Age shall not wither him

Jazz byRichard Cook

There's a peculiar paradox in the received wisdom about when a jazz musician is ready to be judged. It is usually seen as a young person's game: the greatest masterpieces by Armstrong, Beiderbecke and Parker were all set down when they were in their mid-twenties. Lee Morgan was brilliant before he was even 20; Booker Little, dead at 23, might have been the greatest trumpeter since Dizzy Gillespie. Yet a favourite excuse made for immature performers is that they need time and experience to come into their own. Some players seem to need decades.

For a medium that seems to have had more than its due share of figures whom the gods loved too much, the surprising thing now is how many grandees are surviving into a richly productive old age. The best evidence I've heard of late comes in two records featuring Charlie Mariano, a journeyman saxophonist who has fallen into dozens of different playing situations and seems contentedly at home in almost all of them.

A Bostonian who did his 'prentice work at the end of the big-band era, Mariano is probably better-known by European audiences than Americans. Only three years younger than Charlie Parker, he came from a generation of tough, sinewy saxophonists, who had the chops for full-tilt bebop but could soften their approach for orchestral section-work or whatever studio chores they undertook for daily bread. Mariano, though, had a certain wanderlust, which took him away from college teaching and soundtrack solos. He married the Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi in 1959; he studied local music in India and elsewhere in the east; and he tried to find a way of blending his bebop history with a non-western approach that predated many more fashionable leanings towards world music. He can be spotted on a classic of the 1970s like Eberhard Weber's Yellow Fields (ECM), and seemed right at home in jazz-rock settings of different kinds. Instead of the discursive rambling which that milieu encouraged, though, Mariano always seemed to cut through. There's a certain tartness in his alto sound that puts an edge on the sweetest music, and he took to reedy Indian instruments such as the shenai without any qualms.

India remains a favourite place for him, and the sheer bonhomie of Bangalore (Intuition) shows how much he feels at home there. Recorded in the city, with a gaggle of mostly local musicians, this is an enchanted marketplace of worldly music, just sufficiently jazzed by the saxophonist's presence to keep it from falling into any kind of new age meandering. The subtlest of electric bass and keyboard lines protect it from folksiness, but the gorgeous singing and thrum of the rhythm players solve any riddles of "authenticity".

There, Mariano is a stitch in the cloth, but to hear him illuminating a small group, turn to the very fine Savannah Samurai (Jazzline), recorded last spring in Cologne with the guitarist Vic Juris, the bassist Dieter Ilg and the drummer Jeff Hirshfield. Juris opens the harmonic gates a little wider than a pianist would have done, and he gets ravishing tones out of electric and acoustic instruments. It's just the kind of pretty but astringent setting that elicits the best from Mariano. Some of his phrasing is more curtailed than it used to be, on alto at least, but he seems as full of ideas as ever. Try the soprano improvisation on "Waltz for Dani", a model of melodic shaping that stands up to the closest analysis. Trouper that he is, he gets the best out of a seasoned team of pros who might have merely coasted along with a lesser man in the driving seat. Both records were made when Charlie was in his 75th year. Some old man.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special