Tag Archives: Nat Cole

ELEGANTLY IMAGINATIVE: ECHOES OF SWING, “BLUE PEPPER”

I begin somberly . . . but there are more cheerful rewards to follow.

As the jazz audience changes, I sense that many people who “love jazz” love it most when it is neatly packed in a stylistically restrictive box of their choosing. I hear statements of position, usually in annoyed tones, about banjos, ride cymbals, Charlie Parker, purity, authenticity, and “what jazz is.”

I find this phenomenon oppressive, yet I try to understand it as an expression of taste.  One stimulus makes us vibrate; another makes us look for the exit.  Many people fall in love with an art form at a particular stage of it and their development and remain faithful to it, resisting change as an enemy.

And the most tenaciously restrictive “jazz fans” I know seem frightened of music that seems to transgress boundaries they have created .  They shrink back, appalled, as if you’d served them a pizza with olives, wood screws, mushrooms, and pencils.  They say that one group is “too swingy” or “too modern” or they say, “I can’t listen to that old stuff,” as if it were a statement of religious belief.  “Our people don’t [insert profanation here] ever.”

But some of this categorization, unfortunately, is dictated by the marketplace: if a group can tell a fairly uninformed concert promoter, “We sound like X [insert name of known and welcomed musical expression],” they might get a booking. “We incorporate everyone from Scott Joplin to Ornette Coleman and beyond,” might scare off people who like little boxes.

Certain musical expressions are sacred to me: Louis.  The Basie rhythm section. And their living evocations.  But I deeply admire musicians and groups, living in the present, that display the imaginative spirit.  These artists understand that creative improvised music playfully tends to peek around corners to see what possibilities exist in the merging of NOW and THEN and WHAT MIGHT BE.

One of the most satisfying of these playful groups is ECHOES OF SWING. Their clever title says that they are animated by wit, and this cheerful playfulness comes out in their music — not in “comedy” but in an amused ingenuity, a lightness of heart.  They have been in action since 1997, and when I saw them in person (the only time, alas) in 2007, they were wonderfully enlivening.

This action photograph by Sascha Kletzsch suggests the same thing:

EchoesOfSwingInAction1 (Foto Sascha Kletzsch, v.l. Lhotzky, Hopkins, Dawson, Mewes)

They are Colin T. Dawson, trumpet / vocal;  Chris Hopkins, alto sax; Bernd Lhotzky, piano; Oliver Mewes, drums.  And they are that rarity in modern times, a working group — which means that they know their routines, and their ensemble work is beautiful, offering the best springboards into exhilarating improvisatory flights. They are also “a working group,” which means that they have gigs.  Yes, gigs!  Check out their schedule here.

Here  is a 2013 post featuring their hot rendition of DIGA DIGA DOO, and an earlier one about their previous CD, MESSAGE FROM MARS, with other videos — as well as my favorite childhood joke about a Martian in New York City here.  And while we’re in the video archives, here is a delicious eleven-minute offering from in November 2014:

and here they are on German television with a late-period Ellington blues, BLUE PEPPER:

All this is lengthy prelude to their new CD, aptly titled BLUE PEPPER:

EchoesOfSwing  - BluePepperCover

The fifteen songs on the disc are thematically connected by BLUE, but they are happily varied, with associations from Ellington to Brubeck and Nat Cole, composers including Gordon Jenkins, Rodgers, Bechet, Waller, Strayhorn — and a traditional Mexican song and several originals by members of the band: BLUE PEPPER / AZZURRO / BLUE PRELUDE / LA PALOMA AZUL / BLUE & NAUGHTY / BLUE MOON / BLACK STICK BLUES / BLUE RIVER / OUT OF THE BLUE / AOI SAMMYAKU [BLUE MOUNTAIN RANGE] / THE SMURF / BLUE GARDENIA / THE BLUE MEDICINE [RADOVAN’S REMEDY] / WILD CAT BLUES / AZURE.

What one hears immediately from this group is energy — not loud or fast unless the song needs either — a joyous leaping into the music.  Although this band is clearly well-rehearsed, there is no feeling of going through the motions. Everything is lively, precise, but it’s clear that as soloists and as an ensemble, they are happily ready to take risks. “Risks” doesn’t mean anarchy in swingtime, but it means a willingness to extend the boundaries: this group is dedicated to something more expansive than recreating already established music.

When I first heard the group (and was instantly smitten) they sounded, often, like a supercharged John Kirby group with Dizzy and Bird sitting in while at intervals the Lion shoved Al Haig off the piano stool.  I heard and liked their swinging intricacies, but now they seem even more adventurous.  And where some of the most endearing CDs can’t be listened to in one sitting because they offer seventy-five minutes of the same thing, this CD is alive, never boring.

A word about the four musicians.  Oliver Mewes loves the light-footed swing of Tough and Catlett, and he is a sly man with a rimshot in just the right place, but he isn’t tied hand and foot by the past.  Bernd Lhotzky is a divine solo pianist (he never rushes or drags) with a beautiful lucent orchestral conception, but he is also someone who is invaluable in an ensemble, providing with Oliver an oceanic swing that fifteen pieces could rest on.  I never listen to this group and say, “Oh, they would be so much better with a rhythm guitar or a string bassist.”

And the front line is just as eloquent.  Colin T. Dawson is a hot trumpet player with a searing edge to his phrases, but he knows where each note should land for the collective elegance of the group — and he’s a sweetly wooing singer in addition.  Chris Hopkins (quiet in person) is a blazing marvel on the alto saxophone — inventive and lyrical and unstoppable — in much the same way he plays the piano.

And here is what my wise friend Dave Gelly wrote: It’s hard to believe at first that there are only four instruments here. The arrangements are so ingenious, and the playing so nimble, that it could be at least twice that number. But listen closely and you will discover just a quartet of trumpet, alto saxophone, piano and drums – with absolutely no electronic tricks. The style is sophisticated small-band swing, the material a judicious mixture of originals and swing-era numbers and there is not a hint of whiskery nostalgia in any of it. It’s about time this idiom received some fresh attention and here’s the perfect curtain-raiser.

Here is their Facebook page, and their website.

We are fortunate that they exist and that they keep bringing us joyous surprises.

May your happiness increase!

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BRILLIANCE TIMES THREE (Part Three): TAL RONEN, MARK SHANE, DAN BLOCK at CASA MEZCAL (Oct. 26, 2014)

The bright and comfortable Casa Mezcal (86 Orchard Street, New York City) has become one of my favorite haunts for Sunday-afternoon jazz, with good food, friendly staff . . . and tremendously restorative music.  Often, our heroine Tamar Korn is in charge of the spiritual festivities, but when she can’t make it, her friends fill in superbly.

On October 26, 2014, string bassist Tal Ronen brought together two other heroes, pianist Mark Shane and reed virtuoso Dan Block.  Here are the first four videos from that magical afternoon, and this is the second offering — magical music that never calls attention to itself through melodrama or histrionics. It’s art we can be thankful for, and it’s better for you than a trip to the mall.

PERDIDO:

SERENADE IN BLUE:

TEA FOR TWO:

ILL WIND:

LADY BE GOOD (ALMOST) — with apologies for the abrupt ending, my fault entirely (and thanks to Coleman Hawkins):

It is easy to take beauty for granted, to multi-task our way through the marvelous, but consider this: if this music turned up as a set of unidentified acetates from Jerry Newman’s uptown recordings, would we not marvel at the discovery?

May your happiness increase! 

BEAUTIFUL, ELUSIVE, GONE: CLARENCE PROFIT (1912-1944)

By any estimation, the pianist Clarence Profit (June 26, 1912 – October 22, 1944) was immensely talented and short-lived. People who heard him play live, uptown, said he was a match for Art Tatum. He was proposed as a replacement for Teddy Wilson with Benny Goodman in 1939; Profit’s sleek drumless trio may have inspired Nat Cole’s.  Although his approach was spare rather than exhibitionistic, his harmonic subtleties were remarkable for their time, and his gentle touch and elegant playing are remarkable today. clarenceprofit One could collect every recording he made (fewer than fifty three-minute sides, less than half of them under his own name) on two compact discs, and his recording career was exceedingly brief: dates with the Washboard Serenaders, the Washboard Rhythm Kings, and Teddy Bunn in 1930 and 1933, then Profit’s own piano trio (guitar and bass) and piano solos in 1939 and 1940. John Chilton’s WHO’S WHO OF JAZZ (1978) sums him up in a paragraph:

His father, Herman Profit, was professional pianist; his cousin was pianist Sinclair Mills. Played piano from the age of three, led own 10-piece band during his teens including Bamboo Inn, Renaissance, and the Alhambra. In 1930 and 1931 worked with Teddy Bunn in the Washboard Serenaders. In the early 1930s visited his grandparents in Antigua, remained in the West Indies for a few years, led own band in Antigua, Bermuda, etc. Returned to New York in November 1936 and began leading own successful trio at many New York clubs including George’s Tavern (1937-9), Ritz Carlton, Boston (1938), Yeah Man Club and Cafe Society (1939), Village Vanguard (1940), Kelly’s (1940-3), Performers and Music Guild Club (1942), Village Vanguard (1944). Was part-composer (with Edgar Sampson) of “Lullaby in Rhythm.”

I knew Profit’s work — solo, trio, and as a band member — for many years, but he has come back to my mind and ears because of a purchase made a few nights ago at the Haight Street Amoeba Music in San Francisco: a red-label Columbia 78 of BODY AND SOUL (take B) / I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS, both Profit solos. I was so taken with them that I had to share them with you.

Each of the two performances begins with an exposition of the theme — simple yet quietly ornamented, with a spareness that is masterful, a peaceful, almost classical approach to the melody (but with elegant, often surprising harmonic choices beneath). He is patient; he doesn’t rush; he doesn’t attempt to impress us with pianisms. His playing verges on the formal, but it is based on a serene respect for the melody rather than a tied-to-the-notes stiffness.

Then, Profit moves into a more loosely swinging approach, which superficially sounds much like Wilson’s or a pared-down Tatum, but his choices of notes, harmonies, and his use of space are all his own. (There are suggestions of Waller in the bridge of the second chorus of I DIDN’T KNOW, but it is a cerebral, yet warm version of the stride motifs Waller tossed off to amaze and delight.)

Listen for yourself. The beauties of his style will not fully appear on one listening):

BODY AND SOUL:

I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS:

I know nothing of Profit’s early death, and can only speculate. Did he, like so many musicians of the time, succumb to tuberculosis or pneumonia?  I am not simply asking a medical question here, but a larger one: where did Clarence Profit go?  How could we lose him at such a young age? How many pianists under the age of sixty have heard these recordings? He left a void then, and it remains unfilled today.

Perhaps some readers have the Meritt Record Society issue above, or the Memoir CD devoted to Profit’s work, and can offer more information.

My own story of his elusiveness comes from this century. The parents of one of the Beloved’s New York friends had frequented Cafe Society and Fifty-Second Street.  Oh, yes, they had seen Clarence Profit — the name supplied voluntarily by the friend’s octogenarian mother — but it was so long ago she didn’t remember any details.  Like the jazz Cheshire Cat, all that remained was her smile as she said his name.

May your happiness increase!

TODD LONDAGIN’S EXTRAORDINARY RANGE: “LOOK OUT FOR LOVE”

I met and admired the trombonist and singer Todd Londagin several times in 2005 and onwards; he was one of the crew of cheerful individualists who played gleeful or dark music with the drummer Kevin Dorn.  A fine trombonist (with a seamless reach from New Orleans to this century) and an engaging singer, Todd is someone I have faith in musically.  But when I received his second CD, LOOK OUT FOR LOVE, I hardly expected it to be as remarkable as it is.

TODD LONDAGIN cover

On it, Todd sings and plays (occasionally doing both simultaneously, through an Avakian-like graceful use of multi-tracking . . . even sounding like Jay and Kai here and there), with a splendid small band: Pete Smith, guitar; Matt Ray, piano, Jennifer Vincent, string bass; David Berger, drums.  Singer Toby Williams joins in on BRAZIL.  The presentation is neither self-consciously sparse or overproduced. With all due respect to Todd, the foursome of Pete, Matt, Jennifer, and David could easily sustain their own CD or gig. I had only met Matt (unpredictable) and Jennifer (a swing heartbeat) in person, but this “rhythm section” is a wonderful — and quirky — democratic conversation of singular voices, each one of them a powerful yet gracious rhythm orchestra.

But I keep returning to Todd.  And his “extraordinary range” doesn’t refer to the notes he can hit on trombone or sing.  It’s really a matter of a deep emotional intelligence, and I can’t think of anyone who can equal him here. (That’s no stage joke.)

Consider these songs: LOOK OUT FOR LOVE / BYE BYE BABY / SOME OF THESE DAYS / BRAZIL / I CONCENTRATE ON YOU / LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / YOU GO TO MY HEAD / I CAN’T HELP IT / BUST YOUR WINDOWS.  The first two songs show off Todd’s sly, ingratiating self — witty and wily on the first (with a neo-Basie rock) and endearing on the second. Those who have to think of Echoes might hear Chet Baker, Harry Connick, Jr., a young Bob Dorough, or Dave Frishberg. I thought on the first playing and continue to think that if there were aesthetic justice in the world, the first two songs would be coming out of every car radio for miles.  (Todd would also be starring on every enlightened late-night television show, or do I dream?)

The pop classics that follow are always served with a twist — a slightly different tempo, a different rhythmic angle, a beautiful seriousness (I’ve never heard CONCENTRATE interpreted so well).

Maybe Todd is understandably afraid of being pigeonholed as Another Interpreter of The Great American Songbook — with all the attendant reverence and dismissal that comes with that assessment — so the closing songs are “more modern.”  I think he does Stevie Wonder’s I CAN’T HELP IT justice in his own light-hearted, sincere, swinging way.

I am not attuned to contemporary pop culture, except to cringe when I hear loud music coming from the car next to mine, so I had no historical awareness with which to approach BUST YOUR WINDOWS.

In fact, I thought the title would herald some exuberant love song, “My love for you is so strong, it’s going to bust your windows,” or something equally cheerful.

Thus I was horrified to hear Todd sing, “I had to bust the windows out your car,” and all my literate-snobbish-overeducated revulsion came to the surface, as I called upon the shades of Leo Robin and Yip Harburg to watch over me.

But then I calmed down and reminded myself just how much fun the preceding nine tracks had been, and that I would be very surprised if Todd — bowing to whatever notion of modernity — had gone entirely off the rails. And I listened to BUST YOUR WINDOWS again. And again. For those who don’t know the song, it was an immense hit for one Jazmine Sullivan in 2008, and there’s a YouTube video of her doing it. The premise is that the singer finds her lover has been untrue with another (not a new idea) but (s)he then takes a crowbar to her lover’s car so that her lover will know what faithlessness does to others. Tough love, indeed.  I researched Sullivan’s music video — where she is threatening to unzip herself to a tango / rhythm and blues beat — and disliked it.

But I had no patience for her rendition of her own song because I had been struck so powerfully by Todd’s — almost a stifled scream of brokenhearted passion worthy of a great opera’s finish before the grieving one, betrayed, commits suicide. Todd’s performance has no tango beat, no intrusive orchestration: he merely presents the lyrics and melody as if he is showing us his bleeding heart . . . as if he has used the crowbar on himself.  It is a performance both bone-dry and powerful, understated and unforgettable. I can’t forget it, just as I keep on wanting to replay LOOK OUT FOR LOVE.

You can find out more about Todd here, and after you’ve heard the three samples, I hope you will chase down a copy of this CD. It is wildly rewarding and beautifully-textured music, and it will stay with you when other CDs by more “famous” players and singers have grown tedious. I don’t like “best” or “favorite,” but this CD is magnificently musical in so many ways that it will astonish.

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC, BUSINESS, ZIGGY and NONI

Where shall we start?  With the music, of course.

Here is an engaging record with the spontaneous energy and lilt of the best small-band swing, but with neat arranging touches. The players were from the Benny Goodman Orchestra of 1939:

This performance was recorded December 26, 1939 with Ziggy Elman, trumpet; Toots Mondello, Elmani “Noni” Bernardi, alto sax; Jerry Jerome, Arthur Rollini, tenor sax; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Ben Heller, guitar; Artie Bernstein, string bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

From a splendidly informative profile by Christopher Popa (including an interview of Martin Elman, Ziggy’s son) we learn that Bernardi created the arrangements for the sides Ziggy did for Bluebird Records, Victor’s budget label. The profile — superbly done for Popa’s BIG BAND LIBRARY, can be found here.

This post had its genesis in something not a recording or a performance, but the result of a record session and the hope of making money from a hit. On eBay, I found this two-page contract between music publisher Bregman, Vocco and Conn, and Elman and Bernardi — for this song, then called I’M TOOTIN’ MY BABY BACK HOME.  (This title is a play on Maurice Chevalier’s 1931 hit WALKIN’ MY BABY BACK HOME — recorded by, among others, Louis and Nat Cole.)

NONI and ZIGGY contract

From this vantage point, the contract seems anything but lavish, although the format is standard and the terms might have seemed a good deal at the time.  I don’t think this venture made anyone richer.  I’ve never seen a copy of the sheet music?  And if one wishes to perceive BVC as exploitative, I am sure there is reason, but they at least published this folio, a good thing:

ziggyelman50trumpetlicks“Ziggie” is both nearly forgotten and much missed.  Like Charlie Shavers, he could forcefully swing any group in many ways (consider his work on sessions with Mildred Bailey and Lionel Hampton).  Harry Finkelman (his birth name) could do much more than play the frailich for AND THE ANGELS SING.  Those Bluebird records are understated delights (with a beautiful rhythm section for this session).

May your happiness increase!

BRING ENOUGH CLOTHES FOR THREE DAYS: FINDING JIMMY ROWLES

Before we get to the great pianist — the singular Jimmy Rowles — some context.

BRING ENOUGH CLOTHES FOR THREE DAYS is a phrase that has vanished entirely from our usual discourse . . . unless one is planning a weekend getaway. This stern summons from the government was used as a comic gambit by Timmie Rogers. During the Second World War, men eligible for the draft would be sent a form letter from their draft board beginning with the word GREETINGS, which would then include the following command as a prelude to being inducted into the armed forces.  If the military took them, they wouldn’t need more clothing; if not, they could return home.

Enough history, perhaps, but needed.  I bought this record a day ago, excited by the names on the label.

EXCELSIOR 001

Leader / singer / composer Rogers, an African-American comedian who died in 2006, was most recently known for his appearances on the Redd Foxx SANFORD AND SON, but he had enjoyed greater popularity earlier.  He was a competent singer and tipple / ukulele player, but his music is not our focus.

Please note the esteemed names in the personnel: guitarist Kessel, bassist Callender, drummer Young, tenor saxophonist Davis, and pianist “Rowels,” perhaps pronounced to rhyme with “vowels”?

To me, this record is evidence that the synchronous universe is at work again. What are the chances that some generous hip soul would post this video on February 25, 2013, and that I should find a copy of the same record at that shrine, the Down Home Music Shop in El Cerrito, California, two days ago (for a dollar plus tax, which is not all that distant from a Forties price)?

February

At 1:11 our man, born James Hunter (later Jimmy or Jimmie Rowles) comes through, sounding like his own angular version of Nat Cole, followed by an equally youthful Barney Kessel, echoing Charlie Christian in his own way.  Since Rowles remains one of my musical heroes — idiosyncratic, intuitive, inimitable — this early vignette gives me pleasure.

He appeared in 1941-42 on a Slim (Gaillard) and Slam (Stewart) record date which also featured Ben Webster and Leo Watson, but none of the records was issued at the time; he also shows up on broadcasts by the Lee and Lester Young band and on private discs featuring Dexter Gordon, Herbie Steward, and Bill Harris.  Radio airshots found him with the Benny Goodman and Woody Herman orchestras . . . but this December 1943 session with Rogers — one side only — is early and choice Rowles, and according to Tom Lord it is the first issued evidence of Rowles in a recording studio.  He would return often until 1994.

Rogers would record with Benny Carter, Jimmy Lunceford, Lucky Thompson, J.C. Heard, Joe Newman, Budd Johnson, and others (now unidentified) but his jazz career was shorter and less illustrious.

And, as a brief interlude, and here’s Mister Rogers himself on film . . .

But listen again to “Rowels.”  He illuminates not only his solo but the ensemble passages.  And what a career he had in front of him.

This post is for Michael Kanan.

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.