Category Archives: Bliss!

TENDERLY SWINGING: GUILLEM ARNEDO, MICHAEL KANAN, CELESTE ALIAS, JAUME LLOMBART, JORGE ROSSY, DEE JAY FOSTER: “LET’S SING O. HAMMERSTEIN II”

Eighty years ago, jazz fans — that small ferocious bunch — were often parochial in the extreme: “How good could X could be if we’ve never heard of them before?” “How good could they be if they were born someplace that wasn’t New Orleans, New York, Chicago?”

But that attitude vanished, I hope, long before the internet made swinging international relations not only plausible but a fact of life.  (I admit that parochialism exists in 2018 in subtler forms: “How good could she be?  She doesn’t have any YouTube videos or a Facebook page!” but let us close our eyes and wait for that spasm to pass.)

I had not heard of drummer / bandleader Guillem Arnedo before 2017 — but since he came with the recommendation of pianist-hero Michael Kanan, I knew he would be more than OK.  Michael has splendid taste.

And when I heard the CD, LET’S SING OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II, I was delighted.  But first, let me offer some of the delicate, sweetly energized music that Guillem and friends create.  And credit the musicians: Guillem, drums; Celeste Alias, vocals; Michael Kanan, piano; Jaume Llombart, guitar; Jorge Rossy, vibes / marimba; Dee Jay Foster, string bass.

PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE:

OUT OF MY DREAMS:

I think that is wonderful music: light-hearted and deeply felt all at once.  The songs are HAPPY TALK / THE SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP / MAKE BELIEVE / SOME ENCHANTED EVENING / WE KISS IN A SHADOW / MARCH OF THE SIAMESE CHILDREN / GETTING TO KNOW YOU / MY LORD AND MASTER / PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE / OUT OF MY DREAMS / BALI HAI / BILL / CAN’T HELP LOVIN’ DAT MAN / THIS NEARLY WAS MINE.

And here’s what I wrote.

The great theatre and film composers weren’t always happy when improvisers “took liberties” with their songs. Rodgers and Hart made their resentment known in “I Like to Recognize the Tune.” Jerome Kern’s estate sued Musicraft Records to stop them from issuing Dizzy (with strings) playing Kern. (Eventually, they relented.)

But the tradition of jazz musicians improvising on Broadway and film songs is almost a century old. Variations on new pop hits or familiar themes sold records and the results were sometimes more memorable than what was on the sheet music. Think of Paul Whiteman’s WHY DO I LOVE YOU? and Bix’s OL’ MAN RIVER; thirty years later, Vic Dickenson’s OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING, Emmett Berry’s PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE, all the way to the summit: of Louis’s YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE.

Here, leader / drummer / arranger Guillem Arnedo selected melodies he admires and everyone treats them tenderly. That approach might seem too traditional to some. But what sets this CD apart from a Fifties “A JAZZ VERSION OF [insert famous Broadway show or musical film title]” is a gentle pervasive originality, audible as a series of small sweet surprises.

Guillem told me, “I found out that a lot of tunes that I love have Hammerstein’s lyrics. So instead of doing a tribute to Hammerstein and Rodgers or Hammerstein and Kern (his two big associations) I found it more interesting to focus on Oscar and all the marvelous plays he co-wrote. Besides, my band focuses its attention a lot not only on melodies but also to lyrics, poetry. That’s something I learned from Michael Kanan, that to understand and get deep into a song you must know the lyrics. The arrangements and decisions about which tune is instrumental or to be sung were mine. Nevertheless, you can find the Kanan blend in some little arrangements he did spontaneously.”

Listeners will find pleasure wherever they turn, but I’d recommend PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE for a start – the quiet duet of Celeste and Michael quietly exploring the verse, then Michael’s irresistible transition into the chorus, with everyone rocking immediately (embodying Jake Hanna’s “Start swinging from the beginning!”)

The band sounds gorgeous (and is beautifully recorded) throughout. Celeste is capable of shy tenderness or determined energy, each shading with its own shimmer. Michael continues to honor Jimmie Rowles with intuitions that touch our hearts. Each stroke that Guillem creates – stick, cymbal, or brush – seems just the right impressionistic touch. D.J.’s bass playing – resonant, woody, trustworthy – is precisely our cup of tea. Jorge is lyrical, eloquent, yet terse, even when playing what sounds like the world’s largest marimba. Jaume creates delicate hymns or propulsive lines: hear his meditation for the SIAMESE CHILDREN.

On this disc we find the most familiar songs shining brightly, sounding as if they were composed yesterday. Listeners may begin to sing along, whether or not they planned to, because the melodic momentum is irresistible. Guillem and friends have created a wondrous aural landscape: delightfully varied, completely uplifting. I am sure that Oscar, Dick, and Jerry approve.

Rereading these notes while the disc is playing, I feel guilty of understatement, of atypical restraint.  The music on this CD is just splendid — all the instrumentalists in solo and ensemble, and Celeste’s touching yet tangy singing.  I hope this post makes up for my praise being more quiet than it should have been.  To buy the CD, please visit here.  I believe that downloads are also available from the usual suspects.

May your happiness increase!

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YES, IT’S STILL POSSIBLE! (Part One): KRIS TOKARSKI, JONATHAN DOYLE, LARRY SCALA, NOBU OZAKI, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 24, 2017)

Sometimes, as a devout jazz enthusiast, I feel caught between two ideologies — rather like a kernel of corn watching the two stone wheels approach. One group of fans insists that all the great music has already been made: that there’s really no point in leaving the house, because Lester and Louis and Hawkins are dead, so these fans bury their heads in their speakers and do takeout.  Another group embraces the new jazz flavors of the month, and insists that Hank McGillicuddy and his Stompers are as good as Basie at the Famous Door, and by the way, Zelda Red-Dress “brings Billie back.”  She doesn’t, but if you think so, that’s nice.

I offer a third possibility: that there are musicians who don’t have contracts with Jack Kapp or Eli Oberstein; they don’t pack the Palomar or the Savoy — but they are alive today, you can speak to them, they inhale and exhale — and they do that thing splendidly.  They are worth leaving the house for.

One shining example of this phenomenon — why I call this blog JAZZ LIVES rather than JAZZ NEEDS DUSTING — is the small group led by pianist Kris Tokarski that swung like mad at the 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest.  Along with Kris, they are Jonathan Doyle, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Larry Scala, guitar; Nobu Ozaki, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  No too-small brightly-colored matching polo shirts; no funny hats; no group vocals.  Just wonderful music, sweet when it’s called for, hot enough to make us sweat.

Here are four examples.  Jazz thrives.

LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, evoking Crosby and Condon:

and what Kenny Davern used to call “face to face”:

and an explosive LITTLE GIRL:

and a lovely pensive MEMORIES OF YOU:

May your happiness increase!

TWO ORIGINALS PLAY THREE ORIGINALS: JOEL FORRESTER and DAVID HOFSTRA at JULES (May 13, 2018)

Another Sunday afternoon with pianist-composer Joel Forrester at Jules, 66 St. Marks Place in New York City.

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

This afternoon, Joel brought along a dear friend and deep colleague, string bassist David Hofstra, who has been a mainstay of the Microscopic Septet for years.  Joel and David have been playing alongside each other since the Seventies, and their first recording is from 1980.

My readers have already heard or read me being seriously enthusiastic about Joel’s original compositions and his improvisations: they honor many traditions but fit neatly into no shoebox-sized category.  But since I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed Joel and David together as a duo, may I call your attention to the latter’s beautiful choice of notes, his steady unforced time, his gentle lyricism? David is no antiquarian (I’m older than he is, if the online data is right) but he harks back to a time when the string bass was both treated with respect and known as the harmonic and often moral foundation of the music in which it worked.  Just beautiful — and the two players here are in splendid intuitive harmony.

PHILLIP’S BLUES (which I presume is in honor of Microscopic Septet’s co-leader, saxophonist / composer Phillip Johnston):

Gentle meditations on the finite, NOTHING LASTS FOREVER:

A compact Frolick, LOOK TO YOU:

Joel will be at JULES all summer — solo, duo, trio.  He and Mary are off to France for a year in September, so savor this music while he — and friends — are here.

May your happiness increase!

I CALL ON KIM CUSACK (Part One): MARCH 27, 2018

Paul Asaro, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet

I admire the reedman and occasional vocalist Kim Cusack immensely and had done so through recordings for a long time before we met in person.  When we exchanged courtesies and compliments at a California festival — perhaps the San Diego Jazz Fest in 2011? — I was thrilled by his music as it was created on the spot, and I liked the man holding the clarinet a great deal.

A hero-worshiper, I found occasions to stand at the edge of a small circle when Kim was telling a story.  And what he had to tell us was plenty.  He never tells jokes but he’s hilarious with a polished deadpan delivery and the eye for detail of a great writer.

I had said to another hero, Marc Caparone, “I wish I could get Kim to sit for a video interview,” and Marc — ever the pragmatist — said, “Ask him!” I did, and the result was a visit to Kim and the endearing Ailene Cusack (she’s camera-shy but has her own stories) in their Wisconsin nest.

The results are a dozen vignettes: illuminating, sharply observed, and genuine.  Kim’s stories are about the lively, sometimes eccentric people he knows and has known.  I am honored to have had the opportunity, and I hope you enjoy the videos.  I know I did and do.

I’ve prefaced each video with a very brief sketch of what it contains.

Early days, going back to fifth grade, and early influences, including Spike Jones, moving up to high school and a paying gig, with side-glances at rock ‘n’ roll and the Salty Dogs:

From Career Day at Kim’s high school to early adulthood, and a seven-year stint teaching, with Eddy Davis, Darnell Howard, Mike Walbridge, James Dapogny, the Chicago Stompers, the Salty Dogs, Frank Chace, Marty Grosz, Lew Green, Wayne Jones, and the saga of Paul’s Roast Round:

From the Chicago Stompers and union conflicts to Art Hodes and Ted Butterman and Wayne Jones to Kim’s secret career as a piano player . . . and the elusive piano recording, and a mention of Davey Jones of Empirical Records:

Kim’s portraits of distinctive personalities Ted Butterman, Bob Sundstrom, Little Brother Montgomery, Booker T. Washington, Rail Wilson, Peter Nygaard, Phyllis Diller and her husband “Fang,” the Salty Dogs, Eddy Davis, George Brunis, Stepin Fetchit and OL’ MAN RIVER in Ab. Work with Gene Mayl and “Jack the Bear” on trumpet. And Barrett Deems!  (More Deems stories to come.)

More portraits, including Gene Mayl, Monte Mountjoy, Gus Johnson, the legendary George Brunis, Nappy Trottier, who “could really play,” Wild Bill Davison, Johnson McRee. And a playing trip to Alaska for three weeks with Donny McDonald and later Ernie Carson:

Scary airplane trips with the Gene Mayl band over Alaska, and a glance at the splendid pianist John Ulrich, a happy tourist:

I have six more vignettes to share, with memories of Norm Murphy, Frank Chace, Barrett Deems, Bob Skiver, Little Brother Montgomery, and more.  My gratitude to Kim and Ailene Cusack, for making this pilgrimage not only possible but sweet, rewarding fun.

May your happiness increase!

HOT, SWEET, HOTTER: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO and FRIENDS at CLEVELAND (Sept. 15, 2017), PART TWO: DUKE HEITGER, DAN BARRETT, DAN BLOCK, SCOTT ROBINSON, FRANK TATE, HAL SMITH

I posted the first part of a frankly incendiary set from the now-lamented Cleveland Classic Jazz Party here, and it seems just the right time to offer the three performances from the second half.

ROSSANO.

Rossano and his majestice friends — Duke Heitger, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Dan Block, clarinet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Frank Tate, string bass; Hal Smith, drums — really know how to do it, to play the venerable repertoire with loving care so that it doesn’t seem stale or by-the-numbers, with heartfelt solos, intelligent ensemble work, and lovely tempos.

Here’s Kid Ory’s SAVOY BLUES:

Eddie Condon always mixed in beautiful ballads with the hot numbers, so Rossano features Dan Barrett in GHOST OF A CHANCE:

Since time was running out, the final number was compact — AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  But Rossano brilliantly said, “Four choruses, ensemble,” and offered us this memorable evocation of easy teamwork in the land of Hot:

Unforgettable.  And another reason to be grateful — to the musicians, to the traditions they embody, and to Nancy Hancock Griffith and Kathy Hancock.  We who were there know why.

May your happiness increase!

A BOWLFUL OF JELLY: DAVID HORNIBLOW and ANDREW OLIVER PLAY MORTON, and a new e-78 too!

Not ‘T’was the Night Before Christmas, but a visit to the land of Mortonia, reliably, gorgeously: the place where sweet, hot, plenty rhythm is the national anthem and the cosmic heartbeat. I mean the Complete Morton Project, with Andrew Oliver, piano, and David Horniblow, various reeds of assorted sizes and timbres.

BIG LIP BLUES, a sermon on the virtues of respectful taciturnity, here melancholy and mobile both in its instrumental form:

SHAKE IT, which seems a simple bounce but has its own remarkable surprises:

Early Jelly — his NEW ORLEANS BLUES, with that majestic bass saxophone:

For the senior citizen who has or does everything, a positively joyous GRANDPA’S SPELLS:

The Registrar has informed me that some of you have not subscribed. Remember the final exam is coming up!

An extra bonus for the faithful nomads in the Land of Hot: the Vitality Five’s latest e-78, a treat not to be missed:

The Vitality Five, if you’ve not met them, is David and Andrew, plus loyal souls and true Michael McQuaid, Nicholas D. Ball, and Martin Wheatley: the best in their line.

May your happiness increase!

CINEMA FORRESTER: JOEL FORRESTER at JULES (May 6, 2018)

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

Pianist, composer, writer Joel Forrester invents scores for silent films and has done so for decades.  But we don’t associate him with the megaphone and director’s chair, nor does he have credits as a producer or director.  Yet I’ve come to think of some of Joel’s more evocative compositions and performances as the scores for films that have not made it to the screen.  Soundtracks to our own imaginings.

Here are three such cinema-without-cinema creations, invented and re-invented on Sunday, May 6, at the delightful French bistro / jazz club JULES (65 Saint Marks Place, an easy walk from several subways).  Joel is playing at Jules every Sunday this summer from 4-6:30, sometimes solo, sometimes with guests / friends: a day ago, he had a trio of himself, David Hofstra, string bass; Vito Dieterle, tenor saxophone.  JULES is lovely, by the way — good food, interesting wines, and a truly friendly staff.  And the latter means more to people like me than I can say.

From May 6.  Close your eyes and imagine the film — this one is easy, because it is Joel’s idea of music to be played while the credits roll:

This Middle Eastern sound-portrait is named for Joel and Mary’s son, the illustrious Max.  I met him — not in the desert — and he deserves this song:

Finally, one of Forrester’s many selves, among them the swing pianist, the eccentric / novelty / stride pianist, the Powell-and-Monk through a bright prism, and the 1933 Chicago blues pianist, half in the dark, a half-finished beer on top of the piano which is of course a little assertive in the upper octaves:

Did you like Cinema Forrester?  More to come.  And come visit Joel at Jules.

May your happiness increase!