Recorded in Los Angeles in 1954, At the Piano came out in 1959, a year after Lorraine died. Jazz trios are a dime a dozen, and piano trio albums can sound so much alike that they seem interchangeable. The worst have too many standards. Too little fire. Not enough swing. They can sound stiff, safe, almost classical in their polish. Lorraine’s, though, brims with life.
Sonny Clark is the one who got away. He’s the face you see in still photos but can’t see in motion. A brilliant jazz pianist who was in demand during the 1950s and ’60s on both the West and East coasts, the only known footage of him playing came from a 1956 TV show called Stars of Jazz, but the film seems to have been destroyed when ABC recorded over many of its reels in order to save money.
The tired image of the guy with the horn smoking the cigarette on the street corner, the muted trumpet moment on the movie soundtrack–these tropes have inured us to the actual sound of jazz, but stop for a second and listen. Really listen. Solos like Gray’s and Parker’s are the kind that make the impossible seem casual. They’re the skateboarder doing a crazy triple flip on a ramp despite gravity, before we’d seen that a thousand times. They’re the first moon landing and the millions of people watching the event on TV from their living room sofas. They’re an unscripted feat that pushed the limits of what music could be.
Win tickets to see The Triplets of Belleville cine-concert, courtesy of the University Musical Society (UMS).
In the January 2016 issue of The Wire, Stewart Smith writes of pianist Matthew Shipp’s latest album: “Of the five albums Matthew Shipp issued as leader or co-leader in 2015, The Conduct Of Jazz is perhaps the finest.” It is a fine album; I’m listening to it now, fondly remembering the sublime experience of seeing Shipp in duo with bassist Michael Bisio earlier this spring. Still, The Conduct Of Jazz doesn’t make The Wire’s year-end top 50 cut, though it does make Downbeat’s roundup. My guess is that, one way or the other, Shipp doesn’t care. “What’s the use—I’ve got too many sides out as it is,” he was quoted saying fifteen years ago, in reference to a plan to retire from recording. “I don’t feel the psychological need to continually flood the market with this material…. Embellishment for the sake of the cash advance. That’s a kind of cynicism I’d rather not get into.”