Saturday, July 30, 2005

DIDs: Jazz of My Youth

I had thought to write one of my contrarian pieces that beg to be set down for eternity, such as "Why I Hate to Write" or "Why I Hate the News" or "Why Clouds Are Better Than Sunshine." Then I began to recall some of the great songs of unconstrained optimism, such as "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah (What a Wonderful Day)" and "What a Wonderful World" and "Imagine" and "We Are the World." After the spell of nausea passed, I determined to write something misanthropic, such as "What I Dislike About Children," "What I Dislike About Women," "What I Dislike About Men," etc. But I felt a compelling need (too much coffee?) to be gosh-darned positive about something, so I have chosen instead to continue my DIDs.

The elimination process involved in somewhat akin to pulling nails (an image brought to mind by the recent viewing of the tasteless giallo psychodrama, Beyond the Darkness), but surely less agonizing than other jazz lists I might (probably will) draw up, such as "swing" or "post-1970" or "cool/bop" -- which will surely go beyond mere nail-plucking. (And "classical," fuggiddabowtet.)

These recordings were part and parcel of my late, largely though not entirely unlamented youth. They were all purchased between 1967 and 1971 (except for one, which dates from 73 or so, but seemed to belong), and, mirabile dictu, I still listen to them, and with great frequency. All were recorded between 1961 and 1970, so one might characterize them vaguely as "post-bop." Each can be credited with, a la Linda Blair in The Exorcist, only without the vulgarity, turning my head around. Further, they all proved just as illuminating once the marihuana haze had lifted. Some are acknowledged (to the point of banality) jazz classics; others are a bit less well-known; a few are utterly obscure. None will satisfy everyone -- except, of course, for me; and I daresay that man Friday, should he turn up, would find much to snap his fingers, tap his toes, and curl his hair -- or maybe it's curl his toes, tap his fingers, and snap his hair.
  1. Wayne Shorter, Odyssey of Iska (1970.) Unlike some, he can spell "odyssey" correctly. This is a rare item, hopelessly out of print, and one of the loveliest things I've ever heard. It tends to be overlooked by Shorter fanatics, who see it merely as transitional between his 1960s work and Weather Report; this is not so much incorrect as utterly beside the point. Even fans of this album (who are few, but evidently deeply stricken) swoon over the track "De Pois do Amor, O Vazio" (as well they should), while relegating the remaining tracks to "free jazz" (which it is not) or to "electric jazz" (which ditto.) I have written at tedious length on this topic (about whom four people in the world care) elsewhere. And I will concede that the album would never have made this list were it not for "Amor." But the first three tracks serve to set it up, perfectly; and the fifth track is a distant meditation that lets you down slowly. Of "Amor" itself, I can only say this. In 1971, I knew a fellow who practiced avant-gardish alto saxophone; he was a bit of a street thug, a bit of an artist, and on no account a sentimentalist. One evening he was visiting, and I put Side Two (which leads off with the song) on the turntable. "Aw, man," he snarled, "take that off." I asked why. "Take it off," he repeated, then added softly, "It makes me cry." With Wayne on soprano sax, Gene Bertoncini on guitar, vibes, two basses, and three percussion. Indispensable.
  2. Andrew Hill, Point of Departure (1964.) There was a fellow during my freshman year in college who greatly impressed me. His long hair was becoming de rigeur for the hip, but his occasional beret was nicely out of date. He disdained rock music; he smoked weed icily, without the awful enthusiasm of the novice; he read Farina and Kerouac and the existentialists; he took nude photographic studies of his girlfriend; he was from New York City; and I was greatly impressed. I did not yet realize he was a walking cliche. And, most importantly, he had a few dozen of the best Blue Note jazz albums of the 1960s. Among them was this album, which introduced me to Andrew Hill's glass-like, abstract piano, and Eric Dolphy's exuberant, witty saxophone. Tony Williams (whom I had already heard in other contexts) deftly made precise yet unanticipated rhythmic comments. I'd never heard anthing quite like it. The fellow who owned the LP exhibited his erotic photographs at the college art center. Before the administration could toss him out on morals charges, he dropped out to join the merchant marine. In deference to sexual equality, the college had quite a bureaucratic snit over his girlfriend's participation, too. Times changed. Rather quickly.
  3. Mal Waldron, The Quest (1961.) This is (possibly; it can vary) my favorite Eric Dolphy LP, and it's often reissued under his name. Dolphy performs intervalic leaps, makes playful asides, plays in an entirely different key before eliding perfectly into the right one; invents humorous childlike ditties; emotes with divine lyricism; and does nothing that one would expect. He makes Booker Ervin, the other saxophonist, and a gifted one, seem wooden and two-dimensional in comparison. Mal Waldron plays architectonic, pointilistic, contrapuntal piano. My brother (Tor, not David) introduced me to it in 1972 or 1973. I had driven down from Boston to join my family for a week at the New Jersey shore. I swam, body-surfed a bit dangerously after the lifeguard had left, burned and peeled and tanned all within a few days, let my hair turn blonde in the sun (and was again accused by fellow workers on my return of bleaching it), read paperbacks (including Kingsley Amis's only James Bond novel, Colonel Sun -- the only book that I recall, though I must have brought a dozen with me.) Tor and I drank Scotch and imported beer in copious amounts -- but we were young, and it didn't show, and our bodies recovered with supernatural quickness. He had brought with him a reel-to-reel recorder, for which he had recorded a number of jazz LPs to tape. This was among them. The summer wore off; the music never did.
  4. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (1964.) This record turns up on nearly everyone's list of nearly anything. And although I have a temperamental resistance to bowing to anything remotely resembling popular opinion (unless it annoys intellectuals), I must swallow my stubbornness in this case. One can read about this album nearly anywhere people write about music. I will say only that I bought this album on the same day in 1968 that I bought Hendrix's Electric Ladyland. I still listen to this regularly; the Hendrix is played about once a decade.
  5. John Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1962.) Another popular favorite, damn it all. There are of course numerous others of unsurpassable brilliance by JC, but I finally decided on this, because it is simply gorgeous -- and I need a few jazz ballads on my island, for sunsets.
  6. George Russell, Ezz-Thetics (1961.) All of George Russell's early albums consist of geometric traceries, broad strokes of watercolor, and wild slashes. This has Eric Dolphy, as well.
  7. Gary Burton, A Geniune Tong Funeral (1967.) This has nothing to do with Chinese music, traditional or otherwise, let alone a Tong funeral; so it's not terribly "genuine." Nonetheless, the title is perfect. Nor is it really a Gary Burton album; it is actually Carla Bley's first orchestral recording, with improvisatory interludes by Burton's quartet. No one writes like Carla Bley (unless it is her latterday European counterparts, such as Willem Breuker or the Vienna Art Orchestra.) This is one of the first jazz albums I ever bought (at the same time as I was buying Stravinsky and Hindemith and trendy rock crap.) I nearly chose Carla's Escalator Over the Hill (1968-71), but it's not exactly jazz, or anything else in our world, and it's on two CDs, so I thought I might be able to squeeze it onto a different, more eclectic, list.
  8. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge (1964.) There are other candidates, but this has Jim Hall on guitar. Rollins is our greatest living improvisor, and I make that statement extremely carefully. Lovely ballads, straightahead hard bop, and transcendence.
  9. Cecil Taylor, Conquistador (1965.) One of the earliest free jazz records, which ought to frighten off all but the most determined. I was bewildered at first, but thrilled; I spent the summer of 1970 learning every note on this LP. I'm not sure I recall every note anymore, but I still play it, and it's still new. (The highly respected HateMonger prefers Unit Structures, and should Conquistador prove unavailable at shipwreck time, I'll settle happily for that one.)
  10. Miles Davis, Miles Smiles (1966.) Another slam-dunk courtesy the court of conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, here it is -- probably the best of the classic 60s quintet sessions, but I change my mind about this every five minutes, and always have. Any disc from the Quintet 1965-68 box will do, as would the entire box in one of those strangely unforseeable circumstances in which raging typhoons miraculously deliver boxed sets onto the shore with our gulping musical castaway.