Tag Archives: Ray Bryant

“LOVE THEM MADLY”: KANAN, FOSTER, & ARNEDO TRIO PLAYS ELLINGTON AND STRAYHORN

Some music you have to work hard to embrace, and many listeners relish the labor.  But other music, no less subtle or rewarding, opens its arms to you in the first four bars.  A new CD by Michael Kanan, piano; Dee Jay Foster, string bass; Guillem Arnedo, drums, is a wonderful example of love made audible.

If these names are new to you, please put down whatever you’re attempting to multi-task (on or with) and listen to this leisurely reading of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE from a live performance in 2017:

This trio also knows how to relax, thus, that rarity, a picture of jazz musicians taking their ease outdoors:

You might know that Michael Kanan is one of JAZZ LIVES’ heroes, not only in this country, but internationally.  And the lineage is very pleasing: the saxophone master Joel Press introduced me to Michael, and (aurally) Michael introduced me to Guillem and Dee Jay.  For the past decade, Michael spends part of each summer as artist-in-residence at the Begues Jazz Camp, where he’s forged deep musical relationships with these two musical intuitives.  The CD came out of a series of concerts the trio did.  As Michael says, “There is space, swing, surprises and lots of love. We have tried to capture the spontaneity of the moment in time – a good conversation between the three of us.”

Instead of the usual liner notes, the CD offers splendid artwork by Maria Pichel, who combines bright colors and delicacy to mirror the music within.  So here are a few (unsolicited) lines from me.

The late Roswell Rudd told me in 2012, “Playing your personality is what this music is all about. . . . You know, this is a music where you are playing off other people, and you really have to be listening and responding and respecting and complementing what’s going on around you.”

The personalities that come through so clearly here are gentle and intense at once: musicians inspired by the originals but aware that reverent innovation is the only tribute.  The magnificent Ellington and Strayhorn compositions are an indelible offering.  They aren’t obscure or at least they shouldn’t be, and that asks contemporary artists the question, “All right — what are you going to say about these pieces?”

One approach is reverence taken all the way: a 2018 piano trio could do its best to replicate Ellington, Blanton, Greer, or Strayhorn, Wendell Marshall, Woodyard.  Conversely, the improvisers could take the originals and, after one reasonably polite chorus, jump into outer space, perhaps never to return.  The Kanan, Foster, Arnedo trio modifies these extremes by creating statements showing their affection for the strong melodies, harmonies, rhythms — but they know that “playing their personalities” is what Ellington and Strayhorn did, and would approve of.  So the CD is a series of sweet variations on themes, where (to borrow from Teddy Wilson), “it’s the little things that mean so much.”

In the quiet world of this CD, even a slight tempo change means that listeners have found themselves in a new space, as if you’d come home to find that your partner had repainted the light-gray living room walls a gray with a blue undertone.

What I hear on this disc is the confident playful assurance of musicians who know each other well, are respectful but also relaxed and brave.  Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem are melodists who work together in kind fraternal fashion, so the lead gets passed around, one player moves into the spotlight and the others are happy for him to shine.  No cliches; no showboating; no tedious quoting; no formulaic playing or threadbare trademarks; the total absence of post-modern irony; no sense that swing is out of date.

The result is a series of sustained explorations that are full of sweet surprises: the wonderful swinging assertiveness with which C JAM BLUES starts; the touching coda to ISFAHAN; the slightly faster tempo for I LET A SONG that neatly contradicts the self-pitying lyrics; the exposition of LOTUS BLOSSOM would make anyone want to listen with bowed head, and the slightly altered rhythmic pulse that follows made me hear it as if for the first time; JOHNNY COME LATELY is perfect dance music — I defy anyone to stay motionless, even if the dance is happy nodding one’s head in time; Michael’s solo ALL TOO SOON is half-lullaby, half question yearning to be answered; the faster-than-expected I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT reminds me happily of Fifties Jo Jones with Ray and Tommy Bryant, for the trio’s swing is light yet insistent, and the rocking mood continues on through LOVE YOU MADLY; DAY DREAM, the concluding track, also seems a series of questions, some of them with answers.

I would tell any listener, “Play the disc over again, after you’ve let it settle in your mind, take up a comfortable space in your heart.  Play it for people who have ears.  Let them share the pleasure, the loving inquisitiveness.”

Because I have admired Michael’s playing for some time, I might have over-emphasized his contribution, but Dee Jay and Guillem are the equal of anyone with a more famous name, whether Elder or Youngblood: they play their instruments with honor and grace, avoiding the excesses that lesser players fall into.  Forget the snide jokes about bass solos; Dee Jay’s phrases are deft and logical, his time and intonation superb; Guillem, for his part, has such a swinging variety of sounds throughout his kit that he is marvelously orchestral without ever being overwhelming. The beautiful recorded sound, thanks to David Cassamitjana, is reassuringly warm and clear, putting us there, which is where we want to be.

You can hear the music here, on Spotify or iTunes, or purchase that endearing archaic object, an actual physical disc by clicking on “TIENDA” at the same site.

Even if you have as complete an Ellington-Strayhorn collection as possible, this is an essential disc: warm, candid, and gratifying.

And if you’d like to hear more from Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem in a different but quite uplifting context, visit here also.

May your happiness increase!

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DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES CHARLIE SHAVERS and FRIENDS (April 21, 2017)

When Dan Morgenstern and I had concluded our first series of video interviews, he reminded me that we hadn’t spoken of Charlie Shavers, and I was also eager to do this when we met for a second time.  Charlie was an extraordinary trumpeter, arranger, and singer — someone not celebrated in this century as he deserves.

Why stardom seems to come naturally to one artist and not another is mysterious, but I hope that Dan’s wise, affectionate, and first-hand recollections will help people rediscover Mister Shavers:

“Smother me!” Charlie with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and Louis Bellson:

This is why sound film was invented, so that we could see and hear Charlie and Sidney Catlett have a delightful conversation — also John Kirby, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, and Russell Procope (or is it Charlie Holmes?) in 1947:

and late in life with Ben Webster, playing some “dirty blues”:

and the quartet that Dan referred to:

Previous interview segments with Dan can be found here.  And there are more to come.

May your happiness increase!

JO JONES CENTENNIAL FESTIVAL (Oct. 2 -8, 2011) on WKCR-FM

Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Sir Charles Thompson, Jimmy Woode — London, 1964: CARAVAN

News from a great jazz radio station — WKCR-FM, emanating from Columbia University in New York City:

Tune in to for the Jo Jones Centennial from October 2nd at 2:00 p.m. to October 8th at 12:00 noon. Throughout the day, you’ll be able to hear presentations of the work of Papa Jo Jones by theme, with each show focusing on particular instrumentations, groupings, or musical qualities. Even if you’re an extreme Basie-ite, or know Jones better than most, you’re likely to hear something fresh this week: live performances and airchecks, music from the West End, recordings from Jones’ film appearances, and other stellar rarities. 

Jonathan “Jo” Jones (b. 10/7/11), nicknamed “Papa” to avoid confusion with jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones, stands as one of the most accomplished, influential, and innovative practitioners of his art in the history of jazz. Born in Chicago and raised in Alabama, Jones eventually made his way to Kansas City, Missouri, where he first recorded with Hunter’s Serenaders in 1931. His next recording, the Smith-Jones Inc. session in 1936, began his epochal work with William “Count” Basie, as well as a relationship with Lester “Pres” Young that would last into the ’50s. By the time Basie began recording under his own leadership, Jones was a part of a rhythm section that would redefine jazz and help usher in the pinnacle of the Swing Era. Jones played with Basie nearly continuously until 1944, when he was drafted for two years just at the end of the war. During this pre-war era he also worked with Teddy Wilson in the band for many of Billie Holiday’s greatest recordings. After his return, Jones continued to influence his peers, using his sound to balance Illinois Jacquet’s ferocious swing, Sonny Stitt’s ecstatic lines, and the melodies of singers like Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner. Jones appeared as part of Jazz at the Philharmonic and at Newport as the guest of Basie and the Oscar Peterson Trio in ’57 and ’58, respectively. Eventually, he began recording as a leader with musicians like Ray and Tommy Bryant and old friends like Roy Eldridge. After his time with Basie, the great breadth of his work ensured that his sound persisted through the changes of bebop and beyond. Jones’ method of supporting swing, his talent for adding depth to the human voice, and his consistently impressive conception and execution live on. His sound provided the necessary backbone upon which so much great music was built. Join us in celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday, October 7th, 2011, with nearly a week of his music.

I spent many happy hours listening to and tape-recording the astonishing jazz festivals that WKCR-FM (89.9) had in years past . . . sometimes setting my alarm during the night to wake up at three-hour intervals to turn the tape reel over and go back to sleep, sometimes scheduling my daily activities around what would be broadcast that day.  Because of Phil Schaap, one of the station’s most diligent and enduring members, Jo Jones and WKCR have been linked for many years, with Jo speaking on-air to honor other jazz greats.  The station also broadcast live jazz from the West End Cafe (now no longer a music mecca) with Jo leading small groups that included Harold Ashby, Don Coates, John Ore, Sammy Price, Taft Jordan, Paul Quinichette, and others — even a teenaged Stanley Jordan.  Jo Jones deserves a week-long tribute of this depth and scope, and I’m only sorry that it had to wait for his centennial — after his death.  Listeners outside of the New York metropolitan area should visit WKCR’s online site — http://www.wkcr.org — where (through RealPlayer — the installation takes about six or seven minutes) the broadcasts can be heard without a radio, streaming.  I disposed of my reel-to-reel recorder years ago, but the good news is that RealPlayer entices me: click on a little red button, bottom left, and record the signal “to my library.”  I wonder how many external hard drives the centennial would fill up?  At least I could now get an unbroken night’s sleep.

JOEL PRESS, MICHAEL KANAN, TAL RONEN, STEVE LITTLE at FAT CAT (July 5, 2011)

FAT CAT (located at 75 Christopher Street in New York City, just off Seventh Avenue South) is, at first glance, an odd place to hear rewarding jazz.

You climb down a steep staircase, meet up with someone who asks for proof of age and three dollars, stamps your hand with a blue-ink drawing of a grinning feline, and you turn a corner . . . into what resembles a Fifties rec room at a huge scale.  Past a bar (with an intriguing selection of beers on tap — I had Old Speckled Hen, a UK favorite — and wines) into a large basement filled with chess tables, billiard tables, ping pong tables, foosball tables, shuffleboard, and more.  In fact, one of Fat Cat’s two sites asserts proudly that it is “NYC’s best-equipped gaming center” and  “best pool hall.”

It’s far from dreary and ominous — perhaps a youthful Minnesota Fats and Eddie Felson might be doing battle here — on my most recent trip to Fat Cat, two young couples were playing pool with more enthusiasm than skill.  There is a good deal of late-adolescent shouting when someone makes a great shot or a disastrous move, but it’s all cheerful.  (One night, behind me was a chili-cookoff, or so it seemed, with aluminum tins of chili for a birthday party, a cake, and a long version of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU.)  And I understand that it is jammed at 1:30 AM.

Here’s the “gaming site” for the skeptical:

http://www.fatcatmusic.org/gaming.html

What the youngbloods at their Scrabble boards might not know is that Fat Cat is a secret jazz hangout as well.  How do the names Frank Wess, Ned Goold, Terry Waldo, Grant Stewart, Ehud Asherie, Corin Stiggall, Alex Hoffman — and more —  sound to you?

The other Fat Cat website has all the musical information you need:

http://www.fatcatmusic.org/

On Tuesday, July 5, a quartet gathered (there are soft couches — the sort of furniture it is difficult to leap up from) in a smaller quadrant not far from the bar.  The corner was dark in portions, gleefully lit in primary colors near the back.  A large sign announcing FEATRING _______________ and HIS ORCHESTRA (approximately, with the leader’s name never filled in) hangs over the proceedings.

But even given the shouts of joy or disdain from the players (not at all critical comments on the music), the quartet accomplished great things and brought wonderful lilting sounds to Fat Cat.

The players?

On tenor and soprano saxophone, the whimsical monument, the Swing Explorer, Joel Press . . . . making his own way, often sideways, in the great singing saxophone tradition bounded on one end by Eddie Miller and on the other by Steve Lacy.  Although Joel says it’s impossible for him, given his origins, I hear a deep Southwestern moan and lope in his playing.  He bounces when he plays, and you would hear the bounce with your eyes closed.  His sound is tender yet burry: I thought of a favorite rough blanket, cozy but assertive, as he glides from one idea to the next.  Lester Young peeks in approvingly over Joel’s shoulder, although Joel is much more than a purveyor of Prez-isms.

Pianist Michael Kanan never does the expected, yet when his notes and pauses have settled in, they seem exactly right — with the epigrammatic power and amusement of a Nat Cole, a Jimmy Rowles — although he, too, covers the entire spectrum from Willie the Lion Smith to Ray Bryant and Red Garland.  Michael makes wonderful sound-clusters come out of the piano: rippling trills and tremolos, single-note stabs, chords that seem lopsided but fit just right.  He and Joel float on a wave of loving respect, and several songs feature a sweetly chatty interlude, where ideas are tossed back and forth in polite yet eager conversation.

I hadn’t met Tal Ronen before, although I’d admired his work on a variety of CDs.  And I was delighted by the big warm sound he got — even when tuning his bass.  His pulse was absolutely right, although never obtrusive, and his solo lines were worthy of being transcribed.  Although some players bridle at being compared with the Great Dead, Tal made me think — many times during the evening — of both George Duvivier and Paul Chambers.

Steve Little and Joel go back a long way — and this session was a reunion of sorts after a thirty-year hiatus.  Steve’s gently prodding drums make a band sound better, and his movement around his set (from brushes on the snare to a variety of cymbal strokes) leave us enlivened rather than somnolent.  Hear how deeply he pays attention to what’s going on within the band — but never letting his commentaries obscure the other players.

Some highlights:

Charlie Parker’s DEWEY SQUARE, a New York landmark as well as a musical statement:

YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY — in the best Kansas City tradition — turned the corner into MOTEN SWING before it finshed.  Here’s the first Kanan – Press chat, too:

Joel named his variation on the chords of OUT OF NOWHERE “LAST EXIT” in honor of Warne Marsh, who died onstage while playing his own improvisation on the same changes:

LOVER MAN, for Billie Holiday and Ram Ramirez:

LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, taken at an easy romantic trot, was a real pleasure:

INDIANA was the occasion for another Press – Kanan conversation:

Joel turned to his soprano sax for Thelonious Monk’s improvisation on LADY BE GOOD chord changes, which Monk called HACKENSACK:

And Joel closed the two sets with an easy Bb blues — the line, written by Sonny Rollins (but reaching back many generations before him) was called RELAXIN’, and it was an apt title:

Beauty and fervor and whimsy in the darkness.

RAY BRYANT IS THRIVING

I can’t recall the first time I heard a recording of pianist Ray Bryant — perhaps because he was captured so often and so well during the Fifties and onward.  Was it with Miles or Sonny Rollins?  No, more probably it was as a member (along with brother Tommy) of the Jo Jones Trio.  Or as a sideman on any number of Prestige swing-to-bop sessions.  I even recall finding a used copy of his Columbia record THE MADISON TIME, which featured Buddy Tate and Benny Morton, among others.  Then he made some records for Norman Granz (a solo album, one with Zoot Sims, among others) but he didn’t have as high a profile as other pianists.  That struck me as odd, because Bryant’s approach to the piano was expertly orchestral, without any narrow definitions.  He struck me as a musician, a pianist rather than someone limited to a single approach. 

ray-bryant1Thus it is a great pleasure to report that there is a new solo piano CD by Bryant and that it is even better than I thought it would be.  It’s called IN THE BACK ROOM and appears on the Evening Star label — a label known for its beautifully done CDs featuring Benny Carter, Joe Wilder, Phil Woods, Randy Sandke, among others.  Prodcer Ed Berger has a long association with the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University– he is one of the finest jazz scholars we have — and all of the twelve performances on this CD were recorded at the university in 2004 and 2008, some during a Fats Waller Centennial celebration.  Five tracks are Waller compositions, and one is IF I COULD BE WITH YOU, by his teacher James P. Johnson.  The other tracks include EASY TO LOVE and ST. LOUIS BLUES — and, most importantly, four Bryant compositions.   

Most pianists have the same difficulty considering Fats Waller’s music that trumpet players asked to pay tribute to Louis do, I assume: the musical personalities are so strong, their effect so definite, that the musician paying homage might be tempted to imitate the model.  This isn’t terrible in itself: if I knew someone who could play POTATO HEAD BLUES or AFRICAN RIPPLES at will, I would have them come to my apartment often.  But the wiser course might be to honor the durable melodies as improvisatory material and go from there.  With Waller, however, the risks are immense: what can a player bring to HONEYSUCKLE ROSE that is reasonably authentic and still new? 

No one need worry.  Bryant is a mature artist, wholly comfortable with his own identity so that he relaxes into his own style — which, one notes immediately, is not built on well-worn figures and pianistic cliches.  Rather, he seems to love the way the piano can be made to sound, full and rich, without straining for effect.  He is happy to play the melody, to ornament its harmony subtly.  His solos sing; his rhythm is relaxed yet consistent.  And he is a master of the small variations possible within medium tempo. 

Although Bryant is known for his deep immersion in the blues and his originals such as “Little Susie,” the most moving music on this CD comes when he plays his own compositions.  One of them, “The Impossible Rag,” is a tour-de-force that pianists might find it hard to reproduce, but Bryant’s virtuosity is more a matter of deep feeling.  It comes out most strongly in “Lullaby and” “Little Girl” (the latter dedicated to his wife Claude).  “Little Girl,” an almost grieving meditation, sounds cantorial in its minor harmonies: in it, we hear someone considering the possibilities of simple melodic motifs — eloquently and sorrowfully.  I didn’t think of jazz when I heard it; rather, of Dvorak.  “Lullaby” also takes an apparently simple idea and explores it, gently and sweetly — with contrasting brief sections balancing against each other.  Both pieces stayed in my memory for a long time, which says a good deal about Bryant’s powers to evoke emotions.  Even if you think you know Bryant’s work, this CD is worth searching out.  And if the Evening Star label is new to you, delights await.  Visit http://www.bennycarter.com/common/eveningstar/

JAZZ FESTIVAL: BETTY BOOP, DON REDMAN, EDDIE CONDON, LESTER YOUNG

Like you, I tried to imagine all those players assembled in one place and failed.  But everything is possible on YouTube.   Melissa Collard called my attention to the Don Redman / Betty Boop clip, circa 1932-33.

Has anyone written a history of Max and Dave Fleischer and associates?  I know there are Betty Boop fanciers, but I wonder about Fleischer’s choosing famous African-American jazz musicians and their bands in his cartoons.  Did he love the music?  Or was it because he could get these bands and players (think of Louis, Cab, and an uncredited Luis Russell ensemble) fairly inexpensively?  Anyway, here is I HEARD:

The opening theme is CHANT OF THE WEED — the vipers’ theme song, punctuated by wood blocks and the oceanic swaying on beautifully-dressed musicians.  Then we enter the deliciously surrealistic world of the Never Mine — the noon whistle eating its lunch, the beaver cooking pancakes on its tail.  Not to mention the whole peristaltic underground travel system.  All of this while Redman himself sings HOW’M I DOIN’?  I hope he didn’t mind being transformed on film into a canine member of the waitstaff.  Betty’s vocal (presumably that is Mae Questel) is also accompanied by a miniature mixed choir who pop in and out of the staircase in time.

When the lunch hour is through (note how that whistle lets everyone know) all the miners reverse their steps — going back under the shower which now rains down filth so they are suitably attired for the mine — to the strains of I HEARD.  Don’t miss the cat-telephone-switchboard while Claude Jones, Ed Inge, and Bob Carroll have brief solo spots before Don’s vocal.  It’s hard to keep up with the action of a terrifying descent down an elevator shaft (Betty, characteristically, loses her dress for a moment), ghosts playing baseball with a bomb — all the nightmare anyone could imagine while the Redman band plays goblin music.  But everything ends well — the bomb does the miners’ work for them and they can go home to the strains of WEED, which is perhaps an in-joke here.

These cartoons happily mix the surreal and the swinging, the wild camera angles anticipating later films.

After that, almost anything would seem sedate.  However, an Eddie Condon group (circa 1952) does its best in real time, no animation, working out on FIDGETY FEET with Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Ed Hall, Gene Schroeder, Condon himself, an off-camera Jack Lesberg, and Cliff Leeman.  (I was reminded of this and the last clip by Loren Schoenberg.)

The Mob seems to be doing a gig on an aircraft carrier, but that’s of less import than the fine sound and the beautiful interplay of this group.  They had performed FIDGETY FEET thousands of times at the club, so the routines are razor-sharp in performance, but what I delight in here is the collective exuberance, particularly that rhythm section.  Cliff Leeman!

And watching a very expert and enthusiastic Gene Schroeder makes us remember just how much piano he played, night after night, without anyone paying sufficient attention.  (He made one 78 session, four songs, as a leader, for the Black and White label, in 1944, but he deserved more.)  And Condon himself, so often slyly categorized as someone who talked more than played and drank more than he talked, shows how he directed and drove this band.  Imperishable stuff, fierce and compact at the same time.

Finally, how about seeing — not just hearing — Lester Young play POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS?

The rhythm section on this Art Ford telecast (from 1958, I believe) is Ray Bryant on a terrible piano, a happy Vinnie Burke on bass, and an unacknowledged drummer who sweeps his brushes most respectfully.  Yes, the clip is out of synch, but that adds to the poignant dreaminess of the performance, with Rex Stewart wandering in the shot.  Since there’s so little Lester on film, this is even more precious.

What follows suggests that no one — at the moment — recognized how beautiful a performance it was, or perhaps it was just that Art Ford (and his passel or posse of jazz critics at home, ready to call in) had to “keep it rolling.”  Sylvia Syms, with the same rhythm and a perky Rex Stewart offstage, wisely change the mood.  Who would be foolish enough to follow Lester in the same lovely, mournful mood?

All the Olympians . . . .