Friday, August 12, 2016

My Early Jazz Education 3: Herbie Mann and Dave Brubeck

Of course, it wasn’t all trumpet music that I listened to, just mostly.

Really, mostly?

Yeah, pretty near.

Somehow I found my way to Herbie Mann. Don’t know exactly how. Perhaps just flipping through the bins. You can see how a young teenaged boy would be attracted to an album with that cover. Plus: four trumpets! And congas.

The album's title tune, “The Common Ground” is an up-tempo burner that opens with percussion. Mann states the melody on flute, doubled with the vibes, and then the trumpets enter on backing figures, a two bars phrases alternating with punctuations. A percussion break at 1:04 sets things up for Mann’s solo (and, again, the trumpets in the background). Exciting stuff.

This is certainly a different sound from what I’d been used to. Flute? There haven’t been too many jazz flautists. Sax players doubling on flute, yes, but with the flute as the main instrument, no. Hubert Laws played flute as his main instrument, and James Newton. Then there’s Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was mainly a saxophonist, though that hardly characterizes what he did. He’d frequently play the flute and cut at least one album on flute music–I Talk with the Spirits–and would often hum while playing flute (a trick Ian Anderson took from him).

Just why the flute is not more widely used in jazz, I don’t know. Is it mostly a matter of historical accident, as jazz instrumentation descended from military band instrumentation and flutes aren’t all that prominent there (but then we have the piccolo obbligato in “Stars and Stripes”)? Perhaps it simply wasn’t loud enough to hold its own against brass and sax in the early days (when amplification was poor on non-existent), though the clarinet isn’t that loud either. Maybe it’s just a matter of timbre in the total range. Who knows?

Anyhow, here we have a front line of Herbie Man on flute and Johnny Rae on vibes, an exotic sound in the jazz context (itself exotic in the context of classical strings). I loved it. Talk about exotic, on “Baghdad/Asia Minor” we have another percussion opening – the drums are fundamental, get it? – with Mann on some kind of flute (not the standard transverse flute of European classical tradition) doubled by the arco bass, which is a little different jazz as the double-bass was usually plucked.

At 1:14 the bass strikes up a medium-up ostinato and we’re into it. Listen to Mann’s flutter tongue injections on flute, that rippling-chirping sound. Dig the variety of sounds on this cut. And another one of those exotic non-Western flutes. Mann seems to be trying to give birth to World Music marketing category before the term had been coined.

And the drums, the drums! I’d forgotten how conga-heavy this album was. Whenever I hear throbbing congas I gotta’ tap my fingers and dance my feet. Eventually I would by a pair of used congas at Ted’s Music in Baltimore; that was my college days, not all that far in the future at the point when I bought this album with my lawn-mowing money.

Here’s one last cut from the album, “Night Tunisia,” Dizzy’s tune:

Mann drops the original bass line – which is all but standard for this tune – and the melody’s much reduced. Diz’s melody on the A section consisted a 2-bar phrase repeated three times then closed out by a contrasting 2-bar phrase. Mann drops the first half of that 2-bar phase and elongates the second half, retaining the closing 2-bar phrase. He drops the melody on the bridge (B section) altogether. Add in the congas and the effect is quite different from Diz’s original quintet performances, so different you might not recognize it as the same tune. (But Diz still collected royalty nickels and dimes on it.)

Oh, and in case this matters to you, Herbie Mann is Jewish. I didn’t know it at the time, have no idea when I found out, but not many Boston Brahmins played jazz. They may have fallen asleep at the opera, and they may have gone out the back door and snuck into a late-night jazz joint, but they didn’t play the music. Jazz was played by African Americans, Italians, Jews, and the occasional Irishman (Gerry Mulligan) and German (Bix Beiderbecke).

And then there’s Dave Brubeck. I’m sure Jazz Impressions of New York was a record club selection. “Theme from ‘Mr. Broadway’”, as the name suggests, was the theme from a TV show of the time (mid-1960s):

After Herbie Mann’s exoticism this seems almost quite conventional. Listen to Brubeck’s block chord figure at the very beginning, a signature sound. And then Paul Desmond states the melody. His light sound is a joy and is instantly recognizable. Desmond played with Brubeck for years, as did his drummer, Joe Morello, and bassist, Eugene Wright – one of the most long-lived ensembles in jazz.

Back to the tune. Listen to how Brubeck comps for (aka accompanies) Desmond. At first it’s standard punctuations and little answering riffs here and there. At 0:27 Desmond switches to a different kind of line, smoother and more horizontal, and what does Brubeck do? He’s playing the melody that Desmond had opened with. Who’s backing whom? Does it matter? No. This is counterpoint (are you listening, Charles?). Brubeck had studied classical counterpoint in college. At 0:47 Desmond goes back to the original line and Brubeck comes up with a different counter melody. Desmond solos at 1:08 with Brubeck on chordal backup. Brubeck starts at 1:45, linear melody in the right hand, left hand chords, pyramid figures at 1:51, back to riffing at 1:58. Desmond enters on the head at 2:04 and we’re out.

Perhaps my favorite cut from the album is a ballad, “Autumn in Washington Square,” with Brubeck opening on solo piano:

Desmond and the rhythm section enter at 1:53, Desmond on melody, Morello using brushes on the drums, Wright playing a simple bass figure, just repeated tones. Brubeck’s comping is similarly spare. Brubeck solos at 3:37; listen for the blues inflections at 3:43 and then here and there throughout. (Still, Eugene Wright on those simple repetitions.) Now just a hint of funk at 4:26 and then starting up to a climax at, say, 4:35 and, at 4:46 we’re back to the opening melody, but now Wright continues on bass, with Morello adding a little punctuation at the very end.

Brubeck, I suppose, is best known for experimenting with time signatures other than the duple, quad, and triple times standard in jazz. I certainly heard some of these cuts in my teens, but I didn’t own any of the albums. The classic album, of course, is the 1959 Time Out. The best known tune on it is Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”. This is a live version from 1964:

I’ll leave you to do your own commentary because, frankly, breakfast is calling and I’m still not done writing this thing. Besides I want to just listen to the music rather than breaking in to observe what’s going on and write comments. Oh, and don’t believe what you’ve heard about drum solos. Morello knows what he’s doing. It’s called music. Notice that he looks at Brubeck to signal that he’s done. (Damn! I wrote a comment.)

I leave you with one more Brubeck, “Koto Song,” from Jazz Impressions of Japan:

Here’s a different and somewhat longer version, with clarinet entering at 4:35 instead of alto sax (Bill Smith –at 6:40 he’s using a tape delay to duet with himself):

You can hear how it has developed and matured over the years. Scary!

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