Archives for posts with tag: Miles Davis

Album Review: The Epic, Kamasi Washington (Brainfeeder, May 2015)

kwKamasi Washington is a jazz saxophonist that joins the vanguard of musicians bridging jazz with contemporary music from the many genres in its orbit. Listening to his album, The Epic, I wonder if Washington is this generation’s Herbie Hancock – someone who pushes the boundaries of jazz but does so from a place of legitimacy.

You might say the same of Robert Glasper and jazz innovators before him like Guru and Ronny Jordan. But there is something different about Washington’s brand of innovation. Perhaps it is his pedigree, having played with legends like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Harvey MasonKenny Burrell, and George Duke.

The Epic is an incredibly immersive listening experience. I would liken it to a concept album by a band like Pink Floyd or an opus like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. It’s not the ethereality or electronic treatment that inspires this comparison. Rather, it is the ambition, the grandioseness of this album. It is truly the epic jazz album of the year, if not this decade.

The Epic’s ambience is established through a combination of Washington’s improvisation, a steady and pervasive baseline from Miles Mosley’s acoustic bass, and 20-person choir that evokes a blend of 60’s spiritual jazz and sci-fi cinematic scores. This sound emerges as Washington’s signature while being subdued enough to support, not displace, the profound range and depth of performances and compositions on the album.

With nearly 3 hours of music, the musicians are well showcased. I can’t recall the last time I heard so many generous and wonderful trombone solos, as played by Ryan Porter on tracks like “Leroy and Lanisha” and “Re-Run Home.” Igmar Thomas’ trumpet is another capable foil to Washington’s tenor sax. Stephen Bruner (a.k.a. Thundercat) brings his unique electric bass sound to “Askim,” interplaying fantastically with the majestic choir conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Atwood-Ferguson, incidentally, worked on another recent spiritual jazz revival of sorts, my personal pick for 2014 album of the year, Church, by Mark de Clive Lowe.

Washington himself is a remarkable talent on the saxophone. His range is broad, from hard blowing dissonance reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders to the easy swing of a popular saxophonist like Grover Washington Jr. Kamasi Washington is comfortable and capable at both extremes and this album sees him traverse the expanse.

The Epic’s more conventional arrangements include “Cherokee,” a lovely tune sung by Patrice Quinn in the best tradition of lounge jazz and a version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” arranged in 3/4 time while maintaining the composition’s lilting beauty.

To me, this album’s appeal is peculiar because I find it simultaneously exhilarating and comforting. I’m excited by its newness – but also comforted that we have a new and credible steward to lead jazz forward. With The Epic, Kamasi Washington sets forth.

 

The Players: Kamasi Washington – Tenor Saxophone; Thundercat – Electric Bass; Miles Mosley – Acoustic Bass; Ronald Bruner Jr. – Drums; Tony Austin – Drums; Leon Mobley – Percussion; Cameron Graves – Piano; Brandon Coleman – Keyboards; Ryan Porter – Trombone; Igmar Thomas – Trumpet; Patrice Quinn – Lead Vocal; Dwight Tribble – Lead Vocal

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Book Review: Possibilities, Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey (Viking, 2014)

ct-herbie-hancock-possibilities-jpg-20141106Reading Herbie Hancock’s memoir is akin to reading the modern history of jazz. His career touched numerous branches of jazz and was responsible for sprouting some entirely new ones. From his mentorship with Donald Byrd, to being a sideman for Miles Davis, to becoming a band leader and trail blazer, reading Herbie’s history gives you a fair reading of the genre itself.

The book covers his life story, from his upbringing, discovery of music and performance, and the music he has made with great artists over five decades. Possibilities is an apt title because the book, and Hancock’s journey, can be characterized with a series of turning points that Hancock had the courage to embrace. It also resonates with his Buddhist philosophy, which receives generous attention in the book. Hancock handles this personal aspect of his story maturely, simply relating how it affected his outlook on life and ultimately his music. Similarly, his confessions and reflections on drug addiction are offered in appropriate contexts, without becoming unseemly.

I think the best way to write about this book is to offer a playlist of the recordings that Hancock himself cites throughout the book. Of course, there are too many to offer a comprehensive list. Instead, I’ve filtered my selections for those that I found reflected the most important turning points in developing his remarkable career.

1. Body & Soul, Coleman Hawkins, Body & Soul (Bluebird, 1939) – Hancock’s first professional gig was in 1960 with Coleman Hawkins and this song is recalled in the book as one of the pieces he had to first perform with a professional jazz player.

2. The Injuns, Donald Byrd, Byrd in Hand (Revolver, 1959) – I didn’t know until reading this memoir that Donald Byrd mentored Herbie Hancock as he was coming up in the music business. Byrd took Hancock on as a member of his band and this song was one of the first Herbie played with the band. I was especially intrigued by this connection because Byrd and Hancock happen to be two of my top three favourite musicians of all time.

3. Shangri-La, Donald Byrd, Royal Flush (Blue Note, 1961) – Hancock’s recording debut was on Byrd’s 1961 release, Royal Flush. This was a key event in Hancock’s career because it led to his own recording contract with Blue Note and more importantly, thanks to Byrd’s counsel and urging, culminated in Hancock retaining the publishing rights to his compositions.

4. Watermelon Man, Herbie Hancock, Takin’ Off (Blue Note, 1962) – Hancock’s first record. This would become a major commercial success, paving the way for financial independence thanks to his publishing rights. His income from this record would support more experimental work later in the decade.

5. Burning Spear, Eric Dolphy, Iron Man (Charly Records, 1963) – Playing as a sideman to saxophonist Eric Dolphy was Hancock’s first exposure to free jazz. It was Dolphy’s breaking of the rules of music that helped Hancock see the possibilities in music when new directions were taken. I believe this is one of the most important influences on Hancock’s approach to music, probably second only to Miles Davis himself.

6. Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Davis, Seven Steps to Heaven (Sony, 1963) – Hancock’s notoriety from Watermelon Man and his reputation as a singular talent lead the great Miles Davis to invite Hancock to join his now legendary quintet. This album was the first of Miles’ records that Hancock appeared on.

7. Maiden Voyage, Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965) – Now a sought after composer, Hancock took on commercial work, writing jingles on the side. A fragment of a jingle for a men’s cologne evolved into this, one of Hancock’s most recognizable compositions. It was unique in its spiralling structure and Hancock discusses his discovery of this form in detail in the book.

8. Blow Up (Main Title), Herbie Hancock, Blow-Up Original Soundtrack (Rhino, 1966) – Hancock’s first commission to do a film soundtrack. It had a sound that was influenced by the pop music of the day. The book contains an amusing story of how Hancock hosted a decoy recording session in Canada to navigate European content rules imposed by the film’s backers.

9. My Ship, Miles Davis, Miles Ahead (Sony, 1957) – Gil Evans’ work on this Miles Davis album strongly influenced Herbie’s first incarnation as a band leader.

10. Speak Like A Child, Herbie Hancock, Speak Like A Child (Blue Note, 1968) – Hancock’s first band was a sextet inspired by the fullness and smoothness of sound on Miles Ahead. He chose 3 horns (Sax, Trombone, and Trumpet). The rhythm section included Miles Davis Quintet bandmate, Ron Carter on Bass. Speak Like a Child was the sextet’s first recording.

11. Stuff, Miles Davis, Miles in the Sky (Sony, 1968) – Another key turning point was Hancock’s discovery of electric instruments. Hancock relates his first encounter with a Fender Rhodes electric piano while in Davis’ quintet. Without a piano to play at a venue they were booked at, Herbie asked his band leader what he was supposed to play. Miles pointed to the Rhodes sitting in the corner of the room and said, “play that.” This track is off the first recording of Miles’ that used the electric piano.

12. Fat Mama, Herbie Hancock, Fat Albert Rotunda (Rhino, 1969) – Having known Bill Cosby for some years before, Hancock was invited by Cosby to write music for TV special, which would later be adapted and become Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. This was also one of the earlier instances of funk elements in Hancock’s music.

13. Quasar, Herbie Hancock, Crossings (Warner Bros., 1970) – Now in his Mwandishi period, Hancock had embraced Afro-centric culture and was working more in the jazz/funk fusion mileiux with greater degrees of musical experimentation.  Hancock himself describes Mwandishi as an “R&D band.” This track off of their Crossings album showcases a new technology Hancock had adopted when he met synthesizer pioneer, Pat Gleeson. The Moog Modular synthesizer first appears in Hancock’s recorded work on this album.

14. Toys, Herbie Hancock, Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968) – Mwandishi’s bassist was Buster Williams and Hancock relates a story in the book where Williams performance of this particular track in 1972 was so focussed that Herbie asked him how he managed to play it so well on that particular day. Williams’ response was that he chanted before the performance in his practice of Buddhism. A philosophy and practice that Hancock adopted from that point forward, Buddhism can’t be overlooked in how it has shaped his personal and professional life.

15. Yes We Can, Can, The Pointer Sisters, The Pointer Sisters (UMG, 1973) – Having spent a few years with Mwandishi in “far out” experimentations, Hancock was searching for a change and was inspired by an unlikely encounter with the Pointer Sisters in 1973. Noting how much of a crowd-pleaser this tune was, Hancock made a sharp turn into funk.

16. Chamaeleon, Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters (Sony, 1973) – Another iconic Hancock composition, Chamaeleon was the first song written and recorded by his next band, The Headhunters. Bernie Maupin was on reeds, Paul Jackson on electric bass, Bill Summers on percussion, Harvey Mason on drums, and Herbie on synthesizers and clavinet. The clavinet allowed Hancock to play guitar lines on the keyboards and meant he didn’t need a guitarist in the band.

17. Doin’ It, Herbie Hancock, Secrets (Columbia, 1976) – His interest in electric instruments continuing to build, Hancock took on a young sound engineer, Brian Bell, for this record. Bell would become an integral part of Hancock’s creative process for years to come. His ingenuity and innovation is showcased heavily in the book. The passage where Bell describes how he managed patch cords in the first synthesizers (that had no memory banks) evokes thoughts of other technology pioneers like Hewlett & Packard or Jobs & Wozniak.

18. Don’t Hold it In, Herbie Hancock, Monster (Sony, 1980) – Now fully invested in making music with computers and electronics, this album was the first in a series where microcomputers, including the Apple II+ and several of Bell’s improvised equipment were featured. Another technological influence was Keith Lofstrom, who developed an automated patch bay for this period in Hancock’s work with early synthesizers.

19. Buffalo Gals, Malcolm McLaren, Duck Rock (Virgin, 1983) – A sea change was hitting popular music in the 1980’s with the emergence of new wave and the post punk British invasion. Hancock first heard this track through some associates who were exposing him to what young people were listening to. The scratching on this record was a direct influence on what would become Hancock’s biggest pop hit of the 80’s.

20. Rockit, Herbie Hancock, Future Shock (Sony, 1983) – Teaming up with producers Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, as well as pioneer turntablist DXT, Hancock released this song accompanied by Godley & Creme music video that hit number 1 on Billboard’s US Dance chart. Rockit also won best R&B Instrumental Performance at the Grammy’s in 1983.

21. Una Noche con Francis, Herbie Hancock, Round Midnight (Original Motion Picture Sountrack) (Sony, 1986) – Returning to more straight-ahead jazz, but still with an innovative spin, Hancock produced the soundtrack to this film, featuring Dexter Gordon in the lead role. He won the Oscar for best soundtrack for this work.

22. Manhattan (Island of Lights and Love), Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1996) – Composed with his sister, Jean Hancock, who had died tragically in a plane crash years before, Hancock included this song on his 1996 release, the The New Standard. Manhattan won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition that year.

23. Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Future 2 Future (Columbia 2001) – In this current stage of his career, Hancock states in the book that he seeks projects that bring something new to his experience and that have a purpose. This track is a tribute to Tony Williams, the talented drummer and Herbie’s bandmate in Miles’ quintet. Williams’ talent is mentioned at length in the book and this tribute featuring spoken word by Elenni Davis-Knight, is an excellent example of Hancock’s aim to be innovative and purposeful.

24. Both Sides Now, Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007) – A truly great talent never wanes and Hancock was on top again with this album, a deliberate tribute to an artist he respects greatly, Joni Mitchell. This record won Album of the Year at the 2007 Grammy Awards.

Although I’ve tried to distill what resonated most with me, I would recommend a full reading of Possibilities to personalize your own appreciation of Hancock’s life and career. Like the genre he helped shape, this book offers so much insight that each reader will develop a slightly different view of Hancock’s life and music. In this, Hancock and his writing partner Lisa Dickey have achieved what Hancock has done time and time again in his career: create something that adds to our experience of music but do so in a way that is not uniform among those who listen.

 

Album Review: Places & Spaces, Donald Byrd, 1975 (Blue Note)

This album from trumpeter Donald Byrd is one for the ages.  Easy-going string and flute arrangements give this record a breeziness that became the soundtrack of the 70s.

Production team, Larry and Alphonso ‘Fonce’ Mizell, were behind many of the jazz/funk fusion artists of the decade, including flautist Bobbi Humphrey, the Jackson 5, and disco sensation A Taste of Honey.

What’s remarkable about this album is not its innovation but rather how it capitalized on the jazz fusion movement that was well in-flight at the time.

Jazz fusion is said to have been born with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (Sony, 1970). It’s true that Davis was the preeminent innovator that reinvented jazz, most notably with the introduction of electronic instruments.

However, Byrd and the Mizells created a much more accessible sub-genre, one I would liken more to pop than Davis’ brand of esoteric fusion. Like George Benson’s Breezin’ (Warner Bros., 1976), this record uses jazz instrumentation and improvised solos within the construct of a pop song. Incidentally, the Mizell brothers used a stable of studio musicians on all of their Blue Note hits, drummer Harvey Mason being one of them. Mason appeared on Benson’s Breezin’ and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (Blue Note, 1973), both mammoth records in the evolution of jazz (read my review of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters here).

In a way, this album is just as daring as a grand opus like Bitches Brew. Just as Davis turned his back on the traditionalists of the golden era of jazz, Byrd moved forward by embracing pop forms that would eventually morph into disco. Byrd risked rejection from two sides: the jazz world who would view him as a sellout; and the pop world, to whom he likely appeared as a ‘square’ at the time.

Byrd could have done worse than to give over the production reigns to his one-time students, the Mizell Brothers. As it happens, it was exactly the right move. A double legacy was his reward: this classic album and a signature sound that defined a decade in music.

Book Review: The History of Jazz – Second Edition, Ted Gioia (Oxford University Press, 2011)

It is perhaps hubris to use “The” in this book’s title. There are numerous accounts of how “America’s music” germinated and flowered all around the world. But if a handful of people are to be given some latitude, Ted Gioia is one of them. As the founder of the Jazz studies program at Stanford and a former editor of Jazz.com, Gioia has the credentials to speak authoritatively about the jazz form and its beginnings.

Gioia’s research and depth of coverage in this 400 page tome are quite simply awesome. From the root of the African drum, to its evolution in New Orleans during the Slave Trade, to the jazz artists who top the charts today, this account is remarkable for its thoroughness. What Gioia does particularly well is take the reader on a mostly chronological journey through jazz’ family tree without forcing a linear structure. Instead, he takes us along a branch over the course of a decade or so, then pulls back and describes an adjacent branch, explaining its similarities and differences to the former.

I picked up this book simply because I wanted to understand just that – the complex pedigree of today’s jazz music and the great musicians that shaped it over the years. Much of the music I write about has its ancestry in jazz and I enjoy exploring those connections.

In the end, I was delightfully edified by the answers to all the questions I had before I read it: Where did bebop come from? How was it different from hard bop? Why is Ellington so important? Was Bird more influencial than Coltrane? And so on.

What’s more, Gioia cites generous examples of key players, compositions, and recordings. I found it fascinating to read a passage about Ahmad Jamal, for example, and quickly look up the tracks referenced on youtube or iTunes so I could listen along while I read.

At times, The History of Jazz comes across as professorial and academic but Gioia also captures the very human element of jazz with rich biographies of key figures. Generous (and welcome) length is given to Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis among others. Their personal history, influences, and choices are explored in good depth and give us an understanding of what made these musicians unique and how they shaped jazz.

Being a relatively recent Second Edition, the references are up-to-date and on the mark. The book comes full circle with the final sections exploring the “new traditionalists” who have recently reached back to the swing era of the 30s and 40s and the modern jazz era of the 50s and 60s. Reading about Diana Krall or Herbie Hancock in this context and then listening to their current works enriches our appreciation for what their music is today and where it came from.

Although it is a dense and lengthy book, those of you interested in jazz and its many subgenres will find it a valuable resource. For me personally, this book went even further. I hadn’t set out to read it cover to cover but once Gioia started connecting the dots for me, I wanted more. This, for any historian, is a job well done.

Favourite insights I gleaned from Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz:

  • Louis Armstrong was influenced and mentored by Joe ‘King’ Oliver, one of the first great players of the cornet. But Armstrong was a better virtuoso and heralded the beginning of the age of the soloist.
  • Benny Goodman was the first media celebrity. As radios made their way into American living rooms, band leaders would be among the first household names.
  • Duke Ellington brought a classical approach to jazz, making ‘art’ music instead of popular music. Although not as commercially successful as some of the more dance-oriented bands of the time (e.g. Benny Goodman), his work would later be recognized as some of the most ingenious musical compositions in the genre.
  • Charlie Parker is the father of Bebop, a form of jazz less concerned with the swing rhythm and simple melodies. He and Dizzy Gillespie characterized the form with their super-fast and complex melodies. When challenged about the seemingly off notes he played in his solos, Parker famously said, “there are no wrong notes if you play them in the right context.”
  • The relationships between band leaders and sidemen are numerous and intertwined. All the greats started as sidemen, ascended as leaders, took on new sidemen, who then ascended as the next generation of leaders. Miles Davis is a great example. In the late 40’s Davis at 19 years of age, was one of Dizzy Gillespie’s sidemen. In the 50s and 60s, Davis fostered talents under him like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans. Each of them went on to be giants of jazz in later years.
  • As with any art form, jazz was shaped not only by its players but by its environment. The advent of the railway, racism, WWII, the rise of television, and the 60s protest ethos all had a significant impact on what kinds of jazz proliferated and diminished through the years. “Free Jazz,” for example, emerged in the 60s when conformity to the norms of the 50s was viewed as artistic compromise.
  • As the big band era gave way to the modern jazz era, some big bands carried on into the 70s. One of the most long-lived was lead by a Japanese-American woman named Toshiko Akiyoshi who, to date, has garnered 14 Grammy nominations. Akiyoshi was discovered in 1952 by Oscar Peterson. She was the first Japanese student at Berklee. Her daughter is Monday Michiru, a well known vocalist in contemporary House and Dance music.
  • Miles Davis’ 1969 release, Bitches Brew, is the progenitor of jazz fusion, most remarkably, the construction of jazz compositions around electronic instruments.