© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
At this point in my Jazz listening, when I come across a lengthy solo that has numerous elements in it that I haven’t heard before, I’m pretty much stunned.
I mean, I’ve heard so much Jazz that when I come across a well-constructed, nonrepetitive and exciting solo that just keeps getting better and better with constant surprises, it is akin to the the out-of-body experiences I had on a few occasions while playing Jazz. In a word, they are rare.
But such was the case recently when I put guitarist Jake Langley’s take on Dexter Gordon’s Jazz Standard - Cheese Cake.
There’s the first of the anomalies - a guitarist playing a tenor saxophonist’s Jazz standard. The angularity of the former doesn’t often lend itself to the fluidity of the latter. To put this another way - how many guitarist versions have you heard of Monk’s music? [Peter Bernstein has a good one out in case you are interested].
It’s a challenge because the notes don’t fall the same way on strings and frets as they do when using reeds and keys.
A partial explanation for what is so staggering about Jake’s staggering solo on Cheese Cake are his staggering chops. He has an amazing technique. But great facility on an instrument that isn’t in the service of expressing interesting musical ideas or as it is stated today - that doesn’t tell a story - doesn’t do much for me.
Fresh ideas - improvised lines that I had not heard before - swiftly and skillfully expressed without repetition or “resting places” [musical cliches that are safe harbors while the mind thinks of where it’s going next in the improvisation] are another element that made me stand up and take notice of Jake’s great work on Dexter’s original composition.
But perhaps that most telling explanation for why Jake’s solo is so striking can be found by spending some time on his website and discerning the kind of music he’s been into. When you do, you suddenly realize that he comes at the process of improvisation from starting points that are not purely Jazz-based. He is not, per se, “a Jazz musician” in any traditional sense of that term.
He’s into a whole array of stylistic influences that were commonly referred to as Jazz-Rock Fusion when it first appeared in the late 1960’s, but he approaches Jazz-Rock Fusion with a style that has been brought forward by another half-century of influences. Jazz has always drawn inspiration from other forms and styles of music and this is no less the case now a hundred-plus years after its inception.
Although there is a heavy Pat Martino “undercarriage” to the manner in which Jake picks - literally - his phrases, the phrases themselves are very much new and different, which is what makes them so startling to an accustomed listener of the music.
Another quality in Jake solos is the unflagging, irrepressible nature of the way in which the improvised ideas are expressed: he just keeps bringing it and bringing it and bringing it. It’s almost as though he channeling the solo from a portion of his subconscious mind that’s playing it for him.
Dexter Gordon’s flowing fluid solo on his Blue Note version of Cheese Cake is also very forward moving and constantly inventive but with a difference: Dex plays behind-the-beat; his expressions are more laconic.
I suspect that the main reason for this is Dexter’s heavy-indebtedness to the tenor saxophonist Lester Young who was among the first to adopt a laissez-faire approach on the instrument.
But this debt to Pres [Billie Holiday’s nickname for Lester - “The President”] doesn’t end there because Dexter’s Cheese Cake is based on Lester Young’s Tickle Toe, an uptempo, “flag-waver” that Lester made popular during his tenure with the Basie Band in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
For those of you who are really into Jazz Obscura, Phil Schaap, the Jazz authority offers this arresting account of where Lester Young conceived the idea for Tickle Toe.
“Lester Young took the second 6-bar improvised passage by Bix Beiderbecke (after wildman Harry Barris stops scatting) from take two of When (comp. Walter Donaldson) in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra recording of March 12, 1928, and fleshed it out into the concluding strain of his own composition, Tickle Toe, first recorded on March 19, 1940 by the Count Basie Orchestra. The fact that Bix’s solo bit is two bars shy of a typical 8-bar phrase is in part responsible for the two bar repeat (or “tag”) in the final passage of Tickle Toe.”
What a journey!
Jake Langley’s blistering version of Cheese Cake can be found on his Diggin’ In CD [Alma ACD14292] on which he performs with the ineffable Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 Organ and Terry Clarke on drums.
I thought I’d have fun with the “Pin-up girl” Cheese Cake slang expression by spotlighting Jake’s solo on the tune in the following video as set to images of Alberto Vargas and other practitioners of “The Art of the Pin-up.”