A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Tony Scott
Tony Scott         Myron Miller, courtesy of Cinzia Scott©2009

Fearless and weird. How else to describe the life and music of one Anthony Sciacca, aka Tony Scott, one of the most remarkable musicians of our time? When he passed away in 2007, age 85, he had lived on three continents; was credited for the popularization, if not the actual invention, of World Music (call it the hybrid of more than one style of ethnic music, and let’s avoid the New Age tag, shall we?); studied classical music at Juilliard and with the sagacious post-Schönberg composer Stefan Wolpe; shared bandstands on New York’s 52nd Street with Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and Ben Webster; served as musical director for Harry Belafonte; and was responsible for some of the most dazzlingly intense and risky jazz solos ever recorded. Fearless.

And weird. Providing the music for a ‘50s film featuring exotic dancer Lili St. Cyr, he eschewed the typical “Night Train” boom-chick-a-boom sax-and-rhythm accompaniment and composed for clarinet, oboe, harp, and string quartet. His big hit, Music for Zen Meditation, was followed by Music for Yoga Meditation and even Music for Voodoo Meditation. In the early ‘80s he recorded a two-LP set of over a dozen versions of one song, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” on which he played piano, electric piano, clarinet, and baritone sax, sang, recited, and rapped. A few years after that, he issued three CDs of ambient electronics and free-floating clarinet breezes (Voyage Into A Black Hole). As a young man, with his Sicilian heritage and black hair slicked straight back, he would have fit in as a minor character in Goodfellas; later in life, bald with long fringe on the sides and a grey chest-length beard, he looked like a Biblical prophet who spent years wandering in the desert – or, as Brian Case called him in Melody Maker, “…the Taras Bulba of Bebop.”

But let’s not allow the superficial to obstruct our view of the substantial. The truth of the matter is that Tony Scott had a passionate obsession with jazz and an insatiable curiosity for music of other forms and tonalities, combined with an intellectual resourcefulness and emotional (he might say spiritual) instinct and an urgent instrumental technique, he devised ways of harmonizing all that he experienced and learned along his nomadic musical career. His discography conveniently falls into three principle periods: his jazz recordings of the ‘50s, the World Music albums of the ‘60s, and his surprising ‘90s return to jazz – convenient perhaps, but misleading, for there’s an unbroken creative thread that runs through them and suggests an evolution, rather than an interruption or contrast, of style.    

After his Juilliard days, Scott spent three years in the Army, during which time he was fortunately stationed at the Governor’s Island military base in New York Harbor, enabling him to continue his apprenticeship in the clubs and jam sessions in Greenwich Village and on 52nd Street. There’s some debate whether Scott’s first recording session as a leader, three sides for the Gotham label, was in 1945, as some sources state, or 1946 (e.g. the Dizzy Gillespie discography at www.jazzdisco.org), but in any case it was an auspicious introduction. Gillespie, under contract to Musicraft, appeared under the pseudonym B. Bopstein, Scott’s friend and mentor Ben Webster was featured on tenor sax, and Sarah Vaughan sang “All Too Soon.” Scott plays clarinet obbligatos behind Vaughan’s vocals as he would behind one of his idols, Billie Holiday, nine years later, and surprisingly offers some alto saxophone in the Johnny Hodges fashion on “You’re Only Happy When I’m Blue.” The characteristic Scott clarinet emerges on “Ten Lessons With Timothy” (actually, “Woody’n You” by another name) – a light, fruity, rounded tone that leaps through high register squeals and a quick low register rasp, attacking the notes with a joyful exuberance, pushing out phrases with such whirlwind force that Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker once described his style as “fervency bordering on desperation.”

By the mid-‘50s, Scott was recording frequently, and brilliantly. Three septet EPs for RCA between 1954 and ‘55, compiled on the CD Fingerpoppin’ (Fresh Sound), reveal the breadth of his early vision. There are bright, swinging arrangements of Broadway hits like “Forty-Second Street,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and “Lucky to Be Me;” sentimental favorites like “Body and Soul,” “Lullaby of Birdland,” and “My Melancholy Baby;” and Scott originals ranging from the mellow “Sunday Scene” to the melancholy “Requiem for ‘Lips’ ” (Hot Lips Page). But though he covers John Lewis’ Baroque quasi-blues “Vendome” (and solos with exquisite upper register control), Scott’s classical perspective toed a more rigid line, no doubt under Wolpe’s wing – the same was true of Johnny Carisi and Eddie Sauter. Scott’s ingenious “Abstraction No. 1” begins with an atonal clarinet introduction and is scored for septet with Webernesque succinctness and clarity; the “Three Short Dances for Solo Clarinet,” in the spirit of Stravinsky’s 1919 “Three Pieces for Clarinet,” sound improvised, but in a decidedly non-jazz idiom. Wolpe’s influence obviously stuck with Scott; seventeen years after he ceased study with him he recorded an “Atonal Ad Lib Blues (for Stefan Wolpe)” with pianist Bill Evans, and a “Portrait of Anne Frank” with his clarinet and baritone saxophone overdubbed in a chilling contrapuntal lament (though recorded in 1959, these were not issued until the 1986 Sung Heroes LP for Sunnyside).

There are thrilling clarinet solos on the earlier RCA material, but the arrangements were limited to three minutes or less. By 1957, Scott had ample opportunity to stretch out, and the structure of his solos now took on a more dramatic curve. Recordings from a European and Scandinavian tour include Swingin’ In Sweden (reissued on Gazell), with a scorching Scott solo on the title track, and a concert in what was then Yugoslavia accompanied by the Horst Jankowski Trio, which shows him double- and triple-timing, squeezing notes out at the very top register like the last bit of toothpaste from a tube, and on his “Blues for Charlie Parker,” sustaining breathtaking intensity through several dynamic levels, from an opening swagger to insistent agitation to a barely audible murmur. In November of that year, a single-day marathon session resulted in albums for three different labels (they’ve been collected in A Day In New York), assisted by Evans, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, trumpeter Clark Terry, and saxist Sahib Shihab. One interesting title, “Portrait of Ravi,” hints at the possibility that Scott already had an ear tuned to the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, though the music, straightahead post-bop, offers no clues.

In November 1959, depressed over the decline of the 52nd Street scene and the death of several of his friends, including Charlie Parker and most recently Billie Holiday, Scott left the U.S. and began a six-year odyssey through Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. He played jazz everywhere he went, but also investigated the local musics, playing with Balinese gamelans, Japanese kotoist Shinichi Yuize, Javanese harp and flute players. What is so striking about Scott’s venture into World Music is that he approached these experiences not as a jazz musician dabbling in an exotic environment, but as a musician seeking to establish a rapport on their terms, and the degree to which he was successful was unprecedented. The recordings we have show how. Music For Zen Meditation (Verve) deserves its popularity. There is no traditional reed instrument like the clarinet in Japanese folk music, and Scott invented a voice for it by closely matching the tonal qualities and breath patterns of the shakuhachi in his improvisations. He restrains the muscularity of his jazz phrasing and uses his breath control to broaden and deepen his instrumental tone and affect subtle gradations of pitch. The almost microtonal qualities heard in his ballad playing of the ‘50s here blossom into carefully bent and shaded notes. Without distorting the traditional intervals, he even makes an improvisation with koto, “After the Snow, Fragrance,” sound like a spiritual. Similarly, Music For Yoga Meditation And Other Joys (Verve) finds Scott altering his approach in the direction of the melodic contours and full tones found in Indian raga clarionetists like S.R. Kamble and V. Narasinhalu Wadvati; whereas on a Turkish-flavored piece such as “Ode to an Oud” on Tony Scott (formerly Homage To Lord Krishna, Verve) he adopts an appropriately reedier tone, melismatic phrasing, and idiomatic scales. His sensitivity to stylistic nuances, from culture to culture, is uncanny.

Scott returned to America in 1965, then traveled throughout Africa – Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Liberia, Morocco, and Dakar – for two years before settling in Europe in 1970. Much of the next two decades was spent playing in Italy and throughout Europe, though recordings from this period are rare. So those from the mid-‘90s – The Clarinet Album (Philology), Homage To Billie Holiday (Philology), and The Old Lion Roars (GMG) among  them – are quite a shock to one accustomed to the firebrand of the ‘50s. Now in his 70s, Scott favors slow tempos, his tone is no longer bright and tight, biting with a hint of breathiness, but broad, ripe, and pungent, and at first hearing he seems to suffer from insecure intonation. But that’s not the case. What Scott has done is bring the extended instrumental techniques he adapted from other cultures – different types of reed manipulation, alternate fingerings, breath-shaped microtones, tonal ambiguities, asymmetrical phrasing – back into his jazz repertoire, quivering with jazz feeling. As with Pee Wee Russell, his eccentricities greatly expand his expressive content. And his avant-garde priorities, always bubbling somewhere beneath the surface, now come clearly into focus.

That is to say, though lauded as a brilliant bebop player, it now seems that Scott’s urgent push was intended to break through the formal boundaries, and not effortlessly tame them, as, say, Buddy De Franco did. His World Music experiences expanded his vision to the degree that when he returned to jazz, his music no longer reflected a struggle with a traditional outlook, but had more in common with younger musicians of a freer perspective. On “ ‘Round Midnight” (from The Old Lion Roars), he flings notes about with unrestrained passion, unafraid of reed squawks, and plays fast and loose with phrasing, cramming notes into short measures, spurting through others – and resembles no one so much as Eric Dolphy, in his 1961 version of the same tune with George Russell’s band. What might be heard as “impurities” of tone are an important part of his breadth of expression, as they are in other cultures. On the same album’s “Blues for Bird,” he howls and shrieks, smears and blurs notes like a thick impasto of paint. He finally discovered Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp and put it to good use.

On The Clarinet Album, Scott turns ballads into arias, stretching melodies to the snapping point – not always a good thing. “Speak Low,” for one, is inflated into caricature. But on “Easy Living” he builds a convincing dramatic arch to fever pitch with exaggerated details, altering his tone from pinched to throaty. “The Man I Love” (Homage To Billie Holiday) favors Ben Webster’s breathiness, and the wood of the clarinet hums and moans, like Johnny Dodds’ did. Accepting these performances as the culmination of his life’s work, it’s now possible to hear how John Carter explored the same extreme upper register peaks which Scott pioneered in the ‘50s, to recognize early echoes of Don Byron’s piping edginess and angularity, of subtle players like Perry Robinson and more extravagant ones like Peter Brötzmann, in different contexts. To pull all this off, you’ve got to be fearless. And weird.

Art Lange©2009

> back to contents