Jazz is biding its time. It is in a period of consolidation and reflection that began as the 1970’s wound down. 1t may be that the search for roots and basic values presaged, as movements in jazz often have, a change in the society at large. The Reagan years were not far off.
The jazz tradition is not being challenged or extended. It is being absorbed and examined. In periods like this, critics watch for a messiah. When a brilliant young musician like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis appears, the outriders send back signals that the next major innovator is about to reveal himself. No one wants to be caught napping, as most critics were in 1958 at the advent of Ornette Coleman.
Marsalis tries to protect himself. He says, plaintively, that he is not the next anyone, that he’s just trying to play his music and develop his abilities. But he is so spectacularly talented that he is held to account, made to feel obliged to lead jazz forward. His failure to find the promised land, after a professional career of only four years, opens him to attack by last year’s adulators.
His admirable album Hot House Flowers (Columbia FC 39530) is pilloried by critics. It is a collection of ballads, exquisitely played by Wynton and his saxophonist brother, Branford. Both are accomplished soloists well within the jazz tradition of the past two decades. Both have enormous promise, but neither is a stylistic trailblazer. Arrangers Robert Freedman and Marsalis have given the pieces settings that are unconventional and subtle, so subtle that they elude Down Beat, which calls them “forced, coaxed. . . lackluster. . . turgid.” (Down Beat’s reviewer derisively uses the phrase “easy-listening.”) Marsalis’s playing, which is disciplined, controlled, and humorously good natured, is described as uninspired. High Fidelity, referring to Marsalis as a “trumpet playing machine” says the music is boring. These are serious mis-hearings of a successful venture. Marsalis has committed the sin of unfulfilled expectation; he is not Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, or Ornette Coleman. He is being punished for winning awards and making money.
Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, the last and most influential of the great iconoclastic innovators, has been dead since 1968. Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman is alive, but the elements of his revolutionary work have long since been absorbed into the mainstream. Coleman’s latest departure was the application of his “harmolodic” concept to a fusion of jazz and rock. It was dry academic theory compared with the upheaval caused by his passionate, disturbing music of the late 1950’s and early 60’s. That music was, in many ways, a premonition of the coming decade of political change, racial furor, Vietnam.
Coleman’s first album, Something Else (OJC 163), has just been reissued in Fantasy’s admirable Original Jazz Classics program. When it was released in 1958 on the Contemporary label, many critics found it easy to dismiss—amateurish; to others impenetrable, and even frightening. Only a few found Coleman’s music important and prophetic. Ears conditioned by developments of the intervening years are likely to hear Coleman quintet’s 1958 music as bebop yearning to be free. That is precisely what it was, down to the classic bop instrumentation of alto saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums, and to the use of recognizable harmonic patterns. This record is still the best place to begin for anyone wishing to understand Coleman’s music; it has a traditional frame of reference. Within a year the piano would be gone and so would most of the familiar harmonic guideposts. Coleman would be off germinating musical change, the Johnny Appleseed of free jazz.
Wynton Marsalis is only the most celebrated of a number of young jazz players who have begun to mature in the past five years and are functioning within the traditional framework. Also concerned with the jazz tradition are musicians who were profoundly influenced by the new freedom brought to jazz in the late 1950’s and early 60’s by Coltrane, Coleman, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and a few others.
Symbolizing the inward turn taken by many avant-gardists in the last decade was the saxophonist Archie Shepp, one of the most celebrated of the angry young “New Thing” musicians of the 1960’s. His music, like Coleman’s and much of Coltrane’s, abandoned the conventions of harmony and rhythm. Around 1977, Shepp began reexamining his roots. The result was a series of albums exploring blues, gospel, and bebop (Steeplechase 1079, 1139, and 1149). His playing, although hardly conventional, adhered to traditional rules. He was not alone. Dozens of his colleagues from the leading edge of jazz experimentation “rediscovered” standard songs, conventional harmonic patterns, and the charms of recognizable melodies.
The attractiveness of such values may account, in large part, for the success of reissue programs like Fantasy’s. The Original Jazz Classics program now includes upwards of 200 albums recorded in the 1950’s and 60’s on the Fantasy, Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, and Contemporary labels. Those companies’ artists included such influential musicians as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, and Benny Carter.
Carter’s Jazz Giant (OJC-167), recorded in 1957 and ’58, is one of the alto saxophone and trumpet master’s greatest sessions. If only for Carter’s elegant statements and the billowing tenor saxophone solos of Ben Webster, it would be a classic. But it also comprises some of Carter’s finest writing and a brilliant support team of trombonist Frank Rosalina, drummer Shelly Manne, guitarist Barney Kessel, and pianists Andre Previn and Jimmy Rowles. Carter’s trumpet solo on “I’m Coming, Virginia” emphasizes both his lyric expressiveness on the instrument and the unfortunate fact that he plays it so rarely.
Apart from the OJC program, Fantasy has brought forth a massive, intelligently conceived and beautifully produced Bill Evans collection, Bill Evans: The Complete Riverside Recordings (Riverside R-018). Its 18 LPs contain, in sequence, everything but snippets and outright rejected attempts that the late pianist recorded for the company from 1956 to 1963, when he left to join Verve. It is not simply a collectible for the Evans completist; it is a compelling, sometimes stark, view into the creative processes of a major artist. Seventeen solo pieces from 1963, never before issued, reveal Evans in deep introspection. Among them, “All the Things You Are,” is one of the most stunning developments of an improvisational sequence ever captured in a studio. It illuminates Evans’s importance as one who helped expand the jazz tradition by working from within it, and it gives us a glimpse into an astonishingly fertile and complex musical personality.
A company much smaller than Fantasy, Mosaic, is also responding to the groundswell of demand for the collected works of historically important jazz artists. Acclaimed for earlier releases of music by Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, john Hardee, Albert Ammons, and others, Mosaic offers The Complete Blue Note and Pacific Jazz Recordings of Clifford Brown (Mosaic MR 5-104) and The Complete Pacific Jazz Small Group Recordings of Art Pepper (Mosaic MR 3-105). Mosaic albums are not available in stores, but may be ordered from the company at 197 Strawberry Hill Avenue, Stamford, Connecticut 06902.
Brown was killed in an auto wreck in 1956, but in a few years as a professional, he left a legacy of recordings that is still a dominant’ factor in jazz. Some of the finest were made for the Blue Note label, and they are all here, including several previously unissued masters. The collection also contains the celebrated Pacific jazz ensemble date with its exuberant Brown solos and its carefully crafted arrangements by Jack Montrose.
Two trumpeters influenced by Brown, as nearly all modern jazz trumpeters have been, are Bobby Shew and Chuck Findley. In their Trumpets No End (Delos OMS 4003) they recreate, in unison, Brown’s devilishly difficult solo from the original recording of “Brownie Speaks,” which is heard in the Mosaic package. Their own improvisations on the number pale in comparison with Brown’s headlong rush of inspiration. But so would those of virtually all other trumpeters; the tribute is the thing. Returning the compliment, Brown’s widow, LaRue, provided an album-notes testimonial to the excitement generated by Shew and Findley. She’s right. Each of them is a master instrumentalist and a soloist of power and imagination. As a duo they cause sparks, most notably in a piece called “Direct Connection.” Two other essential points must be made about this album. It has superb work from the incandescent young bassist John Patitucci.
Art Pepper was an alto saxophonist of the bebop era who developed out of, or despite, the looming shadow of Charlie Parker. His playing had a mellowness owing a good deal to Benny Carter, one of his early mentors. It also had astringency and daring that in some ways took him beyond Parker. The Mosaic recordings capture him in the mid-1950’s when he had worked out the developmental problems of his youth and established tonal qualities and personal uses of rhythmic values that made him a distinctive stylist. In more than half the music on these three LPs, Pepper is in partnership with trumpeter Chet Baker, and a particularly fruitful partnership it was.
Both men deserved more respect than they received nearly 30 years ago. Their music was of lasting value and both went on, despite daunting personal problems, to make important contributions well into the 1980’s, as Baker still does.
Pepper, who died in 1982, recorded copiously in his final years. Much of the recording took place during an engagement at the Los Angeles club called Maiden Voyage. Art Pepper Quartet (Galaxy GXY 5151) is the third album to emerge from that experience. Pepper’s playing incorporates some of the new-jazz freedom he admired in Coltrane and Coleman, a growling ferocity that could quickly turn to lyricism, and a self-deprecating humor that reflected the confidence and relative peace he found only near the end of his life. His performance of “What’s New” represents all of those elements plus the remarkable rapport between Pepper and George Cables, the pianist he often called his favorite.
The “rebirth” of jazz tradition in the 70’s was welcomed by listeners and critics. Some of the avant-gardists even found the audiences that had eluded them before their born-again jazz conversions. There has been a parallel trend, a reaction to the adventurism and experimentation of the 1960’s and 70’s. It is the development of a body of music that is a retreat not only from the forthrightness of jazz but from the tyranny of commercial rock. This music, personified by the pianist George Winston and his fellow musicians of the Windham Hill label, is soft, dreamy, unaggressive, and nonelectronic. Windham Hill’s most recent sampler (WH-6-1035) sums up the approach. The music incorporates some of the rhythmic and improvisational aspects of jazz, but in safe and undisturbing ways. It has been described as Yuppie Muzak and it may be to the Reagan era what Mantovani was to the Eisenhower. This music is marketed and promoted as jazz
So is a bewildering array of styles generally categorized as fusion, which melds jazz elements with funk, rock, country, classical, Latin American, and even Balinese music. Confusingly, many of the artists offering fusion have reputations as jazz musicians and their fusion efforts are sold as jazz. Some of them are Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Sadao Watanabe, Earl Klugh, the Crusaders, and Stanley Clarke. Hancock continues to function part of the time as a modern mainstream jazz musician through his “V.S.O.P.” bands devoted to preserving the style and spirit of the Miles Davis quintet of 20 years ago. He is also the proprietor of a fusion group that has scored enormous pop successes, including the ubiquitous “Rockit.” Benson, a brilliant jazz guitarist, is all but totally immersed in his career as a pop singer. Jones, one of the greatest jazz arrangers, occasionally makes an album of near-jazz but is primarily occupied with producing hit records, including those of Michael Jackson.