Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Underrated Jazz Musicians, Part Two

April 30th, 2004

Gary Giddins

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In the final column of his thirty year career as jazz critic of the Village Voice, Gary Giddins wrote, “I’m as besotted with jazz as ever, and expect to write about it till last call, albeit in other formats. Indeed, much in the way being hanged is said to focus the mind, this finale has made me conscious of the columns I never wrote.”

He went on to lament about not having written columns on the likes of Booker Ervin, Charlie Rouse, George Coleman and other musicians most easily categorized as “underrated.”

With that in mind, we thought it would be a great opportunity for Giddins to talk about those left behind, and thus present Part Two of a conversation on underrated, often neglected musicians.

Conversation hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.

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photo by Lee Tanner

Kenny Burrell

“If you look at the Grove Dictionary of Jazz, it is three volumes of jazz history and it embodies a never-ending challenge to discover all those artists. I think the important thing is to look beyond the most celebrated names. In this regard, jazz is profoundly different from nineteenth century classical music, where the pantheon has proven remarkably stable. A jazz listener will want to hear Miles Davis — his reputation is there for a reason — but so much of the fun in jazz lies in finding those distinct personalities who were extremely individual and inventive, yet abide in relative obscurity.”

– Gary Giddins

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JJM  Before we get started on this second discussion on underrated jazz musicians, have you thought of any others from part one you wish you had included?

GG   There are so many we could have added, so let me make a general statement in response and say that jazz itself is so underrated that virtually anyone I mentioned would qualify. I could mention dozens of musicians unknown to the general public but well known to the jazz audience. We began that particular discussion by talking about musicians I had neglected to write much about during thirty years at the Village Voice. So, I ignored a lot of neglected musicians who had not been neglected by me, preferring to focus on those I never got around to. But once you start, where do you stop?

Of course, many musicians unknown to the general public are also phantoms to the jazz audience. Many enthusiasts may not know a pianist and composer like Andrew Hill or Jessica Williams, who has an excellent new CD on Maxjazz, or Mulgrew Miller, or the great Jaki Byard, who for a very long period was ignored by all but a handful of critics. The contemporary audience is perhaps more likely to catch up with Jason Moran or Bill Charlap, who are younger and have higher record label profiles — and are themselves underrated. I mean, if the future of jazz is in the hands of Moran and Charlap, it’s in damned good hands. If you look at the Grove Dictionary of Jazz, it is three volumes of jazz history and it embodies a never-ending challenge to discover all those artists. I think the important thing is to look beyond the most celebrated names. In this regard, jazz is profoundly different from nineteenth century classical music, where the pantheon has proven remarkably stable. A jazz listener will want to hear Miles Davis — his reputation is there for a reason — but so much of the fun in jazz lies in finding those distinct personalities who were extremely individual and inventive, yet abide in relative obscurity. How many jazz lovers have never investigated Teddy Wilson or James P. Johnson or Mary Lou Williams or Lennie Tristano or Marilyn Crispell — just to stick to the piano players? I can’t believe that The 86 Years of Eubie Blake has never been issued on CD. If you know Thelonious and Bud and Cecil, but have never heard Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues” or “Doctor Jazz,” you are missing something crucial. Same if you know Miles and Chet and Wynton, but haven’t checked out Red Allen, Bunny Berigan, Hot Lips Page, Frankie Newton, and the incomparable Roy Eldridge.

JJM When I first started getting into jazz, part of its beauty was in discovering the artists in the next level down from Miles, Monk and Ellington. I loved Miles and, as a result, became curious about Red Garland. I soon began collecting his records and learned about his own sidemen. Before I knew it I was four or five layers of great players deep, and rarely did the quality ever take a dramatic turn for the worse. It is an amazing field.

GG  Sure, if you go from Miles with Red Garland to Miles with Bill Evans to Miles with Wynton Kelly to Miles with Herbie Hancock, you get a mini-history of the development of piano harmonies. They are four great players who all have a different sense of playing, as demonstrated in Kind of Blue. Why did Miles pick Kelly for the most conventional blues? Because he is such an extraordinary player in that context. On the other hand, you can’t imagine anyone other than Bill Evans playing the harmonies on “So What.” I’ve been listening to Miles Davis in Europe, the first Davis album I ever heard and played to death, because Columbia is finally re-releasing it, after some forty years, as part of a box covering the 1963-64 period. I remember at one point playing it several times in order to concentrate each time on one player. I was trying to understand the way rhythm sections work, so I’d listen focused intently on Hancock or Carter or Williams, to better get a bead on what they were doing. Well, here we are all these years later, and they still sound radical. There are passages where Carter holds the fort with a simple two beat while Hancock and Williams play cross rhythms of such defiant complexity you wonder how they managed not to get lost. The thing is their attack could not be more different than what the Evans or Garland sections had been playing with him.

Incidentally, a trumpeter I didn’t mention in our first discussion is Sean Jones, whose first record recently came out, and who I had heard with Gerald Wilson’s Band at Birdland. He has a tremendous sound, a real bite and a lot of technique. The album is too conventional, despite a high level of playing — but a couple of ballads, ” The Very Thought Of You” and an adventurous “Over the Rainbow” suggest his potential. He sounds as though he has spent as much time listening to Hubbard as Miles, and you have to wonder how he is going to develop. This brings us to the crisis in jazz, beached in historicism; we no longer hear a lot of unmistakable originality. This is probably the first era in jazz history in which there is no real avant-garde; that is, the avant-garde is a phrase like bebop or swing to describe an ongoing movement in jazz, but I’m not aware of anyone doing anything that’s genuinely new. What Miles’s rhythm section was doing in 1963 was new. Now we are looking for players who can master the rudiments of a music of which the parameters are pretty much established. Christ, would I like to be wrong about that, but we shall see what we see. But a period like this is very good for going backwards and exploring the great overlooked artists of other periods who still speak to us. I mentioned Sean Jones’s ballads; you want to hear a masterpiece of jazz ballad playing, listen to Roy Eldridge’s “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” and “The Man I Love” in the recent Mosaic box of Roy’s Verve recordings. That stuff’ll stiffen anyone’s spine. It’s timeless.

The problem for contemporary players is not only what they achieve as musicians, but also how they are presented to the public through their recordings. One example of this I always use is Roy Hargrove, who I love to hear perform live. Sometimes he’s off, but when he’s on he is outstanding, especially on ballads — I don’t think there’s a player of his generation or since who can touch him on ballads, a very special talent. Yet I find his records very much a mixed bag. Frequently, something is just missing from them. A classic example of this same problem for me is Sonny Rollins. Every time I review a Rollins concert I get letters from people around the country who’ve never seen him live and think I’ve lost my mind. They’re listening to his latest record and I’m writing about what he is doing in concert, and they are very, very different.

JJM Last time we covered trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass and drums. Why don’t we start on guitar this time?

GG  Guitar is a strange instrument to me. I think I get more records by guitarists than any other instrument — or maybe it just seems like that because so many of them are boring. There is a tremendous facility among guitar players that can really wear you down. For several years consecutively at the JVC Festival they had a guitar evening, and there’d be so many notes that by intermission you were completely frazzled. It is such a relief to hear a guy like Jim Hall or Bill Frisell play because they choose their notes and tell a story. If you look at early guitar, that was basically the style. It is why Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt still stand up as well as they do. Above all other guitarists, Charlie Christian is the one who put the electric guitar on the map in jazz, although a few people tried it out before him. The thing about his solos is how lyrical they are and how carefully he crafts his solos. Unfortunately he is very much under-recorded because he died young, and he made almost all his studio records with Benny Goodman. But if you listen to his three- or four-minute solo at the beginning of the 1941 recording “Swing To Bop,” which is a “Topsy” derivation recorded at an after hours Harlem jam session, you realize how much further Christian might have gone. His every chorus is so dynamic, pitched in fire. Wes Montgomery had that as well. I still love listening to Wes Montgomery records because his solos tell a story. He invented a kind of format for his solos, where he would begin by playing single note choruses, and then build up to octaves, and then to chords, so there was a framework to his playing. And again, for all his incredible facility, you feel that he’s picking his shots. He was also growing, despite the commercial forces that fed his family but deadened his recordings. Compare the two versions of “Twisted Blues,” the first with a quartet on Riverside, the second with a big band for Verve — the second one is the more stirring. No one could mistake him in a blindfold test. I don’t know that I can tell one young guitar player from another, with a couple of exceptions, and they themselves are already veterans — Pat Martino, Howard Alden.

JJM  Guitar records always seem so uneven to me. For example, much of the work Wes Montgomery did with Creed Taylor is damn near unlistenable.

GG  Well, I don’t really consider them when I think of Wes. That period in the late sixties was deadly for jazz. Once he became commercial they really didn’t let him do anything else. He had a beautiful sound and they mired it in extremely over-produced, frequently trite Don Sebesky arrangements, so that the last really great Montgomery recording is the one from the Half Note with Wynton Kelly — some of the best guitar playing on record. After listening to that you want to go strangle those guys who had him doing nothing but “California Dreamin'” and “A Day In The Life” and the other stuff he hardly gets to improvise on. I was lucky in that I got to see him live in Kansas City at an amphitheater shortly before his death. It was an all-day concert with sets by the Adderleys, Clark Terry, many others, and when Wes’s quintet took the stage the serious jazz fans I was with decided that would be a good time to get something to eat. But what he did was fascinating. He opened with “California Dreamin'” — one chorus, the theme, got his applause, and then went into one of the most stirring sets of music I’ve ever heard. Needless to say, we were very happy to go hungry.

JJM  What about Grant Green? His popularity has been on the rise.

GG  I am glad you mentioned him because he’s another example of what I’m talking about. The beautiful thing about Grant Green is that his solos also tell a story. He is very much in the Charlie Christian tradition. He has a tremendous blues sense, he swings beautifully, and you feel he doesn’t waste any motions. A marvelous musician, and I think one reason his rep has taken an upward swing is because there is clarity and definitiveness in the way he plays. But I remember in the early seventies when Ted Dunbar came along, people made jokes about him because he was the first guitar player who seemed to be influenced primarily by Grant Green. Green was very much overlooked during his day because he didn’t have flashy technique at a time when Wes Montgomery dominated and the young George Benson and Pat Martino were coming up. On top of that, his labels — first Blue Note, then Verve — attempted to steer him into light soul settings.

Another great guitar player who isn’t well known in the jazz world is Johnny Smith, who was primarily a studio player with a gorgeous sound. Mosaic recently did a superb compilation of his work. He made a famous record with Stan Getz, “Moonlight in Vermont,” which every guitar player in the country tried to imitate because of the chords he played and the way he got from one to the next. But because he spent a lot of years doing studio work, he never really sustained a jazz reputation. Nevertheless, the guitar playing on the Mosaic collection is frequently tremendous. He briefly hit the road to tour with Bing Crosby in the seventies, which was the first time I encountered him. A very modest guy and player, subtle but ingenious.

JJM  You a Kenny Burrell fan?

GG  I’ve always liked Kenny Burrell, another understated player. For me, the definitive Burrell record is Guitar Forms. That’s just a great record, period; he plays beautifully. Gil Evans wrote the arrangements for about half the tracks, and on the others it’s Burrell and the rhythm section. Incidentally, both Steve Lacy and Elvin Jones were in Gil’s band for that session — gives you an idea of how eager musicians were for studio assignments. Elvin also wrote the blues, “Downstairs,” that opens the album. It was an ambitious record since each track was recorded in a different style — from funky blues to fin de seicle impressionism. It is a beautifully engaged album. It amazes me that even after all these years — nearly forty — it’s hard to find any other album like it. Kenny did another great record in Chicago a couple of years later with a talented arranger named Richard Evans, I think, on Cadet, and again the orchestrations inspired him to make each solo count — the way big bands focused the attentions of soloists in the thirties and forties. Otherwise, most of the Kenny Burrell records I go back to have him teamed up with somebody else who inspires him, like Coltrane. He’s an elegant player, never tasteless, and I can listen to him a lot longer, for example, than I can Joe Pass, who at times strikes me as virtuosity run amok.

JJM   What did the era of fusion do for this instrument?  You began by saying it is hard for you to listen to or find really interesting guitar records, and I am curious if you think fusion changed the way the instrument was played?

GG  Of course it did. Many of the guitarists who came up in that period are exciting players, but because they were working in a fusion context, they are not often considered jazz musicians. Another guitarist I like a lot is James Blood Ulmer. While he was certainly influenced by Jimi Hendrix, he came up with a very individual style. He is not a virtuoso in the conventional sense, but he can be a dramatic player, and he’s certainly not someone playing usual themes and variations. Hendrix is amazing, of course; the older I get the more enthralling I find him, whereas when I was younger I was put off by the vocals, the punishing drums, the whole rock affect. Now, who cares? I find his death as confounding as Clifford Brown’s — leaving off in the middle of the story. Another fusion guitarist I like is David Fiuczynski.  In fact, you can always find exciting metal players, including him, on any of the albums by Ronald Shannon Jackson. Howard Alden is a throwback, on the other hand — the opposite of fusion. He goes back to the styles of the twenties and thirties, but with tremendous facility and an abiding knowledge of what came later. On a good night, he can be quite gripping, as though he were intent on avoiding clichés if he has to break his knuckles to do it. When he plays duets with another great musician — Bucky Pizzarelli, for example — he is invariably inspired. Yet I’ve also heard him on automatic pilot. There is something about that instrument that seems to make virtuosity the common coin. Two other challenging guitarists I need to mention are Marc Ribot, especially his two solo albums, where he brings Monk to the fretboard, and Joe Morris, who does the same for Ornette Coleman. They work on the fringes of mainstream jazz, yet they are powerful, original players.

JJM  Ever since the fusion era with Al Dimeola, John McLaughlin and those kinds of players, I have to admit I lost interest in listening to the guitar. I just think the instrument became overexposed in the same way that Kenny G overexposed the soprano saxophone — to a point where I can’t even listen to the instrument anymore.

GG  Yeah, I agree. You are reminding me of another guitarist, Bireli Lagrene. When Lagrene was twelve or thirteen, Vanity Fair sent me to Salzburg to write about him. He had made a record called Routes to Django, and I was overwhelmed by it — a brilliant album. It was incredibly exciting to hear this young prodigy playing in the style of Django Reinhardt with so much feeling. While I was there I interviewed him through a translator, and I traveled with him and his band, hearing him play a couple of concerts. I thought he could have the world at his feet — at least the little world that we are talking about. But he was a young guy and he loved everybody and wanted to play like all of them. He wanted to play like BB King, as well as the fusion players from the Dimeola and McLaughlin generation. So, when he plugged in and played in their style he became sort of faceless and was reduced to being just another fusion wizard. But when he unplugs and goes back to the Django style, on one hand it seems more derivative because it is so “Djangofied,” but at the same time he seems to be more individual, more impassioned, more himself. And for me it’s certainly far more pleasurable.

JJM  Do the jazz marketers look at the guitar as the most logical instrument to expand their audience with?

GG  Not anymore. The instrument that they look to expand their audience is the blond-haired female singer. You have to really dig to think of a young popular jazz guitar player. The days of the Johnny Winters and Stevie Rays and even the McLaughlins are over.

JJM  Pat Metheny, probably.

GG  Of course, Pat Metheny. He can certainly play, and I have enjoyed him since I saw his concert with Ornette Coleman. He was wonderful.  I was listening to Song X a few days ago, the LP — I don’t even know if it’s on CD. You wouldn’t call him underrated, considering the size of his fan base, and I have to admit I don’t often think of him as a jazz guitarist because I have so little interest in the fusion records he made with that pianist who thinks he’s Liszt, Lyle Mays — Liszt as a sentimentalist.

JJM  Well, I guess you could categorize that music quite simply as modern day mood music.

GG  Yes, it is mood music that seems corny to me. It is like bad, overstated romanticism. The techno geeks love him for reasons I’m not interested enough to explore.

JJM  Metheny’s music almost always grabs me immediately, and I listen to it the first time quite enthusiastically. When I put it on again and try to recapture the excitement I had for it, I find myself skipping through it, wondering why I was so interested in it in the first place.

GG  I feel exactly the same way. I don’t think I have even kept a Metheny album except for Song X. But that’s a helluva record.

JJM  What about Russell Malone?

GG  One of the most talented guitar players to come on the scene in the last ten or twelve years, along with Mark Whitfield, whose career seems to have drifted. But I have the same reservations about Malone as with, say, Joe Pass. He’s a tremendous player, especially when sitting in someone else’s band or providing accompaniment and solos — as he did for Diana Krall. I frequently find him to be a very satisfying musician. But another critic and I went to see him one night at the Blue Note with his own group and we left in the middle of the set. During every number, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink and then finally threw in the kitchen sink. He showed that he could play faster than anyone and more notes than anyone, but there was not a great sense of music. After all the pyrotechnics, numbness sets in.

Another guy I find difficult to understand is John Scofield, whose fusion puts me to sleep, yet when he plays in an interesting context — such as the record he made last year with Roy Haynes — he is very effective. A guitarist whose work I have always loved is Pat Martino, who’s been around since the sixties. I’ll go out to see him when I can. He dropped out for a while because of illness, but he has come back full force. He’s a virtuoso who rarely forgets the importance of feeling, style, energy. There’s a sense of urgency in his work.

JJM  What about the guitarists who recorded for ECM? Did you ever get into any of them?

GG  Ralph Towner puts me into a coma. Seriously, I don’t want to put these musicians down, they are all very gifted and have their audiences. It’s just something that I tried to get into and couldn’t. If there is a hell, you can bet they are listening to New Age music. That’s why I try to live an upright, moral life — fear of eternity scored by George Winston. Towner is better than that, I guess. But anything that smacks of ambient music makes my skin crawl. My daughter can’t understand how I can listen to music and do nothing else. To her generation music is something that goes on in the background while you talk or play video games or do homework. I’ve done a lot of writing in noisy newsrooms, but I can’t write a lick if music is playing.

JJM  ECM marketed their music brilliantly, but to serious listeners it became formulaic. They were the model for Windham Hill Records, I am sure…

GG  That’s right.

 

 

 

JJM  Why don’t we move on to the clarinet?

GG  Oh, I love the clarinet. I even played it a little bit — one of the many instruments I was not capable of mastering. One of my great experiences as a kid happened at one of the annual jazz festivals that used to be held on Randall’s Island. At this particular concert there was a set by an edition of George Wein’s Newport All Stars. He had these great swing players who would play in different configurations, and at one point everybody left the stage except for the rhythm section and the clarinetists, Pee Wee Russell and Edmond Hall. What an eye-opener that was for me because these two musicians were playing the same instrument, but if you closed your eyes you would have thought they were playing two completely different instruments. The degree of individuality was startling — nothing in classical music or rock and roll prepared me for it.

I adore Pee Wee Russell’s playing — he’s the ultimate jazz eccentric in the sense that he has his own cliches. After a while you sort of know what he’s going to play, but the drama is in how he configures his phrases. He doesn’t play things that anyone else plays. His sound and his phrasing are entirely sui generis. Even the tunes that he writes, “Pee Wee’s Blues” being the most famous, sound like something he might have improvised. It is interesting that some of his greatest work is on recordings with Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins is “Mr. Aggression” and Pee Wee sounds like Casper Milquetoast, blinking in fear that he will be overheard. His every note struggled to be born. But it works because he swings and he is so emotional. He is such a great player, and I feel the same way about Edmond Hall. He made some marvelous records with Teddy Wilson on Commodore, pure swing, and then he also made records with Charlie Christian on Blue Note. His sound is the opposite of Russell’s. It’s huge, gorgeous, warm, in the rounded New Orleans style.

The clarinet was one of the most important instruments at the beginning of jazz. Most people reading this will know who Johnny Dodds was because of the records he made with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, but they may no longer remember Jimmie Noone, who was actually more influential. Benny Goodman used to say that Jimmie Noone was the guy clarinetists of his era listened to and copied, and who influenced everybody. I don’t know if his Apex Club recordings with Earl Hines are still in print or not, but they are worth searching out. In those recordings, you can hear him reaching beyond the more characteristic New Orleans style and repertory.

Another interesting clarinetist from that period is Frank Teschemacher, who died in his twenties and thus made very few records. But he also had an idiosyncratic style, with a strange approach to pitch. When Goodman and Shaw hit, the clarinet sort of became the guitar of the thirties. Other than Count Basie’s band, which basically ignored the instrument, every band’s clarinetist was a potential star. There was Irving Fazola with Bob Crosby and Barney Bigard in Ellington’s band, and, of course, Woody Herman, who was hardly a virtuoso but he used the instrument very well. Woody played in a sort of a New Orleans style — he liked the richness of the traditional timbre. But that all disappeared almost overnight with the coming of bebop because the clarinet didn’t seem to fit in. There was Buddy De Franco and then there was Buddy De Franco. That was pretty much it for a while. It’s sort of odd, because Lester Young doubled beautifully on clarinet and one would think that some of his countless heirs would follow suit.

JJM  Tony Scott played during De Franco’s time……

GG  Yes, but he never achieved the kind of renown De Franco did with his incredible technique. He could sit in with anybody and held his own, even Art Tatum, as demonstrated on their famous Verve session. You know, practically the entire time I have been following the jazz scene, every time a clarinet player comes along it’s like a news story — like, good heavens the clarinet is coming back. During the last decade it’s been Don Byron. The bass clarinet has more practitioners than the b-flat. Weird, isn’t it? A young clarinetist I like is Dan Levinson, but he plays strictly in pre-war styles, unlikely to verge beyond Benny Goodman. But he has the sound and the spirit. And then there’s Kenny Davern, maybe the best all around clarinetist on the scene — a musician who works in a traditionalist context but developed a thoroughly original approach.

Clarinet is a difficult instrument. I’m friendly with a clarinetist who plays in symphony orchestras, and I’ve asked him and other players to explain why the clarinet doesn’t have pads, but none of them are certain. Usually, they say it’s because the instrument is wood and too delicate or that the pads make too much noise. On the other hand, the flute has pads. I am told you can buy a clarinet with pads but most musicians wouldn’t be caught dead playing it. It’s always surprised me that saxophone players double on soprano rather than clarinet, maybe in part because they wanted to mimic Coltrane, but it may also be because clarinet is more difficult to play.

JJM You mentioned Lester Young — it is strange he didn’t have more followers on clarinet.

GG  Yes, he was another wonderful, instantly recognizable clarinetist in the thirties. Some of his best clarinet work is on the From Spirituals to Swing Concert, and he also stretches out on clarinet on his Commodore sessions. But he didn’t play it for very long. While he doubled on clarinet for most of his life, Sidney Bechet also favored the saxophone, even though he was better known as a clarinetist during his early years. It is interesting how an instrument once deemed so sexy — I mean, think of Artie Shaw’s wives, for heaven’s sake — could get sidelined for so long.

JJM  Any other clarinet players come to mind?

GG  Yes, Perry Robinson. Perry’s been around for a long time, and is a total original. I love the record he made with William Parker a couple of years ago, Bob’s Pink Cadillac. It was made on a small “downtown” label, Eremite, and it is a rare chance to hear Perry stretching out on a couple of twenty-minute improvisations.

JJM What about other reed instruments? Who do you think about when you think about the flute?

GG  If I had to pick my favorite jazz flute record, it would be Roland Kirk’s, I Talk With The Spirits. It didn’t get that much attention when it came out, and I don’t know why. Walter Perkins, an excellent drummer with a very recognizable style, is really inspired on this record, as is Kirk, who always had a lot of fun with the instrument — over-blowing and getting his own voice in there. He had several different approaches to tone. He could get a fairly pure sound when he wanted, but mostly he liked to muddy it up and make it a little funkier. That’s a good record. I’m not sure if it’s in print beyond the complete Emarcy Kirk box.

In recent years the outstanding flute player has been James Newton, and I am not sure why we don’t hear him more often. He will infrequently come to New York and stand up for a solo in David Murray’s Big Band, and he doesn’t record as flutist, composer, or bandleader nearly enough. I am struck by what a gifted player he is every time I go back and listen to some of his records. The flute is not his second instrument, as it was for Kirk or Frank Wess, and most of the others — it’s what he does.

JJM  The sixties were an interesting time for the flute. You had people like Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef…

GG  Lateef was a terrific flute player. His records are pretty bizarre, and I don’t always get very far into some of them. He was on a roll when he recorded for Impulse in the sixties. I like most of those albums. On one of them, Live at Pep’s, he plays a blues on oboe (Sister Mami). He had a big, full sound, and he could really play blues on the flute. My favorite of the Impulses is A Flat, G Flat, C and The Golden Flute. Man, I’ll bet I haven’t heard those in thirty years — you are reminding me of a lot of things I used to play a lot, then lost sight of. Lateef was also a helluva tenor player, when he was serious — his solo on Mingus’s “Prayer for Passive Resistance” is a bitch. For a long time, Dolphy was the beginning and the end of flute in jazz for me, although now I prefer his alto and bass clarinet. But he’s extraordinary on the Last Date album, gorgeous sound. Dolphy is one of the great virtuosos because no matter what instrument he picks up, he never sounds like he’s doubling — he sounds as though he never tried any other instrument. Dolphy is yet another jazz figure who died very young, although not as young as we may think. But he had been ignored for the first dozen years of his career, when he was in California, before becoming part of the avant-garde scene in New York.

I presume that his friendship with Dolphy inspired Coltrane to take up flute, but he only recorded on it once — on the last album he supervised before his death, Expressions –– and he didn’t play it very effectively. When I first bought that record I was hanging out with Ted Curson’s quartet and Nick Brignola was in that group; talk about underrated players, he is one of the great baritone saxophonists of all time. Anyway, Nick doubled on everything, including flute, and couldn’t wait to hear Coltrane’s record, just to see what he did with it. At the time it was a big disappointment because everyone expected him to play flute with the authority he brought to tenor and soprano, but he didn’t have that kind of mastery down yet. Nick, on the other hand, played everything with tremendous vitality, but he was most himself on baritone.

JJM Flute players were among the most interesting personalities of the sixties and seventies, especially when you add Sam Rivers to the list. They were so creative, individual, challenging. On the other end of the spectrum, you had guys like Herbie Mann, who reached out to the rock and roll audience, and Hubert Laws, whose playing was brilliant but his CTI recordings were just awful.

GG  Yes, I never understood those records. Hubert Laws was someone I never paid much attention to because once he became known, he made nothing but those kinds of commercial records. Herbie Mann had that huge hit, “Comin’ Home Baby,” and then became pretty predictable, leaning increasingly on Latin rhythms. I never thought he was much of a player, although he once made a good record with Bill Evans early in his career. He’s simply awful on the Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown session — where is an editor when you need him?

JJM  Atlantic tried to market him like a rock star…

GG  They really did. He became huge. Nice guy but certainly not a profound player, though he did a very good deed in producing Jimmy Rowles’s final album. But let’s go back to Sam Rivers. He is another of these players whose records never sell as well as they might, maybe because people grow impatient when they put on a record and hear a piece go on for twenty minutes or half an hour, though he does do short numbers as well, especially with the big band. Remember Crystals? — an impressive album in its day, probably not in print now. He stretches out during live performances, where he does a routine starting on tenor, then moving to the soprano saxophone, then to the flute, then to the piano. Those are exhilarating performances. I don’t know if you want to hear that set every night, but I love going to hear him play. He comes up with something interesting on each instrument, and he doesn’t sound like the same musician on each instrument. Benny Carter was the same way, in that his alto playing is different from his trumpet playing, and both are different from his arranging style. He projects a different musical personality each time.

JJM  Another flute player I just thought of is Henry Threadgill.

GG  He is a wonderful flute player, who also plays alto and tenor. I used to prefer him on tenor, when he first started recording with Air. But he is a terrific player. He has become so involved in conception and composition that I think he under represents himself as an instrumentalist. I like the gritty sounds he gets, especially on the saxophone.

JJM  And let’s not forget the flute player the hippies loved, Charles Lloyd.

GG  I have never been a fan of Charles Lloyd, although I liked his early work when he was with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley. He did a piece on tenor with Chico called “One for Joan” that has a stirring Lloyd solo. It doesn’t sound like any other tenor solo of the period. Then he became a hippie star with Forest Flower. Then he did Love-In, on which he played really bad flute. What I never liked about his playing, even in recent years, is that I find his sound on tenor sort of whiney, and his technical élan a bit self-conscious, like he is out-Coltrane-ing Coltrane. It’s self-indulgent and unappealing. I argue routinely with colleagues because most of them think very highly of him.

On the other hand, he has a great new record out on ECM, the last sessions with Billy Higgins, on which he plays long free improvisations. I listen to all the CD’s that come into my office “blindfolded.” My assistant puts them into the changer to try and keep from allowing prejudices or assumptions to color my responses. And this particular recording struck me as having a pretty interesting dialogue. I had no idea who it was until I looked at the label, and it made me reconsider Charles Lloyd. In the past, when I put a record of his on “blind,” I knew within two seconds that it was Lloyd and I would move on to the next album. But on this new recording, Billy Higgins, who Lloyd had such an obvious respect for, is in such a free-wheeling, expansive mood that he seems to bring out a directness and humor in Lloyd’s music that I hadn’t heard in a long time. I usually think of him as humorless, almost “holier than thou.”

JJM How about we talk a little about the violin?

GG  Like the clarinet, the violin has a lot of precedent in early jazz — it goes back to the beginning. In the early New Orleans bands you frequently see photographs of violinists, and Joe Venuti made a huge splash in the twenties, yet it never really caught on as key instrument. One of the first violinists in the territory band era of the middle thirties was Claude Williams, who had an amazing second-act career after he was rediscovered in the seventies and did a number of projects with Jay McShann.

I have a funny Claude Williams story. When Albert Murray was writing Count Basie’s biography, Basie was staying at a hotel near where I live. Al was interviewing him and he brought up Williams, and said he couldn’t understand why Basie fired him and replaced him with Freddie Green, because he sounded so good with the band. Basie denied that Williams ever recorded with him and refused to accept the idea. Now it’s true that Williams never got into the studio with Basie, but he did appear on a broadcast that was widely bootlegged in the seventies, which Basie had not heard. So Al tells Basie this and says that Williams sounded great, soared on the piece like Lester on violin. But Basie didn’t believe it so Al called me and asked if he could come by and borrow the bootleg broadcast. He comes right over, and takes the album back to the hotel to play it for Basie. When it was over, Basie said, “Sounds pretty good!” That’s all he would say. Apparently John Hammond, to whom Basie remained very loyal, didn’t like the idea of violin in the band, and while no one will question the wisdom of recruiting Freddie Green, the change put Williams in the wilderness for a long time, though he was a good swinging player.

I love Stuff Smith. With the possible exception of Joe Venuti, he was probably the most famous jazz violinist during the first fifty years of jazz. He made so many great recordings during the thirties and forties, and, again, talk about being underrated, those spectacular sessions in the fifties with Dizzy Gillespie and all kinds of Norman Granz groups — which Mosaic has collected — are great fun. When he went to Europe, other than a violin summit he participated in, he didn’t seem to record very much and people forgot about him.

A violinist I came to love, largely because of his friend John Lewis, a huge fan, is Svend Asmussen. He has a gorgeous conservatory tone but filled with ideas — a hot, swinging player. Scandinavia’s produced some really extraordinary jazz musicians, and he is one of them. Asmussen made a wonderful album with John in the early sixties called European Encounter, well worth searching for. Another violinist John introduced me to and recorded with is Joe Kennedy, who has as lovely a tone as any jazz violinist ever. When we did Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige with the American Jazz Orchestra, Joe came in from Washington DC, I think, to play the Ray Nance part. Tremendous musician, yet he’s not even listed in Grove. When Jean Luc-Ponty first came on the scene, he promised to be the Stuff Smith of the sixties or “Coltrane on the violin,” but he got into that fusion thing and I lost interest in his work. Michael Urbaniak, similarly, attracted much attention a few years later, but I think Ponty is as close to a violin star that the modern jazz era produced.

JJM  I fell in love with jazz around the music of many musicians, one of them being Stephane Grappelli.

GG  My feeling about Grappelli is that, like Oscar Peterson, he over-recorded. I find his music at times to be glib and pleasantly head-bouncing, and at other times when he is working with great musicians, he has it all — a lovely tone, swings like mad, great fun to listen to.

But I mentioned Nance, who is best known for his cornet playing with Duke and lacks the technical skill of some of the other violinists we’ve mentioned, yet remains one of my favorites on the instrument. Ellington loved the way Nance played violin, and would write pieces featuring it. A highlight for me, though, is the live record he did in 1967 that featured Dizzy Gillespie, Pepper Adams and others at a Village Gate jam session. It was released on Solid State, which I think is now owned by EMI, so Blue Note ought to dig it up. One track is a long, maybe fifteen-minute, reading of “Lover Come Back to Me,” featuring Nance at his romantic best. On another occasion he played with Duke Jordan, the great bebop pianist who had worked with Charlie Parker. They were working a Turkish restaurant on the West Side in the seventies, and the owner of the place liked to play electric bass with them — that was the group, Jordan on piano, Nance on violin and cornet, also singing and high-stepping, and the restaurant owner on amateur bass. I used to go there a lot — one of the great weird New York gigs of that period. Ray was a devoted entertainer, and damn, he could swing! When you listen to a guy like Nance or Stuff Smith or even Ponty, you can’t help but wonder why more young people who go into jazz aren’t more inspired to take up the violin. Everybody wants to be a trumpet player or saxophone player.

JJM  Regina Carter is certainly an important contemporary violinist.

GG  The hot violinist of the day, no question. When she first came along, I didn’t know what to make of her because she was playing commercial music and didn’t sound particularly imposing. Once she began working with the guitarist Rodney Jones, she started playing more straight-ahead jazz, and very effectively. The last few times I saw her she really knocked me out — great tone, great time, and at times shrewd wit. People used to complain that she didn’t know the changes, that she was merely playing on scales, but that’s not true. Regina could probably play anything she wants. She is a very serious musician who seems to be growing, Unfortunately, I thought that last album she did with the symphonic adaptations was a gimmick. It didn’t work for me. It was interesting to hear her but if you want to hear her kicking ass, listen to the duets she recorded with Kenny Barron. She absolutely holds her own with one of the most accomplished musicians of the last forty years.

JJM  What about those who play the violin as an avant-garde instrument?

GG  Ah, yes. Well, Leroy Jenkins was the main guy there, and I really liked his playing with the Revolutionary Ensemble. I covered them frequently. And he made a record for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association called For Players Only. I haven’t listened to that record in a while, but I used to love it. It was a truly all-star avant-garde orchestra. Everybody on it was a distinguished player, and it ends with an episode that has them all improvise whatever they wanted for twenty or thirty seconds. One after another, they all play, and it is amazingly effective. I used to play that part on the radio — just that excerpt — and Leroy told me that at first he was upset about my excerpting the piece, but after he heard it, he agreed how effective that sequence is. Leroy is well studied, and he knows a lot of interesting techniques — like the col legno style of bouncing the bow off the strings. I’ve never heard him play in conventional jazz mode, but he doesn’t need to — his solo on the Revolutionary Ensemble recording of “Ponderous Planets” is a good example of how much feeling and originality he brought to his music in the halcyon days of the loft era.

JJM  How about Ornette Coleman’s playing of the violin?

GG  I love it. People gave him such a hard time when he would come out on stage with the violin or the trumpet, but he played those instruments much in the way he plays alto — it’s all part of the Ornette sound montage. He doesn’t overdo it, and it provides an extra color. I also admire his writing for string ensembles, especially the great Skies Of America.

Another guy I like is Billy Bang. His pitch is not as great as some other violinists, and people have given him a hard time for his intonation, but he swings and has great honesty and authority. I especially like the duets he recorded with D.D. Jackson, which brought out his best, and the Vietnam record he did recently is a kind of personal benchmark. He plays from the gut and, for me, that counts as much as centered pitch.

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Gary Giddins products at Amazon.com

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This conversation took place on April 30, 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 comments on “Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Underrated Jazz Musicians, Part Two”

  1. Wow, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Part 1 of Gary’s interview, and just now read Part 2. Gary’s thorough and deep knowledge of jazz is astounding. I have always enjoyed his writing, including his liner notes. Gary and I seem to share the same taste. He goes for some of the swing and early 1940’s musicians more than I do. My record collection seems to have so many of artists and albums he speaks of here in these interviews. Names like Booker Little, Booker Ervin, Clifford Jordan, Nick Brignola bring me joy.
    If you want to expand your enjoyment of jazz,read the thoughts shared by Gary, and go out and listen to these recordings. They are the best of jazz!

  2. Great to read GG’s thoughts and think of so many records I haven’t heard in years and now want to hear again.

    For violin, I’ll put in a word for Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Session, with Svend Asmussen (viola), Stephane Grappelli, and Ray Nance.

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