Tag Archives: Ray Skjelbred

“YOU CAN GO AS FAR AS YOU LIKE WITH ME.”

JAZZ LIVES has not changed its nature to advertise automobiles, but this is one instance where the music related to the car is memorable to those who remember and I hope it will become irresistible to those who have never heard it.

Sheet music, 1931

From the subversive geniuses at the Fleischer Studios, in the early Thirties, this tuneful piece of advertising (as old as 1905) — thanks to Janette Walker:

I always hear the invitation of the lyrics as not too subtly lascivious, because I dimly remember the statistics that showed the birth rate in this country ascended once more people had automobiles . . . but the couple in the song is also headed for marriage, lest you worry that this blog condones sinful behavior.

Thanks to Emrah Erken, the beautiful transfer of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra’s 1927 version:

and the first take:

and a sweet-hot version from this century, by Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band at the Puget Sound Traditional Jazz Society on December 18, 2011, with Ray Skjelbred, piano, leader; Chris Tyle, trumpet; Steve Wright, reeds; Jake Powel, banjo; Dave Brown, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums, vocal:

and a two-minute wartime coda, reminding me of the days when music was our common language, when everyone knew the words and the tune:

The song suggests that one could have fun being with one’s sweetheart, which is always a wonderful goal.  The couple in the Oldsmobile were even speaking to each other — cellphones not being in evidence when the song was new.

Sheet music, 1905

Incidentally, this post is in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Brown, who understand.

May your happiness increase!

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LOVE NOTES FROM RAY SKJELBRED (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 27, 2016)

First, Ray makes friends with the piano, then says quietly, “Well, I’m not going anywhere, so I’ll play something I like,” or words to that effect.

He does and we do.

THE ONE I LOVE is not only a memorably catchy Isham Jones tune, but it’s famous in jazz history as the first song Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines improvised on together, at their first meeting at the musicians’ union.  I hear their approving phantasmal selves in Ray’s version:

Like AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN has become victim to people who race through it and make its lovely contours mechanical.  Knowing, as I do, the memorable versions by Bing Crosby (1936) and Louis (1947), who treated it as a rhythm ballad, I’ve come to dread it in performance.  But Ray’s tender version, starting with the verse, is what the song is all about: gently swinging optimism, a view of the world where wonderful surprises are still possible:

Here’s James P. Johnson’s hymn of praise to the gentle loving ways that we all might recall and even enact, OLD FASHIONED LOVE:

Finally, a reminder that even when love affairs implode, the subject is still good for beautiful music: I COVER THE WATERFRONT (“We like it!  We like it!”):

Ray Skjelbred doesn’t cater to his audiences; he doesn’t woo us.  But he continues to delight, to amaze, with his love for the piano, the songs, and the great traditions.

This post is for my faraway and well-remembered friend Donna Courtney.

May your happiness increase!

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!

MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE: “PIANO JAZZ – CHICAGO STYLE!” featuring RAY SKJELBRED

Like other jazz fans and collectors, I have had many dreams of music I would like to hear, and in my lifetime many of those dreams have come true: the alternate takes of the Jones-Smith, Inc. session; airshots of the Basie band at the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing; the Ellington Fargo concert; the Jerry Newman uptown recordings; more Louis and Big Sid, on and on.

Earl Hines and Ray Skjelbred

The pianist Ray Skjelbred — treasured courageous explorer of beauty — is part of this story of dreams taking lovely shape.  I heard him on recordings perhaps fifteen years ago, and I encountered him in videos perhaps eight years ago, first in those of Rae Ann Berry, then in my own attempts, having met him, to capture him with appropriate skill and reverence.

In whatever medium I found him, I was astonished by the spacious, emotionally dense worlds he invented at the keyboard.  I still am.  And although Ray allowed me to capture individual performances that he approved of, solo and in duet; Ray leading his own Cubs — I am proud of the results, but they are beautiful snapshots for the most part.  In my videos, the sound might be imperfect; the audience might be chatting or moving in and out; Ray would speak, memorably, but briefly.

I came to dream of a Skjelbred film, a recital-explanation that would help us capture his secrets and his deep essence, as much of his history and magic that he cared to reveal.  But it remained a dream until Ray’s friend John Ochs, with Ray, created a profound but never sententious portrait of Ray and the musical atmosphere he both swims in and has enriched for decades.  It exists, and it can be seen.

From the first pearly notes of Joe Sullivan’s GIN MILL BLUES to Ray’s reminiscences-with-music of Burt Bales, Johnny Wittwer, Earl Hines, Joe Sullivan, Art Hodes, Jess Stacy, stride piano, octaves, tenths, the blues, tremolos, a stomping LITTLE ROCK GETAWAY, anecdotes of Sullivan — among well-trained kindergarten children, or listening to Bob Zurke play GETAWAY, a  brilliantly meandering chorus of ROSETTA which reminds me of someone picking up glittering beach glass at the ocean’s edge, and a riotous BEAU KOO  JACK, and so much more — the film is a treasure.  It is both the chronicle of a questing artist and his interactions with Hines, Sullivan, Stacy, Hodes, and a series of casual lessons from a Master about other Masters.

I admire it tremendously.  Ray’s deadpan puckish humor animates all of his conversation with us, as when he describes a heart attack at the keyboard turning, for seconds, into stride piano . . .his description of a poor traditional band as “six people with shotguns.”  I encourage viewers to savor his after-midnight introduction to I FOUND A NEW BABY and the last minutes of MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY.

It isn’t a how-to film that entices the viewer with the kinds of promises historically made on matchbooks, “See, you can play _____ too if only you learn these sixteen gestures,” nor is it a chronological autobiography of gigs and encounters, but a warming combination of sounds, techniques, memories and music created right at the moment.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget Ray’s story of Jess Stacy’s summation of a visit from jazz acolytes, at first  unfamiliar to him, as “Those nice boys.”

The film is emotionally filling without being overwhelming: when I finished watching for the first (of several times) I felt as if I had spent a month with Ray, yet it felt like a seamless easy journey, over too soon.

Recorded in one sitting, at a fine piano, with subtle, telling editing, it is so far beyond my best videos that I am both thrilled it exists and slightly embarrassed by my own earnest amateur sallies.

I am not the only person to appreciate this film: it has been selected by the New York Jazz Film Festival and will receive an award for HISTORY / DOCUMENTARY at the end of August.

I am able to share the film with you — and frankly I would find it inexplicable if hundreds of people did not take advantage of the opportunity — but I do not know for how long this will be possible.  These things are mysterious, but Imight not be able to share this film indefinitely.

So I urge and beseech my viewers to be with Ray Skjelbred, man and artist of independent spirit, for one hour (and twenty-three minutes and fifty-eight seconds) tonight, or, if not tonight, then tomorrow night.

Early on in the film, Ray says, as if to himself, “All music is a narrative of some kind — it starts somewhere and it goes somewhere.”  He could have been describing this very fulfilling film as well.

May your happiness increase!

OUR PRIDE AND JOY: RAY SKJELBRED, SOLO, at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 26-27, 2016)

Those of us who have heard Ray Skjelbred play the piano will not be at all surprised that he is also a poet of words and images, captured at a different keyboard.

Sycamore

One day all the leaves blow away.
I have been worrying
about the wrong things.

Let those words take up residence inside you before moving on, in a southerly direction, to the rest of this post.  You can read more of his poetry at the link above.

Ray has written a sketch of his development as a poet, starting as a boy who “got up early to listen to the birds in the courtyard of our apartment building,” which tells me more than a hundred pages of analytic prose by an outsider would.

A rare and deep fellow.

Most of us encounter Ray when he has settled himself on the piano bench and is ready to fill us with sounds and colors, as he did at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest.  Here is my earlier presentation of music he created there on November 26, 2016.

And more.  I will preface these selections by saying only that tenderness is so rare in life, and certainly more so in jazz played for audiences.  Let Ray’s melodic explorations, gentle and whimsical, move into your house.

Joe Sullivan’s MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY:

“a tiny shred” of I AIN’T GOT NOBODY, with a beautiful ending that loops around to the opening phrase of the verse:

A version of THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT that has the quiet intent seriousness of a hymn at the start:

Ray told me that he thinks of Joe Sullivan or Ginger Rogers in this scene from SWING TIME — so if you haven’t seen it recently, you might want to steal three minutes from your day and dream into this world of lovely possibilities:

May your happiness increase!

“IT’S NICE TO SEE YOU FOLKS HERE”: RAY SKJELBRED at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 26, 2016) PART ONE

Ray Skjelbred, poet and explorer, at the piano, musing, feeling, sharing colorful worlds of his own invention.

PINKY ROSE, a blues rumination:

NO COMPLAINTS, a lilting homage to Jess Stacy:

SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD, a blues by the Mississippi Sheiks:

IT’S A RAMBLE, by the mysterious Oro “Tut” Soper, a pianist who once kissed the young Anita O’Day passionately before remembering he wasn’t [because of religious beliefs] supposed to:

HEAH ME TALKIN’ TO YA, celebrating Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Don Redman:

Rambles and saunters in worlds known and unknown: elegant, rough, always alive.

More to come from the Esteemed Mr. Skjelbred.  And this aural bouquet is in honor of Aunt Ida Melrose Shoufler, who understands.

May your happiness increase!

THE VERY AIR TURNED BLUE: RAY SKJELBRED / MARC CAPARONE at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, November 25, 2016

In the slang of the eighteen-sixties, “turning the air blue” meant filling our ears with obscenities.  Ray Skjelbred and Marc Caparone, piano and cornet, respectively, have other ideas here.

BLUE AIR BLUES is an extension of the first strain of Sidney Bechet’s BLUES IN THE AIR (from 1941) and they create and recreate gorgeously in this performance from the 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest.  (The Fest happens every year over the Thanksgiving weekend: I’ll be there.)

And the Victor people couldn’t know about this performance, but it is also a SWING CLASSIC.

May your happiness increase!