On Vinyl: The Jazz Piano Quartet, “Let It Happen”

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)

thejazzpianoquartet-letithappen

Date: June 10 & 11, 1974
Location: RCA Studio A, New York City
Label: RCA, limited release in Quadraphonic sound
The Jazz Piano Quartet (ldr), Roland Hanna, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Marian McPartland (p)

10 songs laid down by a quartet of jazz pianists with no other instruments, without rehearsal, with only the barest of notes written beforehand – usually as a jumping off point – and recorded simultaneously without overdubbing… It could have been a disaster. Instead, Dick Hyman, Roland Hanna, Marian McPartland, and Hank Jones nailed every song on the first take.

The soloists are not identified, other than noting that Hyman and McPartland are playing through the left speaker, and Hanna and Jones through the right speaker.  The record starts with a melodic presentation of “Lover Come Back to Me,” then moves into a lower pace on “Maiden Voyage” and “Let It Happen.” The tempo picks back up again with “Here’s That Rainy Day” before side A ends. The B side is more experimental, beginning with the almost-atonal jazz fragments embedded in “Solace” — though never breaks all the way out of the box on that tune. They push the arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” enough that you might not recognize the song until you get to the chorus line; the whole thing reminds me of a more-melodic version of a Bad Plus variation. The third track on side B is the star of the show, putting on display a fully improvised jam inspired by only a 6-bar fragment of a Erik Satie song. The grand finale is the most intense, dramatically-keyed track on the whole album, and literally ends with a bang.

Overall, the album is so excellently played that it’s hard to believe this is the result of a couple of seasoned pros sitting down, playing for two days, and calling it “finished”. Yet that’s exactly what it is. I love this album for the piano, for the way it pushes without taking the listener so far out of their comfort zone that they get turned off, and because it’s a reminder that we don’t always need to edit/revise/edit/revise our work to death. There’s something to be said for being fully confident of our skills, and just getting it done.

Listen to this if you can find it. You won’t regret it.

Track List:

a-01 Lover, Come Back To Me – 2:22 (Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-02 Maiden Voyage – 3:55 (Herbie Hancock) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-03 Let It Happen – 4:21 (Ettore Stratta) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-04 Watch It! – 3:03 (Dick Hyman) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-05 Here’s That Rainy Day – 4:43 (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-01 Solace – 3:38 (Scott Joplin) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-02 You Are The Sunshine Of My Life – 3:45 (Stevie Wonder) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-03 Improvviso – 6:48 (Marian McPartland, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Roland Hanna) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-04 Warm Valley – 3:38 (Duke Ellington) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-05 How High The Moon – 3:00 (Nancy Hamilton, W. Morgan Lewis) / arr: Dick Hyman

Notes: All titles on: RCA LP 12″: CPL1-0680 — Let It Happen (1974) “Solace” listed as “Variations on Scott Joplin’s ‘Solace'” and credited to Scott Joplin and Dick Hyman. “Improvviso” is based on a fragment by Erik Satie.

On Vinyl: BENNY GOODMAN – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Vol. 2 (1956)

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)

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The oldest record I currently own is BENNY GOODMAN – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Vol. 2, though the music in it is slightly preceded by The Swing Years Collector’s Edition, 1936-1946 (not pressed ’til 1966). I have other records which contain music written earlier (performed by Nat King Cole, BB King, etc), but the actual tracks weren’t laid down until the ’60s or later.

Goodman’s January 16, 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City was called “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz’s ‘coming out’ party to the world of ‘respectable’ music.”(1) Put together by his publicist, Wynn Nathanson, Goodman’s performance made him the first jazz bandleader to perform at Carnegie Hall. Goodman was nervous about doing it, but his latest movie, Hollywood Hotel, had lines of fans waiting outside the Paramount lot to see him, so he went ahead. Why was he nervous? At the time, the Hall was considered “An import house of Old World traditions where snobby smirks toward American culture had a way of making status-sensitive Yankees feel like Babbitts for comparing Gershwin to Wagner or Tatum to Horowitz….”(2)

It’s important to know that this was one of the first public concerts to feature a racially integrated group, which helped to convince white audiences that jazz could be an “elevated” form of music, though they were aware of its beginnings with mostly-black bands. The show sold out, even with a higher than usual ticket price. It started with a couple of contemporary songs, segued into a history of jazz, including some guest appearances by Count Basie (his Hall debut) and members of the Duke Ellington band, before heading into the songs that had made Goodman famous. Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, shown in the photo below, were there, as were Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Walter Page, Lester Young, Harry Carney, and Freddie Green.

The event—one of the first public concerts to feature a racially integrated group—helped elevate the status of swing music, and included some of the brightest jazz luminaries of the day. Count Basie, making his Carnegie Hall debut, appeared as a guest, and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra also participated. Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, shown in this photo, were there, as were Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Walter Page, Lester Young, Harry Carney, and Freddie Green.

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Read these things, the Nemo storm edition.

If you’re stuck inside with not much to do, take a look at the stories, essays, and interviews that have interested me this week:

Shimmer interviews my friend A.C. Wise, whose story “Tasting of the Sea” appears in issue #16.

Rose Lemberg collected speculative fiction poetry recommendations from various editors – read the list here.

Geoff Ryman’s famously sad novel, Was, is now available as an ebook from Weightless Books (their page has excerpts from the book).

Avi Steinberg talks writing and the Gilbert v Roth argument:

That’s the kind of a person it takes to be a writer: someone who’s zealous and ready to argue, someone who has Philip Roth tell him, “It’s torture, don’t do it,” and replies, “You had me at ‘torture.’ ” You don’t enter into it because it’s a great lifestyle decision—it isn’t—you do it because, for whatever reason, you believe in it, and you believe in it because, for whatever reason, you need to believe in it.

Discover News says readers grasp digital media (aka ebooks) just as well as print.

Eddie Huang (author, chef, and tv personality) talks to NPR about Asian-American food, family, and masculinity. (podcast/interview)

NY Review of Books talks about Wes Anderson as a writer.

Stupefying Stories put together a free ebook of shorts by authors eligible for this year’s Campbell Award.

Wonderful Chet Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost” now on YouTube.

And… My latest appearance on the SF Signal podcast is now up: “2013 SF/F/H Conventions We’re Anticipating“. I mainly talk about how great Readercon is.

The Jazz Solo; or, What Writers Do When We Compose Intertextual Dialogue

A quick thought to start the (writing) day:

To the unaccustomed listener, a jazz solo, particularly a solo that strays far from an easily recognizable melody, can seem abstract, formless, linear. Yet most jazz performances take place over a repeated sequence of chords, the chords that underlie the piece the group is performing. A composer might write an attractive song, as George Gershwin wrote “Embraceable You,” and a jazz group will begin by playing a loose version of the 32-bar melody together. (Most songs that began in Broadway musicals have an introductory verse which jazz musicians rarely perform. Jazz musicians simply repeat the chorus over and over.) Then a soloist will create his or her own melody while the rhythm section essentially repeats an accompaniment to that 32-bar chorus. Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody, by following the chord progression. In fact, the procedure of most jazz is based on one main principle – that a nearly infinite number of melodies may fit any song’s chord progression. The jazz musician’s traditional task is spontaneously to compose new melodies that fit the chord progression, which is repeated over and over as each soloist is featured, for as many choruses as desired.” – Jazz, From Its Origins to the Present, Porter, Ullman, Hazel

In music we call that an “improvisation”. In writing, it’s an “homage”. Sometimes we admit outright that’s what we’re doing, sometimes it’s “inspired by” or a “retelling of.” Umberto Eco calls it “inter-textual dialogue” and I think that’s the most accurate term. A piece of writing quotes another piece of writing in a stylistic or thematic way, and the impact of a story on the reader is heightened when the reader understands what’s being quoted.

The key to understanding the similarity is this line:

Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody

How often do you read a story and think, “Oh, I recognize this fairy tale!” even when it isn’t the original telling of the story? Revamped and reconstructed fairy tales are quite popular at the moment, and range from subtle barely-there mentions to stories which wrap themselves in the original tale like a cape, only differing in setting or dialogue. (Read Kelly Link’s “Swans” for an example of this.) You’re supposed to have enough knowledge of the first version of that story to recognize all of the elements in the modernized tale. In fact, a good author can remove the details which are commonly known so that you don’t see them, but you recognize their absence and your mind fills in all of the missing pieces anyway.

Just like in jazz.

My Secret Love Affair With Jazz

I could argue that Jazz is the most important musical style out there. The most groundbreaking, the most influential, the most responsible for shaping modern musical expression. I may not be able to prove it (though I’m happy to debate it), but I can say one thing definitively: it’s the biggest musical influence on my life.

And I don’t know why. It’s a question I don’t have an answer to yet.

I don’t listen to it every day. But I don’t have to. The music that I do listen to, and that I like, when it’s not Jazz, is probably created by musicians who were raised up on Jazz, taught it, loved it, and built something new out of it. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about foundations, about influence, about where our tastes come from. Just as I’ve been going back and re-reading (and reviewing) classic works of science fiction, so too have I been going back to my musical roots. I’ve been rereading some old music texts, listening to songs, studying where lines of style intersect and veer off. Did you know that Jazz in the Philippines, for example, didn’t start with the influx of American soldiers in the 40s, but most likely began earlier, with a group of Filipinos who’d fled the Spanish-ruled islands decades before and settled in New Orleans? (Before I left Penn I was writing a paper on it for my World Music class.)

Jazz is so interesting to me partly because I don’t remember why I like it. I grew up listening to rock with my mom. She woke up almost every morning, opened the doors to the deck, and turned on her sound system loud enough to wake the neighbors. Most days, this was on purpose. From her I get AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull. From a close family friend I get Bluegrass, and from a couple of years when I was about 6 or 8, I think, I got my mom’s brief country influence – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson – and a vague memory of how to 2-step. This led to an understanding of the fundamentals of Heavy Metal when I got into high school in 1991, mixed with some hard rock: Metallica, Iron Maiden, Pantera, Guns N Roses. I spent some time with Foreigner, Def Leppard, Journey, Night Ranger, Aerosmith, and Chicago cassette tapes in my Walkman. By the end of high school I was into Nirvana and the Cure, got into Bauhaus and Psychedelic Furs in my first bout of college, did some time in the goth scene, got into chick/indie rock and 70s glam rock (hello Indigo Girls, Iggy Pop, David Bowie) …

But where does my love of Jazz come from? The thing I didn’t mention above is that at the same time I knew the words to every song on Iron Maiden’s Powerslave album, and GnR’s debut, I was hanging out with the jazz band at school. I was in band, too (yes, there was marching, and an outfit), going from flute in middle school to French horn, trumpet, and percussion in high school. I could sit and listen to the trumpet line for hours, I dated a few drummers, I befriended the jazz choir kids – I loved it all. I’ve asked my mom and she has no idea where I’d have heard Jazz outside of school. She says I just liked it because I liked it.

Maybe that’s it.

But like my spotty ability to play a musical instrument, my musical history knowledge has some gaps in it. I took a class in American Musical History in Sacramento, when I was finishing up my AA degrees, and like I said, I’ve read some books, but I don’t know as much as I’d like to. Music matters to me, and always has, and though I’ll never work in it, it’s like my art history studies – it helps me to understand the world and to understand myself. So this is me, educating myself. I am going back to the beginning and I am going to teach myself what I don’t know. It’s never too late to learn, after all.

As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.