Tag Archives: Cadence

THE VOICE OF MUSIC

I began my jazz life rather innocently as a Listener: a child sitting close to a V-M (The Voice of Music, it said on the inside lid) three-speed phonograph.  I can summon up the worn brown felt of the turntable, the pattern of the speaker grille.  And as I listened to the record of the moment I watched the label revolve, transfixed both by the music and by the whirling shapes the writing on the label made.  When the record ended, I picked up the tone arm and placed it in the outer groove to hear and watch it, dreamily, again. 

I progressed through different phonographs, tape recorders, portable cassette recorders, and learned (as life became busier) to start the music playing and do other things at the same time: type an undergraduate Milton essay while Louis and his Hot Seven played in the background, make breakfast while listening to Lee Wiley.  But the musicians had no more tangible presence than what I might see on television or in the pictures adorning a record’s liner notes.  I did see Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars in the spring of 1967, but that is another essay. 

Aside from Louis, I didn’t truly see live jazz until 1969 or 1970.  I think it was at Town Hall in New York City, produced by the late Dick Gibson, featuring not only the World’s Greatest Jazz Band but also Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Joe Newman, and perhaps Garnett Brown.  Heady stuff!  Now, from my seat (clutching my forbidden cassette recorder) I could watch Al and Zoot speak to one another; I could see my hero Vic Dickenson, tall, thin, leaning slightly to one side.   

I had moved away from the speaker, even though concerts in large halls kept the musicians as tiny, eloquent figures whom I could hear but not converse with.  It was only in the very early Seventies that I was able to see jazz performed in clubs — where I could timidly approach Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Bob Wilber, and others to ask for their autographs.  And the conversations that sprang out of these encounters were barely defined as “conversation.”  Nervous and admiring, a Fan, a record album clutched under my arm, I would timidly ask, “May I have your autograph?” or “Would you sign this for me, Mr. Sims?”  (I showed Zoot Sims an album he had appeared on for English RCA, and he said, “Gee, they must have made this when Bucky and I were appearing at Soerabaja.  I’ve never heard it.”  I said, “Would you like me to make you a copy of it?” He grimaced and said, “Oh, no, no thanks.”) 

While I was busy being a Fan (and occasionally an Amateur Photographer), I was also bringing various tape-recorders, which made me a Taper . . . evoking occasionally strong reactions.  Cyril Haynes refused to play until I put my cassette recorder away; Wild Bill Davison wanted to be paid off in Scotch; Dicky Wells pantomimed vigorous negation; Kenny Davern rather kindly told me that my microphone placement was all wrong (after Mike Burgevin had assured him I was on the right side of things); Ruby Braff lectured me by mail on the importance of having fresh batteries.  I saw Ray Nance several nights in a row in a Long Island club — he played and sang marvelously — and when I gave him a reel-to-reel copy of a concert he had performed in two years earlier, he looked at it as if he didn’t quite know what he was supposed to do with it, although collectors had been offering him such things for decades. 

Being a Taper was delicate business, but often rewarding, although musicians (with justification) tend to view me with skepticism: what is going to happen to those tapes that kid is making?  Does he have his own bootleg label; is he going to make money out of my work?

I became more than a Taper in 2000, when I began to write CD reviews . . . first for the IAJRC Journal, then the Mississippi Rag, for Cadence and All About Jazz (associations that happily have continued), for Coda and Jazz Improv . . . and liner notes.  These effusions brought me into a different relationship with the musicians. 

Simply put, I got closer to the players but often my distance increased.

A paradox, you say?  As a Listener, I was invisible and anonymous; as a Fan, I appeared and had substance for a minute or two.  As a Taper, I was mostly a nuisance, although some musicians actually wanted to hear what the tapes sounded like. 

But as a Reviewer, a Writer, a (whisper this), a Critic, I had a name and perhaps the power to exalt or to annoy.  Most often, I was the person who said to Bill Charlap, “You don’t know me, but I loved your _______ CD and wrote a very enthusiastic review of it for Cadence.”  And he politely, happily, said, “Yes, I remember that review.  It was very nice — thank you so much!” 

I haven’t had to deal with musicians who are irritated by what I’ve written, although I’ve received a few sharp-edged emails from a producer and another jazz critic, both of them who told me I was being deeply unfair when I thought I was telling the truth. 

But when I began to be someone ever so slightly known in local jazz circles as the fellow who could help you publicize your upcoming gig in the Mississippi Rag, or the person who might write a laudatory review of your self-produced CD, a slight edge crept into some interchanges.  Nothing dramatic happened, but I felt that relations between me (a non-Musician) and the Musicians were simpler when I was not in a position to say something in print about their latest efforts, to effect their livelihood.

 There were immense rewards, of course: I got to meet and talk to many more of my heroes on a different footing — a Friend of the Music as well as a Member of the Jazz Press, and I am always happy when people come over and say hello. 

All of this changed slightly more than two years ago when I created this blog, and acquired the first of a series of video cameras.  The experience of this blog has been more favorable than I can say, and I have used it to celebrate improvisations from the whole range of jazz’s history and to make it possible for people who live far away to see and hear their heroes. 

The video camera, however, is a different matter.  The cassette recorder, the reel-to-reel recorder, the digital recorder, all came with their own baggage or perhaps freight, all understandable.  The musician who has a cold, or would rather be elsewhere, looks down at the technology and might say, inwardly, “Oh, damnit — all my imperfections are going to be recorded for posterity; jazz collectors who are this guy’s friends are going to be getting free copies of my music; they won’t have to buy my CDs.  What will I get out of it?”  But when I discovered YouTube — probably years after many more technologically-sophisticated jazz fans — the world opened up for me.  Not only could I bring home an audio recording of what I’d just heard (to copy for the musicians and a few friends): I could record the event visually as well as audibly, and send it around the world. 

Most of the musicians have been exceptionally tolerant and gracious.  And there have been only a few times in two years of video recording where a musician has asked me to remove a performance from circulation, which I’ve done quickly in the spirit of fairness.  Were I the proverbial fly on the wall — certainly not a unique phenomenon at any jazz club — would I be happy with the way I was characterized?  “Does any musician see me at a club and think, “I surely will be happy when Michael goes away for a few months, then I can play in peace without looking up and seeing that little camera staring at me, capturing everything . . . “?

I originally felt that this posting was heading for gloom, a rumination on the equation between intimacy and distance, on the responsibilities that begin in dreams, even musical ones, but there were three cheering encounters last week at the Ear Inn, my Sunday night haunt.  One of the musicians came over (unsolicited) to say he thought what I was doing was worthwhile and that he thought the new camera was swell; later on in the evening, I was approached from left and right (Peter and Margarethe from Uppsala and Fumi from New York) by grateful people who said that they had found the club solely by watching these videos. 

I can imagine that in the future my age, health, and circumstances would make it difficult for me to get to jazz clubs as I am doing now.  And I can envision ending my career of jazz love and appreciation as I began, as a Listener, although the Voice of Music phonograph has been supplanted.  But maybe I will spend the last chapter of my jazz life delighting in the music’s sounds and shapes through YouTube and other versions not yet discovered, even if I’m not behind the camera.  

I hope that there will always be the kindness of strangers who know how to swing.  And know what it is to share their pleasures.

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HEAR ELLA, STUFF, and BEN in 1937!

Ella Fitzgerald, Stuff Smith, and Ben Webster recorded together in the late Fifties for a Norman Granz project — “Ella Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook.”  But they had been captured on disc twenty years before in what are much more fascinating circumstances.

The good news is that the CD that is so delighting me is available and intensely rewarding — musically, not simply for its rarity.  Anticipation over a long period rarely pays off.  If you wait twenty years for something to appear, often the results, however fine, may not seem worth the wait.  Not in this case.  I first heard an I GOT RHYTHM by a related unit — Teddy Wilson, Jonah Jones, Ben, Lawrence Lucie, John Kirby, Cozy Cole — in the late Seventies, and learned that much more material from these sources existed.

Trust the UK jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett to unearth it, research it, and present it to us with his usual style.  (The session that I’m referring to — with exquisite singing by Helen Ward, including a winsome DID YOU MEAN IT? — has been issued on another of Barnett’s AB Fable CDs — one capturing the live recordings Stuff Smith made with members of Fats Waller’s little band and other gems (ABCD1-015 STUFF SMITH: That Naughty Waltz.  COMPLETE 1937–1942 TENOR SAX SEPTETS FEATURING 1942 FATS WALLER ALUMNI AND 1937 TEDDY WILSON ORCHESTRA.)

But LET’S LISTEN TO LUCIDIN (AB Fable ABCD I-024) is even more unusual.  Barnett’s detailed and witty liner notes tell the story better than I could, but the Lucidin eye-lotion company decided to present fifteen-minute broadcasts (three times weekly) over New York’s WMCA featuring an all-star band of Black musicians.

The singer was a young Ella Fitzgerald in pearly, playful form.  Some of my readers found my comments about Ella in an earlier blogpost positively blasphemous — but this Ella I could listen to forever: girlish, earnest, sweet, tenderly improvising.

The orchestra — fourteen pieces — was led by the irreplaceable violinist Stuff Smith, and featured (among others) trumpeter Jonah Jones in his best neo-Louis mode, the delightfully risk-taking Sandy Williams on trombone, altoist Edgar Sampson (also responsible for a number of compositions and arrangements), reedmen Garvin Bushell and Walter Thomas, pianist Clyde Hart, bassist John Kirby, and drummer Cozy Cole.  It was a hand-picked organization that drew on the best Black bands of the time (leaving aside Ellington and Basie): Calloway and Chick Webb.  I’d assume that the players and Ella were happy to have opportunities to broadcast and make extra money, and the band sounds well-rehearsed, even on pop material.  (Chick Webb, always ambitious for Ella, obviously did not discourage her from performing with Stuff’s aggregation.)

One of the great pleasures of this CD is in hearing a band that didn’t record elsewhere splendid hot soloists.  And the CD presents a goodly number of solos by the young Ben Webster, in top form — not yet the player who would spark the 1940 Ellington organization, but a fine, emotive player nonetheless.  The selections (including “trailer” or “teaser” incomplete versions of tunes that would be played the next week) include jazz standards: STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, I GOT RHYTHM, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, STARDUST, I FOUND A NEW BABY, SHINE, BASIN STREET BLUES, and HONEYSUCKLE ROSE.  But the current pop hits are also covered: Ella is touching on CHAPEL IN THE MOONLIGHT and GOODNIGHT MY LOVE, sweetly energetic on COPPER-COLORED GAL.  Cozy Cole and John Kirby are properly supportive; the under-recorded Clyde Hart is just fine.  For my taste, there isn’t enough Stuff, but he has some features and offers a lovely obbligato to Ella’s vocal on GOODNIGHT MY LOVE.  His feature on CLOUDS is a treat.  And IT’S DE-LOVELY, split between Ella and Ben, is a gem.

This music comes from radio broadcasts, another delight.  Jazz collectors know the Ellington Victors, the Basie Deccas, but they are finite.  To find new “live” material from the Swing Era is always a great gift, especially because thousands of hours of music were broadcast between the early Thirties to the end of World War Two.  We have only the smallest portion, and certain orchestras and players were not well-documented.

This CD is also an anthropological trove of Thirties pop culture, sometimes unintentionally hilarious — because Barnett has wisely kept in all the announcements, commercial and musical.  By the time this disc was finished, I was eager to buy Lucidin: I would have been a loyal consumer!  The commercials are truly amusing, because announcer Don Kerr was required to promote a product not yet available.  But even better, the Lucidin people were unhappy with the frequency and length of their competitors’ commercials.  So Kerr tells us frequently that the company finds such announcements boring and painful, and won’t do them.  Some of Kerr’s disquisitions do go on, but neither he or Lucidin seems to have been indulging in subversive ironies.

A few tracks have unavoidable surface noise, but only the most finicky listeners will reject the opportunity to hear these players in new performances.

It’s a delightful disc throughout, one of those rare CDs I can listen to all the way through at one sitting.  It offers not just Ella, Stuff, and Ben, but what a now-vanished population heard on WMCA.  And Barnett’s meticulous research is a real pleasure: the liner is illustrated with rare photographs and drawings.  It was worth the wait!

It can be ordered through the AB Fable website: www.abar.net.

COME OUT FROM BEHIND THOSE WORDS!

I’m troubled by the code words that jazz listeners use to describe the varieties of music they prefer. 

Some who believe that jazz only reached fruition when Charlie Parker (or John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman) burst forth, say in print that they prefer jazz that is “forward-looking,” “adventurous,” “innovative.”  Others who think jazz reached the perfection of form sometime before 1945 or 1960 or 2000 and has been in decline ever since, then your music of choice is “authentic,” “the real thing,” “pure,” “uncorrupted.”  Of course, “modern,” “contemporary,” “timeless” get a workout as well.   “Adventurous,” too. 

Veiled in code words, these ideological positions seek to validate a false premise: that Art progresses or declines.  Did Louis “improve” on King Oliver?  Did Clifford Brown “improve” on Roy Eldridge?  Was “Swing” more innovative than “New Orleans” or “Chicago”; did “Bebop” sweep all that come before it away, only to be rumped by “Hard Bop” and “Free Jazz”? 

Seriously, it makes jazz seem like a parade of the years: if you thought 1944 was great, wait till you hear 1945 — or one box of detergent replacing the last one because the NEW box is IMPROVED (and orange with blue stripes, too).

We all have very particular — sometimes idiosyncratic — preferences in our music as well as in everything else. 

But when those preferences are expressed as statements of critical truth, they may do the music a disservice.  I prefer Ellington’s analogy of the diner in a restaurant who likes his fish cooked the way Pierre does it.  So if your definition of the ideal way to play the alto saxophone is Hilton Jefferson or Benny Carter or Phil Woods, say so.  Those who see jazz as a progress year by year, with each new stylistic change an inevitable improvement on the old-fashioned music of the dusty past are missing out on many hot choruses, now and on record.  And the listeners who are so committed to banjo-and-tuba rhythm sections and find anything else oppressively “modern” may deprive themselves of the joy of Andy Brown, Neil Miner, and Jeff Hamilton. 

So let us abandon the ideological structures for an hour or a day.  Say, rather, “I like the way _________ sings, the way ________ plays trumpet,” rather than suggesting that either of these players has somehow made all others superfluous.  “Better” and “greater” might well be dispensable.  Let us be open about our admittedly subjective likes and dislikes (I have boxes of them to share) — to be cherished as personal expressions, but not made into statements of value. 

And perhaps it’s time for listeners and critics, too, to go back to the Blindfold Test — or what CADENCE calls “Flying Blind.”  Let us not be swayed by the famous name (or the absolutely unknown name) on the CD: what does the music sound like? 

A few unsolicited ruminations to begin 2010 . . . .

FINEST FIG JAM

fig jam

Some history might be needed here.  “A fig,” “a Moldy Fig,” even “a Mouldy Figge,” is now-archaic language invented during the Forties, when jazz found itself divided into warring factions called Dixieland and Bebop.  This divisiveness may have splintered the music and its audiences irrevocably.  Much of the noisy conflict was fomented by journalists and publicists seeking to attract audiences through controversy.  At this distance, we know that GROOVIN’ HIGH is only WHISPERING with a new blouse, but people allowed themselves to ignore this.  I find the poet Philip Larkin very endearing in his art and his vinegary energies, but his jazz prose embodies this point of view, where the world had reached an artistic peak in 1932 with the Rhythmakers recordings and had gone steadily downhill.  I agree with the first part of this formulation but not the second. 

I began my devotional listening as a Fig, so it took a long gradual period of contemplative immersion before I could understand that, say, John Coltrane wasn’t The Enemy out to destroy the music I loved.  In truth, I was never an extremist but I had strong, narrow likes and dislikes.  I remember having a brief conversation with another student in a middle-school Music Appreciation class who was deeply immersed in the New Thing — this was forty-plus years ago and the new thing was Archie Shepp, and the conversation went like this:

“Alan,” which might not be his name, but is a good guess: “I hear you like jazz.”

Me (brightening at having found a fellow subversive): “Oh, yes, I do!”

“Alan”: “Do you listen to Archie Shepp?”

Me (horrified that he hadn’t mentioned Louis, and coming up with a wise-acre New Yorker rejoinder): “Archie Shepp?! I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it!”

“Alan”: “Well, the hell with you!”

So goes critical discourse at its finest! 

I would like to boast that I’ve seen the light and the scales have dropped from my eyes, but if you told me I had to choose only one jazz recording to spend eternity with, it still might be AFTER YOU’VE GONE by the Blue Note Jazzmen, even though I can understand and appreciate music that would have perplexed and repelled me in my youth.  And the music was always there, I just didn’t get it. 

This self-scrutiny is provoked by a phone conversation I had yesterday with Bob Rusch (or RDR), editor and chief spiritual guide of the quarterly journal devoted to Creative Improvised Music, CADENCE.  Full disclosure requires me to say that I write reviews for CADENCE, and I continue to admire the journal’s honesty.  And working with Bob has always been a pleasurable lesson in Emersonian candor: when I have felt an inexplicable need to tactfully cloak the truth in polite words, he has always asked, “Why?” 

If you’ve never read CADENCE, you have been missing something special and rare.  See for yourself (www.cadencebuilding.com).

In the course of our conversation — we speak infrequently, but over the past five years it has always been both bracing and affectionate — Bob said gently that he thought I was “getting more figgish,” and I agreed.  But it made me think, and perhaps my experience will ring true with my readers. 

There used to be “the jazz record industry,” and I am not talking about sixty-five years ago, the Commodore Music Shop, and listening booths.  Ten years ago, perhaps, there were many more active companies producing compact discs.  (If you want to have a sobering experience, casually inspect the spines of any fifty CDs in your library and note how many of those labels no longer exist.)  This, of course, has to do with the economy, an aging audience, and more. 

It has had an double-edged result.  On one hand, no more new issues from Chiaroscuro, no more Pablo, fewer ways for musicians to be encouraged by a label.  But because labels no longer exist, many energetic musicians have gone into business for themselves and produce their own discs.  

This can be a boon: musicians can record what they want, have it sound the way they want, without the interference of recording engineers or the heads of record companies . . . and splendid personal statements emerge.  But this asks musicians to be both courageous and affluent (or at least credit-worthy): a self-produced CD might require a $10,000 investment that the artist might get back over ten years of selling the discs one at a time on the gig.  We should all live and be well! 

(Musician joke: “My latest CD is a million-seller.  I’ve got a million in my cellar.”)

Many players I know have made a virtue of necessity, but I think many of them look back nostalgically to the dear dead days when they got a call to go to a studio at noon to make a date, they played their hearts out, they got paid, and eight months later they knew that the disc they had appeared on was being sold all over the world.  Yes, their control over the music was compromised, their pay was a percentage of the profit, but someone else was handling all the annoying business.  

What this means for someone like myself, reviewing CDs, is that a good deal of what I am asked to listen to is by artists new to me (a good thing) who are offering their own music (potentially a good thing).  And occasionally it leads me to sit up in my chair and say, “By God, (s)he’s got it!”  Melissa Collard was new to me when I first heard her OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, and she is one of those singers whose work I most treasure.  Mark Shane, Kevin Dorn, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Danny Tobias, Lyle Ritz, Andy Brown, Petra van Nuis, and more.  

But much of what I hear is both competent yet entirely forgettable.  I know that Lips Page said, “The material is immaterial,” but hand me a CD full of original compositions by a player and I wonder, “Gee, you’ve already decided that there’s nothing new for you to say on the blues or on I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR?”  Funny, that hasn’t occurred to Sonny Rollins.

And it is sad to receive a CD by a singer or musician, male or female, where great effort has gone into burnishing the exterior at the expense of other things.  When the artist credits his or her hair stylist and wardrobe person first, I think, “Oh no.  Repertoire, not manicure.  No one listens to the cover.” 

So my “figgishness” or “figitude” (both my own coinings) is a way to get back to what music means to me — a spiritual / intellectual / experience that makes me want to grin foolishly and shout exultantly.  I would indeed rather hear a wonderful performance of an original composition by musicians I don’t know than a tired rendition of OUR BUNGALOW OF DREAMS, but I need to hear jazz that makes me remember why I began to listen to the music in the first place: joy, inventiveness, clear delight in being alive in the face of death.  If your listening is purely an intellectual exercise and you find that gratifying, fine, but mine is tied up with the emotions.  Is the music beautiful?  Does it make me feel some strong emotion, preferably happiness?  Can I admire the players?            

So I close this post with a new example of FINEST FIG JAM — pure, organic, and locally sourced.  It’s another YouTube clip from the lucky and generous SFRaeAnn of the Eldorado Serenaders, whose front line is Don Neely on reeds, Robert Young on reeds, trumpet, and vocal, Dave Frey, plectrum banjo, Jim Young, tenor banjo, Steven Rose, sousaphone, Stan Greenberg, percussion.  This performance of BALTIMORE (one of those delightful songs-about-a-new-dance-craze) honors Bix and Wingy and Red, and I think this band is terribly, admirably brave to be shouting it out in a bookstore.  “Fit audience, though few,” said Milton, but he never had to worry about the tip jar.  It was recorded on October 25, 2009 at North Light Books in Cotati, California.  

JOEL PRESS, SWING EXPLORER

joel-press

Photograph by Herb Snitzer

When I get a boxful of compact discs to review from CADENCE — the honest jazz magazine* — I am full of anticipation.  It’s a jazz birthday party in my apartment, as I find a knife to cut through the tape and unwrap the newspaper protecting the CDs.  Now, my first reactions aren’t always trustworthy.  Sometimes a CD I greet with glee turns out to be dull.  And occasionally something that looks tepid jumps right out of the chamber into my heart. 

This time, the box included a new CD by saxophonist Joel Press (known far and wide in Newton, Massachusetts and the Boston jazz scene) and pianist Kyle Aho.  It’s called UNTYING THE STANDARDS (Cadence Jazz Records 1204) and I admire it tremendously — for the way it balances “traditionalism” (the loving respect for the original melodies and a seductive rhythmic pulse) and “freedom” (brave explorations outside and inside).  I expect I will have more to say about this CD soon. 

But, for the moment, I would urge you to visit Joel’s site — www.joelpress.com. — to see a video clip of him blowing the blues with a purring tone and high emotional intensity, rocking back and forth as if caught wholly by jazz.  And you can read his own reminiscences of musicians and scenes past, although he is no museum exhibit himself.  In addition, you can read my own 2006 review of his CD, HOW’S THE HORN TREATING YOU? — where I couldn’t restrain my enthusiasm.  He’s someone you ought to know.  And I’m going back to my slow savoring of his new CD — an aesthetic meal too rich to be gobbled up in a sitting.

*This isn’t the place to launch into polemic, because I wrote this post to praise Joel Press — but I mean “honest” in that CADENCE separates the advertisements and the reviews, which is not typical of jazz magazines.  If editors of other magazines wish to respond to this and say why a glowing review on page 8 and an ad on page 9 poses no conflict of interest as they see it, I would be happy to discuss the issue with them in this blog.

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.