People who listen to music extensively and closely become harder to please. And I am a prime offender. This over-sensitivity causes me a great deal of trouble, but many new CDs that seem almost wonderful to me. But the “almost” is lethal. On these discs, the effort is discernible, the sincerity, the energy — but something just isn’t in place. One musician might be rushing or dragging the tempo; there could be a slight tension in the band (three members going one way, two thinking about going in the opposite direction); a CD could have an odd recording balance; the material might be excellent in itself but not for these performers, and so on. If I were to describe this critical tendency of mine, I might call it “attentive,” “discerning,” “”detail-oriented,” “finicky,” or “listening too damned closely,” depending on my mood. Perhaps if you have, as I have, heard a band of Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones, it sets the aesthetic bar sky-high.
And, as an additional caveat, I am distrustful of any writer’s hyperbole, especially mine. Earnest as it might be, such prose always sounds like ad copy: “this new CD by Minnie and the Meowers offers the best meowing you’ll hear all year” makes me want to run to my litter box and hide under it.
All this is prelude to my stating that two new Arbors CDs — the label that has done so much to document and preserve the kinds of jazz I love dearly — seem as close to perfect as recordings ever get.
The cover of the first CD is depicted above — trumpeter Duke Heitger and pianist Bernd Lhotzky, recorded in Germany in 2008. Now, the trumpet (or cornet) and piano duet in recorded jazz goes back to Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton in 1924, and it stretches into the future: Louis and Earl, Ruby and Dick Hyman or Ralph Sutton or Ellis Larkins, Butterfield and Wellstood, Randy Sandke and Dick Hyman, Sudhalter and Kellaway, Eldridge and Bolling . . . including brilliant (as yet unrecorded duets) by two of my heroes, Jon-Erik Kellso and Ehud Asherie. For me, there’s something extraordinary about the pairing of a soaring hot trumpeter and a stride pianist. For one thing, the trumpeter has a mobile, energetic rhythmic pulse to improvise over; the pianist has the pleasure of darting in and out of the trumpet lines. It is magically orchestral and magically fulfilling. That’s the case on this CD with Duke and Bernd. To start with the basics: I’ve never heard either of them play so lavishly and nobly, and I’ve heard both of them live in a variety of contexts: Duke at Chautauqua for perhaps five years in a row; Bernd at Westoverledingen and the 92nd Street Y.
Maestro Lhotzky first. Stride pianists often get caught up in their own enthusiasm (and who would blame them?) so even the best tend to get louder and faster, which is perfectly understandable in a romping solo but less than wonderful when there’s another player involved — it’s as if the trumpeter becomes a child trying to catch the ice cream truck that is accelerating down the street. Zeno’s paradox in jazz. Bernd doesn’t have that problem: he is steady but never dull, propulsive but calm — appearing to run as fast as he can without losing his essential cool. The piano sound he creates is wonderful, whether he is pensively wandering through a ballad or doing his best James P. Johnson. And he is a peerless accompanist, nearly telepathic.
“Lord Heitger,” as Bernd playfully calls him, wears his heart on his sleeve, but his emotion never gets in the way of the music. He can shout, he can soar, he can growl and moan — at any tempo. On this CD, his tone is gorgeously round (the way jazz trumpet is supposed to sound but often doesn’t), his passions on display. He often reminds me of 1930 Louis but he is purely himself, Duke of a royal lineage.
And neither musician embarks on the treacherous business of “recreating the originals.” Yes, the wise ancestors of jazz are everywhere on this disc: Louis and Fats, Duke and Bubber — but there are also immensely feeling evocations of Sir Edward Elgar (not your usual idea of a solid sender), Willard Robison, Kern and Gershwin, Ray Noble, Richard Rodgers, Toots Mondello (!) and Carlos Gardell.
Most CDs — do I write this too often? — flirt with monotony by being seventy-five minutes of similar or identical music. This one is a joy from first to last. And even the Beloved, who’s a tough critic (her ideals are Louis, the early Goodman small groups, Nat Cole’s piano) said, simply, “That’s gorgeous!” before we were a half-minute into “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Hooray for this duo. May they make a dozen more CDs as rewarding as this one, and may those discs come in a steady stream, perhaps two a year.
The other Arbors CD is the debut of another Marty Grosz assemblage, organization, or perhaps brainstorm — a purportedly all-reed group featuring the dervishes Dan Block and Scott Robinson with a rhythm section of Marty, Vince Giordano, Rob Garcia, and guest appearances from “Panic Slim” on trombone. I write “purportedly,” because the irrepressible Robinson, who just turned fifty, brought along his cornet, echoe cornet, and Eb alto horn. I won’t go on about this CD, because I’ve done so already on this blog, in a post called MAKING RECORDS WITH MARTY GROSZ. (I was lucky enough to attend two of the three sessions at Clinton Studios, and brought both camera and notebook.)
I’ll just say that the CD captures all of the enthusiasm, swing, and wit of those sessions — glorious visits to the land of Hot Jazz. Engineer Doug Pomeroy did a wonderful job, and you can hear every ping of Rob Garcia’s glockenspiel and the deep resonant sound of Vince’s bass sax, tuba, and aluminum string bass. More? Well, Marty essays (as he might say) the other William H. Tyers classic, “Maori,” (recorded by Ellington and anyone else?), pays tribute to his Chicago pal Frank Chace with a tender “Under A Blanket of Blue,” and the whole band stretches out on a wondrously funky “Riverside Blues.” I am also grateful for this CD because it captures Marty — at last — recording one of my favorite not-too-complicated songs, Herman Hupfeld’s 1933 classic, “I Gotta Get Up and Go To Work,” which is how I feel in the morning. A neat collage by the Master, typically lemony notes. To quote Fats on “Swing Out to Victory” : “Yeah, man! Solid! Here we come.”
The Arbors Records site is on my blogroll — www.arborsrecords.com — and, as they used to say on radio, “You won’t be sorry.” And heartfelt thanks to Mat and Rachel Domber — maybe the best patrons this music has, people who put their energy and their support where their good taste is.
P.S. I need to know. Was “the Voom Voom ” ever a real dance or is that Ellington-Miley title their version of “That Da Da Strain”? Surely one of my readers will know.
P.P.S. Is it “The Hot Winds is a peerless small group,” or “The Hot Winds are astonishing”? Or is it like using the sprinkler to water the lawn in suburbia — it depends whether the day in question is odd or even on the calendar?