Category Archives: Jazz Titans

“FOREVER WEIRD”: THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET and FRIENDS at THE KITCHEN, PART TWO (Dec. 9, 2017)

Here’s Part Two of that glorious evening at The Kitchen in New York’s Greenwich Village with the Microscopic Septet and friends.  Part One, for those who want to review their notes (and the Septet’s) is here.  But here’s the personnel for those who, like me, need to know the names of our heroes: Joel Forrester, piano, composer, co-leader; Phillip Johnston, alto and soprano saxophone, composer, co-leader; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone and vocal on CRY; Michael Hashim, tenor saxophone, Don Davis, alto saxophone.  Incidentally, for some listeners who like their jazz only one or two ways, the Micros may sound “avant-garde.” I urge them to listen: this band loves the blues and has its own ferocious swing.  They seem to me to be taking traditional forms and approaching them with loving zealous individualities.

The Microscopic Septet, if they are new to you, is a long-lived improvising ensemble — devoted to “serious fun,” as my friend John Scurry terms it.

Phillip Johnston’s LET’S COOLERATE ONE:

From The Middle Period, LOBSTER IN THE LIMELIGHT:

If you need directions, just TAKE THE Z TRAIN:

Finally, I GOT A RIGHT TO CRY (vocal Dave Sewelson) — originally performed by Joe Liggins but sounding eerily and happily like a Joel Forrester composition:

The Grand Finale, deserving of initial capitals, where the Micros, the Jazz Passengers, and the Kamikaze Ground Crew, jammed on DON’T MIND IF I DO, will appear in the last post of this series.  Look for it wherever better blogposts and videos are given away for free.

Extra!  This post is in celebration of Micros co-leader Phillip Johnston, who yesterday won the 2017 Johnny Dennis Music Award:

The 2017 winner of the Johnny Dennis Music Award, which acknowledges great achievement in Australian music composition, is composer/performer Phillip Johnston.

Outgoing Australian Guild of Screen Composers’ President, Guy Gross, said “The AGSC Board were delighted with the choice of Phillip Johnston as the 2017 recipient of this major award which carries a cash prize of $20,000.”

“This award gives the recipient the creative and financial freedom to work on a project of their choice. The project chosen by Phillip Johnston will expand the knowledge and understanding of the history of the Australian film industry, both in Australia and internationally, as well as create new and innovative fusions of film and music.”

The JD Awards were established in perpetuity through the will of Dennis John Mole, whose stage name was Johnny Dennis.

Phillip Johnston’s winning proposal was to conduct research at the National Film and Sound Archive with the purpose of creating new original scores for historical Australian silent films that would help to make the films accessible to modern audiences.

On receiving the Award Phillip Johnston stated “Receiving the Johnny Dennis Award will support my new original scores for silent film project, which involves both research into the rich history of Australian silent film and the creation of new musical scores to be performed live with the films.”

“After 25 years of composing and performing new scores for American, European and Japanese silent films worldwide, I’m very excited about turning my attention to a new exciting project combining two of my major interests: new relationships between music and film, and Australia’s great contribution to world film history.”

May your happiness increase!

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SWEET AND HOT: REBECCA KILGORE, DAN BARRETT, EDDIE ERICKSON, JOEL FORBES, and TIM LAUGHLIN (September 3, 2011)

“You’ll find that happiness lies / right under your eyes,” say the lyrics for BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD.  I don’t have a backyard any more, but I stumbled across this performance — that made me happy in 2011 and continues to do so now — by accident.  In the decade or so that I’ve had this blog, I’ve spent a good deal of energy with a video camera, recording live performances.  Around six thousand of them are visible on YouTube now, and I get notified when viewers comment.  Ungenerous comments from armchair critics make me fume, and if they insult “my” artists, I delete the comments.  But someone saw this, felt about it as I do, and so it is Time To Share Some Joy.

This performance came from the 2011 Sweet and Hot Music Festival, held in Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend.  I was fortunate to attend it in its last year, and it offered joyous music and very lovely people, not all of them musicians.  (“Hello, Laurie Whitlock!  Love from New York!”)

But the music was often stunningly pleasurable.

I think that I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS vied with GOODNIGHT, SWEETHEART to be the song played at the end of the evening.  But Henderson recorded it as a hot dance number in 1925 (Louis on the verse) and it was picked up in the Swing Era by bands large and small — my favorite the Teddy Wilson Brunswick side.

But this 2011 live version is so dear: sweetly lyrical and rocking, balancing tenderness and Fifty-Second Street riffing.  And it adds to my delight that the musicians in this video are very much alive and making music.  Bless them.  I single out Rebecca Kilgore as my ideal of lyrical heartfelt witty swing.  Now and forever.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS JAMES BALDWIN (September 29, 2017)

I first had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Dan Morgenstern at his Upper West Side apartment in March 2017, and every few months we’ve done it again.  In an interview where he’d spoken of Robert Clairmont, he casually said, “Oh, that’s where I met Jimmy Baldwin,” and I felt like someone who finds a treasure chest in the middle of the living room, and made a note to ask Dan about Baldwin at a future meeting.  Here’s what Dan recalled. . . seventy years later.

Characteristically, because Dan’s world is not narrow, we hear about Dan’s father, the novelist Soma Morgenstern, “The March of Time,” Gordon Clark(e) [I’ve been unable to find out more about this man and mentor, thus the ambivalent spelling], Alonzo Levister, Baldwin’s famous story “Sonny’s Blues,” Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison, the Newport Jazz Festival, and even “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Remarkable” is an understatement.  We owe our friend and hero Dan more than this page could say.

And some appropriate music from the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival:

May your happiness increase!

JOHN SCURRY’S SINGULAR VIGNETTES: REVERSE SWING: “POST-MATINEE”

You might not have heard of the splendid musician John Scurry, but that can be remedied right away.  Here’s a whimsical, swinging sample — elating even if you are allergic to cats:

John and I have a long yet intermittent musical friendship.  I know I heard him on a variety of Australian jazz recordings with, among others, Allan Browne and Bob Barnard, but we did not meet in person until July 2010 at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, where he performed as part of Michael McQuaid’s Late Hour Boys, captured here with John on banjo, playing that often abused instrument with grace.  In time, I began to hear John as a guitarist but even more importantly as a composer.  And I heard tales of his small ingenious band, REVERSE SWING, which I described here.  I’d not heard the band, but John’s explanation of the title (enclosed in the post above) made me an enthusiast, taking it on faith.

As a serious but relevant digression, John is also a lyrical painter and photographer, imbuing “common” objects with resonance that makes me think of the painter Giorgio Morandi.  The cover is his, and when you purchase the disc, the photographs inside are his also.

In 2011, John — along with Andy Schumm, Jason Downes, Josh Duffee, Leigh Barker, and Michael McQuaid, was part of the Hot Jazz Alliance: they gave concerts and toured in 2014 and 2015.  I saw them at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in the latter year and followed John and a larger ensemble led by Josh to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania — Chauncey Morehouse’s home town — for a concert of Morehouse / Goldkette music.  In the lobby of John’s hotel, we had a long conversation, and I believe he said a REVERSE SWING disc was in process and I (perhaps not subtly) offered my services as a pro bono liner-note writer.  (I’d done the same for the HJA disc.)

And so it came to pass . . . that I heard REVERSE SWING, and was captivated by it.  The seventeen compositions on the disc are all John’s, varied in mood and approach: the CD feels like a leisurely sweep through a hall of evocative paintings.  Or a slim volume of short stories.  It’s not a “trad” band nor a post-bop ensemble — the performances swing — but a group that draws on a tradition of improvising over strong, sometimes quirky melodies and surprising harmonies.

The basic personnel is Eugene Ball, trumpet; Michael McQuaid, clarinet, alto saxophone; Matt Boden, piano; Howard Cairns, string bass, concertina; John Scurry, guitar — with additional cameos by Shelley Scown, vocal; Danny Fischer, drums; James Macaulay, trombone; Phil Noy, alto saxophone.

I know that the combination, for some more staid listeners, of original compositions and a band of less well-known musicians might be slightly intimidating, but we all have sufficient shelf space devoted to Our Favorite and Sometimes Predictable Bands . . . REVERSE SWING well deserves your attention.

Here are my notes:

In A VISION, Yeats wrote that the spirits visited him “to give him metaphors for poetry.” For inspiration, all I can claim is Facebook, where, a few hours before this disc arrived I had seen a famous Mississippi restaurant, The Dinner Bell, with a round table, seating twenty, two dozen entrees on its rotating center. As I listened to REVERSE SWING, I thought of diners moving from one serving dish to another, each one different in content, texture, seasoning, all harmonizing memorably.

A didactic annotator could fill pages saying what this track Sounds Like and what band / musician he Is Reminded Of, but I will leave such fetishes to those who cannot find pleasure without them. Scurry’s music, although irresistibly swinging, is MUSIC first, jazz second: melodic, surprising but inevitable (to steal from Whitney Balliett) with its bright eyes on us, sometimes teary, sometimes winking, even tenderly sleepy. I imagine a dance programme ranging from uptown funk to pastoralia, or soundtrack music for a never-seen Dennis Potter project.

Of John’s light-hearted but distincitve compositional art I can write only that I kept smiling and saying to myself, “Look what he’s doing THERE!” Each song is complete and shapely: a painting or photograph in itself, which is apt. I am also thrilled to hear so much of his guitar playing out in the open, concise yet emotive in solo, prancing in ensemble. Of the other players I write, as would Louis, that they are Topmen On Their Instruments, masters of Tonation and Phrasing. I’d never heard Shelley Scown sing before, but I bow low before her sweet elegance.

Alec Wilder would have admired this; Ellington, too. I want a second and third volume.

Now, something from the Uncollected Scurry-Steinman Correspondence.  I’d asked John — so that I could understand the musical scenes better — where the compositions came from, and he wrote me this.  Its length is my doing, not his immodesty, because I frankly badgered him to tell me everything, because I find the artist’s motivations fascinating — and how often do we have the artist ready to tell all through a series of emails?

“This CD is a selection of tunes of mine written over some years and conceived specifically for this recording. I can liken it to having an exhibition of paintings wherein there is no articulated concept or theme at play, rather a gathering of works that hopefully cohabit together and make sense musically. Most of the pieces were kept relatively short so as to state them as tunes in their various guises and feels and not as extensive flights of improvisation. Part of the joy in producing this body of works was in having the privilege of playing with my fellow musician friends developing and coaxing these melodies into life as new presences. Some have been recorded previously such as “Yes’” and “By practised Skill”. These two, put to music from two poems by Dashiell Hammett written in 1927 (from memory) with the words and poetic form fitting well in 32 bar and 24 bar formats common to the period. With the song “How Calm the Sea is Tonight,” when I put it together melodically and with the words, my original thought was to use Shelley Scown to sing it. I had imagined her singing for several years before actually meeting her. She made a wonderful recording called “Angel” with Paul Grabowsky and the late Allan Browne and Gary Costello respectively. Her voice had a lilting purity that I thought would embody the song. The song I developed verbatim from the last paragraph of a brief magazine story told by a woman reflecting on her life in a whaling town in southern New South Wales. Hence its folk ballad sense. The melody was originally created as a sound backdrop for a short animation. I finally met Shelley last year at a memorial concert for my old comrade Allan Browne where we were both performing and the circle was completed. Shelley’s other vocal,”Your Face”, I fess up to the words. In the spirit of all those who have gone before, another song about longing and the tactility of memory.

“Virology” was conceived for the band “Virus” that I played with regularly for many years. Strangely we never played this tune. Some of the tunes have personal connections such as “A Walk Around Tom” which is for my oldest brother who sadly has severe short term memory recall. A big jazz aficionado in his day with what he referred to as progressive jazz and, like my immediate next brother, a huge influence. “Post Matinee” for me has cinematic overtones. Sometimes meaning in a non literal way evolves out of the process of connecting time signatures and chord structures. My first paid employment, albeit brief, was as a ten year old theatre attendant selling screen news magazines at our local theatre. The theatre is long defunct but maintains its physical presence as an apartment block in Windsor, Melbourne. Going to the Saturday matinee every week was like church. A few years back I made a small painting of the then ex Windsor Theatre and called it “Post Matinee”.

Two more with poetry connections. “ Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines” is by Pablo Neruda. The first seven words of the opening stanza are enough to create the feel and melodic context for the resultant song. “Last Trams” is titled after the poem by Australian poet Kenneth Slessor. Originally, from memory, I think I was playing around with the changes to “Baby Won”t You Please Come Home”.

Some fauna related pieces. “Otis the Cat” is not the guy you are sharing a cell with; he is my dear friend of eighteen years, our cat Otis. Unbridled sentimentality to the fore. “A Blackbird Skipped Quivering Between Things” Yes, I know. Behind every title is a story. Oddly enough titles emanate from the spirit of the work. We are visited daily by a blackbird family in search of morsels of cat food. They stop and start skipping across grass and verandah and at a pinch have the odd quiver. I came across a lovely quote by a French art critic who was lauding the paintings of Berthe Morisot, Manet’s sister, and he stated with reference to the light in her paintings that there was “a quivering between things”. Hence my theft which seemed apt at the time. A little waltz with an inadvertent homage to American folk traditions, as our music from my first memories is a great melting pot of American popular song plus a smattering of British music hall and folk song, not to forget the centrality of hymns. “Sad Songs” is a tune without words which it almost demands. It started off as “Sad songs and bad songs,” a would be letter to a recently deceased musical friend, reassuring him as to his boy’s welfare, but somehow it turned into a sort of optimistic cowboy song. They can assert themselves with a life of their own, these songs.

The last piece I shall comment on is “Thomas and Green,” named for the street corner where I grew up. My first encounter with live music was not “Honey Hush” or “Buttons and Bows” that blared regularly on the radio, but the mellifluous sounds of tenor horns and cornets from the Salvation Band that would appear of a Sunday evening on that corner. Howard Cairns grew up in a Salvo family, his dad being a Major in it. Howard inherited his father’s concertina so we conceived honouring that connection in the chorale “Thomas and Green” as a coda to the album.”

Here the wise and curious listener can hear more, purchase a disc or a download.  I recommend all these actions.  REVERSE SWING is quietly, subversively remarkable.

May your happiness increase!

HE STRIDES RIGHT IN: MIKE LIPSKIN at FAT CAT (December 17, 2017)

These performances make me think of Emerson’s words: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

The music I refer to is that of the great improviser Mike Lipskin — spiritual heir of Willie “the Lion” Smith — and two songs he reimagined on Sunday, December 17, 2017, at that downtown and below-ground secret shrine for improvised music, Fat Cat.  I applaud Fat Cat for its eccentricities: it is truly A Scene, but one of the ubiquitous elements there is the roar of the young crowd, playing ping-pong, billiards, and other games.  Exuberant youth isn’t silent, except perhaps when sleeping or texting, so Mike had unsolicited and unmusical accompaniment, which he brilliantly triumphed over.  And please note that Mike isn’t just someone lining up one Waller module after the next: his playing is harmonically sophisticated, swinging along in its frisky gentle ways no matter what the tempo.  He’s a class act at the keyboard.

Here’s Mike’s delightful musings on SWEET AND LOVELY, aptly named:

And here’s Vincent Youmans’ spiritual exhortation, much loved by Fats and other Harlem cosmic magicians:

Thank you, Mike.  Come back soon and play some more!

May your happiness increase!

BOB MERRILL CELEBRATES THE TRUMPET KINGS in FLORIDA (January 19 / 20, 2018)

Even though the snow is beginning to melt, the thought of going to Florida for some warm music is very attractive: Bob Merrill’s shows at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, to be exact.

The amiable and expert Bob — trumpet, vocals, original compositions — has put together a concert presentation, engaging, hot, and sweet, to warm up our winter.  Here’s a sample from his 2011 presentation (with John Colianni, Jon Burr, and Vinny Raniolo):

For those who can’t hop a plane to Florida to see and hear Bob, he’s generously offered us another piece of Trumpet King memorabilia: the wonderful Herb Snitzer photograph of brass royalty (Louis was of course on the bus somewhere):

and since even I couldn’t identify everyone correctly without some notes, here’s the crib sheet:

and Herb autographed this wonderful photograph for Bob:

Another idea for those who can’t get themselves to the shows.  Check out Bob’s CDs here and here.  He’s got the right ideas.

May your happiness increase!

THEIR JELLY IS SWEET AND HOT: ANDREW OLIVER and DAVID HORNIBLOW HONOR MISTER MORTON

For me, this morning started off splendidly with a blast of expert passionate hot music from pianist Andrew Oliver and clarinetist David Horniblow:

Please notice their immense romping ardor, and that although they are respectfully hewing to Morton’s composition, they aren’t reproducing the record note for note.

And the imagined flip side of the video 78, ORIGINAL JELLY ROLL BLUES:

Andrew and David have set themselves the substantial and joyous task of playing all of Morton’s compositions — about one hundred — in this duo format.  And “playing” means several things that we take for granted in 2018.  Their performances will be on video, and they will be offered to the eager public for free, both on their dedicated YouTube channel and on Andrew’s blog.  I find this both refreshingly “contemporary” and “antique” at the same time, as if I could go down to the best record store in my town every Tuesday and buy the new Oliver-Hornblow 78 of two more Morton compositions, being very careful not to slip on the ice and break my precious purchase.

Andrew’s blog is here.  The YouTube channel is called Complete Morton Project.  Charming and accurate.

I emphasize that their generous Musical Offering is done for free.  That’s the way musicians function or perhaps have to function in this century.  How could we make Messrs. Oliver and Horniblow feel welcomed in what is, after all, a world of commodities that have to be paid for?  (Artists, like us, have a fondness for meals and electricity and clean laundry . . . .)  At this point the forbidding God of Should emerges and with a voice louder than thunder says, “You SHOULD subscribe to the YouTube channel.  You SHOULD go to gigs that Andrew and David are playing (especially if you live in the United Kingdom).  You SHOULD check out their fine band, The Dime Notes, and buy their debut CD or vinyl record.  Details here.

For me (now that the God has spoken and I can hear myself think once again) I wish that there could be a Morton-Oliver-Horniblow PayPal subscription.  I would gladly send these fellows ten dollars a week for their musical generosity. But until that time, I will merely exhort you to make sure that you watch these bursts of joy and get your hot-jazz friends to do likewise.

May your happiness increase!