Blue Note 75 for 75: Andrew Hill’s Time Lines (2006)

Our seventy-third feature for Blue Note 75 for 75 is Andrew Hill’s Time Lines, a stunning return to the label, though sadly Hill’s final album. It is a powerful, moody, mysterious work of art from a unique artist whose piano work perfectly bridges all the gaps of the post-bop framework. Check out Hill’s stunning, haunting ode to his friend Malachi Favors:

Andrew Hill had been an obscure, neglected figure in jazz for quite some time. His best known album, Point Of Departure, was known more for the contributions of sideman Eric Dolphy than for the leader’s own compositions and playing. That started to change in the late 80’s and by the time of Time Lines release in 2006, Hill’s reputation had been thoroughly rehabilitated. It was the perfect moment to release a new record, one that bridges the gaps of his career. The title track nails the sort of shifting post-bop that marks Hill’s innovation in genre:

Trumpeter Charles Tolliver had played with Hill on-and-off for decades and is a welcome voice here. Multi-reedist Greg Tardy harkens back to Dolphy with his bass clarinet work particularly and the rhythm section of John Hebert on bass on Eric McPherson on drums nail the sliding scale of time signatures and halting swing. As for Hill himself, his piano playing is as elusive yet engaging as ever.

I had the good fortune to see Hill perform just weeks before his passing in 2007 and this album is a bittersweet reminder of just how much music Hill still had inside him.

Stay tuned for more Blue Note 75 for 75… (two more to go!)

Blue Note 75 for 75: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ A Night At Birdland, Vol. 1 (1954)

Our seventy-second feature for Blue Note 75 for 75 and finally we get to a record by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers! I can’t believe I had almost completed this seventy-five album survey without including something from Blakey — in an overview of Blue Note Records, that seems almost sacrilege!

Sunday, February 21st, 1954 was a special evening at Birdland, thankfully recorded for posterity as it featured an early incarnation of the Jazz Messengers in powerful, elemental form. Anchored and inspired by co-founders Horace Silver on piano and Art Blakey on drums (with bassist Curley Russell rounding out the rhythm section), this Messengers line-up was fronted by then rising (seriously almost blazing) star Clifford Brown on trumpet and the quick-witted, still Parker-esque Lou Donaldson on alto. Though later incarnations of this group were more known for their soul, blues, and gospel drenched hard bop, this quintet kicks it straight be-bop and ballads, the resulting pyrotechnics of which cemented the Messengers reputation as a live band par excellence and clearly on the rise. That evening, after a brief announcement by Pee Wee Marquette, Blakey & co. launched into “Split Kick” and my guess is many a jaw hit the floor, particularly during Clifford Brown’s solo:

Brownie was really catching ears in 1954 as the heir apparent to Fats Navarro and his Messengers work helped draw attention to his combo with Max Roach. The tragedy of Brown’s passing (just two years after this recording) is still hard to bear. While Brown clearly shines immortal on this record, Lou Donaldson also acquits himself nicely. This was before he transitioned almost entirely to soul jazz as a way to break out of Parker’s shadow. Though his playing is clearly Bird-ish on “Quicksilver,” it is still quite enjoyable:

The original 10″ release also featured a Clifford Brown ballad feature (“Once In Awhile”) that is simply breathtaking! Later re-issues in 12″ LP, CD, and digital appended more tracks from this evening, eventually bringing both volumes plus all alternates together into one nice package.

Stay tuned for more Blue Note 75 for 75… (only three left!)

Blue Note 75 for 75: Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder (1964)

Our seventy-first feature for Blue Note 75 for 75 is one of the most successful releases in Blue Note’s long history: Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder. If you haven’t heard it in awhile, its time to get reacquainted:

The legends behind this tune are all true: at the session, Morgan and co. (Joe Henderson on tenor, Barry Harris on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, & Billy Higgins on drums) had four solid tunes but Al Lion felt the album lacked a hook and requested one more piece. With nothing ready, Morgan locked himself in the bathroom and wrote out a scrap of melody on toilet tissue, this melody became the vamp intro to “The Sidewinder” and the band quickly ran through a rehearsal before banging out a master take. Here bassist Bob Cranshaw expounds on what happened:

Needless to say, the tune exploded, sending the album up the Billboard charts, peaking at #35. The single did well too, reaching #81 on the Billboard Hot 100 (though that doesn’t include jukebox plays which some experts figure were triple that of radio). It was a huge, huge tune and the royalties alone made Blue Note and Morgan rich. As well, the song entered the zeitgeist, being used in commercials and radio jingles. Once James Brown covered it though, the crossover was complete:

As with anything the crosses over into mainstream appeal, the legacy of The Sidewinder became a complicated one. For Lee Morgan in particular, and Blue Note in general, its success ensured the health of the label through the turbulent sixties, though Al Lion’s quest for a successful sequel started to cramp the label’s artistic ambitions, particularly for Morgan who seemed obsessed with crafting similar tunes for awhile. As well, flush with cash, Morgan’s heroin habit escalated dangerously and he struggled to work regularly at a time when he was in high demand as a performer.

In hindsight too, the other four songs seem like after-thoughts but a serious re-listen reveals the slinky, sinuous pleasures of “Totem Pole”:

Unlike the title track, which Morgan dominates thoroughly, the other musicians particularly stand-out on this number. Joe Henderson delivers a corker of a solo and Barry Harris kicks out another funky jam. The spirit of all the tunes hinges on Billy Higgins bright, expressive drumming. I dig these other tracks a lot.

A Blue Note classic, The Sidewinder is a great hook for anyone new to jazz or looking to understand how music now so niche was once entirely populist.

Stay tuned for more Blue Note 75 for 75… (only four more to go!)

EDIT~: Here is the listing for a class I recently taught on Morgan:

Blue Note 75 for 75: McCoy Tyner’s Extensions (1970)

Our seventieth feature for Blue Note 75 for 75 is McCoy Tyner’s Extensions, another of McCoy’s undeniably great, lamentably under-loved late albums for the label.

Despite the passing of John Coltrane and a burgeoning, multifaceted solo career, McCoy would continue to demonstrate a deep commitment to the Coltrane family of musicians and their over-arching musical vision. Particular to this album is the union of McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane who together willfully shed the criticism that Alice had “Yoko Ono’d” Trane’s classic quartet. McCoy on piano and Alice on harp weave a magic web together on “Message From The Nile,” ably assisted by the intense and durable imaginations of Gary Bartz on alto and Wayne Shorter on soprano & tenor with Ron Carter anchoring the bass and Elvin Jones reuniting with McCoy on drums, two-thirds of the classic Trane rhythm section.

While admittedly a minority opinion, I find this music immensely stimulating.  The combination of Alice’s shimmering harp arpeggios and McCoy’s deep chordal melancholy underpinning Wayne and Gary’s intense outward explorations of sound sets my mind whirling, especially given the gravity of Ron and Elvin’s poly-rhythmic approach — this is late-60’s/early-70’s Pan-African spiritualism via the cosmic expressway, and I love it very much. The same idea, only more meditative, is at play on “His Blessings”:

There are two other deep blues numbers here (minus Alice) leading to four outstanding tracks of a caliber rarely found for this type of material. Anyone who digs this should immediately start excavating Alice’s early solo discography, as well as McCoy’s Cosmos (previously reviewed here).

EDIT~: a reader reminded  me that this personnel line-up features even more reunion and replacement, as not only did Alice Coltrane replace McCoy Tyner in Trane’s group but Gary Bartz replaced Wayne Shorter in Miles Davis’s. As well, besides McCoy reuniting with Elvin Jones from Trane’s band, Wayne is reunited with Ron Carter from Miles’s. Fascinating…

Stay tuned for more Blue Note 75 for 75… (only five more to go!)

Blue Note 75 for 75: Horace Parlan’s Happy Frame Of Mind (1963)

Our sixty-ninth feature for Blue Note 75 for 75 is a hidden gem of the Blue Note discography: Horace Parlan’s Happy Frame Of Mind. Previous Parlan sessions featuring his Us Three trio mates (plus guests) had been solidly encamped in the hard bop/soul jazz school of sound but here Parlan and co. stretch things out.

Collaborating with band mates from his previous stint with Mingus, and grabbing a new rhythm section of Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, changed the flavor and texture of Parlan’s sound. This is most evident on the opening track, Ronnie Boykin’s “Home Is Africa,” a rhythmically dense post-bop tune that features exceptional soloing from the leader, as well as Johnny Coles on trumpet, Booker Ervin on tenor, and Grant Green on guitar:

Mammoth tune, what I love is that each soloist finds something different to inspire them in it: Coles goes all minimal Miles color, Ervin laces it with scouring intensity, Green gets into a head-nodding blues, and Parlan finds the spaces, pauses, and silences that haunt the gaps of the moody percussion.

Another tricky number tackled is Randy Weston’s “Kucheza Blues,” which is a highlight for the leader. Parlan’s piano playing was highly informed by his crippling bout with polio as a child. With his right hand partially paralyzed he developed a strong chordal left hand style that I really dig as it makes his comping and soloing unique:

Booker Ervin had spent time in Weston’s band too and really takes that tune through its paces. Ervin and Parlan had near-telepathic musical communication at this point, having gigged and recorded together over a period of five years between their work with Mingus and time spent as the Minton’s house band. Green too hung around Minton’s with them  in a scene that (at that time) centered around Parlan’s Us Three trio plus Ervin, Green, Coles, the Turrentine Brothers, and others. While Warren and Higgins weren’t really part of that scene, they were a house Blue Note team comfortable with all styles. Higgins really brings a different feel to this session, his sparking bounce a delight on the title track:

Stay tuned for more Blue Note 75 for 75… (only six more to go!)

Blue Note 75 for 75: Jutta Hipp With Zoot Sims (1956)

Our sixty-eighth feature for Blue Note 75 for 75 is a bit of a curio. Jutta Hipp With Zoot Sims is in many ways an odd pairing, the somewhat taciturn Hipp and the always exuberant Sims finding common ground in a shared love of be-bop and ballads. Here they are recording together in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio:

An enjoyable, easy swinging album that’s not, unfortunately, without flaws, Jutta Hipp With Zoot Sims is an interesting meld of hard bop heat and west coast cool, particularly on trumpeter Jerry Lloyd’s “Down Home”:

Sims on tenor eats these changes up. Lloyd gets a little flustered on trumpet. Hipp, who would suffer on-and-off from stage fright/performance anxiety, is somewhat restrained (enough so that some have felt the titling of this record should be reveresed) but if you listen close enough, you can hear a lot of fresh ideas in her playing. The rhythm section of Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums is all-pro, swing tight. Sims is so utterly dominant that he almost wipes out his co-contributors and one wishes Lloyd had sat out the session as he just pales in comparison to Sims. Hipp is most successful on the ballad numbers, dig her impeccable comping behind Sims on “These Foolish Things”:

Personally, I think Hipp was much more comfortable on the Hickory House trio sides we spotlighted earlier in this series. Her performance is solid and occasionally even sparkles but one can’t shake the feeling that she is somewhat dazzled by Sims and unsure of herself thereafter. I believe this was Sims only recording for Blue Note. As a West Coast bopper, he certainly wasn’t Alfred Lion’s ideal session man but whether Sims cared or not is immaterial, he is clearly delighted here and performs at a very high level. For Hipp this would be her last stateside recording, possibly last recording ever, before withdrawing from the scene. Her story is a fascinating one, read more about it here:

And stay tuned for more Blue Note 75 for 75… (only seven more to go!)

Blue Note 75 for 75: Hank Mobley’s Soul Station (1960)

Our sixty-seventh feature for Blue Note 75 for 75 is Hank Mobley’s Soul Station, dig it:

Hip title, hip cover, hip record: Soul Station is it, the album you can point to when Mobley’s tenor sax authority is called into question. And it seems like that authority has always been contended —  from Miles Davis on down to now, there is always someone calling out Mobley for not being Coltrane, not being Rollins, being merely great in an era of elite exceptions. But one thing I’ve come to love about Mobley is that Hank didn’t bow to outside authority, didn’t imitate anyone at all. He formulated his own conception of tenor sax playing, fluent and melodic, rich and smoky and subtle, more akin to Don Byas or Dexter Gordon but also clearly its own thing.  Here’s Mobley playing his heart out on “If I Should Lose You” with warm accompaniment from his rhythm section of Wyton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), & Art Blakey (drums):

I reviewed this album seven-or-eight years ago (click the “Jazz Reviews” tab to read it) and stand by everything I said about it. Soul Station is an absolute classic, one of the best Blue Note albums ever.

Stay tuned for more Blue Note 75 for 75… (only eight more to go!)