Tag Archives: classic jazz

HE RODE WITH JAMES P. JOHNSON: TALKING WITH IRV KRATKA (July 31, 2015)

irv

Irv Kratka (drums) doesn’t have a huge discographical entry in Tom Lord’s books, but he played with some fine musicians: Bunk Johnson, Dick Wellstood, James P. Johnson, Ephie Resnick, Joe Muranyi, Bob Mielke, Knocky Parker, Jerry Blumberg, Cyrus St. Clair, among others, in the years 1947-50.  I knew of Irv from those recordings (many of which are quite rare) but also as the creator and guiding genius of Music Minus One and a number of other jazz labels including Classic Jazz and Inner City.

But I had never met Irv Kratka (human being, jazz fan, record producer, concert promoter) in the flesh until this year when we encountered each other at the Terry Blaine / Mark Shane concert in Croton-on-Hudson, and I immediately asked if he’d be willing to sit for a video interview, which he agreed to on the spot.  Irv is now 89 . . . please let that sink in . . . and sharp as a tack, as Louis would say.  His stories encompass all sorts of people and scenes, from Bunk’s band at the Stuyvesant Casino, Louis and Bunk at a club, a car ride with James P. Johnson, lessons from Billy Gladstone, a disagreement between Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke, all the way up to the present and his current hero, multi-instrumentalist Glenn Zottola.

I didn’t want to interrogate Irv, so I didn’t pin him to the wall with minutiae about what James P. might have said in the car ride or what Jerry Blumberg ordered at the delicatessen, but from these four casual interview segments, you can get a warm sense of what it was like to be a young jazz fan in the late Thirties, an aspiring musician and concert producer in the Forties, onwards to today.  It was a privilege to speak with Irv and he generously shared his memories — anecdotes of Bunk Johnson, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, Bill Russell, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dick Wellstood, Peg Leg Bates, Lena Horne, Joe Muranyi, Billy Gladstone, Jacques Butler, Jerry Blumberg, Art Hodes, Albert Nicholas, Sarah Vaughan, George Brunis — also fond recollections of Bob Wilber, Bob Mielke, Ephie Resnick and others.

Here are four informal segments from our conversation — the first and last fairly lengthy discussions, the middle two vignettes.

One:

Two:

Three:

Four:

Now, here’s another part of the story.  Irv plans to sell several of his labels: Inner City, Classic Jazz, Proscenium (the last with three Dick Hyman discs) Audio Journal (The Beatles at Shea Stadium – Audience Reaction), and Rockland Records which consists of the first and only CD by the Chapin Bros. (Harry, Tom, and Steve) comedy albums by Theodore, and a disc featuring Mae West songs / W.C. Fields. The catalogue includes 141 titles, and there are more than 42,000 discs to turn over to the new owner, all at “a very nominal price.”  Serious inquiries only to ikratka@mmogroup.com.

May your happiness increase!

“LIVE FROM LONDON: BOB WILBER, DAVE McKENNA, PUG HORTON, RON RUBIN, DEREK HOGG”

WILBER cover larger

I want to write a few lines about someone — ferociously swinging and deeply lyrical — who, at 87, is still with us.  For decades, and without calling attention to himself, Bob Wilber has done the lovely creative work of making melodies sing and making the rhythm swing irresistibly.  Bob has slowed down a bit and is more relaxed these days (not the energetic globe-trotter of a few years back) but he and his wife, singer Pug Horton, a few years younger, are still making music and devoted to it.  (As an aside, how many musicians do you know whose recorded careers go from 1946 to 2011?  Amazing durability, I think.)

I was stirred to write this because of a gratifying 2-CD release called LIVE FROM LONDON — recorded over five nights of performance in April 1978.  The place was Pizza Express, and the band was Bob, reeds and compositions; Dave McKenna, piano; Pug, vocals; and UK stalwarts Ron Rubin, string bass; Derek Hogg, drums.  It comes from recordings made by the sound wizard Dave Bennett, and the results are issued on Irv Kratka’s resourceful Classic Jazz label, CJ 36.  It is a consistently gratifying two-and-a-half hours of soaring yet casual music.  For those of my generation, it is a wonderful window into those New York nights of the Seventies and beyond where a glorious little band would play a three-hour gig and keep delighting and surprising us.

The sound is excellent, the music superb.  Wilber has often been minimized as one of the great Followers — understandably, because he studied with Bechet — and smaller-minded listeners have been so enraptured by “his” Bechet, Hodges, Goodman, Bigard, and others, that they have forgotten the Wilber-energies that made those sounds come so alive.  I think of him as someone like Buck Clayton — completely individual — an artist who made his own identity complete and satisfying while letting the great energies of the Ancestors flow through him.  (Is it heresy to write that his Goodman evocation improves on the King?) His sounds are his own (and his compositions are very satisfying as well — whether nicely-shaped “blowing” vehicles like JONATHAN’S WAY or Thirties-evocations like EVERYWHERE YOU GO).  Wilber is in fine form here, eloquent and relaxed . . . a modern equal to the great reed masters.

Pug (born Joanne) Horton, Bob’s devoted wife, is also singing beautifully on these discs.  Although she harks back to the dark ferocity of Bessie and the lighter tenderness of Ivie, she is immediately identifiable and delightful: her sound a purr with British tendencies.  And she swings deliciously.

And Dave.  There has never been a pianist like him and few have come close in the years since his passing.  A whole orchestra, a rhythmic-melodic train barrelling down the tracks at us, but a melodic improviser of sweet gossamer subtleties.  Each disc has a solo feature or two, and they are magnificent: effusions I would play for any classical pianist who thought jazz players were somehow limited.

With the two expert yet gentle UK rhythm players, this was and is a dynamic, varied, shape-shifting quintet, and the CDs are a compact way to travel to a time and place most of us never got to, to enjoy evenings of brilliant heartfelt music. The songs are I’M NOBODY’S BABY / JONATHAN’S WAY / BLACK AND BLUE / MEAN TO ME / HOT TIME IN THE OLD TOWN TONIGHT / I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT / I FOUND A NEW BABY / THE  VERY THOUGHT OF YOU / EXACTLY LIKE YOU / EVERYWHERE YOU GO / LOTUS BLOSSOM / PUGGLES / FREEMAN’S WAY / 144 WEST 54th STREET // ROCKS IN MY BED / I GOT IT  BAD / ‘DEED I DO / MELANCHOLY / CLARION SONG / I LOVE YOU, SAMANTHA (which turns into a McKenna medley of songs with women’s names) / DID I REMEMBER? / ALL OF ME / WEQUASSET WAIL / ROSE OF THE RIO GRANDE / DON’T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE / INDIANA //  (Nice and modest liner notes by Bob and Pug, too.)

Here is the CDBaby link — where one can purchase the discs, download the music, or hear sound samples.  And the itunes link as well.

You’ll enjoy it.

May your happiness increase!

DON’T MISS THIS! BECKY, DAN, and PAOLO: “CLASSIC JAZZ AT CLASSIC PIANOS” in PORTLAND, OREGON (Thursday, December 5, 2013)

Mildred Bailey once sang, “If you miss me, you’ll be missing the Acme Fast Freight.”  I don’t know enough about railroad / steam train mythology to even pretend to interpret the seriousness of that metaphor, but I do know this.

On Thursday, December 5, in Portland, Oregon, a remarkable small jazz happening is going to take place at Classic Pianos: a concert by the peerless singer Rebecca Kilgore, trombone / cornet master / arranger / composer / singer Dan Barrett, and pianist Paolo Alderighi.  

This trio will be performing songs that will appear on their next CD.  Classic Pianos (the space) is an intimate room and a good number of tickets have already been sold.  

If this sounds to some like more JAZZ LIVES shameless sleeve-tugging, you can take it as such if you choose.  But if three of the finest musicians now improvising were going to give a quiet concert . . . and you found out only when it was over, wouldn’t you be annoyed?

So I am trying to save you such irksome moments of kicking yourself (always a nasty business, whether you connect or not) and encourage you, if you live within reach of 3003 SE Milwaukie Ave, Portland, Oregon 97202, to join in on the pleasure.  From what I have heard, this concert will sell out.  The doors open at 7 PM; the concert begins at 7:30 PM.  Tickets are $15 apiece (less than a CD) and can be purchased online here.

And here is the Facebook page for the event.  And an Event it is.  If I have to explain to JAZZ LIVES readers who Miss Kilgore, Mister Barrett, and Mister Alderighi are . . . some of you have not been taking proper notes!

This version of the Rebecca Kilgore Trio is making a rare Portland appearance, but any appearance by these three inventive musicians is a delight.  Rebecca calls Portland home, but Paolo has traveled from Milan and Dan from southern California for this.  (Me, I have traveled from New York by way of Novato and San Diego but I would not miss this concert.)

Paolo has performed all over the world and is admired by many jazz greats including Ken Peplowski and Bucky Pizzarelli.  He is an astonishing musician, as I have written here.  Dan Barrett has been amazing and reassuring us since the late Seventies — with Benny Goodman, Ruby Braff, Howard Alden, Scott Hamilton, Rosemary Clooney, Joe Bushkin, Buck Clayton and Bobby Short. Rebecca was a wellspring of sweet swinging melody when I first heard her at the end of the last century and she keeps getting finer.  Usually she’s at Carnegie Hall or in Europe: this is a rare chance to catch this trio in a small quiet room, making small-group swing music come alive with love and wit.

For more information, contact Peggie Zackery at Classic Pianos:

Phone: (503) 546-5622 or Email: peggie@classicportland.com

May your happiness increase!

KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Ken Mathieson, the leader-percussionist-arranger of the Classic Jazz Orchestra, but this post is designed to remedy this omission right away.

For Ken Mathieson is a truly ingenious man who has made the CJO an equally flexible, innovative orchestra. 

The CJO has been working since 2004, and Ken is a veteran leader, arrangger, and drummer with impeccable credits.  For fifteen years, he was the resident drummer at the famous Black Bull Club near Glasgow — where he supported and learned from Bud Freeman, the aforementioned King, Mr. Carter, Wild Bill Davison, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Bobby Hackett, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison,  Teddy Wilson, Tal Farlow, and more.

And he’s offered his own solution to one of the problems of classic jazz performance.  Suppose the leader of a “classic” jazz ensemble wants to pay tribute to Ellington, Morton, Carter, or Armstrong.  Commendable enough.  One way is to transcribe every note and aural flutter on the great records.  Then, the imaginary leader can gather the musicians, rehearse them for long hours until they sound just like a twenty-first century rendition of this or that hallowed disc. 

Admirable, but somewhat limited.  Emerson said that imitation is suicide, and although I would love to have my own private ensemble on call to reproduce the Morton Victors, what would be the point?  (In concert, hearing a band pretend to be the Red Hot Peppers can be thrilling in the same way watching acrobats — but on record, it seems less compelling.) 

Getting free of this “repertory” experience, although liberating, has its disadvantages for some who take their new freedom too energetically.  Is POTATO HEAD BLUES still true to its essential self if played in 5/4. as a waltz, as a dirge, by a flute quintet?  Is it possible to lose the thread? 

Faced with these binary extremes — wanting to praise the past while remembering that the innovations we so prize were, in fact, innovations, Mathieson has steered an imaginative middle course.  On three CDs, he has managed to heed Exra Pound’s MAKE IT NEW while keeping the original essences.

Ken and the CJO have an open-ended and open-minded approach to jazz history and performance.  The original compositions stay recognizable but the stylistic approach to each one is modified.  Listening to the CJO, I heard not only powerful swinging reflections of the original recordings and period idioms, but also a flexibility that suggested that Mingus, Morton, Oliver Nelson, and Benny Carter were on an equal footing, respectfully swapping ideas.

The CJO has an unusual instrumentation which allows it to simulate a Swing Era big band or a hot trio: Billy Hunter plays trumpet and fluegelhorn; Ewan McAllan or Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Keith Edwards or Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, alto, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Paul Kirby or Tom Finlay, piano; Roy Percy, bass. 

And what’s most refreshing is that both Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: so the solos on CORNET CHOP SUEY do not emulate Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory; the ensemble work on SORRY doesn’t hark back to 1928 Bix and his Gang; the sound of BOJANGLES reflects on 1940 Ellington without copying it.  And the solos exist in a broadly-defined area of modern Mainstream: thus, you are much more likely to think of Roy Williams or Scott Robinson than of Clarence Williams or Prince Robinson. 

I’ll leave the surprises on these three CDs to the buyers and listeners.  But in almost every case I found myself hearing the music with a delighted grim, thinking, “Wow!  That’s what they’re doing with that old chestnut?” 

(Ironically, one of Matheson’s triumphs as an arranger is the wisdom to leave well enough alone.  So one of the memorable tracks on his Louis CD (with the glowing Duke Heitger in the lead) is a very simple and touching AMONG MY SOUVENIRS.) 

The experience of listening to these discs was as if my old friends had gotten new wardrobes and hairstyles — immensely flattering but startling at first.  And Ken seems to have the same playful idea, for his Morton CD is called JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES.  On the back there is the famous portrait of Jelly, his arms raised to conduct, wearing a suit with six huge buttons and pressed white trousers.  On the front, Mathieson has reinvented Jelly as a twenty-first century hip teenager, wearing a short-sleeved yellow t-shirt, earbuds around his neck, the cable leading to an iPod, baggy denim jeans, running shoes.  And Jelly looks happy!

Their three CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA SALUTES THE KINGS OF JAZZ (Lake LACD 261), JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES (CJO 001), and CELEBRATING SATCHMO, featuring Duke Heitger (LACD 286). 

Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found at http://www.classicjazzorchestra.org.uk/diary.htm

Information about their Lake Records CDs is available here: http://www.fellside.com/Shop/Results1.asp?Category=2