Playlist 11/6

***I hope our countless fans around the globe will forgive the delay of this Playlist…a winter storm took out our internet and the company formerly known as Qwest took four days to repair it. Hope this isn’t the norm in Santa Fe.

SOULTRANE, John Coltrane; Prestige, recorded February, 1958.  I was preparing to see a Coltrane tribute band with Jimmy Cobb—no, he’s not on this recording— and wanted no Kind Of Blue clichés. Pulling Soultrane out was genius, not just for its foreshadow of Coltrane’s later, denser play but for the amazing bass work of  Paul Chambers, the grace of Red Garland and the shing-a-ling of drummer Art Taylor. I have a feeling that saxophonist Javon Jackson of the We Four Coltrane tribute band did the same thing before touring with his Cobb-included quartet. And yes, I pulled out Giant Steps to hear Cobb on “Naima,” the only track from that landmark recording on which the drummer appears.

KIND OF BLUE, Miles Davis Septet, Columbia, recorded  March and April 1959. You move into a new home, set up your well-traveled sound system and what do you want to hear? Something you know (and love) well. Yeah, I know it’s a cliché. But it’s a classic cliché. And besides, I was feeling all “Blue In Green.” Not to mention that fact that I was looking forward to seeing Jimmy Cobb, now a spry 82, perform with the next generation. Final report: yes, my speakers were in phase.

GARDEN OF EDEN, Paul Motian Band; ECM, recorded November 2004. Paul Motian plays drums like Bill Evans played piano. Here’s it’s in support of a larger group; the tangle of guitars (Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, Jakob Bro), brother saxophones of Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby, the try-this-on-for size bass of Jerome Harris. Some Mingus, some originals from the band. But it’s Motian’s “Mesmer” that has a mesmerized. It’s like an Ornette tune at half-speed; inviting, entrancing and ultimately about the human condition.

SCHUBERT IMPROMPTUS, OP.  90 & op.142, Mitsuko Uchida; Philips, recorded 1996. Serious music for serious times performed with respect and sensitivity. With the possibility of dark moments on the horizon, I want to be prepared. And Schubert’s an expert at resolution.

Recognizable Talent

The Rabbit’s always thought the jazz-poll category “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” was bogus or, at best, mislabeled. What jazz musician, with the exception of one or two, doesn’t deserve wider recognition? Even the best of them are widely unknown to the general public.

Consider Charles Owens. A fixture on the Los Angeles Jazz scene since the early 1970s, Owens has the kind of resume that his fellow musicians  envy: ten years with the Mercer Ellington-directed Duke Ellington Orchestra, important stints with Mongo Santamaria, Buddy Rich (he arranged “Ode To Billy Joe” for Rich’s 1968 recording Mercy Mercy: Recorded Live At Ceasar’s Palace) and Toshiko Akiyoshi; a tour of Europe with Frank Zappa, time with John Mayall, studio work with Diana Ross, Natalie Cole and Barbara Streisand. He’s worked inside with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and outside with James Newton and James Carter and graced the bands of nearly every important Los Angeles-based jazz ensemble, from the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra to the revered Horace Tapscott’s Arkestra.

Along the way, Owens recorded a handful of respected, if obscure, albums: The Two Quartets and Plays the Music of Harry Warren with his New York Art Ensemble that included a host of then-or-soon-to-be L.A. musicians including Ray Brown, Red Callendar, James Newton and Roy McCurdy (both discs issued on the Discovery label) . Both were made over 25 years ago.

Owens has a new recording, Joy, and it’s worth seeking out (full disclosure: the Rabbit wrote liner notes for the project). If musicians, like everyone else, can be judged by the company they keep, Owens’ reputation is secure. Through his vast experience and associations, he brought aboard bassist Ron Carter, pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Lewis Nash. The top-shelf rhythm section fits perfectly with Owens’ varied, wide-open approach in play and musical forms. The accompanists take an upfront role in the nine-tunes, serving to frame Owens’ expressive play in best light. Add the dean of recording engineers, Rudy Van Gelder, a man who has been involved with many of the most important recordings of all-time, and you have one very ambitious, high-end project.

The tunes reflect the leader’s taste and background. His interest in Middle-Eastern forms and Coltrane-like modal tunes is balanced with emotional ballads and r-&-b flavored workouts that suggest a strong West Coast influence.  He opens with Eddie Harris’ clasic soul anthem “Sham Time,” giving Miller and Carter prominent solos before opening up on soprano and then, in the style of Rahassaan Roland Kirk, blowing tenor and soprano simultaneously. The soulful feel is  extended on “Mildred’s Groove” and “One For Bags,” both Owens originals. These tunes feature his sterling flute play which is sometimes warm and inviting and often sharp enough to cut diamonds.

Owens shows his ability to find new meaning in familiar tunes in interpretations of Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart” and Guy Woods’ “My One and Only Love,” the former on soprano, the latter on tenor. But it’s his originals that show the most emotion and passion. “Wildfire,” propelled by Nash’s aggressive polyrhythms, is full of flame and heat. “Spiritual,” a tune dedicated to the children of Iraq and Afghanistan, is at once somber and optimistic and proves that there’s at least one musician out there who hasn’t forgotten the innocent victims of ongoing war. The saxophonist displays his sense of humor when he quotes from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” during his piece “Praise God.”

Joy is an album worthy of its title and, like its leader, worthy of all the recognition it can get. You can wrap your hands on a copy by e-mailing or, if extremely lucky, picking it up at one of Owens gigs. Let us know what you think.–Cabbage Rabbit

Sons and Brothers

Those princes of jazz, Ravi Coltrane and Branford Marsalis, spring from different lineages and represent differing heritages. Yet despite their pedigrees, they’re a breed apart. Both were born in the tumultuous ‘60s, both have struggled with their musical identities and in the intervening years have arrived at a place where they can truly be thought of as musicians who reflect the promise of modern jazz. In an art form so dependent on tradition that many of its practitioners have resorted to neo-classicism (think Wynton) and outright revivalism (Wynton again), Ravi and Branford have sought and discovered combinations of expression, styles and timely sensibility that, like all great art, reflect the moment in which they were created. This means fast-paced, sometimes uncertain striving for resolution with shifts and leaps that are both scheduled and spontaneous. Their uptempo lines of attack spring from the frantic speed of the be-bop tradition, which reflected its post-war times, and its follow up, the post-bop revolution that mirrored the political and cultural upheavals of their childhoods. Both, at times, display the chaotic frenzy of the avant garde. Yet the music of both men can also acknowledge that in these hectic, twisted times there’s a place, even a need, for contemplation, a consideration of beauty and grace, even regret and sorrow. And while there’s a tradition of this in jazz (think of Ravi’s father) the saxophonists bring a certain existential uncertainty to their vision-quest that speaks to the confusion and complications of modern life. The most touching moments from either disc?  Ravi’s tribute to his mother, the pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane, with bassist Charlie Haden and harpist Brandee Younger.

Influences are embraced without hip joining. Branford is more Ornette, Ravi more his father. But their sounds and those of past masters won’t be confused. Ravi stick to tenor. Branford adds alto to his quiver and delivers soprano that’s as pure and slippery as quicksilver. Both men take advantage of the collaborative process. Half of Blending Times tunes are “improvisations conceived and directed by Ravi Coltrane.” The results, ranging from funk to free-form musings, speak well of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Dress Gess and drummer EJ Strickland. Branford’s recording contains contributions from each of his sidemen and only one—the invigorating “Jabberwocky” –of his own. Pianist Joey Calderazzo contributes the more meditative numbers whose title reflect loss. Drummer Jeff Watts adds the most lively. Bassist Eric Reavis’ stellar tunes pay tribute to Abe Vigoda and Thelonious Monk respectively.

That both recordings contain Monk tunes is a shared acknowledgement of a jazz tradition that their own music most reflects. Monk’s music anticipated the times, indeed all times, with its strange harmonies, twisted themes and resolutions that have a sense of the non-sensical. Of the two discs, we prefer Branford’s even as we dearly love Ravi’s. Recommendation? Get both.–Cabbage Rabbit

He’s No Keith Jarrett

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth”


I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth” and compare it to Jarrett’s. Mehldau, of course, didn’t like the insinuation that he had mined Jarrett’s work—he claimed to have never heard Keith play “Blame It On My Youth”—and wrote a pointed letter to the editor saying as much, taking the time to belittle some of the other things I’d said in the Jarrett piece, including the fact that for me listening to the pianist and his trio over the years had become a near-religious experience.

Mehldau was playing the following week at LA’s Café Largo and the appearance gave me the opportunity to respond while making him the subject of my jazz pick column. I stuck to my contention that there were a lot of similarities even if they were accidental in Jarrett and Meldau’s takes on “Blame It on My Youth” (maybe the pointed melancholy of Oscar Levant’s lament made for a collusion of mood and approach). And, I argued, it wasn’t such a bad or unusual thing, especially for us godless sorts, to find inspiration, meaning and yes, reason to live in music as wonderful as Jarrett and Mehldau’s.

All (apparently) was forgiven—the keyboardist certainly had larger considerations in his life than what some alternative rag journalist had said about him—and we had a nice chat between sets one Sunday afternoon at a downtown concert sponsored by the Da Camera Society. Mehldau even granted me an interview a year or so later in which he espoused intelligently on his direction. The pianist is known to pontificate about art and his music. Some of his liner notes go to great academic lengths while dropping the names like Goethe, Foucault and Thomas Mann. While they may seem a little overblown at times, these insights are revealing. His notes to House on the Hill are one of the best explanations of the jazz form’s theme-and-variation concept we’ve read (you can find it here []) and Mehldau continues to practice what he preaches. That he has a good intellectual understanding of what he does is a refreshing and educational change from what passes as exposition and criticism of art of any sort (this screed included).

I bring up the Jarrett story to make a similar, hopefully less foolish, Keith-and-Brad comparison. It strikes us that Mehldau is his generation’s Jarrett. The comparison is not so much musical–despite “Blame It on My Youth”–as situational. Both have a long-standing trio (drummer Jeff Ballard replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005) making the evolution of interplay between the three men as interesting as any other component. Both have impeccable musical tastes and an ability to do almost anything they like on the keyboard (which may be truer in Mehldau’s case, Jarrett’s forays into classical music aside). Both attracted young audiences, Jarrett in the ‘70s with his extended solo excursions, Mehldau with his renditions of alt-rock music and a certain rumpled hipster cachet which comes to him without him really trying. This is just the kind of fan recruitment that the so-called jazz world needs to maintain its audience, especially now. That Mehldau seems to do this without compromise—and what he makes of “pop” tunes isn’t a compromise—is all the more to his credit.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live makes Mehldau’s familiar case for opening up the jazz canon to worthy contemporary music even as it establishes a new level of greatness for the trio. (No, those cover photos aren’t of The Village Vanguard where the discs were recorded in October of 2006.) Who else could follow a Soundgarden tune with one by 1930s-era swing band leader Ray Noble and get away with it? Mehldau’s trio is able to pull this kind of thing off by finding a rhythmic core to the music and relating it directly to its mood. They get straight to the heart of a melody and then mess mightily with it (unlike the bits-and-pieces technique Jarrett uses). That they develop all this during the variation part of their theme-and-variation approach makes listening to the trio something akin to reading a good novel. This is one of improvisational music’s great pleasures: it’s as if you can follow what’s going on in their minds as you listen to what’s coming from their hands.

Trio Live gets right into this modus with Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” a rhythmically accessible way to enter the recording. Mehldau’s harmonically kinky assertions stretched across Larry Grenadier’s pin-point bass groove. Mehldau compiles lines on a descending left-hand line and his improv strengthens as it goes along, winding tighter and tighter on Ballard’s irresistible groove. Mehldau’s a master of resolution, able to find his way out of a tight spot as coolly as some action character in a spy thriller. Here it happens so seamlessly that you don’t see the bridge coming until he’s crossing it.

The rest of this two-disc set mixes jazz standards—“More Than You Know”, the John Coltrane vehicle “Countdown”—with Mehldau originals. Unlike Jarrett’s often droning originals, Mehldau pushes his own compositions all over the room, taking them to unexpected corners, stirring up dust and diamonds. Moods vary. There’s the quick and insistent “Ruby’s Rub,” the swing and grace of “B-Flat Waltz,” the romance and intimacy of “Secret Beach.” Mehldau’s sharp reading of Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” cuts new meat from its bop-bones. If Mehldau’s solos seem to go on too long (see liner notes above), one must remember that the same thing was said of John Coltrane, especially in live performance. Like Coltrane, Mehldau has things to get off his chest.

The other comparison Mehldau has garnered, especially early in his career, was to Bill Evans. This came from his audible sensitivity, a quality lacking in the work of many emerging pianists, rather than any stylistic comparisons to Evans. That Mehldau is sensitive, thoughtful and melodically inventive is old news. Here, he finds beauty in a soft touch, melodic sense in even the roughest handling. His approach to “The Very Thought Of You” convinces one, true or not, that this guy knows the depths of love. No you wouldn’t and shouldn’t confuse Brad Meldau’s work with Jarrett’s (guilty) or anyone else’s. We wouldn’t be the first to say there’s no one like him. Highly recommended. –Cabbage Rabbit

Sound and Fury

Jazz critics have made a living declaring that John Coltrane was the most influential saxophonist of the modern jazz era. But listen to the current crop of practicing sax players and very few of them sound like Coltrane. In fact, saxophonist go out of their way to avoid such comparisons. The veteran tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd was sorely angered when the jazz critic of The Los Angeles Times repeatedly claimed he sounded like Coltrane. Coltrane’s son, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, studiously went about avoiding comparisons to his father when he first started out.

The Coltrane influence transcends sound. His discipline, his devotion to craft, his unending search and constantly evolving individuality; these are traits every saxophonist of worth aspires to. But it’s exactly that desire to have a distinct sound—a sound instantly recognizable as their own, as Coltrane’s is instantly recognizable as his–that keeps them from imitating the jazz giant. Occasionally, saxophonists will emulate the Coltrane approach in a tribute performance, as the former McCoy Tyner sideman Azar Lawrence did last year on an excellent recording Legacy and Music Of John Coltrane (Tyner was Coltrane’s long-term pianist). Lawrence not only mimics Coltrane’s sound on the instrument, he recreates his idol’s approach to group dynamics and shared discovery. It’s at once a music of joy and fury, enlightening rather than entertaining.

Ben Ratliff states early on in his study Coltrane: The Story of a Sound that his subject is the most influential jazz musician of the modern era. Then he spends the rest of the book explaining how, tracing the evolution of his music in the book’s first half and its influences in the second. And while Ratliff seems to avoid the “most influential” claim when it comes to sound (he does list a string of names in a long paragraph that sprung from the Coltrane school, including Lawrence’s) he makes a strong case that Coltrane changed the way musicians approach the music. The result is the most important consideration of the jazz giant to date.

It’s long been thought that Coltrane was a product of his times, that he was strongly influenced by race issues and the political turmoil of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. To an extent, this was true. But Ratliff sees Coltrane’s music more as a spiritual quest than a reaction to the times. Coltrane was largely uninterested in the day-to-day trivia, as Ratliff points out in the chapter “Who’s Willie Mays?” From the beginning he was immersed in the music. He took influences from a host of unexpected sources: trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. But at some point, roughly in the 1950s when he was touring with Miles Davis, Coltrane decided he needed to do more than digest the legacy of the music. He had to extend it.

Coltrane’s long solos, sometimes based on a single chord, and the droning, polyrhythmic backdrops over which they were played, not only had spiritual roots but were emblematic of spiritual search and discovery. Ratliff shows how some embraced this approach. He quotes new music composer Steve Reich who makes favorable comparisons between Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass” to Junior Walker’s “Shotgun,” both embracing “harmonic stasis” by sticking to a single chord. Allaudin (Bill) Mathieu finds Coltrane’s complexity reductionist, in a class with the old blues shouters “who after all had the same modal strategy –five notes.” Not everyone finds this simplicity enamoring. Of Coltrane’s only popular hit, “My Favorite Things,” composer-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer complains, “a nice Broadway song and then soprano for an hour? Unnh!”

Ratliff, jazz critic for The New York Times, has a good way of explaining musical form and theory for the uninitiated, even as he drops terms like lydian mode. His attempts to define sound in words—always a difficult task for the music writer—usually succeed though sometimes with opposite effect. The sound of Coltrane’s fellow tenor player and band member Pharoah Saunders is described as, “ugly challenges of squelched and shrieking sounds, and hoarse, brawny tours…” When Ratliff speaks of Coltrane’s tone as “undercooked” you’re not sure that he means “raw” or “rare.”

Jazz writers are well known to make cross-genre comparisons (think of Miles being compared to Picasso) and Ratliff makes his share, calling Coltrane at one point an “American romantic” like Johnny Cash, Clint Eastwood and Walt Whitman. He quotes the poet Robert Lowell to justify Coltrane’s long solos as “monotony of the sublime” in a passage that also brings up Melville, Milton and Edmund Burke. This may seem like over-reaching but the most fantastic claim, made by guitarist Sonny Sharrock is not: “Trane had to die, man. Musically, anyway, to release everybody else.” In that sense, Coltrane was more than an influence on music. He was the savior.—Cabbage Rabbit

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff; Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, hardback, 250 pages, $24

A version of this review first appeared in the IE Weekly