Arthur Blythe, Alto Saxophonist of the Avant-Garde

Arthur Blythe Quartet at the Jazzfestival Berlin (1980) – Watch on YouTube

In the opinion of critic Chris Kelsey, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe came close to bringing avant-garde jazz into the mainstream through a series of albums for “hype-heavy” Columbia Records. (From the 1960s through the early 1980s, Columbia always had great packaging; check out the album cover below for Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown.)

But Blythe was still too “out there” for a mass audience, according to Kelsey, and the label turned to its more palatable young star Wynton Marsalis. (Speaking about “out there,” I liked that a tuba was part of Blythe’s quartet.)

Still Blythe managed to bring a new edge to older, more familiar jazz compositions. He did so quite literally in In The Tradition, a 1979 album that included four songs from the 30s, 40s and 50s with two original compositions. Here’s a comparison of Blythe’s versions with famous earlier recordings.

“Jitterbug Waltz” – Fats Waller  & Blythe

“Caravan” – Duke Ellington & Blythe

“In a Sentimental Mood” – Duke Ellington with John Coltrane & Blythe

“Naima” – John Coltrane  & Blythe

Arthur Blythe, July 5, 1940-March 27, 2017

“Lenox Avenue Breakdown” on Spotify

 

Misha Mengelberg, Jazz Pianist and Co-Founder of ICP Orchestra

Jazz in Haarlem (1960) – Watch on YouTube

Misha Mengelberg was an avant-garde jazz pianist whose influences included Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. He recorded his own interpretations of both artists, but was also a prolific composer on his own. Along with Willem Breuker (reeds) and Han Bennink (drums), Mengelberg started the ICP (Instant Composers Pool) Orchestra in the 1960s. Performers would come and go from that group, but Mengelberg and Bennink were often at the core.

Born in Ukraine, Mengelberg spent most of his life in the Netherlands, where he attended the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. In the early 1960s, his trio (with Bennink) backed Johnny Griffin, Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor and performed at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival.

To hear how Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra interpreted Monk, here are a few takes of  “Four In One,” including one by Monk himself.

Thelonious Monk (Genius of Modern Music: Vol. 2 (Rudy Van Gelder Edition))

Misha Mengelberg Quartet (Four In One)

ICP Orchestra (Herbie Nichols/Thelonious Monk)

“If Thelonious Monk had been born 20 years later in Europe, he may indeed have been Misha Mengelberg.” – Thom Jurek, All Music Guide to Jazz

Misha Mengelberg, June 5, 1935-March 3, 2017

“Hypochristmutreefuzz” on Spotify

Horace Parlan, Jazz Pianist Who Turned Disability To His Advantage

With Dizzy Gillespie and Cliff Jordan in Köln (1986)–Watch on YouTube

Horace Parlan was a hard bop jazz pianist, who initially became known through his work with Charles Mingus. As a child, Parlan contracted polio, and he lost the use of the fourth and fifth fingers on his right hand as a result. He compensated by using his thumb, index and middle fingers to complete chords from his left hand. For solos, he did short melodic runs with his right that led into percussive chords.

Hard bop is jazz influenced by rhythm and blues. Some consider it a reaction to the laid-back LA “cool jazz” and a reassertion of the African-American roots of jazz. Along with Mingus, Art Blakely and Miles Davis, Parlan contributed to this style through recordings he did for Blue Note in the 60s.

“C-Jam Blues” on Spotify

Clyde Stubblefield, Drummer With “Most Sampled Groove In The World”

Talking About “Cold Sweat” and “Funky Drummer” with Drummerworld–Watch on YouTube

Clyde Stubblefield was a hard-working, prolific drummer whose most famous work was done with James Brown. He and fellow drummer John “Jabo” Starks supplied the beats to most of Brown’s 1960s hits. The break he created for Brown’s “Funky Drummer” became the most-sampled drum beat of all time.

Stubblefield ( April 18, 1943-February 18, 2017) is listed as a “Top 500” drummer in Drummerworld. In addition to Brown, he performed with Otis Redding, John Scofield, Bootsy Collins, fellow-Madisonian Ben Sidran* and a host of others in the R&B and jazz worlds. If you’ve been a listener to the public radio show Whad ‘ Ya Know? you’ve heard Stubblefield with the house band.

Stubblefield’s drumsticks are in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and he was inducted into the WAMI (Wisconsin Area Music Industry) Hall of Fame in 2000.

*Stubblefield grew up in Tennessee, but lived for the latter part of his life in Madison, WI.

Larry Coryell, The “Godfather of Fusion”

Larry Coryell and Eleventh House Live in Oslo (1975)–Watch on YouTube

Music genres get named and walls go up. Jazz lives in one room; rock ‘n roll in another. Purists don’t like intruders. Then along comes a musician like Larry Coryell and he doesn’t just knock on the door, he kicks it down. As a jazz-rock guitarist, he helped launch a new genre himself, fusion.

Coryell (April 2, 1943-February 19, 2017) came of age in the rock era, but he was a guitarist who had a healthy respect for jazz forbears like Wes Montgomery. For some listening suggestions, check out Mark Myers’ excellent blog JazzWax. His February 21st and 22nd posts provide a helpful survey of Coryell’s career, as well as memories from artists that Coryell collaborated with or inspired–Gary Burton, Randy Brecker, Steve Khan and John Scofield.*

“If music has something to say to you, whether it’s jazz, country-and-western, Indian music or Asian folk music, go ahead and use it.” Larry Coryell

I started this blog because I’m endlessly curious about different music styles. When someone asks, “What do you like to listen to?” I have a hard time coming up with a single answer. Like Coryell, I want to walk into different rooms. Thanks to artists like him, we can.

*Scofield, who just won two Grammys for his genre-mixing Country For Old Men, will be at the Dakota in Minneapolis on Saturday, February 25.

“General Mojo’s Well-Laid Plan” with the Gary Burton Quartet on Spotify

David Axelrod, Blending Jazz, Soul, William Blake & Hip-Hop

“The Edge” Live at Royal Festival Hall–Watch on YouTube

David Axelrod (April 17, 1931-February 5, 2017) was a composer/arranger/producer who came out of the LA jazz scene in the late 50s. He was a prolific producer in the 60s. Among his notable projects were a Lou Rawls cover of the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and an album with Man from U.N.C.L.E. star David McCallum. (The above live performance features the title track from that album.)

Axelrod began putting out albums under his own name in the late 60s, beginning with Song of Innocence, an album inspired by the poems of William Blake.* The album featured notable LA-based musicans, such as Carol Kaye, the bassist you may remember from the documentary The Wrecking Crew. Kaye was among a group of super talented session musicians (Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, etc.) who were behind the sounds of our favorite hits. Were it not for Kaye, we wouldn’t have the memorable opening to “The Beat Goes On” or the sophisticated bass lines in The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations.”

Axelrod’s albums have become a go-to resource for an impressive lineup of hip-hop artists in search of samples. Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, De La Soul and Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) are among the artists who have sampled Axelrod. In the above video, Axelrod expresses his conflicted views of this aspect of his career: he hates sampling for putting musicians out of work, but is grateful for how it’s personally benefited him.

*Not to be confused with U2’s Songs of Innocence, which was forced on millions by the band and Apple.

“Holy Thursday” on Spotify

Al Jarreau, Won Grammys In 3 Categories

“Spain” at Live Under the Sky, 1990–Watch on YouTube

Al Jarreau is the only vocalist to win a Grammy in the Jazz, R&B and Pop categories. He won Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1977 and 1978; Best Pop and Jazz Vocal Performance, Male, in 1982; and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male, in 1993; and Best Traditional Vocal R&B Vocal Performance in 2007. (Oh, and add a Best Recording for Children Grammy in 1981 for work he did with other artists on a Sesame Street album.)

My friend Mark, a saxophonist, credits Jarreau with teaching him the value of circular breathing, a technique used to produce a continuous tone without interruption. Mark’s memories of Jarreau include a concert at Minneapolis’s State Theater in which Jarreau picked out then-Minneapolitan Bobby McFerrin in the crowd. He invited McFerrin on stage and gave him a mic; the two then entered into a “battle of the scat.”

I was amused to learn that Jarreau was a graduate of Ripon College in small Ripon, WI, birthplace of the Republican Party. Seems like an unlikely place for a jazz and R&B artist. Apparently, Jarreau’s singing career really didn’t take off until he’d relocated to California.

“[Round, Round, Round] Blue Rondo a la Turk–on Spotify

Svend Asmussen, “The Fiddling Viking”

“Hallelujah! I’m A Bum”–Watch on YouTube

He may have played second fiddle to his contemporary Stéphane Grappelli. But it wasn’t because Svend Asmussen was a lesser talent. He played with jazz  greats, too,  like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.

Critics admired Asmussen for his classical proficiency as well as his jazz chops. In a review cited in an obituary in The Washington Post, critic Will Friedlander called his performance of a baroque chamber work by Telemann “completely straight and breathtakingly moving.” He was also admired for his performance on a Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Session, recorded in Paris in 1963. The session featured Asmussen playing dueling violins with Grappelli and Ellington-regular Ray Nance.

Danish-born Asmussen was often compared to countryman Victor Borge for his whimsical stage presence. Music and humor obviously agreed with Asmussen (February 28, 1916-February 7, 2017): he lived to be 100.

“Take The A Train” with Stéphane Grappelli and Ray Nance–On Spotify

Buddy Greco, “The Ultimate Lounge Singer”

“The Lady Is A Tramp”–Watch on YouTube

Buddy Greco (August 14, 1926-January 10, 2017) was a jazz singer and pianist, long associated with Las Vegas, lounge acts and a Rat Pack-sensibility. Although he never achieved the fame of Rat Pack stalwarts Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He recorded over 70 albums and performed relentlessly. “The Lady Is A Tramp” was the closest he had to a hit, and even that did not crack the Top 40.

Reviewers were generally not kind:

“…a strangely empty, unfocused act…” -New York Times critic John S. Wilson (1977)

“Frank Sinatra  Jr. Is Worth Six Buddy Grecos” -GQ (1994)

“…the epitome of a certain kind of saloon performer.” -Chicago Tribune critic Larry Cart (1985)

Greco’s first love was jazz and piano. He played with the Benny Goodman Orchestra for four years beginning in 1948 and can be heard soloing on Goodman’s album Undercurrent Blues, a brief detour for Goodman from swing into bebop.

Greco was inducted into the Las Vegas Entertainers Hall of Fame in November.

“Like Young” on Spotify

Sources: The Washington Post, Billboard, JazzWax

 

Mose Allison, Jazz and Blues Piano Player with a Rock Fan Club

“I Don’t Worry About a Thing” on Soundstage–Watch on YouTube

According to Richard Skelly in the All Music Guide to Jazz, Mose Allison “suffered from a ‘categorization problem'”–a boogie-woogie, beboppin’  jazz and bluesman who was also a great songwriter. His admirers include John Mayall, Pete Townshend, Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones, Diana Krall, Van Morrison, The Clash and another excellent pianist/songwriter, the late Leon Russell.

Born in Tippo, Mississippi, Allison (November 11, 1927-November 15, 2016) picked up piano in the first grade. He moved to New York in 1956 and released his debut album Back Country Suite the next year. He recorded and performed until his retirement in 2012 and became an NEA Jazz Master in 2013.

Despite his rock cred and blues leanings, Allison considered himself a jazzman. “My definition of jazz is music that’s felt, thought and performed simultaneously, ” he said in a 2006 BBC documentary. “And that’s what I’m looking for every night.”

“Parchman Farm” on Spotify