Tag Archives: HArlem stride piano

A BEETLE-SIGHTING!

Piano

Yes, you read that right.  But it’s not a termite swarm or something to fear.  No, rather it is two minutes of the legendary stride pianist Stephen “The Beetle” Henderson, playing James P. Johnson’s KEEP OFF THE GRASS on a radio broadcast circa 1940, introduced by Art Hodes.  I assume this is from the period when Hodes had airtime on the New York City municipal station — what we now know as WNYC:

I assume that Henderson got his mildly unflattering name because of wearing thick-lensed eyeglasses.  But there’s nothing to satirize in his playing.  Yes, a few modern masters I know could and would play this more “cleanly,” but Henderson’s version has the earthy gaiety of a dance, and his bass patterns are beautifully varied.  Thanks to the generous BlueBlackJazz for sharing this masterpiece in miniature with us.  I’ve subscribed to that YouTube channel and I encourage you to do so as well.

I have found no solid biographical information about the Beetle, except that he was praised by Ellington, and that (this may be apocryphal) he was notoriously relaxed about showing up for gigs.  This version of KEEP OFF THE GRASS, however, comes from a record called HARLEM STRIDE MASTERS on the Euphonic label, and the record also includes the Beetle’s version of CAROLINA SHOUT.  I’d love to hear that someday also.

It is possible that all might be revealed to us.

May your happiness increase!

 

 

 

to https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQQFZcDOcAjIk4kwNujo3gw

JAMES P.’S SPACIOUS UNIVERSE

Someone unknown to me — a generous anonymous benefactor — has posted on YouTube two of the irreplaceable 1939 piano solos by James P. Johnson.  I think they are uplifting creations that never grow over-familiar.

BLUEBERRY RHYME, Johnson’s own musing original composition, has not only several strains but feels multi-layered, as if two moods were moving along in time and sound throughout the piece.  One is sweetly, sadly ruminative — thoughts of a solitary seeker in a meadow, perhaps, with calm and loss intermingled.  The other is joyous — all of James P.’s most elegant trickeries offered to us at half-speed and half-volume, so that we could think, for an evanescent moment, “Hey, I could play the piano like that if I only practiced.” In this stratum, we hear what so many pianists — Tatum, Fats, Basie — worshipped and borrowed from him.  (There’s a tinkling figure at :20 that Tatum nipped off with and made his own.)

Is BLUEBERRY RHYME sweet thoughts of home, or of a love that might have been, musings on a pie, or something private to James P.?  We cannot know, but we can enter this world for a few minutes, its gently rocking motions and lingering melodies both comforting and elusive.

BLUEBERRY RHYME is followed by one of my favorite interludes, a joyous yet stately romp on Edgar Sampson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE.  This recording has been one of my consolations and dear musical friends for perhaps forty-five years, and it not only provides happiness but embodies it.  Within the first ten seconds — that prancing bassline, the treble chords announcing the melody — we know we are somewhere elation is the common language, where all will be given over to the dance.

Each chorus is a complete utterance in itself, and each chorus’ variations look backwards to its predecessor and anticipate what is to come.  Stride piano is also misunderstood by some as a metronomic left hand with a freer but rhythmically-obedient right hand creating variations in its own realm, but notice the playful elasticity between the steady bass lines and the widening rhythmic freedom of the treble, in a playful push-and-pull that we feel as the performance continues. The dance gets more and more ambitious, but James P.’s time and volume are both steady delights, and form is never abandoned.

Compare, for instance, the opening chorus where the melody is explicitly stated in contract to what happens at 5:30, magical in itself. Although the performance has offered a certain ornateness, the thrilling competitive display the Harlem players loved, here James P. seems to pull back into softer enigmatic utterances, offering space and an abstraction of what he has been playing instead of attempting to dazzle the hearer even more.  And the three ascending chords at 6:19!  So simple and yet so memorable.  On my admittedly untuned piano, they are a C, D, and E — the first do re mi of a beginning student, but what ringing sounds they are here.

Should I end my days in a hospice, I hope I will have these recordings with me to take on the journey.  And I exult in them now.

Hear for yourself:

Coincidentally, James P. was the subject of a brief cyber-discussion the fine pianist Michael Bank and I were having, and Michael (lyrical in prose and music) wrote that James P. “creates a portal to the universe.”  James P. Johnson was and is his own universe, vast, inviting, heartfelt.  How fortunate we are to hear such beauty!

(Blessings on the often-imperious John Hammond, who booked the studio time in 1939 to make these recordings and treasured them when Columbia Records would not issue them, saving them for future generations.)

I have heard that Mosaic Records is preparing a James P. Johnson set.  Talk about DREAMS coming true.

May your happiness increase!

THEY’RE THE TALK OF THE TOWN: THE BARNHARTS, JEFF AND ANNE, COME OUT TO PLAY at MONTEREY 2013 (as IVORY&GOLD)

It might take a village to raise a child.  But it only takes Jeff and Anne Barnhart to entertain an audience for an hour.  Jeff (piano, vocals, puns) and wife Anne (flute, voice, comedy and organization) held a group in thrall at the 2013 Dixieland Monterey / Jazz Bash by the Bay — with a delightfully varied program, mixing stride piano, sweet and raucous singing, vaudeville, old songs and new, sentimental melodies (that’s a compliment), Broadway and film songs.  It all swung; it was all expertly done and masterfully improvised.

Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, I present IVORY& GOLD (named after aspects of their respective instruments), Jeff and Anne Barnhart!

BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN / PINEAPPLE RAG:

A wild and woolly version of THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU:

WATER FROM AN ANCIENT WELL:

EXACTLY LIKE YOU:

ALICE IN WONDERLAND:

IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN:

For the felines among us, MEMORY:

Bob Barta’s I’M IN HEAVEN:

‘S’WONDERFUL:

TENDER IS THE NIGHT / I GOT RHYTHM:

You can follow IVORY&GOLD here — Jeff and Anne are always on the move, which means you have a better-than-average chance of seeing and hearing them in person someday soon.  Jeff’s singular website can be found here.

May your happiness increase!

SPREADIN’ RHYTHM AROUND, 2013: MIKE LIPSKIN STRIDES!

I’d heard pianist Mike Lipskin in New York City in the Seventies, and treasured his recording with his mentor Willie “The Lion” Smith, CALIFORNIA HERE I COME — appropriately — but what the Beloved and I heard tonight at San Francisco’s Pier 23 was a delightful revelation.  Mike led a trio with Clint Baker, trumpet and clarinet, and Paul Mehling, leader of the Hot Club of San Francisco, guitar.  Their interplay was delicious — a gleeful tossing back and forth of phrases and musical ideas — but Mike has remained one of the contemporary giants of Harlem stride piano.

Stride playing is an athletic art (ask anyone from Stephanie Trick to Dick Hyman to Rossano Sportiello) and even the greatest players occasionally falter as they come out of middle age.  Mike Lipskin’s fastball still blazes.

It’s not simply that he plays rocketing tempos, but his time is steady (no matter what the groove) and his inventions dazzling without being exhibitionistic.  And his style is his own — not simply a collection of mannerisms learned from the Lion and the great players he heard and followed — Donald Lambert, Cliff Jackson, and others.  So although he may whimsically offer a Fats gesture or a Lion roar, he is always creating small surprises, key changes and small modulations in the manner of a far less rococo Tatum.  He doesn’t call attention to such things, and they could slide by listeners absorbed in the greater aural picture, but his playing is a series of small explosions that serve the song rather than detract from it.

Mike, Clint, and Paul offered music that was at once complex, endlessly rooted in the traditions and common language, but remained sweet and clear.  Special pleasures were several Ellington medleys, a rocking SPREADIN’ RHYTHM AROUND, a somber I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA, a sweet MEMORIES OF YOU and IF I HAD YOU, and a few hallowed but little-played Thirties songs, ZING! WENT THE STRINGS OF MY HEART and I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU — all played in ways that were both witty and heartfelt. Clint and Paul distinguished themselves by deep melodic playing, taking risks, and swinging out in ensemble and solo.

Someone as devoted to his video camera as I am occasionally takes a rest: I’d decided it would be a refreshing way to spend an evening with the Beloved where I wasn’t staring at the viewfinder, so there is no video evidence to accompany this.  But anyone willing to spend an extra minute on YouTube can find videos of this trio captured by the assiduous RaeAnn Berry . . . and I might have some good things for JAZZ LIVES in future.  Mike will be playing solo at Bix Restaurant in San Francisco this coming Saturday and two Sundays a month (call ahead) and you can visit here to keep up with his schedule and recordings.

He’s absolutely genuine: a true explorer of those sacred arts.

May your happiness increase!

A WONDROUS TRIO (September 2009)

Three by three . . .  Or perhaps the Jazz Magi, bearing gifts . . . .

On Friday night at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua, after the initial fireworks and ballad medley, the stage cleared for something out of the ordinary: a long duet set pairing the irreplaceable tenor saxophonist Harry Allen and the youthful-but-remarkable Ehud Asherie, making his debut appearance at this party.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I had recommended him to director Joe Boughton . . . who was delighted.)  The sets at Chautauqua are usually compact affairs, but Joe gave this duo ample room to stretch out.  Then Ehud added a proven musical catalyst to the mix by inviting trombonist Dan Barrett up to the stage.  I’ve been a Barrett enthusiast since 1987: he’s a natural-born wonder, as readers will know. 
“Tonation and phrasing” in splendid ways.  Two horns and a piano might seem lopsided, but Harry and Dan were clearly having a ball, conversing in swing time, and Ehud’s orchestral playing kept everything on track.  In fact, one of the pleasures of this mini-session is in watching Dan’s face, beaming at Ehud’s playing and Harry’s — we get to beam at Dan’s work in front of our own screens. 

They began with a slow-medium SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY, ruminative but never stodgy, that reminded me of the private recordings Timme Rosenkrantz did in his apartment in 1944-5, with musicians stretching out, letting their solos build in the most relaxed way, everyone taking his time . . . to great effect.  I also think of it as Lester Young Keynote tempo!  Or is it Ben Webster with Jimmy Rowles?  And the riff that they drift into with such ease, leaving space for Ehud to comment and ornament . . . before moving into his own slow, striding world.  Catch Dan’s explosion in the penultimate chorus (it caught me by surprise) and the slow-motion rocking of this trio — an art much more difficult than playing fast and loud:

I didn’t recognize the verse of the next selection, although it seemed subliminally familiar: when the trio hit the chorus at the sprinting pace Ehud had chosen, I knew it was James P. Johnson’s CHARLESTON, which is such a wonderful (and rarely played) piece of jazz Americana.  Like two friends who know each other’s minds so well, Dan and Harry fill in the spaces in each other’s phrases in the most delightful way, with Ehud rollicking along with them (is that a bit of bossa nova I hear before he launches into full Harlem-rent-party stride?).  Then, memorable interplay, and an ending that is abruptly hilarious or is it hilariously abrupt?:

Finally (what could follow that?) Ehud went back to Irving Berlin (and Fred Astaire) — always reliable — and called I’M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE BASKET, a song that brings out a surprising emotions in the horns, especially Mr. Allen.  And in Ehud’s ringing declarative solo, I hear the Giants — Fats, James P., Willie the Lion, Don Lambert, and others.  You’ll find your own delights — the hot telepathy Dan and Harry create before Dan decides to suggest that we carry our basket on to the A train: 

(This clip is at points obscured by a dark figure who turned out to be Joe Boughton with an eye on the clock, which was a pity: this trio could have jammed all night, and we would have begged for more.  But perhaps it’s not right to be greedy: three marvelous group improvisations at this level should be enough for anyone!)