Feast of Saint Valentine

Feast of Saint Valentine

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

 

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, soon enough that one should begin planning now to make a success of it.  Since the high Middle Ages when Chaucer began to associate Valentine’s day with courtly love, I think the original Saint Valentine has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle.  In fact, one popular depiction describes Saint Valentine as a man who was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry.  Remaining accounts may actually merge a couple of different martyrs into a portrait of Valentinus.  No matter what the origins, if you are in a romantic couple it is a day that cannot be safely overlooked.  Dinner reservations should be made now.  If you do not have them, stop reading,  call the restaurant, make your reservations and then come back to this blog.

Romantic love is such a powerful emotion that it is no wonder that all sorts of depictions of love can be found in every genre and mode of artistic expression that human beings create.  Old Billy Shakespeare, of the above Sonnet, went a long way to promoting the romantic ideal of marrying for love, an ideal that is still a part of at least Western culture today.  I had a conversation with a young person recently, whereby I was trying to determine the Shakespeare play that my young friend had been exposed to in her short years.  My first question was “ Did everyone die in the end of the play, or did they all get married?”  If everyone dies at the end, it was a tragedy.  If they all get married, it was one of the comedies.  Fortunately, I did this out of earshot of any of our divorced colleagues, who would have confused the matter by describing marriage as a sort of tragedy in itself.  

Nowadays, as deep as I find Shakespeare’s musings about love, I find the direct language of old blues music to be more physically moving.  Perhaps it is a holdover from my urban upbringing, but I am not convinced that is entirely true.  These songs weren’t on the radio when I was in high school.  I met the music of Etta James, for example, much later on in my life.

Etta James, “ I Just Want to Make Love to You”

Another great genius of music that just makes your body move is Ray Charles, The Genius, The High Priest of Soul.  Ray Charles was a pioneer, and his music was influenced by blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, country, early pop music.  Ray was a sponge, that soaked up everything around him, and in turn has influenced every recording artist that has come after him.  You are doing yourself a great disservice if all you have heard is the opening of “Georgia on my Mind”

Ray Charles, “A Fool For You”

Looking through my collection of jazz albums, I have another endless supply of ballads that would make a great playlist for a romantic Valentine’s day dinner.  I am going to resist the urge to repost the Miles Davis version of “My Funny Valentine” and instead give you two other slow songs by two masters of ballad playing.  

Donald Byrd, “I Got It Bad, and That Ain’t Good”

John Coltrane, “My One and Only Love”

Now in the event that your attempts at romance have been well planned and are a great success, you may need a few tunes that are longer than three minutes.  Something where you don’t have to stop what you are doing to put on a new song.  I will humbly offer up the slow movement to Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, if you are not already familiar with it.  Best wishes.   
Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2, Adagio

A Journey to Interstellar Space

A Journey to Interstellar Space

John Coltrane is one of the most influential and imitated Jazz musicians to ever sound a note.  I know the first music I ever heard Coltrane play is on the Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue”.  That started me on a lifelong quest to familiarize myself with every recorded sound Trane has made.  If his tenor saxophone work as a sideman with Miles Davis was all we had to know Coltrane by, he would be an important figure in the history of Jazz.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Coltrane’s first albums as a leader are remarkable as well.  Such releases on Prestige, Blue Note and Atlantic are essential listening to a fan of the music.  If the albums “Blue Trane”, “Soultrane”, “Giant Steps”, and “My Favorite Things” were all we had to know Coltrane by, he would be a giant figure in the history of Jazz.  I remember friends of my parents had a copy of “My Favorite Things”, which I borrowed and played over and over.  If I had a nickel for every saxophone player that tried to play soprano sax after listening to this record, I could retire a rich man.  (If I had just a nickel for the players that were out of tune on their soprano sax, I would still be wealthy.)

Trane’s albums with his “Classic” quartet on the Impulse label set a new standard for small group Jazz.  McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, and Coltrane had a musical telepathy that only master musicians playing closely together for a long time can approach.  If the album “A Love Supreme” was all we had to know Coltrane by, he would be an essential figure in the history of Jazz.  It is one of the most important albums for any music fan, of any genre, with which to become familiar.

A love Supreme“A Love Supreme” is only the beginning of a spiritual journey that can be traced through the late music of John Coltrane.  Trane credited a spiritual awakening in 1957 with giving him the strength and direction to beat his substance abuse problems, and live a fuller life.  He began to study music of other cultures, especially India, and world religions in great detail.  His attitude toward God was an all-inclusive, universalist point of view.  In the liner notes to “Meditations”, Trane said “I believe in all religions”.  He was a deeply spiritual man, and this is reflected in many of the titles of his late music and albums.

Coltrane

Coltrane

His late music dives full force into the realm of “free jazz” and the avant-garde.  So-called “free jazz” is admittedly, one spicy meatball to swallow.  Upon first hearing, I probably would have written it off as a squeaky hoax if it weren’t for the association of Coltrane and his late albums.  Trane was a genius in my ear, a musician of immense magnitude, and I couldn’t just ignore this direction his career took.  I was already a huge fan of every other stage of his recording career, so my respect for his musicianship forced me to listen closer to his “free jazz” offerings.  I still have to be in a certain frame of mind to pay full attention to some of his late recordings, but I have listened to them repeatedly, and gained a small understanding of them.

John_Coltrane_Interstellar_SpaceThe album I want to share with you is one that is unique in my music collection, if not unique in all of Jazz music.  “Interstellar Space” is an entire album of duets, with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone (and bells!) and Rashied Ali on drums.  The suite is performed with no piano, no bass, no other musician at all except Trane and Ali.  The recordings were made in the studio in 1967, just months before Coltrane’s death.  They were released on an album posthumously in 1974, with the original album containing the tracks “Mars”, “Venus”, “Jupiter” and “Saturn”.  Two further tracks were released on a compilation, “Leo” and “Jupiter Variation”, with all six of these tracks being included on the CD version from which I learned the pieces.  In his later years, after studying Indian music in particular, Trane believed that certain sounds and scales could produce specific emotional meanings.  In many of these recordings, he sounds like he is playing everything all at once. “Interstellar Space” is a supernova of sound, a hurricane powered by rocket fuel.   Trane includes entire scales and modes, and every effect available to the saxophonist.  There are altissimo passages, multi-phonics, overblowing, and modulations so fast it is fair to call the music atonal at times.  The drumming of Rashied Ali is full of just as much energy, and makes each piece a dialog between the two men.

Rashied Ali

Rashied Ali

Most of the tracks follow a pattern.  Coltrane opens with the sound of bells, then Ali comes in with complex rhythmic playing on the drums.  Trane then presents the musical idea, mode or melodic fragment that is the basis for each improvisation.  From there, Coltrane is off and running on the tenor saxophone, sounding like he is trying to include every permutation of the melodic idea possible.  He plays modes and scalar passages so fast, he seems to be attempting to make the notes sound simultaneously.  I really had to listen fast, and concentrate intensely to begin to catch some of the connections Trane is including in his improvisations.  Each track has the intensity of a burning sun, and the two men give everything they have inside themselves on each take.

I must confess, the musical meaning and purpose of the bells escapes me.  I have to trust that John Coltrane had a very serious intention when including these sounds at punctuation points in many of the tracks.  He was a deeply spiritual man, and intensely serious about his music.  What he meant with the bells is lost on me, and I am open to anyone’s suggestion at this point.  It can’t be some free jazz quote of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”, or a bizarre musical reference to St. Nicholas??  I refuse to believe that.  Whatever the real meaning is, it must be deep.  I just am not that deep yet.

Here is the album on Spotify.  If this is your first exposure to this recording, I humbly suggest you give it a few listens before you form an opinion.

John Coltrane, “Interstellar Space” on Spotify

John_Coltrane_Interstellar_Space

 

Eatin’ It All Up

Eatin’ It All Up

I have to admit, I ran across the name “Cannonball” Adderley for the first time on an album by the Miles Davis sextet.  Kind of Blue  is probably the best selling jazz album in history, and like many musicians, I have memorized every note.  Miles had fired John Coltrane for continued drug problems, and had filled the saxophone spot in his quintet with the bluesy sound of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.  When Coltrane appeared to have gotten clean, Davis brought him back into the group and expanded his quintet to a sextet.  It was another stroke of genius by Miles, as the two saxophone players interacted brilliantly with each other.  (It also was a bit of insurance, if the new sobriety of Coltrane wasn’t as long lasting as hoped.)

Julian "Cannonball" Adderley

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley

Adderley was a big man, born and raised in Florida before moving to New York.  It was in high school that his schoolmates gave him the nickname “cannibal”, after his enthusiastic appetite for food.  Over time this morphed into “Cannonball”, and stuck with the alto saxophonist for the rest of his career.  Adderley was recognized in New York as one of the greatest alto sax players since Charlie Parker, and had some success as a bandleader with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.  One album that just hit me in the gut like a cannonball is Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!, Live at The Club.  Released in 1966, I have an endless appetite myself for listening to the bluesy, soulful playing on this record.

Cannonball is the leader of the group, and plays alto saxophone.  The rhythm section is Roy McCurdy on drums, Victor Gaskin on Bass, and Joe Zawinul on piano and electric piano.  The cornet player is Cannonball’s brother, Nat Adderley.  Nat always preferred the darker sound of the conical shaped cornet over the trumpet, and played on every record of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet I know of.  Now I dig this entire record, but my favorite tune and the big hit of the release is the title tune,  “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”.  I can listen to that one on repeat all day long.  The album is a live recording, and you can hear Adderley preach a little to the audience as he introduces the tune.  The crowd is engaged, and is eatin’ it all up.  The groove of this number, composed by Zawinul, just scratches right where it itches.

Cannonball Adderley Quintet, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”

There is a bit of salesmanship on the album.   The original notes to the LP describe the album as being recorded at Club DeLisa in Chicago, which had recently been renamed “The Club”.  It wasn’t until I read the updated liner notes to the CD release that I learned the album was really recorded at Capital’s Hollywood studio, with a live audience.  Adderley was friends with the manager of “The Club”, and was willing to give a little free publicity to his friend by fabricating a tale about where the album was recorded.  In the end, I guess I don’t care where it was recorded, I am just very glad it was.  It is one of my favorites.

Nat Adderley

Nat Adderley

Nat Adderley always seemed to be a little bit in the shadow of his brother.  Among musicians, he is a very respected cornetist and composer.  While Julian died of a brain hemorrhage in 1975, Nat Adderley continued his career for another 25 years.   I absolutely love the playing of Nat Adderley, with its swinging blues based sound, and soulful tone.  He led small groups of his own, composed and taught at several colleges (including Harvard).  Like a number of jazz musicians of the time, he found himself more appreciated internationally than at home in the United States.  One of his most successful compositions is “Work Song”, a tune that has become a jazz standard and recorded by dozens of musicians.  Nat joked that it was his “Social Security’ song, as the royalties he earned from it would insure his bank account into his old age.

Cannonball Adderley Quintet, “Work Song”

Cannonball and NatAs a musician, I can tell you it is a special experience to play in a group with your brother or close friend.  Rubbing shoulders with other musicians, you meet some wonderfully colorful characters.  You get to know people both as persons and as musicians.  Playing music is an emotionally expressive experience, when done well.  To share that bond with a brother (or spiritual brother) is a connection that can’t be found in other places in life.  That is part of why listening to the albums of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet is so very good.  I highly recommend seeking out and listening to any recording of the group you can find.

Cannonball_Adderley_-_Mercy,_Mercy,_Mercy!_Live_At_'The_Club'

Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!  Live at the Club on Spotify