Tag Archives: ensemble playing

BEAUTIFULLY PLAYED, WITH NOT A HOT SOLO IN SIGHT (1931)

A portrait of Eddie Lang, inscribed to Leo McConville. Courtesy of the McConville Archives.

I come from the generation of listeners who waited for the hot solo in the midst of what we were taught (by the communal listeners’ culture) was dull by comparison.  And some of those solos were frankly electrifying. Here is a memorable example:

The caricature of such listeners is the people who wore out the Bix solo on the Whiteman SWEET SUE but left the rest of the record’s surface black and gleaming.

But I have come to see how limiting that was.  Consider this 1931 recording of a sweet pop song.  It’s a Ben Selvin group, with a vocal by the demurely named Paul Small.  This record (and the other side, WHAT IS IT?) finds no mention in a jazz discography, yet it is very satisfying music.  For one thing, it is beautifully played — great dance music, wonderful strains to be holding one’s love, whether any apologies have been tendered or received in the recent past.

The other reason is the deliciously subtle but pervasive guitar of Salvatore Massaro, “Eddie Lang” to the rest of us — who begins the side with an instantly recognizable introduction, and is audible behind the vocal and uplifting throughout.

And they say men don’t know how to apologize.  What wonderful music, what danceable tenderness.

May your happiness increase!

A FROLIC AT FRAUNCES (Part One): ROB ADKINS, CHRIS FLORY, DAN BLOCK, EVAN ARNTZEN (May 7, 2016)

A good band is not hard to find in New York City.  One of the places I rely on is Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street for their Saturday jazz brunch (1-4) usually led by Emily Asher with her delightful small band that is the Garden Party Quartet.  Emily was on the road on May 7, 2016, but the joy continued unabated.

Fraunces Tavern

String bassist and band-wizard Rob Adkins assembled a wonderfully melodic quartet: himself, Chris Flory, guitar; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and alto.  Oh, did they fill the room with good sounds!

Of course, fault-finding viewers will note that people are talking, eating, drinking, and moving, that the room is busy, but busy-ness keeps the Tavern able to pay for live music.  Without being too acrid, I say quietly that people who choose only to sit in front of their computers when there is live music to be had make it hard for musicians to survive.  To quote Arthur Miller, “Attention must be paid.”

On to happier matters.  This little ad-hoc band is not only composed of four wonderful soloists, but these players know the sacred value of ensemble playing — so lines intertwine, there’s counterpoint, riffs, backgrounds: all the collective joy one could ever hear.

I present these performances in the order they happened, as is my habit. I think they are each small complete masterpieces, to be savored rather than gobbled.  I hope you agree.  There’s more to come.

LINGER AWHILE:

THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE:

SOUTH:

Please find a way to support the music if you want it to continue.  That means going to a place where it is played, purchasing food and drink there, putting money in the tip jar, buying a CD from a musician . . . active rather than passive.  Very little is actually free in this world, the title of the third song notwithstanding.  And as a final irony, the people in this scene who are sitting at the bar, talking and drinking whiskey, are doing more by their presence to support the music they are ignoring than the most devoted “jazz fan” who lives solely off the Hot Internet.

May your happiness increase!

SOME NOTES FROM BUCK: DUKE HEITGER, SCOTT ROBINSON, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, RICKY MALICHI (CLEVELAND CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY, SEPT. 13, 2015)

BUCK

Aside from being one of the most handsome men in jazz, and a gloriously consistent soloist, Buck Clayton was also a splendid arranger and composer. In his hands, an apparently simple blues line had its own frolicsome Basie flavor, and his compositions take simple, logical, playful ideas and connect them irresistibly.

Here’s a winning example — a blues from 1961 or earlier, from the period when Buck and his Basie colleagues (sometimes Emmett Berry, Dicky Wells, Earle Warren, Gene Ramey, and others) toured Europe and the United States, teaching and re-reaching everyone how to swing, how to solo effectively and concisely, and how to play as a unit.

Such nice things as this — a spontaneous Buck Clayton evocation (thanks to Rossano Sportiello) happen as a matter of course at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party (held this year September 15-18).  OUTER DRIVE is performed by Duke Heitger, trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums.

Please, on your second or third listening, notice the variety of ensemble textures — how well five musicians who understand the swing tradition can and do sound like an orchestra, and how they intuitively construct riffs and backgrounds to keep the presentation lively.

May your happiness increase!

ROLLIN’ DOWN THE RIVER, STOMPING JOYOUSLY: STEVE PISTORIUS, ORANGE KELLIN, JAMES EVANS, TOM SAUNDERS (September 19, 2015)

pistorius

Steve Pistorius is an irreplaceable pianist, singer, bandleader, and visionary, and I love his Quartet — with a front line of Orange Kellin, clarinet; James Evans, vocal, reeds, and someone adept keeping time and swinging out the root notes — on this most recent occasion, Tom Saunders on bass sax.  The Quartet doesn’t strive to imitate anyone in particular, but what comes out is deep and swinging.

You could call it New Orleans jazz and not be wrong, but I think of it as four kindred souls having a sweetly intense conversation about the song at hand, where their intelligence and feeling raise up every note from what could be formulaic or prosaic. Here is what I wrote about their first disc, NEW ORLEANS SHUFFLE.  To read what I wrote about their second, UNDER A CREOLE MOON, you’ll have to buy the disc — which I’ll predict you would want to anyway.

UNDER THE CREOLE MOON

Now, this isn’t an advertisement for those two compact discs (although the subliminal energy is in my words, I hope) but a gift of music — a session on the Steamboat NATCHEZ recorded [by me, for you] during the 2015 Steamboat Stomp.

A cinematographic caveat follows.  I was shooting into bright sunlight through large glass windows, so there was a good deal of unsolicited glare.  Changing the videos to black and white helped cut down on the lurid aspect, but the four players are individually and collectively sheathed in what looks like swing ectoplasm.  Fitting, of course.  The sound, however, is fine and finer.

King Oliver’s I AIN’T GONNA TELL NOBODY:

James rhapsodizes so wonderfully on YOU BELONG TO MY HEART:

Doc Cooke’s BLAME IT ON THE BLUES:

An Oliver rarity, I CAN’T STOP LOVING YOU:

Mister Morton’s FROG-I-MORE RAG:

Bechet’s WASTE NO TEARS:

A. J. Piron’s THE BRIGHT STAR BLUES:

And a later Bechet, DANS LA RUE D’ANTIBES:

Hot, intent, relaxed, soothing, compelling.  The best in their line.  And somewhere in these videos Steve says ruefully that this band has lost its regular gig.  I find that astonishing — in New Orleans, so proud of its music? — that I hope it has been remedied by now.  Club-owners and party-givers, take note.

And I will keep you informed about the 2016 Steamboat Stomp — something I hope to attend.

May your happiness increase!

ONE SOUNDTRACK FOR MY IDEAL WORLD

THAT’S MY WEAKNESS NOW was a very popular song in the late Twenties: in my memory, it is connected to Whiteman, Bix, and the Rhythm Boys; Helen Kane; Cliff Edwards, and I am sure two dozen others.

If you’ve never heard it, here is Miss Kane’s 1927 version (with the verse and at a sweet tempo):

Its bouncy melody and amorous conceit –“[S]he loves these [apparently difficult] acts, so I am compelled to perform them also — pity poor me who has to suffer billing and cooing [but not really]” — made both singers and audiences float along in amusement.

THAT-S-MY-WEAKNESS-NOW

But between 1929 and 1939 no one recorded it in a jazz context (according to Tom Lord’s discography) and it’s understandable: its bouncy two-beat melody line and rhythms didn’t lend themselves all that easily to a smoother Swing Era treatment, and it may have seemed to contemporary audiences a relic of their parents’ now-ancient flapper / sheik past.  (The song re-emerged in later decades — with recordings by George Lewis and Humphrey Lyttelton — as a sweet homage to the late Twenties, and that is how modern bands play it today.)

I don’t know who thought of the song for this July 1944 record date, but it’s a wonderful choice.  This was one of Harry Lim’s Keynote dates, so he might have been the inspiration — or leader Pete Brown might have liked the song as a perfect match for his own jaunty, accented, ebullient playing.

As a record producer, Harry Lim had a thousand virtues: good taste in musicians, a liking for medium tempos and melodic improvisation, and the courage to have players who weren’t household names lead sessions.  His 12″ 78 recordings are a body of work that remains its freshness.  (I am only sad that when I was a young record-buyer at one branch of the New York City Sam Goody’s, I didn’t recognize him, wring his hand embarrassingly and tell him how much his fine musical taste had enriched my life.)

Here is THAT’S MY WEAKNESS NOW, performed by Brown, alto saxophone; Joe Thomas, trumpet; Kenny Kersey, piano; Milt Hinton, string bass; J.C. Heard, drums.

I think the beauties of this recording are self-evident to anyone willing to listen closely for just over four minutes — perhaps a seeming-lifetime in our restless century.

The disc starts with an unaccompanied introduction by the under-celebrated Kenny Kersey, who had absorbed Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines but also was very much aware of what the jazz critics like to call, retrospectively, “advanced harmonies,” but which musicians of the time might have called “funny chords.” Kersey had played with Andy Kirk as well as with Red Allen’s Cafe Society band, and (for me) his accompaniment nearly steals the show during the first chorus, where the melody is played in a neat, clipped way by the horns.  And as for bass and drums: they provide a swing heartbeat.

The horns offer very individual sounds.  I don’t think an experienced listener would mistake Brown for any other altoist: the way he pushes the beat, as if his notes and phrases were impetuous, his solos impatient to get out of the horn where they could be heard.  And his tone!  Lemony, bittersweet, tart?  One would need a truly subtle food writer to describe the sound of his alto.  Joe Thomas, ah, Joe Thomas — glowing and spare but deeply emotive without playing one more note than needed . . . a true lesson in storytelling, full of nuance but never over-elaborated.  In the melding of the horns, they are synchronous (you hear the professionalism of musicians used to working in sections, in big bands, where blending was essential) but their individual voices are audible, their sounds so personal.

Even on longer-playing discs, the idea of splitting a chorus (the horns play the first sixteen bars of a thirty-two bar chorus; another instrument takes the eight-bar “bridge,” then the horns return or let the other players have the second half) was nothing new, but Kersey’s piano, spare and elegant, is refreshing.  But while Kersey is exploring, so — in the most sympathetic way — is Milt, climbing higher on his instrument without ever seeming to solo.  Heard’s emphatic brushwork (out of Sidney Catlett) never falters, wavers, or becomes mechanical.  The following sixteen bars are equally calm — they are riffing this evening! — with an emphatic flare on the last notes of the chorus, where the horns seem especially determined to repeat the title in song.

Brown was either a  generous or wise leader — I think both — content to build a performance architecturally rather than saying THIS IS MY RECORD and playing all through it, so if we are waiting for the leader to solo, it doesn’t happen for some time.

So the next chorus is apparently a Kersey solo, and what an elegantly swinging pianist — great musical intelligence and no cliches — he was.  But just as Kersey stole the show behind the horns, the horns (with their simple little pushing riff) might easily distract us from his gleam.  Horn backgrounds to a piano solo used to be commonplace — in the departed ideal world — but one does not hear them in this century, with some exceptions.  The way the whole band — is it only a quintet? — sounds, with such sweet subtle variety — is gratifying.  Kersey has some of the same quiet energy of Johnny Guarneri (someone Lim also loved and featured) but he is his own man, steering his own course between Fats and Bud Powell.

With a push from Heard, Thomas is on.  And how beautiful his tone is — dark, clear, not “sweet” but not harsh, brassy.  All his trademarks are in place: the careful repeated notes, the breath-like phrasing, the upward arpeggios, the pace (no matter how fast the tempo gets, at his best, Thomas mastered the Louis trick of relaxing, of “playing whole notes,” of letting everyone else seem hurried while he takes his time, admires the scenery, adjusts the knot on his tie just so.  His bridge is especially luxurious.  If, perhaps, you think, “Oh, that’s just Louis-influenced Swing Era trumpet playing, and everyone was doing that,” may I respectfully suggest that a deep immersion in the period will prove revelatory. No one sounded like Joe.  Ask a trumpet player you know to listen to that solo, closely, and see if it’s easy to create such a sound, such an effect.

Behind Thomas, Brown has been nudging the band along (there are no dead spots on this record) as it shifts into a higher gear, with Heard and everyone else deciding — to use the Thirties expression — “to put the pots and pans on,” to get seriously playful.

And then comes our leader — Mister Brown to you.  What a remarkable sound!  At first, it makes me think of someone with laryngitis who insists on speaking although his voice croaks and cracks, but one quickly gets accustomed to the sound because Brown’s pulse is so warm and enthusiastic.  He doesn’t rush, but he intently gives each phrase its own shape and a rocking momentum.  And his solo is made up of small gems, a phrase turned round and round over the harmonies, without pressure or monotony.  (I am not usually fond of quotations — some musicians overindulge — but Brown’s reference to FUNKY BUTT at 3:12 is hilarious. I hope that there is no particular connection between that subject and what the imagined lover prefers, but more likely it was just a witty idea, floating by, that laid nicely over the chords.)

And that last chorus is a marvel of tidy architecture, of generosity, of variety: sixteen glorious bars for the Judge, Milt Hinton — no one ever talked through his solos! — with the band riffing around and through his sonorous notes, then a “modern” bridge featuring Kersey, four more bars for Milt (how many people understand what Milt understood about the string bass, parallel to Jimmy Blanton?) then four bars where the band says in a politely declamatory ensemble, “THAT’S MY WEAKNESS NOW!” and the record is over.

Yes, I have heard recordings like this in our century, and, better yet, bands actually doing these glorious acts of solo brilliance and communal swing on the bandstand, in person, but this 12″ 78 is imperishable.  There are a million ways for an improvising jazz group to sound, and I wouldn’t be such a bully to insist that this is the only one, or the best one, but it moves me every time I hear it.

May your happiness increase!

CAJUN SEASONING: REUNION at THE EAR INN (June 3, 2012) with EDDY DAVIS, CONAL FOWKES, ORANGE KELLIN, SCOTT ROBINSON, JON-ERIK KELLSO, DAN BLOCK

Eight years ago, I first visited the Cajun Restaurant in the West Village (that’s Greenwich Village, New York) on Eighth Avenue.  It had been around for a long time, but it was known as the only place that still featured “traditional jazz,” however one defined the term, seven nights and two afternoons a week.*

A regular attraction was the Wednesday night band — a compact unit led by banjoist / singer / composer Eddy Davis, and dubbed by him late in its run WILD REEDS AND WICKED RHYTHM.  Most often, the instrumentation was Conal Fowkes, string bass; Scott Robinson, C-melody saxophone; Orange Kellin, clarinet, and Eddy — four players with a strong lyrical streak who could also make a bandstand seem wildly hot in the tradition of the Bechet-Spanier Big Four or Soprano Summit on an uptempo outchorus.

Since the regular Wednesday night gig ended, this band has gotten together for musical reunions — although not as often as its fans and partisans would like.  Thus, I was thrilled to learn that Eddy, Conal, Orange, and Scott would be “the EarRegulars” on Sunday, June 3, 2012, at The Ear Inn.  And I present some of the frankly magical results herein.

Eddy would not be insulted, I think, if I called his approach “quirky,” and his whimsical view of the musical spectrum colors and uplifts the band.  Another leader might have stuck to the predictable dozen “New Orleans” or “trad” standards, but not Eddy.  His musical range, affections, and knowledge are broad — he approaches old songs in new ways and digs up “new” ones that get in the groove deeply.  He knows how to set rocking tempos and his colleagues look both happy and inspired.  In addition, Eddy writes lyrics — homespun rather than sleek — for some classic jazz tunes, and he sings them from the heart.  All of these virtues were on display at The Ear Inn — friendly, jostling, witty solos and ensembles, and performances that took their time to scrape the clouds.

The melody for BABY, YOU’RE THE BEST might be elusive for some, but it has deep roots — Lil Hardin Armstrong’s TWO DEUCES, which Eddy has turned into a love song and the band has turned into a down-home West Village classic:

TWO-A-DAY is one of Eddy’s favorite obscure songs — a Jerry Herman number praising a kind of vaudeville bill (and time and place) from the ill-starred musical MACK AND MABEL, charting the lives and times of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand.  When Eddy sings lyrics about the “atomic age,” Scott emphasizes the point through his distinctive space-age attire:

POTATO HEAD BLUES, with jaunty lyrics and wondrous playing.  All for you, Louis:

I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE needs no introduction — recalling the Ink Spots and their sweet lovemaking on Decca Records:

Jon-Erik Kellso, Hot Man Supreme, came into The Ear Inn after another gig — hence the formal wear — sat down, and joined the band for a calypso-infused THE BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT.  Maybe this bucket was full of Red Stripe beer?:

At the start of THANKS A MILLION, you’ll notice an empty chair next to Orange — soon to be filled by the illustrious Dan Block on bass clarinet, with Scott switching over to one of his taragotas, or taragoti — which he’d first taken out for POTATO HEAD BLUES:

STRUTTIN’ WIH SOME BARBECUE, complete with verse:

And the session closed with Eubie Blake’s lovely affirmation, LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, taken at a strolling medium tempo:

P.S.  This session happened in the beginning of June and has only emerged three months later — no reflection on the splendid heartfelt music, but because of some small technical difficulties . . . now happily repaired.

*At the end of July 2006, The Cajun closed after a twenty-eight year run — to make way for a faceless high-rise apartment building.  When I find myself on Eighth Avenue and Sixteenth Street, I try not to search the spot where it once was.  It was a flawed paradise, but we miss it.

May your happiness increase.

ENSEMBLE JOYS: “SAY ‘SI SI'”!

The New Orleans musicians — even the ones who took expansive solos as the nature of jazz changed — knew how important inspired ensemble playing was.  It would have been very bad form to cut short a romping group effort and simply dilute its force into a series of solos with the rhythm section. 

And this principle is perfectly demonstrated by a recent performance by Clint Baker and the Cafe Borrone All-Stars (captured on August 13, 2010, by the unwearying Rae Ann Berry) of the pop song “SAY ‘SI SI'” where for nearly five minutes the front line keeps a splendid momentum going. 

That’s Clint on trumpet and clarinet, Jim Klippert on trombone, Robert Young on a variety of reeds, Bill Rinehart on banjo, Jason Vanderford on guitar, and Sam Rocha on bass:

Just try and keep sedately still while this video is playing . . . !