Monthly Archives: January 2010

“THE ODOR OF POPULARITY”

This biography of  Sidney Catlett comes directly from http://www.jazzandroots.com/big-sid-catlett.html.  I credit the original site — the “Jazz and Roots Club” found in Shrewsbury, England (I presume) so that readers know I am reporting rather than inventing. 

 Big Sid Catlett, was one of the large battery the swing era and one of the few who crossed stylistic boundaries smoothly without loss of quality would suffer. Born in Indiana and learned to play the piano as a child before the school band will pass to the battery.

He began his career in Chicago in the late twenties before moving to New York at the time of the Great Depression. His first serious contact with jazz came when he worked for Benny Carter’s orchestra in 1932. From that experience, he found work easily and well spent by the best swing bands of the time between most notably those of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson.

 

Possessor of a light rhythm and full of swing, was able to adapt their style to each soloist who accompanied him. He was admired in his time by the general public who flocked to the ballrooms and dress, elegant, classic and fun at the same time, helped him be the focus of attention among the young. As a musician he felt at ease in any situation and in any format and was one of the first battery of swing who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

It is remarkable in its contribution to the combos that organized the great clarinetist, Benny Goodman and his final year career before he died following a heart attack, was with “All Star” by Louis Armstrong where he spent his last years in the odor of popularity.

Now I understand much more than I did.  The reason for Sidney’s wondrous inventiveness was his large battery (more volts, more swing).  And he never lost quality while crossing stylistic boundaries (are those crossings rather like going through Customs at the border or more like passing through the metal detector at the airport?).  Finally — there’s something in the air.  A scent, light, elusive, entrancing.  Not Chanel; not fresh hot coffee; not the scent of new-mown hay: no!  It’s the odor of popularity. 

I’m always glad to see that anyone’s paying attention to my heroes, but word-for-word translation has its limits.

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SOMETHING TORCHY

The Beloved and I made our way uptown on a very cold Friday night (January 29, 2010) to Roth’s Westside Steakhouse to hear the chamber jazz duet of trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and pianist Ehud Asherie, both well known to readers of this blog.  Perhaps everyone there had read in the papers that the economy had grown, because the air was loudly festive, although no one’s birthday was being celebrated. 

Our waiter, a dramatic fellow with a dramatic upsweep of hair (“Pomade,” he told the Beloved) went around being cheerful.  One memorable exchange was: “Having a good time?” he inquired of a table of diners.  “Yeah, fine,” one of them said.  “Well, keep having a good time!” he countered.  David Mamet has nothing to fear.

In the midst of this, Jon-Erik and Ehud went about their work: medium-tempo James P. Johnson, a little Fats Waller, some Edgar Sampson. 

The enthusiastic woman to our left (who occasionally applauded in the middle of a four-bar exchange) leaned forward in the middle of the set and asked the duo, “Can you play something torchy?” a request that caused some discussion and thought.  Jon-Erik and Ehud settled on this Frank Signorelli-Matty Malneck composition, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME (originally called LITTLE BUTTERCUP when it was an instrumental).  That song, not incidentally, was first associated with Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti; later, Billie Holiday and Lester Young.

I am sure that the management at Ruth’s has informed the busboys (they look grown-up to me) that an uncleared table will be dealt with severely, so the staff makes frequent — if not incessant — visits to diners, taking a bread plate away here, a knife there.  Perhaps it’s an unspoken law in the restaurant trade that a table almost devoid of utensils makes diners go home or makes them order dessert and coffee and then go home.  I don’t know.  But in the middle of this seriously lovely performance, a gentleman came to remove some plates and assorted debris and lingered in front of my camera long enough for it to lose its grip on reality.  Hence a brief out-of-focus interlude, but the microphone continued to work.

These capers aside, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME is a wonderful, serious lesson in deep-down melodic playing and subtle, touching embellishment — much more difficult than ripping off harmonically-adventurous scalar lines over shifting polyrhythms.  And this kind of playing is second nature to Jon-Erik and Ehud.

A SMALL TREASURE

Ten inches square (or in diameter) in fact.

Often of late I have noted jazz treasures for sale on eBay — and posting them here becomes a substitute for attempting to possess them). 

But here is a delightful artifact I found and bought.  It’s a 10″ red vinyl Paramount long-playing record (a John Steiner production) featuring cornetist Johnny Wiggs, clarinetist Raymond Burke, bassist Sherwood Mangiapane, and guitarist / singer Dr. Edmond Souchon.  Recorded in 1955, it is wonderful chamber jazz, with Wiggs’s mixture of Oliver and Bix, somewhere between sad and jaunty, mixing perfectly with the limpid, gutty sound of Burke — resting most comfortably on the rhythmic cushion of acoustic guitar and string bass.  Living-room jazz.  And the repertoire is wonderful — a medley of MEMORIES / SMILES / SINGIN’ THE BLUES; HEEBIE JEEBIES (with a raucous Louis-inspired vocal by Souchon), TULIP STOMP (also known as WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP), MAMA’S BABY BOY, MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR, BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES, CONGO (or CONGO SQUARE), and PRETTY BABY (in honor of Tony Jackson). 

You can’t see it, but the record label itself credits everything to “Ray Burke and the New Orleanians”: did Wiggs and Burke flip a coin to decide who would get credited outside and inside? 

That would have been more than enough for me: the seller offered this at a reasonable price, and I was eager to get it.  True, I had the music on a cassette somewhere (courtesy of the late and generous Bob Hilbert) but I wanted the artifact itself.

It came in a soft cardboard envelope with a flap holding the record in, so to remove the disc I had to turn it over . . . and this greeted me, in careful fountain pen:

May 14 / 55

To Pinkey – with apologies for the Bourbon-seared vocal cords!

Cordially –

Edmond Souchon M.D.

I don’t think the seller had seen the back of the sleeve or, if he had, hadn’t made the connection (or hadn’t been trying to raise the price).  Thank you, Sir, for your generous offering — whatever the reason!  Other sellers, more observant or more avaricious, would have advertised this as RARE! and had a minimum bis of $299. 

“Pinkey,” I assume, is clarinetist Pinky Vidacovich . . . and a closer inspection revealed that Souchon had glued a name / address label on the front cover and a small red oval sticker “Souchon” on the record label.  Was it his own copy?  I don’t know, but I treasure the signature and the sentiments as much as the music.

THE REYNOLDS BROTHERS IN HIGH STYLE, 2010

Living on the East Coast, I only knew about the Reynolds Brothers (that’s Ralf on washboard; John on National guitar; both sing; both are grnsdons of the legendary screen star ZaSu Pitts) through finding them on YouTube — a live session with singer Dawn Lambeth, trumpeter Marc Caparone, and plectrist Katie Cavera on her new triple, the string bass. 

I was both amused and elated: they were very funny, often sweet, but they swung very hard without raising their volume. 

Now, they have a new CD, and it’s is a corker.  A pip.  A honey.  A dazzler.  You find the appropriate adjective for “must-have.”

This CD features a beautifully-recorded, energetically hot quartet — with John taking most of the vocals, but with Ralf, Marc, and Katie having their own specialties.  What does a quartet of trumpet, amplified National guitar, string bass, and washboard sound like?

Listen (you can watch, too!): here are two performances by this very group recorded at the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood, California, on January 13, 2010 (courtesy of Katie Cavera’s YouTube channel, “kcavera”).

Let’s start with a brief incendiary exercise, FUTURISTIC JUNGLEISM:

And here’s something more tender (the Boswell Sisters did a lovely version of it), WAS THAT THE HUMAN THING TO DO?:

This band harks back to an almost-forgotten series of recordings by one of the great Hot organizations of the early Thirties, the Washboard Rhythm Kings.  If you didn’t have money for a trap set (and who did, during the Depression?) you could outfit what was then a common item, a laundry washboard, with a cymbal, a cowbell, perhaps other percussive side-dishes, find some thimbles, and wail away.  A great washboard player (ask Doug Pomeroy about this art: he knows) would not only be an adequate replacement for a swinging drummer with a full kit, but could outswing one.  Those recordings — sometimes at slow and medium tempos — had a wonderful momentum, and the really Hot numbers are astounding.  Famous names played with those bands — trumpeter Taft Jordan, pianist Clarence Profit, and singer Leo Watson among them. 

Now the washboard is usually relegated to truly traditional “trad” bands: in Ralf’s hands, it’s a full percussion orchestra, and he is a pleasure to watch . . . his hands swooping and diving in mid-air.  John is an engaging singer, gentle and sly — approaching music and lyrics with great casual-sounding skill.  His solos make melodic sense; his rhythm playing is a model of the art.  Katie is a fine propulsive bassist — bringing the same accuracy to this instrument that she has brought to all her banjos and guitars.  And she is a very sweet (but never sugary) singer: you believe her!  Marc Caparone, I submit, has never sounded so electrifying as he does on this CD and these clips.  I thought of what the National Forest Service calls “a controlled burn” — an intensely Hot fire that is, however, always precisely focused on its musical objectives.  And the band is more than a collection of individualists: they rock, joyously, together. 

The best way to but the CD is through the brothers’ site — (http://reynoldsbrothers.net/recordings.html) but those who prefer to use credit cards can order through CDBaby: http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/ReynoldsBrothers.  And if you’re sufficiently captivated, this quartet is “accepting engagements,” as the saying goes.  I am sure that the Brothers could add to this band to suit anyone’s desires.  

If you would like to hear more while you are waiting for your mail carrier to deliver the CD, Katie has posted a few more clips from this concert (as well as her own expert and witty short films).

FOR THE LOVE OF BIX: TWO MONDAYS

Thanks to Enrico Borsetti, who pointed me in this direction, here are two versions of FROM MONDAY ON by the Original Prague Syncopated Orchestra.  The first, a loose improvisation on the theme at a leisurely tempo, was recorded in May 26, 2008 and performed by a small contingent — it’s halfway between a rehearsal and a jam session, a most rewarding creation!  (Life backstage, a pleasure.) 

The members of the “Originální Pražský Synkopický Orchestr” here are Pavel Klikar (leader, trumpet, mellophone),Tomáš Černý and Jakub Šnýdl (clarinets), Jan Šimůnek (violinophone), Petr Wajsar and Tony Šturma (guitar), Jiří Šícha a Zbyněk Dobrohruška (banjo), Ondřej Landa (bass). 

This more elaborately formal version, a beautiful production number, adds a vocal trio, a violin trio, a chorus line of beauties, a bit of visual comedy, and the contributions of Ondrej Havelka — also recorded in 2008.  Although the purists have had their heated say, it gives me a taste of what a 1928 stage show might have been like. 

“J’ATTENDRAI,” 1939: DJANGO AT 100

Django Reinhardt in peak form, captured on film with Stephane Grappelli and the rest of the Hot Club Quintet.  Yes, the film clip is hokey, the lighting melodramatic, and the Hot Club boys chug a little as they always did — but to hear those long-lined powerful melodies of Django’s is always a delight.  And Django himself must be separated from his modern imitators, who spin out millions of notes: their technique may even be more astounding, but they have sometimes have less to say.  I just wish someone had filmed the session Django did with Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, and Billy Taylor: ethereal Hot!

“JAZZ LIVES”: SETH COLTER WALLS

Excerpts from his piece, “JAZZ IS DEAD.  LONG LIVE JAZZ.”  (From NEWSWEEK, Dec 21, 2009.)

[O]n an economic level, right: as a mass-culture force, jazz is dead. Simply look at the contemporary brand most familiar to a lay audience: the Marsalis family. In the early ’90s, one brother (Branford) was leading Jay Leno’s late-night band, while another (Wynton) was the preeminent trumpeter on Columbia, Miles’s old label. By the middle of this decade, both of them had lost those public perches—and no one has reached that stature since. 

Multi-disc sets of previously unissued live concerts from Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz are also competing for the public’s limited attention span this season. So no wonder folks keep saying jazz is dead: devotion to its past is stealing oxygen from the same room in which the present hopes to draw a breath.

[A]t the point where a relatively young art like jazz amasses enough history to merit these important tomes and huge box sets, the more difficult it becomes for the culture to absorb what’s happening in real time. And real time is how jazz is best experienced. Like baseball—another great American invention—part of jazz’s appeal is in how it unspools without deference to the clock. Just as drama asks for suspension of our disbelief, jazz asks us for the suspension of our need to program our every moment. Meantime, our contemporary mania for abbreviated text updates—think Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerrys—feels as if it stands in direct opposition to jazz’s deliberate, instrumental abstractions. Enjoying the music—really swinging with it—is a glorious sacrifice of the need to micro-manage the moment. And though it can be dreamy, this surely isn’t a recipe for amassing a stable brand that can support itself in the modern marketplace. At the beginning of the 21st century, the economic status of jazz is more like that of the symphony orchestra, only without the economic safety net of foundation funding that undergirds concerts featuring Beethoven and Brahms.

In fact, the arts community should debate whether a greater share of the music endowment pie ought to be going to jazz musicians. The rub is that it never will, unless there is an understanding that jazz’s economic status isn’t a hideous reflection of poor aesthetic health. But even if jazz is finally buried in that (expanding) graveyard of former mass-culture obsessions, that doesn’t mean the music isn’t still happening, or that it isn’t still perfectly capable of talking to us at an individual level. As long as they don’t starve to death, committed jazz musicians will be there for you, the forbidding economics of their pursuit be damned. And even if no one you know is talking about what they’re playing, be wary of any strangers who tell you they aren’t swinging anymore.

In reprinting excerpts from Walls’ piece, sent to me by Bill Gallagher, I am definitely not trying to awaken the Teachout-driven controversy about whether “jazz is dead” or not.  But I think Walls makes splendid points about the competitive marketplace that makes jazz — for most listeners — less essential, and the short attention span so characteristic of our times that makes many people too impatient for the music, too eager for instant gratification to immerse themselves in a musical form that no longer seems like a common language.  It wasn’t difficult to get listeners to appreciate jazz in 1936 or even 1956, because it was still part of the contemporaneous art . . . but now everyone has to work a bit harder.  I would quibble about his division between “past” and “present” in his second paragraph, since the jazz I revere brings those two artificial entities together from the first bar.  But that’s semantics. 

Since I think that much of what Walls writes makes good sense, and especially because “swinging” is the penultimate word of his essay, I hope he is able to come to New York City some Sunday night: I’ll buy him dinner at the Ear Inn. 

Comments, anyone?

The full piece can be found here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/226331/output/comments. 

And I would try not to be startled by the many unfamiliar names Walls cites: you can, if they make the room spin around, insert the names of musicians you love.