Tag Archives: Fats Waller

HILARY GARDNER and EHUD ASHERIE: “THE LATE SET”

This new CD doesn’t have a false note in it, just tremendously satisfying music.

I don’t recall the first time I heard Hilary Gardner sing, with or without Ehud Asherie’s accompaniment, but I was smitten — in a nice legal Platonic way — by the blending of her tender, expressive voice and his elegant, sometimes raucous piano.  Singular individualists, they combine in wonderful synergy, and this CD expertly reproduces what it’s like to hear marvelous improvisations in a small club full of attentive, sympathetic listeners, leaning forward to catch every nuance.  The sound is spectacularly fine — by which I mean natural, and you don’t have to leave your house to “be there.”  (Although seeing them at Mezzrow on West Tenth Street has been one of my great pleasures for a few years.)

Both Hilary and Ehud are splendid connoisseurs of the best songs, and this recital shows off their sensitivity to fine melodies and telling lyrics: SHADOW WALTZ by Al Dubin and Harry Warren; SWEET AND SLOW by the same two masters in a completely different mood; the very sad Rodgers and Hart A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL; the ancient but still lively AFTER YOU’VE GONE with the never-heard second chorus; I NEVER HAS SEEN SNOW, by Harold Arlen and Truman Capote; Irving Berlin’s immensely touching I USED TO BE COLOR BLIND; the wicked EVERYTHING I’VE GOT, again by Hart and Rodgers; the sweet command to MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY, by Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Jule Styne; the wistful SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES, by John Jacob Loeb and Carmen Lombardo.

Song-scholars will find connections to Fred Astaire, Diane Keaton, Arthur Godfrey, Sophie Tucker, Lee Wiley, Fats Waller, Busby Berkeley, and two dozen others, but this is not a CD of homages to the Ancestors nor to their recordings.  Although the majority of the songs are enshrined in “the Great American Songbook,” this CD isn’t an exercise in reverential mummification.  No, the magic that Hilary and Ehud bring to these possibly venerable pages is to sing and play the songs for real — asking the questions, “What meaning might be found here?  What feelings can we share with you?”  And, ultimately, “Why are these songs so affecting in themselves?”

I’ve celebrated Ehud a great deal on this blog: his ability to create a Frolick all by himself, evoking both Bud Powell and Francois Rilhac, his touch precise but warm, his marvelous ability to think of anything and then to play it, his eye for the perfect swinging epigram a master archer’s.

Hilary was a wonderfully complete singer when I first heard her.  She has outdone herself here.  I find myself reaching for adjectives: is her voice “warm,” “creamy,” “light,” “rich”?  Then I give up, because it sounds as if I am a blindfolded contestant on a cooking show assessing a pound cake.

In plain English: she swings, she understands the lyrics, she improvises splendidly but without theatricality, and when she descends into a song, even if it’s one she’s sung a hundred times before, she comes to the surface, immensely naturally, showing us something we’ve never thought of before.  She’s witty but not clever; emotive but not melodramatic, tender but not maudlin.  Her approach is warm, delicate, unhurried.

When Hilary and Ehud did a brief tour of the Pacific Northwest not long ago, they visited KNKX, did an interview about the CD, and performed three songs in the studio — SWEET AND SLOW, I NEVER HAS SEEN SNOW, and AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  Here‘s the link to watch the videos and hear the interview.

You can find THE LATE SET at iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and the Anzic Records site.  I urge you to find and purchase a physical disc, because one of the great pleasures — hidden inside — is Hilary’s own pitch-perfect evocation of “the late set” in what I presume is a New York City jazz club.

This is extraordinary music.  How delightful that it exists in this century.

May your happiness increase!

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“THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL”: THE HOLLAND-COOTS JAZZ QUINTET HONORS FATS WALLER

In July, I spent five splendid days in Nashville as a delighted observer to a recording session that produced this rewarding tribute to Fats Waller, with Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet / vocal; Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone / vocal; Steve Pikal, string bass.

and the CD cover itself.  Don’t let the slogan frighten you: for the moment at least, joy is still legal and unregulated.  Should you want a copy immediately, without reading another word, visit here and the door to gladness will swing open easily.

This isn’t a formulaic tribute, with players imitating the Victor sessions and tossing off already-venerable Fats-wisecracks.  No, something much better.  It’s music.  Click here and you can hear a sample track — the Quintet’s version of Fats’ 1943 composition, MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’.

I had the privilege of writing the liner notes (I may have insisted on doing so: my memory betrays me here):

Fats Waller’s substantial physical envelope left the scene for another gig seventy-five years ago, but his joyous soul is still with us. This CD doesn’t attempt to replicate the former, but celebrates the latter in all its radiances.

Musicians have attempted to capture the totality of this great man. The road most often taken is presenting a lurid outsized caricature to fool us into thinking we have his essence in our possession. Imagine Fats as a parade float three stories high, grotesque head, tilted derby, restless eyebrows, a cavernous mouth full of vaudeville asides we expect to hear. While the head waggles in the breeze, a loop of his greatest eight-bar piano modules plays endlessly through massive speakers.

With the best intentions in the world (and sometimes with the best musicians in invisible shackles) many tributes go this way. One hears a band, its members pretending to be Herman, Gene, and Al, energetically playing the best-known Waller compositions or songs he’s identified with, copying as closely as possible his 1934-43 Victor records. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so severe, because Fats was such a powerfully appealing personality whose records sold so well that such “tributes” were happening while he was around to hear them. Records by Pat Flowers, Johnny Guarnieri, Bob Howard, Putney Dandridge, and others might at first make listeners think they have wandered into Plato’s cave of small-band jive. But the real Fats leans outside, smoking, untouched by such parasitic adulation. (Incidentally, my censure is not limited to Fats-by-the-yard productions, for many people who tell you how they revere the innovators have misread them similarly, reducing Louis to a sweaty handkerchief, Billie to a discontented meow.)

This disc is different. Ignore the familiar picture of Fats on the cover, ready to deliver a wisecrack he’d delivered too many times already, the Groucho Marx of jazz. Think, instead, of the Thomas Waller who swung without letup, created beautiful melodies, and sang with affectionate sincerity. (If you don’t think of him as a tender singer of ballads, search out his Bluebird recording of I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN.) With that in mind, I urge you to begin your listening with one of the least-known songs on this disc, LET’S PRETEND THAT THERE’S A MOON. At an easy fox-trot tempo, it begins with Brian’s solo chorus, clearly stating the melody while luxuriating in its possibilities, a ninety-second statement that would have been taken up the first half of a 10” 78 rpm disc. Then “here comes the band!” as Willie “the Lion” Smith would say, Marc Caparone quietly suggesting that the blues are at the heart of everything or at least the first sixteen bars, before Evan plays the bridge in the best limpid way, before the band returns. Evan then comes in to sing – and what a singer he is! – with Brian gently creating some Nashville ripples, behind him, Marc, Steve, and Danny gently rocking the imaginary canoe before Evan and Brian, true romantics, remind us all what the song is about: hopeful love, love that climbs to an exultant sweet high note. I was in the studio for this performance and there was a hush when it ended. I take notes at a session, and mine read: “Brian solo / ens / voc EA . . . . . perfect.”

Fats’ music transcends romance, however, to celebrate the pure joy of life. His compositions on this disc focus on the rewards of fidelity and good behavior, as well as creating a Frolic that might be either a Drag of a Fuss. Courtesy of Alex Hill and Claude Hopkins, pianist-composers who breathed the same uptown air, we praise BABY BROWN and a statement of complete devotion, by which I mean this band leaves the “MOST” out of I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU. James P. Johnson, Fats’ teacher and our hero, says that sixty minutes is enough room to create happiness; we believe in miracles but, just the same, have our fingers crossed, celebrate a love that is so pleasing we expect the authorities any minute; we ask the musical question “Whose tea do you sweeten?” Of course, our romantic Zeppelins sometimes crash and burn, so there’s LONESOME ME, one of Fats’ sweet sorrowful triumphs. And splendid oddities – MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’, which comes from Fats’ star turns in the film STORMY WEATHER; LIVER LIP JONES, a close cousin of the characters we know from Ellington’s A SLIP OF THE LIP and Morton’s BIG LIP BLUES. Who knew that loquaciousness was such a problem uptown?

Intentionally, I haven’t said anything about the band except by implication. Very little needs saying except that they work together as brothers – each a wonderful soloist and an absolute marvel as a team player, ready to be lyrical or hot, bluesy, rampaging, or sentimental. At close range, and this counts a great deal for me, not one of them is a blabbermouth rascal.

This CD, so beautifully recorded and wisely programmed, is the debut on disc of the Holland-Coots Quintet. I hope for dozens more discs and lots of gigs in my lifetime and yours. Their expression of musical creativity, lyrical, warm, sometimes hilarious (I play and replay the introduction to WHOSE HONEY ARE YOU), celebrates the joyous merrymaker, but it is more an outpouring of devotion for Fats and what he did so open-heartedly.

Our universe often feels dark these days. The light he shines so brightly is always welcome. The time and place are opportune.

Again, you can proceed bravely into commerce and purchase copies here.

May your happiness increase!

CELEBRATING DAN MORGENSTERN, WHO GIVES SO MUCH TO US

On October 24, 1929, Bennie Moten, Lud Gluskin, Horace Heidt, Junie C. Cobb, Jack Hylton, and a few other bands made records.  In the United States, terrible things were happening to the economy.  But in Munich, Germany, our hero Dan Morgenstern was born.  Whether his first cries were in 4/4, there is no evidence,  but I would venture that it was an early example of spontaneous scat singing.

Given the math above, even I can add up the figures to write that Dan will be 88 this week.  I’m not the only one celebrating.  There will be a musical birthday party hosted by David Ostwald, who leads the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, New York City, this Wednesday, the 25th, from 5:30 to 7 PM.  And I’ll bet Dan chirps a few with the Band. You can reserve online (and you should) here.

On Saturday, October 28th, from 1-4 PM, Loren Schoenberg (a very good friend of Dan’s and a scholar in his own right) will host a celebration / interview of Dan at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, 58 West 129th Street, New York City. Details — to reserve a seat / buy a ticket at a nominal price — here — or here.

While you’re making your reservations, a little Morgenstern-music to accompany your mouse-clicks:

I don’t have a jazz club or museum as a place to honor Dan.  But JAZZ LIVES is not without its resources, and as readers know, I have had the honor of interviewing Dan at length . . . an utterly gratifying experience for me, so I will share two as-yet-unseen segments.

One takes Dan back to Copenhagen in 1938.  I knew he had delighted in Fats Waller on Fats’ European tour, but I hadn’t known he had seen the Quintet of the Hot Club of France AND the Mills Brothers.  Dan also recalls his first jazz records.  Wonderful memories:

Remembering the Quintet also led to Dan’s enthusiastic portrait of violinist Svend Asmussen:

“A wonderfully enveloping good nature,” Dan says of Fats.  He would never say it of himself, but it is no less true.  It is our immense good fortune to know Mr. Morgenstern.

May your happiness increase!

TRY THESE ON YOUR PIANO, or THE LION LIKES MILT and FATS PLAYS PRANKS

I find jazz paper ephemera so very tempting.  Even though my piano skills were never more than sub-amateur at their height, that candid awareness hasn’t stopped me from coveting sheet music or purchasing a folio now and then.

I saw this on eBay and couldn’t hold back my hand (the price was low and the folio was new to me).  So I am the new owner:

and here (found online but not purchased) is a different edition:

I believe the edition I bought dates from 1934.  Why one folio is ten cents more than the other is a mystery too deep for me.  And speaking of “too deep for me,” here is the first page of ALLIGATOR CRAWL.  Maybe in my retirement I could crawl through those notes?

The Ebay seller also had two remarkable pieces of sheet music — prices too high for an eager dilettante like myself — compositions by Willie “the Lion” Smith inscribed to fellow pianist Milt Raskin in 1937.

FUSSIN’:

SNEAK AWAY:

And if you wonder how we know they belonged to Milt Raskin, the purple-ink rubber stamp on each sheet tells us so.

Music, Maestro, please!

Fats’ liberal improvisation (1935) on ALLIGATOR CRAWL:

FUSSIN’ — played by Ralph Sutton:

Our friend and hero Rossano Sportiello also played FUSSIN’ just two weeks ago at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, so perhaps I might be able to share that with you someday.

And here, introduced by The Lion and Eddie Condon, at a Town Hall concert, is SNEAK AWAY:

It’s possible that having sheet music connected to Fats and The Lion is as close as I will get to playing stride piano, so thank goodness for recordings.

May your happiness increase!

“SWINGIN’ FOR THE FENCES”: BRIAN HOLLAND AND DANNY COOTS (AND MORE)

Oh, no.  Another wonderful CD?  Will those musicians ever let us alone?  When the musicians are pianist Brian Holland and drummer Danny Coots, the answer is a joyous NO.

But first.  Let’s assume you’ve never heard Brian and Danny.  Nothing simpler than remedying this deficiency. From the 2017 Santa Cruz Ragtime Festival, here is their rendition of two Fats Waller compositions, JITTERBUG WALTZ and BACH UP TO ME:

and here are the two gentlemen, caught by a still camera:

Holland (left), Coots (right), for those who have never had the good fortune to see and hear them in person or in action or both.

Their new CD is a delightfully varied offering:

The songs:  Charleston Rag / Jimmy McHugh Medley (Spreadin’ Rhythm Around – I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed) / Memphis Blues / Doll Dance / Wolverine Blues / Black and Blue / Tico Tico – Besame Mucho / Root Beer Rag / Hymn to Freedom / Violet Wedding (A Song for Marcia) / Rubber Plant Rag / Ragtime Nightingale / Troublesome Ivories / Planxty.

Students of the music will notice some well-deserved homages to great composers and players: Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Nacio Herb Brown, Jimmy McHugh, Joseph Lamb, and a few slightly less expected sources: Oscar Peterson, Glenn Jenks, Billy Joel, and an original by Brian.  Ragtime, stride, novelty piano, deep blues, venerable pop tunes, and more.

The title of the CD — even for those who shy away from professional sports, like me — would explicitly suggest that virtuosic larger-than-life musical athleticism is in store.  And in a few instances that impression is correct.  Brian and Danny romp with great grace and power, and they can show off in the most impressive musical ways.  You won’t find players who are more deft at fast tempos than these two, and their quickest skirmishes still make great artistic sense: the listener never feels pummeled with notes.  They work together splendidly as a telepathic team, hearing each other’s impulses and subtexts as well.

But leave aside the gorgeous rapid beauties of the up-tempo performances –CHARLESTON RAG, DOLL DANCE, RUBBER PLANT RAG, TROUBLESOME IVORIES, to consider BLACK AND BLUE, which Brian says he began, musingly, in an effort to get into the mind of Thomas Waller — whose affecting song about racial prejudice this is. It is the most quiet and searching show-stopper I can imagine, beginning with pensive suspended chords, an improvisation that hints at Beiderbecke and Gershwin, before gaining emotional power as it climbs to a moving end.  I call it a show-stopper because once it had concluded, I was overpowered and needed to pause before moving on to the next track.

In an entirely different way, HYMN TO FREEDOM begins as a solo human being’s prayer — for what and to whom I leave to you — and ends up as a jubilant prayer meeting.  PLANXTY starts as a small utterance of grief and ends up a funeral procession, without its volume increasing that much.

But lamenting is not always what Danny and Brian have in mind.  Some of these duets are seriously cinematic: listening more than once to TICO-TICO / BESAME MUCHO, I found myself imagining the brightly colored musical film for which they had invented a provocative soundtrack.  I see elegant, formally dressed dancers all through RAGTIME NIGHTINGALE as well.  I have to say a word about TROUBLESOME IVORIES — perhaps too much autobiography — but had I the ability to dance, and a willing partner, I would not be typing these words now, being otherwise occupied.

The disc is beautifully recorded and, even better, splendidly sequenced, so one never has the sense of listening to ten or twelve minutes of the same thing. Piano and drums — no gimmicks, no novelty vocals or sound effects.  Just lovely music.

You can purchase the CD here.  Or you can find it on Facebook.

And . . . speaking of pleasures that won’t grow old quickly, the Holland-Coots Quintet has just released a new disc, a tribute to Fats Waller, THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL, with Marc Caparone, Evan Arntzen, Steve Pikal as the additional merry-makers.  I was at the sessions in Nashville in July 2017, and this band made thrilling music, which I wrote about here.  (Caution: HOT VIDEO ALERT.)

I will have more to say when the actual disc flutters into my mailbox.  And don’t let the title fool you: quantity purchases are not only legal, but medically-recommended.

May your happiness increase!

“HAVIN’ MYSELF A TIME”: PETRA VAN NUIS, ANDY SCHUMM, DAN BARRETT, ANDY BROWN, SCOTT ROBINSON, FRANK TATE, RICKY MALICHI (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, Sept. 16, 2017)

Photograph by Bill Klewitz

My title comes from a wonderful, lesser-known song by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, from a minor Paramount Pictures comedy, TROPICAL HOLIDAY — with Ray Milland, Dorothy Lamour, Martha Raye (possibly playing a matador) and Bob Burns.

We know the song because it was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1938.

And it was performed anew by Petra van Nuis and Friends at the 2017 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party.

Petra had herself a time with some of the best players I know: Ricky Malichi, drums; Frank Tate, string bass; Andy Brown, guitar; Andy Schumm, cornet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Scott Robinson, reeds; Noah Won, piano.

Petra, if you are new to her or her work, can also be seen having a wonderful swinging time at Cleveland here on Sunday morning with an entirely different cast of luminaries: John Di Martino, Nicki Parrott, and Hal Smith.

Rather like our swing ideal Rebecca Kilgore, Petra doesn’t choose to drown herself in melancholy on the bandstand: even when she sings EVENIN’, the brisk tempo reminds us that the grim lyrics are only half the story.  Her outlook is optimistic, as you will see and hear in these four wonderful performances.

She began with an upbeat song, almost a century old, SAVE YOUR SORROW:

After that encouraging beginning, Petra moved to “an old Billie Holiday song,” but you’ll notice she doesn’t attempt to be the Lady — no meow, no rasp:

Another song identified with Billie and Basie (built on DIGA DIGA DOO, I now know by hearsay), SWING, BROTHER, SWING — also a policy statement from the van Nuis camp:

And finally, a real pleasure.  Petra is tall and svelte, but here she extends an affectionate embrace to those who, like me, ruefully are neither.  It’s Fats’ SQUEEZE ME, with the shade of Mildred Bailey in the wings, grinning:

It is so dreadfully unpopular these days to suggest that jazz of any kind is “happy music”; to some it conjures up nightmarish visions of striped jackets and straw boaters.  But Petra and a first-class band create joy.

And here is her website, where you can see other videos, learn all about her and the Recession Seven, and find out where she’ll be appearing next.

May your happiness increase!

SOUL FOOD (Part Two): TERRY BLAINE and MARK SHANE (April 30, 2017)

A meteorological note.  Yesterday was the end of September, and it finally turned chilly.  (No more short-sleeved shirts, alas.)  Were I more traditional, I would be offering AUTUMN IN NEW YORK on the blog.  But I prefer music that warms from the inside out.

Singer Terry Blaine and pianist Mark Shane are heroes of mine, and if they are new to you, you have some catching-up to do, but it will all be delightful, as opposed to studying for the final.  I found them most recently at the United Methodist Church in Saugerties, New York, where I recorded their heartfelt performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s BREAD AND GRAVY.  Here are four more beauties from that same afternoon.

Fats Waller’s I’VE GOT A FEELIN’ I’M FALLING:

YOU BROUGHT A NEW KIND OF LOVE  TO ME, complete with Marx Brothers relish on the side:

The Fields-McHugh I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, with the lovely verse:

And a “new” bit of Fats-enhanced love, JUST AS LONG AS THE WORLD GOES ROUND AND ROUND:

A sustaining optimism, a warm embrace of the music and of us: Cupid’s arrows that turn into hugs.  Terry and Mark will have another duo gig at the end of January 2018 at Bernard’s Restaurant | Sarah’s Wine Bar (that’s 20 West Lane, Ridgefield, Connecticut).  Keep a warm space on your calendar for them.  Details to come.

May your happiness increase!