Word of the death of Pete La Roca Sims came on Tuesday, hours after his passing. For any jazz fan with more than a token interest in the 1960s, this news was processed with a heavy heart. Respectful and often insightful tributes flowed quickly, from the likes of Ethan Iverson and Hank Shteamer and Phil Freeman.
I began working on a formal obituary, but learned that the holiday weekend and various other factors would delay its publication. So I took my time, reacquainting myself with La Roca's estimable body of work on Blue Note and elsewhere — notably his own fascinating album Turkish Women at the Bath — and digging into some of the bootlegs I had never found the time to study. I spoke with saxophonist David Liebman, catching him around 7:45 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, and later with pianist Steve Kuhn, at a more reasonable hour. I spoke with members of the Sims family. I learned that Sims favored a 20-inch A Zildjian ride cymbal from the '50s, pitched in C#. And I began to develop a different perception of his legacy, not just as a post-bop drummer but also as a personality and an artist.
A lot of that didn't make into the official obit, which of course is intended for a general-interest readership. So I've decided to dedicate an edition of my JazzTimes column to La Roca Sims — in the March issue, also known as the Farewells issue. When that posts online, I'll link to it here.
In the meantime, since you have no doubt already seen the Sonny Rollins Trio footage, here's a clip of La Roca with the Art Farmer Quartet, taking a solo to wrap up Rollins's "Valse Hot." That's Steve Swallow on bass and Jim Hall on guitar; the next tune up is Cole Porter's "So in Love." This is from a BBC broadcast, June 27, 1964.
The jazz world lost a strong voice in trumpeter Ted Curson, who died on Sunday at 77. But it wasn't a voice all that widely known, even among his natural jazz constituency. During the 1960s, Curson had as interesting a career as many more recognized players, but for whatever reason he never had the celebrated career that his music would seem to warrant.
If you know him at all, you know his work with Charles Mingus, which could hardly be more impressive. I agree with the general consensus that Mingus at Antibes is Curson at his fierce and unflappable best. But I appreciate Ethan Iverson's case for Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, an obviously important album, and one that certainly benefits by Curson's soulful and cohesive presence. If I could tweak the obituary to make a nod to that album, I probably would. (Iverson is spot on about Curson's time, which I think has a lot to do with his deep study of Clifford Brown, who was just five years older but for all intents and purposes part of the preceding jazz generation. There's also a larger point Iverson makes about American music, "folk" and Elliott Carter. I won't attempt to paraphrase it here.)
Curson's work with Cecil Taylor, while less consequential than his Mingus apprenticeship, is also worth examining. He appears briefly on Taylor's portion of the Gil Evans album Into the Hot, but his more prominent contribution is to Love for Sale, a fascinating oddity. (Here is Gary Giddins discussing that album, and relaying a Curson anecdote about Cecil's exacting standard of preparation.)
So that's Mingus and Cecil, two leading vanguardists of the '60s. Throw Shepp into the picture and you begin to see Curson's legacy in avant-garde terms: he was a new-thing trumpeter with an old-school concept, a fine example of the free-bop ethos at its inception.
And yet Curson's own music complicates that narrative. Perhaps you have heard the undervalued albums he made with saxophonist Bill Barron: smart stuff, but not particularly invested in breaking apart form or subverting order. When Curson recorded the album known as Ted Curson Group Featuring Eric Dolphy, in 1961, he opted for assertive hard-bop in the Clifford Brown vein, with a band that includes his childhood friend Jimmy Garrison on bass, and several different drummers: his fellow Mingus alum Dannie Richmond, along with Pete La Roca and Roy Haynes. Here is one of the more subdued tracks from the album, a ballad performance featuring Dolphy's flute:
And of course people have heard "Tears for Dolphy," the haunting elegy that Curson recorded and released in 1964. (Among other places, it has appeared in the infamous Vincent Gallo film The Brown Bunny, apparently as an homage of sorts to Pier Paolo Pasolini, who used some uncredited Curson music in Teorema.)
I'll bet, though, that many jazz fans — even some Ted Curson fans — aren't all that familiar with The New Thing & The Blue Thing, whose album cover appears at the top of this post. Released on Atlantic in 1965, it features his quintet with Barron, which had Georges Arvanitas on piano, Herb Bushler on bass and Dick Berk on drums.
Every track but one (the standard "Star Eyes") is a Curson original, and they cover some ground: "Ted's Tempo" is a crisp swinger, while "Reava's Waltz" has a touch of Mingus swagger. "Nublu" incorporates an intervallic motion reminiscent of Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance," while the opening track, bearing the O.G. title "Straight Ice," nods in the direction of Bobby Timmons.
The whole enterprise feels like a smart triangulation of in-the-pocket hard-bop, post-Coltrane modality and the avant-garde, though in truth the liberties are subtle. It's not an envelope-pushing album, despite the title, which may or may not have been Curson's idea. That said, here's a hypothetical: what if The New Thing & The Blue Thing had appeared on Blue Note instead of Atlantic? Make that album a Wolff-Lion special, and I think it becomes a minor classic, and a signature part of Curson's legacy.
But of course Blue Note already had a stable of excellent trumpeters traversing this terrain. And perhaps I'm not giving the Atlantic marketing department enough credit — or maybe the label just didn't have enough resources to back Curson, in a year when it was also putting out albums by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, King Curtis, Hank Crawford, Hubert Laws, Eddie Harris, the MJQ and Sonny and Cher. As Curson himself once put it: "On so many of my records, the company would tell me up front they weren’t going to promote it. If people found it, fine; if they didn’t, fine. It was like a Frisbee, another Ted Curson Frisbee, and if the dog don’t catch it, too bad!”
That quote comes from a short but thorough profile by Chris Kelsey that ran in JazzTimes in 2006. Worth reading, if you want more perspective on Curson's life and career. You will also want to read Giddins on Curson in JazzTimes the previous year. And here is the farewell post that Peter Hum ran earlier this week, with some more YouTube footage.
Finally, in searching Curson's name again I just stumbled across some good news: WKCR 89.9 FM, the invaluable Columbia University jazz station, will be run a memorial edition of its Jazz Profiles show this Sunday, 2-7 p.m. Tune in if you can.
Updated, 11a.m.: I neglected to mention the Curson post at Destination: Out, which includes a couple of tracks from his 1966 Fontana album Urge. (Guess I unwittingly cribbed the title for this post from D:O. Thanks, guys. Great minds!)
My current feature is about Robert Glasper Experiment and its new Blue Note album, Black Radio. The piece takes a long look at Glasper's m.o., which has been in place almost from the start. (For time-travel purposes, here's the profile I wrote for JazzTimes in 2005.)
I have one regret about this weekend's piece: that concerns about space and clarity prevented me from talking more about the other members of the Experiment, and the ways in which their alchemical contribution defines the band. As you probably know, Glasper isn't the only guy here with a genre-fluid background. Derrick Hodge, the bassist, is as widely known for his past affiliations with Common (the rapper) as with Terence Blanchard (the trumpeter). Casey Benjamin, who plays saxophone, keyboards and vocoder, can often be found on tour with Patrick Stump. And you can hear drummer Chris Dave on both 21, Adele's brobdingnagian smash, and the fierce bootlegs from D'Angelo's recent trip to Stockholm. Also, here:
Derrick Hodge and Chris Dave were both gracious enough to speak with me for this Arts & Leisure assignment, Derrick at considerable length. I wasn't able to incorporate their voices into the piece, but there's no question that they helped illuminate the subject.
I've been listening to some really promising rough mixes from Hodge's forthcoming Blue Note debut; some of the songs were recently heard on WBGO/NPR, via his concert at 92YTriBeCa. And on the day that Derrick and I sat down to talk, he was in town for a session: the next Blue Note release by guitarist Lionel Loueke, which will feature Hodge, Glasper and drummer Mark Giuliana. As I said in the piece, we're going to be hearing a lot more of this vibe.
I first heard Ambrose Akinmusire sometime during his Steve Coleman Apprentice Phase -- every young musician of his ilk seems to have one -- sometime in the last decade. (Could it have been around this time? I dunno. Maybe.) Whatever specific impression he made has faded, but I do recall filing his name away for future ref.
As for the first time I really heard Ambrose Akinmusire, that’s clearer. It was during the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, which I covered in Los Angeles. During the semifinals there were 10 competitors, each playing a few pieces with an expert house rhythm section. Almost everyone sounded good, but Akinmusire took his game further, pushing with poise through Wayne Shorter’s “Fee Fi Fo Fum” and then making the unusual decision to play “Stablemates” as a trumpet-piano duet. (The house pianist, so to speak, was Geoffrey Keezer.) He was moving out on the proverbial limb, and backing up every risk with results. It’s fair to say that I was floored.
That moment always returns fresh when I get to contemplating Akinmusire, as I do in this weekend’s piece. It’s not just about the trumpet playing, inventive and surefooted as it may be. It’s about the urge to connect with his band mates -- even when they’re not really his band mates but rather an all-star combo (Keezer, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Carl Allen) working toward a functional end.
Obviously I think you hear that commitment clearly on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, Akinmusire’s new Blue Note debut. What I wanted to stress in the piece was the idea that he could lean heavily on a collective ideal without easing up on his prodigious gifts. The magnanimity doesn’t trump the prowess, or vice-versa.