Wynton Kelly and the Sideman’s Art

One of the great bands of all time, Miles Davis’ sextet with John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on saxophones set the gold standard for jazz ensembles of the late 50’s.  Their recordings, including the sublime “Kind of Blue,” have become the canon for jazz students who pour over each note and phrase with tremendous fervency.

Behind the rollicking front line of horn players, whose work I will write about in a later post, is the tremendous engine of the band:  the rhythm section comprised of  the drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and the incredible Wynton Kelly.  While other pianists who worked with Miles are better known by name–Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock come to mind–Wynton Kelly’s work in Miles’ band was consistently thoughtful and wildly swinging.

While studying with one of my teachers, the late, great Enos Payne, he explained that Wynton Kelly and Red Garland were hip to the rhythms of boxing.  This, he said, accounts for the rhythmic thrust of their left hands, which are consistently sounding the offbeats throughout their solos.  It’s an interesting insight, and one that helped me study that rhythmic style in my own playing.

Recently I have been listening to a number of Wynton’s records as a leader: Kelly at Midnight, Kelly Great!, and Comin’ in the Back Door, to name a few.  These are classic records–but rarely named in lists of the greatest records of all time.  That’s too bad–but then again, getting hip to Wynton’s talents is like unearthing a subtle but invaluable jewel.  If you haven’t heard it yet, check out “Soul Station” by Hank Mobley, which has some of Wynton’s greatest playing.  Listen to Wynton–I’m sure you’ll dig him!

PS: you can find my new swing band here: www.thesmokerings.com

Published in: on September 5, 2011 at 9:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Legacy of Ahmad Jamal

The Ahmad Jamal Trio with Ahmad on the piano, Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier is one of the greatest jazz piano trios of all time.  Working very cohesively as a unit, the trio consistently ups the ante with each chorus, while rarely flaunting its collective virtuosity.  A casual listener may mistake the sound of the band for “cocktail music,” or light background jazz, but as we delve into the sound and the structure of the music, we find unlimited details that lead to unexpected delight.  Take the example of the video posted above: there is a tight vamp in the intro, a rollicking shout chorus, and multiple exciting interludes that punctuate the form and repeatedly defy our expectations.

Harmonically speaking, Ahmad is one of the most inventive pianists in the world.  You might have a listen to his reharmonizations at 3:05-3:10 as an example of his ability to use the circle of fifths to great effect.  Pianistically speaking, his technique is flawless–each note is crystal clear and even.  Perhaps most delightful in the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s music are the whimsical song choices: “Darn that Dream, ”  “Time on my Hands,”  “The Party’s Over,”  and “Billy Boy,” all relatively simple show tunes that are drawn into the wholly inventive world of the trio and revised according to Ahmad’s whims.

When I was at The New School Jazz Program, my brilliant instructor, Arnie Lawrence, wheeled a record player into our classroom and spent three hours playing Ahmad Jamal’s music for us.  I remember listening to the recordings and wondering how Ahmad could leave so much space on his records.  There were choruses of nothing but the bass walking in four, the drummer stuck mostly to brushes, but made occasional forays into playing sticks, but it was all very quiet and deeply swinging.  That was one of the best jazz classes I ever experienced as a student.   Even though Arnie has since passed away, his lesson stays with me to this day.  I still sit in awe of the great Ahmad Jamal Trio, and, as a musician, I aspire to make recordings that are as tasteful and hip, or, as we say in the industry, as tasty as Ahmad’s.

In this blog, I hope to share some other favorite musicians with you and talk about what they have meant to me as a performing jazz musician in New York City.  But please feel free to share your own thoughts with me, fellow musicians and listeners.  I look forward to hearing back from you all!

This song choice and the techniques that Ahmad Jamal brought to his band’s music inspired Miles Davis and his sidemen, perhaps the most influential figures in jazz history since 1958.  Be sure to check out Ahmad’s recordings, especially the wonderful “Live at the Pershing” and, my personal favorite, “Cross Country Tour.”  They are recordings to cherish.  Like great art, they grow in appeal with each listening.