Jazz is not dying. I know that because the postman, the Fed Ex driver and the UPS man keep dropping off proof that it’s alive. I can’t keep up with all of the albums they bring—no one could—but here, in brief, are reviews of a few that have accumulated. Some are recent. Others have been out for a while.
John Coltrane, So Many Things: The European Tour 1961 (Acrobat)
Not long after the seminal tenor and soprano saxophonist settled on the lineup of players in his quartet, he took them on a European tour that included France and Scandinavia. For a short period, Coltrane’s band also included the alto saxophonist, flutist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, who in certain respects was even more idiosyncratic than Coltrane. Supported by pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s and Dolphy’s explosive creativity announced—if by the early sixties there was any doubt—that the corner had been turned from the orthodoxies of bebop. Ornette Coleman’s free jazz had affected both of them, but the individualism of Coltrane’s musicians and their collective impact was so powerful that his band gave birth to a new strain in modern jazz. Coltrane, Tyner and Jones quickly became universal role models for players of their instruments.
This box of 4 CDs was made from broadcast air checks that captured Coltrane, Dolphy and company in a five-day run of concerts that took them to Paris, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm. They played many of the pieces several nights in a row, but their approaches were so varied, there is no likelihood that listeners open to the band’s innovations will be bored by repetition. Among the performances are two renditions of “Naima,” three of “Blue Train,” four of “Impressions” and six of “My Favorite Things”—each with power and chance-taking that shocked many listeners in the early 1960s who were not ready for Coltrane’s departures. The music heartened others who cheered his opening of new pathways in jazz. It made heavy demands on listeners and offered commensurate rewards.
Considering that the broadcasts were recorded off the air, sound quality is acceptable to good. Album notes by the British saxophonist Simon Spillett place in perspective Coltrane’s transition from the forward edge of the mainstream into the avant-garde and, not so incidentally, enormous popularity.
Steve Kuhn Trio, Wisteria (ECM)
Soon after Steve Kuhn was graduated from Harvard, he was the original pianist in Coltrane’s quartet. They appeared for eight weeks in 1960 at the Jazz Gallery in New York. Kuhn has written about that time,
We played six nights a week, and the place was always packed. It was just incredible the way people would rise during one of Coltrane’s solos, as if they were in a church revival meeting. I was just finding my way, trying different things – laying out sometimes while he improvised, comping other times. Coltrane was only in his mid-30s, but he might as well have been a million years older than I was, he was on such another level.
Kuhn found his way. At 21, he had already been a member of Kenny Dorham’s quintet. After Coltrane, he played with Stan Getz then with Charles Lloyd, Art Farmer and Art Blakey. Following a few years in Sweden, he returned to the United States and has led his own groups since. His relationship with bassist Steve Swallow goes back to 1960, when the two were both new to New York. With drummer Joey Baron, they make a trio of surpassing sensitivity undergirded by rhythmic strength. As Swallow observed in a recent conversation, Kuhn’s keyboard touch allows him to give the impression that he is pulling or coaxing the notes from the instrument rather than striking a key that makes a hammer hit a string. The title ballad, “Wisteria,” by Farmer, is a perfect demonstration of Kuhn’s ability to give the piano tonal personality.
In “Chalet,” one of six Kuhn compositions in the album, Baron creates melody in his drum solo, as he does in his breaks in Swallow’s amiable “Good Lookin’ Rookie.” Yet, time keeping is his true specialty, and throughout the CD he does it incorporating accents and asides that enhance the swing, rather than distract from it. Swallow abandoned his acoustic bass decades ago to concentrate on the electric bass guitar. In the ensembles his walking lines retain the thrust, tonal quality and power that many listeners recall in his acoustic work. His solos often have characteristics of the guitar, notably so in the high register, as in “Morning Dew.” That Kuhn piece contains a passage of his piano harmonies richer than it might seem reasonable to expect from only two hands. It is one of many rewards that this album yields to close listeners.
Paul Hemmings, The Blues and the Abstract Uke (Leading Tone)
The title alludes to a classic 1961 Oliver Nelson album, and the blues is at the heart of Hemmings’ CD. He fingerpicks the ukelele like a guitar, makes use of his thumb and evokes the spirit of Wes Montgomery in “West Coast Blues.” He pays tribute to Jim Hall in “Careful” and his own minor blues, “Study Hall.” Hemmings compensates for the instrument’s short sonic range with voicings as full as four strings can deliver. The pieces include departures from standard blues forms, Johnny Cash’s “Folson Prison Blues” (11 bars) and Hall’s “Careful” (16 bars). Hemmings’ arrangements make resourceful use of Curtis Fowlkes’ trombone, Greg Tardy’s tenor saxophone, Gaku Takahashi’s bass and Rudy Royston’s drums. Fowlkes and Tardy are impressive in the generous solo time Hemmings allots them. The results are more soulful than anything you’re likely to hear from a ukelele on the beach at Waikiki.
Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade, Children Of The Light (Mack Avenue)
All members of the Wayne Shorter Quartet are present here but one—Wayne Shorter. Pianist Pérez, bassist Patitucci and drummer Blade have been the saxophonist’s rhythm section for 15 years and have absorbed his music so deeply that the presence of his spirit may be implied. Their close listening and reactions to one another make them a compelling trio. Titles of the many of the 11 compositions reflect the album’s theme, manifestations of light. They include Patitucci’s “Moonlight On Congo Square,” Pérez’s “Light Echo” paired with Shorter’s “Dolores,” and his “Luz Del Alma.” On “Lumen,” using two keyboards Pérez incorporates the Latin dance impulse that guides much of his music, in this case the Afro-Cuban strain. With its brevity and air of contemplation, Blade’s “Within Everything” seems to sum up what Shorter calls in a brief album note the group’s “sense of mission…to point to places unknown or places yet to be.”