Tag Archives: Irving Berlin

REBECCA KILGORE and ECHOES OF SWING: “WINTER DAYS at SCHLOSS ELMAU”

Before writing this post, I was thinking about Rebecca (or Becky or Roo — she has many names, as appropriate to a multi-faceted personality) someone I have been listening to with awe and pleasure since 1994, perhaps beginning with I SAW STARS (Arbors).  As for Echoes of Swing, I got to hear them in person in Germany (in 2007, thanks to Manfred Selchow) and could tell them how I admired them.  It’s one of my dreams to have musicians and groups of musicians I revere play together, and the new CD is just such a dream. . . . one that you and I can hear and re-hear.

The disc also affords us a chance to adjust our perspectives, to shake off some preconceptions.  Some listeners have perched Rebecca on a sunny windowsill in the country of Light, Bright, and Sparkling. Yes, she may prefer PICK YOURSELF UP to GLOOMY SUNDAY, but for me a little darkness will suffice.  Hear her on this disc as she sails through I’VE GOT MY LOVE TO KEEP ME WARM and her reputation as an antidote to darkness is intact.  But only shallow listeners will mistake optimism for shallowness: she has depths of feeling.

Echoes of Swing plus Two: Chris Hopkins, Bernd Lhotzky, Rolf Marx, Oliver Mewes, Henning Gailing, Colin T. Dawson. Photo by Katrin Horn.

Echoes of Swing has also been slightly mis-characterized, praised for their large orchestral sound (the core unit is four players, count them, four — even though on this CD they add a string bass and guitar as well as Rebecca) — as if they were somehow marvelous simply for this magic trick, and critics have heard them as successors to the John Kirby Sextet, which is both plausible and confining.  But on this CD, the players — whom I should name now: Bernd Lhotzky, piano and musical director; Colin T. Dawson, trumpet and flugelhorn; Chris Hopkins, alto saxophone; Oliver Mewes, drums, with Henning Gailing, string bass, and (on four tracks) Rolf Marx, guitar — create such rich varied sounds inside and outside of the arrangements by Bernd and Chris that I felt as if I’d wandered into a universe scored by, let us say, Gil Evans, spacious and resonant.

Other artists have created records and CDs devoted to Winter.  And many of those jolly efforts are avalanches of fake snow from the arts-and-crafts store.  Christmas music looms, no matter how many chairs might be wedged against the studio door, or there’s LET IT SNOW, the now-troublesome BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE, or WINTER WEATHER.  Sweet, certainly, but not always true to the reality of the season, for Winter is a time for introspection as the world becomes colder and darker.  This disc, I assure you, is not a descent into Seasonal Affective Disorder, and there are a few familiar cheery songs on it, but it is not the usual forgettable fluff.

Here’s a wonderful example, the text being the 1931 WINTER WONDERLAND, where the focused purity of Rebecca’s voice balances against a complex, shifting orchestral background:

Bernd’s quirkily cheerful setting of the most famous Robert Frost poem:

Rebecca’s own witty and sweet song:

You’ll have to explore the other surprises for yourself — songs I’d never heard by Frishberg, Berlin, and Jobim, and a few poems set to music by Bernd — performances that are remarkable on the first hearing and grow more so.

The disc is dense — which is not to say difficult or off-putting — but it has levels and levels of musical and emotional pleasure.  Some discs make wonderful background music — the soundtrack for rearranging one’s spice rack — but this one has the delicious resonance of one short story after another.  It’s available in all the old familiar places.  Details here. WINTER DAYS is ambitious, heartfelt, completely rewarding.  You won’t regret it, no matter what the temperature.

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!

“SPIRITUAL REFRESHMENT = LIVE MUSIC” (Part Two): YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN, “The Great American Songbook, Requested” (St. John’s in the Village, New York City, October 19, 2019)

Yes, these two magicians: Yaala Ballin, singing; Michael Kanan, playing.

About four weeks ago, they did their subtle transformations here:

They made music blossom.  The sign is perfectly apt.

Never let it be said that JAZZ LIVES omits any relevant detail:

And here‘s the first part, the songs being I COULD WRITE A BOOK; SO IN LOVE; EASY TO LOVE; THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT; BEWITCHED, BOTHERED, AND BEWILDERED; HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN?

And if that weren’t enough, here is the second part.

S’WONDERFUL:

IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD:

I LOVE PARIS:

IT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME:

MANHATTAN:

I’LL BE AROUND:

CHEEK TO CHEEK:

It was delightful to be there, which my videos may not convey wholly.  But if you missed it, and I am sure some New York readers did, be glad: Michael and Yaala will be doing another box-of-surprises program at Mezzrow on December 11 of this year.  Details here.

Yaala told us, during the concert, that she, Michael, Ari Roland, and Chris Flory are recording a CD devoted to her near-namesake, Israel Baline, whom we know as Irving Berlin.  That will be a treat — but do come out for the music as it is performed in real time, in front of people who appreciate it.

May your happiness increase!

START WITH OPTIMISM, AND IF THAT DOESN’T WORK, AIM FOR RESILIENCE: REBECCA KILGORE, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, DAN BARRETT, JON BURR, RICKY MALACHI at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 21, 2012)

There are maladies everywhere, but there are also cures.  You could see your doctor and get a prescription designed to take care of angst, malaise, and ennui; it would be a little plastic vial with a long name that would surely upset your stomach.  Or you could simply click on the two videos below, never before seen, and wait for the results . . . with no side-effects.  Music hath charms, indeed.

Rebecca Kilgore, Rossano Sportiello, Dan Barrett, Jon Burr, Ricky Malachi at Jazz at Chautauqua 2012.

These two performances took place at the Jazz at Chautauqua weekend in September 2012, and they bring joy.  Specifically, Rebecca Kilgore, Rossano Sportiello, Dan Barrett, Jon Burr, and Ricky Malachi — vocals and guitar, piano, trombone, string bass, and drums — do that rare and wonderful thing.

Here’s a burst of optimism in swing, the 1939 pop hit above, which has been so completely overshadowed by WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD and IT’S A BIG WIDE WONDERFUL WORLD that I am immediately grateful to Becky and friends for singing and playing it:

And resilience added to optimism, in a song associated with the unlikely spectacle of Fred Astaire having trouble mastering a dance step.

This Kern-Fields beauty occasionally gets mixed up with the Berlin LET YOURSELF GO, perhaps the same principle, but one is about recovery (even a triumph over gravity) — the other, release:

These performances are from seven years ago, but Becky and friends are currently performing their magic in various ways and places.  You can find out her schedule here, and there is her seriously beautiful new CD with Echoes of Swing (Bernd Lhotzky, Colin T. Dawson, Chris Hopkins, and Oliver Mewes) called WINTER DAYS AT SCHLOSS ELMAU, about which I’ll have more to say soon.  Rossano’s globe-crossings are documented here; Jon Burr’s many adventures here and Dan Barrett’s here.

Not a pill in sight, and I feel better now.

May your happiness increase!

“SPIRITUAL REFRESHMENT = LIVE MUSIC”: YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN, “The Great American Songbook, Requested” (St. John’s in the Village, New York City, October 19, 2019)

Last Saturday, I was on my way along West 11th Street in Greenwich Village to the church above for a musical event that turned out to be more memorable than I could have imagined.  Ambling along, I had my video equipment; the musicians are friends of mine as well as heroes, and I was imagining the blogpost that might come of it.  Then I saw this banner from another church and the top two phrases struck me as completely apropos to the event to come — and they are, in the ideal world, the same thing:

Back to St. John’s for the event poster, which depicts Yaala Ballin:

“The Great American Songbook, Requested” presented Yaala Ballin, vocal, and Michael Kanan, piano, in a duo-recital drawing on Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Alec Wilder.

The songs were treated lovingly, but as old friends — which is to say that both Yaala and Michael have a reverence for their melodies and harmonies as printed on the contemporaneous sheet music, and a depth of knowledge about the best performances, but that they felt free to improvise, to express their own personalities without obscuring the music.

“Requested” was a sly and endearingly playful idea.  When we entered the church, we were given a list of songs, more than forty, organized by composer, and asked to write down two on a small slip of paper — a favorite first, another second — that we wanted to hear.  It gave the afternoon the slight flavor of a children’s party (or the office grab bag, without the terrors that can inspire).  The thirteen selections Yaala and Michael performed were drawn at random from a basket that Yaala — for that brief time, the Red Riding Hood of the West Village — had brought with her.  Of course, they knew the songs on the list, but it was a small adventure, the very opposite of a tightly-planned program.  And it worked sweetly, as you will see and hear.

I COULD WRITE A BOOK (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Pal Joey):

SO IN LOVE (Cole Porter, Kiss Me Kate):

EASY TO LOVE (Porter, Born to Dance):

THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT (Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Swing Time):

BEWITCHED, BOTHERED, AND BEWILDERED (Rodgers and Hart, Pal Joey):

HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN? (Irving Berlin):

I don’t think this playful, light-hearted but emotional musical partnership displayed this afternoon, could have been better.  I could go on about Michael’s deeply musical approach to the piano, and the chances Yaala takes and how they pay off, but the evidence is all here.  And seven more performances will be shared soon.

Yaala and Michael will be performing another version of this concert at Mezzrow on December 11.  And (as if that would not be enough), Yaala, Michael, Ari Roland, and Chris Flory are going in to the studio to record a CD of Israel Baline’s music (he wrote the preceding song and a few others).

May your happiness increase!

LIGHT-HEARTED MELODIC DANCES: ALEX LEVIN TRIO, “A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE” (ALEX LEVIN, PHIL ROWAN, BEN CLINESS)

I gravitate towards music that welcomes me in.  I approve of melodies.  I even love them, and I love those that I remember.  There!  I’ve said it.

And the pianist Alex Levin has the same affectionate relations with song: he’s not a prisoner of the written notes, but he respects what the composer has created, and his own original compositions have the gamboling pleasure of the great songs that some of us still hum in the car or in the grocery-store line.

I first heard (and heard of) Alex almost a decade ago, when he released his first CD, which I liked a great deal: you can read my review here.

And I like Alex’s new CD even more.

Here’s what I wrote, offhandedly, after hearing only two or three tracks through my computer’s speakers.

Some ninety years ago, jazz began to position itself as the delinquent of music.  In opposition to all those sweet bands with violins, playing the melody in harmony, tied to the notes in front of them, jazz took a puff on its Marlboro, abruptly stood up from its seat (frightening the kittens) and made unpredictable sounds.  That was HOT, a spiritual barrage against the apparent dullness of SWEET.  And jazz listeners followed the narrow often unmarked ideological path: think of all those 78s whose grooves remain black, shiny, unplayed except for the eight bars of Bix or Purvis or Jack.  Sweet was for Aunt Martha; hot was for rebellious enlightened  outsiders.  It created a pervasive false dichotomy: if you could hear the melody, was it true improvisation? 

And — to oversimplify (because Bird and Trane could play melodically with great art) jazz aimed at abstraction, sharp edges and magical paths into the labyrinth.  Thus, so many listeners tell themselves and others that they don’t understand jazz, as if  it became a subject one had to study for to pass the final.

But the great players and singers knew and still know that melody is at the heart of any musical expression, and that “sweetness” was, in itself, a goal rather than a trap.  Think of Lester Young, “I don’t like a whole lot of noise — trumpets and trombones…I’m looking for something soft. It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig?”

It is in this spirit of an apparent conservatism that becomes radical that I commend to you Alex Levin’s new trio CD, A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE, where the trio does more than glue themselves to the written notes, but they treat melodies with love and respect . . . the result being quietly affecting swing playing of the highest order.  Some might not be able to hear the lights and shadows, preferring instead the sounds of the piano dropped to the street below, but that would be their loss.

Because readers are sometimes hurried, you can hear samples, download the music, or purchase a CD here.  And I caution the unwary listener to not jump to conclusions: “It sounds too easy,” for as that great master of contemporary jazz, Ovid, was fond of saying, ars est celare artem [he recorded it for Clef], which Monk transposed into “Simple ain’t easy.”

Now back to our regularly scheduled basket of prose.

I left off there, because Life (the hussy) interfered, with her racket of parking tickets, laundry, dinner, recycling, and more — make your own list.  But I came back and listened to the CD in a sitting, my enthusiasm just as strong.

Some facts.  Alex, who has a light touch on a well-recorded piano, is accompanied — in the truest sense of the word — by the fine string bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Ben Cliness.  And they have the ease, intuitive comfort, and wit one would expect from a working band: they catch each other’s signals without having to be told to turn the page.  incidentally, I’ve seen a review of this CD calling it “modern” and “clever.”  I can’t argue with those terms, but to me it seems “heartfelt” and “playful,” which qualities are audible.

Alex has divided the repertoire on this disc between standards that, for the most part, got their greatest exposure in the Fifties: the title track (which, for those of us over fifty, has a yearning nostalgia — rather like THE THINGS WE DID LAST SUMMER — even though my adolescence came later), SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP, THE BEST THING FOR YOU (Would Be Me), WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? and I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR — which, for the purists in the audience, is a much older composition, but I would guess most memorably allied with jazz because of Sonny Rollins (although Annie Ross, Marian McPartland, and others returned to it).

And of course one could say, “There are a million piano trio recordings that draw on Rodgers, Berlin, Porter, and Kern,” but the other five tracks — all Levin originals — SWEETS, THE JETSETTERS, BLUES FOR WYNTON K., AT LEAST WE’RE TOGETHER, STROLLING THROUGH YONKERS — are strong jazz compositions on their own, with one foot delicately poised in the past, Alex not trying to hide that his heart belongs to 1956 Prestige, but moving around happily in this century.  His songs ARE songs rather than lines over slightly modified chord progressions; they have the breath of life rather than the aroma of the Xerox machine.

Convinced?  It’s music that befriends the listener, which is sometimes rare.  Hear for yourself here, and then download or purchase, as the spirit moves you.

May your happiness increase!

FLYING, GLIDING: THE JACOB ZIMMERMAN 3: JACOB ZIMMERMAN, COLE SCHUSTER, MATT WEINER (July 2019)

Some ensembles need many people to make a statement: Jacob Zimmerman, Cole Schuster, and Matt Weiner (reeds, guitar, string bass) create memorable vignettes in a small space: it’s a band that could travel comfortably in a subcompact car.  They have a new CD coming out, and Jacob has posted two selections recorded last month — what ease and grace, what quiet impact.

Jacob wrote of the first selection, LANTERN OF LOVE (a 1925 tune),
A few weeks back my trio that plays Tuesdays at IL Bistro got together to rehearse some of the fancier arrangements I’ve written. I first heard this song on a Roger Wolfe Kahn record. I love the elegance of this melody. I tried to channel the spirit of the Jean Goldkette orchestra and feature Matt Weiner playing his version of Steve Brown style slap and arco bass playing.

and here’s the more familiar THE SONG IS ENDED — a remarkable treatment of a lovely Berlin melody which makes me think of Ruby Braff at the start and then segues into what I think of as 1945 Jamboree Records swing, up on the aesthetic mountaintop in less than four minutes (I kept waiting for Joe Thomas to appear and take the bridge):

I don’t see a trip to Seattle soon (although anything is possible) but I believe I will see Jacob again as part of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet at the San Diego Jazz Fest and Swing Extravaganza in November, and I certainly look forward to that new CD!

May your happiness increase!