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July 14, 2008

"WHO is the KING of the RIGHTEOUS RIFF?"

By: Bernard Chazelle

For his movie "Kansas City," Robert Altman assembled some of the biggest names in jazz. This outtake features a Lester Young standard, Tickletoe.

The narrator, Harry Belafonte, refers to "cutting contests." People often think of early jazz players as slackers noodling around blues scales for a living. In fact, their environment was fiercely competitive. Players would compete one-on-one and the loser would be booed off-stage. (Few suffered more from this combative culture than Charlie Parker himself, who was neither a precocious nor a naturally gifted player, but that's a story for another day). The two kings of "the righteous riff" were Lester Young (Prez) and Coleman Hawkins (Bean). In this scene, Joshua Redman plays the part of Prez.

The marvelous pianist Geri Allen opens with the main walking bass line, which she quickly hands over to the formidable Christian McBride, probably the best young bass player today. This sort of "riff-passing" is common in jazz. It's like passing the baton in a relay race: you do it only when the next runner is already in full motion. Or think of a parent running alongside their child on a bicycle to give it a running start. Or think of a food taster: "Hey, I just need to make sure this chorus is not going to poison anyone, so let me take the first bite."

Don Byron and James Carter play the theme chorus, with a Carter in fine form displaying his trademark exuberance, which draws a smile from McBride. Then Joshua Redman takes the first break. Lester Young's 1940 solo (in Count Basie's band) is a jazz classic that only a fool would try to play note for note. Joshua Redman is no fool (in fact, he and James Carter are among the greatest jazz talents today) and he wisely charts his own path. (I have another take by him of that same break, and it is distinctively more modern).

Geri Allen's breaks couldn't be more different from Count Basie's 1940 recording. Allen plays like a full-fledged pianist. Count Basie, on the other hand, used the piano as a percussive instrument. He was a drummer at heart, who only switched to piano because Sonny Greer (an Ellington drummer) cast too wide a shadow. Don't get me wrong: Count Basie was a keyboard master. I have recordings by him on the organ (Fats Waller taught him: No, I am not making that up!)

The other band members are Mark Whitfield on guitar and Victor Lewis on drums. This is a dream team of jazz. I've had the good fortune to hear most of these musicians in concert and meet a few of them in person: they're even more amazing live.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at July 14, 2008 07:02 PM

I'm not sure why you compare Geri Allen to Basie here; Basie was a bandleader who rarely made the scene. Geri is obviously "playing" Marylou Williams, who was an integral part of the Kansas City jam session scene, and one of the great heroes of women in jazz. (She recounts an amazing story of being dragged out of bed at 3:00 AM when Young and Hawkins were engaged in an epic after-hours jam and the two stars insisted on a pianist who could keep up.)

I'm not generally a big fan of "repertory" jazz,* especially when so much of the real thing has been preserved on recordings (check out the live airchecks under "Old Time Radio" on the Internet Archive to hear some great examples of pre-War jazz played without regard to the limits of 78 RPM limitations), and I think, on balance, Altman made the right decision in choosing the best contemporary musicians and allowing them the freedom to interpret historical jazz. But I worry that contemporary listeners with no background in historical will think that the modern interpretation is "authentic," when of course it is not.

[* The best repertory jazz I've ever heard? One lazy Sunday I had an old rerun of The Lawrence Welk Show on TV. Welk announced, "And-a now, we'd like to play Duke Ellington's 1928 arrangement, "Ring Dem Bells." And those uptight white fuckers in pastel polyester suddenly came alive, and for three minutes, they put both Lincoln Center Jazz and the Smithsonian Masterworks Orchestra to shame. There was another episode where the theme was "musician's choice," and the guitarist and principle violinist did "Wild Dogs" by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Dude was beating that flattop guitar so hard I thought it was going to fly apart. The old Republican polka dancers in the audience were significantly less impressed than I was.]

Posted by: HP at July 14, 2008 09:50 PM

HP: You're absolutely right that Geri is playing the part of Mary Lou Williams in that video. But her breaks are copied almost verbatim from Basie's own 1940 recording. She plays just like him, except for the phrasing which is entirely different (pianistic vs percussive) and the final flourishes. So in the end she puts an entirely different spin on Basie's playing.

Not sure what "authentic" means. But I agree on the importance of history. I don't quite understand what it means to love Kind of Blue if one doesn't know West End Blues or doesn't even appreciate the fact that Miles learned his trade from Bird, who was a quintessential bluesman. But maybe I am old-fashioned. I don't even use text-messaging!

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 15, 2008 12:13 AM

Funny-- one of the things I love about jazz is the perspective of its musicians to the past. What Altman's done here is pick musicians who respect the past but have developed on it--neither slavishly dedicated to preservation, which means he picked Redman over Branford Marsalis, or intent on killing the O.G.'s, which means he picked Allen instead of Cecil Taylor. I actually think that the choice of innovators demonstrates a lot of respect for the musicians they PLAY. Think of how Mingus loved Bird and hated everyone who PLAYED like Bird.

Posted by: Sully at July 15, 2008 09:21 AM