Tag Archives: Buck Clayton

FOR NANCY HARROW, THE SONGS ARE ALL

Looking back on my 2017, one of the memorable pleasures is the privilege of meeting and hearing Nancy Harrow (in the company of fellow-singers Daryl Sherman and Hilary Gardner, too).  You could call Nancy “a singer,” and then add “composer,” but she is more, an inspiring artist of great scope.  I imagine her as someone who realized, early on, what her paths were, what her purposes might be, and set off to fulfill them — as she continues to do, with warmth, perception, humor, lightness, and strength.

I’ve written about Nancy here, but I couldn’t let this year conclude without shining a light on her latest work, her 2016 CD, THE SONG IS ALL.  It’s not just that she’s recorded infrequently in this century — her preceding CD, recorded with Don Friedman in Japan, was in 2009, and even Tom Lord hasn’t noted it.  But THE SONG IS ALL shows off Nancy in all her facets and reflections.

Nat Hentoff wrote this about Nancy’s 1981 sessions with John Lewis (THE JOHN LEWIS ALBUM FOR NANCY HARROW, Finesse Records): Nancy’s style is Nancy.  There are no masks, no trickery–of sound or personality.  What impressed Buck [Clayton] and a good many others . . . was the absence of artificiality, the directness of her sound and emotion.  The presence, in sum, of someone real. . . . Nancy moves inside the lyrics, and as she tells each story there is that touch of autobiography that all lasting singers suggest.  Again, it’s real.  And that, I think, is why people who have heard her keep on wanting more.  Hearing that kind of probing of memory and imagination is infectious.  You start probing your own.

In the opening track of  THE SONG IS ALL, Nancy sings the lines, “When I was small, no friend called, I played all the parts by myself,” which beautifully characterizes what she’s been doing for years — creating literary / musical imaginings based on Willa Cather, Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and several “children’s books” with deep meanings for adults as well.  Nancy has written music and lyrics — songs that stand on their own as well as interludes in the plot — then performed them, an actress without artifice.  THE SONG IS ALL is thus the multi-colored, emotionally intense Nancy Harrow Repertory Company.

Here is IF I WANT TO, drawing on Nancy’s improvisations on Cather’s A LOST LADY, combining pride, tenderness, vulnerability, and self-knowledge:

Ordinarily, if you offered me a CD solely of one artist’s originals, I might look at it with skepticism, for not every musician is a successful composer, but I embrace THE SONG IS ALL because of its depth and variety of feeling — the toughtness of SELF-ESTEEM, the wry wit of PUTTING ON AIRS, the mournful recollections of MY LOST CITY, the quiet intensity of I AM TOO SHY, and more.  Many CDs pall after a half hour because of sameness, but this one moves from scene to scene with grace and power.

Although I take great pleasure in hearing Nancy with spare accompaniment, here she has assembled a thoroughly entrancing stock company of (mostly young) musicians: Chris Ziemba, George Delancey, Robert Edwards, Owen Broder, Alphonso Horne, Carrie Dowell, Monica Davis, Sarah Whitney, Eleanor Norton, Alex Claffy, Britton Smith, Carl Clemons Hopkins, David Linard, Nathan Bell, and veterans Dennis Mackrel and Rufus Reid.  (If I’ve made anyone improperly “young” out of my ignorance, I trust I can be forgiven.)

Another piece of music that has become part of my daily pleasure — I cannot share it with you here (it never became a CD in this country)– is Nancy’s 1981 performance of MY SHIP and her version of AS LONG AS IT’S ABOUT LOVE from the record with John Lewis, and I have had the strongest urge to get out of my chair and put my ear close to the speaker, to best hear her songful message.  I think of Whitman, “This hour I tell things in confidence, I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.”

Her voice, so endearingly personal — vibrato-ed or vibrato-less, tender or fierce — conveys emotions and ideas that it seems only she can convey, even if the song is familiar, with many singers trying to make it their own.  And when she sings her own words and melodies, she quietly fills the room.

Here is an extraordinarily deep article on Nancy (with many of her own words and insights) by Wayne Zade, and here is Nancy’s website, a good place to read, listen, dream, and purchase CDs.

I close with the words by Chekhov — chosen by Nancy to be what someone sees having opened the cardboard sleeve of THE SONG IS ALL:

“Why are your songs so short?  Is it because you are short of breath?” the songbird was asked.  The bird replied: “I have a great many songs and I should like to sing them all.”

“When it’s true, I can move you,” Nancy sings, and she does:

Nancy Harrow and her songs are rare blessings.

May your happiness increase!

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MARA KAYE SINGS LADY DAY with JON-ERIK KELLSO, DAVID SAGER, JOHN GILL, BRIAN NALEPKA, SCOTT RICKETTS, EYAL VILNER at THE EAR INN (August 13, 2017)

Mara Kaye is one of New York’s great gifts to the world. Two years ago, she did a concert performance at Joe’s Pub, an evening of songs associated with Billie Holiday.  Here is some of what I wrote, that still rings true.

She is a substantial stage personality.  One way this is expressed is in her nearly constant yet genuine motion, as if her energy is too strong for her to stand still.  It’s not just hair-tossing, but a continual series of dance moves that also look like yoga poses and warm-up stretches, even a jubilant marching-in-place. Often she held her arms over her head, her hands open.  I think it was always exuberant emotion, but it was also her own expression of an ancient and honorable theatrical style . . . so that even the people in the most distant balcony of the Apollo Theatre could see you and join in with the person onstage. And her voice matched her larger-than-life physical presence.  On a Twenties record label, she might have been billed as COMEDIENNE WITH ORCHESTRA, and that odd designation rang true. The comedy bubbled up here and there in speech: she hails from Brooklyn, so that her sailboat in the moonlight was idling along in Sheepshead Bay. But it also emerged delightfully in her voice: I heard echoes of Fanny Brice, of comic Eastern European melodies . . . it never sounded as if she was taking Billie or the music lightly, but as if she was having such a good time that she couldn’t help playing. . . . SHOW in the best tradition — not caricature, but something Louis would have admired immensely.

I’m always glad to see Mara, and when she showed up at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho) on Sunday, August 13, I had hopes she would be invited to sit in with the EarRegulars.  Leader and brass deity Jon-Erik Kellso has the same feelings about this young woman, so he invited her to join the band . . . and these two performances are the result. The EarRegulars, that night, were Jon-Erik; David Sager, trombone (making a guest appearance from his home in a southern town), John Gill, banjo; Brian Nalepka, string bass, with sitters-in Scott Ricketts, cornet and Eyal Vilner, to my left, alto saxophone.  The ghosts of Buck Clayton, Lester Young, and Benny Morton were there, and they approved.

Two gorgeous performances: FOOLIN’ MYSELF:

and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE (during the instrumental portion you’ll see Mara, ever the good jazz citizen, walking around with the tip jar — the tip pumpkin — to help the band:

Music like this, peerless and delicate, improves our world, for these musicians give us love and more.

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 MOST BEAUTIFUL TOGETHERNESS WE HAVE”: DAN MORGENSTERN RECALLS TONY PARENTI, HARRY JAMES, HERSCHEL EVANS, BOB CASEY, ROBERT CLAIRMONT (April 20, 2017)

Here are several more interview segments from Dan Morgenstern (the second series).  What an honor to be permitted to capture Dan’s generosity and insights.

Here, Dan speaks of the great (and now nearly forgotten) clarinetist and bandleader Tony Parenti:

Here’s some music from Tony, Ralph Sutton, and George Wettling:

And a little “digression,” so tenderly revealing, with the characters being Harry James and Herschel Evans — maybe two minutes in the recording studio, but a short example of great kindness:

The man pictured below might not be familiar — Robert Clairmont — but he is obviously a fascinating figure, someone Dan knew:

And here’s Dan’s recollection — by way of great string bassist Bob Casey:

In honor of Mister Casey and young Mister Morgenstern, buying his first jazz records in Denmark:

The music played at W.C. Handy’s April 1928 Carnegie Hall concert, made possible by Robert Clairmont, as listed on the BIXOGRAPHY Forum, thanks to the research of Albert Haim.  I had not heard of Clairmont before this, but he gave Handy $4000 — a large sum of money — to finance that concert, where James P. Johnson’s YAMEKRAW was given its premiere, Fats Waller at the piano.

(Internet research, that funny thing, identifies Clairmont as “poet” and “Wall Street investor,” an unusual pairing.)  I also found this brief biographical sketch:

ROBERT CLAIRMONT, poet, was born in 1902 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. Clairmont is author of Quintillions, Star in the West, and Forever X; and the first volume of the series Poets of Today (1938) is given to his work. He was editor of the periodical New Cow of Greenwich Village and, in the early 1950’s, of the poetry magazine Pegasus.

And . . . because I find it irresistible, here is one of Clairmont’s poems for children, THE ANSWERS, later set to music by Alec Wilder:

The Answers

“When did the world begin and how?”
I asked a lamb, a goat, a cow:

“What’s it all about and why?”
I asked a hog as he went by:

“Where will the whole thing end, and when?”
I asked a duck, a goose and a hen:

And I copied all the answers too,
A quack, a honk, an oink, a moo.

Here’s an inscription from Handy to his friend and benefactor:

“Togetherness” and kindness: Tony Parenti making spaghetti for Buck Clayton and teaching him the new / old repertoire; Harry James helping Herschel Evans out at that Lionel Hampton record date; Robert Clairmont saving a man’s life and then making it possible for W.C. Handy to have a Carnegie Hall concert; Dan Morgenstern’s uncountable gifts, which continue as I write this.

May your happiness increase!

HELEN’S DREAMS

I saw and heard Helen Humes in person only once, in 1975, but she made a lasting impression.  When Ed Polcer was leading the band at the last “Eddie Condon’s,” marvelous players and singers were invited to get up on the narrow bandstand and astonish us.  I was there because Ruby Braff was leading the group; Helen came up and sang IF I COULD BE WITH YOU and ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, and I have a clear memory of her beautiful smile, heartfelt delivery, and warm voice.

At the early peak of the Swing Era, John Hammond had yet another one of his good ideas: to feature Harry James (then in his first year as a star of the Goodman band) with a small group drawn from the Basie band.  There was a clear rapport, and these under-acknowledged records stand alongside the more heralded Wilson-Holiday sessions.  Helen had recorded a decade earlier, but she was then perceived as a classic blues singer, and those records show only one side of her considerable talent.  In these 1936-38 sides, we hear what made her memorable.  (On YouTube, you can hear the other sides from the James sessions.)

The first session (on December 1, 1937) had Harry, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Earl Warren, Herschel Evans, Jack Washington, Jess Stacy, Walter Page, Jo Jones.  Helen sang several songs; here is I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I?:

On January 5, 1938, the same group reassembled, with Vernon Brown replacing Eddie Durham, and Helen sang IT’S THE DREAMER IN ME:

Other aspects of these recordings (of the two glorious sessions) are memorable: the warm sounds of Harry and Herschel, the beautiful distractions of Jess Stacy at the piano, joined by Walter Page and Jo Jones . . . but at this remove, Helen wins my heart — her deep sincerity, her vibrato, the way she delivers two love songs with complete conviction, even at the faster tempo of the first.  She’s been overshadowed for decades, but what a great artist she is.  In a few minutes, she invites us to live her dreams.

May your happiness increase!

“IF I MAY,” or BECOMING A PIECE OF THE MOSAIC

My dear friend Michael Burgevin, drummer and artist, told me that when the trumpeter Joe Thomas would begin to address an audience, he often would say, “If I may . . . ” which seems the height of an eighteenth-century courtesy.  I have borrowed his words, and I hope, a light tread, for what follows.

I know that of late I have chosen to utilize JAZZ LIVES as a place to raise funds for one or two worthy jazz enterprises.  Both Kickstarter endeavors have met their goals, so I am hoping for a third kind of generous good luck.

Mosaic Records is in financial trouble.  Learn more about them here.

Please read this, from co-founder Michael Cuscuna.

Dear Mosaic Friend,

In this time and place, the Mosaic business model is becoming harder and harder to sustain in this rapidly changing world. We aren’t sure what the future will hold for us, but we want to let all of you know how much we appreciate that your support has allowed us to constantly make our dreams come true with set after set and that we intend to persevere. The way we operate may change but our mandate remains steadfast.

Charlie Lourie and I started Mosaic Records in 1982 and our first releases were in 1983. The company was almost an afterthought. The idea of definitive boxed sets of complete recordings by jazz masters at a crucial time in their careers was a small part of a proposal that we made to Capitol Records in 1982 to relaunch the Blue Note label. Even before Capitol turned us down, it occurred to me one night that the release of these boxed sets could be a business unto itself if we made them deluxe, hand-numbered limited editions sold directly to the public.

Our first release was The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk, which came about because I’d found about 25 minutes of excellent unissued Monk on Blue Note. It was too short for an album and I was obsessed with how to get this music released. . It then dawned on me that all of this important material needed to be retransferred and assembled in chronological order as a significant historic document. I solved my problem of releasing those 25 minutes of Monk music and Mosaic Records was born. We had a wonderful run of projects. The Tina Brooks, Herbie Nichols, Serge Chaloff, Count Basie and Nat Cole sets were among those that were especially near and dear to our hearts.

Charlie was my best friend and working together was a joy. Mosaic was slow getting started and it took a few years before we could even draw a meager salary. I remember during those lean years worrying if we could afford to put out a Tina Brooks set. Charlie looked at me in amazement. “Isn’t that why we started this thing – to do what’s important without anyone telling us no?!” He only had to say it once.

In 1989, we moved out of Charlie’s basement and into our own facility. Scott Wenzel joined us in 1987. We added employees as the business grew. We started issuing sets on CD as well as LP and eventually had our own website.

We lost Charlie to scleroderma on December 31, 2000. We managed to keep the tone and spirit of the company up to the level that Charlie created and continued to put out thoroughly researched vital sets of importance in jazz history. But in the early 2000s, the record business began to shrink and morph for a variety of reasons and we were forced to downsize our staff, move to smaller quarters and reduce the flow of sets.

We’ve always tried to be diligent about warning you when sets were running low so you wouldn’t miss out on titles that you wanted. But at this point, some sets which are temporarily out of stock may not be pressed again. We are not certain how Mosaic Records will continue going forward or how many more sets we will be able to create and release. We’ve got a lot of great plans but few resources.

Scott and I want to thank every single person who has supported us, made suggestions, given advice and shown us such love and affection. If you are thinking about acquiring a certain set, now’s the time.

– – Michael Cuscuna

If you love jazz and if you follow this blog, you know what beautiful productions the Mosaic label has created — for everyone from George Lewis and Kid Ory to Andrew Hill.  The sets, which are limited editions, are a jazz fan’s dream: rare material, intelligently and comprehensively presented in lovely sound, with rare photographs, deep research, and wise annotations.  When Mosaic first started, I was not terribly financially secure, so, although I coveted many of the sets, I could only purchase a few.  (I had the vinyl collection of the Blue Note Jazzmen and the CDs of the Condon Columbia sessions and the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions, and I treasure them now.)  Incidentally, a word about cost: one of my role models used to say, “You amortize,” which — once you remove it from the mortgage broker’s vocabulary — means that an initial investment pays off over time.  I know it might strike some as specious reasoning, but a $150 purchase, savored wholly two times, costs one-half each playing . . . and one can, I suppose reach the philosophical accounting point where the set is now for free.

About “for free,” while those slippery words arise.  We have long been accustomed to getting our art for free.  (And, yes, I do understand that the videos on JAZZ LIVES are in some ways a manifestation of the problem — although I put money in the tip jar when I video, as a token of love and gratitude.)  One can drown in free music on YouTube — often in poor sound, inaccurately presented — or on Spotify — where the artists receive at best pennies for their work.  Or one can burn a copy of a CD and give it away.  All those things are, to me, the equivalent of lifting sugar packets from the cafeteria to fill the sugar bowl at home.  But that is, simply, not nice, and it denies the artist or the artist’s heirs proper reward.  Mosaic Records is an honest company, and people get paid.  And quality product and quality work is never free.

I am not an accountant.  I cannot promise that if many of JAZZ LIVES’ readers treat themselves to a Mosaic Records set, it will do the trick of keeping the company solvent.  But I would like to see an outpouring of love and support for this very spiritually and musically generous company.  If you haven’t got the money for a set, perhaps you can wheedle your family members into buying you an early birthday or holiday present.  Or you can assemble the jazz-lovers you know and collectively buy one.  I made a purchase this afternoon.

In my time as a jazz fan, I’ve seen clubs vanish (the Half Note and two dozen others) and record labels come to a stop.  Radio stations (WRVR-FM) have gone silent.  Rather than say, “Gee, that sucks!” (in the elegant parlance of the times) and look for the best buy on Mosaic sets on eBay, why not ride to the rescue NOW?  I would rather not have to lament the hole in the universe where this beautiful enterprise used to be.

If you may, I hope you can and will.

May your happiness increase!

“A REALLY PRETTY SONG”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, JEFF HAMILTON, KATIE CAVERA, CLINT BAKER (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 25, 2016)

Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have the magical ability to play with Time (Einstein would be pleased) so that a nice steady medium-tempo groove from the band can also be ornamented with dreaming, almost motionless ruminations on the theme: it happens beautifully here.

The song is famous for Billie Holiday and Lester Young, although in 1937 it was simply another new pop tune, composed by Carmen Lombardo and John Jacob Loeb.  Carmen doesn’t get much credit for melodies — people are too busy sneering at the Lombardo reeds and vocalizing — but think of COQUETTE, SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, RIDIN’ AROUND IN THE RAIN, and even BOO HOO (I hear Jimmy Rushing singing that one with perfect swing sincerity).

This isn’t a post about the glories of Billie and Lester (even though they can’t be celebrated too much) but rather a wholly instrumental and wholly satisfying version of this song in our century, created by Ray, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar:

What beautiful dreamy music.  Blessings on these musicians and thanks for the San Diego Jazz Fest for providing a time and place (November 25, 2016) for the musicians and audience to feel such expansive comfort.

May your happiness increase!