It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
There once was a time when giants like Nat King Cole roamed the earth, when jazz and pop kept close company. Esperanza Spalding is doing her bit to reunite them. Her earlier Chamber Music Society was a jazz-pop hybrid spangled with strings. The sequel, Radio Music Society, is pop played and sung by jazzers including saxophonist Joe Lovano, drummers Terri Lyne Carrington, Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette, and chanteuse-du-jour Gretchen Parlato, who's drolly funny on the anatomy of a breakup, "Let Her." Creative players keep the grooves afloat; Spalding's witty lyrics help too. Her meta "Radio Music" is an infectious song about a tune just like it, shapely but elusive, one (the lyrics say) you start singing along with before you know how it goes. Spalding celebrates Portland roots in "City of Roses," and since she has the spotlight, sounds off some, in the bittersweet "Land of the Free" and positivity anthem "Black Gold." Her bass fine-tunes the bump but never upstages her fetching voice, acrobatic and emotive in a good way.
Saxophonist Lovano, one of Spalding's teachers at Berklee in Boston, drafted her into his Us Five, alongside pianist James Weidman (who makes an appearance on Radio Music Society) and double drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III — an odd but open-sounding line-up. The program here is Charlie Parker tunes, transformed various ways. On "Blues Collage" tenor, piano and bass play three of his blues in counterpoint; "Birdyard" cuts up and reassembles "Yardbird Suite." Spalding's bass brings out all sorts of nuances in the material: the singing nature of the bebop lines, the Caribbean lilt lurking in the complex rhythms, the blues feel in all its upbeat or foot-dragging glory, the propulsive pleasures of 4/4 swing.
The Urge to Sing
Instrumentalists often feel the urge to step up to the mic: Louis Armstrong said singing was more in his blood than playing trumpet. Many are called, but few have the pipes. Keith Jarrett had the wisdom never to make another album like the 1968 muscle flexer Restoration Ruin, where the new star jazz pianist went all singer-songwriter. He wrote all the tunes — including a "Fire and Rain" that predates James Taylor's — and played most of the instruments, including recorder, acoustic guitar and Dylanesque harmonica, plus his sleek soprano sax and irresistibly rolling piano. But what's with that weird, vaguely English singing voice? His long "o"'s are so misshapen, you'd almost think he's from Baltimore. Afterwards, the impulse to vocalize lingered. He still sings along with his right hand while improvising.
A charismatic, very photogenic improviser comes out of the Pacific Northwest, and goes on to assemble jazz luminaries to record pop-oriented material that gives them something to dig into. Haven't we heard this story before? Trumpeter Quincy Jones left Seattle to lead a fine big band before he began producing radio pop and writing for Hollywood in the '60s. He even sang a bit, wanly, as on the Carole King title track to 1971's adult-funky Smackwater Jack — where Q also crooned Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," which took guts. Pop music is where the money went, post-Beatles. Some jazz folk grumbled about the competition; Jones created opportunities to groove anew. The cast, big enough for a Bible epic, includes jazz stars Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Jim Hall and Milt Jackson.
The Microphone as Megaphone
Jazzwomen haven't always sung willingly; trumpeter Clora Bryant was forced to, on a record under her name in 1957. But some step up more readily: They've got something to say, and the microphone is right there. Forceful flute virtuoso Nicole Mitchell came out of the Chicago vanguard where lines may blur between musical performance and community theater — her early albums are studded with songs of empowerment — or between jazz and modern composed music. The lush and tuneful Renegades is by her own chamber music society, an improvising quintet featuring three strings including power bassist Joshua Abrams, and Shirazette Tinnin's springy drums. Mitchell sings only once here, but it's a cry from the heart, arriving late in "By My Own Grace": a hard lesson learned, and passed on.
Crossing the Other Way
The fence between jazz and pop isn't always breached from the jazz side. Early on, quintessential bar band NRBQ covered Sun Ra's "Rocket No. 9" and set words to Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino." Their pianist Terry Adams later recorded and toured with Bley. Later still, in 1995, he made this album of jazz originals, variously featuring his NRBQ bandmates, trombone god Roswell Rudd, drummer Bobby Previte, and three Sun Ra hornmen including saxophonist Marshall Allen. Adams brings the same pithy wit, spry pianistics, and love of a good melody and good beat that he brings to rocking. "I Feel Lucky" echoes Bley's lyrical repetitions, but more often his shambles recall Thelonious Monk. Adams sings a blues, too — and dig his crazy "Japanese organ" on "Toodlehead." Good things can happen on either side, when worlds collide.