Pianist Joe Albany (1924-1988) is a musicological artifact within an art form full of them. Most recently, Albany has garnered attention through the movie and soundtrack Low Down
(Bona Fide Productions, 2014, directed by Jeff Priess) based on the bracing, stream-of-conscience memoire written by his daughter, Amy-Jo Albany. His is a story told many times: near-genius junkie brushes stardom but never achieves the escape velocity necessary to escape his desperate circumstances to make his mark. Central to any discussion of Albany is the pianist's brief association with saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker
when Parker was playing in Los Angeles shortly before his famous incarceration in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital following his famous recording studio meltdown July 29, 1946.
Albany performed with Parker and a 20-year old Miles Davis
at the Los Angeles' Finale Club in early March. After several frustrating pieces where the two failed to click, Albany said to Parker, "F*** you, Bird," to which Parker promptly fired the pianist. These performances of "Blue N' Boogie," "Anthropology," "Billie's Bounce," "Ornithology," and "All the Things You Are" may be heard on Charlie ParkerYardbird in Lotus Land
(Spotlite Records, 1976). Albany derived much mileage from this encounter as retold in the 1980 documentary, Joe Albany...A Jazz Life
. The remainder of his creative life was less noteworthy. Albany was crippled by heroin addiction which dramatically inhibited his ability to perform and record. However, when he did record, his playing was both challenging and thought provoking.
In his next to last recording session, early in 1979, Albany, joined by bassist Art Davis
and drummer Roy Haynes
, addressed a collection of compositions by or associated with Parker. Originally released as Bird Lives
. Albany, who had a reputation for being hard to corral musically in the confines of a trio, plays in very good form in the setting. Other writers have commented that Albany's ideas often got away from him in a combo, making his performances uneven. I believe this was a big part of his charm. Albany possessed chops galore and loved to display them. He was fond of elaborate arpeggios and glissandos ornamenting his playing. He was a stylistic innovator along the lines of Thelonious Monk
in that he experimented with rhythm and time in the same way that Monk did harmony. This can be heard on the more Latin-inflected pieces like "Little Suede Shoes" and "Barbados."
Albany's playing is fully orchestral on "Yardbird Suite" and "Billie's Bounce" where he populates his soloing with block chords and intricate single-note runs. His original composition, "Charlie Parker Blues" resurfaces on the soundtrack to Lowdown
as the fully elaborated "AB Blues for Large Ensemble." It shows amply that with different luck and life choices, Albany could have cast a long shadow over jazz as an additional piano stream competing with Bill Evans
in the vacuum left by Bud Powell
and Art Tatum
. Albany is an artifact for sure, but he is a talented and important one always reminding us, "what if...?"