Waxing and musings. Back in the 1950s, jazz artists regularly groused about the rigidity of the 12-inch LP format. The big beef was that the "money men" programmed the albums for the mass market and cared more about the cash register than the art. In most cases, musicians' barbs were aimed at record producers—the guys at the record labels and in the studio booths who had big ideas about what would sell, set seemingly rigid standards and often demanded excessive takes from musicians. [Photo: Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews with alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley]
Today, of course, we know that producers like George Avakian, Teo Macero, Creed Taylor, Orrin Keepnews, Alfred Lion, Bob Weinstock [pictured], Norman Granz, Lester Koenig, Teddy Reig, Dick Bock and so many others did indeed have one eye on the bottom line. But there also was genius behind their vision, their decision to include standards on albums, and their perfectionism. They cared about the discerning listener who spent money on the record and expected a big deal when the needle was lowered onto the vinyl disc. Today, the fruits of their vision, toughness and pestering are thousands of albums from the 1950s that remain superb and timeless in their creative explosiveness and punch. For example, it's almost impossible to find an album recorded in 1958 that isn't a knockout.
By comparison, many of the new jazz CDs that cross my desk lack packaging focus or artistic cohesiveness. The reason has nothing to do with the artists, who are nearly always enormously talented. The problem is a lack of creative supervision and commercial foresight, a job that used to be handled by those hen-like producers. I, for one, miss the days when albums were thought through in advance as a single package and someone who knew the business was in charge of ensuring that the result was stunning from start to finish. [Photo of Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records by Ray Avery/CTSImages.com]
Even the greatest jazz artists needed direction, and the best producers of the 1950s had a strong concept of what they wanted and knew how to get it. In truth, these producers are the unsung heroes of the great jazz LP era. We're fortunate they worked as hard as they did behind the scenes to help brilliant artists create their greatest works. Next time you put on a CD you love, take a look at the producer's name. We owe them all a debt of gratitude.
"And then there's the live recording of Somebody to Love by The Great Society, singer Grace Slick's band before she joined Jefferson Airplane. The group's bassist switches to soprano sax for a Coltrane-inspired extended opening jam.
"When I moved to Berkeley, CA, in 1968, I played in concerts with Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen [pictured] of Jefferson Airplane, and others who were always ready for extended solos. In the rock history class I teach here at the University of Oregon, we just finished listening to psychedelic rock musicians who employed extended solos."
French clips. Reader Peter Sokolowski sent along a link to a French site that sells downloads and DVDs of jazz videos taped in France. I cannot tell whether users from the U.S. are able to purchase them. But there's plenty to sample here. The site is hosted by France's Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, which is charged with collecting and preserving televised presentations of all kinds, including jazz. Type Bill Evans into the search bar and you'll wind up with a sample of his 1972 performance of Quiet Now. Type in Thelonious Monk and you'll find a sample of an interview from 1969. Type in Sonny Rollins and you'll get a slice from a fascinating interview and performance from 1981. The site is here.
Sonny and Thelonious. Jazz video journalist Bret Primack produced this video documenting the collaboration of Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk...
CD discoveries of the week. I'm always overjoyed when I slice open a CD, pop in the disc and instantly fall in love with the result. That happened last week with pianist Sumi Tonooka and Erica Lindsay's Initiation. Both have played together since 1994 but this new release, recorded in 2005, was their first studio date. Rufus Reid is on bass and Bob Braye is on drums. About a year after the recording was completed, Braye died of pancreatic cancer.
Initiation is rich with technique and soul, and brings together four musicians who work perfectly together. Tonooka's piano has enormous strength and conviction, but also a penetrating sensitivity and touch. Lindsay's saxophone is fluid, but there's sufficient chest-poking to make you feel her creative points. Reid bounces along while Braye keeps the session exciting, rarely playing the same figure for more than a few measures. He was a fascinating drummer. If you're sampling, try the ballads Somewhere Near Heaven and Mingus Mood. Or the uptempo hard bop opener Mari. [Pictured: Sumi Tonooka and Erica Lindsay]
You'll find Sumi Tonooka and Erica Lindsay's Initiation (ARC Records) here.
Jan McDonald, a trumpeter and former band director from Los Alamos, N.M., just released Sweet, his first CD, and it's lyrical and relaxed. Perhaps it's the Southwestern landscape down McDonald's way, but he has a fine understanding of space and phrasing. Which makes this an accessible album, featuring McDonald's musician-friends from the Santa Fe area as sidemen. Album highlights include Thad Jones' Three in One and Bert Dalton's Where Sea Meets Sky.
You'll find samples of Jan McDonald's Sweet here.
Oddball album cover of the week. This unfortunate 1954 experiment paired the piano of Erroll Garner with the unsteady singing voice of Woody Herman. Not an ideal matchup, I'm afraid, as the models on the cover seem to illustrate. Judging by the woman's expression, I'm not sure whether the music was being positioned to buyers as soothing or a wake-up call. Clearly, our female friend isn't tired. Ticked maybe, but not tired.