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!

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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!