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Encore: Teddy Charles

AAJ Staff By

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A music experimenter and theoretician, Charles combines as many common and unorthodox elements as possible in a jazz context...
Over a post blizzard mid-February brunch just off Central Park West, one of jazz' neglected masters, Teddy Charles (who turns 75 this month) recalled one of his first recordings - clarinetist Buddy DeFranco's 1949 sextet featuring drummer Max Roach and guitarist Jimmy Raney. Six months prior was the vibraphonist's recording debut which was with Chubby Jackson's big band. 40 years later, and after a semi-comeback in the early '80s, the mallet man recorded his final session to date, Live at the Verona Jazz Festival (Soul Note, 1988). "When I've got something to document musically...," was his open-ended response to the lack of sessions on which he leads or participates.

A music experimenter and theoretician, Charles combines as many common and unorthodox elements as possible in a jazz context: spontaneous counterpoint, irregular and swinging rhythms, modality, polytonality, atonality, unfamiliar harmonies, sustained notes that echo into oblivion, and a teetering yet natural balance between composition and improvisation. Helping to discover new forms within jazz during the post-bop and "cool" phases of the music, the liberating interplay Charles encouraged made his music intense, fresh, and well ahead of its time.

With pride, he considers his most significant recording, the recently reissued A Word From Bird (1956) with Charles Mingus and Hall Overton, both whom he considers his greatest musical associations along with Roach. Also highly recommended are Charles' Prestige recordings such as Ezz-thetic (1952) -which in one form was issued as the first in several volumes of New Directions and, more recently, reissued by Fantasy as Collaboration West. It sticks out as especially modern, abstract, and atonal with a hint of pre-Miles modality and an element of sophisticated contemporary classical influence. Charles successfully foreshadowed the vibraphone experimenters of the '60s in Bobby Hutcherson and Walt Dickerson, yet could also swing on a dime. The Tentet session on Atlantic features the compositions and arrangements of Mal Waldron (a long-time collaborator of Charles' who co-led with him the Prestige Jazz Quartet), as well as Jimmy Giuffre, Gil Evans, and George Russell.

So, where is Teddy Charles? Well he's here; always has been. The avid sailor continues to play mostly cruises, around Key West in the wintertime and regularly in his hometown of Greenport, NY. A recent collaborator is guitarist Joshua Breakstone. Charles' music retains the modernity from his heydey when he was affiliated with Mingus’ Jazz Workshop through the early '50s.

Time to give credit where credit is due, as Charles' music still has boundless lessons to teach. He has shown that the "in" and the "out" not only can happily co-exist but, combined, can thrive to break ever newer ground. Having performed with Charlie Parker, recorded with Miles Davis, and produced and supervised sessions for John Coltrane—Charles' is undeniably a living legend—his inactivity should serve as inspiration for record producers to make some calls. A Mingus alum band would certainly not be out of the question, and would be more than welcome; clarinetist John LaPorta, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and alto saxophonist John Handy are also all still around and playing. Charles looks forward to performing again in New York, great news for the jazz community at large, especially so for New Yorkers. Reacquaint, or acquaint yourself (as the case may be), to one of jazz' quiet though not quite forgotten pioneers - Teddy Charles. We hope you'll be hearing much more from him in the not too distant future.


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