|J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
|Reviews that mention John Coltrane
Lest We Forget:
Julius Watkins (1921-1977)
By Ken Waxman
A stylist whose innovative work in the ‘50s and ‘60s putting the French horn into a jazz context is analogous to what Coleman Hawkins did for the tenor saxophone and Louis Armstrong for the trumpet 30 years earlier, Julius Watkins almost singlehandedly created a viable role for the curved horn during the bop and post-bop eras.
Born in Detroit on October 10, 1921, Watkins began playing the French horn at nine in his school band and continued his studies at that city’s famous Cass Technical High School. Although he also played trumpet during a three year stint in Ernie Fields’ territory band in the mid-‘40s, by the end of the decade he had already recorded on his chosen instrument on sides with drummer Kenny Clarke and vocalist Babs Gonzales and toured as a hornist with pianist Milt Buckner’s band. After studying at the Manhattan School of Music in 1952, he spent the next quarter century in NYC. Within a few years he had recorded a couple of 10-inch LPs for Blue Note, featuring heavyweight such as tenor saxophonists Frank Foster or Hank Mobley, drummers Kenny Clarke or Art Blakey and bassist Oscar Pettiford.
From that point on Watkins was the “go-to” French horn player on the East Coast, whether it was for Broadway pit orchestra work, with the classical New World Symphony, or most prominently as soloist or ensemble member on an impressive number of outstanding small combo and big band dates. These include such classics as Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins and Monk (Prestige); Miles Davis’ Porgy & Bess and Miles Ahead (Columbia); Gil Evans’ New Bottle Old Wine (Pacific Jazz) John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass (Impulse), Charles Mingus’ Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia), Quincy Jones’ Birth of a Band (Mercury) and even Pharoah Sanders’ Karma (Impulse). Watkins’ skill on the instrument, which encompassed the bright facility of a trumpet and the dark sonority of a trombone, is why he was in such demand.
From 1956 to 1959 Watkins also co-led Les Jazz Modes quintet with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. An anomaly among hard-bop combos, Les Jazz Modes’ sound was evocative and intricate with straight-ahead playing from Rouse, Watkins and the rhythm section, often mixed with wordless soprano vocals from Eileen Gilbert. Besides expected material, the band also recorded a jazz version of the Broadway show, The Most Happy Fella. Interestingly enough when the quintet broke up, Rouse subsequently become a fixture in the bands of Watkins’ old friend and employer Monk.
Besides his skills as a studio player in many other sessions involving everyone from Oliver Nelson and Phil Woods to the Jazz Composers Orchestra, Watkins was also a renowned teacher. Two of his students have become a couple of the most accomplished of contemporary French horn players: Vincent Chancy, who has worked in the Sun Ra Arkestra and Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy; and Tom Varner, who, after playing with everyone from Steve Lacy to John Zorn, now teaches at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts. Although Watkins died in Short Hills, N.J. on April 4, 1977 is influence lives on. From 1994 to 1998, an annual Julius Watkins Jazz Horn Festival took place in New York, and in March 2012 a seventh edition was organized at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University where a collection of academics, plus classical and jazz French hornists, including Varner, Chancy, Adam Unsworth, Alex Brofsky and John Clark gathered to perform and discuss Watkins’ lasting legacy.
October 14, 2013
Lest We Forget:
Gigi Gryce (1927-1983)
By Ken Waxman
Arguably the most accomplished jazz musician to abandon his career at the height of his fame then make his mark elsewhere, was alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce. Gryce was one of jazz’s most creative composer-arrangers, whose precisely organized small groups and now classic tunes such as “Minority”, “Nica’s Tempo” and “Social Call” established new orchestral possibilities in the ‘50s and ‘60s. However he abruptly abandoned music in 1963 and spent the remainder of his life teaching music and other subjects full time. After his death, his educational achievements were honored when the Bronx public school at which he taught was renamed for him.
Born in Pensacola, Fla. on November 28, 1925, George General Grice, Jr. was an instrumental polymath who quickly mastered flute, clarinet and saxophones, and by the early-‘50s had attended Boston Conservatory and worked in many groups, most prominently on an overseas tour with Lionel Hampton’s big band that included Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones. By the end of the decade, established in New York, Gryce’s skills as composer, arranger and player made him nearly ubiquitous. His best-known band was the Jazz Lab quintet with trumpeter Donald Byrd. But he also played in large and small bands led by Teddy Charles, Oscar Pettiford, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and others, many of which featured his compositions. He arranged and conducted the famous Max Roach-Buddy Rich drum battle date, Rich vs Roach (Verve); and worked with Thelonious Monk. He’s the third saxophonist alongside John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins on Monk’s Music (Riverside).
Gryce was also convinced that jazz musicians weren’t getting a fair share of publishing royalties. Business-oriented, he encouraged others to set up their own publishing companies, and from 1955 until 1963 ran Melotone Music/Totem Music to publish his own compositions and those of his contemporaries. Considering that many popular hard-bop tunes, including Ray Bryant’s “Little Susie”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’”, and Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly”, were administered by Gryce’s firms didn’t endear him to other publishers, record companies or bookers. Although most of the pressure exerted against him led to a slowing of work rather than outright threats, his already secretive nature soon turned paranoid. Eventually he returned rights to all tunes to their composers, cut himself off from the jazz world and taught under his Muslim name of Basheer Qusim until his death from a heart attack on March 14, 1983.
This abrupt change of direction after 1963 shouldn’t preclude an investigation of Gryce’s music. Even a cursory listen to sessions featuring his playing, arranging and especially his compositions, unmistakably reveal the breath of his contributions to jazz.
--For New York City Jazz Record November 2012
November 6, 2012
Free Jazz and Free Improvisation
An Encyclopedia by Todd S. Jenkins
Greenwood Press Volume One A-J; Volume Two K-Z
By Ken Waxman
January 31, 2005
Reviewing a stand-alone project like Free Jazz and Free Improvisation presents a unique set of challenges, since you must deal with what isnt covered in the 500-odd oversized pages of these two volumes as much as what is.
From the downbeat author Todd Jenkins has to be commended for his Herculean task, collecting from various sources essential information about Free Music and putting it into approachable form for the student, the researcher as well as the improvisational newbie.
Further props in his favor include the introductory essay, The Path to Freedom. In around 40, well-measured, pages, he manages to touch nearly every major current in so-called outside music from the late 1940s all the way up to the present. Subtantially, in the body of the book, his list of individual entries ranges from the irrefutable pioneers -- such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor -- all the way up to many newcomers including Bay area saxophonist Rent Romus and Boston-based trumpeter Greg Kelley.
Jenkins is knowledgeable enough about the scene in general to include listings of such little celebrated entities as Muhal Richard Abrams influential Experimental Band and the pan-European Quintet Moderne, to cite two entries. Cognizant of Free Musics universality, he also has a good percentage of entries on non-American performers -- European and Japanese in the main -- as well as separate slots for important nightclubs and record labels. As stand-alone entries, his extensive dissections of the careers and recorded work of important stylists such as Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker are exemplary.
That said, Free Jazz and Free Improvisation also encompasses several egregious flaws that compromise the volumes status as a reference source. Emphasis is put on certain trends, musicians and record labels to the expense of others that in the future could prove to be as momentous. Furthermore, for a hard-cover publication destined for library shelves and as a long-term reference, an appalling number of omissions, typos, proof reading, editing and even factual mistakes appear.
In many instances also, Jenkins writing is gauche and graceless, relying on such cliched expressions as avoid like the plague, like it or lump it, welcome with open arms and packed to the rafters. This may be OK for a rush job destined for next day newspaper publication, but a book, especially an encyclopedia, is a monumental undertaking that should avoid cringe-worthy prose since it will be consulted for years to come.
Briefly, Jenkins is on the most solid ground with his shorter entries, since they pithily state the basic facts and locate the data in the improv continuum. In some of these however, and many of the longer entries, a form of omnipotence weakens the strength of he information. Endless detailing of individual LP and CD tracks and sessions is something best left to record reviewing. Plus, following the lead of Leonard Feathers pioneering, yet not wholly successful, efforts in his Encyclopedia of Jazz, opinions of others conversant with the works discussed should have been added to Jenkins own. To use an obvious cliché, disagreements and preferences are what make horse races.
Although the selection of entries is catholic, too often additional information is missing. Jenkins includes the full birth date, place and year of birth for many musicians, for instance, while other listings lack one, the other or all three. Communications via the Internet has made such lapses dubious. A Web page search or e-mail to the person involved could have yielded the missing date. In 1956 and thereafter, Feather sent out a questionnaire to those musicians he wanted to include in his encyclopedia; 21st Century transmission makes this task that much simpler.
Certainly every reader will have a list of who or what should or shouldnt have been in the volumes, but a couple of omissions seem more than inexplicable.
The most glaring oversight is lack of a separate listing or even an index references for CODA, the Canadian jazz magazine with a worldwide circulation. Cadence -- founded in 1975 -- and its affiliated record labels rate an entry, while that publication and Signal to Noise, which began in the very late 1990s, are cited as periodicals specifically oriented towards new music in the end notes.
CODA has had its ups and down over the years, but as a journal published continuously since May 1958 as its masthead states, it has been a constant champion for Free Music almost from its beginning. During the late 1970s in fact, the magazines affiliated Sackville and Onari label released some now-classic Free Jazz/Free Improv sessions, a role which Cadences labels admirably fills today.
Another puzzling omission is that of New York trombonist Steve Swell, especially since many of the players with whom he associates rate their own listing. A few others musicians who could be included are, from Europe: pianist Michiel Braam and reedist Ab Baars of the Netherlands, Spanish pianist Augustí Fernández and British drummer Paul Hession. Then from the United States: Mississippi drummer Alvin Fielder, Texas trumpeter Dennis González, New Yorkers, saxist Michael Marcus and pianist Uri Caine, plus drummer Gino Robair and saxist Francis Wong from the Bay area. And thats only thinking of 10 at random.
Where would the publishers have found room for these entries? Removal of quasi-improvisers who come from the rock music world such as Thurston Moore, Jim ORourke and Fennez [!] could provide some space. Plus a 17-page, year-by-year Chronology of Events from 1949 through 2003 at the beginning of the volume that lists births, deaths and record releases already included in the text, could have been excised.
Adding or removing entries may be merely an exercise in different priorities between this reviewer and the author. But mistakes and misstatements arent open to discussion.
To list a few, again at random:
Barre Phillips is described as a British bassist in the entry on Peter Brötzman, but correctly as an American in his own
Big Nick Nicholas was a tenor saxophonist, not a blues singer
Violinist Billy Bang didnt found the String Trio of New York, it was a cooperative effort between him, guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg
No effort is made to explain that the Rev in tenor saxophonists Frank Wrights name was a nickname for his soulful playing, not a legitimate ecclesiastical title
Sun Ra didnt play in the big band of Erskine Caldwell, the author of Tobacco Road, but in the band of Erskine Hawkins, the popular trumpeter
Ajay Heble isnt the former Guelph Jazz Festival director, he still holds that post
John Coltrane recorded Olé for Atlantic not Impulse and Ascension for Impulse not Atlantic; the reverse is stated in the introduction
Poet/activist Amiri Barakas name change reflected his Pan-African revolutionary Marxism not a conversion to Islam as is misstated twice
Novelist Jean Toomer, who is mentioned in the entry on altoist Marion Brown, is a he not a she
While this list may seem excessively nitpicky, precisely because Free Jazz and Free Improvisation is an encyclopedia, these missteps are particularly egregious. Even in the 21st Century anything printed between hard covers is given extraordinary respect, so these errors will be perpetuated for some time.
While Free Jazz and Free Improv followers can pick up these volumes, they should be very conscious of these faults before doing so. Perhaps one way around the conundrum, would be for the author to annually publish a yearbook that would bring things up to date. Another welcome gesture would be if buyers could be provided with an set of corrections should they purchase the volumes. The information could even be e-mailed after the publisher is contacted.
Despite Jenkins hard work, it appears that Free Jazz and Free Improvisation is still only another small step on the road to completeness for individuals and institutions that seek a permanent collection of facts about these genres.
January 31, 2005
The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording
Impulse! 314 589 120-2
What's probably the most unexpected surprise about this more than 34-year-old music recorded by saxophonist John Coltrane final band at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in Harlem, and finally legitimately released, is just how powerful it is.
Although taped just three months before he died of liver cancer at 40, when the saxophonist was so out of sorts that he had to play sitting down, you'd never realize the extent of his infirmity from this performance.
Coltrane was improvising at the same exalted level on this April afternoon in 1967 as well as he ever he did during most of his short life. With such seem-bursting compatriots as tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali could he have done anything else?
Not that he would have wanted it any other way. Underlying this fearless performance is the conviction that, despite rumors to the contrary, Coltrane was firmly committed to following the exploratory path he had embarked upon a couple of years earlier. Note the performance locale as well. Neo-con revisionists who contend that Trane was going to return to a more simplistic sound had he lived, are the same ones who declares knowingly that most black fans had abandoned his music by end of his life. So who made up the members of the wildly enthusiastic crowd in the club on Manhattan's 125th street that day?
Sanders and Ali's contributions come into stronger focus as well on this date, recorded in sometimes uneven, but mostly professional, sound. With his ceaseless motion and ability to never let the tempo flag, plus his ingenuity in marshalling the other percussionists who clustered around the saxophonist -- there's at least one, possibly two more on this date -- Ali may really have been Trane's perfect percussion partner. Elvin Jones, famous for defining the sound of the so-called classic Coltrane quartet, subsequently rigidly stuck to that, for him, comfortable format. Compare his subsequent recordings and bands to Ali's and you'll hear a masterful percussionist content to build variations on the Coltrane sound on one hand, as opposed to someone unafraid of different partners or contexts on the other. That's why Ali's in-your face press rolls and constant thrashing is so necessary here; rather than seeking to nudge the saxophonist back into a comfortable position, he's ready to follow him no matter where the spirit leads.
Sanders, admitted Coltrane in interviews, was there to spell him, during the course of the wrenching performances of music like the compositions on this disc, which clock in at either side of half an hour each. Certainly the second saxophonist's ability to seemingly blow his horn apart while producing what could be cries of a wounded predator every time he set out to make a statement made him one of the most exciting performers of the time. You can witness that on "Ogunde" and then marvel at the combination of speedy multiphonics and R&B-style honking he brings to "My Favorite Things". Still, these tendencies point out his inescapable weaknesses as well. Like some over-exuberant Dixieland players blasting out of an ensemble, he usually "gets hot" far too quickly and is left restating his scorched earth offensive over and over again. Too often his soloing resembles that of an operatic tenor in showy recital, straining for those high notes just slightly out of reach.
Like Paul Desmond, who was canny enough to limit his solo forays, Sanders was best heard as the perfect sideman, useful for his sparkplug quantities, but too inconsistent to provide superlative leadership. Is it any wonder that his most memorable sessions since his Trane tenure have seen him playing second banana to his supposed sidemen such as Leon Thomas or Lonnie Liston Smith?
Compare that to Coltrane's performance. Even on "Favorite Things" which he must have played thousands of times by then, he's still elaborating new variations on the theme and keeping his lines and ideas in constant motion. On the other tune he invokes great cascading, middle range horn swoops while the massed percussionists' accent every phrase with cymbal and snare polyrhythms. If split tones are exhibited by the saxophonist, it's without the signs of obvious strain that Sanders seems to display.
Alice Coltrane's and Jimmy Garrison's contributions are simpler to describe. In the pianist's case, once the saxophonists and drummers get started, she almost disappears into the mix, only reappearing as on "Ogunde" for dense, ascending note stairsteps. In truth, her heavily accented modal style doesn't appear to be that different from the method McCoy Tyner developed during his years with Coltrane.
Unheard most of the time, Garrison makes his outstanding -- and most audible --contribution in his introduction to "Favorite Things". Did someone shut a window or a door to allow him to be heard, you wonder? His solo is actually a much longer version of
what he played on LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD AGAIN, recorded in the previous year. With only the vaguest of Spanish flamenco modulations, the bassist offers a lucid elaboration of a centred motif. When he turns jauntier at the end, it seems as if he's been creating some breathing space to prepare everyone for Trane's famous soprano flowering.
All in all, rather than being long-rumored splinters of the true cross suddenly on display, this concert CD appears to be merely what a standard nightclub set by the Trane band would be like at the time. Of course, the performance is given added poignancy by his impending death. Moreover, the disc shouldn't be oversold as more than an hour of breathless revelation. It adds little new to what we already know about Trane's reign.
But, considering that most of what Coltrane created was so far superior to other music of that day and this one, it's still a noteworthy and important disc. More to the point, as a musical dispatch from a man who seemed incapable of mediocrity, it's a precious artifact that most jazz fans will want to own.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Introduction by Billy Taylor 2. Ogunde 3. My Favorite Things
Personnel: John Coltrane (tenor and soprano saxophones); Pharoah Sanders (tenor saxophone); Alice Coltrane (piano); Jimmy Garrison (bass); Rashied Ali (drums); Algie DeWitt (bata drum); possibly Jumma Santos (percussion)
October 8, 2001