Previous month:
February 2023
Next month:
September 2023

March 2023

29. Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo

Duo1Record: Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo
Artist: Jimmy Smith & Wes Montg0mery
Released: Verve Records, 1966

The first thing you notice is the cover. One of the unexpected joys of this journey through my record collection has been the variety of artistic styles represented in the album artwork. Dozens of books have published focusing solely on album artwork, and I could probably write one myself focusing just on this collection.

The twenty-nine records I've written about so far have release dates ranging from 1954 to 1968, and the changing fashion norms over the course of that decade and a half are reflected in the slipcases. There are elegant portraits of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, staged phots of Nat "King" Cole and Frank Sinatra, and beautiful paintings by various artists.

And then there's this one. The final result could never have been expected ahead of time, but it's easy to imagine how cover designer Acy R. Lehman and photographer Charles Stewart arrived at this image. Lehman is credited with more than 600 album cover designs, and he was the one behind the Velvet Underground's first album, which featured a peelable banana drawn by Andy Warhol. Stewart was also a legend who shot more than 2,000 album covers. His portfolio includes photographs of most of the greatest jazz legends ever to grace a stage. In short, these two knew what they were doing -- even if the cover seems to indicate otherwise. 

There are session photos inside the gatefold, but how exactly did they settle on that cover photo? One imagines that the Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery were asked to pose for a series of posed and spontaneous photos, but at some point the conversation went like this:

Lehman: Okay, why don't you each pick up your sandwiches?
Smith: Okay, now what?
Lehman: Jimmy, you take a big old bit of yours.
Montgomery: What about me?
Lehman: Hmm. Good question, Wes. Why don't you put your arm through Jimmy's arms...
Montgomery: Like this? Like the first champagne toast at our wedding?
Lehman: Exactly! Now each of you take a bite of your sandwich at the same time.
Stewart: That's a great idea, Acy!
Lehman: How's it look through the lens, Chuck!
Stewart: This is absolute gold, Acy! This album is gonna fly off the shelves!

Whether or not it happened that way, the resulting image seems to be pushing against the album cover norms of the time. It wasn't quite the departure that Miles Davis's Bitches Brew would be a few years later, but it wasn't Billie Holiday wearing peals and a satin dress, either. If that was the goal of the cover, perhaps it was to reflect the similar departure heard in the music on the vinyl within.

The music is electric -- and I mean that literally, not just figuratively. After listening to a progression of pianists from Art Tatum to Duke Ellington to Ahman Jamal, it can be a bit disconcerting to hear Jimmy Smith on the Hammond Organ. Rather than the pure melodic depth of a standard piano, the electronic organ offers a more artificial -- but still pleasing -- companion to Wes Montgomery's electric guitar. Smith's organ provides the backbone of much of the music while Montgomery dances on top with various melodies and a distinctive style of improvisation. He enjoys the quick repetition of short phrases, and more than once he convinces the listener that the record is skipping. (Kids today have no idea.) Only Smith's steady rhythm behind that improvisation spoils the illusion.

Smith also gets his time in the spotlight, with solos ranging from the frenetic to the sublime, and as the two men bounce back and forth in their entwined melodic conversation, its hard not to think about their entwined portrait on the cover. Perhaps that photograph isn't so crazy after all.

Duo2

Side 1
Down by the Riverside
Night Train

Side 2
James and Wes
13 (Death March)
Baby, It's Cold Outside

Duo3


28. Time Out

TimeOut1Record: Time Out
Artist: The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Released: Columbia Records, 1961

Time means everything in music, and not just as it relates to rhythm. Our brain has been conditioned to hear things in predictable units of time, whether its music or any number of other things. In your earliest days, as your mother held you in her arms, she introduced you to poetic forms that would quickly become ingrained into your grey matter.

"The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold wet day."

In the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss isn't just rhyming, he's rhyming with a predictable pattern and restricting his phrases to match the rhyme. Notice that each line contains a complete thought, allowing our brain to take in each bit of information one line -- one phrase -- at a time. You didn't know it at the time, and probably your parent didn't either, but those early nursery rhymes gave you the framework that would allow you to read poetry and listen to music for the rest of your life.

Don't believe me? Dr. Seuss was just following those who had come before him. Look at the opening lines of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date..."

The poet confines each thought to a single rhymed ten-syllable line, a structure that isn't just pleasing to the ear but to the mind. A few hundred years later, Robert Frost would open The Road Not Taken like this:

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth..."

Once again, the reader quickly locks in to Frost's nine-syllable pattern, and even though he uses a relatively unconventional five-line rhyme scheme, he still gives us one idea per line. 

Because songwriters are merely poets in disguise, there's more of the same when we begin listening closely to some of our favorite records.

"Picture yourself on a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes..."

Or what about this one?

"Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again..."

Maybe we expect traditional rhyming and phrasing by the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, but here's something interesting. When punk and new wave began to push against tradition in the 1970s and '80s, the songwriters still followed these patterns, whether it was the Clash...

"London calling to the faraway towns
No war is declared and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls"

Or the Ramones...

"Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours to go
I wanna be sedated
Nothin' to do, no where to go-oh
I wanna be sedated."

They might've strayed a bit from the syllable count, but the patterns are still there. Fast forward a bit and hear an angsty Kurt Cobain screaming in resistance but still following the pattern:

"With the lights out, it's less dangerous.
Here we are now, entertain us.
I feel stupid, and contagious.
Here we are now, entertain us."

More recently, and more conventionally, there's Taylor Swift...

"Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone.
I'll be waiting, all there's left to do is run.
You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess.
It's a love story, baby, just say, "Yes."

But what does all of this have to with a jazz record recorded six decades ago? Just as with poetry and song lyrics -- and perhaps specifically because of poetry and song lyrics -- there is a clear set of expectations that every listener brings to every piece of music. 

If you've ever looked at a piece of sheet music, you've noticed the time signature, a type of legend for the map of the musical journey that's laid out on the lines that follow. The most traditional time signature is 4/4, which means that every measure has four beats, and each of those beats is a quarter note. Some genres of music have become synonymous with different time signatures -- waltzes are in 3/4, marches are often in 6/8 -- but almost every jazz record ever recorded is in the standard 4/4 with the "phrasing" sitting at two or four measures.

To explain what that means, let's go back to the Simon and Garfunkel lines mentioned above. Sing them to yourself and pay attention to the phrasing.

"Hello darkness my old friend...
I've come to talk with you again..."

Each line is predictable, not just in rhythm (they cheat the first syllable of the second line) but in the length of the phrase (and added space in between) which stretches across two measures. It's comfortable.

The beauty of Dave Brubeck's Time Out is that it's completely uncomfortable. The title of the record is a direct announcement that he isn't playing by the rules anymore, and the opening thirty seconds of the first track on side one, "Blue Rondo a la Turk," played in a frenetic 9/8 is intriguing and fascinating precisely because it goes against every nursery rhyme, every sonnet, and every pop song we've ever heard. We bob our heads or snap our fingers and tap our toes naturally when a record finds its rhythm, or rather when we find the record's rhythm, but somehow Brubeck and his quartet flip that around.

We certainly feel the rhythm, but almost as soon as we find it and begin confidently nodding along, it flits away as Brubeck dives into something new. Most of the songs on this record switch back and forth between two or more time signatures, almost always racing ahead at breakneck speed with Brubeck at the wheel like a Formula 1 driver frantically switching gears.

The result is one of the most famous and most critically acclaimed records in American history. The third track, "Take Five," is possibly the most recognizable jazz tune ever recorded, and its unconventional 5/4 time seems to be constantly pushing us forward. We're so used to hearing the standard four-beat phrase that the extra note in each bar is delightfully uncomfortable, like an unexpected gift in every measure.

I don't know how much my father ever thought about any of this as he listened to this record, and there's something to be said for disregarding all of it and just enjoying the music, but I'm certain he knew that this was like nothing else in his collection. The great contradiction of the genre is that jazz is rooted steadfastly in tradition but also ingrained with a spirit of improvisation and experimentation. Later in the 1960s Charles Mingus would overlap songs and John Coltrane would experiment with "sheets of sound;" in the '70s Miles Davis would go electric.

Brubeck's decision here to break free of the most basic structure in song was more than just courageous and boundary breaking. He honored tradition by breaking tradition, and he created one of the twentieth century's most important pieces of art. 

TimeOut2

Side 1
Blue Rondo a la Turk
Strange Meadow Lark
Take Five

Side 2
Three to Get Ready
Kathy's Waltz
Everybody's Jumpin'
Pick Up Sticks


27. Lady in Satin

Satin1Record: Lady in Satin
Artist: Billie Holiday
Released: Columbia Records, 1958

When you listen to Billie Holiday, are you listening to jazz? On this particular record, her first recorded with Ray Ellis and his orchestra, it seems at first that you aren't. Ellis's orchestra is what you would expect from the label -- there's a full string section with ten violins, two violas, and two cellos, and there's even a harp. If you were to remove Ms. Holiday's vocals, the tracks left behind would certainly never be classified as jazz.

But with Lady Day? Irving Townsend addresses the question in his liner notes. "Is this jazz? And the answer must be: Yes. It is jazz because Billie Holiday sings jazz, no matter what the accompaniment is, no matter what the song is." And so I will defer to Mr. Townsend. Jazz it is.

But obviously it's decidedly not jazz, at least not if you listen in a vacuum. Maybe it's easy listening, maybe it's R&B or even neoclassical, but the music itself is not what we think of when we think of jazz. It simply isn't.

In today's world we often hear that hip-hop is not just music but a culture, something that influences and infuses fashion, language, sports, and more. Today's biggest starts aren't selling albums, they're selling a lifestyle that comes with a soundtrack, and that's what's going on with Billie Holiday.

She rose from the night clubs of Harlem to become one of the first star vocalists of the jazz era, so it would be wrong to classify her music -- and we could have a much longer conversation about our need to classify art -- as anything but jazz. Really, we should just listen and be thankful for the gift she's given us.

Satin2

Side 1
I'm a Fool to Want You
For Heaven's Sake
You Don't Know What Love Is
I Get Along without You Very Well
For All We Know
Violets for Your Furs

Side 2
You've Changed
It's Easy to Remember
But Beautiful
Glad to Be Unhappy
I'll Be Around
The End of a Love Affair