Tag Archives: Aretha Franklin

“PICK UP MY PIECES”: GABRIELLE STRAVELLI SINGS WILLIE NELSON

Gabrielle Stravelli by Tom Cocotos

I confess.  I am not a deep Willie Nelson fancier.  But I do think Gabrielle Stravelli is one of the great improvising-dramatic singers of my time, and I base that on delighted personal observation.

On this CD, she is expansive, resonant, enthusiastic, making each song a sharply realized dramatic vignette with her rich voice splendidly supported by a rollicking big band (splendidly whimsical arrangements by string bassist / cellist / composer Pat O’Leary).  These strong performances don’t rely on “acting,” just her soulful emotional scope, the kind of art I associate with Aretha Franklin, even though the two singers don’t sound alike.

As a special bonus, the EarRegulars (if you don’t know who they are, check the search bar) — Jon-Erik Kellso, John Allred, and Scott Robinson are vividly in evidence on THREE DAYS, as well as an evocative string quartet and Hammond B3.  Gabrielle can be poignantly intimate, as on BUTTERFLY (in duet with Scott’s alto flute).  A rollicking MAMMAS DON’T LET YOUR BABIES GROW UP TO BE COWBOYS (Gabrielle hilariously playing tag with John Allred) would make Sarah Vaughan grin.  In the middle of this CD, Gabrielle essays STARDUST — and tenderly explores that song as if ninety years of accretion had never happened, in tandem with Scott’s tenor saxophone. She then turns GOOD HEARTED WOMAN into a crooning poem; what I’ve characterized as Gabrielle’s urban meow comes to the surface during the KARMA MEDLEY — with a too-brief interlude where NOBODY SLIDES, MY FRIEND becomes a New Orleans Second Line, snare drum and Jon-Erik Kellso to the fore.

SOMEBODY PICK UP MY PIECES is conceived, magnificently, first as a duet for Gabrielle and Pat O’Leary’s string bass, then growing more expressive, even operatic, as it proceeds.  NIGHTLIFE rocks along with what I can only think of as a modern New York City jazz ensemble along for Gabrielle’s ride.  ANGEL FLYING TOO CLOSE TO THE GROUND — with a magic carpet of strings (real ones, not synthesizer simulacra) is a hymnlike lament imbued with great intensity.  ALWAYS ON MY MIND closes the grand tour — a guilt-laden duet with piano — memorably and sorrowfully.

Medleys make it possible to include seventeen songs in twelve performances with arresting thematic juxtapositions.  You can hear convincing sound samples here.  And here are some vibrant performance videos from Birdland — with our heroes in the band (John Allred, Jon-Erik Kellso, Pat O’Leary, John Allred, Scott Robinson, Jay Rattman) as well.  However, a small caveat: the videos allow you to see just how Gabrielle captivates an audience.  But the sound on the CD is much better, and you will hear nuances not captured by the Birdland sound system.

LADY LUCK / IF YOU’VE GOT THE MONEY:

THREE DAYS:

The very tender BUTTERFLY:

DON’T LET YOUR BABIES GROW UP TO BE COWBOYS, wise advice:

KARMA MEDLEY, with echoes of the French Quarter:

PICK UP MY PIECES / CRAZY:

and finally, NIGHTLIFE:

That applause is both real and well-deserved.  Gabrielle is both fierce and delicate, and the band follows her every impulse, most eloquently.

May your happiness increase!

PEPPER ADAMS’ JOY ROAD: AN ANNOTATED DISCOGRAPHY by GARY CARNER

I had not known much about baritone saxophonist / composer Pepper Adams before a friend lent me a copy of Gary Carner’s book on him (now in paperback from Scarecrow Press) but I commend both Pepper and the book to you.

JOY ROAD 2

First, some music — an excerpt from an uptempo STRAIGHT, NO CHASER with Clark Terry, recorded in 1978:

The book is well-researched, rather than opinion.  Not only did its author speak with Pepper and JOY ROAD is introduced by the eminent Dan Morgenstern, but no other book I know has enthusiastic blurbs from both Phil Woods (alto) and Philip Levine (poetry).

JOY ROAD is an annotated discography.  To those not deeply involved in the music, such a work may seem a collection of marginally-useful pieces of arcane information, suitable only to those strange creatures, “record collectors,” concerned with whether that Charlie Parker solo recorded on a cardboard disc was issued on a Bolivian compact disc. I am exaggerating, but not that much.

But as an annotated bibliography would tell us a great deal about the artistic life of a writer and her relations with the marketplace, an annotated listing of a musician’s recordings would map an artistic journey. The book does not purport to be a biography — Carner is working on one now and hopes it will be finished by Adams’ centennial — but it is full of information about Adams’ life and music from 1947 to his death in 1986.  And that information is more than listings of songs, original compositions, recording data, issued or unissued performances. What makes Carner’s book more than a useful reference work is the interviews he conducted with Pepper and the people who knew and worked with him.

When I received a copy of JOY ROAD, I opened it at random, out of curiosity. I had not been terribly involved in Adams’ work — coming from a long immersion in Harry Carney and Ernie Caceres, among others.  But I stood in the middle of the living room, reading eagerly for a half hour, before remembering that a) I could sit down, and b) other tasks had to be taken care of.  If a book can “stop me in my tracks,” it is one I will read, keep, and value.

Many jazz musicians, so eloquent as creators, grow reticent when asked to speak about their art and their colleagues.  Much of what is published as treasured narrative is frankly insubstantial: “Oh, she liked her drink after the set was through!” “Did I ever tell you the story of X at the diner and what he said to the waiter?” “Y couldn’t stand Z, and always called Z names, but when they got on the stand, they blew!” If we didn’t feel that our heroes were so precious that any scrap of anecdotage, no matter how thin, brought us a step closer, no one would retell such stories. But JOY ROAD is not a collection of shards and detritus important only because they connect with someone we value. Carner’s musicians have been unsually articulate, and their stories have shape and heft.

We read about a bizarre and satisfying gig (even televised) where Pepper, David Amram, and Elvin Jones played at a Horn and Hardart automat in midtown Manhattan; Hank Jones tells Carner, “I never felt I was up to his standards, to tell you the truth.  I was reaching to play along with him”; we learn of Adams’ early work with Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman; encounters with Alfred Lion, Joihn Hammond, and Rudy Van Gelder; concert performances with Mingus and Monk; encounters with younger European musicians and elders of the tribe including Fess Williams, Cozy Cole, Joe Wilder, Benny Carter, Milt Hinton; the birth and development of the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra; an informal session in Eugene H. Smith’s loft with Adams playing piano to Zoot Sims’ tenor; recordings with Donald Byrd, Oliver Nelson, Duke Pearson, Blue Mitchell, Jimmy Rowles, Joshua Breakstone, and a hundred other notables.

Equally intriguing are glimpses into the life of a valued New York session player, for Adams was understandably in-demand for pop recordings, often as an uncredited member of the ensemble, with Aretha Franklin, Dakota Staton, Sonny and Cher, The Cowsills, The Nice, The Rascals, Brook Benton, Jon Lucien, Esther Phillips, film soundtracks, industrial films, and more.

Ultimately, JOY ROAD did a number of things for me, even though my first reading of this 550-plus page book was of necessity quick rather than deep. I found recordings I’d known nothing about — Carner has had access to Adams’ personal appointment book, and has spoken with more than a hundred musicians. But more than that, I have a sense of Adams as an individual — reading Dostoevsky, listening to Berg, encouraging younger musicians, fierce when he felt unjustly treated — and I look forward to the biography, which Carner is tentatively calling In Love with Night.

I will close with my single Pepper Adams sighting. In 1972, several friends and I followed Ruby Braff to gigs.  Although Ruby was unpredictable and unreasonably given to rage, he was always pleasant to us and allowed us to tape-record him. On July 19 of that year, my friend Stu and I came to the Half Note to record Ruby with the Welsh pianist Dill Jones, bassist George Mraz (then working with Pepper in the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis ensemble, and Dottie Dodgion on drums.  About two -thirds through the evening, where the music had been very sweet, with Ruby’s characteristic leaps through the repertoire of Louis, Duke, and Billie, a tall man ascended the stand with a baritone saxophone, was greeted warmly by the players, and the quintet launched into an extended blues in Ab.  I remember Dottie Dodgion being particularly enthusiastic about the unnamed musician’s playing, who packed his horn and went off into the warm Greenwich Village night.  Who was that unmasked man?  The subject of Carner’s book, and yes, the tape exists, although not in my possession.

To learn more about Adams, JOY ROAD, and Carner, visit his Pepper Adams website and his Pepper Adams blog, THE MASTER.

May your happiness increase!

QUIETLY ACCOMPLISHED: CHRIS BARBER’S “JAZZ ME BLUES”

The biographies of jazz musicians often follow a predictable path, from Mother at the organ or Dad’s 78s, precocious talent, hours of rigorous training, encounters with older professionals, early gigs, and then success.  If the musician is stable and fortunate, the narrative quiets down to a series of gigs and concerts; if the subject is tragic, the pages darken: alcohol, drugs, abusive relationships, auto accident, major illness, premature death.

The jazz eminences who have written autobiographies (excepting Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day, although I am sure some readers will add to that list) have been the more fortunate ones, and their books depict elders looking back on friendships and triumphs.  Often the narrator is justly proud, and his / her singular personality is a strong consistent presence.

Trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber, born in 1930, continues to have a wonderful career — one that began with “traditional jazz” and stretched the definition to include different music incorporated into his own.  He’s played and recorded for more than sixty years with British jazz legends Ben Cohen, Ottilie Patterson, Ken Colyer, Acker Bilk, Pat Halcox, Lonnie Donegan, Monty Sunshine, Bruce Turner, Ian Wheeler, Beryl Bryden; with American stars Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Ed Hall, Ray Nance, Albert Nicholas, Joe Darensbourg, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cecil Scott, Don Frye, Floyd Casey, Ed Allen, Sidney deParis, Hank Duncan, Wild Bill Davis, Russell Procope, Dr. John, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lewis and George Lewis, Clarence Williams, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, Sam Theard, Jack Teagarden, Ornette Coleman, Scott LaFaro, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band . . .so the reader who opens a Barber autobiography hopes for good stories.

But this long list of names isn’t all there is to JAZZ ME BLUES (written with the very capable help of Alyn Shipton . . . Barber says in his acknowledgments that they first talked about this book in 1982) — published this year by Equinox in their Popular Music History series.

Barber follows the usual chronological path from his early encounter with jazz to becoming an international eminence. However, it took me about thirty-five pages (the book is 172 long) to settle in to JAZZ ME BLUES because of his distinctive personality.

He isn’t forceful or self-absorbed, telling us of the wonderful thing he did next. Barber comes across as a quietly modest man who has no need for us to admire him. Chronicling his life, he is so placidly matter-of-fact that it might take readers by surprise. But once we do, the absence of self-congratulation is refreshing, as if we were introduced to a very talented person who had been brought up to think self-praise was vulgar.

An interval for music.  First, STEAMBOAT BILL and HIGH SOCIETY from the Fifties:

GOIN’ HOME BLUES from 2013:

Aside from its subject’s remarkably modest approach to his own life, JAZZ ME BLUES has two great pleasures.  One is Barber’s unwillingness to stay neatly in the style that had brought him success. Beginning in the Sixties, his band takes on different shadings while not abandoning the music he loves: he brings in electric guitarist John Slaughter, altoist Joe Harriott, organist Brian Auger; he works and records with blues and gospel legends; he plays extended compositions. Again, since Barber speaks about these events with polite restraint, one must estimate the emotional effect of being booed by British traditionalist fans who wanted “their” music to stay the same. Barber is not making changes to woo a larger audience or to stay in the public eye, but because he is genuinely interested in adding other flavorings to a familiar dish. He is a determined seeker, and he grows more intriguing in his quests.

The other pleasure I alluded to at the start, delightful first-hand anecdotes. Readers deprived of their own contact with their heroes always want to know what the great men and women were like, and JAZZ ME BLUES — although never mean-spirited in its quick sketches — is a banquet here. Not only do we hear about Sonny Boy Williamson and Zutty Singleton (the latter saying he is most happy in a band without a piano because pianists all “lose time”) but about Van Morrison, George Harrison (who likes the 1930 BARNACLE BILL THE SAILOR) and colleagues Lennon and McCartney; we read of Howlin’ Wolf saying grace quietly and sweetly before a meal. Trumpeter Ed Allen tells Barber that he always used to learn the songs for Clarence Williams record dates in the taxi on the way to the studio.

And Barber has been in the right place at the right time. When he comes to America, he sits in at Condon’s. After an uneventful beginning, “. . . suddenly the rhythm section started to swing. I looked round and Eddie had picked up his guitar and joined in. From then on, with him there, every tempo was just right, and everything swung. His presence was subtle, but it made the world of difference. I knew what a fine player he could be, as, when the band had appeared at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957. I’d gone along to their late night concert. The thing that sticks in my memory from that night was Eddie taking a half-chorus solo on a tune in the ballad medley. It was just perfect, and with the tuning of his four-string tenor guitar it had a very distinctive sound. It reminded me of Carmen Mastren, who was a true virtuoso.”

JAZZ ME BLUES is an engaging portrait of a continuing life in jazz (with rare photographs, a selective discography, and an index). It is available in North America exclusively through ISD ($34.95 hardcover): ISD, 70 Enterprise Drive, Suite 2, Bristol, CT 00610: orders@isdistribution.com.

May your happiness increase!

PETRA and ANDY REWARD US

One of the many pleasures of the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua was hearing Petra van Nuis and Andy Brown perform in front of a live audience, and I think the performance clips I’ve posted are solid evidence of their talents.  I was hoping that the duo’s new CD would provide the same experience.  Sometimes, of course, magic dissolves in the recording studio amid attempts to make recordings flawless.     

But I need not have worried.  Petra and Andy’s new CD is splendid.

cdcover-faraway_400 

Where to begin?  (Once we’ve taken in the picture of the happy good-looking couple above . . . )  The songs on the CD are DESTINATION MOON, FAR AWAY PLACES, FROM THIS MOMENT ON, I’LL NEVER STOP LOVING YOU, CARAVAN, BORN TO BLOW THE BLUES, LET’S DO IT, BIM BOM (a solo for Andy), A COTTAGE FOR SALE, HOW LITTLE WE KNOW, INVITATION, ME MYSELF AND I, WITH A SONG IN MY HEART. 

That song list speaks to a wide-ranging and discerning knowledge of the great songs of the last eighty or so years, a delight in itself: Porter, Ellington, Robison, Rodgers, and some delightful oddities.  I know, for instance, that DESTINATION MOON is attached to a film of the same name and it even appears on a Lester Young live date c. 1950, but how many people have ever recorded it?  (If you don’t know the song, imagine IN MY MERRY OLDSMOBILE updated to the era of fantasy rocket travel.)  And BORN TO BLOW THE BLUES is associated with Marilyn Moore — but I haven’t heard it in ages.  But this CD isn’t a high-toned musical archeology lesson, either.

Andy Brown, first: barring a half-dozen I admire, most jazz guitarists have become entranced, Narcissus staring at their own reflection in the shiny body of the Gibson or Macaferri, with the endless possibilities of their own technique.  (You could blame Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix for this, but we’re here to celebrate.)  So the notes pour out in what sound like endless streams; the fingers fly.  Few guitarists seem to understand the value of space, of breathing pauses, of logical solo construction — with music delivered at an intelligible rate.  Andy could cover the fingerboard, digits a blur, if he chose to.  But he knows better.  So his playing unfolds beautifully in its own song, no matter what tempo or what chords.  He loves melody; he can swing any band several steps closer to Heaven with his chordal strum, and he is an absolutely flawless team-player, never fixated on the limelight.  Accompanying a singer isn’t easy, either, but Andy is rather like a tactful, energized conversationalist at the party: he has things to tell us, he has comments to offer and support by the bucketful, but he never tries to outshine Petra.

And Petra?  The first thing I noticed about Petra (before I had heard her in person) was the focus she brought to her songs.  She isn’t one of these gospel whoopers; she hasn’t channelled Aretha or Billie; she isn’t a Broadway belter.  All to the good, let me assure you.  It means that she doesn’t overact, that she fits the word to the deed and the notes to the emotion, never smudging a lyric to appear hip, never landing in the wrong place.  She can romp very happily (her enunciation is flawless, even in fourth gear) and she has a speaking presence.  And before I had heard this CD, I would have praised Petra for avoiding the dramatic excesses I hear from so many singers.  But then I heard her version of A COTTAGE FOR SALE, and I was just about stunned by its great dramatic range, mixing ruefulness, poignancy, and loss — without overacting so much as a hair.  It was pure feeling, captured beautifully.  I might never hear that song sung so heartbreakingly again.      

Both Petra and Andy get first place in my imagined TALENT DESERVING COSMIC RECOGNITION category!  Check out their websites — www.petrasings.com., and www.andybrownguitar.com — to find out such useful information as “May I hear some audio clips?” and, following quickly,”How can I buy these CDs?”

cdcover_recession7_smPsst!  Want something for free?  Go to Petra’s site and you’ll be able to see many more clips of this duo and other combinations . . . and you can listen to a four-tune demo CD of Petra with her RECESSION SEVEN, which is a sort of well-behaved small swing band (think Eddie Condon – Lee Wiley – Teddy Wilson – Mildred Bailey) including legendary Chicagoans Kim Cusack and Russ Phillips.