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Final performances from jazz legends

For some reason, I've always grouped jazz musicians and boxers together in my head. There's just something analogous between the "sweet science" and jazz music. Both are predicated on flurries of notes (or punches) that bend and shape the listener before finally climaxing in a crescendo of action. Both rely on strategy and improvisation, on examining one's own strengths and weaknesses and building a game plan upon them. Both are boxed in a cache of cool, best viewed in a haze of cigar smoke and spotty lighting. As the boxer (or jazz musician) grows older, he learns to pick his spots. Like Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis wasn't the firebreather he was coming up in the clubs when he released some pretty good albums in the 1980s. He was disciplined, determined, and knew how to win his battles with a minimum of notes. At some point, however (Evander Holyfield be damned), they all eventually have to hang it up, right around the time when years of acquired savvy and sage wisdom give way to diminishing faculties. Like boxing, jazz has been considered on shaky legs for a few years now. Just as there are no more Alis or Foremans or Jack Johnsons on the horizon, there are a relatively small number of jazz musicians primed to take over the mantle of Louis Armstrong and company.

Following are three recent CDs showcasing the final bouts of three heavyweights in the world of jazz: Stan Getz's The Final Concert Recording, John Coltrane's The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording, and Dizzy Gillespie's Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nations Orchestra: Live at the Royal Festival Hall, London. (Actually, in the case of Gillespie, this marks one of his last recordings.)

Cheraw, SC native Dizzy Gillespie's Live at the Royal Festival Hall, London is a fine standalone piece, but the CD's true merit is the record's cap on 40 years of world music exploration from the trumpeter. Gillespie formed the United Nations Orchestra in 1988, in part to showcase the influences, both cultural and musical, that he considered overlooked in their importance to the music's growth. On Live, the band is augmented by saxophonist James Moody, trombonist Slide Hampton, trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Claudio Roditti, alto saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and others, and the group slow burns nicely through favorites like "Tanga," "And Then She Stopped," the classic "A Night in Tunisia," and more. The conga percussion of Giovanni Hidalgo and tasteful piano of Danilo Perez nicely fit Gillespie at this point in his career ­ the tone he squeezes out of his trademark upturned bell trumpet is warm and lean, the backing by Hampton and D'Rivera and Moody clean and contemporary without any unnecessary saccharine. Not that Gillespie would allow such a thing anyway ­ at over 70 years of age, he could still rip through a run that would make them look silly if they dared pull punches.

Eagle Records ­ whose jazz imprint issued Gillespie's Royal Festival Hall performance ­ has also released The Final Concert Recording by troubled, late sax great Stan Getz, a previously unreleased live double CD recorded on July 18, 1990 at the Philharmonic Music Hall in Munich, Germany. Recorded while a cancer-stricken Getz was touring Europe with his sextet for his Apasionado album, The Final Concert Recording features the tenor backed by pianist Kenny Barron, synthesizer player/arranger Eddie Del Barrio, keyboardist Frank Zottoli, bassist Alex Blake and drummer Terri Lynne Carrington. Featuring the title track from the Apasionado album, as well as plenty of ballads such as Thad Jones' "Yours and Mine," Benny Carter's "People Time" and Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," the discs showcase the softer side of Getz, like Gillespie intent on nailing tone and texture as opposed to ripping off blazing runs. Unfortunately, nearly a year after this album was recorded, Getz lost his battle to cancer. The Final Concert Recording is still solid, however, showcasing a kinder, gentler side of Getz than only reaffirms his position as a jazz stalwart, despite his own self-destructive tendencies and creative dry spots.

Compared to the Gillespie and Getz discs, John Coltrane's The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording comes on like Mike Tyson on steroids, raging against his own band, the limits of his instrument, his own need for expression, and quite possibly God. Recorded on April 23, 1967, the show was to be the last Coltrane show ever committed to tape, and was never intended for release. As such, it sounds like it, with spots of unintended distortion and bad acoustics (the album was recorded at Babatunde Olatunji's Center for African Culture in New York City). Flanked by drummer Rashied Ali (a Coltrane-like talent on the drum kit), bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist and wife Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders on tenor sax and Algie Dewitt on the Yoruba bata drum, Coltrane here continues what he started on A Love Supreme and other later recordings: the quest for transcendence through sheer, indefatigable personal expression. Coltrane rages and laughs and prays through his saxophone, abandoning any thoughts of tonality. Which was pretty forward thinking to my ears ­ people don't worry how they sound when they scream, to put it another way.

Recorded in the midst of the volatile climate of the late 60s, the 65-minute CD contains only two songs: "Ogunde" and "My Favorite Things." One looking at picking this record up for the latter song, made popular by Coltrane in a much gentler version a few years before, might do well to pass this record over. Coltrane is at war here, not with his country, but with himself. If the first version was the aural equivalent of a man praying to God, this version is God's answer, Old Testament-style. It is watching a tornado pass by, safely ensconced behind protective glass, for an hour. It is a classic, and belongs in the record collections of anyone with the ears and stomach to handle it. It's a knockout blow, and makes one wonder if Coltrane, ravaged by cancer as he was, didn't in fact reach what he was grasping for all along. *

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