During the 2020 pandemic I had time to consider a few successes and failures from valuable pioneers. There’s nothing systematic or complete about this grab-bag, it’s literally the stuff from one section of my LP shelf.
Friedrich Gulda, Music for 4 soloists and Band No. 1
Dedicated to Eric Dolphy
The American Jazz Ensemble New Dimensions
Noel DaCosta Ukom Memory Songs
Noel DaCosta Four Preludes, Jes’ Grew, and Five Verses with Vamps
The Modern Jazz Ensemble Little David’s Fugue
The Modern Jazz Quartet In Memoriam
Roland Hanna Child of Gemini
Freddie Hubbard and İlhan Mimaroğlu, Sing Me a Song of Songmy
Michael Mantler/Carla Bley 13 for Piano and Two Orchestras — 3/4 for Piano and Orchestra
Friedrich Gulda, Music for 4 soloists and Band No. 1, also has Minuet and Prelude and Fugue (1965). Gulda was a classical pianist of real impact, one of the greatest post-war interpreters of Bach and Beethoven. For a time, he tried to play jazz as well. As a teenager, his great local rival in hometown Vienna was Joe Zawinul, who of course went on to be major figure in American jazz, invalidating Gulda’s liner note here suggesting that Europeans “can never assimilate the tradition of the American Negro.”
The caliber of musicians present on this LP defy belief: Kenny Wheeler, Tubby Hayes, and Herb Geller are in the section, while J. J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, Sahib Shihab, Ron Carter, and Mel Lewis all have featured roles. Gulda himself plays quite a bit.
The composition is pretty bad, like a Benny Golson chart grown to Frankenstein dimensions. Adding sonata form to hard-bop big band jazz yields no obvious insight, at least in this instance. The improvised cadenzas provide some relief.
The encore, a Prelude and Fugue for solo piano, also has jazz chords and “swing” phrasing. It is outrageous and virtuosic, the appeal is understandable. I still think it is a self-important failure, but at least Gulda isn’t taking any other musicians along for the ride.
Far more significant is how Gulda added a jazz-influenced feel into Bach and Beethoven. Glenn Gould did the same thing. Both of these classical pianists had heard swing and bebop, and found a new and genuinely fresh way to play the old German masters. It was perfect for postwar optimism. I’m currently listening to Gulda’s Bach C minor toccata recorded in 1955, the same year as Gould’s Goldberg Variations. Just like Gould’s immortal Goldberg record, it is really swinging!
Dedicated to Eric Dolphy (1966). This obscure LP honoring the late Eric Dolphy was organized by Harold Farberman and released on the Cambridge label. It’s a little brother to the Third Stream Orchestra USA project conceived by Farberman, John Lewis, and Gunther Schuller. Dolphy played in Orchestra USA and was the leading light for this group, someone who could play the written part of Edgar Varèse’s Density 21.5 or improvise the blues with Charles Mingus. It may not be an exaggeration to suggest the early death of Dolphy also ended the first and most exciting era of Schuller and Schuller-associated Third Stream music.
The first track is by John Lewis, Sumadija. An anvil beats out a 6/8 rhythm which is then surrounded by atonal pointillism. What the hell? This is a John Lewis piece? Things sort of settle down with some hard-bop hits and Jerome Richardson and Joe Newman take normal jazz solos in C rhythm changes over Richard Davis and Mel Lewis. Violinist Louis Eley blows, collective sounds happen. Again I say: What the hell?
…Then Silence is by Harold Farberman, in three movements, with (according to the liner notes) a big helping of 12-tone theory. The first movement is abstract, perhaps next door to someone like Stefan Wolpe, who also used trumpets and saxophone. Fun to hear a galaxy of jazz stars (Joe Newman, Jerome Richardson, Hubert Laws, Bob Brookmeyer) play this kind of notated music. The piece is dedicated not just to Dolphy but to trumpeter Nick Travis who also died young. The second movement surprises by being a blocky atonal swing. Hubert Laws blows on tenor, he sounds quite a bit like Booker Ervin. The last movement is a slow tempo, nearly a blues, really pretty interesting to listen to. Brookmeyer intertwines with Richardson’s bari, but more compelling are the written cues.
Gunther Schuller contributes two of his best works with a jazz connection. Night Music has a twelve-tone bass line and something of slow blues form played by Jim Hall, Richard Davis, George Duvivier, and Mel Lewis, while the bass clarinet feature intended for Dolphy is played by Bill Smith. The intensity builds; it’s really a showcase for Mel. More conventionally abstract is Densities 1 with Smith, Davis, Farberman on vibes and harp from Gloria Agostini, but even here Davis eventually walks a jazz bass line. It’s not a wild success, but it’s better than some of Schuller’s other pieces with a walking bass. (In general the less Schuller referenced jazz in his formal composition, the better.)
Bill Smith’s own Elegy for Eric concludes the set. According the notes, it’s 12-tone, but the brief improvised solos are definitely tonal. The unison hits are effective, again not the least thanks to people like Joe Newman and Mel Lewis in the ensemble. An attractive momentum almost starts to build a few times but the composer always moves on to the next idea. A lot of great stuff here but perhaps not a totally organic journey. Still a fun period piece; indeed, the Smith is the best thing on this unusual LP.
The American Jazz Ensemble New Dimensions (1962). More Bill Smith. He was an early Dave Brubeck associate during the Darius Milhaud years, so it makes sense theres a kind of Brubeck feel to this LP with John Eaton, Richard Davis, and Paul Motian. The song list includes many standards but there is constant engagement with formal classical composition.
This is the only John Eaton I’ve ever heard. Eaton is a student of Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, and as a jazz pianist he actually kind of sounds like that, at least on this early record, with dissonant chords and motivic wide interval lines. On the jazz continuum he’s somewhere between brainy Tristano to blockly Brubeck with a serving of busy comping like John Lewis. Some of my NEC students try to play the bebop blues exactly like Eaton does on Cheryl here. It’s pretty cool.
Bill Smith sounds good, a virtuoso, wide intervals, old-school blues, expressionist gestures. Bill Smith did a lot in this music that I have yet to learn about.
This is the only record of Davis and Motian together. Davis is pretty low in the mix, but Motian can be heard to good effect. Motian was very interested in composition, I can almost hear him listening and taking notes.
Several pieces involve intentionally obvious multi-tracking, where the band plays along with a previous take, something they apparently did live in concert. A sparse quirky blues, The Lonely Monk, becomes a dense octet for The Loneliest Monk. It’s not really more than a party trick, but they were definitely going for something fresh. Little Willie Leaps adds Tristano-style tape manipulation into the mix and the result is pure madness.
Noel DaCosta Ukom Memory Songs (1981). DaCosta was born in Nigeria of West Indian-American descent, educated in Harlem (poet Countee Cullen taught him at Frederick Douglass Junior High School) and went on to be a first call violinist for jazz and pop session work for people like Roberta Flack and McCoy Tyner. Only a few of his fully notated scores are recorded, but many of them seem connected to jazz. Certainly the jazz musicians respected DaCosta: his Primal Rites for orchestra and percussion was premiered by Max Roach, and I first heard his name from Ron Carter.
His sister, Lorna McDaniel, was a concert organist, and the LP Ukom Memory Songs is a family affair. One piece from 1958 is completely written out, the gorgeous Generata for Organ and Strings, in a mid-century American style, something not far from Copland or Bernstein at their most dissonant.
According to the liners by McDaniel, the rest of the pieces on this LP, “…Share the compositional concept of improvisation and interpolation of passages; each also employs the African or African-American funeral song as thematic material.” The Spiritual Set for Organ is from 1974. Without looking at the score I’m at a loss to hear what might be improvised; these are attractive and colorful settings next door to the least dissonant parts of Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballads.
The title work, Ukom Memory Songs from 1981, draws on Nigerian sources, and includes a drummer known for jazz connections, Newman Baker, as well as some additional percussion from McDaniel’s son Dill. Baker doesn’t play a full drum set but an unconventional assortment of toms and a bass drum. I believe Baker is making up his own part, at least to some extent, but it still tightly organized. The organ writing comes across as a little underwritten compared to Baker’s effusive performance. The last work, Chili’-lo from 1971, is a complex organ solo that seems to be completely notated, in the cheerful bitonal style heard on Generata for Organ and Strings.
Noel DaCosta Four Preludes, Jes’ Grew, and Five Verses with Vamps. (recorded 1982). A better introduction to DaCosta are bite-sized pieces on CRI SD 514 (the other side is music from Howard Boatwright). This repertoire may technically be just outside the purview of this page, since all the performers are classical musicians who don’t improvise, but the obvious jazz references keep the aesthetic in a certain area, like a very hip updating of Gershwin.
Four Trombone Preludes for Trombone and Piano (1973) have a strong taste of the vernacular (Roswell Rudd meets Arnold Schoenberg?) delivered by two notably strong instrumentalists, Per Brevig and Wanda Maximilien. Despite a title that includes the word “vamps,” Five Verses with Vamps (1969) for cello and piano are the least jazzy music on this LP: aphoristic, sophisticated, and mostly atonal, performed by Evalyn Steinbock and David Garvey.
The obvious highlight of the disc is Jes’ Grew (1973) for solo violin, which comfortably quotes Jelly Roll Morton and the blues alongside convincing atonal gestures. I suspect DaCosta’s own experience as a performer is a reason Jes’ Grew is so successful; certainly the famous violinist Max Pollikoff plays the piece very well.
The violin also has a natural blues intonation, a quality used so well in Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s equally engaging Blue/s Forms (1979). Both Jes’ Grew and Blue/s Forms should be repertory items, especially now, when American music schools and other performing arts organizations are (finally) scrambling to support black composers.
The Modern Jazz Ensemble Little David’s Fugue (1955). At one point I tracked down a sizable number of John Lewis’s bigger pieces. My favorite is Three Little Feelings for Miles Davis and big band, offering three movements of space and beauty. From the album Third Stream, Lewis’s Exposure for MJQ and chamber group has a certain modernist grit; as a bonus, it’s a good place to appreciate Gunther Schuller’s lovely french horn tone. Both Schuller and Paul Motian told me how much they liked Lewis’s occasionally expressionist soundtrack to Odds Against Tomorrow.
Little David’s Fugue from this 1955 session ties with Lewis’s more familiar Concorde for being the best “fugal jazz” of all time. (Take that, Friedrich Gulda). The general idea predates the Swingle Singers, where groovy baroque shapes comfortably float over a swinging rhythm section. It’s truly a magical moment when Lucky Thompson’s old school tenor breaks through the texture for smooth improvised lines against Percy Heath and Connie Kay.
The whole disc is a treat, perhaps the best single serving of Lewis’s “baroque” ideas. Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson also offer great solos. Not sure if J. Putnam’s harp really works as “rhythm guitar” on The Queen’s Fancy, they should have just gotten Herb Ellis. (Schuller’s excellent orchestration of “Django” demonstrates a more convincing use of the harp.) Midsömmer is harmonically colorful but foursquare; when Getz comes in, it saves the day and foreshadows the famous collaboration with Eddie Sauter, Focus. The bluesy counterpoint of Sun Dance might suggest a more refined Charles Mingus.
The Modern Jazz Quartet In Memoriam (1973).
Lewis’s work from the ’50’s remains fresh. While Sumadija (heard above on the Dolphy tribute LP) has token atonality, Lewis’s language as composer seemed to get more conservative and blocky as he got older, at times even verging on the banal.
One of the best later larger works utilizing chamber or symphonic forces is the first movement of In Memoriam with a symphony conducted by Maurice Peress. The opening triadic melodic/harmonic gestures are unforgettable; Lewis was seized by genuine inspiration here. The improvising, on a slow waltz with delicate uptempo Connie Kay cymbal work (did they hear an ECM record?), is integrated better than usual as well. Bravo.
The second and final movement is problematic. Hemiola percussion is just not tough enough against slightly bland bluesy string riffs; the frustrating result is more musical theatre than anything else.
Lewis was inconsistent but he was also a genius. His contribution to American music is hidden in plain sight. As far as I know, there’s not even a works list to consult. Without a basic biography and a works list, it is hard to assess the scope of any major composer.
Roland Hanna Child of Gemini (1971). I like John Lewis, but I love Roland Hanna. Swing Me No Waltzes is one of the greatest solo piano LPs of all time, and — for whatever it is worth — a formative influence. Ron Carter told me Hanna was “a gambler” when he improvised; Indeed, Hanna’s gregarious, freewheeling and spontaneous quality aligns him with Jaki Byard and Earl Hines.
However, Hanna also worked on an organized and rather literal appropriation of European classical music. There are a set of attractive Hanna Preludes that are idiomatically something like Rachmaninoff + Granados + Faure + Bill Evans. While a few tracks have bassist George Mraz, most of the preludes are straight (no swing required) and some of them are quite technically challenging. Classical pianists can (and should) play a selection of these Hanna Preludes.
On Child of Gemini, a 1971 European date with Dave Holland and Daniel Humair, Hanna offers three movements from a quasi-baroque suite, Prelude, Allemande, and Courante. Hanna says in the notes, “…They truly combine the elements of European classical music with the elements of Afro-American music in such a way that seriousness of the endeavor cannot be mistaken by the least of musicians.”
The best track is the Prelude — So You Will Know My Name, which has no improvisation, but rather glowing baroque progressions and melodies over Humair’s groovy backbeat. The result is quite like Keith Jarrett with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. (In general, Hanna and Jarrett are closer in aesthetic than they may first appear.) So You Will Know My Name may even suggest a more recent reference: While it was on the stereo, my wife called from the next room, “Is this the Bad Plus?”
Freddie Hubbard and İlhan Mimaroğlu, Sing Me a Song of Songmy (1971). Conceived as a reaction to the horrors of Vietnam, this outstanding LP must be one of the best examples of a composer writing a “concerto” for jazz quintet. It’s truly a one off. (Hubbard’s previous album was Red Clay.)
Hubbard’s the star, but it is Mimaroğlu’s show, who supplies simple but effective minor key chorales for strings and choirs + simple but effective vamp tunes for the quintet. Nothing is all that avant-garde in terms of the basic materials, but Mimaroğlu also includes a galaxy of special effects in cross-fades and collage, especially synthesizers, musique concrète, and spoken word. The quintet with Junior Cook, Kenny Barron, Art Booth, and Louis Hayes is totally game, up for the challenge of relating to modernism, although Hayes makes sure that the vamps swing hard as well. The pianist’s violent flurries on “Interlude 1” are unlike anything else I’ve ever heard Kenny Barron play.
Hubbard’s chops are in flawless shape and his first improvised solo on the LP consists partly of wide-interval shakes that sound vaguely “electronic.” Hubbard also gets a Monodrama accompanied by his own processed trumpet and recites the poem Black Soldier.
It’s a big budget project (Mimaroğlu was a staff producer at Atlantic) and the package looks and sounds great. A few special effects are a bit dated, and, if I could go back in time and co-produce, I’d replace one of the spoken word selections with another piece for the quintet. Still, Sing Me a Song of Songmy is essentially a masterpiece and should be better known, especially at a time when the current jazz discourse has swung back around to embracing protest music.
Michael Mantler/Carla Bley 13 for Piano and Two Orchestras — 3/4 for Piano and Orchestra (1975) At the time Mantler and Bley were married and co-owners of the new Watt label. These two side-long “concertos” feature Bley at the piano and offer a snapshot of a time and a place. Mantler’s piece is really quite something, lyrical melodies, a kind of gloomy atmosphere, not too much counterpoint, an appealing jazzy and ragged texture supporting a long drive to apotheosis. The piano injects raw pointillism from time to time but the meat is in Mantler written score. The final few minutes of one resonating pitch suggest an apocalypse.
Keith Jarrett, Frederic Rzewski, and Ursula Oppens also played 3/4 for Piano and Orchestra in concert. This version offers some of the most exposed Carla Bley pianism on record. The piece begins with an F-sharp minor vamp; when she cascades “atonal” lines over the ostinato, it sounds like Paul Bley quite a bit, especially since the piano is out of tune. The vamp never goes away, instruments combine and recombine in unexpected ways, tension builds, the piano is nearly swamped by the orchestra, and finally we release into further waltzes redolent of the circus, the avant-garde, or even some jazz.