Friday, February 13, 2009

Miles Davis... John Coltrane... Perry Robinson... Warne Marsh... Frank Wright... Charlie Haden...

The first classic Mile Davis Quintet, recorded in 1955 when they were starting out, playing a Benny Golson tune, 'Stablemates.' Still finding their way at this point, a fascinating glimpse of what was to come when Davis road-hardened the band into a formidable playing and recording unit. With Philly Joe at the drums, they were always going to swing, yet Miles was evolving a new space to operate in, slowly clearing out the harmonic clutter of hard bop to point in new directions. (A process that was ongoing – arguably he had been on this road since the forties – see 'Birth of the Cool,' etc...).
A smoky theme, sinuously unwinding before Miles enters, open horn. Notice that use of space – most bop trumpeters of this time would have splattered sixteenth notes everywhere. Coltrane next – interesting to be reminded that at this time he was hardly rated as a tenor saxophonist. He edges through his solo, perhaps, rather than taking one of the almighty gallops that he would soon become famous for. The contrasts in the front line was one of the fascinations of this band – conventional wisdom has it that Miles was spare, his sax player much more fulsome, overloading the chords and the bars with torrents of notes. Yet this early in the game, on this track there is not much between them. Mind you, conventional wisdom held that Miles did not have the technique for grandstanding in the trumpet tradition – which was nonsense. A curio, then, snapshot of a new band. This was not their first recording date – a somewhat confusing move from Prestige to Columbia was underway and they had already done a session for the new label. As part of the deal for their release from Prestige, the band was to go into the studio on May 11th 1956 to record a slew of tracks – by which time they were firing on all cylinders... This resulted in the classic albums, 'Cooking,' 'Steaming,' 'Relaxin'.'

More Coltrane – taken from the album 'Cosmic Music,' this is 'Manifestation.' Straight in with howling saxophone, high hollers and sweeping querulous searching – joined by the shrill pipings of Pharoah Sanders on piccolo who takes over as Coltrane drops out. Almost folksy, a pastoral timbre as beneath the new Coltrane group boil the rhythms up – somewhat muddily as the mix is not so good. Alice Coltrane, comes next, having just succeeded to the piano chair after Tyner (and Elvin Jones, the drummer) had left. Swirling and stabbing as Rashied Ali and probably Ray Appleton drive her along. Bass pretty much inaudible. Coltrane returns magisterially to be joined by Sanders, who switches between tenor and piccolo. Coltrane punches at phrases as if spinning the speedbag, jagged shards of melody thrown out – and suddenly: they stop. Another oddity, this was recorded in February 1966 but never released until after Coltrane's death on an album that his wife, Alice, put together, overdubbing some tracks with strings and added organ and vibes to produce 'Cosmic Music.' An interesting snapshot, again, of a new band – although Coltrane had fine-honed his virtuosity by this time, he was still breaking new ground...

'The Call' – a composition by Perry Robinson, first recorded on an ESP date with Henry Grimes back in 1965. A vocalised folkbluesy squawking phrase bending up and answered by resolution. From which materials and rhythmic shapes, Robinson improvises solo on clarinet – mainly high up with the occasional double-blown note hinting at the deeper register before the exploration shifts octaves downwards and breathily sketches itself softly into the distance returning in volume to the theme and some Gershwin-like swooping rises (think 'Rhapsody in Blue') across the instrument's range. A bright morning feel to this – and a timeless journey referencing earlier styles but still resolutely contemporary... An unsung hero...

Warne Marsh received more recognition than Perry Robinson, perhaps, but only in the relative sense – overall, as one of jazz's 'Unsung Cats,' it seems as if he became more acclaimed in recent years after his death:

'There seems to be an increasing interest in the music of the late jazz tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh...' (From here...).

The usual... Marsh was a compadre of Lennie Tristano and was also one of those few who moved on from that initial influence to become a truly great saxophonist. (Along with Lee Konitz from the same generation, who is luckily still with us). Before Tristano, the influence of Lester Young, of course... that lighter, airier tone on the usually more burly tenor. But spun steel... there was always a solid emotional determination linked to the originality of Marsh's melodic conception. This is 'You are too beautiful,' from 1957, from the (annoying titled) album 'Music for Prancing.' (Is he a fucking horse?). A sprightly tempo, Marsh unreels his distinct melodic imagination over polite comping and strong bass. One hears the sound of distant drums – Stan Levey. Red Mitchell takes a fleet solo, followed by Ronnie Ball. Then a round of fours...

Marsh died onstage in 1987, in the middle of 'Out of nowhere,' which has to be ironic... Still, there are worse ways to go, I suspect...

I was re-sorting my cds into some kind of 'order' with a new stacker when I discovered this – Frank Wright's 'Uhura Na Umoja,' recorded in 1970. Wright was one of the band of black musicians who lit out for the European territories in the sixties and seventies – this session was recorded in Paris. No bass, unusually, the redoubtable Bobby Few on piano, Art Taylor on drums and Noah Howard on alto make up the quartet. This is 'Being,' a Howard composition, opening in declamatory fashion, an Ayler-esque fanfare before the alto solos over lurching drums and swirling piano. Wright follows, wilder, more abandoned, something of the yearning tone of Coltrane in his playing, beyond the usually stated influence of Ayler. I always associate Taylor with more hard boppy manoeuvres – here, he sounds like he's enjoying himself, hard-hitting in a freer style. Bobby Few solos – another underrated musician. The band ride out on the theme – the Ayler-esque echoes underpinned not just by Wright's allegiance but the fact that Few had played with Albert – in fact, the tenor player had brought him to New York from their mutual home of Cleveland. There is a gutsy spirit to this track that earths the ontological title and Wright's spiritual yearnings:

“I was put on this planet by the Creator to proclaim the message of the Universal Spirit - to shout it to the people,” (Quoted here...)

Gutbucket and space church – come to think of it, all of these musicians had links to r and b which gives the music a funky edge...

Recorded in a time of ferment – all these musicians had left America for Europe, Few and Wright were to remain. 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,' etc, in a memory of the original French Revolution... Few says of their arrival in post-68 Paris:

"We all said 'where can we go' and Frank said 'well, what about Paris?' We said, 'hey, wow, but we don't know anybody or anything,' and Frank said 'well, let's just go.' So we packed our bags and came to Paris...and we were like pioneers. We knew nobody—we didn't know the language or anything—and there was this student revolution that had happened in '68 and it was still going on by the time we came. Four of us were walking down the street and hundreds of police came with gas masks on in the back of us and in front of us were these students burning cars and everything, and we just started running because we got scared. We saw a light on that we thought was a restaurant and ran into this place and this guy closed the door and said 'wow, who are you guys?' and we said we were musicians. He asked if we knew where we were and we said we thought it was a restaurant. He said, 'it is, but downstairs is The Jazz Cave'...the owner said 'would you like to play here next week?'" (From here... ).

I remember something of the ambiance of the time – passing through Paris in 1969 I returned the following year for the first of a series on ongoing sojourns in the city and remember well the edgy craziness – riot police and students fighting it out in confrontations that eventually became ritualised into dark parody. Standing in the Saint Severin, we would watch a band of students engage with the cops – every weekend. It became a spectator sport after a while... As the promise ebbed away... But at least we still have the music – worth more in the long run and more powerful than slogans to this old anarchist's ears...

Somehow this all comes together... This is track 3 from Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra recorded in April 1969. A suite comprising three Spanish folk songs with new words added during the Spanish Civil War - 'El Quinto Regimiento,' 'Los Cuatros Generales' and 'Viva la Quince Brigada.'. An amazing arrangement by Carla Bley yokes folk music to oompa brass to free jazz, introduced by Sam Brown's spanish guitar – then the band come in, brass led, before Don Cherry solos – some skidding cornet that reaches up a couple of times to notes that are only just hit, re-inforcing the raw militia band atmosphere. The drums of Paul Motian are somewhat clattery in the mix – but nevertheless drive the band and contribute to that ragged feel, just holding it all together. The ensemble swirls around, eventually covering the soloing Cherry – with presumably Mike Mantler behind him. Ebbing away as the guitar returns, shadowed by the leader's growling bass, the flamenco rips fitting in seamlessly as if vindicating the 'spanish tinge.' ('In fact, if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.' Jelly Roll Morton, quoted from here... ). Haden solos, going down deep and sonorous and strong-fingeredly echoing some of the guitar figures. The band return with the second theme, punctuated by some Roswell Rudd trombone snorts that build into a solo over lurching background figures. Unusual for the time, a sample of an original Spanish recording (female voice) acts as a bridge into part three – 'Viva la Quince brigada,' led by Gato Barbieri who slowy builds up to a frenzy as another sample is dropped in – male voice now – and the band sprawl over a free-ish section and the original recording comes back again as an echo bouncing eerily over the intervening years. Effective and almost subliminal. The band take up the theme over two beat drums, ending on a bugle-like declamation. The first time I heard this song was in my teens from an appallingly pious but no doubt well-meaning Joan Baez warble through it. (What did Miles's trumpet teacher say about vibrato?). This is more vibrant, fierce stuff – while retaining an edge of memory that evokes the tragedies and betrayals of the Civil War in Spain.

¡Ay Carmela! ¡Ay Carmela!
que se ha cubierto de gloria,
¡Ay Carmela! ¡Ay Carmela!

Haden in the liner notes says:

'We use, with only slight changes, the original 1930 orchestra and chorus arrangements of "Los Cuatro Generales" and "Viva la Quince Brigada"as they were playing on the soundtrack of the film "Mourir A Madrid"... Parts of these same arrangements from that soundtrack are super-imposed under the improvising...

By synchronicity I was in Spain that year, a month or so after this was recorded in New York and hitch-hiked back from Madrid intending to go to France but by the accidents/magnetic forces of the road ended up in Sitges, near Barcelona, where I spent a happy time playing in a bar and meeting up with a disparate international crew on the beach. By some accident – or following my nose – I had landed in one of the few 'autonomous zones' that existed in those latter years of Franco's rule. Spain I remember as having dark overtones of the Civil War and mucho ongoing repression, the people suspicious – not surprisingly – of young long haired Brit itinerant musicians. But Sitges was zappy, touristy and relatively free of the general heavy manners – a place of fun, light and drunken camaraderie although the Guardia Civil could be relied upon to exercise those long batons on occasion to whop the shit out of anyone stepping too far over the edge... which somehow I managed to avoid, even though moving under the black flag – by luck rather than judgement... Following on from that Wordsworth quote above about the original French Revolution, the next line:

'But to be young was very heaven!'

Miles Davis
Miles Davis (t) John Coltrane (ts) Red Garland (p) Paul Chambers (b) Philly Joe Jones (d)


John Coltrane
Pharoah Sanders (ts, fl, picc, tamb, per) John Coltrane (ts, bcl, bells, per) Alice Coltrane (p) Jimmy Garrison (b) Rashied Ali (d) Ray Appleton (per)


Perry Robinson (cl)
The Call


Warne Marsh
Warne Marsh (ts) Ronnie Ball (p) Red Mitchell (b) Stan Levey (d)
You are too beautiful


Frank Wright (ts) Noah Howard (as) Bobby Few (p) Arthur Taylor (d)


Charlie Haden
Perry Robinson (cl) Gato Barbieri (ts, cl) Dewey Redman (as, ts) Don Cherry (ct, Indian wood and bamboo fl) Mike Mantler (t) Roswell Rudd (ts) Bob Northern (fh, hand wood blocks, crow call, bells, military whistle) Sam Brown (g) Carla Bley (p, tam) Charlie Haden (b) Paul Motian (d, perc)
El Quinto Regimiento/Los Cuatros Generales/Viva la Quince Brigada



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