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Update + Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins

Hey all,

I’ve disappeared from these hallowed pages the past week or two primarily because I’ve been working with Nick on getting our album recorded. Well, I’m pleased to say it has been! Did you feel that? The world just changed a little bit.

Leading up to it, I went on a listening tour of jazz, a tour that I’ve taken so many times that it only occasionally rises to its old luster. But then you listen to Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins, with a young Paul Bley, and you listen to Bix Beiderbecke, and Charlie Parker live recordings, and jazz rises up in its undimmed glory. Really great jazz doesn’t sound dated, it retains it’s vitality.

I’ve always loved Coleman Hawkins. I remember painting Warhammer figures and listening over and over and over and over to the Ken Burns: Coleman Hawkins CD when I was like 12. Coleman Hawkins had a restlessness and intelligence about his playing that was very modern for his time. He had musical knowledge. His solos on “The Man I Love” and “The Talk of the Town”, “Stampede”, and of course “Body and Soul” are a testament to this. His lines are occasionally lumpy and janky, in contrast to Lester’s conservative elegance, but he also takes risks; there’s a volatility to his playing. Also, his following of bebop and effort to learn the ropes of that highly technical style does him great credit, especially when others more or less gave up on it and stayed with their swing-era style.

The album Sonny Meets Hawk is a highly charged album. First, there is the superficially opposing forces of Sonny Rollins (in an aggressively angular, dissonant, gestural, harsh style packed with vitality and creativity) and Coleman Hawkins (in an assured, cool-headed yet by no means run-of-the-mill performance). The other main figure on the album is a young Paul Bley, playing solos that obliquely reference the harmony, and maintaining a profound originality that clearly inspires Sonny; his harmonic choices often directly reference those of Paul. In the bold, unwavering individuality of the players, the album reminds me of Money Jungle (the great Ellington piano trio record with Max Roach and Charles Mingus). The friction is tangible between the players on Sonny Meets Hawk, but it is musical friction rather than personal friction and is borne out of evident inspiration. Sonny, so assertively original in his jam-packed solos, seems–far from conveying disrespect–almost in awe of Hawkins, and musically fascinated by Bley.

This album really got me into a great mindset going into the studio. Jazz is not about cleanliness: it’s about the vitality inherent in each individual. Jazz is not about playing perfectly shaped solos: it’s about taking risks. It’s about honking. It’s about shrieking and punching and laughing and growling. The commercial side of jazz has often borne rotten fruit–think of the insipid boss nova albums of Paul Desmond. There is always a force that says, “make it clean, make it go down easy”. Not to say that that approach doesn’t yield results. A lot of early jazz, which certainly earned it’s moniker “hot” when played live, became a different affair when played on record, and a far different one when those records were for a white audience. This cleanliness can produce great recordings, but fundamentally–I believe–it is a muzzle on jazz. One of the things that makes Sonny Meets Hawk a great album is that the muzzles come off. So much contemporary jazz that I’ve heard, at least, has a muzzle on. There are institutions that played un-muzzled music with a muzzle on. There are aesthetic muzzles. In those live recordings of Charlie Parker, wild shouts in the audience are often heard–the vitality of that music was so great that it provoked eruptions in the crowd. It provoked a crowd.

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