Miles Davis biographer George Cole recalls the significance Tutu, regarded by many as Miles’ last major statement, and talks to his main collaborator on the album, Marcus Miller
When the Tutu album appeared in 1986, it divided both fans and critics: some loved it; others hated it. For some, Tutu heralded an exciting new direction for Miles’ music; but for others, it was a sell-out to commercialism and new technology. When you listen to Tutu it’s easy to see why it provoked such strong reactions: instead of recording the album with live instruments and a band, Miles recorded his trumpet parts over a lush electronic soundscape, produced from a battery of samplers, synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines. Although synthesisers had long been used in jazz, no jazz artist had ever made an album like Tutu.
Tutu was a product of the 80s, a decade where music was often in danger of becoming subservient to technology. But while much of the music from this era is now long forgotten; Tutu continues to thrive; artists such as George Benson, Al Jarreau and Cassandra Wilson have recorded cover versions of the title track; Warner Jazz UK have released a deluxe version of the album, and Marcus Miller, who produced, arranged, played and composed most of the music on Tutu, has released a CD/ DVD package of his Tutu Revisited project, which saw Miller touring the world with a group of young musicians and performing the music from Tutu.
Marcus Miller once noted that, the problem with making contemporary music is that, you never know whether the music you make will only exist for the period in which it’s made or whether it will become timeless. So how does Miller feel about the fact that people are still listening to Tutu? “That makes me feel wonderful. There are two goals for me, primarily. One is to create something that describes the time that you’re living. The second one you don’t have any control over, because how your music is viewed down the road is as much a function as what happens down the road, as what happens in your music. Who knows what will happen in 20 years time? I have no idea, but it’s really beautiful to see that Tutu has developed.”
Some of the criticism of Tutu was harsh – it wasn’t jazz, and Miles was just a sideman on his own record. Did any of this get under Miller’s skin? “Honestly, it didn’t bother me at all. In terms of ‘it’s not Miles’ albums, it’s Marcus’,’’ well you know man, I was there. I was the one that was inspired to come up with those things. I was the one noticing the difference between writing for him and writing for other people. Once Miles puts his presence on it, it’s his. In terms of ‘it’s not jazz’; I bought a Downbeat magazine when I was 15 years old and they were arguing about that. The last time I looked at Downbeat, they were still arguing the same stuff.”
Conversely, there are those who see Tutu as being the most significant Miles Davis album of the 1980s, but Miller qualifies this viewpoint: “I think there were two [Miles Davis] periods in the 80s. There was the first period which started with The Man with the Horn, and there’s the second period with Tutu. Of the second period, I think Tutu is probably the most definitive album.”
‘Tutu had a lot of elements that represented the 80s; that for better or for worse, represented where we were at, not just musically, but as a society’ – Marcus Miller
Miller believes that “Tutu had a lot of elements that represented the 80s; that for better or for worse, represented where we were at, not just musically, but as a society. The technology had just been introduced in the last ten years and we were just struggling to figure out how to co-exist with these machines – they were making our lives better, they were making our lives worse, depending on who you talked to! My whole feeling was that, the ultimate example of this new age of machines was that we wouldn’t be able to tell that machines could be used so creatively; that they would simply be an extension of our humanity. And I think Tutu really represented that, and I really enjoy hearing Miles in that atmosphere. Just as you have Miles in the 1940s and the 50s; in the 80s, you hear him with the synth stuff and I think it was really representative of where he was as an artist.”
Has Tutu influenced jazz or was it, as some claim, a one-off, with no discernible impact on the music that followed it? “That’s just a function of the jazz world being stratified,” says Miller, “and there are people who don’t hear the influence, but that says more about you than it does about Tutu and its influence. I go all over the place: you hear a synthesiser and a muted trumpet and it’s like – here we go again! There are people who only live in the world of acoustic jazz who aren’t going to hear it.”
Regarding the various cover versions of ‘Tutu’, Miller says, “to me, that’s like a sign that the song is creeping into the jazz language. I love Cassandra’s version; I love George Benson’s and Al Jarreau’s version too – any version that tries to stay true to the feeling of the song. Some people simply use it as a blowing tune and they’re not careful with it. Whereas people like Cassandra, they really approach the music with more care and try to figure out what the feeling of the music is.”
Tutu has also gained many new fans thanks to the Tutu Revisited project, which was originally conceived as one-off concert. The project began when the organisers of a major Miles exhibition in Paris in 2009 asked Miller if he would play the entire Tutu album in concert. “I was reticent because I know that Miles wasn’t the type that wanted to do something like that – if they’d had asked him, he would have said no! He wasn’t the kind who really liked to look back, although Quincy [Jones] convinced him towards the end of his life. [Miles played the classic Gil Evans arrangements at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival]. So, I was a little reluctant, but I wanted to pay a tribute to him, so I looked for an idea that might offset that negativity. My idea was: ‘I’m going to find some young musicians.’ Miles really loved finding new guys who could inject new energy into his music. I thought that if I could find some really great guys, although Miles might not have cared for me going backwards, he probably would have got a kick out of what we did.”
The band Miller put together consisted of three twenty-somethings – New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott, alto saxophonist Alex Han (who Miller discovered when teaching a music course at the Berklee College of Music), and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. Keyboardist Federico Gonzalez Peña, who’s in his forties, is a relative oldie. Miller was determined not to play a carbon copy of the original album. “When I told the guys we were going to do Tutu Revisited, people broke out the synthesisers and everybody was getting ready to reproduce the CD! But I didn’t want to waste all the talent doing what some pop bands do – replay a great album from 30 years ago. I wanted to start at Tutu and see where we can take it.” The title track, for example, has been played with a jazz-swing section in some concerts, and in others, with a reggae break. Such was the demand for the Tutu Revisited project, that it morphed from a one-off gig into two world tours, with Sean Jones (formerly of the Lincoln Center Orchestra) replacing Christian Scott on trumpet, and Louis Cato playing drums on the second tour.
Miller recalls playing the Tutu album live the first time. “The first notes were very emotional for me. Not in terms of being sad, but every note brought back a memory I hadn’t remembered. When you start playing the notes, they trigger memories of when Miles said this to me or how he reacted when he first heard that note. So the first few gigs were a trip, but eventually it got more comfortable.” Miller also learnt new things about Miles. “With the Tutu Revisited band, those guys would listen to the music and say, ‘OK on this section, do you want me to do this or should I try that?’ The sort of thing you normally get when you’re working on music. But the thing that struck me was that Miles never asked me any of those questions. He’d come into the studio and I’d play the track for him. Then I’d write out the music for him, show where the melody went and then he just played. He just reacted – he didn’t ask me what key it was in or what the approach should be.”
So what is Tutu’s legacy? Keyboardist Kei Akagi, who joined Miles' band in 1989 and later became professor of music at the University of California, says: “This music has influenced a generation of younger musicians, who now treat ‘Tutu’ as having the same significance as ‘So What’.” But Miller finds it hard to define, “I don’t know; it’s beyond me. Miles is so much bigger than any of the individual albums that he made. The thing that I’m most proud of is, regardless what you think about Tutu, you’ve got to admit that, for a guy who was 60 years old to be creating music that had so much relevance for the time, is pretty inspiring. Miles was committed to continue making relevant music, from day one to the day he died. Tutu was simply a chapter in that story.”
Ten facts about Tutu
The album was originally going to be called Perfect Way (the Scritti Politti song), but producer Tommy LiPuma suggested the shorter, snappier title.
Many music collaborators were considered for Miles’ new album including, arranger/composer Paul Buckmaster, producer Bill Laswell, Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro, Lyle Mays (Pat Metheny’s keyboardist) and British keyboardist Thomas Dolby. Miles also contacted George Duke, and Prince sent Miles a track ‘Can I Play With U?,’ but the tune was pulled at the last minute. Miles worked with producers Randy Hall and Zane Giles on an album, Rubberband, which was shelved.
Several tracks are named after people: ‘Tutu’ (Archbishop Desmond Tutu), ‘Full Nelson’ (Nelson Mandela and Prince – Nelson’s his surname) and ‘Tomaas’ (Tommy LiPuma).
Many artists have performed cover versions of the title track including, Stevie Wonder, Cassandra Wilson, George Benson and Al Jarreau, World Saxophone Quartet with Jack DeJohnette, Gordon James, Russell Gunn, Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers, Humberto Ramirez, Manhattan Transfer, Marcus Miller, Endless Miles Project (including Bob Berg, Wallace Roney and Lenny White), and the bass super-group SMV – Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten. There’s even a vibes version.
The album’s photography was done by portrait photographer Irving Penn.
Spike Lee directed a video medley of the first four songs – ‘Tutu’, ‘Tomaas’, ‘Portia’, and ‘Splatch’.
Tutu won two Grammy awards, for best jazz instrumental performance – soloist, and best album package.
Sampled voices are used for one of the bass lines on the title track, and a sample of Count Basie’s trademark cry, “One mo’ time!” appears on ‘Perfect Way.’
The only track Miles never played live was ‘Backyard Ritual’.
‘Tutu’ means ‘cool’ in the Yoruba language of south-western Nigeria, and refers to the concept of grace under pressure – a very fitting description for Miles.
A singular force in the realm of spontaneously created music, Keith Jarrett has an unmatched body of work that straddles both jazz and classical worlds. This is reflected in the release of a new improvised solo live album, Creation, and a previously unreleased double classical album from 1984-85, Samuel Barber/Béla Bartók. With the shock news that Jarrett’s acclaimed 30-year old Standards Trio has now disbanded, Stuart Nicholson spoke to the pianist about how he discovered his own voice between these two musical worlds and what he plans for the future
He’s been called ‘the enfant terrible of jazz’, ‘the Elvis Presley of High Art’ and ‘one of the greatest improvisers in the history of jazz’. His performances on the great concert hall stages of the world have yielded some of the finest jazz recordings in contemporary times; he’s been the subject of a biography and a major television documentary and he’s been lauded as a legend in his lifetime. So it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that on 8 May, pianist Keith Jarrett turned 70. But as G. K. Chesterton, that grand old man of letters, wrote almost a century ago: “The first fact about the celebration of a birthday is that it is a way of affirming defiantly, and even flamboyantly, that it is a good thing to be alive.” Which is exactly the way Jarrett is playing it, with the release of Creation (ECM), a solo piano album of nine concert recordings from Japan, Canada and Europe from 2014, plus a pairing of Barber’s Piano Concerto with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (plus an encore) from 1984 and 1985 respectively on the ECM New Series label.
Creation offers something quite new in Jarrett’s discography, since it breaks with earlier live performances such as The Köln Concert, Vienna Concert and Rio, which comprise entire concerts, by taking the best individual tracks from concerts in Tokyo, Paris, Rome and Toronto sequenced to create a new concert that never happened in real-time. “What I noticed when I did the sequencing was how the disparity and the similarity between these pieces enhanced each other,” says Jarrett. “But in a way I could never do live, I couldn’t play Creation for an audience because there would be no let up in a certain kind of intensity. But with a chance to do it this way, I had a whole other universe opening up… [because] it does have a story to tell, as a whole, it has a story to tell that a concert cannot tell. It all grew out of something that was already happening in front of an audience, [so] it’s a live performance but for no ‘single’ audience – [it’s a concert for] the CD purchaser.”
In all, Jarrett had material from nine concerts in his 2014 concert tour to select from, 18 performances in all when you take the first half and second half of the concert into consideration, “This was the most labour intensive thing I have ever released,” he reflects, “I was able to pull these things out of these 18 hours of music that represented what I was trying to do. So it’s in some very real way more personal than anything else [I have done].” In fact, the concert tour from which Creation emerged was the result of quite unique circumstances – after 30 years together, Jarrett’s critically acclaimed Standards Trio reached the point where they felt they had said all they could say together. “There were lots of reasons for the trio to break-up… but absolutely no hard feelings of any kind, we’re just as much friends as we always were,” confirms Jarrett. “So I had to fill a little hole where we used to do our major tour in the summer in Europe, and I had a couple of concerts in Japan and a couple of concerts in Canada, altogether nine concerts in a – for me anyway – fairly short period of time.”
For Jarrett, audiences create a very particular kind of tension that provides the creative spur that make his live concerts the event they are in jazz. It is a relationship that is always in fine balance since when it works, his unique improvisationary gift is allowed to blossom. When it doesn’t – when the audience cough, whisper among themselves or find some other way of intruding into his creative space – the result is not creation but frustration. This happened at the Paris concert at the Salle Pleyel, yet it paradoxically yielded one fine track for Creation that gives no hint of the stress between audience and artist. In fact, I put it to Jarrett that audiences might be quite surprised at the positive role they can play in a Keith Jarrett concert, “I think you’re right,” he says, referring to the creative tension they can create, “It wouldn’t happen in a studio. As much as I love the audience it’s also a pressure.” Yet despite this love but never-quite-hate-them relationship, Jarrett does point out there is one cough from the audience in Creation, but observes, “In the entire nine tracks, I did not think of that until I chose the music but it follows perfect logic that if in any of the playing there was a cough it might throw me into a different place, but it just didn’t happen on this occasion!”
On Samuel Barber/Béla Bartók the enormous breadth of Jarrett’s talent stands revealed with two superior performances that seem destined to become – this is their first ever release, despite the 1984/85 provenance – the benchmark by which other recordings of these piano concertos will be judged. They come from an interesting period in Jarrett’s life, when he was pushing the boundaries of his creativity, in both jazz and classical music, to its limits. The performance of the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3 took place at the Kan-i-Hoken Hall in Tokyo on 30 January 1985. Enthusiastically received by the press, Jarrett had a few days off and was then joined by Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette for a 12-concert tour of Japan with The Standards Trio. After that, he was back on the classical circuit playing recitals of Beethoven, Scarlatti and Bach, followed by his New York debut playing this material (which received a laudatory review from The New York Times). The immediate juxtaposition of the two musical disciplines had a profound effect on Jarrett. What he was doing was unparalleled in the music world – working at the highest level of his profession in both jazz and classical music.
Leaving aside the fact that he has never really received the kind of recognition – then or now, and especially in his own country – the magnitude of this achievement deserves, something had to give. “I got as close to a nervous breakdown as I’d ever like to get,” he reflects. “I marched into my little studio and started doing Spirits as a reaction against the classical nervous ‘Edit from bar 267, we want to start there’, and all that stuff. I would say things like, ‘but I am supposed to be in an emotional state at that moment in that piece, I can’t just jump into that emotional state because you don’t have it there perfectly’. And then not long afterwards I read a quote from a Beethoven player, it was the early days of recording, making 78s I guess, and he was the guy, the Beethoven player, and he was quoted as saying when someone said ‘don’t you think we should do this over?’ and he said, ‘if we did it again it would be better, but it wouldn’t be as good!’ [laughs] I love it. I relate to that – I don’t know that there is anyone whose playing I love who plays ‘perfectly’. I know there are players – I can think of names but I don’t want to desecrate their work – and they do it perfectly, but I don’t get anything from it.”
When the album Spirits was done, he felt better able to come to terms with his feelings about classical music: “I appreciate everything about it and I was trained in it, and I have more classical recordings and LPs than I have jazz, and I listen to more classical music than most jazz players, but no, the world itself I find a little bit unfortunate. I’m involved in the world of creation from the ground up, because I can do – luckily – both things. I know what I am hearing, I know if I am successful at playing what I hear: the art of interpretation exists, but it’s not my thing, it was my thing, during that period of time in the 1980s. But then I just got overwhelmingly, let’s see, I was in the classical world in that period and walking out that door and breathing the air and thinking, ‘wait, I was so involved in this, editing at bar 167 was so not a good idea, can I possibly remind myself why I am in music at all?’ And I threw myself – came back down and had my pseudo nervous breakdown – and threw myself into the most spontaneously crazy thing I had done up to that moment [the album Spirits], and I had trio concerts that would make me smile while I was playing… and I thought shit! That’s what it is! You can’t do that in a concerto or classical thing, you just can’t do that!”
As Jarrett’s career trajectory subsequently revealed, his enormous creativity found its true voice in jazz – he once said his humming during a jazz performance was a response to the sounds he heard in his head, while in classical those sounds are pre-ordained by the music manuscript so he remains silent – which has been all the richer for his commitment to the music (with just a few detours into classical over the years).
So at 70, how does he view the future? “Well the first thing I’d like to see is what kind of response this music [Creation] has, as it’s so radically different, as radical as the very first solo concert I played as it doesn’t follow any of my own rules in the past, and then I’ll figure it out from there. I don’t ever have a deep seated future planned out for adventures, but I don’t have a trio now so all I know is that I’m not going to look for other guys who I would need 30 years to get as good as we got, that’s the biggest problem of all. How much rapport and understanding we had, it’s unmatched anywhere I think. I can pick up albums I forgot about and listen to them and go, ‘Oh my God! Yeah, that’s right!’ So anyway, at the point we had all the information [for Creation] together we sent it to ECM and included in it was this quote, ‘Only age reveals our drive, our compulsion to say something, youth has nothing to declare’. It’s a very, very interesting quote.”
Rhythm has always underscored saxophonist Steve Coleman’s 30-year recording career. Across some 27 albums as a leader, he’s exerted a vortex-like pull of ancient and modern sounds, blending deep African and Asian rhythms with biting street funk and angular jazz harmony, forging a sound that’s made him one of the most original and influential musicians of his generation. With the release of his expansive album Synovial Joints, which draws on the interlocking pulses of the human body for inspiration, Coleman tells Kevin Le Gendre how much of this music emerged from the swirling grit of a blinding Ghanaian desert wind
From the mid-1950s, American governments recognised the role jazz artists could play as cultural ambassadors by way of the landmark State Department tours undertaken by Duke, Dizzy and ‘Pops’ in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. These icons visited Togo, Pakistan and Egypt, playing with locals and often providing the kind of souvenir portrait, none more exotic than that of Louis Armstrong on a camel with his horn tilted against the triangular backdrop of the pyramids, that would have puffed up the smart suits of the US diplomatic corps.
Some four decades later Steve Coleman made a vaguely similar journey but with far less regimentation. In 1993 the alto saxophonist traveled to Yendi in Ghana, West Africa entirely under his own steam, the corollary of which involved him hiring and driving a vehicle and negotiating the testing aftermath of a collision with an animal that had paws rather than humps. But his motivation was undimmed, his agenda precise. “I wanted to go to this very particular village because there was a guy who got up every morning and would beat on these two big drums and beat out the story of the tribe, the lineage of the kings and all this kind of stuff, without singing, just in drums. So I had to see this and know how it worked,” Coleman tells me on the phone from his home in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“I was fascinated by it from reading about it and I went there specifically for that reason; to find out the musical mechanics. I’d always heard about ‘talking drums’ all my life but I wanted to know literally how it worked. So I went all the way there just to go to this particular village, I wanted to see it and feel it for myself. And then I wanted to talk to the elders in the village and interview them.”
“I wanted to see how it was possible for somebody to tell a story without words, with just sound and rhythms… how can you use these sonic shapes and tell a story?”
Musician as investigator-explorer is by no means a new phenomenon, and Coleman would be the first to acknowledge the research of many of his forebears, above all those he claims as sources of inspiration, but the anecdote is telling for a number of reasons. The Ghana excursion effectively opened up “a whole new world” for Coleman. He has since committed himself to at least one ‘study trip’ a year, the primary destinations thus far having been India, Indonesia, Brazil and Cuba. Added to this quest for information en situ is a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge that can be sourced in the calmer environs of a library or bookshop, settings in which Coleman has spent many sabbaticals, expanding his mind with a variety of tomes that include anything from biographies on 16th Century European classical composers to Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction Of Black Civilization, a thought-provoking account of the hidden history of African culture.
One can see a slanted reference to that work in the name of Coleman’s 1990 recording Rhythm People (The Resurrection Of Creative Black Civilization), and in many ways all of the epithets used in that title are very much key words that illuminate a body of work that now stretches to 27 releases. Rhythm, set in intricate matrices beyond the standard organisation of a pulse into downbeats and upbeats in clearly drawn measures, is a cornerstone of Coleman’s grand sonic edifice but the influence of civilizations, particularly ancient ones, as well as ritual and mythology, has also been crucial. As is the input of non-western culture. The superb 1996 album The Sign And The Seal, recorded in Cuba with Coleman’s group The Mystic Rhythm Society in collaboration with the entrancing folkloric drummers AfroCuba De Matanzas, remains one of the most fulfilled expressions of the leader’s desire to engage with a complex, ages-old belief system, in this case Santeria, and distils its very essence into intensely rich original music.
Although synonymous with the term M-BASE (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporisation), which he coined in the early 1980s, the 58 year-old Chicagoan, who impressed through his work with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band after moving to New York in the late 1970s, has always aspired to being more than an exponent of fluidly uneven time signatures that nonetheless had the kind of taut, sharp, locked-down funkiness of a musician who greatly defined his youth, James Brown. Later recordings such as 2004’s Lucidarium and 2010’s Harvesting Semblances And Affinities, revealed a desire to articulate metaphysical and philosophical musings through sound as much as to construct music in mathematically challenging permutations. Yet this mission reaches back to the early jam sessions Coleman attended in Chi-Town.
“When I was younger I would get up and play,” the saxophonist recalls. “And some old guy would be saying ‘tell your story, young man’ and I always wondered what are they talking about. What story can you tell with music that doesn’t have words? I used to always wonder that when I was younger and all of this is connected because that’s what drove me to Ghana. I wanted to see how it was possible for somebody to tell a story without words, with just sound and rhythms and pitches and tonality and whatever your using. How can you use these sonic shapes and tell a story? Can somebody else understand?”
One might say that the subject matters Coleman has chosen to broach lie at the more esoteric end of human discourse. If his 1997 2CD-set Genesis & The Opening Of The Way saw him meditate on “the symbolic meaning of the seven days of creation” and “the concept of growth and regeneration” then his new work, Synovial Joints, has a biological rather than theological magnitude by way of composition inspired by the functions and rhythms of the human body. Sounds are based on the spring of limb, shift of fluid or rise and fall of breath. Flesh and blood are both score and orchestra. Some 21 musicians are deployed to achieve these ends as Coleman augments his longstanding Five Elements ensemble with horns, strings and percussion, and the results add more density to the leader’s patented vocabulary. Rhythm, melody and harmony tightly entwine like threads in a fabric, the specific lines coming together in a kind of warp and weft that shifts its centre in subtle ways. Internal tensions evolve as much as they do resolve.
As important as the overarching theme of anatomy is on Synovial Joints the album has other pieces that also draw on what has been a recurrent strand of Coleman’s work: nature. Clouds, water, earth, air and fire have all been the subject of previous compositions and the piece on the new set that reinforces the pattern is ‘Harmattan’. It is a wind that Coleman experienced in Ghana, a relentless blanketing of the air with fine dust that seems to get under as well as on top of the skin.
His experience of it dates back more than 20 years but the memory burned into his psyche, and its translation into music is fascinating. “It’s like it just engulfs everything,” Coleman explains. “This whole thing was like this grainy net that was constantly shifting shape and it was just throughout the whole air. Because of the wind it was constantly changing shape and I wanted to get that kind of shape-shifting feel, the grainy feel, all of that kind of stuff so the orchestration had that kind of thing… sometimes somebody would be walking towards you and it’s almost like they would come out of the dust. Their form would be like vague and as they came closer to you they become clearer. I tried to get that feel with some of the melodies, like they would rise up out of the net then fall back into it.
“The drums, bass and guitar… it’s like a puzzle in terms of the way they’re put together”
“I created this melody on my saxophone, just from the sensation that I had… with the other things that you put with the melody it becomes how to enhance that feeling. That’s where the orchestration comes in. It’s like making a sketch, then colouring it. You’re trying to select things in terms of which instruments play what to intensify the feeling.
“The drums, bass and guitar… it’s like a puzzle in terms of the way they’re put together. If you listen to any one by themselves there’s a lot of space in the part. But the way they’re put together it’s sort of like the fingers of your two hands interlocking if you folded your hands together. There’s this kind of interlocking puzzle effect, which is in African music in general, but I wanted the rhythm to be like a really fine net of interlocking pieces that go on over this kind of long cycle.
“And the interlocking pieces that I used were heartbeats, just like if you touched your toes and you have a doum doum, like a heartbeat.” Coleman elaborates, his speech steady. “The overall mosaic or weaving you could say doesn’t sound like a heartbeat, just this driving rhythm. For me the individual heartbeats represented like individual particles that are interwoven in a certain way to form a fine kind of net because that was the feeling I got with the Harmattan.”
As Coleman stated, part of the conceptual base of his work can be traced to African music, to the complex percussion orchestration in which multiple drum figures are carefully arranged to create a single powerful sensation. With that in mind it’s also easy to see why the saxophonist would have been fascinated by the workings of the bata ensembles he found in Cuba, where the three members of the family of cone-shaped drums, the iya, itotele and onkokolo, cannot be separated.
Each is inextricably linked to the other, and although Coleman’s identity as a soloist is emphatically strong, above all the phrasing that potently blends drilled, snare-like staccato and fluttering, cymbal-like allegro lines, his music is decisively guided by the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In that respect he upholds the legacy of Thelonious Monk, one of the ultimate exponents of an ‘all sounds into one’ musical philosophy, as he does that of any other artist from the improvising tradition. One thing that jumps out from a dialogue with Coleman is the enormous breadth of his artistic and intellectual references. By his own admission he is now less attuned to pop culture than in his formative years but that does not stop him professing admiration for blues behemoth Muddy Waters, or recalling his jams with Junior Wells and Buddy Guy at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge, or evoking long conversations with James Brown’s alto maestro Maceo Parker, or terming the Godfather’s music a “major innovation”. Or saying that he once went through what he calls “a Prince period”.
By the same token Coleman can name the latest reading material recommended to him by Sonny Rollins, for whom he has enormous reverence, or quote music theory expounded by the ancient Greeks.
Above all there is a deep respect shown towards his predecessors, particularly those who have perhaps been marginalised by the jazz establishment. No greater manifestation of Coleman’s desire to bring such figures into the spotlight was his role as producer of fine albums by Sam Rivers and Bunky Green, when he was contracted to BMG and Label Bleu respectively, and exerted some influence on their A&R policy.
Then again it takes little prompting for him to explain a passion for the music of the elders. His own learning process is at stake. “Duke Ellington, he did these Sacred Concerts at the end of the 1960s, and I studied that because I wanted to know… not because I was religious necessarily, he was, and I wanted to find out why this music for this impulse, that feeling,” Coleman notes. “Then I would contrast that with something like A Love Supreme, which was also, you could say, very spiritual in its genesis. The music was very, very different because Coltrane was very different to Duke, but I still wanted to know what was the connection. What was the connection between Duke’s spiritual feeling and the music he produced and Coltrane’s spiritual feeling and the music he produced? And Yusef Lateef’s spiritual feeling and whoever. I wanted to know, just as a music student, specifically what devices they used, what approach did they take, all these questions you’re asking me. And then Béla Bartók, for example, was fascinated with nature and got a lot of inspiration from nature. Well, how? How exactly did he do that? Beethoven was very spiritual. How? How did that manifest itself in the music, and what are the mechanics behind how he did that? In essence the same reason I went to Ghana is the same thing I’m looking for in these people. I wanna know.”
This chimes with an earlier statement Coleman made. “Music is not an agreed-upon language… it’s a magic thing. If I play a note… what does that mean to people? There’s other things that have to come into play, those are all the reasons why I went to India and Ghana and all these places where people are playing music that is attached to meaning.”
Now, some 30 years into his career, Coleman appears to have lost none of his desire to broach the eternal mystery of sound. The stature that he already had as the leader who gave important early sideman gigs to some of the notable progressives in jazz in the past 20 years – think Robert Mitchell, Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer in terms of pianists alone – was recently consolidated by the receipt of three major accolades: a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Doris Duke Artist Award and a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’. But the saxophonist is keen to state that his core motivation remains exactly the same. “There’s no award in the world that’s ever written any music,” Coleman argues. “It all comes from inside you. It doesn’t change the music at all, not one bit. You still have to work just as hard as if you had nothing. It doesn’t change anything musically. You just keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t try to think about anything else but that.”
From Bud Powell in the early 1950s to Michael Wollny in 2013, via Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington, Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus, these are all outstanding jazz piano trio recordings, a perfect selection for someone discovering jazz for the first time or for the collector looking for something fresh...
The Genius of Bud Powell
Powell (p), Ray Brown (b) and Buddy Rich (d). Rec. 1950-51
Two Herculean trio tunes – ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Hallelujah’, both taken at breakneck speeds – make up the 1950 contribution here. With the benefit of extra CD space we get treated to two extra takes of ‘Tea For Two’, giving us an object lesson in how Powell developed his material as well as maintaining his incredible improvisational creativity. The level of invention Powell achieves puts this recital on equal par with anything in the recorded annals of jazz piano and makes it basic required jazz listening. (KS)
But Not For Me – At The Pershing
Jamal (p), Israel Crosby (b), Vernell Fournier (d). Rec. 1958
Jamal’s ideas about integrated and disciplined trio interplay had already deeply influenced jazz’s inner circle of musicians while his piano-guitar-bass trio was around throughout the early 1950s. However, things went supernova-ish when this incredible unit made and released this jazz best-seller in 1958. That it was no flash in the pan is shown by the music’s drawing power and continuing fascination today, as well as its ability to influence every new generation of pianists. (KS)
Bill Evans Trio
Sunday At The Village Vanguard
Evans (p), Scott LaFaro (b) and Paul Motian (d). Rec. 1961
Equal partners, this trio sustained a musical dialogue on selection after selection that has rarely been equalled within the earshot of a professional microphone, with the astonishingly inventive LaFaro perhaps meriting the sobriquet of senior partner at times, so dominant can he be. This is hardly to downgrade Evans’ own contributions, all of which retain their depth and freshness today. (KS)
Oscar Peterson (p), Ray Brown b) and Ed Thigpen (d). Rec. 1962
By 1962 Peterson’s trio was one of the top draws in jazz worldwide and Peterson himself habitually won every jazz piano popularity poll going. Why? Well, the change in 1958 from piano-bass-guitar to piano-bass-drums had allowed him room to develop the group’s leaner, grittier side and emphasise melody rather than bullish pyrotechnics. Night Train is the epitome of this approach, it hangs together as a perfect modernist tribute to the funky roots of jazz, covering tracks from ‘C Jam Blues’ to ‘Moten Swing’ and ‘The Hucklebuck’. (KS)
United Artists Records
Duke Ellington (p), Charles Mingus (b) and Max Roach (d). Rec. 17 September 1962
This trio session is constantly challenging yet communal, and its piano contribution both sentimental and stimulating. The interplay is even more extraordinary than on his Coltrane collaboration – done the following week! – and the 63-year-old Ellington plays over his head. (BP)
Art Of The Trio Vol.3
Brad Mehldau (p), Larry Grenadier (b) and Jorge Rossy (d). Rec. 1998
More so than his previous albums, this was the one that put Mehldau on the map, as much for a version of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ that turned Radiohead into Beethoven as his deeply haunting version of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ that hipped a legion of young jazzers to two fresh new sources of repertoire. Here Mehldau’s improvisations appear as variations upon variations upon variations, remote from their source maybe but entirely personal. (SN)
Esbjörn Svensson Trio
From Gagarin’s Point Of View
Esbjörn Svensson (p), Dan Berglund (b) and Magnus Öström (d). Rec. 1999
It was not as if the Esbjörn Svensson Trio came out of nowhere. They’d been around since 1991 refining a distinctive collective voice that prompted a name change to EST. It took the UK, who habitually look to the USA for its jazz heroes, longer than most European countries to come under their spell, but this is the album that did it. Their attachment to deeply felt melody, unhurried intensity, framed with the Nordic Tone, and the comparatively unconventional, pop-like structures of their compositions endeared them to jazz and non-jazz fans alike, in the honest humanity of their playing. (SN)
The Bad Plus
These Are The Vistas
Ethan Iverson (p), Reid Anderson (b) and Dave King (d). Rec. 2003
Very few jazz groups today set out to mess with your head. You know, get inside there, push the furniture over, chuck things out of the window and generally make a nuisance of themselves. That’s what’s so refreshing about the Bad Plus. They barge in, do things a jazz piano trio isn’t supposed to do, such as play Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or Kurt Cobain’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ They give you a musical experience you won’t forget easily. (SN)
Ivo Neame (p), Jasper Høiby (b), Mark Guiliana (d). Rec. 2010
Live recordings are usually unmanageable in many ways but this one has been put together with a lot of TLC, meaning attention to detail in every area. It has paid healthy dividends, with a live sonic that reflects the band’s ability to join together intimacy and energy, the tender and animalistic. Alive is about as exciting as it can get without actually seeing this band live and in the flesh. (SH)
Michael Wollny Trio
Michael Wollny (p, harpsichord), Tim Lefebvre (b), Eric Schaefer (d) plus Theo Bleckmann (v, one track). Rec. 24 and 25 September 2013 and 21 March 2013
Weltentraum – rough translation, ‘we search the dreamworlds’ – is an album of standards, but not your usual standards, these are pieces by the likes of Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Paul Hindemith, Edgard Varese, Wolfgang Rihm, Friedrich Nietzsche and Guillaume de Mauchaut which are morphed into intense, personal statements by Wollny that are revealing of his artistic growth, musical curiosity and growing stature as an artist. (SN)
JACO documentary: exclusive interview with film director Paul Marchand
This month sees the long-awaited release of JACO – the documentary on the life and music of revered former Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius who died in 1987 aged 35 in tragic circumstances – but who unequivocally changed the sound and perception of the bass guitar forever. This much-anticipated film has been produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and directed by documentary filmmaker Paul Marchand, and features extensive archive footage of Jaco and contributions from the likes of Herbie Hancock, Vinnie White, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Flea and Bobby Colomby in a hugely evocative portrait of the late great bassist.
Ahead of its release on DVD later this month on 27 November, along with an accompanying CD, Jaco: Original Soundtrack (Legacy Recordings), the film will be screened as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican cinema on 16 November. Mike Flynn spoke to the film’s director Paul Marchand about how this huge project came together:
When did you first start making this film and how did you begin the process?
For me it began in a Santa Monica sushi restaurant in 2011. I met Robert Trujillo (below with Marchand) and the first director, Stephen Kijak for dinner. I had assumed Robert would be at least 30 minutes late, being a rockstar and all, but he was early, eager and passionate about the project he had in front of him. I was hooked immediately and signed on as editor. I set up shop in the back cottage of Robert’s Venice Beach house and we began to interview over 70 of Jaco’s closest family and friends, which resulted in close to 300 hours of interview footage. After a year Stephen Kijak left the project to direct a documentary on the Backstreet Boys and I doubled down as director/editor. Over the next three years Robert and I whittled down the footage and scored some big interviews with Joni Mitchell and Jerry Jemmott and others that allowed us to reconceptualise our film. Our cinematographer, Roger De Giacomi, who is responsible for all the beautiful interview footage also made the long production possible.
This is an amazingly detailed piece of work – for instance how did you get hold of the recordings of Jaco and his father talking on the phone and all the archive footage of Jaco as a boy etc?
The Pastorius family and mainly John Pastorius IV (Jaco’s eldest son) were close collaborators through each step of the process. Also Bob Bobbing, a friend of the Jaco & his family, was instrumental in providing us with a large archive he had collected through the years. Bob had a warehouse in Florida with various tapes, photographs and hard drives of anything he could find relating to Jaco. In that archive were these heartbreaking answering machine recordings that Jack Pastorius (Jaco’s father) had recorded. No one knows exactly why he recorded the calls Jaco made to him, but the result was an amazingly emotional document of the very nuanced relationship between a father and his eldest son. The 8mm footage was given to us by Jaco’s brothers Gregory and Rory. I received them in a metal tackle box and quickly transferred them all to HD video at a professional facility in Hollywood. The great thing about the wealth of 8mm footage from the Pastorius family is that much of it was shot by Gregory Pastorius. Gregory is a visual artist, sculptor and painter and he shot home videos with an artistry that I had never seen from that period. For me, this beautiful archive is what makes the film feel experiential and alive.
The flow from his rise to fame to the sadness of his later years was beautifully handled but an over-arching commentary might have diluted some of the atmosphere – was there a conscious decision about letting the music and imagery (and comments from the contributors) do the talking?
Yes. In fact, we had made that mistake in one of the many edits of this film. I believe that at certain point good filmmaking, and particularly filmmaking about music, becomes like songwriting. If the emotion of the truth is not conveyed to the first time viewer or listener, then the details are meaningless. Our goal was to elicit emotion from the viewer that let them understand Jaco as an artist and a family man, who struggled with a complex illness. We found that the more we let people contextualise his experience, the further our film travelled from his emotional journey. The balance between information and emotional cinema was definitely the most challenging part of editing the film. Robert Trujillo, being a songwriter himself, was the perfect collaborator and a perfectionist with regard to tone and pace. Also the family was there to pull us back to the truth of the story if we ever went too far off course.
It’s over 25 years since Jaco died did you feel that this film will help consolidate his place as one of the greats in music history? Perhaps reminding, or even educating a younger generation – who might not have even heard of Jaco – about his musical legacy?
I’m 34, just a couple years younger than Jaco’s oldest son. I heard Jaco’s music as child, but before I started the project I knew him only as an amazingly emotive bass player with a tragic story. I leave the project thinking of him as a complete musician, and fascinated by the mystery of his compositions. My creative journey through music and film is all about exposure. I hope that we’ve “exposed” people to some of the truths of Jaco’s life that shed light on the genius of his art.
Do you feel that Jaco and many of his contemporaries came to prominence at a special time in music – a time that we are unlikely to see again…?
I think it was an amazing time for music. People were pushing the envelope in every direction and the only trend was to “be different.” I think we’ll have a time like that again. It may not be on the commercial scale that it was in the 1960’s and 70s but further we get away from real instruments the more we pine for them. The pendulum will swing.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I think all of the collaborators see the film differently as I’m sure all the audience members will. For me, I want people to believe in and admire Jaco’s artistic integrity. I think the world needs much more of that… and I think that’s the missing ingredient that will get creators back to a time like Jaco’s. He played the music that was in his head… and if the label didn’t want it… well f*ck them. Also I think it’s good for many families who struggle with mental illness. Unlike the many stories that have floated around about Jaco for years, he wasn’t just another drug using musician. He had a illness, and one that was treatable. I know in my own life I can think of a handful of troubled people that Jaco’s story makes me want to try harder for. Also buy his albums! The entire human experience is in his music.