Monthly Archives: March 2014

ONE, TWO, THREE: JOE POLICASTRO, MAX JOHNSON, DAY ONE TRIO

The triangular shape works beautifully in nature, in mathematics, and in creative improvisation: three examples of jazz trio playing for your consideration — offered as they sit near my computer, without any ranking, implied or expressed.

I have a long familiarity with the music from the Bernstein-Sondheim WEST SIDE STORY. I grew up in an era where adults with phonographs (“record players”) had original cast albums — MY FAIR LADY, CAROUSEL, OKLAHOMA — and the songs were part of our common vocabulary.  But my sister (to whom I am thankful for so much) was a WEST SIDE STORY devotee, attending many performances and making friends with cast members (I recall seeing part of a performance from the back of the house when I was small enough to be lifted up without causing anyone injury) . . . so I knew the music as part of my household soundtrack.

When there were original cast recordings, there were also “jazz versions” of familiar scores, and I think many improvisations on the lingering melodies of WEST SIDE STORY have been recorded in the last half-century and more. This might have daunted any set of twenty-first century improvisers, but string bassist Joe Policastro and his Chicago friends    know that this music has much to offer in itself and as fertile material for jazz improvisation.

west_side_story

Their 2013 recording of the WEST SIDE STORY SUITE balances gracefully between the familiar songs and the music’s possibilities for jazz improvisation. But there are depths here; as Policastro writes, “[the] songs have failed to enter into standard, everyday mainstream performance. There is definitely a reason for this. Behind the unforgettable lyrics and catchy melodies are some of the most unusual and tricky harmonies, phrase lengths, and song forms ever written for the theatre. I think it’s a testament to how good the material is that one hardly notices the constantly shifting keys or the abundance of 3, 5, 7, or 9 bar phrase lengths. Good luck finding a friendly 32-bar AABA song form amongst this bunch!”  Policasttro’s arrangements of the material can veer between the rhapsodic and respectful to the angular and open-ended.  The trio of Joe, string bass; Dan Effland, guitar; Adam Sorensen, drums, honor the original textures and intentions while offering many surprising shifts of perspective within each performance; they show just how much pleasing variety they can find in the material and in their varied approaches to it (from a charged urban conception to the arco statement of the melody on MARIA).  The songs are PROLOGUE / SOMETHING’S COMING / MARIA / JET SONG / AMERICA / ONE HAND, ONE HEART / COOL / TONIGHT / GEE, OFFICER KRUPKE / I FEEL PRETTY / SOMEWHERE.  The disc is available here, and you can hear a sample here:

Another string bassist (and composer) Max Johnson has issued a disc of his Invisible Trio — himself, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and Zev Ravitz, drums — playing his compositions THE PRETZEL / BIZZA / HELD FOR QUESTIONING / DON WRINKLES / THE INVISIBLE TRIO / MOVING VEHICLE / A PAIR OF GLASSES / THE GOLEM.

MAX JOHNSON Cover

You can hear samples of the music or download the whole CD here.  I confess that here I have no past familiarity with the material to guide me, nor liner notes to borrow from . . . so I will simply say that the CD feels like a conversation between three energized speakers, the collective mood shifting as one or the other moves to the fore and the subjects for discussion change and slide, the mood moving from querulous confrontation to tranquility to sorrow.  I don’t know Max’s compositional methods, so I will let the music speak for itself, to recall Charlie Parker.

Balancing freedom and lyricism, the DAY ONE TRIO — Dos Allen, tenor saxophone; Adam Everett, drums; Yoshiki Yamada, string bass, with a guest appearance on one track by tenorist Ben Flood,  experiments in a rewarding way.  The music on this CD is an intriguing mixture of on-the-spot improvisation and variations on those improvisations, considered as compositions.  As the notes state, “We recorded our improvisations and later listened to what we had played. There were an enormous number of really beautiful moments, as well as entire songs that felt great start to finish. We chose our favorites of those improvisations, mostly taken from our first night playing together, and wrote out the basic framework for each. We have re-recorded some of these favorites in the studio for you to enjoy. The interludes throughout the CD are the actual recordings of us playing together for the first time, and are a reminder of how this music came to be.”

DAY ONE TRIO

Thus, the CD feels like touring the museum, looking at the paintings, with a facsimile of the artist’s sketchbook in hand — as tje trio moves from quiet explorations over ticking drums and bass lines to full-fledged yet open-ended melodic collaborations.  The effect is airy but intense, most rewarding when the trio becomes a quartet, with Allen and Flood quietly trotting alongside one another, lead and commentary on FRIENDS.  The offerings are NO TURN SIGNAL / INTERLUDE 1 / ONWARD WITH A LIGHT HEART / INTERLUDE 2 / FLOATING IN TIME / THE IMPORTANCE OF BREATHING / INTERLUDE 3 / GET SOME / INTERLUDE 4 / AFTER DARK / FRIENDS / GOODNIGHT.  You may listen and download the music here.

Each of these trio adventures offers its own pleasure.  I invite you to sample them.

May your happiness increase!

IDEAL PLACES: MINIMUM, THREE DOLLARS A PERSON

I think I had three dollars when this card was in vogue, although I was seriously underage . . .

CONDON'S circa 1958

but I can hear this band now — either in my imagination or in the Columbia sessions circa 1958.  They sound wonderful either way.  And Cliff Jackson!

Note to Bob Wilber: Does this seem familiar?

May your happiness increase!

“BLUE NOTES THAT FRAME THE PASSION”: RAY SKJELBRED’S TRIBAL WISDOM

Pianist / composer / scholar / poet Ray Skjelbred is one of the rare ones.

I don’t say this only because of his deeply rewarding piano playing — soloist, accompanist, bandleader — but because of the understanding that it rests upon.  Ray understands that he is one of long line of creators — members of the tribe of improvising storytellers, some of them no longer on the planet but their energies still vividly alive.

He doesn’t strive to copy or to “recreate”; rather, he honors and embodies in ways that words can only hint at.  Call it an enlightened reverence that takes its form in blues-based melodic inventions, and you’ll be close to understanding the essence of what Ray does, feels, and is.

Here are some of his own introspections: “I get ideas by trying to hear the world differently, sometimes even misunderstanding sound on purpose. . . . I like to see things differently, to shape a song, to make it mine. I like to make tempo changes, especially fast to slow, I like to make the notes as round and warm as possible and part of that comes from shading a composition with blue notes that frame the passion. I like to fill in harmonies when the melody feels a little bony to me. . . . I think music is an adventure, a chance to shape sound with your bare hands.”

I’ve admired his playing for some years now — before I knew him as a soloist, I heard him through ensembles on recordings led by other musicians, rather in the way one would hear Hines, Horace Henderson, Joe Sullivan, Frank Melrose, Jess Stacy, Zinky Cohn, Tut Soper, Cassino Simpson, Alex Hill, or a dozen others subversively and happily animating the largest group.

There are several ways to experience this magic — Ray making himself a portal through which the elders can speak, while adding his own personal experiences.  One, of course, is to witness his transformations in person.  To do this, you’d have to know where he is going to be playing — check out the bottom of the page here for his appearances in the near future.

Another way t0 have a portable Skjelbred festival is through his compact discs, recent and otherwise, listed here. I call two new issues to your attention.  One, RAGTIME PIANO, is — beneath its rather plain title — a continued exploration of subversive possibilities, witty and warm.

I remember the first time I began to listen to it — with small surprises popping through the surface like small flowers, catching me off guard, subtler than Monk creating his own version of stride piano but with some of the same effect.  Each track is a small hot sonata, with the surprises resurfacing to make the whole disc a suite of unusual yet comfortable syncopated dance music.

The sixteen solo piano performances offer classics, stretched and reconsidered: SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / SOMETHING DOING / WHOOPEE STOMP / LOUISIANA RAG / MOURNFUL SERENADE / DANCE OF THE WITCH HAZELS / PINEAPPLE RAG / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING, as well as Ray’s originals — inspired by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Julia Child: SMILING RAG / LEAN AND GRIEFY RAG / DON’T CROWD THE MUSHROOMS / COCHINEAL RAG / LITTLE ELMER’S RAG / THE PICOT RAG / REFLECTIONS RAG / BALLS AND STRIKES FOREVER.

Another deep lesson in how to get the most music possible — and then some — from the piano can be found in Ray’s PIANO PORTRAITS, which demonstrates his range of endearing associations, from the Hot Five and early blues singers to Carl Kress and Eddie Lang, from Jimmie Noone and early Ellington to Bix, Hines, and Charlie Shavers. It’s a filling and fulfilling musical banquet: SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD / FEELING MY WAY / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / WEATHER BIRD RAG / SQUEEZE ME / I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE / DINAH / READY FOR THE RIVER / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / CLARK AND RANDOLPH / CANNED MEAT RAG / BLUES FROM “CREOLE RHAPSODY” / BLUES FOR MILLIE LAMMOREUX / FATHER SWING / WHEN I DREAM OF YOU / A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND / MY HEART / MUGGLES / UNDECIDED.  Ray’s prose is as forthright and evocative as his playing, so this CD is worth reading as well as hearing for his recollections of Johnny Wittwer, Joe Sullivan, Burt Bales, Art Hodes, and Earl Hines.

Another way to experience Ray, his mastery of “those pretty notes and jangly octaves,” can be through these video performances.  He has been more than gracious to me, allowing me to capture him in a variety of settings.  I offer one here, BULL FROG BLUES, recorded on November 29, 2013, at the San Diego Thanksgiving Jazz Festival — with his Cubs, that savory band: Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Mike Daugherty, drums:

Wherever Ray goes, whatever the context in which he makes music, it’s always rewarding.

May your happiness increase!

MARK CANTOR’S CELLULOID IMPROVISATIONS (JAZZ ON FILM)

celluloidimprovisations

The renowned (diligent but never stuffy) scholar of jazz on film, Mark Cantor, is also a generous fellow, and he has launched a new website.

There, you can see and hear Fats Waller, Joe Marsala and Adele Girard, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, the Washboard Serenaders, Andy Secrest, Benny Carter, Connee Boswell, Red Nichols, Lionel Hampton, Harry James, Dave Brubeck, Punch Miller, Lady Will Carr, Ethel Merman and Johnny Green, the Max Fleischer team of surrealists, Leo Watson, Teddy Bunn, Ray Eberle, Sidney Bechet, Thelma White, Buck and Bubbles, Maude Mills, Gerry Mullingan, the MJQ, Jack Teagarden, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Bill Robinson, Louis Jordan, Joe Williams, as well as groups and musicians we might never have heard about — the daring Sandra among them — and a few mysteries: unidentified players just waiting for you to recognize them. (If you are interested in footage of “the girls in the band,” you will find some here as well.)

Some of these films and excerpts are familiar, but many are rare: offered here for your viewing in the best available prints with good sound and clear images.

May your happiness increase! 

SWING SYNERGY: MIKE LIPSKIN, LEON OAKLEY, PAUL MEHLING at RANCHO NICASIO (March 24, 2014)

Some groups sound larger than their numbers.  Whether the reason is experience, community, or intuition, they blossom on the stand, emerging as an entity more gratifying and complete than their individual personalities, instruments, and sounds.

Here’s a trio of piano, cornet, and guitar.  Close your eyes and you could think you are listening to a six or seven-piece band.  Open your eyes, and you wouldn’t miss a clarinet, trombone, string bass, or drums.

Such magical synergy doesn’t happen as a matter of course — but it did last Sunday, March 24, 2014, when Mike Lipskin (piano), Leon Oakley (cornet), and Paul Mehling (guitar) delighted us.

Here are eight performances from that evening — cheerful music imbued with the sweet spirit of Fats Waller and his Rhythm. Mike, Leon, and Paul don’t copy people or records, but their buoyant joy in playing evoked the swing Masters.

James P. Johnson’s OLD FASHIONED LOVE:

BABY BROWN, for and by Alex Hill:

UNDECIDED, for Charlie Shavers:

SPREADIN’ RHYTHM AROUND, that 1935 anthem:

James P.’s SNOWY MORNING BLUES, a solo for Mike:

Hoagy Carmichael’s OLD MAN HARLEM:

A romp on AVALON:

YESTERDAY (the Lennon-McCartney soundtrack of the late Sixties, but watch out for the later choruses):

Messrs. Lipskin, Oakley, and Mehling play a variety of gigs with a variety of ensembles, from solo piano to gypsy jazz to a stomping two-trumpet band . . . catch them while you can!  (They are, singly and collectively, the real thing.)

May your happiness increase!

FACTS ABOUT FACTS ABOUT THE MUSIC

Imagine an engrossing book “about” jazz that has very little to say about the music. None of the usual content or digressions: anecdotal stories of musicians; portraits of club owners, record producers, concert impresarios. No one’s mother plays the organ; no one has a loving mentor or a horrible first gig.

But the book, MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE MUSIC, by Bruce D. Epperson (University of Chicago Press, 2013) is an intriguing study of something most people involved in the music in more than a casual way find invaluable: discographies.

EPPERSON DISCOGRAPHY

A discography, for those new to this, is an essay — or book-length — or a dozen volumes — or an online source — that documents the recorded history of this music. As a bibliography (at the end of your fifth-grade report on The Eye) lists the works consulted, a discography seeks to present all the information known on these recordings.  It can be limited to one artist, a span of time, a style or genre, or it can attempt to be encyclopedic, comprehensive.  Before jazz existed, of course, there were catalogues of compositions — think of the BWV numbers or Kochel numbers for Bach or Mozart.  But it was only when listeners and collectors began seriously to both amass and study recorded evidence — artifacts of performance — that the idea and the actual realization of discography came into being.

Epperson comes to this book (the result of five years’ study — and it shows in the best way) from a singular perspective. He is neither a musician nor a collector; rather, he is a bibliophile fascinated by the books and the people who envisioned and created them. (For some “jazz readers,” this is a perspective that takes some getting used to. It is as if one was handed “a study of Shakeapeare” that was really a history of the most renowned and influential editors of the texts of the plays. If one feels at a distance reading about everyone from the first innovators up to Tom Lord, Epperson’s lively prose will stand up to the accompaniment of one’s favorite recordings — all the master and alternate takes in chronological order, of course.)

A good deal of the book is a serious but not dry historical survey of the form — discographical research and publication, as we know it, began in England in the late Twenties and continues as I write this. At first, it was an outgrowth of the urge common among collectors to know all so that all could be possessed. If one fell in love with the sound of Bix Beiderbecke or Eddie Lang, for instance, one wanted to know exactly what recordings they had appeared on (and which were tempting imitations) so that one could, in this world or an ideal one, possess all their music or at least know that it existed. I think of an orinthologist’s “life-list,” where birds spotted get checked off, and I have seen many discographies that are also tidy or untidy lists of what a particular collector has. (I’ve done it myself, and I recall reading my copies of Rust, Jepsen, Lord, and specialized discographies with a mixture of awe and yearning: “Another take of X MARKS MY SPOT exists?  And it was issued on Bolivian OKeh?  And I don’t have it?  How can I hear it?”)

Why were discographies desirable or necessary?  When jazz performances were issued on single discs, often without the individual players listed on the label, one couldn’t be sure who the Kentucky Grasshoppers or Lil’s Hot Shots were. One could trust one’s ears, but that method has often led to what I would call Collector’s Enthusiasm, where every muted trumpet solo had to be by King Oliver; a vague aural shadow of saxophone on a 1934 Clarence Williams record — could that be Lester Young?  So, at first, they were lists created by collectors, then made public as more widespread enthusiasm about famous and obscure recordings developed.  Then, discographies could serve an ideological purpose: all the recordings in these pages have notable “jazz interest” (translation: they reflect my aesthetic values); they could be divided along racial lines to reflect theorizing about the development of an art form.  From more balanced perspectives, they could reflect much about the ways in which art was made public, and tell a great deal about individual artists or groups.

Epperson’s book deals adeptly with the ideas behind the varieties of discographies, and he does so by specific reference — tracing the changes in the form through specific publications and the writers / researchers responsible for them. This might, to the uninitiated, seem like a scriptural list of begats beginning with R.D. Darrell, but the creators themselves seem to have been at best energetic, at worst acrimonious. There are many small contentions documented in this book: questions of accuracy, of plagiarism, of theory and practice. Epperson’s story begins in England, takes in France and New Orleans, digresses most pleasingly into the phenomenon of “field recordings” and the changes brought in discography and record collecting by the long-playing record, and comes up as close to the present as possible. I was amused and pleased to see jazz scholars I know and admire depicted in these pages: Jan Evensmo, Manfred Selchow, Robert Rusch.

Epperson concludes with some deep philosophical questions (with commentary by Michael Fitzgerald, who knows the field deeply): in this new world, where it appears that everything one wants to hear can be heard in digital format, stripped of its evidence, what effect on discography as a scholarly endeavor or a music-lover’s act of reverence? And for the twenty-first century listener who can have all the issued and some unissued recordings of The Bohemian Stompers in one neat multi-disc set, are comprehensive discographies necessary or are they an antique manifestation of the urge to have all the rarities in one place?

Incidentally, the title isn’t Epperson’s point of view — it comes from a 1947 article by Ernest Borneman, “The Jazz Cult.”  The book has useful illustrations of pages taken from the respective discographies, generous footnotes and bibliography.

I think this book will have a lasting place in the libraries of many jazz enthusiasts and collectors, and I can see it treated with equal pleasure and respect in graduate programs in library science. But that makes it sound too serious. Epperson is a lively, witty writer, and although he tends to fairness to all sides so thoroughly as to occasionally seem diffident, his sharp observations are a real pleasure.

I said at the start that the book was different from most jazz tomes in that it wasn’t deeply based on anecdotage, but one story has stuck in my mind.  The renowned British discographer Brian Rust, Epperson tells us, was already collecting jazz records by the time he was 13 — in 1935 — “it was cheap, and it was approved by the family nurse, who assured them that ‘it’s not possible for germs to survive on smooth surfaces.'”

If anyone comes to you and asks what you are doing, for the love of goodness, with those records or compact discs, feel free to offer that answer.  Jazz records are, if nothing else, sanitary, and thus laudably safer than other objects by which we might amuse ourselves.

May your happiness increase!

THE BEAUTY OF IT HOT: AFTER HOURS IN THE VICTORY PUB, with JEFF BARNHART, BENT PERSSON, ANDY SCHUMM, TORSTEIN KUBBAN, KRISTOFFER KOMPEN, GRAHAM HUGHES, NORMAN FIELD, MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, FRANS SJOSTROM, LARS FRANK, JACOB ULLBERGER, JOSH DUFFEE — AT THE 2013 WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (November 1, 2013)

Collectively and joyously, Jeff Barnhart, keyboard / vocals; Bent Persson, Torstein Kubban, Andy Schumm, cornet; Graham Hughes, trombone; Kristoffer Kompen, valve-trombone; Lars Frank, tenor sax; Norman Field, clarinet; Matthias Seuffert, reeds; Jacob Ullberger, banjo; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone; Josh Duffee, drums.

Recorded on November 1, 2013, in the Victory Pub at the 2013 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party in Newcastle, England.

THEM THERE EYES:

NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW:

LULU’S BACK IN TOWN:

A fellow named Andy Schumm came by . . . and so did Josh Duffee:

MARGIE:

COME ON AND STOMP, STOMP, STOMP:

Because it is difficult to manage a camera, a tripod, a sheet of paper, and a pen, under these circumstances, I could be slightly inexact about who was playing what, when. (No doubt my precise readers will let me know my lapses.) It could have become November 2, 2013, while I was videoing. And if you think, “I can’t see the musicians,” I agree with you.

What matters is the liveliness of the music. These are the moments we remember all our lives — when improvisers, united by common love, memory, and knowledge, give us everything they have spent their lives experiencing — for the pure joy of it.

By the way, there’s more from this and another November 2013 jam session.  But the best way to experience such marvels is by being there. Consider this seriously if you can.

May your happiness increase!