Posts Tagged ‘Upper Left Trio’

The four major musical genres I find at yard sales and estate sales are Celtic, Christmas, classical, and country. The fifth is probably whale sounds. Though I often find unexpected gold in these situations, to most of the CDs I dig up I would apply the term “not good.” However, I have found that whale sounds will chase people out of my office.

There’s never much jazz. Is the typical music consumer planning to be buried with her jazz records, or is it just that she didn’t buy much jazz in the first place?

I can’t answer this question, and I suspect I wouldn’t like the answer if I knew it. However, by combining all the jazz CDs I’ve found at these sales in various summers, I’m able to write this post. This gives me the chance to please Loyal Reader Seika, Jazz Commissar for Zone 22. It also means that once again I can TALK LIKE A JAZZ CRITIC! That is so boss.

On the downbeat!

Various artists from the Verve catalog, Talkin’ Verve Cool: 1957-66 (1997)
What is cool jazz? Is there a litmus test to tell cool from crud? Can someone from Massachusetts be cool? (No.)

Cool jazz, in my view, isn’t just hep cats snapping their fingers to incomprehensible music while turning the pages of incomprehensible books or trying to make themselves comprehensible to their heroin dealers. Cool jazz is cool because it doesn’t care if anyone else is in the room.

Talkin’ Verve Cool presents 10 excursions into the cool form, however you define it. The whole platter is cool (Quincy Jones & His Orchestra opens the set with the theme from The Pink Panther), but “Improvisation for Unaccompanied Saxophones” by Al Cohn and Zoot Sims is sublime. I had to listen to it twice just to grok how Al and Zoot hand off the parts to each other. It’s a flabbergasting 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

Ramsey Lewis, Sun Goddess (1974)
Jazz piano legend Lewis backed by Earth, Wind & Fire. They don’t play at Lewis’ Valhalla-like level, but they compensate with their enthusiasm. The show-stopper is “Sun Goddess” (performed live by EWF the following year on their album Gratitude).

Ivan “Boogaloo Joe” Jones, Sweetback (1975)
I bought this CD just for the man’s nickname, which makes “Steve” sound like I’m a murgatroid from Dullsville. Ivan Jones was a guitar player in the style of 1960s George Benson without Benson’s cross-over appeal in the ’70s (“On Broadway”). Boogaloo waxed an excellent tune in “Sweetback,” but his reading of Stevie Wonder’s “You’ve Got It Bad, Girl” is the real pearl in this oyster.

Nicholas Payton, Payton’s Place (1998)
Payton is a hard-bop trumpeter and band leader with no time for squares. The odd thing about Payton’s Place is that it could’ve been recorded in 1958. There’s nothing here that says End of the Century. Notable for the technical virtuosity on every groove and for the track “Three Trumpeters,” which features Payton, Roy Hargrove, and the cat no one can escape, Wynton Marsalis.

Charlie Hunter Quartet, Songs From the Analog Playground (2001)
Hunter, who plays an eight-string guitar (that’s one louder than 10) can lay down a groove in any genre of music, just like Béla Fleck on banjo, Yo-Yo Ma on upright bass, and me on air guitar.

Songs From the Analog Playground is a funky platter of jazz fusion. Eight of the 13 tracks have guest vocalists, including rapper Mos Def (who sings) and a young Norah Jones on a cover of Roxy Music’s “Avalon.” The drummer’s chops on “Percussion Shuffle” are everything plus.

I thought the song “Mitch Better Have My Bunny” was a joke about Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” until I realized that Rihanna’s tune didn’t appear until 2012 and this was 2001. How did Charlie Hunter do this? This shows you how little I know about jazz.

Upper Left Trio, Three (2007)
There’s a fine line between improvisation and finger-painting. The piano-drums-bass Upper Left Trio trips over that line on almost every track. These cats are first-rate players (and, according to my colleague Lorna, at least two of them are “really cute”), but some of this stuff makes me want to petition the United Nations to intervene.

However, when this Pacific Northwest band is good, they’re clobberin’ time good, as on their reading of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.”

It was a sunny day today, but summer’s heat is long gone, except in the Columbia Gorge where forest fires have been raging for weeks. I don’t know how all the critters out there will prepare for winter. As for us, I’m always reminded at this season of this quote from the writer and illustrator Ben Böst:

Soon the snows will begin to fall and we’ll be in for the duration. But with a roof over our heads, a fresh pot of coffee, old bourbon, and good books we’ll do just fine.

If you substitute “our favorite coffee shop” for “a fresh pot of coffee” and “non-stop shedding by the dog” for “old bourbon,” you about have us here at Run-DMSteve World HQ. Stay warm, cats, and keep swinging like sixteen.


The demise of Gilligan’s Island in 1967 left us with many questions. Most of these questions are about Ginger and Mary Ann. The rest are about the radio.

How was it that on this “uncharted desert isle,” somewhere in the middle of the Pacific or perhaps an ocean we have yet to discover, radio reception was in English and crystal-clear? How did the castaways get news reports that were relevant to them, decades before you could do that online? And where did they find that jazz station?

Forget uncharted desert isles. Whole cities don’t have jazz stations. Even here in super-enlightened Portland, Oregon, our local jazz station helps to pay the bills with programs of the blues, “roots,” and a sort of synthetic jazz-fusion that’s almost danceable. Let’s admit it: Jazz by itself is not a money-maker.

These days it’s not much of a crowd-pleaser, either. Jazz was the people’s music right through the end of World War II. One of the many things the Brits fumed about during the war was that American G.I.’s brought their jazz with them. Jazz answered an emotional need in people, but by the end of the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll had become a better answer. This was about the same time that jazz became more intellectual and more of an art form.

Joey The Lips in The Commitments put it best:

It’s anti-people music. It’s abstract….It’s got no soul. It is sound for the sake of sound. It has no meaning. It’s musical wanking, Brother…

It seems to me that jazz haters (naturally, I married one) hate jazz for two reasons:

1) Why listen to Miles Davis when you have ZZ Top? Try dancing to “’Round Midnight.” OK, stop acting like a spaz and give “Sharp Dressed Man” a try. No contest.

2) Search-and-destroy instruments.

Honk your alto sax if you love jazz
I can think of few musical works as dramatic as Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song,” as gorgeous as John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” as raucous as the Rebirth Jazz Band’s “I Like It Like That,” as haunting as Upper Left Trio’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” or as soulful as Davis’ entire Kind of Blue. Where would I be without Vince Guaraldi and A Charlie Brown Christmas?

But to reach these plateaus jazz made a few alterations, the main one having to do with the melody. When the horns leave the melody line and start flying around like go-karts in your bathtub, the jazz haters change the station. My studies of jazz and jazz haters has helped me rank jazz instruments based on threat level:

Horns: Saxophones, trombones, trumpets, tubas, bugles, French horns, dirigeridoos, and anything that can play the Lone Ranger theme or “Charge!” at a baseball game. The sax is public enemy #1, the instrument most likely to blow itself out the airlock. This is fine by me but you’d be surprised how many people would rather go to Vegas and pay $200 to see Celine Dion’s tribute to Gordon Lightfoot.

Piano: Alas, too many jazz outfits follow the same format. If the sax takes a solo, the piano takes one, too. And then the trumpet takes one. Next track: Same deal. And of course the soloist is never playing what the neighbors are playing. I can see how this might prove indigestible to anyone expecting a three-minute song with a story, a hook, and a catchy lyric.

Guitar: I’m talking electric guitars here, though you could throw in banjos on principle. Guitars are a lot less likely to trip your startle reflex. They generally mind their own business, or else the guitarist pretends the guitar is an organ (see next entry). And even when a jazz guitarist hits the afterburners, he or she isn’t playing much we haven’t already heard from Queensrÿche or Korn.

Organ: On the spectrum of jazz instruments, the organ is right in the middle. Like Switzerland. The organ is pleasant to listen to but an hour later I can never remember what I heard.

Drums: People like drum solos, though the drum solo in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is taking things too far. I think the drum solo connects us with our John Philip Sousa/high school marching band souls. In jazz, the drum solo means you get a break from the intellectual exertions of the horn players. It also means the drummer is still breathing.

Xylophone: Guaranteed to lift your spirits, perhaps because we all played one when we were too young to go to school, go to work, or go waste time blogging.

Bongos: Are bongos the optimum jazz instrument? Judge for yourself with the Irving Fields Trio’s pioneering Bagels and Bongos (1959). But even if you never intend to give that masterwork a spin, tell me this. How can you not smile when someone is playing the bongos? Especially when you know they’re not going to practice at your house?

My research indicates that, for a jazz band to reach the widest possible audience, they have to outlaw horns and pianos and resort to guitars only on holidays. I’m not sure the world is ready for a jazz band composed of an organ, a xylophone, bongos, drums, and maybe a bass player or somebody armed with a ukulele. But why not? I love jazz. I’d give it a listen. Though a certain jazz hater might ask me to wear headphones.

News from Steveworld
I have a new post at The Nervous Breakdown. This one is a rewrite of my music-and-sex survey. This post is making as big a stir at TNB as it did here at Run-DMSteve, which is to say I’m not yet one of the lucky 10% who own 90% of the U.S.

More news from Steveworld
Portlandians: Do you look forward all year to Wordstock? You don’t? Illiterates! Get yourself down there this October and buy a damn book. And I know which one you should buy.

This summer I entered the Wordstock short-fiction contest and finished in the Top 10. (In fact I was the runner-up to the grand prize winner – the person who actually got the money. If for some reason that person cannot serve out his term, I will don the tiara. Though I suspect he will have spent the money by then.) Wordstock will publish a paperback anthology of the Top 10, available at the festival.

There were 400 entries in this contest, from writers as far away as Singapore and Ireland, so right now I’m feeling just like “Some Kinda Rush” by Booty Luv. (How I wish John Coltrane was around to take that one apart!)