Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chicago VII -- Yes, it's jazz

Consider the curious case of Chicago, the rock band.

This is a group that has lived several lives -- some wild, some mild. In the late 60s and early 70s, Chicago was at the cutting edge of rock. Its lead guitarist, Terry Kath, was favorably compared to Jimi Hendrix -- by Jimi himself. Its horn section sometimes featured wild improvisations bordering on avante garde and free jazz. The band rocked. It was good.

Later, of course, Chicago drowned in shmaltz, especially whenever Peter Cetera crooned a corny ballad. This was the mildest, most inoffensive band imaginable, at a time when Barry Manilow was redefining wimp music. It was awful.

In the middle, for exactly one album, Chicago morphed into something very different: a fusion band. If you blinked, you missed it.

The album is Chicago VII. It was a two-record set, with each LP representing a different style. Disc 2 was mild and tuneful, featuring the hit songs "I've Been Searching for So Long," "Wishing You Were Here" and "Call on Me." It was OK, on its own terms.

But the first LP -- that was something special. It contained 25 minutes of instrumental music. It sounded nothing like anything Chicago had done before or would do after.

For starters, consider the instrumentation. Song 1, "Prelude to Aire," featured Robert Lamm on melotron and Walter Parazaider on flute. Song 2, "Aire," featured congas. Song 3, "Devil's Sweet," featured an ARP synthesizer, had long percussion solos and was dedicated in the liner notes "to Jo and Elvin Jones for their inspiration."

Flip the record and Side 2 starts with "Italian From New York" with synthesizer beeps and boops, followed by congas, guitars and a funky beat, then a spicy wah-wah guitar solo. "Hanky Panky" follows, with Robert Lamm on the Fender Rhodes and James Pankow with a jumping little trombone solo. Finally, "Life Saver" offers a big band-ish horn section and, at last, lyrics with a Beatles tinge. The side ends with a typically schmaltzy Peter Cetera love song. (To compensate, Side 3 includes a 3-minute Latin-drenched instrumental called "Mongonucleosis.")

Is it jazz? Well, it's not Return to Forever. But its instrumental improvisation with horns and keyboards and congas. And it swings. Sounds like jazz to me, and fun, too. After that, it was all downhill.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Listening to jazz on TV

It's an oxymoron, I know, but I like listening to jazz on TV. It's better than any online jazz radio station or channel.

Here's how it works: My cable provider, Cox Communications, offers about 40 channels of music under the name Music Choice. It runs the gamut -- rock, pop, heavy metal, showtunes, easy listening, blues, Christmas music... You get the idea. Jazz is on Channel 930.

Now, most folks find new jazz music by listening to the radio, Internet channels or services like Pandora or Dizzler. I like Channel 930.

First of all, it plays an incredible mix, and it's all straight-ahead jazz. Today, I spent an hour watching Channel 930. About half the music was new, at least to me: A trombonist named Bill Cantrall. A pianist named Eric Reed (OK, he's not new; he played with Wynton Marsalis in the 1990s. But he was new to me.) An organist named Jared Gold. Half was old: Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and the MJQ.

There are no videos, just static pictures, and every song includes notes on the artist, song, album and year of release. So, for example, Channel 930 played "Splat" by Jared Gold from his 2008 album "Solids and Stripes." It's so new and unknown that Allmusic.com doesn't list the CD. Amazon sells it, but there are no reviews. (I do wish Channel 930 had at least told me what instrument Mr. Gold plays. The solists on this tune were an organist and a saxophonist. I wound up having to look him up on Wikipedia.)

So what's the big deal? Well, there's a local jazz radio show I like, but the DJ only names the songs and artists every third track. If you're not paying attention, you miss it. On Channel 930, there's no missing the title or artist.

On most songs -- but not all -- the channel also throws up bits of trivia. For Eric Reed, for example, the channel noted that he was influenced by Edwin Hawkins, Art Blakey, Ramsey Lewis and Dave Brubeck, and that he played with Marsalis in the '90s. That's nice to know. I did notice, however, that for very new artists, there is no trivia at all, so the channel just tosses up any old thing about jazz. For example, on Bill Cantrall, Channel 930 offered such un-helpful tidbits as the origin of "soul jazz" (Cantrall is not a soul jazz artist) and details on the 1945 recording of "Koko" (this was not a cover of "Koko").

Over the course of one hour, Channel 930 played 10 jazz songs. None were smooth jazz or fusion or avante garde. I like that. One, by Monk, was a version of "In Walked Bud" that I had never heard before, with Jon Henricks singing the lyrics and scatting. I liked that, too. And the MJQ song included a soloist on Spanish guitar. I had never heard that, either. I enjoyed it.

It feels silly watching jazz on a big-screen high-def TV when there's no action, no videos, just static pictures and words. But it's good. It's a waste of TV, probably, but it's also fun and informative. Now, if they could only add videos.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Are vibes a keyboard instrument?

Just wondering. I mean, it looks like a piano keyboard. Except you play it with mallets instead of fingers. It even has the sharps and flats where the black piano keys go.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How Slow Is Too Slow? -- Harry Connick Jr.

My wife has a funny expression. It's about a favorite aunt who talks very, very slowly. "You want to reach down her throat and pull out the words," my wife says.

That's exactly how I felt listening to a song on Harry Connick Jr.'s 1990 album "Lofty's Roach Souffle." I wanted to grab his fingers and force the notes out.

Now, I should note that I like this CD very much. It is strictly instrumental, which is unusual for Connick. More important, it comes closer to sounding like Thelonious Monk, without actually playing Monk's music, than anything I've heard in years. Connick has the gestures down cold. The plink and plunk and odd silences. The unlikely notes struck together. It's all the more impressive because these are original compsitions.

But I digress.

The slow tune is called "Little Dancing Girl." I'm sure there's an interesting story behind it, and maybe it's in the liner notes, but I lost them. So now all I have is this track, which runs 7:33 and feels about twice that long. I know it's a matter of preference, but I can't imagine anyone liking a song that drags... so... slowly.

In fairness, I generally prefer romps to ballads. I like swinging Sinatra more than ballad Sinatra. I like bebop Charlie Parker better than sensuous Charlie Parker. And yet, as I get older, I find myself more and more drawn to songs like "Someone To Watch Over Me." The movie "Mr. Holland's Opus" has an especially beautiful version of that classic Gershwin tune.

But this song? Maybe if I play it twice as fast I could find a tune in it. As it is... meh.

Anyway, buy this CD, definitely. But skip this track and go on to the next one, which is a bouncy New Orleans-y ride on the 88s. You'll thank me.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Peter Allen -- jazzy, but not jazz

OK, Peter Allen was not a jazz pianist. But he was still a hell of a pianist -- in the Elton John mold -- and one of the best performers I've ever seen.

By far, his best album was the live "It Is Time For Peter Allen" from 1977. What a shame he never became a superstar.

I saw Peter Allen in concert twice, both times in the early 1980s. He was always a much better performer than recording artist. On vinyl, his songs mostly seemed unenthusiastic and overproduced. In person, he was exactly the opposite. His fans were rabid, and justly so. He was the kind of charismatic, energetic performer who could attract loyal fans -- if only more knew about him.

That's why this album is so affecting. This is the Peter Allen I remember: tender on the ballads, outrageous on the uptempo numbers, and often nostalgic. This album captures that Peter Allen. His second, later live album "Captured Live at Carnegie Hall" is too mannered and overproduced, although it has its moments, too. This is the real thing.

Somewhere, I'm sure, there are more tapes of Peter Allen in concert. I'd love to hear them. Unfortunately, because his star never rose very high -- at least on vinyl -- there's probably no market in it. What a shame.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

You Can't Return to Forever

The Beatles are gone. I know that. But I keep thinking if I buy just one more Paul McCartney CD, maybe the old magic will return.

Maybe. But it never does.

Paul McCartney is like that. You know how great he was with the Beatles. You even know how great some of his solo records were. And even though you know he'll never write another "Band on the Run," and surely he'll never write another "Sgt. Pepper," you keep hoping.

Chick Corea does that to me, too.

I came to jazz through Chick Corea -- through the back door. I discovered jazz indirectly. It began with the rock bands Chicago and Emerson Lake & Palmer. With Chicago, it was the horn section. With ELP, it was the synths. ELP led directly to Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock and, yes, I confess, even "Switched on Bach."

So I discovered "Return to Forever" and "My Spanish Heart" and "Light as a Feather." That led me to acoustic Chick, including one of my very favorite jazz records, his two-piano duets with Herbie Hancock. Not only is it great music, but it reminds me of a very happy time in my life. Just like Paul and the Fabs.

But then years passed. Chick Corea put out more albums. Some were good, some were so-so, but none seemed as good to my ears as the Chick Corea of old.

Then last year I heard on the radio cuts from a new Chick Corea album, "The Ultimate Adventure." It sounds just like old Return to Forever! The magic was back! I had to have it! So I bought it. And now, after a year of repeated listening, I have to admit: It's good, but not classic.

There are moments. Complex rhythms. Flightly flutes. Middle Eastern motifs. Latin tinges. Both piano AND synths. But no memorable melodies. I know I shouldn't, but I can't help comparing it to 1970s Chick. And while I enjoy it, it's not the same. Maybe it's unfair to think it would be.

So it's OK to enjoy a new Paul McCartney CD now and then, but I never fool myself into thinking the next one will be "Rubber Soul." Unfortunately, I did fool myself for a little while about "The Ultimate Adventure." It's good. I like it in small doses. But Thomas Wolfe was right. You can can't go home again. You can never Return to Forever.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Art Tatum -- Trio Days

I was wrong. I like Art Tatum. But in a slightly different way.

My introduction to Art Tatum, many years ago, was a series of solo piano albums. They left me cold.

No question, the man was gifted beyond belief. He could play faster, more accurately and with a greater sense of fun and originality than almost any pianist between Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk. And yet his solo work never felt right to me. Something always seemed missing. In the end, it's a matter of taste.

Recently I picked up a discarded CD from my public library for the rock-bottom price of $1. It's Art Tatum's "Trio Days." It's a no-name compilation of Tatum's piano-guitar-bass trio from 1942-44.

This I like. And now I know why.

From the very first song, I thought, "Oh my God! He's taking Fats Waller's stride and taking it one step further." I love that. Then I realized something else. The trio sounds exactly like Nat King Cole's trio from the very same period, right down to the guitarist. In fact, I had to check the liner notes to make sure it wasn't the same guitarist. It's not. Cole played with Oscar Moore; Tatum played with Tiny Grimes. But they sound absolutely identical, in a very good way.

At first, I thought Tatum's trio was the missing link between Waller and Cole. I figured Cole was copying the master. Turns out it's the other way around. After reading the liner notes, I now know it was Cole who set the mark with his popular jazz trio and Tatum who came a couple years later with a very similar trio. Not that it's an exact copy. Clearly Tatum is the superior pianist. And his bassist sometimes bows his instrument. And Tatum never sings. Otherwise, their trios are remarkably similar.

Anyway, if the only thing you know about Art Tatum are his acclaimed solo works, you need to find his trio works, too. For me, it was an eye-opener.

For an excellent profile of Tatum on NPR, click here.