Tag Archives: Bob Rusch

BENNY VISITS “AVALON”

In the last few days I’ve been listening to the Benny Goodman Festival being broadcast on WKCR-FM (if you’re out of range of this New York City FM station, you can hear it online at www.wkcr.org).  Whenever I turn on the radio a Goodman small group is eagerly exploring AVALON at a jaunty tempo, a coincidence that both amuses and puzzles me.

BGNow, I don’t plan to accuse Goodman of being an aging artist caught in his own boredom, but the frequency with which jazz musicians return to their own narrowing repertoire of familiar songs to improvise on is worth comment.

I know that Hot Lips Page famously said (to whom?) “The material is immaterial,” and Bob Rusch has gently reminded me that jazz is about what one does with the material rather than the material itself.  “‘T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it,” sang Trummy Young.

And anyone brave enough to improvise in public at the tempos Goodman favored should, by law, have the right to choose his or her own favorite set of chord changes — no matter whether the improviser in question is Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, or John Coltrane.  But I’ve also heard some of the finest jazz artists turn in established solos on familiar pieces for their features, occasionally playing something quite moving, but more often falling back on set routine.  I think of Jo Jones’s CARAVAN, of Buddy Tate’s BODY AND SOUL, of Vic Dickenson’s IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD, and so on.

One could, of course, make the case that jazzmen have “master solos” and “polished performances” to fall back on, because improvisation is such a demanding art.  And Ricky Riccardi has made the point that Louis Armstrong’s versions of INDIANA that often began his later performances were anything but rote repetition.

But Benny himself (according to Ross Firestone’s sweet-natured biography) seems to have been dissatisfied with the music he played in his last decade, saying to someone, “You can’t play LADY BE GOOD forever.”  But he did play AVALON for fifty years.

Did he play it so regularly because it was a song he loved from his childhood (it first appeared in 1920)?  Did he return to it because it was one of his proven hits, a selection that his audience — sometimes made up of people who had cheered him on in 1937 — wanted, expected, and waited for?  Did he feel a responsibility to please the people who had paid to hear him with a medley of his Greatest Hits?  Or was playing AVALON something that gave him pleasure in itself — both as a stunning ride over the chord changes and as a way of making an exciting performance?  I can’t begin to say.

And some of the performances of AVALON I’ve heard on WKCR-FM are justly thrilling — not just in terms of technique and facility, but as musical expressions — evidence of an older artist still finding “something new to say” on a familiar text.  Some of them sound like Goodman playing at being Benny Goodman — with playing that is technically exciting but not especially creative improvised music.

The only time I was fortunate enough to see Goodman in person — at a great distance — was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 or 1975, with a truly all-star group including Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge (!).  Of course, the King offered us AVALON, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and DON’T BE THAT WAY to enthusiastic applause, but I was much more moved by Hackett’s choice of a feature number — an uptempo SECRET LOVE, which I can still dimly hear in my head as I write this.

Does this make me a snob for asking my beloved jazz heroes to “be original”?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if I had been able to ask Benny why he explored and re-explored AVALON, he would have said, “I like it.”  And that would have been enough, even for me.  Any artist who’s given us so much for such a long time is entitled to his idiosyncracies.

BARBARA ROSENE at IRIDIUM, February 17, 2009: SWEET, HOT, and SOULFUL!

barbara-rosene-2003-cd1I first heard Barbara Rosene sing on a compact disc — the 2003 Stomp Off “Ev’rything’s Made For Love,” which I’d obtained serendipitously.  Bob Rusch of Cadence thought I would take pleasure in this music, and (as is often the case) he was splendidly correct. I loved the sounds — plural, not singular — of Barbara’s pure, clear voice, tenderly exploring the layers of feeling in a ballad, being naughty on a double-entendre Twenties song, or simply swinging her way exultantly through one of those unashamedly happy songs that used to be the fashion.  Although Barbara often sang obscure songs, she was more than an archivist delighting in artistic esoterica.

Some singers sing at the song, or, worse, they present it at a distance with ironic quotation marks around it.  Barbara immerses herself in the emotions of the lyrics and the melody, uniting herself with the song.  Although some of her material was peripherally connected to girl singers who chose to present themselves as Twenties Lolitas (little girls lispiing through the lyrics), Barbara is serious when her material is, riotous when the song calls for it.

In October 2004, I was in the audience for a late-night jam session at the Cajun, where Barbara, at someone’s request, got up and sang a touching FOOLS RUSH IN.  Later, I introduced myself to her as the Phantom Reviewer, and was delighted by her genuineness.  She and Kevin Dorn are close friends, so I began to see Barbara sing more often in a variety of places — from an Episcopal church in Hicksville, New York to an uptown club whose name I forget to the now-eradicated Jacques-Imo’s.

All of this is prelude to what the Beloved and I enjoyed last night: Barbara and her New Yorkers appearing at Iridium for two sets — an engagement I hope will be repeated soon and often.  She always surrounds herself with the best musicians, and the band last night was choice: Kevin on drums, Conal Fowkes on piano, Doug Largent on bass, Michael Hashim on alto and tenor, Matt Szemela on violin, and Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet.

The lovely thing about Barbara’s Iridium gig was that the room was packed with quietly appreciative people, many of whom knew each other, so it was like a reunion — or a party in someone’s large living room.  The Beloved and I sat at a table with the cheerful Joe and Carla Samolduski, the people responsible for Barbara’s appearances at “Cabaret Night” at the Hicksville church.  All that was missing was the basket of potato chips in front of us.

The music began with a positively rambunctious THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  When the gleeful dust had settled, Barbara chatted with the audience about her song choices.  She believes in what she sings: GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON is not just a series of words for her.  Matt Szemela added his sweet countrified violin to the ensemble, a wonderful bonus.  Acknowledging her debt to Annette Hanshaw, Barbara began a deeply serious (although rhythmically mobile) version of AM I BLUE.  Jon-Erik growled ominously behind her, and Michael Hashim explored the low register of his horn, reminding me of Ben Webster at his Fifties best.  The mood brightened dramatically when Barbara offered a chipper rendition of LOVABLE AND SWEET, composed by Oscar Levant, rhyming “nice man” and “iceman” for naughty reasons.  DEEP NIGHT, which Barbara dedicated to her late father, who loved the song, was a sultry tango.  Barbara is a gracious and generous leader, so she gave the band a chance to romp on I WONDER WHERE MY BABY IS TONIGHT, which featured a patented Hashim stop-time chorus and two jammed ensemble choruses, the first quiet, the second shouting.  A delicate IT WAS ONLY A SUN SHOWER followed; during Michael’s solo, Barbara sat on the piano bench next to Conal, her eyes closed, rocking happily to the beat.  A brisk IT HAD TO BE YOU came next: Barbara sang the familiar lyrics as if the song was new, and Conal provided a rocking minimalist solo (Basie without the cliches), supported in high style by Doug and Kevin.

Readers familiar with this blog might be asking themselves, “Where was Flip all this time?”  “Struggling to get out of my pocket,” would be the answer.  Flip was thrilled to be at Iridium (it was his first time) and he wanted to get close to the stage, but I kept on trying to quiet him down.  People had the audacity to be sitting in front of us and their heads were in the way; Flip wriggled and jumped so vigorously that I thought the waitstaff were going to ask us to leave.

When it was clear that Barbara’s set was more than half over, I took Flip out of my pocket and aimed him at the stage — thinking that the Iridium staff would hardly eject us so close to the end.  (I was right.)  The result is that you are now able to see and hear some of what Barbara and her New Yorkers did so beautifully last night.

Here’s Irving Berlin’s melancholy SAY IT ISN’T SO, a fully realized dramatic performance without a hint of “acting”:

Barbara featured the band on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, which offers wonderful hot solos and ensemble joys.  I especially love the trades between Doug and Kevin at the end, reminiscent of the playful jazz conversations Milt Hinton and Jo Jones had so memorably:

And something even more special: Barbara’s ukulele feature.  Faithful readers will know of my recent (and continuing) ukulele obsession — I’m still finding my way around the fingerboard.  But I was thrilled when Barbara unsheathed a soprano ukulele and put on her own one-woman show.  It’s not that she’s the East Coast version of Lyle Ritz (or at least not yet) but she encapsulates another world in her performance of KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW — as if we were sitting on the porch with her and she decided it was time for a little music.  It’s charming!  And her whistling is both casual and accomplished:

Finally, a rocking version of MY BLACKBIRDS ARE BLUEBIRDS NOW — one of several songs that exploited this avian metaphor.  I feel sorry for the poor blackbirds, who got a bad reputation as emblems of bad luck.  All because of that one flying terrorist who pecked off the housemaid’s nose, if I remember correctly?  Bluebirds are fine, of course — but the blackbirds swung.  Here’s Barbara and her New Yorkers:

Barbara says that she is trying to keep this music alive without turning into the guardian of a time capsule.  That’s a tall order, but she is doing it heroically every time she sings, and she did it splendidly last night.  I hope these homegrown video clips convey something of her special gifts.  She is The Real Thing.

DIAL B FOR BEAUTY, T FOR TARDO

One of the pleasures of writing for the journal Cadence is in working with its editor, Bob Rusch, who has great faith in his reviewers’ intellectual elasticity, their ability to consider art that falls slightly outside their accustomed orbit.  Although I could be happy listening to James P. Johnson until the day of doom, Bob has asked me to listen closely and think about recordings I wouldn’t have ordinarily purchased, artists I wouldn’t have otherwise known.  One such CD was a trio recording on the Sharp Nine label (its title an emblem of witty hipness) featuring the pianist Tardo Hammer, bassist Dennis Irwin, and drummer Jimmy Wormworth, Tardo’s Tempo.  I thought it a remarkable recording because of Hammer’s beautiful touch, his unhurried melodic sense, the way the trio worked together, and (no small matter) the beauty of the recorded sound.  Although Hammer might have been classified superficially as a boppish pianist of the Bud Powell persuasion, he has and had a thoughtful restraint, his lines distilled musings rather than violent displays of pianistic ferocity.

Then Tardo surfaced on a particularly moving quartet effort by saxophonist Grant Stewart, Young At Heart, and a live session featuring Stewart and the trumpeter John Marshall, Live at Le Pirate.  I confess that all of his fine playing on these discs did not add up to a conversion experience.  That took place when I heard his latest recording, Look   Stop   Listen: The Music of Tadd Dameron, also on Sharp Nine.  It features Tardo, John Webber, and Joe Fransworth, a truly empathetic trio.  All of their virtues are even more beautifully on display here.  Because Dameron created ringing, mournful melodies, Tardo has wonderful material to explore, and he is someone who (in Eubie Blake’s phrase) knows how to make the piano sing.  He takes his time, he considers the implications of each note without ever getting bogged down in his own cogitations; his tone is like nothing so much as a fine cognac.  Listen to his thoughtful exploration of something as well-worn as “Hot House,” made into a headlong rush by generations of eager emulators of Bird and Diz; hear the pearls he creates out of “Dial B for Beauty” and “If You Could See Me Now.”  Webber is every pianist’s dream: solid but supportive, his focused sonority relaxed yet pulsing.  And Farnsworth (especially on brushes) urges and comments without changing the tempo a hair.  It is one of those sessions that without being in the slightest bit backwards-looking, summons up all the glories of the past without imitating anyone’s familiar gestures.

Because I organize my compact discs alphabetically, Hammer will now have his own section among Ed Hall, Scott Hamilton, Lionel Hampton, Annette Hanshaw, Michael Hashim, and Coleman Hawkins — a set of great melodists.  Those players will welcome him; he’ll be right at home.

Visit Tardo’s website and Sharp Nine’s:http://home.earthlink.net/~tardo/ and http://www.sharpnine.com.

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