Listening, Party For Two: 'The Great Pretender'

cover to 'The Great Pretender'


The cover to Lester Bowie's 1981 album The Great Pretender. Photo Credit: courtesy of ECM Records.

My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week, she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.

With trumpeter Dave Douglas guest-blogging for us now, I've been checking out the new record from his new band, Brass Ecstasy. If that sounds familiar, it is: it's an overt homage to the late trumpeter Lester Bowie, who (among other things) led a brass band called Brass Fantasy. This cut precedes the formation of Brass Fantasy, but it still neatly encapsulates Bowie's postmodern approach to the entire history of African American music.

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"The Great Pretender," from Lester Bowie, The Great Pretender (ECM). Lester Bowie, trumpet; Hamiet Bluiett, baritone saxophone; Donald Smith, piano; Fred Williams, bass; Phillip Wilson, drums; Fontella Bass, vocals; David Peaston, vocals. Ludwigsburg, Germany: June 1981.

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Boss Lady: I feel like I'm in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

me: Whatever do you mean?

Boss Lady: The music is living in an extremely reverberant space, and the accompaniment makes me think of a spiritual.

me: A curious observation ...
It was recorded for ECM Records in Germany, a label known for that sort of open, "reverberant" sound quality

Boss Lady: Sort of new age meets jazz?

me: Or in some cases, just the former, really.
As for the spiritual quality — I hear that too ...

me: At least at first, it's slow, meditative, with just the trumpet tapping out the theme
And even when it goes to that swing beat, you get the gospel-like backup singers
And it strikes me that Lester Bowie's trumpet is like a preacher delivering, with all sorts of ornaments and gestures

Boss Lady: Yes, this sounds like the trumpet is trying to imitate a human voice
It's haunting and beautiful. It's funny that it was recorded in Germany, because the gospel influence is so strong.

me: Well, these were all American musicians
Most of them came out of Chicago's AACM — Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
It was a group created to promote a group of avant-garde, I believe exclusively African American jazz-oriented composers in the mid-1960s

Boss Lady: Ok, I'm halfway through now and it's starting to get more twisted
Is this a recent recording or does this go back to the '60s?

me: This is from 1981.

Boss Lady: Why did you choose to play it for me?

me: Well, if you want to go through the whole thought process ...

Boss Lady: Do I need to get some coffee first?

me: Dave Douglas, who is guest-writing for A Blog Supreme now, has a new band — which is called Brass Ecstasy
Lester Bowie had a band called Brass Fantasy, which he started in the mid-80s
Now, this isn't that band

Boss Lady: You're about to lose me!

me: But this track — it exemplifies Lester Bowie's approach to music, especially with Brass Fantasy
And I would contend that it's very postmodern in a way — ahead of its time, really.

Boss Lady: In the way the way the trumpet seems free to let loose and meander?

me: In a way, I hear lots of sounds from across the spectrum of jazz history in Lester Bowie.
You have that brilliant tone, and very proficient bebop technique ... but also lots of smears, half-valves, flutters, extended techniques, and "free" playing

Boss Lady: Well I hear the gospel and the Motown in the background, with the trumpet displaying so much control and virtuosity

me: That's the other thing!
Do you know this tune?

Boss Lady: I've been wondering if he's riffing on a well-known tune that I'm embarrassed to say I don't recognize (Patrick, you always do this to me!)

me: The Platters, "The Great Pretender"?
Freddie Mercury covered it in 1987?

Boss Lady: No, but maybe we should call this "The Great Pretender in Outer Space"

me: An apt description if I ever heard one
The original is this '50s R&B doo-wop sort-of number — tight pop songcraft
When Lester takes it on, he brings all this crazy ish to it
He has his saxophonist take this burning, overblown solo
And he treats the melody seriously, even reverently — but the way he chooses to blow over it is so thoroughly contemporary, steeped in the avant-garde styles of the '60s and '70s
It's all of jazz history at once, and more — this is a pop tune, after all

Boss Lady: Maybe that's why it's just satisfying to listen to
Because there are so many almost-familiar touchstones

me: And yet, they're rendered so ... well how would you say it?

Boss Lady: Reverently and playfully at the same time?

me: You want to laugh and say "Amen" at once

Boss Lady: That's how I feel when I see you at your cubicle by the window

me: [smiles and nods] Haha! [timidly]

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