Tag Archives: Lester Young

HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL: “WINDY CITY SWING” (JON DOYLE, JAMEY CUMMINS, DAN WALTON, STEVE PIKAL, HAL SMITH and JOSHUA HOAG)

Hal Smith is someone whose music I’ve admired long before I was able to meet him and hear the magic he works from a front-row seat.  Dogs bark; cats meow; Hal swings, and I’ve never known him to fail.  Better than CPR.

Put it another way: I’ve had a driver’s license for decades, and am thus less comfortable in the passenger seat.  When I hear a performance with Hal at the drums, I can relax — the same way I do when Jo or Sidney or Wettling or Tough is in control: I know everything’s going to be all right.

A new CD with Hal is always a pleasure; the debut recording of a new Hal Smith band is an event, one to be celebrated.  SWING CENTRAL lives up to its title, and there’s more at work here than a) a quintet playing a swing repertoire and b) that the musicians all live in the Central time zone.

Those musicians — exuberant and focused at the same time are, besides Hal — Jonathan Doyle on clarinet; Dan Walton, piano; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Steve Pikal, string bass, and appearing on one track, Joshua Hoag, also on bass.

What makes this clarinet-plus rhythm group different and thus a treasure is vividly apparent from the first notes of the first track.  For one thing, SWING CENTRAL is aware that there is music not played by Benny Goodman.  Heresy to some, I know, and I treasure my Goodman records as much as anyone, but this band and this disc go another way. And that way is the endearingly individualistic way mapped out by Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Frank Chace, and Charlie Christian.  SWING CENTRAL is a hot band, but not an exhibitionistic one: on this CD or in performance, you won’t hear a ten-minute version of SEVEN COME ELEVEN that’s capped with a drum solo.  Hearing the disc again, I thought, “This band is playing for the music, not for the audience,” which is a beautiful and rare thing.  And the musicians know the records, but have absorbed them into their cell memory, so that they can play themselves, which is the only way to honor the innovators.  “Feelin’ the spirit,” as they used to say.

 

Now that you’ve gotten over the pleasant shock of the remarkable cover art by JP Ardee Navarro, hear and see the band in performance (Austin’s Central Market, 2016) for yourself:

LITTLE GIRL:

and Jon Doyle’s charming sweet original, HELLO, FISHIES:

Hal asked me if I would write something for this CD, and I was honored.  Here’s what I came up with: easy to tell the truth, and easy to express happiness in words.  (And in case what I’ve written seems to favor Jon Doyle and the leader, I will say only that I’d like to hear a CD led by Dan Walton, Jamey, or Steve.)

A MEETING OF KINDRED SOULS

A true story. Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were in a taxi, discussing “the beat”. Monk favored surprising shifts but Dizzy disagreed. “What would you do if your heart beat irregular? The steady beat is the principle of life.” My cardiologist would agree: healthy, happy organisms swing from the inside out. Hal Smith’s Swing Central is not only a wondrous cohesive group, inspired by the music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace, and friends, but it affirms joyous principles. From Austin, Texas, comes healing jazz.

Leader Hal tells how this band came to be:

I’ve known Jon Doyle since 2009. The first time I heard him warming up on clarinet, quoting Pres’ solo from “I Want A Little Girl,” the seed was planted for this band. Steve Pikal and I worked together in the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in 2010. Steve’s outgoing personality and propulsive bass playing is always a positive influence. Dan Walton introduced me to the Western Swing scene in Texas. We played together with Jason Roberts’ band and later with Dan’s own Jump Swing Imperials. He understands that “less is more” and it shows. Jamey Cummins has been in Austin for some time, and is finally receiving the attention he deserves. He plays wonderful Freddie Green-like time and inventive, highly rhythmic solos.

We decided not to pursue the familiar Goodman-based clarinet-and-rhythm repertoire but rather to explore the more introverted music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace. Jon Doyle took to the idea like a bat takes to the Congress Ave. Bridge. When we began, the musicians lived in the Central Time zone, so the band name suggested itself. (However, we are not going to add “Pacific” when a couple of our musicians have relocated to the West Coast!)

This was the easiest recording session I have ever done, and several other band members agreed. I think you’ll hear what a good time we had.

This quietly thrilling band reminds me not only of the three inspiring clarinet playing individualists, but of the possibilities of music that gently breaks down the barriers some listeners and journalists build, cubicles labeled “schools” and “styles.” Swing Central takes familiar songs and make them fresh and dewy; Jon’s compositions and reinventions are witty beyond their titles. And these players – happy rovers in the land of Medium Tempo, great ensemble players as well as inspiring soloists — go for themselves rather than copying.

About the repertoire. Listeners will hear the chord structures of SUGAR, MY GAL SAL, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and LADY BE GOOD reinvigorated. An answer key is available at the end of your workbook, but no peeking until you’ve handed in your finished pages.

BIG AL evokes Mr. Capone, who would have tipped Swing Central generously to keep playing his favorite song. Hal explains BATS ON A BRIDGE as “a real Austin phenomenon, and five of the six musicians here have deep roots in Texas’ weirdest city. http://www.batcon.org/index.php/our-work/regions/usa-canada/protect-mega-populations/cab-intro. HI, FISHIES comes from a sweet cross-species story. Ask Jon when you meet him on a gig. REPEATER PENCIL is for Lester, and for this band: artists who honor the innovators by being innovative themselves.

LONG-DISTANCE MAN owes its title to a Pres-and-Chace story recalled by Larry Kart: “[Chace] also told a very ‘Frank’ story about his encounter with Lester Young in 1957 in Pres’s hotel room in (I think) Indianapolis, where Frank was playing at a club and Pres was in town with a non-JATP package tour. The drummer in the band Frank was part of, Buddy Smith, suggested that they pay Pres a visit after the gig, and when they got there, Frank (‘I’m shy,’ he said), hung back while the other guys gathered around Pres. Having noticed this bit of behavior, Pres beckoned Frank to come closer, addressing him softly as ‘long-distance man.’ Probably a meeting of kindred souls.”

SHEIK OF AIRBNB is named thus because Jamey stayed in an AirBnB directly below the studio where the session was recorded. I MUST HAVE THAT MAN is from the band’s live gig at Central Market in Austin on Aug. 28, 2016. Josh Hoag (now with Asleep at the Wheel) filled in for Steve. The band decided that they must share this track with us: a lovely gift. When you are enjoying SUNDAY, don’t be surprised when the track fades out. Do not adjust your set. Hal explains, “Alex Hall’s reliable recording equipment may have been affected by a sun spot, or maybe one of Doyle’s blue notes. But we liked the overall feel so much — particularly Jon’s playing — that we decided to keep as much as possible and fade before the sudden ending.”

Sir John Davies, a Renaissance poet, wrote ORCHESTRA, his conception of a cosmos vibrating in symphonic harmony. If we are very fortunate, the world might vibrate as does Hal Smith’s Swing Central – tender, relaxed, urgent. We have a long way to go, but it’s a noble aspiration.

Here is the link to hear samples, purchase an actual disc, or a download.  Hal and SWING CENTRAL will be appearing at the Bix Festival on the first weekend of August in Davenport, Iowa. . . so you can have the mutual pleasure of buying CDs from the band there, also.  And here is the place to find out about all things Smith — the swinging ones, of course.

May your happiness increase!

VIVIDLY ALIVE: THE BRAIN CLOUD, “LIVE AT BARBES”

I adore the surprises that happen at jam sessions or when musicians are asked to play alongside each other in new combinations, but Heaven smiles on that rare entity, a WORKING BAND.  The Brain Cloud, led by Dennis Lichtman (clarinet, violin, mandolin, and more) is such a remarkable entity — and they’ve just released their third CD, “Live at Barbes.”

Photo by Seth Cashman

Here’s a sample: music does speak louder than words!

Dennis Lichtman and all the members of the Brain Cloud have created the world’s most swinging, melodic “safe space”: which is to say, a place where all kinds of lyrical music are welcome to flourish — not historical or archaeological, but alive now.

Once upon a time, we know, there was just MUSIC — a beautifully undulating landscape as far as we could see.  Then, people looking to sell product — journalists, publicists, record company executives, even some musicians — came and divided the landscape up into little fiefdoms whose occupants glared at one another.  The Brain Cloud suggests that a return to the prelapsarian world is possible: imagine a record store where The Carter Family and Benny Carter are friends, where Lester Willis Young and Bob Willis share a drink, a cigarette, and a story.  Or a place where double-entendre blues sit in the same pew as hymns, where “Dixieland,” “roots music,” “Americana,” all those dazzling names for what is essentially the same thing, coexist beautifully, because they are all only music that has stories to tell and in the telling, enlightens the listener.

Photo by Tom Farley

To the music: as you can hear and see above, the opening track on this CD, JEALOUS HEARTED ME, is no academic exercise: a Carter Family song, it reminds me of rocking Fifties rhythm and blues, with an outchorus that would equal any Eddie Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  The expert Merrymakers here are Dennis Lichtman, clarinet, mandolin, fiddle; Tamar Korn, vocal improvisations; Skip Krevens, guitar, vocals; Raphael McGregor, lap steel guitar; Andrew Hall, string bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.

Each track is wonderfully itself — the CD isn’t a monochromatic blur — but each is a joyous lesson in the merging of “styles.”  So aside from the “roots” classics — venerable as well as new (from Jimmie Rodgers and Patsy Cline) — there’s Alex Hill’s YOU WERE ONLY PASSING TIME WITH ME (hooray!) and the 1939 Broadway song COMES LOVE and the Twenties LONESOME AND SORRY and IF YOU WANT THE RAINBOW.

Since the Brain Cloud has had a long residency at Barbes (on Monday nights) there is a delightful mix of exuberance and comfort.  Everyone’s made themselves to home, as we might say.  And — in case you worry about such things — the recorded sound is excellent.  Those who have been to Barbes already have multiple copies of this disc; if you’ve never made it into Brooklyn for such frolics, you’ll want your own copy.  And on a personal note: listening to the Brain Cloud has helped me to drop my own narrow suspicions of music that I didn’t think was “jazz,” always a good thing; I’ve been following them since 2009, and this disc is a wonderful encapsulation of what the band does so well.

Here you can find out more about the Brain Cloud, hear more music, buy this disc, or a download, or even as a limited-edition cassette.  And more.  Don’t just sit there!  Move that cursor!

May your happiness increase!

ARTHUR and ADRIAN

I’ve just finished reading the charming autobiography of saxophonist Arthur Rollini (1912- 93), THIRTY YEARS WITH THE BIG BANDS, and it gave me the opportunity to learn about his first recordings — music graciously provided by the estimable AtticusJazz on YouTube.  Here are his first two recorded sides (April 12, 1929, in London) — the first a head arrangement of NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, the second the full Fred Elizalde orchestra performing SINGAPORE SORROWS in an arrangement by Fud Livingston.  Arthur was seventeen (as was the brilliant trumpeter Norman Payne, heard briefly on the second side); his legendary brother Adrian was then not yet twenty-six.

Of the first side, Arthur writes, “Bobby Davis took the first half of a chorus and I picked him up for the second half.  Adrian played brilliantly.”  Recalling SINGAPORE SORROWS, he praises Norman Payne, “This little solo in Bix’s tradition still stands up today.”  Especially in SWEETHEART, I hear the influence of the contemporaneous Nichols recordings, and beautiful playing throughout.

The small band is Fred Elizalde, arranger / leader; Chelsea Quealey, trumpet; Bobby Davis, clarinet, alto and soprano saxophone; Max Farley, tenor saxophone; Adrian Rollini, bass saxophone; Billy Mason, piano;  Tiny Stock, brass bass; string bass; Ronnie Gubertini, drums; Al Bowlly, guitar.

The large band is Fred Elizalde; Chelsea Quealey, Norman Payne, Nobby Knight, trumpet; Frank Coughlan, trombone; Bobby Davis, Max Farley, Phil Cardew, Fud Livingston, Arthur Rollini, Adrian Rollini, reeds; George Hurley, Ben Frankel, Len Lees, violin; Billy Mason, Jack Hull, banjo; Al Bowlly, Tiny Stock, Ronnie Gubertini.

Before I was deep into this book, I already valued it because it explained the early death of Adrian. Arthur tells us just how seriously Adrian was accident-prone: “He inadvertently smashed cars, stepped into holes and, although he was not a clumsy person, frequently tripped.  It was so bad that insurance companies refused him coverage.  Eventually, even his death was the result of an accident. It happened in Florida when he fell down a flight of stairs into a pit of coral rock” (17).

Then, as I read on in this low-keyed, modest book, I encountered compelling anecdotes of Benny Goodman’s oblivious cruelty, Richard Himber’s aberrational behavior (intentionally aimed flatulence as his idea of comedy?!), brief portraits of Bunny Berigan, Dave Tough, Hank D’Amico . . . Paul Whiteman uttering Turk Murphy’s “three little words” to a society matron who had pushed him too far, the eccentric Raymond Scott, and more.

As the Swing Era ends, Arthur and others find comfortable jobs in network radio for a decade or more, but the book slowly records the end of an era in popular music.  He doesn’t moan or rant, but “thirty years with the big  bands” as a sideman have left him without a place to go.  Oh, there are gigs in Long Island clubs, but he doesn’t have the name recognition of, say, Buddy Tate, or the chameleon-like abilities of Al Klink. He and his wife try non-musical businesses, and they have a hard time, with all underscored by her eventually fatal illness.  So I felt much sorrow in the final pages of the book, and I was undecided if I would keep my copy or pass it on.

Then I saw this picture (which I have poorly reproduced with my phone) and said, “I’m keeping this!”: the 1938 Benny Goodman softball team with Dave Tough in the front row with a mitt (what kind would it be?) that seems too big for him.  The other players, in the back row, are Bud Freeman, Chris Griffin, Harry Goodman, Arthur, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Vernon Brown, Noni Bernardi; in the front, Benny Heller, Pee Wee Monte, Dave, Red Ballard.  (And for the Lesterphiles in the audience, Arthur tells of the inside-the-park home run the Pres hit in one game.)  You can find a much better copy of this photograph here.

And here, courtesy of THE POP OF YESTERCENTURY, a superb blog — temporarily on vacation,

the Rollini brothers send their best — from 1937, but the sounds are eternal.

With thanks to A.J. Sammut, as always.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN, AMONG FRIENDS: DICK WELLSTOOD, BUZZY DROOTIN, GEORGE WEIN, MOREY FELD, ZUTTY SINGLETON, WILD BILL DAVISON, and a few words about TESCH, (April 21, 2017)

Here’s another opportunity to hear some priceless stories from the man who was there, with eyes, ears, and heart open — our friend and hero Dan Morgenstern, at home on April 21, 2017, speaking of the people he knew and admired.  I’ve shared previous interview segments here and here.

And here’s more: Dick Wellstood covering fires for the local newspaper, Lester Young auditioning the new pianist:

and on a wide range of memorable people.  (After I’d shut the camera off, I mentioned the Singletons’ dog, Bringdown — whom Dan had also encountered. Perhaps the next interview segment should be devoted to Famous Jazz Pets?)

What’s the moral?  Nothing new, I think.  When people pass into spirit, they never “die” as long as they are remembered with affection, as Dan does here. And the living — that’s us, with luck — have a responsibility to keep the memories fresh, by telling stories and making sure those stories don’t vanish.  If you have a story-teller in your bunch, and the stories don’t have to be about jazz, place your iPhone in front of Grandma and ask her to tell what made her love Grandpa so. (Big Joe Turner had his own answer, which you can inquire about.)

Bless Mister Morgenstern — not only for keeping the memories alive, but for sharing them with us so beautifully.  There’s more to come.

May your happiness increase!

“THANK YOU . . . FOR THAT”: LIPS PAGE, CENTER STAGE (1944)

The advertisement shows that musicians were always trying to make an extra few dollars, and it also offers some unusual pictures of one of my heroes, Hot Lips Page, someone who couldn’t help swinging, no matter what the context.

Lips and Eddie Condon admired each other tremendously as people who could play Hot without any artifice, and the moments when Lips performed at Eddie’s concerts are magical.  (Dan Morgenstern had the wondrous experience of seeing Lips sit in at Eddie’s club on Tuesday nights, something I can only imagine.) These cosmic collaborations took place not only at the 1944 Town Hall and Ritz Theatre concerts but on the television series, “Eddie Condon’s Floor Show” of 1948-50.  Photographs show a trio performance by Lips, James P. Johnson, and Zutty Singleton, which I wouldn’t mind hearing.  And before anyone writes in to inquire about the kinescopes of the Floor Show, I am afraid that they no longer exist, unless duplicate and triplicate sets were made.  I feel your pain: it’s been mine for decades.

But we do have uplifting evidence (a recording I’ve loved for forty years).

To call that a live performance would be a gross understatement.  It’s from a June 24, 1944 broadcast at Town Hall in New York City.  Supporting Lips are Bobby Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Gene Schroeder, Eddie Condon, Bob Haggart, Joe Grauso.  I admire Haggart’s powerful support, but for me Lips is the whole show.  Yes, there is some admiration for Louis evident, but Lips is playing Lips, and you could ask any trumpet player what a heroic accomplishment his playing is, chorus upon chorus, each one building on the predecessor so when the performance ends, one has the sense of a completed creation rather than a series of phrase-length ideas offered to us.  Marc Caparone, who knows about such things from experience, calls Lips “Atlas,” and although that name might not have sold colas (“Royal Crown Cola . . . when you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders,” perhaps?) it’s more than accurate.

One more piece of jazz minutiae.  The opening phrase of Lips’ CHINATOWN solo, the fanfare over Grauso’s drums, a syncopated bounce back and forth over two notes, sounds familiar because it’s the device Lester used to begin the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY.  I suspect it was in the air in Kansas City, and (not surprisingly) I think it probably appears on a Louis recording c. 1927.  You are free to disagree in the privacy of your own homes, but Louis seems to be the root of all good things.

But back to Mister Page Play CHINATOWN again.  It’s monumental.

May your happiness increase!

“A REALLY PRETTY SONG”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, JEFF HAMILTON, KATIE CAVERA, CLINT BAKER (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 25, 2016)

Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have the magical ability to play with Time (Einstein would be pleased) so that a nice steady medium-tempo groove from the band can also be ornamented with dreaming, almost motionless ruminations on the theme: it happens beautifully here.

The song is famous for Billie Holiday and Lester Young, although in 1937 it was simply another new pop tune, composed by Carmen Lombardo and John Jacob Loeb.  Carmen doesn’t get much credit for melodies — people are too busy sneering at the Lombardo reeds and vocalizing — but think of COQUETTE, SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, RIDIN’ AROUND IN THE RAIN, and even BOO HOO (I hear Jimmy Rushing singing that one with perfect swing sincerity).

This isn’t a post about the glories of Billie and Lester (even though they can’t be celebrated too much) but rather a wholly instrumental and wholly satisfying version of this song in our century, created by Ray, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar:

What beautiful dreamy music.  Blessings on these musicians and thanks for the San Diego Jazz Fest for providing a time and place (November 25, 2016) for the musicians and audience to feel such expansive comfort.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS STAN GETZ (March 3, 2017)

This is the sixth part of a series of video-interviews the irreplaceable Dan Morgenstern sat for on the afternoon of Friday, March 3, 2017.  The previous five parts can be found here.

In those segments, Dan shares remarkable stories about the people he’s heard and met and become close with: everyone, including Lester Young, Jimmy Rowles, Tony Fruscella, Tommy Benford, Brew Moore, John Carisi, Nat Lorber, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Rushing, and two dozen more.

Here he speaks lovingly of the magnificent Stan Getz — including an anecdote of one way to deal with noisy spectators at a jazz club:

I would have you notice — as well as Dan’s eye for the telling detail (that quality that makes great storytellers as well as novelists) — that even his retelling of incidents that might be painful is shot through with kindness.  These interviews are not a settling of scores; rather, they are graceful homages to the giants and friends he has known — and Dan continues to make friends in 2017.

Here, for those who have other thoughts about Stan, a sweet yet little-known 1954 performance by him, Jimmy, Bob Whitlock, and Max Roach, of the early-Thirties song, DOWN BY THE SYCAMORE TREE:

Dan refers to Stan’s PARKER 51:

and one of Stan’s duets with Kenny Barron at the end of his life:

I look forward to a second set of interviews.  Dan has hinted that he has tales of Cecil Scott.  Who could resist such knowledge?

May your happiness increase!