If I had to choose one hard bop album for a desert island, and if Sonny Clark’s Leapin’ and Lopin’ did not exist, then the task would be difficult. But it exists: incredible, geometrical, funky, focused.
The trash can of my mind
In 1928 Sonny Clay’s jazz band started a tour in Australia. They were quite successful, a bit too much for the times maybe; after it was found that some white-skinned Australian women were engaging in fornication with dark-skinned musicians, the whole band was deported, and Australia decided to ban Afro-American musicians from visiting their country and spoiling the gene pool. The ban was only lifted 26 years later, for Louis Armstrong.
Phineas Newborn’s rendition of Lush Life on his 1961 recording, A World of Piano, shows in a particularly clear way the influence that early XXth century French composers (notably Debussy and Ravel) had on jazz musicians. Phineas is by far not alone in this position.
The version of Gillespie’s Bebop recorded by Kenny Barron, Charlie Haden and the bebop veteran Roy Haynes in 1995 builds a second layer of signification above the programmatic title of the old standard. In 1995, what has been called bebop in the 40’s has now become classical music; what has been once revolutionary has become part of our common, unconscious musical vocabulary. Barron, far from trying to play it as if he was still living in the bebop era, delivers a profound, dark, minor-keyed, medium-paced discourse. There is absolutely no nostalgia here. Instead, Barron’s Bebop is all about history and memory: it reveals the quiet, angry fire that was behind the fireworks.
The times of Mary Lou Williams and Nina Simone (and of Rosa Parks!) are gone, and afro-american women can now be full-fledged, internationally known pianists, since a couple of dozen years already. My favorite is Geri Allen, who displays a slightly Monk-esque approach of the keyboard. Not without humour, on the cover of her recording Twenty-One, recorded in 1994, Geri Allen appears in the full glamorous attire of the traditional jazz singer: black dress, silk gloves, jewelry. This goes without saying: it’s of course not possible to play piano with gloves like these.
Mary Lou Williams has been one of the rare female jazz instrumentists of the swing and bebop eras. At that time, if you were an afro-american woman and wanted to make a career in music, the only way was to be a singer. (Similarly, Mingus writes that if you were an afro-american cellist, the only way to make a career in music was to switch to double-bass.) Nina Simone, for example, although an excellent pianist, made herself known as a singer; Mary Lou Williams, who did not sing, remained relatively in obscurity, in spite of the respect and admiration shown to her by such artists as Thelonious Monk or Charlie Parker.
Nina Simone’s version of Good Bait, the well-known swing standard by Tadd Dameron (photo), demonstrates how much an underrated pianist she was. All the history of keyboard is evoked here: from Bach’s preludes until the afro-american composers who renewed the instrument at the start of the XXth century. Worth a couple dozen listenings.
One of Charles Mingus’ compositions has been released under three titles. Which one is the right one? On Mingus Ah Um, it’s Better Git It in Your Soul, while it’s known as Better Git Hit in Your Soul on Mingus live at Antibes; finally Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus lists it as Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul.
The user interface and data model that popular software uses for categorizing music files proves to be woefully inaccurate as soon as you don’t listen solely to the usual mainstream pop/rock form of music that emerged in the 60s.
That said, shelves are inaccurate, too. Where am I supposed to file this one?