Tag Archives: Benny Goodman

A MASTER AT PLAY: JAMES CHIRILLO at THE EAR INN (August 6, 2017)

Drawing by Dan Christoffel

I have been enjoying the art of guitarist / composer / arranger James Chirillo (and I know I have company in this) for some years now on discs, all the way back to 1985, when he appeared as a member of the Loren Schoenberg jazz orchestra then led by Benny Goodman. I browsed his discography and was amazed but not surprised to find how many of my favorite discs he is on, for musicians knew a long time ago that he had a deep yet playful intelligence.

I don’t know when I first encountered him in person (finding him serious, witty, surprising, and kind) but I can say that he allowed me to point a video camera at him a good many years ago, beginning in 2009.  He is a very serious judge of his own work but has been generous and gracious about getting captured and shown off for free, possibly because he understands the depth of my admiration (and, again, I am not alone in this.)

James has always been a peerless soloist — offering delightful surprises mixed in with a fine respect for sound and for melodies — and a wonderful team player, someone who works seriously yet with a light heart to keep the band trotting in the right direction.  I’ve written elsewhere about James’ deadpan penchant for weird notes and tones and spaces, something I cherish, but there is nothing weird about what I can present here.

Often, The Ear Inn, my intermittent Sunday-night shrine, on 326 Spring Street, home of the blessed EarRegulars, has been crowded and noisy.  Although it plays hell with my goals of a) appreciating music in a near-reverent hush and b) recording it for this audience, I understand the throng as a good thing.  People who have read about The Ear in a guidebook that calls it one of the secret New York City places that tourists don’t know about (is that a whiff of irony burning in that skillet?) keep these Sunday soirees going — as they have been for ten years.  But two Sundays ago, The Ear was wonderfully serene, and the band of Danny Tobias, Scott Robinson, Frank Tate, and James (with an early-evening guest appearance by the lyrical violinist Valerie Levy) had a good time in the peaceful admiration and pleasure.

About two-thirds of the way through the evening, after a very pleasing EarRegulars performance of a song had concluded, James turned to the band and to us, and said (low-key, wry yet plainly) that since he hadn’t taken a solo on the previous tune, he was going to take one now, and play something he had worked on, Johnny Smith’s arrangement / recomposition / improvisation on GOLDEN EARRINGS, a composition by Victor Young — the title theme of a 1947 film starring Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland (an autographed copy of the sheet music is here just because it seems a shame not to share it):

and the movie poster:

Here is James’ tender virtuoso interlude, and it is a marvel — you don’t have to be a guitarist to understand that:

Thank you, Master Chirillo, for offering us, without fanfare, a multicolored respite from this modern world.

May your happiness increase!

“THE THRUSH AND THE SKINMAN” (January 18, 1944)

I will explain my odd title-quotation below.

Billie Holiday and Sidney Catlett in concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, January 18, 1944.

And here is the soundtrack: DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME, BILLIE’S BLUES, and I’LL GET BY, with Billie accompanied by Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, and Sidney Catlett:

And you all know that Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, and Mildred Bailey appeared, with the Goodman Quintet being beamed in from the other coast.

When I bid on and won that photograph of Billie and Sidney on eBay, it came with a small rectangular strip of yellowed paper taped to its back, which read

THE THRUSH AND THE SKINMAN

“Two top jive artists are shown at the Esquire All-American jazz concert, held at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 18th. Billie Holliday does the vocalizing as drummer boy Sid Catlett pounds the skins.”

I am nostalgic about 1944 music, but I am glad that no one feels compelled to write that way anymore.  Incidentally, when I looked online to see where this picture might have appeared — searching for THRUSH and SKINMAN — I got a whole host of entries about candida, male and female yeast infections. Mmmmmmm.

My unanswered and unanswerable question about the photograph has to do with it being a posed, rather than candid shot.  Notice that neither of the two participants is in motion; there is no blur.  So.  Did the photographer say to the two of them presumably before or after the concert, “Billie, Miss Holiday.  Could you come over here?  We need a shot of you and Sidney — how do you people say it — giving each other . . . some skin?”  And for those who like metaphysics, which one put out a hand first for this hip charade?  I know the photograph is in some ways fake, but the emotions behind it are not.

P.S.  If you’re going to lift the photographic image for use on your own site, be my guest.  I wouldn’t disfigure it with a watermark . . . but real gents and ladies also write, “Photo courtesy of JAZZ LIVES.”  Thanks.

May your happiness increase!

THE WARM SOUNDS OF BILL NAPIER (1926-2003)

Clarinetist Bill Napier might be one of the finest musicians that few people outside of California have ever heard, or heard of.  Marc Caparone says, “I only played music with him twice, but he was a god, a very quiet man who didn’t get much publicity but was always superb.”  Leon Oakley remembers him as a “warm, creative player.”  Hal Smith told me that Bill cared about the music more than “traditional” ways of playing a chorus.

Almost all of the recordings Bill made, and the live performances captured outside of the studio have him in the middle of six or seven-piece units.  What I now can share with you here is intimate, touching music, with Bill the solo horn in a congenial trio.

The personnel of these live recordings is Napier, clarinet; Larry Scala, banjo; Robbie Schlosser, string bass.  They were recorded on August 8, 1994, outdoors at Stanford University, by Dr. Arthur Schawlow, who won the Nobel Prize (with others) for his work on the laser beam.  Dr. Schawlow not only liked jazz, but was an early adopter of high-tech: Larry says that he recorded these performances on a digital recorder, the first one he had ever seen.

Here are five delicious chamber performances, beginning with ALL MY LIFE.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

I’M CONFESSIN’:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

IF I HAD YOU:

and a masterpiece:

Napier’s sound comes in the ear like honey.  He never plays a superfluous note; he honors the melody but in the most gentle supple way.  It is rather as if he were leaning forward, softly saying something heartfelt that was important to him and that he knew would uplift you.  Beauty and swing without affectation.

Before we move on to precious oral history, a few words about one of the other members of this trio.  After you have bathed in the liquid gold of Napier’s sound, listen once again to the very relaxed and gracious banjo playing of Larry Scala. Like Napier, he understands melodic lines (while keeping a flexible rhythm going and using harmonies that add but never distract).  Banjos in the wrong hands can scare some of us, but Larry is a real artist, and his sound is a pleasure to listen to.  (You can find examples of his superb guitar work elsewhere on this blog.) And this post exists because of his generosity, for he has provided the source material, and Larry’s gift to us is a great one.  Music to dance to; music to dream by.

I asked California jazz eminences for memories of Napier, and this is some of what people remembered.  Bill was obviously A Character, but everyone I asked was eager to praise him, and you’ve heard why.

From Hal Smith: I was going through tapes in the archive of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation. One tape had several of the bands which performed at the Clancy Hayes benefit at Earthquake McGoon’s in May of 1970. Napier led a band for the occasion. I heard him get onstage, walk to the mic and say “Here we are!” Then, a couple of seconds later, “Where ARE we?”

By the way, Bill’s real name was James William Asbury.  I’m not sure how it got changed to “Bill Napier.”  When he would tell stories about his youth, or time in the Army, he always referred to himself as “little Jimmy Asbury.”

Bill told me about the clarinetists he admired, including Jimmie Noone and Jimmy Dorsey. He also liked Albert Nicholas and went to hear him at Club Hangover in San Francisco. He asked to sit in, but was turned down. As he described it, “I asked Albert Nicholas if he needed any help and he said he didn’t think so.”

Bill was the original clarinetist with Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band. He left the group following Jack Sohmer’s mean-spirited review of Schulz’s CD which was published in The Mississippi Rag. After that, whenever Schulz would ask if Bill was available to play a gig, Bill would say, “No. Jack Sohmer may be in the audience.”  Before he left the Schulz band, we played a concert at Filoli Mansion outside San Francisco. M.C. Bud Spangler asked each musician to explain why they play music for a living. There was a wide range of responses, but Bill’s was the best: “Well, I have to pay my taxes!”

From Clint Baker:  Bill Napier was a bit of a prodigy, as a teenager he was playing at the Dawn Club as part of a young band that was one of the substitute bands for the wartime Yerba Buena Jazz Band.  By the late 40’s he was working with Wingy Manone in San Francisco. He went on to have a couple of stints with the Turk Murphy band and also with Bob Scobey, a band for which he was better suited for sure. He later worked with all the better bands around here; he was not all that interested in playing music on the road and kept close to home for the most part after the Fifties.

I encountered him many times when I was coming up.  He was always the consummate sideman, and always played with great imagination; he had the most amazing tone, liquid would best describe his.  But he NEVER ran out of ideas, he was a wellspring of original musical thought. If he did fall back on a device such as quote, it was always the most obtuse thing one could come up with.

Bill was one of the only players I ever played with who perfectly combined the elements of swing clarinet and New Orleans style clarinet; he all at once sounded like Goodman or Shaw or Simeon or Bigard.  He was hip to all of it and could combine all of the musical DNA of those styles in to his own rich sound. I remember speaking with him about to old masters and he told Simeon was one of his main favorites.  BUT he was truly his own man with the richest of musical imaginations.  I was always honored to work with him, and wish I had had more chances, but the times I did, I cherish. You knew when you were on the bandstand with him you were in the presence of greatness.  Bill was a master.

From Paul Mehling: I worked with him for nearly thirty years in a trio of bass, guitar, and clarinet, and he is on two of our CDs.  He was very shy, quiet, and private. He loved his two (or more?) cats. He and his wife would take the two cats camping and one year when it was time to leave they couldn’t find one of their cats. They called and called but feared he’d been abducted or eaten so they drove home very sad. Next year, they went camping again, same spot/campground. Guess who showed up!  They were overjoyed.  He never really believed how much I loved his playing and all I aspired to at that time was to be GOOD ENOUGH TO SHINE HIS SHOES (musically). I used to try to get into his head during each song and try to give him the kind of rhythm that he’d be most comfortable with.

I was 18 when I first played a full gig with him, but I first met him at the Alameda County Fair when I was 16, long-haired, and didn’t know anything about music but had enough gumption to drag my acoustic guitar into the fairgrounds and find those guys- Lueder Ohlwein, banjo; maybe Ev Farey, trumpet; for sure Bob Mielke, trombone, was there and probably Bill Carrol on bass.  They said Do you know any songs?” I said “Sure, whaddabout Avalon and I Got Rhythm,” and probably one other song.  I played, they liked it, and a few years later Napier remembered me!

He and I bonded early on over comedy. He liked how often I quoted Groucho. We had a shared love for bad puns:
Napier: “Let’s play the suspenders song.”
Me: “ What song is that?”
Napier: “It all depends on you.”
Me: “What?”
Napier : “It hold de pants on you.”

Napier: “You like to golf?”
Me: “Uh, no. You?”
Napier: “No, I never wanted to make my balls soar.”

We’d come up with all manner of re-titling songs to keep us from feeling bad about playing background music and getting almost zero love from “audiences.”

When the Bob Scobey band did a two-year stint in Chicago, Benny Goodman used to show up just to dig on Napier’s playing (which sounded like Goodman/Bigard/Noone!

One thing for sure: the guy never did NOT swing. Never. Even a song he didn’t know. In fact, and more curious was that I could throw all kinds of (gypsy) chord substitutions at him (I didn’t know any better, I thought that’s what jazz musicians did: reharmonize everything) and he never, EVER said “No” or so much as cast an evil eye in my direction. I think the years he played with Bill Erickson at Pier 23 were his favorite years.  He didn’t speak much of Erickson, but I could just tell.

Oh, here’s the BEST story. I just remembered: we were at a swanky Sunday brunch on the Stanford Campus, near that big Stanford Mall with Bloomingdales and other stores.  We would often try to engage diners by chatting and asking if they had a request. Most people wanted to hear something from CATS (ugh). Or they wanted to hear In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.  So we went up to this table, and there’s a guy there, of a certain age. With an attractive woman half his age.  One of us said, “What would you like to hear?”
Man: “ I want to you to play “It Had To Be You” but not fast, about here- ….”(snaps his fingers indicating a medium slow tempo)
Me, aside to Napier: “Why don’t you ask MR. CONDUCTOR what KEY he’d like to SING it in?”
Napier, whispering to me: “I think MR. CONDUCTOR is MR. Getz.”
Boy, did I feel stupid: Stan Getz, doing a residency at Stanford, one of Napier’s heroes.

Obviously, a man well-loved and well-remembered.

I have foregone the usual biography of Bill, preferring to concentrate on the music for its own sake.  But here is a lovely detailed sketch of his life — unfortunately, it’s his obituary, and here is another week’s worth of rare music — Napier with bands — provided thanks to Dave Radlauer.  There are more trio performances, also.

Now, go back and listen to Napier play.

May your happiness increase!

HAL SMITH’S “SWING CENTRAL” GETS IT: BIX FEST (August 3, 2017)

Even though it’s been in existence only a short time, SWING CENTRAL, the beloved brain-and-heart child of drummer and inspiration man Hal Smith, is one of my favorite bands. Here is what I wrote about it on the occasion of its debut CD, whose nifty cover is pictured below. 

I was not able to make it to hear / see / video SWING CENTRAL at the BixFest, but fortunately “jazzmanjoe” caught a set, with nice sound.

The members of this compact swinging ensemble are Jonathan Doyle, clarinet; Dan Walton, piano / vocals; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Steve Pikal, string bass; Hal Smith, drums / leader.  In this set, they play WAY DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS; DON’T LEAVE ME, DADDY; CHINA BOY; SWEET IS THE NIGHT; WHOLLY CATS; I WANT A LITTLE GIRL; BEAT ME, DADDY, EIGHT TO THE BAR; LESTER LEAPS IN.

A few words about the band and its delightful repertoire, or maybe more than a few.  From the top, borrowing Eddie Durham’s words about Ed Hall, “Hal Smith doesn’t know how to not swing,” which means to me that his beat is irrresistible. If you put on a CD (or “record”) in another room that started with eight bars of Hal’s hi-hat, I would a) know who it was before the passage was over; b) be smiling; c) put down whatever I was doing in the other room to come closer to the speaker to soak in the swing.  Hal also has a capacious imagination: he can most effectively put together a band devoted to Kid Ory, or the Watters-Scobey-Murphy world, but he really likes supercharged small groups that float and fly, and he’s got a long list of such groups with many wonderful recordings.  As he says on the video, he was moved to create SWING CENTRAL as a band that could play “Chicago style,” but was earnestly connected to the delicate heartfelt traceries of clarinetists Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Frank Chace, among others: which leads me to the bold statement that (aside from the one evocation of Charlie Christian on this set) NO OTHER BAND SOUNDS LIKE THIS.

Festival promoters, please take note.  SWING CENTRAL is the doctor-tested remedy for audiences shrinking because of dulling sameness.

A long pause for calm.

Pianist Dan Walton is a hidden gem.  Like the rest of this band, he never plays a formulaic or dull note or phrase.  He’s absorbed all the great styles and recordings, but — thank heavens — he isn’t on the planet to play them note-for-note unless requested.  His solo work is quiet but it rings in the mind; his ensemble playing is just the thing, and his boogie-woogie sounds real.  I’d like to hear a Dan Walton solo or duo CD, and hope that this idea can be realized soon.

Jamey Cummins.  In a landscape of guitarists who sound fraternally similar, young Mister J.C. stands out as a gifted inventor of long spinning lines, someone whose rhythm playing rocks.  He plays himself, and that’s a wonderful thing.

I got to meet the ebullient Steve Pikal on my recent Nashville trip, and he’s a wonderful creation: you can’t tell where he stops and where the music begins, or, put it this way, his unwavering good humor, expressed in a nearly perpetual smile, comes right through his string bass.  He loves Walter Page and Pops Foster and Milt Hinton and all the propulsive people in the great tradition, and you hear his love.

Jon Doyle is a great poet who might never have written a sonnet, but each chorus is a new effusion, whether tender or searing-hot.  He’s captured the whimsical souls of the musicians he admires, but what comes out of the end of that stick of grenadilla wood is entirely Doyle.  He’s not copying Lester, Pee Wee, or Frank; he is showing himself as someone who understands their beauties and has taken from them new ways to be himself.

You’ll notice that the tunes in this set (and when you buy the CD, the same applies) are often familiar — think of WAY DOWN YONDER and CHINA BOY (the latter more often mentioned than played) are in some hands “Dixieland classics,” but here they are springboards for elegant new improvisations.  But something remarkable: other bands can play Hot, and often at a higher volume, but SWING CENTRAL has its own special tenderness: not only Jon playing a ballad, but the subtle textures of the rhythm section, of Hal’s brushwork — of a band that knows that power isn’t volume, that the way to make an audience feel is not necessarily to whack it over the head in performance after performance. A quintet of swing poets, inspired by Milt Gabler and other lights in the darkness. May they prosper.

We’re so lucky that Hal had this idea, and that he and his friends made it happen.

May your happiness increase!

“SPREADIN’ RHYTHM AROUND”: JONATHAN STOUT AND HIS CAMPUS FIVE

I did my own private Blindfold Test, and played a track from this new CD for a very severe jazz friend who prides himself on his love of authenticity, and he said, “Well, they’ve GOT IT!” which is how I feel about Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five.

Here’s a sample of how they sounded in 2016 at the Lindy Blossom Weekend:

The first piece of good news is that this group knows how to swing.  Perhaps “knows” is the wrong word, because I never believe that genuine swing feeling could be learned in a classroom.  They FEEL it, which is immediately apparent. Second, although some of the repertoire will be familiar, this isn’t a CD devoted to recreating the fabled discs in better fidelity; the group understands the great recorded artifacts but uses them as jumping-off places to stretch out, to offer their own creations.

I hear traces of the Goodman Trio on LIMEHOUSE BLUES, the 1937 Basie band on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE; Don Byas and Buck Clayton drop by here and there; as do Louis and Astaire; NAUGHTY SWEETIE owes some of its conception to Jimmie Noone, as SUNDAY does to Lester . . . but these versions are expressions of the blended personalities that make up a working band, and are thus precious for us in this century.

Jonathan’s two originals, MILL HOUSE STOMP and DANCE OF THE LINDY BLOSSOMS, work on their own as compositions with their own rhythmic energy. The former bridges the late Hampton Victors and 2 AM at Minton’s; the latter suggests EVENIN’, in mood more than chord changes.

Those familiar with the “modern swing dance scene,” however you define it, will recognize the musicians as energized and reliable: the leader on guitar; Jim Ziegler, trumpet; Albert Alva, tenor saxophone and clarinet (both of the horn players bringing a variety of selves to the project — but often I thought of Emmett Berry and Illinois Jacquet, players I am grateful to hear evoked — and a rhythm team of Chris Dawson (yes!) piano; Wally Hersom, string bass; Josh Collazo, drums.  Jim takes the vocal on CHEEK TO CHEEK, sincerely but with a light heart, and several of the other songs are charmingly sung by Hilary Alexander, who has an engaging primness and delicacy while swinging along.  “Special guests” for a few numbers are the splendid Bryan Shaw, trumpet; Marquis W. Howell, string bass.

The individual soloists are a pleasure: everyone has the right feeling, but I’d just like to single out the leader, because his guitar work is so much the uplifting center of this band.  Stout has obviously studied his Charlie Christian but his solos in that context sound whole, rather than a series of patented-Charlie-phrases learned from transcriptions strung together for thirty-two bars.  His chord work (in the ensemble) evokes Reuss, McDonough, and VanEps in marvelous ways — glimpses of a near-vanished swing landscape in 2017.

And here they are in 2017, once again at the Lindy Blossom Weekend:

When I had heard the CD once again this morning, for purposes of writing this post with the evidence in my ears, I put it on for a second and third time, with no diminution of pleasure.  Later, I’ll play it in my car with the windows open, to osmotically spread joy as I drive.  Look for a man in a Toyota: he’ll be smiling and nodding rhythmically, although both hands on the wheel in approved position.  Rhythm, as they say, will be spread.  Around.

May your happiness increase!

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, 1944

A simple song about a universal, deep desire — by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar.  The melody is very unadorned, as are the lyrics: qualities that would make it memorable to a large popular audience and also great material for jazz improvisers.  It was recorded frequently when it was a new pop song, then given new life by Benny Goodman, his orchestra, and other Swing Era bands.

In my time, I’ve seen leaders call I WANT TO BE HAPPY when they want a trustworthy up-tempo song, often to close a set.  I remember Wild Bill Davison announcing the title and then leering at the audience, “Don’t we ALL?”  Kenny Davern, more an intellectual comedian, would conjugate the statement in a half-Yiddish inflection, “I vant to be happy, he vants to be happy . . . ” and then trail off amidst the audience’s laughter.

Here is a particularly memorable 1944 version, showing that a good melody has its own immortality, especially when explored by brilliant improvisers who never lose sight of the melody’s validity: the Commodore Records classic (from a long session with many alternate takes) featuring Edmond Hall, Teddy Wilson, Billy Taylor, Arthur Trappier (July 20).  It is easy to take this superficially as a version of a Goodman small group because of the uplifting presence of Wilson, but Hall and Wilson had been working together at Cafe Society for some time.

The YouTube presenter has gotten the date wrong and provides no data; instead there is a constant flow of often irrelevant photographs, but the music is what matters.

And what music!  It’s really a simple recording — a worked-out introduction, a chorus for Hall, one for the rhythm section, another for Hall (low-register with the bridge for bassist Taylor) one for the rhythm section with the bridge for Trappier on brushes, then a quartet improvisation, everyone more intense but hardly louder, ending with no dramatics.  I marvel at Edmond’s tone in all his registers, his easy facility that is allied to great quiet intensity; the depth of Wilson’s harmonic inventions that are always moving — he never puts a foot wrong but nothing seems worked-out — and the solid sweet push of Taylor and Trappier.

It’s a remarkable recording because it never tugs at the listener’s sleeve to say LOOK HOW REMARKABLE WE ARE.  (However, if one hears it through a fog of multi-tasking, it might become background music — what we used to call “elevator music,” which would be a shame.)

This was the peak of a particular style (still practiced beautifully today): swinging melodic inventiveness in solo and ensemble.  There really is no way that a listener could improve on this group effort, and I whimsically theorize that Bird and Dizzy went their own ways because this style, these individualistic players, had so polished this kind of jazz that there was no way to better it without breaking out of it.

We still want to be happy, and music like this points the way, if only we take the time to immerse ourselves in it.

May your happiness increase!

HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL: “WINDY CITY SWING” (JON DOYLE, JAMEY CUMMINS, DAN WALTON, STEVE PIKAL, HAL SMITH and JOSHUA HOAG)

Hal Smith is someone whose music I’ve admired long before I was able to meet him and hear the magic he works from a front-row seat.  Dogs bark; cats meow; Hal swings, and I’ve never known him to fail.  Better than CPR.

Put it another way: I’ve had a driver’s license for decades, and am thus less comfortable in the passenger seat.  When I hear a performance with Hal at the drums, I can relax — the same way I do when Jo or Sidney or Wettling or Tough is in control: I know everything’s going to be all right.

A new CD with Hal is always a pleasure; the debut recording of a new Hal Smith band is an event, one to be celebrated.  SWING CENTRAL lives up to its title, and there’s more at work here than a) a quintet playing a swing repertoire and b) that the musicians all live in the Central time zone.

Those musicians — exuberant and focused at the same time are, besides Hal — Jonathan Doyle on clarinet; Dan Walton, piano; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Steve Pikal, string bass, and appearing on one track, Joshua Hoag, also on bass.

What makes this clarinet-plus rhythm group different and thus a treasure is vividly apparent from the first notes of the first track.  For one thing, SWING CENTRAL is aware that there is music not played by Benny Goodman.  Heresy to some, I know, and I treasure my Goodman records as much as anyone, but this band and this disc go another way. And that way is the endearingly individualistic way mapped out by Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Frank Chace, and Charlie Christian.  SWING CENTRAL is a hot band, but not an exhibitionistic one: on this CD or in performance, you won’t hear a ten-minute version of SEVEN COME ELEVEN that’s capped with a drum solo.  Hearing the disc again, I thought, “This band is playing for the music, not for the audience,” which is a beautiful and rare thing.  And the musicians know the records, but have absorbed them into their cell memory, so that they can play themselves, which is the only way to honor the innovators.  “Feelin’ the spirit,” as they used to say.

 

Now that you’ve gotten over the pleasant shock of the remarkable cover art by JP Ardee Navarro, hear and see the band in performance (Austin’s Central Market, 2016) for yourself:

LITTLE GIRL:

and Jon Doyle’s charming sweet original, HELLO, FISHIES:

Hal asked me if I would write something for this CD, and I was honored.  Here’s what I came up with: easy to tell the truth, and easy to express happiness in words.  (And in case what I’ve written seems to favor Jon Doyle and the leader, I will say only that I’d like to hear a CD led by Dan Walton, Jamey, or Steve.)

A MEETING OF KINDRED SOULS

A true story. Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were in a taxi, discussing “the beat”. Monk favored surprising shifts but Dizzy disagreed. “What would you do if your heart beat irregular? The steady beat is the principle of life.” My cardiologist would agree: healthy, happy organisms swing from the inside out. Hal Smith’s Swing Central is not only a wondrous cohesive group, inspired by the music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace, and friends, but it affirms joyous principles. From Austin, Texas, comes healing jazz.

Leader Hal tells how this band came to be:

I’ve known Jon Doyle since 2009. The first time I heard him warming up on clarinet, quoting Pres’ solo from “I Want A Little Girl,” the seed was planted for this band. Steve Pikal and I worked together in the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in 2010. Steve’s outgoing personality and propulsive bass playing is always a positive influence. Dan Walton introduced me to the Western Swing scene in Texas. We played together with Jason Roberts’ band and later with Dan’s own Jump Swing Imperials. He understands that “less is more” and it shows. Jamey Cummins has been in Austin for some time, and is finally receiving the attention he deserves. He plays wonderful Freddie Green-like time and inventive, highly rhythmic solos.

We decided not to pursue the familiar Goodman-based clarinet-and-rhythm repertoire but rather to explore the more introverted music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace. Jon Doyle took to the idea like a bat takes to the Congress Ave. Bridge. When we began, the musicians lived in the Central Time zone, so the band name suggested itself. (However, we are not going to add “Pacific” when a couple of our musicians have relocated to the West Coast!)

This was the easiest recording session I have ever done, and several other band members agreed. I think you’ll hear what a good time we had.

This quietly thrilling band reminds me not only of the three inspiring clarinet playing individualists, but of the possibilities of music that gently breaks down the barriers some listeners and journalists build, cubicles labeled “schools” and “styles.” Swing Central takes familiar songs and make them fresh and dewy; Jon’s compositions and reinventions are witty beyond their titles. And these players – happy rovers in the land of Medium Tempo, great ensemble players as well as inspiring soloists — go for themselves rather than copying.

About the repertoire. Listeners will hear the chord structures of SUGAR, MY GAL SAL, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and LADY BE GOOD reinvigorated. An answer key is available at the end of your workbook, but no peeking until you’ve handed in your finished pages.

BIG AL evokes Mr. Capone, who would have tipped Swing Central generously to keep playing his favorite song. Hal explains BATS ON A BRIDGE as “a real Austin phenomenon, and five of the six musicians here have deep roots in Texas’ weirdest city. http://www.batcon.org/index.php/our-work/regions/usa-canada/protect-mega-populations/cab-intro. HI, FISHIES comes from a sweet cross-species story. Ask Jon when you meet him on a gig. REPEATER PENCIL is for Lester, and for this band: artists who honor the innovators by being innovative themselves.

LONG-DISTANCE MAN owes its title to a Pres-and-Chace story recalled by Larry Kart: “[Chace] also told a very ‘Frank’ story about his encounter with Lester Young in 1957 in Pres’s hotel room in (I think) Indianapolis, where Frank was playing at a club and Pres was in town with a non-JATP package tour. The drummer in the band Frank was part of, Buddy Smith, suggested that they pay Pres a visit after the gig, and when they got there, Frank (‘I’m shy,’ he said), hung back while the other guys gathered around Pres. Having noticed this bit of behavior, Pres beckoned Frank to come closer, addressing him softly as ‘long-distance man.’ Probably a meeting of kindred souls.”

SHEIK OF AIRBNB is named thus because Jamey stayed in an AirBnB directly below the studio where the session was recorded. I MUST HAVE THAT MAN is from the band’s live gig at Central Market in Austin on Aug. 28, 2016. Josh Hoag (now with Asleep at the Wheel) filled in for Steve. The band decided that they must share this track with us: a lovely gift. When you are enjoying SUNDAY, don’t be surprised when the track fades out. Do not adjust your set. Hal explains, “Alex Hall’s reliable recording equipment may have been affected by a sun spot, or maybe one of Doyle’s blue notes. But we liked the overall feel so much — particularly Jon’s playing — that we decided to keep as much as possible and fade before the sudden ending.”

Sir John Davies, a Renaissance poet, wrote ORCHESTRA, his conception of a cosmos vibrating in symphonic harmony. If we are very fortunate, the world might vibrate as does Hal Smith’s Swing Central – tender, relaxed, urgent. We have a long way to go, but it’s a noble aspiration.

Here is the link to hear samples, purchase an actual disc, or a download.  Hal and SWING CENTRAL will be appearing at the Bix Festival on the first weekend of August in Davenport, Iowa. . . so you can have the mutual pleasure of buying CDs from the band there, also.  And here is the place to find out about all things Smith — the swinging ones, of course.

May your happiness increase!