Tag Archives: Kansas City Six

HAL SMITH’S “SWING CENTRAL” GETS IT: BIX FEST (August 3, 2017)

Even though it’s been in existence only a short time, SWING CENTRAL, the beloved brain-and-heart child of drummer and inspiration man Hal Smith, is one of my favorite bands. Here is what I wrote about it on the occasion of its debut CD, whose nifty cover is pictured below. 

I was not able to make it to hear / see / video SWING CENTRAL at the BixFest, but fortunately “jazzmanjoe” caught a set, with nice sound.

The members of this compact swinging ensemble are Jonathan Doyle, clarinet; Dan Walton, piano / vocals; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Steve Pikal, string bass; Hal Smith, drums / leader.  In this set, they play WAY DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS; DON’T LEAVE ME, DADDY; CHINA BOY; SWEET IS THE NIGHT; WHOLLY CATS; I WANT A LITTLE GIRL; BEAT ME, DADDY, EIGHT TO THE BAR; LESTER LEAPS IN.

A few words about the band and its delightful repertoire, or maybe more than a few.  From the top, borrowing Eddie Durham’s words about Ed Hall, “Hal Smith doesn’t know how to not swing,” which means to me that his beat is irrresistible. If you put on a CD (or “record”) in another room that started with eight bars of Hal’s hi-hat, I would a) know who it was before the passage was over; b) be smiling; c) put down whatever I was doing in the other room to come closer to the speaker to soak in the swing.  Hal also has a capacious imagination: he can most effectively put together a band devoted to Kid Ory, or the Watters-Scobey-Murphy world, but he really likes supercharged small groups that float and fly, and he’s got a long list of such groups with many wonderful recordings.  As he says on the video, he was moved to create SWING CENTRAL as a band that could play “Chicago style,” but was earnestly connected to the delicate heartfelt traceries of clarinetists Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Frank Chace, among others: which leads me to the bold statement that (aside from the one evocation of Charlie Christian on this set) NO OTHER BAND SOUNDS LIKE THIS.

Festival promoters, please take note.  SWING CENTRAL is the doctor-tested remedy for audiences shrinking because of dulling sameness.

A long pause for calm.

Pianist Dan Walton is a hidden gem.  Like the rest of this band, he never plays a formulaic or dull note or phrase.  He’s absorbed all the great styles and recordings, but — thank heavens — he isn’t on the planet to play them note-for-note unless requested.  His solo work is quiet but it rings in the mind; his ensemble playing is just the thing, and his boogie-woogie sounds real.  I’d like to hear a Dan Walton solo or duo CD, and hope that this idea can be realized soon.

Jamey Cummins.  In a landscape of guitarists who sound fraternally similar, young Mister J.C. stands out as a gifted inventor of long spinning lines, someone whose rhythm playing rocks.  He plays himself, and that’s a wonderful thing.

I got to meet the ebullient Steve Pikal on my recent Nashville trip, and he’s a wonderful creation: you can’t tell where he stops and where the music begins, or, put it this way, his unwavering good humor, expressed in a nearly perpetual smile, comes right through his string bass.  He loves Walter Page and Pops Foster and Milt Hinton and all the propulsive people in the great tradition, and you hear his love.

Jon Doyle is a great poet who might never have written a sonnet, but each chorus is a new effusion, whether tender or searing-hot.  He’s captured the whimsical souls of the musicians he admires, but what comes out of the end of that stick of grenadilla wood is entirely Doyle.  He’s not copying Lester, Pee Wee, or Frank; he is showing himself as someone who understands their beauties and has taken from them new ways to be himself.

You’ll notice that the tunes in this set (and when you buy the CD, the same applies) are often familiar — think of WAY DOWN YONDER and CHINA BOY (the latter more often mentioned than played) are in some hands “Dixieland classics,” but here they are springboards for elegant new improvisations.  But something remarkable: other bands can play Hot, and often at a higher volume, but SWING CENTRAL has its own special tenderness: not only Jon playing a ballad, but the subtle textures of the rhythm section, of Hal’s brushwork — of a band that knows that power isn’t volume, that the way to make an audience feel is not necessarily to whack it over the head in performance after performance. A quintet of swing poets, inspired by Milt Gabler and other lights in the darkness. May they prosper.

We’re so lucky that Hal had this idea, and that he and his friends made it happen.

May your happiness increase!

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THINKING OF BIX, TRAM, PRES, and PEE WEE: HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL at CENTRAL MARKET (August 28, 2016)

swing-central

The response to my first posting with videos of Hal Smith’s Swing Central from August 28 of  this year has been so enthusiastic that I offer four more — with thematic connections to three of the greatest lyrical players of jazz: Bis Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Lester Young, and Pee Wee Russell.  We know that Lester deeply admired the other three players, and it’s not hard to hear an emotional connection between Pee Wee and Pres when their clarinet explorations are the subject.  Four great poets who also swung deliciously.

Swing Central is made up of Hal on drums, Jon Doyle on clarinet, Joshua Hoag on string bass, Dan Walton on piano, Jamey Cummins on guitar. This performance is from a swing dance gig at Central Market in Austin, Texas.

Before you plunge in, might I suggest that you be prepared to listen closely. This is a band that understands the pleasure of playing softly, of placing note after note and harmony upon harmony with great delicacy: yes, they can swing exuberantly (as in the final SUNDAY) but some of what follows is soft, tender, introspective — I think of Japanese paintings, where one brushstroke both is and has depths of implication.  Allow this music to reverberate — placidly yet definitely — as you listen.

And the fine videos are the work of Gary Feist of Yellow Dog Films.

FOR NO REASON AT ALL IN C (an improvisation on I’D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN):

PEE WEE’S BLUES (with some real-life end-of-the-night tidying at the start, very atmospheric):

BLUE LESTER:

SUNDAY (that Jule Styne opus recorded by all four of these players):

I look forward to a happy future for this gratifying small orchestra, its music so pleasing.

May your happiness increase!

JUST DELICIOUS: HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL!

swing-central

Please put everything else aside.  Stop multi-tasking for a few minutes.  I invite you to celebrate the birth of a great band: Hal Smith’s Swing Central:

That’s Hal on drums, Jon Doyle on clarinet, Joshua Hoag on string bass, Dan Walton on piano, Jamey Cummins on guitar.  This performance is from a swing dance gig at Central Market in Austin, Texas.  I’ll have more to say about the music — which really “needs no introduction” and “speaks for itself,” later, but I have asked Hal to tell us everything about the creation and gestation of this fine new ensemble.  (Interspersed with his narrative you’ll find other videos from the Central Market gig, like hand-drawn illustrations in a picture book.)

A word about Hal, though.  I’ve been listening to him on records and CDs for a long time (putting the needle back over and over to listen to the way he swings the band and takes solos that seem too short rather than “fountains of noise,” as Whitney Balliett called most drum solos) and I have heard him in person for the last five years.  He’s a splendid drummer — old-fashioned in the best ways — always dreaming of the bands who can really understand and embody the glories of the past.  And he’s always on a quest to put congenial talented people together to form bands: the Roadrunners, his own trios with Bobby Gordon, Albert Alva, James Evans, Ray Skjelbred, Chris Dawson, Kris Tokarski; his California Swing Cats and Rhythmakers, Hal’s Angels, the New El Dorado Jazz Band, the Jazz Chihuauas, the Down Home Jazz Band, and the Creole Sunshine Jazz Band.

Here’s Hal, himself:

In 2015, Dave Bennett and I wanted to put together a jazz quintet. I suggested Dan Walton and Jamey Cummins from Austin and Steve Pikal from the Twin Cities. Even though we had not all played together as a group, I was sure that everything would click.

Interlude: HELLO, FISHIES, by Jon Doyle:

The quintet did click, at the Redwood Coast Music Festival in March, 2016. I secured another engagement for the group at the Capital City Jazz Festival in Madison, Wisconsin but Dave inadvertently double-booked himself that same weekend. Fortunately, the festival organizers were willing to keep the quintet in the lineup with JON DOYLE on clarinet.

Since everyone in the band plays SWING music and lives in the CENTRAL time zone, that was how the group wound up with the name.

Jon and I exchanged many e-mails regarding the repertoire and sound of the band. Since so many swing combos attempt to play in the style of Benny Goodman’s Trio, Quartet, etc. we agreed that a different song list and sound would be the way we would go.

Interlude:  SUNDAY

I have always admired Jon’s sound on clarinet, but he really caught my ear one time before a gig with Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Jon was warming up by playing Lester Young’s introduction to the Kansas City Six’s “I Want A Little Girl.” Remembering that, I proposed that Swing Central play songs associated with Lester, then further suggested material recorded by Pee Wee Russell and Frank Chace. Jon agreed enthusiastically and began writing charts.

Interlude: JELLY ROLL

Jon was running late to our first set on Friday evening, and did not have time to go back for his tenor sax — so he played the entire set on clarinet. We kicked off with “Love Is Just Around The Corner,” and the audience responded with enthusiasm, which continued with every number. Jon’s totally unstaged animation and Steve Pikal’s contagious good spirit permeated the crowd. Jamey Cummins scored big with a swinging version of “Shivers.” Jon cued ensembles and solos and kept most performances to 78 rpm length, so with about 20 minutes left on the clock, I got Dan’s attention during a song, and mouthed, “Can you do a boogie woogie feature?” The rollicking version of “Roll ‘Em, Pete” he came up with had the crowd whistling and stomping. Our last song of the first set garnered a standing ovation, and each succeeding set ended the same way.

Fast-forward to August, 2016…I was going to be working with a Western Swing band in South Texas, and coincidentally Jon Doyle was planning to be in Austin also. Jamey and Dan would be in town, so I was able to book an appearance for the band at Central Market-Westgate. (Both Central Market locations in Austin offer a fantastic selection of groceries, an in-store café, and live music by local artists on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In addition to paying the musicians, the market provides a professional soundman and even feeds the band). However, the performance budget would not cover the cost of an airfare from the Twin Cities, so the great Austin bassist Josh Hoag filled in for Steve Pikal.

Gary Feist, of Yellow Dog Films, was available to videotape several performances.  He captured the band, the audience, and quite a few local dancers in high spirits.

For me, playing in a band like this makes the aches and pains of the music business worthwhile. Dan, Jamey and Josh are great friends as well as great musicians. All of us look to Jon Doyle for inspiration and he always delivers! Best of all, Jon has immersed himself in the recordings of Young, Russell and particularly Chace. He inhabits the styles without copying note for note, but there is no question regarding his influences. A mutual friend, upon hearing Jon’s clarinet work on an audio clip from this session (“I Must Have That Man”) remarked, “I think the torch has been passed!” It has, and is burning brightly!

I know that Hal is speaking with several jazz festival directors about appearances for SWING CENTRAL, and that they are getting together to record their debut CD in Chicago — all excellent news.  There are many other wonderful small jazz groups on the landscape, thank heavens, but this is a real band with its own conceptions.  You wouldn’t mistake them for anyone else; they are not locked in one tiny stylistic box, and my goodness, how they swing!

May your happiness increase!

THEY MADE SOME MUSIC: DANNY TOBIAS, DAN BLOCK, JAMES CHIRILLO, KELLY FRIESEN at THE EAR INN (June 19, 2016)

EAR INN sign

Nothing fancy.  No theorizing, no dramatizing.  Just four jazz masters having a good time on Sunday, June 19, 2016, at The Ear Inn: Danny Tobias, cornet; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; James Chirillo, guitar; Kelly Friesen, string bass. Without a moment’s thought of imitation, this group got closer to the spirit of the exalted Kansas City Six than any I’ve heard recently.  That’s a serious thing!

Here are a few highlights:

I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY (at an easy lope, reminding me of Ruby Braff and Scott Hamilton):

I NEVER KNEW (where the two-person front line evokes the 1938 Basie band while the gentlemen in the back row do a fine job of becoming that band’s rhythm section — I find this performance completely thrilling, quiet as it is):

OUT OF NOWHERE (thinking of Bing and all the great rhythm ballad performances, or simply on the quest to make beauty):

BLUE ROOM (at a sweetly wistful tempo one never hears these days):

DIGA DIGA DOO (for those who need to visit the jungle before they can head home to their apartment):

A few comments.  First, these time-honored standards offer such luxurious room for improvisation for those who care to enjoy the freedom to roam: the old songs are far from dead when played [or sung] by vividly alive musicians. Second, the art of counterpoint or ensemble playing isn’t something that died when the last New Orleans forbear went to the cemetery: one of the great pleasures of this set is the easy playful witty conversations between instruments. And, finally, I note with great pleasure that this quartet played quiet music for listeners.  And the listeners did what they were supposed to do.  How nice is that?

As always, I entreat my readers to find live music and savor it when possible. Marvels are all around us.  We dare not take them for granted.  Thank you, Swing wizards!

May your happiness increase!

“WOULD YOU CARE TO SWING?” (Part Three): JON-ERIK KELLSO, SCOTT ROBINSON, MATT MUNISTERI, PAT O’LEARY, and ELDAR TSALIKOV at THE EAR INN (March 20, 2016)

It was a truly glorious evening of musical camaraderie at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) but that’s completely typical of what happens when the  EarRegulars get together on Sunday nights from around eight to around eleven.

EAR INN 2012

Here and here are wonderful highlights from earlier in the evening — marvels created by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone and mellophone; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Pat O’Leary, string bass.  I call them “marvels” with complete confidence: listen closely to the inspired conversations that take place in each performance (this is a listening band), the sonic variety — each player making his instrument speak with a wholly personal voice — the melodic inventiveness, the wit and tenderness, and the swing.

For the closing three performances, Scott Robinson also brought out his rare Albert system “C” clarinet with the Picou bell — rarity upon rarity (Clint Baker owns one — it was Tom Sharpsteen’s — and Alan Cooper handmade his, but how many others are there on the planet?) which has a lovely persuasive sound.  And the young Russian reed wizard Eldar Tsalikov spent his last evening of his New York trip, happily, here, playing alto saxophone and clarinet.

For Lester and Buck and the Kansas City Six — in some subliminal ways — a romping ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS with some of the same lightness:

For Herschel, Lester, and the Decca Basie band, BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL*:

And for pure fun, IT’S BEEN SO LONG:

Lovely, fully satisfying inventiveness.  Every Sunday night at about eight.

Two footnotes.  One (*) is a small mystery that so far I haven’t found an answer to.  When Herschel Evans died in 1939, he was not yet thirty.  And somewhere I have read that he was married and that his wife was around the same age.  What happened to Mrs. Evans?

Two.  Some viewers comment acidly (here and YouTube) that people in the audience are talking. But to rage in print at people on a video seems ineffective. I delete these comments, because there’s enough anger in the world as it is.

I hear the chatter, too, but I am grateful for the music, no matter what is happening around it.  As an analogy, I think of someone finding an unissued Louis test pressing and then being furious because the disc has surface noise. “People will talk,” as the expression goes.  Accept what you can’t change, and bring your silently appreciative self to a jazz club to reset the balance.

May your happiness increase!

EASY DOES IT: MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, ENRICO TOMASSO, MARTIN LITTON, HENRI LEMAIRE, MALCOLM SKED, RICHARD PITE at WHITLEY BAY (Nov. 9, 2014)

Jake Hanna said — more than once — “When you get too far from Basie, you’re just kidding yourself.”

Reedman Matthias Seuffert knows this well, and put his knowledge into action at the 2014 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, with a delightful set of Basie music. Matthias diverted us with his tenor saxophone and clarinet; Enrico Tomasso played trumpet; the rhythm section, essential, was Martin Litton, piano; Henri Lemaire, rhythm guitar; Malcolm Sked, string bass; Richard Pite, drums.

EASY DOES IT:

Eddie Durham’s TOPSY:

THESE FOOLISH THINGS:

COUNTLESS BLUES, in honor of the 1938 Kansas City Six:

BLUE LESTER:

SHOE SHINE BOY:

BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL, for Herschel:

and moving into the Fifties, FLIGHT OF THE FOO BIRDS (don’t let all that manuscript paper seem intimidating):

“Easy does it” isn’t just a bumper sticker or a catchphrase: it’s a way of life both inside and outside jazz.  What would happen if we tried to live the Basie way? Worth considering.

And on a more pragmatic note, each of the musicians seen in the videos will be playing at the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party — November 6-8.  I’ve already started to look into airplane tickets and fares . . . a sign of great moral commitment to this Party.  If you’ve never been there, and you can get there, and you don’t . . . why, you’re just kidding yourself.  Where have I heard those words before?

May your happiness increase!

PERFECTLY CRAFTED: “PLAYGROUND” by the UNACCOUNTED FOUR

I am delighted to share with you the debut CD of an inspired quartet — the Unaccounted Four — a disc called (appropriately) PLAYGROUND, where the arranged passages are as brilliant as the improvisations, and the two kinds of expression dance beautifully through the disc.

playground_front

Menno plays cornet, wrote the arrangements, and composed three originals; David plays clarinet and tenor saxophone; Martien plays guitar; Joep is on string bass; Harrie ven de Woort plays the pianola on the closing track, a brief EXACTLY LIKE YOU.  The disc was recorded at the PIanola Museum in Amsterdam on four days in May 2014 — recorded superbly by bassist Joep.

The repertoire is a well-stirred offering of “classic” traditional jazz repertoire: STUMBLING, CHARLESTON, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, JUBILEE, EXACTLY LIKE YOU; beautiful pop songs: AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, JEANNINE (I DREAM OF LILAC TIME), ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT RHYTHM, LULLABY OF THE LEAVES; originals: WHAT THE FUGUE, UNGUJA, PLAYGROUND; unusual works by famous composers: Ellington’s REFLECTIONS IN D; Bechet’s LE VIEUX BATEAU; and Ravel’s SLEEPING BEAUTY.  Obviously this is a quartet with an imaginative reach.

A musical sample — the Four performing JUBILEE and LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

Here is Menno’s own note to the CD:

A few years ago, I wanted to have my own jazz quartet to play what is known as “classic jazz.” Besides being nice to listen to, I intended the quartet to be versatile, convenient and different. That is why I bypassed the usual format of horn + piano trio. Our instrumentation of two horns, guitar and bass allows for varied tone colors. The venues where we play don’t need to rent a piano, and we don’t have to help the drummer carry his equipment from the car. As for versatility, David Lukacs, Merien Oster and Joep Lumeij are excellent readers and improvisers. They are also great company to hang out with (convenience again).

Our repertoire dates from the 1920s and 30s. The earliest piece is the adaptation of Ravel’s Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (1912); the latest is Ellington’s Reflections in D (1953), not counting my own tunes. While writing the charts, I chose to frame the familiar (and not-so-familiar) tunes in a new setting, rather than following the original recordings. So, for better or worse, the Unaccounted Four sounds like no other band. I promise you will still recognize the melodies, though!

The recording was made at the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam by Joep Lumeij with only two microphones. Minimal editing and postprocessing was done (or indeed possible).

On the last track, Harrie van de Voort operated a pianola which belted out Exactly Like You while we joined in. It is the only completely improvised performance on this disc. Autumn in New York is at the other end of the spectrum with every note written out.

I hope you will enjoy the Unaccounted Four’s particular brand of chamber jazz.

Menno’s statement that the Unaccounted Four “sounds like no other band” is quite true.  If I heard them on the radio or on a Blindfold Test, I might not immediately recognize the players, but I wouldn’t mistake the band for anyone else. I think my response would be, “My goodness, that’s marvelous.  What or whom IS that?”

Some listeners may wonder, “If it doesn’t sound like any other band, will I like it?”  Fear not.  One could put the Four in the same league as the Braff-Barnes quartet at their most introspective, or the Brookmeyer-Jim Hall TRADITIONALISM REVISITED.  I think of the recordings Frankie Newton made with Mary Lou Williams, or I envision a more contemplative version of the 1938 Kansas City Six or the Kansas City Four.

But here the CD’s title, PLAYGROUND, is particularly apt. Imagine the entire history of melodic, swinging jazz as a large grassy field.  Over there, Bobby Hackett and Shorty Baker are talking about mouthpieces; in another corner, Lester Young, Gil Evans, and Miles Davis are lying on their backs staring at the sky.  Billy Strayhorn and Claude Thornhill are admiring blades of grass; Frank Trumbauer is introducing Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang to Lennie Tristano and Oscar Pettiford; Tony Fruscella and Brew Moore are laughing at something witty Count Basie has said. Someone is humming ROYAL GARDEN BLUES at a medium tempo; another is whistling a solo from the Birth of the Cool sides.

You can continue this game at your leisure (it is good for insomniacs and people on long auto trips) but its whimsical nature explains PLAYGROUND’s particular sweet thoughtful appeal.

It is music to be savored: translucent yet dense tone-paintings, each three or four-minute musical interlude complete in itself, subtle, multi-layered, full of shadings and shifts.  The playing throughout is precise without being mannered, exuberant when needed but never loud — and happily quiet at other times. Impressionism rather than pugilism, although the result is warmly emotional.

Some CDs I immediately embrace, absorb, and apparently digest: I know their depths in a few hearings.  With PLAYGROUND, I’ve listened to it more than a half-dozen times, and each time I hear new aspects; it has the quiet resonance of a book of short stories, which one can keep rereading without ever being bored.

For me, it offers some of the most satisfying listening experiences I have had of late.

The CD can be downloaded or purchased from CDBaby, downloaded from iTunes or Amazon; or one can visit Menno’s own site here, listen to sound samples, and purchase the music from him.

Enjoy the PLAYGROUND.  You have spacious time to explore it.

May your happiness increase!