Tag Archives: Hoagy Carmichael

SWEETLY UPLIFTING: The MICHAEL McQUAID SAXOPHONE QUARTET

I’ve been thinking about the saxophonist Chuck Wilson, who left us on October 16 (my post about him is here).  Chuck came from a tradition where the saxophone made beautiful melodic sounds and blended with other reeds — he was a consummate section leader.  It’s a tradition sometimes overlooked today, where it occasionally feels that everyone wants to be a soloist, at length.

But the tradition has been splendidly recalled and embodied by our friend, the brilliantly imaginative multi-instrumentalist, Michael McQuaid in his recent musical gift to us: four musical cameos inspired by the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet of 1929-30.  The arrangements by Michael — lovely translucencies, swinging and tender — were recorded “with minimal rehearsal” (I emphasize this to hail the professionalism of the players) in the UK on July 27, 2018.

I think of these performances as modern reworkings of classical string quartets, but with a particular harmonic delicacy applied to popular songs of the day, with hot solos implied, delightful counterpoint, and a compositional sense: each arrangement and performance has a wonderful logical shape, a light-hearted emotional resonance.  Each performance rewards repeated listening.  (I cannot play MY SIN just once.)

The remarkable players are Michael McQuaid (first alto); David Horniblow (second alto); Simon Marsh (tenor); Tom Law (baritone).

IT WAS ONLY A SUN SHOWER, which I associate with Annette Hanshaw, Barbara Rosene, and Tamar Korn:

OUT OF THE DAWN, by Walter Donaldson, from 1928, recorded by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra:

WASHBOARD BLUES, whose arrangement is inspired by the 1926 recording by Hitch’s Happy Harmonists, with composer Hoagy Carmichael at the piano:

MY SIN, by DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, also associated with Annette Hanshaw:

I wasn’t the only one astonished by the arrangements and the playing, and I wrote to Michael to ask, “When’s the CD coming out?  When’s the concert tour?”  No one else is making music like this anywhere.

Michael responded on Facebook:

Once again, this video features great playing from some of London’s best saxophone players. Their musicality is all the more remarkable when one considers this is closer to sight-reading than a fully-rehearsed ensemble.

A few of you have asked whether I’m going to release these recordings. Well, yes – they’re on YouTube anytime you want! But properly producing a full album of this material would require significant rehearsal followed by hours in the studio, and hence probably a wealthy philanthropic benefactor (please message me if that might be you!).

In the meantime, I’ll keep writing saxophone quartet arrangements until I have a whole concert’s/album’s worth. It’s been great reading your positive words on these videos, and I’m glad if I’ve been able to draw attention to the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet and their beautiful 1929 records. Our musical heritage is filled with many such neglected treasures, ready to leap into the present (and the future) with only a little of our time and attention.

Since some readers might not have heard the originals, here (courtesy of generous Enrico Borsetti) is the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet playing BABY, OH WHERE CAN YOU BE?:

I haven’t found out much about Merle, except that he played clarinet, alto, and tenor, was born in upstate New York, and lived from 1897 to 1978, and was a renowned saxophone teacher.  Michael told me that Merle’s students included Larry Teal and Joe Allard (each became a highly influential saxophone teacher in his own right), as well as famous players such as Buddy Collette and Frank Morgan. His legacy is probably more lasting as a teacher than as a player or bandleader!

Merle’s recording career — according to Tom Lord — ran from 1923 to 1930, with Sam Lanin (alongside Red Nichols), Isham Jones, Seger Ellis, the Ipana  Troubadours, Jack Miller, a young fellow named Crosby.  He was friends with Leo McConville, and he led his own band called the Ceco Couriers, which alludes to a radio program supported by a product: in this case, CeCo radio tubes, advertised in the October 1928 POPULAR SCIENCE (the tubes “cost no  more but last longer”).

Did Merle leave the New York City studio scene after the stock market crash for the security of a teaching career?  Can it be that no one interviewed him or one of his pupils?  Incidentally, when I do online research on someone obscure and find that one of the resources is this — a JAZZ LIVES post I wrote in 2011 — I am both amused and dismayed.

“Research!” to quote Lennie Kunstadt.  Calling David Fletcher!

And here’s another gorgeous quartet record, this one of DO SOMETHING:

I post the two Merle Johnston “originals” not to show their superiority to the modern evocations, but to celebrate Michael’s arranging and the playing of the Quartet: to my ears, fully the equal of the antecedents.

Listen once again, and be delighted.  I am sure that Chuck is pleased by these sounds also.

May your happiness increase!

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EV’RY STAR ABOVE / KNOWS THE SOUNDS WE LOVE: DANNY TOBIAS, SCOTT ROBINSON, CHRIS FLORY, PAT O’LEARY at THE EAR INN (May 13, 2018)

I’ve been told that I sound like a New Yorker, which doesn’t surprise me, although I think there are many strains of New Yorkishness, all subtly different. But to think I carry the inflections of my native land even when I’m in Sedalia, Missouri, for the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, is pleasing.  So before I walk two blocks to hear more delightful music, I will offer some genuine sounds of New York for you, wherever you may read this.

I made another trip — a pilgrimage, rather, to the shrine for delicate and forthright creative improvisation (call it what you will), The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City, on Sunday, May 13.  And the spiritual guides for that evening convocation were Danny Tobias, various brass instruments; Scott Robinson, taragoto, tenor saxophone, and other instruments; Chris Flory, guitar; Pat O’Leary, string bass.  Here are three splendid songs and improvisations created for us by four splendid players.

Hoagy Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR, at a very Bixian tempo:

Victor Young’s SWEET SUE, now ninety years old:

KANSAS CITY MAN BLUES, associated with Sidney Bechet, but theoretically written by Clarence Williams:

I couldn’t stay for the second set — my semester was still hobbling to a close — but I hope to make it to The Ear Inn more often this summer.  You should, too.

May your happiness increase!

DREAMING OF A SONG: JON-ERIK KELLSO, RAY SHERMAN, EDDIE ERICKSON, JOEL FORBES, JEFF HAMILTON (Ascona, July 2, 2000)

Oh, what marvels lie in the archives!

I had to wait until September 2004 to meet Jon-Erik Kellso in person, although I’d been hearing him on CDs from his earliest Arbors recordings with Rick Fay in 1991 and a little later with James Dapogny.  Earlier today — as a respite from reading student essays — I posted a trio of his performances in August 2017 with Chris Flory and Joel Forbes, which you can savor here.

But our good friend, the generous and talented Enrico Borsetti, has just offered something special from a set by Dan Barrett’s Blue Swing, performing at Ascona on July 2, 2000 — Jon-Erik’s performance of STAR DUST, which I would call a “rhythm ballad,” poised between melancholy introspection and rocking motion. I’d call it quietly majestic, its passion always evident but controlled — soul in action, alongside Ray Sherman, piano; Eddie Erickson, guitar; Joel Forbes, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, sound-painter with a drum kit.  Hear and admire for yourself:

I am delighted to reside on Planet Kellso, where beautiful dreams become reality.  An honor.

May your happiness increase!

“YOU HAD TO WORK FOR YOUR MUSIC”: DAN MORGENSTERN on RECORD-COLLECTING (April 21, 2017)

More delightful memories and stories from Dan Morgenstern.  I’d asked him, “What was it like to buy records in the Forties?” — a scene that few people reading this post have experienced.

First-hand narrative: there’s nothing to compare with it.

Here’s another part of the story of Big Joe Clauberg, as excerpted from Amanda Petrusich’s excellent book, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE.

I took my title for this post from Dan’s recollections of his first phonograph, a wind-up acoustic one, but it has larger meaning for me.

There is still something wondrous about going in to a shop that happens to have a pile of records — an antique store or something else — getting one’s hands dirty, going through a pile of mail-order classical records, red-label Columbias of Dorothy Shay, incomplete sets, and the like — to find a 1938 Brunswick Ellington, Teddy Wilson, or Red Norvo.

Later, the pleasure of going in to an actual record store and looking through the bins — name your dozen favorite artists — and finding something that you didn’t know existed — in my case, recordings of the Eddie Condon Floor Show on Queen-Disc.  More recently, the same experience with compact discs at now vanished chain record stores.

All gone.  The alternative?  Stream forty hours of your cherished jive through one of the services that doesn’t pay the musicians.  Oh, there are happy exceptions: the Blessed Mosaic Records.  But nothing replaces finding treasure on your own.

And, in case the thought hasn’t yet occurred to you, Dan Morgenstern is one of those treasures.

Here’s one of the sides from Dan’s birthday present:

May your happiness increase!

SOUL FOOD (Part One): TERRY BLAINE and MARK SHANE (April 30, 2017: Saugerties, New York)

Let me say simply that hearing Terry Blaine and Mark Shane is an honor.  If you don’t know their work, I think I might be able to sway a few listeners to share my view.

Terry has one of the warmest voices I know.  Her love for the music, for the people and places depicted in it, and for the audience — all come through in the first four bars of any song.  Although she is a swinging, lilting jazz singer — she feels that groove! — she is a folk singer in the truest sense, in that she sings of us and to us, holding us in a warm embrace.  No tricks, no rehearsed ad-libs, no gimmicks: just heartfelt communication.

Mark is known as a marvelous pianist, someone who has absorbed Alex Hill, Hank Jones, and Albert Ammons — but it all comes out Mark Shane, and we are glad.  His touch is delicate, his phrases and phrasing his own, but his swinging roots are deep.  And as an accompanist, he is a perfect friend and brother, saying without words to Terry, and to us, at every turn, “Yes, that’s right.  Please lay some more of that good message on us.  Lord knows we need to feel that love.”

The song I’ve picked to highlight here is a little-known Hoagy Carmichael number from the early Thirties, BREAD AND GRAVY, recorded by only a few people, starting at the apex, with Ethel Waters and Barbara Lea.  I’ve added Terry’s performance to that list since hearing her do it in person a few years ago — and this time, she and Mark outdid themselves.  On the surface, the lyrics speak of the Depression-era solace one could find when there was food on the table, enough food, and good food — down-home delicacies with enough for seconds. But the song speaks to so much more: there’s “peace and quiet” and “good-night kisses,” which are pleasures that anyone in any circumstances might long for.  Or be very glad that they were happening.

(With all due respect to the justly-honored Mr. Carmichael, BREAD AND GRAVY isn’t a memorable instrumental line in the abstract: it sounds to me like an early-Thirties riff, rather like Fats’ CAN’T WE GET TOGETHER.  Hoagy’s brilliance is, however, in the marriage of those gloriously simple words and the emotions they invoke, conceiving it as a ballad for a singer to linger affectionately on those long tones, and that bridge!)

To me, this performance, for a few minutes, creates a homespun ideal of a world — where no one’s hungry, bereft, or alone — shining and tangible. What a great gift to be invited into that universe and to be comforted by it.

As we were at the Saugerties United Methodist Church, Saugerties, New York, April 30, 2017:

Soul food?  Beans and bacon, certainly.  But a large helping of the gentle feelings that nourish our inner selves.  And as one who revels in the possibilities of making something evanescent stay around longer through videography, I know I’ve gone back and back to the Blaine-Shane kitchen for more.  Thank you, Terry and Mark, for feeding us so well.

May your happiness increase!

“MISTER GLOOM WON’T BE ABOUT”: JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, FRANK TATE at LUCA’S JAZZ CORNER (Dec. 22, 2016)

luca-jazz-corner

Feeling lower than a snake’s belly?  Or perhaps is “fump” the objective correlative for now?  (Milt Hinton would be happy to explain.) Is the inside of your skull terribly dark these days?

This might help.  The elixir of life mixes the inspiring shades of Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael with the real-life inspirations offered us by Jon-Erik Kellso, Evan Arntzen, Rossano Sportiello, Frank Tate and someone holding a video camera — on December 22, 2016, at Luca’s Jazz Corner (1712 First Avenue, New York City).  There are no artistic or audible flaws in this video, but there are a few seconds where the focus blurs.  I wasn’t trying out new special effects, but the bright light from above confused the camera’s little brain.  However, blessedly, the sound is unaltered.  Hear for yourself:

Here is more evidence of the cosmic happiness that took place that night: RUNNIN’ WILD and FINE AND DANDY.  Incidentally, a young musician (I believe he plays trumpet) named Wynton Marsalis came in for the second set.  I am sure that he inspired the band, but I am even more sure that this delicious quartet inspired him as well.  As they did me.

Jon-Erik will be bringing a quartet back to Luca’s on March 23, 2017.  I plan and hope to be there.  You should come too.  (Other heroes — Gabrielle Stravelli, Michael Kanan, Pat O’Leary, and Ken Peplowski — have gigs coming up.)

May your happiness increase!

FROLICSOME, THEN TOUCHING: MENNO DAAMS AND FRIENDS HONOR HOAGY CARMICHAEL (RICHARD EXALL, DAVID BOEDDINGHAUS, MARTIN WHEATLEY, GRAHAM HUGHES, JOSH DUFFEE) at the MIKE DURHAM CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY, November 6, 2016

menno-daams

Menno Daams is one of the great trumpet players (arrangers, composers, bandleaders) of our era, but, better yet, he is a sensitive imaginer, someone who understands intuitively how to make even the most familiar standards glisten.

He does it here in his brief but very fulfilling tribute to Hoagy Carmichael at the 2016 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party, with the help of five kindred spirits who get the feeling and never lose it: Josh Duffee, drums; Graham Hughes, string bass; Martin Wheatley, guitar; Richard Exall, tenor saxophone; David Boeddinghaus, piano.  (And — consciously or unconsciously, perhaps because one thinks of Louis and Hoagy in the same moment — there are two lovely delicate slow-motion homages to Louis as well.  You’ll hear them.)

For RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, rather than go all the way back to Bix — with the Wolverines or with Trumbauer — Menno and band take what I would call a 1936 Fifty-Second Street approach to this song, with echoes of Berigan or Hackett, Forrest Crawford or Joe Marsala, Teddy Wilson or Joe Sullivan, Carmen Mastren, Sid Weiss, and Stan King — light-hearted yet potent):

A thoughtful, gentle exploration of LAZY RIVER:

Then, something gossamer yet imperishable, a medley of SKYLARK / STAR DUST that begins as a cornet-guitar duet, and then becomes a trio. But allow yourself to muse over David’s incredibly deep solo exposition:

And because we need a change from those subtle telling emotions, Menno offers an audio-visual comedy, then THANKSGIVING, featuring a rocking and rocketing solo by Josh.  Appropriate, because I was thankful then and continue to be now:

Menno’s website is here; his Facebook page here.

Speaking of thanks, I owe some to the generous and expert Cine Devine, Rescuer Par Excellence and creator of fine jazz videos.

May your happiness increase!