Tag Archives: Pablo Records

FINEST FIG JAM

fig jam

Some history might be needed here.  “A fig,” “a Moldy Fig,” even “a Mouldy Figge,” is now-archaic language invented during the Forties, when jazz found itself divided into warring factions called Dixieland and Bebop.  This divisiveness may have splintered the music and its audiences irrevocably.  Much of the noisy conflict was fomented by journalists and publicists seeking to attract audiences through controversy.  At this distance, we know that GROOVIN’ HIGH is only WHISPERING with a new blouse, but people allowed themselves to ignore this.  I find the poet Philip Larkin very endearing in his art and his vinegary energies, but his jazz prose embodies this point of view, where the world had reached an artistic peak in 1932 with the Rhythmakers recordings and had gone steadily downhill.  I agree with the first part of this formulation but not the second. 

I began my devotional listening as a Fig, so it took a long gradual period of contemplative immersion before I could understand that, say, John Coltrane wasn’t The Enemy out to destroy the music I loved.  In truth, I was never an extremist but I had strong, narrow likes and dislikes.  I remember having a brief conversation with another student in a middle-school Music Appreciation class who was deeply immersed in the New Thing — this was forty-plus years ago and the new thing was Archie Shepp, and the conversation went like this:

“Alan,” which might not be his name, but is a good guess: “I hear you like jazz.”

Me (brightening at having found a fellow subversive): “Oh, yes, I do!”

“Alan”: “Do you listen to Archie Shepp?”

Me (horrified that he hadn’t mentioned Louis, and coming up with a wise-acre New Yorker rejoinder): “Archie Shepp?! I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it!”

“Alan”: “Well, the hell with you!”

So goes critical discourse at its finest! 

I would like to boast that I’ve seen the light and the scales have dropped from my eyes, but if you told me I had to choose only one jazz recording to spend eternity with, it still might be AFTER YOU’VE GONE by the Blue Note Jazzmen, even though I can understand and appreciate music that would have perplexed and repelled me in my youth.  And the music was always there, I just didn’t get it. 

This self-scrutiny is provoked by a phone conversation I had yesterday with Bob Rusch (or RDR), editor and chief spiritual guide of the quarterly journal devoted to Creative Improvised Music, CADENCE.  Full disclosure requires me to say that I write reviews for CADENCE, and I continue to admire the journal’s honesty.  And working with Bob has always been a pleasurable lesson in Emersonian candor: when I have felt an inexplicable need to tactfully cloak the truth in polite words, he has always asked, “Why?” 

If you’ve never read CADENCE, you have been missing something special and rare.  See for yourself (www.cadencebuilding.com).

In the course of our conversation — we speak infrequently, but over the past five years it has always been both bracing and affectionate — Bob said gently that he thought I was “getting more figgish,” and I agreed.  But it made me think, and perhaps my experience will ring true with my readers. 

There used to be “the jazz record industry,” and I am not talking about sixty-five years ago, the Commodore Music Shop, and listening booths.  Ten years ago, perhaps, there were many more active companies producing compact discs.  (If you want to have a sobering experience, casually inspect the spines of any fifty CDs in your library and note how many of those labels no longer exist.)  This, of course, has to do with the economy, an aging audience, and more. 

It has had an double-edged result.  On one hand, no more new issues from Chiaroscuro, no more Pablo, fewer ways for musicians to be encouraged by a label.  But because labels no longer exist, many energetic musicians have gone into business for themselves and produce their own discs.  

This can be a boon: musicians can record what they want, have it sound the way they want, without the interference of recording engineers or the heads of record companies . . . and splendid personal statements emerge.  But this asks musicians to be both courageous and affluent (or at least credit-worthy): a self-produced CD might require a $10,000 investment that the artist might get back over ten years of selling the discs one at a time on the gig.  We should all live and be well! 

(Musician joke: “My latest CD is a million-seller.  I’ve got a million in my cellar.”)

Many players I know have made a virtue of necessity, but I think many of them look back nostalgically to the dear dead days when they got a call to go to a studio at noon to make a date, they played their hearts out, they got paid, and eight months later they knew that the disc they had appeared on was being sold all over the world.  Yes, their control over the music was compromised, their pay was a percentage of the profit, but someone else was handling all the annoying business.  

What this means for someone like myself, reviewing CDs, is that a good deal of what I am asked to listen to is by artists new to me (a good thing) who are offering their own music (potentially a good thing).  And occasionally it leads me to sit up in my chair and say, “By God, (s)he’s got it!”  Melissa Collard was new to me when I first heard her OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, and she is one of those singers whose work I most treasure.  Mark Shane, Kevin Dorn, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Danny Tobias, Lyle Ritz, Andy Brown, Petra van Nuis, and more.  

But much of what I hear is both competent yet entirely forgettable.  I know that Lips Page said, “The material is immaterial,” but hand me a CD full of original compositions by a player and I wonder, “Gee, you’ve already decided that there’s nothing new for you to say on the blues or on I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR?”  Funny, that hasn’t occurred to Sonny Rollins.

And it is sad to receive a CD by a singer or musician, male or female, where great effort has gone into burnishing the exterior at the expense of other things.  When the artist credits his or her hair stylist and wardrobe person first, I think, “Oh no.  Repertoire, not manicure.  No one listens to the cover.” 

So my “figgishness” or “figitude” (both my own coinings) is a way to get back to what music means to me — a spiritual / intellectual / experience that makes me want to grin foolishly and shout exultantly.  I would indeed rather hear a wonderful performance of an original composition by musicians I don’t know than a tired rendition of OUR BUNGALOW OF DREAMS, but I need to hear jazz that makes me remember why I began to listen to the music in the first place: joy, inventiveness, clear delight in being alive in the face of death.  If your listening is purely an intellectual exercise and you find that gratifying, fine, but mine is tied up with the emotions.  Is the music beautiful?  Does it make me feel some strong emotion, preferably happiness?  Can I admire the players?            

So I close this post with a new example of FINEST FIG JAM — pure, organic, and locally sourced.  It’s another YouTube clip from the lucky and generous SFRaeAnn of the Eldorado Serenaders, whose front line is Don Neely on reeds, Robert Young on reeds, trumpet, and vocal, Dave Frey, plectrum banjo, Jim Young, tenor banjo, Steven Rose, sousaphone, Stan Greenberg, percussion.  This performance of BALTIMORE (one of those delightful songs-about-a-new-dance-craze) honors Bix and Wingy and Red, and I think this band is terribly, admirably brave to be shouting it out in a bookstore.  “Fit audience, though few,” said Milton, but he never had to worry about the tip jar.  It was recorded on October 25, 2009 at North Light Books in Cotati, California.  

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WARMED BY JAZZ

fireside20chatAlthough live jazz gives me more spiritual and emotional pleasure than I can say here, I admit to being hard to please.  Maybe it’s because I have heard so much transcendent music on records (from James P. in 1921 to the newest releases) and in person.  My memory is inconsistent, but I have lasting,sharp recollections of club dates.  The night at Condon’s where Ruby Braff kicked off “I Would Do Most Anything For You” at a wickedly fast tempo and drove the band across the finish line by simple stubborness.  When Benny Morton played the melody of “When You’re Smiling” two feet from my ear.   

So the bar (to use one of a dozen cliches) is set quite high, perhaps impossibly so.  And I am often discontented by my surroundings.  When I’m at a club, I wish the people around me would sit down and be still; when I’m at a concert, I long for the freedom musicians have to take chances and make mistakes they don’t always find while playing in a large hall. 

But something interesting happens — neurological or psychlogical or just idiosyncratic.  When I’m listening to jazz in performance, if I’m not transfixed, critical thoughts pop unbidden into my head.  I don’t invite them and wish they would go away and lie down.  All of these thoughts might seem unfair, of course, coming from someone who still aims for sub-amateur status on any of half-a-dozen instruments.  But I think, “That player has so much technique: when is he going to sing us a song?  Too many notes!”  “You — why don’t you lay out so we can hear what X is playing?”  Or “That tempo is too slow.” 

I don’t say these things aloud — I hope for a long lifespan — but the Beloved has had to put up with a good deal of sotto voce grumbling.  However, here’s the redeeming part I myself don’t understand: give me twelve hours, and the flaws, if they’re not mountainous, fade away.  Emotion recollected in tranquility, perhaps?  But the music takes on a golden sheen, and I think how fortunate I was to have been there. 

Last night was a special occasion: another of Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” concerts — celebrating his thirty-sixth anniversary! — held at the congenial Tribeca Arts Center (a pleasant hall in the Borough of Manhattan Community College). 

This, for faithful blog-readers, is the concert that Phil the groundhog was so insistent about.  I’m going to take him a jar of Trader Joe’s almond butter next time I visit him in Pennsylvania, to say thanks.

Jack was energetic, enthusiastic, and loquacious as ever — but all these are good things.  It’s a delight to see someone so genuinely animated by the music he is presenting, and jazz is sadly lacking in such commitment these days.  He told us that next year might be his final season — mournful news — unless more funding comes through.  Are there any wealthy jazz angels out there?  I’ll give you Jack’s phone number.

The first half of the concert was given over to David Ostwald’s Birdland band, augmented by pianist Mark Shane — Jon-Erik Kellso on cornet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and vocals, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Howard Alden on banjo, Kevin Dorn on drums, and David on tuba.  LIMEHOUSE BLUES started the good works with some Krupa-flavored tom tom work from Kevin that got us sitting forward expectantly before anyone else had sounded a note.  And this hot version was subtly shaped by a one-chorus duet between Jon-Erik and Mark, perhaps recalling Louis and Earl or Ruby and Dick Hyman.  LONESOME ROAD had a lovely Shane solo and some extraordinary broad-toned playing from Wycliffe, who (for sheer abandon) must be the most accomplished trombonist on the planet.  A rocking YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY (which David dedicated, with a grin, to the concert’s producer) began with the verse — a boon! — and Kellso pulled off a floating Louis bridge, a great suspended arch in the sky, during his second chorus.  (In the middle, there was a fascinating duet for clarinet and piano, one set of lines weaving around the other.)  Since young players don’t get tired, Anat stayed onstage with the rhythm section for a gallop through Morton’s SHREVEPORT STOMP which showed how she and Howard could improvise, conversationally and contrapuntally, at top speed.  For his feature, Wycliffe chose something so familiar that it’s rarely played as itself — I GOT RHYTHM, which gave him an opportunity to sing, something he does with great charm.  During his three vocal choruses, he made his way by great leaps from a respectful reading of the lyrics to great Leo Watson figures.  He stayed at the vocal microphone (with a sheet of lyrics helpfully provided by David) for a brooding WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, which began and ended with touching four-bar miniatures by Shane and had an interval of moody growling obbligato by Jon-Erik.  They closed the first half with a romp through ATLANTA BLUES (also known as “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”) — with a hilariously intent solo by Kevin.

That would have been enough for almost anyone — but the second half provided other delights.  One of them was the presence of Dick Hyman, now 82 or thereabouts, up from Florida, his virtuosity undiminished.  He performed two standards — BODY AND SOUL and IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (the latter with its pretty verse), showing how fertile his imagination is, how unbounded his energy.  Tatum, Bach, and McKenna, fugues and waltzes all put in appearances, but the result — sprawling and ingenious — was recognizable at every turn as pure Hyman.  In between, he paid tribute to the young man from Davenport with his original THINKING ABOUT BIX.  During his solo set, I became aware that the hall and the listeners were so quiet that the loud sound of Hyman’s tapping foot reverberated throughout the room.  Fats Waller got his nod with AFRICAN RIPPLES — a choice that made the gentleman next to me say happily to his Beloved, “I have the original 78,” beaming.  Hyman’s version was illuminated from within by his own ideas — it wasn’t a copy of the record — with a wonderful bounce.  A pensive, twining duet with Alden (now on guitar) on SOFTLY, IN A MORNING SUNRISE brought us from mid-Thirties Harlem to more harmonically exploratory lands.  It reminded me of one of my favorite recordings, the Pablo “Checkmate” — duets between Joe Pass and Jimmy Rowles. 

Then came the moments I had been waiting for.  I knew Joe Wilder (who will be 87 this month) was scheduled to play duets with Dick, and we could see him in the wings, his horns gleaming, waiting.  He came out and joined the fun for a fast SECRET LOVE, an inquiring, calling-in-the-highlands HOW ARE THINGS IN GLOCCA MORRA?, and SAMBA DE ORFEO.  Joe is a relentless critic of his own playing, and his brow was furrowed at some points, but a Wilder solo with a note or two that cracks is still a work of art — Joe, swimming upstream against the demands of metal tubing, lung power, and embouchure, is my hero. 

And the evening closed (as is Jack’s habit) with everyone on stage for a strutting performance of Waller’s THAT RHYTHM MAN, David Ostwald’s happily unhackneyed choice.  The band was flying, but the best part of this cheerful performance was that Mark and Dick did piano-acrobatics: you take the treble and I’ll take the bass; now, let’s switch; let’s each play sixteen bars.  Splendid, accomplished, and swinging.   

 It was frigid out last night — winds that would have done Coleman Hawkins proud made us all feel vulnerable and under-dressed.  But this concert let us warm ourselves through the music.   They don’t call it HOT JAZZ for nothing.  Highlights all ’round!