Tag Archives: creativity

“EVERYONE KNOWS HIS CREATIVE PERIOD WAS BEHIND HIM BY _______.”

Louis Armstrong reached his artistic peak somewhere before 1929, when his recording of commercial songs — I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE as opposed to POTATO HEAD BLUES — was ruinous.  Right?

As we say in my country, “Oh, please!”

You play what you are!  And Louis in 1954 and 1960 still embodied the deepest human truths of joy and sorrow.

These two videos are now available widely thanks to the tireless collector, historian, and archivist Franz Hoffmann.

The first, from May 9, 1954, is part of a wonderfully odd CBS-TV program,
“YOU ARE THERE: “THE EMERGENCE OF JAZZ,” which purports to recreate the closing of Storyville as if it were a news story happening at the moment.  In 1954, I wasn’t sufficiently sentient to have been watching this episode, but I gather that this neat gimmick allowed various actors to recreate events in history — with light brushes with accuracy and the help of Walter Cronkite to make it seem “real.”  Here, Louis was asked to become King Oliver, fronting his own All-Stars . . . all African-Americans, with the exception of drummer Barrett Deems, who had his face blacked to fit it.  The other band members are Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw.  In other segments, Louis Mitchell was played by Cozy Cole and Jelly Roll Morton by Billy Taylor. No doubt.  Here, much of the fun is that the Oliver band is “challenged” by an offstage White band — the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — impersonated by Bobby Hackett, Bill Stegmeyer, Lou Stein, Cliff Leeman, and Lou Mc Garity.  To see and hear Louis play BACK O’TOWN BLUES and read his lines is enough of a pleasure; to hear Louis and Bobby improvise on the SAINTS is a joy.

Six years later, with no faux-news report, just a substantial production for a BELL TELEPHONE HOUR (January 1, 1960), we see Louis in magnificent form (although this segment is taxing).  After SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET and LAZY RIVER — with the plastic mute Jack Teagarden made for him — there is one of the most touching episodes of Louis on film, beginning at 3:30.  If you ever meet anyone who doubts Louis’ sincerity, his acting ability, his skill in conveying emotion, please play them this video and let them hear and see the ways he approaches SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, intensely moving.  Then the mood switches to an early-television meeting of Louis with an unidentified vocal quartet for MUSKRAT RAMBLE.  In all, eight minutes plus of wonderful music.

Louis sustains us as he sustained himself.

Thanks to Franz Hoffmann and of course to Ricky Riccardi, who has done so much to remind us that Louis never, ever stopped creating.

May your happiness increase.

“A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL: THE LIFE OF LORENZ HART,” by GARY MARMORSTEIN

The biographer’s chosen task is either difficult or impossible.  Any competent researcher can amass a proliferation of facts, beginning with the subject’s grandparents and concluding with the coroner’s report.  The more public the biographical subject, the easier the task, apparently.

But although readers want to know the facts of the subject’s many lives — creative, philosophical, emotional, quotidian — the questions we want answered are deeper.  I think we ultimately want to know what it felt like to be the person under scrutiny; why did he behave as he did; what choices did he make; what drove him?  And since most of us are puzzles even to ourselves, the answers to these questions are often beyond our reach.

These speculations are the result of my reading A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL: THE LIFE OF LORENZ HART, by Gary Marmorstein (Simon and Schuster), just published.  Marmorstein does several things very well.  For one, he has taken stock of everything written about Hart — a fourteen-page bibliography and hundreds of endnotes.  He is admirably diligent and more thorough than the two Hart biographies that proceeded this book.

The book moves along at a swift pace, although Marmorstein has chosen often to show that he is as clever as his subject, as witty, as colloquial — often adopting his own version of Thirties slang, where a man gets punched in “the kisser” and a failing business goes “flooey.”  I wish his editor had told the author that referring to the troubles Richard Rodgers had with his collaborator as “Hart-aches” was not wise.  That same editor might have limited Marmorstein’s usage of “must,” as in “Larry must have reacted with a jolt” when watching the sound film THE JAZZ SINGER when there is no evidence to support the speculation.

To his credit, Marmorstein is more candid than his predecessors, although he does not dwell on scandal-mongering.  He is fair to Hart’s collaborator, Richard Rodgers, who on one hand tried to protect Hart from himself and on the other, referred to him as “the shrimp” while Hart was alive and “that little fag” twenty years after Hart’s death.  And where there is room for speculation, Marmorstein painstakingly balances opposing narratives.  In these things, A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL seems ideal.

But Hart would not have been an easy subject under the best of circumstances, and the facts and myths of his brief life lend themselves to mythologizing.  One such encapsulation of Hart’s hectic, creative, unhappy life is as (in Marmorstein’s coinage) the “lovelorn dwarf.”  Hart was short, under five feet, and although he made and permitted jokes about his height, it was apparently not something he accepted, and it added to his perception of himself as irredeemably physically unattractive.

Hart was a gay man in a profession where homosexuality was more common, but he seems not to have had long-term emotional attachments  He kept no diary and had a habit of disappearing — at night and other times.  Biographers before Marmorstein have speculated where Larry Hart got to, and with whom . . . but all the people who might have told us stories are dead.  Commendably, Marmorstein shuns ancient homophobic formulations, suggesting that Hart drank himself to death because his sexual preference made him miserable, or that Hart chose to be gay because he was unattractive to women.

Any book about Hart also must record his alcoholism, which ultimately contributed to his early death.  But Hart was also incredibly creative — not just in terms of writing new lyrics for show after show, but being someone who could go off with an envelope and pencil and create two new choruses of lyrics while others were taking a break.  (Hart’s creativity makes the author’s choice of title somewhat strange, ill-fitting.)

I was eager to read A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL in hopes that it would be a satisfying synthesis.  What would its author make of the combination of Hart’s creativity and unhappiness?  What was it like to be a man in public view who thought of himself as unattractive?  What was it like to be a gay man who wrote memorable paeans in praise of heterosexual romance, to be sung in public by men to women and vice versa?  What might this book tell us about Hart’s apparently self-destructive behavior?  Having recently read and admired Michael P. Zirpolo’s MR. TRUMPET, his biography of the alcoholic genius Bunny Berigan, dead at 33, where Zirpolo successfully puts forth plausible explanations of Berigan’s drinking, gently and ruefully, I hoped that Marmorstein would do the same and more.

Alas, the book ultimately is only a collection of engaging anecdotes in chronological sequence.  One can learn what the Hart’s housekeeper and cook, Big Mary Campbell, said to Josephine Baker.  One can read how Hart would not let anyone else pick up the check.  One could buy Hart an overcoat in the boys’ department of Wanamaker’s.  We learn the name of the nurse who might have been at his deathbed.

Famous loyalties — Hart for Vivienne Segal — and emnities — Rodgers and Hart versus George M. Cohan — are entertainingly delineated here.  And the book rolls on, page after page, year after year, show after show, from Hart’s lyrics in summer camp to his final words on his deathbed, “What have I lived for?”  But the reader, closing this well-documented book, may feel that Hart, elusive in life, took his secrets with him.

Ultimately, Mary Cleere Haran’s rendition of THIS FUNNY WORLD sums up Hart far better for me — searching, wise, grieving — than Marmorstein’s book:

May your happiness increase.

MODERN SWINGMATISM: MICHAEL BANK’S BIG 7 at SOMETHIN’ JAZZ (May 5, 2012)

I first met pianist / composer Michael Bank about eight years ago and was impressed by his swing playing and his uncliched way of getting from A to B on the most familiar song.  He always swings and he always surprises — but in a sweetly nonabrasive way.  Often I heard him with Kevin Dorn’s bands, and he was not only a fine soloist but a perceptive, supportive ensemble player.  Most recently, I caught him, guitarist Matt Smith, bassist Murray Wall, and drummer Giampaolo Biagi at the Brooklyn jazz club Puppets, where he offered some standards but a number of intriguing originals.

I was delighted to learn that Michael would be bringing his “Big 7” (an octet, if you’re keeping track) to the very pleasant East Side jazz club SOMETHIN’ JAZZ — 212 East 52nd Street, between Second and Third — last Saturday, May 5, 2012.  I knew some of the members already: Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Murray Wall, string bass; Matt Smith, guitar; Steve Little, drums — and others were very pleasant surprises or affirmations of what I already knew: Sam Burtis, trombone; Mike Mullens, alto saxophone; Paul Nedzela, baritone saxophone.

Michael’s compositions often have elusive names but their melodies don’t run away from the listener.  And to my ears they inhabit a spacious universe that looks back to Willie “the Lion” Smith and off to the left to the Birth of the Cool, visiting the Keynote and the Vanguard studios, saying Hi to the 1938 Basie band and the 1940 Ellington orchestra — but without a hint of archaeology or “repertory.”  Modern swing is what I call it — and I am entirely aware of how those two words are weighted in jazz talk.  All I know is that I was smiling behind my video camera, with a multitude of delightful surprises entering my consciousness, and wanting to tap my foot.  You will hear why!

And — just to state what should be obvious — SOMETHIN’ JAZZ is a wonderful place to hear music.  I encourage listeners in the New York area to find this out for themselves.

The first of Michael’s wittily titled originals is MINOR CHANGES.  What a lovely sound he gets from his players!

Here’s SYNAESTHESIA, with a nice bounce.  If memory serves, that title refers to the magical cross-currents of sensory perception.  Marian McPartland said that to her the key of D was a color — daffodil yellow.  Lucky people who can taste their words as well as simply reading them (something jazz musicians do all the time):

LL 3 — featuring tombonist Sam Burtis, who peeks out from behind his music stand to make rich sounds:

How about something in honor of rabbits, Rabbits, and Rhythm changes?  COTTON TAIL:

One of Michael’s mentors — most rewardingly — was the pianist / composer / thinker Jaki Byard, and this is FOR JAKI:

And the next logical leap was to Byard’s swinging ONE NOTE:

After a break, the band reassembled for Michael’s own take on that March 17 anthem — here called simply IRISH EYES:

TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE is always a good thing!  Savor the lovely dark introduction:

Ellington’s GOIN’ UP — connected solidly to the previous song by a musical thread:

Michael’s next original is called DIASCHESIS (which — when I looked it up — means “loss of function and electrical activity in an area of the brain due to a lesion in a remote area that is neuronally connected with it).  I have to believe that the title is completely satiric: everything is functioning splendidly in this band!  And I told Michael that I knew big words too — like “delicatessen”:

And here’s a feature for the rhythm section, I HEAR A RHAPSODY:

I had to leave before the final selection was concluded — but it was a rocking blues, both reassuringly familiar and full of surprising curves and angles.

I love and admire this band.  In my ideal world — which isn’t that far from realization — they have a steady weekly gig and I can bring my friends to hear them . . . soon, I hope!

May your happiness increase.

SPONTANEOUS EXPERIMENTS IN BLUE at THE FAMOUS EAR (July 3, 2011)

Maybe it was all because of the blue lights at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) last Sunday night, that things took on such a loose experimental flavor.

More likely it was the presence of Scott Robinson — a free spirit who encourages others to drop their inhibitions in a corner and proceed bravely into unexplored realms.

And Scott brought three instruments: his familiar tenor saxophone, his Hungarian taragota (originally owned and played by Joe Muranyi) — that sounds like a cross between a soprano saxophone and something else, while resembling a thick clarinet — and his German Jazzophone, a trumpet of sorts that is bent into the shape of a curved saxophone . . . with two bells, one open, the other able to be closed off for muted hallooing sounds.

This isn’t to say that Scott ran over everyone else in the EarRegulars — it’s not his style — but he did inspire one and all.  The other players were Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jon Burr, bass; Joe Cohn, guitar; and guests Elana James (of the Hot Club of Cowtown) on fiddle and vocals; Tim Newman on bass trombone, and Vinny Raniolo on guitar. You’ll hear a good many playful conversations (especially between old friends Jon-Erik and Scott) that take us well beyond the ordinary excellence one finds at The Ear Inn.

Here are some highlights of a luminescent indigo get-together!

From the first set, a stirring COQUETTE that keeps thinking of P-TOWN, an original by guitarist Joe’s most esteemed father — Al Cohn:

An old favorite, MEAN TO ME, takes on a new shape as Jon-Erik plunges ahead and Scott brings out the taratgota:

IF I WERE A BELL (with two bells) is a showcase for the many lives of the Jazzophone:

And a rocking PERDIDO (the missed beginning is my fault; the surprise ending is no one’s fault):

The second set at The Famous Ear always has some surprises, and July 3 was chock-full of surprising, inventive players, two on “miscellaneous instruments.”

BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? sounds even more mournfully pleading when played on the taragota, you’ll agree:

SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET began as a feature for Tim Newman on the bass trombone.  Catch the Forties Ellington band riffs under him!

‘ZACKLY (or EXACTLY LIKE YOU for the precise) shows off the double talents — fiddle and vocal — of Elena Davis, one of the sparkplugs of the Hot Club of Cowtown:

DARK EYES had guitarist Vinny Raniolo, a real swinger, taking Joe’s chair:

And a closing BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA [with a goodly outing for the Magic Jazzophone] made me sorry that this evening (the band played for more than a half-hour extra . . . having a ball!) had to end:

When I dream about inspiration and creative camaraderie, I dream of the Ear Inn and anyplace else these players can be found!

JESSICA ROEMISCHER’S GENEROUS IMAGINATION

The imagination of pianist Jessica Roemischer is roomy and ranging.

At the keyboard, she creates cathedrals of sound: visible, tangible, not just audible.  Improvising on familiar themes — the blues, traditional melodies, folk songs, hymns — she may begin with plain-spoken melodic lines, simple chords.

She doesn’t rush; she doesn’t intimdate the listener by jumping into complexities before the music is ready for them.  She takes her time.  A murmuring, rumbling bass becomes more turbulent water.  Blue notes make themselves felt in surprising places.  Her harmonies deepen; her chords grow more dense, each sonority given its own space to echo before a new cluster tumbles in.  Single-note lines give way to arpeggios, creating impressionistic washes of sound and timbre.  Clouds and rippling pools emerge from treble and bass; simple lines and chords become a conversation, then an orchestra.

The listener sees something three-dimensional ascend towards the sky, its base solid, its foundation broad, its spires reaching upwards, large but never imposing.  And her improvisations settle and become more quiet; then, the listener is back on the ground, enriched and delighted.

I have heard and seen this in performance: she wove together the strains of SHENANDOAH and WALTZING MATILDA, slowing down the latter to match its American cousin, making the intertwined melodies both mournfully yearning and hopeful.  AMAZING GRACE moved from quiet simplicity to great cloud-rhapsodies of sound and back to an eloquent plainness.

Here is one version of AMAZING GRACE — but it is only one set of variations on a theme.  Roemischer is a true improviser, bravely venturing, her vistas unrestricted, but always honoring the melody and its harmonic richness.

Roemischer has a new solo CD, called HAVEN, which mixes traditional material, Sixties pop, Bruce Springsteen, and her own lilting originals.  It’s a rewarding series of journeys, inward and outward.  Visit her at http://www.pianobeautiful.com.

THE HEART OF THE SONG: ABIGAIL RICCARDS and MICHAEL KANAN (June 12, 2011)

Abigail Riccards and Michael Kanan inspire awe and wonder.

I experienced this first-hand in a small Brooklyn studio last Sunday, June 12, 2011, and share the music with you here. 

These two artists created music full of feeling but never “dramatic.”  Each song had its own pliant shape, with unaffected casual intensity and splendor. 

Abigail has a speaking directness.  Her mobile voice arches into long tones and soaring phrases; she lives within the lyric and the melody she is singing.  She makes each song full of small peaks of intelligence and emotion. 

Hear, for instance, how she handles the words “drop a line” in Wilder’s I’LL BE AROUND.  Her TOO LATE NOW is almost unbearably poignant yet it doesn’t whimper or carry on.  Her approach is at once serious and joyous.  BLUE SKIES cavorts. 

And although these songs are not new — each one has powerful ghosts standing behind the curtain to upstage the living artists — Abigail takes her own small liberties and makes them work, turning IN LOVE IN VAIN (one of the saddest songs I know) into something a little more resilient, in the same fashion that Billie Holiday recreated TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE as her own nearly defiant statement. 

Abigail’s singing touched everyone in the room: even in the videos here, you can feel their powerful quiet empathy and delight.  I hear a great artistry.

Michael is a poet at the keyboard with none of the pretense some have brought to that role.  I think often of Jimmy Rowles when he plays, and at times of the witty, pointed spareness of John Lewis.  Like Abigail, he never overacts, never calls attention to himself in some look-at-me way, but you can’t help but pay attention — both to what he is creating and what trodden ways he is wisely avoiding. 

His sound is lucent; his pauses are knowing and subtle; he is a master of light and shade and shadow.  At its most serene and quiet, his playing is resonant. 

The art of accompaniment might be the most arduous of endeavors, and Michael is the most generous of partners, sweetly creating just the right sound-shape to make the singer or players around him seem even better. 

And these two artists create a delicate yet powerful musical world in duet — their playful energies complementing each other.  They are gracious; they are polite; they don’t interrupt each other’s sentences, but together they make something wise and subtle and rich that wasn’t there a minute before. 

They offer and enact deep calm and brave experiment.

LUCKY TO BE ME:

TOO LATE NOW:

YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

IN LOVE IN VAIN:

THE MORE I SEE YOU:

I’LL BE AROUND:

I’M OLD-FASHIONED:

ALL THE WAY:

BLUE SKIES:

EV’RY TIME WE SAY GOOD-BYE:

Throughout this performance, I kept feeling it was an honor to be in the same room, a privilege to witness and record such art.  I still do.

“NOTHING BUT LOVE”: ROB HECHT, TAMAR KORN, GORDON AU, ROB ADKINS (May 19, 2011)

Walter Donaldson knew “what makes the world go round,” and it was displayed in many ways at Teddy’s (that’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York) on the night of May 19, 2011.

Violinist Rob Hecht (he plays a five-string fiddle) was joined by singer / actress Tamar Korn, trumpeter Gordon Au, and string bassist Rob Adkins for a few sets of familiar music made new. 

I was there with the Beloved. and UK comrades Sir Robert Cox, his wife Bobbie, and sons Tom and Ed — representing the Empire most happily amidst barbecued spareribs and appropriate beverages. 

Here are seven performances from that evening: musicians in love with the music, creative artists able to focus on making beauty in the midst of an amiable crowd enwrapped in their own conversations.  I make a point of the chatty crowd not to rebuke them — they’re used to background music. even if it’s coming from live musicians.  But I applaud the unselfconscious integrity and focus of these (and other) musicians who shut out the distractions and go straight ahead, sending beauty and swing into the world even if the world seems not to pay much attention.  Musicians know that there’s always someone listening . . . !

Here’s some optimism.  THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE (which we are reasonably sure will come again tomorrow morning):

Another kind of optimism is a little more didactic.  There’s only one thing to do, so WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

I suppose it’s hard not to take it personally, but YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, which Tamar sings with great good humor (and the verse!) rather than rancor or frustration:

Donaldson’s paean to domestic bliss, from whence this posting’s title comes, MY BLUE HEAVEN:

A sweet old-fashioned song (Wayne King’s theme), THE WALTZ YOU SAVED FOR ME, gets a beautifully delicate and convincing performance here:

STARDUST, a song that doesn’t grow old:

Do you run your hands / through silv’ry strands?  You might be BLUE, TURNING GREY (OVER YOU) or over someone:

Beautiful music, bravely made!

OUR IDEAL: MICHAEL KANAN and PETER BERNSTEIN at SMALLS (March 31, 2011)

Pianist Michael Kanan and guitarist Peter Bernstein created great beauty at Smalls (183 Tenth Street) last Thursday night. 

They are both intuitively gracious players, so the two chordal instruments (each its own orchestra) never collided, never seemed to overpower each other.  It was a sweet dance, a conversation, rather than a cutting contest — with lovely sonorities.  Michael and Peter decided at the start of the night to alternate song choices: one of them would begin a song and the other would fall in — a delightfully playful collaboration.   

The music they made was harmonically and emotionally deep yet it felt translucent, open. 

Hear MY IDEAL or the second set’s BALLAD MEDLEY.  Brad Linde, sitting next to me for a few numbers before going off to his own gig with Ted Brown, thought of Bill Evans and Jim Hall.  I thought of the Pablo duet of Jimmy Rowles and Joe Pass, CHECKMATE, of Tatum and Debussy, of a reverence for melody and harmony.  But to burden this music with words would be wrong.  Listen!

THE NEARNESS OF YOU:

YESTERDAYS:

MY IDEAL:

LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

PANNONICA:

WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?:

WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

NOBODY ELSE BUT ME:

BALLADS (Gone With The Wind, Too Late Now, Moonlight in Vermont):

DEWEY SQUARE:

An honor, a privilege to hear this music!

SWEET AND SAVORY at THE EAR INN (Nov. 21, 2010)

Consider an unadorned slice of toasted bread. 

Spread with blood orange marmalade, it becomes sweet.  Take another slice and add butter mixed with anchovy paste, the result is savory.  

Jazz musicians — who love to see how far the rules can be bent — have been merging the two categories for a century or more now, mixing heat with romanticism, swinging ballads about love lost and love found.  

The EarRegulars do this splendidly every Sunday night (8-11 PM) at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City).

Last Sunday (Nov. 21, 2010) was simultaneously remarkable and typical.  Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, Scott Robinson, and Greg Cohen are singularly in tune with one another, able to play with abandon and art, anticipating each other’s inventions, moods, turns of phrase.  Their unspoken connections are thrilling — rather like watching great imaginers who bounce off one another’s inspirations, having their say while building something larger than the four instrumental voices. 

Here are three performances.  The first is an exuberant version of MY GAL SAL — a sentimental song kept alive through the affection of a very few jazz groups who enjoy its possibilities:

Then, something I had requested: a ballad-tempo version of I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, where Jon-Erik remembered a Cootie WIlliams small-group recording.  The EarRegulars extracted every ounce of feeling from this sweet song (often done as a bouncy exaltation):

Finally, one of the once-familiar jam tunes (recorded memorably by both Bing Crosby and Eddie Condon, featuring Pee Wee Russell):

Inspired play — both jubilant and experimental, satsifying the senses then and now.

PETER ECKLUND’S MUSICAL WORLDS: “BLUE SUITCASE”

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

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

That’s better, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MICHAEL KANAN / JOEL PRESS: “THESE FOOLISH THINGS” (June 29, 2010)

I’m very moved by the performance you are about to see, and I feel fortunate to have been there to capture it: this comes from tenor saxophonist Joel Press’s gig at Smalls (138 West 10th Street) as a member of the Michael Kanan Quartet — with bassist Pat O’Leary and drummer Joe Hunt. 

For seven-and-a-half minutes, they explore THESE FOOLISH THINGS in the most gently questing way.  In the late Twenties (perhaps beginning with Bix and Tram) jazz players invented the “rhythm ballad,” a sweet melody taken at a slowly pulsing tempo.  (This song carries with it memories of Billie and Lester and Nat Cole, of course.) 

Michael, Joel, Pat, and Joe carry on the tradition here.  They honor the essential thread of emotion — this is, after all, a song about remembering love gone away — but they never get bogged down in it.  Michael’s introduction, delicately evoking players like Ellis Larkins, prepares us for an inquisitive duet, where he and Joel state the melody, exchange thoughtful comments on it, test it out, and then are joined by the quartet.  Joel, as always, speaks within and beyond the melody, with a casual seeming-simplicity that one does not grow into quickly.  Michael’s solo, never frivolous, smbodies the pleasure of a mature improviser who knows what it is to play.   Pat and Joe, listening as always, keep everything beautifully moving forward. 

Art like this doesn’t grow stale:

BUILDING CASTLES IN THE EAR (May 16, 2010)

Some people think that jazz performances are primarily strings of solos, and this is occasionally true.  But one of the deep pleasures of listening to this music is in the three-dimensional shapes that performances can take.  This kind of immediate, impromptu architectural construction can happen at a jam session, where the players don’t know each other well, or it can be the happy collective invention of a working band. 

In either case, while a listener is absorbing the movement from one chorus to the next, it’s easy to visualize a jazz cathedral being built.  Everything adds to the larger structure: notes and lines aren’t there solely for their own evanescent purposes, but they also function as parts of something far larger that is getting created before our ears and eyes.

This happened all through the night at last Sunday’s session at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street) by the Ear Regulars, who were (in the first set) Matt Munisteri (guitar) , Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Pete Martinez (clarinet), and Greg Cohen (bass).  For the second set, they were joined, off and on, by Dan Block (tenor), Alex Norris (trumpet), and Adrian Cunningham (clarinet).  To my ears, everyone played brilliantly — but a good deal of the credit for the lovely architectural shapes goes to Jon-Erik, who has quietly taken on the mantle of his and my hero, Ruby Braff — not only as a peerless player, but as a wondrous sensitive on-the-bandstand subtle orchestrator, making performances shapely and varied.  Pete Martinez was in burning form — his tone and attack on his Albert system clarinet is one of the marvels of the age.  Greg Cohen created one eloquent solo after another (no one has told him that the string bass is supposed to be less than orchestrally grand!) and providing fine support.  Matt Munisteri, once again, came through as one of the hardest-working men in music: never letting up, never coasting, either in rhythm or in fluid, tumbling lines.   

I’ve included a number of performances that particularly struck me as having an architectural glory.  See if you don’t agree!

Early on in the first set, they took on the pretty pop song (circa 1935) that everyone associates with Fats Waller, although he didn’t compose it.  (Later, Ruby Braff took it on, most deliciously.)  Its title is properly optimistic: I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES:

Then, a tongue-twisting novelty number identified firmly with Louis — who gave up on the lyrics early on in the performance.  I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS (“and you oughta see me do my stuff”):

And the concluding section:

Returning to Louis’s Hot Seven, here’s WILLIE THE WEEPER (whose lyrics describe the dream that Willie — he was a chimney sweeper — had.  I think Willie was under the influence of some illegal but highly uplifting substances, but since the Ear Regulars don’t favor us with a vocal chorus, you’ll have to investigate the text on your own).  Non-guitarists like myself might find Matt’s playing on this track unusual, but (as Jon-Erik pointed out) he’d broken a string and soldiered on heroically anyway.  Nothing stops our heroes!

In the second set, Dan Block brought his tenor sax, and they launched into a rollicking MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, complete with flourishes:

And (with trumpeter Alex Norris — he of the full, round tone — added) I’M CONFESSIN’, full of feeling:

If the Landmarks Commission only knew what beautiful structures were being erected on Sunday nights . . . !

LISTENING TO LOUIS?

I’ve just read David Rickert’s assessment of “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946)” issued by Mosaic Records in 2009, an essay published in ALL ABOUT JAZZ.  Rickert’s on the right path, but I found many of his statements confusing, even contradictory.  But before some eager commenters leap to his defense, I am not in the ad hominem trade, merely puzzled.

Here it is, unedited:

As far as recordings by trumpeter Louis Armstrong go, the Decca recordings don’t generate much interest. Prior to them came the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, the most influential jazz recordings ever made and the template for everything that was to come. Afterward came the superb pop recordings for RCA, which showed a masterful entertainer more respected for his vocal prowess than his trumpet playing. The Decca years represent Armstrong’s adolescence: a bit gangly, sometimes awkward, and filled with questionable choices amidst the bold assertions of identity. Part of the problem may be that the Decca recordings have been available somewhat helter skelter over the years. Who better to provide some coherence than Mosaic? The label has compiled everything that Armstrong recorded for Decca, brilliantly remastered from the original metal parts or discs, and with thorough liner notes from jazz veteran Dan Morgenstern to boot. With this seven CD set, it is finally possible to assess this set completely and perhaps more firmly establish them as the great records they are. Critics of these recordings gripe about the subpar quality of the song choice, which is surprisingly inferior given the astounding amount of good songs that were written at the time. A quick glance at the tracks will confirm this suspicion; there are quite a lot of second tier songs (you can often spot them just from the title.) At the time, Joe Glaser had recently become Armstrong’s manager and quickly obtained the services of Jack Kapp at the newly launched Decca label to record him. And record they did—166 tracks over 11 years that also span the infamous recording ban. Kapp saw Armstrong as a novelty act, someone whose numbers might be a little corny and superficial and easy on the ear. In this regard he had much in common with pianist Fats Waller, another mugger who recorded piffle. But also like Waller, Armstrong was always able to turn even the most insignificant material into something special, even if it wasn’t perhaps high art. He also correctly assumed that his performance would carry the material, and more often than not it did. There are some undeniable misfires here, such as a few numbers with a Hawaiian theme, and some gospel numbers, along with a few numbers like “When Ruben Swings the Cuban” that even Armstrong can’t redeem. But there are also quite a few numbers that Armstrong absolutely nails and turns into masterpieces, such as “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque,” “Tiger Rag,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Satchel Mouth Swing” and “Jubilee” proving that a terrific song and superb musicianship can always combine to make musical gold. Anther problem for some critics is the quality of the sidemen. There are really no stellar musicians on the stand, but rather serviceable sidemen capable of playing the charts and managing a decent solo when prompted. Clearly the focus here was on Armstrong and the rest of the band was only called upon to provide sturdy accompaniment and little else. Thus, unlike the Hot Five and Seven Recordings, there’s no pianist Earl Hines or trombonist Kid Ory to keep Armstrong on his toes and match his chops (although truth be told, few could keep up with him). The novelty here is hearing Armstrong navigate the world of big band coming from the smaller groups he had employed earlier. The recordings start out startlingly sweet and progressively get hotter, matched by terrific charts from Sy Oliver and Joe Garland. Armstrong was also paired with other artists from the Decca label such as saxophonist Glen Gray, reed player Jimmy Dorsey and bassist Bob Haggart, all white musicians, and pairings that helped erase the color lines that existed. There are also a few visits with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and a reunion with soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, as well as early appearances with guys like guitarist Dave Barbour who would go on to greater things. Oh yes, and the first pairing of Armstrong and singer Ella Fitzgerald. Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great. A sampling of the best of these records would show how truly great this period was. Mosaic’s warts and all approach necessarily includes some questionable material. But with the Mosaic touch, don’t be surprised if these recordings reemerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.

Rickert ends his piece generously: he won’t “be surprised if these recordings emerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.”  But he begins with the rather curious statement that these same recordings “don’t generate much interest.” 

I wonder if the second statement is a matter of commerce rather than artistic merit.  The Deccas were never reissued intelligently at home.  Rather, they came out in blurts, “Jazz Classics,” “Collector’s Items,” “Golden Favorites,” and several well-meanin but incomplete attempts.  It was left to Gosta Hagglof  to issue the Deccas logically and completely on CD.   

It’s always tempting to see a jazz artist’s career in terms of the progression of record labels, but in doing this, Rickert presents some debatable generalities.  The Hot Five and Seven recordings are “the most influential jazz recordings ever made”; the later Victor sessions produced “superb pop,” where Armstrong’s singing overshadowed his trumpet playing. 

How about the “influential jazz recording, BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and the “superb pop” of JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES or PENNIES FROM HEAVEN? 

Rickert’s underlying assessment of Armstrong’s career might be something like this: “Louis played pure New Orleans jazz up until 1929, and then was corrupted into “pop” commercialism, with short detours back to Eden when he recorded with homeboys like Bechet and when he played W.C. Handy.  But had he stuck to POTATO HEAD BLUES, what a body of work he might have created!  Alas, poor Satchmo!  I knew him well, before he became popular, that is.” 

This harks back to the ideological wars of the Forties, Moldy Figs arguing with Be-Boppers over whose music was “authentic,” over how one defined “the real jazz.”  I thought we were past those quarrels.

Louis didn’t elevate jazz to the pantheon while lamenting that he was forced to play “pop.”  I doubt that he ever complained in the studio, “Hey, Mr. Kapp, this is piffle you’re asking me to mug.”   

In fact, if you admire what creative improvisers do with their material, what could be better than Louis did with ON A COCOANUT ISLAND?  Did it take more inventiveness for Fats Waller to swing THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART than the MINOR DRAG?  I would think so, but for these musicians, it was all music.  Perhaps even trying to play WHEN RUBEN SWINGS THE CUBAN is a heroic act in itself, and the discographies of many revered jazz musicians show equally unpromising titles. 

To his credit, Rickert recognizes that Armstrong was able to “redeem” many of the song choices and make them “something special.”  But he may confuse the musician, the record company, and the song. 

It is easy to view Armstrong as a good-natured pawn in the hands of White manipulators Jack Kapp and Joe Glaser, Kapp coming in for special excoriation for trying to make Louis a “novelty act.”  But record companies then and now wished to sell records — and, after years when companies went bankrupt, one can hardly blame Kapp for trying to ensure broad popular success. 

If Kapp viewed Armstrong as a “novelty act,” he also did so with his best-selling and most popular artist Bing Crosby, who recorded an even wider range of material with great success.  And the idea of “questionable material” might be one that the artists rarely asked.  And the idea of good songs and bad might be undercut by the results.  Does Billie Holiday sound less like herself on WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO than on YESTERDAYS?  The genius of jazz musicians lies in their ability to transform and transcend the most banal material — it is only in retrospect that jazz critics, praising “forward-looking” and “harmonically adventurous” music, make such distinctions.  I GOT RHYTHM and the blues were perfectly satisfying for Charllie Parker and Sonny Rollins to improvise on.  So, rather than assume that nefarious forces compelled Louis to record SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, we should marvel at what he did with it.  (As an aside, some of his recordings I find most gratifying are the least “jazz-inflected”: consider his Fifties recording of TREES, for one.)    

Rickert, as I do, teaches English, and I admire his equating Louis with Shakespeare.  But I find what follows condusing: “Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great.” 

Should we care how many people admire a particular piece of art?  What has popularity to do with merit? 

And if Rickert could point out to me where “academia” and “Pottery Barn,” meet, I’d be grateful.  I’d even meet him at the clearance sale table.  I applaud the idea of Louis as King Lear — majestic, commanding the winds.  But I don’t think that Louis had to pass through suffering to arrive at true awareness: his music shows that he had reached a deep awareness early.

Ultimately, I wonder if Mr. Rickert was victimized by circumstances in writing his review.  Mosaic box sets — in this case, seven compact discs — are initially overwhelming, not well-absorbed in one or two hurried gulps.  I wonder if he was sent this box with perhaps two weeks to listen to it and write about it.  He would either have had to work his way through the set — rather like doing homework — or to listen to it in pieces, hoping to find the figure in the carpet. 

In either case, I admire his fairness: praising Mosaic, attempting to situate Louis in a cultural context.  But he’s missed some of the beauties of these recordings. 

It’s perfectly understandable to look back to Louis’s partnership with Earl Hines as a high point.  But the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings are in some sense artificial, because Louis never worked with those groups.  The Deccas, for better or worse, represent some of the material Louis was performing every day with working bands.  But to become nostalgic for Kid Ory is to neglect J. C. Higginbotham.  And if you’re looking for a musician perfectly paired with Louis, able to keep up with him and to spur him to new heights, I would submit that Sidney Catlett is the man. 

I would ask Mr. Rickert to listen to WOLVERINE BLUES for Catlett alone, to THANKS A MILLION and SOLITUDE for the beauty of Louis’s expressive singing and playing.  Follow that up with the sides recorded with the Mills Brothers, those dreaded Hawaiian sides, and more.  Only then can he or anyone get a true picture of Louis’s achievement . . . and that might take a good deal of time.

IN FRONT OF OUR EYES (Chautauqua 2009)

Here are songs from the very first informal set of music at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua, where we watched and heard our heroes create. 

People for whom jazz is a foreign language ask, “How do they do that, I mean, without music in front of them?  How do they know what they’re doing?”  The answer, of course, is a mix of skill, experience, and daring, beyond mastery of one’s instrument: knowing the chord changes to YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY is one preliminary step; knowing how to play whatever comes to mind another; knowing what not to play a third; having the courage to follow one’s impulses perhaps the final and greatest step.  No amount of immersion in the jazz tradition, no amount of studying recordings, can make up for an absence of courage and playfulness.

Inspired playfulness was evident all through the first set — with musicians who don’t always have the opportunity to get together and exchange ideas: Andy Schumm, cornet; Andy Stein, forsaking his violin for the baritone sax; Dan Barrett, trombone; Bob Reitmeier, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Vince Giordano, bass; Marty Grosz, guitar; John Von Ohlen, drums.  A close observer will notice a good deal of making-it-up-as-we-go-along here . . . which is not the same thing as uncertainty or tentativeness.  Rather, it is a willingness to invent while the car is in fourth gear, to say, “Let’s try this and not worry too much whether it’s perfect or not.”  That attitude can add up to train wrecks when less inspired players gather; here, it made some great loose playing possible.  You will notice, as a wonderful added benefit, the smiles on the musicians’ faces, their attentive listening to each others’ solos.  Viewers who like their videos uncluttered will have to get used to the backs of people’s heads in front of me — I could identify most of them as friends! — but their rhythmic bobbing and weaving doesn’t distract from the experience: it’s a pleasure to see the audience, attentive and quiet, but having a fine time.   

The first song is an exploration of a Twenties composition, attractive because its twists and turns aren’t overfamiliar: WABASH BLUES.  I admire the rocking motion of that rhythm section, at once intense and cool; Dapogny’s solo (it would have been perfectly in place in a Chicago joint circa 1933), Reitmeier and Barrett, building splendid solos out of logically-connected short phrases; Andy Schumm, rough-housing and tumbling around in his surprising Wild Bill Davison manner, and an especially impassioned Andy Stein — before the ensemble rocks it all out:

A trotting version of THE SHEIK OF ARABY ewcalled a Red Nichols-Jack Teagarden record of 1929, where Teagarden improvised a stirring solo over the band’s humming the straight melody behind him.  SHEIK is sometimes taken much faster; I admire this band’s steady lope:

Dan Barrett, like Duke Heitger, likes to begin performances of YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY with the rather-rare verse, and this performance took off from his outlining the brief melody.  This version tipped its collective cap to Louis and to the Bennie Moten band and its later Kansas City incarnations.  Barrett, suggesting that being driven crazy could be pleasurably romantic, quotes both SAY IT and the verse to LOVE IN BLOOM, with whatever associations imaginable:

I could write more about these performances, but I’m going to watch them again.  You come, too.

O RARE BENT PERSSON (and FRIENDS)!

Last night — Thursday, July 9, 2009 —  I witnessed the kind of jazz creativity and bravery that at times left me with tears in my eyes. 

The occasion was a concert organized by the Swedish trumpeter / cornetist / Louis Armstrong scholar Bent Persson, one of my heroes, in tribute to his hero Louis: “YOUNG LOUIS,” which — in two hour-long sets — demonstrated much about Louis’s first six years of recordings as well as the majesty of players now alive. 

The band was a stellar international crew: Mike Durham, tpt, joining Bent at the start and finish, as well as being a most adept and witty master of ceremonies; the gruff trombonist Paul Munnery; the brilliant reedman (clarinet and alto this time) Matthias Seuffert; the nimble pianist Martin Litton; the remarkable plectrist (banjos and guitar) Jacob Ullberger; the very fine brass bassist Phil Rutherford; the frankly astonishing percussionist Nick Ward.  The concert took place at the very modern Sage Gateshead in Newcastle, UK — lovely acoustics and a sound engineer at the back who was truly paying attention!  I attempted to videotape the whole thing (being a man of daring but not much discretion) but was stopped by an usher who whispered ferociously that there was NO photography of any kind allowed and I would have to leave if I continued . . . so I stopped.  But I did capture the band’s second song, a stately rock through King Joe Oliver’s WHERE DID YOU STAY LAST NIGHT? — much as it might have sounded in Chicago, 1922-23.  My video doesn’t capture everything — but you can see the graceful arcs of Nick Ward’s arms behind his drum set: I had a hard time taking my eyes off of him.   

Lovely as it is, that performance can’t summon up all of what I found so moving in this concert.  It wasn’t a pure repertory performance, where musicians strive to reproduce old records “live”; no, what was fascinating was the fervent interplay between the Past and Now, between the Great Figures and the living players onstage.  Everyone in this band knew the original records, but they were encouraged to dance back and forth between honoring the past by playing it note-for-note and by going for themselves.  Thus, Bent created solos that sounded like ones Louis might have — should have! — recorded, and his bravery and risk-taking were more than heartening.  I have never seen him in person, and he would give the most timid of us courage to learn the craft, to shut our eyes, and to make something new.  His playing on POTATO HEAD BLUES was immensely moving — watching him dare the Fates and declare his love for Louis in front of our eyes.  Bent also sang in several performances — mostly scatting, but once or twice delivering the lyrics in a sweetly earnest way — another example of an artist going beyond the amazing things we’ve already come to expect.  It was also delightful to watch the musicians grin broadly at each other as the beautiful solos and ensemble work unfolded.   

The concert moved briskly from Louis’s sojourn with Oliver to his work with Clarence Williams small groups, his own Hot Five and Seven, an evocation of Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards, Louis’s duet with Earl Hines, his Hot Choruses (as reimagined by Bent over a thirty-year period), with more than a few surprises.  One of them — gloriously — was the appearance of bass saxophone titan Frans Sjostrom for a version of BEAU KOO JACK by the trio called, so correctly, the Hot Jazz Trio (their one CD is under that name on the Kenneth label): Bent, Jacob, and Frans.  Wonderful both in itself and as a reinvention of that brightly ornate recording.  Sjostrom stayed around for the final ensemble celebration on HIGH SOCIETY, which brought tears to my eyes.   

I am posting this on Friday morning, hours before the Whitley Bay extravaganza — some 130 bands playing in rotation for three days in four simultaneous locations — is scheduled to begin.  There’ll be more magnificent, moving jazz, I am sure!  It promises to be both uplifting and overwhelming.  (And, as an extra delight, I am joined here by two of my three Official British Cousins — Bob Cox and John Whitehorn — men of great humor, generosity, and sensibility — whom I first met at Westoverledingen, Germany, in 2007, when we were rapt attendees at another Manfred Selchow jazz festival.  Always nice to have friends nearby!)

A postscript: at the concert, copies of an otherwise unknown compact disc were for sale — a recording of a similar YOUNG LOUIS concert from 2002, with many of the same players.  I snapped up one copy (paying for it, of course) and by the end of the concert, the CDs were all gone.  Let us hope that Bent and Co. choose to reissue that one and other versions.  I’m going to treasure it, as well as my memories of the concert I experienced.

BENNY VISITS “AVALON”

In the last few days I’ve been listening to the Benny Goodman Festival being broadcast on WKCR-FM (if you’re out of range of this New York City FM station, you can hear it online at www.wkcr.org).  Whenever I turn on the radio a Goodman small group is eagerly exploring AVALON at a jaunty tempo, a coincidence that both amuses and puzzles me.

BGNow, I don’t plan to accuse Goodman of being an aging artist caught in his own boredom, but the frequency with which jazz musicians return to their own narrowing repertoire of familiar songs to improvise on is worth comment.

I know that Hot Lips Page famously said (to whom?) “The material is immaterial,” and Bob Rusch has gently reminded me that jazz is about what one does with the material rather than the material itself.  “‘T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it,” sang Trummy Young.

And anyone brave enough to improvise in public at the tempos Goodman favored should, by law, have the right to choose his or her own favorite set of chord changes — no matter whether the improviser in question is Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, or John Coltrane.  But I’ve also heard some of the finest jazz artists turn in established solos on familiar pieces for their features, occasionally playing something quite moving, but more often falling back on set routine.  I think of Jo Jones’s CARAVAN, of Buddy Tate’s BODY AND SOUL, of Vic Dickenson’s IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD, and so on.

One could, of course, make the case that jazzmen have “master solos” and “polished performances” to fall back on, because improvisation is such a demanding art.  And Ricky Riccardi has made the point that Louis Armstrong’s versions of INDIANA that often began his later performances were anything but rote repetition.

But Benny himself (according to Ross Firestone’s sweet-natured biography) seems to have been dissatisfied with the music he played in his last decade, saying to someone, “You can’t play LADY BE GOOD forever.”  But he did play AVALON for fifty years.

Did he play it so regularly because it was a song he loved from his childhood (it first appeared in 1920)?  Did he return to it because it was one of his proven hits, a selection that his audience — sometimes made up of people who had cheered him on in 1937 — wanted, expected, and waited for?  Did he feel a responsibility to please the people who had paid to hear him with a medley of his Greatest Hits?  Or was playing AVALON something that gave him pleasure in itself — both as a stunning ride over the chord changes and as a way of making an exciting performance?  I can’t begin to say.

And some of the performances of AVALON I’ve heard on WKCR-FM are justly thrilling — not just in terms of technique and facility, but as musical expressions — evidence of an older artist still finding “something new to say” on a familiar text.  Some of them sound like Goodman playing at being Benny Goodman — with playing that is technically exciting but not especially creative improvised music.

The only time I was fortunate enough to see Goodman in person — at a great distance — was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 or 1975, with a truly all-star group including Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge (!).  Of course, the King offered us AVALON, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and DON’T BE THAT WAY to enthusiastic applause, but I was much more moved by Hackett’s choice of a feature number — an uptempo SECRET LOVE, which I can still dimly hear in my head as I write this.

Does this make me a snob for asking my beloved jazz heroes to “be original”?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if I had been able to ask Benny why he explored and re-explored AVALON, he would have said, “I like it.”  And that would have been enough, even for me.  Any artist who’s given us so much for such a long time is entitled to his idiosyncracies.

SIXTY-MINUTE MEN

The title refers to a famous rhythm and blues hit by Billy Ward and his Dominoes — a song that celebrates the romantic expertise of one “Lovin’ Dan.”  Having spent a very rewarding hour last night at Smalls listening to the eloquent jazz duetting of pianist Ehud Asherie and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, I award them the same praise — in musical terms. 

Jon-Erik and Ehud were supposed to play a set from eight to nine, but they got onstage ten minutes early.  That should tell you something about the pleasure these two friends take in their mutual improvisations.  And they began with a bouncy WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE.  Jon-Erik decided that the pastoral exploits of Maggie and her now ancient beau could only have been evoked accurately with plunger-mute growls and halloos.  We were off to a very eloquent start.  Ehud was in fine form, daring and playful, offering unexpected crashing chords and stabbing single bass notes that reverberated through the basement room.  Moving to the more tender Fats Waller composition, MY FATE IS IN YOUR HANDS, Ehud began with a thoughtful exposition of the verse.  Then they played the chorus, with Jon-Erik especially soulful on open horn.  On a jogging THREE LITTLE WORDS, Jon-Erik chose a metal mute and Ehud raised some eyebrows (happily) by referring to Bud Powell’s PARISIAN THOROUGHFARE. 

Ehud called for Eubie Blake’s LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, a truly delicate love song from the pioneering 1921 musical SHUFFLE ALONG.  (Incidentally, Ehud and Jon-Erik, who together know thousands of songs other players don’t or have forgotten, could plan a whole evening around the compositions of great jazz pianists.)  Eubie’s love song is often played at a nearly operatic tempo, but the duo gave it a Thirties bounce, as if imagining the recording that Mildred Bailey might have made of it in 1936.  (I imagine it as an unissed Vocalion side, myself.)

After a growly DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM (one of those Ellington songs everyone vaguely knows but few play), Ehud became “the band within a band” for a grieving, abstract reading of Billy Strayhorn’s A FLOWER IS A LOVESOME THING, with dark, affecting funeral-march chords in the bass clef. 

Jon-Erik returned for a trotting Burns-and-Allen LOVE NEST, homey and affectionate.  I NEVER KNEW had ornate trumpet lines weaving in and out of lush pianistic tapestries — Baroque music, swinging fiercely.  When it came time for the bridge of Jon-Erik’s second chorus, somehow BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN worked itself in there — a perfect fit, and Sholom Secunda would have been pleased indeed.  SOMEDAY SWEETHEART led to the closing song, Eubie Blake’s exultant I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY.  Before embarking on this romp, Jon-Erik turned to Ehud and asked, “What key are we wild about in?” a question surely applicable to other contexts.  Ehud knows the verse and shared it with us in rhapsodic style — then the two players shouted and pranced.  Which Harry we were celebrating I do not know, but I hope he was near enough to Seventh Avenue South to enjoy the tribute.  

Ehud and Jon-Erik made this a memorable hour — moving from peak to peak, from mood to mood without faltering or running out of inspiration.  Every minute counted, memorably.

LOUIS, 1947, CARNEGIE HALL, TRIUMPHANT

louis-1947

Exultant, too!  That’s Ed Hall on the left, Henderson Chambers on the right.  Was this taken by William P. Gottlieb?  It wouldn’t surprise me.  We owe the photographer heartfelt thanks.

What we owe Louis goes beyond words.

CREATIVE VIOLENCE?

wby1When I was in graduate school, deep in W.B. Yeats-idolatry (my other life has been wound around Irish literature), I admired “Under Ben Bulben”  — his great late poem — immoderately.  But I had very little patience for this quatrain, and wondered if Yeats had made the idea fit his rhymes.

Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

The slightly satiric visual image these lines suggested to me was of the artist as bullyboy, getting ready to wallop someone, the man getting dressed to go out with his ladylove, shaving in front of the mirror in tremendous annoyance.  And as I write this, I am listening to an old record of Johnny Windhurst ambling through a ballad-tempo “Memphis Blues”; he sounds utterly at ease.  And Yeats himself — in the famous photo here — looks more pensive than violent.

But I do know that the creative process, even for writers, is tension-producing, the effort of making something a tiring and often irritating thing.  Although we talk about “relaxation” as an ideal creative state and imagine that the string bassist playing those beautiful lines (I am thinking of Pat O’Leary at the Ear Inn last Sunday) is dreamily easeful, every muscle loose, this may be a fallacy.  I wonder if creative energy, productive anger and violence are much like sexual tension: that state of being ready for action, mildly edgy, on the brink of action.

But these lines came to mind again because Sam Parkins, sage and improviser, sent me something he had written about Louis and the emotional climate needed for creativity.  It also reminds us of Louis’s essential deep seriousness about his art, something that all the grinning pictures occasionally obscure.  Some readers might think that these two examples are atypical, but I wonder.  A great deal!

louis-somber-1

In all the voluminous writing about Louis Armstrong there is something elementary missing, and the minute I tell you about it you’ll agree.  I started looking for it about ten years ago, when I started researching him. Had to be there.  Violence.  The need for it comes at you from all directions.  His start in life, in the funkiest, most criminal part of New Orleans.  The stress of dealing with really bad racial stuff – from both sides, because he was darker than most, and would have got it from lighter folks as well as whites.

And something I know from myself.  When I get deeply involved in music, I go around slightly pissed all the time.  It generates a kind of energy that it’s a good idea to be aware of.  I noticed it only last fall when I had to play clarinet on a critical recording, including memorizing the book, and having to practice my way to more than competence in a hurry.  If you knew Zoot Sims, you would have been aware that it was always there – an undercurrent.  (Don’t take this to include all artists all the time – just a tendency).  But all the writing portrays Louis as this pussy cat.

So finally I found it.  In a recent book, “The Louis Armstrong Companion: 8 Decades of Commentary” (ed. Joshua Berrett, Schirmer Books, 2000), there’s a couple of prime examples:  1) Someone goes into the dressing room just in time to see Louis with his hands around his manager Joe Glaser’s neck – “Lissen motherfucker – if I find you’ve stolen one penny from me you’re dead”.

2) Just before the All Stars are about to go on stage, Louis flattens Jack Teagarden.  Knocks him out.  And goes on to announce sweetly, “Mr. Teagarden will not be able to be with us for this performance”.  (Doesn’t tell us why). I asked biographer James Lincoln Collier if he knew about this, because it’s not in his book. “Yes – I knew about it, but didn’t include it because I have to have something like that from two sources and there’s only one”.

SANTA’S ALCHEMICAL SECRET

As is her habit, the Beloved is listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s Christmas show on WNYC-FM, where his guests include Mandy Patinkin, Charles Osgood, Jay Leonhart, Steve LaSpina, Harry Allen, John Pizzarelli, Tony Monte, and Gene Bertoncini.  When the chatter comes to a graceful halt, Jonathan offers high-quality seasonal music, including tenor saxophonist Harry’s romp through “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” 

The Beloved, quite properly, was delighted with Harry’s performance.  But she asked me, “Do jazz musicians really enjoy playing such silly songs?” 

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is well-established in the American cultural landscape, ubiquitous, even.  I used to roll my eyes whenever it was played.  However, when I found out that it had been composed by J. Fred Coots, composer of “You Go To My Head” and “For All We Know,” I was able to feel more kindly towards the song.  Somehow it appealed to me that Coots should have made a fortune on this musical shred — enabling him to live comfortably and write far better songs.   

I answered the Beloved’s question by invoking the Sage of Corsicana, Texas, Hot Lips Page, who, when asked a similar question, reputedly said, “The material is immaterial.”  And Django Reinhardt, who surely knew something about improvisation, asked for the simplest theme from “Tiger Rag” as material to improvise on at a jam session. 

Like alchemists, jazz musicians inhabit a miraculous universe, turning junk into gold, often enjoying the vapidity of a piece of music because its three-chord structure allows them to improvise freely while the F, G7, and C are endlessly returning.  Think of the twelve-bar blues as the perfect example.  The freedom to create as one wishes — what a blessing!

But back to seasonal matters.  Between now and Christmas, I am always tempted to equip myself with a pair of earplugs when I go out in public.  I would be thrilled to hear Bing’s “White Christmas” once a day, but “The Little Drummer Boy” performed with funk underpinnings raises my blood pressure alarmingly.  So I propose two aesthetic alternatives for the season.

mark-shane-santaOne is the best, most jubilant jazz Christmas CD I have ever heard: Mark Shane (and his X-mas All-Stars, including Jon-Erik Kellso) on the Nagel-Heyer label, WHAT WOULD SANTA SAY?  It’s a CD I enjoy all through the year.    

The other piece of music is accessible online, as I found to my delight.  It’s a 1944 record made for the Savoy label, featuring the delightfully accomplished pianist Johnny Guarneri and the irreplaceable bassist Slam Stewart.  A truly irrepressible pair! 

The song — apparently improvised impromptu in the studio — is called SANTA’S SECRET, a jolly evocation of Fats Waller, who had died less than a year before.  It answers the pressing question, “What makes Santa so jolly?”  Whether Johnny and Slam were Tall when they recorded this I leave to scholars more erudite than myself. 

If you visit http://www.musicalfruitcake.com (which bills itself as offering the worst Christmas songs ever recorded — a position I don’t hold) and search for “Guarneri,” all should be revealed.  The link is genuinely troublesome, but it is alive and worth pursuing.      

In this holiday season and beyond, I hope that you are as happy as Johnny and Slam seem to be on that record.  And that you get to display your very own alchemical wizardries, even if you don’t play an instrument.

WORDS TO LIVE BY

Here’s a witty, deep meditation on art and creativity.

Charlie Parker told the reed player Bobby Jones: “First you master your instrument, then you master the music, and then you forget about all that shit and just play.”

Surely this applies equally to Faulkner and Kandinsky, Louis and Dave Tough. I would like to carve this axiom over the doors of the college where I teach, but I am sure that the Board of Trustees would object to the naughty word at the end.

I’m grateful to Dan Morgenstern for bringing these lines to my attention. (Dan deserves our thanks for a million other gifts, but this is his most recent one.) Dan knows a good deal about mastery — how the great artists worked so hard to achieve it — and has worked just as hard to catch it on paper.