Tag Archives: originality

MARK SHANE at THE PIANO: THE TICKLIN’S TERRIFIC

Mark Shane is one of the finest jazz pianists alive.  Don’t take my word for it — ask the musicians who have played alongside him, whose music he has enlivened and uplifted.  Or ask any other jazz pianist who knows how to swing.

He can swing in a way that is deeply reminiscent of Fats, Teddy, James P. — but he is no archaeologist, no copyist perfecting what he’s memorized from the manuscript.  (He’s no museum piece, either — having learned a great deal from Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, too.)  A long apprenticeship as an improvising player — with Bob Wilber and Ruby Braff, among others — made him a fully mature player.

In his work, you’ll hear great subtleties — his harmonies, his intertwining lines — but he never shows off his technique.  Rather, he is both eloquent and plain, serving the song and its emotions.  Shane is instantly recognizable (his four-bar introductions are lovely compositions on their own) and he is his own man.

His music is delicate — because of his beautifully executed ideas and his touch (there’s classical training in his background and it shows) but he is a powerful player and his rhythm engine is always well-tuned, his swinging time impeccable.

What is the reason for all this praise?

Shane has issued another self-produced solo CD — TICKLIN’ — its title in honor of the great Harlem piano virtuosi, the “ticklers” of the last century.  It took me a long time to listen to it all the way through because I kept playing tracks over and over, returning to a certain passage to marvel at its own kind of luminescence, its joyous forward motion.  Under his fingers, Newton’s laws seem to be modified in the happiest of ways — you find yourself delighting in his intensity, his moving things forward in a delightful fashion, while at the same time there is the utmost relaxation, the absence of hurry, of rush.  Mark doesn’t like what he calls “draggy ballads,” so most of the CD takes place at a variety of nimble medium tempos . . . music to pat your foot by, but also lovely music to meditate by.

And to practical matters: the piano sounds lovely; the repertoire is varied, offering both the familiar — BODY AND SOUL — and the less so — CRYIN’ FOR THE CAROLINES and James P.’s FASCINATION.  No tricks, nothing fancy, just one glorious improvisation after another.

To learn more, visit his site (the CD is $15 including shipping):

http://www.shanepianojazz.com/pages/media.php

Shane’s music is a wonderful cure for whatever darkness may pass through your days.

And just in case his name is new to you, here’s a performance I captured from 2009 — Mark Shane exploring the old sweet nonsense tune JADA in a solo outing at Birdland:

WELCOME ALEX LEVIN!

I’m always delighted to learn about someone younger who has the real jazz spirit. 

Many people can play.  But not so many can really play — and there is a difference beyond the changed font. 

To get past one’s technique to be creative (without being self-indulgent); to honor the jazz tradition without being stuck in the past; to get a lovely sound out of one’s instrument; to create solos that stand on their own as artistically complete; to tell one’s story . . . that’s more rare.

Pianist Alex Levin’s first CD shows him to be one of the rare ones.  When you visit his website — as I hope you will — you’re greeted instantly with the opening bars of a lightly graceful CHEEK TO CHEEK: http://www.alexlevinjazz.com/

You’ll admire his light touch, his lovely voicings, the way he makes the piano sing out.  And he’s got an innate rhythmic enthusiasm that makes for danceable music — without sacrificing everything for the pure push of rhythm. 

Alex says he’s been inspired by the late Herman Foster, but he doesn’t sound like one of those technically-assured people with no ideas of their own.  You know, all those Jazz-Master-Clones, well-intentioned but ultimately limited. 

The musical pleasures I am describing are to be found on his new CD, called NEW YORK PORTRAITS (its neat cover, designed by Peter Moser, is at the top).

Without making jokes, Alex is witty — catch the extended intentional detour into JEEPERS CREEPERS on CHEEK TO CHEEK, fitting perfectly.  He’s courageous, too: it takes a certain candor and openness to approach BODY AND SOUL these days, and his version stands beautifully on its own. 

Alex has surrounded himself with the best talent: bassist Michael Bates and drummer Brian Floody, and left them space to breathe, to sing their own songs.  The two originals on this CD have their own melodic gravity — and shape, and the music Alex has created will (although accessible to people who “don’t like jazz”) will reverberate pleasantly in your ears for a long time.  Check him out.

As Billie Holiday said of Jimmy Rowles — she was telling Lester Young about this new White musician, unknown to Lester (who was suspicious), “I don’t know . . . boy can blow!”  As can Alex.  

SWING OUT WITH JUST ONE CLICK: ALL MONEY COLLECTED GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

PIANO SUMMIT at SOFIA’S (Part Two): Dec. 4, 2010

The music I heard and captured at Michael Kanan’s piano soiree at Sofia’s Ristorante (in the Hotel Edison, 211 West 46th Street, New York City) on Dec. 4, 2010, so captivated me that I decided to post another half-dozen performances from that splendid night. 

The participants were Larry Ham, Pete Malinverni, Tardo Hammer, and Michael, piano; Neal Miner, bass; Eliot Zigmund, drums.  What continues to fascinate me is the wide emotional range in these performances — from spiky to tender, from witty to rhapsodic.  Although these players know the traditions deeply and empathically, this wasn’t a repertory evening, with the ghosts of (say) Nat Cole, Bud Powell, Fats Waller, McCoy Tyner . . . etc., being feted.  It was enthralling to hear these men at the piano and the warm-hearted playing of Neal and Eliot — a gathering of friends.

When I met Michael about a week later (he was playing alongside Dan Block at the Brooklyn Lyceum) I complimented him on his format for the evening, where each of the four pianists played two leisurely selections, then got off the bench for the next player.  I thought it went a long way in preventing the usual set-shaping that musicians fall into, but Michael pointed out one of his aims (fully realized) that I hadn’t consciously absorbed.  I had seen the other players paying close attention while they were members of the listening audience — but Michael had more than this in mind: that each player would be influenced (subliminally or directly) by what his colleagues had played — making the evening an organic artistic whole rather than simply a round-robin.

It worked — and it transcended my already high expectations.  Here are a half-dozen more opportunities to savor this evening.

Tardo Hammer, sure-footed yet loving risks, began the evening with an individualistic reading of Gigi Gryce’s MINORITY (a composition whose title I had to ask):

Pete Malinverni (“It’s melody, man!”) embarked on a pair of standards, at once tenderly reverent and quietly, subversively, taking them apart from inside.  Here’s I REMEMBER YOU:

And a romantic MY IDEAL:

Michael Kanan continued with two delicious explorations: on ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, he didn’t presume to imitate Art Tatum, but I swear I keep waiting for Ben Webster to join in.  Then he turned it into a spiky BLUE SKIES.  I wonder how audible the woman who wanted to sing along is (although she had a pleasant enough voice, she was standing — by my lights — far too close).  Youth must be served, I suppose:

And here’s Michael’s controlled but enthusiastic reading of LET’S FALL IN LOVE:

And we’ll let have Larry Ham lovingly have the last word with CLOSE ENOUGH FOR LOVE:

This was a wholly gratifying jazz evening: I hope Michael can arrange piano soirees on a regular basis!

AL DUFFY (1906-2006)

Courtesy of AB Fable Archive

I don’t print the obituary of every worthy jazz musician, singer, writer, record producer . . . simply because I want to celebrate as well as mourn in this blog.  But jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett’s notice (from the New York musicians’ union, Local 802) of the death of violinist Al Duffy deserves all the attention it can get, I think:

Adolph Daidone – professionally known as Al Duffy – died on Dec. 22. The violinist was 100 years old and had been a member of 802 since 1924.  He was born in Brooklyn and was a resident of Freehold, New Jersey, since 1978.  Mr. Daidone was a nationally renowned violin virtuoso whose career spanned several decades of entertainment in radio, recording, and stage.  He was awarded the Philco Radio Hall of Fame Citation for outstanding artistry.  He played for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Bell Telephone Orchestra with such luminaries as the Dorsey Brothers, Bobby Hackett, Dinah Shore, JimmyDurante, and many others.  He is survived by four children: Vincent and his wife Barbara, Theresa Kimmel and her husband Monroe, John and his wife Elna, and Louis and his wife Teri; eight grandchildren; and eleven great grandchildren.

Anthony Barnett adds: According to my files he was born Gandolfo Daidone 20 September 1906 which would make him older than 100.

Courtesy of AB Fable Archive

The moral has to be that jazz taps in to the Fountain of Youth for a few lucky people!  Also that originality is a saving grace: Duffy was an accomplished player who took his own route rather than attempting to imitate Joe Venuti.

THE “INNOVATION” MIRAGE

A centennial YouTube tribute to Ben Webster by “JazzVideoGuy” is a commendable idea — but its accompanying prose reads:

“Ben is without question one of the music’s immortals.  He did not originate a style or spearhead a period of radical change; but his magnetic tenor saxophone playing moved listeners as deeply as the work of any other artist on his or any other instrument.”

Intriguing that jazz listeners should have to rationalize, even apologize for what some perceive as a weakness.  Must we continue to champion “originality” and “innovation” as prime virtues? 

Frankly, having someone “spearhead a period of radical change” sounds dangerous, unfriendly.  I have to wonder what the jazz chroniclers thought was so wrong with any period of jazz that “radical change” was needed to rescue it from its artistic limitations.  One hears Roy Eldridge or Johnny Hodges in 1944.  Had their styles so calcified as to need all this spearheading?  I think not.  But the historians present it as if they were detritus waiting idly to be swept aside by the radical whiskbrooms of The New Thing.   

This, I suspect, comes from our advertising-driven desire for the New, our impatience with anything that looks Old.  Milk spoils; art doesn’t.

And to the championing of “originality”: let us propose that the “originals” of jazz were (I will pick five): Louis, Duke, Bird, Monk, Coltrane.  None of them, for a moment, pretended that they had come from nowhere, that they had created themselves.  Behind them stood Joe Oliver, James P. Johnson, Will Marion Cook, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins . . . and so on.  The musicians know that they are all branches on a growing tree; the historians who wish to set one School against another, to make good press, to sell CDs, create artificial distinctions.

“I’LL SEE YOU IN C-U-B-A”

On June 26, 2009, SFRaeAnn, that generous jazz videographer, took her camera to “America’s Festival,” in Lacey, Washington, and captured cornetist Bob Schultz’s Frisco Jazz Band playing the now-rare Irving Berlin song, “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A.” 

Berlin wasn’t an anarchist; this 1920 song teasingly proposes a visit to a country where Prohibiition wasn’t law.  (Other songs looked to Montreal for rehydration.) 

The performance has an easy, tango-inflected swing, helped immeasurably by Hal Smith on drums — a master chef behind his set, mixing and flavoring with his wire brushes, swinging without getting louder or faster.  I thought of Walter Johnson, among others: watch the way Hal moves!  Cornetist Schultz has a fine Spanier-Marsala passion, matched by trombonist Doug Finke, whom I associate with rousing Stomp Off CDs by his Independence Hall Jazz Band. 

I recently reviewed a Fifties jazz-goes-medieval effort where the participants earnestly jammed on recorders: they should have studied Jim Rothermel, sweetly wailing away.  Thanks to Scott Anthony on banjo, who delivers the song stylishly, Chuck Stewart on tuba, and another one of my heroes, pianist Ray Skjelbred, for keeping the ship rocking but afloat. 

Our travel plans for the summer have us heading north, not south — so I’ll content myself with this YouTube clip, spicy and sweet. 

BENNY VISITS “AVALON”

In the last few days I’ve been listening to the Benny Goodman Festival being broadcast on WKCR-FM (if you’re out of range of this New York City FM station, you can hear it online at www.wkcr.org).  Whenever I turn on the radio a Goodman small group is eagerly exploring AVALON at a jaunty tempo, a coincidence that both amuses and puzzles me.

BGNow, I don’t plan to accuse Goodman of being an aging artist caught in his own boredom, but the frequency with which jazz musicians return to their own narrowing repertoire of familiar songs to improvise on is worth comment.

I know that Hot Lips Page famously said (to whom?) “The material is immaterial,” and Bob Rusch has gently reminded me that jazz is about what one does with the material rather than the material itself.  “‘T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it,” sang Trummy Young.

And anyone brave enough to improvise in public at the tempos Goodman favored should, by law, have the right to choose his or her own favorite set of chord changes — no matter whether the improviser in question is Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, or John Coltrane.  But I’ve also heard some of the finest jazz artists turn in established solos on familiar pieces for their features, occasionally playing something quite moving, but more often falling back on set routine.  I think of Jo Jones’s CARAVAN, of Buddy Tate’s BODY AND SOUL, of Vic Dickenson’s IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD, and so on.

One could, of course, make the case that jazzmen have “master solos” and “polished performances” to fall back on, because improvisation is such a demanding art.  And Ricky Riccardi has made the point that Louis Armstrong’s versions of INDIANA that often began his later performances were anything but rote repetition.

But Benny himself (according to Ross Firestone’s sweet-natured biography) seems to have been dissatisfied with the music he played in his last decade, saying to someone, “You can’t play LADY BE GOOD forever.”  But he did play AVALON for fifty years.

Did he play it so regularly because it was a song he loved from his childhood (it first appeared in 1920)?  Did he return to it because it was one of his proven hits, a selection that his audience — sometimes made up of people who had cheered him on in 1937 — wanted, expected, and waited for?  Did he feel a responsibility to please the people who had paid to hear him with a medley of his Greatest Hits?  Or was playing AVALON something that gave him pleasure in itself — both as a stunning ride over the chord changes and as a way of making an exciting performance?  I can’t begin to say.

And some of the performances of AVALON I’ve heard on WKCR-FM are justly thrilling — not just in terms of technique and facility, but as musical expressions — evidence of an older artist still finding “something new to say” on a familiar text.  Some of them sound like Goodman playing at being Benny Goodman — with playing that is technically exciting but not especially creative improvised music.

The only time I was fortunate enough to see Goodman in person — at a great distance — was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 or 1975, with a truly all-star group including Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge (!).  Of course, the King offered us AVALON, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and DON’T BE THAT WAY to enthusiastic applause, but I was much more moved by Hackett’s choice of a feature number — an uptempo SECRET LOVE, which I can still dimly hear in my head as I write this.

Does this make me a snob for asking my beloved jazz heroes to “be original”?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if I had been able to ask Benny why he explored and re-explored AVALON, he would have said, “I like it.”  And that would have been enough, even for me.  Any artist who’s given us so much for such a long time is entitled to his idiosyncracies.

WHAT’S NEW?

 

The Beloved and I have been on the road for more than a month now.  While we are in the car, the CD player is (as Pee Wee Erwin used to say) hotter than a depot stove, with respites for cassettes (the Braff-Hyman Concord duet version of MY FAIR LADY) or the CBC. But most often we are listening to one of the two hundred-plus compact discs I brought along. (If ever someone was a candidate for an iPod, I nominate myself.)

Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins arrangements, 1937 Basie airshots, Dick Sudhalter, Jack Purvis, Lester Young, Seger Ellis, 1940 Ellington, Ben Webster, Spirituals to Swing, early Crosby, late Jimmy Rowles, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, and so on.

This musical buffet has led me to think, admittedly not for the first time, about artistic originality, creativity, and “influence.” Especially in jazz, listeners and critics privilege a musician’s having an individualistic, recognizable sound, something that musicians worked towards with some earnestness.  And it went beyond sound: musicians were proud of their origins but even more proud of telling their own stories.     

But taken to an extreme, this pride in individuality might have its limitations. It leads us to make the appearance of originality the greatest virtue, so that a cliche of jazz prose or oral history is, “When K came on the scene, we were amazed, because he didn’t sound like P, the main man at the time.”

So, when I listen to Jones-Smith, Inc. romping through “Lady Be Good” or “Shoe Shine Boy,” I think of the impact those sides must have had on 1937 listeners who knew nothing of Lester, Tatti Smith, Basie, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. The quintet we hear still seems daringly “original.” Certainly Lester sounds so unlike Hawkins and his disciples, unlike other musicians,even now. His rhythm, his tone, his flight. And it is certainly valid to praise the Basie rhythm trio for the same driving singularity.  I do not mean to slight Carl “Tatti” Smith in all this, but his percussive attack was not uncommon among trumpeters of that era.     

So it is a commonplace to cherish these sides for their singularity, that they sounded so unlike the records made in late 1936.  But what shall we then say of the Fats Waller turns of phrase and whole phrases so evident in Basie’s playing? (Earl Hines and James P. Johnson are in there, too.)  What of the influence of older bassists Steve Brown, Wellman Braud, and Pops Foster, on Page’s work here? Jo Jones’s drumming was certainly a revelation, but one can hear Sidney Catlett in his accents and Walter Johnson in his hi-hat work.  Perhaps some of Gene Krupa and George Stafford as well. 

And when one listens closely to the riffs that the Basie band threw around with such headlong delight on, say, “One O’Clock Jump,” one hears familiar late-Twenties / early-Thirties jazz figures: one of them in particular, is the phrase Louis sings to the words “Oh, memory” on that take of “Star Dust.”

Of course we might fold our hands and say meditatively, “Oh, everyone comes from somewhere,” which is undeniable.  But this makes me think of the way the conceive of jazz improvisation, the ways in which jazz finds us, and the technology that enwraps it. If you were to take someone who knows little about jazz to a club or concert performance, the novice usually says, with a hint of astonishment, “How do they know what they are playing? How do they know where to come in?” And the more experienced listener can say, “There is a common language in this music as in othercommunal arts. If one of the players says, ‘Let’s do “Undecided” in two flats,” the other players are familiar with that melody, its harmony, rhythmic patterns, the conventions that go with it.  All this is learned through intent listening, bandstand-practice, and intuitive empathy.”  So what looks “made up on the spot” both is and isn’t. And only the musicians, perhaps, know whether the trombonist is playing the solo she always plays or if she is stepping bravely out into space.  Whether she herself knows, at the time or after, is beyond our knowing and perhaps hers.   

Playing a musical instrument competently is difficult.  Inventing something that even approaches “originality” while playing an instrument, among other musicians, the notes moving by inexorably, is even more daunting.  So, as a result, many musicians have a set of learned patterns they can call upon while speeding through familiar repertory: their “crib,” some call it.  Thus, if you hear Waltie King speed through “It’s You Or No One,” one night, Waltie may dazzle with a wondrous display of technique allied to feeling.  “What a solo!” you say.  If you follow Waltie to his other gigs and hear him play that same song twenty times, would you be disillusioned if his solo on Thursday bore close resemblance to his brilliant exploits of Monday?  How many listeners truly know when a musician is inspired one night, playing it safe the next?  And, frankly, does it make a difference if the solo — ingenious or worked-out — charms our ears? 

This brings us to Lester Young, who said that a musician had to be original, and that he did not want to listen to his old records for fear of being influenced by them and becoming a “repeater pencil.”  His fellow musicians testify that he was astonishingly inventive, that he could play dozens of choruses at a jam session and never repeat himself. But even given that piece of mythology, can we be sure that his improvisations on the Vocalion “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” were not, in some way, workings-out of ideas he had already played in other contexts?  Were those solos as original to him as they continue to appear to us?

We cannot know, since we have no recordings of Lester before this one (Jo Jones spoke of a “little silver record” (you’d have to imagine his odd verbal style here) he had once owned of Lester, circa 1934, but told Stu Zimny and myself that it had disappeared long ago).  And even if we had acetates stacked to the ceiling, the question might be both unanswerable and moot. 

And records themselves complicate the issue.  Before there were strings of alternate takes and session tapes, records were singular artifacts: three minutes capturing one unrepeatable occasion.  Think of the Armstrong-Hines “Weather Bird” or the Webster-Blanton “Star Dust” duet from Fargo 1940. Unique.  Irreplaceable.  But the same worrying questions apply to the music captured by microphones.  And the dazzling singularity of a recorded performance, by people who are now dead, puts a weight on the shoulders of living players whom we hope will create fresh solos each time they lift their horns.  I think that this also accounts for some of the pressure musicians feel when they must step into the recording studio, that their improvisations will attain a certain permanence, a permanence they might never intend. 

And jazz critics condescend to musicians who create solos and, with only minor variations, repeat them for years. I have quietly groaned when faced with yet another late Jack Teagarden performance of “Basin Street Blues,” but perhaps, in retrospect, I should not have done so.  It could not have been easy for him or anyone to a) find something new to say about that particular piece of music, and b) to play and sing so beautifully, even if every nuance had been worked out.  I was a trifle disappointed whenever Vic Dickenson, whom I saw often in his last years, would embark upon “In A Sentimental Mood,” because every note, sigh, and slur in it had been perfected through repetition. But, and some may find this sentimental, I would love to have him here to play it again. And it was an exquisite piece of music.

Such ruminations might seem to have no particular beginning and certainly no end.  Perhaps the only conclusion we might draw is the oldest one, that all kinds of human creativity are miraculous.  We should cherish those pieces of music that are both intelligent and impassioned, whether they seem “original” or derivative.  And road travelers might find a great deal of pleasure, as I do, listening to what Jack Purvis plays behind Seger Ellis on the unissued “Sleepy Time Gal” — but more about that in a future posting.