NOAHJAZZ - NB PONTIFICATES

MY REFLECTIONS ON MUSIC, LIFE, FOOD AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE . . .

The Election, Jazz, and Discourse Across Lines

Since the 2016 election, a lot of folks are feeling a lot of different feelings. And expressing a lot of feelings. And feeling very strongly about the distinctions between their feelings and others’ feelings. And in some cases trying really hard to figure out how to find that balance whereby they are true to their beliefs and morals and yet remain able to engage genuine dialogue* with other decent humans who feel (and in some cases voted) differently. And with Thanksgiving coming up, some who aren’t ready to attempt that engagement on a broader societal level will be forced to figure out how to find common ground in their own families. OMIGOD, HOW DO WE DO THIS? Okay, take a breath. And another. The answer, of course, is thinking like a jazz musician. Just work with me for a minute.

* This post is intended for those who WANT to have constructive engagement, but question whether there is a method by which to do so, whether it’s worth the stress, and so on. I have decided at least for now that it is possible and desirable, a decision partly borne of the privilege attached to my status as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man whose physical disability is relatively inconspicuous and who isn’t particularly Jewish, hand gestures and capacity to insert random Yiddish words aside. If you have decided for moral and/or strategic reasons that you will not engage with anyone at all complicit in something with such hateful and destructive consequences, then this blog post isn’t for you, unless you enjoy my jazz analogies, in which case read on.

Okay, back to jazz as the answer. You might expect this to be the point where I start talking about jazz as a transformative art form. Or a profound mechanism for collaboration. Or a practice that teaches us how to improvise deftly. Or a genre that provides a wonderful model for multiculturalism. All that’s true, but I’m actually looking at it from the far more mundane angle of trying to put forth something in which the statistical majority of people have no interest whatsoever, yet not closing that door.

I create jazz and it’s very important to me that it be authentic and that my peers and elders in the jazz community view it as such. In a very real sense, those are the ears I hoped to reach when I was in the dues-paying process, both for practical reasons (reaching those folks = gigs) and emotional ones (praise from musicians who I admire = the pinnacle of validation). But it has never been my goal for the notes I put forth to resonate only in the echo chamber of jazz musicians and fans. All the work I’ve done has been in service of trying to communicate universal truth in the most compelling way possible, so the more of that universe I can reach as I share those sounds, the better.

I also recognize that a statistical majority of people who aren’t already jazz fans will never be. Some people just reject all that it is and stands for, so I can’t get wrapped up in them. Some people actually like related forms of music or art and abstractly COULD like jazz but are too invested in whatever biases or self-identifications preclude that (“I’m a grown-up, and even if broccoli or jazz are delightful AND good for you, you can’t MAKE me consume either one!”). These folks aren’t hopeless (from a “getting through” standpoint), but trying to persuade them is generally not energy well invested. But then there are some folks who actually COULD get down with the music and haven’t yet been given that point of entry, whether it be exposure to compelling music in an unexpected setting, or interest stemming from a personal connection to a musician or a fan, or simply hearing the right song at the right time that makes the synapses connect in a new way.

This is the sub-population that guides my decisions about musical inclusiveness. To be clear, for me it is a given that diluting the music is unacceptable. If I hear F-sharp in my head and I know that it would make the music more accessible to play F-natural, you can be damn sure I’ll play F-sharp – not out of defiance, not to challenge, but simply because it’s my job to obey the emotional and spiritual “truth” of the music as I hear it. So if we accept that the sincerity of the music is the top priority, the question becomes how to frame what I do. Is “soulful and probing music for soulful and thoughtful people” a compromise compared to “music for jazz fans and not the closed-minded morons who don’t get it?” In a sense, the only real difference is in leaving open the possibility of letting those in who don’t yet “get it.” Some of that is a matter of how the music is framed. Some of it is our energy as musicians – this may be difficult to quantify, but if the music is a sincere outward reflection of an inner state, then I believe there is a difference between music made out of love for all present compared to music made with contempt for those who don’t get it.

Making music is an emotionally vulnerable thing, so it takes strength and discipline not to capitulate to frustration in that regard when people don’t respond as we want them to, but there are two important reasons to stay resolute. One is that transformation takes good-spirited persistence. Someone who doesn’t like jazz is unlikely to be completely converted in an instant, but every step in the right direction is progress. The other is that unless you’re the musical equivalent of a “private dancer,” every interaction can impact other people – even if a given person is frustratingly unresponsive, the response to that response will be noticed by everyone else present.

I’m remembering the first big CD release show I did on the little tour celebrating the “Ripples” album. As I introduced the tune “Ripples,” I began to explain the somber but hopefully inspiring story of my Aunt Margie’s passing and how her commitment to goodness impacted a wide swath of people, something that provided the emotional and conceptual basis for the whole album. And people were really getting it and were clearly moved . . . with the notable exception of one table that clearly had the disposable income to pay a substantial cover charge to drink, talk, laugh, and generally whoop it up, oblivious to what was going on. The whooping really started crescendoing as I was telling this story, and of course they were sitting RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. In that moment it would have been very easy and very tempting to just shut down, truncate the story, and play a quick and dispirited version of the song, but I didn’t. I knew that even if the folks at that table had proven beyond reasonable doubt that they had no intention of “getting it,” it would be a shame to miss out on the chance that was right at my fingertips to connect with others in the room who were on that precipice. Feedback afterward suggested that this is exactly what happened – it doesn’t always work that way, but it does often enough to affirm that I would be foolish to squander the opportunity.

Part of what makes this tricky is that, of course, I don’t know HOW open someone is up front. I can make an educated guess based on other factors, but it’s an inexact science. If one has the stomach for failure or rejection, however, the benefit (the ROI, if you will) of putting oneself out there is pretty hard to argue against. Let’s say that 80% of Americans have NO capacity to like jazz (I don’t think it’s nearly that many, but for the sake of conservative estimates, let’s go with that). Of the remaining folks, let’s say that 80% who could like jazz never will allow themselves to listen to it because they’re too invested in a jazz-rejecting identity. Of the remaining folks, let’s say that 80% still won’t get it if they put on my record or enter a venue where I’m playing. That leaves a “tiny” sub-population who will be moved by my music . . . a number 7 times greater than the number who bought Adele’s last album. The statistics are obviously contrived, but hopefully they help to convey the point that seemingly insignificant odds can still represent a game-changing impact in a world in which a seemingly small number of “fans” can turn the tide in one’s success as an artist. If I’m aloof, if I’m rude, if I lapse into “jazz nerd talk” that excludes “ordinary” people, I’m closing a door for no good reason other than lacking the patience to keep it open.

And so here we circle back around to politics. The same principles and tactics apply, but instead of different layers of propensity to enjoy jazz, we’re looking at worldview and politics. Let’s say a certain percentage of those who voted a particular way are nasty, hateful bigots. I’m not suggesting we devote ourselves to rehabilitating them against their will, but there are others not in that category. So among those not in that category, let’s say that some are abstractly less far away philosophically, but not interested in engaging in genuine dialogue. Fine, it’s probably not worth devoting our time and energy to someone whose only mode of discussion is one-way. But that’s still not everyone. So among those who ARE open to discussion, some will ultimately leave any discussion having drawn the same conclusions with which they entered. But not everybody. And if that small percentage of that small percentage of that small percentage view things from a different lens, you’ve actually made a profound, measurable difference. And that’s even assuming that we have the capacity to measure whether seeds we plant with folks who we conclude are “hopeless” will die in the ground or possibly germinate slowly.

As with the purity or sincerity of musical ideas, and as I said up front, this all presupposes that you are not compromising your beliefs. I am not recommending that you say “well, okay, it is true that SOMETIMES grabbing a woman by the p**** is pretty cool” as a means of artificially manufacturing common ground. But if you’re expressing yourself sincerely, you can do so in a way that’s inclusive or in a way that automatically excludes those who don’t already agree with you. Suggesting that someone’s choice of a vote automatically attaches a pejorative noun to them (e.g. “You are a [insert bad thing here]”) automatically shuts down conversation. Is it worth it? Is it the only way to communicate the gravity of the subject matter? Or is it simply a means of letting go of your conversational discipline because you’re upset and/or don’t feel it’s worth choosing your words in a careful and dignified way? If you stop and look within on a case-by-case basis, you will find the answer.

I’ve written before on this blog about the power of intention, something I’ll simply reference here by saying I have seen incredible transformation in people whose views I thought to be iron-clad. Not every time I’ve tried (or even close), and seldom quickly, but it has happened. And honestly, just knowing that is enough for me to find the inner strength to keep trying, even though I know the odds in any given moment may be long. The odds that we will be free of consequences if we stop trying to find civility where we can are even longer.

Top 10 Favorite Tracks Featuring Bob Cranshaw

The music world lost one of the most prolific providers of bottom end when bassist Bob Cranshaw passed away yesterday. I first heard Bob live right after I began college in 1992, when I went with my friend Jeff Grace (now an acclaimed film composer) to hear his former teacher and one of my heroes, James Williams. It was at Tavern on the Green and while I was already a big fan of JW’s work, I was really taken by how hard the rhythm section (Bob and Billy Drummond) was swinging. I was fairly familiar with Bob’s work, though I didn’t actually realize at that point that he was mostly playing electric bass, something that in one sense makes it all the more special in hindsight that he was playing the upright bass so elegantly and effortlessly.

These are some of my favorite performances of Bob’s. With hundreds and hundreds of records to his credit, many of them classic, I had to leave off a lot of important ones, including some that I particularly love by Max Roach, Barry Harris, Jaki Byard, Eddie Harris, Duke Pearson, Grant Green, Shirley Scott, Yusef Lateef, Mary Lou Williams, and Joe Locke (as well as Stanley Turrentine, Bobby Hutcherson, and Wayne Shorter, who are at least represented below as sidemen).

The list is in chronological order rather than order of preference. All these tracks are in-print, so treat yourself to some listening today in Mr. Cranshaw’s memory.

1 ) “Egyptic” from Daddy-O Presents MJT +3 (by MJT +3)

Bob’s first session, from even before this group added Frank Strozier and Harold Mabern. He swings wonderfully and takes a nice solo – this is also fun for hearing Richard Abrams (not yet Muhal) playing in a straight-ahead context.

2 ) “Them There Eyes” from Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics (by Carmen McRae).

I love Bob’s work with singers, and this early example of his accompanying work is particularly fun, as Carmen’s opening reading of the melody features only the accompaniment of Bob and his MJT +3 bandmate, drummer Walter Perkins. Then the rest of the band (Lockjaw Davis, Norman Simmons, Mundell Lowe, and eventually Nat Adderley) enter and things start cooking on another level.

3 ) “Without A Song” from The Bridge (by Sonny Rollins)

Of course, Bob’s more than 50 year relationship with Sonny Rollins can’t be overlooked. It just so happens that my favorite of these moments of Bob is the first track (though not the first-recorded track) of their first record together. Between the extended bass solo and the relatively sparse playing of Jim Hall and Ben Riley sparse playing, Bob really gets room to shine on this infectiously swinging tune.

4 ) “The Coaster” from Evolution (by Grachan Moncur, III)

Though perhaps most associated with straight-ahead jazz, Bob was far from conservative. His thumping bass fits in perfectly with Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes and Tony Williams’ crackling drums on this track (and the innovative record from which it comes), also of course featuring Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan.

5 ) “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” from Inside Betty Carter (by Betty Carter)

Another vocal track, and an opportunity to show off Bob’s way with a ballad. Betty certainly kept her band on its toes, and Bob keeps things buoyant through all the twists and turns.

6 ) “Inner Urge” from Inner Urge (by Joe Henderson)

Quick: your top ten classic jazz albums (by non-bassists) in which the first solo on the record is by the bassist. Okay, time’s up. Really, though, what knocks me out most is not Bob’s solo but the way in which he, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones keep things so propulsive without lapsing into predictability. Bob could walk quarter notes with the best of them, but this reinforces how much else he had up his sleeve.

7 ) “You Go to My Head” from The Gigolo (by Lee Morgan)

Bob is responsible for many memorable bass lines on “groove” tunes. While “The Sidewinder” is probably the most popular, I have always loved the line that he and Harold Mabern play atop a Billy Higgins groove as a recurring pattern throughout this utterly delightful arrangement that also features Wayne Shorter.

8 ) “Serenade to a Soul Sister” from Serenade to a Soul Sister (by Horace Silver)

I almost picked Psychedelic Sally to demonstrate an early example of his electric playing (in the context of his extensive work with Horace) but decided instead on this track from the same session. This bluesy yet harmonically and rhythmically modern waltz features Stanley Turrentine and Charles Tolliver in the front line, and it’s fascinating to hear how Bob and Billy Cobham find the sweet spot of addressing that modernity yet keeping it soulful as one would expect from Horace.

9 ) “Delores St S.F.” from Sunset to Dawn (by Kenny Barron)

In a sense this is a contrast to the previous track. That is, here we get to check out Bob’s nuanced mastery of the electric bass in a straight-ahead context, on Kenny’s ethereal waltz/ballad also featuring Freddie Waits and the atmospheric percussion of Warren Smith and Richard “Pablo” Landrum.

10 ) “Send In the Clowns” from Sa Va Bella (for Lady Legends) by Milt Jackson

Have you ever wanted to hear this melancholy Sondheim waltz swung like crazy? Well then Milt Jackson’s your man. Which, of course, he should be anyway. It seems fitting to wrap up the list with one of the last recordings by Milt’s great quartet with Bob, Mike LeDonne, and Mickey Roker.

Top 10 Favorite Steve Wilson tracks

I am just thrilled that Resonant Motion gets to bring Steve Wilson in tomorrow to share his sublime playing, wonderful compositions, and affable, thoughtful manner with my community in Middletown, CT. The occasion has given me the impetus to dig into some of my favorite Wilsonian music through the years.

My first time hearing Steve was on the Spiral Staircase album by OTB (the Blue Note “super group” in which he replaced Kenny Garrett), but I don’t think it registered, because I was a senior in high school and mainly concerned with the presence of Ralph Bowen and Michael Philip Mossman, both of whom I was about to begin studying with in college, which my friend Amanda Monaco was hip enough to alert me to (she, as it turned out, went on to study with Steve a few years later).

My first time hearing Steve live and being fully aware of his presence was a revelation. It was 1993 and he was playing alongside my mentor Kenny Barron in the group of Buster Williams (with which he’d go on to play quite a bit through the years). His soulful, assertive work on alto and soprano saxophone was revelatory, and I began absorbing much of his work as a leader and as a sideman.

The biggest revelation, though, came when he played on 3 tracks of my Soul Force album. It was 2004 and I sucked it up and contacted his manager, Laura Hartmann – though Steve and I had become acquainted by that point, I was braced for “go ‘way kid, ya bother me.” I not only got a “yes,” but some enlighteningly professional work in the sense that everything about it went smoothly and put me at ease, from his preparedness to his warmth. But man, once the tape rolled, he KILLED it. Every take, every solo, every moment of section work. On the ride back from NY that day, Omer, the young assistant I had helping me in the studio that day, just kept saying “man, Steve Wilson.” That about summed it up.

I could go on and on, but I’d like to get to the music. Because he has been so active, I’ve had to leave out sessions by some important ongoing colleagues of his like Ralph Peterson, Bruce Barth, Christian McBride, Billy Drummond, Victor Lewis, David Berkman, and Darrell Grant, as well as more “isolated” (from the discographical sense) appearances on records by Dave Holland, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Roberta Piket, Roz Corral, and others. Now on to some of my favorites:

1 ) “A Joyful Noise (for JW)” from Generations

Two of the most important pianists in the Steve Wilson lineage are the great James Williams and Mulgrew Miller, both sadly no longer with us. Mulgrew’s soulful, modern playing was a wonderful complement for Steve, and theirs is the perfect team to pay tribute to James. The rhythm section of Ray Drummond and Ben Riley was actually the other 2/3 of James’ trio the last time I heard him play, a few months before his passing, and they swing hard on this appropriately soulful waltz. And yes, I’ve used the word soulful multiple times here. Soulful soulful soulful.

2 ) “Monk Medley Part 2 (Bright Mississippi, Four In One)” from Duologue by Steve Wilson and Lewis Nash

Do check out Steve’s duo with drummer Lewis Nash the next chance you get. Steve’s deep relationship with Thelonious Monk’s music is put to great use on this track, but the whole album is full of groove and sublime interaction.

3 ) “Go East Young Man” from The Sequel by Mulgrew Miller and Wingspan

This incarnation of Wingspan features a front line of Steve, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, and Steve’s frequent and fruitful collaborator Steve Nelson on vibes. I dare say this track is one of the most swinging things I’ve heard recorded in the last 15 years, making me miss Mulgrew all the more. Steve’s soprano work is a definite highlight.

4 ) “Perry Street” from Live In New York: the Vanguard Sessions

This hard-swinging and harmonically evocative tune comes from Steve’s most recent record as a leader, featuring his Wilsonian Grain quartet, with Orrin Evans on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Bill Stewart on drums.

5 ) “Illusion” from the Traveler by Kenny Barron

We need to make sure Steve’s lyrical ballad playing is represented, and I can’t think of a better way than on this soprano feature with Kenny, one of the living masters of ballad playing.

6 ) “Four” from A Week at the Blue Note by Chick Corea flute

Steve’s fruitful tenure in Chick’s Origin sextet (with yet another important collaborator named Steve, one of my early mentors, trombonist Steve Davis) was fortunately well documented. There is some great original music by Chick, but I also have a particular fondness for the extended live romps from this multi-album set. Hearing Steve burn on this tune is a definite highlight.

7 ) “Tortola” from Soulful Song

This Wilson original is indeed a soulful song, all the more so due the sympathetic interplay with pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ed Howard, and drummer Adam Cruz, Steve’s go-to quartet for years.

8 ) “The Hunted” from The Child Within by Billy Childs

Steve takes an utterly burning alto solo on this one, prodded along by Childs’ comping and the great rhythm section work of Dave Holland and Jeff “Tain” Watts, both of whom would later feature Steve on their own excellent recordings.

9 )  “Galapagos” from Written in the Rocks by Renee Rosnes

Two of Steve’s most frequent collaborators are heard on this gorgeous track from a session released earlier this year by pianist Renee Rosnes. Renee, Steve’s bandmate in OTB (and a frequent collaborator since), composed this tune that features Steve’s gorgeous flute playing as well as a solo turn by, once again, the great Steve Nelson on vibes.

10 ) “Passages” from Boogaloo Brasiliero by Freddie Bryant

Steve’s flute is heard once again. It seems an appropriate bookend to this list as well in that this harmonically rich, rhythmically multifaceted tune featured prominently when Freddie was the first guest artist in the Jazz Up Close series.

Honorable Mention: “Truth, Justice, and the Blues” from Truth, Justice, and the Blues by James Williams and the ICU

I put this one separately because a) it’s out of print, and b) the work of the James Williams Intensive Care Unit (particularly the live shows I saw, buoyed by the wonderfully complementary work of the steady core of Steve, Miles Griffith, John Lockwood, and Yoron Israel) is so special to me that I have trouble quantifying it. The group’s first album features wonderful saxophone work from both Steve and Bill Pierce, but this track is all Steve, with his alto soaring over the hard-swinging backdrop.

Top 10 Favorite Bobby Hutcherson Tracks

Aside from being in shock that Bobby Hutcherson is gone, I struggle to figure out a way to summarize his musical contributions. Among all the great musicians in jazz history, there is a sub-set of those who maintain unique voices, yet have the versatility to seamlessly integrate into a wide variety of environments, who have equal measures of sensitivity and fire, restraint and chops, melodicism and harmonic sophistication, mastery of their instruments yet capacity to transcend those limitations and simply use those instruments as a mechanism for transmitting something deep, directly from the soul. Bobby Hutcherson’s legacy could be defined in terms of his contributions as a vibraphonist (and marimbist), jazz soloist, and/or composer, but for me his music will always be defined by the way his infectious warmth and rugged creative searching shattered any listener’s capacity to put the resulting music into a rigid box.

Indeed my development as a jazz musician is dotted with important, ear-opening moments that feature Bobby. Some are referenced below, like hearing Jackie McLean’s Destination . . . Out for the first time in an LP listening station at the Hartt School with Jimmy Greene, Kris Allen and Jason Berg while I was a teenager studying at the Artists’ Collective. Some are not, like Tom Brislin hipping me to Herbie Hancock’s “Theme From Blow-Up” (as played on Bobby’s Oblique album) or hearing Joe Henderson’s Mode for Joe for the first time, or picking up the Color Schemes record at the local library and hearing Bobby’s incredible interplay with Mulgrew Miller (and . . . okay, now I’m cheating). Suffice it to say that it’s challenging to narrow down to the point that I’m omitting not only great albums but entire collaborative histories of his important work with Andrew Hill, Dexter Gordon, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Cowell, and others. We’ll miss him tremendously, but what a body of work.

So without any further ado:

1 ) “Little B’s Poem” from Components

Written for his then-young son, Bobby’s best-loved composition is 100% deserving of that recognition. A lovely waltz that, in this performance, manages to be dramatically passionate and liltingly gentle at the same time. In addition to Bobby, there are gorgeous solos by James Spaulding on flute and frequent playing partner Herbie Hancock on piano. The rhythm section ebbs and flows amazingly, thanks to the sensitivity of bassist Ron Carter and debatably Bobby’s most important collaborator of the 1960s, drummer Joe Chambers.

2 ) “Khalil the Prophet” from Destination . . . Out by Jackie McLean

Because of the diversity of Bobby’s artistry, it’s difficult to find a single context in which we hear everything he has to offer. A case could be made, though, that we get pretty close on this album, Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond, and Grachan Moncur, III’s Evolution, the three cutting-edge albums featuring J-Mac, Grachan and Bobby together. We hear Bobby take an authoritative solo after comping for the two horns with assertiveness and sensitivity that render other chord-playing instruments wholly unnecessary and show why he was so valued as an alternative to piano or guitar in groups like those of Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. With all due respect to Gary Burton, it is in this music that I hear the direct antecedent of the comping of Joe Locke, Bryan Carrott and so many other modern vibraphonists serving as the sole chord-playing instrument in a rhythm section while also functioning as major soloists.

3 ) “Goin’ Down South” from San Francisco

This album is another great example of his collaboration with saxophonist Harold Land. It’s a little weird not to include one of Bobby’s own compositions on this list, but this performance of Joe Sample’s tune to my ears stands along “Cantaloupe Island,” “The Sidewinder,” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” among the most potent backbeat tunes in the straight-ahead jazz lexicon.

4 ) “Ice Cream Man” from Solo/Quartet

I have to thank Chris Dingman for introducing me to this tune when, as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, he arranged it for the Wesleyan Percussion Ensemble, opening for Bobby when Jay Hoggard brought his friend and mentor to perform on campus in 2002. This is a multi-tracked solo mallet percussion extravaganza, beautiful, haunting, and deep – I have yet to listen to this (which I’ve probably done hundreds of times by this point) without hearing a nuance I’ve missed on previous occasions.

5 ) “Herzog” from Total Eclipse

I’ve assigned this tune to student ensembles often enough to gain an even further appreciation of how tricky it is, and thus how remarkable it is that Bobby, Harold Land, Chick Corea, Reggie Johnson, and Joe Chambers make it sound utterly effortless.

6) “Step Lightly” from The Kicker

Anyone fond of my writing for vibes might want to check out this record as well as Grant Green’s Idle Moments for a glimpse of my point of reference. My extended Know Thyself suite, in particular, draws very direct inspiration from the very particular saxophone-guitar-vibraphone blend that Bobby, Grant, and Joe Henderson manage to achieve on these sessions, with this lovely track as a particularly inspiring example for me.

7 ) “Mandrake” from Iron Man (sometimes issued as Memorial Album) by Eric Dolphy

As much as I love Bobby’s work on Dolphy’s iconic Out to Lunch album, this more obscure record is actually my favorite. Something about the ensemble blend is deeply moving to me, and the great feature spots by Bobby, Eric and Woody Shaw certainly don’t hurt.

8 ) “Now” from Now!

This lovely composition documents several important things, including the beginning of Bobby’s working relationship with pianist Kenny Barron, his wonderful sensitivity on ballads, and maybe most significantly the beginning of his work with choral music and less common orchestrations, something even more evident elsewhere on this cutting-edge album.

9 ) “Oatmeal” from Plays the Truth by Les McCann Ltd.

When I was in my early 20s I was given a two-record compilation of 1960s recordings on the Pacific Jazz label, and through several tracks on that I discovered what a strong, swinging (a la Milt Jackson, though with his own sound) straight-ahead vibraphonist Bobby was on the West Coast both before he made it to NY and established himself in more “progressive” musical environments and subsequently (on Gerald Wilson recordings, for example). This hard-swinging blues tune from 1960 nicely represents that vital facet of his musical personality.

10 ) “Kiss to the Skies” from Beyond the Wall by Kenny Garrett

Given how heavily this list represents the 1960s, it seems appropriate to wrap this list up by showing how long Bobby kept his artistic vitality. Recorded 10 years ago, this searing Kenny Garrett date (featuring the late Mulgrew Miller, the pianist on the first Bobby Hutcherson record I ever heard) blends Bobby’s vibes excellently with the saxophones of Kenny and Pharaoh Sanders.

Phoebe Snow, St. Peter, and the meaning(s) of “Legacy”

I’m a fan of Phoebe Snow from two different angles, angles that one might even deem at odds with one another.  As I contemplate what in music resonates the most with me (something I do approximately 5 times a day) and ponder what life is about (something I do approximately 10 times a day), Phoebe keeps coming to my mind.

From the first angle, Phoebe came up with a remarkable debut album in 1974 (eponymously named) and announced her arrival on the music scene with a degree of soulfulness and artistic vitality that seemed a sure harbinger of world-beating triumph. And then a couple years later, her daughter Valerie was born, with severe disabilities. Rejecting suggestions that she institutionalize Valerie, Phoebe devoted herself to her daughter’s care for the duration of Valerie’s 31-year life. She continued to make music as feasible along the way, but the trajectory was clearly changed. She performed a bit more after Valerie’s passing, but that period lasted less than two years, cut short by a cerebral hemmorage in 2010 that ended her career and led to hear own death the following year. Her legacy will endure, but as with a transcendent athlete who suffers a career-altering injury, it will on some level be marked with “what ifs.”

From the second angle, Pheobe found enlightenment as she came up with (or maybe was thrust into) a remarkable life. She spent the statistical bulk of her adult life enmeshed in the sacred task of caregiving. Bookending that stretch of 31 years, we can look at short periods of comparatively unencumbered musical activity that most of us should be so lucky as to have, with an admirable maintenance of her skills in between (not to mention another half dozen records). But really the sheer devotion to goodness will endure more powerfully than anything. And a case could be made that the compromises had less to do with musical quality and more to do with visibility and the trappings of stardom. That is, she wasn’t deprived of potent music-making so much as the context of her life resulted in a narrower audience.

Of course we’ll never really know the full scope of her own feelings about all this, and it’s up to us to use the Phoebe Snow parable in whatever way makes the most philosophical sense to us. Is her tale a sad one? An inspiring one? One from which we should learn lessons or one that should simply make us grateful for what we have?

Me, I have been stewing for months over the vision of Phoebe meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates. Spiritual though I may consider myself to be, I’m not a religious man. But the image of a morally just figure serving as an arbiter of goodness and assessing worthiness for eternal paradise gives a concrete vision to the question of how to assess a life’s work. As I navigate my own choices in life, career, art, and navigation of obstacles (physical and otherwise) I often go back to the question of “in the end, what will matter?” That has been true for a few years now, but comparatively recent is the St. Peter imagery.

More specifically, as I’ve gone on a Phoebe Snow listening kick in recent months, I have thought about her life and asked myself “did St. Peter care that she never won a Grammy?” And, subsequently, “if not, then how much do those things REALLY matter?” That could be a sour grapes response, but for me it has been a helpful way to calibrate and refine my own priorities. Given how many formative perceptions of mine have revolved around “legacy” defined in terms of accolades and quantifiable accomplishments, it has been an interesting zone of contemplation.

So I finally wrote a song about it. I’ll play it for you sometime – in the meantime, here are the lyrics:

Valerie’s Arms (music & lyrics by Noah Baerman, (c) 2016, Chedda Chowda Music, ASCAP)

For 31 years, Phoebe took one for the team
That ain’t what you think when you picture livin’ the dream
Where were the number ones, the pretty gold statuettes?
I guess that’s what a life of virtue gets . . .

But I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on

In ‘75, Phoebe’s songs were front page news
From Poetry Man all the way to Harpo’s Blues
Peter’s her biggest fan, of the songs that are slick yet wild
But mostly he digs the care she gave her child

Yes I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on

He said if I let them in on talent alone
Then maybe we’d have the baddest nightclub in the universe
But I look for kindness down to the bone
And between you and me, the music really isn’t any worse

So was it a curse, a blessing, or a compromise?
You’d have to ask Phoebe, way up there in the skies.
But whenever I contemplate the loyalty that she vowed
I know she’s in Valerie’s arms up on a cloud

‘Cause I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on

Alternate Realities: EDS Awareness Month 2016

On the coooover of Rolling Stoooone . . .

Maybe next month?

So did you read the latest Rolling Stone? You might have missed it, but the cover story about me has some really sexy photos and a probing interview about my creative process and the 38 weeks* per year I spend making glorious music and sharing it with overflowing stadiums of adoring fans.

* 38 weeks may seem a bit lazy for someone getting that much attention, but considering that I also have four Grand Slam tennis tournaments to win each year. Each of those takes 2 weeks plus a week of preparation beforehand. That equals 50 weeks, and I do take 2 weeks’ vacation because a) I need some quality time with my family and b) I am a human being, after all.

Oh wait, I guess that isn’t accurate, is it? Well, if you have ever wondered about how glorious my life would be if I didn’t have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (as, of course, I have), maybe you’ve come to a similar conclusion. Since May is EDS Awareness Month, I have been thinking about “what might have been,” though maybe not in the most obvious ways. If it were in the most obvious ways, it’d sound something like this:

IT’S NOT FAIR!! I was supposed to go on the road with my musical heroes and sell bazillions of records and win shiny awards and be on magazine covers and have all the money, fame, and respect that (names of successful peers retracted) have! I worked hard to earn all that, and because of this damn medical condition, it was all taken from me. I can’t play long gigs, spend days (much less months) on the road, stay up late at jam sessions, schlep gear, do a gig and a record date on the same day, or even eat or drink whatever’s available at the gig. IT’S NOT FAIR!! SCREW YOU, EDS!

The thing is, I don’t actually believe that anymore. The most obvious reasons are that a) I know plenty of great, committed musicians who deserve all the things mentioned in the previous paragraph and don’t have them and b) it’s not necessarily true that having those things brings about happiness.

But what I really want to discuss here is the natural but illogical notion that we can take a difficult life circumstance and project life without it, a life in which all the things we like about our situation either remain the same or improve. Even if we accept that the above-referenced “what might have been” scenario is abstractly possible, what are some other possible outcomes for the trajectory of my life?

  • • Scenario 1: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived in all the ways described above. As a result, I had sufficient access to temptation that I embraced the stereotypical “artist lifestyle.” Over the years, I developed an STD, spent my money unwisely, and wound up with a drug habit that I would need to spend the rest of my life tending to with the limited resources I didn’t already squander.
    • Scenario 2: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived in all the ways described above. As a result, my life on the road strained all my important relationships, leaving me estranged from my kids and hopping from one relationship (or possibly marriage) to the next whenever the honeymoon period ended and the reality of day-to-day relationship maintenance sprung up. Not having dealt with the physical struggles, my compassion never entirely developed and even my professional relationships lacked true warmth and understanding.
    • Scenario 3: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived, giving me success out of proportion to my emotional infrastructure. I never had to confront my demons or deeply assess who I was or what I wanted out of life. Thus, each coveted milestone I achieved brought about a further feeling of emptiness and despair, as the gap between my life on paper and my inner reality widened. Eventually I got out of music altogether because I didn’t know how to deal with this gap and the reality was too depressing.
    • Scenario 4: Unencumbered by EDS, I never got serious about music, because contact sports were never off limits. So instead I focused my youthful energy on different sports and became popular in school. I got mediocre grades, tried and failed to make it as a baseball player, didn’t get a college scholarship to compensate for my grades, bulked up as soon as my metabolism changed, and went about the rest of my life doing odd jobs without a sense of purpose and looking for love in all the wrong places without having any people skills to compensate for losing my athlete status.

In reality, the likelihood of any of these outcomes is at least comparable to that of the peaches-and-cream scenario. Life is a complex and interrelated system of things and we simply can’t just replace one thing with another and assume everything else will be the same. Maybe my EDS-less life would have been one of joy, glory and validation. Or maybe it would have been marked by shallowness, wastefulness, mediocrity, or self-sabotage. Unencumbered by EDS, the most likely scenario is that I would have lived a life bearing no resemblance to this one and turned out to be someone else entirely doing something else entirely.

I literally do not know who I would be without Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I don’t mean that in a quasi-heroic “character-building” sense, although that is part of it. I also don’t mean it in a generic “appreciate what you have” sense, although that’s also part of it. I mean it in a very matter-of-fact way.

Because of EDS I live in a state of flux between two poles. Hurt and healing. Struggle and transcendence. Connection and alienation. Despair and hope. I’m in a never-ending boxing match with EDS. It has the power to win by knockout and I don’t . . . but if I am smart, strategic, and willing to take it on the chin and get back up when necessary, then the scorecards just may come out in my favor, or at least I’ll prolong the bout. This is fundamental to my life, to my character traits (good and bad), and to my music – every note I create is an attempt to express the same self that would be indistinguishable without EDS.

Do I wish I didn’t have EDS? Of course I do, I’m neither a masochist nor a Buddhist monk. But the resistance has melted over the years – it’s fundamentally part of who I am, and I am grateful to be me. As always, my greatest hope for all those impacted by EDS is for more forward motion in the struggle. More research, more knowledge, more public awareness and support. All human beings have challenges that make them wish they could wave a wand and eliminate particular circumstances with no negative impact on anything else. It’s natural, it’s understandable, but it’s not the way human existence works. And it will become all the less necessary to go on these flights of fancy as all of us keep building a world in which people have the support they need to face their struggles with hope and dignity.

………………..

2010 EDS Awareness: Belonging

2011 EDS Awareness: Accommodations

2012 EDS Awareness: Losing Everything

2013 EDS Awareness: Compromised Expectations and Desirable Communities

2014 EDS Awareness: Persistence

2015 EDS Awareness: Professional Coping Skills

“Nice” Is Overrated: Farewell, Randi

On Monday I attended the memorial services that marked, in a sense, the last goodbye to my friend and colleague Randi Brandt. One conclusion is that Randi was not a nice person – and I mean that in the best way possible, for reasons I’ll explain momentarily.

By the time I began teaching teens at Choate Rosemary Hall ten years ago (at first on an interim basis) Randi was already ten years into her position as Assistant to the Director of the Arts, so she was an indelible part of the fabric there. Yesterday, though, hearing both formal and informal reflections on Randi’s life and spirit I felt like something finally clicked.

Interestingly, the light bulb went on that everyone who knew her well a) had been scolded by her more than once and b) felt more loved and nurtured as a result. My first response was “oh, I guess it wasn’t just me,” which I already knew, but still. But my second response was to reflect on how being “nice” and being caring are not only not synonymous, but sometimes actually at odds. This is not to somehow fetishize bluntness (which in Randi’s case was neither good nor bad, but simply a part of her personality) but instead I suggest we take a closer look.

To me, the term “nice” is one of the blandest ways to describe somebody. When I was a kid it was part of the cultural consciousness that when teenagers described a girl as having a good personality, it was a euphemism for unattractiveness. “Nice” is kind of like that – it means you have nothing bad to say, and nothing particularly good to say either or else you’d say “loving” or “compassionate” or “extremely kind,” all of which fit Randi. “Nice,” to me, means “not unpleasant.” Or maybe “hasn’t ever been a jerk to me.” But by itself, nice is bland. If you’re drowning, you are not likely thinking “I hope somebody nice comes along to save me . . . or at least to tweet a frowny face as they shed a tear.” No, at that moment you’re not looking for nice, you’re looking for strong, brave, spunky, principled and decisive. You’re looking for someone who’ll get in the damn water and pull you out . . . and if you get called out along the way for the idiocy of getting into that situation, you’re unlikely to begrudge that.

When I met Randi ten years ago, it took me a while to adjust, as she was indeed less “nice” than some other administrators I knew, and particularly since I spent my first year there not knowing if the gentleman for whom I was filling in would come back, I felt-particularly self-conscious about how to read the directness of her communication. Over time I found her to be a committed and skilled and smart and tuned in. As more time passed, I realized what a dynamo she was as a human being. I have seen her be willing to be “not nice” for the greater good of the many people (colleagues, students, especially her family) she cared about, and I really admire that. Never was this more evident than in her fight with the cancer that ultimately took her life.  I also don’t want to fetishize the “courageous fight” against terminal illness, but my goodness was she not going to capitulate to this, not with what that would mean for others, especially her daughter.

Randi will surely not be forgotten, and I’m confident that whoever is in charge of her accommodations in the great beyond cares about “nice” as little as I do.

Top 10 Favorite Prince Tracks

Like so many, I can’t believe that Prince is gone, and I’m struggling not only to reconcile that, but also to reflect with any coherence on his impact on my own musical conception. When I was a kid, I listened eagerly to all his singles and watched his videos, with no conception of anything else like the enormity of his talent and artistic self-empowerment or the conventions he was transgressing in the realms of race, gender and sexuality. I just knew that “1999” was trippy and “Little Red Corvette” rocked and “When Doves Cry” was moody in a way I loved but didn’t understand. I watched enough MTV that I heard and watched his stuff all the time (puberty more or less lined up with the video for “U Got the Look,” which . . . well, never mind) and thus never really noticed or wondered about his absence from the rock radio airwaves even though “Let’s Go Crazy” rocked harder than at least 90% of what was on there.

I got more into his music and understood more what was going on as I got older and went about the simultaneous tasks of following his development and revisiting the older stuff, including the stuff that predated my initial MTV-fueled awareness of him. The older (and more aware of what it means to be an artist) I got, the more I admired him and was fascinated both by the depth and diversity of his musical skill and by the business choices he made.

This list covers some of the moments I’ve loved from Prince as a recording artist. While I could’ve just used every song on Purple Rain, for example, I worked to make this list reflect the breadth of his career, with these tracks covering a 35 year span.

1 ) “I Wanna Be Your Lover” from Prince (1979)

His first big hit, this song cut through the clutter of disco and showed the emergence of his distinctive artistic voice. Most people probably didn’t care at the time that he was also playing all the instruments, but I sure care.

2 ) “Delirious” from 1999 (1983)

Of course I also love the hits from this record, but the super-upbeat groove on this one knocks me out – I actually use it sometimes with students to teach about multiple layers of groove. Whenever I get really tired, this song plays in my head on repeat.

3 ) “Purple Rain” from Purple Rain (1984)

Such an achingly soulful song, and THAT GUITAR SOLO and then the dramatic falsetto part at the end . . . okay, I’m hyperventilating just thinking about it. Others have waxed poetic about this song plenty (and, rightfully, about the rest of the album/film) so I’ll leave it there.

4 ) “Raspberry Beret” from Around the World in a Day (1985)

I have loved this song from the first moment I heard it. It is perhaps my favorite of the many songs bearing the distinctive Wendy and Lisa sound. I think this is the first Prince song with which I truly fell in love.

5 ) “If I Was Your Girlfriend” from Sign O’ the Times (1987)

Funky, freaky, playing all the instruments, manipulating his voice. Maybe this doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, but I use a riff from this as my ringtone for Kate, and whenever I’m unsure about an outfit before we go somewhere together, I ask (and we sing in unison) for her to help me pick out my clothes before we go out. Not sayin’ I’m helpless, but . . . well, you get the idea.

6) “Sexy MF” from Love Symbol Album (1992)

When I was starting college and in full-on jazz immersion mode, I heard about this song and thought “huh, he’s still around, eh?” And then I heard the song and grinned ear to ear. And again the second time I heard it, and the 50th.

7 ) “Don’t Talk 2 Strangers” from Come 2 My House by Chaka Khan (1998)

Prince as producer/songwriter needs to be represented here, and while there are lots of examples (from Larry Graham to Madonna), to me it begins and nearly ends with Chaka Khan. There are so many great Prince/Chaka collaborations, from her hit version of his “I Feel for You” to the Prince-produced “Sticky Wicked” from the CK album, featuring the trumpet of Miles Davis. My personal favorite is this tender, sentimental song, yet another that Prince recorded compellingly first before finding magic with Chaka.

8 ) “The Work, Part 1” from The Rainbow Children (2001)

One of numerous songs in the JB-inspired mode (something only reinforced once Maceo Parker began to anchor his horn section in live shows), and to my ear one of the best. I remember hearing it and thinking “boy, when is this guy going to slow down?” Maybe it wasn’t hit-after-hit by that point, but wow.

9 ) “A Case of You” from One Nite Alone (2002)

I love this track for a number of reasons. I love Joni Mitchell and I love seeing the connection between them, which makes total sense, made explicit. And I love the heartbreaking poeticism of this song and the tenderness with which Prince sings it. And listen to that piano playing – as much as I adore Prince as a guitarist, his piano work here is exquisite.

10 ) “ANOTHERLOVE” from Plectrumel (2014)

I first heard this one at the end of a medley that he performed with his backing band 3RDEYEGIRL. The whole album is a great example of his still-got-it songwriting in a rock-out context and the guitar duel at the end is fierce.

Top 10 (x2) Favorite James Williams Tracks

My biggest “eureka” moment as a budding jazz musician (or, to be accurate, the moment when I decided I needed to BE a budding jazz musician and not just a dabbler) came the first time I heard “Magical Trio 2″ by James Williams. My friend Noah Bloom (who was studying with fellow Art Blakey alumnus Valery Ponomarev) turned me on to some of James’ work with the Messengers, and so I went and picked up Magical Trio 2 on cassette at Cutler’s Records in New Haven, having in the meantime also seen a clip on PBS of James playing in the band of Elvin Jones, who is also on the record. Playing that album was like the moment in the “Wizard of Oz” where it goes from black & white to color – in a flash I heard everything I wanted music to be, all in one place. Hip, yet emotionally direct, rhythmically probing yet so in-the-pocket, melodically unpredictable, yet oozing blues in every note. Until that moment I was interested in jazz, but with some ambivalence. I was never the same again.

And that’s to say nothing of his profoundly kind, gentle soul. The first time I met him was in 1992 when I was auditioning for colleges and went to hear him at Bradley’s in New York with Kevin Eubanks and John Clayton. The show was wonderful (as were so many I saw in the subsequent 12 years) and after the set I waited nervously in line to meet this man who had already inspired me so much on record. I overheard someone ahead of me in line ask James what’s goin’ on, to which he responded “oh MAN, just getting a lesson every night from these fine musicians.” That complete lack of ego was bewildering enough, but then when I had my moment and took a deep breath and asked if I could take a lesson with him, he smiled and said “you don’t want a lesson with me” and scribbled something on a cocktail napkin. I walked away glad to have met him but confused and disappointed. Only years later did I understand why this humble man had taken that opportunity to write down Harold Mabern’s phone number. I was fortunate to spend some time with James in the years that followed and his warmth and humility were consistent forces.

If life were just, the Soulful Mister Williams, who died of liver cancer in 2004, would’ve been 65 today. And, for that matter, if the music world were just, all his music would be in print. Most of it isn’t, sadly, which makes my compiling of this list challenging – I don’t want to leave out discussion of the tracks that moved me the most, but I also don’t want those who are less familiar with this music to miss out because they’re not inclined to search the interwebs for used CDs. As such, I’m shortening my descriptions and hedging my bets with two lists – one of my “real” top 10 and then another of 10 great tracks that as of this writing are in print and can be found for download or legal streaming. I suggest you go to those 10 right away and I’ll play you the first 10 (and, if you ask, many more that couldn’t fit on this list) the next time you have brunch at my house.

Top 10 All-Time Favorite JW tracks

1 ) “In the Open Court” from Magical Trio 2

The centerpiece of the aforementioned eureka moment was when I heard this mind-blowingly soulful tribute to some of James’ favorite basketball players. The whole album, with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones, has had an incalculable impact on my own musical conception.

2 ) “Yes, Yes, Oh Yes” from Truth, Justice and the Blues (with ICU)

The Intensive Care Unit (featuring Miles Griffith and Roger Holland on vocals) was a unique project that utterly blew my mind when this album came out (and when I got to see the CD release show in NY at Visiones).

3 ) “Rainy Days and Mondays” from Jazz Dialogues

The four-CD Jazz Dialogues set features James in duets with a wide array of his colleagues. There are many transcendent nuggets here, but my favorite is this uber-soulful reading of a tune popularized by the Carpenters by James and Christian McBride.

4 ) “Reedus’ Rendezvous” from Meet the Magical Trio

Any questions about James’ ability to transcend “soulful” playing and throw down can be instantly dispelled by listening to him burn with Charnett Moffett and Jeff “Tain” Watts on this tribute to his nephew, drummer Tony Reedus (who sadly would pass on four and a half years after his uncle).

5 ) “Dancing Trees” from Sail Away by Tom Harrell

This album in general is one of my favorites of both James and the great trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell. Instead of picking the hard-swinging “Buffalo Wings” (as hard-swingers are well represented on this list), I landed on this ethereal track featuring just Tom, James, guitarist John Abercrombie and flutist Cheryl Pyle.

6 ) “Pass Me Not (Oh Gentle Savior)” from Four Pianos for Phineas by the Contemporary Piano Ensemble

This album features a quartet of Phineas Newborn, Jr. disciples, flanking James with Harold Mabern, the late Mulgrew Miller and Geoffrey Keezer (joined for subsequent projects by Donald Brown). This track is a trio number, though, as James plays a lovely ballad version of this spiritual with Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins, sandwiched in between an utterly gorgeous solo piano intro and coda.

7 ) “Speak Low” from Live at Bradleys by Kevin Eubanks

This is the same drummer-less trio and venue as in the anecdote above, with the exception of Robert Hurst taking over the bass chair.

8 ) “Say, Dr. J” from Reflections in Blue by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Did I mention that James liked basketball? This is a super-swinging tune from his days with the Messengers.

9 ) “Arioso” from Arioso Touch

This tricky but gorgeous tune was premiered on this trio session with Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.

10 ) “Alter Ego” from Force of Four by Billy Cobham

Probably James’ best-known composition, this tune has been recorded a number of times, including this session featuring Ron Carter and Donald Harrison alongside James and bandleader Biilly Cobham.

10 Great In Print Tracks

1 ) “Spirit(ually) James” from Soulful Serindipity by James Williams and Bobby Watson

One of my favorite solo piano tracks by anyone ever. Classical, Ellingtonia, spiritual – check, check, check. The rest of this lovely record consists of duets with his longtime friend and colleague (and former fellow Jazz Messenger) Bobby Watson.

2 ) “Dialectical Interchange” from Art Forum by Greg Osby

James’ balance of soulful and modern is on particularly strong display here, and on this whole album.

3 ) “A Certain Attitude” from Me and Mr. Jones by Javon Jackson

Want to hear James swing hard? Want to hear him lock up with the great Elvin Jones? Want to hear one of his own tunes? Well, have I got a track for you . . .

4 ) “Ballad for Gabe-Wells” from Four on the Outside by Curtis Fuller

This lovely tune by trombonist Fuller is a great example of James’ sensitive ballad playing, though they double-up the time feel on the piano solo, so his infectious swing is also on display.

5 ) “The Soulful Mister Timmons” from Live at Bubba’s by Art Blakey (currently issued on Gold Collection, Vol. 2 by Wynton Marsalis)

Okay, I’ll go out on a limb and say it – one of the greatest (and certainly most underrated) incarnations of the Jazz Messengers was the early 80s unit with Bobby Watson, Bill Pierce, Wynton Marsalis and the late Charles Fambrough. Probably James’ best-known contribution to their book was this hard-swinging tribute to one of his predecessors in that band’s piano chair, which can also be found on the (hopefully back in print any day now) Album of the Year record.

6 ) “Rise to the Occasion” from Ph. D by Art Farmer

This swinging tune is one of a number of JW originals recorded on the three albums he did as a member of Art Farmer’s quintet featuring Clifford Jordan (and, on this record, augmented to a sextet by the presence of Kenny Burrell).

7 ) “Affaire D’Amour” from Live at Smalls Vol. 1 & 2 by Bill Mobley Jazz Orchestra

The wonderful composer and trumpet player (and fellow Memphis son) had a close relationship with James and arranged a number of his tunes for big band, including this one featuring JW himself guesting on piano.

8 )  “1983 A.D” from Waltzin’ with Flo by Alan Dawson

This burning tune (sometimes called “Changing of the Guard”) is a highlight of James’ appearance on this album by his Berklee colleague, the legendary drummer Alan Dawson.

9 ) “Old Times Sake” from You Got What It Takes by Kevin Mahogany

This swinging tune, a staple of the ICU repertoire, sounds like it could have been a standard, but it’s a fun JW tune – this upbeat version also features the great Benny Golson.

10 ) “It’s Easy to Remember” from Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane by Karrin Allyson

James’ elegant ballad work is on display here as well, in a gentler reading to contrast the Curtis Fuller track above.

Top 10 Favorite Ted Dunbar Tracks

Every few years I dust off Ted Dunbar’s “A Nice Clean Machine for Pedro” and challenge my students at Wesleyan to learn it – such a gorgeous and deceptively challenging tune. Last year I wrote about Ted’s impact as an educator (which you can read by clicking here), but now it’s time to talk about his unique and powerful voice as a guitarist and composer.

I first encountered his music in my first year at Rutgers. He came in one day to Ralph Bowen’s illuminating Jazz Theory class (which was a pipeline to Ted’s rigorous, multi-year Jazz Improvisation curriculum) and looked us dead in the eyes and said “Look, you got your chords and you got your ideas*, and you gotta hear ‘em fast and you gotta hear ‘em accurate, because they don’t arpeggiated on the bandstand, you dig?**”

* Ideas (pronounced “EYE-deeyz”) = melodic improvisational content

** In other words, you have to get your aural skills together because in a real-life musical situation nobody’s going to spell things out for you.

Anyway, once I was done crapping my pants over what lay before me, I thought I should explore the music behind this charismatic, beloved, feared person. And I wasn’t expecting to find some of the most lyrical improvisation and sensitive accompaniment I had (or indeed have) ever heard. Yes, there was harmonic sophistication, much of it informed by his deep synthesis of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept, filtered through his years of deep friendship with Dr. David Baker and eventually developed into Ted’s own harmonic system that he called Convergence. But the soulful, melodic, interactive qualities and thematic development, while not entirely without precedent, coalesced into a unique style that resonated (and still resonates) powerfully with my own musical sensibilities.

Narrowing down this list to 10 was hard given that I have (and enjoy) the vast majority of Ted’s discography. Some on this list are no-brainer “desert island” picks. In the fringe cases, I aimed to emphasize work that is in print (that means you can listen to it NOW) and in which Ted is featured prominently. As such, left on the cutting room floor were out-of-print albums by Don Patterson, Lou Donaldson, Billy Taylor (with the Jazzmobile All-Stars), J.J. Johnson, Susanna McCorkle, Michal Urbaniak, Willis “Gator” Jackson and David Schnitter, among others, Likewise, I left off some great records to which Ted contributed noticeably, but not as a featured soloist, including sessions by McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Sam Rivers, Diana Ross (yep), Frank Wess . . . okay, you get the idea.

So here goes:

1 ) “A Nice, Clean Machine for Pedro” from Blues in Five Dimensions by Mickey Tucker

I vividly remember the first time I heard this tune, in a lesson with Ted on his cassette boombox. He told me the story behind it (ask me in person sometime and I’ll tell you, maybe even in faux-Ted-voice) and the lyricism and joy in the song left an indelible mark. Extra points as he put this album (by his frequent and cherished collaborator, the great Mickey Tucker) forth as the best he’d ever done, particularly high praise for what is technically a sideman album.

2 ) “Blue Monk” from Peruvian Blue by Kenny Barron

Ted and Kenny had such a great hook-up – hearing them play (especially duo) at school was a real lesson in guitar/piano interactivity (on par with Bill Evans and Jim Hall – yes, I said it). Aside from a great but out of print record from the mid-70s, this one track from Kenny’s second album as a leader is what we have to document that.

3 ) “There Comes a Time” from Ego by Tony Williams Lifetime

I don’t know if there’s been another tune quite like this – hard rocking polyrhythmic 5/4 time with psychedelic Larry Young organ, oodles of percussion (thanks to Tony, Don Alias and Warren Smith) and endearingly trippy vocals from Tony. Oh yeah, and utterly nasty guitar from Ted, who had just replaced John McLaughlin in the band.

4 ) “You Say You Saw What?” from Secundem Artem by Ted Dunbar

The one exception I made to the in-print proviso on this list is here, as I had to represent his output as a bandleader on the long-defunct Xandau label. This one is from his sophomore effort as a leader, featuring Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Al Foster and a young Steve Nelson on one of his first record dates. This moody, multifaceted original tune by Ted depicts a sighting of a UFO, which makes me particularly nostalgic given Ted’s fondness for outer space.

5 ) “The Loud Minority” from The Loud Minority by Frank Foster

There are a few great examples of Ted’s longtime relationship with composer/saxophonist Frank Foster. While I love the live stuff they did with Mickey Tucker and Billy Hart, I chose this rocking and politically outspoken epic from 1972, prominently featuring Frank, Ted, Harold Mabern and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

6 ) “Little Sister” (from House of David by David “Fathead” Newman)

Ted had a particularly sweet hook-up with organ-based groups dating back to his very first record date with Gloria Coleman. This hard-swinging track features Ted with comparatively unknown organist Kossi Gardner alongside longtime Ray Charles sidemen Milt Turner and Fathead.

7 ) “Summertime” from Svengali by Gil Evans

Ted had a clear fondness for Miles Davis, both as a conceptualist and as an exemplar of highly lyrical improvisation. It is then appropriate (and significant) that when Gil Evans decided to remake his classic arrangement of “Summertime” (from Miles’ Porgy and Bess album), he chose Ted to play the lead part and be the sole soloist on the track, now imbued with a funky backbeat.

8 ) “Sop City” (from Smokin’ by Curtis Fuller)

I remember Ted teaching me this song in graduate school, before I had heard this album that so well demonstrates folks of Ted’s generation keeping the flame of hard-swinging jazz in the 1970s. In addition to Ted and Curtis, we hear trumpeter Bill Hardman, and pianist Cedar Walton (on electric piano), saxophonist Jimmy Heath, bassist Mickey Bass (on electric bass) and drummer Billy Higgins. This track just edges out several from Albert “Tootie” Heath’s Kwanzaa record from the following year, also featuring Jimmy and Curtis (alongside Kenny Barron and Heath brother #3, Percy).

9 ) “On Return” (from Gentle Time Alone)

There are few things as gorgeous as hearing Ted Dunbar play a ballad. This one, from his last album as a bandleader (again, featuring Mickey Tucker), is just one of many examples I could have picked. For someone as harmonically hip as Ted was, his pure melodicism was so exceptional.

10 ) “Hang In There” (from Sankofa/Rear Garde by Hamiet Bluiett)

This bouncy Latin original by Ted (alongside Bluiett, Clint Houston and Ben Riley) is a good example of Ted operating as the sole chord-playing instrument in a rhythm section. While he had an unusually sensitive capacity to function compatibly with a pianist, hearing him take the load on his own is always a treat. So too is hearing how he navigates soloing with just bass and drums.

Honorable Mention: “I Love This Life” from Uptown Groove by Zachary Breaux. This “tune” is basically an interview with Ted in which he reflects poignantly on some of his notable musical experiences. You need to listen to it.