Tag Archives: Pier 23

LOVE IN BLOOM: RUMINATIONS by RAY SKJELBRED (July 8, 2014)

Creating beauty is not easy. In surroundings that may be hostile to it, the energy necessary for creation requires a particular focus and perseverance. The act of creation may seem quietly defiant. In their diligence, the artists tell us, “We don’t really need you all to sit in rapt silence; we will keep on our own paths — doing what we know how to do, doing what we live for — even if you don’t notice.”

Such was the case when Ray Skjelbred played solo piano last month at Pier 23. And since “jazz” is often characterized as rhythmically propulsive, engaging our senses through hectic energy, I offer Ray’s musings on three pieces that are, like the voice of Cordelia, “soft and low.” Two are defined as love songs; the third sounds like one as well, even though its title has no romance in it.

Listen closely. Beauty never goes out of fashion.

MARY’S SPECIAL (for and by Mary Lou Williams):

YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME (with echoes of Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rushing, Lester Young):

LOVE IN BLOOM (for Bing Crosby and Jack Benny):

When I sent these three videos to Ray for his comments, he wrote back, “Many years ago when I first started playing piano and visiting Berkeley I used to stay with Dick Oxtot and I learned later that his daughter would quietly stand behind me while I played, look at the pattern in my Hawaiian shirt, then imagine stories that went with the music and the pattern. Your point of view reminded me of that.”

I encourage you to invent their own sweet narratives while Ray creates his own variations on love in bloom, a garden of sounds.

May your happiness increase! 

“SWEETIE DEAR”: MIKE LIPSKIN AT THE PIANO (August 15, 2013)

Authenticity is immediately recognizable, no matter where one finds it.

Hearing Mike Lipskin at the piano, it’s immediately evident that he didn’t learn his stride from a DVD or a book of transcriptions.  No, he lived and breathed it as a young man — studying with Willie “the Lion” Smith, learning from Cliff Jackson, Willie Gant, and by playing alongside such modern masters as Dick Hyman (their friendship goes back 45 years and continues to this day).  Experience and improvisation rather than copying gestures and figures.

Although Mike is seriously influenced by the great players who were the Lion’s contemporaries — James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Don Lambert — and later generations, his style is much more than pastiche: he has his own sound, a steady yet flexible pace, delicious voicings, a nimble tread at the keyboard.

In addition, Mike is a humorist at play: in any performance, there will be playful surprises — modulations up a step or down, key changes for a few bars, and more.  Anything to keep the terrain from becoming too level and too predictable.

The Beloved and I had the great good fortune to hear a mini-recital by Mike, happily at his own piano in his Nicasio home (with the very loving audience including his wife, the swinging Dinah Lee).  Here’s one of the highlights: Mike’s solo rendition of SWEETIE DEAR, composed by Joe Jordan, most well-known for the quick one-step recording from 1932 by Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier, and Hank Duncan (as the New Orleans Feetwarmers) — riffing seriously all the way through:

Mike’s version is calmer, although subtly propulsive.  In the great piano tradition, his sweet improvisation begins in affectionate rubato mode (love can’t be rushed), moves into a strolling tempo, and then to a jaunt before settling down for a conclusion.

On the West Coast, Mike can be found at Bix Restaurant and Pier 23 in San Francisco, and there will be another Stride Summit in Filoli in 2014.  You can keep up with him on his Facebook page or website.

He brings joy, and young players should be coming to study him.  He has much to share with us — not only about music but about joy.

And if you missed the Stride Summits of August 2013, or the resulting videos, you have only to click here to admire Mike amidst his friends Dick Hyman, Stephanie Trick, Clint Baker, and Paul Mehling.  Swing, you cats!

May your happiness increase!

SPREADIN’ RHYTHM AROUND, 2013: MIKE LIPSKIN STRIDES!

I’d heard pianist Mike Lipskin in New York City in the Seventies, and treasured his recording with his mentor Willie “The Lion” Smith, CALIFORNIA HERE I COME — appropriately — but what the Beloved and I heard tonight at San Francisco’s Pier 23 was a delightful revelation.  Mike led a trio with Clint Baker, trumpet and clarinet, and Paul Mehling, leader of the Hot Club of San Francisco, guitar.  Their interplay was delicious — a gleeful tossing back and forth of phrases and musical ideas — but Mike has remained one of the contemporary giants of Harlem stride piano.

Stride playing is an athletic art (ask anyone from Stephanie Trick to Dick Hyman to Rossano Sportiello) and even the greatest players occasionally falter as they come out of middle age.  Mike Lipskin’s fastball still blazes.

It’s not simply that he plays rocketing tempos, but his time is steady (no matter what the groove) and his inventions dazzling without being exhibitionistic.  And his style is his own — not simply a collection of mannerisms learned from the Lion and the great players he heard and followed — Donald Lambert, Cliff Jackson, and others.  So although he may whimsically offer a Fats gesture or a Lion roar, he is always creating small surprises, key changes and small modulations in the manner of a far less rococo Tatum.  He doesn’t call attention to such things, and they could slide by listeners absorbed in the greater aural picture, but his playing is a series of small explosions that serve the song rather than detract from it.

Mike, Clint, and Paul offered music that was at once complex, endlessly rooted in the traditions and common language, but remained sweet and clear.  Special pleasures were several Ellington medleys, a rocking SPREADIN’ RHYTHM AROUND, a somber I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA, a sweet MEMORIES OF YOU and IF I HAD YOU, and a few hallowed but little-played Thirties songs, ZING! WENT THE STRINGS OF MY HEART and I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU — all played in ways that were both witty and heartfelt. Clint and Paul distinguished themselves by deep melodic playing, taking risks, and swinging out in ensemble and solo.

Someone as devoted to his video camera as I am occasionally takes a rest: I’d decided it would be a refreshing way to spend an evening with the Beloved where I wasn’t staring at the viewfinder, so there is no video evidence to accompany this.  But anyone willing to spend an extra minute on YouTube can find videos of this trio captured by the assiduous RaeAnn Berry . . . and I might have some good things for JAZZ LIVES in future.  Mike will be playing solo at Bix Restaurant in San Francisco this coming Saturday and two Sundays a month (call ahead) and you can visit here to keep up with his schedule and recordings.

He’s absolutely genuine: a true explorer of those sacred arts.

May your happiness increase!

HIS HONOR IS ON THE BENCH: RAY SKJELBRED PLAYS! (September 2011)

Ray Skjelbred is back in his element and playing better than ever — full of the real down-home spirit.

Here’s BLUESIANA (by Frank Melrose) — dedicated to his daughter, Aunt Ida Melrose!  And this video (taken September 13, 2011 at San Francisco’s Pier 23) has a real rarity enclosed: a casual conversation between the subject, Mr. Skjelbred, and the diligent videographer from north central Texas, Ms. Rae Ann Berry:

And an older, sadder tune — one I associate with Clarence Williams and King Oliver, WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DO? (the eternal question):

Two days earlier, Ray and his Cubs performed in Sacramento, California, for the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society.  Here are a few videos from that date — with Ray joined by Katie Cavera on guitar, Kim Cusack on clarinet, Clint Baker on bass, and Hal Smith on drums.

Here’s BULL FROG BLUES:

One of my favorite songs — for the musical line, the hopeful romance of the lyrics, and the echoes of Louis and Ruby Braff, HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY:

MY GALVESTON GAL will never win awards for folk poetry, but Henry Red Allen, Benny Morton, and Coleman Hawkins recorded it in 1933 — that’s good enough for me:

That sweet zephyr in the air?  That’s BREEZE (BLOW MY BABY BACK TO ME):

And to send you out in the right mood, here’s a stomping SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE (it was a dance):

Hot Chicago jazz for this century and for all time — thanks to Ray, Rae Ann, Clint, Kim, Katie, and Hal.

THREE FOR LOUIS: MARTY EGGERS and FRIENDS at PIER 23 (May 2, 2011)

My West Coast role model Rae Ann Berry was on the move again in the beginning of May 2011 and she captured this hot afternoon session at Pier 23 in San Francisco.

It’s a splendid cross-generational encounter, the kind of music that results when experienced jazz players who know the common language and history get together and have their say, individually and collectively.

The bow-tied gent in front is cornetist Jim Cullum; well behind him in the shades is Leon Oakley, also on cornet; to their left is clarinet hero Bill Carter; Marty Eggers (often on bass) is stompin’ ’em down at the piano, J. Hansen doing the same at his drum kit.  Although my attention is usually focused on the cornetists, Hansen is solid, his sounds colorful; Marty is often thinking about Morton, and Bill Carter sounds exactly like himself — perfectly surprising, heartfelt, witty, brave.

Although Rae Ann recorded fifteen performances, I’ve chosen three I like very much as homages to Louis.

The first comes from the time when Louis was just up from New Orleans, “Little Louis,” although he was hardly slender, playing alongside his musical father, King Joe Oliver, in the Creole Jazz Band: RIVERSIDE BLUES:

And something from the Clarence Williams period (the Red Onion Jazz Babies), a hot CAKEWALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME where one of the gentlemen of the ensemble, obviously inspired, bursts into song to tell us all about those champions:

Here’s the closing selection of the Louis-evocation, what I think of as the National Anthem of our music, two cornets entwining on WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH:

To see the dozen other performances that the diligent Ms. Berry has captured for us and for posterity, visit her YouTube channel:

http://www.youtube.com/user/SFRaeAnn

It’s moments like these that make a man think of pulling up his New York roots and moving — with the Beloved, CDs, turntable, computers, and tea strainer — to California.  Could one of my readers find me an income that will run for the next ten years so that this might be accomplished?

VIDEOGRAPHERS THREE!

What do Rae Ann Berry, Elin Smith, and Lisa (Mook) Ryan have in common?  They’re all women who have a deep involvement in jazz, even though they don’t play instruments.  Nor are they married to instrumentalists or players. 

All three are very creative members of the jazz audience — which is often more male than female.  But they do more than sit and applaud: they are improvisers behind the camera, video artists. 

Rae Ann is known to many by her YouTube channel name — SFRaeAnn — and she takes her camera to jazz happenings on the West Coast: regularly, she finds Clint Baker and his band at Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park, or a solo piano recital by the esteemed Ray Skjelbred at Pier 23 in San Francisco, as well as regularly videorecording jazz fetival performances.  Here are two of her most recent captures:

From July 20, 2010, here’s Ray working his deep-blue way through KMH DRAG, an impromptu blues line created by Max Kaminsky, Freddie Moore, and Art Hodes for a memorable Blue Note record date in (I believe) 1944:

And ten days later, Rae Ann recorded Clint and friends at Cafe Borrone, playing HINDUSTAN.  That’s Clint, clarinet; Leon Oakley, trumpet and necktie; Jim Klippert, trombone; Jason Vanderford, guitar; Bill Reinhart, bass; Steve Apple, drums; and Robert Young, banjo.  There’s good rocking tonight, New Orleans-style:

Elin Smith lives in England, and it was my good fortune to meet her and Ron, her husband, last year at Whitley Bay and again this year.

Elin loves to record jazz performances, but also is fascinated by composing films: her YouTube channel is “elinshouse,” and here she’s trained her lens on two performances by Thomas Winteler, who sounds more like Sidney Bechet than anyone I’ve ever  heard.  These songs are from the most recent Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival, where Thomas was joined by my hero Bent Persson on trumpet, Michel Bard on reeds, Lou Laprete on piano, Henri Lamaire on bass, and Ron Houghton on drums for ALLIGATOR CRAWL:

And a triumphant POTATO HEAD BLUES.  Like its predecessor, it suggests what might have happened if Sidney had brought his clarinet into the OKeh studios while Louis and his Hot Seven were recording:

Finally, there’s Lisa (Mook) Ryan, another Californian. 

Lisa is intrigued not only by the music of Bix Beiderbecke but by the people who continue to investigate it, play it, and keep his legacy alive.  She’s done wonderfully atmospheric films set to Bix’s music.  Here’s IN THE DARK (as played by Dick Hyman) which she’s used atmospherically — creating juxtapositions of slowly-observed still photographs — to muse on what Bix experienced and felt in the year 1928, all seen as shades of light, shadow, and blackness.  Other impressionistic creations of Lisa’s can be seen on her “MookRyan” channel:

 Most recently, under the heading of “MookCam,” she’s captured cornetist Andy Schumm in performance.  Although youthful, Andy has so many fans with video cameras (including myself) that he might be the most-documented jazz musician of the last two or three years — a singular tribute to his talent and the affection it inspires! 

Here are Andy and His Gang at the Putnam Museum, on July 22, 2010.  Andy is playing Bix’s cornet, John Otto on clarinet and sax, Vince Giordano on bass sax/tuba/string bass, Dave Bock on trombone, David Boeddinghaus on the Beiderbecke family piano, Leah Bezin on banjo, and Josh Duffee on drums for a merging of CLARINET MARMALADE and SINGIN’ THE BLUES:

The generous creativity of RaeAnn, Elin, and Lisa inspires us!

RAY SKJELBRED: TWO MOODS (June 8, 2010)

Luckily for us, Rae Ann Berry took her video equipment down to San Francisco’s Pier 23 to capture the esteemed pianist Ray Skjelbred on YouTube.  She downloaded seven solo pieces by Ray, which you may find on her “SFRaeAnn” channel.  Here are two that summon up the emotional depths that Ray is known for.  The first is a properly moody version of Ellington’s THE MOOCHE, steadily, darkly, moving:

But all is not ruminative minor musings, for Ray likes to romp.  His sound and attack are his own, although it wouldn’t take a great deal of close listening to hear a Joe Sullivan right-hand splash that lands with the force and accuracy of an Olympic gymnast, a Hines octave or tremolo, and Ray’s own variations on left-hand patterns.  Here his choice of repertoire is reminiscent of Fats, who recorded this pop hit in 1935: I’M LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY:

I’m especially amused and pleased that at the end of this clip Ray leans forward into the camera to concisely explicate the lyrics for us.  How very gracious!