John Litweiler

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Anthony Davis and Douglas Ewart (JL photo)

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Joseph Jarman and John Litweiler

Threadgill, Nichols, Bowie, McGann

Among the best news of 2016: Henry Threadgill won a Pulitzer Prize for Music. Here's the last time I wrote about him.

Threadgill returns home with trademark exploratory performance

By John Litweiler
(originally published in Chicago Sun-Times, 12/​20/​2004)

A deliberate awkwardness has been noticeable in Henry Threadgill's playing, composing and bandleading for more than three decades. Now more than ever, he presents exploratory music in which his own passionate flute and saxophone solos remain the main attractions. He seems to be deliberately challenging the audience: My lyricism and mastery come complete with thorns and spikes, and I promise to yank the props out from under you.

Originally a Chicagoan, Threadgill grew out of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the city's historic musical ferment, and won a measure of fame after he moved to New York in the mid-1970s. For years he composed hyperactive, strangely melodic pieces for his bands of top jazz musicians, but now he invents brief, even sketchy themes. Since the early 1990s he has been using players from jazz, rock and Eastern musical disciplines. But none of his previous bands was as disparate as his young fusion-music unit, Zooid, which made its Chicago debut at Hot House last weekend.

Remember Ornette Coleman's 1980s electric band, Prime Time? After hearing Zooid's performance on Friday, a listener suggested that this Threadgill sextet brought the Prime Time idiom into the 21st century. There was a resemblance to Coleman's group in Zooid's sound, especially the chugging, clanking rhythms from three amplified stringed instruments and jazz-rock drums. Zooid had an added eccentricity, a tuba, and anyway, Threadgill's musicians were more rugged individualists.

For example, Tarik Benbrahim played oud, a tinkling North African stringed instrument. While his lines swayed with Mediterranean folk rhythms, they also stretched to far harmonic horizons. Dana Leong coaxed suggestive overtones and strange colors from his cello, an advance on the instrument's usual inexpressive sound in jazz. His dramatic, against-the-grain solo in "MacGuffin" was a highlight, and later on trombone he played variations on the curdled, Kurt Weill-like "Lion Eyes."

Liberty Ellman added sophisticated jazz-rock guitar to the mix. While the musical lines of these three together were dominated by the big funk beats of Elliot Kavee's drums, Jose Davila, who began the evening with a slashing trombone solo, proved to be Zooid's free spirit by bouncing between beats on his tuba like an elephant dancing on hot coals.

Interesting music, yes, especially from Leong. But what really made Zooid valuable was Threadgill himself. Tall and thin, like he'd stepped out of an El Greco painting, he played flute solos featuring simple phrases and wide spaces for Kavee's drum interplay. He then played hard-bitten alto sax with a fierce, full sound and harsh cries, inspired by the strangely coordinated moving parts of Zooid's accompaniment. Broken phrases and sharp-angled lines tumbled from his horn, nowhere more so than in a highly emotional, minor-key work called "So, Please No Clue."

Complexities wrapped in ambiguities -- that's Threadgill's music. Is it an abstract mirror of the turbulence of today's world? Or does he simply thrive amidst agitation? Threadgill lives half of each year in Goa, in the Indian Ocean, and this was his first Chicago date since the mid-1990s. Somewhere during the applause, someone in the audience shouted, "Thanks for coming home!" Yes.

Herbie Nichols: Happenings

(For about half a century Coda Magazine, published in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, was one of the very best jazz publications, with highly informed, intelligent discussions of jazz around the world and extensive, revealing interviews with jazz artists. Coda is not on the world wide web, so here are some of the articles I wrote for it a few years ago. )

By John Litweiler
(originally published in Coda Magazine, November/​December 1998)

On Herbie Nichols' first recording session as leader (1952), on the Savoy piano anthology with a green lady on the cover, two of his three selections – the two originals – are 12-bar blues. On both he plays in a gallery of styles from gospel chords to Garner, his lines do not always flow smoothly, and in a blindfold test the listener would be hard put to identify the pianist. All of 44 years later the third blues by Nichols was recorded: "Dream Time" by Roswell Rudd's Trio – actually, the piece is played as a down-home guitar solo by Greg Miller.

And that's it. Those three are the only available compositions by Nichols on standard chord changes. In fact, the first two may have been simply improvised on the spot. Of course, Nichols wrote quite a few 12-bar pieces that were almost blues. Like "The Happenings" and like "Tee Dum Tee Dee," one of his last songs (1962) – both use blues changes for the first six bars. Like the wonderful "Twelve Bars," which at least begins each phrase as a blues. "It Didn't Happen," in a blues-with-a-bridge form, comes close to qualifying, as does "Beyond Recall," 42 bars long, with A strains each 12 bars and 8 ambiguous bars attached to the third A. All the rest of the 53 Herbie Nichols songs currently on CD, including 18 on the various Rudd and Mengelberg, etc., discs, use original changes. And either they were (1) strong, insistent changes that propelled his pieces and virtually defied the improviser to to invent anything other than melodic variations, or else they were (2) ambiguous, defying either harmonic or emotional resolution. Worse, they were 38, 42, 67 bars long, all kinds of odd lengths, with now and then the beat turned around or a bar of odd meter included or other tricky business; a musician could go nuts trying to learn a piece like "Applejackin'" by ear. Roswell Rudd's writings remark again and again on the difficulty of learning to play Nichols' songs.

Who else would take the trouble? This must have been the most formidable problem with Nichols, the main reason why he spent so many years scuffling while lesser talents thrived in jazz. Nichols didn't have musicians on his payroll to rehearse his new music. He had to deal with ad hoc rhythm sections and improvisers who typically played the blues, "I Got Rhythm," and a number of other standard chord changes, with just a handful of songs forms, in several different keys. This was plenty challenging in itself, and with jazz popular among fairly large audiences (at least compared with today) and heavy competition for gigs, who in the 1950s even had time to learn Nichols' weird themes? Monk and Mingus and other distinctive composers to whom public acceptance came late faced similar problems back then.

Almost from he beginning bop-era piano was split into two separate streams. The dominant stream was the Romantic stream, Bud Powell and his many successors who dwelled in purely melodic invention on chord changes. The other stream tended to be un-Romantic and actually didn't form a stream. Nichols, Monk, Elmo Hope, Hassan Ibn Ali, Richard Twardzik, Randy Weston – they were individualists who didn't have a lot in common. Three of them looked back to the swing era and earlier for inspiration. Weston often sounds like what Duke Ellington would sound like if the Duke had concentrated on playing piano instead of leading a band. Ellington himself used to solo like Monk once in awhile. There are Herbie Nichols pieces that suggest Ellington or Strayhorn – say "Infatuation Eyes" and "Strange City" – while the climbing changes of "Lady Sings the Blues" make me think of Fats Waller. Nevertheless, most Herbie Nichols pieces sound like nobody else could have written them.

I think the connections between Nichols' and Monks' piano styles are somewhat exaggerated. Yes, space is an element of tension for both, but Nichols uses his three-to-five-beat rests for specific effects, while Monk's unpredictable spaces at best are a fluid mystery. Even when Nichols' lines call for space he prefers to interject little dissonant arpeggios or bits of business. The theme of "Beyond Recall" has a terrific five-note opening phrase, a motive that's subsequently developed; instead of following that opening with three bars of space, he fills it with decorative material. Yes, there are harmonic resemblances to Monk sometimes, but sometimes there are resemblances to others as well. The pre-bop internal rhythms of Monk's and Nichols' phrases have this in common: Theirs are not broken phrases like Parker played; quarter notes – not bop's eighth notes – are typically the basis of their phrases.

The other strong pre-bop quality of Nichols' themes is their dramatic character. They include "show" pieces like "Old 52nd Street Rag," "Shuffle Montgomery," "Prancing Pretty Woman," "Dance Line," "Step Tempest," for like Ellington, Waller, James P. Johnson, Freddie Redd, and not many others, Nichols was at heart a theater composer. So often the drama in his music is internalized. His portraits – the nervous, worried "Orse At Safari," the nagging, imperative "Nick At T's," the disputes of "Query," "Furthermore," and "Argumentative," and so on – are precise. The flatted melodies and descending changes of the wonderful "Spinning Song" certainly depict the dreariness of labor for 32 bars – until a transitional bar, after which the final eight are triumphant and conclusive. The theme of "2300 Skidoo" is certainly a threat: Behave or Art Blakey will hit you with his sticks. Nichols' two portrayals of drunkenness, "Twelve Bars" and "Applejackin'" (with its missed notes and tangled rhythms), are priceless, as are remarkably subtle moods like "House Party Starting" and "Love Gloom Cash Love." "The Gig" and "Query" are perhaps his best songs, with internal conflicts and resolutions, are perfect dramas in themselves – they may inspire pleasing improvisation, but improvisation is not necessary for emotional fulfillment.

The great preponderance of medium and fast tempos in his works, the moods he so often chose to illuminate, his own program notes to the Blue Notes all indicate an extroverted outlook. On the other hand, darkness is certainly the content of songs like "Hangover Triangle" and "Riff Primitiv," while in intimate pieces like "It Didn't Happen" and "Jamaica" Nichols exposed his own emotions. Rudd calls Nichols' songs "psychodramas." The conjunctions and alternations of flat/​natural, major/​minor, consonance/​dissonance frequently bring conflict to his recordings. Certainly the fluttering minor seconds in so many left-hand accompaniments lend an element of darkness to the emotions he projects. Too, there's harmonic ambiguity built into so many pieces, like "Change Of Season," "Wildflower," "The Third World," "Amoeba's Dance," the unresolved strain endings of "Argumentative" and "Portrait Of Ucha." Few jazz composers have illuminated such subtle feelings, including changing and contradictory feelings.

Too bad Rudd's marvelous program notes for the Mosaic boxed set of Herbie Nichols weren't included in the Blue Note CD box of the same material. For one thing, Rudd catalogued the pianist's techniques – the horizontal phrasing of melodies; the conjunctions and alternations of consonance and dissonance; his light touch, especially in the left hand; the nearly inevitable call-response form of his lines; and so on. When Nichols solos on his songs, he improvises new melodies, plays fragments of theme paraphrases and decorations, and theme variations, alternating all three techniques in nearly every solo; compare this with the way most bop pianists simply improvise melodies on the changes. His songs, especially in the 1955-6 Blue Notes, most were close, really ingenious developments of distinctive motives. Like Monk, relocation of theme motives or phrases then became large elements of his solos.

Unlike Monk, or for that matter the majority of jazz pianists, Nichols did not structure his solos in the classic building-climax-anticlimax way. No need to improvise structure when the chord changes of pieces like "Spinning Song," "House Party," "The Gig," any number of others are so distinctive and demanding – these changes provide all the structure an improviser needs. But in some of the more ambiguous or complex pieces his solo shapes blur. Some of his up-tempo pieces, especially the terrific "Hangover Triangle," offer some of the best piano improvising of the era. Of course, Nichols was noted for opening up intros, codas, and brief solo interludes for his bassists and drummers. While in the first Blue Note sessions drummer Art Blakey is a trifle subdued, Max Roach is at his very best in the later Blue Notes, creating interplay and adding a high level of tension to the trio. Drummer Dannie Richmond, a sort of reckless Roach, also adds tension to the Bethlehem session, which also includes excellently melodic bass passages by George Duvivier.

For years I used to believe the only way to play Herbie Nichols' music was to play it on the piano the way Herbie Nichols played. To the contrary, recent CDs show a happy variety of alternative approaches. The most conservative is the Duck Baker "Spinning Song"disc. A sort of heir to the likes of George Barnes and George Van Eps, Baker plays solo swing guitar here, his re-arrangements of Nichols' songs are attractive yet true to the originals, and you may never find this album in stores because the title and Baker's name and photo are not on the front cover; moreover, the liner design with tiny silver letter type on shades of brown, is terrible, completely unreadable.

Perhaps the most radical, for its variety of approaches, is the CD "Love Is Proximity" by The Herbie Nichols Project. They play "Trio" like an Ornette Coleman quartet piece and there are far-out passages in their quintet version of "Wildflower" and in "Crisp Day/​Blue Chopsticks." But then the busy trumpeter Ron Horton and tenorist Ted Nash play fine melodic hard bop solos in "Amoeba's Dance." I quite like Nash for his fluent lyrical playing; his sound and eclectic style sometimes suggest Dewey Redman reinterpreting Coltrane followers like Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. Frank Kimbrough is basically a late-bop pianist who sounds nothing like Nichols; this description is far from a criticism.

The quintets with soprano saxist Steve Lacy and pianist Misha Mengelberg were the first deliberate attempts to reinterpret Nichols and to introduce previously unrecorded Nichols songs. Terrific trombonists on both discs – Rudd in "Regeneration" (nasty, insulting blasts in "2300 Skidoo," a great slobbering, sliding solo in "Twelve Bars); George Lewis in "Change Of Season" (he ends a humorous "House Party Starting" solo by mocking the rhythm section, then treats "The Happenings" like a blues march). Kent Carter's bass playing (hear him drive ahead of the beat in "Blue Chopsticks") swings the "Regeneration" quintet. By contrast, Arjen Gorter's straight, on-the-beat bass can't tame drummer Han Bennink's unswinging whimsical impulses in the "Change Of Seasons" disc. Lovely playing by Lacy (thematic improvisations) and Mengelberg (frequent recollections of Monk's diatonic phrasing) on both discs. "Regeneration" has 3 Nichols songs and 3 Monk songs, "Change Of Season" is all Nichols (6 songs).

Herbie Nichols always wanted his compositions played by a band. Surely he'd enjoy Mengelberg's arrangements for the 12-piece ICP Orchestra, with ever-melodic sound colors that set the songs' subtle moods so well. Lacy is at his legato, rhythmically liberated best here, while Michael Moore creates very distinctive clarinet solos (very free with the beat in "Step Tempest," bent and flat tones in "Spinning Song"). The expressionist drama gets a bit ripe in some solos, and there's more fine trombone from Garret List and Wolter Wierbos. The disc has 6 Nichols songs and, by an ICP septet, 7 Monk songs.

The most challenging later-day interpretations of Nichols are by the trio of Rudd, Greg Millar (guitar), and John Bacon, Jr. (percussion). None of the songs on the two Rudd Trio discs were ever recorded before. There's little direct improvising on Nichols' themes in most of the songs. For example, in the midst of a percussion jungle (think of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) the misterioso theme of "Forest Floor" appears distantly three separate times on marimba; the remarkable theme of "Freudian Frolics," a flowing 42-bar development, is played once on trombone after a long drum solo. That piece is followed by "Valse Macabre," almost through-composed, a mingling of moods (ballad, dark contrast, a minor bridge), the development of a four-bar phrase through superficially discontinuous strains – again, no improvisation on the theme or chords, a wise choice by Rudd since the song itself is so fascinating. On the other hand, two ballads are freely interpreted by a cappella trombone solos, and how much of these two tracks is Nichols?

What extraordinary variety the Rudd trio finds in these 15 songs. Millar and especially Bacon are orchestral players, the busyness of their accompaniments quite compensates for the lack of a larger ensemble. They make the 5/​4 "Some Wandering Bushmen" a dramatic minor-key piece and give "Old 52nd Street Rag" a ricky-tick treatment, though the flowing trombone solo shows it could swing without the corny drums. "Strange City" is a moving ballad; "Dream Time" is a funky, barroom guitar-drums duet; "Prancing Pretty Woman" is another good-time piece with a bridge that sounds like a parody of "Jordu"; "Karna Kanji," with its exotic scale and strangely descending bridge, is set over a one-note guitar ostinato and a Bo Diddley beat on drums.

One showpiece is "Jamaica," with extensive guitar and drums setting a hot Caribbean groove before Rudd's exuberant, wailing trombone solo. In the middle the merriment halts for the slow theme, flatted and pleading through chords that rise by half-steps – harmonic structure meant so much to Nichols – before the celebration resumes. Was it Nichols' idea to set his dark theme amidst the carefree blowing on simple, repeated four chords, and was it Rudd's idea to end each up-tempo section with a "Playmates" quote? The other showpiece is "Tee Dum Tee Dee," a trombone tour de force with extensive outside and inside sections and one of Millar's few solos. In fact, there's a hearty amount of outstanding trombone soloing here including the Latin "Ina," "Prancing Pretty Woman," and "Karna Kanji."

Both Rudd trio CDs are outstanding. The last piece is "Vacation Blues," Rudd singing Nichols' lyrics, a good touch. True, Herbie Nichols story is tragic, yet the wonder of creating such music surely brought a very rare quality of joy to his short life.

The CDs mentioned in this article are:
Nichols/​Tristano/​Marmarosa, etc. /​ "The Modern Jazz Piano Album" (Savoy 0272)
Herbie Nichols /​ "The Complete Blue Note Recordings" (Blue Note 3-CD set 7243)
Herbie Nichols /​ "Love Gloom Cash Love" (Bethlehem 20-30112)
Duck Baker /​ "Spinning Song" (Avant 040)
The Herbie Nichols Project /​ "Love Is Proximity" (Soul Note 121313
Rudd/​Lacy/​Mengelberg/​Carter/​Bennink /​ "Regeneration" (Soul Note 121054)
Mengelberg/​Lacy/​Lewis/​Gorter/​Bennink /​ "Change of Season" (Soul Note 121104)
"ICP Orchestra Performs Herbie Nichols /​Thelonious Monk" (ICP 026)
Roswell Rudd Trio /​ "The Unheard Herbie Nichols Vol. 1" (CIMP 133)
Roswell Rudd Trio /​ "The Unheard Herbie Nichols Vol. 2" (CIMP 146)

Since this article was published in 1998, a few other brave artists have included Nichols pieces in their repertoires now and then. Especially notable are four CDs devoted to his works. The Herbie Nichols Project recorded their subsequent albums "Strange City" and "Dr. Cyclops' Dream." Guitarist Eric T. Johnson revealed very fine sympathy with Nichols in his 2003 album "Herbie Nichols Volume 1" (haven't heard of Volume 2 yet). Best of all, solo pianist Simon Nabatov offered not the style but the adventurous spirit of Herbie Nichols in his 2012 Leo CD "Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols."

Open Letter to a Great Pretender

By Dave Flexingburgstein
(from Coda Magazine, November/​December 1999)

Dear Lester Bowie:
Uh, happy birthday, Mr. Bowie. I, uh, realize that your birthday was in October and here it is November already. So this is another opportunity to make jokes about how jazz critics are behind the times. But I mean it anyway – happy birthday.

Do you remember the time, over three decades ago, that I represented Jism magazine and I asked you if jazz as we know it is dead yet? That interview became famous, and my question and your answer – "That all depends on what you know, hee, hee, hee" – keep getting reprinted in books and jazz magazines. In fact, in some states and provinces, jazz hacks are required to quote it periodically in order to get their critics licenses renewed. The heck of it is, your answer still is relevant today, because there are still people whose concept of jazz is the same as it was on the day before they heard their first Ornette Coleman record. Let alone their first Lester Bowie record. Of course, jazz isn't some kind of pop art, to be revived in oldies concerts once the next wave of fashions comes along. Nor is it what Herbert Read used to call a peasant art, something that can be stuffed with restrictive definitions and mounted in a museum, or maybe in a repertory band. And a big reason that jazz is still a fine art, a living art, an art that changes and moves people in unique ways, is your music.

What makes you the most important, the most influential trumpet player in jazz today? It all starts with your sound – or more accurately, sounds, plural. In 1966, the year The Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble Featuring Lester Bowie was formed and you joined the brand-new AACM, you were on Mitchell's first album, "Sound." The sounds you made there – faint, whistling mouthpiece sounds, subtone whimpers, squelched tones, multiply tongued chatters, growls, wa-was, and all the rest – were certainly different as could be. The most amazing aspect was that you created coherent musical lines out of these sounds. All the jabber, down through the years, about how jazz instrumentalists attempt to imitate the human voice is mainly untrue, Most of the time the opposite happens: Singers try to imitate instrumentalists, from the Mills Brothers down to the latest 20-year-old scat singer to graduate from the Jazz Studies Program at Northeastern Yukon University with a degree in Applied Ella Fitzgerald.

But you heard the human quality in Ellington's trumpet soloists and in Miles Davis's inflections; it's this aspect that you developed into your art. So when you play, it's more than a trumpet, it's a person crying, growling, nagging, celebrating – it's really human sounds, emotions, that you organize into art. What you first expressed in "Sound" was more than what your stylistic predecessors had done. It wasn't a vaudeville novelty act, like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band making barnyard sounds in 1917. On the contrary, you were creating entire solos, which flowed and had structure, out of your musical onomatopoeia. The way you formed those solos was to create a tension of space – silence – and sound together; it gave a whole new meaning to the word "rubato." And these musical lines – so strange to the ear, on first hearing – expressed a new world of feeling. Isn't that essential to the definition of innovation in art, that innovations communicate new ways of feeling?

The best part, Mr. Bowie, was that you were not alone in your discoveries. Jazz is usually a music that people create together, and in those days Mitchell, Malachi Favors, and your other closest associates were also discovering new sounds and new ways to form those sounds into coherent musical lines. That meant (1) a redefinition of the very concept of a jazz ensemble, for in the Art Ensemble's free movement, group interaction alternated with passages in which anyone could become the foreground player, and (2) finding new forms to contain this freely moving music. Most of the pieces collected in "The Art Ensemble 1967/​1968 are wonderful discoveries of form. Your long solo that's the the middle half of "Number One" is an advance beyond "Sound," just for the variety of ways you create music – from free association to flowing melody, from faint tones to blatted insults to rich-toned phrases – and then Roscoe Mitchell follows you with an alto sax solo that's one of the great events in post-Ornette jazz. You were creating other delights in those days, too, like the trumpet solos that begin "A To Ericka" and "Quintet" and the blues solo that you played in the long version of "Old" – I used to play that solo next to a Louis Armstrong blues, to introduce people to your music.

There have not been many great jazz ensembles, and the bare few that have actually been documented, like King Oliver's 1923 band or Jelly Roll Morton in autumn, 1926, or Ornette Coleman in 1959-60, or maybe the very best swing era Basie and Ellington units, didn't last long at all. They were very finely balanced groupings of distinctive individuals, united by shared visions and complementary techniques, and for a few months in 1967 you played in one of the great ensembles: The Art Ensemble, with drummer Philip Wilson, that recorded "Quartet." Inevitably, people and their relationships change. Wilson left the group, though much of the free flow still occurred with remarkable short-term drummers like Thurman Barker, Robert Crowder, Alvin Fielder, Leonard Smith. But them Joseph Jarman joined on a permanent basis, his and Mitchell's obsessions began to emerge, you resisted joining those obsessions. And when the immensely colorful drummer Don Moye joined, spaces closed, rubato dissipated, and the Art Ensemble became a different, often percussion-based band. A very important band, still, but not the same.

Meanwhile, on the day I interviewed you, you were recording "Jazz Death?," your solo piece – probably the first unaccompanied jazz trumpet solo on record – with so many different moods and melodies. Believe it or not, there used to be critics who thought unaccompanied horn solos were mere ego trips, instead of the ultimate challenge to an artist's powers of creativity and organization. But you showed them, Mr. Bowie, you showed them. Hee, hee, hee. You even did a trumpet LP all alone, half of the All The Magic! set, that has more variety of sound colors than most big band albums. Anyway, the unaccompanied solos that you and the other Art Ensemble players pioneered grew into into one of the stimulating trends of "outside" jazz, another of your shared innovations.

Of course, you soon had a life beyond the Art Ensemble. Your Muse albums are gems, especially "Fast Last," for the Julius Hemphill sax solos and arrangements – was this the first time he scored music for a band on record? – and for your "Hello Dolly" solo (worthy of Spike Jones at his best) and for "F Troop Rides Again" (cavalry to the rescue!). The onomatopoeia of "F Troop Rides Again" was matched by your impressions of a Muhammad Ali boxing match, "Rope-A-Dope." Even if the Art Ensemble had changed, you and Philip Wilson could recapture much of the group's early free movement, as in "Duets" and, joined by Favors, in "Three In One." I wish I'd heard your 59-piece Sho 'Nuff Orchestra that played a concert in New York in 1979. Did it sound anything like the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Orchestra you conducted ten years earlier in "Gittin' To Know Y'All"? That composition of yours – actually, a setting for improvisers – is ingenious, beginning and ending with your duets with spacy guitarist Terje Rypdal and including solos by Albert Manglesdorff, Kenny Wheeler, and Dave Burrell that open into exhilarating big band collective improvisations. Too bad that it's probably the least known of your improvisations.

Here is a heretical admission for a jazz critic to make: Much as I love the standard Gershwin-Kern-Ellington-Carmichael-etc. repertoire as reinterpreted by sensitive jazz artists, I don't think those songs are holy. Which is why I also love your reinterpretations of popular songs from the last half of the 20th century, including "the Great Pretender" and Michael Jackson pieces and "Don't Worry, Be Happy." No doubt these songs attracted listeners to your Brass Fantasy: the band had a one-and-only sound, a unique repertoire – pop songs, Billie Holiday pieces, originals by yourself and others – that made up for the lack of consistent style (and style, as a great jazz artist once pointed out, is what results when you get arthritis). Of Brass Fantasy's several arrangers, E.J. Allen was special. There are the really warm sound of the band in Allen's arrangement of "Night Life" and the smooth brass harmonies in Allen's "Smooth Operator" – that piece might suggest Gil Evans, except that your solo replies to the band include no Miles Davis phrases at all.

Allen's arranging seemed uncommonly sharp to the ways you played trumpet – in a piece like "Journey Towards Freedom" he composed band lines that brought out your best responses, something very important: Your improvising is sensitive to your surroundings and, importantly, to yourself. One result of this self-awareness is that a solo like "Miss Nancy," which sure covers a lot of territory in a few choruses, is fast and exhilarating as Roy Eldridge yet lyrical as the best bebop. Another result is the sympathetic solos you played in your first version of "For Louis," your perfect dedication to Armstrong – lots of inflections but no satire, no kidding, here at all, just a lyric hymn – for all the sonic virtuosity and wit, you are most of all a lyric artist. Something else about the way you play straightahead solos like "Miss Nancy": You swing freely with accents and all kinds of ways ahead of and behind the beat. It's like nobody else, and freewheeling as can be.

Is it true that your New York Organ Ensemble only played outside the U.S.? Nobody who used to hear you sit in with the Amina-Ajaramu-Kalaparusha organ combo, long ago in Chicago, will forget those nights, and your 1990s organ group discs are an obvious next step. And now, after decades of playing all kinds of inside and outside jazz, you return to blues-based pieces, which is where you began as a young musician. There's a wistful quality, sometimes suggestive of Miles Davis, to several of your trumpet solos with this group and yet, again, you don't play any of his phrases.

What else do we thank you for? How about all the lovely songs you wrote for he Art Ensemble of Chicago, like "Charlie M," "Zero," "We Bop," "New York Is Full of Lonely People," and the recent ballad "Villa Tiamo"? Or the many times you were a sideman over the years, with Archie Shepp, with Fela in Nigeria, with Sardinian Musicians like Marcello Melis and Antonello Salis, and that wonderful afternoon, in the early '80s, you and Malachi Favors first played in the freely improvising Ritual Trio with drummer Kahil El 'Zabar. It's not as if you were some stingy Miles or Wynton Marsalis, deigning to toot a few licks to enhance the sales of some underling's album. You put as much warmth and melody and imagination into your playing with Malachi Thompson's Chicago-based Africa Brass, or on a James Carter disc, as into your own albums. Shucks, even pop stars like David Bowie and Bill Cosby hire you to enhance their projects. Speaking of pop stars, did you ever form the heavy metal band, with steel drums and sousaphones and contrabass saxophones, that you were planning?

On the cover of your first album, "Lester Bowie: Numbers One and Two," was a painting by Roscoe Mitchell, a parody of Picasso's Three Musicians, in which the musicians were you and Malachi Favors and Philip Wilson; he painted you with a red nose and derby hat, sort of a skinny Pigmeat Markham or a black Charlie Chaplin. Did the painter think of you as a jester like King Lear's ironic Fool, whose words, scorned by all who heard them, were the only wisdom amid mad scenes of vanity, greed, and inhumanity? You play "The Great Pretender" for a theme songs – do you pretend to jest, in order to communicate truths? In the past a few musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington deliberately chose to attract audiences with smiles and good humor, then gave those audiences great art. You, too. But your musical jokes mock easy answers and cheap emotions. Your trumpet sound conveys richness and beauty as often as it conveys humor or pain and complexity. Your musical lines of lyric melody, and also of the world of sounds that your discovered, don't just move with the feeling of life, they give value to life. These are qualities beyond price. What more can anyone ask of an artist?

Now here you are, full of honors, rich with a lifetime of music, while I'm still in the dismal section of the city inhabited by thieves, cutpurses, short-con artists, moral lepers, and jazz critics. That question about the death of jazz that I asked you so long ago – you answered it with words, of course, and also with decades of deeds. "That all depends on what you know," eh? Now we know too. So happy birthday, Mr. Bowie, and more power to you.
Love, Dave

NOTE by JL in 2016:
Upon learning, in late 1999, that the great Lester Bowie was seriously ill, the excellent, courageous, and imaginary critic Dave Flexingburgstein dictated this article to me. Editor Bill Smith put it in the November/​December 1999 issue of Coda magazine, which was published a few days before Lester Bowie's death. Lester never got to read it.

BTW Lester Bowie once told me that as a boy, he'd read a story about how Louis Armstrong allegedly attracted the attention of King Oliver. The story inspired Lester to practice his trumpet with its bell aimed at an open window, in hopes that Louis Armstrong would ride by and hear it.

Bill Smith also prepared a list of recordings mentioned in the article:
Roscoe Mitchell /​ "Sound" (Delmark 408)
The limited-edition boxed set "The Art Ensemble 1967/​1968" no longer exists. Instead, all the music that it had included is now on four CD albums: Lester Bowie /​ "All The Numbers" (Nessa 31/​32, 2-CD album including "Number One"); The Art Ensemble /​ "Early Combinations" (Nessa 29, including "A To Ericka" and "Quintet"); Roscoe Mitchell /​ "Congliptious" (Nessa 2, including "Jazz Death?") and Roscoe Mitchell /​ "Old/​Quartet Sessions" (Nessa 27/​28, 2-CD album)
Baden Baden Free Jazz Orchestra /​ "Gittin' To Know Y'All" (MPS 15269)
Lester Bowie-Philip Wilson /​ "Duets" (IAI 37.38.54)
The Leaders /​ "Mudfoot" (Black Hawk LP 52001, including "Miss Nancy")
The albums "Fast Last" and "Rope-A-Dope" are included in Lester Bowie /​ "American Gumbo" (32 Jazz 32139).
Lester Bowie /​ "The Fifth Power" (Black Saint 0020, including "Three in One")
Lester Bowie /​ "The Great Pretender" (ECM 1209) and "All The Magic" (ECM 1246/​47, 2-CD album including "For Louis"
Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy /​ "Serious Fun" (DIW 834, including "Smooth Operator," "Don't Worry, Be Happy") and "The Fire This Time" (In & Out 7019, including "Journey Towards Freedom," "Night Life")
Lester Bowie's New York Organ Ensemble /​ "The Organizer" (DIW 821) and "Funky T Cool T" (DIW 853)

Bernie McGann on CD

Looks like articles are now gone from the SIMA web site. So here's an American's view of an important Australian artist who is little known in this hemisphere. Peter Jordan of SIMA sent me the marvelous CDs, for which I am mighty grateful. The article appeared shortly before McGann's 70th birthday in 2007; he died in 2013.

Bernie McGann on CD
Author: John Litweiler
Monday 11 June 2007

(In honour of Bernie McGann’s 70th birthday, SIMA commissioned Chicago-based music writer John Litweiler to survey the celebrated saxophonist’s recorded output.)

The earliest Bernie McGann CD, "Kindred Spirits," was recorded in 1987—50 years after his birth, four years after his first LP, and around three decades after he began his career as a jazz artist. Alto saxophonist McGann has led just six other CDs since then, the most recent coming in 2005, and in the CD era he’s been a featured sideman on a handful of other recordings. Like a few others, such as our Chicago-based tenor saxophonists Von Freeman and Fred Anderson, the Sydney-based McGann is apparently a late bloomer who did not emerge on records as a brilliantly original modern jazz figure until well into middle age.

Like the two Chicagoans, McGann is a catalyst. He not only obviously lends creative energy to the bands he plays in, he also seems to stimulate others’ creativity. Also like the two Chicagoans, McGann’s value to jazz extends far beyond his own city, and beyond his nation. But McGann’s discography is apparently less than half as long as theirs. Are opportunities to record limited by the size of the jazz marketplace in Australia, which has 1/​15th the population of America? Also, Bernie McGann is apparently not well known over here. Though some of his albums are distributed in North America, as far as I know he’s only journeyed to play in the western hemisphere six times.

Especially since McGann is such a vital lyric artist, his lack of recognition might seem remarkable. During his early career, was modern jazz in Sydney the music of just a few artists and a small audience, like New Orleans modern jazz (Blackwell, Batiste, Marsalis, a few others) in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s? Or was McGann simply too original to be assimilated into the mainstream of Australian jazz for much of his career? His periods of playing in non-jazz settings, of working non-musical day jobs, even of not playing gigs are not unusual. In America, for a comparison, since the early 1960s most of the best jazz musicians have been supporting themselves by teaching, playing in pop and classical music groups, and working in service jobs, offices, etc. Heaven knows, a life of art is a hard one, and we listeners should be especially grateful for Bernie McGann’s devotion.

Most of all, his devotion is to pure jazz. While he’s played fusion music and rock, with this own groups he’s been true to modern jazz—the real thing, unadorned, undiluted. Despite all the alternatives that have emerged since his career began, the hard core of the idiom is so rich with possibilities that he quite stands out from the rest of the bop-era stylistic generations. Who, from Lee Konitz to Frank Morgan, is there to compare to him in a blindfold test?

It’s interesting that McGann chose the Johnny Hodges showpiece "The Jeep is Jumping" for his "Live at Side On" CD and that he plays in an ABC performance of Sandy Evans’ and Yusuf Komunyakaa’s grand Charlie Parker tribute "Testimony." In Evans’ "Addie’s Boy" and her settings of "Moose the Mooch" and "Koko" McGann plays Parker phrases that stand out precisely because McGann’s contexts—his other phrases, his ways of shaping solos—are so un-Birdlike (and his "Addie’s Boy" solo is especially lovely). As for "The Jeep," if his vibrato is narrow and fast like Hodges’ was, the low register ideas that begin McGann’s improvisation and his concluding quote from Miles Davis’ Compulsion are a generation or two after Hodges. (And he plays a bop solo in another Hodges showpiece, "Day Dream" [in Ugly Beauty"]).

All right, just what is so personal, so singular about Bernie McGann’s music?

- His sound

Bud Freeman claimed a jazz musician’s sound was the only enduring element of his/​her music. McGann plays his alto sax with a hard, true sound in his middle and upper registers and a growly rasp in his lowest tones. In every solo he also strains up to the very top of the alto’s range, but he doesn’t dwell up high.
That’s his sound most of the time. While his vibrato is usually fast and narrow, in the slow "Deep Shallow" (in "Blues for Pablo Too") his vibrato slows and, at least for a time, he achieves an Ornete Coleman-ish sound. In some other slower pieces his sound acquires a Lee Konitz-like limpidity.

- His attack and his swing

In his first CD, "Kindred Spirits," he loved to play atop the beat or a micro fraction ahead—a powerful attack. This eagerness especially suggests a kinship with Warne Marsh, but by his latest CD "Blues for Pablo Too" every solo, virtually every chorus includes phrases that lay behind the beat, or start on the beat and drop behind. No doubt some of this sly swing is to contrast with his trumpeter, Warwick Alder. More importantly, he’s had the great advantage of having so often played with drummer John Pochee since the beginning and with bassist Lloyd Swanton since the 1980s. The swing generated by these two seems to inspire McGann and to free his rhythmic trickery.

- His phrasing

He’s a modernist, so of course his ideas often resemble Parker’s. Now and then passing reflections of other modernists appear, for instance of Lee Konitz ("Big Moon" in "Bundeena"). He reportedly (by Andrew Bisset) began as a Paul Desmond devotee. Desmond had been influenced by Pete Brown and Lee Konitz, and each of these three may have also influenced McGann’s lyricism. His phrasing is typically broken; his solos are full of vari-length phrases and dispersed accents; the rests between his phrases are, even at fast tempos, usually no more than six beats. He doesn’t riff much or play sheets of sound or fast, Coltrane-ish arpeggios. In fact, even on the rare occasions when he double-times, it’s only for a bar or two—that’s extremely rare among post-Parker saxists. His phrasing is as fluid and versatile as ‘60s Hank Mobley, but eclectic, he ain’t.

- His solo forms

Swanton’s tune "Blues on the Prairie" (in "Bundeena") is a takeoff on Sonny Rollins’ classic "Blues for Philly Joe"; McGann’s improvisation, first over a bass ostinato, then swinging, is shaped like a Rollins set-up. One of the most vivid, even violent, is another fast blues, "Salaam" (in "Kindred Spirits"), with eight-bar calls and four-bar replies. After six choruses of staccato lines, the piano enters and McGann suddenly plays a long note for a change. Long tones continue to appear and, beginning in the ninth chorus, several choruses of down-turning ideas—one of his most dramatic solos.

McGann will structure solos with contrasts, like the alternation of stuttering and melodic ideas in "Playground" (in the CD "Playground"). He’ll build, from strain to strain or from chorus to chorus, from short to longer phrases ("Southerly Buster," also in "Playground"), or from growly low beginnings to his middle register. While he’s usually as uninterested in dynamics as most other bop-era soloists, in the moody samba "Malanbar" ("Bundeena") a very slow, incremental rise in volume level to piano is the main element of form.

He’s certainly a sophisticated craftsman, but this lyric artist’s main interest is in shaping flowing melodic lines, and he generally conceives of overall solo forms only in the broadest designs. Every solo of his has a rise to his highest register—usually a leap up, often an octave leap—in the first strain of his climactic choruses.

Pochee has always been the drummer on McGann’s CDs, beginning with "Kindred Spirits." Swanton has been McGann’s bassist since his second CD, "Ugly Beauty." From the fierce pace of that disc’s start, "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," it’s clear that this is a together trio, and "Bluebird of Happiness" has especially stimulating interaction, with McGann’s hard-bitten phrases, Swanton’s unforced drive, and Pochee’s Roach-like complexity lending the piece a classic Blue Note or Prestige feeling. Over the years the interplay between these three becomes more subtle, while it has become, if anything, more intense.

The true, unamplified sound of Swanton’s bass, the sensitivity of his note choices, his straightforward, on-the-beat lines, and the melodic directness of his soloing make him sound like—this is, I think, the highest possible compliment—a Chicago bassist, in the tradition of Milt Hinton, Israel Crosby, Wilbur Ware. Again and again Pochee’s interplay motivates the trio. An especially striking example is in the terrific "Live at Side On" version of "Brownsville," in which the varying levels of drum interplay are mainly what shapes McGann’s solo.

Obviously McGann is not hampered by the pianists in his first CD and his recordings as a sideman. His own trios and later quartets are not piano-less to encourage his harmonic freedom—on the contrary, he improvises on chord changes throughout his albums with these groups. The bop era, especially hard bop, added detail and intrigue to the interaction of soloists and rhythm sections, and the highly refined interplay of himself, Swanton, and Pochee that makes his groups work so well.

Probably every listener will have their own favorites among McGann’s recordings. To take them in chronological order, I enjoy first the hard-bop spirit of "Kindred Spirits" (1987). His pianist Bobby Gebert’s "Dolphy’s Dance" is a pure Blue Note-1960s tune, with both chord changes and one-chord strains and an especially dramatic McGann solo. The optimism of McGann’s "Mr. Harris" theme and solo is a recurring, perhaps inherent quality that you can hear again and again over the years.

The trio’s debut, "Ugly Beauty" (1991), includes McGann’s very laid-back alto, in deliberate contrast with Pochee’s exuberant calypso drumming, in "Barbados." Note also the characteristic McGann up-sweeps in his "Lady’s Choice" theme, as well as his sweet-singing lines in "Bluebird of Happiness." In 1993 Pochee’s daring ensemble Ten Part Invention recorded "Tall Stories"; McGann creates three excellent solos in this CD.

A top trombonist, James Greening, joins the trio and makes wonderful contrasts in "McGann McGann" (1994). After the broken, post-Parker alto phrases, Greening offers long lines, more dramatic forms, and a rich sound. After another swaggering alto solo in "Mail," Greening offers big, slashing lines, and "Birthday Blues" rises to a ferocious alto-trombone chase. Greening emotes most of all in the modal "Lazy Days," especially at the unusual slow-to-fast-tempo turnarounds. McGann is at his most lyrical throughout the album, and this version of "Brownsville" is a priceless quartet performance.

In fact, I think "McGann McGann" and "Playground" (1996) are his two most essential albums. McGann’s other horn in "Playground" is tenorist Sandy Evans (who like Greening plays in both Ten Part Invention and Swanton’s Afro-Carib-jazz combo The Catholics). Here her mid-Coltrane harmonic sophistication and brilliant technique meets McGann’s more classic sensibility, and she also composed some sparkling themes. Her spacey tune "Snap" lifts the altoist into inspired harmonic obliqueness. In her "Eulogy for a Friend" McGann’s feathery sound and his melodic purity are full of feeling, yet without sentimentality or blues phrasing. Her "Skedaddleology" really is free jazz, and there’s good humor among the two saxes: he breaks through his usual four- and eight-bar moulds, she plays multiphonics and sheets of sound.

In the year between those two McGann quartets he played in soul singer Margie Evans’ "Drowning in the Sea of Love," with a playful obligato to her unhappy "Another Blue Day" and a bar-walking solo in "Evil Gal Blues." In the same winter composer-pianist Cathy Harley was more challenging in her quintet CD "Tuesday’s Tune." Her songs are modal, or they have unusual chord changes (such as her fast, twisted "New Blues") or unusual key changes (a modulation that drops instead of rises in "Cross Criss"). Her most distinctive settings yield her and McGann’s most clever solos, especially the title tune, with a raw, raspy edge now extending through his entire alto range, Pete Brown-like. It’s a late-hard-bop disc that encourages the altoist’s aggression, including a Jackie McLean-like intensity in "Never Too Much."

In "Rent Party" (1998) singer Susan Gai Dowling is joined for standards by pianist Dave Levy and the McGann Trio. While Dowling sounds rather light-hearted in "It Had to be You" and "Fine and Mellow," her quartet, especially soloist McGann, discover more complex emotions. He again took the free jazz dare as a guest of Wanderlust in two short collective improvisations in "Song and Dance" (1998). Again with Ten Part Invention in the CD "Unidentified Spaces" (2000), McGann and Greening offer especially expressive solos in a fine Evans piece, "North Pole." The alto solo in the far-out setting of "Folk Song" emphasizes his ease playing outside as well as inside.

"Bundeena" (2000) returns to the McGann Trio, and besides the tracks noted above, note the unperturbed optimism of his alto over the bass-drum threats of "Let’s Tangle." Trumpeter Warwick Alder joins them to make another quartet in "Live at Side On" (2003). An eclectic, he favors the Clifford Brown lineage, with tips of the hat to Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. He’s legato, McGann is staccato; he conceives of full strains, full choruses as he structures his solos, while McGann’s form are more romantic; he includes decorative flourishes and fanfares, McGann doesn’t. Good contrasts of Alder and McGann here and in the last McGann album, "Blues for Pablo Too" (2005).

But I’ve raved on long enough. True, he’s only led seven CDs and been featured on just a few others. Has any other alto saxophonist, anywhere in the world, produced as many consistently first-rate albums as in the last 20 years? In a period when jazz artists are expected to be versatile just to survive, does anyone else thrive in varied settings as much as McGann thrives? Of course, McGann is lucky to be part of such a gifted community of jazz musicians in Sydney. I sure hope Sydney folks realize how lucky they are to have him in their midst, and that they celebrate his 70th birthday with great delight this month.

Selected Works

Nora Heatley's invention will save the human race -- why, then, was she murdered? Why is her husband Joe pursued by police, FBI, CIA, thugs, and crazies? A noir novel in broad daylight about an ancient conspiracy to manipulate mankind's destiny.
Black people rule America. Whites are the underprivileged minority, and--bad news!--Chicago is in an uproar over a stolen mojo.
When your darker side is the one thing you can't escape - where do you run? The brilliant novel by Michael O'Flaherty.

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