Daily Archives: November 23, 2009


Yesterday I received my copy of pianist Chris Dawson’s first solo CD, STRIDIN’ THROUGH CHRISTMAS, and it’s a wow.  But perhaps you’d like to read some expert testimony:

Let’s get my personal prejudices out of the way.  To me, “Christmas music” tends either to be religious or fairly limited pop hits.  But I calmed myself when I saw there were no versions of THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY or RUDOLF THE RED-NOSED REINDEER on this CD.  Dawson plays each selection as a new composition, exploring its improvisatory possibilities. 

Many CDs pall quickly because the artist or artists have one approach and sustain it through as many as twenty-five selections.  Not so here.  You will hear piano playing that’s sometimes rollicking, sometimes deeply sensitive . . . and Chris doesn’t take predictable paths. 

What’s loosely called “stride piano” has also come in for some rough handling from players who have only a superficial understanding of the idiom.  All it is, they think, is a steady left-hand pattern, rhythmically powerful, alternating low notes in the bass and a resounding chord . . . over and over, while the right hand does whatever it likes.  For many players, who may well be technically gifted, the result is rather like the ticking of a loud watch or the pounding of a machine.  Others model their playing on Fats Waller, which is fine in theory but not if it’s a matter of learning the eight or ten patented “Wallerisms” and sprinkling them liberally through every composition.  Stride, clearly athletic and virtuosic, also gets confused in some pianists’ minds with exhibitionism: faster, more percussive, louder, longer. 

Chris Dawson is someone who knows and has internalized the whole jazz piano tradition — forwards to Bill Evans, let us say, and backwards to the early James P. Johnson.  What you’ll hear on this disc is often delicate but never so ruminative as to become dull.  Most often, while listening, I thought of Chris as offering his own variations on three masters: Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna, and Dick Hyman.  (And there are touches of Forties Johnny Guarneri in there, too — which is a high compliment.)  I hear the delicacy, strength, and vivid imagination that I associate with these three masters in every bar of this CD, and it’s not an archivist’s recreation, not jazz archaeology — but living improvised music.  He has a fine swing in his playing, but he is harmonically free, and at times the experienced jazz listener will marvel at the happy marriage of presumed opposites in his playing.  He can make something as melodically simple as SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN hilariously mobile, and I was moved by Chris’s tender explorations of SILENT NIGHT.  He’s accurate but never stiff; the performances don’t go on too long; the CD is wonderfully varied and the sound of the recording is delicious.     

To hear some samples, I would direct the reader back a few posts to: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/an-early-christmas-present/.  Hear Chris stride through WE THREE KINGS, surely not the usual . . . .

Or, if you prefer soundbites: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/ChrisDawson

To buy the CD: http://shop.astinmusic.com/

I think that you’ll still be playing this CD in February 2010 and onwards, when the house has returned to its normal state and the only reminder of the holiday is the credit card bills.

SINGING PRETTY SONGS at The Ear Inn (Nov. 22, 2009)

Jon-Erik Kellso already has a deep repertoire of songs, as listeners know.  I was especially delighted when he decided to add Ralph Rainger’s PLEASE to his list, which he did last Sunday night (November 22, 2009) at the Ear Inn.  The EarRegulars were an especially compatible quartet: Jon-Erik on trumpet, Matt Munisteri on guitar, Scott Robinson on tenor sax, and Pat O’Leary on bass. 

In the darkness, occasional clamor, and pedestrian traffic of the Ear, I managed to capture the first set.  I’ll save the medium and uptempo improvisations for a future post. 

But I want to share two beauties with my readers.  One is Jon-Erik’s tender reading of PLEASE, first muted, then open — singing pretty songs!  And listen to Matt and Pat, particularly eloquent at this tempo.   

Then, coincidentally, Scott had brought a lead sheet for another Rainger song associated with Bing Crosby: WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE, which he performed in a trio setting.  (Later, Scott reminded me that the version he was awed by was not Bing’s, but Ben Webster’s — on THE WARM MOODS Reprise recording, where Ben is surrounded by a small, perfectly attuned and limber string ensemble.)

It takes splendid technique and endurance to play many choruses at a fast tempo.  However, it takes a rare emotional and artistic maturity to play just a chorus or two of a lovely ballad.  As Lester Young is supposed to have said to Sonny Stitt, parading every lick he knew at a dazzling tempo, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Hats off to Jon-Erik, Scott, Matt, and Pat — players who sing!

(Jon said that he and Matt envision a Bing-inspired evening in the future, including such rarities as SUSIANNA.  I’ll be there!)

Postscript: Here’s the link to an impressive video of Jon-Erik performing Henry “Red” Allen’s composition SINGING PRETTY SONGS with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz3BYzzy7HE

TEA WITH THE CARDS (Nov. 16, 2009)

As I’ve written, the downtown haunt Banjo Jim’s (Avenue C and 9th Street) in New York City offers the possibility for ecstatic musical experiences when the Cangelosi Cards take the floor.  Literally, it is the floor, since there is no demarcation between the audience, the dancers, and the band . . . which is perhaps as it should be. 

I visited the Cards one week ago at their Monday-night gig and captured their first exuberant performance of WHEN I TAKE MY SUGAR TO TEA, featuring Tamar Korn, singing and percussive effects; Jake Sanders, guitar; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet and mandolin; Matt Musselman, trombone; Marcus Milius, harmonica; Gordon Webster, piano; Cassidy Holden, bass.  No drums, none needed. 

I sat as close to the band as I could.  Although I’ve always approved of the synchronicity between the Cards and the dancers, this night — as the video shows — I had reason to feel imperiled by the substantial yet graceful, wildly swinging couple dancing.  I’m no swing-dance aficionado, so I wouldn’t presume to evaluate their performance, but they were so close to me that I feared a flying elbow or arcing sneaker.  Fortunately, I had room enough to cower in my seat, averting any collisions, but I hope my readers appreciate the raw courage my videography demands!  

What a marvel this band is — their effervescent swing, the jazz-battle that Matt and Dennis get into, and Tamar’s luminous voice floating above it all.  And all this on the first tune of the night!

The two still photographs — made eerie and lovely by the light at the rear of the bandstand — were taken before the Cards began to play.