Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hawk: Creating a Classical Art Form

Burnett James, who is the writer of Coleman Hawkins entry in Encyclopedia Britannica, has a small and out of print book on Hawkins, published in 1984, en many Hawk recordings were out of public reach in pre-digital age. And in this book, in the tradition of best British jazz writers, he has a very good, and positivist introduction to the man and his music that worth repeating here:

"If, as the late Roland Kirk put it, jazz is 'black classical music', some interesting consequences follow. For one thing, it requires not only classic performances but also classic performers; performances, that is, which stand the test of time (and not simply the test of passing fashion), and performers who make a genuine advance in both styles and technique. Without such figures and such performances, no art form can develop and therefore no classic art can emerge.

In jazz there are few records that perpetuate unquestioned classic performances. One is Louis Armstrong's West End Blues; another is Coleman Hawkins's 1939 Body & Soul. There are others, but rather less that may at first be suspected. The classic artist is a rare phenomenon; the artist who both creates the conditions for the emergence of the classic and then proceeds to produce it himself (or herself) is rarer still. Armstrong, Hawkins, Charlie Parker certainly come into this category, Sidney Bechet and Lester Young probably, and of course Duke Ellington although in a slightly different sense and context.

Coleman Hawkins did not of course invent the saxophone in jazz. He did not even 'invent' the tenor saxophone. There were other saxophonists around during his youth - each making a contribution, as he himself admitted freely, and even asserted against exaggerated claims made on his own behalf - semi-legendary figures like Stump Evans, Happy Claudwell, Prince Robinson. But he also agreed when pressed that he did evolve a genuinely new style and was already playing in a manner quite different from the others. Exactly what that manner was and how it emerged and matured must be the primary task that any study of him has undertake. He and his work became classics of jazz, his influence stronger and more widespread than any but Louis Armstrong's, at least until the coming of Charlie Parker. As the late Paul Gonsalves, for twenty years Duke Ellington's featured tenor, once said, as quoted by Stanley Dance in the World of Duke Ellington:

Coleman Hawkins was my main influence. There was something in his music that coincided with Duke's that for me donated class. Apart from his musicianship, there was something about him personally - the way he held his horn, the way he dresses. I call him "the Duke Ellington of the saxophone". His style seemed more musical that that of other tenors, a kind of classic way of playing. I admired Lester Young, but Coleman Hawkins was it for me."

To see, or hear, how he was (and still is) the best, listen to three solos in a same piece: Hawk, Gonsalves, and Stan Getz in The Way You Look Tonight (Verve MGV 8225)- see how Hawk chops everybody.

By the way, where is mister Burnett James?


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

George Shearing: Conceptualize the World Through Sound

"Being born blind, there was nothing for me to get used to about blindness, because it was there from the start. I didn't know, and still don't, what having sight is like, but from earliest childhood I've also been aware that there isn't such a thing as a blind world. There's a sighted world to which all blind people have to adapt and adjust. In due course, as an adult, I eventually came to the conclusion that even if I were offered the chance of sight, I would refuse it, because it would be so shattering to see everything around me that I had only known as sounds up until that point.

I'd have to go through a whole new process of education, because everything from reading or writing is entirely different. I'm used to hearing cars go by, not to seeing them flash in front of my eyes. There are things I'd love to be able to do, such as to get up from a group of friends and say, "I'll see you guys later on," and mean exactly that.

Maybe we miss a lot, but for the most part that's more than made up for by what we have to replace sight – the ability to conceptualize the world through sound, or our other senses, and the close connection with all those other people who help us get our bearings in unfamiliar surroundings, whatever they may be. Living in a world in which sound plays the most important role has always been a great stimulus to me as a musician." ~ Sir George Shearing

Just a day after my arrival to London, and while I was totally confused by the underground labyrinth of it, came the news of George Shearing's death. It was the third unfortunate occurrence in a row, all happened in less than 24 hours. After overcoming the feeling of being a Cassandra, and after getting acquainted to Tube, and while my discovery of stations and streets was accompanied by Complete Live Capitol Recordings of George Shearing, on my iPod, now I've found myself again, and here is a belated tribute to the man:

Young George with his alcoholic mother

Londoner George Shearing (born in 1919) was blind from his birth, and was a pianist from early childhood. Coming from a poor family of nine, he attended Linden Lodge School for the Blind [photo on the right] during the early 1930s. His first paid work was at a South London pub, the Mason's Arms, then played in Claude Hampton's National Institute for the Blind Band (1937). Did first solo broadcast in February 1939. Resident at the Nut House, London, from summer of 1939. Briefly in South Wales, then gigged with Stephane Grappelli before playing solo residency at the Starlight Club, London (spring 1940). Joined St Regis Hotel Quintet which was subsequently led by Harry Parry (1940), also worked at Hatchett's Club, London, with Stephane Grappelli and Dennis Moonan. I never forget the story told by Grappelli about how George lead them to their hotel room, during blackouts of night bombings of London in war days. The idea of a blind man, guiding other fellow musicians among the fog and ruins is the to the world of George Shearing music. At this stage Shearing was under the influence of Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson.

Shearing with George Evans, Harry Parry then joined Ambrose's Octette from July 1941 until April 1942. Toured with Stephane Grappelli Swingtette (1943) and played night clubs, then joined Frank Weir (1944), later (1946) becoming part of Weir's two piano set-up (alongside
Ralph Sharon). Joined Harry Hayes from July to November 1946, then visited the USA for four months. Returned to Britain, again toured with Stephane Grappelli (April 1947).
On piano-accordion and piano with Frank Weir (summer 1947), then emigrated to the USA in November 1947. This geographical change caused a certain change in his music, too: Shearing who always was a swing-style player quickly adopted much of the bebop vocabulary. Though his way of playing bop has a reserved, and gentle touch. "Who needs an English Art Tatum?" says Shearing about adopting his new styles in interview with pianist Billy Taylor. And that's true. Think about hundreds of imitators who has gone with the wind and there is no trace of them anymore, especially when you're not originally an American product. Later, he added a Latin flavor to his music, which this piece could be an example of that:

Cool Mambo

In 1949, Shearing formed a quintet with a suitably soft instrumentation: vibraphone, amplified guitar, piano, bass, and drums (usually restricted to brushes). His quintet arrangements included locked-hands voicings with the vibraphonist doubling the top note and the guitar doubling the bottom. This "Shearing sound" was extraordinarily successful; it is the sound by which many fans identify him even today. “What many people didn't know about George was his courage," remembers John Levy, his bassist and manager, in an interview with Marc Myers, "in 1949, this guy had formed an integrated group with two white guys, two black guys and a white woman on stage together. Today, this might seem like so what. But back then, you just didn't do that, especially in some cities. Many people told George that he’d do better if all of his were white. He didn’t know what they were talking about. He’d get pissed and say, 'I don’t know what color they are. All I know is that they play what I like to hear and I love their intonation.' Only a few people had the nerve to come up to him and say stuff like that."

From this period Lullaby of Birdland and Conception became jazz standards. Even Miles Davis did his version of Conception, although Shearing recently complained that Miles got the bridge wrong!

From 1970s, Shearing abandoned the quintet format, thereafter worked with own trio and in duos with various double bassists as well as being featured with large orchestras. He has recorded many albums with jazz singers, including Nancy Wilson, Mel Torme, Carmen McRae, Dakota Staton, Peggy Lee, and Nat Cole.

With Nancy Wilson - On Green Dolphin Street

We know that how many critics have essential problems with easy-swinging and those pianist who have pure rhythmic/melodic approaches, like George Shearing. In one of the most famous anti-Shearing articles, Martin Williams wrote:

"What Shearing was and is doing is popularizing modern jazz to a widespread success. I am not absolutely sure that musical popularizers are a reviewer's business. They do introduce large numbers of people to a musical style—at least so I am told. But for every listener who moves on, hundreds of others stay with the popularizer; one of the originators of modern jazz, Dizzy Gillespie, had a good audience before Shearing arrived, but Shearing has a larger audience than Gillespie has or probably ever will have. In any case, popularizers always appear and are always going to appear.
However, there are popularizers and popularizers. One of Benny Goodman's functions was to spread a music that Fletcher Henderson had evolved several years before and do the same for some of Count Basic's pieces as well. Goodman contributed more than merely that, to be sure, but his treatment of Henderson's style involved no particular compromise or dilution.
I suppose that if popularizers become a constant preoccupation, a reviewer will be wasting a great deal of time. And at worst he may end up making them the objects of a kind of snobbish abuse. On the other hand, a reviewer probably should discuss
them from time to time to describe what he feels they are up to and to say how much compromise and dilution he hears in their work."

Thanks to Williams himself, who gives us the right words for it, - "snobbish abuse" - one can argue that all rock 'n rollers are popularizers of Robert Johnson, and they are audience-stealers, hence it's a waste of precious time for a critic, to take them seriously. Later he argues:

"As a pianist, Shearing is able and fluent, although as a jazzman he has occasional problems with phrasing and swing. More important, he is capable of a lot more inventiveness than he usually offers. And it seems to me that his basic compromise is to play as if he were not really emotionally involved with what he is doing, even when he allows himself to do something musical."

Well, isn't Basie that way? Looked untouched on the surface, but driving a group like the jet motor, in the moment of take off.

Beside music, Shearing's charm, humbleness and nobility rank him with the best pianists in history of jazz, like Hank Jones. One of the great pleasures of listening to his live recordings comes from his sense of humor. He has a witty introduction for almost every tune. Here is an example:

And finally, from Mosaic out-of-print boxed set, Complete Live Capitol Recordings of George Shearing, give a listen to The Nearness of You with Vibraphonist Emil Richards, guitarist Toots Thielemans, bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Percy Brice. Recorded at Hollywood Sunset Strip , 1959. It's a seminal tune that summarizes his grace, touch, swing and the way he visualized the world through sounds and tones.

The nearness of you

Sources (and Further Reading):
Who's who of British jazz /John Chilton.-2nd ed.
Jazz changes/ Martin Williams/ pp 279 - 281
Lullaby of Birdland/ George Shearing (written in collaboration with Alyn Shipton)/ This autobiography was published in 2004.