Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

I recently crossed paths with three musicians whose quick repartee is as engaging as their music. As is frequently the case in frank, off-the-record conversations with musicians, the topic turned to jazz journalists. Earlier that day, they had been bugged by a writer, who tenaciously asked them to name their Desert Island Discs, which they thought was a mere notch above being asked their signs. Nodding towards me, one said to his colleagues: Another question they should be made to answer themselves. Undoubtedly, they have a long list. Agreeing, another turned to me with barely suppressed glee and asked me to name my picks.

I answered the question with a question: Is my wife with me on this desert island? If she is, I’m bringing Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece.

The come-back got a laugh of recognition and a change of subject; but, oddly, I kept coming back to the question over the next few days. It’s always presumed that the DID picker is alone. Granted, this parlor game was devised long before Lost, the popular TV mystery series that has 40 strangers marooned together after a plane crash – and that’s not counting the menacing “others” lurking about. But, beyond the availability of hardware and an endless supply of batteries, the most far-fetched aspect of the DID scenario is that the listener is alone. Even Robinson Crusoe had Friday. This is not to suggest that any company on a desert island is preferable to none. Certainly, being stranded with some people I know would require a trunk full of CDs, and there are those who would cause me in short order to head out into the surf. At that point, it wouldn’t matter if I had a raft or not.

The very idea of Desert Island Discs is fast becoming quaint in the face of the iPod epidemic. It’s just a matter of time before the BBC and other media outlets rename their Desert Island Discs programs and features as Desert Island MP3s, which would have the cutting acronym DIM. Or, DIT for Desert Island Tracks, given the trackcentricism promoted by downloads commerce.

The notion of the desert island – be it in the guise of a subway car or the queue to renew a driver’s license – that is made bearable by music is the real subliminal marketing genius behind iPods. But, just bearable, it seems, in most cases. When was the last time you passed someone on the street or standing with someone in a queue who was plugged into their iPod and was smiling?

One place where nobody smiles for hours on end is the waiting area of a hospital surgical suite. The seating denies even a modicum of comfort, the lighting is harsh, and there is the citrusy scent of surface cleaner. It is a gnawing environment, given teeth by the cold fact that their loved one is under the knife, and that even a routine procedure can take hours and has a remote chance of being fatal. People leaf through magazines, but don’t really read. A ringing cell phone gets turned off nine times out of ten. There’s a conspicuous absence of laptops, PDAs and iPods.

The exercise of picking Desert Island Discs becomes edgily practical when facing the prospect of spending an afternoon in a surgical suite waiting area which, despite its efforts to resemble the lobby of a family-friendly motel, is best suited for a restaging of “No Exit.” The trick, it seemed, is to pick albums that establish and sustain a pace that is neither too exciting nor soothing; additionally, the music has to be as nostalgia-free as possible. It also seemed that the selection process should be quick and reflexive. So, I pulled out five discs in about 20 seconds.

The first was Glenn Gould’s reading of Franz Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, which was released in 1993 as part of Sony Classical’s The Glenn Gould Edition series. Recorded in 1968, it is perhaps the pianist’s most neglected masterpiece, a typically counter-intuitive deconstruction in which he uses exaggerated tempi as brilliantly as on any of his Bach recordings. For most of the piece, Gould practically cuts the tempi in half. In the process, Gould reveals subtleties that most symphony orchestra conductors simply don’t hear, and transforms the symphony’s frolic and froth into music that is deeper, yet still friction free.

The next CD was Lee Morgan’s Search for the New Land (Blue Note), the 1965 date that signaled the trumpeter’s transformation from well-tailored virtuoso to socially conscious artist. Leading a dream team sextet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Reggie Workman and Billy Higgins, Morgan created what is arguably the crown jewel of his legacy with the title composition, which shuttles between a sleekly sanctified anthem and expansive, two-chord vamp-propelled solos. Combining a staccato line with a breezily swinging bridge, “Mr. Kenyatta” is an excellent, if uncelebrated example of an African-American artist drawing inspiration from a leader of African liberation. Still, the album is not a full-immersion conversion to the then emergent Black Nationalism, as the remaining mix of jaunty blowing vehicles and a melancholee ballad could have easily fit onto Morgan’s previous Blue Notes.

Gil Evans and Steve Lacy’s Paris Blues (Owl/Sunnyside; 1987) is the sonic equivalent of a double espresso spiked with a shot of grappa. The duo’s readings of three iconic Mingus compositions, the seldom-heard Ellington title piece, and a pair of originals – Evans’ “Jelly Roll” and Lacy’s “Esteem” – are relaxing and invigorating at the same time. Evans’ sparse electric piano has a watercolor-like quality in outlining harmonic movement while Lacy’s soprano fills in the spaces with luminous color. Evans’ mastery of decay is equally evident when he switches to an acoustic instrument, which tends to elicit a more piercing tone from Lacy. Someone should crawl through the vaults to see if there is more.

My very first encounter with singer/violinist Iva Bittová was her solo performance at the 1996 Tampere Jazz Happening; immediately after it was over, I bought Ne Nehledj (Ariola/BMG; 1994) at the stall operated by Digelius, the excellent shop on Helsinki’s Five Corners. This largely solo album approximates the aura of enchantment Bittová created in the dark, cavernous Customs House, as she swirls together puckishly simple figures, dolorously tinged folk melodies, and deceptively ordinary chord changes. Bittová’s music is exquisitely well crafted and inviting magic realism. Her vocal ability to project girlishness one moment and then old-soul gravity the next is key to this, as her facility to create fugue-like passages from rhythmically tricky lines for voice and violin. Bittová’s music is truly beyond category.

The only real quandary of the exercise was picking which Dexter Gordon album would round out the fivesome. It took a second to realize that there’s no wrong choice. Bouncin’ with Dex is one of several great Gordon Steeplechase sessions from the 1970s, but this ’75 studio session has the bonus of Billy Higgins sitting in with Gordon’s mainstays of the period, Tete Montoliu and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Higgins’ supple brush work and his ability to switch between sticks and brushes without missing a beat is central to Gordon’s steam-gathering choruses on Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce,” as is the drummer’s deft use of rim effects on Gordon’s boisterous “Catalonian Nights.” Montoliu’s knack of taking bits from Gordon’s solos and turning them inside out to set up his own pyrotechnics is amply documented here, as is NHØP’s complete mastery of jazz bass. His solo on “Four,” backed only by Higgins’ brushes, is the case in point for why bonus tracks should be tacked onto the reissues of gem-like LPs. Then there’s Gordon himself; whether he is nuzzling the changes of “Easy Living” or barnstorming through a flag-waver, nobody brings it home like LTD.

I’ll take Veedon Fleece for later, up in the room.

2008 Vision Festival

> back to contents