Friday, May 27, 2011

Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins is no less than a towering and legendary hero of jazz, with well over fifty years of jazz artistry to his credit. Born in 1930 in New York, Rollins was a prodigy on the tenor saxophone, beginning his recording career at the age of 18. He quickly established himself by playing with the luminaries such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson, and Charlie Parker. Rollins is known for his rich tone, rhythmic sense, and brilliant improvisations—often inflected with humor and quotations.

As a serious and self-critical artist, Rollins has never settled into cliches or allowed himself to be boxed in by his music. He is also an accomplished composer of works for small jazz groups, many of which have become jazz standards, such as “Oleo,” “St. Thomas,” and “Sonnymoon for Two.” While he prefers live settings to the studio, Rollins has recorded classic jazz albums such as “Saxophone Colossus” (1956) and “The Freedom Suite” (1958). He continues to record and tour, delighting audiences with his flights into the saxophonic stratosphere.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Why are so few people interested in jazz today? One reason is that the best jazz is subtle; it does not bowl you over with special effects or acoustic tricks. It, rather, invites listening. Few truly listen to anything today. Instead, souls are saturated with various sounds engineered to produce certain effects. People consume readily, but listen infrequently. Our ears are buzzing; our hearts are empty; our tastes are uneducated and crass.

But you must listen to jazz, let it penetrate into your sensorium. It is a deep and rich well, but one must decide to drop the bucket in and to pull it out.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End is Near

The signs are everywhere. The end is near--the end of the compact disk. My on-line CD store is going out of business, and I cannot resist buying a few at $4.99, shipping included. Borders and Barnes and Noble have drastically reduced their CD selection. Borders no longer has a discrete jazz section for CDs. I can think of only one Denver-area store with a rich selection of CDs--Twist and Shout.

What does all this mean for music and culture? Music has been increasingly miniaturized and made more portable in recent decades. It has also dematerialized. The preferred form is the MP3, which is a cluster of data stored in various devices. Now the link of the medium and the music is gone. For many years, album art and liner was as significant as the music. CDs retained this to some extent, but on a smaller scale. With MP3 files, there is no container for the music. It just in--somewhere in cyberspace.

Further, music becomes more de-contextualized. The play listreplaces the order of pieces on a recording. We shuffle on through. The idea of a concept album--a coherent body of work establishing and developing a set theme--is nearly dead. (In 2007, Neal Morse created a concept album based on the struggles of Martin Luther, but this is now very rare.)

I am reluctant to go the way of the iPod. I do not favordematerialization, however economically expedient. I cannot bring myself to think of dematerialized books at the moment.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Duke and Billy

Today, at Twist and Shout music (which has the best music selection in Denver, despite its funky atmosphere), I found a recording that I previously did not know exited (and I am an Ellington fan): "Great Times: Piano Duets," by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, which makes up the only such recording of these two giants of jazz. It was originally released in the early 1950s, but was issued on CD in 1984. It is still in print.

Duke and Strayhorn composed music together for three decades, although Strayhorn rarely performed publicly on piano. The two had a deep sympathy and understanding of one another musically, which is evident in this recording. Sadly, the fidelity is quite bad, since the session had to be reconstructed from old disks, but the interplay and new angles they bring to Ellington/Strayhorn compositions more than makes up for that.

I doubt we will ever see the likes of this duo again.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Beauty and Desecration

Although he does not write directly about jazz, Roger Scruton considers beauty and desecration in this profound essay in City Journal. Sadly, some jazz fits under the category of desecration, not because it is innovative or path-breaking, but simply because it is ugly for ugliness sake. This, to my experience, is extremely rare, but I must put much of Pharaoh Sanders's playing with John Coltrane (who never played in an ugly fashion), in this category. Sanders more recent playing has abandoned this pointless quest.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Seize the Beauty

If an older jazz legend comes to your town, take in the show. You do not know how much time the artist has with us under the sun. I regret not seeing Elvin Jones when he was close to Denver about a decade ago. Seize the beauty while it lasts.