Melody Lingers On


Before the two styles of music went their separate ways, what kept evergreen melodies common currency in jazz was the faith that their chord changes could be recalibrated down to the smallest micro-interval. Though rock is usually blamed for driving the wedge (along with Broadway and Hollywood’s failure to go on providing worthy material), jazz hubris figures into it, too—everyone fancies himself or herself a composer now, an inevitable consequence of the long- standing folly that jazz improvisers, by virtue of their supposedly greater harmonic sophistication, routinely invent melodies superior to the ones they take as their starting point. (Good luck “improving” Gershwin.) Reviewing the Art Ensemble of Chicago years ago, Stanley Crouch thought he detected joyous relief in the audience whenever the bass and drums lapsed into straight time. Nowadays, I notice a similar response— in others and in my own heart—whenever a band so much as alludes to a recognizable melody.

By which I mean anything that fits the criteria of a melody, not necessarily a song you’ve heard before. This could be one of the reasons we’ve recently been hearing so many covers drawn from music in which melody hasn’t been as subordinated as it’s been in jazz, including classic rock. Why it’s taken so long for jazz musicians to get around to Bob Dylan has to do with Dylan. Though he mentions jamming with Cecil Taylor in Chronicles, swing has never been Dylan’s calling card—if that was all you desired from ’60s troubadours, Donovan was your man. But an even greater obstacle to reinterpreting Dylan up to, say, Blonde on Blonde or John Wesley Harding
(if I’m being honest about it, the only Dylan that matters for me, allowing an exception for Blood on the Tracks) is that so much depended on his bardic lyrics and hip sneer. And on everything subsequent, including those last three albums greeted with hallelujahs by my pop colleagues, his sometimes gorgeous melodies have been shrouded in mannerism and mystique, fogged in behind that decidedly unmelodious Gabby Hayes croak.

It took Ships with Tattooed Sails—the third album of Dylan covers by Jewels and Binoculars, a leaderless collective featuring bassist Lindsey Horner with Dutch-based American expatriates Michael Vatcher (drums) and Michael Moore (alto saxophone and clarinets)—to persuade me just how gorgeous a driven, plangent, homespun ballad like “I Believe in You” (from 1979’s despised, Jew-for-Jesus Slow Train Coming) can be. Paradox acknowledged, Tattooed Sails is an example of song-based free improvisation. In saving Dylan’s melodies from Dylan, it might seem to belong in the same rotation with Bryan Ferry’s recent Dylanesque. But in light of J&B’s streamlined treatment of “Spirit on the Water” (four and a half minutes to Dylan’s almost-eight, though no less haunting or honky-tonking), with Moore going at a slower tempo than bass and drums until he overtakes them just in time for what sounds like an off-the-wall quote from “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” the natural segue that suggests itself is from Dylan’s Modern Times to Tattooed Sails to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar. Thematic improvisation here gives the players somewhere else to go once the melody has been fully honored, an option not open to Ferry or Dylan himself.

Even with added starter Bill Frisell’s guitar howling like the ghost of electricity and crying like a fire in the sun on “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” J&B’s approach hardly does justice to ’60s Dylan. But Frisell is in his natural element on “Blind Willie McTell,” Vatcher everywhere demonstrates the advantages of pulse over meter, Horner moves with grace and authority on arrangements that seem crafted from the bassline up, and Moore displays such wide range that several times (most notably on “One More Cup of Coffee”), I thought he was dropping into the clarinet’s chalemeau register, only to realize he was going falsetto on bass clarinet. To play outside the chords you must be honest: The members of Jewels and Binoculars never cheat by superimposing jazz changes and syncopations on tunes that don’t start off with any. They just make inspired use of what’s there—still as surefire a formula for good jazz as it was for Armstrong and Parker, even if the tunes have become ones they wouldn’t recognize.

The brainchild of annotator Colin E. Negrych, the Waverly Seven’s two-CD Yo! Bobby, with arrangements mostly by pianist Manuel Valera, prompts the question: Does it take a shout-out to Bobby Darin to coax young modernists to play songs like “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” these days? Darin is worthy of instrumental tribute: Armstrong and Sonny Rollins turned “Mack the Knife” into jazz, but Darin turned it into Basie, swinging harder than the rhythm section here. And the song selection on Bobby is screwy. “All the Way” and “I Wanna Be Around,” associated with Sinatra and Tony Bennett, respectively, were Darin covers to start with. Why a spoof on “Splish Splash,” which was a spoof anyway? Why no “Beyond the Sea,” given that it already enjoys jazz pedigree via Django Reinhardt and remains the song most identified with Darin today, aside from “Mack”?

The good stuff includes rousing, semi-Dixieland jams on “Mack” and “Some of These Days.” Trumpeter Avishai Cohen is in good form throughout (especially glancing off Scott Robinson’s rugged baritone on a Mulligan-and-Chet-Baker-like “The More I See You”), and so are his sister Anat and her fellow saxophonist Joel Frahm. But where’s Bobby? Were it not for the title, you might guess this to be a latter-day swing session on Arbors Jazz.

Speaking of which, the Harry Allen–Joe Cohn Quartet’s Music from “Guys and Dolls” is the jewel of that label’s catalog. “Fugue for Tinhorns” permits the tenorist and guitarist to exercise their flair for improvised counterpoint (their quartet’s trademark), but the real stars are the singers. Eddie Erickson’s suave “Adelaide” is a match for Sinatra’s or composer Frank Loesser’s, and the infallible Rebecca Kilgore assists in swinging the dickens out of “Marry the Man Today” (still a march, but phrasing it behind the beat makes all the difference). Like many on Arbors’ roster, Allen is one younger musician with a genuine feel for bygone songs and styles, and on “I’ll Know,” when he underscores the vulnerability of Loesser’s melody by letting us hear the air shivering from his mouthpiece (the way Stan Getz used to do), it’s enough to make you wonder if the old songs aren’t still best after all.

“I wanted to concentrate on performance again before the sticks got too heavy for me to lift,” Max Roach told me in 1987, explaining why he’d taken a leave of absence from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to go on the road with his Double Quartet. The notion seemed absurd: Roach was in his early sixties then, but he still sounded and looked indestructible.

But the physical signs of aging began setting in just a few years later. When Roach died August 16, following a long stretch in a nursing home, he was our last remaining link to Minton’s and the Royal Roost. Hearing him chase Charlie Parker through their 1945 recording of “Koko” should be all the evidence anyone needs that bop’s main thrust was rhythmic as well as harmonic. Nurturing both Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, his bands of the 1950s were central to the development of hard bop, an offshoot that proposed even greater equality for rhythm sections. He was the first name musician to lay everything on the line in support of civil rights and black power: We Insist (1960) was the period’s most forthright jazz polemic. In 1973, when he started bringing tuned percussion together with skins, membranes, and metals of indeterminate pitch in the percussion ensemble M’Boom, the result sounded like a logical outgrowth of his own drum solos, which had always been orchestral in shading and design.

Never content to trade on his laurels as a bebop elder statesman, Roach also collaborated with playwright Sam Shepard, with rappers and breakdancers, and with such avant-garde untouchables as Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. Interviewing drummers, I used to buddy up by asking them what made them and their brethren such good bandleaders. None ever demurred. If I recall, Roach said something about their being de facto conductors. But given all he’d accomplished and everything he stood for, the question hardly needed asking in his case.