Tag Archives: Ruby Braff

OH, HOW THEY SWING! (Part One): DANNY TOBIAS, WARREN VACHÉ, PHILIP ORR, PAT MERCURI, JOE PLOWMAN (September 22, 2018: 1867 Sanctuary, Ewing, New Jersey)

I love that I live about an hour from the jazz-metropolis that is New York City, but I will drive for hours when the music beckons.  It did last Saturday, when brassmen Danny Tobias and Warren Vaché joined with Philip Orr, piano; Joe Plowman, string bass; Pat Mercuri, guitar, for a wonderful afternoon of acoustic improvisations at the lovely 1867 Sanctuary Arts and Culture Center in Ewing, New Jersey.  (101 Scotch Road will stay in my car’s GPS for that reason.) Here’s some evidence — thanks to the very subtle photographer Lynn Redmile — to document the scene:

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the two Swing perpetrators:

It’s an immense compliment to the melodic swinging inventiveness of this ad hoc quintet, that their music requires no explanation.  But what is especially touching is the teamwork: when portrayed in films, trumpet players are always trying to outdo each other.  Not here: Danny and Warren played and acted like family, and a particularly loving branch.  They have very individual voices, but if I said that the approving ghosts up in the rafters were Ruby Braff, Joe Wilder, Kenny Davern, and Tony DiNicola, no one would object.  Phil, Joe, and Pat listened, responded, and created with characteristic grace.  Thanks to Bob and Helen Kull, the guiding spirits of the 1867 Sanctuary, for making us all so welcome with such fine music.

It was a memorable afternoon, and I wish only that this was a regular occasion, to be documented by CD releases and general acclamation.  We can hope.

I have a dozen beauties to share with you.  Here are the first four.

Irving Berlin’s ALL BY MYSELF, and someone in the band breaks into song, most effectively:

Another Berlin treasure, CHANGE PARTNERS:

Edgar Sampson’s paean to hope, IF DREAMS COME TRUE:

To celebrate the start of Fall, AUTUMN LEAVES:

May your happiness increase!

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EVERY NOTE A BRUSH-STROKE: CHRIS MADSEN / CLARK SOMMERS: “THE DUET BOOK”

When I was in my teens, I remember a television program on not-yet-PBS where a Japanese ink-painter showed us how to draw Mount Fuji in a very few brush-strokes.  I have over simplified it in memory, reducing it to two upward slopes with some detail in the middle, and it remains in my mind’s eye. Happily, I threw out my very limited attempts in blue ballpoint pen, but the experience stays with me.  The artist didn’t “simplify” his subject, but his airy, dancing brush-strokes made its immovable solidity nearly translucent.

Here is a more elaborate version, beautiful in itself and as metaphor:

Although I could not have verbalized it then and words still seem heavier than the experience, the artist was doing with his brush what jazz musicians do, making familiar melody, harmony, and rhythm take flight.  He was improvising on Mt. Fuji and his improvisations enhanced it.

As an adolescent deeply under the spell of the music, I encountered the 1945 live recordings of Don Byas and Slam Stewart, performing INDIANA and I GOT RHYTHM as if the music was brand-new, the results joyous — soaring and solid both.  Then, I didn’t analyze the results as a musicologist-chemist would, noting what percentage Swing, what percentage Bop, what percentage Unclassifiable Solids, and I leave such activities to those who care to, working in their basement laboratories.  The music was dense but airy: angels chatting about clouds.

A few years later, I was privileged to see Ruby Braff in performance, often leading a quartet.  One of his architecturally spacious ideas was to play duets within the quartet — creating a series of small orchestras — so I was dazzled by Ruby in duet with string bassists George Mraz, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, and Michael Moore.

Fast forward to NOW, for beauty that transcends “less is more.”

I present to you four duets by Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone, and Clark Sommers, string bass — an enterprise they are calling “The Duet Book.”  For those of you who might mutter, “WHAT can you do with a tenor and a bass?” my answer turns out to be, “Everything.”

One, DONNA LEE, authorship debated:

Two, TRICROTISM, by Oscar Pettiford:

Three, MOVE, by Denzil Best:

Four, ORNITHOLOGY, by one C. Parker:

The beautiful videography — steady, attentive, catching every detail of sound and image — is by Brian Schwab.  Here is Chris’s Facebook page, and Clark’s is here.

One more video remains, and I wish this series were ongoing, because I cherish these effusions, where two gifted individualists show us what loving community looks and sounds like, passing the lead, being completely supportive, having fun while knowing that the serious work of life is being done.

We could say, “I wish young musicians would study these videos,” but I’d add, “Yes, young dancers, playwrights, poets, teachers, painters . . . .”

And if any member of the jazz hierarchy mutters, “Oh, they’re just playing bebop,” I would reply, “Do, please, Sir or Madam, leave this place and come back in forty years.  Devote yourself to the study of beauty, and while you’re at it, work at growing up.”

Forget Mount Fuji, forget metaphor: these air-creations are profound, their beauties not absorbed in one casual hearing.  Blessings on Messrs. Madsen, Sommers, and Schwab: quiet gracious masters all.

Postscript from September 14, 2018: Here’s Chapter Five —

May your happiness increase!

COUNTING OUR BLESSINGS: PETRA VAN NUIS and DENNIS LUXION, “BECAUSE WE’RE NIGHT PEOPLE”

Photograph by Bill Klewitz

Hearing the fine singer Petra van Nuis make music is always a pleasure: her delicate, incisive way inside the songs reveals new shadings and gleams.  For those of us who don’t get to Chicago, here’s good news — a new CD by Petra and the splendidly subtle pianist Dennis Luxion, BECAUSE WE’RE NIGHT PEOPLE.

I had the good fortune to write notes for the CD, which you can read below.  But first . . . as they say . . . here is a video of six songs from the session, so you have the evidence generously offered to you:

BECAUSE WE’RE NIGHT PEOPLE Petra van Nuis and Dennis Luxion
The first thing you’ll notice about this CD, even before you start the music, is that its title is a sideways assertion, responding to a question that we weren’t able to hear but must assume was asked. That’s so appropriate, because the music Petra and Dennis create subtly answers some questions but raises others. Their lovely interplay will stay with you long after the disc is over. They are two very different artists, but their individualities never clash.

I was surprised by the title, because I’ve seen Petra functioning nicely in daylight. Another reason to admire her. She says, “By nature and work requirements Dennis and I are bona fide night people — thus, this collection. We love the slower tempos. The dreamy, moody material inspires us. We chose these songs to portray the varied emotions that occur in that magical suspended time after midnight and before the early bird’s chirp asks why you’re still awake. The bird can’t know if you’re up because you want to be or because you can’t sleep. Night can be a lonely time of reflection, rumination, and worry. But seductive night breezes bring creative insights, romance, and freedom!”

And Dennis takes his own solo, “Some night people are attracted to the activity, social scene, and music of bars and nightclubs. But others are attracted to the relative quiet, solitude, and intimacy that can be found at night, a time of introspection. As a musician, I often find myself amid the first type of night people, whereas personally of the second type. Hopefully both are represented on this recording.”

Incidentally, these words should not lead you to think that this CD is musical Ambien, over the counter. Yes, the tempos are often dreamy, but this CD is full of quiet surprises that will keep your ears awake: consider the perky MOONLIGHT SAVING TIME. On every track, Petra dances over the rhythm, playing with the line, directing her own small-scale but intense dramas. Her singing is ever so sweetly based on speech patterns – her phrasing isn’t constrained by the beats on the printed page. Rather, the arcs of melody and emotion shape her idea of the lyric line.

And Dennis is gracious and musically wise: his accompaniment is the Master’s Art, his introductions and solos beautiful translucent fabric hangings (hear him on YOU AND THE NIGHT).

When I started the CD for the very first listening, I didn’t think of Sinatra’s gloomy “It’s quarter to three”; rather, the analogue was the sessions Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins made. Like them, Dennis and Petra are two singular souls allied by a deep purpose, to make us feel, to make us remember our nocturnal lives in their songs. Notice the references to “conversation” in the notes below: they generously support each other but don’t interrupt each other’s utterances. You can hear them grinning at particularly felicitous turns of phrase. Petra points out, “Dennis is a perfect duo partner because of his desire to listen and his ability to focus. Playing with him is akin to having a meaningful conversation where the other person not only hears you, but gets you. A sensitive instrumentalist who cares about lyrics, Dennis is a co-storyteller complimenting the mood of each song in his expressive, thoughtful way.” And he’s subversively hilarious: he begins NO MOON AT ALL with a wink at IN WALKED BUD.

Dennis isn’t about to be outdone in courtesy, “I love working with Petra. She always has a clear idea of what she wants to do with a song, but is flexible and adapts to what is happening around her so the music can be organic and breathe. She finds songs that are way off the beaten path but well worth hearing.”

Speaking of song choices, for those radicals who don’t start at the first track and follow obediently to the end, I’d urge you to begin with WHILE MY LOVER SLEEPS, a wonderful song that Petra first heard on a Chet Baker recording. In the early Eighties, Dennis spent several years in Europe performing with Chet Baker, although Chet had stopped doing the song by then. When I heard it for the first time, I wanted only to hear it again, right away.

Very few of the songs on this disc are predictable (read: “overdone”) choices, but they all become memorable quickly. Three are particularly remarkable, and Petra notes, “The song that folks have most likely never heard is ‘The Piano Player (A Thousand and One Saloons).’ The music was written by the exquisite singer/pianist Meredith Ambrosio after she was given the lyric by a fan, Bob Dowd. The song captures the desperate loneliness and monotony of playing nightly in venues where the situation can quickly devolve as the drinks flow and the air thickens with smoke (thankfully not since the smoking ban!). The lyric also mentions the ‘little glow’ that comes from fulfilling musical experiences and sympathetic listeners who make it all worthwhile. Another tune that may be unfamiliar is ‘Night People’ from the short lived Broadway musical about the Beat Generation, ‘The Nervous Set.’ I adore Dennis’ treatment: he gets a real Bill Evans feel on his solo. I think the lyrics inspire him, and he can certainly relate when he co-leads the weekly jam session at Chicago’s famed Green Mill every Friday night/Saturday morning, from 1-3:40 am! One final obscurity is Mancini’s ‘Shadows of Paris’ which plays during the opening credits of the Pink Panther flick ‘A Shot In The Dark.’ The waltz time, minor key, and mysterious lyrics drew me in.”

How did this CD come to be? Petra says, “Dennis asked if I’d be interested in recording together! He didn’t care which tunes I chose; his only stipulation was that it would be duo. Dennis adds, “Since Petra and I mostly perform as a duo, it seemed natural and logical to use that format and to work out our take on the repertoire gradually on the bandstand. Petra chose all the songs and, while a few of them were new to her, most of them were already part of her repertoire. I didn’t want to play them in the way she already knew them, but rather to put them through the filter of my own sensibilities. All the songs, therefore, underwent some amount of transformation in adapting them for this project, some more than others, and these versions developed little by little, organically.”

Repertoire and arrangements took shape on countless gigs, but concrete recording plans didn’t coalesce for over a year until, as Petra explains, “we were discussing an upcoming ‘night- themed’ performance at PianoForte, a conducive space with a fantastic piano, and Dennis suggested we record that concert live. I agreed, but as a safety net, I insisted we record two nights to guarantee more options for ‘takes.’ Wouldn’t you know it, every song ultimately chosen came from night two!”

You’ll notice that this is a “live” recording – although the sound is so beautiful that I was at first startled by the applause. (“Where did those people come from?” I thought.) Dennis adds, “In the recording studio, one is tempted to play it safe and strive for a controlled perfection that lacks the spontaneity of a live performance: a scripted dialogue, not an intimate conversation. I prefer the latter.”

Petra insisted on BLESSINGS as the closing song. What a gift this performance is. It sends the listener off – whether to bed or just into another phase of nocturnal experience – wrapped in gratitude. That’s how I feel, not only about that Berlin song, but about this whole disc, which captures the best efforts of two inventive explorers who do their best work after the sun goes down. 

I believe the CD will be available in September, which is only a few days away.  You can pre-order copies here — as well as Petra’s other recordings, several with the luminous guitarist Andy Brown . . . and see her gig schedule.  And more.

May your happiness increase!

MORE INSTANT YET LASTING GRATIFICATION (Part Two): “ANIMULE DANCE” at the LOVELACE: EVAN ARNTZEN, SEAN CRONIN, ADAM BRISBIN (August 10, 2018)

Here‘s the first part of the music I captured on a glorious afternoon at the Lovelace (66 Pearl Street, New York City) courtesy of three generous stirring improvisers: Sean Cronin, string bass; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Adam Brisbin, guitar: WHO’S SORRY NOW?, BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU, and ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM.

And a few more wonders from that day, full of heartfelt surging energies.

Let’s call a heart a heart. Explanation below.

MY BLUE HEAVEN, with a wonderful funky Forties rocking motion, and a charming vocal by Evan:

a collective assent from the band, ‘DEED I DO, rocked in by that rhythm section, with an affirmation from Sean:

No co-pay for this healing visit to Doctor Morton; Evan explains the procedure:

A wonderful change of pace in Tizol’s CARAVAN:

and another serving of cage-free Jelly Roll, GRANDPA’S SPELLS:

It is a tremendous comfort to me to know that such glorious inventiveness exists, that it is within my reach (a walk, a train, a subway, a walk) and that I can capture it for our collective joy.  Thank you to the Animule Dance, to their friends and mine, and Richard of Lovelace.  There’s still more to come.

And . . . in case you thought I’d forgotten, the story of the heart drawn in colored pencils.  I don’t know during which performance it happened, but a beautiful little girl (Romy was nine, and French) came up and gave Sean, I think, her drawing.  What better emblem of the great truth, that music goes right to our hearts?

May your happiness increase!

INSTANT YET LASTING GRATIFICATION (Part One): “ANIMULE DANCE” at the LOVELACE: EVAN ARNTZEN, SEAN CRONIN, ADAM BRISBIN (August 10, 2018)

Pleasure can be evanescent, but the kind I experienced yesterday will last.

Adam Brisbin (by Joanna Sternberg)

I am thrilled to share some instant yet lasting gratification from the “Animule Dance,” a trio of Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone, vocal; Sean Cronin, string bass, vocal; Adam Brisbin, guitar, vocal, that I recorded at The Lovelace, 66 Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan, New York City, on August 10, 2018.

Sean Cronin (by Aidan Grant)

I had been admiring these three heroes in various contexts, most recently as three-fifths of Tamar Korn’s Wildwood Ramblers (you can find delicious performances just recently posted on JAZZ LIVES) but it was so much fun to meet them as a trio.  They are delightfully unified: they pick up each other’s cues, making for inspired musical conversation.

Evan Arntzen, the Lady Scout Opatut, and her green fan (by Voon Chew)

This was my first visit to The Lovelace, where Emily Asher most often leads the band (she was out of town).  I delighted in the place itself.  Drinking and video don’t mix, but the Lovelace specializes in gin drinks, with a menu that I plan to explore.  The food was first-rate (which isn’t always the case) and the room felt warm and open: thanks to Richard, behind the bar and taking care of everything else.

But since I can’t pour you a gin and bitter lemon nor pass a plate of fish and chips through the computer, I will rely on the music to spread joy.

Here are three glowing examples of the Animule Dance’s swing, versatility, and good feeling.  There will be more.

Asking the musical question, WHO’S SORRY NOW?

Sean’s very tender reading of the Waller-Razaf lament, BLUE, TURNING GREY OVER YOU:

and this bubbly performance of Ellington’s 1930 ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM — reminiscent to me of George Barnes and Ruby Braff — a performance I am thrilled to have my name attached to:

May your happiness increase!

“WONDROUS THINGS”: A CONVERSATION WITH HANK O’NEAL: JUNE 12, 2018 (Part One)

Hank O’Neal and Qi, 2003, by Ian Clifford

Like many of us, I’ve been the recipient of Hank O’Neal‘s wise active generosities for decades.  I greeted each new offering of Chiaroscuro Records (this would have been starting around 1972) with hungry avidity; I went to concerts he produced at The New School; I devoured his prose and delighted in the enterprises he made happen, such as the book EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ.  The very energetic and kind Maggie Condon brought us together in this century, and I came to Hank’s office to chat and then have lunch.  And then Hank agreed to sit for my video camera to talk about a fascinating subject: George Wettling as painter and photographer.  Here are the videos and some artwork from our October 2017 session.  You will notice immediately that Hank, soft-voiced and at his ease, is a splendid raconteur, a storyteller who speaks in full sentences and always knows where he’s going.

I returned this June to ask Hank about his life in the record business — specifically, those Chiaroscuro records and compact discs I treasure, featuring Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Dick Wellstood, Kenny Davern, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Bob Wilber, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, Buddy Tate, Don Ewell, Flip Phillips, Joe Venuti, and many others.

If — unthinkable to me — you’ve never heard of Chiaroscuro Records, do us both a favor and visit here — free, streaming twenty-four hours a day.  And how bad can a website be when a photograph shows Bennie Morton and Vic Dickenson in conversation?

Part One, with stories about Zutty Singleton, Earl Hines, E. Howard Hunt, Earl Hines, John Hammond, and others:

Part Two, which touches on Don Ewell, Richard M. Nixon and Spiro Agnew, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Marian McPartland, Willie “the Lion” Smith and other luminaries:

Part Three, which begins with money matters, then touches on Ruby Braff, Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna, Buddy Tate, Dicky Wells, and Wild Bill Davison:

Hank shared forty-five minutes more of stories, which will appear in a later post.

May your happiness increase!

“EVAN ARNTZEN MEETS LA SECTION RHYTHMIQUE” (DAVE BLENKHORN, SEBASTIEN GIARDOT, GUILLAUME NOUAUX, 2017)

The way art is perceived, explained, and marketed can be distant from the art itself.  Some critics and fans pounce on an artist, decide that (s)he does one thing superbly, and make that an identity.  Dick Wellstood = Stride Pianist.  Vic Dickenson = Dixieland Trombonist.  Gerry Mulligan = Modernist. And so on.  However, artists find these identities imposed by others are rather like clothes two sizes too small.  Happily, through the history of jazz we find musicians who can and want to do more than their “role” asks of them.

One such person is the reed virtuoso, composer, and singer Evan Arntzen.

Evan Arntzen, photograph by Tim Cheeney

This modern age being what it is, I believe I first encountered Evan through video and compact disc before I met him face-to-face in New York, but I admired his deep swing, cheerful musical intelligence, and deep feeling in all the media I saw and heard.  And since I’ve had many more opportunities of late to savor his work because of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, I have come to value him all the more.  He can easily play alongside Terry Waldo in the darkness of Fat Cat, read the notes flying by as a member of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawk rhythm section, fit right in with the EarRegulars . . . as well as being a shining light of a dozen other bands, including his own (one such aggregation was called the Scrub Board Serenaders and may now be called the Animule Dance).  And he’s a compelling singer (hear I’LL GET BY) that had he been born decades earlier, we’d be reading about girls swooning at the Paramount.  This new CD, recorded in France in January 2017, is a marvel because it shows how well he can be himself in many ways, all rewarding.

Here’s Chris Smith’s venerable BALLIN’ THE JACK from this CD:

Some of you might think that is heretical, and you are welcome to do it, because it doesn’t follow the paths you hear in your head, those strictures created by famous records — but it sounds like fine inventive witty music to me.  I know, as do you, how BALLIN’ THE JACK is “supposed” to sound — a performance should, by the laws of whatever Deity you like, start with an ensemble version of the last eight and then go right in to it.  None of this Fifties television mood-setting vamp, no Second Line beats, no exploration, right?  I much prefer these four fellows finding joy in the mildly unexpected and sharing it with us.

“La Section Rhythmique” is not simply your average pianoless trio, but a small stellar musical attraction on its own, lyrical, inquisitive, and impassioned.  They know the past but they live in the present, which I commend.

And this quartet creates immensely pleasing variations on the familiar — Evan’s sweetly intense vocal on MISTER JELLY LORD (is it sincerely audacious or audaciously sincere?); a hip serpentine line on I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU called HALF EYES (wordplay worthy of Mel Brooks); a clarinet-guitar duet on ISN’T IT ROMANTIC, taken a little faster than usual, perhaps in the name of Modern Romance; a glorious TICKLE-TOE that summons up, without imitation, the blessed Lester Young – John Collins live version; a tender PLEASE that begins with a questing improvisation, perhaps to keep the listener from falling into complacencies; a LITTLE WHITE LIES that tips its 1945 fedora to Don Byas; AFTERTHOUGHT, a happy improvisation on a jazz standard with a similar title that works its way in from the outside; I’LL GET BY that so tenderly explores this dear song in a multiplicity of ways, vocally and instrumentally; a TWELFTH STREET RAG that would have made Milt Gabler very happy; the concluding LOTUS BLOSSOM, deeply reverent, quietly emotional.

Evan, in addition to his other talents, is a marvelous bandleader, someone devoted to getting the most out of the other people on the stand.  A musician with a much more limited vision would see himself as The Star and the others as The Supporting Cast, thus performances would be Ensemble-Solos-Ensemble or some other formula.  Evan is untrammeled by conventions unless the conventions work in gratifying ways: like my hero Ruby Braff, he views a quartet as four equal voices, with imaginative possibilities resounding.  If you sit down with one track that especially pleases you and chart who’s-doing-what-now for the three or four minutes, you will be pleasantly astounded at the richness and variety.

If it isn’t clear by now, I think this disc is a treasure.

You can buy a digital download ($10), an actual disc ($15), and hear sound samples here.  Although it’s only by purchasing the disc — how archaic to some! — that you can read the typically splendid notes by Dan Morgenstern.

May your happiness increase!