Thursday, August 22, 2013

Teo Macero and Bob Prince - What's New? (USA, 1956)

Teo Macero is one of my favourite jazz arrangers and composers.  In this early seminal album, he occupies side a to Bob Prince's side b, to create a fusion of modern classical music with jazz composition.  Unfortunately it was recorded in mono, though clearly stereo was available at the time, I suppose Columbia felt the music was so 'out-there' they didn't feel there was the need to make it a stereo recording.  Briefly I will run through Teo's spectacular career in jazz.

I first heard Teo in childhood from the 1980 compilation which was called just that, which absolutely threw me to the floor with the eerie combination of pop jazz, avant-garde music, classical influences, brilliant and unusual songwriting (as in 'Blues for Amy' one of those songs I might have listened to literally hundreds of times in my life) and then the peculiar tendency, which you will hear in this record, of combining sax (his own playing presumably) with accordeon for a kind of late-night film-noir french crime drama feel.  Selective discography:
I draw your attention to 1968's Faces OST, which is wonderful on its own merits as a production in the heyday of American film (in my opinion), it's a very freudian-neurotic 'who' s afraid of virigina woolf' style emotional train-wreck (I say that in a positive sense lol) with John Cassavetes acting and directing.  Notable also is the soundtrack to 'Virus' which is shockingly still available as download online thanks to our colleague pollux.  "Acoustical Suspension" provided a wonderful mix of classical and jazz at a high level of composition, as did the amazing homage to Mingus, "Impressions of Charles Mingus" .  Unlike what one might expect there are no covers of Mingus compositions but only Macero's impressions of Mingus' feel.

Teo was partially responsible for my single favourite jazz album, Mingus' 1971 opus "Let my children hear music" which is absolute and utter genius, in which one hears all the torment and emotion and thought of a true late, great, genius, the beautiful Charlie Mingus, scored to orchestra by Teo.  The one album I would carry with me to the ends of time.  In the wiki bio you can read about how he contributed to some absolute masterpieces of jazz such as Miles' Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, said to be the most popular jazz album of all time.

Let's go back to the album in question here, which was at the time labelled 'third stream' (vs. jazz and classical).  Here we get a good idea of how incredibly talented Teo was as a composer.  The back of the record features notes about all the songs, some are out and out atonal, even using the dodecaphonic scale (that is, each of the 12 tones is used once in a passage that sounds completely unmelodic, and is then fiddled with e.g. by reversing the order of the notes to provide a completely abstract melody), some have the aforementioned romantic sound of tenor sax on top of accordeon, a couple are recognizably jazz, but all are quite experimental, at least on the first Macero side of things.  I recommend you listen to the record while reading the notes, which I scanned adequately for this purpose.

I'll go into a bit of detail with one track called "Sounds of May", because it's so utterly unusual.  The first part, as described on the liner notes by Teo, consists of notes on the piano which were depressed without striking the ivories, so the strings were allowed to vibrate--by a sax being played on top of the strings! Later the sax notes themselves were removed, leaving only the sound of the strings playing their overtones under the influence of the ghostly saxes.  Truly this will sound odd, like a synthesizer/string mellotron/theremin combination.  You'll see what I mean.  A later part of the song then consists of a sung melody which is played again on top delayed several times, making the resultant total sound like a group of monks chanting.  At the end, one melody is played at half speed, whereupon the same is played half way thru at normal speed, on top. You get an idea of how much fun he was having composing this music.

On side b, the Bob Prince side of things, you'll get much more of that American swing style which I got tired of long ago, preferring the Euro-non-swinging style of jazz.  The highlight to me is the Ground Base or Bass song, which is interesting in its use of trumpet chords or riffs played in seconds on a very low register, giving the whole a dull and very odd sound.

It's wonderful what these talented guys were able to achieve in the days before electric and synthesizer instruments swept us all away into the garden of fusion eden.  I wish the time and effort they put into composition weren't so utterly lost. I saw that many of his old recordings and eighties materials are on sale now on as mp3 downloads or as CDs, but of course, not this old mono recording.
" Daragh McCarthy writes: I first met Teo Macero five years ago at his apartment in New York when I filmed the first of many interviews about his life and work. It was a tiny apartment filled with photographs of himself and his friend Edgard Varèse, and several of the effects machines specially designed for him by the engineering department at CBS records. I once asked him what the key to his studio technique was. He struggled to find an answer before finally saying: "It's like E=mc squared. It's very simple really ... and then I use my ears.
In his last years Teo wrote music prolifically. He said the pain from his illness disappeared when he wrote. In his apartment, he would play every day on his Fender Rhodes electric piano. At his house in the Hamptons on Long Island, he played on his full-sized grand. He approached writing with urgency, determined to get stuff out and laid down for posterity."

Teo Macero died at the age of 82 on February 19th, 2008.

Macero's Sounds of May:    

 Bob Prince's Ground Base (Bass):        


Tristan Stefan said...


JR Heatwarp said...

Many thanks for sharing this one! I've been on a hunt for Teo's own material for years and this is the first I've had the pleasure to hear.

Tristan Stefan said...

I was looking for more info on his releases and found this wonderful review of his discography online, and Teo himself even put in a comment at the very end.

Anonymous said...

Thank You Tristan for (all) the rare record(s)!!

FYI, most (Jazz) records were recorded in mono until the Spring of 1957 when stereo became the standard. (But 'big' labels like Columbia did have a few of the earliest stereo tape recorders back in '56.) --dandor

DonHo57 said...

I picked up a copy of this in college 35 years ago, and still love to dig it out and listen regularly. Thanks for a digital version!!!

Anonymous said...

sounds rather fresh and interesting.
thanks for sharing.

Tristan Stefan said...

From Tom Hayes, of cd reissue wishlist fame:
" One other footnote to Teo Macero: Did you know he was the producer of the obscure horn rock band Gas Mask? That same band featured legendary Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava as well. It's a pretty good album, with a couple of monster cuts.

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