Comments: "WHO is the KING of the RIGHTEOUS RIFF?"

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