Riffs (third set)

(Quick, unedited stuff for my NEC students who I’m teaching remotely….second set of “Riffs” here…first set of “Riffs” here…)

Thanks to Mark Stryker, who I’ve been brainstorming with concerning almost all of the albums below…


JazzTimes has a poll of the greatest jazz albums from the 1970s. 50 have been chosen by the general public.

There’s a lot of great music there.  Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction is extraordinary, and Charles Mingus’s Let My Children Hear Music is a rare example of large-scale compositional ambition in jazz producing a masterpiece. But, depending on how you look at it, not so many of JazzTimes poll LPs are “no-frills, straight-ahead, acoustic, small group, swinging jazz.”

There are big differences between bebop and modal jazz. In the ’70s, the rubber really meets the road as the older generation of boppers came to terms with the legacy of John Coltrane. One of Dexter Gordon’s celebrated albums is Homecoming, live at the Village Vanguard in 1976. (It’s on the JazzTimes list.) While everyone in the band is comfortable with bebop, a big part of the ethos is modal.

Indeed, Homecoming is Woody Shaw’s band with a guest leader. They even play a couple of Shaw tunes.

One of Shaw’s earliest dates as a sideman, Larry Young’s Unity (1965) with Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones, is one of the great albums of all time and remains a defining document of the Shaw melodic and harmonic concept. A lot of harmony I might have jokingly chastised in a lesson as “jazz school harmony” — lydian vamps, polychords, moving pentatonic patterns — comes from Shaw and perhaps especially from Unity, but in this original 1965 iteration the material is funky and charismatic.

On Homecoming Shaw overshadows Gordon as a virtuosic soloist on complex material, yet Gordon’s warm presence also gives the music a theatrical heft that isn’t always present on Shaw’s own 70’s LPs from the same era.

Shaw’s Little Red’s Fantasy (1976) is a tight quintet session that shares musicians and repertoire with Homecoming. Lesser–known alto saxophonist Frank Strozier is fleet and charismatic on Little Red’s Fantasy, Shaw is also very strong next to Strozier. The horns are a perfect combination, yet I also miss the thrill of Louis Hayes burning it up with Dexter at the Vanguard on Homecoming.

Compare Strozier to Gordon on “In Case You Haven’t Heard.” Strozier is comfortable in a way that Dexter isn’t, but, then again, the way Dexter plays long slow melodies might be reminiscent of Lester Young in his late years.

At any rate, Shaw’s tunes aside, Homecoming is not really Dexter’s finest hour. The first tune is “Gingerbread Boy,” a fast B-flat blues.

On Swiss Nights Vol. 1 from 1975 (a year before Homecoming) the first tune is “Tenor Madness,” a fast B-flat blues.

There’s no comparison, “Tenor Madness” is much better.  If you don’t dig Dexter on “Tenor Madness” here, I’m not sure what to say.

Naturally, Dexter Gordon is an improvisor. However, when he’s blowing, Dexter is also reciting a special repertoire, often called “language” in jazz parlance. On “Tenor Madness” his language is bebop and blues, especially the kind of big band blues he played with Billy Eckstine and Lionel Hampton in the ’40s. On “Gingerbread Boy” he keeps the big band blues going, but also includes quite a few more modal Coltrane-isms, perhaps as a way to fit in with Woody Shaw. (Indeed, the very first melody of Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” is a familiar modal cliche.) In this era Dexter also played Coltrane’s famous song “Moment’s Notice” and used Coltrane’s pedal-point arrangement of “Body and Soul.”

Dexter wasn’t the only acoustic master assessing Coltrane in such a visible way. At the top of the decade, Lee Morgan’s wonderful Live at the Lighthouse (1970) with Bennie Maupin, Harold Mabern, Jymie Merritt, and Mickey Roker is a seriously modal affair, with long vamps and many pentatonic patterns, a sound radically different from the hard bop Morgan was playing a decade earlier. Two years later. Elvin Jones’s Live at the Lighthouse (1972) with Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman, and Gene Perla is modal and pentatonic but — unlike Morgan’s date — there is also a kind of post-Woody Shaw, post-Joe Henderson, post-Larry Young Unity lydian/polychord thinking.

I’m a little surprised that neither of these Lighthouse discs made the first cut for the JazzTimes poll, but an even more surprising omission is Kenny Wheeler’s Gnu High (1975) with Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette. This famous record represents ECM at the label’s best, a date that literally wouldn’t have haven’t happened without the organizational know how of producer Manfred Eicher. (In general there cannot be a discussion of ’70s jazz without a discussion of ECM.)

Wheeler and Wayne Shorter might be the most lyrical composers of modal music, writing unforgettable pentatonic shapes over a shifting landscape of pretty harmony. (Both Wheeler and Shorter love the modal landscapes of English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams.)

On Gnu High it is a band of masters, and all four players navigate the material with a kind of loose, fervent virtuosity. There is hardly any bebop punctuation, all the language in the solos is modal.

Wheeler’s “Smatter” is popular, it is almost something that can be called at a jam session.


You may be surprised I’m calling “Smatter” modal music. What I mean is that each vertical harmony has accompanying patterns and scales that lack a “tonal” implication.

Jarrett complained about the music of Gnu High in his biography, saying, “I had a lot of trouble trying to deal with playing those kinds of changes….sometimes the structures were so inorganic and fully described that I wanted to make them something with round sides…and they would have these vertical messages every beat or two.”

Jarrett certainly did play these changes: Indeed, for me, this date is a highlight of the Jarrett discography.

But Jarrett’s also on to something. Wheeler is a great composer — for my money, a greater composer than Jarrett — but the surface of compositions in the “Smatter” vein can easily turn placid and airless. Attractive vertical sonorities can be placed next to each other without any deeper binding qualities like tonality or folkloric rhythm.

I’ve seen a lot of college jazz composition that looks just like the chart of “Smatter.”

Getting back to “Tenor Madness” played by Dexter Gordon (the same year that Gnu High was recorded): The composition doesn’t exist on paper, not really…or if it does exist on paper, it’s just on scratch pad with no chord changes. Even the composer is up for debate, as most people know it from the Sonny Rollins record, but it actually appears as “Rue Chaptal” from an earlier side by Kenny Clarke.

To play “Tenor Madness” you need to know the language of bebop and the blues. You’ve got to have your repertoire together.

To play “Smatter,” you kind of don’t need to know the language of bebop and the blues, you just need to stare at the sheet. In fact, keeping the chart of tunes like “Smatter” in front you at all times is common practice, even for professionals on a high level gig. This mirrors European classical music. When a star soloist plays older tonal music, they are expected to have the music memorized. But if the music is atonal, then sheet music on the stand is allowed.

Barry Harris is the antipode of modal jazz. Everything Barry plays swings. His notes swing partly because Barry is closely involved with the interplay of dissonance and consonance in tonal music. When I say “bebop punctuation,” I mean any bar of Barry Harris.

(One oversimplification: In bebop punctuation, dissonances are accented, consonances are dialed back, just like Beethoven or Chopin. There’s no way to bring that kind of tonal tension and release to “Smatter” without resorting to extreme measures. Kenny Wheeler manages to give the harmony a coarser grain through heraldic sonority and wildly asymmetrical phrasing. )

Barry always sounds great. He was killing it in the 1950s, he’s still around and handing out lessons. But 1970’s Barry is notably prime Barry, and unlike the voters of JazzTimes, I couldn’t make a list of top ’70s records without including some Barry Harris. If I had to pick one trio date, I might go for Live in Tokyo (1976) with Sam Jones and Leroy Williams. Of course Barry comes from Bud Powell, Barry recites that kind of language during his improvisations, but he also has marvelous melodic freshness in his spontaneous line. The piano improvisations on the Tokyo session are something else.

Barry Harris and Sam Jones is a wonderful combination. Total grease. In general you can tell if somebody really knows something about ’70s jazz if they know to mention Sam Jones. In the ’70s, the bass was much louder than on earlier jazz records, and this doesn’t show every bassist in an equally positive light, but Sam passes all tests. Leroy Williams was Barry’s drummer of choice from 1969 until now, they feel upbeats together in a very sensuous way.

Barry and Sam join Sonny Stitt on a few classic ’70s dates, including Constellation with Roy Brooks and Tune-up with Alan Dawson.

Sonny Stitt is another giant. I like Stitt more and more over the years. Nobody can miss Dexter Gordon, he’s just too awesome, but Sonny Stitt and Barry Harris are for the connoisseur. Barry is perhaps more personal, Stitt is more literal. Still, Stitt is a king of bebop and the blues. If you think you can’t learn something from Constellation you simply don’t know how to listen to it yet. Last night I was particularly struck by the ballads, both “It’s Magic” and “I Don’t Stand A Ghost of a Chance” seem beamed down from the outer regions of human expression.

From Tune-Up, Barry is especially inspired, with definitive lyrical improvisations on “Blues for Prez and Bird,” “Groovin’ High,” and “I Got Rhythm.” Both discs have superb examples of uptempo rhythm changes, which remain the ultimate test of a bebopper. One can play modal language on rhythm changes up to a point, but eventually there needs to be some bebop snakes in there for the music to flow correctly.

Stitt had little to do with modal music. In fact, Miles Davis repeatedly complained about the way Stitt played on “So What” during a long 1960 tour: On the A sections, Stitt plays the light and shade of D minor and A dominant, while the correct way to play is on the dorian scale. That’s the whole reason why Miles wrote “So What,” to look for those fresh modal sounds.

For make no mistake, modal music was fresh, and that language had to be mastered in order to participate in good company. Biting the Apple is a great 1975 Dexter Gordon session with Barry Harris, Sam Jones, and Al Foster. (In my opinion this is a greater record overall than Homecoming.) Dexter includes a version of “So What” changes called “A la Modal.” The “latin” intro comes from “Soy Califa” on Dexter’s classic 1962 LP A Swingin’ Affair. (Some modal jazz is deeply informed by Afro-Cuban traditions, and it is worth remembering that an architect of modal jazz, George Russell, wrote the important large scale composition “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop” in 1947.)

Barry plays well on “A la Modal,” but I don’t know if he really believes in that concept. Another pianist — also aligned with Sam Jones —  that needs to be included in a discussion of ’70s jazz is Cedar Walton. Eastern Rebellion (1976) with George Coleman, Jones, and Billy Higgins is a touchstone. Unlike Barry Harris and Sonny Stitt, Walton and Coleman play a natural mix of modal and bebop language in their solos. Indeed, they even play the chain of suspended sequences of Coltrane’s “Naima” with a dance beat: Modal is here for a swinging good time.

When improvising, Cedar’s modal patterns are somewhat literal, at least when compared to his lines on rhythm changes or the blues. Something similar might be said of George Coleman (who is certainly also very, very great).

In what may be a minority opinion, I prefer Cedar with Clifford Jordan, who understood modal music but also allowed in more surreality and strangeness than George Coleman whether the music was bop, modal, or the blues. One of Jordan’s best albums is The Glass Bead Games (1973). Two quartets — Stanley Cowell, Bill Lee, and Billy Higgins or Cedar Walton, Sam Jones, and Billy Higgins — offer a marvelous document of a kind of post-Coltrane black music that honors the Aquarian Age yet still has tough hard-bop roots. In a way, Glass Bead Games can be heard as a concerto for Billy Higgins, who is simply extraordinary on every track.

The Cedar Walton – Sam Jones – Billy Higgins trio became known as “The Magic Triangle.”  If you are interested in swing you need to know about this rhythm section. There’s quite a few discs of them backing Clifford Jordan, including a lot of Steeplechase albums from a European tour. A looser studio document than Glass Bead Games is The Pentagon with Ray Mantilla added on percussion on two tunes and excellent recorded sound. There are also fabulous live sets with other master drummers filling in for Higgins: Tootie Heath (Half Note) or Louis Hayes (Live at Boomer’s Vol. 1 and 2.)

One of the biggest jazz stars of the era was Stan Getz. Captain Marvel (1972) is on the JazzTimes list. Getz was very influenced by Chick Corea, and Captain Marvel is essentially Return to Forever before Return to Forever. (Stan fronting Return to Forever on Captain Marvel bears comparison with Homecoming, where Dexter fronts the Woody Shaw-Louis Hayes quintet.) Even more than Kenny Wheeler’s “Smatter,” Corea’s “500 Miles High” is something that can be called at a high-level jam session. While “500 Miles” is comparatively tonal compared to “Smatter,” Stan Getz still has to draw on the Coltrane language to blow on it.

I never listen to Captain Marvel. I listen to The Master, yet another incredible straight ahead disc from 1975. (People who say straight ahead jazz was dead in the mid-’70s just don’t have the right records.)  The Master is a working band of tough young turks, Albert Dailey, Clint Houston, and Billy Hart. Like Frank Strozier, Albert Dailey is a less familiar name, but he was really great. (For whatever it’s worth, Dailey’s a cappella outro on “Lover Man” from The Master made an impact on my personal aesthetic.)

On The Master, Getz offers Corea’s hip arrangement of an old Harry Warren song, “Summer Night,” which intersperses a tonal section in C minor with a modal vamp in E flat minor. (Corea did something similar to Kurt Weill’s “This is New” on his first session as as a leader, Tones for Joan’s Bones (1966) with Woody Shaw and Joe Farrell, still one of Corea’s best jazz dates.)

The feel of “Summer Night” is not that different from another standard on The Master that connects C minor and E-flat minor, Bronislau Kaper’s “Invitation,” a melody that entered the modern jazz parlance thanks to Joe Henderson rendition on Tetragon. The slow harmonic rhythm of “Invitation” is perfect for using modal language.

(In a nod to modal thinking, the big F dominant in bar 5 of “Lover Man” is replaced by F minor 11.)

Stan improvises his pretty melodies throughout all three standards, Dailey has a kind of soulful glitter, Houston and Hart swing out.

Stan Getz used Chick Corea as a resource to stay current. Astonishingly, The Master includes a tune by signature ECM artist Ralph Towner, “Raven’s Wood,” first recorded by Towner with Glen Moore in 1973. It’s a nice piece and the Getz band plays it in high style. Indeed, Stan’s playing here, in this modal, even eighth-note concept, strongly reminds me of a modern tenor hero like Joshua Redman or Mark Turner.

Just for fun: 10 more discs from the 1970’s I really love that haven’t been mentioned yet above nor appear in the poll:

Keith Jarrett BOP-BE Of all Jarrett, I love Keith’s American Quartet best, and this is their jazziest LP.
Charlie Haden THE GOLDEN NUMBER  Far reaching duos with lyrical and bluesy intent.
Joe Henderson LIVE IN JAPAN Joe burns the house down with a great local rhythm section.
The Great Jazz Trio KINDNESS JOY LOVE + HAPPINESS Hank Jones, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, in a superbly organized date.
Hampton Hawes AT THE PIANO A valediction from the maestro.
Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd TRICKLES Gorgeous free playing.
Carla Bley EUROPEAN TOUR ’77 Carnival atmosphere and detailed composition.
Paul Bley OPEN TO LOVE Keith’s papa records his own ECM spaciousness. Art Hodes in outer space.
World Saxophone Quartet STEPPIN’ Julius Hemphill’s great compositions are represented well on this Black Saint classic.
Ray Bryant ALL BLUES Given the talent involved, the output on Pablo label can be a shade underwhelming. Bryant’s trio with Sam Jones and Grady Tate is superb. For a bonus listen, pair All Blues (1978) with Richie Beirach’s excellent Elm (1979) with George Mraz and Jack DeJohnette. Both albums are piano trios, but the shared references stop there.