Obituaries: Freddie Hubbard, Max Roach, Alice Coltrane, Esbjörn Svensson, Ronnie Mathews, Michael Brecker, Dewey Redman

(reprints from old DTM, edited for style.)

Freddie Hubbard (1938 – 2008)

16 iconic jazz albums from 1959-66 show Hubbard’s astonishingly diverse and flexible talent as a young sideman. In addition to being an essential element musically, Hubbard’s presence on the more avant-garde albums on this list is often ambassadorial.

Paul Chambers/Cannonball Adderley Go
Art Blakey Caravan
Art Blakey Free For All (I could really list all the Blakey/Hubbard albums, of course)
Eric Dolphy Outward Bound
Eric Dolphy Out To Lunch
Ornette Coleman Free Jazz
Oliver Nelson The Blues and the Abstract Truth
Andrew Hill Pax
Wayne Shorter Speak No Evil
Wayne Shorter The All-Seeing Eye
Herbie Hancock Empyrean Isles
Herbie Hancock Maiden Voyage
Sonny Rollins East Broadway Run Down
John Coltrane Acension
Sam Rivers Contours
Bobby Hutcherson Components

Hubbard’s own albums on Blue Note and Impulse! from this era are all classics. Sometimes Hubbard’s early writing and bandleading suggests an experimental edge, nowhere more obvious than on the 1970 Ilhan Mimaroglu-masterminded Sing Me a Song of Songmy on Atlantic.

In the “stadium jazz” era of the 70’s, Hubbard repeatedly showed that he was one of the most magnificently assured and powerful soloists of the decade. His CTI output like Red Clay and Straight Life holds up well today, and he periodically threatens to steal the show away from Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock on several albums with V.S.O.P.

What about that ludicrous solo on “Just One of Those Things” from 1969’s The Hub of Hubbard? I’m not saying this is good music — it is just too fast and messy in the ensemble — but it is certainly something. “Without A Song” from the same album shows how Hubbard’s time is so good that he can swing the band (which constantly verges on falling apart) from the trumpet on down.

Max Roach (1924-2007)

The last remaining innovator of High Bebop has left us today.

Kenny Clarke invented the jazz ride cymbal beat and its relationship to the bass drum, the high-hat, and the left hand. Clarke also had a very warm time feel, always bathing the other musicians in a non-judgmental glow. However, there is only one studio date of Charlie Parker with Clarke, from 1951.

It is Max Roach who plays on myriad classic sides with Charlie Parker from the beginning. Early tracks like 1945’s “Ko-Ko,” “Now’s the Time,” and “Billie’s Bounce” are among the most influential jazz recordings in history. While the drumming on these tracks is immortal, Roach would sound better and better with Bird over the next decade, pushing himself and his instrument on every recording. The 1953 records of “Confirmation” and “Chi-Chi” with Al Haig and Percy Heath feature the highest-level ensemble playing recorded in a studio with Parker. If Percy and Max showed up anywhere in the world right now playing just how they played for Bird in 1953, they could take anybody’s gig.

While Max Roach’s beat would always be a little icy in comparison to Kenny Clarke’s glow, his fearsome clarity and control would ultimately make his music more expressive than Clarke’s. Also from 1953 and with Hank Jones and Teddy Kotick, “Kim” is the definitive Bird and Roach “as fast as you can count it” rhythm changes. To this day, it sounds like the record player is at 45 rpm. “Kim” is slashing, angular, and quite unbelievably virtuosic: classic mid-century Black American art.

Download Kim_excerpt.mp3

The “as fast as you can count it” tempo is still called the “Max Roach tempo” by straight-ahead jazz musicians today. The apotheosis of the “Max Roach tempo” is Sonny Rollins’ Tour De Force with long workouts on “B. Quick” and “B. Swift,” both of which are faster then “Kim.” Indeed, they are almost certainly the fastest performances in jazz history, and Roach is just maniacal behind Sonny on them. Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette: all the assertive drummers come from Max, and all fiery horn-drum relationships in jazz stem from Roach with Bird, Sonny, and Clifford Brown.

Roach was an intellectual player. Some of his solutions from the early days can still stun with their freshness. This is the intro to “Dewey Square” with Bird (1947):

Download Dewey_intro.mp3

I mean, what?

Or his legendary 5+5+6 cowbell part on Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” (1952).

Download Un_Poco_Loco_ex.mp3

Bud apparently didn’t like this, which is not surprising, given that this unprecedented beat remains an unexplored path in the music. It must have been really hard for Bud to play with in the studio that day for the first time! There are three takes during which you can hear Roach getting his part together. Bud and Max is a terrific combination, not just on the greatest Bud trio recording, Jazz Giant, but on the 1947 Sonny Stitt quartet recordings.

On Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” (from the song’s first recording on Thelonious Monk Trio, 1952) Roach plays a cymbal only once in the body of the performance. Would that every version of “Bemsha Swing” I’ve ever heard had this level of analysis from the drummer! The excerpt runs until the cymbal hit.

Download Bemsha_Swing_excerpt.mp3

Herbie Nichols’ Blue Note recordings feature two great drummers, Art Blakey and Max Roach. Nichols’ compositions were very original and complicated, and his music’s difficulty is exacerbated by his opaque piano playing. Blakey swings with Nichols, but doesn’t try to do much more than that. Roach swings too, maybe not as hard as Blakey, but with a composer’s intelligence and a lot of delicate nudging and shading, enabling the listener to parse Nichols’ strange sound world. Try “The Spinning Song.”

Alice Coltrane (1937-2007)

Alice McLeod’s bebop piano playing with Terry Gibbs in the early 60’s is legendary. Sadly, very little of it is on tape.

At that time, her boyfriend was Joe Henderson. Shortly afterwards, she starting going with John Coltrane. Unlike Coltrane’s previous wife, Naima, Alice agreed to learn to play the harp, an instrument that fascinated Coltrane. They married in 1966.

At the piano, she abandoned her Powell style and studied McCoy Tyner’s fourth-chords and pentatonic flurries. Rather than imitate Tyner exactly, she put all that new modal information in the service of free-form rhythm. The John Coltrane records with Alice show her fitting in Trane’s late style much better than Tyner did. Tyner said he left the band because he couldn’t hear himself, but you can hear Alice on the ’66 and ’67 recordings just fine. It’s too bad Alice isn’t on Ascension and Kulu Se Mama, because she would have hooked up those dates much more than Tyner, who sounds a little irritated.

There are at least four classic recordings with John and Alice Coltrane together:

Live at the Village Vanguard Again!
Live In Japan
The Olatunji Concert

There are also many more bootlegs and a few more studio recordings. The pick of the bunch might be The Olatunji Concert, John Coltrane’s last recorded gig. Alice sounds marvelous here, especially on “Ogunde,” which is strong enough to make any pianist reconsider what they think they know about free playing.

After John’s death, Alice Coltrane dealt less with playing gigs and making recordings than with matters of the spirit, although her Impulse! albums certainly have a serious cult following. The family seems to have come full circle with their son Ravi, who is a clear-headed, burning jazz player.


Esbjörn Svensson (1964-2008)

In addition to their tuneful music, the outstanding success of E.S.T. with jazz audiences the world over was fueled by two formidable qualities: a belief in a band sound, and a commitment to having a top-flight sound engineer.

E.S.T. was Esbjörn, Magnus Öström, and Dan Berglund. No subs were allowed. This insured that their show was always on a high level: clear, unique, and with no music paper in sight. If more jazz musicians committed to the band concept, the state of jazz would be healthier. (Rock musicians understood this years ago.)

Their true innovation was a deep concern for sonic fidelity at all times. At European jazz festivals, E.S.T. could lay waste to great American jazz bands that preceded or followed them on the same stage simply by having their tones always dialed in correctly while other bands trusted to luck and the local engineer. Esbjörn even announced their superb engineer, Ake Linton, to the audience. In this interview,  Esbjörn called Linton “the fourth member of the trio.”

It is impossible to comprehend that our peer Esbjörn Svensson was killed in a diving accident yesterday. TBP sends deep condolences to Esbjörn’s family, Dan, Magnus, and Ake.


Ronnie Mathews (1935-2008)

Mathews (like John Hicks, Kenny Barron, Harold Mabern, and others) took the “energy style” comping of McCoy Tyner in the 1960’s and made it work in more straight-ahead contexts from the 1970’s on. Dexter Gordon’s Homecoming is a good place to hear this, as are other albums with Woody Shaw and Louis Hayes featuring Mathews.

There is a distinctive rhythmic tradition in jazz that comes out of Dizzy Gillespie, specifically the Gillespie big-band music of the 1940’s. You can hear it somewhere on any Miles Davis record of the 1950’s. One time when watching Mathews play at a European festival, I began noticing that all of his rhythms could have been played by the Gillespie big band. Billy Hart then confirmed to me that Mathews was considered one of the “professors” of this approach.

The late John Hicks and Ronnie Mathews shared something similar in touch and piano attitude. (They could easily have subbed for each other on most of their gigs.) At its best, it felt like “the real thing.” That style — and indeed, most straight-ahead jazz since the death of John Coltrane — is hard to capture on record. It might have less to do with Art than Culture. You need to be there, close to the bandstand, preferably in a small club, hopefully surrounded by other patrons who really love and understand the language.

So, the moral is, go see the older straight-ahead masters now. When they are gone, it is done.   

Michael Brecker (1947-2007)

Mark Turner gave his thoughts backstage at the Village Vanguard tonight:

Fuck those motherfuckers who don’t give it up for Michael Brecker.

He was so influential to so many players. I fully admit to hours of learning and studying Brecker solos. He’s consistently excellent. That Claus Ogerman album Cityscape is prime Brecker — just incredible.

He was one of the greatest technicians of the saxophone that ever lived. The saxophone is deceptive — it is initially easy to play, but hard to really delve into. Brecker really delved into the details. His sound was huge, but he only used a [size] seven mouthpiece. Trane used a six-star, Wayne a seven (nowadays an eight) and many modern players are using sizes up to ten, but Brecker always used a mid-sized mouthpiece with tremendous control, paying attention to the voicing of the low, mid, and high registers of the saxophone in a way that few have. This enabled him to play things that are really hard to play. I saw him put his horn on at clinics and soundchecks and — cold, without warming up — instantly play the most fucking incredible shit, stuff that most saxophonists simply cannot deal with.

In recent years he was improvising more, taking more chances, and exploring more kinds of music. He was really blossoming. I was really looking forward to a few more decades of powerful Brecker.

I met him a few times, and he was always just so cool. A true master. 

Dewey Redman (1931-2006)

Jazz listeners were introduced to Dewey Redman in a famous moment on Ornette Coleman’s 1968 Blue Note album New York is Now! :

Ornette was proud of his new saxophonist. “Dewey Redman could play the keys off the saxophone,” he said. Ornette was so proud that he decided to bare his neck and be sacrificed for Dewey on the first track, “The Garden of Souls.” It’s a long track — too long. Ornette’s solo lasts for six or seven minutes, during which time the rhythm section and Ornette do not hook up once. Finally, Ornette stops. Pause. Dewey Redman enters.

Dewey Redman enters with a shattering roar, literally screaming while playing the saxophone. The earth opens up and you contemplate the multitudes of strange large brown insects that burrow and feed near the ancient runes. Dewey plays for less than two minutes, but it is more than enough to make you completely forget that long alto solo.

Dewey and Charlie Haden could fluidly improvise free harmony together. This magical association was a crucial element of three of jazz’s greatest bands:

The Ornette Coleman quartet with Dewey, Charlie, and Ed Blackwell. This band played a lot of gigs but did not make a studio record. There are several bootlegs, all of which are amazing. Friends and Neighbors is easy to get and has good sound, too. Of the other Ornette/Dewey records, Science Fiction has the working quartet with other musicians, and an immortal Dewey solo on “Law Years.” On Crisis, with Don Cherry, Charlie and 12-year old Denardo Coleman, Dewey’s solo on “Comme Il Faut” is a concentrate of beauty.

The Keith Jarrett quartet with Dewey, Charlie, and Paul Motian. This courageous, outlandish, down ‘n dirty music is shamefully underrated and misunderstood. They left a large body of work, too: at least 15 LPs! Classic Dewey solos with this band include “(If the) Misfits (Wear It),” “Gotta Get Some Sleep,” “Byeablue,” “Rotation,” and countless others. The last live performance of this band together is documented on Eyes of the Heart. The legend is that Dewey was drinking wine backstage and ignoring the gig. This seems to be true, since almost the whole first two sides of the three-sided two-LP set is a boring piano vamp. Finally, near the end of side B, Paul Motian crashes in. Dewey puts down the wine, picks up the horn, and for five minutes plays only the notes of a pure minor scale with heartbreaking intensity. After this cataclysm, the encores on the last side have the quartet playing some of the most joyous music ever recorded.

“Old and New Dreams,” with Don Cherry, Dewey, Charlie and Ed. After Ornette formed Prime Time, his most devoted disciples formed a band to continue the Coleman acoustic tradition. My favorites are the first session, Old and New Dreams on Black Saint, and the live concert Playing. Dewey’s musette is also a confirmed asset in this context.

Early on, Dewey told Keith Jarrett that he couldn’t play changes:

“Basically, he thought he was not as good at it as he really was. But I remember one night, at the Village Vanguard, it was the day Don Byas died, and Dewey played a solo on a tune with chords. Usually he’d ignore the changes, but he got into the chords, and he became Byas that day, as a sort of tribute thing. The rest of us just stared at him and I said to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, he doesn’t realize some of the things he could really do.” (Keith Jarrett quoted by Neil Tesser in the liner notes to Mysteries: The Impulse Years 1975-1976.)

Dewey knew enough about the immaculate threading styles of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins to tread carefully. He also probably thought that “running the chords” was a bit outdated in the early seventies. He was right, at least for the moment: his recorded output with the harmonically advanced Jarrett proves again and again that if you have heart, imagination, the blues, and “the sound of the earth opening up” coming out of your horn, you don’t need to play changes.

Perhaps feeling a need to show the world that he wasn’t just an “out” saxophonist, Dewey started playing standards and jazz classics when he was older. A rhythm changes tune like “Second Balcony Jump” was threaded very well, but hard tunes like Coltrane’s “Lazybird” weren’t his best thing. (His son could run rings around him then.) Maybe if his innovations with Coleman and Jarrett had become widely accepted as fertile soil for exploration and elaboration by other musicians he wouldn’t have needed to change. With the exception of Bill McHenry, Mike Lewis, and a few others, most modern tenor players have not seriously considered Dewey Redman, choosing instead to slice and dice advanced harmonic realms without playing a note of surreal irrationality. This is our loss, because music-making is not just about the grid, it is about the ineffable. For conjuring the ineffable, Dewey Redman was king.