Header Quote

"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Keith Jarrett: Rio

In 1975, Keith Jarrett recorded and ECM released a disc called The Koln Concert—fully improvised solo piano that came in three looooooong chunks of grooving, rollicking lyricism. In college dorms and in little apartments and, well, just about everywhere, jazz fans (and others too) were enraptured by the sound of a great pianist just thinking out loud. And it didn't hurt that the guy infused his playing with a gospel groove and aching melody.

After years of playing with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis and his own groups, Keith Jarrett had the jazz equivalent of a "hit record," and it lifted his renown (and that of ECM). Tons of great stuff followed (including many more solo piano records), but so did a reputation of being a difficult guy. Jarrett played and recorded lots of classical music, and he experimented with free jazz, chamber jazz, a trio that played nothing but standards—a huge variety. He flirted with outright greatness and he courted some discontent among part of the jazz community.

But with his new record Rio (read my full PopMatters review HERE) Jarrett returns to solo piano greatness and, perhaps, makes us realize that he is as good a summary of what has been great about jazz for the last 30 years.

This is a fantastic recording: compelling, challenging, engaging, beautiful, knotty. Unlike many of this solo excursions, it features relatively brief piece that link together as a whole concert. This is a two-CD set, but it flies by. There are blues, ballads, free playing, rocking pop sounds, gospel, impressionism, you name it. The touch of Jarrett's classical playing is here, but there is almost no sense of "pretense." This is jazz eclecticism at its best because everything is seamless and natural. Even Keith's "moaning" along with his playing is effective (or, if you prefer, mostly in check).

Both more than dinner background music and utterly accessible, Rio (recorded at a concert venue in that Brazilian city) would be a great way to introduce someone to Jarrett—or to jazz in general. It is a model of invention, but it also sounds "composed." It challenges regular harmony while mostly staying within the consonant. It beguiles without alienating.

It's one of a small handful of recordings in 2011 that I'll still be listening to ten years from now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sympathetic Vibrations

Most people don’t know what a vibraphone is. Why should they? The vibraphone (sometimes called a vibraharp and more often just called “the vibes”) is a niche taste. Classical music has no role for it, and in pop music it once flavored a batch of Motown hits, but that’s it. The obscure theremin, with its leading role in hit songs like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, is probably better known.

In jazz, however, the percussive attack of the vibes combines with lyrical beauty, creating something close to logical genius. Only in jazz has the instrument produced virtuosos: Hampton, Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, a few others. But even in jazz, the lineage and use of the instrument is somewhat limited. A few of the great big bands used vibes, but most did not. The legendary small groups, from the Armstrong Hot Seven to the Miles Davis Quintet to the Art Ensemble of Chicago are wholly vibes-free.

Recently, however, the instrument has grown in range and application in jazz. Read my full column on the topic, Sympathetic Vibrations, HERE.

Recent releases demonstrating great work on vibes include Chris Dingman's Waking Dreams, the latest from Gary Burton, and a wondrous new record from John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, among others.

Friday, November 18, 2011

George Benson: Guitar Man

O, fates!  Why do you bless certain people with awe-inspiring talent and brilliant drive to succeed, only to give them questionable taste in how they USE that gift?

Why did Eddie Murphy make The Klumps?

And why must guitarist George Benson make mushy, hum-drum music?

Guitar Man is the latest from Benson (read my full PopMatters review HERE), and it's partly brilliant and mostly mush.  It starts with a tour de force on acoustic guitar: a solo rendering of the standard “Tenderly”. Astonishing, precise, neither too ornate nor too plain, tasteful, invincible. George Benson, Guitarman? Yes. He’s back, and in stellar form.

But then you get to the second track, which is precisely the kind of thing you were fearing—a de-toothing of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that is so schlocky that rock fans cannot even recognize the melody. A string section, some soothing woodwinds, soft-focus production, simplistic back-beat drumming that lacks the force of rock, the swing of jazz or the deep pocket of soul. Muzak, ack. There’s a dramatic key change toward the end that gilds the lily. Through it all, Benson plays amazing licks, most certainly, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a disaster.

And on it goes with this record.  A sparkling acoustic "Danny Boy" or a small-group take on Coltrane's "Naima", nice.  A cheesy "Tequila" (a la Wes Montgomery, presumably) or a soft-centered "Lady in My Life" (from Thriller).  The good stuff is short, and the terrible stuff is not short enough.

Hearing George Benson play the guitar is still astonishing.  And Eddie Murphy is still a very very funny man.  But what difference does it make if they are content to muddle forward making middle-of-the-road pablum?

O fates.