Tag Archives: Johnny Mercer

DAWN LAMBETH SENDS THE MELLOW SERMON (with DANNY COOTS, STEVE PIKAL, BRIAN HOLLAND, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, MARC CAPARONE: Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 8, 2020)

A friend said to me a few days ago, only half-joking, “Could you hold down the optimism a bit?  It’s getting on my nerves.”  I apologized, but these days, “Latch on to the affirmative!” is my motto.

Dawn Lambeth is one of my favorite singers, and she keeps getting better: I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing her again at the 2020 Jazz Bash by the Bay earlier this month, and she delivered some telling words that have only gotten more relevant.  With her are Steve Pikal, string bass; Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet and alto saxophone; Marc Caparone, cornet — a group of amiable ruffians known as the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet.  And here they are!

This is understandably an arid time for live jazz in performance, but I will keep sending the sermon through this blog, with many delightful moments from the Jazz Bash by the Bay, less than two weeks ago.

May your happiness increase!

May

JUST ADD ADULTHOOD AND STIR: BARBARA ROSENE and JON DAVIS at MEZZROW (December 8, 2019)

Anyone can buy tubes of paint and a canvas at the art supplies store; anyone can buy a blank journal at the bookstore.  But there’s so much work, contemplation and self-contemplation that must take place before one can become even a fledgling painter or writer.  Some divinely talented children create marvels while their driver’s licenses are still new, but I admire those artists whose life-maturity shines through their work.

To me, this is especially true in jazz singing.  Anyone can learn the lyrics, learn the melody (from the paper or from hallowed recordings) but what then?  Does the singer really understand the meanings of the words and the meanings under the meanings?  The finest singers make me feel what it’s like to be dancing cheek to cheek, to be old-fashioned, to make emotional commitments — not only to the imaginary love-object, but to the song, to the songwriters, to the audience.

Barbara Rosene is just one of those artists I admire: she is Growed Up, and it’s  not a matter of numbers on her passport: when she sings, I know that she knows what she’s singing about, whether it’s fidelity to an ideal, devotion to beauty, or the hope of fulfillment.  Barbara and Jon Davis put on a true master’s class in creating art one evening some months ago at Mezzrow. Here is the example I posted last December: how very touching (even for someone like me, who recoils at every fragment of musical holiday cheer)!

And more.  Admire, at your leisure, the deep beauties of Barbara’s voice — but better still are the messages she sends us, complex, easy, and aimed straight at our hearts.  And Jon (whom I hadn’t known earlier) is the best partner, enhancing the mood, serving the song rather than saying “Here I am! Look at me!” at every turn — although his solos show off his adult virtuosity as well.

You will find it nearly impossible to locate DREAMSVILLE by using Waze, but Barbara and Jon know where it’s located:

and another adult song, thanks to Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer:

And here Barbara dramatizes hope and the fragility of hope:

Love comes to the rescue, delightfully:

and a wistful yet triumphant Rodgers and Hart opus:

I think it’s lovely to experience Barbara, going her own sweet way.  And I trust you know she is also an artist on canvas, her paintings as distinctive as her song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty is still very much possible: so reassuring.

May your happiness increase!

“FESTINA LENTE”: RAY SKJELBRED, CLINT BAKER, RILEY BAKER at BIRD and BECKETT (July 11, 2019)

σπεῦδε βραδέως.  “Make haste slowly.” 

Yes, this post begins with classical Greek and a photograph of Louis Armstrong singing to a horse — all relevant to the performances below, recorded just ten days ago at the remarkable cultural shrine of San Francisco, Bird and Beckett Books and Records (653 Chenery Street).  Thanks, as always, to the faithful Rae Ann Berry for documenting this facet of Ray Skjelbred’s California tour.

As bands play familiar repertoire over the decades, tempos speed up.  Perhaps it’s to stimulate the audience; perhaps it’s a yearning to show off virtuosity . . . there are certainly other reasons, conscious as well as unexamined, that are part of this phenomenon.  But Medium Tempo remains a lush meadow for musicians to stroll in, and it’s always pleasing to me when they count off a familiar song at a groovy slower-than-expected tempo.  I present two particularly gratifying examples, created by Ray Skjelbred, piano; Clint Baker, trumpet; Riley Baker, drums.  Here, JEEPERS CREEPERS is taken at the Vic Dickenson Showcase tempo, or near to it, reminding us that it’s a love song, even if sung to a horse:

and a nice slow drag for AFTER YOU’VE GONE, in keeping with the lyrics:

I don’t know how many people have seen the film clip below from the 1938 Bing Crosby film GOING PLACES, where Louis Armstrong introduced the Harry Warren – Johnny Mercer song JEEPERS CREEPERS.  (There is a brief interruption in the video: the music will resume.)

For the full story of Louis, the horse (a mean one), and the movie, you’ll have to wait for Ricky Riccardi’s splendid book on Louis’s “middle years,” 1929-47, HEART FULL OF RHYTHM.  For now, who knows the uncredited rhythm section on this clip?. I imagine it to be Joe Sullivan and Bobby Sherwood, but that may be a fantasy, one I happily indulge myself in.

And what Eric Whittington makes happen at Bird and Beckett Books is no fantasy: he deserves our heartfelt thanks, whether in classical Greek or the San Francisco demotic of 2019.

May your happiness increase!

“HAVE YOU GOT ANY MORTGAGES YOU’D LIKE ME TO PAY, BABY?”: DAWN LAMBETH, PAOLO ALDERIGHI, SAM ROCHA at MONTEREY (March 1, 2019)

The wonderful singer Dawn Lambeth, Paolo Alderighi, piano, and Sam Rocha, string bass, had never worked together before, but they make beautiful gliding music as group.  Their March 1 trio set at the Jazz Bash by the Bay might be one of my favorite musical interludes of this year.  I posted a performance from this set here.

Here is another delightful creation by Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer from the 1937 film VARIETY SHOW, where it was sung by Dick Powell.  I love this song for its bouncy melody and Mercer’s lyrics, a witty mixture of modern and medieval times (mortgages and dragons) . . . and his refusal to lazily choose easy rhymes — a lesser writer would have rhymed “paid” and “slayed,” but easy and dull was never Mercer’s style.

And this performance!  Sam’s solid fluid propulsion, Paolo’s modernist swing, and Dawn . . . . whose easy grace is a constant pleasure, and the way she sings “Baby . . . .” is like biting into a ripe berry.  Savor this!

Wow.  And a few more to come.

May your happiness increase!

GROOVIN’ WITH DAVE STUCKEY and the HOT HOUSE GANG at FRESNO (Part One): DAVE STUCKEY, MARC CAPARONE, NATE KETNER, DAVID AUS, SAM ROCHA, GARETH PRICE, and RILEY BAKER (January 9, 2019)

You’ve heard of people dowsing for water — using a forked stick or a pendulum to discern where there’s water under the surface of apparently barren land.  I think of Dave Stuckey as the modern swing equivalent.  His skill is just as rewarding, for he finds the groove where other musicians or bands might not.  Audiences, dancers, and players hear it and respond beautifully.  I’d heard Dave and the Hot House Gang only once before in person, at a Saturday-night dance at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest (results here) and on the group’s debut CD (read my review here) but these pleasurable interludes made me incredibly eager to hear Dave and Co. at the 2019 “Sounds of Mardi Gras” in Fresno, California — a weekend I’ve just come back from.  More about Fresno below.

Here’s one sweet convincing sample.  Dave has a deep affinity for the music Henry “Red” Allen recorded in the Thirties, and PARDON MY SOUTHERN ACCENT by Matty Malneck and Johnny Mercer is one of those memorable tunes.  Dave is joined by Marc Caparone, cornet; Nate Ketner, reeds; David Aus (a newcomer, subbing this once for Carl Sonny Leyland) piano; Sam Rocha, string bass; Gareth Price, drums, and guest Riley Baker, trombone.

I video-ed everything Dave and the Gang created, and it was rather like a wonderfully unusual yet compelling blend of Fats, Wingy, Red Allen, Tempo King, Bob Howard, Putney Dandridge, Joe and Marty Marsala, Stuff Smith, Eddie Condon, and Django — with great riffing both afternoon and evening.  They can play ballads as well as stomps, and the groove was something to behold: you could ask the dancers.

Mercer came by his Southern accent authentically, being a Savannah native.

A few words about Fresno.  It was my first visit to that jazz festival and I’ll be back next year — not only because of the fine music and the convenience (everything was under one comfortable roof) but the pervasive geniality: much friendliness from everyone, from the waitstaff to the musicians and volunteers. Thanks to Linda Shipp, Alberto, and friends for making everyone so comfortable.  And you can bet there will be more video evidence from the Hot House Gang and Bob Schulz and his Frisco Jazz Band (featuring Ray Skjelbred and Kim Cusack).

 

May your happiness increase!

HOT MUSIC, GOOD STORIES, LASTING FRIENDSHIP, KINDNESSES: HANK O’NEAL RECALLS SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT (Nov. 2, 2018)

Here is one perspective on Hank O’Neal — writer, archivist, record producer, photographer, friend of Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott . . . and many jazz musicians from Willie “the Lion” Smith to Borah Bergman.  Hank is also an incredible resource and storyteller, someone I am thrilled to call a friend: reasons that Hank visits JAZZ LIVES, as he speaks with great fondness of Squirrel Ashcraft.  If you say, “Wow, Squirrel!” then you have come to the right place.  If you say, “Who IS that?” you’re also in for pleasure and enlightenment.

Hank O’Neal by Annie Tritt for the Boston Globe, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And since Hank is a masterful photographer, here is another character study, one I like even more — shot by Sherry Sereboff (2017, near Fort Worth, Texas) even better.  When I meet Hank next, I will ask what was on his plate:

I had asked Hank to speak about Squirrel for JAZZ LIVES, and the conversation began very informally, as he was paging through Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft’s scrapbook.  I just started videoing . . . with happy results — little anecdotes about sacred objects connected to Bix, Tesch, and Dick Voynow.  But for future researchers, any time someone you respect says the words, “Letters from Brad Gowans,” you know something important is being revealed:

“Who was Squirrel Ashcraft and how did I meet him?”:

Paging through Squirrel’s 1928-9 notebook, “JAZZ MUSIC,” with entries devoted to the Wolverines, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, the Georgians, Jack Pettis, Leon Roppolo, Henderson’s adaptation of RHAPSODY IN BLUE, and more:

I first learned about Squirrel through EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (a book Eddie did with Hank) and then through Squirrel’s home recordings, later issued on rare lps by . . . Hank.  Here’s the story of Squirrel’s career — about fifteen years — as an archivist of home recordings, often aluminum, including performances by Johnny Mercer, Joe Rushton, Jimmy McParland, George Barnes, Boyce Brown, Bob Zurke, Spencer Clark, Rosy McHargue, also Joe Rushton, his motorcycle, and Pee Wee Russell, and Squirrel’s later playing career in Washington, D.C., and sidelights on Jean Bach, Jimmy Dorsey, and jazz reunions at Princeton University from 1975-79:

Finally . . . Hank brings us up to date (Squirrel died in 1981, but his relics are going to a good place.  And don’t miss the story about the Bob Crosby band: Squirrel and friends obviously knew how to live:

The best part of this story, just over an hour with Hank, is his obvious affection and indebtedness to Squirrel, and Squirrel’s sweet feelings for the music and musicians.  Thank you, Hank, for making the reclusive Squirrel appear to us in this century.

And . . . because Hank is a wonderful writer, here’s his “little piece” on Squirrel from his book on pianists. Some of the stories you will have heard from the videos above, but they don’t wilt with a second telling:

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

Edwin Maurice Ashcraft III, better known as “Squirrel”, is the least known pianist in this book, but he was by far the most important to me. It all started because of two courses I’d taken at Syracuse University; one in Russian Studies and another in African Studies. The Russian Studies course ultimately led me to be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The African Studies course, particularly one taught by Eduardo Mondlane, who was later to lead and win the revolution in Mozambique, led me to the CIA’s Office of Operations, where Squirrel Ashcraft was the Director.

Though forgotten today, Squirrel was a legendary figure in the world of jazz, at least into the mid-1970s, but much can be lost and forgotten in a quarter of a century. He was, for example, the only person I knew who had heard Louis Armstrong and King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, and had known and associated with a host of other legendary players from the 1920s, who were just names in a book or music in the grooves of old records to me. He was the kind of man who could make a simple telephone call and John Hammond, Neshui or Ahmet Ertegun would welcome me warmly. The same was true of any number of musicians of a certain age, i.e. the Austin High Gang, and their musical associates or disciples.

He was the first jazz artist I ever heard perform in an informal setting, that is away from a concert hall or club, where I was a paying spectator. By that time, he was in his 60s, hadn’t played regularly for years, never had been a first rank player anyway, and now had an affliction in one of his hands that affected his dexterity. But for someone of my age, and limited experience, it was more thrilling to be standing two feet from a legendary figure in his living room than hearing a great pianist from the top balcony in Carnegie Hall.

He was also the man who first introduced me to an active jazz musician, in this case, Jimmy McPartland. Later, he would introduce me to many others, and simply because he made the introduction, I was accepted by these men and women without question.

A little background is in order. Squirrel was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1905. His family was socially prominent and well situated. In the early 1920s he discovered jazz and became as deeply involved with it as possible. He was active in Chicago in the same way John Hammond was in New York, and he met many of the up and coming young jazz musicians in that city long before they had come up, befriended them, helped them whenever possible, and continued to for years and years.

Squirrel came east in the late 1920’s and attended Princeton. He played both piano and accordion, was part of Princeton’s Triangle Club, wrote songs, recorded with the Triangle Jazz Band, was known to and played informally with such legendary figures as Bix Beiderbecke, and even corralled the elusive cornet player one night, convincing him to record with the Princeton band. It almost came off, but not quite; Bix was there when everyone fell asleep but had vanished when they woke up. He continued at Princeton, but eventually returned to Chicago in the early 1930s, and took up his post in the family law firm.

He opened his home to every jazz musician who could find their way to Evanston, and hundreds did, usually on Monday nights. The sessions at Squirrel’s featured a who’s who of whoever was in Chicago at the time. He began to record these proceedings in about 1933 and, until he left for World War II, hundreds of private discs were made, sometimes with the help of his friend John Steiner. Steiner eventually issued some of the goings-on on Paramount 78 rpm discs and later on 10” LPs.

World War II closed down the Monday night sessions; Squirrel was inducted in the U.S Navy, and assigned to naval intelligence. After the war, he returned to Chicago, his law practice, and the music and recording began again, this time on a crude tape recorder that used paper tape. The music didn’t last long, however, because in the late 1940s Squirrel was selected by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency to run its Chicago field office, and the music slowed down once again. He was so good at the CIA game, he was urged to become the Director of all domestic operations in the early 1950’s.

Squirrel accepted the challenge, closed down the house in Evanston, moved to Washington, and vanished into another world, his whereabouts unknown, except to the musicians and friends with whom he kept in touch. There were no sessions at Squirrel’s massive apartment in Washington. When I arrived on the scene in 1964, his piano sounded a bit like one from a Charles Addams’ haunted house. But that was soon to change.

Suddenly there was someone around who knew his past, and even had one of those old John Steiner-issued Paramount records to prove it. I was the junior guy in the Office of Operations, but I had immediate access to the Director because of the music. This is when I learned that love of jazz of a certain sort could cross any cultural divide, regardless of age, race, or anything else.

It didn’t take long before the piano was tuned and regulated, and informal musical gatherings began. The first was with Jimmy and Marian McPartland, and two wonderful local Washington musicians, clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney (who founded and owned Blues Alley) and guitarist Steve Jordan. Squirrel got his hands back in shape, so he could spell Marian when she wanted to relax and, just like in the old days, everything was recorded. The first “new” informal session was eventually issued as a record that was given away to anyone who wanted one. I cut my recording teeth on Squirrel’s Ampex F-44 and two Electrovoice microphones.

Listening back to the old acetate and aluminum recordings from the 1930s, Squirrel reminds me of a pianist like Frank Melrose. A great deal more passion than technique, but good enough to get the job done. He was a better than average amateur in those days, and could easily hold his own with his peers, and provide good accompaniment to A-list artists when it was required. I remember him telling me that one night the entire Bob Crosby band came out to his house for a Monday night session. The thing that pleased him most was that the first complaint was from a neighbor whose house was three blocks away. And he got to play with the band when Bob Zurke was doing something else.

Squirrel’s influence in the jazz world was not as a pianist. He was always behind the scenes and, eventually, way behind the scenes. If Eddie Condon couldn’t get a liquor license to open Condon’s; Squirrel could make the call to the right person so it could be worked out, despite the checkered past of some of the club’s owners. If a certain player were down on his luck, there would be a check in the mail. There were any number of people he supported for life. He was a safety net for many, many of the first generation of jazz musicians, and probably some of the second and third. My guess is he was a safety net for a lot of people I didn’t know about, musicians, old friends down on their luck, or even a struggling bullfighter.

After he officially retired in the late 1960’s, Squirrel spent less and less time in Washington and more time at his home in Spain. Sometimes a year would pass and I wouldn’t see him, except perhaps to see him off on either the ocean liners Michaelangelo or Rafaello, his favorite modes of transportation between New York and Spain. When in Spain, he had little time for music, but towards the end of a letter from there, dated November 12, 1969, he says, “We are listening, which we do seldom at all, to Miles’ Sketches, and I wish so very, very much that Bix could have heard it…. We think about you often. Please write the whole story.” I’m not sure I ever did, but in the 1970s, and early 1980s, he had a burst of musical energy, at least every June, for half a dozen years.

In 1975, Jack Howe liberated a funny little band, affectionately called The Sons of Bix, from cornetist Tom Pletcher. Jack was an amateur tenor saxophone player, who’d been part of the in the Princeton Triangle Jazz band with Squirrel in the 1920s. He augmented the SOBs with Princeton alumni musicians, aided by the likes of Spencer Clarke, Bob Haggart, Max Kaminsky, Maxine Sullivan and others. The band only had one certain engagement each year, to play a class reunion at Princeton. It turned out, however, the band played the reunion of the Class of 1929 or the Class of 1930, every year until at least 1982. Squirrel actually played a little piano on all the dates until 1981. I recorded the performances, which, as often as not, were presented in tents. Squirrel and Jack then chose their favorite tunes, and I arranged for a few LPs to be pressed up and distributed to the dwindling faithful. The records are often spirited, but not landmark recordings. A friendly souvenir, but little more. Much to my surprise, some of them have been listed in Tom Lord’s landmark The Jazz Discography.

In those years, if I had to be in Washington, for whatever reason, Squirrel’s Watson Place apartment was always open, whether Squirrel and his wife, Patter, were in residence or not. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Washington since 1960; but to confess, I only went back a few times after Squirrel died in 1981. The last time I was there was at the urging of his wife. She telephoned in the mid-1980s and said she was cleaning out files and had found some correspondence from me in a box of music-related junk in the back of a closet. Would I please come down and save all these found items from the trash collector? I was also urged to pick up the crank-up Victrola with the bamboo needle cutter that was now stored in the basement. I’d first seen it at an old filling station somewhere in Virginia in the mid-1960s, offered the owner $10, which he was happy to have, and had passed it on to Squirrel, so he could play his old Hot Five 78s as he played them in the 1920s, when they were fresh and new. I was happy to have it back, and it still works just fine.

I drove down, had a nice visit with Patter, and loaded all the papers, the boxes of stuff she’d found in the closet, and the old Victrola in the back of my car. I had a last look around, and never went back, but stayed in touch with Patter until she became ill and her Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where she didn’t know who I was.

When I got home after that last trip, I had a good time looking at the correspondence, the old clippings from the 1930’s and 1940s. At the bottom of the box I saved from the trash man, I found the bell of a battered cornet, with a note from Jimmy McPartland. This was all that was left of the cornet Bix had bought him, when Jimmy replaced Bix in the Wolverines. This was the kind of thing that turned up at Sqiurrel’s house. And I’ll bet things like that don’t turn up too many other places.

Squirrel Ashcraft was a kind and generous man who touched the lives of many men and women in a positive way. When he found time to touch a piano, it was equally positive. I never heard him play the blues.

May your happiness increase!

HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST SWING CONCERT: A TRIBUTE TO JOE SULLIVAN (1937)

Before anyone gets too excited, I do not have acetates or videos of this event to share with you.  All I can offer is the souvenir program, which was on sale a month ago on eBay here for $300.  This item does not seem to have sold, but the seller ended the sale.  If someone were interested, I’d suggest contacting the seller and opening negotiations again.

This program was from a benefit for Joe, ill with tuberculosis, from which he recovered.  I had never seen this paper treasure before; I thought you, too, would be intrigued.  And I’ve inserted some contemporaneous recordings by Joe to keep the display from being silent.  Since I’ve never seen or heard evidence that this concert was broadcast or that airshots or transcription discs exist, this paper chronicle is all we have.  It must have been a lovely evening of music and feeling.

and this, from 1945 (Archie Rosati, clarinet; Ulysses Livingston, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums — on the SUNSET label):

and

and SUMMERTIME, 1941, Commodore:

and

another Decca solo from 1935:

and (Larry and Everett were Crosby brothers; Bing had a large role in this):

and Joe’s Cafe Society Orchestra, with Ed Anderson, Big Joe Turner, Benny Morton, Ed Hall:

and

and the Cafe Society Orchestra with Helen Ward:

and what an assortment of stars and bands!

and LADY BE GOOD from the same band, in a performance I’d bet stretched out longer when live (Danny Polo takes the tenor solo):

and

and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE by the same band, with Ed Anderson building on Louis and Big Joe Turner making it a blues:

and

and

and

and

and

and

Joe recovered and lived on until October 1971, which to me shows the sustaining power of community in times of stress and despair.

May your happiness increase!

A GENEROUS TRIO: DAWN LAMBETH, MARC CAPARONE, CONAL FOWKES (San Diego Jazz Fest, Nov. 25, 2017)

Dawn Lambeth

These three wonderful musicians offer a groovy synergy: more than three selves in inspired combinations.  I refer to the singer Dawn Lambeth, brassman Marc Caparone, pianist Conal Fowkes — who performed as the Dawn Lambeth Trio at the 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest.

Conal Fowkes

Here are two delicious performances.

Marc Caparone and Ricky Riccardi, considering important matters related to one Louis.

The first features Dawn singing RIDE, TENDERFOOT, RIDE (Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer) — she has secret Western leanings, as anyone who’s heard her sing DON’T FENCE ME IN knows. This one’s fun, lyrical, and swinging, with no saddle sores:

Dawn makes no secret of her delight in hearing the Fellows play duets, so Marc and Conal explore the Ink Spots’ I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE — with passion and ease:

I recorded a good deal by this trio, and also a duet recital by Dawn and Conal.  You’ll hear and see more: to me this is the very peak of casual hot / sweet improvisation.

May your happiness increase!

“FORGED IN RHYTHM”: KEENAN McKENZIE with LAURA WINDLEY, GORDON AU, LUCIAN COBB, CHRIS DAWSON, JONATHAN STOUT, SETH FORD-YOUNG, JOSH COLLAZO (AUGUST 2017)

To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, “To one who feels the groove, no explanation is necessary. To one who doesn’t feel it, no explanation is possible.”

This new CD is just wonderful.  Listen to a sample here while you read.  And  that link is the easiest way to purchase a download or a disc.

The irresistibly catchy songs are TRANSCONTINENTAL* / MY WELL-READ BABY* / PARTS AND LABOR / LIGHTS OUT / IF I WROTE A SONG FOR YOU / CINCINNATI / DOWN THE HATCH / CALLOUS AND KIND* / BUFFALO CONVENTION / FORGED IN RHYTHM* / WHEN I’M HERE ALONE* / POCKET ACES / CITY IN THE DEEP / EASTBOUND / THE DWINDLING LIGHT BY THE SEA*.

I don’t write “irresistibly catchy” often, but I mean it here.  The lyrics are clever without being forced, sometimes deeply tender.  “Don’t send me names / Of potential flames,” is one tiny example of the Mercer-Hart world he visits. I emphasize that Mister McKenzie not only wrote music and lyrics, but arranged these originals AND performs beautifully on a variety of reeds.  He is indeed someone to watch, and admire.  He’s also a generous wise leader who gives his colleagues ample space, thus the CD is truly varied, each performance its own pleasing world.

The “tunes” themselves stick in the mind.  Some are contrafacts — new melodies built over sturdy lovable harmonic sequences (SUGAR BLUES, ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, INDIAN SUMMER, and BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA if my ears do not deceive me).  These hybrids work delightfully: it’s as if you’ve met beloved friends who have decided to cross-dress for the evening or for life: you recognize the dear person and the garb simultaneously, admiring both the substance and the wrappings.

The delicious band, sounding so much larger than a septet, is Keenan McKenzie, reeds; Gordon Au, trumpet; Lucian Cobb, trombone; Jonathan Stout, guitar; Chris Dawson, piano; Seth Ford-Young, string bass; Josh Collazo, drums; Laura Windley, vocals*.  You might not recognize all the names here, but you are in for compact explosions of joy when the music starts.

The soloists are playing superbly — and that includes players Gordon and Chris, whom I’ve been stalking for what seems like a decade now (my math is wrong but my emotions are correct) as well as the newer members of the Blessed Swing Flock.  Although they don’t work together regularly as a unit, they speak the same language effortlessly and listen contentedly to each other: Soloist Three starts his solo with a variation on the phrase that Soloist Two has just played.  That’s the way the Elders did it, a tradition beautifully carried forward here.

The rhythm section has perfected the Forties magic of seeming to lean forward into the beat while keeping the time steady.  Harry Lim and Milt Gabler smile at these sounds.  This band knows all that anyone needs to know about ensemble playing — they offer so much more than one brilliant solo after another.  Yes, Virginia, there are riffs, send-offs, and all those touches of delightful architecture that made the recordings we hold dear so memorable.  Without a vibraphone, this group takes some spiritual inspiration from the Lionel Hampton Victors, and you know (or should) just how fine they are.  “Are,” not “were.”

And there is the invaluable Laura Windley, who’s never sounded more like herself: if Joan Blondell took up singing, she’d sound like Laura.  And Joan would be thrilled at the transformation.

The lovely sound is thanks to Miles Senzaki (engineer at Grandma’s Dojo in Los Angeles, California; Jason Richmond, who mixed the music; Steve Turnidge, who mastered the disc).  The nifty artwork and typography — evoking both David Stone Martin and Al Hirschfeld — is by artist-clarinetist Ryan Calloway.

The disc is also available through CDBaby and shortly on Amazon and iTunes: check here for updates on such matters.  And here you can find out more about Keenan’s many selves, all of them musical.

I end on a personal note.  I first began to enjoy this disc at the end of the semester for me (I teach English at a community college) — days that are difficult for me.  I had graded enough student essays to feel despondent; I had sat at the computer for so long so that my neck hurt and my eyes ached.  But this disc had come in the mail, and I’d heard TRANSCONTINENTAL and MY WELL-READ BABY already, so, feeling depleted and sulky, I slipped it into the player.  Optimism replaced gloom, and I played the whole disc several times in a row, because it made me tremendously happy.  It can do the same spiritual alchemy for you, if you only allow it in.

May your happiness increase!

GOLD IN THOSE GROOVES (Los Angeles, 1938)

Truman “Pinky” Tomlin, singer, composer, bandleader, film star

Everyone reading JAZZ LIVES could, with not much effort, compile a list of a dozen well-known and rewarding jazz recordings.  Your list might be entirely different, but I feel that we would recognize the names of most, if not all, of the entries. But what continues to delight me is the wonderful music to be found on recordings that don’t get any attention, those beneath the surface of the collective attention.

One such record is a recent purchase from eBay, and it’s repaid its original price (perhaps $2.99?) a dozen times over, even though its star, Oklahoma-born “Pinky” Tomlin, would not be at the top of many people’s lists.

The record isn’t listed in Tom Lord’s or Brian Rust’s discography, although the records Pinky made with (among others) Joe Sullivan and Joe Haymes are. Make of this what you will, but two sides made at the same session — SMILES and THE OLD OAKEN BUCKET — are listed (and thus certified as Official Jazz Records) although they are less memorable: I bought that disc also from eBay.

The orchestra is directed by Harry Sosnik, and features Pinky with Mannie Klein, trumpet; Andy Secrest, cornet; Abe Lincoln, trombone; Jack Mayhew, clarinet; Claude Kennedy, piano; Perry Botkin, guitar; Slim Jim Taft, string bass; Spike Jones, drums.  It was recorded in Los Angeles, April 23, 1938.

Those are illustrious names; some readers will notice that the band is close to the group that accompanied Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer on their version of the Gallagher-and-Shean vaudeville routine in July of that year: the evidence here. I suspect that more than a few worked in radio and were known as the best “studio” musicians on the West Coast.  The one unknown in this band, pianist Kennedy, I found out through reading Pinky’s autobiography, THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION (his best-known composition) was a friend and musical colleague of Pinky’s from Oklahoma.  (Just because you might be wondering, Truman Tomlin got his nickname early on because of his complexion.)

I wonder if this session was another of Jack Kapp’s crossover ideas, joining hot jazz, swing, and Western swing, to support Pinky, already well-known on radio and films.  Had Kapp noticed the success of Maxine Sullivan’s LOCH LOMOND, a swing version of a traditional song, or Ella Logan’s efforts (in all those cases, no composers to pay)?

But enough words.  Feast your ears (and, yes, there is authentic surface noise, because the original owner of this record played it often).

RED WING:

RED RIVER VALLEY:

These sides are fun, and that comes from their ease, the sweet balance between Pinky’s sincere Oklahoma voice, not trying to “get hot” except for the one upwards Bing-meets-Louis scat phrase on RED WING.  He’s telling us stories, and he’s completely earnest but never stiff.  Sosnik wasn’t always so swinging on other Deccas that bear his name, but the arranged passages are right on target, and it’s especially pleasant that the endings on both sides aren’t histrionic, but wind down gently.  Secrest plays beautifully, but it’s the band that charms me — its unsung heroes being Perry Botkin and Spike Jones, who certainly swung.

“It’s not in the discography, so it can’t be jazz.”  But it’s rewarding music.

I find myself charmed by Pinky: he seems guileless, someone who is being rather than acting.  Two more examples: one, from a 1937 film, where he, like Bing, seems to say to a viewer, “I’m on the screen, singing, and putting clothing into a trunk.  But you could do this, too.”:

Two decades later, Pinky faces Groucho, his essential sweetness intact:

A few words about THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION.  I read in Pinky’s autobiography how the song was a spur-of-the-moment creation that grew from the casual phrase that was its title.  But it has deep jazz credentials: Ella sang it early, and later in life, when she and Pinky were together at some public function, went out of her way to express her gratitude.

Three versions, each showing the song’s durability and emotional appeal.  First, Carl Switzer:

Helvetia, Connie, and Martha:

Garnet Clark, Bill Coleman (“from brown to rosy red”), June Cole, George Johnson, Django:

May your happiness increase!

“AND APPRECIATE THE RHYTHM THAT YOU HEAR”: A 1938 PRIMER IN SWING

Mister Crosby on the air

and his fellow perpetrator:

Mister Mercer, likewise

Late in the previous century, I had my fascination with the recordings of Bing Crosby intensified by the opportunity to listen to two decades of his records in chronological order.  And although some see his career as an inevitable descent into “popular music,” I could always hear the glowing beauty of his voice, his wonderful phrasing, his direct appeal to the listener.  He never seemed detached when he sang, even if the song was at first an odd choice for those who, like myself, grew up on his recordings of YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME, DANCING IN THE DARK, PLEASE, and dozens of other masterpieces.  I think of Michael Brooks reminding us of the splendor of Crosby’s HOME ON THE RANGE, for one glorious example.

Although Johnny Mercer deserves his fame as songwriter and lyricist, I also encountered him early as a charmingly eccentric singer — the SIZZLING ONE-STEP MEDLEY with Trumbauer, THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN, and LORD, I GIVE YOU MY CHILDREN.  Later Mercer vocals — for instance, MOON RIVER — have the sadness of a mature artist, but the ones I came to love first had a delicious impish puckishness to them, as if he was about to burst into helpless laughter at any point — which he didn’t, being an expert jester in complete control.

This 1938 recording, pairing the two, is an absolute favorite of mine: it exists at the crossroads of Swing, Vaudeville, and Jive: Bing and Johnny playing around with an ancient (even then) musical-vaudeville routine, MISTER GALLAGHER AND MISTER SHEAN, updated to be satirically hip, with new lyrics by Mercer.

Although everything here is scripted (unless perhaps a few of the ad-libs were invented in rehearsal) the whole performance has a goofy splendor, with Mercer’s lyrics both hilarious and intentionally vaudevillian; the splendid expertise of this hot band, evident even when they don’t have as much to do as jazz fans would have wished: Sullivan’s written phrase at the start, Secrest’s quiet obbligati; Spike’s rollicking old-time drumming; Lincoln’s slides.  And the obvious joy Bing and Johnny exude, the sheer fun they are having.
I could close my eyes and see them nattily attired in updated 1922 vaudeville garb (straw boaters and striped jackets) pretending to teach us all about Swing — notice, it’s a lesson that “Johnny” doesn’t want at all, which is perhaps the best joke of all, for 1938-and-onwards listeners expecting this to be the triumph of “Modern” over “Old-Time,” which turns on itself when “Sorta Lombardo, Mister C!” is delivered in a completely authentic bluesy drawl.  Those who suggest that Bing never broke out of old-timey rhythmic patterns, never got in the groove in true (let us say Basie) fashion should listen closely: yes, he and Johnny imitate New Orleans rhythmic patterns in their asides, but everyone is swinging.  Oh, there are levels and levels of art here, even though Jack Kapp would have imagined this as one of this all-star productions, sure to win a mass audience, sure to sell well.  It continues to delight me, and I hope it does the same for you.
Bing and Johnny are perfectly accompanied by Victor Young’s Small Fryers : Andy Secrest, cornet; Abe Lincoln, trombone; Jack Mayhew, clarinet; John Cascales, tenor saxophone;  Joe Sullivan, piano; Perry Botkin, guitar; Jim “Slim” Taft, string bass; Spike Jones, drums.  Los Angeles, July 1, 1938.

HARMONY AND HIJINKS: DUCHESS, “LAUGHING AT LIFE”

duchess-portrait

DUCHESS: Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou

The superb vocal harmony group DUCHESS has released their second CD, LAUGHING AT LIFE, and it’s a wonder.

duchess-laughing-at-life

Here’s a sample of their originality, energy, and fun: EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, at the Jazz Standard, accompanied by Michael Cabe, piano; Matt Aronoff, string bass; Jared Schonig, drums.

 

For those of you who, like me, didn’t catch every rapid-fire turn of the new “original” lyrics, here they are in slow-motion print:

How did the Bozzie’s do their rapid-fire scatting
When they yes-siggle-dirred when they double dogged their Latin
There were so many words just a flyin’ and a rat-n-tatting how?

Vet, Martha, Connie gave us all the Heebie Jeebies
Said Duchess ought to try it but you know it isn’t easy
So we gotta tip our hat to the Bozzie’s oh, they really dazzle, wow!

Harmony and hijinks are the currency we deal in
Though we love the Bozzie’s honey, no we ain’t a-stealin’
Got a style that’s all our own and we know it’s so appealing here and now!

There’s only one problem with that gloriously expert and exuberant video.  A casual viewer might assume, “Oh, that’s a Boswell Sisters cover band,” in the odd parlance of this century, drop this versatile trio into a convenient classification, and be completely wrong. Someone else might misread the group because of their “vintage” twentieth-century repertoire.

But DUCHESS is not a tour of the local museum of past greatness, and no one pretends to be anyone else.

The glory of this group is their quirky sweet transforming energy, which enables them to do so many things so beautifully and with such deep emotions. LAUGHING AT LIFE is a wonderful showcase for their swinging versatilities.

The CD’s delights begin early, with a modern-Basie version of SWING, BROTHER, SWING — where one can delight in the three piquant voices and their distinctive blend (as well as a solo by postmodern intergalactic rhythm ‘n’ blues tenorist Jeff Lederer).

Then they move into familiar (and possibly dangerous) territory . . . the 1930 SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, a song that I would guess no one has ever called “dangerous.”  But as a song, it has become over-familiar and thus open to formulaic run-throughs in the same way as PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.  But halfway through this track, after a pleasing rhythm-section interlude, something magical happens.  Whitney Balliett called a similar instrumental passage “slow-motion leapfrog,” and on this track, the three voices slide over one another, each singer starting a phrase in a different place, creating a kind of three-dimensional cathedral of sounds.

There’s the rubato voices-plus-Michael Cabe’s sensitive piano reading of the verse of LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Then, Amy Cervini’s quite definite reading of GIVE HIM THE OO LA LA, with a fine solo from guitarist Jesse Lewis, a wooing WHERE WOULD YOU BE WITHOUT ME? featuring Melissa Stylianou, and a down-home frolic by Hilary Gardner on HALLELUJAH, I LOVE HIM SO!

The tender ache of EV’RY TIME WE SAY GOOD-BYE is followed by the hilarity of STRIP POLKA (thank you, Mister Mercer!).  And the bonus track, DAWN, a song known to only a few, is immensely touching — its author is someone we honor for other reasons.

Buy the CD and find out all.  I didn’t linger over every track for its delights: you can find the little bowers of bliss for yourself.

DUCHESS fans already know this, but it bears repeating: each of the three singers is a very distinctive soloist, but their blending is impeccable: their intonation and diction are splendid.  The clever and witty arrangements are complex, but only truly attentive listeners will understand just how beautifully layered they are — a key change here, an almost unnoticed shift from a lead voice with support to a unison ensemble, and more.  Incidentally, there are guest appearances by clarinetist Anat Cohen and trombonist / vocalist Wycliffe Gordon to add to the mix.

Learn all the secrets here, and follow Duchess on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook if you while away the hours in such revelries.  But most important, here you can purchase / download the CD through Bandcamp. Amazon, or iTunes.  You’ll find it extremely rewarding.

May your happiness increase!

 

THE REAL SWING: “TOO HOT FOR SOCKS,” by the JONATHAN DOYLE SWINGTET

Young Mister Doyle and his noble colleagues are the real item, as I celebrated a few days ago here.  And Jon has just issued a new CD, TOO HOT FOR SOCKS, a beauty from first to last.

DOYLE Too Hot

Some enlightened souls who have enjoyed the live videos they saw in that earlier blogpost will want to purchase the CD right away: that can be done here.  The more cautious can also visit this page to listen to samples from the CD.)

But TOO HOT FOR SOCKS can be what a dear friend of mine calls “a life-changing experience,” which is not all hyperbolic.

I have many gifted young musical friends born after Benny Goodman died (that would be 1986).  So they have grown up with recordings, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube — and often with third-generation evocations of the original mystical arts.  I write this not to diminish their efforts or to mock them. But often their connection to the original impetus and spiritual energy that is swing is mediated through famous recordings, which they copy for appreciative audiences.  Now, I’ve made enemies by preferring improvisation over recreation, so let me be clear: if I lived next door to a pianist who could play Teddy Wilson’s LIZA note-for-note, I would ask her to do it often.  The same is true for a quartet of brilliant neighbors who could “do” The Delta Four.

But I’m awed and delighted by musicians and groups who completely understand the intense easy glide of the great recordings and can write and play their own distinctive variations on the forms.  Such a group is or are the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet.

The personnel is David Jellema, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor saxophone; Mark Gonzales, trombone; J.D. Pendley, amplified guitar; Brooks Prumo, rhythm guitar; Ryan Gould, string bass; Jason Baczynski, drums. The disc was produced by Jonathan Doyle and Laura Glaess.  Jonathan wrote all the songs except KEEPIN’ TIME and GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS, which are Laura Glaess compositions, and COMFORT ZONE, which is by Mark Gonzales. The disc is very recent — recorded on March 24, 2016 in Austin, Texas.  The very evocative cover art is by Amado Pena III.

All the songs are “originals,” but even I, who shrink from a CD completely made up of the leader’s compositions, am thoroughly comfortable with these songs. For Jon’s secret is that many of them are “contrafacts,” new melody lines built over familiar harmonies.  Think of MOTEN SWING (YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY), the six thousand lines built over I GOT RHYTHM, and almost all of the repertoire of the Goodman Sextet.  If it was good enough for Charlie Christian, it should be good enough for us.  Sometimes the harmonies are immediately recognizable — rather like seeing your favorite actress in deep makeup and knowing who’s under there — and sometimes not.  I had to ask Jon about the title tune, which was driving me crazy — not in a Walter Donaldson way — and he generously unlocked the door by telling me it was built on JAPANESE SANDMAN.  I found myself so happily distracted and cheered by the ensemble’s new lines that I often didn’t recognize the familiar harmonic underpinnings, which is tribute to the compositions and the authentic warm way they are played.

I so admire this group’s sound. The ensemble voicings, whether unison lines or harmonized figures, are always pleasing. Some “modern / swing” groups are made up of musicians eager to get to the solos, so that there’s one chorus of ensemble, and then a long period of time — often thrilling — when each soloist plays, backed by the rhythm section and now and again some impromptu accompaniment from the other horns.

The Swingtet is in its own way old-fashioned: they understand how lovely an ensemble can sound.  (And I don’t mean “jam session” ensembles, but more often written lines that build energetic momentum — although the middle “layered” part of PRINCE HARLES happily fits the description.)  So the Swingtet pleases my ears: the opening of the title track, YOU CAN’T TAKE THOSE KISSES WITH YOU (what would Johnny Mercer have made of that?) is the simplest possible combination of single-note hits, arpeggiated chords, and other streamlined delights.  Yet it sounds magical, as if it were a Basie piano chorus scored for band.

The mention of Basie (to quote Jake Hanna, “You get too far from Basie and you’re just kidding yourself”) brings up two other notions.  One, there’s no piano on this disc.  That isn’t a problem, because the Swingtet exists in that sphere where the electric guitar has taken the piano’s place — it happens every Sunday night with the beloved EarRegulars in New York City — and the space is more than filled by a reassuringly swinging four-piece rhythm section, ticking away warmly rather than mechanically.  But the overall ambiance — think of Keynote Records sessions in 1944-46 or Basie small groups — is a wonderful balance between four individualistic soloists, each with a beautifully recognizable sound, and a lovely rhythm section.  Hear the glide this band creates within the first minute of KEEPIN’ TIME.

Did I mention dynamics, shadings, split choruses, background hums behind soloists, eloquent eight-bar passages, propulsive riffs, the wise use of mutes for the brass, wire brushes, acoustic string bass, open-and-closed hi-hat, and variety? You’ll hear all those and more.

Most of the fifteen compositions are medium and medium-uptempo, as you’d expect from a swing group that plays for dancers, and the Swingtet makes the most out of the subtle variations of that tempo range that the Ancestors did.  But several exceptions show that the band is much more than an instrumental unit producing originals with the right number of beats per minute.  A few of the songs appear to be simple riff-based creations, but each one has a surprise within.  Some of them take left and right turns, and I found myself saying, “Wait a minute.  That’s a new theme.”  At first, JUST A LITTLE RIGHT has the dreamy warming-up sweetness of a band in the studio, experimenting without knowing that the engineer has started to record (think of WAITIN’ FOR BENNY).

Perhaps my favorite piece (at this writing) is also the most distinctive — IF THE RIVER OVERFLOWS — a minor-key lament that still swings, beginning with a sideways nod to some Russians on the river.  Just when you think you’ve understood what will come next, the harmonies twist and turn.  I imagine Frank Newton smiling on this music.  And if I tried to describe STRANGE MACHINATIONS, I would need another page, but it’s as satisfying as a wonderfully-seasoned dish of homemade ethnic cooking.  As Stan Zenkoff pointed out to me, it has some relation to QUEER NOTIONS.  Thank you, Stan!

Although the Swingtet could wow an audience on Fifty-Second Street, they aren’t copying the classic recordings.  No one quotes anything, and what a blissful space that creates!  They aren’t a shirt-pocket full of repeater pencils. Rather, they sound like people who have so thoroughly internalized the great swing individualists that they can be themselves within — and beyond — the tradition.

I’ll stop here, but if my words have done their job, you will be listening to TOO HOT FOR SOCKS here — and buying a copy or copies.  I think this CD is a small but fiercely effective panacea for many modern ills.  (And, lest you think that this long blogpost is because of some odd secret indebtedness I have to Jon, the reverse is the truth: I’ve been bothering him for months now, “When will I get to listen to the new CD?”  And now, gleefully, it’s here.)

Thanks go to Hal Smith — who knows all one would want about swing — for telling me about Jon Doyle as far back as late 2011 (I checked my emails and it’s true) . . . thanks and blessings to the wondrous people who made the music on this disc and made the disc a reality.  And here is Jon’s website, where you can purchase his other musical efforts.

May your happiness increase!

PLENTY RHYTHM! ERIN MORRIS, JAMES DAPOGNY, CHRISTOPHER SMITH, ALEX BELHAJ, ROD McDONALD, BONNIE SMITH, CHRIS TABACZYNSKI, LAURA WYMAN: YPSILANTI, MICHIGAN (June 2016)

No, I didn’t hear any shouts in the night, “The British are coming!” (Or, for that matter, “The British are going!”)

paul-revere-statue

But if Paul Revere had been well and truly hip, he might have shouted, “Hot jazz in Ypsilanti!  Thursday nights!  Cultivate!” and that would have gotten me out of bed for sure.

Here are three truly entrancing performances recorded on June 16 and 23, 2016, by Laura Wyman of Wyman Video — yes, she deserves her own place in the personnel roster).  The leader of this morphing band of creators is Erin Morris, tuba.  Yes, I know you know Erin as a unique dancer and choreographer, but she is also a wonderful low-brass player, able to entrance us when she’s just sitting still.

I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING with Erin; James Dapogny, keyboard (“He makes that new piano sound exactly like old,” to paraphrase Johnny Mercer); Rod McDonald, guitar; Chris Tabaczynski, C-melody saxophone. Where?  Cultivate Coffee & Tap House, Ypsilanti, Michigan:

That’s the very definition of Mellow to me, what I think of as the music the great artists make for themselves when the lights aren’t shining in their faces.  Not morose nor a let’s-show-the-people-this-is-jazz romp, but pretty and moving.  And Erin plays the tuba with gentleness; at times in the ensemble it sounds like a sweet bass saxophone heard from far away.  And Chris Tabaczynski is my new Youngblood Hero.  Dapogny and McDonald have been Heroes of mine for years.

Now, let’s add a little Americana to the mix, as Bonnie Smith sings CARELESS LOVE in an unaffected, heartfelt way, with her father, Christopher, on trombone; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Erin and Jim:

Finally, what my dear friend Mike Burgevin used to call a “Bingie” — one of those songs that we hear through a sacred veil of Crosby — WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, performed by Christopher, Alex, Jim, and Erin:

All I can say about this scene is that it does my heart good to know that a small group of secular saints is bringing lyricism into the world.  Cultivate Joy.  And for my part, I’ve got my plane ticket to Ann Arbor.

May your happiness increase!

“MY HEART IS RIDING ON YOUR WINGS”: NICKI PARROTT, MENNO DAAMS, PAOLO ALDERIGHI (Westoverledingen, Germany, April 9, 2016)

JAZZ IM RATHAUS April 2016 Photograph by Elke Grunwald

JAZZ IM RATHAUS April 2016 Photograph by Elke Grunwald

People who don’t make music professionally have, I think, only a small awareness of how much work — beyond “the ten thousand hours of practice” it takes to make a beautiful melody come alive.  Beauty is rarely, if ever, casually tossed off by someone who has no experience in the hard work of creativity.  In the performance that follows, deep but gentle subtleties of light and dark caress our sensibilities.  Memorably.

This trio interlude was created by three masters of loveliness: Nicki Parrott, vocal and string bass; Menno Daams, cornet; Paolo Alderighi, piano.  Of course their text is the gorgeous creation of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, SKYLARK.  And standing behind them in the shadows is Bix Beiderbecke, for Hoagy originally called this song BIX LICKS.

This marvel took place at a concert in Germany on April 9, 2016 — the gift to us of the very gracious and indefatigable Manfred Selchow, who has been doing this for thirty years.  Details of Mannie’s most recent offering here.

And the music itself.

I encourage listeners and viewers to visit this performance several times: for Nicki’s beautiful singing, her stalwart but never obtrusive bass playing, for Menno’s nighttime traceries, and for Paolo’s loving support.  He is the fellow one might not notice on the first viewing, but it takes a lifetime of listening and study and practice to be so generous, so right, in such quietly heartfelt orchestral playing.

May your happiness increase!

DUCHESS IS TWO (AND WE ARE GLAD)

Happy Birthday, Duchess! That's Amy, Hilary, and Melissa.

Happy Birthday, Duchess! That’s Amy, Hilary, and Melissa.

DUCHESS is two.  If you know them, that is cause for celebration: they are a witty, swinging, tender, hilarious vocal trio: Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou.  Their repertoire is inspired by the Sisters Boswell and Andrews, but they are far from a repertory company of old-records-brought-to-life, and they have singular energy and snap.  If DUCHESS is new to you, prepare to be cheered and elated.

At their October 16 concert at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City (a most congenial place to wander in as well as a comfortable venue for music) they were supported by Jeff Lederer, reeds; Michael Cabe, piano; Elias Bailey, string bass;  Jesse Lewis, guitar.  The show was billed as DUCHESS UNPLUGGED, so (with regrets) they left their percussionist at home and performed with very little electrical or electronic assistance.  I was thrilled to be invited to the Rubin concert and brought back for the JAZZ LIVES audience four new videos of DUCHESS doing what they do best — enthusiastic, expert harmony and solo singing, beautifully and warmly accomplished.

Remembering the Rhythm Boys, Bix and  Bing, THERE AIN’T NO SWEET MAN (THAT’S WORTH THE SALT OF MY TEARS):

For those three Greek women who went before, THREE LITTLE SISTERS:

And those harmony masters from New Orleans, EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY:

Finally, by special request (mine) the very tender P.S., I LOVE YOU:

And since you’ll now want to learn more about DUCHESS, follow them to other gigs, and buy their wonderful CD, some cyber-data.

Here is their YouTube channel; here is their website; here is their Facebook page; here is my enthusiastic review of their debut CD.

Two other thoughts.  I am always moderately proud of my videos as one kind of representation of an experience, but DUCHESS is a more vivid experience than even the best cameras could capture.  They do that rare thing — sometimes lost in this century — of providing inventive music while entertaining us.  And I don’t think “entertainment” is a negative word.  So you could take someone to hear DUCHESS even if that person steadfastly says, “I don’t like jazz.  I don’t understand it,” and there would be a sweet (subversive) conversion experience before the night was through.  If this sounds like a not-terribly subtle encouragement to see DUCHESS live, it is.  We wish them many more birthdays.

May your happiness increase!

JUDY WEXLER SINGS, AND WE ARE GLAD

I don’t know if everything happens for a reason, or that the cosmos is a series of accidents, some dreadful, some blissful.  But I can report on a happy encounter at the always-rewarding jazz club Mezzrow on West Tenth Street earlier this summer, when a nicely-dressed cheerful couple sat down next to me.  We began to speak (like my late father, I am not reticent when the mood seems right) and I met Judy and Alan Wexler.  I’d not encountered Judy in my California travels, but she told me she was a jazz singer; soon this CD arrived in the mail: JUDY WEXLER

I wouldn’t be writing these words were I not seriously impressed.

WHAT I SEE isn’t a brand-new disc: Judy and her wonderful musicians recorded it in 2013, but all that means is that I came late to the party.  (It’s her third disc for JazzedMedia, with good sound and liner notes.)  Her instrumental crew is Jeff Colella, piano; Larry Koonse, guitar, ukulele; Chris Colangelo, string bass; Steve Hass, drums; Ron Stout, flugelhorn, trumpet; Bob Sheppard, bass clarinet, also flute; Scott Whitfield, trombone; Billy Hulting, percussion.

The songs were not all familiar to me, but I was pleased and impressed with the breadth of Judy’s repertoire and the light-hearted conviction she brings to her material: a few classics associated with Louis, Billie, and Blossom, alongside lesser-known delights by King Pleasure (his lyrics to a Stan Getz solo), Benny Carter, Dory and Andre Previn, John Williams and Johnny Mercer, and songwriters new to me: TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY / THE MOON IS MADE OF GOLD / CONVINCE ME / THEY SAY IT’S SPRING /  A CERTAIN SADNESS / THE LONG GOODBYE / JUST FOR NOW / FOLLOW / ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE / A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON / LAUGHING AT LIFE.

Before I begin to write about Judy’s singing style, perhaps you should hear her for yourself: one of the songs on this disc:

The first thing I note is Judy’s distinctive — and pleasing — voice.  She has a beautiful technique but one is never drawn to pure vocal effects; rather, she puts herself at the service of the song.  I’d call her vocal timbre bittersweet, which fits the material — the voice of someone essentially romantic who knows that it’s necessary to look all four ways before crossing the street.  You wouldn’t mistake herself for another singer, which is a great thing.  She neatly balances emotional intensity and a swinging ease.  Her music woos; it doesn’t insist.  On other performances, such as TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY, her improvising skills are even more gratifyingly evident: she sings three choruses and her elastic variations from chorus to chorus are never stark — she never obliterates the composer’s intent — but one delights in her playfulness.  She sings with an irresistible conversational ease, and on some songs I feel as if she is wryly smiling.  That’s very good medicine for us in this century.

Here’s another:

Judy Wexler does everything right: she sings rather than dramatizes, she knows how to swing, she respects the melody and the words, and you know it’s her. What more could anyone want?  (Nothing, except perhaps a new CD to listen to.)

See what happens when you go to the best jazz clubs and strike up conversations?  Your life is enriched.

May your happiness increase!

SWING YOUR TROUBLES AWAY: MARK SHANE and TERRY BLAINE (May 8, 2015)

The music that Mark Shane (piano) and Terry Blaine create for us is lilting, heartfelt, energized, subtly memorable.

Here are six more beautiful examples from their May 8 concert at the Croton Free Library, starting with Mark’s solo outing on a romping James P. Johnson piece, JINGLES:

Terry comes back for the plaintive request (thanks to Ethel Waters and Pearl Wright) I WANT MY SWEET DADDY NOW:

And a more stern Bessie Smith admonition, LOCK AND KEY:

This version of MY BLUE HEAVEN is one of the most irresistible I know.  After a tender rubato verse, I could swear Count  Basie was the man behind the curtain:

For Louis, Hoagy, Mercer, and a horse, JEEPERS CREEPERS:

And a sweet bit of good advice, WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

Terry and Mark are hopeful beams in the night sky.  Here  and here are more gems from that enchanted evening.  Why don’t these two have their own radio / television show or concert series?  It’s a mystery to me.

May your happiness increase!

BARBARA ROSENE and EHUD ASHERIE HONOR JOHNNY MERCER at MEZZROW (April 14, 2015, Part Two)

By popular demand . . . more music from the delightful mini-recital of Johnny Mercer’s music created by Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie on April 4, 2015, at Mezzrow:

DAY IN, DAY OUT:

THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC:

SKYLARK:

DREAM:

MOON RIVER:

A brief encore, I’M OLD FASHIONED:

And two other beauties from that same evening: one sorrowful one here and a playful one here.

What a trio they make.

May your happiness increase!

“THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME”: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE HONOR JOHNNY MERCER at MEZZROW (April 14, 2015)

THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME was written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for the 1941 film BLUES IN THE NIGHT.  It’s a haunting song — its melody like a wistful prayer, its lyrics mixing realistic sorrow and rueful imaginings.  For me, the sorrow in observing the present outweighs the hopefulness of “what might be,” but I hear the singer bravely traversing the landscape of sad fact and wisps of happier possibility.  Mercer’s lyrics stand as a modern poem, and I was surprised to learn that he was not pleased with them:

It’s one of Harold’s nicest tunes. It’s kind of a poor lyric, I think. Built on the thing about “the drink’s on me.” I think it’s too flip for that melody. I think it should be nicer. I was in a hurry I remember the director didn’t like it. I could have improved it, too. I really wish I had. But, you know, we had a lot of songs to get out in a short amount of time, and we had another picture to do. (The source is a BBC interview, excerpted in Gene Lees’ biography of Mercer, PORTRAIT OF JOHNNY, 142).

The unpredictably brilliant Alec Wilder doesn’t even mention the song in his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG.

I think this song so beautifully, perhaps painfully encapsulates the simultaneous feelings: “We’ve had something deep.  It no longer exists, and it cannot.  But I would like to imagine a place in time where it could, even as I know that dream is tormenting by its elusiveness.”  So much is said yet so much is unsayable.

See if you don’t agree while considering this quietly rich performance by Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie — at Mezzrow on April 14, 2015:

I love the careful pacing — neither maudlin nor too optimistic — and the deep sincerity of Barbara’s voice, the sweet unerring support Ehud always gives. The difficult reality in one hand, the wisp of a dream that can’t come true in the other hand.  Such music can see anyone through, even as it delineates sadness and loss.

And here, because we all need to know that joyous love is possible, is another gem from that same evening.

May your happiness increase! 

“BABY, LOOK AT YOU NOW!”: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE at MEZZROW (April 14, 2015)

I had the great good fortune to enjoy and witness a delightful evening of Johnny Mercer songs — as performed by Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie at Mezzrow on West Tenth Street in New York City on April 14, 2015.

Before you savor this delightful interlude, some words about the duo.  If you’ve been following JAZZ LIVES, you know that Ehud is one of the most swinging, most alertly intuitive players ever.  When he’s around, the music pulses; lyrical surprising melodies spring into bloom.

I do not think that I’ve ever had such a glorious opportunity to hear and record Barbara before, even though I’ve known and admired her for a decade (starting with the hallowed evenings at the Cajun, Jacques-Imo’s, and a dozen other places, including churches).  When I first met Barbara, she had a spectacularly beautiful voice: I remember taking a friend who was a deep opera aficionado, didn’t particularly like jazz or improvisation, who couldn’t stop talking about the marvels of sound that Barbara created.  But it isn’t just her voice.  Many singers have lovely voices, but Barbara knows how to construct a small compelling drama (or comedy) from a song’s particulars.

When I first heard her, Barbara was much more a brightly-plumaged Twenties songbird, flitting from branch to branch, now naughty, now sweet, now coy.  I am sure she could easily inhabit those worlds now, but her feeling and mastery have deepened, and she exhibits a deep emotional understanding and range.  I don’t mean “acting”; I mean “being,” put into song.

Here she and Ehud explore a song that everyone knows, that usually is performed at a much faster tempo — to the edge of self-parody.  Listen to the transformations they effect on YOU MUST HAVE BEEN A BEAUTIFUL BABY:

That’s a performance I have not been able to listen to without going back and playing it again.

Before Barbara purls her way into the song, she talks a bit about “marvelous,” a meditation stimulated by her thoughts on TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS.  And magically she asks a deep plaintive question —

“Is nothing a marvel?”

which could, for the properly attuned, be the only text for a lifelong course in gratitude and deep reverent awe.

I marvel at Barbara Rosene.  And there will be more marvelous Mercer performances with Ehud Asherie (himself a marvel) to come.

May your happiness increase!

YOUR HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: JOHNNY MERCER, 1934

Please put your phones away and let’s begin.

I first heard this song in its original performance many years ago — it was issued on a Jack Teagarden compilation — and fell in love with it.  Later, I’ve heard the three other versions (Joe Haymes, Chris Ellis, and the happily-still-singing Daryl Sherman) but I keep coming back to Mister Mercer’s original, recorded on August 24, 1934, with Sterling (or Stirling) Bose, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Fulton McGrath, piano; Dick McDonough, guitar; Hank Wayland, string bass — and the session was directed by Victor Young.

I should mention that the music was composed by Bernard Hanighen — who’s not well-known today, but he is responsible for WHEN A WOMAN LOVES A MAN, lyrics to Monk’s ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT, and he co-produced Billie Holiday’s 1936-39 records . . . and was her dear friend and advocate.

Daniel, do you have a notebook?  Would it be a good idea to open it up and write some things down?  As I’ve said, you can burn it in the backyard when this course ends.  But I digress.

The song is THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN, and blissfully this recording has everything: an unaccompanied Jack Teagarden cadenza to start and a Dick McDonough coda to close.  In between, we hear Mercer — someone I think of as one of the finest singers ever in his early phase, with a distinctive boyish twang to his lyric delivery and a real flair for playful improvising (measure his second chorus against his first):

Everything on this recording works for me — the cheerful rhythm section behind Mercer’s first chorus, and the tag, “So before I drown / The whole darn town / I think you better say ‘I do,'” which to me is the first marriage-proposal-with-the-threat-of-apocalypse-attached I know.  (So there, Andrew Marvell!)  Then the instrumental interludes: Bose sounds just a touch uncertain, and my guess is that he hadn’t seen the song before, since it was brand new, but he doesn’t lose the thread.  Teagarden’s minor bridge is easily tossed off, but what sounds!  And McDonough’s accompaniment is a wondrous etude in itself.  In the second chorus, I adore the larger freedom Mercer allows himself, the murmur of Teagarden’s horn under Johnny’s singing, the little break and stop-time additions.

I know.  I tend to get carried away.  But even when your professor is ecstatic in front of the room, if you take out your phone and begin to text, you will be asked to leave.

I assume that the song is meant for a male singer, but there are no explicit references.  So the vision of someone in the bathtub, sprucing up for an eight o’clock date with someone so adored that a marriage can be envisioned, is dear. And the conceit that the bather is so deeply in dreamland that the tub overflows and the very polite people underneath protest in the most genial way, “Dreamin’ ’bout your baby’s OK / but the house is floating away!” is beyond charming.  I know it is not an environmentally-correct song: wasting water is criminal, but I hope that in the name of dear love all things can be forgiven.

Any questions?

Your assignment for next class.  Learn this song.  Learn it so deeply that you can sing it, verse and chorus, with a smile on your face, with no lyrics in front of you. Sing it to the one you love; sing it to your children; hum it on the subway.  I want to hear THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN being whistled on the street; I want to hear Mr. Mercer’s voice coming out of earbuds on this campus and elsewhere, I want to hear four men or four women harmonizing on it as they walk down the street, arm in arm, grinning.

It’s not too much to ask.

I have some papers to give back.  Enjoy yourselves, and I’ll see you next class, when we’ll be reading Whitman.

May your happiness increase!