One of the key features of classic Blue Note releases is that they didn’t sign the biggest jazz stars. Instead, Blue Note specialized in finding young mega talents who were on the vanguard of NYC’s jazz community and developed them over time. They were also cost conscious; signing an artist before they are a star is way cheaper than signing the biggest stars. Blue Note also treated it’s roster with respect so that when an artist crossed over into the big leagues they often stayed at the label (exceptions include Jimmy Smith, who Verve was able to move from the R&B and jukebox charts to the pop charts).
One of those young lions Blue Note signed right away was Joe Henderson. Just 26 years old, Henderson had already been a working musician in Detroit, a college graduate (Donald Byrd and Yusef Latef were his classmates), and fresh out of doing his mandatory military service when the tenor saxophonist signed to Blue Note. For his first year at the label, 1963, Henderson contributed to just over a dozen great albums (!!!), including two stone cold classics that were also major jazz sellers during this era: Horace Silver’s Song For My Father and Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder.
Other 1963 Blue Note albums that Joe Henderson played on include Bobby Hutcherson’s The Kicker, Grant Green’s Idle Moments, Andrew Hill’s Black Fire, and Page One, his very first album as a leader.
There are some artists who make it very hard to source photos of them with dogs. Others, like Bob Dylan, have an endless stream of such phots because they seem to prefer the company of pups to their fellow man (why is that one not a surprise with our Bob?).
The hard part here was trying to decide which of the dozens of photos throughout the decades of Dylan with a dog to use. I went with this one, as I like the Desolation Row defeated glamour feel of the photo. Even man’s best friend is waving the white flag and staring at the photographer as if he’s having a gun pointed at him instead of a camera. We experienced an intense period of urban blight when I was growing up and darn if we aren’t reexperiencing it now post Covid, with a mass city exodus that reminds me of the Post WW2 suburban boom and subsequent white flight.
I have no idea when exactly the above photo was taken. Based on the footwear and the tapered trousers I was going with mid 1960s but based on the chubbiness of Bob’s cheeks I am guessing the 1970s — but add in the tapered trousers AND the chubby cheeks and I am landing on the late 1979s to early ’80s. This one has a real CBGB vibe to it.
As with Dylan’s canine preferences you can tell he is a man of taste and distinction with his choice of backing bands.
Here is Dylan playing with The Plugz, a first wave L.A. punk band that morphed into The Cruzados not too long after this great live set with The Master.
There are many repeated themes I hit here that connect great records that are worth owning.
One of those is that times and fashions change but that quality wins out in the end.
Take Prefab Sprout‘s 1985 album Steve McQueen. I originally picked this up back in the 1980s when I read a bunch of British artists saying it was their favorite release of the year, including The Cure’s Robert Smith and drummer Mick Fleetwood. I figure if you can get those two together on the same music it must be good.
Steve McQueen is very good indeed.
Then, as the grungey, very American 1990s took flight, Prefab Sprout’s sophisticated British pop songs and the often slick studio sheen the tunes were housed in, went out of favor. Prefab Sprout were suddenly the English equivalent of Steely Dan. Times change though and damn if indie rock bands haven’t now joined hip-hop acts in name-checking Steely Dan as a favorite influence. Likewise, Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon is once again held up as a maverick and an eccentric pop genius.
Still, being a musical genius doesn’t mean you will only put out brilliant albums. Sometimes (as it probably has been in McAloon’s case), being a genius can even hurt you. Still, on a site where I often argue that far from perfect albums are also well worth owning, I can hold Steve McQueen up as about as perfect an album as you can get.
The album is a mix of mainstream pop craftsmanship and idiosyncratic personal expression that could have only come from one group, led by one very specific person, who was matched to one specific producer. Sometimes everything comes together just the way it should.
I’d been holding off on putting up an Ahmad Jamal album cover featuring him with his pup for my Canine Covers feature and now he is gone. I’d saw him play a couple of times over the years at Yoshi’s in Oakland and his later style could sometimes be very different from his early sound that brought him such deserved success.
Ahmad Jamal was that rarest of things — a brilliant jazz musician who was a true avant-garde artist, changed the musical landscape, AND did so while experiencing massive mainstream success.
It helps when the cutting edge music you are making is easy on the ears.
The Ahmad Jamal album that become a 1955 smash hit is pictured in the second row from the bottom at the far right. Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me was a monster seller in the late 1950s, staying on the Billboard charts for over 100 weeks. This wasn’t just impressive for jazz but for all of pop music — it was one of the biggest selling albums of the entire 1950s, beating out most releases by Sinatra, Nat Cole, Elvis, etc.
And, Pershing is a lowkey live album pulled from a Jamal club date. Ironically, the album itself is very short (especially for a 1950s 12′ record which tend to run long) but the hit single from it, “Poinciana” is an epic 8 minute track that was itself a big hit and night time radio staple. The song can be seen like a forerunner of Downtempo and a classier relative of the Exotica EZ listening of the time.
Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans were contemporaries of each other in the way that they made beautiful experimental music but their playing styles, and approaches were very different, with Evans experimenting with having his rhythm section improvise at the same time as him. The early Jamal trios were much more controlled, and his melodic playing often stays stripped down.
Of the above LPs, I most often listen to the two Impulse dates (highly recommended), Pershing, and the Penthouse set with strings. For whatever reason, most of Jamal’s back catalog is out of print. Extra strange is the fact that his electric Fusion and birth-of-Smooth-Jazz albums have been wiped off the official record and are ALL out of print. These records actually sold pretty well and were often on the jazz charts of the era.
Like many later albums by jazz and R&B artists there is a cut-off date to this kind of stuff a couple of years into the 1980s but it’s fun and saw Jamal keeping the lights on.
At a certain point, Jamal just went back to acoustic jazz full time but his style transformed. He started hitting the keys harder and had a more percussive style. The couple times I saw him in concert were very fun and exciting events. Jamal would be having a ball playing and would play a few bars that delighted him and he’d laugh and loop a few bars in his playing before taking off somewhere new. It was like watching an acoustic pianist be a sampler and remixer of his own playing.
He must of been in his late 70s or early 80s at the time.
Here is Ahmad Jamal knocking them dead when he was just a couple years shy of age 90. The playing here combines the style that made him famous with some of the more muscular force of his later playing.
What a massive talent. That sense of joy he played with must have been some life force.
Anyone who saw the truly lovely documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda knew that the film composer, sonic experimenter, and former pop star was living on borrowed time. Yet, it still came as a shock when it was announced he had passed away — and that was even after a friend in the film industry had already told me he was on death’s door. Sakamoto’s calm, open-hearted enthusiasm and low-key positivity seemed impossible to extinguish.
The above photo features some Ryuichi Sakamoto LPs I have pulled out since learning of his passing. There are so many contradictions in Sakamoto’s music. He was the reluctant pinup of Yellow Magic Orchestra but was called The Professor by his bandmates and ran away from mainstream success. He was trained in French impressionism but also loved John Cage and experimental noise. He was a solo artist who could do everything himself and a born collaborator who loved working with others. Sakamoto was a master at mashing different forms of music together. A beautiful example of this is his taking a traditional Okinawan folk song and adding flowing Debussy style synth strings to it.
Sakamoto deservedly won an Oscar for his work on The Last Emperor, but I am not alone in thinking his two other scores for Bernardo Bertolucci films, The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha, are even better. The first is half a good movie (I have the French OST for it, where it was titled Un thé au Sahara, which must be where The Police song title comes from); the second movie is not successful at all but Ryuichi’s music for both of them just hit me right in the heart. Sakamoto knew the value of a beautiful melody even if neither are casual, melodic listens (here is “Acceptance,” from Little Buddha).
Sakamoto’s most popular composition remains his theme to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” which was turned into the title theme “Forbidden Colours” with David Sylvian. My favorite version with both of them is a live symphonic performance released on Cinemage, a 1990s set which also deserves a vinyl reissue.
A wonderful moment in the Coda documentary occurs when Sakamoto describes how pianos are made from plundered natural resources and says instruments going out of tune are those organic materials fighting to return to their natural state.
An example of quality lasting was Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” becoming a global smash in 2022, 36 years after it originally entered the UK Top 10 (the song, a College and Alt rock radio staple here, only charting modestly in the States).
Kate Bush’s reputation had already undergone a similar rehabilitation and she now occupies a space not unlike that of Canada’s Joni Mitchell — both are bracingly original and singular artists. One thing that Bush did that Joni and other “serious” musical artists did not was embrace show biz and take control of how her music was visually presented — perfect timing for the Age of Music Videos. I guess the Joni Mitchell equivalent is her parallel career in painting.
In the UK, a 19-year-old Bush become the first female artist to write her own #1 hit way back in 1978. She also became the one female member of the unofficial British art-rock genre, standing proud amongst Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, and Brian Eno. Doing a little research for this post I discovered that Bush had been signed and had recorded music for release at age 17 but her label was worried that she was too young — they saw her as a major talent who could have a career instead of a hit or two and didn’t want to burn her out. Bush took her signing money and got her O and A levels at school and took dancing and movement lessons so she’d be ready for her coming career. She had the number to Bowie’s mime teacher in her rolodex.
Bush didn’t sell that many records in the States during the 1980s but she definitely moved posters. You could go into the bedrooms and homes of stoners and metal-heads who didn’t listen to Kate Bush’s music but darn if you weren’t greeted by a B&W poster of a fetching young Kate Bush in a leotard.
The album cover was shot by Kate’s brother, John Carder Bush. If you think this was some quick family affair snapshot, think again. Those are Bush’s real dogs on the album sleeve and they are literally energetic hounds meant to run all day. They tried to do the shot in his studio and failed and JCB ended up building a little set at his sister’s house so he could light and dress things properly while getting the dogs to feel more at home. I think it took 4 or 5 sessions total to get the shot they needed.
If anything, the title track to the album Hounds of Love is even better than “Running Up That Hill.” Bush had very pleasant memories of running around the vast country estate she grew up on and playing hide and seek with her dogs. Obviously, she throws some poetic license into the lyrics and gets a grown-up anthem about being an adult woman who still needing the same love and protection she remembers from childhood. They picked the right image for the cover — Kate Bush in sexy good witch mode. Still, all the de-glammed ones of her just relaxed and happy are great too.
1986 was an interesting time for fashion — there is obviously a 1940s influence to the clothes and lighting that is mirrored in sci-fi movies such as Blade Runner and Brazil. Women had to be very slender to pull of those volumizing fashions and hairdos. In the below performance video Bush is kitted out exactly like Dave Vanian from The Damned during the same era!
The passing of the Established Masters is not abating — and Wayne Shorter was most definitely a master.
When I was a kid, Wayne Shorter was almost at the level of a rock star during his tenure with Weather Report. I did not actively listen to Fusion jazz in the 1970s — I heard it by accident a whole lot though. I was into pop music growing up — it could be Led Zep or Helen Reddy or the Ramones or The Jackson 5 but it was all pop music. But this was in an era when jazz instrumentals still made the pop charts and damn if even Weather Report got played on both AM and FM radio when “Birdland” became a Top 40 pop hit. A few years later, when I started expanding my listening palette I pulled my father’s copy of Miles Davis Nefertiti off the shelf when Fusion was dying and acoustic jazz was making a comeback with punk approved jazz acts like The Lounge Lizards and John Zorn started getting press.
Hearing Wayne Shorter through Miles and Art Blakey I didn’t really think about his prime compositional and creative space in those bands — I just liked the music the leaders were making. It took time to figure the differences out — plus records were rare commodities and I listened to one record at a time back then. Shorter helped Blakey, a foundational Hard Bop bandleader, get more experimental and arty and he pushed the already exploratory and restless Miles right through into the multiverse. Shorter was more than a sideman in both bands. In many ways Wayne Shorter was the co-architect of the second great Miles Davis Quintet — its primary songwriter at least and his compositions were studied by jazz artists. Miles loved the Shorter composition “Nefertiti” so much that he didn’t let Shorter or himself improvise on it — they play the tune as it was composed while the world class rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams improvises below them.
I didn’t sit down with Speak No Evil and Night Dreamer, two prime Shorter LPs as a leader, until the Compact Disc Age. Their epic greatness, and difference with other Blue Note albums of the time, was immediately apparent. That said, completely understanding why Shorter was different and special from the vantage point of the 1990s wasn’t always blatantly obvious because the way he played and composed got subsumed into mainstream jazz.
Then, I found a copy of Soothsayer, an unreleased mid 1960s Wayne Shorter Blue Note album that the label had kind of dumped on the market in the late 1970s, along with many of their buried releases. In an amazingly stupid move dictated by the fact that the 1960s was considered passe during the 1970s they ditched the originally planned Blue Note art on all of these releases and made them look kind of like more low rent versions of 1970s ECM or CTI records. They didn’t return to the original planned artwork for these until the digital age.
Anyway, check out the lovely Shorter ballad, “Lady Day” from Soothsayer:
It is a completely beautiful knockout ballad.
But, “Lady Day” sounds connected to what Coltrane was doing — and did — and it even sounds like what Stan Getz was doing at the same time when he started working in a more Post-Bop vein (which you can read about here). If this was Wayne Shorter’s writing and playing he still would have been one of the greats — “Lady Day” is a truly exquisite romantic ballad. Likewise, if you want to hear Wayne Shorter composing and playing in more of a Blue Note mainstream Hard-Bop way check out the funkier and funner LP Adam’s Apple. This is the Shorter who delighted Art Blakey but still has a toe or two inching over into a less corporal sphere.
So, Wayne Shorter was, and could be, a mainstream jazz talent. But, with Miles and on Blue Note masterworks such as Speak No Evil and Night Dreamer, Wayne Shorter just sounds and plays differently. To me, Coltrane connects to these pure and positively humanistic parts of the universe — don’t be afraid, Coltrane is communicating, there is an overwhelming force of love out there.
With Wayne Shorter there is something more unsettling and off-kilter and mysterious in so much of his music. I love how perfectly Blue Note decided to match the album art of these two albums to match the often haunting, always enigmatic, music within. Listen to another knock-out Shorter ballad and see if you can hear the difference:
This is another beautiful, knock-out ballad but I don’t know if it could have been written and played by anyone else than Wayne Shorter at the time.
That harmony-line he enters in on with “Infant Eyes” alone is spellbinding. His playing and music can seem like he is seeing a world beyond — and below — our world. The things found there may be magical but they don’t all seem divine. Unlike with Coltrane — you might not like what you find. That Wayne Shorter become a mainstream instrumental star of the 1970s with Weather Report is kind of insane. It is also understandable that he decided to take a step back in the group when Joe Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius became focal points in the band. “Kind of freaky and unsettling” in the Wayne Shorter style is 100% how Weather Report started their musical life but that descriptor isn’t the definition of mainstream success.
Then, starting in the late 1990s, Wayne Shorter returned to making far-reaching acoustic music with a young group of musicians in the same way that another sax legend, Charles Lloyd, did. If anything, this was music from older gentlemen that was the equal, or even better than, their playing in their prime. Shorter played the art game and the commercial jazz game to his advantage and was now a respected elder statesman who was still blowing minds and trail-blazing. He ended his artistic life writing an opera with Esperanza Spalding.
Other-worldly is a word I think of with much of Wayne Shorter’s greatest music. He grew up a big comic book and sci-fi fan — the great beyond he connected with may be a tad freakier than what Coltrane was tapping into but who knows, maybe its more accurate. The last thing I saw/heard him do was in the conclusion of the Blue Note documentary Beyond the Notes. Shorter and life-long friend Herbie Hancock were playing with young jazz artists in the clip but the very Wayne Shorter music was haunting and beautiful and a little unsettling — closer in its vibes to Bowie doing a murder ballad with the Maria Schneider Orchestra than to the stoney post Hip-Hop world that Blue Note is now exploring with Robert Glasper and his peers.
Hancock and Shorter look and sound fantastic in the extended performance, which I can’t find on the internet to share. It’s hard to believe that Shorter was pushing 90 in it. The duo even wrote a letter of artistic intent, and a style guide to living a fruitful life as an artist that Herbie sent out again upon Shorter’s passing. In ends in wishing we all live in a state of constant wonder. Personally, I can’t do “constant” but I will try to do it more often. I can definitely tap into that sense of wonder when I listen to Wayne Shorter’s music.
It was hard to feel too sad at Burt Bacharach’s passing for no other reason than he found great success in the majority of the 8 decades (!!!!) of work that consumed the majority of his 94 years. He was actively working on various projects when he passed. That is the definitive not only of a successful artistic life but of a successful artistic lifetime. But, let’s leave it to his later-life collaborator Elvis Costello to counter those trite sentiments with what he said on stage the day he learned of Bacharach’s passing:
“It’s been a tough day. You know, a really great man left us yesterday. And people say, when somebody leaves you who’s a great age, they say, well, it was a good ending. Yeah, but it’s never time to say goodbye to somebody if you love ‘em. And I’m not ashamed to say I did love this man.”
Bacharach was not only a celebrated pop composer of note he was a triple threat writer, arranger and producer. He didn’t just write “The Look of Love” but arranged the music on it and made sure Dusty Springfield sang it exactly as he had in mind. This may just be the single greatest James Bond theme song ever (it gets my vote) — and it isn’t even officially considered one. The recording of “The Look of Love” is studied in audio engineering as a perfect combination of song, artist, arrangement, engineering, and production. Bacharach noticed Dionne Warwick potential and helped her become the first R&B singer to turn into a mainstream pop star. If that wasn’t enough he also wrote multiple Oscar-winning songs and an Oscar-winning film score and, along with key collaboration, Hal David, penned a hit Broadway score that is considered a major influence on Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
On top of that, Bacharach was one of the few composers who broke through as a star in his own right and ended up as a touring artist. A few years ago, I was scheduled to see him perform with the SF Symphony but a freak torrential rainstorm hit after years of drought that shut down the airport and flooded the theater. I had no idea he was about 90 at the time.
Bacharach’s exquisite collaboration with Elvis Costello, Painted From Memory, has just came to vinyl as part of a two LP set of their collected work together but there are a couple of digital-only Burt Bacharach albums that I often come back to and would love to have on vinyl.
The first is Isley Meets Bacharach which recasts the 1960s Bacharach/David songbook as soul deep explorations with Ron Isley. It has what may just be my favorite vocal version of “Windows of the World,” an aching anti-war number with universal applications.
There are a bunch of famous Bacaharch/David tunes here that Ron Isley handles exquisitely. I even like his bummed out reading of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” better than the hit version sung by B.J. Thomas. I never liked the “My feet too big for my bed” lyric in the original version but the way Ron Isley sings it, and “Nothing seems to fit,” makes me realize what Hal David’s lyric was getting at — the discomfort of not conforming to society.
Like a lot of idiots with a music blog, I don’t have any trouble recommending records to people. That said, things can get tricky for some jazz artists, a number of them on the Blue Note label. The default setting for ne plus ultra Blue Note artists such as Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver, and Art Blakey is EXCELLENT. The weird thing about putting out so many excellent albums, often multiple ones in a single year, is that it can end up nullifying any one of them. One truly great record (Television’s Marquee Moon or Andy Bey’s American Song) is like a monolith on a mountain. Dozens of great albums by the same artist can hurt the reputation of any one of them.
And here’s the thing with Art Blakey — it’s not just his Blue Note records that are fantastic. Some of the above records are on Impulse!, Colpix, Limelight, and Riverside. Jesus, even the Blakey LP on Timeless from 1981 is tops.
It’s hard to go wrong with a Blue Note record. But, that most probably is because of the talent they signed. You see a record under Art Blakey name just snatch it up and buy it no matter what label its on.
It’s gonna be great.
People have asked me why I bring up sales and chart placements when talking about records. Well, I think Art Blakey humorously sums up it best in his opening remarks in the below video — “I sincerely hope you all buy these records. God knows we need the money.” Artists deserve to make a living from their work just like you and I do.
A big part of what a bandleader does is recognize and foster talent even if that means you are setting those people up to learn how to be bandleaders themselves and leave you.
Here’s Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers on what is probably their most famous tune, “Moanin,” written and arranged by pianist Bobby Timmons (who I write about here). This has to be Blakey’s most famous band — joining pianist Timmons is Lee Morgan on trumpet and Benny Golson on saxophone. All three have composed much covered jazz standards and all went on to have stellar careers as bandleaders themselves. I am going to raise a glass to clean-living in the arts because the great Benny Golson is, blessedly, still with us at age 94, and put out his last album in 2015.
Joe Henderson is on the short list of my all-time favorite saxophone soloists.
He was also known to be a lovely person — a quick look at Henderson with his beloved pup backs that up.
I didn’t really know Joe Henderson by name growing up and first learned of him via his sideman roles on two Blue Note masterworks, Horace Silver’s Song For My Father and Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder. I was also at least sonically aware of his most famous composition, the haunting Black Narcissus, from various renditions that would play on the jazz station my father had his home and car radios set to. I then saw him, with my father, in high school, at a (presumably) short-lived jazz club in North San Diego that the Bop legend, and proud So Cal local, James Moody, seemed to have a hand in (I saw Moody there every one of the half dozen times we went). My father could be a prickly character but he became a total pussycat going to jazz clubs . He also took me to free jazz concerts that would be broadcast live on the radio. Thanks, Dad.
I had assumed Black Narcissus was written as a hym to a Nubian beauty (it came out in the Protest Era, after all) but Henderson wrote it as a tribute to, and remembering the startling color images found in, the classic Powell/Pressburger movie of stoic, British nuns breaking under the burden of exterior natural beauty and boiling interior passions.
I am guessing that Henderson either saw Black Narcissus when he moved to Detroit after high school or in a San Francisco rep house when he moved to the city, where he stayed for the rest of his too short life. I already wrote about how Verve helped to bring back the vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Shirley Horn. In the 1990s, Verve helped Lincoln and Horn attain greater levels of popularity and fame then they had ever enjoyed before. The label did the same with Joe Henderson, who spent the first half of career as the favorite saxophonist of jazz musicians while being under appreciated by critics and unknown to casual jazz fans. Henderson recorded most of his Verve albums while suffering from emphysema that would go on to cut his life short but you would never know he was playing under physical limitations on these recordings.
The entire Joe Henderson catalog is worthwhile so start anywhere. Here is the first recording of “Black Narcissus,” featuring an all-star band with Herbie Hancock on the Fender Rhodes.