MAKING IT NEW: DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, PETE VAN NOSTRAND (Fat Cat, May 31, 2016)

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

My title comes from Ezra Pound, whose serious instruction to hopeful modernists was MAKE IT NEW.  In its own way, jazz has always been about making it new; even when one generation was paying tribute to preceding ones, the act of homage was in some ways grounded in newness.  If, in 2016, one decides to play note-for-note recreations of an Alcide Nunez record, that act is bound to have 2016 sensibilities and nuances built in.  But what animates Dan Block is much deeper than that.  Dan, who embodies an extraordinarily wide range of music, is one of the most imaginative shape-changers I know.

For his most recent gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Dan assembled a surprising quintet: himself on clarinet and tenor saxophone; Godwin Louis on alto; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; and for this rehearsal-session, Pete Van Nostrand, drums (Alvester Garnett played drums at Dizzy’s on June 7). The videos here are from an informal session held at Fat Cat on May 31.  I present them here with Dan’s encouragement: although the crowd was its usual boy-and-girlish self, the music was spectacular.  The band was advertised as “The Dan Block Quintet: Mary Lou Williams and Benny Carter Meet Hard Bop.” Intriguing, no?

Dan took half a dozen venerable songs from the Thirties — with connections to Chick Webb, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson, Mary Lou Williams, and Benny Carter — and reconsidered them, as if he were a very imaginative couturier. Take the song down to its sparest elements: strong melody, strong rhythm, familiar harmonies, and ask, “How would this look in lime green?  What about a very short denim jacket?” and so on.  As if he were fascinated by the essential self of the song — that which could not be harmed or obliterated — and started to play with the trappings — new rhythms, a different approach, new harmonies and voicings — to see what might result.

What resulted was and is terribly exciting — a blossoming-forth of exuberant energies from all the musicians.

HARLEM CONGO (from the Webb book):

PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE (Andy Kirk):

HOTTER THAN ‘ELL (Henderson):

BLUES IN MY HEART (Carter):

LONESOME NIGHTS (Carter):

BLUE LOU (Edgar Sampson for Chick Webb, then everyone else):

I think the originators, who were radical for their time, would certainly approve.

As an aside: everyone’s a critic, and cyber-communications have intensified this feeling.  If readers write, “I like the original 78 versions better!  This is not the way these songs should sound!” such comments will stay hidden. I revere the originals also, but I won’t have  creative musicians I admire be insulted by comparisons of this nature.

May your happiness increase!

“A SWELL FELLOW”

I don’t know what the proliferation of inscribed photographs of Jack Teagarden says about his, the circumstances, his popularity.  But since I’ve loved his music since childhood, I prefer to see these photographs as indications of a generous character, a man who appreciated his fans and was happy to make even the most fleeting connection with them.  For a start, “Edith” must have been made happier by this:

JACK EDITH

and this later pose:

JACK AUTOGRAPH

and a long sweet [although general] inscription, when Jack was being managed by MCA — circa 1939, if you know his lyrics to JACK HITS THE ROAD:

JACK TEAGARDEN Successful and Happy

and “Warmest regards to a Swell Fellow ‘Pat'”:

JACK TEAGARDEN Warmest Wishes

Then, some official business from 1943:

JACK TEAGARDEN union card front

and the other side:

JACK TEAGARDEN union card back

Even late in life — perhaps a year before his death — Jack retained his mastery, a mastery so deep that he made his great art look casual.  Here he is in Chicago, on television (the host is Willis Conover) performing BASIN STREET BLUES with Don Goldie, Henry Cuesta, Don Ewell, Stan Puls (I think), and Barrett Deems:

May your happiness increase!

“PLEASE! HAVE SOME PITY,” AND ONWARDS

The inspiration for this blogpost is the fine guitarist and thoughtful modernist Nick Rossi — and our online discussion this afternoon is yet another refutation to the general scorn that nothing good comes out of Facebook.  Nick had been exulting about the pleasure of playing rhythm guitar in a jam session on LADY BE GOOD — a jam that went on for twenty minutes, like the fabled communal joys we read about.

And I pointed him towards one of my favorite recordings of the song.  Not Lester’s (in two takes) but something perhaps less famous — a recording (either from December 1933 or January 1934) by “Buck and Bubbles.”

buck_n_bubbles

Buck was the fine Hines / stride pianist who accompanied Louis on DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND and Hawkins on other sides (so his jazz credentials are stellar); John W. “Bubbles” Sublett went on to play Sportin’ Life in PORGY AND BESS — and together they were an extraordinary team.

For me, this recording summons up a whole era of theatrical performance — where two men could swing as winsomely and effectively as any large group. You can certainly see them in your mind’s eye as the performance moves from swinging piano introduction to sweet / sad narrative over piano, then to a key change and a solo piano romp, then a hilarious dialogue (anticipating Fats or moving alongside him?) with Buck taking the lead — which seems to have cheered Bubbles up considerably.  It’s a model of how to create a duet, to hand off lead and accompaniment, to “sell” a song without ever appearing to do so:

Bubbles’s slightly hoarse, worn voice, creates a half-amused, half-despairing plea (who could resist such a plaintive entreaty?) and if one cares, on a later listening, to concentrate solely on Buck’s piano, it’s quite remarkable.

And here’s a later British version (!) with clarinet and rhythm section — new to me and delightful:

Wouldn’t it be nice if Buck and Bubbles had appeared on film in their prime?

Your wish is our command.  1937 VARIETY SHOW, much more elaborate, but with good material:

And this improvisation on RHYTHM FOR SALE from 1944, introduced by a most august personage:

For a genial overview of Bubbles — as the “father of rhythm tap” as well as a singer alongside Buck, here’s Part One of a documentary that starts slowly but then presents the team alongside Dick Powell, Ethel Waters, and Duke Ellington:

The second part is primarily about Bubbles’s protege, Chuck Green, but contains some astounding footage — and it closes with audio of Buck and Bubbles performing ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF  THE STREET:

A small speculative footnote.  For years, I have been teaching Toni Morrison’s mournful, vengeful THE BLUEST EYE, whose victimized center, Pecola, suffers completely because of her misguided desire (stimulated by members of her own community) to embody a white, blue-eyed standard of beauty.  And when I teach it, I mention the sad spectacle of African-Americans deprived of handsome and beautiful and noble models of their own race on the screen.  But watching the first video from VARIETY SHOW, I wonder if I should tell my students that there were some exceptions, a few African-Americans in the movies who weren’t comic stereotypes, who weren’t afraid of ghosts, and point them to beautifully dressed and casually commanding Buck and Bubbles.

But, for the moment, I would send readers and listeners back to the first version of OH, LADY BE GOOD — a little sweet monument of swing and theatre.  No wonder George Gershwin wrote Bubbles a substantial part in PORGY AND BESS.

Postscript: if you can hear Nick Rossi play, you will be satisfied, gratified, and highly delighted.

May your happiness increase!

“RELENTLESS JOY”: GREG RUBY and THE RHYTHM RUNNERS

GREG RUBY RHYTHM RUNNERS

In this century, ensembles devoted to the music so popular in the Twenties and Thirties have several choices as far as repertoire.  One is plain: take the most-loved songs, those most closely associated with the idiom, and whether the band’s approach is reverent or extravagant, the songs are waiting.  ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE, SINGIN’ THE BLUES, STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, MILENBERG JOYS, and so on. Audience recognition comes along with this repertoire, although so does the possibility of comparison.  And there is the possibility of over-familiarity, although as Doctor Johnson said, “When a man is tired of TIGER RAG, he is tired of life.”  Or words to that effect.

The second choice requires more digging: going back into the Twenties and Thirties repertoire for songs both beautiful and possibly obscure: TWO TIMES, CROCODILE CRADLE, CAFE CAPERS, CLOUDY, WHEN YOU LEAVE ME ALONE TO PINE, and a thousand others. One might have to take a minute to instruct an audience, and some audiences weary quickly of the necessity of listening closely, but this broadens the repertoire.  (There are fascinating treasures to be found here . . . read on.)

A third choice (and there might be a fourth and fifth) is to compose new songs with all the delightful flavor of the era being celebrated.  When this is done superficially, the results are forgettable; when it’s done well, it’s delightful on several levels.  Gordon Au has succeeded here, and now Greg Ruby is doing a lovely job of merging 2016 and the Twenties.  Greg is a fine acoustic guitarist, creating memorable solos and gently driving any band with great rhythm playing.  And here’s his debut CD as a leader of the Rhythm Runners.

It might be too unsubtle at this point to write, simply, BUY IT, so I will offer more evidence.

GREG RUBY cover one

The evidence is here, in a very pleasing March 2016 KPLU-FM interview and performance by the Rhythm Runners who are Greg, guitar / arrangements / compositions; Gordon Au, trumpet; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Cassidy Holden, string bass; Julian MacDonough, drums.

If those names are familiar, you have been doing your JAZZ LIVES homework. If not, there’s always remediation.

Listen and be delighted.  (The only thing missing in this audio gift is the name of the host, who is certainly hip and knowledgeable.  Bravo to him and to the band.)

And you can hear more sound samples from the actual (beautifully-recorded) CD Sound samples: here.

That would be enough to please me: a great band playing new songs that sound comfortably “vintage” with no hint of artifice or superficiality.  But there’s more. If you hail from any place that isn’t Seattle, I’d guess you’ve never heard of Franklin D. Waldron, multi-instrumentalist and the early teacher of Quincy Jones and Buddy Catlett, among others.  Waldron, legendary and obscure, never recorded: record companies didn’t know there were musicians in Seattle worth the trip until the Forties.  Below is a photograph of Waldron, on cornet, circa 1915, with the Wang Doodle Orchestra (courtesy of the Black Heritage Society.)

Greg explains in the interview how he’d come to learn about Waldron, and about SYNCOPATED CLASSIC, Waldron’s 1924 book of original compositions for saxophonists — and how he ended up with a copy of that book.  If this is sounding a little like someone’s dissertation, be not alarmed — for three of the songs on the CD are Greg’s reimaginings of Waldron lines for band, and they are quite refreshing.  Greg plans to do more with the Waldron book, and I look forward to the musical results: hot lively compositions from 1924 that have instant validity and (in Greg’s hands) delicious energy.  Here‘s more about the Waldron project.

Wang_Doodle_Orchestra_Seattle_ca_1925-610x445

That’s all you need to know.  The CD is joyous, with world-class players and swinging originals; it truly expresses “relentless joy,” a coinage of Greg’s (at 29:45).

Greg, when and if you come to New York City again, do let me know.  I’d be honored to salute you in person.  And for the rest of you, check Greg’s site to find out when and where his groups are playing.

May your happiness increase!

THAT LUNCEFORD RHYTHM (1939, 1936)

A precious artifact, recently spotted on eBay*: a publicity photograph from 1939, of the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra’s rhythm section.  Ed Wilcox, piano; Jimmy Crawford, drums, Moses Allen, string bass; Al Norris, guitar:

LUNCEFORD RHYTHM SECTION 1939

This rhythm section stayed together from 1933 to 1941.

Since the Lunceford band is not as well-remembered as its contemporaries, here is the 1936 Vitaphone short (slightly edited to focus on the band) in which all its virtues are on display: a complete show in itself.

Please be prepared for some period offensiveness at the start: if one has to go to Hell in search of hot rhythms, does it then stand to reason that the Heavenly soundtrack is celestially sweet?  I don’t know, but I am prepared to avert my eyes to get to the rewarding music that follows:

It’s a completely different musical presentation — not Ellington, not Basie — but it’s impossible to imagine an audience member in 1939 going home unfulfilled from a Lunceford show.

*The opening bid for the photograph was $125; the winning bid was $229.59.

May your happiness increase!

“REJOICE.”

sircharlesthompson

In New Orleans, traditionally, the band plays a mournful hymn on the way to the cemetery, FLEE AS A BIRD TO THE MOUNTAIN, and once the dear departed is buried, the band swings out OH, DIDN’T HE RAMBLE — because the troubles of this life are over.

We will miss Sir Charles Thompson, who died on June 16, but rather than write more mournful words, as I did here about twelve hours ago, I present an alternative.

I think of one of my favorite pieces of literature, William Maxwell’s “The old man at the railroad crossing,” which is also the title of his collection of improvisations — this one about that same friendly but cryptic figure, who says just one word to each person he meets.  That word is my title for this post.

One way of rejoicing is to celebrate the person who has moved our of our temporal realm by evoking him in the art that (s)he did so beautifully.  No finer example than this:

Ray Skjelbred, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums — recorded at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2014. These four musicians deeply understand who Sir Charles is and what he did so generously for decades — lifting our hearts.

To me, it sometimes seems that we have only two choices in life: weeping or swinging.  I leave it to you.

May your happiness increase!

THANK YOU, SIR CHARLES (1918-2016)

Sir Charles Trio

The news from Yoshio Toyama (from Mike Fitzgerald’s online jazz research group):

“Sir Charles Thompson left us on June 16th in Japan.

He was a very unique pianist with style in between swing and bebop, also very close to great Count Basie’s piano style. He was married to Japanese wife Makiko Thompson in 1990s, lived in Japan in 1990s and 2002 to this day. Funeral will be held in Tokyo, Japan, Higashi Kurume, by his wife Makiko Thompson and family and friends on June 21st.

He was born March 21, 1918, and he just turned 98 last March. He started as professional when he was very young, played with and admired people like Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins . . . .

He was very active in Bebop era also, and his style has lots of Bebop flavor mixed with mellow swing. He was very good golf player too.

He left so many great jazz records including “Vic Dickenson Showcase”. In Japan, he made recording with Yoshio and Keiko Toyama in late 1990s.  Had appeared in many concerts held by Toyama’s Wonderful World Jazz Foundation.  Sir Charles and Toyama stayed very close friends.

We all miss him. Yoshio and Keiko”

sircharlesthompson

Readers will know that I have worked very hard to keep this blog focused on the living thread of the music I and others love.  Were it to become a necrology (and the temptation is powerful) it would slide into being JAZZ DIES.  But I make exceptions for musicians whose emotional connection with me is powerful.  I never met Sir Charles, but he was an integral part of recordings I loved and knew by heart forty-five years ago.  Here he is in 1955 with Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones.  You could make a case that anyone would swing with those three people, but Sir Charles was consistently his own subtle swing engine: he could light up the sonic universe all by himself.

Hearing that, you can understand why Lester Young knighted him.

And — from that same period — another glorious Vanguard session featuring Vic Dickenson (the second volume, since I presume the first was a success, both musically and for its wonderful clarity of sound) on EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, where Vic and Sir Charles are joined by Shad Collins, trumpet; Ruby Braff, cornet; Ed Hall, clarinet; Steve Jordan, guitar; Walter Page, string bass; Jo Jones, drums:

That’s been one of my favorite recordings since my teens, and it continues to cheer and uplift.  But listen to Sir Charles — not only in solo, but as a wonderfully subtle ensemble player.  With a less splendid pianist (I won’t name names) these soloists would have been less able to float so gracefully.

If you measure a musician’s worth by the company (s)he keeps, Sir Charles was indeed remarkable: the pianist of choice for the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions; work with Coleman Hawkins early and late, with Charlie Parker both in the studio and on the air in Boston, with Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Buck Clayton, Danny Barker, Lucky Millinder, Shadow Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, Pete Brown, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Rushing, Earl Bostic, Ike Quebec, Buddy Tate, Paul Gonsalves, Paul Quinichette, Joe Williams, Harry Edison, Ben Webster, Eddie Condon, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bobby Hackett, Don Byas, Humphrey Lyttelton, Herbie Steward . . . and on and on.

If you want to hear more of Sir Charles, YouTube is full of musical evidence, from the 1945 sides with Bird and with Hawkins, all the way up to 2012 with Yoshio’s band (playing, among other things, RUSSIAN LULLABY) and as a speaking member of a panel — with Allan Eager and Hank Jones — talking about Charlie Parker.

But I will remember Sir Charles as the man who — in his own way and with his own sound — played a good deal like Basie, but understanding that impulse from within rather than copying him, adding in Fats, Wilson, and more advanced harmonies.  His sound, his touch, and his swing are unmistakable, and although he lived a very long life and had a long performance career, his death leaves a void in the swing universe.

I’ll let the poetic pianist Ray Skjelbred have the last word: “He was a perfect player who knew the force of silence around his notes. An inspiration to me.”

There is a silence where Sir Charles Thompson used to be.