Category Archives: Bliss!

FOR PRES (Part Two): MICHAEL KANAN, LARRY McKENNA, MURRAY WALL, DORON TIROSH (Sept. 1, 2018, University of Scranton, PA)

I hope you saw and savored Part One of this magical concert in honor of Lester Young, featuring Michael Kanan, piano; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Murray Wall, string bass; Doron Tirosh, drums — a concert made possible through the good efforts of Loren Schoenberg, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and Cheryl Y. Boga of the University of Scranton.  This evening is one of the high points of my live jazz experience.

Michael Kanan, Larry McKenna, Murray Wall, Doron Tirosh at the University of Scranton, Sept. 1, 2018. Photograph by John Herr.

Now, let’s proceed to another trio of delights — whose collective and individual virtues do not need explication: heroically gentle swing.

THESE FOOLISH THINGS:

POUND CAKE, Lester’s blues in G for the Basie band (your “pound cake” was your Squeeze) — both Michael and Larry hark back to Lester’s solo, delightfully, and the wonderful swing everyone generates makes this one of the highlights among highlights:

LESTER LEAPS IN:

Magic.  And there will be a Part Three.

May your happiness increase!

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“IT’S ABOUT TIME”: GREG RUGGIERO, MURRAY WALL, STEVE LITTLE

From left. Murray Wall, string bass; Steve Little, drums; Greg Ruggiero, guitar. Photograph by Gabriele Donati.

Maybe you wouldn’t connect those mostly-somber faces with a new CD of gorgeous music, but trust me. Perhaps this will help:

The roots of this delightful effusion of thoughtful, swinging adult music go back a few years.  When I heard IT’S ABOUT TIME (Fresh Sounds / Swing Alley) for the first time, recently, I wrote this to Greg (who has a substantial sense of humor) as the possible opening lines of my planned blogpost: I’ve never met them, but I am seriously grateful to Camille and Lenny Ruggiero. For one thing, they are the parents of the wonderful guitarist Greg Ruggiero, so you may draw your own inferences. But there’s another reason: Greg says that “for the past twenty years they have asked me to record a Standards album.”

That CD is here, and it’s called IT’S ABOUT TIME, and it’s a honey.

I checked with Greg to be sure his parents wouldn’t mind seeing that in print and he wrote back, The CD release party is October 1st at Mezzrow. The folks are coming, maybe you can meet them then!

The Mezzrow schedule (they’re on West Tenth Street in New York City) has tickets for sale here for the two October 1 shows; I know this because I bought some.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, or of ourselves here.  As a title, IT’S ABOUT TIME might refer to Greg’s parents’ two-decade long wait, but the title speaks to something fundamental about this CD, and about the music that Greg, Murray, and Steve make as a trio and on their own.  “Time,” to them, is more than what someone’s Apple watch might say: it is their visceral connection with rhythm, with the deep heartbeat that we feel from the Earth and also from the Basie rhythm section.  Fluid but unerring; sinuous but reliably trustworthy.  They live to swing, and we can rely on how well they do it, and how well it makes us feel.  Greg, Murray, and Steve are also reassuring in their love of melodies, and of melodic inprovisations.  This isn’t — to go back some decades — “Easy Listening,” but it certainly is easy to listen to.

The repertoire is classic; the approach melodic and emergized.  GONE WITH THE WIND is light and quick, a zephyr rather than a lament.  APRIL IN PARIS doesn’t lean on the Basie version, but is a series of sweet chimes: I never got the sense of “Oh, this is APRIL IN PARIS again, for the zillionth time.”  Sincerity rules, without drama.  Steve starts off I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS with a small explosion, heralding a romp rather than a nap, and the trades between him and the other two members later in the performance have the snap of Jo Jones.  Greg’s POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS is respectfully tender but it never bogs down under the weight of the hoped-for pug-nosed dream, and Murray’s solo seems so easy but is the work of a quiet master.  WHERE OR WHEN asks the musical question lightly and politely, without undue seriousness but with playful trades with Steve.  IF DREAMS COME TRUE is easy in its optimism, and it avoids the cliches attached to this venerable swing tune.

It’s lovely to have a CD (or a gig) include a blues — some musicians shy away from them for reasons not clear to me — and this one has a strolling THINGS AIN’T WHAT THEY USED TO BE, fun in itself but also a nod to the most famous association on Steve’s vita, his time with Ellington.  (Yes, he taught Bert and Ernie how to swing, but that’s another matter.)  Gershwin’s LIZA, which is often played at a burning tempo, is a saunter here; DON’T BLAME ME is more cheerful than usual — perhaps this trio hasn’t been blamed for anything wicked recently?  I’d believe that — and the disc closes with a just-right TANGERINE.  Juicy, fruitful.

Greg’s playing is a delight, mixing single-string explorations with chordal accents for variety.  He doesn’t overpower the listener with Olympian slaloms on the fretboard, but plays the song as if he were speaking affectionately to us.  Murray Wall is one of the great warm exponents of logical improvisation, and Steve Little’s brushwork is a swing school in itself.  (You won’t miss a piano.)  The result is kind to the ears, with breathing room and ease — at times I thought these tracks a series of witty dances (there is plenty of good humor in this trio, although no joke-quotes).  Delightful dance music even for people like me, who spend more time in a chair than they should.  In the best way, this is an old-fashioned session, with musicians who know that there is life in the Great American Songbook, and that it is spacious enough to allow them to express their personalities.  But there’s a refreshing homage to the melodies, first and last, that’s often not the case with jazz recordings.

You can hear substantial excerpts from the CD here, and download the music as well.  You can purchase the CD here, and visit Greg’s website and Facebook page as well, all of which should provide entertainment and edification for these shortened days and longer nights.

Of course, the best thing for people in the tri-state area to do would be to show up at a Greg Ruggiero gig, such as the CD release one at Mezzrow, and buy discs there.  But I don’t want to tell you what to do . . . or do I?

May your happiness increase!

“THEY ADVISE BUCK-AND-WINGIN'”: FAYARD, HAROLD, and BOBBY MAKE MUSIC at DECCA (1937)

There’s something weirdly irresistible about jazz records with tap-dance passages, especially in this multi-media age when we expect to see as well as hear.  The tradition goes back to Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, and forward to Jack Ackerman and Baby Laurence, among others.

A charming example of the phenomenon is the two sides the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold) recorded for American Decca, with a small, well-disciplined yet hot band — Decca studio players (who were also recording with Dick Robertson, the Andrews Sisters, Frank Froeba, and Teddy Grace) including Bobby Hackett, cornet; Ralph Muzzillo, trumpet; Al Philburn, trombone; Sid Stoneburn, clarinet; Frank Signorelli, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Haig Stephens, string bass; Stan King, drums.

I single out Bobby because he has a pearly eight-bar bridge on the first side, and to me, eight bars of Hackett is like a previously unknown Yeats fragment.  On the second side, Philburn and Stoneburn take the solos.  But listen closely to the underrated but distinctive Stan King throughout.  I don’t think the sides sold very well, because Decca did not repeat the experiment.

and the flip side:

Perfectly charming.

May your happiness increase!

PIECES OF PAPER, CONTINUED: LOUIS, BILLIE, ELLA, BUDDY DE FRANCO, ELLIS LARKINS, AL HALL

Paper ephemera — but hardly ephemeral — from a recent eBay expedition.

“SATCHMO,” to you, in an unusual newspaper photograph, sporting what looks like Playboy cufflinks, and a white belt.

and the reverse:

and something even more unusual: a copy of Sidney Finkelstein’s 1948 JAZZ: A PEOPLE’S MUSIC, translated into German, with signatures and candid photographs enclosed:

and

The “Daniel” is mysterious; it’s been attached to Louis’ first name in various canned biographies, but as far as I know he never used it himself, and that does not look like his handwriting.  Unlike this uncomplicated signature:

and (I believe that’s Norman Granz on the left):

and the seller’s description:

Signed book `Jazz` (by Sidney Finkelstein), 200 pages – with four affixed unsigned candid photos (three of Ella Fitzgerald), 5 x 8,25 inch, first edition, publisher `Gerd Hatje`, Stuttgart 1951, in German, signed on the title page in blue ballpoint ink “Billie Holiday” – with an affixed postcard (Savoy Hotel): signed and inscribed by Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) in pencil “Daniel – Louis Armstrong” & signed by Buddy DeFranco (1923-2014) in blue ballpoint ink “Buddy DeFranco”, with scattered mild signs of wear – in fine to very fine condition.

Here‘s the seller’s link.  Yours for $2492.03.  Or the easy payment plan of $120 a month for 24 months.  Plus $16.00 expedited shipping from Switzerland to the United States.

Once you’ve caught your breath, here’s something that was within my price range.  Reader, I bought this — although I haven’t played it yet — a souvenir of the East Side New York jazz club, Gregory’s, where (among others) Ellis Larkins and Al Hall played . . . also Brooks Kerr, Russell Procope, and Sonny Greer; Mark Shane, Al Haig . . . .

The front:

The back:

May your happiness increase!

“YOU HAVE YOUR HEALTH, SO THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS”: TAMAR KORN’S WILDWOOD RAMBLERS (June 17, 2018)

Tamar Korn is magic, and she makes magic happen.  But even those of us who are accustomed to her extra-terrestrial surprises can find themselves astonished.

It happened throughout the afternoon of June 17, 2018, where, thanks to Brice Moss and family, Tamar and her Wildwood Ramblers (Evan Arntzen, Dennis Lichtman, Sean Cronin, and Adam Brisbin) could romp and woo us with their sounds in the glade.  But one performance still brings stifled tears to my eyes.

Before we begin: the song is not A BEI GEZUNDT, recorded by Mildred Bailey and Cab Calloway, but an earlier composition by Abraham Ellstein, sung by Molly Picon in the 1938 film MAMELE.  And if you want to see Molly in domestic bliss — even though the challah burns — you can search YouTube for “Molly Picon” and “MAMELE.”

But I want to draw your attention, and hearts, to Tamar and her Ramblers.

This performance reminds me that when Fats Waller was asked by an interviewer late in his short career what he saw himself doing in future, he answered that he wanted to tour the country giving sermons in front of a big band.  Tamar does all this with her most empathic quartet — first, teaching them the song (what dear quick studies they are) and then offering us the lesson of hope and gratitude, something we need in these days and nights.

Because Tamar and friends are on this planet, I thank my lucky stars.  You are encouraged to join me in this emotion.

May your happiness increase!

THEY KEEP ROLLING ON: DAVID HORNIBLOW and ANDREW OLIVER PLAY MORTON, BEAUTIFULLY

It’s one thing to have a bright idea, another to give that idea tangible shape.  But consistent unflagging creativity is dazzling.  The Complete Morton Project — Andrew Oliver, piano, and David Horniblow, reeds, with occasional doubling and special guests — is a wonderful embodiment of all the principles above.

I have trouble keeping up with their weekly gifts, but here is another sustained offering of pleasure.

DON’T YOU LEAVE ME HERE was recorded in Morton’s last flourish, although I suspect he had had the composition in his repertoire for years.  With its melancholy title, it’s always a pleasing shock to hear it treated in this jauntily ambling fashion:

and a Morton line that used to be played more often — famous versions with Louis, Bechet, Red, Johnny Dodds — WILD MAN BLUES, with a delicious conversation-in-breaks created by Andrew and David:

GAN JAM (or GANJAM) was never recorded by Jelly, but was envisioned as an orchestral composition for a big band.  James Dapogny reimgined it as it might have been, and here the CMP envisions it as a duet — full of what might have been called “Oriental” touches but to our ears might simply be extended harmonies, quite fascinating.  I’d bet that someone hearing this for the first time would not think Morton its composer.  You can read Andrew’s observations on both tune and performance here:

Finally, a title that would not apply to what Andrew and David have been giving us so generously, THAT’LL NEVER DO (did Morton say that to one of his musicians at a rehearsal or run-through?).

I see a chorus line in my mind, high-kicking:

May your happiness increase!

FOR PRES (Part One): MICHAEL KANAN, LARRY McKENNA, MURRAY WALL, DORON TIROSH (Sept. 1, 2018, University of Scranton, PA)

Michael Kanan, Larry McKenna, Murray Wall, Doron Tirosh at the University of Scranton, Sept. 1, 2018. Photograph by John Herr.

I extol the virtues of life in New York, but beautiful things are created when bold explorers like myself cross into other states, too.  On Saturday, September 1, at the University of Scranton, PA, Loren Schoenberg and The National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented “Tribute to Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young” featuring The Michael Kanan Quartet, with saxophonist Larry McKenna, string bassist Murray Wall, and drummer Doron Tirosh. Loren wasn’t able to make it, but his perception and generosity made a wonderful musical event take place.  Thanks are also due Cheryl Y. Boga, Tom Cipriano, and photographer John Herr.

JUST YOU, JUST ME:

BLUE LESTER:

LADY BE GOOD:

I had the honor of being there, getting to say a few words about Lester alongside Michael and  Larry (to a hip audience) and recording the concert, nine extended beautifully floating performances which captured Lester’s spirit while enabling everyone to “go for himself.”  Here are the first three, which require only open-hearted appreciation . . . no explication needed.  Just sweetness everywhere.

May your happiness increase!