THE PIANIST IN QUESTION

weinI was in the middle of writing an ambivalent review for All About Jazz of the Mosaic reissue of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars 1967 concerts when I stopped.  The CD, GEORGE WEIN IS ALIVE AN WELL IN MEXICO, features Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and Jack Lesberg.  It was originally issued on Columbia Records, and Mosaic has added three previously unissued tracks.  The slow numbers offer poignant playing from Russell late in his career, with Freeman and Braff in peerless, musing form, Lesberg giving great support.  And reissue producer Michael Cuscuna, long may he wave, apologizes for reproducing the dreadfully insulting cover photograph and tells a wonderful story about two of the faux-Mexican banditos, who are doing their best to summon up the spirit of Alfonso Badoya.   

But Lamond’s drums pummel the listener, which could be more the fault of the hall and the recording engineer.  And all of Wein’s pianistic shortcomings are brilliantly audible — the heavy touch, the clogged phrasing, the repeated formulas, the dragging rhythms.

In the interest of fairness, I took a YouTube break to check myself, to see if I was being unjust to Wein.  As an impresario, he has contributed immeasurably to jazz.  Imagine if the Newport Jazz Festivals had never existed! 

But as a pianist and bandleader? 

I found this performance of LADY BE GOOD — from Copenhagen, dated 1974 (although it might be 1969) with Braff, Red Norvo, bassist Larry Ridley, Barney Kessel, Lamond, and Wein.

Wein kicks off a very brisk tempo and all is well, sometimes inspiring, until he solos, perhaps becase Kessel and Ridley’s strong rhythmic pulse keeps the band on track.  But Wein then launches complicated figures that he is just-nearly-able to play at this tempo.  The solo isn’t disastrous, but it offers evidence to support what I’ve been hearing on records and in person for a long time.  Unkind, perhaps; unjust, no.  Imagine this band with a young Mark Shane, with Dick Hyman, John Bunch, Hank Jones, or Jimmy Rowles.  How they would have flown! 

And since there is more to life and to this post than pulling anyone to pieces in public, I encourage vewers to delight in the solos by everyone else in this performance — Norvo’s limber arpeggios, a floating phrase Braff pulls off in his second bridge, Kessel’s bluesy intensity. 

Should the philosophical question come up, “Is it better to have this performance, with its flaws, then not?” my answer would be a quick Yes.  But it reminds us just how marvelous it is when everyone in an improvising jazz group is emotionally and technically on the same wavelength, and perhaps just how hard it is to accomplish that special creative unity.

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7 responses to “THE PIANIST IN QUESTION

  1. Hi ,
    I would agree with your comments regarding George Weins pianistic short comings but I have to say I really enjoyed the video, the musicianship of the other players is excellent.
    The one thing I picked up on was the complete lack of eye contact between Braff and Norvo, I got the feeling Braff didn’t even want to be on the same stage as Norvo —- any comments to make on this .

  2. I was concentrating so much on Wein’s playing that I missed this psychodrama. But it doesn’t surprise me. Ruby was a creative genius but his ire and irritability were beyond belief: I saw an example or two at close range, although I was never the subject of his anger. However, I always thought that he moved from one group of musicians to the next with some predictable rapidity simply because he had used them up. Mild-mannered Howard Alden lasted a very long time, but he is a serene person whose very aura would turn away wrath. But try and find musicians, aside from Vic Dickenson, who Ruby wasn’t unhappy with at one time or another: that would be a challenge! Thanks for being a super-sharp observer!

  3. sam parkins

    Ah well – I give Geroge all the kudos he can handle simply for what, over an astonishing number of years, he’s done for jazz. And piano? I don’t hear anything so remiss that it catches the ear – were I in the kitchen, the radio was on and I didn’t know who it was, I would have heard a strong session with nothing to complain about.

    Dominated by Ruby. It’s a little like Benny. Everyone that came within ten feet of Ruby has a story. Next installment…sam p

  4. I’m with Sam. Without George & his festivals my teenage years would have sadly lacking. I don’t know how I would have found jazz without them.
    If George wants to play piano with some of
    his favorites that is more than ok with me. He does have great taste in sidemen!

  5. Bob, both you and Sam are right — but I am, too! If you read my post closely, you’ll see that I give thanks to George the irreplaceable impresario. Where I diverge is in my estimation of him as a musician, and if people chose to listen to that clip as a true Blindfold Test, unsentimentally, they might agree. Or not. But everyone can take something wonderful away from that performance, which, ultimately, is why I posted it — not simply to denigrate George. Cheers, Michael

  6. sam parkins

    Now – about Ruby: In 1958 I had a summer off from my old gig, but the owner hired Ruby for a Labor Day night party – Monday, when the help from all the nearby joints were invited to close out the season. He hired Ruby Braff, along with Sam Margolis, good local rhythm section. And me. My gig had just closecd and I was family at this place. Namley, he forced Ruby to add me or he didn’t get the gig.

    All went swimmingly – Sammy and I alternating tenor and clarinet. Late in the night I said to Ruby “Why don’t Sammy and I do a two tenor number – ‘Lester Leaps In’ or the like. Ruby blew up – not a pretty sight. THis is a

  7. sam parkins

    Sam continued:

    FILL IN THE BLANKS quiz. Ruby roared “I Hate two tenors. I don’t care if they are____and____, I HATE two tenors”.

    Every one says “Coleman Hawkins and Ben Websster” or “Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller” WRONG.

    ” I don’t care if those two tenors are Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. I Hate two tenors”

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