Tag Archives: innovation

PLAYLAND, or SONNY STRIDES BY (2011)

I met the delightfully imaginative Carl Sonny Leyland a decade or more ago, and was quickly made welcome in his many-hued world.  More about that whimsy of mine after the music.  Don’t let the somber photo study above spook you: that is the face he puts on when he wants a minute’s peace after having been polite to his many admirers.

Hot Jazz sometimes can seem a little lopsided, tilting in the direction of the past, of course because there is so much beauty to be found there).  Musicians in the present treat the past in divergent ways: I’ll call them Strict Tempo and Rubato.  The ST people approach with awe and reverence, as if the materials we have — mostly recordings and sheet music, transcriptions and the like — are tiles in a holy mosaic.  Their commendable goal is to reproduce past glories as accurately as possible.  That’s not easy, as anyone who has tried to sound like Charlie Christian or Joe Thomas can tell you.  The Rubato fellows have lovely vintage neckties, but theirs are loosened; Rubato women wear gorgeous vintage dresses but might pair them with red Keds.  They feel that the heroes were innovative, and would encourage a kind of respectful innovation as the greatest tribute.

I write this to introduce Sonny’s lively and individualistic treatment of James P. Johnson’s CAROLINA SHOUT in March 2011, location unknown, although perhaps a house party, with the gentleman on the couch exhausted by it all — hedonism is tough work:

I have no doubt that James P. is admiring this and pointing to that young fellow at the keyboard with pride.

To PLAYLAND.  I could have put on my English-professor garb and said that Sonny lives by the light of Whitman and Emerson, encompassing multitudes, delighting in contradictions, trusting himself.  True — perhaps a little pompous, but valid.

However, even though it is childish to pun on people’s names, I had the vision of Sonny as creator and proprietor of a vast — although secret — amusement park, with bright lights, sleek modernist rides made of gleaming metal in curves and elliptical orbits, snack bars serving Bombay gin and chickpea curry, and at odd corners of the park signs enticing Annoying People, pedants, and arm-grabbers to be sucked into darkness and deposited miles away, to teach them to be less Annoying.  No hot dogs, no distorted music coming through speakers.  I’d be delighted to visit.  But until we are invited, we can hear its proprietor creating lively surprises at the keyboard.

 

HONORING PRES and LADY DAY: SCOTT ROBINSON, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JOE COHN, MURRAY WALL at CAFE BOHEMIA (January 30, 2020)

The great innovators began as imitators and emulators, but their glory is they went beyond attempts to reproduce their models: think of Louis and Joe Oliver, think of Bird and Chu Berry, of Ben and Hawk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was present for a glorious example of honoring the innovators on January 30, 2020, at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York, when Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone, cornet, and more; Murray Wall, string bass; Joe Cohn, guitar, crated merriment, art, and enlightenment.  I’ve posted their extravagant ROYAL GARDEN BLUES here.  It’s worth the nine minutes and ten seconds of your time.

A few songs later, Jon-Erik suggested that Scott take the lead for a performance, which he did, most splendidly, with FOOLIN’ MYSELF.  Yes, it’s a  homage to a heard Lester and a remembered Billie, but it also takes in a fragment of Rex Stewart’s BOY MEETS HORN, and creates on the spot a riff reminiscent of Fats’ HANDFUL OF KEYS as reimagined by Ruby Braff:

Thus it isn’t the little box of Homage or Tribute but a large world, elastic, expansive, gratifying.  The way to honor the trail-blazers is to blaze trails.

Postscript: this is being posted on Tuesday, February 18.  On Thursday, the 20th, Scott will be leading a quartet at that very same Cafe Bohemia, with sets at 8 and 10.  Break the piggy bank and come down the stairs!

May your happiness increase!

THE “INNOVATION” MIRAGE

A centennial YouTube tribute to Ben Webster by “JazzVideoGuy” is a commendable idea — but its accompanying prose reads:

“Ben is without question one of the music’s immortals.  He did not originate a style or spearhead a period of radical change; but his magnetic tenor saxophone playing moved listeners as deeply as the work of any other artist on his or any other instrument.”

Intriguing that jazz listeners should have to rationalize, even apologize for what some perceive as a weakness.  Must we continue to champion “originality” and “innovation” as prime virtues? 

Frankly, having someone “spearhead a period of radical change” sounds dangerous, unfriendly.  I have to wonder what the jazz chroniclers thought was so wrong with any period of jazz that “radical change” was needed to rescue it from its artistic limitations.  One hears Roy Eldridge or Johnny Hodges in 1944.  Had their styles so calcified as to need all this spearheading?  I think not.  But the historians present it as if they were detritus waiting idly to be swept aside by the radical whiskbrooms of The New Thing.   

This, I suspect, comes from our advertising-driven desire for the New, our impatience with anything that looks Old.  Milk spoils; art doesn’t.

And to the championing of “originality”: let us propose that the “originals” of jazz were (I will pick five): Louis, Duke, Bird, Monk, Coltrane.  None of them, for a moment, pretended that they had come from nowhere, that they had created themselves.  Behind them stood Joe Oliver, James P. Johnson, Will Marion Cook, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins . . . and so on.  The musicians know that they are all branches on a growing tree; the historians who wish to set one School against another, to make good press, to sell CDs, create artificial distinctions.