Thad Jones - The Magnificent Thad Jones

Thad Jones The Magnificent Thad Jones (Blue Note 1956)

Hackensack magic on The Magnificent Thad Jones, the trumpeter’s most celebrated early career outing.

Thad Jones - The Magnificent Thad Jones

Personnel

Thad Jones (trumpet), Billy Mitchell (tenor saxophone), Barry Harris (piano), Percy Heath (bass), Max Roach (drums)

Recorded

on July 9 & 14, 1956 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 1527 in 1956

Track listing

Side A:
April In Paris
Billie-Doo
If I Love Again
Side B:
If Someone Had Told Me
Thedia


The year 1956, hard bop has been gathering substantial steam for a few years now. The Magnificent Thad Jones is on some level affected also by the fresh extensions of modern jazz that Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Lou Donaldson and Art Blakey introduced. The album’s harmonic textures run along bop’s course, it includes bop-inflected phrasing, particularly by tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell and pianist Barry Harris. However, the stress is on bouncy mid-tempos typical for hard bop instead of fast, familiar bop tempos, the mood is relaxed but vivacious and Jones introduces clever writing with one of two original compositions, the blues-based Billy-Boo and, especially, Thedia. Two seldom played standards, Murray/Oakland’s If I Love Again and DeRose/Tobias’ If Someone Had Told Me, alternate with the well-known, beautiful melody, April In Paris.

It is often said that talented musicians that hailed from the same city and have come to try and conquer the jazz capital of the world, New York, often had a special rapport as a result of their mutual background. Perhaps it is still like that today. Assisted by Percy Heath from Philadelphia and Max Roach from New York, the three remaining Detroit-raised guys, Harris, Mitchell and the leader, Thad Jones, indeed gel particularly well. Harris, by then already a long-time devoted bop pianist with an encyclopedian knowledge of Monk, Powell and standard melodies, and a mentor to John Coltrane, Charles McPherson, among others, is the personification of glue, his resonant harmonies and concise tales provide refined support and sparkle. Max Roach, VIP bop veteran, incubator of the finest hard bop with Clifford Brown, balances fervent and delicate swing. His alert, melodic ear is virtually unparalleled. During the ensembles, the full, punchy sound of tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell blends well with the happy-blues-sounds of Jones, and Mitchell regularly chimes in with short, resonant, smoky statements.

To get you into this place where time stands still. Not a place that’s safe from the outside troubles, but perhaps instead a state wherein you chew on them, let them heat like hotcakes on a stove, live through them, to come out of them somehow cleansed. If that is the purpose of good jazz, April In Paris, the opening track of Thad Jones’ The Magnificent Thad Jones, is a winner. And winner takes all. There’s a loping gait to the standard of Vernon Duke and Edgar Harburg that’s exquisite, courtesy of the precise flow of bassist Percy Heath, the lush backing of pianist Barry Harris and the conversational coloring of Roach, who drives this band home with sensitive hi-hat and crystalline ride cymbal drumming.

And courtesy definitely of Thad Jones. If a diamond could blow, it would probably sound like Thad Jones on his second album for the Blue Note label. Moreover, the moving story of the trumpeter and future bandleader of the renowned Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra is a poignant amalgam of ideas strung together from series of keenly divided notes, the silence between them functioning as the apex of improvisational flow and coherence. It’s a story that runs over several choruses, and Jones keeps it simultaneously relaxed and intense, on a constant high level. His solo of Thedia, a beautiful, boppish, elongated line is longer still and an example of taste and sustained energy.

There’s something special about the trumpet sounds that Van Gelder recorded in Hackensack, New Jersey. Jones has become one of those angels blowing from the upper celestial plateau, the tone full and sensual like a female body on a Rubens painting, juicy like the flesh of the blissful orange, a perfect blend of sweet and sour. Yes, Charles Mingus said that Rudy van Gelder messed up everybody’s sound, depersonalized it through his innovative but all too strict methods. It’s a valid statement. But did Mingus mean it? This comes from a bandleader who told every sax player he worked with not to play like Charlie Parker. Yet Charles McPherson, a singular player yet more firmly steeped in the Parker tradition than most of his colleagues, played longer than anybody in the Mingus band except for drummer Danny Richmond. Regardless, the sound of ‘RVG horns’ and in this case, Thad Jones, is fantastic. The overall production is bliss. The execution, focus and mellow drive of the quintet are exceptional. The Magnificent Thad Jones is a perennial favorite for lovers of classic mainstream jazz and will undoubtedly attract newcomers for years to come.

McCoy Tyner - Today And Tomorrow

McCoy Tyner Today And Tomorrow (Impulse 1964)

McCoy Tyner picked Brother Elvin and a bunch of interesting, first-class colleagues for his fourth album as a leader, Today And Tomorrow, arguably his most varied Impulse recording.

McCoy Tyner - Today And Tomorrow

Personnel

McCoy Tyner (piano), Thad Jones (trumpet A1, A3, B2), John Gilmore (tenor saxophone A1, A3, B2), Frank Strozier (alto saxophone A1, A3, B2), Butch Warren (bass A1, A3, B2), Jimmy Garrison (A2, B1, B3), Elvin Jones (drums A1, A3, B2), Albert Heath (drums A2, B1, B3)

Recorded

on June 3, 1963 (A2, B1, B3) and Februari 4, 1964 (A1, A3, B2) at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as Impulse A-63 in 1964

Track listing

Side A:
Contemporary Focus
Night In Tunesia
T ‘N’ A Blues
Side B:
Autumn Leaves
Three Flowers
When Sunny Gets Blue


Perhaps The Real McCoy is pianist McCoy Tyner’s greatest achievement as a leader. The Blue Note album, released in 1967, certainly is a perennial favorite for many fans and musicians alike. On a series of inventive and ‘meaningfully simple’ modal pieces, Tyner’s whirlwind style was totally synced with the interaction between Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. The album’s emotional directness goes straight to the gut. It’s got that something. However, the discography of Tyner is filled with hi-level gems. For all their boisterous dips into scales and dynamic voicings, most of them in fact have a conservative touch, as if the pianist took a breather from the intense wrestling match with Coltrane, whose famous quartet Tyner was part of from 1960 to 1965. Titles like Plays Ellington and Nights Of Ballads And Blues offer evident clues. Obviously, Today And Tomorrow, Tyner’s fourth album on Impulse, also finds Tyner realizing his indebtedness to the tradition. At the same time, the pianist revels in his ongoing search for new lands.

The album is divided between tunes with a trio and sextet line-up. The trio includes drummer Albert Heath, the sextet Elvin Jones, his friend from the Coltrane group. Tyner and Jones lock tight, the interaction of Tyner’s hefty voicings and the pushing-and-pulling rhythm of Jones on the modal blast Contemporay Focus is unbelievable. Contemporary Focus comes close to the energy of, say, Coltrane’s Crescent or Art Blakey’s Free For All. How’s that for spirit? The sidemen on Contemporary Focus, T ‘N’ A Blues and Three Flowers, the latter a beautiful melody that dances like a surfer on the waves of Butch Warren’s waltz figure and the contrasting polyrhythm of Elvin Jones, are Thad Jones, John Gilmore and Frank Strozier. Differing textures mingle, each one, Thad Jones’ snappy, balanced trumpet playing, John Gilmore’s soothing and refreshing mix of blues and space oddities, and Frank Strozier’s fervent twists and turns on the alto, equally distinct.

Whether in small or larger ensembles, McCoy is McCoy, all colorful strokes like Van Gogh high on absinthe. Underlined by a dense chordal labyrinth, his rather otherworldly technique creates patterns resembling the running of water, his right hand lines high on the keyboard flowing like cool water that splashes and gurgles its way through the narrow channels of a rocky river, and develops into cascading waterfalls before you can say ‘awesome’. Too much? Can’t breathe? Not taking away anything from Tyner’s unmatched gift, I can imagine. It may just be me. Regardless, there’s a balance of flamboyance and romance in McCoy Tyner’s playing that will intrigue listeners till kingdom come.

Of the trio recordings, Night In Tunesia stands out. Albert Heath’s brush playing is meaty, swift, rivaling the unforgettable mastery that Elvin Jones regularly displayed, notably on Tommy Flanagan’s Overseas. You can see Tootie sitting behind the kit, body erect, arms slightly moving along with the swift wrist that is doing the job so expertly. Today And Tomorrow is a masterclass in musical excellence, intense stuff. A rather indistinct title but a major league McCoy Tyner album.

Kenny Burrell - Blue Lights Volume 1

Kenny Burrell Blue Lights Volume 1 & 2 (Blue Note 1958)

Kenny Burrell’s Blue Lights Vol. 1 & 2 consist of a bunch of tasteful, blues-infested tunes. A lively, relaxed jam session.

Kenny Burrell - Blue Lights Volume 1

Kenny Burrell - Blue Lights Volume 2

Personnel

Kenny Burrell (guitar), Louis Smith (trumpet), Junior Cook (tenor saxophone A1, A2 & B1 on Vol. 1, A1, A2 & B1 on Vol. 2), Tina Brooks (tenor saxophone A2, A3 on Vol. 1, A1, A2 & B1 on Vol. 2), Duke Jordan (piano, Vol.1), Bobby Timmons (piano, Vol. 2), Sam Jones (bass), Art Blakey (drums)

Recorded

on May 14, 1958 at Manhattan Towers, NYC

Released

as BLP 1596 and BLP 1597 in 1958

Track listing

Blue Lights Vol. 1
Side A:
Phinupi
Yes Baby
Side B:
Scotch Blues
The Man I Love
Blue Lights Vol. 2
Side A:
Caravan
Chuckin’
Side B:
Rock Salt
Autumn In New York


Kenny Burrell, 86 years old, is one of the great mainstream jazz guitarists, who has been consistently successful ever since he made his debut with Dizzy Gillespie in the early fifties and hit his stride on the Blue Note label in 1956. On the Blue Lights albums, recorded in 1958, Burrell is coupled with other major league players. Drummer Art Blakey, bassist Sam Jones, pianists Duke Jordan/Bobby Timmons, trumpeter Louis Smith and tenor saxophonists Junior Cook and Tina Brooks provide plenty of sparks and a meaty hard bop bottom for Burrell to work with. Fleet, snappy lines, a lot of fresh ideas, articulation best likened to the pop of a champagne bottle, are all in evidence in a set that is comprised of blues-based affairs like Burrell’s r&b groove Rock Salt, the uptempo cooker Phinupi, slow blues Yes Baby, Duke Jordan’s lively riff Scotch Blues, Sam Jones’ choo-choo-boogie-type Chucklin’ and the standards The Man I Love, Caravan and Autumn In New York.

Burrell’s capacity to set the atmosphere, which feels as if he’s wrapping you in velvet drapes, and sustain it consistently, is one of his greatest gifts. His playing is relaxed, but rooted in the blues and not without a topping of sizzle. Vintage Burrell. Perhaps inevitably considering his extremely long discography, I feel Burrell also delivered less inspired affairs that showed a tendency to run through the repertory with safe cliché patterns of phrases. However, especially in the company of hi-level colleagues, like John Coltrane, Sonny Clark or Kenny Dorham, Burrell is at his best. His playing, in those cases, has that extra bit of flair and bite.

Burrell was no stranger to Art Blakey, who drives everybody to the edge of the cliff. Blakey’s ride, it goes without saying, is roaring, a hard drive, a lurid mélange of bombs, cymbal crashes and tom rolls either meant to stimulate the soloist or introduce the subsequent storyteller. Besides Blakey’s boss accompaniment, the drummer’s plush tom variations on the theme of Caravan are striking. The fat texture of brass and reed combines well with Blakey’s forceful style. Smith, Brooks and Cook have ample room to stretch out, and Smith’s gait is sprightly, and he sprinkles his happy blues juices with drops of vinegar.

Perhaps more tenor contrast would make Blue Lights more exciting. Both Brooks and Cook are intent on swinging clean, flowing, tasteful, much like master Mobley, Brooks with a tidbit of wear on his notes, Cook somewhat more soft-hued. But who’s to complain? Brooks, who faded into obscurity after a concise stretch of Blue Note appearances, demonstrates the cliché-free, resonant, swinging storytelling that has made him a legend among hard bop aficionados around the world. Junior Cook, who would join Horace Silver late in 1958, provides the tenor sax highlight of the set during Phinupi, the steamy tale and unhurried flow a real treat.

Care to purchase original first pressings of these twin beauties? Good luck. They’re not only at the tail end of the famed and collectable 1500 series of Blue Note, but the covers were illustrated by Andy Warhol, who not only created postmodern mayhem by churning out his screen printings of Campbell Tomato Soup and Marilyn Monroe on the assembly line, but also did his fair yet modest share of record sleeve design. Without a doubt, the Warhol/Blue Lights LP’s are unattainable artifacts for the average collector. Unless, of course, that average collector decides to skip his family trip to Rome and put up a figure of about 1750. A piece. Don’t get any ideas, now.

Bobby Hutcherson - The Kicker

Bobby Hutcherson The Kicker (Blue Note 1963/99)

It can only be attributed to the risk of market overflow that Blue Note didn’t release vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s de jure debut album The Kicker in 1964, a superb date including Joe Henderson, Duke Pearson and Grant Green.

Bobby Hutcherson - The Kicker

Personnel

Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone), Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone), Grant Green (guitar B1-3), Duke Pearson (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Joe Chambers (drums)

Recorded

on December 29, 1963 at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

BST 21437 in 1999

Track listing

Side A:
If Ever I Would Leave You
Mirrors
For Duke P.
Side B:
The Kicker
Step Lightly
Bedouin


HHutcherson & Henderson. Sounds like the misfits of the insurance business have joined forces in a run-down office on the outskirts of town. But the late Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Henderson are regarded as towering figures of mainstream and avant-leaning jazz now, and as burgeoning class acts back then at the tail end of 1963, when they were really hitting their stride. Hutcherson had built a reputation first on the West Coast, subsequently in NYC, he had played on front-line beauties as Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond and Grachan Monchur’s Evolution. Henderson had recorded two albums as a leader, Page One and Our Thing. The Kicker was left on the shelves, seeing release as late as 1999. It is puzzling why Lion and the Wolff decided against release. They probably figured they had enough quality sessions to promote. Perhaps Joe Henderson was the kind of perfectionist disgruntled by the rough edges around a phrase or two. It doesn’t have to perfect, Joe. Coming with your package of supple, soaring post bop, we just might come to like that extra bite.

Regardless, there’s a pairing of talent attuned to each other’s needs and shining brightly during a set of original compositions and one standard, a sprightly mid-tempo take of Lerner and Loewe’s If Ever I Would Leave You. The crystalline, ringing vibes of the versatile modernist Bobby Hutcherson. Joe Henderson, already a strong-willed counterpart of a yes-man. Duke Pearson, inspiring accompanist, weaver of mellifluous lines. Grant Green, featured on side B’s three tracks, the prolific in-house guitarist of the Blue Note label, a class act in both hardboppin’ and modal contexts. Around that time, November 4 and 15 to be exact, 1963, Green, Henderson, Pearson and bassist Bob Cranshaw had cooperated on one of Grant Green’s career highs, Idle Moments. The mutual understanding is evident.

Hutcherson was a major contributor to Eric Dolphy’s free jazz classic Out To Lunch on February 5, 1964. He would venture into more front-line territories soon, recording his de facto debut Dialogue, and subsequently, the avant-garde LP side of Joe Chambers tunes on Components and the Happenings album with Herbie Hancock in 1965. A travel into uncharted territory. A balancing act of simplicity of expression and complex context. New vistas for vibraphonists ever since, the guys spellbound by Hutcherson’s siren-like cadenzas, the move into dark-hued corners of the mind, the zing of his angelic sound.

Already apparent on The Kicker is Hutcherson’s alert ear for group dynamics and controlled, conversationalist approach to the development of his expertly meandering lines. The great mood piece by Joe Chambers, Mirrors, suits Hutcherson to a tee. Throughout the set, which also consists of Henderson’s The Kicker and Step Lightly, Hutcherson’s For Duke P. and Pearson’s Bedouin, the rhythm section flawlessly and in uplifting fashion underscores Hutcherson’s vibe abacadabra and Henderson’s playful imagery. Henderson’s notes form fine-tuned blue and odd clusters, placed with a keen, floating sense of timing.

Though the title track, The Kicker, doesn’t thrive on the background riffs that propel the soloists into action as convincing as the classic take of Horace Silver on the Song For My Father album (including Henderson) and Henderson’s own version in 1967, it is a smokin’ affair, benefiting from the addition of Green in the ensemble and the guitarist’s propulsive, vivacious statements. Perhaps the moving, succulent phrases of Hutcherson and Henderson during Step Lightly should be attributed to the presence of Green, blues master at heart.

Surely Dialogue made up for a more distinct debut. But The Kicker remains a winner, having earned its rightful place among the hard bop cookies that rolled off the assembly line of the Blue Note label in the early sixties.

Benny Green - Soul Stirrin'

Benny Green Soul Stirrin’ (Blue Note 1599)

Of the invariably soulful albums from trombonist Benny Green, Soul Stirrin’, with the heavyweight line up of Gene Ammons, Billy Root, Sonny Clark and Elvin Jones, is arguably his finest effort.

Benny Green - Soul Stirrin'

Personnel

Benny Green (trombone), Gene Ammons (tenor saxophone), Billy Root (tenor saxophone), Sonny Clark (piano), Ike Isaacs (bass), Elvin Jones (drums), Babs Gonzalez (vocals A1, A2,)

Recorded

on April 28, 1958 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 1599 in 1958

Track listing

Side A:
The Cooker
Benny’s Back
Bossa Rocka
All Of Me
Big Fat Lady
Side B:
Benson’s Rider
Ready And Able
The Borgia Stick
Return Of The Prodigal Son
Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid


Benny Green is like that friendly uncle who always takes you aside at a family gathering, stuffing a couple of bucks into your pocket, ‘here kid, go buy yourself some candy.’ Green’s playing is accessible, uplifting, his phrases smack of smoke-filled back rooms, where burly whisky drinkers throw dirty jokes to the other end of the card table. His altogether very deft, modern style retains a lurid sense of old-timey swing, which places him at the other end of the spectrum opposite pioneer J.J. Johnson. His tone is tart, a lovely blast of fresh air.

By 1958, Green’s experience consisted of a decade spent in the bands of Earl Hines and Charlie Ventura. He had worked and recorded with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Criss, Hank Mobley and Randy Weston. Green was up for his second Blue Note album, following Back On The Scene and a slew of releases on Prestige onwards from 1951.

Not only did Green have aboard Ammons, Root, Clark, bassist Ike Isaacs and Jones, the bop poet and songwriter Babs Gonzalez also put his best foot forward, providing two melodies. Throughout the album, there are ample examples that justify the title. It’s a spirited, blues-drenched affair. There’s the sparse, precise riffing behind the soloists in We Wanna Cook, an uptempo, twelve-bar blues swinger, reminiscent of the Count Basie cookers, and also marked by Papa Jo Jones-style drumming by Elvin Jones. The same procedures – saxes spurring on trombone – mark the title track, absolutely the best tune of the album, a heated Blues March-type groove, albeit a bit slower. Babs Gonzalez hums the melody, the soloists take off, Gene Ammons especially commanding, on top of his game, blowing long wailing notes, coupled with sparse, melodic bop figures, a wall of sound from The Boss.

Gonzalez’ Lullaby Of The Doomed, Round Midnight-ish, is a breather. B.G. Mambo’s fat-bottomed theme jumps and jives, but turns into a rather pedestrian, straightforward 4/4 rhythm. Sonny Clark’s introspective side comes to the fore in Lullaby, his accompaniment on the album is spicy, he turns a beat here, injects a persuasive bass note further away from the sequence there, continuing to hold momentum all the way. Perhaps the mutual understanding of Green, Ammons and Root, who played together earlier in their careers, contribute to the album’s coherent soul groove. Billy Root, rather the mystery man of this set, a great, hard-swinging player, had a more imposing career than most people probably realize, most of the time spent as a sideman. He played with John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Stan Kenton, Lucky Thompson, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. Check out an enlightening interview of the candid Root with guest writer Gordon Jack on the great Jazz Profiles website of Steven Cerra here.

When listening to Black Pearl, you will notice that it closely resembles Black Pearls – with the added ‘s’ – from John Coltrane’s album Black Pearls. Soul Stirrin’ was recorded on April 28, 1958. Black Pearls – released as a profitable afterthought by Prestige in 1964 when Coltrane had long since moved to Atlantic and Impulse – is recorded on May 23, 1958. So Bennie beat ‘Trane to a month. The liner notes to Soul Stirrin’ say: ‘The program is completed with Black Pearl penned by sax man Bill Graham.’ However, Coltrane’s album credits not Graham but John Coltrane as composer. Did Coltrane nick a tune? Aficionados on the in-depth Organissimo website suggested that Graham’s credit got lost, it was then registered as unknown, and subsequently assigned to Coltrane. Apparently, Coltrane remembered the nice melody, picking it for that wonderful session with Donald Byrd, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor. Organissimo adds the fact that the tune is registered to Graham in The Coltrane Reference, the Bible of Coltrane facts. Recognition after all for Bill Graham, born 1918, a relatively unknown saxophonist who warrants more than a few words in another time and place. To be sure, Black Pearl is another one of the tunes making sure Soul Stirrin’s a keeper.

Grant Green, Grantstand

Grant Green Grantstand (Blue Note 1961)

Grantstand ranks among guitarist Grant Green’s finest dates. A gathering of aroused spirits in Rudy van Gelder’s famed Englewood Cliffs studio.

Grant Green, Grantstand

Personnel

Grant Green (guitar), Yusef Lateef (tenor saxophone A1, B1, B2, flute A2), Brother Jack McDuff (organ), Ben Tucker (bass), Al Harewood (drums)

Recorded

on August 1, 1961 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 4086 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
Grantstand
My Funny Valentine
Side B:
Blues In Maude’s Flat
Old Folks


Green, the most prolific Blue Note artist of the early and mid-sixties, was just shy of his second year as a new guitar man on the NYC block. He was in great company. Tenor saxophonist and multi-horn player Yusef Lateef would join Cannonball Adderley’s group in late december of 1961, staying till 1964. Green is further assisted by organist Brother Jack McDuff, the second time they cooperated, the first being McDuff’s The Honeydripper, recorded half a year earlier on February 1 on Prestige. Drummer Al Harewood was regularly featured on straightforward Blue Note recordings, notably as a member of the in-house trio Us Three which further consisted of pianist Horace Parlan and bassist George Tucker.

Good vibrations. Sparkling shreds of fire shooting upwards, curling around the beams of the RVG Studio’s high-domed, temple-like ceiling. A set of smokin’ blues tunes alternated with a melancholy ballad and a sprightly standard. Wrap it in shiny paper, lace it up and send it to your closest jazz pal with best wishes. Grantstand, the title track, bubbles, sizzles like a copious amount of ribs on a Saturday night BBQ. Hungry men. They tackle the uptempo, catchy blues riff like wolves jumping the lamb. The band catapults Green into action and stimulates the blues-drenched, former St. Louis citizen to fire off razor-sharp lines, adding slightly slurred, repeated phrases for dramatic effect. Green provides crunchy chords and plucky bass lines behind Yusef Lateef, who excels with a relaxed, down-home and layered tale, the chapters are recited without hurry, slowly but surely gathering momentum.

And the sound of these guys! Green: sustained, shimmering, fluid gold. Lateef: resonant, full-bodied, grandaddy-puffs-on-a-cigar-sound. McDuff chimes in with the roar of the minister, spitting a sermon into the faces of the flabbergasted flock. Intriguingly, McDuff succeeds to marry the gospel with the spirit of pure-bred rock&roll.

A bouncy version of Old Folks and a classy take on My Funny Valentine add variety to Green’s repertory, while Blues For Maude’s Flat continues the dip into bluesland. After hours vibes. The juices are flowing, the bottle of moonshine’s nearly empty. It could very well be that Green, Lateef, and McDuff arrived in New Jersey fresh from a gig in one of those dingy clubs the giants of jazz made their money in back then, like Chicago’s Theresa’s Lounge, Newark’s Front Room or Lennie’s On The Turnpike in Peabody, Massachussets. Blues In Maude’s Flat is a slow walk with a canny intermezzo of tension and release that serves as a springing board for the vibrant bunch of Lateef, Green and McDuff. Tenor/organ combo stuff of the grittiest and highest order, with the propulsive, already very authoritative leader on top of his game.

Andrew Hill - Grass Roots

Andrew Hill Grass Roots (Blue Note 1968)

One of the most accessible albums of pianist Andrew Hill’s imposing stretch of Blue Note releases in the sixties, 1968’s Grass Roots is still a thoroughly challenging affair.

Andrew Hill - Grass Roots

Personnel

Andrew Hill (piano), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Booker Ervin (tenor saxophone), Ron Carter (bass), Freddie Waits (drums)

Recorded

on August 5, 1968 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as BST 84303 in 1968

Track listing

Side A:
Grass Roots
Venture Inward
Mira
Side B:
Soul Special
Bayou Red


Hill, who had one foot in the avantgarde, one foot in the mainstream, never received the kind of recognition like pianists Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner but was highly acclaimed by serious jazz fans and critics. Though more under the radar, the pianist, who passed away in 2007, tread a similar path of the creative elder statesman who’s admired for legendary recordings on Blue Note in the sixties. Mention Black Fire, Point Of Departure or Judgment to any self-respecting, avant-leaning jazz fan and goosebumps will start to pop up on his/her arms like ants on a smashed lollypop on the sidewalk. 24-carat classics in which rhythm, harmony and melody are altered extremely in order to find fresh ways of expression. Hill doesn’t buy the method of discarding them for the sake of freedom, which turns out to be illusionary anyway, but favors a bottom-up approach: change through evolution. In this regard, the title of Grass Roots is telling.

Cerebral, introspective. Call his style what you like, at any rate, Hill’s notes cannot but have a strong pull on the listener. If notes are words, Hill is describing a descent into the mysterious abyss of the mind. A labyrinth of ephemeral sensations, a place Hill searches and researches like a child a playground. The playground isn’t necessarily dark and damp, the search is intense but strangely uplifting. For Hill, life is sweet, sour, a ‘dance macabre’. And his yearning to explore it is the essence of his art.

A ‘pianistic’ intellectual? Certainly not. Hill’s longing is also firmly focused on rhythm, the root of his trade – jazz. Hill’s beats are clever, complex constructions that nonetheless often remain surprisingly close to the toe-tappin’ sounds commonly flowing out of a Harlem BBQ joint. His penchant for playing against the rhythm is evident in Bayou Red, a modal piece with majestic solo statements by the bandleader. Hill’s other modal tune, Venture Inward (yes, do!) boasts sparse, dense chords that are accompanied by meandering lines which are spiced with, sometimes sliced by, clusters of seemingly jangling but remarkably precise notes. How nice to be ‘out’, ‘in’, ‘in’, ‘out’, ending up with the best of two worlds, like the kid daughter with a dollar who said ‘no’ to daddy when he asked her if mom’d given her the pocket money.

The concise, hip line of Grass Roots has a circular nature, like a viper who keeps biting his tail. The compositions has a sly groove and finds Hill in elegant form. Soul Special’s a boogaloo, Hill-style, the measures slightly differing from the standard blocks of eight. The bunch that gathered at Van Gelder Studio on August 5, 1968 proves sensitive to Hill’s needs. It’s a major league crew. Ron Carter and drummer Freddie Waits, a versatile drummer who, for instance, played on both Ray Bryant’s 1966’s soul jazz gem These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ and Richard Davis’ deconstruction of Bird and Monk, the 1973’s Muse album Ephistrophy/Now’s The Time, are obviously enjoying the extended chord of Bayou Red’s A-part, hanging on to it like a windsurfer to his sail, subsequently relishing the release with booming, sizzling fills. Carter would continue his collaboration with Hill, playing on the subsequent albums Lift Every Voice and Passing Ships.

Lee Morgan attunes nicely to the repertoire. Generally heated, Morgan alternates his fiery approach with subdued toyings with the beat and measured valve effects, particularly in Soul Special. His bright ensemble playing with Booker Ervin lingers in the mind. Booker Ervin’s lines in Bayou Red make up the musical equivalent of a snake that dances in the basket of a Punjabi snake charmer. Ervin, Mr. Blues Wail, the roaring, advanced player who came into prominence with Charles Mingus in 1959, is relatively subdued, perhaps under the influence of the bandleader’s organic jazz menu. Bon appetit, this dish is the bomb.