Tag Archives: acoustic guitar

A DELICIOUS TASTING MENU OF MELODIES: JONATHAN STOUT, “PICK IT AND PLAY IT”

Here, taste this:

I can think of no one (except the Venerable Marty Grosz) who is doing what Jonathan Stout does.  But the truly important thing is that he IS doing it, and beautifully.  And the evidence is all through his lovely solo CD, PICK IT AND PLAY IT.

The guitar has a long history, and what we call “jazz guitar” does also.  Before amplification, guitarists — solo or in ensemble — had the same complicated orchestral responsibilities as pianists: keep a melody line going, play the harmonies (implied or stated), do all this while offering a solid rhythmic pulse.  If you couldn’t do all three as easily as breathing, talking, and walking, you didn’t get the gig — whether the gig was playing rocking blues in a Mississippi juke joint or supporting a small hot band in Harlem.  The masters of this genre — more than two dozen — did it as a matter of course.  Anyone who has ever picked up a guitar can learn in under a minute just how complex and intimidatingly difficult their art is.  I write this from experience.

Jonathan has mastered the subtle mystical arts of such swing deities as Allan Reuss and George Van Eps, and PICK IT AND PLAY IT presents fifteen delicious sound-paintings that come from the acoustic past but sound fresh, personal, and lively.  More than once, while listening, I found myself thinking, “If Dick McDonough had lived, he might have made a session like this.”  If you understand my reference, you either already have this disc or you owe it to yourself to have several copies, in case rationing comes back.

If I remember correctly, Van Eps — whose gracious presence is vividly audible here — called this style of guitar playing “lap piano,” and it balances sharply-realized single lines with an overall orchestral approach.  Not only does the listener not miss string bass and drums on this CD, but they would be positively intrusive.  Stout doesn’t need them: he is his own resonant orchestra, full of shadings and colors, with a nearly relentless quiet swing.

And unlike many guitarists who are entranced by Django and post-Django, he does not seek to impress us by velocity, endurance, or flash.  His approach is stately, leisurely, full of melodic and harmonic subtlety: although these performances have the breath of improvisatory life, they are not “Hey, let’s do four choruses on [familiar tune] and go home.”  Rather, Stout has a deep compositional sense, so that I arose from each performance refreshed and fulfilled.  The CD is dense with music, but it never gets dull.  And the sense one comes away with of both Stout and his approach to the genre is not “Hey, look at me!  I spent a thousand hours on this piece!” but “How beautiful the guitar is, and listen to what memorable sounds can come from it.”

This CD offers “fifteen arrangements for solo guitar,” with a repertoire that mixes familiar pop classics with rare compositions for the instrument.  The latter are wonderful and I think they will be new to all except the most ardent student of this arcane art: Frank Victor’s PICK IT AND PLAY IT; Roy Smeck’s ITCHING FINGERS; and Allan Reuss’s APARTMENT G and PET SHOP.  (Many listeners, if they know Reuss at all, know him as the steady sweet resonant pulse in the Benny Goodman orchestra and later small-group sessions, but his compositions are a revelation.  And Reuss is Stout’s model, which says a great deal about Jonathan himself.)  Stout’s originals — dedicated to his son, not to Charlie Christian — PICKIN’ FOR CHARLIE and CHARLIE’S LULLABYE — are particularly delightful, the latter tender but never soporific.

To the casual listener, the remaining songs might seem familiar, even too much so (although in this century, the people who have heard, say, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN too often are an increasingly smaller group): STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, MOONGLOW, CHEEK TO CHEEK, IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, SUNDAY, GEORGIA ON MY MIND, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, SOMEBODY LOVES ME, OVER THE RAINBOW.  But this assumption would be completely wrong.

I came to CHEEK TO CHEEK, for one example, with a half-century of associations, expectations, and prized performances in my head.  But in the first minute of hearing Stout’s playing, I thought, “Wow, I’ve really never heard that song before.”  And it wasn’t that he was being consciously or self-consciously innovative, but his performance had the integrity and wonder that the best musicians bring to even the simplest series of chord changes or melodies.

Two more delights add to the overall pleasure, both provided by people who themselves make splendid music.  One is the too-brief but delicious essay by guitarist Nick Rossi: what a pleasure to read uncliched prose that rests on a deep knowledge of the art.  The other is the gorgeous recorded sound created by master engineer Bryan Shaw: the guitar sounds like itself, with no “natural flavors” synthesized in the laboratory, with a minimum of string noise that is often distracting on recordings of acoustic guitar.

PICK IT AND PLAY IT is a series of small fulfilling delights — and “small” is not a criticism but a compliment.  Even if you’ve never heard of Frank Victor, or perhaps especially if you’ve never heard of Frank Victor, you will be thrilled by Jonathan Stout’s masterful subtle art.  Hear and purchase here and here.  And Jonathan is also quite a teacher: visit here to learn more — not only about his solo guitar folios and transcriptions, but about his swinging bands.

May your happiness increase!

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THE CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY OF LOWER STOCKTON STREET: PROFESSORS GROSZ, OAKLEY, and VENTRESCO (August 17, 2014: Part Two)

This music gives me such pleasure that I am reposting both halves of the performance, and my original prelude:
A long time ago, when I was a college student listening to string trios, quartets, and quintets, I was told that the great groups were Thibaud-Cortot-Casals, the Budapest Quartet and Friends, the Guarneri Quartet (whom I saw several times in concert). But while I was learning my Brahms, Schubert, Haydn, Mozart, Dvorak, and others, I was getting deeper into small-group jazz.  And it occurred to me often that the inspired interplay I heard in the “Trout” or the “American” was no different from a record of Sammy Price and Sidney Catlett boogieing their way through a blues, or the Edmond Hall Celeste Quartet, the Goodman Trio, Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, the Basie rhythm section.  And in person I saw Soprano Summit, Al and Zoot, Bobby and Vic, the Braff-Barnes Quartet, the EarRegulars, and many others.
All this is long prelude to say that inspiring chamber music takes many forms. In jazz, it is always incredibly uplifting to see a very small group of musicians do two or three things at once — create communal variations out of their shared knowledge and conventions AND go their own brave ways. Courage, joy, playfulness, and beauty.
Here is some very recent evidence that stirring chamber-jazz sessions are happening all around us, with some of the finest players.  This one brought together East and West — East being Professor Grosz (Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia) and West being Professors Oakley and Ventresco from the San Francisco Bay Area.  No music stands, just swing and on-the-spot frolicking. Acoustic splendor, with two very different approaches to the guitar — in solo and accompaniment — and with Leon’s very heartfelt cornet shining a light for us all to follow. (Highlights from the 2014 Marty Grosz West Coast Tour, for the historians in the audience.)
SONG OF THE WANDERER:
SHOE SHINE BOY:
I’M CONFESSIN’:
JOE LOUIS STOMP:
CRAIG’s LOWDOWN BLUES:
And here are three more performances from the second half.  The sky had grown darker outside and thus the interior lighting needed help.  The visual image is less sharp but the music remains exquisite.
S’WONDERFUL:
A very mellow KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW:
FROM MONDAY ON, a sweet conversation all the way through, with Mister Grosz bursting in to song:
May your happiness increase!

(CAFE) DIVINE INSPIRATION: LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO, IN LIVING COLOR (Part Two: June 15, 2014)

Good things happen at Cafe Divine (1600 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California) — the food and the North Beach ambiance — but for me the best things happen on the third Sunday of each month, when the Esteemed Leon Oakley, cornet,and Craig Ventresco, guitar and banjo, improvise lyrically on pop tunes and authentic blues for two hours.  I posted four performances from their satisfying June 15, 2014, session here. I was taught as a child to share . . . so here are five more beauties, in living color both in the view and the soaring improvisations.

STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (with Craig on banjo, delightfully):

BLUES IN F (nothing more, nothing less — evoking Joseph Oliver):

MARGIE (that 1920 lovers’ classic):

And two songs that make requests — one spiritual, connected to Bunk Johnson and Sidney Bechet, LORD, LET ME IN THE LIFEBOAT:

and one secular — I think of Pee Wee Russell with TAKE ME TO THE LAND OF JAZZ:

Which they do.  More Divine Music to come.

 May your happiness increase!

(CAFE) DIVINE INSPIRATION: LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO, IN LIVING COLOR (Part One: June 15, 2014)

Have you been? I refer to the hot chamber music sessions created by Maestro Leon Oakley and Professor Craig Ventresco — improvising on classic themes — held at Cafe Divine, 1600 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California, on the third Sunday of each month.

Here are the first four of a dozen treats — in living color visually as well as musically:

SOMEDAY SWEETHEART:

A SHINE ON YOUR SHOES:

I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU:

MOONGLOW:

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC FOR STRING ENSEMBLE, 1938

Bobby Sherwood (1914-81) isn’t well-known as a jazz guitarist today, but in the early Thirties he was so deeply respected that he was Bing Crosby’s accompanist on 1934 recordings (MOONBURN and SOMEDAY SWEETHEART); he recorded with the Boswell Sisters, Cleo Brown, and Joe Venuti.  (In 1940 he was guitarist and one of the arrangers for Artie Shaw.)

To me, this means he was viewed as a player equal to the late Eddie Lang, and his beautiful sonority and chordal subtleties — and swing — don’t disappoint.

A few years earlier, violinist Harry Bluestone (1907-92) was recording with hot dance studio bands, Connee Boswell, the Boswell Sisters, Lee Wiley, the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Bill Challis, Casper Reardon, and again Artie Shaw . . . .

While Sherwood eventually led his own band (playing a variety of instruments, composing, and singing), Bluestone became the first-chair violinist and concertmaster for many many recordings with everyone from Peggy Lee to Quincy Jones.

But this Decca 78, recorded in November 1938, shows them quietly and wittily evoking Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti — to great effect — while sounding like themselves.

First, the punning KIDDIN’ ON THE STRINGS:

Then, a sweet AM I BLUE?:

The moral?  Great music is made by people you might not have heard of except as side-people on more famous people’s record date.

May your happiness increase!

IN THE SPIRIT of TEDDY BUNN

Here’s a band of young fellows — recorded in January 2011 at the VU Bar in Newhall, California — called CAPTAIN JEFFREY AND HIS MUSICAL CHUMBUCKETS*.  The lead guitarist, Patrick Morrison, is a deep Teddy Bunn devotee, and it shows.  His colleagues are Captain Jeffrey (Jeffrey Moran), vocals, steel guitar; Carlos Reynoso, drums; Eli Hathaway, rhythm guitar; Marquis Howell, string bass.  Here they pay tribute to and reinvent the late-Thirties recording of WILD MAN BLUES by Johnny Dodds and his Chicago Boys:

P.S.  *Patrick says that everyone hates the band’s name.  But I say they swing!

MENAGE A TROIS: ROB, MIKE, and MISS BROWN

I’d known the work of swing cellist Mike Karoub from his appearance on Jon-Erik Kellso’s CD, CHAPTER TWO, so I was very pleased to encounter this gently swinging duet performance of SWEET GEORGIA BROWN by Mike and guitarist Rob Bourassa — delightfully swinging! 

Even for people like myself who have some nervous about the proliferation of “Hot Club of _____ ” groups, this is The Right Stuff!  Rob has his own YouTube channel — “robourassaguitarist” — with more enjoyable jazz.