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Minor Blue Note(s)

Continuing the Blue Note theme, I was genuinely surprised when I came to better acquaint myself with the full back catalogue of this most revered of jazz labels. Richard Cook’s ‘biography’ of the label, first published in 2001, provides a full Blue Note discography, of which a basic perusal revealed a significant number of albums on their classic 4000 series (the most prolific, which covered the late 50s and 60s) by artists that I had never heard or heard of. Now this might sound somewhat presumptuous, I am aware - I don’t claim that my knowledge of jazz is either profound or encyclopaedic, but it still provides somewhat of jolt when this lack of depth is demonstrated in such a manner.

Try this list of heroes and zeros and see how many you know:

Dizzy Reece, Sunny Red, Harold Vick, George Braith, Frank Foster, Reuben Wilson, Joe Williams, Richard Groove Holmes, Bobbi Humphrey.

And (taking another breath):

Don Wilkerson, Blue Mitchell, Freddie Roach, Tyrone Washington, Kenny Cox, Jeremy Steig, Candido, Marlene Shaw…

Point taken, I hope. These artists are probably in the Blue Note bargain basket (but are probably nothing like bargains in the collector’s market for rare records), featuring no doubt a collection of rarely heard vocalists, Jimmy Smith wannabes on electric organ, and alto/tenor sax aspirants, but who knows? All these musicians had albums released by arguably the most famous modern jazz label of them all, in it’s most bountiful period of classic recordings, so it is almost certainly not a good idea to dismiss them out of hand. I recently discovered this when I got hold of the sole Pete LaRoca (Sims) record in the catalogue, called Basra, which I do vaguely remember seeing displayed at the old Mole Jazz shop in Kings Cross, but which I never got round to buying. Old Blue Notes were very considered very hip at that particular time, from what I recall

Basra is a pretty obscure release by a pretty obscure drummer (apart from really serious jazz hounds, that is), but it is an absolutely outstanding session, which avoids the ‘blues jams + standards’ aspects of some of the lesser Blue Notes, and is up there with their lesser-known releases like The Real McCoy and Larry Young’s Unity, in providing hard-driving playing and top notch improvisation from all participants. In particular, the under sung Joe Henderson gives one of his best recorded performances, and provides a good reason why he (along with Hank Mobley and George Coleman) should be given a high ranking in the gallery of great tenor players of the era, an era that keeps on giving. Who knows what other unacknowledged treasures await? It certainly makes it difficult at times to focus on contemporary improvisers, and I keep on making mental notes not to get too caught up in what is basically a bottomless well of fascinating material.

“Honest John” Gilmore, Part 2

John Gilmore’s recording career is most simply broken down into Sun Ra-related material and ‘other’. His reputation will stand or fall with the former - album after album of lovely ballads, bebop-influenced intricately constructed numbers, ensemble passages and free form horn ascensions and percussive interludes. He was comfortable in any and all registers of the tenor, using traditional and ‘extended’ techniques, and with playing standards, ‘space hymns’ and Disney tunes. And solos, what solos. There are far too many fine examples to single out any in particular, but I would mention here my recollections of the Arkestra live.

I saw the Arkestra four times - at The Venue in 1984, on our honeymoon in 1987, and twice in 1990, at The Mean Fiddler and at Hackney Empire. The most memorable for me was the honeymoon gig (obviously!) and the Fiddler one, and what I will always remember in particular was Gilmore’s tenor sax solos on Lights On A Satellite, one of Ra’s earlier Chicago compositions that became an evergreen of their repertoire over the years. Such a rich, deep tone, warm and embracing and unambiguously beautiful, which was given even further pathos by it being evident that Gilmore’s emphysema (he was a chronic smoker) was getting worse, and that he could only really play one or two solos without becoming breathless. He sat out some numbers and played a lot of percussion. I can only imagine what he would have sounded like thirty years earlier. 

It is well worth tracking down a copy of Ra’s small group masterpiece, 1979′s Omniverse, which I have had cause to recommend in other blogs. This contains a number of very representative Gilmore solos, and it is both refreshing and unusual to hear him in this format. In addition, all of his work with Ra in January 1978 (Media Dreams, Sound Mirror, Disco 3000, New Steps) recorded in Italy are worth finding for this reason. An incredible amount of top flight group music was created in what was only a few days of studio and live performing

His work outside Ra is brief in the extreme - a lovely set of recordings with Paul Bley from 1964 (Turning Point, originally on the pianists own IAI label), two with his friend Andrew Hill (Compulsion and Andrew!!!) during the latter’s flawless mid-60s period, one unusual  live set with Chick Corea and Pete LaRoca from 1977, originally called Turkish Women At The Bath (well worth seeking out) and the Clifford Jordan duo cited earlier. There are other dates as a sideman with Elmo Hope, McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey, but that is it really, as far as Gilmore’s work on any other planets than Saturn is concerned. It is still a fantastic legacy, and we owe it to this most unassuming and modest of men to ensure that his name is not sidelined when it comes to the roll call of his generations saxophone colossi. Or of any generation, come to that.

No John, after you.

“Honest John” Gilmore, Part 1

This particular appreciation follows on from that ocelebrating fellow Chicagoan Andrew Hill. Both Hill and tenor sax giant John Gilmore attended the same school, Du Sable High, where they (and many others) both benefited from the teaching of Col. Walter Dyatt, the school’s inspirational musical pedagogue. The term ‘selflessness’, which is also the name of a posthumously (1969) released Coltrane album, immediately occurred to me once I though about discussing Gilmore. He came to prominence (of sorts) during the 1960s, a decade not known for its shrinking violets - after all, Sonny Simmons named an album of the time Manhattan Egos, a reflection perhaps on the predominance of ‘look at me, ma’ stances from many contemporary players. Gilmore was the opposite - a musician of tremendous energy and creativity who seemed happy hiding his satellite lights under an interstellar bushel.

Immediate comparisons come to mind with other jazz musicians who preferred to stay in the background of world famous orchestras - for example, guitarist Freddie Green who formed an essential part of Count Basie’s rhythm section for 45 years, and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, whose reeds were a constant feature behind Duke Ellington for even longer. John Gilmore joined Sun Ra in 1954, and was with him for 40 years, outliving the Saturnian by only a couple of years. It is worthy of note that Green only lived three years after the Count’s passing, and Carney only six months after that of Duke. It was as if their playing and personal lives were somehow inextricably linked to their particular composer leaders.

Many commentators have noted Gilmore’s seeming complete subservience to the needs of Ra’s Arkestra, and, in turn, Ra himself - for instance, there was talk in the mid-70s of Gilmore re-recording his 1957 date with Clifford Jordan, Blowin’ In From Chicago, which stands as his only real ‘solo’ album (the session was released as a joint venture, on Blue Note records). Sun Ra nixed the idea, and Gilmore accepted this without demur. He knew where his boundaries were; he wasn’t a composer and felt that Ra’s ‘prison’ gave him most of what he needed as a creative artist: “you know if you go anywhere else, it’s a slow-down - you’ll start going backwards (chuckles). I’m not gonna run across anybody who’s moving as fast as Sun Ra, so just stay where I am” (from a 1990 interview with Graham Lock). Perhaps this is one of the reasons why John named him the name “Honest John” (rather than as a tribute to the long-gone Camden Town record shop!). Such humility is all the more impressive once one hears what Gilmore has to say with his playing.

Part 2 follows

Andrew Hill: An Appreciation, Part 2

Hill’s albums never had exactly the same line-ups, although these were pulled from the same stalwarts of the Blue Note modernist stable. Black Fire featured the debut of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, a key later collaborator, in a quartet with Richard Davis and Roy Haynes; Smoke Stack was notable for the use of two bassists, with Eddie Khan joining Davis; Judgement! saw the reappearance of Hutcherson, with Elvin Jones offering an alternative percussive approach; Point of Departure had the most concentrated group of all the talents, with Eric Dolphy and Kenny Dorham at the front (insofar as any of this music can be spatially ordered) and the very young maestro Tony Williams on the kit; Andrew!!! featured the special addition of the Arkestra mainstay, tenor giant John Gilmore. As a result of all this shape-shifting, this sequence of albums manages the rare feat of consisting of very individuated parts within an overall organic tapestry.

Andrew Hill produced another seven albums during this spell at Blue Note throughout the 60s. Some only emerged after many years in the company’s basement - Change was originally mostly a Sam Rivers album called Involution  until its re-emergence as a Hill product in 2006; Pax only came out in 1975; Compulsion!!!!! in 1976 (Hill loved his apostrophes!!) again featured John Gilmore; Dance With Death in 2004. By the late 60s, he decided to throw his weight into the more funky soul direction that the label was heading towards after The Sidewinder became the greatest hit in its history - Passing Ships (1969) and Grass Roots (1968), although retaining the complex palette of sound that characterised his compositions, also added a chunkier horn and brass contribution. All to little avail, however, as Hill remained (at best) a cult figure. At the very end of the first released sequence of records was Lift Every Voice (1969), which added a voice choir and suggested a new direction (one which was never really followed up). So, twelve albums in all, and not one unworthy of the demanding listener. As I suggested earlier, I can only really think of Ornette’s 60s recordings as being in the same league of concentrated creativity in jazz. Sonny Rollins in 1957? 

Again, somewhat like Ornette’s, Hill’s later work only sporadically hit the same heights, on a variety of labels, in small groups on Soul Note, Arista Freedom, East Wind (Japan), Steeplechase and  Palmetto. However, two of his mid-80s records on Soul Note (a period/label that deserves another blog) I consider essential to any Hill collection - Verona Rag (possibly his best solo album) and Shades, a trio and quartet engagement. I don’t know what was in the Italian water system in early July 1986, but these two dates certainly deserve a place alongside the 60s Blue Notes. Shades, in particular, is, for me, one of the finest small group recordings of any post war decade.

Andrew Hill: An Appreciation, Part One

Andrew Hill was already hiding in plain sight by 1964. His first five Blue Note LPs - Black Fire (recorded in 1963), Smoke Stack (1963), Judgement! (1964), Point of Departure (1964) and Andrew!!! (1964) - were actually recorded in just seven months! This must surely be some sort of record? I can only think of Ornette’s Atlantic albums - the material of whose nine records were laid down (May 1959 through March 1961) in just less than two years - for an equivalent condensed body of work of such quantity and quality produced in the vinyl era.  The release of both Hill and Coleman’s work was staggered, but their core recordings emerged in an incandescent flurry that listeners found hard to process initially. With Hill, unfortunately, this process is still unfurling, and his albums still remain somewhat of a connoisseur’s choice.

Perhaps it is more helpful in the digital age to move on from the study of 33rpm records towards an examination of an artist’s sequence or ‘runs’ of recordings, which give more of an overview - all of Hill’s Blue Notes from 1963-6 are available as a Mosaic box set, for example, which contains everything (unfortunately prohibitively expensive), and one can get Coleman’s Atlantic set for a reasonable price. I have such a high regard for Hill’s 60s output that I would put them up there with the established canons of genius sequences - Armstrong’s Hot 5 and 7′s, Parker’s Dial and Savoys, Coleman’s Atlantics and Coltrane’s Impulses. The first five records, in particular, form the bedrock of Hill’s work, and will almost certainly be the ones that will cement his reputation. They also deserve to be seen as the peers of the great post-Tatum piano-led small groups - those of Powell, Bley, Evans, Hancock and Nicols.

These records are dark and dense, using extreme chromaticism, rhythmic and harmonic complexity, with legato and rubato, to develop an ambiguous and thoughtful mood. This could stray into ‘free’ passages and improvisations, provoking a mysterioso feeling, which had none of the sometimes barnstorming techniques of the New Thing improvisers. In order to record his challenging compositions, Hill needed highly skilled and imaginative musicians, which is where the Blue Note Wrecking Crew came into their own.

Stravinsky’s favourite double bassist, Richard Davis (probably best known for his work with Eric Dolphy and on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks) played on all five; most of the greatest jazz drummers of their generation were present - Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Joe Chambers; and some of the greatest reed and brass composer/improvisers - Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, John Gilmore (on a couple of ultra-rare gigs away from Sun Ra), Freddie Hubbard, Sam Rivers, Joe Farrell; and most enigmatically, vibraphone modern master Bobby Hutcherson, who massively contributed to the ‘sound’ of many of Hill’s compositions. These were some of the music’s most talented and adventurous post-bop players, and it is hard to imagine these pieces (around 60 in all, all on the Mosaic set) being played more definitively by any other pool of improvisers, past or present. Although Point of Departure is probably the best known album of this set (mainly because of Dolphy, I would have thought, just about to go to Europe, where he would tragically pass), all these albums are just as good, and should be heard together (as well as with other contemporary ‘Cubist Jazz’ on Blue note by Hutcherson, et al).

To be continued in Part Two.

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