Tag Archives: original compositions

POP SONGS, HOT TUNES, WILD BILL DAVISON and the JAZZ GIANTS

It’s not often that I receive a new CD on Monday, play it on Monday and Tuesday, and sit down to write about it on Wednesday, but the new reissue (I know, illogical but true) of a March 1968 session led by Wild Bill Davison, issued on Delmark Records, has inspired me.  The session was originally recorded by John Norris for Sackville Records, and the band — for once — deserved the title, with Wild Bill, cornet; Benny Morton, trombone; Herb Hall, clarinet; Claude Hopkins, piano; Arvell Shaw, string bass; Buzzy Drootin, drums.  

Davison CD

What makes this CD so endearing is not a whole host of rare / previously unissued material — although there is one new performance and one unissued take.  No, it is the band, the music, and the repertoire.

Although Davison was praised by none other than Ruby Braff, who said that the pride of Defiance, Ohio, had “drama,” I found Davison’s appeal limited in his later years.  He passionately got up and played for all he was worth — he never seemed to coast — but his solos were often set-pieces, established in 1947 and played verbatim night after night.  I recall seeing him in New York City in the Seventies, and it was rather like watching a polished stand-up comedian do identical material.  All one could say was, “Well, Bill’s timing tonight is off,” or “He’s on fire tonight!” but he rarely surprised.  But on this disc he seems inspired sufficiently by his colleagues to venture from his time-tested solos, and the result often made me look up and think, “I never heard him play that before,” which, for me, is one of the great pleasures of improvisation.

Herb Hall sounds lovely and liquid; Arvell Shaw is more than reliable.  Claude Hopkins was never captured enough on record, so his particular version of stride — polite but classically perfect — is a delight, in solo and in ensemble.

But this CD is unusually valuable for the opportunity to hear Buzzy Drootin and Benny Morton — players held dear by their colleagues but rarely given any opportunity to lead sessions.  I saw Buzzy in person many times in the early Seventies, and I fear I did not appreciate him sufficiently.  But now, heard afresh, how arresting he sounds!  Yes, there are echoes of Catlett in his four-bar breaks, but he is entirely his own man with his own sound-galaxy and his own way of thinking, as individualistic as Cliff Leeman.  Instantly recognizable, always propulsive, ever engaged.  And Benny Morton, who recorded with a wide range of players and singers over a half-century (appearing live with Louis, Bird, and Benny Carter!) is in peerless form, his eloquent phrasing, his yearning tone, a great boon.  Sadly, Morton, a terribly modest man, doesn’t have a solo feature (which might have been WITHOUT A SONG).

The CD isn’t perfect.  A few of the solo features sound overdone and the band is, for me, a little too cleanly miked (each instrument rings through, as if there were six separate tracks rather than one — the perils of modern recording and the horror of “leakage”), but it is a rewarding hour-plus.

And it made me think, which is always an enjoyable unexpected benefit — about the repertoire.  Consider this list: STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / DARDANELLA / BLACK AND BLUE (two takes) / I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / I FOUND A NEW BABY / BLUE AGAIN / I SURRENDER, DEAR / YESTERDAYS / THEM THERE EYES / THREE LITTLE WORDS.  What struck me about that assortment is that most of the band’s choices were “popular songs” known to the larger audience rather than “jazz favorites” known only to the cognoscenti.

Repertoire in jazz has often served artists as ways to define themselves and their allegiances.  If you are a young singer or player, and you offer a performance (or a CD) of your original compositions, you are in effect saying, “Take me seriously as a composer; I have ideas and feelings to offer you that aren’t Cole Porter, Shelton Brooks, or Ornette Coleman.”

Some players and singers use repertoire as loving homage: Bix Beiderbecke played AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL because his heroes, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, had written and recorded it; Eddie Condon and his friends played the song because it was a good one but also as a loving bow to Bix; players in this century offer it as an extension of the Condon tradition.  In any jazz club or festival, one can hear people playing the music of Louis, Bird, Hawkins, or a hundred others.  Even if one is playing the blues or a song built on familiar changes, the choice of the melodic line superimposed on top says, “Here’s to Don Byas.  Here’s to Roy Eldridge,” and so on.

But this CD reminds me of something Davison told an interviewer.  When he came to New York City in 1943, he was asked by Commodore Records’ saintly founder Milt Gabler to make 12″ 78s of “classic jazz tunes,” for instance PANAMA, THAT’S A PLENTY, and more.  Davison remembered that these songs were not what he was used to playing — for audiences that had come to hear jazz — in Chicago and Milwaukee, but they had played popular songs of the day. And when I heard him in New York, he was most likely to play AS LONG AS I LIVE, SUNDAY, or THEM THERE EYES.  And no one, sitting in the audience, demanded their money back because he wasn’t playing “authentic” jazz.

What the moral of all this is I can’t say.  Perhaps it’s only that I would like to hear Mainstream / traditional ensembles remember the treasures of popular song. There are worlds to be explored beyond the same two dozen favorites — favorites often chosen as markers of ideology / regional or stylistic pride (BIG BEAR STOMP and RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE).  I’d love to hear such bands play THERE’S A SMALL HOTEL, YOU CALL IT MADNESS, or WHERE THE BLUE OF THE NIGHT MEETS THE GOLD OF THE DAY.

I offer musical evidence:

Wild Bill paying tribute to Louis at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival by playing THEM THERE EYES, supported by Dave McKenna, Larry Ridley, Oliver Jackson (there is an unsubtle edit in the film, probably removing a Ridley solo, alas) with even more beautiful — although subtle — backing from Ray Nance, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, and Tyree Glenn.  “Indecent exposure” for sure.

May your happiness increase!

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“RHYTHMOODS,” 1940

Browsing in my favorite antiquarian second-hand store, eBay, I encountered a 1940 music folio that I’d never seen.  Now, I know that the music in these books is often suspect: “compositions” by a famous artist that (s)he had only a tenuous link to, solos created over songs owned by the publisher of the folio, and so on. Of course, anything connected to Irving Mills is a touch more suspect . . . but here’s the cover:

DUKE Rhythmoods frontWithout being a deep Ellington scholar, I recognized those titles: aside from SOPHISTICATED LADY and CARAVAN, which date from the start and end of the Thirties, the rest come from the Twenties.  But what of RUB-A-TUB-LUES? Did Ellington whistle a blues line to Mills while he (Duke) was bathing?  It’s a mystery. Here’s the first page of the folio, to substantiate even more solidly:

DUKE Rhythmoods inside

It’s perplexing . . . can any Ellington scholars ride to the rescue?

Were I even an amateurish pianist, I would purchase the book (several copies are for sale on eBay) in hope of solving the mystery myself.  But I have to be realistic.

May your happiness increase!

“A WONDERFUL BAND”: GORDON AU’S GRAND STREET STOMPERS at RADEGAST, Dec. 13, 2011

The title for this post isn’t my enthusiastic invention.  The very creative Peter Ecklund came over to me to say hello during a set break while the GSS were playing at Radegast (Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York) and his first words were “Isn’t this a wonderful band?”  I agreed — and the fact that he phrased it as a rhetorical question takes nothing away from its truth.

Peter was speaking of Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers — who, for their Dec. 13, 2011, holiday visitation, were made up of composer / arranger / trumpeter Gordon; reedman Matt Koza; trombonist Emily Asher; guitarist Davy Mooney; bassist Debbie Kennedy; singer Molly Ryan.  (Also in the house were friends Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  And the Official GSS Person, Veronica Lynn Day.)

You’ll find so much to admire here: the swing, the arrangements and compositions; the hot / sweet soloing and singing.  I especially admire Gordon’s originals: they lilt and trot like the best jazz tunes or pop songs of the past (I find myself humming them — a sure sign of permanence!) but they take unusual twists: they don’t follow formulaic paths — melodically or harmonically.  We begin with three — ranging from a hot march to two rhythm ballads.  Then there are pretty vocals by Molly Ryan, ukulele and whistling from Peter Ecklund, and the casually intense playing by every member of this band.  They are indeed wonderful!

PISMO BEACH PARADE:

SARATOGA SERENADE:

I want to know what Gordon’s title ONCE, DEAR means.  Is it “once” as in a numerical concept, or is it “once,” referring to the past?  If I know, then I can begin to whimsically compose the lyrics in my head, without ever expecting to hear anyone sing them:

I have had a soft spot for SHE’S A GREAT, GREAT GIRL for thirty-five years, ever since I heard it on a Jack Teagarden RCA Victor Vintage compilation — with Jack’s solo bursting out in the open (with great sympathetic assistance from Vic Berton’s tympani).  But I am also fond of the vocal version I heard in the last year or two, where the male singer, obviously besotted beyond reason by the Girl he loves, offers to “give up golfing, even give up my meals,” if he could only hear “the tap-tap of her heels.”  Not bad for late Twenties pop song lyrics, I vow:

AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ — sweetly sung by our own Molly Ryan and strummed by Peter Ecklund:

Molly says I’LL BE  HOME FOR CHRISTMAS: 

Peter Ecklund is one of the great whistlers I know (along with John Reynolds) and it was a treat to hear him breathe new life into SWEET SUE:

And — as a joint tribute to Walt Disney, Louis Armstrong, and a man in a bear suit — Molly tells us all about the BARE NECESSITIES:

A good time can be had by all: just appear where Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers (or perhaps one of the smaller versions) are playing.