Free Parking for improvisation in multiple environments.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Mingus Orchestras Part II

As a composer and student, Mingus' interests stretched well beyond what we might term his jazz influences. We know for example that Mingus spent his early years studying the work of Bartok, Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy. It is probably in his writing for large groups that Mingus "classical" influences are most strongly felt.

When I first heard Mingus' Self Portrait/Chill of Death, (part of the Epitaph suite), I immediately thought of Charles Ives. And not because both composers share a first name!

Chill of Death features an almost endless string of interlocking solos - during the 11 minute duration of the piece, just about every orchestra member gets to solo, sometimes playing over the top of each other in "clashing" chord progressions. The overall effect reminded me of Charles Ives symphonic compositions, in which different sections of the orchestra would often be given different tunes to play - simultaneously!

In the climax of "The Fourth of July" (1911-13), Ives splits the orchestra into four in an orgy of patriotic chaos- the brass scream out Columbia, Gem of the Ocean, a solo cornet tries to burst through with Battle Hymn of the Republic, while piano and xylophone are hammering away at Yankee Doodle. And the rest of the orchestra? Well, by this stage who cares what they are are doing...

So, here is Chill of Death and The Fourth of July placed alongside each other, for comparison and contrast. For optimum effect, play both mp3s at once...

Epitaph Orchestra - Self Portrait/Chill of Death
From Charles Mingus Epitaph: Columbia 466631 [Buy]

Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra - The Fourth of July
From Leonard Bernstein - Ives Symphonies Nos. 2&3 etc: Sony Classical 516023 [Buy]

Charles Ives

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Mingus Orchestras Part I

The next few posts will briefly explore Charles Mingus and his writing for large ensembles. An iconoclast in all things, Mingus often worked with (and wrote for) ensembles that were larger and more diverse than the standard acoustic jazz quartet/quintet format: great examples of this are the octet format heard on Mingus Ah Um and the 11-piece outfit that performed The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. And arrangements of Mingus for big band are performed and recorded today by the very illustrious Mingus Big Band.

But Charles Mingus had compositional concepts that extended beyond even mid-sized and standard big-band formats, with pieces that were written and arranged for large bands of 20 to 30 musicians, often including instruments that still remain exotic in the jazz context - bassoon, french horn, timpani.

So to kick off, here are two of my favourites from Mingus' sprawling Epitaph suite for 30 piece orchestra, assembled and performed for the first time in 1989, a decade after the composer's death. Moods in Mambo is entirely through-composed, without solos, and features a largely atonal composition overlaid on a mambo percussion section - sort of Schoenberg meets Eddie Palmieri. Wolverine Blues is a swaggering orchestral arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton's tune, and the undoubted highlight is Michael Rabinowitz blues solo on... bassoon ! Not to be missed.

Epitaph Orchestra - Moods in Mambo
Epitaph Orchestra - Wolverine Blues
From Charles Mingus Epitaph: Columbia 466631 [Buy]

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Impish Orchestrations

The great thing about skiing holidays is that it's almost never the skiing that is the most memorable event. So the undoubted highlight of my short break in the South Island this winter were the keas.

The kea is the world's only alpine parrot, and apart from being some of the most intelligent birds on the planet, they also are among the most fearless, playful and impish. They will rip apart the upholstery on your snowmobile, steal french fries off your picnic table from under your nose, and then flap off noisily up the mountain to look at you sideways from the safety of a rocky outcrop.

So, in a twisted tribute to these impish inhabitants of our Southern Alps, I've dug up some of the most impish music I could find. The London Improvisers' Orchestra, recorded live at the Freedom of the City Festival on May 5th 2002. Phone In is an improvisation for orchestra and mobile phones, while Fanfare for LIO is an improvised duet for orchestra and audience.


London Improvisers' Orchestra - Phone In
London Improvisers' Orchestra - Fanfare for LIO
From Freedom of the City 2002: Emanem 4090 [Buy]

Kea, Improvising

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Everybody has a winter holiday

I'm off down south for a few days to get my annual snow fix, so there won't be any posts for the next week or so...

In the meantime, I've sourced some early Kenny Wheeler solos ! In 1966, British drummers Ronnie Stephenson and Kenny Clare recorded the Drum Spectacular album in London. (Rare on vinyl and not yet available on CD). The big band playing behind the drummers is all British guys - among them Kenny Baker (tp), Kenny Wheeler (tp), Tubby Hayes (ts) and Ronnie Scott (ts). And on South Rampart Street Parade and Topsy, the 8 bar trumpet solos are by none other than... Kenny Wheeler !

They're pretty nice big band charts too, in a Buddy Rich sort of way. Righto, I'm off to clean my goggles and buy sunscreen.

Kenny Clare & Ronnie Stephenson Big Band - South Rampart Street Parade
Kenny Clare & Ronnie Stephenson Big Band - Dual Carriageway
Kenny Clare & Ronnie Stephenson Big Band - Topsy
From Drum Spectacular: Columbia-EMI [OOP]

Two New Zealanders awaiting snowfall

Sunday, August 14, 2005

R.I.P. David Lange

Former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange (PM 1984-89) died last night at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, at the age of 63. While the controversies of his Fourth Labour government will be endlessly documented and debated for years to come, there is no doubt that he will be most widely remembered internationally as the head of state to make New Zealand a nuclear-free country.

Lange's policy involved the banning of US nuclear-powered warships from New Zealand's ports, and the effective withdrawal of New Zealand from the ANZUS defence alliance. A high point of his term as Prime Minister was his eloquent speech at the Oxford Union in 1985, arguing that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible. The transcript of his speech is online here.

Well loved by New Zealanders, David Lange will be missed.

Charles Mingus - Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me
From Oh Yeah: Atlantic 90667 [Buy]

Friday, August 12, 2005

Lonely Hill

Andrew Hill was one of the unsung stalwarts of the Blue Note label in the 1960s, appearing as a sideman on recordings by Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson and Sam Rivers. But Hill's work as a leader deserves far more attention. Despite a fairly prolific output in the 1960s, Chicago-born Hill struggled to be heard in the 1970s and 1980s, until he returned to Blue Note in 1989. In 1995, a Blue Note box set was released, and today at the age of nearly 70, Andrew Hill is finally getting some of the respect and attention he has always deserved. Check his website for some free solo mp3s!

Hill's 1960s recordings ride a distinctive line between hard bop and complete freedom, where blues licks meld into atonality at a moment's notice.

New Monastery is performed by the rather extraordinary sextet of Kenny Dorham (tp), Eric Dolphy (as, fl, Blc), Joe Henderson (ts), Andrew Hill (pn), Richard Davis (b) and Tony Williams (d). The Day After features a "two-bass quartet" of Hill, Roy Haynes, (d) with Richard Davis and Eddie Kahn on bass.

Andrew Hill Sextet - New Monastery
From Point of Departure: Blue Note 84167 [Buy]

Andrew Hill Quartet - The Day After
From Smoke Stack: Blue Note 32097 [Buy]

Andrew Hill

In 1996, Andrew Hill visited New Zealand, playing one show at Manifesto on Queen St in Auckland. Hill played a solo set, followed by a lengthy set with local musicans (from memory, Cameron Undy, Nick McBride, Jason Jones and Kim Paterson).

I actually got to meet Mr Hill personally, and as an impressionable and somewhat starry-eyed teenager, this was a memorable moment. I told him how much I enjoyed his gig, and he said, smiling, "Well, bless your heart!" And to this day, these are the only four words a Blue Note recording artist has ever said to me.

Monday, August 08, 2005

First Podcast from Space

As I write this, the space shuttle Discovery is about 30 minutes from its deorbit burn, as it prepares to return to Earth. Possibly a good time to note the recording of the first podcast from space, made yesterday by astronaut Steve Robinson (below). There's no music, but it's from space, and that makes it cool.

Steve Robinson - The First Podcast from Space

I was going to write an entry on the passing of Ibrahim Ferrer, but Taxi Driver and Pete have both posted already, so I'll point to their blog entries and just say resto en paz.

"Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do....." Photo:NASA

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hommage à Alain Gerber

One of the more remarkable critics and writers on jazz who I’ve come across is the French novelist and broadcaster Alain Gerber. He presents the radio show Le jazz est un roman (“Jazz is a novel”) which features each weeknight on France Musiques. The show’s format allows M. Gerber to spend months at a time exploring the life and work of a single artist. Most of the spoken material is based closely on his ongoing series of biographies of great jazz musicians (Bird, Armstrong, Chet, among others…), and framed by an extensive selection from the musician’s discography.

A natural storyteller, Gerber has found a way to weave details of the (often tragic) lives of his chosen subject into a radio show that remains steadfastly about the music, without deification of the players. Under Gerber’s guidance, the careers of some of the music’s greatest lights become epic sagas on 52nd Street for which the soundtrack is their own recorded output.

When I was living in France a few years ago, Alain Gerber’s radio show became a welcome part of my daily routine. Here are a couple of tracks which will for me always link themselves back to winter evenings in my apartment in a small town huddled against the foothills of the Vosges...

Bill Evans - Displacement
From New Jazz Conceptions: Riverside OJC20 025-2 [Buy]

Keith Jarrett Trio - Poinciana
From Whisper Not: ECM 1724/25 [Buy]

Alain Gerber

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Music for Hot August Nights

Burn baby burn.... how about an instrument that works using flames and heat to create sound? How about a pyrophone? It'd look great on your back lawn, would get rid of your neighbours, and most likely would eliminate the need to mow the grass after a performance. In summary, the perfect tool for complete sonic satisfaction.

The Large Hot Pipe Organ is the world's only MIDI controlled, propane powered explosion organ. Forget a plasma screen TV. I want one of these.

Large Hot Pipe Organ - Pyro Tango
mp3s hosted on