Wildcard - Max Marshall

I very much appreciated the opportunity to contribute to Wing Walker Music’s “Wildcard” project.  I am rarely ever fully satisfied with my record collection and am always seeking out new and exciting music.  I relish the opportunity to experience new sounds and new compositional approaches.  I like the idea of “Wildcard” being a snapshot in time, rather than a simple “best-of” list.  Right now I take great inspiration from the following albums. Who knows what next season will bring?

1.  Betty Carter – The Audience With Betty Carter (1980)

Any fan of vocal jazz should immediately seek out this album, if for no other reason than Mrs. Carter’s 25-minute scatting tour de force on the album’s standout track, “Sounds”.  But The Audience With Betty Carter is a fantastic album by all accounts.  The rhythm section is a first-rate swinging machine made up of John Hicks, Curtis Lundy, and a young Kenny Washington; the repertoire consists of several of Carter’s originals and some choice standards, including “Everything I Have is Yours”, “I Could Write a Book”, “Deep Night” and a particularly scintillating take on “My Favorite Things”.  Betty Carter has a style of singing unlike anyone I’ve heard previously.  Often she will sing at least one or two measures behind her rhythm section, and her way of clumping together certain words or lyrical phrases is completely her own, and yet she makes it work astonishingly well.  Her performance of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is the album’s other tour de force - an extremely slow and sparse ballad that is simultaneously virtuosic, nuanced, relaxed, and heartbreaking.  The Audience With Betty Carter has to be one of the finest vocal jazz recordings of all time.

2.  David Grisman and Jerry Garcia – Shady Grove (1996)

I did not know that before Jerry Garcia became a rock and roll superstar with The Grateful Dead, he began his musical life singing traditional folk music.  I also did not know that he returned to folk music sporadically throughout his career.  These sessions with mandolin player and fellow folk musician David Grisman were recorded mostly in the early ‘90s, with the full album released shortly after Garcia’s death. It was clearly a very informal session – on the record you can hear Garcia and Grisman cracking jokes, talking through arrangements with the tape rolling, and fumbling through some false starts.  All of it lends itself to the music.  These are the songs the two men grew up singing, and they know them like the back of a hand.  The lyrics are mostly somber tales of crime, hard labor, unrequited love, and through it all Jerry’s voice lends true gravitas.  The simplicity of the record is it’s own most rewarding asset.

3.  Art Farmer & Benny Golson – Jazztet: The Complete Sessions (1959-1961)

The band is a sextet, but the arrangements would be just as well suited to a full big band.  This is true chamber jazz.  Every member of the band has an integral role to play throughout the full track; the music is far from just head charts.  These tunes have introductions, thematically developed melodies, counterpoint, three-part harmony, background figures during solo sections, shout choruses, and endings.  The music rewards repeated listening, precisely because the arrangements are so detailed. As I am now writing new music and preparing to record my second album I find myself drawn to the Jazztet’s songbook, for I can’t find a single wasted note in any of the six albums’ worth of material here.  Also, how can you not swing with guys like McCoy, Cedar Walton, Harold Mabern, Tootie Heath, Roy McCurdy, Herbie Lewis and Addison Farmer in your rhythm section?

4.  Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)

This record is a very new acquisition for me.  On the surface it’s a guitar driven alt-rock album, but a closer listen reveals much more.  There’s a wealth of varied textures at play here, from drones and distortion to a buoyant brass section, subtle pump organ sounds, creative use of reverb and feedback, not to mention several disparate musical influences at play.  At times The Aeroplane recalls early 1980s punk, Jon Brion’s cinematic west-coast rock and roll, early Radiohead, and a healthy dose of the Beatles’ classic discography.  I love it when a band isn’t afraid to call back many points of influence at the same time.  The lyrics speak to a surprisingly large number of topics – youthful inhibition, the beauty of music, war atrocities, and immortality – just to name a few.

5.  J.D. Allen Trio – The Madator and the Bull (2012)

The band comprises only three members, but the sound feels like so much more than that.  What I love about J.D.’s writing is his focus and his sense of brevity.  The Madator and the Bull is a pretty short record – a quick 41 minutes, and the individual tracks vary from just under 2 minutes to about 4 and a half.  Contained within those comparatively short tracks are an astonishing variety of tempos, moods and rhythmic structures that never fail to swing with great abandon.  Some of the tunes are based on existing chord changes like “Sweet Georgia Brown” (“Paseillo”) and “All of Me” (“Erlanger”), but the album varies from tightly constructed arrangements to completely free playing.  A few particular highlights are the 13/8 burner “Ring Shout”, the droning, bowed-bass heavy “Cathedral” and the slightly bop-ish “Pin Yin”.  Listening to The Madator and the Bull makes me remember an old adage told to me about my first pro recording session – “Get in, make your statement, and get out!”

Max Marshall is a pianist and composer based in Brooklyn, NY