Tag Archives: Johnny Wittwer

MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE: “PIANO JAZZ – CHICAGO STYLE!” featuring RAY SKJELBRED

Like other jazz fans and collectors, I have had many dreams of music I would like to hear, and in my lifetime many of those dreams have come true: the alternate takes of the Jones-Smith, Inc. session; airshots of the Basie band at the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing; the Ellington Fargo concert; the Jerry Newman uptown recordings; more Louis and Big Sid, on and on.

Earl Hines and Ray Skjelbred

The pianist Ray Skjelbred — treasured courageous explorer of beauty — is part of this story of dreams taking lovely shape.  I heard him on recordings perhaps fifteen years ago, and I encountered him in videos perhaps eight years ago, first in those of Rae Ann Berry, then in my own attempts, having met him, to capture him with appropriate skill and reverence.

In whatever medium I found him, I was astonished by the spacious, emotionally dense worlds he invented at the keyboard.  I still am.  And although Ray allowed me to capture individual performances that he approved of, solo and in duet; Ray leading his own Cubs — I am proud of the results, but they are beautiful snapshots for the most part.  In my videos, the sound might be imperfect; the audience might be chatting or moving in and out; Ray would speak, memorably, but briefly.

I came to dream of a Skjelbred film, a recital-explanation that would help us capture his secrets and his deep essence, as much of his history and magic that he cared to reveal.  But it remained a dream until Ray’s friend John Ochs, with Ray, created a profound but never sententious portrait of Ray and the musical atmosphere he both swims in and has enriched for decades.  It exists, and it can be seen.

From the first pearly notes of Joe Sullivan’s GIN MILL BLUES to Ray’s reminiscences-with-music of Burt Bales, Johnny Wittwer, Earl Hines, Joe Sullivan, Art Hodes, Jess Stacy, stride piano, octaves, tenths, the blues, tremolos, a stomping LITTLE ROCK GETAWAY, anecdotes of Sullivan — among well-trained kindergarten children, or listening to Bob Zurke play GETAWAY, a  brilliantly meandering chorus of ROSETTA which reminds me of someone picking up glittering beach glass at the ocean’s edge, and a riotous BEAU KOO  JACK, and so much more — the film is a treasure.  It is both the chronicle of a questing artist and his interactions with Hines, Sullivan, Stacy, Hodes, and a series of casual lessons from a Master about other Masters.

I admire it tremendously.  Ray’s deadpan puckish humor animates all of his conversation with us, as when he describes a heart attack at the keyboard turning, for seconds, into stride piano . . .his description of a poor traditional band as “six people with shotguns.”  I encourage viewers to savor his after-midnight introduction to I FOUND A NEW BABY and the last minutes of MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY.

It isn’t a how-to film that entices the viewer with the kinds of promises historically made on matchbooks, “See, you can play _____ too if only you learn these sixteen gestures,” nor is it a chronological autobiography of gigs and encounters, but a warming combination of sounds, techniques, memories and music created right at the moment.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget Ray’s story of Jess Stacy’s summation of a visit from jazz acolytes, at first  unfamiliar to him, as “Those nice boys.”

The film is emotionally filling without being overwhelming: when I finished watching for the first (of several times) I felt as if I had spent a month with Ray, yet it felt like a seamless easy journey, over too soon.

Recorded in one sitting, at a fine piano, with subtle, telling editing, it is so far beyond my best videos that I am both thrilled it exists and slightly embarrassed by my own earnest amateur sallies.

I am not the only person to appreciate this film: it has been selected by the New York Jazz Film Festival and will receive an award for HISTORY / DOCUMENTARY at the end of August.

I am able to share the film with you — and frankly I would find it inexplicable if hundreds of people did not take advantage of the opportunity — but I do not know for how long this will be possible.  These things are mysterious, but Imight not be able to share this film indefinitely.

So I urge and beseech my viewers to be with Ray Skjelbred, man and artist of independent spirit, for one hour (and twenty-three minutes and fifty-eight seconds) tonight, or, if not tonight, then tomorrow night.

Early on in the film, Ray says, as if to himself, “All music is a narrative of some kind — it starts somewhere and it goes somewhere.”  He could have been describing this very fulfilling film as well.

May your happiness increase!

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“BLUE NOTES THAT FRAME THE PASSION”: RAY SKJELBRED’S TRIBAL WISDOM

Pianist / composer / scholar / poet Ray Skjelbred is one of the rare ones.

I don’t say this only because of his deeply rewarding piano playing — soloist, accompanist, bandleader — but because of the understanding that it rests upon.  Ray understands that he is one of long line of creators — members of the tribe of improvising storytellers, some of them no longer on the planet but their energies still vividly alive.

He doesn’t strive to copy or to “recreate”; rather, he honors and embodies in ways that words can only hint at.  Call it an enlightened reverence that takes its form in blues-based melodic inventions, and you’ll be close to understanding the essence of what Ray does, feels, and is.

Here are some of his own introspections: “I get ideas by trying to hear the world differently, sometimes even misunderstanding sound on purpose. . . . I like to see things differently, to shape a song, to make it mine. I like to make tempo changes, especially fast to slow, I like to make the notes as round and warm as possible and part of that comes from shading a composition with blue notes that frame the passion. I like to fill in harmonies when the melody feels a little bony to me. . . . I think music is an adventure, a chance to shape sound with your bare hands.”

I’ve admired his playing for some years now — before I knew him as a soloist, I heard him through ensembles on recordings led by other musicians, rather in the way one would hear Hines, Horace Henderson, Joe Sullivan, Frank Melrose, Jess Stacy, Zinky Cohn, Tut Soper, Cassino Simpson, Alex Hill, or a dozen others subversively and happily animating the largest group.

There are several ways to experience this magic — Ray making himself a portal through which the elders can speak, while adding his own personal experiences.  One, of course, is to witness his transformations in person.  To do this, you’d have to know where he is going to be playing — check out the bottom of the page here for his appearances in the near future.

Another way t0 have a portable Skjelbred festival is through his compact discs, recent and otherwise, listed here. I call two new issues to your attention.  One, RAGTIME PIANO, is — beneath its rather plain title — a continued exploration of subversive possibilities, witty and warm.

I remember the first time I began to listen to it — with small surprises popping through the surface like small flowers, catching me off guard, subtler than Monk creating his own version of stride piano but with some of the same effect.  Each track is a small hot sonata, with the surprises resurfacing to make the whole disc a suite of unusual yet comfortable syncopated dance music.

The sixteen solo piano performances offer classics, stretched and reconsidered: SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / SOMETHING DOING / WHOOPEE STOMP / LOUISIANA RAG / MOURNFUL SERENADE / DANCE OF THE WITCH HAZELS / PINEAPPLE RAG / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING, as well as Ray’s originals — inspired by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Julia Child: SMILING RAG / LEAN AND GRIEFY RAG / DON’T CROWD THE MUSHROOMS / COCHINEAL RAG / LITTLE ELMER’S RAG / THE PICOT RAG / REFLECTIONS RAG / BALLS AND STRIKES FOREVER.

Another deep lesson in how to get the most music possible — and then some — from the piano can be found in Ray’s PIANO PORTRAITS, which demonstrates his range of endearing associations, from the Hot Five and early blues singers to Carl Kress and Eddie Lang, from Jimmie Noone and early Ellington to Bix, Hines, and Charlie Shavers. It’s a filling and fulfilling musical banquet: SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD / FEELING MY WAY / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / WEATHER BIRD RAG / SQUEEZE ME / I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE / DINAH / READY FOR THE RIVER / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / CLARK AND RANDOLPH / CANNED MEAT RAG / BLUES FROM “CREOLE RHAPSODY” / BLUES FOR MILLIE LAMMOREUX / FATHER SWING / WHEN I DREAM OF YOU / A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND / MY HEART / MUGGLES / UNDECIDED.  Ray’s prose is as forthright and evocative as his playing, so this CD is worth reading as well as hearing for his recollections of Johnny Wittwer, Joe Sullivan, Burt Bales, Art Hodes, and Earl Hines.

Another way to experience Ray, his mastery of “those pretty notes and jangly octaves,” can be through these video performances.  He has been more than gracious to me, allowing me to capture him in a variety of settings.  I offer one here, BULL FROG BLUES, recorded on November 29, 2013, at the San Diego Thanksgiving Jazz Festival — with his Cubs, that savory band: Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Mike Daugherty, drums:

Wherever Ray goes, whatever the context in which he makes music, it’s always rewarding.

May your happiness increase!

OH, SIGN THAT THING!

Another eBay sighting — although by the time I’d come to write this post, this holy artifact had been sold. 

I’d place this as somewhere between 1949-50, San Francisco — because of the constellation of players not usually found together.  Whatever the circumstances and whenever, it is a fascinating collection . . . and the original owner (Francis) had his heroes sign both sides of this scrapbook page, thus giving the prospective owner a Janus-like set of pleasures. 

“Which side do I choose to look upon and revere today?”

I see Joe Sullivan, Wingy Manone, Skip Marr, Johnny Wittwer, and the elusive Len Diamond.

Billy Eckstine, Ralph Sutton, Pee Wee Russell, George Thow, Pat Pattone, and Red Cooper – – – “Lucky Francis!” is all I can say!