Thursday, June 30, 2016

Jessica Williams Revisited

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


I first “met” Jessica around 1980. This was back in the days when one could kill a few minutes waiting for a business appointment or a luncheon while perusing the local record store.

Usually privately-owned and operated, every community in southern California seem to have one and some of these Mom-and-Pop stores even had a Jazz section.

It was during one such diversions that I noticed an LP in the cut-out bin by Jessica Jennifer Williams entitled Orgonomic Music [Clean Cuts CC703]. On the back of the album sleeve was the following quotation by Wilhelm Reich:

"Love, work and knowledge are the well-springs of our life. They should also govern it.”

I didn’t know who Reich was, nor did I know anything about “Jessica Jennifer Williams” and the only musician in the sextet featured on the album that I was [barely] familiar with was trumpet player Eddie Henderson.

But what the heck, Philip Elwood of The San Francisco Examiner said of Jessica that she was a devotee of Reich’s whose sentiments I agreed with, the LP was only a buck, so I gave it a shot.

Boy, am I glad I did. I’ve been listening to everything I can get my hands on by Jessica ever since.

However, it wasn’t until 1992, thanks to a fortuitous business trip to San Francisco, that I had the opportunity to hear Jessica in person as a part of pianist Dick Whittington’s on-going Maybeck Recital Hall series.

I “stayed close” to Jessica’s music in the 1990’s thanks to my association with Philip Barker, the owner of Jazz Focus Records for whom Jessica made a number of recordings including her Arrival CD which has the distinction of being the very first disc issued by Philip’s label [JFCD001].


Thanks to a tip from Gene Lees in one of his JazzLetters, I was also able to score one of the limited edition [1,000] Joyful Sorrow compact discs that Blackhawk Records issued as her solo piano tribute to the late, Bill Evans.

It was recorded at The Jazz Station, CarmelCA on September 15, 1996 on the 16th anniversary of Bill’s death.

Sadly, too, The Jazz Station in Carmel is no more, but Joyful Sorrow endures as just about my all-time favorite Jessica recording.


Thankfully, Jessica has subsequently released quite a number of solo piano and trio Jazz recordings, many of which are available as audio CD’s and Mp3 downloads.

Jessica is a powerful and pulsating pianist.  He music literally “pops” out at the listener it’s so full of energy and enthusiasm.

She records many solo piano albums, a format which can sometimes be a recipe for self-indulgence and excessive displays of technique.  But Jessica’s music is always tasteful and informed. You can hear the influences from the Jazz tradition in her playing, but you also hear innovative probing and forays into her unique conception of what she is trying to say about herself and how she hears the music.

Her touch on the instrument is such that she makes the piano SOUND! It rings clear and resonates as it only can in the hands of a masterful pianist.

As Grover Sales, the distinguish author and lecturer on Jazz has commented:

“Jessica Williams belongs to that exclusive group Count Basie dubbed "the poets of the piano" that includes Roger Kellaway, Sir Roland Hanna, Ellis Larkins, Jaki Byard, Bill Mays, Alan Broadbent, Cedar Walton, the late Jimmy Rowles and of course, Bill Evans. All share in common a thorough working knowledge of classic piano literature from pre-Bach to contemporary avant garde as well as the classic jazz tradition from Scott Joplin to the present.

All developed an astonishing and seemingly effortless technique that enabled them to venture anywhere their fertile imaginations wished to take them. All take to heart the dictum of Jelly Roll Morton in his epic 1938 interview for the Library of Congress: ‘No pianist can play jazz unless they try to give the imitation of a band.’

 And for all of their varied influences from Earl Hines to Bill Evans and beyond, all are instantly identifiable—unique in the literal sense of this often misused word.”


Writing in the insert booklet to Jessica’s Maybeck Hall CD [Concord CCD-4525], Jeff Kaliss notes:

“It's all there in the first track. Within a few choruses, Jessica Williams shows her hand, or hands: the harmonies in seconds (hit way off to the side of the piano), the punchy attack, the dust-devils in the upper octaves, the nutty quotes. It's familiar Jessica, but she's got plenty up her sleeve for the rest of this remarkable entry in the Maybeck menagerie. …

She came to my awareness as a word-of-mouth legend, a Baltimore-bred genius whose history and personality were said to be as mysterious and unpredictable as her keyboard inventions. As soon as I got to hear her, I was into the reality of her spontaneous magic and not much concerned with the legend. …

[She] has remained a best-kept secret … commanding awe and quiet in the clubs she visited … [her playing] filled with energy and imagination.”

One gets more about her sense of “energy and imagination” when one reads the following notes that Jessica wrote about herself and her music for her Intuition CD [Jazz Focus JFCD 010]:

“I'm occasionally asked where I studied to learn to do what I do; who taught me, what "tricks" are involved, what secrets enable me, how does the process occur... how does one "distill magic out of the air?" The truth is that there are no practice techniques, no miracle drugs, no mantras, no short-cuts to creativity. I tell them that I've played piano since I was four, that I've played jazz since I was twelve, that I've never taken another job doing anything except what I've always known I should be doing in this life: playing music. And maybe that's a part of the answer, if indeed there is one. It's about Castenada's PATHCampbell's BLISS; you follow it no matter where it leads, and over many years you learn to control it, channel it, allow it to happen.

You become the bow; the arrow is the gift. You never fully own it, just as you can never explore all of its depths, because it springs from the infinite possibilities within you. In this realm, your only ally, your only guide, is intuition. It is seeing instead of looking, knowing instead of believing, being instead of doing. It is Coltrane on the saxophone, Magic Johnson on the court, Alice Walker on the printed page; it is the primary intuition of "right-brained" activity, the birthing of idea into existence.

Perhaps it cannot be taught, but it certainly can be shared...and it is in the sharing that we all experience the best parts of ourselves. We instinctively intuit our organic truth; when we learn to live it, our planet could be paradise.

Your dreams are your sacred truth. …”

You can listen to Jessica’s quite stunning pianism on the audio track of the following video tribute to her on which she performs Alone Together from the Joyful Sorrow Bill Evans tribute CD.



Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Organ in Jazz - Part 2

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“WHILE BILL DAVIS, Doggett, and Jackie  Davis were slowly but irrevocably organizing the bars and grills of America, the whole process was repeated in a new cycle.

A young pianist in Philadelphia, inspired in 1953 by Bill Davis, decided to change over to organ. It took Jimmy Smith a year or two of constant practice to build a technique and style that were as far removed from Bill Davis' as Davis' had been from Waller's. Smith formed a trio in September, 1955, and was heard a few months later on a gig at the Cafe Bohemia in New York City.

If the first exposure to Davis had turned some musicians around, the reaction to Smith had them upside down. Because so many albums have gone over the counter since 1956, and because electronic organs of late have suffered from the overexposure that invariably leads to boredom among the critics, it is difficult to realize just how fantastic Smith sounded and how incredible his command of the instrument was and still remains.

Part of Smith's success lay in his extraordinary selection of stops. Not being an organist I can't go into technical details, but a comparison of his sounds with those of any on records made before 1956 will reveal that Smith had indeed developed new combinations that gave the instrument unheard-of tonal variety and color, greater rhythmic impact, and a broader range of dynamics and moods.

One of Smith's most effective devices was the extensive use of what would normally be called pedal-points, though manual-points would be a more appropriate term. One hand may hold a note or chord while the other embarks on a wild series of eighths or a jagged row of rhythmic punctuations of the kind that have led to the comparison of his lines with the urgency of a Morse code transmission.

The Morse-code analogy having been used to his detriment by some Smith detractors, it is important to point out that the harmonic and melodic value of Smith's work is at least as important and that the open secret of his phenomenal success has been a blend of accomplishments on all four levels —  tonal, rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic.

The number of Smith-inspired organists probably runs into the hundreds. Yet the pattern established by admirers of Bill Davis has been repeated: the original excitement and enthusiasm shown by fellow musicians and critics has abated, to be replaced by a far broader, though less analytical, audience of listeners who, in essence, are rhythm-and-blues fans, night-club or bar-and-grill patrons in search of a little excitement as a background for libation.

The post-Smith artists being too numerous to list in full, space permits only the singling out of a couple others who, in one way or another, have made a meaningful contribution to the history of jazz organ.


Outstanding among these is Shirley Scott, not only because she was the first girl to conquer the instrument, but because her work combines some of the most valuable elements of both the Bill Davis and Smith schools. Her early recordings with Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis in 1958 led critic John Tynan to hail her as "an outstanding jazz organist, modern yet rooted deep in the blues, and with ample technique to implement her wide-ranging imagination." Miss Scott's recordings with her own trio in the last couple of years have confirmed this early impression.

Duke Ellington, George Shearing, and many others who have heard him in Chicago swear by the gifts of Les Strand. Strand made an LP some years ago (no longer available) but has had little exposure in proportion to the degree of ability with which his patrons have credited him.

THE PRESENT STATE of the organ in jazz is anomalous. It is almost the only instrument that has suffered from being associated with a particular school of jazz. The reason for the qualifying "almost" is that just as the organ lately has been identified with rhythm-and-blues, the clarinet has suffered through its almost-exclusively psychological link with the swing era.

There is no logical reason for this situation. The strictly organ-ic quality of the early Waller and Basic efforts ultimately was shown to be replaceable by a harder-swinging, more vital sound. Similarly, there is no need to assume that the rhythm-and-blues funk of the present-day organist flanked by guitar and drums (frequently with a tenor saxophone replacing or supplementing the guitar) represents the last and only context for the organ.

What has been accomplished to date, despite the staggering impression made not so long ago when Jimmy Smith arrived on the scene, is only a small segment of what could and probably will be achieved in due course. There is no reason why all organists should play in the currently accepted styles, no reason why so many organists should be former not-very-successful pianists who took up the instrument for strictly commercial purposes, no reason why the potential of the organ should not be drawn out to its fullest extent through its adoption by musicians in the "new thing" or atonal movement.

Greater overall musicianship — that is to say, complete and correct technical command of the organ's seemingly insuperable difficulties, combined with a thorough harmonic sense and a feeling for the newer movements in contemporary jazz—can lift the organ to a plateau on which it will no longer be rejected by critics as a novelty or condemned as a funk machine.

There is also, it seems, no reason why a conflict should exist between organists and bass players. It would be fascinating to conduct a survey of how many bassists have lost work in the past seven years as a result of the organ craze. (On the other hand, an even larger number of guitarists and tenor saxophonists should be thankful for its arrival, since a tremendous amount of employment was created for them.) The theory seems to be that the bassist's notes at best will merely duplicate or at worst conflict with what the organist's left foot is doing.

If the organist has not developed an adequate pedal technique, it is possible to play the bass notes on the keyboard, though this has the effect of confining the soloist to one hand. On the other hand—or rather on the other foot—if a bass player Is present, it is possible to use the foot pedals in a different way, for punctuations or the bottoms of chords, much the way a tuba is sometimes incorporated nowadays into a band that already has a string bass player to take care of the normal bass role.

The situation concerning the relationship between bassist and organist was brought sharply into focus for some a few months ago during the taping of a Vi Redd album for Atlantic. The LP was cut in two sessions, one in New York, the other in Hollywood. On the first session, Ben Tucker was provided with bass parts by organist Hyman; the bassist seemed perfectly at ease, and the rhythm section benefited from it, On the other date, Leroy Vinnegar was on bass, and the organ was played by a very talented young woman named Jennell Hawkins; but this was a more informal session with little or no written music, and at one point Vinnegar complained of feeling redundant.

The solution was simple: if the organist and bassist understand and follow each other, they can complement rather than interfere.

The future of jazz organ may well lie not only in its use by musicians of the most avant-garde inclinations but also by its incorporation into larger units in which it will not have such an overpowering effect. As the dominant voice in a trio or quartet, it can easily get to be a bore. As a comparatively little fish in a big orchestral pond, it can be used with greater discretion. Even though there was nothing startlingly different in what Richard Holmes played on his LP with the Gerald Wilson Band the album is important just for this reason.

Instead of its present status as a sound that is merely pleasing, or at best stimulating, but without much musical food for serious thought, the organ eventually can develop into one of the major voices in modern jazz.

Musicians will enter the scene who have played organ, and nothing else, from childhood. Serious composers will arise whose ideas have been created and expressed through this extraordinarily capacious medium. Critical apathy or opposition will subside as young organists, quite possibly taking advantage of new models' glissandos and other innovations, begin to show the new directions opening up.

It may not happen in the next couple of years, but there should be a better than 50-50 chance of such developments before another generation rolls around. One need only examine the enormous strides made from Waller to Smith. If all this could happen between the early 1940s and the late 1950s, the big wave of the future may be closer than we think.”

 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Organ in Jazz - Part 1

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Other than a comprehensive retrospective in Barry Kernfeld’s The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz which was edited and reprinted in 1995 and Christopher Washburne’s two page reference as part of his essay entitled Miscellaneous Instruments in Jazz which is included in Bill Kirchner, editor, The Oxford Companion to Jazz [2000], the following history of Jazz organ by Leonard Feather is the best overview of the organ’s history that I’ve yet to come across although it is limited by the fact that it was published in the October 24, 1963 edition of Down Beat and therefore couldn’t include references to current masters such as Larry Goldings, Barbara Dennerlein and the sublime Joey DeFrancesco.


Like the harmonica and the accordion, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the appropriateness of the instrument in a Jazz setting: usually Jazz fans either love it or hate it.


I am a big fan of the organ in Jazz, and have been ever since I heard Jimmy Smith’s  Hammond B-3 performances on his Blue Note recordings from the 1950’s and 60’s.


Because of its length, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is offering this feature in two-parts.


“ON Nov. 17, 1926, at the Victor studios in Camden, N.J., a 22-year-old pianist named Fats Waller changed his name, for a couple of hours, back to Thomas Waller. There was reason for more dignified billing on the record label when St. Louis Blues and Lenox Avenue Blues were released: on this unprecedented occasion Waller had reverted to an instrument he often referred to as his first love, the pipe organ.


This was the beginning of the long, slowly developed first chapter in the history of jazz organ. The second, which was not to begin for a full decade, stemmed from the first use on records of the modern electronic organ. The third chapter was launched in 1950 when two tunes were cut for a single 78-rpm release by Bill Davis, who brought a comparatively modern sound to the electronic organ. The fourth and most productive chapter began, of course, with the arrival in 1956 of Jimmy Smith and the subsequent mass organization of ex-pianists (and of bars and grills) from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Me.


To view this sequence of developments in correct perspective, one must admit a priori that the organ at first had no basic relationship to jazz and seemed like a complete outsider, a freak novelty. The fact of its extensive church use had less bearing on the matter than might have been expected, though Waller once tried to imply a link by recording pipe organ solo versions (in a predominantly reverent, only occasionally jazz-tinged manner) of a half-dozen Negro spirituals. (There was occasional use of organs on early Negro religious records, but the organ attributed to Fred Longshaw on some Bessie Smith 1925 sides was merely a harmonium.)

The lack of any strong association between the organ and traditional jazz does not seem as relevant when one takes into account the fact that at one time even the saxophones were regarded as outsiders, maverick horns brought in from the world of brass bands, and that just about every instrument introduced to jazz was a seemingly irrelevant innovation at one stage or another.


The real reasons for the delay in the organ's acceptance were, first, the lack of accessibility of the instrument and the unusual expense involved in buying or renting one (this remained true even after the invention of the electronic version); second, the extraordinary demands placed on the performer.


Although virtually all jazz organists today are former pianists, the piano is a limited proving ground. Switching to organ, of course, involves many new elements: the use of multiple keyboards; of a vast variety of stops, endless combinations of which must be employed; and of the left foot, not merely to pay out the time, but also to play walking single-note lines on pedals that are arranged like the black and white notes on the keyboard, i.e. chromatically.


The use of the foot gives the most trouble. As Dick Hyman says(“I am indebted to Dick Hyman for his assistance in the writing of the technical passages. L.G.F.), "I know of no jazz or pop organist who can do the unbelievable things that Bach organ pieces call for. Playing foot pedals is the beginner's chief problem; continual practice and co-ordination are needed, akin to that between drummer's hand-and-foot relationship."


Obviously there is a great difference in technique involved in playing the various organ models now available to the beginner.


Pipe organs were originally just that, with air resonating in pipes, some open and some stopped, some with reeds, etc., and in the early days using bellows operated by a second person, until electrification arrived. After the early church use, pipe organs were adapted to theaters. They had many percussive instruments actually built in: xylophones, drums, cymbals, glockenspiels, celestes, even pianos, as well as a variety of sound effects.


The electronic organ changed all this. It was claimed that the electric models could synthesize any tone from nine drawbars, individually manipulating and controlling the primary tone (eight feet), and the octave below (16 feet), the octave above (four feet), the octave above that (two feet), harmonics (5 1/3, 2 2/3, and others) that produce various fifth or third overtones. The sum total was a virtually infinite variety of tonal combinations. (The lengths listed in feet refer to the proportionate length of the pipes; these terms are still in use even though the actual pipes are not.)

The tones can be modified also by a built-in vibrato with several degrees of rapidity and waver, and there is now a universally used speaker, the Leslie, that rotates in separate woofer and tweeter units.


One new model of organ is, quite literally, something else. It has two speakers, one for each manual (keyboard), used separately or together, one a Leslie and one not, so that both types of speaker effect can be obtained together or alternately. In addition to a built-in reverberation, this new model has a "glide-pedal" that gives the player the fascinating and unique facilities for actually dipping into a tone or bending a note.


The only jazz musician who has experimented extensively with this model is Hyman, but further work with it may well lead, it seems, to the first major post-Smith step in jazz organ.


The organ touch has to differ from the piano's, because the tone stops instantly on release of the key and furthermore is not affected by the strength with which the key is struck. The loud-soft pedal must be used, a more legato style must be developed, and there is no equivalent of the way a pianist uses the sustaining pedal, though some models can approximate the piano sustaining-pedal effect through optional use of reverberation.



UNFORTUNATELY THE TIME has not yet come when jazz can claim to have developed musicians who started as organists rather than as pianists. When that day arrives, a whole new perspective may open up; meanwhile, the field is crowded with organists many of whom have an adequate but imperfect technique, most of whom studied piano but were self-taught as organists. Certainly Waller could have done much more for the organ had he been given the opportunity to study and play more often. On eight of the dozen tracks in the album Fats Waller in London [Capitol T 10258], Waller played a Compton pipe organ. "I'll never forget sitting down at the console of that magnificent organ in the HMV studio on the outskirts of London," he said later. "It reminded me of that Wurlitzer grand I played at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem when I was a kid 16 years old. I had myself a ball that afternoon, and the records really came easy." In addition to the six spirituals, which he did as organ solos, Fats played organ on two other tracks (Ain't Misbehavin' and Don't Try Your Jive on Me) with a British combo. These tracks are possibly the only examples now extant of an organ teaming successfully with an improvising swing-era combo. (The 1935 I Believe in Miracles, cut with a sextet in this country, may still be obtainable in The Real Fats Waller, Camden 473.)


Waller, though he rarely played organ in public, was no novice, of course; he had an organ in his home and often sat at it for many hours playing spirituals, hymns, and Bach fugues. It is said that he once named the three greatest men in history as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Johann Sebastian Bach, in that order.


Despite the problem of being weighed down by the somewhat bloated, diffuse sound so often produced on pipe organ — the   kind   that   used  to  be  boasted about in movie theater ads as "mighty" — Waller managed to make the monster swing. He had, as they say, the right touch, the light touch.

Nevertheless, when he first tried out the electronic organ a couple of years later at a Chicago session waxed in January, 1940. the less  cumbersome sound and the possibility of swinging  more  naturally were immediately apparent. The electronic organ obviously tended to facilitate an attack and genuine rhythmic pulsation such as could rarely be obtained from the mighty ones.


Waller recorded a number of tunes on the electronic model during the last four years of his life (he died in December, 1943), but almost all the best items have been cut out of the RCA Victor catalog; most, in fact, were never issued on LP at all. An album of electronic organ tracks featuring Waller and his 1940-42 groups (including, of course, Jitterbug Waltz) would be an appropriate release in these organ-oriented days. There were even one or two numbers on which he managed to swing a big band from the organ.


Aside from his own performances, the only organ records of any moment during Waller's lifetime were a solitary 1939 side on pipe organ by Count Basie with his band, Nobody Knows, now unavailable; a remarkable session on which Lester Young played as a side-man with a pseudo-jazz organist, Glenn Hardman; and a series of Decca 78s that were more notable for the piano of Willie (The Lion) Smith than for the pioneering but corny electronic organ work of Milt Herth.


Basie's status as an admirer and informal student of Waller did not lead to any substantial use of the big box. Basie's organ records have been so infrequent that a Joe Williams set is listed in the discography, simply because it is the only available LP on which Basie plays organ (electronic) throughout. His style is so close to Waller's that the source of inspiration is immediately evident.


THOUGH THERE may have been a few obscure, nonrecording exceptions to the rule, the organ in jazz lay virtually dormant for several years after Waller's death. Among the few men to observe this situation, and to do something about it, was William Strethen Davis.



It was while he was working with Louis Jordan's Tympany Five as pianist (1945-8) that Bill Davis felt the urge to fill the gap left by the then complete lack of jazz organists. He woodshedded, spending much of 1949 perfecting a modern technique capable of bringing to the organ some of the then prevailing new ideas in jazz. He experimented with the recorded sound of the electronic instrument in two trial sides with Jordan's group, Tamburitza Boogie and Lemonade Blues, in 1949.


At that time Mercer Ellington was my partner in a company, Mercer records. Ellington's father was so enthusiastic when he first heard Davis that he took him to a recording studio where, with Johnny Collins on guitar and Jo Jones on drums, two tunes were recorded, Make No Mistake and Things Ain't What They Used to Be. Duke himself sat in on piano for Things Ain't. The record was released on a single 78 and later incorporated into a 10-inch LP, New Stars, New Sounds, which has long since been cut out.


The reaction to the initial release was unprecedented. Musicians were gassed by Make No Mistake, which combined all the elements of single-line bop improvisation with full-blooded chord effects and a surging beat. Not only was this the beginning of the modern era in jazz organ, it was also the start of an instrumentation that was to become standard in hundreds of combos: organ, guitar, and drums.


(To give the sides a little added impetus that would stress the startling nature of the sounds, "Wild" was added to Davis' name. Before long Wild Bill Davis had become a major name, too firmly established to change.)


At first there was considerable skepticism when Davis took his organ into night clubs and bars. "What are you trying to do, make a church out of this place?" was the usual question asked.


The impact of Davis enabled many others who for years had been dabbling with the organ to take it up as a full-time profession. Milt Buckner, known for years as pianist with Lionel Hampton, then as pianist and vibraharpist with his own big band in 1949-50. spent a couple more years back with Hampton and then organized his own trio in 1952, playing organ exclusively. The locked-hand or block-chord piano style, which he had played a major role in establishing during the early 1940s, could be transferred very logically to organ.


Bill Doggett, who succeeded Davis as pianist with Louis Jordan, ultimately followed the pattern of his predecessor, switching to organ and forming a trio. He was first heard as organist on some records with Ella Fitzgerald not long after he had taken up the instrument in 1951.


A still later Jordan sideman, Jackie Davis, has been established for several years as one of the more popular organ trio leaders.


Credit should also be given to three musicians who were probably a little ahead of Bill Davis & Co. chronologically, though their particular styles did not have a comparatively massive impact and therefore passed relatively unnoticed. One was Bob Wyatt, who around 1948 was heard at the Royal Roost on Broadway working in a duo with pianist Billy Taylor. Wyatt impressed most listeners as a fine musician but not essentially a jazzman. He has recorded on the Forum label. Another was Doug Duke, best known for his home-built organ-cum-piano. Duke played with Lionel Hampton's band in 1950 and was heard in a few since-deleted Decca sides by Hampton and a quintet and in an LP on Regent records. Charlie Stewart, another organist who was ahead of his time, played at Wells' in New York about 15 years ago.


Although there were, as noted, unmistakable traces of the Gillespie-Parker influence in some of the improvisations of Bill Davis and his followers, the primary value of the new electronic organ sound they developed was in its ability to swing loud and long, with a tendency toward full, heavy-chorded passages and a feeling for strongly syncopated, extended riffing on the blues. Because of this, after the first shock had worn off, the purist jazz fans began to bypass the organists or to dismiss them as rhythm-and-blues performers. (The term rock and roll had not yet come into currency.) Doggett even won a Cash Box award later on as top r&b soloist.”


To be continued in Part 2.


Monday, June 27, 2016

"Introducing Scott LaFaro" by Martin Williams

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“The Jazz Review was founded by Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams and Hsio Wen Shih in New York in 1958. The Jazz Review was the premier journal of Jazz in the United States. Short-lived as it was [1958-1961], it set an enduring standard for criticism.

Thanks to Nat Hentoff’s generosity, the entire run of The Jazz Review is available online and you can visit it via this link.

The following piece is drawn from the August, 1960 edition.

"It's quite a wonderful thing to work with the Bill Evans trio," said bassist Scott LaFaro. "We are really just beginning to find our way. You won't hear much of that on our first record together, except a little on Blue In Green where no one was playing time as such, Bill was .improvising lines, I was playing musical phrases behind him, and Paul Motian played in free rhythmic drum phrases."

LaFaro is dissatisfied with a great deal of what he hears in jazz, but what he says about it isn't mere carping. He thinks he knows what to do about it, at least in his own playing. "My ideas are so different from what is generally acceptable nowadays that i sometimes wonder if I am a jazz musician. I remember that Bill and I used to reassure each other some nights kiddingly that we really were jazz musicians. I have such respect for so many modern classical composers, and I learn so much from them. Things are so contrived nowadays in jazz, and harmonically it has been so saccharine since Bird."

Charlie Parker was already dead before Scott LaFaro was aware of him, even on records. In fact Scott LaFaro was not really much aware of jazz at all until 1955.

He was born in 1936 in Newark, New Jersey, but his family moved to Geneva, New York, when he was five. "There was always the countryside. I miss it now. I am not a city man. Maybe that is why Miles Davis touches me so deeply. He grew up near the countryside too, I believe. I hear that in his playing anyway. I've never been through that 'blues' thing either." LaFaro started on clarinet at fourteen and studied music in high school. He took up bass on a kind of dare. "My father played violin with a small 'society' trio in town. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I had finished school, and my father said — half-joking, I think — that if I learned bass, I could play with them. When I did, I knew that I wanted to be a musician. It's strange: playing clarinet and sax didn't do it, but when I started on bass, I knew it was music."

He went to Ithaca Conservatory and then to Syracuse; it was there, through fellow students, that he began to listen to jazz. He got a job in Syracuse at a place called the Embassy Club. "The leader was a drummer who played sort of like Sidney Catlett and Kenny Clarke. He formed my ideas of what jazz was about. He, and the jukebox in the place — it had Miles Davis records. And I first heard Percy Heath and Paul Chambers on that jukebox. They taught me my first jazz bass lessons. There was also a Lee Konitz record with Stan Kenton called Prologue."

In late 1955, LaFaro joined Buddy Morrow's band. "We toured all over the country until I left the band in Los Angeles in September 1956. I didn't hear any jazz or improve at all during that whole time." But a few weeks after he left Morrow, he joined a Chet Baker group that included Bobby Timmons and Lawrence Marable. "I found out so much from Lawrence, a lot of it just from playing with him. I have trouble with getting with people rhythmically and I learned a lot about it from him. I learned more about rhythm when I played with Monk last fall; a great experience. With Monk, rhythmically, it's just there, always."

LaFaro remembers two other important experiences in California. The first was hearing Ray Brown, whose swing and perfection in his style impressed him. The other came when he lived for almost a year in the mountain-top house of Herb Geller and his late wife, Lorraine. "I practiced and listened to records. I had — I still have — a feeling that if I don't practice I will never be able to play. And Herb had all the jazz records; I heard a lot of music, many people for the first time, on his records."

In September 1958 LaFaro played with Sonny Rollins in San Francisco, and later he worked with the same rhythm section behind Harold Land. "I think horn players and pianists have probably influenced me the most, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Sonny perhaps deepest of all. Sonny is technically good, harmonically imaginative, and really creative. He uses all he knows to make finished music when he improvises.

"I found out playing with Bill that I have a deep respect for harmony, melodic patterns, and form. I think a lot more imaginative work could be done within them than most people are doing, but I can't abandon them. That's why 1 don't think I could play with Ornette Coleman. I used to in California; we would go looking all over town for some place to play, I respect the way he overrides forms. It's all right for him, but I don't think I could do it myself. "Bill gives the bass harmonic freedom because of the way he voices, and he is practically the only pianist who does. It's because of his classical studies. Many drummers know too little rhythmically, and many pianists know too little harmonically. In the trio we were each contributing something and really improvising together, each playing melodic and rhythmic phrases. The harmony would be improvised; we would often begin only with something thematic and not a chord sequence.

"I don't like to look back, because the whole point in jazz is doing it now. (I don't even like any of my records except maybe the first one I did with Pat Moran on Audio Fidelity.) There are too many things to learn and too many things you can do, to keep doing the same things over and over. My main problem now is to get that instrument under my fingers so I can play more music."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Scott LaFaro - "Young Mr. LaFaro" - Part 4

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.



[As you read the following substitute the words “string bass” for “violin.”]

“Grammarians are to authors what a violin maker is to a musician.
— Voltaire, Pensées, Remarques et Observations [Thoughts, Remarks, and Observations]

“Étienne Vatelot started as an apprentice at the family workshop in 1942 at the age of seventeen. The young violin maker gave up a career as a soccer goalie with no regrets. At II bis rue Portalis, behind the Church of Saint Augustine, an atmosphere of silence reigns, of humility, of secrets shared in coded words, to the sole cadence of creaking wood. On the tables covered in green baize, sick violins are surrounded by wood screws, hand clamps, varnish brushes. An inheritance not left by any will. A sixth sense, a feel, the soul is heir to an intimate understanding of artist and instrument that no school can teach.

You learn by methodically repeating the same actions on practice violins: removing the strings, tuning pegs, bridge, soul post, end pin, tailpiece, nut, and fingerboard, tirelessly fieldstripping and reassembling your gun. Prying off the soundboard with a knife, removing the bass bar, the blocks, and scratching at drops of glue with a gouge. Lined up on the green cloth like an inventory: back, bridge, button, chin rest, corner block, end blocks, fingerboard, frog, heel, mortise, neck, nut, purfling, ribs and lining, scroll, … , soul post, soundboard, thumb cushion, tuning pegs. A grammar, in preparation for handling the instrument, to which will eventually be added, as with writers, liberation from the constraints of syntax, through style. The sorcerer's apprentice scrutinizes the mystery and dreams, gouge in hand, of animating violins the way the brooms in Fantasia are made to dance.

It is a commonplace to write that a violin maker is a doctor to musicians. No violinist will deny the analogy, as the relationship between artisan and instrumentalist often extends far beyond the violin.”
- Adrien Bosch - Constellation  [winner of 2014 Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie Française]

Here’s the conclusion of Gene Lees’ piece on Scotty that appeared in the July and August 2005 edition of his Jazzletter.

“Much has been made of the supposed good looks of Chet Baker, including assertions that he could have been a movie star. His flat face put me in mind of the kind you would see at the bar in a Kentucky road house; but to each his own. Scott LaFaro, on the other hand, really was strikingly handsome.

I used to wonder about the origin of the name: grammatically, it fit none of the Latin languages. But it turns out that it is one of those names distorted by some forgotten immigration officer. The name is Italian, and since the article must agree with the noun in all languages that I know of (except English), it really should be LoFaro, according to Helene. It means "lighthouse", and in French it's lephare. But only their father was Italian; their mother was of Scottish, Irish and English descent; to me Scott looked pretty WASPy, with short-cut slightly curly hair. He was six feet tall, thus the same height more or less as Bill Evans.

Bill said:
"Scott was quite a good looking guy — young, vital. His hair was slightly curly, blondish-Italian but blond. Fair skin. He was intense in experiencing anything but bullshit, not wanting to waste time. And yet selecting values that others might not think worth their attention. He was discriminating about where quality might be. He didn't overlook traditional playing, realizing it could contribute a great deal to his ultimate product.

"Scott was in life right up to the hilt, but wasn't going to mess with indulging in experiments with drugs. Once in awhile he might smoke a little pot or something but it didn't mean anything. He was physically a clean and pure kind of cat....

"I was very happy when after the Vanguard date we were listening through stereo headphones, and he said, 'You know, we didn't think too much of it while we were doing it, but these two weeks were exceptional.' He said something to the effect that 'I've finally made a record that I'm happy with.'

"Scott's playing had evolved tremendously. My first impression of him . . . was that he was bubbling out almost like a gusher. Ideas were rolling on top of each other; he could barely handle it. It was like a bucking horse.

"I think what happened during our time together was that the format, the very pure, strict, logical kind of discipline that the trio worked with — though there was all the freedom within that structure to do whatever he wanted — it gave him firmer control over that creative gusher.

"The most marvelous thing is that he and Paul and I somehow agreed without speaking about the type of freedom and responsibility we wanted to bring to bear upon the music, to get the development we wanted without putting repressive restriction upon ourselves.

"I don't know — Scott was just an incredible guy about knowing where your next thought was going to be. I wondered, 'How did he know I was going there?'And he was probably feeling the same way.

"But the mechanical problems are something else — the physical, theoretical, and analytical problems involved in playing together intuitively within a set structure. We understood music on pretty much the same basis. But at that time nobody else was opening trio music in quite that way, letting the music move from an internalized beat, instead of laying it down all the time explicitly."

Paul Motian said:
"Bill and I had worked together, for Tony Scott and for Don Elliott. But with Scotty we became a three-person voice — one voice, and that was the groundbreaking point. I loved Scotty, man. One thing that knocked me out was that his rate of improvement was so fast. He was practicing and playing all the time. Also, Bill and I were both sort of inward types, and Scotty just clonked you over the head.

"I remember the last time we played the Vanguard. I was packing up the drums and as we were leaving, we all said, 'Let's really try to work more often.' Because we were really enthusiastic about the music. It seemed we had hit a really good peak and we wanted to continue on from there."

That final recording is available on a three-CD boxed set from Riverside, distributed through Fantasy. Orrin Keepnews wrote in his notes to the 2003 reissue that when he learned that the trio was booked to play the Village Vanguard for two weeks beginning June 1, 1961, he made immediate plans to record them. He wrote:
"Somewhat unexpectedly, I had no problem getting Evans to agree — he was entirely aware of what this trio was creating, and undoubtedly even more worried than I about how fragile their unity might be. It was realistic to plan to work on Sunday; the Vanguard routinely scheduled two matinee sets that day in addition to a standard evening program....

"Almost from the very first moments of recording, it was impossible to ignore the importance of these performances. And that, in itself, was rather unexpected. Bill Evans, as a human being, was always just about as introverted as he sounded. He was not yet sufficiently widely popular to provide substantial audiences at the two Sunday matinee sets or the last one that night, and was not yet likely to interact dramatically with an audience. There are times during these recorded sets when you hear glasses clinking and almost feel you are overhearing conversations at the tables .... I intend to continue to think back on this day as anticipating its own eventual immortality."

Paul Motian told an interviewer for the PBS radio show Fresh Air.
"Bill was really particular. If the result wasn't top-notch, really great and satisfying for him, he wouldn't want it released. I'm sure he would be against a lot of the stuff that is being released now, second takes, out takes, and that stuff. He did really think of himself sometimes as not really playing great. I remember one time at the Vanguard, we were playing something and it was really good and it was moving along, and all of a sudden it seemed like it took a nose dive. He just didn't feel like playing any more or something. After the set I asked him what happened. It just seemed like you weren't into it any more. He said, 'I heard some people laughing at the bar. I thought they were laughing at me.'

"And another time he said to me, 'Gee, I don't know if what I'm doing is real. Sometimes I think I'm a phony.' He did say things like that that made you think he was low in self-esteem."

I can support Paul's observations. Bill once said to me, "I had to work harder at music than most cats, because you see, man, I don't have very much talent."

Bill recalled the bass that Scotty owned, an exceptional instrument, three-quarter size, which Scott bought on the recommendation of Red Mitchell. Made by Abraham Prescott in Concord, New Hampshire, around 1801, it became part of the LaFaro legend. Bill said: "It had a marvelous sustaining and resonating quality. He'd be playing in the hotel room and hit a quadruple stop that was a harmonious sound, and then set that bass down on its side and it seemed the sound just rang and rang for so long."

Bill marveled at Scott's ability to play in the upper register, saying, "Other guys would hit a couple of high notes, and then come down. But Scott made it part of the total plan. As young as he was, and only having played for [a few] years, he brought a great, mature organization to what he was doing."

All of that is evident in those Village Vanguard recordings of June 25, 1961. He had only ten more days to live. Stan Getz had booked him to play the Newport Jazz Festival on the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. The rest of the rhythm section included Steve Kuhn on piano and Roy Haynes on drums.

Scott's mother and sisters were living in Los Angeles. Helene recalled, "Scotty and I had relocated the family out here. And the guy who had had a lease option to buy our house in Geneva was vacillating. My mom really needed the money, so Scotty said, 'Well, I'll swing by and see him, and see if I can get him to make a decision.' We talked to him on the third, but he said he was going to hang around for another day. So that's why he went back to Geneva. The holiday, the Fourth of July, was Tuesday. The irony is that on the Monday, a letter arrived from these people that settled the affair. I tried to reach Scotty, but that was in the day before cell phones. I wanted to tell him, 'Don't bother, go back down to the city to see Gloria.'

"He went out with a buddy to hear some music in a small town close to there, where a friend of theirs was house sitting. They had a really good stereo and a good record collection." The house was in Warsaw, ninety miles west of Geneva. Pianist Gap Mangione, brother of trumpeter Chuck Mangione, was there. He knew Scott only slightly.

Mangione later recalled: "They were pretty blasted, so I said, 'Stay a while.' But Frank (Scott's friend) and the lady went off, and Scott and I stayed in the living room and drank coffee, listened to records, and talked. We played an album by Chet Baker, and I remember one ironic thing Scott said: 'There's one of America's greatest tragedies. Chet could have been as successful as Miles Davis. But instead he gets himself into drugs and into jail and there goes that.'"

It occurs to me that Scott was probably thinking about Bill and wondering about their future together.

"After two or three hours," Mangione continued, "Scott was a lot straighter, but he was very tired. But when the others returned, he insisted on driving back, despite our efforts to have them stay and rest. So Scott and Frank got into the car— it was a huge Chrysler, Scott's bass was in the trunk — and they drove out, taking a side road, Route 20. Later on I heard they hit a tree. They both died."

Helene said, "Scott had driven nine hours from Newport and swam all afternoon at my aunt's house, which was on Seneca Lake. He really hadn't been to bed for a day and a half. And he fell asleep at the wheel."

The car went 188 feet on the shoulder of the eastbound lane of Route 5-20 before hitting a tree and bursting into flames.

In a 1996 article for the journal of the International Society of Bassists, Scott's friend from their high school days, Robert Wooley, wrote:
"The tree that he hit was in the front yard of Joan Martin, who was the pianist with our dance band. She still lives there, and, speaking with her recently, she said she thinks of Scott every time she looks at that tree."

Helene said: "We got a phone call about two o'clock in the morning. It was from Gloria Gabriel, the girl he was going with. Her dad was Filipino and her mother Italian. She was a Broadway dancer. She was one of the original children in The King and I. He met her in New York. I answered the telephone, and I really didn't understand what she was saying. It took me a while, because she was hysterical. She kept saying, 'He's dead, he's dead.' Ever since then, I don't like getting calls in the middle of the night. That did it for me."

Paul Motian got a call from Bill in the middle of that night. Bill told him Scott was dead. He thought he was dreaming and went back to sleep.

When the word spread of Scott's death, it was said that his Prescott bass had been destroyed in the fire. This is not correct; but it was badly damaged.

George Duvivier met Scott in April, 1960, and recognized the incredible scope of the younger man's talent. He took Scott to meet Samuel Kolstein, who repaired basses. Kolstein's son Barrie wrote a memoir of that meeting published in the Spring 2004 issue of Bass Line, the magazine of the International Society of Bassists.

He wrote:
"I was nine years of age when the wonderful George Duvivier brought Scotty to my father's house and shop in Merrick, New York .... Scott had recently acquired his small Prescott bass through the efforts of his close friend Red Mitchell. Red had found both his Lowendahl bass with the famous cut-away in the shoulder, and the three-quarter-sized Prescott while in California. Red felt the Lowendahl was perfect for his own needs and the Prescott was ideal for what Scotty was looking for. He immediately contacted Scotty about the smaller Prescott. Scotty made the purchase and brought it back to New York.

"Scott soon realized that while the Prescott was dimensionally ideal, tonally it was not. While in collaboration with George Duvivier, this problem surfaced. George was a lifelong client and a virtual member of my family. He suggested to Scotty that they make a trip to see Sam Kolstein, and ask him to evaluate the bass and see what could be done to improve its tonal and playing qualities.

"George arrived with Scotty, and in his deep robust voice said, 'Sam, I have a young man I want you to meet.' Even before Sam could walk out to greet Scott for the first time, he heard the kind of playing coming from the showroom that he had never heard before. Sam looked at George and simply said, 'Who is that and what is that?' You have to understand, this was in the late fifties, and even by today's standards, Scotty's playing would turn heads. But back in those years, this style of playing was unheard of and unique in every aspect. George looked at my father and said, 'Let's go meet this young man.'

"As Sam told me many times, Scott was ... a kid in a candy store, playing on every bass he could lay his hands upon. It was an immediate mutual admiration between Dad and Scott.

"Dad ... told Scotty that he would take care of anything it would take to make his Prescott bass right, and that Scott should not even worry about the costs.

"The work went on for several months and the bass was fully restored. When Scott got his Prescott bass back, it was what he hoped for and the bass became an extension of this brilliant young bassist."

On another occasion, Barrie Kolstein wrote, "The success of the restoration can be attested to by the quality of sound produced on Scott's last and perhaps most acclaimed recording, Live at the Village Vanguard. ..."

Kolstein said that for all practical purposes, the bass was destroyed in the crash. He wrote:
"Scotty's mother offered [it] to Sam. My father wanted [it] and did purchase the bass in total disarray, promising Mrs. LaFaro that [it] would be resurrected. But Sam never had the heart to restore the bass. I think this was due to his emotional connection with Scotty and the sense of a deep, profound loss that stayed with him ....”

"In 1986, the ISB [International Society of Bassists] announced its next convention would be held at UCLA in California and dedicated to the memory of Scotty. I went to my father and asked his permission to do the restoration on the LaFaro Prescott that we had stored for twenty-five years. Sam was very pleased at the prospect of seeing the bass returned to playing condition in time for the convention in the summer of 1988.

"The restoration was quite arduous, but over a year and a half, I accomplished the work. I know that it pleased my father, and I can only assume that the work would have pleased Scotty as well."

For the past thirty-one years, Scott's — and Helene's — alma mater, Geneva High School, has given the Scott LaFaro Memorial Award to a graduating student with a serious dedication to the school and its music program. It is a stipend to help with college costs.

When, early last year, the school contacted Helene to ask permission to dedicate a spring concert to Scotty, she learned that the school did not currently own an acoustic bass.

"My three sisters and I," she said, "just found it appalling and decided to right the situation.

"Working with Barrie Kolstein, we arranged to have a new acoustic bass presented to the music department as a surprise at the end of the concert. It is a DiVacenza with Busseto corners, similar to the design of Scotty's Prescott....

"Since I could not be there to make the presentation, I had my friend, and Scotty's mentor's daughter, Gail Brown Kirk, present the gift with another of Scotty's old band mates, Al Davids, who still lives in Geneva.

"Needless to say, they were all pretty surprised and delighted and the music department director has a couple of students working on the instrument now."

I once told Gerry Mulligan that he and I must be just about the only WASPs in the music business. He laughed and said, "Speak for yourself. I'm an Irish Catholic." Since he didn't practice religion, I asked him on another occasion if he felt Catholic. He said, "No, but I do feel Irish." And I laughed in turn and told him that all his solos sounded like I Met Her in the Garden Where the Praties Grow. He told me in turn that Judy Holiday, listening to Zoot Sims, would say, "There he goes, playing that Barry Fitzgerald tenor." And she laughed like Barry Fitzgerald. Zoot was of course Irish. (And Gerry was part German.)

I began keeping mental note of national origins in white jazz musicians. There are remarkably few of actual English ancestry. And those of other origins all tend to play in styles influenced by their family origins. No one ever played in a more Jewish style than, at times, Artie Shaw, and you can hear such influence in Al Cohn and Stan Getz. The Italians in America tend to play in a lyrical melodic manner, as witness Mike Renzi, Guido Basso, and Frank Rosolino, and the composers of Italian background write that way, as witness Henry Mancini and Harry Warren.

And Scott LaFaro's magnificently melodic and lyrical playing strikes me as redolent of Italy. I hadn't even thought of him as Italian until I met his sister.

I am endlessly aware of the roots and origins of events. Had I not done this, that wouldn't have happened. Or: if only I had done this, this might have happened. And so on.

If the dilatory purchaser of the LaFaro house in Geneva hadn't delayed his decision, Scott might be alive today. He would be seventy.

One of the best tributes to Scott LaFaro is this: bassists all over the world, classical and jazz alike, still call him Scotty.

As Gary Peacock put it to Helene, "Scotty kicked everybody in the ass."”