I spent Saturday morning at the art studio of my dear friend Nelson Diaz. Nelson is a great painter who always is hard at work on abstract canvases inspired by mathematical formulas, religious imagery and French philosophy. In a word, Nelson is intense. If you want a sense of his work, think Leonardo meets Francis Bacon and you get the picture. Breathtaking, and seeing his new work in progress today was no exception. Spectacular. To see Nelson's work, go here.
Like me and you, Nelson loves jazz passionately, and whenever I visit, we listen to rare LPs for a few hours while catching up and looking at his work. It's a magical combination, jazz and fine art, especially when you have the privilege of enjoying it in the artist's work space.
We wound up swapping LPs. I surprised him with a pristine copy of Duke Ellington's And His Mother Called Him Bill. Nelson reached into his library and handed me Louis Bellson's Thunderbird. Both are no longer in print on CD, though you can get them used from sellers on the web.
I'm not a huge Ellington fan. I find that a good portion of his music after 1950 was heavily steered by eager-beaver record producers (mostly on Columbia) reaching for concepts that today sound somewhat forced. As a result, too many of those recordings seem pseudo melancholy, painfully thematic or just theatrically bombastic.
With one great exception: And His Mother Called Him Bill. This is a masterpiece that belongs in every jazz collection. It's in my Top 10 of all time. Each track folds into the next, and the showcasing of Ellington's sidemen is unrivaled.
While much has been written this year about the Beatles' concept album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), too little has been written in tribute to perhaps the greatest jazz concept album of all time--And His Mother Called Him Bill--which ironically was recorded the exact same year, 40 years ago this summer.
If you know nothing about jazz or have never heard a jazz album before, this one is the perfect starter. In some ways it's unfair to call this an Ellington album, since composer Billy Strayhorn wrote all of these precious tunes, dying three months before the album was recorded. Hence the album's title.
Prepare to listen to this one over and over to fully appreciate its sensuality and impact. Rediscovering it today on Nelson's terrific sound system was a joy--and made me realize that despite having listened to this recording 50 times or more, I still have not fully absorbed its message and design. I will be listening to it again throughout the coming week. I hope you will too. Fortunately it's available at iTunes.
The second LP we listened to was Louis Bellson's Thunderbird. If you can find it, pay whatever the seller wants. The album is that good. Recorded in 1966 on the Impulse label, it features Carl Fontana on trombone, Harry "Sweets" Edison on trumpet, Jim Cook on tenor sax, Jim Mulidore on baritone, Arnold Teich on piano, Ed Scarazzo on bass and Bellson on drums. This is a West Coast studio band, and each track was handed by a different arranger, including Thad Jones and Neal Hefti. The voicings are incredible.
Bellson is a spectacular big band drummer who has played with everyone (the list is too long to go into here). His sound on the skins is taut and similar to Gene Krupa's, but that's somewhat unfair. More to the point, Bellson is simply superb (as was Krupa), and this album shows off his clear, swinging technique.
Bellson is still out there doing his thing. He remains perhaps one of the last remaining greats from the big band era and should be celebrated more so than he is. Fame and longevity are unfair. So is the media.
Wax clips: For a look at Louis Bellson--and two other great big band drummers, Lionel Hampton and the fabulous Don Lamond--take a look at this clip.
To appreciate how great Strayhorn was, catch him here playing his own composition, Take the A Train, with the Ellington band. I'm not sure why the band seems so exhausted on camera, but hey, it's a blue world.