Tag Archives: close harmony

“DUCHESS” SWINGS BY, ON DISC AND IN PERSON

A delicious new group has made an equally satisfying debut CD.  See here!

DUCHESS — an ebullient female trio — is quirky, swinging, silly, and loose but exact.  The three “girl singers,” justly known for their own solo work, are Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou — listed here in alphabetical order, no ranking implied — and they are backed by swinging modernists  —  Michael Cabe, piano; Paul Sikivie, string bass; Matt Wilson, drums; Jeff Lederer, saxophone (1, 5, 6, 9, 11); Jesse Lewis, guitar (1, 2, 7, 8).  The surprising and fresh arrangements are by producer Oded Lev-Ari for their debut CD on the Anzic label.  You can read more about DUCHESS here.

Many jazz groups have clear antecedents or they follow a pattern (you can provide your own examples here).  But I don’t think there’s been any group like DUCHESS for decades.  This isn’t to suggest that they are a conscious re-enactment of the past, although they do perform one spiffy homage to the Boswell Sisters on HEEBIE JEEBIES.  They are inspired by Connie, Vet, and Martha, but in the most inventive way — their close harmony performances are startlingly alive and full of surprises, tempo changes, and sophisticated play.

Each track is a miniature symphony for voices, shifting their places in the great musical dance, and a lively improvising ensemble.  For one instance — there is a famous second bridge to P.S., I LOVE YOU (which I know from Sinatra’s Capitol version): in this new version, each of the singers takes one line in the bridge, something so pleasingly startling that I had to play the track again to be sure I’d heard correctly.

The atmosphere isn’t a re-creation of the Boswell Sisters’ recordings or of their “approach” in some mechanistic way, but DUCHESS seems — to my ears, anyway, to play with the question, “What would the cheerful radicalism of the Sisters’ elastic improvisations be like with three different singers and a new band, all of us fully cognizant of what has come after 1936?”  So one hears a rhythmic pulse that evokes the Basie band brought forward in to this century, and tenor saxophone playing that sounds like Paul Gonsalves, updated and made even more personal.  The magnificently musical drumming of Matt Wilson drives it all along, with quiet brushwork when the mood requires it.

This is one of those CDs that doesn’t fully reveal all its pleasures or exhaust itself on one hearing.  I was so delighted, listening to voices and instruments tumbling over each other in neatly acrobatic exuberance, that I haven’t yet figured everything out (who is that singing now; who’s leading the harmony?) after several listenings.  I can only say that the three voices are singular in themselves, in range, timbre, and sound, but that they blend marvelously. And the blending is anything but formulaic.  One can’t go to sleep while DUCHESS is romping.  Their simple cheerfulness blasts through LOVE BEING HERE WITH YOU, LOLLIPOP, the aforementioned HEEBIE JEEBIES, and even in the medium-tempo swaggering performance I hear the whole group grinning.  But for me the real triumphs are the more tender offerings: a melting QUE SERA, SERA, P.S., I LOVE YOU; a shape-shifting I’LL BE SEEING YOU, and BLAH, BLAH, BLAH — that most surprising comic love poem.

Speaking of BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, here’s the group’s live performance of that Gershwin opus at their home base, the 55 Bar:

This points up another facet of DUCHESS — their willingness to traverse the ground between silly and witty.  They aren’t slapsticky in their comedy, but their light-hearted approach is elevating.  And they are never blah.

Here are the songs on the CD:

1. “I Love Being Here with You” (Peggy Lee, Bill Schluger) / 2. “There Ain’t No Sweet Man” (Fred Fisher) / 3. “Que Sera, Sera” (Jay Livingston, Ray Evans) / 4. “My Brooklyn Love Song” (Ramey Idriss, George Tibbles, featuring Hilary) / 5. “A Doodlin’ Song” (Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, featuring Amy) / 6. “A Little Jive Is Good for You” (Ralph Yaw) / 7. “P.S. I Love You” (Johnny Mercer, Gordon Jenkins) / 8. “Hummin’ to Myself” (Sammy Fain, Herb Magidson, Monty Siegel, featuring Melissa) / 9. “It’s a Man” (Cy Coben) / 10. “I’ll Be Seeing You” (Irving Kahal, Sammy Fain) / 11. “Lollipop” (Beverly Ross, Julius Dixon) / 12. “Blah, Blah, Blah” (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) / 13. “Heebie Jeebies” (Boyd Atkins)

You can bring some of this joy into your life with the CD, or, if you are in the tri-state area, you should know that DUCHESS, backed by the same band as on the album, will perform an album-release show at New York City’s Jazz Standard on March 3, 2015.

In most time zones, that’s tomorrow.

Shows are at 7:30 and 10 PM, and you can buy tickets and learn more about the group here.

May your happiness increase!

Duchess_v1r4_-_square_depth1

Dsc_7495_web_depth1

CONSIDERING THE MYSTERY: “THE BOSWELL LEGACY,” by KYLA TITUS and CHICA BOSWELL MINNERLY

I prize books that offer new information, solidly documented, instead of conjecture and syntheses of well-known data.  Books about departed jazz musicians often have trouble presenting new information or new interpretations of already-established information, because many musicians received little press coverage in their lifetime, did not leave behind correspondence.  So the subjects take their mysteries with them, leaving us to speculate.

After much investigation, we can be reasonably certain why Lester Young quit the Count Basie band in 1940.  We know much more about the last days of Bix Beiderbecke, Billie Holiday, Jimmie Blanton; we’ve learned much about the private life of Louis and Lucille Armstrong.

The Sisters when young.

The Sisters when young.

But one mystery has only been nibbled at — why the glorious Boswell Sisters separated after national and international success. A new, invaluable book, THE BOSWELL LEGACY, written by Kyla Titus, granddaughter of Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, from research and information gathered by Chica Boswell Minnerly (mother of Kyla, daughter of Vet) is a prize.

BOSWELL LEGACY cover

The mysteries that surround the Boswells is not what we expect of other revered artistic figures.  During their very short heyday, they were more in the public eye than, let us say, almost any brilliant African-American musician.  (Who interviewed Herschel Evans, for example?)

But for all the newspaper coverage and media attention, the Sisters had been raised early to follow “the Foore Code,” “Foore” being a family name.  The Code had many positive aspects: self-reliance; kindness; decorum . . . but it also emphasized privacy and strongly-stated boundaries.  “Never expose private family business to anyone outside the family.”

Even though Connie lived until 1976 and Vet to 1988, they kept the Code in place, gently turning aside the question, “Why did the Sisters break up?” as if indiscreet.  So Boswell admirers like myself could chart the trio’s ascent from 1925 to 1936 through their recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances, and paper ephemera, but we had no insight into the transformation.  Some may have surmised that Connie’s career was so successful that she and her manager / husband intended that she be a solo attraction.  In addition, the Sisters married in the last years of their stardom.  But the separation continued to puzzle and irk us, especially because we want to know more about the lives of the people we admire.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY does the best job possible of making the mysterious accessible.  And it does so from the inside, rather than assembling rumors and constructing hypotheses. It has the depth and intelligence of a scholarly biography with no academic dryness.  Rather than start as so many biographies do, with the birth of the subjects’ ancestors, this book starts at a place few will be familiar with — Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 29, 1955 — with the Sisters assembling on stage for an impromptu reunion during Connie’s engagement (singing HEEBIE JEEBIES as if they had never stopped performing).

(I thought at this point — and I cannot have been alone — of all the stars of the Twenties and Thirties who continued to appear on television in the Sixties and Seventies, and wished for an alternate universe where we could have seen the Sisters on THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE or THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW.)

The book then shifts back to the past, exploring the family as far back as the start of the nineteenth century . . . then to their eventual move to New Orleans and their involvement in music there.  The book takes on its true strength as the pages turn, and that strength is in well-utilized first-hand evidence, particularly correspondence.  We do not get long letters, which might stall the narrative, but we get dated excerpts in proper contexts.  Thus we hear, as well as we can, the vivid voices of the participants.

I commend Kyla Titus’ honesty throughout.  One of the inescapable facts of Connie Boswell’s life was that, although able, she could not walk.  No single clear explanation of this exists, and Titus handles the two hypotheses — a childhood accident or polio — gracefully and candidly.  When we finish reading her presentation of the evidence, we may feel that the answer remains elusive, but we never feel that the author is ill-informed or keeping anything from us.

The book begins to move rapidly through the Sisters’ musical education, Martha’s deep love for the short-lived cornetist Emmett Hardy (dead at 22), and the gestation of the Sisters as a trio.  Success mounts steadily — at their first New York City record date, the musicians stand up and applaud when their first successful take is concluded.  They appear on radio, in film, and on a 1931 experimental broadcast of that new invention, television.  But even at that point, a reader can see tension as the Sisters’ manager, Harry Leedy, is also Connie’s manager, with conflicting allegiances. The Sisters cross paths (and sometimes work with) luminaries Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Russ Columbo, the then-unknown comedian Bob Hope, Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong; they tour England and Holland, triumphantly.

But by 1936, the Sisters — as if by erosion rather than by a definite blow — have become three separate married women.  And although they speak happily of this in public, it appears that Martha and Vet wait for a reunion, which becomes less likely . . . returning the book to the one song in Milwaukee in 1955.

At the end of the saga, it is not entirely clear what happened.  Was it Connie’s steely ambition, her desire to be a star on her own, that cracked close harmony into three pieces?  Was it the divided loyalty of Harry Leedy?  Once again, I admire Titus’ refusal to force the conflicting evidence into one answer, and I think her fairness admirable, her unwillingness to assign the actors in this play roles as Victims and Villains.

Although the breakup of the group is perhaps the single greatest mystery for us, the book is not obsessed throughout with the collapse of Sisters as a trio; that occupies us for the last segment.  It is ultimately a loving look at three innovative, independent women who made their own way, both as individuals and as musicians, at a time when women were not thought to influence the men in their field to any great extent.

The book is wisely titled THE BOSWELL LEGACY, and Titus balances her and our sadness at the end of the Sisters’ career with our awareness that the “three little girls from New Orleans” left us so much — not only in recordings, airshots, and film appearances, but a living tradition for swinging, inventive close harmony groups.  To some, they live on in the energetic, witty, sweet voices of new generations.  I found the book’s ending melancholy, but I am looking forward to the film documentary about the  Sisters, CLOSE HARMONY (here you can view the trailer) as an emotional corrective.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY is a large-format paperback, nearly two hundred pages, clearly written, generously illustrated with rare photographs and documents.  Anyone who has gotten a thrill from “Shout, Sister, Shout” will find this book essential. I don’t think a better or more informative book on the Boswells can be written.

Here you can read the introduction to the book by Boswell scholar David McCain, and the preface by Kyla Titus, and here you can buy a copy of the book ($21.95 USD including shipping.)

Enough words.  Here are the Sisters in their first film appearance, CLOSE FARMONY:

No one’s replaced them; no one ever will.

May your happiness increase!

TOWARDS A MORE HARMONIOUS UNIVERSE

The hour-long documentary, THE BOSWELL SISTERS: CLOSE HARMONY, is taking shape, harmoniously.  But harmony needs help — little bits of money from people who love the Sisters and would love to see the film, which promises to be full of audio and video never encountered before, including portions of the only video interview Vet Boswell ever gave . . .

I have refrained from using JAZZ LIVES as a place to ask people for money, even though I have been asked to do so by many worthy artists who have needed Indieagogo and Kickstarter to get their projects finished.  But I know the people involved in CLOSE HARMONY and I can vouch for their sincerity and diligence.  And (if you need such declarations before you can go on) I’ve supported this endeavor in a tangible mercantile way, too.

So I invite you to visit kickstarter and feed the kitty.  I should have added that my contribution was in memory of Jack Purvis, but that’s just an afterthought.  Even if you send three dollars — one each for Connee, Vet, and Martha, that would give the project a nice gentle kick.

May your happiness increase!

YES! NEW MUSIC FROM THE CANGELOSI CARDS

The Cangelosi Cards provoke enthusiastic affirmations wherever they go. 

And recently they’ve gone as far as I can imagine — to the House of Blues and Jazz in Shanghai, China for a three-month residency.  They’re returning for gigs between October 22 and November 4, including a stint at the Nanjing Jazz Festival,  October 22nd-28th. The group will also make a four-city tour including Nanjing, Suzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. 

I am cheered by their widening circle of friends.  But for those of us who can’t drop everything and follow the Cards to China, there’s new musical evidence to savor.

When I first heard the Cards at Banjo Jim’s some years ago, I was moved by their swinging momentum and deep feeling — unaffected sentiment with a rocking pulse.  The singular instrumental voices always sounded like a conversation — intimate yet fervent — that I was privileged to eavesdrop on.  When Tamar Korn began to sing, the experience became otherworldly, music coming from what Yeats called “the deep heart’s core.” 

Tamar and the band loved the music of the Boswell Sisters — not only the beautiful repertoire and hot solos but the vocal harmonies and sophisticated arrangements.  I saw Tamar and her sweetly singing friends Naomi Uyama and Mimi Terris create their own variations on the Boswell repertoire.  I remember their acapella rendition of MOONGLOW performed on the sidewalk outside Banjo Jim’s brought me to tears. 

Now that experience has taken tangible shape, for Tamar, Mimi, and Naomi,  as “The Three Diamonds,” have recorded a mini-CD of three selections backed by the Cards (Gordon Webster, Dennis Lichtman, Jake Sanders, Matt Musselman, Cassidy Holden, and Marcus Milius). 

It’s extraordinary music — connected by a celestial theme: STARDUST, MOONGLOW, and the lesser-known WHEN MY BLUE MOON TURNS TO GOLD AGAIN.  The EP will be available at the Cards’ shows and can be purchased online at www.losmusicosviajeros.net for $3 plus shipping.

And since the Cards are back in New York City for a moment, they can be experienced at Harefield Road, where, to quote Jake, they’re “inviting a bunch of folks out this Sunday, some good friends-fine players from other groups.”  Harefield Road is on Metropolitan between Graham and Humboldt in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the third stop on the L.  The Cards will play from 5 to 9. 

Members of the band will also be playing at MOTO (http://www.cafe-moto.com) on Friday nights from 9 to midnight. 

And they will also be presented in concert by the New Jersey Jazz Society — at the Bickford Theatre in Morristown, New Jersey, on October 11.  The concert begins at 8 PM: tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door.  The Bickford Theatre/Morris Museum: On Columbia Turnpike/Road (County Road 510) at the corner of Normandy Heights Road, east of downtown Morristown.    The hall is near Interstate 287 and the Route 24 Expressway.  It seats 300 and there’s ample on-site parking and wheelchair access.  Weeknight concerts are one long set (8 to 9:30 PM).  Tickets may be purchased via credit card over the phone by calling the box office at (973) 971-3706.  The box office can also provide information and directions, or email Jazzevents@aol.com.

THE MILLS BROTHERS, 1932

You’ll see that in this 1932 short film, made my Max Fleischer, the animated portion satirizes “television” and “channel surfing,” long before those were commonplace.  The Fleischer sense of humor wasn’t gentle: every ethnic stereotype gets mocked here, along with the metamorphosing cats, dogs, and frying eggs.  But when the ball starts bouncing at the end, I defy you to keep from singing along.  These “four boys and a guitar” are truly original, truly irreplaceable.  (Louis, Coleman Hawkins, and Vic Dickenson loved them, and they swung more cohesively than many jazz groups.)

CANGELOSI CARDS: SWEET SATORI!

bamjo-jims

Because of a much-appreciated friendly email nudge from Jim Balantic, the Beloved and I (with Flip tagging along) wended our way down to Banjo Jim’s last Monday night.

Banjo Jim’s sits at the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue C.  The area feels much like the mysterious East but it was worth the trip.  The club is a small squarish room with tables, stools, and a bar (the latter presided over by the cheerfully expert “Banjo” Lisa).  Banjo Jim’s is a neighborhood hangout, and it offers a dazzling variety of groups who play for the tip basket.

The crowd is mostly younger people, which I find encouraging, and even when the chat level gets high, they get reverently quiet when the band begins a ballad or they sense something unusual is happening.  (And, when feelings run high, there’s a good deal of fervent jitterbugging and even slow-motion tangoing in front of the band.)

Of course the club has a website: www.banjojims.com., and a MySpace page:  www.myspace.com/banjojims — everyone seems to have a MySpace page except the Beloved and myself.  (Flip isn’t telling.)

We were there because of the regular Monday night gig of the Cangelosi Cards, that musical cornucopia, and Jim’s news that their splendid singer Tamar Korn had been working on Boswell Sisters-inspired repertoire with two other harmonizing women.

And — this is no small matter — Tamar had graciously agreed to do some of the new trio material in the band’s first set (their gig ordinarily runs from 9 PM to 2:30 AM) so that the nine-to-fivers could hear some of it before their ancient eyelids began to sag.  I was especially grateful to her for this kindness, because my clock radio makes itself known four mornings a week at 5:45 AM.

When we arrived, we were met on the sidewalk by Jim and his wife Grace and a beaming Tamar; Tamar and I talked happily until our faces began to grow numb from the cold.  We spoke of the Boswell Sisters, and how their vocal arrangements seemed to have the same intense purity of chamber music — to be revered, but also to be improvised on in a personal style.  Tamar said that she and her two friends — Mimi Terris and Naomi Uyama — found that they could do instant improvisation in the style they loved on songs the Boswells had never recorded, which suggests that they have moved well beyond imitative groups, and there have been a few.  (Copying the Boswell Sisters, incidentally, is not at all easy to do.)

Inside, a young band, calling itself “The Scandinavian Half Breeds,” no fooling, was plunking away.  That foursome, offered surrealistic gypsy swing, some Thirties songs, and some lopsided yet earnest singing. The Scandinavians have a CD for sale — a mere five dollars — and they also have a MySpace page with audio samples: www.myspace.com/scandinavianhalfbreeds.

But they were what my people call a forshpeits — an appetizer, an amuse-bouche before the entree.

The Cards were at full strength: in addition to Tamar, they had Marcus Millius on harmonica, Karl Meyer on violin, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Jake Sanders on guitar (he set tempos and routines as well), Cassidy Holden on string bass, Matt Musselman on trombone, and Gordon Webster on piano.

Here’s some of what Flip, that tidy little fellow, captured.  I have to point out that Banjo Jim’s isn’t a movie set, so that people walk in front of Flip (he’s used to it) and there were couples gyrating in front of the lens.  These clips offer atmospheric cinema verite of a particularly unbuttoned sort, but I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of the club and the Cards, who are more like an ecstatic travelling ceremony than a formal orchestra.  And that’s high praise.

Here’s a wonderful rocking version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody”:

In the name of accuracy, I have to say it begins in darkness — but soon your eyes make out the nimble fingers of Jake Sanders playing his National steel guitar in the wonderful manner I associate with the West Coast genius Craig Ventresco.  Then it starts to rock, and rock hard.  This is the kind of music that great improvisers of any kind make when no one is paying attention, when they are blissfully playing for themselves.  And the dancers!  Tamar couldn’t keep still at the beginning, and the whole room was swaying, although Flip couldn’t take his little monocular self away from the band.  (He’s a fan.  Now it can be told.)

The Cards decided to slow the tempo down — and Tamar explored a truly lovely ballad, “It’s Like Reaching For the Moon,”  which most people know, if at all, through Billie’s version.  Examined closely, the song is a rather simple motif, repeated, and the lyrics aren’t exactly Larry Hart.  (Charlie Levenson, jazz man-about-town, was sitting next to me, and he kept muttering ecstatically, “I love this song.  This is my favorite song!” so perhaps I am being too harsh.)  But what lifts it above the ordinary is Tamar’s singing — full of genuine yearning.  We believe her, as do the Cards.

After two songs about unfulfilled love, even at different tempos, it was time to explore another dramatic situation, and the Cards turned to Irving Berlin’s satiric Socialism (like “Slummin’ On Park Avenue,” it has a sharp political subtext).  Catch the weaving, seductive tempo they choose, and admire Matt’s wicked trombone playing:

Then it was time for what Jim had promised: Tamar, Mimi Terris, and Naomi Uyama got together on the tiny bandstand (this is one of those clubs where nothing delineates the end of the Audience and the beginning of the Stage, which is a truly good thing in this case) for “Moonglow,” which was properly ethereal.  These girls have it:

We were glowing!  The set ended with another loving consideration of meteorological phenomena, “Stardust,” which Tamar said she “learned from the music,” but clearly she, Naomi, and Mimi are well beyond the notes on the page, into some beautifully mystical realm:

When the Cards’ set was over, it was around 11:30 — time for the aging wage-slaves to find their cars and drive home.  But there was more!

As we were getting ready to go, Tamar said there was one more Boswell Sisters piece that she, Mimi, and Naomi had been working on.  They planned to perform it much later on but knew we would want to hear it.  Would we mind waiting for them?  Jim, Grace, and I looked at each other, grinned, wrapped our coats a little tighter, and waited on Avenue C.  In a few minutes, the Girl Trio came out (as an unrequested surrogate parent, I checked that their coats were properly buttoned up).

The trio positioned themselves in front of us on Ninth Street, and began a most unearthly beautiful a cappella rendition of the Sisters’ radio theme, “Shout, Sister, Shout.”  As you may remember, that’s a moody slow-drag, all about how singing the right way has Satan on the run.  (Would that this were the case.)  Their voices were pure and low-down at the same time, soulful and intense.  I listened, transfixed.

In an odd way, it was as close to being a royal patron of the arts as I will ever be — with Mozart playing his new piece near the dinner table to give the guests a little night music.  It was eerie, lovely, and awe-inspiring. . . as if Beauty had slipped her arms around me while I stood out in the cold.

Listening to live jazz is, with luck, a series of special moments when a listener feels that Something Rare is taking place, and it often is.  But it’s even rarer for a musician or musicians to create such tender intimacy that the listener feels, “They are playing this song just for me.”

Even though I knew it was an illusion, I felt that way while Lee Wiley sang in her 1972 farewell concert in Carnegie Hall, and I remember a much more personal example.  Once, Stu Zimny and I went to hear Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s — this would have been the same year.  Ryan’s was an inhospitable place for college kids who wanted to make their bottle of Miller High Life (awful beer even at $2.50 a bottle) last for hours.  Roy must have been playing another gig, so his place was taken by the veteran Louis Metcalf, who had played with King Oliver and Duke Ellington in the Twenties.  He was a far less electrifying player than Roy, but one moment cannot be erased.  On a medium-tempo “Rosetta,” Metcalf put his Harmon mute (the stem still attached) in his horn and went from table to table, playing a half-chorus here and there, six inches from our ears.  I can no longer remember the shape of his solo or the contours of the melodic paraphrase, but the experience — jazz at the closest possible range — gave me delighted chills then and I can see it now.

This version of “Shout, Sister,Shout,” girlish and earnest, graceful and disembodied — their three voices harmonizing as if in the middle of the darkness — was even more electrifying.  As I drove home, shaken and levitated, I thought, “I might have died and never heard this.  My God, I am lucky!”

To experience something of the same repertoire — although I can’t promise that you will have a private serenade on the sidewalk — be sure to follow the Cards wherever they go.  If you judge musicians by the quality of their formal wear, the Cards seem loose and casual, but the musical experiences they offer you won’t encounter elsewhere.  Blazing enlightenment is possible if you’re listening closely.