Tag Archives: Dennis Lichtman

VIVIDLY ALIVE: THE BRAIN CLOUD, “LIVE AT BARBES”

I adore the surprises that happen at jam sessions or when musicians are asked to play alongside each other in new combinations, but Heaven smiles on that rare entity, a WORKING BAND.  The Brain Cloud, led by Dennis Lichtman (clarinet, violin, mandolin, and more) is such a remarkable entity — and they’ve just released their third CD, “Live at Barbes.”

Photo by Seth Cashman

Here’s a sample: music does speak louder than words!

Dennis Lichtman and all the members of the Brain Cloud have created the world’s most swinging, melodic “safe space”: which is to say, a place where all kinds of lyrical music are welcome to flourish — not historical or archaeological, but alive now.

Once upon a time, we know, there was just MUSIC — a beautifully undulating landscape as far as we could see.  Then, people looking to sell product — journalists, publicists, record company executives, even some musicians — came and divided the landscape up into little fiefdoms whose occupants glared at one another.  The Brain Cloud suggests that a return to the prelapsarian world is possible: imagine a record store where The Carter Family and Benny Carter are friends, where Lester Willis Young and Bob Willis share a drink, a cigarette, and a story.  Or a place where double-entendre blues sit in the same pew as hymns, where “Dixieland,” “roots music,” “Americana,” all those dazzling names for what is essentially the same thing, coexist beautifully, because they are all only music that has stories to tell and in the telling, enlightens the listener.

Photo by Tom Farley

To the music: as you can hear and see above, the opening track on this CD, JEALOUS HEARTED ME, is no academic exercise: a Carter Family song, it reminds me of rocking Fifties rhythm and blues, with an outchorus that would equal any Eddie Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  The expert Merrymakers here are Dennis Lichtman, clarinet, mandolin, fiddle; Tamar Korn, vocal improvisations; Skip Krevens, guitar, vocals; Raphael McGregor, lap steel guitar; Andrew Hall, string bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.

Each track is wonderfully itself — the CD isn’t a monochromatic blur — but each is a joyous lesson in the merging of “styles.”  So aside from the “roots” classics — venerable as well as new (from Jimmie Rodgers and Patsy Cline) — there’s Alex Hill’s YOU WERE ONLY PASSING TIME WITH ME (hooray!) and the 1939 Broadway song COMES LOVE and the Twenties LONESOME AND SORRY and IF YOU WANT THE RAINBOW.

Since the Brain Cloud has had a long residency at Barbes (on Monday nights) there is a delightful mix of exuberance and comfort.  Everyone’s made themselves to home, as we might say.  And — in case you worry about such things — the recorded sound is excellent.  Those who have been to Barbes already have multiple copies of this disc; if you’ve never made it into Brooklyn for such frolics, you’ll want your own copy.  And on a personal note: listening to the Brain Cloud has helped me to drop my own narrow suspicions of music that I didn’t think was “jazz,” always a good thing; I’ve been following them since 2009, and this disc is a wonderful encapsulation of what the band does so well.

Here you can find out more about the Brain Cloud, hear more music, buy this disc, or a download, or even as a limited-edition cassette.  And more.  Don’t just sit there!  Move that cursor!

May your happiness increase!

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“SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON”: TAMAR KORN, GORDON AU, DENNIS LICHTMAN, JARED ENGEL, CRAIG VENTRESCO at the LOST CHURCH (June 8, 2013)

In the dozen years I’ve lived here, my apartment has slowly morphed into a combination library / computer workshop / recording studio / and who knows what, based in the living room, with various effusions of CDs, books, external hard drives, cassettes, photographs — generally confined to the living room.  To my left, cassettes from the late Seventies on; to my right, a four-speed phonograph with (as I write) a Jess Stacy Commodore 78 of RAMBLIN’ and COMPLAININ’ on the turntable, adjacent to a newer stereo system.  Also on my left, long-playing records and hard drives; to my right, a wall of CDs.

There are rules: a new CD will migrate to the kitchen counter, but it knows it shouldn’t be there and it tends to hide and look abashed when discovered.  The bathroom and bedroom are off limits to music-infestation.  No, don’t ask for photographs.

But having JAZZ LIVES since February 2008 is like living inside a giant multi-sensory photograph album.  Insubstantial in some ways, seriously substantial in others.  I’ve posted nearly six thousand videos on YouTube, which means I’ve been a busy tech-primate.  And some more videos haven’t been posted, so the bits of information are thick in this one-bedroom palace of sound and sight.

Photograph by Michael Steinman

Every so often I want to hear and see something that gave me pleasure several times: at the moment of experience and, later, in writing about it, posting it, and enjoying it.  One that came to mind today was a performance I witnessed and savored in California at San Francisco’s The Lost Church, almost four years ago: Tamar Korn, Craig Ventresco, Jared Engel, Gordon Au, and Dennis Lichtman — mellowly celebrating the lunar power of love with SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON:

Awfully sweet, this speaks of a world where young people could ask the cosmos for help in romance and receive it.  Life before phones.

I will indulge myself in this again, and I encourage you to do so also.  When I take a day off from blogging, the search bar on front page will lead you to treats.

May your happiness increase! 

“SYNCOPATED CLASSIC”: GREG RUBY AND THE RHYTHM RUNNERS PLAY FRANK D. WALDRON

Frank D. Waldron wasn’t well-known outside the Seattle area, but the music he composed nearly a century ago is memorable.  Greg Ruby and the Rhythm Runners have brought Waldron’s quirky, lively music to life on a new CD.

As Greg tells us in the video above, Waldron’s music is an unearthed treasure. And the band he assembled to play it is superb: Gordon Au, Dennis Lichtman, Charlie Halloran, Cassidy Holden, Julian MacDonough, and himself — with Mike Marshall as a guest on two tracks.

As you’ve gathered from Greg’s video, the project needs funding to reach completion: see here or visit Kickstarter here — where you can contribute the smallest amount and get a tangible reward.  “Every dollar helps a lot.”

I am writing this post for reasons both selfish and altruistic.  First and perhaps most plain: the music is rewarding as a series of surprises: truly idiomatic previously-unheard compositions.  Of course there are Twenties and Thirties songs we haven’t heard before, but people deeply involved in this music know a wide range of compositions.  Waldron’s music has what they would have called “pep,” and it’s not a matter of being a series of rapid one-steps.  Rather, his compositions have memorable melodies, unpredictable turns, and multiple strains.  This CD is the equivalent of finding a folio of new Morton or Parham songs.

And, as I’ve written here, since there are few working bands with fixed personnel these days, the repertoire has understandably narrowed to “something everybody knows,” and that can make for monochromatic performances.  I dream that Greg’s work will stimulate a Waldron revival.

Second, music is more than its notation.  Greg’s Rhythm Runners are a superb group — musicians who respect the compositions but let their individual personalities come out sweetly and convincingly.  I was delighted by Greg’s first CD, WASHINGTON HALL STOMP, which I wrote about about here (and the personnel on that CD is the same as on SYNCOPATED CLASSIC).  I’d like to see this band prosper.

New music, estimable young musicians, a delightful — and well-recorded / well-produced new CD.  I encourage you to support this project.  And Frank D. Waldron thanks you as well.

May your happiness increase!

THE GRAND ST. STOMPERS: “DO THE NEW YORK”

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Late last year, Gordon Au, — trumpeter, arranger, composer, bandleader, writer, thinker, scientist, satirist, linguist — sent me the digital files for the second CD by the Grand Street Stompers, DO THE NEW YORK, and I wrote back to him, “I am listening to DTNY (three tracks in, so far) and I love the mad exuberance and deep precision of the first track — a Silly Symphony, urban and hilarious and wonderfully executed. It’s a pity that the mobs no longer have transistor radios anymore, because each track could be an AM hit.”

Having listened to the disc several times by now, I stand by my initial enthusiasms.  But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that zaniness overrides music.  The compositions and performances are a lavish banquet of sounds and emotions: you won’t look at the CD player and think, “How many tracks are left?” at any point.

If you know Gordon Au, Tamar Korn, Molly Ryan, Kevin Dorn, Dennis Lichtman, Matt Koza, Matt Musselman, Nick Russo, Rob Adkins (and not incidentally Peter Karl, Kelsey Ballance, Kevin McEvoy, Barbara Epstein) you won’t need to spend a moment more on what I say.  Scroll down to the bottom of this long post and read Gordon’s notes, purchase, download: let joy be unconfined.

But I shall tell a story here.  Jon-Erik Kellso has been a very good guide to new talent: through him, for instance, I heard about Ehud Asherie.  In 2009, I arrived at The Ear Inn for a night of musical pleasure, and Jon-Erik told me he’d just finished “giving a lesson” to a young, seriously gifted trumpeter named Gordon who had wanted to study some fine points of traditional jazz performance practice from an acknowledged Master.  This young man would be at The Ear later.  And the prophesy came to pass.

Gordon’s trumpet playing was deliciously singular: he wasn’t a clone of one player or seven.  Climbing phrases started unpredictably and went unusual places; a solid historical awareness was wedded beautifully to a sophisticated harmonic sense, and everything made sense, melodically and emotionally.  He showed himself a fine ensemble player, not timid, oblivious, or narcissistic. When the set was over, we spoke, and he was genuinely gracious (later, in California, when I met his extended family, I understood why) yet with a quite delightfully sharp-edged wit, although he wasn’t flashing blades at me.

I began to follow Gordon — as best I could — to gigs: he appeared with Tamar Korn and vice versa; he took Jon-Erik’s place with the Nighthawks; he played with David Ostwald at Birdland . . . and soon formed his own group, the Grand Street Stompers.

(Gordon abbreviates “St.”; I spell it out.  My perversity, not his.)

Often I saw, and sometimes I videoed them at Radegast, then elsewhere — as recently as last year, when they did a remarkable session at Grand Central Station, surely their place on the planet.  Thus, as “swingyoucats” on YouTube, I’ve captured the band (releasing them, of course) on video for six years.

They are uniquely rewarding — a pianoless group that expresses its leader’s expansive, often whimsical personality beautifully.  Even when approaching traditional “traditional” repertoire, Gordon will take his own way, neatly avoiding piles of cliche in his path.  Yes, MUSKRAT RAMBLE — but with a Carbbean / Latin rhythm; yes, a Twenties tune, but one reasonably obscure, SHE’S A GREAT GREAT GIRL. Gordon’s compositions and arrangements always sound fresh — and they aren’t pastiches or thin lines over familiar chords — even if I’ve heard the GSS perform them for years.  And there are other wonderful quirky tangents: his love of Disney songs, the deeply refreshing ones, and his devotion to good yet neglected songs — the title track of this CD as well as WHILE THEY WERE DANCING AROUND on the group’s first CD.  And, I think this a remarkable achievement, with Gordon’s soaring lead and a beautifully-played banjo in the rhythm section, the GSS often summons up an early Sixties Armstrong All-Stars, all joyous energy.

A few more words about this CD.  Although one can’t underestimate the added frisson of hearing this band live — perhaps surrounded by dancers or dancing oneself, in a club, perhaps stimulated by ambiance, food, or drink . . . I think the experience of this disc is equal to or superior to anything that might happen on the spot.

Owing to circumstances, the GSS might be a quintet on the job; here it is a septet: trumpet / cornet; clarinet; soprano saxophone; trombone; banjo / guitar; string bass; drums; two singers.  This expansive array of individualists allows Gordon to get a more delightfully orchestral sound.  Even as a quintet, on the job, the GSS is a band and a working band at that: their performances are more than a series of horn solos, for Gordon has created twists and turns within his arrangements: riffs, backgrounds, trades, suets between instruments, different instruments taking the melodic lead — all making for a great deal of variety. Each chorus of a GSS performance feels satisfyingly full (not overstuffed) and delightfully varied.

And now I come to the possibly tactless part of the comparison between studio recording and live performance. With some bands, the studio has a chilling effect: everything is splendid, but the patient has lost a good deal of blood.  And the impolite truth is the a group like the GSS performs in places where alcohol is consumed, so the collective volume rises after the first twenty minutes.  Buy this disc to actually hear the beautiful layering and subtleties of the group that you might not hear on the job.  Or just check it out for the sheer pleasure of it all.

Sound samples, ways to purchase a physical disc or download one (complete or individual performances) here — and Gordon’s very eloquent and sometimes hilarious liner notes here.

Listen, read, enjoy, savor, download, purchase.  As Aime Gauvin, “Doctor Jazz,” used to say on the radio, “Good for what ails you!”

May your happiness increase!

PRESENTING DENNIS LICHTMAN AND HIS ALL-LICHTMAN ORCHESTRA!

When I first met Dennis in 2009 at the now-quiet Banjo Jim’s in New York City, we were both younger, and he was restricting himself to clarinet, mandolin, and fiddle, as an integral member of the Cangelosi Cards.

dennis-lichtman

Now see what he’s done!  This video seriously goes where no musician has gone before, and it outdoes Sidney Bechet’s One-Man Band in several ways.  In it, Dennis composes a paean to his musical development, sings, cavorts, and plays violin, clarinet, guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo (and he avoids the difficult non-rhyme), C-melody saxophone, and a few surprises:

Credit where credit is due:

Dancers:  Amy Johnson and Laura Manning.  Band:  Jason Jurzak, Russell Welch, Ben Polcer.  KILLER KOWALSKI PRODUCTIONS.  Director of Photography & Editor: Michelle Nicolette Kowalski.  Production:
Danielle Elizabeth / Tamara Grayson / Russell Welch / Jason Jurzak / Simon Lever / Kerry Genese / Bobby Bonsey / Camila Santos.  Special thanks to Welbourne Farm and Inn and Welbourne Jazz Camp.  http://www.welbourneinn.com / http://welbournejazzcamp.com  © 2016 Triple Treble Music, all rights reserved

It is terribly unsubtle of me to write this, but the festival promoter or club booker or what have you who can see this video and not think, “I ought to hire this fellow.  Think of all the talent I can snag for one salary!” is someone I can’t imagine.  Find Dennis here or here to make those connections.

Keep on keepin’ on, Dennis.  You’re no fool.  Thank you for the joy and the sounds.

May your happiness increase!

“I GIVE UP!” TIMES TEN

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Is surrender capitulating to an enemy, saying “I give up.  You are stronger.” or is it an enlightened act, a realization that there are powers we can’t conquer and that the idea of conquering anything is futile?

I SURRENDER DEAR

I’ve always found I SURRENDER, DEAR — so powerfully connected to Bing Crosby — both touching and mysterious.  As Gordon Clifford’s lyrics tell us, the singer is saying, in effect, “Take me back. Here is my heart.  I give up all pretense of being distant.  I need you,” which is deeply moving, a surrender of all ego-barriers and pretense.  But I’ve never been able to figure out whether “Here, take my heart,” is  greeted with “I’d love to welcome you back,” or “No thanks, I’m full.”  Other songs hold out the possibility of reconciliation (consider IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE or WE JUST COULDN’T SAY GOODBYE) but this one ends unresolved.  It’s also one of those songs that lends itself to a variety of interpretations: both Bing and Louis in the same year, then a proliferation of tenor saxophonists, and pianists from Monk to Garner to Teddy. And (before the music starts) probably thanks to Roy Eldridge, there’s also an honored tradition of slipping into double-time.

I_Surrender_Dear_(1931_film)_advert

Here, however, are ten versions that move me.

January 1931: Bing Crosby with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra.  Note the orchestral flourishes:

Later that same year: Victor Young and the Brunswick Concert Orchestra, featuring Frank Munn, not enough of the Boswell Sisters (acting as their own concert orchestra) and a few seconds of Tommy Dorsey.  I think this was an effort to show that Paul Whiteman didn’t have a monopoly on musical extravagance, and I’ve never seen a label credit “Paraphrased by . . . “.  I also note the vocal bridge turns to 3/4, and Munn sings “are doing” rather than “were doing,” but we wait patiently for the Sisters to appear, and they do:

Imagine anyone better than Ben Webster?  Here, in 1944, with our hero Hot Lips Page:

Forward several decades: Joe Venuti, Zoot Sims, John Bunch, Milt Hinton, Bobby Rosengarden 1975:

1978 — a duet of Earl Hines and Harry Edison:

Raymond Burke, Butch Thompson, Cie Frazier in New Orleans, 1979:

and something I was privileged to witness and record, flapping fan blades and all, from February 2010 (Tamar Korn, Gordon Au, Dennis Lichtman, Marcus Milius, Debbie Kennedy):

Ray Skjelbred, Marc Caparone, Jim Buchmann, Katie Cavera, Beau Sample, Hal Smith, at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2014:

Nobody follows Louis.  1931:

and the majestic version from 1956:

A little tale of the powers of Surrender.  In years past, I would drive into Manhattan, my car full of perishables, and search for a parking spot.  Of course there were none.  I could feel the gelato melting; I could feel my blood pressure rising contrapuntally.  Frustrated beyond belief, I would roll down my window and ask the Parking Goddess for her help.  “I do not ask for your assistance that often, and I admit that I cannot do this on my own.  I am powerless without your help.  Will you be merciful to me?”  And I would then circle the block again and a spot would have opened up.  My theory is that such supplication works only if one is willing to surrender the ego, the facade of one’s own power.  Of course it has also been known to work for other goals, but that is an essay beyond the scope of JAZZ LIVES.

For now, surrender whole-heartedly and see what happens.

May your happiness increase!

“RELENTLESS JOY”: GREG RUBY and THE RHYTHM RUNNERS

GREG RUBY RHYTHM RUNNERS

In this century, ensembles devoted to the music so popular in the Twenties and Thirties have several choices as far as repertoire.  One is plain: take the most-loved songs, those most closely associated with the idiom, and whether the band’s approach is reverent or extravagant, the songs are waiting.  ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE, SINGIN’ THE BLUES, STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, MILENBERG JOYS, and so on. Audience recognition comes along with this repertoire, although so does the possibility of comparison.  And there is the possibility of over-familiarity, although as Doctor Johnson said, “When a man is tired of TIGER RAG, he is tired of life.”  Or words to that effect.

The second choice requires more digging: going back into the Twenties and Thirties repertoire for songs both beautiful and possibly obscure: TWO TIMES, CROCODILE CRADLE, CAFE CAPERS, CLOUDY, WHEN YOU LEAVE ME ALONE TO PINE, and a thousand others. One might have to take a minute to instruct an audience, and some audiences weary quickly of the necessity of listening closely, but this broadens the repertoire.  (There are fascinating treasures to be found here . . . read on.)

A third choice (and there might be a fourth and fifth) is to compose new songs with all the delightful flavor of the era being celebrated.  When this is done superficially, the results are forgettable; when it’s done well, it’s delightful on several levels.  Gordon Au has succeeded here, and now Greg Ruby is doing a lovely job of merging 2016 and the Twenties.  Greg is a fine acoustic guitarist, creating memorable solos and gently driving any band with great rhythm playing.  And here’s his debut CD as a leader of the Rhythm Runners.

It might be too unsubtle at this point to write, simply, BUY IT, so I will offer more evidence.

GREG RUBY cover one

The evidence is here, in a very pleasing March 2016 KPLU-FM interview and performance by the Rhythm Runners who are Greg, guitar / arrangements / compositions; Gordon Au, trumpet; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Cassidy Holden, string bass; Julian MacDonough, drums.

If those names are familiar, you have been doing your JAZZ LIVES homework. If not, there’s always remediation.

Listen and be delighted.  (The only thing missing in this audio gift is the name of the host, who is certainly hip and knowledgeable.  Bravo to him and to the band.)

And you can hear more sound samples from the actual (beautifully-recorded) CD Sound samples: here.

That would be enough to please me: a great band playing new songs that sound comfortably “vintage” with no hint of artifice or superficiality.  But there’s more. If you hail from any place that isn’t Seattle, I’d guess you’ve never heard of Franklin D. Waldron, multi-instrumentalist and the early teacher of Quincy Jones and Buddy Catlett, among others.  Waldron, legendary and obscure, never recorded: record companies didn’t know there were musicians in Seattle worth the trip until the Forties.  Below is a photograph of Waldron, on cornet, circa 1915, with the Wang Doodle Orchestra (courtesy of the Black Heritage Society.)

Greg explains in the interview how he’d come to learn about Waldron, and about SYNCOPATED CLASSIC, Waldron’s 1924 book of original compositions for saxophonists — and how he ended up with a copy of that book.  If this is sounding a little like someone’s dissertation, be not alarmed — for three of the songs on the CD are Greg’s reimaginings of Waldron lines for band, and they are quite refreshing.  Greg plans to do more with the Waldron book, and I look forward to the musical results: hot lively compositions from 1924 that have instant validity and (in Greg’s hands) delicious energy.  Here‘s more about the Waldron project.

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That’s all you need to know.  The CD is joyous, with world-class players and swinging originals; it truly expresses “relentless joy,” a coinage of Greg’s (at 29:45).

Greg, when and if you come to New York City again, do let me know.  I’d be honored to salute you in person.  And for the rest of you, check Greg’s site to find out when and where his groups are playing.

May your happiness increase!