This is an interesting place to begin case-focused listening. This is the “traditions” chapter, which is a less obvious and more complicated focus than one would think. There are many hundreds of books on African-American sacred music, and the musical traditions of these institutions (which themselves reach back into the African-American and African pasts) have shaped nearly every idiom of American popular music, full stop. Certainly this is true for jazz, though I have sought to complicate the linearity of the narrative as often posited. This multiplicity is heard in how the “definite beat” of the church gives rise to such a bewildering array of musical forms.
It was in reference to Armstrong’s mighty Hot Fives that this “beat” was announced in this book, and though I have some of the Hot Fives and Sevens in Chapter One, how could I not include more in this chapter’s playlist? If you like what you hear, snap up a few classic sides from Columbia (I like Plays W.C. Handy and Vols. I and IV, the latter of which pairs Satch with Earl Hines) and, though it’s pricey, Mosaic’s Armstrong on Decca collection is glorious. It’ll make you feel loads better about America just listening to it.
Some truly amazing music flows out of this tradition, and among those many tracks noted at the opening I single out for your listening pleasure two from Cannonball Adderley and a nifty slice from Monk.
Who am I kidding? Here’s a bunch of the rest, too.
Sadly, Sam Rivers passed away before he could record his grandfather’s arrangements of spirituals. We can only imagine how dense, otherworldly, and righteously swinging these might have been. But Rivers left an impressive discography nonetheless, and each period of his careers contains marvels. You’d have to pay hundreds of dollars to acquire Mosaic’s Complete Blue Note Recordings at this point, but thankfully most of the records are available individually. Some of his most straight-ahead work is on Fuchsia Swing Song, which contains the gorgeous tune he wrote for his wife, “Beatrice”:
Perhaps my favorite of the Blue Notes is Dimensions and Extensions, especially the unbelievable flute work Rivers deals out alongside the Joe Chambers-fueled rhythm section:
After touring with one of Cecil Taylor’s most volcanic small groups (Rivers and Jimmy Lyons together with CT and Andrew Cyrille, hold on to your brain pans, kids), Rivers got further into exploratory work throughout the 1970s. He put together a viciously good, soulful trio with Cecil McBee and Barry Altschul. For a good taste, check this out:
After the big band record Crystals in the 1970s, Rivers got even more expansive in the 1980s and thereafter. Check out his Winds of Manhattan music, all of whose alums went on to have some pretty impressive careers in their own right:
And while I was never as crazy about his young trio from the 1990s as some other Rivers devotees were, you can’t knock the big band records that punched their way onto the scene at around the same time:
As I wrote in the book, there’s something about Ayler music that hits the sweet spot between solemnity and rousing joy. The Ayler brothers dreamed of playing a universal folk music that partook of traditional elements in order to transcend them. Hear the influence of Vernard Johnson, marching bands, national anthems, and jazz funerals. Because Ayler recorded over such a short period of time, and because he revisited the same tunes with such regularity, it’s hard to miss some of his major stylistic changes, from the gruff shout of the early ESP records to the ululations of his last recorded works for Impulse.
First on everyone’s list, and rightly so, is the condensed, furious masterwork Spiritual Unity.
Also from the early period are the great Witches and Devils, Bells, and oh yeah, Spirits Rejoice.
But as great as the slightly shaggy records from this first period can be, especially with the urgent propulsion of the great Sunny Murray, my heart is with the music from 1966-1967. There’s a great snapshot of that European tour with Brubeck, et. al. (on which, Michel Sampson attested, they were treated like the Beatles), and if you can find a copy of the Hatology Lörrach date it’s tremendous. Easier to track down, and even better, is the Impulse twofer from 1967, Live at the Village Vanguard. Call Cobbs, Milford Graves, Alan Silva, and the Aylers at their most majestic, hymnal and stirring from the start.
Love Cry is slightly more uneven but still quite strong, a kind of bridge to the halting populism of Ayler’s last two records (filled with curiosities, they’ve never really connected with me). Some of the last live dates are pretty apocalyptic, though.
Charles Gayle certainly has a sound that harks back to the Fire Music of the 1960s, but what he does with this lineage has to be heard to be believed. His early Silkheart dates announced a major presence, but it was really with the titanic Touchin’ on Trane that Gayle (in the company of William Parker and Rashied Ali) exploded, and I do mean exploded:
Like many players of his generation, Gayle is a committed multi-instrumentalist. He’s great on bass clarinet, though I’ve never really warmed to him on piano. Still, some of his best work is probably heard on Kingdom Come:
And he’s continued recording his own brand of devotional music at a pretty furious pace, with loads of recent highlights including Look Up:
Art Blakey was an absolutely unmistakable drummer. From his early bebop work to his percussion ensemble experiments to his many versions of the Jazz Messengers, there was force, invention, and the sheer thrill of music in each bar. Listen to him drive a band on the early Messengers date from the Café Bohemia:
The Messengers date with Monk is absolutely not to be missed. And for the purposes of this book, some of Blakey’s most important music is on Africaine and Orgy in Rhythm (and again, see Robin Kelley’s and Ingrid Monson’s work):
But by all means, don’t deny yourself the pleasures of Buhaina simply playing top-shelf hard bop, as on Moanin’, Caravan, and Free for All:
Dollar Dollar Brand, y’all. Duke Ellington discovered Brand (soon renamed Abdullah Ibrahim) and Sathima Bea Benjamin in the early 1960s, and since then, the South African pianist’s glorious synthesis of musical styles has tugged on many a heartstring.
He’s recorded in any number of formats over the years, and his effusive emotionality and distinctive rhythmic language come through in any context. It’s not common to hear him with a big band, so I enthusiastically recommend African Space Program.
There are some great performances with the late bassist Johnny Dyani on Good News from Africa (some folks love the duets with Max Roach, Streams of Consciousness, but though I love both players I’ve never fully warmed to it). Echoes from Africa and Mantra Mode are exceptional mid-period works, but tops for me are the killer string of albums Water from an Ancient Well, Mindif, and my all-time fave African River. Each one has deep cuts, but if you don’t swoon for African River’s “The Wedding,” “Joan – Capetown Flower,” and “The Mountain of the Night,” get a check-up.
Everyone likely knows McCoy Tyner from all of those Coltrane records, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. But the man is a giant in his own right, and continues to record amazing music. Of the early stuff, most of the Impulse and Blue Note datess are top drawer. You absolutely need The Real McCoy, Tender Moments, Expansions, and Extensions.
Into the 1970s, Sahara, Echoes of a Friend, and Enlightenment are the picks for this chapter’s thematics.
Yusef Lateef’s work with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band is well-documented, but it’s his own far-reaching work as composer and improvising multi-instrumentalist that best reflects his own musical principles and his understandings of Islam. For an early example of his explorations, check out Eastern Sounds.
Into the 1960s and 1970s, he realized his ideas pretty fully on records like Psychicemotus and Autophysiopsychic.
And his long partnership with percussionist Adam Rudolph yielded a lot of gems. I’m especially fond of Beyond the Sky.
At the outset of the section on Buddhism, I mention a few players who, while they don’t get much analysis in the text, are certainly worthy of your listening attention. Few artists did more to popularize a kind of Hindu improvisation (linked to Sri Chimnoy) than Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. For evidence of his advanced jazz chops, check him out with Miles (he’s all over In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Live Evil, among others) and his own, outrageously good Extrapolation (where you also have the added pleasure of hearing Tony Oxley play time). But of course it’s those ear-shredding early Mahavishnu Orchestra records that kill again and again. Get them all, especially Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. And yes, that’s the same Jan Hammer who went on to make gazillions of dollars writing the Miami Vice theme.
And if you like that, dig this full French concert with wonderfully hippie-ish crowd banter from Mahavishnu John (“these are my musician brothers . . . “).
David “Fuze” Fiuczynski is a ridiculously inventive guitarist who worships at Mount Mahavishnu like all sane plectrists do. But he’s got his own style, spring-loaded, twang-barred to hell, deeply funky, and rocketing out to atonality on occasion. He turned in some nifty early side work with Muhal Richard Abrams and Shannon Jackson, among others. But most folks first heard him (as I did) on 1994’s block-rocking Lunar Crush with John Medeski.
If you like what you hear, check out Fuze’s “rock” band the Screaming Headless Torsos and then listen to him mix up some standards in trio format on Jazz Punk.
Marilyn Crispell arrived on the scene in furious fashion, with a string of strong releases for Leo, including Gaia and the great Santuerio. She’s best known to a lot of folks as the pianist in Anthony Braxton’s masterful quartet, which I often find myself thinking was the most significant band since the Coltrane quartet. More on that music below, but Crispell’s own rhapsodic playing (certainly indebted in part to Cecil Taylor’s use of cluster chords but taking in sources as diverse as Debussy, Paul Bley, Annette Peacock, and Bud Powell) is singular. Hear this especially on some of her solo records (like For Coltrane), the incredible Peacock tribute (Nothing Ever Was, Anyway), and some of her recent trio work with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton (and do investigate their multi-decade partnership with saxophonist Evan Parker, who I’d likely name as the most significant saxophonist since Coltrane).
Alas, the titanic Sonny Rollins only gets a scant mention in this book. What can you do? If you’re even the slightest bit interested in jazz, you need some Newk in your life. The effortless mastery of his early records is still jaw-dropping, and before his first hiatus from public performance he dropped some bona fide classics. Way Out West, Saxophone Colossus, and a tasty summit with Monk are all great, but I’d start out with A Night at the Village Vanguard. Pure, undistilled jazz.
On his return to activity in the mid-1960s, the music got even better. Sonny Rollins on Impulse is great, as is the magisterial East Broadway Rundown (and don’t sleep on his Freedom Suite, of course).
But some of my all-time favorite music is from his quartet with the great Jim Hall. As good as this music is on record, one time I was staying with my pal Darin Gray on tour and he played us a Japanese TV performance of “The Bridge” that was nearly twice as fast, and twice as rocking.
Herbie Hancock didn’t record a tune called “Chameleon” for nothing. All those years with Miles must have taught him the art of artful transformation. Aside from his work in that peerless quintet, his own advanced modern jazz recordings in the 1960s remain strong entries. Maiden Voyage is still a great introduction to his impressionistic music of this period. But very soon, Hancock was playing a Rhodes with the Dark Magus, writing film and TV scores, and putting together some seriously molten funk combos, from Mwandishi to Headhunters. But Hancock kept going in new directions, carrying the torch for acoustic jazz with VSOP, writing the electro-pop smash “Rockit,” and then New Standard.
Hancock’s friend, bandmate, and fellow Buddhist Wayne Shorter is probably best known for his long association with fusion combo Weather Report. I never fully warmed to them as much as other fusion bands, though their live stuff is pretty killer. Shorter’s solo work gives you plenty to chew on. His early tenure with the Messengers and Miles could find him playing searching, churning tenor. But with his own distinctive recordings and compositions, he increasingly came to play in a more spacious, abstracted fashion that didn’t so much sacrifice energy playing as contain it ever more effectively. The string of albums he recorded for Blue Note in the 1960s is pretty flawless, and of these I think his aesthetic is captured best on Speak No Evil, Et Cetera, and Adam’s Apple (though spare a moment for The All Seeing Eye).
I’m not as crazy about the work he did in the 1980s, but in recent years Shorter has returned to form more than vigorously. Starting with 2002’s Footprints Live! and continuing with Beyond the Sound Barrier and Without a Net, Shorter has been tearing it up with a white-hot band where he’s joined by Danilo Perez, John Pattitucci, and Brian Blade.
Where does one begin with Dizzy Gillespie? One begins with bebop, of course, the idiom and the tune. And this will be continued in the playlist for Chapter 5.
Of all the many musicians influenced by Gillespie’s vision of Baha’i universalism as a model for jazz, one of the most singular is vocalist/bandleader Betty Carter. In a just world, Carter would be as well-known as Ella or Billie. Creative, demanding, and a performer of overwhelming daring and thrill, you absolutely must have The Audience with Betty Carter.
For as active as they have been in Bay Area improvised music over the last few decades, Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas haven’t released an awful lot of records. Outside of their group Positive Knowledge, Oluyemi often shines in duo situations, where his forward-racing continual stream of ideas is really in the spotlight. Some highlights are Transmissions (with the other-worldly Alan Silva as his partner) and The Power of Light (with bassist Henry Grimes). For Positive Knowledge, proceed directly to a cracking set from Ann Arbor’s Edgefest, on Not Two Records as well as the recent Inward Connections.
Pianist Chick Corea has had nearly as multifarious recording career as Hancock. After some pretty illustrious records as a sideman, Corea recorded some absolutely essential trio dates, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and Toans for Joan’s Bones. It was around the late 1960s, when he was also ripping it up in Miles’ bands, that Corea laid down the framework for two of his most exploratory bands of the early 1970s: A.R.C. (whose debut on ECM is a must) and Circle (whose Paris Concert on that same label is one of the crucial documents of early 1970s jazz, full stop). Without wanting to give short shrift to Corea’s range of work for ECM for the balance of that decade (his duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton are terrific), his leap into fusion with Return to Forever certainly marks his deepening commitment to Scientology as well. After the relatively straight-ahead ECM debut (with Joe Farrell on horns and vocalist Flora Purim), RTF got more electrified and more chops-warrior-ish with Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy, Where Have I Known You Before? and others. Many folks swoon for the Akoustik and Elektrik bands Corea led in the 1980s and 1990s, though I always found them impressive but slightly too clinical.
Turning now to the complex, self-conscious, often highly satirical traditions of Judaisms in jazz, some of the early exemplars noted in the text continue to dazzle. Several of these, Fred Katz and Shelley Manne in particular, strike me as deserving your listening attention.
Listen to Cab Calloway imitate (to great controversy at the time) cantorial vocals on this version of his major hit “Minnie the Moocher”:
Former Benny Goodman trumpet ace Ziggy Elman turns in a simply dazzling reading of the klezmer chestnut “Bublitschki” here:
The polymath Fred Katz should have been receiving everyone’s attention all along. Thanks to the efforts of scholars like Josh Kun, among others, Katz’s magisterial Folk Songs for Far Out Folk got some deserved acclaim on its recent reissue. Enjoy his rad synthesis of Jewish, African, and Latin music on “Mate’ka” (and note the allusion to Diz’s Afro-Cuban mashup in the title):
Shelley Manne is best known as a cool-school drummer and scion of West Coast venue the Manne Hole. He’s certainly one of the great drummers from that scene, but his Steps to the Desert was light-years ahead of the game in terms of bringing in traditional Jewish materials to a dealing jazz context. Check it out:
Pianist Narada Burton Greene was a key player on the burgeoning free jazz scene in mid-60s New York. After a spell, he relocated to Amsterdam and settled down on a houseboat. Still active and experimental, in the late 1980s it was Greene who began to revitalize interest in Jewish jazz with his Klezmokum.
And in the early 1990s, the always-intense Don Byron – whose powers of cultural observation are nearly as great as his musical abilities – made a statement about cultural hybridity on his reverent (but not too reverent) Plays the Music of Mickey Katz. If you’re a sucker for Borscht Belt humor and sweet chalumeau clarinet playing – and how could you not be? – you’ll go nuts for this stuff.
The world of John Zorn is deep and complex. In fact, it’s probably less world and more solar system. The early game pieces like Archery and Cobra played a vastly significant role in galvanizing downtown music in the early 1980s, and Zorn’s catholic music tastes and bad-boy experimentation landed him a big deal with Nonesuch later that decade. Do check out The Big Gundown, Spillane, and his hyperdrive Ornette group on Spy vs. Spy. And of course, Naked City continues to thrill and provoke, from the “Batman” theme and those grindcore tracks with Yamantaka Eye vocals all the way to supple readings of George Crumb and Charles Ives, or the bludgeoning sludge of Leng T’che. Here is a slice of NC to start your listening to this chapter:
But let’s begin with Zorn’s own opening musical engagements with Radical Jewish Culture, his fierce Kristallnacht. I give you the same warning the record label did: the uncompromising tintinnabulation of this piece bids you to play at low volume first, adjusting upward only as your comfort (and your bravery) allows:
The main stuff, however, was delivered thrillingly by Zorn’s Masada. Their first ten (!) records appeared almost overnight from Japan’s DIW label, those glorious covers with Hebrew scrawled across what looked like faded papyrus. Alef, Beit, Gimel, Hei, Vav . . . With then-new trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen (yes, the same fellow on all those Tom Waits records), and ace drummer Joey Baron, Masada just ripped it up and they sent a considerable jolt through the jazz world in the mid-1990s. They were shit-hot, seriously. Rhythms forever, Zorn and Douglas dialed into each other’s phraseology sub-consciously, and just glorious songwriting. Here are two examples of their undeniable energy:
And here’s a lovely one that one of my bands used to play all the time:
A few years into the band’s existence, Zorn demonstrated the adaptability of the Masada songbook with the sublime Bar Kokhba release.
It’s hard to keep up with the guy, given his capacious film soundtrack series, his Book of Angels works, and his many other compositions. Here are some recent examples.
As you make your way through the subsequent discussions of RJC (which is a rich and varied world), here are some prime cuts from the ensembles and individuals mentioned:
Ben Goldberg’s New Klezmer Trio can play it sweet or gnarly, sometimes using dirty distortion to give their klezmer some bite, some edge.
Greg Wall’s Later Prophets have a sound that, perhaps unsurprisingly given Wall’s own involvement with Orthodox Judaism, reflects traditional music a bit more audibly than other RJC artists.
Anthony Coleman’s lovely trio album Sephardic Tinge gives his own take on Judaism’s involvement with that tinge so famously identified by Jelly Roll Morton.
Marty Ehrlich is one of the best musicians you’ve probably never heard of. I strongly encourage investigation of his discography, and you could certainly do worse than start with his RJC album, Sojourn, which features his rich clarinet playing in a woody strings group.
I’ve a serious admiration for keyboardist Richard Teitelbaum’s amazing Golem.
And do spare a listen for Jewlia Eisenberg’s Charming Hostess and Bowls Project.
Ned Rothenberg clearly gave me much to think about in our conversations, and some of his astute perceptions really ended up helping me to clarify some of my own thoughts on the book’s subject. I’m a fan of all of his work, from his marvelous solo work to his block-rocking Double Trio to his large ensemble work like Powerlines. But the Inner Diaspora project for RJC is especially resonant in its intercultural leanings. Listen:
Moving on to this chapter’s last case, the Rovers, I mention at the outset a number of improvisers who have borrowed from traditional musics or who have their training therein, bringing those sensibilities to jazz.
Oud master Rabih Abou-Khalil has recorded a string of great records for Enja (with such beautiful artwork, too). I’m especially fond of The Cactus of Knowledge.
Outrageous Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak simply has to be heard to be believed.
It’s likely that many people reading this are familiar with the great tabla player Zakir Hussain. It’s hard not to have your jaw drop when you listen to him. I confess that I still get giddy when I listen to his work with my main man, John McLaughlin. They’re great on Hussain’s ECM date Making Music. They’re stratospheric on the first Shakti record.
When you listen to jazz, part of the deal is a series of recognitions that your favorite players are colossally marginal, if not forgotten altogether. Both past and present are overrunning with players who are greatly talented but lost in memory. Every so often, someone like Robin Kelley will remind us of how great a player like multi-instrumentalist Ahmed Abdul-Malik was. A hugely important local teacher, Abdul-Malik was nearly as integral as Yusef Lateef in popularizing jazz’s combinations with traditional music and in incorporating “exotic” instruments into jazz settings. Here are two great examples of his work.
So far, the Prana Trio – featuring vocalist Sunny Kim and percussionist Brian Adler – hasn’t released a whole lot, but each of their three albums contains wonderful arrangement for Rumi, Hafiz, Lao Tzu, and more. I’d start with the most recent, The Singing Image of Fire.
What to say about the amazing Don Cherry? Some of his work from the 1970s and 1980s could be frustratingly desultory or, to my ears anyways, indulgently populist. But then again, albums like Brown Rice have their advocates. For me, though, aside from the stuff with Ornette, Cherry’s path-breaking Blue Note records are some of the very best of the 1960s. If I had to pick one, I’d go with Complete Communion.
Cherry’s travels weren’t only geographic; they were also idiomatic. In a summit with some of the cream of European improvisation, Cherry and avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki conjured up some molten sound on Actions.
Some of his absolute finest work is on Mu, his glorious, life-affirming duets with percussionist Ed Blackwell.
And aside from some of the 1970s recordings mentioned elsewhere in this section, Cherry’s late 1980s side Multi Kulti featured a marvelous take on the Conjure tradition.
The aforementioned Blackwell was one of the biggest influences on Hamid Drake’s style. Aside from his association with Cherry, Drake’s longest musical relation was with Chicago tenor legend Fred Anderson and their work together gives you great insight into Drake’s style. Listen to them play with Peter Kowald, live at the Velvet Lounge:
Many folks first heard Drake in Peter Brotzmann’s Die Like a Dog, named to honor Albert Ayler. With William Parker on bass and insane Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo making cosmic shapes in the sky, there’s little to thrill like DLAD. Seeing them at the Velvet in 1999 was one of the best gigs I’ve ever experienced. It was like church, and I’m sure anyone else who was there would agree. The outest shit has the deepest, funkiest roots.
Another side of Drake can be heard with fellow percussionist Michael Zerang. Their sunrise solstice concerts were for a long time a Chicago improvised music institution (and hopefully still are).
And some of the best work from Drake’s Bindu project is on the great album Reggaeology. This is another one of those pieces herein that I can’t imagine anyone not swooning for. Seek help if that’s not you!