Tag Archives: Lester Young

FOR PRES (Part Three): MICHAEL KANAN, LARRY McKENNA, MURRAY WALL, DORON TIROSH (Sept. 1, 2018, University of Scranton, PA)

Michael Kanan, Larry McKenna, Murray Wall, Doron Tirosh at the University of Scranton, Sept. 1, 2018. Photograph by John Herr.

 

Here are the closing three selections from a wondrous evening of music devoted to the sacred memory of Lester Young.  By “sacred memory” I mean the living presence of that great man, so ebullient, so tender.  And in proper Lester-fashion, everyone in the quartet sang his own song.

Here you will find Parts One and Two of this concert, which delighted me then and uplift me now.

The concert was, to me and others in the enthusiastic audience, a series of highlights, one quietly dazzling gem after another.  I have a special love for the blues in G, POUND CAKE, that appears in Part Two.  And the version of ALL OF ME that follows is tremendously touching.  Billie and Lester recorded it as a sweet ballad — in opposition to the bouncy versions that got faster and faster after its initial appearance a decade earlier.  This performance is like a caress:

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, happily inspired by the 1956 quartet session of Lester, Teddy Wilson, Gene Ramey, and Jo Jones (originally issued as PRES AND TEDDY on Verve):

Finally, Lester’s TICKLE-TOE, which is sheer fun, an audible evocation of joy:

You don’t need me to tell you that this concert was a transcendent experience.  Blessings on these four players and on the people who made it possible.

And a few words about Larry McKenna, whose circle of admirers is expanding rapidly.  Larry and fellow Philadelphia tenorist Bootsie Barnes have made a CD, called THE MORE I SEE YOU.  One set of tantalizing little sound samples can be found here, and here’s a brief rewarding video:

And rather my praising this CD, I offer the notes written by Sam Taylor — a deep admirer of Larry’s and also a wonderful tenor player:

What defines the sound of a city? Ask three Philadelphians and get four opinions, as the joke goes. The people, their collective spirit both past and present, is a good place to start. Philadelphia, a city overflowing with history, is home to a proud, passionate, willful, and fiercely loyal people. The city’s jazz legacy is no different and has always been a leading voice. Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Trudy Pitts, Lee Morgan, the Heath Brothers, Stan Getz, Philly Joe Jones and countless other Philadelphia jazz masters are bound together by the same thread. These giants played in their own way, without concern for style or labels. They had an attitude; an intention to their playing that gave the music a feeling, a rhythm, a deep pocket. In Philadelphia today, there is no question who preserves that tradition, embodies that spirit and who defines the “Philadelphia sound”: Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna.

Now elder statesmen of the Philadelphia jazz community, Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna were born just a few months apart in 1937. The times in which they lived often dictated their career paths, but no matter where their music took them Philadelphia was always home.

Bootsie Barnes credits his musical family as the spark that began his life in music. His father was an accomplished trumpet player and his cousin, Jimmy Hamilton, was a member of Duke Ellington’s band for nearly three decades. “Palling around with my stablemates, Tootie Heath, Lee Morgan, Lex Humphries” as he tells it, Barnes began on piano and drums. At age nineteen he was given a saxophone by his grandmother and “knew he had found his niche.” Over the course of his decades long career, Barnes has performed and toured with Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Smith, Trudy Pitts and countless others, with five recordings under his own name and dozens as a sideman.

Mostly self-taught, Larry McKenna was deeply inspired by his older brother’s LP collection. It was a side of Jazz at The Philharmonic 1947 featuring Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips that opened his ears to jazz. “When I heard that I immediately said: ‘That’s what I want to play, the saxophone,’” McKenna recalls. Completing high school, McKenna worked around Philadelphia and along the East Coast until the age of twenty-one, when his first big break came with Woody Herman’s Big Band. McKenna has played and recorded with Clark Terry, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and countless others. He has four recordings under his own name, with extensive credits as a sideman.

Their resumes are only a shadow of who these men are. To really know the true Larry McKenna and Bootsie Barnes, you have to meet them. They are as men just as their music sounds: giving, open, genuine and deeply funny. Working nearly every night, Barnes and McKenna are consistent, positive forces on the scene. Deeply admired by younger generations of musicians, they show us that a life in music should be led with grace, joy and honesty.

The first time I heard Barnes and McKenna together was at Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus in the mid 1990s. As an eager but shy young musician of about fourteen, I somehow found my way to the storied club on Third and Poplar Streets. A sign out front proudly stated “Jazz Seven Days” – the only place in the city boasting such a schedule. The bouncer working that night took one look at me and with what I can only imagine was a mix of pity and amusement, hurriedly waved me in. Eyes down and hugging the wall, I made my way along the long bar, past the mounted bison head’s blank stare, towards the music. My go-to spot was an alcove next to the bathroom: a place just far enough from the bartender’s gaze so as not to be noticed, (did I mention I was fourteen?) but close enough to the stage to watch and listen. The house band was the late Sid Simmons on piano, bassist Mike Boone, and drummer Byron Landham. (Anyone who was there will tell you: this was an unstoppable trio.) Barnes and McKenna were setting the pace, dealing on a level only the true masters can. The whole room magically snapped into focus: the band shifted to high gear, the swing intensified and the crowd had no choice but to be swept up in the music. They had a story too incredible to ignore. I sat there in disbelief at the power and beauty of what they were doing. It is a feeling that has never left me.

How they played that night at Ortlieb’s those many years ago is exactly the way they play today. In fact, they are probably playing better than ever. The track Three Miles Out is a shining example. Barnes solos first, hitting you with that buttery, round tenor tone with a little edge as he gets going. His ideas are steeped in the hard-bop tradition delivered with a clear voice all his own. There is no ambiguity, no hesitation, just pure, joyful, hard-swinging tenor playing. McKenna follows, with his trademark tenor tone, both beautiful and singing, strong and powerful. He swings with natural ease, a wide beat and always makes the music dance. He has what I can only describe as a deep melodic awareness thanks largely to his mastery of the American Songbook. McKenna is unhurried and speaks fluid bebop language. This is classic Barnes and McKenna.

The most challenging thing to describe is the way someone’s music touches your heart. I hope my fellow native Philadelphians will allow me to speak for them when I say we are all forever in the debt of Bootsie and Larry. May we live and create in a way that continues to honor them and their music.

I can’t wait to hear what they play next.

Sam Taylor
New York City, July 2018

May your happiness increase!

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FOR PRES (Part Two): MICHAEL KANAN, LARRY McKENNA, MURRAY WALL, DORON TIROSH (Sept. 1, 2018, University of Scranton, PA)

I hope you saw and savored Part One of this magical concert in honor of Lester Young, featuring Michael Kanan, piano; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Murray Wall, string bass; Doron Tirosh, drums — a concert made possible through the good efforts of Loren Schoenberg, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and Cheryl Y. Boga of the University of Scranton.  This evening is one of the high points of my live jazz experience.

Michael Kanan, Larry McKenna, Murray Wall, Doron Tirosh at the University of Scranton, Sept. 1, 2018. Photograph by John Herr.

Now, let’s proceed to another trio of delights — whose collective and individual virtues do not need explication: heroically gentle swing.

THESE FOOLISH THINGS:

POUND CAKE, Lester’s blues in G for the Basie band (your “pound cake” was your Squeeze) — both Michael and Larry hark back to Lester’s solo, delightfully, and the wonderful swing everyone generates makes this one of the highlights among highlights:

LESTER LEAPS IN:

Magic.  And there will be a Part Three.

May your happiness increase!

FOR PRES (Part One): MICHAEL KANAN, LARRY McKENNA, MURRAY WALL, DORON TIROSH (Sept. 1, 2018, University of Scranton, PA)

Michael Kanan, Larry McKenna, Murray Wall, Doron Tirosh at the University of Scranton, Sept. 1, 2018. Photograph by John Herr.

I extol the virtues of life in New York, but beautiful things are created when bold explorers like myself cross into other states, too.  On Saturday, September 1, at the University of Scranton, PA, Loren Schoenberg and The National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented “Tribute to Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young” featuring The Michael Kanan Quartet, with saxophonist Larry McKenna, string bassist Murray Wall, and drummer Doron Tirosh. Loren wasn’t able to make it, but his perception and generosity made a wonderful musical event take place.  Thanks are also due Cheryl Y. Boga, Tom Cipriano, and photographer John Herr.

JUST YOU, JUST ME:

BLUE LESTER:

LADY BE GOOD:

I had the honor of being there, getting to say a few words about Lester alongside Michael and  Larry (to a hip audience) and recording the concert, nine extended beautifully floating performances which captured Lester’s spirit while enabling everyone to “go for himself.”  Here are the first three, which require only open-hearted appreciation . . . no explication needed.  Just sweetness everywhere.

May your happiness increase!

FOUR-FOUR RHYTHM: KRIS TOKARSKI, JONATHAN DOYLE, LARRY SCALA, NOBU OZAKI, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 24, 2017)

Jazz at Lincoln Center (and JazzTimes) just sent an announcement about the 2019 Jazz Congress, January 7-8, 2019 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, New York, New York.  One panel is:

 Jazz, Swing, Race and Culture
Considering swing as a rhythm or swing as a feeling or a verb, what are the social, cultural, and racial factors that affect individuals’ perception, acceptance or rejection of the concept? Player[s] and thinkers ponder what swing means in 2019.

I doubt that it will happen, but in my ideal world, the player[s] and thinkers at JALC will watch these videos before pondering.  The music was created in 2017, not 2019, and there are other ways to swing, but what Kris and his Gang did was genuine and might eliminate some theorizing.

These four performances come from a magical band that made a splash at the 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest: Kris Tokarski, piano; Jonathan Doyle, clarinet / tenor saxophone; Larry Scala, guitar; Nobu Ozaki, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  I could spend paragraphs pointing out resemblances and echoes of the Ancestors (you’re free to chase such things at your leisure) but I’d rather you admire these living heroes at play, and such expert play.

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME:

REPEATER PENCIL (and, yes, such a thing did exist: see here):

DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM:

JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS:

Festival organizers, club bookers, concert promoters with taste: now’s the time!

Incidentally, this is the charming 1929 record from which I take my title:

May your happiness increase!

SPLENDIDLY GENUINE: “MORE OF THAT,” JACOB ZIMMERMAN and his PALS

This is not really a post about shopping, but since shopping is one of the experiences held in common by so many of us, it works as metaphor.  A dozen years ago, if I thought I needed a new shirt, I would have headed to The Mall, where I could gaze at two dozen machine-made shirts, identical except for size and perhaps color.  The plenitude was a reassuring reminder that we live in the Land of Too Much, and often I bought more than I needed.

As my clothing style became more personal, the racks of identical product no longer charmed.  I began to go thrift-shopping for the quest for unique pleasures.  Surprise was the rule, even among the inexplicable proliferation of plaid shirts (why?). I would spot something thirty shirts away, move towards it as if magnetized, and might have a small breath-taking experience.  “That’s for me!  I could wear that!  That looks like it belongs to me!”

Illustration by Jesse Rimler

Such impassioned bonding happens with music also: I was two minutes into the first track of a new CD — its cover above — and my mental soundtrack alternated between, “Oh, my goodness, this is wonderful!” and the more defensive, “You’re not getting this CD away from me.”  And then,addressing the invisible JAZZ LIVES audience, “You need to hear this,” I thought.

“This” is the debut CD of Jacob Zimmerman and his Pals called MORE OF  THAT, and to use my own catchphrase, it has increased my happiness tremendously.

The cover drawing, which I love, by Jesse Rimler, says much about the cheerful light-heartedness of the enterprise.  Why has this twenty-first century Nipper got his head in a protective cone?  Has he been biting himself?  Is the cone a visual joke about the morning-glory horn?  Is this the canine version of cupping a hand behind your ear to hear your singing better?  All I know is that this dog is reverently attentive.  You’ll understand why.

Here is Jacob’s website, and you can read about his musical associations here.

I had heard Jacob’s name bandied about most admiringly a few years ago; he appeared in front of me in the Soho murk of The Ear Inn and was splendidly gracious.  He’d also received the equivalent of the Legion of Honor: he was gigging with Ray Skjelbred.  But even these brightly-colored bits of praise did not prepare me for how good this CD is.

The overall ambiance is deep Minton’s 1941, Keynote, and Savoy Records sessions, that wonderful period of music where “swing” and “bop” cuddled together, swinging but not harmonically or rhythmically constrained.  And although Jacob and Pals have the recorded evidence firmly in their ears and hearts, and under their fingers as well, this is not Cryogenic Jazz or Swing Taxidermy (with apologies to Nipper’s grandchild on the cover).

As a leader, Jacob is wonderfully imaginative without being self-consciously clever (“Didja hear what the band did there?  Didja?”)  Each performance has a nifty arrangement that enhances the song rather than drawing attention from it — you could start with the title tune, MORE OF THAT, which Jacob told me is based on MACK THE KNIFE, “MORITAT,” so you’ll get the joke — which begins from elements so simple, almost monochromatic, and then builds.  Each arrangement makes full use of dynamics (many passages on this CD are soft — what a thing!), there’s some dark Ellingtonia and some rocking neo-Basie.  And each song is full of delightful sensations: when I get through listening to BALLIN’ THE JACK (a song often unintentionally brutalized) I think, “That’s under three minutes? How fulfilling.”  So the Pals are a friendly egalitarian organization with everyone getting chances to shine.

A few words about the compositions.  SIR CHARLES is Ray’s homage to our hero Sir Charles Thompson; Jacob says RADIATOR “was composed as a feature for Ray and was inspired by the Earl Hines record “Piano Man.” It’s based on “Shine.”  SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY “is a feature for bassist Matt Weiner and pays homage to the record of that tune by Lester Young and Slam Stewart.”  “FIRST THURSDAY is based on”Sunday.” My monthly gig at the jazz club “Egan’s Ballard Jam House” has happened every first Thursday for over 5 years.” And SCULPT-A-SPHERE “is based on “Nice Work If You Can Get It”…I tried to imagine what it would be like if Thelonious Monk and Lester Young wrote a tune together.”

Before I get deeper into the whirlpool of praise, some data.  Jacob plays alto and clarinet (more about that in a minute), aided immeasurably by: Matt Weiner, string bass; Josh Roberts, guitar; Ray Skjelbred, piano; D’Vonne Lewis, drums; Cole Schuster, guitar; Christian Pincock, trombone; Meredith Axelrod brings voice and guitar to the final track.  And the compositions: RADIATOR / SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY / FIRST THURSDAY / SONG OF THE ISLANDS / BLUE GUAIAC BLUES / BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES / IN A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN / MORE OF THAT / BALLIN’ THE JACK / BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME? / SCULPT-A-SPHERE / I AIN’T GOT NOBODY.  All immensely tasty, none crowding its neighbor.

This being the twenty-first century, many saxophonists live in a post-Parker era, which works for some. But Jacob has deeply understood that there are other sounds one can draw upon while playing that bent metal tube: a mix of Pete Brown (without the over-emphatic pulse), Hilton Jefferson (rhapsodic but tempered), and Lee Konitz (dry but not puckering the palate).  On clarinet, he suggests Barney Bigard but with none of the Master’s reproducible swoops and dives: all pleasing to the ear.

Because I have strongly defined tastes, I often listen to music with an editor’s ear, “Well, they’re dragging a little there.”  “I would have picked a brighter tempo.”  “Why only one chorus?” and other mind-debris that may be a waste of energy.  I don’t do that with MORE OF THAT, and (imagine a drumroll and cymbal crash) I love this CD so fervently that I will launch the JAZZ LIVES GUARANTEE.  Buy the disc.  Keep the jiffybag it came in.  Play it twice.  If you’re not swept away, write to me at swingyoucats@gmail.com, send me the CD and I’ll refund your money and postage.  I don’t think I will be reeling from a tsunami of mail, and should some people (inexplicably) not warm to this disc, I’ll have extra copies to give away.

You heard it here first.

May your happiness increase!

MORE INSTANT YET LASTING GRATIFICATION (Part Three): “ANIMULE DANCE” at the LOVELACE: EVAN ARNTZEN, SEAN CRONIN, ADAM BRISBIN (August 10, 2018)

This is the third and final segment of my splendid afternoon at The Lovelace (66 Pearl Street, New York City) with the “Animule Dance,” Evan Arntzen, reeds / vocal; Adam Brisbin, guitar / vocal; Sean Cronin, string bass / vocal.  The thought that it is — for the moment — the final segment makes me sad, but the realization that we can enjoy these performances again and again is cheering.

Let’s call a heart a heart. Explanation below.

For the story behind Romy’s heartfelt gift, please visit here — and you’ll also find the first two parts of the music made by this splendid trio that day.  As an aside, many musicians don’t like having their work compared to that of the Ancestors, but as I have been delighting in these videos again, I thought I heard an alternate universe where Lester Young, Milt Hinton, and Al Casey were jamming for their own pleasure.  Floating, you know.  Not imitating, but Being in 2018.

And here are the last of the savory treats from that rare Friday afternoon, so delicious.

INDIANA (with sweet hints of Don Byas and Slam Stewart):

SQUEEZE ME, which couldn’t be nicer:

A Spanish-singed I LOST MY GAL FROM MEMPHIS:

OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, which mixes Twenties soul, bluegrass tints, and a little Django and Billy Taylor as well, before Evan wins the Miscellaneous Instruments category by a nose.  Thanks to Scout Opatut for direction and continuity: her Oscars are on the way:

an easy yet impassioned RUSSIAN LULLABY:

WHEN YOU’RE SMILING served with a bowl of gumbo:

and the closing Frolick, LIMEHOUSE BLUES:

What a thrilling band!  I want lucrative gigs, public and private, club and festival, what the Youngbloods call merch — pinback buttons, hoodies, bath sponges, bumper stickers — CDs I can play in the car, the concert tour (I’ll be press agent and videographer), and worldwide huzzahs.  Nothing less.

May your happiness increase!

JON DE LUCIA OCTET and TED BROWN: “LIVE AT THE DRAWING ROOM” (October 22, 2016)

Although this CD is rather unobtrusive, no fuss or ornamentation, it captures a truly uplifting musical event, and I do not write those words lightly: music from tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, a mere 88 at the time of this gig, and a splendidly unified, inventive ensemble.

I’ve only known Jon De Lucia for a few years, but I trust his taste completely, and his performances always reward me.  Now, if I know that one of Jon’s groups is going to perform, I head to the gig with determination (and my camera). He asked me to write a few lines about this disc, and I was delighted to:

Some jazz listeners disdain “West Coast jazz,” “cool jazz,” or any music in the neighborhood of Lennie Tristano (not just East 32nd Street) as so cerebral that it’s barely defrosted. Jon De Lucia’s Octet shows how wrong that perception is: this music is warm, witty, embracing, not Rubik’s Cube scored for saxophones. Rather, the playful, tender spirit of Lester Young dances through everyone’s heart. This impassioned group swings, even when the players are intently looking at the score. For this gig, the Octet had a great spiritual asset in the gently fervent playing of Ted Brown, a Sage of melodic invention. Also, this session was recorded at one of New York City’s now-lost shrines, Michael Kanan and Stephanie Greig’s “The Drawing Room,” a sacred home for all kinds of music. I am grateful that Jon De Lucia has created this group: so delightful in whatever they play. You’ll hear it too.

Here’s what Jon had to say:

Saxophonist Jon De Lucia met the great tenorist Ted Brown in 2014, and got to play with him soon after. He was and is struck by the pure lyricism and honesty in his improvising. One of the original students of forward thinking pianist Lennie Tristano in the 1940s, Brown, along with Lee Konitz, is among the last of this great school of players. Later, when De Lucia discovered some of Jimmy Giuffre’s original scores from the Lee Konitz meets Jimmy Giuffre session of 1959, which Brown and Konitz both participated in, he knew he wanted to put a band together to play this music with Ted.

Thus the Jon De Lucia Octet was formed. A five saxophone and rhythm lineup with unique arrangements by the great clarinetist/saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre. The original charts featured Lee Konitz on every track, and the first step in 2016 was to put a session together reuniting Brown and Konitz on these tunes. An open rehearsal was held at the City College of New York, Lee took the lead and played beautifully while Ted took over the late Warne Marsh’s part. This then led to the concert you have here before you.

De Lucia steps into Lee’s shoes, while the features have been reworked to focus on Brown, including new arrangements of his tunes by De Lucia and daughter Anita Brown. The rest of the band includes a formidable set of young saxophonists, including John Ludlow, who incidentally was a protege of the late Hal McCusick, who also played on the original recording session of Lee Konitz meets Jimmy Giuffre, and plays the alto saxophone, now inherited, used in the session. Jay Rattman and Marc Schwartz round out the tenors, and Andrew Hadro, who can be heard to great effect on “Venus De Milo,” plays the baritone. In the rhythm section, Ray Gallon, one of NYC’s most swinging veterans on the piano, Aidan O’Donnell on the bass and the other legend in the room, the great Steve Little on the drums. Little was in Duke Ellington’s band in 1968, recording on the now classic Strayhorn tribute …and His Mother Called Him Bill, before going on to record all of the original Sesame Street music and much more as a studio musician.

The show was sold out at Brooklyn’s now defunct Drawing Room, operated by Michael Kanan and Stephanie Greig. Along with the music previously mentioned, De Lucia had recently acquired some of the original parts from Gerry Mulligan’s Songbook session, which featured Konitz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Allen Eager in another great sax section recording, this time arranged by Bill Holman. Here the band plays “Sextet,” and “Venus De Milo” from that session. Brown, here making the band a Nonet, plays beautifully and takes part in every tune, reading parts even when not soloing. Not included in this CD is an extended take of Konitz’s “Cork n’ Bib” and Giuffre’s piece for three clarinets, “Sheepherders.” Possible bonus releases down the line!

Since this concert, the Octet has taken on a life of its own, covering the repertoire of the original Dave Brubeck Octet, more of the Mulligan material, Alec Wilder, and increasingly De Lucia’s own material. De Lucia continues searching for rare and underperformed material, rehearsing regularly in NYC and performing less regularly. 

Earlier in this post, I wrote about my nearly-obsessive desire to bring my camera to gigs, and this session was no exception.  However, I must preface the video below with a caveat: imperfect sight lines and even more imperfect sound.  The CD was recorded by the superb pianist Tony Melone — someone I didn’t know as a wonderful live-recording engineer, and the sound he obtained makes me embarrassed to post this . . . but I hope it acts as an inducement for people to hear more, in delightfully clear sound:

If you gravitate towards expert warm ensemble playing, soloing in the spirit of Lester, a mixture of romping swing and tender introspection, you will applaud this CD as I do.

You can buy it here, with digital downloads available in the usual places.

May your happiness increase!