Wednesday, August 18, 2010

album of the day: Concierto

Jim Hall is one of the great guitarists in jazz. He has a subtlety and grace to his playing, and a musical sense that matches it perfectly. He tends to work in very small groups, as a lot of guitarists of that stripe do, since a larger band, and particularly horns, usually overwhelm quiet, lyrical guitar lines.

This album is an exception, sort of. While there is a horn section, it consists of Chet Baker on trumpet and Paul Desmond on alto sax - both players of quiet melodies in their own right. It's like chamber jazz. The liner notes suggest that the players were brought together by the arranger, Don Sebesky, but that doesn't mean Sebesky's a genius (though maybe it does - it could have been, at the time of its initial 1975 release, the kind of obviously good idea that only seems obvious in retrospect because it worked out so well).

Regardless, what does speak to Sebesky's genius is the title track of the album, Sebesky's arrangement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, a piece of Spanish classical music with hints of flamenco influence and a Ravel-esque bolero thing going on. This is really a feat, not because of the nature of Rodrigo's Concierto itself, so much as the fact that in the 50s, Miles Davis had made jazz history with his recording of Gil Evans' arrangement. It was typical of Evans' arrangements for Miles: lushly orchestrated, with sweeping horn sections, prominent pulsing rhythm, and with Miles very prominently on top of the whole sound, bleating and blaring his little trumpeter fool's head off. It's a tour de force, as well as a career-defining moment for Miles.

Now, obviously, that simply wouldn't work for Hall, Baker, and Desmond. They'd sound like lost kittens in a wilderness full of ravenous wolves. But imagine having the temerity to take on this same composition after such a colossal and iconic performance. (Ironically, the original is a concerto for guitar!) Sebesky stripped down Rodrigo's work, provided almost none of the orchestral accompaniment so central to Davis/Evans' version, and left space, lots of space, for Hall, Baker, Desmond, and from time to time bassist Ron Carter and pianist Rolland Hanna, to play solos that weave into one another. Davis and Evans' version sounded like it was wearing iron armor; Hall, Baker, and Desmond sound like they're weaving fine lace.

I bought the album online the night after a fairly bad class session in Stockton. Driving home, feeling miserable, I had on KUOP, based in Stockton. Somewhere around the Stockton airport, "Concierto" came on. I was instantly in love. For some reason, maybe the weather, I started to lose the signal near French Camp Road and the Delicato winery, so I pulled off the freeway, parked at Delicato, turned off the engine, and just listened. I was about 15 minutes later home, but in way better spirits.

In addition to "Concierto," the original album tracklist* features two Jim Hall compositions, among them the sprightly and angular "Two's Blues," with nice solo work by Baker, and the interesting "The Answer Is Yes." There's an old Cole Porter number I've never heard anywhere else, "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," and an old Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn tune I've never heard anywhere else, "Rock Skippin.'"

That's what typifies this album, really.

I have a recurring dream of discovering among my cds an album I'd long ago lost and nearly forgotten. On this dream disc is music like nothing else in the world, totally incomparable and astounding, breathtaking music - not just virtuoso playing, but unreproducible and completely captivating melodies, utterly unique instrumentation, brilliant composition. This album does not exist, but one that does is Concierto, and it's incomparable in its own way.


* The re-release I have includes additional tracks, as most jazz re-issues do. They include alternate versions of "You'd Be So Nice," "The Answer," "Rock Skippin,'" and an outtake of Hall playing acoustic guitar with Desmond on alto, doing some lovely fiddly things with a set of changes Desmond apparently brought with him.

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