Evolution (RIP Bobby Hutcherson)

As a whole, the  2012 NEA Jazz Masters concert was a long and uninspired evening of platitudes, enlivened only by a few moments of casual profundity by musicians the caliber of Benny Golson or Jack DeJohnette. The highlight was unquestionably Bobby Hutcherson and Kenny Barron essaying a relaxed “In Your Own Sweet Way.” For a chorus, time stood still as the master vibist told a harmonically advanced and motivic story through the prism of Dave Brubeck’s familiar II/V changes.*  The entire JALC orchestra stood up and gave Hutcherson a standing ovation.

After Hutcherson’s death, the NEA put this wonderful performance up on YouTube, mis-titled and with terrible sound: The piano overwhelms the vibes in the mix (this was not true when heard live in the hall) and there is distracting distortion throughout.



Hutchersons’s rhythms are vocal, folkloric, and complex: the transcription is not accurate

The solo chorus:


At the dawn of his career, Bobby Hutcherson proved himself to be a major orchestrator of avant-garde jazz, especially for a tremendous group of Blue Note records in 1963 and 1964.

Jackie McLean One Step Beyond
Jackie McLean Destination…Out!
Grachan Moncur III Evolution
Andrew Hill Judgment!
Eric Dolphy Out to Lunch
Andrew Hill Andrew!!!
Tony Williams Life Time
Jackie McLean Action

For many, Out to Lunch is the key document of this moment. Fortunately we have also have another Dolphy/Hutcherson date for the Douglas record label, Iron Man. Geri Allen has said that the way Dolphy used vibes instead of piano “not to lock anything up” was influential on her own outlook.

The album from the above list I know best is Grachan Moncur’s Evolution. Listening again brings back wonderful memories of first assembling a jazz record collection.

Evolution has a stunning “old meets new” cast of musicians. McLean was a Blue Note staple and undoubtedly secured this date for his new trombonist with other members of McLean’s recent band. One Step Beyond and Destination…Out! feature Moncur and Hutcherson; Williams is on One Step Beyond as well. These four, McLean, Moncur, Hutcherson and Williams, were definitely a “thing.” On bass was Bob Cranshaw, a more naturally conservative player than Richard Davis or Ron Carter, yet someone who had also proven his modernist credentials with Sonny Rollins’s most “out” band on Our Man In Jazz. The ringer was hard-bop master Lee Morgan: Evolution would remain Morgan’s most experimental record date.

Side A offers two absolutely unique performances. The essential form of “Air Raid” is a rubato chant over a bass tritone followed by burning modal blowing. The time breaks apart during each solo before finding the rubato chant again. Hutcherson’s commentary is extensive and modernist, especially behind the “elders” McLean and Morgan. Frankly it is hard to believe the amount of chaos that Hutcherson, Cranshaw, and Williams get up to in the rhythm section. The three horn soloists all play well but the outlandish accompaniment is truly the star. Finally the trio has a completely discontinuous confab on their own.

Trio improvisation on “Air Raid”:


Perhaps there’s some irony to the title “Evolution,” for the piece is just a handful of similar dissonant minor chords in dirge tempo. I suspect Stravinsky’s chorales are an influence on the composition, but Tony’s marching snare is possibly cribbed from Charles Ives, or maybe the drum choir on Sketches of Spain. Whatever the sources, the backdrop doesn’t “evolve” much as Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan offer rubato cries of avant blues on top. As a player this is Moncur’s finest hour on this date: What an incredible sound, his simple yet bizarre trombone preaching the unnamable. This is an artist who knows exactly what he’s doing.

Tony only plays snare drum throughout the horn solos, probably the first time this has happened on a jazz record since the pre-drum set days, but when Hutcherson steps in he offers a few thumps on a tom. Again, the trio improvisation is completely free and atonal, given an even more “classical” cast this time by Cranshaw’s arco bass.

Trio improvisation on “Evolution”:


Auditing the trio improvisations disconnected to the body of the performances does them some disservice, as in both cases they are palate cleansers, not the main course. Still, they are a fascinating listen. Hutcherson, Cranshaw, and Williams are three young jazz cats comfortably (and even amusedly) imitating modernist classical composition.**

Compared to Side A, Side B is simply great jazz. “Coaster” could be on one of a hundred Blue Note dates. It’s a wonderful uncomplicated riffing tune in G minor with a hint of español on the bridge. The way the bridge rhythm keeps going into the final “A” is particularly slick. This is Lee Morgan’s meat, and his solo is naturally extraordinary, especially when he heats up in the second chorus. McLean is more searching: at this time he was absorbing Coltrane and Ornette with real success but perhaps also with some heartbreak. Hutcherson is in a similar place, threading the changes but also occasionally going for something “out.” Moncur himself is the least comfortable soloist (and I’m not sure if Hutcherson and Cranshaw are always quite together behind him, either). It may have been irritating to play first with so-so results then to have three other great soloists deliver undeniable goods. For whatever reason, Moncur comes back and plays another round with more authority before taking it out. The track is most revelatory for the drumming of Tony Williams, who might have been the greatest prodigy this music has ever seen. (He was about three weeks away from his eighteenth birthday at the time of this session.)

Thelonious Monk got several tributes from the Sixties avant-garde, including “Hat and Beard” on Dolphy’s Out to Lunch a few months later. According to a relatively recent Moncur interview, Monk himself really liked “Monk in Wonderland.” It starts as a waltz. (At the time of recording Monk hadn’t composed a waltz yet, “Ugly Beauty” would appear in 1968 on Underground.) There’s no comparison of Cranshaw and Williams with any Fifties rhythm section trying to play in three: these young turks are swinging much harder. The form also goes from three to four and back, with asymmetrical bars to boot. Very sophisticated for 1963! McLean might sound a tad uncertain navigating the uncompromising and “odd” sequence of disconnected dominant chords, but the leader, Morgan, and Hutcherson all have no problem. Cranshaw steps forward with an impressively fluid solo as well.

“Monk in Wonderland” is a perfect example of Hutcherson’s unique comping from the era, especially when there wasn’t also a piano in the ensemble: spare, glinting, modernist: indeed, rather Monkish.


Hutcherson own discography would prove to be extensive, one of the those musicians who never made a bad record.

His own Sixties Blue Notes include the brilliant modernist discs Dialogue and Components and two superb quartet sessions with Herbie Hancock on piano, one of them being a rare example of bass virtuoso Albert Stinson. Joe Chambers was almost always the drummer, another musician completely comfortable with modernism, bebop, and the blues. Chambers was a significant composer himself: the Chambers-penned title track of Dialogues is as thorny as anything I’ve heard from this era of jazz. (Chambers offered some thoughts on Hutcherson for New Music Box.)

At the end of the decade Hutcherson partnered with Harold Land to put a touch of West Coast and even some mixed meter into the post-Coltrane language. Total Eclipse is another masterwork with some of the best Chick Corea on record; recently precious video of the Hutcherson/Land touring band with Stanley Cowell, Reggie Johnson and Chambers has surfaced on YouTube. Some of the mellower albums under Land’s name like The Peace-maker and A New Shade of Blue are harder to find but well worth searching out.

In September 1969 Cowell led Hutcherson, Chambers, Woody Shaw, Reggie Workman and the mysterious Tyrone Washington on Brilliant Circles, which seems to be the last time Hutcherson was a vital presence on an album that could truly be called avant-garde. Washington’s stunning through-composed “Earthly Heavens” wraps up an era and genre, a decade when NYC black jazz virtuosos embraced European modernism.

Into the 70s, the Hutcherson/Land group kept touring for a few years with different rhythm sections. Bootlegs have wonderful versions of “Oleo” and other jazz classics; the last few Hutcherson Blue Notes from that era remain eminently listenable.

From 1981, the overdubbed tracks on Solo/Quartet confirm the essential requirement of Africa to this music. The quartet coupling is a fun session with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Lewis and divine Billy Higgins. Anything with Hutcherson and McCoy Tyner together is automatically valuable, with the duo record Manhattan Moods from 1993 being one of the pianist’s most satisfying later recordings.

At some point in his maturity, Bobby Hutcherson became one of the greatest players of standard ballads, which takes us back to “In Your Own Sweet Way” at the top of this page.

It is important to remember that Hutcherson took on the aesthetic of modernist classical after mastering jazz. A telling track is Jackie McLean’s “Blue Rondo” from One Step Beyond, a record that did a lot to introduce Moncur, Hutcherson, and Williams to the larger jazz audience.

There’s another “Blue Rondo,” of course, Dave Brubeck’s hit “Blue Rondo à la Turk” from six years earlier. Is Jackie McLean intentionally entering an African-American corrective to the historical record of “Rondo” or “classical counterpoint” in jazz? If so, he certainly succeeds. The band burns effortlessly at a tempo Brubeck never played, at least not in this highly syncopated, fluid, and frankly “black” style. The lead soloist is Bobby Hutcherson, who right out of the gate offers four perfect choruses influenced by Bud, Milt, and Trane. Yeah!





*Footnote: Dave Brubeck’s “familiar II/V changes” to “In Your Own Sweet Way,” as played by not just Kenny Barron and Bobby Hutcherson but everyone else including Bill Evans and Woody Shaw, go something like this:

| A-7b5 D7 | G- C7 | C- F7 | Bb Eb |

| Ab- Db7 | Gb Cb | C-7b5 F7 | Bb (probably Lydian) |

This is not what Brubeck himself played on his famous tune. Brubeck plays the song cadencing in E-flat.

| A-7b5 D7 | G- C7 | C- F7 | Bb Eb |

| Ab- Db7 | Gb Cb | F7+9 | Bb7-5 Eb |

In Brubeck’s conception, in the final “A” the Bb7 in the 8th bar sustains (with an F, not an E, in the melody) to go into a short tag in Eb minor.

| A-7b5 D7 | G- C7 | C- F7 | Bb Eb |

| Ab- Db7 | Gb Cb | F7+9 | Bb7 (natural 5) | Eb- | Eb- |

Everybody plays this song thanks to Miles Davis, who didn’t resolve the song to E-flat.

sweet chords.jpg

Truthfully Miles’s conception seems to work better for the rest of the chord sequence, although the melody in bar seven, A-flat over a C half-diminished, is a little awkward. (Kenny Barron plays C altered dominant, which helps.) Davis also made the E-flat minor tag a full eight bars with an A-flat in the bass.

The two Davis recordings show a certain amount of hesitation from both Tommy Flanagan and Red Garland over what exactly to play in bar eight. It’s really kind of an aggressive reharmonization: Brubeck says the song is in E-flat, but Miles says it is in B-flat.

The irony! “In Your Own Sweet Way” has gone on to be the tune where there is a big Lydian tonic at the end of every A…whereas the composer saw that E natural as a dominant tension resolving upward to the top of an E-flat major 9.

The Brubeck bridge is a bit different from what we usually play as well (among other things, it concludes with a brief cadence to C minor ), but at least it is not in a completely different key.

**Footnote two: The free jazz of the trio improvisations on “Air Raid” and “Evolution” is not the free jazz of Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler or Cecil Taylor or John Coltrane. It is cool in temperature and essentially European in affect, with comparatively little blues or song to be found.

More of this kind of playing can be heard on Tony Williams’s first two Blue Notes, Life Time and Spring. Sam Rivers was one of Williams’s teachers and Rivers’s interest in modernism was a major influence on the young drummer. All the of the members of Miles Davis’s Sixties quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter were similarly interested in taking it “out,” although apparently Williams (who was also the youngest) was especially enthused about this concept.

Hancock’s piece “The Egg” from  Empyrean Isles is a bold statement, with an abstract head and a long discontinuous improvisation by Hancock, Williams, and Carter. Shorter’s most avant-garde album is The All-Seeing Eye, which features a terrific atonal Carter solo on the opening “Genesis.” However, the apotheosis of Shorter, Hancock, and Williams quoting European modernism is probably on Grachan Moncur III’s second Blue Note album, the rather mind-blowing Some Other Stuff, especially the opening track “Gnostic.”

According to Michelle Mercer’s biography of Wayne Shorter, Footprints, Williams had a name for this approach, “anti-music,” and the famous Plugged Nickel date with Miles Davis was this band’s deliberate attempt to play as much “anti-music” as possible.

Tony Williams himself would have little to do with this genre after 1965. While Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter would always have a taste of Euro modernism at the ready for their solo cadenzas, the last time Hancock and Carter built a whole piece with this aesthetic would be with Billy Cobham on “Half a Row” from Carter’s 1969 Uptown Conversation.

By that time, black jazz musicians using discontinuous European modernism as a resource had been already been flourishing in Chicago for a few years. Indeed, the trio improvisations on “Air Raid” and “Evolution” are rather proto-AACM in sound.