May 24, 2024

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Larry Young – The organ has been a jazz instrument since the nineteen-twenties: Video

The organ has been a jazz instrument since the nineteen-twenties, when Fats Waller recorded solos at a converted church in Camden, New Jersey, but it didn’t come to the fore until the mid-nineteen-fifties, when Jimmy Smith fused his bebop virtuosity with gospel exhortations.

The organists who followed, such as Brother Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, and Baby Face Willette, also merged contemporary jazz with popular rhythm-and-blues traditions. But one organist in particular, who led his first record date at the age of nineteen, in 1960, pushed the jazz organ headlong into modernity: Larry Young.

Influenced by John Coltrane, Young made an extraordinary series of recordings from 1964 to 1969, for the Blue Note label, in which his original ideas and avant-garde tendencies came to the fore. Then he went electric, recording (uncredited) with Miles Davis on “Bitches Brew,” with the drummer Tony Williams and the guitarist John McLaughlin in the hard-edged jazz-rock band Lifetime, with McLaughlin on “Devotion,” and with McLaughlin and Carlos Santana on “Love Devotion Surrender.” Young then recorded his own free-jazz-slash-fusion-jam album, “Lawrence of Newark,” in 1973, followed by some funk-styled albums that weren’t big hits. He died (officially of pneumonia) at the age of thirty-seven, in 1978. What Young didn’t do, apparently, was leave an accidental trove of unreleased live recordings from his prime, in the mid-to-late sixties to early seventies.

Or so it seemed. The producer Zev Feldman, of Resonance Records, visiting France’s national audiovisual archives (known as the INA), struck gold, and the treasures he found are now available in a two-CD set, “Larry Young in Paris: The ORTF Recordings,” which offers the double exaltation of sheer serendipity and musical revelation.

The sessions themselves are a living tale of musical filiation, and it’s told well in the set’s copious booklet, particularly by Pascal Rozat, of INA; the saxophonist Nathan Davis; and the trumpeter Woody Shaw’s son Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III. The elder Shaw was a prodigy; he recorded at age eighteen with the mighty jazz modernist Eric Dolphy and had been about to travel to Europe, in 1964, to join Dolphy’s band when Dolphy died suddenly, of diabetic shock, at thirty-six. In Paris, Davis was asked to put together a Dolphy tribute band. (Dolphy had made his last recordings there with Davis.) Davis invited Shaw; Shaw arrived and soon wanted to bring over a pair of Newark cohorts to join the band, the drummer Billy Brooks and Young (Davis and Shaw financed their trip). The performances of that quartet—Davis, Shaw, Brooks, and Young (augmented at times by local musicians)—are the core of the newly discovered tracks in the Resonance set.

All the performances were recorded in late 1964 and early 1965. The majority of them were done in a French radio studio for broadcast—several in a show headed by the pianist Jack Diéval, who folded Young, Shaw, and Davis into his own regular working band of local musicians to make an octet for jam sessions that unfortunately didn’t allow the American guests much solo time. A pair of studio tracks recorded by the quartet (recording as the Nathan Davis Quartet) give a hint of Young’s own musical preoccupations, offering the same instrumentation as Young’s forthcoming quartet on “Unity,” from late 1965 (and his great last Blue Note effort, “Mother Ship,” from 1969), and Young steals the show. His enthusiastic solo on his own composition “Luny Tune” picks up the tempo and raises the heat, as he matches his exotic harmonies with an increasingly free and swirling sense of rhythmic turbulence over Brooks’s clamorous swing.

As for those harmonies, Shaw likened them to the ones that McCoy Tyner employed as the pianist in John Coltrane’s quartet. (I’d add that Young, with his angular sense of off-balance phrasing, his impulsive accelerations, and the colors of his voicings, adds an additional dimension of dissonance and mystery.) But, in the booklet, John Koenig offers a remarkable sidebar regarding Young’s piano teacher in New Jersey, Olga Von Till, a native of Hungary who, in her own youth, had studied with Béla Bartók and “had been exposed to two other important Hungarian composers, Ernő Dohnányi and Zoltán Kodály”—and who also the taught the pianist Bill Evans.

The zenith of the Resonance set is two tracks from the quartet’s live performance from February 9, 1965, at the Paris jazz club La Locomotive, where they stretch out on a pair of compositions—“Black Nile,” by Wayne Shorter, from his vastly influential album “Night Dreamer,” and Shaw’s “Zoltan” (as in Kodály)—and the young lions mightily roar. There, Shaw displays a thrilling tension between complexity and fury, his intricate solo lines yielding to hectically intense high-energy blasts and shrieks. On “Zoltan,” Young takes a heroically long but not self-indulgent solo that builds, with a relentless intricacy, to a terrific noise that highlights another facet of his artistry—a sure dramatic sense.

Between Young’s own solo and Shaw’s joyful musical exclamations during Davis’s performance, the live recording of “Zoltan” displays the hot core of Young’s big musical idea. One of the distinguishing traits of the prime modern jazz musicians, whether Coltrane or Coleman, Miles Davis or Cecil Taylor, is that their musical ideas aren’t limited to their solos and their compositions. They think in terms of a group, they have a unique idea for the sound of a group. Their groups aren’t just collections of soloists; they create not just an original sound for themselves but an original quasi-orchestral sound. In forming a band, they renovate the very notion of a band itself.

Young is one of them, and his idea is rooted in the nature of his instrument, the organ. (He played piano, too, on a few recordings; a piano track in the Resonance set, “Larry’s Blues,” sounds like a near-parody, loving and joyful, of the style of Thelonious Monk, whose composition “Monk’s Dream” he would play, as a duet with the drummer Elvin Jones, on the album “Unity.”)* Speaking of his own band after he brought in the electric guitarist James (Blood) Ulmer, Ornette Coleman (quoted in John Litweiler’s superb biography) said that he then recognized “that the guitar had a very wide overtone, so maybe one guitar might sound like ten violins as far as range of strength. You know, like in a symphony orchestra two trumpets are equivalent to twenty-four violins.” Young’s Hammond organ is an electric instrument, too, and, as he formed his bands, he built them on the massing of sound, adding horn players and percussionists to create a density that wasn’t like that of a big band, based on sheer numbers of massed voices, but that instead let each go their own way, in a sort of planned cacophony that made noises of their melodies and gave the organ a tangle of sound to challenge it, as on the albums “Of Love and Peace,” “Contrasts,” and, above all, the great, Sun Ra-inspired exultation of “Lawrence of Newark.”

Yet it seems, in retrospect, only natural that Young, revelling in the plugged-in power of his instrument, would make the turn to electric music overall and fight it out in great musical wrangles with such guitarists as Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin. (Jack Bruce, of “Cream,” played with Lifetime as well; his adulation of Young’s musicianship is cited in the set’s booklet.) Young also put his art of noise in the nation’s service—he had the distinction of having one of his concerts personally interrupted by Richard Nixon. In June, 1972, Young was performing in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square, just across from the White House, with the electronic-music innovators Joe Gallivan and the mononymic Nicholas in the trio Love Cry Want. Reportedly, President Nixon ordered an aide, J. R. Haldeman, to “pull the plug on the concert fearing that this strange music would ‘levitate the White House.’ ”

Young, for all his musical boldness of vision, played with a decided introversion. He played fast and at times he played loud, but he favored slightly muffled, softened registrations on the organ with the result that, even when he played very fast and complicated music, his performances had the feeling of a murmur, of musical asides spoken to himself—of an interior monologue overheard. There’s a meditative self-consciousness, a sense—and perhaps this, even more than any technical or harmonic device, marks his heritage from Coltrane—of a struggle within, an effort at self-questioning and self-overcoming. That spiritual dimension, contending with the assertive striving of progressive musical thought and the early-flowering energies of youth itself, is proudly and sublimely on display in the new set from Resonance.

*An earlier version of this article misstated the year of Young’s recording of “Monk’s Dream.”

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