Category Archives: Mmmmmmmmmmmmm!

FIVE BEAUTIES FROM AN AFTERNOON AT CASA MEZCAL: ROB ADKINS, DAN BLOCK, EHUD ASHERIE (October 5, 2014)

I’ve written before about my new jazz oasis, Casa Mezcal, 88 Orchard Street, which has a Sunday jazz brunch from 1-4 PM with some of my friends (who also happen to be the finest players and singers in New York).  So far I’ve been there exactly twice, but it is now my Sunday-afternoon port of call.  It is a rare pleasure to see and hear music in daylight, to have interestingly non-formulaic Mexican food, and to encounter a gracious staff.  And then there’s good lighting for the videographer who eats my food.

Two Sundays ago, the trio led by string bassist Rob Adkins (a modest, endearing fellow who plays beautifully) was pianist Ehud Asherie and reedman Dan Block, two of my heroes. Ordinarily, the ethereal and always surprising Tamar Korn is in charge (as she was on October 19 — more about that in a future posting) but this afternoon was strictly instrumental, and beautifully so.

Here are five delicacies from that afternoon:

JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS, an early-afternoon romp:

HOW ABOUT YOU? — a song I associate with Judy Garland’s sweet early version.  And New York in October has been as warm as it might be in June:

MISTY, which requires a little explanation.  Most musicians I know loathe this song or play it with much reluctance.  Their reaction has nothing to do with Erroll Garner or with Johnny Mathis, but the song has been pulped by overexposure.  Listen, however, to the tender beauty Dan brings to this (after Ehud’s comic interlude ends):

DREAM, that Johnny Mercer classic, is usually taken as a sweet lullaby, but Dan reimagines it (with great flair) at a walking Basie tempo:

SHOE SHINE BOY was my request, since I’d heard Ehud playing the Lester solo as a swing exercise before the first set began:

I may be weary from trying to find parking, and I may get turned around on Delancey Street and have to ask for directions, but I plan to spend my Sunday afternoons at Casa Mezcal until further notice.  The music is fresh and lively (and so is the guacamole).  See you there!

May your happiness increase!

PERFECTLY CRAFTED: “PLAYGROUND” by the UNACCOUNTED FOUR

I am delighted to share with you the debut CD of an inspired quartet — the Unaccounted Four — a disc called (appropriately) PLAYGROUND, where the arranged passages are as brilliant as the improvisations, and the two kinds of expression dance beautifully through the disc.

playground_front

Menno plays cornet, wrote the arrangements, and composed three originals; David plays clarinet and tenor saxophone; Martien plays guitar; Joep is on string bass; Harrie ven de Woort plays the pianola on the closing track, a brief EXACTLY LIKE YOU.  The disc was recorded at the PIanola Museum in Amsterdam on four days in May 2014 — recorded superbly by bassist Joep.

The repertoire is a well-stirred offering of “classic” traditional jazz repertoire: STUMBLING, CHARLESTON, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, JUBILEE, EXACTLY LIKE YOU; beautiful pop songs: AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, JEANNINE (I DREAM OF LILAC TIME), ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT RHYTHM, LULLABY OF THE LEAVES; originals: WHAT THE FUGUE, UNGUJA, PLAYGROUND; unusual works by famous composers: Ellington’s REFLECTIONS IN D; Bechet’s LE VIEUX BATEAU; and Ravel’s SLEEPING BEAUTY.  Obviously this is a quartet with an imaginative reach.

A musical sample — the Four performing JUBILEE and LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

Here is Menno’s own note to the CD:

A few years ago, I wanted to have my own jazz quartet to play what is known as “classic jazz.” Besides being nice to listen to, I intended the quartet to be versatile, convenient and different. That is why I bypassed the usual format of horn + piano trio. Our instrumentation of two horns, guitar and bass allows for varied tone colors. The venues where we play don’t need to rent a piano, and we don’t have to help the drummer carry his equipment from the car. As for versatility, David Lukacs, Merien Oster and Joep Lumeij are excellent readers and improvisers. They are also great company to hang out with (convenience again).

Our repertoire dates from the 1920s and 30s. The earliest piece is the adaptation of Ravel’s Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (1912); the latest is Ellington’s Reflections in D (1953), not counting my own tunes. While writing the charts, I chose to frame the familiar (and not-so-familiar) tunes in a new setting, rather than following the original recordings. So, for better or worse, the Unaccounted Four sounds like no other band. I promise you will still recognize the melodies, though!

The recording was made at the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam by Joep Lumeij with only two microphones. Minimal editing and postprocessing was done (or indeed possible).

On the last track, Harrie van de Voort operated a pianola which belted out Exactly Like You while we joined in. It is the only completely improvised performance on this disc. Autumn in New York is at the other end of the spectrum with every note written out.

I hope you will enjoy the Unaccounted Four’s particular brand of chamber jazz.

Menno’s statement that the Unaccounted Four “sounds like no other band” is quite true.  If I heard them on the radio or on a Blindfold Test, I might not immediately recognize the players, but I wouldn’t mistake the band for anyone else. I think my response would be, “My goodness, that’s marvelous.  What or whom IS that?”

Some listeners may wonder, “If it doesn’t sound like any other band, will I like it?”  Fear not.  One could put the Four in the same league as the Braff-Barnes quartet at their most introspective, or the Brookmeyer-Jim Hall TRADITIONALISM REVISITED.  I think of the recordings Frankie Newton made with Mary Lou Williams, or I envision a more contemplative version of the 1938 Kansas City Six or the Kansas City Four.

But here the CD’s title, PLAYGROUND, is particularly apt. Imagine the entire history of melodic, swinging jazz as a large grassy field.  Over there, Bobby Hackett and Shorty Baker are talking about mouthpieces; in another corner, Lester Young, Gil Evans, and Miles Davis are lying on their backs staring at the sky.  Billy Strayhorn and Claude Thornhill are admiring blades of grass; Frank Trumbauer is introducing Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang to Lennie Tristano and Oscar Pettiford; Tony Fruscella and Brew Moore are laughing at something witty Count Basie has said. Someone is humming ROYAL GARDEN BLUES at a medium tempo; another is whistling a solo from the Birth of the Cool sides.

You can continue this game at your leisure (it is good for insomniacs and people on long auto trips) but its whimsical nature explains PLAYGROUND’s particular sweet thoughtful appeal.

It is music to be savored: translucent yet dense tone-paintings, each three or four-minute musical interlude complete in itself, subtle, multi-layered, full of shadings and shifts.  The playing throughout is precise without being mannered, exuberant when needed but never loud — and happily quiet at other times. Impressionism rather than pugilism, although the result is warmly emotional.

Some CDs I immediately embrace, absorb, and apparently digest: I know their depths in a few hearings.  With PLAYGROUND, I’ve listened to it more than a half-dozen times, and each time I hear new aspects; it has the quiet resonance of a book of short stories, which one can keep rereading without ever being bored.

For me, it offers some of the most satisfying listening experiences I have had of late.

The CD can be downloaded or purchased from CDBaby, downloaded from iTunes or Amazon; or one can visit Menno’s own site here, listen to sound samples, and purchase the music from him.

Enjoy the PLAYGROUND.  You have spacious time to explore it.

May your happiness increase!

DOIN’ THE MIDTOWN LOWDOWN: GORDON AU’S GRAND STREET STOMPERS ASCEND (October 22, 2014)

I don’t believe that the venue in itself makes the music — the 1938 Goodman band was spectacular before it had its date at Carnegie Hall — but certain meetings of music and place seem more than significant. Here’s one: Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers will be making their debut appearance at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola this coming Wednesday, October 22, 2014, for two sets — at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

One edition of the Stompers, uncharacteristically outdoors in sunlight: Kevin Dorn, Nick Russo, Rob Adkins,Matt Musselman, Dennis Lichtman, Gordon Au, Molly Ryan, Tamar Korn

One edition of the Stompers, uncharacteristically outdoors in sunlight: Kevin Dorn, Nick Russo, Rob Adkins,Matt Musselman, Dennis Lichtman, Gordon Au, Molly Ryan, Tamar Korn

For this occasion, the Stompers are Gordon, trumpet, compositions, arrangements; Tamar Korn and Molly Ryan, vocals; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Josh Holcomb, trombone; Nick Russo, guitar/banjo; Andrew Hall, bass; and Rob Garcia, drums.

I’ve been following the Stompers as often as I could for the last three years, and have enjoyed (and sometimes video-recorded) them in a variety of settings, from Cafe Carlyle to a Columbia University swing dance, downtown at the Cupping Room and at the Brooklyn mecca Radegast, even a vintage subway car.

But thanks to our friend and friend of hot music Misha Katsobashvili (who runs the New York  Hot Jazz Festival), the Stompers are now in even higher society — in terms of the jazz hierarchy.

The Stompers’ music is wide-ranging and quirky (both adjectives are meant as compliments) — from deepest “traditional jazz” repertoire to obscure pre-1945 pop tunes going all the way back to Gordon’s quizzical and gratifying originals, and unusual arrangements of familiar material, including forays into classical and light classical.  Because of this band, a number of singers have now taken WHILE THEY WERE DANCING AROUND into their repertoires, and who else offers SHE’S A GREAT, GREAT GIRL?  Gordon is also deeply involved in revered Disney songs, which emerge out fresh and lively. Always surprising, never routine.

Here is the site to buy tickets for the October 22 shows.

Why not let yourself go . . . up to Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola this Wednesday?

May your happiness increase!

SHE BURST INTO SONG: REBECCA KILGORE, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT at the ALLEGHENY JAZZ PARTY (September 22, 2014)

Rebecca Kilgore has been one of my favorite singers for more than two decades now.  But life is full of surprises, delights that catch us happily unaware.  At the Allegheny Jazz Party last month, our Becky stepped to the microphone and announced that she — with the help of two dear friends — had written a song.

And then she sang it.  And it was delicious.

The song is THE DAY I LEARNED FRENCH, and she really did dream that she had mastered the language.  When she awoke, she wrote down the melody and sketched out some lyrics.  Mike Horsfall added the harmonization, and Ellen Vanderslice contributed more clever lyrics to give this Kilgore-fantasy its charming shape.

I am thrilled to be able to share this song, and Rebecca’s sprightly performance, with you. And let us not forget those two international jazz masters, Rossano Sportiello and Nicki Parrott, who add their own je ne sais quoi to it all:

For those who — as I do — delight in the spiffy, stylish lyrics, here they are.

 

THE DAY I LEARNED FRENCH

Verse:

One night I lay me down to sleep

I said a pray’r and counted some sheep

But something strange occurred that night

Was I insane? Let me explain…

 

Refrain:

Oh, the day I learned French, I recall with delight

How I woke with a start, feeling ever so smart:

I’d learned French overnight!

And not just parlez vous I knew French through and through

When so sweetly, j’ai dit “oui completely, the day I learned French

 

In a tiny boutique, lingerie from Paris

Seemed to fit parfaitement in the life of une femme

Who could parler so free

And it’s simply magnifique, to discover I could speak

Like a native, creatively phrasing, the day I learned French

 

It was easy, comme ça, comme ci, voilà, voici, j’ai appris

Merci beaucoup, s’il vous plait, alors, le fait accompli!  [to CODA last time]

 

I looked up at the sky, et j’ai vu le soleil

It was shining so brightly I knew this would be a spectacular day

And the birdies sang cui, cui! They were speaking French like me

We were swingin’ and singin’ the Spring in, the day I learned French

CODA:

You can try this at home, if your slumber is deep

You don’t need an excursion or total immersion, just drop off to sleep

And as quick as un, deux, trois, you can dream in French, voilà!

It’s amazingly, dazingly crazy, the way I learned French

It’s easy voici: Merci beaucoup, à bientôt, adieu

Le fait accompli!

 

Music by Rebecca Kilgore and Mike Horsfall
Words by Rebecca Kilgore and Ellen Vanderslice
Copyright 2014 Cherry Pie Music, PO Box 29103, Portland OR 96296

This isn’t the trio’s sole creation.  Non.

In late July, some of Portland’s finest jazz musicians gathered at Dead Aunt Thelma’s Recording Studio in Sellwood to record fresh original material. Project partners Rebecca Kilgore, Ellen Vanderslice, and Mike Horsfall teamed up to produce 18 original songs, with each partner contributing melodies, harmonies and lyrics to the collaboration.  For the recording session, they brought together a dream team of musicians: Randy Porter, piano; Tom Wakeling, string bass; Todd Strait, drums, with guests David Evans, tenor sax; Dan Balmer, guitar; Jon Moak, trombone; Tim Jensen, flute and alto flute; Israel Annoh, percussion; Steve Christofferson, melodica; Mike Horsfall, vibes and arranging. Special guest Susannah Mars performed a duet with Rebecca on “You Make It Look So Easy,” and contributed vocal harmonies on “A Christmas Lullabye.”

A CD release (details to be announced) is just one of the ways the team hopes to make this sparkling new music available.

And something festive nearer at hand: Becky and friends will be releasing a Christmas EP with 3 original songs.  The title cut is “It’s Getting To Be That Time Of Year” with words and music by Ms. K.

May your happiness increase!

DAN BLOCK AND FRIENDS at THE ALLEGHENY JAZZ PARTY (Sept. 18, 2014): DAN BLOCK, HARRY ALLEN, DAN BARRETT, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, JON BURR, PETE SIERS

What follows is a glowing sample of what the masters of any art do, communally and individually: assembling without fanfare for a common purpose, speaking their piece in turn, collaborating to create something beautiful that never existed before.

The inspiring Dan Block (reed master, here playing tenor saxophone) got together with friends and peers at the informal Thursday night session at the 2014 Allegheny Jazz Party and showed us — without being didactic — how it is done.

The friends are Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Dan Barrett, trombone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Jon Burr, string bass; Pete Siers, drums. The text for their sweet explorations was FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE — by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, but presented without Hart’s rather dark lyrics, and moved into a lilting swing rhythm for us:

I think music-making at this level is an absolute gift, given freely and generously by the finest artists. Happily, they were performing for an attentive, hushed audience who were, in every sense of the phrase, “getting it.”  Gifts like these come back to the givers.  See the contented smiles on the faces of the musicians as they bask in the warmth of their own creations.  Not immodestly, but joyously, congratulating each other on creating such an uplifting community.

This beauty — in varied hues — sprang to life often during the Allegheny Jazz Party.  I am certain such beauty will flourish again in September 2015.

But that’s a long way away, so let me point you to something closer (if you live in New York or environs).  I will be away, so you have to see and hear for yourself.

The Dan Block Quintet will offer a program he calls “Mary Lou Williams and Benny Carter Meet Hard Bop” at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (that’s Broadway and 60th Street) on Wednesday, October 8th.  Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.  The Quintet is Dan, saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums.  One may reserve by phone (212-258-9595) or in person after 6P.M. daily at the club.  It’s a $30 cover, $20 for students.

Block, Allen, Barrett, Sportiello, Burr, Siers — all masters.  Follow them and be uplifted.

May your happiness increase!

A FEW GLOWING SECONDS OF GLORY

When I returned to my apartment in New York, I thought, “I need music in here. Music will help remind me who I am, what I am supposed to be doing, where my path might lead.”  Initially I reached for some favorite performances for consolation, then moved over to the crates of homemade audiocassettes — evidence of more than twenty-five years of tape-trading with like-minded souls.

One tape had the notation PRIVATE CHICAGO, and looking at it, I knew that it was the gift of Leonora Taylor, who preferred to be called “Gypsy,” and who had an unusual collection of music.  When I asked drummer / scholar Hal Smith about her, he reminded me that she loved the UK clarinetist Archie Semple. Although I don’t recall having much if any Archie to offer her, we traded twenty or thirty cassettes.

PRIVATE CHICAGO had some delightful material recorded (presumably) at the Evanston, Illinois house of Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft — amateur pianist, sometime composer, friend / benefactor to jazz musicians. Squirrel was both a dear friend of Pee Wee Russell, Joe Rushton, Eddie Condon, Boyce Brown, Johnny Mercer, George Barnes, Lee Wiley, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and many others — one facet of a very intriguing life.  He deserves a biography.

But back to the music.

I played through the side of the cassette, rewound it, and played it again.  And I kept returning to a short improvisation: BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, played by Johnny Windhurst (cornet or trumpet) and Jack Gardner (piano) with possibly other players in the background — I hear a murmuring clarinet offering harmony notes — recorded, Gypsy’s typed notes say, circa 1950.

Neither Windhurst nor Gardner is as well known as they should be. Windhurst (1926-1981) was recognized young as a brilliant player, and got to play with the best — Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster in Boston when he wasn’t voting age, then Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Kenny Kersey, John Field, Jimmy Crawford a few years later, moving on to be one of Eddie Condon’s regulars, briefly recording with Jack Teagarden and on his own date with Buell Neidlinger, on a Walt Gifford session, with Barbara Lea (he was both colleague and boyfriend) then moving upstate to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he died too young (once being mugged and beaten) of a heart attack.

I saw him in person once, at Your Father’s Mustache in New York in 1972 — with Herb Hall and Herb Gardner (the latter someone who is very much with us) and Red Balaban.  Windhurst was capable of the most beautiful melodic flights of fancy — a cross between heavenly music of the highest order and Bobby Hackett — but he couldn’t read music, disdained the idea of doing so, and thus turned down higher-paying and possibly higher-visibility gigs from bandleaders.  I read somewhere that Woody Herman wanted to hire him, offered him good pay, promised to teach him to read, but Windhurst — a free spirit — would have none of it.

There is one video extant of Windhurst — I wrote about it, and him, in 2009 (and received wonderful comments from people who had played alongside him) here.

I did not know much about pianist Gardner, except that what I’ve heard suggests a delicate barrelhouse approach, and I seem to recall he was a large man called by some “Jumbo Jack.” But an exquisite biographical sketch of Jack by the diligent writer and researcher Derek Coller can be found here.  (Our Jack Gardner is not the man who led an orchestra in Dallas in 1924-5.)  Jack first recorded with Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland, then got more visibility with Harry James (you can hear him on SLEEPY TIME GAL and he is also on Sinatra’s first recording with James) 1939-40, then he crops up with Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Bud Freeman, and after being captured on sessions at Squirrel’s from 1950-52, we hear no more from him.

I know THE BATTLE  HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC as a very assertive religious song in which the enemies of the Lord receive divine punishment:  “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and so on, even though later verses of the song — known to how many? — suggest that there is a balm of kindness.

More importantly than the theological, I and others know it as a hot number — think of “Red Nichols” as played by Danny Kaye and “Louis Armstrong” as played by himself in THE FIVE PENNIES, sending the sermon. Everyone from Art Hodes to George Lewis to Gerry Mulligan has recorded it, but I suggest that no version you will ever hear matches the sweet delicacy of this brief celestial interlude by Windhurst and Gardner.

Windhurst doesn’t venture far from the melody — the recording catches less than a whole chorus, and aside from a bluesy transformation near the end, it is melodic embellishment rather than harmonic improvisation.  But he treats the melodic line with lightness, fervor, and love; every note is caressed; his tone is so beautiful as to make “golden” into an affront.  Gardner plays a simplified version of barrelhouse support but never gets in Windhurst’s way. The whole duet is tender, yearning — the music of the spheres in under a minute.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

May your happiness increase!

BALLADS BY HARRY ALLEN, DAN BLOCK, BOB HAVENS, DUKE HEITGER, JON-ERIK KELLSO, RANDY REINHART, ANDY SCHUMM, REBECCA KILGORE, DAN BARRETT, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, MARTY GROSZ, FRANK TATE, JOHN VON OHLEN (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 22, 2013)

Norman Granz took credit for inventing what came to be called “the ballad medley” for his concert performances.  Rather than have everyone stand onstage and take solo choruses on what might be a fourteen-minute BODY AND SOUL, Granz proposed — for variety’s sake — that each of the musicians would emerge from the wings, hastily tell the rhythm section what (s)he had chosen, both song and key, and play or sing a chorus of it, then exit.

For the audience, it is a parade of small memorable delights. First, it reminds us what great players and singers can create within the space of one chorus of a song — note that, at their most leisurely, these performances are two minutes apiece. They offer us subtle embellishments on enduring melodies.  And the tempos!  Once upon a time, there was a precious little thing called the RHYTHM BALLAD, which meant that even if the lyrics said, “I am throwing myself out of the window because you don’t love me,” the rhythm ticked quietly underneath in medium tempo.  The ballad medley requires a perfectly attentive and wise rhythm section, especially a pianist who can respond in a second to something muttered, “WHEN DAY IS DONE, three flats,” modulate in to the proper key and be ready.

The late Joe Boughton, who delighted in jazz ballads, made sure that his jazz parties always included such interludes.

On September 22, 2013, at the closing set of Jazz at Chautauqua, a series of small miraculous evocations came and went in front of our eyes.  I am honored to have been there and privileged to capture much of the ballad medley for you.

The participants are Rossano Sportiello, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar / vocal; Frank Tate, string bass; John Von Ohlen, drums; Jon-Erik Kellso, Andy Schumm, Randy Reinhart, Duke Heitger, trumpets; Dan Barrett, Bob Havens, trombones; Andy Stein, violin; Harry Allen, Dan Block, reeds; Rebecca Kilgore, vocal.

EASY LIVING (Harry Allen), DAY DREAM (Dan Block), CAN’T HELP LOVIN’ THAT MAN (Bob Havens), I KNOW WHY (Duke Heitger):

I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME (Jon-Erik Kellso):

MY FUNNY VALENTINE (Randy Reinhart); PLEASE (Andy Schumm); LAURA (Andy Stein); IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN (Marty Grosz); SOPHISTICATED LADY (Rossano Sportiello):

And a wonderful closing serenade, OHIO by Rebecca Kilgore and Dan Barrett:

OHIO offers a perfect transition.  Jazz at Chautauqua has changed its name and moved west — to Cleveland, Ohio — but I know its essential musical nature will not diminish or change.  It’s now the Allegheny Jazz Party, beginning on Thursday, September 18, and concluding (with a ballad medley) on Sunday, September 21.  I hope your life-path and travel plans allow you to be there!

May your happiness increase!