The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (1): Song For My Father – Horace Silver

Hard Bop

I’m not going to win a price on originality here writing about one of the greatest Jazz groups in history, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. They’ve been praised over and over again over the last 50 years.

But never mind, my purpose was to write about music I really like, and the hard-bop era is one of my favorites in the entire Jazz history. And probably hard-bop wouldn’t be hard bop without the Jazz Messengers. Therefore, I’m starting this little mini-series about the Jazz Messengers and their spin-offs.

The Jazz Messengers

Starting in 1954, this group around the drummer Art Blakey was composed of an ever-changing group musicians that would pretty much all go on great solo careers, including, little known fact, Keith Jarrett at some point (in a way you could say Art Blakey discovered Jarrett). Other outstanding musicians include Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Clifford Brown, Curtis Fuller. By the way, most Jazz Messengers albums are worth having, including At the Café Bohemia, A Night In Tunisia, Caravan, and obviously, Moanin’.

The original quintet from 1954 was composed of Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Doug Watkins. One of my next entries in this series will be about Mobley, who has done some great albums. But given that I have a piano background, let me start with the pianists of the group, Horace Silver.

Horace Silver

And let me start immediately by what is probably his greatest album, Song For My Father.

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Recorded in 1963 and 1964, and released in 1965, this album falls around the end of the hard bop period, before most  Jazz musicians moved on to “Free Jazz” and “Fusion” (to me an absolute dead-end in music), and it took until the 1980s to get back to a some form of revival of hard bop. (Some say the sale of the Blue Note label in 1966 also significantly contributed to the decline of hard bop).

On this album, Horace Silver records with two groups of musicians, the first one includes Carmel Jones, Teddy Smith, Roger Humphries and the great Joe Henderson (tracks 1, 2, 4, and 5), the second one being Blue Mitchell, Gene Taylor and Roy Brooks. By the way, the initial group of Horace Silver in his earlier recordings were pretty much “stolen” directly from the 1954 Jazz Messengers group (only Art Blakey stayed on).

As usual, I’m not going to write a track by track review of an album, I usually find those rather tedious to read, especially in the internet age where everybody can just listen to the tracks anyhow.

Let me just point out my two favorite tracks on the album, which are the title track, and Calcutta Cutie. Both songs exceed 7 minutes, a great duration for a jazz song because it really allows for several solos that are really outstanding. But luckily, on this great album, even if you have the CD version with some bonus tracks, there are really no weak tracks.

My rating: 5 stars

Other Horace silver albums that are worth exploring include Blowing the Blues Away, Horace-Scope, The Tokyo Blues, and The Cape Verdean Blues (notice a lot of blues in there? well, that’s probably what’s so special about Silver in the first place, his bluesy tone).

Get the 24/192 remaster

Usually I don’t intend to write about technical details here, this blog should be dedicated to music, but if you intend to purchase this album please don’t buy the CD, especially not the RVG remaster series.

The most recent 2012 remaster is released in 24 bit and 192khz format and is available on several sites including Qobuz, HDTracks and ProStudioMasters. Even if you don’t believe in the benefits of higher resolution than CD, the remastering of the recording per-se is way better than all previous versions I’m aware off.

Telemann – beyond Tafelmusik

Baroque Composers

Baroque composers. What comes to mind spontaneously? Bach, Vivaldi, Rameau maybe? And yes, if you remind people, specifically, there’s also Telemann. Personally, my “ranking” of baroque composers is very simple: Johann Sebastian Bach,  After that, with some distance, Georg Friedrich Händel. Then for quite some time pretty much nothing else, and finally, all the rest.

Let me explain. Vivaldi is “nice”, but the nasty saying that he composed only one violin concerto – but 200 times – has some truth to it. I usually get bored pretty quickly. Then there are the composers I still don’t “get”. I’ve never heard any Scarlatti (Alessandro and Domenico) that personally touched me. For the French baroque stars with Rameau, Lully, etc., well, I’m currently in learning mode. For Purcell, I love Dido and Aeneas, but still need to dig much deeper into the rest of this oeuvre.

Georg Philipp Telemann

And then there is Telemann. He probably didn’t do himself a favor by composing the famous “Tafelmusik” (literally “table music”, apparently a marketing term invented by Telemann himself to better sell his music). I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one who uses Telemann’s Tafelmusik as background entertainment when receiving guests for a dinner party (usually after preparing a rather fancy dinner decoration including lots of chandeliers that even Mr Carson of Downton Abbey would approve of). In a nutshell, the 18th century equivalent of the latest Café Del Mar mix. But I pretty much didn’t know anything else from him, beyond the infamous recorder concertos (remember that horrible instrument that many kids, including me, get tortured with for educational purposes).

So as you can see, Telemann didn’t have an easy start with me. However, when Classica Magazine gave a “Choc Classica” (their way of saying 5 stars) to a Telemann album in the latest issue of the magazine, I was intrigued. I figured I had to get it just to revisit my Telemann bias.

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I’m glad I did, in spite of the weird monkeys playing backgammon cover, and the fact that I hadn’t (consciously) heard of any of the artists on this album. I’ve been very positively surprised by several albums from the French Alpha label in the past, including the outstanding 6-album Café Zimmermann Bach cycle, so that helped a bit.

Alexis Kossenko – Les Ambassadeurs

Alexis Kossenko is a French flute player that founded the period instrument orchestra “Les Ambassadeurs” around 5 years ago, mainly composed of younger musicians. I only noticed after purchasing this that I already had another excellent album with this orchestra, the recent Sabine Devieilhe Rameau recital “Le Grand Théâtre de l’Amour” on Erato, purchased relatively recently as part of my self-educational efforts with regards to French baroque composers (see above).

What do you get on this album?

An overture, a violin concerto, two flute concerto, and a flute/violin double concerto. The latter is really my favorite of the album. All played with so much energy but at the same time attention to detail, it is a pure pleasure. This music is no b-minor mass obviously, but certainly on par with the Brandenburg concertos or Overtures by my admired Johann Sebastian. I really need to explore more Telemann, and certainly more of Les Ambassadeurs. As a bonus, Alpha is doing a great job in making their recordings sound very well, so if you have a good hifi, you’ll certainly enjoy this album even more.

Overall rating: 4 stars.

Schubert on Fortepiano by Andras Schiff – not for beginners

In his comment on my initial Diabelli thread, Jud asked about the new Schubert recording of Schiff on ECM.

0002894811577_600Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought it blindly (instead of streaming it first as I would have done usually), Actually, I’m glad I did.

Andreas Schiff uses the same 1820’s Franz Brodmann fortepiano he also uses on the Diabelli’s second “disc”. This is not very surprising given that he actually owns this since 2010. (It is usually on loan to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn).

When listening to Fortepiano, the differences are much larger than with modern grand pianos. Sure, a Bösendorfer has a different house sound to a Steinway, and a trained pianists will be able to tell one Steinway from the other (witness the fascinating movie Pianomania if you want to know more), but that said, for most of us mere mortals all sound pretty nice.

In the early 1800s we were far from this homogeneity. This is important to know before you purchase a fortepiano recording, as they really can sound quite differently, and you may not like all sounds.

There are some I cannot listen to for a long time (e.g. Malcolm Bilson’s recording of the Mozart piano concertos), while I love the sound of others (e.g. Roland Brautigam playing a Paul McNulty replica of an 1820 fortepiano in his amazing Beethoven piano music cycle).

Brodmann Hammerflügel

The sound of this particular Brodmann Hammerflügel I very much like on the Diabelli, due to their very intellectual nature. It takes much more getting used on the romantic beauty of Schubert (I know Schubert was borderline between classical and romantic period, but to me is is clearly in the latter), especially if your current reference is this:

uchida schubert

Mitsuko Uchida

The sheer beauty of Uchida on Schubert is just outstanding. Well, the sound of the Brodmann is anything but beautiful at first ear.

Funnily enough, Andras Schiff himself is on record (from the 1990s) dreading somebody playing Schubert on a fortepiano. He has obviously by now made up his mind and admitted he was wrong.

And to be fair, he was. There is so much to discover here, not only you because you hear the music “as Schubert would have played it” (and unlike Beethoven, at least he wasn’t deaf), but the colors, the nuances, everything is different. This is NOT a recording to lay back and enjoy, this is a journey into the music.

Real highlights to me are the Moments Musicaux (revealing their true Viennese charm) and the amazing sonata D960.

If you don’t have any Schubert piano works yet, don’t buy this as a first album. Go for Uchida, Brendel, Lewis, etc (or the recently released outstandin album by David Fray).

And please do, as Schubert (to my ears) wasn’t great in the symphonic genre, but has done marvelous work both on the piano and in the chamber music fields (more on this later).

But if you know what you’re getting, check this out, you won’t disappointed. And obviously as usual ECM is very well recorded.

Overall rating: 4 stars

An addendum to Diabelli – the point of view of Classica Magazine in a blind test

As a quick addendum to my previous post on the Diabelli variations, when I opened the latest issue of the French magazine Classica on my iPad today (a bit late, it came out several days ago), I was pleased to discover that they dedicated their monthly blind test column, where their review staff compare 8 versions of a given oeuvre blindly, and ranks them, to just this work.

Classica – l’écoute en aveugle (the blind test)

I usually have a large overlap in taste with Classica, so I was a bit surprised to see none of my two recommended recordings even mentioned. But then I read it in the text, “les pianofortes atteignent leur limited“, the fortepianos reach their limits. Interesting, so Beethoven composed something that couldn’t have been played on the instrument he was used to. To be fair he was deaf at that time, but this is still an interesting conclusion. But ok, let’s see where they take it from here.

Laurent Cabasso

Well, their recording that is leading the pack is a recent recording on the label Naive played by the French pianist Laurent Cabasso.

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Well, the French press, very much like the English, has a certain patriotic tendency in their reviews. But remember, this is a BLIND test, so let’s assume they haven’t cheated. I obviously had to listen to it immediately, and luckily my streaming provider, Qobuz, has the album available.

Don’t forget Richter

My conclusion remains the same, I’m personally much more touched by the fortepiano versions than by this admittedly very good, but not outstanding recording (4 star on my personal rating scale). So if you prefer a modern piano, you may want to check this version out. But if you do, also compare it to the much more extremist (in a positive sense) Sviatoslav Richter (FYI, no. 5 in the Classica ranking). Otherwise, Schiff and Staier are a must on your playlist.

P.S. Gramophone has done a similar comparison in their August 2015 edition, you’ll find a summary here.

Currency of Man – Melody Gardot goes Soul – A Review

I’ve been a fan of Melody for quite a while now. Her story is touching (serious car accident, very long recovery, music as therapy), and her first three albums (Worrisome Heart, My One And Only Thrill, The Absence) were all very good. She’s also contributed a great track to Autour de Nina.

Currency Of Man (Legacy 2015)

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Generally, I’m not such a regular listener to vocal jazz. I appreciate the classics, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, but of the contemporary singers, many don’t touch me as much.  Even clearly exceptional artists such as Cecile McLorin Salvant I only listen to occasionally.

So again, what’s different about Melody to all the other contemporary Jazz singers (and there are many): The music is well produced and she writes good songs. Many others do as well. Her unique feature to me is really her voice: pure seduction. This voice is really special and easily recognizable whatever she does.

Obviously, I had to get her latest album, I even had it on pre-order. Just downloaded it when it officially came out this morning.

Probably not Jazz anymore – if it ever was

Now let me put a disclaimer first, or rather a question: is this new album actually Jazz? Well, if you take the definition of many record stores (remember those, they’ll probably soon go the way of video rental places), who insisted on putting Norah Jones (or anything else published on BlueNote or Verve) and sometimes even Katie Melua under Jazz, then probably yes, but this album has more elements of Soul than Jazz.

One thing that struck me about this album were the arrangements. This album contains strings. Usually, the only one who is able to pull off combining Jazz and strings, is Ella Fitzgerald again. But here, it is really tastefully done, not overly cheesy, e.g. on the very intense “If I Ever Recall Your Face“. In other songs, you get typical Soul/Motown elements like brass and background vocals. Again, those just blend in and support the music. Very well done.

Then on some songs, e.g Morning Sun, you initially think she’s entering Norah Jones territory. But no, soon you’ll realize, this really is a Soul album with even funky elements occasionally.

Very enjoyable

How does it all work out? Very very well. I’m a big fan of this album. There is only one song that stands out as slightly weaker compared to the rest of the album “Same To You“; all  the rest is truly enjoyable.

An outstanding next step for an artist who will have a great future. Check it out!

You’ll find some good vids including some “behind the scenes” here.

My rating: 4 stars

EDIT: Deluxe edition

It has just been flagged to me that I didn’t specify whether I reviewed the regular or the deluxe edition of the album. The comments above refer to the regular edition, I hadn’t even realized the existence of the Deluxe Edition until now.

The latter has not only 5 bonus tracks (to be fair, 2 of them are less than 1 min), including the outstanding “Burying My Troubles“, pretty much most of the regular songs appear to be different cuts/mixes to the regular edition. I’ll need to compare a bit more and will report back in the next days.

Autour de Nina – an outstanding Vocal Jazz complilation

Hommage albums are popular these days. Cassandra Wilson and José James just recently released their Billie Holiday inspired albums (see my review of Cassandra Wilson’s album here), but here we are dedicating an entire album to another Vocal Jazz legend: Nina Simone.

Autour de Nina cover

This album, while it was released on Verve, got significantly more press coverage in France then elsewhere. Even the website, and their Facebook page, is written in French. This is a pity, as this album is outstanding and would benefit from being better known globally.

This is a compilation including some relatively well known international celebrities, the most popular probably being Gregory Porter and Melody Gardot (who will release here new album tomorrow by the way). You may also have heard of ACT-label singer Youn Sun Nah.

Then we have some names that are probably more familiar to a French/European audience, including Camille, Lianne La Havas,Olivia Ruiz, and the Swiss rising singer songwriter Sophie Hunger (more about her certainly later in another post).

The quality of this album is outstanding throughout. Olivia Ruiz manages to put a new twist on the TV-commercial-abused “My Baby Just Cares For Me“, Gregory Porter is great in “Black is the Color (Of My True Love’s Hair)”, and Liane La Havas does a great “Baltimore“. The only weak spot to me is “Feeling Good”, which I (shame on me) prefer by our Great Cheesy Canadian, Michael Bublé, Ben L’Oncle Sam’s version just doesn’t make me feel as good (sorry for the bad pun).

I Put A Spell On You

However, let me flag my personal favorites: “Plain Gold Ring” by Youn Sun Nah (one of my favorite Nina Simone songs, from her famous debut), “Four Women” by Melody Gardot, but most of all, Sophie Hunger’s “I Put A Spell On You“, a version that for me personally even beats Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (please don’t stone me…).

Very highly recommended, 5 stars.

Is the Jazz Piano Trio the ideal art form of the 21st century? – Keith Jarrett’s Standards Vol. 2

Let me answer my rhetorical question immediately: obviously not, there are so many art forms out there today that trying to single out one of them is clearly ridiculous.

So let me rephrase: Is the Jazz Piano Trio my ideal art form? And the answer is, pretty close. There is something special about the intimacy of 3 musicians together, interacting and generating something amazing. It is in a way the modern equivalent of the String Quartet, which many consider the summit of classical chamber music.

I’d like to start by one album which I consider somehow the birth of the contemporary (meaning the last 30 years, I’m starting to get older….): Keith Jarrett’s Standards vol. 2 (footnote: vol. 1 is great as well, I just have a very slight preference for the 2nd volume).

Oh no, you’re going to say, not Jarrett again. Well first of all, you’ve been warned, it is in my subtitle of the blog, and second, I promise I’ll be talking about other musicians as well in the future.

Back to my old friend Keith (not that I’ve ever met him beyond being about 25 meters away last Friday): Why is this album so important?

The lost decade

Well, put yourself in the early 1980s (assuming you were already alive then, I was, but not for long). Jazz just came out of an entire decade of trying to break the “limits” of traditional jazz by first going “Free”, and later by going to Jazzrock and Fusion. Well, I’m sure to offend some here, but to me this was a complete dead-end, and both genres bore me to death (slightly exaggerating to make a point here).

As important as the 70s were for genres like Rock, for Jazz it is my personal lost decade. Most of my collection goes from 1956/7 – 1966, and then starts again in the 80s. So in the early 1980s, we have Keith Jarrett, who already did the amazing solo concerts in the 1970s including the famous Köln concert, apparently the best-selling solo piano album of all times, and had been playing some quartet work both in the US and in Europe (I’ll talk about some of my favorite albums from that period later, so it wasn’t 100% a lost decade, just maybe 90%….).

So then, early 1980s, the bass player Gary Peacock, the drummer Jack de Johnette, and Keith, get together to record first Standards vol. 1, in 1983, and then vol. 2, in 1985. Both are obviously inspired from the key representatives of the traditional piano trio, e.g. Bill Evans first trio, Art Tatum, or Oscar Peterson, but represent something new. And obviously, luckily, don’t contain any element of fusion any more.

Standards vol. 2

I’m not going to review Standards vol. 2 in detail, many smarter people than me have done that. It is an album I keep going back to again and again. I’ve actually just purchased it again very recently. ECM just released some weeks ago a new remaster, now in high-res format of up to 24/192 (bit/khz respectively). Whether high-res files are better than the regular CD format (called 16/44 or “red book”) is a debate I’m certainly not going to start here, you’ll have enough sites to get that discussion going. What is really better is the remastering. ECM; Jarrett’s Munich based record label is known for the excellent recordings, and this new remaster really sounds way better than the CD version. I actually still have the original vinyl in my basement, maybe I should actually get a record player again at some point.

(Footnote again: Do I advocate everybody to get the high res version? It is quite pricey, ECM has always been a premium label. So only get it if you have a decent playback chain and care enough about that album).

So to me, Standards vol. 2 is the “standard” (sorry for the cheap pun) to which I compare all my piano trio recordings.

Since then, the standards trio has recorded many live albums, most of which are outstanding and absolutely worth having. Examples include At the Blue Note, Whisper Not, Standards Live, and even again at the KKL in 2009, Somewhere. (a pity I missed that concert, but at least I have the recording, released in 2014)

Luckily, today we’re living in the Golden Age of the piano trio, we have so many fantastic artists out there that we’re not limited to Keith Jarrett any more. But we really have to thank him for revitalizing this genre (EST then took it to the next level in the 90s, but more about that later).

My rating: 5 stars

UPDATE (Oct 2016): I’ve since reviewed many more Jazz piano trio albums, you can check them all out by clicking on this link.

And please let me know if you have any recommendations for me in the comments section below!