Okay, let’s say 1965. And let’s round off and call that 50 years ago. In 1965 we knew a lot about what Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane represented and where they were going; and yes there were surprises, not least by a long shot John Coltrane’s sudden, shocking departure two years later—for me, an unfixable hole had been kicked in the world; but in ’65 he was taking his classic quartet, after a series of unbreakable limits broken, to its actual limit, while Sonny Rollins was flickering in and out of the avant-garde, sometimes with utter mastery of old and new materials, sometimes comporting himself so strangely that his discomfort seemed interplanetary, for a while. To cut to the bridge: no tenor saxophonist has been as original or influential since. 50 years! In earlier decades jazz did not go like that. There could be no one after Charlie Parker, and then there were a number of people after Charlie Parker, our two heroes among them; but no one (to simplify) of their size and influence since. Is that necessarily a terrible thing? Beethoven (to simplify) loomed irremovably over the entire Western classical 19th century, but that didn’t prevent a number of composers of genius from emerging and making their unforgettable marks, and the music they represented was anything but dead. This week on Updoc—Friday at 8 PM and noon next Tuesday, Birdland Vanguard Half Note Five Spot time—we continue our celebration of Sonny Rollins’ Road Shows Vol. 4 with four more tracks from that new CD, bracketed by a number of older Rollins classics, including his one-time recorded pairing with John Coltrane, 1956’s elided confrontation on Tenor Madness; each man In a Sentimental Mood four-plus decades apart; and two recordings from 1961 and ’62 in which each man goes for broke at length in his own way. A couple of hours of that and then let’s see if anything has changed our minds about where we are now and what it all means, man.
Yes, it’s another Sonny Rollins love-fest here on Updoc—8PM Friday and noon next Tuesday, Live at the Five Spot time. At the drop of a hat, or rather the release of Road Shows Vol. 4, I couldn’t resist devoting another two full hours to this unequalled bringer of joy to those of us who love this music. So, four songs from the new compilation, three of them probable classics and the fourth, well, also a probable classic, and for a middle act two tracts of retrospective from earlier decades. As for the new release of live recordings, Mr. Rollins said that he tried to choose performances that didn’t make him want to shoot himself. We hope he succeeded, and that one of these days he will get it right. Which brings us to the fresh joy of the news that he’s going to try to play again. It’s been a semi-open secret for a few years that the saxophone colossus was having trouble with his wind, probably due to his exposure, at his downtown studio, to the fumes and debris of 9/11—he was close to it, stuck indoors, with shut but not sealed windows, and being who he was he did a lot of playing, which may not have helped. Now he’s expressed a willingness to try some medication that may help put him back in playing condition, and this man, who could not be more loved by those who know his music, and therefore to some degree know him, can only wish Sonny Rollins the very best luck and healing and a return if he can manage it. He wants to play again and we all want to hear it, whenever this living national treasure feels ready.
For starters there’s a new opening theme this week, and you’ll have to tune in to believe it—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Statue of Liberty time. After that? Three tunes from Noah Preminger’s new CD of Delta Blues updates, and then I couldn’t, after all the recent Rites and Springing, get loose from Igor “Slam” Stravinsky, so here’s the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing his 1947 ballet score . . . wait for it . . . Orpheus: a breath-of-fresh-air sort of thing, surprisingly pretty. What else is in store? Well, I remain unconvinced by Vijay Iyer as a jazz musician, but the further he gets from idiomatic jazz the brighter his pianistic gifts shine, so here are three tunes from his new album of duets with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith: a spacious free-music idiom in which swing is not a factor and the blues can be a passing fancy suits him well. The title, however, might be the most pretentious or do I mean presumptuous title ever: A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. A break please give me. For swing, though, we’re if anything overcompensated by Ralph Peterson’s new live piano-trio record with Zaccai and Luques Curtis, already getting picked as album of the month around the circuit and probably the swingingest new thing you will hear for a while (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes). As for Stravinsky, the really interesting piece is saved for last: his 1957 ballet score Agon, the first work in which he joined the opposition and employed tone rows. The composer’s own recording was conducted by the man who insisted that music was incapable of expressing anything: the piece as he renders it is almost vehemently devoid of subjective expression. It’s an impersonal or suprapersonal gleaming, but I found a recording by the great Soviet conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, who sails into it as if it’s by Shostakovich, full of dramatic and ironic oppositions and collisions. Mravinsky finds a dramatic and rhythmic through-line dynamic in this music that Stravinsky might have objected to but which might just bowl you over. Updoc finishes with a suitelet from Gato Barbier’s keening, romantic score for Last Tango in Paris, probably the best thing about the film aside from the . . . oh never mind. It’s hard to believe Barbieri was 83 years old: once heard, never forgotten: hail and farewell.
What can I say? After welcoming the season in with three brilliant versions of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps over the last three weeks and now, finishing up with Stravinsky’s own 1960 recording—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Carnegie Hall time—after doing a lot of close listening to all these versions, I have to ask myself: is there really anything of value that Messrs. Bernstein, Boulez, Svetlanov or any number of others can add to what the composer himself brought to the music? His performance used to sound a little hard and tight to me, constricted compared to Bernstein and the other showpiece versions that followed, but I don’t hear that anymore, while on the other hand is the somewhat saturnine Boulez really more detailed than the composer himself bringing out what he put in? Neither does Stravinsky’s performance lack any voltage of excitement. It’s got everything, along with a degree of authenticity no one else can supply. Listen in if you like, and see if you agree. In any case, the Sacre is great emough so that no performance can exhaust its possibilities. It’s the center of this virtually all-Stravinsky show—it opens with well-known Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker quotes from the Sacre, and there’s also a Parker masterpiece in the midshow featuring what may be a Stravinsky variation—preceded by Bernstein’s exhilarating Petroushka, the ballet composed immediately before the Sacre, which may be Stravinsky’s most emotionally direct and open music, ever. The Sacre, though, remains his Citizen Kane, the work no one will let him live down, the work because of which he’s tasked with never having gone for broke again, for being brilliant and heartless and not sharing his soul with us throughout his neoclassical period—his late works are another story: taking up Schoenbergian dodecaphonics gave him an amazing boost of fresh greatness. We don’t go there this week, but we do have two major middle-period works: the deeply committed Symphony of Psalms—Shostakovich, for one, thought it the greatest work of the century’s greatest composer—in a stunning, maybe definitive performance led by John Eliot Gardiner, and the 1931 Violin Concerto played to a fare-thee-well by a great young Hillary Hahn. If you’re up for two hours of glittering genius-level dazzlement, this is the place.
I missed Cecil Taylor’s 87th birthday by almost two weeks—oops, but isn’t it fine to see so many jazz lives run at length rather than surrender prematurely to the rigors of the trail? The great Ernestine Anderson just left town at a comparable age, so that her midway intermission from the scene now seems but a brief pause in a majestic career; so, beginning with her, welcome to a Catchup Ball Special on this week’s Updoc, Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Washington Square Park, Northwest Corner time. With the onset of spring and the wealth of gesture Taylor derived—especially once he discarded set tempos and made his phrasing itself the muscle of his music—from the birdsong piano works of Olivier Messiaen, I thought I’d start off with an early example of the French master’s practice before opening the gate to Taylor’s solo-piano Garden and a quartet Unit piece. That led me to realize that I’d been listening to Messiaen all wrong for years, and that my disinclination to incline his way had to do not only with an incompatability in my preference in tone-colors but a hankering for high-modernist developmental logic that was increasingly alien to his work: never moreso than in his late, open-form, American-outdoorsy From the Canyon to the Stars, a piece that strikes me now as sufficiently plumb wonderful to excerpt on the show. As for the rest of it, Yevgeny Svetlanov conducts the USSR Symphony Orchestra in this week’s rendering of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, and what strikes me most about it is not some obvious Russianness but Svetlanov’s fluent sense of tempo—the rhythmic shifts feel breath-natural, with no sacrifice of precision—and his delineation of individual voices in the orchestra: we all know that Soviet ensembles either lack or didn’t try for the sectional creaminess of the capitalist competition, but the strandiness of the brass and especially the strings and woodwinds here seem an intentional branching back to the music’s folk roots. Stravinsky always denied that there were old Russian melodies in the Sacre, but he was lying through his dentures; Svetlanov doesn’t put up any billboards of peasant life, but he gets at something central I haven’t heard before. Stravinsky said that there “isn’t any room for soul-searching in the Sacre”. This performance doesn’t search but, springlike, finds it in the natural course of things and keeps going deeper.
Spring is here? Really? Something seems to have trumped it, and the weather keeps flipping its coin. What next? Bill Evans for starters, and we can’t usher the season in without goldbright notes from Clifford Brown and Django Reinhardt. So it goes at the start of this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Hudson River Valley time—before running into Chinese music, Charlie Haden and Keith Jarrett, Albert Roussel’s neat-o springtime piece, Sheila Jordan and Eartha Kitt, respectively, when their worlds were young, and I forget the rest. Oh, more Clifford Brown, this time with Max and Sonny, but the wrap-up’s same as last week, only different: Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, this time preceded by the master’s old-age piece The Requiem Canticles—as spare and sere a music as you will ever hear, right up against the end of life, telling what it sees, no code, in clear—and this week’s Sacre a 1963 Boulez performance with the ORTF that shows how far as you can travel from last week’s blazing Bernstein and still be playing the same music. At the turn of the ‘60s Lenny may have helped turn the epoch-making clamor of the Rite into a super-exciting orchestral showpiece, and this has framed most interpretations since, whether as commentary or in opposition. I’ve noticed that American conductors, including Michael Tilson-Thomas, an acknowledged master of the score, generally turn out bracing, celebratory music, stronger on birth and rebirth than on the human sacrifice, remember, that ends it. No such thing from Boulez, where dread’s in there from the downbeat: his interpretation hardly lacks excitement, but its inexorable, juggernaut tread is as intent on the bad news as the good, aware of the piece not only as breakthrough of all apparent limits but as prophecy of the devastation to come. As compensation, you hear notes and details that other performances obscure: Boulez is intent on presenting the entire picture, fact and vision both. I think it’s his best recording of the Sacre, and if you listen well, O Wolves, you’ll know you’ve been through something when it’s over. Next week Yevgeny Svetlanov keeps it Russian, and for this week’s ending Piaf sings Y a pas printemps and me I say you wanna bet?
First things first: Kenny Barron’s got a new trio album out; that’s an event, and about half of it leads off this week’s show for your listening pleasure—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, One-Hour-East-of-Chicago Time. After that the plot thickens, with some showstoppingly brilliant Sidney Bechet and large excerpts from saxophonist Rob Reddy’s brilliant Bechet Our Contemporary, in which echoes of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra arise amid primary colors old and new. And then? Then there’s the recurrent question as springtime surfaces: do I play Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps this year, and if so which performance of the ones I love: Gergiev or Bernstein or Stravinsky’s own again, or Dorati, or maybe one of the early implacable juggernauts by Boulez? Good news, Taintradions: I found a live Bernstein Sacre with the LSO in 1966, and it is the rompinest stompinest shoutinest Dionysiest eruption of ‘em all. Stravinsky famously reviewed another Bernstein Sacre with a simple “Wow!”, which was not an unalloyed compliment exactly. What would he have said to this one, “Gaah!?” Lenny starts it off as if he’s going to ride and bounce atop the tempo and not give it a heavy pelvic push, but in the runup to the drums’ entrance he forces this already not-very-English-sounding orchestra into an accelerando worthy of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the rest of it will either make your hair stand on end or set it on fire (batteries not included). The speed may work less well in Part Two—one of Gergiev’s triumphs was his trenchant slowdown of the second half—but the sound of an orchestra pushed to its limits, then going for broke way the hell across the line is plenty-nuff to augur springtime in or for that matter prophesy, in 1913, the savagery to come and the savagery to continue. Of course nowadays we’re living groovily on a planet of peace and happy bunnies, so there’s no need to fear or worry. The show ends with the searing solo shakuhachi piece Kogarashi, composed by Nakao Tozan in the aftermath of the 1923 earthquake and fire that devastated Tokyo and environs and killed about 150,000 people. OMG what have I done?
After a bluesy opener from Christian McBride’s gobsmackingly excellent big band there’s a lot of twang in the first half of this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Uptown Downtown time—much of it featuring the always welcome Bill Frisell, playing movie themes and such with his own band, and with Charles Lloyd and Willie Nelson dreaming an end to war; interpersed with that I’ve curated some selections from Brad Mehldau’s four-CD set of solo piano concerts, especially including a remarkable, uncharacteristically bluesy version of Monk’s Dream. Americana continues with Roy Harris’ 3rd Symphony, secure in the national pantheon and still a wake-up call from start to finish. I tried hard to find an alternative version but settled back with Leonard Bernstein’s 1966 recording, unbeatable even by the one he waxed for DGG twenty years later. The show’s second half takes a measureably darker, more intense turn—though among old friends—first with a fleet 20 minute pursuit of Impressions by the John Coltrane Quartet at the Five Spot in 1965—a rarity, but you may have heard it before; even so, be ready to be seared on both sides—and then a live performance of Shostakovich’s 2nd Violin Concerto by its dedicatee and greatest interpreter, David Oistrakh: in 1968, at the height of the Cold War, Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall—George Smiley was in attendance—when few in the West knew the realpolitik in q. or that Shosta was smuggling his soul out between the notes. This performance surpasses in intensity anything anyone has achieved on the (master)piece by anyone, ever, in a studio. You can breathe out, afterward, with two piano dazzlements from Martha Argerich, and emerge a better, larger, wiser human being for the experience (par ma foi)
The kids today, they tell me that a shuffle is something, like before everything was transferred to those little phones, that a shuffle was something they did with the music on their iPods, which I think were plant-beings from outer space growing in their basements while they were asleep . . . anyway, something like that, but in MY day a shuffle was this heavy backbeat punch Art Blakey would apply to tunes of a certain lower-middle tempo—was the first one was Bobby Timmons’ Moanin?—because Blakey played almost everything at maximum strength, almost including ballads; and I had no idea, until I heard his new record New Direction, that Herlin Riley, whom I’d taen for Lincoln Center’s impeccable somewhat fastidious drummer, had so much Blakey in him. Now that I do know, I started off this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Apollo Theatre time—with Riley’s heavily Blakeyed Harlem Shuffle, and when I followed that up with one from the band I grew up on (the one with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter up front and Blakey stoking the giant furnace), let us say that Herlin Riley’s drumset did not collapse in response, or his bandmates run for the hills. Variations on the theme follow, featuring people like Johnny Hodges, Miles Davis, Dr. Lonnie Smith’s recent resurgence on Blue Note, with relief provided by the likes of Ben Webster—playing one of his many versions of Chelsea Bridge, no less—and Luciano Berio. And some Mingus in Belgium, 1964, meditating on integration and wirecutters and wishing Eric Dolphy would come home with him alive—so long, Eric. And so long, Charles. And how I miss you, Buhaina. But spring is on the wing if not yet in the air, and most of us will be here for it, with old friends and present company, all together.
What kind of show is this anyway? Starts off with a piece of Chaplin’s climactic rant from The Great Dictator, leaps into the middle of Shostakovich’s 10th and then straight to Dear Old Stockholm with Miles and Trane, whence Trane goes to Russia via lullaby while Mr. Rollins takes Manhattan, only so that Weill can report from Berlin. This week’s Updoc—8PM Friday and noon next Tuesday, Right Heah Noo Yawk fuggin time—finally settles down with Herbert von Karajan conducting Shosta’s 10th in Berlin 1969: a recording new to me, and a far more vital, rugged, and startling performance than his classic ’67 studio date for DGG, though with markedly less-good sonics. As Miles put it: so what. Listen: Lenny and the Nooyawkas stopping by Moskva in ’59 with a landmark version of Shosta’s 5th was one thing—the war may have been nukey but it was cold, man, cold. But this, this was a German orchestra, a West German orchestra, THE West German orchestra, conducted by a former Nazi party member (with an excuse: Karajan’s wife was Jewish, and membership was his protection gambit, and it worked), and with so many million dead in the War, you bet the Russians had a long memory. The composer was present and the challenge was high; the always smooth Karajan Berliners lost their cool, played to their limit and then went for broke beyond it. It’s the great mid-20th century symphony, and this performance of it will rock you sock you, as it did the guy what wrote it. We taper off with Jascha Horenstein conducting Mahler’s Der Abschied to a pitch of eerie greatness, and speaking of rock you sock you, how could I finish this show with anything but Kendrick Lamar’s face-peeling performance at the Grammys? Shosta’s 10th took a prize there too, in an okay new Boston version, but if you want the existential experience, hey, you, listen here.