Apr 28, 2016

The Challenging Sound of Stan Kenton's Progressive Orchestra Music

Many critics loved Stan Kenton's Music, and like many geniuses work, some hated it.

Being the odd ball I am with my listening tastes, typically leaning toward the progressive side of the spectrum, it's no surprise that of all the big bands that were born around WWII, Kenton's music would resonate the most with me.

Stan Kenton's more progressive music is not an easy listen most of the time. Much of his best work is complex, and demands focused listening.

I don't want to scare you away by this talk of complexity, we aren't talking the avant-garde of Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton.  Kenton just didn't always swing like Basie, if ever, and the classical influences were heavily pronounced.

Any of the Johnny Richards or Bill Holman arranged records are a must listen I believe. Albums Like Cuban Fire and Viva Kenton with the the authentic Latin vibe showcase some of the better commercial albums from Kenton.

Wow! City of Glass is seriously advanced for 1947-1953

This period with Bob Graettinger's arranging is vastly underrated in the history of jazz. With all the great Kenton arrangers, Russo and Holman, Ruggulo and Richards, Graettinger might be the most important of them all.

Graettinger nearly ruined Kenton's career, as the dancers did not dig it apparently. This music foreshadows some of the later career work by saxophonist Sam River, albums like his Impulse Records release Crystals, and the Rivbea Orchestra music come to mind.

Graettinger died from lung cancer at the age of 33, an arranger lost in jazz history within Kenton's own lost period. Unfortunately because he was associated with Kenton, who in his own right in underrated, Graettinger will likely never get his full due.

Bob Graettinger's City of Glass

"Artistry in Rhythm" Kenton's signature tune

The track below "Artistry in Rhythm", Stan's first big hit, is a good place to start with Kenton to get an idea how different his music was in the mid 40's compared to people like Count Basie and Artie Shaw.

 Remember: This music is now over 70 years old, and still has a progressive edge to it.

Chamber Jazz

Kenton's music could be difficult, almost a chamber jazz of sorts. Much of the time his music wasn't danceable, many different arrangers like Bill Holman and Johnny Richards wrote charts for Kenton.

These arrangers were allowed to stretch the music to the limit. Kenton's paranoia, especially early in his career about sounding too much Like Ellington or Basie Lead to almost a complete stripping out of the Blues in his music, swing was a 4 letter word if you will.

 This ultimately was not a great choice in my opinion, the lack of blues, but it did offer a unique style that was completely original.

This no swing philosophy somewhat changed when artists like drummer Mel Lewis, saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, and Art Pepper joined his band. Kenton also enjoyed some commercial success with singer June Christy and The Four Freshman. For me, Kenton's best music combines all of these elements "swing & blues" with his progressive jazz sound. An album like Adventures in Jazz comes to mind. The perfect balance of modern progressive jazz and swing, a more commercial vibe is ultimately more satisfying for the listener.

 As the 70's arrived, Kenton relaxed this limited swing rule a lot, and actually swung like crazy and had some of his most underrated recordings during that decade, many times rivaling his best 50's and 60's work.

Some of my favorites come from the 1970's era:

 Almost all of Kenton's Early to mid 70's albums are all tremendous. At the time Stan had a very young band with him, and that creative spirit really lead to some good music to my ears, plus contemporary music of the day found its place in the Music.

One of my personal favorite albums, is Stan Kenton Plays Chicago, this was a tribute of sorts to the rock band Chicago, who is also a band I rather like.

Apr 25, 2016

Miles Davis You're Under Arrest: Perhaps a Silly Cover, but the Music Isn't Bad at All

You're Under Arrest is considered one of the worst album covers in jazz history. Miles' playing dress up as a gangster is certainly not befitting the Legacy of jazz's dark prince right?

...but looking at the cover, is it really that bad? I don't know, somehow Miles still manages to look cool.

Because of the cover being so maligned, I think that  bad reputation has followed the music. For years I did not listen to it because of the critic's view of it.

Thankfully I have learned over the years that these critics aren't always right, and in fact, many times despite their disdain, it virtually promises I'll like the music. You're Under Arrest is one such album:  The entire electric music period 68-91, including the 1980's music of Miles is far better than neo-con jazz critics will have you believe. Compare it to Kind of Blue, of course the 80's music will fail to live up to those grand masterpieces.

Does that automatically make this album not worth listening to? That's the issue for me, don't miss out on this, and other 80's Miles albums because some jazz snob said Miles sold out or dared to fuse r&b into his style.

There's also enough of that voodoo funk think going on from the 72-75 years to satisfy fans of that. It's not as raw, but I think Miles hung on to that vibe until the end, he just rounded the corners off with the smother production. The live albums in the 80's really prove this out.

Johnny Richards: Discover this Progressive Big Band Leader Through His Mosaic Select #17 Set

Everyone knows inside and outside of jazz the name Duke Ellington, and perhaps Stan Kenton?

Within progressive jazz circles, arrangers Gil Evans was well known. In the 70's Don Ellis threatened to be a household name, but died at the age of 44 in 1978.

Band Leader Stan Kenton wasn't everyone's cup of tea, his brand of jazz didn't swing heavily a good portion of the time, and as far as popular jazz critic go, that's a cardinal sin.

Perhaps Kenton's finest arranger, and one of the most swinging was very likely Johnny Richards (1911-1968). Outside of Bob Graettinger, Richards was certainly the most progressive of the Kenton arrangers. The Latin styles he championed were also swinging and perhaps masked some of their complexity.

Apr 24, 2016

Don’t Let Jazz Conservatives Keep You From Discovering the Miles Davis Electric Period

Nearly 25 years ago I began my adventure as a multi-genre music aficionado.

It all started when a friend of mine introduced me at the age of 18 to classic Chicago style blues. Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and a more obscure but equally enthralling blues musician Johnny Shines.

I never shut out any style of music. I honestly don't even care about the genre that much, it's necessary for place keeping and pulling from your iTunes library I suppose?

I never understood those critics who get angry at musicians who fuse various music styles together. Why would they care what other people play or listen to? OK, they play so-called "real" jazz, I get it.

Early on in my music listening journey, I gravitated toward Miles Davis the most. I was amazed, perhaps even shocked at the scope of styles he developed, or had a hand in shaping over his career. I equally like the bop years, the modal years, the Gil Evans collaborations and the electric period. I love it all.

Apr 17, 2016

The Electric Music of Miles Davis Might Be His Most Groundbreaking

Miles Davis Album Cover Collage


The music of Miles Davis since 1969 has been reassessed:

The fact that a person might ask which period of Miles Davis' eras were more groundbreaking, speaks volumes by its self to me.

Also the fact that both styles seem equally popular as the years go by, surely says that Miles Davis was one of, if not the greatest jazz musician of all time.

To my way of thinking Miles' electric period, because of its critics, and it's wide cultural audience; along with the lasting scope of the music for today's musician, makes me believe that the electric period of Miles Davis may end up being farther reaching and if possible more groundbreaking than even his 50's and early to mid 60's music.

Certainly I have no issue putting the electric music on the same level as the modal, orchestral, or post bop styles he is best known for.

Honestly, as great as all the acoustic jazz was and is, that music has been discussed and dissected to death, it has already been in the jazz tradition for 50 plus years. The electric music is only now being discovered and critically considered by the masses, all be it, a new breed of younger and less conservative listener.

Miles Davis The Complete On The Corner Sessions: The Best Jazz, Funk, Rock, Ambient, and Experimental Music You'll Ever Hear

This On the Corner box is a great listen, if you have an open mind to musical forms other than traditional acoustic jazz.

This 6 CD set comprises the entire Miles Davis On the Corner and Get Up With It Albums. The set also brings one track "Ife" from Big Fun.

When you combine "Calypso Frelimo", and "He Loved Him Madly" from Get Up With It, and "Ife", you're talking 90 minutes of music immersion.

If you're not into droning funk and experimental sounds, you might not understand this music.

 I am of course into it,  and find it to be 90 minutes well spent. The main reason to get this set is for the 3 hours of rare unreleased music. These are mainly out-takes from the On The Corner and Get Up With It sessions.

 Much of this studio music went unreleased at the time, but was played out to great effect on Dark Magus, and the Japan 1975 concerts Agharta and Pangaea. "Chieftain", "Turnaround," "U-Turnaround", "Hip-skip", "What They Do", and "Minnie" are worth the price of the box in my opinion.

The Turnaround tracks are confusingly named, as "U-Turnaround" is also known as "Turnaround Phrase" I think? Oh Well, it's got a killer funk groove.

Charles Mingus' Let My Children Hear Music: Free Wheeling Powerful 70's Big Band Jazz

Here is a tasty big band recording from Charles Mingus:

Let My Children Hear Music is an obscure recording in a sense, you don't hear it mentioned in many of the Mingus best of lists. Truth is, that list is so long, 5 or 10 records usually only scrape the surface anyway.

Most people are familiar with, what many believe to be Mingus's Magnum Opus The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

 A study in Ellingtonia, Mingus's biggest influence compositionally, and one of best jazz releases of the 60's for sure.

 Let my Children Hear Music is from 1971,  the Ellington sound is not nearly as pronounced to my ears, I happen to think the track "Hobo Ho" is one of the best pieces Mingus ever did, and easily in my top 10 of Mingus compositions. His Bass playing is spectacular on the entire recording, and really drives the music to powerful heights.

Why this recording isn't as well known as other Mingus masterpieces is a mystery to me, orchestrated chaos might be a good way to described the music, at times the power of the band threatens to come apart at the seams, as with many of Mingus's best works.

Apr 16, 2016

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper - A Gripping Tale of Jazz and Heroin

A visceral reading experience:


Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper  is easily in the top 2 or 3 jazz books I have ever read.  It reads as much more than a jazz book, it's a whirlwind of hard living, trials, and tribulations about the jazz saxophonist (1925-1982).

The author of the book Laurie Pepper, the third wife and widow of Art has managed to create a book so compelling and "real", that I couldn't keep from running it over and over in my mind after reading it. Rarely have I been affected like this from a film, piece of music, or a book. Hard to believe this book hasn't been brought to the big screen by now?

The best way to describe Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper is to think in terms of it being a heroin junkie's journal, who happens to be one the greatest alto saxophonists in jazz history. You will learn that the music he made, was the only outlet he really had to express his inner pain. I like how Art is just a man in this book, warts and all, it's all there for us to see. A tortured soul, complex, but simple in many ways.

Apr 15, 2016

Seven Steps to Heaven: One of Miles Davis' Most Overlooked Albums

Seven Steps to Heaven is an album that gets lost in the shuffle. Truth is, most jazz artists of the day would have died to record something of this quality.

I have really grown to love Seven Steps to Heaven, an album originally released in 1963, and at a time when Miles was in transition, struggling to find an equal voice to his trumpet on saxophone.

 1962 was a disaster, and Miles was trying his best to find a new band after tenor man Hank Mobley didn't work out. The rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers went on to form their own trio.

Miles Finally found a saxophonist in George Coleman, who may be the most underrated of all of the Davis sideman. A lot of people mention the Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter tracks with Coleman, but usually the 3 Lyrical Blues numbers are over looked. This is a big mistake, for these are very sparse quartet performances, with Miles owning the moment.

Classic Blue Note Records You Should Have in Your Collection

 Every serious jazz collection must have a generous helping of the greatest independent jazz label of the 50's and 60's, Blue Note.

 Even some of the sessions that were made after the Liberty Records buyout of 1966 are worthy additions.

Since I am not at all a purist, I don't mind mixing in a few commercial organ jazz records, or some from the avant-garde.

I like many sub-genres of jazz, and have absolutely zero problem including albums from Brother Jack McDuff and Candido Camero, and placing them along side traditional modern jazz classics from Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, and John Coltrane.

Here's my list:

Apr 13, 2016

Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Porgy & Bess: As Good as Anything Miles Ever Did

Porgy & Bess is nearly flawless, with perfect sound. It's one of the greatest orchestra albums ever made.

This rendition of the Gershwin classic is easily one of the top 5 Miles Davis Records. Porgy is without a doubt Gil Evans' grand masterpiece.

How is it possible to improve on the original Gershwin work so much? The Davis/Evans Porgy is indeed the definitive rendition.

I think it is important to mention that I am listening to Porgy as I write this, It has been a while since I enjoyed the vinyl copy. This music will stir you, move you, and ultimately exhilarate you". The music never sounded better to me than one night in the spring several years ago: I was sitting on a second floor balcony with a steady after dusk rain falling, the temperature was around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

I clearly remember being moved so much by this instrumental music, that the hair was standing up on the back of my neck. Such is the quality of the music, and the mood enhanced by the falling rain and foggy atmosphere. It still stands out to me more than 15 years later.

If you focus deeply into the music, you will almost feel the orchestra. Tubas, flutes, and french horns, are just some of the instruments that flesh out the sultry blues even more than the original Work

Miles' vulnerable tone was made for this music, on both trumpet and flugelhorn. The track below "Prayer, Oh, Doctor Jesus" is something special indeed. I only wish I would have discovered Miles sooner than 20 years ago. Porgy has become my favorite 50's Miles album by a shade over Kind of Blue.

Apr 10, 2016

The Most Entertaining Miles Davis Books I've Read

Miles Davis is one of the greatest trumpeters, composers, and band leaders in music history.

Miles was also a very complex human being. He cut his teeth as a jazz musician with the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, and then went on to change popular music nearly a half a dozen times the next 30 years.

Miles struggled with, and beat heroin addiction early in his career, and become somewhat a mythical figure even while he was alive.

I will likely never quench my thirst for knowledge about this great artist. Whether it's newly unearthed music, or a brand new book, I am always there to grab it up.

I own 12 books about Miles Davis, sure there's a few I've read that I traded in to the used book store, because I didn't particularly like it, or it just re-hashed common information.

There are a few however that sit on my night stand, that I do like to re-read before bed, or to quickly grab for a reference.

There are plenty of Miles Davis Biographies out there, I believe Quincy Troup's book to be the one to own, not to over simplify, but I highly suggest that you read the Miles Davis Wikipedia page, as it does a fine job of providing the common facts about Miles and his musical time Periods.

3 Must Hear Tunes From Jazz Singer Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, born Eleanor Fagen (April 7, 1915 - died July 17, 1959) wrote or co wrote very few songs, though one of them does appear on this brief list, and is considered a jazz standard.

Billie wasn't a trained vocalist, she never had formal training, and never learned to read music.

 Her vocal style was a combination of gospel and blues, Lady Day lacked vocal range later in life due to alcohol and drug use, but to me, she is the quintessential jazz singer

Her voice became fragile and thin, though this in a way adds to the charm and power of her songs later in her career. Billie Holiday will always be my favorite jazz singer because she was mainly rooted in the blues, and that is always a great thing.

For this list I have chosen 3 songs that are my favorites, songs I listen to quite a bit, but any song performed by Billie Holiday is worth listening to.

 I will say, if you have a chance to get the recording or DVD of the album "Sound of Jazz" do get it, it is a Jazz summit from 1957 with Billie, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, and many other jazz's greats that was filmed specifically for a television special.

*Intro photo used with permission, via Amazon.com*

Only the Good Die Young: Groundbreaking Jazz Bassist Scott LaFaro

Scott LaFaro's (1936-1961) life was snuffed out just ten days after the recording sessions that would make him famous to jazz aficionados, and earned him the ultimate respect of fellow bassists of all genres.

Those sessions, which produced The Bill Evans Trio recordings, Live at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby solidified Lafaro's style that was unusual, in that he used a counter melody style.

At the time it seemed as if Evans and LaFaro were switching rolls, with pianist Evans playing rhythm and LaFaro leading the trio. The interplay between LaFaro, Evans, and drummer Paul Motion is nearly telepathic.

In my opinion those Village Vanguard sessions are the finest recording of piano trio jazz ever recorded. Anything can happen, very free flowing music.

While I usually start to yawn when some sort of brass or reed instrument is not used, these 1961 Vanguard recordings are a big exception for me.

The three musicians are at the top of their game in every respect, and the coalescence is quite exciting. In my life of musical discovery, it is always so incredible when you discover music like this, and realize the music in this case is over 40 years old at discovery, now over 50 years old.

Lafaro would be gone just 6 months after the Coleman Free Jazz session.

My Funny Valentine's Definitive Rendition

Did you know that the show tune "My Funny Valentine" has been performed by over 600 artists, and has appeared on over 1300 albums?

My Funny Valentine is a song originally published in 1937 with music from Richard Rodgers and Lyrics by Lorenz Hart.

"My Funny Valentine", along with "The Lady is a Tramp," became the signature tune for the 1937 musical Babes in Arms.

Ordinarily I am a fan of pop standards when performed as an instrumentals, particularly when adapted to a jazz setting.

I consider the Miles Davis rendition to be the definitive instrumental rendition, I do enjoy the Frank Sinatra vocal version as well, but:

A Classic Art Blakey and Clifford Brown Blue Note: A Night At Birdland 1954

Here is a classic Blue Note session if there ever was one.

Immortalized by trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was probably Lee Morgans greatest influence.

Talk about a date you'd like to have a time machine to go back to be in the audience that night in 1954?

A real cookin' early hard bop album featuring the leader Blakey on drums, Horace Silver on Piano, and Lou Donaldson  on alto sax.

Still though, it's hard not to focus on the tragedy of Clifford Brown:

Clifford, along with Pianist Richie Powell, and Powell's wife Nancy were killed in an automobile accident on their way to a Cleveland engagement. Powell's wife was the driver. Brown's death was a major blow to jazz, as well as the development of the trumpet's use in jazz.

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