Thursday, November 22, 2007

Don Ellis... Clifford Brown/Max Roach... Harold Land... Sonny Rollins

"Despair to Hope" from Don Ellis's 1961 album 'New Ideas' features improvisation based on 'an emotional framework, rather than a musical one.' Ellis provided a detailed explanation of his approach in the album's liner notes:

"The inspiration for 'Despair to Hope' came while listening to a John Cage concert. The concert tended to make one more aware of the music in the sounds surrounding us in our daily living, but I had the feeling that jazz musicians, given the conception, could do much more with the indeterminacy principle involved.
One of the pieces, 'Cartridge Music,' was performed by Mr. Cage and David Tudor. They had cards to which they referred, presumably for directions. This to me, is 'controlled' indeterminacy, which is an extension of something which has been taking place in music for a long time. It seemed valid to take Cage's idea one step further and not predetermine anything except the performers and their instruments. The idea of having planned cards with predetermined choices seemed too rigid. If the performers had more freedom they would be able to interact with the audience even more – giving a heightened dimension. Classical musicians, I reasoned, are not trained for this type of extemporizing today, but jazz musicians are. Why not see what could be done? A great deal in jazz has always been left up to chance, but a framework of some sort was always in use (whether written, or stylized by custom).
Al Francis and I tried improvising a duet with just free associations. This was not satisfying to me. I needed to hear more of an overall direction than aimless rambling. The idea of using an emotional framework, rather than a musical one occurred to me. We tried it once keeping in mind the thought of progressing from despair to hope. It 'happened.' I did not try it again before the record date for fear of establishing any set musical routine. When we came into the studio, this was the first thing recorded. Other than the emotional framework and the instruments and means at our disposal nothing was planned. We did one take." (From here... ).

Cor blimey... But this is a fascinating track. Starting in 'Despair,'one assumes, slow muted trumpet over odd rattles and chimes from the vibes, Ellis bending his notes quizzically. A drifting, weary feel, with the odd sudden eruption from Francis – then a long trumpet glissando that turns into a whinny and then something that sounds like a swanee whistle(?). Marking the transition (somewhat annoyingly - an echo of the clarinet upward sweep in Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' - which I have never liked)to 'Hope,' one supposes. Francis is the more interesting player for me and I find it difficult to assess this piece – but at the time it must have sounded downright weird at the time of recording and release. Nearly fifty years on, strangely enough, it would sit easily with a lot of European improv – far from the groove and snap which was retained in however a disguised fashion in the fire musics of the sixties, this is more concerned with sound texture and space. Ellis is another of the 'forgotten,' whose career spanned the fifties to seventies and the upheavals therein. Probably better known for his later big band experiments, which interestingly predate Miles' immersion in electronics and his twist on rock (Ellis was using an echoplexed trumpet in 1967, for example), which used many different time signatures – out-Brubeckian Brubeck... Which I must dig out sometime... Something of the Stan Kenton about him in his dogged, dogmatic approach – but whichever way it falls, he was a superb trumpet player.

A truly great trumpeter, cut down in his prime – was Clifford Brown. Heard here with the band he co-led with the mighty Max Roach, playing a fast version of Duke's 'Take the A Train.' Solos lead off with Harold Land, then Brownie, who always seemed to have so much time at his disposal even at fast tempos. Richie Powell fleet and boppy, then a few exchanges with the drummer – Max letting it rip in stunning controlled bursts. Going out on a programmatic train hoot and simulated engine slowdown. Corny, perhaps – but a sparkling track overall.

Harold Land went on to record 'The Fox' under his own name in 1959. Here is 'Mirror Mind Rose,' which was composed by the pianist on the date, Elmo Hope. Dupree Bolton leads off on this ballad, followed by Land as the slow swaying beat is marked out by the bass and the horns commence to entwine. Land off first to solo, eloquent and probing, to stop suddenly and let Bolton take over for a brief outing before Hope explores his theme, a clenched solo with occasional sudden hard chorded eruptions. Bolton and Land return to spell out the winding melody... Mysterioso...

Freedom means different things to different people at different times. When Sonny Rollins recorded 'Freedom Suite,' in 1958, his original angry comments, directed at racialism in the U.S., were dropped from the sleevenotes and replaced by a more oblique essay by Orrin Keepnews that emphasized artistic rather than political/social freedom. The music was/is ground-breaking, expanding the tradition from within and sending out ripples which are still visible. Rollins explores several themes at length, binding the whole by his melodic virtuosity as Pettiford and Roach dance and weave round him in glorious interaction, switching from four four to waltz time and back. The bass takes a couple of fleetly linear solos and Max is a revelation throughout. In the slow sections, Rollins' horn has a keening, yearning edge to it that hits you right where it should do... When the tempo is up, his sure-footed and rolling command of his instrument bursts through in all its glory. This session took the game further on, out of bop and hard bop to hint at the wider vistas to come...

“America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms; its humor; its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity." (From Rollins' original notes, quoted here... an interesting article by Marshall Bowden about the original recording and the recent take on it by David S. Ware).

This last selection is a taster for Saturday night: I'm off to London for the weekend, mainly to see Sonny at the Barbican - the first time I have ever heard him play live. Part of a somewhat lacklustre London Jazz Festival... A recent interview here gives a flavour of what is to come... and what drives him still...

In the Videodrome..

Newk and Don...

Don Ellis big band play 'New Horizons'...

Bouncing with Bud Powell - 'Anthropology'...

... and 'Round Midnight.'

Don Ellis
Don Ellis (t) Al Francis (vib)
Despair to Hope


Clifford Brown/Max Roach
Clifford Brown (t) Harold Land (ts) Richie Powell (p) George Morrow (b) Max Roach (d)
Take the 'A' Train


Harold Land
Harold Land (ts) Dupree Bolton (t) Elmo Hope (p) Herbie Lewis (b) Frank Butler (d)
Mirror Mind Rose


Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins (ts) Oscar Pettiford (b) Max Roach (d)
Freedom Suite



godoggo said...

Hey, you know what Don Ellis track I like? "Hey Jude" from "Live at Fillmore." Certainly one of the more interesting examples of a jazz interpretation of a pop song.

Rod... said...

I'm not sure but I may have the Fillmore set - been meaning to dig in the boxes as I know I have one live album by Don Ellis - will see if I can find it...

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