Hung Up on Nothing: A Bobby Few Mixtape

Photo by Bernard Vidal

When we ran our Vijay Iyer-penned piano mixtape last year, one of the kindest comments came from fellow blogger Hank Shteamer, who noted that he hoped it wouldn’t be our last such compilation. Little did we know at the time that our next mix would come courtesy of Hank himself, who volunteered to create the following mind-bending, eye-opening playlist featuring the piano stylings of the underappreciated Bobby Few. So without much more ado, we are truly pleased and honored to present, on the occasion of Few’s Vision Festival appearance scheduled for Friday, 13 June, “Hung Up on Nothing,” compiled by Hank Shteamer @ Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches.

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One of the reasons I moved to Paris was that I heard [the Frank Wright Quartet with Bobby Few, Alan Silva and Muhammad Ali] at a festival in Amougie in ’69. I said, “Wow, that’s the piano player I’ve been looking for.” I was crazy about Bobby right away. He was the first pianist I heard after Cecil [Taylor] that had something to say of his own… [He] had his own thing post-Cecil and was not hung up on Cecil. In fact, he wasn’t hung up on anything. He was totally original and very well developed. But he was working with Frank and I didn’t get him for ten years.
–Steve Lacy, in a 2002 interview reprinted in the invaluable Conversations

Steve Lacy, early acolyte of Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, and a lifelong collaborator of Mal Waldron, kept sterling piano company. But Bobby Few is the only player that spurred him toward physical relocation. Surveying Few’s discography, it’s easy to hear why. As Lacy suggests, the now 72-year-old Cleveland native (and longtime Paris resident) can, like his seven-year elder Taylor, dazzle you with prismatic density, but his vision of free jazz favors heart-bursting romance over turbulent virtuosity.

Encompassing vibrant R&B, tender balladry and rainbowlike swirls of glimmering rubato, Few’s keyboardism is one of the lushest, most nourishing textures in jazz. If his place in the Jaki Byard lineage of what I like to call Total Pianists — alongside Dave Burrell, another keyboardist who ventured into free jazz with a firm sense of blues and other prebop styles — isn’t yet secure, that pantheon is sorely incomplete without him. By way of previewing Few’s New York duo with the great multireedist Sonny Simmons at Vision Festival XIII on Friday, 6/13 (and another hit in Philly the following night), I’ve cooked up a sampler of tracks from his wide-ranging discography. You’ll hear several selections of Few alone at the piano, but they’re balanced by examples of his work as an outstandingly adaptable team player in bands led by Lacy, Albert Ayler and others.

[download the entire hour-plus, 100 MB program here]

Booker Ervin
The In Between
Blue Note : 1968

BE, tenor sax; BF, piano; Richard Williams, trumpet; Cevera Jeffries, bass; Lenny McBrowne, drums.

Few played with a wide variety of monster saxists, and this 1968 recording — probably Few’s debut, though he also participated in an imprecisely dated Marzette Watts session the same year — with ultrabluesy tenor titan Ervin was the first such documented occasion. The In Between is classic, not to mention exceedingly classy, Blue Note postbop and Few only adds to the elegance. On “Tyra,” his four-bar intro sets a languid, noirish mood. He solos third, riding in on a tumbling reverie, which he muses over throughout his half chorus. It’s a brief but substantial foreshadowing of his later work, especially when you consider the muted, hazy chords he lays down underneath the subsequent bass solo.

Albert Ayler
Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe
Impulse : 1969

AA, tenor sax; BF, piano; Henry Vestine, guitar; Stafford James, bass; Bill Folwell, bass, bass guitar; Muhammad Ali, drums.

Way sloppier and sweatier is this loosey-goosey blues jam from a late, often-overlooked Ayler date. Few, the saxist’s childhood buddy (according to All Music), is clearly entirely at home in the track’s barrelhouse vibe, and he spurs on Ayler and moonlighting Canned Heat guitarist Vestine with maniacally hammered single notes and flurries of unhinged free blues.

Frank Wright Quartet
Last Polka in Nancy?
Fractal : 1999

FW, tenor sax; BF, piano; Alan Silva, bass; Muhammad Ali, drums.

It was only natural that Few would eventually fall in with Revered Frank Wright, one of Ayler’s most ardent disciples. This version of Wright’s quartet (sometimes referred to as Center of the World), featuring Few, bassist Alan Silva and drummer Muhammad Ali — Rashied’s equally nimble brother, also behind the kit on “Drudgery” — seems to have crystallized in the early ’70s and to Steve Lacy’s dismay, worked together until the early ’80s. “Two Birds with One Stone,” recorded in 1978 when the group was at peak strength and issued as a bonus track on Fractal‘s now out-of-print CD reissue of Last Polka in Nancy?, is quintessential expatriate free jazz: wild, shaggy and bombastic, and feeding here off what was likely an enthusiastic German audience. Alongside Wright’s bellows, Few’s contributions are like billowing tapestries draped over the music, cascading in every direction and adding a key element of dreamy beauty. The piano solo feels like a sumptuous rubato dance. (Here’s a tantalizingly brief clip of Few, Silva and Ali performing as a trio; this band is documented on Few’s turbulent More or Less Few LP from 1973.)

Bobby Few
Solos & Duets
Sun : 1975

BF, piano, vocals.

The Wright band’s activities also included many satellite pursuits such as a Wright/Ali duo album and 1975’s two volumes of solos and duets featuring various combinations of Wright, Few and Silva. The first LP kicks off with two brief, fascinating Few solo pieces. Few’s career-long love of singing has sometimes resulted in distracting interjections, but on “Song for Cyrille, Children of his Joy” (named for Few’s son, who makes a cameo on Lacy’s 1982 Prospectus LP), the pianist’s voice is perfectly integrated. The piece is a bighearted ode to childhood innocence, marked by a stirring, almost Ray Charles-like humming episode at about 1:08. “El Torro” might be the most successful of Few’s many programmatic solo tunes (his 2000 Vision Festival appearance, released by Boxholder as Continental Jazz Express, features an explicit evocation of an international train journey). As clichéd as the bull-fight notion is, this is a fun, propulsive example of impassioned moodmaking.

Noah Howard
Red Star
Mercury France/Boxholder : 1977

NH, alto sax; BF, piano; Richard Williams, trumpet; Guy Pederson, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums.

Howard’s “Creole Girl” is also a mood piece, specifically a festive, funky one. Before Silva was in Wright’s quartet, the altoist often rounded out the band, and Howard and Few have enjoyed a consistently fruitful partnership ever since (check them out together in September of 2000, and in 1997 in the company of Kali Fasteau). Interestingly, this ’77 session also features trumpeter Richard Williams, who appears on The In Between, as well as the great bebop pioneer Kenny Clarke behind the kit. As Ervin did on “Tyra,” Howard has the good sense to let Few set the stage. The pianist proceeds to take the first solo and absolutely rocks, showing off his deep pocket and fancy filigrees, as well as some jackhammer blues stabs and chromatic swirls like the ones he let fly on “Drudgery.”

NAPPING (Take 1)
The Steve Lacy Sextet
The Gleam
Silkheart : 1986

SL, soprano sax; BF, piano; Steve Potts, soprano sax; Irene Aebi, vocals; Jean-Jacques Avenel, bass; Oliver Johnson, drums.

Steve Lacy finally got his wish and in return he gave Few arguably the most luxurious extended showcase of his career. The pair recorded a bevy of sessions together between ’82 and ’93 and along with saxist Steve Potts, the pianist leavened Lacy’s droll idiosyncrasy with earthy majesty. Few runs away with the show on this 1986 performance of Lacy’s sly ode to midday dozing. It’s not a hijacking though, since Few is so thematically attuned to the piece. He starts his solo with several of his patented sweeping downward cascades, playing up the air of mystery. Then comes a lilting back-and-forth that seems to trace the path of a falling leaf, followed by a somber moment of reflection and a series of jittery trills. Afterward he buffets Potts’s soprano solo with playful obbligato.

WICKETS (live)
Steve Lacy and Bobby Few
unreleased : 1992

SL, soprano sax; BF, piano.

Mal Waldron was Lacy’s go-to duo pianist, but there are several precious recorded examples of the saxist alone with Few, one being an epochal “Forgetful” from 1988’s The Door (still gettable here; consider it a bonus track). This “Wickets,” grabbed from the Turkish Gizmo blog and bootlegged in Istanbul in ’92, is a true rarity. The sound quality is far from pristine, but with only two players the fantastic gist is clear. Lacy blasts off from the thorny head, and Few immediately sets the piano’s coordinates for Planet Blues; as you can tell from the daredevil swoop at 2:16, the saxist is clearly game. Few ups the rollicking factor higher and higher, and when Lacy exits at 4:33, the walls really start to drip. This is simply some badass burlesque swagger, settling into a perverse grind. Heatwave, straight up. (For an even later example of the Few/Lacy hookup, try this.)

Bobby Few
Lights and Shadows
Boxholder : 2007

BF, piano.

We’re back to a more sublimated romantic mood on “Enomis,” from Few’s latest widely available release, a solo studio set on Boxholder. “Simone” spelled backward, this is just one in a three-decade series of Few’s dedications to his wife; see the aforementioned More or Less Few for another wonderful example. Nothing to prove here, just a perfectly articulated, beautifully shaded melody with all the concision and grace of a vintage standard. Listen for the upswing into waltz tempo at about 1:00. Few’s trademark cascading impressionism is here, but in measured doses (savor the subtly filigreed notes around 2:30). The pianist, it turns out, serves his own tunes as efficiently and economically as he does those of others.


So, long live Bobby Few, always. There’s a ton more to explore, and here are a few places you might want to look:

–The seemingly thorough and accurate discography I’ve worked from is here.

–Few’s own site is a little haphazard, but it contains important info on the pianist’s current Parisian working band, which you can see/hear here and here.

–Apparently Simmons and Few have a new duo CD on the way. There’s a tantalizing mention on Simmons’s web site of a June ’08 release date for “Live at l’Atelier Tampon-Ramier, live recording of the Sonny Simmons/Bobby Few duet.” No info on how to order, but keep checking back.

–No examination of Few’s discography is complete without a sampling of his recent work with the gutsy reedist Avram Fefer. The pair has issued several sessions on Boxholder from the past few years and one on CIMP (unfortunately, I didn’t have these at hand while compiling this mix); good info is here, at Fefer’s site. Even better is Fefer’s YouTube channel, which contains a bunch of clips of him and Few in action. Few is particularly killer on this version of Fefer’s “Heavenly Places,” which contains some thrilling close-ups of those magical digits at work.

–Lastly, it’s unlikely you’ll find a free-jazz legend that Clifford Allen hasn’t exhaustively researched and definitively interviewed. As you’ll see from this important All About Jazz piece, Few is no exception.


Hank and Dest: Out gratefully acknowledge the fine folks at the Boxholder and Silkheart labels, for generously agreeing to allow us to post several of the tracks above.

Category Albert Ayler, Bobby Few, Booker Ervin, Frank Wright, guest posts, Noah Howard, Steve Lacy