Monthly Archives: October 2010

BLISS: RUBY, RALPH, MILT, GUS, and DON (1988)

Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Milt Hinton, and Gus Johnson — at the Mid-America Jazz Festival in St. Louis . . . blessedly recorded for us by Don Wolff:

I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY:

SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE:

Although Ruby’s microphone seems earthbound, the music soars up to the heavens. 

And if you visit YouTube and look for “MrDonWolff,” you will find that generous Don has also shared performances by Rossano Sportiello, Soprano Summit, Milt, and Kenny Davern. 

Wonderful!

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DAN BARRETT and THE EarRegulars (Oct. 17, 2010)

Sadly, Dan Barrett is flying back to California as I write this.  I know he’ll be happy to be reunited with Laura and Andy, but we’ll miss him here terribly.

In the past ten days, he’s done a number of club gigs, a concert, a private party, and maybe some other playing I missed.  I couldn’t follow him around as much as I would have liked, but I did catch him on video on three occasions — twice at The Ear Inn and once at Arthur’s Tavern with Bill Dunham’s Grove Street Stompers. 

Highlights of those three glorious nights are a-coming! 

I don’t know when Dan touched down in New York City, but after a triumphant jazz afternoon playing alongside Dan Levinson, Dan Tobias, Keith Ingham, and Kevin Dorn in celebration of Ray Cerino’s ninety-first birthday party, a joyous event, Dan (after a nap) made his way downtown to that Soho salon of swing, The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street) for another Sunday extravaganza with The EarRegulars. 

Here are several performances, featuring the charter co-leaders Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet) and Matt Munisteri (guitar), with Joel Forbes (bass) and several esteemed joiners-in.

How about a paean to the power of love to keep superstition at bay that isn’t YOU’RE LUCKY TO ME?  Rather, I’VE GOT MY FINGERS CROSSED, memorably done by Louis and Fats in their respective recording studios in 1935:

Someone requested DONNA LEE, perhaps knowing what a delicious meal the EarRegulars could make of this variation on INDIANA:

Jon-Erik gave the trumpet chair to his friend and ours Danny Tobias, and the two Dans lingered deliciously in a wistful IF I HAD YOU:

Jon-Erik came back to make a three-man brass frontline.  They did a beautiful job on that old favorite, LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART, with the innocently tender lyrics.  And the instrumental trades near the end are worth their weight in Vocalion test pressings:

And the second-set jam session called in Dan Block (clarinet) and Simon Wettenhall (on Eb alto horn rather than trumpet) for a lively ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash, I hope it’s Sunday night at The Ear Inn!  (Incidentally, many more marvelous things happened . . . but you’d have to be there to share the experience.  There’s nothing like seeing this music live!)

ANDY FARBER: MAKING BEAUTIFUL SOUNDS

Having a large jazz orchestra in this century has often posed challenges besides the economic ones. 

Many “big bands” get formed only for special occasions and are thus not well-rehearsed.  Then there’s the matter of repertoire: should a band made up of improvising jazz players go into the past or boldly plunge into the future, however one defines it?  Or should such an orchestra bridge Past and Present — not an easy thing: it means more than letting the saxophone soloist play GIANT STEPS licks in the middle of A STRING OF PEARLS. 

Saxophonist Andy Farber has found his own answer to these questions.  He’s worked with all kinds and sizes of ensembles comfortably.  But his own orchestra has found its own path that pays homage to the past without being anyone’s ghost band — in a way that’s both reassuring and innovative.

Here’s what Andy told Alvester Garnett, who not only plays wonderful big band drums but also wrote fine liner notes (!): “The goal of this record is to focus on the emotional and spiritual element of large group ensemble playing.  I feel like there is a great amount of nuance in this band, ao conscious effort in playing pretty, shaping lines, playing parts as if it were a solo.”  Does that give you a sense of the silken textures Andy and his Orchestra have created?

You don’t have to take it on faith.  The band sounds wonderful — and its overall sound is not heavy or ponderous, nor does it make you wonder what all the players in the band are doing (some “big bands” quickly break down into soloist-plus-rhythm that you wonder if the other players have gotten off the bandstand to check their email — not here). 

And the names of the players will tell you a great deal.  Andy himself is a fine solo player (as I hope you’ve seen in my videos of him sitting in at The Ear Inn): here he’s joined by Dan Block, Chuck Wilson, Jay Brandford, Marc Phaneuf, Kurt Bacher, saxes (with a special guest appearance by Jerry Dodgion); Brian Pareschi, Irv Grossman, Kenny Rampton, and Alex Norris are the trumpets; Art Baron, Harvey Tibbs, Wayne Goodman, Max Seigel the trombones; Bob Grillo plays guitar; Mark Sherman, vibraphone; Kenny Ascher, piano; Jennifer Vincent, bass; Alvester Garnett, drums.  And there is some hip vocalizing from the Prince of Hip, Jon Hendricks and his Singers.

The repertoire includes the happily familiar (BODY AND SOUL, MIDNIGHT, THE STARS AND YOU, THE MAN I LOVE, SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES, JACK THE BELLBOY) and Andy’s witty, swinging originals (SPACE SUIT, BOMBERS, IT IS WHAT IT IS, and SHORT YARN) — and more.  All sinuously played, with a delight in sound rather than volume, texture rather than speed. 

If someone were to ask me the honorably weary question, “Are the big bands ever coming back?” I would play them this CD.  This band has no need to return: it is most reassuringly here. 

The CD is on BWR (Black Warrior Records) and can be found at better record stores everywhere?  Well, not quite — but it is available online through a number of sites and (of course) from Andy when you see him playing, which I urge you to do.

DON’T FORGET EDDIE LANG, PLEASE!

Our ’20s guitar man

South Philadelphia’s Eddie Lang, the “Father of Jazz Guitar” who died in 1933, lives again at Chris’ Jazz Cafe.
By Dan DeLuca

Inquirer Music Critic

From Django Reinhardt to Jimi Hendrix, the names that commonly appear on argument-starting lists of the greatest and most influential guitarists of the 20th century are familiar.

But there’s one flat-picking virtuoso from South Philadelphia typically left out of the conversation, whose music has receded into obscurity despite a trailblazing career cut short by his tragic death in 1933: Eddie Lang.

That’s an injustice an aggregation of local musicians and Lang enthusiasts are doing their best to redress, starting with a multi-act show that will bring Lang’s music to life at Chris’ Jazz Cafe in Center City on Monday.

It’s the 108th anniversary of the birth of Lang, who died of complications from a tonsillectomy that his friend and collaborator, Bing Crosby, urged him to get. And it’s been declared Eddie Lang Day in Philadelphia in a proclamation from Mayor Nutter that “urges all citizens to be aware of Eddie Lang’s history-making musical legacy as well as the role of Philadelphia in the development of early jazz music.”

And it’s about time, say ardent fans of Lang, frustrated that such a prodigiously talented and innovative figure could be all but forgotten by all but jazz cognoscenti.

“He’s somebody who died at a young age who had a brief, meteoric career,” says Aaron Luis Levinson, the Grammy-winning Philadelphia record producer who helmed Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson, the 2008 release that re-created three of the historic guitar duets between Lang and African American guitarist Johnson that broke the recording industry’s color line in 1928 and 1929.

At Chris’ on Monday, all 12 of the duets – which Lang recorded under the pseudonym Blind Willie Dunn so as to not arouse suspicion of music miscegenation – will be reprised by guitarists Jef Lee Johnson and Jonathan Dichter, who will “play” Lang.

“He’s not someone anybody ever remembers to talk about when they talk about Philadelphia music,” Levinson says. “There’s something really unfair about cultural memory. It’s like anything that happened before Elvis Presley gets treated like it happened in the dinosaur age.”

Lang’s life story may be little known, but it reads like an unwritten screenplay about a dazzlingly talented, thoroughly modern musician. Born Salvatore Massaro in 1902, Lang took his stage name from a favorite basketball player for the club team the Philadelphia Sphas (an acronym for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association).

The son of an Italian American immigrant instrument maker was among the pioneers of the flat-picking style (which involves playing with a plectrum held by, rather than attached to, the fingers) and is credited with popularizing the guitar over the louder, previously more prevalent banjo, as a key instrument for the jazz bands of the 1920s. So much so that the historical marker across the street from the Saloon restaurant in Lang’s old neighborhood at Seventh and Clymer Streets, put up in 1995, proclaims him “the Father of Jazz Guitar.”

Along with his childhood friend, violinist Joe Venuti, Lang laid the foundation for the improvisational gypsy jazz stylings of Reinhardt and his violin-playing counterpart, Stephane Grappelli.

Crosby biographer Gary Giddins writes that in contrast to Venuti’s merry-prankster personality, Lang was “quiet, thoughtful and responsible, a ruminative Catholic.”

In A Pocketful of Dreams: Bing Crosby, The Early Years, 1903-1940, Giddins writes that after cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Lang and Venuti were “arguably the most influential white jazz musicians of the 1920s, serving as a sort of template for the famed European jazz ensemble of the 1930s, the Quintette du Hot Club de France.”

Lang and Venuti made their names together playing in Philadelphia and Atlantic City showrooms, and according to Dichter, a music historian as well as a guitar teacher at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, toured in England with the novelty band the Mound City Blue Blowers.

In 1929, they were hired by bandleader Paul Whiteman, and it was there that Lang first began to accompany Crosby, who said of Lang’s playing: “He made you want to ride and go.” Giddins calls Lang Crosby’s “jazz conscience,” and the singer’s “most intimate friend, almost certainly the closest he would ever have.”

Crosby brought Lang for the 1932 film The Big Broadcast. He also negotiated a deal for Lang to have speaking parts in all his movies, which is why he urged him to have an operation to rectify the chronic hoarseness attributed to tonsillitis.

Richard Barnes, a guitarist and photographer who lives in Aston, is the driving force behind Eddie Lang Day in Philadelphia and will perform at Chris’ with his band, the Blackbird Society Orchestra. He’ll also do a number of Lang-Venuti duets with violinist Michael Salsburg. Barnes first got the Lang bug after he saw Leon Redbone perform in West Philadelphia in the early 1990s.

“That was my exposure to 1920s music,” Barnes says. “I got a couple of CDs, and when you listen to Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbecke, there was always this one guitar player that I really liked. It was totally different. Not strumming.

“Not blues. He plays in an almost pianolike style. Very interesting chord inversions, always complementing the singer. A real distinct sound. It turns out it was Eddie Lang.”

Barnes put an ad on Craigslist this year, reading “Eddie Lang Day, This October.” One of the interested parties to inquire was Mike Hood, who suggested Chris’ as a venue, and will play on Monday with his band Cornbread Five.

The event will raise money for the Eddie Lang Music Scholarship Program for underprivileged children, and Barnes hopes to turn it into an annual Eddie Lang Festival at Chris’ every October.

Barnes, who says business for his 1920s-style Blackbird Society Orchestra is looking up thanks to interest in HBO’s Atlantic City mob drama Boardwalk Empire, got the idea to approach the Nutter administration from one of his first musical memories.

“When I was 13, my first concert was seeing Elton John at the Spectrum,” he remembers. “And there was a picture of Frank Rizzo in the newspaper with Elton John, when he declared it Elton John Day. I thought it would be so cool if I could get the mayor to do that with Eddie Lang.”

The attention is well-deserved, says Dichter, who plays in a band called Beau Django, and who talked to Les Paul about Lang’s influence before the guitarist’s death at 94 last year. “He said it was just too long ago,” Dichter says. “It’s convenient to forget.”

Barnes says he’s always on a mission to bring Lang’s music to a wider audience. “I’m not trying to form the fan club or anything,” he says. “But I do think that people would appreciate this music and enjoy it. It’s something you don’t hear all the time.”

“He invented single-string guitar playing,” Dichter says of Lang, who is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon. “I would call him the most influential guitarist in terms of melody, and then he had this incredible sense of rhythm that really made you want to dance. He laid the foundation, and then he died.

“Charlie Christian is remembered. Jimi Hendrix is remembered. What about Eddie Lang?”

“BEAUTY IS TRUTH,” SAY THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN

A friend who is new to the music gently asked me by email, “Hey, Michael, what’s all the fuss you’re making about this Sidney Catlett?”  And it’s a valid question deserving an answer.  But the best way to answer it is not through words, but through the experience.  Thanks to “cdbpdx” on YouTube, here’s a 1943 recording of ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall’s Blue Note Jazzmen.  Let their names never be erased: Sidney deParis, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Arthur Shirley, Israel Crosby, Sidney Catlett.  If you’d want to understand what Sidney is doing — playfully and with the utmost art — listen to the little conversations he has with the ensemble (both as part of it and joyously commenting on the good time everyone’s having) urging, encouraging, applauding — especially alongside the solos of deParis and Vic. 

I don’t mean to give my readers homework, but someday soon, listen to this recording twice with all your attention: once in its glorious complete beauty, then for Sidney Catlett himself.  Jubilation indeed.  And everyone on this recording is dead, but like Keats’s urn, they transcend mere mortality: this music is alive!

“I WANT! I WANT!” (Part Two)

From Fernando de la Riestra (translated by Samantha Avila):

Why have so many records?

There is no reason even for necessity or for accumulation.  Simply said, I get a great amount of tranquility in knowing that they will grow old beside me.  The tranquility that comes with the knowledge of the absolutely precious existence of the music and being able to enjoy it.  There are occasions when I enjoy putting the disc in the player and I profoundly enjoy the prolonged sounds of the music, just the way it was originally presented to us.  The amount of music makes it easy to finding the rhythm that’s just right.  Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or even next week, that may the state that coincides with the determined work of Sonny Rollins, and it is a great thing to have Sonny in my home to immerse myself in his music.  But sometimes the rhythm is very fast and other times it’s irritatingly slow.  But just to know that it’s there at anyone’s disposition, as a stimulus to ultimate knowledge — as well as the guarantee of a simple and sure life full of momentum.  I have many records and CDs but I never speculate about the possibility of being able to listen to every single one of them all the time, and I don’t speculate about the absurd question whether there will be time to listen to all of them. 

From KING LEAR:  “”O reason not the need!  Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous.  Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”

From “Willie The Weeper” (thanks to Mike Durham):  “Now tell me, what would you do? / If you could have all your dreams come true?  / There’s something tells me, you’d lock the door, / Like Willie the Weeper, you’d cry for more.”   

Three very different perspectives, no? 

Fernando de la Riestra speaks of the possibility for pleasure the sprawling amplitude of music can give us, and suggests we live in these moments of gratification and amplitude without needlessly gnawing on the darker questions: “Will I live to hear all of this?  Am I greedy?  Do I deserve to have all this?”

And since some of our musical idols are now dead, having as much of their music around us is a way to make it feel as if they never died: fantasy and fancy, but a way to stop our grief at their absence.  In my ears, Louis is alive . . .  But I am a Lapsed or an Enlightened Completist who no longer strains to have every note his idols ever recorded.  I did that often in my youth and found it frustrating: I did not have the resources to buy or trade for every Ben Webster recording (for example) and some of them were less than perfect . . . with apologies to Ben, of course.

Lear (early on in his painful path to seeing clearly) says to his hard-hearted daughters that the difference between people and animals is that we can allow ourselves more than bare subsistence. 

The anonymous lyricist of “Willie the Weeper” suggests that it is human nature to want and want more — although in the interests of accuracy, I must point out that Lear has yet to realize that a complete human being (king or not) is not defined by the number of knights in his entourage, but by how deeply and well he loves and forgives and receives the loving forgiveness of others. 

And Willie, having a wonderful time in his dreams, is driven by opium — so he might not speak for us all.

I am returning to this topic because the enthusiasm of the comments suggested to me that these were serious questions that went deep.  And I wanted to offer a musing illustration. 

In my previous post, SIDNEY CATLETT, TRIUMPHANT, I shared three images of photographs of Big Sid that had appeared for sale on eBay.  Sidney is my hero: he made everyone else sound better; he was himself; he brought joy; he was deeply loved and is deeply missed.  And he is not a recognizable figure to many beyond this world of jazz and percussion.

Now it can be told: I bid on and won the large portrait at the bottom of that blogpost. 

I am a very restrained bidder: I bid on less than one percent of the things I covet, and I set a monetary ceiling for myself: had the bidding gone up and up, I would have left the arena early.  And I am not a vindictive bidder: I will not purchase something to be the only one on the planet who has it.  If someone had outbid me — as has happened before — I assume only that my rival has more money and more desire . . . and I hope (s)he enjoys the purchase immensely! 

Did I NEED the photograph?  Certainly not. 

I need to pay my bills, have clean clothing, food and drink . . . but I could certainly have proceeded forward in my life without this purchase.  And in a world where so many people are less fortuntate, it would seem an impiety to proclaim that I needed this object.

But I did WANT it.  Why?

Some of my feeling comes from the adult desire for autonomy.  We are, as children and perhaps as adults, surrounded by people who don’t necessarily see the world as we do and disapprove of our pleasures.  In bidding on this photograph, I am not automatically responding to the people who said, sometimes angrily, “What do you need that for?  Haven’t you got enough of that as it is?” 

But perhaps part of being an adult with freedom and some disposable income (thus terribly fortunate) is the Thorstein Veblen principle in a mild, non-judgmental way: I can afford to buy myself something that won’t keep me warm or house me — but something that will please me when I perceive it. 

I no longer have to ask my mother for an advance on my allowance to buy a Louis Armstrong record I had never seen before (she was good about such things) so buying the portrait of Sidney is a way of saying, “I am adult enough to trust myself to spend a little money on something not essential to my life; I am adult enough to spend money on something that will please me whenever I look at it.”   

Another person might say, “What I want for dinner tonight is simply a bowl of cereal.  Or scrambled eggs and toast.  Why should I not please myself?”

Freedom to act with individuality, the maturity and self-knowledge to trust one’s impulses. 

And I will be able to hang the photograph on the wall at eye-level so that I will see Sidney as I go past him, and will be able to muse on his generous brilliance. 

I can never BE Sidney, but I can hope to draw something from his example: Be youself.  Be excellent at whatever it is you do.  Do it so that you give your gift to others. 

And there’s more.  I would call my bidding on that photograph a selective acquisition: were I to feel passionately that I had to have copies (or originals) of every photograph taken of Sidney Catlett, then I would be in a different realm.  Frankly, although I revere Sidney, I do not want to have him on every wall of the apartment: he would become inescapable.  There’s room for Pee Wee Russell, too, and my own photographs of living musicians.

I also think that my desire for the photograph is a quiet response to ignorance and mediocrity.  Strong words, you say.  Fighting words, even.  But my words are not idly chosen.  The world outside has very little interest in or knowledge of the music I and others love and celebrate here. 

Having a portrait of Sidney is my own way of saying to the world that ignores him, the world that raises mediocrities to stardom, “THIS is what you should be honoring.  I know he means nothing to you, but I refuse to forget him and what he did.”  

Having things that give us pleasure will not keep us alive a moment longer; our collections of beloved objects will have to find other owners when we die. 

But if we enter into an uplifting spiritual relationship with the things we do purchase, perhaps our lives will be enhanced by the powers they continue to possess.

And — a mournful postscript: there are so many things in our lives that we cannot control, so making these small decisions to bring beauty, elation, and solace into our existence is very important . . .

COMING SOON: MICHAEL BANK (October 28, 2010)

The excellent young pianist Michael Bank, whose jazz appearances usually take place north of New York City, is coming to Brooklyn to show off his understated swinging creativity. 

He’ll be joined by the superb bassist Murray Wall, the young guitarist Matt Smith . . . and perhaps other friends as well.  All of this will unfold on Thursday, October 28, 2010 from 6 to 8:30 at PUPPETS JAZZ BAR in Park Slope, located at 481 Fifth Avenue, (718) 499-2622.

Michael has played with a great many swinging small groups in New York and environs: his colleagues include Kevin Dorn, Dan Levinson, Craig Ventresco, Ben Polcer.  He has a witty way of looking at the world — reflected not only in his amused commentaries on his surroundings but also in his playing: restrained, sly, epigrammatic. 

Although he can launch into Waller-stride, he is much more likely (a la Basie, Nat Cole, and Wilson) to let a few notes ring out and ride the rhythmic flow.  I’ve heard him in the worst situations — on an electric keyboard in a room full of noisy brunchers, in the middle of a wildly disorganized big band — and he always provides light.

Here’s Michael with Kevin Dorn’s THE BIG 72, something I recorded live in March 2010 at the Garage in downtown New York City.  Joining him are Charlie Caranicas, trumpet; Adrian Cunningham, alto sax; Pete Martinez, clarinet and vocal; Kelly Friesen, bass; Kevin, drums. 

Don’t miss this!