Jazz recordings: gwallter’s top ten

March 27, 2020 1 Comment

A while ago I suggested ten favourite blues recordings you might try.  All of them were tracks I’d treasured, most for over forty years.  So here are ten more, this time old jazz favourites, in chronological order.  Actually, these are numbers three to twelve in my list, because my top choices, Billie Holiday and Lester Young, are missing: I’ve written about them already. 

There are other serious omissions.  Women are shockingly few.  No Armstrong, Beiderbecke or other early masters.  Nothing after 1960.  And no jazz of the loungey, ‘so what?’ kind, which I dislike – hard, fast-driven stuff is much more to my taste.  So it’s not exactly a representative selection.  But see what you think.  All comments welcome.

Bessie Smith, Empty bed blues

Since the main root of jazz is the blues, where better to start than with Bessie Smith?  There were dozens of jazz-backed women singers in the 1920s, including several called Smith, but Bessie was the only one who really counted.  Working class, bisexual, too ‘rough’ for many, Bessie Smith was strong enough to make her own way in a hostile world, and till the Depression she sang her way to pre-eminence as the Empress of the Blues.

‘Empty bed blues’ was recorded, in two parts, in 1928, with just two instrumentalists, Charlie Green on trombone and Porter Grainger on piano.

‘Suggestive’ is hardly the adjective you’d use of the words.  The song’s a frank celebration of sexuality:

He boiled my first cabbage and he made it awful hot
He boiled my first cabbage and he made it awful hot
When he put in the bacon, it overflowed the pot

Roughness was baked into early jazz.  Gradually, through swing, bebop, cool and beyond, the rough surfaces got planed away.  It was a loss.

Sidney Bechet, Really the blues

For Philip Larkin there were few jazz musicians who could compare.  And only one who inspired a poem.  ‘For Sidney Bechet’, included in The Whitsun weddings (1964), begins,

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected in the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares –

Oh, play that thing!

Later comes that famous, 100% Larkin line, ‘On me your voice falls as they say love should / Like an enormous yes’ – a sentiment that might be read in the light of Larkin’s statement in a year later, ‘I can live a week without poetry, but not a day without jazz.’

Bechet’s best known for his high-tempo, frantic pieces, but this is a slow blues, made in 1939 with Tommy Ladnier, Mezz Mezrow and others.  He plays clarinet and soprano saxophone. His notes ride high above the rather leaden accompaniment, especially in the second part, where the sax plays filigree patterns without ever losing the rhythm or feeling.

(See Ken Colyer below for the capacity of New Orleans to generate ‘appropriate falsehood’.)

Maxine Sullivan, If I had a ribbon bow

Nothing rough about this track.  It used to be a regular play on Jazz Record Requests, but I’ve not heard it for years.  Maybe the requesters have all passed on.  But it’s worth keeping alive, for its miniaturist perfection.

Maxine Sullivan first sang the song in 1933, but this recording is from 1940.  The lyrics are fairy-tale banal:

If I had a ribbon bow to tie my hair
And a gown of calico that I could wear
I’d surely get a sweetheart, a prince or a king,
A palace home where I would have everything.

If I had a ribbon bow to tie my hair
This old world would come and go, I wouldn’t care!
I’d stay up in my castle, and I’d always wear
A ribbon bow so fine to tie my hair.

The tune, though, is infectious: it will stay with you after a couple of hearings.  Sullivan’s voice is light and girlish, but delicate and subtle.  At first you wouldn’t guess she was a jazz singer, but as the number goes on, the off-beat accents and jazz inflections increase.  Behind her is an unobtrusive band, led by the second of Sullivan’s three husbands, John Kirby.

Maxine Sullivan, unlike most of the musicians in this list, had a long life and a long career, from the mid-thirties to just before her death in 1987.  In 1937 she had a hit with ‘Loch Lomond’, which set the trend for swing versions of folksy tunes like ‘If a had a ribbon bow’.

Thelonious Monk, Well you needn’t

I like the early, small group Monk, when his unique, eccentric style of piano playing first hit the scene.  This comes from a session recorded in New York on 24 October 1947, with Gene Ramey on bass and Art Blakey on drums.  It was released on Genus of modern music by Alfred Lion’s Blue Note label, founded in 1939.

Monk’s piano line is choppy and stiletto-like, quite unlike the long continuous weaves of sound Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were producing at the same time at the start of bebop.  His style is economical, repetitive but ever-changing, and Ramey and Blakey keep up a great rhythm that almost drives itself, right up to neatest of endings.   You can hear Monk’s voice grunting along, Glenn Gould-like, in the background.

Monk was already 30 years old by the time of the recording, but he was no late developer.  He was already well known as a composer and session musician in Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, and he’d played with Parker and Gillespie.  ‘Well you needn’t’ was one of his (many) compositions.  He wrote the tune for a student, Charlie Beamon, who, when told by Monk that he wanted to name the tune after him, said ‘Well you need not’.  Lyrics were written later.  The first verse of them goes:

You’re talkin’ so sweet well you needn’t
You say you won’t cheat well you needn’t
You’re tappin’ your feet well you needn’t
It’s over now, it’s over now

There’s not the slightest trace, in Monk’s 1947 version, of nostalgia or regret for a failed affair.

Bud Powell, Tempus fugue-it

‘The Charlie Parker of the piano’ is how Bud Powell is often described.  That’s true in the sense that the long, high complex lines of Parker’s solos find their counterpart in Powell’s playing, described by one commentator as ‘hysterical clarity’.  But Powell had been around a while before joining Parker’s quintet in 1947, and his first and lasting mentor was not Parker but Thelonious Monk.

‘Tempus fugue-it’ was the first record to be issued under Powell’s own name, in 1949, with Ray Brown on bass and Max Roach on drums.  It isn’t a fugue, but the punning title (tempus fugit = time flies) captures accurately the headlong, carpe diem feel of the piece.  There’s a short introduction, and then we’re off.  The speed is terrifying and unrelenting, but there’s never any danger of the automobile leaving the road.  Max Roach sounds as if he’s struggling to keep up the pace.  Which is an impossibility, since he was the best drummer of his day.

The tight control and immaculate clarity of Powell’s piano technique are in sad contrast to the chaotic course of his life.  He died at 42, beaten down by extreme mental problems, drugs and alcohol, and racial oppression.  This contrast was an irresistible subject for later artists: Bertrand Tavernier in his 1986 film Autour de Minuit (Round Midnight), and Geoff Dyer, who devoted a chapter to Powell in his 1991 book of part-imagined portraits of jazz artists, But beautiful.

I once asked Geoffrey Smith to play ‘Tempus fugue-it’ on Jazz Record Requests.  He did, and, as he introduced it, I thought I could hear him utter a small personal whoop of glee.

Ken Colyer, Goin’ home

Ken Colyer was an extremist.  He came from Great Yarmouth and grew up in London, but became obsessed early on with New Orleans jazz.  He spent the rest of his life recreating it, brick by brick.  I like the story about him absconding from the Merchant Navy in Mobile, Alabama, travelling to New Orleans, and playing trumpet with the George Lewis band, before being caught and sent home.  Till his death New Orleans was his constant Mecca, the city he was aiming to get back to.

In the 1950s, before pop, when British adolescents wore jackets and ties and patterned skirts, and gathered in smoky bars to listen to jazz and skiffle, Colyer and his band hammered out versions of his heroes’ standards.  They weren’t just pastiches but loving tributes to past masters.

‘Goin’ home’, a slow blues from 1954, was Colyer’s own invention.  It features, among others, Colyer on trumpet, Monty Sunshine on clarinet, Chris Barber on trombone and Tony (Lonnie) Donegan on banjo.  Colyer also sings.  His accent is more London than Louisiana, but the lyric is heartfelt (‘my home’s in New Orleans … that land of dreams’).  Like most of his 1950s releases it sounds as if it’s recorded in a large biscuit tin.  But that’s exactly what gives the piece its ancient patina – as if it really did come direct from the age of Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Kid Ory.

Clifford Brown, Night in Tunisia

Dizzie Gillespie wrote ‘Night in Tunisia’ and it became an instant standard, recorded by almost everyone, from Charlie Parker on, who wanted to claim the label ‘bebop’.  But for my money there’s no finer, no more explosive version than the one played by the trumpeter Clifford Brown in a record store in Philadelphia in 1955.  (The story that he recorded it on the night he died in a car accident in June 1956, aged 25, is apparently a romantic legend.)

The band behind him isn’t brilliant, but in his great, long solo Brown flies imperiously like a red kite over a dense forest of notes.  In the YouTube upload of the solo Ted Veldkamp lets you follow the music on his transcribed score.  The trumpet soars and plunges in long runs, like a surfer at sea, as it sprints across the thickly dotted pages.  And yet so nimble is Brown’s fingering that every note is totally clear.  But it isn’t just a display of virtuosity, so often a problem with jazz for me.  There’s an emotional intensity and drive here that never relents.  It must have been quite something to have been in the audience that night (you can hear their appreciation on the track).

Max Roach, who played in a quintet with Brown and gave him much encouragement, called him ‘a sweet, beautiful individual’.  Like many musicians, he was badly affected by Powell’s sudden death.  Incidentally, when travelling on the bus through Brixton I was always intrigued to see the name ‘Max Roach Park’; it turns out that it was named after Roach when the great drummer came to London in 1986.

Mose Allison, Parchman Farm

Mose Allison came from Mississippi.  Though he wasn’t black, the blues were part of his experience, and so was the horrific history of racial oppression in the South.  Parchman Farm was the name of a notorious state penitentiary in the state.  Musically it’s best known from Bukka White’s blues ‘Parchman Farm’.

Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’, first recorded with a trio in 1957, shares the location, but it’s quite a different, ironic piece: a jaunty, happy-sounding tune, above which his soft, laid-back voice floats.  ‘Well I’m sittin’ over here on Parchman Farm’, he starts, innocently enough.  But then:

I’m puttin’ that cotton in an eleven-foot sack
I’m puttin’ that cotton in an eleven-foot sack
With a twelve-gauge shotgun at my back

Things get darker again in the next verse:

Well I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life
I’m gonna be here for my natural life
Well I’m a gonna be here for the rest of my life
And all I did was shoot my wife

Mose Allison went on recording his wry, modest, but often pointed songs, accompanied by small groups, to within seven years his death in 2016.  He influenced many, especially non-jazz musicians in Britain, where his irony was appreciated.

Miles Davis, Nuit sur les Champs-Elysées, from L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the scaffold)

The trouble is, you could pick almost anything from the output of Miles Davis, from the earliest recordings with Charlie Parker to (almost) the end.  For me, though, there’s something special about his 1958 ‘score’ for Louis Malle’s first feature film, L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud.

Davis first visited Paris in 1956.  As for other black Americans jazz musicians, before and since (Sidney Bechet, Dexter Gordon and others) France offered him a release from the incessant racism of the US.  For the film there was no ‘score’.  Davis had the relevant scenes screened to him on a loop, and he improvised, supported by other musicians, mostly French.  You can see him at work in Stanley Nelson’s excellent 2019 film Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.  As Jeanne Moreau walks moodily along the pavements of Paris, the music walks with her: sinister, cool-to-icy, and effortlessly superior to the melodrama playing out on the screen (this was not Malle’s best film).

Purity is not a quality you associate with jazz: blue notes are usually toxic to it.  But the trumpet of Miles Davis gives out as pure a tone as you’ll find in any sort of music.

Ornette Coleman, Ramblin’

‘Ramblin’’ is the first track on Ornette Coleman’s fourth album, Change of the century, released in 1960.  This was a year after his album The shape of things to come had announced him as a new force in jazz, freed from the straightjacket of traditional chord changes, virtuosity and even traditional instruments (Coleman favoured a plastic plastic sax, which gave a ‘breathier’ tone).  ‘There is no single right way to play jazz’, he says on the album cover.

Here he plays alto saxophone with three fellow-spirits, each of them a star: Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums.  They all have big parts to play throughout, in what Coleman called ‘free group improvisation’.  Bass and drums are specially delicious – the bass sounds like a guitar – and sax and trumpet have a lovely quiet dance towards the end. 

‘Ramblin’’ is a loose blues.  ‘Blues’, said Coleman, ‘are definite emotional statements.  Some emotional situations can only be told as blues’.  If you like jazz to be about something (serious, emotive), this one’s for you.

Ornette Coleman died in 2015.  Long before then the musician originally reviled by Miles Davies, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk as a charlatan was loaded with honours around the world.

Comments (1)

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  1. Chris West says:

    I can see all those years of listening to “Jazz Record Requests” has paid off: an interesting list.

    Just in case any alien observers might think that no jazz was recorded after 1960, my top ten of jazz recordings (nearly) all after 1960 follows in chronological order. The only two criteria are the lively ones help me unload the dishwasher; the quiet ones calm me down in traffic jams:

    Charles Mingus “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat” (1959)

    Stan Getz” Manha de Carnaval” (1962)

    Jimmy Smith “The Cat” (1964)

    Wayne Shorter “Speak No Evil” (1965)

    John Coltrane “A Love Supreme: Resolution” (1965)

    Chick Corea & Gary Burton “Crystal Silence” (1972)

    Keith Jarrett “Koln Concert” (1973)

    Weather Report “Boogie Woogie Waltz” (1973)

    Jan Garbarek “Red Wind” (1996)

    Sons of Kemet “Play Mass” (2015)

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