Tag Archives: Christmas jazz

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (Dec. 19, 2010)

This isn’t about Dostoevsky or his grim-pre-existential narrator.

No, the subject is much happier and equally profound. 

I had learned from trumpeter Gordon Au that there would be a below-ground wingding on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010: he and the Grand Street Stompers would play an hour’s gig down on the subway platform, the F train at Second Avenue for those taking notes.  Even better, they would be joined by New York City swing dancers in vintage attire.  Then, everyone would board an antique subway train (circa 1960 with yellow / blue rattan seats), do a round-trip out to Queens and make way for a second train trip. 

I could only take the vintage subway a few stops uptown, but I did capture the vivid action on the platform.  The Grand Street Stompers began as a trio — Gordon, Pete Anderson on clarinet, Rob Adkins on bass — but soon became a quartet when guitarist Mikey Freedom Hart arrived.

Their first number was a nicely rocking / sentimental BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA, perhaps a homage to Louis, who began his concerts with this sweet old song for nearly twenty-five years:

Then, in the first acknowledgment of the season, IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS in two tempos, the dancers dipping and whirling even in the confined space (everyone was fully aware that overdramatic dancing would take them and us too close to the edges of the platform):

An unusual (and brave) choice for the context, Hoagy Carmichael’s NEW ORLEANS, with Gordon growling passionately, Rob bowing in the best old-New-Orleans manner:

SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN (the song that made J. Fred Coots financially secure forever) here sounds as if BLUE MONK was not far in the background — it’s really a good, simplistic Thirties song:

I don’t know if Fats Waller ever took the subway, but he would have been pleased by this pretty — although brief — version of his 1929 hit AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’:

Finally, the pop lexicon’s version of the primal scene — Freudian or out of PEYTON PLACE? — I SAW MOMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS.  Let’s hope it was Daddy in the red suit, shall we?

I delighted in the lovely playing of the quartet, the delicious incongruity of the music and the setting — but the real pleasure was in watching the dancers reflect the music in their bodies, singly and in pairs, switching off, having a fine time.  Lynn Redmile, who appears in the beginning of the last video (to the right), promised she would tell me the names of the spirited and agile dancers we so admire here.  

The Home of Happy Feet for the price of a Metrocard swipe — !

CHRIS DAWSON: STRIDE FOR CHRISTMAS!

Yesterday I received my copy of pianist Chris Dawson’s first solo CD, STRIDIN’ THROUGH CHRISTMAS, and it’s a wow.  But perhaps you’d like to read some expert testimony:

Let’s get my personal prejudices out of the way.  To me, “Christmas music” tends either to be religious or fairly limited pop hits.  But I calmed myself when I saw there were no versions of THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY or RUDOLF THE RED-NOSED REINDEER on this CD.  Dawson plays each selection as a new composition, exploring its improvisatory possibilities. 

Many CDs pall quickly because the artist or artists have one approach and sustain it through as many as twenty-five selections.  Not so here.  You will hear piano playing that’s sometimes rollicking, sometimes deeply sensitive . . . and Chris doesn’t take predictable paths. 

What’s loosely called “stride piano” has also come in for some rough handling from players who have only a superficial understanding of the idiom.  All it is, they think, is a steady left-hand pattern, rhythmically powerful, alternating low notes in the bass and a resounding chord . . . over and over, while the right hand does whatever it likes.  For many players, who may well be technically gifted, the result is rather like the ticking of a loud watch or the pounding of a machine.  Others model their playing on Fats Waller, which is fine in theory but not if it’s a matter of learning the eight or ten patented “Wallerisms” and sprinkling them liberally through every composition.  Stride, clearly athletic and virtuosic, also gets confused in some pianists’ minds with exhibitionism: faster, more percussive, louder, longer. 

Chris Dawson is someone who knows and has internalized the whole jazz piano tradition — forwards to Bill Evans, let us say, and backwards to the early James P. Johnson.  What you’ll hear on this disc is often delicate but never so ruminative as to become dull.  Most often, while listening, I thought of Chris as offering his own variations on three masters: Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna, and Dick Hyman.  (And there are touches of Forties Johnny Guarneri in there, too — which is a high compliment.)  I hear the delicacy, strength, and vivid imagination that I associate with these three masters in every bar of this CD, and it’s not an archivist’s recreation, not jazz archaeology — but living improvised music.  He has a fine swing in his playing, but he is harmonically free, and at times the experienced jazz listener will marvel at the happy marriage of presumed opposites in his playing.  He can make something as melodically simple as SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN hilariously mobile, and I was moved by Chris’s tender explorations of SILENT NIGHT.  He’s accurate but never stiff; the performances don’t go on too long; the CD is wonderfully varied and the sound of the recording is delicious.     

To hear some samples, I would direct the reader back a few posts to: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/an-early-christmas-present/.  Hear Chris stride through WE THREE KINGS, surely not the usual . . . .

Or, if you prefer soundbites: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/ChrisDawson

To buy the CD: http://shop.astinmusic.com/

I think that you’ll still be playing this CD in February 2010 and onwards, when the house has returned to its normal state and the only reminder of the holiday is the credit card bills.