Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jim Hall: Concierto (1975)

This is a record of such understated majesty, such hushed grandeur, that it is very easy to miss, on first listening, the astonishing artistry that went into its creation. Indeed, many longtime devotees of Concierto, and of Jim Hall more generally, overlooked it outright when it was first released, not discovering the album until years after the fact--and then having the sort of revelatory moment that Keats once described on first gaining access to the Homeric epics: the "wild surmise" of stumbling upon a work of oceanic breadth and profundity that had been there all along, though they'd not been aware of it.

Concierto really is that good. Each of the original five tracks is strong, especially the opener, a brisk seven-minute cut of Ellington's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." What makes the record immortal, though, is the title track, a lush twenty-minute rendition of Rodrigo's classic guitar showpiece, "Concierto de Aranjuez." When most listeners think of this piece, naturally they first think of Miles's version, the centerpiece of 1959's Sketches of Spain. And while that version possesses undeniable power, mainly owing to the ingenious orchestration of Gil Evans, there are a good many jazz junkies--myself included--who consider Hall's rendition superior. Check out the personnel: how could it, legitimately, be anything less than superb? On guitar, of course, was Hall himself, a quiet precisionist playing in a decade distinguished by virtuosic showmen who were out to prove themselves. His playing on the title track epitomizes the style, intensely meditative and lyrical, of which so many of Hall's disciples are in awe: following a prelude of some 3 1/2 minutes, he delivers a solo consisting in a succession of highly wrought phrasings that sound like they were written out in advance, though one knows they weren't. Then comes a second solo by Paul Desmond, who seems to have found in Hall a musician whose approach jived perfectly with his own. (For a rare--and precious--audio interview of Charlie Parker by Desmond, check out this link. It's about halfway down the page. Even if you don't know anything about Desmond, it's worth it for the chance to hear what Parker sounded like.) Following this, we hear from an ageing Chet Baker, experiencing a kind of career renaissance after having been punched off a hotel balcony and busting up his chops during a drunken scuffle some years before. The cycle of solos is rounded out by Sir Roland Hanna on piano, a bad MF who was officially knighted by the king of Liberia in 1970, and whose playing, here and elsewhere on Concierto, is in some ways the single best thing about the record. Through it all, a young Steve Gadd on drums and Ron Carter, post-Miles quintet, on bass, conjure up the faultless rhythmic backdrop against which the whole thing transpires.

It's a shame these guys didn't get together to make any more albums, because they were as close to a jazz supergroup as any band that entered the studio after 1970 or so.


1. You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to (7:04)
2. Two's Blues (3:48)
3. The Answer is Yes (7:35)
4. Concierto de Aranjuez (19:12)
5. Rock Skippin' (6:01)

Jorge Ben: Africa Brasil (1976)

Three parts West African rhythms, equal parts Parliament-style funk, and a dash of soul, triple distilled, make up this heady brew, the last--and most boisterous--of Jorge Ben's cornucopia of 1970s masterpieces. Its most famous songs need little introduction: the thunderous "Xica da Silva," an immediate sensation, which resounded through the discotheques of Europe; "Taj Mahal," from which Rod Stewart promptly stole the famous riff for his (decidedly flaccid) "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"; and of course, the anthemic "Umbabarauma," which could light a fire under damn near anyone's ass. The record's most enduring treasures, though, might in fact be found on its deep tracks, none better than "A Historia de Jorge," a shimmering piece of acoustic booty brought back from Ben's Id. The song climaxes with a sick disco jam in the middle, in which the tension mounts to an almost unbearable level, only to be somehow miraculously released with a sudden change of key at 2:05 ("Voa Jorge, Jorge Voa!" / "Fly Jorge, fly!"). Moments like this epitomize Ben's greatness: neither as innovative as Caetano Veloso, nor as ethereally beautiful as Milton Nascimento, he was nevertheless the greatest musical alchemist Brazil has seen, and listening to his output, at its very best, yields more sheer pleasure than anything short of simply shooting H. He would go on to release a plenitude of other LPs over the next couple of decades, but never recaptured the magic of albums like A Tabua de Esmeralda, Força Bruta, and Africa Brasil, as if, in making this last record, he expended himself in a final, exhausting burst of creativity. We are the better for it.

Africa Brasil
  1. Ponta de Lança Africano (Umbabarauma) – 3:52
  2. Hermes Trimegisto Escreveu – 3:02
  3. O Filósofo – 3:27
  4. Meus Filhos, Meu Tesouro – 3:53
  5. O Plebeu – 3:07
  6. Taj Mahal – 3:09
  7. Xica da Silva – 4:05
  8. A História de Jorge – 3:49
  9. Camisa 10 da Gávea – 4:04
  10. Cavaleiro do Cavalo Imaculado – 4:46
  11. África Brasil (Zumbi) – 3:47