THE GREAT CURVE 006
curated by Todd Berryman
Record collectors and hardcore across-the-board music fans. God bless us, we’re often so enamored with the search that we’ll find astonishing things from sheer dogged determination. We also have been known to be, how can I put it, not the easiest people to get along with, at times.
Or, to put it delicately, assholes.
Now, this isn’t true of EVERY one who has this obsession, but it’s a truism just often enough. Similarly, there is a certain type of ego that resides in many musicians – not all, but many. Record collectors and music specialists can often be precisely the same way. I don’t even necessarily mean full of themselves, it could be any manner of eccentricity.
pictured above: Harry Smith (photo from the Harry Smith Archives website)
With Harry Smith, he was described as “a difficult guest,” staying at hotels and running up incredible bills until a friend like an Allan Ginsberg (yes, the author of “Howl”) would take him in. This is counterbalanced by him doing the heavy lifting and sequencing and conceptualizing to create the Anthology of American Music, the reference standard work for the folk revival of the 50s and 60s…it’s like that line about the Velvet Underground: not everyone bought the music, but everybody who did started a band.
With Joe Bussard, a brilliant collector of vintage 78s, it may just be a generally abrasive personality (God help you if you play swing music of the big band era for him; “swing” is basically a dirty word in his universe). On the other hand, he saved many artists and recordings from extinction thanks to his diligence in the field. His dedication is admirable, even if the man himself may be of questionable character at times.
With German-born American import Chris Strachwitz, his great love of musical allsorts led to his founding of the Arhoolie label, leading to recording of norteño music, cajun, creole, blues and much more – he may be the easiest touch of the collecting/music universe, but when he really hates something, he is almost obnoxiously vocal about it (he was cheerfully filmed in festival footage being exactly like that in the documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music). And Strachwitz may be badly behaved at times, but he’s also been an early supporter of independent movie making, and among other good works, he helped secure royalty payments for Mississippi Fred McDowell, one of the original authors of “You Gotta Move” by the Rolling Stones, which appeared on Sticky Fingers. You can also thank him for resurrecting the career of bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, just for starters.
Which leads us to what appears to be the exception to the rule, the young Alfred Lion, another German expatriate with a love of the blooming form named jazz. Like Strachwitz, he started his own label to issue the treasures that fueled his love. And that brings us to this edition of THE GREAT CURVE…
RECORD COMPANY LOGIC BITES BACK AGAIN
Out of the box, I should note that there are a few albums bearing this title. I am referring in this essay to the 1984 two-record set compilation issued as the record label was relaunching, after years of catalog reissues and basically lying dormant under the control of a larger conglomerate. There was a compact disc version released seven years later in 1991, but that version is missing the equivalent of the first side, which includes some of the more interesting and lesser-heard material compared to the rest of the collection – not a knock, I simply mean to say that the heavier hitters are on the other three sides, but it sets up a different and less accurate perception of the label’s history. A mid-1990s CD overlaps on five songs from the original vinyl, two from Side 1 and three from the former compact disc issue.
There. Confused yet? Don’t feel bad.
HOW BLUE NOTE CAME INTO EXISTENCE: EARLY RECORDINGS ON SIDE 1
Barely breaking three decades of age, Alfred Lion founded Blue Note in 1939 after being incredibly moved after attending a show in Carnegie Hall as part of the series From Spirituals to Swing – as the liner notes described it, he tapped two pianists to record a few selections on 78rpm records (the only active commercial format at the time). Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis played separately and together, inspired in part by the great respect Lion had for their talents, enough so that Lion made sure that their favorite food and drink was provided as an appropriate gesture.
The label was slightly hampered by Lion’s induction into the U.S. Army for World War II, and later by some recording industry issues tied to royalty negotiations with the American Federation of Musicians, and radio airplay not generating income to the performers on records (because radio used to feature live performers; when radio turned to recordings instead, it created the problem that needed to be resolved over the course of two strike actions, one during the war, the other in 1948).
This collection does not include those first sessions by Ammons and Lewis, nor the first hit, Sidney Bechet’s version of “Summertime” from 1939. Surprisingly, it cuts ahead by a decade, as the earliest recording represented is “Tin Tin Deo” by James Moody and His Bop Men, with vocalist Chano Pozo. To my ear, that track is an essential piece of work, a perfect fusion of Cuban vocal and percussion flavor with big brassy jazz. However, this song doesn’t OPEN the album. As a result of what appears to be the album compiler’s decision to program for listenability, and sequence for that instead of chronology, pride of place goes to “Un Poco Loco” by the Bud Powell Trio (featuring Max Roach on drums).
The rest of Side 1 relies mostly on a number of performances first issued on 78rpm, as the inner sleeve notes indicate that Blue Note was a little slow to begin releasing long-playing 33rpm recordings for a few years, starting late in 1951…in fact, the label was still issuing original material 78s for about a year and a half after that. Musically, that first side is a who’s who of talent and material, from Clifford Brown’s “Cherokee” (Clifford, compared to many contemporaries, lived a clean life versus the typical jazz-era cliches, but perished in a car accident three years after the “Cherokee” session; this is the only song on Side 1 not to appear on 78rpm), to “Bags’ Groove” in its original Milt Jackson version, the song later covered more famously by Miles Davis. Miles himself accounts for “Tempus Fugit” in one of the last 78s to be recorded for Blue Note. Thelonious Monk is represented with an early take of “Criss Cross” from 1951.
All those great songs and artists, and not ONE appeared on the first CD version of this album, issued only seven years after this two-record set. Reason enough to spurn the digital, and go for the vinyl, if you can. In terms of the number of selections, if not running time, you’re missing 40% of the content by grabbing the compact disc. (You’re also missing all the material that was recorded and released in monaural, probably no small coincidence.)
This is not a disparagement of the nine remaining songs, which includes some of the most legendary jazz work ever recorded.
SIDE 2: A MILES DAVIS SIDEMAN, AND A FUTURE SIDEMAN
Side 2 opens with the title track of John Coltrane’s Blue Train album, done by special arrangement with Prestige Records, his home label at the time. A one-off contract was negotiated to allow him to do the album for Blue Note, with his own “dream team” of jazz musicians, and the results of that decision impact this song, and in fact the whole source album. It should also be read as significant that Blue Train was the largest repository of Coltrane-written songs until he signed to Atlantic Records shortly after (effectively thanks to a more fair publishing arrangement for original material). And what he does compositionally and melodically on “Blue Train” should not be denied, because it’s a masterpiece with a distinctive riff that drives it. I hear it as a forerunner of what Coltrane would do with Miles Davis on the Kind of Blue album – you could slot this song in that album’s sequence two years later, and it would almost fit. (Considering his rhythm section was from Miles’ group from 1957, the track fits even more aptly, sometimes frighteningly so.)
Next up is “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock. I’ll be fair here: when I was in college, the Hancock piece most people that were not jazz buffs would know would have been “Rockit” from the early ’80s, a fine instrumental but not quite of the same stripe. Years later, his track “Cantaloupe Island” would be sampled for US3’s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” which would give another generation of listeners a different view of Hancock’s work, a development that gave a more rounded interpretation of what the man was all about. “Maiden Voyage” is one that has a definitive essay about it in memoir form, and that’s Al Young’s take, about a trip on a boat that simply must be read, from his book Drowning in the Sea of Love. Rather than boiling it down here, I encourage you to dig that fine tome up, and enjoy, because it’s very worth it.
Third track on Side 2 is “Christo Redentor” by Donald Byrd, an unusual piece on its face thanks to the unusual use of a choir in its arrangement. It’s a great bit of music, religious without beating the listener over the head, an art in itself. Even more so, I hear this as one of a couple of exceptions to a rule I have about popular music forms, that being choirs on things that are not classical or gospel music are the kiss of death, because the effect doesn’t date well, a similar view I have about children singing on pop songs. (The other exceptions, if you’re curious, are “You Can’t Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones, and “I Believe in You” from the Talk Talk album The Spirit of Eden. Anything else is pretty much guaranteed to age badly, because no one else seems to know how to do it with any degree of subtlety or taste. I welcome additional examples to the contrary, and GOOD LUCK.)
SIDE 3: IN WHICH WE INSPIRE ROCK STARS
We move to Side 3, with “Moanin'” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers as the leadoff. This is a perfect example of what I love in the “Blue Note sound” of this era, in that it’s one of those perfect melodic figures that feels like it’s been around forever, but still holds up, and reveals new things on each hearing. Lou Donaldson comes up next in the sequence with “Blues Walk” (not to be confused with “The Blues Walk” by Clifford Brown, which is the one that Lyle Lovett covered on his third album), and it continues the trend of “I know this from somewhere…” It’s kind of cool to hear a percussionist (Ray Baretto) playing alongside a drummer (Dave Bailey) on a song, but NOT necessarily giving in to the Latin jazz leanings that were much more audibly in evidence during the era.
The final track on the side is the title track of Song for My Father by Horace Silver, who was an alumnus of the Jazz Messengers before splitting off on his own. This is a song that sounds more familiar than the rest of this set, possibly thanks to the fact that the bassline has been lifted by multiple artists, including Steely Dan (whose “Ricki Don’t Lost That Number” is the most obvious and explicit homage), the Police (for the ending of “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”) and Tori Amos (in the finale of “Datura” from To Venus and Back). It may have existed before Silver, but I couldn’t tell you, as he appears to be the first to popularize that progression to the public.
SIDE 4: SRV FINDS A MUSE
Side 4 cues up with “Back to the Chicken Shack” by Jimmy Smith, one of a handful of organ players who made a mark on jazz, with an instrument known more for its uses in church music and classical. Listening to this song for the uninitiated illustrates a common ground explored in a different context by Booker T. Jones in his work with the MG’s. Despite the fact that Booker T. was known for R&B and Jimmy Smith was known for jazz, however, you could slot “Green Onions” next to “Back to the Chicken Shack” and it wouldn’t sound out of place. (Which is the kind of thing my work on OverEasy back in the 2000s sought to underscore, that common ground with things that look far apart on the surface, but really aren’t.)
This is followed by “Chitlins con Carne” by Kenny Burrell, a song later done in more streamlined fashion by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, released on SRV’s posthumous album The Sky is Crying in 1991 (again, probably in certain circles more familiar than the original). Not surprisingly, SRV’s take emphasizes the blues boilerplate a little more. Regardless of your opinion of the title delicacy, that song in either version has appeared as a track whenever I’ve put together a dinner music mixtape/CD/playlist, because it’s JUST THAT PERFECT for the event.
The album closer is another one that Al Young essayed in his wonderful book Drowning in the Sea of Love. When Young talks about “The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan, he gives a sense of not only his own perception of the song (admittedly, it’s the beginning of my consumption of a tall glass of beer with a couple of olives), but also some history that informs one’s appreciation of it, including its occasional appearance in, say, an elevator. 🙂
For me, one of the more engaging moments in the track is Billy Higgins’ drumming. I had noticed in later performances that Higgins’ rhythmic vocalizations drove the music, whether it was his appearance on the album Rejoicing with Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, or sitting in with Sathima Bea Benjamin on the album LoveLight in the late 1980s, or any other selection out of the multitude of things. It’s not breathing, and it’s not singing, it’s just kind of…right down the middle. For years, I heard it on all of these other recordings, but it took a night a few years ago, with headphones and one whiskey too many, hearing “The Sidewinder” and finally picking up, not quite mixed out, Higgins doing exactly the same thing in the early 60s with Lee Morgan. It gave me a new appreciation for this fine song, the rhythmic drive lighting up in an entirely different way.
All told, The Best of Blue Note was 90 minutes of essential music, riff upon riff upon riff, pleasure rendered in sax and piano and trumpet and drum kit and upright bass. It’s been a go-to album when I needed a little something, whether sweet memory of my early days in radio, or the simple joys of hearing great musicians play against each other, or history rendered beat-by-beat shortly after the dawning days of jazz. In short, therapy by melody.
HOW I FOUND THIS ALBUM
When I was in college, I knew most of the artists, or the music they played, but not in this particular context. It never really occurred to me that they were all on the Blue Note label at one point or another (Miles Davis, looking at you, here). Hearing this music, in this overarching structure, gave me a different point of view than I had heard on the individual albums; it was the difference between the immediacy of a “single” versus the album versus the overall arc of a record label’s mission, three different forms, occasionally not ALL that different. Any ONE of these tracks could encapsulate the whole, quite nicely, but to hear them in this context made me realize the full continuity of what was truly going on.
The Best of Blue Note was a blessing that came in surprise form, thanks to Ed Miller, a fan of my work in my early days in jazz radio. He was a delivery driver, bringing mail for the United States Postal Service from Indianapolis to Terre Haute, and he heard me spinning this wonderful jazz music in various forms at a point when most of my fellow disc jockeys were NOT learning how to backcue vinyl albums on a turntable, but rather pulling songs by the likes of Kenny G. on compact disc, the then-newfangled TECHNOLOGY OF THE FUTURE. He liked the fact that, in the fall of 1988 and spring of 1989, I was taking pains to come in an hour or so early to work to do themed shows of music, whether artists that played at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977, or musicians who were inspired by Dave Brubeck, or sidemen of Miles Davis who struck out on their own, and he GOT IT in a way that my coworkers didn’t.
So, one day in that spring of 1989, he called me to ask if he could donate a few vinyl records from his own collection to the station library. Of course, I said “absolutely,” and one day he showed up with something like a couple hundred albums to buttress our catalog, including a whole slew of organ players like Wild Bill Davis and Jimmy Smith, an original monaural copy of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (truly, the ONLY way to hear it, I have to say) and this perfectly sequenced Blue Note Records compilation. We had a copy of that last one in our catalog, and in one of those rare cases of selfishness, I decided to hold on to that last for myself. I mean, none of my fellow DJs was playing it, anyway, so what harm?
It ended up being one of the smartest things I’d ever done.
That simple little two-record set from 1984 ended up being a treasure that has reaped endless dividends over the past three decades, something that not many record labels could pull off. Maybe impulse! Records could have done it…but they really didn’t, not at this point in history.
Further research, a few tastes, with encouragement for you to chase down ALL of the tracks on this remarkable compilation:
Chano Pozo, sitting in with James Moody on this one, from 1948.
And then there’s Herbie Hancock’s title track from Maiden Voyage, recorded after Herbie had joined Miles Davis in his quintet era in 1965. In fact, one of the tracks from this album was done in two versions, one for Miles and one for Maiden Voyage, although Miles’ version of “Little One” came first, maybe surprisingly…
“Song for My Father” by Horace Silver cast a long shadow for many musicians, especially piano players. Here it is…the most obvious inspiration goes to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan.
And the Steely Dan approach, for comparison. Amazing, no?
Let’s continue the influence, with the Police.
Tori Amos’ take, most evident around 5:40 in the attached video, from the album To Venus and Back.
And “The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan.