Sometimes, music sounds so good you can’t help but make the same appreciative sounds you would had you just eaten a delicious piece of BBQ, or tasted a fine wine. Every Thanksgiving, I try to elicit both responses to both music and wine paired to match one another. Last year, I paired Pinot Noirs of the world with great female jazz vocalists. This year, I’m pairing great saxophonists with Bordeaux varietals. I hope you enjoy what you hear (listen to the entire playlist on Spotify here), and hopefully what you taste (most wines below can be found at Oak & Steel for all you New Yorkers). Special thanks goes to Ted Nash for the consult on all things sax (who better?) And to all the winemakers for making such exemplary juice (especially Russian River Vineyards for the amazing Cab).
Enjoy the pairings!
Cabernet Sauvignon & Charlie Parker – the greats
In the world of wine, Cabernet is seminal grape of some of the worlds greatest wines – the first growths of Bordeaux and all the favorites from Napa. Simply put, some of the finest wines in the world from Chateau Margaux to Harlan would not be here without this grape and its extraordinary ageworthy quality.
Bird’s sound isn’t just ageworthy, it’s immortal. He’s the father of bebop along with Dizzy Gillespie, and his innovations in harmonic improvisation created the vocabulary for all jazz that was to follow. As impossible as it is to imagine the world of wine without the first growths of Bordeaux, it is equally impossible to conceive of jazz as we know it today without Bird.
One thing Cabernet is known for is structure – the thick skins and the large pips (seeds) of the grape make it very tannic, or dry. The impressive full body and presence of these elements help give it it’s longevity. Charlie Parker changed the structure of how jazz musicians improvise – bebop was more than just an innovative way of using harmony to invent a new sound, but a revolution in how jazz evolved from the swing of the dance floor to a serious music of smaller clubs, only executable with those who had a deep understanding of harmony.
Wine: Russian River Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County 2012
Merlot & Stan Getz – fine and mellow
Rounded tones, longer lines, easy on the palate and the ears. Whereas Cabernet gives you edges, Merlot smooths them over. Stan Getz has a sound which embodies all these qualities – relaxed, caressing and gentle.
One thing Getz has in common with Merlot is his loveability, but also the downside of popularity – falling out of fashion despite one’s unmistakable talents. In the late 60’s early 70’s, free jazz and rock edged out the smoother sound of Getz for a time, much like the film Sideways sparked a Merlot backlash in the states. But folks wise up – Merlot is still one of the most widely planted varietals, and Getz/Gilberto still one of the favorite records of all time.
Wine: Gundlach Bundshu Merlot, Sonoma Valley 2012
Cabernet Franc & Coleman Hawkins – down and dirty
Earthy and distinctive, Coleman Hawkins is the father of the tenor saxophone. He emerges with a sense of place, and the blues are ever present in his playing; much like the herbaceous forest floor earthiness is embodied in Cab Franc’s profile and nose.
The word terroir is used in the wine world, and could also be applied to musicians that have a style that reveals where they are from. Just as you could tell at one time the difference between a West Coast or East Coast player, or from a Kansas City sound to a Chicago sound, so wine reveals itself in its place of origin. In the Loire Valley, Cab Franc is found as a solo varietal which exposes all of its aromatic distinction.
Wine: Olga Raffault Chinon “les picasses” 2010 (Loire Valley France)
Petit Verdot & Sonny Rollins absence makes the heart…
Intense and invaluable, Petit Verdot is an important blending varietal in Bordeaux style wines. Seldom seen as a standalone varietal, the grape contributes color, tannin and fruit to any blend. It’s rarity made me think of Sonny Rollins and the many sabbaticals he’s taken throughout his career (from a year spent practicing under a bridge to a stay at an ashram), always emerging anew with fresh ideas and more developed character in his sound. Although I didn’t include a wine in this one (they’re hard to find, as I mentioned) you can’t have a conversation about Bordeaux’s grapes, or jazz’s great saxophonists, without including these two.
Malbec & John Coltrane – questing
Malbec, which was a great blending grape much like Petit Verdot, emerged in the last two decades as an important soloist. John Coltrane was part of the greatest collaborations in jazz history (with Miles Davis in the Kind of Blue era, with Sonny Rollins on Tenor Madness) but came forward as a soloist of distinction, popularity and versatility.
Malbec is a powerful grape that blends in smaller percentages in the great wines of Bordeaux, but has found it’s home, and a place in spotlight in Argentina and increasingly in other new world zones. Trane lives on as a searching, seeking artist whose relentless quest for new frontiers in music and spirituality led his music in ever new directions. His bold sound and force of vision are well suited to a wine that is forward, unabashed and unafraid to journey.
Wine: Catena Malbec “High Mountain Vines” 2013 Mendoza, Argentina
Sauvignon Blanc & Cannonball Adderley – a smiling swing
Sauvignon Blanc is a beloved white grape. No matter where it’s from, it’s classic bright acidity, direct line and zingy citrus fruit make it unmistakable.
Bright, pointed and bouncing, Cannonball Adderley’s playing is simply joyous and swingin. He’s irresistable. The clarity in his tone, the beauty of a deft touch – any wine would be lucky to dance on the palate the way Canonball’s music does. A listen and a taste makes this pairing on that’s almost a matter of course.
Wine: Chateau La Rame Bordeaux Blanc 2014
Semillon & Johnny Hodges – How Sweet it is
Often times people forget you can be sweet and serious at the same time. Sauternes (made mostly from Semillon, which can also be vinified dry) is one of the greatest wines in the world, and is viscous, sweet, and sophisticated. Johnny Hodges’ playing is romantic without being cloying.
A frequent collaborator with Duke Ellington, Hodges’ sound is nothing sort of luscious. Far from being easy, the kind of concentration and economy require to play simply and sweetly takes a great deal of hard work. Sauternes is much like this: it’s hard to believe something so lovely comes from grapes that are left to hang on the vine and catch a particular kind of rot that saps out the water from the fruit and concentrates it. Both wine and music are not difficult to enjoy – perhaps more so for knowing how hard it is to be easy.
Wine: Chateau Sigalas Rabaud Sauternes premier cru classe 2005 Bordeaux, France
That about sums it up – and for those of you wine geeks, or jazz aficionados, I know there’s some omissions (Lester Young! Muscadelle!) but that’s all to keep things simple and fun. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!