Ethan Iverson’s Home Page

Greetings! Thanks for stopping by! If you are new here, you might want to look at the Bio page. 

To keep up with my current events including articles and gigs, subscribe to my newsletter, Transitional Technology. (Sign-up is free.)

Twitter is my evil social media drug of choice, where I post frequently.

At the moment you are looking at Do the Math, a blog (but really more like an internet magazine) that began in 2004 and runs well over a million words.

The most significant DTM posts are “pages,” organized by topic:

Interviews: Over 40 discussions, mostly with musicians: Billy Hart, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Marc-André Hamelin, Carla Bley, Wynton Marsalis, many others.

Consult the Manual: Lessons, mainly material written for my piano students at New England Conservatory of Music.

Rhythm and Blues: Jazz music essays about McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Geri Allen, Bud Powell, Lester Young, many others.

Sonatas and Études: Classical music essays about Glenn Gould, Igor Stravinsky, a few others.

Newgate Callendar: Crime fiction essays about Donald E. Westlake, Charles Willeford, a few others.

Photo credit above: Keith Major.

If you want to support Do the Math and also get updates about gigs, masterclasses, and new DTM posts, subscribe to Transitional Technology.


Roger Dickerson, New Orleans Concerto

The composer Roger Donald Dickerson was born in 1934. His works list is substantial but little of his music has been recorded for commercial release. As far as I know, there are just two early works to be heard on the streaming services, both programmed on somewhat obscure collections of all-African-American composers.

Just yesterday I discovered New Orleans Concerto (1976), which is on You Tube.


The description says:

3 movements
Leon Bates, piano
New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra / Werner Torkanowski
Live première performance

Bates is an interesting pianist; not only is he black concert virtuoso, but when he was younger, he was a committed bodybuilder. Not too many of those around.

The live recording of the premiere of New Orleans Concerto is not ideal sonically. However the performance seems excellent and the piece is incredible! The piano writing is full of blues material (it begins right away with tremolo figuration from James Booker or Professor Longhair) but the general context is post-Bartók dissonance and drive. Finally!

In the middle movement there is a haunting wordless vocal for mezzo-soprano or soprano, conjuring the blues in another dimension. The finale is boogie-woogie gone surreal, the kind of thing Louis Andriessen tried to write over and over again, but better.

Bates, Torkanowski and the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra deliver a fierce performance. In fact, the limited recording technology distorts in a few places: they were literally raising the roof in NOLA that night.

New Orleans Concerto is the piece I’ve waiting for. I’m so glad this exists. American music!! In the current climate, where black composers are actively being sought to be given commissions, there’s room to hope that this work could be revived on the concert stage and recorded in high fidelity. What are we waiting for?

Previously on DTM: In the overview, I wrote: “A lesser-known piece that may deserve repertory status is played by Karen Walwyn, the Piano Sonatina (1956) by Roger Dickerson.  Dickerson (who is lifelong friends with Ellis Marsalis) composed a graceful and detailed piano piece that manages the considerable feat of sounding like exactly what it is: A fully notated sonata from New Orleans.”

Dickerson was only 22 at the time he finished the Sonatina; the only other piece of his on the commercial streaming services is the Essay for Band (1958) from on the collection Out of the Depths. Like the Sonatina, the charming and energetic Essay is very well done, but both pieces are essentially conservative. There was room to wonder what the young composer might get up to a bit later. Now that I have heard New Orleans Concerto, I’m even more anxious to explore the rest of Dickerson’s mature music…

George Russell’s First Three Records as a Leader

George Russell was an architect of the music, a key associate of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and the author of the technical treatise The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Early Russell compositions (“Cubano Be, Cubano Bop”) and arrangements (“Relaxin’ at Camarillo”) from the bebop era retain their power to shock and amaze.

Russell played piano and drums but rarely featured his own capabilities as a soloist. In the liner notes of his first album, Russell talks about the rise of the “jazz writers” in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and quotes Gunther Schuller: “We must begin to think of form as a verb rather than as a noun.” Along with Schuller, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Lennie Tristano, John Lewis, and many others of lesser fame of that era, Russell was frankly seeking to inject more European techniques into bop.

The Jazz Workshop

Recorded late 1956. The core musicians of the Smalltet are Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Barry Galbraith, and Bill Evans. A rotating cast of bass and drums includes Milt Hinton, Teddy Kotick, Joe Harris, Osie Johnson, and Paul Motian, who with some exceptions are usually playing reasonably straight swinging time underneath busy counterpoint and fast-moving changes.

Russell gives a lot of written notes to his front line. Farmer, McKusick, Galbraith, and Evans are looking at charts that are not far from European chamber music. One of the delights of The Jazz Workshop is simply the flawless execution of the parts, which are not easy to begin with, but also need to swing. After dispatching the written material, Farmer, McKusick, Galbraith, and Evans then take great solos, often short in duration, but still full of proper jazz talk. Incredible band.

“Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beelzebub” A bit of spiritual in 6/4 foreshadows Charles Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul” from a few years later. The solos are in 4/4. Some of my favorite Bill Evans is as a bebop x-factor within a larger ensemble, as on John Lewis’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Tadd Dameron’s The Magic Touch, and Russell’s The Jazz Workshop.

“Jack’s Blues” Third Stream melancholy. Everyone is reading a thick part, including Evans. There are tempo changes and unusual effects, somewhere between Thelonious Monk and Russell’s teacher Stefan Wolpe. Russell’s liner notes are technical; in this case he writes that the “thematic development is based on the interval of the major second.” Yeah, but who was Jack?

“Livingstone I Presume” The piano has a crunchy motif reminiscent of Béla Bartók. Joe Harris plays a surprising 6/8 drum rhythm (called “jungle” in the notes); with the wild alto line it sounds like 2022 music from somebody like Steve Lehman. The blowing reverts to 4/4, but there are always stops, starts, and counterpoint.

“Ezz-Thetic” One of Russell’s best known compositions, a Tristano-ish line on “Love for Sale,” also recorded earlier by Lee Konitz with Miles Davis and later by Grant Green with Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones. The relationship between Billy Bauer with Tristano and Galbraith with Russell is obvious. As with Tristano’s composed lines, one can hear the effort required to bring “atonal” notes and phrases into the bop language. Gorgeous. McKusick sounds great, somewhere in the Konitz/Desmond soundscape but totally fluid and with some surprising note choices.

“Night Sound” A kind of blues piece with fully written out rhythm section parts and endlessly turning horn phrases. Evocative and smoky noir verging on atonality. Maybe my favorite track on this album. Unique music. Milt Hinton buffs will enjoy hearing the legendary bassist play such a long and complicated part perfectly; he also bows the final note. Right on, Milt.

“Round Johnny Rondo” Gotta say, I’d never guess that this is Paul Motian swinging out on this track like he’s Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey. It shows how much Paul worked at becoming an idiosyncratic voice. The contrapuntal melody is ridiculous, and Art Farmer takes a particularly fine solo.

“Fellow Delegates” The longest track on the LP features Osie Johnson on wood drums and Russell himself on chromatic drums tuned to a “blues scale.” McKusick is on flute and Farmer is on muted trumpet. H’mm! Assemble, delegates: the workshop is in session.

“Witch Hunt” As with “Round Johnny Rondo,” the drummer is a surprise: I’d never guess this conventional and well-done latin beat was from the young Paul Motian. The theme is another charismatic contrapuntal maze, while the chords for the solos are again on the busy side. If I have a criticism of this wonderful music, it is that the solo sections can feel a little blocky and relentless in their harmonic motion, “Giant Steps” but without Coltrane’s inevitable logic. It’s hip as hell but just a shade constricting for improvised creativity. Russell himself would help inspire the modal movement, and eventually would adopt more open and modal structures himself. Something like “Witch Hunt” shows the road that was not taken — a road not taken for a reason.

“The Sad Sergeant” Russell writes, “The military and the blues theme is maintained throughout the composition.” It is so cute and adorable to hear Bill fucking Evans playing these complicated written parts.

“Knights of the Steamtable” Dedicated to Russell’s local musician’s union. Have I read of a jazz cat dedicating a tune to the union before? According the notes, Farmer is playing polytonally in his solo, but it doesn’t scan as that “out” to my ears. Beautiful trumpet.

“Ballad of Hix Blewitt” The notes say, “This composition is dedicated to the memory of a friend who possessed a legendary quality…I felt that he was a combination of the West, the blues, and good Dixie humor.” The piece begins as the least “jazzy” on the date, the drums lay out as flute, guitar, and piano intertwine. Hell of a blindfold test. The Brooklyn jazz kids are trying to compose music like this in 2022. The bitonal bluesy piano is awesome (probably all written out?) and the comic “Dixie” touch is silly indeed.

“Concerto for Billy the Kid” The Jazz Workshop would have been one of the earliest LPs where Bill Evans got a chance to make an impact with jazz listeners. The burning piano cadenzas over II/Vs (based on “I’ll Remember April” in F) show how well Evans understood Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano.

1956 is right around a turning point for recorded sound. Things were improving fast, and there’s something about the instruments in the room for The Jazz Workshop which is just perfect. In the notes, Russell compliments engineer Ray Hall.

New York, N.Y.

The next disc is a concept album celebrating the Big Apple in 1959. The instrumentation is for full big band, and the featured soloists include Jon Hendricks, who sings/speaks introductions to every piece, called “narration” on the LP jacket. Hendricks’s poetic/amusing contribution is a highlight of the disc. It really does feel like midcentury New York City…

“Manhattan” (Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers) Hendricks enthuses over Charli Persip’s solid beat. When the tune comes in, the writing in the horns is quite dense and contrapuntal. Unlike the previous album, the tracks are quite long, and the soloists have more room to build a statement. The Bob Brookmeyer (then Brookmeyer/Frank Rehak), Bill Evans, and John Coltrane improvisations all begin duo with Milt Hinton. It’s quite a journey with these major voices interacting with Russell’s complex backgrounds featuring a wall of brass, fleet saxophones, tuba and guitar. The original Rodgers and Hart ditty is left far behind. Art Farmer plays well too, while Coltrane offers some shapes over a vamp near the end. A modernist piano cadenza (is Evans reading these outlandish chords from paper?) leads into

“Big City Blues” The tempo slows as Hendricks’s beat poetry takes a rueful turn. The syncopated bass line is long and written out, I can’t think of any other jazz from this era where the bassist would have to read quite like this. Kudos to Milt Hilton! There’s about six minutes of obscure modernist blues before Benny Golson seizes the day for some superlative breathy tenor. Art Farmer and Bill Evans also shine in solo statements. The horn writing is quite challenging and complex. Impressive music.

Manhattan: “Rico” In the previous decade, Russell had been there for the latin jazz innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, even writing a key work for the movement, “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop.” For the current offering, Hendricks talks about the price of plane ticket from Puerto Rico to New York over multiple drummers including the bongos of Al Epstein, Russell’s own chromatic drums, and the conventional but convincing kit of Don Lamond. As the piece proceeds, a kind of suite of different moods emerges, with fine solos from Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Evans, Phil Woods, and Art Farmer.

East Side Medley: “Autumn in New York”/”How About You?” (Vernon Duke, Ira Gershwin)/(Ralph Freed, Burton Lane) Hendricks explains that some New York denizens like to stay inside. Evans plays solo for time, really abstract and beautiful, setting up a poetic solo piano chorus of “Autumn in New York.” Hinton and Persip ease in — too bad there isn’t a record of this Evans trio! After horn commentary featuring those mysterious Russell lines, the tempo picks up and the piano trio offers “How About You,” which then moves into the horns and points exploratory.

“A Helluva Town” In the liner notes, Russell tells Burt Korall that he quit playing serious drums because of the great Max Roach. Roach shows up to give New York N.Y. its big finish on “A Helluva Town.” The drum solos are naturally spectacular (and seem to be connected to the opening Hendricks rave about the tempo of the city) but it’s not just Roach, there’s a splendid focus to this chart overall. Love those fast and wild Russell lines in the band.

While New York, N.Y. is an undeniable achievement, I rank it just behind The Jazz Workshop. Paradoxically, the many horns seem diminish the forward motion found on the first LP. When it is just McKusick playing one of Russell’s thorny lines, the lone musician has all the room to phrase it just so. When McKusick is joined by four other saxes, it all becomes a bit more fussy. There are other factors: The sonics aren’t sorted quite as well on the first LP (Bill Evans and Milt Hinton playing duo have more presence than the full band shout) and there are some awkward edits.

On the final track, Max Roach puts the horns in their place and the music drives forward. Offhand I can’t think of Max with a big band featured like this somewhere else, so New York, N.Y. still gets 11/10.

Jazz in the Space Age

(Full disclosure: This week, David Virelles and I will be playing Jazz in the Space Age with Pedro Guedes leading the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos for concerts in Porto and Madrid.)

The general aesthetic style of The Jazz Workshop and New York, N.Y. is similar. It’s all advanced music but the harmonic and rhythmic ideas are not far removed from common practice.

Things take a turn for the abstract in Jazz for the Space Age in 1960. In the notes, Russell suggests jazz will have a “pan-rhythmic and pan-tonal future,” and the far-out cover art is of a piece with other Eisenhower-to-Kennedy era modernist pop such as the Norge ball.

The nascent jazz education movement is also a visible new element. Three of the horn soloists, Al Kiger, Dave Young, and David Baker, were imported from the Indianapolis/Indiana University scene, and all three would appear within the same year as the front line of the important George Russell Sextet. Russell met Kiger and Baker when teaching at the legendary Lenox Jazz Workshop in Massachusetts, the same summer when Ornette Coleman was a student. Baker, a founding father of jazz education as we know it, would establish his beachhead at IU-Bloomington later in the 1960s. There’s quite a lot about Russell and this era in Monika Herzig’s valuable biography, David Baker: A Legacy in Music.

Bill Evans gets the credit on the cover and in the liners, but Paul Bley is right in the mix on all three “Chromatic Universes.” Again, there is a Lenox connection: Bley arrived just in time at the workshop, driving from California, to join in on the last tune and make an impression. In his autobiography Stopping Time, Bley claimed he got a few years worth of work in New York from sitting in on one tune at Lenox. Bley’s extended comment on Jazz in the Space Age is amusing, although it must be said that Bley also liked to tell a tall tale.

…there was a phone call from George Russell inviting me to be part of a project for Decca records. It was a piece for two pianos and orchestra, which involved a lot of written music. There was one condition. A large orchestral score went with the gig, and if I’d come over he’d give me the score. I’d have thirty days to practice it and return it to his apartment, at which time I would play the score. If I made a single mistake, the assignment would be given to another pianist.

I took the score home and went into the music room and Carla put trays of food under the door for the next thirty days. When I went back to his apartment there was no question of whether I would make a mistake. I hadn’t just learned it, I was that music. I played the score without the slightest hesitation and went to the record date for Decca Records. Bill Evans was on piano A and I was on piano B.

….By the time of the George Russell session, he [Bill Evans] was everybody’s favorite pianist, and rightly so. Riverside Records had even called one of his albums Everybody Digs Bill Evans.

The piece called for a lot of improvising by the two pianists, in three of four lengthy non-orchestral sections, accompanied by George playing strung beads pulled over the surface of small drums, and a rhythm section playing odd meters….We started with the rhythm section playing this very off rhythm. This was my universe — rhythm sections that played wrong, no harmony or melody given. This was the atmosphere that I normally breathed, and what flashed through my mind was, now, am I going to make it easy for Bill, or am I going to make it hard for Bill?

Because everybody loved Bill Evans. He already owned 99 percent of the jazz piano business. And I was hoping to get a corner on some part of the one percent that was left. So I threw the kitchen sink at him in the first phase — and I was appalled to hear him throw it right back at me. The was good and bad news.

The whole date went like that. No matter what I did, Bill was right there tossing it back — leading, following, doing everything George could have hoped for. After the first take, as the rhythm section faded out, George rushed up and kissed us on both cheeks and said no one had ever played his music properly before. The rest of the date went fine. The orchestral music was read correctly, there were three or four more long two-piano-with-rhythm sections, and we all left in a blaze of glory.

“Chromatic Universe, Part 1” Several pieces on the disc share the same moody introductory celeste chord accompanied by Russell on rustling chromatic drums. A fierce odd-meter vamp is established from Milt Hinton and Don Lamond, and we are off into a signature sound of the album, Evans and Bley playing together as one.

“Dimensions” Starts as a beautiful blues ballad with Dave Young in the lead, who has a lovely tone on tenor. The tempo picks up and now we are in the spacey up-tempo jazz that was Russell’s favored flavor: Kansas City swing but with Bartók in the bass line. Charli Persip is particularly fine on this track.

More than on New York, N.Y., the long compositions on Jazz in the Space Age have the through-line of inevitability. Evans takes a long ocatonic solo, one can hear him wrestling the very non-bop harmonic progression into something more like Bud. Trumpeter Al Kiger plays a good solo, as does Dave Young. (The students are working out, although I wish Hal McKusick, present in the horn section on all three albums, had gotten one more airy alto solo on a Russell record, considering how good he sounds on The Jazz Workshop.) The pianists don’t comp behind the horn solos, rather it’s all Hinton and Persip, with varied Russell horn backgrounds protruding at the right time.

“Chromatic Universe, Part 2” The three “Chromatic Universes” aren’t that different, the vamp is the same, but there are more horns with each reprise.

“The Lydiot” momentarily features another bass and drums vamp which is almost as challenging as the vamp of “Chromatic Universe.” I’d be curious to learn how hard it was for Milt Hinton and Don Lamond to play these odd meter vamps….maybe they had to practice, or maybe they could read it down.

In 1960, writing in 5/2 for forces wasn’t a viable option, so Russell writes 4/4 horn melodies against the vamp. In “The Lydiot” this technique is particularly successful, the horns build up a quite a bit of steam, somewhere between Charles Ives and Charles Mingus.

This is the first solo from David Baker on record, who trades off with Frank Rehak.

“Waltz from Outer Space” The melodic material is even more attractive than usual, bluesy yet atonal double time passages, call and response in the trumpets and saxes. Most of the piano blowing on the disc is linear, but for a moment Evans stops and plays some lovely locked hand modal chords, similar to his famous improvisation on “So What.”

“Chromatic Universe, Part 3” More of the chaos. The space ship recedes into the distance…

The three expanded band pieces on Jazz in the Space Age, “Dimensions,” “The Lydiot,” and “Waltz from Outer Space,” are really their own thing and seem to bring the Russell aesthetic to its fullest expression so far. The “Chromatic Universes” have Bill Evans and Paul Bley sounding like one wild four-handed pianist. All in all, a fitting capstone to Russell’s early large ensemble period.

(Bonus track no. 1)

Three standalone features for Evans, Eric Dolphy, and Shelia Jordan are in my personal pantheon.

“All About Rosie” A magnificent three-part work that opens the Gunther Schuller-conceived Modern Jazz Concert: Six Compositions Commissioned by the 1957 Brandeis University Festival of the Arts. The first two movements are contrapuntal and bluesy, classic Russell, and then Bill Evans lets fly in the third movement.

“Round Midnight” and “You Are My Sunshine” are two arrangements I’ve known since my teenage acquisition of the two-fer Outer Thoughts, a compilation of the Riverside LPs Ezz-Thetic and The Outer View. All the music from the Russell sextet is interesting, but these showcases for Dolphy and Jordan are truly special. Re-listening now I’m noticing how much piano Russell is playing in support of his ensemble. Sounds good, George!

(Bonus track no. 2)

Bill Evans and George Russell collaborated on a later occasion, Living Time from 1972. While credited as an Evans album, this ambitious and frankly quite messy project is obviously Russell’s baby just as much as Jazz in the Space Age. Every piece is simply called an “Event” (“Event I,” “Event II” and so forth) and most of the record is heavy on vamps, rock beats, drones, and exotic instrumentation.

The large ensemble has some extraordinary names (Joe Henderson, Sam Rivers, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams for starters) but there are hardly any conventional jazz solos, even for the star pianist. (JoHen peeks out of the texture a bit on “Event V.”)

For that matter, there is not much conventional composition, either. In the notes, Orrin Keepnews explains that Russell is using “cycles,” which suggests that Russell was not armed with all that much music paper in the studio, but instead came up with many of the repetitive textures and riffs on the spot. Russell is quoted as saying, “It’s as if I were creating an improvised sculpture.”

In the realm of total speculation: Evans is reading a sophisticated vamp on almost every “Event.” Perhaps Russell brought in those reasonably detailed piano vamps and orchestrated them in the studio with the help of Carl Atkins, credited as Russell’s assistant in large print and photographed with Russell and Evans’s manager Helen Keane. (“Carl! Give the saxophones the middle line while I find the right mute for the trumpets.”)

Of course, this loose way of working is very 1972. One of Russell’s few peers, Gil Evans, went on a similar path, writing fewer pages for the full band around this time and later.

Maybe I’m mellowing with age, but I like Living Time a lot more than I used to. Formerly I considered the whole LP essentially a write-off, but now I can appreciate how Evans and Russell are dancing with the zeitgeist. Jazz in the Space Age is indisputably the greater album, but Living Time can also claim a proper place in the library of cool weird music.

Number One

Brand new essay: All-Star Television: Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Ralph Ellison, and Martin Williams

This article was truly a blast to write and was commissioned for issue 13.1 of the Journal of Jazz Studies. Thanks to Sean Lorre and Lawrence Davies for their thoughtful editing; I also got good feedback from Loren Schoenberg and Lewis Porter. 

Brad Linde found the amazing 1965 video, and on the Mingus centennial I sent it along to Brian Krock for uploading to his YouTube channel. 

The program has some of the most remarkable jazz on video I’ve ever seen, and the commentary is almost as fascinating. As I write in my essay: 

The thread of Ellison’s commentary would be picked up by future African American writers and musicians. Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Wynton Marsalis all regarded Ellison as a touchstone, and Ellison’s determination to define jazz, especially to define it in terms of a “Negro American” aesthetic, foreshadows Murray’s book-length manifesto Stompin’ theBlues and the “jazz wars” of the 1980s and ‘90s, of which Crouch and Marsalis were regular combatants.9 The first time I looked at Jazz: The Experimenters, I was a bit surprised to see Ellison in the “Stanley Crouch role.” This comment may paint me as naive, but I believe many of my peers also think of Crouch, Wynton, Ken Burns’s Jazz, and so forth as a phenomenon of the Jazz at Lincoln Center era. It is edifying to see Ellison take this side of the discourse decades earlier.

All the Things You Could Be by Now If You Had Joined Substack in the Early Years

(The title above is a riff on Mingus’s “All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.”)

A significant social media presence and an overstuffed email list are good tools for any independent performing artist.

In addition to gigging, I write, and have to get my words in front of eyeballs (otherwise there’s no point).

What you are reading now, DTM, is central station, I’ve been publishing steadily here for about 18 years. However, ever since blogs went the way of the 33 RPM platter, I have needed to drive traffic to DTM from other apps and websites.

Troubled times, perhaps. Facebook seems old-fashioned, Instagram is mostly pictures, and Twitter has been roiling with uncertainty since Elon Musk’s recent acquisition. Some commentators predict the sharp decline of these social media giants.

I have built up a significant Twitter following, so would be very sorry to see it go if it implodes, but at least I’ll still have my Substack, Transitional Technology, which has a respectable membership, over 4000 subscribers. I haven’t done so much interacting with my subscribers at TT, mainly because I am so active on FB and Twitter, but I promise to start responding to comments and questions at my Substack if the threads take off.

Sign up is free, although Substackers who pay are definitely financing my quasi-long form content at this point. I occasionally think about knocking off the deep dives, for things are going well on the career front, and I’ve been writing about jazz and crime fiction for so long…

I’m still doing it, thanks to Substack. Within the last two months I’ve written substantially on Steve Lacy/Don Cherry, Gary Bartz/Charles Tolliver, Kenny Wheeler, and Peter Straub. As long as I have a paying audience, I’ll keep going.

I joined Substack when it was very new, mainly to have a solid vendor for bulk email. Apparently this was the right horse to back, for the company has only gotten more visible over time. Indeed, the amount of good music writing to be found on Substack these days recalls the early fun days of the jazz blogosphere.

Vinnie Sperrazza is a terrific drummer, and his new Substack is called CHRONICLES. 

Vinnie promises articles on:

1) Sanctified Dreams: A look at the music and context of the four albums released in 1988 which featured Joey Baron, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, and Hank Roberts 

2) A Listener’s Guide To Lifetime: a complete guide to the music of Tony Williams from 1969-1980

3) Volition: Ralph Peterson On Record, 1984-1993

4) Who Invented Free Jazz Drumming? 

5 Alas Yeah No: Jim Black and Chris Speed, 1999-2010

6) An in-depth look at Chano Pozo

7) Zutty Singleton and Baby Dodds: Early Jazz Piano Trio 

8) Celebrating JMT Records 

9) Instrumental Pop Hits, 1945-2000. “There are a lot more than we realize”

Lewis Porter’s Playback is publishing some astonishing things. Yeah Lewis!!!

I’m a big fan of Roz Milner on Music.

Nate Chinen is currently perhaps the most visible jazz critic (thankfully maestro Chinen has good taste) and puts longer musings at The Gig.

Jeff Sultanof dives deep into midcentury American (love Jeff on people like Nelson Riddle).

Phil Freeman of Burning Ambulance cuts a wide path, I’m looking forward to Freeman’s upcoming book on Cecil Taylor.

Ted Gioia, the Honest Broker, is the most successful music Substacker. Ted’s unique and powerful insights, especially into the business, have gone viral far outside the jazz community.

“Love, Sweet Love”

The first two runs of Mark Morris’s “The Look of Love” went very well. Burt Bacharach came to the dress rehearsal in Santa Monica and said he liked my arrangements. Blessed by Burt! I can live with that.

There were two good reviews of the Kennedy Center performances: Sarah Kaufman in the Washington Post, and Carolyn Kelemen for MD Theatre Guide

The costumes are by Isaac Mizrahi. This picture by Skye Schmidt includes singer Marcy Harriell:

I snapped this pic two of my collaborators, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson:

Steve Lacy with Don Cherry, “Evidence”

A few years ago, “Don Cherry” started trending on Twitter occasionally thanks to Canadian ice hockey. These days, “Steve Lacy” is trending with some frequency, especially after the guitarist destroyed a fan’s phone onstage.

Earlier this week, I tweeted jokingly about the topic.

For me, Lacy and Cherry together will always mean the November 1961 studio session with Carl Brown and Billy Higgins. Evidence is a unique and fabulous one-off featuring four tunes from Thelonious Monk and two from Ellington/Strayhorn. Cherry and Higgins were Ornette Coleman associates, while both Lacy and Higgins had played with Monk, and the melodic/creative feeling of the session is really a gorgeous cross between Ornette and Monk — with just a dash of Ellington. Perfection.

The mysterious Carl Brown holds his own in elevated company. Some have suggested that Brown is actually Charlie Haden, Buell Neidlinger, or someone else with a more familiar name. This is not true. Carl Brown split the scene shortly after this date, but for a moment he was a respected NYC bassist, and he sure sounds good on this session.

“The Mystery Song” One wonders just how Lacy dug up this novelty number from 1931, for in 1961 Ellington studies were still in their infancy, with only a few early 78s re-issued on LP at that time. Ellington probably wrote “The Mystery Song” for a revue or some such while still appearing nightly at the Cotton Club. Lacy slows down the tempo and wisely cuts the “B” theme.

Ellington’s original is quite thick harmonically. What exactly are the chord changes for this updated version? Neither Lacy nor Cherry are too worried about that topic, beginning with stark octaves or minor seconds in the theme. These two true melodic geniuses wind a secret path while blowing.

The soprano saxophonist would keep on returning to the idea of Ellington’s “jungle music” for the rest of his career, but this track would remain one the best examples of this kind of Lacy-helmed “exotic groove.” Billy Higgins is so damn swinging, with his left hand holding a mallet to start.

Listening with headphones, I caught a slightly awkward edit going into the head out. Doesn’t matter. “The Mystery Song” remains one of the great opening tracks to a jazz LP.

“Evidence” The horn players drastically simplify Monk’s complicated rhythms in the theme. Some might dock them points for this “cheat,” although, to be fair, Monk never played “Evidence” this fast, and the straight hemiola used by Lacy/Cherry does work well. With Cherry and Higgins talking at this quicker pace, the music really starts to sound like Ornette’s band. The horn players improvise on the changes of “Evidence” but it’s wide open in feeling. In terms of where they were at in 1961, I’ve never heard Cherry nor Lacy sound better than their solos on “Evidence.” Pure magic.

OMG there’s an edit into the out head on this one too. Never noticed before. Some digital transfers are notably unkind to the tape era…

“Let’s Cool One” Drum breaks for Higgins in the slightly square theme. (I’ve written before, “Although he didn’t say so, I remain convinced Monk is making fun of the West Coast cool school with a supremely un-syncopated melody.”) Cherry is very bluesy in his gorgeous and extended solo. Lacy sometimes comments behind Cherry, which works well in this piano-less context. This date offers an especially fine display of Higgins’s left hand. Billy Hart told me that Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins share something in conception, and in the strut of “Let’s Cool One” I can dig what Hart is saying.

I always listened to the first side of the LP. The second side is also beautiful, but those first three tunes above are about as good as it gets.

“San Francisco Holiday” In 1961 this composition was brand new, and today it remains a lesser-played Monk tune. The inner-moving line is good for two horns. Great drum solo.

“Something To Live For” Don Cherry sits this one out. Billy Strayhorn’s ballad features sustained dramatic color tones in the melody and uneven phrasing in the form, factors that make it difficult to play well without supporting harmony. Cherry played piano in somewhat Monkish fashion…too bad he didn’t comp a few salty chords on the studio instrument for this one.

“Who Knows” Fast and amusing melody. Monk only recorded it once in the early years, in a blur of inaccurate horns: The title almost seems to mean, “Who Knows What These Notes Are.” In this rendition the connection to Ornette couldn’t be more clear. The tempo might be a shade quick for Lacy to play eighth notes; Cherry sounds more confident with his intentionally loose cornet ramble. The horn trades are fun and the spirits are high, with Higgins getting an appropriate concluding flourish.

Max Roach, “Members Don’t Git Weary,” Gary Bartz, “Another Earth,” and Charles Tolliver, “Paper Man”

Summer 1968. Three killer LPs made in the space of two weeks document one version of serious and community-focused black jazz. In the larger frame, it was the Aquarian age, a time of youthful rebellion and the expansion of consciousness. The Civil Rights movement had scored major victories, but there was still a long way to go (Martin Luther King was assassinated in April). In the musical realm John Coltrane had died less than a year earlier, around the time Miles Davis released Nefertiti, the final Davis album without electric instruments. Black-owned Motown had established serious market share on the radio, and any kind of avant-garde technique borrowed from free jazz was also on the table.

Present on all three sessions was a pair of upcoming and outstanding horn players, Charles Tolliver and Gary Bartz. Max Roach’s Members Don’t Git Weary feature them both; Tolliver guests on half of Bartz’s Another Earth; Bartz guests on half of Tolliver’s Paper Man. (In the liner notes to Another Earth, Maxine Bartz says that the Bartz/Tolliver association goes back to 1959.)

According to obvious sources, these are the dates and places for the 1968 sessions:

Bartz, Another Earth (Milestone), June 19 & 25, Plaza Sound Studios, NYC
Roach, Members, Don’t Git Weary (Atlantic), June 25 & 26, RCA Studio B, NYC
Tolliver, Paper Man (Black Lion), July 2, Town Sound Studios, Englewood, NJ

June 25 is listed for both Roach and Bartz, which is unlikely, especially since they are different labels and studios, but not absolutely impossible. (The recording dates for the sessions are present in the original liner notes for Bartz and Tolliver, but not for Roach. Roach is found online and in the Lord discography. Possibly a user error entered the system at some point.)

Max Roach, Members, Don’t Git Weary with Charles Tolliver, Gary Bartz, Stanley Cowell, Jymie Merritt, and vocalist Andy Bey on the title track

Max Roach was one of the original bebop geniuses in the group that included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. In the ’50’s he co-led one of the great ensembles of all time with Clifford Brown; in the ’60s Roach was a visible advocate for Civil Rights, with albums called We Insist! and Speak, Brother, Speak!

Roach knew the whole history of the music, recording successfully with everyone from Duke Ellington to Cecil Taylor. The style of Members, Don’t Git Weary is absolutely of the moment, with little in the way of the pure bebop tradition of Roach’s earlier associates Bud Powell or Charlie Parker. Instead there are funk beats, electric bass vamps, and modal tropes straight from John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.

“Abstrutions” Stanley Cowell supplies three pieces for the date. The main funky riff of “Abstrutions” is answered by a quartal phrase reminiscent of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Cowell is the only soloist, displaying greasy two-handed pianism with the horns giving responses. A radio-friendly track.

“Libra” Gary Bartz debuted this memorable modal theme on his first album, Libra, recorded the previous year. Staccato rhythmic hits give away to fast 4/4 for hard blowing from Bartz and Tolliver. Great drum solo, Roach’s kit is well-recorded. This is the one tune where Merritt walks, and I admit that this is the only place it might have been better if he had been playing upright instead of electric bass.

“Effi” Roach gets credit for playing the first jazz waltzes on record in the ’50s. By this point his conception was quite loose and fluid, perhaps even influenced by the way Elvin Jones played “My Favorite Things.” Cowell’s piece moves around a bit harmonically, but the horn trades make the most of the related pentatonic scale.

“Equipoise” Probably Cowell’s best-known composition. The first recording is a masterpiece, an evocative way to turn the modal burn into an impressionistic even-eighths tone poem. Both Tolliver and Bartz show their lyrical side. Again, while the chord sequence is quite complex, the soloists are able to access pentatonic scales common to disparate bass notes/harmonies.

“Members, Don’t Git Weary” While credited to Roach, “Members, Don’t Git Weary” is an older spiritual. The band plays in a loose rubato style, as on the opening part of of Coltrane’s “Spiritual.” Andy Bey sounds great leading the congregation.

“Absolutions” Jymie Merritt was a bassist associated with both Art Blakey and Max Roach. He wrote a few important pieces; the best-known is probably “Nommo,” an early excursion into 7/4 recorded by both Roach and Lee Morgan. “Absolutions” is a dark investigation of the Phrygian mode with an ominous 4/4 bass line. Cowell is on electric piano and Roach delivers many fierce single-stroke rolls next to Merritt’s vamp. The horns play their angular modal phrases that hew reasonably close to the dark keyboard tonality. Overall, the aesthetic of “Absolutions” is absolutely next door to the 1968 Miles Davis sessions that produced Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, especially the similar in-your-face even-eighth drumming of Max Roach and Tony Williams. Fabulous.

The only serious problem with Members, Don’t Get Weary is the lack of piano solos, for Cowell only lets loose on the opening track.

Gary Bartz, Another Earth with Stanley Cowell, Reggie Workman, and Freddie Waits, joined by Charles Tolliver and Pharoah Sanders on the title suite

While Bird was the bebop word, Trane gave the modal message. In 1968, compared to the tenor sax roster, the altos were less thick on the ground. Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy had established the avant-garde model, taken up in varied ways by people like James Spaulding, Marion Brown, Jimmy Lyons and Ken McIntyre, but there was plenty of room for Gary Bartz to present the swinging and burning Trane concept on alto. (Sonny Fortune was Bartz’s peer, but he wasn’t so apparent on record yet.)

“Another Earth” This side-long suite is genuinely successful, a kind of updating of Coltrane’s long-form concept for Meditations and other pieces, but with more written material and more stylistic diversity. (In addition, the theme of planets in the cosmos recalls Coltrane’s Interstellar Space.) Compositionally there’s a lot here, but in the end it is also very much a feature for the leader’s incandescent alto. 

1) Fanfare with intervallic theme. 2) Intervallic theme becomes gospel with preaching alto solo. 3) Minor swing that almost immediately devolves into late Trane style with Sanders in full effect, followed by Bartz also in high-expressionistic mood, who brings in the time with 4) New uptempo theme, minor modal with a few dominant chord changes. Tolliver and Bartz both blow well over a loose rhythm section. 5) Bass cadenza. 6) “Wall of sound” chords from all hands with alto cadenzas. 7) A brief syncopated passage turns into a dirge, a hint of waltz, a hard unison flourish, then back to 8) Medium swing with Tolliver telling his story with that beautiful trumpet sonority. More joyous Bartz, before Sanders steps up to play a bit of swinging tenor before going more into the esoteric zone. Sounds great. Cowell finally gets a bit of a say, with a relaxed searching exploration in tempo, both hands in different places.  9) A few horn lines and concluding fanfare.

All told, “Another Earth” must be one of the very best long-form suites from this era and context. Freddie Waits is the true MVP, handling all the changes of mood with depth and finesse.

“Dark Nebula” The swinging piece alternates between 3/4 and 4/4. Workman may have been considered a straight-ahead bassist earlier in the decade, someone to hold it down next to Art Blakey, but by this time he evolved to being a true wild card, someone to give Richard Davis a run for their money in terms of an esoteric bass space. Workman’s solo here is notably creative and engaging. Towards the end, Bartz really takes flight over Waits’s exciting churn.

“UFO” Cheerful bluesy dominants next to each other, a bit Monk-ish in affect. Band swings out. Yeah. Cowell gets a good say. At this moment Cowell was truly a standout alternative to McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, able to play their shared modal language with personality and wit.

“Lost In The Stars” A Kurt Weill tune taken on duo by Bartz and Workman. From the beginning, it is hardly a basic ballad, but a rich exploration of possibility. Bartz’s heartfelt reading of the melody suspends over fast and abstract bass. (The idea of “Lost in the Stars” fits in with the “Interstellar” theme of the LP.)

“Perihelion And Aphelion” The aphelion is when the Earth is farthest from the sun; the perihelion is when they are the closest. This story is told musically in a tempo change from medium waltz to uptempo 4/4. Bartz’s theme honks out some of the lowest notes on alto, a moment that sounds particularly Coltrane-ish.

Charles Tolliver, Paper Man with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Joe Chambers, with Gary Bartz joining in on side B

This session was Tolliver’s first as a leader. It was recorded at Town Sound Studios in Englewood, which seems to have been a just-down-the-block but black-owned alternative to Van Gelder’s. Tootie Heath’s Kawaida was also recorded there.

The LP was somewhat belatedly released as Charles Tolliver and his All-Stars on Black Lion in 1971; my first copy was as Paper Man in the Arista/Freedom reissue series from 1975. In some ways Tolliver’s LP pairs with Woody Shaw’s first album as a leader, which was tracked for Blue Note in 1965 (and also features Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Joe Chambers, although all three don’t play as a unit) yet only finally released in the ’80s as In the Beginning. Another album from the associated network was 1969’s Brilliant Circles with Stanley Cowell, which also suffered from delays; my first copy was again the Arista/Freedom reissue series that had Paper Man.

If these three notably strong releases from Shaw, Tolliver, and Cowell had been presented as soon as the LPs were made from a label with a profile, we might write jazz history a little differently. Surely these troublesome delays were one reason Tolliver and Cowell started their own label Strata-East in 1971.

A few Strata-East dates were also tracked at Town Sound Studios, including Cecil Payne’s Zodiac. I really like the way the bass and drums are captured on Paper Man — indeed, this LP remains one of the best places to check out Joe Chambers — but the piano is a problem. Hancock doesn’t care, he is full of boundless enthusiasm on this out-of-tune upright.

As a unit, Hancock/Carter/Chambers are also heard on:

Sam Rivers Contour
Wayne Shorter The All-Seeing Eye
Wayne Shorter Schizophrenia
Bobby Hutcherson Components

All these Blue Note sessions are fabulous, but they are also all feature compositions that are quite complicated. Tolliver’s strong and charismatic themes for Paper Man are straight to the point, and the rhythm section truly lets the dogs out. Incredible session for all three, Hancock, Carter, and Chambers. Tolliver himself is large and in charge, putting himself right in the league with Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard.

Pianist George Colligan placed Paper Man in his personal top 10 list and wrote a blog entry where he goes though the six tunes. Colligan’s comments are on point, so I will direct readers to his post for the play-by-play.

Summer of ’68. Some serious music was being made!

What the World Needs Now

Tomorrow Mark Morris takes MMDG to Santa Monica for the premiere of “The Look Of Love,” his new dance set to Burt Bacharach compositions arranged by myself. 

I met Burt on Zoom a couple of times, that was pretty awesome.

Brian Seibert reports in the New York Times.

A short Broadway World interview recaps some of my history with Mark Morris.

The wonderful Marcy Harriell is handling the lead vocals; the rest of the ace band includes Blaire Perrin, Clinton Curtis, Johnathan Finlayson, Simón Willson, and Vinnie Sperrazza.

This is the second evening-length score I’ve put together for Mark Morris in recent years, the first was “Pepperland” to music around and about the Beatles. Nate Chinen came to the most recent performance (we’ve done “Pepperland” about 80 times now) this past spring:

Santa Monica this week, the Kennedy Center next week; many more performances of “The Look of Love” to follow. These are some of my favorite songs of all time and the choreography is wonderful. Sincere thanks to Mark Morris for everything

The Git-Go

Be there or be square: Billy Hart with Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson, and Ben Street at the Village Vanguard this week.

Photo of the band in action in London two nights ago by Conor Chaplin

Thanks, Shannon J. Effinger, for writing about the great Mal Waldron in the Washington Post: “Mal Waldron, sideman to jazz greats, gets a solo retrospective.” How wonderful to see thoughtful coverage of jazz in a major outlet.

In another sphere, Jacob Garchik goes deep on the absurd video game Trombone Champ for Slate.

Benoît Delbecq in his element, in front of a Pavlova and coffee at Le Zimmer in Paris
Eberhard Weber and Billy Hart after the gig in Esslingen

I enjoyed playing the Green Mill with Matt Ulery and Jon Deitemyer. The Chicago speakeasy has a storied history.

“Stella by Starlight” watches over the Green Mill bandstand

On Fridays at the Green Mill, organist Chris Foreman plays his B3 from 5 to 7:30. A bystander’s clip of “Teach Me Tonight” on YouTube gives an idea of Foreman’s formidable powers. The real deal!