Thursday, February 21, 2008

. . and his mother called him Bill

For many years as a jazz D.J. on KPOO in San Francisco I was often asked what I thought the greatest jazz album to be. Of course these are the kind of questions that deserve asking simply because they have no answer. They serve as tools for helping define our thoughts about the subject, communicate what we don't already know and in general be more easily understood. My answer has been the same for quite sometime and it has been a surprise to many. Obviously there are some who are looking for the pat response, which these days seems to be the Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue. Corporate sponsored media seems to have anointed this one some time ago along with the entire Blue Note catalog. There are those asking because they want to learn something, those who would like some verification of their own good taste with the opinion of an expert. My answer to all three is emphatic. The greatest jazz record of all time is the one recorded by Duke Ellington in 1967 for RCA in homage to his dear friend and closest collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. That recording is titled . . . and his mother called him Bill. Strayhorn, for those of you who may not know him, was one of the greatest composer-arrangers in the history of this music and he contributed enormously to the Ellington organization in ways that are still untold. The recording is without question among the most passionate the orchestra ever put down. Johnny Hodges in particular. And of course it could be no other way, for they had lost one of their own. The music is often overwhelming in its beauty. My favorites are Raincheck and Rock Skippin' at the Bluenote. However, important criteria for making this decision concerns itself with history. That is to say, here is an album that offers us not just the "here and now" and the "as yet to be", but the whole scope of jazz history as well. More on this later.

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