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Cry up, Look Down.

Wayne Shorter-The All Seeing Eye

The same names are always cited as the first holy trinity of sax players (Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster). The listing of the second trinity is more subjective, but the first two slots almost always include the same two names John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.

Two player/composers who signify two sides of the same coin, John Coltrane being spirit while Wayne Shorter representing intellect. That is not to say either forever stayed neatly within the domain of their specific forte.

If John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme (Impulse!) was man crying up to God, then Wayne Shorter’s The All Seeing Eye (Blue Note Records) was God looking down on man.

Around this time other musicians had extended pieces which were sometimes described as “their Love Supreme” (Lee Morgan “Search For The New Land”, Hank Mobley “Thinking of Home”, both Blue Note Records) While compelling in their own right, suite-like construction is where the similarities end. Separated by a year both Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane’s album share the same artistic intent in regards to conveyed emotions, using drastically different sonic tools.

Wayne Shorter started out as one of Blue Note’s stable of artists in the late 50’s early 60’s, some times referred to as the young lions. He cut his teeth before joining the army in various R&B groups.

He was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1959-1963. Always being about artistic evolution, it was during this time he put an offer to join a new Miles Davis group on the back burner. Like Miles, Art Blakey had a genius for cherry picking collaborators from the best of each generations players. Drummers aside, the list of Jazz Messengers reads like a roll call of jazz royalty. Within each new verson of The Jazz Messengers, Art put equal for-sight into who became the bands arranger. Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Benny Golson to Wayne, he being perhaps the most forward thinking of this impressive list. While Art would experiment with brief forays into ethno-world music, usually using a multi percussionist approach (Orgy In Rhythm Vol. 1&2, Drums Around The Corner, Holiday For Skins all Blue Note Records) that mixed with a modal flavoring, Art never had a major departure from his hard-bop template.

Finally after his five year stint as a Messenger, Miles persuaded Wayne to join what would be known as his second great quintet (1965-1968 Shorter/Williams/Carter/Hancock). This version of Mile’s band created what could rightfully be called high-art and was also the one incarnation of the band in which all the band members did writing for the group. While with Miles’ group all the members recorded Blue Note albums, sometimes using songs which had also been recorded by the quintet.

It was while with Miles too, that there was exciting experimentation going on at Blue Note Records. They had always had the policy of paid rehearsals which allowed for the possibilities of far more complex pieces. Not having to worry about getting a piece down within the first few tries and not having to rely on trying to morph well known standards allowed for a decade of some of the most forward looking music, which has withstood the test of time, some of it just starting to be appreciated now. Of great help to the equation too was that a lot of the musicians had played and composed together over the course of many now, classic albums.

This was Wayne Shorter’s first of two extended ensemble albums. The other, Schizophrenia (Blue Note Records) would be his last fully acoustic album and contain the same line up save for a switch to the less progressive Curtis Fuller on trombone. Schizophrenia is the more accessible of the two, but ultimately The All Seeing Eye offers a more intense journey for the listener.

Although only one of two larger ensemble works by Wayne, this was no mere experiment. It was an artistic avenue which he decided to detour from, much like Herbie Hancock’s one off foray, Speak Like A Child (Blue Note).

The band assembled for this album had an impressive pedigree. They borrowed from all that was going on in jazz at the time, while never aligning themselves with a specific movement or its aesthetic. This suite contains strong elements of chamber jazz, but not the proper staid version of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It also has symphonic leanings but is not mere third stream music. It would not sound out of place alongside pieces by Charles Mingus or Shostakovich. It may be even closer to the later, the free influenced discordance which occasionally bubbles up coming from groupings of instruments as opposed to Mingus’ preference of one screaming.

All the parts of the suit were written by Wayne except for the last, Mephistopheles, written by his brother Alan Shorter.

Contributing to the success of the album was the already established understanding of extended and complex forms by the players.

Drummer Joe Chambers had written one half of the two suite piece on Bobby Hutcherson’s album Components (Blue Note Records) which also featured Spaulding/Hancock/Hubbard/Carter from this album. His playing is full of intricate voicing without ever being distracting. Aside from Elvin Jones or Tony Williams no one else would have been as organic of a fit.

Trombonists Grachan Moncur started his musical life on cello but soon switched. He was in Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet and also cut some genre defying albums with Jackie Mclean and Bobby Hutcherson, (One Step Beyond, Evolution, Destination Out all Blue Note Records) which, although smaller ensembles share a great deal in common with this album. He still continues to this day to play with and write for his own larger ensembles. He, along with Roswell Rudd have brought a symphonic modernism to playing and writing for the trombone.

Freddie Hubbard had been a Jazz Messenger and also made a string of classic Blue Note albums as leader. His own albums often blended modal jazz with masculine blues drenched hard-bop. As a “sideman” Freddie has appeared on many forward leaning albums. Often his place on these albums has been referred to as that of playing the “straight man” to all going on around him. His oeuvre contains too many appearances on experimental albums all of them seminal for their genre for this to be true. (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman). His tone here, as always is bright complimenting the other voicings well both in tone and what is played. Never does he appear lost or stick out.

James Spaulding is a multi instrumentalist and perhaps one of the only cats in jazz besides Eric Dolphy who can make jazz flute work without sounding overly fragile. Here he is heard only on alto sax which he plays with great fluidity and a controlled frenetic series of bursts. He played on Bobby Hutcherson/Joe Chambers Components and also the larger ensemble works of Freddie Hubbard ( Blue Spirits, Ready For Freddie, Night of The Cookers all Blue Note).

Ron Carter was, along with Herbie Hancock and Wayne part of Miles’ group. More so than almost any other jazz group these players had always displayed an almost telepathic rapport. Ron Carter’s playing manages to fill the low end, while always rising above merely providing a time signature. His tone deep, rounded and rich. One of jazz’s all time great bass players he brings something to every session in which he appears.

Alan Shorter, Wayne’s brother was somewhat jazz’s enigma. Many critics disliked his horn playing, citing a lack of technique, yet he contributed to the early important body of work of new thing jazz progenitor Archie Shepp (Impulse!). Alan was also a writer/social commentator. He would sometimes stop mid concert to yell at the audience about their lack of understanding and “not understanding or being ready for him”. He released two albums which have only now been reissued (Orgasm on Verve). He wrote and appears on the final track, one which is often cited as listeners favorite. Aside from the piece being well written, I find no fault with his technique, nothing lacking. He gels with the band seamlessly.

Herbie Hancock has become one of my favorites. He has created a body of work staggering in its diversity and power, Most of the time there is a certain cerebral aspect to his playing which turns some people off. There is ample evidence, especially in Blue Note catalog of the sixties that he could swing too, although usually occurring on other people’s dates. He has always, even within one piece been able to vary his attack and tone yet remain instantly recognizable. He also does not seem to need a specific playing situation to bring out his best. Solo, duo et al it is equally worth listening to.

Wayne Shorter, like Herbie Hancock has sometimes turned people off with what is viewed as an overly intellectual approach to his playing. Wayne can cut it with the best of them, but he seems to have always put equal effort into the actual compositions. Regardless of the size of the ensemble, his solos statements always serve to enhance the main body of the whole as opposed to a piece just being a vehicle with which to soar over.

The CD is broken up into different songs, although when listening it does make one long suite, flowing uninterrupted. Often during this time, the few that would dare to write and record such music were forced to name the different parts to give the illusion of several songs in hopes of radio play.

I enjoyed the entire album. Some stand out moments for me are:

On the title track when Freddie Hubbard enters he sounds somewhat like Miles in his aggressive mode, but with far greater articulation. As he solos there are percussive burst from Herbie Hancock which come and go. Wayne enters the piece with a buzzing solo which builds seeming to gain moment from the locomotion of the drums and the percussive piano patterns. All this occurs as a thick tapestry of bass continues uninterrupted under it all. There are some great time changes and a Morse code like beat which both piano and sax state as the piece slows, before picking up again as it approaches its climax to the flurry of piano runs and hi-hats and the main theme being stated once more by the group en-masse.

Genesis starts with a piano pattern which could have been composed by one of the piano figures from the romantic era. The piece quickly morphs in both tempo and texture. Everything drops away for a symphonic sounding bass solo from Ron Carter with soft modernist piano heard playing low underneath. This is indicative of the mercurial quality to be found in Herbie Hancock’s art.

Face of the deep with its slow tempo start of bowed bass and multi horn voicing is amazing for not just its moodiness but the outright beauty of the initial piano figures heard. Within this piece are moments of a trio, brushed drums, bass and piano. It is laconic and sweet like watching a rose wave in a soft breeze. The first sax solo too follows in this mood, not breaking the spell.

The often cited Mephistopheles starts with an off kilter sounding march which then changes as the bass and drums again beat out a Morse code type of beat. The piano provides a percussive staccato. The solos have an urgent sense of drama to them that Berlioz or Goethe would have approved of.

This is by no means light music, nor would it be for most people instantly accessible. A bad trend over the last few years has been the co-opting of jazz. Jazz has become homogenized, made safe, a soundtrack for people to shop at the Gap to. There is nothing wrong with jazz’s lighter moments, but aside from tiny pockets of resistance, it is ceasing to be an active living art form, high art, in much the same way as American cinema.

This album, like a handful of others allows us to hear greats creating art of the highest order and we should all take advantage of that less it disappear like anything else unused, unappreciated.

Maxwell Chandler, October '06

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Soul Eyes: Mal Waldron

The CD art

Most often there is one of two key ingredients which account for a jazz musician being considered a “great”.

One route, a restless exploration which keeps them ever in artistic flux/evolution, birthing various phases such as in a career overview of Miles Davis or John Coltrane.

The other way is to step outside of time and trends, spend a career perfecting a specific way of doing things, one never changing voice whose cadence achieves an artistic perfection such as in the case of Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster.

Mal Waldron managed to do a little bit of both. While an omnibus of his career would not show radical shifts in style or mission, there was an ever ongoing artistic evolution. A constant factor was a forward thinking way of playing and composing which should account for him being far more appreciated in the states outside of just the “in the know” jazz circles.

Mal Waldron (1926-2002) learned classical piano at the age of eight. He also played alto sax in his school band. He often cites having heard Bird play as making the prospect of going on with alto too intimidating, the catalyst for him switching full time to piano.

In 1943 he served in the U.S Army, based out of New York, training cavalry horses. Being able to remain in New York allowed him to delve deeply into the jazz scene. 1946 found him demobilized. At Queens College in New York he obtained his B.A in composition. Four years after this he made his professional debut with saxophonist Ike Quebec.

Mal’s next prime gig was a two year stint with Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop. At this point, Mingus was already exploring the extended suite-like forms that showed him to be heir apparent to Duke Ellington.

Temperaments aside, the two men artistically shared the ability to, regardless of the size of their ensembles, write and play music which was directly in line with European-classical tone-poems and programmatic compositions being done by composers such as Richard Strauss, Dimitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky.

Two good examples of what this brief collaboration achieved can be found on CD. Charles Mingus’s first album for Atlantic “Pithecanthropus Erectus” (1956) features the tone-poem title track which is said to be the first recorded appearance of one of Charles Mingus’s extended compositions, describing man’s first walking upright.

The live album “Mingus at the Bohemia” (1955 Debut/Fantasy) features a different front line with same rhythm section. (there is also a companion album from this live date “Plus Max Roach”). The track “All the Things You C# “ finds the standard “All the Things You Are” being seamlessly married to Rachmaninov’s “Prelude in C Sharp”. A further classical connection is made when Mal conjures up motifs of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”.

Later in life Mal Waldron had said that Charles Mingus further widened his musical vocabulary, having him not just play “from the middle of the piano, but from end to end utilizing both hands and even some times his elbows”.

There was always a classical aspect to his playing, yet he never got locked down to playing and writing just in that vein as Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis so brilliantly would. He was also in touch with the more primal aspects of his music, such as the blues, his piano the late night wisdom which would wait until dawn or that last kiss. An ability to work in great sympathy with whom-ever he recorded/gigged combined with and a fierce, always present intellect allowed him to work with Billy Holiday as her last accompanist. A partnership which lasted until her death, one of her most successful with a pianist, save for that with Teddy Wilson.

After The Jazz Workshop and after Billy, Mal went to the Prestige label where he basically became the “house” pianist. It was also during this time he wrote the jazz standard “Soul Eyes”.

His first great partnership in which all concerned were on the same wrung of the “fame” ladder was with the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little ensemble. They recorded three historic live albums in 1961. (“Live at the Five Spot” Prestige)

Booker Little was a trumpet wunderkind, with a crisp articulation and an orchestral way of thinking. He brought something new and exciting to jazz. Like Mal, Booker had formally studied, at The Chicago Conservatory. Booker had appeared (non-soloing) in the brass section of John Coltrane’s “Africa Brass Session” (Impulse!) which was orchestrated by Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner.

Although Booker’s early albums are compelling, done mostly under the wing of Max Roach, he did not fully blossom until his partnership with Eric and Mal. Sadly this partnership would also prove to be his swan song, Booker dying right as the band’s reputation was gaining momentum of Uremia at the too young age of 23.

Eric Dolphy was a multi-reedman who got his start in percussionist Chico Hamilton’s band. Although he expressively played alto sax, he was equally adapt on several instruments not usually associated with jazz (bassoon, clarinet and bass clarinet). Like Mal he thought outside of the established constraints of how jazz music should be played/written. Indeed these three together, had they had more time, would most likely be considered closer to modern classical or the downtown sound as exemplified by John Zorn. Eric’s way of playing and constructing his solos, a fertile, speaking in tongues, was so new a thing it was edited out of the original “Ellington Suite” album by Chico Hamilton (only restored in 2006). A beauty, complexly built out of certain elements of discordance which served him well in partnerships with Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. Occasionally Eric Dolphy would go back to Charles Mingus to play in one of his various sized ensembles. It was while his first Blue Note Records release as a leader (“Out To Lunch”) was being readied for release and he was winding down a European tour, that Eric Dolphy would die from complications of Diabetes.

News of Eric’s premature death would figure in as a factor in a period of ill health for both Charles Mingus and Mal. According to Mal, after this nervous break down he would have to relearn to play by listening to his own records.

The first wave of be-boppers wanted to be considered musicians, not entertainers. Now, almost a generation later, a new group was emerging who were not just musicians, but composers. They embraced formal studies and the Western classical tradition while also embracing ethnic-roots driven world music. Charles Mingus and his circle of peers would embrace these elements and mix them with the vernacular of the day, jazz. A jazz style that often leap-frogged genres.

As Eric Dolphy had been in the process of doing, Mal emigrated to Europe where his music could organically grow, supported by the respect it deserved.

Europe proved itself fertile ground for Mal. Work was not always easy to come by, but an asset to any artist who wished to follow their muse and transcend concerns of audience and critics being able to easily pigeon hole their art into a ready made genre was the inherent elasticity of modern art tradition found in Europe.

In New York Mal had played before small, knowing crowds in clubs and cafes, while in Europe he scored films and ballets.

It was during the initial phase of what would be a long European exile Mal would start his second great partnership, one which would span some thirty years and last right up until he died.

Steve Lacy (1934-2004) started his career playing soprano sax in Dixieland bands. At time only Sidney Bechet had been widely heard on this temperamental instrument, it instantly cast a spell over him. He originally appeared in jazz roots bands of Henry “Red” Allen and “Pops” Foster. There was a lack of music for his instrument and transcriptions of other instruments’ solos never sounded right to his ears. It forced him to very quickly not only devise his own way of playing but new things to play.

This avant-approach made for a key ingredient in pianist/composer Cecil Taylor’s debut album “Jazz Advance” (Blue Note Records 1955). He would also appear on early solo efforts of arranger/composer/pianist Gil Evans. He would work with both artists off and on throughout the late fifties into the early sixties.

Transcriptions of well covered songs still sounded off to him, even more so now that he had been so fully immersed in the unique art of Cecil Taylor. At this time Thelonious Monk’s music was little known and rarely covered. The perfect new soil from which this “new” instrument could sprout. “Reflections” (1958 Prestige) was Steve’s first all Monk album. It featured Mal Waldron on piano. For the rest of his life, Steve would always go back to the music of Monk and to projects that included Mal on piano. Since the time of its initial conception Monk has finally taken his place with in the pantheon of jazz, but many of the songs on this album remain largely uncovered. A daring enterprise now, all the more so back then.

Steve would actually play with Monk, first in a quintet (1960) then a few years later as part of a special big band concert lead by Monk and captured on record as “Monk’s Big Band/Quartet” (1963 Columbia).

Both Mal and Steve would remain not only Monk’s disciples but also the foremost interpetors of his music. They had the instinctual abilities to not play what Monk would play, but how he would play it.

The later part of the sixties stateside saw Free Jazz and The New Thing emerge briefly in prominence. Some of this music is still important and holds up to the test of time while other albums seem very much to be a snapshot of the turbulent years which birthed them. The music would very quickly morph, taking in rock and roll influences, to become fusion. Some of the Free and New Thing practitioners would embrace elements of world music too.

The composer/musicians in exile seemed to fare a little better. Together and on their own Mal and Steve would delve deeper into modern classical also incorporating aspects of the avante-garde.

Like Mal, Steve would write ballets, chamber pieces for solo and group instruments and pieces which utilized text of modern poets whom he admired. Eventually Steve, like Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton would be awarded the McArthur Foundation genius grant.

He possessed a dry tone drastically different from what was being done on soprano by his nearest contemporary John Coltrane, who usually opted for a more nasal-mid eastern flavor to his playing. Having immersed himself in the music of Monk showed him the way with his own music, which contains figures which often snake back onto themselves to be expressed again in different tempos. Whether in a solo, group or duo setting Steve would always go back to the music of Monk as he would also always his partnership with Mal. In both cases the results never failed to offer up memorable musical moments.

Aside from a great artistic fraternity, another thing that both Mal and Steve had in common is their discography. Both artist have vast body of work, but a lot of it, some of their finest moments are on smaller European labels. This is by no means a factor in the fidelity of sound, but does figure into both availability and price when trying to obtain the CDs in the states.

It is with this in mind I would recommend as a first foray into the works of Mal Waldron his album ”Impressions” (1958 Prestige). This was an album Mal did upon returning from a European tour with Billy Holiday and right before emigrating to Europe.

The album is a trio date and while in no way watered down, is more accessible than some of his later works. The fidelity of the album is very good with no remastering and only the original liner notes reproduced. Throughout the album the trio plays with great sympathy. On hearing this, one does not play the game of wishing “so and so” was behind the drums instead.

The album is made up of originals and some standards made their own by the trio. Center to the album is what Mal called his “Overseas Suite”(“Champs Elysees”/”Ciao”/”C’est Formidable”) which is a three sectioned suite for the trio built upon his impressions of Paris. My one bone of contention on this album is the suite is broken up by other non-suite tracks.

However, the non suite tracks are just as good. One of my favorite moments on the album is actually one of the non-suite tracks “All About Us”. The song was actually written by Mal’s wife Elaine. It is very reminiscent of the music written by Italian film director Federico Fellini’s scorer of choice Nino Rota, minus some of the saccharine touches he sometimes injects. The brushed drums and bass dance a happy waltz to the melody presented by a piano.

From the start of his solo career, Mal never settled for constructing songs as a vehicle for his solos. A song routed in the hard-bop style does not often stay there. The last part of the Overseas suite “C’est Formidable” best illustrates this. The song starts off with slow dark chords which float alone until gaining speed with percussive kisses which signal the rest of the trios entrance into the piece. Also witness in this piece how, like few other pianist at this time, Mal was able to effortlessly change the cadence of his piano with in one piece.

Initially conceived during a rehearsal for a U.K television special with Billy “All the Way” starts with a slinking piano figure, which as the piece progresses is replaced by a more vocal voicing. It is one of the few songs from the great American song book in which the absence of one of the many vocalists who have covered it is not noticeable. The same piano figure which had started the song reenters to end it, reminding us that all we need is indeed, already right here.

-Maxwell Chandler-

Impressions-The Mal Waldron Trio (Prestige)

Mal Waldron-piano

Addison Farmer-bass

Albert “Tootie” Heath-drums

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