Jon Schapiro Celebrates “Kind of Blue” at 60

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AwardNEW SHOES: “KIND OF BLUE AT 60” / SCHAPIRO: Boiled Funk.+ Boiled Funk 2: Dark of Night.+ Boiled Funk 3: Worth Your While.* Boiled Funk 4: Old Feet, New Shoes.* Boiled Funk 5: A Smile.* Boiled Funk/Theme.* PIKET: Foiled Bunk.+ DAVIS: So What.+  Blue in Green.* All Blues.* Flamenco Sketches.*Freddie Freeloader* / Schapiro 17: Bryan Davis, Andy Gravish, Eddie Allen, Noyes Bartholomew, tpt; Deborah Weisz, Alex Jeun, Nick Grinder, tb; Walter Harris, bs-tb; +Rob Wilkerson, *Ben Kono, Candace DeBartolo, a-sax; Paul Carlon, Rob Middleton, t-sax; Matt Hong, bar-sax; Roberta Piket, pno; Sebastian Noelle, gtr; Evan Gregor, bs; Jon Wikan, dm; Jon Schapiro, arr/cond / Summit Records DCD 756

I get so weary of reading press releases for jazz CDs that claim that the arrangements on said albums are “innovative” when in fact they are nothing of the sort. Far too many modern-day jazz orchestras, in my view, pay little or no attention to the great jazz arrangers who preceded them, whether they be Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Eddie Sauter, Tadd Dameron, Charles Mingus, George Russell, Shorty Rogers, Gil Evans or the many excellent arrangers who worked for Stan Kenton, among them Gerry Mulligan, Pete Rugolo and Johnny Richards.

But this album, scheduled for release on April 3, is considerable different. Here Jon Schapiro has taken the five pieces that debuted on Miles Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue album, rewritten them completely in terms of harmony, rhythm and melodic structure, and surrounded them with seven originals—six by him and one by the band’s pianist, Roberta Piket—which bear titles beginning with “Boiled Funk” (or, in the case of Piket’s piece, “Foiled Bunk”), which is an acronym of “Kind of Blue.” At first sight I was a bit skeptical about these because normally, when I see the work “funk,” I expect those kinds of pieces that have a sort of R&B beat to them, complete with a heavy electric bass, but such is not the case here.

Yes, there’s a bit of an R&B feel to the opening Boiled Funk, but both the pulse and the very clever orchestral arrangement are closer in feel to the kind of work that Mingus and Clare Fischer were doing in the 1960s, with brass and reeds often playing together rather than in the established brass-vs.-reeds configuration. Moreover, Schapiro, like Mingus, uses the bass line to move the top line, making it an integrated part of the orchestration, and at the 2:20 mark the tempo relaxes to present an outstanding sax solo over a cushion of mixed brass and reeds. These are real compositions, not just “tunes” thrown together with the usual big-band sound, and it shows. Even the scored improvisation played by the entire trumpet section fits in musically, adding to the progression of the music and not just filling time and space. There’s also a very “dark” feel to this music, with the piano often playing in its low range and the bass trombone very audible in the softer ensembles. And, wonder of wonders, every soloist fits into the surrounding structure rather than just playing for him or herself. Every little bit and piece of this nearly 12-minute-long composition adds to one’s enjoyment as well as to an excitement of discovery. The finale almost has the feel and power of a freight train pulling into a station.

After this extended masterpiece, Piket’s little (3:06) Foiled Bunk almost sounds like a miniature, opening as it does with fairly quiet solo piano playing what sound like sparse, disconnected lines, which then slowly coalesce into something resembling a tune and developed by the pianist. Eventually the music becomes quite complex indeed, with cross-rhythms and pungent crushed chords adding to the mix until it just stops. This is followed by Schapiro’s complete reworking of So What?, opening with more crushed chords from Piket and followed by Gil Evans-like orchestration with Mingus touches. Although I liked the Kind of Blue album, I was attracted to it more for the solo work than for the compositions themselves, and this particular one was so minimal that it almost annoyed me. It does not annoy me here, as Schapiro has substituted rhythmically complex constructions played by the brass and/or reeds in place of the original solo spots, and making much more of an integrated piece of it. Take the solo trombone, for instance, which plays an improvised solo before suddenly becoming a counter-voice to the ensemble that enters immediately after, or the alto sax solo (sounding much like a soprano) that then fits into the more complex ensemble writing. As the alto solo grows in intensity, the background figures begin to charge like a freight train, pushing the music into entirely new directions, which are then temporarily interrupted by a bass solo. The orchestra then takes charge, developing the initially simple theme into a complex web of ideas. The solo piano then returns, playing a simple repeated motif over soft drums, into which the trombone interjects a few wry comments—and the bass trombone is then heard doubling what the piano is playing with the reeds and brass play high-lying, busy figures that interlap almost like a canon. Then, as the bass plays a repeated riff, the drums work out while the orchestra plays increasingly excited brass figures, after which the tempo doubles and the whole band begins to swing. It then comes to a roaring finish at the 14-minute mark.

Following this masterpiece is Boiled Funk 2: Darn of Night, which again opens with solo piano and then alto sax with soft drums and equally soft trombone figures in the background. Even when the band textures become slowly richer, adding a bass clarinet to the mix, the background remains quiet while alto saxist Rob Wilkerson works out. This then blends, magically, into Blue in Green, scored in a similar manner and retaining the dark, mysterious sound of its predecessor. I won’t spoil some of the surprises in this track for you, but they are there albeit much subtler than in So What. One really delightful moment comes when the band stops playing and alto saxist Ben Kono, who replaces Wilkerson on the remainder of the album, comes in with an extempore cadenza that eventually works its way into a secondary theme, backed by the bass, into which a solo trumpet plays a counter-figure, followed by trombone, then other instruments. But since this track lasts over 10 minutes, of course there are other nice things going on here, and the orchestration resembles Mingus mixed with a bit of Gil Evans.

CD 2 opens with Boiled Funk 3: Worth Your While, an uptempo romp that opens with a crackling trumpet solo by Andy Gravish, who dominates this brief (2:26) opening fanfare to the second half of our concert. Amusingly, it stops in the middle of nowhere, followed by low, fluttering figures played by brass and reeds together, again with the bass trombone coming in behind them. This is how Schapiro’s arrangement of All Blues begins. A soft but uptempo drum figure presages the melodic line, its meter broken up and redistributed, played again by a combination of brass and reeds, with pianist Piket sprinkling notes in the background. The piano then drops out as the drums set up a slightly different pace; the trombones play a figure in 3 quarter notes to each two beats in the score, followed by an excellent tenor solo (here sounding almost like an alto) by Paul Carlon. Trombonist Alex Jean then follows while pianist Piket softly plays background figures with rising chromatics à la Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train. Asymmetric ensemble figures predominate in the second half of this arrangement, constantly catching the listener’s attention and building excitement by Schapiro’s clever use of off-kilter counter-figures. A quirky piano figure played in the bass range also comes and goes, but except for the afore-mentioned solos the second half of this one is built around the extraordinary ensemble writing for the orchestra. We end with the muted brass playing a figure in 3 over the quirky bass-note figure on the piano.

Boiled Funk 4: Old Feet, New Shoes opens with an a cappella baritone sax solo by Matt Hong, to which altoist Candace De Bartolo adds her own comments, then takes over as others enter behind them. This is indeed the funkiest of the Boiled Funk pieces. Schapiro’s scoring here is sparser than on most of the other pieces but very effective nonetheless, creating a lean sound profile on which the soloists skim along while the rhythm section cooks behind them. The pi9ece ends quietly, followed after a brief pause by Flamenco Sketches, one of the more developed tunes from Kind of Blue. Again, Schapiro’s scoring is light and airy at first in this slow-tempo piece, built around a nice extended guitar solo by Sebastian Noelle and, later, orchestral figures that resemble those that Gil Evans wrote for Miles Ahead. These continue to build in volume and intensity; the guitar does so as well, and even (unfortunately) starts playing like a rock guitar, which I could have lived without. (Will someone please tell me why jazz musicians feel this urgent need to incorporate shitty rock sounds into their music?)

Boiled Funk 5: A Smile starts out sounding like anything but a smile. It is strange and mysterious, at times even dark in feeling. Even Piket’s piano solo has menacing undertones, though as it develops she also incorporates some elements of Gospel and soul music. Schapiro’s opening of Freddie Freeloader is even slower but not as dark in feeling, with a nice, Miles Davis-like solo by Andy Gravish along with a Mingus-like bass solo by Kozlov and some nice piano licks by Piket. The whole piece assumes a nice, relaxed, loping sort of beat as it wends its way along. Walter Harris’ bass trombone also solos, tossing in a lick from Santa Claus is Comin’ the Town before he and the whole band quadruple the tempo just in time for Carlon’s glib tenor. Schapiro then creates an interesting counter-melody which is played by the brass for a few measures before the band develops it, then the tempo relaxes for the baritone sax solo. The ensemble then returns, as does Gravish, now quite uptempo himself. The tempo then downshifts to a loping medium tempo for the ride-out.

The final Boiled Funk is another uptempo piece, this time with a less definable melody but nice solos by Piket, Middleton, Carlon, Grinder and Gravish, including a polyphonic passage played by all of them—followed by the ensemble playing in a polyphonic manner.

New Shoes: Kind of Blue at 60 is quite an achievement, in my view one of the finest jazz albums ever recorded. With the sole exception of the rock guitar nonsense, there isn’t a weak moment in the entire enterprise. I am in awe of what Jon Schapiro has done here, and urge you to really listen to it carefully.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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