhythms. But, coming as it does from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, this is the one, this is how it’s supposed to go. I also love the tight, slipping-and-sliding intro and outro with the multiple one-bar breaks. And dig the perfectly placed chord accents by Skeeter Best under the melody. Without further ado, here it is:
The rest of the album is along the same lines, perhaps even better in spots, with the tenor and bass featured throughout. Best is both very solid and sensitive in holding things together. (He’s a bit like the bassist Derek Smalls in the movie This Is Spinal Tap, who sees his role as being ‘like luke-warm water” between the fire and ice of the band’s “genius” front-men, Nigel Tufnell and David St. Hubbins.) If you go to YouTube and search under Lucky Thompson, all of the other tracks from this trio album are available.
Thompson recorded a second record for ABC-Paramount in January of 1956, featuring a quintet consisting of himself, Jimmy Cleveland on trombone, either Hank Jones or Don Abney on piano, Pettiford and – who else? – Osie Johnson on drums. It’s also very good, though a bit more conventional as the instrumentation would indicate. Both albums have been released on a single CD, first by Impulse! (or whatever big, happy family of a corporation now owns that label) and later by the Spanish Fresh Sound Records. If I could have only one CD by Thompson and Pettiford, this would be my choice – they’re both in extraordinary form here, though they often played at this level, one reached only by the true masters.
As an introductory, one-time-only, two-for-one offer, here’s a clip from the quintet album, Lucky Thompson’s “Translation”. Hank Jones is the pianist here – I was hoping to post a track with the very good, but lesser-known Don Abney on piano, who deserves to be more widely heard, but couldn’t find one.
As can be heard on both these tracks, Oscar Pettiford and Lucky Thompson were each musicians of great integrity and depth. They never coasted, phoned in a chorus, played to the gallery or tap-danced to any swirling trends, they meant every single note they played. They remind me of those little tags that are sometimes seen on fabric items like pillows, which say “Made of 100% New Material “. With these men it was 100% music all the time, no filler, no posing, no jive.
Maybe because it lagged behind and had further to come, the double bass has evolved perhaps more than any other instrument in jazz during the last 60 years, a process Pettiford helped to start and contributed greatly to. There have been many innovations involving the bass, both as a solo voice and as a rhythm instrument since Pettiford’s premature death in 1960. Yet none of these have unseated him as one of the heavyweight champs of the instrument, at least not to these ears, nor to those of bassist Buell Neidlinger. Neidlinger is more of a progressive than a bebopper, yet has commented more than once that Pettiford was in his view the all-time monster of jazz bass. I can’t really disagree, he was the complete package, a fluently melodic improviser of great eloquence, but whose bass lines and quarter-notes rang with great power and weight; everything he played was invested with an unimpeachable authority.
Lucky Thompson was perhaps not quite as influential or celebrated on his instrument in his time, yet he fashioned an entirely individual voice of great beauty on the tenor saxophone from a very personal fusion of swing and bebop styles. Not long after making these sides, he left America for a highly productive five-year stay in Paris, during which he continued to write and play a lot of music, while taking up the soprano saxophone. When he returned stateside in 1961, he was an entirely new musician, the soprano giving him not only a second voice, but having the odd effect of making his tenor more mellifluous. He had an “old” sound, coming from the progenitor Coleman Hawkins, yet his playing remained timeless. As well as anyone, he defied any dating or other musical pigeonholing, he always sounds vibrant and fresh. It’s wonderful to hear these two old masters together at the top of their game, musically speaking they were made for each other. The risk and edge of creativity in their playing is plain to be heard, which is what ensures their continuing relevance. Inventiveness never gets old.
Postscript – Speaking of old masters…….. Returning for a moment to the aforementioned Yogi Berra, he turned 90 on May 12, which was somewhat shocking, even though it seems he’s been around forever. As Yogi once said of playing the outfield (a position he didn’t play much until later in his career): “It gets late early out there.” Exactly. Turning 90 means that, sooner rather than later, Yogi will depart this life and I’m not sure I can countenance a world without him in it. I suppose I should feel glad he’s reached 90 – and I do – while being grateful he’s been around so long and that most of his priceless contributions to world literature have already been made. Recently, there were several versions circulated of a very funny mock-interview piece called “Yogi Berra Explains Jazz”, which many of you have probably seen. In it, the mysteries of the music are illuminated in “Yogi-speak”. After “Yogi” makes a couple of unintelligibly deep and contradictory statements, the interviewer asks him if he understands jazz, and he answers: “No. That’s why I can explain it. If I understood it, I wouldn’t know anything about it.”
Like a lot of things Yogi was supposed to have said, this almost makes sense, and I couldn’t have not said it better myself.
© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.