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.

Jarrett's El Juicio: The Quartet Begins

Keith Jarrett has become so identified with his so-called Standards Trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock, and his on-again, off-again interest in solo improvisation that it is difficult to think of a time (1966-72) when he was a polymathic precursor of more recent artists like Dave Douglas and Bill Frisell.

As the pianist in the Charles Lloyd Quartet—that rare jazz band that crossed over to an audience more interested in rock music—he had a profile that few jazz musicians attain in their early 20s. He released his first solo album, Life Between The Exit Signs, in 1967, and formed a trio with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian the next year. In 1970, Manfred Eicher, owner of the nascent ECM record label, invited the young pianist to record for him (initiating a relationship that is now 40 years old). That year, Jarrett also briefly compromised his stance against electronic instruments for the opportunity to create music alongside Miles Davis. Playing with Davis before large crowds—the culmination of which was the 1970 Isle of Wight Pop Festival, where Jarrett created a fearsome frisson in his attack on his electric keyboard—broadened his exposure to an even greater degree than his tenure with Lloyd.

By 1971—the year he turned 26—Jarrett was in a position to call his own artistic shots. One of the results was a growing interest in performing solo piano concerts with no set musical agenda (an arc that begins with one of my favourite Jarrett recordings, Facing You, and peaks with The Köln Concert—still the largest-selling recording in ECM’s vast catalogue).

Along with Davis, one of older artists Jarrett revered was Ornette Coleman. While Coleman had eschewed piano in his bands since leaving the orbit of Paul Bley in the late 1950s, Jarrett decided to rejuvenate his trio with the addition of Dewey Redman, Coleman’s bandmate since 1968, and explore music that was dominated by muscular improvisation. As noted here, Jarrett recognized a challenge in using two musicians—Haden and Redman—who were indoctrinated in Coleman’s approach to melodic free playing. In July 1971, he convened his new quartet in the studio with veteran producer George Avakian. The results are captured on two albums: El Juicio (The Judgement) and Birth. I’ll deal with them in separate posts.

It begins with the bass. One of the dominant features of the American Quartet's music was the heft and percussive thrust of Haden's bass. On "Gypsy Moth," El Juicio's opening track, Haden is high in the mix (he even sounds powerful on an MP3 download) laying down a strong pulse that grooves and weaves throughout the piece. In the opening minutes, Jarrett uses this foundation to accentuate his gospel-influenced playing. The percussion is spare, even and metallic sounding, a foreshadowing of the frequent use of additional percussionists—either Airto Moreira, Guilherme Franco or Danny Johnson. Although the American Quartet is often remembered for its "outside" leanings, what many people disregard is how hard this band could cook. During Jarrett's piano introduction the band sounds like some kind of strange juke joint hybrid (even Jarrett's trademark vocalizations sound more celebratory than anguished in this context). In his liner notes for The Impulse Years: 1973-1974—a collection of the quartet's mid-period recordings—Chuck Berg writes that the band was sometimes criticized for sounding like Ramsey Lewis' popular trio, a comparison that never struck me. What does strike me, once Redman enters, is how Jarrett's melody line and the rigor the band brings to it might've influenced Pat Metheny (who would work with Redman and Haden on his '80-'81 recording). In its middle section, "Gypsy Moth" has that propulsive sailing element that so much of Metheny's early writing has. But there's more, too. After stating that airy melody, Redman begins to extend into a highly textured improvisation, with Haden louder than ever, and the percussion—sounding like Jarrett has picked up a tambourine—becomes more ragged and urgent. Finally, the piano re-enters for the tune's closing 45 seconds.

As an introductory statement, "Gypsy Moth" has almost every element that would make the American Quartet so influential. In little over eight minutes, the band points to a new direction in jazz—at once driving and fragmented, joyous and inward looking.

Coleman's influence is unmistakable on "Toll Road," with Jarrett combining his soprano sax with Redman's tenor in the kind of jostling unison head that Coleman and Don Cherry pioneered, a relationship that is made even more obvious on the two-part "Piece For Ornette."

"Pardon My Rags" introduces yet another fascination Jarrett expressed through the American Quartet: a love for exotic musical sources. Here, the opening percussion statement sounds like an extrapolation of Balinese music; later, he would explore Asian micro-tonality through Redman's use of the shrill, double-reed suona, which he called a musette.

In recent years, Jarrett's music has been perceived as so tightly controlled that it is difficult to remember that he used the American Quartet to explore so many diverse elements. When we get to Birth we'll explore Haden's use of wah-wah manipulation of his bass, but on El Juicio's "Pre-Judgement Atmosphere" the sonic palette expands to include more metallic percussion (a precursor of Henry Threadgill's hubkaphone?) and electronically processed vocals that are reminiscent of Hermeto Pascoal's work on Davis' Live-Evil. It remains a kind of quaint reminder of the sound of the early '70s.

The title track shows the quartet as many people seem to recall it—improvising freely and fervently in much the same style as Coleman's quartet, which means that Motian is a lot more aggressive than he has been for the past 35 years. In this early work, Jarrett cleaves closer to the types of thematic statements that Coleman writes than he would in later recordings, and it's only when he shifts back to piano from soprano on the second part of "Piece For Ornette" that the band sounds like it's taking Coleman's influence somewhere untried. Jarrett would later opine that this band never recorded anything as untethered as it was capable of, but they sound marvelously free on the second part of "Piece For Ornette," with Jarrett using many of his piano signatures and his bandmates flowing all around him.

As an introduction, El Juicio is not without its flaws, but it definitely sounds like a harbinger of great things.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Now Spinning: Digging Roots and Willie McBlind

As noted here, I spent my teens immersed in electric blues music as purveyed by The Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield and the like. Through them, I cycled back through time to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, then further back to Son House, Bukka White and Robert Johnson. Without access to the Allmans or their peers in the flesh, my friends and I spent many a night soaking up electric blues—and soaking up quart bottles of Molson Export—via guys like Dutch Mason, Morgan Davis and David Wilcox (unwittingly, in the same barrooms as Dan Aykroyd, as it turns out).

What turned me on about guitarists like Wilcox, Winter and Duane Allman was how they took the blues form beyond what their predecessors had created, spinning out longer forms, using amplification for expanded dynamics and applying more advanced techniques than some of the early blues players possessed.

When I moved on to other forms of music—and, for the most part, gave up my wicked, beer-soaked ways—it seemed that electric blues guitar had been taken about as far as it could go. I began to realize this wasn't true when I heard Sonny Landreth wailing behind John Hiatt, and Derek Trucks began to outgrow the long shadow of Brother Duane. And, while they may be the highest profile players, Landreth and Trucks aren't the only guitarists who are taking the blues genre further out. Recently, two new releases have me as hopped up as I used to get after a couple of quarts of Ex.

The first recording—Digging Roots' We Are—reacquainted me with a guitarist I first met at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. Raven Kanatakta was—still is—a striking-looking young man who was studying at the Berklee College of Music. The last time I saw him, at the jazz festival in Ottawa, he was worried that a repetitive-strain injury would force him to quit guitar and focus on composition. He needn't have worried; he has developed into an exceptional, distinctive player. Sharing leadership of Digging Roots with his wife, singer ShoShona Kish, he's creating a compelling blend of blues, rock and urban dance music. I've been spinning We Are off and on for weeks.

The second guitarist who's caught my ear is Jon Catler, an inventive player who uses harmonically re-fretted and fretless guitars in his band Willie McBlind. Catler also collaborates with a creative singer, Meredith (Babe) Borden, who has a three-octave range. Both Catler and Borden have worked extensively in art music—he with La Monte Young, her with Meredith Monk and Philip Glass—and those influences flow into strains of Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell with a solubility that seems unlikely but sounds right. While I haven't warmed to Borden's voice as much as I have Kish's—purely a matter of taste, and mine is simply that—I'm sure many listeners will find Willie McBlind's Bad Thing indispensable. They certainly stir up an exciting racket that takes you way outside of where you might have imagined the blues going.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The State of my Business

Jason Gross at PopMatters has a long and thoughtful overview of the past year in music journalism, which includes some sharp insight on the transformation from print to digital.

There is also about a month's worth of interesting reading if you follow the links to his award winners for best pop music writing of the year.