“DUCHESS” SWINGS BY, ON DISC AND IN PERSON

A delicious new group has made an equally satisfying debut CD.  See here!

DUCHESS — an ebullient female trio — is quirky, swinging, silly, and loose but exact.  The three “girl singers,” justly known for their own solo work, are Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou — listed here in alphabetical order, no ranking implied — and they are backed by swinging modernists  —  Michael Cabe, piano; Paul Sikivie, string bass; Matt Wilson, drums; Jeff Lederer, saxophone (1, 5, 6, 9, 11); Jesse Lewis, guitar (1, 2, 7, 8).  The surprising and fresh arrangements are by producer Oded Lev-Ari for their debut CD on the Anzic label.  You can read more about DUCHESS here.

Many jazz groups have clear antecedents or they follow a pattern (you can provide your own examples here).  But I don’t think there’s been any group like DUCHESS for decades.  This isn’t to suggest that they are a conscious re-enactment of the past, although they do perform one spiffy homage to the Boswell Sisters on HEEBIE JEEBIES.  They are inspired by Connie, Vet, and Martha, but in the most inventive way — their close harmony performances are startlingly alive and full of surprises, tempo changes, and sophisticated play.

Each track is a miniature symphony for voices, shifting their places in the great musical dance, and a lively improvising ensemble.  For one instance — there is a famous second bridge to P.S., I LOVE YOU (which I know from Sinatra’s Capitol version): in this new version, each of the singers takes one line in the bridge, something so pleasingly startling that I had to play the track again to be sure I’d heard correctly.

The atmosphere isn’t a re-creation of the Boswell Sisters’ recordings or of their “approach” in some mechanistic way, but DUCHESS seems — to my ears, anyway, to play with the question, “What would the cheerful radicalism of the Sisters’ elastic improvisations be like with three different singers and a new band, all of us fully cognizant of what has come after 1936?”  So one hears a rhythmic pulse that evokes the Basie band brought forward in to this century, and tenor saxophone playing that sounds like Paul Gonsalves, updated and made even more personal.  The magnificently musical drumming of Matt Wilson drives it all along, with quiet brushwork when the mood requires it.

This is one of those CDs that doesn’t fully reveal all its pleasures or exhaust itself on one hearing.  I was so delighted, listening to voices and instruments tumbling over each other in neatly acrobatic exuberance, that I haven’t yet figured everything out (who is that singing now; who’s leading the harmony?) after several listenings.  I can only say that the three voices are singular in themselves, in range, timbre, and sound, but that they blend marvelously. And the blending is anything but formulaic.  One can’t go to sleep while DUCHESS is romping.  Their simple cheerfulness blasts through LOVE BEING HERE WITH YOU, LOLLIPOP, the aforementioned HEEBIE JEEBIES, and even in the medium-tempo swaggering performance I hear the whole group grinning.  But for me the real triumphs are the more tender offerings: a melting QUE SERA, SERA, P.S., I LOVE YOU; a shape-shifting I’LL BE SEEING YOU, and BLAH, BLAH, BLAH — that most surprising comic love poem.

Speaking of BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, here’s the group’s live performance of that Gershwin opus at their home base, the 55 Bar:

This points up another facet of DUCHESS — their willingness to traverse the ground between silly and witty.  They aren’t slapsticky in their comedy, but their light-hearted approach is elevating.  And they are never blah.

Here are the songs on the CD:

1. “I Love Being Here with You” (Peggy Lee, Bill Schluger) / 2. “There Ain’t No Sweet Man” (Fred Fisher) / 3. “Que Sera, Sera” (Jay Livingston, Ray Evans) / 4. “My Brooklyn Love Song” (Ramey Idriss, George Tibbles, featuring Hilary) / 5. “A Doodlin’ Song” (Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, featuring Amy) / 6. “A Little Jive Is Good for You” (Ralph Yaw) / 7. “P.S. I Love You” (Johnny Mercer, Gordon Jenkins) / 8. “Hummin’ to Myself” (Sammy Fain, Herb Magidson, Monty Siegel, featuring Melissa) / 9. “It’s a Man” (Cy Coben) / 10. “I’ll Be Seeing You” (Irving Kahal, Sammy Fain) / 11. “Lollipop” (Beverly Ross, Julius Dixon) / 12. “Blah, Blah, Blah” (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) / 13. “Heebie Jeebies” (Boyd Atkins)

You can bring some of this joy into your life with the CD, or, if you are in the tri-state area, you should know that DUCHESS, backed by the same band as on the album, will perform an album-release show at New York City’s Jazz Standard on March 3, 2015.

In most time zones, that’s tomorrow.

Shows are at 7:30 and 10 PM, and you can buy tickets and learn more about the group here.

May your happiness increase!

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FOR THE LOVE OF SWING (AND THE SWING OF LOVE): DANIEL BARDA, LOUIS MAZETIER, JERÔME ETCHEBERRY, CHARLES PRÉVOST: JANUARY 30, 2015

This delightful swing aubade came to me — and I hope many others — through Facebook, and I learned that this is trombonist Daniel Barda’s Super Swing Project, “Hommage à Fats Waller,” performed on January 30 of this year at Jazzclub Ja-ZZ Rheinfelden (www.ja-zz.ch).

I also must thank the recordist, Peter Gutzwiller, for making this delightful effusion both permanent and accessible to us.

Aside from Monsieur Barda, whom we know from Paris Washboard, there is the superb trumpeter Jerôme Etcheberry (of Les Swingberries), the most honored Louis Mazetier, a stride monarch, and the swinging washboardist Charles Prévost.

They pay tribute to Mister Waller in a charming and convincing way — not by offering their own faster-than-light improvisations on his compositions, not by singing YOUR FEETS TOO BIG, but by jamming in medium-tempo and a little faster on three lovely early-Thirties songs that have swing built in to them.  “Here’s another good old good one that all the musicians in the house love to jam,” as Louis would say.

I think it’s no accident that all three of these songs — if you consider their lyrics, which musicians used to do — are love songs.  One declares that they eyes are indeed the windows to the soul, and both entities entranced the singer; one wishes for a more perfect union of the singer and the Love Object; one expresses delighted incredulity that the blissful union has come to pass.  It just reinforces that love is an inexhaustible subject, and that the best music is love in action. Swing out, you lovers!

I dream of a time when one would give one’s Beloved some Commodore discs for a birthday present, for Valentine’s Day.

THEM THERE EYES:

IF DREAMS COME TRUE:

I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME:

It makes me very happy to experience these videos, and to be reassured that such beauty is taking place all around the world.  Blessings on these four gentlemen and also on the man behind the camera.

May your happiness increase! 

TAKE ME TO THAT LAND OF GROSZ

I expect that Marty Grosz, who celebrates his eighty-fifth birthday on February 28, would say something acerbic about any fuss.  But those who know  him have worked hard to get around his sharp-edged humor, his nostalgia for the old days when jazz was played in “joints,” “saloons,” and “toilets,” to savor the swing alchemy he so generously offers.  And he has offered it to us on record since 1951, when the label read MART GROSS and then listed him in the credits as “Beef” Gross.

Marty in the studio, May 2008

Marty in the studio, May 2008

But returning to the fuss.  All I will say here is that I am delighted to live in his world, where getting hot is the highest aim of humankind — swinging, that is, not simply making a racket on the bandstand.  I admire his rhythmic pulse, the sound of his acoustic guitar in the ensemble.  And his singing — somewhere between Fats and Red McKenzie (he is a peerless balladeer, although his favorite tunes tend to be medium and medium-up) — as well as his arranging, something he’s less credited for.

I’d heard and seen Marty as far back as 1974, when he was an invaluable member of Soprano Summit, and then began to buy his records — the duets with Wayne Wright and the many small-band sides on Aviva, Stomp Off, Jazzology, Nagel-Heyer and others.  In 2004, I had an opportunity to renew my admiration, and heard at length from Marty about Trollope, Frank Chace, the old days, and the Decline of the West.  Most often I saw — and eventually video-recorded him — at Jazz at Chautauqua, now the Allegheny Jazz Party, with detours to Philadelphia and the occasional New York club.

Here are a few excursions into the Land of Grosz from Chautauqua.  (I’ve not enumerated the noble Men of Grosz but they are credited in the descriptions.)

CHERRY (2011):

TIN ROOF BLUES (2012):

IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE (2012):

You can find more — here — and other admirers worldwide have captured their very own Adventures in Swing under Marty’s leadership.

If you think about what a birthday celebration means, it may vary with age.  A six-year old’s birthday might mean, “Goodness, what a big person you are becoming!”  For someone older, I think the sentiment is, “We are so happy to have you with us.  We are grateful to you.”  As we are.

May your happiness increase!

ON THE CREST OF A THRILL: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI and MICHAEL KANAN CREATE BEAUTY (February 8, 2015)

What follows is so much more than a formulaic visit to the Great American Songbook by a singer and a pianist.  What Gabrielle Stravelli and Michael Kanan offer us here is nothing short of miraculous.

I think of the eloquent reedman, now gone, Leroy “Sam” Parkins, who — when confronted by music that was deeply heartfelt and expert without artifice — would hit himself in mid-chest and say, “Gets you right in the gizzard, doesn’t it?” And he spoke with great conviction about musicians who knew the sacred wisdom of “taking their time,” of letting beauty unfold at its own pace.

Sam never got to hear Gabrielle and Michael, but I sense his approving spirit.

The music here is so emotionally deep without play-acting (“Look how much drama we can wring out of this old song!”) and it is both intense and leisurely, because they know that the slow growth of real feeling cannot be hurried.

They offer a rich quiet mixture of delicacy and intensity; they create a wondrous synergy, inspiring one another.

The song is STAIRWAY TO THE STARS, music by Matty Malneck and Frank Signorelli (both jazz improvisers who you’ll find on many recordings from the Twenties to the Sixties), lyrics by Mitchell Parish.  It’s a sweet ballad, but Gabrielle and Michael keep the tempo moving, even though it feels like a thoughtful rubato throughout.

Please note the absolutely reverent attention given to the nuances of melody that Michael brings to his somberly hopeful exposition of the theme — a completely satisfying musical offering in itself.  Then Gabrielle’s quietly hopeful song — with Michael playing the most sensitive intuitive accompaniment (and I see “accompaniment” here as a lovely friendship, with the two of them sweetly climbing those stairs as the lyrics suggest).

Gabrielle’s voice in itself is a rare thing, but what she does with and within it is simply incomparable:

This performance took place on Sunday, February 8, 2015 — at The Drawing Room, 56 Willoughby Street, Brooklyn (easily reached by a half-dozen subway lines).  When I have brought myself and my camera to a place where such music is created in front of my eyes, I do not simply feel rewarded; I feel uplifted.  And grateful beyond my power to express here.

I also think this performance should remind people who dearly love music that it is being created right now, all around us.  It exists in human form: people with voices and instruments, inventing beauty on the spot. The music is large, vividly alive, and energized — in ways that earbuds cannot contain.  Even this video is a shadow on the cave wall — encapsulating the experience but not a complete equivalent for it.

My words are more than “Go and hear some live music,” although that is also my intent.  To be in a place where actual people are creating something like this in public is an experience more inspiring than clicking the icon to download the track . . . but many people seem to have forgotten this.  Honor the music by joining the creators, while it and they still thrive.

May your happiness increase!

ELEGANTLY IMAGINATIVE: ECHOES OF SWING, “BLUE PEPPER”

I begin somberly . . . but there are more cheerful rewards to follow.

As the jazz audience changes, I sense that many people who “love jazz” love it most when it is neatly packed in a stylistically restrictive box of their choosing. I hear statements of position, usually in annoyed tones, about banjos, ride cymbals, Charlie Parker, purity, authenticity, and “what jazz is.”

I find this phenomenon oppressive, yet I try to understand it as an expression of taste.  One stimulus makes us vibrate; another makes us look for the exit.  Many people fall in love with an art form at a particular stage of it and their development and remain faithful to it, resisting change as an enemy.

And the most tenaciously restrictive “jazz fans” I know seem frightened of music that seems to transgress boundaries they have created .  They shrink back, appalled, as if you’d served them a pizza with olives, wood screws, mushrooms, and pencils.  They say that one group is “too swingy” or “too modern” or they say, “I can’t listen to that old stuff,” as if it were a statement of religious belief.  “Our people don’t [insert profanation here] ever.”

But some of this categorization, unfortunately, is dictated by the marketplace: if a group can tell a fairly uninformed concert promoter, “We sound like X [insert name of known and welcomed musical expression],” they might get a booking. “We incorporate everyone from Scott Joplin to Ornette Coleman and beyond,” might scare off people who like little boxes.

Certain musical expressions are sacred to me: Louis.  The Basie rhythm section. And their living evocations.  But I deeply admire musicians and groups, living in the present, that display the imaginative spirit.  These artists understand that creative improvised music playfully tends to peek around corners to see what possibilities exist in the merging of NOW and THEN and WHAT MIGHT BE.

One of the most satisfying of these playful groups is ECHOES OF SWING. Their clever title says that they are animated by wit, and this cheerful playfulness comes out in their music — not in “comedy” but in an amused ingenuity, a lightness of heart.  They have been in action since 1997, and when I saw them in person (the only time, alas) in 2007, they were wonderfully enlivening.

This action photograph by Sascha Kletzsch suggests the same thing:

EchoesOfSwingInAction1 (Foto Sascha Kletzsch, v.l. Lhotzky, Hopkins, Dawson, Mewes)

They are Colin T. Dawson, trumpet / vocal;  Chris Hopkins, alto sax; Bernd Lhotzky, piano; Oliver Mewes, drums.  And they are that rarity in modern times, a working group — which means that they know their routines, and their ensemble work is beautiful, offering the best springboards into exhilarating improvisatory flights. They are also “a working group,” which means that they have gigs.  Yes, gigs!  Check out their schedule here.

Here  is a 2013 post featuring their hot rendition of DIGA DIGA DOO, and an earlier one about their previous CD, MESSAGE FROM MARS, with other videos — as well as my favorite childhood joke about a Martian in New York City here.  And while we’re in the video archives, here is a delicious eleven-minute offering from in November 2014:

and here they are on German television with a late-period Ellington blues, BLUE PEPPER:

All this is lengthy prelude to their new CD, aptly titled BLUE PEPPER:

EchoesOfSwing  - BluePepperCover

The fifteen songs on the disc are thematically connected by BLUE, but they are happily varied, with associations from Ellington to Brubeck and Nat Cole, composers including Gordon Jenkins, Rodgers, Bechet, Waller, Strayhorn — and a traditional Mexican song and several originals by members of the band: BLUE PEPPER / AZZURRO / BLUE PRELUDE / LA PALOMA AZUL / BLUE & NAUGHTY / BLUE MOON / BLACK STICK BLUES / BLUE RIVER / OUT OF THE BLUE / AOI SAMMYAKU [BLUE MOUNTAIN RANGE] / THE SMURF / BLUE GARDENIA / THE BLUE MEDICINE [RADOVAN’S REMEDY] / WILD CAT BLUES / AZURE.

What one hears immediately from this group is energy — not loud or fast unless the song needs either — a joyous leaping into the music.  Although this band is clearly well-rehearsed, there is no feeling of going through the motions. Everything is lively, precise, but it’s clear that as soloists and as an ensemble, they are happily ready to take risks. “Risks” doesn’t mean anarchy in swingtime, but it means a willingness to extend the boundaries: this group is dedicated to something more expansive than recreating already established music.

When I first heard the group (and was instantly smitten) they sounded, often, like a supercharged John Kirby group with Dizzy and Bird sitting in while at intervals the Lion shoved Al Haig off the piano stool.  I heard and liked their swinging intricacies, but now they seem even more adventurous.  And where some of the most endearing CDs can’t be listened to in one sitting because they offer seventy-five minutes of the same thing, this CD is alive, never boring.

A word about the four musicians.  Oliver Mewes loves the light-footed swing of Tough and Catlett, and he is a sly man with a rimshot in just the right place, but he isn’t tied hand and foot by the past.  Bernd Lhotzky is a divine solo pianist (he never rushes or drags) with a beautiful lucent orchestral conception, but he is also someone who is invaluable in an ensemble, providing with Oliver an oceanic swing that fifteen pieces could rest on.  I never listen to this group and say, “Oh, they would be so much better with a rhythm guitar or a string bassist.”

And the front line is just as eloquent.  Colin T. Dawson is a hot trumpet player with a searing edge to his phrases, but he knows where each note should land for the collective elegance of the group — and he’s a sweetly wooing singer in addition.  Chris Hopkins (quiet in person) is a blazing marvel on the alto saxophone — inventive and lyrical and unstoppable — in much the same way he plays the piano.

And here is what my wise friend Dave Gelly wrote: It’s hard to believe at first that there are only four instruments here. The arrangements are so ingenious, and the playing so nimble, that it could be at least twice that number. But listen closely and you will discover just a quartet of trumpet, alto saxophone, piano and drums – with absolutely no electronic tricks. The style is sophisticated small-band swing, the material a judicious mixture of originals and swing-era numbers and there is not a hint of whiskery nostalgia in any of it. It’s about time this idiom received some fresh attention and here’s the perfect curtain-raiser.

Here is their Facebook page, and their website.

We are fortunate that they exist and that they keep bringing us joyous surprises.

May your happiness increase!

CLESS IS ALWAYS MORE

Clarinetist Rod Cless, one of my heroes, died far too young.  To most people, his is an unfamiliar name, encountered — if at all — in liner notes or on the label of a few 78s.  But he had a beautiful bright tone and was a delightfully satisfying ensemble player.  As a soloist, he had some of the surprise of Pee Wee Russell but his energies were more often quietly subversive: a Cless chorus sounded sometimes like an easy melodic paraphrase, broken here and there by logical chord explorations — but when it was through, it stuck in the mind as a compact invention of its own.

I’ve written about Cless here (this posting has four audio samples) and here is a reminiscence by clarinetist Paul Nossiter, who actually took lessons from Cless. And my friend Jim Denham has offered his own touching assessment, the very beautiful elegy by James McGraw, and four other audio samples here.

It’s easy to feel isolated in this world, so one of the nicest parts of having this blog is that people reach out to me.  I’m in touch with a young woman whose grandfather dated Billie Holiday, and I hope to have more of that story for you in the future.  And another benevolent reader — Nick, from the UK — found me and offered his own comprehensive audio collection — downloadable files — of everything Rod Cless recorded.  These links, he mentions, may be taken down soon if not used — so let that be an encouragement to you to immerse yourself in Cless, and to have another spirit-friend in music lift up your days and nights.  (If you encounter problems with the links, he bravely suggests that he can be reached at nddoctorjazz@googlemail.com.)

Here is what Nick sent to me.  I think it’s a generous gift.

“Many years ago I gave a record recital to my local society on Joe Marsala. At that time I thought that I should do the same for another clarinet player, Rod Cless, but was surprised to find how little of his music was in my collection apart from the Muggsy Spanier Ragtime Band sessions. I wrote to my old band leader, an excellent amateur clarinettist, for help and he also had very few recordings by him! Many of the original records had not been reissued in Europe. I abandoned the idea and kept my eyes open for likely discs on second-hand record lists. By last August I had enough to give the recital.

I then decided to collect his entire oeuvre together using Tom Lord’s Discography as my source. The music has never been published in this way before. On a couple of the early sessions, he does not solo and may not be present but all is included. I had to use the internet for a few tracks to fill gaps. For instance, I have a Doctor Jazz LP (Signature 78s material) with the Yank Lawson Band but it omitsWhen I grow Too Old To Dream for no obvious reason as It is a good track. I found this on a blog, Jazz Rhythm, <http://jazzhotbigstep.com/24264.html > from a radio program on James P Johnson with guest commentator Mark Borowsky. Other material has poorish sound. Even some commercial CD reproduction is substandard, i.e.: Art Hodes Columbia Quintet. I don’t think that the originals could be improved!

Having got this material together, it seemed a shame not to share it. Apologies for the variable sound and file formats.

It has all been uploaded to Zippyshare which is a no frills site, which restricts file size to 200 MB:

Rod Cless – 1 ~ Early Years & Discography.rar (Size: 98.73 MB)

http://www17.zippyshare.com/v/sgGS4s3f/file.html

Hodes-1940 Groups.rar (Size: 190.05 MB)

http://www17.zippyshare.com/v/mZ2Jth9r/file.html

Hodes-1942 Groups.rar (Size: 71.1 MB)

http://www8.zippyshare.com/v/BBKxGbKi/file.html

Hodes Chicagoans-1944.rar (Size: 164.21 MB)

http://www1.zippyshare.com/v/2JPVJGQW/file.html

Rod Cless – Small Groups (1943-1944).rar (Size: 149.38 MB)

http://www35.zippyshare.com/v/A3rvXrQH/file.html

KAMINSKY-1944.rar (184.8 MB)

http://www35.zippyshare.com/v/PbMmXfd3/file.html

The Spanier sessions are not included as I expect most people have them with alternate takes.”

May your happiness increase!

“IT’S WONDERFUL”: CONNIE JONES, TIM LAUGHLIN, CHRIS DAWSON, DOUG FINKE, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 28, 2014)

In my dictionary, “Connie Jones” and “it’s wonderful” are synonymous.  Please listen, watch, and admire:

I also like very much that the title of this song Stuff Smith, music; Mitchell Parish, lyrics) is precisely my reaction to it.

The warm delicacy of this performance, from first note to the coda, is superb.  The players, besides Connie, are leader Tim Laughlin, clarinet [who always creates a dear atmosphere where tender music is not only possible but inevitable]; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

Thanks to the San Diego Jazz Fest for making such beautiful music available to us!  And thanks to Connie’s family in the audience — including that brand-new great-grandbaby — and Duke Heitger, who all act as smiling inspirations.

And for the scholars in the audience — this performance is of course an evocation (not a transcription) of the wonderful one created by Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden for the Capitol recording issued as JAZZ ULTIMATE.

It’s wonderful.

May your happiness increase!