Sun Ra, a piano man not of this world. “The Changing Wind,” like most of Monorails and Satellites, sounds like honky-tonk at some Ziggy salon. With a piano that comes from Saturn, Sun Ra plays aggressively, but with care. He knows he can slay the piano, and he knows that you know that he can slay. Yet he holds back, choosing emotion over flash. Wobbly, yet oddly comforting.
It starts with stardust keys. A celesta. A wink in some lonesome night. Then a whisper. It’s a man trying to sing, or a woman. Can’t tell from just listening. But it’s Chet. He didn’t write the words – that’d be Jane Brown Thompson – nor did he write the music. That’s Hoagy Carmichael. Both Hoosiers. This kid’s from Oklahoma pretending to be West Coast Cool Kid. Trying to make this Hoosier song his own. That’s his job. Rehearse, jump in, make love, get out. He already has a look and a feel. (“James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix, rolled into one,” says David Gelly). It’s all there. Almost.
Back to the song. It’s a sad song. He’s trying to tell a joke with a frown. The joke’s on him. It always is. Not a lot of time. Start slow. Stay slow. Steady. What’s this song about? Soft rain? The moon? Sure. Why not. Not bad. Steady now. There it goes.
The album is Chet Baker Sings because Chet Baker is a trumpeter, and who in jazz sings man? Baloney. Well Chet Baker does, and it’s not a question of whether or not he’s a good singer. Some think he’s trash. I think he’s lovely. Elton John thought he was trash and lovely. You can exist anywhere on the spectrum and still compel the soul. You just got to sound true and like you mean it, even if you’re faking it. Baker ain’t faking it because his well-known drug problem served as a backdrop for his entire career as the struggle to stay alive just to sing sing sing and play play play. So it goes.
This isn’t technically jazz, but how else can you describe this rhythm? These voices move like angry horns played by a pissed off Miles Davis who has seen too many friends in dire need and too many bystanders doing nothing. This record, with its unflinching fusion of words and rhythm, is one of the logical starting points of hip-hop and rap, and it’s the most realistic song called “New York, New York.”
For all you American Hustle fans. Also, we could all use more Duke Ellington in our lives. The song was written by Ellington and his saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1938, but this version is off the Ellington at Newport live album, possibly his most well known record that saved him from a late-career identity crisis. What’s so powerful about this performance is how it explodes with sound right away, a rare move in the kind of jazz Ellington was known for (“Who starts a song like that?” asks Christian Bale’s character in the movie). This was a post-Charlie Parker world in which loud rock ‘n’ roll was making a name for itself, and Ellington was wise to turn up the volume of his big band and shake the dust off an aging career. At least for now, the Duke was saved.
This song is a dream. “Peace Piece” only has two chords, a C major 7 to a G9 suspended 4th, which Evans reused for Mile Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches” a year later. There’s no accompanying band. It’s solo jazz that’s both romantic and dissonant. It’s Impressionism contained in blue notes. It’s gorgeous.
The story goes that a teenage fan once said that listening to “Peace Piece” felt like standing all alone in New York. That teenager was right. That blissful, haunting aloneness is at the heart of this masterful piece, and it’s a testament to the power of the solo piano performer.
If you enjoy Miles Davis, Bill Evans is the pianist on his most famous record, Kind of Blue. He was the only white guy in Davis’ band, and Davis called him “quiet fire.” What a beautifully fitting nickname for such a tragic life.