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Con Alma: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Staff Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" first appeared on his 1954 album Afro (which also featured "Manteca", "Caravan", and "Night in Tunisia", among others). Gillespie's trumpet is backed by Rene Hernandez on piano, Roberto Rodriguez on bass, and percussion from Jose Mangual, Ubaldo Nieto, and Ralph Miranda. The tune starts with the bass and piano setting up a nice groove along with the layers of percussion before Dizzy's trumpet comes in at about 0:20 with the melody over the descending bassline. That big trumpet swell at about 0:40 is perfect… Dizzy's trumpet solo starts just before 1:30, and he's fitting right in with this relaxed feel imparted by the bass and percussion. Minimal piano accompaniment and Dizzy in that relaxed mode, though occasionally he drops in a great line like the one around 2:20 that he takes to the end of this solo before handing the reins to Hernandez for a piano solo. Hernandez keeps the tune's feel intact while putting together a fine piano solo with some nice cascading lines. At about 3:00, Dizzy's trumpet again takes the lead. His soloing here has a little more fire than before, but the percussion and bass keep this relaxed groove going. The head returns at about 4:30 or so and the tune comes to a close just after 5:00. All too short, given the fine trumpet and piano solos here and the relaxed groove that could keep going forever (though the percussion is a little stuff and unvarying, in all honesty). Dizzy's trumpet playing is great and the short piano solo in the middle gives this a bit of variety to keep it interesting.

Dizzy kept "Con Alma" in rotation and gave it a very different flavor fourteen years later in a 1968 performance with his big band. Dizzy's trumpet here is joined by James Moody on sax, Jimmy Owens on flugelhorn, Alphonso Reece and Victor Paz on trumpet, Paul Jeffery, Sahib Shihab, and Cecil Payne on sax, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Michael Longo on piano, Paul West on bass, and Candy Finch on drums. This version starts out with the drums, bass, and piano and a feel that is similar to the original percussion from the version on Afro. At 0:45, the horn section comes in to add some punchy brass and then at 1:00 the move into the head with Gillespie's trumpet taking the melodic lead. At 1:25, the melody is handed over to the big horn section, and then passed back to Gillespie at 1:40. James Moody steps up at 2:00 for a sax solo over a driving rhythm and accents from the horns. Moody gives a great sax solo, a classic bop sound - lots of fast runs over the tune's changes. At 3:45 this sax solo comes to a close and there is a fanfare from the horn section, followed by a piano solo. This is less bombastic than the sax solo that came before it, but again is full of great right hand lines over these chord changes. At 5:45, the piano solo comes to a close and Gillespie steps up to take a trumpet solo. The sound is a little thin at first, but he seems to deal with that and puts together some fine, lyrical lines as the drummer moves to his ride cymbal behind him. At 6:45, Gillespie is playing some very high notes and the horn section adds some accents behind his solo. The trumpet solo finishes at 7:30 and they move to a composed section for the horns. At 8:15, the horn section is playing the backing from the tune's head while Gillespie improvises a bit. They return to the fanfare, then there is an open drum break before the band moves into the head again, with some classic big band additions - punchy brass and drum breaks. They return to the head at 9:25, sounding similar to the tune's beginning. Cool piano line behind this before the big, brassy ending at about 10:00. An interesting arrangement of the tune, with great sax, piano, and trumpet solos. The big band arrangement is very much of this period and you'll have to gauge your interest in that period as a listener.

As good as Dizzy's versions of his own tune are, it's probably not too crazy to say that "Con Alma" really took off in the hands of other musicians. There are quite a few versions of this one out there, so this is really just a small selection focusing mostly on the past 15 years or so. Before looking at some of the more recent versions, though, a great one from 1967. A year before Dizzy's big band arrangement of "Con Alma", Stan Getz's Sweet Rain album featured his version of the tune. Getz's sax was joined by Chick Corea's piano, Ron Carter's bass, and Grady Tate's drums for this version. The drums play an introduction before Getz's sax comes in with the melody, backed by Corea's piano chords and Carter's descending bassline. Getz's sax tone is perfect for this melody and he carries it beautifully. Tate's drumming behind this is excellent, too. At about 1:30, Carter moves to a walking bassline and Tate's drumming moves into more of a straightforward swing, but they go back to the earlier drum pattern shortly afterward. By around the 2:30 mark, Getz's sax solo is really killing, just swinging along easily, but this is pretty close to perfect. At 3:50, Corea starts a piano solo. Tate's drums go back to something like the pattern he used in the tune's introduction and Corea takes a piano solo that is just as perfect as the sax solo that came before it - this is really impeccable. Corea's solo comes to a close at 5:40 and Carter takes a bass solo. Tate's drums drop out except for the ride cymbal and some rim shots behind the bass, and Corea offers up some really minimal comping behind Carter here. Just after 6:30, Getz comes back in, and then the band leaves some open drum breaks for Tate to do his thing. At about 7:30, they start to put the ending together, and they end this pretty bombastically. Tate returns to his drum pattern for a bar or two at the very end and they take it out. Great version of the tune here - is this the definitive one?

Jumping forward a few decades… In recent years, "Con Alma" has become a vehicle for a number of different piano trios. OAM Trio (Omer Avital on bass, Aaron Goldberg on piano, and Marc Miralta on drums) included "Con Alma" on their 2000 album Flow. They start this with a smoky feel, Miralta adding some shaking percussion and Goldberg's floating piano chords backing Avital's melodic bass improvisation. A piano arpeggio starts at about 0:55 as they make their way to the melody. Then at about 1:10 the head starts in an unorthodox and very cool way with Avital's rhythmic bassline that will anchor the start of this version of the tune. The piano takes the melody and they keep this whole thing punchy - check out that single bass note from Avital at about 1:45… but they move back into that floaty, smoky space shortly afterward, leading up to a piano solo starting at about 2:20. God damn, but these guys are on top of this tune and improvising something lovely. A nice buildup has Goldberg playing a bit busier around 3:30, spinning out some nice descending piano lines and then continuing to move this along. There's a breakdown at 4:15 and they move back to their unorthodox version of the head - definitely very different this time around from the way they played this in the opening. Unison lines from the piano and bass and lots of original, composed parts here. At about 5:25, Avital and Goldberg play the melody in unison; Avital plays a bowed bass starting around 5:45 over the drums and rhythmic comping from the piano. He takes this out a bit, definitely moving into some musical spaces that didn't seem likely in Dizzy's original version of the tune! After playing this out they end on one of those nice smoky piano chords. Wow, a lot going on in this version of "Con Alma" - OAM trio moved through so many different styles during this and kept the whole thing interesting and fluid. Really interesting newly composed parts in the head, too. Fantastic. It's also worth noting that Aaron Goldberg also played this tune on his Turning Point album around this time as well in a piano trio with Eric Harland on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass in another version worth seeking out.

Adding a couple of horns to the piano trio, pianist Spike Wilner's 2009 album Three to Go included his version of "Con Alma". Wilner was joined here by Ryan Kisor on trumpet, Joel Frahm on sax, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Montez Coleman on drums. Wilner's piano opens this version of the tune solo with some big chords. At about 0:20, the drums and bass join underneath this, and then the horns gradually increase in volume, moving toward the front to take the "Con Alma" melody through the head in the introduction here. The band gets a big, triumphant sound courtesy of the horns and Wilner's big chords. At about 1:45, a piano solo starts. Wilner's fingers are dancing on the keyboard in this solo over fine drum and bass accompaniment. Really nice arpeggio at about 3:00, with the piano keeping the tune's melody intact throughout this solo. At 3:40 the lead is handed to Ryan Kisor for a trumpet solo. After breaking this down a bit for the start of the trumpet solo, things pick back up again at about 4:15. Great work from the rhythm section behind the trumpet, and Kisor throws down some great lines here. Joel Frahm's sax solo starts at about 5:40, and the rhythm section breaks it down again, giving some space for Frahm to build his solo. As with the trumpet solo, the sax is backed by a strong rhythm section and Frahm builds an excellent solo, returning to the "Con Alma" melody at about 7:30. The sax and trumpet then play the melody in unison again at the end while the piano improvises behind them. The horns drop out momentarily at about 8:15, with the piano happily taking up that space, and then they play through the "Con Alma" theme again, getting that same triumphant feeling that they had in the introduction from the ascending horn lines here. Coleman's drums crash behind these triumphant-sounding horn lines and they bring it to a close.

Gerald Clayton's first album, Two-Shade, released in 2009, included a solo piano version of "Con Alma", but he also plays the tune live with his trio featuring Joe Sanders on bass and Justin Brown on drums. In 2010, he played the tune at the New Morning in Paris ("Con Alma" starts just after 9:15 in this video). Clayton starts this version with a characteristically beautiful solo piano introduction before the drums and bass join at about 9:40. The head starts at about 9:55 with Clayton's light piano touch taking the melody over brushed snare and Sanders' descending bassline. At about 11:00, Clayton moves into a piano solo while Sanders outlines the "Con Alma" chords behind him. The interaction between Clayton and Sanders is great, with the bass filling in pieces of the melody when Clayton leaves some space. Throughout this improvisation, they keep the tune's melody front and center, so even as the piano moves further from the head, the theme is always being outlined. At about 14:00, the trio is really swinging - Brown has moved from brushes to drum sticks and Sanders' walking bassline is great here. At about 15:10, there's a composed part that Clayton has added to his arrangement of this tune, and then at 15:35, the drums and bass drop out, only to return at 16:00. This part is really cool, with Clayton's piano merging a classical feel with really swinging playing. At 16:35, the drums drop out and Sanders plays some bowed bass for the outro - check out that descending run at 16:50! Shortly after this, they bring this version of "Con Alma" to a close. Great playing from everyone here, and a great arrangement of "Con Alma" from Gerald Clayton. Clayton has done this tune solo on Two-Shade, and has also done a fine duet version with saxophonist Ben Wendel, always doing well by Gillespie's melody.

Stepping away from the piano trio format for a moment (yes, I realize that Spike Wilner's version wasn't a trio either), drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.'s 2012 album Unanimous, with Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Jaleel Shaw on sax, Michael Dease on trombone, Christian Sands on piano, and Christian McBride on bass, included their version of "Con Alma". They start with a drum intro from Owens before a fanfare from the horns comes in at about 0:15. Then at 0:30, the full band joins to play through a smooth three-horn arrangement of the "Con Alma" melody. The trombone takes the lead at about 1:00, and then the full horn section returns at 1:15, followed by a piano-led section that moves into a trombone solo shortly afterward. Some very high notes from the trombone around 3:15, then back into the mid-register stuff to close the solo. After the trombone solo, the piano-led section returns to introduce the next solo from the trumpet. It's a good trumpet solo with some more fire behind it from the drums than was present under the trombone - especially around 4:45 or so as Payton kicks his solo into a higher gear. He plays some long, sustained notes that seem to evolve as the harmonies continue to change behind those sustained notes. At about 6:10, the piano-led section returns, this time to introduce a piano solo. It's a good piano solo from Christian Sands, nice and swinging throughout. At 8:10, the horn section returns to play the head again at the close of this. Very similar to the head at the introduction, and the fanfare returns at 9:15 to close out this version. Quality playing from everyone, with Nicholas Payton's trumpet solo as the highlight here, but overall this version could have use a little more, you know, alma (this might be a good place to reference this piece from Jonathan Wertheim).

And another piano trio version… In 2013, Aaron Parks released Alive in Japan, a live recording with Thomas Morgan on bass and RJ Miller on drums from a 2012 set that Parks recorded on his iPhone. This version starts with an abstract solo piano intro that doesn't immediately point to the "Con Alma" theme. At about 0:45, some chords come in under this and the drums join in. Then at about 1:00, the trio moves into the tune's head, swinging through this with Parks' vocalizations lightly audible along with the piano and Miller's ride cymbal providing the steady pulse. Really nice bass accompaniment at about 1:40 or so between the piano phrases. Parks takes a very relaxed piano solo after the head, playing melodic phrases over the walking bassline and leaving plenty of space throughout. After a fine piano solo, Morgan's bass solo starts at about 5:30 over a light cymbal pulse and piano chords to accompany. The recording picks up the full bass tone and Morgan turns in a melodic solo of his own to follow Parks' piano solo. At about 6:45, Morgan gives this more of a walking bass feel, though the bass solo continues. Some sort of ominous-sounding chords from the piano at about 7:20 but it's back to the relaxed feeling at about 7:40. Shortly after that, they return to the head and continue with this relaxed, swinging feel. Again, nice descending bass lines in between the piano phrases. At 9:00, Parks' piano comes in with a Latin-sounding line to close out this version of "Con Alma" and they take it out after this brief outro.

The soon-to-be-released Philadelphia Beat album (out March 3, 2015) from drummer Tootie Heath features another piano trio version of "Con Alma", with Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass. This version starts with Heath's Latin-sounding introduction before the bass and piano join to play the head. The way that Iverson's piano plays these chords gives this version of the tune a stately, almost classical-sounding feel. A cool, spooky section at about 0:35 and then they return to the main melody. Just before 1:00, Iverson takes a piano solo over this drum beat that Heath has been holding down and great bass accompaniment. That spooky feeling returns at 1:25 as the piano solo moves forward, and comes back again at 2:10 as a regular part of this arrangement of the tune. At about 2:45, the piano chords again give this a sort of classical feel at the tune's close and they finish on that. Short and sweet, a nice and melodic piano solo from Iverson between the head at the start and finish of the tune. That little spooky feel is a nice addition to this version of "Con Alma", and Heath's drums are reminiscent of the percussion on Gillespie's original version of the tune from Afro.

"Con Alma" is an undeniable classic from Dizzy Gillespie, but it's an example of a tune that really took off in the hands of others. This is one that has been played many, many times, so this is just the tip of the iceberg - Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, and Wes Montgomery, to name a few, have all done versions of "Con Alma" worth seeking out and a bit of time on youtube or spotify or wherever you're wasting time on the internet these days will come up with plenty more versions of this tune. There's certainly lots to hear, starting with the birth of this tune and somewhat stiff rhythm , moving to the relaxed feel of Stan Getz's version and later to the rhythmically adventurous version from OAM Trio, the versions from Gerald Clayton and Tootie Heath that gave this a sort of classical feel, and the super-fun quintet version led by Spike Wilner. Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.