That’s Where It’s At

Ralph Shapey’s thick and detailed compositions for piano emphasize the variation form, where each movement is a distinct character study and key chords recur like signposts. Unlike in much atonal music, it’s easy to discern a clear narrative.

In his fascinating essay “Shaping Shapey,” David Holzman describes the 21 Variations from 1978 as “perhaps the best of his piano works.” There are two excellent recordings, one by Wanda Maximilien and one by Holzman.

Overall Holzman has more power and velocity, which seems appropriate for the Shapey style: one must almost rage against the piano.

However, Maximilien brings a bit more rhythmic security to a few places. One of the most compelling variations is no. 6, which works triplets polyrhythmically against a mixed-meter vamp. This kind of thing has become a feature of modern jazz: Matt Mitchell could have easily added Ches Smith on drums and included it as an encore on his album Fiction.

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Shapey Holzman

Shapey Maximillen

As you can hear, Holzman plays faster but Maximilien grooves harder.

There’s not much on the internet about Maximilien. She was of Haitian descent and made great recordings of Shapey, Luigi Dallapiccola, Robert Moevs, and Irwin Balezon. Shapey wrote the short piano piece “Harmaxiemanda” as a wedding present when she married CRI executive Carter Harman, the same Carter Harman who got the most revealing Duke Ellington interviews on tape. Maximilien was a generation younger than Natalie Hinderas, another vital modernist pianist who’s also dark-skinned and female. I discussed Hinderas with George Walker. Maximilien and Hinderas should be the topic of someone’s graduate research while those who knew them are still around.

Anyway, back to “Variation no. 6.” Especially since I see many hands raised and many dubious expressions: Ralph Shapey grooves? Well, yes, I think so. My ribs get moved around a little bit by Maximilien.

Of course Shapey might not have meant “groove” for any of his obdurate music, even when he uses a vamp bass line. But since jazz is heading right to this kind of expression—where complex pitches meet sophisticated rhythms—it’s at least worth giving Shapey a chance to swing.

Movers and shakers in American classical music are thinking about this topic as well. In the liner notes to Home Stretch, Timo Andres says something to Daniel Stephen Johnson that stamps him as a modern composer:

“It’s particularly interesting to me when I hear a pianist who has great rhythmic control, and great control of dynamics. They’re not the things you think of when you think of a virtuoso pianist, but they’re things that can support a virtuoso performance in a really compelling way.”

The music on Home Stretch is actually fairly flexible—kudos to Andres for the lilt he brings to the slow movement of the Mozart recomposition—but a lot of modern post-minimalist fully notated music requires an inflexible beat influenced by indie rock. You can’t play, say, Nico Muhly or Caroline Shaw with weak rhythm and get away with it.

However, I’ve still yet to hear much from that post-minimalist world that undulates. Shapey’s esoteric rhythms—in Maximilen’s hands, at least—almost do undulate, conjuring a mysterious “feel.” That’s one reason I like “Variation no. 6” so much.

Truthfully, a lot of jazz reaching for a Shapey-esque kind of expression isn’t undulating that much, either. The grid is winning, at least for now. But everyone is in the kitchen, working on it. It’s an exciting time.

Rhythm tends to get short shrift in academic and critical discourse. It’s as simple as this: pitches are easier to discuss than feel.

The classic black jazz from the age of giants remains the highest expression of feel that I know about. Stanley Turrentine is a good example. When I was discussing Sonny Rollins with Mickey Roker, Roker brought up Turrentine right away.

EI:   Sonny’s rhythm is so strong. It must be a special feeling to be able to play drums with him.

MR:  Yeah. He’s got his pulse. You know who else plays with a pulse like that?  Stanley Turrentine. They make it so easy for a drummer because they are so strong with their beat. Their heart is in the right place. I like Joe Henderson for the same reason. Certain people, they don’t give you nothing as far as the beat is concerned but them cats are full of rhythm. They’re full of the beat.

Turrentine will always be associated with the blues. George Cables told me a great story:

EI: Turrentine gave you some advice on how to learn the blues?

GC: Oh, yeah, he told me about his experience in Texas. He said, “George, did you know when I learned to play the blues?”

I said, “No.”

“Well, I was in Texas, and I was playing at this bar, you know, and back then you had to walk the bar, that was a kind of a corny tradition. But I was a young stud, and I said, I’m not doing that old time stuff. So somebody said, ‘walk the bar’ and I said, ‘I’m not walking the bar, I’m playing the saxophone,’ and he kept asking and I kept refusing, so later in the night, I went up to him, and he had this gun with a long barrel, and he said, ‘Look, I want you to walk the bar and spill nary a drop of whiskey!'”

And Turrentine said he walked the bar, and that’s when he figured out what the blues was really about! [laughs] He played the blues for real!

In last week’s  “Which Jazz Greats Were Left off the Blue Note 100?” Larry Rohter of The New York Times spoke to Don Was about what is being reissued on vinyl. Rohter wants Sam Rivers’ Fuchisa Swing Song represented instead of  “Stanley Turrentine’s That’s Where It’s At, a routine effort from a humdrum player.”

I’m all for a new vinyl edition of Fuchisa Swing Song, but That’s Where It’s At is a fabulous and vital representation of a time and place. Gerald Early explained it in our interview:

That bluesy kind of jazz was really a popular music. My uncles, aunts, and everything, they danced to that stuff. They said “Aw, yeah, man, hit it, hit it!” That was what I thought jazz was, because that’s how I saw people respond to it. I didn’t know until college that jazz was supposed to be an intellectual music!

The people I grew up with, they weren’t intellectual people, these were working-class black people listening to this music. Their response to it was very basic. Their response to it was that it had a groove… and the bigger and bluesier the sound, the better!

Turrentine made several discs with pre-made ensembles; the one I know best is with the stone masterpiece with the Three Sounds, Blue Hour.  On That’s Where It’s At, I believe the band is Les McCann’s working group “Les McCann LTD”  with Herbie Lewis and Otis “Candy” Finch. (At least the extremely young and extremely powerful Lewis was McCann’s regular bassist.)  McCann would go on to be one of the crucial Afro-American innovators and songwriters in the forthcoming Aquarian Age, so it is very interesting to hear how comfortable he is playing in a jazz quartet for Blue Note.

Nothing about Turrentine or That’s Where It’s At is “routine” or “humdrum,” the charges are ludicrous at best and racist at worst. Certainly Turrentine absolutely needs to be represented on a roster of classic Blue Note.

For fun, I transcribed the first eleven Turrentine choruses on McCann’s blues “Smile Stacy.” He may have learned the real blues while staring down a barrel of a gun, but that didn’t stop Turrentine from having plenty of bebop-influenced fun within the style. And, it must be said, these aren’t really blues clichés that Mr. T plays here. It’s his own personal vision. Michael Brecker paid close attention, and eventually popularized certain gestures that Turrentine invented.

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At the top of the fourth chorus, Turrentine plays nothing but quarter notes for the first eight bars. The pitches are secondary to placement. This feel can’t be notated on any music paper, but it is a big reason why we listen to jazz.

Does it really make sense to connect all these dots? Ralph Shapey and Stanley Turrentine together, with assists by David Holzman, Wanda Maximilien,  Natalie Hinderas, George Walker, Timo Andres, Matt Mitchell, Mickey Roker, George Cables, Les McCann, Herbie Lewis, Nico Muhly, Caroline Shaw, Gerald Early, and Michael Brecker…

It’s a stretch, but the motivation is honest. Attempting to command this amount of formerly disparate information is a hallmark of our postmodern age. Mark Turner told me recently, “It takes longer for us to become great now because there’s so much more to learn.”

Further reading:

Kyle Gann’s Ralph Shapey obit and relevant blog post.

Noah Baerman studies with Wanda Maximilien.

Timo Andres discusses leaving out rubato in Chopin.

Nico Muhly reviews Beyoncé.

Jaleel Shaw interviews Mark Turner.