Category Archives: Mmmmmmmmmmmmm!

“HOT CLASSICISM” by KRIS TOKARSKI, ANDY SCHUMM, HAL SMITH on DISC (and LIVE)

If it were possible to play a compact disc to extinction, my copy of HOT CLASSICISM would be gone by now.  Amazingly, the disc is starting to look translucent.

What it contains is the rousing and lovely performances by Kris Tokarski, piano; Andy Schumm, cornet or clarinet; Hal Smith, drums, recorded live in New Orleans at the Old U.S. Mint on January 13, 2016.  Here’s a sample — the rollicking PARKWAY STOMP:

Several of the performances appeared as videos on YouTube, but the fidelity of the CD is immensely superior, and you can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) play videos in the car unless you are a passenger, so I commend this disc to you with high enthusiasm.

hot-classicism

HOT CLASSICISM was produced by Kris.  You can order a copy at his website, here, and if you are in New Orleans come see the trio’s CD release show. This Saturday, the 24th, at 8:15 PM they play at the Steamboat Stomp and Sunday the 25th, they are at Snug Harbor, with sets at 8 and 10 PM.

hot-c-photoHere’s what I wrote for the CD.  In full candor, I insisted on writing something for them, and would have been very put out if they had said NO.  I believe in this music and these musicians with all my being.

One of my favorite quotations is “We cannot ask the dead to come back. We can, however, invite them to live through us.” This CD is a vibrant, generous conversation between the Ancestors and three very much alive Jazz Masters. Kris, Andy, and Hal know that Lester was right, that you have to “go for yourself.” But innovation is a Mobius strip: try to be yourself by rejecting the Past and you might run dry in mid-chorus. The Elders were innovative in their moment. We revere them but we honor the past by making it new.

“Hot classicism” is the phrase that came to my mind when I first encountered these magically conjoined kindred souls, their music an instantaneous wallop of bliss that hasn’t faded yet. In this trio, everything is in balance. It’s a true Hot Democracy where everyone gets a chance to blow, where musicians support one another for “the comfort of the band.” Listening to this joyous session, I also thought of the great classical chamber trios and quartets: Casals-Thibaud-Cortot, for one example. In those groups, even though musicians were following printed scores, their sensibilities, temperaments, and vocal timbres blazed through. Someone listening to an unnamed violinist on radio or record recognized the player: Szigeti, not Heifetz; Stuff, not Stephane. And those personalities blended in wondrous synergy.

“Hot,” everyone knows as the remarkable marriage of passionate abandon and exquisite control. These performances, as Hot as you could want, are technically splendid, idiomatically pleasing. But here’s the beautiful part: they are marvelous because the players know what not to play, how to leave space. They know that too much is not a good thing, with apologies to Mae West and Oscar Wilde. Hal, Kris, and Andy embody ancient virtues: how to say your piece eloquently in sixteen bars; how to create memorable syncopated dance music. And since they are temporal hybrids – living simultaneously in 1926, 1936, and 2016, a very pleasing subversive freedom animates these performances. These musicians roam freely in a universe of sounds. They bring their modern awareness to the sacred texts of the past. Consider Andy’s clarinet playing, which reflects the great Chicagoans and New Orleanians but also delineates an alternate universe where Milt Mesirow put in that ten thousand hours of practice. So the music here, although deeply devout, goes its own way. If there’s a harmony or a rhythmic suspension that works at that moment, this trio offers it joyously, even if Keppard would have frowned on it.

James Joyce said of ULYSSES, not humbly but perhaps accurately, that if Dublin were to be destroyed, it could be built again from his novel. And if all the monumental jazz recordings prior to, say, 1930 were to vanish, one could rebuild the Hot Library of Alexandria from this CD.

Some listeners (they can’t help themselves) will compulsively start a list of Influences and Models that they hear. I won’t. This CD is completely endearing because it’s music. Let others point out, “Oh, that’s exactly the note that Kid Wawa plays on take 17, the take that only came out on Beka 12666-4!” I say, “Don’t these fellows sound grand, utterly like themselves?”

The only thing missing from this session is a band vocal: I think of the three of them humming behind a Kris solo passage or (dare I dream) hearing the trio warble the ode containing the heroic couplet, “You bought my wife a Coca-Cola / So you could play on her Victrola.” Maybe on the second disc of this trio’s oeuvre.

Andy, Kris, and Hal create affectionate wise music that amazes us, touches our hearts, helps make our world dance. Infinitely complex yet plain as day, their music enriches us.

Don’t be the last one on your block to experience HOT CLASSICISM.

May your happiness increase!

THE REAL SWING: “TOO HOT FOR SOCKS,” by the JONATHAN DOYLE SWINGTET

Young Mister Doyle and his noble colleagues are the real item, as I celebrated a few days ago here.  And Jon has just issued a new CD, TOO HOT FOR SOCKS, a beauty from first to last.

DOYLE Too Hot

Some enlightened souls who have enjoyed the live videos they saw in that earlier blogpost will want to purchase the CD right away: that can be done here.  The more cautious can also visit this page to listen to samples from the CD.)

But TOO HOT FOR SOCKS can be what a dear friend of mine calls “a life-changing experience,” which is not all hyperbolic.

I have many gifted young musical friends born after Benny Goodman died (that would be 1986).  So they have grown up with recordings, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube — and often with third-generation evocations of the original mystical arts.  I write this not to diminish their efforts or to mock them. But often their connection to the original impetus and spiritual energy that is swing is mediated through famous recordings, which they copy for appreciative audiences.  Now, I’ve made enemies by preferring improvisation over recreation, so let me be clear: if I lived next door to a pianist who could play Teddy Wilson’s LIZA note-for-note, I would ask her to do it often.  The same is true for a quartet of brilliant neighbors who could “do” The Delta Four.

But I’m awed and delighted by musicians and groups who completely understand the intense easy glide of the great recordings and can write and play their own distinctive variations on the forms.  Such a group is or are the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet.

The personnel is David Jellema, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor saxophone; Mark Gonzales, trombone; J.D. Pendley, amplified guitar; Brooks Prumo, rhythm guitar; Ryan Gould, string bass; Jason Baczynski, drums. The disc was produced by Jonathan Doyle and Laura Glaess.  Jonathan wrote all the songs except KEEPIN’ TIME and GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS, which are Laura Glaess compositions, and COMFORT ZONE, which is by Mark Gonzales. The disc is very recent — recorded on March 24, 2016 in Austin, Texas.  The very evocative cover art is by Amado Pena III.

All the songs are “originals,” but even I, who shrink from a CD completely made up of the leader’s compositions, am thoroughly comfortable with these songs. For Jon’s secret is that many of them are “contrafacts,” new melody lines built over familiar harmonies.  Think of MOTEN SWING (YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY), the six thousand lines built over I GOT RHYTHM, and almost all of the repertoire of the Goodman Sextet.  If it was good enough for Charlie Christian, it should be good enough for us.  Sometimes the harmonies are immediately recognizable — rather like seeing your favorite actress in deep makeup and knowing who’s under there — and sometimes not.  I had to ask Jon about the title tune, which was driving me crazy — not in a Walter Donaldson way — and he generously unlocked the door by telling me it was built on JAPANESE SANDMAN.  I found myself so happily distracted and cheered by the ensemble’s new lines that I often didn’t recognize the familiar harmonic underpinnings, which is tribute to the compositions and the authentic warm way they are played.

I so admire this group’s sound. The ensemble voicings, whether unison lines or harmonized figures, are always pleasing. Some “modern / swing” groups are made up of musicians eager to get to the solos, so that there’s one chorus of ensemble, and then a long period of time — often thrilling — when each soloist plays, backed by the rhythm section and now and again some impromptu accompaniment from the other horns.

The Swingtet is in its own way old-fashioned: they understand how lovely an ensemble can sound.  (And I don’t mean “jam session” ensembles, but more often written lines that build energetic momentum — although the middle “layered” part of PRINCE HARLES happily fits the description.)  So the Swingtet pleases my ears: the opening of the title track, YOU CAN’T TAKE THOSE KISSES WITH YOU (what would Johnny Mercer have made of that?) is the simplest possible combination of single-note hits, arpeggiated chords, and other streamlined delights.  Yet it sounds magical, as if it were a Basie piano chorus scored for band.

The mention of Basie (to quote Jake Hanna, “You get too far from Basie and you’re just kidding yourself”) brings up two other notions.  One, there’s no piano on this disc.  That isn’t a problem, because the Swingtet exists in that sphere where the electric guitar has taken the piano’s place — it happens every Sunday night with the beloved EarRegulars in New York City — and the space is more than filled by a reassuringly swinging four-piece rhythm section, ticking away warmly rather than mechanically.  But the overall ambiance — think of Keynote Records sessions in 1944-46 or Basie small groups — is a wonderful balance between four individualistic soloists, each with a beautifully recognizable sound, and a lovely rhythm section.  Hear the glide this band creates within the first minute of KEEPIN’ TIME.

Did I mention dynamics, shadings, split choruses, background hums behind soloists, eloquent eight-bar passages, propulsive riffs, the wise use of mutes for the brass, wire brushes, acoustic string bass, open-and-closed hi-hat, and variety? You’ll hear all those and more.

Most of the fifteen compositions are medium and medium-uptempo, as you’d expect from a swing group that plays for dancers, and the Swingtet makes the most out of the subtle variations of that tempo range that the Ancestors did.  But several exceptions show that the band is much more than an instrumental unit producing originals with the right number of beats per minute.  A few of the songs appear to be simple riff-based creations, but each one has a surprise within.  Some of them take left and right turns, and I found myself saying, “Wait a minute.  That’s a new theme.”  At first, JUST A LITTLE RIGHT has the dreamy warming-up sweetness of a band in the studio, experimenting without knowing that the engineer has started to record (think of WAITIN’ FOR BENNY).

Perhaps my favorite piece (at this writing) is also the most distinctive — IF THE RIVER OVERFLOWS — a minor-key lament that still swings, beginning with a sideways nod to some Russians on the river.  Just when you think you’ve understood what will come next, the harmonies twist and turn.  I imagine Frank Newton smiling on this music.  And if I tried to describe STRANGE MACHINATIONS, I would need another page, but it’s as satisfying as a wonderfully-seasoned dish of homemade ethnic cooking.  As Stan Zenkoff pointed out to me, it has some relation to QUEER NOTIONS.  Thank you, Stan!

Although the Swingtet could wow an audience on Fifty-Second Street, they aren’t copying the classic recordings.  No one quotes anything, and what a blissful space that creates!  They aren’t a shirt-pocket full of repeater pencils. Rather, they sound like people who have so thoroughly internalized the great swing individualists that they can be themselves within — and beyond — the tradition.

I’ll stop here, but if my words have done their job, you will be listening to TOO HOT FOR SOCKS here — and buying a copy or copies.  I think this CD is a small but fiercely effective panacea for many modern ills.  (And, lest you think that this long blogpost is because of some odd secret indebtedness I have to Jon, the reverse is the truth: I’ve been bothering him for months now, “When will I get to listen to the new CD?”  And now, gleefully, it’s here.)

Thanks go to Hal Smith — who knows all one would want about swing — for telling me about Jon Doyle as far back as late 2011 (I checked my emails and it’s true) . . . thanks and blessings to the wondrous people who made the music on this disc and made the disc a reality.  And here is Jon’s website, where you can purchase his other musical efforts.

May your happiness increase!

THE VERY ELOQUENT MR. LEWIS (KERRY LEWIS, MARTY GROSZ, DAN BLOCK, ANDY SCHUMM: September 20, 2012)

kerry-lewis-3-web

Call it the string bass, the bass viol, the double bass, the doghouse: it’s essential to jazz ensembles.  Milt Hinton reminded us that “bass” meant “base,” or “foundation,” and which of us would say the Judge was incorrect?  Experienced listeners know that no matter how glossy the front line is, how expert the drummer, if the bassist doesn’t feel right, the band might as well go home.  And sometimes should.  But the man or woman behind the beautifully polished near-human figure doesn’t always get the attention so richly deserved, and, yes, people talk through bass solos.  What a pity.

New York is full of splendid string bassists, but the fellow I’d like to salute here makes his living, often, in New Orleans.  I’ve seen him in Chautauqua, New York, and San Diego, and hope for more such intersections.

His name is Kerry Lewis — and the first paragraph of his website biography, which you can read by clicking on the link,  is worth the trip.

I could describe Kerry’s strong yet subtle, deeply intuitive playing, but it is more fun for you to discover his mastery for yourselves.  To this end, here is a video from Jazz at Chautauqua, when it was situated there — this performance took place at one of the fabled Thursday-night sessions, September 20, 2012.

The quartet here is full of engagingly distracting musicians.  It would be easy to concentrate wholly on Marty Grosz, guitar, vocal, vaudeville; Dan Block, clarinet; Andy Schumm, cornet.  But I would ask the attentive people in the JAZZ LIVES audience (and they are there, bless them!) to study Mr. Lewis — in ensemble, in solo . . . playful, absolutely right without being rigid, holding the whole ensemble on his shoulders.  Although he might deny it, I think of him as the Swing Atlas, hoisting everyone up a little higher, although not demanding attention in any narcissistic way.

So now you know.  And when the talk turns to admired musicians, “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition,” you can say with the half-smile of the wisely initiated, “Yes, ________ is fine.  But have you heard Kerry Lewis play the string bass?”  Amaze your friends; delight your neighbors; be a hero(ine) to the children and not only yours.  And it pleases me to say that Kerry will be playing at the 2016 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, which begins on September 15.  Soon!

May your happiness increase!

VISIONS OF NEW ORLEANS, MADE REAL (Part One): KRIS TOKARSKI, TIM LAUGHLIN, and HAL SMITH at the EVERGREEN JAZZ FESTIVAL (July 31, 2016)

At the 2016 Evergreen Jazz Festival, I didn’t see the double rainbows that were so magnificent at the 2014 celebration — but they were musically evident whenever the Kris Tokarski Trio took the stage.

Double rainbow, Evergreen, Colorado, 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman

Double rainbow, Evergreen, Colorado, 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman

The extent of my devotion to this group was evident to anyone who saw me following them around, a happy man, breathing hard because of the altitude and the excitement in equal measure, with video camera and tripod.  They played eight sets; I caught seven.

The Trio is Kris Tokarski, piano; Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Hal Smith, drums. It’s a trio that balances deep seriousness and lighter-than-air play.  Its music is tangible but translucent: you hear the whole but admire the individual voices twining together.  Think of Casals, Thibaud, Cortot.  Simeon, James P., and Pops Foster.  Benny, Teddy, and Dave Tough.  Singing lyricism, floating swing.

And they did the thing I prize most, which is to honor the tradition by being themselves.  Heaven knows each of these players knows the clearly-delineated tradition — on records, in performance with other musicians, studying the Masters in person — but they know (to quote Emerson) that imitation is suicide and (to quote Lester) you must go for yourself.

I was telling a friend about a favorite Roddy Doyle novel, THE VAN, about two Irish friends who open a mobile fish-and-chips business, and their proud slogan is “Today’s chips today,” which is what I think of when I hear these performances: nothing warmed up under heat lamps, nothing stale.  Music that’s truly alive in now.

Here is the first half of this Trios’s closing set of the Festival (I am working backwards), recorded in a church with wonderful acoustics.  Kris chose to make this set a New Orleanian one, with gracious hot results.

JAZZ ME BLUES (for the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, then Bix, then the Bobcats and Condon and and and:

SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART (no doubt a Morton tune, and I come from the school that places a comma in the middle; it makes better dramatic sense):

THAT DA DA STRAIN, from Mamie Smith onwards to us in 2016:

BOGALUSA STRUT, a nod to the Sam Morgan ensemble:

What wonderful music.  You can bet there will be more.

May your happiness increase!

LOUIS’ VICTORIAN ERA

No, not the steely Queen or Julia Cameron’s photographs.  This man.

LOUIS and ALPHA and dog

Some people celebrated yesterday (August 4) as Louis Armstrong’s “real” birthday.  I disagree, but choose to stay away from such disputes.  To me, every day we can think about or hear or see Louis is a collective cosmic birthday.

People who are drawn to Louis — magnetically, but his spiritual warmth — often gravitate to particular periods: the Hot Fives and Sevens, the later period — whether you define that as JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES, WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR, or WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.  Thanks to Gosta Hagglof, Ricky Riccardi, Dan Morgenstern, and Mosaic Records, we’ve had the opportunity to rediscover the Decca classics of the Thirties and the All-Star gems.

But there’s a particularly rewarding period of Louis’ recordings that has been almost overlooked — the Victors of 1932-33.  Those who live to find fault have found plenty with the backing band — although they are at worst uneven, with beautiful solo episodes from Keg Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Budd Johnson, and the earliest recorded evidence of Louis and Sidney Catlett working together in deep harmony.  If one drops one’s prejudices, the material is also excellent — songs by Fats Waller, Tony Jackson, and the immortal Harry Woods.

And Louis is in spectacular form, playing the melody with all his heart, singing earnestly (and often with delightful floating levity), and improvising so very memorably.  Listen to what he does on the middle-eight / bridges / channels, as if he had decided earthly boundaries didn’t matter, and he could just lie back in the upper atmosphere no matter how fast the band was playing.  Some contemporary brass players — I think of Rex Stewart — took it as a stylistic point of honor to play more notes per bar as the tempo increased; Louis lazed over the pounding rhythms, as if he were a giant cat awaking from a splendid nap.

Spousal commitment of the highest order:

Friends don’t pass you by:

Revenge, served hot yet sweet:

May your happiness increase!

THE ARTS OF MELODY: CONNIE JONES, TIM LAUGHLIN, DOUG FINKE, CHRIS DAWSON, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 29, 2014)

TIM CONNIE large

There is an art to playing melody so that it soars, so that the performer, the notes, and what we sense of the composer’s mood and intentions are all one, as if the performer was subtly lifting the melody upwards so that we could admire it as we had never been able to before.

There’s the equally subtle art of melodic embellishment: improvising around and through that melody to make it shine more brightly without obscuring it.

Bobby Hackett, who not only knew these arts but embodied them, said after hearing Louis Armstrong, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come so alive?”

And Goethe wrote of “thou holy art,” though he never made it to a jazz festival.

Here is a gloriously eloquent example of melody-making by a group of masters: Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums, performing at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 29, 2014.  The text they chose is Hoagy Carmichael’s plaintive NEW ORLEANS:

What marvels.  It takes lifetimes to learn how to do this, and then a quiet determination to be able to do it in public, courageously and with love.

And — as a postscript — if you’ve never heard the FAREWELL BLUES to which Tim refers (it preceded this performance) it would be cruel to deny you this rocking, melodic pleasure:

May your happiness increase!

HE’S A HERO OF MINE

Who’s that?  Why, the pianist, arranger, and occasional singer Mark Shane.

SHANE

I’d heard Mark on records and bootleg concert tapes going back to the late Eighties, but didn’t get to meet him until 2004.  And I was astonished.  He’s quiet; he doesn’t rely on volume or pyrotechnics, but he swings beautifully.  (He is A Stride Monster, but it’s not his only claim to our hearts.)  His playing is thoughtful, delicate, without being stiff or effete.  Right now, you are most likely to hear Mark as pianist and musical director for that force of nature, Catherine Russell.

But I thought a few minutes of Shane-beauty would help us keep perspective in these troubled times.

Here he is at the 2012 Atlanta Jazz Party, lovingly making his way through BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL, a hymn of praise and grief for Herschel Evans:

And, a year later, Mark’s stylish romp on MOONGLOW — always melodic, ticking away like a swing clock, with beautiful voicings and subtly varied embellishments:

Please notice how much the musicians onstage (Messrs. Chirillo, Weatherly, and Dorn) are appreciating it as well.  That says a great deal.

Here’s Mark with Tal Ronen and Dan Block — thinking about Fats and his Rhythm — playing YACHT CLUB SWING:

and another salute to gorgeous melody, Mark and Terry Blaine performing SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON in 2015:

“Don’t be shy,” says Terry.  And I’m not shy about my absolute admiration for Mister Shane.  Here is his website, where you can hear and learn more from this master.

May your happiness increase!