Monthly Archives: February 2017

“FROGGIE MOORE” and SO MUCH MORE: HOT CLASSICISM ON THE RIVER (KRIS TOKARSKI, ANDY SCHUMM, HAL SMITH) SEPT. 23, 2016

hot-classicism

What’s hot, has six legs, and floats?  Easy.  HOT CLASSICISM, the trio of Kris Tokarski, piano; Andy Schumm, cornet and clarinet; Hal Smith, drums, when they’re on board the steamboat Natchez on the Mississippi River — in this case, Saturday, September 23, 2016, as part of last year’s Steamboat Stomp.  But you knew the answer already.  (And in the name of accuracy, they float even when on dry land — musically, that is.)

Here’s the first half of a hot, historical but expansively creative set that this trio performed for us on the boat: with admiring glances at Jelly Roll Morton, Tiny Parham, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Doc Cooke, Freddie Keppard, Albert Wynn, Sidney Catlett, Punch Miller, and dozens of New Orleans and Chicago hot players whose names you would also know.

This Morton tune is called FROG-I-MORE or FROGGIE MOORE RAG (I think those are all the variants) and Mister Morton said it was named for a vaudeville contortionist.  No doubt:

SUNDAY, a tune that all the musicians in the world love to play, takes me back to Jean Goldkette in 1927, even though the Keller Sisters and Lynch didn’t make it to the boat:

Are your tamales hot?  They should be.  Freddie Keppard’s were:

A beautiful slow groove:

I could be wrong, but I think PARKWAY STOMP is a romp on the changes of DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL — something that was being done long before ANTHROPOLOGY and ORINTHOLOGY.  The Albert Wynn recording with Punch Miller is also an early Sidney Catlett recording, something the Honorable Hal Smith knows well:

Who remembers Tiny Parham?  Jen Hodge does, and I do, and Milt Hinton did.  So does HOT CLASSICISM:

What a wonderful hot band!  There’s another serving to come, but until then, you might investigate this delight.  And HOT CLASSICISM has gigs to come: follow Kris, Hal, Andy on Facebook.  You will be rewarded for diligence.

May your happiness increase!

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“BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY: BIG BAND JAZZ ARRANGING IN THE SWING ERA,” by JOHN WRIGGLE (University of Illinois Press)

john-wriggle-cover

One way to answer the questions “Who was Chappie Willet, why haven’t I heard of him, and why does he deserve a book?” can be found here:

That was recorded in 1937 and is notable — to some — for solos by a young Dizzy Gillespie and others as members of Teddy Hill’s NBC Orchestra.  But if there were no solos to concentrate on, keen listeners would notice the depth and complexity of Willet’s composition and arrangement, full of surprises.

An extended BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY, performed by Gene Krupa:

We are trained by the “star system” in jazz to listen for soloists, to disregard the orchestral textures of a performance for the brief passages where Our Person improvises.  More erudite listeners will recognize the “charts” created by Mary Lou Williams, Bill Challis, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Ellington and/or Strayhorn — distinctive expressions of the writer, as recognizable as an individual soloist. John Wriggle’s superb book — a rewarding study of one brilliant arranger, his music, the world in which he operated, and the implications of Wriggle’s research — does a good deal to begin resetting the balance.

Francis “Chappie” Willet (1907-76) was a great arrangers and composer: we have heard his work for Hill, Krupa, Goodman, Armstrong, Lunceford, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Norvo.  Yet he is almost unknown and the wonderful settings he created are taken for granted.  Consider his arrangement of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE for Louis Armstrong, heard here in a 1938 performance.  But here I ask the reader / listener to consider only the first fifteen seconds of this performance.  I know it’s nearly impossible to consider anything but Louis, but try:

In two pages (123-24), Wriggle provides a transcription of what is happening in that opening, and then analyzes it.  The reader need not be a musicologist to follow and enjoy this book because Wriggle writes so clearly.

The experience of reading this book — well-organized and exquisitely documented but with beautiful control (some writers, unlike Wriggle, think every dust mote is equally important and thus overwhelm a reader) — is concentric.

Were it simply a biography of Willet, it would be a thin, perhaps limited study. But Wriggle is fascinated by context — “the economic, political, and professional landscape of popular music arrangers working during the Swing Era,” so we learn about the intersection of race and visibility; how arrangers learned their trade and the various rates of pay; Willet’s “Broadway Music Clinic,” music for nightclubs, Broadway shows and theatrical revues; the various clubs and venues themselves. Wriggle examines — I oversimplify here — how Swing Era arranging worked, with close analysis of excerpts from various scores and recordings, and how each arranger had a particularly recognizable identity.  He looks closely at the fluid relationships between jazz and the Western classical canon.

The book’s scope is refreshingly broad; at one point, Wriggle analyzes Willet’s elaborately dramatic score for the Lunceford version of YESTERDAYS; a few pages later, we learning all there is to know about a new dance, THE HICKY RICKY — novelty numbers, ballads, and jazz exotica are all considered with particular enthusiasm and research.

Rare photographs add a great deal to the experience, and the collaboration of Wriggle and the University of Illinois Press is a happy one: the book is carefully presented and well-edited.  I found no misprints or errors, rare in this century. The paper edition (a manageable 320 pages) is $30.

Reading this book over the past few months, whether I proceeded chronologically or opened it at random, I was always enlightened, ever bored: a great tribute to Wriggle from an impatient and often irritable reader.  His background explains a good deal: he is a trombonist, composer, arranger, and scholar, who has transcribed period jazz repertoire for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and served as music editor for Oscar-winning Hollywood film scores.

As a writer and scholar, he is thoughtful without being pedantic or theoretical, without a confining ideological bias.  To get a sense of his and the book’s virtues, I offer excerpts from his interview (from the publisher’s blog) about this work.

As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.

The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.

Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.

This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.

BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY is a wonderfully enlightening experience.  It is readable but dense with information — an old-fashioned book not especially suited for reading on one’s phone — a splendidly-documented exploration of an artist and his musical world that will both answer and raise many questions.  I hope John Wriggle will write many more books equally wise and appealing.

May your happiness increase!

DAN BLOCK AND HIS MÖBIUS TRAVELERS at SMALLS, PART ONE (February 3, 2017): DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, ALVESTER GARNETT

mobius_strip

Photograph by David Benbennick, c/o Wikipedia

The image above is of a Möbius strip: it has only one side and you keep traveling around it without beginning or end.  You could look it up, as Ring Lardner wrote. It is artifact, concept, and metaphor all in one.

How does this relate to music?  First, a sample: BUGS PARADE, composition and arrangement by Billy Moore, recorded by the 1940 Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra:

It’s 2017.  How would a group of living musicians deal with this work of art?  One approach would be to attempt to reproduce it exactly: transcribe the recording, rehearse it with a select group of musicians — the same number and instrumentation — so that one could hear it live.  Hard work with often beautiful results.  Another approach — at the other end of the spectrum — would be to shatter the original through mockery, to draw an unflattering caricature of the original.

Dan Block, one of the most consistently inspired creators I know, respects the music of the Swing Era and knows it deeply, but has chosen his own path through these two polarities.  It’s hard to explain verbally, but it works in the same way the Möbius strip does: one reveres the original but opens it up innovatively (the artists we respect now were in some way all radical innovators) before returning home to the Palace of Swing.  Dan and his comrades: Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, did this ten times at an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls on February 3.  Here are three glorious examples — which also stretch the boundaries of the 78 rpm disc above.

HARLEM CONGO, associated with Chick Webb:

Benny Carter’s lovely NIGHTFALL:

And, yes, the aforementioned BUGS PARADE:

You will notice I haven’t said anything about the players or the performances. This band is explosively energized and deeply lyrical, often at the same time.

A postscript: I hope no one feels compelled in the name of red-label Columbias and sunburst Deccas to write in, “I like the originals better.”  Consider that Dan’s reinventions are meant to honor the original lively and lyrical spirits of these Thirties recordings: otherwise why spend the time creating his own tributes? They are not desecrations in any way.

A more cheerful postscript, Dr. Eugenia Chang’s Möbius bagel and lox:

May your happiness increase!

IF THERE’S A GLEAM IN HER EYE, SHE’S LISTENING TO THIS BAND: JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, FRANK TATE at LUCA’S JAZZ CORNER (Dec. 22, 2016)

The song, THE LADY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU, music by Burton Lane (a bubbling rhythmic line) and witty incisive lyrics by Frank Loesser, first emerged in 1939 and was a big-band hit immediately for Krupa, Miller, and Goodman.  Then, in 1944, it emerged again as a Condon favorite.  I give full credit to Eddie for making it popular, with everyone from Jimmy Rowles to Annie Ross to Mel Torme to Susannah McCorkle recording it — with special notice for Marty Grosz and Rebecca Kilgore in my decades.

ladys-in-love-larger

It’s a great premise — that these are all the litmus tests one can use to determine if, in fact, the lady is infatuated — a nice change from the usual “I wish she loved me again” plaint.  Here are Rebecca and Dave Frishberg — verse and two choruses, beautifully:

But the punchy repeated phrases lend themselves to vigorous instrumental strutting, as evident in this version, created at Luca’s Jazz Corner on December 22, 2016, by Jon-Erik Kellso, Evan Arntzen, Rossano Sportiello, and Frank Tate. Building inspectors stopped in near the end of the performance because of calls that the whole block was swaying dangerously in 4/4:

Lovely music happens regularly at Luca’s Jazz Corner (1712 First Avenue in Manhattan): a Kellso quartet will be back on March 23 . . . a clear day for hot jazz indeed.  Incidentally, if you haven’t been following the intensive JAZZ LIVES coverage of this band, this evening, here you can enjoy dazzling renditions of JUBILEE, RUNNIN’ WILD, and FINE AND DANDY.  All three song titles appropriately describe the music, too.

May your happiness increase!

I DON’T QUITE KNOW WHAT IT IS, BUT IT SOUNDS LOVELY: JON DE LUCIA, “AS THE RIVER SINGS”

As someone used to listening to jazz — first a narrow slice, then broadening and deepening — like most listeners, I am familiar with what I am familiar with.  I appreciate known melodies, improvised on in a variety of ways, as well as beautiful sounds, and I am not too embarrassed by my occasional inability or unwillingness to appreciate what others call jazz.  Sometimes, though, I hear something different, created by musicians I respect, and I am emotionally drawn to it.  I take it seriously and try to figure out “what it is,” and sometimes fail.  But in this case, my ears and my emotions tell me that the music is beautiful and worthy, even though I don’t quite know what to call it.  (Categorization can get ugly, as if I was trying to wear the jeans I wore ten years ago.)

I met the saxophonist / clarinetist Jon De Lucia in 2016, and have followed him to several gigs — in an intimate restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn; a few sessions at Michael Kanan and Stephanie Greig’s beautiful Drawing Room; most recently to Sir D’s Lounge, also in Brooklyn.  Jon asked me if I’d like to hear the music on his new CD release, AS THE RIVER SINGS, recorded in 2014.  I listened to some of it online and said yes.  On this disc of twelve compositions by Jon, he plays alto saxophone, clarinet, Sruti Box, alto clarinet, flute; he’s joined by Greg Ruggiero, electric guitar; Chris Tordini, string bass; Tommy Crane, drums.

as-the-river-sings-cover

Before you read on, you can listen to a few selections here.  Wisely, I think, Jon has not provided a programmatic narrative of what the music is “about,” so we are free to hear.  Each track seems part of a larger suite of dance melodies, or dancing ones.  I hear Irish keening and island rhythms; the dancing underpinnings also reminded me of Anglo-American pop/dance music of the second half of the last century.  Without being a self-conscious rhythmic travelogue, the suite moves gracefully from rhythmic idiom to rhythmic idiom, encouraging the listener to feel, to muse, to sway.  Floating melodies, chiming sounds, music that one can listen to in many ways and be moved by it.

The quartet is delightfully egalitarian, so melodies and patterns are passed around and the variety is always entertaining.  Jon is a virtuoso who knows the wonders of restraint.  His tone is rewarding in itself — I think of the coinage that Darl Bundren, in a William Faulkner novel, uses to describe the ideal temperature for the water he is about to drink, “warmish-cool,” to describe Jon’s playing and his approach to his instruments and our ears.  His melodies and improvisations gently have something to tell us, but they are subtle, never banging loudly on our door.  And they sink in to our consciousness in quietly memorable ways.

I write this not only to point JAZZ LIVES’ readers towards some rewarding music on disc, but to announce the CD release show at Cornelia St. Cafe on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.  Jon and Greg Ruggiero, Sean Smith, and Billy Mintz — all heroes! will play two sets, at 8 and 9:30.  The Facebook event page is here.  And the salient details are that there is a $10 cover; reservations are recommended; Cornelia St. Underground, 29 Cornelia St., near West 4th St in Manhattan.

May your happiness increase!

PRESTO! “TWERK THOMSON PLAYS UNPOPULAR SONGS”

The CD below is delightfully weird but the results are entirely gratifying. Perhaps that sentence should properly read “and the results”: you decide.

Exhibit A.  The process:

Twerk Thomson with Kris Tokarski and Ben Polcer, and two turntables. Photograph by John A. Dixon.

Twerk Thomson with Kris Tokarski and Ben Polcer, and two turntables. Photograph by John A. Dixon.

Exhibit A.1.a: A Presto disc cutter from eBay:

presto-cutter

Exhibit A.1.b: Blank discs, also from eBay:

presto-discs

Exhibit B. The result:

twerk-cd-cover

Exhibit B.1.a.:

bunk-popular

Exhibit C. The results, continued here.

Exhibiit D.  The explanation.  The story has different parts, which combine. Twerk Thomson is a young yet respected New Orleans string bassist, with a real understanding of the art form, often heard with the Shotgun Jazz Band.  And he, like other musicians and scholars, is fascinated by the intersection of “archaic” sound and the technology of its time. It’s one thing to get musicians into a modern studio — which, at its most “modern,” is a very restrictive environment, where musicians can barely see each other and hear each other through headphones . . . and then try to improvise music that will seem natural to the disc’s purchaser.  But what happens when you record twenty-first century improvisers with the technology of the previous century, the century that gave birth to the innovators they (and we) so admire?  The music I am celebrating in this post, created last year, is a tribute to Bill Russell’s American Music creations. And the new CD sounds wonderful.

But something needs to be said about the Presto home record cutter and discs. Before the computer and the iPhone . . . music used to be packaged tangibly on a variety of discs, and enterprising people could record their own music at home — whether it was Aunt Ella singing and playing hymns or the Paso Robles Wanderers working out the trio of MABEL’S DREAM.  I have found these discs at yard sales, and they’ve never offered something life-changing, such as a broadcast from the Reno Club, but they are tantalizing.  The whole idea is roughly parallel to another piece of archaic technology, the Polaroid camera, but I assure you the discs hold up better.

Twerk told me, “I got my first cutter about a year and a half ago, which ended up being completely useless.  So I ended up buying two more.  They come up on eBay every so often. Finding ones that were affordable was the big challenge.
Blanks come up on eBay as well but they are very hit and miss when It comes to quality. I actually ended up finding a bunch of original presto blanks on there once that were actually still usable. They came in the original packaging which was really cool.  But for higher quality blanks we use a company called Apollo, from California.”

The official version is “The performances herein were recorded live with one microphone into a Presto K8 lathe, cut directly to acetate discs at 78 rpm, and edited only for volume. All Sessions Produced by Twerk Thomson and Recorded by John Dixon, Live at Twerk-O-Phonic Studios, New Orleans, LA.”

The songs: OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL / OLD FASHIONED LOVE / MY GAL SAL / PRETTY BABY / SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART / SWEET BYE AND BYE (Twerk Thomson, string bass; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Kris Tokarski, piano) / JADA / SHINE  / ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU / NOON BLUES / MARIE / YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE / MELANCHOLY BLUES  (Twerk, John Rodli, guitar, vocal on JADA; Kris; Ben; James Evans, C-melody saxophone, clarinet; Charlie Halloran, trombone) / IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE / MAMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / POOR BUTTERFLY (Twerk, Russell Welch, guitar; Alex Owen, trumpet; Bruce Brackmon, clarinet; Marty Peters, tenor saxophone) / HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO? / HOME (Twerk, tenor guitar; Marla Dixon, trumpet and vocal).

Exhibit E: Twerk Thomson on Facebook.

If you’re familiar with any of the heroes recorded on this disc (and you can hear / download / purchase the music on the Soundcloud link above) you will know what to expect: music that is both romping and elegantly controlled, harking back to the Bunk Johnson – Don Ewell – Alphonso Steele trios and slightly larger ensembles.  The “vintage sound” — powerfully focused if somewhat narrower (at first) than we are used to — is so atmospheric.  The discs have occasional surface noise, whooshes and clicks, but the noise is part of the overall effect rather than something added on synthetically.  Everyone plays beautifully and with heart, so the result is not merely the documentation of a gimmick, but a melding of technology and reverent impulse.

I first heard a few of the individual sessions on Twerk’s Facebook page, and thought, “Wow, I hope he puts these into a form that people who want to get away from their computers can purchase and have.”  And he did.  So I can now time-travel to some indeterminate place whenever I want, even while driving to work.  And Twerk has also established Twerk-O-Phonic Studios as a place (a sanctuary for music!) where you can visit and record your own music onto an actual disc — a single artifact, not a mass-produced product — to have, to hear, to admire.  I don’t want this to become such a phenomenon that he no longer has time to play the propulsive string bass he does so well, but a little prosperity would be nice.

I commend this disc to you.  The music on it both embraces and transcends the technology.  And, to me, the complete idea — the musicians, the home environment, the discs — is heartwarming.

May your happiness increase!

TWO NEGATIVE STATEMENTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, MAKE A POSITIVE ONE (November 27, 2016)

ill-never-say-never-again-again

Two negative statements can make a positive one.  Oh, how very positive.  The song here is the nearly-impossible to sing I’LL NEVER SAY “NEVER AGAIN” AGAIN, by the one and only Harry Woods, and for most of us immortalized by Henry “Red” Allen or Connee Boswell when the song was new.  (Benny Goodman featured it in the Sixties, and in our time there’s a delectable version by Rebecca Kilgore.)

The narrative premise of the song (no doubt arising from the wordplay of the title) is that a couple has had some disagreement — what people used to call “a spat” or “a fight,” and the singer is now repentant, swearing endless high fidelity, which is always a nice concept.

But what we have here isn’t a matter for couples counseling or an exploration into the archives of recorded sound. Rather, it is a sweetly frolicsome duet — I think of Earl and Louis in the wings, grinning — between two of the masters, Ray Skjelbred at the piano and Marc Caparone on cornet — at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 27, 2016:

This performance is dedicated to all those wise enough to kiss and make up.

May your happiness increase!