Thursday, January 9, 2014

Kenny Clarke's centenary

Kenny Clarke (source:
Kenny Clarke, born one hundred years ago today, is one of the great drummers in the history of jazz. Any reference text will tell you about his role in the development of be-bop, his bomb-dropping, his shifting of the rhythm from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal and all that, which is correct and just fine, but there's much more.

Like Don Byas, he's one of those musicians whose place in posterity has been diminished because they left the US, the "out of sight, out of mind" principle. Before that, he played in the major leagues, he was part of the original line-up of the Modern Jazz Quartet (the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie's big band), with whom he recorded this

which seems to be the basis for what Miles Davis recorded as "Two Bass Hit". Interestingly, in the MJQ's version Milt Jackson quotes Clarke's "Epistrophy", a tune he co-signed with Thelonious Monk with origins in Minton's and the sessions with Charlie Christian (the theme was figured out by Clarke while playing some phrases Christian taught him on the ukulele).

A favourite piece of Clarke is the famous recording of "Topsy" from Minton's, with Christian on guitar, Monk on piano, and Nick Fenton on bass. Clarke's time, swing, and punctuation are flawless, but do listen for the way he interacts with Christian. That's peerless, on the spot creativity.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Duke Ellington at the piano

“[…] Duke, in spite of what some people might think, was an excellent pianist.”
(Pianist Hank Jones, in an interview with Ted Panken)

A lot has been said in recent weeks about Duke Ellington on the Internet. A new biography by Terry Teachout and a review of it in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik have raised a few eyebrows and made some people angry. I haven’t read Teachout’s book, but I know Gopnik’s review. The problem with it is that he seems not to have listened to much of Ellington’s colossal output.

Some of the criticism towards those texts have to do with Ellington’s relationship with his writing and arranging companion, Billy Strayhorn, and his piano playing. I think this recording of Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom”, made after his death, speaks volumes about both aspects.