Tag Archives: rhythm ballad

SWING MASTERS: BECKY KILGORE and FRIENDS at DIXIELAND MONTEREY (March 5, 2011)

I’ve admired Becky Kilgore’s singing and grace for some years now: her creamy voice, her understated, convincing dramatic sense, her innate swing.  And although she is poised, she is also a great chance-taking improviser, someone able to abandon herself to the song, shining her light through it, letting it reveal its beauties to us.

At Dixieland Monterey, she was most often joined by the noble members of her Quartet: Dan Barrett on trombone, vocals, and piano; Eddie Erickson on banjo, guitar, and vocals; Joel Forbes on string bass.

But there came a time when a few more pals — old and new — crept onto the stage to create a lovely little jazz party within the jazz party: Carl Sonny Leyland, rocking piano man; Bryan Shaw, trumpet wizard; Jeff Hamilton, drum stylist.

I am thrilled to be able to share some of the music created that evening with my readers.  It is a special pleasure — everyone was so happy and relaxed, witty and swinging.  Propulsive and gentle, masterful and casual: the great art that is a matter of skill, practice, nonchalance, and relaxation.

Let’s begin with I’M GOING TO SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER that swings so persuasively from the first note — and Becky gets herself up on the streamline train without spilling her coffee!  Hear the horns and that rhythm section — eloquent and easy.

I would like my friends to use this clip as a Blindfold Test.  Say, for instance, you have friends who “don’t like jazz,” or “don’t get that old jazz,” or find “Dixieland” boring.  Let them hear this — without naming anyone’s name or explaining a thing.  Then ask, “Does that make you feel good?”  Let them get into the absolutely impromptu Kilgore – Hamilton discussion: it makes everyone on stage feel BETTER!

(Musicians’ in-joke: this song is sometimes called I’M GOING TO  SIT RIGHT DOWN AND KNIT MYSELF A SWEATER, but the weather is warming up rapidly, even in Farmer City, Illinois, so a letter might be all that was needed.)

HARD-HEARTED HANNAH comes from the intersection of vaudeville, pop music, and hot improvisation.  Once she’s been properly attired in Guitar, she treats the hyperbolic lyrics with just the right mixture of amusement and seriousness.  And, dear viewers, look how happy everyone on that stand is!  That isn’t always the case, and it is meaningful — a tribute to the easy grace of all concerned.  The interplay between Dan and Bryan is priceless (think of Teagarden and Davison, please?) over that splendidly-swinging Vanguard Records rhythm section (could someone direct me to the Reno Club or the Famous Door, 1938?).  Eddie digs deep into his stash of bent notes and witty banjo run before Dan decides to let us know all about the verse — in his upper register, but we get the point!  And Becky rocks us out through the rather gruesome lyrics (she is a stellar musical comedienne, isn’t she, in the great tradition?):

Although both Eddie Erickson and Thomas Waller are usually associated with hi-jinks and romping jazz, both of them shared a deep yearning tenderness.  (Hear Fats’ late recording of I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN if you need proof.)  Eddie is often asked to make people laugh, but his first vocal chorus is a sweet, feeling masterpiece in miniature — followed by Dan’s Dickensonian ruminations on the theme and Carl’s special mixture of Fats, Pete Johnson, and Jess Stacy, to great effect.  After Joel’s deep-down chorus, the key changes so that Becky can come in and float over the band.  She’s more than believable: the embodiment of tender commitment!

Even if you had left all your mischief behind, you might have to take a fast train to see your Beloved — and Carl Sonny Leyland, Joel Forbes, and Jeff Hamilton show us how with an easy but intense HONKY TONK TRAIN BLUES, with its own deep swinging pulse:

Less expert musicians would have tried to top the HONKY TONK TRAIN with something faster and louder — but not this group.  Becky chooses ALL OF ME, which (since 1931) has been turned into a jaunty offering.  But it’s really a song of near-romantic immolation: let me take myself apart to offer the pieces and the totality to you, as complete tribute to you and love.

She never sounds soggy or self-pitying, but she offers the imagined hearer and the audience her entire being.  Eddie’s chiming guitar solo doesn’t lose the mood (and Jeff’s cymbals are just-right commentary); Dan plays around wtih the opening phrase of the song in the best singing Benny Morton tradition, handing off to Carl (who is ornate without a superfluous note).  Becky, soaring and crooning, improvising without smudging a note or a word, is absolutely compelling without seeming to strain even the smallest muscle.  A perfect rhythm ballad and dramatic utterance:

I think it was an honor to be in that audience, a stroke of good fortune to have my video camera, and a privilege to be able to share this music with the readers of JAZZ LIVES.

These video performances were made possible by the editorial stewardship and support of the Shuzzit Charitable Trust.  JAZZ LIVES thanks to the SCT and to all the artists for performing as they did and do!

OH, SHAKE THAT THING!  CLICK HERE TO GIVE SOMETHING BACK TO THE MUSICIANS YOU SEE IN THESE VIDEOS (ALL MONEY COLLECTED GOES TO THEM):

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MICHAEL KANAN / JOEL PRESS: “THESE FOOLISH THINGS” (June 29, 2010)

I’m very moved by the performance you are about to see, and I feel fortunate to have been there to capture it: this comes from tenor saxophonist Joel Press’s gig at Smalls (138 West 10th Street) as a member of the Michael Kanan Quartet — with bassist Pat O’Leary and drummer Joe Hunt. 

For seven-and-a-half minutes, they explore THESE FOOLISH THINGS in the most gently questing way.  In the late Twenties (perhaps beginning with Bix and Tram) jazz players invented the “rhythm ballad,” a sweet melody taken at a slowly pulsing tempo.  (This song carries with it memories of Billie and Lester and Nat Cole, of course.) 

Michael, Joel, Pat, and Joe carry on the tradition here.  They honor the essential thread of emotion — this is, after all, a song about remembering love gone away — but they never get bogged down in it.  Michael’s introduction, delicately evoking players like Ellis Larkins, prepares us for an inquisitive duet, where he and Joel state the melody, exchange thoughtful comments on it, test it out, and then are joined by the quartet.  Joel, as always, speaks within and beyond the melody, with a casual seeming-simplicity that one does not grow into quickly.  Michael’s solo, never frivolous, smbodies the pleasure of a mature improviser who knows what it is to play.   Pat and Joe, listening as always, keep everything beautifully moving forward. 

Art like this doesn’t grow stale: