Tag Archives: improvisation

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!

SOLID SENDER: JAMES DAPOGNY at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 16, 2011)

Sixty years ago, I would have called Jim Dapogny (that’s Professor Emeritus James to some of you) a solid sender — someone we could count on to “send” us, to inspire us as soon as he began to play the piano.  The term now has the odd mustiness of archaic slang, but the praise still applies.  Whether he’s taking his time with a rhythm ballad, rocking the blues, or developing a swing cathedral-in-the-air (consider the three variations on LIZA here), he is a full-scale orchestral pianist, creating fascinating textures as he goes and always keeping the rhythm moving — a genuine treasure.

Here’s his informal concert from Sept. 16, 2011, at Jazz at Chautauqua:

I didn’t recognize his opening song, which didn’t surprise me — Jim has often found and shared obscure compositions with us (last year it was Victor Schertzinger’s MY START) but this one has a wonderful Thirties flavor.  Since I had never seen the Diana Ross “biography” of Billie Holiday, I had missed out on HAD YOU BEEN AROUND — with its oddly formal title — but I loved this Dapogny evocation.  Now I don’t have to see the film, ever:

Jim says that he is strongly influenced by Jess Stacy and Joe Sullivan (as well as a long list of pianists famous and obscure — including Hines, Morton, their colleagues and descendents) — here’s his homage to Mister Stacy, REMEMBERING JESS STACY:

Professor Dapogny’s casual erudition is always at the service of the music (I’m sorry I never got to sit in on one of his classes) — here he comments on W.C. Handy’s ATLANTA BLUES, borrowed in large part from MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR:

Scrapper Blackwell’s melancholy I’M GOING HOME (or is it I’M GOIN’ HOME?):

And two American classics — BODY AND SOUL, played as if generations of jazz players had not yet walked through or over it:

To conclude, a taking-his-ease version of LIZA that works up a lovely head of steam:

All hail James Dapogny, poet and expert barrelhouse pianist!

A CASUAL GIG IN MARTINEZ, CALIFORNIA (Aug. 25, 2011)

Armando’s in Martinez has beer, wine, and a good deal of jovial amusement from a fairly local audience who came to hear the band.  This little bar / club / hangout is located on 707 Marina Vista; it features a variety of good music, as the regulars know.  See their schedule (and the painted chairs) at http://www.armandosmartinez.com

But I went to see and hear a particular band: Mal Sharpe’s BIG MONEY IN JAZZ (a whimsical title for sure) — drawn from a floating collection of players.  On August 25, 2011, the band was Mal (trombone, vocal, and stern leadership), Jim Gammon (trumpet), Dwayne Ramsey (reeds), Jeff Hamilton (piano), Simon Planting (bass), Roy Blumenfeld (drums).  (Mal’s group appears at Armando’s on the last Thursday of each month and at other venues as well.  But he’s got too many identities to harness them into one website — Google “Mal Sharpe” and see for yourself.)

It’s rewarding to know that this version of jazz — loose and unbuttoned but expert — still thrives.  I admire Jim’s power and precision, Dwayne’s passion and expertise.  And Mal is very modest about his trombone playing, but he’s devoted to Vic Dickenson, and some of that humor and slyness comes through.  (Mal is a splendid bandleader as well: years in show business of every variety have taught him how to make an audience feel comfortable in minutes.)  Simon’s bass and Roy’s drums have their own individualistic sounds, and Jeff (yes, that Jeff Hamilton) creates swinging clouds at the keyboard — from stomp to impressionism in the space of a solo, most rewardingly.

Hear what this band does with four jazz classics.

Hello, Central, give me DR. JAZZ:

LADY BE GOOD:

SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET:

ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

It’s reassuring that bands like this still exist, and that places like Armando’s provide a comfortable place for them to play — and the audience was having a good time.  What more could anyone want?

JESSICA ROEMISCHER’S GENEROUS IMAGINATION

The imagination of pianist Jessica Roemischer is roomy and ranging.

At the keyboard, she creates cathedrals of sound: visible, tangible, not just audible.  Improvising on familiar themes — the blues, traditional melodies, folk songs, hymns — she may begin with plain-spoken melodic lines, simple chords.

She doesn’t rush; she doesn’t intimdate the listener by jumping into complexities before the music is ready for them.  She takes her time.  A murmuring, rumbling bass becomes more turbulent water.  Blue notes make themselves felt in surprising places.  Her harmonies deepen; her chords grow more dense, each sonority given its own space to echo before a new cluster tumbles in.  Single-note lines give way to arpeggios, creating impressionistic washes of sound and timbre.  Clouds and rippling pools emerge from treble and bass; simple lines and chords become a conversation, then an orchestra.

The listener sees something three-dimensional ascend towards the sky, its base solid, its foundation broad, its spires reaching upwards, large but never imposing.  And her improvisations settle and become more quiet; then, the listener is back on the ground, enriched and delighted.

I have heard and seen this in performance: she wove together the strains of SHENANDOAH and WALTZING MATILDA, slowing down the latter to match its American cousin, making the intertwined melodies both mournfully yearning and hopeful.  AMAZING GRACE moved from quiet simplicity to great cloud-rhapsodies of sound and back to an eloquent plainness.

Here is one version of AMAZING GRACE — but it is only one set of variations on a theme.  Roemischer is a true improviser, bravely venturing, her vistas unrestricted, but always honoring the melody and its harmonic richness.

Roemischer has a new solo CD, called HAVEN, which mixes traditional material, Sixties pop, Bruce Springsteen, and her own lilting originals.  It’s a rewarding series of journeys, inward and outward.  Visit her at http://www.pianobeautiful.com.

THE HEART OF THE SONG: ABIGAIL RICCARDS and MICHAEL KANAN (June 12, 2011)

Abigail Riccards and Michael Kanan inspire awe and wonder.

I experienced this first-hand in a small Brooklyn studio last Sunday, June 12, 2011, and share the music with you here. 

These two artists created music full of feeling but never “dramatic.”  Each song had its own pliant shape, with unaffected casual intensity and splendor. 

Abigail has a speaking directness.  Her mobile voice arches into long tones and soaring phrases; she lives within the lyric and the melody she is singing.  She makes each song full of small peaks of intelligence and emotion. 

Hear, for instance, how she handles the words “drop a line” in Wilder’s I’LL BE AROUND.  Her TOO LATE NOW is almost unbearably poignant yet it doesn’t whimper or carry on.  Her approach is at once serious and joyous.  BLUE SKIES cavorts. 

And although these songs are not new — each one has powerful ghosts standing behind the curtain to upstage the living artists — Abigail takes her own small liberties and makes them work, turning IN LOVE IN VAIN (one of the saddest songs I know) into something a little more resilient, in the same fashion that Billie Holiday recreated TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE as her own nearly defiant statement. 

Abigail’s singing touched everyone in the room: even in the videos here, you can feel their powerful quiet empathy and delight.  I hear a great artistry.

Michael is a poet at the keyboard with none of the pretense some have brought to that role.  I think often of Jimmy Rowles when he plays, and at times of the witty, pointed spareness of John Lewis.  Like Abigail, he never overacts, never calls attention to himself in some look-at-me way, but you can’t help but pay attention — both to what he is creating and what trodden ways he is wisely avoiding. 

His sound is lucent; his pauses are knowing and subtle; he is a master of light and shade and shadow.  At its most serene and quiet, his playing is resonant. 

The art of accompaniment might be the most arduous of endeavors, and Michael is the most generous of partners, sweetly creating just the right sound-shape to make the singer or players around him seem even better. 

And these two artists create a delicate yet powerful musical world in duet — their playful energies complementing each other.  They are gracious; they are polite; they don’t interrupt each other’s sentences, but together they make something wise and subtle and rich that wasn’t there a minute before. 

They offer and enact deep calm and brave experiment.

LUCKY TO BE ME:

TOO LATE NOW:

YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

IN LOVE IN VAIN:

THE MORE I SEE YOU:

I’LL BE AROUND:

I’M OLD-FASHIONED:

ALL THE WAY:

BLUE SKIES:

EV’RY TIME WE SAY GOOD-BYE:

Throughout this performance, I kept feeling it was an honor to be in the same room, a privilege to witness and record such art.  I still do.

“WILD REEDS AND WICKED RHYTHM” at The Ear Inn (June 5, 2011)

Last Sunday, June 5, 2011, was an unsual evening at that Soho mecca of swing, The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, New York City) in that a band that wasn’t The EarRegulars was playing. 

It was a reunion of sorts for an inspired hot band of individualists that hadn’t played regularly for some time.  In 2005-6, this band had a regular Wednesday-night gig at The Cajun (a now-departed home for jazz in Chelsea).  The quartet was led by banjoist / singer / composer Eddy Davis, who called it WILD REEDS AND WICKED RHTYHM.  The title was more than accurate, and I miss those Wednesday nights.

Eddy’s compatriots were most often Scott Robinson on C-melody saxophone; Orange Kellin on clarinet; Conal Fowkes or Debbie Kennedy on string bass.  Sitters-in were made welcome (an extraordinary visitor was cornetist Bob Barnard) — but this little quartet didn’t need anyone else.  It swung hard and played rhapsodic melodies, as well as exploring Eddy’s own compositions (they had a down-home feel but the harmonies were never predictable).

At the Ear, this band came together once again — Eddy, Scott, Orange (up from New Orleans), and Conal (catch him singing Cole Porter in Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) — as well as second-set guests Dan Block and Pete Anderson on saxophones. 

Eddy had grown a fine bushy beard since the last time I saw him, but nothing else had changed — not the riotous joy the musicians took in egging each other on, the deep feeling, the intuitive ensemble cohesiveness, the startling solos . . .

Here’s a tune that all the musicians in the house love to jam!  No, not really — it’s a fairly obscure Washboard Rhythm Kings specialty circa 1931 that I’ve only heard done by the heroic / illustrious Reynolds Brothers.  It has a wonderful title — Eddy tried explaining it to a curious audience member when the performance had ended, with only mild success — FUTURISTIC JUNGLEISM:

Time for something pretty, suggested by Pete Anderson — MEMORIES OF YOU:

And a finale to end all finales — what began as a moody, building WILD MAN BLUES (running ten minutes) and then segued into a hilarious-then-serious romp on FINE AND DANDY . . . reed rapture plus hot strings! 

If that isn’t ecstatic to you, perhaps we should compare definitions of ecstasy?

A SPLENDID TRIO, A HOT QUARTET

Two new CD releases from Arbors Records live up to their titles. 

A SPLENDID TRIO brings together Scott Hamilton, tenor sax; Howard Alden, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass, to play THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE / THE DUKE / GUESS I’LL HANG MY TEARS OUT TO DRY / I WON’T DANCE / SWEDISH PASTRY / UPPER MANHATTAN MEDICAL GROUP / WITH SOMEONE NEW / RUSSIAN LULLABY / CHANGES / JUST ONE MORE CHANCE / INDIAN SUMMER. 

THE INTERNATIONAL HOT QUARTET combines Duke Heitger, trumpet; Paolo Alderighi, piano; Engelbert Wrobel, reeds; Oliver Mewes, drums, for HAVIN’ A BALL / SIDEWALK BLUES / LINGER AWHILE / WHEN DAY IS DONE / OPUS 1/2 / LOCH LOMOND / CHEVY CHASE / PEE WEE’S BLUES / FOUR BROTHERS / WOKE UP CLIPPED / DYNAFLOW / PENTHOUSE SERENADE / KING PORTER STOMP / WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR / SLEEP.

Decades ago, jazz fans and journalists divided themselves into “schools” and “camps” — words harking back to childhood — for battles that seem truly childish now.  If you admired Jelly Roll Morton’s 1926 Victors, then you railed against the corrupting influence of Swing and hid under the bed when someone played a Dial Charlie Parker 78.  Some of this was heartfelt; some of it musicians defending their little slice of the jazz turf, some of it now seems just efforts to get journalists to pay attention.   

But since the Feathers and Bleshes and Ulanovs are no longer with us (although some musicians still bristle at jazz that doesn’t sound exactly like their ideal), we can relax into a musical continuum that goes back to ragtime and forward to post-war Mainstream . . . in fact, all the way up to 2011 and beyond.

So the first thing to notice about these two discs is the happy breadth of repertoire: Strayhorn and Giuffre hang out with Morton and Eubie; Twenties and Thirties pop songs sit neatly next to more “modern” lines by Kessel and Sir Charles; Bix and Brubeck, Disney and Ben Webster get along just fine.

This ecumenical understanding — that beauty is beauty, no matter what its source might be — doesn’t become a flattening sameness, where every performance sounds alike.  The International Hot Quartet harks back to the John Kirby Sextet, Fats Waller and his Rhythm, Maxine Sullivan, Louis, and many other small groups — but it’s not a repertory project.  And the Splendid Trio (musicians who worked with and learned from Ruby Braff) is another marvel of ensemble cohesion and individual sounds.  Neither CD is a ragged blowing-session; both benefit greatly from subtle arranging touches: my favorites (as of this afternoon’s playing) are the DICKY’S DREAM introduction to RUSSIAN LULLABY on the Trio CD, and the sweet waltz-time ending to SLEEP by the Quartet.

The solo playing throughout is special: even Alderighi, the youngest player of all (he’s not yet thirty) shows his maturity.  What that sounds like is a graceful naturalness, melodic invention, deep unforced swing at any tempo.  Tere’s great passion here, and I found myself returning to the ballads: GUESS I’LL HANG MY TEARS OUT TO DRY and WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR — but each CD is a complete, beautifully-programmed little concert on its own.     

I dream of a concert tour for these two groups — each featured and then coming together for a collective session.  But until that day comes, I’ll content myself with these two delightful CDs.  Visit http://www.arborsrecords.com. for more good news.

MARK SHANE at THE PIANO: THE TICKLIN’S TERRIFIC

Mark Shane is one of the finest jazz pianists alive.  Don’t take my word for it — ask the musicians who have played alongside him, whose music he has enlivened and uplifted.  Or ask any other jazz pianist who knows how to swing.

He can swing in a way that is deeply reminiscent of Fats, Teddy, James P. — but he is no archaeologist, no copyist perfecting what he’s memorized from the manuscript.  (He’s no museum piece, either — having learned a great deal from Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, too.)  A long apprenticeship as an improvising player — with Bob Wilber and Ruby Braff, among others — made him a fully mature player.

In his work, you’ll hear great subtleties — his harmonies, his intertwining lines — but he never shows off his technique.  Rather, he is both eloquent and plain, serving the song and its emotions.  Shane is instantly recognizable (his four-bar introductions are lovely compositions on their own) and he is his own man.

His music is delicate — because of his beautifully executed ideas and his touch (there’s classical training in his background and it shows) but he is a powerful player and his rhythm engine is always well-tuned, his swinging time impeccable.

What is the reason for all this praise?

Shane has issued another self-produced solo CD — TICKLIN’ — its title in honor of the great Harlem piano virtuosi, the “ticklers” of the last century.  It took me a long time to listen to it all the way through because I kept playing tracks over and over, returning to a certain passage to marvel at its own kind of luminescence, its joyous forward motion.  Under his fingers, Newton’s laws seem to be modified in the happiest of ways — you find yourself delighting in his intensity, his moving things forward in a delightful fashion, while at the same time there is the utmost relaxation, the absence of hurry, of rush.  Mark doesn’t like what he calls “draggy ballads,” so most of the CD takes place at a variety of nimble medium tempos . . . music to pat your foot by, but also lovely music to meditate by.

And to practical matters: the piano sounds lovely; the repertoire is varied, offering both the familiar — BODY AND SOUL — and the less so — CRYIN’ FOR THE CAROLINES and James P.’s FASCINATION.  No tricks, nothing fancy, just one glorious improvisation after another.

To learn more, visit his site (the CD is $15 including shipping):

http://www.shanepianojazz.com/pages/media.php

Shane’s music is a wonderful cure for whatever darkness may pass through your days.

And just in case his name is new to you, here’s a performance I captured from 2009 — Mark Shane exploring the old sweet nonsense tune JADA in a solo outing at Birdland:

INSPIRATIONS at THE EAR INN (April 17, 2011)

While Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri were finishing up what I hope was a rewarding weekend at the 2011 Atlanta Jazz Festival, the EarRegulars kept swinging happily in their absence — at The Ear Inn last night (Sunday, April 17, 2011 — at 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City).

The quartet was made up of old friends and musical colleagues — people who had a lot to say to each other on their instruments: Danny Tobias, cornet; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Chris Flory, guitar; Frank Tate, bass.

The music was playful and conversational: the band evoked the past (the 1938 Basie band, an imagined 1944 Keynote session, a Vanguard record date) while reminding us at every turn that there were four living musicians creating beauty in the here and now.  In each of these performances, you’ll see and hear casual splendor: the inventive lines and big sound of Frank Tate, who plays the string bass as it wants to be played (no manic guitar runs for him); the irresistible rhythmic surge of Chris Flory, his lines chiming; Danny Tobias’s subtle mastery — he never plays a superfluous note, and although he’s deeply grounded in the tradition of Buck Clayton and Ruby Braff, you’d lose all your bets trying to predict where his next phrase will land; the fierce lyricism of Dan Block, lemony on clarinet, yearning on tenor — a man inseparable from the phrases he creates.

Melodies everywhere!

Pay attention! as Jake Hanna used to say — especially to the conversations between Danny and Dan, uplifting interludes in several performances.

LINGER AWHILE isn’t played that much by contemporary bands, but Bill Coleman, Dicky Wells, and Lester Young had a good time with it some decades back:

Some cautious optimism with SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY at an easy rocking tempo:

A good old good one, EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY:

Happiness is on everyone’s mind on a Sunday night at The Ear Inn, so why not play I WANT TO BE HAPPY:

And to cool the room down, a swinging JADA:

Cherish these sessions!  They’ve been going on for nearly four years . . . come visit while this music is in the air . . . .

OUR IDEAL: MICHAEL KANAN and PETER BERNSTEIN at SMALLS (March 31, 2011)

Pianist Michael Kanan and guitarist Peter Bernstein created great beauty at Smalls (183 Tenth Street) last Thursday night. 

They are both intuitively gracious players, so the two chordal instruments (each its own orchestra) never collided, never seemed to overpower each other.  It was a sweet dance, a conversation, rather than a cutting contest — with lovely sonorities.  Michael and Peter decided at the start of the night to alternate song choices: one of them would begin a song and the other would fall in — a delightfully playful collaboration.   

The music they made was harmonically and emotionally deep yet it felt translucent, open. 

Hear MY IDEAL or the second set’s BALLAD MEDLEY.  Brad Linde, sitting next to me for a few numbers before going off to his own gig with Ted Brown, thought of Bill Evans and Jim Hall.  I thought of the Pablo duet of Jimmy Rowles and Joe Pass, CHECKMATE, of Tatum and Debussy, of a reverence for melody and harmony.  But to burden this music with words would be wrong.  Listen!

THE NEARNESS OF YOU:

YESTERDAYS:

MY IDEAL:

LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

PANNONICA:

WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?:

WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

NOBODY ELSE BUT ME:

BALLADS (Gone With The Wind, Too Late Now, Moonlight in Vermont):

DEWEY SQUARE:

An honor, a privilege to hear this music!

FRANK CHACE, SEEKER

Clarinetist Frank Chace stood very still when he played, his eyes closed.  In the fashion of the true mystic, he looked inwards, seeking something new, beautiful, personal.  His own speech, his own pathways. 

A Chace solo winds around the melody and the chords, hesitant but guided by its own self-trust: “I don’t know the way but I know where I’m going.” 

He didn’t record enough for any of us, and often he seemed to be making his way through his fellow players — yearning to break free.  When he was playing alongside his great friends Don Ewell or Marty Grosz, he knew that they would supply an indefatigable rhythmic pulse, they would lay down the right chords, and he could then soar.

And soar he did.

In 1985, when I had only recently encountered the mysterious, elliptical Chace universe, Jazzology Records issued a record of a live session led by pianist Butch Thompson.  I thought it remarkable that here was a new Frank Chace record: it remains a treasure.  Charlie DeVore, cornet, John Otto, clarinet, alto sax, vocal; Hal Smith, drums; Jack Meilahn, guitar; Bill Evans, bass, were the other fellows on the stand.  And the session was full of delights, aside from Frank: Hal’s press rolls and shimmering hi-hat; the solid rhythm section; Otto’s sweet, thoughtful alto; De Vore’s Muggy Spanier-emphases.  But Frank Chace produces marvel after marvel. 

Hear him chart his own paths, his eyes closed, his only goal to create his own speech.  Frank was rarely — if ever — satisfied with something he had recorded, so I can’t say that he was complacently pleased with this or any other disc.  About an early session with the Salty Dogs, he told me, “I was fighting for my life!”  But no strain can be heard here: just beauty, impassioned or quietly subversive.     

Now, the complete session (offering twenty-four selections) is available on a double-CD Jazzology set.  (JCD 373/374), available at a variety of online sources.  I can’t praise it highly enough. 

The selections are I FOUND A NEW BABY / ROSE ROOM / I SURRENDER, DEAR / I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME / SWEET SUBSTITUTE / SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE / ONE HOUR / JAZZ BAND BALL / IDA / I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / SWEET LORRAINE / THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE / NOBODY’S SWEETHEART / HOME / JELLY ROLL / YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME / BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU / OH, SISTER, AIN’T THAT HOT? / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? / FROM MONDAY ON / S’POSIN’ / SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE / MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS / THANKS A MILLION. 

Frank doesn’t make an obsession out of being “untraditional,” but he won’t play the expected lines, the predictable harmonies.  You might think you know where his next phrase is going . . . but it turns out that he has led us in his own way, eyes closed, finding new surprises.

Listen to his ardor, his courage, his whimsical explorations. 

“THANKS A MILLION”: CLICK HERE.  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

KENNY DAVERN’S ART AND CRAFT (2004)

TO HONOR KENNY DAVERN, CLICK HERE: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

Don Wolff, our generous benefactor, has offered these performances by Kenny Davern’s favorite quartet from a 2004 New Jersey Jazz Society concert. 

Half of this quartet — Kenny and his favorite drummer, Tony DiNicola — are gone.  Happily, guitarist James Chirillo and bassist Greg Cohen are very much on the scene.

These performances mix intensity and lightness, and although I’ve sometimes thought that Davern, at this stage of his career, was more concerned with polishing his craft than taking risks, I realize that such hair-splitting is meaningless when faced with such music and the void Kenny left when he died.  The discussion between those who privilege the “art” of improvisation and the “craft” of perfecting your approach to a particular song seems less important than the result.   

Those of us who saw and admired Kenny — whether on clarinet, soprano saxophone, baritone or even bass sax — will find themselves caught up in his particular ethos immediately.  If you never had the chance to see and hear this irreplaceable man, here he is, with his most noble friends:

I’M SORRY I MADE YOU CRY:



WILD MAN BLUES:

AM I BLUE?:

BEALE STREET BLUES:

SWEET AND SAVORY at THE EAR INN (Nov. 21, 2010)

Consider an unadorned slice of toasted bread. 

Spread with blood orange marmalade, it becomes sweet.  Take another slice and add butter mixed with anchovy paste, the result is savory.  

Jazz musicians — who love to see how far the rules can be bent — have been merging the two categories for a century or more now, mixing heat with romanticism, swinging ballads about love lost and love found.  

The EarRegulars do this splendidly every Sunday night (8-11 PM) at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City).

Last Sunday (Nov. 21, 2010) was simultaneously remarkable and typical.  Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, Scott Robinson, and Greg Cohen are singularly in tune with one another, able to play with abandon and art, anticipating each other’s inventions, moods, turns of phrase.  Their unspoken connections are thrilling — rather like watching great imaginers who bounce off one another’s inspirations, having their say while building something larger than the four instrumental voices. 

Here are three performances.  The first is an exuberant version of MY GAL SAL — a sentimental song kept alive through the affection of a very few jazz groups who enjoy its possibilities:

Then, something I had requested: a ballad-tempo version of I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, where Jon-Erik remembered a Cootie WIlliams small-group recording.  The EarRegulars extracted every ounce of feeling from this sweet song (often done as a bouncy exaltation):

Finally, one of the once-familiar jam tunes (recorded memorably by both Bing Crosby and Eddie Condon, featuring Pee Wee Russell):

Inspired play — both jubilant and experimental, satsifying the senses then and now.

MOMENTS LIKE THIS: TAMAR KORN and the EARREGULARS (Nov. 14, 2010)

In his book ANSWERED PRAYERS, Truman Capote planned to include a story, “And Audrey Wilder Sang,” referring to the lovely wife of director Billy Wilder.  If she sang, you knew it had been a memorable party. 

Capote never met Tamar Korn, that brave improviser, but that’s his great loss. 

When she’s an unexpected guest, rare music results — as it did at the end of the night last Sunday, November 14, 2010, at The Ear Inn. 

I’ve already delighted in the performances of Pete Martinez, Dan Block, Matt Munisteri, Jon Burr, and John Bucher.  (But why not another few lines in praise of Dan’s deep repertoire of riffs and timbres, of Pete’s passionate intensity, Matt’s rocking work — singing along with his solo on the second title — and Jon’s woody propulsion.  And how they fit together here!) 

Tamar brought her own special kind of drama (without artifice), deep emotion, and vocal beauty to two songs.  And the audience at The Ear paid her the compliment of listening closely.  Perhaps they, too, were swept away by the vision of sweet pastoral she offered on UP A LAZY RIVER:

Then Tamar suggested THE SONG IS ENDED — thinking no doubt of her heroes the Mills Brothers and Louis Armstrong who had recorded this Irving Berlin number at a trotting tempo nearly seventy-five years ago.  Paradoxically, when Tamar told us the song was ended, it only made us want to hear her sing more:

Thank you, Tamar.  Thank you, gentlemen — for moments like this, so rare in anyone’s listening experience, perhaps in anyone’s life.

MICHAEL KANAN / JOEL PRESS: “THESE FOOLISH THINGS” (June 29, 2010)

I’m very moved by the performance you are about to see, and I feel fortunate to have been there to capture it: this comes from tenor saxophonist Joel Press’s gig at Smalls (138 West 10th Street) as a member of the Michael Kanan Quartet — with bassist Pat O’Leary and drummer Joe Hunt. 

For seven-and-a-half minutes, they explore THESE FOOLISH THINGS in the most gently questing way.  In the late Twenties (perhaps beginning with Bix and Tram) jazz players invented the “rhythm ballad,” a sweet melody taken at a slowly pulsing tempo.  (This song carries with it memories of Billie and Lester and Nat Cole, of course.) 

Michael, Joel, Pat, and Joe carry on the tradition here.  They honor the essential thread of emotion — this is, after all, a song about remembering love gone away — but they never get bogged down in it.  Michael’s introduction, delicately evoking players like Ellis Larkins, prepares us for an inquisitive duet, where he and Joel state the melody, exchange thoughtful comments on it, test it out, and then are joined by the quartet.  Joel, as always, speaks within and beyond the melody, with a casual seeming-simplicity that one does not grow into quickly.  Michael’s solo, never frivolous, smbodies the pleasure of a mature improviser who knows what it is to play.   Pat and Joe, listening as always, keep everything beautifully moving forward. 

Art like this doesn’t grow stale:

INSTANT ELOQUENCE

Creating beauty is never easy, so I’m always amazed by the way the best jazz musicians make it happen on the spot. 

Here’s a particularly moving example from the second informal set of the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua, with Duke Heitger, trumpet; Dan Block, tenor sax; Bob Havens, trombone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Frank Tate, bass; Pete Siers, drums.  Their version of SEPTEMBER SONG equals any I’ve ever heard for slow, steady, sustained connection to the emotions — a series of embellished melody lines building and building on one another with no reaching for special effects — just quiet majesty, instant eloquence. 

Thank you, gentlemen!

O RARE BENT PERSSON (and FRIENDS)!

Last night — Thursday, July 9, 2009 —  I witnessed the kind of jazz creativity and bravery that at times left me with tears in my eyes. 

The occasion was a concert organized by the Swedish trumpeter / cornetist / Louis Armstrong scholar Bent Persson, one of my heroes, in tribute to his hero Louis: “YOUNG LOUIS,” which — in two hour-long sets — demonstrated much about Louis’s first six years of recordings as well as the majesty of players now alive. 

The band was a stellar international crew: Mike Durham, tpt, joining Bent at the start and finish, as well as being a most adept and witty master of ceremonies; the gruff trombonist Paul Munnery; the brilliant reedman (clarinet and alto this time) Matthias Seuffert; the nimble pianist Martin Litton; the remarkable plectrist (banjos and guitar) Jacob Ullberger; the very fine brass bassist Phil Rutherford; the frankly astonishing percussionist Nick Ward.  The concert took place at the very modern Sage Gateshead in Newcastle, UK — lovely acoustics and a sound engineer at the back who was truly paying attention!  I attempted to videotape the whole thing (being a man of daring but not much discretion) but was stopped by an usher who whispered ferociously that there was NO photography of any kind allowed and I would have to leave if I continued . . . so I stopped.  But I did capture the band’s second song, a stately rock through King Joe Oliver’s WHERE DID YOU STAY LAST NIGHT? — much as it might have sounded in Chicago, 1922-23.  My video doesn’t capture everything — but you can see the graceful arcs of Nick Ward’s arms behind his drum set: I had a hard time taking my eyes off of him.   

Lovely as it is, that performance can’t summon up all of what I found so moving in this concert.  It wasn’t a pure repertory performance, where musicians strive to reproduce old records “live”; no, what was fascinating was the fervent interplay between the Past and Now, between the Great Figures and the living players onstage.  Everyone in this band knew the original records, but they were encouraged to dance back and forth between honoring the past by playing it note-for-note and by going for themselves.  Thus, Bent created solos that sounded like ones Louis might have — should have! — recorded, and his bravery and risk-taking were more than heartening.  I have never seen him in person, and he would give the most timid of us courage to learn the craft, to shut our eyes, and to make something new.  His playing on POTATO HEAD BLUES was immensely moving — watching him dare the Fates and declare his love for Louis in front of our eyes.  Bent also sang in several performances — mostly scatting, but once or twice delivering the lyrics in a sweetly earnest way — another example of an artist going beyond the amazing things we’ve already come to expect.  It was also delightful to watch the musicians grin broadly at each other as the beautiful solos and ensemble work unfolded.   

The concert moved briskly from Louis’s sojourn with Oliver to his work with Clarence Williams small groups, his own Hot Five and Seven, an evocation of Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards, Louis’s duet with Earl Hines, his Hot Choruses (as reimagined by Bent over a thirty-year period), with more than a few surprises.  One of them — gloriously — was the appearance of bass saxophone titan Frans Sjostrom for a version of BEAU KOO JACK by the trio called, so correctly, the Hot Jazz Trio (their one CD is under that name on the Kenneth label): Bent, Jacob, and Frans.  Wonderful both in itself and as a reinvention of that brightly ornate recording.  Sjostrom stayed around for the final ensemble celebration on HIGH SOCIETY, which brought tears to my eyes.   

I am posting this on Friday morning, hours before the Whitley Bay extravaganza — some 130 bands playing in rotation for three days in four simultaneous locations — is scheduled to begin.  There’ll be more magnificent, moving jazz, I am sure!  It promises to be both uplifting and overwhelming.  (And, as an extra delight, I am joined here by two of my three Official British Cousins — Bob Cox and John Whitehorn — men of great humor, generosity, and sensibility — whom I first met at Westoverledingen, Germany, in 2007, when we were rapt attendees at another Manfred Selchow jazz festival.  Always nice to have friends nearby!)

A postscript: at the concert, copies of an otherwise unknown compact disc were for sale — a recording of a similar YOUNG LOUIS concert from 2002, with many of the same players.  I snapped up one copy (paying for it, of course) and by the end of the concert, the CDs were all gone.  Let us hope that Bent and Co. choose to reissue that one and other versions.  I’m going to treasure it, as well as my memories of the concert I experienced.

BENNY VISITS “AVALON”

In the last few days I’ve been listening to the Benny Goodman Festival being broadcast on WKCR-FM (if you’re out of range of this New York City FM station, you can hear it online at www.wkcr.org).  Whenever I turn on the radio a Goodman small group is eagerly exploring AVALON at a jaunty tempo, a coincidence that both amuses and puzzles me.

BGNow, I don’t plan to accuse Goodman of being an aging artist caught in his own boredom, but the frequency with which jazz musicians return to their own narrowing repertoire of familiar songs to improvise on is worth comment.

I know that Hot Lips Page famously said (to whom?) “The material is immaterial,” and Bob Rusch has gently reminded me that jazz is about what one does with the material rather than the material itself.  “‘T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it,” sang Trummy Young.

And anyone brave enough to improvise in public at the tempos Goodman favored should, by law, have the right to choose his or her own favorite set of chord changes — no matter whether the improviser in question is Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, or John Coltrane.  But I’ve also heard some of the finest jazz artists turn in established solos on familiar pieces for their features, occasionally playing something quite moving, but more often falling back on set routine.  I think of Jo Jones’s CARAVAN, of Buddy Tate’s BODY AND SOUL, of Vic Dickenson’s IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD, and so on.

One could, of course, make the case that jazzmen have “master solos” and “polished performances” to fall back on, because improvisation is such a demanding art.  And Ricky Riccardi has made the point that Louis Armstrong’s versions of INDIANA that often began his later performances were anything but rote repetition.

But Benny himself (according to Ross Firestone’s sweet-natured biography) seems to have been dissatisfied with the music he played in his last decade, saying to someone, “You can’t play LADY BE GOOD forever.”  But he did play AVALON for fifty years.

Did he play it so regularly because it was a song he loved from his childhood (it first appeared in 1920)?  Did he return to it because it was one of his proven hits, a selection that his audience — sometimes made up of people who had cheered him on in 1937 — wanted, expected, and waited for?  Did he feel a responsibility to please the people who had paid to hear him with a medley of his Greatest Hits?  Or was playing AVALON something that gave him pleasure in itself — both as a stunning ride over the chord changes and as a way of making an exciting performance?  I can’t begin to say.

And some of the performances of AVALON I’ve heard on WKCR-FM are justly thrilling — not just in terms of technique and facility, but as musical expressions — evidence of an older artist still finding “something new to say” on a familiar text.  Some of them sound like Goodman playing at being Benny Goodman — with playing that is technically exciting but not especially creative improvised music.

The only time I was fortunate enough to see Goodman in person — at a great distance — was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 or 1975, with a truly all-star group including Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge (!).  Of course, the King offered us AVALON, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and DON’T BE THAT WAY to enthusiastic applause, but I was much more moved by Hackett’s choice of a feature number — an uptempo SECRET LOVE, which I can still dimly hear in my head as I write this.

Does this make me a snob for asking my beloved jazz heroes to “be original”?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if I had been able to ask Benny why he explored and re-explored AVALON, he would have said, “I like it.”  And that would have been enough, even for me.  Any artist who’s given us so much for such a long time is entitled to his idiosyncracies.

SIXTY-MINUTE MEN

The title refers to a famous rhythm and blues hit by Billy Ward and his Dominoes — a song that celebrates the romantic expertise of one “Lovin’ Dan.”  Having spent a very rewarding hour last night at Smalls listening to the eloquent jazz duetting of pianist Ehud Asherie and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, I award them the same praise — in musical terms. 

Jon-Erik and Ehud were supposed to play a set from eight to nine, but they got onstage ten minutes early.  That should tell you something about the pleasure these two friends take in their mutual improvisations.  And they began with a bouncy WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE.  Jon-Erik decided that the pastoral exploits of Maggie and her now ancient beau could only have been evoked accurately with plunger-mute growls and halloos.  We were off to a very eloquent start.  Ehud was in fine form, daring and playful, offering unexpected crashing chords and stabbing single bass notes that reverberated through the basement room.  Moving to the more tender Fats Waller composition, MY FATE IS IN YOUR HANDS, Ehud began with a thoughtful exposition of the verse.  Then they played the chorus, with Jon-Erik especially soulful on open horn.  On a jogging THREE LITTLE WORDS, Jon-Erik chose a metal mute and Ehud raised some eyebrows (happily) by referring to Bud Powell’s PARISIAN THOROUGHFARE. 

Ehud called for Eubie Blake’s LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, a truly delicate love song from the pioneering 1921 musical SHUFFLE ALONG.  (Incidentally, Ehud and Jon-Erik, who together know thousands of songs other players don’t or have forgotten, could plan a whole evening around the compositions of great jazz pianists.)  Eubie’s love song is often played at a nearly operatic tempo, but the duo gave it a Thirties bounce, as if imagining the recording that Mildred Bailey might have made of it in 1936.  (I imagine it as an unissed Vocalion side, myself.)

After a growly DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM (one of those Ellington songs everyone vaguely knows but few play), Ehud became “the band within a band” for a grieving, abstract reading of Billy Strayhorn’s A FLOWER IS A LOVESOME THING, with dark, affecting funeral-march chords in the bass clef. 

Jon-Erik returned for a trotting Burns-and-Allen LOVE NEST, homey and affectionate.  I NEVER KNEW had ornate trumpet lines weaving in and out of lush pianistic tapestries — Baroque music, swinging fiercely.  When it came time for the bridge of Jon-Erik’s second chorus, somehow BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN worked itself in there — a perfect fit, and Sholom Secunda would have been pleased indeed.  SOMEDAY SWEETHEART led to the closing song, Eubie Blake’s exultant I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY.  Before embarking on this romp, Jon-Erik turned to Ehud and asked, “What key are we wild about in?” a question surely applicable to other contexts.  Ehud knows the verse and shared it with us in rhapsodic style — then the two players shouted and pranced.  Which Harry we were celebrating I do not know, but I hope he was near enough to Seventh Avenue South to enjoy the tribute.  

Ehud and Jon-Erik made this a memorable hour — moving from peak to peak, from mood to mood without faltering or running out of inspiration.  Every minute counted, memorably.

“IDOL OF MILLIONS OF POPULAR MUSIC LOVERS THROUGHOUT AMERICA”

Quick, now.

Which person comes to mind when you read “Idol of popular music lovers throughout America”?

Admittedly, the phrase has a certain archaic sound to it.  But even so: Elvis Presley? Bing Crosby? Benny Goodman?  Glenn Miller?

No, it’s EDDIE CONDON!

I’ve been posting about the fabled Eddie Condon Floor Show for some time now.  My friend Rob Rothberg — who has a fabulous collection of what Ebay calls “entertainment memorabilia” — generously sent along copies of what appears below.  Circa 1949, it appears to be a prospectus for the program, an effort to find a sponsor (cash bulging out of corporate pockets) so that the show could stay on the air.  I assume that the booklet was the creation of Ernie Anderson, but I am sure that Phyllis Condon and Paul Smith, her brother, made some contributions; both of them worked for advertising agencies.

Although the Condons had a dog, whose name escapes me as I write this, I find it difficult to envision Eddie or perhaps Joe Bushkin telling everyone how Ken-L-Ration made for bright eyes and a healthy coat.  Or Tide detergent.  But stranger things have happened.  Some jazz fans will remember the radio and television commercials Louis did for Schaefer and Rheingold beers and Fords — why else would I hear his voice ringing out, “You’re ahead in a Ford / All the way!” some forty-five years later?

The prospectus didn’t succeed, but here are pictures and text:

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Condon and Sidney Bechet, of course.

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Looking off (handsomely) to the mysterious East, where the sponsors ride over the mountains in expensive suits:

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You see I didn’t invent this enthusiastic prose.

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That camera makes me think of the NBC peacock — spreading its animated self as a totem of “living color” even when most viewers saw it in black and white.

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I didn’t know that “the proverbial duck” also played tenor guitar, but no matter.

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These photos are more familiar; they surfaced in Hank O’Neal’s EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, a wonderful book.

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It’s an interesting mix of “jazz” and “popular” — Condon recognized talented musicians, however they might have defined themselves.  I wonder, however, what songs Frankie Carle played when he appeared.

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A cherubic Billy Butterfield, a pleased Joe Bushkin — sixty years ago, when newspapers paid attention to jazz.

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That’s a dramatic art photo — Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge framed by the bent wood of the chair.  And, to the left is an easel.  Was this the program on which Mischa Reznikoff (husband of photographer Genevieve Naylor) sketched while the musicians improvised?

floor12

Here comes the hard sell . . .

floor13Oh, how I wish this prospectus had appealed to some firm — Proctor and Gamble, say.  Then, instead of watching BONANZA on Sunday nights, we could have seen Cutty Cutshall and Pee Wee Russell.

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I think that Virgil Thompson was praising the Town Hall concert series, but the sentiments remained true.

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The VOA transcriptions might be the source for the audio portions of the Floor Show that survive.

floor16Ernie Caceres to the left, Peanuts Hucko, Bushkin, Butterfield . . .

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Alas, it didn’t work.  But Condon’s career didn’t end when the show did, and he kept playing and organizing bands into the early Seventies, when I got to see him in action — a subject for another post.  Right now, let us remember the time and place when it was possible to have such high art on nationwide television, with or without a sponsor.

FABLED JAZZ VIOLIN DELIGHTS

 stuff-smith-plusI don’t ordinarily endorse the productions of an entire CD label, but Anthony Barnett’s ABFable series of reissues is something special: rare music, beautifully annotated and transferred, delightfully presented.  Barnett’s notes are erudite but never dull.  Each CD I’ve heard has been a joyous experience in preconception-shattering. 

I used to think of jazz violin improvisation beyond Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli as a mildly inconvenient experience.  Grudgingly, I acknowledged that it was possible to play compelling jazz on the instrument, but I was politely waiting for Ray Nance to pick up his cornet. 

Barnett’s CDs have effected a small conversion experience for me — and even if you don’t have the same transformation take place, they are fun to listen to over and over again. 

Visit www.abar.net for pricing and a wealth of fascinating information, including rare photographs. 

As I write this, my favorite of the three new issues below is PROFESSOR VISITS HARLEM, but the other two are neck-and-neck, with the pun wholly intentional. 

All of the ABFable CDs are also available through Cadence Magazine at www.cadencebuilding.com.   

 ABCD1-018 PROFESSOR VISITS HARLEM
or, Swingin’ Till the Girls Come Home

Anthology of Swing String Ensembles 1930s–1950s incl. unreleased tests and broadcasts
The first documentation of American and European mid-period adventures
in swing string ensembles with two or more bowed instruments
Includes a private jam session by Jimmy Bryant, Harold Hensley, Stuff Smith

ABCD2-019/20 BLOWS ’N’ RHYTHM
Fiddlin’ the Blues

The hottest bows in Rhythm ’n’ Blues, Blues ’n’ Rhythm, Rock ’n’ Roll
and Fiddle Curiosities 1939–1959
2CD anthology incl. 20 page booklet with essay by blues authority Howard Rye
including unreleased and rare discoveries by
Leon Abbey, Remo Biondi, Clarence Black, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Jimmy Bryant
Pre-Papa Johnny Creach, Bo Diddley, Joe Giordano, Don Bowman aka Sugarcane Harris
Ray Nance, Richard Otto, Ray Perry, Stuff Smith, Eddie South, Ginger Smock and others
including unidentified violinists, one of which is an important addition to 2CD I Like Be I Like Bop
Includes two never-before-released Abbey tracks and eight newly identified Black tracks
six never-before-released Smith tracks and two newly discovered Smith rarities
two newly identified South takes and four newly identified Smock rarities

ABCD1-021 EDDIE SOUTH
Best Years of My Life
DARK ANGEL ALBUM SETS

Three eight–title album sets released in 1940 and 1946 under the title Dark Angel of the Violin
two of which have never before been rereleased in any form plus new transfers of a 1940 session on which
the South orchestra, augmented with members of the John Kirby orchestra, accompanies Ginny Simms
Important
These Dark Angel of the Violin album sets are not the 1944 Dark Angel of the Fiddle
transcriptions released on CD Soundies noted in CD links below

Advance subscription offer
Order direct from UK all four CDs (two singles, one double) and receive 12% discount

UK £41.50 / Rest of Europe €61.50 / US$69 including discount and airmailing
plus purchase any of our previous releases at half price

violin2

SANTA’S ALCHEMICAL SECRET

As is her habit, the Beloved is listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s Christmas show on WNYC-FM, where his guests include Mandy Patinkin, Charles Osgood, Jay Leonhart, Steve LaSpina, Harry Allen, John Pizzarelli, Tony Monte, and Gene Bertoncini.  When the chatter comes to a graceful halt, Jonathan offers high-quality seasonal music, including tenor saxophonist Harry’s romp through “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” 

The Beloved, quite properly, was delighted with Harry’s performance.  But she asked me, “Do jazz musicians really enjoy playing such silly songs?” 

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is well-established in the American cultural landscape, ubiquitous, even.  I used to roll my eyes whenever it was played.  However, when I found out that it had been composed by J. Fred Coots, composer of “You Go To My Head” and “For All We Know,” I was able to feel more kindly towards the song.  Somehow it appealed to me that Coots should have made a fortune on this musical shred — enabling him to live comfortably and write far better songs.   

I answered the Beloved’s question by invoking the Sage of Corsicana, Texas, Hot Lips Page, who, when asked a similar question, reputedly said, “The material is immaterial.”  And Django Reinhardt, who surely knew something about improvisation, asked for the simplest theme from “Tiger Rag” as material to improvise on at a jam session. 

Like alchemists, jazz musicians inhabit a miraculous universe, turning junk into gold, often enjoying the vapidity of a piece of music because its three-chord structure allows them to improvise freely while the F, G7, and C are endlessly returning.  Think of the twelve-bar blues as the perfect example.  The freedom to create as one wishes — what a blessing!

But back to seasonal matters.  Between now and Christmas, I am always tempted to equip myself with a pair of earplugs when I go out in public.  I would be thrilled to hear Bing’s “White Christmas” once a day, but “The Little Drummer Boy” performed with funk underpinnings raises my blood pressure alarmingly.  So I propose two aesthetic alternatives for the season.

mark-shane-santaOne is the best, most jubilant jazz Christmas CD I have ever heard: Mark Shane (and his X-mas All-Stars, including Jon-Erik Kellso) on the Nagel-Heyer label, WHAT WOULD SANTA SAY?  It’s a CD I enjoy all through the year.    

The other piece of music is accessible online, as I found to my delight.  It’s a 1944 record made for the Savoy label, featuring the delightfully accomplished pianist Johnny Guarneri and the irreplaceable bassist Slam Stewart.  A truly irrepressible pair! 

The song — apparently improvised impromptu in the studio — is called SANTA’S SECRET, a jolly evocation of Fats Waller, who had died less than a year before.  It answers the pressing question, “What makes Santa so jolly?”  Whether Johnny and Slam were Tall when they recorded this I leave to scholars more erudite than myself. 

If you visit http://www.musicalfruitcake.com (which bills itself as offering the worst Christmas songs ever recorded — a position I don’t hold) and search for “Guarneri,” all should be revealed.  The link is genuinely troublesome, but it is alive and worth pursuing.      

In this holiday season and beyond, I hope that you are as happy as Johnny and Slam seem to be on that record.  And that you get to display your very own alchemical wizardries, even if you don’t play an instrument.