Sunday, June 11, 2006

The House That Trane Built, or: A Poke At Ken Burns' Memory With A Sharp Stick




If you were one of the many folks who sat through Ken Burns’ Jazz, you may have wondered just what happened between 1960 and the release of the first Wynton Marsalis CD.

For, in the same fashion that documentaries about Punk Rock somehow take a giant leap from the Sex Pistols to Green Day, Ken Burns’ Jazz managed to buzzsaw its way through the years when the avant-garde held sway in about 15 seconds. This was no surprise as the documentary was basically The Gospel According To Wynton and reflected his extremely narrow and dogmatic notions of what does and what does not constitute what we used to call Black Classical Music back in the day.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a lecture by saxophonist/composer Henry Threadgill and one of his main complaints about the current crop of players was that, like Marsalis, they embraced ideas of the music that were long since codified and stale. As Threadgill put it, they play great – the only problem is that the people they want to play with are all dead. If anyone would like to read a more extended account of the effect Marsalis and henchmen like Stanley Crouch have had on the music, I recommend having a look at Eric Nisenson’s book Blue: The Murder Of Jazz.

Now by way of redress comes Ashley Kahn’s book The House That Trane Built: The Story Of Impulse Records and a whole series of new compilations to accompany it, not unlike those that were released with the Burns film. These CD’s go a long way towards filling in the history that Marsalis and Co. would rather ignore or pretend didn’t happen at all.

During the 1960’s, Impulse Records provided an outlet for the developments in modern jazz that seemed to be changing the music on a weekly basis. It was home to Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri, late-period Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Charles Mingus, while simultaneously releasing records by Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, demonstrating that it was all a continuum. One of my favorite Impulse releases, in fact, is an album of standards by Freda Payne, years before she ever hit the charts with Band Of Gold.

For vinyl junkies, it was a label that defied you not to be fetishistic about it. The presentation of every release, heavy cardboard gatefold sleeves with glossy covers, made each one seem like an art object as well as an album. The thick spines all sported the same half and half orange/black design that seemed to blare their presence on your record shelf. Of course as time went on and the records were reprinted, the glaze disappeared and the cardstock got cheaper until they seemed almost ordinary.

It was Impulse that brought Shepp and Ayler to the attention of larger audiences, although I suppose that some would argue that Ayler’s most influential work was behind him already. They were the label that brought us both Coltrane’s most popular work, A Love Supreme, as well as his most radical work, Ascension, his response to the innovations of musicians like Ayler and Coleman. Initial printings of it became extremely collectible when news got around that the take it contained was quickly switched after it was discovered that it was not the one originally intended for release.

Of course in these days of extreme availability, you can walk into any store and buy a CD version of the recording with both takes. But back when an LP could only deliver 40 minutes of music, whole sections of recordings often had to remain in limbo. It was always a joy to pick up a budget-priced Impulse double-set collection and discover it contained the previously unreleased flute set from a Sam Rivers album or an alternate take of an Ayler track. Eventually these puzzle pieces would get reassembled down the road on other compilations and with the advent of CD, the complete Ayler Live In Greenwich Village sessions became available, as did the complete John Coltrane: Live In Japan, originally a double-album and released on CD as a 4-disc (!) set. That’s three CD’s worth of music no one had ever heard before.

These new CD’s are just the place for the curious to dip a curious ear and at an affordable price. There’s a 4-disc comp that gives you a good overview of the label, a single-disc distillation of it, or a series of collections devoted to individual artists like Ayler, Coltrane, Shepp, Mingus, etc. Each one is worth your time.

Hear what frightened Wynton!

2 Comments:

Anonymous Uncle Cleetus said...

I did not know you were a jazzer too! A Love Supreme- whatdya know...how about-

Pharoah Saunders! Om ? Now that is one out there disc!

acid jazz indeed

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 7:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rapidshare links please! thanks :)

Sunday, October 10, 2010 9:16:00 AM  

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