Sunday, February 28, 2010

Birth—The Quartet's Second Helping

Recorded by George Avakian at the same July 1971 sessions that produced El Juicio—the debut release by Keith Jarrett’s so-called American Quartet (featuring Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian)—Birth leans much more strongly on the band’s experimental side.

Actually, “experimental” might be too mild a word for what Haden does with his bass by processing it through a wah-wah pedal on “Mortgage On My Soul (Wah-Wah).” Listening to it again after all these years—it has not drawn me back in the intervening three decades—I am reminded of producer Teo Macero’s story of adding wah-wah to Miles Davis’ trumpet for the first time. Seeking to emulate the sounds that guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Terry Kath and Freddie Stewart were making sound hip, Macero—in his own words—“wah-wah’ed the shit out of it.” Haden’s use of the pedal shows just as much restraint.

Rippling and spitting behind a dual sax line, with Jarrett on soprano, Haden’s bass is a powerful engine on this highly danceable piece, and all these years later the elastic growl doesn’t even grate much anymore.

While sonically manipulating a tone as sublime as Haden’s may be the nadir of taste circa 1971, the freedom exhibited on “Spirit” is what made the era so much fun to live through. Mixing Redman’s Chinese oboe, which he dubbed the musette, metallic percussion, flute, bass drums and Halloween-scary vocals, the song has charm despite sounding dated in an era when so much of the world’s music is as close as our earbuds.

“Forget Your Memories (And They’ll Remember You)” has a bit of everything, including a taut bassline—and tremendous solo—from Haden, a highly textured tenor lead, understated drumming and emotive piano playing.

A discursive 11 minutes long, “Remorse” is more of what we used to call “head music” in the early ‘70s, featuring steel drums, banjo (by Jarrett!) and a wailing clarinet solo by Redman. Haden and Motian keep the tension high, and Jarrett’s fractured piano accompaniment leads to one of those spiraling solo statements of his that is an ideal blend of quicksilver imagination and pianistic technique. It forms a nice birth/death bookend with the title composition, which is the album’s highlight. The opening duet between Jarrett and Redman is gorgeous, and makes me wish they had done more of this type of thing. Redman’s bluesy approach is a beautiful match for Jarrett’s romantic lyricism, much the same as the pairing of Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan.

At a little over 35 minutes there is little question that Birth was a helping of leftovers from the band’s first sessions, but it helps flesh out a map of where this quartet would venture during its six-year life.

1 comment:

Bret said...

I love Birth, James. One of my first Jarrett purchases. I came to jazz via hiphop and found "Mortgage" astounding. Still drop the needle on that record frequently. Also started my obsession with Dewey Redman.