Sunday, August 28, 2011

Eddie Daniels: Masterful and Magnificent

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

“Daniels’ clarinet sound is exemplary, as everyone knows: throaty but not too throaty down low and mellow but not too mellow up top .… His execution [is almost]  flawless no matter how resourcefully his imagination roams, or how swift the tempo. He woos the ear rather than wrestled it, daring, in this post-Coltrane world, to please…and even to elaborate on (get ready) the melody.”
- Tony Gieske

“Eddie Daniels is truly a phenomenon. Musically, he is matchless in his proficiency, accuracy, technique, and purity of style in both jazz and classical arenas. On an artistic level, his drive to be the best has earned him a position unequaled by any of his contemporaries. On a personal level, it is frequently evident that he is intent on this purpose.
His often gentle, resonant, speaking voice sometimes hides this constant, under-the-surface intensity, but conversation with Eddie soon reveals his passion and enthusiasm for life-love: his music performance. His enthusiasm for his mission seems unlimited.
A certain sense of humor belies his seriousness about his chosen path and reveals a tinge of mischievousness which characterizes his demeanor and displays itself in his playing.”
- Kim Richmond

“Eddie Daniels is a rare example of a post-bop musician specializing on clarinet.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Sometimes I write from recollection.

As the years go by this can be a dangerous source, therefore, the following story may be fact or it may be fiction.

In either case, it’s a great story and if it isn’t true, then I’m happy to be writing it into fiction.

Although his principal instrument is the clarinet, when Eddie Daniels first joined the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra, he did so as a member of its saxophone section.

Unlike the Glenn Miller, Swing Era days, there was little call for clarinets in modern big band arrangements except to add a bit of “color” here and there.

So Eddie went on Thad and Mel’s band as a tenor saxophonist

One night when Eddie’s solo turn came up on Thad’s Little Pixie following those of saxophonists Joe Farrell, Jerry Dodgion and Jerome Richardson, instead of taking it on tenor saxophone, for whatever reason, he decided to take the solo on clarinet.

Eddie’s clarinet solo knocked everybody out, so much so that he was urged to take more and more solos on the instrument [this despite the fact that Thad Jones was no fan of the clarinet as a solo instrument].

After leaving Thad and Mel’s orchestra and gigging around New York for a few years, Eddie was eventually able to reunite was his first “love” and launch a “new” career as a Jazz clarinetist in the 1980s when he became a GRP recording artist.

Eddie Daniels is in good company as a number of brilliant Jazz saxophonists, notably, Lester Young, Art Pepper and Phil Woods [who majored in clarinet at Julliard], have also performed on the instrument.

But Eddie took it the other way and I’m sure glad he did.

To put it in somewhat dated bop-speak: Eddie is a gas on the axe.

And, as a result of playing it more, he just got better and better and better.

Clarinet is a wickedly difficult instrument to play, let alone to play well. Squeaks and squawks abound as does bad intonation and reedy tones.

Impoverished, improvisatory ideas make some clarinetists sound as though they are in a death struggle with the instrument and are trying to strangle it.

But in Eddie Daniels’ hands, I am reminded once again of how magnificent the instrument could sound when played by masters like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Buddy DeFranco.

Oddly enough, Eddie and I have a common starting point in Jazz – Benny Goodman.

“Benny Goodman was my first idol,” Eddie said to Leonard Feather in the insert notes to Daniels’ GRP CD with Gary Burton entitled Benny Rides Again [GRD-9665].

“Most people who know my music might not think that, but between the ages of 13 and 15, I was inspired by him. He really blew me away! I had all his records. Later, I moved the away from Benny a bit and got into Bird [Charlie Parker], [John] Coltrane and [Sonny] Rollins.

A similar sequence of events happened in my life, although, in my case, it was drummer Gene Krupa with Benny Goodman’s band serving as an early inspiration and not Benny, himself.

Here’s a little more background on Eddie’s career as written by Leonard Feather in the Benny Rides Again insert notes:

“Few musicians can claim to have scaled the heights twice, on two different instruments, in the course of a single career. Eddie Daniels has that remarkable and possi­bly unique distinction.

In 1966 he took part in an international jazz competition held in Vienna, and won first prize — as a tenor saxophon­ist. Today, of course, he has numerous awards to his credit as a clarinetist and has virtually given up the sax.

Throughout most of his career, until 1986 (the year his Breakthrough album was released on GRP), Daniels had divided his time between the two horns. He studied alto and then clarinet as a pre-teenager. He earned clarinet credits while at the High School for The Performing Arts in New York, and in 1957, just before his sixteenth birth­day, he played alto sax with Marshall Brown's Newport Youth Band.

He earned an MA in 1966 after study­ing clarinet at Julliard, and in that year he became one of the pillars of the sax section in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra, playing tenor. 'Thad really didn't want me to play clarinet,’ he recalls, ‘but on one record I did man­age to get a short solo — and that one opportunity was enough to earn me a “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” listing in the clarinet category of the Downbeat poll.’

Daniels was never satisfied to be pigeonholed in one area. He studied classical flute for ten years. His men­tors included Julius Baker, Harold Bennett and Thomas Nyfenger. He even took up trombone and played it on a record with La Playa Sextet.
After leaving Jones/Lewis in 1973, he took up a variety of jobs in and around New York, but the decision to concen­trate on clarinet became a turning point that enabled him to acquire a new and distinct image.”

And here are some excerpts from an interview with Eddie which was conducted by Kim Richmond, the wonderful saxophonist based in Los Angeles, CA, and published in the May/June 1995 edition of The Saxophone Journal. You can locate more about Kim by visiting and back issue order information to obtain a copy of the full article at

“Eddie Daniels is truly a phenomenon. Musically, he is matchless in his proficiency, accuracy, technique, and purity of style in both jazz and classical arenas. On an artistic level, his drive to be the best has earned him a position unequaled by
any of his contemporaries. On a personal level, it is frequently evident that he is intent on this purpose. His often gentle, resonant, speaking voice sometimes hides this constant, under-the-surface intensity, but conversation with Eddie soon reveals his passion and enthusiasm for life-love: his music performance. His enthusiasm
for his mission seems unlimited. A certain sense of humor belies his seriousness about his chosen path and reveals a tinge of mischievousness which characterizes his demeanor and displays itself in his playing. Several years ago he made the decision that the clarinet would be his exclusive instrument. During the next few years, he established himself as the jazz clarinetist on the scene, as well as a high contender in the classical field. In the last two years, he has resumed performing on tenor saxophone as well, much to the delight of his many saxophone fans.” …

What was behind your decision to go, several years back, with the clarinet exclusively?

Well, the clarinet is a great challenge as an instrument, an unlimited challenge;
it just doesn’t yield. I tend to be a stickler for punishment. I like punishment. The saxophone yields easier, not that it’s an easy instrument, because it’s not easy to play musically, but I felt that maybe I could do something unique and play the clarinet in a way that would make people more inspired to want to play the instrument.

It seems to me that you bring so much more to the jazz clarinet because of your
classical background.

That was the way I was taught to do it. I can’t let myself play any instrument
until I can really master the sound of that instrument. I look at the jazz sound as coming out of the classical sound, as really being controlled, beautiful, manipulative, and colorful. Most people approach the clarinet from just the jazz sound; they make
one kind of color. It’s a kind of “woofy” sound. I have, however, recently returned to performing the saxophone. It was at the request of friends. Also, I want to expand my audience a little more.

I know of people who wouldn’t listen to you because they were not fans of the clarinet, perhaps because of other jazz clarinet players they had heard and didn’t
care for.

That’s right. Also, I felt that because I had become a clarinet player I was kind out of the “fold.” To the young jazz student in school, the clarinet is still a strange instrument; the saxophone isn’t. The saxophone is so much a part of my bloodstream that it unites me with young people a little bit more directly; then I can introduce the clarinet to them. Saxophone players didn’t relate to me that much. Now that I’m back to playing tenor again, we speak the same language. I’m playing their instrument. I’m loving the tenor. I feel like I have a special affinity for that instrument and I’m having a great time playing it. Now I can go to colleges and talk to kids who play the saxophone. I’m a saxophone player; they identify with me. I can transmit something of what I feel about good saxophone sound because the saxophone has gone in a certain direction lately that I’m not so pleased with.

What is that?

I love Michael Brecker’s playing, but every student has tried to become a Michael Brecker clone. He’s an amazingly great player, but he’s not the only direction. They have kind of gone away from what the tenor really was meant to sound like. Not that I’m really the one to make it sound that way, but there was Ben Webster, Getz, and Coltrane. You know, there’s a whole gamut of other sounds and this whole, funky, fusion, tenor sound that they’re all going towards is great for Brecker, but not great for everybody. ….

“Eddie Daniels is unquestionably included among the very best musicians on the scene today. He is an excellent example of the results of talent, hard work and drive.

Herb Mickman [bassist and Eddie’s close musical companion from their formative years] has a multitude of anecdotes about Eddie dating back to those early days.

He sums it up best when he says: ‘Eddie’s goal in life is to be better than himself!’”

I’m glad that Eddie brought the clarinet back into Jazz.

Maybe you will also feel that way after listening to him play I Fall in Love Too Easily n the following tribute video.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lou Levy: A Most Musical Pianist

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

“For all of his modesty – and it is real, not affected – Lou, in an instrumental setting, is a fleet, inventive and brilliant soloist.”
- Gene Lees

“Lou Levy is quite a musician. Long an established and a highly respected pianist among his fellow musicians, he has been woefully neglected by the public and even by jazz fans. In his approach to the piano, there is always a great sense of assurance, of playing on a larger scale; there is intensity, reflection, humor and showmanship.”
- Andre’ Previn

Lou Levy is two things that seem incom­patible: the archetype of the bebop pianist and the most sympathetic possible accom­panist for singers.”
- Gene Lees

Like so many other teenagers growing up in the 1940s, Lou Levy was captivated by the language of Bebop.

Unlike many of those teenagers, however, Lou Levy developed the facility, skills and melodic inventiveness to play piano with the best of the Beboppers.

Lou’s Dad played piano by ear and, as a result of his father’s encouragement, he began studying piano at the age of ten in his hometown of Chicago, IL.  Lou’s early idols were Bud Powell and Art Tatum.

In 1945, at the age of seventeen, Lou took his first professional gig with Georgie Auld’s band. Thereafter he performed with artists like Sarah Vaughan, Chubby Jackson and Flip Phillips and bands like the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra and Woody Herman's Second Herd, the bop band that featured saxophonists Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Al Cohn.

He joined Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1950. Tommy fired him after telling him: “Kid, you play good. But not for my band.”

In recounting this story to Gene Lees, Lou went on to say: “And he was right, I didn’t like it and he didn’t like it.”

Lou never got fired again.

In the early 1950's Lou dropped out of jazz for two years to live in Minneapolis and work in the medical-journal publishing business.

However, it has never been possible to keep a natural and accomplished a musician as Lou away from his chosen instrument for too long a time, and in 1954 he capitulated to numerous requests to return to music and opened at Frank Holzfeind's Blue Note in Chicago, playing solo intermission piano.

Woody's band was booked into the club, and suddenly the sidemen were paying Lou one of the great musi­cians' compliments: they were using their intermissions to sit around the stand, listening closely and passing the word around that Lou was back and in great form. On the last Sunday of their engagement, Al Porcino, the wonderful trumpet player, lugged in his tape recorder and took down some fifteen or twenty of Lou's solo efforts.

These tapes soon achieved almost a legendary status. Musicians all over the country heard them, some had them copied, others remembered them in detail, and "Hey, did you hear those Blue Note Lou Levy tapes?" became the opening gambit of many a jazz discussion.

In 1955, Lou moved out to Los Angeles and began gigging around: with Conte Candoli, Stan Getz and Shorty Rogers, on record dates and one-nighters.

He also began an 18-year association (including some breaks to take other jobs) with the singer Peggy Lee. From then on he became known as a particularly sympathetic accompanist for singers. Like Lester Young, one of his idols, he believed that a musician should know the lyrics of a song he was interpreting and said that a bandleader -- even if not a singer -- should be considered a voice.

As Gene Lees has observed: “Lou Levy is two things that seem incom­patible: the archetype of the bebop pianist and the most sympathetic possible accom­panist for singers, including three of the best: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee. Peggy calls him ‘my good gray fox,' both for the color of his hair and the clever yet sympathetic nature of his accompaniment.”

After settling in California, Lou became a staple of the studios.   

And he worked with a number of other singers: June Christy, Anita O'Day, Lena Home, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra.

He played with the big bands of Terry Gibbs and Benny Goodman, and with Med Flory’s group, Supersax, which specialized in the solos of Charlie Parker orchestrated for five saxophones.

When Gene Lees asked him about those jazz pianists who are reluctant to accompany singers, Lou simply said, "They're crazy.”

Gene observed: “Lou has a love for the words of songs. It is manifest in the way he plays. He has had a long personal rela­tionship with Pinky Winters, a subtle and sensitive singer little heard outside Cali­fornia.”

Over the years, Lou had a very close and long working relationship with composer, arranger and trumpeter, Shorty Rogers. Along with Pete Jolly, Lou was Shorty’s pianist-of-choice for his own quintet as was drummer Larry Bunker.

In the 1950s, Shorty was hired by RCA to become the head of its Jazz artists & repertoire department and, not surprisingly, Shorty signed Lou to a recording contract with the label.

Thank goodness that Shorty stepped up with the RCA offer as the limited discography of recordings under Lou’s own name would have been significantly smaller.

In addition to a solo piano recording and a trio LP, Lou put together a quartet album for RCA with Stan Levey on drums, whom Lou had worked with dating back to their days together with the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra in 1947, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, everyone’s favorite bassist on the West Coast Jazz scene in the 1950s and Larry Bunker, who in addition to being an excellent drummer, was also an outstanding vibraphonist.

Lou’s quartet album for RCA was entitled Jazz in Four Colors: The Lou Levy Quartet [reissued on CD as Fresh Sound ND-74401].

Here’s what Shorty had to say about the evolution of the album:

“In planning this album, Lou and I spent much time try­ing to figure out a "different" instrumentation. This was no small problem in face of the fact that so many albums are being made today. While trying to figure out an instrumentation, Lou went to work on a job that enabled him to renew one of his favorite musical acquaint­ances: Larry Bunker on vibes. Lou and Larry enjoyed playing together and made a wonderful nucleus for a quartet. This also presented the possibility of forming a group that could record and appear in public.

This album could be called "the birth of the Lou Levy Quartet," and I must say that it was a privilege and a great thrill to be a witness to the birth of this swingin', tasty, musical baby.”

The following video tribute has as its audio track Miles Davis' Tune Up as performed by Lou Levy on piano, Larry Bunker on vibes, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Stan Levey on drums. It is the lead track on Jazz in Four Colors: The Lou Levy Quartet [Fresh Sound CD; ND-74401].

Friday, August 19, 2011


If you have ever wondered what a samba-beat infused with hip-hop and Portuguese rap sounds like, checkout the audio track in this video tribute to the music of Caetano Veloso's score for the movie Orfeu.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chris Potter: A Saxophonist With His Own Voice

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

 "Chris was in my composition class at the New School [for Jazz and Contemporary Music, NYC] for about a year. When he called me for a private lesson, I had no idea how he played. We started with a bebop tune; but he went further out on the second thing we played, and on the third tune he was playing in the language of my contemporaries, guys who grew up following all of Miles' bands and aspiring to the kind of spiritual strivings that defined Coltrane's music. By the fourth tune, I wanted to take a lesson from Chris."
- Kenny Wheeler, Jazz pianist

“I try not to allow myself any preconceived ideas of what I should sound like, what kind of music I ought to be writing, or what I ought to be listening to. In this way I hope to discover what I actually do sound like, and what I enjoy in music. The moments of greatest beauty and originality always seem to happen when there's no agenda.”
- Chris Potter, Jazz saxophonist

“Potter is growing into one of the major saxophonists of today. [He is an] astonishingly confident and full-bodied player and shows prowess on any of his chosen horns, each of which he plays in a muscular post-bop manner that are full of surprising twists ….” [Paraphrase]
- Richard Cook, Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“He’s something special. It’s funny. Of all the youngsters out there today, they didn’t find out about Chris until after all the ballyhoo. But he’s the man.”
- Red Rodney, Jazz trumpeter

I’ve always had a lot of respect for the late Jazz trumpeter, Red Rodney, both as a person and as a musician for reasons that will be discussed at length in a future JazzProfiles feature about him.

I’m also always on the lookout for “new voices” on the Jazz scene.

So when I heard Red Rodney declare during a radio interview words very similar to the ones in the following quotation, I paid attention.

I’m glad I did because it helped me discover the Jazz saxophone playing of Chris Potter sooner, rather than later, and I have really enjoyed making the journey “with him” over the past twenty years or so as he has become one of the premier saxophonists in today’s Jazz world.

Here’s what Red had to say about Chris:

“I first played with Chris Potter at the South Carolina Main Street Jazz Festival, an annual thing we do. Three years ago the producer said, we've got our young hot shot here. Every town has one so I said, yeah, OK. Not to be nasty I let him play a tune. Well he wound up playing the whole set.

This young kid knew everything, the entire repertoire. He was not quite eighteen then, but very mature. He went on to win a Presidential scholarship for academic and musical excellence. He also won the Zoot Sims scholarship for the New School, and the Hennesey Jazz Search scholarship. I told him, when you come to New York, call me and I would introduce him around.

Coincidentally, he called just as Dick Oatts was leaving. Dick Oatts had been in my band for five years after Ira Sullivan. So I asked this young man to come and play with us and he's been there ever since.

Everywhere we go, he just breaks it up. This young man is mature. I think with a young man like Chris, you have to let him alone. You have to nurture him but let him do it his way. Eventually he'll swallow the world. In addition, he's a great pianist. We could have recorded a piano solo by him and he would have played beautifully. And he's also a writer.

His style is highly original but, he absorbs something from everyone. He is not, however, like many young ones are, a Coltrane or Michael Brecker clone. That's very important because the main idea of Jazz is to become original, to gain your own style. This is the epitome of Jazz.

When you hear Clark Terry, in two bars or four bars, you know who it is. The same for Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. There are so many others that you can tell within two or four bars, you know them immediately. That's what I've always tried to get in my playing. If it's original, you've succeeded.

So when you find a youngster like Chris Potter who develops his own style, it's wonderful.” – Red Rodney [as told to Bret Primack].

Following Red’s radio interview, I searched out Chris Potter’s first CD under his own name which Gerry Teekens appropriately entitled: Presenting Chris Potter [#1067].

Neil Tesser insert notes to the CD contain the following observations about Chris’ uniqueness:

“In the current proliferation of baby-faced jazz musicians — many of them gifted, and almost all of them hitting the ground with far more training than their counterparts of earlier generations — we can certainly grant the modern listener a certain skepticism. A well-earned reserve. An instinctive tendency to survey the landscape and wonder where the hell so many similarly skilled youngsters came from. Can they all be that good? What does it take for a musician to rise above the rest, to leave an imprint on the music as a whole? And how soon can such a player really establish himself as a leader of this pack?

At the heart of such conjecturing stands the unpretentious young saxophonist named Chris Potter, who with this album makes his five-star debut as a leader. …

"He's been with me three years now," brags [trumpeter] Red Rodney (warming to the role of surrogate father). "I watched him grow. When he got to New York, he went all over, listened to everybody, soaked it up like a sponge — then spit it out like Chris Potter.

He has his own sound, his own style, and his time is by God sensational. Every place I bring him all over the world, people just stand up and cheer, and he's not the kind of player who plays screech music for that kind of attention; he gets it by sheer artistry."

Ah, youth.

And yet, Potter invites and survives comparisons with musicians who have three times his experience. Two days shy of his 22nd birthday at the time of this recording, he shows a maturity in his improvising, as well as his writing, that obliterates the qualifiers attached to so many in jazz's youth movement. Potter doesn't play well "for a 22-year-old"; he plays well, period.

He brings to each of his saxes a separate personality and the makings of a distinct and recognizable tone, in each case descending from his first horn: his tenor work has a comparatively light timbre — more alto-like — and his soprano sounds rich and full. What's more, Potter doesn't restrict himself to the bebop and post-bop idioms favored by so many of his contemporaries; he frequently edges a solo outside the expected boundaries, yet always with ‘form and structure, and a melodic bent’ in the words of Red Rodney.

Beyond anything else, Potter improvises like someone with an ancient soul; on each tune, he spins a knowing, patient, and yet excited and exploratory solo. He finds deeply effective melodies everywhere and at any tempo, ….”

As is the case with many of today’s Jazz artists, Chris has his own website which you can locate by going here. It contains a full discography, a number of videos and photographs and lots more information about his career including the following overview of his career written by the highly respected Jazz writer, Bill Milkowski.

At the conclusion of Bill’s retrospective, you will find two videos containing audio tracks that provide samples of Chris’ powerful saxophone work. The first of these is a tribute to Chris which features him along with trumpeter Ryan Kisor on Charles Mingus’ Boogie Stop Shuffle.  The second has Chris performing his original composition Juggernaut with John Swana on trumpet as the audio track to a feature on The Art of Jazz Drumming, Part 2.

We’ve also included Bret Primack’s video “interview” with Chris entitled Way Out in the Southwest [you can close out of the commercial at the outset of the video by clicking on the “X” in the upper-right hand corner] and two videos from the Jazz Open Stuttgart concert of December 22, 2010 on which you can hear and see Chris performing Duke Ellington’s The Single Petal of a Rose and his own composition, The Wheel, with his current group, Underground.

 “A world-class soloist, accomplished composer and formidable bandleader, saxophonist Chris Potter has emerged as a leading light of his generation. Down Beat called him "One of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet" while Jazz Times identified him as "a figure of international renown." Jazz sax elder statesman Dave Liebman called him simply, "one of the best musicians around," a sentiment shared by the readers of Down Beat in voting him second only to tenor sax great Sonny Rollins in the magazine's 2008 Readers Poll.

A potent improviser and the youngest musician ever to win
Denmark's Jazzpar Prize, Potter's impressive discography includes 15 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 albums. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his solo work on "In Vogue," a track from Joanne Brackeen’s 1999 album Pink Elephant Magic, and was prominently featured on Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning album from 2000, Two Against Nature. He has performed or recorded with many of the leading names in jazz, such as Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, John Scofield, the Mingus Big Band, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, Ray Brown and many others. 

His most recent recording, Ultrahang, is the culmination thus far of five years’ work with his Underground quartet with Adam
Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, and Nate Smith on drums. Recorded in the studio in January 2009 after extensive touring, it showcases the band at its freewheeling yet cohesive best.

Since bursting onto the
New York scene in 1989 as an 18-year-old prodigy with bebop icon Red Rodney (who himself had played as a young man alongside the legendary Charlie Parker), Potter has steered a steady course of growth as an instrumentalist and composer-arranger. Through the '90s, he continued to gain invaluable bandstand experience as a sideman while also making strong statements as a bandleader-composer-arranger. Acclaimed outings like 1997’s Unspoken (with bassist and mentor Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist John Scofield), 1998’s Vertigo, 2001’s Gratitude and 2002’s Traveling Mercies showed a penchant for risk-taking and genre-bending. "For me, it just seemed like a way of opening up the music to some different things that I had been listening to but maybe hadn’t quite come out in my music before," he explains.

Potter explored new territory on 2004’s partly electric Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart and keyboardist Kevin Hays) then pushed the envelope a bit further on 2006’s Underground (with guitarist Wayne Krantz, electric pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Nate Smith). As he told Jazz Times: "I've wanted to do something more that seems to be in the air, all around us. But also keep it as free as the freest jazz conception."

He continued in this electrified, groove-oriented vein with 2007’s Follow The Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (with guitarist Adam
Rogers replacing Krantz in the lineup). Says Potter of the adventurous new path he’s carved out for himself with his bass-less Underground quartet: “There was a point where I felt like the context I had been using before wasn’t quite working to express what I wanted or to move forward in some kind of way. My aesthetic as a saxophonist has always been based in Bird and Lester Young and Sonny Rollins and all the other greats on the instrument. What I’ve learned from them in terms of phrasing, sound, and approach to rhythm I’ll never outgrow. However music’s a living thing; it has to keep moving. I’ve been touched by many forms of music, like funk, hip hop, country, folk music, classical music, etc., and for me not to allow these influences into my music would be unnecessarily self-limiting. The difficulty is incorporating these sounds in an organic, unforced way. It helps me to remember I want people to feel the music, even be able to dance to it, and not think of it as complicated or forbidding. If I can play something that has meaning for me, maybe I’ll be able to communicate that meaning to other people, and the stylistic questions will answer themselves.”

With the ambitious Song For Anyone (released in 2007 also and dedicated to the memory of Michael Brecker), Potter flexes his muscles as an arranger on original material for an expanded ensemble featuring strings and woodwinds. "That was a learning process," he says of this triumphant tentet project, "because I hadn’t done anything on that scale before. I just decided to sit down and write, and it was extremely gratifying to see how it translated into live performance."

Looking back over his 20 years since arriving in
New York, Potter says, “I’ve had the chance to learn a lot from all the leaders that I’ve worked with. Each gave me another perspective on how to organize a band and make a statement. It’s taught me that any approach can work, as long as you have a strong vision of what you want to do.”

His initial gig with Red Rodney was an eye-opening and educational experience for the 18-year-old saxophonist. “I wish I had had the perspective I have now to appreciate what a larger-than-life character Red was.” Potter's years with Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band represented a wholly different approach from Rodney’s old school bebop aesthetic on stage. “Motian has really had a big affect on the way that I think about music,” says the saxophonist. “He approaches things from such an anti-analytical way. It’s so different than so many of the other musicians that I’ve had a chance to work with. Motian more relies on his aesthetic sensibility and his instinct. He’s basically just trusting his gut and he’s so strong about it that he can make it work. And it takes a lot of courage to do that.”

From bassist-bandleader
Dave Holland he learned about the importance of focus and willpower. "Dave is determined to make his music as strong as possible and present it in the best way," says Potter, who has been a member of Holland's groups for the past 10 years. "Playing with him, you have the feeling there’s this mountain standing behind you that you can completely rely on. Working with him over the years has helped me see the true value of believing in what you’re doing.”

Potter also cites his time on the bandstand with guitar legend Jim Hall as inspirational. “The way that he can be both melodic and sweet and deeply inventive and open-minded at the same time made a big impression on me," he says. Touring and recording with the enigmatic duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (Steely Dan) offered further insights into the artistic process. “They totally went their own way," says Potter. “I have a lot of respect for them and their commitment to their art.”

And Potter has remained committed to his art since his formative years. Born in
Chicago on Jan.1, 1971, his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina when he was 3. There he started playing guitar and piano before taking up the alto saxophone at age 10, playing his first gig at 13. When piano legend Marian McPartland first heard Chris at 15 years old, she told his father that Chris was ready for the road with a unit such as Woody Herman’s band, but finishing school was a priority. At age 18, Potter moved to New York to study at the New School and Manhattan School of Music, while also immersing himself in New York’s jazz scene and beginning his lifelong path as a professional musician.

Now a respected veteran (as well as a new father), Potter continues to work as a bandleader and featured sideman. Surely many interesting chapters await. As his longtime colleague, alto saxophonist-composer
Dave Binney, told Down Beat, “Chris is open to anything now. From here on anything could happen.” -Bill Milkowski

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bebop: Some Writings About The Music and Its Origins

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

I didn’t like it the first, few times I heard it.

My ear couldn’t follow it.

It sound so cluttered; everything seemed to clash with everything else in the music.

None of the melodic mellowness and rhythmic certainty of the Swing Era big bands led by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, or Harry James was anywhere apparent.

Just flurries of notes, often played at breakneck speeds with lots of harmonic dissonance.

Even its name was oft-putting – “Bebop.” What was this stuff with the funny sounding name?

© -Marshall Stearns/Oxford University Press , copyright protected; all rights reserved.

From the few histories of Jazz then available, I looked up the chapter on “Bop” in Marshall Stearns’ The Story of Jazz and it noted:

“In terms of melody, bop seemed deliberately confusing. Unless you were an expert, there was nothing you could whistle, and if you were an expert, there wasn't much you'd want to whistle. Yet a great many bop numbers were based upon the chord progressions of standard jazz tunes such as 'I've Got Rhythm,’ the 12-bar blues, 'In­diana,’ and, of course, 'How High the Moon.’ The piano, guitar, and bass would play the same accompaniment to 'Indiana' as they might ordinarily, for example, and the soloist would improvise as usual—but nobody would play the tune. It wasn't exactly new to jazz, but bop made a practice of featuring variations upon melodies that were never stated.

To take the place of the melody, bop evolved a framework of its own, a written or memorized unison chorus in bop style, played at the beginning and at the end of each number. It was generally quite complicated and, some­times, even memorable. If you could manage to whistle the original tune at the same time, it would fit in a bop-pish way. In between, each musician took his solos in turn.

Charlie Parker, like Dizzy Gillespie and other early boppers, … , knew exactly what he was doing. He dated the first occasion when he began to play bop in December 1939, at a chili house on Seventh Avenue between 139th and 14Oth streets:

‘... I'd been getting bored with the stereotyped changes [i.e. chords] that were being used all the time at the time, and I kept thinking there's bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn't play it.

Well, that night, I was working over Cherokee, and, as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive.’

This is an accurate and fairly technical description of what took place.

Since bop was played by small groups which permitted experimentation, the riffs or repeated phrases of the swing bands died out and a longer solo line became possible. The bop soloist now started and stopped at strange mo­ments and places, reversing his breath pauses, and some­times creating a long and unbalanced melodic line which cut across the usual rests. No more running up and down chords as in the Swing Era.

In terms of rhythm, bop made some radical changes. On first hearing, even a sympathetic listener might well have been dismayed. 'If that drummer would quit banging that cymbal,' the traditionalist objected, 'I might be able to hear the bass drum.' In point of fact, there wasn't any bass drum to hear—at least, not the heavy 'boom, boom, boom’ of Gene Krupa's day. Instead, the hiss of the top cymbal dominated the music (once in a while, in the early days, the cymbal nearly drowned out the soloists), changing phase to fit the inventions of the soloist. The bass drum was reserved for explosions, or special accents, and the string bass—alone—played a steady, unaccented four-to-a-bar. The beat was there but it was light, flowing, and more subtle.

Many listeners were left painfully in the lurch and any resemblance in bop to the heavy march rhythm of Dixieland was entirely unintentional. To the soloist in bop, however, these changes were an enormous help. They gave him a new freedom and a new responsibility.  …” [pp. 229-231].

To one who was new to the music of bebop, it’s melodic, harmonic and rhythmic “freedom” left me bewildered and confused.

But Stearns’ description of some of the things that were going on in bebop at least gave me some starting points.

Of course, around the time that Stearns was researching and writing his book in the mid-1950s, bebop was still in its infancy.

Charlie Parker had just died, but most of the originators of bop were still around.

My ear soon caught up to Bebop’s complexities and, throughout its many later manifestations, I began a life-long love affair with the music.

Fast forward a half century later and there many more books are on the subject of Jazz in general and bebop in particular.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles would like to call your attention to two of these: the chapter entitled Modern Jazz: The Birth of Bebop in Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz [Oxford University Press] and Scott and Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History [University of California Press].

Now in its second edition, Ted’s excellent account of the growth and development of Jazz offers these introductory thoughts on the growth and development of Bebop [pp. 200-205].

© -Ted Gioia/Oxford University Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

‘Long before modern jazz emerged as a dis­tinctive style, an ideology of modernism had been implic­itly embraced by the music's practitioners. From its earliest days, jazz had been an forward-looking art, continually in­corporating new techniques, more expansive harmonies, more complex rhythms, more intricate melodies. …. whether they expostulated about the future of music or merely announced its arrival through the bell of their horns, the leading musicians of early jazz were modernists in the truest sense of the term. They were admired—or chastised, as the case may be—as daring exponents of the new and bold.

It is easy to lose sight of just how remarkable this modernist bent was, given its context. ….

Almost from the start, jazz players embraced a different mandate, accepting their role as entertainers and pursuing experimentation with an ardent zeal. This created a paradoxical foundation for jazz, one that remains to this day: for the jazz musician soon proved to be a restless soul, at one moment fostering the tradition, at another shattering it, mindless of the pieces. ….

Given this feat, the rise of a more overt modernism in the early 1940s should not be viewed as an abrupt shift, as a major discontinuity in the music's history. It was simply an extension of jazz's inherent tendency to mutate, to change, to grow.  ….

[One] irony is that modern jazz sprang from none of …  [its] roots. True, it drew bits and pieces of inspiration from … [earlier forms of Jazz] , but it sounded like none of them. Instead, the leading jazz modernists of the 1940's developed their own unique style, brash and unapologetic, in backrooms and after-hours clubs, at jam sessions and on the road with traveling bands. This music was not for commercial consumption, nor was it meant to be at this embryonic stage. It survived in the interstices of the jazz world. …

What was this new music? Early modern jazz, or bebop as it soon came to called, rebelled against the populist trappings of swing music. The simple riffs, the accessible vocals, the orientation toward providing background music to social dancing, the thick big band textures built on interlocking brass and reed sections— these trademarks of prewar jazz were set aside in favor of a more streamlined, more insistent style. Some things, of course, did not change ….

True, the beboppers preferred the small combo format to the prevalent big band sound, but the underlying rhythm section of piano, string bass, drums, and occasionally guitar remained unchanged, as did the use of saxophones, trumpets, and trombones as typical front-line instru­ments.

But how these instruments were played underwent a sea change in the context of modern jazz. Improvised lines grew faster, more complex. The syncopations and dotted eighth-note phrasings that had characterized earlier jazz were now far less prominent. Instead, long phrases might stay on the beat for measures at a time, built on a steady stream of eighth or sixteenth notes executed with quasi-mechani­cal precision, occasionally broken by a triplet, a pregnant pause, an interpolation of dotted eighths or whirlwind thirty-second notes, or a piercing offbeat phrase. The conception of musical time also changed hand in hand with this new way of phras­ing, otherwise this less syncopated approach might have sounded rhythmically life­less, a tepid jazz equivalent to the even sixteenth notes of baroque music. …

The harmonic implications of this music also revealed a newfound complexity. …

But more often, the harmonic complexity of modern jazz was implicit, sug­gested in the melody lines and improvisations rather than stated outright in the chords of the songs.

Yet, there was also a core of simplicity to this music. Arrangements were sparse, almost to an extreme. Renouncing the thick textures of the big band sound, be-boppers mostly opted for monophonic melody statements. ….

The boppers were not formalists. Content, not form, was their preoccupation. Instrumental solos were at the heart of each performance, sandwiched between an opening and closing statement of the melody. ….

The celebrated histories of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie might lead one to believe that this musical revolution took place only on the front line, an upheaval among horn players. In fact, much of the changing sensibility of modern jazz was driven by the rhythm sections. …. Each instrument in the jazz rhythm section, in fact, underwent a transformation during these years. The pulse of the music became less sharply articulated, more pointillistic. Sudden accents— the so-called bass drum "bombs" dropped by bebop percussionists or the crisp comping chords of pianists and guitarists—now frequently arrived off the beat or on weak beats. The spitfire tempos required impeccable timekeeping and unprece­dented stamina. After the onslaught of modern jazz, the rhythm section would never be the same.

… Bebop was [also] defined by its social context as much as by the flats and sharps of its altered chords. Outsiders even within the jazz world, the modern jazz players had the dubious distinction of be­longing to an underclass within an underclass. Remember, this was a musical revo­lution made, first and foremost, by sidemen, not stars.  ….

Thus, the birth of modern jazz took place at a strange crossroads: drawing, on the one side, from the pungent roots and rhythms of Kansas City jazz, on the other delving into the rarefied atmosphere of high art.”

Not surprisingly, with almost seventy-five years having elapsed since the earliest expression, Bebop has had a number of full length books devoted to it in recent years.

One of the most comprehensive works on the subject is Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History [University of California Press].

Here are some excerpts from Scott’s Introduction: Stylistic Evolution or Social Revolution?

© -Scott DeVeaux/University of California Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There is a trick to balancing a yardstick. Hold the yardstick out flat, with one index finger under each end. Then bring these fingers in slowly toward the center. They will not slide in evenly: one will be held up by friction while the other spurts ahead until it, too, is caught. But inevitably they will meet at the pivot point of the span and come into balance.

Imagine for the moment that the history of jazz is a solid, linear object, like a yardstick. One endpoint marks the origins of jazz, somewhere in the mists of the early twentieth century; the other, the present. As of this writing, at least, the point at which the yardstick comes into balance falls somewhere in the mid-i94os.
By any measure, this is a crucial period for the history of jazz. During the years 1940-45 the first modern jazz style, shaped by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others, came into being. This music was known as bebop, or simply bop: "a most inadequate word," complained Ralph Ellison, that "throws up its hands in clownish self-deprecation before all the complexity of sound and rhythm and self-assertive passion which it pretends to name/7 But this music was crucial for the evolution of jazz and American music. For Ellison, bebop marked nothing less than "a momentous modulation into a new key of musical sensibility; in brief, a revolution in culture."

As the twentieth century comes to a close, bebop lies at the midpoint of what has come to be known as the jazz tradition. It also lies at the shadowy juncture at which the lived experience of music becomes trans­formed into cultural memory. Inevitably, there will be fewer and fewer witnesses to contribute to—or contest—our ideas about the past. The recent passing of Dizzy Gillespie (1917-93) and Miles Davis (1926-92), among others, underscores our closeness to the physical and psychic re­ality of that history. In their absence we will be left with the image of bebop and jazz that we construct for ourselves.

Even as bebop recedes further into the past, it is unlikely to be dislodged any time soon from the heart of jazz discourse. Tradition, after all, is not simply a matter of cherishing the past, holding its memory sacred. There is some of that in jazz, but not much. What counts, as the musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has argued, is the continuing existence of the past in the present.

In this sense, bebop has a more legitimate claim to being the fount of contemporary jazz than earlier jazz styles. The large dance orchestras of the Swing Era and the improvised polyphony of the early New Orleans groups may hold a place of honor, but musicians no longer play that way. The nuances of the past have largely disappeared, along with the social contexts of nightlife and dancing that shaped and gave them meaning. A jazz orchestra of fifteen or more musicians suggests either nostalgia, the specter of superannuated bodies shuffling to yesterday's dance music, or the academic sterility of the university "lab band/' The small New Or­leans or "Dixieland" combo was long ago ceded to enthusiastic and atavistically minded amateurs. Even the most accomplished modern jazz repertory groups only drive home how difficult it is for a contemporary musician to inhabit the musical sensibility of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Mor­ton, or Jimmie Lunceford.

By contrast, ask any member of the current generation of jazz musi­cians to play Charlie Parker's "Anthropology," or Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," or Monk's "'Round Midnight." It may not be their preferred avenue of expression, but they will know the music and how to play it. Bebop is a music that has been kept alive by having been absorbed into the present; in a sense, it constitutes the present. It is part of the expe­rience of all aspiring jazz musicians, each of whom learns bebop as the embodiment of the techniques, the aesthetic sensibilities, and ultimately the professional attitudes that define the discipline. A musical idiom now half a century old is bred in their bones.

The perennial relevance of bebop is thus not simply a tribute to its enduring musical value. After all, the music of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington enjoys a critical esteem equal to that of Parker, Gillespie, and Monk, and it is better known and loved by the general public. But bebop is the point at which our contemporary ideas of jazz come into focus. It is both the source of the present—"that great revolution in jazz which made all subsequent jazz modernisms possible"—and the prism through which we absorb the past. To understand jazz, one must understand bebop.”

When I was first looking for Bebop recordings, I had to scramble around and piece together a representative sampling of the music.  This was largely due to the fact that many of these records were issued in very limited quantities on obscure labels that soon went out-of-business, or because the recordings were simply out-of-print.

If you are new to the music or wish to revisit if, Bebop Spoken Here is a Properbox [#10] 4-CD anthology that features 97 tracks of Bebop along with a 56-page explanatory booklet. 

You can listen to a selection from the set in the following video tribute.