Tag Archives: Billy Strayhorn

“LOVE THEM MADLY”: KANAN, FOSTER, & ARNEDO TRIO PLAYS ELLINGTON AND STRAYHORN

Some music you have to work hard to embrace, and many listeners relish the labor.  But other music, no less subtle or rewarding, opens its arms to you in the first four bars.  A new CD by Michael Kanan, piano; Dee Jay Foster, string bass; Guillem Arnedo, drums, is a wonderful example of love made audible.

If these names are new to you, please put down whatever you’re attempting to multi-task (on or with) and listen to this leisurely reading of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE from a live performance in 2017:

This trio also knows how to relax, thus, that rarity, a picture of jazz musicians taking their ease outdoors:

You might know that Michael Kanan is one of JAZZ LIVES’ heroes, not only in this country, but internationally.  And the lineage is very pleasing: the saxophone master Joel Press introduced me to Michael, and (aurally) Michael introduced me to Guillem and Dee Jay.  For the past decade, Michael spends part of each summer as artist-in-residence at the Begues Jazz Camp, where he’s forged deep musical relationships with these two musical intuitives.  The CD came out of a series of concerts the trio did.  As Michael says, “There is space, swing, surprises and lots of love. We have tried to capture the spontaneity of the moment in time – a good conversation between the three of us.”

Instead of the usual liner notes, the CD offers splendid artwork by Maria Pichel, who combines bright colors and delicacy to mirror the music within.  So here are a few (unsolicited) lines from me.

The late Roswell Rudd told me in 2012, “Playing your personality is what this music is all about. . . . You know, this is a music where you are playing off other people, and you really have to be listening and responding and respecting and complementing what’s going on around you.”

The personalities that come through so clearly here are gentle and intense at once: musicians inspired by the originals but aware that reverent innovation is the only tribute.  The magnificent Ellington and Strayhorn compositions are an indelible offering.  They aren’t obscure or at least they shouldn’t be, and that asks contemporary artists the question, “All right — what are you going to say about these pieces?”

One approach is reverence taken all the way: a 2018 piano trio could do its best to replicate Ellington, Blanton, Greer, or Strayhorn, Wendell Marshall, Woodyard.  Conversely, the improvisers could take the originals and, after one reasonably polite chorus, jump into outer space, perhaps never to return.  The Kanan, Foster, Arnedo trio modifies these extremes by creating statements showing their affection for the strong melodies, harmonies, rhythms — but they know that “playing their personalities” is what Ellington and Strayhorn did, and would approve of.  So the CD is a series of sweet variations on themes, where (to borrow from Teddy Wilson), “it’s the little things that mean so much.”

In the quiet world of this CD, even a slight tempo change means that listeners have found themselves in a new space, as if you’d come home to find that your partner had repainted the light-gray living room walls a gray with a blue undertone.

What I hear on this disc is the confident playful assurance of musicians who know each other well, are respectful but also relaxed and brave.  Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem are melodists who work together in kind fraternal fashion, so the lead gets passed around, one player moves into the spotlight and the others are happy for him to shine.  No cliches; no showboating; no tedious quoting; no formulaic playing or threadbare trademarks; the total absence of post-modern irony; no sense that swing is out of date.

The result is a series of sustained explorations that are full of sweet surprises: the wonderful swinging assertiveness with which C JAM BLUES starts; the touching coda to ISFAHAN; the slightly faster tempo for I LET A SONG that neatly contradicts the self-pitying lyrics; the exposition of LOTUS BLOSSOM would make anyone want to listen with bowed head, and the slightly altered rhythmic pulse that follows made me hear it as if for the first time; JOHNNY COME LATELY is perfect dance music — I defy anyone to stay motionless, even if the dance is happy nodding one’s head in time; Michael’s solo ALL TOO SOON is half-lullaby, half question yearning to be answered; the faster-than-expected I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT reminds me happily of Fifties Jo Jones with Ray and Tommy Bryant, for the trio’s swing is light yet insistent, and the rocking mood continues on through LOVE YOU MADLY; DAY DREAM, the concluding track, also seems a series of questions, some of them with answers.

I would tell any listener, “Play the disc over again, after you’ve let it settle in your mind, take up a comfortable space in your heart.  Play it for people who have ears.  Let them share the pleasure, the loving inquisitiveness.”

Because I have admired Michael’s playing for some time, I might have over-emphasized his contribution, but Dee Jay and Guillem are the equal of anyone with a more famous name, whether Elder or Youngblood: they play their instruments with honor and grace, avoiding the excesses that lesser players fall into.  Forget the snide jokes about bass solos; Dee Jay’s phrases are deft and logical, his time and intonation superb; Guillem, for his part, has such a swinging variety of sounds throughout his kit that he is marvelously orchestral without ever being overwhelming. The beautiful recorded sound, thanks to David Cassamitjana, is reassuringly warm and clear, putting us there, which is where we want to be.

You can hear the music here, on Spotify or iTunes, or purchase that endearing archaic object, an actual physical disc by clicking on “TIENDA” at the same site.

Even if you have as complete an Ellington-Strayhorn collection as possible, this is an essential disc: warm, candid, and gratifying.

And if you’d like to hear more from Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem in a different but quite uplifting context, visit here also.

May your happiness increase!

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CELEBRATING BILLY STRAYHORN: JOHN Di MARTINO, DAN BLOCK, ANDY BROWN, NICKI PARROTT, PETE SIERS (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 16, 2017)

Let us again praise Billy Strayhorn.  He hasn’t been tangibly on the planet since 1967, but does a day go past without a Strayhorn melody being offered up, reverently, somewhere — even if it is in the jukebox of the imagination?


Here are some of Swee’ Pea’s lovely melodies played in real life by a quintet of sensitive creators: John DiMartino, piano; Dan Block, reeds; Andy Brown, guitar; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Pete Siers, drums, at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party last September.

U.M.M.G. (for “Upper Manhattan Medical Group”):

RAIN CHECK (which starts late: we in the trade call this “videographer error,” or battery death and resurrection.  My apologies.):

CHELSEA BRIDGE, gorgeously:

and of course, that TRAIN, which still will take you to Harlem, even though the price has substantially increased since 1941, when it was (pre-token) five cents:

These musicians know the common language so deeply and beautifully: bless Nancy Hancock Griffith for her work with the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, now, alas, only a lovely memory.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN RECALLS DUKE ELLINGTON, LOUIS, BASIE, AL HIRSCHFELD, BENNY, and ARTIE (March 9, 2018)

I invite JAZZ LIVES’ readers and viewers to join Dan Morgenstern and myself for an afternoon conversation about Duke Ellington which took place a few months ago in early March 2018.  I don’t ordinarily post ninety-five minutes of video in one heaping serving, but Dan’s narrative is so comfortably wide-ranging and expansive that I couldn’t cut it into sections.

Part One, where Dan begins by remembering himself as a young Danish record collector, comments on various Ellingtonians and admirers, and loops around to the 1938 Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing:

Here’s DUSK — for your spiritual edification, from a HMV 78, too:

Part Two is focused on Duke in the recording studio, with quick asides about Willie Cook, Norris Turney, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Cat Anderson, and Mercer Ellington:

Part Three begins with Johnny Hodges, Sonny Greer, detours to ripe tomatoes, and returns to Billy Strayhorn, Bob Wilber, and Barney Bigard:

Part Four starts with one of my heroes, Ray Nance, then Cootie Williams, Toney Williams, and offers the famous story about disciplining a wayward Paul Gonsalves:

Part Five again recalls Duke in the recording studio, next to Basie, next to Louis.  I wish there were some documentation of Louis sitting in with Duke’s octet!

Finally, Dan’s tale, very amusing, of three bandleaders in one night, which ends with Johnny Hodges on the AT THE BAL MASQUE Columbia lp:

and here is the very pretty ALICE BLUE GOWN:

Blessings and gratitude to the very generous Dan Morgenstern.

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC WITH FRIENDS (Part One): MICHAEL KANAN, GREG RUGGIERO, NEAL MINER (The Drawing Room, January 8, 2018)

Michael Kanan prizes friendship very highly, and not in some abstract way.  He is a true Embracer, and his deep love of community lasts longer than a simple hug.  He showed us this once again a few Mondays ago at a little gathering at his Brooklyn studio, The Drawing Room.

Michael Kanan

Michael’s colleagues in melodic exploration were his friends and ours, Greg Ruggiero, guitar; Neal Miner, string bass: each of them a thoughtful swinging intuitive orchestra in himself.

Greg Ruggiero

It was a jam session evening, so even though this trio played six songs (you’ll have the first three here) it wasn’t a mini-recital, more a gathering of friends who don’t get to play together often. They hadn’t played together in months, and after Michael had seen the videos, he called them “music in its raw natural state,” but it was an acknowledgment rather than a criticism.  I think of them as cherries picked from the tree, their stems still attached, as opposed to cherry pie filling from a can.

Neal Miner

Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME:

Strayhorn’s TAKE THE A TRAIN:

Ellington’s I’M JUST A LUCKY SO-AND-SO:

When you’re invited to a party at Michael’s, you go home laden with gifts.

May your happiness increase!

“BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY: BIG BAND JAZZ ARRANGING IN THE SWING ERA,” by JOHN WRIGGLE (University of Illinois Press)

john-wriggle-cover

One way to answer the questions “Who was Chappie Willet, why haven’t I heard of him, and why does he deserve a book?” can be found here:

That was recorded in 1937 and is notable — to some — for solos by a young Dizzy Gillespie and others as members of Teddy Hill’s NBC Orchestra.  But if there were no solos to concentrate on, keen listeners would notice the depth and complexity of Willet’s composition and arrangement, full of surprises.

An extended BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY, performed by Gene Krupa:

We are trained by the “star system” in jazz to listen for soloists, to disregard the orchestral textures of a performance for the brief passages where Our Person improvises.  More erudite listeners will recognize the “charts” created by Mary Lou Williams, Bill Challis, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Ellington and/or Strayhorn — distinctive expressions of the writer, as recognizable as an individual soloist. John Wriggle’s superb book — a rewarding study of one brilliant arranger, his music, the world in which he operated, and the implications of Wriggle’s research — does a good deal to begin resetting the balance.

Francis “Chappie” Willet (1907-76) was a great arrangers and composer: we have heard his work for Hill, Krupa, Goodman, Armstrong, Lunceford, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Norvo.  Yet he is almost unknown and the wonderful settings he created are taken for granted.  Consider his arrangement of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE for Louis Armstrong, heard here in a 1938 performance.  But here I ask the reader / listener to consider only the first fifteen seconds of this performance.  I know it’s nearly impossible to consider anything but Louis, but try:

In two pages (123-24), Wriggle provides a transcription of what is happening in that opening, and then analyzes it.  The reader need not be a musicologist to follow and enjoy this book because Wriggle writes so clearly.

The experience of reading this book — well-organized and exquisitely documented but with beautiful control (some writers, unlike Wriggle, think every dust mote is equally important and thus overwhelm a reader) — is concentric.

Were it simply a biography of Willet, it would be a thin, perhaps limited study. But Wriggle is fascinated by context — “the economic, political, and professional landscape of popular music arrangers working during the Swing Era,” so we learn about the intersection of race and visibility; how arrangers learned their trade and the various rates of pay; Willet’s “Broadway Music Clinic,” music for nightclubs, Broadway shows and theatrical revues; the various clubs and venues themselves. Wriggle examines — I oversimplify here — how Swing Era arranging worked, with close analysis of excerpts from various scores and recordings, and how each arranger had a particularly recognizable identity.  He looks closely at the fluid relationships between jazz and the Western classical canon.

The book’s scope is refreshingly broad; at one point, Wriggle analyzes Willet’s elaborately dramatic score for the Lunceford version of YESTERDAYS; a few pages later, we learning all there is to know about a new dance, THE HICKY RICKY — novelty numbers, ballads, and jazz exotica are all considered with particular enthusiasm and research.

Rare photographs add a great deal to the experience, and the collaboration of Wriggle and the University of Illinois Press is a happy one: the book is carefully presented and well-edited.  I found no misprints or errors, rare in this century. The paper edition (a manageable 320 pages) is $30.

Reading this book over the past few months, whether I proceeded chronologically or opened it at random, I was always enlightened, ever bored: a great tribute to Wriggle from an impatient and often irritable reader.  His background explains a good deal: he is a trombonist, composer, arranger, and scholar, who has transcribed period jazz repertoire for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and served as music editor for Oscar-winning Hollywood film scores.

As a writer and scholar, he is thoughtful without being pedantic or theoretical, without a confining ideological bias.  To get a sense of his and the book’s virtues, I offer excerpts from his interview (from the publisher’s blog) about this work.

As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.

The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.

Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.

This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.

BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY is a wonderfully enlightening experience.  It is readable but dense with information — an old-fashioned book not especially suited for reading on one’s phone — a splendidly-documented exploration of an artist and his musical world that will both answer and raise many questions.  I hope John Wriggle will write many more books equally wise and appealing.

May your happiness increase!

DANNY TOBIAS MAKES BEAUTIFUL MUSIC: “COMPLETE ABANDON”

Photograph by Lynn Redmile

Photograph by Lynn Redmile

One of the quietest of my heroes, lyrical brassman Danny Tobias, has a new CD.  It’s called COMPLETE ABANDON — but don’t panic, for it’s not a free-jazz bacchanal.  It could have been called COMPLETE WARMTH just as well. And it’s new in several ways: recorded before a live audience — although a very serene one — just last September, in the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, New Jersey.

dannytobiasquintetThe CD presents a small group, captured with beautiful sound (thanks to Robert Bullington) “playing tunes,” always lyrical and always swinging.  The cover photograph here is small, but the music is endearingly expansive.  (Lynn Redmile, Danny’s very talented wife, took the photo of Mister T. at the top and designed the whole CD’s artwork.)

Danny is heard not only on trumpet, but also on the Eb alto horn (think of Dick Cary) and a light-hearted vocal on LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.  He’s joined by his New Jersey friends, the very pleasing fellows Joe Holt, piano; Paul Midiri, vibraphone; Joe Plowman, string bass; Jim Lawlor, drums.  And both in conception and recorded sound, this disc is that rarity — an accurate reflection of what musicians in a comfortable setting sound like.  The tunes are I WANT TO BE HAPPY; DANCING ON THE CEILING; MY ROMANCE; LOTUS BLOSSOM; COMPLETE ABANDON; THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU; THIS CAN’T BE LOVE; LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER; I’M CONFESSIN’; EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY; GIVE ME HE SIMPLE LIFE; THESE FOOLISH THINGS; PICK YOURSELF UP.

You can tell something about Danny’s musical orientations through the song titles: a fondness for melodies, a delight in compositions.  He isn’t someone who needs to put out a CD of “originals”; rather, he trusts Vincent Youmans, Billy Strayhorn, Richard Rodgers.  He believes in Count Basie, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong, whether they are being joyous or melancholy.  Danny has traveled long and happily in the sacred land of Medium Tempo, and he knows its most beautiful spots.

When I first met Danny — hearing and seeing him on the stand without having had the opportunity to talk with him (this was a decade ago, thanks to Kevin Dorn and the Traditional Jazz Collective at the Cajun) I delighted in the first set, and when he came off the stand, I introduced myself, and said, “Young man, you’ve been listening to Ruby Braff and Buck Clayton,” and young Mister Tobias heard and was gracious about the compliment.

Since then, I’ve understood that Danny has internalized the great swing players in his own fashion — I’m not the only one to hear Joe Thomas in his work — without fuss and without self-indulgence.  He doesn’t call attention to himself by volume or technique.  Rather, to use the cliche that is true, “He sings on that horn,” which is not at all easy.

Danny’s colleagues are, as I wrote above, his pals, so the CD has the easy communal feel of a group of long-time friends getting together: no competition, no vying for space, but the pleased kindness of musicians who are more interested in the band than in their own solos.  The vibraphone on this disc, expertly and calmly played by Paul Midiri, at times lends the session a George Shearing Quintet feel, reminding me of some Bobby Hackett or Ruby Braff sessions with a similar personnel.  And Messrs. Lawlor, Plowman, and Holt are generous swinging folks — catch Joe Holt’s feature on GIVE ME THE SIMPLE LIFE.

To purchase the CD and hear sound samples, visit here.  Or you can go directly to Danny’s website — where you can also enjoy videos of Danny in a variety of contexts.

CDBaby, not always the most accurate guide to musical aesthetics, offers this assessment: “Recommended if you like Bobby Hackett, Louis Armstrong, Warren Vache.”  I couldn’t agree more.  And I’m grateful that the forces of time, place, economics, and art came together to make this disc possible.  It is seriously rewarding, and it doesn’t get stale after one playing.

May your happiness increase!

FLOWERS OF ALL KINDS: STRAYHORN, ALLEN, ASHERIE: Cleveland, Sept. 13, 2015

FLorabilia. 2015. Ivana Falconi Allen.

Florabilia. 2015. Ivana Falconi Allen.

The extraordinary art of Ivana Falconi Allen, whimsical, detailed, in love with the textures of the world as it is now and the world as it might be.

Music created by the artist’s husband, performed at the Allegheny Jazz Party, now known as the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, last September.

Could anything be more gorgeous?

With Harry Allen, tenor saxophone, and Ehud Asherie, piano, Billy Strayhorn’s mournful love letter to the beauty of creation — so rich, so fragile — is an immense blossoming of joy and sadness.

You can hear more music at this level — subtle, individual, poignant or exultant — at the CCJP, which begins this coming Thursday night. And you can see more of Ivana’s art by visiting her Facebook page.  The world needs more beauty of the kinds these brilliant individualists create.

May your happiness increase!