Monthly Archives: April 2011

“PORTRAIT OF A SONG OBSESSIVE”: REBECCA KILGORE by CHRISTOPHER LOUDON

Published in JAZZ TIMES, May 2011:

Rebecca Kilgore: Portrait of a Song Obsessive

Christopher Loudon gives an Overdue Ovation for Portland-based singer

By Christopher Loudon

Portland is renowned for a lot of things: curbside gourmet delicacies, concerted environmental concern, spectacular roses, great microbreweries. But it is only recently, since the advent of the superbly programmed Portland Jazz Festival in 2004, that the hipster mecca north of San Francisco has earned a wider reputation as a jazz hub. Actually, Portland’s jazz roots are quite deep, and among the strongest of those roots is vocalist and (occasional) guitarist Rebecca Kilgore.

 Confer with her collaborators and the compliments quickly begin flowing. “Becky is my favorite singer to play for,” says pianist Dave Frishberg, who first partnered with Kilgore on 1994’s Looking at You and has since become her most frequent musical confidant. “She is technically a marvelous singer,” he continues, “[and] always in shape. Her voice sounds great, and her delivery is flawless.” John Pizzarelli, a longtime fan and recent recording mate on several albums, including the new Lovefest at the PIZZArelli Party (Arbors), adds, “She just sings perfectly. She’s a dream of a studio singer. You just feel great when you’re in the room with her. You’re happy to be there, and you know it’s going to work.”

High praise, particularly for a performer so inherently shy she waited until age 30 before making her professional debut. Raised in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Kilgore’s first love was folk music. “When I was in high school,” she says, “I was into Joan Baez and Judy Collins and people like that. I got a guitar and strummed along. Then I discovered a disc jockey in the area who played classic jazz. I got acquainted with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day and just flipped. Those singers took me on a complete musical detour. They were my teachers, because I never had any formal training. I consider myself so fortunate to be a torchbearer for that style of singing.”

Toward the end of the 1970s, Kilgore relocated to Portland. Alone in a new town and eager to make friends, she regularly attended local music gigs. One night she caught a jazz act called Wholly Cats. “There was a gal in the group playing rhythm guitar and singing,” she recalls, “and that’s what I did in the privacy of my own home. We became fast friends, and when she decided to quit the group, she suggested I try out. I was aghast. I didn’t think I could sing professionally, but the idea got stuck in my head, and I got the job. It was a major turning point in my life. I loved being with musicians, loved learning new music all the time, and it was like a whole new family for me. There was no turning back after that.”

In 1982, Kilgore made her recording debut with Wholly Cats, then rapidly widened her horizons, working with drummer Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers and his Roadrunners, joining the Bob Wills-style Western swing outfit Ranch Dressing, performing with fiddle player Hollis Taylor and joining pianist John Sheridan’s Dream Band.

Another major turning point came in 1991, when Frishberg, having settled in Portland, began a two-night-per-week gig at the Heathman Hotel. He performed with the late cornet player Jim Goodwin for the first couple of months, and after Goodwin departed, the hotel said they’d prefer a singer in the band. Frishberg reached out to Kilgore, who at the time was holding down a secretarial day job at Reed College. When she got the call from Frishberg, she decided it was finally time to devote her full attention to music. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she laughs, “but it worked out. I think of my life as ‘before Dave’ and ‘after Dave.’ I am so grateful for everything I have learned from him. He is such a high quality musician and is very inspiring.”

During their five-year run at the Heathman, Kilgore got the chance to dig deep into the Great American Songbook. “Her repertoire is enormous,” says Frishberg. “The entire time we played the Heathman, she kept a log of all the songs we performed. After our final show, she handed me a printout of the entire log. We’d performed over 500 songs, and many of them we only did once. Every time I’d come to the gig, I knew she’d have something new. It was very stimulating.”

“I never like to do the tried and true,” says Kilgore. “My passion is discovering songs. When I uncover a song it is like falling in love, and I want to impart to the audience the fun and the beauty of finding it.” Nearly as ardent a musical archivist as Michael Feinstein, a professed Kilgore fan, she comes across vintage tunes in a variety of ways. “Some people send me CDs and say, ‘Here are some songs you might like.’ There was a gentleman from Savannah who was a Johnny Mercer expert, and he sent me an entire disc of Mercer obscurities. I’d never heard of any of them, and I know a lot of Mercer songs! And sometimes when I’m in a shopping mall, I’ll be listening to the Muzak and a song will pop up that I’d forgotten all about. The music just comes into my life. I seem to be a magnet for good songs.”

Nor is Kilgore opposed to newer material. “I don’t go out of my way to avoid contemporary songs,” she says. “I believe we’re in the middle of a resurgence of good songwriting, so I’m always on the lookout. My fishing lines aren’t always in the contemporary world, but I’m trying!”

As for her guitar work, though both Frishberg and Pizzarelli praise her playing, Kilgore considers herself “a pretty basic guitarist. I look at my guitar as a tool. That’s how I study music and learn songs. In my Western swing days, I used to play rhythm guitar, but these days I sing with such wonderful pianists that my guitar playing would be pretty gratuitous.”

In addition to Frishberg, Kilgore has forged long-term relationships with several artists, including guitarist/banjoist/vocalist Eddie Erickson, pianist Keith Ingham, saxophonist Harry Allen and the man she calls her “musical soulmate,” trombonist Dan Barrett. “Lester Young to Billie Holiday, that’s how I consider Dan and me,” she says. “He and I think alike, we hear the same lines and we love the same recordings, though what I know about old jazz is the tip of the iceberg compared to what he knows. He is a walking encyclopedia.”

It was Barrett, via Frishberg, who first introduced Kilgore to Arbors Records co-founder Mat Domber. “Dave tells the story,” says Kilgore, “that he and Dan were on tour. While traveling in the car together, Dave said, ‘I have this cassette of this singer,’ and Dan rolled his eyes and said, ‘Oh, no, not another vocalist!’”

Kilgore’s association with Arbors has continued apace since 1994, when she recorded I Saw Stars with a band featuring Frishberg and Bucky Pizzarelli. (Barrett wrote most of the arrangements.) “Rebecca is an outstanding talent,” says Domber. “And she is a very easy person to work with. She always comes prepared and knows her business. She has almost perfect pitch and a great sense of a lyric. In my opinion, she’s the best jazz singer around today.”

Also the most prolific. Since 1982, Kilgore has appeared, as leader or featured vocalist, on no fewer than 49 albums spanning 16 labels. “Sometimes I worry,” she confesses, “that the world is going to say, ‘Oh, another Kilgore CD, who cares?’” Still, in addition to Lovefest, she planned two more releases for 2011, both for Arbors. Available now is Live at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, a document of a program she performed last summer with the Harry Allen Quartet, “Lady Day and Prez: A Musical Tribute to Billie Holiday and Lester Young.” The show allowed Kilgore to further explore the Holiday-Young symbiosis, but in the company of Allen rather than Barrett. As New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden raved, “The show’s avoidance of slavish imitation made for the best kind of tribute: one that captured the streamlined ease of performances in which Holiday and Young carried on a spontaneous, private conversation.” And come fall there will be The Sound of Music, a continuation of the Broadway series that she, Allen and Erickson launched a few years ago with South Pacific and Guys and Dolls.

At 61, she has no intention to slow down. “The problem,” she gleefully insists, “is that there are so many great songs. My desk is an absolute mess because of a huge stack of sheet music. I’ll take one off the top and incorporate it into my repertoire and then add five more to the pile. My tombstone is going to read, ‘I can’t go yet—I haven’t learned all the songs!’”

Recommended Listening:

I Saw Stars (Arbors, 1995)

The Music of Jimmy Van Heusen (Jump, 2005)

Why Fight the Feeling? Songs by Frank Loesser (Arbors, 2008)

Sure Thing: Rebecca Kilgore Sings the Music of Jerome Kern (Audiophile, 2010)

Lovefest at the PIZZArelli Party (Arbors, 2011)

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FEEL BETTER FAST, or “BEGONE, DULL CARE!”

“Telling other folks what to do is a bad bidnis,” said Flannery O’Connor. 

So I hope my readers will excuse my lapse into advice-giving.  Follow these simple steps to be happier. 

1.  Click on the link (or the video) below.

2.  Observe closely.  Notice any changes in your facial musculature.  It is possible that your limbs may wish to move rhythmically.  This is to be expected.  Do not be alarmed.  Do not seek medical assistance.  (This is a natural part of the process of JOY.)

3.  “If that don’t get it, then forget it for now,” sang Jack Teagarden.

I will let the music speak for itself — and it does!  Sweetly, hilariously, with plenty rhythm.

P.S.  My need to repost this video performance is because it always makes me happy, and I note that (as I write this) only sixty-one people in the whole YouTube universe have watched it so far — a number of those viewings being mine. 

If I had a natural joy-enhancer in my possession and I didn’t give it to any and everyone, what kind of spiritual miser would I be? 

So I urge you all to move the setting to “full screen,” and dig it.  If it doesn’t elate, illumine, and uplift, I’m sorry — I tried. 

But YOUNG AND HEALTHY is one of the best free, locally sourced, organic, no-side-effects cures for temporary relief of anhedonia known.

And for the record, this magic took place at the 2011 Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey, California (blessings on Sue Kroninger!) and the transformative alchemists and wizards up there on the stage are John and Ralf Reynolds, Katie Cavera, Dan Barrett, Jeff Barnhart, Marc Caparone, and Bryan Shaw — summoning up Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, Putney Dandridge, Fats Waller, the Chocolate Dandies, and more.  I wish them all the joy they bring to us, tenfold.

“GRAB YOUR AXE, MAX!” or A SPLENDID PRESENT

Oh, I absolutely have to start practicing!  Do I have enough time to become semi-amateurish by September 2011 . . . . ? 

Consider the following, very enticing for anyone who’s got rhythm:

CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION PRESENTS

THE CHAUTAUQUA TRADITIONAL JAZZ WORKSHOP

Dan Barrett, Music Director

September 11-15, 2011

Faculty:

Duke Heitger, Trumpet

Scott Robinson, Reeds

Dan Barrett, Trombone

Rossano Sportiello, Piano

Howard Alden, Guitar / Banjo

Kerry Lewis, Bass

Ricky Malachi, Drums

Rebecca Kilgore, Vocals

Chautauqua’s first ever Traditional Jazz Workshop will be held on the beautiful grounds of the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, with your home base at the historic Athenaeum Hotel.  The 4-day session will include ensemble workshops, coaching, jam sessions, and performance opportunities in student groups and with faculty members.  Students will focus on jazz standards and works from the American Songbook, with emphasis on improvisation and ensemble performance.  Enjoy social events with faculty and fellow students on beautiful Chautauqua Lake.  The workshop culminates in a performance opportunity at the opening session of the 14th Annual Jazz at Chautauqua traditional jazz party on Thursday evening. 

Tuition for the workshop will be $550 USD; the lodging and meal package at the Athenaeum Hotel will be $525 per student (single occupancy) or $775 (double occupancy) USD.  Stay on for the annual Jazz at Chautauqua party and receive a 20% discount on your food and lodging.  For reservations at the Athenaeum, call 1-800-521-1881 or email athenaeum1881@hotmail.com.  For information about the workshop, contact Nancy Griffith at 216-956-0378 or email her at nancylynngriffith@yahoo.com.

I wasn’t quite serious about practicing enough to be accepted into the workshop in time for September, but I meant “A Splendid Present” emphatically.  Many older jazz fans lament the impending demise of traditional jazz.  Why not give the art form we love a blood transfusion from young folks — that grandson of yours who has just discovered Teddy Bunn, or that niece who is trying to play Cootie Williams’ growls on BENNY’S BUGLE — being able to attend this workshop and learn from these genial masters could be a life-changing event.  And you don’t have to be a raw youth to come aboard, either . . . if you yourself would like to sound more like Benny Morton or Tricky Sam Nanton, this is a heavensent opportunity.  Maybe I should sign up for the singers’ workshop just to be taught breath control by Rebecca Kilgore . . . now there’s a thought.

See you in Chautauqua, and don’t be late! 

 

 

THE ELLINGTON MOSAIC, 2011

This post is a being written on the Duke’s 112nd birthday, but in my mind every day we can hear his music is a kind of birthday.  

I confess I am not an Official Ellington Idolator: you won’t catch me, here or elsewhere, referring to him as “the Maestro.”  But for me, his music accomplishes so many things that no one else’s did.  It exists at the intersection of Sound and Stomp, or beautiful tone-paintings and gutbucket rhythms.

Oh, I hear you saying — all jazz does that in some way. 

True, but Ellington knew how to balance both of those qualities so that neither obliterated the other.  And in his world the relentless plunging rhythms (think of Sonny Greer’s drums, Ellington’s smashing chords on the piano) enhanced the cloudlike auras of sound he loved — that saxophone section.  Debussy meets Sidney Catlett, both of them happy uptown.  And oone of the delights of his Thirties recordings is to hear him experimenting with the textures and timbres of “sweet music” mingled with distinctly vernacular sounds and rhythms. 

The apex of Ellington’s art — depending on which ideologist you choose — is commonly held to be the Victor period, specifically those two years when Ben Webster and Jimmie Blanton were illuminating the band — in the recording studio, at a dance date in Fargo, North Dakota, and more.  I think the music captured during that period is irreplaceable and unimprovable: MAIN STEM, the airshots, the pure sound and pulse of that band.  Across town, Basie and Lester and Buck, Walter, Herschel, and Jo, were accomplishing something of equal beauty and force, but Ellington’s Victors are something else!*

But the critical emphasis on those recordings has tended to flatten out the music that preceded that glorious period.  Until now, with the Mosaic set of the recordings for Brunswick, Master, and Columbia from 1932 to 1940, which I am listening to in astonishment and joy as I write these words.

A digression about Mosaic sets.  Some find them expensive, others are intimidated, and others say, “Gee, I have much of this music elsewhere.”  All these statements are valid reactions.  I felt differently about some of the sets that were objects I KNEW I had to have — the Buck Clayton Jam Session box, for instance, many years ago.

And I, like many collectors, thought all of the above — plus, “The sound on those cramped, stuffy Ellington Brunswicks was so irritating.”  This set transcends the limitations of the original 78s and the sound is bright (but never harsh) throughout; there is wonderful unfussy scholarship from Steven Lasker, and marvelous photographs.  There might be, perhaps, an Ellington collector who had managed to amass all of the 78s (including the alternate takes on Japanese Lucky), the Up-to-Date, Raretone, Blu-Disc, FDC microgroove issues . . . but who among us has been invited into George Avakian’s basement to hear and copy his previously unheard test pressings?

But the point of any Mosaic set is not, I submit, the six or seven new tracks.  It is the wonderful totality — all neatly bound up with a figurative bow, rather like having the best scholarly edition of Shakespeare you can find, or the complete DVD set of the Astaire-Rogers films. 

I used to hear a radio commercial for some very expensive watch, where the oleaginous announcer would intone, “You don’t buy a [insert name here] for yourself, you merely keep it for the next generation.”  It irritated me no end, because I am perfectly happy with drugstore timepieces, but in the case of the Mosaic boxes I understand the principle perfectly.  I hope to live long enough to have heard all the music in this set forty or fifty times, to have indulged myself in the sound of the reeds on DROP ME OFF AT HARLEM, the sound of Tricky Sam Nanton on IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, the slow-motion TIGER RAG that is SLIPPERY HORN, every note that Ivie Anderson sang, the bright splash of Sonny Greer’s cymbals . . . too many delights to enumerate! 

Here’s the link.  And the set is limited to an edition of 5000 copies; mine is number 3099 . . . does that suggest something about TEMPUS FUGIT?  Or, “What are you waiting for, Mary?”

*For the people whose musical world is bounded by Blanton and Ben — the final session on this elaborate banquet of a box set has them both, along with Ivie, singing a meltingly sad SOLITUDE . . .

EVERYONE’S A CRITIC (April 28, 2011)

I live in a suburban community east of New York City, and my second-story window faces west-north-west.  So while I sit at this computer, early in the evening, the most beautiful sunsets appear and change, minute by minute.

Although some natural wonders don’t stir me, the colors of the sky never fail me — and often I scramble to find my camera.  (All the photographs in this blogpost are mine.)  As the sky this evening shaded from blue to azure to orange to pink, depending on where I looked, I wanted to record what I was seeing — to marvel at it in future.

Before I turned to the sunset, I saw this vista:

A moment later, I was standing on the sidewalk, astonished by the colors — the rapidly-changing show put on (apparently) for my benefit, and trying to photograph it with as few interfering wires as I could:

As I was trying to find the best vantage point, I noticed an older man, neatly dressed, crossing the street, looking to see what I was doing.

I made eye contact, gestured with my camera, and said happily, “One of the pleasures of living here is the beautiful sunsets, isn’t it?”

“Well, that’s pollution!” he said, drawing the syllables of the final word out.

“Dust particles, I thought,” I said.

“No, it’s pollution!” he said, emphatically.  “Once I took a philosophy course in the evening, many years ago, and the professor went to the window and said, ‘Isn’t that a beautiful sunset?’ and I said, ‘No, all that is is pollution!” and it deflated him!”  He laughed at the memory of his triumph.

He was making me unhappy, but I continued.  “Look, sir, we have done terrible things to this planet, and perhaps it is pollution, but isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful, but so is freezing to death,” he said.

Ex-cuse me?” I must have stammered.

“Yeah, they say when you freeze to death, it’s really peaceful and serene.”

I had had enough.  “Sir, I can’t talk to you any more.  You are too dark for me.”

“Dark?” he said, incredulously.  “I’m just talking reality!”

By then it was dark.  I went back to my apartment, thinking that I had let this man’s corrosive words devour beauty.  I am glad I got the photographs I have here, and a disheartening story to tell JAZZ LIVES readers — who are free to make of it what they may (although telling me not to talk to strangers is not the reaction I seek) . . . but that sunset is gone forever, even though there might be another one, just as lovely tomorrow.

This story is true.  I wish it weren’t.

LABOR DAY WEEKEND WILL BE SWEET AND HOT! (September 2-5, 2011)

To set the mood: Fletcher Henderson, 1931, vocal by Jimmy Harrison, SWEET AND HOT:

I could become oratorical — a preacher leaning over his congregation, looking over his glasses, solemnly dropping his voice for emphasis, asking, “Where will YOU spend Labor Day weekend 2011?  Where will YOU be September 2-3-4-5, 2011?”

But the Beloved and I already know the answer!

We’ll be at the Sweet and Hot Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, California.

Why?

Oh, I don’t know.  I don’t understand it myself.  There are some musicians and singers, for sure.  But only a few.  And no one you’d really know.

Here are some of the amateurs and nonentities who will be there.

Howard Alden, John Altman, Dan Barrett, Gil Bernal, Ian Bernard, Sean Callery, Chris Dawson, Frank DeVito,  Bob Draga,  Eddie Erickson, Yve Evans, Joel Forbes,  Jim Galloway,  Corey Gemme,  Banu Gibson, Jeff Gilbert, Rebecca Kilgore, Janet Klein, Dave Koonse, Sue Kroninger, Jennifer Leitham, Dan Levinson, Carl Sonny Leyland, Sherrie Maricle, Barbara Morrison, Roger Neumann, Russ Phillips, Randy Reinhart, the Reynolds Brothers, Molly Ryan, Mark Shane, Ed Shaughnessy, Jack Sheldon, John Sheridan, Richard Simon, Hal Smith, Putter Smith, Jonathan Stout, Allan Vache, Johnny Varro, Ed Vodicka, Pat Yankee, Barry Zweig.

And I’ve left out a whole raft of bands, players, singers, vocal groups, attractions, late-night jam sessions . . . too much to cover in one weekend for anyone.  I’ve already begun thinking of buying extra batteries for the camera and perhaps more comfortable shoes . . . ?

Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel, 5855 W. Century Blvd, Los Angeles, California 90045.  Call 310-641-5700 for reservations, and be sure to ask for the Sweet & Hot Rate: $120.00 per room/ per night + tax.  For Pool Room Packages (not a remake of THE HUSTLER, but rooms overlooking the pool) call Wanda– 505-795-7299 or via email mswanda@newmexico.com.

Information and ticket sales by phone: call Laurie 909-983-0106 or tickets @sweethot.org.

For a volunteer information and application, contact Bobbye: 818-887-0120 or bobbye70@yahoo.com.

I will have more to say about this in postings to come, but I am very excited by this opportunity and wanted my readers to know right this minute. . . . !

JAZZ WISDOMS

“Son, if you can’t make money, make friends.”  [Said to Mezz Mezzrow circa 1929.]

“Leave it all behind you!”  Louis Armstrong.

“Me, doc?  Send a sub?”  Vic Berton.

“One never knows, do one?”  Thomas Waller.

“Sunshine always opens out.”  Earl Hines.

“Ain’t it nice?”  Alex Hill.

I owe the idea for this post to the Beloved — as well as so much else.  She also suggested that I invite JAZZ LIVES readers to send in their favorite and most meaningful jazz wisdoms . . . to add to our collective enlightenment.