Sunday, August 29, 2010

100 Years of Recorded Jazz … well, almost!

This post was originally published on August 29, 2010.

Given the fact that we are now four years closer, I thought it might be fun to have another look at "the birth of Jazz."

Hope to be able to re-post it again three years from now!

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, in less than seven [7] years, Jazz recordings will be celebrating their 100th anniversary.

Of course, we are hopeful that we will still be here on February 26, 2017 to commemorate the making of these first Jazz recordings, but we are also mindful of the admonition in the following Irish Proverb: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

On February 26, 1917, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step.  Available for sale on March 17, 1917 at a cost of 75 cents, Victor Recording #18255 was the first Jazz record ever issued.

In anticipation of this eventful day, and as a means of spending some time musing about the early years of the music, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has put together the following audio-video tribute to the creators of Early Jazz. 

The soundtrack is After You’ve Gone played by alto saxophonists Charlie Mariano – Jerry Dodgion and their sextet that includes Victor Feldman on vibes, Jimmy Rowles on piano, bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Shelly Manne. 


The track is from their Beauties of 1918 [World Pacific WP 1245] which is made up of a collection of tunes that were popular in and around the Unites States’ entry and involvement in the First World War [1917-1918].


Checkout the improvised-in-unison chorus that begins at 4:17 and which is used to close out the tune instead of a restatement of the melody.

The following thoughts by writer-musician Richard Sudhalter may help put Jazz from this early period in its history into a broader context:

“The ‘Great War’ left a new generation of disillusioned, worldly-wise Americans, determined to enjoy the pleasures of youth, and damn the consequences.

As John F. Carter’s oft-quoted declaration in the September 1920 Atlantic Monthly so eloquently put it:

The older generation had certainly pretty-well ruined this world before passing it on to us. They gave us this thing; knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow-up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, ‘way back in the eighties.

What better vehicle to express the indignation and sense of independence those words implied than five musical roughnecks [The Original Dixieland Jazz Band] from down south, making such a racket that Mom and Pop, and just about everyone else over the age of twenty-five, retreated in horror and dismay? Rock and roll, 1918 style.”

The above quotation [pp.18-19] is taken from Mr. Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz 1915 – 1945 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999].

Much like Early Jazz, because of its emphasis on the contributions of White musicians, Lost Chords itself caused quite a bit of controversy when it was first published, so much so that Mr. Sudhalter wrote a defense of it which was posted on the Challenge Records website when that Dutch-based record company released a two-CD companion set to the book in 2000.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sudhalter’s astute and quite brilliant writings on the subject of Jazz will no longer be forthcoming as he passed away in 2008.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would make its own ‘contribution’ to his memory and especially to Lost Chords’  broadening edification about some of the makers of Early Jazz by offering its readers the opportunity to read the piece he wrote for the Challenge Records website.


© -Richard Sudhalter/Challenge Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Talkback – And A Modest Proposal

By Richard Sudhalter
“Saxophonist-composer Bill Kirchner, a most perceptive fellow, put it perfectly: "this book is going to be a Rorschach test," he said, "but not for you. The ways in which people respond to it will tell you a lot about themselves."

How right he was. The book, of course, was LOST CHORDS, my 870-page chronicle of the contributions made by white musicians to pre-bop jazz. The nine months it's been on the market have brought a wide range of response, from thoughtful analysis to near-apoplectic vilification. Not that the latter came as any surprise. In these self-consciously compensatory times, anyone suggesting (in public, anyway) that this great music was born of anything besides the black experience is asking for trouble. Too many folks have invested too heavily in the dogma of exclusively black creationism to allow anything as awkward as mere fact to rock their neatly-rigged yachts.

Cushioning and empowering them is the current rage for moral and cultural relativism, reflexive male-bashing, historical revisionism, presentism (judging yesterday by today's notions and precepts), outcome-justified social engineering, indiscriminate demonization of white European traditions, and countless other perversions of the multiculturalist ideal.

Scholar-pedagogue Gerald Early summed it up in one review of LOST CHORDS: "It is difficult, in most scholarly circles, to write about American whites as whites these days unless one is being very critical of them." That's been the pattern lately in jazz perception here in the pre-millennial USA: the notion of white musicians as anything but brigands and exploiters, or feckless popularizers, is rigorously abjured.

LOST CHORDS has indeed brought out the telltale ink blots: it's shown some commentators to be fair-minded, intellectually upright, attempting in good faith - even when they disagreed with some of the book's assertions - to evaluate both hypothesis and execution. It's exposed others, in sometimes disheartening ways, as self-serving, self-deceiving, deeply prejudiced (in the true Latinate sense) and, above all, intellectually dishonest.

My main response to all the complaint and contumely has been to return to questions that dominated my long-ago days as a jazz reviewer for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post: what, exactly, is the responsibility of a critic? And to whom is he responsible? Everyone acknowledges the power conferred by just appearing in print (or on radio or TV); countless artists pander and flatter, court and cajole, for the sake of a feature, a two-paragraph review, even just a mention. It's an alarmingly one-sided process. Most critics (or reviewers, to accept Byron's implied distinction) enjoy a bully pulpit that's prominent, pervasive, all but unassailable. They write pretty much what they want - and that includes venting personal tastes, touting current favorites, even settling old scores. In some notorious cases they have been known to wallow in simple, mean-spirited subjectivity.


But hold: wasn't it Stanley Baldwin who declared that "power without responsibility [has been] the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages?" Surely being a critic or reviewer, especially an influential one, suggests an obligation to ask disinterested questions: "What is this artist (writer, composer, player) trying to achieve?" "Through what means?" "How skilled is he, how successful in executing his conception?" "Who is the target audience, and how effectively did the artistic product reach that audience?" "Am I being honest, informative and fair in representing what's been done here?" Significantly and justly absent from such a formulation is, "Did I, personally, like him or her?" "Do I like this (musical, literary, visual) style?" Do I, personally, find the conception or methods appealing?" "Is any of this in keeping with my own artistic (or political, or historical) beliefs and practices?"

The critical process remains skewed, one-sided, fortressed within the utter futility of any attempt to rebut a writer's pronouncements. Sure, there are letters-to-the-editor columns. But 'fess up, now: who among us can recall seeing such a letter (when it appeared at all) that didn't sound like whining, complaint, or plain olf sour grapes? It might be interesting and productive to grant performers, composers, authors a real forum of their own, allowing them to question, weigh, challenge the judgments of those who sit in judgment of them. To ask the unasked questions ~ even, where appropriate, to examine the credentials of those who occupy the bully pulpit.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen got that opportunity in late 1996, after his HITLER'S WILLING EXECUTIONERS touched off a worldwide firestorm of soul-searching and wild accusation. It came courtesy of The New Republic, which commissioned him to write an article that appeared under the headline, "Motives, Causes and Alibis: A Reply to My Critics" (TNR, 12/23/96). In an admirably restrained, even genial manner, Goldhagen dealt with doubters, detractors, and defamers alike, taking on issues of fact and interpretation. Exhorting one and all to define and justify their arguments about what was, after all, a deeply resonant subject.

Why, I thought, isn't this kind of platform universally available? And then, as if in answer to a prayer, along came the internet. In its very immediacy, ubiquitousness, and interactive nature, it seems an ideal medium, a tool, for use in dismantling the barricades separating critic from criticized. A chat room, perhaps, compulsorily attended one day a week by the designated critic?

Of course such a prospect confers rules and responsibilities of its own: no ad hominem (or feminam) stuff. No finger-pointing or name-calling. Just cogent, necessarily substantive questions, and honest answers. By way of illustration, a letter from one reader about my recent New York Times piece on writing jazz fiction complained that "Mr. Sudhalter's message seems clear: don't try to write about jazz unless you're a jazz musician... Are jazz musicians so unique (sic) that they fall into another category, too far beyond 'civilian' experience for a writer to reach?"
It might have been rewarding to open a dialogue with this correspondent by saying, Yes, sir, that's exactly my message. I believe that music, unlike police work or politics (the two other fields cited by the letter-writer), totally defines its surroundings and practitioners. Jazz musicians are their music. Absent that, they're just people making a living, eating meals, paying bills — no different from cops or politicos. But that's just the point: the music can't be subtracted: it's the defining essence, which sets musicians apart, makes them special and ultimately a little mysterious. Makes their various complexes and misbehaviors interesting to writers, chroniclers, fans.

Would British writer Geoff Dyer, for example, have found Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Art Pepper, and the other walking pathologies celebrated in his BUT BEAUTIFUL (Farrar, Straus, 1996) so fascinating had it not been for the music they made? Subtract the music and you have just another chronicle of aberrant thought and behavior. In a review of his book, I wondered whether Dyer would have been similarly drawn to musicians such as Henry Allen, Dizzy Gillespie, and Red Norvo, no less brilliant, who seem to have led balanced, eminently non-neurotic lives.

It all comes back, finally, to a self-evident fact: any writer, regardless how adept, who doesn't understand music will have a tough time writing convincingly about it, either as a critic or as a novelist. Such attempts invariably wind up, as Jason Epstein put it some years ago in The New Yorker, "as though someone who had never thought of holding a brush and had never considered the problems of color and volume had attempted a life of Cezanne."

Particularly relevant to the controversy surrounding LOST CHORDS is a note in which Goldhagen alludes to negative comments by Man openly hostile reporter who argued with me about my book even while admitting that he had read only a small portion of it." One of the radio interviews I’ve done since LOST CHORDS appeared was with a jazz "expert" who rather cavalierly questioned the very need for a book glorifying white musicians. Of course, he added, he hadn't read it - but "people," unidentified, had told him what it was "about" — therefore presumably qualifying him to pass judgment.

Then, too, buried on a back page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, was a critique by New Orleans-based writer Jason Berry. Dealing mostly with the book's introduction, and dipping only fleetingly into the text, the writer squandered precious column inches on such peripheral issues as Albert Murray's 1976 book STOMPING THE BLUES, the role of the long-ago Fisk Jubilee Singers in popularizing spirituals, the character of the legendary New Orleans figure Buddy Bolden.
"Sudhalter is right to assert a role for white musicians in jazz history," Mr. Berry declared in his final paragraph. "If only he had used more light and less heat to make his case." Heat? Search as I might, I could locate none, and none of the "strained polemic" Mr. Berry claimed to find. How sweet it might have been to counter such stuff on the spot. Strained polemic? Where, Jason? How? Show me. More heat than light, in a volume that scrupulously maintains a detached, even Olympian, tone? Chapter and verse, Mr. Berry, please.

And what, too, of the British writer who decried the book's "dense, lifeless prose, dotted through with sidetracks, points of barely relevant detail, and a great deal of repetition and deviation?" Let's place the reviewer (whose own book, launched by the same publisher and editor as mine, was not without its clunky passages) in the dock, having to support his every adjective.

Like Pip, in the still unsurpassed 1948 movie version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, parting the drapes of Miss Havisham's musty old room to let glorious light stream in, let's bring the jazz panjandrums out from behind their curtains and screens, invulnerable no longer - held to account at last for their every utterance.

LOST CHORDS has just gone into a second printing. Retrieval Records, a branch of Challenge, has issued a two-CD companion set, supplying 49 vintage cuts in illustration of music and musicians discussed in the text. Here are Bix and Tram, Bud Freeman and Adrian Rollini, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Red Nichols and Miff Mole — even such relatively obscure figures as Boyce Brown and Jack Purvis, in sometimes brilliant performances.

Never mind the racial rhetoric or quasi-authoritative edicts from "authorities" who'd have trouble finding B-flat if they stumbled across it in the dark. The music speaks eloquently for itself, calling upon those who would judge it and its players to establish criteria and credentials for doing so - or forever hold their tongues.

The defense rests - for now.”


In addition to Sudhalter’s marvelous book, for those who wish to read more widely on the subject of the beginnings of Jazz, Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development [New York: Oxford University Press, 1968] is highly recommended.

Here are three paragraphs from the Preface which will serve as an introduction to the work and as a conclusion to this feature:

“Although there is no dearth of books on jazz, very few of them have attempted to deal with the music itself in anything more than general descriptive or impressionistic terms. The majority of books have con­centrated on the legendry of jazz, and over the years a body of writing has accumulated which is little more than an amalgam of well-meaning amateur criticism and fascinated opinion. That this was allowed to pass for scholarship and serious analysis is attributable not only to the humble, socially "unacceptable" origin of jazz, but also to the widely held notion that a music improvised by self-taught, often musically il­literate musicians did not warrant genuine musicological research. Despite the fact that many "serious" composers and performers had indicated their high regard for jazz as early as the 1920$, the academic credentials of jazz were hardly sufficient to produce a serious interest in the analysis of its techniques and actual musical content. …

This history, the first of two volumes, attempts among other things to fill some of those gaps, to explore, as it were, the foothills as well as the peaks of jazz. In fact, this volume has been written on the as­sumption that virtually every record made, from the advent of jazz recordings through the early 1930$, has been listened to, analyzed, and if necessary discussed. A true assessment of an artist (or a particular musical development) cannot be made without reference to the totality of his work and its relation to his contemporaries. An analysis of Beethoven's Eroica or Armstrong's West End Blues without reference to musical history or the development of musical style could yield a certain amount of factual information, but a full evaluation would obviously be impossible without considering the authors' total oeuvre and that of their immediate predecessors, contemporaries, and succes­sors. The work of Johnny Dodds, for example, cannot be properly assessed without comparative listening to at least Sidney Bechet or Jimmy Noone. Similarly, jazz historians who write about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band without having listened to James Reese Europe or Earl Fuller recordings can hardly arrive at a reasonable evaluation of the ODJB.

Another approach employed here is to concentrate on those mo­ments, those performances, and those musicians who in one way or another represent innovational landmarks in the development of jazz. In a sense this book is an answer in terms of specific musical detail to a series of interrelated questions: What makes jazz work? What makes jazz different from other music? Why do so many people find jazz ex­citing? How did it get that way? It is as if I were sitting down with a friend not as yet initiated into the mysteries of jazz, listening to rec­ords, responding to the kind of questions a musician might ask, and sharing with him the excitement and beauty of this music. Thus the book attempts to combine the objective research of the historian-musicologist with the subjectivism of an engaged listener and per­former-composer. In this respect the book is directed particularly to the "classically" trained musician or composer, who may never have con­cerned himself with jazz and who cannot respond to the in-group jargon and glossy enthusiasm of most writing on jazz. Implicit in the perspective governing this history is the view that jazz is but one of many musical languages and cultures available to us in mid-twentieth century, and whether explicitly stating it or not, the book places jazz in that larger context.”

To be continued over the next seven years and, hopefully, beyond.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Milt Jackson 1923-1999: A Tribute

Here at JazzProfiles, we often pay homage to the pioneers of Jazz; those individuals who helped shape the music and left a legacy of recordings for the enjoyment of generations to come.


When it comes to playing Jazz on the vibraphone, no one left a bigger footprint that Milt Jackson.  Nicknamed "Bags" because of the noticeable pouches under his eyes, Milt Jackson was the preeminent player on the vibraphone during the second half of the 20th century.


The mere mention of "Bags" around others that played the instrument would bring a wry smile and a gentle shaking of the head in admiration.


Another continuing theme on JazzProfiles has been our effort to highlight the brilliance of many of today's young Jazz players.


This video tribute to Milt does both by honoring the memory of Bags while featuring some of the best talent on today's Jazz scene.


The tune is Bopag'in composed by tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath's about whom the late Dizzy Gillespie said: "If you know Jimmy Heath's music, then you know bebop."


Bags takes the first solo beginning at 0:46, followed by alto saxophonist Jesse Davis at 2:04, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman at 3:23, trumpeter Nicholas Payton at 4:41 and pianist Benny Green at 6:00.


Particularly noteworthy are bassist Christian McBride's stunningly strong bass line [these are easier to hear at the beginning of the solo times listed above]. Kenny Washington's drumming holds it all together while booting things along.



Saturday, August 21, 2010

Philly Jazz – John Swana


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It’s a such a shame.

Today’s Jazz players are constantly being compared to the Giants of Jazz of halcyon days gone by.

Bull puckey!

These guys can play … period.

If there’s any doubt about the veracity of this claim, skip the rest of the text, scroll down to the embedded YouTube and listen to six [6] minutes of the finest recorded Jazz that you are ever likely to hear anywhere at anytime.

Now that “we’ve” cleared that up ….

This piece was originally written for a friend to help him follow along with what was happening in the music.  Discovering it again, the editorial staff  thought that it might make an interesting audio-video feature for JazzProfiles.

The tune is Philly Jazz.  It was written by trumpeter John Swana who, as you would imagine, hails from Philadelphia, and it appears on his On Target Criss Cross CD [1241].  Joining with him on the album are Dutch guitarist Jesse van Ruller, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland.

After reading a brief introduction about how the tune is structured, just follow the timings listed under each musician’s name while playing the video, open your ears and you’ll hear it all fall into place. You can always pause or re-set the video if you lose your place or wish to hear something again.

Philly Jazz is a typical 32-bar tune that is formed around four [4], eight [8]-bar sections.

This song structure is often referred to as “A-A-B-A.”

This first “A” = 8 bars or measures of the theme or melody [0-7 seconds of the video]

The second “A” = 8 bars or measures of the theme or melody repeated [8-14 seconds].

“B” = 8 bars or measures of an alternate melody sometimes called the release or the bridge [15-20 seconds]

The third “A” = 8 bars of the theme or melody restated [21-27 seconds].

Philly Jazz’s entire 32-bar A-A-B-A configuration is thus heard in the first 27 seconds of the video.

The melody and the related chords for the A-A-B-A song structure then become the basis upon which subsequent improvisations are developed; in this case by Swana, then by van Ruller and lastly by Harland: first in conjunction with Swana and van Ruller and then he solos alone. Patitucci does not solo on Philly Jazz.

To put it another way, the musicians repeat the 32 bar A-A-B-A sequence, each time making up and super-imposing new melodies on the tune’s chord progressions.

Every time a musician completes a 32-bar improvisation, this is referred to as a “chorus.”

On Philly Jazz, Swana takes 5 choruses [from 28 seconds to 2:38 minutes], van Ruller takes 3 choruses [from 2:39 to 3:54] and Harland takes 4 choruses, sharing the first two with Swana and van Ruller [from 3:55 – 5:38, en toto].

Following these solos, the tune’s A-A-B-A pattern is repeated at 5:39 [A], 5:44 [A], 5:51 [B] and 5:58 [A], thus closing the track.

We thought it might be fun to post a listing of the timings for the tune and the improvised choruses to help you better hear what’s going in the music.

To make things a little less confusing, the first two “A’s” or 16 bars of each chorus have been combined.

So John Swana’s first chorus’ A/A = 28-39 seconds, its B = 40-45 and its last 8 = 46-53 seconds.

At this point, you may wish to “Play” the YouTube and follow along with the timings noted below it.  And please don’t be concerned about missing the video’s images while you are checking the track timings as you can always go back and watch it again later once your ear is trained!


Philly Jazz
0–7 = “A” first 8 bars of the theme/melody 8–14 = “A” theme/melody repeated for 8 bars 15-20 = “B” bars of the bridge 21-27 = “A” theme/melody restated for 8 bars

John Swana [trumpet]
First Chorus 28-39 = A/A 40-45 = B 46-53 = A
Second Chorus 54 – 1:06 = A/A 1:07 – 1:12 = B 1:13 – 1:19 = A
Third Chorus 1:20 – 1:32 = A/A 1:33 – 1:38 = B 1:39 – 1:45 = A
Fourth Chorus 1:46 – 1:58 = A/A 1:59 – 2:05 = B 2:06 – 2:11 = A
Fifth Chorus 2:12 – 2:24 = A/A 2:25 – 2:30 = B 2:31 – 2:38 = A

Jesse van Ruller [guitar]
First Chorus 2:39 – 2:50 = A/A 2:51 – 2:57 = B 2:58 – 3:03 = A
Second Chorus 3:04 – 3:16 = A/A 3:17 – 3:22 = B 3:23 – 3:29 = A
Third Chorus 3:30 – 3:41 = A/A 3:42 – 3:47 = B 3:48 – 3:54 = A

Eric Harland [drums]
First Chorus 3:55 – 4:07 = A/A 4:08 – 4:13 = B [improvised by John Swana]
4:14 – 4:20 = A
Second Chorus 4:21 – 4:32 = A/A 4:33 – 4:39 = B [improvised by Jesse van Ruller]
4:40 – 4:45 = A
Third Chorus 4:46 – 4:58 = A/A 4:59 – 5:05 = B  5:06 – 5:11 = A
Fourth Chorus 5:12 – 5:24 = A/A 5:25 – 5:31 = B  5:32 – 5:38 = A

Restatement of the theme and song closing:
5:39 – 5:43 = “A” first 8 bars of the theme/melody
5:44 – 5:50 = “A” theme/melody repeated for 8 bars
5:51 – 5:57 = “B” 8 bars of the bridge
5:58 – 6:12  = “A” theme/melody restated for 8 bars

And there you have Philly Jazz, by way of a bassist born in Brooklyn, NY, a drummer from Houston, TX and a guitarist from Amsterdam.

At least trumpeter John Swana, it’s composer, is a native Philadelphian!

Jazz … the universal language, indeed.



Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ahmad Jamal on Mosaic Records



Kenny Washington: “How did you come up with your concept of less-is-more?”

Ahmad Jamal: “… I think it has to do with philosophy and how I approach the disciplines. There’s a discipline in music. There’s an amount of showiness and showing off in front of musicians, which is always a mistake. So I kind of backed off sometimes and I think it’s part of the discipline that I’ve employed through the years. I still have that. Some people call it space, but I call it discipline.”

“These sides are glistening examples of the polished skill and remarkable interplay that are the hallmarks of the Jamal trio.  Israel Crosby is on-hand to give imaginative and rock-steady support. Vernel Fournier is, as ever, fluid and quick as mercury. Jamal displays all the qualities that have elicited so much vociferous respect from fellow musicians, critics and records buyers ….”
- Jack Tracy/Original liner notes to Jamal at The Pershing, Vol. 2

“The mid fifties was a fertile time for Jazz; fresh, original ensembles were taking shape all over the country. The Modern Jazz Quartet, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, The Jazz Messengers and the Ahmad Jamal Trio immediately come to mind. Among musicians, each group had its imitators and its creative disciples who took its innovations one step further.

But no group in this era was as pervasive as the 1957 incarnation of Jamal’s trio with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. Like the Nat King Cole Trio of the previous decade, its influence penetrated so many different aspects of music.

Jamal is first and foremost a pianist with a natural gift for the instrument. His technique, dynamics and control are something to behold, but the mind that manipulates what comes out of the piano is extraordinary.  Like only the greatest of improvising artists, Jamal is a master architect, realizing with his mind conceives with seeming ease.”
- Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic Records

 
 © -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

At the time of its original posting in August, 2010, this feature did not include the tribute video to the late Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonwu [1921-1994] which uses Ahmad trio's performance of Taboo which the editorial staff at JazzProfiles subsequently developed with the assistance of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD.

You can now locate this video at the conclusion of this piece.

My feelings about the music contained in this nine-CD set [MD9-246] can be summed up with the expression on Ahmad’s face in the following photo:


Click on this link to Mosaic Records for more information about the set’s discography.

Around 1958, when I first heard pianist Ahmad Jamal on many of the trio LP recordings that make-up the Mosaic boxed set, I was immediately reminded of Erroll Garner.

I was vaguely aware that both Ahmad and Erroll were born and raised in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t know that Garner was his “biggest influence” [Jamal speaking to drummer Kenny Washington during a 2003 KBGO radio interview, a transcription of which is included in the insert notes to the Mosaic boxed set].

For those readers who are not familiar with Erroll Garner’s inimitable piano playing, perhaps the following description of it may prove helpful:

Unique is an inadequate word to describe Erroll Garner. He was a musical phenomenon unlike any other. One of the most appealing performers in jazz history, he influenced almost every pianist who played in his era, and even beyond. Self-taught, he could not read music, yet he did things that trained pianists could not play, or even imagine. Garner was a one-man swing band, and indeed often ac­knowledged that his main inspiration was the big bands of the thir­ties—Duke, Basie, Lunceford, et al. He developed a self-sufficient, extremely full style that was characterized by a rock-steady left hand that often sounded like a strumming rhythm guitar. Juxtaposed against this was a river of chordal and single-note ideas, frequently stated in a lagging, behind-the-beat way that generated terrific swing.”
- Dick Katz, Pianists of the 1940’s and 1950’s in Bill Kirchner, ed. The Oxford Companion to Jazz [New York: Oxford, 2000, p. 365]

The point in comparison between Garner and Jamal styles had to do with this part of the above quotation: “rock-steady left hand that often sounded like a strumming rhythm guitar. Juxtaposed against this was a river of chordal and single-note ideas, frequently stated in a lagging, behind-the-beat way that generated terrific swing.”

You can listen Erroll’s distinctive approach in the following YouTube; be patient as his patented, left-handed comping doesn’t really kick-in until 2:55 minutes.



But why did this comparison between Ahmad and Erroll come to mind as Jamal does not do what Garner does with his left-hand?

The “…river of chordal and single-noted ideas, et al.” struck a responsive chord [bad pun intended] as both pianists seem to gush forth with improvisatory ideas, but only Garner emphasized the rhythmic pulse of a piece by playing four-beats to the bar with his left-hand.

And then it dawned on me!

Jamal had substituted bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier in place of Garner’s left-hand thus freeing up both hands so that he could dart in and out of the time and play over the time using astounding runs, arpeggios, quotations from other tunes, counter-melodies and even counter-rhythms.

What sets all of this off is Jamal calculated use of space, something that rarely enters into Garner’s style because Erroll is always playing – there is no space.

As you can hear in the audio track to the above video, Garner can’t wait to finish one improvised phrase before starting another while Jamal, on the other hand, might play an idea, let it linger, leaving a space in which the bassist and the drummer continue to play before coming back into the tune again and exploring how other ideas might work. Jamal now had both hands free to build Garner-like orchestral creations.

Put another way, no Erroll Garner no Ahmad Jamal: Ahmad replaced Erroll’s always driving left hand with the always driving Israel Crosby-Vernel Fournier rhythmic pulse that he darted in and out of or played Erroll like orchestral phrases over.

But this wasn’t just any rhythm section that Ahmad was abandoning responsibility for the time to. With bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier he had a well-oiled rhythm machine.

Crosby was a master of the walking bass which Gunther Schuller defines as: “In Jazz, a line played pizzicato on a double bass in regular crotchets in 4/4 meter, the notes usually moving stepwise or in intervallic patterns not necessarily restricted to the main pitches of the harmony. The style arose as the use of stride piano patterns declined, …, it has since become lingua franca for Jazz bass players, allowing them to contribute pulse, harmony and countermelody simultaneously.” – The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz [p. 1257].

John Voight describes Crosby as “… one of the earliest virtuoso double bass players, capable of improvising melodic solos, rhythmically exciting accompaniment and scalar walking bass lines.”  – The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz [p. 257].

Although he was one of the busiest drummers in Chicago by the time he joined Ahmad in 1958, Vernel Fournier was born and raised in New Orleans and his drumming never lost some of the syncopated, cadence feeling associated with the famous marching bands of the Crescent City.

According to Jack Chambers in Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis:

“Despite his exposure in Ahmad’s trio, Fournier never received full credit and remains relatively unknown, but he is a percussionist of extraordinary delicacy. Jack DeJohnette, a much younger Chicago drummer says, ‘One day I heard Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing [a Chicago nightclub], and I heard Vernel Fournier on drums. His brushwork was so incredible – I mean just impeccable.’” [New York: William Morrow, 1960,p.202]
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Vernel’s drumming has a bounce, a jauntiness and a swagger to it that seems so characteristic of New Orleans in its heyday.

His brush work has a big fat, meaty sound, his stick work is clean and crisp and his time is flawless.

Fournier is from a  period in Jazz drumming when it was almost an inviolable rule that whatever rhythmic figures you played on the snare and bass drum, you had to intersperse them within the cymbal beat.

No matter what else you played as accents, you had to keep the insistent chang-a-dang, chang-a-dang, chang-a-dang going.

This was also true of licks, kicks and fills; you played these in such a way as to return the music as neatly to the cymbal beat as possible.

[When using brushes on the snare drum, the “cymbal beat” was replicated with by crossing the right brush over a swirling pattern being made by the left brush.]

Momentum, swing, metronomic time – whatever you want to call it – were all driven off of a cymbal beat, preferably one that was in lock step with a walking bass line.

No bassist and drummer in the history of Jazz ever locked-in better in a trio format than Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier.

Vernel also feathers the bass drum, another technique that was very much a part of modern drumming before the advent of the Elvin Jones and Tony Williams freer or looser style.

Feathering involves using the bass drum petal and the beater ball to lightly tap the bass drum, four-beats to the bar.  It is a vestige of the earliest time in the history of Jazz when drummers carried the beat on the bass drum in a more pronounced manner.

Beginning with the bebop era in the 1940s, especially with some of the more frenzied tempos associated with bop, drummers took carrying the beat off the base drum and brought it up to the ride cymbal, using the hi-hat or sock cymbal to heavily accent only the second and fourth beat of each bar.

In effect, this loosened up the sound and the feel of the rhythm so that it fit better within bebop’s melodic and harmonic framework.

It also helped prevent the poor drummer’s foot from falling off while trying to play the bass drum constantly during some of bebop’s wickedly fast tempos.

Some drummers got caught up in the changer-over from traditional Jazz and swing to bop with the result that while they could play the looser feeling time on the cymbal or with brushes, they never got away from playing four-beats-to-the-bar with the bass drum.

Instead, they toned-it-down, hence the advent of feathering.

Given how quietly it is played, the feathered bass drum generally went unnoticed particularly with the loudness of brass and reed instruments in a bop combo.

However, in a piano-bass-drum configuration, the net effect of the feathered bass drum was to give depth to the pulse of the beat, make it more insistent and drive it more.

I always thought that that the combination of Israel Crosby’s superb walking bass and Vernel’s fat sounding brush work gave Ahmad’s trio a driving propulsion and forceful swing that other trios rarely achieved.

But whether it was due to my wonky ears, the manner in which the original LPs were recorded, or my under-performing audio playback system,  I missed actually “hearing” the added ingredient in the Jamal’s trio swing: Fournier’s feathered bass drum.

However, because of the improved sound quality made possible by Mosaic’s digital transfers, the feathered bass drum is no longer hidden and is revealed throughout these recordings.

For example, as the time switches from a “two” feeling to a straight "four," you can hear Vernel’s feathering of the bass drum beginning at 1:55 on Angel Eyes, the Matt Dennis tune from the Mosaic series which is used as the audio track for the following YouTube tribute to the classic Ahmad Jamal Trio of 1957-1962.


Here’s are Kenny Washington’s thoughts about the tune:

“The Matt Dennis song Angel Eyes is one of the great torch songs of all time. Ol' Blue Eyes owned this one. I especially love the last lyric "scuse me while I disappear." A year earlier, Gene Ammons had had a hit with this standard. This tune is usually done as a ballad, but Ahmad takes it at a nice medium tempo. Ahmad reshapes the form of this standard like a sculptor, to fit the needs of the trio playing a chorus and a half of the melody. He uses the intro as an interlude. For the first chorus of his improvisation, he switches to the regular A-A-B-A song form of the tune. He then goes directly to the bridge and last A section with the interlude. This form is repeated again (bridge, last A and interlude). Listen to how he changes his dynamics to a pianis­simo and brings back the bridge melody. The Gershwin classic It Ain't Necessarily So is quoted for a second time at the last A before the intro is again stated for a powerful ending. This is another one of those performances where there's a lot happening. This marvelous arrangement sounds so natural and the trio pulls it off with such ease.”

Listening to the recordings on the Mosaic 9-disc set, it’s hard to understand why a number of critics rejected Ahmad and the trio’s music at the time of their original release. John Hammond put it more strongly when he stated that Ahmad’s music during the period from 1957-1962 was “scorned by the critics but worshipped by musicians and public alike ….”

Even the enormous appeal of his music to the likes of Miles Davis was derisively described by the noted Jazz critic, Gary Giddins, as an “… overbaked … fascination.”

Martin Williams, another Jazz literary luminary, went even further when he stated that:

“Pianist Ahmad Jamal is a success: he has several best-selling LP's, a supper-club following (which otherwise displays little interest in jazz), and several direct imitators. He has also re­ceived the deeper compliment of having admittedly affected the work of an important jazzman. His success should surprise no one, and his effect on Miles Davis should prove (if proof were needed) that good art can be influenced by bad.

Clearly, Davis responds to some of Jamal's interesting and very contemporary harmonic voicings and the very light, and impecca­bly accurate rhythmic pulse of Jamal's trio, particularly in the support he got from his bassist, the late Israel Crosby, and from his drummer, Vernel Fournier. Further, Jamal has the same interest in openness of melody, space, and fleeting silence that Davis does. But for the trumpeter these qualities can be aspects of haunting lyric economy. For Jamal they seem a kind of crowd-titillating stunt work. Indeed, in a recital like "Ahmad Jamal at the Blackhawk," recorded in a San Francisco night club, it appears that Jamal's real instrument is not the piano at all but his audience. On some numbers, he will virtually sit things out for a chorus, with only some carefully worked out rhapsodic harmo­nies by his left hand or coy tinklings by his right. After that, a few bombastic block chords by both hands, delivered forte, will absolutely lay them in the aisles. And unless you have heard Ahmad Jamal blatantly telegraph the climax of a piece, or beg applause en route with an obvious arpeggio run which he drops insinuatingly on the crowd after he has been coasting along on the graceful momentum of Crosby and Fournier, then you have missed a nearly definitive musical bombast. …” Jazz Changes [New York: Oxford, 1992, p. 281].


But while Giddins, Williams and others thought Jamal’s approach to be limited and limiting, drummer Jack DeJohnette observed:

"Ahmad's always been his own man - way ahead of his time in terms of using space and chord voicings, which is one of the reasons Miles liked him so much. Ahmad knew how to get the most out of his instrument, so that a piano trio sounded like a symphony orchestra. He's a great organizer, and his concept is so sophisticated and intelligent, yet so loose and funky." [Jack Chambers, Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, pp. 202-203]

And Jack Chambers offers these engaging explanations by Ahmad:

To his persistent critics, Jamal replies, "Sometimes people don't identify with pur­ity - that's what my music was then and that's what it is now. I've endured some of the harsh statements, but for every harsh statement there have been 99 compli­mentary ones. What I've done and am still doing is a product of years of blood, sweat and tears, and as long as I am completely secure in the knowledge that what I am doing is valid, then eventually even the most stupid critic has to acknowledge the validity of my work."

Part of the problem critics have with his music, according to Jamal, is that it is understated. "Anybody can play loudly," he says. "It is more difficult to play softly while swinging at that same level of intensity you can get playing fortis­simo. To swing hard while playing quietly is one of the signs of the true artist." Almost completely overlooked by the most negative critics is Jamal's flawless technique. It is a virtue that other musicians, especially piano players, talk about with reverence. Cedar Walton says, "I never heard Ahmad even come close to playing anything without a great deal of technique, taste and timing. When he goes across the piano, he just doesn't ever miss a note - there's never any question. For me, that's still a great thrill, just to hear somebody do that." Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, p. 203]

Summing up Jamal genius, his influence and the significance of the Mosaic set, Michael Cuscuna offered these observations:

“He certainly exercised a profound influence on pianists and his trio set a new standard for what the piano trio in jazz would aim for and achieve. His knack for finding obscure but viable material which lent itself to a jazz treatment was equal to that of Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Rowles. But when Ahmad put an overlooked tune into circulation, it often stayed in the jazz repertoire forever thereafter. And with songs like "Poinciana" and "Billy Boy," it was Jamal's unique and imaginative re-arrangement of the tune which would become the standard form with which to play the piece.

Much like Miles Davis (who incidentally was greatly influenced by him), his influence is felt in music that attempts to replicate his and in great music that sounds nothing like his. But unlike musicians of similar or even lesser impact, the music of the 1957-62 Ahmad Jamal Trio has been mysteriously and distressingly hard to come by, even in the "reissue everything" era of the Compact Disc.

Literally years in the making, this set introduces 23 previously unreleased gems approved by the artist himself. It was delayed by a fire on the Universal Studios lot in California which took much of the original Jamal trio LP masters with it and our search to reconstruct the music on the set from a variety of analog and digital sources sitting in vaults around the world.

It's been a hell of a long time coming and we hope you enjoy The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions.”