Tag Archives: Fats Waller

TAKE ME TO THAT LAND OF GROSZ

I expect that Marty Grosz, who celebrates his eighty-fifth birthday on February 28, would say something acerbic about any fuss.  But those who know  him have worked hard to get around his sharp-edged humor, his nostalgia for the old days when jazz was played in “joints,” “saloons,” and “toilets,” to savor the swing alchemy he so generously offers.  And he has offered it to us on record since 1951, when the label read MART GROSS and then listed him in the credits as “Beef” Gross.

Marty in the studio, May 2008

Marty in the studio, May 2008

But returning to the fuss.  All I will say here is that I am delighted to live in his world, where getting hot is the highest aim of humankind — swinging, that is, not simply making a racket on the bandstand.  I admire his rhythmic pulse, the sound of his acoustic guitar in the ensemble.  And his singing — somewhere between Fats and Red McKenzie (he is a peerless balladeer, although his favorite tunes tend to be medium and medium-up) — as well as his arranging, something he’s less credited for.

I’d heard and seen Marty as far back as 1974, when he was an invaluable member of Soprano Summit, and then began to buy his records — the duets with Wayne Wright and the many small-band sides on Aviva, Stomp Off, Jazzology, Nagel-Heyer and others.  In 2004, I had an opportunity to renew my admiration, and heard at length from Marty about Trollope, Frank Chace, the old days, and the Decline of the West.  Most often I saw — and eventually video-recorded him — at Jazz at Chautauqua, now the Allegheny Jazz Party, with detours to Philadelphia and the occasional New York club.

Here are a few excursions into the Land of Grosz from Chautauqua.  (I’ve not enumerated the noble Men of Grosz but they are credited in the descriptions.)

CHERRY (2011):

TIN ROOF BLUES (2012):

IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE (2012):

You can find more — here — and other admirers worldwide have captured their very own Adventures in Swing under Marty’s leadership.

If you think about what a birthday celebration means, it may vary with age.  A six-year old’s birthday might mean, “Goodness, what a big person you are becoming!”  For someone older, I think the sentiment is, “We are so happy to have you with us.  We are grateful to you.”  As we are.

May your happiness increase!

ELEGANTLY IMAGINATIVE: ECHOES OF SWING, “BLUE PEPPER”

I begin somberly . . . but there are more cheerful rewards to follow.

As the jazz audience changes, I sense that many people who “love jazz” love it most when it is neatly packed in a stylistically restrictive box of their choosing. I hear statements of position, usually in annoyed tones, about banjos, ride cymbals, Charlie Parker, purity, authenticity, and “what jazz is.”

I find this phenomenon oppressive, yet I try to understand it as an expression of taste.  One stimulus makes us vibrate; another makes us look for the exit.  Many people fall in love with an art form at a particular stage of it and their development and remain faithful to it, resisting change as an enemy.

And the most tenaciously restrictive “jazz fans” I know seem frightened of music that seems to transgress boundaries they have created .  They shrink back, appalled, as if you’d served them a pizza with olives, wood screws, mushrooms, and pencils.  They say that one group is “too swingy” or “too modern” or they say, “I can’t listen to that old stuff,” as if it were a statement of religious belief.  “Our people don’t [insert profanation here] ever.”

But some of this categorization, unfortunately, is dictated by the marketplace: if a group can tell a fairly uninformed concert promoter, “We sound like X [insert name of known and welcomed musical expression],” they might get a booking. “We incorporate everyone from Scott Joplin to Ornette Coleman and beyond,” might scare off people who like little boxes.

Certain musical expressions are sacred to me: Louis.  The Basie rhythm section. And their living evocations.  But I deeply admire musicians and groups, living in the present, that display the imaginative spirit.  These artists understand that creative improvised music playfully tends to peek around corners to see what possibilities exist in the merging of NOW and THEN and WHAT MIGHT BE.

One of the most satisfying of these playful groups is ECHOES OF SWING. Their clever title says that they are animated by wit, and this cheerful playfulness comes out in their music — not in “comedy” but in an amused ingenuity, a lightness of heart.  They have been in action since 1997, and when I saw them in person (the only time, alas) in 2007, they were wonderfully enlivening.

This action photograph by Sascha Kletzsch suggests the same thing:

EchoesOfSwingInAction1 (Foto Sascha Kletzsch, v.l. Lhotzky, Hopkins, Dawson, Mewes)

They are Colin T. Dawson, trumpet / vocal;  Chris Hopkins, alto sax; Bernd Lhotzky, piano; Oliver Mewes, drums.  And they are that rarity in modern times, a working group — which means that they know their routines, and their ensemble work is beautiful, offering the best springboards into exhilarating improvisatory flights. They are also “a working group,” which means that they have gigs.  Yes, gigs!  Check out their schedule here.

Here  is a 2013 post featuring their hot rendition of DIGA DIGA DOO, and an earlier one about their previous CD, MESSAGE FROM MARS, with other videos — as well as my favorite childhood joke about a Martian in New York City here.  And while we’re in the video archives, here is a delicious eleven-minute offering from in November 2014:

and here they are on German television with a late-period Ellington blues, BLUE PEPPER:

All this is lengthy prelude to their new CD, aptly titled BLUE PEPPER:

EchoesOfSwing  - BluePepperCover

The fifteen songs on the disc are thematically connected by BLUE, but they are happily varied, with associations from Ellington to Brubeck and Nat Cole, composers including Gordon Jenkins, Rodgers, Bechet, Waller, Strayhorn — and a traditional Mexican song and several originals by members of the band: BLUE PEPPER / AZZURRO / BLUE PRELUDE / LA PALOMA AZUL / BLUE & NAUGHTY / BLUE MOON / BLACK STICK BLUES / BLUE RIVER / OUT OF THE BLUE / AOI SAMMYAKU [BLUE MOUNTAIN RANGE] / THE SMURF / BLUE GARDENIA / THE BLUE MEDICINE [RADOVAN’S REMEDY] / WILD CAT BLUES / AZURE.

What one hears immediately from this group is energy — not loud or fast unless the song needs either — a joyous leaping into the music.  Although this band is clearly well-rehearsed, there is no feeling of going through the motions. Everything is lively, precise, but it’s clear that as soloists and as an ensemble, they are happily ready to take risks. “Risks” doesn’t mean anarchy in swingtime, but it means a willingness to extend the boundaries: this group is dedicated to something more expansive than recreating already established music.

When I first heard the group (and was instantly smitten) they sounded, often, like a supercharged John Kirby group with Dizzy and Bird sitting in while at intervals the Lion shoved Al Haig off the piano stool.  I heard and liked their swinging intricacies, but now they seem even more adventurous.  And where some of the most endearing CDs can’t be listened to in one sitting because they offer seventy-five minutes of the same thing, this CD is alive, never boring.

A word about the four musicians.  Oliver Mewes loves the light-footed swing of Tough and Catlett, and he is a sly man with a rimshot in just the right place, but he isn’t tied hand and foot by the past.  Bernd Lhotzky is a divine solo pianist (he never rushes or drags) with a beautiful lucent orchestral conception, but he is also someone who is invaluable in an ensemble, providing with Oliver an oceanic swing that fifteen pieces could rest on.  I never listen to this group and say, “Oh, they would be so much better with a rhythm guitar or a string bassist.”

And the front line is just as eloquent.  Colin T. Dawson is a hot trumpet player with a searing edge to his phrases, but he knows where each note should land for the collective elegance of the group — and he’s a sweetly wooing singer in addition.  Chris Hopkins (quiet in person) is a blazing marvel on the alto saxophone — inventive and lyrical and unstoppable — in much the same way he plays the piano.

And here is what my wise friend Dave Gelly wrote: It’s hard to believe at first that there are only four instruments here. The arrangements are so ingenious, and the playing so nimble, that it could be at least twice that number. But listen closely and you will discover just a quartet of trumpet, alto saxophone, piano and drums – with absolutely no electronic tricks. The style is sophisticated small-band swing, the material a judicious mixture of originals and swing-era numbers and there is not a hint of whiskery nostalgia in any of it. It’s about time this idiom received some fresh attention and here’s the perfect curtain-raiser.

Here is their Facebook page, and their website.

We are fortunate that they exist and that they keep bringing us joyous surprises.

May your happiness increase!

LIKE BEACONS OF ROMANCE: VARIATIONS ON “LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT”

LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT

Let’s begin with a gently ravishing performance of this song by Peter Mintun:

Peter, who is a fine scholar as well as a wooing performer, notes that the song comes from the Paramount film MURDER AT THE VANITIES, where it is sung during a huge production number with ostrich feathers forming the waves of the ocean.  The 1934 film stars Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglen, Kitty Carlisle, Jack Oakie, Gertrude Michael, Dorothy Stickney, Gail Patrick, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, and Jessie Ralph.

I find the melody irresistible, and the lyrics are especially charming, deftly avoiding certain hackneyed phrases and rhymes that a lesser writer would have seized on.  And to me, carpe diem for lovers is always an attractive idea.

Here’s a contemporaneous version of LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT, leisurely and convincing.  Don’t let the surface noise get in the way of romance:

Now, the more famous 1934 version (at least to the jazz cognoscenti), which was my introduction to the song:

How beautiful that is!  I feel wrapped up in that orchestral sound, the soaring invitation of Johnny Hodges’ soprano, the timbres of the different soloists who write their own personal variations on the melody.  (It’s a recording I could listen to a number of times in a row and each time hear something rewarding.)

Five years later, in a small cramped Chicago studio:

That recording is also a series of delights — Walter Page’s energetic bass lines behind Basie’s homage to his mentor Fats, the sound of the rhythm section, the creations of Buck Clayton and the ever-surprising Lester Young.

I have always wondered how LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT came in to that session.  One ready hypothesis is the hand of John Hammond, who had favorite songs from the Twenties and early Thirties that he urged musicians to record (something that angered Billie Holiday greatly), so I can see him bringing the sheet music to the session.  And I believe, based on the recorded evidence, that Basie and his musicians didn’t feel a great need to expand their repertoire — that Basie would have gone on playing the blues, I GOT RHYTHM, and perhaps I AIN’T GOT NOBODY happily for decades.

But I also wonder how powerfully LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT made an impression on jazz musicians, because who of them would not have seen a movie with Duke in it?  It’s a mystery, but the results are gorgeous.

Ten or twenty years ago, I would have heard these recordings (leaving Peter aside for a moment) and seen a clear line of “improvement,” of musical progress. To my younger ears, Harman’s version would have been sticky-sweet, and I would have endured the record hoping for a hot eight-bar solo on the final bridge, in the fashion of 1931 hot dance records.  I would have been in love with the Ellington recording — which in its own delicious way, is also “dance music,” but to me the apex of all things gratifying in music would have been the Basie recording.  I still find the final recording thrilling, but I no longer want to construct stairways of progress, where everything ascends to a Hero or Heroine, and all that has come before is somehow inferior.

Good music is satisfying on its own terms, or at least it should be.

And love — not just for tonight or today — will keep us alive for sure.

May your happiness increase! 

“FINE, WONDERFUL, PERFECT!”: MORE FROM CONNIE and TIM at SAN DIEGO (November 2014)

Eddie Condon told the story of watching Fats Waller get a band together for the MINOR DRAG / HARLEM FUSS session, and that Fats’ response to an idea that pleased him was “Fine, wonderful, perfect!”  (although each word may have had its own exclamation point).

FWP might never become my new acronym for sheer bliss, but it will do for the music that Connie Jones and Tim Laughlin created at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest.  I posted two sublime performances a day or two ago, and bowing to popular demand (my own and others’) here are a few more.  Rich and rare!

These are the two final performances Tim’s New Orleans All Stars created for us on their closing set of November 30, 2014 (the NOAS were Tim, clarinet; Connie, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums).

An easy but soaring IDA (for Auntie):

And something for the Swing Ironists, CALIFORNIA HERE I COME:

Wondrous.

May your happiness increase!

SPORTIELLO-METZ, UNLIMITED (Atlanta Jazz Party, April 27, 2014)

Rossano Sportiello, piano, and Ed Metz, snare drum with wire brushes, made up a fully satisfying combo / band / orchestra in their morning set at the 2014 Atlanta Jazz Party.  The music they made has resonated happily in my memory, and now I have the pleasure of sharing it with you.

Rossano began the set with a heartfelt BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL — which had a Strayhorn coloration at the start.  In an age of bright colors and high volumes, it is so reassuring to hear a Maestro like Rossano play a ballad — not in any hurry to get through, to speed it up:

From Basie to his teacher, Fats, for HANDFUL OF KEYS, joined by Ed:

Then, a long interlude-concert which allows both players to shine as soloists and as part of a wondrous duo.  The selections are MISTY, IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN, CHINATOWN (with a hand-drum solo a la Jo Jones), LUCKY TO BE ME, Liszt’s CONSOLATION #3, SHOE SHINE BOY — a full circle back to Basie:

Throughout this morning serenade, I was reminded of the beautiful sound of Johnny Guarnieri and Sidney Catlett, and I marvel at Rossano’s beautiful precision and the astonishing variety of sounds and textures Ed gets out of this most minimalist drum kit — and the duo’s apparently indefatigable swing. Proof, once again, that you don’t need a lot of volume to swing.

All this happened at the April 2014 Atlanta Jazz Party, and I have every expectation that equally beautiful music will be created there again this April. Details and registration information here.  And since — as is the custom in most parties — the earlier you register, the better your seating . . . carpe diem in a big way.

The players this year will be Ben Polcer, Duke Heitger, Bria Skonberg, Allan Vache, Tom Fischer, Dan Barrett, Russ Phillips, John Cocuzzi, Rossano Sportiello, Johnny Varro, Dalton Ridenhour, Eddie Erickson, Nicki Parrott, Paul Keller, Sean Cronin, Danny Coots, Chuck Redd, Darrian Douglas, Rebecca Kilgore.  Quite a varied and energetic crew.

May your happiness increase!

TOMORROW NIGHT: “LET ME OFF UPTOWN”: A LISTENING SESSION on FEBRUARY 24, 2015

I don’t usually see JAZZ LIVES as a place to promote myself, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I invite you to a Listening Session, a Musical Interlude, a Platter Party — whatever term you like — on Tuesday, February 24, 2015, from 7-8:30 PM.

Here’s the location — a place that should be both well-known and loved:

NJMH banner

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I look forward to meeting old friends and making new ones. Thanks to Loren Schoenberg for offering me this opportunity.  And if you want to join the party via Facebook, just click here.

May your happiness increase!May your happiness increase!

 

EYES, HANDS, SONGS: JON-ERIK KELLSO and EHUD ASHERIE at MEZZROW

I’ve been parcelling out the videos from a wonderful night at Mezzrow when trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and pianist Ehud Asherie played magnificently yet casually for two sets. (For those taking notes for the JAZZ LIVES final, it was December 16, 2014, and Mezzrow is below street level at 163 West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village, New York.)

Here are two more beauties:

A good request from the audience, Maceo Pinkard’s THEM THERE EYES, memorably sung and played by Louis and Billie, many times:

And the bittersweet, melancholy MY FATE IS IN YOUR HANDS, by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf.  I don’t know if I believe the story that Fats was driving, got pulled over by an officer, and said, meekly, “My fate is in your hands,” but it’s a nice story:

And other gems from that evening can be found herehereherehereand finally here.

My advice?  Look at the gig schedules at Mezzrow, at Jon-Erik’s site, and on Ehud’s.  Something good will happen.

May your happiness increase!