RAINBOWS OF SOUND: MARC CAPARONE / RAY SKJELBRED at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 28, 2014)

Double rainbow, Evergreen, Colorado, 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman

Double rainbow, Evergreen, Colorado, 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman

To some, “expressing your gratitudes” is a cliche associated with a certain worldview, a reflex of a privileged class.  But there’s usually plenty to be grateful for.

I think of the words of a character, Chicken Number Two, a dying petty thief in John Cheever’s moving novel of life in prison, FALCONER: ” . . . it’s like a party, even in stir [prison] — even franks and rice taste good when you’re hungry, even an iron bar feels good to touch, it feels good to sleep” (199).

This passage is reverberating in my head because recently I encouraged a friend to read the novel and because Marc Caparone and Ray Skjelbred played THANKS A MILLION at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2014.

THANKS A MILLION

I knew the song first through Louis Armstrong’s Decca recording, even though it was first made popular by Dick Powell in — as they used to say — “the movie of the same name”:

THANKS A MILLION 2

and Jon-Erik Kellso has kept the song alive in this century as well. But hearing Marc and Ray reminds me, as I hope it reminds you, of all the people who make beauty possible: not only Caparone and Skjelbred, but also Armstrong and Jack Kapp (who insisted that his artists record as wide a variety of music as possible) but also Bob Mielke, Dawn Lambeth, Hal Smith, and Paul Daspit.

Such people make rainbows, and double rainbows, of joy and feeling.  I thank them all.  And I have people in my life who don’t play instruments, who evoke such feelings, too.  I am sure my readers do also.

May your happiness increase!

YOU’LL BE INTRODUCED TO GLORY!

Fats Waller and Alex Hill wrote one of the most irresistibly encouraging songs I know, a sweet spiritual paean to optimism, KEEP A SONG IN YOUR SOUL.  I thought it would be fitting to let you hear as many versions of it as I could find.

SONG IN YOUR SOUL cover

Ellington, with a friendly vocal by Chick Bullock (1931):

Fletcher Henderson, arrangement by Benny Carter (1930):

Red Nichols with Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman:

Mamie Smith:

Lou Gold and His Orchestra:

SONG IN YOUR SOUL inside

Now, for some of my favorite intersections — living hot musicians playing beautiful swing classics:

Marty Grosz and his Optimists:

Jeff Barnhart and friends at the 2013 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party:

Michael Hashim with Claudio Roditi:

Bohem Ragtime Jazz Band with Viktoria Vizin:

Howard Alden and Warren Vache:

Rebecca Kilgore with Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers, featuring Marc Caparone, Bobby Gordon, Chris Dawson:

Another version from Jeff Barnhart and a British band with Nick Ward:

And an earlier version from Marty Grosz and his Philosophers:

SONG IN YOUR SOUL Brunswick Bill Robinson

There is a wonderful 1931 recording of Bill Robinson, singing and tapping.  Here is Bojangles as a marionette, invented and manipulated in the most extraordinary way by Bob Baker.  Initially it might seem perverse, but I came to marvel at it.  If you see this as demeaning, Robinson’s wife liked this and encouraged Baker to keep it in his show:

I was excited to see that so many versions are accessible to us, and perhaps I got carried away.  But I love this song, its message that music can make everything right, and I love the ways that the music itself blossoms in so many contexts.

May your happiness increase!

TWO SOULFUL ECCENTRICS: JEFF BARNHART and SPATS LANGHAM, “WE WISH WE WERE TWINS” (LAKE RECORDS LACD 342)

In 2015, Jeff Barnhart and Thomas “Spats” Langham created a new duo CD.  If you know these musicians, there will be no need to do more than click here.  (The ideal way to get copies of the CD will be at a gig, but you already know this.)

JEFF SPATS two

First off, a word of explanation about my title.  Should anyone think I am satirizing either of these artists by calling them “eccentric,” know that I am using the word in its scientific sense to mean unpredictable, original, singular — they are on their own orbits, which is one of the great pleasures of this recording, because Planet Barnhart and Planet Langham create something larger than themselves while remaining true delightful individuals.  Hot synergy, if you like.

Even though this CD presents only two musicians, it gives extraordinary value. Jeff plus Spats equals a whole repertory company: a swing / stride / blues / ragtime pianist; a wonderful rhythm guitarist who also solos in his own way; an imitable banjo wizard; two singers who can emulate Fats Waller or Al Bowlly, who can croon or harmonize or scat, create hilarious jive, double-entendre or suitable for the kiddies; two comedians; two clowns . . . have I left any of the marvelous facets of these two fellows out?  No doubt when you listen to the CD you will hear and think of more.  The sonic and aesthetic density of this CD — every three-minute performance is so nobly complete and emotionally satisfying in itself, a miniature dramatic performance — makes me long for a 78 rpm issue, say a special LAKE Records eleven-record set in its own heavy cardboard album with (of course) cover by Jim Flora.  That way, we’d have to get up and go to the record player at the end of every performance and either savor it in silence or put the needle back to the beginning.

What variety!  Both Jeff and Spats are wise connoisseurs of songs that haven’t been overdone, but the disc is not overly focused on the obscure — there’s also Waller, Berlin, Coots, McHugh, Whiting — although if you’d asked me before the CD came out, “What songs would you love to have this duo doing?” I would have named a few that are here, but the results are a wonderful banquet of delights.  The disc seems intelligently apportioned between the romantic and the hot, with side-dishes of unclassifiable gratifying music, and there’s even a Barhart original that fits right in.  It’s all fulfilling.  I won’t delineate the particular pleasures and surprises — that’s rather like sending someone into a film that you’ve enjoyed to the utmost and saying, “Keep a close eye on what she does with her pearls in the Florida scene,” and the watcher is so focused on what’s-to-come, waiting for it, that the larger creation is somehow made lopsided.

Just to delineate the variety: EVERYWHERE YOU GO / TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE / ALL ALONE / SMOOTH SAILING / SLEEPY HEAD / BLUE EVENING / I COULDN’T GET TO IT / SHAKE IT DOWN / WHAT DO I CARE (What Somebody Said)? / THE BALTIMORE / KING CHANTICLEER / ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE / ISN’T LOVE THE STRANGEST THING? / IT’S YOU / LET’S PRETEND THAT THERE’S A MOON / EVERY EVENING / WITH MY LOVE / SAY IT WITH YOUR FEET – HAPPY FEET / WHEN DID YOU LEAVE HEAVEN? / HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN? / I WISH I WERE TWINS.

Astute listeners will chart the associations — Henry “Red” Allen, Fats, Billie, Doris Day, Ikey Robinson, Bix and Tram, Ellington, Marty Grosz, Russ Columbo, Noone — and more.  But my guess is that the next time you hear, say, I WISH THAT I WERE TWINS, you will think of Jeff and Spats first.

I haven’t had the good fortune to capture Spats and Jeff as a duo, although I have seen and recorded them both — Spats at Whitley Bay for a number of years, Jeff likewise and also in duet with wife Anne (as IVORY&GOLD) . . . but here are two performances of songs you will hear on the CD.

Groucho Marx said that all theatre could be divided into two categories, sad or high-kicking, so it is on that principle that I present the music.

BLUE EVENING (recorded by me at the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party) by Spats, Robert Fowler, tenor saxophone; Martin Litton, piano; Malcolm Sked, brass bass:

WHEN DID  YOU LEAVE HEAVEN? by Jeff, Brian Nalepka, and Jim Lawlor — recorded in October 2015 by my friend CineDevine at Jeff and Joel’s House Party (a twice-yearly explosion of good music you should investigate):

Those two performances will give you strength to wait out the days and nights until the CD arrives, I hope.  Hail Barnhart!  Hail Langham!  Hail Paul Adams of LAKE Records!

May your happiness increase!

LIGHT UP!

I come from the past century — where smoking was accepted in restaurants and jazz clubs.  And I remember coming home from the latter with my clothing redolent of tobacco . . . so I don’t miss it.

But I would gladly take my clothes to the laundry room immediately for a chance to be in either of these places: the first, a vanished New York City; the second, a more recent San Francisco.

ADRIAN ROLLINI matchbookI have to look the next time I am in the area — to see which bank or pharmacy has replaced Jack Dempsey’s.

TURK MURPHY matchbook

The most pleasing part of that second matchbook is that I know people who have played at McGoon’s.

And here’s the theme song of such smoky pleasures . . . more or less:

This is the record label — I think Buster’s only recorded vocal:

LIGHT UP“Let’s all get mellow,” as the song says.

May your happiness increase!

KING OF THE WILD FRONTIER, TRANSFORMED

When that phrase is spoken, some of my generation will — if they allow themselves the vertiginous trip back in time — immediately think of this fellow.

DAVY CROCKETT

That’s Fess Parker, 1924-2010, who became famous in the Disney television series devoted to frontiersman Davy Crockett.  If I allow my memory to follow its own path (and I was very young in 1955-56) I think of the childish eagerness for a fringed jacket and imitation-coonskin cap or at least a fake raccoon-tail to have attached to one’s bicycle.

And then there’s the soundtrack.  Most of us only remember “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee / Killed him a b’ar when he was only three,” but here is the whole chronicle:

Sixty years after the fact, I feel terribly sorry for the b’ar.  And happy that Davy helped his Native American pals: I hope that this is true, not Disney-fried.

Why, however, am I thinking of Davy Crockett?  Do I need reminding that this blog is called JAZZ LIVES and that digressions from that theme will be tolerated but not overmuch?

For this post, readers can thank Robert Greenwood.  Robert, who lives in the UK, is a jazz fan slightly younger than myself.  On Facebook he diligently and reverently posts musical surprises, celebrating the birthdays of our heroes through YouTube videos of their music.  I’ve learned a great deal from his postings, and have enjoyed them greatly.

Recently, Robert posted this 1961 recording of DAVY CROCKETT’S BLUES –featuring Emmanuel Sayles, banjo and vocal; Punch Miller, trumpet, Emmanuel Paul, clarinet — to celebrate Sayles’ birthday (he was born in 1907) :

Were I an eager young graduate student deep in popular culture, I would already be formulating my well-meant yet deadly conference presentation on appropriations and reshapings of mainstream Caucasian popular culture by African-American innovators . . . but the thought makes me laugh too hard to continue typing.  I simply delight in the way these three New Orleans musicians both pay homage to and recapture Disney — making Davy swing.  Not a small accomplishment.  Thanks, as well, to Andy Wolfenden for creating the video.

I just hope no one goes out in search of b’ars, though.

May your happiness increase!

MY HONEY, THAT THING, A SWEETIE, NEVER THE SAME, A JUMP: RAY SKJELBRED, JONATHAN DOYLE, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH (SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, November 29, 2014)

Ray Skjelbred

Ray Skjelbred

I keep coming back to the videos I’ve shot at several yearly incarnations of the San Diego Jazz Fest — and finding treasures and marvels I’d overlooked.  (I also keep coming back to the actual Fest, but that should startle no one.)

Jonathan Doyle

Jonathan Doyle

Here are some highlights from a long quartet set performed by Ray Skjelbred, piano; Jonathan Doyle, the swing star from Austin, Texas; Beau Sample, string bass and leader of the Fat Babies; Hal Smith, who’s played with and swung everyone who deserves it.

Beau Sample

Beau Sample

My titles are an expression of whimsical shorthand, but there’s nothing left out in these performances.  First, a swing trio (Chicago pays San Diego a visit) then quartet improvisations that are delightful inducements to the dance, even if you are sitting in a chair.

Hal Smith

Hal Smith

MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS (scored for trio):

A song I associate with Bessie Smith, I’M WILD ABOUT THAT THING (decide for yourself what THAT THING is, but no need to write in, because no prizes will be awarded for the best answer).  I’m wild about this performance, I feel compelled to say:

BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME (in a medium tempo sitting nicely between Noone and Condon):

I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME (evoking Venuti and Lang, Billie and Lester, or both):

Finally, THE 313 JUMP, whose title has a new pop culture / numerological significance — just Ducky:

See you at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest — Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 23-27.  Of course.

A postscript.  The jazz-scholar part of my being says that I could have written a thousand words on Influences and Echoes, with a long list of names, including Jess Stacy, Joe Sullivan, Earl Hines, Frank Melrose, Rod Cless, Frank Teschemacher, Lester Young, Eddie Miller, Wellman Braud, George Wettling, Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Milt Hinton . . . but I will let you do the research for yourself — in whatever way offers the most satisfying results.  I’d rather revel in the actual sounds made by Smith, Sample, Doyle, and Skjelbred on a late November day in 2014.

May your happiness increase!

NANCY ERICKSON’S SWEET SHARP MAGIC

Nancy Erickson

At the end of 2015, a friend suggested I listen to the singer Nancy Erickson, who had collaborated on and sung NEW YEAR’S EVE, appropriate to the season.  I did listen — several times — and was entranced, as you can read here.  Not only was it a well-constructed song, it was rare in celebrating devoted long-term emotional fidelity rather than the brief infatuation, the searing heartbreak.

And Nancy Erickson’s voice and vocal style made their own lasting impression:

Her voice is dark and rich but her approach breathes its own naturalness, so I never find myself listening purely to her “vocal instrument,” but rather the ways in which it conveys the emotional and musical message — now somber, now light-hearted, her diction always clear but never an elocution lesson, her pitch accurate without being mechanical.  She subtly improvises on melody, lyrics, and rhythmic patterns, but her embellishments light the way rather than dynamiting the original’s intent.

To me, she beautifully balances drama and subtlety, intensity and delicacy.  And this may seem an odd thing to write, but in this era of heightened artifice, Nancy comes across as a human being with great sensitivity, rather than someone attempting to act the part of a.h.b.w.g.s.

I closed my December post by writing that I eagerly looked forward to her new CD.  It came; I’ve listened to it multiple times; it’s wholly gratifying.  The cover alone will tell you that Nancy Erickson follows her own splendidly surprising impulses.  The “photography and compositing” is by Steve Korn, but I sense Nancy’s inspired whimsy here as well:

Nancy Erickson cover

I know: somewhere you might hear the muffled tinkle of a convention falling off the kitchen counter and smashing on the floor.  Isn’t an attractive woman singer supposed to be draped alluringly — on a divan, in a doorway, hair blowing out of a convertible — so that the Fifties male audience can purchase the cover without giving much thought to the art?  For me, I’ll take what looks like a giant goldfish suspended in mid-air, with Nancy patting it nicely (“Gooooood fish!”) any time as an alternative.  Inside the CD there’s another variation on the cover, offering surprise rather than pastoral complacencies.

But the witty cover would mean nothing if the music was dull, predictable, inept. Not to worry.  And if  you would like to jump ahead, here you can both listen and purchase.

Nancy’s songlist tells a good deal about her range and intelligent approach to the often-constricting “Great American Songbook”:  NEW YEAR’S EVE (which Nancy says is inspired by the story of her mother and father — another delightful change from the twenty-first century formula); WHILE STROLLING THROUGH THE PARK ONE DAY; IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE; PERDIDO; PRELUDE TO A KISS; SUMMER DAY (Nancy’s original); I JUST DROPPED BY TO SAY HELLO (a duet with Clipper Anderson); THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC; THE WHIPPOORWILL SONG (Nancy’s original); LA VIE EN ROSE.  Purcell, Ellington, Piaf — now there’s a heady mix.

Take the title song for an example.  WHILE STROLLING THROUGH THE PARK ONE DAY is quite venerable — 1884 — and thus both popular as a kind of Victorian love-anthem and the subject of parody in the best Chuck Jones manner.  Nancy offers her own angle on it — beginning with a percussive vocal vamp echoed by the rhythm section, then moving into a loose reading of the original lyrics (with “a pair of roguish eyes”).  But before we know it, we are in Nancy’s own sweetly hip romantic lyrics of the singer’s delight in a handsome fellow who has crossed her path at the fountain in the park.  Then an expert trombone solo over the crisply swinging rhythm section gives way to Nancy’s bridge (where she alternates her own lyrics and an imagined orchestral riff) — and the track returns to the original percussive pattern, stopping abruptly but well.  IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE marries Purcell to rocking boppish accompaniment (and a tenor saxophone solo that looks to the present but also back to Buddy Tate), and when Nancy tells us “Sing on!” we know the urging comes from her heart, to herself as well as to us.

PERDIDO and PRELUDE TO A KISS have been done and perhaps overdone — but Nancy’s version of the first is firmly and endearingly Fifties: is it a cha-cha? I don’t know, but the slightly goofy lyrics and the retro-rhythms work perfectly. PRELUDE starts on a high note — both emotionally and technically — and Nancy offers a reading that is classically lovely yet deeply felt.  SUMMER DAY seems like the best poetic folk opus — in a world where taste ruled, it would become a hit, both evocative and elusive.  The vocal duet on I JUST DROPPED BY TO SAY HELLO — for bassist / singer Clipper Anderson and Nancy — is not imitative, but it affectionately honors the great male / female pairings of popular song without “attempting to be” Louis and Ella, Ray and Betty, Billy and Sarah — the two singers splendidly convey the emotions of this tender, hopeful, rueful song.  What it says about me I don’t know, but I kept returning to this track.

THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC has often been buried under emotional hyperbole, but Nancy takes it lightly, at a conversational pace, savoring melody and lyrics but never in capital letters.  Her brief scat interlude in MAGIC seems entirely organic (and it’s expert) rather than an obligatory inclusion.  THE WHIPPOORWILL SONG seems to borrow some of its mournful nature from SAINT JAMES INFIRMARY, but that’s a worthy homage to a sad ancestor.  And the closing LA VIE EN ROSE is a touching, entirely affecting duet with bass — arco on the verse, pizzicato for the chorus.

Nancy’s musical colleagues are loving and wise players: they surround her with the best sounds.  I commend them: Darin Clendenin, piano; Clipper Anderson, string bass / vocal (7); Ken French, drums; Jay Thomas, flute, flugelhorn (4 and 6); David Marriott, trombone (2); Alexey Nikolaev, tenor (3 and 9); Jeff Busch, percussion (4 and 9); Jacqueline Tabor, vocals (9).

The CD avoids monotony by making sure adjacent tracks have enough spice, so that a performance with a trombone solo gives way to one with a tenor chorus, to one with flute.  Tempos, moods, and approaches change — but not so much that one feels a shock from track to track.

With this CD, I think Nancy Erickson deserves our very close attention as a fully-formed artist, one of our best contemporary singers — full of feeling, wit, affection, reverence for tradition and a thoroughly winning originality.

You can subscribe to Nancy’s YouTube channel here, but you will learn more about her here.  And even here.

May your happiness increase!