Jazz

24. Getz/Gilberto

GG1Record: Getz/Gilberto
Artist: Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto
Released: Verve Records, 1964

This collection of vinyl that once was my father's but now belongs to me is more than just a sentimental link to a man I never knew. What he amassed over twenty years or so now stands as something of an archive of jazz history. It isn't unique -- I'm sure there are thousands of people like me who have collections that were passed down from jazz lovers like my father -- but it's still important.

Some of the records I've already written about -- and lots yet to come -- are obvious classics. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck, and more are well represented, and if you look at someone's list of the "best jazz records of all-time," you can be sure that ninety percent of them are in my collection. (There is, however, one glaring omission, something I'll write about at some point.)

But it's the unexpected records that have been the most interesting. I'd never heard of Chico Hamilton, for example, until I pulled out his record and discovered it had been recorded twenty minutes from my house.

And there's today's record. I was familiar with Stan Getz, but I knew nothing about Joao Gilberto until I started spinning their collaboration. When I first began this project my idea was that I would take out a record on Sunday morning and write about it in the moment as I listened for the first time. That plan didn't last long. Now I typically listen to the record all week before doing some research and eventually writing about it over the weekend. It's a much deeper experience, and the immersion has been wonderful.

Listening to Getz/Gilberto over the past several days has been interesting. The music has slowly grown on me, becoming more interesting with each passing day. Getz's tenor sax is smooth and relaxing, and Gilberto's lyrics are melodic syllables devoid of meaning, unless you speak Portuguese, but rich in emotion.

This is consistently ranked as one of the best jazz albums of all time, and probably not just because of what we hear on the record. The cover exclaims, "America's top jazz tenor joins Brazil's great young singer in the most exciting album of the year." Indeed, this album began the explosion of bossa nova, not just in the United States but around the world. It's an easy listening genre that fits nicely into the background of a dinner party but is still worthy of a close listen with a set of headphones.

You might not think you know bossa nova, but I assure you that you do. The opening track of this record is one of the most famous songs ever recorded, "The Girl from Ipanema." It's estimated that it has been recorded more times than any pop single save the Beatles' "Yesterday," and I'm certain that everyone reading this could easily hum along and perhaps sing some of the lyrics.

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes
Each one she passes goes, "Ah."

The song and those lyrics are so ubiquitous that they've become a cliché, but this was the first recording. Joao Gilberto sings the first few verses in Portuguese, but then Astrud Gilberto, his wife and the only bilingual Brazillian in the studio at the time, finishes with the familiar English lyrics. It's a time capsule from another century, but it swings in any era.

The lyrics were written by Vinicius de Moraes (Portuguese) and Norman Gimbel (English). Gimbel's verses aren't direct translations of what Moraes wrote, but they extend the theme. Moraes was inspired by an actual girl, Helô Pinheiro, who often walked past a bar he frequented, drawing the attention -- and whistles -- of the patrons. Years later, Moraes wrote that she was "the paradigm of the young... golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone—it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow."

Moraes was not the first to write about fleeting beauty. In William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" he writes to a (possible) love interest, one who possesses beauty so pure that not even time can steal it away. 

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade...

Like Moraes centuries hence, Shakespeare found inspiration in beauty. His muse might have been a young man in London while Moraes's was a teenage girl in Rio de Janeiro, but the message is the same. Some things are timeless; some beauty never fades. 

It's clear, however, that Moraes wasn't familiar with the sonnet, or at least that he wasn't as bold as the Bard. In Shakespeare's closing couplet he reveals the secret behind his inspiration's immortality:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare knew then that his sonnet would live forever and keep that moment in time alive, along with his subject's beauty. Four centuries later, we know he was right. Moraes might not have had such aspirations when he wrote his lyrics, but the result has been the same. Thanks to his original lyrics, Gimbel's English addition, and the work here of Getz and both Gilbertos, the girl from Ipanema will always be "Tall and tan and young and lovely." Always.

GG3

Side 1
The Girl from Ipanema
Doralice
Para Machucar Meu Coração
Desafinado

Side 2
Corcovado
Só Danço Samba
O Grande Amor
Vivo Sonhando

GG2


23. Ella at Duke's Place

EllaDuke1Record: Ella at Duke's Place
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington
Released: Verve Records, 1965

This month Rolling Stone magazine released its list of the top 200 singers of all time. If we put aside the foolishness of such an endeavor and forgive the authors for the fact that they're actually in the business of generating clicks and comments and subscriptions, we must admit that it would be a fun activity to crack open some beers with a few friends and take turns linking your phones to a bluetooth speaker on the table as you make your case for one singer or another. Do you prefer Bono or Bruce? Mariah or Whitney? John, Paul, George, or Ringo?

But lists like these exist only to spark debate. So here's my quibble with this particular list. When I first clicked on the link, I went straight to number one (Aretha Franklin, if you must know), and scrolled backwards looking for one name in particular, fully expecting to find it in the top ten. Or at least the top twenty. Maybe the top thirty or forty? But it wasn't until I got to #45 that I found the name I was looking for -- Ella Fitzgerald.

(Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. When the magazine produced a top 100 back in 2008, Ella didn't even make the list. Also of note, Mariah Carey jumped from #79 in 2008 to #5 this year, and Whitney Houston climbed from #34 to #2. It's not an exact science, apparently.)

The thing about Ella Fitzgerald is that she's unlike any singer you'll ever hear. I don't want to diminish the work of modern musicians like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, brilliant artists in their own right, but Lady Ella's career spanned more than six decades, or roughly the combined age of those two ingenues. 

But it's Ella's versatility, not just her longevity, that truly sets her apart. This collaboration with Duke Ellington highlights everything she can do. As the record opens with "Something to Live For," the first track on what's called "The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side" of the record, Ella hits the listener with a line as syrupy smooth as anything Billie Holiday might sing:

I have almost everything a human could desire,
Cars and houses, bear-skin rugs to lie before my fire.
But there's something missing,
Something isn't there,
It seems I'm never kissing the one whom I care for.
I want something to live for...

It's a classic standard from composer Billy Strayhorn (though Ellington gets a credit as well), but Ella makes it her own, putting her soul into every syllable of a song she'd one day name as her favorite. From there she makes her way through four other ballads, including "I Like the Sunrise," a hopeful Ellington tune commissioned for a 1947 celebration marking the centennial of Liberia's independence.

All of it's thoroughly gorgeous, but it's the flip side, "The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side" that I can't get enough of. The opening track, "Imagine My Frustration," teeters between blues and something close to rock and roll, and the energy only seems to build as the record spins towards the closing song.

Remember the versatility I mentioned? Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, opens the record with a song that evokes a lounge singer on stage, perhaps leaning forlornly against a piano with cigarette smoke gently spiraling through the single beam of a spotlight. And she finishes with another Ellington tune, "Cotton Tail," a high-tempo vehicle for Ella to unleash her trademark scatting, a vocal styling in which she leaves lyrics behind and allows her voice to become an instrument alongside the horns in Ellington's band. 

And it's truly amazing. If improvisation is the cornerstone of jazz performance, Ella is one of the few vocalists to fully embrace the possibility of vocal improvisation. This track allows her to have a call-and-response conversation with Ellington saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, with each artist laying down a bar or two before listening to an echo from the other. (Take a look at this amazing video of a live performance recorded just a few months after the studio recording. Ella and Paul trade licks side by side at the front of the stage for more than two glorious minutes.) 

Fifty-seven years later "Cotton Tail" is mind-blowing, but the reaction in the moment was no different. According to Leonard Feather's liner notes, "When the final tape was played back, the orchestra and everyone else present burst into applause. Grinning in happy embarrassment, Ella said, 'Aw, you're just saying that because you are in a hurry to get out of here!' But I suspect she knew, just as we all did, that nothing could top the inspiration of this magnificent take."

Six decades later, nothing does.

EllaDuke3

Side 1
"The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side"
1. Something to Live For
2. A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
3. Passion Flower
4. I Like the Sunrise
5. Azure

Side 2
"The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side"
1. Imagine My Frustration
2. Duke's Place
3. Brownskin Gal in the Calico Gown
4. What Am I Here For?
5. Cotton Tail

EllaDuke2


22. Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein

BrubeckFrontRecord: Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein
Artist: Dave Brubeck
Released: Columbia Records, 1961

There are a lot of reasons why I like this record. First of all, it's the Dave Brubeck Quartet, one of the more well known groups in jazz history, one of the most important groups in the Cool Jazz movement, and possibly the single most famous jazz group to emerge from California. Two years before this record, Brubeck released Time Out, which features "Take Five," the best selling jazz single of all time. 

Cool jazz is about what you'd expect -- a smoother, more relaxed response to the big band and bebop era that immediately preceded it. While bebop gets your fingers snapping and your toe tapping until you had just have to get out on the dance floor with your best girl, cool jazz is... cool. It's the soundtrack to an evening of best friends sitting around a table sharing stories, the clinking of glasses gently blending into the rhythm and melody of the music coming from the corner of the room. 

It should be no surprise, then, that cool jazz led naturally into West Coast jazz, which gave birth to Dave Brubeck. The quartet's work is instantly recognizable, thanks mainly to the signature style of saxophonist Paul Desmond, who spends so much time playing in the upper register of his alto that the listener can be excused for mistaking it for a soprano. There is no other band that sounds like this one.

On this particular record, you get more than just Brubeck and his quartet. I've heard of Leonard Bernstein, but I only know two things about him: first, he was an American composer and conductor; second, I've screamed his name countless times when it comes up in the third verse of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." And if I'm being honest, I probably knew nothing about the the former when I first came across the R.E.M. song during my freshman year of college.

One the first side of the album, Bernstein conducts his New York Philharmonic Orchestra along with the Dave Brubeck Quartet as they play four pieces written by Brubeck's brother, Howard Brubeck. As we've seen in some of the other crossover records I've written about here, the orchestra stays true to the written score, while the quartet has the freedom to improvise and explore the themes that Brubeck's brother lays out for them. 

The relationship is reversed on side two, with the quartet on their own playing four pieces from Bernstein's most well-known work, West Side Story, and one from Wonderful Town. The recognizable melodies drift in and out occasionally, reminding the listener of the source material, but the improvisation makes this is a work worthy of standing alongside Bernstein's original. 

Is it cool? Without a doubt.

BrubeckBack

Side 1
Allegro
Andante-Ballad
Adagio-Ballad
Allegro-Blues

Side 2
Maria
I Feel Pretty
Somewhere
A Quiet Girl
Tonight


21. Francis A. & Edward K.

FASEKE1Record: Francis A. & Edward K.
Artist: Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington
Released: Reprise Records, 1968

The first thing I noticed about this record when I pulled it out is that it's almost pristine. It was released in 1968, so it's likely one of the last records my father ever bought and was maybe played only a handful of times. The corners of the album jacket are crisp, the vinyl hasn't a single scratch. [Editor's note: I just found on the last track of Side 2.]

Before I even set the record on the turntable, I checked out the liner notes on the back of the jacket. I've written about this before, but it bears repeating. Writing about records is a genre in and of itself, and if there were an anthology of these thousand-word essays bound in book form, it would be in my Amazon shopping cart right now. 

What exactly are we doing when we write about music? How do we describe a soaring a trumpet solo or the power of a bass line? Can words do justice to the genius of John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Billie Holiday? Sometimes the authors will try, filling the jacket cover with detailed descriptions of the music inside, writing with technical precision that matches the musicians' skills. They understand that their readers are not casual fans, so they write to that level. In reading notes like these I've learned about how albums have been recorded and how bands have gotten together, but more importantly I've learned the language of music. 

The notes that I prefer, however, are ones like Stan Cornyn wrote for this record. Rather than digging into the music, he focuses instead of the musicians, two legends in their own time, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. With a style that could've been borrowed from Mickey Spillane, Cornyn describes the recording studio in intimate detail as his two main characters enter and prepare to record.

"For the next five minutes, with the thoughtful ceremony of a Sumo wrestler, Ellington arranges his cafeteria of sine qua non's. Across the music stand of his Steinway he lays out his cafeteria: One six pack of Cokes. One pkg. Pall Malls. A Kleenex box. A cafeteria spoon. A one lb. box of C&H cube sugar. One Hilton Hotel's bottle opener (no church key at such a session). Six inches from the left piano leg, a plaid two-gallon ice cooler. Ash tray, aluminum. Quantas Airlines flight bag, towel in. Now he is ready."

It could be the opening paragraph of a mystery novel, but with two suspects like Ellington and Sinatra, the case solves itself. There is no mystery. Ellington settles in at his piano as he leads his usual band, but they generally take a back seat to Sinatra, who does what Sinatra does.

Cornyn catches the moment at the end of the recording session when the two of them reflect on their work. "Elegant record, Francis," says Duke. "Always glad to hear about that kind of carrying on," replies Frank.

Always glad.

FASEKE2

Side 1
Follow Me
Sunny
All I Need Is the Girl
Indian Summer

Side 2
I Like the Sunrise
Yellow Days
Poor Butterfly
Come Back to Me

 


20. The Canadian Scene via Phil Nimmons

NimmonsRecord: The Canadian Scene via Phil Nimmons
Artist: The Phil Nimmons Group
Released: Verve Records, 1957

If you'd told me back when I started this vinyl adventure that I'd one day be listening to a jazz clarinetist from Canada, I'd never have believed it, but at this point it makes perfect sense. Jazz is probably the first true American art form, and I can only think of three others off the top of my head -- rock and roll, hip-hop, and baseball. Like those later three, jazz has never been constrained by national borders. 

It should be no surprise, then, that there was such a thing as a "Canadian scene," and as I learned from Woody Herman, there's no reason that a clarinetist shouldn't be fronting a group like this. Even though I've come to understand this on an intellectual level, it's still hard to square what I'm listening to right now -- an absolutely blistering solo by Nimmons on "Rhumba Pseudo," the finger-snapping track that closes side one -- with the musical struggles of Squidward Tentacles or the incessant squeaking of a beginning sixth grader. It's a much maligned instrument, and that's a shame. In the hands of an expert like Nimmons, it's more than just a licorice stick; it's a magic wand.

After the high energy of the first side, Nimmons and his group return to the classics on side two with a series of standards that even a casual listener would recognize. There is no definitive list of jazz standards, but to paraphrase a Supreme Court justice who was talking about something entirely different, you know one when you hear it. These were classic tunes that any jazz musician would know and be able to play, a requirement due to the fluid nature of jazz performance, where musicians would often jump from one band to another from night to night, filling vacancies and picking up jobs where they could. If the group in front of him hadn't been rehearsing together consistently -- or perhaps didn't even know each other's names -- the band leader could still confidently call out for Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" or Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy" and know for certain that any musician worth his salt would be able to jump right in. (The standards could also serve as measuring sticks by which one musician could be compared to another.)

The standards weren't strictly jazz numbers, but they were always recognizable songs that an audience would know. Broadway tunes would often find a second life bouncing around the jazz clubs where their familiar hooks would tug at the ears of listeners while providing jumping off places for the musicians to explore musical tangents. Perhaps the best example of this is John Coltrane's My Favorite Things, a collection of songs by Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and the title track, which is from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Sound of Music. You can imagine Julie Andrews for a few bars here and there, but then she disappears into a sea of the most beautiful jazz improvisation you'll ever hear. 

The Nimmons Group's treatment of the standards on side two is similar, but there's something more than jazz -- or maybe quintessentially jazz -- happening on the third track. In no other musical genre could you find a Canadian clarinetist leading his band through an interpretation of a song written by another clarinetist to honor a Harlem nightclub. It makes no sense at all. Except it does.

Nimmons2

Side 1
Pick Yourself Up
Muggs
Rhumba Pseudo

Side 2
Humpy
Someone to Watch Over Me
Stompin' at the Savoy
April in Paris
We'll Be Together Again


19. Piano Starts Here

Tatum1Record: Piano Starts Here
Artist: Art Tatum
Released: Columbia Records, 1968

I had heard of Art Tatum, and I knew he was a jazz musician, but I'm sad to admit that I knew nothing more than that. I didn't even know what instrument he played until I picked this record from my father's collection. As it turns out, Mr. Tatum was a piano player, and by many accounts, the greatest jazz pianist in history.

This record, released in 1968, is a compilation of sorts. It isn't a greatest hits collection, but more of a retrospective. Side one opens with the first four songs Tatum recorded, back in 1933, and the rest of the tracks were recorded live at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in May of 1949. If he were posting on Instagram, he'd have tagged this album with "How it started, how it's going."

I took piano lessons for a time when I was in the sixth or seventh grade, but it was a failed venture. The problem, I think, was one of interior design. The piano was situated in the living room opposite of wide windows that looked out into the front yard. The player needed only to look over his shoulder to see his friends playing football in the street, and none of the sheet music I had could hold my interest as I sat at the bench. Like so many failed musicians, I didn't practice enough. Since I didn't practice enough, I wasn't very good, and since I wasn't very good, the piano wasn't very fun.

And it's a shame. Sure, the football games were fun, but I'd give anything to be able to sit down at a piano now and play a song. No instrument is easier to produce music on than a piano, but actually playing is something completely different. And Tatum does more than just play; it is as if he and the piano are one. 

None of these tracks feature any accompaniment, but the tunes are so rich and so layered, that it often appears to be more than one musician playing. There's a story about Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards hearing a recording of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson for the first time and refusing to believe there was only one guitarist playing. And so it was with those listening to Tatum. Even the greats who followed him -- Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson -- understood that Tatum was on another level. (Take a look at this great conversation between Peterson and Count Basie discussing Tatum; they both speak of how intimidated they were by his greatness.)

As I listen to this record, drawing on perhaps eighteen months of piano playing experience four decades ago, I'm no less amazed than the experts. On some of the tracks the notes come flying so fast that it's hard to imagine human hands and fingers playing so precisely. On others, like the Gershwin standard "Someone to Watch Over Me," Tatum reminds us that he can be smooth and majestic, with long lyrical improvisations punctuating each of the recognizable phrases. It's a joy to listen to, and I can't believe it took me fifty-three years to discover his genius.

Tatum2

Side 1
Tea for Two
St. Louis Blues
Tiger Rag
Sophisticated Lady
How High the Moon
Humoresque
Someone to Watch Over Me

Side 2
Yesterdays
I Know That You Know
Willow Weep for Me
Tatum Pole Boogie
The Kerry Dance
The Man I Love


18. Chico Hamilton Quintet

Chico1Record: Chico Hamilton Quintet
Artist: Chico Hamilton Quintet
Released: Pacific Jazz Records, 1956

The Chico Hamilton Quintet is different, and it's immediately clear why this was one of my father's favorites. Hamilton was born and raised in Los Angeles, and he became one of the pioneers of a more relaxed style sometimes referred to as cool jazz, or even West Coast jazz.

I'm guessing there wasn't an East Coast-West Coast rivalry like Biggie and Pac, but things are different out here, even now. Back then? California might well have been an island floating in the Pacific Ocean.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview sportswriter Arnold Hano who had been born and raised in the Bronx before eventually moving out west to California, where he continued writing in the 1950s and '60s. (Here's the full interview: Part I/Part II.)We talked about how the West was viewed back then.

Hano:  When I was back in New York I did whatever was around there. But when I was on the west coast, you know, that’s an insular attitude. I was sent from Laguna Beach to Seattle to cover a basketball scandal at Seattle University!

Waddles:  Because it’s the west coast, it’s all the west coast.

Hano:  “Oh, Hano’s out there. He’s on the west coast, he can do that.” They would never send anybody from New York to Cleveland, but this is a greater distance, much greater distance. So yeah, you’re right. It was geographic. It was wonderful. 

I can only imagine that the geographic isolation of the time allowed for, or at least contributed to, the creation of a sound that was dramatically different from the big band and bepop styles percolating on the East Coast. What this record preserves is a form of jazz that sometimes includes elements of classical music, combining my father's two loves. (Had Sinatra showed up to sing a few bars, we'd have had the trifecta.)

The opening notes of the record come from Fred Katz's cello, bowed not plucked, instantly establishing the classical feel. The rest of that first side, recorded in a Hollywood studio with Hamilton on the drums behind the rest of the quintet, certainly puts the cool in cool jazz, but I prefer side two. Not only is the style closer to the traditional jazz that I prefer, it was recorded live. In between tracks we hear polite applause from a small crowd, and during the songs, most noticeably during Carson Smith's bass solo on "Spectacular," we can hear the band members cackling with delight. The joy is palpable.

But here's the most interesting part. The live tracks were recorded at a nightclub called Harry Rubin's Strollers in Long Beach, California, just a short drive from my house. Some quick research gave me an address, but I wasn't surprised to find that there were no signs of a jazz club when I arrived on the scene. That stretch of the street has long since been closed to cars and renamed "Promenade" as part of the city's downtown revitalization project. As near as I can tell, the spot where the club must've stood is now occupied by the Renaissance Hotel.

It would've been nice to be able to walk into a darkened night club and imagine a scene from sixty-seven years ago, but instead I stood blinking in the California sun as bikers sped past and young couples pushed babies in strollers. It didn't matter. The connection was still there. On August 4, 1955, the Chico Hamilton Quintet recorded a few tracks in a long forgotten club in California. Not long after that my father bought the resulting record in Detroit and, judging by the wear and tear on the album jacket, came to love it. On a November afternoon in 2022, I brought the record back to where it had started. The circle was closed.

Chico3

Side 1
A Nice Day
Funny Valentine
Blue Sands
The Sage
The Morning After

Side 2
I Want to Be Happy
Spectacular
Free Form
Walking Carson Blues
Buddy Boo

Chico2


15. Mingus Revisited

Mingus1Record: Mingus Revisited
Artist: Charles Mingus
Released: Limelight Records, 1965

The cover of this record tells you everything you need to know. To steal a phrase from the modern parlance, back in the 1960s Charles Mingus was playing chess while everyone else played checkers. Look at him as he sits comfortably before the board, fingers intertwined, eyes closed as he contemplates his next move.

His move with this record was to be experimental, to push the boundaries of jazz forward. This was originally recorded in 1960 and released the following year by Mercury Records with the title Pre-Bird. (That title reflects the idea that Mingus hadn't yet listened to Charlie "Bird" Parker, who would become a great influence.) Producer Leonard Feather writes in the liner notes, "Unavailable for many years, it is herein reissued because of its historical importance."

It's important because it's unlike anything almost anyone else was doing at the time. John Coltrane and Miles Davis, both separately and together, would push jazz into challenging directions, but even they weren't doing what Mingus was. 

Mingus had already made his mark as a bassist, and now he was composing. Most of the tracks on this record are compositions of his own for a band that is big, if not a "big band." In addition to Mingus's bass, there are five trumpets, four trombones, six saxophones, three percussionists, a tuba, a flute, a cello, a piano, and even an oboe. Most of those unexpected instruments contribute to the Mingus originals, the final four tracks on side one, and the final two on the reverse. 

Mingus sets up an interesting contrast on each side as he begins with traditional tunes, including a tribute to one of his greatest influences, Duke Ellington (more on that coming), then finishes with his own songs which are anything but traditional. Mingus spoke often about his love of classical music and composers like Ravel and Debussy, and those influences are heard in these compositions which are jazz numbers, certainly, but are also orchestral in nature. 

On two songs he even enlists the services of a vocalist, Lorraine Cousins, uncredited except in Feather's notes, and her haunting vocals paired with the unorthodox feel of those tracks produce songs which are as unsettling as they are brilliant. I was listening to them one evening in the dining room when my phone pinged with a text from my wife who was writing in the adjacent office. 

"Do you mind using headphones? The music is kinda stressing me out... It sounds like a scary movie or something."

She wasn't wrong, and I'm guessing many listeners in 1961 (or 1965) must've had similar reactions. It's different, to say the least.

But let's go back to the opening tracks from each side. The record begins with "Take the 'A' Train," a Billy Strayhorn classic that I remember playing in middle school jazz band. Side two opens with an Ellington number, "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me."

It all seems fairly straight forward until you look deeper at the track listing and put the needle on the record. Each opening track is actually an interpolation of two songs. Mingus has overlapped two songs on one track. On side one that means in addition to "Take the 'A' Train," you're also listening to "Exactly Like You." Mingus's arrangement overlaps the two songs, with the melody from one on the left channel (in your left ear if you're using headphones) and the second melody on the right channel. It isn't just genius, it's mad-scientist-genius. And the best part? For listeners who aren't aware of what's going on, it's just a song.

Considering all this, Mingus Revisited isn't just a record. It's the preservation of a moment in time when an artist pushed the boundaries of his chosen medium. Like any artwork described as avant garde, it can be disconcerting at first listen, but after spinning it almost every day for the past week, I've come to appreciate the challenging sections as much as the melodic interludes. It's all fairly amazing.

Finally, there was a surprise. On the back of the album jacket in the upper righthand corner, a message is written with a blue ballpoint pen in my father's elegant handwriting: "Demo for Sylvia." I don't know who Sylvia was, nor do I need to know. Those three words trigger the imagination and conjure a scene of my father sharing this music with someone else. Music, after all, is meant to be shared.

Mingus3

Side 1
Take the "A" Train/Exactly Like You
Prayer for Passive Resistance
Eclipse
Mingus Fingus No. 2
Weird Nightmare

Side 2
Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me/I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart
Bemoanable Lady
Half-Mast Inhibition

Mingus2


14. Woody's Winners

WoodyFrontRecord: Woody's Winners
Artist: Woody Herman
Released: Columbia Records, 1966

I have thoughts about the clarinet, so I hadn't been looking forward to this record. I started playing the alto saxophone in the fourth grade and continued through high school with two notable detours. I played baritone sax for a bit during the eleventh grade, but back in elementary school I tried clarinet. 

I had been playing saxophone for two years at that point, and I was beginning to think of myself as more than just a sax player; I wanted to be a "musician." It's amusing to think about the level of delusion necessary for a ten-year-old to think such thoughts, but there I was. I knew that true musicians played multiple instruments, so I couldn't just focus on the saxophone. I needed to diversify my skill set. I'm not sure why I chose the clarinet, nor am I sure how I convinced my parents to buy me a new instrument when an old one was already sitting in my room, but somehow I managed the trick. That year I even auditioned (twice) for the district honor band. I missed the cut with my clarinet, but made it with my sax, so I actually played both instruments that year.

It's a cruel thing to put a clarinet into a child's hands. First, it isn't very cool. If my wife is reading this, she likely just spit her coffee all over the screen; I understand that "cool" is a very relative term. But there is a clear hierarchy in the world of elementary and middle school band. What's always been interesting to me is that while the band kids are typically on the fringe of the overall school society, the social structure of the band often mimics what's going on in the larger school. The trumpet, flute, and percussion sections are filled with the cool kids. The clarinet section? Not so much. (Quick but important side note: band kids are some of the nicest kids you'll ever meet. That was true then, and it's still true now.)

Beyond the coolness issue, the clarinet is a technically demanding instrument. Not only must the player navigate a maze of twisting, interlocking levers and keys running the length of the clarinet, there are also holes which must be covered with finger tips. And if you've ever had an aspiring clarinetist in your house (I have), you know that it's an instrument that's notorious for its squeaks -- immediate but painful feedback that the player is doing something wrong.

And so when I pulled this record out of my father's collection and looked at the cover, I had all of these thoughts and more. I'd heard of Woody Herman, so I knew he'd had a long and distinguished career, but it was a long career playing the clarinet. And the design of the cover seemed like such a transparent attempt to compensate for a poor choice he had made years earlier. I felt sorry for him. There he sits with his clarinet surrounded by the cool kids -- fifteen young women who had clearly just come from their audition for That Girl, which would debut only months after this photo was taken. Sure, they lost out to Marlo Thomas, but I'm certain they all went on to garner walk-on roles in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. The cool kids always end up on top.

So I had low expectations for this record. Very low. But I couldn't have been more wrong.

I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but this record is incredibly cool. I had scoffed at a description of the opening track, "23 Red," as a "blistering swinger," but that's exactly what it is. Herman's band is phenomenal. He wisely filled it with all the cool kids from band class -- five trumpets, four saxophones, and three trombones. I should also note that Woody plays clarinet and alto sax here, just like I did once upon a time.

As I've written here before, I'm a sucker for horns in all genres, and I especially love them here. Each song has its own flow, but typically they play like this: big horns for a few bars, then a quieter interlude to allow for a saxophone or clarinet solo, followed by more big horns. Blistering, indeed.

There's probably nothing more cliché than judging a book by its cover, but I'm guilty here. I had thought about skipping this one altogether, and probably the only reason I even listened to it was because it would give me a chance to write about my dalliance with the clarinet. As it turns out, I can't stop listening. This is definitely a record I'll come back to.

When I started this project I expected that I'd be listening to a lot of good music and thinking a lot about my father. What I didn't expect were the tangents each record would inspire and the things I'd learn as I pulled on one thread or another. The album notes, for example, have almost always been treasures of information about the artists, the recordings, and the era. It truly is a distinct art form, and the Recording Academy has awarded a Grammy for Best Album Notes each year since 1964.

The notes are always credited, and when I finished reading about Woody's Winners and saw the credit at the end -- Herb Wong, KJAZ-FM, San Francisco -- I wondered about the obviously Asian name, so I investigated. It turns out that Herb Wong was a long-time jazz expert and deejay in the Bay Area. He fell in love with jazz as a boy when a package of classic jazz records was incorrectly delivered to his house, and he went on to live a life full of jazz, among other pursuits.

I think that says something about the inclusivity of jazz as a musical genre. We can talk about cultural appropriation -- take another look at the cover of this record -- or the fact that this medium, the first true American art form, was largely created by Black Americans and then performed by Black Americans for primarily white audiences. That dynamic led to the stories which may or may not be true about why Miles Davis famously played with his back to the crowd.

Like it or not, the issue of race is a part of the history of jazz, but there's also something more. I like the image of a young, Chinese-American boy serendipitously discovering a few Count Basie and Duke Ellington records and becoming enamored with an art form that couldn't have been further removed from his own family's history. It seems incongruous at first, but then it makes perfect sense. Jazz, after all, is all of our history.

WoodyBack

Side 1
23 Red
My Funny Valentine
Northwest Passage
Poor Butterfly
Greasy Sack Blues

Side 2
Woody's Whistle
Red Roses for a Blue Lady
Opus de Funk and Theme (Blue Flame)


13. Basie

BasieFrontRecord: Basie
Artist: Count Basie
Released: Clef Records, 1955

This is the third time that Count Basie has shown up here, a sure sign that he was one of my father's favorites. On this record -- another one that's well-worn and well-loved, with scratches and all -- Basie is again fronting his band as they run through ten tracks, each a stage for one of the members to roam free for a bit.

The result is an album that could be played almost anywhere. From Norman Granz's liner notes:

In the past we've labelled Count Basie's albums either as "Dance Session" or "Jazz," but actually Basie's music goes either way depending on your inclination at the time. You can dance and listen, or you can sit and listen; it's the same either way. It, therefore, seemed far simpler to merely say "BASIE" and let it go at that. The chances are you'll listen for a long time to Basie.

For me, it's a sit and listen kind of record, something that could be playing in the background while making dinner or washing dishes. Basie's band consists of the Count himself on piano along with five saxophones, a few trombones, and a percussion session. Granz is right when he writes about the difficult of classifying this album, and that's because it changes from one song to the next. One track will be smooth and reserved, perhaps to feature Basie's piano playing, the next will be upbeat, to allow two saxophonists to take the spotlight, and finally will be a song featuring call and response between a trumpet and a trombone. 

It's nice, and it's comfortable, and maybe that's why it doesn't really grab me. One thing that does grab me is the cover, which features more artwork from David Stone Martin. It won't be the last time he shows up here, so stay tuned.

BasieBack

Side 1
Blues Backstage
Down for the Count
Eventide
Ain't Misbehavin'

Side 2
Perdido
Ska-Di-Die-Dee-Bee-Doo
Two Franks
Rails