The young guitarist from Tasmania, Josh Dunn, knows how to make melody come alive and shimmer in front of us. Although many technically-assured guitarists wear the fingerboard slick with their assertive many-noted approach, Josh knows how to let a lovely melody breathe. Here are some recent solo interludes from his YouTube channel. Chimes at sunset. Birdsong at sunrise.
I KNOW WHY (And So Do You):
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES:
MIDNIGHT, THE STARS AND YOU:
POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS:
THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE:
If you find Josh on a gig, I assure you that you will be rewarded by his subtle approach to Song. And he swings expertly also.
My friend Howard Kadison, invaluable musical colleague of Donald Lambert, reminded me of those simple deep words from Lester Young. They may seem anachronistic, especially since some perceive jazz as a series of improvisations on the melody that, as they progress, leave the melody behind. Pure melody, some still think, belongs to “sweet” bands populated by musicians unable or unwilling to take improvisatory risks.
But the great jazz players — stretching from Bunk Johnson to Sonny Rollins, including Louis, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Teddy Wilson, and many others — knew and know that respect for, even reverence for, the original melody can bring great rewards. “Let me hear that lead!” Louis said.
It helps, I am sure, to have a lovely melody to begin with. YOU AND I, words and music by Meredith Willson, a hit in 1941, is one. Its whole notes suggest that, had it been written in 3/4 time, it would have made a splendid Viennese waltz. The movement between notes is simple: one could pick out the line on the piano, but the harmonies are not usual, and the result is an arching melodic line that seems just right for a yearning singer or instrumentalist with near-operatic scope.
I hadn’t known about Benny Goodman’s quartet version, but it’s a small tender masterpiece: thanks to Alessandro King, about whom you will hear more, for sharing it with me. Obviously there was no conflict of interest between the “fitch Bandwagon” (Fitch was a brand of shampoo) and the Maxwell House Coffee Hour. (Were these accounts handled by the same agency?)
The Quartet is not like any other Benny had, although he did make a number of recordings with a clarinet-trombone front line. It’s the magnificent Lou McGarity, with Mel Powell, piano, and Ralph Collier playing very quiet drums. The whole performance is less than three minutes, but what beauty they create in such a small space! in my mind’s ear, I can hear Benny mapping out the performance before they begin: “Mel, you take four bars; I’ll play sixteen; Mel, you take the bridge, then I’ll come back for the last eight. Then we’ll finish with the last sixteen: Lou, you play the first eight with me, and I’ll finish it.” It’s presumably taken from a private acetate and then issued on Sunbeam Records (SB 158). And it’s a quiet joy:
I’ve listened to this gorgeous miniature perhaps two dozen times since I first heard it. It doesn’t reveal all its beauty the first time, but glows even brighter on each new hearing. A compact subtle gem. And melodic playing at this level is the highest art.
Nat Hentoff remembered Bobby Hackett saying of Louis Armstrong, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come so alive?” I thought of this immediately upon hearing reed master Ewan Bleach’s new CD, which is all about the deepest arts of melody.
Here is the link to listen, download, and purchase (a few discs have been offered as well).
Here’s what Ewan and guitarist John Kelly do so well — what I’d call the resuscitation of song. SWEET LORRAINE has been played and sung so often that it can have a certain flatness, “Oh, that old thing!” — but here it is so sweet. Part of it comes from what Louis called “tonation and phrasing”: Ewan’s lovely affectionate tone, his thoughtful rubato approach to phrasing:
In this era of harmonic “sophistication” and “innovation,” abrupt rhythms, and more, the idea of lovingly playing the melody is so conservative as to be a radical act. But it didn’t bother Ben Webster, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, or a thousand other heroes — and it is a tradition that deserves to be honored. Ewan is both passionate and controlled (one can hear Bechet in his work, but a slimmed-down, less ego-driven Bechet), and he embodies Lester Young’s terse lyricism as well.
The songs chosen for this disc are well-known but the freshness with which the quartet approaches them brushes off any imagined dust: BODY AND SOUL / DEEP PURPLE / MEMORIES OF YOU / YOU AND THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC (the source of the CD’s punning title) / PRELUDE TO A KISS / SI TU VOIS MA MERE / WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM / THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU / THE NEARNESS OF YOU. Those songs are all “ballads,” with no double-time assertions, but this CD is dreamy rather than soporific, and even the slowest rubato section has a discernible pulse. The performances come out of a loving respect for pure song — verses as well as choruses — where nothing is rushed, there are no special effects aside from the innate wisdom that marries instrument, player, notes, and emotion. Ewan, guitarist John Kelly (and Martin Wheatley on DEEP PURPLE), pianist Colin Good, and string bassist Jim Ydstie put themselves at the service of each song, considering it tenderly and sending its messages to us tenderly and solidly. I should also point out that Ewan honors the majestic Ancestors (Hawkins, Hodges, Carter, Chu) but doesn’t copy their recordings — he sounds like himself, which would get approving nods from the great Shades.
Here is the title song:
It’s a triumph of acoustic music and feeling: one of those CDs I have been returning to. Each improvisation reveals adult ease and patience: there is no irritable restlessness to get to “the next thing” in a hurry. The whole enterprise has an endearing absence of ego — the four musicians are sublime players, but they never seem to be saying, “Look at what I’m doing!” — rather, the consistent philosophy is “Share with me what this song has to offer us,” rare and precious. Some will consider this “old-fashioned” jazz, and it’s true if you measure art by the notion of each decade being an improvement on its predecessor, so Ewan leans more to Charlie Holmes than Charlie Parker, and the ambiance is definitely pre-Bird, but it is all a fond embodiment of music both subtle and deep. (And Bird had a deep melodic core.)
Take time away from the noise of current life — the noise we create inside us and the sounds coming from the street — to immerse yourself in these beauties. They are splendidly rewarding.
In the past fifteen years of being an involved observer in New York City, I’ve met many musicians. Sometimes the circles I travel in are both small and reassuring. But every so often I’ll come to a gig and there will be someone setting up whose face is unfamiliar, and I will introduce myself, then sit back and be ready to take in the new sounds. More often than not, the experience is a delightful surprise, so much so that I might go up to the person after the set and say, my enthusiasm barely restrained, “You sound wonderful. Where on earth did you come from?”
That was my experience with young guitarist Josh Dunn, whom I hope many of you have met in person as well as through videos — mine and his own. And when he said, “Tasmania,” I had to ask him again. “What?” “Tasmania.” And it finally sunk in — that he had traveled over ten thousand miles (sixteen thousand kilometers) to arrive here, bearing sweet inventive melodies and irresistible swing.
I first met and heard Josh at Cafe Bohemia on November 21, 2019 — where he was quite comfortable in the fastest musical company New York City has to offer: Tal Ronen, string bass; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Danny Tobias, trumpet and Eb alto horn. Hear how he fits right in and elevates the proceedings on LADY BE GOOD:
and a few months later, I had another opportunity to admire Josh’s steady rhythmic pulse, his intuitive grasp of the right harmonies (those chiming chords), and the way his single-string lines never seem glib but always offer refreshing ways to get from expected point A to point B. Here, again — on the last night I visited New York City — he fit right in with the best of them: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, reeds; Sean Cronin, string bass:
And he understands the guitar’s honored and venerable role as a small orchestra, where a masterful player has to keep melody, harmony, and rhythm going on what George Van Eps called “lap piano.” Here’s a wonderful solo by Josh on a Duke Ellington- Barney Bigard composition, A LULL AT DAWN:
I’m inspired by how much music Josh makes ring in the air. But this video of THE GLORY OF LOVE stops abruptly — so be warned — it’s almost painful. I think, “I want to hear more!”:
Because I was impressed by Josh as a player — the evidence is here and on YouTube — and as a person (he’s soft-spoken, witty in an offhand way, and quite modest . . . he’s thrilled to be on the stand with these heroes) I suggested we do an email interview so that more people could get to know him. The results:
I come from an incredibly supportive, but non-musical family background. My family are mostly in medical/health-related fields, and as middle child I felt compelled to get as far away from that as possible, hence traditional jazz guitar. I told my folks I wanted to pick up guitar when I was about 7, I can’t recall if there was any reasoning behind this except that guitars looked cool. I still think they look cool.
For its size, Tasmania is an incredibly vibrant place for the creative arts, including music. I am really grateful that I had opportunities to grow up there, and play with and learn from such terrific musicians. My first guitar teacher in Tasmania, Steve Gadd, introduced me to a lot of the music styles I still listen to, practice, and perform now. However, Tassie is such a small community, and it’s hard to find opportunities to make a living playing music when you live on tiny island at the bottom of the world, especially in a somewhat niche style like traditional jazz.
I grew up listening to jazz and the more I learnt about the music and its history, the more I started to gravitate towards New York. I didn’t initially see myself living here (it’s about as far removed from rural Tasmania in lifestyle and environment as you can find) but in 2013 I received a grant to travel and study in the US for three months, and halfway through I arrived in New York and immediately changed my plans so I could spend the rest of the trip exploring the city. As someone who has learnt this music from afar, it was so exciting to experience jazz as a living music and culture, and it made me want to come and learn more. So from there I applied for the Fulbright and that provided the impetus to move to the US and play music.
An interlude from reading: Josh plays SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES:
So a big part of my informal jazz education before coming to New York was watching the Jazz Lives videos on YouTube, particularly the Sunday nights at the Ear Inn with Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri and Company. It was how I learnt a lot of the repertoire, and discovered how this music was actually being played by contemporary musicians today.
Matt’s one of my musical heroes, so when I knew I’d be visiting NYC, I contacted him out of the blue and asked for a lesson. We emailed a little but somehow never quite managed to confirm a time, and I only had a few days left in NYC. So I took the drastic action of working out what approximate neighborhood he lived in from an allusion to a particular local venue in an online interview, and then just spent the afternoon wandering around that part of Brooklyn with a guitar, hoping for the best. Somehow it worked, I ran into him on the street, and we had our lesson, and it was only recently that we talked about how creepy it was to be approached on the block where he lived by a stranger from the other side of the world wanting a guitar lesson. It’s probably commonplace for Matt now, but I get the feeling that in 2013 it was a novel experience him.
You asked me for unusual NYC gig stories — I was hired for a mystery gig a few years back by a singer I didn’t know, I was just given an address, a dress code and a time, and it ended up being a private party hosted by a well known Hollywood actor. Which, as someone who’s only experience with that world was watching rented films while growing up in rural Tasmania, was a bit of culture shock for me.
I have no lofty ambitions of fame or fortune in music (but I admire those that do). The thing I have spent most of my life doing is playing guitar, usually by myself in my bedroom, but also with some of my favorite people in front of an audience. Since moving to the US I’ve somehow been able to turn that into something I get paid to do most nights of the week. So I want to keep learning and honing my craft as a musician, and also to continue making good music with good people. More recently I’ve started keeping a list of notes on my phone whenever I have the thought of “I wish someone had told me that a few years ago,” so maybe down the track I’ll be more involved in teaching in some form, but my main goal is to be in New York playing music.
More recently I’ve been enjoying the challenge of making solo jazz guitar an interesting thing to listen to for people who aren’t solo jazz guitarists. I could see myself pursuing this avenue too.
If you asked me for a compact embodiment of Beauty, as it happens now, I might very well reach for this:
Or if you asked me to define Collective Joy. You don’t see Josh until three minutes’ in, but you certainly hear what he adds is the real thing, and then:
I’ll leave with this. At one of the Cafe Bohemia gigs, I talked with a musician who’d dropped by to admire the band, and I said, “How about that Josh Dunn?” His reaction was immediate and emphatic, “We’re not letting him leave New York any time soon!” My thoughts exactly.
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.
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. Hereis the Facebook event page.
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.
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.
Hereare 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.
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.
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:
I 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.
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:
YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME:
I wanted to call this blogpost PRESS ONE FOR SWING. Now you know why. More to come.
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:
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.
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.com. It 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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:
Thank you, Davide. Come back to New York soon! Bring Monica, of course!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . .