Friday, June 09, 2006

Dropping the piano... Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker... Sunny Murray... more videos





Pianoless bands... Gerry Mulligan started it (in modern jazz, anyway) in the early fifties by dropping the piano for his quartet recordings to produce a new, cool, light swinging jazz that hinted back at earlier polyphony in the interweavings of the baritone and trumpet. (And Bach... ?) Chet Baker was another of jazz's lost souls, becoming in later years a junkie bore (nothing hip about that, Chesney...). This is him, redeemed in his primal grace: the Oklahoma stud with the hoodlum good looks that anticipated Elvis in fine balance with Mulligan's gruff, cheery baritone. Mulligan had the sense to quit the junk life – and went on to a long and creative career. Chet Baker fell out with Mulligan after the sax player came out of jail (banged up on a drugs charge) although they did play together in later years – see this album and years later 'fell' out of a window in Amsterdam to his death... although my friend Wild Bill says that there is a strong rumour he is not dead but living in Nottingham, U.K. Plenty of drugs available, I suppose... (Send us a comment, Chet, if you're out there...). They pretty much made 'My Funny Valentine' their own – until Miles came along and claimed it – twice: once in the fifties and again in the sixties. There is some Miles in Chet's playing – but he had his own conception, a fragile beauty when he was on song...

For some insights into the formation of the quartet – and more information about Mulligan's career in general, go here... and check out the side panels – this is a fascinating site containing interviews with Mulligan and transcripts – some vivid snapshots of the jazz life... Mulligan says about Chet Baker that they evolved an almost instinctive improvisational partnership in the time they were together that he had rarely encountered ever again.

As an aside: Chet is responsible for this brilliant quote: 'If I could play like Wynton Marsalis... I wouldn't play like Wynton.' Almost Zen wisdom...

The Sunny Murray is an oddity from 1965 – a session under his own name, basically the Ayler front line with Henry Grimes and Lewis Worrel added as a mighty two bass engine room. Hee-hawing, stuttering horns open up then Cherry plays a short solo, unusually mournful by his cheery standards. Arco basses and drums in a teetering pulse. Joined by Ayler on tenor saxed trilled bugle calls bending into his usual vibratoed smears. A querulous, questioning solo – enlivened with some deep honking phrases. The basses subside into a doubled thrumming, one going high the other low or mingling and crossing. The drums erupt like waves and dissipate over a cymbal continuum – generating an unstable rolling gait. The sporadic eruptions actually sound at times like someone dropping a contemporary sampled loop into the mix. The two horns come together for a section at times almost hesitant and fading back in volume. Then: pointillistic spats of notes fired at each other by the horns,accelerating and dropping back before the track ends fairly abruptly. One reviewer (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) thought this album reminded him of a Cecil Taylor group without Cecil's guiding piano. Not a bad definition... Although the personnel overlaps with some of Ayler's bands, there is a different feeling to the music here. It does not seem so straight ahead and wild, somehow more considered and communal...

Mulligan talked often about his quartet's improvised counterpoint harking back to New Orleans. What he meant was the front line instruments. Bass and drums in those days were still 'the rhythm section,' in this case with the bass carrying the main burden of marking out the harmonies in the absence of the piano. A sharp delineation. What has changed in the intervening years up to when Sunny Murray recorded this track? The basses are not holding a steady pulse and underpinning the harmonies, the chorus structure that contained the Mulligan/Baker improvisations has been dispensed with altogether. The rhythms are not straight four four but splayed out into pulses that overlap and combine. Ayler and Cherry use timbral, colouristic devices that are not exactly new but are heavily foregrounded – the 'sound' is much more integral to the improvised line. And on this recording at least, they are very much part of the overall group rather than playing from upfront as 'soloists.' The concept of 'the rhythm section' had been radically overhauled... Containing all these points, I suppose, is the ethic of 'freedom/free form' that arose in the late fifties, in my context here specifically Ornette Coleman's take on the pianoless quartet and improvisation, further developed by the musicians on this recording – who link back to Coleman via Cherry. A radical overhaul of jazz – yet the connections between Mulligan and Murray are not so tenuous, especially when you throw Coleman into the equation. I wonder to what extent Coleman had listened to those earlier recordings. After all, he started his own recording career out on the West Coast in 1958 – with a pianist in the band: Walter Norris, followed by Paul Bley (who, I think, was that session leader). By January 1959 – the quartet had dropped the piano... by the time he hit New York...



Here's
a video clip of Sunny Murray playing alongside Arty Blakey and Elvin Jones in 1968... three generations of modern jazz drummers going head to head... fascinating...

And here is Chet Baker at Ronnies playing 'Love for Sale' –

... and this... from the same gig: Van Morrison added for 'Send in the Clowns.'

...a film about his life...


Gerry Mulligan Quartet
(Gerry Mulligan: baritone saxophone;Chet Baker:trumpet; Carson Smith: bass; Larry Bunker: drums).

My Funny Valentine

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Sunny Murray
(Sunny Murray: drums; Albert Ayler: Tenor Saxophone; Don Cherry: Cornet; Lewis Worrell, Henry Grimes: basses).
Virtue

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One final note... thanks to the late lamented site Jazz Pour Toi for a couple of tracks on recent posts...

6 comments:

Ornette said...

Jazz Pour Toi is still around, in a different form, at

http://forums.superfreeforums.com/index.php?mforum=diagnostic

They have had some problems with trolls so may be a closed board - but I'm sure they'd let you in!

Rod... said...

Ornette -thanks for that...

St Anthony said...

Although the cool school isn't what I tend to listen to, there are some interesting albums out there. I like the stuff Mulligan did with Monk very much - and Baker in his prime could damn near give Miles a run for his money in the fragile beauty stakes, even before the junk robbed him of his looks and a chunk of his career. Like Miles , at times he doesn't sound like he's doing much but there are tones and textures there that you'd miss. The late stuff, here at Ronnie Scott's for instance. And I'm always partial to a bit of Sondheim.
The Sunny Murray piece is fascinating - here comes Albert again. I always, when hearing Ayler and Cherry together, think of them as a very odd couple - Ornette's sunnier muse seeming much more congenial to Cherry's work, but I do like the combination. And I like to hear two basses together, when they work right. Of course, I could listen to Murray playing with poor Albert all day long.

Rod... said...

I'll post some Mulligan and Monk! Always looking for an idea - thanks Anthony... I've put some up way back when... bought the cd in Dublin last year and like it a lot... Apparently they were big friends, according to Mulligan...

St Anthony said...

I like the three drummers drumming clip, too. There's Elvin in formal dress in approved-Coltrane style, flanked by Blakey and Murray in their hip gear. Lovely.

Molly Bloom said...

My favourite part of this is the 'pointillistic spats' and the 'vibratoed smears' - brilliant language. Art that mirrors music. Very, very clever. A great control of language that reflects your love of the music and the word. We are not worthy.