Tag Archives: Kenny Burrell

“PARTNERS”: NANCY HARROW’S GIFT

The singer, composer, artist Nancy Harrow is not only a rewarding musician but, from what I can see, someone doing a fine job of navigating this complicated human-being business with art, energy, grace.  She has opened her hand again to reveal a gift for us: a new CD, PARTNERS.

Here you can read details of the CD (the song list, the personnel) and admire the spunky cover photograph.  Go to the top of the page and hear Nancy’s recording of IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD — previously unissued and unheard, from 1964, Nancy with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley, and Denzil Best.

Incidentally, you can skip what follows and go directly here to hear samples, purchase the disc, download the music.

It is the privilege of the mature artist who has created a body of work to look back and assemble a selection from that art into a new mosaic, the familiar creations making new patterns.  Yeats, for one example, after he had written poems that would fill a new volume, spent as much time arranging them — new, old, revised — into partnerships and neighborhoods that said as much as the poems themselves did.

PARTNERS has some of the same essence, very different from “Greatest Hits,” “Golden Favorites,” or “Million Sellers,” because Nancy (rather than Decca or Columbia) has been in charge, and her sensibility — not, I state, her ego — is evident when one regards the CD as an artistic whole.  The cover lists a jazz nobility.  PARTNERS is a series of small-group performances: mostly duets, trios, and quartets — an octet in only one instance — that Nancy and friends, no, partners, recorded between 1962 and 2016.  The performances aren’t arranged chronologically, but they offer a limber, mobile, portrait of the artist, for us to marvel at.

Even the most dedicated collector of Nancy’s recorded music will be wide-eyed at six previously unheard (and unknown performances).  Five — IN A MELLOTONE, BUT BEAUTIFUL, YOU’RE MY THRILL, I GOT IT BAD, and IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD — are demonstration performances (“demos”) recorded in 1964, pairing Nancy with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley, and Denzil Best.  These brief recordings are sweet intense surprises.  When I first received a copy of PARTNERS, I found myself replaying these performances over and over, thinking, “Ah!  That’s what Nancy was up to!”

The sixth gift is a 1991 duet on NOT WHILE I’M AROUND, sung by Nancy and her son Anton, also a wondrous expressive vocalist.  I find tears in my eyes on each rehearing.  In other moods, Vernel Bagneris, Grady Tate, and an irrepressible Clark Terry share the spotlight.

I “knew” the seventeen other songs on this disc: in my alphabetical arrangement of CDs, Nancy is (I hope comfortably) between Mary Cleere Haran and Coleman Hawkins . . . and I have her issued CDs, a generous offering.  But I hadn’t truly heard the performances, I think, until I’d heard them in the shapes that PARTNERS makes possible.

Nancy has remarkable emotional energy and a focused directness, so that her singing — even though I know it’s not the case — seems a completely personal statement aimed at the single listener, like a conversation one has when there are only two or three people in the room.  And the emotions!  Tenderness, joviality, teasing, astonishment, protective love, joyous exuberance . . . and even irritation as well as rue and hopefulness.  Nancy doesn’t shout or carry on, but her range is broad, every expression genuine.  Her quiet honesty is so rare and so embracing.

I shared PARTNERS with the fine singer Petra van Nuis, who wrote,”There is that central element which makes Nancy so special and unique. That element is feeling.”

I’d written this and this about Nancy’s art for JAZZ LIVES — but still I was thrilled that she asked me to contribute a few lines to the new CD:

For those who feel, a universe vibrating with love speaks through melody, harmony, and rhythm. Singing lets a very few, the rarest creators, send deep messages about what it is like to be alive, whether we are perplexed by circumstances, downcast, or rejoicing. In calmer times, everyone would have recognized Nancy Harrow as a priestess of heart-tales, helping us hear, helping us feel. She still seems a magical practitioner of rare arts, although she is a modern divinity who sends emails. I can testify to her tangible self, teacup in hand, grinning broadly, ready to break into laughter. I have seen her eat a cookie. Very reassuring.

I had originally thought to write a few lines about the performances that touched me at my very center. But they all do. What I hear and feel in this recording is a deep, complete, and varied personality shining her light at me, one track after the other. I hear energy, warmth, passions. Distinct and the same all at once. Her voice makes lovely shapes, now tough, now tender, now impish.

It would be impudent of me to squeeze her art into text any more than I have already. Listeners will write their own admiring, perhaps astonished, essays as they move from song to song.

Bless Nancy Harrow. Some of us lived long stretches of time without clearly knowing she was there, but she enriches our lives now and will continue to do so.

PARTNERS is yet another great gift, from and by a great artist.

May your happiness increase!

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WE INTERRUPT OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED BLOGGING

No, JAZZ LIVES is not going away.  Nor is there some crisis.  Nor am I asking for money.  However, I would like my viewers to devote themselves to what follows, which will take perhaps ten minutes.

That man is pianist Junior Mance, born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1928.  Before he was twenty, he had begun recording with the stars we revere: Gene Ammons, Howard McGhee, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington, Clark Terry, Paul Gonsalves, Clifford Brown, Maynard Ferguson, Israel Crosby, Chubby Jackson, Art Blakey, Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderley, Sam Jones, Nat Adderley, Jimmy Cobb, Carmen McRae, Wilbur Ware, Bob Cranshaw, James Moody, Jimmy Cleveland, Bill Crow, Art Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie (he’s on the duet with Louis of UMBRELLA MAN), Leo Wright, Harry Lookofsky, Lockjaw Davis, Johnny Coles, Ray Crawford, Paul Chambers, Bennie Green, George Coleman, Eddie Jefferson, Louis Jordan, Irene Kral, Joe Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Ben Webster, Kenny Burrell, Mannie Klein, Shelley Manne, Etta Jones, Benny Carter, Jim Hall, Joe Newman, Milt Hinton, Richard Davis, Frank Wess, Wilbur Little, Jimmy Scott, Marion Williams, Les McCann, Dexter Gordon, George Duvivier, Carrie Smith, Ken Peplowski, Howard Alden, Milt Jackson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Al Grey, Houston Person, Joe Temperley, Benny Golson, Jay Leonhart, Jackie Williams, Andrew Hadro . . . and I know I’ve left two dozen people out.

Next, in the world of jazz, one would expect a tribute.  Or an obituary. Or both.

But not a love story, which is what follows.

A few days ago, I was contacted by Sarit Work, co-producer of SUNSET AND THE MOCKINGBIRD, a not-yet-finished documentary about Junior and his wife, Gloria Clayborne Mance.  They have created a Kickstarter to help them finish the documentary.  The headline is “The love story of jazz legend Junior Mance and Gloria Clayborne Mance. As he loses his identity to dementia she reckons with her own.”

Being a man (although this may not be typical of my gender) I have less ability to cope with illness than women I know.  It’s terribly irrational, but I cringe at visiting people in hospitals, visiting the ailing, the dying . . . and so on.  There must be a name for this — call it “testosterone terror”? — which makes people like me hide under the couch, if possible.  Or in the car.  And dementia is especially frightening, because I am closer to being a senior citizen than ever before.  But Sarit was very politely persuasive, so I watched the trailer.

And it hit me right in the heart.

Junior has a hard time remembering, and he knows this. But he knows he loves Gloria.  And Gloria, for her part, is a lighthouse beacon of steady strong love.  It is not a film about forgetting who you are so much as it is a film about the power of devotion.

So I urge you — and “urge” is not a word I use often — to watch the trailer, and if you are moved, to help the project along.  It will be a powerful film, and I think that helping this project is very serious good karma.  Maybe it will protect us a few percent?

Here is the link.  Yes, the filmmakers need a substantial amount of money.  But anything is possible.  And, yes, I’ve already contributed.  And from this day (or night) the filmmakers have only EIGHT days to raise the sum they need.  So please help — in the name of jazz, in the name of love, or both.  In my dictionary, the two are synonyms.

May your happiness increase!

THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND (December 2012 Edition)

If you’re going to hear jazz that was recorded before 1990, you might need to be friendly with those archaic objects — phonograph records.  It isn’t essential.  Modern friends (M. Figg and others) get their daily ration of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra through the invisible magic of digital download.  (How Sidney deParis, Ben Whitted, and Jabbo Smith feel about being mashed into an mp3 is something for the metaphysicians to explore).

But when the Beloved and I go a-thrifting, as we do regularly, she is a fine and generous spotter of records.  Often they are the most popular examples of the genre: supermarket classical, Andy Williams, easy listening, disco 12″.  But the person who passes by these stacks and heaps in a spirit of snobbery misses out on great things.  Of course, one needs reasonably flexible knees, a willingness to get mildly grubby, and perseverance . . . but sometimes the quest ends with something hotter than Mantovani.

Six dollars and tax — in two stores in Novato, California, on December 24 — was a small price to pay for these six discs.

Hank Jones Porgy

SWINGIN’ INTERPRETATIONS OF PORGY AND BESS (Capitol stereo): Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, “Alvin” Jones, with arrangements by Al Cohn.

SORTA-DIXIE (Capitol): Billy May (glowering under a straw boater) with soloists are Dick Cathcart, Moe Schneider, Eddie Miller, Matty Matlock.  The big band is also full of luminaries: Uan Rasey, Conrad Gozzo, Manny Klein, John Best, Skeets Herfurt, Murray McEachern.

SWEET GEORGIA BROWN (Tops): Billy Tipton Trio.  Wow, as we say.

TEDDY WILSON AND HIS TRIO PLAY GYPSY IN JAZZ (Columbia): liner notes by Jule Styne.

MUNDELL LOWE AND HIS ALL STARS: PORGY AND BESS (Camden stereo): Art Farmer, George Duvivier, Osie Johnson, Ed Shaughnessy, Tony Scott . . . and Ben Webster.

THE DIXIELAND BALL: THE L ANCERS with GEORGE CATES’ ALL STARS (Coral).  This one is a mystery.  I know that the Lancers recorded with Charlie Barnet and Les Brown; Cates arranged for some jazz-flavored sessions.  There is no personnel listed, which means that the music might be tepid, the All Stars undistinguished.  But I dream of an unacknowledged Abe Lincoln in there.  I couldn’t pass this one up — not only for its mysterious potential, but for the liner notes by Jane Bundy, which begin:

Born in sin and raised in controversy, Dixieland was the musical problem child of World War One–the rock and roll of its day.

Jane, you had me with “Born in sin.”  But enough of that.  So if you see a brightly-dressed man on his knees, reverently going through a stack of records in Northern California or elsewhere, you might be looking at me.

May your happiness increase.

“JAZZ LIVES” GOES SHOPPING at AMOEBA MUSIC

More rewarding than going to the mall in search of the nonexistent record store (now replaced by a kiosk selling baseball caps you can have embroidered with your name, perhaps?).  More personal than bidding and clicking online, it’s my return to AMOEBA MUSIC in San Francisco!

It should say something about the impression this store (and its Berkeley branch) made on me this last summer that I can summon up “1855 Haight Street” without having to think about it.  And the flimsy yellow plastic bag I brought back to my apartment has not been used for any ordinary purpose.  Inside the store the view is awe-inspiring and not a little intimidating for those who (unlike me) collect broadly across the musical spectrum:

I knew where I was going and my path had only two main oases — leaving aside the cash register at the end.  One delicious spot is sequestered in a corner: several bookshelves filled with albums of 10″ 78 rpm records.  You’d have to be a collector of older music or someone of a certain age to be familiar with this display in its unaltered state.  It still thrills me but it has the odd flavor of a museum exhibit — although I know of no museum where you can purchase the exhibits and take them home.  See if this photograph doesn’t provoke some of the same emotions:

And what do these albums contain?  I’ll skip over the dollar 1941-2 OKeh Count Basie discs, the odd Dave Brubeck 78, the remarkable Mercer Records PERDIDO by Oscar Pettiford on cello, the Artie Shaw Bluebirds . . . for a few that struck particular chords with me:

That one’s to inspire my pal Ricky Riccardi on to his next book!

One of the finest front lines imaginable — a pairing that only happened once.

The right Stuff . . . for Anthony Barnett.

Milt Gabler made good records!

In honor of Maggie Condon, Stan and Stephen Hester . . . and I didn’t arrange the records for this shot.  When was the last time you entered a record store with its own Eddie Condon section?

It would have been disrespectful to confine myself to taking pictures and not buying anything (also, enterprises like this need some support to stay in business), so I did my part.

The reverse of a Johnny Guarnieri tribute to Fats Waller, autographed to “Ed,” whom I assume played a little piano.

The NOB HILL GANG might look like another San Francisco “Dixieland” band, but any group with Ernie Figueroa on trumpet and Vince Cattolica on clarinet demands serious consideration.

But wait!  There’s more!

A Roy Eldridge collection on Phontastic (source: Jerry Valburn) of Gene Krupa 1941-2 airshots plus the 1940 Fred Rich date with Benny Carter;

ONE WORLD JAZZ — a 1959 Columbia stereo attempt at internationalism through overdubbing, featuring a home unit of Americans: Clark Terry, Ben Webster, J. J. Johnson, Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones — with overdubbed contributions from Bob Garcia, Martial Solal, Stephane Grappelly, Ake Persson, Roger Guerin, Roy East, Ronnie Ross, and George Chisholm;

Marty Grosz and his Honoris Causa Jazz Band on Ristic / Collector’s Items — featuring unissued material and rehearsals from the HOORAY FOR BIX! sessions — featuring Frank Chace;

a double-CD set on the Retrieval label of the Rhythmic Eight, in honor of Mauro Porro, whose set at the 2011 Whitley Bay paying homage to this band was memorable;

a Leo Watson compilation CD  on Indigo — just because I couldn’t leave it there;

the Billy Strayhorn LUSH LIFE compilation on Doctor Jazz, with a fine small group whose horns are Clark Terry and Bob Wilber.

The end result at the cash register?  Forty-three dollars and some cents.  Worth a trip from just about anywhere.

THE VANGUARD SESSIONS

Vanguard Ruby disc

Between 1953 and 1957, John Hammond supervised a series of record dates for the Vanguard label.  I first heard one of those records — the second volume of the THE VIC DICKENSON SHOWCASE — at my local library in the late Sixties, and fell in love. 

The Vanguard sessions featured Ruby Braff, Shad Collins, Buck Clayton, Joe Newman, Emmett Berry, Pat Jenkins, Doug Mettome, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Benny Green, Urbie Green, Lawrence Brown, Henderson Chambers, Ed Hall, Peanuts Hucko, Jimmy Buffington, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate, Rudy Powell, Earle Warren, Lucky Thompson, Frank Wess, Pete Brown, Paul Quinichette, Mel Powell, Sir Charles Thompson, Jimmy Jones, Hank Jones, Sammy Price, Ellis Larkins, Nat Pierce, Steve Jordan, Skeeter Best, Kenny Burrell, Oscar Pettiford, Walter Page, Aaron Bell, Jo Jones, Bobby Donaldson, Jimmy Crawford, Jimmy Rushing, and others.

The list of artists above would be one answer to the question, “What made these sessions special?” but we all know of recordings with glorious personnel that don’t quite come together as art — perhaps there’s too little or too much arranging, or the recorded sound is not quite right, or one musician (a thudding drummer, an over-amplified bassist) throws everything off. 

The Vanguard sessions benefited immensely from Hammond’s imagination.  Although I have been severe about Hammond — as someone who interfered with musicians for whom he was offering support — and required that his preferences be taken seriously or else (strong-willed artists like Louis, Duke, and Frank Newton fought with or ran away from John).  Hammond may have been “difficult” and more, but his taste in jazz was impeccable.  And broad — the list above goes back to Sammy Price, Walter Page, and forward to Kenny Burrell and Benny Green. 

Later on, what I see as Hammond’s desire for strong flavors and novelty led him to champion Dylan and Springsteen, but I suspect that those choices were also in part because he could not endure watching others make “discoveries.”  Had it been possible to continue making records like the Vanguards eternally, I believe Hammond might have done so.   

Although Mainstream jazz was still part of the American cultural landscape in the early Fifties, and the artists Hammond loved were recording for labels large and small — from Verve, Columbia, Decca, all the way down to Urania and Period — he felt strongly about players both strong and subtle, musicians who had fewer opportunities to record sessions on their own.  At one point, Hammond and George Wein seemed to be in a friendly struggle to champion Ruby Braff, and I think Hammond was the most fervent advocate Vic Dickenson, Sir Charles Thompson, and Mel Powell ever had.  Other record producers, such as the astute George Avakian at Columbia, would record Jimmy Rushing, but who else was eager to record Pete Brown, Shad Collins, or Henderson Chambers?  No one but Hammond. 

And he arranged musicians in novel — but not self-consciously so — combinations.  For THE VIC DICKENSON SHOWCASE, it did not take a leap of faith to put Braff, Vic, and Ed Hall together in the studio, for they had played together at Boston’s Savoy Cafe in 1949.  And to encourage them to stretch out for leisurely versions of “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Russian Lullaby” was something that other record producers — notably Norman Granz — had been doing to capitalize on the longer playing time of the new recording format.  But after that rather formal beginning, Hammond began to be more playful.  The second SHOWCASE featured Shad Collins, the masterful and idiosyncratic ex-Basie trumpeter, in the lead, with Braff joining in as a guest star on two tracks. 

Vanguard Vic

Now, some of the finest jazz recordings were made in adverse circumstances (I think of the cramped Brunswick and Decca studios of the Thirties).  And marvelous music can be captured in less-than-ideal sound: consider Jerry Newman’s irreplaceable uptown recordings.  But the sound of the studio has a good deal to do with the eventual result.  Victor had, at one point, a converted church in Camden, New Jersey; Columbia had Liederkrantz Hall and its 30th Street Studios.  Hammond had a Masonic Temple on Clermont Avenue in Brooklyn, New York — with a thirty-five foot ceiling, wood floors, and beautiful natural resonance. 

The Vanguard label, formed by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon, had devoted itself to beautiful-sounding classical recordings; Hammond had written a piece about the terrible sound of current jazz recordings, and the Solomons asked him if he would like to produce sessions for them.  Always eager for an opportunity to showcase musicians he loved, without interference, Hammond began by featuring Vic Dickenson, whose sound may never have been as beautifully captured as it was on the Vanguards. 

Striving for an entirely natural sound, the Vanguards were recorded with one microphone hanging from the ceiling.  The players in the Masonic Temple did not know what the future would hold — musicians isolated behind baffles, listening to their colleagues through headphones — but having one microphone would have been reminiscent of the great sessions of the Thirties and Forties.  And musicians often become tense at recording sessions, no matter how professional or experienced they are — having a minimum of engineering-interference can only have added to the relaxed atmosphere in the room. 

The one drawback of the Masonic Temple was that loud drumming was a problem: I assume the sound ricocheted around the room.  So for most of these sessions, either Jo Jones or Bobby Donaldson played wire brushes or the hi-hat cymbal, with wonderful results.  (On the second Vic SHOWCASE, Jo’s rimshots explode like artillery fire on RUNNIN’ WILD, most happily, and Jo also was able to record his lengthy CARAVAN solo, so perhaps the difficulty was taken care of early.)  On THE NAT PIERCE BANDSTAND — a session recently reissued on Fresh Sound — you can hear the lovely, translucent sound Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones made, their notes forming three-dimensional sculpture on BLUES YET? and STOMP IT OFF. 

Vanguard Vic 2(Something for the eyes.  I am not sure what contemporary art directors would make of this cover, including Vic’s socks, and the stuffed animals, but I treasure it, even though there is a lion playing a concertina.)

What accounted for the beauty of these recordings might be beyond definition.  Were the musicians so happy to be left alone that they played better than ever?  Was it the magisterial beat and presence of Walter Page on many sessions?  Was it Hammond’s insistence on unamplified rhythm guitar?  Whatever it was, I hear these musicians reach into those mystical spaces inside themselves with irreplaceable results.  On these recordings, there is none of the reaching-for-a-climax audible on many records.  Nowhere is this more apparent than on the sessions featuring Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins.  Braff had heard Larkins play duets with Ella Fitzgerald for Decca (reissued on CD as PURE ELLA) and told Hammond that he, too, wanted to play with Larkins.  Larkins’ steady, calm carpet of sounds balances Braff’s tendency towards self-dramatization, especially on several Bing Crosby songs — PLEASE and I’VE GOT A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS.  Vanguard Ruby

Ruby and Ellis were reunited several times in the next decades, for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label and twice for Arbors, as well as onstage at a Braff-organized tribute to Billie Holiday, but they never sounded so poignantly wonderful as on the Vanguards. 

Hammond may have gotten his greatest pleasure from the Basie band of the late Thirties, especially the small-group sessions, so he attempted to give the Vanguards the same floating swing, using pianists Thompson and Pierce, who understood what Basie had done without copying it note for note.  For THE JO JONES SPECIAL, Hammond even managed to reunite the original “All-American Rhythm Section” for two versions of “Shoe Shine Boy.”  Thompson — still with us at 91 — recorded with Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones for an imperishable quartet session.  If you asked me to define what swing is, I might offer their “Swingtime in the Rockies” as compact, enthralling evidence. 

Hammond was also justifiably enthusiastic about pianist Mel Powell — someone immediately identifiable in a few bars, his style merging Waller, Tatum, astonishing technique, sophisticated harmonies, and an irrepressible swing — and encouraged him to record in trios with Braff, with Paul Quinichette, with Clayton and Ed Hall, among others.  One priceless yet too brief performance is Powell’s WHEN DID YOU LEAVE HEAVEN? with French hornist Jimmy Buffington in the lead — a spectral imagining of the Benny Goodman Trio. 

Vanguard Mel 2

The last Vanguards were recorded in 1957, beautiful sessions featuring Buck Clayton and Jimmy Rushing.  I don’t know what made the series conclude.  Did the recordings not sell well?  Vanguard turned to the burgeoning folk movement shortly after.  Or was it that Hammond had embarked on this project for a minimal salary and no royalties and, even given his early patrician background, had to make a living?  But these are my idea of what jazz recordings should sound like, for their musicality and the naturalness of their sound.

I would like to be able to end this paean to the Vanguards by announcing a new Mosaic box set containing all of them.  But I can’t.  And it seems as if forces have always made these recordings difficult to obtain in their original state.  Originally, they were issued on ten-inch long-playing records (the format that record companies thought 78 rpm record buyers, or their furniture, would adapt to most easily).  But they made the transition to the standard twelve-inch format easily.  The original Vanguard records didn’t stay in print for long in their original format.  I paid twenty-five dollars, then a great deal of money, for a vinyl copy of BUCK MEETS RUBY from the now-departed Dayton’s Records on Twelfth Street in Manhattan.  In the Seventies, several of the artists with bigger names, Clayton, Jo Jones, and Vic, had their sessions reissued in America on two-lp colletions called THE ESSENTIAL.  And the original vinyl sessions were reissued on UK issues for a few minutes in that decade. 

When compact discs replaced vinyl, no one had any emotional allegiance to the Vanguards, although they were available in their original formats (at high prices) in Japan.  The Vanguard catalogue was bought by the Welk Music Group (the corporate embodiment of Champagne Music).  in 1999, thirteen compact discs emerged: three by Braff, two by “the Basie Bunch,” two by Mel Powell, two by Jimmy Rushing, one by Sir Charles, one by Vic.  On the back cover of the CDs, the credits read: “Compilation produced by Steve Buckingham” and “Musical consultant and notes by Samuel Charters.”  I don’t know either of them personally, and I assume that their choices were controlled by the time a compact disc allows, but the results are sometimes inexplicable.  The sound of the original sessions comes through clearly but sessions are scrambled and incomplete, except for the Braff-Larkins material, which they properly saw as untouchable.  And rightly so.  The Vanguard recordings are glorious.  And they deserve better presentation than they’ve received.

P.S.  Researching this post, I went to the usual sources — Amazon and eBay — and there’s no balm for the weary or the deprived.  On eBay, a vinyl BUCK MEETS RUBY is selling for five times as much.  That may be my twenty-five dollars, adjusted for inflation, but it still seems exorbitant. 

On eBay I also saw the most recent evidence of the corruption, if not The Decline, of the West.  Feast your eyes on this CD cover:

Vanguard Visionaries corrupt

Can you imagine Jimmy Rushing’s reaction — beyond the grave — on learning that his reputation rested on his being an influence on Jamie Cullum, Norah Jones, and Harry Connick, Jr.?  I can’t.  The Marketing Department has been at work!  But I’d put up with such foolishness if I could have the Vanguards back again.

JAZZ RAPTURE! AT THE EAR INN

Whether it’s collective improvisation or a soaring solo episode, jazz has the power to make us even more glad to be alive. The last two Sunday nights at The Ear Inn were thrilling examples of musical and spiritual energy.

On June 1, the Earregulars were led by New Orleans clarinetist Orange Kellin, who, quietly and without fanfare, recreated the hot Wednesday night band from the much-missed Cajun: banjoist-singer Eddy Davis, Scott Robinson on C-melody sax (atypically, playing only one instrument), bassist Kelly Friesen — who gave way to charter member Debbie Kennedy late in the evening. Pianist Conal Fowkes wasn’t there, but two ringers, both clarinetists, gave a truly international flavor: Motoo Yamzaki from Japan, and Adrian Cunningham for Sydney. Eddy used to call this band “Wild Reeds and Wicked Rhythm,” an apt moniker.

After a rocking medium-tempo “Sunday,” there were lovely ballads: “Prelude to A Kiss,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Ghost Of A Chance,” and a Scott Robinson specialty, “A Melody From the Sky,” which brought out the best in the crowd — a tidily-dressed woman at a nearby table half-sang, half-whispered the words to herself, smiling as she did so. (When later I congratulated her on knowing the sweet lyrics, she said, shyly, “Oh, you caught me!”)

Eddy sang one of his favorites, Jerry Herman’s paean to vaudeville, “Two A Day,” as well as asking the audience to join in on “Bourbon Street Parade.” Since the crowd included John Gill and Simon Wettenhall, it was an expertly swinging sing-along. What started out as a mysterious Middle Eastern meditation, rather like “Lena is the Queen of Palesteena,” revealed itself as an early hundredth-birthday tribute to Cole Porter, “I Love Paris,” which kept on threatening to become “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Orange, Scott, and Eddy (supported by Kelly or Debbie), musicians and friends, have a special chemistry. It is how brilliant soloists can intuitively sense what the band needs, create it on the spot, and send it forth. Scott and Orange, tussling like terrier puppies in a pet-shop window, worked wonderfully together: less aggressively than Soprano Summit or Sidney Bechet and Muggsy Spanier, but with feeling and drive. Orange’s style seems plain, even homespun: his inspirations are New Orleans Albert-system deities, not Goodman’s legions — but his simplicity is deceptive, for he is really a racing-car driver negotiating a tight turn at high speed. Before we know it, Orange has slyly got it and gone. Scott energized us with his beautiful tone, his yearning phrases, his deep well of feeling. Eddy pushed the band — not only rhythmically, but with his cheerful front-porch singing and his needling “Whaddaya got? Whaddaya got?” to urge his colleagues to pick the next tune.

In the first set, a lengthy, shouting “Diga Diga Doo” let the band testify at length. Eighty years old, the song is not harmonically complex, and its lyrics are all about the “Zulu man, feeling blue,” who sings the title — Eurocentrism in capital letters, at best. But musicians love it because it lacks complexity; its simplicity enables them to wander around in old friends D minor and C7 without fear of bumping into some radical chord change in transit. Scott created pushing riffs behind Orange; the solos hinted at rhythm and blues, George Lewis, and Charlie Parker, all leading to a driving closing ensemble. The quartet had the force and playfulness of a whole jam session — not in volume, but in variety, as the band changed its approach from chorus to chorus, sometimes in the middle of choruses. Doug Pomeroy, who has heard more inspired jazz than most people, turned to me and said, when it had ended, “THAT was worth the trip to Manhattan for me!”

For any other jazz group, that performance would have been the high point of the evening, reason enough to go home and take a well-deserved nap. But the Earregulars topped themselves in the second set with a rendition of “Good Old New York,” a very simple Jelly Roll Morton tune that he recorded at the end of his life, in band sessions that endearingly have their hearts set on jukebox hits — which did not happen. The song’s two ascending phrases, four notes apiece, that make up its opening melody, are infuriatingly catchy. After a pulsing statement of the melody, veering between unison playing and collective improvisation, Scott and Orange riffed energetically behind Eddy’s banjo solo; Scott and Kelly then played an unaccompanied duet, leading to a rocking, nearly ecstatic close.

Last night at The Ear was equally gratifying, with Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Joel Forbes, bass; John Allred, trombone. The quartet seemed a little big band, brass and rhythm sections, compact and wasteless. Kellso’s growls, slides, and muted moans were wonderfully in place. Jon pours his heart into every note: although he moves nimbly at fast tempos, each eighth note is a serious matter, with its own weight. Allred’s style bristles with sharply focused thirty-second notes, but his tone gleams, his blues dig in, his ballads sing. Behind them, Matt and Joel worked in idiosyncratic harmony, truly rocking in rhythm.

Jon started off with the wittily apt “June Night,” but the music truly became electric with a brisk “Smiles,” an almost-forgotten sentimental song circa 1920, that inspired the band into jam-session polyphony, counterlines, and riffs escalating in intensity. He then asked the singer Catherine Russell, seated at the bar, to join them. She chose “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” — a tune that has had violence done to it by amateurs. Russell is stocky and solid but physically mobile, a playful actress, swaying her body and gesturing as the song indicated. Standing almost in the doorway, she made a spontaneous acting exercise of the lyrics, including the people wandering in and out in her script. It would have been hilarious improvised theatre if she had not sung a word. But Russell’s voice is extraordinary: a huge forceful instrument with power both released and held in reserve. I thought of Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington, but the resemblance was more organic than a collection of phrases copied from records. Singing, Russell can move mountains. But she has more than one approach: on a tenderly sad “I Cover the Waterfront,” with Kellso murmuring behind her, she made us believe the lyrics — honoring Billie Holiday without copying her mannerisms, Then, as if polishing off her imagined homage to jazz singers, she did Fats Waller’s “The Joint is Jumpin’,” with some clever changes to the lyrics. If the joint hadn’t been jumping before, it certainly was now.

The essayist Lorna Sass, whose most recent book won the James Beard Award, said excitedly, “They were cooking!” She knows.

The second set began with a luxuriant exploration of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” complete with verse, and the Earregulars, perhaps still thinking of Fats, went into a slow-drag “Squeeze Me” that suggested the great recording Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, and Kenny Burrell made for Vanguard, with honors going to Matt, whose solo evoked Jimmy Ryan’s 1942 and deep rural folk music at the same time, sometimes in the same phrase. A romping three-trombone “Sweet Georgia Brown,” featuring Allred, Harvey Tibbs, and Matt McDonald followed (Kellso sat happily watching). After a deeply Ellingtonian “Just Squeeze Me,” where the three trombones played choral held notes behind Joel’s solo, Jon called up the singer Tamar Korn, known for her work as part of the Cangelosi Cards.

I’ve written about Korn on a previous posting, when she came to the Ear and astonished everyone with a slow-tempo “Dinah,” so I couldn’t wait to hear her sing “Exactly Like You.” She is tiny and looks doll-like, but she’s clearly a hip urban doll; no Disney figurine, she. While the band played, Korn tapped her foot and wiggled, but in miniature. When she sang, she was intent, still, serious, gathering all her energy in her voice, which was focused but not at all tiny. Her approach is slippery, quicksilver: by the time a listener has said, “Was that a yodel?” or “That’s operatic,” or “She sounds like smeone on the Grand Old Opry,” the phrase is long gone — one runs behind Korn’s voice, trying to catch up with the beauties she has spread before us. “Exactly Like You” was all rocking sincerity: we knew that Mother HAD raught her to be true, and she didn’t need chorus after chorus to prove it. She then surpassed herself with a simple, eloquent, deeply felt reading of “Stardust,” which silenced most of the front room. What she sang transcended the song; we stopped listening to notes and words; we were swept up in her vision of lonely nights and memories. Sitting near me, Joyce Metz turned to her husband Ed (the noted jazz drummer) and lightly struck her sternum a few times with her fist, gently, to say, “That came from the heart.” It certainly did.

A postscript: the Earregulars, even before they had a name, played their first Sunday night gig at 326 Spring Street on June 17, 2007. I don’t know if next Sunday, June 15, is therefore a birthday or an anniversary (correct me, readers) but I hope to be there to join the cheering throng. However, and I find this pleasing, amusing, and just slightly annoying, The Ear Inn has now become so popular that people are calling for reservations.

Reservations?! Indeed!

But you will understand why in the first ten minutes of any Sunday night there.