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HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL: “WINDY CITY SWING” (JON DOYLE, JAMEY CUMMINS, DAN WALTON, STEVE PIKAL, HAL SMITH and JOSHUA HOAG)

Hal Smith is someone whose music I’ve admired long before I was able to meet him and hear the magic he works from a front-row seat.  Dogs bark; cats meow; Hal swings, and I’ve never known him to fail.  Better than CPR.

Put it another way: I’ve had a driver’s license for decades, and am thus less comfortable in the passenger seat.  When I hear a performance with Hal at the drums, I can relax — the same way I do when Jo or Sidney or Wettling or Tough is in control: I know everything’s going to be all right.

A new CD with Hal is always a pleasure; the debut recording of a new Hal Smith band is an event, one to be celebrated.  SWING CENTRAL lives up to its title, and there’s more at work here than a) a quintet playing a swing repertoire and b) that the musicians all live in the Central time zone.

Those musicians — exuberant and focused at the same time are, besides Hal — Jonathan Doyle on clarinet; Dan Walton, piano; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Steve Pikal, string bass, and appearing on one track, Joshua Hoag, also on bass.

What makes this clarinet-plus rhythm group different and thus a treasure is vividly apparent from the first notes of the first track.  For one thing, SWING CENTRAL is aware that there is music not played by Benny Goodman.  Heresy to some, I know, and I treasure my Goodman records as much as anyone, but this band and this disc go another way. And that way is the endearingly individualistic way mapped out by Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Frank Chace, and Charlie Christian.  SWING CENTRAL is a hot band, but not an exhibitionistic one: on this CD or in performance, you won’t hear a ten-minute version of SEVEN COME ELEVEN that’s capped with a drum solo.  Hearing the disc again, I thought, “This band is playing for the music, not for the audience,” which is a beautiful and rare thing.  And the musicians know the records, but have absorbed them into their cell memory, so that they can play themselves, which is the only way to honor the innovators.  “Feelin’ the spirit,” as they used to say.

 

Now that you’ve gotten over the pleasant shock of the remarkable cover art by JP Ardee Navarro, hear and see the band in performance (Austin’s Central Market, 2016) for yourself:

LITTLE GIRL:

and Jon Doyle’s charming sweet original, HELLO, FISHIES:

Hal asked me if I would write something for this CD, and I was honored.  Here’s what I came up with: easy to tell the truth, and easy to express happiness in words.  (And in case what I’ve written seems to favor Jon Doyle and the leader, I will say only that I’d like to hear a CD led by Dan Walton, Jamey, or Steve.)

A MEETING OF KINDRED SOULS

A true story. Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were in a taxi, discussing “the beat”. Monk favored surprising shifts but Dizzy disagreed. “What would you do if your heart beat irregular? The steady beat is the principle of life.” My cardiologist would agree: healthy, happy organisms swing from the inside out. Hal Smith’s Swing Central is not only a wondrous cohesive group, inspired by the music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace, and friends, but it affirms joyous principles. From Austin, Texas, comes healing jazz.

Leader Hal tells how this band came to be:

I’ve known Jon Doyle since 2009. The first time I heard him warming up on clarinet, quoting Pres’ solo from “I Want A Little Girl,” the seed was planted for this band. Steve Pikal and I worked together in the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in 2010. Steve’s outgoing personality and propulsive bass playing is always a positive influence. Dan Walton introduced me to the Western Swing scene in Texas. We played together with Jason Roberts’ band and later with Dan’s own Jump Swing Imperials. He understands that “less is more” and it shows. Jamey Cummins has been in Austin for some time, and is finally receiving the attention he deserves. He plays wonderful Freddie Green-like time and inventive, highly rhythmic solos.

We decided not to pursue the familiar Goodman-based clarinet-and-rhythm repertoire but rather to explore the more introverted music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace. Jon Doyle took to the idea like a bat takes to the Congress Ave. Bridge. When we began, the musicians lived in the Central Time zone, so the band name suggested itself. (However, we are not going to add “Pacific” when a couple of our musicians have relocated to the West Coast!)

This was the easiest recording session I have ever done, and several other band members agreed. I think you’ll hear what a good time we had.

This quietly thrilling band reminds me not only of the three inspiring clarinet playing individualists, but of the possibilities of music that gently breaks down the barriers some listeners and journalists build, cubicles labeled “schools” and “styles.” Swing Central takes familiar songs and make them fresh and dewy; Jon’s compositions and reinventions are witty beyond their titles. And these players – happy rovers in the land of Medium Tempo, great ensemble players as well as inspiring soloists — go for themselves rather than copying.

About the repertoire. Listeners will hear the chord structures of SUGAR, MY GAL SAL, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and LADY BE GOOD reinvigorated. An answer key is available at the end of your workbook, but no peeking until you’ve handed in your finished pages.

BIG AL evokes Mr. Capone, who would have tipped Swing Central generously to keep playing his favorite song. Hal explains BATS ON A BRIDGE as “a real Austin phenomenon, and five of the six musicians here have deep roots in Texas’ weirdest city. http://www.batcon.org/index.php/our-work/regions/usa-canada/protect-mega-populations/cab-intro. HI, FISHIES comes from a sweet cross-species story. Ask Jon when you meet him on a gig. REPEATER PENCIL is for Lester, and for this band: artists who honor the innovators by being innovative themselves.

LONG-DISTANCE MAN owes its title to a Pres-and-Chace story recalled by Larry Kart: “[Chace] also told a very ‘Frank’ story about his encounter with Lester Young in 1957 in Pres’s hotel room in (I think) Indianapolis, where Frank was playing at a club and Pres was in town with a non-JATP package tour. The drummer in the band Frank was part of, Buddy Smith, suggested that they pay Pres a visit after the gig, and when they got there, Frank (‘I’m shy,’ he said), hung back while the other guys gathered around Pres. Having noticed this bit of behavior, Pres beckoned Frank to come closer, addressing him softly as ‘long-distance man.’ Probably a meeting of kindred souls.”

SHEIK OF AIRBNB is named thus because Jamey stayed in an AirBnB directly below the studio where the session was recorded. I MUST HAVE THAT MAN is from the band’s live gig at Central Market in Austin on Aug. 28, 2016. Josh Hoag (now with Asleep at the Wheel) filled in for Steve. The band decided that they must share this track with us: a lovely gift. When you are enjoying SUNDAY, don’t be surprised when the track fades out. Do not adjust your set. Hal explains, “Alex Hall’s reliable recording equipment may have been affected by a sun spot, or maybe one of Doyle’s blue notes. But we liked the overall feel so much — particularly Jon’s playing — that we decided to keep as much as possible and fade before the sudden ending.”

Sir John Davies, a Renaissance poet, wrote ORCHESTRA, his conception of a cosmos vibrating in symphonic harmony. If we are very fortunate, the world might vibrate as does Hal Smith’s Swing Central – tender, relaxed, urgent. We have a long way to go, but it’s a noble aspiration.

Here is the link to hear samples, purchase an actual disc, or a download.  Hal and SWING CENTRAL will be appearing at the Bix Festival on the first weekend of August in Davenport, Iowa. . . so you can have the mutual pleasure of buying CDs from the band there, also.  And here is the place to find out about all things Smith — the swinging ones, of course.

May your happiness increase!

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IN THE MAIN STREAM: THE MORGANVILLE FOUR (DAN LEVINSON, BRIA SKONBERG, NICKI PARROTT, GORDON WEBSTER)

You have to like a CD whose cover puts the players — at their ease — in a Rousseau painting.

Morganville Four

But the charms of this disc go deeper than the cover, because the music is stylish and lovely.  The CD appeals in so many ways.

For one, it is Mainstream jazz of a kind not always encountered in recordings and performances.  Although the four players are often spotted at “traditional” “jazz” events — whatever the words in quotation marks mean these days — this is a session that celebrates the music, affectionate, melodic, with rhythmic lilt.  No tricks, no gimmicks, just feeling and mastery.

For another, the cost-conscious almost-purchaser can know that (s)he is getting good value.  Although this is billed as a FOUR, it is one of those magician’s tricks — a quartet that seems infinitely expandable.

Consider: two men, two women; two singers, four instrumentalists, string bass, piano, trumpet, clarinet, C- melody sax, tenor sax (with friends stopping by to offer the appropriate percussion).  I grew weary just typing (or is it “keyboarding”?) all of that.

And the four players / singers are marvelously first-rate jazz stars who know how to blend, to be supportive, to create delicious ensemble traceries.  Dan Levinson plays all those reeds; Bria Skonberg the trumpet; Gordon Webster, the piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass — and Bria and Nicki sing, together and singly.

I couldn’t fit that foursome in my car, but their expansive music fills the room very sweetly.  And that music!  I call it “Mainstream,” thanks to Stanley Dance, and although I distrust all of those boxes and labels — the critical blurt we call  DixietradNewOrleansbigbandbeboprevivalisthardbopswingretrofreenewthing — “Mainstream” still has a good deal of validity.  You’ll know it when you hear it, and only obsessive classifiers will say, “Is this hot jazz or cool?”  “Is that modern or traditional?”  “Is that a terrifying be-bop phrase I just heard?”

What is immediately audible on this disc is a deep love of melodic improvisation over swinging rhythms, with lyricism allied to an unhackneyed harmonic awareness.  To put it another way, although there are Twenties tunes here — THE ONE I LOVE and I WISH I COULD SHIMMY LIKE MY SISTER KATE — the approach is free and friendly, detached from the shackles of convention and cliche, but not attempting to “freshen up the old stuff.”  No striped vests but nothing self-consciously esoteric, either.

The spirit I imagined most frequently as the spiritual overseer of this music was Ruby Braff: lyrical, surprising, imaginative, someone who made great creative use of “unorthodox” combinations.  (No drums, no trombone — just four pals floating along happily down the Main Stream of jazz.)  And there’s a certain witty lightness animating everything but we are always in touch with the deep feeling beneath the notes.

The CD has all the right elements: a variety of songs and approaches (essential to make it into a concert rather than a test of stoic endurance); lovely recorded sound, thanks to Peter Karl; nifty liner notes from Will Friedwald and Jon Hill.  The latter fellow deserves truckloads of credit: the M4 played at a private party of his in 2011, and he thought, “Wow, let’s make a record!”  And he did.  (You can find Jon to congratulate and thank him at Jazz_Rules@yahoo.com.)

I’d buy / play this CD for someone worried about THE DEATH OF JAZZ or THE VANISHING AUDIENCE.  I’d also be delighted to play it for someone who looks at me quizzically when I suggest that “my” music is not rooted in KIND OF BLUE.

You can check out the CD in all the usual places.  Hear samples here.

May your happiness increase.

PETER ECKLUND’S MUSICAL WORLDS: “BLUE SUITCASE”

I was first captivated by Peter Ecklund’s music before there were compact discs.  In 1987, his bright cornet sounds came leaping out of the speaker as soon as I began to play KEEPERS OF THE FLAME, a Marty Grosz record (Stomp Off).  Then I bought and treasured PETER ECKLUND AND HIS MELODY MAKERS — now happily reissued on CD as HORN OF PLENTY (Classic Jazz).   

But wait!  There’s more.  Let me break into this discography / memoir and add a soundtrack: click on  http://www.peterecklundmusic.com/ for a charming musical background — Peter and friends playing his compositions and a few standard tunes. 

That’s better, isn’t it?

Here’s something even more encouraging: a new Peter Ecklund CD, called BLUE SUITCASE.  It’s available at CDBaby as a download or disc: (http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/PeterEcklund2) — for the ultimate musical experience, you can buy a copy from him at a gig.

Marianne Mangan, formerly a roving correspondent for JAZZ LIVES, wrote the pitch-perfect notes for BLUE SUITCASE:

Peter Ecklund is a conjurer, a creator of musical moods that span time, place and idioms. In this collection of jazz/pop eclectica, a combination of Ecklund originals and reinterpreted/rearranged standards, he evokes eras and emotions with a startling clairvoyance: you never heard it before, you never heard it THAT way before, but it feels exactly right.

And he does it with a unique methodology: the careful construct of skilled instrumentalists engineered to play as one with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files, all filtered through the operating system of an Apple computer. The result is BLUE SUITCASEa technologically-assisted artistic vision, in every instance as musically astute as a dozen bands specific to their bookings.

Take these revamped staples of early jazz: the once-rollicking romp San is a moody retro-tech visit to the dark continent, returned to sunny refrain by way of ukulele and clarinet. Dinah is hot as ever in a cooler sort of way, and technically brilliant in the hands of Ecklund and Block. The Broadway stalwart This Can’t Be Love here becomes an accordion-accented fugue for engaging trumpet and flugelhorn choruses, a succession of muted and open-horn improvs.

On the lead-off non-original (but hardly un-original) in this set, secrets are exchanged between triangle, trumpet, accordion and ukulele. Old Madeira Waltz lulls with its laconic delivery and intrigues with its mysterious tone.

Now witness Ecklund the composer as time-traveler in Tail Fins—top-down breezy, at once sweet and bittersweet—and so perfectly 1950s that the millennial stress starts to seep from your pores. Watching the World Go By takes you to the ’60s as surely as these boots are made for walking (and those doomsday disco riffs preceding a cheerful trumpet lead and plaintive vocal are precisely the mixmaster magic so prevalent throughout).

Or timeless as a silver screen legend, when a well-played saw (yes, saw) evokes the angel-voiced end of a Warner Brothers’ melodrama with the propulsive melody of an Italian cinema score. Add a jazz-baby chorus, a vaguely yokel vocal incanting film star infatuation, and finish with a brassy Hollywood fanfare: a Love Sawng for the ages.

Finally, the ‘meter-medley’, a quartet of varied pleasures in celebrated
time signatures.  For swingers…From gruff fiddle licks through jaunty conversational exchanges, the aptly named
Texas Shuffle never loses its
irrepressible rhythmic bounce.  For classicists…As the horns and accordion elaborate on
Lazy Ragtime’s filigreed rhythms they are underpinned not by alternating bass notes and chords but arpeggiating strings. Of course.
For sweethearts…A lovely, questioning melody and orchestral
changes of venue turn the classic slow-slow-quick-quick into a folk
sonatina with every variation of strain and instrument: a courtyard in
England, a forest in Eastern Europe, a ballroom in New York.
Horn, accordion,
Foxtrot. Romance.  For everybody…The gentle thesis of Waltz for a Song is stated in muted brass, spun out open-voiced against a circular undercurrent, then returning home—as all good waltzes do—with straightforward yet intense exposition. BLUE SUITCASE meets the most iconic dance of all, and the benefits are mutual.

What more could anyone want?  Peter Ecklund — on cornet, trumpet, fluegelhorn, ukulele, whistling (he’s a master), composing and creating just-right musical backgrounds. (And where many CDs labor under the weight of their creator’s narrowly intense artistic vision — where the result is seventy-five minutes of the same thing — this one is a tasting menu of surprises.)

And a word about that suitcase.  If you’d asked me in other circumstances for my feelings about having a splendid jazz soloist accompanied by something technological, I would have become anxious.  I’ve heard too many CDs where (perhaps for budgetary reasons) the “strings” come out of a box, and they bear the same relation to actual strings as dehydrated soup mix does to soup. 

But Peter Ecklund’s imaginative efforts here aren’t an attempt to offer imitations at reduced prices.  Rather, Peter’s backgrounds and melodies that come out of the Blue Suitcase are evocative additions, swirling around the human players and singers: this CD is a ticket inside his imaginations, and that’s a wonderful gift.  Besides, it makes me think of a famous Louis Armstrong anecdote.  Someone had asked him (off the record), “Louis, how do you stand playing with bands where the musicians are well below your level?” And he’s supposed to have replied, “You start relying on other musicians and it’s too bad for you!”  Peter’s surrounded himself with first-rate players on this CD: among them Dan Block, Will Holshouser, Andrew Guterman, Joel Eckhaus, Melody Federer, Christine Balfa, Murray Wall, Gary Burke, Marty Laster, and Matt Munisteri.  And the BLUE SUITCASE, a most magical piece of luggage, by Peter’s side for these wonderful journeys.   

And — not incidentally — New Yorkers and intrepid travelers can now see Peter in person in a variety of settings: visit his site to see his current gigs, which include stints with the Grove Street Stompers at Arthur’s Tavern, with Terry Waldo’s Gotham Jazz Band at Fat Cat, with the Stan Rubin trio featuring Herb Gardner at Charley O’s, with the Stan Rubin band at Swing 46, with the Gotham Jazzmen at the Greenwich Village Bistro.  Peter, incidentally, is memorably inventive in person, even when his luggage is in his apartment. 

To paraphrase Linus, “Happiness is a full gig calendar!”  Details here: http://www.peterecklundmusic.com/?section=calendar — and you can join Peter’s email list to be kept up to date on these happenings.