Small Group Jazz Performances: Part II

Small Group Jazz Performances: Part II

Read Part I . Here are four more important small group jazz performances in recorded history.

Lennie Tristano: Wow (Capitol, 1949) Lennie Tristano: piano, Warne Marsh: tenor saxophone, Lee Konitz: alto saxophone, Billy Bauer: guitar, Arnold Fishkin: bass, Harold Granowsky: drums. Recorded March 4, 1949 in New York, NY.

Lennie Tristano was a revolutionary pianist during the bop era, crossing over into the so called “cool jazz” movement. In general, cool jazz was more relaxed compared to bop with medium tempos favored, and through composed sections added into the frameworks for improvising. Tristano’s group during this period included students Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz (still active and creative at the present) and Billy Bauer, who had all gone on to their own successful careers. “Wow” contains a particularly challenging melody, and Tristano’s gift of astonishingly clean double timed lines in his solo, contrasting with his swinging behind the beat phrases a bit later in his improvisation. Marsh, Tristano, and Konitz would be leading figures in the free jazz movement a couple of decades later, with Tristano having an active teaching career in the 60’s. An amazing performance showcasing the pianist at his inventive peak.

Oscar Peterson Trio: Hallelujah Time (Jazz 625 Television Show) Oscar Peterson: piano, Ray Brown: bass, Ed Thigpen: drums. Recorded October 1st, 1964, in London England.

Oscar Peterson, the most technically gifted pianist since Art Tatum, tackles a gospel flavored track here. The Canadian born virtuoso is accompanied by Ray Brown, one of the greatest bassists of all time noted for his rock solid swing, wonderful note choices, and one of Peterson’s closest musical associates. The trio is completed by Ed Thigpen, one of the most musical drummers in jazz. “Hallelujah Time” showcases Peterson’s flawless technique with an intrinsic funkiness that was his signature. While some have complained Peterson plays too many notes, his precision 8th and 16th note phrases are entirely appropriate in this medium-up piece, his amazing left hand providing a harmonic and percussive backbone. His much talked about comping is superb during the bass solo. Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993, reducing his left hand to diminished capacity, though his right hand lost none of it’s powerful swing. Peterson remained an active player until his passing in 2007.

Miles Davis: So What (Columbia, 1959) Miles Davis: trumpet, John Coltrane: tenor saxophone, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley: alto saxophone, Bill Evans: piano, Paul Chambers: bass, Jimmy Cobb: drums. Recorded March 2, 1959 at Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York, NY. Recording engineer: Fred Plaut

Little did anyone know in the Miles Davis Sextet, that the pieces they would record on March 2, and April 22, 1959 would impact jazz forever. According to Jimmy Cobb, it was just another session. Miles brought in simplistic sketches, based on scales rather than traditional chord changes for the soloists to improvise, he had felt restrained by the limitations of soloing over chord changes. “So What”, the lead off tune for the groundbreaking LP Kind of Blue (a reference to the bluesy quality found in the music, although only one tune is a blues) demonstrated the modal concept at such a high level. Miles had precedents for the modal direction in previously recorded tunes such as “Max is Making Wax”, Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way”, and “Milestones” (recorded in 1958) the latter, most explicit of the direction taken on this album. Arranger and composer Gil Evans, came up with the famous, brooding intro section played by pianist Bill Evans in duet with bassist Paul Chambers. The intro utilized perfect fourths followed by a major third; and Miles is a beautiful example of economy, at times using whole tones which add to the subtle “climbing” effect of his lines in his solo. John Coltrane is firmly investigating his harmonic interests in his solo, while Adderley is almost conversational in inflection. The tune would influence Trane to use the same progression of D dorian and Eb dorian for “Impressions” (which he could be heard calling as “So What” in 1961 at the Village Vanguard), and the inspiration for Pee Wee Ellis’ memorable two note vamp for James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”. The legacy of “So What” and “Kind of Blue” is so massive, that it has been interpreted in the chiptunes genre of electronic music! It remains the best selling jazz recording of all time, firmly enmeshed in pop culture, and a favorite of non jazz lovers. “So What” was never played quite the same again, the intro was dropped, and the live renditions favored blistering tempos, Coltrane takes a searing turn on a version recorded live during Miles’ Stockholm, Sweden visit in 1960, going further outside than the version on Kind of Blue. A very intriguing version appears on Miles in Tokyo (Columbia, 1964) with Sam Rivers taking the tune quite outside, with the Herbie Hancock/Ron Carter/Tony Williams rhythm section following his every move.

John Coltrane: Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1959) John Coltrane: tenor saxophone, Tommy Flanagan: piano, Paul Chambers: bass, Arthur Taylor: drums. Recorded May 5, 1959 at Atlantic Recording Studios, New York, NY. Recording engineer: Tom Dowd.

Coltrane’s harmonic challenge. The master take issued on the album of the same name was take 5. The piece is so difficult with it’s progressions moving so quickly that Coltrane had two groups try it out, resulting in a number of fascinating complete and breakdown alternate takes. Cedar Walton, the pianist involved on earlier takes of the piece does not solo. Pianist Tommy Flanagan received a lead sheet at the session but was surprised at it’s swift tempo, and struggles in his brief solo, while Arthur Taylor, sounds a bit uncomfortable comping behind Trane in the manner in which he did on so many of the saxophonist’s sessions for Prestige between 1956 and December 26, 1958. Lewis Porter observes in his notes to The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino, 1995) Coltrane’s solo is comprised of several four note patterns, which Binghamton University jazz ensemble director and jazz improvisation professor Michael J. Carbone further illuminates: “That’s called a 1-2-3-5 pattern over a II-V or III-VI-II-V chord change. The player plays the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th note of each of the chords ( each chord usually sounding over two beats) which gives the melodic line the sound described” Trane uses many other patterns, but it is this 1-2-3-5 pattern that is very clear throughout. Essential listening, the previous takes are also worthwhile listening for fans and musicians.