Pianistics (February 28th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Two months into this listening diary project, I have finally realized what my friends and wife have known for quite awhile: these days, I’m spinning jazz more than any other genre.

Why? I’m not entirely sure, but I’d guess its variety of movement and rhythms and its continual struggle to balance freedom and order suit my bodily needs (nothing else feels as good and surprising) and mental habits (jazz’s musical struggle is my teaching struggle). Also, as much as I also read, maybe words get in my way–though I have been known to mow down hundreds of pages with ’65-’66 Dylan cranked to “7.” Also, as a listener, I have gradually evolved to meet the challenge of jazz that’s more (or totally) freely improvised. I’ve always been interested in it, but now I can listen to more daunting works (say, Cecil Taylor’s Winged Serpent / Sliding Quadrants) with as much ease as I would a Flamingos comp. I’m not bragging, but it’s brought me quite a bit of unexpected pleasure, and more and more it matches my better understanding of the world as I age. But…yo…I am not abandoning other music worlds, not by a long-shot. It’s just that I don’t think this is a phase.

Anyway, I was bewitched yesterday by two great recordings of jazz piano that I’d never heard before, picked up in trade for about 30 used CDs–a bargain. Sonny Clark’s The 1960 Time Sessions with George Duvivier and Max Roach is a dancing, blues-soaked look into some of the ill-fated pianist’s lesser-known non-Blue Note work, with interesting, more considered versions of Clark classics like “Nica”–and all the alternate takes on a separate disc (thanks, Tompkins Square!). Also, his supporting musicians could hardly be in better form, or better equipped to propel his compositions.

John Lewis I have known mostly through Modern Jazz Quartet records, but his two valedictory Evolution records are so powerful I couldn’t pass up a crate-dug used copy that ended up being in mint condition. Lewis’ playing on Improvised Meditations and Excursions (a more concise and eloquent description than I can muster) is quite a bit different than Clark’s–I don’t really have the pianistic vocabulary other than to say the former’s European interests seem to add a stateliness to his sound–but, in particular, his recasting of Bird’s “Now’s the Time,” which leads off, is very inventive. Side A features Lewis originals, Side B’s Tin Pan Alley takes. Duvivier’s on bass on this album, too, beside MJQ drummer Connie Kay.

Short-shrift Division:

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady–One of my all-time favorite records, I found a vinyl copy of it, too (a 2015 reissue), and was knocked out by its swirling, vaguely threatening (why? hmmmm) power. I always hear something different that reaches out and grabs me; last night, it was Quentin Jackson’s trombone explosions that most certainly must have pleased Bubber Miley’s soul. Every American home should have this record.

Gene Smith’s Sink (January 21st, Columbia, Missouri)


My criteria for a great non-fiction read are, of course, that the author illuminates his subject, but, on a more personal level, that his book sends me off in new reading and listening directions. Sam Stephenson, in a culmination of his more than two decades of study the photographer W. Eugene Smith, easily meets both in Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View, applying a Citizen Kane-style strategy to get to the tortured core of Smith’s genius and, perhaps coincidentally (Stephenson would argue not necessarily), tapping into both areas I’ve very recently explored (Japanese culture and disaster, Tennessee Williams’ complicated vision) and opening new doors for me: to the work of Robert Frank, Ronnie Free, and the deeper depths of Sonny Clark’s discography, beyond Cool Struttin’.

Perhaps the best of many brilliant chapters in the book involve, first, one that examines the source of and reason for the call of a Chuck-Will’s Widow that turns up on one of Smith’s many loft recordings, and, following right on its heels, an examination of Clark’s tragic life. How all these things connect I’ll leave it to the reader to discover–I couldn’t recommend this book more highly–but they rocketed me to a four-hour listening session that incorporated the whole of Clark’s recordings with the St. Louis-born guitarist Grant Green and two albums Clark made as a leader, Leapin’ and Lopin’ and The Sonny Clark Trio. My goal? Well, in that latter chapter, Stephenson’s driving to understand why Japanese jazz fans seem to revere Clark even more than Coltrane, and he breaks down two symbols frequently used by Japanese jazz writers to describe Clark’s music; I simply set out to test their description myself. It’s not this simple, but the symbols, used together, indicate both a muffling of deep feeling and the expression of deep feeling through the contraction of the heart. Interesting, huh? I found that description holds up.

Just prior to being set on this listening path, and just prior to having read the two chapters that lit me on fire, I’d read an interview with Philip Roth in the current New York Times Book Review. You’ll soon understand why, shortly after reading it, I was shaking my head in wonder; check out this response of Roth’s:

I seem to have veered off course lately and read a heterogeneous collection of books. I’ve read three books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the most telling from a literary point of view, “The Beautiful Struggle,” his memoir of the boyhood challenge from his father. From reading Coates I learned about Nell Irvin Painter’s provocatively titled compendium “The History of White People.” Painter sent me back to American history, to Edmund Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom,” a big scholarly history of what Morgan calls “the marriage of slavery and freedom” as it existed in early Virginia. Reading Morgan led me circuitously to reading the essays of Teju Cole, though not before my making a major swerve by reading Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve,” about the circumstances of the 15th-century discovery of the manuscript of Lucretius’ subversive “On the Nature of Things.” This led to my tackling some of Lucretius’ long poem, written sometime in the first century B.C.E., in a prose translation by A. E. Stallings. From there I went on to read Greenblatt’s book about “how Shakespeare became Shakespeare,” “Will in the World.” How in the midst of all this I came to read and enjoy Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run,” I can’t explain other than to say that part of the pleasure of now having so much time at my disposal to read whatever comes my way invites unpremeditated surprises.

Why read? How can you not, if you’re able?

Short-shrift Division:

Del McCoury Band: The Cold Hard Facts

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys: The Complete Mercury Sessions

The Essential Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys (on Columbia)