Daily Archives: August 14, 2018

NATE NAJAR’S BEAUTIFUL SOUNDS: “UNDER PARIS SKIES”

Love comes in through the ears as well as through any other channel: the voice you hear on your phone (if you are fortunate) or the purring, from any species, that makes you smile.  Louis, Lee Wiley, Bobby Hackett, Ben Webster, Bing, and many others create sounds that assure me that things are going to be all right.

Nate Najar by Jamie Inman

Guitarist Nate Najar has some of that very same magic.  His new CD isn’t “Easy Listening” (for those who remember that archaic category) but it certainly is easy to listen to, and to love.  It’s both beautiful music and a homage to a time when beautiful music was a common language.  The theme is French, and the title is UNDER PARIS SKIES.  It isn’t released yet, so you’ll have to wait until September 7, but you can line up here.  Nate says it will be available in all the old familiar places, including his site.

What distinguishes this CD from the thousands of guitar sessions, and even the thousands of sessions devoted to the music of France, is Nate’s sweet expertise. He loves translucent melodies; he has a light touch; he swings without cliche or strain, and the CD is also elegant dance music.  I’ve heard him swing all by himself — he has his own rhythmic engine — but he’s also aided immeasurably by Tommy Cecil, string bass; Matthew Home, drums; and playing vibraphone on two tracks, the splendid Chuck Redd.  They work together in true gracious harmony, with Nate making sure everyone gets a chance to sing out.  (Hear Tommy’s lead on APRES UN REVE and know how acoustic string bass should be played.)

The songs are nicely chosen, familiar and obscure.  I apologize for the lack of accents, but that may be why Miss Virby gave me a 75 in French III.  LA MORT DOUCE / I WILL WAIT FOR YOU / NUAGES / LA JAVANNAISE / SOUS LE CIEL DE PARIS (Under Paris Skies) / CE PETIT CHEMIN / APRES UN REVE / SA JEUNESSE / QUE RESTE-T-IL DE NOS AMOURS? (I Wish You Love) / CHANSON DU COEUR BRISE (Song of Songs) / LA MARSELLAISE.

Some of the repertoire has, in the past, fallen into sentimentality, but Nate likes to swing just as much as he likes to increase the humidity, so I WISH YOU LOVE starts off as a proper rhapsody and then moves into a modern-Basie-rock, energized and energizing.  There’s also a good deal of understated wit here: these musicians aren’t obsessive quoters (I could name names) but the rare references to other songs often made me laugh out loud.

Nate’s own playing is quietly spectacular: hear his solo exploration of SONG OF SONGS: majestic yet not melodramatic, easily mobile but never trivial.  And the sound he gets out of his unamplified guitar is a gorgeous song in itself, so much like a beautifully modulated human voice.

It would be easy to pass this CD by for one more “innovative,” “cutting-edge,” or “adventurous,” which often means lengthy less-melodic excursions, but I encourage you to seek it out.  We can never have too much light-hearted beauty, and Nate Najar lives right in the center of it, as this CD proves.

Nate doesn’t make it to New York that often, but he will be playing music from UNDER PARIS SKIES on October 14 at the Blue Note in New York City — a Sunday brunch, with details here.  It will be a very good way to feel comfortable in the world, no matter what Monday brings.

Thank you for the beauties, Monsieur Najar.

May your happiness increase!

MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE: “PIANO JAZZ – CHICAGO STYLE!” featuring RAY SKJELBRED

Like other jazz fans and collectors, I have had many dreams of music I would like to hear, and in my lifetime many of those dreams have come true: the alternate takes of the Jones-Smith, Inc. session; airshots of the Basie band at the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing; the Ellington Fargo concert; the Jerry Newman uptown recordings; more Louis and Big Sid, on and on.

Earl Hines and Ray Skjelbred

The pianist Ray Skjelbred — treasured courageous explorer of beauty — is part of this story of dreams taking lovely shape.  I heard him on recordings perhaps fifteen years ago, and I encountered him in videos perhaps eight years ago, first in those of Rae Ann Berry, then in my own attempts, having met him, to capture him with appropriate skill and reverence.

In whatever medium I found him, I was astonished by the spacious, emotionally dense worlds he invented at the keyboard.  I still am.  And although Ray allowed me to capture individual performances that he approved of, solo and in duet; Ray leading his own Cubs — I am proud of the results, but they are beautiful snapshots for the most part.  In my videos, the sound might be imperfect; the audience might be chatting or moving in and out; Ray would speak, memorably, but briefly.

I came to dream of a Skjelbred film, a recital-explanation that would help us capture his secrets and his deep essence, as much of his history and magic that he cared to reveal.  But it remained a dream until Ray’s friend John Ochs, with Ray, created a profound but never sententious portrait of Ray and the musical atmosphere he both swims in and has enriched for decades.  It exists, and it can be seen.

From the first pearly notes of Joe Sullivan’s GIN MILL BLUES to Ray’s reminiscences-with-music of Burt Bales, Johnny Wittwer, Earl Hines, Joe Sullivan, Art Hodes, Jess Stacy, stride piano, octaves, tenths, the blues, tremolos, a stomping LITTLE ROCK GETAWAY, anecdotes of Sullivan — among well-trained kindergarten children, or listening to Bob Zurke play GETAWAY, a  brilliantly meandering chorus of ROSETTA which reminds me of someone picking up glittering beach glass at the ocean’s edge, and a riotous BEAU KOO  JACK, and so much more — the film is a treasure.  It is both the chronicle of a questing artist and his interactions with Hines, Sullivan, Stacy, Hodes, and a series of casual lessons from a Master about other Masters.

I admire it tremendously.  Ray’s deadpan puckish humor animates all of his conversation with us, as when he describes a heart attack at the keyboard turning, for seconds, into stride piano . . .his description of a poor traditional band as “six people with shotguns.”  I encourage viewers to savor his after-midnight introduction to I FOUND A NEW BABY and the last minutes of MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY.

It isn’t a how-to film that entices the viewer with the kinds of promises historically made on matchbooks, “See, you can play _____ too if only you learn these sixteen gestures,” nor is it a chronological autobiography of gigs and encounters, but a warming combination of sounds, techniques, memories and music created right at the moment.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget Ray’s story of Jess Stacy’s summation of a visit from jazz acolytes, at first  unfamiliar to him, as “Those nice boys.”

The film is emotionally filling without being overwhelming: when I finished watching for the first (of several times) I felt as if I had spent a month with Ray, yet it felt like a seamless easy journey, over too soon.

Recorded in one sitting, at a fine piano, with subtle, telling editing, it is so far beyond my best videos that I am both thrilled it exists and slightly embarrassed by my own earnest amateur sallies.

I am not the only person to appreciate this film: it has been selected by the New York Jazz Film Festival and will receive an award for HISTORY / DOCUMENTARY at the end of August.

I am able to share the film with you — and frankly I would find it inexplicable if hundreds of people did not take advantage of the opportunity — but I do not know for how long this will be possible.  These things are mysterious, but Imight not be able to share this film indefinitely.

So I urge and beseech my viewers to be with Ray Skjelbred, man and artist of independent spirit, for one hour (and twenty-three minutes and fifty-eight seconds) tonight, or, if not tonight, then tomorrow night.

Early on in the film, Ray says, as if to himself, “All music is a narrative of some kind — it starts somewhere and it goes somewhere.”  He could have been describing this very fulfilling film as well.

May your happiness increase!