VINYL VIBE – Jazz Composer’s Orchestra

 Karl Jones Riffs on His Vinyl Treats

The author amidst his other gig.

The author amidst his main gig.

Editor’s Note: Welcome to VINYL VIBE, an occasional column reviewing hand-picked jazz records from the personal collection of Karl Jones. Karl is a Brooklyn/Philadelphia visual artist whose art constructionist pieces have graced this website (check it out: As a past professional jazz guitarist, Jones headed up the Small Stream Jazz Ensemble, with the help of John Stenger, Behn Gillence and others. Karl still teaches guitar theory.


And the First Selection Is…

My platter choices are based loosely upon factors such as rarity, artistic intention and historical magnitude. Please retain those terms loosely in your grasp while reading this column. Other factors in play include: subjectivity, scholaristic fun & games, virtual public assembly for discussion of a said grooved object and a personal anecdote pertaining to a musical artist on that record.

And now lets reach into the hat and pull out a plum in the form of… (Off camera: an Andrew Cyrille drum roll.)


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Impetus Austrian trumpeter and music student Michael Mantler comes to good old USA in the early ’60s and gets immersed in the New Thing. He’s forging the very free and compositionally open ‘64 Jazz Composer’s Guild with the  Bleys, Shep, Rudd, Taylor, Ra, etc. They give it their best shot but nobody could agree on what to eat for lunch: Shep wants a bag-o-nails, Taylor’s happy with tap water and Sun Ra wants to order out steamed tofu from Thothville.

The Guild melts down, but from the fire jumps a more disciplined and conceptually monolithic unit in the form of the Jazz Composers Orchestra in ’65, a leaner and meaner ensemble that plays Newport and then a thing at the Modern. The times required an all encompassing philosophy, involving not just composition and blowing over some mode, but business politics/ economic sustenance/whole artistic visions.

Late ’65 to early ’66 finds Mantler, C. Bley, Steve Lacy and crew, in an off-shoot group called the Jazz Realities touring Europe, looking for a sound and searching for a better name, hopefully. In June of ‘66, the vision becomes The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association, an incorporated non-profit organization.

A photo from the boxed set

A photo from the boxed set

It’s a knee jerk nod to the fact that nobody wants to toss money at something that doesn’t exist: an age-old problem for artists. It’s not like you even have to be that Out to experience such a phenomenon. Can’t get a gig without a rehearsed band, can’t have a band without a gig. Writing compositions for this somewhat larger and more hooked-up ensemble gets going in earnest in late ’67 which sets the stage for this ’68 boxed set. Subsidy and control make odd bed fellows, but don’t bite the ear that hears you.

Michael Mantler conducting.

Michael Mantler conducting. Photo from the boxed set.

Upon initial perusal, this two-disc boxed set has the usual lengthy booklet to explain and document the New Object. One of the pitfalls for any Avant-gardist Rodeo, whether its aural, visual or both, is that the average dilettante is going to need some sort of  road map to justify the whole darn mess. Hey, if nothing else there are always the photos of Tod Papageorge, and that’s an historical pleasure.

Roswell Rudd, trombonist

Roswell Rudd, trombonist, from the boxed set

Reproduced in tiny scores that give new meaning to reading fly poop, poetry and arty ramblings round out the booklet. The LPs, adorned with their modern labels were recorded, pressed and distributed by RCA in NYC. The box itself poses an age-old problem for the maniac, which is how to keep an unslicked, silver-on-silver cover from getting scratched…poly sleeves were not all the rage in ‘68. An old friend, fastidious to say the least, was the original owner and even he couldn’t keep it pristine, bless his little heart.

The music, ah the music….or is it?…Sound pushing boundaries of the norm. Racism, Philistine culture, pop culture itself…nightclub owner nightmares and commerce rules are being commanded to cower before the New Artistic Manifesto. How do you organize free jazz and maintain creative indigenous ideas? Native birds sing songs all day; are they looking at the strange charts when we’re not? Is this sophisticated Euro/primitive American pioneering a good marriage? Festooned noise commissioned/composed by people tired of swingin’? Did they ever swing? Do they or you care?

Pharoh Sanders

Pharoah Sanders

Leave the entertainer behind in the nightclub, honey, and let your eyes adjust to the light in this strange dark place. These are souls bleating out to any stranger that may pass by the alley entrance and stop if even for a moment. Love this sometimes raw tertiary music with odd scores, thematic schemes and cubby holes for soloists to blow into. Don’t be dismayed for not instantly adoring it. The magnitude isn’t revealed until many sittings.

Representational landscapes will have to be traded in for spontaneity, juxtapositions, strange lyrical tongues, free association, new idioms and purposeful eccentricity. Soloists and ensemble are making an attempt to be more intertwined, leaving behind the bop tradition of  each member of a group stepping out front to blow over a set of changes and then stepping back.


Don Cherry on trumpet

One of my favorite aspects of these six tracks is Don Cherry as some sort of  heraldic device leading the bull fight while Guernica smolders. His boppish beauty is almost too tasty compared to what the ensemble is cooking up. Barbieri has not the faintest idea of what to do when following such a lyrical menace.

The Foxhole
Karl Jones (R) on guitar

Karl Jones (R) on guitar

Personal Sideline: I met both Don and Eddie Blackwell here in Philly while working at The Foxhole doing the house sound in what was probably the winter of ‘77/’78. This was a relaxed and wonderful night involving only one mike. Don sat cross-legged on stage with the pocket trumpet and a small book of lines that he would thumb through, stop, say “oh yeah” and then blow on the little ditty he had just settled upon, leaving Eddie to join in with his small kit. Don, being the sweet cat that he was, took some time after the show to hang out and offer support to my being a nascent guitarist. Unfortunately Eddie was not well, and made like a wraith, suffering silently.

On piano: Cecil Taylor

On piano: Cecil Taylor. Photo from the boxed set.

‘Cecil Subjugation’

A lovely Swallow bass intro with Mingus seemingly lurking nearby, fantastic orchestral mood swings and Mr. Rudd! Bone and drum interplay don’t get any better. Second disc is all a bow to “Cecil Subjugation.” Cecil Taylor is a powerhouse, a perpetual flame at the powder keg, master of mayhem, one of the brightest constellations, and, oh yes, castanets for comic relief. The propulsion percussion is carpet bombing scary, great and leaves a huge impression in the ground.

Larry Coryell on guitar

Larry Coryell on guitar (boxed set).

What would have been more interesting? Would have been nice if Lacy didn’t have to bolt for a European tour and had instead taken the solo spot given to Barbieri. Coryell sayin’ something besides “this Gibson large, sound is so small.” Some Ornette sensibility to replace Sanders’ patented freak out. A way to record five flippin’ bass players. Last on the wish list would have been to give Sun Ra a side just for comparison sake.

Thanks for listening. Until next time, chow baby, cat chow.


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5 Responses

  1. Did anyone ever tell that Karl Jones guy that he sort of looks like John Kay of Steppenwolf, without the sunglasses of course.

    • Karl Jones says:

      Hello Leslie…no, no one but you has raised the alarm but thanks, the man was arguably my favorite rock icon. In spite of all the problems associated with writing/ composing, record label demands, management leaches, touring schedules and existing in a polemic ensemble with other creative types, Kay managed an immutable bag of hits topped off by The Ostrich and Monster. My pulse still races when I hear those two tunes, he retains those principles to this day, a man of his word, a hero.

  2. Oh hello Karl and I totally agree, Monster is a great song. I do have an actual question about jazz of which I know nothing except maybe David Amram and Frank Zappa, but what jazz tracks do you recommend as a start for those who want to understand jazz?

    • Karl Jones says:

      Yikes, here is an lp primer to get you started, its mainly concentrated in the 50’s & 60’s but you can start in the “Hot” period of the 20’s with early Duke Ellington (try some kind of “greatest hits” that begins with his earliest stuff and takes you through to the golden Billy Strayhorn tunes) this will set you up for a cross section of:
      Lester Young (Pres)….trios with Nat Cole and other small groups
      Charlie Parker (Bird)….anything
      Miles Davis (Miles) ….Birth Of Cool, Walkin’, Cookin’, etc…Round About Midnight, Milestones, Kind Of Blue, 7 Steps To Heaven, Miles Smiles, ESP, Night At The Blackhawk
      Billie Holiday (Lady Day)…1st Verve Sessions
      Sarah Vaughan (Sassy One)…w/Clifford Brown, After Hours At The London House
      Abbey Lincoln…Straight Ahead
      John Coltrane (Trane)…Blue Trane, GIANT STEPS, w/Ellington, w/Monk
      Bill Evans…New Jazz Conceptions, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, anything w/Scott LaFaro
      Wes Montgomery (Wes)….At The Half Note

      This will get you started and take you to the entrances of a zillion wabitt holes

  3. Karl Jones says:

    YIKES de Apercus. Lets keep it simple, low hanging fruit as there are more examples of sublime jazz then there are stars in the sky, here goes, this list is a primer that will take you down a zillion rabbit holes. I’m going to focus primarily on my favorite period which is 1945-1967ish, anyone can take it from there:

    Duke Ellington (Duke)….any “greatest hits” kinda thing, can give you a feel for “Hot ’20’s era”
    Lester Young (Pres) Trio stuff (Nat Cole)…any small group
    Billie Holiday (Lady Day)….1st Verve Sessions (Oscar Peterson etc)
    Sarah Vaughn (Divine One) …W/ Clifford Brown, After Hours At The London House
    Abbey Lincoln…Straight Ahead
    Charley Parker (Bird)…anything
    Miles Davis (Miles)….wtf…..Birth Of Cool, Walkin’, Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, Steamin’, (Microwavin’ posthumously issued….just Kiddin’), ‘Round About Midnight, Milestones, Kind Of Blue, Seven Steps To Heaven, Miles Smiles and Live At The Blackhawk (2 vol)
    John Coltrane (Trane)…Blue Trane, GIANT STEPS, W/ Ellington, W/ Thelonius Monk (Monk)…. Love Supreme (I don’t really care but…..)
    Bill Evans…another wtf….New Jazz Conceptions, Everybody Digs Bill Evans ETC
    Wes Montgomery (Wes)..Smokin’ At The Half Note ETC

    a lot of artist not listed will be represented on these lps….THIS IS A STARTING POINT, if you are bit by the bug you are hopelessly screwed and will never be the same and will forever regard the rest of your species that can’t hear this time period as philistines…….swing hard and take no prisoners