JAZZBO NOTES RECOMMENDED RECORDING
You’ve got to give saxophonist Woody Witt and Blue Bamboo Music a lot of credit for having the balls to conceive of and put out A Conversation.
First of all, it’s a trio album, in which there is barely a chordal instrument to be found. Woody Witt himself switches between tenor and soprano sax, Fred Hamilton plays either guitar or bass, and Ed Soph mans the drum kit. But the thing is, when Fred Hamilton is playing guitar, he isn’t really comping. He’s playing countermelodies, soloing, or playing around the chords of the composition. That’s what I mean by a chordal foundation barely being there.
This is not a bad thing, but it is very gutsy. Playing jazz without a chordal instrument is extremely hard to pull off. To compound the difficulty, Witt has chosen to have all the songs on the date be originals. Usually, when jazz musicians make a recording of this type, they hedge their bets by including a few standards, to give the listener a musical buoy or two to hold onto. Not here. To make things even more challenging for the listener, no one on the date is driving the groove directly.
For example, Oddly Even is a swing tune, but Fred Hamilton never really walks on bass, and Ed Soph doesn’t play any traditional swing time. The swing time is implied.
Clear Skies, Ne As Jah, and Empty Room lean more towards a sort of ECM label sort of sound, but more aggressive, if that makes any sense. On these tunes, guitarist Fred Hamilton sounds a lot like early Pat Metheny in his tone and approach, but what he’s playing is actually a lot more harmonically sophisticated than what Pat was playing in those days. He uses a lot of arpeggios with wide and unusual voicings. In his melodic lines, he emphasizes lyricism rather than aggressive rhythmic or harmonic commentary.
On bass, Hamilton is a whole different player. He has a full, rich tone. He can walk with authority when he wants to, as on Steppin’, but he usually chooses to leave a lot of space, to imply the form rather than spell it out.
Woody Witt isn’t much interested in impressing the listener with his chops, but he has them. Witt is more about feeling his way through the compositions, finding melodies as he goes. His tone on tenor and soprano saxophone is gentle but full, with a slight vibrato which he employs with great discretion. Every once in a while, Witt will allow a note to crack, or go outside of the range of his horn, but he employs these effects judiciously. It seems like he’s going out of his way to be accessible, to communicate.
Ed Soph reminds me of a someone who used to drum on a lot of ECM dates, Jon Christensen. He consistently plays around the groove, and uses march and martial rhythms a lot.
All three of these guys are almost always soloing at the same time, but at the same they manage to listen to each other, so A Conversation never turns into cacophony — it’s more like a lively conversation among friends.
Actually, it just hit me what these tunes remind me of: an ECM date from the early 80s, Playing, with Don Cherry on trumpet, Dewey Redman on sax, Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. There’s a similar elasticity of time, a reluctance to coddle the listener by spelling out the harmony all the time. Like that live recording, A Conversation is all about communication between musicians who know each other very well — in other words, a conversation. And on that level, A Conversation is very successful.
My main criticism of A Conversation is that none of the heads, vamps or harmonic structures of the original tunes are especially memorable. Let me explain what I mean by that. It is possible, by a number of composing stategies, such as employing repetitive rhythmic motifs, to create hooks for the listener that make a melody or structure stick in the ear of a listener. Composers such as Wayne Shorter, Randy Brecker, Dave Liebman, Miles Davis, and Joe Zawinul consistently pull this off. To my ear, Woody Witt hasn’t managed this admittedly difficult task on A Conversation.
This will make it challenging for many listeners to listen to the group improvisation of these three guys in a context that will help them to connect the dots in the music. They will be forced to accept the music purely on it’s own terms, which is as collective improvisation (nothing wrong with that, by the way). What enjoyment there is in listening to A Conversation derives from appreciating the communication between the three musicians in the moment that it’s occurring. Fortunately for the listener, that communication occurs at a very high level, enough for me to recommend A Conversation.
To listen to some samples, click here.