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!

GENTLY BUT FIRMLY: HOT CLUB PACIFIC: “JIVE AT FIVE”

HCP front

Looking at the sleeve, one could underrate this sweet session from a group of West Coast players as just another “Hot Club” effort.  But the listener who goes within the cardboard has pleasant surprises in store.

For one thing, the HCP is not bowing low to the Quintette of the Hot Club of France in its most famous — and most imitated — Thirties incarnation, with one solo guitar, two rhythm, one violin, one string bass.

Rather, it emulates in its instrumentation the later Reinhardt – Rostaing efforts, clarinet instead of violin. And the group eschews some of the more limiting aspects of “Gypsy jazz,” especially the note-laden guitar solos at searing tempos.

No, this Hot Club leans more towards a Basie / Charlie Christian aesthetic, which is fine with me. The prime movers here are Marc Schwartz (lead guitar), Jack Fields (rhythm guitar), Dale Mills (clarinet), Nat Johnson, Bill Bosch, or Matt Bohn (bass), Olaf Schipiacasse (drums).  And you’ll see from the tune list below that they have neatly sidestepped some of the most overplayed numbers in the G.S. repertoire, for which relief much thanks.

HCP back

I know what follows next might seem like faint praise, but as I was listening to JIVE AT FIVE, I kept noting those corners and musical niches where lesser players might have stuffed in familiar quotes, phrases taken from famous records — in short, cliches.  And each time the band went its own happy swinging way, which is always reassuring.

Here is the HCP Facebook page, and here is what I wrote about them a few years back — with convincing videos.

The HCF has regular gigs in the Santa Cruz / Monterey area, best checked on the Facebook page.  But for pictures of the band and booking information, there’s no better place than here.

The CD is a limited edition, so don’t wait too long to snap up a copy — or else you will be fishing around on eBay.  And if you don’t feel that my endorsement is sufficient proof, how about this: guitar maestri Paul Mehling, Howard Alden, and Larry Coryell have visited and sat in during the band’s ten-year run.  That’s good enough for me.

 May your happiness increase!

HOT HOMEOPATHY, or THE PRACTITIONERS WILL SEE YOU NOW

The theory of homeopathy, greatly oversimplified, is that like cures like.  I offer you four practitioners of the most healing art of heartfelt swing: Ray Skjelbred, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

Here they pay tribute both to Jess Stacy and to those low-down (yet rocking) blues, in their version of Mister Stacy’s EC-STACY, recorded at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2014:

I feel better now.  A dose of The Quiet Blues was just what the doctors ordered.

May your happiness increase!

A WARMING TREND: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, DOUG FINKE, CHRIS DAWSON, MARTY EGGERS, KATIE CAVERA, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 28, 2014)

As I write these words, it is once again snowing in New York.  This calls for drastic measures.  More than a snow shovel or ice scraper, more than a down parka or silk underwear.

I need to heat things up.  And I know just the source of gentle but persuasive warming:

Just as a public service, I will point out that the song is the venerable yet still very lively JAZZ ME BLUES, played here on November 28, 2014, at the San Diego Jazz Fest, by a collection of swing superheroes: Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

If every JAZZ LIVES reader now enduring a cold climate would turn the volume up and open a window, I believe we would have the best kind of global warming, with no deleterious side effects.  Or if that theory does not appeal, I suggest you do what I’ve been doing — playing this performance over and over, admiring its broad structure and many subtleties.

May your happiness increase!