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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Are Tribute Albums Really of Interest?

By Stef

Who is really waiting for tribute albums? They are created with the best of intentions, to celebrate the music and memory of an admired and influential artist. On the downside, they are often the result of  musicians playing together without a shared vision on the sound they want to create, and with a performance that can never reach the level of the original. Tribute albums may be of interest to fans of the celebrated artist, but more often than not they are disappointments, and possibly even more to the interested fans.

The good thing is that they bring some older music back to your attention, and you will hopefully go to the original and enjoy its authenticity. Then you will understand why there is a tribute album in the first place.

But it is a sign of respect for the old masters, so who can be against that? True, yet on the other hand, why do you need masterpieces to be re-worked if the original is so good? Do painters make copies of Picasso's "Guernica"? Do writers re-write Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow"?

Dave Liebman & Joe Lovano - Compassion - The Music Of John Coltrane (Resonance Records, 2017)

No doubt Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman are wonderful sax-players, and the skills of pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Ron McLure and drummer Billy Hart are among the best around. They were asked by the BBC, ten years ago, to perform to commemorate the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane's passing away. Not all material was released at that time, so today we get the unreleased tracks as a kind of 50th anniversary album.

The music is good. It is John Coltrane's music of course: "Locomotion", "Olé", "Equinox", and the long "Compassion". But then you wonder about the quality of it all. It falls short of the original ... and at quite a distance. Technically this is good, but it's not Coltrane, nor his band. Have you heard Coltrane play? The good thing about tribute albums is that you're forced to listen back to the original, and then you listen to Coltrane again, as I do now, at this very moment, playing Compassion, you're blown away by the man's incredible power, soul and expansiveness. Here is the man who lifted jazz out of the commercial confines of night clubs and bars and dance halls and gave it the status of "serious" music, as opposed to mere entertainment. Coltrane is the man who changed jazz from being just fun into something more existential, more spiritual, turning it into a complete listening experience. Then you listen back to Liebman and Lovano, and what you hear ressembles the original, but then with all life drained from it.

Sky Music - A Tribute To Terje Rypdal (Rune Grammofon, 2017)

American guitarist Henry Kaiser brought together a band to celebrate Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal for his 70th birthday, consisting of keyboardist and long time Rypdal side-kick Ståle Storløkken, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, drummer Gard Nilssen, guitarists Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, Even H. Hermansen, Hans Magnus Ryan, Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim and Swedish guitarist Reine Fiske. Bill Frisell and David Torn deliver solo interpretations, Nels Cline and cellist Erik Friedlander play a duet. 

The opening piece, "Omen" by Frisell is as beautiful and calm as you can expect from the master. David Torn, like Frisell does not fall into the trap of trying to emulate Rypdal's sound, but gives his own personal rendition of "Avskjed". "What Comes After" is a wonderfully tense and meditative piece by Erik Friedlander and Nels Cline. I think it's the album's highlight, if only because they capture the spirit of Rypdal's music : desolation, expansiveness, emotional intensity and sonic inventiveness. "Sunrise", with Jim O'Rourke on guitar is also acceptable, but still a million miles away from the power of the original (with Jack DeJohnette and Miroslav Vitous). 

For all the other tracks you can wonder what the point is. Sure, the playing is good, and the guitarists lined up to play tribute to their role model know what they're doing on their instruments, but the overall musical vision and quality is quite well below the original. Tracks such as "Over Birkerot/Silver Bird Heads For The Sun" lack the sophisticated arrangement of the original with its sudden changes, its incredible power and darkness. 

The same can be said for "Rolling Stone", one of the most memorable tracks of Rypdal's masterpiece "Odyssey", which gets a lukewarm rendition here, again highlighting the fact that superb music is not only the result of having a strong composition, but also of performance and interplay. Where Rypdal created an incredible sense of space, leaving room for other musicians, taking time to build the pieces, here you have the musicians tumbling over themselves to show off their skills. You also need the musical vision, sensitivities and competence to make it connect with the listener. These guys know their instruments, but I wonder whether they understand the music. 

Various Artists - Celebrate Ornette (Song X Records, 2017)

On "Celebrate Ornette" we get a mix of various performances, one on which Ornette was present, at the age of 84, and even if he was not expected to perform, he still did (on the first two tracks). The performers are stylistically as widely apart as Joe Lovano and Patti Smith, Thurston Moore and David Murray, Laurie Anderson and Geri Allen. Of course, they don't all perform together but in various performances and bands, but even then, the musical unity is lacking. The performances are live, not well recorded and some of the performances are relatively chaotic and primitive, like you would expect from a jam band. That is unfortunately also the case with "Lonely Woman", a twenty-minute destruction of one of the most beautiful compositions ever, with a super band including Geri Allen, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane, David Murray, Wallace Roney Jr. and Denardo Coleman's quintet. Too many cooks spoil the broth. 

Some pieces are well rehearsed and performed as, with the Denardo Vibe, the band of Ornette Coleman's son Denardo, who turn "Blues Connotation" into a high speed fusion romp.

The more interesting pieces are the ones that go totally beyond Ornette's own style, as with the rendition of "Sadness" by Thurston Moore and Nels Cline. The two guitarists do something with the material. They make it all their own and bring something strong.

CD3 offers the best part of the album. It was recorded at Ornette Coleman's memorial after his passing away. The mood is of course completely different, one of reverence and sadness, with solo pieces by Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor, a duet between Henry Threadgill and Jason Moran, a beautiful rendition of "Peace" by Ravi Coltrane and Geri Allen, an interesting duet between Jack DeJohnette and tap dancer Savion Glover. The "Lonely Woman" version with Joe Lovano, David Murray, Charnett Moffett, Al MacDowell and Denardo Coleman is more palpable than the previous one, but it still lacks the deepfelt soul and sadness that the composition requires. 

In sum, it's a little big of a mixed bag. I have the impression that this is just a quick collection of uneven material, with limited musical value. 

Various Artists - Tribute To Andrzej Przybielski Vol. 1 (Jazz Poznan, 2016)

The lesser known musician in this list who gets a tribute album is possibly Andrzej Przybielski, the Polish trumpeter who passed away in 2011, and who gets commemorated here by a selection of Poland's best musicians.

The band consists of Maciej Fortuna, Marcin Gawdzis, Wojciech Jachna, Tomasz Kudyk, Peter Schmidt and Maurice Wójciński on trumpet, Jakub Kujawa on guitar; Grzegorz Nadolny on double bass, and Grzegorz Daroń on drums.

We have reviewed some of Przybielski's later work on this blog before, and with enthusiasm. And I'm not familiar enough with the man's entire catalogue to be able to compare the tribute album with his original music. They perform four compositions by Przybielski and three collective improvisations.

The opening track, "Afro Blues", is not my kind of thing, I must say, with a strange loss of stylistic unity, in the shape of Kujawa's howling fusion guitar and the unison big band horns, too much showing off and not enough real music. The last track starts with a long text in Polish spoken by Przybielski himself, interspersed by some trumpet phrases, but of course for those who do not understand the language, this is literally meaningless, and for Polish people nothing more than interesting for documentary reasons.

Luckily, the rest of the playing is phenomenal, as in the hesitant and calmly growing "Free I", the bluesy "Free II", where the trumpeters take turn to solo over the slowest of tempi. "Arce" is a beautiful slow ballad, full of melancholy and sadness.

Surely Przybielski deserves a tribute, and I can only recommend interested listeners to find out more about him. It's great that his Polish admirers release a tribute CD for him, and with some more unity of style, this could have been a great tribute. Let's hope that Vol. 2 solves some of the issues of this album.


Colin Green said...

Stef, I wonder whether you’ve over generalised in that introduction and rather simplified the dynamics involved in paying tribute.

Older music continues to provide a source of inspiration for new music, and covers are common, even in free jazz, sometimes as a single track, other times a whole album. Whether “tribute” or “celebration” appears in the album title is an unreliable guide to what’s going on within. I’m not sure that such albums can really be equated with Tribute bands who on the whole try and replicate the sounds of some earlier group. In my experience, even when that is the case in a free jazz tribute. it’s done in a rather more creative way.

I say nothing about your comments concerning the albums under review – you may be right – but to provide a bit of balance and illustrate the variety of ways musicians can pay homage, I list the following, limited to Albert Ayler (I’m a bit rushed):

“A Tribute to Albert Ayler” – Alex Bonney
“The Songs of Albert Ayler” - Vinny Golia, Aurora Josephson, Henry Kaiser, Mike Keneally, Joe Morris, Damon Smith, Weasel Walter
“Plays Albert Ayler” – Zero Point (a favourite)
“Tribute To Albert Ayler / Live At The Dynamo” -- Roy Campbell, Joe McPhee, William Parker, Warren Smith
“Dedications To Albert Ayler And John Coltrane” - Massimo Urbani

There are many other such homages in respect of other musicians, including quite a few recently paying tribute to or celebrating the music of Monk, some reviewed on this blog. Of course, not all albums of that genre (assuming there is such a thing) are successful, but that could be said of any music. A few duds shouldn’t be seen as anything more than that. I think what you’re saying is that you’re against bad tribute albums, but then who isn’t?

Stef said...

Thanks Colin,

Of course you're also right. And especially the albums you mention I fully concur, for the simple reason that they make the original material their own music. They use it to transform it into their musical language. That's why I like some of the pieces of the Rypdal tribute, for the simple reason that they move away from the original. But more often than not it's just either replicating in a lesser way what the original is, or it's just chaos as in some of the Coleman tribute pieces.

Captain Hate said...

Zorn and Hal Wilner know how to do tribute albums.

Anonymous said...

In many ways, most albums are tribute albums aren't they? Maybe it is when they are nothing other than this that not much value is added....

A Coltrane-specific comment said...

You are mistaken about some details of the Liebman/Lovano album, which has exactly the same content as the 2007 BBC radio broadcast. There was no CD release of material from the 2007 session until this one in 2017 by Resonance Records. I made my own recording of the BBC programme at the time of broadcast and was not impressed by these performances, which do indeed drain all the life out of the music. But the existence of sub-par sessions like this one does not deter me from listening to other people's approaches to Coltrane's music, which can sometimes be very enjoyable and/or instructive. Done well, they can send you back to the originals for the best of reasons, precisely because they don't attempt to follow the originals too closely. (For an example of a serious and systematic attempt to engage with a large swathe of the Coltrane repertoire, look no further than the various Paul Dunmall recordings that have been reviewed on Free Jazz Blog.)

For me, the best of the Coltrane tribute albums released in 2017 was Tommy Smith's 'Embodying the Light -- A Dedication to John Coltrane', which celebrates the music with great intelligence, enthusiasm and commitment.

The most intimidating item in the Coltrane repertoire for today's players is probably 'A Love Supreme', because the original recording is so well known (often note-for-note by long-term listeners) and so highly regarded. Having heard some fairly dire attempts to perform it over the years, it is quite pleasing to come across a more successful attempt once in a while. The key to success (it seems to me) lies in not being over-awed by the original, and not attempting to stick too closely to its every detail, but instead having the confidence and ability to use the essence of the piece as a basis for creative self-expression.

As a compare-and-contrast exercise, consider three very different recordings of 'A Love Supreme' by Branford Marsalis. In 1994, his quartet with Kenny Kirkland, Robert Hurst and Jeff Watts released a daringly brief (18-minute) version, tucked away on the bonus CD included with Impulse's 'Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool' compilation. When I first heard it, it just made me smile, and I still enjoy it a lot. At the end of 2001, Branford's new quartet (with Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis and Jeff Watts) made a 32-minute studio recording of 'A Love Supreme', released as part of a tribute album called Footsteps of Our Fathers (the other jazz fathers referenced on this album being Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and John Lewis). I was disappointed by this version, which struck me as over-reverential and somewhat unengaging. Then in March 2003 the same quartet recorded a live performance of 'A Love Supreme' at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, originally issued as a DVD+CD package (with an Alice Coltrane interview included on the DVD). This superbly soulful performance lasts more than 48 minutes and always gives me a lot of pleasure.

I must also mention a little-known album called 'Tribute to John Coltrane - A Love Supreme', which Sony (Columbia) recorded live at Pitt Inn, Tokyo in December 1992. It is credited to the Elvin Jones Special Quartet -- i.e. with Elvin as the drummer in Wynton Marsalis's then line-up (alongside Marcus Roberts and Reginald Veal). Their version of 'A Love Supreme' omits the concluding Psalm section but nevertheless lasts more than 47 minutes in total. Wynton Marsalis's performance is very good indeed, and he was equally impressive when the same group returned to the USA for some live club performances that included a compelling version of John Coltrane's rarely covered 'Transition'.

In August 2003 Wynton Marsalis was responsible for a big band (Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) arrangement of 'A Love Supreme' that is far removed from any quartet version but still amounts to a serious and well-intentioned tribute to the original.