WYNTON MARSALIS / “Flamenco Sketches”
I’m not an indecisive person. When it’s time to make a choice, it doesn’t take me long and once I do, I’m through. No second-guessing and wishing I could of… On occasion with selections for BoL, I have had one selection in mind and then after talking with Mtume made another selection, but even that changing was done rather quickly and without any niggling afterthoughts.
I can’t decide which cover cut to use: Jon Hendricks, Archie Shepp, Doug and Jean Carn or Wynton Marsalis. So, I’m going to throw a lateral to Mtume and let him choose. I could make an argument for any one of them.
Jon Hendricks is one of the founding fathers of vocalese. His band, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, set the standard not only for jazz vocal groups but for fitting lyrics to famous jazz solos including the trio riffing off of big band arrangements by Basie and Ellington. On that level is this Hendricks-led deft (and tongue-in-cheek hilarious) portrait of “Freddie Freeloader.” It should be no surprise, Hendricks' album is titled Freddie Freeloader.
Hendricks and cohorts sing the famous solos: Bobby McFerrin takes Miles’ first solo, Al Jarreau does Cannonball, and Jon Hendricks does Trane. It’s simple. It’s impossible. It’s easy to recognize what they’re doing. It’s almost unbelievable how well they do it. So, yeah this could be the feature version.
But then Archie Shepp assays “Blue in Green” on soprano. No one would ever mistake Shepp for a Miles devotee but somehow Shepp shoots straight to the heart of the matter and gives a tortured reading that might be what an older Miles might have played. (Yeah, I know, that’s a lot of “mights,” but it’s real.)
Shepp’s band is a quartet with John Hicks on piano, George Mraz on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. The pace is brighter. They use a lot more notes. But yet there is something mournful and nakedly reflective about this version. A lot of it is in the rightness of the accompaniment but mainly I think it’s Shepp tortured turn on soprano. It almost sounds like Shepp is in pain.
Pain. That was at the center of all of Miles’ beautiful ballad playing. Pain. Miles was never simply sweet. He was bittersweet. And that’s the quality Shepp offers. A bracing tonic, a stiff shot of whiskey. You’ve been cut and you are suturing yourself or a friend is removing the bullet and all you have is a piece of metal to bite on to keep from crying out. Or remember when you broke your leg, or somebody broke your heart? The sound the heart makes when it breaks. That’s what Shepp gets to and it’s really surprising because this is not the kind of music that Shepp made his mark with. This recording (Blue Ballads) was done in 1995 and with it, Shepp established another marker in his long career. (Shepp was born in 1937.)
Doug and Jean Carn what can I say that I have not already said? (In fact: go here and read what I already wrote and apply that to Jean’s version of “Blue in Green.”) You know this could easily and appropriately be the cover feature. the track is from the Doug Carn album Spirit of the New Land.
When I read over what I wrote I almost cried. We as a people are in such deep doo-doo right now. Anyway…
The knock against Wynton is that he’s a brilliant technician but he doesn’t have the emotional depth of the jazz masters. To a certain degree I agree with that assessment of the bulk of Wynton’s recordings but when Wynton does get it, it be good.
What the Wynton Marsalis sextet achieves here is positively gorgeous and may in fact be this band’s best single recording, if not the best single recording by Wynton period. Man, listen to that release on the Wynton’s concluding solo when he holds that muted note! It’s, it’s stunning. But all the cats do it to death. Todd Williams on tenor doing the Trane thing with that gruff tone. When Todd viciously hits one of those low notes, somebody in the band appreciatively grunts. Wes Anderson on alto channels Cannonball without sounding like a Cannonball clone. And that wunderkind Mr. Marcus Roberts drapes a Duke Ellington approach all over his modern piano solo. And guess what? This track is not anywhere to be found on a Wynton Marsalis album. It’s on a Jazz At Lincoln Center compilation entitled Jazz At Lincoln Center Presents: The Fire Of The Fundamentals (Live) and yes that long phrase is the actual title. And yeah, I’m actually saying that Wynton Marsalis’ best single record is not a Wynton Marsalis recording. But then again, as Mtume reminded me and called some examples to mind, this can't honestly be called the best, so let me put it this way: one of the best jazz combo versions of... oh, forget it. Without qualification, this is a good cut.
Ok, you got it Mtume. Choose which track we should feature?
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Absolutely beautiful As with the Contemporary songs, I'm going to take these track-by-track. Jon Hendricks - "Freddie Freeloader" A walking bassline and a swinging ride cymbal. Something in me hears that and thinks, "This is the way a jazz tune is supposed to sound." I'm also fascinated by McFerrin's ability to negotiate the ups and downs of the music while maintaining his falsetto throughout. And also: doesn't this version sound almost exactly like Joni Mitchell's "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines"? (Actually, it doesn't. I just listened to Joni's song; the two tunes are quite different.) And man oh man, the moment Hendricks started in on his verse, I could clearly hear that he was singing Coltrane's solo, note for note. (As I mentioned in the Classic write-up, Coltrane's solos are the only ones I'd actually recognize without the accompanying music. I guess that's why I didn't realize Jarreau and McFerrin were also singing the solos from the original version.) Overall, I really enjoyed this cover. It should be the feature. Archie Shepp - "Blue In Green" Shepp repeatedly hits notes that sound like it feels when you have a cavity and you bite into something sweet. It's initially good, but then it turns unpleasant and in the most severe way. I know this isn't Shepp's fault, but it makes his version of "Blue In Green" quite difficult to listen to. Doug & Jean Carn - "Blue In Green" The peformances are quite good, but I just don't like the lyrics. And because it's a ballad, and the lyrics are so clearly enunciated, that pretty much means I don't like the song. Sorry. Jazz At Lincoln Center Presents - "Flamenco Sketches" Absolutely beautiful muted trumpet playing. (I'm assuming that's Wynton.) As I listened to the opening solo, I remember thinking that this must be a live recording because there are several flubbed notes and a self-respecting neo-traditionalist ultra-perfectionist like Wynton would never let that go if he had the opportunity to do another take. Sure enough, when the solo is done, the audience (who'd been deadly quiet up until then) applauds. Is that Wes Anderson on the alto? That's a good solo too. Look, Wynton and crew always play well. (I'm thinking about what they did with "Acknowledgment" from their version of Love Supreme.) They are exceptional craftsmen. If there's anything to criticize, it's that they never really unwind and let go. But you know what? I dig it. It's good. No, actually, it's really good. Hell, you know what? I'm changing my mind. It's the feature! —Mtume ya Salaam
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