Lately I’ve been on a kick with YouTube watching international jazz. Specifically, how the art form has evolved in other countries. One sub-genre of jazz is the big band. Big-band music was a big deal back in the swing era, but it’s hard to make a big band work these days. It’s usually 17 (or more) players, and there isn’t enough of a market for jazz for a big band to keep its members fed.
There is a Blue Note jazz club in Tokyo, and they have a house big band called the “Blue Note Tokyo All-Star Jazz Orchestra”, which is excellent. Remarkably, they have no albums on Apple Music, but there are several videos on YouTube. One of my favorite things about the band is its director Eric Miyashiro. He clearly loves both his job and jazz music. Part of me thinks Miyashiro must walk around Tokyo and everyone says, “Hey! It’s jazz-guy Eric.” At least that’s my head canon. If I can ever get my way to Tokyo, I fully intend to make my way to the Blue Note and, hopefully, meet Eric Miyashiro.
They have lots of songs on YouTube, but I’ve picked the video below, which isn’t as much straight ahead jazz, but it does a great job of featuring more of the band members with solos. I would also note that one of the nice things about jazz migrating to foreign countries is that they will have their own take on the music, and this is a good example. They have a YouTube channel with a lot more music.
This week we lost jazz pianist Chick Corea (Wikipedia). I’ve been a Chick Corea fan my entire life. He got his start with several jazz greats (including Miles Davis) but really arrived as an early pioneer of jazz fusion with his band, Return to Forever. LIke so many greats, Chick was constantly trying different things and sounds. At one point he had two bands, one focused on electric instruments and another focused on acoustic instruments.
Regardless, he was amazing when he sat at a keyboard. The thing that always stood out to me was how effortless he’d make it look. Almost like he was barely touching the keys. If you’d like to listen to some Chick Corea music, I really like his Chick Corea Plays album recorded live in Paris a few years ago. Chick talks about some of his favorite music as well as playing.
Chick also did a lot of duet collaborations. One of the best was with vibraphonist Gary Burton. They made several albums together over the decades. Below is a tiny concert they did together giving you a tease of their music.
We’ll miss you, Chick.
There is a new Thelonius Monk album, and the story behind it is almost as great as the music on it. In the late 1960s, a high school student serving as “social commissioner” at Palo Alto High School in Northern California was charged with booking entertainment for the high school auditorium. Instead of booking the local Beatles copycat band, he decided to book Monk. Pulling that off wasn’t easy. First, because he was too young, he had to get his older brother to drive to San Francisco to pick up Monk and his band. They returned with the bass sticking out the window only to find the piano was out of tune. The school janitor agreed to tune the piano if Monk would agree to let him record the concert. It was all a crazy bit of kismet.
So that recording sat around for 52 years, but now we can all enjoy it (Apple Music)(Amazon). You can just tell Monk was having a good time. Monk had a lot of struggles in his life, ranging from getting his Cabaret Card pulled in New York (so he couldn’t perform) to mental illness, but this concert toward the end of his career catches him brilliantly. My favorite track is “Epistrophy”. It is a great song, but this version is special because of the loping groove they start at the beginning and carry throughout the tune.
Regardless, I didn’t think I would hear any new Monk music for the rest of my lifetime. Aren’t little surprises like this delightful?
If you’ve been reading my Jazz Friday posts over the years, you’ll know that the majority of featured jazz artists are Black Americans. That isn’t a coincidence. Black America is the reason that jazz (and nearly every other pop music of the last 100 years) exists. Jazz is just one of the many things for which America is indebted to its black citizens.
Racism and bigotry are not only abhorrent, they also deny American of its greatest asset, multiculturalism. Adam Neely posted an excellent video about Black America and jazz that sums it up.
In March we lost another jazz great, pianist McCoy Tyner (Wikipedia). McCoy first entered my orbit as the pianist in the John Coltrane quartet during its best years. McCoy played piano on some famous Coltrane recordings, including My Favorite Things (Wikipedia(Apple Music) and one of my all-time favorite albums, Ballads0 (Wikipedia(Apple Music). As John Coltrane’s music became more atonal, McCoy left the band in the mid-60s and continued to record as a solo artist and group leader for the rest of his life.
I’ve been doing a deep dive on McCoy Tyner in Apple Music all week. The album I keep coming back to is a big band he led. My favorite track is High Priest. I particularly dig the McCoy piano solo at the top. We’ll all miss you, McCoy.
Recently Jazz at Lincoln Center did an entire concert tribute to the music of Miles Davis. The musicians really bring a lot of life to Mile’s music, and the commentary throughout the concert gives you all sorts of insight. It’s all good, but I particularly like the second song, “Boplicity”. That melody is one of those that I find impossible to listen to without smiling.
Among the many tragedies we are experiencing with Covid-19, we recently lost Ellis Marsalis. Ellis was a remarkable jazz pianist that was known for his clever riffs and his passion for teaching. Among his many students that went on to have their own music careers are Harry Connick, Jr. and Stephen Colbert sideman Jon Batiste.
Ellis was also the patriarch of the Marsalis family and nearly all of his sons went on to have music careers including Branford Marsalis, one of my favorite contemporary saxophonists, and Wynton Marsalis, who is the artistic director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center.
Ellis made a lot of albums over his career and I’ve spent the last week listening to a lot of them. One of my very favorite tracks he recorded was West Side Story’s “Maria” with his son, Brandford on soprano sax (Apple Music) (Amazon). I love the way he just fills the piano with the right notes. There are so many great Ellis Marsalis tracks, however, that I’d recommend going into your streaming service of choice and listening to him.
Wynton Marsalis summed it up best about his dad, “He could swing like nobody’s business.”
Today’s jazz Friday is me indulging myself having grown up in the ’70s. At the time Chuck Mangione (Wikipedia) did the impossible: He broke into the pop charts playing the Flugelhorn. I remember hearing his most popular tune, Feels so Good (Apple Music) (YouTube), playing everywhere. But the tune that I woke up thinking about a few weeks ago, one I probably hadn’t listed to since 1979 or so was Carousel with that sweet soprano sax from his Bellavia album. (iTunes) (Apple Music) (YouTube). This song just makes me happy. I think it would be a great song to play in the morning while you are brushing your teeth.
While Chuck did gain popularity as a pop star, he also has some serious jazz chops. He played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers filling the seat held by Clifford Brown. Either way, no matter how you feel about jazz, take a minute and listen to Carousel and see if it doesn’t give you the same smile it gives me.
I am back with another Jazz Friday reference to Joey Alexander. I’ve written about Joey before. Just a few years ago, he was a child prodigy tearing up the jazz scene with a remarkable amount of skill and heart playing the piano.
He’s now the ripe old age of 16, and he just released another new album, Warna, which means color in Joey’s native Indonesian language. My fascination with Joey Alexander continues to grow. I speculated just a few years ago about what kind of music we’d get from him as he grew up, and now we see signs of it. This album features many of Joey’s original compositions and they are full of heart and emotion.
I’ve been listening to the album all week, and I can’t get over how someone so young can play with so much maturity. While you’re enjoying your beverage of choice over the weekend, check out Warna. (iTunes) (Apple Music) (Spotify)
Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, my favorite album, celebrated its 60th anniversary a few weeks ago. Below is a YouTube video explaining what makes Kind of Blue so special. Here’s an older video featuring Herbie Hancock. People disagree on the best track on the album. I’d pick “Blue in Green”. There’s something about that first note with that Harmon mute that just gets me every time.
A few years ago I did an interview with Myke Hurley where I talked about the album. Please note it was 5am when we recorded that. I was not the high jazz man I sounded like. I was just not entirely awake yet.
Either way, if you don’t own a single jazz album and were to get just one, I’d recommend Kind of Blue. I have never met anyone who didn’t enjoy it at some level.