The Alternate Universe

By Fritz Byers

The evolution of streaming-music sites, and their current dominance, have changed many things about the business of making music, and about how we consume it. I don’t believe it’s merely a nostalgia-drenched generational cavil to observe that the notion of buying an album, and then listening to it as a unit conceived by the artist, is another sad casualty of the digital revolution and its ancillary technologies. 

Of course compact discs changed how we listen. (Analog purists, such as our friend Rob Michaels, would, I think, say that the more important change brought by digitization is in WHAT we listen to – the dreck of cold bits and bytes, and all they fail to capture.) All of these dynamics – the economics of the business; the acoustics of the music; and how we as listeners come to understand an artist’s work -- are fascinating to consider. 

Jazz Spectrum Blog

Right now, I’m interested in how these changes have created a market for the production and distribution of reissues of classic albums, augmented by alternate takes of some of the familiar tunes; and, in grander instances, so-called “complete session” releases, laden with multiple outtakes and false starts. The jazz world is full of them, and they are an engaging way to learn about the music generally, and, more specifically, about the improvisational process. 

Hearing multiple takes of a single tune invariably offers a glimpse into what the improvising musician had in mind. Even a relatively brief solo involves dozens upon dozens of split-second choices about notes, harmony, intonation, and rhythmic accents. You don’t have to know music theory to hear how these individual choices compound. And in no time, you have a markedly different slice of completely new music. That alone is fun. And if you enjoy that, then you can think about what led the artist (or maybe the producer) to pick the master take over the alternate.

Many times the outtakes are fragments. An extreme example of this is presented on The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve – eleven takes of “Leap Frog,” including the master take, three complete takes that were rejected, and seven incomplete takes, one as short as 14 seconds. Hearing even that fragment is a privilege – after all, it’s Charlie Parker.

Such things may be mostly for scholars, students, and other kinds of fanatics. But for sane folks like you and me, there is real joy in hearing a familiar tune and then listening to a complete alternate take that was not available on vinyl. (I wonder how a movie buff would compare this experience to, say, watching the original Apocalypse Now and then studying Apocalypse Now Redux, the 2001 version with 49 minutes either “added” or “restored,” depending on whose version of history you adopt.)

This week on Jazz Spectrum, we get to do this three times: not side-by-side comparisons (at least not this week), but three alternate takes of canonical tunes. In each instance, the alternate take is significantly longer and gives that much more time to hear the leader and the band play around with the implications of the tune.
The show opens with an alternate take of the saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Blues for Elvin,” from one of Coltrane’s finest albums, Coltrane Plays the Blues. The compact-disc reissue of the album has two alternate takes of the tune, numbered “1” and “3.” We’ll hear Alternate Number 1, which, at 11 minutes, is a full three minutes longer than the master take that made the cut for the original album. You don’t need to know the original to relish Trane’s blues imagination and the drummer Elvin Jones’s rhythmic inventions.

The second set opens with an alternate take of the bassist Charles Mingus’s “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” from the 1959 masterwork, Blues & Roots. I can’t come close to Mingus’s own description of this recording, which appears in the original liner notes: 

This record is unusual— it presents only one part of my musical world, the blues. A year ago, [Atlantic record executive] Nesuhi Ertegun suggested that I record an entire blues album in the style of “Haitian Fight Song” because some people, particularly critics, were saying I didn't swing enough. He wanted to give them a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy. I thought it over. I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I've grown up and I like to do things other than just swing. But blues can do more than just swing. So I agreed.

The alternate take we hear this week is a minute and twenty seconds longer than the original master take. I’d happily listen to 80 seconds, or more, of any Mingus barrage. This take has more of Mingus’s driving bass than the original, and an even earthier feel.

And the second set ends with an alternate take of the pianist Herbie Hancock’s “Oliloqui Valley,” from the 1964 quartet date, Empyrean Isles. Herbie, with the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams, were the rhythm section of Miles Davis’s fabled Second Great Quintet, with the saxophonist Wayne Shorter. On this record, the trio is joined by the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The alternate take of “Oliloqui Valley” gives us an additional two minutes and 20 seconds of Herbie’s composition. I like his solo on this take better than the one on the original. Hearing Freddie on cornet, with a little more time to stretch out on the intriguing harmonies of Herbie’s tune, is a treat. And if you needed reminding, Tony Williams, only 18 years old at the time, was already a singular genius who did all sorts of things on the drum kit that had not been done before.