CD Reviews

Special CD Review: The Art of the Jazz Ballad

By Brian L. Knight

Through various recent articles about the swing of the West Coast, the funk of Herbie Hancock, the fusion of Miles Davis, the blues of Mose Allison and the world sounds of Yusef Lateef, there has been a focus on jazz’s more high tempo styles. All of these musicians set new standards in jazz music as they incorporated outside musical genres into jazz. In most cases, the new sounds differed from the mainstream jazz styles for they were driven by a quicker paced rhythm and beat.

While jazz musicians were expriementing with other styles of music, many of jazz’s elite were keeping within the realm of jazz. Their approach remained true to the jazz form and did not experiement with the oncoming rush of mainstream music. On of the most popular and commonly used styles was the ballad.

Ever since the minstrels of yore, the ballad has been part of musical and cultural history. During the 16th and 17th Century, the ballad was a primary method of both communication and entertainment. The first ballads were printed pieces of papers that were called broadsheets. These broadsheets were accompanied by a woodcut print and were sold by traveling vagabonds. After evolving into a musical form, ballads were sung by nomadic musicians who went from town to town and conducted a medieval form of current events and entertainment. Due to the development of the printing press, radio, tv and then computers, the ballad lost its importance as a method of communication.

However, musicians from jazz, country, rock and pop have kept the ballad alive and well. In recent history, we have become familiar with the ballads sung by the great crooners of our time such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet. Even the modern day minstrels, the Beatles, were known for their ballads such as Norwegian Wood, Yesterday and the Ballad of John and Yoko. The Sounds of San Francisco represented the ballad through Jefferson Airplane’s "The Ballad of You and Me Pooneil" while the Grateful Dead ‘s Bob Weir popularized Marty Robbin’s 1950’s ballad, "El Paso." Some of music’s greatest female singers – Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Horn – have shone their beautiful voices through the ballad.

Within the jazz arena, the ballad is a commonly used musical form. Within a musician’s performance, the ballad was method to slow down the pace of a live show and they tended to have a sentimental tone. In many cases, the ballads were simply instrumental versions of great Broadway musicals and plays. The songs by Lerner and Loewe and Rodgers and Hammerstein were frequently covered by the jazz balladeers. While the ballads of the 17th century, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra all told lyrical stories, the jazz ballad weaved a musical tale with the soloist being the primary storyteller. The one common aspect of the ballad that has remained constant through the ages is that the ballad has always served as a narrative.

Fantasy Records is celebrating the ballad through it’s the Art of the Ballad series. Most of the CDs in these series are compilations of various artists’ works. As it was rare that any given artist recorded an entire album’s worth of ballads, these compilations cover various stages of the artist’s careers. By listening to these CDs, not only can the listener identify subtle shifts in the musician’s playing styles, but he/she can also witness the various amazing lineups that gathered together for the sessions. Here are some examples from the series.

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk was known for funny hats, a goatee and his masterful piano playing. Unfortunately all three monikers were considered to be to eccentric when Monk arrived on the music scene. Because of this fact, Monk’s work was unheralded during the early stages of his career. Most of this CD covers Monk’s sessions with Riverside Records between 1954 and 1961 in which approximately seven albums were recorded. This compilation contains a few unaccompanied Monk pieces such as his originals ‘Round Midnight, and Pannonica. Pannonica was named after Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter who lived in New York City and was friends with many jazz musicians. The remaining unaccompanied track, I Surrender, Dear, was taken from Monk’s breakthrough album, Brilliant Corners. Prior to this album, Monk’s visionary style was looked upon skeptically. Finally, the rest of the world had caught up with the master. Although the album featured with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Pettiford.and Ernie Henry, I Surrender, Dear featured Monk all by himself. The three tunes Crespuscule with Nellie, Ruby, My Dear and Monk’s Mood were all recorded at different times with John Coltrane during the spring of 1957. After listening to these tracks, it is obvious that these two masters of improvisation were meant for each other.


Dexter Gordon

The tunes from these sessions were recorded during saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s 14-year tenure in Europe. Every now and then, Gordon would make a return trip to the United States to record an album for Prestige Records. This CD is a collection of the ballads from those rare American studio appearances. In addition to the studio tracks, there are also some great live performances. Sophisticated Lady and Some Other Spring were recorded at the famous Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1970 and 1973, respectively. Like so many other artists, Switzerland’s Montreaux Jazz Festival was the site of many of Gordon’s legendary performances. During this period, Gordon’s music was not attracting to the American audiences and Europe was a bastion of appreciation for Gordon. For a good look into Dexter Gordon, go rent Round Midnight, which stars Dexter Gordon as an American saxophonist in Paris. The movie, which unofficially reflects Gordon’s own life as well as Lester Young’s, brought Gordon an Academy Award nomination.


Kenny Dorham

The Kenny Dorham part of this series is actually a Fantasy re-issue from 1953-1960. The Release was also called The Art of the Ballad and it most likely served as the impetus for creating this new 1998 series. Trumpeter Kenny Dorham played with jazz’s finest musicians – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillepsie and Max Roach. Because amazing trumpet playing was extremely prolific during the 1940’s and 1950s (Miles Davis, Dixxy Gillepsie), Dorham’s work was often underrated. This collection of ballads shows us his prime stuff. Darn That Dream and Ruby, My Dear were taken from Dorham’s debut album, Kenny Dorham Quintet while many of the tunes also arrive from other musician’s albums. Since Dorham did not have many albums at the time of the original compilation, songs such as I Should Care Passion Flower and So In Love were taken from the albums of Harold Land and Ernie Henry.


Chet Baker

Chet Baker first made a name for himself as his trumpet playing was an integral part of the West Coast Jazz sound. Playing with Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet, Baker brought the new sounds of swing to listening public. This compilation of Riverside Records sessions explores some additional interesting stages of Baker’s playing career. Two tunes, Almost Like Being In Love and I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, were taken from Baker’s 1959 tribute to the songwriting talents of Lerner and Lowe. The final two tunes, I’m Old Fashioned and My Heart Stood Still features Baker singing as well as playing trumpet. The singing trumpet player was a tradition that began with Louis Armstrong continued on with Chet Baker and is now being accomplished by Kermit Ruffins.. On songs such as Autumn In New York and I should Care, Baker is accompanied by an Italian string orchestra. Just like Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker was extremely popular in Europe. While living in Italy, Baker recorded some fantastic albums but also spent some time in an Italian jail for drug related charges. Similar to Kenny Dorham’s CD, this entire album was originally released between 1958 an 1965 and now has been re-released.


Art Pepper

Unlike the other artists who make up this series, some of altoist Pepper’s contributing work comes from the final years of his life. After years of drug use and jail time, it seems that Pepper ended his life on a melancholy note. The tunes throughout this album have a haunting tone, which evokes the feeling of the sad ballad. Winter Moon and Blues In The Night was taken from Pepper’s sessions with a full string section in which the violins add effectively to the gloom. Body and Soul and Over the Rainbow were taken from Pepper’s final recordings which were duets with pianist George Cables. At the peak of his career, Pepper had a happier tone to his music. Tunes such as Imagination and All The Things You Are reflect a more joyful time. An emotional highlight of the album is Pepper’s live 1977 rendition of Dizzy Gillepsie’s You Go To My Head which features Pepper, Cables, bassist George Mraz and drummer Elvin Jones.

Through these albums, the listener can enjoy the easy going, laid back aspects of jazz music. There are no complicated beats to follow or intensive long-winded solos. Through these songs, the artists tell a story. Depending on their mood, the tale may be sad or joyful. By evaluating the albums and their tunes, one can learn about the artists themselves. For instance, there is the undeniable influence of Duke Ellington among the contributing artists. Thelonious Monk covered versions of Ellington’s I Let A Song Go Out My Heart and Mood Indigo while Gordon covered Sophisticated Lady. It was a full album’s worth of Ellington covers that brought Monk out of his slump during the mid 1950s. Kenny Dorham and Chet Baker also experimented with Ellington’s My Old Flame, which appeared on his 1928 album Jubilee Stomp. To take it even further, Dexter Gordon’s father, who was a doctor, had Duke Ellington as one of his patients.

The influence and great ballad writing of Thelonious Monk can be seen throughout this series as well. Kenny Dorham covered Monks’ Ruby, My Dear. Art Pepper paid the same tribute to Monk by covering Round Midnight. Years later Dexter Gordon would receive an academy award nomination for starring in a movie with the same title. Fortunately, the joy of Ellington’s music brought out the good sides to these musicians. Unfortunately, drugs had grabbed complete control over their lives as well. Both Baker and Pepper spent time in jail for drug related charges and most of the musicians had a run in with drugs at one point in their careers. In 1951, Thelonious Monk was busted for drugs which in turn revoked his rights to play music in New York City. It was this absence from the musical scene that eventually was responsible for his revival with his album of Ellington covers and Brilliant Corners. In 1960, Dexter Gordon starred in the production, the Connection, which was a Los Angeles play about junkies.

All of the musicians who make up the Art of the Ballad series were extremely adept musicians. Their ballad work was only a small component of their musical repertoire as they all were leaders in the Bop, Swing, West Coast and Hard-Bop movements as well. Their ability to slow it down and little bit not only displayed these musicians’ diverse musical abilities but also their inherent qualities of tradition and sentiment.