Tag Archives: Jaki Byard

ADVENTURES IN THE LAND OF GOOD SURPRISES: THE MICHAEL BANK SEPTET at SHRINE (August 1, 2017)

I first encountered the pianist-composer Michael Bank sometime in late 2004 or early 2005, at a Basque restaurant called BAR TABAC in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when he was pianist in a little band that had some of my — now lasting — friends in it: Kevin Dorn, Craig Ventresco, Jesse Gelber, among others.  When I heard Michael play — evoking Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and his own original thinking — I was impressed, and when he introduced the band’s version of ALL OF ME by quoting Teddy from PRES AND TEDDY, I went over to him at the set break and said, having introduced myself, “Excuse me, what the hell was that intro figure you did on ALL OF ME?” and we established its provenance (I am afraid I showed off by telling him I’d gotten Teddy’s autograph on that album) and I knew he was someone to pay attention to.

But I knew only a fraction of the totality of Michael Bank, and my admiration grew when I heard him lead his Septet.  The official press release calls this band “a four-horn group in the mainstream jazz tradition,” but that is a serious understatement.  For this gig, the Septet is Tony Speranza, trumpet;  John Ludlow, alto saxophone; Matt Haviland, trombone; Frank Basile, baritone saxophone; Ben Rubens, string bass;  the esteemed Steve Little, once again playing a set of drums not his own, with one happy exception being a beautiful snare drum lent for this gig by our friend Kelly Friesen.

Michael is an intriguing composer of originals that sound, at first, familiar, but then take their own twists and turns: not into dissonance, but into surprising melodies and voicings.  I think of his compositions as beginning in the 1951-55 Johnny Hodges band book and then deciding to move around by visiting Jaki Byard (a model and mentor to Michael), and going their own ways.  What underpins all of this is Michael’s delighted commitment to a rocking swing motion rooted in Ellingtonian momentum.  The Septet’s modernism is curious and amiable; the dissonances or unusual voicings do not treat the audience unkindly.  One could dance to this band, and that impulse comes from the Septet’s roots as a backing band for The Silver Belles, a veteran tap dance troupe. But like Ellington, Michael sees the beauty in simple forms: he loves the blues and how they can be asked to soar; he doesn’t find the Past something to be rejected but he conceives of ancient inspirations in his own ways.

Having taken the wrong subway line (Michael suggested that this post should be called TAKE THE 2 TRAIN, which amused me but would require too much explanation) I went up hill and down dale to be at this one-hour gig at the Shrine Music Venue at 134th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, but I was seriously rewarded for my aerobics with music that balances lightness and density.

Here are four extended highlights of this all-too-brief gig:

FALL AND RISE:

THE AZTEC TWO-STEP, which is its own kind of choreography:

Jaki Byard’s ONE NOTE:

TAKE THE “A” TRAIN:

I know it is hard to keep a band together without regular gigs, but I certainly think that Michael’s Septet is eminently worthy of a comfortable venue, a nice piano.  If you swing it, they will come.  Or perhaps.

May your happiness increase!

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MORE MODERN SWINGMATISM: MICHAEL BANK SEPTET at SOMETHIN’ JAZZ (Jan. 20, 2015)

Here’s what I wrote about a recent performance by Michael Bank and his remarkable group.

I first heard pianist Michael Bank play a decade ago, in a situation that would have unsettled a lesser musician: he was set up behind a keyboard — with three or four other players — in a Brooklyn bar / restaurant.  The clientele, well-heeled young men and women enjoying their Sunday brunch, talked loudly and incessantly about their possessions: “my architect,” “Emily’s play group,” “the worst cleaning service we’ve ever used,” “our financial advisor.”  But Michael’s beautiful individualism cut through the self-absorption.  He knew his swing well: when the leader called ALL OF ME, Michael immediately started off with Teddy Wilson’s introductory passage from the 1956 PRES AND TEDDY — before moving into inventions of his own.  Michael had studied with Jaki Byard, a master of surprises, and Michael’s own work, although never written in capital letters, goes its own happily quirky ways.

That refreshing quirkiness (that’s a deep compliment) is even more in evidence when Michael leads his own small band, usually a septet, playing his compositions and arrangements.  I always think his bands have the good stomping feeling of the Johnny Hodges small bands of the Fifties (I think Panama Francis would approve of this music for dancers) but there are quiet delicious explosions of color throughout that evoke Byard and Mingus.

I offer five performances from a recent (January 20) evening at Somethin’ Jazz (212 East 52nd Street, New York City), a congenial harbor for all kinds of improvised music, where Michael had with him these fine players (ensemble, solo, and reading charts): Charlie Caranicas, trumpet; Noah Bless, trombone; Tim Lewis, Mike Mullins, saxophone; Kelly Friesen, string bass; Steve Little, drums.

In honor of Chick Webb’s band, a difficult chart, HARLEM CONGO:

“A nice blues,” BLUEVIEW:

SWEET GEORGIA BROWN:

TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE, featuring Kelly Friesen:

Ellington’s GOIN’ UP:

For those of you who want to hear and learn more, I offer three previous blog-celebrations of Michael Bank and his bands.  From 2012, here.  Then, some words about Michael’s CD, aptly titled THE DAO OF SWING, here, and a 2013 session here.

And here is the first part of this swinging evening’s concert.

May your happiness increase!

MODERN SWINGMATISM RETURNS: MICHAEL BANK SEPTET at SOMETHIN’ JAZZ (Jan. 20, 2015: Part One)

I first heard pianist Michael Bank play a decade ago, in a situation that would have unsettled a lesser musician: he was set up behind a keyboard — with three or four other players — in a Brooklyn bar / restaurant.  The clientele, well-heeled young men and women enjoying their Sunday brunch, talked loudly and incessantly about their possessions: “my architect,” “Emily’s play group,” “the worst cleaning service we’ve ever used,” “our financial advisor.”  But Michael’s beautiful individualism cut through the self-absorption.  He knew his swing well: when the leader called ALL OF ME, Michael immediately started off with Teddy Wilson’s introductory passage from the 1956 PRES AND TEDDY — before moving into inventions of his own.  Michael had studied with Jaki Byard, a master of surprises, and Michael’s own work, although never written in capital letters, goes its own happily quirky ways.

That refreshing quirkiness (that’s a deep compliment) is even more in evidence when Michael leads his own small band, usually a septet, playing his compositions and arrangements.  I always think his bands have the good stomping feeling of the Johnny Hodges small bands of the Fifties (I think Panama Francis would approve of this music for dancers) but there are quiet delicious explosions of color throughout that evoke Byard and Mingus.

I offer six performances from a recent (January 20) evening at Somethin’ Jazz (212 East 52nd Street, New York City), a congenial harbor for all kinds of improvised music, where Michael had with him these fine players (ensemble, solo, and reading charts): Charlie Caranicas, trumpet; Noah Bless, trombone; Tim Lewis, Mike Mullins, saxophone; Kelly Friesen, string bass; Steve Little, drums.

AZTEC TWO-STEP:

I SHOULD CARE:

LOWER LEVEL 3:

Q Q:

FOR JAKI:

ONE NOTE:

For those of you who want to hear and learn more, I offer three previous blog-celebrations of Michael Bank and his bands.  From 2012, here.  Then, some words about Michael’s CD, aptly titled THE DAO OF SWING, here, and a 2013 session here.

More to come in Part Two.

May your happiness increase!

ESCAPING THE BOX

William Carlos Williams: “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet—gosh, how I hate sonnets—is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through, you don’t have a crab any more.”

Robert Frost: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Younger, I would have sided with Frost: too much freedom leads to chaos. But I celebrate Williams’ position (even though his metaphor makes me wince) more as I age, feel, and listen.  Tidiness is a wonderful thing in the kitchen cabinets, but it might lead to the slow death of creative improvising.

In that spirit, I present the latest works of saxophonist / composer / historian / scholar / seeker Allen Lowe, a four-CD set of original compositions with one exception, a spoken-word piece by the novelist Rick Moody.

field recordings cover bc

JAZZ LIVES readers will be familiar with many of the names on that cover; others will provide engaging and sometimes quizzical surprises in listening and emotion.

Lowe’s works don’t seek to present snapshots of particular eras; they don’t offer “styles or schools.” Rather, his imaginations are intense, deep, yet unfettered. FIELD RECORDINGS, Lowe says in his liner notes, grew out of an argument he had with Wnton Marsalis — during Lowe’s attempt to interview Marsalis.  Disagreeing about “minstrelsy,” Marsalis characterized Lowe — in Lowe’s words — as “merely another in a long line of deluded white academics.”

Lowe spent the next six years immersing himself in “early entertainments of every racial persuasion,” which led him to compositions — song forms — that reflected what he had heard and experienced.  He also plays and improvises on many of these performances heard in this CD set.  More details here.

Lowe writes, “There is a tradition in certain kinds of writing in which the writer takes past works and puts them to his own use for very specific philosophical and artistic reasons. Brecht called this copien, as in the use of older texts as a means to something new and different, as a method from which to challenge prior ideas and forms. This project was done in exactly this spirit, as a way of altering certain received ideas of popular and jazz song. It is also a challenge to certain formal and intellectual assumptions.”

I haven’t heard more than one quarter of the set, but found the music so inspiring that I wanted to spread the word about it.   The performances weren’t always easy to listen to — Lowe, as composer and player, doesn’t shy away from improvisation’s rough edges, but he doesn’t run into harshness for its own sake.

What I appreciate most about the music — I was listening both with and without the benefit of Lowe’s commentaries — was its depth of feeling and innate ability to surprise.  The surprises weren’t ones I could predict (I know that sounds like an illogical paradox, but listening to many of the great musicians, I feel I know “where (s)he might be going” in the next chorus).

Rather, I felt the ground shifting under me in the best sense of the metaphor. Over and over, I felt beautifully startled, gently lifted out of my expectations and planted somewhere else, experiencing the sounds from a different perspective.  Each voyage was a fascinating series of what Emerson calls “zig-zag tacks.”  I heard echoes of New Orleans polyphony and street parade, dark unrequited blues, ensemble questing that echoed Mingus and freer improvsations, with searching, winding melodic lines, unpredictable harmonies that felt good as soon as they found my ears.

Language has a hard time describing music in the best of circumstances, and words are particularly inadequate here. One must be a creative listener to feel Lowe’s many musics, but they are well worth the investigation.  He is honest, inquiring, and sly — as is his work on these four CDs.  But beware!  This set is not ear-cushioning, to be listened to in conjunction with household chores, nor is it meant to be heard as one hears some discs: seventy-five minutes of supple protection from the world.  I predict that the listener wise and brave enough to purchase the FIELD RECORDINGS will approach the music as one does a new book of poems: a poem or two at a time, rather than as an artistic devouring of it all.

As a measure of the breadth and often witty depths of Lowe’s imagination, I would list some of the names he calls in his notes and compositions: Bunk Johnson, Tony Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Ernest Hogan, Mantan Moreland, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Lennie Tristano, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Thelonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Varese, Dave Schildkraut, Bud Powell, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Melrose, Paul Whiteman, Bill Challis, Harry Barris, George Bacquet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James P. Johnson, Albert Ayler, Ran Blake, Henry Mancini, Sun Ra, Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Daily, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Bill Triglia, George Gershwin, Frank Teschemacher, Jess Stacy, Bix Beiderbecke, Arizona Dranes, Bert Williams, George Wheeler, Barbara Payne, Clyde Bernhardt, Ma Rainey, Anthony Braxton, Joe Jordan, Jaki Byard, Fess Manetta, Lester Young, Duke Ellington . . . and more.

The curious — and I hope there are many — will listen to samples here and then plunge in — this set costs less than two CDs and is wonderfully lively. You can also learn more at Allen’s website and blog (called EVERYTHING ELSE IS POST MODERNISM) — where Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and Norman Mailer, compelled to share a subway seat, eye each other with suspicion.

I admire Allen Lowe’s courage, range, and audacities. The music is often, on first hearing, “weird,” but that’s a compliment. A little weirdness is like good seasoning: so much missed in the music we are sold, so richly enhancing in the right proportions.

And to return to the austere Robert Frost.  My letter to him, unsent and unread, is as follows:Dear Mr. Frost. If you removed the net, you might not have tennis, but you certainly would have an engaging dance.”

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ WORTH READING: “THE BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES: FACES, PLACES AND NIGHTLIFE 1937-1962”

Some of my readers will already know about Richard Vacca’s superb book, published in 2012 by Troy Street Publishing.  I first encountered his work in Tom Hustad’s splendid book on Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY. Vacca’s book is even better than I could have expected.

VACCA book

Much of the literature about jazz, although not all, retells known stories, often with an ideological slant or a “new” interpretation.  Thus it’s often difficult to find a book that presents new information in a balanced way.  BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES is a model of what can be done.  And you don’t have to be particularly interested in Boston, or, for that matter, jazz, to admire its many virtues.

Vacca writes that the book grew out of his early idea of a walking tour of Boston jazz spots, but as he found out that this landscape had been obliterated (as has happened in New York City), he decided to write a history of the scene, choosing starting and ending points that made the book manageable.  The book has much to offer several different audiences: a jazz-lover who wants to know the Boston history / anecdotal biography / reportage / topography of those years; someone with local pride in the recent past of his home city; someone who wishes to trace the paths of his favorite — and some obscure — jazz heroes and heroines.  (Vacca’s book could become the ULYSSES of jazz Boston, although we’d have to settle on a day to follow the paths of, perhaps Sabby Lewis or Frankie Newton through this vanished terrain.)

I found the proliferation of new information delightful, even though I was familiar with some of Boston’s “hot spots of rhythm” and the musicians who played there: Newton, Max Kaminsky, Dick Twardzic, Serge Chaloff, Bobby Hackett, George Wein, Jaki Byard, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Alan Dawson, Jaki Byard, Herb Pomeroy, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, John Field, Buzzy Drootin, Joe Gordon, and others.  I’d known about the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, Mahogany Hall, and the various permutations of Storyville.  But on every page I read stories that were both new and illuminating (filling in gaps in the lives of musicians I had known as well as obscure ones) and learned a great deal about place and places.

And Vacca has an old-fashioned respectfulness, which is rare in this century.  True, there are stories of low life and bad behavior, for some of those night spots were run by and populated by people who gave way to their impulses — but Vacca is no tabloid journalist, savoring wicked or illicit behavior.  And his amused, gentle forgiveness makes the book especially charming.

Topography — whether substantial or vanished — has a good deal to do with experience.  When I could visit Your Father’s Mustache in New York and realize that its floor space was that of Nick’s circa 1944, it made something click: memory met tangible reality.  Knowing more about the Savoy — as a place, run by real figures in a genuine historical panorama — adds to my experience of listening to broadcasts taken from there.

The photographs — almost all of them new to me — and the maps (a delight) add to the pleasure of this book.  As well, I learned about musicians I’d never heard of, or from, who played major roles in Boston’s jazz life: Dean Earl, Al Vega, Mabel Robinson Simms, as well as places I’d heard little of — Izzy Ort’s Bar and Grille, for one.  james Reese Europe puts in an appearance, as does Sam Rivers; George Frazier, Nat Hentoff, Father Norman J. O’Connor, Symphony Hall, Symphony Sid, Teddi King, Jake Hanna, Leroy Parkins, Fat Man Robinson, John McLellan, Charlie Bourgeois, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Berklee College of Music pop in and out.

But what makes this book rise above the information and stories collected within it is Vacca’s skill as researcher, editor, writer, and presenter.  The first thing a reader will notice is his lively but not flashy writing style: I’d call it refined, erudite journalism — fast-moving but never superficial.  He is a great storyteller, with a fine eye for the telling detail but someone who leaves a reader wanting more rather than feeling as if one was trapped at a party with an Authority on some bit of arcana.  (The writer Vacca reminds me of is THE NEW YORKER’S Joseph Mitchell, and that is not a compliment I utter lightly.)  He has a light touch, so the book is entertaining without ever seeming thin or didactic.  I would hand this book to an aspiring writer, researcher, or reporter, and say, “This is one admirable way to do it.”

In addition, the book is obviously the result of diligent research — not simply a synthesis of the available books that touch on the subject, although there is a six-page small-print bibliography (and a discography, a generous touch) but much of the information here comes from contemporary newspapers and magazines and Vacca’s interviews with Bostonians who were there, whether they were musicians, fans, or interested onlookers.

I’ve finished reading it, but it remains on my desk — an irresistible distraction, a book I have been returning to often.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment — literate, vivid, accurate, and animated.

To find out more about the book, click here. I predict it will provide more pleasure, and more lasting pleasure, than its price — which is roughly that of one compact disc.

May your happiness increase!

MICHAEL BANK and his SEPTET POINT THE WAY TO SWING (September 17, 2013)

I’ve admired the music and musical intelligence of pianist / composer / arranger Michael Bank for nearly ten years now — in live performance and on recordings. So I was very happy to see that he had a new CD, THE DAO OF SWING — aptly named — which you can read about here.

Compact discs are lovely, but live performances are thrilling in their own right.  I was delighted to learn, some weeks ago, that Michael would be bringing a septet to the Lower East Side of New York City.  The generous sponsor of the brief concert was Play-Diem, a nonprofit organization that promotes art of various kinds in New York parks and bandshells.  Thank you, Play-Diem!  Michael was joined by Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Noah Bless, trombone; Jay Rattman, alto; Andrew Hadro, baritone; Matt Smith, guitar; Trifon Dimitrov, bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.

Their music was and is inspiring.  I hear wonderful echoes — at an idiosyncratic tilt, not copies — of Ellington and Hodges, Jaki Byard and what I would call Modernist Swing, where the rhythm is seriously rocking while unusual things take place above and around it.  You can hear and see for yourself — as the band rocks against the sky with the invisible East River below.

A memorably swinging mood piece, Michael’s ALTAIR:

Talk about swinging!  Here’s ROCKVILLE, a Johnny Hodges blues:

Michael’s evocative and evocatively-titled FALL AND RISE:

Jaki Byard’s accurately-named ONE NOTE:

May your happiness increase!

“THE DAO OF SWING”: THE MICHAEL BANK SEPTET

DAO 3

DAO (or more commonly TAO) is a Chinese word and concept meaning loosely “the way,” “the underlying principle.”  SWING should be a more familiar word to readers of this blog. The title of Michael Bank’s new CD might be read on the surface as “The Way To Swing,”  but it suggests something more profound: that happy unity when the musicians connect with the deeper rhythms of the universe.  An ambitious aspiration, but Michael Bank’s Septet makes it come alive.

I first met Michael at a Sunday brunch gig in Brooklyn, with, among other friends, Jesse Gelber, Craig Ventresco and Kevin Dorn.  In the most unmusical setting (well-fed young couples speaking loudly about their investments, their architect, and their renovations) Michael’s playing always caught my attention.  He had an unerring sense of what to add to the musical conversation.  (Working alongside and learning from Jaki Byard, Dick Katz, Al Casey, and other veterans had affected him, audible through his playing, arranging, and compositions.)

Last year, I heard his Septet for the first time. Most of the group’s repertoire was given over to Michael’s compositions.  Unlike some “originals,” in this century, they had memorable melodies and voicings.  See the end of this post for three examples from that session:.I was delighted to learn that Michael and the Septet had issued a compact disc of his music.  Swing, yes; imitation, no — creative evocation, yes.  When heard casually from another room, the sound might suggest the rocking little band of Johnny Hodges in the early Fifties, but close listening reveals quirky, surprising touches. The Septet is rhythmically rooted in the great oceanic motion of Mainstream, but Michael’s melodic and harmonic language moves easily between Fifty-Second Street and the present, grounded in the blues and mood pieces.  (His compositions are more than disguised reheatings of overplayed chord changes.)  Michael’s skills as an arranger are on display through the disc — perhaps most so in his witty reinvention of WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING — the Celts go uptown.

Michael Bank, piano, arrangements and compositions; Simon Wettenhall, trumpet / fluegelhorn; Kris Jensen, Mike Mullens, Geof Bradfield, Ray Franks, saxophones; Kelly Friesen, string bass; Steve Little, drums.  The songs are ALTAIR / AZTEC 2-STEP / FOR JAKI / MINOR CHANGES / LL3 / ONE NOTE (by Michael’s mentor, Jaki Byard) / BLUEVIEW / WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING.  The players are more than equal to the material: I’d known Simon Wettenhall, Kelly Friesen, and Steve Little before this, but the collective saxophonists are just splendid: everyone understands the tradition but easily moves in and out of it.

Here are three videos from the May 2012 gig:

GOIN’ UP

FOR JAKI

BLUEVIEW

To hear the music on the CD, the usual suspects:  CD BABYitunes, and The-Dao-of-Swing .  Better yet, come to one of the Septet’s gigs.  And one is taking place this Tuesday, September 17 — from 4 to 4:45 PM at the East River Bandshell in lower Manhattan.  Michael will be joined by Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Noah Bless, trombone; Jay Rattman, alto; Andrew Hadro, baritone; Michael Bank, piano; Matt Smith, guitar; Trifon Dimitrov, bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.

May your happiness increase!