Monday, August 30, 2010

Day 15: Jimmy Heath "The Professor" and Albert Ayler "Witches and Devils"

I think that what the Albatross is teaching me is that perhaps really jazz is too big. It really is. This might be true of all kinds of music. I'm sure if I dug enough I'd find that there isn't enough time in this world to absorb all the really good Klezmer music out there. (I seem to remember picking up Klezmer music...)

But jazz is too big. There is simply too much good stuff out there. You have to dedicate your life to absorbing all of the fabulous artists, and ultimately end up with an unmanageable beast of a collection for your troubles.

Today's two CDs are from artists I 'know' but don't really know. They're prolific, very present in the history of jazz, great players, I just don't know enough about them because I know Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Paul Desmond instead. I may have only one album each from either of these guys and my collection is full of completely phenomenal and prolific players of whom I have exactly one CD. There may be no hope. It might just be that you can never really know jazz unless you make it your life's work.

Perhaps that's fair enough. You don't have to know every little thing about your entertainment. But every time I find one awesome recording that I should have known about I worry about all the ones I don't. It reaches a point where finding good recordings is actually worrisome.

Here's what is worrying me today:

Jimmy Heath
The Professor

I try and not look too many things up lest this turn into some digest of Wikipedia and random jazz reviews I manage to find in a Google search. The idea is to mainly write about what these CDs mean to me after having dragged them around with me all this time without really exploring them.

But from some reason it was important to look this one up, because it was a name that would have made me go "Oh yeah, that guy" - and then hope there were no follow up questions. Not the first time that the Albatross has done that to me in this process.

But also because I have started to try and do all the site building stuff like getting the MP3 player and scanning the cover after I started to listen to the CD so I don't sit and feel compelled to write things while I'm listening even though there isn't much to say. Because of this I have been listening and the recordings don't sound the same. Turns out this is a compilation from sessions in 1974, 1985, and 1987 released a year after he left the Aaron Copeland School for Music as 'The Professor.'

So the liner notes (strangely intact) lean heavily on the notion of learning jazz and the complexities of that. I hadn't realized that I learned jazz in a bit of nexus where more or less it had just been begrudgingly decided that you could in fact teach jazz. If jazz could be taught, it would lose some of its mystique. It was no longer that thing that came magically from the fingers of giants.

But that has always been ridiculous, as the liner notes concede. Charlie Parker studied the hell out of Stravinsky scores, and players studied other players to see what the were doing, what they had come up with. Formalizing that didn't take away the mystique because there is still an 'it' between the players that study the book and the truly great players. But there is no harm in giving those players with 'it' the structure they need to not have to re-invent the wheel just to get where they're going.

So Jimmy Heath, after playing with Miles, Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, and more became a professor of jazz formerly in the way he would have been for any young player secretly taping his shows so he could take them home and transcribe them to find out what he did.

I hate finding out that awesome people were teachers only after they're done teaching. Not that I would have the nerve to actually try and be a student of awesome teachers because I would feel that "I'm not ready." Ultimately that constant feeling of not being 'ready' is what eventually undermined my foray into music.

I just realized I have been bobbing my head to this track without really thinking about it, turns out to be a tribute to Sonny Rollins. There are other tributes here, one to Ben Webster, one to the saxophone itself.

There is a lot of jazz guitar on this CD, which is always a little tricky. I either like it or I hate it. When I like it, though, I tend to really like it. In defiance of that, I'm okay with this guitar. It's pretty good, not that annoying tone that too many guitarists adopted I think in the 80s, transitions smoothly between a rhythm instrument and melody instrument.

Okay, CD, you have me. It has found my already documented weakness for goofy chanting on track with the droning "There's no end..." on the track naturally titled No End. Usually I find soprano sax taxing because it's harder to play than the people who pick it up like to admit, but Heath doesn't have the buzziness I usually associate with soprano sax. And, as I said, there's a chant. Tell me that Salt Peanuts isn't one of your favorite bop tunes and that it isn't because of the "Salt peanuts! Salt Peanuts!" yelled in the middle of the head. Unless of course you don't know 'bop' or the tune Salt Peanuts. In that case, check it out and tell me it isn't awesome for the above reason.

They avoided irony and did not end the CD with that track. Instead, it ends with one of the tunes I liked to play the most, Sophisticated Lady. Basically, I didn't know my scales and chord changes that well, so I learned a lot of ballads which I felt were easy to fake it on. There's a tuba on here, sounds like. The tuba got shafted in Jazz... it was there at the beginning and people use it from time to time but, as far as I know, there hasn't been a 'legendary' tuba band leader. Every other instrument got their moment in the sun, but the poor tuba toils in obscurity.

Albert Ayler
Witches & Devils

It's hard to believe but CDs really had a short run on center stage as the music medium of choice. When I started at the record store we still called it a record store, for one, and CDs were really only about a decade old. There were still hold outs coming into the store complaining about our diminishing audio cassette section and arguing that they didn't want to have to 'replace all of their tapes' (as if after you buy your CD player it would sneak around in the middle of the night and smash all players of outdated media.)

So one of the ways that CDs were sold was the increasingly 'detailed' digital remasterings. No movement of Moore's Law was too trivial to trigger the re-release of some marginally remastered catalog of a label's material. Jazz and Classic Rock got it the worst. Since the mine was richer over in guitar land the whole thing got much more comical with rock re-releases. Audiophile store regulars would call in like clockwork looking for that Boston or Kansas re-issue with the new-process-of-the-moment and bonus tracks of the five minutes the engineer left the mic on accidentally.

For jazz, though, it meant that some titles collecting dust on the shelves of a label's catalog got to see the light of day. And so this '24-bit remastered' Albert Ayler CD ended up in my collection.

This gap in my knowledge hurts the most because I love free jazz. After years of making fun of it, one day sitting down and letting John Coltrane's Om! play all the way through, I just got it. It helped that the music program I was enrolled in at college had been very focused on New Music, but it finally clicked with me and I've been a fan ever since. But if progressive jazz is hard to come by, free jazz is nearly impossible. Free jazz is what I played at closing time to empty the store.

And again, the covers don't help me. Free jazz artists don't meet me halfway by having an album cover with them pouring honey on their head while banging a trash can lid on an ice sculpture of the Mona Lisa to let me know the music inside is going to be the disjointed frantic collective improvisation that I've come to love from free jazz. Okay, I don't know that I would have guessed from that album cover either, but you have to admit, it would be hard to ignore.

This CD resisted the draw of others for 'bonus tracks' and remains only four tracks at a relatively brief 36 minutes. Frantic, wild, atonal minutes. The titles are consistent, there is a theme that Ayler was approaching. There is the title track, followed by the much shorter Sprites, then the longer Holy, Holy, followed by another short track, Saints.

This is something you see every once in a while from free jazz performers, where they suddenly pop into melodic mode as if to say, "See, I can do that too, I just choose not to." There is always pressure on a free jazz performer to prove they don't have to play free jazz.

This is pretty early in Ayers' career and in free jazz in general. It's really frantic. According to the liner notes he used a plastic reed usually reserved for members of marching bands or parents who are tired of replacing reeds. It's a unique and recognizable sound. I wish I had dug this up earlier.

But it was all just too big.


  1. Both Howard Johnson and Bob Stewart are tuba players who lead their own groups currently, Red Calendar also was a noted "leader" who played tuba (and String Bass) in 40s and 50s.
    Here are some other tuba players, many jazzers:

  2. So far my favorite bit of information from that link is Walter Page and his roll in not only Basie's career but the walking bass line. While it stood to reason that there were at least a few Tuba band leaders, the gist is that they didn't reach the levels of other instrument band leaders. Though it is always good to be alerted to a blind spot in jazz. There's just so much of it you're bound to not be aware of something like Tuba band leaders.

    All three of Johnson's albums (at least according to Wiki) came out while I was at the store, though I don't remember being pitched them. But as far as I know his albums are somewhere in the albatross. He doesn't appear to have recorded since 1998, but I'm intrigued to hear some of his work.

    Thanks for the link and the clarification. I hate that it makes me want to get even more music to learn more about them