Bone-shaking jazz in an acoustic setting

Every once in a while, in the privacy of my apartment, I'll dance around the living room to sounds that grab me by the spine and shake my bones. There are several advantages to this: I never learned to dance properly, for I was always on the bandstand, and I live alone, so no embarrassment attends this recreation; I don't have a wife or steady lady friend, so I'm not constantly being dragged onto the dance floor to prove what an attentive husband or lover I am; and I have the exquisite pleasure of being able to pay attention to the music instead of to my partner.

I was struck by a terpsichorean fit the other night and, as I prepared a meal, I pranced about to the strains of "The In Crowd" by the Ramsey Lewis Trio from 1965. It's an old-guy affliction and I make no apology for it.

Now, my history with this tune is two-headed. Not much earlier than Ramsey's take, the tune had been a soul hit by Dobie Gray, and I, as a teenager, had been quite taken by it. Memories of basketball courts and my first love swirl about in the strains of that tune.

Not long after Gray's initial splash, the Lewis trio -- Lewis, piano; Eldee Young, bass; and Red Holt, drums -- had a crossover hit with a live version of the tune recorded at the old Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C. The album ["The In Crowd," Chess, 1965] that hosted it was a live session, and there is a charming solo by Young on cello (!) as the band assays "Tennessee Waltz." It is a thoroughly delightful night in a great club.

But as I did my turn about the living room, it hit me how absolutely funky the Lewis trio was in a setting that was entirely acoustic. No trickery here. The performance made sense not only in the context of 1965; it made sense at the moment. Burning away the technological accoutrements that have become de rigeur in jazz these days, the recording was a reminder of how all that followed with synthesizers, thundering electric basses, computerized loops and the like disguised what the music itself carried without such assistance.

For example, seven years later, Lewis, with a new lineup, gave us the album "Upendo Ni Pamoja" [CBS, 1972], which culled another pop hit, "Slippin' Into Darkness" by War, and invested it with funk, but funk that was decorated by the technology of the time. I liked Lewis' rendering better than the original, but not nearly so well as I regarded "The In Crowd."

Lewis went on to be a driving force in the musical offerings of Black Entertainment Television in the United States and, in that capacity, has been influential in bringing younger jazz artists to wider public exposure, along with older hands -- Renee Rosnes, Tuck and Patty, Bill Doggett, Joe Henderson, Cornell Dupree, et al.

But the story doesn't end here.

I went digging through my music library for other acoustic pianists who have brought unadorned delight to jazz lovers. Of course, much of older recorded jazz is the product of the instruments at hand, so I put aside notions of acoustic music as merely the prisoner of its techonological era. What emerged isn't a bad collection of artifacts from jazz's late-medieval period.

The nimble-fingered Bud Powell, despite his tragic mental problems, brought a harmonic artistry to his work rivalled only by Art Tatum and, perhaps, Oscar Peterson in the trio setting. A solid bop grounding and impeccable rhythmic sense can still make the scalp crawl even nearly 35 years after his death. Recommended listening for the first-time Powell explorer: just about anything he recorded. There are many boxed sets and series attesting to his genius. One recording, "Bud In Paris" [Xanadu, 1960], was done a little more than three years before his death.

By the same token, Horace Silver still plies his bop credentials and likes to take them into more tropical climes, giving that simultaneously cerebral and bone-shaking music a tang that has the bite of citrus fruit and all the sweetness of honey. My favorite: "Song For My Father" [Blue Note, 1964], but there also are "Cape Verdean Blues" [Blue Note 1965] and "Serenade To A Soul Sister" [Blue Note, 1968].

Herbie Hancock, before his mid-career forays into electronics and the boring funk of "Headhunters" [Columbia, 1973], produced a sassy little album titled "Speak Like A Child," [Blue Note, 1968] that often reminds one of chitlins and greens, a cold beer back. Nothing could be more refreshing -- or nourishing.
McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane's partner and the man who stitched it all together in those heady days when Trane, Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison set the jazz world on its ear, continues today to challenge, even taking his grand sweeping hand into the big band arena. For my tastes, though, Tyner is the linchpin, the one absolute essential in small ensemble settings. And his reworking of some of the more well-known numbers from the Coltrane era (as well as his work with Coltrane itself) is required listening for anyone who wants to understand the Coltrane phenomenon. "Echoes Of A Friend" [Milestone, 1972] and "Remembering John" [Enja, 1991], will get you started.

The beauty of jazz is its accomodation of varieties of style and execution. Sometimes it's a pleasure to return to a simpler instrumentation and meet up with that old granddaddy piano, the instrument that brings everything necessary with the, grandest axe of all.