Probably because Mark played the alto himself, he has a particular depth when assessing jazz saxophonists. I casually named names and let him respond. Not everybody is included, but an omission is merely happenstance and shouldn’t be taken as critical commentary. We intentionally avoided the best-known saxophonists from Detroit, because most of them are discussed in his book. Thanks to Helena Kay for transcribing the interviews.
Ethan Iverson: Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.
Mark Stryker: Joy, exuberance, flirtatious. Tremendous communicator, He’s a preacher bringing the congregation into the fold with his playing and his rap. Talk about jazz as social music — that was Cannonball. The vibe of the African American community resonates strongly on the later records that were recorded live or in the studio with an invited audience. Late Cannonball is seriously underrated. Everyone fixates on the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but Cannonball’s saxophone playing, his presentation, and the material changed in interesting ways in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, especially on records like The Black Messiah, The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free, Country Preacher, and The Happy People. Lots of fusion elements, electric instruments, rock and soul grooves and a loose, sometimes fairly messy sprawl.
Cannonball’s playing turned rawer, more streamlined, less florid, sometimes shockingly free and abstract. You can hear the evolution starting around 1966-67 on things like Zawinul’s “74 Miles Away.” Some of the David Axelrod productions are too over the top for me, but there’s a searching intensity on The Black Messiah that moves me, and he’s bringing his audience along for the ride. A tragedy that he died so young. Wouldn’t you have loved to hear a Cannonball Adderley record made in, say, 1982? What would that have sounded like?
EI: Gene Ammons.
MS: I’ve said many times that there is nothing wrong with jazz education that couldn’t be fixed by fire-bombing all the music schools in the country with Gene Ammons records. He was the ultimate in playing with feeling. To hear Jug swing a medium-tempo standard, play the blues, or just sing a ballad simply and directly with all that inflection and expression in his sound — those are lessons. If every jazz musician in any idiom of the music listened to Gene Ammons play ballads and blues, they’d make better jazz no matter style they wanted to play, including free.
Jug was a slick bebopper too — first generation. Listen to the lines he plays on “Exactly Like You” on the LP called Jug. Hip shit. The sweet spot on record is between 1960 and fall of ’62, when he goes back to prison. There were roughly 20 records made in that window. Jug, Boss Tenor, and Nice ‘an Cool are my favorites.
EI: Arthur Blythe.
MS: The first time I ever went to the Village Vanguard in the spring of 1982 I heard Arthur Blythe play with his In the Tradition band with John Hicks, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. I sat at the front table, close enough to reach up and touch the bell of the saxophone. Recordings simply did not capture how full and rich Arthur’s sound was. I remember Phil Woods in a blindfold test once complaining about engineers who had made Arthur sound like a kazoo, and I know what he meant. The rhythm section that night was super loose — kind of sloppy but in a musical way and with so much personality. I also remember having a one-hitter and lighting it up at the table. In those days you could literally smoke a joint at a table in the Vanguard. I felt like I was at the center of the universe— 18 years old at the Village Vanguard, having a taste, and hearing Arthur Blythe.
EI: Earl Bostic.
MS: That cat could really play the saxophone. The altissimo stuff on something like “Up There in Orbit” is insane! He comes from that interesting era in black popular music where the lines between jazz, R&B, gospel, and the beginnings of rock and roll were porous and things were getting stirred together. Listening to somebody like Bostic navigate that terrain, like listening to Louis Jordan, is interesting. It’s not music I’m close to, but I’m fascinated by it.
EI: Tina Brooks.
MS: There’s nothing quite like Brooks’ True Blue from 1960, save maybe Freddie Redd’s Shades of Redd and The Connection, and parts of Freddie Hubbard’s Open Sesame. True Blue is 2 a.m. music, delirious lyrical, with bittersweet melodic and harmonic sequences and soulful poetry that aspires to a state of wounded grace. There’s an evocative blend of Brooks’ prayerful tenor sound with Freddie’s early trumpet tone, which is a little broader and darker than it became just a couple years later. There’s a muscular vulnerability here. A lot of the hard bop of the era had this quality. You can hear it in Brooks, Redd, Jackie Mclean, Sonny Clark, some Lee Morgan. That sound has disappeared. I don’t think you can get around the fact that part of it had to do with drugs. Ben Sidran once wrote about this era in terms of the combination of the enforced relaxation of heroin combined with the urgency of young artists trying to prove themselves. I think that gets at the emotional core of somebody like Tina Brooks.
EI: George Coleman.
MS: What George plays on “Stella By Starlight” with Miles is note-fucking-perfect. He’s a pattern-oriented player, but here he finds a melodic path that makes use of the math without squelching spontaneous inspiration. Peerless rhythm section playing too by Herbie, Ron, and Tony. They sound as if there are wires beneath the stage connecting the three of them. George sometimes gets a bad rap because he’s not Wayne Shorter. Instead of celebrating George we complain that he’s not Wayne. But he sounds great with Miles, and the George Coleman Octet was one of the miracles of New York jazz in the ’70s.
EI: Hard to find on record.
MS: Big George is the LP. The way George plays “Body and Soul” knocks me out. It’s single time, then double time, then quadruple time, He’s flying. The chart uses Coltrane changes, and there’s beautiful ensemble writing for five horns — four saxes and flugelhorn. Hey, who needs a trombone when you can add a second tenor saxophone? George roars through tricked-up harmonies on the title track and “Green Dolphin Street” at supersonic speed. George sounds like a gladiator to me. He’s like a contemporary Sonny Stitt — lots of licks, but they’re great licks!
EI: I’ll drop my own anchor here and say that the trio stuff at the Vanguard with Elvin Jones and Wilbur Little is great stuff.
MS: Absolutely. Some of George’s best playing, is with Elvin — lots of elbow room. I also like the duo record he made with Tete Montoliu. There’s a version of “Sophisticated Lady” on that where George’s solo is in the same inspired melodic camp as “Stella” and “All of You” with Miles.
EI: Junior Cook.
MS: Junior should have been more famous. A distinctive player. Joe Henderson definitely took something from Junior’s loose 8th note, and their sounds ran a bit parallel — both used hard rubber mouthpieces. This is slippery, because Junior was later influenced by Joe more than the other way around. There’s incidendiary video of Junior with Freddie Hubbard in Paris in 1973 where it’s easy at first to mistake him for Joe. But if you listen closely to his solo on “The Intrepid Fox,” you can hear how Junior was assimilating contemporary ideas, broadening his expressive palette, while remaining true to his own voice.
EI: Eddie Lockjaw Davis.
MS: I love his uniqueness and chest-first strut: a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude. Those slithery lines played with such ferocity and that huge sound with a quavering vibrato and sharp bite. Sometimes it’s impossible to transcribe. You can’t even really tell what exactly he’s playing.
The Johnny Griffin-Lockjaw records are magic. You hear the whole history of the tenor saxophone up to that point. Lockjaw is a school of one, though he’s in that line of snaky tenor players with Paul Gonsalves and Lucky Thompson. James Carter definitely has that sound in his playing too.
EI: Paul Desmond.
MS: I’m a Jackie McLean guy, so Paul Desmond was not a musician that I gravitated to naturally. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the melodicism that Paul brought to the instrument, but I’ve never responded to his tone. The record that I like the best is the duet side with Brubeck in the ‘70s on A&M Horizon. Beautiful record.
EI: That duet LP sort of shows that Brubeck was an old-school swinger. I like that.
MS: I like the excitement of Lou’s early playing. His sound is bright, very alive in the room on those Blakey recordings at Birdland. I wish that in later years he would have played less with the organ and more with a really killing bebop rhythm section. As great as Lou Donaldson has been, I think he might have left a little something on the table. But he found an audience, made a reasonable living, played a lot of golf, kept his mind, body and humor together, and made a lot of good music. And he’s 92. Hard to argue with any of that. I’ve been told he’s written a memoir but hasn’t had any luck finding a publisher, which is ridiculous. He knew everyone, and he’s a great storyteller. The world needs that book.
EI: The early Blue Notes by Lou are great.
MS: Sunny Side Up, Wailing With Lou, Lou Takes Off, the early ‘50s sessions with Clifford Brown and those with Milt Jackson. There’s also a fantastic live record from the mid ‘60s called Fried Buzzard on Cadet with an organ band and some strong Bill Hardman on trumpet.
EI: Teddy Edwards.
MS: Teddy is so identified with Los Angeles that people forget he spent nearly five years on the Detroit scene from 1940-44 that were crucial to his development. One of the first bebop tenor players — his solo on “Up in Dodo’s Room” in 1946 with another former Detroiter, Howard McGhee, was seminal.
EI: Booker Ervin.
MS: Booker is a great example of how critical it is to have an individual sound in this music — just an instantly recognizable tone — and how far that can carry you. It’s such a thick and robust sound with astonishing strength — almost like Dexter Gordon on steroids. Booker doesn’t play changes that well. He slides over a lot of stuff, but who cares? The sound is so expressive and what he’s projecting is so clear and personal.
EI: George Coleman and Booker Ervin are almost antipodes in a way. Every chord change is going to be nailed with George Coleman, but Booker Ervin might play a B-flat through the whole thing and it’s got a vibe.
MS: But it’s a fucking great B-flat! I mean, it might be B dominant seventh chord and he’ll just lay on a B-flat! And you’ll say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But if you played it would sound wrong, and that’s because you don’t have a sound like Booker Ervin. He plays it and it sounds perfect. My old friend John Scott used to have a saying: “Strong and wrong.” If your intent is strong enough, you can get away with most anything.
EI: He was a good fit for Mingus, that’s a special thing, Booker Ervin with Mingus, for example on Live at Antibes.
MS: Yeah, I think quirky personalities worked best with Mingus. If you were too by the book it didn’t always mesh with Mingus’ controlled chaos. One exception, by the way, is Charles McPherson, who certainly played “correctly.” Mingus used him to get the essence of Charlie Parker into his music. He didn’t want somebody just playing Bird licks, He wanted the essence of Bird but played with an individual conception. Charles gave Mingus that color. It’s very much an Ellington approach. Ellington used Johnny Hodges for a certain thing. He used Lawrence Brown or Sam Nanton depending on what he wanted to express. I think that’s what Mingus did with Charles.
EI: Joe Farrell.
MS: Joe Farrell plays his ass off in any setting. I can’t think of a record where Joe Farrell doesn’t sound good. He sounds good with Thad and Mel, he sounds good with Elvin, he sounds good with Chick. Everything.
EI: How do those CTI records of Joe Farrell hold up?
MS: The first three hold up well: Joe Farrell Quartet, Outback, Moon Germs. It’s fun to hear records from that era when Chick and Herbie were still appearing as sidemen on six-hour studio dates. When I was a kid, “Follow Your Heart” — the opening track on the first CTI record — was the theme song for Michael Bourne’s afternoon jazz show on WFIU in Bloomington. He always played a bit of it at the end as a bumper to the start of “All Things Considered.” I heard that hundreds of times. It opens with a Dave Holland bass line, along with McLaughlin’s electric guitar and Jack DeJohnette’s loose, even 8th note beat. Joe enters with the melody and there’s a ton of reverb on the tenor — it’s a dated studio sound, but whenever I hear that opening it takes me back to when I was 16.
Joe was another guy gone too soon, but he made a late record that I like, Skateboard Park, in 1979 with Chick Corea, Bob Magnusson and Larance Marable. There’s a swinging version of “Speak Low” with a long tag and exuberant interaction between Chick and Joe. They talk back and forth like Miles and Wynton Kelly. It’s a powerful slice of jazz purity at the height of the fusion era.
EI: Jimmy Forrest.
MS: Great gutbucket sound. More jazz as social music. He was a guy way more appreciated within the African American community than outside of it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any saxophone player under the age of 50 talk about him, and I certainly have never heard any white saxophonists talk about Jimmy. The record I like best is Out of the Forrest.
EI: Sonny Fortune.
MS: I adore his A&M Horizon records from the mid 70s, Waves of Dreams and Awakening, along with Long Before Our Mothers Cried on Strata-East. Strong records. They capture an interesting period in the ’70s when the mainstream was evolving. They’re basically straight-ahead post-bop records — modal, but with a lot of Afro-Cuban rhythms in there, a bit of fusion and electricity, and added percussion. The music is not too cluttered, which sometimes happens in that era. I hear a real honesty and integrity.
Sonny wasn’t the most exact chord change player, but you can tell that he worked out his own way of getting through things. Plus, there weren’t many alto players in the modal idiom in the wake of Trane.
EI: We shared an internet moment after he died, because we both had seen the duo with Rashied Ali and were quite struck by those concerts.
MS: That was some of the most powerful music I think I’ve ever heard. Just the two of them. I heard them at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor in 2004. I sat close to the stage for both sets.
EI: The set I saw was “Cherokee.” Just “Cherokee” for an hour.
MS: I heard them play “Cherokee” and “Impressions.” They played each for an hour and played the form the whole time, never once deviating from it. It was deep. That music was connected to the source in a profound and personal way. You know, I don’t think anybody transcribes Sonny Fortune solos; but if you transcribed it, you wouldn’t even really get it. The information that you would get from the page would not tell you what was so magical about what you and I heard in those duets with Rashied Ali.
EI: I didn’t think of Rashied Ali as a swinging drummer, or even a time player, but to have heard him play up tempo for an hour proved something about something. That was another kind of lesson about the tradition. Whatever you’re saying about the magic I agree with entirely.
MS: How many saxophone players of his generation are there that could play with Basie and write “Shiny Stockings” and then play with Elvin Jones and write “Simone” — and sound to the manner born in both environments? That tells you something about Frank’s range, which was probably never celebrated as much as it should have been. Frank shows up a few times in my book. He wasn’t in Detroit long, two years in 1949-51, but he had an impact. He was an important mentor for Barry Harris, and he gave Barry a sheet of orchestration tips that Barry still has. Frank and Sheila Jordan were close, and she tells some stories in the book. I have a bootleg tape of Tommy Flanagan at the Blue Bird in 1950 with Frank on it. The quartet plays “Bouncing with Bud,” and you hear them assimilating the latest sounds from New York in real time. The record of “Bouncing with Bud” had only been released months earlier, and here they are playing it. Frank quotes Sonny Rollins’ solo. Frank is also on Barry’s first recording in 1950 — Hopper Topper, on a small label from Toledo. It’s a “Cherokee” contrafact and Frank is strikingly fluent at only 21 or 22. He sounds a lot like Sonny Stitt on those Prestige records with Bud Powell.
EI: Stan Getz.
MS: Lots of repsect for his gorgeous melodic sense. Everyone can learn something from Getz. His sound is not the way I would play, but it’s beautiful. I also respect the way Stan always hired young, challenging musicians who pushed him, and he also played their material. After “The Girl from Ipanema,” he could have spent the rest of his life just being “Stan Getz.” Instead, he hired Chick, Richie Beirach Joanne Brackeen, Jim McNeely, Tony Williams, Billy Hart, Victor Lewis and so many others and let them play.
EI: John Gilmore.
MS: I wish that we had more opportunities to hear Gilmore later in life outside of the Sun Ra orbit. A unique voice — lots of dark mysteries in his sound, rhythm, note choices, articulation, and texture. Coltrane said in his interview with Frank Kofsky that Gilmore was a direct influence on “Chasin’ the Trane.” Lewis Porter’s biography of Trane says that Miles had auditioned Gilmore for the tenor chair in 1955. before deciding to go with Coltrane. What if Gilmore gets that gig instead of Trane? As I said earlier: The history of jazz and the history of jazz on record are different. Gilmore didn’t make a single record as a leader except for Blowing in from Chicago in 1957, where he’s a de factor co-leader with Clifford Jordan, who had the contract with Blue Note. But nothing else for Gilmore? That’s astounding.
Gilmore sounds amazing on the 1965 video with Art Blakey. What if he would have stayed in the band for more than a minute? The exotic sound of Pete La Roca’s Turkish Women at the Bath from 1967 is partly due to Gilmore’s presence, as well as La Roca’s compositions with their piquant modalities. You hear that record and it’s confusing for a moment, because you can tell it’s not Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, or Sam Rivers. Who is that? Oh, John Gilmore. Of course. If he had made more records, we’d talk more about him in their company.
EI: From my scene we love that Paul Bley record that he’s on, Turning Point.
EI: Benny Golson.
MS: Nothing but admiration. I heard him two summers ago at 88, and he still sounded exactly like Benny Golson. If Benny did nothing else but write “Stablemates” and “Whisper Not” he’d be in the canon. The ballad of his that should be better known is “Park Avenue Petite.” Beautiful, brooding tune. Maybe more than anyone, Benny understood Tadd Dameron — the melodic lyricism and how to mesh melody, harmony, and orchestration to make a little band sound big.
EI: When I listen to Golson play, I’m struck by how much of a burly sound, like an old school tenor sound, he has. It’s gotten more like that over the years.
MS: It’s still burly, but it has dried out around the edges. It’s less saturated than in the ’50s. He always sounded a little different — the Coltrane influence cut with timbral elements from Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster, and maybe Lucky Thompson. Lucky had Webster in his playing too. Sometimes with the modernists, it’s the Old School players who happen to be in their mix of influences that defines them and differentiates them from peers. Think of all the Charlie Parker progeny. Cannonball of course comes primarily out of Bird, but there’s also Benny Carter’s fluidity and vibrato in Cannonball. Phil Woods had Benny Carter in his playing too. But Jackie McLean, Ernie Henry, and Sonny Redd did not have any Carter in their conception and that puts them in a different camp.
EI: Paul Gonsalves.
MS: Another school of one. One of the most sublime sounds in jazz is Paul Gonsalves playing Duke Ellington’s “Happy Reunion.” There’s video of them playing the song together in 1972 just a couple years before both died. Paul is snaking around the melody, and it’s sort of in time, sort of rubato, beautifully blurred. Sometimes Paul takes so long to arrive at the melody note that you wonder if he’ll ever get there. Its poetry. I often tear up when I hear it.
EI: Dexter Gordon.
MS: Well, one of my biggest heroes and the first big-name jazz musician I ever heard live. It was 1977. I was 14. He came to Boomington on the heels of Homecoming. George Cables, Rufus Reid, Eddie Gladden. I was already into jazz and my older brother had told me about Dexter. I heard two sets. They played “Gingerbread Boy,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” It’s You or No One,” “Backstairs,” and a few others. Dexter also played soprano on one tune a set. I was overwhelmed by his physical presence, the breadth of his sound, the charisma. He was like a supernova, but the most relaxed supernova you’ve ever seen. He recited a bit of the lyrics of the standards before he played them. He turned the first eight bars of “Polka Dots” into an epic novel in the way he stretched out the words. Then he played it and there was a universe of feeling in every phrase. There’s a scene in “Round Midnight” where Dexter’s character tells a doctor, “My life is music.” It’s such an honest moment in the film, because it was so true in Dexter’s own life. I could not have articulated it at the time, but that’s what I felt hearing him at that age — total commitment. That night changed my life. One of the reasons we’re sitting here doing this interview is because I heard Dexter Gordon at age 14.
In a one-artist, one-record challenge, I’d take Our Man In Paris. Most people would probably take Go, which was Dexter’s own favorite. I love that too., but for me, there’s something extra special about hearing Dexter stretching out with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke. Dexter’s sound is so enormous, yet he’s still so light on his feet in this period. Later there’s a greater weightiness and spread to his sound and phrasing, but here he’s still dancing. The momentum and flow he achieves on “Scrapple” for chorus after chorus are remarkable. “’Stairway to the Stars” is one of my favorite ballad performances on record. Excellent late Bud too. Dexter was a storyteller. His solos are so communicative, the way everything is paced and hangs together. It’s no coincidence that two of Kurt Elling’s best vocalise numbers, “Body and Soul” and “Tanya,” are based on Dexter solos: The improvisations are intrinsic songs.
EI: What do you think of the ’70s and ’80s Dexter discography?
MS: Like it, but it’s not as consistently rewarding as the Blue Note LPs and the live European stuff from the Montmartre in 1967. I’m fond of the The Panther and Generation on Prestige and I have a soft spot for the Steeplechase records that I got when I was a teenager — The Apartment, Swiss Nights Vol. 1, Bouncin’ with Dex. When I was playing, a lot of my conception came from Dexter — I put my 8th notes behind the beat and copied a lot of phrases. He could get pretty loose late in his career. I saw him once at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago in the early ‘80s, and he was so far behind the beat on “Moment’s Notice” that the rhythm section seemed to lap him every few choruses.
I got his autograph that night. All I had was a Dizzy Gillespie record that I had bought that day. He signed it “Con Gracia” — “With grace” — and then sketched a triplet under his name!
EI: Johnny Griffin.
MS: I love how wild Johnny could play. He was a real improviser, always stretching. I heard Johnny a lot because my good friend Michael Weiss was his pianist from 1987 to 2005. Griff just took so much delight in being creative. His playing was witty, expressive, romantic. He enjoyed life and you can hear it in the way he played. He made you feel good.
EI: I think that first record on Blue Note with Max Roach is really amazing — and it’s got some really amazing Max Roach on it. You can hear the connection to real bebop. The music had already sort of been changing a little bit into hard bop really being the thing, but Curly Russell and Max Roach are there playing those tempos.
MS: I think it’s important to also say that Johnny played his best later in life. The records don’t really capture the excitement and expansiveness that he could project in a club, but I’d recommend Return of the Griffin from 1978. The Cat from 1990 is also pretty good, and there’s a two-tenor record from 2000 with Steve Grossman that’s got a fiery spirit. Some of his most startling playing is on a video from the Vanguard around 1981 with Ronnie Matthews, Ray Drummond and a super-young Kenny Washington. My friends and I must have watched that at least a hundred times in Urbana in the mid ‘80s.
EI: Steve Grossman.
MS: The one that got away. He was so good so young; he had so much language together, and such a high-intensity sound —ecstatic, almost violent. You can hear him through the ’70s searching for his own voice and way of navigating fusion tropes. He going for something, but then I think he just lost his way — drugs, maybe other issues, life, luck, whatever. Look at the careers that Dave Liebman and Grossman have had since they were in Elvin’s band together in the early ‘70s. Grossman was the much greater raw talent, but Liebman grew into the far greater artist. That’s the difference between artistic discipline and ambition and someone who couldn’t keep it together.
EI: Do you like it after Grossman started playing like Sonny Rollins so much?
MS: Mixed feelings, but Love Is the Thing from 1987 is a tremendous record. The saxophone playing, the material, the peerless trio of Cedar Walton, David Williams, and Billy Higgins. It’s an organized session: a gestalt. Grossman strikes a rewarding balance between his roots in Trane, his later obsession with Sonny and amalgamating it all into a cohesive voice with his own sound and personality. “Easy To Love” is one of Grossman’s best recorded solos. He plays the hell out of it. Super swinging, and he keeps spinning ideas off the melody — hello Sonny! His articulation and even a couple of reed chirps sound like Sonny too, but the whole track is in-the-moment and resonates authencity. Great tag ending too. The longer Grossman plays, the more you can hear his earlier language peeking through. There’s one spot as he’s transitioning from the solo to taking the tune out where he soars up to an altissimo A and the note shatters in violence. The same thing happens with more force in the tag, and he follows that with almost five bars of double-time in a pentatonic and chromatic language while dropping in some overtone tonal effects too — totally something he might have played 15 years earlier with Elvin, and it sounds perfect. The entire track is so exhilarating. But so many of Grossman’s other post-1980 recordings just sound uninspired and thrown together.
EI: Billy Harper.
MS: I like Billy Harper much more now than I did when I was younger. I guess I found it a little too one-note in the relentless intensity, modal structures, and lack of dynamics. But somewhere along the line, a light bulb went on and now I enjoy the power and authenticity of it. He’s tapped into the Truth. I’ve heard Billy a lot in recent years with David Weiss’s band, the Cookers. Billy Harper and Billy Hart playing together — that’s jazz.
EI: Harper is also an interesting composer, he writes these weird gospel numbers with odd phrases. There’s something really significant about his compositions.
MS: The In Sound is one of the best records of the ’60s. What a feel on that record! Eddie, Cedar, Ron Carter, Billy Higgins — such a feeling of elation. Eddie could swing an entire band from the saxophone. He really understood the groove — how to create it and sustain it. If you listen to the solo on “Shadow of Your Smile,” he leaves a lot of space, plays simple phrases that rhyme, and uses call-and-response. He’s playing in a way that makes the rhythm section swing even harder. He does the same thing on the bossa version of “S’Wonderful” — using rhythm and phrasing to provide a focal point for the rest of the group to lock into. It’s galvanizing and communicative. Lot of lessons in that for younger players.
Now, Eddie could also run changes, and he had his own intervallic shit worked out, and he could play as fast as anyone when he wanted to. But that motherfucker could really strike a groove. My friend Kelly Sill, a great Chicago bassist, worked with Eddie a lot, and he once told me that Eddie could make him feel like a better musician just by being in the same room with him.
Of the later recordings, I like Eddie Who? with Detroit bassist Ralphe Armstrong and drummer Sherman Ferguson — the title vocal is a hilarious and irresistible expression of his considerable ego. There’s also a record from 1980 called Eddie Harris Sounds Incredible on the Angelaco label that lives up to the billing.
EI: Jimmy Heath.
MS: What a gift that Jimmy Heath is still around at 92. I heard him a couple years ago and it was inspiring. I can usually tell Jimmy in a blindfold test because he puts his notes right on the button of the beat. Picture of Heath from the early ‘70s deserves its exalted reputation, but one that’s easy to overlook is Peer Pleasure from 1987 on Landmark — creative playing and writing, a sweetheart of a record.
EI: Ernie Henry.
MS: Out of Bird but with a hard-edged, wailing sound, rhythmic punch and a pungency to his lines that mark an emerging individuality. But he died so young that we never got to hear where he might have gone. I’m fond of both Riverside records, Presenting Ernie Henry and Seven Standards and a Blues. Also, he held his own standing next to Sonny Rollins on Monk’s Brilliant Corners. Not a lot of guys could do that in 1956.
EI: Clifford Jordan.
MS: Interesting player, interesting composer, flexible musician. There’s a lot of Sonny Rollins in his early playing but like so many guys of his generation, he reached a special maturity in this 40s and 50s. Glass Bead Games and the “Magic Triangle” records with Cedar, Sam, and Billy have their own sound.
EI: Jordan is really one of my favorites because I love that surreal blues thing.
MS: Guys like Clifford Jordan, Junior Cook, and some of the others we’ve been talking about — these are profound musicians that we overlook at our peril. They’re individualists, and they’re masters. They aren’t like Trane or Sonny in that they didn’t change the language of jazz, and you could take them out of the story and not change the fundamental flow of jazz history. But who wants to live in that world? I don’t.
EI: Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
MS: One of the great regrets of my life is that not long after I heard Dexter Gordon at the end of 1977, Rahsaan Roland Kirk came to Bloomington and I didn’t go to the concert. I knew who he was, but I didn’t go. Rahsaan died in Bloomington after the performance.
MS: The lesson for me was always go hear the masters. Doesn’t matter if you’ve had a bad day, if you have to get up early the next day, or the money’s tight. Just go, because you never know. The records I like best are Domino; Rip, Rig, and Panic; Now, Please Don’t You Cry Beautiful Edith; and Roy Haynes’ Out of the Afternoon. I like hearing Rahsaan when he wasn’t too frenetic; there’s a lot of that, and it’s too much for me. But when he’s focused, and the rhythm section is A-list, he turns into a laser beam. “Get out of Town” on Domino is an amazing performance — relaxed and swinging. He starts on manzello, playing the melody and then takes a solo chorus. Then he switches to tenor and plays a second chorus as a “new” soloist. Then he plays both horns at once, maybe three at times, improvising a big band-like shout chorus. It’s so bad. What a wizard.
EI: I don’t know Kirk’s discography so well except one of my favorite albums of all time, The Jaki Byard Experience. Total chaos, but I love it.
MS: When I was young, I always looked down my nose at John Klemmer as a fusion and pop player. Then I heard this two-record set called Nexus where he plays duets with drummer Carl Burnett and trios with bassist Bob Magnusson added. All common practice material — “Impressions,” “Body and Soul,” “Misty,” etc. — and the cats are hitting hard, and some of Klemmer’s playing is really out. I remember thinking: “How can that be the same saxophonist as the fusion guy?” That taught me something about how records can be misleading. Musicians can be far more complex and have a lot more going on than the way they might be presented in the marketplace. Nexus is one of the best blindfold test records ever.
EI: Lee Konitz.
MS: It’s all about the melody. I’ve always had tremendous respect for Lee. I love Motion. Who doesn’t? There’s a purity about Lee that’s so admirable.This idea of: I’m going to play a handful of tunes but go deep and challenge myself to find new ways of expressing the eternal truth of these songs. I joked recently on Facebook that I have 15 or 20 Lee Konitz records and he plays a cumulative total of maybe a dozen tunes. An exaggeration, of course, but that’s part of his essence.
EI: Harold Land.
MS: A fascinating figure because he’s playing with Clifford and Max in the ‘50s and it’s very beboppish, and then by the late ’60s he’s become influenced by Trane and he’s playing all this modal harmony with Bobby Hutcherson and Stanley Cowell. He sounds comfortable in both formats, but I always felt his sound was a problem in terms of projection. It didn’t have a lot of weight and could come across as monotone. But if you listen closely to the details of what he’s playing, it’s sophisticated. I like the 1959 record The Fox with Elmo Hope — West Coast hard bop, black California.
EI: Dave Liebman.
MS: I like Dave very much as both a musician and person. He’s always going for it when he plays — spontaneous and pushing himself. So much of his career has been about the search, the quest, with the journey more important in some ways than the destination. His playing has changed quite a bit from the early days when he was playing a lot of 8th notes, pentatonics, and post-Trane chromatic harmony. It’s much looser today in terms of rhythmic abstraction, these flurries of notes that swirl over the beat, and there’s less math in terms of the harmony. His sound keeps getting darker too.
EI: Do you have a favorite Liebman record?
MS: I like Pendulum and the extra material that came out much later from those Village Vanguard gigs. The band is great — Randy Brecker, Richie Beirach, Frank Tusa, and Al Foster — and it captures a post-bop moment in New York in the ‘70s with these cats born around 1945 and dealing with the music they had grown up playing. I like the self-titled first Quest record and a later one by the band called Midpoint. There’s a record on Owl from the late ‘80s, Trio Plus One, with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette that’s exceptional. What else? He’s insanely prolific and documents everything. We Three with Swallow and Nussbaum is fun, and In a Mellow Tone is a good document of the eclectic band he led in the 1990s and 2000s. Also, his autobiography, What it Is, is essential. Candid, self-aware, eye-opening stories. So much information about the music and musicians but also the broader cultural sweep of our era and what it’s like day-to-day, on the ground, to be a jazz musician.
EI: Liebman wrote about jazz at a time when there wasn’t so many musicians doing that. I learned a lot from the books Lookout Farm and Self-Portrait of a Jazz Artist early on.
MS: For a long time, I never got Charles Lloyd. The early records to me always sounded like watered down Trane and I never connected with the band with Keith, Cecil, and Jack. I liked the ECM records better, but more for the bands than for Lloyd. Then about four years ago I heard him at the Detroit Jazz Festival, and I was extremely moved by his playing, especially the ballads, which radiated sublime peace. I went back to the earlier records — and they still don’t get to me. But now I focus on that live performance and look forward to hearing him again.
EI: Lloyd is the king of the all-star rhythm sections. I love listening to Lloyd records to hear Keith Jarrett or Ron Carter or Jason Moran.
MS: Underrated. He was a soulful cat and reached a peak in the 1960s. Parts of Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady from 1963 come across like an alto saxophone concerto. Such a soaring and vibrant sound, with gorgeous, improvised melodies that are like bouquets of intensely colored roses. Another favorite from a few years earlier is the Toshiko Mariano Quartet — he was married to Toshiko — and he plays the spiritual “Deep River” with stunning authority. I’ve also come to appreciate the symbolism of two white Americans of Italian descent, a Japanese pianist and a black American drummer all playing an African American spiritual with deep understanding. That’s America.
EI: Of course, you love Dear John C. by Elvin Jones.
MS: Oh yeah, from 1965.
EI: The first time I heard that I couldn’t believe it. This cat with Richard Davis and Elvin and throwing down hard, it was just so beautiful.
MS: “This Love of Mine.”
EI: That track is incredible.
MS: It’s unreal how much alto he’s playing. I loved the way they play “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” on that record so much that I played it with my group in Urbana — though I had to cheat and change the key so I could play the melody without having to go up into the altissimo register.
EI: Warne Marsh.
MS: OK, well, somewhat controversially, Warne is not a musician who has moved me very much over the years. I truly respect it, and I get completely how influential he has been, and I hear the melodic and rhythmic invention and purity; but for me there’s also something distant and chilly about it emotionally. It’s interesting to me the way that Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter took something from Warne but made it sound more idiomatically African American. Recently I’ve been listening to later Warne from the 1970s and ’80s, and it’s been knocking me out, so maybe I’m gaining on it. His sound and attack are hotter, and, as always, there’s a surprise lurking around every corner. I hear a profound stubbornness in Warne — not unlike Monk in that way.
EI: Jackie McLean.
MS: One of my greatest heroes. Truth, justice, and the blues. I heard Jackie McLean when I was 15 and something about that sound reached out and grabbed me. Forty years later it still has me in its grip. It’s not for everyone. I once described his tone as “a searing, anguished wail that rode the sharp side of the pitch like a cowboy trying to tame a wild steer.” There’s a lot of struggle in there. He’s wrestling with the instrument and with life. It’s bittersweet and no-bullshit. As I said, he wasn’t for everyone, but whenever I’d see him live, there would always be a contingent of Jackie McLean freaks sitting ringside with their mouths agape. My tribe.
I played a lot of Jackie-related material with my band. I transcribed nearly all the tunes from the 1962 quintet record with K.D and Sonny Clark that I had on the 2 LP-set called Hipnosis — “Blues in a Jiff,” ‘Marilyn’s Dilemma,” “The Three Minors,” “The Way I Feel,” “Iddy Bitty,” which we also played in its modal version called “Snuff.” We played “Capuchin Swing,” “Blue Fable,” the nutty arrangement of “I Hear a Rhapsody” on Action, and our break tune was “Blue Rondo.” Jackie’s trajectory tells a larger story — the way he was baptized by Bud, Monk, Miles, and Bird, and then his playing morphs into modal expressionism and the avant-garde in the ‘60s, mirroring both the artistic evolution and political urgency of the era. Then later in life he reconciles it all as he turns into an elder statesman. I loved hearing him play “A House is Not a Home” — that was a religious experience for me. Talk about an individual! One of the things that’s so compelling about jazz is that it allows for musicians as different as Jackie Mclean and Paul Desmond to play the same instrument and exist under the same banner. That says something important about the possibility and promise of America.
It’s hard to list my favorite Jackie records because it’s easier to just say “all of them,” but here’s a baker’s dozen in chronological order: Makin’ the Changes, Swing, Swang, Swingin’; Bluesnik; A Fickle Sonance; Let Freedom Ring; The Jackie McLean Quintet; One Step Beyond; Right Now; Jacknife; Demon’s Dance; Jackie McLean (his first record on SteepleChase); Dynasty; The Jackie Mac Attack Live.
EI: Hank Mobley.
MS: A connoisseur’s musician. You gotta get in there and dig the details to appreciate how spectacularly Hank uses the language. There’s such a flowing and warm melodicism there, particularly at his peak in 1960-61. It’s clever, hip, relaxed, pure — so far removed from cliché. He really told stories, but you have to pay attention, because Hank wasn’t someone whose sound would bowl you over. You have to meet him halfway.
EI: What were the albums from 60-61?
MS: Soul Station, Roll Call, Workout and Another Workout, which wasn’t issued until later. Roll Call is my favorite — definitive hard bop — Hank, Freddie, Wynton, P.C. and Blakey. Each of those records has a swinging standard on it, and Hank just sparkles — “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” “If I Should Lose You,” “The More I See You,” “Hello Young Lovers.” Those are great solos for students to transcribe because they’re so clear and they’ll teach you the language and how to play melodically. The Miles Blackhawk records are from this period, and another record is Donald Byrd’s Byrd in Flight — check out the tenor solo on “Lex.” That’s prime Hank Mobley.
EI: James Moody.
MS: When I grow up, I want to be like James Moody. He was always learning, always trying to get better on his instruments, trying to absorb more harmony and new things to incorporate into his playing. He played with passion, humor, curiosity, and an endless wonder at the possibilities of music. One time I was standing next to Moody backstage at the Detroit Jazz Festival. He was introduced to a young saxophonist from a university band. The first thing Moody did was start peppering the kid with questions about method books and did he have this book or that book and, oh, man, you gotta get that book! Then Moody started playing some scale patterns on his tenor to demonstrate the latest trick he had learned. Moody told the kid: “Practice, practice, practice, practice. And the more you practice, the more you’ll realize how much you don’t know.” I interviewed Moody about a year before his death. He said, “I’m in competition with myself. I’d like to play better tomorrow than I did today.” Those lessons go way beyond music.
The early ‘70s records on Muse have a spark. Moody plays the hell out of “Anthropology” on Feelin’ It Together — that’s ferocious! — and Never Again is strong too. Running the Gamut from 1964 is fantastic, and you also get primo Thad Jones. Last Trane from Overbrook is the best known of the Argo dates, but I like Coming on Strong too. It’s fun to hear Moody and Mark Turner together in the late 1990s on Warner Bros. The RCA records from the ‘80s have some dated production —synths and the like — but Moody sounds great. I also really like a 2006 quartet record called Our Delight on IPO Records with Hank Jones, Todd Coolman, and Adam Nussbaum. Moody and Hank had nearly 170 combined years on the planet at that point and they sound both wise and playful. Like I said, I want to be James Moody when I grow up.
EI: Oliver Nelson.
MS: Everybody knows Blues and the Abstract Truth, but if that’s all you know, then you don’t know Oliver Nelson. He was so much more than that record. He wrote creative music for his own big band, He was the arranger of choice on a zillion sessions. He was among the first black composers to break into writing TV and film music. He wrote classical concert music. He was a deep musician. My favorite Nelson LPs are the big band records on Prestige, Impulse and Flying Dutchman. They pack a powerful punch emotionally and intellectually.
Black, Brown and Beautiful from 1969 is a masterpiece — you get a more complete picture of everything that Nelson had to offer than on Blues and the Abstract Truth. There’s so much here — jazz in various idioms, contemporary classical, and organic fusions. “Aftermath” is wild. It opens with the literal sounds of urban violence in American cities and then dissonant strings take over in a modernist classical vein. A lone tenor sax wanders into the texture and the intensity builds. Soon multiple saxophones are improvising simultaneously with drums and bass, while the strings remain in the mix.: This is what Third Stream music should sound like! “Requiem” is scored for two pianos. “Lamb of God” is like a slow movement from a piano movement with Schoenberg hovering. “Martin Was a Man, a Real Man” is tonal in a Copland/Barber idiom with massed strings. “3, 2, 1, 0” takes off like a big-band rocket, swinging like crazy. The title track is a bluesy ballad with Nelson’s alto on top of strings. He recorded it again a year later with Johnny Hodges. Nelson was only 43 when he died — a major loss.
EI: Cecil Payne.
MS: Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan take up so much air in the room when we talk about the post-war baritone saxophone that it’s easy to forget there were other guys in the game. Serge Chaloff for one, and Cecil Payne for another. Cecil was there right at the start of bebop, and he’s the first guy who figures out what Bird and Dizzy’s language is going to sound like on the bari. I like his tone, which is a middleweight sound, not too heavy, not too light, and nimble on its feet. I like how strong his time is and how much he swings. The lines can be a little quirky in a good way. Of the records, I like Cecil Payne Performing the Music of Charlie Parker in the early ‘60s, and he sounds super strong on The Connection from the same period. I would LOVE to find an original pressing of Zodiac on Strata-East. A precious document. If anyone reading this wants to send me a copy, thanks in advance.
EI: Art Pepper.
MS: I’m a big fan of Art Pepper. There’s always a debate among fans: Are you an early Art Pepper guy or a late Art Pepper guy? I’m a late Art Pepper guy. I like the way he expanded his palette with the Coltrane influence. The breadth of expression is deeply moving to me. Like Jackie, there’s a sense of struggle in Art’s music. Every time he picked up the horn, he was fighting something — his insecurities, his demons, the indifference of the world, whatever. But all of that was also his motivation. I love the moments in late Art Pepper where you can hear him wrestling to get something out, and then suddenly it comes together and a flash of lyricism streaks through his solo like a comet. The duet version of “Over the Rainbow” on Tete-a-Tete with George Cables — that makes my knees go weak. Serious soul.
As great as Meets the Rhythm Section is from 1957, the LP I’d take in a one-artist, one-record challenge is Art Pepper Today on Galaxy from 1978 with Stanley Cowell, Cecil McBee and Roy Haynes. Top to bottom, that’s the best. There’s pretty stuff, raw stuff, vulnerable ballad playing, swinging up tempo stuff. Everything was working for Art that day. “Yardbird Suite” was recorded at these sessions but it first came out on a Galaxy label sampler called Five Birds and a Monk. That’s a perfect improvisation — swinging, melodic. There are times where Art is floating over the beat and you can still hear his roots in Lester Young. That’s a solo in the same class as “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” from Meets the Rhythm Section.
EI: Ike Quebec.
MS: Beautifully expressive, gruff and tender at the same time. I’m always moved when I hear Ike Quebec. The mid ‘40s Blue Note material should be better known — “Blue Harlem,” “Hard Tack,” “If I Had You,” “She’s Funny That Way,” and others. There’s so much feeling in those records, and so much blues. The players who were still relatively young during the transition between the swing era and bebop are interesting, because their basic DNA has been cast in one era but you can also hear them updating and adapting certain harmonic, rhythmic and melodic devices, maybe adding more syncopation or altering their sound. By the time of Blue and Sentimental or the Blue Note 45 sessions in 1960-61, Quebec sounds like a modern player, but his roots in Hawkins and Webster are still undeniable.
EI: Jerome Richardson.
MS: Total pro. He played the hell out of the lead alto chair with Thad and Mel, including those challenging soprano parts. Listen to how suavely he leads the section through the sax solis on “Three and One” and “Groove Merchant.” He was a soloist you were always glad to hear — animated, creative, humorous. Listen to the clever way his soprano grows out of the bass solo during his first chorus on “Little Pixie” on Live at the Village Vanguard with Thad and Mel. He starts with a canny, twirling riff connected to what Richard Davis was playing. The second chorus blossoms into swinging bebop, and then he wails through two more choruses. Somebody in the club yells “Whoo!” twice at the top of the third chorus. I would have been yelling too if I was in the club that night. Jerome was one of those guys who could do everything in the music. Big band, small group, solos, studio work, recorded on all the saxophones — soprano, alto, tenor, baritone — plus piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and he’s even credited with playing bassoon on a Betty Carter date.
EI: Sam Rivers.
MS: Sam was one of the best free players we’ve ever had. The trio records in the ‘70s, mostly with Cecil McBee or Dave Holland and Barry Altschul and Norman Connors — Streams, Paragon, Hues.
It’s hard for me to articulate what’s so emotionally satisfying about his free playing, but I think it’s because he was so rooted in the tradition. The phrases and gestures he plays, even the most abstract things, somehow always sound connected to the core of the music. Very few players have been able to play from nothing as well as Sam. Otherwise, Contours is a post-bop masterpiece — the compositions and the playing, and I’m fond of the loose approach to standards on A New Jazz Conception. I also like Sam’s later big band recordings on RCA in the late ‘90s. I still can’t believe a major label put those out.
EI: Sonny Rollins.
MS: Greatest improviser ever and my biggest hero of all. I was hanging out once with the trombonist and new-music improviser Jim Staley in Urbana, and he was talking about two basic kinds of jazz soloists. He said there were “editors” and “improvisers.” The first group are people who essentially play what they practice. They are basically lick and pattern players like, say, a Sonny Stitt or Michael Brecker. They move stuff around, but what comes out of their horns is mostly stuff they’ve played before in some fashion. True improvisers, on the other hand, are people who on a consistent basis conjure things out of the language that they’ve never played before. Of course, the lines are blurry in real life. Many players are somewhere in the middle, and people might fall into one camp or the other at different times. But I’ve always found this a valuable prism through which to think about improvisation. No one can spend 100% of their time in the zone of pure, spontaneous creation. But Sonny has spent more time in that zone than anyone else, and that’s why he’s the greatest. I also think he’s the greatest chord change player ever — not because he’s the best at navigating complex harmonic mazes, but because nobody is better at playing standard song forms. It’s the essence of the art form.
Sonny Rollins and a good trio — that’s as solid a definition of jazz as there is. The authority of A Night at the Village Vanguard or The Standard Sonny Rollins makes a lot of fine jazz musicians sound like relative beginners. When Sonny is on, there’s such a dazzling flow of melodic and rhythmic invention, rhyme, surprise, and so many levels of humor, intellectual acumen and expressive emotion. The organic way his ideas develop creates webs of thematic relationships, and even lay listeners can sense how everything hangs together. The rhythmic freedom and sheer variety of phrasing are unmatched. I love how he plays with time, creating feelings of suspension; there are moments when he hovers somewhere between single-time and double-time and seems to defy physics, bending the time-space continuum. His sound has a kind of chiseled muscularity, particularly after The Bridge, and he manipulates his tone in myriad ways. And something that took me a long time to understand was the virtuosity of his articulation and how he’s also improvising with how he attacks each note, really popping some to drive the music forward and create more swing.
EI: Do you have a favorite period?
MS: I often say that if I could do anything, it would be play like Sonny Rollins on a good night in 1965. That’s the ultimate, plus A Night at the Village Vanguard from 1957 — my all-time favorite jazz record. “Old Devil Moon” and “Striver’s Row!”
EI: To get that music in 1965 you kind of need to go to bootlegs, right? Not the studio records.
MS: Yes, although The Standard Sonny Rollins from 1964 is brilliant, top-tier Sonny. “Three Little Words” and “Love Letters” are jaw-dropping improvisations. His first entrance on “Love Letters” comes at the changes from such an odd rhythmic angle, and the opening phrases are so bewildering that he knocks you off balance. Sonny plays more shit in his first eight or 16 bars on “Love Letters” than some cats do in an entire career.
But, yes, the bootleg tapes and videos from Europe from 1965 are on a rarified plane — especially the Paris concert with Gilbert Rovere and Art Taylor and the Copenhagen concert with Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen and Alan Dawson. The last 3-½ minutes that Sonny plays on “Oleo” in Copenhagen is some of the purist jazz improvisation ever recorded.
I think it was easy to overlook Sonny’s genius in this period, and maybe it still is. In the mid ‘60s, Miles’ quintet was turning a corner toward Nefertiti. Trane was recording A Love Supreme and Transition and heading toward Ascension. Wayne, Herbie, Bobby Hutcherson, and Sam Rivers were recording classics on Blue Note. Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and the rest of the avant-garde were making waves. And then there’s Sonny over in the corner still playing “Three Little Words” and “Oleo.” But like Jimmie Lunceford put it: T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that cha do it — and the way that Sonny did it remains state of the art.
I’ll tell you a quick story. I heard Sonny in Detroit about a decade ago, and I went backstage after the show to say hello. I was waiting by myself outside his dressing room while he did his long cool down. He doesn’t come out for a long time. He continues to play and rest and gradually let his consciousness return to a non-performance state. I’m standing outside his door and at a certain point I hear a piano. It was Sonny playing “Till There Was You.” He also played “Where Are You.” He played through the tunes slowly but basically in time, and he played pretty much exactly like Monk. Minor seconds, spare voicings, whole-tone runs, rhythmic displacements, the whole gamut. When Sonny finally came out, the first thing I said to him was: “Is Monk in there?” That put a big grin on his face. But it made me realize something I hadn’t quite thought about before, which is that when players pick up a second instrument, they typically play like their mentors or heroes. Like when you hear Dave Liebman play drums, he plays like Elvin. Chick Corea plays good drums too, but he plays more like Roy Haynes. So, of course Sonny would approach the piano like Monk.
EI: Wayne Shorter.
MS: I’m certainly not alone in thinking that Wayne is our greatest living jazz composer, and I’d put him on the short list of greatest living composers in any idiom. As we sit here, it’s 11:25 p.m. on a Wednesday, and somewhere in the world, musicians are playing Wayne Shorter compositions. It’ll be like that tomorrow night, the night after that and so on. As long as musicians are playing jazz, they’ll be playing Wayne Shorter’s music. When it’s all said and done, Wayne has a place in the top tier with Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Monk, and I might put Horace Silver in there too — composers whose music embodies or codified the improvisational language an era.
EI: Do you want to tell me some of your favorite Wayne Shorter records?
MS: Well, the Blue Note classics to start. It’s hard to get away from Speak No Evil because of the compositions, personnel, and the playing, but JuJu is pretty fucking great. The last time I listened to them both back-to-back I almost preferred JuJu.
EI: I actually feel that myself! JuJu is my record.
MS: Just for hearing Wayne play the tenor; there’s more saxophone on JuJu. It’s just quartet, and he plays longer solos, he and Elvin are really going at it. Speak No Evil is more controlled. You know, there was a false start session for Speak No Evil, right? Seven weeks before they recorded the full album, the same band with Billy Higgins instead of Elvin recorded three of the tunes. I asked Wayne once why the session with Billy didn’t work. He remembered the date and said: “The music needed more drive.”
I like Adam’s Apple, especially the ballad “Teru,” and The All Seeing Eye is amazing. It’s almost akin to a Mahler symphony — a long-form piece inspired by the creation of the universe. The whole record hangs together like a vernacular symphony, and there’s a lot of freedom — an interesting balance of freedom, form, and orchestration. There’s hardly any part of Wayne’s output that I don’t like. Supernova, Odyssey of Iska, Native Dancer, High Life, last year’s Emanon. It’s all great. Whenever I spend time with Wayne’s music, I always feel that it raises my consciousness; Bobby Hutcherson is another musician who affects me that way. I always feel like Wayne takes me on a trip. He creates such a complete sound world, and when he brings me back home, I feel like a different and, I hope, a better person — more self-aware and more empathetic. That’s a powerful musician who can do that to people.
I saw the quartet with Danilo, John, and Brian many times, and it provided some of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve had. I wrote about one special night in Detroit four years ago when they began to play bebop tunes in a way that they never do.
EI: James Spaulding.
MS: He’s always a welcome presence when he shows up on a record, because you know you’re going to hear something that’s a little different. He’s not my favorite player, but I always thought that when I saw his name on the back of the record, it was a good sign.
EI: I like a later Spaulding LP of mostly Monk tunes, Brilliant Corners, which sort of helps to back announce how important Monk was to the 60’s avant-garde. Dolphy didn’t make a Monk record with Mulgrew Miller, but Spaulding did, and it is fun to hear.
MS: Adore Sonny Stitt. He was a lick player, and sometimes you know exactly what he’s going to play — and it doesn’t matter, because his intent is so strong and it’s so connected to the heart of the music, so swinging, and so clear. I love the way he leads with his chin, the cocky attitude, and the casual mastery. Stitt made a lot of forgettable records, but people should always be judged by their best work. The records where he’s inventing within the language rather than just shuffling around his pet phrases are electrifying. It’s easy to pick the best ones: Constellation and Tune-Up from the early ’70s; Sonny Stitt with the New Yorkers, Personal Appearance, Dizzy’s Sonny Side Up with Sonny Rollins from the mid and late ’50s; and the Prestige material with Bud Powell from 1949-50 where Stitt plays all tenor. I generally prefer him on alto, but the stuff with Bud is sensational.
In a one-artist, one-solo challenge, I’d take “Ray’s Idea” from Constellation — Sonny plays just two choruses at a medium tempo, and his lines are drenched in lyricism. There’s a Tom Cat swagger to his swing and articulation, and a great use of triplets. Barry Harris likes to say, “Triplets rule the world.” Stitt proves it here. And the trio is deep. Barry and Roy Brooks from Detroit, with Sam Jones laying it down on bass.
EI: Frank Strozier.
MS: The most underrated saxophonist in the post-bop era. Frank had a completely fresh melodic language, fresh phrasing, his own way of navigating harmony and rhythm, and a singular sound — broad and dark but with very little edge. Somebody like Jackie McLean has a dark sound but there’s a lot of edge to it. Phil Woods has a brighter and warmer sound, but there’s also a leading edge that cuts. Frank’s sound, particularly in the 1970s, doesn’t really have that edge. He came from Memphis, spent time in Chicago, worked with all the right cats over the years in New York and Los Angeles, made records, but somehow it just never happened for him to the degree that it should have.
I like all of Frank’s records as a leader, especially Long Night from 1961 and What’s Goin’ On from 1977 — the 14-minute version of Marvin Gaye’s hit is epic. The quartet with Harold Mabern, Stafford James and Louis Hayes takes it as a fast waltz and achieves an airborne ecstasy.
There are two indispensable appearances as a sideman from the ‘70s. The first is on Woody Shaw’s Little Red’s Fantasy, one of the best straight-ahead records of the decade. Frank navigates Woody’s complex harmony with ease. The other is Louis Hayes’ Variety is the Spice. Frank plays “Stardust” and it’s got everything in it, including a startling reharmonization, probably by Harold Mabern, that drops in Coltrane’s “Countdown” changes in a couple spots. Frank opens with an a cappella verse that includes some graceful triplet pirouettes like Astaire warming up to dance. There’s a singing statement of the theme that broadens with embellishments and double-time. Frank’s solo keeps shifting into higher gears, before returning to the theme and a final a cappella coda. The whole performance is a profound example of expressive virtuosity. Frank also roars through “Invitation,” which also starts with an another unaccompanied cadenza. Other than Joe Henderson, Frank played “Invitiation” better than anyone else.
EI: Lucky Thompson.
MS: Another Detroiter and another original. He’s mostly known for his tenor playing, of course, but he produced one of the most distinctive sounds on soprano. It’s not oboe-like, and it doesn’t have the snake-charmer vibe that Trane has. It’s not like Bechet’s rococo vibrato or like Lacy either. Lucky’s soprano has a gentle and graceful roundness too it that hits the ear like a pillow. Lucky Strikes from 1964 on Prestige is the record most people point too, and it’s terrific, but I prefer the one right before it, Plays Jerome Kern and No More with Hank Jones, Wendell Marshall, and Dave Bailey. It’s a beauty. “Look for the Silver Lining” lasts just three minutes and it says everything you could want in the most unpretentious, relaxed and swinging manner: A suave intro and melody statement, a devine soprano chorus filled with heavenly melody, one chorus from Hank, a half chorus of trading between soprano and drums, then out and a coda that reprises the intro. You could not write out anything better than what they improvise.
EI: Stanley Turrentine.
MS: Stanley embodied soulfulness, the blues, and jazz as social music — the jukebox in the corner bar in working class black neighborhoods. My two favorite solos are “When I Grow Too Old To Dream” on Jimmy Smith’s Back at the Chicken Shack and the title track from Soul Shoutin’ with Shirley Scott. The first reminds me of Jug in that there’s a lot of blues in there but also hip bebop snakes. He’s not honking his way through the tune. “Soul Shoutin’” is a medium blues with each chorus burning hotter than the last. Listening to it makes me think of what it must have been like to be in a chitlin circuit joint hearing Stanley and Shirley with a good drummer.
EI: My record was Blue Hour with The Three Sounds.
MS: The records by Stanley as a leader that I’m partial to are the two volumes of Up at Minton’s with Grant Green, Horace Parlan, Al Harewood and George Tucker. I love hearing Stanley play on meaty standards like “But Not for Me” and “Love for Sale.”
EI: Frank Wess.
MS: Like Jerome Richardson, there was nothing in this music that Frank couldn’t do. Lead alto in a big band, charismatic tenor soloist, an early pioneer of the flute in jazz, studio dates. Anything. His tenor solos are concentrated, the distilled essence of Kansas City and the mainstream continuum, from Lester Young to Bird. No superfluous notes. Nothing wasted.
I have such respect for guys like Frank and the rich lives they lived within the marrow of the music. He played with Billy Eckstine’s seminal big band in the mid ‘40s, a long stint with Basie, the New York Jazz Quartet, Dameronia, a zillion gigs with a zillion cats, countless recordings. He made some wonderful records as a leader. I like “North, South, East … Wess” on Savoy from the mid ‘50s with a septet of mostly Basie guys, and from a little later, The Frank Wess Quartet with Tommy Flanagan on board, and Opus de Blues and Yo Ho! Poor You, Little Me with Thad Jones. He also made two autumnal records, Magic 101 and Magic 201, in 2011 at age 89. The first one is extraordinary. So much wisdom, experience, patience and still sterling execution.
EI: Last one on my list — Phil Woods.
MS: I’ve grown to appreciate Phil more as I’ve gotten older. One thing that’s sometimes overlooked is how influential his lead alto playing was with Quincy Jones and on so many studio sessions in the ‘60s. Phil really established a contemporary sonic profile and style for leading a section in a post-Basie and post-Ellington environment. The sound was fat and warm but with enough brightness and edge to cut through the ensemble. It’s still the basic sound you hear from lead alto players in a big band. Phil also had a way of adding little flourishes to his phrasing that put a personal stamp on an ensemble. I also think he was a gifted composer and arranger. The five-horn writing on Rights of Swing is creative and affecting, and there’s a record from the early ‘70s on RCA called The New Phil Woods Album with some memorable large ensemble writing and strings.
Something I always found interesting is that Phil especially appealed to white players. There certainly are black players who have been influenced by him, but when I was growing up, it was almost always young white players who were the biggest Phil Woods fans. I think that’s because Phil was, on the one hand, a craftsman at the highest level, but he also had real charisma as a soloist. So particularly younger white players saw in Phil a model they could identify with and someone they thought they could grow into in a way that maybe they didn’t with Cannonball or Jackie McLean or whomever. This would have all been on a subconscious level. Nobody would have articulated this, and maybe race wasn’t the only factor, but I think it had something to do with it.
Of the records, I like Pairing Off and Sugan from the early days, Rights of Swing, The New Phil Woods Album, and there’s a later quintet recording from the mid ‘90s, Plays the Music of Jim McNeely when Jim was the in the band — it’s interesting to hear Phil play Mac’s challenging, contemporary compositions.
EI: Phil was into classical music, and practiced it as well.
MS: He knew the music of Ives, Bartok, and Stravinsky, He was a bebopper, but he saw a big picture. His European Rhythm Machine could stretch out. It’s pretty open.
EI: Some of the best Phil I ever heard was on tour with Monk.
MS: I think Phil plays great on the Town Hall stuff with Monk.
EI: There’s also an octet tour from the later ‘60s. Phil Woods and Monk was a good combination. I wish I could play for you a duo I heard at the Duke University archive of Monk and Phil Woods going full out on “Lady Be Good.”
EI: Yeah. Just duo at W. Eugene Smith’s pad. Monk is playing four to the floor and it sounds great.
MS: I would love to hear that.
When I was working on my book, I called Phil to talk to him about Donald Byrd, with whom he worked a lot in the old days. I’ll leave Phil’s comments for the book, but one thing I’ll never forget is that after about 10 or 15 minutes on the phone, I could feel him getting impatient. This was a few years before he died, and he was using oxygen. He was itching to get back to work. As he got off the phone he said, “Man, I gotta get back to writing music. I still got a lot to do.”