quinta-feira, dezembro 22, 2005
Jazz Gem Made in '57 Is a Favorite of 2005 (by Ben Ratliff for The New York Times)
My favorite jazz record released this year, and one of my favorites of any year, was made in 1957. I first heard "Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall" (Blue Note) at the Library of Congress in April, after the news of its discovery had been made public. It sounded pretty good then, but you can never really tell when hearing something over a high-quality sound system in front of interested parties. I have listened to it repeatedly since, and it seems to be much better than I first thought - solid, juicy, truly great.
Another of the year's new jazz records - John Coltrane's "One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note" (Impulse) - was made in 1965. It disqualifies itself from consideration for my list of the year's best jazz albums only because it has been heard, in bits and pieces, on illegal tapes for 40 years. (I got mine from a great saxophonist who wanted to spread the word.) But it is also, I think, a masterpiece.
There's a reason why these records stand out as the year's best, and I get the sense that many people feel they know that reason.
They believe, or have heard, that jazz crinkled up and collapsed after Coltrane. That the musicians have defaulted on audiences, going deep into their own heads instead. That there's been no successor, because Coltrane broke the mold, threw away the key, set the bar too high, stretched the envelope as far as it would go, established a holding pattern, and other truth-obscuring clichés.
It would simplify things, but no. In fact, I don't think the reason has much to do with Coltrane per se - other than the obvious fact that he made superior music. (He did create a few stock models in jazz that persisted for an impressively long period after his death, but that's a different matter.)
These are among the year's great albums because they are high-quality proofs of one of jazz's basic properties: the possibility for transcendence on the gig, for a great band to be even better. This is true in any kind of music, but it is much more true in jazz.
There are a lot of great jazz musicians in New York, and in the world. But the number of great and economically sustainable bands has declined, along with an international audience and a circuit of clubs that encourages those bands to feel a sense of competition, and opportunities for those bands to play repeatedly for regular audiences in the same small places. A. J. Liebling once wrote that French food declined after World War I with the rise of highway driving, since small restaurants weren't committed to satisfying the same clientele night after night. Instead, they could serve the same dishes and not worry about improvement; regular waves of new diners would chew away, unaware of the stasis.
In a way, the same goes for jazz. Both bands, the Monk-Coltrane Quartet of 1957 and the Coltrane Quartet of 1965, had places in New York to take root. Monk and Coltrane played as many as 75 nights within a five-month stretch at the Five Spot Cafe in the East Village. The Coltrane Quartet played 14 weeks at the Half Note in the span of a year, from spring 1964 to spring 1965. Fourteen. It was a different time in many ways: it seems that anytime I meet someone who saw either of those bands at those clubs, they won't say that they went once, as if to cross it off a list; they went twice or three times a week, as part of their lives. (No Internet. No TiVo. Cheap rent. No risk of being thought a loser if you liked to go to jazz clubs at night.)
So there were hundreds of new jazz records this year that weren't as good? It gets forgotten, so it needs repeating: the studio is an unreliable gauge of what the best jazz groups are really up to, even at the highest levels.
Monk's quartet with Coltrane recorded three songs in the studio in summer 1957, at the beginning of that band's short existence. They can be heard on "Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane" (Riverside/Fantasy). They're very good, and they contain a newly advanced Coltrane. But they are dry-runs when set next to the 51 minutes from Carnegie Hall, which were discovered for the first time in January.
The Carnegie tape comes from late November 1957, after five rigorous months of Five Spot gigs, toward the end of the band's six-month life. (Very little taped material of this band in that year at the Five Spot, and with low fidelity, is known to exist.) On the Carnegie album the band is relaxed, limber, magnetic; the tempos are more wakeful. Compare the tune "Nutty" between the studio and stage versions, and you will hear it quickly. Coltrane has become agile, finding a flexible way of running his original patterns. Monk balances an inscrutable serenity against driving, almost violent figures. And everything coming from Shadow Wilson, the drummer, is to be savored: he guards and upholds the groove, while building small, richly detailed accents around it.
But the band ended a little more than a month later, and contractual issues between Coltrane and Monk's record labels made it impossible for them to record again. We're lucky to have this.
The Coltrane "One Down, One Up" recordings were made by the radio station WABC-FM, in 1965, for a radio show called "Portraits in Jazz" with Alan Grant. Even more than the Monk-Coltrane recording, the music is completely based in the rhetoric of the band's live performances; it is a different discipline entirely from studio recordings. The longest piece on the Monk-Coltrane, "Sweet and Lovely," is nine and a half minutes; the title track of "One Down, One Up" runs to nearly 28. The Coltrane band had been playing pieces at this length for at least four years, but was still making fairly structured music in the studio. What we hear is a band's shared language in its highest period; Coltrane and the drummer Elvin Jones rarely sounded more individually free, and still elastically tethered to each other.
The same principle has generated other good records this year, too. An excellent, previously unknown Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie concert from 1945, released on Uptown Records. A new Wynton Marsalis record, "Live at the House of Tribes," recorded in front of an audience of 50 - his best, to a certain way of thinking, since "Live at Blues Alley" in 1986. And coming in February, a recording from 1996 of the Omer Avital Sextet at Smalls, an excellent band of its moment that played hundreds of nights at that tiny club and never got to put out a record properly during its life.
Whenever history tells you that a masterpiece was recorded in the studio on a certain day at a certain hour - Charlie Parker's "Koko," Pat Metheny's "Bright Size Life," Ornette Coleman's "Shape of Jazz to Come" - it's probably not a patch on what those groups did later that night.
This is how jazz works. It is not a volume business. (Its essence is the opposite of business.) Its greatest experiences are given away cheaply, to rooms of 50 to 200 people. Literature and visual art are both so different: the creator stands back, judges a fixed object, then refines or discards before letting the words go to print, or putting images to walls. A posthumously found Hemingway novel is never as good as what he judged to be his best work. But in jazz there is always the promise that the art's greatest examples - even by those long dead - may still be found.