Tag Archives: Count Basie

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!

A VIVID MAN: CHARLES “DUFF” CAMPBELL (1915-2014)

Charles “Duff” Campbell — jazz aficionado and art dealer and close friend of the famous — was born on January 9, 1915.  He died on October 3, 2014, peacefully, at his home in San Francisco. Even if he had never become friends with Jelly Roll Morton, Nat Cole, Mary Lou Williams, and many others, he would have been a remarkable man: a childhood in Vladivostok and Shanghai before he returned to California to stay.

Here is an official obituary — but Duff led such a richly varied life this summary cannot begin to tell more than the smallest bit of his tale.

Through the good offices of his dear friend, cornetist Leon Oakley, I was invited to Duff’s house on the afternoon of April 16, 2014, and I brought my video camera.  Duff’s memory was not perfect, and occasionally it took a few questions from Leon to start a story going, but we knew we were in the presence of a true Elder.

He recalled seeing the Ellington band in California in the late Thirties (“They were so damned good”) and hanging out with Mary Lou Williams when she took a solo piano job at a hotel.  “I went to hear everybody,” he said.  “Everybody” meant the Basie  band on an early trip west; Louis and Jack Teagarden in the first All-Stars; Joe Sullivan, Earl Hines, Don Ewell, Darnell Howard, Muggsy Spanier. Duff remembered sitting near Sullivan at Doc Daugherty’s Club Hangover and Sullivan turning to him and saying, “Well, what would you like to hear?”

For me — a born hero-worshipper — Duff was the most real link with the past imaginable.  He sat in a car with Jelly Roll Morton; he drove Art Tatum to and from the gig; he had listening parties with Nat Cole as a guest.

Before anyone turns to the video, a few caveats.  Duff had lost his sight but could still get around his house without assistance, and he had some involuntary muscle movements — so the unsuspecting viewer might think he was terribly comfortable, but he wanted to talk about the days he recalled, and when the afternoon was over he was intent on having us come back soon for more.  It was a warm day and he had dressed formally for his guests, so he was perspiring, but a gentleman didn’t strip down while company was there.  Here are some excerpts from that long interview, with Leon asking Duff questions:

on his encounters with Jelly Roll Morton:

and with Nat King Cole:

a brush with the law:

memories of Art Tatum:

Everyone I’ve ever mentioned Duff to, before and after his passing, has had the same reaction.  We knew and and know now we were in the presence of an Original: quirky, independent, someone who knew what was good and supported it no matter what the crowd liked. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I first met him at one of Mal Sharpe’s Big Money in Jazz afternoons at the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach San Francisco.  I saw an older gentleman sitting in front of the band, as close as he could get, a drink on the table.  He was dancing in his chair, his body replicating every wave of the music.  When I found out who he was and introduced myself (we had a dear mutual friend, Liadain O’Donovan) he was as enthusiastic in speech as he had been in dance.  And I suspect that enthusiasm, that deep curiosity and energy, sustained him for nearly a century.

Goodbye, Duff.  And thank you. It was an honor to be in your presence.

May your happiness increase! 

SOMETHING FOR SIR CHARLES THOMPSON, WHO IS HAPPILY WITH US: RAY SKJELBRED, KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON (Sacramento Music Festival, May 2014)

I had to write that long title; if I just offered Ray’s song title — BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES — readers would jump to the most dire conclusions.  But no! Sir Charles Thompson is in his middle nineties, plays golf, lives in Japan, is happily married.  There’s hope for all of us, although I don’t intend to take up golf.

For about sixty years, Sir Charles has been one of the rare birds of jazz — emerging on record in 1940 with the Horace Henderson band and making his name with Charlie Parker in 1945, on recordings with Buck Clayton (the Jam Sessions and more), Joe Newman, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Morton, Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, and three-quarters of the Basie rhythm section.  Unlike the equally unheralded Nat Pierce, Charles’ version of Basie was stealthily his own, with boppish harmonic underpinnings that never got in the way of his floating swing.  Indeed, the recording Charles made of SWINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES with Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones (John Hammond admired him and welcomed him on sessions for Vanguard and Columbia) is one of the recordings I go to first if someone asks me, “What does swing mean to you?”

Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs were one of the highlights of the 2014 Sacramento Music Festival (they are a highlight wherever I encounter them) and this swinging blues shows them off beautifully — Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar.

BLUES FOR [IN CELEBRATION OF!] SIR CHARLES THOMPSON:

This one’s for everyone who could use a little swing, and it’s especially for my pal Bill Gallagher, who is the official Sir Charles Thompson discographer.

May your happiness increase!

FROM THE STUDIOS OF STATION KLZ: THE DUKE VISITS COLORADO (1942)

More on eBay from the seller “anystuffyouwant” — some remarkable photographs, all new to me.

The first — not an Ellingtonian — is the short-lived tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson, who died in late 1941, less than two weeks after his thirtieth birthday. He played and recorded with Andy Kirk, a Mary Lou Williams small group, and he can also be heard on one of Jerry Newman’s uptown recordings with Harry Edison and Count Basie.  I’ve never seen a portrait of him in action, and I recall that Billie Holiday thought he was one of the most appealing men she’d ever known.

DICK WILSON second tryThe next group of photographs shows the Ellington band — broadcasting over KLZ and in a ballroom. (I presume that they were on their way to California, but do not know if this tour pre-or-post dates JUMP FOR JOY.  However, the string bassist is Junior Raglin, not Jimmie Blanton.)

“Everybody look handsome!”


ELLINGTONIANS Colorado and an autographed portrait of the Rabbit, Mister Johnny Hodges:

HODGES Colorado

Anyone for trombones? From left, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown, and in front, Mister Ben Webster:

BEN and TBNS Colorado

What would the Ellington band have been without stylish Sonny Greer?SONNY GREER ColoradoFinally, two people who didn’t get photographed as often as I would like. One, the utterly irreplaceable Ivie Anderson:

IVIE Colorado

The other, a master of sounds — Tricky Sam Nanton:

TRICKY SAM ColoradoI’ve heard the Ellington band of that period on recordings and live airshots for many decades now, but these photographs bring the sound even closer to me. The other photographs I’ve posted from the same seller were all autographed to “Rollie”: did (s)he take these?  All mysterious, but the evidence that remains — even when slightly damaged by dampness — is wonderfully evocative. (My post on Rollie’s photographs can be seen here.)

The seller also has been displaying pictures of the Lunceford and Hampton bands . . . wonderful finds!

May your happiness increase!

LOVE, WISDOM, AND GREASE: “KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON”

I was reluctant to watch the new documentary, KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON, about the relationship between aging jazz master Clark Terry (now 94) and his young protege Justin Kauflin (now 26). Years ago, Cee Tee told audiences — frequently and loudly — “The Golden Years SUCK!” and what I knew of his medical woes, diabetes culminating in loss of sight, and the amputation of both legs, had left me unwilling to watch a film chronicling the physical decline of a great artist.

CT poster

I now know that this moving documentary is so much more than a chronicle of the physical breakdown of a once-vibrant man.  I came away from the film uplifted by Clark’s indomitable love and spiritual energy, a bubbling life-force that cannot be stifled.

CT

But this is not only a film about Clark Terry. And although there is a good deal of rewarding archival footage (younger Clark with Ellington, Basie, and Quincy Jones) it is not a memorial to him.

Rather, it is about a mutual exchange between Terry and the young, inventive jazz pianist Kauflin who becomes Terry’s student — but at the same time sustains the older man, energizes him, and since Terry was losing his sight, develops into a valuable guide into that other world. (Kauflin lost his sight completely at 11.)

Cee Tee is able to teach the younger man valuable life-lessons about more than music, but Justin returns the favor generously, becoming a son both Terry and his wife can nurture.  The film deftly and tenderly chronicles their relationship, not neglecting the sorrows along the way: Terry has immense medical setbacks; Kauflin is a semi-finalist in the Thelonious Monk competition but other pianists make it to the finals.

At the end of this beautifully photographed and edited film, there have been triumphs.  In Kauflin’s case, he has impressed Dianne Reeves and Quincy Jones, so much so in the latter’s case that Jones has featured the young musician at the Montreux Jazz Festival and has asked him to be part of his next CD.  For Terry, the triumphs are enacted on a smaller scale but are no less important.  He keeps on, and it is not simply a matter of not dying.  In the last minutes of the film, we see him instructing a young saxophonist in how best to phrase a flurry of notes. We leave the film with faith in Terry as a beacon of love and music — and we know that the young men and women he has taught and inspired will go on to inspire generations not yet born.

The film is full of delights: Terry’s instructing Kauflin in “old songs” such as BREEZE, talking with him about Ellington, and helping Kauflin become not only a better pianist but a more courageous young man.  We see Terry’s generous spirit and the loving relationship he and wife Gwen have and sustain, and we understand more about Clark because of brief interviews with Herbie Hancock, Jones, and even an archival clip from Miles Davis.  The film also lets young Kauflin have his say, and he comes across as self-aware, charming, and gracious, very much aware of his debt to his mentor.

Because the film’s director, Alan Hicks, was also a student of Terry’s, the film is lit from within by a rare sensitivity.  It does not view the world of jazz superficially and erroneously from the outside.  The film never seems maudlin or overdone, and critical audiences searching for errors won’t find them.  And the musicians who praise Clark seem so fresh, their voices so authentic.

What any audience will find in this compact film (84 minutes) is love: passing generously between Cee Tee and his fellow musicians, to and from Justin, Gwen, and the characters who are fortunate to be in this aura.  There’s also Justin’s frisky but loving guide dog, Candy (whose name provokes an impromptu Terry vocal on that Forties ballad).

The film offers a model for a sustaining spiritual exchange, where an Elder of the Tribe, honored and respected, has wisdom to pass on to the Youngbloods.  And we can all learn from Terry.  That Kauflin has done so with such easy openness is a testament to his heartfelt nature — Elders need Youngbloods to inspire.  Hicks has returned his love to Terry through this film, which took five years to complete.

I urge you to seek out and watch KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON.  As a document of affectionate mutual generosity and swinging music, it will inspire you. Here is the film’s Facebook page, and here is a brief trailer.

Because for all its sad events, the film is light of heart, I have to conclude with something in that spirit.  I now have a new catchphrase (although I might be reluctant to use it). Terry taught a very young Quincy Jones, who has never forgotten his mentor’s the kindness.  They greet each other with a trumpeters’ in-joke: “Are your lips greasy?” meaning “Are you still playing?  Are you still making the effort?”  I’d like to see that cheerful phrase (puzzling to those not in the know) become part of any conversation.

May your happiness increase!

FUN FOR ALL AGES: DANNY COOTS PLUS TEN at the ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 26, 2014)

Large groupings of musicians on the stand of a jazz  party look impressive but they don’t always come off as well as they might.

But this one was even better than the best I could have imagined — genial, melodic, and always inspired: led by Danny Coots, drums; with Paul Keller, string bass; Randy Napoleon, guitar; Rossano Sportiello, piano; John Cocuzzi, vibes; Dan Block, tenor sax; Allan Vache, clarinet; Dan Barrett, Bob Havens, trombone; Ed Polcer, cornet; Bria Skonberg, trumpet. All this delightful music was created at the 15th Atlanta Jazz Party, late in the evening of April 26, 2014.

The set began with a romping version of PANAMA, but my camera betrayed me. (Note to self: never change batteries in midstream.) So you will have to imagine it. But what followed was even better, WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM:

After the comedy by Allan Vache, Dan Barrett, and Danny himself, we move into a deeply satisfying series of “conversations,” starting with the two trombones.  If you want to go back into recorded history, this device reminds me of Red Nichols sessions where Jack Teagarden played a “hot” chorus while Glenn Miller played the melody sweetly — a delicious simultaneous mixing of tastes.  (I also recall, since Ed Polcer was on this session, nights at the last Eddie Condon’s where Ed and Ruby Braff would switch off — melody and improvisation — for a few choruses, always very inspiring.)  The device also solves the unstated problem — if each of the soloists takes the traditional two choruses, performances stretch out to amazing lengths.  This DREAM is about five minutes of music, but it feels filled to the very brim with melody and swing that floats through the conversations of Ed and Bria, of Dan and Allan (over the rhythm section’s rocking two-beat) — followed by sweet epistles by Randy, Rossano, Paul, and then the tidy but never constricted ensemble — a model of letting everyone have his / her say in a flexible, compact fashion.

I think everyone on the stand was elated by what they had created, and I know the audience was joyful.  Danny then (after more comedy) called for MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME (another “ancient” pop tune that is rarely played — and if it is, not at this walking tempo) that reminds me of the best swing sessions I’ve ever heard, playful improvisation never flagging:

What could top that?  Well, nothing — but adding Rebecca Kilgore to the band to sing some Anita O’Day – Gene Krupa blues, DRUM BOOGIE / BOOGIE BLUES, which is closely related to SENT FOR YOU YESTERDAY, but we’ll let people who care about provenance argue over that.  Me, I simply love to hear Ms. Kilgore sing — and over this sweetly-Basie group, it is a treat:

Couldn’t be better. And I think it’s relevant to mention that another version of all this good feeling and good sounds will be taking place in April 2015.  I’ll be at the Atlanta Jazz Party (April 17-19) as will many of the brilliant players you see here — with some surprises.  Make plans!

May your happiness increase!