Of all the snobberies one can embark on, none is more impenetrable and unrewarding in the short run than becoming a jazz snob. You'd think you could grab on to a couple of the 10 million samplers and documentaries available and be on your way. You'd think you could ask your resident jazz snob at the CD store, the one that is too busy talking about the CD that sounds like all the other CD's he plays to help you purchase anything. But no, these fonts of knowledge are dry wells. Jazz rivals college football in its level of complexity and nuance for a newbie. Ask a non-jazzbo what you should listen to, and they say, OH Miles Davis. Ask a jazzbo and they will pull out some lard-encrusted obscurity they are currently snake-charmed by and try to sell it to you, and then say Miles Davis when your eyes glaze over.
And there is nothing wrong with Miles Davis. He's great, towering maybe. But his vision was often a prismatic refraction of jazz as a whole, and rarely representative of the whole of this monstrosity. I was at times a jazz fan, a Miles fan and sometimes both.
The problem with getting into jazz is that almost no two jazz people see the same. I guess this extends to all genres of music, but in jazz you almost have to be an armchair academic, holding square on your territory against the encroach of colleagues. That environment drove me away from it. But, this is blaming Jesus for the sins of the church, so hereby are two non-Miles Davis oriented offerings with which you may tickle your jazz gland.
The David S. Ware Quartet
David S. ware is not exactly a young turk, even though his work as a bandleader did not appear on record until the decidedly non-Golden jazz era 80's. He cut his teeth in Cecil Taylor's various insurgency cells in the 70's and was set to be the New Coltrane with his thunbderclap command of the saxophone in his 90's quartet albums. Which is OK, if you like the later feral Coltrane (which I do) but that leaves most of the jazz seeking public cold. Fortunately, he put together this set of ballads in 1999 for the lucrative Japanese jazz market, and they are coming to surface here now.
Ware's sax playing is gruff yet controlled, alternately erupting through and looming behind misty clouds of drums and dreamlike piano. These are not the ballads you would exactly whistle along with, but they create that ballad color in the air. Take for instance "Yesterdays" - the melodies almost seem to be absently hummed from his horn, turning introspective and wistful at each turn. "Dao" gets wilder, almost approaching that groaning sadness that one associates with Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. It aches and barks like a rabid drunk, and then mumbles like a collapsing one. "Godspelized" takes on a more traditional tack, with a melody the novice can follow at the beginning. I almost expect t to lunge into some Ellington quasi-rhumba beat after the opening, but this is a more Impressionistic record than that. The beats are almost subliminal here. Its like watching clouds, at once familiar shapes that then intersect into obscurity.
He gets positively romantic on "Tenderly" where his overblown growl takes on a croon against the loosest cocktail background possible. Piantis Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker and drummer Guillermo Brown provide a busy but non-intrusive bed for Ware's songs to flower, but none are closer to classic jazz-as-we-know-it as on "Tenderly." The final excursion 'Angel eyes" is a lost, meandering 15 minute thing that has moments of great brilliance, moments of wild exploration and an atmosphere that exudes the confusing internal tension of passion. That is where Ware's brilliance lies. His greatest statements are in the smears of color, not in the brushstrokes.
Ornette Coleman is one of those figures that everyone respects, hands down, but not all that many people like. His theory of harmolodics, developed on his landmark free jazz records in the early 60's is one that almost no one confesses to actually understand. On Sound Grammar, the old master comes off a decade of recording silence with this stellar live recording that is undeniably cool even if you don't get it. After a polite intro, the band jumps into "Jordan" a driving spiny number that has the clatter of a tangle of shopping carts somersaulting down a flight of stairs, but the playing is so concentrated, so precise, the unquantifiable logic to it bleeds through in a spurt. It is like if the cartoon music from old Bugs Bunny house-of-the-future cartoons was imbued simultaneously with spy shtick and a syringe of adrenaline.
The interplay of bowed bass, violin and sax on "Sleep Talking" is one of the more beautiful things I've heard in a while. Here you get the cinematic side of Coleman's work, best seen in the noir cloud soundtrack he did for the Naked Lunch movie in 1992. The shadows evoked in this work are crisp. It makes you realize this is the endpoint sought by noir collagists like John Zorn and Barry Adamson, but neither of them has Ornette's touch. "Turnaround" is sweet, thick speakeasy blues that lightens the mood here in the dark corners. "Matador" is a Latin flavored stop-start romp by this crack band. The cool thing Coleman does in these tunes is introduce disturbances to the continuum, subtle interruptions that keep things vibrant. Same thing on "Waiting for You" where his alto lines bob the surface of choppy seas the rhythm section keeps stirring up.
What separates this, and most of Ornette Coleman's great records from those by other jazz titans is the collectiveness of the sound. Ornette is the star, surely, but there is little scenery chewing. His melodies instead inject themselves into the song's DNA, each song operating like wild clockwork. The first minute of "Once Only" is a prime example, where violin and bowed bass combine and swirl like a Baltic ghost. This album is one of the most approachable of his often challenging catalog, mixing his sense of play and adventure with an incorruptible perfect touch.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com