Monthly Archives: June 2010

JUNE NIGHTS with MICHAEL KANAN and JOEL PRESS

Here’s a last-minute notice about two New York City gigs that promise extraordinary music. 

On Tuesday, June 29th, at Smalls Jazz Club, from 10 PM to 12:30 AM, the Michael Kanan Quartet will be playing.  Michael is the pianist whose beautifully subtle work stopped me cold on Dan Block’s Ellington tribute CD.  Some contemporary musicians don’t like being compared to their jazz ancestors, but I thought of Ellis Larkins and Hank Jones — Mike is just that compelling and delicate. 

And I’ll get to meet the wonderful Joel Press, tenor sax (I decided that he was “the Swing Explorer”) face to face.  Joel is both traditional and unclassifiable in the best ways.  I’ve heard him experiment with standard repertoire without obliterating it, arriving at surprising places in the course of a performance.  And he knows how to swing while he’s exploring.  

What could be better?  How about Pat O’Leary on bass and Joe Hunt on drums?  

Smalls is located at 183 West 10th St in Greenwich Village, and a $20 cover is good for a full night of music.  

And for those who can’t get enough, like myself, the next night, Wednesday, June 30, Michael, Joel, bassist Neal Miner, and Joe Hunt will be appearing in the cozy ground-floor space of Sofia’s (221 West 46th Street) from 7-10:30 pm.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to charge my batteries (both electronic and physical) in advance. (A reasonable man would be sleeping and packing, but I can sleep on the plane.)   See you there!

“NOW’S THE TIME” by LARRY STRAUSS

Much of what is marketed as “jazz fiction” is earnest but unsatisfying because of the difficulty in creating believable characters.  In fact, the two most fulfilling jazz novels of the last decade have been Frederick Turner’s 1929 and Roddy Doyle’s OH, PLAY THAT THING! — both of which had larger than-life figures Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong as their centers. 

Many of the more traditional attempts at the genre also relied on predictable characters: the doomed pianist or saxophonist, devoted to his music but unable to have meaningful relationships; the doomed drug addict; the tubercular musician; the musician slowly going insane.  (Women, by the way, are always the devoted mother, the devoted girlfriend, the faithless wife.)  You begin to get the picture.

That’s why NOW’S THE TIME, a novel by Larry Strauss, is such a pleasure.  For one thing, its protagonist, Didi Heron, is an unflappable woman trumpeter (her day gig is in teaching middle-school geography) who doesn’t see herself as anything unusual — thus no novel-as-faminist-polemic here.  Didi isn’t perfect, but she has yearnings and a quest — a quest that forms the backbone of this book.  I should also say that, through Didi, Strauss has given us a candid glimpse into what goes on in a musician’s head — not starry romanticism or bitter cynicism, but an amused, perceptive, often unsentimental view of the world.  Did’s voice is a pleasure, and she quickly becomes real, not a thin disguise for the author’s opinions. 

I won’t give away more than eight bars of the plot, but Didi, scuffling through occasional gigs, has a love life and a lineage.  Her father, a jazz pianist killed very young in an auto accident, was a member of an imaginary but wholly convincing Fifties bop qiuntet.  As Didi searches for a mythical tape recording of the group and has adventures coast-to-coast, meeting a variety of club owners, family members, and aging musicians, she discovers a good deal about herself in ways that trascend formulaic “coming-of-age,” because Didi is clearly an adult, changing from chapter to chapter. 

I’m skeptical of novels advertised as “good reads,” but I read this one eagerly, asking the question so essential to fiction, “What’s going to happen next?”  Strauss doesn’t get in the way of his story: he creates his people, sets them on their particular courses, and records what takes place in sharp, straightforward prose.  I hope that we get to follow Didi in a later book: I was sorry to see her go. 

Here’s a “jazz fiction” novel that is true to both parts of the name.  NOW’S THE TIME is published by Kearney Street Books: details at www.kearneystreetbooks.com.  And it’s also available here: http://www.amazon.com/Nows-Time-Larry-Strauss/dp/0972370676/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277580826&sr=1-1

TEDDI KING / CONNEE BOSWELL

Two of the finest singers of the twentieth century, remembered on paper.

Miss Teddi King, “cute and pert,” ready to be the “Queen of Rush Street” in Chicago, 1959:

And the reverse: this photo may have been printed in the Chicago Tribune:

A publicity photograph of Teddi for a 1966 stint at the Playboy Club:

Connee Boswell, looking lovely and wistful:

A later autograph, when she’d changed from “Connie” to “Connee”:

And a few mysteries.  Did Connee ever perform this song on the radio?  Its composers are entirely unknown to me:

And two Fifties sides — presumably early rock ‘n’ roll, compositions by Connee herself?  Does anyone know what these sound like?

Was this Connee’s version of HOUND DOG?

Or was someone masquerading as our Connee?  Can anyone explain?

THEIR IRRESISTIBLE STORIES

It’s taken me some time to write about Hank O’Neal’s book, THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM (Vanderbilt University Press), but admiration slowed me down.  What follows is only the smallest sample of its contents. 

Between 1985 and 2007, O’Neal (an excellent home-grown journalist who knew how to ask questions and get out of the way) interviewed forty-two jazz giants.  Some were well-known (Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Illinois Jacquet, Cab Calloway, Andy Kirk, Sy Oliver, Jonah Jones, Benny Carter, Maxine Sullivan, Buddy Tate), others no less deserving but in semi-obscurity to all but jazz devotees and scholars (Al Cobbs, Ovie Alston, Gene Prince).  Almost all of O’Neal’s subjects have now died: Frank Wess, Terry, and Billy Taylor might be the sole survivors. 

Rather than ask each musician for a long autobiographical summary, O’Neal focused on their memories of Harlem.  Fascinating stories resulted, which eventually proved stronger than their grief for a way of life that they had seen vanish.  

O’Neal is also a fine photographer from the old school — Berenice Abbott was his occasionally irritable mentor — so the book has large-format photographs of its subjects, often in their homes, as well as invaulable jazz memorabilia (advertisements and posters, record labels and the like) and photographs of the buildings that now stand where the uptown clubs used to be.  I find those transformations hard to take; that Connie’s Inn is now a C-Town supermarket makes me gloomy.

But because many of the musicians had never been asked to talk about Harlem, they responded with fresh stories that were hilarious, profound, touching.  

Fats Waller’s advice to guitarist Al Casey: “Don’t ever let your head get too big because there is always that little boy around the corner that can outplay you and outdo everything you do.”

Harry Edison, recalling his mother’s economic advice: ” [When I was fourteen or fifteen] I played with a guy named Earl Hood.  I remember I had to have a tuxedo and my mother paid two dollars for it.  We played little jobs around Columbus and every time I got home my mother used to ask me, ‘How much did you make?’  I’d tell her that Mr. Hood told me I was playing for the experience, and she said, ‘To hell with experience, you might as well stay home if you’re not going to get paid.’ ”

Edison’s memory of pianist Don Lambert taunting Art Tatum at an uptown jam session: “Get up off that chair.  You can’t play, you’ve got no left hand, you’re the world’s worst piano player.”

How clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton asked Teddy Wilson for a raise: “Teddy, I think you ought to put a little yeast in the money.”

Al Cobbs, remembering what Louis Armstrong said about the crowds he drew: “Let me tell you something.  The kind of music I’m playing makes people feel good–the folks come in and they buy steaks.  But some of the things people are playing make people sad, and these folks will just sit there, drink a Coca-Cola, and stay all night.”

The record session that Nat Cole wanted to organize in California, with Illinois Jacquet: “He’d be on piano.  I’d play my horn, and Jimmy Blanton, Sid Catlett, and Charlie Christian would make up the rhythm section.  That sounded great to me.”

The book is full of stories: impatient Stuff Smith wandering out on the ledge of a tall building.  How Coleman Hawkins explained his record of BODY AND SOUL to Thelma Carpenter as musical love-making.  What Milt Hinton’s teacher said to him.  Danny Barker explaining the difference between New Orleans and New York in terms of hospitality.  Al Casey paying tribute to Teddy Bunn.  Buddy Tate remembering the last time he saw Charlie Parker alive. 

And the book comes with a compact disc of many of the giants playing (and talking) — musical history.

THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM is too cumbersome to take to the beach, but it’s a masterpiece.  To learn more about it, visit http://www.vanderbiltuniversitypress.com/books/335/the-ghosts-of-harlem, where you can see twenty beautiful sample pages.

JIMMIE NOONE, JAZZ CLARINET PIONEER

For those unfamiliar with the sound of clarinetist Jimmie Noone, here he is with his 1928 Apex Club Orchestra — Doc Poston, alto sax; Earl Hines, piano; Bud Scott, banjo; Johnny Wells, drums — playing EVERY EVENING (I MISS YOU) courtesy of “ptm51” on YouTube:

Noone (1894-1944) should be known to a wider audience today, and a new bio-discography, JIMMIE NOONE, JAZZ CLARINET PIONEER, by James K. Williams with a discography by John Wilby, is just what is needed. 

Noone did not lead a melodramatic life (jazz musician as martyr) so the narrative is a compact one — but the book is evocatively documented with photographs and newspaper clippings, and Wilby’s discography is admirably thorough.  Noone was born in Louisiana and was playing Albert system clarinet alongside Freddie Keppard as early as 1913, working with a wide variety of New Orleans bands.  Going north to Chicago, he played and recorded with King Oliver and Doc Cook.  In 1926 Noone began leading his own groups — most notably at the Apex Club — which often moved away from the traditional instrumentation to an all-reed format, sometimes augmenting his band for recordings.  During the Thirties, Noone led a variety of touring bands, and he moved to the West Coast for the last three years of his life.  At the time of his death, he was being featured on radio broadcasts hosted by Orson Welles.  Had Noone lived longer, he would have been venerated much as Bunk Johnson and Kid Ory were for their part in playing “authentic” jazz. 

Noone’s influence goes beyond this rather limited summary of his travels and club dates.  He and a very young Benny Goodman went to the same classical clarinet teacher, Franz Schoepp, who often had Goodman linger to play duets with Noone.  And I can hear the echoes of Noone’s technical facility in Goodman’s playing — as well as the songs Goodman loved, SWEET SUE, SWEET LORRAINE, and I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW, all Noone favorites.  (I hadn’t known until I read this book that Teddy Wilson had also worked with Noone.)  I think that there’s a clear line to be drawn from Noone’s Chicago bands to the Goodman trios and quartets. 

And Noone travelled in fast company: a record session for OKeh featuring a wonderful quartet of Louis Armstrong, Noone, Hines, and Mancy Carr has some fine playing.  Comments by other jazz musicians — Coleman Hawkins and Bud Freeman among them — testify to the effect Noone had on players such as Bix Beiderbecke. 

In our time, the Noone influence is clearest in the work of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber, whose Soprano Summit and Summit Reunion owed a good deal to the hot polyphony of Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.  Other clarinetists, such as Frank Chace, admired Noone greatly (an early private recording of Chace has him taking his time through a slow-motion APEX BLUES).

Williams’ book is admirable in its reliance on documented evidence and the clarity of its vision.  He does not make exaggerated claims for Noone as a player or a trail-blazer, but every page has information that was new to me.   The book is 120 pages including more than 80 rare illustrations — photographs from the Frank Driggs and Duncan Schiedt collections as well as historic Noone documents, rare record labels, and pages from the Chicago Defender.  The price is $20 (US) per copy plus shipping ($4 to US; 4.50 to Canada; 8 overseas).  Order from James K. Williams, 801 South English Avenue, Springfield, Illinois 62704; email tubawhip@comcast.net; phone 217.787.3089.  Paypal preferred; personal US check or postal money order accepted.

YES, INDEED!*

A new CD by the group formerly known as B E D is cause for celebration.  Although this quartet (by common consent) has shed its coy acronym to be known simply as the Rebecca Kilgore Quartet, their musical essence — swinging, tender, witty, surprising — has not changed except to get better. 

Rebecca’s Quartet is a musical alliance between Becky (vocals and guitar); Eddie Erickson (the same plus banjo), Dan Barrett (trombone, cornet, piano, arrangements, vocals) and Joel Forbes (string bass).  They were friends and co-conspirators long before they formed this versatile group, and their pleasure in playing and singing continues to grow, audibly.  And I stress that the RK4 is a musically interconnected group rather than a star turn for a singer and her backing rhythm section. 

This CD is also happily distinguished by its variety (most CDs seem too long not because we can’t sit still for sixty-five minutes, but because many groups present the same experience eleven or twenty times during the course of the disc) — and it’s not an artificial yearning for “something completely different” from track to track.  Singers Becky and Eddie are often out front, as they deserve to be, but the music behind and around them is both delicate and propulsive.  Much of that is due to bassist Joel, someone I’ve been privileged to see and hear at close range at The Ear Inn.  Joel knows all about the right notes in the right places, and his big woody sound lifts any ensemble.  Here — since there’s piano only on one track and no drums at all, we can hear his righteous elegance.  He’s featured throughout the CD but comes to the forefront on MY OLD FLAME, which is just lovely.

Daniel P. Barrett, to be formal, inhabits a roomy musical universe.  Shall we begin with the talents he’s less celebrated for?  His piano on THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE would make you think that Nat Cole had decided to remain an instrumentalist, and his cornet playing on A GAL IN CALICO and GET ACQUAINTED WITH YOURSELF is a flexible, swinging delight — evoking Bobby Hackett and Bill Coleman.  Want more?  He’s an impish singer on ACQUAINTED: it’s hard to hear him sing anything without grinning at his wryly personal delivery.  The clever, understated arrangements are his, and his trombone playing is what the instrument ought to sound like, whether he’s caressing a ballad line or nodding to one of Vic Dickenson’s less printable epigrams.

Eddie Erickson hasn’t yet gotten his due as a wonderful rhythm guitarist and creator of tumbling single-note lines where every note is perfectly in place, even when the tempo is supersonic.  His banjo playing is so melifluous that it makes me forget all the other things done to and with that instrument in the wrong hands.  As a singer . . . he is earnest without being homespun, someone who makes the lyrics come alive without the slightest hint of affectation.  He makes the rather violent lyrics of A GAL IN CALICO charming rather than oppressive; his MY OLD FLAME is rueful but wise; his DAY DREAM is tenderly masterful.  He is also a wonderful team player, having the time of his life joining in with Becky when they sing.

And “Rebecca (Becky) Kilgore,” as the back cover identifies her?  My feeling (based on this CD and her Jerome Kern tribute, SURE THING, just out on Audiophile) is that her only flaw is that she keeps getting better.  When I have received a new CD of hers, I think I know how good it’s going to be, but her subtlety continues to amaze me.  She is able to sing songs that I know by heart and make them evocative and fresh — including THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME and THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT, which I had thought Mr. Astaire had permanently made his own.  Her wistfulness, her deep feeling are evident all through I WISH I KNEW; her multi-lingual effortlessness comes through on UNDER PARIS SKIES.  Her delivery of the lyrics is of course pitch-perfect, conversationally casual and graceful, but she is a great dramatic actress who never is caught acting: her rubatos, her hesitations and urgencies, are emotionally convincing improvisatons.  And she doesn’t demand the spotlight for herself: her singing makes acceptable songs sound much better than they would otherwise, and makes great songs astonishing.  On this CD, as well, our Becky displays another side to her character, a wholly natural kind of bluesy Funk: hear her on BUZZ ME BLUES and the half-time section (homage to Connee Boswell and the Sisters) of CHANGES MADE.  And the whole band rocks church on the opening YES, INDEED! — an appropriate title for this delightful disc. 

Here’s a link to CD Baby to purchase the Blue Swing Fine Recordings CD: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/RebeccaKilgoreQuartet

*This post’s title, of course, comes from the CD itself and its opening track: I wanted to call this YOU WILL SHOUT WHEN IT HITS YOU, but my legal advisers said that these words sounded like an incitement to civil unrest so that I should find another phrase.  And the cover picture, most atmospheric, captures Dan’s mother Dorothee striding down a busy street in St. Louis, circa 1937 — she kows where she’s going and she’s going to get there . . . just like the RK4.

PAT O’LEARY’S NIGHTINGALE

If you had asked me, a few months ago, to tell you all I knew about Patrick O’Leary, I would have said, “Wonderful bass player — a real melodic sensibility and strong time — and an extraordinary jazz cellist.  Witty fellow, a good sort.”  And I would have directed you to some of the videos I’ve taken at The Ear Inn for proof.  But that estimate, which remains true, would have sold Mr. O’Leary short as a classical composer and arranger, someone able to integrate jazz improvisation and folk material into classical forms (vocal as well as instrumental) doing justice to all the music. 

I wouldn’t make such claims without musical evidence.  Here is  the third section from Pat’s MONTENEGRO JAZZ SUITE, his choral / symphonic improvisations on the Monenegrin folk song “Slavjo Poje,” which translates appropriately as “Nightingale.”

Pat explains, “Maja Popovich asked me to write a suite of pieces based on Montenegrin folk music for choir, string ensemble, and jazz quartet.  Stjepko Gut played the trumpet and flugelhorn, Ehud Asherie, piano; Tom Melito, drums, and I played bass and arranged.  Zoja Durovic conducted the choir and Irena Vukovic conducted the string ensemble. This concert was filmed at The Kic Center in Podgorica, Montenegro on June 21, 2009. Everyone did a great job considering the amount of time allowed for rehearsal(s).”

For my readers who have a classical background, see if the string writing isn’t reminiscent of Vaughan Williams or perhaps Barber’s ADAGIO FOR STRINGS — and for jazz listeners who might be less patient, wait a bit and your patience will be rewarded by marvelous playing from the quartet.  Bravo!

And other sections of the MONTENEGRO JAZZ SUITE are accessible on YouTube: visit Pat’s channel, “usenewsyuleooze,” a name that will make much more sense when muttered aloud.