3. Scaling the summit

3. The Highest Mountain

Clifford Jordan & The Magic Triangle – On Stage, Vol. 1.  (1975)

This is all about the feel of the group, especially the rhythm section (that “magic triangle”). But first a word for the leader, one of the finest tenor players, caught here in his mid-40s prime. Clifford Jordan emerged from Chicago and first recorded for Blue Note at the end of the fifties, worked with Max Roach, had a brush with fame in Charles Mingus’ great mid-sixties sextet, then returned to the zone inhabited by most great jazz players at the time: known to those who cared but invisible to the wider public. 

The seventies were maybe the thinnest time for people making this kind of music. But this quartet with Cedar Walton on piano, Sam Jones on bass and the peerless Billy Higgins on drums apparently worked together for five years. They featured on half the tracks on a notable but then hard to find studio session, Glass Bead Games, then a European tour in 1975 saw a flurry of new recording. 

The results are all worth hearing, but this live session at the original BIM Huis in Amsterdam stands out. Jordan presumably agreed that the tapes captured something not achievable in the studio and took them to Steeplechase records, who eventually put out three LPs covering the entire set.

Sound quality is just about acceptable, and one gathers the piano displeased Walton. But the atmosphere is amazing. The tour didn’t take in the UK, and would have passed unnoticed here. (This was 30 years before YouTube existed, though an excellent colour film of a set in Oslo can now be found there – intercut with a hilarously bad TV interview with Jordan and Walton).

Back then we just had the records, and they showed a quartet of masters. This turned out to be the high point of this group’s work, as Jordan and Walton parted company after this tour. The trio continued with other saxophonists, including George Coleman and Bob Berg, but Jordan’s stronger allegiance to earlier players, and to wailing the blues, gives a flavour neither of those great exponents could offer.

So there is an enticing mix of pleasures here. The commanding presence of Jordan’s blearily impassioned tenor makes the strongest initial impression. But after appreciating that, you can go back and listen again for one of the most deeply integrated rhythm sections ever. It was one of the first new recordings I heard – fresh from the gig, as it were – where you could hear the locked-on intensity that allows this kind of rhythm section to work. They are as great in their way as the more renowned Williams-Carter-Hancock axis that lifted Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet.

Every track on vol 1 is a gem, but this version of The Highest Mountain is instructive in showing the difference in the live recording. The two studio LPs Steeplechase put out a few years later cram 16 tracks between them into their 20 minutes per side: this one has just four live cuts. The studio version of Mountain is taken at a faster tempo, and is somehow more lightweight in feel. It comes across there as slick, immaculately executed but unremarkable hard bop. There’s another, shorter, live version taped in Paris. But this one, longer and slower, works best. The theme is a collection of bluesy phrases, any of which would have served to launch Sonny Rollins into a helter-skelter improvisation of indeterminate length. Jordan is more measured, and more co-operative, using the breathing space the arrangement offers to pause for thought before returning to a solo full of briefly urgent assertions and wry asides. 

The other three follow every twist and turn seamlessly. Jones does solo now and again with this group, but hardly needs to. His time playing sounds as if it echoes the heartbeat of the world. Higgins is more flamboyant, but matchlessly musical, Walton a delight.

All this comes across brilliantly, as does the charged atmosphere, the band in full cry before a live crowd. Even the guy who talks loudly through Higgins’ lengthy drum solo on one of the other tracks adds something. I never visited the original B.I.M House –  opened as a rough and ready musician-led venue the year before – though I love it’s spiffy modern successor – but I feel that I have.

Full album (and lots more Jordan here…)

Why the No 3? 

This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

And I’m going to collect them all on this page.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks Jon. Another one which had completely passed me by so an excellent way to pass another locked down Sunday afternoon. Followed it up by returning to “You Make Me Smile” , a Jordan favourite for me, not least because of Art Farmer’s work too.

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