Tag Archives: melodic improvisation

“OLD-FASHIONED LOVE”: GIVING THANKS at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 27-30, 2014)

I had a wonderful time at the San Diego Jazz Fest, but that is nothing new.  Paul Daspit, like the jazz patriarch of a very widespread family, treats us to one savory dish after another.  I resigned myself to hard choices but enjoyed all that I saw and heard, beginning with the Yerba Buena Stompers and their new sensation, Miss Ida Blue; the Fat Babies; Ray Skjelbred; Chris Dawson; Jonathan Doyle; Musician of the Year “Gentleman Jim” Buchmann; High Sierra; the New Orleans All Stars of Tim Laughlin and Connie Jones; Hal Smith, Beau Sample; Marc Caparone; Katie Cavera, and other notables.

The band co-led by Tim Laughlin (clarinet) and Connie Jones (cornet, vocal) continues to be very dear to me — swinging, heartfelt, always lyrical.  They were joined by trombonist Doug Finke, pianist Chris Dawson, guitarist Katie Cavera, string bassist Marty Eggers, and drummer Hal Smith.

Here’s a James P. Johnson classic — which always sounds like a hymn to traditional monogamous devotion to me — OLD-FASHIONED LOVE:

These players know all one can know about sweet melodic improvisation over a gently infallible rhythm section: I hear Thirties Teddy Wilson small groups, the Vanguard sessions, a dream meeting of Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, and Count Basie.  But it’s not a dream: it happened in front of our eyes and ears. That’s something to be truly thankful for!

I’m grateful to the musicians, to Paul, Myrna Beach Goodwin, Jim McNaughton, Gretchen Haugen, the volunteers, and the gracious people at the Town and Country — for helping us all have such an uplifting experience.

More joy and more videos to come.

May your happiness increase! 

THREE MOODS, NO WAITING: JON-ERIK KELLSO, ANDY FARBER, CHRIS FLORY, MICHAEL KARN, DAVE GROSS, GARY FOSTER (The EarRegulars at The Ear Inn, September 8, 2013)

This trio of selections from another memorable Sunday-night party at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) reminds us again of a great band’s ability to move freely around in a variety of tempos, and of the beauties of melodic improvisation.

Tempo: in the last thirty years, the speed at which familiar jazz material is approached has steadily accelerated, until (to my ears) some groups have only two speeds, Fast and Faster (with an occasional ballad or slithering mood piece / blues).  The EarRegulars are intimately familiar with the glories of Medium Tempo and Rhythm Ballads.

Melody: although the musicians may chat delightedly about the harmonic feats of daring accomplished during a solo, most of us warm to the sweet melodies we know.  This doesn’t mean that they have to be replicated precisely according to the sheet music, but it does mean that BODY AND SOUL, for example, is more than a shift from one key center to another.

That’s enough aesthetic sermonizing for anyone.  To the music — which proves once again that classic standards still have enough resilience to be fascinating material for improvisers in this century — three songs written before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term.

The players are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Andy Farber, tenor saxophone; Chris Flory, electric guitar; Michael Karn, string bass:

A romp on TEA FOR TWO:

A very sweetly evocative slither through LOVER, COME BACK TO ME:

With Dave Gross, acoustic guitar, and Gary Foster, wirebrushes on paper “tablecloth,” the band took it easy on ROSE ROOM (a sweetly pastoral song in its first incarnation):

You’ve never been to The Ear Inn for a Sunday-night Frolic?  They begin about 8 PM and end sometime shortly after 11.  And they’re memorable — larger than my videos, even in HD, can contain.  (These sessions have been going on for six years now, which makes them a New York institution — but plan to show up before the EarRegulars celebrate their tenth, or their twenty-fifth anniversary.  In New York, even monuments have a habit of disappearing.  Ask any New Yorker.)

May your happiness increase!

“BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP”: MUSIC FOR ADULTS (TOM DEMPSEY, TIM FERGUSON, JOEL FRAHM, ELIOT ZIGMUND)

I’m embarrassed to write that I had never heard of guitarist Tom Dempsey or string bassist Tim Ferguson before opening the latest mailer that held their new CD — a quartet with saxophonist Joel Frahm and percussionist Eliot Zigmund.

I should have taken notice of Tom and Tim by this time — they are active New York performers, with credits including Jim Hall, Mel Torme, Don Friedman, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra . . . and many more.  But now I want to make up for my omission.

BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP is a splendidly fine disc, and I might have put it on the pile because I didn’t know two of the four players.  What a mistake that would have been!  I receive many CDs — and many, well-intentioned endeavors (often self-produced and paid for by the artist) do not sustain themselves.  Some are formulaic: “Let’s play just like ______” or consciously anti-formulaic (which becomes its own cage): “Here are my six lengthy free-form original compositions.”

Not this one!

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BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP is devoted to lyrical, easeful exploration of melody, harmony, and rhythm.  It’s not Easy Listening for elderly recluses, nor is it self-conscious Innovation.

These four players understand something basic about music: the truth that we need Beauty, and Beauty never gets old.  Yes, Tal Farlow (for instance) played AUTUMN IN NEW YORK memorably in 1957, but that doesn’t mean that Duke’s melody is now forever used up.  One might as well say, “Oh, the sunrise bores me,” or “I’m so tired of this (wo)man I love embracing me.”  Do that, and you’re beyond recovery.

BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP is not just about reverential playing of standards — by Randy Weston, Monk, Thad Jones — because the quartet stretches out and has fun on several originals.  IT’S TRUE is an engaging group conversation that ebbs and flows over six minutes; CAKEWALK begins as a funky Second Line outing and expands before returning to its roots as delicious dance music.  TED’S GROOVE is both groovy and uncliched, hummable swinging jazz.  Although I knew Joel from his work with Spike Wilner’s Planet Jazz and many other ensembles; Eliot Zigmund from sessions with Michael Kanan at Sofia’s — they play magnificently, but so do Tim and Tom.

It’s beautifully recorded, with plain-spoken but deep liner notes written by the two fellows.

You can visit Tom’s website and hear excerpts from this CD here or Tim’s    here to learn more about their backgrounds, their associations with other players.  But most importantly, if you are in New York, you will want to search them out.  I think that hearing them in tandem or in other contexts would be delightful — and you could say, “JAZZ LIVES sent me,” and buy copies of BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP directly from the artists.  What could be nicer?  As for me, I’m keeping this one!

P.S.  Why MUSIC FOR ADULTS in my title?  There’s no barely-clad beautiful young thing on the cover; this isn’t advertised as Music To Make Out By.  To me, “adults” have outgrown barrages of virtuosity (“shredding”) for its own sake, yet they want something more than another bouncy rendition of a classic from Django’s book.  BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP will please everyone with grown-up ears . . . people who have removed the earbuds long enough to listen.

May your happiness increase.

WARM LYRICISM: NEAL MINER, ALEX HOFFMAN, PHIL STEWART at SMALLS (Sept. 7, 2012)

Neal Miner always makes memorable music and travels in fine company, whether he’s alongside Michael Kanan, jamming with the EarRegulars at The Ear Inn, or leading a group at Smalls (183 West Tenth Street, Greenwich Village, New York) as he did last Friday, September 7, 2012.

The music Neal, saxophonist Alex Hoffman, and drummer Phil Stewart made that night had a warm lyricism and an easy swing at its heart — subtle but powerfully affecting melodic improvisations.  I call it eloquent, casually unaffected chamber jazz, inspired musical conversations — an art not learned in schools but through deep study and experience.

Variations on WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?

I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I?

Variations on IDAHO:

DREAMS OF YOU:

DEAR OLD STOCKHOLM:

BLUES FOR C SHARPE (with the great pianist Ehud Asherie joining in, to my left — felt and heard although not seen):

NIGHT OWLS (based on LULLABY OF THE LEAVES):

MELANCHOLY BABY:

FROM THE HIGH LINE (based on INDIAN SUMMER):

THESE FOOLISH THINGS / BLUES FOR C SHARPE:

May your happiness increase.

A HALF-HOUR WITH JACK TEAGARDEN IN TOKYO, 1959

Just astonishing.

Jack with Max Kaminsky, cornet; Jerry Fuller, clarinet; Don Ewell, piano; Lee Ivory, bass (a serviceman filling in for Stan Puls, who had had an emergency appendectomy); Ronnie Greb, drums … a Japanese jazz band and a 45-piace string  orchestra.  Recorded for JOKR-TV, Tokyo, early January 1959.

The theme, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, leads into THAT’S A PLENTY, and an appearance by a Japanese small band.  Then comes music even more remarkable: Jack accompanied by a local symphony orchestra on STARS FELL ON ALABAMA, DIANE, PEG O’MY HEART, a slow BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA.  Then the Japanese band appears and the program closes with the SAINTS.

What’s astonishing about this — particularly the segment with the symphony, which is as lovely as anything you could want — is the simple beauty of Jack’s pure, deep, melodic playing.  The myth surrounding Jack (parallel to the one draped around his friend Louis) is that after the Twenties he was a shadow of his earlier self, repeating the same solos night after night.  I would urge anyone who has even entertained this idea (I confess I have) to listen very closely to Jack’s earnest, understated ballads here.  And although he looks tired, he is in beautiful form.  Trombonists will admire his rich tone, his easy mastery, how he makes it seem so simple.

I think of what Bobby Hackett told Max Jones: “The Good Lord told [Jack], ‘Now you go on down there and show them how to do it,'”as if Teagarden was a celestial figure — true enough.

Thanks to Steve Williams  — whose YouTube channel, vitajazz is full of hot jazz and other surprises.

May your happiness increase.

HOW DOES HE DO IT?

We expect that someone’s speaking voice is immediately identifiable, a personal signature.  But it seems magical that a pianist, seated at a complex of wires and wooden hammers, does the same thing in a few notes.  Teddy Wilson is one of those masters; there’s no mistaking him.

Each of us who has been listening to jazz for more than a few years has a kind of mental iPod (some will imagine a jukebox) of music first heard decades ago that stays in the mind.  Wilson’s 1938 solo performance of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS is a favorite touchstone — ever since I first encountered a 10″ lp on the bootleg Jolly Roger label in a New York secondhand shop — a series of otherwise unidentified Wilson solos I knew nothing of at the time.

How does he make the piano sound so clearly an extension of himself?  Pianists will speak of the individual instrument, the player’s physical approach to the keys and pedals, of chord voicings and note choices, of Wilson’s ringing treble lines and mixture of walking tenths and stride bass  — all matters I understand in a rather indefinite way.  All of that is true, but there always is something mystical in the relations between player and instrument, deep and elusive.  One can attempt to copy a Wilson transcription by playing the notes off of the page and the result will not sound like him.

I heard Teddy in ten or twelve different settings live between 1972 and 1981: at the overamplified Carnegie Hall piano; outdoors at a Suffolk County airport; in a suburban shopping mall; in Radio City Music Hall: he sounded like himself, no matter where you put him.

This solo is even more remarkable to me because it was originally intended as a way for Wilson to teach people how to play in his style — by correspondence.  (He had become much more famous through his appearances and recordings with Goodman, Holiday, and others, and I am happy that he entered into this business venture, for it left such lovely evidence behind.)  In 1938, one could enroll as a student in the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, its headquarters at 1650 Broadway, and for some fee (I wish I knew how much it cost) receive printed instruction sheets and commentary on piano solo recordings.

I note that the label says “Score and analysis text” available at the school: does anyone possess the transcriptions of these performances?

But the music is what counts.  Wilson had mastered the great paradox: his playing sounds calm, unhurried, but his lines that push forward with a quiet rhythmic intensity.  And a Wilson performance at a slow or medium tempo has some of the same false ease one experiences while listening to Bing Crosby: an optimistic listener thinks, “That doesn’t sound too hard.  With a few lessons, I could do that, too.”  But the goal is elusive.  I’ve tried to reproduce some version of the four-bar introduction by playing the recording and then going to the piano: its easy translucency is not easily reproduced.

Wilson clearly learned a good deal from Louis and Hines, from Fats and the great horn players — but there’s a classical reserve in his playing, a translucency that I think comes from playing Bach and Chopin: knowing how to make simple melodies come alive, to make notes ring.  There’s nothing formulaic or mechanical in this performance, even though he had chosen a simpler-than-usual approach in the first two choruses, saving some complexities for the final one.  His rhythms pulsate; even the most formal statement of the melody swings; the interplay between his left-hand harmonies and his melodic inventions is something to marvel at.  And although the performance is a sterling example of “keeping time” — it never accelerates or drags — Wilson’s rubato hesitations and suspensions at unexpected moments keep it flexible and full of surprises, even when the surprises are understated.

I think of 1938 — hardly a year for global optimism — as a time when people actually wanted to study Teddy Wilson’s piano improvisations.  That speaks of an idyllic past, perhaps lost.  But we can still hear Teddy Wilson in our dreams.

CELEBRATING EDDIE CONDON’S BIRTHDAY

Eddie Condon left us in 1973, but the musical cosmos he created lives on in 2011 and beyond.  It’s not difficult to imagine his approving shade at Whitley Bay, at The Ear Inn, at Jazz at Chautauqua — when gifted men and women get together to worship at the shrine of Hot Jazz, of graceful melodic improvisation, of swinging solos and ensemble.  And today would have been his birthday.  But any day is a good one to remember Eddie, as a prophet and advocate of beautiful energetic collective improvisations. 

I’ve chosen to honor him through music rather than on film.  Here are three examples of what he did so well.  The first is the opening segment from a 1944 Condon concert, as broadcast on the radio and to the troops.  You’ll hear Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Morton, Gene Schroeder, Eddie, Sid Weiss, and Gene Krupa:

And just because Eddie and the boys (in this case, Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee, Joe Sullivan, Al Morgan, Eddie, and George Wettling) found the twelve-bar blues a real source of inspiration, here are two of the life-enhancing Commodore 12″ 78s in honor of John Steinbeck — Tortilla B Flat:

and More Tortilla B Flat:

Thanks to Hal Smith — who knows the spirit of Condon well! — for the timely reminder.