Tag Archives: Count Basie

MUSIC TO OUR HEARTS: HETTY KATE’S “UNDER PARIS SKIES”

 

It’s been suggested to me that I might write too much, so here is my compact review of singer Hetty Kate‘s new CD, UNDER PARIS SKIES: “When I finished listening to the closing track, I wanted to hear it all over again.  I cam completely charmed.”  And you can buy it here   — $10 digital, $18 tangible.

Might I need to explain more?  This is Hetty’s ninth CD, and I first encountered her — on disc and in person — in 2014, and was charmed.  I wrote about her here and here.  The venue she performed at was terrifically noisy, so my videos were unusable, but Hetty was delightful — not, to quote Mildred Bailey, a bringdown.

UNDER  PARIS SKIES is mostly — but not completely — a CD of “French songs.” I put the phrase in quotation marks because for some singers it will might have been a selling gambit.  “What shall we do, now that I’ve done my Disney album and my holiday album?  I know, ‘French songs’!  That’ll sell like [insert appropriate French delicacy here]!”  But in a world of lovely (Photoshopped or otherwise) and beautifully styled young maids who present themselves as chanteuses, and create discs where the best thing is the cover, she is happily free from artifice.

Each song is its own particular pleasure.  There are a dozen, harking back to the records of my earlier life, reassuring.  But before I say another word about the music, I would ask Hetty to tell us about the genesis of this disc.

In January 2017, I moved by myself from Melbourne, Australia, to Paris, France. I can’t tell you one particular reason why, but I can tell you I was ready, and it felt right. Moving to Paris was, and is, one of the most rewarding, and challenging, things I’ve ever done.

I love to sing standards, and I chose these beautiful songs to represent the myriad emotions I felt before, during and after my arrival. I flew away from the people and the things I love to try something new, and as I tumbled into France, brave, joyful, hopeful and unprepared, I broke my heart and fell in love again a million times. Sometimes great distance allows us to see clearly, and sometimes absence does make the heart grow fonder.

I must add that many of these songs are for friends who were kind to me, friends who have inspired me, and friends I miss when I’m in either France or Australia. So, it’s fitting to think of this album as a love song, to two cities, to new and old friends, and to being brave.

This album took a somewhat meandering path along the boulevards of Paris before it reached its final destination. Now that it’s here I hope you enjoy it.

That says a great deal about Hetty — not only her peregrinations, but her attitude, gracious, open-hearted, and warm.  That attitude comes through the songs, but the CD is not simply a swoony paean to the city of the most formulaic sort.  Rather, Hetty, without melodrama, has a splendid intelligence about the way to set each song off to its best.  You might think of her as an intuitive jeweler who knows how to present even the smallest stone so that it gleams memorably.

In this, she is aided immeasurably by guitarist James Sherlock and string bassist Ben Hanlon — neither of whom I’d heard of before, but in this three-quarters-of-an-hour CD I came to think of them as modern masters, subtle, gently incisive  soloists and accompanists.  UNDER PARIS SKIES becomes in the first minutes a gratifying conversation among equals who never compete for our attention.  As an aside, the recording quality is a joy, and I understand that James and Ben have made their own duo CD.  Meaning Hetty no disrespect, I would like to hear that as well.

Hetty herself has a very mobile voice and vocal texture: she can be passionate but she avoids aiming for Piaf, or, for that matter, the conscious little-girlishness of Dearie.  Her sound is sweet but she can be tart, and her phrase-ending vibrato seems emotive but never melodramatic.  Her voice has a slight reediness, which is very endearing.  At times, she has a speaking directness, but she is always singing.  Her phrasing intelligently follows the contours of the lyrics, but it’s never a rigid up-and-down.  Her diction is superb (and her vowels are deliciously cultured) even on the most elaborately treacherous set of lyrics, and she makes each song completely believable . . . but with layers that emerge as we listen and listen again.

The disc begins, and woos us, with AZURE-TE, which some singers have so dampened with unshed tears that the result is soggy.  But Hetty, James, and Ben realize that it is a song about songs about Paris — every cliche Velcro-ed in place — so there is an amused lightness about the performance.  I was reminded slightly of Jean Sablon, warning us about the wolf, but more subtly, the way Basie would play a very slow blues, reminding us that playing sad music didn’t mean he had to be sad himself.  ON THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE rocks from the first note, the three voices enjoying themselves thoroughly, and the longest track on the CD ends in a flash.

I said that each song was a small drama shaped by Hetty, and ONCE UPON A SUMMERTIME has a great deal of emotional energy, as Hetty, rubato, begins in duet with Hanlon’s arco bass for the first chorus — shifting into waltz time for the second chorus, then to rubato for Hanlon (who is a string quartet on his own): quite amazing.  Should you think I exaggerate, listen:

A hilariously energized GET OUT OF TOWN follows — where Hetty’s second chorus is resonantly wittily convincing (I remember thinking, “She must be a powerfully charged opponent in a romantic argument, winning points while smiling broadly”): Sherlock’s playing is a lesson in spare orchestration.  Guitar fanciers in the audience may fuss over who he Sounds Like; for me, I hope he and Ben are accepting the best students and transforming lives.

IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, a song flattened by over-performance, is uplifted here, because of Hetty’s sweet deep understanding of the lyrics, her understated yet vibrating sincerity.  How gentle yet compelling her voice is; how unerringly warm and — to make the cliche apt — how “pitch-perfect”!

We have to come down from such a peak, and DARLING, JE VOUS AIME BEAUCOUP is just the thing, where Hetty can gleam at us, savoring the unspoken comedy of the English speaker who wants better French to charm the Love Object.  It is a sly soft-shoe dance of a performance, even though you won’t hear a foot being moved, unless they are your own.  UNDER PARIS SKIES is, to me, sweetly trite, but Hetty, Ben, and James move through it at a brisk rocking 3/4.  Since it’s the chosen title of the CD, I have to take it with generosity, and Hetty’s light approach rescues the song, as does the dancing playing of Ben and James, and the ending made me smile.  “Stranger beware,” but we aren’t afraid.

LA BELLE VIE, is, I recognized immediately, THE GOOD LIFE, rendered in bright capital letters by Tony Bennett a year after Sasha Distel’s original version: Hetty’s French falls lightly on the ear, which is no surprise:

Hetty wrote above that a few of the songs on the disc were favorites of friends, and since AFTER YOU’VE GONE has no French connection, I must assume it has a place for that reason.  I dreaded hearing this song, because it has been obliterated through a century of performance, but Hetty makes it come alive from the verse to her final improvisations, and Hanlon’s gorgeous accompaniment: arco and pizzicato, one of the tracks overdubbed but I couldn’t tell which, give this elderly tune a complete makeover in the name of Play and Playfulness.  TOUT DOUCEMENT returns us to French, reminiscent of Dearie without coyness.

DOWN WITH LOVE comes across like a fusillade of pistol shots as every word explodes at the listener — not volume but precise enunciation, mixing hilarity and exasperation.  “Take it away” is the most delightful rapid-fire triplet: all of Hetty’s shots are in the center of the target, and the performance is a lemony chaser to the amorous sentiments in other songs.

A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE is both a favorite song — another one perilously over-familiar.  But here, with Hanlon trotting alongside, after Hetty’s frankly impassioned reading of the verse, we are in the middle of the most seductive “rhythm ballad,” passions in swingtime:

For the first time in my listening history, I actually believe that the streets were “paved with stars.”  The enchantment Hetty, James, and Ben create is flawless.

You can purchase this CD here.  And I urge you to for purely selfish reasons: if this disc sells well, she will create more.  Gifts to those who can hear.

May your happiness increase!

IN PERFECT ALIGNMENT (Part Two): DANNY TOBIAS, DAN BLOCK, JOSH DUNN, TAL RONEN at CAFE BOHEMIA (11.21.19)

November 21, 2019 might have been an unremarkable day and night for some of us — leaving aside that it is Coleman Hawkins’ birthday — but at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York City, the stars were wonderfully in alignment when Danny Tobias, trumpet / Eb alto horn, Dan Block, clarinet / tenor, Josh Dunn, guitar, and Tal Ronen took the stage.

As James Chirillo says, “Music was made,” and we dare not underestimate the importance of that.

Not just formulaic “music,” but eloquent, swinging, lyrical playing in solo and ensemble, as you can hear in their BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL I’ve already posted here.

Those who take improvised music casually don’t realize the combination of skill, emotion, restraint, and individuality that is at its heart, where musicians create a model community for a few hours.

I hear an intelligent graciousness, where no one musician wants to be powerful at the expense of the others, where collective generosity is the goal, playing “for the comfort of the band,” as Baby Dodds described it — but when a solo opportunity comes along, each musician must be ready to speak their piece, share their distinct voice.  Too much ego and the band squabbles; too little ego and you have watery oatmeal for the ears.

That such music as you hear here and elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES exists is, to me, frankly miraculous.  Five glowing memorable examples of this holy art follow.  And if these sounds remind anyone of a small Count Basie group (you can add the sounds of Jo Jones in your head, if you care to) that would be fine also.

WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

DIGA DIGA DOO:

LADY BE GOOD:

THESE FOOLISH THINGS:

MY GAL SAL:

May your happiness increase!

DEEP FEELINGS, QUIET SWING: DANNY TOBIAS, DAN BLOCK, JOSH DUNN, TAL RONEN at CAFE BOHEMIA (November 21, 2019)

Beauty doesn’t ever have to raise its voice.

Here is some beauty for us  — by Danny Tobias, trumpet and Eb alto horn; Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Josh Dunn, guitar; Tal Ronen, string bass. They created this quiet marvel and many others on November 21, 2019, at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York, one flight down, a place where beauty is invited to make itself comfortable on a regular basis.

BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL always makes me think of Herschel Evans, so much a part of the 1938-9 Basie band.  His short life is a model to us — not that we should die so young, but that we should make beauty, make its creation our goal, and thus be remembered decades after we are no longer on the planet.  You could substitute “love” for “beauty” and still be right.

(I also think of Ruby Braff and Sammy Margolis, but they are another story — although branches from the same lyrical tree.)

Thanks to Danny Tobias, Dan Block, Josh Dunn, and Tal Ronen — people who send us love notes of the best kind — and to Christine Santelli and Mike Zieleniewski, who make evenings like this at Cafe Bohemia possible.

May your happiness increase!

“WARM REGARDS” and “THANK GOD FOR EARS”: A COLLECTION OF PRECIOUS PAGES

The nimble folks atjgautographs” had their hands full of surprises . . . although their holdings range from Frederick Douglass to Marilyn Monroe to Irene Dunne, Stephen Sondheim, and Thomas Edison, it’s the jazz ephemera — no longer ephemeral — that fascinates me and others.  Here’s a sampling, with a few comments.  (The seller has many more autographs, from Sonny Rollins and Eubie Blake to Gene Krupa and Conrad Janis, so most readers of this blog will find something or someone to fascinate themselves.)  For those who want(ed) to buy what they see here, the auction ended this evening: if you are curious, I bid and lost on the Ivie Anderson and Jimmy Rushing; I won the Henry “Red” Allen and will be giving showings at a future date.  Check Eventbrite for tickets.

A number of the older autographs were inscribed to “Jack,” as you’ll see, and some of the newer ones to “Mark,” “Mark Allen,” and “Mark Allen Baker,” which led me on another path — more about the latter at the end of this post.

Husband and wife, very important figures in popular music, now perhaps less known.  Arranger Paul Weston:

and warm-voiced Jo Stafford:

Yusef Lateef lectures Mark:

while Louie Bellson is much more gentle in his inscription:

Lady Day, to Jack:

and Billie’s former boss, who called her “William”:

Notice that the Count’s signature is a little hurried, which to me is proof of its on-the-spot authenticity, because artists didn’t always have desks or nice flat surfaces to sign autographs after the show.  His calligraphy is in opposition to the next, quite rare (and in this case, quite dubious) signature:

Beautiful calligraphy, no?  But Helen Oakley Dance told the story (you can look it up) that Chick was embarrassed by his own handwriting, and when Helen asked for an autograph, Chick said, no, his secretary should sign it because her handwriting was so lovely . . . thus making me believe that this paper was not in Chick’s hands.  People who are less skeptical bid seriously on it, though.

Blossom Dearie, who arouses no such doubts:

And James Rushing, of that same Count Basie band:

I saw Mister Five-by-Five once, and his sound is still in my ears:

another Jimmy, happily still with us:

yet another Jimmy, playing at the Hotel Pennsylvania:

Would you care to join me for dinner?

Perhaps you’d like to meet both Dorsey Brothers?

and we could stay for the “Bombe Borealis,” whatever it looked like:

A woman I would have loved to see and hear, Miss Ivie Anderson:

She continues to charm:

Smack:

Jay Jay:

and Cee Tee:

The wondrous Don Redman:

Ella, whose inscription is elaborate and heartfelt:

One of the million he must have signed:

Jim Hall, always precise:

One can’t have too many of these:

an influential bandleader and personality:

one of Lucky’s great stars — and ours — from an era when you noted what instrument the star played, even if you couldn’t quite spell it:

Here’s the musical background, in the foreground:

finally, something that deserves its own scenario, “Mister Waller, could I have your autograph?”  “Of course, young lady.  What’s your name?”  “Mildred.”

which raises the question: was the bus ticket the spare piece of paper she had, or were they both on a Washington, D.C. streetcar or bus?  At least we know the approximate date of their intersection:

Neither Fats nor Mildred can answer this for us anymore, but here is the perfect soundtrack:

Mark Allen Baker, in the pre-internet world I come from, would have remained a mystery — but I Googled his name and found he is a professional writer, with books on sports teams and boxing, but more to the point, on autograph collecting.  So although I would have hoped he’d be a jazz fan, my guess is that his range is more broad.  And the autographs for sale here suggest that he has found the answer to the question, “Why do you collect autographs?” — the answer being, “To hold on to them and then sell them,” which benefits us.

May your happiness increase!

THEY’RE EASY TO DANCE TO! (Part Two): HAL SMITH’S “ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND” at the EVERGREEN JAZZ FESTIVAL (Evergreen, Colorado, July 26, 2019)

The evidence is seriously against the nostalgic proposition that jazz was ever “America’s popular music” — even at the height of what we like to call the Swing Era.  But up until some time, and you can determine when that was, jazz was wonderful and respected dance music.  We know that hot bands — among them Henderson, Oliver, Goldkette — played tangos and waltzes as part of an evening’s entertainment.  But we also know that, in this century, it is possible to play lively hot music that gets dancers on the floor and keeps them there.

I don’t think many jazz fans associate Kid Ory with dance music, but their error and their loss — for he was much more versatile than his Twenties recordings (which are marvels) suggest.  When he returned to playing in the mid-Forties, up until the end of his life, he created bands with musicians who hadn’t taken up permanent residence in 1928, and the Kid wanted to see people dance to his bands.  Hal Smith has taken up the challenge of creating hot danceable jazz with his On the Levee Jazz Band — a beautiful ensemble featuring Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Kris Tokarski, piano; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Clint Baker (in this case), trombone; Ben Polcer, trumpet.  I caught them in a wonderful dance set at the Evergreen Jazz Festival last July, and the first part is here — swinging renditions of LADY BE  GOOD, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, I GOT RHYTHM, and HONEYSUCKLE ROSE . . . songs you would think had all the life drained out of them through decades of performance, but feel new again.

Here’s the remainder of that set, featuring songs we associate with the Swing Era.  Ory fanciers will recognize many of them as coming from the two recordings Henry “Red” Allen made with the Kid, in addition to a European tour.  Inspiring stuff for sure.

Yes, that’s the Erskine Hawkins hit TUXEDO JUNCTION:

Ory’s own SAVOY BLUES, briskly:

Chu Berry’s CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS:

Yes, the Glenn Miller (or Wingy Manone) IN THE MOOD to close:

This lovely rocking band has a CD, and will be appearing at the San Diego Jazz Fest coming this Thanksgiving — also as one of two bands appearing at the Saturday-night dance.  I predict exuberant swaying to the sounds.

May your happiness increase!

A TRIUMPH: “LESTER’S BLUES – RED LABEL: HOMMAGE TO LESTER YOUNG AND THE BASIE-ITES” (2018)

A Preface:

I came to this band through their Facebook page and was thrilled by their sound.  When I noticed the great reed played David Lukacs (whose CD DREAM CITY I have praised here) was one of the two tenor saxophonists (he also plays clarinet) I asked him to put me in touch with saxophonist / leader Tom Callens.  A few days ago, a neat package arrived; I extracted both the CD and vinyl issue, slid the former into the player, played it three times in a row, and was uplifted each time. It has also become the soundtrack to this post, appropriately.

Several Relevant Illustrations:

This is the band’s website, where you will see their video of the recording of DICKIE’S DREAM.  I encourage you to click on it, or visit the video here:

Here’s TICKLE-TOE, a legal stimulant:

and a seductive live version of THE GOON DRAG. It’s also on the record, but the live version shows that their magic comes from inspiration:

Emulation, not Repetition (I):

LESTER’S BLUES is the wonderful embodiment of ideas (to be explicated below) for which Tom Callens may take credit.  The repertoire springs from Lester’s recordings of about a decade, with nods to Count Basie, Billie Holiday, but also Lester’s Aladdin period, his Keynote sessions, and the aforementioned GOON DRAG, originally a Sammy Price recording for Decca. The titles will make this even clearer: KING PORTER STOMP / ONE O’CLOCK JUMP / EASY LIVING / LESTER’S BE-BOP BOOGIE / SIX CATS AND A PRINCE / MY MAN / THE GOON DRAG / SHOE SHINE BOY / AD LIB BLUES / TICKLE-TOE / SUN SHOWERS / DICKIE’S DREAM.

The Repeater Pencil (II):

There’s evocation and freedom, soulfully balanced, throughout.  Lester said he didn’t want to be a “repeater pencil” (my musings on that here and here — the second post has the pleasure of my hero Dan Morgenstern correcting me).

Lester urged musicians to “be original,” to “sing your own song,” so I think he would be pleased by LESTER’S BLUES because it evokes him but does not copy.  The band is not Supersax, nor is it Lester’s Greatest Hits, nor is it The Chronological Lester.  What a relief.  But there’s no thin “innovation,” no playing MY MAN with a Second Line drum beat, nor is it “what would happen if Lester had played GIANT STEPS or THAT’S A PLENTY?”  Another relief.

The Musicians, Being Original (III):

Thus Delphine Gardin understands Billie but sounds pleasingly like herself (a self who knows the records but also knows the futility of mimicking them); ONE O’CLOCK JUMP is based on the small group Basie had ten years after Lester left; drummer Frederik Van den Berghe does not restrict himself to Jo Jones’ hi-hat; David Lukacs and Tom Callens know Lester’s solos but — except in the case of SHOE SHINE BOY — use them as suggestions rather than strictures.  And there are warm traces of Herschel Evans and later reed players here as well.  Singing EVENIN’, Tom Callens bows to Jimmy Rushing but is himself; pianist Luk Vermeir gracefully cuts a path around just-like-the-Count cliches.  Trumpeter Hans Bossuyt has an estimable wildness that breaks out of the Buck Clayton mold; Sam Gerstmans has a beautiful lower-register sound that Walter Page would praise, but he’s heard other players; guitarists Victor Da Costa and Bart Vervaeck swing their own glorious ways.

A First Inducement to Purchase (IV):

Thus, even if you know every performance on this disc by heart; if you can hum Lester’s solos on both takes of Billie’s WHEN YOU’RE SMILING, you will find this recording a series of small warming surprises that, listened to several times, become inevitable and memorable.  And the band is a band — there are beautifully “right” ensemble passages, jammed or written — thus the recording is more than a series of great solos over a rhythm section.  Tom is responsible for all the arrangements, which are varied and delightful.

Technical Data (V):

It’s no small thing that its recorded sound is lovely, the result of old-fashioned technology that still rewards us.  Callens’ liner note — more about that in a minute — is memorable in its rejection of all the digitalia that makes some sessions sound so cold: “Recorded live in one-takes (no edits), in one room with the band centered around two main microphones, mixed straight to analog 1/4″ tape on a two-track MCI 1H-110 machine.  No external effects other than compression were used during tracking.  The tapes were edited the old-school way — cutting and splicing — to prepare for mastering.”  More technical details await interested readers on the LP sleeve.

What it Means, and it Means a Great Deal (VI):

I rarely quote from liner notes except when I’ve written them (!) but Tom’s notes are so quietly fervent and wise that I share them without editing.  They give insights not primarily into the music of the band but the souls of its musicians and the soulful impulse behind its birth.  I don’t exaggerate.

You could say that the members of Lester’s Blues are from the MTV generation: born in a wealthy, predominantly white Western country in the eighties: raised on FM radio hits, as well as underground music like grunge, hip hop, drum’n’bass, triphop, witnessing the change from analog technology like wired phones, television, radio, cassettes, and vinyl to the digital age of computers, compact discs, mp3s, wireless technology, and the internet.  As we grew up, we saw the general ‘dehumanization’ of our world, as the disappearance of religion gave way to even great reliance on machines, the rise of tools for quantification and efficiency made out societies market-and-performance-driven, and the unrelenting blare of media left us in constant chaos and fragmentation.

As a result, the people around us are seeking authenticity, both externally and mentally, subconsciously feeling that they have lost something.  People are looking for connection.  You see it everywhere in specialist, handcrafted bicycles, clothes and beer; in yoga and meditation practices; in the return of past pop culture styles of dance, fashion, music, graphics and videos; in homegrown vegetables, local produce and slow food; in the desire for an original identity through particular choices of dress, tattoos, hobbies, language . . .

Most of our generation-X musicians went to the jazz conservatory and primarily learned the language of bebop and the idioms / styles that followed.  To be sure, that syllabus didn’t include any lessons on ‘connection’. . . After this education, we were thrown into the real world to start honing our craft, possibly playing different genres of music, by choice or financial necessity.  Such was, and still is, my path.  Over the year, I became aware that I was missing something deeper.  It led me to music that could connect to the soul: something healing or even spiritual.  I listened to classical and world music, often religious music, or particular singer-songwriters, gospel, and blues.

In the middle of all of this, I discovered the music of Lester ‘Prez’ Young.  I have kept on listening to him and his peers over the years.  It eventually dawned on me just how deeply his expression could reach me, on many levels, and so much emotion.  I am convinced that this music is one of the strongest, timeless projections in human nature, universally understood, and I get confirmation of that whenever I meet another Lester fan.  It touches me in more ways than I can describe.  It is music in which you feel that every musician is equally important, where everyone’s contributions melt into a single voice.  It has its unpredictabilities and imperfections.  It can be strange and weird, happy, vibrant, fast, slow . . . just like real life or nature.  It is, of course, technically impressive, yet at the same time it reaches an equally (if not more) impressive emotional level, sending shivers up your spine, making it a rare example of both technical prowess and emotional intelligence.

After a moment of deep introspection somewhere in 2016, it came to me that playing this music with people I love and respect professionally was something that I had to do, like a calling.  To study and share that music and its language-fabric, bringing it to life on stage and creating a moment where everybody would come together, right there in the present.  To look for surprises, to try and  have a coherent musical dialogue devoid of excess, to be open to our humanness, with all its quirks, inventiveness, and humor.  In sum: to search for another way of living the music than what we have become used or programmed to do.

This way of seeing things makes every step – the concert, rehearsal, recording – a life-learning experience.  We have already gained so much from being close to the music of Young, Basie, and their peers. Even if Lester Young may hesitate to see us playing his music and emulating his style – he used to say, ‘You got to be original, man!’ – I think we are paying in our own small way a tribute to his always-searching, life-respecting, irreverent yet humble, freedom-seeking being.  That’s what I see in this music, and hope you can see it, too.

After Such Knowledge, What Action? (VII):

Here (on Bandcamp) you can buy a “vinyl” 12″ long-playing record with a lovely Savoy label, or a CD, or download the music digitally.  Another digital version can be purchased through Amazon here and through Apple Music here.

(Other sites offer the music, but JAZZ LIVES doesn’t endorse other streaming music platforms that take advantage of musicians; if you want to exploit creators, you’ll have to find your own paths.)

This is extraordinary uplifting music, and it swings like mad.  Who deserves a copy more than you, Faithful Reader?

May your happiness increase!

BLISS (Part One): DANNY TOBIAS, LARRY McKENNA, SILAS IRVINE, JOE PLOWMAN (1867 Sanctuary, Ewing, New Jersey, Sept. 21, 12019)

Everyone’s bliss is different.  But for me, one version is being close to and recording a small group of creative musicians playing splendidly, listening attentively to one another in a quiet space in front of a rapt audience.  It’s bliss when it happens, and also because it happens so rarely.

But it did happen in the lovely 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, New Jersey, for two hours on September 21, 2019.  The noble creators were Danny Tobias, trumpet, fluegelhorn, and Eb alto horn; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Silas Irvine, piano; Joe Plowman, string bass.  And here’s their first set: lyrical, controlled, passionate, swinging, deeply melodic.

Larry McKenna

They began with I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU, which although it did not begin life as a swinging tune, Count Basie made it so — as do they:

What followed continued to make me and the rest of the audience happy, but if this quartet had decided that enough was enough with this single performance, I would have been satisfied.  Slightly mystified, but smiling.  But I am thrilled they continued.

The lovely MY IDEAL (check out the lyrics if you don’t know them):

Danny picked up his new / old Eb alto horn for MOOD INDIGO.  Wait until the end, after the last notes, for his musicological commentary and a patented Tobias comic flourish:

Danny’s own HOW’S IT GO? — based on chord changes that were part of the common language when there was one:

Get up, stretch, find some snacks, and the second half will be posted shortly. I bless these four creators and thank them as well.  Thanks also to Bob and Helen Kull, for making the 1867 Sanctuary a shrine for wonderful art.  This post is for John Scurry, John Herr, Sam Taylor, Melissa Gilstrap, and R1, of course.

May your happiness increase!

THEY LED BANDS, OR PLAYED IN THEM: A COLLECTION OF SIGNATURES

Thanks to jgautographs for putting these and other bits of sacred ephemera up on eBay, where I found them.  This seller has a wide range — from Mae West and Rudy Vallee to Stephen Sondheim, Playbills, actors and actresses both famous and obscure.  But I thought the JAZZ LIVES audience would especially warm to these signatures (some, late-career, but all authentic-looking, many inscribed to Al or Albert) from bandleaders and famous musicians.  In no particular order of reverence.

This is not common at all:

Artie Shaw, 1984:


The Kid From Red Bank, undated (but its casualness makes it feel all the more authentic, with rust, mildew, or food embellishments):

Pioneering trumpeter Billie Rogers:

Glorious lead trumpeter Jimmie Maxwell (always listed as “Jimmy”); I regret that he died two years before I moved into his Long Island town:

Yes, Sammy Kaye, included here because of a Ruby Braff story, memorable and paraphrased: an interviewer tried to get Ruby to say something harsh about this sweet band, and Ruby retorted that if he saw Sammy he would kiss him, because “You had to be a MUSICIAN to play in those bands!”  True:

The front of a card, signed by the insufficiently-celebrated Miff Mole:

and the back, which tells the story, although the handwriting is mysterious and the stains might require a good chemical laboratory to identify — circa 1944:

and two signatures from people who spent their lives signing autographs, the Sentimental Gentleman:

and That Drummer Man, 1967:

Once again, it brings up the question of what we leave behind us when we depart, and how are we remembered.  Did Basie or Gene think, when they were signing a fan’s autograph book, that their signatures would be for sale decades later?  I don’t know what to hope.

May your happiness increase!

THE PURSUIT OF SWEETNESS, OR, LIFE BEYOND “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARTY EGGERS, JEFF HAMILTON, a/k/a “THE HOT CORNER” (September 15, 2019)

Hot Lips Page is supposed to have said, on the subject of repertoire one could improvise on, “The material is immaterial.”  Or, as a segment on the Benny Goodman Camel Caravan was headlined, “Anything can swing!”  Many jazz fans cling to a favored selection of songs, performed loud and fast — you know the tunes that the audience is ready to applaud even before a note is played, the lure and comfort of the familiar.  Not so here.  This is music for people willing to pay close attention, and to feel what’s being created for them.

Ray Skjelbred goes his own way, deep in the heart of melody, and we are glad.  Here he is with Marty Eggers, string bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums, documented for all of us and for posterity by RaeAnn Berry.  Ray’s renamed this trio “The Hot Corner,” a reference to third base in baseball, but the music lives up to the name in very subtle ways.  In fact, it’s quiet and thus even more compelling, reminding me of the passages on 1938-40 Basie records where only the rhythm section is playing, quiet and even more quiet: enthralling!

Ray loves Bing Crosby, and Bing inspired some of the best songs, including his theme, a melody almost forgotten now:

Here’s what my dear friend Mike Burgevin would call “another Bingie,” this one best listened to over a dish of fresh — not canned — pineapple:

We wander from Bing to King — Wayne King, “the Waltz King,” that is:

Notice, please, the sweet patience of musicians who don’t have to jump into double-time, who can stay contentedly in three-quarter time, and it all swings so affectingly.  And here, just because technology makes it so easy, for those listeners who might not know the originals (and can now marvel even more at what Ray, Jeff, and Marty make of them), here they are.

Bing, with added attractions Eddie Lang and Franklin Pangborn:

and in a Hawaiian mood:

That famous waltz (which Bob Wills and Tamar Korn have also made their own):

and the Wills version, because why should I deny us the pleasure?

May your happiness increase!

CELESTIAL VIBRATIONS FROM PLANET DOYLE: JONATHAN DOYLE, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, CHARLIE HALLORAN, KRIS TOKARSKI, JAMEY CUMMINS, STEVE PIKAL, HAL SMITH (Redwood Coast Music Festival, May 11, 2019)

The music that Jonathan Doyle writes, plays, and inspires is too expansive to fit into any box, but listening to these four glorious performances from the Redwood Coast Music Festival, I thought, “What would happen if some magical science could graft the soundtrack of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES onto the Ellington small groups and the secret John Hammond-Basie sessions of 1936-9?”  That imagined concoction, a rich brew, amused me, but again it was too confining for what Jonathan does with and through his Swingtet.

I would have you note the obvious: he is a wonderfully inspired soloist and ensemble player, improvising as he goes with great feeling, but his lines are quirky and surprising, and his arrangements are so rewarding that one should revisit any performance more than twice or three times to savor the mix of soloists, ensemble passages, dynamics, timbres (delicate to raucous) which all add up to a compositional sense that keeps the fervor of a jam session / head arrangement — the results not only please but amaze.

Some of the amazement, to be accurate, comes from the singular talents Jonathan attracts — I think people on this level are eager to play alongside him and read his charts, because they thrive on the stimulation they can find here.  It is as far from formulaic readings of PERDIDO or ROYAL GARDEN BLUES as one could imagine or hope for.  For this set, Jonathan’s colleagues are Hal Smith, drums; Steve Pikal, string bass; Kris Tokarski, piano; Jamey Cummins, guitar (SOME rhythm section, as E.B. White’s Charlotte would have written); Charlie Halloran, trombone; Jacob Zimmerman, alto saxophone and clarinet.  All brought to you — not only by the musicians — by the generous wise pair who create the Redwood Coast Music Festival, Mark and Valerie Jansen.

Here’s more.  Only the first half of Laura Glaess’ title applies here:

Jonathan’s JUST A LITTLE RIGHT:

Named for the thrilling Mister Smith:

and the gorgeously textured STEPPIN’ LIGHT:

And a brief didactic moment, which those who listen deeply can skip.  I suspect, sadly, that some jazz consumers are brand-fixated, rather like children who will only eat McNuggets and drink Coke.  “That’s not My Favorite Band, so I’ll skip it.” Dear consumers, take a chance and listen: beauty sprouts and blooms all through Jonathan Doyle’s Swingtet.

May your happiness increase!

RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS at OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON (June 2019): RAY SKJELBRED, KIM CUSACK, JEFF HAMILTON, MATT WEINER, JOSH ROBERTS

I was closer to home — Beantown in Beverly, Massachusetts — when Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs played several sets (more than forty videos recorded and posted by Rae Ann Berry) at the 28th Annual Greater Olympia Dixieland Jazz Festival, in Lacey, Washington.  Ray also appeared at a crucial member of the Evergreen Jazz Band, which Rae Ann also captured on video for us.

Three of the Cubs were the heroes we know: Ray, piano, vocal, and moral leadership; Kim Cusack, clarinet, vocal; Jeff Hamilton, drums, banter.  But two other stars — Clint Baker and Katie Cavera — couldn’t be there, so Ray brought two splendid young musician-colleagues from the Pacific Northwest, whom you should get to know right away: Matt Weiner, string bass, vocal; Josh Roberts, guitar.  What music they make!

Here are a few glorious samples: finding the rest is not difficult and worth the clicking and mousing.

BOLL WEEVIL BLUES, one I’ve never heard Ray play and sing:

I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU: what if Kim Cusack had been the right age to sit in with the 1937 Basie band?

IDA (for Ida Melrose Shoufler, of course, “Auntie”):

and a blues inspired by an Eddie Condon Commodore record, BEAT TO THE SOCKS:

and another Condon homage, IMPROVISATION FOR THE MARCH OF TIME:

I think of “Buy them, trade them, collect the set!” but that isn’t right: how about “Watch them, enjoy them, honor this music!” You can find more of Rae Ann’s treasures here.

May your happiness increase!

DID YOUR RECENT BLOOD TEST SHOW DECREASED GROOVE LEVELS? JAZZ LIVES IS HERE TO HELP (Redwood Coast Music Festival, May 12, 2019)

When I feel poorly, the conventional choice is this (with all respect to my internist, not pictured here):

I prefer this medical group, photographed at their 1936 convention:

A similar gathering of holistic groove-healers, inspired by Ammons and Basie, assembled on May 12, 2019, at the Redwood Coast Music Festival: doctors Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Little Charlie Baty, guitar; Marc Caparone, cornet; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. “Young J.C.” is James Caparone, himself.

With thanks to Mark and Valerie Jansen, patron saints of Redwood Coast sounds, where musicians not only know how to spell RHYTHM but make it jump.

May your happiness increase!

CHOOSING TO SWING: NIRAV SANGHANI AND THE PACIFIC SIX

I don’t have grandchildren*, but I can imagine myself gathering the younguns around and telling them, “Younguns, Grandpa knew Nirav Sanghani when he was only a swing dancer, before he began to lead a band!” They would be properly awestruck.  As I am by Nirav’s debut CD, its pretty cover displayed above.

Some facts: the CD is immensely danceable music, the tracks at righteous groovy tempos, with a mix of classic standards and riff-based originals.  Nirav is one of the young musicians mentored by Clint Baker, so you know that he has taken all the right impromptu classes and scored high on the real-life exams (in front of audiences).  And he understands rhythm guitar (rather than attempting to become a Famous-Solo-Guitarist-Clone) and playing for the band.  The band is a compact sextet of wise individualists, and they rock in solo and ensemble.  Beautiful sound . . . . and a digital download costs $8.  I am sure that Elders like myself could also buy a physical disc from Nirav at any of the swing events he and the Pacific Six adorn.

The band: Justin Au, trumpet; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Rob Reich, piano; Nirav Sanghani, guitar; Jen Hodge, string bass; Riley Baker, drums; Clint Baker, trombone (on BAKER BOUNCE only).

The songs: BAKER BOUNCE / DOODLE RHYTHM / MARIANAS / BLUE (And Broken-Hearted) / IRRATIONAL BLUES / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / WHO’S SORRY NOW? / LULLABY OF THE WAVES / WHISPERING.  arch 26, 2019

Recorded August 19, 2018 at Community Music Center, San Francisco, CA.

From the first notes, the band floats on a well-connected four-piece rhythm section: Reich, Sanghani, Hodge, and Baker have listened hard to the great small groups of the Forties and the wartime Basie influence is so happily evident (although none of the cliches are).  I noticed happily that more than a few of the tracks began with a rhythm-section introduction, reminiscent of the great small groups and also clearly setting the tempo for dancers.  (Incidentally, that rhythm section has its own delicious quirky approach: hear the opening chorus of WHISPERING to get at it: hilarious and completely effective.)  IRRATIONAL BLUES is beautifully evocative of the 1938 Kansas City Six, with a guitar introduction by Sanghani.

And the horn soloists (Zimmerman switching from clarinet to saxophone on some tracks; a terse, lyrical Au — with the impassioned Clint Baker, jazz parent, adding huge trombone sounds on the first track) are wonderfully idiomatic but never imitative.  Eddie Condon would surely admire their interplay on BLUE and on SOMEDAY SWEETHEART.  The jazz fans in the audience might think of 1946, of Savoy Records, of swing-to-bop; the dancers will be too busy dancing to consider such erudite matters.

Nirav’s originals are made of familiar materials but each has its own little surprises, and the arranging touches are well-shaped but never overfussy.  I know that if I heard this on the radio or on a DJ’s playlist, I might not immediately call each of the players by name but I certainly would insist on knowing about the band and buying a few copies of the disc.

I propose that people who enjoy this CD pass along copies of it to dance organizers who might be out of touch with the best Bay Area jive so that we can spread the swinging word(s).

My only complaint about this disc is that it isn’t a two-disc set.

Here is the band’s Facebook page, and here, perhaps even more important, is the Bandcamp page where you can hear the sounds and download the music.

If you have a swing dance event coming up, this would be one of the many fine bands to hire.  If, like me, you don’t, you surely will want to have the music in your home, your ears, your car . . . the possibilities are endless, and gratifying.

*Because I don’t have grandchildren, I am expecting like-minded younger JAZZ LIVES readers to visit us in assisted living, bearing new CDs, organic fruit and vegetables.  I think that’s not too much to ask.

May your happiness increase!

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

“LITTLE THINGS THAT DON’T GET INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS”: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of SYMPHONY SID TORIN, WILLIS CONOVER, ARTIE SHAW, and COOTIE WILLIAMS (June 8, 2018)

I am so fortunate in many ways, some of them not evident on this site.  But JAZZ LIVES readers will understand that my being able to interview Dan Morgenstern at his home from March 2017 on — at irregular intervals — is a gift I would not have dreamed possible when I was only A Wee Boy reading his liner notes and DOWN BEAT articles.

Dan is an unaffected master of small revealing insights that show character: in some ways, he is a great short-story writer even though he is working with factual narrative.  Watching these interviews, you’ll go away with Artie Shaw pacing the room and talking, Willis Conover’s ashtrays, Cootie Williams reverently carrying Louis’ horn back to the latter’s hotel, and more.

About ten days ago, we spent another ninety minutes where Dan told affectionate tales of Jaki Byard, Ulysses Kay, Randy Weston, Kenny Dorham, and more.  Those videos will come to light in time.  But we had a marathon session last June, with stories of Louis, Cozy Cole, Milt Hinton, Coltrane, Roy, Teddy, Basie, Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, Perry Como and others — which you can savor here.  And, although it sounds immodest, you should.  (I also have videos of a July session with Dan: stay tuned, as they used to say.)

Here are more delightful stories from the June session.

Dan remembers Symphony Sid Torin, with sidebars about John Hammond, Nat Lorber, Rudi Blesh, Stan Kenton at Carnegie Hall, Roy Eldridge, and jazz radio in general:

Dan’s affectionate portrait of another man with a mission concerning jazz — the Voice of America’s Willis Conover:

and some afterthoughts about Willis:

and, to conclude, another leisurely portrait, early and late, of Artie Shaw:

with Artie as a “champion talker,” and a gig at Bop City, and sidelights about Benny Goodman and Cootie Williams, the latter reverent of Louis:

Thank you, Dan, for so generously making these people, scenes, and sounds come so alive.

May your happiness increase!

PISMO JOYS (Part Five): “LARRY, DAWN, and FRIENDS”: LARRY SCALA, DAWN LAMBETH, DANNY TOBIAS, CARL SONNY LEYLAND, BILL BOSCH // CHLOE FEORANZO, DANNY COOTS (October 26 and 27, 2018, Jazz Jubilee by the Sea)

One of the great highlights of the 2018 Pismo Jazz Jubilee by the Sea was the small flexible swing groups led by guitarist Larry Scala, featuring the wonderful singing of Dawn Lambeth. Without being consciously imitative, they harked back to the great Thirties and Forties recordings and performances of Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, Count Basie, Mildred Bailey, Benny Goodman, and more.  But they weren’t ancient artifacts behind glass: they swung and were full of joyous expertise.  Here are three more performances, the first two featuring Larry, Dawn, bassist Bill Bosch, trumpeter Danny Tobias, pianist Carl Sonny Leyland; the third, from the next day, featuring clarinetist Chloe Feoranzo instead of Danny, and adding drummer Danny Coots.

Dee-lightful.

Irving Berlin’s ALL BY MYSELF:

Walter Donaldson’s LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME:

And from the next day, Dawn, Larry, and Bill, with Danny Coots, drums; Chloe Feoranzo, clarinet, for Cole Porter’s YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

Thanks to all these creative people for bringing their own brand of sweet swing to Pismo.  I hope they’ll be brightening the corners in 2019.

May your happiness increase!

THEY CAN REALLY DO THAT THING, AND MORE: FLOYD DOMINO’S ALL-STARS

That’s no idle claim.  Here’s the cover of the band’s new CD, which features Floyd, piano and arrangements; Emily Gamble, vocal; Lauryn Gould, saxophone, arrangements; Ryan Gould, string bass; David Jellema, clarinet, cornet; Brooks Prumo, guitar; Hal Smith, drums.

And here’s a lively audio sample:

and another, with organic Lester-and-Buck flavoring:

I know that there are many excellent small and mid-sized “swing dance” units in operation these days, and if you’ve been reading JAZZ LIVES, you’ve heard my praise of them from New York to Vancouver and Texas.  We live in an age of good music (so those who lament the death of jazz are just wrong) but Floyd’s group has that most wonderful quality, a completely recognizable sound: individuals in solo and in ensemble.  I don’t have to clamber up on my soapbox and say that “When I was a boy you could tell who someone was in four quarter notes: Frank Newton didn’t sound like Charlie Shavers,” and so on.  But you know it’s true.

Again, if you’ve been paying attention, you know these musicians — or the two videos have offered convincing evidence of why you should.  But rather than write a handful of enthusiastic character sketches, for once I want to say something about the band, which has all the glide and grit of a working unit.  Smooth, but hardly decaffeinated.  What I hear in these performances is a kind of easy rhythmic intensity — think of a Forties small unit that has understood that shuffle rhythm, never heavy or obvious, gets the dancers on the floor.  (Although RIFF BLUES and the powerful MESS AROUND are solid exceptions: house-rocking music.)

The arrangements, as well, often feature Floyd’s groovy piano, but he isn’t always all alone. Rather, in the fashion of Basie and McShann, the piano often works against horn backgrounds (although the first choruses of HONEYSUCKLE give a nice simulation of Basie-time without any of the patented cliches, and DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS starts off with a honeyed sixteen bars of piano-and-rhythm before some pretty horn solos.  For the rest, you’re on your own, with notepad and pen if you please).

This CD is a homage to the music of another age, but it’s not imitative, although I now know the new lyrics to BLUE SKIES come from Slim Gaillard and the Royal Rhythm Boys; ‘WAY DOWN YONDER bows low to the Kansas City Six.

I will break with what I wrote earlier to say that Ms. Gamble is a wow: begin with her EXACTLY LIKE YOU and AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  “Tonation and phrasing” in abundance!

The preponderance of “standard repertoire” on the disc, incidentally, should not drive any listener away.  Yes, you’ve heard TEA FOR TWO countless times, but this band makes even the most ancient song seem fresh and vivid, and, yes, that is a little cap-tip to Tatum.  I know also that the phrase “little arranging touches” is so overused that I should banish it, but in this case it’s true: the balance of ensemble and solos is so very pleasing, novel without being ostentatiously “innovative.”

How can you bring this joy into your own life?  Ideally, if you’re at one of Floyd’s gigs, bring money and buy a cluster of CDs.  The holidays are coming, and so much holiday merchandise is designed to be obsolete the next morning.  This CD won’t be.  Or visit here and spread some joy.  But don’t give all the copies away: you’ll be sorry.

All I can say — for those who get the joke — is that if this band had existed in 1947, Jack Kapp or Herman Lubinsky would have signed them to disastrously corrupt contracts and they would be absolutely legendary.  How lovely it is that they are alive and well in our own century.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET LESSONS IN MELODIC EMBELLISHMENT (1946)

I woke up yesterday morning with the melody of SHE DIDN’T SAY YES in my head — as performed in 1946 by Joe Thomas and his Orchestra for Keynote Records — and that performance insisted that I share it and write a few words in its honor.  The song comes from the 1931 Jerome Kern – Otto Harbach musical comedy THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE, and it is limited in its ambitions (words and music) but it is also irresistible.  The steplike melody is difficult to get rid of once one hears it, and the coy naughtiness of the lyric — raising the question of being “bad” when badness seems so delightful, but tossing the moral question back at the listener — combine in a kind of musical miniature cupcake.

Here is a video clip from the 1934 film version of the play — Jeanette MacDonald, looking lovely, sings SHE DIDN’T after a large clump of cinematic foolishness, including post-Code dancing, has concluded. (My contemporary perspective makes this scene slightly painful to watch, as Jeanette is bullied by the crowd into declaring a love that she seems to feel only in part.)

The song was recorded a number of times in the early Thirties (by Leo Reisman and Chick Bullock, among others) but may have surfaced again with the 1946 film biography of Kern, who had died suddenly the year before, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY.  However, since its performance in the film by the Wilde Twins goes by quickly, I think other reasons may have led to its being chosen for this Keynote Records date.  Did Harry Lim hear something in its melody — those repeated notes that Alec Wilder deplored — or did Joe Thomas like to play it?  We’ll never know, but it is a recording both memorable and forgotten.

The band was “Joe Thomas And His Orchestra,” itself a rare occurrence.  Lim had used Joe on many sessions for Keynote (the Forties were a particular period of prominence on records for him, thankfully — where he recorded alongside Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries).  The band was  Joe Thomas, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Hy White, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Lee Abrams, drums, and it was done in New York on August 16, 1946.  I don’t know who did the backgrounds and introduction, but the recording is a small marvel of originalities.  I listen first for the soloists and their distinctive sounds and then consider the performance as an example of what one could do with texture and small orchestral touches with only an octet.

I first heard this record coming out of my radio speaker when Ed Beach did a show devoted to Joe Thomas — perhaps in 1969 — and then I got to see Joe both on the stage of Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls (with Benny Carter and Eddie Condon, consider that!) and at much closer range in 1972-74, thanks to the kindness of my dear Mike Burgevin.

I don’t want to subject this recording to chorus-by-chorus explication, but I would ask listeners to hear the individual sounds and tones these players had: Joe, Tyree, Hilton, Jerry — each man singing his own distinctively recognizable song — and the perky unflagging rhythm section, with Leighton beautifully doing Basie-Wilson-Guarnieri, and the lovely support of Billy Taylor, Sr., who had kept the Ellington band swinging.

“We had faces then!” to borrow from SUNSET BOULEVARD.

I keep coming back to the gleaming warm sound of Joe Thomas — in the first chorus, outlining the melody as if nothing in the world were more important; in the closing chorus, flavoring and shading it as only he could.  And the rest of the band.  As a friend said to me recently, “They were pros.  They really knew how to do it.”  And bless Harry Lim: without him, we would know such things happened but they would now be silent and legendary rather than tangible and glowing.

This music says YES, no hesitation.

May your happiness increase!

OUR MAN DAN: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of COZY COLE, BENNY CARTER, MILT HINTON, LOUIS ARMSTRONG, TEDDY WILSON, COUNT BASIE, JOHN COLTRANE, ROY ELDRIDGE, JOE WILDER, ED BERGER, and PERRY COMO (June 8, 2018)

Dan Morgenstern, now 89, is so full of wonderful stories — sharply-realized, hilarious, sad — that my job as a visitor with a camera has usually been to set up the video equipment, do a sound check, ask a leading question, and sit back in bliss.  Here’s the first half of my June 2018 visit to Dan’s nest.  Beautiful narratives are all nicely set out for us.

I’d already posted the first one — a total surprise, a heroic reaction to injustice — but I would like more people to hear and see it:

More about Cozy Cole and friends, including Milt Hinton, Cab Calloway, and a hungry Benny Carter:

More about Milt Hinton, with wonderful anecdotes about Louis and Joe Glaser, Dizzy Gillespie, Cozy Cole, and Mel Lewis:

And some beautiful stories about Count Basie — including Dan’s attendance at a Town Hall concert with Basie, Roy Eldridge, and John Coltrane:

Finally (for this posting — there will be a continuation) memories of Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, with a comment about Roy Eldridge:

That we have Dan Morgenstern with us to tell such tales is a wonderful thing.  As Louis said to the King, “This one’s for you, Rex!”

May your happiness increase!

PISMO JOYS (Part One): “LARRY, DAWN, and FRIENDS”: LARRY SCALA, DAWN LAMBETH, MARC CAPARONE, BILL BOSCH, DANNY COOTS (October 26, 2018, Jazz Jubilee by the Sea)

Only a few days ago, I had my first immersion in the pleasures of Pismo — not the sunsets or the salt-water taffy, but the musical joys of the Jazz Jubilee by the Sea, which combines congenial people and seriously uplifting music.

What finally got me to Pismo (aside from the immense kindness of Linda and John Shorb and other helpful folks) was the chance to hear and see some friends and heroes in new combinations: Larry Scala, guitar; Dawn Lambeth, vocals; Marc Caparone and Danny Tobias, cornet and trumpet; Dave Caparone, trombone; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano and vocal; Danny Coots and Jim Lawlor, drums; Steve Pikal and Bill Bosch, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar and vocal; the Au Brothers; and — new to me in person — the Shake ‘Em Up Band and Jeff Beaumont’s Creole Syncopators.  She didn’t play an instrument, but I was also able to be dazzled by my Facebook friend Brettie Page.

But first on my list was “Larry, Dawn, and Friends,” a group that delighted me throughout the weekend.  Readers will know how much I admire Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, and Danny Coots, but it was a pleasure to see Larry — with his nice mixture of the blues, Basie, and Charlie Christian — lead a small group.  His long-time friend Bill Bosch also impressed me because Bill is a purist who plays without amplification and has a lovely sound.

Here are three highlights from the first set I caught.  First, the rarely-played swing tune COQUETTE, yes, by Carmen Lombardo:

Dawn’s lovely version of the Gershwins’ THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME:

And a lightly swinging THAT OLD FEELING that has a truly feeling coda:

More to come!  (I’ve already been invited back to Pismo for next year, and it took a long pause of several miliseconds for me to say “Yes!”)

May your happiness increase!

OF COURSE, THEY WEREN’T “TRAINED SINGERS”!

Anna Moffo, one of my mother’s favorite sopranos: my definition of a “trained singer.”

Everyone of us has pet theories: there’s a secret way to fold fitted sheets; day-old bagels, toasted, are better than fresh, and so on.  You, no doubt, have yours.

One of mine that is relevant to JAZZ LIVES is that often, singers who never sing because they are busy playing are the best singers of all.  I don’t mean those who are clearly identified as singers — Louis, Jelly, Teagarden, Cleo Brown — but those instrumentalists who have recorded once or twice only.  So I assembled a host of my favorites, leaving out scat choruses.  Some recordings were inaccessible: Sid Catlett’s OUT OF MY WAY, Basie’s HARVARD BLUES (where he, not Jimmy, takes the vocal) Ed Hall’s ALL I GOT WAS SYMPATHY — but this is, I hope, a pleasing, perhaps odd offering.  I present them in no particular order, except for Lester being the last, because that recording so touches me.

James P. Johnson, 1944 (with Frank Newton, Al Casey, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty).  The story is that Alan Lomax thought that James P. was a blues pianist when he interviewed him for the Library of Congress — and compelled him to sing this.  I don’t know: James P. is having a good time:

Coleman Hawkins, 1936, highly impassioned (when was he not?):

Vic Dickenson, crooning in 1931 with the Luis Russell Orchestra:

Vic — nearly fifty years later — singing his own composition with Ralph Sutton:

Benny Carter, aiming for Bing and having a dear good time in the process, 1933.  (This has been one of my favorite records since 1974.  Catch Benny’s trumpet solo and clarinet solo.  And Sid Catlett pleases.)  Those clever lyrics aren’t easy to sing at that tempo: ask Dan Barrett:

And another helping of Benny-does-Bing, gliding upwards into those notes.  Another favorite:

Yes, Art Tatum could sing the blues.  Uptown, 1941:

I save this for last, because it leaves me in tears.  Lester Young, 1941, and since this is the only copy of a much-played acetate, there’s a lot of surface noise.  Be patient and listen deeply:

Little is known about that recording, but I remember learning that one side of it was a dub of SHOE SHINE BOY by Jones-Smith, Inc., and this — a current pop tune with glee-club embroideries — was the other.  It’s been surmised that this was a demo disc for Lester’s new small band that he hoped to make flourish after leaving Basie.  Some of the sadness, to me, is that the attempt worked poorly, and although Lester loved to sing, there is only one other recording (the 1953 IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO) that exists.

These singers go right to my heart.

May your happiness increase!

“EVERY DAY’S A WORKING DAY FOR YOU”

How do you recognize wealthy people?  They go on vacation with more possessions than they can carry, and they hire someone to do the work for them.

“Red cap” or “redcap,” now archaic, dates back to when people traveled by train, when suitcases did not have wheels, so passengers would need help with their luggage, and would summon a railway porter.

Here is a 1983 news story, “The Top Redcap,” which explains it in greater depth.  I believe that the redcaps were hard-working men of color who may not have been treated well by affluent passengers.  One of the sadnesses of this life is that people who perform low-status jobs become servants and are thus invisible.

If you wonder at the photographs — figurines carrying suitcases and golf clubs, my intent is not to demean these diligent laborers, but these objects turned up online, described as “REDCAP W/ LUGGAGE, STANDARD GAUGE MODEL TRAIN PLATFORM FIGURE, NEW/REPRODUCTION” — produced for people who wanted the landscape of their model train layout to be realistic.  “Look.  Servants, too!”

The description reads: “This is a Standard Gauge figure of a redcap/train porter carrying luggage. It is a reproduction cast in tin from a Lionel antique original and is hand-painted by Leddy & Slack. Lionel’s six-piece set #550 of Standard Gauge figures was manufactured from 1932-1936. The redcap is 3″ tall and wears a dark gray uniform. The suitcase in his left hand is detachable. . . . Suitcases are also available separately to replace a lost piece of luggage on an old figure; please inquire.”  It’s significant that this piece of miniature art dates from 1932-36.

But JAZZ LIVES has not turned into a cultural studies explication of Lionel train figures.  It’s all a prelude to the music, which touches us through the decades.

In 1937, Louis Armstrong and Ken Hecht collaborated on a song, RED CAP.  Everyone, including me, thinks the Hecht referred to was BEN — he’s even credited in the Mosaic set — but it’s  KEN.  See below for Dan Morgenstern’s correction.

Louis had traveled coast-to-coast many times by 1937, so he had first-hand experience of the amiable fellows who helped you and your bags off the train.  Ricky Riccardi, my brother-in-Louis, told me something I hadn’t known, that Louis refused to put his name on songs he had no part in writing.  But there’s an even stronger story behind RED CAP.

Louis grew up in poverty, knew what it was like to hunt through garbage cans for food, was contemptuous of the “lazy,” and held hard work for a goal as the greatest good.  He also was generous, and I would bet that when Louis and his band came into town, he was a hero to the red caps and more.

A year before RED CAP, Louis had a great hit with SHOE SHINE BOY, by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin (Cahn wrote about Louis in his autobiography, and I posted this cameo in 2009).  If you don’t know the song, or know it only through the instrumental versions by Count Basie, Lester Young, and Jo Jones, listen to this touching December 1935 performance:

So: a song celebrating the working man (or child) invisible to the higher classes, directed at him (as in “you” rather than “he”) and predicting a hopeful future, upward economic mobility.  As you’ll hear, RED CAP has one extra touch that SHOE SHINE BOY doesn’t: it ends with the notion that the man working so hard hustlin’ and bustlin’ other people’s suitcases will someday be able to take a vacation and call for a red cap as well.  A dream worth dreaming!

It’s easy to imagine the dialogue between Louis and Hecht about writing a song in praise of the unseen but invaluable red caps, no matter who started the conversation. Louis usually worked with Horace Gerlach,  but you are free to let your imagination wander as to the genesis of RED CAP.

My imagination wanders to this wonderful 2003 performance now accessible on YouTube, from Scott Robinson’s eloquent spacious Louis tribute.  Here Scott plays C-melody saxophone alongside another hero, Mark Shane, irresistible both as pianist and singer:

and from five years ago (can it be that long?), our friend Daryl Sherman, vocal and piano; Scott, taragoto; Harvie S, string bass:

And the Master comes last:

I write these words a few days before Labor Day — thus “Perhaps some day you may be shouting, ‘Red Cap!’ too!” — has much hopeful significance to me: people’s dreams can still become realities.

And this, a gift from the Big Dipper, which says so much:

THIS JUST IN, from Dan Morgenstern, whom I trust!

Alas, I too thought how wonderful that Louis and Ben Hecht, of whom I was and still am a great fan, should have collaborated, and on a theme fitting with Hecht’s ideology . But I was not convinced that Ben and Louis had ever been connected. Sure enough, the Red Cap lyric is by KEN Hecht, writer of special material for many comedians and such entertainers as Belle Baker and Rose Marie. None of his other songs is near Red Cap. As for Ben, his most famous work is the play “The Front Page” a big 1928 Broadway hit twice filmed with success, first with the same title and later as “His Girl Friday” with which anyone at all into vintage films will know. Hecht’s partner was Charles Macarthur with whom he screenplayed “Scarface”, “Twentieth Century”, “Nothing Sacred” and, for Noel Coward’s first major film role, “The Coward”, all that plus making the twosome major league screenwriter. Hecht was one of the major advocates for the creation of Israel, among other causes. His 1926 novel “Count Bruga” is a sui generis satire that should be rediscovered. I don’t know if he was a Louis fan but glad this brought him up. His dates are 1894-1964.

AND a wonderful postscript, just in, from the wise Paige VanVorst:

One of my longtime idols, Natty Dominique, who’s on as many classic jazz records as Bix (As Wayne Jones used to say, “but they don’t buy them for Natty’s playing”), worked much of his life as a redcap at Chicago’s Midway Airport. People loved him, and he told stories of the early days of jazz to the people he served. He had a very nice retirement- he had a nice apartment with everything he needed, a wife who was an excellent creole cook, and he’d tell you it was all from his work as a redcap.

May your happiness increase!