Tag Archives: Debussy

GLIMPSES OF MEL POWELL

The pianist and composer Mel Powell (1923-88) was admired by so many of his colleagues in jazz: Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Buell Neidlinger, Ruby Braff, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett . . . Before his eighteenth birthday, he had composed and arranged for the Goodman band and held his own in what might have been the best (alas, unrecorded) rhythm section imaginable: Mel, Charlie Christian, John Simmons, and Sidney Catlett).  A child prodigy, Powell was playing professionally at Nick’s, then went on to study composition with Paul Hindemith.  And his obituary in the New York Times — correctly, I think — terms him an “atonal composer.”

For the moment, I will not explore the question of why Powell “turned away” from jazz (the phrase isn’t mine) except to suggest that his imagination, from the start, was more spacious than the music he heard.  Perhaps he feared what might happen to that imagination on a steady diet of easy chord changes in 4 / 4.

This post is meant only to remind or re-introduce jazz listeners to one of the most remarkable improvisers at the piano that the music has known.

Hearing Powell, one knows, in two bars, that a quirky, searching soul — a down-home Zen master — is at the keys.  Powell’s touch is enviable; he never falters or seems mechanical at the quickest tempo.  But what remains in my ear is more than technical mastery: it is Powell’s ability to sound translucent and dense at the same time.  In some ways, his solos shimmer and tease: the first impression says, “Oh, I’m just striding away, embellishing the melody.  I love Teddy and Fats, and here’s a slimmed-down Tatum run at a fifteen-degree angle.  Nothing up my sleeve.”  But then the rest of the tapestry comes into view, and we hear new harmonies, voicings that both delight and surprise.

Here are three YouTube presentations that will repay close attention:

The first is nearly painful in the suspension of disbelief it requires — Did someone in a film studio say, “It’ll be hilarious to give Benny Goodman bad heavy makeup and a fraudulent accent and cast him as a classical musician who knows nothing of jazz — then we can have him ‘get hip’ at the end”?  But this clip offers a young Mel — in Technicolor — among his peers, jamming on STEALIN’ APPLES from the 1948 film A SONG IS BORN, with BG, Lionel Hampton — and an “audience” of Louis, Tommy Dorsey, Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo:

The only visual here is a still photograph of an even younger Mel — the soundtrack being two of his 1945 solos recorded in France: POUR MISS BLACK and DON’T BLAME ME:

And finally, a March 1957 Perry Como television show, Benny Goodman, Mel, and Roy Burnes playing Gershwin:

A few glimpses of Mel Powell, who sounds like no one else.

I will, in a few months, have much more to say about the man and his imagination — with help from someone who knew him well.

May your happiness increase.

AT HOME WITH DAVY MOONEY: SEARCHING LYRICISM (April 4, 2012)

Guitarist / singer / songwriter Davy Mooney lights up the music wherever he is — playing obbligati to another vocalist, swinging the rhythm in the Grand Street Stompers, spinning out long lines in the fashion of early Joe Pass.  Before I knew anything about him, he had caught my ear.  And he is clearly more than simply a superb band guitarist, as his new CD, PERRIER STREET, proves.  On this Sunnyside CD, Davy is joined by Gordon Au, trumpet; John Cowherd, piano; Brian Blade, drums; Johnaye Kendrick, vocals; Matt Clohessy, bass; John Ellis, tenor sax and bass clarinet.  Here’s a link to find out more and to download the CD.

I missed Davy’s CD release party at the Cornelia Street Cafe, so I proposed a potentially radical idea: I could visit him at home, away from the crash of ice cubes and artificially-dramatic laughter, and record him at home.  He was more than amenable.  Here’s the result: tranquil readings of songs that often have dark messages.

The chiming melody and lines of CRIMSON:

PHELIA (with hints of a barcarolle, Thornhill’s SNOWFALL, and Debussy):

FIRST WORLD DEATH MARCH, a winning combination of jaunty melody and dark lyrics (when “righteous men choose the bloody way”):

The moody ONCE WAS TRUE: “all the voices in the sky are pleading,” a song about God losing faith in human beings:

A nearly hypnotic SWINGSET:

I’d asked Davy to play a “standard,” and he offered a nearly translucent LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE — but wait for the cadenza:

The spinning orchestral velocity of CENTRAL SUPPLY:

ALL OF HER, a “sad song,” secretly based on a familiar nursery rhyme:

Davy told me that his guitar is a semi-hollow seven-string archtop tuned to a low A, created by the Louisianan Jimmy Foster, who died in 2011.  What sounds he gets from it!

If any other improvising soloists want to arrange an at-home session, let’s talk!

May your happiness increase.

THE ELLINGTON MOSAIC, 2011

This post is a being written on the Duke’s 112nd birthday, but in my mind every day we can hear his music is a kind of birthday.  

I confess I am not an Official Ellington Idolator: you won’t catch me, here or elsewhere, referring to him as “the Maestro.”  But for me, his music accomplishes so many things that no one else’s did.  It exists at the intersection of Sound and Stomp, or beautiful tone-paintings and gutbucket rhythms.

Oh, I hear you saying — all jazz does that in some way. 

True, but Ellington knew how to balance both of those qualities so that neither obliterated the other.  And in his world the relentless plunging rhythms (think of Sonny Greer’s drums, Ellington’s smashing chords on the piano) enhanced the cloudlike auras of sound he loved — that saxophone section.  Debussy meets Sidney Catlett, both of them happy uptown.  And oone of the delights of his Thirties recordings is to hear him experimenting with the textures and timbres of “sweet music” mingled with distinctly vernacular sounds and rhythms. 

The apex of Ellington’s art — depending on which ideologist you choose — is commonly held to be the Victor period, specifically those two years when Ben Webster and Jimmie Blanton were illuminating the band — in the recording studio, at a dance date in Fargo, North Dakota, and more.  I think the music captured during that period is irreplaceable and unimprovable: MAIN STEM, the airshots, the pure sound and pulse of that band.  Across town, Basie and Lester and Buck, Walter, Herschel, and Jo, were accomplishing something of equal beauty and force, but Ellington’s Victors are something else!*

But the critical emphasis on those recordings has tended to flatten out the music that preceded that glorious period.  Until now, with the Mosaic set of the recordings for Brunswick, Master, and Columbia from 1932 to 1940, which I am listening to in astonishment and joy as I write these words.

A digression about Mosaic sets.  Some find them expensive, others are intimidated, and others say, “Gee, I have much of this music elsewhere.”  All these statements are valid reactions.  I felt differently about some of the sets that were objects I KNEW I had to have — the Buck Clayton Jam Session box, for instance, many years ago.

And I, like many collectors, thought all of the above — plus, “The sound on those cramped, stuffy Ellington Brunswicks was so irritating.”  This set transcends the limitations of the original 78s and the sound is bright (but never harsh) throughout; there is wonderful unfussy scholarship from Steven Lasker, and marvelous photographs.  There might be, perhaps, an Ellington collector who had managed to amass all of the 78s (including the alternate takes on Japanese Lucky), the Up-to-Date, Raretone, Blu-Disc, FDC microgroove issues . . . but who among us has been invited into George Avakian’s basement to hear and copy his previously unheard test pressings?

But the point of any Mosaic set is not, I submit, the six or seven new tracks.  It is the wonderful totality — all neatly bound up with a figurative bow, rather like having the best scholarly edition of Shakespeare you can find, or the complete DVD set of the Astaire-Rogers films. 

I used to hear a radio commercial for some very expensive watch, where the oleaginous announcer would intone, “You don’t buy a [insert name here] for yourself, you merely keep it for the next generation.”  It irritated me no end, because I am perfectly happy with drugstore timepieces, but in the case of the Mosaic boxes I understand the principle perfectly.  I hope to live long enough to have heard all the music in this set forty or fifty times, to have indulged myself in the sound of the reeds on DROP ME OFF AT HARLEM, the sound of Tricky Sam Nanton on IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, the slow-motion TIGER RAG that is SLIPPERY HORN, every note that Ivie Anderson sang, the bright splash of Sonny Greer’s cymbals . . . too many delights to enumerate! 

Here’s the link.  And the set is limited to an edition of 5000 copies; mine is number 3099 . . . does that suggest something about TEMPUS FUGIT?  Or, “What are you waiting for, Mary?”

*For the people whose musical world is bounded by Blanton and Ben — the final session on this elaborate banquet of a box set has them both, along with Ivie, singing a meltingly sad SOLITUDE . . .

WILLIE THE LION-HEARTED

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When I first discovered Stride piano, now about forty years ago, Willie “The Lion” Smith was a paradox – at once ubiquitous and inaccessible.  I bought a copy of his two-disc “Memoirs” in a now vanished Greenwich Village record store, and his autobiography was on the shelves of my local library.  Even better, he appeared twice on network television.  Once, he was Dick Cavett’s guest, turning Cavett speechless in response to the Lion’s inquiry if he spoke Yiddish.  That avenue having proven a dead end, the Lion then launched into a nearly violent rendition of what may have been “Here Comes the Band.”

The other occasion was one of those Sunday morning or afternoon documentaries purporting to explain jazz to the masses.  Whether the masses were attentive to this I don’t know, but they were offered one of the most unusual collections of idiosyncratic New York veterans imaginable: Wild Bill Davison, Tyree Glenn, Tony Parenti, Milt Hinton, Buzzy Drootin, and the Lion.

In retrospect, it does seem that Giants Walked the Earth in 1971.  But I arrived on the scene too late to see the Lion in person: his death in 1973 left Eubie Blake as official representative of the Good Old Days (able to sit down at the piano) .

Listeners only superficially acquainted with jazz of the great period might think it characterized primarily by rhythm, its unflagging beat taking precedence, its dynamic range Loud, its characteristic tempo Fast.  But the Lion’s music is a charming antidote, suggesting a pastoral world.  His rhythmic engines are never still, but both his melodies and his decorative embellishments are unusually elegant: no one sounds like him!  Consider the pensive delicacy of the opening strain of “Fading Star.”  Played at a slower tempo by a small string ensemble, it would fit neatly into a chamber-music concert.  The strains that begin “Rippling Waters,” although taken briskly, are ornate and lovely.  The compositions are marked by echoes of ragtime and turn-of-the-century parlor piano: multiple strains, tempo and volume changes, varied bass lines, dense interplay between both hands.  But this is not to suggest that he was Debussy with a cigar – “Rippling Waters” becomes a stomping test piece to send other pianists back to their keyboards in gloom. And for those who rate the Lion the least of the great Stride triumvirate of Johnson and Waller, I direct them to “Sneakaway,” which combines power, delicacy, and inventiveness.

The Lion recorded many times over a long career, and new performances are emerging on compact disc. He deserves our reverent attention.  I am delighted to find television performances by the Lion on YouTube: in particular, his performance on the BBC’s “Jazz 625” program from 1966, hosted by the late Humphrey Lyttelton.  Here’s the final portion, where the Lion faces a wildly enthusiastic audience and concludes with a gently rocking version of his own “Relaxin’,” memorably.