John Coltrane – “Ascension” (1965)

Jazz is a genre that my forever mystify me.  I don’t dislike it, and certainly there are some albums like Kind of Blue and Blue Train that are undeniable brilliant to my ears.  But I just find it… difficult.  Swing is pretty easy to get, but it’s basically dance music for a different era, and as such it has a certain familiarity.  Hard bop and modal jazz also have recognizable elements, though I still find them challenging (but in a good way).  But free jazz?  Man… free jazz is downright hard.

I find it interesting that I am comfortable listening to rock and electronic based experimental music, which is sort of the “free jazz” of those genres, but when it comes to jazz it’s like the connections between the neurons in my brain just break down and I have no idea what’s going on.  My hypothesis about this is that I already have a base familiarity with some of the more extreme forms of rock, and it’s not hard to get from the distorted guitars of a popular song to the extreme distortion of more experimental work; it’s just a matter of degrees.  But when it comes to the instruments played by jazz ensembles, like the 11 musicians who recorded Ascension, I’m truly used to hearing the performers strive to make them as clear and organized as possible.  Saxophones and trumpets and pianos aren’t instruments I associate with discord.

The first two sentences of the liner notes on Ascension warn the listener:

To begin at the beginning, a caveat for the casual listener.  Be advised that this record cannot be loved or understood in one sitting, and there can be no appreciation at all in two minutes listening to an arbitrary excerpt in a record store.  

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And this is true, because two minutes into Side A I was ready to take it off the Rega.  But the intro is arguably the “freest” section of this free jazz record… or maybe I just think that because my ears eventually got used to it.  It’s actually the perfect way to start the album because it breaks down everything you thought you knew about jazz and everything you expected from the record when you see Coltrane’s name on the cover, wiping the slate clean like a palette cleanser and putting you in the right mind space to absorb Ascension.

There are two versions of Ascension, and my copy is the more common (and Coltrane-preferred) version 2.  I believe both were recorded live and in one take as one nearly 40 minute performance.  Unfortunately it has to be split in two for vinyl, and those moments when you’re flipping the record are the only sonic reprieve you get.  And while certainly qualifying as free jazz, don’t think that the entire thing is one big sonic jumble.  There are places in the session where things come together into something very familiar sounding, particularly during the solos.

I may never truly “get” jazz, but I find that exploring it broadens my perspective, so if for no other reason than that I’ll continue to occasionally dip my toe into the jazz pool and test the water.

Eric Dolphy – “Out To Lunch!” (1964 / 1985)

ericdolphyouttolunchI’ve been working my way through a Jazz Top 10 list of sorts that my buddy Dave gave me a while back.  After all these years of knowing one another he didn’t realize I was way into vinyl, and I had no idea he was a jazz aficionado and had been for a long time.  So after talking a bit about jazz records I already have, Dave gave me this list of 10 titles to look for.    So far I’ve picked up and listened to John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Kenny Burrell’s Guitar Forms and came away impressed with both, plus he loaned me a copy of Bill Evans’ The Blues and the Abstract Truth.  I try to remember to bring the list with me when I go record shopping, but the other weekend I found myself without it while staring at an early copy of Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch! for 75 bucks, realizing the price was decent but not remembering if it was on the list!  So I passed.  And I’m glad I did, because at my next stop Daybreak Records I found a super clean 1980s pressing (the album was originally released in 1964) for a third of the price, and that’s what I’m listening to right now.

Dave noted that he thought this would be one of the more challenging albums for me, and of the four records I’ve heard so far I’d have to agree.  Out To Lunch! doesn’t have that same flow I’m used to hearing, at times more resembling individual snipits that are sort of just stuck together, as if the musicians were playing parts without being able to hear what parts the others are playing.  As a relatively new jazz fan, one could indeed call Out To Lunch! “difficult”, so I will.  This thing is difficult.  I’m clearly not getting it, so this may be one that I need to put on the shelf for a while and revisit later.

Kenny Burrell – “Guitar Forms” (1965)

kennyburrellguiarformsThis is my second foray into the list of jazz recommendations my buddy Dave sent me the other day.  I don’t generally think of guitar when I think of jazz; usually it’s horns and woodwinds that come to mind.  So I was a bit intrigued to hear what Burrell had in store for me.

By the time Guitar Forms came out in 1965 Kenny Burrell was already a veteran of at least two dozen albums, an accomplished and mature musician.  And his talent comes through on this album, one specifically arranged to allow him to express himself using different guitar stylings.  The opening track “Downstairs” has a bit of a country feel to it, and then Burrell pivots to the beautiful Spanish stylings of the nearly 10 minute “Lotus Land,” a composition in which the backing band meanders a bit stylistically, allowing the guitarist to set the overall tone.  It’s a stunning piece, a 10 minute song that actually feels like it’s too short because you want to enjoy it just a little bit longer.

On a completely unrelated tangent, one of the coolest things about jazz records, especially older ones, is the liner notes.  They’re so detailed that it’s almost like studying the album as an academic or historian would.  My vintage copy of Guitar Forms is a gatefold, with one of the two sections in the middle devoted entirely to linter notes – 17 paragraphs in all, including a full paragraph dedicated to each one of the album’s nine songs.  You can get a serious jazz education just from reading liner notes.

Another intriguing track on Guitar Forms is Burrell’s version of “Greensleeves”, a song that is literally hundreds of years old (♠) yet continues to retain its hold on us generation after generation.  His take on this old classic maintains enough of the arrangement to feel familiar, but wanders further afield enough to not just feel like yet another cover.

I’m still not 100% sold on guitar jazz – Guitar Forms is certainly beautiful, but my preference is still for the more hard bop style.  But I’m glad that Dave is helping to open my ears to some of these other talented musicians and differing styles.

(♠)  The earliest known reference to the song is from 1580, meaning it was something like 385 years old when Burrell released his version.  

John Coltrane – “Blue Train” (1957 / 2014)

Dave is probably one of my first “adult” friends, one of the first friends I made post-college and out and about in the real world.  We first connected sometime in the mid-1990s due to a common interest in, of all things, Seattle hockey memorabilia, and over the last 20+ years we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well.  So imagine my surprise when he asked me the other day what I’d been up to, and I told him I’d just gotten back from the record store, and he replied with “did I ever tell you I have a big collection of jazz records?”  Um, no Dave, you hadn’t.  And how am I just hearing about this now??

Long story short Dave was into jazz as far back as high school (he’s a few years older than me) and used to frequent all the used record shops in Seattle, scouring the jazz sections and used “new arrivals” on the never-ending hunt for first pressings.  We chatted about this for a while and I confessed my general ignorance about jazz – the majority of what I have is Miles Davis, which is like saying your entire experience with reggae is Bob Marley.  So to help me with my education Dave sent me a list of his 10 favorite jazz albums (excluding the Miles records I already have….) and over the last two weeks I managed to pick up a couple of them.  The funny thing is in some ways he’s more excited about this than I am, telling me that he’s jealous that I’m going to get to hear these amazing records for the very first time.

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I opted to start with saxophonist John Coltrane’s 1957 Blue Train.  Coltrane was already a veteran then, having appeared on well over a dozen recordings, but earlier that year Davis fired the saxophonist from his touring ensemble (and not for the first time), finally growing tired of the impact alcohol and heroin had on his playing.  It didn’t take long for him to catch on with someone else, though, and in short order he was playing with Thelonious Monk.  By the fall he was ready to record with his own six-piece orchestra, banging out the entire Blue Train album in one day – September 15, 1957.  When you think of how long it took to record some rock albums, the ability of jazz musicians to do something like this in a day or two in studio is awe-inspiring.  I realize it’s a different style of music and all, arguably more organic, but that’s still impressive.

All but one of Blue Train‘s five compositions are Coltrane originals, while “I’m Old Fashioned” was originally written in 1942 by Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern.  When Coltrane was asked about his favorites of his own albums during a 1960 interview with Carl-Eric Lindgren, he pointed first to Blue Train, specifically complimenting the quality of the musicians who played on the session.  These included guys he played with while with Miles Davis, drummer Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers, as well as veteran pianist Kenny Drew.  The other horn players were a pair of young up-and-comers, 22-year-old trombonist Curtis Fuller and 19-year-old trumpeter Lee Morgan.  There’s a hint of sadness about this brilliant ensemble in that three of the six men didn’t live past the age of 40, with Chambers and Morgan both dying at the age of 33 (♠) and Coltrane passing at 40 due to liver cancer.  So many jazz greats left us way too early.

I recognized the title track instantly, probably from film scores, though there are only segments of “Blue Train” that sounded familiar – the solos (<– probably the wrong word to use, I know, since the rhythm section keeps playing… but I mean those parts of the song where a specific instrument comes to the forefront to express itself) were completely new to me and impressive.  To my ears it breaks down into three sections – the first and third are generally ensemble, while the second middle part is reserved for each instrument to step to the forefront for a bit.  Those first and third parts are intriguingly structured.  The bass and drums provide a linear path for the song to follow; the piano, trumpet, and trombone give the whole thing shape and keep it more or less contained like a huge malleable soap bubble; and Coltrane’s sax is allowed to run free within, and sometimes pushing the outside edge of, that overall framework.  It was fascinating to truly pay attention to the interplay of the musicians.

The thing I came away most impressed with was Kenny Drew’s plano work, which is nothing short of brilliant.  Drew understands when he only needs to contribute a quick burst and does so, not feeling compelled to take up space needlessly.  And when the emphasis switches to the piano… man, he just kills it, especially when it’s just him and the rest of the rhythm section.  I will definitely need to seek out some of his albums.

This was a great way to dip my toe into the pool of classic jazz, and I’m looking forward to working my way through he rest of Dave’s list.

(♠)  Chambers died due to an untreated case of tuberculosis, with alcohol and heroin use as possible contributing factors impacting his general health.  Morgan struggled with drug abuse for years before getting cleaned up with the help of his common-law wife Helen Morgan.  Unfortunately when he was back on his feet he still couldn’t resist his old habits, both with drugs and women.  Lee and Helen were talking during a break between sets at a club called slugs when another woman came up to them and said that she thought Lee wasn’t with Helen any more.  This led to a verbal altercation between the Morgans that ended with Helen shooting Lee in the chest, killing him.

Victoria’s Bullets – “Victoria’s Bullets” (1986)

vicotriasbulletsI picked this up the other day in Minneapolis because it was a local private press, it had a super-cool cover, and it was pretty cheap.  I assumed it was something jazz-like based on the instruments involved (lots of saxophones and flutes), plus the participation of percussionist Fred Masey, but it turned out to be more pop / adult contemporary, with some occasional rock guitar and mid-80s style new wave synths.  Honestly it’s all over the place, and the songs are hard to pin down – there’s a lot going on here, and it makes it hard to identify the framework of the songs.

Victoria’s Bullets came out in 1986 and it feels like it was a bit late to the new wave party, possibly anticipating a direction the music would take, but one that never materialized.  Let me be clear – these four songs are not bad; there’s plenty of musical talent on this record.  The sheer volume of flute playing is impressive for something this poppy, yet it remains subtle enough that it doesn’t run off into a Jethro Tull rabbit hole.  Perhaps the best description I can give is it sounds like an adult contemporary version of Pat Benatar.  An interesting listen, though not one I’m likely to come back to time and time again.