Life-changing jazz albums: 'Charlie Parker with Strings'

Keyboard-player Lonnie Liston Smith talks about the album that changed his life, Charlie Parker With Strings, by Charlie Parker. Interview by Brian Glasser

I know the one straight away – it was ‘Just Friends’, Charlie Parker With Strings. I was in high school, about 15. I grew up in a musical home, so we were always surrounded by music. We’d be sitting on the stairs on the front porch, singing – that was just natural for us. My father was in the Harmonising Four, they bin’ all over the world and went to different festivals every year. They’d have their own one in Virginia, the Dixie Hummingbirds would have theirs in Philly, and so on. I’d be running about backstage as a kid, and there’d be the Blind Boys, Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers. Bobby Womack was singing gospel then. But when I heard Bird, I said ‘What is that?’ They said, ‘that’s Charlie Parker, Bird. He’s playing jazz – you know, improvisation.’

 

‘He was so free and warm – he was flying around the whole universe, just playing’

 

I was at a friend’s house. His dad had a nice jazz collection. They were playing it there one day, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It was just unbelievable. I didn’t buy it – way back then, it was mainly radio. We had a piano in the house, but I wasn’t taking lessons. I could play the basic things, but when I heard that, I thought ‘I gotta learn about improvisation!’ That was the thing – playing different all the way through, changing the tune and so on. Bird was amazing because he could do that, but at the same time it was beautiful. A lot of people do improvisation and they can’t make it beautiful. He was so free and warm – he was flying around the whole universe, just playing.

So I just started to figure out things on my own. [Evidently sitting at piano, he plays down the phone: C major – A major – G major – F major chords.] Those are the chords for doo-wop and lots of R&B. All the songs were basically that – ‘Stand By Me’ and so on. I thought, ‘I can play this, but I’m tired of playing it!’ So I’d start playing: [plays expanded harmonies on the same chords and changes rhythm]. You’d keep on expanding. You try to figure out different sounds. That’s when I started listening to everybody – all the pianists, Art Tatum, Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson. Another great thing was when the jazz shows would pass through town – I heard the Count Basie Band when he played ‘April in Paris’, which I loved.

I never saw Bird play, but I worked with Max Roach and Miles Davis. My thing was, after [high] school I wanted to go to New York and try to meet and work with all the masters; and I did that. When I worked with Max, I’m quiet and laid back and he used to say ‘Man, Charlie Parker would have had a field day with you!’. Charlie was a genius but he had another side too!

I didn’t have no lessons – that’s the thing. Now you talk to kids, they go to jazz school; or they listen to records and write every note down. We were just experimenting. Then you start working, which brings you on – the first band I played in was the Metronome All-Stars, we’d be playing dances and everything. But I guess my thing was always to try to come up with a different sound, to figure out different things. Sometimes you’d be playing and something would just happen, and you’d think ‘Oh, my goodness’. That’s what you’d always be looking for – when that magic happens.

I worked with everybody – Pharoah and Gato and Rahsaan. The producer Bob Thiele said, ‘You’re getting known everywhere, it’s time for you to do your record.’ A few months later the record came out – Astral Travelling – and I was still with Miles. Bob said ‘You gotta support your record’; and I said, ‘Man, I’m not leaving Miles. I just did the record so I could say I’d done my own record.’ I told Miles: ‘They want me to support the record and I don’t want to do it’; and he just laughed and said, ‘You shouldn’t did [sic] the record!’

The art of music is fantastic, but the business – oh man, it’s bad. The whole thing for me has been love of the music. You start in church, then you get to studying all kinds of things, philosophies and religions and you say, ‘Wow – everyone’s saying the same things, so why are we fighting?’ That’s why I wrote ‘Expansions’. But people still doin’ crazy things …!

The album

Charlie Parker with StringsCharlie Parker

Charlie Parker With Strings

Mercury (1950)

PERSONNEL :: Charlie Parker (as), with orchestra.

TRACKS :: ‘Just Friends’, ‘Everything Happens To Me’, ‘April In Paris’, ‘Summertime’, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ and ‘If I Should Lose You’.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Life-changing jazz albums: 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard' by the Bill Evans Trio


Bassist Miroslav Vitous talks about the album that changed his life, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, by the Bill Evans Trio. Interview by Brian Glasser

The one album for me goes back to when I was quite young. I was 14 or 15 when I heard it, very near the beginning of playing jazz. It would have been soon after it was released in America. I heard it through Willis Conover [disc jockey on the Voice of America Jazz Hour radio programme that was broadcast across Europe and other parts of the world from the mid-1950s] – thanks to him all of us in the East parts of Europe were introduced to jazz. Actually, we in a Communist country heard more of the music than Americans at the time! When I came to the Berklee school of music [on a scholarship in 1966], I asked my fellow students, ‘Do you know this album, do you know that album?’; and they didn’t. I realised that they came from various cities in the US where they used to buy records that they would find in the local shop, but wouldn’t have had access to everything that I had on the radio. We had the whole spectrum thanks to Willis Conover. It made a lot of players what they were and still are today.

The programme always used to be at midnight. I had a little Grundig tape recorder so I taped it. It was a little strange because the authorities used to jam the radio station so you would get kind of spooky noises – you could hear raaoow raaoow raaoow in the background, even when you’d found a little signal to hear the music.

 

‘Scott LaFaro was the biggest inspiration for me, the biggest icon in my life once I’d heard this – his talent was phenomenal’

 

But anyway: the album is Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans. Two things grabbed me about it. Firstly, the bass playing, of course. Scott LaFaro was the biggest inspiration for me, the biggest icon in my life once I’d heard this – his talent was phenomenal. In the early days of jazz the bass took over from the tuba, of course. But at first people could not play the bass well – it took a while for the instrument to catch up.

But, just as important, it was the communication the group had – they had a conversation. And not the conversation you have in a normal jazz group, where you play the changes and have what I call a side-conversation via a distant point – these were the first ones who were actually holding a serious conversation. Not even Miles Davis at that time was doing that. They were really the first ones – thanks to LaFaro. He could be a voice next to Evans, and be an equal voice. Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton did that a little bit, but Blanton didn’t have the technique to execute it. After that, there was Miles Davis with the quintet with Tony Williams. It went in the same direction: change the changes, and if you get lost, let it happen, let it go. In Herbie Hancock’s biography, he said, ‘We couldn’t wait to get lost’! As soon as that happened, all this music could start to happen – once they were not locked in by the lines and the structure of the tune.

This leads to another thing to say about jazz – that it’s not as free as people think, because it has all those limits. Because you also have the roles: the bass role, the piano playing the harmony and so on, then the solo instruments go off on top of that. That was the model for jazz. But the Bill Evans Trio was having a direct conversation. Then Miles did that, and we continued it with Weather Report. The bass was not playing bass – the bass was like another equal instrument. That was the main reason why the sound was so new in Weather Report – the bass was playing like another saxophone or horn. So the other instruments had to answer: Zawinul had to answer me, I had to answer Shorter and so on. That’s possible because a bass has rhythm and harmony, so it can lead a band. All of a sudden we had this new music coming out – direct improvisation and direct communication. I don’t want to take all the credit for that, of course; but I do think the main reason for the sound being different was that the bass player did not play the bass role.

So for me it started with that trio, their attitude as much as the technique of LaFaro. Of course, when I first heard it, I tried to play like him – but I was such a bad copy, I played like Miroslav Vitous…!

The album

Bill EvansBill Evans Trio

Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Riverside (1961)

PERSONNEL :: Bill Evans (p), Scott LaFaro (b) and Paul Motian (d).

TRACKS :: ‘Gloria’s Step’, ‘My Man’s Gone Now’, ‘Solar’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘All Of You’ and ‘Jade Visions’.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Life-changing jazz albums: 'Spiritual Unity' by the Albert Ayler Trio

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings talks about the album that changed his life, Spiritual Unity, by the Albert Ayler Trio. Interview by Brian Glasser

It was really easy for me to decide: Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. I got the copy I own at Ray’s Jazz shop, but I heard it first at Guildhall – I went to the Barbican library and took out the CD. I saw the cover and liked it – a man merging into a saxophone. Although I’d heard of Ayler before then, I hadn’t checked him out.

So I sat down and listened to it – and I didn’t understand anything! But it was kind of interesting. This would have been in 2005 – I was about 19 or 20. At that time, I was listening to ‘normal’ jazz – Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, standard stuff. Modern-wise, everyone was into Mark Turner, Joe Lovano, Chris Cheek. Then all of a sudden there’s this guy just blowing the saxophone really hard. And it wasn’t about the harmony, or the specific notes, it was just sort of a texture. My brain couldn’t compute it. Before, I’d been listening for what I could take from something – what I could transcribe and use for my own solos. But this was untranscribable – it seemed like there was nothing to steal from it. It sounded like he was crying through the saxophone. You can hear vocalisation in Sidney Bechet and the older guys, but this was the first time I’d heard someone follow through on that and not try to mesh it with something more conventional.

Even at the start, there was something I liked in it. I can’t really put into words what it was; but something made me not want to turn it off. It might be that I liked the melodies, though there weren’t many of them. A piece might start off bluesy, then he’d just go off. And I really liked Sunny Murray’s drumming. I’d not heard any drumming like that – he was moving with the saxophonist, but in terms of intensity rather than rhythm. I could also hear the interaction was very deep – they’re all listening to each other, they’re not trying to follow each other in an orthodox way. I liked to concentrate on Gary Peacock and imagine I was him – soloing, but listening to everyone else.

 

‘Whatever Ayler does, it’s about the emotional intent behind it’

 

Back then I thought, ‘I’m just going to have to learn to listen to this music – in fascination and enjoyment’. The more I listened, the more I realised that it’s in what Anthony Braxton calls ‘an emotional zone’ – whatever Ayler does, it’s about the emotional intent behind it. I wanted to see whether I could get into that space where you’re free to do that. It’s all about the big picture – more like painting.

It made me listen more carefully to the other – ‘normal’ – stuff too. It’s easy to just learn the harmonics matrix and subconsciously you’re not listening properly any more. Everyone always says, ‘Listen [to your fellow musicians]’, but in the course of learning jazz – especially then, I think – you get preoccupied with trying to solve the equation. It’s very seldom you actually really listen. As a sax player, you play your stuff, try to make a good sound, try to get all the substitutions and the chord changes right – but you don’t let all that go and respond to what you’re hearing. Charlie Parker said, ‘You practice and practice; and when you get on stage, you forget it all’.

A couple of times in jam sessions, say playing ‘Giant Steps’ – at a reasonable tempo! – I tried to just listen to the bass-line and stay on every note he played and play things that sounded good on that, just as an experiment. And it worked! So from then, I tried to play stuff that I thought actually worked over what was happening, as opposed to listening and then playing stuff that I knew would work because it was ‘correct’. The conventional approach can get your mind in a tight place, where you have to prove what you’ve learned, otherwise you haven’t worked hard enough or whatever – even though you might not be fully committed to what’s happening. This other approach is all about integrity of intent. It makes everything simpler in a way, although it’s really hard! I only think I’m getting close to achieving it now.

With the classical music I was studying, I enjoyed the challenge of learning a piece and playing it without any mistakes. I like that split, that there was nothing connecting it to my jazz playing. Maybe by doing that training it made me not worry about playing free – because I knew I could play what people would term ‘properly’.

 

The album

Spiritual UnityAlbert Ayler Trio

Spiritual Unity

ESP-Disk' (1964)

Albert Ayler (ts), Gary Peacock (b) and Sunny Murray (perc).

Tracks: ‘Ghosts: First Variation’, ‘The Wizard’, ‘Spirits’, ‘Ghosts: Second Variation’.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Life-changing jazz albums: Miles Davis' 'In A Silent Way'

Clarinettist Arun Ghosh talks about the album that changed his life, In A Silent Way, by Miles Davis. Interview by Brian Glasser

I first heard this when I was 20 or 21. I was concentrating more on my classical playing at the time; but I was working out what I wanted to do, and really getting into jazz. Miles Davis was my main listening. I’d kept pretty much in line with his chronology, starting with Kind of Blue, and 1958 Miles – so lots of standards, as well as his modal stuff. But at the same time, in that late 1990s period, I was really into bands like Spiritualized, Primal Scream, The Verve, The Boo Radleys – very dense electronic textures. When I finally heard In A Silent Way I suddenly thought: ‘This is the sound! This is exactly the sound I want to make.’ I was a long way from making it, but it felt like it meant something very strong to me. I think I needed the background in the earlier Miles work to understand what he was doing; and I also needed the other music to appreciate the electronic textures.

What also went hand-in-hand with that was an increasing love and appreciation of Indian music – Ravi Shankar and all those other classical Indian dudes. In A Silent Way felt extremely Indian in a number of ways – that sense of space and time just stretching by, over these drones where people solo and stretch out melodically rather than grandstanding. So suddenly I’d found the right jazz sound for me – far more than bebop, far more than the cool stuff, far more than standards. It shaped how I think about sounds, drones and texture – both on stage and in my compositions for theatre.

 

“I bought In A Silent Way as a present for someone and then liked it so much that I couldn’t bring myself to give it to them”

 

It’s fascinating rhythmically – it’s so restrained. After listening so much to the 1960s quintet, where Tony Williams’ virtuosity made it sound like he’d created a new instrument, the way he just marks time on the whole of the first side was such a radical and unexpected move. Then you get to the second side, and he does the same thing. But then the magic happens, when that Dave Holland bassline comes in – it’s one of the all-time great basslines – and people are soloing over it and Miles waits till his turn at the end. And suddenly Tony just explodes. He’s held himself back for the whole album. It’s astounding; and the hit that gives me whenever I listen to it is pure joy. It takes me back to the raves I was going to then.

This album really lends itself to being an LP, with one long piece on each side. I bought it on vinyl from Decoy Records in Manchester, which I think Mike Chadwick used to run back then. I also bought Kind of Blue, which I already had on CD. In fact, I bought In A Silent Way as a present for someone and then liked it so much that I couldn’t bring myself to give it to them. They don’t know that! I feel guilty every time I think about it. In fact, you can still see the inscription on the back of my copy: ‘To someone... – who I’m not going to name – ‘Happy birthday, from Arun’. I still know this person… Actually, it’s my brother! It was for his 18th birthday. He’s going to read about this now!

Another family connection: I’ve always loved the cover. The expression Miles has on his face, his skin tone, has always reminded me of my dad. There’s something warm I feel about that, which in turn influences the way I feel about the music. The character of the playing is so gentle and tranquil, but with real strength behind it – which also reminds me of my father.

Finally – I could go on! – the texture that John McLaughlin brings to this really makes the album. Of course, he was into the Indian stuff by then. His open tuning on the first side and the E tuning on the second side shapes the sound of jazz for the next 10-15 years.

I met Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter last year when we shared a press conference, which was pretty amazing. I told Mr Shorter – Wayne – about listening to him in my flat in Manchester when I was young and had no money and how great it was to actually meet him, and he said: ‘Sometimes life is a fairy tale; and sometimes a fairy tale is life!’ These guys, man…

The Album

Miles Davis In A Silent WayMiles Davis

In A Silent Way

Columbia (1969)

Miles Davis (t), Wayne Shorter (ss), John McLaughlin (g), Joe Zawinul (org), Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock (el p), Dave Holland (b) and Tony Williams (d).

 

 

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

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