Cosmic Jazz Countdown – No.4

Derek: Sometimes a tune has it all – soul, power, energy, emotion, strong vocals, lively instrumentation and conscious lyrics. Gregory Porter’s 1960 What? from the album released in 2010 has all of these. The evidence is there from the opening moments with the bass of Aaron James soon to be joined by the piano of Chip Crawford then a full horn section. It continues through the vocals, the choral responses, further horn blasts, the clear and crisp trumpet and trombone solos, the vocals again until the bass and piano finally take things  down and away.

It could be as much a soul, blues or gospel tune as a jazz one. In fact, it is all of these.   At times it reminds me of The Temptations and Motown – the tune is after all about the burning and uprisings on the streets of Motor City Detroit in 1960. Mahalia Jackson, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway are cited understandably as influences on the CD sleeve notes.

Yet there is plenty of jazz here. Unusually for a vocalist, Gregory Porter gives considerable scope to the musicians. The solos are not clipped, fleeting moments but give free rein to what is in the main a young bunch of New York musicians. Porter himself is more of a veteran coming through musical theatre, including a long Broadway run in It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues.

I have only recently heard this tune for the first time but it had an immediate impact and has been chosen as my No. 4 Cosmic Jazz tune.  I know that others have been similarly affected. By the way – the rest of the CD is great too.

Neil: Born in Detroit in 1960, Kenny Garrett joined Miles Davis’s touring group front line in the last decade of his life. It was a spot with history – John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter had been there before – but Garrett made it his own. Video of live concerts show Miles very obviously enjoying Garrett’s exceptional empathy with his temperamental boss.

This title track from the album Beyond the Wall is probably his finest hour. Like Art Pepper, David Sanborn, Ornette Coleman and many more, Garrett has his own distinctive tone on alto – you can’t mistake it for anyone else. It’s a slightly acid sound that seems to have become more clear and defined over the years. He’ll wail like Pharoah and spew out clusters like Coltrane but – like his contemporary Brandford Marsalis – he’ll happily experiment with soul, funk and hip hop.

Like ‘trane too, there’s a sense that he’s pursuing a path of musical enlightenment – evidenced in his solos as he rocks back and forth with the music. Nowhere is this more clear than on this 2006 album where he’s backed by a stellar band, including Mugrew Miller on piano and the sensational Brian Blade on drums. Best of all, the rest of the album is as good as this. Pharoah Sanders himself guests on some tracks and listening to them together is a rewarding experience.

So where to go for more Garrett? Try Pursuance (1999), his album of Coltrane covers – with Pat Metheny on exilarating form – or, from ten years earlier, Amandla (1989) – his only studio album with Miles Davis. To hear Garrett stretching out, you’re more likely to enjoy some of the bootleg and official releases of the Davis band in concert. Try the Warner Brothers release Live Around the World (1996) to hear him really pulling apart a 12 minute version of Human Nature. Garrett doesn’t appear on alto until 5:35 minute in but when he does it all builds into something quite electrifying. You can just make out Davis’s hoarse comments at the end of the track: “Kenny, Kenny, can I – oh man – that was nothing man – I do that every night”. A man of much less than a few words, for Davis this kind of acknowledgement was praise indeed. Unexpectedly, Garrett’s own Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium (2008) is rather flat and predicatable by comparison.

But hey, he’s still only just fifty: Garrett will be one of the current great alto players for the next twenty years. There’s a lot more to come as he continues his spiritual quest.


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