Ethan Iverson's Do the Math (DTM) is the one mainly-music blog that I read every word of. His work as composer and pianist with The Bad Plus, with Billy Hart in the Billy Hart Quartet, and elsewhere, should not be missed. At DTM, he's given us a transcription (in concert key) of a fabulous Lester Young solo on Tea for Two, from the Savory Collection, a set of over 1000 recordings, privately made by Bill Savory on 78 rpm discs, of radio performances by great jazz musicians during the years 1935-1940. The collection was acquired in 2010 by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. The museum is looking into possibilities for publicly releasing the recordings...for now, note that you can listen to them if you visit the museum.
I've transposed to B flat (and slightly edited, based on the sound file linked below) Iverson's transcription, for the benefit of those tenor players who, like myself, don't yet routinely read stuff like this in concert key; you can get the transposed version here, and it's also displayed at the end of this post.
Iverson calls the solo "utterly brilliant"; and I concur. For those not heavily into jazz, I'll just say that to me the aesthetic and cultural significance of this is comparable to finding the manuscript of a previously unknown Mozart piano concerto...of the caliber of K488 in A, K491 in Cm, or K503 in C.
About the performance the Times writers say "Top honors go to Young’s long, free-flowing solo, which is capped by a second chorus that Mr. Schoenberg calls “a wild, spontaneous moment of abandon.” " (Mr. Schoenberg is Lauren Schoenberg, director of the Museum.) To me, at least, it seems that the "wild, spontaneous moment of abandon" gives a primary emotional impression of relaxed, unselfconscious joy, a feeling perhaps somewhat rare in later jazz, though characteristic, if perhaps to a less intense degree, of much of Young's greatest work, especially of this period (the late 30s). Intense striving or yearning, intense sensuality especially of a kind remniscent of eroticism, while they are valuable aspects of many great jazz performances, are mostly absent here; this is not wild abandon in the sense of holy rollin', freejazz freakout or R&B barwalking, but rather in the sense of a spontaneous breaking out into a dance of joy. This in part reflects Lester's style of the time, which emphasized grace and poise, relaxation and a degree of restraint even in episodes of blues honking. (It's not an accident that I chose Mozart in the classical comparison above.) But I think it also reflects the emotional tenor of Tea for Two itself, which despite being a popular hit at the height of the so-called Jazz Age seems almost nineteenth century in its description of a parlor romance over tea and its joyfully anticipated consummation in marriage and children. Louis Armstrong might be the closest parallel for this kind of uncomplicated joy in early jazz, although Armstrong's joy was often tinged with a bit more explicit triumphalism, his blues with just a tad more raunchiness. But there are definite reminders of Armstrong, or perhaps other trumpet influences (Lester, like Armstrong, loved the playing of Bix Beiderbecke), especially in the ripping measure 41-42 reference to the main Tea for Two theme, the measure 35-36 eighth notes jumping up and down a fourth, before peeling off into a classic Lesterian extended line dropping via turns into descending arpeggios that bounce right back up again, and in the measure 49-51 quarter notes, which come off as an inspiration of the moment (this must be part of what Schoenberg meant by "wild abandon"), and which are a striking contrast to the running-eighth note lines abundant in Young's playing.
Speaking of dancing, the rhythm section, in which guitar rather than piano is the primary audible chorded instrument, lays down a rather implacable but solidly swinging chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk of a 4/4 beat, and Lester dances fleetly in and around it, sometimes, especially when referencing the melody of Tea for Two or emphasizing the somewhat heavy-handed half-measure harmonic rhythm of the main strain, almost implying a feeling of 2/4 but always remaining lightfooted. Besides working on playing this solo, I've been analyzing its harmonic implications a bit, but won't discuss that until I've investigated the harmony being played behind Lester beyond merely comparing it with some charts found around the web.
Here's my B flat transposition of Iverson's transcription, done with Iverson's permission but not with his supervision or imprimatur. I have also edited the second chorus a bit based on what I hear in the sound file from Savory linked at the New York Times site above. Iverson noted that his transcription contains "a couple of tiny wrong notes"; I found almost none in going over the second chorus. The main differences I've noted with Iverson's version are the shake in measure 38, and the fact that I've written out the gliss or rip in measure 41...although the exact notes I've written there should be taken with a grain of salt. (I thought that the parallel with the similar upward jump on the first beat of measure 42, but with a slightly different rhythmic feel compared to the triplet of measure 42 was worth making explicit.) The few places I've put in slurs are more to indicate that those passages are executed almost like a rip or glissando, not that nothing else is slurred.
Reid Anderson bass/synths/electronics
Ethan Iverson piano
David King drums
The Bad Plus' newly released CD, "Made Possible" (see the end of this review or this link for a video preview of it) is hard to categorize, but the important thing is that it's innovative, interesting to listen to, often beautiful and inspired music. They're typically characterized as a jazz trio, and that's what you'll find in the metadata on an mp3 and where you'll find their stuff filed in CD store bins. The instrumentation is the classic trio of piano, acoustic bass, and drums. Not only is this kind of piano trio a standard jazz configuration, but it is usually present as the rhythm section in larger jazz groups. So that is one reason to think of the music in jazz terms. Here, a bit of electronics and electronic keyboard is mixed in on occasion. But the overall musical language is wide-ranging, touching not only on a wide range of jazz styles but also on aspects of classical music and rock, and even stuff that might be considered New Age or generic mellow. To my ear there are definite echoes of the Windham Hill Records sound, and although I've never been an avid follower of that sound, I emphatically do not mean that as a criticism.
Classical: you may hear something of Glassy minimalism in Anderson's "Seven Minute Mind" or King's "Wolf Out", impressionistic or even Bartokian harmony in Iverson's lovely "Sing for a Silver Dollar", which melds it with some classic jazz gestures, as well as avant-gardisms that almost form a continuum with the further-out reaches of jazz, as in the out-of-tempo interlude beginning around 2'25 in "Silver Dollar", or some of the piano in "Wolf Out": the block chords following 3'28, morphing into medusa-like writhing lines worthy of (but more organic than) a Conlon Nancarrow player piano piece, at 4'14 and again, in a nice touch, to end the piece.
Rock: Dave King's drumming on this CD also draws not only on jazz but on influences that are fairly nonstandard for jazz of either the straight-ahead or avant-garde persuasion, though probably more apparent in jazz fusion. Quite a few of the beats he sets up have a definite rock flavor, like the one he keeps going under the lyrical theme (this one of the places on the CD where there are shades of Windham Hill, and also, one of the places of great beauty) of Anderson's "Pound for Pound", which kicks off the record. Something similar, both with the drumbeat and the shades of Windham Hill in the piano is going on in the opening of King's "For my eyes only", which also has hints of some kind of prairie church-choirish Americana thing, a bit of bluesiness, and even Satie.
There is not all that much ride-cymbal ching-cha-ching going on on this CD, and plenty of backbeat and thwacky snare reminiscent of Stax/Volt soul or Led Zeppelin, even if it's sometimes done at a much slower tempo and in support of music in a very different mood. But King mixes this kind of thing up with episodes of very interactive and inventive dialogue with the piano and bass. "Silver Dollar" is a good example, in which the opening beat, which returns periodically through the piece, is a slowed-down version of a classic rock beat in which the kickdrum and snare take alternate---if you jammed with a drummer in somebody's garage in high school, you've probably heard a close relative of this beat---and then the second subject features free commentary using all elements of the drumset. King's playing is an important part of the musical mix throughout, far from simple timekeeping. Take time to focus on it occasionally during your listening.
The pianism is also surprisingly far from your more conventional jazz outing, which might spin out a lot of long lines, hopefully, but not always, at a high level of inspiration, or pile on a lot of highly colored chords voiced in a variety of ways, again to variable effect. Compared to a typical jazz record of whatever subgenre, a much larger fraction of the music on this CD sounds relatively thoroughly composed, even if not explicitly written out; or if not composed in full detail, relatively carefully planned, with detail filled in spontaneously in performance. I don't know if that's how it was actually done; the point is that it comes out as carefully and effectively constructed, and relatively low on extended solo effusions. There is perhaps slightly too much ostinato on this CD for my taste, but I have to admit that it's very effectively used. And in the parts that seem repetitive, just listen to the details of what's going on over the ostinato... they are usually not static, they evolve, and add quite a bit of musical interest.
I've touched on some of the particular bits I've enjoyed, but let me just mention a few other highlights. After the relatively reiterative and not so jazzy (these are not criticisms!) opening pair of pieces by Anderson, Iverson's "Re-elect that" puts us squarely in contemporary somewhat-avant-garde jazzish territory with limpid jets of piano notes from Iverson over agile brushwork from King. Then over a more propulsive but still quite flexible beat from Anderson and King, Iverson solos playfully, toying with stock pentatonicisms and turning them on their sides, throwing in a bit of uncategorizable avant-classical stuff, then shading things toward more beboppish or chromatic lines, hints of Bach, a contrapuntal episode, and tying things up gracefully by alternating a couple of closely voiced, high chords. This may be the only thing on the CD you could really begin to categorize as a classic jazz piano solo, and it's a gem. There are plenty of other places where Iverson's inspired pianism is in evidence, but in a less traditionally linear manner. For example, the opening chords of "Silver Dollar" ... kind of dark-sounding voicings, in an unusual but compelling progression (or maybe it's the voice-leading that gives an unusual sound). Around 0'36, the darkish harmonic elements continue as what would otherwise be more conventional-sounding (in a jazz context) melodic gestures are unfurled, subtly transfigured by the harmony. Inspired indeed, but not in an in-your-face virtuosic or emotive way. The record's most extended piano passage starts around 5 minutes into the lengthy "In Stitches" ... a long ruminatively lyrical stretch, slowly building momentum (propelled by incredible, restrained high-hat and rimshot work from King that you may not even notice at first, but which is crucial) which I suspect contains much improvisation from Iverson, then fixating on an ascending line that is almost a bebop cliché, which Iverson worries, transposes, develops, extends, fragments, but in a way that is not like a typical jazz solo but more cyclical, more textural, though still building constantly in complexity and intensity, largely by adding voices and harmonic depth and rhythmic complexity as well as by the old device of modulating or moving gradually upward on the keyboard. It's your call whether the final buildup of this ends up being too grandstandy or not... I think it's fantastic. This whole passage is major music-making. And then listen to the discreet groove the rhythm section sets up to move on from this peak to finish the piece, the quiet as that groove dies down for a lyrical slow piano statement again, and then --- unexpectedly, and totally effectively --- the almost samba beat it sets up under that lyricism as the piano slowly subsides and the bass takes it out, and you're hearing just one example of why this is a great ensemble, much more than just three excellent players.
Despite what I've described as eclecticism, the record doesn't sound like a patchwork; these guys weave the elements they draw on into a language of their own that has its unity; there is plenty of variety within and between the pieces, but it's not scattershot, it's musically compelling.
I strongly recommend this CD; the musical approach is quite fresh, the musical content varied and often fascinating. The overall mood is relatively reflective and calm, with little or nothing in the way of heavy minor-key emotivism or in-your-face spirituality, but plenty of lyrical beauty, fascinating detail, and sincere but relatively calm feeling, along with some more intense passages. Despite the eclecticism, the pieces are well-structured, not rambling. I might have liked to hear a few more episodes of extended improvisation...but I suspect that if you want that too, you might get it at one of their gigs, so check out their schedule (they are in Europe for the next two weeks as of this post, and there will be plenty of opportunity to hear them in the US in December and on into next year). A very successful bout of music-making and a very enjoyable listen. Although it's hard to predict what a piece of music will end up meaning to one over the long run, I suspect that I will keep coming back to this CD over the years.
Raw listening notes follow, but first, the official video preview of Made Possible; it kicks off with an excerpt from Seven Minute Mind, then a bit of Pound for Pound, and so on. You can already find many tracks from this on Youtube, but I'm not linking them without checking with the band first. The official preview might be considered kind of corny, but that doesn't bother me. Plus I love the neologism/solecism "on a guttural level".
I recommend that you now just buy the CD and listen to the whole thing
to find your own high points, but for those who want a guide to some
other things they might find particularly interesting, I'm pasting in
as an appendix to this review some pretty raw listening notes, written
during a listen-through on a cross-country plane flight and re-edited
on another listen-through at home.
1- Pound for Pound (Anderson)
drums as often on the record have something of a rock beat
Almost Windham Hill kind of lyrical sound. Nice. Fairly repetitive.
Some variation of voicing, decoration etc...
almost unnoticeable synths but they're there (noticed on 3rd or 4th
Record overall has a lot of theme, not that much improv
2- Seven Minute Mind (Anderson) Minimalism, scales and ostinato, excellent,
maybe goes on a bit long.
3- Re-elect That (Iverson) After the two ostinato-ey, mellow pieces,
it's easy to imagine that this one is self-consciously reestablishing
some contemporary avant-ish jazz cred. (Of course the main point of
everything on the record is musical, not anything to do with
establishing cred; this is just an incidental impression.) Iverson's
solo is a gem. It starts by referencing modal/pentatonic cliches,
then turning them inside out. Then it brings in bop, chromatic
post-bop, developing playfully but logically. Then we get a nice bass
solo, then a drum solo (brushes). I.e., the standard jazz routine.
But the overall impression is anything but standard jazz. And then...
the last section is kind of a electronic/synthy version of some kind
of tweaked view of say 19th century band music amalgamated with an
off-kilter chorale. Given the title one imagines it might be aurally
alluding to some kind of 19th century electioneering event with
music... Musically I dig what came before this much more, but have to
admit that this coda does work with the rest of the piece, in an
Ivesian kind of way...
I interpret the title of this piece in the light of Iverson's blog
post urging jazz musicians to vote for Obama...
4 Wolf Out...
Ostinato again, over a funkier bass line at first, static for a little
while but then starts modulating... and still later moves to more
chromatic stuff... Iverson with chromatic lines and chromatic
block-chords bits, enjoyable but not as deep or distinctive as some of
the stuff on the previous cut... Nice theme... interesting chord
movement over the ostinato... important to listen for detail... B
section (?) ... descending piano line, kind of ominous in itself and
with each descent capped by somewhat ominous-sounding chords... then
the A theme starts getting mixed in ... continued development with
3'10 nice figure in the piano, q ... written or improv? 3'30 here is
the chromatic line in (clustery?) block chords I mentioned. quiets (C
section tho related?) ... & one hears electronics in background.
Nice. Then gets busier again. 4'17 or so main theme again but with
writhing high register piano lines over it, excellent. More of an
overall sound than line that can be followed. "Medusa-like". Then
more straight ostinato, straight repetition, drums eventually join in
with a major beat.... a short bit of Medusa piano is added to the mix
and that's it. Nice one.
5-- Sing for a Silver Dollar (Iverson).... spare post-bop (?) jazz
balladry meets Debussy kinda... nice. Superb, in fact. Right from
the top, a very distinctive, I've-heard-this-someplace-before drumbeat
is from, nice relentless trashy (? but w/ a fair bit of sustain)
cymbal beat... Jack de Johnette-ish? Really a superb track. Kind of
a couple of jazz ballad gestures, but done almost in classical style.
Segue into an electronic section. Nice kind of atonal thing in this
section; prepared and straight piano kinds of sounds, and bass,
blending with the electronics. Not sure about the jackhammer
drum-machine bit, though the bell-like accompaniment to it is fine.
Back to theme w/ "the beat" again. Nice last note from the bass...
6 For My Eyes Only (King) .... again a kind of autumnal midwestern
kind of sound, very nice, between classical and Windham Hill
again... Yeah! nice blues touch ... which echoed lower somehow gives
it a tinge of oh I don't know, cowboy soul maybe... Excellent
composition. Windham Hill meets Satie? So far quite arranged. New
section... piano arpeggios mostly triadic .... with bass tremolo and
windchimes.... nice interlude. 3'40 ... related to main theme but
still a different episode. Or just in a different key, I think that's
it. (Yup, the bluesy bits again just as before but transposed
(?)....) Maybe goes on just a bit long... 4'48 ish nice bass work
under it all! good stuff.
7 I Want to Feel Good pt 2 (King) ... I like this one too. A bit
singsongybackground, slightly off-kilter melodies.
8 In Stitches (Anderson) ... quite a long piece (14--15' or so?!)
starts a bit slow and avant-garde sparse noodly... quite moody
... nice.... around two minutes starts moving a bit more, still quite
pensive... 2'30 more crystalline... almost classical
figures.... digging the drumming... 6' picking it up on mellow
rippling chords from Iverson, nice...possibly a bit slow to
develop.... but really gets into its groove just over 1/2 way through
(about 7'26) with a beboppy figure that's varied and becomes the basis
for fantastic elaboration by Iverson, steadily increasing in
intensity. Still quite a bit of repetition with textural development
rather than linear improvisation. 11'18 texture thins out. Theme
again, at some point. Then at 13' almost a samba beat, but still the
theme .... then the piano drifs on into silence, as bass and drums
soldier on. Standout piece.
9 Victoria (Paul Motian) Starts as almost a bit of baroque
voice-leading. Continuing fairly classical in mood. Nice. Again not
a lot of improv.
For readers, if any, in New York City today, definitely check out jazz trio The Bad Plus playing their arrangement, "On Sacred Ground", of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. It's free and outdoors at Lincoln Center at 8:30 PM. The Brandt Brandauer Frick ensemble, with which I am not familar, opens at 7:30.