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Wednesday, October 04, 2023
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.
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
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.”
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Wesley Brown, novelist
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!
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Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocalist
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.
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Emily Lordi, writer
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.
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Samara Joy, vocalist
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.
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Ben Ratliff, former Times jazz and pop critic
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.
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Charenee Wade, vocalist
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
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.
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Fredara Hadley, scholar
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.
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Will Friedwald, author
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
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
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.”
Saturday, July 22, 2023
The Amiable, Unswerving Tony Bennett
"In an 80-year career, he stuck with one mission: illuminating songs he cherished.
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.
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.
Wednesday, May 03, 2023
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.
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."
Sunday, April 16, 2023
“He was known for his laid-back style and for his influence on, among others, Miles Davis, who once said, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.”
Ahmad Jamal, whose measured, spare piano style was an inspiration to generations of jazz musicians, died on Sunday at his home in Ashley Falls, Mass. He was 92.
The cause was prostate cancer, his daughter, Sumayah Jamal, said.
In a career that would bring him a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, a lifetime achievement Grammy and induction into France’s Order of Arts and Letters, Mr. Jamal made his mark with a stately approach that honored what he called the spaces in the music.
That approach stood in marked contrast to the challengingly complex music known as bebop, which was sweeping the jazz world when Mr. Jamal began his career as a teenager in the mid-1940s. Bebop pianists, following the lead of Bud Powell, became known for their virtuosic flurries of notes. Mr. Jamal chose a different path, which proved equally influential.
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The critic Stanley Crouch wrote that bebop’s founding father, Charlie Parker, was the only musician “more important to the development of fresh form in jazz than Ahmad Jamal.”
In his early years, Mr. Jamal listened not just to jazz, which he preferred to call “American classical music,” but also to classical music of the non-American variety.
“We didn’t separate the two schools,” he told The New York Times in 2001. “We studied Bach and Ellington, Mozart and Art Tatum. When you start at 3, what you hear you play. I heard all these things.”
Mr. Jamal’s laid-back, accessible style, with its dense chords, its wide dynamic range and above all its judicious use of silence, led to more than his share of dismissive reviews in the jazz press early in his career; Martin Williams’s canonical history “The Jazz Tradition” described his music as “chic and shallow.”
But it soon became an integral part of the jazz landscape. Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett are among the prominent jazz pianists who looked to Mr. Jamal as an exemplar.
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Probably the best-known musician to cite Mr. Jamal as an influence was not a pianist but a trumpeter and bandleader: Miles Davis, who became close friends with Mr. Jamal, recorded his compositions and arrangements and would bring his sidemen to see Mr. Jamal perform. He once said, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.”
Ahmad Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930. Fritz, as he was called, began playing piano at age 3 and began studying with Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founder of the National Negro Opera Company, a few years later. By the time he joined the musicians’ union at age 14, the celebrated jazz piano virtuoso Art Tatum had hailed him as “a coming great,” and he began touring with George Hudson’s big band after graduating from high school.
In 1950 he moved to Chicago, where he converted to Islam, changed his name to Ahmad Jamal and assembled a piano-guitar-bass trio known as the Three Strings. During an extended stay at the Manhattan nightclub the Embers in 1951, the trio came to the attention of the noted record producer and talent scout John Hammond, who signed them to the Okeh label.
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In 1955 Mr. Jamal recorded his first full-length album, “Ahmad Jamal Plays,” with the guitarist Ray Crawford and the bassist Israel Crosby, for the small Parrot label. Tellingly, when the album was acquired and rereleased the next year by Argo, a subsidiary of the seminal blues label Chess, it was retitled “Chamber Music of the New Jazz.”
Mr. Jamal received his first major national exposure with the Argo album “At the Pershing: But Not for Me,” recorded at a Chicago nightclub in 1958 with Mr. Crosby and the drummer Vernel Fournier. It spent more than two years on the Billboard album chart, an all but unheard-of stretch for a jazz album.
The success of “At the Pershing” stemmed in part from Mr. Jamal’s ambling yet propulsive interpretation of the standard “Poinciana,” still his best-known recording. But he received some criticism for not including any original compositions on the album, which he later said spurred him to focus on writing his own music.
Mr. Jamal’s output was as prodigious as his light-fingered style was economical: He released as many as three albums a year in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and more than 60 in his career.
He also founded a handful of record labels, a management company and a Chicago nightclub and restaurant called the Alhambra, although that venture lasted less than a year. In keeping with his religious beliefs, the Alhambra did not serve alcohol, which presumably hastened its demise.
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The Alhambra’s financial difficulties marked the beginning of a dark period of Mr. Jamal’s life, in which he walked away from performing for almost three years. The club closed in December 1961; three months later, he filed for divorce from Maryam Jamal, formerly named Virginia Wilkins, whom he had married when he was 17.
Five years of court action followed, during which Mr. Jamal was arrested and charged with nonpayment of child support for their daughter. (He was later cleared.) He was hospitalized in 1963 after an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. Not until 1964 did he begin touring and recording again.
He married first as a teenager, and that marriage ended in divorce. He married Sharifah Frazier, the mother of Sumayah, in the early 1960s, and they divorced in 1982. He married Laura Hess-Hay, his manager, the same year, and they divorced in 1984, though she continued to represent him until his death. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two grandchildren.
Live recordings often captured Mr. Jamal at his nimblest, and many jazz connoisseurs rank such albums as “Freeflight” (1971), recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and “Chicago Revisited: Live at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase” (1993) among his best.
In 2011, Mosaic Records released a nine-CD boxed set consisting of the 12 albums he recorded for Argo between 1956 and 1962. His album “Blue Moon,” a well-received collection of originals and standards, was released in 2012 and nominated for a Grammy Award. His album “Marseille” was released in 2017 and “Ballades” in 2019.
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Last year Mr. Jamal released two separate double-disc collections: “Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1963-64)” and “(1965-66),” consisting of previously unreleased live recordings made in Seattle. A third set, “(1966-68),” is planned.
The reverence with which Mr. Jamal was held stretched well beyond the jazz world. Clint Eastwood used two tracks from “But Not for Me” on the soundtrack of his film of “The Bridges of Madison County.”
But the more extensive tributes have come from the world of hip-hop. Tracks like De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” and Nas’s “The World Is Yours,” along with dozens of other rap songs, have sampled Mr. Jamal’s piano riffs.
As infectious as those riffs were, it was ballads that held the strongest appeal to Mr. Jamal. Like many other interpreters of the standard repertoire, he made a point of learning the lyrics to the songs he played. He spoke approvingly to The Times in 2001 about a conversation he once had with a great jazz saxophonist who was also known for his way with a ballad.
“I once heard Ben Webster playing his heart out on a ballad,” he said. “All of a sudden he stopped. I asked him, ‘Why did you stop, Ben?’ He said, ‘I forgot the lyrics.’”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.“