Month: January 2013

Henry The Great

Photo credit: Hans Harzhelm

Photo credit: Hans Harzhelm

Admittedly, I have a tendency to cover bassists a lot on this blog. The main reason might just be a click away if you go to the About this blog page. Rest assured, though, if you are getting tired of low frequencies, I will probably be writing about a few pianists in a future post that has yet to be given a relevantly unifying theme and some personal motivation. Stay tuned.

The story of Henry Grimes is undoubtedly an astounding one. That it made its way into the New Yorker’s Goings on about town section  is even more surprising. That kind of story is usually bounced around from music fan to music fan with varying degrees of authenticity and embellishments. However, The New Yorker rundown goes straight to the point about Grimes: Once renowned bassist whose impressive credentials range from Sonny Rollins to Cecil Taylor disappears from the scene for 35 years, spirals down into hard times, is widely believed to be dead and later tracked down by a fan and given a green-finished bass by fellow bassist William Parker. I haven’t listened seriously to Henry’s recent music but it seems like he keeps a hectic gigging and touring schedule. I wonder how often he brings out his “Olive Oil” bass on gigs, and more importantly, what it sounds like. It’s not hard to imagine that an accomplished musician who once had to pawn his bass never to get it back (how heart-breaking is that?), has some powerful statements to make now. What first appealed to me about Henry’s sound is the gritty yet precise quality of his articulation no matter if he plays a blues, an uptempo tune or totally free.

On the five recordings I own featuring Grimes on bass (McCoy Tyner’s Reaching Fourth, Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Roy Haynes’ Out of the Afternoon, Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador, Sonny Rollins’ amazing live bootleg in Sweden (with master drummer Pete LaRoca and a particularly inspired Sonny), his presence is devastating. His tone has a Mingus-meets-Garrison vibe that drives its way into your ears and stays there.

However incredible Henry Grimes’ story is, it highlights a continuing pattern in all things artistic. The most revered artists/musicians can rise or fall almost overnight, the most committed to their art know that they can’t afford to take recognition for granted. That precariousness makes their art even more fascinating.

 

“He was a free spirit, full of folkloric counterpoint delivered with subtle undertow”

These are the words of The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson describing Jimmy Garrison’s bass style. Read the full post here on his highly recommended blog (Iverson also does justice to another great bassist, Wilbur Ware). It’s hard to find a more insightful analysis of this shockingly underrated musician. Before I even knew what a double stop was (two notes played simultaneously on a stringed instrument), my early attraction to jazz has a lot to do with this guy’s sound in the John Coltrane Quartet. Garrison often had a solo spot to introduce or end songs, and the emotional power of these moments highlighted the meditative feel of the music. Listen to “Song of Praise” on The JC Coltrane Quartet plays (Impulse, 1965) for example. As Iverson writes eloquently, Garrison’s tone is all about the darkest low-down blues. This penetrating quality certainly blended in with Coltrane’s stratospheric explorations. Garrison had a powerful way of hitting the strings, adding even more fuel to the firestorm raging on top. Sometimes you just have to forgive YouTube’s appallingly low-fi videos (for a minute) and indulge your musical appetite. On the famous tune “Impressions”, Garrison provides a shining illustration of Iverson’s argument, here. Jimmy swings hard “behind” Coltrane, Tyner and Jones, interspersing his swinging walk with his patented rhythmic accentuation. I particularly like the rumbling stumble he inserts into the walk, a kind of “grainy” anticipation that reinforces the propulsion of the bass-drum groove machine. McCoy Tyner’s solo is pure class, seamlessly fading into Garrison’s meditation at the 4.30 mark. Listen to the flamenco-like strumming, savor the blues-drenched sweat. These fingers were made of iron.

Making swing matter

Photo credit: Chuck Stewart

Photo credit: Chuck Stewart

There is a common phrase in jazz: swing. The concept carries such a powerful charge that musicians often gain the respect of their peers based on their ability to swing. Listening to Orrin Evans’ awesome Flip the Script (Posi-Tone, 2012) has me digging through the jazz continuum for possible definitions. The swing era is long gone but jazz heads can’t get enough of the phrase. So, what does swing actually mean?

When jazz reached its heyday in the 40s, swing almost defined the music entirely. People literally swung to what was still then dance music. Big bands led by Duke Ellington or Count Basie pulsed with a wild but controlled energy that solidified swing into a potent and unassailable force. You either swung or you didn’t, because “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

As the swing era faded away and bebop broke ground, laying the foundations for a wide variety of future developments, swing lived on, crystallizing into its definitive statement, the classic 4/4 beat. The propulsion you hear/feel when walking bass and hit-hat cymbal lock in on the upbeats always makes me think of a train charging full steam ahead. I’m aware of the cliché but the metaphor holds up. Unsurprisingly, examples of railroad-inspired songs or records abound:  Take the A train, Blue train, Soultrane, you name it.  When that engine gets going, there is a sense that the journey could last forever.  One quintessential incarnation of that subtle association is the great Ahmad Jamal Trio (with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums) in the 50s. With such a hard-driving team, Ahmad has a lot of room to run over the keyboard or throw off sporadic splashes of melody whenever he wants to. Listen to and watch “Darn that Dream” here. Ben Webster looks bemused but he’s having a good time (at 3.05). You just can’t derail that kind of train. It is rock solid.

At a deeper level, though, swing is the way musicians articulate their feelings about the music, their signature takes on popular songs of the day or past. When Billie Holiday lags “behind” the beat, that’s swing. When Monk hits the same chord over 20 times on Little Rootie Tootie or inserts long stretches of silence into his off-kilter lines, that’s swing. Oscar Peterson’s left-hand powerhouse swings. Miles Davis’ pristine delivery swings. It is hard to think of a musical feature that is more distinctive and yet open-ended than that.

Today, swing is sometimes unfairly associated with conservatism in jazz. In fact, some people do lament the demise of swing and feel that all these odd time signatures or rock-tinged inflections that are now standard practice in modern jazz are corrupting the essence of the music. I totally disagree. Jazz, by nature, has consistently drawn from all kinds of music. Sure, the swing age is over but so is World War 2. There’s nothing to regret. In fact, I would argue that the spirit of swing is still going strong in some of the current music. Free bassist William Parker released an album dedicated to Duke not too long ago, and it doesn’t sound like your grandpa’s dusty Glenn Miller 78. Snippets here.

There are so many ways to play four beats in a row, that’s the beauty of it.

By the way, I have been listening a lot to pianist Orrin Evans lately. It’s hard to overstate how much of a swinger his latest CD (Flip the Script, Posi-Tone Records) is. It is a kind of swing that tips its hat to tradition while offering engaging vistas for contemporary modern jazz. Orrin is a case in point of how to rejuvenate swing and take it to uncharted places. Listen how these three guys (bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards) go at the burner “Flip the Script”. Each time the 4/4 beat kicks in, your head switches to nodding mode when you didn’t ask it to.

Flip the script is aptly titled. On this ten track cd, the band deliver a cohesive set that has all the makings of a “classic” record engaging with tradition but without sounding burdened by it. The opener “Question” plays fast and loose with time while sticking to the underlying 4/4 swing metric. “Clean House” is ¾ gem with a nice catchy melody that reminds me of Coltrane’s “Afro Blue”.  “Big Small” is a very slow blues that trudges forward like a good ol’ mule that knows exactly what its final destination is. The Tynerish intro to “A Brand New Day” leads to an epic exploration of “modal soul” (I just thought that up), if such an animal exists. The songs don’t stretch out over 6 minutes but the playing is tight throughout. I won’t comment on the other songs. Just flip it on the player. It’s refreshing to hear swing tastefully incorporated into and contrasted against a larger agenda of modern music. As long as swing maintains that pendular flexibility, there are many reasons to go along for the ride.