June 19 is a good day to listen to the solo piano suite Juneteenth recorded in 2014 by Stanley Cowell.
The record is hard to find, expensive, and reasonably un-reviewed. Apparently the CD release is a big package with 40 pages of photos and, presumably, liner notes. I’ve ordered a used copy, because my casual listen on the streaming services suggests a masterpiece is hiding in plain sight. (Very important: The pleasant opening track on the album, “We Shall” or “We Shall 2,” is not part of the suite.)
The work is in ten sections and runs half-an-hour. It is not celebratory, nor is it angry. The temperature is mild, resigned, and subtle. Many European composition devices are used; indeed, as far as I can tell, it is almost all fully-notated. One track, “Reality Dreams Echoes,” is a crazy-quilt of Americana themes including “Dixie,” “Swing Slow, Sweet Chariot,” and “By the River,” concluding with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I don’t think anyone could improvise like this, they would have to work it out:
(The minor-third tremolo over chromatic bass two minutes in is a leitmotif of the suite.)
While there are a few enjoyable stylistic references to gospel and the blues, most of the music is in its own bag. The “Proclamation” theme begins with a rather ragtime-ish slow “E-flat, E, F” before a fanfare in F minor that hurtles through keys with unexpected swing. The most elaborate movement is a pianistically advanced set of variations on “Strange Fruit.”
Very interesting. Again, I have ordered a copy, and plan to write about this significant work more in the future….
John Heard played bass at the highest level. His name is a little less familiar only because he spent most of his career on the West Coast, but there are well over one hundred LPs in the discography, including many led by significant names such as George Duke, Count Basie, George Cables, and Bobby Hutcherson.
Two of those sessions are in my private pantheon. Early on I got the LP Night Rider, a two-piano date with Count Basie and Oscar Peterson accompanied by Heard and Louis Bellson, and I listened to that damn thing over and over. A quote on the internet says that Heard was Basie’s favorite bassist. It’s hard to know if that is true, but Heard is nothing less than perfect in this relaxed and exposed mainstream setting. His inspirations seem to be Ron Carter and Ray Brown, each note lands with sure-footed grace, and at times he leans on the front end of the beat.
Then there’s George Cables’s Phantom of the City with Tony Williams, which for my money is one of the best piano trio records of the era (1985) and certainly one of the best showcases for the compositional brilliance and virtuosic piano style of the leader. How wonderful to hear Tony Williams in this sort of situation as well. In addition to being a musician, John Heard was a fine painter, and the cover painting of Cables is by Heard.
Tonight I listened Bobby Hutcherson’s Color Schemes, an excellent session from the same year as Phantom of the City. The core quartet is Hutcherson, Heard, Mulgrew Miller, and Billy Higgins, with Airto adding percussion touches. The programming is intentionally diverse: latin beats up against swingers, a duo with piano (“Rosemary, Rosemary”) and the overdubbed title piece, featuring at least two Hutchersons and two Airtos. Heard plays the latin beats well, but his voice is more obvious on the swingers, throwing down hard next to the magician Billy Higgins on “Bemsha Swing,” “Whisper Not, ” and a tightly-arranged “Remember.” One of the best tracks is the final ballad, “Never Let Me Go,” with Hutcherson on rhapsodic marimba.
Sad to say goodbye to the great Leroy Williams, a drummer devoted to swing.
The first record Leroy Williams and Barry Harris made together was in 1969, Magnificent! with Ron Carter. For me, this trio album is the beginning of the most profound Barry Harris. A key turned in the lock, and for well over a decade the piano maestro was at his peak as a player.
During that time, Leroy and Barry kept on trying to play the upbeats later than the other. Heavy swing. Leroy is invaluable anywhere, but those tracks with Barry are truly something else. Leroy Williams and Barry Harris together! No doubt about it.
I didn’t know Barry, but I was around him occasionally because we shared the same piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff. At one of those gatherings (around 2005 or so) I got up the nerve to ask him, “Hey Barry, how many trio gigs have you done without Leroy Willams since 1969?”
Barry thought about it for a moment, then replied, “One.”
There is a fair amount of video of Harris and Williams from the late years, all of which is wonderful, but there’s only one track on YouTube from a bit earlier. This uptempo “Oblivion” with Hal Dodson is the real deal.
Leroy Williams has over 100 LPs in the discography, mostly in the ’70s and ’80s. Along with Barry Harris and Bertha Hope, major names include other keepers of the true jazz flame like Charles McPherson, Red Rodney, Pepper Adams, Sonny Stitt, Junior Cook, and Bill Hardman. Not all of that era of straight ahead music survives on LP that well. There’s a variety of factors, including the studios and the basic sonic presentation. However, recently live tapes of two tunes from McPherson, Williams, Michael Weiss, and Tyler Mitchell at Birdland in 1991 have surfaced: “The Song is You” and “Countdown.” Wow! This is truly great. On “The Song Is You” Williams really throws it around behind McPherson. Just gorgeous.
“The Intellect” is a 24-minute sprawl that begins with a diatonic meditation in G-Flat. Hutcherson imitates windchimes, McBee groans in arco, and the leader’s beautiful slow gutbucket trombone is next door to Roswell Rudd. There’s a palpable Charles Ives influence, yet the track is also something that could have been recorded for a ’70’s ECM record.
Even more to my taste is the comparatively short and sweet “Blue Free,” which boasts one of the greatest Hutcherson wails I’ve heard over insane McBee. The whole track is exceptional: Moncur channels Monk for this riff piece and Harris swings out. The mid-60s was such a fertile time for experimentation. Like the title says, true “blue” and true “free” were allowed to be pressed right up against each other, and Moncur was a key figure in that beautiful mix.
Marshall passed away in the last days just after his 80th birthday. Currently listening to “Fog Tropes,” one of his most famous pieces, where a live brass quintet intertwines with tapes of fog horns in the San Francisco Bay. It’s very sophisticated and frankly pretty awesome.
The Danish composer Poul Ruders (b. 1949) has been prolific; his mature style confidently occupies a liminal space between abstract and figurative. I enjoy all the Ruders I’ve heard, but one work is a personal touchstone, in my view one of the authentic masterpieces from its era, the Piano Sonata No. 2 of 1982.
The four movements total between 25 and 30 minutes.
Vivace e ritmico
Tempo di sarabande
Leggiero e elegante
Monumentale e senza espressione
In the CD era, there were two professional recordings, first by Rolf Hind, then by Thomas Adès. I was exposed to the live Adès performance when in the first flush of exploring Adès’s discography as a composer. “If Adès thinks this is a good piece, then it must be a good piece,” was my reasoning.
I liked the sounds but craved the notes. Before the internet, I had no way to easily purchase the score. Within a year or so, on tour with Mark Morris at the Kennedy Center, I managed to go down the street to the Library of Congress and photocopy what must have been one of just a few copies in all of North America, and thus have been in regular touch with the pitches for well over two decades.
Many post-war composers looked to mathematical systems when shaping their narratives. Indeed, once thousands of atonal (or nearly-atonal) notes is part of the style, a system is almost required.
As far as I know, Ruders was the first composer to base a piano sonata on change-ringing. Ruders was directly inspired by a Golden-Age mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors. Her introduction is famous:
The art of change ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world. To the musical Belgian, for example, it appears that the proper thing to do with a carefully tuned ring of bells is to play a tune upon it. By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations.
Ruders’s work is structured very clearly. The first and third movements are sequences of change-ringing, and the second and fourth are contrasting theatrical ideas. From the composer’s own notes:
An athletic, rhythmic melody kicks off the movement in lightning-fast tempo. More layers are added and the work opens like a large-scale symphonic/polyphonic fan: the tempo gradually slows, and the coda is a gigantic bell-like passage executed con tutta forza (with the utmost force).
The second movement, Tempo di sarabande, is related to the similarly sarabande-like slow movement of the Dante Sonata [Ruders’s first piano sonata], but is less compact, more polyphonic in the treatment of its tonal and polytonal sounds.
The third movement is the scherzo of the sonata and like the first movement is governed by the change-ringing tables. A lightning-fast scherzo, which I will immodestly call intelligent minimalism.
Through most of the movement the left hand accompanies with shifting ostinati, the right-hand plays change-ringing melodies in alternating 7/8 and 5/8 time.
The last movement consists exclusively of chords. Everything freezes to ice. Huge chords follow one another without any rhythmic variation at all. Towering and unbearably slow as icebergs.
The initial sounds seem to be atonal chaos, but as the argument develops, the skies clear and bells can be clearly heard. For those that are patient, this is a rewarding journey, for the way that tonality encroaches and finally takes over is quite spectacular. The second movement is comparatively straightforward, with pretty melodies and harmonies over a “lurching” bass. The third grooves away like anything (possibly my favorite piece in this now-familiar “minimalism with chromatic notes” idiom) before the closing “ice” contradicts all that has come before.
Again, a touchstone. I’m pleased to learn that Christopher Guild has done a casual video of the whole sonata in one go for YouTube. As I say in my comment, “Thank you so much, this is one of my favorite sonatas and I have never heard it live. However at least I could watch this terrific video!”
Again, I don’t really understand baseball, but found Angell’s take on Gibson nothing less than enthralling. One of the themes is race, and there are obvious parallels between Gibson and various jazz greats of the era.
The tone of his baseball writing, he once said, was inspired by a now canonical John Updike article, written in 1960, about Ted Williams’s final game at Fenway Park in Boston. “My own baseball writing was still two years away when I first read ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,’” Mr. Angell wrote, “and though it took me a while to become aware of it, John had already supplied my tone, while also seeming to invite me to try for a good sentence now and then, down the line.”
I dialed up the Updike on the New Yorker site. Again, to my surprise, I was intensely moved by a sportswriter waxing poetic about various long ago games, where statistical excellence is presented as a feat of honor. The essay builds to Williams’s final turn at bat, where the retiring player beat the odds and hit a home run.
John Updike’s imagery here is some of the most striking I’ve ever read.
This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.
Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.
Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky.