Read a good liner note lately?
Liner notes are that mess of print on the inside sleeve of a CD that tells you how good the recording is and why you should buy it. Back in the days of vinyl, liner notes were printed on the back of the album cover so you could read them while you browsed in the record shop. Now you have to buy the CD to read the notes, and they've lost their signiﬁcance somewhat. ' Liner notes take different approaches.
Some liner notes are written by the artists themselves, but most are written by critics or other musicians. Some tell amusing anecdotes about the recording or the individuals involved. Some seek to elevate the artist by trashing others: "So and so takes an orchestral approach to the piano, not like those one-handed players of today."
The same writer may write on another artist, "So and so's uncrowded linear approach is a welcome contrast to the heavy-handed dense structures of other so-called 'colorists.'" Some liner notes are just plain weird. The notes to the Bill Evans/Jim Hall release Undercurrent is a rather groovy poem supposedly written in response tot he recording. A sample line is "Snill. rubru, nail, frog, diamond many windows ﬂash ice." Dude!
One liner note I particularly enjoy was written by Nat Hentoff for a historic 1959 recording by John Coltrane. First, a little background information . . . .
Coltrane had big plans for this recording session. including some tunes which were very groundbreaking in terms of their harmonic structure. Coltrane handed out charts a few days before the session, but didn't bother to explain how the tunes would be played. Pianist Tommy Flanagan found one chart to be particularly interesting.
"What a lovely set of chord changes," he said to himself. "This will be a beautiful ballad. Odd name for a ballad, though . . .
'Giant Steps.' Well, as all jazz players know, "Giant Steps" is no ballad. It's almost always played fast and is one of the most challenging tunes in the repertoire. The tapes rolled, Coltrane counted the tune, Flanagan's blood pressure soared and the tune took off in a flurry. Coltrane had probably been practicing his solo for weeks, but Flanagan was forced to try to come up with something on the spot. At that time, "Giant Steps" had almost no harmonic precedent. Sight reading this piece, and trying to come up with a solo right then and there was an impossible task, even for Flanagan, a true master. After a few noble attempts at a solo, Flanagan basically gives up in the middle of the tune and waits for Coltrane to come back in. For some reason, that was the take that was kept. Flanagan later told a friend, "I wanted to jump out the window."
Now how do you deal with this in the liner notes? Hey, Hentoff's a pro. He writes, "Tommy! Flanagan's relatively spare solo and the way it uses space as part of its structure is an effective contrast to Coltrane's intensely crowded choruses."
Not that's a liner note!
I hope you got to see some of Jazz Week at U of L last month. I caught the Blue Wisp Big Band from Cincinnati (see review, this issue). I've always heard great things about them and now I know why. I'm looking forward to next year. See you next time.