The kings of deconstruction

There is no better jazz, I submit, than taking a known song – not necessarily the typical Broadway tune – and taking it apart, whilst remaining faithful to the original. Props to Brad Mehldau for updating the tradition. The sine qua non of this was John Coltrane, with umpteen takes on My Favourite Things. By the time (late career), he made Live in Seattle and Concert in Japan, things were deliciously out of hand – the tune barely makes an appearance. They are for the hardcore though. This post is to recommend four such pieces, that are a little easier to take.

Firstly, and sheer melodic joy from start to finish, is the extended Coltrane version of Greensleeves, from Africa/Brass, in which McCoy Tyner’s delicately balance piano controls the structure. Henry VIII would’ve loved it, I think.

It is strange how timeless Greensleeves is, and how it lends itself to jazz. I can listen to this one over and over again. Jazz violin anyone?

That is Matthew Shipp on piano, who I was lucky enough to see playing with Coltrane’s true heir, the late David S Ware, in his last quartet. They were something else. The bassist was the irrepressible William Parker, and he collaborates with just about every modern jazzer in New York it seems. He has an enduring relationship with Shipp though. Here are two classics, almost unaltered at first glance, from their 1999 DNA recording. Magnificent.

…and When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Listen to Parker’s bass churning away…

In the circumstances it would be wrong not to extend my admiration for musical deconstruction to The Clash. A Brexit anthem, I’d say…

The music of #Brexit – Oscar Peterson edition

This is just about the finest thing Canadian jazz superstar Oscar Peterson ever did. Technically he was near perfect, but his inspiration could waver a bit. Ed Thigpen and Ray Brown are wonderful here. The crescendo past halfway is something else.

The tune sounds familiar, as a lot of great pieces do, though the writing credit goes to Oscar. It does sound like the theory that the music was cribbed from spirituals of the slavery era could be correct.

It has lyrics too apparently, but I imagine they could detract from the quite extraordinarily inspiring effect of the music. The title “Hymn to Freedom” will of course appeal to Brexiteers. The tune and performance could sway even the most rabid Remainer. Except probably the unsalvageable @campbellclaret

Take it away Oscar….

Forever Lester Young

Jazz can be addictive, and it can also be repulsive. It depends where you’re coming from – Ed Sheeran to late Coltrane, for example, would be a big jump – and also on what you use as your entrée to its many wonders. You don’t want to be put off right at the start.

For me it was Lester Young. A double LP of 1940’s Lester, borrowed from my local library (look it up, kids) on a whim, pretty much kindled my interest, poor sound quality and all. Lester’s warm breathy tone, and his sly languorous solos floating across the band were pretty ear catching. And he had a certain personal style, verbally, sartorially, musically.

It’s hard to find a perfect example (more below), but here’s a taste..

Yesterday in a charity shop I came across a classic book on jazz, by Anglo-American Leonard Feather, who knew them all. Jazz inspires some truly compelling writing, both on the music (1, 2 for example) and on the people (Miles Davis’ brutal memoir is one for the ages). Feather’s smallish book is a series of portraits of the big names who he actually knew and with whom he worked – Armstrong, Holiday, Miles…and Prez, AKA Lester Young. The essay is a concise gem of Prez’s genius and his suffering. I reproduce it below.

If you read it you’ll see that it all went downhill pretty quickly. A lot of jazz fans claim that his later work is a pale shadow. I’m not convinced. The same was said of Charlie Parker **just before he had to enter the asylum at Camarillo, and people give his version of Loverman as evidence, recorded allegedly when he was blind drunk. When you hear it though, it’s actually achingly beautiful, one of the finest pieces of any music on record I’d say, reflecting all of Bird’s recent pain. Some people are hard to please.

I was lucky enough to be in the world’s greatest record shop recently, Amoeba Music in San Francisco, and got my hands on Lester’s Verve studio recordings, so in much better sound than some of the live stuff. It was out of print until a new release this year. A lot of people say he was already past it. It’s too early for me to have a view on it, but I doubt that the critics are right. Here’s an insightful review from their first release. I quote: Why does anyone need to hear eight CDs that trace the decline and collapse of this great man? Perhaps no one does. And perhaps no one needs to read King Lear, see Death of a Salesman or listen to Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Those who do will be enriched.

Jazz is as full of tragedy as Shakespeare, for sure. As a well considered Amazon review noted: But, while the first five discs will give you many hours of unalloyed joy, there is a scary, deepening sadness that comes with the final three. These are the last days of Lester, and beginning about halfway through disc six, you can hear the magic leaving him. From then on, he seems to shrink, suddenly losing all sense of the beat, sometimes playing only a few wayward notes, inept as any amateur on the instrument. By the time you hit the last Paris sessions of 1959, it is painful to listen to. What makes it even worse is the occasional flash, like dying lightning, of the old genius.

However, here’s that perfect example of prime 1944 Prez, a real find on YouTube. The filming is perfect, the remarkable Marie Bryant is perfect, and Prez is, well….perfect. Enjoy.


**Bird and Prez did record together too, check it out.

Once more into the breach – abortion

A young Nat, hanging out with Charles Mingus

For many people abortion is about the sanctity of life. This deeply rooted belief often has a religious underpinning. Of course it would, and no shame there. It doesn’t have to be a religious argument though.

One of the problems I have with the abortion debate is that we end up talking from entirely different premises. I have no issue discussing matters with someone who is pro-abortion, but nevertheless avoids equivocating about what it is – taking a life. I actually get the utilitarian argument that it solves an immediate ‘problem’ – even if it creates a myriad more.

So what do atheists think about it? Naturally many of them go down the well worn path of moral relativity and making judgements about ‘quality of life’ etc etc.

But not all. Consider lefty polymath Nat Hentoff, jazz guru and author of hundreds of insightful sleeve notes, among many other accomplishments. Also, the gritty maverick Christopher Hitchens. Both are now dead, both held the line against the moral blurring behind which so many people hide.

Here, from a fine article are their views in a nutshell…

2018-07-15 (28)

I don’t think the answer to this very real crisis in our world is to criminalise women who have abortions. Ultimately it all comes down to a personal moral issue, and I am very aware that it can be unimaginably difficult for those in the middle. However, Hitchens and Hentoff are both factually correct. To claim otherwise recalls the great Sir Michael Dummett’s quote on the perils of moral relativism:

“it will bring down a curse upon us worse than that which God called down on the builders of Babel; rather than our speaking different languages, not to be speaking a genuine language at all.”

How to write (an occasional series: 2)

A nice profile in the FT, of a writer that I’d never come across, Denis Johnson, who died last May. Sounds like his stuff is worth a try, but I’m quoting his description of a writer’s life here. A lyrical ode to his modus operandi. Sounds kind of fun, and blogging is, perhaps, its pale imitation:

Denis Johnson

“Writing. It’s easy work . . . You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape . . . Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”

It seems appropriate to add a little jazz.

The thrill has gone – advice from 1600 years ago

4th century dudes

Illicit pleasures, whatever they are – drugs, sex, you name it – pall rapidly, but they often continue for extended periods, even lifetimes, because of the difficulties of physical, mental and emotional addiction, and sometimes the sheer logistics of breaking free.

Licit pleasures though, can fade too, becoming drab and humdrum, sometimes more quickly than with forbidden fruit: music, for example. When I first heard Beethoven’s astounding Emperor Concerto, I played it again and again and again. I couldn’t get enough of it. That was years ago. In this consumer driven world I have to admit that I probably have about 15 different recordings of it, impelled partly by an urge to recreate that original buzz from back in 1984. I never have. I can still enjoy it, but the thrill is gone.

We’ve probably all experienced that ennui or hollowness in relation to something we previously couldn’t get enough of.

What is that about? Is it really just the old cliche that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’? Actually, it’s not that I no longer admire/respect/love the work, it’s more that it no longer satisfies. Consumers – myself included – spend a lot of time and money on trying to recreate that initial feeling.

…let it not cleave too close in love to things through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide, they pass, and who can follow them with any bodily sense? Or who can grasp them firm even while they are still here?

Our  fleshly sense is slow because it is fleshly sense: and that is the limit of its being. It can do what it was made to do; but it has no power to hold things transient as they run their course from their due beginning to their due end.

That was St Augustine, the most modern of the ancient writers, in his Confessions (Sheed translationrecommended) who would I think completely understand the vicissitudes encouraged by  technology and easy access to all sorts of media and entertainment in the 21st century. He was in part referring to his failure to cope after the unexpected death of his closest friend, but he applies it equally to our material treats and desires.

You might think, being a saint, that he automatically turned to God and religion. Not so, he held off for as long as he could (hence his most famous saying), and he describes it with a degree of reflection and wit that means, like Beethoven, he’s one of those figures from the past who is ‘contemporary forever’.

Jazz (4): Lester Young and Matthew Shipp

I chose these two because like a lot of jazz, they’re covers of famous tunes. Not necessarily faithful copies. Most people will like the second one.

I saw Matthew Shipp live (with the late David S Ware, the closest thing to Coltrane since Coltrane). He is a great pianist. Compare it to Coltrane and McCoy Tyner doing the same tune.

Here is Lester Young with These Foolish Things. Short and sweet. If you like his characteristic graceful floating style, this is an absolute bargain.