Tag Archives: Leonard Bernstein

ONE, TWO, THREE: JOE POLICASTRO, MAX JOHNSON, DAY ONE TRIO

The triangular shape works beautifully in nature, in mathematics, and in creative improvisation: three examples of jazz trio playing for your consideration — offered as they sit near my computer, without any ranking, implied or expressed.

I have a long familiarity with the music from the Bernstein-Sondheim WEST SIDE STORY. I grew up in an era where adults with phonographs (“record players”) had original cast albums — MY FAIR LADY, CAROUSEL, OKLAHOMA — and the songs were part of our common vocabulary.  But my sister (to whom I am thankful for so much) was a WEST SIDE STORY devotee, attending many performances and making friends with cast members (I recall seeing part of a performance from the back of the house when I was small enough to be lifted up without causing anyone injury) . . . so I knew the music as part of my household soundtrack.

When there were original cast recordings, there were also “jazz versions” of familiar scores, and I think many improvisations on the lingering melodies of WEST SIDE STORY have been recorded in the last half-century and more. This might have daunted any set of twenty-first century improvisers, but string bassist Joe Policastro and his Chicago friends    know that this music has much to offer in itself and as fertile material for jazz improvisation.

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Their 2013 recording of the WEST SIDE STORY SUITE balances gracefully between the familiar songs and the music’s possibilities for jazz improvisation. But there are depths here; as Policastro writes, “[the] songs have failed to enter into standard, everyday mainstream performance. There is definitely a reason for this. Behind the unforgettable lyrics and catchy melodies are some of the most unusual and tricky harmonies, phrase lengths, and song forms ever written for the theatre. I think it’s a testament to how good the material is that one hardly notices the constantly shifting keys or the abundance of 3, 5, 7, or 9 bar phrase lengths. Good luck finding a friendly 32-bar AABA song form amongst this bunch!”  Policasttro’s arrangements of the material can veer between the rhapsodic and respectful to the angular and open-ended.  The trio of Joe, string bass; Dan Effland, guitar; Adam Sorensen, drums, honor the original textures and intentions while offering many surprising shifts of perspective within each performance; they show just how much pleasing variety they can find in the material and in their varied approaches to it (from a charged urban conception to the arco statement of the melody on MARIA).  The songs are PROLOGUE / SOMETHING’S COMING / MARIA / JET SONG / AMERICA / ONE HAND, ONE HEART / COOL / TONIGHT / GEE, OFFICER KRUPKE / I FEEL PRETTY / SOMEWHERE.  The disc is available here, and you can hear a sample here:

Another string bassist (and composer) Max Johnson has issued a disc of his Invisible Trio — himself, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and Zev Ravitz, drums — playing his compositions THE PRETZEL / BIZZA / HELD FOR QUESTIONING / DON WRINKLES / THE INVISIBLE TRIO / MOVING VEHICLE / A PAIR OF GLASSES / THE GOLEM.

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You can hear samples of the music or download the whole CD here.  I confess that here I have no past familiarity with the material to guide me, nor liner notes to borrow from . . . so I will simply say that the CD feels like a conversation between three energized speakers, the collective mood shifting as one or the other moves to the fore and the subjects for discussion change and slide, the mood moving from querulous confrontation to tranquility to sorrow.  I don’t know Max’s compositional methods, so I will let the music speak for itself, to recall Charlie Parker.

Balancing freedom and lyricism, the DAY ONE TRIO — Dos Allen, tenor saxophone; Adam Everett, drums; Yoshiki Yamada, string bass, with a guest appearance on one track by tenorist Ben Flood,  experiments in a rewarding way.  The music on this CD is an intriguing mixture of on-the-spot improvisation and variations on those improvisations, considered as compositions.  As the notes state, “We recorded our improvisations and later listened to what we had played. There were an enormous number of really beautiful moments, as well as entire songs that felt great start to finish. We chose our favorites of those improvisations, mostly taken from our first night playing together, and wrote out the basic framework for each. We have re-recorded some of these favorites in the studio for you to enjoy. The interludes throughout the CD are the actual recordings of us playing together for the first time, and are a reminder of how this music came to be.”

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Thus, the CD feels like touring the museum, looking at the paintings, with a facsimile of the artist’s sketchbook in hand — as tje trio moves from quiet explorations over ticking drums and bass lines to full-fledged yet open-ended melodic collaborations.  The effect is airy but intense, most rewarding when the trio becomes a quartet, with Allen and Flood quietly trotting alongside one another, lead and commentary on FRIENDS.  The offerings are NO TURN SIGNAL / INTERLUDE 1 / ONWARD WITH A LIGHT HEART / INTERLUDE 2 / FLOATING IN TIME / THE IMPORTANCE OF BREATHING / INTERLUDE 3 / GET SOME / INTERLUDE 4 / AFTER DARK / FRIENDS / GOODNIGHT.  You may listen and download the music here.

Each of these trio adventures offers its own pleasure.  I invite you to sample them.

May your happiness increase!

A LOVE-DRAMA IN THREE ACTS, CREATED AND PERFORMED BY WESLA WHITFIELD and MIKE GREENSILL (Sept. 20, 2013)

I am now honored to present a love-drama in three acts — three moving musical performances by the irreplaceable duet of Wesla Whitfield (song, voice) and Mike Greensill (song, piano) — recorded on September 20, 2013, at Jazz at Chautauqua — now renamed the Allegheny Jazz Party.

Here, Wesla and Mike move through three moods of Amour:

Sweet wistful yearning for the Ideal.  

Erotic transports, enacted and imagined.  

The sadness when the relationship has faded.

Their script is musical and lyrical, sweetly intense no matter what the emotions depicted, with not a note out of place or a gesture too broad. Three dear dramas, knit together subtly yet powerfully.

They do this by reinventing three beloved songs: one, a pop hit from the 1946; a two, 1922 Youmans / Caesar song so venerable that it gets taken for granted; three, the mournful Bernstein / Comden / Green classic from ON THE TOWN:

A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE:

TEA FOR TWO:

SOME OTHER TIME:

Whitfield and Greensill, master musicians, subtle dramatists, wise psychologists. There’s no one like them.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET THOUGHTS OF HOME: REBECCA KILGORE, DAN BARRETT, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, MARTY GROSZ, FRANK TATE, JOHN VON OHLEN at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (September 22, 2013)

Lester Young said that sweetness was at the core of his music.  He would have loved the performance below: a sweet floating generous world shared with us in two minutes and twenty seconds.

The facts: this performance was the penultimate one in the long deliriously happy weekend that was Jazz at Chautauqua 2013.  The marvelous players: Rebecca Kilgore, vocal; Dan Barrett, trombone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass; John Von Ohlen, drums.  The song is from WONDERFUL TOWN — music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  And the two-part harmony is a loving tribute to the original idea of the song, sung by two homesick sisters.  But enough facts!

I find that incredibly touching and heartfelt and expert and witty and deep. And when people say, “Michael, are you going to Jazz at Chautauqua again this year?” they will now understand better why I get this determined happy look on my face and say, “I wouldn’t — I couldn’t — miss it for the world.”

One more paragraph.  I have been listening to jazz records since childhood, and to jazz in person since 1967.  A long glorious span of time, you will agree. Records and cassettes and compact discs have the advantage of being tangible.  You can always replay them until you wear them out.  But live performance is more evanescent.

The best music — the most lasting music — will stay alive in my head as long as I am conscious.

This performance of OHIO is so dear, so memorable to me.  I shall never forget it.

Blessings on everyone here.  And to all my viewers.  May you always have a wonderful town, a wonderful home to go to.

May your happiness increase! 

URBANELY, WITH FEELING: HILARY GARDNER SINGS OF CITY LIVES (with EHUD ASHERIE) at SMALLS, April 7, 2013

Hilary Gardner is not only a fine singer but she has an original turn of mind.  She wouldn’t have been the first singer to create a mini-concert around the theme of THE GREAT CITY — which, not incidentally, is the name of her bracingly fine new CD.  Details here.

Another singer might choose nostalgia and celebrate New York in formulaic terms of bygone neighborhoods and landmarks, the musical world of the double-decker bus and a pocketful of nickels for the Automat.  Hilary has her eyes open to this century as well as to its predecessor.  Her world didn’t begin in 1990, but she knows that intriguing songs keep being written about the city that so fascinates her.

The ten songs that follow — glorious evidence of the swinging, witty rapport between her and pianist Ehud Asherie — stretch back to Vernon Duke and Leonard Bernstein, but forward to Nellie McKay and Dan Hicks.  Hilary has a beautiful voice and a clear, focused delivery — you can hear she’s thought about the lyrics and how they ring most effectively — and a natural swing, a keen ebullience.  Her “contemporary” perceptions aren’t hard or ironic, though; she isn’t a postmodernist smirking at the audience through her songs.  No, she balances her sharp observations with a tender romanticism, both evident here.

WHEELERS AND DEALERS:

YOU CAME A LONG WAY FROM ST. LOUIS:

BROOKLYN BRIDGE:

THAT’S NO JOKE:

MANHATTAN AVENUE:

A NEW TOWN IS A BLUE TOWN:

THE GREAT CITY:

AUTUMN IN NEW YORK:

SWEETHEART / WAITRESS IN A DONUT SHOP:

THIS LITTLE TOWN IS PARIS:

And even those who think that singers should stay in the nicely fenced corral of “The Great American Songbook” should listen closely to both Hilary and Ehud — models of swinging, inventive solo and interplay, music with deep intelligence and deep feeling.  And any program of songs she offers us has its own artistic logic: she creates mosaics full of sharp but deeply felt juxtapositions and resonances.

May your happiness increase!

ATLANTA 2012: MR. SPORTIELLO and MR. SHANE AT THE PIANO (April 22, 2012)

A delicious interchange from the last afternoon of the 2012 Atlanta Jazz Party — Mark Shane and Rossano Sportiello, swing piano masters of subtlety and power, alternating at one piano.

Mark begins with Fats Waller’s AIN’T CHA GLAD? — surely a rhetorical question in these circumstances:

Rossano offers his “Town” medley, more swinging than a discourse on urban planning: IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN / CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN:

Remembering the beauty of the Basie band when it touched ground for a Herschel Evans rhapsody, Mark tenderly essays BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL:

Quietly announcing his continued good fortune, Rossano plays Bernstein’s LUCKY TO BE ME:

Mark offers a composition of his own, HOMEWARD BOUND:

And the two swing masters team up for a striding game of musical benches, ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT RHYTHM:

What a swell party the 2012 Atlanta Jazz Party was!  And the 2013 version will have Warren Vache, Dan Barrett, John Sheridan, and Ken Peplowski among the creative merry-makers . . .

May your happiness increase.

THE HEART OF THE SONG: ABIGAIL RICCARDS and MICHAEL KANAN (June 12, 2011)

Abigail Riccards and Michael Kanan inspire awe and wonder.

I experienced this first-hand in a small Brooklyn studio last Sunday, June 12, 2011, and share the music with you here. 

These two artists created music full of feeling but never “dramatic.”  Each song had its own pliant shape, with unaffected casual intensity and splendor. 

Abigail has a speaking directness.  Her mobile voice arches into long tones and soaring phrases; she lives within the lyric and the melody she is singing.  She makes each song full of small peaks of intelligence and emotion. 

Hear, for instance, how she handles the words “drop a line” in Wilder’s I’LL BE AROUND.  Her TOO LATE NOW is almost unbearably poignant yet it doesn’t whimper or carry on.  Her approach is at once serious and joyous.  BLUE SKIES cavorts. 

And although these songs are not new — each one has powerful ghosts standing behind the curtain to upstage the living artists — Abigail takes her own small liberties and makes them work, turning IN LOVE IN VAIN (one of the saddest songs I know) into something a little more resilient, in the same fashion that Billie Holiday recreated TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE as her own nearly defiant statement. 

Abigail’s singing touched everyone in the room: even in the videos here, you can feel their powerful quiet empathy and delight.  I hear a great artistry.

Michael is a poet at the keyboard with none of the pretense some have brought to that role.  I think often of Jimmy Rowles when he plays, and at times of the witty, pointed spareness of John Lewis.  Like Abigail, he never overacts, never calls attention to himself in some look-at-me way, but you can’t help but pay attention — both to what he is creating and what trodden ways he is wisely avoiding. 

His sound is lucent; his pauses are knowing and subtle; he is a master of light and shade and shadow.  At its most serene and quiet, his playing is resonant. 

The art of accompaniment might be the most arduous of endeavors, and Michael is the most generous of partners, sweetly creating just the right sound-shape to make the singer or players around him seem even better. 

And these two artists create a delicate yet powerful musical world in duet — their playful energies complementing each other.  They are gracious; they are polite; they don’t interrupt each other’s sentences, but together they make something wise and subtle and rich that wasn’t there a minute before. 

They offer and enact deep calm and brave experiment.

LUCKY TO BE ME:

TOO LATE NOW:

YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

IN LOVE IN VAIN:

THE MORE I SEE YOU:

I’LL BE AROUND:

I’M OLD-FASHIONED:

ALL THE WAY:

BLUE SKIES:

EV’RY TIME WE SAY GOOD-BYE:

Throughout this performance, I kept feeling it was an honor to be in the same room, a privilege to witness and record such art.  I still do.

OUR OWN FOUR-DAY NYC JAZZ FESTIVAL

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This remarkable weekend began on Friday night (November 7) at the New York Historical Society on Central Park West, with a free one-hour concert featuring bassist-singer-composer Jay Leonhart, amidst what the MC introduced, somewhat oddly, as “rising stars” Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and vocals, Ted Rosenthal, piano, and Alvin Atkinson, drums. The program mixed several Richard Rodgers classics, “Shall We Dance,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” Bernstein’s “Cool,” with two Leonhart originals and a closing romp through “Lester Leaps In.”  Rosenthal sparkled; Atkinson swung.

But the high point of the evening was an exploration of what Leonhart called “a jazz prayer,” “Body and Soul.”  That 1930 song can be a problem for musicians, as it has been played so nobly by so many: Coleman Hawkins, Louis, Bird in his first flights, Duke and Blanton, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, the Benny Goodman Trio, etc.   This performance began with Leonhart’s arco solo and then reached heights with Wycliffe’s plunger-muted, stately exploration of the theme.  Wycliffe knows full well how to honor a melody rather than simply leaping into variations on chord changes).  Waggling his plunger in and out, he mixed growls and moans, naughty comedy and deep sighs, as if Tricky Sam Nanton or Vic Dickenson was playing a hymn.  The solo ended all too soon.

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Not only was the concert free, but the museum was open to all, so the Beloved and I wandered through lovely landscape paintings.  Future Fridays at the NYHS (all beginning at 6:30 PM) will feature The Western Wind (a contemporary classical vocal sextet) on November 14, on the 21, guitarists from the Manhattan School of Music (teachers and proteges); Cheryl B. Engelhardt and Oscar Rodriguez (guitar) on December 5, jazz again on December 12, with Jeb Patton, David Wong, and Tootie Heath, and ending with Latin music on the 19th from the Samuel Torres Group.

We rested on Saturday to prepare ourselves for the exuberances to come.

Sunday afternoon found us at Sweet Rhythm on Seventh Avenue South for the third gathering of Jon-Erik Kellso and Friends: this time bassist Kelly Friesen, drummer Andrew Swann, pianist Rossano Sportiello, and reedman Peter Reardon-Anderson, doubling tenor and clarinet.  Hyperbole is a dangerous thing, but I came away from these two sets thinking that I had heard the most exciting jazz in years.

I so admire Jon-Erik’s ability to shape an ad hoc ensemble into a cohesive one, and he did it through the two sets, creating jazz that was of this time and place, looking back to New Orleans and collective improvisation, forward to contemporary “Mainstream” solos.  If I kept thinking of Keynote Records 1943-46, perhaps that’s because those jubilant performances kept being evoked on the stand at Sweet Rhythm.  Rossano strode and glided, sometimes in a Basie mood (appropriately) on “Doggin’ Around” and “Topsy”; Kelly took the glories of Milt Hinton (powerful rhythm, a huge tone, beautiful arco work on “All Too Soon”) and made them his own, and Andrew Swann, slyly grinning, added Sidney Catlett and Cliff Leeman to his swinging progenitors.  Anderson, twenty-one years old, is someone we can greet at the beginning of a brilliant career (to quote Emerson on Whitman): Zoot Sims and Ed Hall stand in back of his graceful, energetic playing.  Basie got honored, but so did Bing and Louis in “I Surrender, Dear,” and Kellso reminded us that not only is he playing marvelously but he is a first-rate composer: his line on “Linger Awhile” was a memorable hide-and-seek creation.  We cheered this band, and with good reason.

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And the room was full of Jazz Friends who didn’t get up on the bandstand: Bill and Sonya Dunham, Jim and Grace Balantic, Nina Favara, Lawri Moore, Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  A righteous congregation!

And the five portraits you see here — from the top, Jon-Erik, Rossano, Kelly, Andrew, and Peter — come from this gig, courtesy of Lorna Sass, jazz photographer.

Perhaps I am a jazz glutton, but those two sets weren’t enough: I walked downtown to the Ear Inn to soak up one more set by the EarRegulars: Jon-Erik, Chris Flory on guitar, Greg Cohen on bass, and Michael Blake on tenor, someone entirely new to me.  (He and Jon-Erik go ‘way back, although they hadn’t played together in years.)  Blake is exceedingly amiable, so we found ourselves chatting at the bar — about small towns near Victoria (Souk for one) and Pee Wee Russell, about the odd and gratifying ways people come to jazz, about Lucky Thompson and jazz clarinet.  Then it was time for the EarRegulars to hit, and they surely did — from a “Blue Skies” that became “In Walked Bud,” to Blake’s feature on (what else?) “Body and Soul.”  Here, backed by the wonderfully sensitive duo of Chris and Greg, he broke the theme into fragments, speculating on their possibilities, becoming harmonically bolder with a tone that ranged from purring to rasping (some echoes of Lacy), exploring the range of his instrument in a delicate, earnest, probing way.  It was a masterful performance, and I am particularly delighted to encounter such brave creativity from a player I didn’t know before.

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Of course, the near-collisions of beauty and contemporary weirdness never fail to amaze.  I was sitting at the bar at the Ear, welcomed there by Victor, who knows more jazz than most critics.  At the bar, to my left, three and sometimes four people were facing away from the band, hunched over their Black Berry or Black Berries, their iPhones, what have you.  Electronically glowing tiny screens, blue and white, shone throughout the club.  I too am a techno-addict — but why go to a bar to check your BlackBerry and ignore the live art being created not five feet away?  To treat Kellso, Blake, Flory, and Cohen as background music seems oblivious or rude.

Monday there was work — but that is always a finite obligation, even when it looms inescapably — but soon I was back in Manhattan, drawn inexorably with the Beloved to Banjo Jim’s (Avenue C and Ninth Street) to hear two groups in one night.  Banjo Jim’s seems ideal — small, congenial, a private neighborhood bar full of young people listening to the music, a real blessing.

The first group was full of old friends — Kevin Dorn’s Traditional Jazz Collective.  This incarnation included Charlie Caranicas on cornet, Michael Hashim on alto sax, J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and vocal, Jesse Gelber on piano, Kevin on drums.  Kevin kicked things off with a romping “I Want To Be Happy,” explicitly summoning up the 1972 New School concert where Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Kenny Davern, and Dick Wellstood — someone named Eddie Condon in charge — showed what could be done with that simple line.  (I was at that concert, too.)  J. Walter Hawkes, one of my favorite unsung singers, did his wonderful, yearning “Rose Room.”  Barbara Rosene sat in for a thoughtful “Pennies From Heaven,” complete with the fairy-tale verse, and the proceedings closed with a hot “China Boy.”

And then — as if it that hadn’t been enough — the Cangelosi Cards took the stand.  They are the stuff of local legend and they deserve every accolade.  A loosely-arranged ensemble: Jake Sanders on acoustic guitar, Marcus Milius on harmonica, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Gordon Webster on piano, Karl Meyer on violin, Cassidy Holden on bass.  They are all fine players, better than many with larger reputations.  I thought I heard a drummer but saw no one at the trap set: later I found out that their singer, Tamar Korn, has a remarkable vocabulary of clicks, hisses, and swishes — she fooled me and she swung.  The group has a Django-and-Stephane flavor, but they are not prisoners of that sound, that chugging rhythm, that repertoire.  They began with “Douce Ambiance,” moved to Harry Barris’s “It Was So Beautiful,” and then Eddie Durham’s “Topsy.”

Early on in the set, it became clear that this band has a devoted following — not just of listeners, but of dancers, who threw themselves into making the music physically three-dimensional in a limited space.  Wonderful inspired on-the-spot choreography added to the occasion, an exultant Happening.

Then Tamar Korn got up to sing — she is so petite that I hadn’t quite seen her, because I was seated at the back of the small square room.  But I heard her, and her five songs are still vibrating in my mind as I write this.  Without attempting to be mysterious in any way (she is friendly and open) she is someone unusual.  Rumor has it that she hails from California, but I secretly believe she is not from our planetary system.  When I’ve suggested this to her, she laughs . . . but doesn’t deny it.

Tamar’s singing is focused, experimental, powerful.  In her performance of “Avalon,” she began by singing the lyrics clearly, with emotion but not ever “acting,” then shifted into a wordless line, high long held notes in harmony with the horns, as if she were Adelaide Hall or a soprano saxophone, then did two choruses of the most evocative scat-singing I’ve ever heard (it went beyond Leo Watson into pure sound) and then came back to the lyrics.

Her voice is small but not narrow, her range impressive.  What I find most exhilirating is the freedom of her approach: I hear old-time country music (not, I must add, “country and western,” but real roots music), blues and bluegrass, the parlor soprano essaying light classics, opera, yodeling, swing — and pure sound.  She never appears to be singing a song in any formulaic way.  Rather, she is a vessel through whom the force of music passes: she is embraced by the emotions, the notes, the words.

And when the Cards invited their friends — that is, Charlie Caranicas, Michael Hashim, and Jesse Gelber — to join them for “Milenberg Joys,” “I’m Confessin’,” and “Avalon,” it was as close to soul-stirring ritual in a New York club as I can remember.  The room vibrated; the dancers threw their hands in the air, people stood up to see better, the music expressed intense joy.  I don’t know whether Margaret Mead had rhythm in her feet, but she would have recognized what went on at Banjo Jim’s.

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I hope to have video, thanks to Flip, to post shortly.  Tune in again!  (And another weekend is coming soon . . . tempus fugit isn’t so terrifying when there are glories like this to look forward to.)

Only in New York, I am sure.

All photographs by Lorna Sass, copyright 2008.