21 February 2021: the mourning of a star…

Welcome to a reflective Cosmic Jazz. This week we are mourning the loss of three music legends – Chick Corea,  Janet Lawson and Johnny  Pacheco. Our title is taken from Keith Jarrett’s album of the same name which includes the reflective The Mourning of a Star. We begin with Chick Corea and three tunes that reflect his prolific output over five decades. Corea was born in 1941 and – despite the compositional link with Spain – was of Italian descent. Composer, keyboardist, bandleader and – with 500 Miles High, La Fiesta, Windows, Spain and more – the creator of modern jazz standards, Corea had a long and distinguished career in music.

As a member of Miles Davis’ band in the late 1960s (along with luminaries Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland and Tony Williams) he was there at the birth of what is often called jazz fusion – but is really just jazz stretching out to encompass other musical genres, as it has always done.  Among the most influential jazz pianists along with Hancock, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett, Corea had a unmistakable style that was influenced by his Mediterranean roots and those pianists he most admired – particularly Bill Evans and Bud Powell. The early trio masterpiece Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968) was re-released in the Blue Note Tone Poets series (see this Cosmic Jazz post) and is highly recommended as a starting point for CJers new to Corea’s music. This is the superb title track which – in the first minute alone – includes many musical motifs that surfaced again and again in Corea’s writing. There is a joyousness in his piano playing that clearly reflected his sunny personality. Aware of his late cancer diagnosis, a Facebook message was posted by Corea on 12 February:

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.

“And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: It has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”

1. Miles Davis – In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time from In A Silent Way

So where do we start with our tribute to this keyboard master? It has to be that most influential of Miles Davis records, In A Silent Way. Released in 1969, this music was revolutionary for a number of key reasons. It took Davis on a journey away from the technical mastery of his second quintet and into completely new territory. In January 1969 Corea was already a core member of the new Davis group. with his ring modulated Hohner keyboard at the centre of the new sound. You can clearly hear its use on the Isle of Wight concert video from 1970 (Keith Jarrett is on the other keyboard). In A Silent Way simply transformed thinking about what jazz could be and also introduced Teo Macero’s studio manipulations into the music. The result was an album that will never date. It sounds timeless. As Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs noted “It is part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality.” We featured the Joe Zawinul composition In A Silent Way that bookends the second side of the record, with It’s About That Time sandwiched in between. This is one of Zawinul’s most beautiful pieces and has influenced all genres of contemporary music from ambient through to dance. The ethereal beauty of the music carries all before it. To listen to In A Silent Way for the first time is to experience an epiphany.

2. John McLaughlin – Waltz for Bill Evans from My Goals Beyond

McLaughlin’s guitar contributes much of the atmosphere of In a Silent Way and he included a short Corea tune on his My Goal’s Beyond record from 1971. Both musicians would count Bill Evans as a musical influence and so we featured Waltz for Bill Evans, itself a nod to the classic Evans tune Waltz for Debby, itself now a jazz standard like Corea’s Spain. My Goals’s Beyond is something of a lost album. Although it has been reissued several times, it remains little known against McLaughlin’s more electric output, and was something of a forerunner to his long running Shakti project. Both have strong Indian influences, with McLaughlin being heavily in thrall to Sri Chinmoy, the guru de nos jours for some jazz musicians in the early 1970s.

3. Chick Corea and Return to Forever – Spain from Light As A Feather

Wikipedia counts over 30 different interpretations of Spain and Corea himself recorded the tune a number of times in different formats. We featured the original version on the second Return to Forever group’s album Light As a Feather, recorded in London in 1973. The tune may sound familiar because it opens with a melody from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and then continues to use Rodrigo’s chord progressions in Corea’s improvisation. This first version of the Return to Forever group  included Stanley Clarke on bass, Airto Moreira on percussion, Flora Purim on vocals and the under-rated Joe Farrell on flute. A 2CD set from 1998 included a second disc of alternative takes and the track Matrix which first appeared on the aforementioned Now He Sings, Now He Sobs album. It’s not an essential version to have – but the original belongs in everyone’s record collection.

4. Chick Corea – 500 Miles High (Live) from Trilogy 2 (Disc 1)

Return to Forever became more electric as the 1970s counted down. The album Romantic Warrior (1976) was the final recording in this format and Corea experimented with different groups and styles – his piano duet records with Herbie Hancock perhaps the most celebrated of this period. If you can avoid a copy with the bizarre Smurfs cover (a Japanese pressing, for example) the album Friends is worth a look. It’s Joe Farrell again on saxes and flute too. This is Samba Song, featuring the propulsive drumming of Steve Gadd. Corea returned to a more fusion sound with his Elektric Band which, in turn, was complemented by the Akoustic Band of the same era –  a trio that included jazz standards in their repertoire.  The trio format remained a constant with its finest invocation in the ECM Trio records playing once again with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes. Our final tribute track is from yet another trio performance, but this time a much more recent release, 2020’s Trilogy 2, with Corea on acoustic piano, Christian McBride on bass and drummer Brian Blades. This 2CD set featured tracks recorded during trio’s world tour and includes American songbook standards, jazz classics and a reach back into Corea’s own catalogue. By the time of this recording the trio had been together for ten years – and it shows. Like the first live Trilogy release from 2013, this record is a summation of Corea’s jazz journey. Beautifully engineered with a superb sound, Chick Corea’s joy at performing in the classic jazz trio brings us right back to that earlier trio record from 1968 with which we began this post.

5. The Janet Lawson Quintet – You Promised from The Janet Lawson Quintet

6. The Janet Lawson Quintet – So High  from  The Janet Lawson Quintet

7. The Janet Lawson Quintet – Sunday Afternoon – The Janet Lawson Quintet

Our next artist to remember is vocalist Janet Lawson, who actually collaborated with Chick Corea and other artists such as Ron Carter, Duke Ellington, Sheila Jordan, Dave Liebman, Cedar Walton, Duke Pearson and Eddie Jefferson – among others.  Born in Baltimore, but NYC based, Lawson really used her voice as another instrument. The British label BBE Records re-released her first self-titled album in 2014 with sleeve notes citing John S. Wilson’s New York Times review which notes that she “places her voice as an element of the instrument ensemble in almost all of her numbers rather than as a singer with instrumental accompaniment.” More than that, “when she takes her solos, Miss Lawson improvises – with or without words – as an instrumentalist would.” He added that Lawson “has the kind of voice that most jazz singers probably wish they had. It is a full, well‐developed, remarkably pliant voice with a lower range whose dark sonorities compare favorably with the deep power of Sarah Vaughan.” High praise indeed. So what happened to Janet Lawson and why is she not more well known?

She travelled the US, and to Latin America and Jamaica, but most of her work was in New York clubs and from 1968-69 was a regular guest on Steve Allen’s New York TV show. Lawson was also involved in improvisational acting, teaching master classes in vocal improvisation and was a founder member of Women In Music, a group of six musicians. Gilles Peterson has recently commented that she was a staple at the legendary Sunday afternoon sessions at Dingwalls in London and  the title of one of the tunes we chose suggests it may well have been a firm favourite there. Janet Lawson’s voice is supported by some fine musicians on our three tunes from that first album, originally released in 1981 – Ratzo Harris on bass, Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax, Jimmy Madison on drums and Bill O’Connell on piano. Lawson died aged 80 in January 2020 with just two records to her name. Both are worth looking out for. You can still download her 1981 debut here on Bandcamp, but her follow up album Dreams Can Be from 1984 will be more difficult to track down. Here’s the title track featuring the same excellent band and some lovely scat singing from Lawson herself.

8. Johnny Pacheco – Azuquita Mami from Fania All Stars Live/Salsa Caliente

Both Chick Corea and Janet Lawson drew upon and played music with Latin influences. The final artist we remember, Johnny Pacheco, who died aged 85 earlier this month, was a seminal Latin artist – you could say Latin through and through – but jazz remained a key element. Pacheco and his fellow musicians were responsible for fusing jazz, rhythm and blues, funk and other styles into traditional African-Cuban music to create salsa – literally, ‘sauce’, and implying a mix of many different Latin styles.

Johnny Pacheco was born in the Dominican Republic but his family moved to New York when Pacheco was 11 and it was here that he became a major figure as a musician, bandleader and co-founder of the essential Latin music label Fania Records, a joint venture with lawyer and Latin music fan Jerry Masucci. From its humble beginnings in Harlem and the Bronx, Fania brought a new sensibility to the music. Many of the lyrics to the new songs were about racism, cultural pride and the incendiary politics of the New York streets.The tune Azuquita Mami has appeared on many Latin compilations (including Super Salsa Hits released by Charly Records in the UK), but this version is from the French compilation Salsa Caliente released on Universal and bought in Paris. It features several other classic Latin artists, including an excellent band from Japan! If you’re new to music from this inspirational label, it’s worth searching out a superb 4CD Fania compilation called Ponte Duro: the Fania All Stars Story, released in 2012. It captures the All Stars live in New York, around the world and in the studio. You can hear Pacheco (and ‘Symphony’ Sid) introduce the band here live from Spanish Harlem in NYC.

9. Johnny Pacheco – Alto Songo from Introducing Johnny Pacheco

In Pacheco’s home in Dominican Republic, the local merengue music is part of the fabric of everyday life. Among the several instruments he learned to play were the flute and the accordion, both essential to merengue. In New York his flute-playing became handy for playing the Cuban charanga music and he was hired by Charlie Palmieri to play in a charanga band before forming his own Pacheco Y Su Charanga in 1960. But it was that first meeting with Masucci three years later that was to change Pacheco’s fortunes. Pacheco became Fania’s creative director and musical producer, as well as performing his own music and recording with the Fania All Stars and many other artists. The tune Alto Songo was released originally on Introducing Johnny Pacheco on Fania (1989), although it’s available elsewhere including another Charly Records release of 1989. Sue Steward’s sleeve notes to this album inform us that Manny Oquendo was on timbales and that the tune has “growing subtlety out of Rene Hernandez’ whimsical few bars of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto.” It’s a classic Fania tune. Oquendo has been featured on earlier Cosmic Jazz shows (check out here and here) via his band Libre.

10. Hector Lavoe – Mi Gente from La Voz/I Like It Like That

Johnny Pacheco’s influence began to spread widely. In the early 1970s he was greeted by a crowd of 5,000 as he arrived at Dakar airport. His music was a great influence on Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and other West African groups who took back the Latin rhythms that were themselves often derived from traditional African rhythms.  Pacheco went on to release hundreds of records, often in collaboration with other Latin artists like Cuban singer Celia Cruz. His songwriting provided material for other Latin musicians, including one of the greatest Latin vocalists Hector Lavoe, whom Pacheco was to portray in El Cantante, the 2007 biopic of the singer. Mi Gente (translated as ‘my people’) is a Johnny Pacheco composition that was most famously recorded by Lavoe and is considered one of his finest recordings. There are numerous versions, but one of the most popular was recorded with the Fania All Stars in 1974 in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) while Lavoe was there to perform at the celebrated Zaire 74 festival prior to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ –  Mohammed Ali’s title fight against George Foreman. You can see Lavoe’s performance here – and, yes, that’s Pacheco conducting and stage managing the whole performance. The orchestrations, the brass and the big band feel provide ample evidence of the links to jazz. This version is available on a great Fania compilation which include a set of originals together with more contemporary remixes – here’s Louie Vega’s EOL remix of Mi Gente.

Pacheco was to record with a number of jazz musicians including George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Les McCann and McCoy Tyner. He’s featured on this version of Duke Ellington’s Duke’s Place from Tyner’s tribute to the great bandleader, McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington (1965). For many years he spearheaded the Johnny Pacheco Latin Music and Jazz Festival at Lehman College in the Bronx, an annual event in collaboration with the college (streamed live in recent years) that provides a stage for hundreds of talented young musicians studying music in New York City schools. His legacy lives on.

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