Monday, January 31, 2011

John Barry – R.I.P.

The film world lost one of its greatest composers with the death of John Barry, who died yesterday in New York at age 77. Barry, who had long lived in New York, is said to have died of a heart attack. But official details have not yet been released.

John Barry, born November 3, 1933, in York, England, composed the scores to dozens of films and TV shows over the past half century, a period known as film music’s “silver age,” but became best known as the man who underscored the best of James Bond’s film adventures. He was first invited in to fix Monty Norman’s music to Dr. No in 1962, crafting the famed James Bond theme (the authorship of which has always been in dispute), giving it an eternally cool edge with the addition of Vic Flick’s famed guitar.

Barry went on to score another 11 Bond films through 1987’s The Living Daylights, even suggesting replacements (George Martin, Bill Conti) when he was unable to score a Bond picture. It was Barry who suggested the Bond producers bring in composer/producer David Arnold (b. 1962), who has scored all five of the James Bond films since 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies.

But John Barry’s music, which has influenced many film and pop music composers and is appreciated by many who don’t know or care much for film music, was well known and respected outside of the James Bond franchise, scores he once derisively referred to as “million dollar Mickey Mouse music.”

He garnered early hits from his themes to “Beat Girl,” “Born Free” and “Midnight Cowboy” and earned five well-deserved Academy Awards for the theme and score to Born Free (1965) and the scores for The Lion in Winter (1968), Out of Africa (1985 – which also won a Golden Globe Award) and Dancing with Wolves (1990 – which also won a Grammy Award).

Barry’s Bond themes were also some of the series’ best-known songs, from the definitive “Goldfinger,” featuring Shirley Bassey, “Thunderball,” featuring Tom Jones, and “You Only Live Twice,” featuring Nancy Sinatra, to “We Have All The Time In The World,” featuring Louis Armstrong, “Diamonds are Forever,” again featuring Shirley Bassey, and “A View to a Kill,” featuring Duran Duran.

John Barry, who became Sir John Barry when he was awarded the O.B.E. in 1999, was instrumental in introducing me and many people of my generation to the concept of film music. Film and TV music was something that you weren’t meant to pay attention to and, early in my years, I certainly paid no attention to it.

My first Bond, Live and Let Die (1973) wasn’t a John Barry score and the music really didn’t have that much impact on me as a ten-year-old. But Bond did. I was sure to catch a Bond picture on TV whenever they aired at the time. The first two that did catch my attention and hold me riveted were Goldfinger (1964) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971), both for the stories and the action as well as the music, which was merely incredible.

Aside from two particularly dynamic themes, both sung by Shirley Bassey (who was hand-picked for the job by Barry for her ability to belt out a tune and hold a note), each had themes that mesmerized me. In Goldfinger, it was the all-too brief cue called “Into Miami,” that plays immediately after the main titles sequence as a glorious pan from a helicopter lets us know we’re in Miami. It had all the elegance of jazz, the decadence of the playful rich and the cool of Bond who knows his boss, M, doesn’t “book him into the best hotel in Miami Beach out of pure gratitude.”

The Diamonds are Forever theme I adored is a lounge-lizard instrumental version of the main theme that plays in Tiffany Case’s apartment when James Bond first enters as “Peter Franks.” Barry also recorded several albums for the Polydor label around this time that featured this particular sound, an homage of sorts to fellow Brit ex-pat George Shearing’s quintet, as well themes to this film and some of the composer’s British TV themes of the time. I should say, too, that I’m a big fan of Barry’s novelty theme “The Man with the Golden Gun,” belted out by Lulu in a perfectly serio-sarcastic style of the time,

What makes John Barry’s music extraordinarily unique is that he’s one of the first of the successful composers for film that came out of rock and roll. Some, like Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh, have also made such successful transitions. But not like John Barry, who understood and was not afraid of catchy hooks, celebrated the amalgam of melody and rhythm and the unequivocal power of pure simplicity. Barry also harbored an enduring love of jazz and the creativity other musicians can bring to his own music.

This added something special and unique to his scores. He was especially adept at “layering” sounds. He often talked about how much of his music was based on layers of simple ideas. Minimal deconstruction reveals the truth of such investigation. But it’s hard to appreciate as the final constructions were always so appealing as a whole.

Barry was particularly adept at coming up with secondary themes that are as strong, if not stronger, than his main themes. His “007” theme, first heard on Thunderball, is one such theme – for which he scored many variations (i.e. “To Hell With Blofeld”) – and one he was most proud of (interestingly, even the “Thunderball” theme was initially a secondary theme as “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was intended as the title and main theme to the film, in a vocal version to be sung by Dionne Warwick).

My favorite John Barry score (and theme) is probably the brilliant The Ipcress File (1965), a soundtrack I am very happy to own on CD. After Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, I’d also say I highly treasure John Barry’s score to Petulia (1968), followed by such early scores for The Knack…And How To Get It (1965) and The Whisperers (1967).

I would also recommend Barry’s longer, near-classic works “Romance for Guitar and Orchestra” from Deadfall (1968 –the film features Barry himself conducting the 14-minute piece) and “Return to the Seas – 2033 A.D.,” the self-edited 24-minute suite of themes from Barry’s score album for The Deep (1977 – issued on CD in 2010 by Intrada, the most recent John Barry CD I purchased).

Many will favor Barry’s more winningly melodic material like Out of Africa or Dances with Wolves, but I have always favored “that Bond sound” Barry perfected and personified in the 1960s and one that his later artistic successes permitted him to return to on The Specialist (1994) and Mercury Rising (1998), both stunning examples of just how brilliant a film composer John Barry was – always in tune with the emotional action of any film and purely perfect in setting just the right tone for a story.

One of John Barry’s last soundtracks, the little-known Playing by Heart (1998 – a reunion of sorts with original Bond Sean Connery), was also one of his most touching and lovingly conceived. A moody and melodic tribute in a jazz context to the influence of Chet Baker, it is John Barry, himself “playing by heart” and someone who always connected with film in a very personal way.

While it is sad that John Barry, who was active up until the end (he had composed The Beyondness of Things and Eternal Echoes outside of film and continued composing for favored artists like Shirley Bassey on her 2009 disc Performance), will not be heard in film again, the music he provided to more than a few films will live forever, forever.

“He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch.”

Saturday, January 29, 2011

50 years with jazzclarinet: The Best of Lajos Dudas

The clarinet is one of the most important instruments in the foundation of jazz, from its early progenitors Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Edmond Hall and George Lewis to such later famed instrumentalists as Ted Lewis, Don Murray, Pee Wee Russell, Peanuts Hucko, Artie Shaw and, of course, Benny Goodman.

But you’d never know it today. Sure, a few folks like Buddy DeFranco, Tony Scott and Jimmy Giuffre helped keep the clarinet spirit alive in the fifties (mostly by going into other forms of jazz). But by the 1960s, hardly anyone would be caught dead playing the clarinet – considered probably the most old-fashioned and out-dated instrument in jazz (sorry, bass clarinet players, led by Eric Dolphy, and sax players like Phil Woods, or countless others, who played clarinet on a less than part-time basis really don’t count).

It was only in Europe where the clarinet seemed to thrive after 1960. Even American clarinetists such as Scott and Perry Robinson were forced to ply their trade in Europe. This was the age that gave rise to Germans Rolf Kühn and Theo Jörgensmann, the Swedish Putte Wickman, the Japanese Eiji Kitamura and far too few others. Then, of course, later there was John Carter, Alvin Batiste, George Lewis, Eddie Daniels and Don Byron. There was also Hungarian émigré Lajos Dudás (b. 1941), who, from the mid-1960s on, has centered himself in Germany.

Lajos Dudas plays the blues with guitarist Philipp van Endert in Munich.

He’s played prolifically there ever since, particularly on many radio broadcasts with Germany’s best orchestras and Europe’s finest jazz players. He’s also been recorded frequently and quite well since the mid-1970s on a variety of German and Hungarian labels, in some startlingly differing contexts (most notably in a duo format), with some tremendously supportive players and many long-time musical associates.

Lajos Dudas beautifully conjures the entire history of jazz clarinet, from its very beginnings – which extend well before the start of jazz –and its swing and bop modes to its freest and most romantic of now accepted clarinet-jazz moods. He may well even cover this entire trajectory within just one song. It’s part of his nature. He’s almost completely unencumbered by fad or fashion.

50 years with jazzclarinet: The Best of Lajos Dudas captures a fraction of Lajos Dudas’ prolific output. It is the latest of the clarinetist’s samplers. But the point is that this truly under-appreciated clarinetist has a long recording history that hasn’t earned the respect his major-label contemporaries have been given. But the quality of the music he’s performed over the years speaks for itself – that is when it is heard. For the record, I’m surprised that ECM, or some other internationally-distributed label – has never waxed a Dudas album.

This well-programmed set, however, doesn’t quite live up to its rather unwieldy name. The span of consideration is more like 30 years rather than 50, the music isn’t all jazz and Dudas is not heard exclusively on clarinet (he started off as a sax player). It is, however, a terrific representation of Lajos Dudas’ best musical performances and provides not only some music that is otherwise unavailable on CD, it surprises with some never-before issued gems that account for a mere sliver of what must be hundreds of hours of recorded radio performances the clarinetist has made over the last half century since living in Germany (which is probably where the reference to 50 years comes from).

Dudas aligns himself here with noble European jazz lights like fellow Hungarian ex-pats Attila Zoller (1927-98, on “Rumpelstilzchen”) and Tommy Vig (b. 1938, on “Benny”), Hungarian singer and actress Marta Szirmay (b. 1939, aka Marta Szirmai, on “Wiegenlied”), German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff (1928-2005, on “Blueduet”), German vibist and free-jazz icon Karl Berger (b. 1935, on “Pirouette” and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off”) and American ex-pat vibist Tom van der Geld (from the cult group Children at Play, on “Detour”), not to mention many group regulars including drummer and fellow Hungarian ex-pat János Szudy, German bassist Ali Haurand and, most especially, the great German guitarist (and the manager of this CD’s label, JazzSick) Philipp van Endert, who figures on ten of this double CD’s 25 tracks.

”Change of Time” – as featured on 50 years with jazzclarinet by Lajos Dudas with Harvey Wainapel – alto sax; Hans Sparla – trombone; Vitold Rek – bass; and Wladimir Tarasov – drums.

As a set, the presentation of the disc’s first volume is a little erratic. It fluctuates from free-ish outbursts to slow, melodic moments and wildly varying instrumentation. But things start kicking into gear on the set’s second disc, led by the inventively brilliant electronic take on “Summertime” (1991), which follows rather perfectly on the heels of the terrific, yet seemingly out-of-place fusion performance of “Csardes Obstine” (1978).

There is great variety in the presentations Lajos Dudas provides here – maybe a bit too much. But the element of jazz, or more accurately a great sense of swing, pervades throughout. And, somehow, the added presence of Philipp van Endert inspires Dudas to even greater heights and, ultimately, makes for some really exciting music.

Like so many compilations, it’s not exactly the sort of thing somebody else would have put together. There’s no sign of Dudas’s great tribute to guitarist Gabor Szabo, whose sudden death in 1982 prevented a recording he was scheduled to do with Dudas, called “For Gabor” (recorded twice, in 1985 on Sunshine State and then again in 1995 on Encore) or anything from the appropriately named Some Great Songs (Double Moon, 1998) or the utterly lovely Jazz and the City (Konnex, 2004 – whose title is probably a take-off of the TV show Sex and the City).

”Sunday Afternoon” – as featured on 50 years with jazzclarinet by Lajos Dudas with Philipp van Endert – guitar; Martin Gjakonovski – bass; Kurt Billker – drums.

But far too few people know about Lajos Dudas, who turns 70 in February, and the great wealth of music he has contributed to the jazz pantheon. 50 years with jazzclarinet: The Best of Lajos Dudas is an excellent introduction.

To find out more about Lajos Dudas or to purchase 50 years with jazzclarinet, visit JazzSick Records. To discover just how much great music is here, where it comes from, who plays on what and – needless to say – just how beautifully Dudas shines throughout, here is the discographical detail:

Volume I:

Detour (Lajos Dudas) from 1980 LP Detour and 1993 CD Urban Blues: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Ali Haurand – bass; Kurt Billker – drums. Special Guest: Tom van der Geld – vibes.

Rumpelstilzchen (Attila Zoller) from 1982 LP Monte Carlo and 1993 CD Urban Blues: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Bert Thompson – bass; Kurt Billker – drums. Special Guest: Attila Zoller – guitar.

Benny (Lajos Dudas) from 1986 LP Mistral: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Teodossi Stoykov – bass; Janos Szudy – drums. Special Guest: Tommy Vig – vibes.

Song for Jinni (Lajos Dudas) from a 1987 radio recording: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Christoph Lauer – tenor sax; HR Jazz Ensemble. (Dudas also recorded the song for his 1991 CD Another Face.)

Blueduet (Lajos Dudas) from a 1987 radio recording: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Albert Mangelsdorf – trombone; HR Jazz Ensemble. (Dudas also recorded the song, which is also known as “Blueduette,” on the 1991 CD Another Face and the 1997 CD Chamber Music Live.)

Wieganlied (Lajos Dudas) from 1990 CD Change of Time: Marta Szirmay – vocal; Manfred Niehaus – violin’ Teodossi Stoykov – bass; Lajos Dudas – clarinet.

Change of Time (Lajos Dudas) from a 1989 radio recording and included on the 2001 CD The Jubilee Box: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Harvey Wainapel – alto sax; Hans Sparla – trombone; Vitold Rek – bass; Wladimir Tarasov – drums. (Dudas previously recorded the song on the 1990 CD Change of Time.)

Grave (J.S. Bach) from the CD Jazz Crossover Klassik Volume 3: Lajos Dudas Plays Bach: Lajos Dudas – clarinet.

At Carmelo’s (Lajos Dudas) from the 1985 LP Sunshine State: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Ernest Gaida-Hartmann – keyboards; Teodossi Stoykov – bass; Imre Köszegi – drums. (Dudas again recorded the song for the 1995 CD Maydance.)

Backstage (Lajos Dudas) from a 1988 radio recording: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Gerd Dudek – tenor sax; Günter Lenz – bass; HR Jazz Ensemble. (Dudas previously recorded the song on the 1990 CD Change of Time.)

Csardas Obstine (Franz Liszt/Lajos Dudas) from the 1978 LP Contrasts: Lajos Dudas – alto sax; Mike Herting – electric piano; Erhard Bünting – guitar; Ali Haurand – bass; Janoz Szudy – drums.

Volume II:

Summertime (George Gershwin) from the 1991 CD Another Face: Lajos Dudas – alto sax; Bela Weissbach – trumpet; Ernst Gaida-Hartmann – keyboards, bass synthesizer.

Sarabande (J.S. Bach) and Gavotte en Rondo (J.S. Bach) from the 1977 LP Reflection on Bach and the CD Jazz Crossover Klassik Volume 3: Lajos Dudas Plays Bach: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Ali Aurand – bass; Janos Szudy – drums.

La Gelee (Sebastian Buchholz) from the 1995 Juxoli CD Juxoli: Sebastian Buchholz – alto sax; Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Howard Johnson – bass sax; Jack Djeyim –guitar; Ramon Lopez – table, percussion.

Pals (Philipp van Endert), Cool Getz (Lajos Dudas) and Un Poco Presto (Lajos Dudas) from the 1995 CD Encore: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Philipp van Endert – guitar; Vitold Rek – bass; Kurt Billker – drums; Janos Szudy – percussion.

Miles from a 2007 radio recording: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Philipp van Endert – guitar; Jochen Büttner – percussion.

Sunday Afternoon (Lajos Dudas) and Bourree (J.S. Bach) from the 2002 CD Nighlight: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Philipp van Endert – guitar; Martin Gjakonovski – bass; Kurt Billker – drums.

Triplets (Lajos Dudas) from a 2006 radio recording: Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Philipp van Endert – guitar. (Dudas has also issued different radio recordings of this song on the 1990 CD Chamber Music Live and the 2007 CD Artistry in Duo.)

Children at Play (Lajos Dudas), Pirouette (Shorty Rogers) and Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off (George Gershwin) from the 2000 CD Talk of the Town: On “Children at Play” Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Philipp van Endert – guitar; Jochen Büttner – percussion. On “Pirouette” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” Lajos Dudas – clarinet; Philipp van Endert – guitar; Leonard Jones – bass; Kurt Billker – drums. Special Guest: Karl Berger – vibes.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Celebrating CTI Records’ 40th Anniversary – Part Two

Sony’s Masterworks Jazz imprint continues its 40th anniversary celebration of the legendary CTI Records legacy with an additional six titles, issued this week: Deodato’s Prelude, George Benson’s White Rabbit, Milt Jackson’s Sunflower, Jim Hall’s Concierto, Paul Desmond’s Pure Desmond and Ron Carter’s All Blues.

Two of the discs are among CTI’s most historic and essential releases (Prelude, Concierto), two are among the label’s most pleasurable listens (White Rabbit, Sunflower) and one (All Blues) has never been issued on CD outside of Japan.

The celebration of CTI’s 40th anniversary began last October with remastered CD reissues of Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, Chet Baker’s She Was Too Good To Me, Kenny Burrell’s God Bless The Child, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Stone Flower, the first-ever CD release of Hubert Laws’ terrific Morning Star and the classic issue of the nearly complete CTI All-Stars’ California Concert – The Hollywood Palladium.

Each of the discs, supervised by producer Richard Seidel and beautifully mastered by Mark Wilder and Maria Triana, is packaged to look like the original LP, even getting the gatefold treatment the original LPs were given - and, in most cases, maintaining the original logo and catalog number placement of the original LP for the CD cover (the liner original notes for Pure Desmond and Concierto are even surprisingly reproduced as inserts to those particular CDs).

Unfortunately, the packing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In what is called “environmentally friendly” digipak sleeves, not unlike the recent discs from the “budget priced” ECM Touchstone series, these discs are issued in dull-matte cardstock packages that begin to wear the moment you touch them. They certainly won’t hold up to repeated use, pulled from the rack and reinserted onto the shelf time after time.

The durability of these flat-matte card packages will not hold up to even seldom use and unfortunately do not necessarily represent the cover artwork – mostly from photographer Pete Turner – to its best advantage. The glossy, heavy card stock of the original LP issues was sadly not repeated for these CD issues, which try hard to replicate the class of the original issues but certainly do not succeed.

Still, the music is what matters. So here is a little commentary in that regard…

White Rabbit -George Benson: Guitarist George Benson had already recorded one album for CTI (Beyond the Blue Horizon) plus three notable albums for Creed Taylor’s CTI production house at A&M (an additional album recorded during this time was issued years later) when he waxed White Rabbit in November 1971.

White Rabbit ranks among the strongest and most consistently satisfying and artistic of all of George Benson’s jazz albums, even though each and every one of his CTI albums contains something of significant worth.

Recorded under the auspices of arranger Don Sebesky, who had arranged Benson’s earlier Shape of Things to Come (1969) and The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970), White Rabbit is probably now best known as one of the earliest recordings of Detroit-based guitarist Earl Klugh, who was 17 at the time of this recording (on Benson’s excellent “El Mar” only – yes, he solos briefly too…Klugh joined Benson’s band in 1973). Elsewhere, guitarist Jay Berliner nicely counters Benson’s guitar and is most notable on the album’s track.

Issued in May 1972, White Rabbit overflows with exceptionally strong performances by both Benson and Sebesky, most notably on two hippie-era rock odes, The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreaming” and Jefferson Airplane’s title track. Both pieces were no doubt brought to the session by arranger Don Sebesky, a specialist then of transforming such rock staples into dynamic jazz performances (he had earlier written “Big Mama Cass” in tribute to the vocalist from The Mamas & the Papas). It’s no stretch to imagine that Creed Taylor was on board for these covers, imaginatively reconsidered by Sebesky (who uses an effectively minimal deployment of brass and winds throughout) and brought to life by Benson’s warm and reassuring guitarisms.

Benson also covers Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Little Train” (aka “The Little Train of Caipira”), the second of nine suites written by the Brazilian composer. Producer Creed Taylor had previously covered the popular fifth suite of this musical series in recordings by Lalo Schifrin (Verve, 1964) and Soul Flutes (CTI/A&M, 1968 – arranged by Don Sebesky) and would later capture the piece on the 1972 CTI album by Jackie & Roy, Time & Love, again, arranged by Don Sebesky.

Benson is accompanied here by Herbie Hancock on electric piano (who is bountifully featured throughout), Ron Carter on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, all of whom were first captured together on Benson’s Giblet Gravy (Verve, 1967). Hancock and Carter had, of course, also played with George Benson on Miles Davis’ Miles in the Sky (Columbia, 1968). So these guys were not unfamiliar with each other’s creativity.

Hubert Laws solos on flute for “White Rabbit” while trumpeter John Frosk solos on the title track and the substantial “El Mar.” Airto Moriera is featured on percussion throughout and takes several audibly vocal turns on “Little Train” and “El Mar.”

The excellent and artistically and commercially satisfying White Rabbit was nominated for a 1972 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance – Group (in competition with another CTI performance by Joe Farrell for “Outback”) but lost to yet another CTI performance of “First Light” – also arranged by Don Sebesky – by Freddie Hubbard.

All Blues - Ron Carter: Bassist Ron Carter had long been Creed Taylor’s first-choice bassist on record dates stretching as far back to the classic Gil Evans recording Out of the Cool in 1960. Carter was the first bass choice for many Creed Taylor productions throughout the 1960s for the Impulse, Verve, MGM and A&M/CTI labels, even while the bassist was recording and touring as part of the Miles Davis Quintet. And it was Ron Carter’s dulcet tones and swinging accompaniment on the double bass that drove nearly every CTI album since 1970 into the overdrive that its soloists are often given sole credit for.

Surprisingly, though, Ron Carter’s second CTI recording, All Blues, fell well below the radar. It was hardly noticed when it was first issued in early 1974 (his 1973 CTI debut, Blues Farm, which was hardly a hit, still remains better known). And despite four previous CD releases in Japan, All Blues has never had a domestic release on CD, making it one of the least known of all the bassist’s solo albums.

Interestingly, it’s probably among the best of the albums the bassist waxed for the CTI label between 1973 and 1976. This is due in no small measure to the commanding presence of tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson on “A Feeling,” “117 Special,” “Rufus” and “All Blues.”

Henderson had played with the bassist as far back as 1965 (with Woody Shaw) and on later dates with Herbie Hancock, Duke Pearson, McCoy Tyner, Alice Coltrane and Bill Evans as well as on the saxophonist’s own Mode For Joe, The Kicker, Tetragon, Power to the People and Black is the Color.

Carter and Henderson had also appeared together on Freddie Hubbard’s CTI classic Red Clay and the trumpeter’s follow-up Straight Life, while Henderson had previous CTI connections on George Benson’s Tell It Like It Is.

Carter here also solidifies a simpatico musical kinship with pianist Roland Hanna, who he’d first played with on a European tour in 1969. The two would combine forces shortly hereafter with drummer Ben Riley (on a record for a different label with Phil Woods) to form the short-lived New York Jazz Quartet, which would later cut several records for CTI’s subsidiary label, Salvation.

They would, of course, also be heard together on Jim Hall’s Concierto, which is one of the stand-out releases in this batch of CTI celebrations. Hanna is especially featured on the florid trio feature, “Light Blue” (not the Monk piece), as well as Carter’s bop-y “Rufus” (not the Archie Shepp piece – recorded again by Carter on his album Etudes).

Not surprisingly, Ron Carter dominates the proceedings, with his especially distinctive bass helming any number of attractive solo features (not to mention the overdubbed bass “solo” of “Will You Be Mine”). Hanna steps down for “117 Special,” surely the album’s musical highlight (and recorded again by Carter on his 1999 disc Orfeu), to be replaced by electric pianist Richard Tee, who resumes his role from Carter’s CTI debut Blues Farm.

“All Blues,” of course, is the famed tune from Miles Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). As bassist in the Davis band from 1963-70, Ron Carter was surely familiar with the tune, having recorded it with the trumpeter often between 1963 and the historic Plugged Nickel dates of late 1965 (Carter recorded the tune several more times after this, notably with pianists Hank Jones and Kenny Barron).

But this performance of the tune absolutely defers to Carter’s mastery of not only the melody but the form. It is one of several special performances captured here, and surely among one of the classics in the CTI catalog.

Prelude - Deodato: Since relocating to the United States in 1967, Brazilian pianist and composer Eumir Deodato had arranged many recordings, including several soundtracks and a historic meeting between Antonio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra. Deodato also arranged recordings for such CTI artists as Wes Montgomery, Walter Wanderley, Milton Nascimento, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto and Stanley Turrentine by the time producer and CTI boss Creed Taylor offered the pianist and composer his own CTI date in 1972.

Deodato had recorded nine albums under his own name or as part of the band Os Catedráticos in his native Brazil. But Prelude was the first album Deodato released – under his surname only – in America. And what a remarkable debut it was.

Featured on the album was Deodato’s magically captivating performance of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” a jazz-rock take on a classic piece whose then-recent popularity originated with its striking feature in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 film 2001. The song’s origin also owes something to the popularity of British studio group Apollo 100’s 1972 hit “Joy,” a rockish take on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

But what Deodato accomplishes here is utterly unique. This version of the theme has been much copied, but never equaled (the song was also used as is in such films as Being There and Lords of Dogtown).

“Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” rose to number 2 on the U.S. pop charts, making it the biggest hit in CTI’s entire history and its best-ever selling song. The song went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance and is almost as recognizable in this version as many of the most popular film and TV themes of the 20th century. Like it or hate it, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” also remains one of CTI’s best and most memorable performances: a pinnacle of funky rock and electric jazz, the definition of all the things the label did well.

Boasting terrific solos from Deodato on electric piano, Ron Carter on acoustic bass and John Tropea on electric guitar, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is probably not as representative of the rest of Prelude, nor indeed the remainder or Deodato’s American recording career, as its strength may indicate.

The rest of Prelude, with one exception, is delightful but not nearly as definitive as its signature tune. Deodato covers another classic by Debussy, which gives the album its title, a standard (“Baubles, Bangles and Beads”) and two fairly interesting easy-listening originals, “Sprit of Summer” and “Carly & Carole” (names for two pop divas Deodato worked with, a song the composer had earlier recorded for his Os Catedráticos 73 - aka Skyscrapers - and a song which also featured in the 1973 film The Exorcist).

The exception here is the driving funk tune “September 13,” credited to both Deodato and the date’s drummer, Billy Cobham, and named for the date the song was waxed. It is one of those tunes that was obviously crafted to fill the remainder of an otherwise planned album that came up short on playing time.

Cobham probably laid down a groove, over which Deodato formulated something of a tune. As a slice of great instrumental funk, it is without peer. “September 13” is one of the funkiest pieces CTI ever captured, a soundtrack in search of a film and one of the great pieces of funky jazz surviving outside of a Blaxploitation soundtrack (it too was heard in The Exorcist). Deodato crafts a particularly fine electric piano line underneath a riveting horn arrangement, augmented by Cobham’s relentless groove and a fuzzy piece of fun fanaticism by guitarist John Tropea.

Prelude for all its strengths and weaknesses is unequivocally essential CTI. Deodato would wax one more studio date and a live date for CTI before heading off to MCA and Warner Bros. for even more prosperous climes. Interestingly, Deodato’s latest disc, The Crossing (Expansion, 2010), finds the pianist returning to the Fender Rhodes for the first time in years and reteams him with Billy Cobham and John Tropea from Prelude to less satisfying (and less collaborative) results.

Pure Desmond -Paul Desmond: Iconic alto saxophonist Paul Desmond (1924-77) was best known as the harbinger of the Dave Brubeck Quartet (1951-67) and composer of the group’s most famous tune, “Take Five.” Throughout the 1960s Desmond also recorded as part of a group he co-led with guitarist Jim Hall, on whose 1975 CTI album, Concierto (included in this batch of releases), the saxophonist would later appear.

After “leaving” Brubeck – the two continued performing and recording together until the end of Desmond’s life – the alto saxophonist waxed several records for A&M (including Summertime and From the Hot Afternoon) and launched his CTI debut with the remarkable Skylark (CTI, 1974 – featuring guitarist Gabor Szabo and keyboardist Bob James).

Pure Desmond, recorded in September 1974 and issued in early 1975, comes closest of all of Desmond’s CTI recordings to representing the leader in his own climate and most personal space.

Fronting a swinging quartet – with no audible overdubs – Desmond is heard here with his own guitarist, Canadian Ed Bickert, super bassist Ron Carter (who was paired with Desmond on all the altoist’s A&M and CTI dates recorded between 1968 and 1975) and MJQ drummer Connie Kay (1927-94), who featured on many of Desmond’s RCA recordings of the 1960s.

Pure Desmond is remarkably unremarkable but satisfyingly passionate none the less. It feels like four guys just getting together and playing some favored tunes in a quiet, swinging way.

While there is no grand concept or any great idea steering the program, there is some lovely playing by some exceptionally talented players here. The program is mostly comprised of jazz standards, including Ellington (“Just Squeeze Me,” “Warm Valley”), Cole Porter (“Why Shouldn’t I,” “Everything I Love”), Jerome Kern (“I’m Old Fashioned,” “Till the Clouds Roll By”), Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” and “Mean to Me.”

One glance at the program suggests pianist Bill Evans or possibly Oscar Peterson more than any CTI record of the time. (Ok, how great would it have been to hear Bill Evans partnered with Paul Desmond?) And lovely as it is, you have to wonder why CTI even bothered with this sort of thing. The program suggests almost any other label and Creed Taylor didn’t often allow his artists to ply their own trade like this.

Most CTI artists this day in age were trying to cash in on the influx of disco into the jazz market. The original CTI stars (Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Deodato, etc.) had left the label for higher-paying contracts. Others had left for more artistic avenues. By the time Pure Desmond was released in 1975, former CTI employee John Snyder had lured Desmond back to A&M for several albums done in this style, which was closer to his heart than the “arranged” things Desmond had done for Creed Taylor since 1968.

It’s refreshingly musical that Pure Desmond is jazzy enough to capture Paul Desmond doing his thing without encumbered arrangements. But as pretty as it is, it’s just not that substantial a CTI album or really much of a worthwhile Paul Desmond album.

This CD contains the alternate takes of “Nuages,” “Just Squeeze Me” and “Till the Clouds Roll By,” first included on the 2003 CD release of Pure Desmond as well as the two bonus tracks from the session, the excellent “Wave” and “Song from M.A.S.H.,” included on the 2003 CD reissue and the first domestic CD release of this album in 1987.

Concierto -Jim Hall: Guitarist Jim Hall featured on several Creed Taylor productions in the 1960s, including Gary McFarland’s The Jazz Version of ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ and The Gary McFarland Orchestra / Special Guest Soloist Bill Evans, Bob Brookmeyer’s Trombone Jazz Samba, Stan Getz’s Big Band Bossa Nova and Voices, Lalo Schifrin’s Piano, Strings & Bossa Nova, Oliver Nelson’s Full Nelson and, most notably, the Bill Evans/Jim Hall date Intermodulation (Creed Taylor also recorded several unreleased sessions with Jim Hall as a leader in 1962-63 for Verve that have not been issued).

By 1975, the guitarist was attempting to make more of a name for himself, having waxed several solo albums for the MPS and Milestone labels, including a live duo with CTI’s house bassist, Ron Carter. The monumental Concierto, the first of several of the guitarist’s appearances on the CTI label that included Big Blues (1978, with Art Farmer), the stunning Studio Trieste (1982) and the odd mish-mash that became Youkali (1992), was not only one of the guitarist’s best recordings up until that time, but one of the greats of Jim Hall’s entire recording career.

Centered around a magically magnificent performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” Concierto is also probably one of CTI’s greatest single artistic triumphs. Gorgeously arranged in a remarkably minimalist fashion (no strings or horns were overdubbed in the making of this classic) by Don Sebesky, “Concierto de Aranjuez” features a stunning performance by not only the guitarist, but provides notable solos from trumpeter Chet Baker and alto saxist Paul Desmond, all of whom combine to give a magisterial presentation.

The rhythm section here and throughout the remainder of the album is terrifically populated by the purposeful Roland Hanna (himself soon to record a number of records for CTI) on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. Like the 1960 presentation of the tune by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Hall and Sebesky also provide a variation on only the second of the 1939 composition’s three movements. But what they convey here is truly outstanding and worth savoring each and every second of its nearly 20-minute playing time.

(It’s worth noting that Jim Hall partnered with arranger David Matthews, who began working for CTI around the time Concierto was recorded, to record a new arrangement of “Concierto de Aranjuez” in 1981 for a Japanese label that isn’t quite the performance the 1975 recording is.)

The remainder of Concierto’s program has never felt quite as substantial or sufficient as the magnificent title piece. But it all swings with a passion, fire and grace that such impeccably perfect practitioners, led by the nearly ethereal playing of the leader, are apt to suggest.

Included on the program are Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” (also with Desmond and Baker), Hall’s “Two’s Blues” (with Baker, no Hanna), wife Jane’s “The Answer is Yes” (with Baker) and Duke Ellington’s “Rock Skippin’” – here given its original title, “Rock Skippin’ at the Blue Note,” for the first time on this release of the disc.

Also included here are “bonus tracks” which appeared on previous CD issues of Concierto including the lovely Desmond/Hall/Carter trio piece “Unfinished Business,” a title the sleeve credits to Hall and Carter, but which is actually a cover of a Mexican folk tune called “La Paloma Azul,” as well as alternate takes of “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” “The Answer Is Yes” and “Rock Skippin’ at the Blue Note.”

Concierto was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance – Soloist in 1975, losing out to an Oscar Peterson / Dizzy Gillespie album, while Jim Hall reunited with arranger Don Sebesky for his 1976 A&M album Commitment, notably on the tremendous “Lament for a Fallen Matador,” a piece Hall and Sebesky derived from Albinoni’s famed Adagio.

Sunflower - Milt Jackson: Many jazz fans were probably surprised to see Milt Jackson appear on CTI Records, first on Stanley Turrentine’s Cherry, issued in August 1972, then on the great vibraphonist’s own CTI album Sunflower, issued several months later.

At this point, Jackson, one of the founding members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, had tired of touring with the MJQ, never attaining the audience, celebrity and financial rewards rock stars half his age with half his talent doing half the work were experiencing at the time. After a long career of solo albums on the Blue Note, Atlantic, Riverside, Impulse, Limelight and Verve labels stretching back some two decades that were blues-ier and far more swinging than anything the MJQ waxed, Jackson finally wanted his own piece of the pie.

Milt Jackson recorded three albums for CTI in the space of about a year, the first of which, Sunflower, is surely the best. Jackson, who had worked on surprisingly few previous Creed Taylor productions - notably only Quincy Jones’ This Is How I Feel About Jazz (ABC Paramount, 1956) and Gula Matari (A&M/CTI, 1970) – was up for making an album that would reach the younger ears CTI was reaching with popular records by Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Grover Washington, Jr. and others.

The result, Sunflower, was something of an instant classic. Gathering a top-shelf collective of young talent including CTI recording star Freddie Hubbard (like Jackson, a veteran of many Quincy Jones sessions), pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist Jay Berliner (audible on “For Someone I Love” only), drummer Billy Cobham, percussionist Ralph MacDonald and the arrangements of CTI’s house sound architect Don Sebesky, periodically alternating a sensibly sensitive commentary of horns and strings overdubs, Creed Taylor delivers what surely must be considered the vibist’s most distinctively wonderful record in an otherwise distinguished solo recording career.

The original program featured four long performances, kicked off by the lovely “For Someone I Love,” Jackson’s own composition, first waxed as the title track to the vibraphonist’s 1966 (though recorded in 1963) Riverside album. Initiated by Berliner’s guitar and coaxed by Hubbard’s colorful flugelhorn – not to mention Hancock’s especially exquisite piano solo - and Sebesky’s painterly strings, it is an especially terrific showcase for Jackson’s melodic mastery.

Such a curious though perfectly exploratory opening leads ideally into Michel Legrand’s romantic idyll “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” (from the 1969 film The Happy Ending), a song that many jazz players had discovered after Peggy Lee’s initial cover and pianist Bill Evans’ many performances of the sumptuously quixotic ode. Again, Jackson, Hubbard, Hancock and Sebesky excel – and one notices here Ron Carter’s especially sterling contributions to the program (Carter went onto record and perform often with Legrand hereafter).

The album’s (arguably) most memorable performance is the cover of The Stylistics’ 1972 hit “People Make the World Go Round.” The funky ballad, which had already attracted jazz attention on radio with Ramsey Lewis’ invigorating take of the tune, catches Herbie Hancock comping on Fender Rhodes, but soloing marvelously in a Gospel fashion (like he had years before on his early Blue Note dates as well as those for Grant Green and Donald Byrd) on acoustic piano. Jackson, Hubbard and Carter are all in their element as well (Hubbard had recorded “People” earlier in the year for CTI, but this version of the song, which isn’t as good as Jackson’s version, was not issued until 1975 on The Baddest Hubbard. A 1972 CTI All Stars live recording of the song was also issued 1977.).

The original album wraps up with the title track, “Sunflower,” which is a re-titled version of Freddie Hubbard’s tremendous “Little Sunflower,” first heard on the composer/trumpeter’s 1967 Atlantic album Backlash. It’s another glorious performance that depends on the artistry of Jackson, Hubbard, Hancock, Carter and Sebesky to succeed as well as it does.

“SKJ,” a bonus track that has featured on previous CD issues of Sunflower, was recorded during these sessions, but included not on the original Sunflower album, but rather on Jackson’s 1974 album Goodbye, the second of his three CTI releases. “SKJ,” the initials of Milt Jackson’s wife and a song Jackson first recorded with Wes Montgomery on the pair’s 1961 Riverside album Bags Meets Wes, is an up-tempo blues that doesn’t exactly suit the mood of the original program. But it is still a worthy performance that captures this group doing what it does best.

Sunflower is one of the most enjoyable recordings in the entire CTI lexicon and remains a historically significant meeting of some of jazz’s best names. It also features one of photographer Pete Turner’s loveliest cover images, “Necking,” a photo taken in South Africa in 1970.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mayo Bucher on ECM

ECM Records long ago established and has since maintained its own aural brand of musical definition, something that has rightly or wrongly come to be known as the “ECM sound” or what label hype in the 1970s called “the most beautiful sound next to silence.”

This “sound by design” is something that label founder Manfred Eicher has established after nearly two thousand records in the jazz, classical and less quantifiable streams of thoughtful music the label has captured since 1969.

One ECM record is very different from the next. But still there is a common thread of artistry running between the sound of ECM records that unites them all. It is as much the artistic vision of Manfred Eicher as it is the musical creativity he allows or inspires among the musicians and composers he captures.

By the late 1990s, after an amazing run of over two decades in the music business, Manfred Eicher also began to supervise the visual brand of ECM records, favoring a wide swath of monochromatic photography, much of which clouds focus into a blend of black and white shadows and light. It’s iconic, to be sure. Now, well into the label’s fourth decade, ECM is going strong with a compelling artist roster and some of the best – and best distributed – music currently available.

But so much of the art of ECM, which is more often than not striking and gorgeous or haunting and captivating, is almost far too static, reflecting more of the white noise of background radio so much ECM’s prodigious output has been of late.

On a few occasions this tendency toward monochromatic photography is broken up by a painting, something ECM covers really haven’t featured since the 1970s. In recent years, the few paintings featured on ECM discs have been by the graphic designer and (con)textual painter Mayo Bucher, one of the most striking artists working today (paintings by the equally notable Eberhard Ross have also recently featured on the sporadic ECM cover).

Bucher is a magnificent artist who works in colors, textures and geometric spaces like no other. Born in Zürich, Switzerland in 1963, Bucher studied graphic design at the Higher School of Art and Design (1981-86). His background allows him to marry his divergent interests in painting, design, architecture and music and create art that is painterly, designed, architectural and musical all at once. It’s a magical combination.

The graphic design journal Eye Magazine’s Adrian Shaughnessy provides such perfect commentary on Mayo Bucher’s work in a review of the artist’s book Open Sign (Lars Müller Publishers/ECM, 2006), that it’s worth quoting here:

“Bucher’s paintings combine two fundamentals of visual expression: abstraction and geometry. You might say the spiritual and the pragmatic; reality and unreality; silence and noise. It’s therefore hardly surprising that [ECM Records’ founder Manfred] Eicher should find a resonance in Bucher’s work, as these are the themes that define Eicher’s aesthetic endeavours as a music producer.

“Bucher’s canvasses are rich, textural exercises in colour and mood; occasionally dark and brooding, sometimes light and transcendent. Into his Rothko-like surfaces, Bucher occasionally gouges wire-thin lines. Sometimes only a single line of Klee-like purity is dragged across a canvas. Sometimes he makes more complex diagrammatic constructions that remind you of the sad beauty of dimly remembered school geometry textbooks.”

These forces conspire to make Bucher not only a perfect CD cover artist, but one especially suited to the music of ECM Records in work ranging from that which is entirely improvisatory (Keith Jarrett’s La Scala) and jazz like (Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden’s beautiful Jasmine) to reverential classics (Ricercar – Bach / Webern) and striking contemporary work (Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s Lament or Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov’s Metamusik / Postludium).

Mayo Bucher’s work for ECM is often reminiscent in feeling and inspiration of the iconic work German-born and Bauhaus-bred Josef Albers (1888-1976), who did several of his own striking and memorable album covers for Enoch Light’s Command Records in the late 1950s including Persuasive Percussion , Provocative Percussion and Provocative Percussion Vol. III as well as the outstanding covers for the classical albums Pictures at an Exhibition – Mussorgsky / Ravel and Leonid Hambro and Jascha Zayde’s Mozart / Mendelssohn / Schubert.

While it seems that ECM has used Mayo Bucher’s work less over the last few years, despite the fact that his 1992 painting “Kopfbau” featured as the cover of Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden’s critically acclaimed Jasmine, issued earlier last year, Eicher’s label has certainly given Bucher a number of nice features since 1997. Here they are:

The River - Ketil Bjørnstad / David Darling (ECM 1593, 1997)

Ana - Ralph Towner (ECM 1611, 1997)

Toward the Margins - Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble (ECM New Series 1612, 1997)

Dolorosa – Shostakovich / Vasks / Schnittke - Dennis Russell Davies, Stuttgarter Kammerorchester (ECM New Series 1620, 1997) – from “Dolorosa” (1994)

Jean Barraqué - Sonate pour Piano - Herbert Henck (ECM New Series 1621, 1999)

Tactics - John Abercrombie / Dan Wall / Adam Nussbaum (ECM 1623, 1997)

Anton Webern / Dmitri Shostakovich / Emil Frantisek Burian - Rosamunde Quartett (ECM New Series 1629, 1997)

La Scala - Keith Jarrett (ECM 1640, 1997)

Lament - Giya Kancheli (ECM New Series 1656, 1999)

Klavierstücke – Arnold Schoenberg / Franz Schubert - Thomas Larcher (ECM New Series, 1667, 1999)

Zelenka – Trio Sonatas (ECM New Series 1671/72, 1999)

Flux - Erkki-Sven Tüür (ECM New Series 1673, 1999) – from “Black and blue Nr. 1” (1999)

Peter Ruzicka - Arditti String Quartet / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (ECM New Series 1694, 1999)

Achriana - Vassilis Tsabropoulos / Arild Andersen / John Marshall (ECM 1728, 2000)

Akroasis - Vassilis Tsabropoulos (ECM 1737, 2003)

In l’Usetesso Tempo - Giya Kancheli (ECM New Series 1767, 2005) from “Open ground” (1999)

Ricercar – Bach / Webern - Christoph Poppen / Münchener Kammerorchester / The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series 1774, 2003) – from “Black and blue Nr. 2” (2000)

Valentin Silvestrov: Metamusik/Postludium - Alexei Lubimov / Radio Symphonieochester Wien / Dennis Russel Davies (ECM New Series 1790, 2003) from “Red over black” (2000)

Chonguri - Thomas Demenga / Thomas Larcher / Teodoro Anzellotti (ECM New Series 1914, 2006)

Jasmine - Keith Jarrett / Charlie Haden (ECM 2165, 2010) – from “Kopfbau” (1992)

For more information, visit Mayo Bucher and ECM Records.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bill Evans His Piano and Orchestra Play Theme From The V.I.P.s and Other Great Songs

Like many controversial films or books that take some effort or expense to understand properly, some records are better known by their reputation than by their actual merit. This particularly unwieldy album, bearing a significantly unwieldy title, certainly ranks among these.

As a pianist, Bill Evans (1929-80) was seldom captured in orchestral situations. When he was, the records were – and unfortunately now more than before still are - unfavorably compared to his prodigious trio outings and occasional solo recordings.

This 1963 album, variously known (on the back cover) as Bill Evans His Piano and Orchestra Play Theme From The V.I.P.s and Other Great Songs and (on the record label) as The V.I.P. Theme [sic], was named, perhaps, for the most recent of the big-budget films this film-themed collection name checks as front cover artwork.

No doubt the pianist’s most devoted admirers regard this music as “sell out” pop fare, far beneath the dignity of such a great player as Bill Evans. But all that’s nothing but poppycock.

Everybody in jazz, particularly those at MGM (and the MGM-owned Verve Records) in the 1960s, covered themes from popular culture like these. In the days before The Beatles, many jazz players were looking for new hits to make their name with after the dearth of tunes everybody covered from Tin Pan Alley or any number of well-known and unknown stage musicals. Most turned to TV and the cinema.

Even Evans covered many film themes during his career, including such otherwise celebrated performances of “Spartacus,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Emily” (from The Americanization of Emily), “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” (from The Happy Ending) and “Theme From M.A.S.H.” and tunes from the pop-rock galaxy including Dionne Warwick’s “A House Is Not A Home” and Paul Simon’s “I Do It For Your Love.”

So, yes, while Bill Evans could easily wax yet another cover of “Nardis” or any be-bop staple he could play in his sleep, he could also be challenged to rise to the occasion of a new tune from the popular canon and make it worthwhile.

Recorded during two sessions in May and September 1963, one of the least documented years in all of Bill Evans’ recording career, between the well-known overdubbed solo album Conversations with Myself (Verve) and the historic Trio ‘64 (Verve), The V.I.P.s Theme is actually quite a pleasurable respite and catches the moody, often introspective pianist actually having a little bit of fun for a change.

The pianist fronts an unnamed orchestra arranged and conducted by a surprisingly uncredited Claus Ogerman (still going as Klaus Ogerman in those days). Even Ogerman dismisses this record – as he does much of his lively and wonderful pop work from the 1960s, including three rather entertaining records of his own on RCA –admitting in the November/December 2010 issue of Wax Poetics that “I regret that album.”

He continues “it wasn’t very good for Bill Evans’s reputation. He was in big trouble financially at the time, and his manager Helen Keane and Creed [Taylor, The V.I.P.s Theme producer] wanted to do something very commercial that radio stations that normally wouldn’t go near a jazz record would play. And this is why it sounded like easy listening. I never liked the album, but I was glad to make a little money from it. It’s not our masterpiece.”

When the album was first issued on CD in 2008, 45 years after the LP’s initial release, Ogerman insisted that producer and Universal Music head honcho Tommy LiPuma, long an Ogerman supporter (going back to their days together with the huge success of George Benson’s 1976 Breezin’), keep Ogerman’s name off the CD. Indeed, Ogerman’s name appears nowhere on the CD except as co-writer, with Bill Evans, on the “Thunderball” like original “Hollywood.”

From the first session in May, it appeared the intent here was just to get out a couple of 45s and garner some radio airplay for the pianist. The first of these was the Dimitri Tiomkin theme to the 1963 Nicholas Ray epic “55 Days at Peking” (issued on Verve 10293). This song, unlike its flip-side tune “On Broadway,” was not featured on the Bill Evans album (or the corresponding CD) but rather on a 1963 compilation LP called Twilight of Honor (MGM SE-4185).

The next single issued was “Sweet September” backed with “Theme from ‘The V.I.P.s” (Verve VK 10296). Despite never charting, the radio popularity of the Evans’ recording of “Sweet September” (originally titled “Sweet Tuesday” when it was used in the 1962 film The Boys) inspired a number of additional recordings by Freda Payne (Impulse), Pete Jolly (Ava), Jimmie Haskell (Capitol), Artie Butler (20th Century Fox), Joe Pass (World Pacific), Sylvia Syms (Columbia), Howard Roberts (Capitol) and, eventually a 1966 hit version for The Lettermen (Capitol).

When the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film The V.I.P.s became popular in the summer of 1963, Verve also attempted to push the 45’s b-side into popularity. The attention this 45 got probably prompted producer Creed Taylor to reunite Evans and Ogerman in the studio in September 1963 to record enough tracks to fill an album. The album, oddly issued on the MGM label , was issued in time for Christmas 1963, but never got the attention or the respect it probably deserved had it been given the serious, artistic touch Verve lent to many recording artists instead of the obvious “cash-in” touch MGM gave to this and many other albums of the day.

The album’s shining moments come on not one but three of Elmer Bernstein’s best and brightest themes: “The Caretakers Theme” (1963, which Ogerman had scored earlier in the month for a Creed Taylor-produced session for Ellingtonian alto saxist Johnny Hodges), “Walk on the Wild Side” (1962, which producer Creed Taylor had fashioned into a huge hit by organ great Jimmy Smith in an arrangement by Oliver Nelson) and “The Man With The Golden Arm” (1955, curiously the first jazz take of the tune by any MGM or Verve artist).

Additional highlights include “Laura” (David Raksin’s great theme to the 1944 film, which Evans recorded again in 1966 on A Simple Matter of Conviction), “On Green Dolphin Street” (from the 1947 film Green Dolphin Street, which Evans performed with Miles Davis in the 1950s and in many other performances in concert and on record throughout the remainder of his career) and the Evans/Ogerman original “Hollywood” (which strikingly prefigures the “Thunderball” theme”).

What make these performances work so well is a great amount of incisive, interpretive (and, frankly, expected and appreciated) playing from Evans, beautifully sweetened by Ogerman in just the right measure and tempered with a tremendous amount of swing from all concerned. Each of these makes the album worth the investment for anybody who even remotely appreciates the artistry of either Bill Evans or Claus Ogerman.

Oddly, the May recordings (the 45 features) are probably the weakest of the bunch, with Evans and Ogerman conspiring to achieve some sort of Ferrante & Teicher easy listening pabulum that justifies Ogerman’s acute disregard of this music. Block chords, heavy-handed strings and vocal choirs send things over the edge. But “Sweet September” really does justify the inspiration it prompted.

It’s worth noting that producer Creed Taylor had also overseen recordings of Lyn Murray’s TV theme “Theme From Mr. Novak” and a hit version of Riz Ortolani’s Mondo Cane theme “More” on two of trombonist Kai Winding’s Verve albums, the latter of which was presented in another arrangement by Claus Ogerman.

Bill Evans and Claus Ogerman would reunite under more critically sanctioned collaborations, including the wonderful Creed Taylor-produced Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra (Verve, 1966), a jazzed-up take on several classical themes, and the sensational two-movement Ogerman-composed Symbiosis (MPS, 1975).

But to disregard The V.I.P.s Theme unfortunately negates the origins of this inspired musical relationship and disallows the great and dedicated musicianship of those involved. This album also serves to remind us listeners that while sometimes music in search of artistry can be profitable, music in search of profitability can also still be artistic and worthwhile.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Main Title)" by Alex North

One of the loveliest pieces of music ever heard in film is surely the Alex North theme to the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Much of the work North (1910-91) did fell between the later phase of the Golden Age era of film music and the earliest part of the Silver Age era, and as a result sort of landed somewhere in between. North’s earliest successes included A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman (both 1951) and Viva Zapata! and Les Miserables (both 1952). Several significant scores followed, but Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus was a cause célèbre in 1960 as was the 1963 film Cleopatra, but for different reasons. North also scored a number of John Huston films, from The Misfits (1961) to such later films as Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi's Honor (1985) and The Dead (1987).

The filming of Edward Albee’s 1962 Broadway play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was another pivotal moment in film. Re-teaming Elizabeth Taylor with then-husband Richard Burton for the fourth of their 11 films together, it was also the directorial debut of former comedian Mike Nichols, who has since made a career out of filming stage plays and literary adaptations. The film also featured George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the younger couple invited back to the older couple’s place for drinks one night. It is a searing showdown and it makes for memorably searing cinema.

Given the venom and vitriol this story unleashes, it’s a wonder that such a gorgeous theme could emit itself from all the unspoken sadness and bitterness at the broken heart of it all. The simplicity of it is a marvel: solo guitar, harp and strings (and a subtle deployment of winds), in a perfect waltz that is fractured and flowing all at once.

It’s hard to name any exact emotion this theme conveys. Removed from the film, it is a lovely piece that could convey anything from happiness to sadness or fulfillment to emptiness or everything in between. I think that’s why it’s so endlessly fascinating. It fits just about anything. It’s human and classic. It’s timely (for all range of emotions) and timeless.

My ears register this as one the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, scored perfectly to any range of emotions.

The theme was included on an album containing bits of score and dialogue, issued on the Warner Bros. label in 1966. DRG released this album on CD in 2007. But the equally great Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004), who recorded a number of Alex North tributes in the 1990s, including the full and previously unissued North score to Kubrick’s 2001, re-recorded North’s Virginia Woolf score on a now out-of-print CD for Varese Sarabande in 1997.

[For the record, the 1964 album and single by the great jazz organist Jimmy Smith called “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is not the same piece as the Alex North composition featured here. But that one, credited to Keith Knox and Don Kilpatrick is a heavy-duty swinger in its own right.]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM

For those of us of a certain age, buying music was once considered something special. It wasn’t only just getting that one song you liked. It wasn’t even the excitement of owning someone’s latest album. Buying music in the last half of the 20th Century – for me, the 1970s and 80s especially – meant getting a record that introduced you to more songs and new kinds of music, with musician and songwriting credits to learn about others who might make more of the kind of music you might enjoy or learn to understand anew.

With the LP format, it also meant getting a nice package. Like those that produce books or magazines, even packaging for food and toys, music manufacturers recognized that many consumers do indeed judge records by their covers. So the best or most interesting music often had some of the nicest covers. Many of the best packaged rock and pop records always contained song lyrics too. Jazz and classical records often featured informed and illuminating liner notes sprinkled with session photography to show the musicians plying their craft.

In these days when individual songs are easily downloaded onto little hand-held devices that fit easily into a pocket or a purse, music no longer has that special something it once did. Even the stores that allowed you to see what was available have all disappeared. Sure, music has always been a commodity. But now music is mostly a commodity of (compressed) sound – something the almost extinct record industry has never found a way to properly tap into or control the way booksellers have – rather than the artful product of my youth.

One of the only record labels that has not only survived but thrived when nearly all others – including many of the major labels – have failed during this tumultuous period in musical history is ECM Records.

Founded in 1969 in Munich, Germany by Manfred Eicher as Editions of Contemporary Music, this fiercely independent label has contributed over fifteen hundred discs, over half of which are even more amazingly still in print, to the musical vocabulary, capturing a surprisingly wide and unpredictable variety of creative music that often defies easy categorization.

Eicher seems to have started the label off as a jazz outlet, allowing such American improvisers as Mal Waldron (whose Free at Last is the label’s very first record), Chick Corea, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett creative flexibility to record in solo formats, something no American company would have allowed at the time. Eicher was also open to the free-jazz sounds of Anthony Braxton, Derek Bailey, Jan Garbarek, who has since recorded exclusively for ECM in many formats ranging from jazz and new age to classical and electronics, and others too.

As with others, Eicher gave American pianist Keith Jarrett a forum to pretty much do whatever he wanted and the two garnered a surprise hit with the 1975 solo-piano album The Köln Concert, which even today continues to be one of the label’s best-selling recordings. Jarrett remains the label’s star jazz player (Arvo Pärt might be said to be the label’s resident composer), having issued dozens of solo and trio jazz records and many classical dates for ECM over the years.

Manfred Eicher soon expanded to document many distinctive worldly soloists and some unusually unique aggregates, capturing and personifying a reflective, nearly Nordic music style (often described as “Northern” – but hard to fix that specifically) its promotional department called “the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence,” a phrase taken from a 1971 review of ECM releases in the Canadian jazz magazine Coda.

It’s easy to hear how these releases not only inspired the “New Age” movement of the 1980s but also the now defunct standard bearers of that sort of music, Windham Hill and Private Music – and, of course, quite a number of ECM musicians ended up recording for those labels too.

Even though ECM had released more classically oriented music by Keith Jarrett and Steve Reich in the 1970s, Eicher launched the “ECM New Series” in 1984 to concentrate on the more compositional works of classical and contemporary composers. These days, the ECM New Series generates as much product as the regular ECM line.

Since its very inception, Eicher has managed to keep much of the ECM catalog available, something which is a feat in and of itself. This is due, perhaps, to some of the best distribution arrangements possible (ECM is currently distributed by Universal Classics, allowing worldwide distribution and a wealth of resources, but the label had previously been distributed by such powerhouses as Warner Bros., Polygram and BMG). Interestingly, Eicher doesn’t license any ECM music to any other label (a lucrative thing most majors endorse), including his distributors, unless it’s specific music he’s chosen for a specific project he believes in.

Another aspect of ECM that has long made the label one of the jazz and classical genre’s most significant production houses is certainly its visual presentation. ECM has always attempted to bring its own vocabulary to package design. Unlike many other labels, ECM successfully survived not only the transition from the 12-inch LP to the 5-inch CD, but ever since the digital revolution, it has seemingly increased its CD output with iconoclastic sleeves that encase the CD jewel box in a cardboard wrap called an “O Sleeve” that adds a measure of distinction as well as the extra expense of production which indicates something significant like the heavily laminated, four-color gatefold sleeves of Impulse Records some half century before and the covers that CTI Records provided during the first half of the 1970s.

Curiously, there is very little that’s consistent about the art of ECM covers – especially during the first three decades of the label’s existence. The majority of ECM’s visual language is conveyed, it would seem, through photographs. Some of these are in color; most, though, are black and white, especially many of the ECM covers of the past decade.

Some photos are top-and-bottom banded, some are matted in differing degrees on all sides and some bleed off all four edges. Many are outdoor shots, some in focused detail and others showing the out-of-focus light and shadow of motion.

Some of the photos are from the artier echelons of the film world, including films by the great visualists Ingmar Bergman, Jean Luc Godard and Theo Angelopoulos. Of the photographs featured on ECM covers, hardly any feature shots of the musician. Such shots (in black and white) are often included behind the cover and inside the CD booklet, and, like the few ECM covers that picture the artist on the front cover, all unequivocally show the artist at their art rather than posed for some phony promotional effect.

Many ECM covers also feature varying works of art by the musician, their significant other, or paintings and sketches by an amazing amalgam of unusual talent. The more one considers these types of artwork, the more they have some resonant connection to the music or the musicians performing the music.

Designer Lars Müller captures much of this in his staggeringly beautiful book Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM, a tribute to the second half of a great music label’s life. This 448-page tome is a sequel to the gorgeous, though sadly out-of-print 1996 publication Sleeves of Desire, Müller’s first overview of ECM cover art (read Tyran Grillo’s recent and beautiful commentary on Sleeves of Desire here).

Windfall Light claims to present the ECM covers that were created since the publication of the earlier book, “arranged here in the form of a visual score that invites personal interpretations and individual discoveries.” Whatever your personal feelings about the music of ECM – and while it’s hardly monothematic, it’s certainly open to as much subjectivity diversity as any other art can bear and the diversity of music the label has actually produced – one cannot deny the truly amazing and historic presentation the ECM Records has made to the aural and the visual media.

From its earliest days, ECM relied on the talents of designers Burkhart and Barbara Wojirsch, whose work was always credited on ECM sleeves as “B&B Wojirsch.” Their first design for ECM was for the 1970 album Paul Bley With Gary Peacock (ECM 1003) – a terrific record that has seemingly always remained in print in one form or another – and the two worked together on a majority of the ECM covers until Burkhart’s death around 1975 (significantly, their last credited cover design is for Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, ECM 1064/65, though only “B. Wojirsch” is credited for the “layout” on the ECM album that precedes this, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava’s The Pilgrim and the Stars). One of Burkhart’s paintings was later featured by Barbara on Paul Bley’s album Fragments (ECM 1320, 1986).

Barbara, who trained as a painter and worked in advertising for a bit but got out because she felt she couldn’t lie about something to sell it, carried on, more or less defining the visual identity of ECM until her retirement in 1999 (Keith Jarrett’s Mozart Piano Concertos/Adagio and Fugue, ECM 1624/25, would seem to be her last contribution to the label).

In those years, Ms. Wojirsch oversaw many, if not most, of ECM’s designs, producing a wide variety of covers that highlighted the photographs and artwork of others and featuring a good deal of her own rather inspired work.

The stunning variety of Barbara’s original work ran the gamut from squiggle paintings (Pat Metheny’s Rejoicing, Jan Garbarek’s It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice) and runic gestures (Jan Garbarek’s I Took Up The Runes, Keith Jarrett’s The Cure) to font paintings (Gary Peacock’s December Poems, Pat Metheny’s 80/81 or First Light, Keith Jarrett’s Tribute) and type-only presentations (effective deployment of mostly Helvetica fonts on such covers as Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, Charlie Haden’s The Ballad of the Fallen, Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs and both volumes of Keith Jarrett’s Standards) – a style which continues periodically at ECM to this day (Keith Jarrett’s Up For It, Trio Beyond’s Saudades, Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood, many recordings by Michael Mantler and Arvo Pärt or any of the Selected Recordings compilations).

Dieter Rehm then joined the ECM fold right out of school in 1978 when he impressed Barbara Wojirsch with a photograph that ended up on the cover of Azimuth’s album The Touchstone (ECM 1130). Trained as a photographer, Rehm contributed terrifically iconoclastic photos to many ECM covers and, starting with Pat Metheny’s New Chautauqua (ECM 1131), also contributed to the design of quite a number of ECM covers as well.

Rehm’s best ECM moments include Richard Beirach’s Elm (EC M 1142), John Clark’s Faces (ECM 1176), Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires (ECM 1299), Werner Pirchner’s EU (ECM 1314/15), Gary Burton’s Whiz Kids (ECM 1329), John Abercrombie’s Animato (ECM 1411) and many, many others. Rehm gradually worked more on design only at ECM and seems to have quietly departed from the label at about the same time as Ms. Wojirsch to pursue his interest in painting.

It is said that Manfred Eicher personally oversees the selection of all aspects of artwork for the ECM releases. That may be so, and given the individual brand that ECM has created over the years, it is probably to be believed. But whether this level of product management began in earnest before or after Rehm and Ms. Wojirsch’s departure is anyone’s guess. Chances are Eicher has always been intimately involved in the packaging of ECM’s music.

Certainly, the look of ECM that has developed over the last decade or so had begun several years before Rehm and Wojirsch left ECM. Things at ECM are now certainly far more consistent in ideology and sensibility – to say nothing of design and typography – in the previous dozen years or so than it ever was at during the label’s first three decades.

For the record, Rehm still occasionally contributes to ECM, having done some marvelous covers for Stephan Micus, Steve Tibbets, Steve Kuhn and John Abercrombie’s ECM discs of recent years. But the great Sascha Kleis seems to have since come in for some of the more dramatic color photography featured on so many ECM discs of late, not to mention a sizable number of the striking monochromatic shots the label is known for as well. Many of the ECM covers, though, are of stark “Northern” scenes captured in black and white by any number of tremendously interesting photographers and, of course, filmmakers from Godard to Pasolini.

Personally, I was pleased to discover in this book the ECM covers that bear the signature of Swiss artist Mayo Bucher (b. 1963), who contributed some of my favorite cover designs here: Keith Jarrett’s La Scala (ECM 1640), the Shostakovich/Vasks/Schnittke program Dolorosa (ECM 1620), Rosamunde Quartett’s Webern/Shostakovich/Burian (ECM 1629), Giya Kancheli/Gidon Kremer’s Lament (ECM 1656), Zelenka’s Trio Sonatas (ECM 1671), Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Flux (ECM 1673), Giya Kancheli’s In l’istesso tempo (ECM 1767), the Bach/Webern program Ricercar (ECM 1774), Valentine Silvestrov’s Metamusik/Postludiumm (ECM 1790), the Demenga/Larcher/Anzellotti Conguri (ECM 1914) and Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden’s most recent Jasmine (ECM 2165). These remind me of the signature work that the great Josef Albers did for Enoch Light’s Command label in the late 1950s – covers that stand for art as great as the music contained within.

Another of Eicher’s favored artists, the great German conceptualist of “organic geometry,” Eberhard Ross (b. 1959), has also recently begun contributing commendably to the label with an intriguing swath of inspired artistry that one can only hope will continue, including covers for Stefano Bollani’s Stone in the Water (ECM 2080), the gorgeous cover to Jan Garbarek Group’s Dresden – In Concert (ECM 2100/01), Christian Wallumrød Ensemble’s Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM 2118), Terje Rypdal’s Crime Scene (ECM 2041) and Food’s Quiet Inlet (2163). (There’s a wonderful film short called The Space Between focusing on Ross, scored by Keith Jarrett’s ECM music from Sun Bear Concerts).

Windfall Light does an above average though sadly less than ideal job of presenting all of this. The book’s layout masterfully matches many of the stark sleeve (and subsequent booklet) designs of the ECM CDs. Five essays are presented, commenting on the importance of ECM’s visual artistry. The most incisive and illuminating of these, “Landscapes and Soundscapes,” is by author, pianist and ECM record artist Ketil Bjørnstad. Geoff Andrew also provides an interesting essay, “Luer musique: Eicher / Godard – Sound / Image” on the relationship Eicher hears and sees between music and film.

The text is generous with never-before seen photos of Manfred Eicher, ECM artists and ECM-ish nature photography and also features about 183 CD-sized ECM covers, each on their own page and mostly produced since 1996 (Keith Jarrett’s very first ECM disc, Facing You, is also included here as well as the Jean Luc Godard DVD ECM issued).

Finally, the book’s last 85 pages catalog each and every one of ECM’s thousand plus releases, up to and including Keith Jarrett’s 2009 solo outing Testament – Paris/London (ECM 2130-32). While it’s nice that all of these pages register each cover appropriately in color or in correct black and white, 12 sleeves are compacted to fit on each page, presenting each cover as little larger than 1.25 x 1.25 inches – something altogether too small to allow for proper appreciation.

Sleeves of Desire presented the catalog with six covers per page (on pages of about the same size as these) – not perfect, but much more preferential than Windfall Light, which suggests a full catalog of ECM covers in an appreciable aspect ratio might be too much to hope for at this point in just one book.

Another oddity of debatable importance is that while the book’s catalog presents the CD cover of Keith Jarrett/Jack DeJohnette’s Ruta and Daitya (ECM 1021) and not the original LP cover, it presents the LP covers of both Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus (ECM 1043) and Arild Andersen’s A Molde Concert (ECM 1236), but not the entirely different CD covers each received. There are certainly other such violations here.

While Windfall Light is a gorgeous tribute to one aspect of ECM’s glorious legacy and a much coveted treatise to the powerful visual vocabulary of one particular label, particularly during its more definitely branded later years (the 2007 text Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM touches on the label’s musical contribution), it is probably not the best one could hope for.

It is like my own personal relationship with ECM. I find myself periodically drawn to and fascinated by the music and the artistry of ECM as I can be otherwise put off by it. There are times when I dive into it all like an ocean, wishing I could savor the untold hours of each and every one of the label’s multifarious releases. But the deeper I go, the salty taste and sometimes chilly ambiance beckons me to get out of the water and seek something different. It takes me a while to come back to it. But I always do.

Windfall Light provides an aspect of ECM, not the complete picture. That may be a good thing. It’s like watching the day or night for the right sort of light. You go looking for something you want to see (or hear) and you end up seeing (hearing) it. It’s not the whole picture, but it’s beautiful none the less.