Monthly Archives: May 2008

LANCELOT ET SES CHEVALIERS

Some weeks ago, I wrote about discovering the Parisian stride wizard Olivier Lancelot. Today, I found an enticing flat package in my mailbox: a CD by Oliver with the clarinetist / altoist Didier Desbois and the washboardist / singer* Stephan Seva, recorded at a concert in 1999.

The trio plays Grandpa’s Spells / Liza / Love Me / Harlem Joys / I Believe In Miracles / Original Dixieland One-Step / Breeze* / Lulu’s Back in Town / Buddy’s Habits / Le Lac des Cygnes [Swan Lake] / High Society / Honeysuckle Rose.

The word “washboard” makes some listeners justifiably anxious, for many players of that instrument are loud, intrusive, unsteady. But Seva is a delicate player, not given to clangorous banging, and his time is just right. In fact, his solo work reminds me of late-period Zutty Singleton. Seva’s tappings and rattlings have a thoughtful sound, as if he was experimenting with his paraphernalia to see what would come out of it.

Desbois is an unusual clarinet player, and his singularity is to be praised. Most clarinetists aim for a full, rounded woody tone — the better to rip off Benny Goodman phrases! — or they growl and sputter, hoping to emulate PeeWee Russell. Desbois has a focused, penetrating, reedy tone, reminiscent of black pre-Goodman clarinetists (Cecil Scott, Benny Carter, Prince Robinson). His approach may take you by surprise when you first hear it, but it is a truly pleasant surprise. He sounds like Pan, if Pan swung this hard, which I doubt. He is also an extraordinary Hodges (and Charlie Holmes) alto virtuoso: his tone on “I Believe In Miracles” is rich but never syrupy, as he glides from note to note.

And then there’s the noble Lancelot himself, someone I have already celebrated as a solo player. But many solo players, in and out of stride, can’t merge their rhythms with other players. Not so Olivier, who proves himself a fine accompanist — in the groove — as Thirties players used to say. And you might, at first, admire his instrumental facility, his sheer mastery of stride conventions, fluidly played and creatively reimagined. But soon you stop saying, “There’s a James P. passage,” or “Hear how Olivier executes that familiar Fats run,” and you admire the serious joy he brings to his own version of the style.

As a group, the trio has its own witty fun — the startling key changes in “Original Dixieland One-Step,” Seva’s heartfelt vocalizing on “Breeze,” and the mournful ending to “Le Lac de Cygnes” — these and other touches give this trio an identity: it’s no one’s repertory band.

Visit Olivier’s website (www.lancelotmusic.com) for information on how to get the CD — and the generous bonus of unissued tracks from this concert. Here they are, in a Parisian club, “Le Petit Opportun,” in 2000.


OUR FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS: SACRAMENTO JAZZ JUBILEE (I)

Bill Gallagher is a fine candid photographer:

Eddie Erickson and Becky Kilgore, striking a pose

Allan Vache, Harry Allen, Bria Skonberg, John Allred

Paul Keller, Joe Ascione

Russ Phillips, Vince Bartels


BED (Dan Barrett, Becky Kilgore, Joel Forbes, Eddie Erickson)

and finally . . . Bill with Eddie Higgins

OUR FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS: SACRAMENTO JAZZ JUBILEE (II)

Bill Gallagher, also a fine writer, is encountered too infrequently in the pages of the IAJRC Journal. Here’s his report on the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, held Memorial Day Weekend:

This celebration of jazz was started in 1974, primarily as a Trad Jazz festival. Today it is still mostly a Trad thing but there is a good deal of Mainstream jazz and even Latin, Gypsy and Zydeco. The problem, if you could call it that, is that there are 105 different bands appearing throughout the city at 30 different venues. Commendably, there are a number of youth bands that get to strut their stuff and it is heartening to see jazz attract the younger set, particularly while the audience (myself included) seems to be aging at an alarming rate. Attendance this year was about 75,000 people. Not a bad draw, you might say, but not close to the 200,000 attendees of ten years ago. Another reality in this age of shrinking budgets is that fewer international bands are to be seen. While the festival provides a highly efficient transportation system for getting from one venue to another, the sheer size of the three-day event makes it impossible to see and hear everything. But that doesn’t stop the faint of heart from trying.

Overlooking the magnitude of the event and its associated logistics, there was lots of great jazz. Becky Kilgore and BED knocks everybody’s socks off. Various All Stars in numerous configurations provided stunning, extemporaneous performances. Performers like Harry Allen, Russ Phillips, John Allred, Randy Reinhart, Joe Ascione, John Cocuzzi, Jim Galloway, Jake Hanna and, I’m proud to say, my good friend and pianist with few peers, Eddie Higgins, provided a continuous succession of one great performance after another. But a good part of the fun was listening to the banter that goes on with musicians and the occasionally funny slip by a fan. What do I mean? Well, here’s a sampler.

Tommy Saunders made reference to a compatriot of many years with the aside, “I’ve drunk to your health so much I’ve ruined mine.”

A woman approached Bob Schulz of the Frisco Jazz Band with a request. Would you play “I’ll Be Your Friend For Pleasure”? Sure, but I think you mean “I’ll Be Your Friend WITH Pleasure.”

As Jim Galloway began to introduce a number that featured him, “Bewitched, Bothered and …” But before he could get the last word out, Dan Barrett injected “Bob Wilber-ed.”

Bob Ringwald, father of actress Molly Ringwald, performed “Bethena,” a beautiful Scott Joplin rag. As background, Bob told the audience that his daughter had asked him to play it for her wedding. It was a difficult piece to learn and it took Bob some time to finally get it down. “In fact,” said Bob, “it took me longer to learn it than the marriage lasted.”

Great music. Great fun. Good times.

—- Bill Gallagher

 

MAKING RECORDS WITH MARTY GROSZ

I realize my title contains an archaic expression, for no one makes records anymore. At Clinton Recording Studios last week, the expert engineer Doug Pomeroy was far beyond cutting grooves in a wax disc. But the atmosphere at a jazz recording session, especially one led by the guitarist Marty Grosz, is somewhere between the cheerfully lewd horseplay of a boys’ locker room and the intense seriousness of artists who know they are making something permanent out of music created on the spot. Eveyone knows that their art is both out-of-fashion and timeless.

The facts first. Grosz, looking more healthy and energized than at the previous recording session I attended (Marty Grosz and his Hot Combination for Arbors) is in equal parts vaudevillian and serious jazz scholar, crooner and chordal guitar virtuoso — someone who loves what he calls “jazz arcana” and an indefatigable rhythmic sparkplug. I’ve seen him lead groups where his is the only rhythm instrument, and he swings any number of horns easily.

At this session, Marty was recording his newest assemblage, “The Hot Winds,” make of that title what you may, for the first time. The group, compact and versatile, included Dan Block, Scott Robinson, and Vince Giordano on reeds, with Rob Garcia on drums.

But that description does them an injustice. Rob not only played drums, but added a great deal of orchestral color and commentary on his glockenspiel (or is it called orchestra bells these days?). In fact, during a break, at Vince’s request, Rob played an on-target version of Ellington’s “The Mooche” — supplying all the Jungle Band percussion patented by Sonny Greer while Rob played the melody on the bells.

Vince not only sang but also played his aluminum string bass, bass sax, and tuba. Between Dan and Scott, there was a forest of instruments: a clarinet, an alto saxophone, a baritone saxophone, an echo cornet, an Eb alto horn, a C-melody saxophone, and bass clarinet.

On the second day, Marty’s Philadelphia friend Jim Gicking brought his trombone for ensemble color on two tracks, but he also told me that he plays guitar duets (Carl Kress and Dick McDonough and the like) with Marty.

As an architectural digression: Studio A at Clinton is a square room with lots of wood, not only on the floor — and the “greatest ceiling in New York,” said Scott — resembling either Saturn’s rings or crop circles, you pick.

And, as a happy throwback to the Old Days, the musicians were arranged in a circle, so that they could see one another. True, there were more microphones than you would have found in 1940, but times change. But The Hot Winds could have made lovely music anywhere: their sound a mixture of so many happy jazz experiences — Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, a New Orleans parade, the figure-eight strum of Bernard Addison on the 1940 Chocolate Dandies session, the Bechet-Spanier HRS discs, Django and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France . . . all leavened with the strong personalities of the five musicians in the room: jocular, inventive, hard-driving, tender.

Marty sang a number of rare songs the first day, among them one of my favorites — the 1933 ditty, “I’ve Gotta Get Up And Go To Work,” which isn’t a Monday-morning moan but a celebration of employment, something to sing about when so many were jobless:

Exactly eight o’clock! / Where’s my other sock? / I’ve got a job / So help me, Bob / I’ve gotta get up and go to work . . .

In keeping with the good cheer, Vince sang “My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now,” one of those late-Twenties songs innocently tying good luck and bad luck to avian colors (!). While they were deciding on their head arrangement, Marty told the story of working in a trio with bassist Bill Pemberton and a famous musician, a fine player, who took a very long time to decide on the next song: “Hey, X, you wanna play ‘Rosetta’?” “Oh, I don’t know. (Long pause.) I’m not sure I know how the bridge goes.” and so on. Turning to Rob, he gave stern artistic guidance: “Give us a little Zutty [Singleton]. Don’t be afraid. We want to go wild.” And Rob, whose playing is full of snap and crackle, not to mention pop, swung out nicely.

Tenderness filled the studio with the next song, a 1931 love-effusion recorded by Ethel Waters and Jack Teagarden, “I Just Couldn’t Take It, Baby,” where Marty showed off the emotional range sometimes obscured by his comedies. As the last selection of the day, Marty returned to a beloved but little-known Fats Waller opus, “The Panic Is On,” which he had been playing and recording since his earliest days: its chart, he said, was “stolen from an old arrangement I did when I was a twerp.” And the evening and the morning were the first day.

The second day was devoted to instrumentals — where the soloists could stretch out more. Marty is one of the few musicians I know who plans his CDs as if they were concerts — variety in repertoire, mood, key, tempo, and length. He waxes eloquent on the current practice of throwing twenty-four selections at listeners, which means that people, wearied by monotony, never make it past Track Three.

The first tune he called was the truly obscure Ellington-related “Maori,” by William H, Tyers, who also wrote “Panama.” Marty envisioned this for two clarinets, with a New Orleans flavor, where the soloists kept playing, veering in and out of collective improvisation. I was reminded of the happy early days of Soprano Summit, with Marty the heart of their rhythm section. “When Buddha Smiles,” even rarer, followed — a festival of instrument-switching, as Scott first played baritone sax (it was Dan’s), then curved soprano, Eb alto horn. I am proud to report that I became indispensable for a few minutes, holding the baritone in mid-air after Scott had finished his solo because there was no stand for it. “They also serve who only stand and wait,” said John Milton, and I developed a new admiration for Harry Carney, who had that truly heavy instrument around his neck for nearly fifty years.

Jim Gicking brought his trombone into the studio for the next two numbers — a wistful “Under A Blanket of Blue,” Marty’s remembrance of the late Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace, who liked that ballad, and another rare Fats tune, “Caught,” which got a groovy treatment — not exactly music for a stripper, but in that neighborhood. Another obscurity, “Love and Kisses,” an early Ella Fitzgerald – Chick Webb record, showed its similarity to “With Plenty of Money and You” with touches of “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down.” As is Marty’s habit, he very carefully counted off the tempo he wanted by singing / humming / scatting much of the first sixteen bars, to make sure that he and the band were in the same groove. When he led The Hot Winds into King Oliver’s “Riverside Blues,” his aesthetic direction was clear: “Let’s make it like we were playing in a joint.” I was sitting down, notebook on my lap, so I couldn’t see everything that was happening, and was happily puzzled to hear a Scott Robinson blues chorus that sounded as if he was playing a huge kazoo underwater. Later I found out that he had taken off the mouthpiece of his metal clarinet and was humming into the barrel, creating a truly other-worldly sound. (Correction: to make that sound, Scott told me, he buzzes into the clarinet as if playing a trumpet.)

Finally — and joyously — everyone swung an old Apex Club favorite, “Oh, Sister, Ain’t That Hot?” which, in Marty’s hands is never a question. In fact, during these sessions, I kept thinking of something he had once told me: in Chicago, when he was a young jazz player, he and his friends had the admonitory catchphrase “GET HOT OR GO HOME.” That’s a gospel that he and The Hot Winds take seriously, and some time next year everyone will be able to hear this delicious music on an Arbors CD.

EHUD’S GOT RHYTHM

 

The earnest, cheerful young pianist in this photograph is Ehud Asherie.  At Smalls, the happily atmospheric jazz club at 183 West 10th Street, he has been at the helm of small groups with Harry Allen, Jon-Erik Kellso, Mchael Hashim, and others.  Smalls, incidentally, is a compact jazz shrine — one of the owners, Mitch Borden, launched a conversation about trumpeter Bill Coleman — a name you don’t hear very often, more’s the pity.  And behind Jon-Erik on the small stage you will see a famous picture of a young, nattily dressed Louis in London, around 1932 (catch the plus fours), giving his blessing to everything that happens in the room. 

I went to hear Ehud and Jon-Erik play duets on Thursday night, and their one-hour set was varied, heartfelt, and swinging.  If you visit Ehud’s beautifully designed website (www.ehudasherie.com), you might think you were listening to a most capable Mainstream – Bop pianist, nimbly improvising in the treble, supporting his treble flights with percussive chords in the bass.  But I had heard from musicians, among them drummer Kevin Dorn, that Ehud knew what it was to swing, to play stride piano, most convincingly.  Kevin was right.       

Solo piano is extremely difficult, because there’s no Walter Page /Jo Jones cushion to rest on.  Ehud is more than up to the task: his melodic embellishments never abandon the beauties of the songs, and his style is a rewarding melding of thoughtful, graceful Teddy Wilson treble lines, deep harmonies that took in the whole history of jazz piano, and flexible rhythmic support with modern touches.  He has the quiet drive of late-period Ralph Sutton, with the harmonic surprise of Jimmy Rowles.  At times, I thought of Fats Waller having a drink with Thelonious Monk, but the music isn’t an academic exercise, a player showing off how many styles he’s learned.  Ehud’s playing is an organic whole, with one phrase leading to the next, one chorus logically building on its predecessor.  If solo playing is a difficult task, duet playing requires special intuition and empathy so that it isn’t Dueling Ego.  Jon-Erik is not only a priceless soloist but a generous ensemble player, so what happened at Smalls was an aesthetic conversation that occasionally became spiritual communion.  If I tell you that both players were ginning at each other throughout the set, that should convey their (and our) pleasure. 

They began with an ambling “I Would Do Anything For You,” written by the now almost-forgotten Claude Hopkins, a Thirties song usually taken at a breakneck pace, with Jon-Erik using one of his many mutes.  They picked up the tempo to explore a traditional melody Ehud thought had Irish roots, “When You And I Were Young, Maggie,” at a tempo that suggested that the past must have been more than usually athletic.  Jon-Erik thought that such reminiscences deserved the naughty growls and moans that only plunger-muted trumpet can convey.  A lyrical “Body and Soul” followed (a classic that deserves to be played on its own terms at least once a night at every jazz gig), then a Bixish “I’m Comin’ Virginia,” complete with its verse.  Perhaps as a nod to Fats Waller, or to Ruby Braff, Ehud called for “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” which was ferocious.  Here he showed his inspiring stride playing — technically assured, with delicious variations of the bass patterns — subtly propulsive rather than mechanistic.  Jon-Erik then announced that Ehud, “the band within a band,” would play a solo, and the “Echo of Spring” that followed did honor to its creator, Willie “the Lion” Smith.  A “funky – groovy” “Lonesome Road” was the occasion for an extended Kellso solo, impassioned yet controlled.  A playful “i’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” featured some truly joyful interplay, and the set closed with “Tea for Two,” taken straight, Ehud beginning with an elaborate Waller-tinged reading of the verse, and wittily slipping in reference to “Some Other Time” into his improvisations. 

As I left, I saw the fine pianist Rossano Sportiello at the back of the room: he, too, had come to admire.  And there was so much to admire!  Future Thursdays will feature other distinguished New Yorkers joining Ehud: something not to be missed! 

THE NEXT GENERATION, or POPS IS TOPS

Since 1988, the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens — the house where Louis and Lucille lived — has been hosting programs to introduce neighborhood children to Louis’s music. It has never been a serious classroom exercise, rather an exuberant offering of hot jazz, spirituals, and blues in the beautiful garden behind the Armstrong house.

Louis loved children, although he never had any; he lived to “play for the people,” and his earliest musical experiences were on city streets, with music that didn’t come from an Ipod. I was thrilled to get an invitation from Baltsar Beckeld, Projects Manager of the Armstrong House Museum, to see “Pops Is Tops” for myself. Every year, some of New York’s best musicians gather on three consecutive days, at unnaturally early hours for them, to play for the children, tell some stories, and have a good time. Jazz musicians yearn for receptive audiences, and children are open to rhythm and fun. When the weather is fine, as it was today, the garden is filled with more than two hundred children. Most of them are from the third, fourth, and fifth grades at local schools (P.S. 92 and 19, precisely) but there were four-year olds in the audience as well as enthusiastic grownups like myself.

This year’s concerts feature David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band — celebrated elsewhere in this blog — Kevin Louis, trumpet and vocals; Dion Tucker, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet and eminence grise; James Chirillo, banjo, David Ostwald, tuba and leader; Marion Felder, drums. Muranyi holds a special distinction as being one of the last, if not the last, of Louis’s alumni still playing, and playing splendidly.

I missed David’s introduction, where he and the musicians demonstrated their instruments, and the band was finishing a slow blues as I came into the garden, but the air brightened when he announced “High Society,” and Felder beat off the right tempo. Not all the children were immediately captivated: feet jiggled in time here and there, but even those who turned around to talk to their friends were happy. But one little girl not far from me sat rapt, attentive, nearly mesmerized by the music. When Chirillo soloed and Felder accompanied him with sticks on the wooden rim of his snare, little boys leaned forward: they had never heard anything like it.

David knows his audiences, so he became a fine cheerleader several times during the hour-long program. “Can you say Louis Armstrong?” he asked the crowd, and when they responded sedately, he said, “I can’t hear you!” until they shouted it out in cheerful unison. He then invited children to come up and strut their stuff, their best dance moves, in front of the band, which was a hit, especially with trumpeter Kevin Louis doing his best New Orleans exhortation, “Ain’t gonna dance / Better get / out of my way!” while rapping on a tambourine, creating a down-home parade in Corona. A serious “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” followed, and when the band shifted into tempo, the children were treated to a Muranyi / Chirillo duet where Joe showed he remembered Louis’s trick from “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” of repeating a simple phrase over changing chords. And, although none of the children had ever heard of Louis’s buddy Zutty Singleton, Felder’s drum solo — press rolls and bass-drum accents — showed he certainly had. The band ended with a rousing “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” but the music didn’t end: Louis’s majestic sound filled the garden with songs from his Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography sessions. At the end, the children crowded around trumpeter Kevin Louis, eager for his autograph.

Who knows if this audience held the next Louis, Lester, Billie, or Bird? But there was an extraordinary musical and spiritual osmosis in that garden. Louis, I am sure, was pleased. For more information on next year’s “Pops Is Tops” programs, the Armstrong House Museum (worth a trip from anywhere, if only to see the lovely turquoise kitchen, the mirrored bathroom, and to hit the gift shop), visit www.satchmo.net., or the “Louis Armstrong House and Museum” link on the blogroll.

I THOUGHT I HEARD RUBY BRAFF SAY

In 1971, when I read in The New Yorker that cornetist Ruby Braff was going to play a week at the Half Note in New York City, this was exciting news. I had first heard his playing on one of the famous Vanguard recordings, The Vic Dickenson Showcase. On “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “Old-Fashioned Love,” he had added remarkable deep indigo shadings to the ensembles, his solos mixing melodic embellishment, passionate surs and moans.

Soon after, the legendary jazz broadcaster Ed Beach devoted four hours to Ruby on WRVR-FM, and I began to search out his records. In the Fifties, Ruby had been in the studios with the best players: Lee Wiley, Coleman Hawkins, Dave McKenna, Lawrence Brown, PeeWee Russell, Benny Morton, Jo Jones, Walter Page . . . and he was featured as a member of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars.

What Wein has done for jazz in the last half-century and more with the Newport Jazz Festival and its incarnations is beyond dispute. But he is in the odd position of being simultaneously an impresario and a musician of limited gifts who saw it as his right to play in the bands he sponsored and hired. The pleasure he takes in playing is visible, but no one ever wished a Wein solo longer, no one ever delighted in the subtlety of his accompaniment. But he got gigs, he loved Ruby. Ruby derided him in interviews and no doubt in person but accepted the gigs.

Shortly before the Half Note gig, I had just bought Wein’s newest record — “George Wein and the Newport All-Stars” on Atlantic, featuring Ruby, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Red Norvo, Larry Ridley, and Don Lamond. And Wein, of course. The players were superb soloists but there was little ensemble unity. One of the high points, I thought, was Ruby’s lovely solo on “My Melancholy Baby.”

Full of anticipation. I went to the Half Note with two friends, Stu Zimny and Rob Rothberg, both of whom were equally excited about seeing Ruby. Being bold, Stu had driven us from our suburban familiarities to the unknown reaches of West Greenwich Village (the Half Note was on the corner of Spring and Hudson Streets, no longer uncharted territory); Rob, an amateur trumpet player, had brought a rare record — Ruby with Ellis Larkins — for Ruby to autograph.

We came into the club, which was typically small and dark, with a raised stage at one end of the room, under it the bar. Ruby was standing nearby. He wore a blazer and tie. I had expected him to be diminutive, and he was, with a cigarette in one hand. We approached him.

I was meeting one of my idols, someone I had spent hours listening to. I had Braff solos by heart and could call them to memory. I was nervous and eager. Being a respectful nineteen-year old, I called Ruby “Mr. Braff,” told him that I loved his playing and had been collecting his records. He may have smiled. What I do remember most clearly is this exchange:

Me: “I especially like the solo you played on ‘My Melancholy Baby’ on the new Newport All-Stars record.”

Ruby: “That shit?”

Me: Embarrassed silence. When I replay this scene in my mind, I say something elegant, perhaps, “Well, I liked it,” but I don’t know if courage deserted me. The music Ruby played that night (and I illicitly recorded) is another story, but that was my first introduction to him in person.