Women of jazz: more piano players

amine claudine meyersAmine Claudine Myers’ third album was a tribute to blues legend Bessie Smith, with one side of Smith’s songs and one side of originals written by Myers in the same style.

Myers joined Chicago’s AACM early in her career, and has recorded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Arthur Blythe and other post-bop and avant-garde artists.

Bessie Smith recorded “Wasted Life Blues” in October, 1929 with James P. Johnson on piano. It was not one of her more successful singles.

Myers’ interpretation is characterized by the ageless sophistication and grace one associates with the Chicago jazz scene of the 60s and 70s. She is accompanied on this album by Jimmy Lovelace and bassist extraordinaire Cecil McBee, but her solo introduction to “Wasted Life Blues” is the highlight of the record.

Myers relocated to New York and later Europe. In 1985 she toured with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and in the 90s played with jazz/funk supergroup Third Rail.

Speaking of the Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden’s original 1970 album is one of our “desert island” records, a must-have in our collection. A masterful amalgam of Spanish folk and free jazz, the record features exceptional talents: Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry and Roswell Rudd all contribute notable performances, and Sam Brown (of Keith Jarrett’s “American band” at the time) provides brilliantly colorful interludes on the acoustic guitar. What is so enjoyable about Liberation Music Orchestra is the ensemble playing throughout the album, and this is the work of pianist Carla Bley.

liberation music orchestra

The first side of the album is essentially a single suite, opening and closing with original melodies by Bley (“The Introduction” and “The Ending to the First Side”) and in between encompassing music of the Spanish Civil War, explosive free jazz arrangements and surreal moments of musique concrète. Bley makes clever use of Bertoit Brecht’s “United Front Song” and “Viva La Quince Brigada” (popularized with the American left by Pete Seeger in 1943), all the while holding together a large free jazz ensemble more successfully than any of her contemporaries.

Carla Bley’s credits extend far beyond this album and beyond the bounds of jazz. She was a founding member of the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, with whom she recorded her epic jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill in 1971, and also wrote and produced a solo album by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. More recently, she has led a big band, although her last release was a collection of trio performances featuring long-time collaborator, bassist Steve Swallows and British saxophonist Andy Shephard.

When she was young, Nina Simone studied at the Juilliard School of Music until she could not afford the tuition, after earlier auditioning for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her dream was to become a classical musician, but she worked as a cocktail pianist to pay for her private lessons. At Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar & Grill, she was given a raise if she would sing as well as play the piano — here she soon developed a following for her distinctive style.

So far as we have found, there are few instrumentals in Simone;s recorded catalog: these appear on the live album early in her career. Nina Simone at Town Hall includes an instrumental introduction to “Summertime” and on Nina at the Village Gate there is an extended and exceptional improvisation on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which is as good as anything the top tier trios was recording in 1961.

Simone recorded one album without any accompanying musicians — Nina Simone and Piano — but she sings on all of its ten tracks. She felt it was one of her best albums, although it was not commercially successful. Most of her later albums include large arrangements and feature her primarily as a vocalist, in spite of her original, imitable style.

DSC07749Although Simone had a tendency to lean towards classical music and cocktail lounge piano, she could also lead a soulful ensemble, as on Nina Simone Sings the Blues, from which we have previously posted the protest song “Backlash Blues.”

Her flair for theatrics is apparent on another well-known protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn,” which appeared on the 1964 album Nina Simone In Concert. Simone opens the song humorously before singing a scathing response to the murder of Medgar Evers.

Nina Simone is probably more influential as a singer than as a pianist, but she would have been the first to remark that the two were simultaneous, and intricately related to one another. She was certainly one of the most versatile jazz pianist of her generation.

a single womanOn her last album, A Single Woman, Simone only played the piano on one song, “Just Say I Love Him.” The album was recorded in 1993, and owing to her declining health, Simone did not make another record before passing away from breast cancer a decade later.

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