“YOURS SINCERELY”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 28, 2014)

In this era of all things made insubstantial, many of us think of communication as somehow bodiless: the tinny voice coming out of the cellphone, the text, the email, the Facebook message.  But there’s still mail, and even if you haven’t gotten a handwritten letter or card in years, perhaps you can remember the thrill of going to the mailbox and getting a surprise, a delight, something that made you very happy — whether you opened the envelope right there or waited until you got inside your home.  (The endorphin rush that one gets when someone you want to hear from has sent you an email is this century’s equivalent, but it isn’t the same as holding an envelope in your hands.)

ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU focuses on someone waiting for that letter, for the Loved One to drop a line of sweet affection.  Here it’s played and sung magnificently at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest by Ray Skjelbred, piano /vocal; Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums:

Dear Ray, those piano lessons weren’t wasted.  We bless your parents.

May your happiness increase!

“THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME”: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE HONOR JOHNNY MERCER at MEZZROW (April 14, 2015)

THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME was written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for the 1941 film BLUES IN THE NIGHT.  It’s a haunting song — its melody like a wistful prayer, its lyrics mixing realistic sorrow and rueful imaginings.  For me, the sorrow in observing the present outweighs the hopefulness of “what might be,” but I hear the singer bravely traversing the landscape of sad fact and wisps of happier possibility.  Mercer’s lyrics stand as a modern poem, and I was surprised to learn that he was not pleased with them:

It’s one of Harold’s nicest tunes. It’s kind of a poor lyric, I think. Built on the thing about “the drink’s on me.” I think it’s too flip for that melody. I think it should be nicer. I was in a hurry I remember the director didn’t like it. I could have improved it, too. I really wish I had. But, you know, we had a lot of songs to get out in a short amount of time, and we had another picture to do. (The source is a BBC interview, excerpted in Gene Lees’ biography of Mercer, PORTRAIT OF JOHNNY, 142).

The unpredictably brilliant Alec Wilder doesn’t even mention the song in his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG.

I think this song so beautifully, perhaps painfully encapsulates the simultaneous feelings: “We’ve had something deep.  It no longer exists, and it cannot.  But I would like to imagine a place in time where it could, even as I know that dream is tormenting by its elusiveness.”  So much is said yet so much is unsayable.

See if you don’t agree while considering this quietly rich performance by Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie — at Mezzrow on April 14, 2015:

I love the careful pacing — neither maudlin nor too optimistic — and the deep sincerity of Barbara’s voice, the sweet unerring support Ehud always gives. The difficult reality in one hand, the wisp of a dream that can’t come true in the other hand.  Such music can see anyone through, even as it delineates sadness and loss.

And here, because we all need to know that joyous love is possible, is another gem from that same evening.

May your happiness increase! 

THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR POLICY

PETE NEIGHBOUR portrait

Pete Neighbour (hence the title) is a wonderful clarinetist, and his new CD, BACK IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, is a consistent delight.

Before you think, “If this fellow is so good, why haven’t I heard of him before?” put that thought to rest.  You have.  Here. And you can click here to hear some sound samples from this new CD and to learn more about this session. For those who feel disinclined to click, here are the details of the sixty-four minutes and seven seconds.  The compositions are I WANT TO BE HAPPY / BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS / I MAY BE WRONG / YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG / OPUS ONE / COME SUNDAY / LIZA / WHAT WILL I TELL MY HEART? / TEACH ME TONIGHT / WILLOW WEEP FOR ME / A FOGGY DAY / AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  (I would start my listening session with BOULEVARD, which is a feathery, pensive masterpiece.)

The disc was recorded in London in September 2014; Pete appears with Jim Mullen, guitar; David Newton, piano; Nat Steele, vibraphone; Andrew Cleyndert, bass; Tom Gordon, drums.  Louise Cookman makes a guest vocal appearance on YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG and WHAT WILL I TELL MY HEART?

Aside from a few rousers, the whole CD is carried off as a series of medium / medium-fast rhythm performances, where the band superbly rocks, quietly and persuasively.  Pete himself is a great lyrical player — hear his touching COME SUNDAY, which has a dear pulse but retains its hymnlike aspect.  And he resolutely chooses to sound like himself, although he is clearly inspired by Benny and Buddy — with a sidelong glance at Ken.  His approach, although he has technique to make any clarinetist consider bringing the instrument in for a trade, is not in rapid-fire flurries of notes.  Rather, Pete (in the best heroic way) constructs logical long-limbed phrases and sweet solos out of those phrases, everything fitting together in a way that sounds fully improvised but is also compositionally satisfying.  And the tempos chosen caress the songs rather than attacking the hearer. The rest of the band is quite wonderful, and each number unfolds in its own fashion without ever being predictable.  The session has the gentle exploratory air of a late Ruby Braff recording, as the band continually changes shape into duos and trios — with echoes of Dave McKenna and Ellis Larkins in the duets incorporating Newton’s piano. Louise Cookman, whom I’d not heard before, is a wonder: gently memorable on her two guest appearances.

For more about Pete, here is his Facebook page.

This very well-produced and reassuring CD is available through the usual sources, but here is an easy place to purchase one.  Or several, from the best musical Neighbour.

May your happiness increase!

THE MUSIC SPEAKS FOR ITSELF: THE WEST TEXAS JAZZ PARTY (May 14-17, 2015)

I could write a long piece on the history of the West Texas Jazz Party — in Odessa, Texas — which in 2016 will celebrate its fiftieth year.  This, for those keeping count, makes it the longest-running jazz party in existence.  I could list the names of the luminaries who played, say, in 1980 — Red Norvo, John Best, Lou Stein, Carl Fontana, Kenny Davern, George Masso, Herb Ellis, Buddy Tate, Flip Phillips, Dave McKenna, Milt Hinton, Gus Johnson, PeeWee Erwin, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Rosengarden, John Bunch, Buddy Tate, and the still-vibrant Ed Polcer, Bucky Pizzarelli, Michael Moore, Bob Wilber.

The West Texas Jazz Society site can be found here — quite informative.

But I think it is more important to offer the evidence: the music made at this party, which is superb Mainstream jazz.  Here are several videos from the 2013 WTJP — they will unfold in sequence if you allow them to — featuring Ken Peplowski, Ehud Asherie, Ed Metz, Joel Forbes, Chuck Redd, Randy Sandke, and John Allred:

And the musicians themselves speak sweetly about the pleasure of attending the party and playing there (Ken, Chuck Redd, Dan Barrett, Bucky):

The superb videos — both music and interview — are the work of David Leonnig, who’s also helped inform me about the Party.

This year’s party will take place May 14-17, at the MCM Eleganté Hotel
in Odessa, Texas and the musicians are:

Piano: Johnny Varro, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello
Bass: Joel Forbes. Frank Tate, Nicki Parrott (vocals)
Drums: Chuck Redd (vibes), Tony Tedesco, Butch Miles
Trumpet: Ed Polcer, Warren Vache, Randy Sandke
Trombone: Dan Barrett, John Allred
Reeds: Ken Peplowski, Scott Robinson, Allan Vache
Guitar: Bucky Pizzarelli, Ed Laub (vocals)
Vocals: Rebecca Kilgore

The West Texas Jazz Party is sponsored in part by:

• The Texas Commission for the Arts
• Odessa Council for the Arts and Humanities
• The Rea Charitable Trust

Patron Tickets: $200: Reserved Seating for all performances and Saturday Brunch.

General Admission: Each performance $50 • Brunch $50

For Hotel Reservations, call 432-368-5885 and ask tor the Jazz Rate of $129.00. For Jazz Party or Brunch Reservations, call 432-552-8962. The WTJP now is accepting credit cards or make a check payable to: West Texas Jazz Society • P.O. Box 10832 • Midland, Texas 79702.

It looks as if a good time will be had by all. For the forty-ninth consecutive year!

May your happiness increase!

CONFESS YOUR FEARS AND THEY MAY BE TRANSFORMED: DUKE HEITGER, BEN POLCER, RUSS PHILLIPS, TOM FISCHER, JOHN COCUZZI, PAUL KELLER, DANNY COOTS at the ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 17, 2015)

I’M CONFESSIN’ (a song with an unusual history — written in 1929 and published with another title and lyrics, then recreated a year later with the same melody, new lyrics, and an entirely different set of composers credited) is a lovely durable melody . . . of course, first made immortal by Louis Armstrong, who sang and played it for the next forty years.  I couldn’t find a copy of the first sheet music, but here is a later version:

I'M CONFESSIN'Many bands pick this as a reliable rhythm ballad — and some race through it as if on jazz cruise control, taking it as an interlude between one punishingly fast / loud number and the next.

Happily, this was not the case with Duke Heitger, Ben Polcer, trumpet; Russ Phillips, trombone; Tom Fischer, clarinet; John Cocuzzi, piano; Paul Keller, strig bass; Danny Coots, drums, at this year’s Atlanta Jazz Party (this performance was only the second song of the three-day marathon).  These master musicians created something frankly alchemical, transforming sadness into joy:

Everything about this performance entrances me: the sweet steady tread of the rhythm section (a wonderful team saying with every beat to the horn players, “Create whatever is in your heart and we will be there to support you, to make you feel safe”) to the compact singing utterances of the horns — how to make those instruments speak in such heartfelt ways in sixteen bars!  (Sixteen bars go by so quickly.)  The variety of sounds!

And just as a self-referential digression: inspired by the song, I stopped writing and went twenty feet to the other end of this long room, where a cherished cornet rests on blue velour in its ancient case.  I picked it up and “played” the first sixteen bars of I’M CONFESSIN’ and reminded myself only how incredibly difficult making an instrument sing is.  Mine sang, but I won’t describe how or what it was singing.

From the title alone, one would think that I’M CONFESSIN’ would be an exultant outpouring of love, with the Lover offering feelings openly.  And that is indeed the case.  But the Lover here is both frightened and self-aware, wondering if those feelings will be reciprocated or discarded.  And the Love Object — the source of power in this interlude — is both inscrutable and ambiguous: the eyes embody one “strange” message; the lips offer another.

I think that JAZZ LIVES readers might need to hear the lyrics as well as the melody. And thanks to my dear friend Austin Casey, here is THE version of the century: Louis on the Frank Sinatra Show.

Gorgeous, light-hearted, and heartfelt.  I offer this as evidence to those who think Louis didn’t care about the lyrics: here he offers each word as if it had been written by Keats.  Tonation and phrasing for the ages.  I also offer this performance not as a diminution of the one created on April 17, 2015, but to show that the two stand side-by-side, our heroes in this century so completely lit from within by Louis’ blessed spirit.

A last word about the alchemy of music, of candor.  The musicians in Atlanta did the impossible by transforming unease and anxiety into something beautiful, in the spirit of Louis.  This transformation is not always possible in what passes for real life, but it is worth attempting.  Keeping one’s terrors to oneself is what we have been trained to do.  Adults don’t talk about what scares them: they might terrify the children.  But I wonder if we said out loud to ourselves, “I am deeply afraid that ___________ might happen,” that the fear, put into syllables we can hear ourselves saying, might be more manageable.  Saying to the Love Object, “I’m afraid some day you’ll leave me / Saying ‘Can’t we still be friends?'” is a true act of courage, because the Love Object can always say back, “Indeed, that was just what I was thinking this very moment,” but [hence the MAY in my title] it could provoke reassurance.

JAZZ LIVES offers no advice in relationships, and hence is held harmless from any liability.  But speaking what you feel, embodying what you feel is always courageous, no matter what the result.

Keep CONFESSIN’, I say.

May your happiness increase! 

COME TO “JASSAFRASS”! (Hint: AN ALL-GIRL VINTAGE JAZZ DANCE TROUPE and THE JAMES DAPOGNY QUARTET)

I’ve been around the world in a plane.  But I’ve never been to Ypsilanti, Michigan.  However, this event is exerting a powerful pull west for the evening of May 8, 2015, at 8 PM.

ERIN MORRIS RAGDOLLS May 8

Here is the Facebook event page.

This event is the Second Annual Ragdolls Revue.

No, it doesn’t feature Little Orphan Annie figurines or those most beloved, apparently boneless, felines.

Erin Morris and and her Ragdolls are a splendid improvisatory jazz dance group. And that requires some explanation.  For me, most “jazz dance” is either wildly unfettered — tap dancers rioting percussively — or stylized, sometimes stiffly choreographed exercises performed to jazz music but without much flexibility.

Erin and the Ragdolls (do I see a comic book series, syndication rights, and real money?  Any hip investors?) are quite different.  They create their own loose-limbed but precise world.  It is easy to imagine them as the twenty-first century reincarnation of sisters / friends jiving in the basement to the new blue-label Decca or OKeh, and to the casual eye they might look more like kids who are following similar impulses, but their choreography masterfully fools the eye: it looks as if it was just thought up on the spot, but anyone who’s ever done a right rock turn can tell that their routines are intelligently planned while appearing improvised.  Just like jazz music, as a matter of fact.  Roadmaps plus passion, if you know the lingo.

I delight in the idea of an “all-girl vintage jazz dance company.”  It gives me hope for our civilization.

Here’s a sample, and an inspiring one, of what JASSAFRASS will be all about. Cross-species, too, as the Ragdolls work it out to the ALLIGATOR CRAWL:

The clip is from 2014; the dancers are Erin Morris, Brittany Morton, Sarah Campbell, and Rachel Bomphray. The musicians in the James Dapogny Quartet are James Dapogny, Mike Karoub, Rod McDonald, and Joe Fee. Videography by Richard Peng.

JASSAFRASS features live hot jazz from the incomparable James Dapogny Quartet, in a full-length show that unveils fresh, exciting dance numbers from the Ragdolls and scintillates with special guest dancer Nathan Bugh, all the way from New York City. The College Theater at WCC provides amazing acoustics and cozy raked seating for your unfettered viewing enjoyment.

Tickets $15 in advance (see your local Ragdoll), $20 at the door.

In case you are confused by all this, here is a visual aid.  This is what the thing in itself — a ticket to the show — will look like.  Don’t you covet this paper and what it offers  you?

ERIN MORRIS ticket

To learn more about the Ragdolls, visit www.emragdolls.com

May your happiness increase!

“BABY, LOOK AT YOU NOW!”: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE at MEZZROW (April 14, 2015)

I had the great good fortune to enjoy and witness a delightful evening of Johnny Mercer songs — as performed by Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie at Mezzrow on West Tenth Street in New York City on April 14, 2015.

Before you savor this delightful interlude, some words about the duo.  If you’ve been following JAZZ LIVES, you know that Ehud is one of the most swinging, most alertly intuitive players ever.  When he’s around, the music pulses; lyrical surprising melodies spring into bloom.

I do not think that I’ve ever had such a glorious opportunity to hear and record Barbara before, even though I’ve known and admired her for a decade (starting with the hallowed evenings at the Cajun, Jacques-Imo’s, and a dozen other places, including churches).  When I first met Barbara, she had a spectacularly beautiful voice: I remember taking a friend who was a deep opera aficionado, didn’t particularly like jazz or improvisation, who couldn’t stop talking about the marvels of sound that Barbara created.  But it isn’t just her voice.  Many singers have lovely voices, but Barbara knows how to construct a small compelling drama (or comedy) from a song’s particulars.

When I first heard her, Barbara was much more a brightly-plumaged Twenties songbird, flitting from branch to branch, now naughty, now sweet, now coy.  I am sure she could easily inhabit those worlds now, but her feeling and mastery have deepened, and she exhibits a deep emotional understanding and range.  I don’t mean “acting”; I mean “being,” put into song.

Here she and Ehud explore a song that everyone knows, that usually is performed at a much faster tempo — to the edge of self-parody.  Listen to the transformations they effect on YOU MUST HAVE BEEN A BEAUTIFUL BABY:

That’s a performance I have not been able to listen to without going back and playing it again.

Before Barbara purls her way into the song, she talks a bit about “marvelous,” a meditation stimulated by her thoughts on TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS.  And magically she asks a deep plaintive question —

“Is nothing a marvel?”

which could, for the properly attuned, be the only text for a lifelong course in gratitude and deep reverent awe.

I marvel at Barbara Rosene.  And there will be more marvelous Mercer performances with Ehud Asherie (himself a marvel) to come.

May your happiness increase!