JAZZ ALBUM REVIEWS IN THE AUSTRALIAN
In September, 2017 Eric Myers commenced reviewing jazz albums in the Review supplement of The Weekend Australian. All reviews in this folder are written by Myers.
Heaven & Earth
Published in The Weekend Australian, June 23, 2018
While this exuberant double-album has many positive qualities, it’s a mixed blessing. Some jazz buffs will find much to dislike here. On the credit side, Kamasi Washington is a fine tenor saxophonist, his tone reminiscent of the great Joe Lovano. The hype around him is as interesting as the music itself. Since Wynton Marsalis emerged in the 80s, American jazz has been searching for The Next Big Thing. Marsalis and his colleagues, in suits and ties, were rather conservative, harking back to the small-group jazz and Ellingtonian swing of the 60s. Washington, in a colourful African-style dashiki robe, and sporting an enormous Afro, appears to be vastly more radical. In jazz terms he also is retro, echoing the avant-garde of the late 60s, evoking the spirituality of John Coltrane and the cathartic energy of Pharoah Sanders. He is also being represented as a cosmic adventurer with big ideas, in the tradition of the late Sun Ra. Blessed with charisma, Washington has emerged in an era of revivalist black consciousness in the US, and some consider his music the jazz expression of Black Lives Matter. Through his collaboration with successful rapper Kendrick Lamar, he has surfed into celebrity via the youth market. Heaven & Earth, two ambitious suites of funk-oriented orchestral music, runs for two and a half hours. Everything is in there: jazz, funk, soul, gospel, R & B, fusion. As a composer of melodies Washington has real talent. 14 of the 16 compositions are his, and many of them are first-rate, particularly the Patrice Quinn vocals Journey and Testify. There’s also an original for the jazz buffs: an arrangement of Freddie Hubbard’s Hub-Tones, which has a wailing solo from trumpeter Dontae Winslow. As an orchestral arranger however, Washington’s talent is inordinately modest. Does he really need the massive forces deployed to present what are, in the end, relatively simple compositions? There’s a jazz band in excess of ten musicians, including two drummers and two percussionists; a 25-piece symphony orchestra; and a 13-member choir. The project is dripping with excess. Many of Washington’s lovely melodies, and excellent solos from himself and other instrumentalists, therefore sit on top of bloated orchestral backings. Those solos are unfortunately marred throughout by busyness. One wonders what a great jazz orchestrator of the past, such as Quincy Jones - more interested in quality than quantity - might have done with this raw material. Still the Kamasi phenomenon appears to supersede the music itself. American jazz musicians in general, aware of the popularity of rap and hip-hop with the young audience, are increasingly adopting social messages. I have no doubt that black kids in their baseball caps, in cities around the US, will warm to a tune like Fists of Fury, the opening track of the Earth suite. It contains a compelling manifesto: “We will no longer ask for justice. Instead we will take our retribution.”
The Stanley Clarke Band
Mack Avenue Records
Published in the Weekend Australian, July 14, 2018
This album features perhaps the greatest bassist in jazz, a man who is equally brilliant on electric and acoustic. It’s very funky, and also very hip. In an era of instrumental overkill, Stanley Clarke shows that a small core quartet, with other musicians added judiciously, does not need an army of musicians in the studio. The result is welcome: space in the music. Providing concise samples of what the quartet can offer in live performance, Clarke has something for everyone. If you want a very dirty funk feel, there’s And Ya Know We’re Missing You. Orchestral works? His composition After The Cosmic Rain/Dance Of The Planetary Prince is built on the rich sound of synthesizers, played by Cameron Graves. The acoustic piano trio? Here’s Alternative Facts, a fast four taken at breakneck speed, featuring the scintillating brilliance of Georgian pianist Beka Gochiashvili and drummer Mike Mitchell. Pop music? There’s a vocal Lost In A World which could have been written by Paul McCartney. Clarke’s bowed version of Bach’s Cello Suite 1 (Prelude) is a reminder that as a young bassist Clarke’s ambition was to be the first black musician in the Philadelphia Orchestra. That is, until he met Chick Corea in 1973 and co-founded the great fusion band Return To Forever. Social message? Combat Continuum poses the interesting scenario of an invasion of the Earth by aliens with advanced technologies. They arrive to assist us to heal the planet but, owing to a misunderstanding, the President authorises a pre-emptive strike which devastates many cities around the globe. As for rap, there’s (I’m So Happy) To Be Alive, featuring guest Doug E Fresh. A banal sentiment certainly, but I for one can endorse it.
Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album
Published in the Weekend Australian, July 21, 2018
This album, recorded on March 6, 1963, contains little that is not already known about the great saxophonist, but it is still absorbing. The two-disc deluxe edition has 14 tracks, running for an hour and 24 minutes. There are two connected oeuvres here: that of Coltrane himself and that of his classic quartet, which includes one of the great rhythm sections in jazz history in pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. Taking the latter first, this session occurred in the third year of the quartet’s five-year existence, midway between two significant milestones in Coltrane’s career: the relentless 16-minute track Chasin’ the Trane, recorded in 1961 at New York’s Village Vanguard, a performance so excessive that it divided the jazz world; and the 1964 masterpiece A Love Supreme, which brought the warring factions together and united the jazz world behind Coltrane. The meat of Both Directions at Once resides in the alternative takes of five tracks: Untitled Original 11383 (two versions); Untitled Original 11386 (three versions); Vilia, from Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow (two versions); One Up, One Down (two versions); and Impressions (four versions). The great delight of the album is the preponderance of piano solos by Tyner, who is featured on nine of the 14 tracks. He is in sparkling form, showing perhaps more than ever his bebop roots. That’s one reason to prefer this album to A Love Supreme. There is another, however. Jones, known for his turbulent drumming behind Coltrane, plays with welcome delicacy behind Tyner’s solos — an object lesson in how best to accompany the bop piano solo. In the four versions of Impressions, where Coltrane is the only soloist and Jones is as volatile as ever, and in One Up, One Down, Coltrane is bursting at the seams to liberate the tenor saxophone, with choked notes at the top of his range, guttural sounds in the lower register, and occasional squawks and squeals. Obsessed with sound rather than melody, he is playing with the compelling urgency that so many listeners found addictive. Having said that, his tendencies towards excess are essentially contained here. His solos are concise, suggesting that this album was intended for release. The next day, on March 7, the quartet recorded its famous album John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, which effectively redefined the jazz ballad. Coltrane had abundant excellent music in the can, so one can understand why Both Directions at Once was overlooked. Without underestimating Coltrane’s gargantuan legacy, which is of considerable intellectual interest, I tend to side with Miles Davis, who said he didn’t care much for Coltrane’s music after Coltrane left the Davis band in 1961. Still, in the 24 years after Coltrane’s death in 1967 and before Davis’s death in 1991, Davis — wherever he lived — had a photo of Coltrane on his wall. Think about that.