Tag Archives: Jazz

Chasing Trane, 50 years on

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

I clearly remember the first time I played a John Coltrane recording.

It was in early 2000s, on a searingly-bright weekday morning in a house I shared with a group of others in Killester, Dublin. The previous night had been a late one, and I was feeling tender in body and mind as I gripped a coffee cup and pressed ‘play’ on my newly-purchased ‘Blue Train’ CD.

My initial response was faint recognition – I was sure I’d heard the title track at some point before, probably from a TV show or movie. But in my tired state, I wasn’t quite prepared for what followed – Coltrane’s first solo, a blistering example of his famous ‘sheets of sounds‘ technique, underscored with stabs of trombone and trumpet from Curtis Fuller and Lee Morgan.

I’ve probably listened to the track 100 or more times since that morning, to the extent that I can anticipate every note and shift, every soloist’s exit and entrance. Coltrane’s performance stands up to repeat listening, as do the performances of all six musicians on the session. (It took just one listen to Paul Chamber’s short bass solo to dispel my years of rock music-based, dismissive ignorance around rhythm section solos.)

I’ve also listened to plenty of other Coltrane recordings since that morning – from his groundbreaking take on ‘My Favorite Things‘, to his spiritual suite ‘A Love Supreme‘, to his genre-twisting take on ‘Greensleeves‘.

But I always return to ‘Blue Train’, the pulsing, pushing hard bop number that kicked off what became one of Coltrane’s top-selling albums. And it was the song I turned to this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the saxophonist’s 1967 death, an event which remains a painful loss for jazz fans and for any lovers of unfettered, creative expression.

And ‘unfettered’ is the word. Although Trane would record freer, more adventurous music in the 10 years after ‘Blue Train’, none of it quite combines the Atomic Age feeling of motion, speed, progress, and freedom that this recording does. Just try keeping your foot still.

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Amy Winehouse, a room, and a song

Amy Winehouse. Pic: Fionn Kidney

Amy Winehouse. Pic: Fionn Kidney

“She was the last real individualist around.”

So said Bob Dylan of Amy Winehouse, in an interview published last week to publicize Dylan’s new album.

What Dylan’s attempted to do on his new release, to find “the essence of life” in the torch ballads and pop compositions of the Great American Songbook, was second nature to Winehouse. (One of her strongest latter-day performances was a duet with Tony Bennett on ‘Body and Soul‘.)

Her voice was certainly individualistic – like Dylan’s own, it’s instantly recognizable. It’s hard to think of another 21st century singer whose vocal performances had the same smooth snap and kick.

Or the same intimacy. Like the jazz legend Billie Holiday, who Winehouse is often compared to, the Londoner was never more powerful than when she delivered a love song to a simple accompaniment.

“I had some idea of where they stood, but I hadn’t realized how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition, how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.”

So says Dylan of the 1940s and ’50s standards he sings on his new album. It’s an observation that applies to a number of Winehouse songs too, not least her composition ‘Love Is A Losing Game’.

The ballad is one I’ve listened to a hundred times, but it’s never sounded better than the first time I heard it, a decade ago, on a TV broadcast of the 2007 Mercury Music Prize award ceremony.

Winehouse’s album ‘Rehab’, though nominated, didn’t win that night (the nod went to the Klaxons – reinforcing the advice that no-one should ever pay heed to a music critic). But her three-minute live performance will be what the evening is remembered for.

She took to the stage just a month after an alleged drug overdose, the start of a drugs-and-recovery narrative that would continue until her tragic death, less than four years later.

‘Love Is A Losing Game’ was well-known at the time, having been released a year earlier on Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ album, but the rapt silence and rapturous applause that night gives some indication of what it was like to see it performed in the flesh.

Below, through, and above it all, of course, is her voice. Intimate, declamatory, wistful, surging – not individual but unique.

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A four-letter word that woke me up

Clyde Stubblefield. Pic: Paul VanDerWerf

Clyde Stubblefield. Pic: Paul VanDerWerf

Who listens to radio anymore? I mean, really listens? Who has the time to tune in faithfully to a favorite show, to sit down, not distracted by driving or screens or other commitments, and take it all in?

Not me. My radio listening tends to be on my morning commute, a half hour grabbed as I stop-start along the Sunset Highway out of Portland. Along with 45 minutes on the return leg in the evening.

It’s a far cry from my teenage years in Ireland, when I’d tape Dave Fanning’s 2FM evening show, or my 20s when Donal Dineen’s Here Comes The Night was required late evening listening. Dineen, in particular, was a curator non nonpareil – what blossomed into an obsession with Prestige-era Miles Davis recordings developed from his playing “It Never Entered My Mind” on a couple of consecutive summer nights back in 2000.

It’s a while since I’d experienced that sort of inspired broadcasting. Occasionally, back in Dublin, I’d pick up something new from In The Blue of the Night or, if I had time, BBC’s 6 Music, but it was a rare thing.

Then I moved to Oregon and, in the process, discovered KMHD,  a public radio jazz station that broadcasts in the Portland area. Initially I listened as a breather from the increasingly-depressing news cycle; within days I had awoken to the razor-sharp music choices, and was hooked. The morning and evening shows offered a decent cut of those great ’50s Prestige recordings (way beyond Miles, I might add), mixing them up with recordings from local scene artists, modern UK, and European jazz – all sweetened with sizeable dollops of soul and funk.

A case in point – when Clyde Stubblefield died last weekend I knew Derek Smith’s The Morning Session show would celebrate his work. Then, on Tuesday morning, straight after the 8 a.m. news, I duly heard “Funky Drummer”, the James Brown side that features Stubblefield’s legendary drum break.

Now, for the first time in years, I’m coming across new (to me) music and wanting to take note of tracks, artists, and albums. Where once I sat with my finger above the ‘record’ button on my cassette radio now I search KMHD’s website and build Spotify playlists. When I turn on the radio these days, it’s not for a half-hour’s mindless humming, but to source new sounds.

To that end, here’s a short playlist of tracks gleaned from the station’s broadcasts over the past few weeks. The music’s mostly modern, with a couple of classic artists thrown in. It’s a brief, listenable testament to why I’ve fallen in love with radio again.

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Ringing the changes – the music of moving

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

“If you fear change, give it to me.”

There’s a guy who panhandles on the corner of North Broadway and North Vancouver Avenue in northeast Portland. His message, written on a piece of cardboard, seems to work. Well, it did for me last week.

Change is something I’ve become acquainted with over the past few months. Despite the common advice to remake and remodel, to constantly develop and progress, it’s not something that comes naturally to most people. I include myself.

A friend recently pointed out, however, that leaving a place or a job (and, in the process, a state of mind) is the only way to grow. A couple of months ago my wife and I did both, relocated to relocating to Portland, Oregon from Dublin, Ireland.

The journey’s been like nothing before. We are learning a new city, a new (to me) culture, job and apartment hunting. Some days it’s a natural fit, others demand a doubling down on resolve. But the change has come.

What downtime I have, between the hunting and unpacking and lifting and meetings, has been spent listening to music – on the MAX to the market, in line at the DMV, driving to a house viewing.

And so I’ve put together a short playlist with two intersecting themes – change and American popular music.

All the songs contain some trace or theme of change, from the social (Buffalo Springfield) to spiritual (Nina Simone) to the local (Cisco Houston’s version of a song Woody Guthrie wrote when he lived here in 1941).

Elsewhere there’s personal development (a track from Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool sessions), a scorched-earth new start (courtesy of a Louis Armstrong solo) and a simple call for contentment from Elliott Smith.

And what better way to end it all than the famous largo from Dvořák’s ninth symphony, ‘From the New World’, the composer’s musical testament to America – a composition of progress, hope and, above all, change.

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Fear and foreboding in My Favourite Things

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember
My favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.

Everything’s going to be ok. We’re kids again, in our pyjamas and Julie Andrews is telling us not to worry about the thunderstorm outside. Silver white winters melt into spring.

Don’t listen to Maria. The real ‘My Favorite Things’ was recorded four years before the movie version of The Sound Of Music and just a year after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical debuted on Broadway.

In October 1960 – 55 years ago last week – John Coltrane took the then barely-known song into the studio, recording a version of it with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis and drummer Elvin Jones.

Over 13 minutes the bandleader and Tyner unlocked the dread in the lyric. Maria becomes unsettled, her soprano sax voice begins with the familiar list (“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”) but soon sounds terrified, trembling at the thunder in Davis’ bass. Remembering’s not working this time.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Eight minutes in she is screaming, as Coltrane pulls the melody way out, beyond the musical, beyond reassurance, and far beyond from Julie Andrews’ smile four years later.

It’s unsettling, but hypnotic. Once you’re into the music you can’t escape – not until McCoy Tyner frees you from the locked-in rhythm, not until Steve Davis’ storm abates.

Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ is many things –  a classic example of modal jazz, a subversion of the American songbook, a blend of Eastern and Western idioms.

Most unlikely of all it was a hit single, in 1961, and remains one of the most popular songs in a less-than-popular genre of music. The saxophonist would return to it often – on foot of public requests – in live performance.

Listening to it today the beauty and optimism are still there, on the song’s surface –  small comforts which scarely conceal the dread running underneath.

Fifty-five years later, with fear and anxiety the dominant emotions of a boom-and-bust, post-9/11 21st century, Coltrane’s performance sounds like the song of our age.
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Sonny: Mythic musician, noisy neighbour

The Williamsburg Bridge. Pic: Tyrael 28

The Williamsburg Bridge.
Pic: Tyrael 28

A saxophone player stands and plays for hours on a bridge – the sky above, the Hudson river below. It’s 1959, it’s New York City and the musician is Sonny Rollins.

For weeks he’s been walking to the Williamsburg Bridge from his apartment on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan. Once he arrives at his chosen spot he stands and practices, often for hours. Sometimes he brings friends, more often he’s alone. Usually he spends hours blowing, choosing to play on the bridge rather than in the city clubs.

Three years later Sonny Rollins returns to the jazz scene, releasing an album inspired by (though sadly not recorded on) the bridge – and named after it.

What did Rollins find during those 15 hour days he spent alone over the Hudson River? Whatever it was, it led him back to the music scene that he had stepped away from, frustrated by his self-perceived limitations. His album The Bridge would be acclaimed by fans and critics.

"Sonny

Popular culture, for its part, found something else – a ready-made mythic image, the lone saxophone player practicing over the city, a mid-century outsider urban seer. Rollins’ legend slipped easily into the musical culture of the time – the artist exiling himself to find his muse.

There are echoes of the same story in Bob Dylan’s retreat to Woodstock, or Robert Johnson’s disappearing for six months and meeting the Devil at a crossroads, returning with a new take on the blues.

But every myth has its roots in the everyday and Rollins’ is no different. He first set foot on the Williamsburg Bridge by accident, while rambling around the neighbourhood where he lived with his wife, Lucille. And he returned there not to seek the muse, but rather to avoid annoying his neighbours.

“The problem was that I had no place to practice. My neighbor on Grand Street was the drummer Frankie Dunlop, and his wife was pregnant. The horn I’m playing, it’s loud. I felt really guilty,” he later recalled.

As for his return from the bridge – after two years of daily practice there –  the reality was less revelation and more, well, perspiration.

“I could have just stayed up there forever. But Lucille was supporting us, and I had to go back to work.”

And so pregnancy and the daily grind led to a quintessential jazz myth. The next time I listen to The Bridge I should think of Sonny Rollins’ neighbour and his hardworking spouse – the real reasons he walked on to the Williamsburg Bridge one day in 1959.

But the myth sounds better. As does the music.

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Seizing the day – the Hawk meets the Duke

albumAt 2pm on August 18, 1962 – a hot, summer Saturday – a 57-year-old man, wearing a dark suit, a pork pie hat and carrying an instrument case, walked into a small building on Sylvan Avenue in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

He was early for an appointment but discovered that the man that he was meeting, an acquaintance of decades past, was already waiting.

And so Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington found themselves in a studio at last – a date which had been 20 years in the making. Ellington, for the record, had arrived early.

Over the following next six hours tenor saxophonist Hawkins would accompany Ellington and a small band of Duke’s regulars – Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard – on half a dozen or so songs. This would form the album Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins.

The music was all Ellington, sweet and sharp and singing, but with a strain of melancholy throughout (their take on ‘Mood Indigo‘ is almost mournful).

Listening to it half a century later one hears two important figures in American music, if not at the height of their powers then in full, easy command of them. The recording they left on tape that afternoon still sounds and swings as fresh as it did on that August day.

We’re lucky it exists at all. The meeting of Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins almost didn’t happen – and the background to it shows that even the greats are subject to the perils of procrastination.

In an interview published in the album’s liner notes Hawkins told how the album was two decades years in the making.

Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington

Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington

“Duke came to me twenty years ago…and said: ‘You know, I want you to make a record with me, and I’m going to write a number specially for you.

“‘Fine,’ I said, ‘I’m for it!’

“But we never did make it, although we sometimes spoke of it when we ran into one another.”

Twenty years after Duke’s offer Hawkins was still speaking of the long-fingered plan. After he referred to it in a magazine interview an outside force, legendary producer Bob Thiele, intervened.

By petition, cajolement or the promise of a payday he convinced Duke and Hawkins to make the trip across the Hudson River to New Jersey for an afternoon’s work.

Though their careers ran in parallel for four decades Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins was their only meeting – a lesson that if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing, even if it takes 20 years to do it.

Stanley Dance‘s liner notes recall the pair’s farewell that evening.

“”After four hundred years, we made it!” Coleman said.

“You don’t think it was too soon?” Duke asked.

“Maybe we should have waited, but…”

“We’re leaving town for a week or so. I’ll call you when we get back. Maybe we can think of something else to do!””


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Want some Satchmo? Take five

800px-Louis_Armstrong_restored1Appearing on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1968, Louis Armstrong was asked to pick the eight tracks he’d take as a castaway.

Satchmo, a man who could never be accused of not having a great welcome for himself, chose five of his own recordings.

And, lest he tire of hearing himself on record, Armstrong picked as his island luxury his trumpet. When it came to reading material he opted to bring the book closest to his heart…his autobiography.

Well, as the himself said: “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them”.

As for me, I’m told. In the unlikely event that I ever shuffle onto Desert Island Discs Pops will make my list  – one of the few dead-cert tracks, in fact.

But what if I emulated him and picked my five favourite Louis recordings?

Well, Kirsty, I couldn’t resist.

1. Basin Street Blues

One of the great performances from jazz’s own Rosetta Stone, Armstrong’s Hot Five recording from 1928 takes a Dixieland standard and adds scat singing and then, two minutes in, that solo.

2. Stompin’ At The Savoy

No, not the London hotel. Instead it’s a celebration of the New York ballroom that Langston Hughes called “Harlem’s heartbeat”, and where Ella herself once fronted the house band.

3. West End Blues

From the top, the most famous solo in jazz. As for the rest of the performance, Billie Holiday put it best: “Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm…other times the same damn record would make me so happy.”

4.  St Louis Blues

WC Handy‘s groundbreaking mix of ragtime and blues, with a little tango thrown in, topped off with a Satchmo solo.

5. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

What else could a son of Storyville, who spent most of his life far from the French Quarter, sing?

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The sound of silence? It’s quiet good for you

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.
Pic: William P. Gottlieb

You know what’s the loudest noise in the world man? The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

So said Thelonius Monk.

How much time do you spend in silence each day?

Three minutes? Thirty? An hour? Not enough?

On average each of us encounters 52 noiseless minutes every day, according to a study published last week.

But that’s on average. The same survey also found that a third of us have less than a half hour’s silence a day – and one in six of us less than ten minutes.

‘That’s more like it,’ I thought to myself (silently) on reading about the study.

I don’t know exactly how much silence I encounter each day but I’d guess it’s around 30 minutes, usually late in the evening.

Even the time I spend alone – running in the morning or eating breakfast – is not silent. Traffic, the wind, background music, a boiling pan – there’s plenty of ambient sound around.

As the day passes this usually doesn’t bother me. With the exception of a construction drill or a ringing phone I don’t notice any ill effects.

A silent Loch Lomond. May 2010.

A silent Loch Lomond, May 2012.

But every couple of days my mind jerks me alert, demanding ten minutes of silent nothing. The next chance I get (which usually arrives hours later, at home that evening) I turn off my phone, laptop, sound system and just sit, embracing the quiet.

This silence principally fosters a sense of peace, a reason why it’s vital for practices like meditation.

But it’s not just the mind that benefits. Silence is good for your physical health. Absence of it (that is, the presence of noise) can lead to higher blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

It’s also important for your cognitive function, specifically ‘right brain’ activities. It fosters creativity by filtering away daily sound, leaving focus and perspective.

When one focuses on silence it can – in the right circumstances – shift from being a passive absence of sound to being a presence, an active un-noise. The value of silence lies in this presence; the deeper one drifts into it the stronger the pull is.

Perhaps this is why Monk, a metropolis musician who spent many nights on stage alongside blaring brass, described silence as the loudest noise in the world.

Until your neighbour’s car alarm sounds.

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A history of jazz (in 500 words)

Louis Armstrong, Kid Koala and Miles Davis. Pics: Library of Congress; Kristof Acke; Tom Palumbo

Louis Armstrong, Kid Koala and Miles Davis.
Pics: Library of Congress; Kristof Acke; Tom Palumbo

What is jazz?

To my ears it’s melody, movement, beat, snap, switch, sweat, dynamic and inverted and syncopated, free and indulgent and arrogant, full and fleeting.

And on the basis of all that it’s likely indefinable.

Pushed to one word though, it’s invention.

A composition can move and shift in the hands of different musicians. Of all music jazz is the genre where the furthest movement from the theme, while still, however distantly, orbiting it, is often most admired.

Basin Street Blues is one of my favourite songs, and a perfect example of this shifting evolution.

It was written by Spencer Williams in 1928, and named for Basin Street, a departed main drag in the (by 1928, cleaned up) New Orleans red light district of Storyville, where he had been raised.

The song was made famous first by Louis Armstrong and later Jack Teagarden, the latter with lyrics. Many other versions followed.

Charting the song across the generations provides as good an answer as any to the impossible question: ‘what is jazz?’

Take three versions.

Louis Armstrong – 1928


To start at the beginning, in every way. Armstrong cut his version in a period where he was, almost single-handedly, inventing ‘jazz’ as a soloist’s art form.

His performances on a number of recordings from this era are Rosetta Stone moments, solos (even at their shortest) in which you can hear the invention of something new.

Louis’ version starts eerily, with Earl Hines’ celesta, before Armstrong solos and scats. But it’s the trumpeter’s second solo (at 2.02) that’s remarkable – an ascending sequence of notes which picks up the melody and takes it up and up, transcending Basin Street and all else besides, to hold a searing high Bb, before returning to Earth for the last 16, somewhat mournful, bars.

Miles Davis – 1963


Thirty-five years later Davis turns the exuberance of Armstrong’s version on its head, moving from the stately stride of the 1928 recording to something pensive and brooding.

Gone is the overarching horn, replaced instead by the interplay of the leader’s muted trumpet, Victor Feldman’s piano and Ron Carter’s bass.

This is a lament – always elegant – for a way of life and a way of music that had long departed.

At times, as the trumpeter slips deeper in his solo (Davis’ first, lasting six minutes, is over twice the length of Armstrong’s song), we stray far from Basin Street, only to slowly resurface, pulled by Carter’s insistent bass.

Kid Koala – 2003


A natural progression. Koala takes Basin Street Blues away from single group performance, building a version with bass, banjo and beats around the melody line, in this case a scratched and slurred horn, his trademark ‘drunk trumpet’.

In contrast to Armstrong’s soloing 75 years earlier what stands out here is the low end, the beats which build in the second half of the song (from 2.13).

Koala, it seems, visualises the song as a funeral march, a fragmented second line, with banjo that closes the circle, echoing the Dixieland sound that Armstrong emerged from generations earlier.

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What is jazz then? It’s something that’s found throughout these three works, a form of music that encompasses creation, re- invention and subvention.

But, as Louis himself reputedly said, if you have to ask you’ll never know.

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