Tag Archives: rhythm

MARTY GROSZ LIKES IT HOT!

Since the mid-Seventies, when I first saw him as an integral part of Soprano Summit, Marty Grosz has been one of my heroes — although I know he would have something mildly comic to say about this.  I find his particular brand of hot jazz exquisitely moving in every meaning of that word: his ballads get at the heart of the lyrical sentiment allied to the jazz he loves, and his swinging creations have their own delightful momentum.

Thus I was once again thrilled to see him at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua — allotted a brief set (among several) on Saturday afternoon to pay tribute to one of his heroes, the singer / musician Red McKenzie.  People either adore McKenzie or his particular brand of “hot” and Irish sentimentality eludes them entirely.  But Red worked with the best musicians, got jobs and record contracts for them as well (if memory serves, he not only got Eddie Condon that pioneering 1927 date but also took Jack Kapp down to to the Apex Club to hear Jimmie Noone).  Although Marty is, in person, reasonably unsentimental, McKenzie’s brand of feeling appeals to him — balanced against the prevailing strain of mockery that has some of its roots in his own worldview and some in the music of Fats Waller.

This afternoon, Marty was surrounded by his greatly talented friends: Vince Giordano, keeping the beat and playing lovely melodies on bass sax and string bass; Andy Stein, doubling violin and baritone sax; Dan Block, alternating between clarinet and bass clarinet, and James Dapogny, calling up several dozen pianistic worlds with ease.  They performed three numbers in honor of Red McKenzie.  Each one has a certain on-the-spot quality (head arrangements getting worked out then and there) which leads to occasional tentativeness, but I didn’t care then and I don’t now.  As if to follow suit, my cinematography is much more experimental than usual — which is a polite way of saying that I found myself hemmed in between the light on top of the piano and a music stand . . . but there are some (to me) rewarding closeups, and I captured musicians smiling at each others’ solos, always reassuring.

‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS began the set . . . with some stern leadership about when to stop (when the lyrics say “Stop!”) but no one was hurt.  And Dan Block swung out on his bass clarinet:

Then, a real jewel, even with a slightly uncertain beginning — I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, a song that gets performed at a quick bounce these days but began life as a yearning ballad.  And Dan Block throws himself into it body and soul:

Finally, FROM MONDAY ON, a cheerful remembrance of McKenzie, early and later:

As a coda: I would have my readers listen closely to the interplay within this group — Andy Stein’s lyrical baritone and pizzicato violin passages; Vince’s wonderful bass playing and lyrical bass sax solos; Dapogny’s “Spanish tinge” Morton-inspired passage on the first song; Marty’s delightful stage presence, and Dan Block, who has music flowing through him as if it were his soul’s electrical current.  A priceless band, I think, with each of its members an anointed prophet of Hot.

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THE PIANIST IN QUESTION

weinI was in the middle of writing an ambivalent review for All About Jazz of the Mosaic reissue of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars 1967 concerts when I stopped.  The CD, GEORGE WEIN IS ALIVE AN WELL IN MEXICO, features Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and Jack Lesberg.  It was originally issued on Columbia Records, and Mosaic has added three previously unissued tracks.  The slow numbers offer poignant playing from Russell late in his career, with Freeman and Braff in peerless, musing form, Lesberg giving great support.  And reissue producer Michael Cuscuna, long may he wave, apologizes for reproducing the dreadfully insulting cover photograph and tells a wonderful story about two of the faux-Mexican banditos, who are doing their best to summon up the spirit of Alfonso Badoya.   

But Lamond’s drums pummel the listener, which could be more the fault of the hall and the recording engineer.  And all of Wein’s pianistic shortcomings are brilliantly audible — the heavy touch, the clogged phrasing, the repeated formulas, the dragging rhythms.

In the interest of fairness, I took a YouTube break to check myself, to see if I was being unjust to Wein.  As an impresario, he has contributed immeasurably to jazz.  Imagine if the Newport Jazz Festivals had never existed! 

But as a pianist and bandleader? 

I found this performance of LADY BE GOOD — from Copenhagen, dated 1974 (although it might be 1969) with Braff, Red Norvo, bassist Larry Ridley, Barney Kessel, Lamond, and Wein.

Wein kicks off a very brisk tempo and all is well, sometimes inspiring, until he solos, perhaps becase Kessel and Ridley’s strong rhythmic pulse keeps the band on track.  But Wein then launches complicated figures that he is just-nearly-able to play at this tempo.  The solo isn’t disastrous, but it offers evidence to support what I’ve been hearing on records and in person for a long time.  Unkind, perhaps; unjust, no.  Imagine this band with a young Mark Shane, with Dick Hyman, John Bunch, Hank Jones, or Jimmy Rowles.  How they would have flown! 

And since there is more to life and to this post than pulling anyone to pieces in public, I encourage vewers to delight in the solos by everyone else in this performance — Norvo’s limber arpeggios, a floating phrase Braff pulls off in his second bridge, Kessel’s bluesy intensity. 

Should the philosophical question come up, “Is it better to have this performance, with its flaws, then not?” my answer would be a quick Yes.  But it reminds us just how marvelous it is when everyone in an improvising jazz group is emotionally and technically on the same wavelength, and perhaps just how hard it is to accomplish that special creative unity.

WE’LL MISS WAYNE WRIGHT

Aside from the justly celebrated Freddie Green, the rhythm guitarist is the stoker down in the ship’s hold: unseen, uncredited, yet essential. My version of the Decline of the West got even more gloomy when four-piece jazz rhythm sections became three-piece. Green, like Eddie Condon, got a perverse kind of fame for refusing to play a solo, as if he were a farmer being paid not to grow his crop.

By way of Jon-Erik Kellso, I learned that the singular guitarist Wayne Wright died on May 9. If you saw Les Paul a half-dozen years ago, you might have seen Wayne providing rocking motion that kept it all together.

My own delighted perceptions of Wayne come from small-group New York jazz sessions of the early Seventies. At the time, Wayne was a cheerful, wisecracking presence, with a modified Beatle haircut and black-framed glasses. He was left-handed, and he liked to accent phrases with a simple figure, like a drummer’s rimshot-bass drum accent, which he would emphasize with a leap of the guitar’s neck, as if it were a fish trying to wriggle out of his grip. His rhythmic pulse was urgent but never loud — an audible, pushing sonic wave.

Even before he became a member of the Ruby Braff – George Barnes quartet, he surfaced, rewardingly, in odd places. One such occasion was a free lunchtime concert in summer 1973 which brought together Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern before they had organized Soprano Summit. Backing them was a perfect ad hoc New York rhythm section: Wayne, Milt Hinton, Dill Jones, and Jackie Williams. They played outside the Seagram Building in midtown, on a great concrete plaza with huge fountains, so rushing water competed with the music. Eubie Blake was the intermission pianist (!) and WCBS-AM anchorman Brian Madden brought his tenor sax and played enthusiastic early-Hawkins choruses with the band on “Crazy Rhythm.”

Wayne also came down to Brew’s, a little eatery that turned into a jazz club at night, just east of the Empire State Building. The Dave Tough-inspired drummer Mike Burgevin booked his friends and heroes — a very brief Golden Age that few noticed. They included pianists Jimmy Andrews and Dill Jones, bassists Al Hall and others, and horn players Herb Hall, Rudy Powell, Joe Thomas, Herman Autrey, Vic Dickenson, Marshall Brown, Kenny Davern, and others I have forgotten. But I remember one night in July 1974 when Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, and Wayne joined forces with Jimmy Andrews and Mike to pay tribute to Louis, with exquisitely swinging music, much of its rhythmic impetus courtesy of Wayne, his bell-like sound always floating the beat. Brew’s couldn’t stay afloat because the cabaret laws caught up with it — ironically so, in terms of the noise that follows us everywhere now! — and Mike tried, for a minute or so, to have jazz trios without a drummer. I caught one such evening — a trio led by Wayne, with Jimmy Andrews and Al Hall, making delightful homespun jazz, Wayne playing melody and single-string variations on “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and “Say It Isn’t So.” Wayne’s tone sang; he bent notes; he earnestly worked around the melody.

He also played for about eighteen months with the irreplaceable quartet that Ruby and George Barnes had. The two leaders soon loathed each other, and the quartet imploded, but it was a great experience to sit on the floor of the New York Jazz Museum and listen to them meander through “Sweethearts on Parade,” for one. Wayne recorded two impossible-to-find records of guitar duets with Marty Grosz on Jerry Valburn’s Aviva label, Let Your Fingers Do The Walking and Goody Goody — but much of the material on those records is a careful, loving exploration of duets by Dick McDonough and Carl Kress, among others. Wayne is there, but his personality rarely comes through.

Now he’s gone, and it feels as if he took as much of the identifying evidence with him as he could. YouTube used to offer clips of the Braff-Barnes quartet in Berlin, in 1974, but no more. Google Images came up only with two record-cover pictures of the quartet, which I’ve included here, and the closest thing we have to Wayne’s oral history or a self-portrait is a jazz guitar site where he talks about Barnes: classicjazzguitar.com/…/article.jsp?article=61

Was he content to strum in the background? I don’t know. But he could play! Goodbye, Wayne, and thank you.