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Elemental Music Presents New Additions to the Jazz Images Series | Francis Wolff & William Claxton

Elemental Music Presents New Additions to the Famed Jazz Images Series
Photographers Francis Wolff and William Claxton’s Musically Iconic Historic Images

It’s always challenging to use one art form to pay homage to another. To capture the essence of a transcendent art form like jazz through photography, while representing its precious substance of sound and structure through a purely visual element is a challenge of the highest order. While many have taken photos of jazz artists in performance and in portraiture, only a treasured few have been able to match their artistry to the level of the music. Two of the most profound of these photographers are Francis Wolff and William Claxton – each of whom is powerfully represented in Elemental Music’s latest pair of releases in its Jazz Images series.

Like the first book in the series, Jazz Images by Jean-Pierre Leloir, Jazz Images by Francis Wolff and Jazz Images by William Claxton are beautifully packaged in 11.5 inch square hardcover editions, each book containing 164 pages with more than 150 images by both of these master photographers. For the most part the images are given a full page each and while Wolff’s are entirely in the black-and-white format that was his trademark, a number of the photos in the Claxton book are in color. Each photograph is underscored with the specific information as to the circumstances in which the photo was taken as well as the identity of all of those who are depicted in the photo. Both editions have highly informative introductions by noted writers/historians Howard Mandel (Claxton) and Ashley Kahn (Wolff). All of this contributes not only to the books as visual feasts, but also as important historical documentation of the glorious art of jazz.

Just as Miles Davis and Clifford Brown were two masters of the same discipline telling their stories through significantly different approaches, so the same can be said of these two giants. Wolff’s tightly contained claustrophobia in the sacred prayer chapel of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio contrasts with Claxton’s airy, open approach that airlifted the musicians out of the smoky club setting and into the natural atmosphere of the outdoors for what the photographer described as jazz for the eyes.

While capturing images of jazz musicians in performance is both compelling and exciting, an even deeper truth is conveyed through the artists as flesh and blood human beings with identities and personae as fully defined as the music they create. The most expressive and revered portrait photographers, from early masters like Dorothea Lange and Alfred Stieglitz to later heavyweights like Richard Avedon and Yousuf Karsh were all brilliant at capturing the essence of their subjects. But they primarily operated in a controlled environment where the photograph was really the only purpose of the action. While Claxton was an experienced fashion photographer, both he and Wolff had to play their instruments in the environment of spontaneity and immediacy that is the essence of jazz. That makes the results even more rewarding, and in truth, a form of jazz expression.

Francis Wolff’s art was virtually limited to the New York domain of Blue Note Records within the sanctified environs of the peerless recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s fabled studio just outside of the city. A refugee from Nazi Germany and soon after his arrival in NY, co-owner of Blue Note with founder Alfred Lion, Wolff’s ability to remain “invisibly” unobtrusive (despite the use of flash) enabled him to portray artists in the purest moments of making recorded music – whether playing, conversing, writing, listening or even relaxing between takes. This makes Wolff’s photographs like no others.

Just a sample of some of the stunning images in this book — Hank Mobley, cradling his horn in warm embrace as he listens to a playback; Lee Morgan and Joe Henderson playing face to face with horns positioned so it looks like Lee is pouring his tones into Joe’s welcoming bell; Art Blakey’s cat-like intensity as he squints into his snare waiting for the perfect moment to strike; the magnificent John Coltrane leaning back in passionate concentration as he streams his spiritual essence out through his preaching horn; Miles Davis coolly blowing over his crossed legs with his seemingly relaxed posture betrayed by the intensity with which his hand is grasping the metal back of the chair; Herbie Hancock with his head resting on his hand perched above the keyboard his eyes inches away from his fingers as he sounds out an idea; Elvin Jones’ hand tightly wrapped around Reggie Workman’s shoulder as they share a joyous laugh; Dexter Gordon, Ike Quebec and Alfred Lion poring over session notes – vividly illustrate what makes Francis Wolff so special.

William Claxton also had an affiliation with a major jazz label as art director of Pacific Jazz Records. This led to a close relationship with Chet Baker, and the book contains 22 images of the iconic and highly photogenic trumpeter. As a native of California, Claxton’s focus was primarily on the West Coast – both its jazz scene and its wide-open sunny environment. That didn’t lessen the intensity of his artistry, just shifted the vibe from the confined to the limitless. And while there is an overall sense of joy and exuberance to his work, he could also create a powerful aura of intensity. This is evidenced by his images of Bill Evans scrunched over the keyboard in contorted internal passion; Stan Getz, playing with face in shadow under the light outside a stage door in Hollywood; Clifford Brown, elbows tight against his ribcage with face compressed as he births a tale from his horn.

It was Claxton’s style to bring the artist out of the expected musical environment and into the healthy outside world. Cannonball Adderley’s quintet clustered under a Chinese beach umbrella on a sunny California beach; Chet Baker hanging arched from the mast on a sailboat above his bandmates; Charlie Byrd playing alone under a tree over the Potomac River; Donald Byrd pensively playing seated among a group of riders on NYC’s “A”Train; John Coltrane, leaning against on a railing in the Guggenheim Museum; the Kenton band in stark silhouette with horns held high in the air outside the Rendezvous Ballroom on the beach in Balboa; Ramsey Lewis’ Trio on the streets of Chicago; Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Max Roach and Kenny Dorham against the Newport RI backdrop on an impromptu stage during the Newport Rebels counter-festival.; Thelonious Monk on the back of a San Francisco streetcar; Art Pepper climbing a hilly street in LA; Sonny Rollins cradling his horn under one arm at the Joshua Tree Monument in California.

Featuring portraits of scores of the most legendary figures in jazz of the second half of the 20th century, Elemental’s founder Jordy Soley has bestowed a monumental gift to jazz fans and musician with this series. And most importantly it provides a firsthand look at the truth and soul embodied in those who make jazz the glorious manifestation of the human spirit that it is.

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