Tag Archives: head arrangements

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!

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GORDON AU’S GRAND STREET STOMPERS with TAMAR KORN at RADEGAST (March 30, 2011)

The Grand Street Stompers (led by trumpeter, composer, and arranger Gordon Au) made a return visit to the Radegast Bierhall on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 — and I got myself there without mishap.  Brooklyn is still mysterious to me, but the mysts are beginning to lift.

With Gordon were Emily Asher (trombone), Dennis Lichtman (clarinet), Peter Maness (bass), Nick Russo (guitar and banjo and the proud father of five-month twins!), and Tamar Korn.  A small firmament of jazz stars (who will blush at this characterization).

Please listen to the band — not only the soloists, but to the textures they and Gordon create, moving back and forth between the Creole Jazz Band of 1922 and the Birth of the Cool of 1949 and the Grand Street Stompers of 2011.  No dull spots or routines: nifty head arrangements, split choruses, a neat orchestral sensibility!

I always found W.C. Handy’s OLE MISS irresistible — named for an especially speedy railroad train — whether it was played by the Condon gang at Town Hall or by Louis and the All-Stars.  This version pleases me immensely: its leisurely, rocking tempo and the alternating keys (I asked Gordon — F and Ab) from chorus to chorus.   And I love impromptu riffs:

Here’s Gordon’s own THIRTIETH STREET THINGAMAJIG, which would sound like a Sixties “Dixieland composition” (and that’s a compliment) until you notice the unusual chord changes throughout.  Not the usual thing or thingamajig at all:

How about going UP A LAZY RIVER with Miss Tamar?  A good idea:

Is it true that Glenn Miller was working undercover for Eisenhower and the entire “small-plane-and-bad-weather” story was made up to conceal the facts?  It wouldn’t surprise me (Joe Yukl would now)  . . . but what we have here is a pretty rendition of his theme, MOONLIGHT SERENADE, with unusual twists — Bubber Miley meets the Schillinger system:

And here’s CRAZY EYES — a hilarious modern love song with music and lyrics by Gordon.  To learn the lyrics, I think you’ll have to purchase the Stompers’ new CD . . . watch this space for late-breaking news:

Thank you, gentlemen and ladies of the GSS!

MARTY GROSZ IN THE GROOVE! (Chautauqua 2009)

It was Friday night at Jazz at Chautauqua — September 2009.  The crowd was still working on their late dinners and drinks, chatting with the people they hadn’t seen since last year, when Marty Grosz and his Esteemed Esthetes of Swing (my name, not his) took the stand in the Athenaeum ballroom.  Before he began one of the performances, he took a long time scat-singing the tempo he wanted, and when someone must have looked quizzically at him, he said, earnestly, “It’s the groove.  Gotta find that groove!” which the band did, as the four performances that follow will show.  The distinguished participants: Duke Heitger, Bob Havens, Dan Block, Keith Ingham, Vince Giordano, and Arnie Kinsella.

They began (Marty’s vocal nearly obscured by the crowd chatter) with Bill Robinson’s DOIN’ THE NEW LOW DOWN, resulting in many dancing feet in the audience, although everyone as far as I know remained seated:

Next, an Isham Jones composition, which begins in the best Castillian manner, recalling the Bob Crosby Bobcats, SPAIN:

In memory of Louis Armstrong, J. C. Higginbotham, and Sidney Catlett, Marty suggested I DOUBLE DARE YOU:

Finally, a medium-tempo exploration of one of the oldest of the Old Favorites, BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME?

Everything that enlightened jazz listeners could want: hot solos, keen tunes, singing that harks back to Fats and Red McKenzie, a Basie rhythm-section passage, an eloquent bass sax solo, head arrangements and more.  Stirring stuff, no?