Wednesday, 20 March 2013

A Sovereign Quebec

How is a saxophonist working at the height of the hard-bop era supposed to compete with such Blue Note legends-in-the-making as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Cannonball Adderley?

Simply put: he isn't. More fundamentally: he shouldn't. Truthfully, not even the heavyweights contend with each other.

While showmanship and even one-upmanship may have been a prevalent feature of the more exuberant, swinging jazz styles of the depression years, sincerity of expression and originality of idea are arguably the dominant objectives in post-war jazz.  

Furthermore, every true jazz musician, regardless of decade or instrument, each strives for radical improvisational individualism, necessarily but often tensely, situated within a cooperative dynamic.  

The sax player says "I'm going to go this way" and the drummer says "I'm going to go that way" but both circle the same rendezvous point, keeping an eye on each other to ensure that they arrive together, all in one piece.  

Or to envision the jazz cooperative on an even grander scale, the individual freedom of each citizen musician to express himself or herself can only manifest itself peacefully if the political ensemble democratically progresses towards a common objective.  

Much of this negotiation is done, of course, on the fly.

Bearing in mind these essential and inalienable drives for artistic expression and liberty, one must conclude that the phrase "nobody plays the saxophone better than so and so" fails to signify much of anything useful.  Such praise is empty or at least underdeveloped.  

Each jazz musician ought to be mastering his or her own thing.

Thus, a paid compliment should recognize the individuality of that player's style or preoccupation.  One should, more appropriately, exclaim, "nobody plays the saxophone the way he plays," or "nobody uses spaces and runs the register the way she does."  

Note that this distinction doesn't devolve into vacuous subjectivity or solipsism. Value judgments remain relevant and musical prowess remains relative.  Musicians just aren't directly pitted against each another.  Instead, value becomes a measure of contribution.  I offer that attaining a superlative status in the jazz world is two-fold, predicated equally on distinctiveness and inventiveness. Great musicians redefine their instruments, and periodically music itself, to the benefit of all those who follow them.  


This protracted preamble should hopefully serve as both a long-overdue introduction to the egalitarian philosophy underlying the music I so dearly love, as well as a suitable introduction to the lesser-known, but by no means lesser, tenor saxophonist (and moonlighting pianist) Ike Quebec.

He began his career as a sideman, accompanying Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Cab Calloway.  When the big bands fell out of fashion, Quebec hung up his horn to become an A&R man, arranger and talent scout for Blue Note.  Notably he discovered Dexter Gordon.  

Troubles with drugs also kept Quebec from recording with others. As a result, although he appears on one of Blue Note's earliest shellac 78 RPMs from the mid 40s, it wasn't until 1962 that he finally got his act together and began releasing albums in earnest.  As fate would have it, it was just in time for him to die of lung cancer the very next year. 

The critic Alex Henderson once wrote, "Though he was never an innovator, Quebec had a big, breathy sound that was distinctive and easily recognizable, and he was quite consistent when it came to down-home blues, sexy ballads, and up-tempo aggression."  I would counter, however, that while he never broke new ground, he was comfortable travelling between territories.  A survey of the handful of albums and spattering of jukebox singles published during Quebec's life time reveals his ability to conquer the blues, soul jazz and bossa nova, often all on the same album.

Further, Quebec's synergies with guitarist Grant Green, organist Freddie Roach and a much-subdued Art Blakey are nothing short of bewitching.  These subtle players are so comfortable within the blues idiom that they make elegance entirely effortless.  This is due in no small part to their unadorned approach and leisurely tempos, entirely uncharacteristic of other, upbeat Blue Note albums of that time period.  To add to Henderson's assessment of Quebec's style, journalist Richard Cook notes that the saxophonist had "a beautiful, sinuous tone and an innate melodic sense, negotiating standards with simplicity and lack of arrogance that are refreshing and even therapeutic."  

Nobody plays those sultry, smokey, late-night cabaret blues the way Ike Quebec does.  Conversely, nobody breathes that open spring air the way Ike Quebec does.  And, as demonstrated with the original compositions on his records Bossa Nova Soul Samba and Heavy Soul, had Quebec lived longer, he undoubtedly would have lit out from his distinctive plot of land, across the bluesy sea, to discover new territories.  


Given that today marks the vernal equinox, it seems appropriate to start with:

"It Might As Well Be Spring," It Might As Well Be Spring, Blue Note, 1962

Discogs: It Might As Well Be Spring

"Willow Weep For Me," It Might As Well Be Spring, Blue Note, 1962

Discogs: It Might As Well Be Spring

"Me 'n You," Bossa Nova Soul Samba, Blue Note, 1962

Discogs: Bossa Nova Soul Samba

"Favela," Bossa Nova Soul Samba, Blue Note, 1962

Discogs: Bossa Nova Soul Samba

"Blue and Sentimental," Blue and Sentimental, Blue Note, 1962

Discogs: Blue and Sentimental

"Don't Take Your Love From Me," Blue and Sentimental, Blue Note, 1962

Discogs: Blue and Sentimental

"Acquitted," Heavy Soul, Blue Note 1962

Discogs: Heavy Soul

"Brother Can You Spare A Dime," Heavy Soul, Blue Note 1962

Discogs: Heavy Soul

"Blue Harlem," Blue Harlem, Blue Note, 1945

Discogs: Blue Harlem

"Easy Living," Easy Living, Blue Note, 1981 (Recorded 1962)

Discogs: Easy Living

Many of the aforementioned concepts are indebted to Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by trumpet player, jazz educator and Pulitzer Prize winner Wynton Marsalis.

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