Tag Archives: melody

WELCOMING SOUNDS: “STRIKE UP THE BAND”: RICKY ALEXANDER (with MARTINA DaSILVA, JAMES CHIRILLO, ROB ADKINS, ANDREW MILLAR)

Ricky Alexander, saxophonist and clarinetist, holding up his debut CD, July 2019. Photograph by Nina Galicheva.

This Youngblood can play — but he doesn’t wallop us over our heads with his talent.  To quote Billie Holiday, recommending a young Jimmie Rowles to a skeptical Lester Young, “Boy can blow!”

Ricky Alexander is an impressive and subtle musician, someone I’ve admired at a variety of gigs, fitting in beautifully whatever the band is (Jon DeLucia’s Octet, Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers, The New Wonders, at The Ear Inn, and more) — swing dances, big bands, jam sessions.

I particularly cherish his sweetly understated approach: he loves melody and swing, which is rarer than you might think: youthful musicians in this century are sometimes prisoners of their technique, with the need to show off the chord extensions and substitutions they’ve learned in dutiful hours in the woodshed, even if the woodshed is a room in a Brooklyn walk-up.  The analogy for me is the novice cook who loves paprika and then ruins a recipe by adding tablespoons of it.  In jazz terms, Ricky’s opposite is the young saxophonist whose debut self-produced CD is a suite of his own original compositions on the theme of Chernobyl, each a solo of more than ten minutes.  Perhaps noble but certainly a different approach to this art form.

Ricky tenderly embraces a song and its guiding emotions.  He has his own gentle sound and identity.  Hear his version of Porter’s AFTER YOU, WHO?:

If readers turn away from this music as insufficiently “innovative,” or thinks it doesn’t challenge the listener enough, I would ask them to listen again, deeply: the art of making melody sing is deeper and more difficult than playing many notes at a rapid tempo.  And youthful Mr. Alexander has a real imagination (and a sly wit: the lovers in this Porter song are on the edge of finding a small hotel — run by Dick and Larry — to increase their bliss, in case you didn’t notice).

His music is sweet but not trivial or shallow: hear his sensitive reading of I’VE GOT A RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES for one example.  And he quietly shows off a real talent at composition: on first hearing, I thought his I KNEW I LOVED YOU was perhaps an obscure Harry Warren song.

Ricky’s also commendably egalitarian: he shares the space with guitarist James Chirillo, string bassist Rob Adkins, drummer Andrew Millar, and the colorful singer Martina DaSilva, who improvises on several selections to great effect.  As well as those I’ve commented on above, the repertoire is mainly songs with deep melodic cores: WHERE OR WHEN, A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON, I CAN’T GET STARTED, SKYLARK (as a light-hearted bossa nova), STRIKE UP THE BAND, with several now fairly-obscure delights: THE LADY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU, AND THE ANGELS SING, and a particular favorite from the 1935 hit parade, YOU HIT THE SPOT by Gordon and Revel.

STRIKE UP THE BAND is a model of how artists might represent themselves on disc.  Like Ricky, this effort is gracious, welcoming, friendly: listeners are encouraged to make themselves at home, given the best seat on the couch.  It’s smooth without being “smooth jazz”; it has no post-modern rough edges on which listeners will lacerate themselves.  And although Ricky often gigs with groups dedicated to older styles, this is no trip to the museum: rather, it’s warm living music.

I’m told that it can be streamed and downloaded in all the usual places, and that an lp record is in the works.  For those who wish to learn more and purchase STRIKE UP THE BAND, visit here.  If you know Ricky, the gently lovely character of this CD will be no surprise; if he’s new to you, you have made a rewarding musical friend, who has songs to sing to us.

May your happiness increase!

MAKING MELODY COME ALIVE: TED BROWN, ETHAN IVERSON, PUTTER SMITH, HYLAND HARRIS (December 2, 2012)

Listening to Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett is reported as saying, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come so alive?”  I don’t know if Bobby and tenor saxophonist / poet Ted Brown ever encountered each other, but my guess is that Hackett would have said or thought much the same thing.  And, somewhere, Lester Young approves.

The video below comes from a celebration of Ted’s eighty-fifth birthday party at Michael Kanan’s studio, The Drawing Room, then at 70 Willoughby Street in Brooklyn.  (It’s now at #56.)  The song, THESE FOOLISH THINGS; the performers, Ted, Ethan Iverson, piano; Putter Smith, string bass; Hyland Harris, drums.  Melody reigns here — but softly, with deep feeling, almost in whispers.  The heart never needs to shout its truths.

On Saturday, December 3, 2016, Ted will be celebrating his eighty-ninth birthday at The Drawing Room from 7-11 with friends including the fine saxophonist Brad Linde; guitarist Aaron Quinn; drummer Jeff Brown, and other surprises.  Here is the Facebook event page.

This will be special.  But please leave me a seat.

May your happiness increase!

HERE’S THE MELODY: HOD O’BRIEN (1936-2016)

hod-obrien-portrait

Pianist, composer, bandleader Hod O’Brien left the planet on November 20, 2016, at 80, having been dueling with cancer for some time. Illness made him shy, reticent, unwilling to talk about himself — but wanting to shine the spotlight on wife Stephanie Nakasian and daughter Veronica Swift, both singers.

Although Hod was heralded as a bebop pianist, I thought of him more as a great melodist.  Even when he was illuminating songs with altered chords, the melody was never far away.  Here he is, at Mezzrow, on March 19, 2016 — eight months before his death — with the young bassist Daryl Johns.  You’ll understand what I mean about Hod’s deep melodic streak, and the way he cherishes any lyrical composition.  Thank you, Hod, for making beauty for us so generously.

YOURS IS MY HEART ALONE:

IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU:

ASK ME NOW:

and the sorrowfully appropriate ALL TOO SOON.

I captured Hod at other gigs here and here in 2015 and here in 2016 — performances that show off his gently propulsive lyricism.

May your happiness increase!

THE JOEL PRESS QUARTET at SMALLS: MICHAEL KANAN, LEE HUDSON, FUKUSHI TAINAKA (July 3, 2016): PART TWO

It’s been a true privilege to hear, converse with, and video-record the inventive and durable saxophonist Joel Press for the last five years (and since I met Michael Kanan through Joel, it has been a double blessing).  Of course, the person behind all of this was the irreplaceable Robert D. Rusch of CADENCE, a true benefactor.

Joel was most recently playing a gig in New York City on July 3, 2016, at Smalls — with a quartet of Michael, piano; Lee Hudson, string bass; Fukushi Tanaka, drums.

JOEL by Herb Snitzer

Here are five evocative performances from that evening: GONE WITH THE WIND, SOFTLY AS IN A MORNING SUNRISE, FOOLIN’ MYSELF, NOSTALGIA, and YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME.

And — by popular demand — four more delights: BLUES, WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?. BODY AND SOUL, IT’S YOU OR NO ONE.  Please note that every note has substance and emotional meaning, and the quartet makes even the most familiar line or standard seem lively and poignant.

BLUES:

WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?:

BODY AND SOUL:

IT’S YOU OR NO ONE:

Thank you, Joel, Michael, Lee, Fukushi, and Smalls.  We are in your debt.

May your happiness increase!

THE JOEL PRESS QUARTET at SMALLS: MICHAEL KANAN, LEE HUDSON, FUKUSHI TAINAKA (July 3, 2016): PART ONE

I’ve been fortunate enough to know, hear, and admire the Swing Explorer — saxophonist Joel Press — for a decade now.  It happened, as many good things do, utterly by surprise, but through the quiet guidance of a good friend.  The good friend is Robert D. Rusch, the creator of CADENCE, that rare thing, a candid jazz magazine.  In 2006, I was reviewing CDs for CADENCE, and one called HOW’S THE HORN TREATING YOU? arrived in the mail — with this cover portrait (by Herb Snitzer) of a man I’d not known:

JOEL by Herb SnitzerI was moved and delighted by Joel’s easy yet searching approach to melody and swing: new and yet affectionately connected to the great traditions.  To explore Joel’s many worlds, one place to start would be here.

A decade later, more or less, we found ourselves in friendly proximity: Joel on the bandstand at Smalls, me with a video camera as close as I could get without posing a fire hazard.  The other members of this compact inventive ensemble are Michael Kanan, piano; Lee Hudson, string bass; Fukushi Tainaka, drums.

Here’s a still photograph of that world, taken for us by Chihiro Tainaka, with the back of my head accurately and mercilessly rendered for posterity.  Two seats to my left is the warm and thoughtful Maya Press, beaming love at her father.JOEL PRESS Smalls 7 3 16 Chihiro Tainaka

But you can’t play a picture, any more than you can eat the recipe.  So — with Joel’s approval — I present five performances from that night at Smalls, with some more to follow.  His soft tone, love of melody, and caressing swing are still gloriously intact, and his colleagues on the bandstand are the most subtly intuitive conversationalists one could want.

GONE WITH THE WIND:

SOFTLY, AS IN A MORNING SUNRISE:

FOOLIN’ MYSELF:

NOSTALGIA:

YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME:

I wanted to call this blogpost PRESS ONE FOR SWING.  Now you know why. More to come.

May your happiness increase!

THE ARTS OF MELODY: CONNIE JONES, TIM LAUGHLIN, DOUG FINKE, CHRIS DAWSON, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 29, 2014)

TIM CONNIE large

There is an art to playing melody so that it soars, so that the performer, the notes, and what we sense of the composer’s mood and intentions are all one, as if the performer was subtly lifting the melody upwards so that we could admire it as we had never been able to before.

There’s the equally subtle art of melodic embellishment: improvising around and through that melody to make it shine more brightly without obscuring it.

Bobby Hackett, who not only knew these arts but embodied them, said after hearing Louis Armstrong, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come so alive?”

And Goethe wrote of “thou holy art,” though he never made it to a jazz festival.

Here is a gloriously eloquent example of melody-making by a group of masters: Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums, performing at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 29, 2014.  The text they chose is Hoagy Carmichael’s plaintive NEW ORLEANS:

What marvels.  It takes lifetimes to learn how to do this, and then a quiet determination to be able to do it in public, courageously and with love.

And — as a postscript — if you’ve never heard the FAREWELL BLUES to which Tim refers (it preceded this performance) it would be cruel to deny you this rocking, melodic pleasure:

May your happiness increase!

BRAVE, PATIENT BEAUTY: SAM TAYLOR, “MY FUTURE JUST PASSED”

Possibly you haven’t yet heard of the tenor saxophonist Sam Taylor.  But I guarantee you will.  He has a rare gift.

When I was opening the plastic wrapping enclosing Sam’s debut CD, I confess I was expecting more-of-the-same: in this century, many young musicians are technically gifted in ways that would astonish the Ancestors.  There isn’t anything they can’t play.  Complex harmonies at top speed, chorus after chorus, are their basic vocabulary.  They often make Bird sound like Honore Dutrey. They have spent their youth practicing, and it shows.  And that in itself is a wonderful accomplishment — if technique is your primary goal.  But often it is cold — music that doesn’t ring in the listeners’ hearts.

I come back to what I think of as the basic ideal of instrumental music: to communicate something, without words, that makes us feel and reflect.  To “tell a story.”  To “sing on your horn.”

I knew Sam Taylor had a good chance of being different — of reaching our hearts — when I saw the song he had chosen as the title of his CD, a beautiful obscure 1930 song.  Not an original, although full of original sentiment.

SAM TAYLOR cover 700

Here are two versions of MY FUTURE JUST PASSED.  The first, by Annette Hanshaw, is hopeful rather than morose:

I know that the lyrics of the verse (George Marion, Jr.) suggest a certain light-heartedness (rhyming “not less” and “spotless” but the melody is haunting, especially the bridge — thanks to Richard Whiting.

Here is the 1963 version by Shirley Horn (gorgeous arrangements by Jimmy Jones) at a heartfelt tempo:

Beautiful — and I admire her willingness to take her time, to let the song unfold.

Now, listen to this — and understand why I think so highly of Sam Taylor:

If your first reaction is, “Oh, he’s only playing the melody,” I offer two options. The more polite one is, “Please listen again,” and the less is, “Please go away.”

I think of a comment (reported by Nat Hentoff, I believe) of Bobby Hackett listening to Louis Armstrong, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come that alive?”

In Sam’s playing I hear the great melodists — Louis of course, but also Bing and Sinatra, Ben, Hawk, and Pres — but he sounds like himself as he patiently and lovingly devotes himself to the song.  No self-referential playing (those quotes that show us “ingenuity” and no ostentatious “virtuosities”) — nothing but rapt attention to the song, to melody, to the way a great artist can make us feel.  I admire his ease but also his patience, as if he is saying to us through his horn, “I have something to tell you, but it is at once both very simple and too deep for words.  It is a story of hope, but hope tinged with melancholy and risks that might not come off.  Please sit down, shut off your phone, join with me in the great ritual of music-making and truth-exploring.”

You can find out more about Sam Taylor here, and you can also download the CD.   Of course you should search out Sam at a gig and buy a copy directly, but it can also be ordered from CellarLive.comIt will soon be available on Amazon as well.

I like my CDs physically tangible, especially in this case where Sam has written the notes himself — simple, full of feeling.  Here are his opening lines:

Sometimes, a song enters our life at the perfect moment.  It gives clarity and meaning to seemingly random events.  It speaks and gives voice to our feelings of love, heartache, joy and jubilation.  It taps into our memories, both personal and collective, taking root in our hearts, stirring our imagination.

And the music on this CD exemplifies this philosophy, both simple and deep. Sam is wonderfully assisted by bassist Aidan O’Donnell and drummer Taro Okamoto — who do not fade into the background nor do they overpower.  This trio has the balanced lightness and weight of the trio sessions Lucky Thompson did with Oscar Pettiford and Skeeter Best, yet it sounds entirely fresh, not a “recreation.”

The songs reflect Sam’s love for lasting melodies: LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME / MY FUTURE JUST PASSED / DO SOMETHING (based on a Cole Porter melody) / SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY / WHY DON’T I / MEAN TO ME / ERONEL / YOU ARE TOO BEAUTIFUL / T.O.’S BLUES.

I am certain you will welcome him as someone not afraid to create beauty.

May your happiness increase!

THE EARREGULARS ASK THE DEEP QUESTION: JON-ERIK KELLSO, ENGELBERT WROBEL, NICKI PARROTT, JAMES CHIRILLO (April 26, 2015)

“Please don’t do that.  That’s mean.”

As adults, we don’t always hear that particular reproach for unkind behavior, but I wish more people said it when needed, and more people heard it, because meanness — whether it comes at us without a disguise, or it is cloaked in “acerbic humor” — is painful.  And it sticks.

MEAN TO ME one

The great songs that also seem so casual sometimes address the deepest issues. Thus, MEAN TO ME (music by Fred Ahlert, lyrics by Roy Turk) asks this huge question, “Why must you be mean to me?”  Even though it is put forth in the context of romantic love, it is a deep inquiry.

Even when I hear a medium-tempo instrumental version — which will follow — I also hear Annette Hanshaw’s plaintive voice, or perhaps Billie Holiday’s, asking that question.  Why must you be mean to me?

When I most recently heard the song, at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) on a Sunday night function — one of those gloriously fulfilling get-togethers that make New York so rewarding — I didn’t hear the words, I confess, because the instrumental joy was so deep that it commanded, in the nicest way, my attention.  The wondrous players were Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Engelbert Wrobel, clarinet; Nicki Parrott, string bass; James Chirillo, guitar:

The music they made has no trace of meanness.  Such beauty could, for those who understand it, make us better, kinder, more loving people.  Thank you, James, Nicki, Angel, and Jon-Erik.  Making the cosmos lighter, one note at a time.

May your happiness increase!

“SEMPLICEMENTE PERFETTO!”: MATTEO RAGGI, PAOLO ALDERIGHI, DAVIDE BRILLANTE

We live in a clangorous world.  You don’t have to live across the street from a dance studio specializing in zumba (as I do) to know this.

The collective tempo we have created for ourselves is very quick, the volume level is high, the intensity is fierce.  Often all I want to hear is the sound of people singing through their instruments, leaving those rapid-fire flurries of notes for another time.  I don’t mean “smooth jazz”; rather, Ben Webster or Teddy Wilson playing a ballad; the Basie rhythm section; a Herb Ellis blues.

This is not a grumpy complaint about these dratted Modern Times, for many living musicians understand and exemplify this principle in their art, in the face of the tyrannical sixty-fourth note.

Matteo

A new CD — two sets of duets by three masterful musicians, recorded in 2013 — is one answer to this hectic world, evidence that swinging beauty is still within reach. It is simply perfect — hence my title.

Here’s a sample, Cole Porter’s I LOVE YOU, SAMANTHA (think of Bing, Grace Kelly, and Louis):

and the leisurely swinging EV’RYTHING I’VE GOT BELONGS TO YOU:

Sounds beautiful.

The tenor saxophonist is MATTEO RAGGI; the pianist is PAOLO ALDERIGHI; the guitarist DAVIDE BRILLANTE.  (I’ve had the immense good fortune to meet and record Paolo and Davide — Mario and I remain separated by several thousand miles, but this CD is as good as having him come to visit.)  You can hear more of Matteo on YouTube — he’s on there alongside Scott Hamilton, which is a high peak to be standing on — as well as Davide and Paolo, but this disc is special.

Each of the three is a lyrical player, a melodist at heart.  As you’ve heard, each one is skilled in constructing logical solos on his own, and masterful in the delicate art of duet playing — more subtle than verbal conversational dances but built on the same principles of individuality giving way to harmonically sensitive teamwork.  The music is the very opposite of soporific, because something is always happening rhythmically, even on the slowest ballad, but it will not make you feel as if you have stepped into the supercharged urban world.

Lester Young would have loved these sessions, and no one here is copying him, but the spirit is much the same.  (On that note: those readers who listen and want to play what Barbara Lea called “the game of Sounding Like” can get ready with their names.  Matteo sounds just like A, or perhaps B; Paolo like C or D; Davide like E or F — definitely!  But why not listen to these players on their own, rather than painting them as small living figures in the shadows of dead giants?)

Half of the ten selections are duets with Paolo (CHINATOWN; GHOST OF A CHANCE; I LOVE YOU, SAMANTHA; I’M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE  BASKET; ON THE ALAMO); half with Davide (THE RED DOOR; COME RAIN OR COME SHINE; JITTERBUG WALTZ; POW-WOW; EV’RYTHING I’VE GOT BELONGS TO YOU).

Beautiful recorded sound (much better than on the YouTube videos) and casually erudite notes.  Now all that’s left to do is for you to find out more about Matteo and to buy the CD.  Try here!

Fratelli, grazie — for the fine sweet floating music.

May your happiness increase!

PASTORAL ELEGANCE: CHRIS DAWSON at FILOLI (August 8, 2014)

Last August, I was privileged to watch another of Mike Lipskin’s Stride Summits, this one at the gorgeously pastoral Filoli in California, part of their jazz series.

Here are four performances from that afternoon, featuring the remarkable Chris Dawson.  (I will be sharing other performances by Mike and by Dick Hyman — now 87 — in future postings.)

Honoring Teddy Wilson, Chris offers a lightly orchestral style — always mobile, always swinging, but with an elegant classical restraint balanced against an essential gaiety. The music is dense but appears crystalline.  The astute listener will also hear he is not bound by older harmonic conventions (as in the coda Chris creates for IT HAD TO BE YOU).  I hear subtle hints of Waller, Hines, Tatum, Nat Cole — but the sound Chris gets from a piano is singular and recognizable.  And the result is floating melodies in a wonderful pastoral setting.

IF I HAD YOU:

Another sweet Twenties classic, IT HAD TO BE YOU:

A taste of SUGAR:

Visit here to learn more about Chris.  Thanks to Merrilee Trost for making Jazz at Filoli a continuing pleasure — memorable music in the most welcoming surroundings. More videos to come.

May your happiness increase!

JUST RIGHT: TIM LAUGHLIN: “THE TRIO COLLECTION, VOLUME ONE”

We all know those delicious moments in live performance when the band hits A Groove and we feel the tension dissipate. We know we can trust these musicians to wrap us in their music and carry us away with them. We feel a warmth embracing us.

Our cherished recordings can also produce this wonderful comfort. Play Benny Goodman’s SUGAR, or Vic Dickenson’s WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE (or a few hundred others) and I become relaxed, elated, so happy.

It isn’t Easy Listening. I listen intently, but I know that no astringent surprises or sudden drops in aesthetic cabin pressure are coming.

A new CD by Tim Laughlin, clarinet; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Hal Smith, drums, provides the same exhilaration and solace from the very first note.  It is called THE TRIO COLLECTION, VOLUME ONE.

Seeing these names, you may be — as I was — immediately convinced, with no need to read on.  Should you be in New Orleans, the CD is available at one of my favorite places in that city, the Louisiana Music Factory, or you can order an autographed copy from Tim at his website. And here you can hear excerpts from four songs.

TIM LAUGHLIN Trio 1

These three players are experienced and empathic, and Tim had the fine idea of recording the session in his home: inviting two expert friends, having his 1922 piano tuned . . . and playing songs that bring pleasure.  No recording studio with microphones, baffles, barriers; no club with chatter and clatter.  Just serenely beautiful jazz for us.

Here are the songs: Jabbo Smith’s sweet MUST BE RIGHT, CAN’T BE WRONG; Tim’s own ESPLANADE; a whole host of durable classics with associations ranging from Jack Teagarden to Mr. Goodman to George Lewis and Frank Sinatra: AS LONG AS I LIVE / YOU’RE LUCKY TO ME / IF I COULD BE WITH YOU / MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME / NEW ORLEANS (with the verse) / OH DADDY BLUES / IT’S A LOVELY DAY TODAY / OLD RUGGED CROSS / LULLABY OF THE LEAVES / THE ONE I LOVE BELONGS TO SOMEBODY ELSE (a song Tim says, deadpan, that he likes to play when hired for a wedding gig) / I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES / NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT / IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN / SATURDAY NIGHT IS THE LONELIEST NIGHT OF THE WEEK.

The recording is that it acknowledges the tradition — not only the records — but what the three players have played, heard, and lived. It is not a “repertory” effort, where three gifted individualists in this century tamp down their personalities and work hard to reproduce the sounds of a Benny Goodman Trio airshot from 1938 for us in modern sound.  Messrs. Laughlin, Boeddinghaus, and Smith play their own life-experiences. They know the preceding century of jazz deeply, but they joyously choose to follow their own impulses.  (Those who know artistic history are not compelled to repeat it.)

So the “scholarly” types will — like beagles sniffing for crumbs after Thanksgiving dinner — hear echoes of Goodman, Fazola, Davern, Wilson, Hines, Morton, Wettling, Catlett, Jones — but our hearts respond to Tim, David, and Hal, three mature players having a fine time.

I could write more about Tim’s tone (glorious), his singing melodic lines and use of space (younger musicians, take note), of Hal’s sound on his snare drum, hi-hat, and bass drum (luxuriant and hilariously apt), of David’s generosity to the trio (providing the richest orchestral carpet of two-handed delicacy and strength but not getting in anyone’s way) . . . as well as the perfect recorded sound, but I would rather go and play the CD again.  I predict that you will, too.  I hope there will be a second and a third volume and more of this trio . . . .

And — to repeat the details again for those lost in bliss: In New Orleans, the CD is now available at one of my favorite places in that city, the Louisiana Music Factory, or you can order an autographed copy from Tim at his website. And here you can hear excerpts from four songs. Other corners of Tim’s site are neatly packed with rewarding information: sound samples from other CDs, his gig schedule, and more.

To quote Jelly Roll Morton, “That’s like it ought to be.”

May your happiness increase!

JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience.  Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there.  Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.

Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper.  It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.

Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company.  What magical music would we have now?”  They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.

Third story.  Time: 2014.

I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive.  And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing.  When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water.  Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.

The disc lasted about an hour.  It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs.  I know, I know.  Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?

I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful.  Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?  Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings.  A Johnny Hodges slow blues.  Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD.  Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.

I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.

Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.

And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.

I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go.  They are all around us.

May your happiness increase! 

DAVIDE BRILLANTE: FROM BOLOGNA TO NEW YORK, BRINGING SWEET SOUNDS

One of the loveliest aspects of our odd cyber-life is the experience of meeting someone face-to-face — a person known up to that point only as words or sounds on a screen — and finding that the person is even more rewarding than the original simulacrum.  In brief, “Isn’t it great when your Facebook friends are even more friendly in person?”

Guitarist Davide Brillante, from Bologna, is a shining example.  He and his wife Monica — whom I met in Brooklyn a few weeks ago — are sweet, generous people.  And although I had known Davide’s subtle guitar playing from YouTube videos, it wasn’t until I asked him to sit down and play some solos for me (for us, for JAZZ LIVES) that I saw how his gentle, inquiring soul comes right through the strings and notes.

Here are three touching performances.  And a word before the viewer jumps in.  Many of us are accustomed to fingerboard-burning guitar virtuosi who skitter all over like supercharged alien life forms.  Their playing is both astonishing and exhausting.

Davide Brillante, although he can play with splendid speed and crisp articulation, is seriously in love with melody and its possibilities.  So he will — on purpose — begin his performance as if he’s shyly meeting the song for the first time (introducing himself to the timid young woman across the dance floor at the sophomore prom) and gaining confidence in his ardent explorations.  His approach makes wonderful musical sense, and when I was through listening to these three performances, I thought, “Davide is a true romantic!” I think you’ll agree.

AFTER YOU’VE GONE (at a lovely leisurely tempo with a ruminative verse):

LET’S FALL IN LOVE:

ALONE TOGETHER:

Thank you, Davide.  Come back to New York soon!  Bring Monica, of course!

May your happiness increase!

ANDY BROWN ADDS BEAUTY

What is the task of the Artist?  One answer is Joseph Conrad’s: “I want to make you see,” which to me means a clarity of perception, a heightened awareness of patterns and details never before observed.  I applaud that, but my parallel idea may strike some as more sentimental: that the Artist’s job / chosen path is to make the world more beautiful, to bring beauty where there was none a moment before.

In these two quests, guitarist Andy Brown succeeds wonderfully.  When he is playing the most familiar melody, we hear it in ways we had never thought of before — not by his abstracting or fracturing it, but because of his affection for its wide possibilities.  And we go away from a note, a chord, a chorus, a whole performance, feeling that Andy has improved our world.

Andy Brown CD cover

He is obviously “not just another jazz guitarist” in a world full of men and women with cases, picks, extra strings, and amplifiers.  For one thing, he is devoted to Melody — understated but memorable.  He likes to recognize the tune and makes sure that we can, also.

This doesn’t mean he is unadventurous, turning out chorus after chorus of sweet cotton for our ears.  No.  But he works from within, and is not afraid to apply old-fashioned loving techniques.  A beautiful sound on the instrument.  Space between well-chosen notes and chords.  An approach that caresses rather than overwhelms.  Swing.  A careful approach to constructing a performance.  Wit without jokiness.  Medium tempos and sweet songs.

His TRIO AND SOLO CD — pictured above — offers a great deal of variety: a groovy blues, a Johnny Hodges original, Latin classics, a George Van Eps original, some Thirties songs that haven’t gotten dated, a nod to Nat Cole, and more.  Although many of the songs chosen here are in some way “familiar,” this isn’t a CD of GUITAR’S GREATEST HITS, or the most popular songs requested at weddings.  Heavens, not at all.  But Andy makes these songs flow and shine — in the most fetching ways — with logical, heartfelt playing that so beautifully mixes sound and silence, single-string passages and ringing chords.

In the trio set, he is wonderfully accompanied by bassist John Vinsel and drummer Mike Schlick — and I mean “accompanied” in the most loving sense, as if Andy, John, and Mike were strolling down a country lane, happily unified.  The CD is great music throughout.  You’ll hear echoes of great players — I thought of Farlow, Van Eps, Kessel, Ellis, and others — but all of the influences come together into Andy Brown, recognizable and singular.

And he’s also one of those players who is remarkably mature although he is years from Social Security.  We hops he will add beauty to our world for decades to come.  To hear more from this CD — rather generous musical excerpts — click here.  To see Andy in videos, try this.

May your happiness increase.

MAKING MELODY COME ALIVE: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO and DAN BARRETT at the Sacramento Music Festival (May 2012)

I find these performances from the 2012 Sacramento Music Festival very moving — a solo and duet from players who know the truth of Bobby Hackett’s assertion, “Melody is a must.”

The Maestro, Rossano Sportiello, brings Western classical music and hot jazz together in a matter of minutes, making his extraordinary light shine through the notes.  His solo feature begins with a reading of Lizst’s Consolation # 3 — unusual material for a jazz festival, but it produced an attentive hush in the audience . . . then Rossano segued into a swinging stride exploration of the 1931 pop tune, LITTLE GIRL.  I don’t think the two compositions are linked by their possible alphabetical proximity — or, as Sylvia Fine wrote and Louis sang, “Put Lizst on that list!” — they are just both awe-inspiring music with different shadings and approaches to beauty:

Then Rossano invited the splendid Dan Barrett on stage for a searching, tender performance of Billy Strayhorn’s CHELSEA BRIDGE.  (Dan begins by thanking Rebecca Kilgore for this interlude — Miss Kilgore knows all their is to know about making melody come alive, as you will see if you don’t already know):

Here is missionary work for my readers: why not forward this post to all the people you know who say, “Well, I really like music.  But I don’t like / don’t understand / don’t get what you hear in jazz.”  Perhaps Maestri Sportiello and Barrett could do some subtle enlightening and make more people open themselves to this music — spreading the good word without seeming to preach.

May your happiness increase.

ATLANTA 2012: BUCKY PIZZARELLI, ROMANTIC MAGICIAN (April 20, 2012)

Bucky Pizzarelli knows how to do it.  He can quiet a crowd and hold their attention — magically make us spellbound as he sweetly makes his way through music full of light and shade.  He did this once again at the Atlanta Jazz Party, all by himself, with a set that was simultaneously a work of art and the sort of thing our Mister Bucky does quite naturally.  Listen, watch (his facial expressions show that creating such high art is never easy), and be moved.

A sweet DARN THAT DREAM, more light-hearted than exasperated:

Harold Arlen’s lovely melodies, mixing memory, regret, and hope (LAST NIGHT WHEN WE WERE YOUNG / OUT OF THIS WORLD / A SLEEPIN’ BEE):

I didn’t know the title or origin of this song, but thanks to Song Sleuth Rebecca Kilgore (also a charter Friend of Melody and of Bucky) I now do — TRES PALABRAS, sung so passionately by the late Javier Solis:

Something for Bix and Bill Challis, IN A MIST:

Remarkable, no?  Great Romantic music accomplished with such feeling and skill.

May your happiness increase.

JOEL PRESS COMES TO NEW YORK! (July 2011)

Short notice: the splendid saxophonist Joel Press is paying a brief visit to New York City.  As always, he will be creating bouncing riffs and casually eloquent, speaking melodic lines.  I think of his metaphysical street address as the corner of Swing and Lyricism.

Joel has three performances planned — with fine musical friends, as always.  Joel will be playing duets with the wonderful pianist Spike Wilner at SMALLS, 183 W 10th Street @ 7th Avenue South on Thursday, July 7th.  Their set begins at 7:30.  They will be followed by the Jeff Williams Quintet.

Sunday, July 3rd, 1:30 AM (if you’re awake) Joel, the cherished pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Tal Ronen, drummer Steve Little, will be playing at FAT CAT, 75 Chistopher Street @ 7th Avenue.

Tuesday, July 5th, at 7PM,  the same quartet will be at FAT CAT, 75 Chistopher Street @ 7th Avenue.

Carpe Press, JAZZ LIVES readers!

INSPIRATIONS at THE EAR INN (April 17, 2011)

While Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri were finishing up what I hope was a rewarding weekend at the 2011 Atlanta Jazz Festival, the EarRegulars kept swinging happily in their absence — at The Ear Inn last night (Sunday, April 17, 2011 — at 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City).

The quartet was made up of old friends and musical colleagues — people who had a lot to say to each other on their instruments: Danny Tobias, cornet; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Chris Flory, guitar; Frank Tate, bass.

The music was playful and conversational: the band evoked the past (the 1938 Basie band, an imagined 1944 Keynote session, a Vanguard record date) while reminding us at every turn that there were four living musicians creating beauty in the here and now.  In each of these performances, you’ll see and hear casual splendor: the inventive lines and big sound of Frank Tate, who plays the string bass as it wants to be played (no manic guitar runs for him); the irresistible rhythmic surge of Chris Flory, his lines chiming; Danny Tobias’s subtle mastery — he never plays a superfluous note, and although he’s deeply grounded in the tradition of Buck Clayton and Ruby Braff, you’d lose all your bets trying to predict where his next phrase will land; the fierce lyricism of Dan Block, lemony on clarinet, yearning on tenor — a man inseparable from the phrases he creates.

Melodies everywhere!

Pay attention! as Jake Hanna used to say — especially to the conversations between Danny and Dan, uplifting interludes in several performances.

LINGER AWHILE isn’t played that much by contemporary bands, but Bill Coleman, Dicky Wells, and Lester Young had a good time with it some decades back:

Some cautious optimism with SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY at an easy rocking tempo:

A good old good one, EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY:

Happiness is on everyone’s mind on a Sunday night at The Ear Inn, so why not play I WANT TO BE HAPPY:

And to cool the room down, a swinging JADA:

Cherish these sessions!  They’ve been going on for nearly four years . . . come visit while this music is in the air . . . .

PLAY A SIMPLE MELODY

Bobby Hackett once said of Louis Armstrong, “Do people know how hard it is to make a melody come so alive?” 

Hackett, a modest man, never demanded the same praise for his own glowing playing, but here’s an example of what he did so lovingly for us and for the composer. 

In this case, he’s honoring Harry Warren’s SERENADE IN BLUE. a song he recorded during his brief tenure with the Glenn Miller orchestra. 

The video clip is courtesy of “altoalto1” on YouTube, who has shared with us evidence of one of Bobby’s trips abroad.  Here we find him in May 1973, on Dutch television, captured at the jazz club “New Orleans” in Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands.  He was appearing with the Ted Easton Jazz Band: Bob Wulffers, trumpet; Hans Verheul, clarinet; Frits Kaatee, tenor sax; Henk van Muijen, trombone; Pim Hogervorst, guitar; Jacques Kingma, bass; Ted Easton, drums. 

Never mind Hackett’s astonishing sportsjacket: what he plays is a quiet marvel.

DAN TOBIAS, QUIETLY LYRICAL

After discovering Louis Armstrong, I began my exploration of jazz by way of Bobby Hackett, so I am innately fond of those trumpet and cornet players who make their way to the heart of a song subtly, even subversively.   This inclination led me to Ruby Braff and Buck Clayton, Shorty Baker and Joe Thomas, Joe Wilder, Jon-Erik Kellso, Bob Barnard, Duke Heitger, Peter Ecklund, Marc Caparone, and Dan Tobias.

Dan Tobias may be the least well-known player on that list, which is a pity.  He hasn’t made compact discs under his own name, and he isn’t a regular on the jazz festival / jazz party circuit.  But the good news is that he is alive, youthful,  and playing beautifully.  New Yorkers and Jerseyites (especially the latter) can see him play, and he has two gigs coming up (details below).  But you don’t have to believe me without any evidence.

Here he is, playing BODY AND SOUL with casual unaffected mastery.  Hear his lovely tone, his delicate phrasing, his architectural sense of how to construct a solo.  Admire his love of the melody and respect for it, too.  And his singing approach to that demanding collection of tubing and metal. Dan can lead a shouting ensemble, and he can zip around corners in the best Clifford Brown way, but he is essential a tone-painter.  (In fairness, this impromptu duet favors the capable pianist Joe Holt, but you can’s miss our Mr. Tobias.)

I first heard Dan play on a CD by the Midiri Brothers band, where his compact lyricism was immediately apparent, and then I had the good luck to catch him one night as the cornetist with Kevin Dorn’s Traditional Jazz Collective.  I haven’t heard him regularly enough for my taste, but he has shown up occasionally at the Ear Inn . . . and impressed everyone, even when the front line included his admiring peers Kellso and Ecklund.  On that score, rumor has it that he will once again be at the Ear this Sunday (that’s May 31) with guitarist Matt Munisteri.  I’ll be there, happily.

And there’s another gig in Dan’s home state of New Jersey, in Medford, to be exact — on June 13, from 7:30 to 10 PM.  Dan writes, “The concert will take place at Memorial Hall,Cathedral of the Woods, 100 Stokes Road, Medford Lakes, New Jersey [609-654-4220].  This is a group from Trenton that rehearses weekly (not weakly).  The band features Trenton organ legend Tom Pass, chop monster guitarist Mike Remoli, the fearless saxophonist Dom DeFrancesco, the ever swinging Joe Falcey, and me on the trumpet. The material that we perform is adventurous and the band takes no prisoners!  The venue is a cool log cabin building with really good acoustics.  I hope that you can make it to the concert!”  Admission is $0, $15 for students and seniors, and refreshments are included.

A good deal!  If you’ve heard Dan play live, you won’t need my urging; if you haven’t, wait no longer.