Stanley Crouch's Liner Notes to DOWN THROUGH THE YEARS

It's always a treat to encounter Stanley Crouch's voice in the form of physical liner notes, and with the convenience of smartphone-assisted OCR, it's easier than ever to share those writings, which otherwise remain uncollected (despite the excellent recent collection Victory is Assured assembled by long-time Crouch editor and neighbor to me, Glenn Mott). 

I picked up a copy of Clifford Jordan's final recording, Down Through the Years: The Clifford Jordan Big Band, Live at Condon's, New York, which features vintage Crouch on one of my favorite tenorists documented on location at 117 East 15th Street in Manhattan. It was too good not to share, and a quick search on the foremost online search engine didn't pull up any results for "very wily dragon of the blues," so presumably the text of the notes hasn't been indexed on the web yet in any form. Here we go, all the way back to 1992:

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Clifford Jordan has long been a figure of saxophone luminescence, a Chicago hot man of swing, of acidic lyricism, of eloquent blue-toned revelation. Hand-some, exceptionally intelligent, given to an oblique wit, full of deeply informed human memory, and a composer as capable of the contemplative as the molten, Jordan's worked in many contexts over the years, always bringing a distinctive sensibility. But when word went out that Jordan was going to gather a jazz orchestra for Manhattan Monday nights in Condon's, few had any idea what it would sound like, how he would lead it, who the players would be, what material they would perform.

In his relaxed and confident way, a way as informed by time-tested idealism as by the dark places in the soul of the world, Jordan would saunter into Condon's, his elegant bulk carried by a sweeping step and a bounce. Greeting those he knew with the compressions of excess characteristic of sophisticated warmth, he would open up his saxophone case and ponder, once more, whether or not the best place for the bandstand had been discovered. Where the musicians would play was the sort of problem jazz clubs usually have, since none of them were ever built with the intention of presenting music. They all started out as bars or restaurants, the best of them benefitting from the absolute luck of good acoustics, of serious owners willing to invest in sound systems and equally willing to provide good pianos and regular tunings. Condon's, which had last been a restaurant, experimented with various positionings of the bandstand. Eventually all agreed that the far end of the room was the best place and the big band set up there, its weekly presence very quickly creating one of the jazz events of 1990.

On Monday after Monday, as Jordan contemplated whatever he was contemplating, the other members of the band arrived, one by one, rain or shine, hot or cold, took out their instruments or studied some piece of a score while blowing into a horn, tuning up, running scales up and down the bass, skittering over the piano keys, adjusting cymbal stands and checking the bass drum pedal. Soon Dizzy Reece would be over in the corner with his trumpet, the mysterious demeanor of melancholy, stoicism, and humor taking on increasing presence as he played long tones into his horn that summoned the aristocratic but wounded lyricism of bebop. Then, as the audience began to arrive and those band members who wanted a quick drink from the bar had returned, Jordan would turn to Reece, who played the second horn of the quintet soon to be wrapped and swaddled in an arrangement, and confer over the opening tune. A tempo set in two bars or so after Jordan snapped off the beat with his fingers.

There was nothing in New York like it. Because the band existed purely for musical reasons, there was a high-mindedness to it, regardless of the early imprecision. That high-mindedness is the sort of thing that we, in such a doggedly commercial era, sometimes forget is essential to the making of enduring art. It brought together musicians of lengthy experience, those in the middle range, and young talents for what amounted to an increasingly potent level of swing, lyricism, spark, and blues. To see all of those musicians-representative of both sexes and more than two races come in there, joke, talk about the scores, and work for all they were worth at making the music sound good, at honoring all of the things they held aesthetically dear, was one of the best experiences in Manhattan jazz. And during those sets when the momentum of feeling and execution melded--the rhythm section in the fertile posture of swing and the featured players inventing with and against their contexts-one had the feeling of what it has always been like in all times when a group of human beings reaches the critical mass of spirit expressive coherence demands. Then the charisma of the heart took high position in the air and one could see why Jordan had told Peter Watrous of the New York Times that he was seeking to achieve a "healing feeling" with his newly formed jazz orchestra. That healing feeling has much to do with the blues because blues is the aesthetic landlord intent on evicting the condition of blues from the soul-through swing, through lyricism, through cathartic emotion. Jordan is one of those players whose very nervous system appreciates the details of that power. But within his vision of blues, of transcendence through the artistry of confrontation with demons, of reiterated passion applied or derided, of sensual mysteries and magic recalled and regained, of the very pulsation of life compressed into the invisible symbol of sound, Jordan consistently arrives at a station of the crossroads where flesh, mind, spirit, and memory intersect. There Jordan's hot sauce, sourdough, and pot liquor tone radiates the timbre of the blues regardless of what notes are played. He could make a C scale sound like a mortally-punctured phrase of blues melody.

The reputation that resulted from those gifts was established early on. After arriving in New York from Chicago in 1957, Jordan performed in the bands of Horace Silver and JJ. Johnson. He also participated in seminal recording dates and working units led by Max Roach and Charles Mingus in the early and middle Sixties, each leader providing him with a sense not only of the music's rich traditions but of the possibilities that could be realized were players willing to strengthen their boldness and curiosity with discipline and study. In fact, the first manifestations of Jordan's grasp of that healing feeling is heard on those Roach and Mingus recordings, where folk elements, bebop, blues, and adventures in form and material defined the substance of the compositions and the improvising. Since those years,Jordan has been able to move at will between the most stationary bebop players and whatever elements of post-Coleman and post-Coltrane jazz have interested him.

You hear that sweep of musical feeling in the melody lines and the arrangements included here. There's liquid radiance, spunk, a pride in song, and an unswerving belief in the spirited language of romance spontaneously rolled off the rhythmic press of swing. The splendid influence of Tadd Dameron is heard in one place, Mingus in another, the use of modal structures in yet a different piece. Then when all is absolutely right and the continuum of style and feeling is sufficiently inspired, the stretch of tradition is synthesized into one remarkable line, a streak or two of propelling or embracing reed and brass writing, the whole fused together by the faith and bravery of improvisation staring invincibly into the firing squad of the micro-second. In terms of intent, the music often adds up to what Ellington called "a concerto for jazz horns" when it is not about the featured gifts of a single player. And there is the overall form of the recording, which can be audibly observed by listening to the first and last selections back to back, then noticing how each swift piece is usually contrasted by a slower one, resolving the emotion into lyricism until we arrive at the summation of "Charlie Parker's Last Supper." 

That lyrical feeling is audible from the jump. On "I Waited for You," Jordan once more proves himself a song master of the saxophone. He has fused the heroic romanticism of Hawkins and Webster with the unsentimental ache of bebop. There is a harsh sob inside his sound that neither descends to cynical self-pity nor denies the spiritual scuffling behind the closed doors of all love affairs. It should also be noted just how good Kiane Zawadi sounds on the euphonium, reaching constantly for melody.

“’Highest Mountain,'" says Jordan, "is dedicated to Huddie Ledbetter. It's also adapted from a Negro Spiritual called 'Gwine Up,' which is included in a collection put together by J. Rosamond Johnson." Jordan covers this one all by his lonesome.

As slick and twisting as the contents of the gutbucket, "Con Man" is part of Dizzy Reece's suite, Manhattan Project. The introduction by the rhythm section kicks off with a perfect example of that hard New York blues swing. Such swing could be no better provided than it is here by master pianist Ronnie Mathews, aided and abetted by bassist David Williams, one of the most inventive pluckers in Manhattan, and drummer Vernel Fournier, whose ride cymbal touch and thrust provide marvels of motion furthered by those startling snare and bass drum accents. Reece, a player given to the subtle and the unusual, stretches out here, twisting lines, beats, and accents into odd places. His improvisation is a fine example of using the composition and making the written back-up figures part of the structure he invents, anticipating or countering, extending or contrasting the brass and reed parts. Jordan croons, cajoles, and shouts through his feature with the perfumed smoke and increasing flame of a very wily dragon of the blues.

His description of "Down Through the Years" shows off Jordan's wit. "It was just something I wrote, having no particular thing in mind. I was young when I put my pen to it, which is why when I introduce the tune, I sometimes say, 'This was written by baby Cliffy when I was a young man who thought he could pass through enemy lines as an old man. Don the Wand Sickler and King Charles Davis play on this." A listener won't have much trouble noticing the Dameron influence here.

"Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is Ellington's classic, mixed with some Moten-Basie riffs. It features Doug Pratt, Dizzy Reece, Lou Orensteen, Ronnie Mathews, and David Williams. "Status Quo" was written many years ago for Jordan by John Neely, who did this arrangement of it for the big band. Mathews, Reece, and, in Jordan's words, "leaping, weeping, Willie Williams" are out front.

Called "Doug's Prelude" in the small-band format, "Japanese Dream' is Doug Watkins's dream of going to Japan from San Francisco, which he was on the way to with Philly Joe Jones when he was killed in an automobile accident. He could really play as much bass as you wanted to hear, all that swing, all that feeling. He was great." With an introduction reminiscent of Mingus' "Meditations," the composition is a perfect platform for Jerome Richardson, who lays down a feeling-rich ballad performance. Of "Third Avenue." Jordan says, "When I first wrote that, I called it 'Brooklyn Bridge,' which was only sixteen bars. That was almost 30 years ago. So when 1 moved back into Manhattan, I came home from a neighborhood watering hole one night, feeling elevated and creative. Then I put the bridge on it and the sixteen-bar vamp introduction. Dizzy and I take care of this one."

The title of the final piece is self-explanatory, but there is no explanation for the transcendent authority of Clifford Jordan's bittersweet talent nor can too much be said about the youngish and loving way in which Sweet Sue Terry saluted Charlie Parker, playing with the passion that sent some of the band's reed players back to the shed when they realized they would have to work next to someone so intent on firing from the heart every chance she got. Given the odd magic of its affirmative lamentation, "Charlie Parker's Last Supper" is a perfect conclusion for a recording that captures a wild and sometimes wooly New York ensemble crooning, weeping, stomping, and swaying. Though Jordan's voice is heard quoting Porky Pig's cartoon sign-off, "That's all, folks," there is more in the can and plenty of room in our sensibilities for as much as possible from this so potent source.

—Stanley Crouch

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