Saturday Night Tunes: The Sidewinder

When I was writing up last week’s album, which had Lee Morgan on trumpet, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t yet done an actual Lee Morgan album. So this week you get his 1964 (recorded in December 1963) classic, The Sidewinder.

Lee Morgan’s story parallels Clifford Brown‘s in that both were amazingly gifted jazz trumpeters whose lives were tragically cut far too short, and who would probably be better remembered for their genius today if they’d lived longer and had longer careers. In Brown’s case, of course, he died in a car accident at 25; Morgan died at 33, shot in a domestic dispute and then left to bleed out while waiting for an ambulance in difficult winter driving conditions. What makes the parallel a little eerier is that Morgan had briefly been Brown’s student in the mid 1950s, and Brown, along with Dizzy Gillespie (who gave Morgan his first steady professional gig), was one of his greatest musical influences.

In addition to being one of the stalwart figures in the development of hard bop and one of the core members of that style’s most preeminent group, the Jazz Messengers, Morgan gets credit for helping to create one of the most popular hard bop offshoots, soul jazz. There are people who will tell you that soul jazz became its own unique style, and then there are people who will tell you that soul jazz is just hard bop that’s been funkified, with a little more emphasis on the blues. I don’t really care, I just like the music. Defining what is or isn’t “soul jazz” seems impossible anyway, since it depends on parsing totally subjective descriptions like “soul,” “funk,” and “bluesy,” but some basic soul jazz characteristics include that emphasis on the blues, gospel influences, and heavy rhythms.

The Sidewinder was one of the earliest albums be placed, well after the fact, in the soul jazz canon, alongside things like Song for My Father and Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy Mercy Mercy (which, now that I think about it, would be a good choice for next week), and even a little Ray Charles (although now we’re dancing on the equally undefined line between “soul jazz” and “soul”). Alongside Morgan is Joe Henderson on tenor sax, Barry Harris on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. Everything here was written by Lee Morgan.

First up is the title track, and while nailing down a definition of “soul jazz” is probably impossible, whatever “soul jazz” is, this is it. I’m biased because I used to play tenor, but Henderson’s solo here is my favorite:

“Totem Pole” alternates a heavy Latin rhythm with a swinging middle bridge, and man Henderson is really great here too (so is Morgan):

“Gary’s Notebook” is an interesting tune, written for a buddy of Morgan’s named (wait for it) Gary, who would often scribble things down in his (wait for it again) notebook. It’s a blues that starts off as a waltz but then moves into a more straightforward swing:

“Boy, What a Night” is another blues, but this time it’s in 12/8 meter, which does some interesting, funky things to the rhythm:

Finally we’ve got “Hocus-Pocus,” which isn’t a blues at all but instead is a basic, medium tempo AABA swinger. They repeat the theme twice at the end, the first time with the horn line essentially punctuating Higgins’ drum solo:

Today’s Happy Birthday wishes: Ibn Battuta

Today happens to be the 711th birthday of Ibn Battuta, whose importance to history hasn’t been unfairly overlooked, in contrast to some other people we could mention. Born to a Berber family in the city of Tangier (in modern Morocco) in 1304, Ibn Battuta is rightly famous for his incredible world travels and the book he dictated (called Al-Rihla, “The Journey”) about them. Think of him as the Muslim Marco Polo if you want (and coincidentally enough his travels began in 1325, the year after Marco Polo died in Venice), but in terms of distance traveled and places seen, Marco Polo (probably) had nothing on Ibn Battuta.

After leaving home in 1325 to make the Hajj, Ibn Battuta covered tens of thousands of miles, traveling with large caravans whenever he could and supporting himself usually by finding work as a Maliki legal expert (which reflected his studies in Tangier), before he finally stopped traveling in 1354. He crossed North Africa to Egypt overland, then crisscrossed the Levant, Iraq, Iran, Anatolia, and Arabia, then traveled by boat down the east coast of Africa as far south as modern Tanzania before heading back to Arabia (he completed three pilgrimages to Mecca during this period). Then he decided to go to work as a legal expert for the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad b. Tughluq (who was famous for being extremely wealthy and extremely generous to artists and scholars). This necessitated traveling north to Anatolia (via Egypt and the Levantine coast) in order to catch an overland caravan to Delhi, via Crimea (with a side trip into modern Bulgaria), the Caucasus, and Central Asia. When he got into Uzbek territory in Central Asia, the Uzbeks were preparing a royal caravan to Constantinople, which Ibn Battuta managed to join despite the fact that it was taking him away from his intended destination. He arrived in Constantinople in 1332 (possibly 1334), and got to meet the Byzantine Emperor and see the city before heading back toward Delhi.

According to the Rihla, Ibn Battuta got that job in Delhi in 1333 (there are conflicting accounts here, so it may have been 1335), but seems to have used it mostly as a justification for traveling throughout India. He did stay in India for several years though, before leaving in 1341 to resume his world travels. He visited the Maldives and then traveled east through modern Bangladesh, modern Malaysia, and into modern Indonesia (Sumatra). He arrived in China in 1345 before resolving to begin the almost unimaginably long (at that time) journey back home the following year. He arrived back in Tangier in 1349, both of his parents having died while he was gone. Still unable to shake the urge to keep traveling, in 1350 he set out on another long journey that would take him north into Andalusia and then south into Mali, which at the time was renowned for its riches. He returned home for good in 1354 and later dictated the story of his travels to another scholar named Ibn Juzayy (d. 1357).

Ibn Battuta's travels, at least according to him

Ibn Battuta’s travels, at least according to him

There are some problems with Ibn Juzayy’s account, specifically in that big sections of it are obviously copied from earlier travel literature without attribution. That could be explained by the fact that Ibn Battuta was recounting almost 30 years worth of travels without reference to any kind of journal or written notes. They may have decided to borrow from other written sources to help patch gaps in Ibn Battuta’s memory. Or, more cynically, they may have padded Ibn Battuta’s life story with tales of places he never actually visited. Some modern scholars question whether he ever really got to China, for example, or wonder about the authenticity of his side trip into the Bulgar-controlled part of Europe. Still, just limiting Ibn Battuta’s travels to the parts of the Rihla that seem like genuine, first person accounts leaves you with a remarkable life of world travel, and when considered as a text rather than as a memoir, the Rihla — plagiarized bits and all — is an invaluable one-stop source for the 14th century Islamic World, from one end to the other.

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Happy Gold Medal and/or Marbury v. Madison Day!

Sunday was the 35th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” the amazing 1980 Winter Olympics upset of the dominant Soviet national team by the amateur US team (a team that had lost to those same Soviets 10-3 in an exhibition a couple of weeks earlier). What gets lost in the remembrance of that game is that the Olympic hockey tournament wasn’t over yet. The U.S. team still had to play Finland, and they had to win in order to get the gold medal. In fact, because the medal round back then was conducted as a round-robin, not an elimination tournament, the Soviets still had a shot at winning gold if the US lost and they were able to beat Sweden in their final game (which they did, 9-2). Today marks the 35th anniversary of the US team’s gold-clinching win over Finland, in a game they were actually losing, 2-1, after the second period. During the second intermission, US head coach Herb Brooks told his players, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fucking graves,” and they responded by scoring 3 third period goals to win 4-2.

Today is also the 212th anniversary of the Marbury v. Madison decision, arguably (actually I’m not sure it’s all that arguable?) the most important Supreme Court decision ever, which I assume the USSC justices celebrate somehow. Your enthusiasm for commemorating the day probably matches your appreciation for the idea of judicial review.

“The toe bone connected to the heel bone, the heel bone connected to the foot bone…”

Is it possible that most Republican state legislators have never actually seen a woman before?

BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.

The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.

Dr. Julie Madsen was testifying in opposition to the bill when Barbieri asked the question. Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

“Fascinating. That makes sense,” Barbieri said, amid the crowd’s laughter.

(h/t Jessica Valenti, on Twitter)

Tod-uh, Yesterday in Middle East History: Shah Tahmasb’s birthday

Shah Tahmasb I, who ruled Safavid Iran from 1524 all the way to 1576, was born (probably; the farther you go back the more variability there is in converting dates from one calendar to another) on February 22, 1514, which would have made him a cool 501 years old yesterday if he’d stuck around this long. Tahmasb is one of my favorite figures in Islamic history, because his modern prominence is so wildly out of proportion with his actual accomplishments. See, Shah Tahmasb is constantly overshadowed by his predecessor and his successors, but I think this is BS; Tahmasb is one of the most consequential rulers in early modern (which usually starts around 1500) Iranian history and a key figure in the coalescence of the modern nation of Iran. Hell, he ruled for 52 years, and he was only under the sway of regents for the first 9 of those, which gives him a healthy 43 year reign under his own power. That actually doesn’t put him in the upper echelons of historical monarchs in terms of longevity, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either. He must have been doing something right.

Portrait of Tahmasb I (via)

Portrait of Tahmasb I hanging in the Chehel Sotoun Palace in Isfahan (via)

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Saturday Night Tunes: A Blowin’ Session

Oh, hi there. I know it’s been quiet around here, and for that you can blame Mother Nature for unleashing her fury (which in the case of Northern Virginia means any snowfall greater than an inch or temperatures in the low double digits), which meant there was exactly one day of school this week.

I aim to get back to writing more next week, though what form that will take isn’t totally clear to me yet, but I didn’t want to let another Saturday pass without sharing a few tunes. On the other hand, seeing as how I’m writing this about 45 minutes before it’s supposed to go up, whereas usually I do these posts well in advance, it seemed like a good idea to pick an album that you, or more accurately me, didn’t have to think too much about, just something fun and good. Hence this week’s album is A Blowin’ Session, by Johnny Griffin, or Johnny Griffin Vol. 2 if you want to be technical about it. Griffin’s second album for Blue Note (which explains the “vol. 2”), A Blowin’ Session was recorded and released in 1957, right around the time Griffin was playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. And just to make things easier, apparently somebody else had the very same idea to blog about this album on a Saturday night a couple of years ago, so I can just link you to his description if you want more details. Heck, check out that guy’s entire site; he’s apparently been doing this Saturday jazz thing for a while now and it’s some pretty great stuff.

For an album that doesn’t get a lot of “must have” buzz, A Blowin’ Session includes kind of an all star lineup of artists: in Griffin is joined on tenor by one of his Jazz Messengers predecessors, Hank Mobley, and by John Coltrane, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wynton Kelly (who would join Miles Davis a couple of years later) on piano, the amazing Paul Chambers (who was already playing with Davis) on bass, and Blakey on drums. The main attraction is obviously the three tenors (no, not those guys), which apparently came together entirely by accident when Coltrane ran into the rest of the group while they were on their way to the studio. Never underestimate the power of sheer dumb luck.

The album starts off with the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields standard, “The Way You Look Tonight,” although this version is definitely not the ballad you might expect going in. Griffin plays the melody followed by a blistering solo, before giving way to Morgan, Mobley, Coltrane, and a little exchange with Blakey:

Next up is a Johnny Griffin original, “Ball Bearing,” whose melody really gives you the full effect of a horn section featuring three tenors (no, not those guys, Jesus) and a trumpet. Coltrane really tears into this medium tempo number:

Back into standard territory, we get “All the Things You Are,” written by Jerome Kern (man that guy was busy) and Oscar Hammerstein II. Coltrane is again amazing, but I think Morgan (who doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being an all-time trumpet superstar) steals the tune here, and he feeds Mobley the hook for his solo to boot. Chambers also gets a solo here, and is typically great:

Finally we have “Smoke Stack,” another original by Griffin, a meaty blues that features Kelly in the opening and lets everybody stretch out in their solos:

So here’s what’s happening with me…

I’m seriously not trying to copy Andrew Sullivan, I swear, but it’s very likely that changes in my personal situation (good ones, actually, though I can’t say more than that) are going to require this blog to slow down and maybe eventually come to an end at some point in the near to mid future. These changes have been the reason for my virtual absence over the past week and a half, an absence that will continue through the middle of next week at least, although now it’s because I’m ditching NoVA for the 90 degree weather in LA for a few days. When I get back I hope to get a sense of whether and in what form (maybe unchanged, maybe less often and more historical, I don’t know) I will be able to keep blogging, at least for the near future.

I’m not good with goodbyes, and anyway this isn’t a goodbye, so let’s just leave it here. This blog has helped get me through a difficult transition from graduate student to struggling freelancer, and I thank you for continuing to read it.