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Wednesday, February 07, 2024

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love John Coltrane - The New York Times

"5 Minutes That Will Make You Love John Coltrane

Coltrane changed the game in American music a few times over. Here’s a guided tour to his career, courtesy of 15 musicians, scholars, poets, writers and other experts.

Dante Zaballa

Yes, it’s time for this series to focus on John Coltrane — perhaps the most sanctified musician in the whole Black American tradition, who other artists sometimes refer to simply as “St. John.”

Born in Hamlet, N.C., and raised in High Point, Coltrane arrived on the New York scene in the 1950s, by way of Philadelphia and the Miles Davis Quintet. In the short years between that arrival and his death, in 1967, the world around Coltrane would change dramatically. He reached the peak of his creative forces as a saxophonist just as American society was bursting apart in the 1960s, and as freedom movements drummed colonialism out of the African continent. Though introspective and soft-spoken, singularly allergic to grandstanding, Coltrane felt powerfully concerned with the fate of the world, and he was sure that music had a role to play in turning the tides.

He closely studied spiritual and musical systems from Africa and India, sensing that ancient, non-Western traditions might light the path toward a new creative approach. For many of his contemporaries, Trane’s saxophone became synonymous with a liberated mind and body. And, however ineffable, it carried a message. As A.B. Spellman wrote in a poem after the saxophonist’s death, “trane’s horn had words in it.”

Coltrane changed the game in American music a few times over: first, with a style that felt like such a force of nature, one critic labeled it “sheets of sound,” as if he were commanding monsoon rains. Then, in 1960, the flipbook-fast harmonies of “Giant Steps” upped the expectations for jazz improvisers by a big margin. Swinging in the other direction, Trane brought his whirling-dervish attack to a more stationary style of music: raga-like, harmonically planted “modal” tunes such as “Impressions,” “Africa” and “India.”

In the mid-60s, compelled by his own spirituality, by the outward-bound “free jazz” being made by artists like Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and by the music he’d been playing at home with his second wife, the pianist and composer Alice (McLeod) Coltrane, the saxophonist wrote and recorded his masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” A paean to God, it also sounds like an attempt to unleash purifying flames on a world gone wrong. And from there, he went even further; his last two years saw Coltrane pushing rhythm and tone beyond their breaking points.

Below you’ll find a guided tour of Coltrane’s career, courtesy of 15 musicians, scholars, poets, writers and other experts whose lives have been cleansed, and made brighter, by the sheets of sound.

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A.B. Spellman, poet and author

“Blue Train”

When at the end I compile the elements of my life into debits and assets, near the top of the assets list will be my many cathartic evenings spent in clubs listening to John Coltrane live. If you think that the recordings are powerful, imagine sitting 15 feet from that power as it was in the making. I can vividly remember hearing Trane and Thelonious Monk, every set, every night, at the 5 Spot after Monk’s return to club gigs in New York in 1957. Before that summer, nobody in the New York jazz world would have marked Coltrane as the next big thing — he was thought to be a middle-of-the-pack hard-bop saxophonist. But he blossomed under Monk. The wonder of the 5 Spot evenings was in bearing witness to his blooming into this Godzilla expressionist who grew larger every set, every evening.

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There was an open logic to his lines. “Blue Train,” the record that he made to satisfy his contract with Blue Note, was a masterpiece exemplification of that period. Of the tunes on that date, the title track was the summary statement. It had a sort of free grammar to it, a long solo comprising three themes all stated and developed with clarity, deep emotional meaning and perfect resolution. I have heard this solo hundreds of times, and it is new each time. “Blue Train” is why we return to art when the terrors of the material world chase us home.

Listen on YouTube

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Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, scholar

“Naima”

A love song inspired by and named for John Coltrane’s first wife, “Naima” is a contemplative ballad that exudes a sense of reverence for the beloved. The saxophonist known for long, complex solos does not take one. He chooses instead to open and close with a slow, meditative statement, made all the more so because it glides over the sustained, repeated pedal tone played by Paul Chambers on bass. Following Wynton Kelly’s eloquent piano solo, Trane returns and we accompany him someplace close to heaven, and it’s oh so pretty there. This love song is a prayer. As such, it looks toward his more explicitly spiritual works that follow in the years to come. Is it any wonder that generations of jazz musicians approach “Naima” not only as a standard, but also as scripture? Listen closely and fall in love.

Listen on YouTube

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Dr. Joshua Myers, scholar

“Alabama”

I could see the grief fill the eyes of the poet Askia Muhammad Touré: “It was like, oh, they are killing our babies?” Moments after recounting what it was to be Black and alive in the days after the Sept. 15, 1963, killings of four children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., he was the first person to fully capture for me the meaning of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Composed as an offering of solidarity in the wake of Black collective grief, these are melodic lines atop a pulsating rhythm, imploring us — then, and especially now — to never allow the children to be sacrificed again.

Listen on YouTube

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Dave Liebman, saxophonist

“Crescent”

“Crescent” is my all-time favorite recording, presenting an amazing opportunity to get into the musical language that Trane was speaking. The power of the music lies in the great feel and skill of the rhythm section. “Crescent” has several outstanding elements. There is a very apparent, deep feeling that John carried with him all the time but especially in the late period, when his sound broadened and took on a darker tone quality. “Crescent” features some melodic passages that are clearly lyrical. Additionally, the harmony of the chord changes makes this track very interesting and moving. It demands attentive listening.

Listen on YouTube

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Yusef Komunyakaa, poet

“My Favorite Things”

John Coltrane had come a long ways from Hamlet, N.C. Trane could wail through brass, and then create a lyrical contrast that catches the listener slightly off guard. He even could take a popular tune and internalize it until it was his, and such is the case with “My Favorite Things.” Yes, one hears a practiced reaching and ascension — a translation of 14-hour rehearsals. His tone was mind and body, honed into a ritual of purification. Coltrane did not believe his fellow musicians were mere sidemen. As a group, they could articulate and blow true feeling — without sentimentality. Because a conversation grows between instruments, the listener participates without being over-conscious of popping fingers, tapping feet or shaking hips. Thus, listening is active, and perhaps this is why Coltrane said, “When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups.”

To lift myself up, I tune into a joyful reminder — yes, I return to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” often. His spirit journeys to the melody, and we improvise our own personal catalog of delights. He elongates a tune into a precise tonal reckoning — no mishaps or blips on the cosmic screen. In fact, this man was blowing feeling as a way of dealing with the mind and heart at the same time, even holding himself accountable. There’s a taking apart, and then a putting back together tonally. Trane knew how to walk the listener to the edge of extended possibility, to peer down into the existential void, and then sweet-talk the listener to a sanctuary of the hour. And, in this sense, especially in a tune such as “My Favorite Things,” one may enter the John Coltrane Church, where we participants become co-creators of meaning.

Listen on YouTube

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Willard Jenkins, journalist and author

“Out of This World”

Pondering John Coltrane track recommendations, the inevitable faves float by the mind first: “Blue Train,” “My Favorite Things,” “Giant Steps,” “Africa” or the “A Love Supreme” suite. And don’t dare sleep on the hypnotic “Tunji,” used powerfully by Spike Lee in his 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues.” But the more I contemplated, I kept coming back to Trane’s engagement with “Out of This World,” from the “Coltrane” album (Impulse!), a classic example of his transforming a Great American Songbook selection. The Coltrane quartet takes that piece to regions the songwriters Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer doubtless never imagined, deep to an African realm, particularly courtesy of Elvin Jones’s distinctive, roiling drums, with Jimmy Garrison’s cascading bass lines and McCoy Tyner’s insistent block chords propelling Coltrane’s tenor saxophone theme statement and subsequent essay. Clocking in at over 14 minutes, there’s plenty to dig into for both the Trane-addicted and the newly initiated.

Listen on YouTube

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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic

“Acknowledgment”

Coltrane’s landmark suite “A Love Supreme” ends with “Psalm,” a slow, seeking devotional, its melody set to a poem giving thanks to God. It is a remarkably direct conversation between a musician and the divine, channeled through his roaring quartet. But the part of the suite that will stick most firmly in your mind and body comes at the start. Part 1, “Acknowledgment,” features a plodding incantation, first set by Jimmy Garrison’s bass, then played by the saxophone, then intoned in Coltrane’s husky voice: “A love supreme. A love supreme.” It is among the simplest things that this master of midair complexity would ever play. It feels so foundational, so grounding, that it’s almost like a creation myth. But jazz, as a discipline, had already been around for more than 50 years when he wrote it. What, then, was he creating? Once it was recorded, Coltrane knew he had reached some kind of summit: This was the beginning of the end for his legendary quartet. It had made some of the most transcendent music of the 20th century; its mission was accomplished.

Listen on YouTube

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Dr. Lewis Porter, pianist and Coltrane biographer

“Hackensack” (live)

In my continuing research on Coltrane, I find that listeners new to his work often have difficulty relating it to the jazz tradition. This excerpt from a TV program, taped on March 28, 1960, in Düsseldorf, Germany, is not part of his “official” legacy of recordings, but we are lucky that it was preserved. It is perfect evidence that Coltrane had established deep roots in swing and blues before moving out from there. The tune is “Hackensack,” by Thelonious Monk, and the AABA chord sequence is taken from Gershwin’s swing classic “Oh, Lady Be Good!”

Coltrane begins his improvisation at 1:05 with some down-home riffing, so that when he then brings on some incredibly fast notes, it makes a tremendously effective contrast. He always seemed to get right into “the zone,” and he generates so much power during his three-chorus solo that one almost marvels that the unflappable Stan Getz follows him at all. At 6:55, Coltrane brings in some new riffing, again illustrating how connected he is to the jazz tradition. Speaking of the tradition: At the bridge (7:12), the saxophonists look at each other, trying to decide who will take over, and then wordlessly decide to keep playing together.

Listen on YouTube

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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer

“Sun Ship”

When jazz purists consider John Coltrane’s discography, they often stop around 1965, when the saxophonist eschewed calm arrangements for harsher ones. The band, which included McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, still sought communion with higher powers, but it seemed they wanted to play the loudest notes possible to foster it. So when people hear “Sun Ship,” they might hear noise. But I hear freedom in the stomping drums, in the volcanic wail of the horn. I hear a band breaking the rules of what jazz was supposed to be, and a bandleader sidestepping a box he never fit. In the song’s opening moments, Jones and Coltrane trade equally riotous commotion: The drum kit sounds like it’s being assaulted; the sax all belchy and heaving. By the time Garrison and Tyner join the fray, the intensity heightens, barreling through like a truck with no brakes. I realize this imagery makes the song seem unpleasant, but the beauty is in the challenge it presents. It’s a rewarding listen, conveying angst and autonomy at every turn.

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Laura Karpman, film composer

“Summertime”

I have spent most of my adult musical life thinking about how sound and imagery interact. What makes music dark, what makes it light. How can you create specific identifiable emotions? Music is a powerful tool to create multiple subtexts. John Coltrane would’ve been an absolutely spectacular film composer. The decisions he makes are so often rooted in drama.

In “My Favorite Things” (1961), he takes a simple tune at its most shell-like value, makes some rhythmic changes and enriches the harmonic language, but the piece gets truly radical in its long solo. Here, Coltrane creates an entirely new composition. He sticks fundamentally to one chord — an E major 9 — and stays with it. It is the brightest of lights: The music ascends and ascends, builds and bursts even greater blinding optimism, creating a new, powerful original composition. He builds an entire world out of a single chord.

“Summertime,” from the same album, is another perfect example of Coltrane’s ability to radically recontextualize pre-existing music. I’ve always thought that “Summertime” was highly influenced, even lifted, from the spiritual “Motherless Child.” In Gershwin’s original, as well as countless covers, it has a winsome, beautiful lullaby quality. But Coltrane attacks it in this version — it’s sharp, it’s angular, it has edges. He doesn’t want this “Summertime” to be a remembrance of things past, but a midcentury modernist call to action. Coltrane consistently takes existing tunes and recomposes them to add emotional drama and rich subtext. Pure genius.

Listen on YouTube

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James Brandon Lewis, saxophonist

“Wise One”

John Coltrane’s grandfathers were ministers, wow! And so is my dad. My earliest memory of Coltrane was one of connection. Admiring your heroes, you hope the slightest thing in common might signify you being on the right path. Coltrane’s encounter with the creator, and the beautiful recordings that came as a result, inspired me. His composition “Wise One,” from his album “Crescent,” recorded in 1964, was revelatory. As a kid I would always rewind the recording after three minutes because I loved to just sit in that vibe, hoping I could decode Coltrane messages; his saxophone was speaking. The ensemble builds a beautiful arc of tension and release. After a brief piano intro, the saxophone enters with lyrics, a contemplation of call and worship. The church is now in service. The bass and drums enter, and the meditation is now in full bloom. The next chapter the tempo shifts, tonalities of joy, and solos of love are spoken. The epilogue begins, and we are reminded of peaceful beginnings. The last petal falls … the band utters, the doors of the church are now open, and we impatiently await next Sunday.

Listen on YouTube

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Ben Ratliff, music critic and Coltrane biographer

“Vierd Blues” (live)

What’s that thing called, that phenomenon (if it is a phenomenon) when an artist has achieved such control over their practice that right in front of you they can make the knowable and trackable suddenly diffuse into the uncanny, or the material into the spiritual, such that the music lives in two states at once? Here is a 16-minute, strolling-tempo, major-key, 12-bar blues recorded during the Coltrane quartet’s two-week run at the Sutherland Hotel Lounge in Chicago, March 1961, recorded for live-broadcast radio and never officially released, perhaps because of poor sound quality. It doesn’t matter. The tune starts, and Coltrane solos for 13 choruses, about five minutes straight. “Vierd Blues” (written by Coltrane, otherwise known as “John Paul Jones” and “Trane’s Blues”) is simple and easy to know — it’s a blues — but within 15 seconds he is putting uncommon urgency in a modest place. Sometimes his playing sounds like a kind of focused preaching; sometimes he’s babbling or scrambling notes at high speed; all the while he’s also resolving and recapitulating. By the fifth chorus you can hear the crowd yelling, because what else can they do? They know it, they hear it; it’s that thing.

Listen on YouTube

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Isaiah Collier, saxophonist

“One Down, One Up”

“One Down, One Up (Live at the Half Note)” is a record for the adventurers of sound — I would dare say truth-seekers — and I will elaborate. This is an album of pure mastery, and of exemplary musicianship. Everyone was still learning and figuring out so much in that time. The civil rights movement was alive and well, adding to the urgency that these musicians were executing on the bandstand. In this record we hear faint echoes of the musical genres that are emerging, in Garrison playing heavy funk bass lines, Tyner’s harmonic sophistication and the polyrhythmic enchantment of Elvin Jones’s drums. Then of course there is the explicit harmony and sonic landscaping of Coltrane’s tenor and soprano saxophones. This is a record for listeners and musicians alike: a testament of pushing the boundaries of artistry and innovation.

Listen on YouTube

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Bill Cole, musician and Coltrane biographer

“Transition”

This piece marks Coltrane’s entry into a freer style of playing. In the early ’60s, Eric Dolphy had had a tremendous impact on him, and if you look at the things they did together, you can hear that. Thereafter, Trane began to play more freely. I would say that “Transition,” recorded in 1965, was the piece where he was saying clearly that he was going to move away from hard-bop. Jazz is an improvisational music, and it has always been changing. People coming out of the ’50s were bound to change up the music. Then the year after Coltrane recorded “Transition,” and about a year before he died, there was a concert in New York called “Titans of the Tenor.” He and Sonny Rollins and others were part of it, but there was one tenor that they didn’t want on this bill: Albert Ayler, who was really approaching the music in a different way. Well, Trane hired him into his band. He brought him in and paid him with his own money, because he felt that this player should be part of any situation where they were talking about the greatness of the tenor saxophone. And Coltrane was the greatest saxophone player in his time, so he had that kind of influence.

Listen on YouTube

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David Renard, Times senior editor

“Lush Life”

Is it strange to spotlight John Coltrane with a five-minute-long track that has barely any saxophone for its first three? Maybe — but when that sax does come in, it’s just such a perfect, lyrical, gorgeous moment. Coltrane also recorded a longer instrumental cut of this Billy Strayhorn standard, released as the title track of an earlier Prestige Records album, but it’s the vocal version from “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” (1963) that I’ve returned to again and again over the years. McCoy Tyner’s piano and Hartman’s resonant singing set the melancholy scene, pulling up a stool for the listener at “some small dive” where love never walks in the door and no one’s expecting it to; Coltrane, waiting in the wings, sends the melody soaring with restrained phrases that perhaps recall the rosier times of the lyric’s first section. Then the torch is passed back to Hartman so he can finish out one of the great jazz ballads. Turn off the lights, it’s closing time.

Listen on YouTube"

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love John Coltrane - The New York Times

Monday, January 22, 2024

Marlena Shaw, jazz singer known for "California Soul," dies at 81





"Legendary jazz singer Marlena Shaw, best known for her rendition of "California Soul," has died at the age of 81. "CBS Weekend News" and "CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell" deliver the latest news and original reporting, and goes beyond the headlines with context and depth. Catch the "CBS Evening News" every weekday night at 6:30 p.m. ET on the CBS Television Network and at 10 p.m. ET on the CBS News app."

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Sarah Vaughan - The New York Times

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Sarah Vaughan

All it might take is a second and a half of hearing her sing to make your spine tingle or your heart drop. Opera singers, jazz vocalists, writers and Vaughan’s biographer share their favorites.

Dante Zaballa

For over a year, we’ve been rooting through jazz history five minutes at a time. We’ve covered favorites by Ornette Coleman, Mary Lou Williams, New Orleans’s jazz greats and many others. Now let’s turn our attention to a vocalist who epitomized — but couldn’t be contained by — jazz: Sarah Vaughan, “The Divine One,” owner of perhaps the most impressive vocal instrument in recorded history.

Forget five minutes, all it might take is a second and a half of hearing her sing to make your spine tingle or your heart drop. Across her wide contralto range she could easily alternate between thick vibrato and crystal-clear precision. Vaughan began her career as a teenager singing bebop — a then-new style that was almost exclusively the domain of hotshot instrumentalists. But she could improvise an exacting scat solo, right alongside the horn players.

Raised in a musical family in Newark, Vaughan first hit the road with Earl Hines’s big band in the mid-1940s, after its other singer, Billy Eckstine, saw her win a talent show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She became an integral part of the band, and then a star. Though naturally shy, she made it clear early on that she was to be treated as any other musician, and her bandmates soon started calling her “Sailor,” because of her fluency with four-letter words.

Heading off on a tour with Hines in 1944, she and the pianist John Malachi were lugging their suitcases into Union Station in Washington when he made the mistake of chivalry, holding the door open for her. “What are you standing up there looking at me for, fool?” she demanded. “Go on through the door! You damn fool.” Maybe that’s the moment when he gave her another of her many nicknames: “Sassy.” In any case, it stuck, and it’s the one she is still known by today.

As her career progressed, Vaughan — who died in 1990, at 66 — ventured into rock and Brazilian music. Read on for a sampling of standout Vaughan performances selected by opera singers, jazz vocalists, critics, fiction writers and Vaughan’s biographer. Enjoy listening to their choices, check out the playlist at the bottom of the article and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.

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Lizz Wright, vocalist

“Tenderly”

Sarah Vaughan’s voice is a whole atmosphere. In a few exquisite phrases, the current of her vibrato and the richness of her tone usher the listener into a place in time, into the poetry of song, and hint at the wealth of a great mind. As a Black woman in America, Sarah found a way to stand before masses of people around the world commanding their patient attention, respect and admiration through her powerful vocals and masterfully whimsical phrasing. Her enchanted voice gently opened doors that were often closed to women, people of color and vocalists. Everything under Sarah’s voice is draped in a playful and sacred charm that makes the moment richer than it was. She was aptly called “The Divine One.”

Listen on YouTube

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Wesley Brown, novelist

“Send in the Clowns”

Sarah. Words fail to measure up. Like Beckett, I try to fail better. A hush steadies all in the club. The mic rests ready against her chest where voice and heartbeat greet. Me on the ground, she in midair with her usual flair. Every breath a parachute, full of rumbles and quivers and flavors of sass. Such a flirt she is, the shimmy in the shoulders, much girlish mischief in the mouth. Isn’t it bliss? Me still on the ground, she in midair. Words not up to snuff. Quick. Don’t bother. She’s here!

Listen on YouTube

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Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocalist

“Maria”

The most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard is Sarah Vaughan singing this. I believe this is one of the most luxurious vocal recordings of all time. I go back to this video very often when I want to treat myself. I’m so fascinated by her vibrato and by the moments when she gives us those sweeps in range. This version of “Maria,” a song from “West Side Story,” has an intimate, secret quality at crucial moments, and yet it is overwhelmingly grandiose, regal. I have always loved this about Sarah Vaughan. She can take you to these incredible heights with her voice, but with a word, a note, is able to infuse her interpretations with a quotidian, offhand quality. She does not keep her voice in the same place — it is heterogenous, which is what makes it so fun, so rich, so moving. She is divine and human.

Listen on YouTube

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Emily Lordi, writer

“I’ll Be Seeing You”

Many artists have performed “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal’s ballad of lost love and longing. But no one has lingered in it as languorously as Sarah Vaughan. Her version of the song, recorded live with her veteran trio at Tivoli Gardens in 1963, expresses no interest in moving on or “healing.” Instead, Vaughan initiates a long, slow waltz with heartache. By casting herself into every phrase, she implies that the pain of imagining her lover in their old haunts (carousels, cafes) not only revives him; it enlivens her (hence the protracted “I” with which she begins). In a feat of breath control, she bridges the song’s two opening statements — inviting, even willing, a world made more vibrant by the afterlife of love, as it smudges the edges of everything.

Listen on YouTube

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Samara Joy, vocalist

“Time After Time”

I admire how much care she puts into every word, making sure that the story of the song is heard and felt. Any improvisatory changes made to the melody are done with taste and feeling. I also love how she uses the full range of her voice to deliver the song. I almost thought the song ended once she hit that final high A-flat, but after descending two octaves lower, oscillating between G and A-flat, this Sarah performance became an instant favorite.

Listen on YouTube

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Ben Ratliff, former Times jazz and pop critic

“The Thrill Is Gone”

I like hearing Sarah Vaughan tear it up on an extra-slow-tempo ballad, 50 beats per minute or lower. With small groups, her unremitting virtuosity made a certain kind of design sense: She filled in the canyon-like spaces between beats. But I also like hearing her singing at slug tempos with thick, commercial, easy-listening studio arrangements: In an atmosphere of languid appeasement, she bounces off the walls. For the front half of “The Thrill Is Gone,” on “Vaughan and Violins” (1958), the arrangement by Quincy Jones clears open space for her to go full Sarah, strange Sarah, with her feats of breath control, mic technique, timbral shifts, trilling and sliding notes, hard emphatic gestures. But she keeps doing it after the tide of violins enters. I mean, the first “gone” is more than three seconds long, most of it the letter “n”; at 0:34, she delivers a pinched, acid “… si-ii-ighs”; at 0:38, “a-hand re-ee-huh-a-lize”; at 0:51, “the nights: the nights are so cold.” At a certain point you’re noticing every detail. Most affective ballads work their affect intermittently — there are a few select peaks, which makes them easier to remember. Vaughan’s were nearly all peak, and in that she took a risk.

Listen on YouTube

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Charenee Wade, vocalist

“Once in a While”

Sarah Vaughan, my first musical love, always brought newness to everything she sang each time she stepped onto the stage. There is a great early recording on MGM in 1949 of this song where, if one listens closely, her undeniably infectious tone and masterful phrasing speak through. This particular clip of her live performance of “Once in a While” is filmed almost 30 years later, and that essence is still there, but even more enriched. Her vocal range was unparalleled and became even deeper as she “seasoned.” She is a soulfully spontaneous and playful improviser. Her stage presence is transfixing, and her comedic timing is delightfully charming. She holds the entire room in the palm of her hand with each story she tells and intimate moment she shares. Her vocal technique is flawless, no matter which decade of her career, and one would be blessed to be able to witness her sitting down at the piano and accompanying herself just as well as any pianist had for her in the past. She is iconic, and quintessentially the definition of a True Jazz Vocalist. My first love, and I know you will love her too!

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Elaine M. Hayes, biographer

“Whatever Lola Wants”

Sarah Vaughan’s “Whatever Lola Wants,” released in 1955, is a pop masterpiece. In less than three minutes, she perfectly embodies her role as a provocative temptress while demonstrating her vocal prowess, technical mastery, and savvy as a storyteller. On the surface, she sings straight. But she in fact infuses the Broadway tune with her trademark vocal inflections and nuances. A delicious slide here, a microtonal bend there. With each verse she adds layers of complexity that build momentum, pulling the listener through her performance. And while Vaughan keeps a strict beat, she deftly conveys uncertainty and spontaneity, constantly pushing the boundaries between control and the loss of control to produce a delightful tension between the two. Musically, she has re-created the dynamics of a successful seduction. By the time she sings the final “I’m irresistible, you fool/Give in, give in, give in,” her success — and the success of her single, which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard and Variety charts — seems a foregone conclusion.

Listen on YouTube

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Fredara Hadley, scholar

“The Shadow of Your Smile”

The older I get, the more I revel in listening to grown women’s voices. We often think of what age subtracts, but I’m attracted by what it adds. Growing up in church, people would say, “You have to be a certain age to sing that song.” Sometimes, life experience has to catch up with lyrics. One recording that always makes me feel this way is Sarah Vaughan’s 1966 interpretation of Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster’s “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Sarah Vaughan is a master interpreter of song, both melodically and narratively. I know there are countless recordings of this song, but whenever someone mentions it, I only ever think of hers.

This is Vaughan in her 40s singing with an alluring alchemy of tender reflection with the gravitas of life experience. All of her soulful vocal virtuosity paired with an orchestral arrangement infused with a bossa nova groove lulls the listener into a dreamscape. It is nearly four minutes of her starting deep in her rich contralto voice and carrying us higher into her lilting soprano. Her vocal ascent reflects the lyrical joy of remembrance, and then toward the end, she gently descends and places us back into reality. It’s an expertly crafted blend of shadow and sun, light and dark, in the colors of her voice and the story she tells. This is Sarah Vaughan in full bloom as a singer and as a woman.

Listen on YouTube

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Will Friedwald, author

“Misty”

Back in the ’80s, my favorite selection on the jukebox at the Angry Squire was the 1959 single of Sarah Vaughan singing “Misty,” with Quincy Jones’s orchestra and Zoot Sims on tenor. Even at that noisy bar in Chelsea, the first notes of that 45 would cause the whole room to instantly freeze — as if the voice of a goddess were beaming in from another world. Some critics accused Vaughan of not paying enough attention to lyrics in general, but here was a song where she didn’t just sing the words, she actually became them. She didn’t just get “Misty” in the sense of teary-eyed, but she seemed to dissolve bodily into the atmosphere and cling “to a cloud.” Even 30 years after her passing from this world to the next, that record still has that effect on me.

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Angel Blue, vocalist

“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”

The brilliance of Sarah Vaughan reaches far beyond her exquisite sound. Perhaps her most intriguing quality is her vocal ability. Going from a high soprano range to a low contralto range effortlessly seems to be something that she was able to do within any song. One of the songs that I find particularly fascinating is “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”: She demonstrates her ability to catch the listener’s ear with a simple melody by her strong use of diction, straight tone singing, and embellished vibrato to highlight a specific word or end of the phrase.

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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic

“Like a Lover (O Cantador)”

In the last chapter of her career, Vaughan built herself a new home in the music of Brazil, recording three albums of bossa, jazz and contemporary Brazilian pop. At the end of the first LP, “I Love Brazil,” she’s joined by the Rio de Janeiro-born balladeer Dori Caymmi on his song “Like a Lover (O Cantador).” Caymmi adds the occasional cascade of wordless vocals, as if to provide Vaughan with her string section, but mostly it’s just his acoustic guitar and her voice, singing lyrics in English about an unrequited love. In her mid-50s, Vaughan sounds like someone who knows the feeling of desire inside and out: its urgency, its unreason, the sting that can sometimes be its only reward. But enough with all that. You don’t get very far weighing Sarah Vaughan down with conversations about “authenticity” or “message.” She is concerned almost completely with the joy of singing: the variety of shapes that her notes can take, how they feel, how they taste, whether they’ll sit still or wriggle in her grasp. And that’s where the optimism that you can hear in this track comes from: She knows a song is a lover that will always requite. Sure enough, if you go back to the original Portuguese lyrics, they aren’t actually about a lover at all, they’re about a singer’s devotion to song. One of them translates to: “If only I knew how to cry/Alas, I’m a singer, I can only sing.”

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5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Sarah Vaughan - The New York Times

Saturday, July 22, 2023

The Amiable, Unswerving Tony Bennett - The New York Times

The Amiable, Unswerving Tony Bennett

"In an 80-year career, he stuck with one mission: illuminating songs he cherished.

Tony Bennett and Billy Joel performing during the 44th Annual Grammy Awards in 2002.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Has there ever been a more purely likable pop figure than Tony Bennett?

Throughout a career that began in the 1940s, Bennett, who died on Friday at 96, maintained one mission, amiably and unswervingly. He didn’t chase trends; he didn’t get defensive, either. Instead, he let listeners — and, in recent decades, much younger duet partners — come to him, generation after generation. He welcomed them to a repertoire of songs he admired, knew intimately and was happy to share.

Bennett sang vintage pop standards, the pre-rock canon sometimes called the Great American Songbook. They’re songs mostly about grown-up love, about courtship, yearning and fulfillment, with elegant rhymes and ingenious melodies that invite a little improvisation. He recorded with orchestras, with major jazz musicians, with big bands and, for more than 50 years, with the pianist and arranger Ralph Sharon and his trio. He was always unplugged — a simple fact that cannily recharged his career when he played “MTV Unplugged” in 1994.

Bennett’s voice made the technical challenges of his songs evaporate. As a young man, he showed off his near-operatic range and dynamic control in early recordings like “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” from 1950. But he wasn’t an old-fashioned crooner; his sense of swing was just as strong. And he understood that pure virtuosity can keep listeners at a distance. He soon revealed a grain in his voice that made it earthy and approachable, downplaying his precision. Very often, there was a jovial savvy in his phrasing; he’d punch out a note ahead of the beat, as if he couldn’t wait to sing it.

Bennett onstage at Carnegie Hall in 1976. His long career had its share of commercial ups and downs and transient record-company pressures.D. Gorton/The New York Times

There was always an easy strength, a self-confident baritone underpinning, in his singing. When he had a big band behind him, he was easily brassy enough to hold his own. But he didn’t steamroller through his songs. He was ever attentive to lyrics. His signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” has two melodic peaks near the end. The first is on the line “When I come home”; he sustains “home” and tapers it off with longing in his vibrato, as if he’s feeling the distance. Soon afterward comes “Your golden sun will shine for me,” and he sings “sun” as if he knows he’ll be basking in it.

Bennett’s long, long career had its share of commercial ups and downs and transient record-company pressures. As the 1960s ended, he was persuaded to record recent pop hits on the album “Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!,” though he maintained some dignity by putting lush orchestral arrangements behind songs like George Harrison’s “Something.”

After changing labels — and, in the mid-1970s, starting his own short-lived but artistically rewarding label, Improv — Bennett returned to what he did best: singing standards with musicians who brought out their jazz possibilities. Two albums he made with the harmony-probing pianist Bill Evans — “The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album” (1975) and “Together Again” (1977), both just piano-and-voice duets — are luminous testaments to the way Bennett never took familiar songs for granted.

He was 67 when he recorded “MTV Unplugged” with Sharon’s trio and a guest appearance by Elvis Costello. It was a shrewd and satisfying move; Bennett became pop’s cool grandpa. Rock-hating Grammy voters seized their chance to give him his second album of the year award (after “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”), and current rock and pop performers embraced the chance to sing with him and learn from him. Duet albums (with K.D. Lang, Diana Krall and Lady Gaga) and individual duet tracks (with, among many others, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Bono, Christina Aguilera, Queen Latifah and Amy Winehouse) made clear how admired, durable, companionable and game he was; even the awkward moments are endearing.

In later years, as his voice lowered and thickened, Bennett used those qualities to bring out mature perspectives. The slow-motion version of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” that appears on the 2007 compilation, “Sings the American Songbook, Vol. 1,” is latter-day Bennett: a little raspy, a little tremulous and gloriously fond, an affirmation not only of “tonight” but of a longtime love. There’s a rueful chuckle as he sings, “That laugh that wrinkles your nose/Touches my foolish heart.” Those lyrics were written in 1936, and Bennett was still listening through every line, still getting closer to the song.

Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. More about Jon Pareles"

The Amiable, Unswerving Tony Bennett - The New York Times

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Herbie Hancock - The New York Times

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Herbie Hancock

We asked musicians and experts, including Thundercat, Patrice Rushen and Nicole Sweeney, which Hancock song they would play for a friend.

Dante Zaballa

Over the past few months, The New York Times has asked experts to answer the question, What would you play a friend to make them fall in love with jazz? We’ve explored artists like Ornette Coleman and Mary Lou Williams, and styles ranging from bebop to modern.

Now, we’re turning to Herbie Hancock, the groundbreaking pianist and composer who emerged in jazz as something of a prodigy. At age 11, Hancock — who listened to classical music at the behest of his mother — played Mozart’s D major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Three years later, he became interested in jazz after seeing a classmate play it on the piano. He eventually gigged around Chicago during summer breaks from college, which led to his working with the tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in 1960. His career took off after the trumpeter Donald Byrd asked Hancock to play in his quintet. He moved to New York City and in 1962 released his debut album, “Takin’ Off,” on Blue Note Records.

That would have been a fine enough existence, but in 1963, his life changed when the trumpeter Miles Davis — the world’s biggest jazz musician — brought Hancock into the fold to be a member of his band, the Second Great Quintet. Alongside Davis, the bassist Ron Carter, the drummer Tony Williams and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Hancock would become a superstar, lending his melodic chords to several cornerstone albums in Davis’s discography. He left the band in 1968 and started tinkering with spacier sounds. By the early ’70s, Hancock had all but abandoned jazz for funk and ambient textures, and released challenging music that didn’t fit one box in particular. In 1973, he released his biggest album, “Head Hunters,” a propulsive funk odyssey that went platinum and led to Hancock playing to huge crowds.

Now 60 years into his artistic trajectory, Hancock is still adventurous, still embracing new avenues and working with younger artists who are just as daring. Below, we asked 11 musicians, writers and critics to share their favorite Hancock songs. Enjoy listening to their choices, check out the playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.

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Julius Rodriguez, musician

If I had to pick only one song to listen to for the rest of eternity, “Textures” would be it. It’s not the flashiest or most technically/pianistically complicated performance, but it grooves in a way Herbie Hancock alone can. That is because it is Herbie Hancock alone! Herbie’s 1980 LP “Mr. Hands” always interested me because he took a fascinating approach to crafting it: Every track has a different and specific personnel of musicians. Each track feels like the musicians were handpicked to best represent each musical idea. But then you get to “Textures,” which only credits one musician — Herbie Hancock. From acoustic piano, to all sorts of keyboards and synthesizers to create bass lines and orchestrations, to programming the drums, every sound you hear was created by his own hands. This to me feels like the purest insight into the mind of a genius.

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Salami Rose Joe Louis, musician and producer

The first time I heard “Actual Proof” I was convinced it was made by time travelers, possibly from the year 2300. I had never heard anything like it. It has the hypnotic effect of being so freaky and funky and the groove so locked into warp speed. Yet it’s deeply fluid and meditative at the same time. This track encapsulates everything I admire about Herbie’s work: his forward thinking and explorative sound, his unique harmonic and melodic choices, his genius understanding of rhythm and the way he can converse with it in a song, his improvisation and flow, and his ability to make an absolute ripper of a tune that you can groove to with effortless joy. But behind the scenes, the music is incredibly challenging and innovative rhythmically and harmonically.

Herbie’s Rhodes solo on this is one of my favorite solos. It is so creative and expressive and playful and feels like a deep conversation with the other players. In general this recording embodies a time when a group of players were on some next level, listening to one another, exploring new sounds, pushing one another to stretch. It is a beautiful piece of history (even though I am still half convinced it is from the future).

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Shannon J. Effinger, writer

“Maiden Voyage” first crossed my path while I was in high school. It was an unexpected gift from my neighbor, a World War II Navy vet and landlord who would regale me with stories about the musicians he rented rooms to — Miles, Billie, Prez, Dizzy. All I could hear then, and still hear now, are its endless possibilities.

The album was recorded in one day — March 17, 1965 — for Hancock’s fifth studio release, after he enlisted Ron Carter, Tony Williams and the saxophonist George Coleman, along with the young trumpet titan Freddie Hubbard. Equal to his prowess and touch for the piano, Hancock is one of this music’s greatest shape-shifters, as he has keenly adapted and created within the industry’s ever-changing tides. Just as jazz was transitioning from individual-led to ensemble-driven, Hancock rendered several original compositions that any jazz group must cut its teeth on. And the title track to “Maiden Voyage,” from its palpable opening vamp to the unbridled freedom he builds, gives each player his respective moment to shine.

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Damon Locks, musician and visual artist

“Hornets” is musical archaeology. It is simultaneously resolute, absurd, deeply steeped in tradition yet stretching wildly into a future unknown. It asks questions about how we got here and where we are going. It’s cinematic, standing outside an art opening but also a sweaty D.J. set. “Hornets” is Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” for the Vietnam War era. It’s as much a song for today as it was in 1973 (when it was released). “Hornets” is the harbinger of ’80s-era African Head Charge and ’90s-era Wu-Tang Clan. It’s a cellphone call on the subway with no headphones. “Hornets” has always been a timeless classic that, like life, can be propulsive, confounding, intimidating and groovy. And just when you think you know what is happening, the kazoos come back in.

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Stephen (Thundercat) Bruner, musician

The first time I heard Herbie Hancock’s “4 A.M.,” I was with my friend Brandon Coleman. I remember we were driving. We went to Amoeba Music. We were very much into finding out where a lot of our favorite music came from, going in many different directions. We’d pick up Jaco Pastorius’s music, Weather Report, and all kinds of stuff. And Brandon really loved Herbie Hancock.

I remember we heard “4 A.M.” in the car together and we both knew that we had to learn that song. At some point in the night, I remember we got back to his crib, and we tried to sit there and play through it a bit. I think we even tried to record it one time to see what it would be. And it was cool, man. We felt like it was such an amazing tune. It was the feeling of hearing it at the time, for both of us, that was very euphoric. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite Herbie tunes.

It’s one of those moments that made us wonder, “Wow, these guys. Was this indicative of them being up at 4 a.m. and this is what happened with them?” It even made me want to just stay up till 4 a.m. in life in general, just to see where things would take me.

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Patrice Rushen, musician

When asked recently about my favorite composition of Herbie Hancock, I actually found the question very difficult to answer. But “Speak Like a Child” immediately caught my attention from the moment that I first heard it. I never forgot the feeling of that “first listening.” The mood and orchestration of the piece are beautiful. The recording is beautiful. But the special attraction for me, beyond these qualities, are Herbie’s touch on the piano, his sound and the lyricism of his playing. This track offers images of innocence, clarity, imagination and mastery. Each player is listening.

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Nicole Sweeney, radio host

“Butterfly” is a blend of beauty, funk and groove from Herbie Hancock’s 1974 album “Thrust” with his band the Headhunters. The notes start crawling toward your soul, tickling every intricate part like a caterpillar on your forearm. Great leaders know how to get the best out of people, and Herbie does just that while “hanging” in the cut until the 4:30 mark, where he starts to shed his “cocoon” and let his instrument become the star of the song. This is where you feel a transition happening, as the music takes on another life; wings are sprouting, colors floating, as you are sent to another stratosphere. By the 7:00 mark, you experience a beautiful “Butterfly” that has taken off, with a flair and flutter that takes your breath away. By the 9:10 mark, you are reminded of the beautiful beginning, as Herbie always takes you on a magical, musical ride that you never want to get off of.

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David Renard, Times senior editor

I struggle to understand the listeners who didn’t like “Head Hunters.” I know they were out there — a 1976 New York Times review of a concert that covered Hancock’s career to date said the show “made a strong case for the purists” who “lament the tendency of talented musicians to ‘sell out’ in the direction of disco‐funk.” (Sidebar: Hancock had left a big enough impression on jazz to warrant a retrospective concert 47 years ago.) I guess if you’re going to sell out, do it with a Minimoog bass line as nasty as the one that sets off “Chameleon,” pilot an ARP synthesizer into space and move more than a million copies of a forward-looking jazz-funk LP. A chameleon had changed, and not everyone could see it, or in this case hear it.

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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer

Following a five-year stint in Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet (my favorite band of any genre ever), Herbie Hancock released “The Prisoner” in 1969 as a partial tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot and killed the year before. In turn, the title track feels precarious, teetering between darkness and light. Against triumphant horns and a swinging backbeat played by the drummer Albert (Tootie) Heath, Hancock launches into it with murky electric piano chords, creating this alluring juxtaposition. On purpose, the song runs hot and cool, conveying attitudes of the oppressed and the oppressor, “the feeling of fire in violence” and the “feeling of water in Dr. King,” as the album’s liner notes explain. Toward the end, Hancock — on acoustic piano — brightens the composition with radiant chords while the horns grow darker. And that’s why it’s one of my favorite songs: Equally soothing and intense, “The Prisoner” imparts the aura of social constraint, of being free yet confined to an apparatus not built for you.

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Timmhotep Aku, culture worker

To innovate is to transgress. A lifetime of music appreciation has taught me this lesson. Herbie Hancock taught me this lesson with “Rockit.”

When the single was first released in 1983 I was only a toddler. But it was a hit, and even as it slipped off the charts it seeped into the fabric of my world so that a grade-school me recognized it when I heard it at Kings Plaza Mall and bugged out when I saw its bizarre video on MTV or New York Hot Tracks.

This was one of the only times I heard the scratching sounds I knew from rap records in a “mainstream” context. Though I was young, I could perceive the difference between our thing in the hood and what was considered “pop” and ready for prime time. Herbie Hancock, assisted by the deft turntablism of Grandmixer DXT, not only subverted the idea of what kind of music a jazz pianist could make but also where sounds born in the ghetto could be played. Future shock for real.

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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic

At one point in his memoir, Hancock offers up an appealing idea: “Improvisation — being truly in the moment — means exploring what you don’t know.” Realize that this comes from someone who loves nothing more than to figure out how stuff works. As a kid, Hancock was always deconstructing radios and toys, and he taught himself jazz by a similar method: dissecting what he heard on albums, down to the granule, and recreating it. (You’ve seen this clip, right?) In tunes like “Dolphin Dance,” a Hancock composition-turned-jazz standard, these two impulses — attention to detail, and affinity for mystery — don’t feel at all opposed. There’s a complex science to this piece, but plenty of open space for the spirit to come in, too. Hancock first recorded it for “Maiden Voyage,” an LP whose freely floating title track lingers on single chords for long passages, turning harmonies into environs. But “Dolphin Dance” takes a different route toward no-resolution: The chords move around constantly, coloring the main melodic motif with different shades and feelings. Hear him play the tune alone, at a 1984 concert in Switzerland — pausing every so often to investigate and unravel a different chord, or refitting a woozy phrase into a swaggering groove — and you see what this is all about: The greater the detail, the more the mystery."

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Herbie Hancock - The New York Times