Part One of a year-end email conversation with Peter Hum,
Jim Macnie, Giovanni Russonello and Greg Thomas (Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3| 4 | 5| 6| 7| 8| 9| 10| 11 )
From: Nate Chinen
Dear Peter, Greg, Giovanni and Jim,
Have you all heard Jazz at Storyville, the Dave Brubeck album? Recorded for Fantasy at the
Boston nightclub Storyville, mostly on a single October afternoon in 1952, it’s but a glistening fleck of foam in the oceanic expanse of Brubeck’s recording career. No
surprise that it didn’t turn up in the acres of coverage of that venerable
pianist’s death last week*, though I’ll confess that it’s one of the Brubeck
performances that always springs to my mind, for the urbane and offhandedly searching
aspects of its style.
Brubeck and Paul Desmond, his peerlessly sympathetic melodic partner, were both in their 30s at the time of this recording, which was
made under somewhat larkish circumstances. According to Nat Hentoff, Brubeck’s
bassist had to miss the afternoon set; moreover, “the bulk of the audience had not yet arrived and so they were playing entirely
for and between themselves.” Brubeck’s delicate but impassive abstraction of “Over the Rainbow” would seem to bear out that point. As would this gorgeously mentholated version of “You Go to My Head,” a near-perfect distillation of the Brubeck-Desmond hookup, negotiated on absolutely casual terms (complete with the whistling of a patron):
You may be wondering why I’m hitting you up with these stirrings from a sparsely attended club set 50 years ago. For one
thing, I was determined not to open our exchange with a mournful or
valedictory tone — despite the enormity of Brubeck’s passing, less than a week
ago, and despite some other flickers of finality. This weekend we saw the
last of Zebulon, an important way-out incubator in Williamsburg, Brooklyn;
we also received word of the change of ownership at the Lenox Lounge in
Harlem, the same neighborhood that bid farewell to St. Nick’s Pub
in the spring. (Greg, given your deep history in the area, I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this topic. Gio, you call D.C. home, but perhaps you do too.) I should add that the recent devastation of Sandy meant a temporary inconvenience for the Manhattan jazz-club ecosystem but a real game-changer elsewhere — Jim, as a native of Red Hook, Brooklyn, I know this was painfully true for you.
More farewells: It was just weeks ago that we
lost Pete La Roca Sims and Ted Curson, a pair of musicians largely underestimated
by the public, if not by their peers. It’s been a couple of months now since we
lost David S. Ware, who reached his stature partly by making underestimation impossible. Unlike Brubeck, these were artists who might not have had the opportunity
to say everything they wanted to say. Which brings me to pianist-composer Austin
Peralta, whose death at 22 (and just barely that) must be the year’s most heartbreaking jazz story. I have no in-person frame of
reference for his playing, which makes me feel both derelict and deprived. Every indication pointed toward a promising future.
But! (you knew there was one coming) I honestly can’t assess
the past year with anything other than a sense of renewed wonder. Since we’re
on the subject of promising young pianists, consider the wealth of talent currently fitting that description: Fabian Almazan, Bobby Avey, Jonathan Batiste, Kris Bowers,
Gerald Clayton, Aaron Diehl, Eldar Djangirov, John Escreet, Lawrence Fields, Aaron Parks, David Virelles... and that’s just guys under 30, each with his own spin. Surely I am leaving some people out. This week I’ll be seeing Christian Sands at the Village Vanguard, about a year after he knocked me out in the same room.
What I love about this moment in the music is its openness, the sense of possibility that rumbles out in almost every direction. I witnessed a lot of things this year reminiscent of that Brubeck-Desmond expedition, and I’m not talking about style so much as feeling.
Consider one blessed three-day span from my calendar, back in April. On Tuesday I heard the Billy Hart Quartet, with Mark Turner on tenor, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass; their interaction was even looser and lighter than on the fine album they released this year. On Wednesday I heard alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, with a band that featured Mike Rodriguez on trumpet and Pedrito Martinez on congas and Yoruban chant. On Thursday I heard the Vijay Iyer Trio (more on that in a moment). And all this during a week in which I was writing a Tim Berne profile for JazzTimes, on the occasion of his superb outing Snakeoil. All of you have similar stories, I know: Jim, you get out in NYC as much as anyone, and Peter and Gio, you cover scenes outside that scope. Greg, I have a hunch your highlight reel will differ slightly from mine, too.
Curious to hear whether you all agree that the old arguments about “tradition” vs. “innovation” ring so
obviously hollow now. (Maybe so?) One of my indelible experiences of this year was hearing
Cecil Taylor at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, as he served up an art he has been
steadily refining for an eon. One of the most mysterious was hearing a sextet
led by the aforementioned Clayton — not a vanguardist by reputation — work
through its new variations on post-bop form. I’m leaving the Top 10 analysis
for a later post (you’re all welcome to get an early jump), but it strikes me
as salutary that Vijay Iyer, one of Cecil’s children, gathered so much critical mojo this year, cleaning up in an unprecedented five
categories in the DownBeat Critic’s Poll. I rang
the bell when Accelerando was about
to drop, but even in armchair-prediction mode I wouldn’t have
expected that. Then again, that album features the fondest Ellingtonian sendoff of any I can think of this year.
(One of the many shows I was sorry to miss, btw, was Iyer and Mike Ladd premiering “Holding It
Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project.” I’d be curious to hear
your take, if you were there. And speaking of intertextural art by concept-minded pianists, scheduling woes kept me from catching Jason Moran at the Whitney Biennial, an omission that the review by Ben Ratliff instantly made me regret. I did hear Moran with the Bandwagon a couple of weeks ago, though, and left with plenty to chew on.)
There’s so much else to say, but I want to wrap up my chorus
before I lose the crowd. Guys, thanks for taking part in this year’s roundtable
— can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to your responses. Take the
conversation in any direction you like. (And you at home, don’t hesitate to add
your thoughts below.) So with that, I hand the mic to Peter. Every ending holds a
new beginning, or so I’m told.
*(There’s an indirect allusion to Jazz at Storyville in Ratliff’s excellent
obituary in the NY Times: “By the time of an engagement in Boston in the
fall of 1952 they had become one of jazz’s greatest combinations,” he writes,
referring of course to Brubeck and Desmond.)
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!)