Adam Yauch, known to millions of Beastie Boys fans as MCA, died of cancer today (Friday, May 4, 2012) at the age of 47. Yauch had been diagnosed in 2009, and when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year, the illness kept him from attending the ceremony. The band became so beloved in its native city that tonight, the Mets are playing Beastie Boys songs in place of the batters' usual walk-up music.
Monday, April 30, is International Jazz Day, proclaimed by UNESCO goodwill ambassador Herbie Hancock. There will be streaming concerts and much more on jazzday.com. It seems like an apt time for a solid historical overview of jazz. Over the years, people have asked me, "I've just started listening to jazz, what should I get?" and "What jazz albums do you think everyone should have in their collection?" Here are my top recommendations to provide a broad foundation for understanding jazz through classic performances that have stood the test of time.
Never mind what you've been told by the hagiographers of more famous six-stringers -- the contest for "greatest living British guitarist" is between John McLaughlin (Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra) and Allan Holdsworth (Soft Machine, Tony Williams Lifetime [as McLaughlin's replacement], U.K., Gong), and Holdsworth is my choice. That so much of his solo catalog (around twenty albums) has been hard to find in the U.S. has not helped his case here. Both of these reissues are important albums, for somewhat different reasons.
Joe Henderson always had the respect of fellow musicians and hardcore jazz fanatics, but for a long time it seemed the closest he'd get to fame was his brief stint in Blood, Sweat & Tears (years later he reminisced, in one of my favorite interviews, about how that short period was when sax companies wanted his endorsement and gave him free horns). Hardly fair considering that he spent a quarter century ranked among the top three tenor saxophonists alive, along with Rollins and Shorter. Then, almost miraculously, Verve put together a masterful production/promotion campaign that made him more famous in his last decade than he'd ever been before. Alas, emphysema took him at age 64, but he'd managed to leave an impressive legacy with nary a misstep -- he never made a bad album, and his appearance on anyone else's album was always a mark of quality. (Why is Ptah, the El Daoud Alice Coltrane's best album? At least partly because Joe's on it.) Here are my favorites, in chronological order (dates in parentheses are recording dates).
The musical harvest of last year’s Liszt bicentennial continues even now; this young French pianist (who already, six years ago, gave us an excellent cycle of the Transcendental Etudes) celebrated it by presenting this mighty collection, which amounts to three cycles, in single concerts and then recording this three-CD set. For decades Lazar Berman’s set for Deutsche Grammophon has set the standard in this repertoire for an integral set, but Chamayou equals it.
The Band live at The Syria Mosque, Pittsburgh, PA, November 1, 1970. Playing "Time to Kill," "The Weight," "This Wheel's on Fire," and "Up on Cripple Creek."
The surprising thing about this album is how wild it is. I didn't expect this clarinet/piano duo playing lots of very old standards to shoot off on weird tangents filled with such startling dissonances; I've heard Daniels and Kellaway in separate contexts before this, and they were less adventurous then. They play the themes straightforwardly, but sometimes open those tracks with left-field intros that would make even Erroll Garner smile a bit enviously. And once they get to their solos (mostly in the sense of "featured," in Daniels's case, though Kellaway really is solo and sometimes he drops out to let Daniels fly unaccompanied), you never know whether you're going to hear a sedately prim excursion on bebop-level harmonies or a spurt of exuberance that takes in a wider range of styles. Their reading of Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning," while not so big on the dissonance front, throbs with energy from Kellaway in particular, who unleashes some rowdy two-handed runs and also bursts into stride.
The four largest Bach choral works are the Mass in B-minor, the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, and the Christmas Oratorio, and half of those are about today and tomorrow, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (the work was written for performance at Good Friday Vespers). The St. John Passion is in some ways the most daring of the big four, especially as first composed -- the version heard here -- since the 1725 revision doesn't have the opening chorus "Herr, unser Herrscher." The roiling tension of the opening immediately sets the work apart from its peers, and throughout it is considerably more dramatic -- and much leaner than the St. Matthew Passion.
David J. Roch: Skin & Bones (Dram)
The punk aspiration that "everyone can" has been rendered by the digital age a democratic reality, and a jaundiced reward. A tsunami of silver discs panhandle the ears of listeners, and as a result an air of capable mediocrity holds sway, an invisible ether of downloads gas expectations with their average worth instant availability, and then, but only occasionally, something creeps out of the speakers that startles and stuns, demands proper attention, and soars above the parliament of ordinary birds and their common-place warblings.
The major attraction here, with all due respect to the great Concerto for Piano & Orchestra of 1988, is the Symphony No. 4, because there have only been (to my knowledge) four previous recordings of it. All of them are reputed to be excellent, but I have only two to compare it to, both conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. He makes it sound by turns more mysterious and more passionate, and also more taut; this new one has more spectacular sonics and presents the work more as a piece of abstract modernism. With Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) one of the top five Polish composers ever, and one of the better 20th century composers, alternative versions of his masterpieces are worth having, and this one is very welcome.