Recorded in October 1973, Clifford Jordan’s Glass Bead Games remains a fascinating work and easily the tenor saxophonist’s finest recording. The album was named for the futuristic novel by Hermann Hesse that won the author a Nobel Prize in 1946. In short, the book (Glass Bead Game) is about an intricate game played by an elite group of intellectuals using the entire history of culture and science. Perfect for the 1970s.
Like the Hesse novel, Glass Bead Games brings together all of Jordan's eclectic compositional talents. Many of the songs on the album are named for specific artists and Jordan's tributes deftly capture their feel. While Glass Bead Games is made up of 12 individual tracks, the album really must be heard from start to finish, like Miles Ahead or A Love Supreme. In this regard, Glass Bead Games is a suite.
Jordan began his recording career with Blue Note Records in 1957 as a sideman but quickly wound up leading his own dates. His best-known recordings as a sideman probably are Horace Silver's Further Explorations (1958) and Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (1964). Prior to recording Glass Bead Games, Jordan spent a chunk of the 1960s with Charles Mingus and recorded often with pianist Cedar Walton.
Jordan, who died in 1993, had a gentle,
velvety tone on the tenor saxophone, preferring to linger in the middle register
occasional visits to the higher range. Unlike many saxophonists in the late 1950s who were influenced either by John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, Jordan managed to fuse the two sounds while remaining distinctly alluring and lyrical. The resulting execution was both inventive and deliberate. His tone and ideas on Glass Bead Games reminds me of Wayne Shorter's Juju (1964) and Charles Mingus' Town Hall Concert (1964), which included Jordan in the lineup. Except Jordan on Glass Bead Games weaves a kinder, more inviting tapestry.
Joining Jordan on Glass Bead Games were two different groups. For the compositions named after specific artists, Jordan used Stanley Cowell on piano, Bill Lee on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. On the five pieces with spiritual names, Jordan used Cedar Walton [pictured] on piano and Sam Jones on bass, with Higgins returning on drums. The entire group’s playing is remarkably tender for 1973, when avant-garde groups and free jazz were in vogue.
All of the tracks on Glass Bead Games feature smart, cohesive interactions between the musicians, and no two songs are alike. In fact, there isn't a single tag or cliche to be heard, which makes the album especially interesting and poetic. I hear autumn in this album—the sound of the wind, swaying branches and the scattering of leaves.
The album's first track, Powerful Paul Robeson, opens with a Love Supreme feel but shifts moods several times. [photo of Paul Robeson by Nickolas Muray]
Glass Bead Games is an uptempo composition with Giant Steps' influences.
Prayer to the People is a happy-go-lucky, medium-tempo tune in 6/8 time with Jordan sounding like Sonny Rollins.
Cal Massey starts with an up-tempo, circular riff that captures the texture of Massey's complex yet catchy compositions.
John Coltrane is an out-and-out tribute. Yet Jordan never becomes so self-absorbed that he forgets the listener. His lines are full of feeling throughout.
Eddie Harris is a twist on Harris' Freedom Jazz Dance, with Jordan paying a soulful tribute to the tenor saxophonist. [pictured]
Biskit builds on Eddie Harris but adds a funkier soul line, and Jordan rides the lower register of his horn.
Shoulders is my favorite track on the album. It has a nifty saxophone line and challenging drum configurations. All in all, the song is reminiscent of Mingus' work in the late 1950s for Bethlehem, particularly A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry (1957) and the saxwork of Shafi Hadi. For Jordan, playing was never about speed or how many notes but how best to express gentle beauty in songs that continuously shift gears.
Bridgework is a tribute to Sonny Rollins [pictured], who spent a period of time on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York working out a new approach to the tenor saxophone.
Maimoun is an intense ballad with an African groove and pensive melody line.
Alias Buster Henry is perhaps the closest Jordan comes to exhibiting a full-blown Coltrane sound, peppered with touches of free-form drumming. Yet the track is completely engaging.
One for Amos, the album's final track, is the only composition that sounds remotely like a bop standard. But it, too, remains singular and in keeping with the album original theme.
All in all, this is a must-own CD of musical poetry for anyone who still believes that jazz is impossible to love after 1965.
JazzWax tracks: For years, Glass Bead Games was available only as a high-bid auction item at eBay and then as a Japanese import short on tracks. But in 2007, Sandra Jordan, Clifford's widow, gave permission for the first complete reissue on CD.
This complete reissue of Glass Bead Games is available only from a single distributor, Cadence Music Sales. It's available here (when you arrive at the site, scroll down a bit) for $16.