Tag Archives: Andrew Swann

EVERY DREAM GONE: WILLARD ROBISON AND JACK TEAGARDEN

DON'T SMOKE IN BED

I have been thinking about Willard Robison a good deal the past few days.  For good reason, mind you: I was asked to write some notes for a forthcoming release on the Nif Nuf label of trumpeter Bob Barnard and friends playing Robison.  Vocals of a most beautiful kind by Bob’s niece Rebecca; other musicians including Jo Stevenson and Andrew Swann.

I don’t know enough about Robison’s life to say much about it, but his beautiful intriguing music seems to divide into the Inspirational — WAKE UP CHILLUN, WAKE UP; ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO; TRUTHFUL PARSON BROWN, the Affectionate — LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN, OLD FOLKS, and the Desolate / Lonely — ‘ROUND MY OLD DESERTED FARM, LONELY ACRES IN THE WEST, A COTTAGE FOR SALE, and his last great hit, DON’T SMOKE IN BED — circa 1948, and a success for Peggy Lee (whose version strikes me as too light-hearted for the song’s depths).

Matt Munisteri, who has made a deep study of Robison’s music as well as a beautiful CD of it, could add more titles to my list, but I am not intending to be comprehensive at the moment.  Details of his strikingly fine CD here.

I know nothing of Robison’s emotional or marital life.  I know he had great success in the Twenties and early Thirties, and he lived into his early seventies, but there is a deep strain of nearly hopeless melancholy in his work.

Where other writers were incessantly writing about the possibilities of Romance (think, for instance, of PENTHOUSE SERENADE), Robison is drawn to the emptied, the vacant, the mournfulness of a house when one’s partner has left.  (Yes, there was the non-Robison 1931 song IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE, where the singer sees the belongings (s)he and spouse have so cherished up for sale in a window — but that singer is able to say, “Let’s get back together again and we’ll reconstruct that dream.”)

Robison’s songs — at least these two — sound as if the shared hopes have been shattered.  I know that Larry Conley wrote the lyrics for COTTAGE, but I think the despair is not only Conley’s.

Here, although at a jaunty tempo, is Robison himself singing COTTAGE, with verse, in 1930.  Be it ever so humble, there’s no home any more:

“Our little dream castle / With everything gone” is a definite way to begin a song — no optimistic extenuation possible.  The tempo is far from dirgelike, and in 2013 we are long familiar with the beautiful ballad medley, but the lyrics remind us that what we are witnessing in the empty cottage is a death — not the death of a person, but the death of hope and love as embodied in a marriage.

Conley knew something either about domestic agriculture or had read a good deal of English poetry to draw on the images of lawns turned to hay, roses overrun by weeds — the untended garden as sign of a broken compact, an irreparable rip in the fabric of loving order. And the brief bridge presents a terrifying reality, where the singer can see the face of the absent spouse in every window but no such welcome is possible as the singer approaches the actual, desolate dwelling.

Robison was a light-voiced, gentle singer.  I leave it to his friend Jack Teagarden to record the absolutely definitive version of this song in 1962.  (I find the beautiful arrangements by Russ Case and Bob Brookmeyer slightly busy but so intuitively perceptive — although I would have liked to hear Jack backed only by Ellis Larkins or Jimmy Rowles):

And COTTAGE is emotionally less powerful than the song that has struck me at the center of my being ever since I heard Jack’s recording of it, DON’T SMOKE IN BED:

I do not know the circumstances that led up to the writing of that song.  With thoughts of a recent posting connected to Marion Harris on my mind, whose death echoed the song’s title — I am sure that more than one spouse / partner told the other, “For God’s sake, don’t do that!  You’ll kill yourself if you do that!”  But DON’T SMOKE IN BED is about so much more than fire safety.

Whether you hear the song as the expression of the woman who leaves the note or the man who tells us of the event, it is absolutely heart-stopping as a record of a long-time marriage that has failed so irrevocably that no recourse is possible except for one partner leaving while the other is asleep.

And what hits so hard is that the woman (let us say) who is telling her husband, “I am gone.  Do not try to follow me, look for me, find me.  I am leaving behind ‘my old wedding ring,’ a severing more decisive than any divorce proceeding — can speak to her obliviously sleeping spouse with colloquial rueful tenderness: “Remember, darling, don’t smoke in bed,” as if she were simultaneously concerned about his welfare while finding it impossible to live with him, look out for him, take care of him one day more.

The singer calls the sleeper, “old sleepy head,” which could be read as deeply affectionate at best, slightly mocking at worst — but it is a sobriquet more tender than many of us have heard in arguments. But what follows is — although casually stated — final: “I’m packing you in / Like I said,” which says that this is not a single marital argument that has escalated but the end of a long series of them, where the possibility of one partner leaving has often been discussed.

Did Robison know such an incident?  Did one of his friends, male or female, walk away from a relationship with such power and such regret, perhaps leaving a note and a ring?  Did some spouse — playfully or with great seriousness — say, “One day you’re going to wake up and I’ll be gone.  And when that happens, I hope you’ll stop smoking in bed.  I can’t stand you, but I don’t want you burned to death.”  Did someone wake up to find his / her partner gone?  Was it Robison himself?

I don’t know.

But I do not think anyone writes such a song without having personal experience — heard or lived-through — to base it on.

And I know that it is bad scholarship (even though I am thirty years’ out of graduate school) to ascribe biographical details to art.  But.  By 1962 Jack Teagarden was happily married — but with the wreckage of several marriages behind him.  Is it too much to hear world-weariness, despair, and knowledge in his voice?  I think not.

The way Teagarden arches his voice to deliver “Don’t look for me,” part cry, part croon, suggests a sorrowing song underneath this performance that the notes themselves cannot notate or contain — echoed by the way, glorious and anguished, that Don Goldie’s trumpet rises at the end of his solo.

Bless Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Don Goldie, Willard Robison, and Larry Conley for giving us such dramatic experiences — passages through sorrow and loss in the form of music that make us shiver with sadness and recognition.

“With these few goodbye-words . . . . the end of our story is told on the door.”

May your happiness increase. 

AWFUL SAD . . .

dsc00381

I didn’t have to go to graduate school to learn that things come to an end, including the summer, the bag of potato chips, and the cup of Earl Grey tea.  Of course we know that change may be the only constant.  But I was saddened to find that Jon-Erik Kellso’s Sunday gig at Sweet Rhythm is no more.

The reasons surely weren’t musical, and the audience had grown exponentially from the first Sunday to the fourth, which was November 16.  No, the gig ended for economic reasons, understandable but sorrowful nonetheless.  I envision this blog as a place to celebrate, so I will not embark on dark ruminations.

What I prefer to do here is thank the musicians who played so beautifully: Jon-Erik, Chuck Wilson, Will Anderson, Peter Reardon-Anderson, John Allred, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello, Kelly Friesen, Andrew Swann, and a host of gifted sitters-in including Lisa Hearns and Adrian Cunningham.  And the Friends of Jazz who filled the room: the Beloved, of course; Jackie, Lala, and Nina Favara; Bill and Sonya Dunham; Dick Dreiwitz; Jim and Grace Balantic; Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  And thanks to the people I didn’t get to meet who grinned and clapped and were moved along with us.

The music lives on in our memories and on YouTube.  You can visit my “swingyoucats” account and Jim’s “recquilt” for clips on this band in action.  But even the best live video isn’t the same thing.

AWFUL SAD, to quote Ellington.

SUNDAY’S JAZZ DELIGHTS: NOV. 16, 2008

A congenial quartet of the Beloved, myself, Erin Elliott, and Flip went to Sweet Rhythm this afternoon for what is becoming a delightful weekly ritual: to spend two hours in the happily inspired company of Jon-Erik Kellso and Friends.  This week, the Friends included some familiar faces: pianist Ehud Asherie, bassist Kelly Friesen, and drummer Andrew Swann.  Jon-Erik’s front-line colleague this week was his friend and (often) EarRegular, trombonist John Allred.

At times, I was reminded of the interplay between Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, not that Jon and John imitated those masterful players, but in the easy, dancing way their lines intertwined and complemented, feinted and echoed.  And the rhythm section was a joy, as always.

The band started off at a high level, with their comfortable, trotting version of the old standard MY GAL SAL:

They then offered a musing, sweet WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, that optimistic piece of good advice courtesy of Harry Barris and Bing Crosby:

And I close this post with the first feature of the afternoon: Ehud, Kelly, and Andrew playing LOUISE at a deliciously slow tempo.  I was so fascinated by the gliding pace Ehud had chosen that I missed the first half-chorus: I hope that I redeemed myself to watchers and readers by capturing the rest.  This performance reminds me, not of Maurice Chevalier, but of Lester Young and Teddy Wilson in 1956, although the tempo they chose was brighter:

Magical music!

Later on, Lisa Hearns sang DON’T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE and AFTER YOU’VE GONE, and sitters-in proliferated: Chris Lacamac and Gerald Kavanagh on drums, and Adrian Cunningham, an Australian clarinetist who has already distinguished himself at The Ear Inn.

We’ll be out of the country next Sunday, but that’s the only reason we would miss one of these sessions at 88 Seventh Avenue South.

CAPTAIN VIDEO! KELLSO AND FRIENDS, NOV. 9, 2008

Here’s a sampling of the remarkable jazz that Jon-Erik Kellso and Friends (Peter Reardon-Anderson, tenor and clarinet; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Kelly Friesen, bass; Andrew Swann, drums) played last Sunday at Sweet Rhythm, 88 Seventh Avenue South (5-7 PM).  I’m still a novice cinematographer — someone who accidentally cuts off the top of heads — but the sound is good, so perhaps that counts for more?

First, the lovely Harry Barris song, immortalized by Bing and Louis, “I Surrender, Dear”:

Then, the Twenties pop hit, “Linger Awhile,” a jam tune much beloved of Forties players (Dicky Wells, Lester Young, and Bill Coleman did it magnificently on Signature).  This version has a wonderfully twisty line, courtesy of Master Kellso, who calls his creation “Stick Around.”  Somehow, that line summons up the 1945 band Coleman Hawkins led, with Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Oscar Pettiford, Denzil Best, and (memorably) Vic Dickenson.  Do you agree?  (Wily man that he is, Jon-Erik quotes Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” on his first bridge, but I had to have it pointed out to me by another listener.)

and

And here’s that lively Sophie Tucker warning, “Some of These Days.”  This performance isn’t fast or loud, but it is the very definition of propulsive fun.  Everyone in this quintet has his own sound, but the ghosts of Louis, the entire Basie band, Ed Hall, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones were grinning, too:

The next two performances take us back to the glory days of 1938 — the hot summer when the Basie band appeared at the Famous Door, jammed in next to one another.  Here’s Eddie Durham’s “Topsy,” a minor blues with a bridge:

From the same blue-label Decca period, here’s Herschel Evans’s “Doggin’ Around,” taken at just the right tempo:

Finally, in quite a different mood but just as impassioned, here is bassist Kelly Friesen’s eloquent version of the Ellington classic “All Too Sooon”:

If you’re looking for more of the same on YouTube, Jim Balantic (jazz fan and DVD videographer) captured this group doing a swinging “Limehouse Blues.”  His account is called “recquilt,” and it should come up when these videos are selected.

And on November 16 (that’s this coming Sunday) we should all extricate ourselves from our computers to meet up at Sweet Rhythm and see Jon-Erik, pianist Ehud Asherie, trombonist John Allred, Kelly Friesen, and Andrew Swann.

As rewarding as these video clips are, isn’t it better when the musicians are life-size?  I think so.

P.S.  That being said, look for my postings of video clips from Kevin Dorn and the Traditional Jazz Collective and two from the Cangelosi Cards with members of the TJC sitting in — captured at Banjo Jim’s on Monday, November 10, 2008.

OUR OWN FOUR-DAY NYC JAZZ FESTIVAL

oaxaca-10-08-jazz-11-08-079

This remarkable weekend began on Friday night (November 7) at the New York Historical Society on Central Park West, with a free one-hour concert featuring bassist-singer-composer Jay Leonhart, amidst what the MC introduced, somewhat oddly, as “rising stars” Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and vocals, Ted Rosenthal, piano, and Alvin Atkinson, drums. The program mixed several Richard Rodgers classics, “Shall We Dance,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” Bernstein’s “Cool,” with two Leonhart originals and a closing romp through “Lester Leaps In.”  Rosenthal sparkled; Atkinson swung.

But the high point of the evening was an exploration of what Leonhart called “a jazz prayer,” “Body and Soul.”  That 1930 song can be a problem for musicians, as it has been played so nobly by so many: Coleman Hawkins, Louis, Bird in his first flights, Duke and Blanton, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, the Benny Goodman Trio, etc.   This performance began with Leonhart’s arco solo and then reached heights with Wycliffe’s plunger-muted, stately exploration of the theme.  Wycliffe knows full well how to honor a melody rather than simply leaping into variations on chord changes).  Waggling his plunger in and out, he mixed growls and moans, naughty comedy and deep sighs, as if Tricky Sam Nanton or Vic Dickenson was playing a hymn.  The solo ended all too soon.

oaxaca-10-08-jazz-11-08-062

Not only was the concert free, but the museum was open to all, so the Beloved and I wandered through lovely landscape paintings.  Future Fridays at the NYHS (all beginning at 6:30 PM) will feature The Western Wind (a contemporary classical vocal sextet) on November 14, on the 21, guitarists from the Manhattan School of Music (teachers and proteges); Cheryl B. Engelhardt and Oscar Rodriguez (guitar) on December 5, jazz again on December 12, with Jeb Patton, David Wong, and Tootie Heath, and ending with Latin music on the 19th from the Samuel Torres Group.

We rested on Saturday to prepare ourselves for the exuberances to come.

Sunday afternoon found us at Sweet Rhythm on Seventh Avenue South for the third gathering of Jon-Erik Kellso and Friends: this time bassist Kelly Friesen, drummer Andrew Swann, pianist Rossano Sportiello, and reedman Peter Reardon-Anderson, doubling tenor and clarinet.  Hyperbole is a dangerous thing, but I came away from these two sets thinking that I had heard the most exciting jazz in years.

I so admire Jon-Erik’s ability to shape an ad hoc ensemble into a cohesive one, and he did it through the two sets, creating jazz that was of this time and place, looking back to New Orleans and collective improvisation, forward to contemporary “Mainstream” solos.  If I kept thinking of Keynote Records 1943-46, perhaps that’s because those jubilant performances kept being evoked on the stand at Sweet Rhythm.  Rossano strode and glided, sometimes in a Basie mood (appropriately) on “Doggin’ Around” and “Topsy”; Kelly took the glories of Milt Hinton (powerful rhythm, a huge tone, beautiful arco work on “All Too Soon”) and made them his own, and Andrew Swann, slyly grinning, added Sidney Catlett and Cliff Leeman to his swinging progenitors.  Anderson, twenty-one years old, is someone we can greet at the beginning of a brilliant career (to quote Emerson on Whitman): Zoot Sims and Ed Hall stand in back of his graceful, energetic playing.  Basie got honored, but so did Bing and Louis in “I Surrender, Dear,” and Kellso reminded us that not only is he playing marvelously but he is a first-rate composer: his line on “Linger Awhile” was a memorable hide-and-seek creation.  We cheered this band, and with good reason.

oaxaca-10-08-jazz-11-08-0641

And the room was full of Jazz Friends who didn’t get up on the bandstand: Bill and Sonya Dunham, Jim and Grace Balantic, Nina Favara, Lawri Moore, Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  A righteous congregation!

And the five portraits you see here — from the top, Jon-Erik, Rossano, Kelly, Andrew, and Peter — come from this gig, courtesy of Lorna Sass, jazz photographer.

Perhaps I am a jazz glutton, but those two sets weren’t enough: I walked downtown to the Ear Inn to soak up one more set by the EarRegulars: Jon-Erik, Chris Flory on guitar, Greg Cohen on bass, and Michael Blake on tenor, someone entirely new to me.  (He and Jon-Erik go ‘way back, although they hadn’t played together in years.)  Blake is exceedingly amiable, so we found ourselves chatting at the bar — about small towns near Victoria (Souk for one) and Pee Wee Russell, about the odd and gratifying ways people come to jazz, about Lucky Thompson and jazz clarinet.  Then it was time for the EarRegulars to hit, and they surely did — from a “Blue Skies” that became “In Walked Bud,” to Blake’s feature on (what else?) “Body and Soul.”  Here, backed by the wonderfully sensitive duo of Chris and Greg, he broke the theme into fragments, speculating on their possibilities, becoming harmonically bolder with a tone that ranged from purring to rasping (some echoes of Lacy), exploring the range of his instrument in a delicate, earnest, probing way.  It was a masterful performance, and I am particularly delighted to encounter such brave creativity from a player I didn’t know before.

oaxaca-10-08-jazz-11-08-0661

Of course, the near-collisions of beauty and contemporary weirdness never fail to amaze.  I was sitting at the bar at the Ear, welcomed there by Victor, who knows more jazz than most critics.  At the bar, to my left, three and sometimes four people were facing away from the band, hunched over their Black Berry or Black Berries, their iPhones, what have you.  Electronically glowing tiny screens, blue and white, shone throughout the club.  I too am a techno-addict — but why go to a bar to check your BlackBerry and ignore the live art being created not five feet away?  To treat Kellso, Blake, Flory, and Cohen as background music seems oblivious or rude.

Monday there was work — but that is always a finite obligation, even when it looms inescapably — but soon I was back in Manhattan, drawn inexorably with the Beloved to Banjo Jim’s (Avenue C and Ninth Street) to hear two groups in one night.  Banjo Jim’s seems ideal — small, congenial, a private neighborhood bar full of young people listening to the music, a real blessing.

The first group was full of old friends — Kevin Dorn’s Traditional Jazz Collective.  This incarnation included Charlie Caranicas on cornet, Michael Hashim on alto sax, J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and vocal, Jesse Gelber on piano, Kevin on drums.  Kevin kicked things off with a romping “I Want To Be Happy,” explicitly summoning up the 1972 New School concert where Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Kenny Davern, and Dick Wellstood — someone named Eddie Condon in charge — showed what could be done with that simple line.  (I was at that concert, too.)  J. Walter Hawkes, one of my favorite unsung singers, did his wonderful, yearning “Rose Room.”  Barbara Rosene sat in for a thoughtful “Pennies From Heaven,” complete with the fairy-tale verse, and the proceedings closed with a hot “China Boy.”

And then — as if it that hadn’t been enough — the Cangelosi Cards took the stand.  They are the stuff of local legend and they deserve every accolade.  A loosely-arranged ensemble: Jake Sanders on acoustic guitar, Marcus Milius on harmonica, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Gordon Webster on piano, Karl Meyer on violin, Cassidy Holden on bass.  They are all fine players, better than many with larger reputations.  I thought I heard a drummer but saw no one at the trap set: later I found out that their singer, Tamar Korn, has a remarkable vocabulary of clicks, hisses, and swishes — she fooled me and she swung.  The group has a Django-and-Stephane flavor, but they are not prisoners of that sound, that chugging rhythm, that repertoire.  They began with “Douce Ambiance,” moved to Harry Barris’s “It Was So Beautiful,” and then Eddie Durham’s “Topsy.”

Early on in the set, it became clear that this band has a devoted following — not just of listeners, but of dancers, who threw themselves into making the music physically three-dimensional in a limited space.  Wonderful inspired on-the-spot choreography added to the occasion, an exultant Happening.

Then Tamar Korn got up to sing — she is so petite that I hadn’t quite seen her, because I was seated at the back of the small square room.  But I heard her, and her five songs are still vibrating in my mind as I write this.  Without attempting to be mysterious in any way (she is friendly and open) she is someone unusual.  Rumor has it that she hails from California, but I secretly believe she is not from our planetary system.  When I’ve suggested this to her, she laughs . . . but doesn’t deny it.

Tamar’s singing is focused, experimental, powerful.  In her performance of “Avalon,” she began by singing the lyrics clearly, with emotion but not ever “acting,” then shifted into a wordless line, high long held notes in harmony with the horns, as if she were Adelaide Hall or a soprano saxophone, then did two choruses of the most evocative scat-singing I’ve ever heard (it went beyond Leo Watson into pure sound) and then came back to the lyrics.

Her voice is small but not narrow, her range impressive.  What I find most exhilirating is the freedom of her approach: I hear old-time country music (not, I must add, “country and western,” but real roots music), blues and bluegrass, the parlor soprano essaying light classics, opera, yodeling, swing — and pure sound.  She never appears to be singing a song in any formulaic way.  Rather, she is a vessel through whom the force of music passes: she is embraced by the emotions, the notes, the words.

And when the Cards invited their friends — that is, Charlie Caranicas, Michael Hashim, and Jesse Gelber — to join them for “Milenberg Joys,” “I’m Confessin’,” and “Avalon,” it was as close to soul-stirring ritual in a New York club as I can remember.  The room vibrated; the dancers threw their hands in the air, people stood up to see better, the music expressed intense joy.  I don’t know whether Margaret Mead had rhythm in her feet, but she would have recognized what went on at Banjo Jim’s.

oaxaca-10-08-jazz-11-08-0741

I hope to have video, thanks to Flip, to post shortly.  Tune in again!  (And another weekend is coming soon . . . tempus fugit isn’t so terrifying when there are glories like this to look forward to.)

Only in New York, I am sure.

All photographs by Lorna Sass, copyright 2008.