Riverside Jazz Reissues – Chet Baker, Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley with Milt Jackson
Mulatku Astake ‘Sketches of Ethiopia’
Peggy Lee ‘Invitation’
Madeleine Peyroux ‘The Blue Room’
By Douglas Heselgrave
It’s the middle of August and the jazz, folk and world music festivals that have taken up most of the summer have wound down and my family is beginning to recover from the enforced musical tourism that I’ve put them through for the last several weekends.
The first day back in the office was a nightmare of bills, correspondence and unopened packages. After taking nearly a month off, it seemed like a good idea to start ripping open envelopes to look for some of the materials whose review deadlines were rapidly approaching. An hour later, I had over 50 new CDs to listen to, but none of them were really calling out to me and demanding to be played, so I started to sort them into piles. It was a good way to procrastinate. At first, it was easy: a pile for classic rock, a pile for electronica, one for world music, one for the kind of country and folk that nodepression readers like to read about. Each of these stacks was tidy and self-contained; only one of them was troubling me and that was the one I’d loosely termed ‘jazz.’ That stack was a nightmare of disorder and I wondered if I’d tossed some of them there because anything that I can’t categorize must be jazz!
At first, it wasn’t that difficult. The box that contained five newly re-mastered Riverside Jazz reissues featuring Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, Wes Montgomery and Art Tatum didn’t pose any problem. No one would argue about whether those were jazz records. Then, I opened ‘Sketches of Ethiopia’ by Mulatku Astake. “Jazz.” It said so right on the box. ‘Azmari’ the first track blasted out of my speakers like a snake charmer in a New Delhi traffic jam. The continual explosions of sound and colour –the ululating horns, rapid fire percussions, rising and falling Aramaic vocals with only the plucked single bass strings to give form – listening to Astake’s music was like skateboarding blindfolded through a rapidly expanding universe. I could sense that there was so much inside of each of these tracks waiting to be appreciated, but today these Ethiopian inspired songs sounded unrelentingly intense and overwhelming, so I decided to give them the time that they deserve on another day.
After listening to Astake, I found Vancouver cellist Peggy Lee’s newest recording, ‘Invitation’ in the middle of another stack of CDs I wanted to review, but hadn’t quite gotten around to. It’s a record that I’ve loved since I first heard it last fall, but until now I’d found it difficult to write about, so it was on the backburner.
With ‘Invitation’, she has released one of the most ferociously open-ended, original, challenging improvisational records I’d ever heard from a Canadian jazz artist. The second track, ‘Why Are You Yelling?’ is absolutely out of this world and brings to mind the very best of Captain Beefheart, Eugene Chadbourne, John Coltrane’s ‘Om’ – you get the idea. Released on the talented BC string player, Jesse Zubot's DripAudio label, ‘Invitation’ is a record that I’m sure I will listen to for the rest of my life. But, would it belong on a record store shelf (imagine we still have record stores) in the same section as Madeleine Peyroux’s newest CD, ‘The Blue Room’? Peyroux is a talented singer who often interprets songs by artists such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. This time around, her trademark Billy Holliday-inflected vocals have taken on a little added twang as she explores the rarely visited sub genre of country jazz first charted by Sonny Rollins with his seminal ‘Way Out West’ in 1957. ‘The Blue Room’, of course, isn’t nearly as groundbreaking or interesting as ‘Way Out West’, but Peyroux delivers enjoyable versions of ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’ and ‘Bye, Bye Love’ that certainly aren’t going to hurt anyone for hearing them.
Listening to Peyroux brought me back to my original question about whether such a huge gamut of sounds and musical ideas could all shelter under the collective umbrella of jazz or whether the designation had lost much of its meaning over the years. As I thought about this, an awkward exchange I’d had earlier in the year with Rez Abassi, the great guitarist from Natural Elements and Kirin Ahluwalia’s group, came back to me. I was responding to a Facebook post in which Abbasi was bemoaning the current programming of jazz festivals, citing that artists like Willie Nelson, Furthur and Bob Dylan were headlining at various festivals in the upcoming season. I don’t think that either of us had any trouble understanding the economics of the situation and we were both familiar with how festivals had given into the necessity of broadening their scopes by including funk, reggae, electronica and hip hop artists in their lineups. After reading some back and forth comments on the topic for a few days, I timidly waded into the conversation to offer that even though some artists like Willie Nelson weren’t strictly jazz musicians they could still, and sometimes did, play music that could be considered ‘jazz.’ I was thinking of records like ‘Teatro’ that displayed some Django Reinhardt influences as well as the increasingly ‘out there’ improvisations Willie was playing on his guitar in concert. There were also those records he recorded with Wynton Marsalis, so I felt pretty safe citing that he could play jazz guitar after a fashion. About five minutes after posting, Rez had replied, ‘Respectfully, Doug. No, he can’t!’
You have to know that this happens to me a lot whenever I write out of my comfort zone of folk, rock, reggae and Indian classical to weigh in about other music that I’m passionate – but don’t have a clue – about. My first response was to kick it in, learn to keep my mouth shut and turn down all future assignments that involved writing about jazz. It was as thankless as writing about the Beatles who have fans that will find fault with whatever you say and however you say it. Instead, this one comment from Abassi, delivered with – I am sure – no intended malice, set me on a quest to see if I – or anyone else - could define the perimeters of jazz. I don’t think I’d given it much thought before other than to understand that the territory was huge. I’d grown up listening to Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis and liked their music without ever analyzing it that much. I just knew what I liked. I could hear the great distance that lay between the music Armstrong and Davis made, but it still wasn’t too difficult for me to hear what linked them. If someone had asked me what jazz was, I don’t really know what I would have said. I’d have mentioned how when jazz musicians play, most of the group usually adheres to the song’s structure before they take turns improvising and soloing off of the standard melody. I’d probably express how much Ienjoyed the exploratory aspect of the music and how I liked it when players engaged in conversations with each other through their instruments. Listening to records like ‘Bitches Brew’ showed me how far it was possible to push melody and rhythm and still create a music that was held together by rules that were being created in real time as the music was being played. Jazz was thrilling. Jazz was the one kind of music I listened to that could be intellectual and very, very emotional at the same time.
This kind of speculation gets boring pretty quickly. I’ve never really been very good at grasping the intellectual qualities of music – whether in jazz or Indian classical or any other style of music that has a vast theoretical background – and have always trusted my visceral, emotional response to what I am hearing. As much as I can appreciate the complexity of a composition or the virtuosity required to play it, if there’s nothing in it to uplift and challenge the emotions or engage the soul, I find it hard to care about and lose interest. It’s not a question of wanting to hear jazz that dumbs itself down or restricts itself to the kind of sweet melodies you can hear in any big hotel bar. There’s lots of ‘vibrant’ experimental jazz out there with plenty of heart to it. No matter how far out Peggy Lee or Miles or Coltrane take their listeners, there’s a palpable warmth and humanity that guides the music and makes it emotionally comprehensible.
My jazz history is pretty rusty, so I’m not sure if people had to make any great emotional or intellectual leaps to enjoy the music of Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery or any of the other artists whose iconic work for Riverside has been reissued by the Concord Music Group. For as much as I love cutting edge music from groundbreaking artists like Rez Abbasi or John McLaughlin – whose new albums I’ll review next time – the period of jazz music that Riverside covered from 1953 to 1963 remains the most vital and interesting to me as a listener. For jazz fans on a budget, these reissues are a Godsend. They’re bargain priced and feature reproductions of the original cover artwork complete with the LP liner notes and are filled with bonus tracks from the original recording sessions. It’s been great to rediscover this music. I’ll never get tired of hearing Thelonious Monk revisit the same handful of his compositions over and over again – ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ – as if he was continually searching for the perfect take and inflection that would finally complete the songs so that he would never have to play them again. His session with the west coast baritone sax player, Gerry Mulligan captured on‘mulligan meets monk’ shows each of these standard tracks from Monk’s and Mulligan’s repertoire in a new light. In particular, the three versions of Mulligan’s ‘I Mean You’ that are included in the new reissue really provide some wonderful insights into how each of these very different players contributed to a re-interpretation of the other’s work. Mulligan’s solos are more whimsical than usual, while Monk has never sounded tighter or more on the beat than he does here. The other essential reissue in this set is ‘How My Heart Sings!’ by The Bill Evans Trio that was recorded in 1962 during the same session that resulted in ‘Moonbeams’, one of Evans’ finest collections of ballads. This set swings a little harder than ‘Moonbeams’ did, but it still features some of the most beautiful introspective performances of his career. The Wes Montgomery set ‘So Much Guitar’ from 1961 includes Hank Jones on piano and Ron Carter on bass, with the highlight of this reissue being the inclusion of eight live songs from Montgomery recorded at the Cellar club that same year in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. The Cannonball Adderleyrelease in this series is ‘Things Are Getting Better’ that features an allstar band including Milt Jackson on vibes, Wynton Kelly on piano and Art Blakey on drums. The only disc in the series that hasn’t really grabbed me is ‘Chet Baker Plays The Best Of Lerner & Lowe’ from 1959. It’s very low tempo, relaxed and chill, which is fine, but every time I put it on, the couch beckons to me and I fall asleep before I’ve listened half way through. Maybe I should try again and play it in the morning next time.
Everything changes of course, and each of the artists featured on the Riverside recordings continued to develop their music long after the label folded in 1964. The Chet Baker of 1959 sounded very different from the Chet Baker that can be heard on ‘Broken Wing’ twenty years later and Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk kept developing new approaches to playing music right up until their deaths in 1980 and 1982 respectively. But, music fans can be a nostalgic lot who become fixated on a certain period of an artist’s work to the exclusion of anything else, so there will probably always be a market for reissues like this. It’s easy to understand how this happens. For my part, I could probably listen to every record mentioned here for the rest of my life and continue to hear new things in the music. The perfect melancholy of Bill Evans in 1962 and the effortless candor and muscular swing of Monk and Mulligan have been frozen in time and remain as vital and perfect as they were on the day these discs were recorded. It would be tempting to stay here and listen to nothing else.
But, that would run contrary to the purpose of jazz. Wouldn’t it?