Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: jazz

Walking By the Elephant Room

Everyone wanted to stay out of my way while I was taking this picture. I suppose they didn’t want to ruin it, but legs walking by was what I wanted. I probably shot 100 images of people walking by, but these two were the winners – if having your legs show up on some random blog can be called winning – for being where I wanted them in the frame. The little heart tattoo on the one woman’s ankle is pretty cool, too.

I haven’t actually been to the Elephant Room in a very long time, which is a shame because I really like it there. Good jazz, and lots of places to sit.

The Color of Jazz

My aunt and uncle gave me The Color of Jazz: Album Cover Photographs by Pete Turner for my birthday. I’ve been enjoying it a few pages at a time since December, and unfortunately, I’ve finally finished studying the images and reading the accompanying text.

It’s a beautiful book, LP sized to give the full effect of the album art that’s usually shrunk to CD at best or iPod screen at worst, truly made for enjoying the full-size renditions of such iconic covers as Wave and The Sound of New York.

Turner did covers mainly for albums produced by Creed Taylor for Impulse!, A&M, and CTI during the 1960s and 70s. The process was interesting to say the least. Taylor would give Turner an album title only, and Turner would create or find an image that more often than not took the title in a different direction, moving away from the artist portraits that were so in vogue at the time.

The work is amazing. Turner relies heavily on colored filters to create sublime images that are as haunting as they are vivid. His images take the music of such artists as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Freddy Hubbard, George Benson, Deodato, Joe Farrell, and Milt Jackson among others to new realms, often connecting with the music in surprising ways such as with his unsettling image from the cover of Joe Farrell’s Canned Funk: a glass eye floating in a newly opened can of peaches.

Oddly, I didn’t realize how many of the CDs in my collection are graced by Turner’s images and how many of the albums he did that I don’t have but are on my list. Reading this, I can’t help but be saddened by the way that the new download culture of music is dispensing with the notion of visual art accompanying the music. I never bought LPs, but I loved CDs for their packaging. Of course, the whole notion of the album seems to fading away as well.

To have a look at some of Turner’s jazz covers, check out this site devoted to Turner’s work.

James Runs Miles’ Voodoo Down, Part 3

I finally made it to 1975 in my trip through the live recordings made by Miles Davis during his electric period in the early 1970s. Part 1 of this adventure is here and Part 2 is here.

In September 1972, just a few months after finishing the jazz/funk/jam album On the Corner, which appears to have been universally panned, Miles recorded In Concert: Live at the Philharmonic Hall. The only remaining band member from the Cellar Door sessions was bassist Michael Henderson, and the only remaining track from 1970 was “Honky Tonk.”

Filling out the band, were Carlos Garnett on sax, Cedric Lawson on electric piano/synthesizer, Reggie Lucas on guitar, Khalil Balakrishna on electric sitar, Al Foster on drums, Badal Roy on tabla, and Mtume on percussion. The resulting recording is two discs of furious jazz fusion jamming.

Disc 1 (“Foot Fooler”) is comprised of four tracks opening with “Rated X,” which starts as a noisy percussion-driven rhythm with Miles and Garnett chirping and squawking along until Henderson takes over about halfway through at which point the track becomes a fast paced funk jam.

The best part of the first disc is “Theme from Jack Johnson,” a fast tempo guitar driven groove featuring Miles blowing some clipped trumpet lines that sounds for all the world like two world class runners pacing each other through the streets of an urban wasteland. The set wraps up with “Black Satin/The Theme,” a mostly bass oriented groove that features some of Miles’ finer wah-wah playing.

I found disc 2 (“Slickaphonics”) a little less interesting, but still a very cool ride. Especially, the second track, “Right Off/The Theme,” which is a hard bassy funk.

Miles’ next live album Dark Magus recorded at Carnegie Hall in March 1974 leaves the more funk based fusion behind for a different approach, one that suggests a blueprint for the style of dark seething funk/rock/jazz soundscapes and atmospheric pieces that Talking Heads’ eventually delved into during their brilliant Remain in Light/Name of this Band period, where dark and dense grooves drove beneath David Byrne’s often manic vocals. The aptly titled Dark Magus contains some of the densest, most sinister jams on record. It’s truly the most evil groove I’ve ever heard.

The band on Dark Magus features two sax players: Dave Liebman and Azar Lawrence as well as three guitarists: Reggie Lucas, Dominique Gaumont and the insanely shredding Pete Cosey who seems to tear through this material like a wrecking ball. There are four tracks, each broken into two parts: “Moja,” “Wili,” “Tatu,” and “Nne.” Each track runs into the other, each being a fast and furious jam with occasional solos (including a smoldering sax piece in the second half of “Moja”).

My favorite piece is “Wili” because here it all seems to come together and fly apart at the same time culminating in a brooding psychedelic-tinged guitar solo that looks back at the blues and drags it into the glorious stew of Dark Magus, Miles’ most bitchin’ brew.

I’ve been listening to this music for years and each time I hear Dark Magus, I discover new things, moments and interactions between Miles and his band that I’d previously missed. This is music that is not for casual listening, only by sitting down and focusing on it does it come alive, like a living world seen from the ground up rather than the air down.

The last two albums from this period are Agharta and Pangaea, both recorded in Tokyo on February 1, 1975. Cosey, Foster, Henderson, Lucas and Mtume return from Dark Magus joined by Sonny Fortune on sax and flute. Agharta was the first set and represents one of the high points in jazz fusion. Like its predecessor, it’s about rhythm and texture and dominated by Pete Cosey’s tremendous guitar work which ranges from the blues through jazz and psychedelia to funk, sometimes in the same solo. The music has a brighter and more open feel than what was heard on Dark Magus.

Pangaea is the only one of these albums I don’t have. I heard it a few years back and liked it, but haven’t bought it yet since these last two are the only ones Columbia has not remastered and rereleased. Do I sense a box set lurking out there? After Agharta/Pangaea, Miles went on hiatus plagued by a host of health problems and addictions. He resurfaced in the early eighties, and I have no idea what his music was like at that point.

He was accused of selling out after he left straight ahead jazz for fusion, but it isn’t selling out for a musician to follow his muse. Perhaps if he’d taken up singing, the sellout argument would work. He taught young rockers what improvisation is about and he forced jazz musicians to challenge the status quo. Still, I wonder what it must have been like for longtime Miles fans to hear this music for the first time in the early seventies.

It doesn’t strike me as odd at all, but then I grew up listening to artists like Sonic Youth and the Grateful Dead whose extended jams full of noise and drone often pushed the limits of what music is just as Miles once pulled jazz apart at the seams when he looked for something new and found fusion.

James Runs Miles’ Voodoo Down, Part 2

Last week, we started listening to Miles Davis’ live electric output from the early ’70s and today, we reach The Cellar Door Sessions, a box set that documents four days (Dec 16-19, 1970) of Miles and his band moving away from the Bitches Brew material and beginning to move in a funkier direction.

The new band consisted of Michael Henderson on bass, Gary Bartz on sax, Keith Jarrett on electric piano and electric organ, and Jack DeJohnette on drums joined by percussionist Airto Moreira on the 17th-19th and guitarist John McLaughlin on the 19th. Over the course of the four night stand they worked out on seven tunes: “Directions,” “Yesternow,” “What I Say,” “Inamorata,” “Honky Tonk,” “It’s About That Time,” and “Sanctuary,” with a Keith Jarrett improv preceding each version of “Inamorata.”

Edited versions of some of the recordings from the 19th were released in 1971 on Live-Evil. The rest were kept in the vault until the 2005 release of The Cellar Door Sessions.

Listening through this is a truly amazing trip. Each rendition of each song is slightly different and over the course of the four days each song that is played more than once evolves as the musicians come to more fully understand what Miles was after.

“What I Say,” with its funky groove and simmering intensity forces a body to move. It’s just impossible to sit still while this is playing, particularly the 21 minute version from disc five that features John McLaughlin on guitar. Ever since I first heard it on Live-Evil (incidentally, it’s the only unedited track on that album) it’s been one of my favorite numbers from Miles’ electric live material.

Other highlights include the disc three version of “Honky Tonk,” a fascinating workout for Jarrett. For the most part, it’s a slow plodding tune but Jarrett’s deft touch on the electric piano (far more interesting than Corea’s blocky chord playing earlier in the year) makes the track. There’s a searching quality as Jarrett seems to explore the song’s structure before taking off in flights of notes that eventually settle like birds landing on a sound wave.

On disc four, Miles leads a beautiful and introspective – if short – “Sanctuary,” the only song remaining from Bitches Brew, that cools things down after a scorching “What I Say.” Miles’ trumpet sounds as haunting as ever and leads nicely into one of Jarrett’s pre-“Inamorata” improv moments. That improv leads to my favorite “Inamorata” whereupon the whole band comes back like an engine revving while Miles and Gary Bartz soar above.

The best of this exemplary set, though, is found on the last two discs when John Mclaughlin sat in on guitar. McLaughlin’s playing is intense and explosive as ever, doing to jazz what Hendrix did to rock. Miles’ music of this period screams for the addition of guitar (including screaming guitar), and most of the material for the three quintessential Miles electric studio albums (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and A Tribute to Jack Johnson) feature McLaughlin. Guitar (expecially his) is the missing ingredient on all of the electric Miles recordings of 1970 until the last sets of the The Cellar Door Sessions. From that point on, the rest of the released recordings from the early ’70s would feature electric guitar.

After The Cellar Door Sessions, I went back to listen to Live-Evil, which from 1971 to 2005 was the only available recording of this music. All of the live music is edited from the sets featuring McLaughlin. I’ve always enjoyed Live-Evil, but now that I’ve heard the unedited versions, I probably won’t go back to it much. The album is filled out with interesting studio material (is this the evil part?) recorded earlier in the year and available in The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions.

1970 was a year in which Miles Davis managed to alienate most of the jazz world by plugging in and incorporating rock style guitar intensity with funk rhythms and jazz improv. This was music unlike any that had ever been heard before. Was it even still jazz or was it something new? Miles seems to be searching for a way to connect with the times and currents swirling around him, the music in the air and on the radio, but though the sounds, electrified, intense and sometimes sinister were changing his trumpet is as moving as ever. Unfortunately, these recordings were where many of Miles’ longtime fans abandoned him.

It was only starting to get interesting.

Galactic at La Zona Rosa

We caught the first set of Galactic’s show at La Zona Rosa on Thursday night. They were touring without the singer who appeared on Ruckus and instead performed an instrumental set, which I enjoyed. Jam bands don’t really need singers since the vocals tend to get in the way of exploration anyway.

Highlights included a rendition of “Bittersweet,” the only tune on which I thought I’d miss the vocals, but it sounded even better without. They closed the first set with a song that sounded familiar to me. My wife told me it was “Cashmere” by Led Zeppelin. Galactic, of course, is the far superior band and they managed to turn a Led Zeppelin tune into something funky and, to me, interesting.

Despite enjoying the music, we left early, feeling a bit defeated by the whole thing. Not the band, but just the sorry circumstances one has to endure to “enjoy” live music. When I add up the fact that there’s nowhere to sit, too many people in a cramped room, and the late hours, it becomes increasingly easy to walk away from a show after I’ve had enough.

Perhaps I’ve gotten spoiled lately, seeing bands that don’t draw much of an audience and so places aren’t crowded, but I realized that I just can’t stand in one spot for the hours on end that so much of the improvisational music that I love requires.

Mainly, I wanted to be outside in the fresh air, surrounded by fewer people, and, more than anything, I wanted a place to sit. Galactic was good, lots of energetic exploration of their funky grooves, and I’d probably have stayed if there were chairs or if it had started earlier or if my back wasn’t hurting.

I guess I’m getting too old for this. Damn.

Karl Denson Trio at La Zona Rosa

On Saturday, we caught the Karl Denson Trio’s show at La Zona Rosa after an awesome dinner at Ranch 616. It’s a shame we don’t get more jazz shows around here – I guess Austin just ain’t a jazz town – but the ones that do come tend to be fun because the audiences are usually small. Probably why we don’t get many, but I digress. We saw Denson’s Tiny Universe band at ACL a few years back, but this was the first time we had seen his trio.

We arrived early thinking he was going to start at 9:00, but there were only about 30 people in the place so we got to wait and discuss the fact that there are never chairs at shows. While waiting, we enjoyed the opening act: Marvin Gaye’s brilliant What’s Going On? album played twice. Perfect music for people watching, and, well, perfect music for these times.

When Denson finally came on a bit after 10, the crowd was still small, but what was lacking in numbers was made up for in enthusiasm. Denson started off a bit slow, but on the second number he traded his saxophone for a flute and turned up the temperature.

Denson’s trio sound (drums, organ, sax and sometimes flute) falls somewhere between acid jazz and jazz funk. However you split the hairs, though, the music is great – sometimes funky, sometimes searching, always interesting. I enjoyed his flute numbers the most, partially because I’d never heard anyone play a flute with such funky intensity.

Denson’s trio found all the right grooves and pleased the small crowd that grew increasingly energetic over the course of the two hour set.

Soulive at La Zona Rosa

I first saw Soulive at the 2003 ACL Festival. The forty-five minute festival set didn’t really give them time to open it up so it was cool to catch them on Saturday night at La Zona Rosa.

Soulive is the kind of band that’s bringing back the organ-based jazz-funk sound of the late sixties and early seventies and playing it to audiences comprised of jazz, hip hop, and jam band lovers. I’m a fan of guitar and organ based jazz and there’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing a band play, and I mean really play in the truest sense of the word where experiments and improvisation are all part of the fun.

The crowd was small, which I like, though I think Soulive deserved a bigger audience, but it wasn’t one of those come-to-be-seen crowds. People listened and danced and just generally dug the whole vibe.

I tend to watch guitarists and so I tried to focus on what Eric Krasno was doing. His playing just amazes me whether it’s on CD or live, he seems to get to a place that’s so inside the music that I just follow each line, each riff with rapt attention. Neal Evans on organ and Alan Evans on drums kept things simmering through the set.

I’ve always felt that the trio format can be a bit limited and start to sound the same after a few tunes whether it be jazz, rock or punk, but Soulive kept things interesting through their own interplay and by bringing out singer Reggie Watts to do a few numbers with them.

One highlight of the show was their funky jazz rendition of the 2Pac and Dr. Dre gangsta rap classic “California Love,” which drew a cheering response from the small crowd. I’m a big fan of jazz bands delving into the realm of pop music to find the new standards for modern audiences, and it’s always a treat to hear a band find jazz in unlikely places be it 2Pac, Radiohead, Pavement or Nirvana.

Afterwards, we stopped for a slice at the Roppollo’s Pizza truck and sat on the curb, enjoying the cool night air and mild humidity that carried bass notes and snippets of songs, barely heard, from countless other acts in other bars. A good night in a good city.

(My wife posted about this as well.)

Jazz, Photography, and Playing with Light

Jazz and photography are probably my two favorite art forms so I was thrilled to receive as a Christmas gift a very cool book from my aunt and uncle: Jazz by Jim Marshall, which is a collection of photographs of great jazz musicians including such giants as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk often captured off-stage in moments when those icons of jazz music were mostly just being themselves, or in some cases, onstage in such a way that you can hear their music coming out of the image, such as with the breathtaking image of Monk that graces the cover or the image of Ray Charles silhouetted on a bass drum. The book has little text and is mostly just beautiful photography and captivating images of some of the most important and influential musicians taken between the 50s and the 80s.

As I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t help but think about the Ansel Adams exhibit that I had just seen a few days previously. Something that I read on the display card next to “Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico” stuck in my mind. It mentioned that several prints had been made by Adams and there were variations in the way he had chosen to do it each time, bringing out certain nuances here, obscuring details there.

When I got home, I looked up the section of his book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs that details “Moonrise.” Adams wrote, “The printed image has varied over the years; I have sought more intensity of light and richness of values as time goes on.” This fascinated me since I always assumed that he just made one print and that was the image as it would be.

I’ve spent many hours in darkrooms trying to acheive an ideal print of some particular negative, but I usually threw away the prints that I didn’t think were perfect (well, okay, as good as I could do) because it never occurred to me then to have different versions.

Staring at the images in Marshall’s book and thinking about the subject matter, I remembered an analogy between photography and music that Adams, who was a classically trained pianist, had made in which he said the negative was like the score and the printing was the performance. This approach to photography goes nicely with the improvisational nature of jazz.

A photographer may spend hours in the field or perhaps just seconds composing a particular image, essentially writing sheet music in light, but the work isn’t finished until it’s performed. The image is then performed in the darkroom and depending on the filters and settings and quality of the chemicals and paper, the photographer takes the initial composition and improvises with it to create something of the moment. A year later, the same negative and same photographer might produce a very different image. Or perhaps exactly the same one.

I really like this idea that there doesn’t have to be one correct version, that there can be many, each existing momentarily like a saxophone solo that changes from night to night, each time sounding new and timely, but also part of something recognizable. And each of those slightly varying solos or images when taken as a whole might tell a fascinating story about the person who made them. It’s this active, living-in-the-moment aspect of these two forms that I so enjoy and admire.

All of this makes Jazz a great book for lovers of jazz or photography to get lost in while listening, perhaps, to Monk work the keys.

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