Tag Archives: improvisation

IMPROV CLASSES (May 15, 1938)

“We improvise our way through life,” wrote the seventh-century philosopher Sammut of Malta. And perhaps that’s why jazz is such an enthralling wellspring of inspiration: even on a record that we know by heart, we get to hear musicians maneuver themselves into impossible corners and slither out.  Houdinis of Swing and Stomp.

These two Decca sides are seriously neglected, even though they feature three of the strongest players in the John Kirby Sextet: drummer / vocalist O’Neil Spencer (1909-1944, tuberculosis) and two musicians who coincidentally ended their days as members of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars: pianist Billy Kyle and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Even before Spencer gained some fame with Kirby, he had lifted up many recordings by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and was a valued session player for the Variety and Decca labels, recording with everyone from Jimmie Noone and Willie “the Lion” Smith to Maxine Sullivan, Bob Howard, and a host of forgettable blues singers.  These sides come from the only session Spencer was able to be given leader credit, and I think they are remarkable. Often I think of the Kirby band as expert but polished, with some powerful exceptions: these sides are much looser and to me extremely gratifying.

BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COM HOME? is usually played as a slow drag or medium opportunity to ask the musical question.  Here, the imagined speaker must have been terribly eager or impatient, for the tempo is unlike any other. What a good singer Spencer was, and how nimbly Buster maneuvers those turns at top speed before the splendid drum solo:

LORNA DOONE SHORTBREAD (had someone brought a box of cookies into the studio?) features Buster’s singular tone, swing, and phrase-shapes; Kyle’s sparkling accompaniment and solo, and that rarity, a full chorus for Spencer, who is his own person but sounding much like a hot hybrid of Catlett and Webb:

I like, for a moment, to imagine an alternate Thirties-universe, where O’Neil Spencer was a regular leader of small-group sessions for Decca, singing and rocking the band.  I wouldn’t mind another thirty or forty sides with him out front, instead of (for one example) having to lug Milt Herth through a song.

And something extra: AFTERNOON IN AFRICA by the trio, easy and lyrical, showing that clarinet / piano / drums did not have to imitate Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa:

These three players embody great freedom, courage, and joy: I celebrate them not only as musicians but as models, showing us how to do it.

May your happiness increase!

THE JIMMY GRANT ENSEMBLE: “LYNN’S BLUES”

JIMMY GRANT photo

I met guitarist Jimmy Grant on one of my California sojourns, and was impressed immediately by the way he comfortably moved in and out of the predictable.  He is a superb Django-style player, someone who understands the master’s inherent lyricism, creating resonant melodies full of memorable phrases that don’t overwhelm the listener with notes.  (Many contemporary Django-emulators have innocently thought that the way to both be and outdo their inspiration was to play everything twice as quickly, to aim for powerful density, never realizing that Django’s masters — among them Louis — let their phrases breathe.  Jimmy knows this well.)  But Jimmy has also listened deeply to other kinds of improvised syncopated dance music that didn’t have to come out of a gypsy caravan.

JIMMY GRANT ENSEMBLE YT

Thus his new CD, LYNN’S BLUES, doesn’t sound like the QHCF in improved sound, able to play longer than an Ultraphone 78 side. Yes, there’s ROSE ROOM, TEARS, and J’ATTENDRAI (none of which I object to) but also several of Jimmy’s surprising, twisty originals, greatly pleasing on their own.  The members of the Ensemble are Javi Jiménez on guitar, Hanna Mignano on violin, and Jamie Mather on bass, with guest appearances by Bay Area luminaries Evan Price, violin, and Sam Rocha, string bass.

JIMMY GRANT ENSEMBLE CD pic

The music of the Ensemble is rewarding precisely because it is slippery, but in a very friendly way.  It is never museum-piece Hot Club recreation, but it is also not abruptly and self-consciously “postmodern.”  The venerable songs are outfitted with small pleasing touches — introductions and codas, playful shifts of instrumentation, and their firm tangible melodic strengths sing out proudly. Jimmy’s originals are indeed original — rather than being thin melodic constructs — but they embrace at the same time they enliven.

Here’s an audio-visual sample of one of Jimmy’s originals, BUNICAL, which is also the opening song on the CD:

And a version of Jimmy’s DRUNK, performed out-of-doors:

The Ensemble’s Facebook page is here, and Jimmy’s website is here.

Jimmy and friends create light-hearted music that is seriously worth investigating.

May your happiness increase!

BRIGHTENING THE CORNER: JOEL PRESS, MICHAEL KANAN, NEAL MINER at MEZZROW: PART ONE (July 26, 2015)

When I heard that Joel Press, tenor saxophone; Michael Kanan, piano; Neal Miner, string bass, were going to be playing a late-evening session at one of the two jazz shrines of West Tenth Street, Mezzrow, I got down there early to soak it all in — poems in music from three great lyrical poets.

Here are some highlights, and I do not use that word lightly.

Joel, Michael, and Neal tell us, without words, that melody matters, that the old songs are memorable, and that one can sing beautifully through one’s instrument in a community of friends.

THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU:

ALL OF ME:

WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE:

FOOLIN’ MYSELF:

AS LONG AS I LIVE:

LAST EXIT:

Another assortment of beauties to come in the near future.  The hymn BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE speaks to our responsibility to do good, to be loving — at a moment’s notice — no matter how secular the surroundings.  Mezzrow, seen through the constricting lens of my camera, might be dark, but the music is touchingly bright.

May your happiness increase!

THREE MOODS AT CASA MEZCAL: TAMAR KORN, DAN BLOCK, ROB ADKINS (May 24, 2015)

Tamar Rob Block

Most of you won’t need the identifications, but that’s Rob Adkins (string bass), Dan Block (clarinet and tenor saxophone), and Tamar Korn (voice, dance, improvisations) — recorded at Casa Mezcal (86 Orchard Street, New York)      on Sunday, May 24, 2015.  These are the three closing performances of a long rewarding afternoon where these brave improvisers went chordless — allowing them great freedom and even more playful room to soar.  At times I thought of three people heading in the same general direction, aware of one another, but each one doing a singular dance.

LOVER, COME BACK TO ME with a gorgeous a cappella verse by Tamar:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, scored impromptu for string bass, clarinet, dance and percussion effects:

STARDUST (the brilliant request of our friend Richard Basi), which results in a singularly moving exploration — brave and sweet — like no other version. I dedicate this one to Debbie White, who is always dreaming of a song:

It was a beautiful day, so many of the regulars at Casa Mezcal had found outdoor cafes or parks to linger in: thus, it was as if these three brilliant explorers were performing in a living room.  All acoustic, you’ll notice also.  Magical and unforgettable.

If you missed my previous postings, here and here you can savor ten more performances from this delicious afternoon.  Thank you, Rob, Tamar, and Dan, for such sweet explorations of worlds known and unknown.

May your happiness increase!

“BUT, GEE, IT FEELS GOOD”: MORE FROM TAMAR KORN, ROB ADKINS, DAN BLOCK at CASA MEZCAL (May 24, 2015)

The neophyte at a jazz performance asks with the proper mixture of curiosity and awe, “How do they know what they are doing, I mean, without any music? How do they know where they are going?”  Deep questions, and the musicians can answer in terms of experience, craft, practice, the common language.  All true. But I’d suggest it comes down to a combination of courage and faith — faith in what they feel, in the deep listening necessary to make any collaboration work, and the courage to launch oneself into the blue air, with expertise and a delight in risk as equal factors.  How lost can you be with friends to support you when you strike out into the unknown . . . making it known and beautiful?

I think of Emerson’s SELF-RELIANCE embodied over a swinging, melodic four-four heartbeat.  I’ve written here about the music made by Tamar Korn, voice; Dan Block, reeds; Rob Adkins, string bass, on a sunny Sunday afternoon — May 24, 2015.

Here are three more beautifully surprising and satisfying explorations by this trio, where the original melodies and harmonies are never obliterated, but the formal boundaries are delightfully made elastic.  Song becomes speech becomes sound; singing becomes theatre; solo becomes accompaniment; tempo and pitch are flexible and meant to be so. Beautiful sounds become the reason these there are where they are, and we are grateful.

Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING:

Irving Berlin’s most tender declaration of unbroken fidelity, ALWAYS (at such a beautiful tempo):

Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s most wistful SKYLARK full of birdsong:

This music is bold and gentle both, a remarkable offering. And a few more marvels will emerge in time.

May your happiness increase!

IMPROMPTU FOR VOICE AND CLARINET: “MOOD INDIGO,” TAMAR KORN / MARK LOPEMAN at CASA MEZCAL (January 25, 2015)

At the conclusion of last Sunday’s brunch at my new musical oasis Casa Mezcal (86 Orchard Street, New York) pianist Jon Weber had to rush off to another gig.  But the other members of the ad lib trio, Tamar Korn and Mark Lopeman, still had music bubbling up inside of them, so they launched into this lovely impromptu duet:

Creating such beauty is a brave and wonderful act.

I imagine an intimate concert, perhaps in someone’s house, devoted to Tamar and friends — an evening of duets with a changing cast of characters.

Until that day, we have MOOD INDIGO.  Magic.

May your happiness increase!

BEAUTIFUL IMPROMPTUS: DAN LEVINSON, BOB HAVENS, KEITH INGHAM at the ALLEGHENY JAZZ PARTY (September 20, 2014)

In my deepest jazz self, I hold to what I would call the Condon aesthetic: that nothing beats a group of like-minded musicians assembling for a common purpose — creating swinging lyrical improvisations — on the spot, with no arrangements, nothing more formal than a mutually agreed-upon song, tempo, key, and perhaps someone volunteering to play lead in the first chorus.  After that, the players live utterly in the moment.  Sometimes this freedom makes for collisions, but more often it results in the kind of pleasure one lives for, the moments when the tight collars have been unbuttoned, the painfully fashionable shoes have been kicked off.

Last September, at the Allegheny Jazz Party (debuting with great success in Cleveland, Ohio) these impromptu delights happened many times in the three-day banquet of sounds.  But one session has remained in my mind as a high point of playful unfettered collective improvisation — a trio set led by Dan Levinson, clarinet and tenor, with two of The Singular Elders, Bob Havens, trombone; Keith Ingham, piano.  The combination of a reed instrument and trombone works beautifully but isn’t often attempted these days.  There were bebop precursors and swing ones, but the tonal ranges of the two instruments are delightfully complementary.  The trio of piano and two horns requires a certain orchestral approach to the piano, although I am sure that Monk or Herbie Nichols would have done splendidly here, too — but Keith is a full band in himself.

With pleasure, then —

(WHAT CAN I SAY, DEAR ) AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY:

SEPTEMBER SONG:

A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN:

Thank you, Messrs. Dan, Bob, and Keith.

And, although it’s only January, the 2015 Allegheny Jazz Party is a sure thing for September 10-13, with a delightful lineup (although there is the asterisk that indicates “All programs subject to change”: Duke Heitger, Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart, Andy Schumm, Harry Allen, Dan Block, Ken Peplowski, Scott Robinson, Bill Allred, Dan Barrett, Howard Alden, Marty Grosz, Andy Stein, Ehud Asherie, James Dapogny, Mike Greensill, Rossano Sportiello, Jon Burr, Nicki Parrott, Frank Tate, Ricky Malichi, Pete Siers, Hal Smith, Rebecca Kilgore, Wesla Whitfield, Faux Frenchmen.  To keep up to date with what’s happening at the AJP, visit here.

May your happiness increase!

TWO-PART INVENTION: JON-ERIK KELLSO / EHUD ASHERIE at MEZZROW (Dec. 16, 2014)

Two of my great musical heroes, brave playful inventors: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Ehud Asherie, piano.  Recorded live at Mezzrow, 163 West Tenth Street, New York City, December 16, 2014.

Here’s a wondrous example of sustained synergy: Eubie Blake / Noble Sissle’s BANDANA DAYS turning the corner into Morton’s WILD MAN BLUES, nearly twelve minutes of jazz splendor:

We dare not take such beauty for granted.  (Translation: go see and support live jazz, wherever you are.)

May your happiness increase!

THEY’RE SWEET ON SUE: CARL SONNY LEYLAND, MARTY EGGERS, JEFF HAMILTON (JAZZ BASH BY THE BAY, March 8-9, 2014)

I admire improvisers who can return to familiar material and approach it with freshness — in the way the great forebears did, playing the same tunes night after night.

Here are two very energizing examples of that kind of creative improvisation — performed in 2014 at the Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey, California, by Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Marty Eggers, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums — variations on a 1928 pop tune, Victor Young’s SWEET SUE, JUST YOU.

The first gallops, nearly violently; the second (offered in the first set of the morning) is more gentle but no less swinging. Carl said he had played SWEET SUE at every set: had there been no other bands competing for my attention, I would have liked to record and present all six or seven versions. These two will act as evidence of the beautiful living music that Carl, Marty, and Jeff offer so generously.

SWEET SUE (late in the evening of March 8, 2014):

SWEET SUE (perhaps fourteen hours later, March 9, 2014):

I remind you that the Jazz Bash by the Bay is delightfully in gear for March 2015. Here is their Facebook page, and here is their band lineup for that happy event, with the Carl Sonny Leyland trio fourth from the top.  A good thing.

For those who have no intention of waiting until March, Carl and his trio will be at the San Diego Jazz Fest a week from now — details here. Hope to see you in both places.

May your happiness increase!

(CAFE) DIVINE INSPIRATION: LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO, IN LIVING COLOR (Part Two: June 15, 2014)

Good things happen at Cafe Divine (1600 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California) — the food and the North Beach ambiance — but for me the best things happen on the third Sunday of each month, when the Esteemed Leon Oakley, cornet,and Craig Ventresco, guitar and banjo, improvise lyrically on pop tunes and authentic blues for two hours.  I posted four performances from their satisfying June 15, 2014, session here. I was taught as a child to share . . . so here are five more beauties, in living color both in the view and the soaring improvisations.

STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (with Craig on banjo, delightfully):

BLUES IN F (nothing more, nothing less — evoking Joseph Oliver):

MARGIE (that 1920 lovers’ classic):

And two songs that make requests — one spiritual, connected to Bunk Johnson and Sidney Bechet, LORD, LET ME IN THE LIFEBOAT:

and one secular — I think of Pee Wee Russell with TAKE ME TO THE LAND OF JAZZ:

Which they do.  More Divine Music to come.

 May your happiness increase!

(CAFE) DIVINE INSPIRATION: LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO, IN LIVING COLOR (Part One: June 15, 2014)

Have you been? I refer to the hot chamber music sessions created by Maestro Leon Oakley and Professor Craig Ventresco — improvising on classic themes — held at Cafe Divine, 1600 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California, on the third Sunday of each month.

Here are the first four of a dozen treats — in living color visually as well as musically:

SOMEDAY SWEETHEART:

A SHINE ON YOUR SHOES:

I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU:

MOONGLOW:

May your happiness increase!

“THINK ABOUT THAT LEAD”

Louis Armstrong said it clearly: “. . . there’s people all over the world, they like to hear that lead.  Ain’t no sense playing a hundred notes if one will do, Joe Oliver always used to say, ‘Think about that lead.'”

What many people cherish in the music they call jazz is improvisation.  I understand this: much of the pleasure in hearing a jazz musician at work or at play is observing the new beautiful structures (s)he builds on familiar melody, chords, and rhythms. Consider Lester Young playing I GOT RHYTHM.  As I write now, someone is creating something lovely and surprising on familiar themes. Experienced listeners can discern the original structure as they admire the variations on the theme.

But melody still has so much to say to us, to give us, and while melodic embellishment with a swinging harmonic and rhythmic underpinning may not be the only way to present creative improvised music, it can still be deeply satisfying.

Two examples, from mid-1946: Bunk Johnson, trumpet; Don Ewell, piano; Alphonse Steele, improvising on melodies that were “pretty” and well-established even then.  KATHLEEN was written in 1875; DOLL in 1911:

and

I don’t espouse this as the only rewarding way to play, but it still sounds very good to me.

May your happiness increase! 

FEATHERY MUSIC, GENTLE QUESTIONS: LENA BLOCH

I’ve always heard that attorneys only ask questions to which they know the answers. I have nothing against them individually or as a group, but this seems like a closed loop of an endeavor.  The tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch is on a more inspiring track: she asks questions for which there might be no simple answer, no single answer.  Asking the question is the purpose and the rewarding result. I have been admiring her musical inquiries as often as possible during the last few years our paths have intersected in New York City, and have seen her as a very authentic player — someone devoted to melodic explorations that, while gentle, have weight and seriousness to balance off their soaring possibilities.

ajazz bloch

Lena has a wonderful new CD, FEATHERY — it’s her debut CD as a leader, and as you read this it will be available, as a physical CD or as downloads, with sound samples, hereShould you prefer to voyage up the Amazon, you can ask your own questions and purchase a copy here. It’s on Thirteenth Note Records, and Lena’s curious, inventive colleagues are drummer Billy Mintz, string bassist Cameron Brown, guitarist Dave Miller.

Knowing can easily be confused with wisdom. Lena Bloch, Dave Miller, Cameron Brown, and Billy Mintz are deeply aware that real wisdom is in the tireless asking of questions, not an irritable straining to come up with the one right answer.  Their willingness to inquire, this gentle wondering, informs their music.   Rather than treat this grouping of players and voices as it usually is done (ensemble line, solos, drum fours, ensemble), they often take the opportunity to ask questions of the music itself.

The music created by these four artists is far more subtle and affecting than hearing another jazz quartet working its own variations on Playing What We Already Know.  The art – for let us call it by its right name – is feathery-light and durable.  I hear Lester Young and Brahms, sorrows and exultations, Eastern meditation and collective invention.

The music is strong and sweet, dense and welcoming.  The musicians have sensations to share with us, secrets made tangible, their language too deep for words.

Lena Bloch does not announce herself as courageous, and I think she would start giggling if you told her this was the case.  But she surely is.  Her artistic courage is not a matter of being big, bold, and loud. She approaches the music with tender reverence.  But she is not afraid to venture into new spaces in pursuit of beauty.  Her models and mentors  knew that the cosmos could be dark and terrifying, but the only human response to the void was to speak, through playing and composing, know how to keep terrors at bay.  I will fill the air with floating sounds. I will be brave enough to say WHO IS OUT THERE? I will soar above on feathers of melody.

Lena’s friends and colleagues on this disc are equally inspired. They trust themselves, and their loving energy comes through in every note sounded.  They fly happily. No sun dares to melt their wings.

And the music on this disc continues to resonate once the disc has concluded.  Billy, Dave, and Cameron are great painters of sound. They listen to their hearts; they listen to their instruments; they listen to each other. They create a world where Beauty is not only possible, but inevitable. Their sounds will guide us into the darkness and into the light.  Hear them, and be uplifted.

I’m not the only one who admires Lena’s questing spirit and FEATHERY: here is Dan McCleneghan’s review in All About Jazz.

Once you’ve visited Lena’s website and seen more of the videos there, once you’ve heard FEATHERY, you could attend a quartet gig at the most convivial of spaces, The Drawing Room, on 56 Willoughby Street in Brooklyn, New York: Sunday, March 30, at 7:30, and the group will be Lena, Putter Smith, string bass; Dave Miller, and Billy Mintz.

Whatever ways you can, find and find out more about Lena Bloch.

May your happiness increase!

JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience.  Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there.  Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.

Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper.  It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.

Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company.  What magical music would we have now?”  They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.

Third story.  Time: 2014.

I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive.  And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing.  When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water.  Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.

The disc lasted about an hour.  It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs.  I know, I know.  Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?

I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful.  Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?  Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings.  A Johnny Hodges slow blues.  Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD.  Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.

I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.

Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.

And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.

I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go.  They are all around us.

May your happiness increase! 

A NEW CD: PETER BERNSTEIN, SOLO GUITAR, LIVE AT SMALLS

If you know jazz guitar in its truest sense, the news of a new Peter Bernstein solo CD is cause for delight, especially because it is his first solo recording. If he is new to you, I offer some evidence of his way with beauty:

(Recorded 2012 with pianist Michael Kanan at the Drawing Room, Brooklyn, New York.)

I don’t know at what point the guitar became the most popular instrument in the world — surely it has been so for the last half-century and more.  It looks easy: all the notes are visible, laid out in logical ways; there is nothing to blow into, no reeds to fuss over, but the neophyte finds out in the first half-hour that the guitar is a trap for the unwary.  Yes, one can walk up and down one string at a time; one can move simple chord patterns up and down the fretboard, but making music from the guitar — beautiful music — is a far more treacherous affair.

Peter Bernstein has long since become a Master of that instrument, and a Master of sweetly elongated melodies.  He doesn’t affect a hard-edged tone; he doesn’t need many notes to show us how vigorously he has practiced his scales; his solos don’t leave us exhausted.  Rather, he has a sweet, temperate sound on the instrument, but it’s not aural wallpaper: his notes ring and chime; his chords shimmer.  On this disc, he explores medium-tempo classics and ballads in a leisurely manner, but his approach is full of surprises: he plays orchestrally, so that a single-line statement will be punctuated by pulsing, mobile chords, with harmonies that offer new ways of hearing the familiar. At the end of a Bernstein performance of the most familiar song, one feels it has been revisited lovingly, its virtues shining, its faults (if it has any) tenderly concealed.

A Bernstein solo at first seems like a collection of delicate traceries, an iridescent spiderweb in the sunlight.  Then you realize that although his playing is easy to listen to, it is never Easy Listening, a lullaby for the half-conscious listener.  Heard attentively, one realizes that Bernstein’s delicacy is based on assurance and strength — a strength that isn’t expressed in volume or power, velocity or granitic chord-clusters, but a certainty: he is exploring but never indecisive, never tentative.  One listens to a small symphony unfolding, chorus after chorus, building structurally from note to note, phrase to phrase, until the whole improvisation has its own shining three-dimensional shape.

BERNSTEIN cover

The CD was not a thing of splices and patches, not created in the laboratory of the recording studio, but performed “live” in front of a quiet audience at Smalls (183 West 10th Street) in downtown Manhattan on October 16 and 17, 2012. The songs are a deliciously melodic mix: DJANGO / I LOVE YOU / CREPUSCLE WITH NELLIE / PANNONICA / STAR EYES / YESTERDAYS / DON’T BLAME ME / GIANT STEPS / WISE ONE / THE TENDER TRAP / TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS / AUTUMN IN NEW YORK / GONE WITH THE WIND / PUT YOUR DREAMS AWAY — a welcome emphasis on medium-tempo saunters and deep romantic ballads.  Even if you feel you’ve heard these songs a thousand times, you will make room in your memory for these new interpretations.

The disc is well-recorded, with empathic notes by pianist Spike Wilner . . . and I believe that profits from its sale benefit not only Peter but the club itself, a small quirky landmark of the world jazz scene.  It is an honor to hear Peter Bernstein go his own way as he does on this CD.

All albums (I believe the label has issued forty so far) are currently available through iTunes, Amazon (CD only), HDtracks (high-resolution) and at www.smallsjazzclub.com.

May your happiness increase!

MICHAEL KANAN and NEAL MINER: “A CASUAL JAM SESSION / THREE TUNES”

Get ready for twenty minutes of deep passion, as two masters of swinging melodic improvisation play in serene surroundings, exploring THREE TUNES (as the title says): Michael Kanan, piano; Neal Miner, string bass and cinematography.

The THREE TUNES are Artie Shaw’s MOON RAY; Hoagy Carmichael’s THE NEARNESS OF YOU (with its pretty, rarely-heard verse); TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT (with a short Technicolor interlude where the two masters make sure the chords are right — and, later, for those with sharp ears and senses of humor, a very brief nod to Bill Haley and the Comets).

Casual listeners can enjoy the beautifully mobile music; more serious students of the music will find much to admire . . . delicate, generous interplay; the beautiful tone both Michael and Neal get out of their instruments; their intuitive balance between melodic exposition and more adventurous improvisations.

May your happiness increase.

“SWING, STRIDE”: STEVE GRANT at the PIANO (2012)

swingstride

This CD is accurately titled.  Pianist Steve Grant (from Australia) does both — neatly, wittily, and spicily.  The disc’s subtitle is “some good old jazz favorites,” which is also truth in advertising.

There aren’t any liner notes for the disc, so I hope Mr. Grant forgives me if I write the lines that I think should be there.

Many players in these idioms good-naturedly make the error of overwhelming the listener with their technique.  An Ellington original — a stride showpiece eighty years before this — was called LOTS O’FINGERS, and they take that ornateness as their goal.  Volume and tempo follow, and the result can be a density that is impressive but exhausting.

Not Steve Grant.  He can play at rapid tempos (the opening SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE is anything but languid, and HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN suggests high tides!) but his playing is lucid, clear.

I thought of the 1935-7 Wilson solos (with a more experimental harmonic range), anchored by a light stride bass opened up with walking tenths and rhythmic suspensions.  Grant is not a gifted imitator, stringing together phrases laboriously learned from the recordings: he is an improviser, going where his impulses lead him.

On each track, he shows himself to be a master of implying: he doesn’t stress or lean on the listener, “Look!  I can really Get Hot, can’t I?”  Rather, a Grant solo is a series of small playful excursions, “Was that a tango I just heard going by?  Quick, look out the window!”  But he leaves himself and the listener a good deal of space, and the overall effect is, “That’s so simple.  If I practiced a bit more, I could play like that,” what I call the Bing Crosby Effect.  Another illusion, as anyone who sits down at the piano finds out.

Most of the tracks toddle along at a rocking medium tempo, but each one has its own delightful explosions.  LAURA, for instance, is full of quite remarkable right-hand arpeggios that show a harmonic imagination that’s anything but simple.  THE MIDNIGHT SUN combines optimism and melancholy with understated emotional power.  And Grant makes it possible to hear BODY AND SOUL without decades of familiar accretions on its hull.

But Grant — because he seems to be so simple — continually tricks us.  The first chorus of THESE FOOLISH THINGS might lull us into complacency,”Oh, he’s just playing the melody,” and then we wouldn’t notice the sweet, quietly subversive things he does in the choruses that follow.  Only a musician with a deep sense of humor and an expansive conception of what it means to improvise would or could create such rewarding music.  This CD is well worth investigating, and I’ve kept on being surprised by it on repeated playings.

The disc offers SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE / OLD FASHIONED LOVE / LAURA / BABY WONTCHA PLEASE COME HOME (I reproduce this title exactly) / THE MIDNIGHT SUN WILL NEVER SET / THESE FOOLISH THINGS / HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN / BODY AND SOUL / DID I REMEMBER / PASSPORT TO PARADISE / BYE BYE BLACKBIRD.  It was recorded in the Echidna Studios, Yarra Glen.

Here’s the SHOP page on his website.  And here you can hear other solo performances recorded at home — I hope I won’t hurt his feelings by saying the piano sound is less than studio-quality.  (P.S.  As Julius Yang has pointed out below, it’s a kind of electronic piano.  So I hope I did not hurt Steve’s or the piano’s feelings.)

But the playing is delightful.  (As an aside, I first heard Grant on record as a shining member of Bob Barnard’s crew — at the jazz parties captured on NifNuf Records — then as a cornetist, superbly, alongside guitarist John Scurry on a Judy Carmichael trio CD — details here — he is something special!)

May your happiness increase.

IMPROVISATION FOR TWO, PLEASE, JAMES

This melancholy 1935 song is rarely performed, perhaps because it’s difficult to sing the lyrics with a straight face, but the melody has its own morose charm.  (I know that both Al Bowlly and Nat Cole did their best — as did Putney Dandridge and, in our time, Marty Grosz — but the song has some of the melodramatic flavor of a late-eighteenth-century novel.)

The singer — butler to a wealthy man for a half-century (the verse) and the aristocrat himself (the chorus) are people seemingly untouched by the Depression.  And the lyrics tell of “Master’s tragedy,” a marriage broken apart by a vile lie.  The verse, as always, tells the story:

James has been butler to Mister B. for fifty years,

Come August three.  

And he still remembers the night

Of his master’s tragedy.

Master’s best friend was a Mister J.,

James didn’t like him from the first day,

He knew his type

And the game they play.

That night James laid dinner as usual for two

And the air felt heavy as lead,

The master came down, there were tears in his eyes,

And he tried hard to smile as he said:

CHORUS:

Dinner for one, please James,

Madam will not be dining,

Yes, you may bring the wine in,

Love plays such funny games.

Dinner for one, please James,

Close madam’s room, we’ve parted,

Please don’t look so downhearted,

Love plays such funny games.

Seems mybest friend told her of another,

I had no chance to deny,

You know there has never been another,

Some day she’ll find out the lie.

Maybe she’s not to blame,

Leave me with silent hours,

No, don’t move her fav’rite flowers,

Dinner for one, please James.

Love plays such funny games, but great jazz improvisers create much more.  Here are trombonist Mike Pittsley and pianist John Sheridan, swing alchemists, making something timeless of Michael Carr’s melody:

What a beautiful performance! — subtle but never coy, honoring the melody but not entombed in it.  “Tonation and phrasing,” indeed — in the way that Sheridan keeps the rhythm moving while creating beautiful translucent harmonies, making a clear path for Pittsley to sing out the melody and his variations on the theme.

I had the opportunity to visit with John Sheridan at Chautauqua (a great pleasure) and I look forward to meeting Mike Pittsley for the first time at San Diego . . . they are, separately and together, masters of quietly affecting melodic embellishment.

May your happiness increase.

SMILING WITH GOOD REASON: JON-ERIK KELLSO and EHUD ASHERIE in DUET at SMALLS (April 5, 2012)

Musicians onstage at Smalls jazz club (183 West Tenth Street, Greenwich Village, New York City) perform in front of a large poster of Louis Armstrong, smiling, fashionably decked out in his new London togs, circa 1932.

It wasn’t my imagination — you can see for yourself — Louis was smiling even more blindingly for the first two sets of April 5, 2012, when trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and pianist Ehud Asherie — deep musical friends — created one delightful improvisation after another.  (Echoes of Louis and Earl Hines!)  And seated near me was portrait photographer Lorna Sass, who has generously shared two portraits with JAZZ LIVES.

Jon-Erik and Louis. Photograph by Lorna Sass. Copyright 2012

Here’s the first set.

The Rodgers and Hart THOU SWELL — for Bix or just for fun:

Something very sweet and heartfelt, by Sissle and Blake — LOVE WILL FIND A WAY:

Did you see a bunny?  It’s our pal COTTON TAIL:

THANKS A MILLION (for Louis — and only Jon-Erik plays the sweet verse):

More Sissle and Blake!  A romping I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY:

James P. asks one of the few questions really worth asking: AIN’T CHA GOT MUSIC?

Ehud Asherie -- both of him -- at the piano. Photograph by Lorna Sass. Copyright 2012

Second set:

Something for and from Tom Waller: UP JUMPED YOU WITH LOVE:

Did you go shopping?  I FOUND A NEW BABY:

Another delicacy from Louis — IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN:

Let’s swing a while with SWEET SUE:

You knew CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS.  But I’ll bet your fourth-grade history teacher never taught that C.C. “used the rhythm as a compass”:

I was smiling broadly, too.  You can see and hear why, can’t you?

May your happiness increase.

ROLLICKING! WHIT SMITH and MATT MUNISTERI: “HELL AMONG THE HEDGEHOGS”

The new CD by Whit Smith, Matt Munisteri, and Tim Luntzel,  HELL AMONG THE HEDGEHOGS is a delight, so varied and lively, that I have found myself playing it twice in a row, enjoying it more each time.

I know that you can’t listen to the cover, but even the wry drawing (the cover of an imagined hip children’s book) by Ariella Huff says something about the CD’s witty, swinging sensibility:

Some of you will be ready to order it right now — so why should I burden you with details?  You can accomplish that goal right here or (if you feel Amazonian) here — or if you like all things Baby, then here.

I always think that the absolute best way, should you want a tangible disc, is to buy it from the artist at a gig — doubling your pleasure and the artist’s — but I know that isn’t convenient for everyone.

Whit and Matt, peerless guitarists, romp on “two old Gibson electric guitars,” with their distinctive sound — and are joined by the fine string bassist Tim Luntzel.  The sessions were recorded in 2010, and they sound real, with no studio trickery or tension.  The final track comes from a live session at Barbes in Brooklyn — and has some impromptu crowd support, as is appropriate.

Guitarists will want this disc immediately: it is a casual, playful series of tumbling conversations between two players who swing intuitively, whose epigrammatic phrases and long lines ring in the mind.  The brief comments on the back of the paper sleeve distinguish Whit and Matt for those not immediately familiar with the sound of each player: “Whit’s sound is more compact and warm; Matt has more treble and gloss; Whit is tighter and dry; Matt is slithery and wet.  Whit is hedgehog, Matt is muskrat.”

Now we can move on, having cleared that up.

The sound of the three string instruments suggests — at turns — shirt-sleeved daredevils on the shady porch, creating new paths through familiar melodies, taking their time.  At times a ringing phrase suggests Bix or Louis, George Barnes or Chet Atkins — or the local train meandering through the history of intimate swing playing of the last ninety years.  You’ll hear a barn dance and a Harlem jam session of 1941.  Nothing drags or races; everyone explores the open vistas of rocking Medium Tempos in light-hearted ways.

Whit sings ALONG THE NAVAJO TRAIL; Matt offers SINGIN’ THE BLUES with the never-heard verse.  Those two selections will indicate the wide range of the nine songs: from obscure pop songs to hokum to jazz classics to one by Eldon Shamblin and Tiny Moore, YOU JUST TAKE HER.  The songs show a deep immersion in the jazz tradition — MUSKRAT RAMBLE, DEEP HENDERSON, a Coleman Hawkins line, TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING; a Sidney Bechet tune, OKEY DOKE.  But don’t think that this CD is jazz archaeology, dusty jazz idolatries.  Certainly not.  The classic lines are used as foundations for energetic, joyous playing.  The title track — an original by Whit — is a left-handed consideration of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (to my ears) full of surprises.  And no CD that ends with YOU’RE BOUND TO LOOK LIKE A MONKEY WHEN YOU GROW OLD (one of those tough truths no one wants to hear) can be overly serious, can it?

I never cared much for muskrats and hedgehogs before this, but I’ve changed my mind.  You will, too.

EV’RYTHING WE LOVE: CHRIS DAWSON at the PIANO

I wrote recently in praise of the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists.  Chris Dawson is a wonderful embodiment of that tradition — with his own special touches.  Here he plays Cole Porter’s EV’RYTHING I LOVE . . . music that lives up to its title.  Delicacy, strength, gentleness, melodic and harmonic subtleties all blossom forth here:

I would contribute to the Chris Dawson School for Pianists — in the name of the best, most enlightening kind of higher education — watch this and see if you don’t agree!

JOEL PRESS and SPIKE WILNER and DWAYNE CLEMONS at SMALLS (Nov. 17, 2011)

It’s always a delight when reedman Joel Press comes to town, and he proved that once again in his duets with pianist Spike Wilner at Smalls (West 10th Street, Greenwich Village, New York City) on November 17, 2011.

I’ve admired Joel’s playing for some time — first on record, then live — his soulful way of exploring a melody without being tied to familiar harmonic patterns . . . but he never loses the thread.  And although he denies this (“How could a Jewish boy from Brooklyn sound like a Southwest tenor player?”) he has deep roots not only in Lester but in Herschel and that moaning saxophone sound.

Spike was a mature player when I first heard him perhaps six years ago — lithe, swinging, witty, surprising — but now he sounds like a pianistic version of 1957 Coleman Hawkins: he knows the risks and rewards of throwing away the polite rulebook of jazz-school-piano and he often sounds like someone who has decided to let his deepest impulses guide him — without a life vest — and those impulses take him and us to wonderful surprising places.

Both players, also, have a fine sense of the past: Joel lives in 2011 but sneaks glances back at 1944 and 1956, and Spike is always playing / playing with walking tenths and stride bass patterns (as well as hilarious glances at the Swing repertoire, such as I FOUND A NEW BABY seen out of the corner of his eye).

Here are two performances — complex, surging but delicate — by this duo, a pair of masterful conversationalists who point the way for each other and for us at every turn.

A strong-willed reading of IT’S YOU OR NO ONE:

An improvisation on OUT OF NOWHERE:

Spike and Joel invited trumpeter Dwayne Clemons up to join them for a leisurely look at Sonny Rollins’ BLUE SEVEN — both forward-looking and affectionately Basie-flavored.  At times I thought I was listening to Nat Cole, Illinois Jacquet, and Harry Edison time=traveled to Greenwich Village, Autumn 2011.  And that’s a compliment, even though none of the players had any desire to imitate anything:

This is one version of what improvisation is supposed to sound like!