Passing notes on just-passed masters
More to say about Joey DeFrancesco and Creed Taylor.....
Writing obituaries and remembrances is a tricky job -- and not just because it usually happens on deadline. There’s little time (or, alas, space anymore) for deep thinking or reflection. The piece needs to cover the basics known to those who’ve followed an artist for years or decades, while calling attention to key works and pivotal career moments. And at the same time, it has to provide a graceful introduction for those who hadn’t been paying attention. Tell what they did, and why what they did mattered.
The last few weeks were busy ones for obits on the jazz beat. Within days, we learned of the deaths of rising star trumpeter and composer Jaimie Branch, guitarist Monette Sudler, organ virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco, record producer Creed Taylor and others. Each of these figures had significant impact on music; all of them were remembered with graceful, astonishingly comprehensive pieces in the media.
There’s always more to say, of course, and often the stuff that’s left off the page is in the category of “Traits and distinctions you’d only care about if you’d studied the artist over time.” Example: The New York Times obituary described DeFrancesco as a “showman.” This could be read several ways – as some sort of demerit, implying that he was a jazz musician with grandstanding tendencies. No doubt this was sometimes true, as he was not only a technical wizard but one of those musicians who generated torrents of ideas. Still, “showman” could also be arguing for DeFrancesco as one of a vanishing breed of musicians who understood, like Dizzy Gillespie and others before him, about the role of entertainment in the jazz equation.
This is where the piece wanted an extra paragraph describing how Joey DeFrancesco went about doing his work. Not an analysis of the notes he played, but the way he played those notes. With lightness. Irreverence. And an abundant, generously shared and immediately infectious joy. That’s right, joy. Not a word we toss into discussions of high-level improvisation but there’s no other that comes close. I was lucky to hear him when he was a teenager and many times later, and that exact feeling was present each time. There was delight running through his fingers, a particularly elevated giddiness that moved across the keys of the organ – or, crucially, the tenor saxophone or the trumpet, instruments he also played with compelling originality – and picked up steam as it rippled around the stage and captivated the other musicians. And then it traveled outward, by this point an unstoppable force, until it overcame resistance and enveloped audiences like a wave. Like it was the most natural thing in the world.
It was part show business, sure, but no parlor trick. DeFrancesco came up during an era when young musicians were so busy doing the scowlingly serious and respectful work of tending a precious legacy that they forgot to have fun. Not DeFrancesco. He missed that memo. He laughed and smiled and played in ways that brought listeners into the songs, and then into the questing improvisations based on those songs. Listen to the way he earns the attention – and holds it – during this solo on “Sunny” from a 200x festival performance with guitarist Pat Martino and drummer Byron “Wookie” Landham and guest guitarist John Scofield.
First of all, this was Martino’s most lethal Philadelphia trio ever. And DeFrancesco, by this point an established star, is aware that on this gig he’s a sideman; his accompaniment behind Martino is crisp and instantly responsive, pushing the guitarist without occupying any of the foreground space. Then when it’s DeFrancesco’s turn to solo, he starts out coy and playful, and doesn’t really put his foot on the gas until like the fourth chorus. And then, watch out. That whiplash-inducing final chorus, with its big pealing chords, offers a complete and irrefutable argument that in DeFrancesco’s case, “showman” is in no way a disparagement.
A similar small-thing/big-thing omission attended coverage of Creed Taylor, the record producer who founded Impulse! Records and later CTI, after his passing at age 95 on August 22. Taylor’s contributions to music history are legion: He’s credited with midwifing the many difficult personalities involved in the sessions for Getz/Gilberto, one of the most enduring cross-cultural collaborative experiments in popular music history – and then, in its aftermath, with introducing American audiences to the musicians and composers of Brazil.
With Impulse!, Taylor created a brand that captured – and extended – the explorational improvisation ethos of the middle 1960s, not just by signing names like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, but by encouraging these figures (and others) to venture beyond what they’d done previously. This label gave the world A Love Supreme and Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues and Oliver Nelson’s Blues And the Abstract Truth. Among many others.
Then with CTI, Taylor used the same bedrock fundamentals that worked for Verve and Impulse! – carefully rendered and highly detailed studio recordings, understated graphic design – to create a mostly instrumental imprint aimed at listeners who desired more lowkey (code for “accessible”) explorations. Taylor recognized that the atmospheric qualities of a recording – the way cymbals can ring in the air of a well-tuned room, the way horns breathe when properly captured – could itself be a seduction. With help from Wes Montgomery, Taylor showed the world how warm the electric guitar could be; with help from arrangers like Eumir Deodato and Claus Ogerman, he created orchestral backdrops that balanced shimmering satin-sheets intimacy against a feeling of vast, oceanic openness. Even the lesser-loved CTI titles are opulent: Check this glorious color-rich Stanley Turrentine ride through Milton Nascimento’s “Salt Song.”
These textural elements put serious distance between CTI and every other label: How come all records don’t sound this inviting? Somehow, though, discussion of the sonics got short shrift in coverage of Taylor’s death. Maybe that’s because it’s geek-level stuff? Maybe we’re encountering his work through compressed algorithms that flatten the sense of spaciousness. Maybe those considerations are simply not that important to the art of record-making anymore. But they were. All it takes is two minutes with anything on Milt Jackson’s Sunflower – or really any peak CTI release – to discern why the tactile sensory stuff, the music around the music, matters.