Monthly Archives: June 2016

GEORGE BARNES COULD DO IT ALL, AND HE DID

"Georgie," youthful

“Georgie,” youthful.  Photograph reproduced with permission from the owner.  Copyright 2013 The George Barnes Legacy Collection.

Alec Wilder told George Barnes that the latter’s music offered “Reassurance, reaffirmation, wit, warmth, conviction and, best of all, hope!”  I agree.

I first heard the magnificent guitarist (composer, arranger) George Barnes without knowing it.  His sound cut through the Louis Armstrong Musical Autobiography sessions for Decca — in the late Sixties. Even listening to Louis — as any reasonable person does — I was aware of this wonderful speaking sound of George and his guitar: a man who had something important to tell us in a short space (say, four bars) and made the most of it.  Not loud, but not timid.

As I amassed more jazz records, George was immediately evident through his distinctive attack.  I believe that I took in more Barnes subliminally in those years, in the way I would hear Bobby Hackett floating above my head in Macy’s. (George recorded with Roy Smeck, Connie Francis, Richard M. Jones, Bill Harris, Anita O’Day, Artie Shaw, Pearl Bailey, Jeri Southern, Connee Boswell, the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Dinah Washington, Coleman Hawkins, George Wettling, LaVern Baker, Earl Bostic, Joe Venuti, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Redman, Little Willie John, Della Reese, Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Hans Conried, Solomon Burke, Sy Oliver, Buddy Rich, Bud Freeman, Tony Bennett, Bucky Pizzarelli, Carl Kress  — just to give you an idea of his range.  And those are only the sessions documented in jazz discographies.)

In the early Seventies I actually saw George and heard him play live — he was sometimes five or six feet from me — in the short-lived quartet he and Ruby Braff led.  And then he was gone, in September 1977.

But his music remains.

George Barnes Country JAzz

And here’s a new treasure — a double one, in fact.

Now, some of you will immediately visit here, bewitched and delighted, to buy copies.  You need read no more, and simply wait for the transaction to complete itself in the way you’ve chosen.  (Incidentally, on eBay I just saw a vinyl copy of this selling for $150.)

For the others. . . . I don’t know what your feelings are when seeing the words COUNTRY JAZZ.  Initially, I had qualms, because I’ grew up hearing homogenized “country and western” music that to me seems limited.  But when I turned the cardboard sleeve over and saw that Barnes and friends were improvising on classic Americana (OLD BLACK JOE, THE ARKANSAS TRAVELER, CHICKEN REEL, IN THE GLOAMING, MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME) I relaxed immediately.  No cliche-stew of wife / girlfriend / woman / dog / truck / rifle / beer / betrayal / pals here.  Call it roots music or Americana, but it’s not fake.

And the band is exciting: George on electric guitar, bass guitar, and banjo [his banjo feature is extraordinary]; Allan Hanlon, rhythm guitar; Jack Lesberg, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums, percussion; Phil Kraus, vibes on one track; Danny Bank, mouth harp on one track.  The sixteen tracks (and one bonus) come from this 1957 session recorded for Enoch Light — in beautiful sound.  The improvisations rock; they are hilarious, gliding, funky, and usually dazzling. There’s not a corny note here.  And gorgeously expansive documentation, too.

george-barnes_thumb

That would be more than enough fun for anyone who enjoys music.  But there’s much more.  George began leading a band when he was 14 (which would be 1935) but made a name for himself nationwide on an NBC radio program, PLANTATION PARTY, where he was a featured from 1938 to 1942. The fourteen additional airshots on this generous package come from the PARTY, and they are stunning.  Each performance is a brief electrifying (and I am not punning) vignette, and sometimes we  get the added pleasure of hearing announcer Whitley Ford introduce the song or describe George’s electric Gibson as a “right modern contraption,” which it was.

I can’t say that it’s “about time” for people to acknowledge George as a brilliant guitarist and musician, a stunning pioneer of the instrument — because the jazz and popular music histories should have been shaken and rewritten decades ago. But I’d bet anything that Charlie Christian and a thousand other players heard PLANTATION PARTY, and that a many musicians heard George, were stunned, and wanted to play like that.

I’m writing this post a few days before July 4, celebrated in the United States with fireworks.  George Barnes sounds just like those fireworks: rockets, stars, cascades, and explosions.  I don’t know that fireworks can be said to swing, but with George that is never in doubt.

To buy the CD, visit here — and at the George Barnes Legacy site, you can learn much more about George, his music, his family, his career.  Worth a long visit.

May your happiness increase!

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THEY MADE SOME MUSIC: DANNY TOBIAS, DAN BLOCK, JAMES CHIRILLO, KELLY FRIESEN at THE EAR INN (June 19, 2016)

EAR INN sign

Nothing fancy.  No theorizing, no dramatizing.  Just four jazz masters having a good time on Sunday, June 19, 2016, at The Ear Inn: Danny Tobias, cornet; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; James Chirillo, guitar; Kelly Friesen, string bass. Without a moment’s thought of imitation, this group got closer to the spirit of the exalted Kansas City Six than any I’ve heard recently.  That’s a serious thing!

Here are a few highlights:

I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY (at an easy lope, reminding me of Ruby Braff and Scott Hamilton):

I NEVER KNEW (where the two-person front line evokes the 1938 Basie band while the gentlemen in the back row do a fine job of becoming that band’s rhythm section — I find this performance completely thrilling, quiet as it is):

OUT OF NOWHERE (thinking of Bing and all the great rhythm ballad performances, or simply on the quest to make beauty):

BLUE ROOM (at a sweetly wistful tempo one never hears these days):

DIGA DIGA DOO (for those who need to visit the jungle before they can head home to their apartment):

A few comments.  First, these time-honored standards offer such luxurious room for improvisation for those who care to enjoy the freedom to roam: the old songs are far from dead when played [or sung] by vividly alive musicians. Second, the art of counterpoint or ensemble playing isn’t something that died when the last New Orleans forbear went to the cemetery: one of the great pleasures of this set is the easy playful witty conversations between instruments. And, finally, I note with great pleasure that this quartet played quiet music for listeners.  And the listeners did what they were supposed to do.  How nice is that?

As always, I entreat my readers to find live music and savor it when possible. Marvels are all around us.  We dare not take them for granted.  Thank you, Swing wizards!

May your happiness increase!

“I GIVE UP!” TIMES TEN

surrender1

Is surrender capitulating to an enemy, saying “I give up.  You are stronger.” or is it an enlightened act, a realization that there are powers we can’t conquer and that the idea of conquering anything is futile?

I SURRENDER DEAR

I’ve always found I SURRENDER, DEAR — so powerfully connected to Bing Crosby — both touching and mysterious.  As Gordon Clifford’s lyrics tell us, the singer is saying, in effect, “Take me back. Here is my heart.  I give up all pretense of being distant.  I need you,” which is deeply moving, a surrender of all ego-barriers and pretense.  But I’ve never been able to figure out whether “Here, take my heart,” is  greeted with “I’d love to welcome you back,” or “No thanks, I’m full.”  Other songs hold out the possibility of reconciliation (consider IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE or WE JUST COULDN’T SAY GOODBYE) but this one ends unresolved.  It’s also one of those songs that lends itself to a variety of interpretations: both Bing and Louis in the same year, then a proliferation of tenor saxophonists, and pianists from Monk to Garner to Teddy. And (before the music starts) probably thanks to Roy Eldridge, there’s also an honored tradition of slipping into double-time.

I_Surrender_Dear_(1931_film)_advert

Here, however, are ten versions that move me.

January 1931: Bing Crosby with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra.  Note the orchestral flourishes:

Later that same year: Victor Young and the Brunswick Concert Orchestra, featuring Frank Munn, not enough of the Boswell Sisters (acting as their own concert orchestra) and a few seconds of Tommy Dorsey.  I think this was an effort to show that Paul Whiteman didn’t have a monopoly on musical extravagance, and I’ve never seen a label credit “Paraphrased by . . . “.  I also note the vocal bridge turns to 3/4, and Munn sings “are doing” rather than “were doing,” but we wait patiently for the Sisters to appear, and they do:

Imagine anyone better than Ben Webster?  Here, in 1944, with our hero Hot Lips Page:

Forward several decades: Joe Venuti, Zoot Sims, John Bunch, Milt Hinton, Bobby Rosengarden 1975:

1978 — a duet of Earl Hines and Harry Edison:

Raymond Burke, Butch Thompson, Cie Frazier in New Orleans, 1979:

and something I was privileged to witness and record, flapping fan blades and all, from February 2010 (Tamar Korn, Gordon Au, Dennis Lichtman, Marcus Milius, Debbie Kennedy):

Ray Skjelbred, Marc Caparone, Jim Buchmann, Katie Cavera, Beau Sample, Hal Smith, at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2014:

Nobody follows Louis.  1931:

and the majestic version from 1956:

A little tale of the powers of Surrender.  In years past, I would drive into Manhattan, my car full of perishables, and search for a parking spot.  Of course there were none.  I could feel the gelato melting; I could feel my blood pressure rising contrapuntally.  Frustrated beyond belief, I would roll down my window and ask the Parking Goddess for her help.  “I do not ask for your assistance that often, and I admit that I cannot do this on my own.  I am powerless without your help.  Will you be merciful to me?”  And I would then circle the block again and a spot would have opened up.  My theory is that such supplication works only if one is willing to surrender the ego, the facade of one’s own power.  Of course it has also been known to work for other goals, but that is an essay beyond the scope of JAZZ LIVES.

For now, surrender whole-heartedly and see what happens.

May your happiness increase!

“MY HEART IS BEATING RAGTIME”: MAUD HIXSON and RICK CARLSON

For a minute, put aside any definitions of “jazz” and simply listen to this:

The singer is Maud Hixson; the pianist Rick Carlson.  And this new CD,  just released, is a singular pleasure.

Listening for your song

It is a sweet-natured yet swinging tribute to a series of children’s books, the Betsy-Tacy books (thirteen volumes, published 1940-55) set in Minnesota, and following two and three young women from childhood to marriage. All the books are set at the start of the twentieth century . . . the final one in the series has a young husband going off to serve in the Great War.

Over two hundred songs are mentioned in the series — some familiar, some that will be new to all but the deepest scholars of American vernacular music.

Here are Maud and Rick in the studio, with excerpts from three songs on the CD:

What Maud and Rick have created is an hour of delicately memorable music. But it’s not simply an immersion in the Dear Departed Days.  For one thing, the songs vary splendidly from track to track.  Yes, there are hymns in praise of the glorious summertime, of the beloved one the singer hopes to wed, sweet yearnings and romantic reveries in the best World War One manner.  But there are songs celebrating automobiles and airplanes, and a good dose of vaudeville — not only Irish comedy, but comic songs depicting what we now call “family dysfunction”: husbands who attempt to deceive their wives, or who avoid work as if it were the plague, others who imbibe.  Spooning and sparking in the dark are delightfully explicated, but there’s also a woman who loves the sounds of the cello much more than she loves the cellist.

And just to keep things in balance, the CD begins with a sweetly serious spoken introduction by Maud over THE MERRY WIDOW WALTZ as background, but just when the listener might think, “Oh, this is a documentary rather than a musical presentation,” Maud and singer Maria Jette offer a completely feline-on-the-fence reading of Rossini’s THE CAT DUET . . .

Maud and Rick have learned not only the familiar choruses, but the wonderfully theatrically essential verses and sometimes second and third choruses.  Each performance is an understated but fully realized dramatic presentation, completely satisfying.  The language is innocent — the lyrics call a phony tale “Same old load of peaches,” rather than “bullshit,” but I welcome the sweetness of the demotic — since we all know what’s meant.

Before I listened closely to this disc, I expected it to be formal presentation in the manner of Joan Morris and William Bolcom.  There is much of the same devotion to the song, respect for melody and lyrics in this duet — but Maud and Rick are fully themselves, and that is a wonderful thing.  Since the accompanist sometimes is pushed into the background, a few words about Rick Carlson first. The repertoire — presumably the popular song of ancient times — might lead a lesser artist into stiffness, the polite rigidities of someone convinced that swinging was heresy.  Rick does a lovely job of blending parlor piano with the sweet elasticity of ragtime and early stride.  It’s clear that he reveres the melody and the original harmonic turns . . . but Teddy Wilson isn’t his enemy, and James P. Johnson isn’t unknown to him.  His time is lovely, his touch inspiring.  No note or phrase is stiff, and his duetting with Maud is a wonderful supportive conversation.  Hear him on SAME OLD STORY and BY THE BEAUTIFUL SEA, where his frolicking stride figures would make Dick Hyman smile.

Maud Hixson is a delicious embodiment of the idea that the greatest art is in the subtle concealment of art.  It would be very easy and quite wrong to undervalue her singing.  She’s not Sarah Vaughan; she doesn’t have a four-octave range. (“What a relief!” I think.)  What she does have is a beautiful voice — whether speaking or singing — subtly modulated, wonderful diction . . . all the things that make for singing that falls like honey on our ears.  But her delivery is so easy that we might think less of it — “I could do that!” — as people felt when singing along with Bing on the radio.  Don’t believe it.  What Maud does is a special art, rooted in the deep desire to make singer and song interwoven and inseparable. She IS the song, and the song glows as a result.

At the end of this hour of music (and I’ve listened to this disc a dozen times) I feel as if I’ve been tenderly embraced by touching, hilarious, satisfying music. Try it for yourself.  LISTENING FOR YOUR SONG is a rare delight.

May your happiness increase!

“NO, WE’RE NOT THERE YET!”: FOR PARENTS WHO ARE ABOUT TO TAKE LONG CAR TRIPS WITH YOUNG CHILDREN

American blues singer Gladys Bentley (1907 - 1960) poses with bandleader Willie Bryant (1908 - 1964) outside the Apollo Theater where posters advertise a performance by Bryant & his band, New York, New York, April 17, 1936. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty IMages)

American blues singer Gladys Bentley (1907 – 1960) poses with bandleader Willie Bryant (1908 – 1964) outside the Apollo Theater where posters advertise a performance by Bryant & his band, New York, New York, April 17, 1936.

This is addressed to parents who are about to be cooped up in a moving metal box for more than a few hours . . . with children . . .  and might need a new song to sing in the car. (I think of Angelo, Gabriella, and Gianluca, whom I already miss fervently.)

Possibly, children of 2016 are too hip to sing along in the car with The Old Folks (“I don’t play with anything that doesn’t have a charger, Mommy!”) but this song — suitable for vegans as well — might find a home.  I’d sing it, and have.

It’s performed by a wonderfully swinging band that few people seem to have heard of.  (Consider this, Laura Windley.)

Between 1935 and 1936, this band — perhaps only for recordings rather than gigging — recorded 22 sides for Bluebird Records, the less expensive Victor Records subsidiary.  Bryant was the main vocalist (on this side he is helped in a charming way [I think of vaudeville or minstrelsy] by trumpeter Jacques Butler).  Bryant had the best people for record dates: Taft Jordan, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Cozy Cole, Ram Ramirez, Eddie Durham, Edgar Battle.  He was a public figure: first in vaudeville, then a disc-jockey, and in the Fifties the master of ceremonies at the Apollo Theater — also a very engaging singer.

The sometimes garbled lyrics to this song might be a problem: one solution is this Thirties recording from another musical world:

Another is to do it yourself, because the easy rhymes lend themselves to improvisations  such as this: “I don’t like shrimp cocktails / They swim up my nose / But I love bananas / Because they don’t wear clothes.”  (Copyright reserved 2016 The Jazz Lives Foundation.)

For the Francophones in my audience:

Or this — presented as the lyrics sung by Billy Cotton:

Standing by the fruit store on the corner,
Once I heard a customer complain:
You never seem to show
The fruit we all love so.
That’s why business hasn’t been the same.

I don’t like your peaches; they are full of stones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
Don’t give me tomatoes; can’t stand ice-cream cones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
No matter where I go,
With Suzy, May, or Anna,
I want the world to know
I must have my banana.
Cabbages and onions hurt my singing tones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.

Now I don’t care for muffins; I don’t like buttered scones,
Ah, but I like bananas because they have no bones.
I don’t like giggling flappers; I don’t like ancient crones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
And fig leaves and bearskins
That you girls often trip on,
Why not have banana skins?
They’re easy things to slip on.
I can’t bear tax collectors, especially one who phones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.

I don’t like a crooner; of the blues he moans,
But we like bananas because they have no bones.
I don’t like politicians; they’re human gramophones.
We like bananas because they have no bones.
I never cared for drink.
To me it seems so sinful.
Though when you come to think,
Bananas get a skinful.
I don’t like the bagpipes and I can’t stand saxophones.
We like bananas because they have no bones.

BANANAS cover

For those who are not utterly depleted by all these good spirits, here is a later (1945) Bryant effort, featuring Tab Smith,Chuck Wayne,  and Taft Jordan.  The tempo may be too slow for a long drive — Bryant is in a Big Joe Turner mode — but the song is a useful counting song as well as a paean to healthful exercise and long-term committed monogamy:

Keep singing.  Even if you’re not in the car.  It makes ALL hard journeys easier.

May your happiness increase!

MAKING IT NEW: DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, PETE VAN NOSTRAND (Fat Cat, May 31, 2016)

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

My title comes from Ezra Pound, whose serious instruction to hopeful modernists was MAKE IT NEW.  In its own way, jazz has always been about making it new; even when one generation was paying tribute to preceding ones, the act of homage was in some ways grounded in newness.  If, in 2016, one decides to play note-for-note recreations of an Alcide Nunez record, that act is bound to have 2016 sensibilities and nuances built in.  But what animates Dan Block is much deeper than that.  Dan, who embodies an extraordinarily wide range of music, is one of the most imaginative shape-changers I know.

For his most recent gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Dan assembled a surprising quintet: himself on clarinet and tenor saxophone; Godwin Louis on alto; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; and for this rehearsal-session, Pete Van Nostrand, drums (Alvester Garnett played drums at Dizzy’s on June 7). The videos here are from an informal session held at Fat Cat on May 31.  I present them here with Dan’s encouragement: although the crowd was its usual boy-and-girlish self, the music was spectacular.  The band was advertised as “The Dan Block Quintet: Mary Lou Williams and Benny Carter Meet Hard Bop.” Intriguing, no?

Dan took half a dozen venerable songs from the Thirties — with connections to Chick Webb, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson, Mary Lou Williams, and Benny Carter — and reconsidered them, as if he were a very imaginative couturier. Take the song down to its sparest elements: strong melody, strong rhythm, familiar harmonies, and ask, “How would this look in lime green?  What about a very short denim jacket?” and so on.  As if he were fascinated by the essential self of the song — that which could not be harmed or obliterated — and started to play with the trappings — new rhythms, a different approach, new harmonies and voicings — to see what might result.

What resulted was and is terribly exciting — a blossoming-forth of exuberant energies from all the musicians.

HARLEM CONGO (from the Webb book):

PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE (Andy Kirk):

HOTTER THAN ‘ELL (Henderson):

BLUES IN MY HEART (Carter):

LONESOME NIGHTS (Carter):

BLUE LOU (Edgar Sampson for Chick Webb, then everyone else):

I think the originators, who were radical for their time, would certainly approve.

As an aside: everyone’s a critic, and cyber-communications have intensified this feeling.  If readers write, “I like the original 78 versions better!  This is not the way these songs should sound!” such comments will stay hidden. I revere the originals also, but I won’t have  creative musicians I admire be insulted by comparisons of this nature.

May your happiness increase!

“A SWELL FELLOW”

I don’t know what the proliferation of inscribed photographs of Jack Teagarden says about his, the circumstances, his popularity.  But since I’ve loved his music since childhood, I prefer to see these photographs as indications of a generous character, a man who appreciated his fans and was happy to make even the most fleeting connection with them.  For a start, “Edith” must have been made happier by this:

JACK EDITH

and this later pose:

JACK AUTOGRAPH

and a long sweet [although general] inscription, when Jack was being managed by MCA — circa 1939, if you know his lyrics to JACK HITS THE ROAD:

JACK TEAGARDEN Successful and Happy

and “Warmest regards to a Swell Fellow ‘Pat'”:

JACK TEAGARDEN Warmest Wishes

Then, some official business from 1943:

JACK TEAGARDEN union card front

and the other side:

JACK TEAGARDEN union card back

Even late in life — perhaps a year before his death — Jack retained his mastery, a mastery so deep that he made his great art look casual.  Here he is in Chicago, on television (the host is Willis Conover) performing BASIN STREET BLUES with Don Goldie, Henry Cuesta, Don Ewell, Stan Puls (I think), and Barrett Deems:

May your happiness increase!