Tag Archives: Pete Brown

SPLENDIDLY GENUINE: “MORE OF THAT,” JACOB ZIMMERMAN and his PALS

This is not really a post about shopping, but since shopping is one of the experiences held in common by so many of us, it works as metaphor.  A dozen years ago, if I thought I needed a new shirt, I would have headed to The Mall, where I could gaze at two dozen machine-made shirts, identical except for size and perhaps color.  The plenitude was a reassuring reminder that we live in the Land of Too Much, and often I bought more than I needed.

As my clothing style became more personal, the racks of identical product no longer charmed.  I began to go thrift-shopping for the quest for unique pleasures.  Surprise was the rule, even among the inexplicable proliferation of plaid shirts (why?). I would spot something thirty shirts away, move towards it as if magnetized, and might have a small breath-taking experience.  “That’s for me!  I could wear that!  That looks like it belongs to me!”

Illustration by Jesse Rimler

Such impassioned bonding happens with music also: I was two minutes into the first track of a new CD — its cover above — and my mental soundtrack alternated between, “Oh, my goodness, this is wonderful!” and the more defensive, “You’re not getting this CD away from me.”  And then,addressing the invisible JAZZ LIVES audience, “You need to hear this,” I thought.

“This” is the debut CD of Jacob Zimmerman and his Pals called MORE OF  THAT, and to use my own catchphrase, it has increased my happiness tremendously.

The cover drawing, which I love, by Jesse Rimler, says much about the cheerful light-heartedness of the enterprise.  Why has this twenty-first century Nipper got his head in a protective cone?  Has he been biting himself?  Is the cone a visual joke about the morning-glory horn?  Is this the canine version of cupping a hand behind your ear to hear your singing better?  All I know is that this dog is reverently attentive.  You’ll understand why.

Here is Jacob’s website, and you can read about his musical associations here.

I had heard Jacob’s name bandied about most admiringly a few years ago; he appeared in front of me in the Soho murk of The Ear Inn and was splendidly gracious.  He’d also received the equivalent of the Legion of Honor: he was gigging with Ray Skjelbred.  But even these brightly-colored bits of praise did not prepare me for how good this CD is.

The overall ambiance is deep Minton’s 1941, Keynote, and Savoy Records sessions, that wonderful period of music where “swing” and “bop” cuddled together, swinging but not harmonically or rhythmically constrained.  And although Jacob and Pals have the recorded evidence firmly in their ears and hearts, and under their fingers as well, this is not Cryogenic Jazz or Swing Taxidermy (with apologies to Nipper’s grandchild on the cover).

As a leader, Jacob is wonderfully imaginative without being self-consciously clever (“Didja hear what the band did there?  Didja?”)  Each performance has a nifty arrangement that enhances the song rather than drawing attention from it — you could start with the title tune, MORE OF THAT, which Jacob told me is based on MACK THE KNIFE, “MORITAT,” so you’ll get the joke — which begins from elements so simple, almost monochromatic, and then builds.  Each arrangement makes full use of dynamics (many passages on this CD are soft — what a thing!), there’s some dark Ellingtonia and some rocking neo-Basie.  And each song is full of delightful sensations: when I get through listening to BALLIN’ THE JACK (a song often unintentionally brutalized) I think, “That’s under three minutes? How fulfilling.”  So the Pals are a friendly egalitarian organization with everyone getting chances to shine.

A few words about the compositions.  SIR CHARLES is Ray’s homage to our hero Sir Charles Thompson; Jacob says RADIATOR “was composed as a feature for Ray and was inspired by the Earl Hines record “Piano Man.” It’s based on “Shine.”  SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY “is a feature for bassist Matt Weiner and pays homage to the record of that tune by Lester Young and Slam Stewart.”  “FIRST THURSDAY is based on”Sunday.” My monthly gig at the jazz club “Egan’s Ballard Jam House” has happened every first Thursday for over 5 years.” And SCULPT-A-SPHERE “is based on “Nice Work If You Can Get It”…I tried to imagine what it would be like if Thelonious Monk and Lester Young wrote a tune together.”

Before I get deeper into the whirlpool of praise, some data.  Jacob plays alto and clarinet (more about that in a minute), aided immeasurably by: Matt Weiner, string bass; Josh Roberts, guitar; Ray Skjelbred, piano; D’Vonne Lewis, drums; Cole Schuster, guitar; Christian Pincock, trombone; Meredith Axelrod brings voice and guitar to the final track.  And the compositions: RADIATOR / SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY / FIRST THURSDAY / SONG OF THE ISLANDS / BLUE GUAIAC BLUES / BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES / IN A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN / MORE OF THAT / BALLIN’ THE JACK / BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME? / SCULPT-A-SPHERE / I AIN’T GOT NOBODY.  All immensely tasty, none crowding its neighbor.

This being the twenty-first century, many saxophonists live in a post-Parker era, which works for some. But Jacob has deeply understood that there are other sounds one can draw upon while playing that bent metal tube: a mix of Pete Brown (without the over-emphatic pulse), Hilton Jefferson (rhapsodic but tempered), and Lee Konitz (dry but not puckering the palate).  On clarinet, he suggests Barney Bigard but with none of the Master’s reproducible swoops and dives: all pleasing to the ear.

Because I have strongly defined tastes, I often listen to music with an editor’s ear, “Well, they’re dragging a little there.”  “I would have picked a brighter tempo.”  “Why only one chorus?” and other mind-debris that may be a waste of energy.  I don’t do that with MORE OF THAT, and (imagine a drumroll and cymbal crash) I love this CD so fervently that I will launch the JAZZ LIVES GUARANTEE.  Buy the disc.  Keep the jiffybag it came in.  Play it twice.  If you’re not swept away, write to me at swingyoucats@gmail.com, send me the CD and I’ll refund your money and postage.  I don’t think I will be reeling from a tsunami of mail, and should some people (inexplicably) not warm to this disc, I’ll have extra copies to give away.

You heard it here first.

May your happiness increase!

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“AND UNCLE TOM COBLEY (or COBLEIGH) AND ALL”

I just received this now out-of-print “Chronogical” Classics disc.

With all respect to Feather, journalist-publicist, promoter, pianist, composer, arranger of record sessions, I bought this rare item for the company he kept:

From left: Robert Goffin, Benny Carter, Louis, Feather, 1942

For me, the appeal of this now-rare disc in in sessions featuring Bobby Hackett, Leo Watson, Pete Brown, Joe Marsala, Joe Bushkin, George Wettling, Ray Biondi, Benny Carter, Billy Kyle, Hayes Alvis, Artie Shapiro, Cozy Cole, Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford, Remo Palmieri, Tiny Grimes, Jack Lesberg, Morey Feld, and two sessions featuring swinging British players.  I knew far less about trumpeter / singer Dave Wilkins, reedmen Andy McDevitt and Bertie King, pianist Will Solomon, guitarist Alan Ferguson, string bassist Len Harrison, or drummer Hymie Schneider.

These musicians (with Feather on the final two selections) were presented as LEONARD FEATHER AND YE OLDE ENGLISH SWYNGE BAND, and they recorded for Decca in London on September 12, 1938.

Here’s the personnel for the disc:

Listening in sequence, I discovered this side, which is now an instant favorite:

I hadn’t known this traditional English folksong, obviously updated, but the parade of names is very funny and definitely 1938 hip. I’m sorry the take is so short, because the band has a good time with the simplest material. A similar band had backed Fats Waller on recordings in April.  Was the idea of jamming on traditional folk material was modeled on Maxine Sullivan’s 1937 hits LOCH LOMOND and ANNIE LAURIE, perhaps on Ella Logan’s performances of folk songs swung, or a way for a recording company to avoid paying composer royalties.  Or both.

I searched for more information about WIDDICOMBE FAIR and found this wonderful animated film, hilarious and deft both:

Here are the complete lyrics — an oral narrative too long to reprint here, the moral being caution about lending important objects / animals / possessions. But a secondary moral is that anything can swing, in the right hands.

May your happiness increase!

WHAT A BAND! MICHAEL GAMBLE and THE RHYTHM SERENADERS

Yes, Virginia, there are many “swing” “bands” that “play” Thirties and Forties repertoire for dancers and listeners.  I could tell many a tale.  But Michael Gamble and The Rhythm Serenaders really swing, without a quotation mark in sight.  Maybe it’s because their leader is a swinging string bassist who’s thus situated in the heart of the rhythm section that the disc sounds so good.  Maybe it’s because Michael has surrounded himself with musicians who understand ensemble playing as well as their solo excursions.  Musicians, I point out, who understand Buck Clayton, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Allan Reuss, Pete Brown, Dicky Wells, Charlie Christian, Jo Jones, Billie Holiday without copying them.

Whatever magic it took to create this band and this CD is in the hearts and bodies of the creators, I can only imagine.  I can only comment on the gratifying results.

michael-gamble

Their debut CD is an authentic-sounding tasting menu of good things.  If you’re like me, a close listener who has many Swing Heroes and Heroines, the list of people on the disc will immediately act as confirmation that a purchase would be a good idea (you have a birthday behind you or coming soon, correct?):

Michael Gamble, Bass / Keenan McKenzie, Clarinet and Saxes / Jonathan Stout, Lead Guitar / Paul Cosentino, Clarinet and Saxes / Russ Wilson, Vocals and Drums / Brooks Prumo, Rhythm Guitar / Gordon Au, Trumpet / Craig Gildner, Piano / Noah Hocker, Trumpet / James Posedel, Piano / Josh Collazo, Drums / Lucian Cobb, Trombone / Laura Windley, Vocal / David Wilken, Trombone.

And the repertoire: BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD / I NEVER KNEW / SLIDIN’ AND GLIDIN’ / SEVEN COME ELEVEN / PICK-A-RIB / A MELLOW BIT OF RHYTHM / BUG IN A RUG / HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM / WHO’S SORRY NOW? / WOKE UP CLIPPED / ROSE ROOM / WHAT A NIGHT, WHAT A MOON, WHAT A GIRL / CRAZY ABOUT LESTER /SCOTTIE / SMOKE GETS IN YORU EYES.

You’ll notice that this band has dug deeply and wisely into the music rather than offering the standard two dozen overplayed standards of the swing era.  Rocking tempos with lovely fervent playing and singing throughout.  I guarantee it.

And here’s an audio-visual sampler, quite authentic and lively:

 

Here is the spot that’s hot: where you can purchase this disc. Even if you’re like me, whose swing dancing is the happy motion of my head and my right foot — an imagined choreography much more than a full-body actualized one — you will love the music that Michael and the band create.  It feels real — rhythmically, melodically, and spiritually.  (If you are a swing dancer, you surely have encountered this band somewhere and already have purchased their music, which amounts to a compact party.  Just add bottled water and snacks.)

And here is the band’s schedule: coming soon to a waxed floor near you!

May your happiness increase!

THANK YOU, SIR CHARLES (1918-2016)

Sir Charles Trio

The news from Yoshio Toyama (from Mike Fitzgerald’s online jazz research group):

“Sir Charles Thompson left us on June 16th in Japan.

He was a very unique pianist with style in between swing and bebop, also very close to great Count Basie’s piano style. He was married to Japanese wife Makiko Thompson in 1990s, lived in Japan in 1990s and 2002 to this day. Funeral will be held in Tokyo, Japan, Higashi Kurume, by his wife Makiko Thompson and family and friends on June 21st.

He was born March 21, 1918, and he just turned 98 last March. He started as professional when he was very young, played with and admired people like Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins . . . .

He was very active in Bebop era also, and his style has lots of Bebop flavor mixed with mellow swing. He was very good golf player too.

He left so many great jazz records including “Vic Dickenson Showcase”. In Japan, he made recording with Yoshio and Keiko Toyama in late 1990s.  Had appeared in many concerts held by Toyama’s Wonderful World Jazz Foundation.  Sir Charles and Toyama stayed very close friends.

We all miss him. Yoshio and Keiko”

sircharlesthompson

Readers will know that I have worked very hard to keep this blog focused on the living thread of the music I and others love.  Were it to become a necrology (and the temptation is powerful) it would slide into being JAZZ DIES.  But I make exceptions for musicians whose emotional connection with me is powerful.  I never met Sir Charles, but he was an integral part of recordings I loved and knew by heart forty-five years ago.  Here he is in 1955 with Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones.  You could make a case that anyone would swing with those three people, but Sir Charles was consistently his own subtle swing engine: he could light up the sonic universe all by himself.

Hearing that, you can understand why Lester Young knighted him.

And — from that same period — another glorious Vanguard session featuring Vic Dickenson (the second volume, since I presume the first was a success, both musically and for its wonderful clarity of sound) on EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, where Vic and Sir Charles are joined by Shad Collins, trumpet; Ruby Braff, cornet; Ed Hall, clarinet; Steve Jordan, guitar; Walter Page, string bass; Jo Jones, drums:

That’s been one of my favorite recordings since my teens, and it continues to cheer and uplift.  But listen to Sir Charles — not only in solo, but as a wonderfully subtle ensemble player.  With a less splendid pianist (I won’t name names) these soloists would have been less able to float so gracefully.

If you measure a musician’s worth by the company (s)he keeps, Sir Charles was indeed remarkable: the pianist of choice for the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions; work with Coleman Hawkins early and late, with Charlie Parker both in the studio and on the air in Boston, with Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Buck Clayton, Danny Barker, Lucky Millinder, Shadow Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, Pete Brown, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Rushing, Earl Bostic, Ike Quebec, Buddy Tate, Paul Gonsalves, Paul Quinichette, Joe Williams, Harry Edison, Ben Webster, Eddie Condon, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bobby Hackett, Don Byas, Humphrey Lyttelton, Herbie Steward . . . and on and on.

If you want to hear more of Sir Charles, YouTube is full of musical evidence, from the 1945 sides with Bird and with Hawkins, all the way up to 2012 with Yoshio’s band (playing, among other things, RUSSIAN LULLABY) and as a speaking member of a panel — with Allan Eager and Hank Jones — talking about Charlie Parker.

But I will remember Sir Charles as the man who — in his own way and with his own sound — played a good deal like Basie, but understanding that impulse from within rather than copying him, adding in Fats, Wilson, and more advanced harmonies.  His sound, his touch, and his swing are unmistakable, and although he lived a very long life and had a long performance career, his death leaves a void in the swing universe.

I’ll let the poetic pianist Ray Skjelbred have the last word: “He was a perfect player who knew the force of silence around his notes. An inspiration to me.”

There is a silence where Sir Charles Thompson used to be.

“THE WORLD’S SMALLEST BRASSBAND”: JIM and JOEP, EARLY IN THE DAY (Terneuzen, the Netherlands, 1985)

Yes, video footage of the great and elusive Jim Goodwin, whom I’ve been writing about most recently here.

I cannot tell whether this was somewhat informally recorded or if it was local television coverage, but the music is what matters: an incomplete WHEN YOU’RE SMILING, introduction of the band members, BLUE MONK (faded out), CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO, (again faded out):

When, last year, I asked Joep Peeters, the excellent altoist [who evokes both Cap’n John Handy and Pete Brown here], for information on this video, he graciously replied, “The tuba player is John Rijnen and the drummer is Jan-Willem van Zwol. The Terneuzen Festival was a yearly event with lots of music and lots of fun. That year we decided to be the world’s smallest brassband.  But we had to leave Breda around 8 am and start at 11.00 am.  So what you see is not our “Finest Hour” (Churchill).  It’s the start of a day that lasted till 2 am!”

They surely sound fine to me — with a rocking momentum that belies the early hour.

May your happiness increase!

“DANCING” WITH THE STARS — a/k/a ECHOES OF SWING: COLIN T. DAWSON, CHRIS HOPKINS, BERND LHOTZKY, OLIVER MEWES

 

ECHOES OF SWING

The wonderful quartet ECHOES OF SWING is often compared to the John Kirby Sextet, and with some justification.  They both create intricate lines; they turn corners adeptly at top speed; they like surprises; they often play with classical themes.  But I need to write a heresy here.  Stand back.

I think ECHOES OF SWING has well and truly outstripped its ancestor: they are satisfying in ways the Kirby group couldn’t have imagined.  There!  I’ve said it.

This quartet can be energized up to 11, but they are also capable of great yearning, quiet serenities.  And they like the groove (not even the slowest track drags) but don’t get stuck in it — each track has small jubilant surprises in it, and the CD never feels like an hour of the same thing, a salad that’s really a huge bowl of Swiss chard.

The four heroes at work are Colin T. Dawson, trumpet / vocal; Chris Hopkins, alto saxophone; Bernd Lhotzky, piano; Oliver Mewes, drums.  Chris, Colin, and Bernd have also contributed originals and arrangements.

And they have a new CD — called DANCING, appropriately.

Rarely do I quote from other people’s liner notes . . . but these tell the tale —

‘…a waltz through the history of jazz, an anthology which takes a wry look at the theme of dance in jazz, occasionally heading off at a tangent, and making some very surprising connections. It begins at the very beginning with Johann Sebastian Bach. A Gavotte from the English suite No. 6, a baroque dance, is transformed into a melodic platform for an effervescent drum feature. A journey through James P. Johnson’s ‘Charleston’ (‘straightened out’ into a modern jazz waltz), Scott Joplin’s ‘Ragtime Dance’, Cole Porter’s ‘Dream Dancing’, or Sidney Bechet’s ‘Premier Bal’ to Pixinguinha’s Brasilian Choro ‘Diplomata’, Bernd Lhotzky’s Cuban Bolero ‘Salir a la Luz’ or the exotic Ellington-like timbre of ‘Ballet Of The Dunes’ from Chris Hopkins. This is dance in jazz, but not as we know it. For a start, a third of the tracks are original compositions, and all of the remaining tunes have been not so much arranged, but more like given a complete and thorough overhaul. The older selections now possess a new ‘hipness’ and have been brought stylistically right up to the present day. This album presents the winning combination of flawless musicianship, a comprehensive knowledge of music history, good taste and judgement, and a sly sense of humour. Each of the tracks of “Dancing” communicates simultaneously and directly with the brain, the emotions and down to your feet. There is quite simply a very wide range of delights for the listener to enjoy.’

A few words more.  When I listen to EOS, I am always amazed by two things at once: the band’s nifty and expansive ensemble work, polished but not stiff.  It’s clear they rehearse, but rehearsal has not stifled their essential joyful spirits. And then there are the soloists.  If you don’t follow the band, the names of the four musicians may be slightly new to you, but they are sterling: Oliver is one of the finest drummers playing today — not an antiquarian, but a swinger who is so aware of the rollicking obligation to keep the other players afloat and make beautiful sounds.  Bernd is a lyrical hot expert orchestral player, but even when he plays one note, it has a splendid epigrammatic shape.  Colin is not only a fine hot trumpeter, lyrical or edgy as needed, but also a very warm persuasive singer, who moves us in his first eight bars.  And when Chris plays, I sense Benny Carter, Pete Brown, and Rudy Williams grinning: his sweet-tart tone, his blazing attack, his innate rhythmic energies are all memorable.

As a postscript, I have to apologize to the four gentlemen of EOS for taking so long to bring this disc to my readers’ attention.  I loved it instantly; I have played it two dozen times . . . but I was intimidated by its glowing vibrant variety. “What can I say about this except BUY IT NOW?”  But now’s the time.  It’s glorious. Here is the EOS CD page, and the Echoes Of Swing Facebook page. You can find the disc through iTunes and in all the old familiar places.

A working jazz band, these days, is a true marvel.  Echoes of Swing is a marvel well beyond that.

May your happiness increase!

THE TRIUMPHS OF JAMES P. JOHNSON

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Baby Dodds, 1946, by Charles Peterson

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Danny Barker, 1946, by Charles Peterson

When the Student is more dramatically visible than the Teacher, even the most influential mentor and guide might become obscure.  James Price Johnson, pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, has become less prominent to most people, even those who consider themselves well-versed in jazz piano.  He was a mentor and teacher — directly and indirectly — of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum. “No James P., no them,” to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie. But even with memorable compositions and thirty years of recording, he has been recognized less than he deserves.

CAROLINA SHOUT eBay OKeh

 

Fats Waller eclipsed his teacher in the public eye because Waller was a dazzling multi-faceted entertainer and personality, visible in movies, audible on the radio.  Fats had a recording contract with the most prominent record company, Victor, and the support of that label — he created hit records for them — in regular sessions from 1934 to 1943.  Tatum, Basie, and Ellington — although they paid James P. homage in words and music — all appeared to come fully grown from their own private universes.  Basie and Ellington were perceived not only as pianists but as orchestra leaders who created schools of jazz composition and performance; Tatum, in his last years, had remarkable support from Norman Granz — thus he left us a series of memorable recordings.

Many of the players I’ve noted above were extroverts (leaving aside the reticent Basie) and showmanship come naturally to them.  Although the idea of James P., disappointed that his longer “serious” works did not receive recognition, retiring to his Queens home, has been proven wrong by Johnson scholar Scott Brown (whose revised study of James P. will be out in 2017) he did not get the same opportunities as did his colleagues.  James P. did make records, he had club residencies at Cafe Society and the Pied Piper, was heard at an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert and was a regular feature on Rudi Blesh’s THIS IS JAZZ . . . but I can look at a discography of his recordings and think, “Why isn’t there more?”  Physical illness accounts for some of the intermittent nature of his career: he had his first stroke in 1940 and was ill for the last years of his life.

There will never be enough.  But what we have is brilliant.  And the reason for this post is the appearance in my mailbox of the six-disc Mosaic set which collects most of James P.’s impressive recordings between 1921 and 1943.  (Mosaic has also issued James P.’s session with Eddie Condon on the recent Condon box, and older issues offered his irreplaceable work for Blue Note — solo and band — in 1943 / 44, and the 1938 HRS sides as well.)

JAMES P. Mosaic

Scott Brown, who wrote the wise yet terse notes for this set, starts off by pointing to the wide variety of recordings Johnson led or participated in this period.  And even without looking at the discography, I can call to mind sessions where Johnson leads a band (with, among others, Henry “Red” Allen,  J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett — or another all-star group with Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Lionel Hampton on drums, Artie Bernstein, Ed Hall, and Higginbotham); accompanies the finest blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, is part of jivey Clarence Williams dates — including two takes of the patriotic 1941 rouser UNCLE SAMMY, HERE I AM — works beautifully with Bessie Smith, is part of a 1929 group with Jabbo Smith, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Fats Waller on piano); is a sideman alongside Mezz Mezzrow, Frank Newton, Pete Brown, John Kirby, swings out on double-entendre material with Teddy Bunn and Spencer Williams. There’s a 1931 band date that shows the powerful influence of Cab Calloway . . . and more.  For the delightful roll call of musicians and sides (some never before heard) check the Mosaic site here.

(On that page, you can hear his delicate, haunting solo BLUEBERRY RHYME, his duet with Bessie Smith on her raucous HE’S GOT ME GOING, the imperishable IF DREAMS COME TRUE, his frolicsome RIFFS, and the wonderful band side WHO?)

I fell in love with James P.’s sound, his irresistible rhythms, his wonderful inventiveness when I first heard IF DREAMS COME TRUE on a Columbia lp circa 1967.  And then I tried to get all of his recordings that I could — which in the pre-internet, pre-eBay era, was not easy: a Bessie Smith accompaniment here, a Decca session with Eddie Dougherty, the Blue Notes, the Stinson / Asch sides, and so on.  This Mosaic set is a delightful compilation even for someone who, like me, knows some of this music by heart because of forty-plus years of listening to it.  The analogy I think of is that of an art student who discovers a beloved artist (Rembrandt or Kahlo, Kandinsky or Monet) but can only view a few images on museum postcards or as images on an iPhone — then, the world opens up when the student is able to travel to THE museum where the idol’s works are visible, tangible, life-sized, arranged in chronology or thematically . . . it makes one’s head spin.  And it’s not six compact discs of uptempo stride piano: the aural variety is delicious, James P.’s imagination always refreshing.

The riches here are immense. All six takes of Ida Cox’s ONE HOUR MAMA. From that same session, there is a pearl beyond price: forty-two seconds of Charlie Christian, then Hot Lips Page, backed by James P., working on a passage in the arrangement.  (By the way, there are some Charlie Christian accompaniments in that 1939 session that I had never heard before, and I’d done my best to track down all of the Ida Cox takes.  Guitar fanciers please note.)  The transfers are as good as we are going to hear in this century, and the photographs (several new to me) are delights.

Hearing these recordings in context always brings new insights to the surface. My own epiphany of this first listening-immersion is a small one: the subject is HOW COULD I BE BLUE? (a record I fell in love with decades ago, and it still delights me).  It’s a duo-performance for James  P. and Clarence Williams, with scripted vaudeville dialogue that has James P. as the 1930 version of Shorty George, the fellow who makes love to your wife while you are at work, and the received wisdom has been that James P. is uncomfortable with the dialogue he’s asked to deliver, which has him both the accomplished adulterer and the man who pretends he is doing nothing at all.  Hearing this track again today, and then James P. as the trickster in I FOUND A NEW BABY, which has a different kind of vaudeville routine, it struck me that James P. was doing his part splendidly on the first side, his hesitations and who-me? innocence part of his character.  He had been involved with theatrical productions for much of the preceding decade, and I am sure he knew more than a little about acting.  You’ll have to hear it for yourself.

This, of course, leaves aside the glory of his piano playing.  I don’t think hierarchical comparisons are all that useful (X is better than Y, and let’s forget about Z) but James P.’s melodic improvising, whether glistening or restrained, never seems a series of learned motives.  Nothing is predictable; his dancing rhythms (he is the master of rhythmic play between right and left hands) and his melodic inventiveness always result in the best syncopated dance music.  His sensitivity is unparalleled.  For one example of many, I would direct listeners to the 1931 sides by Rosa Henderson, especially DOGGONE BLUES: where he begins the side jauntily, frolicking as wonderfully as any solo pianist could — not racing the tempo or raising his volume — then moderates his volume and muffles his gleaming sound to provide the most wistful counter-voice to Henderson’s recital of her sorrows.  Another jaunty interlude gives way to the most tender accompaniment.  I would play this for any contemporary pianist and be certain of their admiration.

I am impressed with this set not simply for the riches it contains, but for the possibility it offers us to reconsider one of my beloved jazz heroes.  Of course I would like people to flock to purchase it (in keeping with Mosaic policy, it is a limited edition, and once it’s gone, you might find a copy on eBay for double price) but more than that, I would like listeners to do some energetic reconstruction of the rather constricted canon of jazz piano history, which usually presents “stride piano” as a necessary yet brief stop in the forward motion of the genre or the idiom — as it moves from Joplin to Morton to Hines to Wilson to Tatum to “modernity.”  Stride piano is almost always presented as a type of modernized ragtime, a brief virtuosic aberration with a finite duration and effect. I would like wise listeners to hear James P. Johnson as a pianistic master, his influence reaching far beyond what is usually assumed.

JAMES P. postage stamp

I was happy to see James P. on a postage stamp, but it wasn’t and isn’t enough, as the Mosaic set proves over and over again. I would like James P. Johnson to be recognized as “the dean of jazz pianists”:

jamesp-johnsongravemarker

Listen closely to this new Mosaic box set six compact discs worth of proof that the genius of James P. Johnson lives on vividly.

May your happiness increase!