Tag Archives: Jerome Kern

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!

WON’T YOU PLEASE ARRANGE IT? (July 10, 2019)

We love Ray Skjelbred, who loves Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Joe Sullivan.  Here, he starts THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT — dedicated to Ginger, her hair a mass of shampoo-suds — as a rubato exploration, then shifts into dreamy dance music:

And here’s the original scene from SWING TIME, which makes me wish that the fantasies of 1936 were plausible: that our lovers could serenade us so tenderly through the bathroom door.  I don’t know where the RKO studio orchestra would fit themselves, but no matter.

Thanks to Ray for evoking such a sweet moment, and to Rae Ann Berry for the video.  And here‘s Ray’s November 2016 solo rendition of this song (he told me it was the first time he’d performed it) along with several other gems.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET LESSONS IN MELODIC EMBELLISHMENT (1946)

I woke up yesterday morning with the melody of SHE DIDN’T SAY YES in my head — as performed in 1946 by Joe Thomas and his Orchestra for Keynote Records — and that performance insisted that I share it and write a few words in its honor.  The song comes from the 1931 Jerome Kern – Otto Harbach musical comedy THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE, and it is limited in its ambitions (words and music) but it is also irresistible.  The steplike melody is difficult to get rid of once one hears it, and the coy naughtiness of the lyric — raising the question of being “bad” when badness seems so delightful, but tossing the moral question back at the listener — combine in a kind of musical miniature cupcake.

Here is a video clip from the 1934 film version of the play — Jeanette MacDonald, looking lovely, sings SHE DIDN’T after a large clump of cinematic foolishness, including post-Code dancing, has concluded. (My contemporary perspective makes this scene slightly painful to watch, as Jeanette is bullied by the crowd into declaring a love that she seems to feel only in part.)

The song was recorded a number of times in the early Thirties (by Leo Reisman and Chick Bullock, among others) but may have surfaced again with the 1946 film biography of Kern, who had died suddenly the year before, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY.  However, since its performance in the film by the Wilde Twins goes by quickly, I think other reasons may have led to its being chosen for this Keynote Records date.  Did Harry Lim hear something in its melody — those repeated notes that Alec Wilder deplored — or did Joe Thomas like to play it?  We’ll never know, but it is a recording both memorable and forgotten.

The band was “Joe Thomas And His Orchestra,” itself a rare occurrence.  Lim had used Joe on many sessions for Keynote (the Forties were a particular period of prominence on records for him, thankfully — where he recorded alongside Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries).  The band was  Joe Thomas, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Hy White, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Lee Abrams, drums, and it was done in New York on August 16, 1946.  I don’t know who did the backgrounds and introduction, but the recording is a small marvel of originalities.  I listen first for the soloists and their distinctive sounds and then consider the performance as an example of what one could do with texture and small orchestral touches with only an octet.

I first heard this record coming out of my radio speaker when Ed Beach did a show devoted to Joe Thomas — perhaps in 1969 — and then I got to see Joe both on the stage of Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls (with Benny Carter and Eddie Condon, consider that!) and at much closer range in 1972-74, thanks to the kindness of my dear Mike Burgevin.

I don’t want to subject this recording to chorus-by-chorus explication, but I would ask listeners to hear the individual sounds and tones these players had: Joe, Tyree, Hilton, Jerry — each man singing his own distinctively recognizable song — and the perky unflagging rhythm section, with Leighton beautifully doing Basie-Wilson-Guarnieri, and the lovely support of Billy Taylor, Sr., who had kept the Ellington band swinging.

“We had faces then!” to borrow from SUNSET BOULEVARD.

I keep coming back to the gleaming warm sound of Joe Thomas — in the first chorus, outlining the melody as if nothing in the world were more important; in the closing chorus, flavoring and shading it as only he could.  And the rest of the band.  As a friend said to me recently, “They were pros.  They really knew how to do it.”  And bless Harry Lim: without him, we would know such things happened but they would now be silent and legendary rather than tangible and glowing.

This music says YES, no hesitation.

May your happiness increase!

OUR PRIDE AND JOY: RAY SKJELBRED, SOLO, at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 26-27, 2016)

Those of us who have heard Ray Skjelbred play the piano will not be at all surprised that he is also a poet of words and images, captured at a different keyboard.

Sycamore

One day all the leaves blow away.
I have been worrying
about the wrong things.

Let those words take up residence inside you before moving on, in a southerly direction, to the rest of this post.  You can read more of his poetry at the link above.

Ray has written a sketch of his development as a poet, starting as a boy who “got up early to listen to the birds in the courtyard of our apartment building,” which tells me more than a hundred pages of analytic prose by an outsider would.

A rare and deep fellow.

Most of us encounter Ray when he has settled himself on the piano bench and is ready to fill us with sounds and colors, as he did at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest.  Here is my earlier presentation of music he created there on November 26, 2016.

And more.  I will preface these selections by saying only that tenderness is so rare in life, and certainly more so in jazz played for audiences.  Let Ray’s melodic explorations, gentle and whimsical, move into your house.

Joe Sullivan’s MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY:

“a tiny shred” of I AIN’T GOT NOBODY, with a beautiful ending that loops around to the opening phrase of the verse:

A version of THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT that has the quiet intent seriousness of a hymn at the start:

Ray told me that he thinks of Joe Sullivan or Ginger Rogers in this scene from SWING TIME — so if you haven’t seen it recently, you might want to steal three minutes from your day and dream into this world of lovely possibilities:

May your happiness increase!

TENDERLY SWINGING: GUILLEM ARNEDO, MICHAEL KANAN, CELESTE ALIAS, JAUME LLOMBART, JORGE ROSSY, DEE JAY FOSTER: “LET’S SING O. HAMMERSTEIN II”

Eighty years ago, jazz fans — that small ferocious bunch — were often parochial in the extreme: “How good could X could be if we’ve never heard of them before?” “How good could they be if they were born someplace that wasn’t New Orleans, New York, Chicago?”

But that attitude vanished, I hope, long before the internet made swinging international relations not only plausible but a fact of life.  (I admit that parochialism exists in 2018 in subtler forms: “How good could she be?  She doesn’t have any YouTube videos or a Facebook page!” but let us close our eyes and wait for that spasm to pass.)

I had not heard of drummer / bandleader Guillem Arnedo before 2017 — but since he came with the recommendation of pianist-hero Michael Kanan, I knew he would be more than OK.  Michael has splendid taste.

And when I heard the CD, LET’S SING OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II, I was delighted.  But first, let me offer some of the delicate, sweetly energized music that Guillem and friends create.  And credit the musicians: Guillem, drums; Celeste Alias, vocals; Michael Kanan, piano; Jaume Llombart, guitar; Jorge Rossy, vibes / marimba; Dee Jay Foster, string bass.

PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE:

OUT OF MY DREAMS:

I think that is wonderful music: light-hearted and deeply felt all at once.  The songs are HAPPY TALK / THE SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP / MAKE BELIEVE / SOME ENCHANTED EVENING / WE KISS IN A SHADOW / MARCH OF THE SIAMESE CHILDREN / GETTING TO KNOW YOU / MY LORD AND MASTER / PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE / OUT OF MY DREAMS / BALI HAI / BILL / CAN’T HELP LOVIN’ DAT MAN / THIS NEARLY WAS MINE.

And here’s what I wrote.

The great theatre and film composers weren’t always happy when improvisers “took liberties” with their songs. Rodgers and Hart made their resentment known in “I Like to Recognize the Tune.” Jerome Kern’s estate sued Musicraft Records to stop them from issuing Dizzy (with strings) playing Kern. (Eventually, they relented.)

But the tradition of jazz musicians improvising on Broadway and film songs is almost a century old. Variations on new pop hits or familiar themes sold records and the results were sometimes more memorable than what was on the sheet music. Think of Paul Whiteman’s WHY DO I LOVE YOU? and Bix’s OL’ MAN RIVER; thirty years later, Vic Dickenson’s OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING, Emmett Berry’s PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE, all the way to the summit: of Louis’s YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE.

Here, leader / drummer / arranger Guillem Arnedo selected melodies he admires and everyone treats them tenderly. That approach might seem too traditional to some. But what sets this CD apart from a Fifties “A JAZZ VERSION OF [insert famous Broadway show or musical film title]” is a gentle pervasive originality, audible as a series of small sweet surprises.

Guillem told me, “I found out that a lot of tunes that I love have Hammerstein’s lyrics. So instead of doing a tribute to Hammerstein and Rodgers or Hammerstein and Kern (his two big associations) I found it more interesting to focus on Oscar and all the marvelous plays he co-wrote. Besides, my band focuses its attention a lot not only on melodies but also to lyrics, poetry. That’s something I learned from Michael Kanan, that to understand and get deep into a song you must know the lyrics. The arrangements and decisions about which tune is instrumental or to be sung were mine. Nevertheless, you can find the Kanan blend in some little arrangements he did spontaneously.”

Listeners will find pleasure wherever they turn, but I’d recommend PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE for a start – the quiet duet of Celeste and Michael quietly exploring the verse, then Michael’s irresistible transition into the chorus, with everyone rocking immediately (embodying Jake Hanna’s “Start swinging from the beginning!”)

The band sounds gorgeous (and is beautifully recorded) throughout. Celeste is capable of shy tenderness or determined energy, each shading with its own shimmer. Michael continues to honor Jimmie Rowles with intuitions that touch our hearts. Each stroke that Guillem creates – stick, cymbal, or brush – seems just the right impressionistic touch. D.J.’s bass playing – resonant, woody, trustworthy – is precisely our cup of tea. Jorge is lyrical, eloquent, yet terse, even when playing what sounds like the world’s largest marimba. Jaume creates delicate hymns or propulsive lines: hear his meditation for the SIAMESE CHILDREN.

On this disc we find the most familiar songs shining brightly, sounding as if they were composed yesterday. Listeners may begin to sing along, whether or not they planned to, because the melodic momentum is irresistible. Guillem and friends have created a wondrous aural landscape: delightfully varied, completely uplifting. I am sure that Oscar, Dick, and Jerry approve.

Rereading these notes while the disc is playing, I feel guilty of understatement, of atypical restraint.  The music on this CD is just splendid — all the instrumentalists in solo and ensemble, and Celeste’s touching yet tangy singing.  I hope this post makes up for my praise being more quiet than it should have been.  To buy the CD, please visit here.  I believe that downloads are also available from the usual suspects.

May your happiness increase!

WARM SOUNDS IN MOTION: JON DE LUCIA OCTET in RECITAL: JON DE LUCIA, ANDREW HADRO, DAN BLOCK, RICKY ALEXANDER, JAY RATTMAN, STEFAN VASNIER, AIDAN O’DONNELL, STEVE LITTLE (City College, May 3, 2018)

I abandoned my adult responsibilities last Thursday to hear the Jon De Lucia Octet at City College, and I am so glad: this performance was an oasis.

Jon’s group, in existence for slightly more than two years, is a flexible, swinging chamber group devoted to the music-for-saxophones of Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Giuffre, Ted Brown, Bill Smith, Alec Wilder, the Dave Brubeck Octet, and Jon’s own arrangements and compositions.  I’ve been following Jon and the Octet around New York since their inception, and have always felt rewarded.  Here is a sample from March 2017.

Perhaps it no longer applies, but it used to be fashionable to characterize such music as “cerebral,” to some, a euphemism for chilly aural architecture, jazz drained of untidy emotions, art from the neck up.  Not true for the Octet, which is a warm, mobile band, always with a generous offering of improvised solos.  You’ll hear and see for yourself.

If you have an established prejudice against what is perceived by some as “cool,” please take a visit to PRESERVATION, DREAMILEE, DISC JOCKEY JUMP . . . . and then re-assess.

At this too-brief concert, the players were Jon, alto saxophone and clarinet; Stefan Vasnier, piano; Aidan O’Donnell, string bass; Steve Little, drums; Jay Rattman, tenor saxophone; Dan Block, alto saxophone and clarinet; Ricky Alexander, tenor saxophone; Andrew Hadro, baritone saxophone.

Gerry Mulligan’s DISC JOCKEY JUMP, originally composed by young Mr. Mulligan for the Gene Krupa ensemble, then arranged for saxophones a decade later by Bill Holman:

Jerome Kern’s PICK YOURSELF UP (I think of Fred Astaire pretending to be clumsy) arranged by Jon:

The Gershwins’ TREAT ME ROUGH, from GIRL CRAZY, arranged by Dick Hyman for a Trigger Alpert record date:

PRESERVATION, by Ted Brown, a sinuous improvisation on Lester Young’s TICKLE-TOE, arranged by Jon:

The gorgeous PRELUDE, by Dave Van Kriedt, originally for the Dave Brubeck Octet:

DREAMILEE, Lee Konitz’s solo / variations on I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, arranged by Jon:

PRELUDE TO PART FIRST, a Baroque jazz fantasy by Jon, which I associate with his new  Bach Shapes book:

Cole Porter’s very pretty LOOKING AT YOU (I think of Lee Wiley’s 1940 recording with Bushkin and Berigan) arranged by Jon.  Dance music for very hip couples:

and a memory of a vanished New York City subway-system entrance machinery, TURNSTILE, again composed by Mulligan and arranged by Holman:

Jon’s Octet — with the splendid Ted Brown — will be releasing their debut recording, a live performance from their first recital — on Neal Miner’s noble Gut String Records — this summer.  Expect to hear more about it here.

May your happiness increase!

“SO THEY TELL ME”: JON-ERIK KELLSO and EHUD ASHERIE at ROTH’S STEAKHOUSE (June 24, 2008)

A decade ago, I became an intermittent denizen of the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the best reasons.  Although that period of my life has ended, for all things change and shift, I remember those days and nights with fondness.

One of the pleasures for an even more brief period was hearing music at Roth’s Steakhouse on Columbus Avenue in the Nineties.  It closed sometime after 2010, so I can now say that the food was indifferent.  But the music was sublime.  Here is a tender musical souvenir of days gone by — but not days beyond recall.  It is a leisurely yet rhythmic exploration of Irving Berlin’s ballad from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, a sentiment few would deny, THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL — performed by two musical romantics who also like their romance to move along at the right tempo, Jon-Erik Kellso and Ehud Asherie, brass and piano, respectively.

In his very admiring chapter on Mr. Berlin in AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder says nothing about THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL, but I will fill in for him for one sentence.  Originally, the music for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN was to be composed by Jerome Kern, who died suddenly before he could create the score; I hear faint tracings of Kern in Berlin’s arching melody line, especially evident if one plays or sings the song as a very slow ballad.

Here, Jon-Erik and Ehud create their own world in praise of love not yet realized or never forgotten:

I’ve left the end of the video intact — with the waitperson pushing the specials on hopeful diners — to add to the Rothian ambiance.  Another place where one could dine on extraordinary music, gone, but the sounds remain.

May your happiness increase!