Thursday, May 02, 2013

Ten Influential Jazz Flautists

Renaissance man and newsreader, Ron Burgundy,  shows his dabbling skills on jazz flute

A few years ago I wrote a piece on the use of flute in popular music.  My focus was mostly on musicians playing classic rock and jazz-rock.  Although there are a few icons like Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, there haven't been too many over the years.  I have always found this odd as the flute is a popular, accessible, expressive, instrument that is fairly straightforward to play (relative to, say, a violin or piano) and has a decent sound palette.

More recently I've been thinking about flautists in mainstream jazz. Again there are a few notables but not as many as you might think. Most are sax players extending their musical range.  Anyway I've cobbled together a Top Ten list of players who I think have been the most influential (not necessarily those with the best technique)  in developing the jazz flute soundscape over the decades. And before I get excoriated I must add the caveats that this list is highly subjective and there are bound to be omissions for which I apologize in advance!

1. Frank Wess
Frank was one of the pioneers of jazz flute.  He was classically trained and mostly played tenor sax but his flute work was a delight. Listen to this version of "The Midgets” when he was with Count Basie.  I love this song for its manic sense of fun.  It’s also one of the earliest jazz flute solos I know of…  Ed Jones on bass just rocks and Joe Newman is great (but then the whole Basie band was always superb).

2. Yusef Lateef
Dr Lateef is an American jazz musician and one of the first that made me sit up and take notice. His lyrical and tasteful improvisation was captivating.  I’ve been fortunate to see him perform several times  -he’s now in his 90s and still going strong although I don’t think he gigs very much these days. This is one of my all time favourite songs from his classic album "Eastern Sounds". 

3. Rhassan Roland Kirk
Possibly my all-time favourite jazz musician.  He was blind, very funny, and some say gimmicky (he would play three saxes simultaneously) but his talent was indisputable.  Again, I was lucky to see him in my youth, before he passed away, and he was certainly a phenomenal performer. His flute work influenced many, notably Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull who popularized the flute in rock music: Anderson's early recording included a rendition of   RRK's “Serenade to a Cuckoo”: here's the original

4. Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy is an interesting study as he moved away from bebop into hard bop and free jazz.  A very interesting musician who sadly died in his mid thirties.  He played all the usual reed instruments and odd ones like bass clarinet.  He was a very intense flautist and listening to him is de rigeur.
Try “Gazzeloni” off the Out to Lunch album. 

5. Herbie Mann
Not my favourite player in terms of technique and his trend towards commercialism detracted from his potential but he was capable of exceptional work as can be heard here with Bill Evans. Nevertheless he was a high profile flautist and his influence was enormous.

6. Jeremy Steig
I’ve discovered Mr Steig quite recently and have never seen him play. However, check out “So What” off the Flute Fever album (1963).  Steig was light years ahead of his time and  is the first flautist I know to use the overblowing technique: I've heard the technique attributed to the late, great (mostly saxman) Sahib Shihab but I haven’t found any evidence, one way or another, to support this claim.

7. Bud Shank
As well as its gut churning car chase, the  1968 classic “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen also features a fabulous piece of jazz flute music by an apparently anonymous band. The tune takes off at break-neck speed and has a real pyrotechnic quality. It took decades and the invention of the internet for me to find out more about the musicians. The band that appeared in the movie was real and called “Meridian West”: the flautist’s name was Julie Iger-Roseman. However, although they did play in the scene, they were probably later overdubbed by session musicians: in the case of the flute by the legendary Bud Shank. Mr Shank was an exceptional woodwind musician and I find it unfortunate that he is probably best known for his his highly commercial, saccharine, cover of California Dreamin. His work with  the LA Four was much more satisfying.  Incidentally, I understand Ms Iger-Roseman still plays flute at various locations on the central coast region of California but I'm unaware of any recordings. 

8. Hubert Laws
I posted a clip of Hubert and his band onsite here quite recently. A truly meticulous and excellent player.  At his best with interpretations of Stravinsky rather than bebop/hard bop.

9. Barbara Thompson
Barbara is a stalwart on the British jazz scene and her primary band, “Paraphernalia”, has been around  forever.  I’ve seen her play on numerous occasions.  More rock influenced than say the chamber jazz of female peers such as Ali Ryerson. Sadly she is now fighting a battle with Parkinson’s disease but is still playing. Check out this clip (flute starts at about 4 mins).

10. Everybody I've Neglected to Mention
This could be a long list  but among those who deserve at least a hat tip are Buddy Collette,  Jerome Richardson, Harold McNair, Joe Farrell and Dave Valentin. Melissa Keeling looks like a promising up-and-comer with a refreshing original spin.

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