Blue Note – the story of the best-loved record label in jazz

Blue Note

Beginning in an unlikely way in New York in the year World War II broke out with a boogie-woogie record, by the 1960s Blue Note had created an identifiable sound which has to this day continuing relevance in a world where most music is forgotten about just weeks after release. Brian Priestley traces the history of the best-loved record label in jazz

It seems almost bland to say that the Blue Note story is unique. But, in the history of recorded jazz, it certainly is and indeed, in the history of any kind of recording, it’s only challenged by a few of the early giants such as Victor and Columbia or Decca, an imprint recently revived by its inheritors at Universal.

Like most specialist jazz labels, Blue Note was originally a one-man venture and, in the person of co-founder Alfred Lion, it had both its impetus and its sustaining energy. Though the successful company was sold in the mid-1960s, the name has been kept in the public eye almost continuously till the present day. By contrast, a company set up around the same time, Commodore Records, ceased new recording in the mid-1950s, and its classic material has been leased to several reissuers in turn. Similarly, a slightly later contemporary, the enterprising jazz-blues-gospel label Savoy has seen a series of reissue programmes and even sporadic bouts of new recordings under successive owners, yet it’s basically dormant now.

Blue Note, on the other hand, not only has a seven-decade back catalogue that continues to sell. It also puts out a number of new albums every year, and among each batch there is usually something that helps to crystallise what’s happening at the time. Undoubtedly a unique brand, then, but whether the legendary “Blue Note style” is also unique is a matter for discussion. For a start, there are different Blue Note “styles”, each with their own fans and, though these help us in retrospect to define how the jazz scene was at various times, they also reflected the company’s awareness of and sensitivity to what was at the cutting edge of live music.

Albert AmmonsThis is brought home in no uncertain terms, if we take a quick cross-section of the last year of each of the decades. When the label held its first session in 1939, the only artists involved were pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, specialists who focused the growing interest in boogie-woogie. But, because of the simultaneously growing interest in small-group swing with horns, the two follow-up sessions later that year were by groups built around Ammons and Lewis respectively. When Lion’s fellow émigré Francis Wolff came on board, they knew the big white bands of the day were approaching a tipping point that favoured clichés and corny vocals whereas, for the handful of dedicated jazz fans then, boogie and small groups were where it was at.

By 1949, while continuing the previous policy and adding more trad-jazz, a reappraisal had brought some of the beboppers to Blue Note. A more sparse schedule than some previous years saw a total of two sessions fronted by Sidney Bechet, plus one R&B-leaning date and one classic bebop quintet marking the Blue Note debut of Bud Powell. A decade further on, thanks to the industry-wide LP boom, the company was doing over 30 sessions a year, resulting in two dozen albums and, not insignificantly, an equivalent number of jukebox singles. These included the Blue Note debuts (under their own name, anyway) of Jackie McLean and Duke Pearson, and strong entries by such stalwarts as Art Blakey (Jazz Corner Of The World) and Horace Silver (Blowin’ The Blues Away).

Blue Note

The hard bop feel of the latter virtually defines what some people call “the Blue Note sound”, but 10 years later its popularity had waned. On the back of a couple of huge “soul-jazz” hits by Silver and Lee Morgan, the label was bought out by Liberty whereupon Lion and Wolff, their services initially retained, cannily used their new finance to record figures such as Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor, until economics pointed more in the crossover direction. Recording activity continued at a considerable pace, but 1969’s output is characterised by the last Blue Note releases by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and various attempts by such as Andrew Hill and Bobby Hutcherson to create music relevant to the anti-Vietnam war, pro-civil rights era.

Retirement for Lion, and death in the case of Wolff, virtually ended this gradual evolution of the original Blue Note approach, and eventually George Butler (later of Marsalis fame) became executive producer. Despite the sales success of some pre-disco efforts during the 1970s, the then owners wound down the operation so that 1979 saw the completion of a single album, Horace Silver’s last for the label. This was the year that Liberty fell into the hands of EMI but, while reissues in both the US and Japan kept the name alive, Blue Note only resumed new recording in 1984 after the recruitment of Bruce Lundvall. As well as the return of a few old faces, 1989 found people such as Stanley Jordan and Dianne Reeves on the roster, plus the first Blue Note work of John Scofield and, initially as his sideman, Joe Lovano.

Norah JonesWhen it comes to 1999, new projects were much more decentralised, with such as Erik Truffaz (contracted via EMI France), Caecilie Norby (EMI Denmark) and Chucho Valdés (EMI Canada), as well as American-based players such as Don Byron and Medeski, Martin and Wood. But also, in the previous 10 years, it became accepted that Blue Note’s depth of catalogue was in many ways the backbone of the business. Not only classic albums were reissued as such but also themed compilations of both classic and “rare-groove” material, much of the latter drawn from the initially frowned-upon soul-jazz repertoire and commissioned at EMI UK, as was the US3 remix hit ‘Cantaloop’. But, if there was any suggestion that the label was becoming fixated on the past, the 2000s entered yet another phase where the phenomenal sales of Norah Jones helped to finance the dreams of both freelance and staff producers.

Given the commercial success and the iconic status, it’s hard to appreciate just what a shoestring enterprise Blue Note was in the beginning. Lion and Wolff – both of them exiles from Nazi Germany – held down day jobs in the early days, and some of the initial money for the venture was provided by left wing activist-journalist Max Margulis. Along with everyone else interested in the music then, jazz was their hobby. The urge to document the boogie pianists arose from personal enthusiasm for the music, recently exposed to a wider public at John Hammond’s first Spirituals To Swing concert just a couple of weeks earlier, and was probably uninformed by any awareness that Hammond had also conducted his own studio session for Columbia. But there was also an urge to gain respect for this underdog art-form, which led to issuing the first few tracks on the 12-inch 78s associated with “classical music” rather than the “pop” 10-inch format.

Sound quality was a priority from the start – so that, for instance, duet tracks of Ammons and Lewis at two pianos make their roles more audible than when Ammons and Pete Johnson were later recorded together for Victor. In a sign of things to come, Lion and Margulis created descriptive notes, full of serious discussion of the music. To get the word around, they also printed what would now be called a mission statement, claiming their intention was “simply to serve the uncompromising expression of hot jazz and swing, in general… Blue Note Records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.”

Blue Note BechetWhen the label’s third session gained some airplay for the Sidney Bechet feature on ‘Summertime’, proper distribution became necessary and was arranged via the famous Commodore Music Shop, where Frank Wolff actually worked behind the counter when Lion was called up after the USA’s entry into World War II in 1941. The next small step forward came when, despite the opposition of the major labels Victor and Columbia to the musicians’ union strike of 1942-43, smaller companies such as Decca and Capitol agreed terms with the union after a year and recorded new material again. This opened the way for tiny operations such as Blue Note and Savoy to restart recording too, tapping into the fairly brief wartime popularity of small-group swing, trad jazz and proto-R&B. Blue Note even scored another jukebox hit in tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec’s classic after-hours anthem ‘Blue Harlem’.

A key factor in the whole of the next 20 years was Lion and Wolff’s ability to keep up with subtle shifts in musical trends, while always gravitating towards their key representatives. Not exactly rushing into bebop, they waited to be convinced of its validity and then, two years after Gillespie’s and Parker’s first sessions as leaders, they consulted with insiders such as Quebec on who to record. By the end of 1947, they had cut sessions by vocalist Babs Gonzales, Art Blakey and, best of all, Thelonious Monk, who recorded 16 tracks in five weeks, some of them not issued for years, due to lack of interest. But the major factor was Lion’s attraction to the music, while his then wife Lorraine – later to become Lorraine Gordon of Village Vanguard fame – showed her enthusiasm for trying to publicise Monk.

Even though the renewed popularity of jazz in the 1950s tended to favour West Coast-based musicians at first, Blue Note paid almost no attention to them. There was, however, competition from West Coast labels such as Pacific Jazz and Fantasy, while in the mid-50s the new Riverside company and a resurgent Savoy started to surf the boom in sales caused by the introduction of LPs. Again, Lion and Wolff didn’t exactly rush in but, when they moved to the 12-inch format, they not only hit their stride with new recordings but began their first reissue series – just in time for the belated interest in people such as Miles and Monk, whom they had continued to record in the early-50s.

Blue NoteThe earliest and strongest competition in this period, though, was from Prestige and its founder, former record shop owner Bob Weinstock, who began recording the new jazz in 1949. He became adept at signing musicians who had their first break on Blue Note, such as Monk or Sonny Rollins (a sideman on Bud Powell’s quintet date), and both labels recorded Miles until Weinstock put him under exclusive contract from 1954-56. Giving an added edge to the rivalry was the fact that, from 1953 (in Blue Note’s case) and 1954 (Prestige), both companies used the facilities of part-time engineer Rudy Van Gelder – who only gave up his own day job as an optician in 1959. His detailed and uncluttered sound registration was what drew these labels and eventually others to Van Gelder, but he himself was quite clear that, thanks to Lion’s demands and encouragement “the Rudy Van Gelder sound is really the Alfred Lion sound.”

In retrospect, there are clear stylistic differences between Prestige and Blue Note, but the difference most often cited is that the performances are invariably tighter on Blue Note. The comparison between Miles’ sessions for Weinstock and Lion makes the point quite convincingly, and the reason usually given is that Lion insisted on paid rehearsals. Producer Michael Cuscuna, who interviewed Lion extensively shortly before his death in 1987, believes the policy was certainly in place by 1953 but may have been instituted in 1947 with the move to bebop. This not only required more precision in ensembles than the kind of jazz Blue Note had previously recorded, but it was a style Lion was at first less familiar with. He also saw that it relied heavily for its effect on original material, rather than spontaneous versions of standards, and wanted the material presented to best effect.


‘In establishing and maintaining the standards of Blue Note for so long, the Lion and the Wolff set an example for all subsequent specialist labels’


Another result of this quality control was the existence, from the late-1950s until the end of the 60s, of numerous unreleased sessions. We’ve heard the same thing over the years about ECM Records, which of course is the nearest thing to a Blue Note successor in terms of having an immediately identifiable house style. The difference with Blue Note is that many of these sessions did surface later, often initially in Japan, on various reissue series that started in the mid-70s. Examples are Hank Mobley’s Curtain Call, the Jimmy Smith Trio + Lou Donaldson, and a raft of things from around the time of the Liberty buyout. Some unissued sessions were rapidly redone on another day, some were slated for release but somehow fell off the schedule (the legendary Tina Brooks’ Back To The Tracks, for instance) but there are a few sessions that still remain unheard today, even by such big names as Smith and Blakey.

Very likely the reason that those remained in the vaults was the discrepancy between what Lion was expecting and what happened on the day. As Van Gelder said, “Alfred Lion did his homework better than anyone. He’d come to a date with the musicians rehearsed and he’d know the precise routine for everything. Bob [Weinstock] was a lot looser.” Even Blue Note dates that sound like mere “blowing sessions” usually turn to be carefully structured, and to feature a selection of musicians already associated with the label. Clearly the influence of the returning Ike Quebec, and others close to the “family” like Blakey, was responsible for bringing many key musicians to Blue Note’s door. It’s notable how many who went on to do their own successful albums first recorded for the label as sidemen, whether it’s Duke Pearson (who later filled a Quebec-type role and even produced sessions in the early-70s) or Stanley Turrentine.

Blue Note

Another arena of competition was in the domain of presentation, both verbal and visual. When they got into 12-inch LPs, Blue Note had extensive essays by such writers as Leonard Feather, while Prestige usually had briefer notes, often by Ira Gitler (a Prestige employee at the time). But it’s the cover photography of Frank Wolff and the calligraphy that still stand out as the most innovative, mostly designed by Reid Miles during the classic era and capable of making an impact in even non-jazz-specific compilations of artwork.

That was one aspect that changed almost immediately on acquisition by Liberty, which of course had its own ideas about artwork, and albums by Lou Donaldson (for instance) show the effects of before and after, the “after” being still striking but not really Blue Note.

The reason for the bail out was, pure and simple, the problem of distribution posed by an excess of success. Within a year Blue Note had released the albums – and, of course, the chart singles – of ‘The Sidewinder’ and ‘Song For My Father’, creating rapid pressure from distributors to come up with further print-runs and more product just like that. This not only led to several years of LPs that led off with a track heavily dependent on a Latin-funk beat, it required an almost immediate injection of extra capital.

Liberty had previously bought Aladdin, Imperial and Pacific Jazz which explains why reissues from these sources have more recently appeared under the Blue Note imprint. Initially, they let Blue Note do its thing, but subject to control by the accountants and senior management – a new experience for Alfred Lion, who left after 12 months. After another year, Liberty itself was taken over by Transamerica which combined it with the United Artists label it already owned, suddenly propelling UA contract artists such as Jimmy McGriff, Chick Corea, Jeremy Steig and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis on to Blue Note.

So, what of the seemingly amorphous 1970s output under Dr George Butler? Even though Lion was out of the picture, there was still some evolution on the part of 60s signings who stayed with the label, such as Elvin Jones and Bobby Hutcherson.

Blue NoteBut what stays in the mind, or sticks in the craw, is the work of the likes of Donald Byrd, who went hook, line and sinker for a watered-down version of 60s soul, complete with lumpy rhythms, naff string-sections and unfunky vocals.

The production team of Larry and Fonce Mizell also begat acts such as flautist Bobbi Humphrey, saxist Ronnie Laws and guitarist Earl Klugh, all of whom sold lots of records and are now largely forgotten, except by fans who are into that style. But we shouldn’t forget that there is always a need to have some funky jazz and it turned on listeners such as Gilles Peterson and Jez Nelson, who then became influential in more jazz-related ways.

The hiring by EMI of Bruce Lundvall, formerly with Columbia and Elektra, was obviously a stroke of genius, in terms of restoring Blue Note’s credibility as well as its catalogue.

As far back as 1985, Michael Cuscuna explained to me that “Bruce Lundvall is one of the only people to reach the top echelons of the music business and remain both interested in music and honest” – the fact that they still work together suggests that Cuscuna’s opinion hasn’t changed. Of course, you might argue that some newer material is further removed from the label’s roots than anything in the 1970s (Norah? Willie Nelson?) but that’s only the revenue earning tip of what’s still a very large iceberg.

Blue NoteThe list of artists recently on Blue Note who are maintaining and developing the tradition of the label is long and impressive. If the business methods are unrecognisable from those days – for instance, the profit-sharing deal that landed a contract with the now departed Wynton Marsalis – the music is still pushing the boundaries, rather than running away from them.

It all requires the ancient art of keeping one’s ear to the ground, which is what Lion and his partner Wolff excelled at. Their business instincts enabled them to capture one-off classics with artists who were between contracts (such as Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else) and at least one who had promised them an album before signing with Prestige, namely Coltrane, whose Blue Train again underlines the superiority of Blue Note’s methods. In the 1950s, they were even open to the idea of jazz from Europe, leasing two albums’ worth of Cool Britons and one of Swingin’ Swedes, plus European recordings of German pianist Jutta Hipp and the then UK-based Dizzy Reece before they each relocated to New York.

Indeed, in establishing and maintaining the standards of Blue Note for so long, the Lion and the Wolff set an example for all subsequent specialist labels. Perhaps more importantly, in the process they left us with some wonderful music.

This article originally appeared in the August 09 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos: 1) Horace Silver (top left) and clockwise, John Coltrane (with Thelonious Monk at the piano), Hank Mobley, Bud Powell, Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk; 2) Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter 3) Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine


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John Coltrane – Giant Steps

John Coltrane

Less than a month after Kind of Blue was recorded in 1959, John Coltrane first entered the studio to make what in many ways was that mighty album’s equal: Giant Steps. The album contains some of Coltrane’s best known compositions but equally importantly laid down the harmonic changes that Coltrane had been developing throughout the early part of his career. Stuart Nicholson tells the full story of one of the greatest albums in jazz history

In October 1958, a strap-line on the cover of Downbeat magazine announced that John Coltrane was “a happy young man.” It came following a period where he confessed he had been “dejected and dissatisfied” with his playing, but now he was looking forward to the future with optimism. Things, he felt, were finally coming together after what the magazine described as a “frustrating past.” The interview, conducted by Ira Gitler in the Park Central Hotel in New York, discreetly avoided Coltrane’s recent recovery from drug addiction which had inflicted a heavy toll on his ability play. Now he seemed transformed, as his performances on a broadcast from Café Bohemia in New York with the Miles Davis Quintet in May that year or on Jazz at the Plaza: The Miles Davis Sextet from 9 September, attest. His solos, bursting with notes, dubbed “sheets of sound” by Gitler, threatened to overwhelm his audience. The French critic Francois Postif, who saw him perform several times after his recovery, predicted that his influence on his generation would be, “As great as that of Charlie Parker.” He also reported that pianist Bud Powell was so impressed by the stepchange in his ability as a soloist that he was in the audience four nights in a row. Coltrane was on the up.

Born on 23 September 1926, John William Coltrane studied music in Philadelphia and initially came under the spell of Charlie Parker. When he got his first call from the big-time, an invitation from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to join his ensemble in 1949, he would later say he felt ready for the challenge. Gradually, however, he was disabused of any false confidence. “What I didn’t know with Diz was that what I had to do was really express myself,” he confessed. “You can only play so much of another man [Parker].”

Returning to Philadelphia in 1951 dejected, he joined a group led by Earl Bostic playing rhythm and blues, followed by almost three years in a group led by the celebrated Ellingtonian Johnny Hodges, “It was my education to the older generation,” he explained. Four years later he returned to Philadelphia where he got a call to join the Miles Davis quintet. Here the trumpeter encouraged him and stimulated his harmonic thinking. “Miles is the number one influence over most of the modern musicians now,” Coltrane told Downbeat. “There isn’t much harmonic ground he hasn’t broken. Just listening to the beauty of his playing opens up doors… Miles has shown me possibilities in choosing substitutions within a chord and also new progressions.”

John ColtraneBut in April 1957, Davis sacked Coltrane along with his drummer Philly Joe Jones because of problems associated with their drug addiction. Tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd relates how Cannonball Adderley told him how Coltrane had overdosed in San Francisco while with Davis. “Somehow Philly Joe and Paul [Chambers, Davis’ bassist] pulled Trane through. He was very sick, but Cannonball said Trane quit his habit right there and that was it.” There are other reports, by saxophonist Jackie McLean in Jazz Times, that in breaking his addiction pattern without the help of substitute drugs such as methadone he was turning up for work with Davis sick, dishevelled and resorting to drink. After an engagement at the Café Bohemia in New York, Davis could take no more and let him go.

Coltrane took the opportunity to get his personal life in order with the help of family and friends and began rehearsing informally with Thelonious Monk. The pianist had begun a trio engagement at the Five Spot in East Greenwich Village on 4 July that year, and extended an invitation to Coltrane to join him at a wage of 100 dollars a week beginning on 18 July. Although this was a significant career move for the saxophonist this period is not particularly well documented on record, with just one trio piece, three pieces with a septet and three pieces in the classic Monk quartet line-up for the Riverside label. These studio sessions were re-released three years ago, complete with false starts and outtakes, as Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane: The Complete April and July Riverside Recordings. However, even with the new material it represented a small return for their five month, six-nights-a-week residency that producer Orrin Keepnews called “one of the most memorable collaborations in the entire history of jazz.”

It has been said that during this period Coltrane, now fully recovered from addiction, collected himself at last as an artist. Challenged by Monk and the discipline of his compositions and their probing, angular harmonies resulted in significant artistic growth during their association.

What this collaboration held out musically for Coltrane became clearer in 2006 with the release of a newly discovered live performance by this group, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, recorded on 29 November 1957. Comprising eight Monk originals and a performance of ‘Sweet and Lovely’, it reveals how Monk let Coltrane solo at length, creating passages of intricate and original patterns and squalls of semi-quavers.

This cameo of nine performances provides a brief overture to a 10-year creative high that was only silenced by Coltrane’s death in 1967. Of his association with Monk, the saxophonist told Downbeat in 1960 that “working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from in every way – through the senses, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them. I could watch him play and find out the things I wanted to know. Also, I could see a lot of things I didn’t know about at all.”

John Coltrane

Having been enveloped in the creative hothouses of two acknowledged geniuses of modern music, Coltrane was now emerging as a rugged individualist whose artistic vision was beginning to coalesce. “Miles and Monk are my two musicians,” he told Downbeat. In early 1958 Coltrane rejoined Davis where he would remain for the next fifteen months. It was a very different player who lined up alongside Davis on trumpet, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto saxophone, with Paul Chambers on bass and from around April 1958, Bill Evans on piano, and from the following month, Jimmy Cobb on drums. In an interview in Downbeat in 1958, Adderley observed, “Coltrane and Sonny Rollins are introducing us to some new music, each in his own way. I think Monk’s acceptance, after all this time, is giving musicians courage to keep playing their original ideas, come what may.”

As the year 1958 drew to a close, Coltrane continued to be highly critical of his work but the “dejection and dissatisfaction” he experienced as a younger man was replaced by a desire to improve, supported by the self knowledge that he had it within him to do so. “I have more work to do on my tone and articulation,” he told Downbeat that year. “I must study more general technique and smooth out some harmonic kinks. Sometimes when playing I discover two ideas, and instead of working one, I work on two simultaneously and loose continuity.”

On 26 December 1958, Coltrane was involved in his final date as a leader for the Prestige label, a quartet session with pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and Art Taylor on drums. Of the six tracks recorded that day, ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Then I’ll Be Tired of You’, the latter with Freddie Hubbard added on trumpet, appeared most recently on the album Stardust. They give no indication that his next date as a leader would be a key event in jazz history.

By the following year, Coltrane was now earmarked by musicians and public alike as a player to watch and was poised to participate in the most famous jazz album ever made, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Recorded on 2 March and 6 April 1959 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York city, it has been described with some justification as “one of the most important as well as sublimely beautiful albums in the history of jazz.” On this album, perhaps more than any he recorded with Miles Davis, Coltrane offers a perfect contrast to Miles Davis’ eloquent minimalism, adapting his style to fit the needs of music. On Kind of Blue harmony remained static, often for as long as 16 bars at a time, challenging the improviser to create meaningful solos with the minimum of harmonic guidance.

John Coltrane Giant StepsTwenty-four days after the first Kind of Blue session and sandwiched between the final 6 April record date, Coltrane went into the Atlantic Studios to begin work on his debut with Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic label. It was to be an album whose harmonic approach was the complete antithesis of Kind of Blue. However, Coltrane’s first sessions for Atlantic on the 26 March sessions remained unissued until 1974, but at least they yield first versions of ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Naima’. The key track is ‘Giant Steps’, which would subsequently provide the title track of the album. Here, with pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Lex Humphries, the tempo is slower than the final issued take, and sees Coltrane’s conscientious application of patterns, most notably a i-ii-iii-v grouping (equivalent to do, re, mi, so in Tonic sol-fa) which in both root and inverted forms appears numerous times throughout his solo – indeed, on the master take Coltrane would use the pattern in root form some 35 times.

This use of patterns was hardly new in jazz, in 1927 Louis Armstrong employed an amazingly modern-sounding nine bars pattern running during his vocal on ‘Hotter Than That’, and Sonny Stitt systematically applied patterns to negotiate his way through the complex, extended chord progressions of bop, such as his 1949 version of ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’. There are two forms of pattern running, or “sequencing” as it is sometimes known. “Melodic Sequencing” is to do with preserving the relationship of a group of notes, one to another, through a sequence of chords so that, for example, the tonic, the mediant and the dominant of one chord are played as the tonic, dominant and mediant of another. In the case of ‘Giant Steps’, the frequently used tonic, supertonic, mediant and dominant sequence (i-ii-iii-v) of one chord becomes the tonic, super-tonic, mediant and dominant of another chord. “Rhythmic Sequencing” is the repetition of a rhythmic figure in which the notes don’t necessarily retain their melodic relationship one to another, as in “Melodic Sequencing,” but their rhythmic relationship is preserved.

Coltrane handled patterns derived from pentatonic scales, transposed to fit each chord as it flew by, exceptionally well. The master take of ‘Giant Steps’, with a different group to the 26 March session with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums, was recorded on 5 May 1959 and the final issued take is taken at a brighter tempo than the earlier session. There are 26 chord changes in the 16-bar theme of ‘Giant Steps’ which provides a formidable challenge for the improviser with its quickly changing key centres. It is a challenge that proved almost too much for pianist Flanagan (however, later in life he proved he had thoroughly mastered the changes when he recorded the composition on his 1982 trio album In Memory of John Coltrane: Giant Steps). In contrast, Coltrane’s masterful application of pattern running techniques throughout this piece proved to be widely influential. As Lewis Porter, author of John Coltrane: His Life And Music, notes: “This use of ‘pentatonic patterns’… is widespread today, primarily through Coltrane’s influence.”

John Coltrane

“‘Giant Steps’,” Porter points out, is effectively an étude – or a thorough study – of third-related chord movement. Chordal movement in major thirds was not common at this time in jazz. Among the few pieces where the improviser would be confronted with this kind of harmonic movement was the middle eight of ‘Have You Met Miss Jones?’ which has key centres moving by major thirds for the whole eight bars. Equally, ‘Giant Steps’ has the root movement of the underlying harmonies moving in same way. However, Porter argues it was probably less the influence of “Miss Jones,” more the influence of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns that gave the final eight bars of the composition its final shape.

“Everybody was looking at Slonimsky’s book, trying to see how it fitted into Coltrane’s thinking on ‘Giant Steps,’” he said down the line from New Jersey. “Everybody was poring over it and nobody thought of looking at the introduction. And here Slonimsky said – and I paraphrase – ‘you might enjoy putting chords under some of these patterns.’ And as an example he gave one of his patterns harmonised, and it turns out to be very close to the second eight bars, the second half, of ‘Giant Steps.’ It was there all along right in the front of the book where nobody checked!” Here, in the final eight bars, Coltrane adapted Slonimsky’s “patterns” to form a series of iiv-i progressions (the most common chord progression in jazz), again separated by major thirds.”

Today, as Lewis Porter, who is also associate professor of music at Rutgers University, points out, ‘Giant Steps’ has “become a test piece for jazz musicians and is required fare in jazz education programmes.” But as Norwegian saxophonist Petter Wettre recalls, being faced with this piece for the first time as a student can be a very daunting experience. “At some point in your career as a student, or later, you are going to be confronted with ‘Giant Steps,’” he says.

“At first I had no idea how to play it because it is so hard. When I was at Berklee College of Music, you get ‘Giant Steps,’ you get the transcription of the solo and you learn that and after that you’re on your own. But there is so much information packed into that performance. Now, teaching myself I spend a lot of time on it, for saxophonists it is something you must know, and have a deep understanding of. Everybody learns it, although today hardly anybody plays it!”

Wettre helps students quickly reach a working knowledge of the piece. “Viewed separately, none of the chords in ‘Giant Steps’ are difficult. It’s when you string them together it gets tricky,” he says.

“Although ‘Giant Steps’ has 26 chords, there are only 10 key changes, and those 10 key changes involve just three keys – B, G and Eb. Using the dominant’s pentatonic scale of each key centre means you basically have to learn three pentatonic scales to improvise over the tune – F#, D and Bb. But watch out, this only works if you pay close attention to where the chords change. But having tried it both ways I would say you will get results much easier than the ‘conventional’ way – i, ii, iii, v and i, ii, iii, v and so on. My personal view is that the main challenge lies with tempo. But since chords, melody and form are already predetermined, you are free to choose tempo. In other words, bring the tempo way down when you practise it. And why not try it in a slow tempo when you perform it? It’s a beautiful line with an organic melody curve that benefits from a slower tempo.”

From his perspective as both performer and educator, Wettre wonders, tongue-in-cheek, why women jazz musicians don’t seem quite as attracted to “Giant Steps” as men. “Why is this?” he asks. “So I asked my girlfriend, ‘What is the deal with women and ‘Giant Steps?’ She said, ‘It’s a guy thing.’ This got me thinking.

Is it really a guy thing, to sort the men from the boys? I decided to call the Norwegian female saxophonist Frøy Aagre for a comment. What did she think?

Aagre said: “I used to practise ‘Giant Steps’ a long time ago. As a student. To overcome technical difficulties. In my case was never intended for public hearing. ‘Giant Steps’ didn’t address me emotionally. It’s about pure technique. ‘Giant Steps’ is a typical tune that serves the purpose of competing with other musicians to see who’s the best. It triggers the competitive instinct which is much stronger with men than with women. My personal opinion is that women more often compete with themselves rather than with others. With men, it’s the other way around.”

Wettre concedes Aagre’s response was surprisingly similar to his girlfriend’s statements. “I tried to tell my girlfriend that John Coltrane was perceived by everyone who knew him as the world’s most humble person. I told her, ‘There is no way he’d degrade himself to commit a difficult tune just to separate the men from the boys.’” He also notes that while his generation used to use ‘Giant Steps’ as a rite of passage, this is now changing among jazz musicians of the current generation. “I consider myself an ‘old school’ improviser – form, chords, melody – but younger musicians coming through, students, twenty, twenty-five, I’m not going to generalise, but it doesn’t have the same impact as when I first started playing it 25 years ago. Fifty years after it was recorded it’s not seen in the same sense as it used to be, today it’s open forms, simpler harmonies, I won’t be drawn about whether that’s good or bad, but after another fifty years my guess is its impact will be lost.”

The complete Giant Steps album, including the title track, was recorded with a second group of musicians comprising Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums on Monday 5 and Tuesday 6 May 1959. Clearly Coltrane was thoroughly absorbed in the cyclic harmonic pattern of ‘Giant Steps’ since ‘Countdown’ – the third track on the original album Atlantic 1311 – while being a contrafact of ‘Tune Up’, uses a similar ‘Giant Steps’ substitute progression (other pieces that do included ‘Central Park West’, ‘Exotica’, ‘Fifth House’ and ‘Satellite’). In what was his first album comprising entirely of his own originals, three pieces, ‘Naima’, ‘Cousin Mary’ and ‘Syeeda’s Song Flute’ are dedicated to Coltrane family members. ‘Naima’ is a serene, almost exotic tribute to his wife and is largely based on a pedal point (a sustained note, usually in the bass) with a hypnotic, pre-arranged bass part. It’s a piece that is very difficult to describe as “a ballad”; perhaps tone poem is more appropriate.

‘Cousin Mary’, the second track on the original album, is a blues that began life as ‘Old Blues, New Blues’ and is dedicated to Coltrane’s cousin Mary L. Alexander with whom he lived as a child in North Carolina and later in Philadelphia for the better part of two decades. Coltrane’s approach to the blues here and on the minor blues ‘Mr. P.C.’ – dedicated to Paul Chambers (the final track on Giant Steps) and now a jam session favourite among musicians – uses more basic changes than Charlie Parker’s approach to the blues with its chromaticism and use of ii-v-i substitutions. ‘Syeeda’s Song Flute’, is dedicated to Coltrane’s stepdaughter who at the time was learning the recorder. Track five on the original album, it reflects the influence of Thelonious Monk. Giant Steps was released in January 1960, and reviewed in Downbeat in their 31 March edition where Ralph J. Gleason presciently observed “You can tag this LP as one of the important ones.”


“Coltrane revolutionised jazz instrumentally, harmonically and rhythmically”


In a career that can be broadly divided into three phases, Coltrane revolutionised jazz instrumentally, harmonically and rhythmically. The first phase was his “change-running” or hard bop period culminating in Giant Steps, which is used in histories to act as a neat bookend for this first part of his career. Of course, it wasn’t quite as neat as that, as subsequent albums like Coltrane Jazz attest, but its towering aesthetic, artistic and technical achievement diminishes such semantics. The second phase was his “modal” period from 1960 to 1965 with his “classic” quartet that included pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones that culminated in A Love Supreme and the third was his “free” period from 1965 until his death in 1967 that was characterised by free-form pieces, simultaneous collective improvisation and a greater involvement with Eastern musical concepts. What is remarkable about each of these three phases was the impact they had on his fellow jazz musicians – it was as if Charlie Parker had appeared in jazz three times.

While Giant Steps may seem like a springboard into the next phase of his career, Lewis Porter suggests the path Coltrane would follow was suggested not by Giant Steps at all, but by Kind of Blue. “On ‘So What,’ the opening selection, Coltrane spontaneously composed a tightly unified solo notable for both the abstract quality of its melodic motives and for the way he develops each motivic idea,” he says.

“The ‘So What’ solo indicates the direction Coltrane’s music was to take during the 1960s. He became more and more concerned with structural aspects of improvisation; as he did so he concentrated more exclusively on modal backgrounds, which gave him the time he needed to develop his ideas at length.”

Historically, Coltrane appears as the link between the song-based techniques of Charlie Parker and the more abstract “free jazz” approach of Ornette Coleman. But he is also something more. Coltrane embraced the notion of continuous artistic evolution, his questing musical curiosity forging a musical path that celebrated musical style as a process, not an arrival point.

Listening to his recordings from each of his three periods we can peer across the boundary of time to hear Coltrane’s music as it sounded during his transition from star sideman (with Miles Davis) to a leader in his own right continually pushing the boundaries of musical possibilities, whether it was cyclical song forms such as ‘Giant Steps’, adapting modes to song forms such as ‘My Favourite Things’ that lead to open form pieces like ‘India’ and ‘Óle’, to the freedom and abstraction of the “final” period on albums such as Live in Seattle or Interstellar Space. It is the flowering of a true jazz giant whose range both musically and emotionally is only beginning to be understood today.


“It is not unreasonable to suggest that among jazz musicians, and so within jazz itself, Giant Steps may well be the most influential jazz album of all time”


Today, Coltrane continues to be a musical inspiration for both fans and musicians alike, and his recorded legacy is essential study for any aspiring jazz musician. ‘Giant Steps’ and the underlying harmonic movement of Coltrane’s 16-bar composition – often called “the Coltrane Changes” – have long been a settled module in jazz education pedagogy. So with almost all professional jazz musicians under the age of 40 having enjoyed at least some degree of formal jazz education, it is not unreasonable to suggest that among jazz musicians, and so within jazz itself, Giant Steps may well be the most influential jazz album of all time.

Coltrane’s solos have been transcribed and analysed by countless scholars, he has been the subject of hundreds and hundreds of academic dissertations and there have been seven biographies of him in the English language alone, the most recent Lewis Porter’s definitive John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Indeed, so much has been written about Coltrane that it might appear you need a doctorate of music to go anywhere near his recordings.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as Giant Steps demonstrates so eloquently. His music contains universal values that still speak to us now – the essential humanity of his work, the sheer joy of music making and the power and energy of his playing that even today can be both moving and uplifting. These are values that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone, just as Coltrane intended.

This article originally appeared in the Dec 09 / Jan 10 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.


Feature John Coltrane – In the Temple of Trane

Feature Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

Review Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane ★★★★★

Jacob Collier – the vocalist/multi-instrumentalist YouTube sensation

Jacob Collier

Jacob Collier is a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist whose YouTube videos have gained him a huge online audience. His most recent video is a cover of Michael Jackson's 'PYT'. Jazzwise is always on the lookout for the brightest young musical talents, and Mike Flynn spoke the Collier about his musical passions and aspirations back in December 2013 just as he was about to truly take off...

When it comes to comments left on most YouTube videos, there’s a tendency towards the puerile, inane or insane. Yet few self-produced videos get messages like; “The most talented kid on earth today,” from Grammy-winning singer-songwriter k.d. lang, or “blown away” from guitar icon Steve Vai. But these are attributed to the extraordinary work of Jacob Collier, a 19-year-old Londoner currently studying jazz piano at the Royal Academy of Music who has clocked over a million views since he began uploading his own distinctive self-produced videos just two years ago. Filmed, edited and recorded with a single SM58 microphone and his laptop, the videos feature six Colliers each singing baritone, bass, tenor, treble and soprano vocal parts alongside myriad instruments particularly acoustic and electric bass, piano, melodica, percussion and drums.

His hybrid style is equal parts post-classical Take 6 gospel rhapsodies, Django Bates-ian melodic whimsy, Zawinul-esque keyboard solos with a dash of soul and dubstep on the side. Initially posting radical re-workings of such traditional fare as ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ and a gloriously off-piste re-harmonisation of Jerome Kern’s ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’, his breakthrough version of ‘Pure Imagination’ from the 1971 Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film was the one that went viral in a big way. Another video is a six-minute a capella opus that takes Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’ as its starting point but soon spins out into a wild polyrhythmic latin jazz suite of Loose Tubes-ian proportions with Collier playing everything bar the kitchen sink. Yet amidst the complexity there’s a striking clarity and precision to his vocals while the multi-layered ideas flow with an effortless groove that’s as infectious as it is impressive.

We meet in a busy pub near the Royal Academy of Music where he’s studying jazz piano, to talk about his wholly contemporaneous route into today’s ever-changing music scene. In person Collier is a ball of youthful energy, speaking quickly as he unravels his packed, albeit short, musical life so far. He tells me it’s the first time he’s left his home studio in two days, as he’s deep in production of the aforementioned Stevie Wonder epic. I wonder if he ever expected the kind of response his videos would create especially ‘Pure Imagination’?

“That was just the craziest 48 hours. I just pressed ‘go’ and then went to sleep. When I woke up I had 200 messages in my inbox, and it just exploded exponentially. At two o’clock that afternoon Peter Erskine sent me a message saying ‘I love your stuff’, Liane Carroll got in touch, so did Jonathan Kreisberg, Will Vinson all these incredible people I’ve admired for a long time – and then to top it all that evening I’d just had supper and went to check it again – and looked in my email and there was a message from Pat Metheny. I thought it was a mate having a laugh, but it was all written in lowercase and he said ‘Hi Jacob, I really love ‘Pure Imagination’, you’ve really taken it up a notch and I’m a huge fan… it would be great to great to meet you in New York sometime.’ I just sprinted up the road and back after that! It was crazy but so gratifying.”

With his mother Susan being a highly respected music teacher, violinist and conductor, music for Jacob has always been a way of life; “I’m the eldest of three children – Sophie and Ella are my two younger sisters and they are amazing, we sing Bach chorales together as family – it’s just so much fun.” Refusing his mother’s offer of piano lessons in favour of working things out himself, he did however take singing lessons from the age of eight, and by the time he was 14 he attained the highest mark in the country for his Grade 8 singing.

The seeds for his adventurously wideangle harmonies were sown through formative experiences performing both Britten’s ‘The Turn Of The Screw’ and Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ in Spain, Italy and London when still a school boy, saying of Britten’s music, “the harmonies are so, so cool that my mind was shattered outwards.” As his concepts began to form he had private lessons with Gwilym Simcock (“his playing is like Britten harmonies with improvisation,” says Collier) and Kit Downes (who first showed him how to improvise) to further his knowledge of both the piano and indeed jazz, and it was the latter pianist who suggested he audition for the Purcell School Of Music (that Downes himself attended), which he did, before auditioning for and attaining his current place at RAM.

With such an organic buzz online both Universal and Sony approached Jacob with the offer of a record deal. Yet it’s a sign of the times that he’s chosen to sign a ‘demo’ deal with Universal that funds some new recordings but doesn’t tie him to the label, allows him to retain all the rights to his music and complete artistic freedom. They clearly need him more than he needs them. His overriding concern now is that he’s allowed the time to develop and progress. All of which will be documented on his website and whatever comes of his recording deal he intends to create a solo multi-voice, multi-instrumental live show and keep pushing the boundaries with more videos. Session work is also coming his way including a featured vocal on the new Jason Rebello album. But for all this he remains excited about harnessing people power to further his music: “The whole YouTube thing is really eclectic you get tons of different types of people getting in touch and it’s all good if you can balance it and it doesn’t overwhelm you – it’s just so joyful. The thing now is just to do more and more stuff, and things could go like this, or like this,” he says gesturing upwards and sideways. “I definitely don’t want to close any doors I just want to keep opening them.”

Wayne Shorter – Music of the Spheres

Wayne Shorter

Mercurial and mysterious as ever, the saxophonist talks to Stuart Nicholson about how his deep past connections are now shaping his present, and future, conception of music, and what lies beyond!

Wayne Shorter Without A NetSaxophonist Wayne Shorter has long been acknowledged as a major figure in jazz. But since he has somehow eluded excesses of hyperbole that customarily swirl around those in the jazz pantheon, there have always been mutterings off-camera like, “Yes, we know he’s a jazz great, but how great?” by those who like their heroes to come plainly labelled. Well, they have their answer now. Shorter’s release Without A Net, hyperbole or not, is an album that marks a milestone in his career since it makes eloquent claim to be the finest recording yet by jazz’s greatest living musician.

Simply stated, there is no one else in the world today that has come close to matching the level of intense creativity displayed here by Shorter and his quartet – Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums – on this remarkable collection of 10 live tracks recorded on the band’s European tour in late 2011, and the 23-minute tone poem ‘Pegasus’, recorded live at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The album is also something of a milestone in another way – it’s his first album as a leader for the iconic Blue Note label in 43 years. Shorter first appeared on the label as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959. But he is not much concerned with his past and the run of classic albums he made under his own name for the label between 1964-1970, including Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil, Adam’s Apple and Super Nova, deflecting talk of the past with one of his famous elliptical anecdotes: “To me, all those albums and all those tunes or pieces of music, they just incorporate the same thing – they all remind me of ‘Once Upon a Time’, and after once upon a time, what do you do? You say ‘Once Upon a Time’ and then what? Not only has it got to be more than just soloing, it has got to be more than what something used to be if there is a broader, more profound function. I look on those albums, or the music, as music not finished, nothing to me is ever finished in life, it’s up for evolution, to evolve. There is a lot of information in everything, nothing actually dies. I look for the constants instead of the temporary in everything, if there is a constant then that is a real eternal adventure, I call it ‘The Ultimate Eternal Adventure’ when one wakens to something that is constant.”

Like most jazz musicians with a distinguished past, he takes the view that what is done is done, and what Shorter seems to be suggesting is that what has been done could always have been done better. It is the here and now that concerns him, the next project, the next challenge. But if you are looking for the constants in Shorter’s music that he talks about – ‘The Ultimate Eternal Adventure’ – a trajectory from the past to the present and Without A Net, then perhaps there is a direct correlation to be made between his latest album and that of the music of Miles Davis between 1964-7. This was the period when Shorter was a member of the trumpeter’s legendary quintet along with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums that produced the iconic Live at the Plugged Nickel from 1965.

The enormity of this album in the evolution of the small group in jazz was brought home in 1995 – to those who would listen – when Sony released a seven-CD set of the complete sessions that years earlier produced the single legendary album, released in 1966. “Ahhh! You hit on something,” responds Shorter with animation. “That was in my mind for quite a while and there is a 13 or 14 year period with Weather Report and to me that was a detour from the Plugged Nickel adventure. That period was a detour, and now I am continuing it.” Well, there was certainly a lot of information in Live at the Plugged Nickel, representing jazz at its highest level of creativity. “It’s kind of plain to see,” agrees Shorter, “but you are the first one who hit that [connection] right between the eyes.”

Wayne ShorterShorter’s period with Miles Davis in the 1960s roughly approximated his finest work on the Blue Note label during this period, and Davis was keen that Shorter write in similar vein for his band. Quite what Shorter brought to the Davis band can be illustrated by the title track of his album Speak No Evil, recorded for the Blue Note label three months after he had joined Davis in September 1964. A 50-bar AABA composition, Shorter’s theme stated in the 14th bar A section is simplicity itself, essentially one note, the sub-dominant in the home key of C minor, which occupies the first eight bars, followed by a two bar modulation and a return to the minimalistic theme, now in the dominant, for the next four bars. The 14-bar theme is then repeated, followed by a B section, a true ‘middle Photos eight’ of eight bars of broken phrases, followed by a return again to the 14-bar A theme. The middle eight aside, we have 42 bars using essentially two notes that was the complete antithesis of the typical jagged, jumpy bop and hard bop themes. However, even though the burden of complexity was removed from the front-line, it was transferred to the rhythm section where drummer Elvin Jones’ polyrhythms assume central interest, framed, as it were, by the static melody line.

Much of the revolution that took place in the music of Miles Davis in the latter half of the 1960s was sparked by the compositions of Shorter. Up to that point Davis had predominantly favoured traditional songforms and jazz standards. Through Shorter’s influence, he began using themes with relatively static melody lines, often of smooth, sustained tones and slow harmonic movement (as opposed to the twists and turns of bop and hardbop) contrasted by an interactive role for the rhythm section (as opposed to fairly static, timekeeping role of the rhythm section previously). This approach – as in ‘Speak No Evil’ – with an interactive role for the rhythm section and Tony Williams’ drums – Shorter’s piece ‘Nefertiti’ from the Nefertiti album is virtually a feature for Williams – became widely influential in jazz and jazz rock, and can be heard in bands such as Weather Report (of which Shorter was co-leader). These changes are usually attributed to Davis, yet it was Shorter who was the modest, self-effacing quiet revolutionary contributing more than his fair share to the evolution and redefinition of music of the period.


“We’re going to destroy the feudal system and get rid of Lords and Serfs and then we’ll be ready to greet the alien – that’s what that this music is about!”


With his own quartet, which made its debut on record in 2002 with Footprints Live!, Shorter wanted to translate the ideas at play in the Davis quintet into a contemporary context, sometimes even dispensing with compositions.

“When we got together it was one rehearsal and it was so short, the rehearsal was ‘not playing the way we used to play!’” explained Shorter. “If you have time to think about that, the testing time is when you’re in the moment, which is one of the chief components of playing jazz. There is a large amount of ear training that comes into play, hearing immediately what someone else is doing and you comment on it, and when you’re doing it you are in the world of composition, you in the world of ‘in the moment composing’, so when you are composing in that medium – in that manner – you’re might be on the way to be qualified to be called a de-composer! I’m a decomposer! The group now go on stage not knowing what we’re going to do. This aspect, or this characteristic, we have developed, and use attributes that people have but don’t use. I think it might be called the development of trust. To trust and really know there is no such thing as a coincidence or mistake, that you are not going to be self judged, or judged by, externally from the audience, and also we remove ego from the stage – showing off, trying to prove your educational credentials of your craft, your musical credentials – but instead go out there and how do you rehearse the unknown? No rehearsal – that’s going to be part of this new singularity, the inhibitors of this planet will be subjected to negotiating the unexpected these days and onwards, and we have to become more human to do that!”

On Without a Net, Shorter has selected six of his latest compositions plus new versions of his original ‘Orbits’, that first appeared on the Miles Davis album Miles Smiles from 1967, when Shorter’s composing methods had begun to take hold in Davis’ group, and ‘Plaza Real’ from the album Procession by Weather Report, which he co-led with Joe Zawinul in the 1970s and 1980s. Shorter is the film-buff-to- end-all-film-buffs, and thus includes the title song of the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio that marked the first on-screen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while the album’s centrepiece is a 23-minute tone poem written for his quartet plus the Imani Winds quintet, reflecting his growing interest in writing for strings and trying to locate a place that is equidistant between jazz, classical and the popular.

“Currently, I am working on some orchestral things,” he explains “We’re going to do something at Disney Hall, I’m working on a piece – an extended piece – with the band and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Esperanza Spalding, and we’re going to do this with three more orchestras; the Detroit Symphony Orchestra where Terence Blanchard is the director now; and the Nashville Tennessee Orchestra and the Washing D.C. National Orchestra. There are some orchestras in and around Massachusetts and Boston, some young conductors, young players talking about orchestra improvising, playing music and reading their repertoire and then included in the repertoire, sections of improvisation.

“I think this idea is spreading, everyone wants to get on it, we don’t hear that same, ‘I only read music, I don’t improvise’, ‘I don’t do this and I don’t do that’ – you know? People like Nigel Kennedy, he’s a mother, and there’s Lang Lang with Herbie and there’s some young, adventurous conductors – not just young – there’s gonna be something amazing come out of this. The Mayan calendar is correct, the end of the world will happen at Christmas (2012), to me meaning ‘the end of the world as we know it’. We’re heading towards a new singularity, which is going to come from the individual taking the lead in life instead of following. We’re going to destroy the feudal system and get rid of Lords and Serfs and then we’ll be ready to greet the alien – that’s what that this music is about!”

Shorter lives in a big white house in Los Angeles, festooned with Doric columns and a row of cypress trees in an upper-middle class suburban neighbourhood from where, in the 1970s and 80s, he would drive across town to participate in a Joni Mitchell recording session, a Steely Dan session or the occasional movie soundtrack. Today he is actively involved in jazz education at the UCLA, where he is Visiting Professor, and with the Thelonious Monk Institute. So how does he introduce students to the advanced improvisation techniques of his quartet on Without A Net?


Don’t repeat any of the other fairy tales, tell me a new story, tell me about yourself, tell me what you think life is, what is life, what is it?


“I would say don’t throw away everything you’ve learned,” he says after pausing to consider his answer. “Because if you are going to talk about flying into the unknown you’re going to need a flashlight, and that might be the skills you have acquired in the past, you have got to have a flashlight! Herbie, myself, Jimmy Heath, Ron Carter, there’s a few of us teaching at UCLA and we spend like two days out of a month each teaching along with Kenny Burrell, he’s been there a long time, he’s with the jazz portion of UCLA. The Thelonious Monk Institute is there now and they have seven students who have been auditioned and they qualify for the two-year programme that the Monk Institute provides. This two-year programme – they also have other courses at UCLA – but they can only do this programme when they have completed four years of college prior to all this, four years under grad studies. So, these seven musicians, they are g-o-o-d, I’m telling you, one from Chile – on xylophone, one of the best, and they all write too, so it’s not telling them not to do this or not to do that, but it’s being there and supporting and contributing what little tidbits you have – there’s a lot of wisdom here – to contribute whatever you can using the same unscripted dialogue and action we use when we play on stage as a quartet. We can’t change into a teacher, like a classical teacher, ‘I want you to do this…’ that’s not me, but the other musicians have different expertise and different teaching methods too.”

Shorter has been sufficiently impressed with the current intake of seven students at the Thelonious Monk Institute that he used them to perform as members of his own ensemble, “I was honoured somewhere in Los Angeles and they wanted me to do a 20 minute performance,” he says. “So I got the Thelonious Monk Institute’s seven musicians and we gave a little performance at the end of the award ceremony, there were other people getting awards, Johnny Mandel was one, and we did a little something and that was part of their voyage through UCLA and real life, and all that. Supporting this was Herb Alpert and some other people associated with him, so it’s all coming out to be, ‘What do you say after you say Once Upon a Time?’ Don’t repeat any of the other fairy tales, tell me a new story, tell me about yourself, tell me what you think life is, what is life, what is it?”

Suddenly Shorter breaks off to greet his music copyist who has just arrived to work on the music he is preparing for his upcoming concert with his quartet, Esperanza Spalding and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I have to go,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “This is like building a space craft here, we will be ready to greet the UFOs!” And with that he was gone.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise


Feature Top 20 Jazz Albums of the Last Five Years

Review Miles Davis – Cookin’ at the Plugged Nickel ★★★★★

Review Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) ★★★★★

Robert Glasper – Breaking Cover

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper’s recent double Grammy Award wins for his two Black Radio albums have capped an 11-year career that has not just seen him break through to the mainstream like few other jazz artists today, but has also seen Glasper forge deep bonds between today’s jazz, R&B and hip-hop scenes. Back with his original rhythm section of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid for his new album Covered, this simmering piano trio joins the dots between Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, hip-hopper du jour Kendrick Lamar, and jazz standard ‘Stella By Starlight’. John Murph reports...

As Robert Glasper dines at the Smoke Joint, a gentrified soul-food restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on a humid mid-May Sunday afternoon, a young man spots him then casually approaches. “Yesterday, you met my daughter Ella,” the transient gentleman says before exchanging pleasantries about music and life in Brooklyn.

Glasper – the noted 37-year-old jazz pianist with serious hip-hop and R&B bona fides thanks to his critically and commercially acclaimed Black Radio discs – welcomes the impromptu conversation as if he’s known the guy for years. Whereas some other easily recognisable artists would have probably cut the chatter rudely short, Glasper quickly establishes an inviting rapport.

“That’s the vibe,” Glasper says after the man departs. “The average jazz musician doesn’t have that. I really get people coming up to me and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re Robert Glasper!’ and just start talking. It’s cool to have that.”

Glasper’s flair for connecting with people paired with his incredible musicianship has served him well. During his shows, he brings an iconic stage presence that engages on an intellectual and emotional level; more importantly he puts jazz newcomers at ease. His comedic asides are just as well known as his impressionistic improvisations and his catholic taste in music, which embraces as much pop, R&B, gospel and hip-hop as it does the wide spectrum of jazz.

While Glasper – dressed casually in all black – gives the passerby the momentary sense that he has all the time in the world to shoot the breeze, the two-time Grammy Award winner is gearing up for another busy and productive year. The next day, he’s mastering a Nina Simone tribute album for RCA in conjunction with Liz Garbus’ Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? At the request of RCA Records, the companion disc will take on similar characteristics as Glasper’s Black Radio projects by having a litany of special guest vocalists that include Gregory Porter, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Usher and Jazmine Sullivan – all of whom were selected prior to Glasper’s involvement.

This week’s itinerary also includes Glasper completing a Miles Davis remix project for Sony Music. Glasper had already contributed to the soundtrack to Don Cheadle’s upcoming Miles biopic, Miles Ahead, before the label approached him about the idea. Glasper leapt at the opportunity but he didn’t want to do a rote jazz remix album. “They’re kind of boring,” Glasper explains. “You kind of chop up a part, put a beat to it, and that’s it.”

Sony Music gave Glasper access to the Miles recording vaults, which contains some multi-tracking of tunes. This enabled Glasper to reach higher; he recreated new songs, showcasing his Rhodes piano playing and a rotating cast of special guests, which includes Erykah Badu, Hiatus Kaiyote and John Scofield.

If those two endeavours aren’t enough, Glasper is touring. His travels this year have included spots in Japan, Spain, Germany and the UK; also on the list is a special engagement at Los Angeles’ Playboy Jazz Festival, where he will play with the Blue Note Records’ all-star band, Our Point of View. During the band’s stay in LA, he and Don Was, Blue Note Records’ president, plan to record an album. The tour also allows Glasper to support Covered, his newest Blue Note release, on which he returns to the piano trio format and reunites with drummer Damion Reid and bassist Vicente Archer, who played on Glasper’s first two Blue Note dates – Canvas (2005) and In My Element (2007).

On Covered Glasper refurbishes such modern popular tunes as John Legend’s sanguine ‘Good Morning’, Jhené Aiko’s angst-ridden ‘The Worst’ and Radiohead’s foreboding ‘Reckoner’. Those songs as well as the others culminate as the perfect segue away from Glasper’s two previous Black Radio discs with the Experiment. Glasper quickly notes the artistic decision was indeed strategic. “I had to think about how I was going to make a trio record that wasn’t going to completely neglect the audience that I’ve acquired from those mainstream R&B and hip-hop records,” he explains.

Making smart decisions has characterised Glasper’s career since he dropped his debut disc, Mood (Fresh Talent) in 2002. After that release, he made sure that the following discs would be on a major label so he signed with Blue Note Records. Even then, producer Eli Wolf had ideas about Glasper recording with some of his R&B and hip-hop contemporaries. But Glasper wisely thought how he would pace his career and the timing of such projects. “I decided to wait two or three albums so that I could first get the respect as a jazz pianist,” Glasper explains. “As a black man, critics are quick to put me in the hip-hop/piano category. And if that would be the case, I probably would have never gotten the respect for being a jazz pianist.”


“Most jazz musicians have their heads in the clouds thinking, ‘Oh, what do I feel like playing today?’ They don’t think about shit, but then they gripe.”
– Robert Glasper


“It’s a business at the end of the day. Your career is your business,” he continues. “Most jazz musicians have their heads in the clouds thinking, ‘Oh, what do I feel like playing today?’ They don’t think about shit, but then they gripe.”

Glasper hopes that Covered will introduce acoustic jazz to his Experiment fans. That’s why the disc also features a stunning reading of Victor Washington’s classic ‘Stella By Starlight’. After Glasper’s orchestral solo introduction of the composition’s melody, the rhythm section underscores Glasper’s melodic improvisations with an undertow that implies rap music’s boom-bap rhythmic bounce. The rendition deftly articulates Glasper’s mastery at hip-hop in that he often concentrates on the feel of the genre instead of trying desperately to mimic its sound. “‘Stella By Starlight’ has been played a fucking hundred million times. I don’t understand how people can record standards, just play them in a standard fashion then expect people to get excited,” Glasper laughs, “you got to do something to that shit.”

After concentrating five years on the Experiment, which earned Glasper two Grammys and catapulted him to the stratosphere of pop stardom, he began longing for the trio and the opportunity to focus on playing the acoustic piano. “All my jazz fans missed the trio, and so do I,” Glasper says. “I’d been away from the piano too long; I needed to get back to playing for real.”

That’s not to suggest that Glasper views the music he created with the Experiment as fluff. But playing with the trio forces him to utilise his virtuosic skills more because he’s the main voice throughout. “There’s no hiding behind anything,” Glasper explains. “There’s no stopping and having a drink and watching the other cats play – that’s something I could do with the Experiment. With the Experiment, there are so many areas in the show where I’m not playing at all.”

Before Glasper recorded Covered, he realised that he needed to brush up on his piano chops; so in late fall of 2014, his manager arranged a few trio gigs in New York City, Chicago and other major jazz cities to woodshed and rekindle his musical accord with Reid and Archer. “They were kicking my butt,” Glasper says about those early gigs. When time to record arrived in December, Glasper – inspired in part by the making of Cannonball Adderley’s 1966 hit LP, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!: Live at ‘The Club’ – decided to do it live in front of studio audience at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. “Just in case we weren’t totally ready, I would have the option of recording more,” Glasper laughs. “We put couches and a bar in the studio. We made the atmosphere sort of loose to make it seem like a little nightclub.”

“I didn’t really notice anything that has changed regarding his technical abilities,” Archer says about Glasper’s piano playing during the trio’s reunion. “The way he approaches the piano is different from what it was 10 years ago. Still, I didn’t see any hesitation in his playing at all. He’s a wonderful player.”

Archer argues that while the trio’s incredible bond prevailed, its chemistry has changed slightly because each member has gained experience playing with other musicians, and, they’re all more mature. “All of our individual sounds are more defined. We make better musical choices and know what to play and what not to play.”

The main difference Reid notices, however, is the emphasis on pop tunes rather than originals. “Now that we’re doing covers, there’s more thought about being careful and respectful to the compositions. That has brought a different concept to how we play together,” Reid explains. “On [Covered], we’re only doing two of his pieces – ‘I Don’t Even Care’ and ‘In Case You Forgot’. I personally like playing his originals more because I think that’s when we’re more open and more reactionary. We have this impulsive thing with the original music because we’re playing new melodies and chord changes; it stimulates different kinds of chain reactions.”

Like Archer, though, Reid believes that the trio’s hiatus and the individuals’ experiences playing with other musicians have enriched their chemistry for the better. “Now we’re more expressive and much more about listening to each other,” Reid says.

When Glasper talks about reconnecting with his trio mates, he praises both Archer and Reid for their singular musical voices and faculties at creating meaningful musical dialogue. “Damion is a special drummer; I don’t know any drummer who sounds like him,” Glasper says. “We have such a weird connection because we don’t feel rhythm in a metronome kind of way; it’s more circular. Sometimes, it feels like he’s playing free but then ‘Boom!’ the one is always there. I had to get used to that way again. When Damion and I are floating in the clouds, Vicente knows when to go out and when to be an anchor so that everything makes sense in a really dope way. Another good thing is that everybody in the trio really digs hip-hop. So when it’s time to do that shit, we’re on it.”

Speaking of hip-hop, soon after Glasper finished recording Covered, he got an invite from jazz saxophonist and hip-hop producer Terrace Martin to contribute to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new disc, To Pimp a Butterfly. Glasper – a huge fan of Lamar’s 2012 disc, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – sprung into action. Originally, the pianist was slated to play only on one song, ‘For Free’, a blistering indictment against America powered by a “balls-to-the wall” post-bop excursion. “I went from my jazz session where I didn’t do any hard swinging to the Kendrick Lamar session, where the first thing I did was that song, which is swinging like a motherfucker,” Glasper laughs.

Lamar was in the studio too and after hearing Glasper’s gutsy piano accompaniment, the rapper asked if he would play on some of the other songs. So with the help of electric bassist Thundercat showing him the melodies and chord changes, Glasper lent his improvisational wizardry to eight cuts on the critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly – an album that Glasper tweeted as “one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time”.

“People jumped on me after I said that,” Glasper recalls. “People were like, ‘You’re speaking too soon. You can’t say that; you have to give it time – like 10 years.’ There is such a thing called an ‘instant classic.’ We didn’t give A Tribe Called Quest 10 years before claiming that Midnight Marauders was a classic album or Common’s Like Water for Chocolate or D’Angelo’s Voodoo. You don’t need 10 years to call them classics. You just need good ears and know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Interestingly enough, one of most poignant moments on Covered occurs during the trio’s misty-eyed rendition of Lamar’s ‘Sing to Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. On the original, Lamar unravels a harrowing tale in which the protagonist is set on revenge after witnessing one of his friends get killed through gun violence. Because of his bleak circumstances, the protagonist confides to the listener that he too could become another fatality to the street’s vindictive wars. “There are so many ways you can peel that orange,” Glasper says about the song. “‘Dying of thirst’ can mean so many different things. In that song, Kendrick says that you need to be baptised in the water because you need love and God’s help. That’s where America is. It could be so many things.”


“When it comes to thinking about the police now, I’m always thinking about my son.” 
– Robert Glasper


On Covered, Glasper reprises the cascading melody on ‘I’m Dying of Thirst’ while Reid and Archer underscore it with a samba feel that’s as supple as it is sombre. But instead of featuring a rapper to deliver the song’s ominous theme, it features Glasper’s six-year-old son, Riley, and a few of his friends give a roll call of various young slain victims – many of which have made global headline news – at the hands of police brutality. The children’s unsettling cameo helps give Covered a deeper emotional gravity as it encompasses the #blacklivesmatter movement, which has swept over the United States. “When you hear kids’ voices saying that they are Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant and so on, it makes you think in a different way. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. They’re kids’.”

“Becoming a father has totally made me think differently to things than if I wasn’t a father,” Glasper continues. “When you’re a father, you become, ‘OK, I don’t want my son being this kid lying dead on the concrete. What can I do? I got to do something’. It hits you in a different way. I’m never thinking about myself when it comes to interacting with the police. But when it comes to thinking about the police now, I’m always thinking about my son.”

In addition to wanting to create an acoustic jazz album that speaks to its socio-political times, Glasper didn’t want his high profile to go to waste. He argues that as a black jazz musician, he’s one of the few who has a large-scale platform, a voice to which young listeners pay close attention. “There aren’t that many black people in jazz who have that platform. I can count on one hand those who have the young people’s ears in jazz – it’s probably me and Esperanza Spalding on the big scale,” Glasper says. “Then you also have people like Christian Scott and Jason Moran. It’s maybe one or two more people of our generation that already have the ear of the young people on a large scale. I’m not talking about being just a great musician; I’m talking about having the young generation’s ears, in which they respect your opinions.

“I can tell people what I ate today on Facebook and I get about 500 likes,” Glasper laughs as he finishes his plate of barbeque ribs. “So why not change that popularity into something else and try to make a difference with the platform that I have?”

The Robert Glasper Trio's Covered (Blue Note) is out now. Visit Blue Note for more information.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.


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