Category Archives: Generosities

WHAT WOULD JELLY DO? “RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO”: KRIS TOKARSKI, JOSHUA GOUZY, HAL SMITH

Kris Tokarski has been one of my favorite solo and ensemble pianists for some years now.  It can’t be “many” years, because Kris is perhaps half my age, but my admiration is not limited by the length of our acquaintance.  He listens, he creates melodies, he swings, he sounds like himself, and he has a deep appreciation for the past without being chained by narrow historical definitions.

He’s recorded in a variety of settings, but here I draw your attention to two CDs of ragtime pieces done with delicacy and individuality: the first, issued in 2016 on Solo Art, paired him with drummer-scholar Hal Smith and string bassist Cassidy Holden, pleased me and others immensely: read more about it here.  KINKLETS from that disc:

The second disc by Kris and  Hal, now joined by bassist Joshua Gouzy, issued on Big Al Records, is called RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO, and it’s a real pleasure. Hear a sample for yourself here (scroll down the page through the evidence of how well Kris plays with others and on his own).

The premise is a collection of rags that Jelly Roll Morton planned to record — or would have known and played.  And it’s not a fanciful vision, as Hal Smith’s  solid annotations show — in 1939, Morton discussed with Roy Carew his plans to play Joplin and others in his own style, because, as he told Carew, “he didn’t know of anyone more qualified to do it than himself,” and he envisioned recording thirty or forty rags.  (Oh, had he lived for another decade!)

He didn’t live to accomplish this, but we have Tokarski, Gouzy, and Smith to make the fantasy real.

I am especially fond of projects that take a gently imaginative look at the past. Let those who feel drawn to such labors reproduce recordings: the results can be dazzling.  It takes decades of skill to play BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and sound even remotely like the Hot Five.  But even more entrancing to me is the notion of “What might have happened . . . .?” going back to my early immersion in Golden Era science fiction.  An example that stays in my mind is a series of Stomp Off recordings devoted to the Johnny Dodds repertoire, with the brilliant Matthias Seuffert taking on the mantle.  But the most memorable track on those discs was Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, a pop tune from 1929 that Dodds might well have heard or even played — rendered convincingly and joyously in his idiom.  (It really does something to me.)

That same playful vision applies to this disc.  It merges, ever so gently, Jelly Roll Morton and an unhackneyed ragtime repertoire, mixing piano solos and piano trio.  That in itself is a delightful combination, and I replayed this disc several times in a row when I first acquired a copy.

Kris plays beautifully, with a precise yet flexible approach to the instrument and the materials.  He doesn’t undercut, satirize, or “modernize”; his approach is simultaneously loving and easy. It’s evident that he has heard and absorbed the lessons of James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson — their particular balance of propulsion and relaxation — as well as being able to read the notes on the page. He doesn’t pretend to be Morton in the way that lesser musicians have done (with Bix, Louis, Monk, and others) — cramming in every possible Mortonism over and over.  What he does is imagine a Mortonian approach, but he allows himself freedom to move idiomatically, with grace and beauty, within it.  And he doesn’t, in the name of “authenticity,” make rags sound stiff because they were written before Joe Oliver and Little Louis took Chicago.  He’s steady, but he’s steadily gliding.  His approach to the rags is neither stuffy reverence nor near-hysterical display.

He’s in good company with Josh and Hal.  Many string bassists working in this idiom confuse percussiveness with strength, and they hit the fretboard violently: making the bass a victim of misplaced enthusiasm.  Not Joshua, who has power and melodic wisdom nicely combined: you can listen to his lines in the trio with the delight you’d take in a great horn soloist.  Every note sings, and he’s clearly there with the pulse.

As for the drummer?  To slightly alter a famous Teagarden line, “If Hal don’t get it, well, forget it right now,” which is to say that Hal’s playing on this disc is a beautifully subtle, completely “living” model of how to play ensemble drums: gracious yet encouraging, supportive.  He doesn’t just play the beat: he creates a responsive tapestry of luxuriant sounds.

The CD is beautifully recorded by Tim Stambaugh of Word of Mouth Studios, and the repertoire is a treat — rags I’d never heard (THE WATERMELON TRUST by Harry C. Thompson, and ROLLER SKATERS RAG by Samuel Gompers) as well as compositions by Joplin, Lamb, Scott, Turpin, Matthews, and May Aufderheide.  Nothing overfamiliar but all melodic and mobile.

Here’s another sample.  Kris, Joshua, and Hal are the rhythm section of Hal’s Kid Ory “On the Levee” band, and here they play May Aufderheide’s DUSTY RAG at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2018:

Hear what I mean?  They play with conviction but their seriousness is light-hearted.  Volume Two is a disc that won’t grow tired or stale.  Thank you, Kris, Josh, and Hal!  And Jelly, of course.

May your happiness increase!

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“HAVE YOU GOT ANY MORTGAGES YOU’D LIKE ME TO PAY, BABY?”: DAWN LAMBETH, PAOLO ALDERIGHI, SAM ROCHA at MONTEREY (March 1, 2019)

The wonderful singer Dawn Lambeth, Paolo Alderighi, piano, and Sam Rocha, string bass, had never worked together before, but they make beautiful gliding music as group.  Their March 1 trio set at the Jazz Bash by the Bay might be one of my favorite musical interludes of this year.  I posted a performance from this set here.

Here is another delightful creation by Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer from the 1937 film VARIETY SHOW, where it was sung by Dick Powell.  I love this song for its bouncy melody and Mercer’s lyrics, a witty mixture of modern and medieval times (mortgages and dragons) . . . and his refusal to lazily choose easy rhymes — a lesser writer would have rhymed “paid” and “slayed,” but easy and dull was never Mercer’s style.

And this performance!  Sam’s solid fluid propulsion, Paolo’s modernist swing, and Dawn . . . . whose easy grace is a constant pleasure, and the way she sings “Baby . . . .” is like biting into a ripe berry.  Savor this!

Wow.  And a few more to come.

May your happiness increase!

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

WHEN LOVE, MUSIC, and BREAKFAST COINCIDE: DAWN LAMBETH, PAOLO ALDERIGHI, SAM ROCHA (Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 1, 2019)

Some regard caffeine and sugar as if the respective containers were marked with skull and crossbones, with reason.  Those addictive substances upset the physical and nervous system.  Like Macbeth, they murder sleep.

But the music presented here will not cause insomnia, nervousness, or digestive upset.  Its only effect is an increase in one’s holistic well-being.  The subject at hand is a performance from March 1, 2019 at the Jazz Bash by the Bay, by Dawn Lambeth, vocal; Paolo Alderighi, piano; Sam Rocha, string bass, and it makes me as euphoric as good coffee or tea.  And please watch and listen to the end, so you don’t miss any surprises:

I don’t think these three wonderful musicians had ever worked together as a trio.  Their floating sounds delight me, and I imagine a trio of Duke, Ivie, and Blanton brought to life in 2019.

Go ahead, pour yourself another.  Good to the last note.

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC THAT FALLS KINDLY ON THE EAR: DANNY TOBIAS, JACK SAINT CLAIR, SILAS IRVINE, SAM HARRIS at the 1867 SANCTUARY (Ewing, New Jersey: April 6, 2019)

Some of the most memorable sessions — improvising without arrangements — are marked by a delightful ensemble tension coming out of competitiveness.  Think of almost any date Roy Eldridge played on, for an example close to hand.  Others are marked by an equally pleasing calm friendliness: we’re all here for the same purpose, and let’s have a good time.  A collective hug rather than head-cutting.

The quietly impressive group that Danny Tobias — master of various brass instruments — brought to the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, New Jersey, on Saturday, April 6, really exemplified the affectionate community of the second example.  Danny assembled very gifted young men from Philadelphia: reedman Jack Saint Clair, here solely on tenor; pianist Silas Irvine, and string bassist Sam Harris.  Here’s their sweet version of CHEROKEE — not at a racetrack tempo, but as a waltz:

And the Rodgers and Hart SPRING IS HERE, wistful, pensive, still swinging:

Danny’s secret indulgence (one that makes me particularly glad) is the Eb alto horn — beloved of Dick Cary and very few others.  This particular specimen, Danny notes, was a gift from his friend, the very fine trombonist Gil Toth, who was in the audience.  (Also in the audience were dance luminaries Lynn Redmile and Renee Toplansky.)

What better way to say “Thank you” to Gil and all of us than with this heartfelt rendition of SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME?

Every jazz concert needs a song with disputed authorship, so here’s DIG, a line on SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, that Miles Davis took credit for:

Even if your idea of paradise is King Oliver 1923, I hope you can hear the sweet floating beauties on display here.  And let’s not forget Jack Saint Clair’s melancholy-uplifting solo feature, posted earlier.

It was a wonderful afternoon at the 1867 Sanctuary — where art flourishes — and Danny, Jack, Silas, and Sam gave us great gifts.

May your happiness increase!

HAMP AND DOC: LYNN “DOC” SKINNER and the LIONEL HAMPTON JAZZ FESTIVAL: A MEMOIR (by DR. LYNN J. “DOC” SKINNER as told to ALAN JAY SOLAN)

News flash: I started to review this seriously entertaining book a few months ago, lent it to a friend who promised to return it after a weekend, then didn’t . . . so this review is, with apologies, late.  But I offer this anecdote to show I am not the only person who found the book irresistible.

Some books, full of invaluable information, are austere and forbidding.  “Do you dare to approach, ignorant mortal?  Are you worthy of opening my pages?  Don’t even think of removing my dust jacket.”  Other books, equally worthy or perhaps more so, are casual and welcoming.  Reading them is like having a very relaxed old friend over to your house for a meal, and the friend — never boring — is a treasure chest of pleasing stories you’ve never heard before.

HAMP AND DOC is a marvelous example of the second kind of book.  I’ve said it often, but books that tell me new stories are enticing reading, as are books that are narrated by the participants.  And, I never thought of it as a criteria, but if a book has a great deal of affection in it — in this case, someone’s hugging or getting hugged every few pages — that, too, is a winner.

Lionel Hampton is deservedly well known, not only for his long career, his many talents, his ebullient musicianship, the hundreds of musicians whose lives he touched — so this book has a kind of anchor in its story of Hamp’s last years, from 1984 to 2002, years full of playing and energetic involvement in the lives of everyone he encountered.

Lynn “Doc” Skinner would not be well known, I think, outside of Idaho, but he also has touched many lives — as a musician, multi-instrumentalist and composer, a music educator, a festival organizer, an ingenious and kind man never at a loss for an idea, and ultimately as a friend to hundreds, perhaps thousands — some of them famous, others not known to us.  Born in 1940, he is still with us, and HAMP AND DOC is his engaging story as well.

Engaging stories are at the heart of this affectionate, vivid book, and the ones that I find memorable reveal character.  Many know that in 1997, a fire in Hamp’s New York apartment destroyed everything he had.  He was 88, had had two strokes, and was sitting outside his apartment on the sidewalk in a wheelchair, clad in pajamas and robe, having been helped outside by two attendants.  What you won’t know is this telling anecdote.  Watching the fire from the street, Hamp calls Doc, who knows nothing of what is going on, and asks him, “Doc, are you okay?” and getting an answer in the affirmative, then tells him about the fire.

Of course, not everyone in this book is a saint (although most of the cast of characters are eminently nice): Doc tells the story of Sarah Vaughan refusing to get in the student’s four-door sedan that is picking her up from the airport because her contract specifies a limousine, and, later, refusing to go on because she does not have her $10,000 fee (cash) in her hand.  Other sharp and tender vignettes have Stan Getz, Al Grey, Diana Krall, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Claudio Roditi, Clint Eastwood, Dizzy Gillespie, or Bill Charlap at the center.  But the affectionate relationship between Doc and Hamp is the book’s backbone, and the wonderful things that resulted — the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival (the first jazz festival aimed at students, the first one named for a musician, the first one named for an African-American) and later, the Lionel Hampton School of Music.

The book is free from ideological bias or theorizing — in that regard it is blissfully old-fashioned, but it is as if we are privileged to spend some delightful afternoons with Doc as he shares his crystal-clear recollections reaching back to his childhood and forward into the present.  Like Hamp, he comes across clearly, as a man with a purpose, devoid of artifice or meanness.  He is ambitious, but his ambition is for the music alone and what it can do to reach others.

It’s a welcoming collection of lovely stories, well-edited, with beautiful photographs, many in color, and a lively design overall.  Not incidentally, the book benefits hugely from the unseen talents of Alan Jay Solan, the man to whom Doc told his stories.  The book works wonderfully as a book — not simply as a collection of associated memories — because of Solan.

Any jazz fan who loves Lionel Hampton, who feels good after reading stories where kind people treat each other kindly, or who wants to see lovely candid photographs will love this book.

Here‘s a link to Inkwater Press, although I am sure that the book is available in many other places (there’s a Kindle edition also).

And in case you have done the unthinkable and taken Hamp for granted, here are two pieces of evidence to prove that a truly bad idea.

Hamp and a stellar cast of Ellingtonian friends (Carney, Hodges, Cootie) and Jess Stacy in 1937:

Fifty years later, on the David Letterman Show:

May your happiness increase!

TELLING TIME, SEVERAL WAYS: DAWN LAMBETH and her RASCALS at the JAZZ BASH BY THE BAY (March 2, 2019)

Sixty memorable minutes. Never mind the odd composer credits.

 

It’s all relative, as Einstein tells his grandmother.  When a man sits on a hot stove, a minute seems forever; when he’s kissing his sweetheart, forever seems like a minute.  She says, “For this you won a prize?”

Dawn Lambeth

At the Jazz Bash by the Bay this last March, Dawn Lambeth and her Rascals (the name I’ve given to this delightful little group of swinging friends) demonstrated Einstein’s discovery in the nicest ways: with performances whose text is the nature of time and how it is perceived, and declarations of love in its many forms.

The Rascals are Riley Baker, drums (catch his wonderful accents behind his father’s trumpet solo on ALWAYS: “Good deal!”); Jacob Zimmerman, alto saxophone; Clint Baker, trumpet; Jerry Krahn, guitar; Ike Harris, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, piano.

First, James P. Johnson’s IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (or, as it appeared on the 1929 Mound City Blue Blowers record label, ONE HOUR) — with the yearning verse:

From sixty minutes to eternity, Irving Berlin’s ALWAYS:

And as an instrumental meditation on the future — even when the future is seen as the fulfillment of a promise or a threat — Shelton Brooks’ SOME OF THESE DAYS, which rocks: watch out for Jeff and Riley, respectively but not respectfully:

More to come from this nice unbuttoned after-hours set.  (California festivals start early and end early, so I think this evocation of Fifty-Second Street ended at 11 PM, but it felt like the real thing, no matter what our watches said.)

May your happiness increase!