Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ted Gioia - The Jazz Standards - A Review

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

“THE JAZZ STANDARDS will be indispensable for any fan who wants to know more about a jazz song heard at the club, or on the radio. Musicians who play these songs night after night will now have a handy tome, outlining their history and significance which tells how pieces have been performed by different generations of jazz artists. And students learning about jazz standards now have a reference work to these cornerstones of the jazz repertoire.”
- Christian Purdy, The Oxford University Press

“In his latest book - The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire – Ted Gioia talks about Jazz from the singular perspective of the music and not from the more accustomed standpoint of the musicians who made it.”
- the editorial staff at JazzProfiles

“lf you look up just one title in The Jazz Standards, before you realize it you will have spent an intriguing hour or two learning fascinating and new things about old songs that you have known most of your life."
—Dave Brubeck

I look forward to Ted Gioia’s books about Jazz with the same excitement and anticipation that greets the arrival of the next recording by one of my favorite Jazz artists.

The guy can flat-out write, he’s a magnificent story-teller and he has a depth and a breath of knowledge about Jazz which rivals that of any writer of the subject.

I know his next book is always going to be good so I grudgingly allow him the necessary time to research it and write it because I can’t wait to read it.

In this regard, Ted’s The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire - from Oxford University Press in July/2012 – didn’t disappoint.

In his writing, Ted has a “conversation” with the reader.

His style is never polemical or didactic like those academic treatises that only twelve other people on the planet can read, let alone, understand.

Be it specifically about Jazz on the West Coast from 1945–1960 or more generally about the entire history of Jazz, Ted’s writing is personal and he teaches you stuff about Jazz.

His approach is reminiscent of your favorite high school teachers; you really wanted to learn from them because they knew what they were talking about and they made the subject fun and interesting.

This is no less the case with Ted’s book - The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire – in which he talks about Jazz from the singular perspective of the music and not from the more accustomed standpoint of the musicians who made it.
If you’ve ever wished for a “road map” through recorded Jazz tunes, this book is it.  It offers “… an illuminating look at more than 250 seminal Jazz compositions …, “recommendations for more than 2,000 recordings with a list of suggested tracks for each song, [each accompanied by] “… colorful and expert commentary.”

The reasons for how and why this book came together are clearly explained by Ted in the following excerpts from his Introduction.

“When I was learning how to play jazz during my teenage years, I kept encountering songs that the older musicians expected me to know. I eventually realized that there were around 200 or 300 of these compositions, and that they served as the cornerstone of the jazz repertoire. A jazz performer needed to learn these songs the same way a classical musician studied the works of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart.

In fact, I soon learned that knowledge of the repertoire was even more important to a jazz musician than to a classical artist. The classical performer at least knows what compositions will be played before the concert begins. This is not always the case with jazz. I recall the lament of a friend who was enlisted to backup a poll-winning horn player at a jazz festival—only to discover that he wouldn't be told what songs would be played until the musicians were already on stage in front of 6,000 people.

Such instances are not unusual in the jazz world, a quirk of a subculture that prizes both spontaneity and macho bravado. Another buddy, a quite talented pianist, encountered an even more uncooperative bandleader—a famous saxophonist who wouldn't identify the names of the songs even after the musicians were on the bandstand. The leader would simply play a short introduction on the tenor, than stamp off the beat with his foot... and my friend was expected to figure out the song and key from those meager clues. For better or worse, such is our art form.

I had my own embarrassing situations with unfamiliar standards during my youth—but fortunately never with thousands of people on hand to watch. I soon realized what countless other jazz musicians have no doubt also learned: in-depth study of the jazz repertoire is hardly a quaint historical sideline, but essential for survival. Not learning these songs puts a jazz player on a quick path to unemployment.

But no one gave you a list. Nor would a typical youngster of my (or a later) generation encounter many of these songs outside the jazz world—most of them had been composed before I was born, and even the more recent entries in the repertoire weren't part of the fare you typically heard on TV or mainstream radio. Some of these tunes came from Broadway, but not always from the hit productions—many first appeared in obscure or failed shows, or revues by relatively unknown songwriters. Others made their debut in movies, or came from big bands, or were introduced by pop singers from outside the jazz world. A few—such as "Autumn Leaves" or "Desafinado"—originated far away from jazz's land of origin. And, of course, many were written by jazz musicians themselves, serving as part of the legacy of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and other seminal artists.

My own education in this music was happenstance and hard earned. Eventually "fake books" appeared on the scene to clear up some of the mystery, but I never saw one of these (usually illegal) compilations until I was almost 20 years old. When I first encountered The Real Book—the underground collection of jazz lead sheets that began circulating in the 19705—even the table of contents served as a revelation to me. And, I'm sure, to others as well. Aspiring musicians today can hardly imagine how opaque the art form was just a few decades ago—no school I attended had a jazz program or even offered a single course on jazz. Most of the method books were worthless, and the peculiar culture of the art form tended to foster an aura of secrecy and competitiveness. Just knowing the names of the songs one needed to learn represented a major step forward; getting a lead sheet was an unwonted luxury.

A few years later, when I started teaching jazz piano students, I put together a brief guide to the repertoire, listing the songs my pupils needed to learn and the keys in which they were normally played—a rudimentary forerunner to the work you now have in your hands. Still later, as I began writing about jazz, I continued to study these same songs, but from a different perspective. I now tried to unravel the evolution of these compositions over time, understand how different jazz artists had played them, and what changes had taken place in performance practices.

Over the years, I often wished I had a handbook to this body of music, a single volume that would guide me through the jazz repertoire and point me in the direction of the classic recordings. A few books were helpful in my early education into the nuances of this body of music, especially Alec Wilder's American Popular Song (1972), but even the best of these books invariably focused on only a small part of the repertoire—mainly Broadway and Tin Pan Alley songs— and dealt very little with this music as it related to jazz. The book I needed didn't exist when I was coming up, and still doesn't. I wanted to delve into these songs as sources of inspiration for great jazz performances—a perspective that often took one far a field from what the composer might have originally intended. I wanted a guide to these works as building blocks of the jazz art form, as a springboard to improvisation, as an invitation to creative reinterpretation.

This book aims to be that type of survey, the kind of overview of the standard repertoire that I wished someone had given me back in the day—a guide that would have helped me as a musician, as a critic, as a historian, and simply as a fan and lover of the jazz idiom. To some degree, this work represents the fruition of all my experiences with these great songs over a period of decades. The compositions that were once mysterious and even foreboding have now become familiar friends, the companions of countless hours, and I have relished the opportunity to write about these songs and discuss my favorite recordings. Certainly those readers familiar with my other books will note a more personal tone here, a more informal approach—one that felt natural to me as I delved into a body of work that has become, by now, such a vital part of my life….”

The Jazz Standards is a resource guide and a browser's companion to more than 250 of the most popular Jazz songs and includes a listening guide to more than 2 000 recordings. For each of these tunes, Ted “… explains their role in the art form, compares different performance practices, and serves as a tour guide to the historic recordings that define how these works are played today.”

To give you the “flavor” of the book’s contents, here are three examples drawn from Ted’s annotations about songs reviewed in The Jazz Standards that have always been among my favorite to play on.

Airegin [Sonny Rollins, composer]:

“The song first came to prominence via the 1954 Miles Davis project Bags' Groove, an album that is far less well known than the trumpeter's work from later in the decade. The album presented several songs destined to become standards, including three of Rollins's best compositions: "Airegin," "Doxy," and "Oleo."

"Airegin" offers the most interesting conception of the batch, with an opening that hints at a minor blues at the outset, then morphs into a lopsided 36-bar form—an oddity, with 20 bars elapsing before the repeat, but then running only 16 bars before coming back to the top of the form—all packed with plenty of harmonic movement to keep things interesting for the soloists.

The opening chords look back to "Opus V," a piece by J. J. Johnson that Rollins had recorded back in 1949, while the second eight bars are reminiscent of the bridge to Billy Strayhorn's "Day Dream." But the whole as constructed by Rollins is distinctive and the work ranks among the most intricate of the saxophonist's better known pieces. Certainly "Airegin" showed that in an era when other jazz players were expanding their audience by moving toward either a cool melodicism or an earthy funkiness, Rollins was intent on writing songs that would appeal to other horn players rather than patrons at the jukebox.

"Airegin" did just that. Two years later, Davis resurrected the song for another Prestige session, and this time featured John Coltrane, Rollins's leading rival as reigning tenor titan of modern jazz. Davis made a surprising choice to substitute an 8-bar vamp over an F minor chord for Rollins's original chord changes during the second A theme; by doing so, he anticipated the modal approach that would come to the fore in his music later in the decade. The tempo is faster here, and the mood much more aggressive, with Trane serving notice that he could play this composition just as well as the composer.

Other prominent soloists followed suit. Phil Woods recorded "Airegin" on his 1957 session with Gene Quill, and periodically returned to the song in various settings over the years. Art Pepper tackled it on his Art Pepper Plus Eleven….

The song has kept its place in the standard repertoire …. For two invigorating [and more recent examples], check out the treatments by Chris Potter and Michael Brecker, both from 1993.”

Love for Sale [Cole Porter, composer and lyricist]:

“Many songs have overcome nonmusical obstacles in gaining acceptance and popularity, but few tunes faced a stiffer challenge than "Love for Sale." For decades, radio stations refused to allow its lyrics on the air. The song, which made its debut in the 1930 Broadway musical The New Yorkers, is sung from the perspective of a Prohibition-era prostitute, and composer Cole Porter did not mince his words in presenting "appetizing young love for sale." Charles Darnton, the reviewer for the Evening World, accused the song of being "in the worst possible taste." The Herald Tribune called it "filthy."

Porter, perhaps in a mood of defensiveness, claimed that it was his favorite among the songs he had composed. "I can't understand it," he griped. "You can write a novel about a harlot, paint a picture of a harlot, but you can't write a song about a harlot." Perhaps most revealing: audience outrage subsided after the Broadway production shifted the setting of the song to Harlem, in front of the Cotton Club, and assigned the number to African-American vocalist Elizabeth Welch instead of Kathryn Crawford, a white singer.

“… jazz artists seldom turned to "Love for Sale" until the late 1940s and early 1950s. Billie Holiday recorded a definitive version, and her persona as a troubled diva who, by her own account, was working as a prostitute when this song first came out, gave her a kind of credibility that few singers would want to match. Despite her advocacy, singers long avoided this song. During this period a jazz fan was more likely to encounter the Porter tune in instrumental arrangements by Erroll Garner, Sidney Bechet, Art Tatum, or even Charlie Parker, who recorded it as part of a Cole Porter tribute project for the Verve label shortly before his death. …

Cannonball Adderley recorded a well-known version for his 1958 project Somethin' Else—a rare date that found Miles Davis working as a sideman. …

By the 1960s, the taboo associated with "Love for Sale" had faded, and it became entrenched in the repertoires of jazz players. And for good reason. The opening theme is suitable for vamps of all stamps, from Latin to funky, and the release offers effective contrast both rhythmically and harmonically. A tension in tonality is evident from the outset: this song in a minor key nonetheless starts on a major chord, and seems ready to go in either direction during the course of Porter's extended form. A composition of this sort presents many possibilities, and can work either as a loose jam or bear the weight of elaborate arrangement.”

Poinciana [Nat Simon, composer, Buddy Bernier, lyricist]

“In the jazz world, “Poinciana” is inextricably linked with Ahmad Jamal, whose successful reading of the composition from 1958 helped keep his album Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me on the Billboard chart for more than two years. But the song long predates Jamal's interpretation, and was composed back in 1936. Glenn Miller performed it in the late 1930s, Benny Carter enjoyed a modest hit with "Poinciana" in February 1944, and Bing Crosby did the same the following month. Carter's version is especially interesting, with its strange groove, half Latin and half-R&B—a stark contrast to the pop-oriented approach Miller had adopted in his treatment.

Around this time, a number of name bandleaders embraced "Poinciana" and it shows up on live broadcasts by Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and other jazz stars of the era. … Other recordings that predate Jamal's success include versions by Erroll Garner, Lennie Niehaus, Red Callender, and George Shearing.

But Jamal eclipsed these precedents with a vamp-based arrangement that superimposed the pianist's unhurried phrasing over an insistent, appealing beat—so appealing that his "Poinciana" earned repeated jukebox plays and dance-floor loyalty at a time when modern jazz had largely abandoned these public platforms for crossover success.

Even after Jamal redefined "Poinciana," the song enjoyed a surprisingly varied career. It has been popular with vocal groups, as demonstrated in recordings by the Four Freshman and the Manhattan Transfer. It has appeared on albums devoted to musical exotica, getting the full Les Baxter "bring-the-Third-World-to-your-bachelor-pad" treatment, and has also been adapted for big bands, Afro-Cuban ensembles, and easy listening orchestras. But I am still under Jamal's sway, and feel "Poinciana" is best served by small combo versions that avoid the mood music baggage and let the song swing. For three striking examples, check out Shelly Manne's fast romp in straight 4/4 walking time from his 1959 performance at the Black Hawk, Sonny Rollins's hot work on soprano sax backed by George Cables's electric piano from 1972, and Keith Jarrett’ s convivial trio rendition from 1999.”

Aside from just devouring the book from cover-to-cover, as I did, you can approach The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire in any number of ways.

You select one tune, read what Ted has to say about it and then immerse yourself in the example recordings the he lists in the accompanying discography.

You can take Ted annotations for one or more of the Jazz standards and add your own thoughts and list of favorites versions to it.

Or you can create playlists from Ted’s track suggestions and upload them to you favorite media player

Perhaps you might wish to get together with some of your Jazz buddies at a Jazz standards party in which you read and discuss Ted’s take on a tune and play your preferred versions.

I doubt that you will ever come across a book on Jazz that will give you more pleasurable reading while, at the same time, affording you an interactive platform in which to experience its contents.

However, you approach it, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire is sure to become a constant companion to your Jazz listening.

Ted has his own website and you can find out more about him by visiting it via this link.

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