Friday, December 5, 2008

Color Changes: And I'm Certainly Aware of You

1960 could well be jazz's finest year for studio albums. Sketches of Spain, My Favorite Things, Pre-Bird, Giant Steps, The Big Beat!, Nice 'n' Easy, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, Change of the Century: all marvellous and - and this is simply a bonus mind you - important works. But there was no better album that year than Clark Terry's Color Changes.

The name Clark Terry kept creeping up on me over the past couple of years before I fully became aware of him. A bit like seeing an actor such as Alfred Molina make one memorable film appearance after another - from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Maverick and onto his unforgettable performance in the otherwise overrated Coffee and Cigarettes - but never remembering his name or where you'd seen him before, Terry was initially an anonymous sessioner who I suddenly realised had been both a leader and sideman on some outstanding recordings. And like Molina, this once uncertain familiarity only makes me appreciate Terry all the more now.

Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared me for Color Changes, a startlingly original record that manages to assimilate just about every style and source familiar to Terry. A crossover artist like few others - one wonders if Charlie Christian might have turned out the same way had he lived to see bop and its progeny in full force- swing and bop merge so effortlessly as to become a genre in and of itself, one that fools the listener into thinking that it emerged from nowhere other than Terry himself. The lovely melodies on both 'Flutin and Fluglin' and 'la rive gauche' underscore some superb soloing courtesy of Terry on the flugelhorn, Julius Watkins on the French horn (and why isn't the French horn more prominent in jazz anyway?) and Yusef Lateef on seemingly anything he felt like picking up. Elsewhere, such on the sinister 'No Problem' and the decidedly morose 'Brother Terry', the octet meshes together to create the kind of aural atmosphere that would've impressed a peak-period Gil Evans.

In some ways this is the best album Charlie Mingus never recorded, mad, relentless waltzes and all - albeit minus the volatility. In fact, the bassist must have been listening for this is a clear forerunner for The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. On the other hand, Terry himself probably had Mingus classics such as 'Haitian Fight Song' and 'Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting' in mind when he pieced together the awesome 'Nahstye Blues'.* After spending the bulk of his twenties and thirties in Count Basie and Duke Ellington Orchestra's it's conceivable that he learned everything he needed to know about composition and arrangement from his employers (although it's significant that he and Mingus were the only protégés of Ellington's in these areas - everyone else was a soloist) and never put these skills to better use here. A pity more people didn't take notice back in 1960: they might have seen that Giant Steps and Change of the Century were missing something.

* This reminds me of something which is sadly lost from modern music: the response record. Just as Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney and John Lennon and Bob Dylan would communicate with one another on their great sixties albums, jazz artists were doing the same thing only earlier. Few, if any, artists these days listen to contemporaries and become so overcome with jealousy that they become determined to deliver something of even great quality. Don't they see what a driving force competition can be?

No comments: