Tag Archives: blues singers

“SWINGTIME DUET: MARK SHANE and TERRY BLAINE: MY BLUE HEAVEN”

I first heard pianist Mark Shane a long time ago on someone’s illicit cassette recording of an outdoor festival.  Through the rustlings and the sonic murk, he came through like a beacon of swing.  I heard finely detailed melodic invention owing a good deal to Tatum and Wilson, translucent improvisations with subtleties reminiscent of Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan.  I had to wait until 2004 to meet him in person, but he didn’t disappoint, and still doesn’t.

When I started to purchase Shane’s CDs (a venture I commend to you) I found he was often in tandem with a glorious singer.  She swung without a letup but her approach was delicate and warm.  She was very much aware of the great singers of the past but had brought her own tender sound to their repertoire. Her work was and is genuine, and when I played her music for other musicians and fans, the reaction was always, “Who IS that?  Wow, she is the real thing!”  I had to wait until 2013 to meet Terry Blaine, and it was a joy to see Mark and Terry perform together.

Not everyone can make their way to a Shane-Blaine gig . . . but their music can come to you.  And it has!

CD Cover jpegTheir new CD is available here at CDBaby (as a physical disc) and will be available at all the usual sources as a digital download in a few days.

When I heard that Mark and Terry had recorded a disc, I asked to write some notes for them:

Our special friends are back in town, and I am so grateful.

Play a piece of music for a jazz historian and ask for a response: you’ll get an analytical primer of famous names, influences and styles, cities, dates, and record labels. A musicologist will talk of rhythmic and harmonic patterns, ethnic and cultural influences.

But music is much larger than the words and ideas that attempt to explain it. It is vibrating energy sent from its creators’ hearts to ours. True, physical entities are part of it: the uniqueness of a singer’s voice, a pianist’s touch on the keys. But ultimately music is one marvelous way that artists, devoted to feeling and craft, send messages to us.

Terry Blaine and Mark Shane are remarkable transmitters of wondrous vibrations. In the Thirties they would have been called “solid senders.” Although they have lovingly studied the great improvisers of the past, they emerge whole and joyous as themselves. In swinging synergy, Terry and Mark travel through and beyond any song. Hearing them, we emerge, refreshed and nourished by what they embody in music. They do not “imitate”; they do not approach the music from an ironic postmodern distance. They are the emotions they transmit – sly hilarity, pleasure, longing, romantic fulfillment, contentment. This is the real thing, without pretense, full of warmth.

In the first minutes of this disc, a listener will hear great sincerity in music that never parades itself, an art secure in its wisdom. Terry’s voice is sweetly intuitive, connected to the mood of each song. The way she slides from one note to the next is a caress. Her approach is both generous and wise, for she always lets the song shine through. Mark Shane is a master of delicate yet profound swing; he honors the great musical traditions by creating an orchestra at the piano, with unceasing rhythmic motion. A simple melody statement in his hands has the fluidity of a river, with currents of shading and light, surprising depths and textures. Mark and Terry are a marvelous team, a musical community that needs no other players. Their interpretations of music and words are whole-hearted gifts to the composers, the lyricists, and to us.

We know what our response to this music is: it makes us feel the joy of being alive. We’re happy in the Blue Heaven Terry and Mark create for us. You will be, too.

The songs are MY BLUE HEAVEN / HONEYSUCKLE ROSE / AIN’T HE SWEET / SKYLARK / LOCK AND KEY / MY MELANCHOLY BABY / ROCKIN’ CHAIR / I LOVE BEING HERE WITH YOU / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE / MY SPECIAL FRIEND IS BACK IN TOWN / COME UP AND SEE ME SOMETIME / LET’S DO IT / SOME OF THESE DAYS / WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS.  The recording is delightfully clear and unadorned. It’s heavenly.

In case you have never heard Mark and Terry before, here is a performance recorded at the High Falls Cafe in New York, with drummer Matt Hoffmann gently joining in.  Their rollicking WHEN DAY IS DONE is a joy:

May your happiness increase!

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A BOX OF BLESSINGS, SLIGHTLY MIXED: “LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE OKEH, COLUMBIA, and RCA VICTOR RECORDINGS 1925-1933” (Sony Music)

Louis OKEH

As I write this, I am listening to a “new” box set of Louis Armstrong’s recordings.    Issued by Sony Music, it offers his work for OKeh, Columbia, and Victor from 1925-1933.

I am ambivalent about this product — which has nothing to do with the heartbreakingly beautiful music contained within the purple box.  And although I ordinarily go on at length on JAZZ LIVES, I find it easier to write my assessment as a checklist.

THE GOOD NEWS:

181 recordings by Louis, grouped together in this fashion for the first time in the United States.  (The Fremeux label has been issuing multiple CD sets of Louis in chronological order for some time.)  This means the familiar — POTATO HEAD BLUES and I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING — alongside sessions that have not been available for some time, including the wonderful sides Louis made for OKeh in Los Angeles and Chicago, 1930-31.  The set ends with the peerless 1932-33 Victor sides (THAT’S MY HOME, LAUGHIN’ LOUIE) and throws in BLUE YODEL # 9, the collaboration of Louis and Jimmie Rodgers.

Beautiful notes by Ricky Riccardi.  Need I say more?

Lovely photographs, some new to me, photographs of record labels, and a design that — for once — doesn’t decompose as soon as one opens the box.

A reasonable price, if you consider the amount of music purchased.

A recording of WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS that I think not many people have known well.  Courtesy of that same Riccardi fellow, you may hear it here:

THE LESS-GOOD NEWS:

The first two discs (containing the Hot Five and Seven material) are mastered off-pitch, a half-tone low.  This might not bother most listeners, but it makes the music sound slightly sleepy, draggy — which it wasn’t in performance.

The set is not advertised as “complete,” which is accurate.  Missing are the sessions Louis recorded with a variety of singers, including Bessie Smith, Chippie Hill, Hociel Thomas, and Lillie Delk Christian.  I do not know why this is, except perhaps it would have taken more trouble to amass them and the person who is listed as “Project Director,” Seth Rothstein, surely had some reasons, whether economic or aesthetic.  (The last time in my knowledge that those Louis-and-the-blues-singers sides were available is several decades ago: a French vinyl series on CBS, “Aimez-vous le jazz?”)

The absence of this material is irritating because seven or eight of the discs in this set are “short,” with sixteen, eighteen, or twenty tracks.  Readers who can do basic math quickly can figure out just how many additional tracks could have fit in this box.  Or Sony could have squeezed the material onto eight discs and sold it at a lower price.  (When you buy a bag of potato chips and see that the bag contains more air than chips, you can rationalize it — the air is there so that the chips don’t get reduced to dust — but most of us find chips more tasty than chip-scented air.)

THE WRITER MUSES, BRIEFLY:

I always wonder how much thought goes in to the production of one of these box sets, conveniently on sale at the holiday season.  Sony Music has this material in their vaults; they seem to have done nothing to it (checking proper pitch, remastering) except put it in a different box and offer it to us.  It is not exactly a jazz re-gift, but close.  Who did they think was going to buy it?  Some people who lack a historical consciousness will quail slightly at “1925-1933,” because that is OLD MUSIC.  And the deep-down Louis scholars were already thrashing around online before the box came out, so I think their disappointment is palpable.  I also do not know how many people actually are buying CD box sets — as opposed to listening to downloads through their earbuds (two words that have become loathsome to me).

Ultimately, any scrap of Louis Armstrong’s music is beautiful, valuable, irreplaceable.

But Louis deserved better than this set.  We do, also.

Should you buy it if you have unlimited funds?  Yes.

Will you find some aspects of it annoying?  Yes.

May your happiness increase.

TEDDY BUNN, GUITAR

It’s that point in the semester when I end up having more informal conversations with students about their aspirations.  Today I was talking to a young man who is taking a jazz course and plays guitar.  Blues guitar, it turns out.  Immediately, I said, “I’m going to give you homework.  Listen to Teddy Bunn!” and he copied down the unfamiliar name.  Over the years, I’ve urged other guitar-playing students to devote themselves to Teddy Bunn’s recorded work.  Today, for the first time, I thought to myself, “Why Teddy Bunn rather than Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt?”

For me, the answer is in Bunn’s emotional accessibility.  To young guitarists raised on flamethrowing displays of technique (usually electrified) Bunn might sound unambitious.  But he has a country-blues depth of feeling: his simple phrases come from someplace that belies his birthplace — Freeport, Long Island, perhaps twenty-five miles from where I am now writing and certainly miles away from the Mississippi Delta.  His blues phrases are plain-spoken, logical, affecting.  But he also has a distinctly urban swing: if you had Teddy Bunn in your rhythm section, you hardly needed anyone else.

And I am always trying to consider what my students might have heard before — and how my frankly antiquarian tastes in music will strike them.  To get to Charlie Christian, they have to get past the “Swing Era” in the person of Benny Goodman, although I suppose some of them could go directly to Jerry Newman’s recordings of Christian, uptown.  And to get to Django, they have to make a detour around Grappelly and the Quintet.

Bunn’s simplicity is deceptive.  It would please me immensely to have one of my self-possessed young players say to himself, “Oh, I can do that,” and try to duplicate a Bunn solo — a simple twelve bars — and then realize that his imitation was lacking something essential — perhaps in its tonal qualities or its rhythmic subtleties.  I imagine that Teddy Bunn might teach someone more about inventiveness and humility than I had been able to in fifteen weeks in a classroom.  (Charles Peterson caught him in action at a 1939 Blue Note session with trumpeter Frank Newton, who is standing in front of Sidney Catlett . . . fast company!)

A place to find out some more about Teddy Bunn is Mike Kremer’s CLASSIC JAZZ GUITAR site, http://classicjazzguitar.com/aboutus/about_us.jsp, the source of the images here.

During his lifetime, everyone knew about Teddy Bunn.  Sammy Price called him for the Decca “race records” sessions of the late Thirties; he was a charter member of the Spirits of Rhythm, also accompanying Ella Logan and Red McKenzie; he sat in with the Ellington band in 1929; Mezzrow and Bechet made good use of his talents, as did Hot Lips Page, Clarence Profit, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, and Spencer Williams.  Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff made him part of their early Blue Note sessions and gave him a four-song solo date of his own.  Later on, he pops up (now playing electric guitar) with Lionel Hampton, Hadda Brooks, and others.  Unfortunately, he didn’t get much attention in the Fifties, and a combination of poor health, early rock ‘n’ roll, and gigs in Hawaii kept him out of the public eye as far as jazz was concerned.  I do recall a late interview (done by Peter Tanner for JAZZ JOURNAL, if memory serves me) where Bunn talked about his older recordings and was thrilled to hear them again.

Here are some samples of the man whose name comes first to my lips when the subject of blues guitar comes into the conversation:

IF YOU SEE ME COMIN’ is from 1938, and shows Teddy Bunn’s talents in three ways — first, as a singer, intense yet understated; second, with some of those same characteristics in his solo (notice how he lets his notes ring, how he doesn’t feel the need to fill up the spaces); third, as a rhythm player.  Who’s the pianist?  There isn’t any — those harmonies and rhythmic pushes you hear are Teddy’s.  The other musicians on this date are the co-leaders Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Tommy Ladnier, trumpet; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.  (The player closest in spirit to Bunn on this record is Ladnier, who has just been chronicled with eloquent thoroughness in Dan Verhettes’ book TRAVELLIN’ BLUES.)

Here’s I GOT RHYTHM, recorded in 1933 by the Spirits of Rhythm, featuring the irreplaceable singer Leo Watson, Douglas and Wilbur Daniels on tipples (which I believe are twelve-string versions of ukuleles), Teddy Bunn — whose solo and trades come after Leo’s vocal episodes — and Virgil Scoggins on “drums,” more likely whiskbrooms on a brown-paper-covered suitcase:

And two reasonably unsatisfying film clips (from the point of view of hearing Teddy Bunn play) although they offer other rare delights.  TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY, comes from the 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS, and is out of synch.  It is mainly given over to Leo Watson (which is not a problem) but it shows us Teddy Bunn on electric guitar.  I’ll even ignore that the clip shows Black musicians as having to be distracted from their onstage crap game to perform their act — on a particularly terrible song:

And a new find — the 1941 equivalent of a Soundie, obviously terribly low-budget, which brings together Jackie Greene, impersonating Eddie Cantor, and the “Five Spirits of Rhythm,” who are here cast as railroad porters in charge of shoe-shines.  Here we don’t see Bunn playing but his electric guitar is quite audible on the soundtrack.  But it’s a reminder of how badly Black performers were treated in films until years later (even with such luminaries as Sam Coslow and Dudley Murphy supervising).  There’s comedy, cheesecake, and a good deal of Greene rolling his eyes.  At least the Spirits get to hold out their hands for their tip at the end:

I don’t want to overstate Teddy Bunn’s place in the history of jazz.  He did most often find himself playing the blues, or playing thirty-two bar songs with a deep blues flavoring.  His solos tended to be variations on simple motifs, and his later playing had lost some of its spark, its inventiveness.  When he took up the electric guitar, his identifiable acoustic sound was blurred, and his solos sound rather familiar.

But in his prime he was a remarkable musician, and I look forward to the day when one of my students (or former students) says that hearing Teddy Bunn was a marvelous — even if not life-changing — experience.