Tag Archives: melody

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!

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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!