Tag Archives: Ira Gershwin

“I’M AS HAPPY AS A PUP”: A SONG AND PHOTOGRAPHS TO SUSTAIN US

A friend posted this jubilant photograph about a week ago, and it’s stayed in my mind as the epitome of joyous freedom.  The splendidly happy fellow is Cooper (he asks that his last name not be used: he’d rather frolic than answer mail).

The photo raises the question: “How could I have such joy in my life?” and I don’t pretend to have the answer: these are not joyous times for those whose eyes are open.  But one spiritual panacea has to be music: the sounds that make our eyes bright and our tails wag.

When I saw Cooper’s portrait, “I’m as happy as a pup,” ran through my head, and I tracked it down to the Gershwins’ THINGS ARE LOOKING UP, and the thread went straight to Mr. Astaire, then to Lady Day.  It’s a poignant version, with Buck Clayton whispering I CAN’T GET STARTED in our ears, then Billie approaches the possibly jubilant text with a hint of poignant tentativeness — can this be true? — the sound of someone who has known sadness and is wary of embracing joy too unguardedly.  Her delivery of the bridge is so tender (I think of MANDY IS TWO, a few years later) but her second offering of the title is more exultant, as if she had crossed the fiery river to safety and could relax and contemplate the much more real possibility of joy.  (All of this in under two minutes.)  Teddy Wilson’s sixteen bars characteristically glisten, but it pleases me so much to hear Vido Musso, consciously or otherwise, sounding so much like a wordless Billie.  Completely touching and genuine.

Teddy Wilson And His Orchestra : Buck Clayton , trumpet; Prince Robinson, clarinet; Vido Musso, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Walter Page, string bass; Cozy Cole, drums [as Swing Roo (d) ] on label, Billie Holiday, vocal; New York, November 1, 1937:

This post is for Cooper (who obviously has so much to teach us) and my friend, for Charles of Sammut, for Penny Bengels, Pika Skjelbred, Winston and Harriet Comba, and a thousand other sentient beings who know how to love, how to frolic.

And if you think I demean Lady by linking her to Cooper, consider this:

and this, which even though it’s stiffly posed, the dogs don’t mind:

and this tenderness:

May your happiness increase!

WAKING UP WITH LIZA, or THREE MEN ON A TOBOGGAN: CARL SONNY LEYLAND, LAKSHMI RAMIREZ, JEFF HAMILTON (Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 6, 2020)

The medium, or the message?

The message, or the medium?

Whichever way you choose to perceive it, I invite you on a wild beautiful expert ride through sounds.  The creators are Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Lakshmi Ramirez, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums: the scene is the Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey, California, on March 6, 2020.  And you’ll understand the first photograph as soon as the video begins.  Hold on tight!

I am so glad Sonny and friends and I occupy the same planet.  But my feeling is that had we all been born, say, forty years earlier, we could have gone uptown so that he could astonish the other pianists . . . and John Hammond would have signed him to a recording contract.

Feeling totally alive: what a lovely spectacle to witness!  And more to come.

May your happiness increase!

“LOVE SAID ‘HELLO!'”: YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN at MEZZROW (December 11, 2019)

Yaala Ballin and Michael Kanan at Mezzrow, by Naama Gheber.

My friends and musical heroes, Yaala Ballin and Michael Kanan, returned to Mezzrow on December 11, 2019, for another evening of glorious songs, selected by the audience, as Yaala explains in the second video.  They call this “show of surprises” “The Great American Songbook, Requested,” and it is a consistent offering of joys.

But first, the Gershwins’ LOVE WALKED IN:

and for those new to Yaala and Michael’s playful plan-and-not-plan for their evening, Yaala explains it all while Michael quietly explores I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING:

THE MAN I LOVE has been performed so often that when someone launches into it I feel a little world-weary, “Oh, not that again.”  But I find this version completely compelling and emotionally plausible.  It is their teamwork, Michael’s palette of colors and textures, Yaala’s playful but deep speech-cadences.  Their performance has emotional ardor but is never “dramatic” for the sake of drama:

On with the dance, the dance of affection shared– Berlin’s CHEEK TO CHEEK, so beautifully begun and continued.  But first, Yaala tells a tale:

STAIRWAY TO THE STARS, Matty Malneck and Frank Signorelli, full of hope.  Please savor Michael’s solo chorus, his light and shadows:

The Gershwins’ OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY:

and Ellington’s I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART:

This is only the first part of a completely satisfying evening — with fourteen more songs delicately and ardently reinvented for us.  If you missed this December tasting menu, don’t despair: Yaala and Michael will be performing again for Valentine’s Day at St. John’s in the Village on Eleventh Street: details to come.

May your happiness increase!

IN THIS MOMENT: MICHAEL KANAN, GREG RUGGIERO, NEAL MINER (live at Mezzrow, New York City)

Cover art by Anne Watkins

“The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend,” wrote Ira Gershwin, lines so poignant to me. But heartfelt creative music is an antidote to darkness. Some tell us that a postmodern world demands abstract sound, sharp-edged art. I prefer song, music that can dance as a response to sorrow, melodies rueful in the face of hard realities. Song never grows old, and the artists on this disc understand and enact this truth. Michael Kanan, piano; Greg Ruggiero, guitar;  Neal Miner, string bass, trust the melodies they create, and they respect the composers’ craft while making the most familiar material glisten.  Their music balances feeling and technique, and their collective energies embrace the listener.

I first met Michael Kanan in 2010 through the good offices of the Swing Lion of Boston, Joel Press, and I was immediately tickled and moved by Michael’s sly sweet approach to the piano and to song. Like a master Japanese brush-painter, he implies, he hints, he whispers thoughts we need to hear, his phrases nudging us into surprises that gratify, his pauses and silences eloquent breaths. A little later, I heard Neal and Greg, each a great swinging lyricist, each creating singular melodic epigraphs no matter the context. The trio is the embodiment of fraternal love and understanding; the laughter the three friends share before they begin to play bubbles through the night’s performances. Michael, Neal, and Greg are quietly compelling soloists but they play for the comfort of the band. They know that music doesn’t have to abrade to catch our attention, that a two-chorus solo might be all that’s needed. Their music is never immodest or coarse; it never says LOOK AT US. And they offer us an airy grace; rueful melodies never become maudlin or heavy. When I hear this trio play, I go home feeling as if I’d been dipped in some sweet elixir, not available online.

I began by noting — through Ira Gershwin’s praise of lasting love — that there are experiences, like candid graceful music, that go beyond comprehension, that move into our hearts and stay there.  This disc captures three masters of the art, offering all they feel and all they have learned to us.  It is in the moment and of a particular moment, but it becomes timeless.

Here is a sample of what this trio does so well:

And here one can buy or download or sample, then purchase the music.  Ideally, one could go where Michael is playing and press money into his hand, completing a circle of artist and grateful audience.  But however you find your way to these sounds, they will uplift.

May your happiness increase!

“KEEP YOUR PHILHARMONIC”: EVAN ARNTZEN and STEVE PIKAL (July 27, 2017)

With the right musicians, a whole crowd isn’t necessary.  No four brass, four reeds, four rhythm; no oboes and tympani.  As Ira Gershwin wrote, “Keep your Philharmonic,” in his lyrics to SLAP THAT BASS.

Appropriately, I present a rewarding improvised vignette for clarinet and string bass, recorded on July 27, 2017, in Derek Garten’s Prime Recording Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, at the end of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet’s debut recording, which became THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL, chronicled here.  The Quintet, by the way, is Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Evan Arntzen, reeds; Steve Pikal, string bass; Marc Caparone, cornet.

At the end of the session, the Quintet — showing superhuman energy and patience — played two songs for my video camera so I could show them off on the blog.  One, RUSSIAN RAG, I have cleverly hidden within this blogpost as a reward to close readers.

The other, an improvised duet by Messrs. Pikal and Arntzen, later titled PHAT SWOLLER, has never been seen.  I was saving it for my retirement and then thought it would be ungenerous to wait all that time — so here ‘t’is.  Joyous, shapely, rambunctious, expert.  I’m sure my readers can find their own encomia, but I will say only that Steve Pikal has a beautiful harmonic sense and a true swing engine (a new CD of his with Brian and Danny is, I am told, on the way); a New York musician said to me, listening to Evan Arntzen, “That boy can play anything . . . beautifully!” and I of course agreed:

Relevance beyond a piece of wonderful creative improvisation?  Of course.  The Holland-Coots ensemble will be appearing at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, which I’ve described here.

My interest in the Festival involves leaving my accustomed position in front of the computer: I’ll be there, starting Wednesday night.  But I have to gently admonish the faithful that I no longer video everything, so if you want to hear your favorite virtuoso capering through an obscure Joseph Lamb piece, I suggest you call the airlines now.  (That’s a good idea even if you’ve never heard of Lamb.)

May your happiness increase!

“WE CALL IT MUSIC” (PART ONE): DAN BLOCK, SCOTT ROBINSON, EHUD ASHERIE, JOEL FORBES, PETE SIERS (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 14, 2017)

Possibly the first recording of the Gershwin classic, October 20, 1930.

What we have here is the essence of classic jazz — spirited improvisations on the chord changes of I GOT RHYTHM, followed by a Thirties song from a Broadway show.  I write this to calm any skittish listener, deeply enamored of jazz pre-1931 or 1944, who might run off when hearing the opening line, called either CRAZEOLOGY (if the composers are Little Benny Harris and Charlie Parker) or BUD’S BUBBLE (if Bud Powell takes credit); SEPTEMBER SONG, that follows, should scare no one.

Beautifully played by Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Scott Robinson (partially concealed behind the piano) tenor saxophone and trumpet; Ehud Asherie, piano; Joel Forbes, string bass; Pete Siers, drums.

Should any of my readers / listeners take flight at “that modern jazz,” I urge them to listen calmly, even hum I GOT RHYTHM along with the band — to see that the divide between “styles and schools” was never created by musicians, but by journalists, to whom pugilism was good copy.  (See “Blesh, Rudi,” “Ulanov, Barry,” “Feather, Leonard,” among others.)  Listen, listen.  It’s all music.

And, once again, I post this video as a sad but admiring tribute to the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, which will not continue into 2018, even with the superhuman efforts of its heroic team, Nancy Hancock Griffith and Kathy Hancock — read about it here.  Both I and Laura Wyman (of Wyman Video) will be sharing videos from the 2017 Party in time.

May your happiness increase!

A GERSHWIN CLASSIC, SWUNG: JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, EHUD ASHERIE, MARION FELDER at LUCA’S JAZZ CORNER (March 23, 2017)

Here’s the closing performance from the evening of March 23, 2017, at Luca’s Jazz Corner — created for us on the spot by Jon-Erik Kellso, Evan Arntzen, Ehud Asherie, and Marion Felder.  The rest of the evening can be savored here. Obviously everyone in the band and in the audience was joyous: listen for all the witty and inventive quotes in the delightful solo and ensemble work:

Ida Lupino sent her regrets, but that was the only flaw in this gorgeous evening. Thanks to the band and to everyone at Luca’s on the Upper East Side for making magic happen in such a congenial space.

May your happiness increase!

FULLY IN POSSESSION

In some states, possession of even a small amount of forbidden substance is a crime.  But — thankfully — few regimes have currently criminalized RHYTHM, so the James Dapogny Quartet is safe to swing out.  It’s delightful to hear a group of improvisers take on I GOT RHYTHM in its natural plumage, since the chord changes have become “adapted” and “adopted” for so many swing originals.  The only problem here is that the Gershwin title is singular.  For this group, it has to be WE’VE GOT RHYTHM, and they are decisive about the ownership of same.

James Dapogny, piano; Mike Karoub, cello; Rod McDonald, guitar; Kurt Krahnke, string bass. Recorded by Laura Beth Wyman  at the Glacier Hills Senior Living Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, on June 26, 2015.  Two other marvels from this session can be marvelled at here.  

Laura has set up a Facebook page for her video efforts celled simply Wyman Video.  If you admire her generous efforts, why not “like” the page?

It could be the best slightly-under-three-minutes you will spend this year.  And Hank Duncan sends his love.

May your happiness increase!

HE HAS RHYTHM. AND OTHERS DO AS WELL.

When Louis Armstrong states I GOT RHYTHM, who among us would doubt it?  Here, he uses the Gershwin song to introduce the members of his very energized (and brotherly) Chicago band:

complete with comic ending.

And for those looking for the perfect t-shirt design, may I propose this?  You won’t start many conversations on the street, but those motivated to speak to you because of this shirt will certainly be people with whom you have deep matters in common:

LOUIS I Got Rhythm

Thanks, once again, to eBay and YouTube for making multi-media presentations possible — honoring Louis is always rhythmically satisfying.

May your happiness increase!

BILLIE, GEORGE, IRA, THELONIOUS, BEAUTY and a SURPRISE: HOWARD ALDEN at JAZZ at CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 21, 2012)

Howard Alden brings subtlety, swing, and an astonishing orchestral majesty wherever and whenever he plays.  The evidence, anew: a recital in the parlor of the Athenaeum Hotel during the 2012 Jazz at Chautauqua extravaganza.  In less than half an hour, Howard created magnificent mini-concertos — each with a theme, and the last one ending with a Surprise.

IF YOU WERE MINE and MISS BROWN TO YOU:

A very tender ISN’T IT A PITY?:

CREPUSCLE WITH NELLIE and a SURPRISE:

P.S.  Before Howard began his jazz sorcery, I overheard an illuminating piece of innocently surrealistic dialogue from two patrons seated near the piano; they had heard several solo recitals on that very instrument.

Lady (motioning to Howard): “Who is that?”

Gentleman Companion: “That’s Howard Alden.  He’s a guitarist.”

Lady: “Oh, that means he’s not playing piano.”

May your happiness increase.

MERRIE MELODIES at MONTEREY 2012: THE REYNOLDS BROTHERS with BOB DRAGA (March 2, 2012)

The Reynolds Brothers are always SHOW-READY.  No question. 

And they began the 2012 Jazz Bash By The Bay with a riotous set — including clarinetist and master of witty repartee Bob Draga.  That’s cornet man Marc Caparone, string bassist / charming singer Katie Cavera, Brother Ralf on the washboard, and Brother John on the guitar, vocal, and whistle.  A good time was had by all, even though it was midafternoon, rather early for hot jazz. 

They began with the Gershwin call-to-musical-arms, STRIKE UP THE BAND:

What are the THREE LITTLE WORDS?  Of course, I LOVE YOU comes in first, but I would make a case for THE REYNOLDS BROTHERS.  I’m waiting for Congress to legislate that one into law:

Bob Draga probably doesn’t know my Aunt Ida, but the telepathic vectors in the cosmos suggested to him that it would be nice to play IDA, SWEET AS APPLE CIDER.  It was and is!

Katie Cavera is full of surprises.  Ask anyone!  And the surprise she pulled out of her Show-Ready bag of tricks was the sweet and mildly naughty 1932 OH, IT LOOKS LIKE RAIN.  Bob sat this one out; perhaps he went to play cards?

Professor Ralf wants the washboard to be returned to its former glory, rightly so.  He accomplishes this by playing it with a swing, but also by reminding us all of the music that it once propelled — here, Tiny Parham’s WASHBOARD WIGGLES:

John Reynolds is a magnificently swinging singer, sweet and hilarious at the same time.  I never tire of his TUCK ME TO SLEEP IN MY OLD ‘TUCKY HOME:

And another surprise — I can’t watch the Disney films, but their music is priceless and memorable.  If I began my day with WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK, I would arrive at my office with a big smile.  You try it and report back:

A powerful answer to darkness in the universe! 

May your happiness increase.

ORGANIC, CAGE-FREE, LOCALLY SOURCED: The EarRegulars at The Ear Inn (March 11, 2012)

You wouldn’t seek out food that was bad for you.  You wouldn’t buy a bed that gave you back pain, or a car whose brakes were unreliable.

So why settle for anything less than the most creative improvising?

I’ve heard from certain sources that other groups are trying to pass themselves off as “just as good” as The EarRegulars.

Accept no imitations.  Don’t be fooled by faux-Swing and counterfeit Hot.

Unfortunately, you can’t turn each member of the EarRegulars upside down to see the label (it’s not feasible nor is it polite) but be sure you are listening to the real thing.

What follows is the real thing — tasty, ebullient, fresh, pesticide-free and created lovingly on Sunday, March 11, 2012 — by Matt Munisteri, guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; John Allred, trombone; Pat O’Leary, string bass.  Four inspired conversationalists who never run out of good things to tell us and each other.

Here are four lively inventions by four stars, their lines looping and bouncing off each other, four individualists improvising at top speed, creating joy where there was only a Sunday night before.

They began with Gershwin-amused-exultation, ‘S’WONDERFUL:

Then astonished joy turned (at least in the title) to a kind of intellectual surprise with I NEVER KNEW:

And the lover’s plaint — HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO (DO DO)?  Later, I commented to Jon-Erik that these three songs could be taken to chart the decline of a once-happy relationship, and he laughed.

Finally, THREE LITTLE WORDS:

What are those THREE LITTLE WORDS?  The song lyrics say “Eight little letters that simply mean ‘I love you,'” and I am wholly in favor of declarations of love . . . but I also think the THREE LITTLE WORDS might be

THE EAR INN.

GET HERE SUNDAYS.

ENJOY THE EarRegulars.

326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City — from about 8 to somewhere around 11 every Sunday night until you hear otherwise!

“JAZZ LIVES” GOES TO BROADWAY: “PORGY AND BESS,” January 2012

I approached the new production of PORGY AND BESS with some mildly-suppressed skepticism, expecting it to be a star turn for the glorious Audra McDonald, who would shower the rafters with operatic splendor while the inhabitants of Catfish Row waited for her lovely upper register to stop reverberating.

I was entirely wrong.  I had an ecstatic theatrical experience.

I am a restless spirit at most Broadway musicals — finding them unsubtle (overamplified music played luridly) — the books seem thin, the gestures hyperbolic.  And in the case of PORGY AND BESS, I had heroic voices in my mind — Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong.  Especially Louis.  I have been listening — physically and mentally — to his and Ella’s version of the score for more than forty years.  (Another Louis — my father* — brought home a copy of the lp for me when I was in my teens.)  These performances of the arias by George and Ira made me feel as if PORGY AND BESS would be a series of musical performances with some unidentified threads in between the singing.  Since I think no one possibly sings with the emotional power of Louis, I was waiting to be disappointed.  Again, wrong.

I told a friend, “Ten minutes into the production, I lost my heart to what was going on onstage.”  My enchantment — the hallmark of great theatrical experiences — was a combination of many things.  Rather than feeling, “Oh, this is A PLAY,” I felt that the actors on Catfish Row, dragging boxes and chairs and fishnets, were utterly natural.  They were there and we were permitted to watch them being themselves.   Yes, the analytical part of my brain did think, “What lovely sets and what beautiful lighting — a mass of orange-yellows,” but I accepted it as real.  And when Clara and Jake began to sing SUMMERTIME to their baby, I felt tears welling up — not because the singing was so extraordinary or because it washed away my memories of Billie et al., but because it seemed the most wonderful melding of the familiar and the new: the beloved but over-familiar piece of music placed into an utterly right context, part of the plot, part of the dialogue moving forward inexorably.  Casually right, not calling attention to itself as a “great song.”

(I know that more experienced theatre-goers might think these perceptions naive — but my naivete, if you want to call it such, is a kind of openness, and although I kept making notes on my pad to write this for JAZZ LIVES, I was part of the experience.  I didn’t look at my watch once.)

I was continually absorbed by the way in which the staging and the music suggested larger ideas — the way little communities formed and broke apart on the stage, in duets and trios and more.  Consider, for instance, the group of young fishermen led by Jake — remember this name:  JOSHUA HENRY, a wondrous singer and actor — who form a small supportive group to sing and enact IT TAKES A LONG PULL.  It held true for the dancing as well.  And although the book has its own thinness — Bess as a woman torn between Goodness and the allure of Evil — so much was happening among the cast in terms of their relations between one another, suspicious of or accepting the outsider, that I put my English-professor mind aside and sunk into the show.

I admired the dramatic lighting — the undersea blue-green of the scene where we learn of Jake’s death in the second act; the way in which we are compelled to watch the huge dark shadows the actors create above and behind them (perhaps a homage to German Expressionism or the great films of the Thirties, to CITIZEN KANE).  I admired the shifting of moods — always carried along by the music that hinted at country-dance music of the teens, at Black vaudeville — when Mariah, NaTASHA YVETTE WILLIAMS, takes the stage, I thought, “This is what TOBA must have been like — echoes of Butterbeans and Susie, of young Moms Mabley — hilarious and taking no stuff from any man alive” — to gospel, to keening laments for the dead.

And what of the principals?  AUDRA McDONALD gave generously of herself as a member of the ensemble — being many women in one, from the hard-edged temptress in a red dress, to the woman who learns what love is, to the victim of Crown’s brutalities, to the woman who cannot help herself but follow Sportin’ Life to New York.  And her voice rang and chimed — but was in character.  I knew DAVID ALAN GRIER from television comedy, but was delighted by his strutting, his insinuating nasal singing, with strong overtones of Cab Calloway and of Louis — but in his bulky gracefulness and the way he held his hat, a very effective two-dimensionalizing of Fats Waller, who would have played the role perfectly although without the necessary evil.  My strongest praise goes to NORM LEWIS, who made Porgy so much more than a victim, so much more than a cripple — but the moral center of the play, the man who gives himself for love, the man who grows stronger in his desire to protect someone who needs it.  His affect, his singing voice — entirely convincing.

The curtain came down, but PORGY AND BESS is very much alive in my head.

Here is a video that shows a great deal about the process, and the progress, of this particular production — very revealing and a great pleasure:

It’s at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, on 46th Street — and JAZZ LIVES readers who don’t often go to Broadway will feel themselves right at home: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks play Monday and Tuesday nights at Sofia’s across the street, and Sofia’s also features fine jazz Wednesday through Saturday.

For more information, here’s the official website for the show:   http://www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com/

*My father remains alive in my head, as well: January 29, 2012, is the thirtieth anniversary of his death.  A whimsical man who loved music, he not only gave me physical life but encouraged me to be joyous — one Louis who gave me the ears to hear another Louis.  I miss him but that is the tribute we pay the dead, and he knows this.

SIDNEY AND SIDNEY, 1941

And Willie and Charlie, Everett and Wellman.

All will be revealed.

Look at the record label, and listen!

WHY WAIT FOR THE LAST EIGHT BARS?  CLICK HERE: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

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

RED NICHOLS MEETS THE CHICAGOANS, 1929

I stumbled on this Red Nichols Brunswick record from 1929 on YouTube while searching for Red McKenzie vocals — a rewarding quest, except I am oddly discomposed by the idea of McKenzie providing part of the soundtrack for something (a computer simulation / game?) called Bioshock.  Well, anything that lets people hear him sing THE TROUBLE WITH ME IS YOU shouldn’t be scoffed at.

Then I encountered this recording — charitably posted by “Atticus70” and when I looked closer, I saw it wasn’t the Gershwin WHO CARES? but a more self-pitying pop song by Yellen and Ager.

But look and listen to the personnel: all those “Chicagoan” ruffians who took their Nichols paychecks as long as he would put up with their (presumably) hard-drinking disdain for things like clean clothes and punctuality.

The band is Red Nichols, Mannie Klein, Tommy Thunen, trumpets;  Glenn Miller, cornet, trombone;  Jack Teagarden, ? Herb Taylor, trombones;  Pee Wee Russell, clarinet;  Bud Freeman, tenor sax;  Joe Sullivan, piano;  Tommy Felline, banjo;  Art Miller, bass;  Dave Tough, drums;  Red McKenzie, vocal.

New York, June 12, 1929: for all its melancholy, this is pre-Crash pop music.

And the sounds of Teagarden, Russell, Sullivan, and Tough are elixirs.  Condon isn’t there, but perhaps Nichols found him to be the primary ringleader; Tommy Felline (or is it Fellini?) was no doubt much more tractable.  And McKenzie croons so beautifully, making even the odd lyrics work reasonably well.

But here’s the music!

WE CARE!  CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO SHOW THE MUSICIANS THAT WE DO.

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

DOIN’ THE VOOM VOOM / THE HOT WINDS

Doin' the Voom Voom CD coverPeople who listen to music extensively and closely become harder to please.  And I am a prime offender.  This over-sensitivity causes me a great deal of trouble, but many new CDs that seem almost wonderful to me.  But the “almost” is lethal.  On these discs, the effort is discernible, the sincerity, the energy — but something just isn’t in place.  One musician might be rushing or dragging the tempo; there could be a slight tension in the band (three members going one way, two thinking about going in the opposite direction); a CD could have an odd recording balance; the material might be excellent in itself but not for these performers, and so on.  If I were to describe this critical tendency of mine, I might call it “attentive,” “discerning,” “”detail-oriented,” “finicky,” or “listening too damned closely,” depending on my mood.  Perhaps if you have, as I have, heard a band of Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones, it sets the aesthetic bar sky-high.

And, as an additional caveat, I am distrustful of any writer’s hyperbole, especially mine.  Earnest as it might be, such prose always sounds like ad copy: “this new CD by Minnie and the Meowers offers the best meowing you’ll hear all year” makes me want to run to my litter box and hide under it.

All this is prelude to my stating that two new Arbors CDs — the label that has done so much to document and preserve the kinds of jazz I love dearly — seem as close to perfect as recordings ever get.

The cover of the first CD is depicted above — trumpeter Duke Heitger and pianist Bernd Lhotzky, recorded in Germany in 2008.  Now, the trumpet (or cornet) and piano duet in recorded jazz goes back to Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton in 1924, and it stretches into the future: Louis and Earl, Ruby and Dick Hyman or Ralph Sutton or Ellis Larkins, Butterfield and Wellstood, Randy Sandke and Dick Hyman, Sudhalter and Kellaway, Eldridge and Bolling . . . including brilliant (as yet unrecorded duets) by two of my heroes, Jon-Erik Kellso and Ehud Asherie.  For me, there’s something extraordinary about the pairing of a soaring hot trumpeter and a stride pianist.  For one thing, the trumpeter has a mobile, energetic rhythmic pulse to improvise over; the pianist has the pleasure of darting in and out of the trumpet lines.  It is magically orchestral and magically fulfilling.  That’s the case on this CD with Duke and Bernd.  To start with the basics: I’ve never heard either of them play so lavishly and nobly, and I’ve heard both of them live in a variety of contexts: Duke at Chautauqua for perhaps five years in a row; Bernd at Westoverledingen and the 92nd Street Y.

Maestro Lhotzky first.  Stride pianists often get caught up in their own enthusiasm (and who would blame them?) so even the best tend to get louder and faster, which is perfectly understandable in a romping solo but less than wonderful when there’s another player involved — it’s as if the trumpeter becomes a child trying to catch the ice cream truck that is accelerating down the street.  Zeno’s paradox in jazz.  Bernd doesn’t have that problem: he is steady but never dull, propulsive but calm — appearing to run as fast as he can without losing his essential cool.  The piano sound he creates is wonderful, whether he is pensively wandering through a ballad or doing his best James P. Johnson.  And he is a peerless accompanist, nearly telepathic.

“Lord Heitger,” as Bernd playfully calls him, wears his heart on his sleeve, but his emotion never gets in the way of the music.  He can shout, he can soar, he can growl and moan — at any tempo.  On this CD, his tone is gorgeously round (the way jazz trumpet is supposed to sound but often doesn’t), his passions on display.  He often reminds me of 1930 Louis but he is purely himself, Duke of a royal lineage.

And neither musician embarks on the treacherous business of “recreating the originals.”  Yes, the wise ancestors of jazz are everywhere on this disc: Louis and Fats, Duke and Bubber — but there are also immensely feeling evocations of Sir Edward Elgar (not your usual idea of a solid sender), Willard Robison, Kern and Gershwin, Ray Noble, Richard Rodgers, Toots Mondello (!) and Carlos Gardell.

Most CDs — do I write this too often? — flirt with monotony by being seventy-five minutes of similar or identical music.  This one is a joy from first to last.  And even the Beloved, who’s a tough critic (her ideals are Louis, the early Goodman small groups, Nat Cole’s piano) said, simply, “That’s gorgeous!” before we were a half-minute into “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”  Hooray for this duo.  May they make a dozen more CDs as rewarding as this one, and may those discs come in a steady stream, perhaps two a year.

Hot Winds coverThe other Arbors CD is the debut of another Marty Grosz assemblage, organization, or perhaps brainstorm — a purportedly all-reed group featuring the dervishes Dan Block and Scott Robinson with a rhythm section of Marty, Vince Giordano, Rob Garcia, and guest appearances from “Panic Slim” on trombone.  I write “purportedly,” because the irrepressible Robinson, who just turned fifty, brought along his cornet, echoe cornet, and Eb alto horn.  I won’t go on about this CD, because I’ve done so already on this blog, in a post called MAKING RECORDS WITH MARTY GROSZ.  (I was lucky enough to attend two of the three sessions at Clinton Studios, and brought both camera and notebook.)

I’ll just say that the CD captures all of the enthusiasm, swing, and wit of those sessions — glorious visits to the land of Hot Jazz.  Engineer Doug Pomeroy did a wonderful job, and you can hear every ping of Rob Garcia’s glockenspiel and the deep resonant sound of Vince’s bass sax, tuba, and aluminum string bass.  More?  Well, Marty essays (as he might say) the other William H. Tyers classic, “Maori,” (recorded by Ellington and anyone else?), pays tribute to his Chicago pal Frank Chace with a tender “Under A Blanket of Blue,” and the whole band stretches out on a wondrously funky “Riverside Blues.”  I am also grateful for this CD because it captures Marty — at last — recording one of my favorite not-too-complicated songs, Herman Hupfeld’s 1933 classic, “I Gotta Get Up and Go To Work,” which is how I feel in the morning.  A neat collage by the Master, typically lemony notes.  To quote Fats on “Swing Out to Victory” : “Yeah, man!  Solid!  Here we come.”

The Arbors Records site is on my blogroll — www.arborsrecords.com — and, as they used to say on radio, “You won’t be sorry.”  And heartfelt thanks to Mat and Rachel Domber — maybe the best patrons this music has, people who put their energy and their support where their good taste is.

P.S.  I need to know.  Was “the Voom Voom ” ever a real dance or is that Ellington-Miley title their version of “That Da Da Strain”?  Surely one of my readers will know.

P.P.S.  Is it “The Hot Winds is a peerless small group,” or “The Hot Winds are astonishing”?  Or is it like using the sprinkler to water the lawn in suburbia — it depends whether the day in question is odd or even on the calendar?

HIS GRIEF, HIS ART: BEN WEBSTER, 1970

I’ve been listening to a new double-CD set of Ben Webster recordings assembled in honor of his hundredth birthday, titled THE BRUTE AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Storyville 103 8407).  Most of the music in this set comes from Webster’s last years in Europe.  Depending on the musicians accompanying Ben and his own health, the results are either lovely or uneven.  Occasionally a boppish rhythm section intrudes, or sweet symphonic orchestrations threaten to drown everything.  But two recordings in this set done with Teddy Wilson are irreplaceable — one, a version of STARDUST done in Copenhagen in 1969, is yearning and intense.  (The video of this performance, once available on YouTube, apparently has been removed, which is a pity.)

But the more dramatic OLD FOLKS (Hugo Rasmussen, bass; Ole Streenberg, drums) from May 1970, is still accessible.  It is also very deep music.

Webster is casually, almost sloppily dressed, his great bulk protruding in front of him.  Because he had broken an ankle in a fall eight months before, he is seated.  The performance begins with a small display of will, as Ben refuses to play the song at the medium-tempo jog Wilson chose.  Instead, Ben snaps his fingers insistently, slowing the tempo to a ballad, a lament.

Teddy Wilson also has the sheet music in front of him and gazes at it intently, his lips moving silently.  During the last twenty-five years of his career, Wilson stuck to his own familiar repertoire, medleys of songs associated with Waller, Goodman, Gershwin, Basie, and so on, so this is unusual.  The unfmiliarity of OLD FOLKS accounts for the atypical mistake he makes at the end of his second chorus.  Viewers will notice the difficulty or pain evident in his right hand as he pauses between phrases to turn his wrist inwards, perhaps the inevitable result of so much muscular exertion at the piano night after night.  Watching these two men play, one is aware of their age, their occasional struggles; hearing them is a different matter.

This performance is Webster’s, although Wilson’s accompaniment is gentle, supportive, and simple.  Ben’s first chorus is apparently close to the melody, with some tender arpeggios and pauses, but playing melody in this fashion is anything but simple, something only learned through forty years of devotion and practice.  The song comes alive.  Ben’s sound, his tone, his phrase-ending vibratos, full of air, are the very opposite of uninflected playing.  In the middle of the bridge, Ben removes the mouthpiece from his lips, shakes his head in exasperation (with himself or with his instrument?) but does not stop or give in.

To me, the polite applause that greets the end of his chorus is inadequate response, suggesting that the audience does not entirely grasp what they have just heard, but that might do them an injustice.  Teddy’s  chorus is a mixture of embellishments and his patented arpeggios.  Midway through it, though, the camera pulls back and we see Ben nodding silently, “Yes, I know,” empathic, hearing Wilson’s playing.  They had known and worked with each other as early as 1935, so there may havebeen the kinship of people who have shared the same experiences over time.  Ben told the British interviewer Henry Whiston in 1971 that he had leased a “beautiful piano” for his home, “I got that piano so that Teddy Wilson could have a piano to play on.”

(While Wilson is concluding his seond chorus, the camera pans to a handsome African-American of this same generation, dressed in a pink shirt, the trumpeter Bill Coleman, another long-term expatriate.)

Then we see that Webster has been crying: a tear is spilling out of his eye.  And he nods again, sadly agreeing with what Wilson has been saying without words, before picking up his horn a few beats later.

When I first saw this performance perhaps twenty years ago, I was unaware of any context, and thought perhaps that Ben had been moved to tears by the beauty of Wilson’s solo, which I still believe.  Was he also thinking of his peers — the American jazz musicians who knew and lived the music he loved — the men and women he had left behind to come to Europe?  The friends he had lost, the musicians he might never play with again?  Johan van der Keuken, who knew Ben well in Scandinavia, has spoken of the “essential loneliness” that “became more heavy” for him as he remained there.

But I read in Frank Buchmann-Moller’s excellent biography of Webster, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, that Ben had learned of the death of Johnny Hodges only a short time before this broadcast.  Although Ben might very well be weeping over Wilson’s solo, its beauty and its larger implications, his grief takes on a new dimension.

The fine tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo said of Ben, “He was 100 percent honest.  Everything came from the heart; there was no acting involved.  He wasn’t very good at sweeping things under the carpet.”

Ben had sat in the reed section of the Ellington band for almost four years, hearing Johnny Hodges every night and marveling.  He had come to the band a fully developed soloist, but he learned so much about the subtleties of technique and emotion, about singing from Hodges.  A year before this performance, Coleman Hawkins had died — an event that had upset Ben greatly.  Hodges’s sudden death — a heart attack in the dentist’s chair — was even more devastating.  Ben told Whiston, “It was . . . like if you hit me in the head with a sledgehammer.  It knocked me down.  I really didn’t know what to do.”

I do not think that Ben chose OLD FOLKS as a tribute to Hodges: that song, that piece of Americana, had been part of his repertoire since 1969, and an Ellington ballad such as I GOT IT BAD or SOPHISTICATED LADY would have been more predictable.  But OLD FOLKS was Ben’s idea rather than Wilson’s, the evidence suggested by Wilson’s unfamiliarity.

However it came to be part of this performance, OLD FOLKS is an integral part of the emotions we and the musicians come to feel.  Written by Willard Robison and performed by Mildred Bailey, among others, it is an affectionate, sly, sentimental portrait of a grandfatherly character whose habits are rustic, who tells “tall tales” that everyone knows are doubtful . . . yet he is beloved.  The lyrics emphasize his age; someday “Old Folks” will be dead and everyone will grieve.

Was Ben Webster weeping not only for the deaths of Hawkins and Hodges, Sid Catlett and Jimmy Blanton, but for an entire generation of his friends, artistic colleagues?  For the inevitability of their deaths, all the Old Folks of jazz?  Was he even wondering how long he would live?  Perhaps.

But his tears do not disable him.  He does not, in Yeats’s words, “break up his lines to weep.”  It all had to be saved for the music — a professional musician, a grown man, he had his job to do, whether or not tears were spilling out of his eyes.  And so he continues playing OLD FOLKS, hesitantly, but with such feeling.  It almost makes me weep, watching it: Ben’s slow pace, his patient, sorrowful exploration of its lines.

But it took me twenty years to realize that ben’s closing solo is a musical evocation of the weeping he would not surrender to.  His eyes dry up; he gains control of himself.  But he weeps through his horn.  What are his brief, irregular phrases, separated by gulps of air, but sobs and gasps?  His loss, his tenacity, his art — inseparable.  Watch closely: here is Ben Webster, a man, majestic and infirm at once, someone who would die in two years, racked by emotions, playing as beautifully as any musician ever did.  Without ever being didactic, this performance has so much to say to us, to teach us.

Two postscripts.

One: this clip has detestable advertisements crawling along the bottom of the frame.  But a reasonably nimble viewer can find the X and make the ads vanish.  I know that jazz needs financial support, but the ads seem a repellent intrusion here.

Two, much happier: the quotations here come from Buchmann-Moller’s biography of Ben, published in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press.  Buchmann-Moller is also the author of two indispensable books on Lester Young’s life and music, their titles taken from Lester’s own defining expressions: YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, and YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN!  His work is accurate, compassionate, and fair — worthy of the great John Chilton.

IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO PRAISE

My title is a slight distortion of a Willard Robison song that Mildred Bailey did beautifully, and it’s also a statement of philosophy for this blog.  But I’m not going back into the Dear Departed Past, to quote Dave Frishberg, only back to last year — December 30, 2008, to be precise. 

applause

In a December post, WAY DOWN YONDER ON CARMINE STREET, I urged my New York readers to come hear the singer Ronnie Washam (she’s Veronica on her return address labels) and her Friends at the Greenwich Village Bistro for a debut gig.  I made it to 1 and 1/2 sets that night.  And they were worth writing about. 

Ronnie’s Friends — not just an idle band title — are Sam Parkins, also known as Leroy Parkins, Albert-system clarinetist, scholar, record producer, raconteur, and writer; Pete Sokolow, pianist-singer, honoring Earl Hines and Fats Waller, and bassist Dave Winograd. 

When I got down to the Bistro (just south of the IFC theatre and around the corner — 13 Carmine Street), this little band was already strolling through S’WONDERFUL.  They proceeded to honor George and Ira Gershwin in a fond and musically articulate set.  The songs ranged from the tender (EMBRACEABLE YOU and OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY) to the affectionately satiric (THEY ALL LAUGHED, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT), the rueful (BUT NOT FOR ME), and the riotous (Sokolow’s tribute to “my hero,” Thomas Waller, in a piano-vocal I GOT RHTYHM that summoned up Fats’s band version of 1935 hilariously and effectively.

Ronnie was in wonderful form and fine voice.  I hadn’t heard her since the Cajun closed in 2006, when she was “The Chelsea Nightingale,” positioned off to the side of the bandstand as an accessory to Bob Thompson’s Red Onion Jazz Band.  Thompson, even then, was a solid drummer with a well-earned grasp of jazz history, but he called the songs Ronnie sang, and it was a pleasure to see her sing others at the Bistro.  I knew her then as someone who loved the melody and understood the words; with this more relaxed combo, I heard her as a far freer improviser, someone whose second choruses were developments of what she had sung in her first exposition of the theme.  Her time remains excellent; her diction is splendid.  But it’s her feeling that sets her apart from a thousand other singers trying to comvince us that they own the Great American Songbook.  Like Bing, Ronnie makes it seem easy: listening to her, one might think, “Oh, I  could do that!”  But that would be an error.  And she had an easy give-and-take with the band, being content to be one of them rather than the Star. 

The band — all three of them — was very pleasing as well.  The piano wasn’t perfect, but Sokolow covered every inch of it, graciously playing the right chords, delicately voiced, behind Ronnie and the other two players.  Dave Winograd sat on a high stool, his bass at an angle over his shoulder, impressing us all with his huge tone and fine notes.  Sam Parkins has all the Goodman facility anyone would want, but he isn’t the twenty-first century’s Peanuts Hucko: he uses those flurries to create his own sound-pictures, with lovely excursions into the horn’s lower register. 

Sam is also a not-quite-dormant showman and vaudevillian, so one high point of the evening was his rapid-fire delivery of I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS.  Who among us remembers all of those tongue-twisting lyrics?  Sam remembers them and puts them over, exuberantly.  It was a joy to watch and hear him, occasionally finishing his sixteen bars and deciding to hand the baton to another player, hollering, “Somebody else!”  It worked. 

The second set moved beyond Gershwin to a naughty MAKIN’ WHOOPEE, a tender TIME ON MY HANDS, a funny CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU (a Waller-Razaf collaboration with an irresistible melody and irresistibly silly lyrics), a fervent ME MINUS YOU (in honor of Connee Boswell, one of Ronnie’s — and my — heroines), and a moving AM I BLUE, complete with the rarely-heard verse, where Ronnie showed just how compelling her understated delivery is.

I sat next to my friends Marianne Mangan and Bob Levin, and the three of us were beaming.  Others in the Bistro seemed to know just how good the music was, and the tip jar was filled with bills.  I hope this quartet has a new steady gig.  The ambiance, in itself, was worth seeking out, as if a group of talented friends was playing for their own enjoyment in someone’s living room, caring for the music above all.   

A postscript: Sam Parkins has been writing his musical and intellectual autobiography (he gave me some chapters from it when we were both regulars at the Cajun) and it’s wonderfully addictive.  You can find excerpts from it on his MySpace page:   http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=201966595.  He was there (I was just re-reading his piece on the death of Ellington bassist Junior Raglin) and he can write.  A rare combination indeed.