Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

“THAT AMAZING MUSIC”: PHILLIP JOHNSTON and the SILENT SIX at SMALLS (November 27, 2018)

Phillip Johnston and friends create music that’s unpredictable but rooted, surprising but deeply immersed in his own versions of the jazz tradition.  I had the good fortune to sit right in front of his Silent Six (a whimsical monicker) at Smalls in Greenwich Village last November, and can share with you a number of wonderful highlights.

He began the evening by discussing his recent joyous study of the music of the Twenties and Thirties, focusing on Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Don Redman, and you will hear compositions by Louis and the Duke below, elevated by the same exploratory imaginative spirit that animated their creators.  (Sometimes we forget that POTATO HEAD BLUES was a brand-new tune in 1927, rather than a hallowed artifact of Hot.)

Phillip described the compositions and arrangements of that period as “that amazing music,” completely modern, larger than categories.  Hearing the Silent Six, you realize that he is also (without being immodest) describing what it does in this century.

The Silent Six is Phillip Johnston. soprano and alto saxophone; Joe Fiedler, trombone; Mike Hashim, baritone saxophone; Neal Kirkwood, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Rob Garcia, drums. Philip originally formed the NYC-based Six to perform live in WORDLESS!, his multi-media film/music/lecture collaboration with Pulitzer-Prize winning illustrator and graphic art historian Art Spiegelman that had its 2013 debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and continues to tour worldwide.

And now for some music from Smalls.  Attentive listeners will hear deep roots: blues, shuffles, variations on familiar harmonic patterns, all performed with vigor, looseness, and wit — over irresistible dance rhythms, the result a series of surprises that immediately become comfortable.

Louis Armstrong’s POTATO HEAD BLUES:

Ellington’s AWFUL SAD:

Phillip’s DUCKET’S GOT A WHOLE IN IT (identified as a “deep shuffle”):

and his own LATER:

Phillip’s HOFSTRA’S DILEMMA (for stalwart string bassist Dave):

TEMPORARY BLINDNESS:

PLANETELLA ROCK:

Phillip also has two new CDs for us — DIGGIN’ BONES and THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED.  You can read reviews of them here.  Learn more / buy DIGGIN’ BONES here; for more about ACHMED, visit here.

This post is for Maurice Kessler, gig-friend extraordinaire.

May your happiness increase!

 

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FOUR-FOUR RHYTHM: KRIS TOKARSKI, JONATHAN DOYLE, LARRY SCALA, NOBU OZAKI, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 24, 2017)

Jazz at Lincoln Center (and JazzTimes) just sent an announcement about the 2019 Jazz Congress, January 7-8, 2019 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, New York, New York.  One panel is:

 Jazz, Swing, Race and Culture
Considering swing as a rhythm or swing as a feeling or a verb, what are the social, cultural, and racial factors that affect individuals’ perception, acceptance or rejection of the concept? Player[s] and thinkers ponder what swing means in 2019.

I doubt that it will happen, but in my ideal world, the player[s] and thinkers at JALC will watch these videos before pondering.  The music was created in 2017, not 2019, and there are other ways to swing, but what Kris and his Gang did was genuine and might eliminate some theorizing.

These four performances come from a magical band that made a splash at the 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest: Kris Tokarski, piano; Jonathan Doyle, clarinet / tenor saxophone; Larry Scala, guitar; Nobu Ozaki, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  I could spend paragraphs pointing out resemblances and echoes of the Ancestors (you’re free to chase such things at your leisure) but I’d rather you admire these living heroes at play, and such expert play.

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME:

REPEATER PENCIL (and, yes, such a thing did exist: see here):

DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM:

JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS:

Festival organizers, club bookers, concert promoters with taste: now’s the time!

Incidentally, this is the charming 1929 record from which I take my title:

May your happiness increase!

“LOVE THEM MADLY”: KANAN, FOSTER, & ARNEDO TRIO PLAYS ELLINGTON AND STRAYHORN

Some music you have to work hard to embrace, and many listeners relish the labor.  But other music, no less subtle or rewarding, opens its arms to you in the first four bars.  A new CD by Michael Kanan, piano; Dee Jay Foster, string bass; Guillem Arnedo, drums, is a wonderful example of love made audible.

If these names are new to you, please put down whatever you’re attempting to multi-task (on or with) and listen to this leisurely reading of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE from a live performance in 2017:

This trio also knows how to relax, thus, that rarity, a picture of jazz musicians taking their ease outdoors:

You might know that Michael Kanan is one of JAZZ LIVES’ heroes, not only in this country, but internationally.  And the lineage is very pleasing: the saxophone master Joel Press introduced me to Michael, and (aurally) Michael introduced me to Guillem and Dee Jay.  For the past decade, Michael spends part of each summer as artist-in-residence at the Begues Jazz Camp, where he’s forged deep musical relationships with these two musical intuitives.  The CD came out of a series of concerts the trio did.  As Michael says, “There is space, swing, surprises and lots of love. We have tried to capture the spontaneity of the moment in time – a good conversation between the three of us.”

Instead of the usual liner notes, the CD offers splendid artwork by Maria Pichel, who combines bright colors and delicacy to mirror the music within.  So here are a few (unsolicited) lines from me.

The late Roswell Rudd told me in 2012, “Playing your personality is what this music is all about. . . . You know, this is a music where you are playing off other people, and you really have to be listening and responding and respecting and complementing what’s going on around you.”

The personalities that come through so clearly here are gentle and intense at once: musicians inspired by the originals but aware that reverent innovation is the only tribute.  The magnificent Ellington and Strayhorn compositions are an indelible offering.  They aren’t obscure or at least they shouldn’t be, and that asks contemporary artists the question, “All right — what are you going to say about these pieces?”

One approach is reverence taken all the way: a 2018 piano trio could do its best to replicate Ellington, Blanton, Greer, or Strayhorn, Wendell Marshall, Woodyard.  Conversely, the improvisers could take the originals and, after one reasonably polite chorus, jump into outer space, perhaps never to return.  The Kanan, Foster, Arnedo trio modifies these extremes by creating statements showing their affection for the strong melodies, harmonies, rhythms — but they know that “playing their personalities” is what Ellington and Strayhorn did, and would approve of.  So the CD is a series of sweet variations on themes, where (to borrow from Teddy Wilson), “it’s the little things that mean so much.”

In the quiet world of this CD, even a slight tempo change means that listeners have found themselves in a new space, as if you’d come home to find that your partner had repainted the light-gray living room walls a gray with a blue undertone.

What I hear on this disc is the confident playful assurance of musicians who know each other well, are respectful but also relaxed and brave.  Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem are melodists who work together in kind fraternal fashion, so the lead gets passed around, one player moves into the spotlight and the others are happy for him to shine.  No cliches; no showboating; no tedious quoting; no formulaic playing or threadbare trademarks; the total absence of post-modern irony; no sense that swing is out of date.

The result is a series of sustained explorations that are full of sweet surprises: the wonderful swinging assertiveness with which C JAM BLUES starts; the touching coda to ISFAHAN; the slightly faster tempo for I LET A SONG that neatly contradicts the self-pitying lyrics; the exposition of LOTUS BLOSSOM would make anyone want to listen with bowed head, and the slightly altered rhythmic pulse that follows made me hear it as if for the first time; JOHNNY COME LATELY is perfect dance music — I defy anyone to stay motionless, even if the dance is happy nodding one’s head in time; Michael’s solo ALL TOO SOON is half-lullaby, half question yearning to be answered; the faster-than-expected I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT reminds me happily of Fifties Jo Jones with Ray and Tommy Bryant, for the trio’s swing is light yet insistent, and the rocking mood continues on through LOVE YOU MADLY; DAY DREAM, the concluding track, also seems a series of questions, some of them with answers.

I would tell any listener, “Play the disc over again, after you’ve let it settle in your mind, take up a comfortable space in your heart.  Play it for people who have ears.  Let them share the pleasure, the loving inquisitiveness.”

Because I have admired Michael’s playing for some time, I might have over-emphasized his contribution, but Dee Jay and Guillem are the equal of anyone with a more famous name, whether Elder or Youngblood: they play their instruments with honor and grace, avoiding the excesses that lesser players fall into.  Forget the snide jokes about bass solos; Dee Jay’s phrases are deft and logical, his time and intonation superb; Guillem, for his part, has such a swinging variety of sounds throughout his kit that he is marvelously orchestral without ever being overwhelming. The beautiful recorded sound, thanks to David Cassamitjana, is reassuringly warm and clear, putting us there, which is where we want to be.

You can hear the music here, on Spotify or iTunes, or purchase that endearing archaic object, an actual physical disc by clicking on “TIENDA” at the same site.

Even if you have as complete an Ellington-Strayhorn collection as possible, this is an essential disc: warm, candid, and gratifying.

And if you’d like to hear more from Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem in a different but quite uplifting context, visit here also.

May your happiness increase!

O.P., IRVING, LOUIS

Last night, while in an eBay reverie, I was grazing through the meadow of Entertainment Memorabilia, sub-section Jazz, sub-sub section Original Autographs, when I found these three artifacts.  To some, they may seem irreplaceable treasures; to others, just weird debris.  The first seller had purchased a huge collection of Danish paper ephemera and added it to his already expansive holdings, the latter laid out for your pleasure here.

I’d never seen an Oscar Pettiford autograph before, and this one is from the last years of his too-short life.  The red diagonals suggest that this is, rather than an autograph for a fan, the return address — upper left corner — taken from an air-mail envelope.  Whether that increases or decreases value, I don’t know.  I haven’t identified the Copenhagen hotel, but since the autograph would be, at latest, from 1960, it is possible the hotel no longer exists:

And here is a very touching and brief remembrance of Oscar with guitarist Attila Zoller — performing Oscar’s THE GENTLE ART OF LOVE in Denmark, perhaps not that far away in time from the envelope above:

Then, something more odd: a photograph of Irving Mills and two men I don’t recognize, inscribed lovingly to film star Dorothea Summers, from whose collection this came:

and a magnified inscription:

Here is a promotional short film (or most of it) from 1931, where Irving Mills introduces three of his bands: Baron Lee and the Blue Rhythm Orchestra; Duke Ellington (with pleasing closeups of Arthur Whetsol), and Cab Calloway, with Al Morgan stealing the scene.  I thought that glimpses of Mills, reading from the script on his desk, would be easier on the nerves than his singing:

Finally, something I found exciting, even though it isn’t inscribed.  Louis Armstrong had a heart attack in June 1959, and I now assume that he received get-well cards from everyone who loved him . . . that’s a-plenty.  I had never seen his singularly Louis thank-you card, and a collector possessed not only the card but a publicity photograph that may have come with it:

I would like you to commit Louis’ poem to memory, please:

Here’s Louis in 1960 on the Bell Telephone Hour — magnificent readings of SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, LAZY RIVER, and a heartbreaking SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, before a MUSKRAT RAMBLE that puts Louis with a modern version of the Mills Brothers who sing a version of the lyrics from BING AND SATCHMO:

May your happiness increase!

SPLENDIDLY GENUINE: “MORE OF THAT,” JACOB ZIMMERMAN and his PALS

This is not really a post about shopping, but since shopping is one of the experiences held in common by so many of us, it works as metaphor.  A dozen years ago, if I thought I needed a new shirt, I would have headed to The Mall, where I could gaze at two dozen machine-made shirts, identical except for size and perhaps color.  The plenitude was a reassuring reminder that we live in the Land of Too Much, and often I bought more than I needed.

As my clothing style became more personal, the racks of identical product no longer charmed.  I began to go thrift-shopping for the quest for unique pleasures.  Surprise was the rule, even among the inexplicable proliferation of plaid shirts (why?). I would spot something thirty shirts away, move towards it as if magnetized, and might have a small breath-taking experience.  “That’s for me!  I could wear that!  That looks like it belongs to me!”

Illustration by Jesse Rimler

Such impassioned bonding happens with music also: I was two minutes into the first track of a new CD — its cover above — and my mental soundtrack alternated between, “Oh, my goodness, this is wonderful!” and the more defensive, “You’re not getting this CD away from me.”  And then,addressing the invisible JAZZ LIVES audience, “You need to hear this,” I thought.

“This” is the debut CD of Jacob Zimmerman and his Pals called MORE OF  THAT, and to use my own catchphrase, it has increased my happiness tremendously.

The cover drawing, which I love, by Jesse Rimler, says much about the cheerful light-heartedness of the enterprise.  Why has this twenty-first century Nipper got his head in a protective cone?  Has he been biting himself?  Is the cone a visual joke about the morning-glory horn?  Is this the canine version of cupping a hand behind your ear to hear your singing better?  All I know is that this dog is reverently attentive.  You’ll understand why.

Here is Jacob’s website, and you can read about his musical associations here.

I had heard Jacob’s name bandied about most admiringly a few years ago; he appeared in front of me in the Soho murk of The Ear Inn and was splendidly gracious.  He’d also received the equivalent of the Legion of Honor: he was gigging with Ray Skjelbred.  But even these brightly-colored bits of praise did not prepare me for how good this CD is.

The overall ambiance is deep Minton’s 1941, Keynote, and Savoy Records sessions, that wonderful period of music where “swing” and “bop” cuddled together, swinging but not harmonically or rhythmically constrained.  And although Jacob and Pals have the recorded evidence firmly in their ears and hearts, and under their fingers as well, this is not Cryogenic Jazz or Swing Taxidermy (with apologies to Nipper’s grandchild on the cover).

As a leader, Jacob is wonderfully imaginative without being self-consciously clever (“Didja hear what the band did there?  Didja?”)  Each performance has a nifty arrangement that enhances the song rather than drawing attention from it — you could start with the title tune, MORE OF THAT, which Jacob told me is based on MACK THE KNIFE, “MORITAT,” so you’ll get the joke — which begins from elements so simple, almost monochromatic, and then builds.  Each arrangement makes full use of dynamics (many passages on this CD are soft — what a thing!), there’s some dark Ellingtonia and some rocking neo-Basie.  And each song is full of delightful sensations: when I get through listening to BALLIN’ THE JACK (a song often unintentionally brutalized) I think, “That’s under three minutes? How fulfilling.”  So the Pals are a friendly egalitarian organization with everyone getting chances to shine.

A few words about the compositions.  SIR CHARLES is Ray’s homage to our hero Sir Charles Thompson; Jacob says RADIATOR “was composed as a feature for Ray and was inspired by the Earl Hines record “Piano Man.” It’s based on “Shine.”  SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY “is a feature for bassist Matt Weiner and pays homage to the record of that tune by Lester Young and Slam Stewart.”  “FIRST THURSDAY is based on”Sunday.” My monthly gig at the jazz club “Egan’s Ballard Jam House” has happened every first Thursday for over 5 years.” And SCULPT-A-SPHERE “is based on “Nice Work If You Can Get It”…I tried to imagine what it would be like if Thelonious Monk and Lester Young wrote a tune together.”

Before I get deeper into the whirlpool of praise, some data.  Jacob plays alto and clarinet (more about that in a minute), aided immeasurably by: Matt Weiner, string bass; Josh Roberts, guitar; Ray Skjelbred, piano; D’Vonne Lewis, drums; Cole Schuster, guitar; Christian Pincock, trombone; Meredith Axelrod brings voice and guitar to the final track.  And the compositions: RADIATOR / SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY / FIRST THURSDAY / SONG OF THE ISLANDS / BLUE GUAIAC BLUES / BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES / IN A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN / MORE OF THAT / BALLIN’ THE JACK / BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME? / SCULPT-A-SPHERE / I AIN’T GOT NOBODY.  All immensely tasty, none crowding its neighbor.

This being the twenty-first century, many saxophonists live in a post-Parker era, which works for some. But Jacob has deeply understood that there are other sounds one can draw upon while playing that bent metal tube: a mix of Pete Brown (without the over-emphatic pulse), Hilton Jefferson (rhapsodic but tempered), and Lee Konitz (dry but not puckering the palate).  On clarinet, he suggests Barney Bigard but with none of the Master’s reproducible swoops and dives: all pleasing to the ear.

Because I have strongly defined tastes, I often listen to music with an editor’s ear, “Well, they’re dragging a little there.”  “I would have picked a brighter tempo.”  “Why only one chorus?” and other mind-debris that may be a waste of energy.  I don’t do that with MORE OF THAT, and (imagine a drumroll and cymbal crash) I love this CD so fervently that I will launch the JAZZ LIVES GUARANTEE.  Buy the disc.  Keep the jiffybag it came in.  Play it twice.  If you’re not swept away, write to me at swingyoucats@gmail.com, send me the CD and I’ll refund your money and postage.  I don’t think I will be reeling from a tsunami of mail, and should some people (inexplicably) not warm to this disc, I’ll have extra copies to give away.

You heard it here first.

May your happiness increase!

MORE INSTANT YET LASTING GRATIFICATION (Part Two): “ANIMULE DANCE” at the LOVELACE: EVAN ARNTZEN, SEAN CRONIN, ADAM BRISBIN (August 10, 2018)

Here‘s the first part of the music I captured on a glorious afternoon at the Lovelace (66 Pearl Street, New York City) courtesy of three generous stirring improvisers: Sean Cronin, string bass; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Adam Brisbin, guitar: WHO’S SORRY NOW?, BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU, and ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM.

And a few more wonders from that day, full of heartfelt surging energies.

Let’s call a heart a heart. Explanation below.

MY BLUE HEAVEN, with a wonderful funky Forties rocking motion, and a charming vocal by Evan:

a collective assent from the band, ‘DEED I DO, rocked in by that rhythm section, with an affirmation from Sean:

No co-pay for this healing visit to Doctor Morton; Evan explains the procedure:

A wonderful change of pace in Tizol’s CARAVAN:

and another serving of cage-free Jelly Roll, GRANDPA’S SPELLS:

It is a tremendous comfort to me to know that such glorious inventiveness exists, that it is within my reach (a walk, a train, a subway, a walk) and that I can capture it for our collective joy.  Thank you to the Animule Dance, to their friends and mine, and Richard of Lovelace.  There’s still more to come.

And . . . in case you thought I’d forgotten, the story of the heart drawn in colored pencils.  I don’t know during which performance it happened, but a beautiful little girl (Romy was nine, and French) came up and gave Sean, I think, her drawing.  What better emblem of the great truth, that music goes right to our hearts?

May your happiness increase!

INSTANT YET LASTING GRATIFICATION (Part One): “ANIMULE DANCE” at the LOVELACE: EVAN ARNTZEN, SEAN CRONIN, ADAM BRISBIN (August 10, 2018)

Pleasure can be evanescent, but the kind I experienced yesterday will last.

Adam Brisbin (by Joanna Sternberg)

I am thrilled to share some instant yet lasting gratification from the “Animule Dance,” a trio of Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone, vocal; Sean Cronin, string bass, vocal; Adam Brisbin, guitar, vocal, that I recorded at The Lovelace, 66 Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan, New York City, on August 10, 2018.

Sean Cronin (by Aidan Grant)

I had been admiring these three heroes in various contexts, most recently as three-fifths of Tamar Korn’s Wildwood Ramblers (you can find delicious performances just recently posted on JAZZ LIVES) but it was so much fun to meet them as a trio.  They are delightfully unified: they pick up each other’s cues, making for inspired musical conversation.

Evan Arntzen, the Lady Scout Opatut, and her green fan (by Voon Chew)

This was my first visit to The Lovelace, where Emily Asher most often leads the band (she was out of town).  I delighted in the place itself.  Drinking and video don’t mix, but the Lovelace specializes in gin drinks, with a menu that I plan to explore.  The food was first-rate (which isn’t always the case) and the room felt warm and open: thanks to Richard, behind the bar and taking care of everything else.

But since I can’t pour you a gin and bitter lemon nor pass a plate of fish and chips through the computer, I will rely on the music to spread joy.

Here are three glowing examples of the Animule Dance’s swing, versatility, and good feeling.  There will be more.

Asking the musical question, WHO’S SORRY NOW?

Sean’s very tender reading of the Waller-Razaf lament, BLUE, TURNING GREY OVER YOU:

and this bubbly performance of Ellington’s 1930 ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM — reminiscent to me of George Barnes and Ruby Braff — a performance I am thrilled to have my name attached to:

May your happiness increase!