When the brilliant guitarist Jeff Beck died unexpectedly in January, there was an outpouring of affection from fellow musicians and ardent fans. Beck had a long career, with more than sixty years on the scene. In 1965 he replaced Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds and was replaced himself the next year by his childhood friend Jimmy Page. From that blues-loving beginning, his career branched in all kinds of directions. He formed the Jeff Beck Group next, recording the great Truth and Beck-Ola albums, and drawing in admirers with a style that mixed subtlety with slashing power. In the 1970s, he pioneered a version of jazz-rock fusion that amped up the guitar, hitting hard but reaching out for yet unknown sounds and textures. It was intoxicating to me; I nearly wore out my copies of Blow by Blow and Wired.
Beck was famously restless and changed up his situation every few years; he took long breaks from music to work on cars, his passion. That seemed to contribute to keeping his approach fresh, it was never phoned in or dulled out. He loved great melodies, from “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” to “People Get Ready” to “A Day in the Life,” and he always managed to interpret them in a very personal way. The secret, many said, was his touch—he rarely played with a pick, and his coaxing style seemed to be all in his fingers.
Musicians often make their mark young, which makes sense given the energy and determination required to do so. They then must transform that early gift through the course of a life in order to sustain a career. Beck found a way through that kept the incredible freshness of his playing. When he was in his early sixties, he released an album and filmed performance of his week playing at the London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s—far from being any kind of rehash of his career, it presents him playing at the top of his form, interpreting older songs with an even greater sensitivity than in recordings made decades earlier, along with a comparable sonic boom.
I thought about this on a recent trip to the Village Vanguard to see a new version of the David Murray Quartet. In the jazz world, Murray holds a similarly exalted position. He was a critics’ darling and a force of nature by his early twenties. Throughout his own long career, he has been at the forefront of jazz, blowing people away with a style that reached in the most natural way from the outer limits of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp back through the warm sound and fundamental swing of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. From his time in the World Saxophone Quartet through projects with Henry Threadgill, Randy Weston, and many others, right up through a very credible Grateful Dead tribute album, Dark Star, he has applied his singular sound to a vast range of music. His emergence in the 1970s was living proof that jazz in New York was not only alive but strong, even mighty, and he’s been a stalwart locally and internationally, with his own periodic breaks from the spotlight, ever since.
Murray has played in so many different contexts over the decades, and his latest group featuring some younger players—pianist Marta Sanchez, bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Kassa Overall—is perfectly attuned to his approach, his openness of expression. Overall brings a hip-hop sensibility crossed with a Tony Williams sensitivity that bubbles over with life. The band’s version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” was tender and mysterious, and hung in the atmosphere like a vapor. Murray’s voice in particular, his muscular tone, seemed to float through the air and through the ages, summoning the ghosts of many who had played this still unsurpassable room.
When considering the wisdom of age and the value of experience, there is no group quite like The Cookers, whose average ages hover somewhere around eighty. Led by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart, the band members participated in many of the great jazz ensembles of the past sixty years, working with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, and many more. Younger members alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and trumpeter David Weiss are hardly slouches either. Weiss helped pull the band together, feeling these living masters were not fully getting their due, and wrote tight arrangements that have some of the concentrated power of the Jazz Messengers.
I saw the band play a stunning set at the Schomberg Center in December; their approach combines extraordinary passion and precision, and their gifts as musicians continue to blossom. Hart, in this or any context, is truly a marvel, a fiery presence with the coiled strike of a cobra. Henderson and Cables explore melodic lines with an inquisitive gentleness, and McBee brings the sympathetic spirit that has graced scores of recordings and hundreds of club dates. Harper shone as a composer and improviser, bringing an elegant, almost mournful quality to his playing. The rendition of his “Croquet Ballet” recalled his time playing with Lee Morgan, as well as his very moving appearance in the documentary about the trumpeter. That 2016 film has drawn welcome attention back to Harper, whose star keeps rising. Word to the wise: The Cookers are performing March 14–19 at Birdland. Don’t miss it.
The palimpsest of the past can do far more than render us nostalgic; it can provide lessons that inform our present condition in important ways. It’s in this spirit that I offer the following anecdotes. As a college student, I played guitar in the Columbia Jazz Band, which was led by the estimable trumpeter Don Hahn. At one rehearsal, he announced that he was going to bring in a guest soloist to play with the band, a “heavy cat,” in his words—none other than Harper. We ran through our best number, the bebop standard “Donna Lee,” with him. He listened carefully to our likely sub-standard treatment of the tune and offered us the following advice: “You don’t have to play every note.” His comment has resonated through the years, about the power of discretion, of omitting the obvious, of implication.
The other is a story about Miles Davis, which was related by Herbie Hancock as part of a series of lectures he gave at Harvard. Miles had an unusual way of auditioning people for his band; he’d get word to them that they were invited over to his house to play, but when they arrived, he was nowhere to be seen—he preferred listening from an upstairs room so as not to throw off the dynamic they were creating. When Hancock arrived, he was ushered in by an assistant and, given no instruction, began playing with the others in the room. Later that day, he saw Miles, who—always terse—apprised his abilities with a single phrase: “Nice touch.” Sometimes, nothing else needs to be said.