Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Lee Konitz (w/Miles Davis), Hi-Beck.
Miles Davis, Down.

Here we find Davis at his most protean, tinkering with cool jazz in the studio, establishing the rules of hard bop on the stage.

Lee Konitz's "Hi-Beck" is pure distilled cool, beginning with an airy musing by Konitz on alto sax. When Davis finally enters (1:50 in), his 32-bar solo is rarefied, light and sparkling. The whole performance is a quiet essay in perfection, a Debussy etude retrofitted for the jet age.

Konitz, born in 1927, was one of the few saxophone players who came of age in the 1940s who did not slavishly attempt to imitate Charlie Parker. Rather, Konitz took his cues from Lester Young and Benny Carter, and his compositions were greatly influenced by his mentor, the blind pianist Lennie Tristano.

Konitz, who had been part of the Davis Nonet and contributed to the "Birth of the Cool" sessions, reunited with Davis for a four-side recording session, one of the few times Davis ever recorded as a sideman, and the only time he did so for the Prestige label.

Yet as brilliant as Davis is on "Hi-Beck", his eyes were looking elsewhere. Three months later, Davis would be on the stage at Birdland with a dizzy collection of young players desperate to establish themselves, and the music they created was loud, unrelenting and confident.

"Down", a Davis composition, is fierce from the start, driven by Art Blakey's aggressive drumming. Davis' opening solo is nothing like his restrained contribution to "Hi-Beck"--after a slow start, Davis grows in speed, complexity and intensity until he seems to be sparring with the band, trying to throw off Blakey's tempo. After Davis comes the 20-year old Sonny Rollins, the great bop trombonist J.J. Johnson, and pianist Kenny Drew, who cools it down a bit.

"Hi-Beck" was recorded in New York on March 8, 1951, with Sal Mosca (p), Billy Bauer (g), Arnold Fishkin (b) and Max Roach (d). Available on Palo Alto, a nice collection of Konitz's 1949-1953 recordings.

"Down" is from a June 2, 1951 Birdland concert best found on the just-issued Complete Birdland Recordings, from Definitive Records.

Friday, May 27, 2005


soft drinks all around

Johnny Bond, Sick, Sober and Sorry.
Martha Carson, Satisfied.

Johnny Bond's waltzing with sin, and while in the bleary hangover-cursed morning he seems a bit regretful, he's likely going to do it all over again tonight. Hopefully he'll miss the cops this time.

Bond, who came from Oklahoma, started out as part of Gene Autry's organization, working on Western films and co-starring on Autry's radio shows. Though songs like "Sick Sober" were country hits, Bond was known more as a songwriter, penning standards like "Cimarron" and "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight." He died in 1978.

"Sick, Sober and Sorry" was recorded in Hollywood on March 13, 1951, with Tex Atchison (fiddle), Jimmy Bryant (lead gtr), Speedy West (steel), Paul Sells (p), Bert Dodson (b), and Eddie Forrest (d). Released as Columbia 20808, and hit #7. It's on Legends of Honky Tonk.

Martha Carson
was reeling from a bitter divorce from James Carson Roberts, her former musical partner, when, driving to a gig with Bill Carlisle one day, the thought came to her that if she was satisfied with herself, God ought to be satisfied with her. She took one of Carlisle's blank checks and wrote out the lyrics on the back.

Carson, who died last December, was the Rockin' Queen of Happy Spirituals, touring with Elvis Presley when he was still an unknown, and teaching him a few things about stage presence.

"Satisfied," an exuberant mix of black gospel and white country spiritual, was a smash. Recorded on November 5, 1951, in Nashville, with Chet Atkins on lead guitar, Martha Carson on rhythm, Ernie Newton (b), Marvin Hughes (p) and the likes of Carlisle, Sally Holmes and Jean Chapel on vocals. It's on a host of cut-rate gospel compilations, like this one.

Happy weekend.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


A brighter cleaner world

Thelonious Monk, Criss Cross.

"Compositions like Criss Cross...are pure, un-cluttered musical emanations," Gunther Schuller wrote in 1958. "It is not a "song", a term so many jazz musicians apply to all the music they work with, it is not a "tune"--it is a composition for instruments."

Schuller makes "Criss Cross" sound like a knotty, cerebral chore, but it's really a brilliantly constructed chutes-and-ladders game, in which Monk conscripts rhythm to work as melody. So many twists: Monk, in his four-bar intro, offers a rising melodic pattern that is answered later by a downward slide; the strange six-bar bridge (first appearance at 0:25), that forces the players to jump each time it ends; the way Monk, in his later solo, starts assembling the pieces of the original theme before the band resumes it.

The first solo goes to vibraphonist Milt Jackson (who received co-billing on some early releases). Jackson, who would soon co-found the Modern Jazz Quartet, was Lionel Hampton's only rival on the vibes--a wonderfully subtle, moody player. After him, Sahib Shihab offers a nice, conventional (only in comparison to Monk's brilliant oddities) meditation on alto sax. Al McKibbon's jaunty bass and Art Blakey's drumming make it all swing.

Recorded on July 23, 1951, in WOR Studios, New York. On The Genius of Modern Music, Volume Two.

Criss-Cross on paper.

The cold dawn of the glass houses. Top image: lobby of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago, completed in 1951. The reign of the steel-and-glass boxes, now blighting cities worldwide, begins here.

Monday, May 23, 2005


L.B. Lawson and James Scott Jr., Can't Love Me and My Money Too.
L.B. Lawson and James Scott Jr., Scott's Boogie.
L.B. Lawson and James Scott Jr., Flypaper Boogie.

"To me, a lot of the early stuff that I recorded--the Blues--could be classified as masterpieces. With the jet age coming on, with cottonpicker machines as big as a building going down the road...I knew that this music wasn't going to be available in the pure sense forever," Sam Phillips, 1984.

In January 1950, a 27 year-old disc jockey and amateur recording engineer named Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service, on 706 Union Avenue. His plan was to record local blues and country artists and to sell the sides to independent labels, and he soon established relationships with the Los Angeles-based Bihari brothers, who owned Modern Records and RPM, and Chicago's Chess brothers, who were gearing up their self-named label.

Phillips was convinced that rawer-sounding country and blues (which at mid-century were still sold primarily to rural white and black markets, respectively) could reach a wider audience. It would take him four years until he found his passport in the form of a young man who, at the time Phillips began recording, was idling his hours away at Humes High School. But in his search, Phillips recorded many blues players at the peak of their powers, and began documenting on acetates the gestation process of rock and roll.

Phillips soon gained a reputation with blues artists as someone who treated them fairly, with respect, and who made no attempt to sweeten their sound. "I tried to get them to record what they had, and to bring out of them what they were," he would tell Martin Hawkins decades later. "This is difficult for me to explain, but I felt it so strongly it was almost a religious belief."

At some point in 1951, a group of local musicians known as the Scott Jr. Blues Rockers went into 706 Union and recorded four sides that stayed in the Sun vaults for 35 years. These records, which apparently even Phillips thought were too raw for release, are a lost founding document of rock & roll: it's the sound of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, but two decades earlier--basement music; Satanic juke joint blues filled with insistent rhythms. Music as an accidental conspiracy--the two guitars, James Scott's lead and Charles McLellan's rhythm, scrap and tear at each other, Robert Fox's drums thrash along behind them.

"Can't Love Me" is a standard blues overturned by its performers. Scott's vicious lead guitar kicks it off, and then L.B. Lawson reels into the first verse, sounding a bit drunk, giving way in turn to a boogie break in which McLellan fuels the rhythm, as the drummer is shuffling around by himself in the corner. Lawson stumbles back in. "Tell me babe, what's a matter with you last night?" he slurs at his woman. "We had to hurry home 'cos you know we got to fight." And the guitars spar off.

"Flypaper Boogie" and "Scott's Boogie" are even more astonishing. In "Scott's Boogie," Scott is spiralling around until he catches the rhythm McLellan is brewing. About forty seconds in, the guitarists seem to have completely dispensed with the drums, which are again just murmuring in the background; McLellan drives the beat and Scott dances on it. "Flypaper Boogie" goes deep into a primal blues state, where Scott strings out brutal, simple lead lines while McLellan hovers on the beat until he starts coming after Scott in a locomotive attack. Both tracks end quickly and sloppily, with a clatter, as if the players suddenly have lost interest.

Who were these men? Lawson is a historical cipher, about whom almost nothing is known, not even what his initials stood for. One site lists him as being born in 1929, relying on unknown sources; he possibly came from Enid, Mississippi. The fourth track the group recorded at Sun (much inferior to the others) was "Got My Call Card," which suggests Lawson, if he wrote the lyrics, was about to be drafted into the Korean War. He never recorded again, to the best of my knowledge, and is apparently dead.

The record is a bit clearer on Scott. Born in Adabina, Mississippi in 1913 (or 1923), and an alleged classmate of John Lee Hooker, Scott formed the Blues Rockers in 1948. After the Lawson session, Scott appears to have worked as a journeyman blues guitarist throughout the 1950s and 1960s, backing Boyd Gilmore, among others. He died in 1983.

Most of these tracks cannot be purchased at present (though "Flypaper Boogie" is available on this compilation), so consider this post a public incentive--someone really needs to put the Lawson/Scott sides out, and do more investigative work than this paltry effort. The tracks were first released on the colossal Sun Records: The Blues Years, a 9-LP box set issued in 1986. A decade later, the UK's Charly Records updated the set to CD, including more unreleased tracks--thus making the set even more invaluable, and naturally it soon went out of print. Much of this post's information is derived from the Charly set's booklet, written by Martin Hawkins, Colin Escott, Neil Slaven and Roger Dopson.

Friday, May 20, 2005


"been so long, the carpet has faded on the floor"

Sonny Boy Williamson (II), Mighty Long Time.

In which we present the triumph of guile and age over wasted youth.

Imagine if an older rock musician, someone born in the '50s and who has been playing for decades, began recording under the name Kurt Cobain, releasing albums that, in time, people would confuse with those of the original Kurt Cobain, and that ultimately would dwarf the original Cobain's records in terms of influence.

It happened in the blues. Aleck "Rice" Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II, was born in 1899, fifteen years before John Lee Williamson, the original Sonny Boy Williamson, whose name Miller would appropriate. It's unclear when Miller started using the "Sonny Boy" name, but the first Williamson's murder in 1948 cleared the way for Miller's assumption. (You could call it a blues papal name.)

Miller had been an itinerant musician in the South throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and gained regional attention by playing harp and singing on "King Biscuit Time," a radio program based out of Helena, Arkansas. Levon Helm, recounting his youth: "If it was a Saturday afternoon, everybody knew that I was downtown with the good people of Marvell, Arkansas watching Sonny Boy and his King Biscuit Entertainers performing outdoors on a makeshift stage."

In 1951, Sonny Boy Williamson II began recording for Trumpet, an independent label started up by Lillian McMurry. "Mighty Long Time", the highlight of these early sessions, features an eerie repeating vocal bass figure (by Cliff Givens) supporting a duel between Williamson's astonishing harp playing and his voice.

Released as Trumpet 166, b/w "Nine Below Zero," in April 1951. All of Williamson's great Trumpet sides are collected on Arhoolie's King Biscuit Time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Audrey H. meets the world

Billie Holiday, Detour Ahead.

"Detour Ahead" is one of Holiday's overlooked masterpieces, in part because it is a weird footnote in her career--it was one of four tracks she recorded for the Aladdin label (which mainly issued R&B records), with backing by Tiny Grimes' Sextet, which were rarely anthologized.

Holiday's singing on "Detour" is nonpareil, as she takes the at-times goofy driving metaphors of the lyric and infuses them with slow grace, melancholy and experience. "The further you travel, the harder to unravel," she sings, with the sound of someone already deeply snared in the web.

"Detour" was written by the "Soft Winds" jazz trio of violinist Johnny Frigo, guitarist Herb Ellis and pianist Lou Carter. Holiday recorded it on April 29, 1951 in New York, and it was released as Aladdin 3094 as the B-side of "Be Fair to Me." (The other two Aladdin sides were "Rocky Mountain Blues" and "Blue Turning Grey Over You.") With Grimes on guitar, Heywood Henry (baritone sax) and Bobby Tucker (p). You can find it on the hodgepodge Billie's Blues or the more extensive Ultimate Collection.

Monday, May 16, 2005


"it's a solid beat"

Hank Garland, E String Rag.

The study of a guitar god cut short in his prime. You might be familiar with Hank Garland's session work in the 1950s, as he played lead on Elvis Presley's "Little Sister" and "(Now and Then There's) a Fool Such As I," the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" and Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces," among a host of other hits. And with Bill Byrd, Garland co-designed the Byrdland guitar in 1955.

But Garland once had ambitions as a solo artist. Born in 1930 in Cowpens, South Carolina, Garland was playing professionally by age 15, first with Paul Howard, a Bob Wills disciple, and then Cowboy Copas. In 1949, Garland signed with Decca and had a quick hit with "Sugarfoot Rag". But due to a host of bad production decisions (i.e., downplaying Garland's hot guitar stylings in favor of rote imitations of Floyd Tillman and Hank Snow songs), most of Garland's records didn't move.

At his best, though, Garland was one of the last broad synthesists in American popular music--the greatest influences on his playing were Maybelle Carter, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith and Django Reinhardt, and he was equally comfortable with and adept at playing pop, country, rock & roll and jazz, when the latter music in particular was severing itself from the pop mainstream. (Garland recorded with a jazz trio on 1960's Jazz Winds from a New Direction.)

"E String Rag" is from Garland's last Decca session. It features his fleet, twanging solos (especially the four-bar one around 2:00--a waggling, vaulting dance of notes), and a sort of proto-"Dance to the Music" bit in which drummer Farris Coursey, bassist Ernest Newton and pianist Owen Bradley all get a little space to introduce themselves.

Recorded on August 31, 1951, at Castle Studio in Nashville, and released as Decca 46382. w/ Jack Shook and Harold Ray Bradley on rhythm guitar and Tommy Jackson on fiddle.

In 1961, Garland was nearly killed in Tennessee when he was thrown from his station wagon when it overturned; after recovering from a coma, Garland discovered that his coordination had been so impaired that he could no longer play the guitar. After enduring a tough few decades, Hank Garland died last December.

You can find "E String Rag" on Hank Garland & His Sugar Footers, a nice compilation of his Decca sides on Bear Family Records. Please visit the Garland family's website.

More on the low 'E' string, and a primer on guitar physics.

top painting: Mark Rothko, Number 12, Untitled (Orange & Red).