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
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
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
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