Saturday, March 11, 2006

jazz in the mornin' #4: Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, Sonny Rollins

I've been rather lax in keeping you updated on De Morgen's jazz series.

#2 covered Billie Holiday. On one hand, earlier songs like "Deep Song" and "I Loves You Porgy" are heart-stopping. On the other hand, "Love For Sale" in 1953 - voice already seriously degraded and accompanied by Oscar Peterson (lyrics) - inspires the mix of disgust and grudging admiration that seeing an old prostitute on the street does. It's not a pleasant feeling. I can't make up my mind as to whether Peterson's frisky accompaniment represents a much younger and prettier colleague working half a block away or a pimp doing his used car salesman best to convince potential clients of the merchandise's worth. Is this contrast a good thing? Mal Waldron was Holiday's last accompanist and I can't help but think that he would have been much more apposite here (speaking of Waldron, I just picked up a second-hand copy of the 4-cd "Live At Dreher, Paris 1981" set of duos with Steve Lacy. 4 hours of elevated bliss in perspective).

Also, Holiday's inextricably deep relationship to the songs she sang and her unaffected delivery might well have a greater lineage in pop than in jazz. Admittedly, I don't listen to much vocal jazz, but I get a general sense of disconnection between the singer and the standard. For example, does "Love For Sale" make sense as a song about prostitution in 2006, when the issues, in Europe at least, revolve more around the lucrative smuggling of young women out of Russia or Eastern European countries, into Western European countries where they live semi-hidden, in clandestinity? The challenge is to make the song yours again.

Fay Victor found a fun way to do so: she wrote words to Sonny Rollins's "Way Out West" about her return to the US after several years spent living in Amsterdam. The joy and personal involvement are palpable in her performance. Her 2004 CD "Lazy Old Sun" is highly recommendable and features exactly that sense of connection, whether with old tunes like "Laura" (with Wolter Wierbos in a Roswell Rudd mood) or originals like the get-me-out-of-here "Stealaway."

For instrumentalists, this problem doesn't really apply, or much less so. Even the classic Cannonball/Miles version (taking an old example to prove that this isn't a new issue) totally leaves aside any allusion to the meaning of the lyrics, yet is undiminished for it.

#3 was dedicated to Chet Baker. I was kind of disappointed that there weren't any later works, as I've never heard any of his European stuff from the 70s or 80s. Two main revelations: compared to Mulligan and Baker, Lee Konitz swings much harder and is more adventurous, while respecting the form-is-everything context; the final track, Baker singing a capella is a perfect and beautiful way to end the compilation, even though it breaks the chronological flow. It's another sign (along with the packaging and accompanying info) that they aren't sleepwalking through these CDs.

#4 was Louis Armstrong's. No new insights, only the recurring ones: no, Armstrong is not corny, obviously not in the early days and not even in the later days; it could be argued that Ella Fitzgerald possessed jazz's most beautiful instrument.

#5 covers Sonny Rollins. I've often wondered how it was possible that one of the very greatest pure improvisers ever had not attained mythical proportions similar to those of Miles, Coltrane or Ellington. Marc van den Hoofd may have hit on the answer in the biographical portion of his liner notes: he was (and continues to be) the loneliest of the jazz greats. He "borrowed" bands left and right (Ornette's, Coltrane's, Miles's), but never found one that he could make great (consider the general disdain for his current working band). Didier Wijnants comes up with an explanation I hadn't heard before in the accompanying news article: wife/manager Lucille didn't want Rollins playing with his old bebop buddies because she was afraid he'd slip back into drugs and alcohol. I wonder if the same line of thought applied to him playing with current top-notch players (pick your Sonny dream team here)?

Anyway, the latest Rollins I'd heard was "The Bridge," so it was interesting to hear stuff from his Impulse! period and how he'd been influenced by the avant-garde. Also notable that Impulse! is on board...