Category Archives: It’s A Mystery

“THE THRUSH AND THE SKINMAN” (January 18, 1944)

I will explain my odd title-quotation below.

Billie Holiday and Sidney Catlett in concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, January 18, 1944.

And here is the soundtrack: DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME, BILLIE’S BLUES, and I’LL GET BY, with Billie accompanied by Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, and Sidney Catlett:

And you all know that Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, and Mildred Bailey appeared, with the Goodman Quintet being beamed in from the other coast.

When I bid on and won that photograph of Billie and Sidney on eBay, it came with a small rectangular strip of yellowed paper taped to its back, which read

THE THRUSH AND THE SKINMAN

“Two top jive artists are shown at the Esquire All-American jazz concert, held at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 18th. Billie Holliday does the vocalizing as drummer boy Sid Catlett pounds the skins.”

I am nostalgic about 1944 music, but I am glad that no one feels compelled to write that way anymore.  Incidentally, when I looked online to see where this picture might have appeared — searching for THRUSH and SKINMAN — I got a whole host of entries about candida, male and female yeast infections. Mmmmmmm.

My unanswered and unanswerable question about the photograph has to do with it being a posed, rather than candid shot.  Notice that neither of the two participants is in motion; there is no blur.  So.  Did the photographer say to the two of them presumably before or after the concert, “Billie, Miss Holiday.  Could you come over here?  We need a shot of you and Sidney — how do you people say it — giving each other . . . some skin?”  And for those who like metaphysics, which one put out a hand first for this hip charade?  I know the photograph is in some ways fake, but the emotions behind it are not.

P.S.  If you’re going to lift the photographic image for use on your own site, be my guest.  I wouldn’t disfigure it with a watermark . . . but real gents and ladies also write, “Photo courtesy of JAZZ LIVES.”  Thanks.

May your happiness increase!

WHO WAS MIKE DURSO AND WHERE DID HE GO?

I would guess that hot jazz, especially the Chicagoan variety, would have upset Hercule Poirot’s delicate stomach, but we could use his help on this matter.  This posting owes its existence to my new jazz-friend (although I’ve read his work for a long time), Larry Kart of Chicago.  I’ll let Larry start us off:

You may be way ahead of me here (at least I hope you are), but listening to the radio Saturday, I heard this 1927 track “The New Twister” by The Wolverines (Bix’s old band under the leadership of pianist Dick Voynow, with Jimmy McPartland taking Bix’s place). The music has IMO a proto-Chicagoans feel (the first McKenzie-Condon sides were shortly to be made). Drummer Vic Moore has a nice a “Chicago shuffle” feel going, 17-year-old reedman Maurice Bercov, says Dick Sudhalter in “Lost Chords,” had “heard Johnny Dodds and the rest on the South Side but worshipped Frank Teschmacher, emulating his tone, attack, off-center figures … he wound up recording two months before his idol [did] .”

But who the heck was trombonist Mike Durso, who takes the IMO impressively fluid solo here?

Thanks to “Atticus Jazz” for the lovely transfer of this rare 78, as always:

The personnel of this band is listed as Dick Voynow, piano; director; Jimmy McPartland, cornet; Mike Durso, trombone; Maurie Bercov, clarinet, alto saxophone; unknown guitar; Basil Dupre, sb / Vic Moore, d. Chicago, October 12, 1927.

Back to Larry:

By contrast, here is THE NEW TWISTER played by Miff Mole and the Molers (with Red Nichols, et al.) from the same year. Mole’s trombone work here is not without its charms, but in terms of swing and continuity, it’s day and night, no?

To complicate matters (or to add more evidence) here is the reverse side of that disc, SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

Larry continues:

The guitarist on the Wolverines track is Dick McPartland, Jimmy’s brother. Bercov’s contemporary, pianist Tut Soper, described him as an “extremely galling, sarcastic and difficult man.”

Looking for more on Durso, I came across this “moderne” 1928 piece by trumpeter Donald Lindley, “Sliding Around,” on which Durso may be a sideman. (There’s no trombone solo though.) Jazz it’s not, though it’s certainly aware of jazz — those oblique references to “Royal Garden Blues.” That’s Lindley , b. 1899, in the cap [the YouTube portrait]:

The beautiful video is by our friend Enrico Borsetti, another one of my benefactors, and the Lindley side eerily prefigures the Alec Wilder Octet.

Finally, here is LIMEHOUSE BLUES by “The Wolverine Orchestra” which might have Durso audible in solo and ensemble:

After Larry had asked me about Durso, and I had to confess that I’d barely registered his name or these recordings, and I had no information to offer (he’d stumped the band), I went back to the discography and was pleased to find that Durso had a history, 1923-28 and then 1939: recording for Gennett under the band name “Bailey’s Lucky Seven” which had in its collective personnel Jules Levy, Jr., Jimmy Lytell, Red Nichols, Frank Signorelli, Hymie Farberman; then Sam Lanin, with Vic Berton, Merle Johnson, Joe Tarto, John Cali, Tony Colucci, Ray Lodwig; sessions with the Arkansas / Arkansaw Travelers, a Nichols group where the trombonist may be Mole or Durso.  That takes him from 1923-25; he then records with Ray Miller, with Volly DeFaut.  All of this takes him to 1926, and all of it is (if correctly annotated) recorded in New York.  The Wolverines sides above are in 1927, in Chicago, as a re 1928 sides with the larger Wolverines unit, Donald Lindley, and Paul Ash (a “theatre orchestra,” Larry says).

Then, a gap of a decade, and Durso, in 1939, is part of the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, recording for Bluebird.  Then silence.

I realize that discographies are not infallible research documents, and that Durso might have made dozens of sides that a jazz discography would not notate, so I am sure this listing is incomplete and thus not entirely accurate.  But, to paraphrase Lesley Gore, I think, it’s my blog and I’ll surmise if I want to.  I am going to guess that Durso, probably born around 1900 or slightly earlier, was one of those musicians who could read a tune off a stock arrangement, blend with another trombone in a section, improvise a harmony part, knew his chords, and could — as you hear above — play a very forward-looking solo given the chance. Remember that THE NEW TWISTER came out in 1927.  Who were the trombonists of note?  Ory, Brunis, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Harrison, Charlie Green, Benny Morton, Mole, perhaps Charlie Butterfield.  Teagarden may or may not have impressed everyone yet.  (I am sure I have left out a few names.) Durso had technique but wasn’t in love with it, and his playing is lightly swinging and mobile; his solos make logical sense, with no cliches.

So between 1923 and 1928 or so he is what we might call “a studio man,” who obviously is known for his improvising ability, otherwise he would not have been in the studio with McPartland.  (Scott Black!  Did Dugald ever mention Mike Durso?)  More speculation follows.  I can safely assume that pre-Crash, Durso might have made a living as an improvising musician, but at some point the safer employment of sweeter big bands might have called to him.  Did he have a family to support?  Did he perhaps appreciate a regular paycheck playing in theatres and dancehalls as opposed to playing in speakeasies?  I can’t say, having even less that speculation to go on.  Did he die after 1939, or do some war work and decide that getting home after 5 PM with a lunch pail was easier than being a hot man?

The trail goes cold here.  Perhaps some readers can assist us here.  I know that you know, to quote Jimmie Noone.  And if no one can, at least we have the collective pleasure of having heard Mike Durso on THE NEW TWISTER. Thanks in the present tense to Larry Kart; thanks in advance to those of you who will flood the comments section with information.

May your happiness increase!

THE WORLD IS MAD

Count Basie and his Orchestra recorded this fast blues, two sides of a 78, on August 8, 1940.  They had good reasons for that title: look up the date in a history of the Second World War and you bang into the Luftwaffe and the Battle of Britain, its thirtieth day.

And if you’d want other evidence of cosmic distress, Johnny Dodds died on that day, age 48.  (How come no one writes about him as short-lived, one of jazz’s early deaths?)

But here’s Basie.

Part One, with that glorious rhythm section, Buddy Tate, the trombone section featuring the under-featured Vic Dickenson, the saxophone section leading in to Lester Young (with Jo Jones commenting behind him):

Part Two (with apologies for the intrusive advertisement) with a little more Lester, Walter Page and that rhythm section, then riffing alongside a very explicit Jo Jones, more from Walter, Lester out in the open over stop-time chords, trumpet section hosannas, more Jo . . . . and a s low-motion ending:

I write this post — oddly enough — with only a tangential although reverent nod to Basie.  If you are a sentient informed adult, you might think at many points during your day that, yes, the world IS mad.  If you think everything is just peachy, I envy you your sweet oblivion.

For me, Basie’s title is correct but one consonant is off.  I propose, rather, THE WORLD IS SAD.  Thanks to Matt Munisteri, I read this article this morning:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

It is terrible, and terribly worth reading.  The answer to the rhetorical question posed by the title is YES.  Now, it would be easy to shake our heads at “those dopey kids and their phones,” and since I have taught 17-21 year olds for decades, I know the difference between THEN (pre-phone) and NOW — the article says that 2012 was the tipping point, when more than fifty percent owned a smartphone.  I see the manifestations as attention deficit disorder, inability to concentrate, unwillingness to have what we used to think of as normal social contact (i.e., speaking to the person next to you), a world shrunk down into a tiny bright screen.  What the article says that is new and saddening is that the young people who are addicted to their phones are not only socially crippled and terminally insular, but that they are depressed and world-weary: weary of a world they don’t care to engage in.

And I see the manifestations in my generation: the couple at dinner who are silently staring into their phones; the couple I once saw on the subway, all snuggly, she half-asleep on her handsome Beau, who took the opportunity to scroll down and see what had happened in the four minutes he’s been away.

I wonder where this willful isolation will lead us as a culture.  The smartphone world is the complete antithesis to dancing to Basie, listening to Basie on the radio, playing your new Vocalion 78 for your pals, or even (heaven forbid) learning a musical instrument and starting a band.

At one point, when cellphones were new, I said whimsically to a friend that I wanted them to be prohibitively expensive, with certain exceptions: you could call and say, “I’m going to be late,” “I miss you,” “I love you,” “Is there anything you wanted me to pick up on the way home,” “You don’t sound right.  Is everything OK?” — those calls would be free OR the provider would pay you for making them.  Now I think that my whimsy was too tame.  I’d like to see people’s smartphones self-destruct if they took them out in the middle of a conversation. I’d like to see smartphone use socially relegated to private places, in the same way that flatulence, onanism, and inside-the-nose interior decorating are (among those who have some tact).

It won’t happen, but now when I go back to teaching in September, I will get to add another toxic side-effect to the smartphone’s power, not just boredom, inertia, narrowness — but despair.  Who would have thought?

I’m a relic, so I seek the company of other people rather than my phone.  Human contact — with the right people — is my joy.  But don’t tell anyone.  I don’t want the authorities to arrest me for rampant archaism.

May your happiness increase!

THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET FINDS ITSELF IN ASTORIA, NEW YORK, AND WE ARE GRATEFUL: PART TWO (June 6, 2017)

Here is the first set of the Microscopic Septet’s performance at the Astor Room on June 6.

What follows might seem self-indulgent (the reference is back to me, not the band) but here is what I wrote for that first post.  I don’t think the Micros are as widely admired as they should be, and although Milton’s “Fit audience, though few,” still is true to me, I’d like to extend the circle of admirers just a little . . . through words as well as videos.

Had you told me, several decades ago, when the Microscopic Septet came, gently ferocious, out of the speakers of my stereo system, that I would be spending a June night in 2017, sitting in front of them with a video camera, I would have said it was cruel to tease me.  But it happened.  And to me, it’s one of the half-dozen accomplishments of this blog-endeavor I’m most proud of.

A brief digression.  I’m coming to the realization that most categorization has nothing to do with the subject.  Of course, at the farmers’ market, it is useful for the purchaser to know what kind of kale or apple or cucumber that unlabeled beauty is, because the purchaser might have certain tastes.  But music is thankfully more expansive than the space between the Ida Red and the Jonagold. So those jazz listeners who wish to debate whether their favorite band plays postmodern-New Orleans-Second Line-funk OR you could call it retro-modern-Creole-trad are encouraged to go outside and play, if the weather is nice.

I confess that I, too, have fallen into the categorizing urge (or is it prison?) now and again, and I even did it for one moment with the Micros, when I whimsically categorized their music to Joel Forrester (to whom I apologize) as “super-intellectual-rhythm and blues,” and the politely pained look that crossed his face as he said, “Well, I don’t know,” was the look you give to a dear friend or relative who has just said something quite surprisingly foolish.  So I gave that up and simply revel in the music: its energy, its surprising twists, its rollicking momentum, its dramatic shapes, its tender musing sadness.  They are too large and luscious to fit in any Facebook group, and that’s something to celebrate.  (Incidentally, I hope any readers who might get scared away by “modernism” give the Micros an attentive few minutes.  They’re not “the Dixielanderini,” but they certainly swing.)

I apologize for the brutality of the image that follows, but when someone asked William Carlos Williams why he didn’t write sonnets, he said, “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet–gosh, how I hate sonnets–is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through you don’t have a crab anymore.”

The Microscopic Septet plays within forms — the blues, other people’s compositions — but they also extend and stretch those forms, with ingenuity and love, so that no metaphysical animals are harmed.

For this New York gig, the Micros are Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone and articulate announcements; Don Davis, alto saxophone; Mike Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone and vocal; Joel Forrester, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums.

Here’s the first set of their evening at the Astor Room.  By choice, I sat as close as I could without joining the band, so occasionally the players on either end are bisected or in the dark, but I trust that the closeness of the sound recording makes up for this.

Now, here is the second set (I’d moved back several feet, so all the players should appear in the video as they do in life).

CAT TOYS:

DARK BLUE:

LOBSTER IN THE LIMELIGHT:

PANNONICA:

LITTLE BOBBY:

STAR TURN:

WHEN YOU GET IN OVER YOUR HEAD:

WHEN IT’S  GETTING DARK:

I’VE GOT A RIGHT TO CRY, with vocal chorus by Dave Sewelson:

Rushing time away is never a good thing, but I hope the Micros visit New York again — soon — if not sooner.

May your happiness increase!

FATS HAS A CONE. SIDNEY EATS ON THE BUS. WE HAVE SEVERAL MYSTERIES.

In the mood for a snack?

Two photographic treasures.  The first, presented by Hugo Dusk, shows Fats Waller holding — not eating — an ice-cream cone.  Hugo explains, “On the boardwalk in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where Fats Waller was appearing at the Old Orchard Pier 6th September 1941.”

It’s clearly a posed shot.  The ice cream is untouched and not melting, perilously close to Fats’ sweater.  The young lady behind the counter looks as if her smile is genuine, although we note her demurely folded hands. Was it not possible or desirable to show her handing “a Negro” anything?  I should also note that this was a summer resort.  The weather forecast for September 2017 at Old Orchard Beach has temperatures reaching 80, so the season was not over.  Because of that, but we have Fats in less formal garb — but the creases on his shirt sleeves suggest that there is a temporarily discarded suit jacket just out of range.

To return for just a moment to the treacherous chronicle of race politics in 1941, this photograph was possible because Fats Waller was a star.  True, a counter separates the two participants: they are not putting two straws into a malted, but stardom, at least for a newspaper photograph, allowed a man of color certain privileges.  There is no FOR COLORED ONLY sign here, and we are led to assume, for a moment, that people of all races could come to Old Orchard Beach and enjoy themselves.  I hope it was true.  But I wonder that what looks like the main street of this resort was The White Way.

And the appropriate soundtrack, free from race hatreds:

The second photograph, still for sale on eBay for $375, comes from the collection of Cleveland, Ohio, photographer Nat Singerman.  Here is the link.  It is a candid shot of three members of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, standing outside their (unheated) tour bus: string bassist Arvell Shaw, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and drummer Sidney Catlett. Sidney was with the band 1947-1949, so we know the time frame, although my assigning the location to Cleveland is only a guess.

The poses are unrehearsed: Arvell is buttoning or unbuttoning his topcoat; Barney leans back with an inscrutable expression beneath his beautiful hat; Sidney is caught in mid-sentence and mid-gesture, possibly speaking to Nat or to someone on the bus.  The eBay seller annotates his prize, “Unusual photograph of jazz greats . . . signed in white ink over the image by Bigard and Shaw. 10 x 8 inches. Tape remnants along the left edge, else fine.  From the collection of Nat Singerman, a professional photographer and co-owner of Character Arts Photo Studio in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1940’s and 1950’s. During this period he met and befriended many jazz legends who performed at clubs in and around Cleveland and Chicago. He took many photographs of performances as well as numerous candid shots taken backstage. He also hosted jam sessions and dinners at his studio where other images from the archive were shot.”

However, there might be some controversy over the photographer. In September 2013, The New York Times ran color shots of Billie Holiday and identified the photographer as Nat Singerman, earning these responses on a jazz blog:

These are indeed, wonderful photographs. Unfortunately, the photographer has been misidentified. They were taken by Nat’s brother, Harvey Singerman, and my own grandmother, Elaine Pinzone, both of whom worked at Character Arts Studio in Cleveland, Ohio. Arrangements are currently being made with The New York Times to correct the mistake.

and the next day, Ms. Garner continued:

I would very much appreciate you removing his name while we negotiate with The Times to correct this travesty.

Ms. Garner continued — on her own blog — to vehemently state that Nat took none of the photos and had stolen credit from Harvey and Elaine (the latter, 1914-1976, if the Social Security records are correct).

I can’t delve deeper into that: however, from the signatures on the photograph, it’s clear that Nat brought the developed photograph to wherever Arvell and Barney were playing, and asked them to autograph it to him.  I suspect that the musicians would not have said, “Hey, Nat!  Where are Harvey and Elaine?”

But back to my chosen subject.

It would be very easy to draw from this photograph a moral about those same race relations: if you were African-American but not a star in Fats Waller’s league, there might be few places that would serve you dinner.  I imagine Sidney being turned away from a restaurant — even in Cleveland, Ohio — because of his skin color.  Or that he could buy food from the kitchen but couldn’t eat it there. But other interpretations must be considered.

After Sidney’s death, a number of musicians (Louis and the bassist John Simmons come to mind) spoke of how he was often late — having too good a time — so that might explain why he is the only one in the photograph who appears to not have eaten.  Too, the All-Stars covered many miles between gigs on that bus, so the road manager, “Frenchy,” might have said, “You have ten minutes to get some food, and if you’re not back, the _______ bus is leaving without you.”

A mystery too large to solve, especially at this distance in time.  I hope the dinner in Sidney’s covered dish was memorable, just as I hope that Fats got to enjoy his ice cream before it melted.

In honor of those hopes, the appropriate soundtrack here (could it be otherwise?) is the blues from the Armstrong All-Stars’ concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, featuring Sidney and called STEAK FACE.  (Of course, for those in the know, that sobriquet refers to “General,” Louis’ Boston terrier, not Sid.) You’ll hear Sidney, Barney, Arvell, Louis, Dick Cary, and Jack Teagarden:

Thanks to David Fletcher, who, whether he knows it or not, has encouraged me to dig into such questions with the energy of a terrier puppy destroying a couch.

May your happiness increase!

ARTIFICE TRANSFORMED: CLIFF EDWARDS and DICK McDONOUGH, 1933

I spent some time yesterday morning trying to find in tangible shape what I could hear in my mind’s ear — a complete recording of what was a new song in 1933 — lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and perhaps Billy Rose, music by Harold Arlen — IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, sung and played by Cliff Edwards with accompaniment by Dick McDonough, guitar. Yes, it’s on YouTube, but because reissues removed the verse, those video postings are unsatisfying.


Since the Forties, the song has been performed without the verse, as above, and in the most famous recordings by Sinatra / Nat Cole / Ella / Goodman, at a swinging medium-up tempo, which to me undermines its sweet flavor.  The version I present here is a tender love ballad, hopeful rather than swaggering.

The Wikipedia entry notes, “It was written originally for an unsuccessful Broadway play called The Great Magoo, set in Coney Island. It was subsequently used in the movie Take a Chance in 1933.”  Wikipedia doesn’t add that there seem to have been two films released that year with that title; the other one with James Dunn and Buddy Rogers, the one song in the film by Vincent Youmans.  In his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder notes that in its first incarnation it was called IF YOU BELIEVE IN ME, a much less lively title than the one we know.

The composer credits intrigue me: Arlen’s melody, of course, souunds so simple but that simplicity has made it memorable (thus the appeal of the song to instrumentalists).  He didn’t write dull songs.

As to the lyrics, I wonder what, if anything, Billy Rose contributed to the song. Did he say to a stagehand, “Don’t drop that!  Yeah, it’s only a paper moon, but it costs more than your salary!”  Or is it a quiet reference to the wonderful prop in photo studios of the preceding century, where couples could snuggle in the crescent curve, pretending to be miles aloft because of love?

Yip Harburg’s lyrics are a marvel, bridging contemporary and eternal in the most moving yet casual way.  Leave aside “bubble” and “rainbow,” which were cliches even then, but savor “a temporary parking place,” “a canvas sky,” — and the entire bridge, which is beautiful, affecting and sharp, ” “Without your love, it’s a honky-tonk parade.  Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.” Urban folk poetry at the highest level.  (Wilder calls the lyrics “innocent,” which is puzzling, but he admires Arlen’s bridge . . . .)  In Harburg, I hear his sense of a whole world no more grounded than a series of stage props, created to fool an audience but clearly unreal.  His words are Manhattan-tough but the toughness is there only to convey great wistful feeling.  You’d have to live in the city to understand the resonance of a temporary parking place; not only might it disappear, but you might be punished by the authorities.

A few sentences about Cliff Edwards, who seems a sculpture with so many surprising facets that when he is looked at from different angles, he is unrecognizable each time.

There’s Jiminy Cricket. There’s the goofily appealing Twenties vocalist, ukulele player, and scat singer — “eefin'” his way through one “novelty” chorus after another, often on dim-sounding Pathe 78s.  (I suspect that if Edwards had come to prominence ten years later and had had no ukulele, he would be much better known and regarded today.)  A comic film actor. There are the party records: I LOVE MOUNTAIN WOMEN comes to mind, and, yes, you can imagine the lyrics.  Later, there’s the unstable older man capering around with the Mouseketeers, and what we know of as the terrible husband and self-destructive alcoholic who dies in poverty.

But what I’ve consciously left off of that ungenerous list is Edwards the truly convincing ballad singer, someone whose wistful voice and sweet delivery stays in my ear.  He never got the attention or opportunities to woo audiences, perhaps because he had natural comic talents, but more, I think, because he wasn’t perceived as sufficiently handsome.  He could not rival Bing or Russ in erotic power, so in films and on records he was rather a light-hearted comic foil instead of the leading man.  Alas, audiences in the  Twenties and Thirties — as they do today — tend to listen to singers with their eyes rather than their ears.  I suppose that becoming Jiminy Cricket was a great thing for Edwards’ career, but being invisible and an animated insect did not help him as a romantic singing star.

But back to IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON.

Thanks to the generosity of Laurie Kanner and Jonathan Alexiuk, I can offer both takes, complete, to be accessed at https://archive.org/details/CliffEdwardsCollection1927-1933/ItsOnlyAPaperMoon1933CliffEdwards-Take1.mp3 — a collection of mp3’s of his complete 1927-1935 recordings.

I’ve left the whole ungainly web address visible so that if the link doesn’t work for you, I encourage you to go to the archive.org site for Edwards and hear IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON and more.

I think this performance is a model of the most endearing singing — he means every word, and it’s not by rote. It’s also the gentle tempo that I hear PAPER MOON at.  I haven’t analyzed these records nuance by nuance because they work their way into the heart instantly.  Or, if they don’t for you, listen intently, without distractions or preconceptions, from the rubato verse to the hip little ending.

In preparing this post, I shared these two sides with the fine guitarist and scholar Nick Rossi, a solid sender from San Francisco, who admires Dick McDonough as I do, and he wrote, “What a masterclass it is in sensitive guitar accompaniment to a vocal.”  And — we might add — in McDonough’s staying out of the way yet never upstaging Cliff’s ukulele.

But I keep coming back to the affectionate hopeful totality of Edwards, Arlen, Harburg, and even Billy Rose, who in these recordings say — no, sing — to us, “Love miraculously transfigures artifice,” which is a wondrous thought.  Cherish its power to create new realities.

May your happiness increase!

THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET FINDS ITSELF IN ASTORIA, NEW YORK, AND WE ARE GRATEFUL: PART ONE (June 6, 2017)

The Microscopic Septet’s most recent CD.

Had you told me, several decades ago, when the Microscopic Septet came, gently ferocious, out of the speakers of my stereo system, that I would be spending a June night in 2017, sitting in front of them with a video camera, I would have said it was cruel to tease me.  But it happened.  And to me, it’s one of the half-dozen accomplishments of this blog-endeavor I’m most proud of.

A brief digression.  I’m coming to the realization that most categorization has nothing to do with the subject.  Of course, at the farmers’ market, it is useful for the purchaser to know what kind of kale or apple or cucumber that unlabeled beauty is, because the purchaser might have certain tastes.  But music is thankfully more expansive than the space between the Ida Red and the Jonagold. So those jazz listeners who wish to debate whether their favorite band plays postmodern-New Orleans-Second Line-funk OR you could call it retro-modern-Creole-trad are encouraged to go outside and play, if the weather is nice.

I confess that I, too, have fallen into the categorizing urge (or is it prison?) now and again, and I even did it for one moment with the Micros, when I whimsically categorized their music to Joel Forrester (to whom I apologize) as “super-intellectual-rhythm and blues,” and the politely pained look that crossed his face as he said, “Well, I don’t know,” was the look you give to a dear friend or relative who has just said something quite surprisingly foolish.  So I gave that up and simply revel in the music: its energy, its surprising twists, its rollicking momentum, its dramatic shapes, its tender musing sadness.  They are too large and luscious to fit in any Facebook group, and that’s something to celebrate.  (Incidentally, I hope any readers who might get scared away by “modernism” give the Micros an attentive few minutes.  They’re not “the Dixielanderini,” but they certainly swing.)

I apologize for the brutality of the image that follows, but when someone asked William Carlos Williams why he didn’t write sonnets, he said, “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet–gosh, how I hate sonnets–is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through you don’t have a crab anymore.”

The Microscopic Septet plays within forms — the blues, other people’s compositions — but they also extend and stretch those forms, with ingenuity and love, so that no metaphysical animals are harmed.

For this New York gig, the Micros are Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone and articulate announcements; Don Davis, alto saxophone; Mike Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone and vocal; Joel Forrester, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums.

Here’s the first set of their evening at the Astor Room.  By choice, I sat as close as I could without joining the band, so occasionally the players on either end are bisected or in the dark, but I trust that the closeness of the sound recording makes up for this.

MANHATTAN MOONRISE:

LET’S COOLERATE ONE:

WE SEE:

MIGRAINE BLUES:

TWELVE ANGRY BIRDS:

BRILLIANT CORNERS:

HANG IT ON A LINE:

Thrilling, no?  Also lyrical, pensive, multi-textured, raw, hilarious, moving . . . you can fill in your own praises.

A second set of videos will follow.

May your happiness increase!