Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Jazz World: Composers and Theorists

Moving on to a few more of the music's great post-war composers, the first stop has to be my single favorite jazz musician...

Charles Mingus

Mingus was a singular figure in an universe full of them, a man who wrote music with both classical ambitions and gutbucket passions, who could turn the blues into all manner of soaring, aching shapes. Much of his work reflected his environment, deep-souled love songs, tributes to past masters like Lester Young, tone poems that asked big questions about life, and works that dealt with the civil rights struggles of the Fifties and Sixties in pieces like "Fables Of Faubus" and "Meditations On A Pair Of Wire Cutters".  No matter what the subject matter, Mingus' bands with his booming bass in the lead, swung murderously.  This is one of his greatest works, 10 minutes of soul shouting on the topic of prehistoric man, "Pithecanthropus Erectus":

Mingus had the benefit of having some extraordinary musicians in his band over his career like saxophonists Clifford Jordan, Eric Dolphy and George Adams, trumpeters Johnny Coles and Jack Walrath, pianists Jaki Byard and Don Pullen and his almost constant rhythm mate, drummer Dannie Richmond.  This is a live clip of a 1964 Mingus group that included Coles, Byard, Jordan and Dolphy doing the Ellington-Strayhorn classic, "Take The 'A' Train.  The most notable parts are Byard's romping stride piano spot and Dolphy beaming in from another planet on bass clarinet:

Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano was a blind pianist who emerged in the late 40's with a methodology akin to bebop.  He rolled out long streams of improvisations on the chords of standard tunes but with nods in the direction of Johann Sebastian Bach and atonality, creating more openly experimental music than what Parker, Gillespie and their cohorts were doing.  A number of great musicians studied with Tristano, the most prominent being saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.  In 1949, they were part of a Tristano recording session of pieces called "Intuition" and "Digression" which were completely improvised with no use of prearranged melodies and harmonies. These works are now considered the first examples of Free Jazz.

The Tristano clip below requires a little background. Look Up and Live was an anthology program of religious drams that ran Sunday morning on CBS from 1954 to 1979.  In the summer of 1964, as the host explains, they took a break to explore the performing arts, which in this case meant, filming Tristano's quintet, including Konitz and Marsh, during a gig at New York's Half Note club.  There is an attempt during the show to tie the music to religious/philosophical themes, but think about what's being presented here. Can you imagine any sort of religious broadcast today just letting a jazz group play on air for a half-hour? For that matter, can you imagine any TV show today doing such a thing?  This was one of the beautiful by-products of Jazz being part of mainstream adult culture way back when:

George Russell

George Russell's major contribution to Jazz was not a composition but a theory. "The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation" proposed a new musical system where chords replaced scales as the basis for improvisation giving musicians a greater range of options to play with.  Russell gives a thumbnail sketch of his ideas in this interview excerpt from a 1958 TV show, The Subject Is Jazz: 

Russell's work would be absorbed by a number of restless young musical minds including Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, which right there makes him an influence on the next several decades of Jazz.  He led small groups through the 50's, working with players like Eric Dolphy and Don Ellis, and spent some time in Europe during the 60's, making the acquaintance along the way of a group of young Norwegian musicians including Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal who would go on to long and productive careers. Russell's later composing stretched to longer form works that included electronics, rock rhythms and even lashings of go-go and funk.  I couldn't find a copy to post here but he did a version of "You Are My Sunshine" with Sheila Jordan on vocals that is amazing.

This is one of Russell's classic early compositions, "Ezz-thetic":

And this is an excerpt from one of his later works, "Listen To The Silence", featuring members of his Norwegian crew like Garbarek, Rypdal and Bobo Stenson.

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