Tag Archives: jazz blogs

JAZZ FINDS ME IN NEW YORK

I made it to Smalls, that casual jazz mecca, on Thursday night to sit close to the bandstand and absorb the sounds.  Smalls seems a blessed place as soon as you descend the stairs and see the huge portrait of Louis, sharp as a tack, dressed in high British style, circa 1933.  And the two players who improvised under that portrait were clearly in tune with his spirit.  The immensely talented Dan Block, bringing his alto and clarinet, filled the hour with melodic shapes inhabited by notes that were full of meaning but never weighty.  And pianist Ehud Asherie gets wittier and wittier, more rhythmically subtle and melodically free, every time I see him.  And more modest, too!

I brought my little friend — Flip the Video Camera — and have two delightful bits of cinema verite to offer here.  The first, “Thanks A Million,” was a pop hit — from a Dick Powell film — in 1935.  Most of us know this pretty tune (expressing gratitudes in swing) from the eloquent Decca recording Louis did — and later versions by Bobby Hackett and Jon-Erik Kellso (the only one of the three who includes the pretty verse when he plays the song).

Following this, the duo offered a leisurely, ranging “The Love Nest,” a 1920 song that was later taken up by George Burns and Gracie Allen as their theme song.  I always think of a wonderfully hot medium-tempo version by Max Kaminsky on Commodore — with Frank Orchard, Rod Cless, James P. Johnson, Eddie Condon, Bob Casey (I think), and George Wettling.  (Sometimes I think I started a blog only for the pure pleasure of writing “Rod Cless” in public, in a quietly worshipful way.)

Incidentally, there are more clips of Ehud on YouTube — with Harry Allen and the aforementioned Jon-Erik.

Then, a beautifully dressed Rossano Sportiello took the stage with his Amici — the brothers Luigi and  Pasquale Grasso on alto and guitar, Luca Santangelo on drums, and Joel Forbes (an honorary Italian-American for the occasion) to saunter through a slow “Lady Be Good” in honor of Basie and “I’m Through With Love” in honor of Bing, perhaps.  Wonderful music — and I was sorry I had to leave, but Friday morning was calling.  (It sounds like an alarm clock.)

That would have been enough to make a splendid evening for anyone — including chats with Ehud and Rossano, with Mitch Borden and pianist Spike Wilner, two of the people who have kept Smalls alive and vibrant.  But two other incidents brought delight.  I had told Mitch about posting here, announcing the pleasures to come.  He looked slightly skeptical (although it might be his typical expression) and began asking people seated near us how they had heard about these Thursday sessions.  And an attractive black-haired young woman said pertly to Mitch, “Online,” with the (“. . . of course . . . “) unspoken but hanging visible in the air.  Blessings on your head, my dear woman, whoever you are.

After the gig, I made my way — valiant warrior that I am — to Penn Station for the trek back to my nest.  Dinner with the Beloved (at Bar Pitti) had been delicious but early, so I was peckish, not an unusual condition.  I headed to one of the better pizza palaces in Penn and bought a slice.  On line ahead of me there was a man and woman, of my generation, arousing no particular notice aside from being the people who had to be served before I could get fed.  This pizza oasis has a seating area, usually filled with sports fans because a television set is tuned to some game or the other.  (Like the audience at old-style movie theatres, the patrons here — sipping beer in plastic cups and eating — talk loudly to each other and to the set.)

All this is elaborate prelude to my finding a seat near this couple: he gray-haired, she auburn-tressed.  They were having an animated conversation, with him in the lead.  He was telling her what had happened at the concert — what the bass player did, where the drummer went, etc.  He sounded hip; he used the word “gig”; he was clearly a professional musician.  My eavesdropping talents, always highly honed, went into higher gear.  I finished my pizza and took one of my business cards out of my wallet, and gingerly approached the couple.  “Eavesdropping is very rude, so I apologize . . . but it sounded as if you were a New York musician.  I have a jazz blog and perhaps you might like to see it sometime.”  Unabashed self-promotion, I admit, but the man smiled and said, “Sure.  My name is Warren Chiasson, and I play the vibes.”

After a brief pause, I closed my mouth and told Warren he needed no introduction, and we had a brief, happy chat.  I had to make my train, so the three of us grinned at the coincidence and went our separate ways.  But I was elated all the way home.  Warren gave me his business card — so I know this was no hallucination — and I’ve added his website to my blogroll.  Hope he sees this posting someday!

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THE EYES HAVE IT

It’s deeply foggy here in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  And although my thoughts might turn to myriad possibilities for indoor edification and soul-solace, today they turn to YouTube. 

Tom Warner, ever diligent, has just posted a number of video clips from the most recent  Bix Beiderbecke Festival held each year in Davenport, Iowa.  The one that caught my attention was “Clarinet Marmalade,” a set-closing performance by Randy Sandke’s New York All-Stars: Randy on cornet, Dan Barrett on trombone, Dan Block on clarinet, Scott Robinson on C-melody and bass saxophones, Mark Shane on piano, Nicki Parrott on bass, Howard Alden on guitar, and the Invisible Man — I presume it’s Rob Garcia, by the sound of his cymbals — on drums. 

It’s a very satisfying performance, both evoking the original recording (itself a cut-down version of the famous arrangement Bill Challis did for the Jean Goldkette Orchestra) and building upon it in lively ways.  “Clarinet Mamalade,” one of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band records Bix so loved, is also a refreshingly old-fashioned piece of music.  Harking back to ragtime and brass bands, it has several strains, which might make it a minefield for players who know it only slightly, but it also has more substance than the usual thirty-two bar AABA tune.  I particularly like the strain that comes after Mark Shane’s piano solo: it always makes me think of silent film music, the soundtrack for something particularly ominous (the demure heroine tied to the track, the approaching train, the storm at sea, perhaps?) while the band is swinging.   

Here, for your dining and dancing pleasure, are Randy’s All-Stars:

Musically, it’s greatly rewarding.  But there’s something delightful about watching musicians at work, feeling the spirit without showing off, when they are not constrained by the knowledge of someone with a video recorder getting it all down for posterity.  It’s a treat to hear Mark Shane’s Wilson-inspired stride playing, light yet forceful, but my pleasure is intensified by the sight of Nicki, rockin’ in rhythm, during his solo.  And watch her, hard at lip-biting work, during hers!  It adds to the pleasure of hearing Dan Barrett’s fearless Miff Mole-staccato leaps to see his slide moving, to see the rest of the musicians acting out their notes and phrases in the language of their whole bodies, to see Dan Block express his enthusiasm by moving in time while Barrett plays.

Sometimes the visual aspect detracts from what we’re trying to hear.  Musicians have a casual way of chatting and guffawing while someone else is soloing.  But even though Warner’s cinematography is functional, seeing adds to hearing in this instance, and the ovation this band gets is well-deserved.  I don’t know if you will leave your chair in front of the computer monitor, but you will understand why the Bix Fest audience did.

RETTA CHRISTIE SINGS!

 

When I got a copy of Retta Christie’s new CD, RETTA CHRISTIE WITH DAVID EVANS AND DAVE FRISHBERG (Retta Records 002) I knew only one member of that trio — the redoubtable Mr. Frishberg.  I put the disc on as I did that night’s dinner dishes — what could be more in the true American spirit than that?    

Now, I am a long-time musical elitist, taking this position early by my stated preference for jazz, not Gary Lewis and the Payboys.  And my first reaction to the mention of “country and western” was to think of Buddy Rich’s quip, when hospitalized, that it was the only thing he was allergic to.  So I was mildly suspicious of a CD that had “Ridin’ Down the Canyon” on it, and even Frishberg’s name didn’t entirely soothe me.

But I was willing to give tnis CD a try — my friend Barb Hauser, the Sage of Bay Area jazz, often spoke admiringly of Retta — and much of the repertoire on it was more than reassuring.  “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?” has a fine pedigree (I know Bing’s record by heart, and I am looking forward to John Gill’s version for Stomp Off).  I had listened to a fair amount of Thirties Western Swing, to the country-meets-jazz jamming of Butch Thompson, Peter Ostrushko, and others on A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, and the cowboy jazz that Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri created in their group Brockmumford. 

When I began to listen to Retta’s singing (and her nimble, unflagging time — she plays brushes through most of the CD) I was charmed, entranced . . . . hooked.   

I was first attracted to the sound of the trio.  As a soloist and accompanist, Frishberg is peerless.  In one of his bits of memoir, he says that he would have liked to sound like Jimmy Rowles.  Here, he often succeeds in his own way, never copying J.R.: Dave’s swinging waywardness, his way of finding melodies in corners no one would think to look in, his wry comedies (hear his commentary on “a coyote whining for hie mate” on “Ridin’ Down The Canyon”) are irreplaceable.  I doubt that he will establish the Dave Frishberg School for Pianists — mail-order, with transcribed solosfor amateur pianists like myself — but I’ll sign up.    

I had never heard or heard of David Evans, but I see that my horizons have been woefully limited.  His tenor and clarinet playing is loose, amiable, lyrical.  I thought of Al Cohn, of Eddie Miller, of Lester Young — and not because he offers the listener a plateful of phrases they made famous.  Evans knows how to purr, to muse, or to jump off the highest diving board, eyes closed, into a solo.  When the two Davids explore “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Louise” in duet, the result is thoughtful, moving music.  Backed by Retta’s neat brushwork, this trio sounded deliciously like Mel Powell’s Vanguard trios of the Fifties — particularly the one with Paul Quinichette, but also the session with Ruby Braff and the one lovely number, “When Did You Leave Heaven?” that Powell recorded with Jimmy Buffington on French horn. 

But I have intentionally left Retta Christie for last, as hers is the best surprise.  When I first heard her sing, I thought her approach so artless that it seemed unadorned, as if the guitar player’s girlfriend had gotten up and sung her favorite number.  But I seriously underestimated her singing.  Its emotional directness and simplicity got to me fast.  She doesn’t show off; she doesn’t insist on being the star.  She has a speaking delivery, but it isn’t a matter of being untrained or unsophisticated.  Rather, she wants us to hear the words because they mean something — and she delights in presenting the melodies as if they were beautiful and swinging.  Which they are! 

Without acting or overacting, Retta brings a rare tenderness to her material — Floyd Tillman’s “This Cold War With You,” “On Treasure Island,” as well as “I’ll String Along With You.”  You will hear echoes of Patsy Cline, but also of Connee Boswell and Nan Wynn.  And she can ride the rhythm on a swinging song — the rarely-heard “Lost” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer). 

I find myself returning to this session regularly, for its sincerity and wit — and I predict you will too.  The disc is avaliable at Retta’s website (www.rettachristie.com), where you can also learn about her other recordings and live gigs, should you be in the Pacific Northwest.  I never thought I’d find myself humming “Ridin’ Down The Canyon,” but I do, with pleasure.  Thanks, Retta.