Soul And The Abstract Proof: Searching For Soul And Its Meaning In Jazz
The legendary James Brown was often called "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," but one of his many other nicknames was "Soul Brother #1." Different people fondly recall Brown's career for different reasons. Some remember his reputation as a strict band leader and others respect his abilities as an unparalleled entertainer. Drummers will forever appreciate how his music fused soul and funkwith Clyde Stubblefield and/or John "Jabo" Starks laying down the grooveswhile saxophonists will always think of Brown's hellacious hornmen like Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis. The mention of Ellis and Parker, of course, hints at a jazz connection within Brown's work, but the most overt overlap between the world of Brown's soul and straight up jazz came with a one-off collaboration between Brown, drummer Louie Bellson and arranger Oliver Nelson, called Soul On Top (Verve, 1969).
Brown and Bellson originally met at one of Pearl Bailey's shows at the Apollo Theatre, but the idea of a collaboration didn't come up until Brown mentioned it at a later encounter in 1968. Less than a year later, they crossed paths again and the initial idea began to take shape. Despite the fact that Bellson was no slouch with a pen, Oliver Nelson ended up being drafted to write the arrangements. Nelsonbest known to jazz fans for his classic, Blues And The Abstract Truth (Verve, 1961)gets to the heart of soul and the abstract proof of its connection to jazz on this album.
The big band on the record features some top drawer jazz talent like saxophonist Ernie Watts, trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, bassist Ray Brown and Bellson on drums. Brown's main man on saxophoneMaceo Parkerwas part of the date as well, and the repertoire was as eclectic as could be. The program consisted of Brown hits like "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," standards ("It's Magic"), re-worked country fare ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), blues ("Every Day I Have The Blues"), a Bellson original ("I Need Your Key (To Turn Me On)") and some other interesting choices, but these three different artists met on common ground to bring a unified sound to the music. While one or two trackslike the over-funked up take on "September Song"might come off as contrived to some listeners, the majority of the music finds hits the right tone. This under-appreciated classic was reissued in 2004 and Brown's quote on the back of the CD really strikes a chord about the connections between soul and jazz in his music:
"When people talk about soul music, they only talk about gospel and r&b coming together. That's accurate about a lot of soul, but if you are going to talk about mine, you have to remember the jazz in it. That's what made my music so different and allowed it to grow."
One only needs to listen to the version of "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" on this albumwhich begins with a riff that bears some resemblance to the "Better Git It In Your Soul" lickto observe how soul and jazz became one.
While 1959 is forever remembered as a pivotal year in the history of jazz because of ground-breaking albums like Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959), Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia, 1959) and the previously discussed Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959), plenty of other impressive artistic statements were coming out of the studios at this time. In September of that year, Orrin Keepnews convened a session for a new album from trumpeter Blue Mitchell thatin Keepnews' own wordshelped the trumpeter step "over the invisible line" from a "promising artist" to a musical force that made good on that promise and had "arrived." The albumBlue Soul (Riverside, 1959)featured a sextet on some of the tracks and pared things down to a quartet on some others, and the album as a whole struck a good balance between individualistic instrumental endeavors and tightly woven arrangements. Benny Golson arranged and/or wrote a good deal of the material on the album, while Jimmy Heathwho also held the tenor saxophone chair on the recording arranged two of his own pieces for the affair.
Golson's "Park Avenue Petite" gave Mitchell a chance to show off his sound on a classy ballad with noir-ish sensibilities and "The Head" is a good example of a tune that let Mitchell cut loose and cook over a hard swinging rhythm section, but the title track is, appropriately enough, the best example of soul-meets-jazz. The sextet became a quartetwith Heath and trombonist Curtis Fuller sitting outand Mitchell used the opportunity to gel with his blues-capable rhythm section. Understated soul, as filtered through the 12-bar blues, is at the core of this performance and pianist Wynton Kelly is a key ingredient in the mix. Whether simply comping with some soulful tremolo licks or soloing with his inimitable blues inflections, Kelly makes this one cook despite a tempo that is merely moderate. Bassist Sam Jones contributes some enjoyable solo work on this one and Philly Joe Jones locks in well with his fellow rhythm section mates. The James Brown album might have had soul on top, but "Blue Soul" has it underneath the surface, hiding deep within Mitchell's trumpet work, Kelly's piano and the Jones-men's rhythm work.
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