Tag Archives: Rufus Reid

FOR NANCY HARROW, THE SONGS ARE ALL

Looking back on my 2017, one of the memorable pleasures is the privilege of meeting and hearing Nancy Harrow (in the company of fellow-singers Daryl Sherman and Hilary Gardner, too).  You could call Nancy “a singer,” and then add “composer,” but she is more, an inspiring artist of great scope.  I imagine her as someone who realized, early on, what her paths were, what her purposes might be, and set off to fulfill them — as she continues to do, with warmth, perception, humor, lightness, and strength.

I’ve written about Nancy here, but I couldn’t let this year conclude without shining a light on her latest work, her 2016 CD, THE SONG IS ALL.  It’s not just that she’s recorded infrequently in this century — her preceding CD, recorded with Don Friedman in Japan, was in 2009, and even Tom Lord hasn’t noted it.  But THE SONG IS ALL shows off Nancy in all her facets and reflections.

Nat Hentoff wrote this about Nancy’s 1981 sessions with John Lewis (THE JOHN LEWIS ALBUM FOR NANCY HARROW, Finesse Records): Nancy’s style is Nancy.  There are no masks, no trickery–of sound or personality.  What impressed Buck [Clayton] and a good many others . . . was the absence of artificiality, the directness of her sound and emotion.  The presence, in sum, of someone real. . . . Nancy moves inside the lyrics, and as she tells each story there is that touch of autobiography that all lasting singers suggest.  Again, it’s real.  And that, I think, is why people who have heard her keep on wanting more.  Hearing that kind of probing of memory and imagination is infectious.  You start probing your own.

In the opening track of  THE SONG IS ALL, Nancy sings the lines, “When I was small, no friend called, I played all the parts by myself,” which beautifully characterizes what she’s been doing for years — creating literary / musical imaginings based on Willa Cather, Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and several “children’s books” with deep meanings for adults as well.  Nancy has written music and lyrics — songs that stand on their own as well as interludes in the plot — then performed them, an actress without artifice.  THE SONG IS ALL is thus the multi-colored, emotionally intense Nancy Harrow Repertory Company.

Here is IF I WANT TO, drawing on Nancy’s improvisations on Cather’s A LOST LADY, combining pride, tenderness, vulnerability, and self-knowledge:

Ordinarily, if you offered me a CD solely of one artist’s originals, I might look at it with skepticism, for not every musician is a successful composer, but I embrace THE SONG IS ALL because of its depth and variety of feeling — the toughtness of SELF-ESTEEM, the wry wit of PUTTING ON AIRS, the mournful recollections of MY LOST CITY, the quiet intensity of I AM TOO SHY, and more.  Many CDs pall after a half hour because of sameness, but this one moves from scene to scene with grace and power.

Although I take great pleasure in hearing Nancy with spare accompaniment, here she has assembled a thoroughly entrancing stock company of (mostly young) musicians: Chris Ziemba, George Delancey, Robert Edwards, Owen Broder, Alphonso Horne, Carrie Dowell, Monica Davis, Sarah Whitney, Eleanor Norton, Alex Claffy, Britton Smith, Carl Clemons Hopkins, David Linard, Nathan Bell, and veterans Dennis Mackrel and Rufus Reid.  (If I’ve made anyone improperly “young” out of my ignorance, I trust I can be forgiven.)

Another piece of music that has become part of my daily pleasure — I cannot share it with you here (it never became a CD in this country)– is Nancy’s 1981 performance of MY SHIP and her version of AS LONG AS IT’S ABOUT LOVE from the record with John Lewis, and I have had the strongest urge to get out of my chair and put my ear close to the speaker, to best hear her songful message.  I think of Whitman, “This hour I tell things in confidence, I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.”

Her voice, so endearingly personal — vibrato-ed or vibrato-less, tender or fierce — conveys emotions and ideas that it seems only she can convey, even if the song is familiar, with many singers trying to make it their own.  And when she sings her own words and melodies, she quietly fills the room.

Here is an extraordinarily deep article on Nancy (with many of her own words and insights) by Wayne Zade, and here is Nancy’s website, a good place to read, listen, dream, and purchase CDs.

I close with the words by Chekhov — chosen by Nancy to be what someone sees having opened the cardboard sleeve of THE SONG IS ALL:

“Why are your songs so short?  Is it because you are short of breath?” the songbird was asked.  The bird replied: “I have a great many songs and I should like to sing them all.”

“When it’s true, I can move you,” Nancy sings, and she does:

Nancy Harrow and her songs are rare blessings.

May your happiness increase!

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THE WORLDS OF JIMMY MAZZY (SARAH’S WINE BAR, August 28, 2016)

I had heard a great deal about the lyric troubadour Jimmy Mazzy (also a wonderful banjo player, raconteur, songhound, and more) but had never encountered him in person until late August.  It was a phenomenal experience. No, it was two phenomenal experiences.

Photograph thanks to New England Traditional Jazz Plus, http://www.nejazz.com

Photograph thanks to New England Traditional Jazz Plus, http://www.nejazz.com

Jimmy was part of the Sarah Spencer Quartet: Sarah, tenor saxophone and vocals; Bill Sinclair, piano; Art Hovey, string bass and tuba — playing a gig at the wonderful Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield, Connecticut.  (Facebook calls Sarah’s a “pizza place,” which is like calling the Mona Lisa a smiling lady.)  More about Sarah’s below.

And more about the saxophone-playing / singing Sarah Spencer  in a future blogpost, with appropriate audio-visuals.

Sometimes the finest music is created when it appears no one is paying attention: the live recordings, the music that’s captured while the engineers are setting up or in between takes (WAITIN’ FOR BENNY and LOTUS BLOSSOM are two sterling examples that come to mind).  In a few instances, I’ve brought my camera to the soundcheck or to the rehearsal because the “We’re just running this through” ambiance is a loose friendly one — shirtsleeves and microphone-adjusting rather than the musicians’ awareness of tables of expectant listeners. In that spirit, I offer Jimmy’s seriously passionate version of Lonnie Johnson’s TOMORROW NIGHT.

I think you see and feel what I mean about Jimmy as a passionate singer / actor / troubadour.  If a maiden had Jimmy beneath her balcony, serenading like this, she would know that he was offering his whole heart to her with no restraint and no artifice yet great subtle powerful art.  Those of us in the audience who aren’t maidens and perhaps lack a balcony can hear it too.

But Jimmy is a sly jester as well — totally in control of his audience (even though there’s a long, drawn-out “Ooooooh, no!” from Carrie Mazzy, Jimmy’s wife, at the start of this anthropological exegesis):

Jimmy Mazzy, two of a kind.  And more.  Irreplaceable.

And there will be more from this session.  Now, some words about the delightful locale: Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield, Connecticut, features world-class jazz music on the last Sunday of every month.  But that’s not the whole story: Ken and Marcia Needleman are deeply devoted to the art form, and they’ve been presenting it in style since 2009.  Ken is a guitar student of Howard Alden’s, and he decided that he wanted to bring top jazz musicians to perform in an intimate setting (with excellent food and fine acoustics).  They found kindred spirits in Sarah and Bernard Bouissou, restaurateur and chef of Bernard’s, one floor below the wine bar.

Thus the Jazz Masters Series began in February 2009, and I’ll mention only a double handful of the musicians who have played and sung to enthusiastic audiences: Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, Gene Bertoncini, Dick Hyman, Rossano Sportiello, Mark Shane, Frank Wess, Scott Robinson, Harry Allen, Warren Vache, Ken Peplowski, Dan Levinson, Jon-Erik Kellso, Rufus Reid, Jay Leonhart, Cameron Brown, Matt Wilson, Akira Tana, Joe LaBarbera, Mike Mainieri, Cyrille Aimee, Karrin Allyson.

The food critic who writes JAZZ LIVES wants to point out that the food was wonderful and the presentation delightful.  Sarah’s Wine Bar would be a destination spot if the only music was the humming heard in the kitchen.

But right now I want to hear Jimmy sing TOMORROW NIGHT again.

May your happiness increase!

AMONG FRIENDS: MUSIC and WORDS for JOE WILDER (Sept. 8, 2014)

Joe Among Friends

Last night I spent a very touching and uplifting three hours in the company of people — many of whom I didn’t know and vice versa — united in one thing: we all loved the magnificent trumpeter and dear man Joe Wilder.

I don’t know the source of the saying, “The only thing wrong with funerals is that the one person you want to see is not present,” and that was certainly true in the filled-to-capacity St. Peter’s Church, but you could feel Joe’s gracious, easy spirit in every word and every note played.  The service was organized by Joe’s daughter Elin, Joe’s great friend and biographer Ed Berger, and the music was directed by Warren Vache.  Praise to all of them.

I couldn’t bring my video camera, so my notes will have to suffice.

I came to St. Peter’s early (I have been trained to this behavior by anxious parents, but often it pays off) and could see Russell Malone playing ballads for his own pleasure, including a soulful, precise DEEP IN A DREAM, then greeting Gene Bertoncini, who took up his own guitar.

Then the music changed to purest Wilder — MAD ABOUT THE BOY, CHEROKEE, and more.

It was clear that this was a roomful of dear friends.  Much hugging, much laughter, everyone being made welcome.  Although many people wore black or dark clothing, the mood was anything but maudlin.

Warren Vache quietly and sweetly introduced the first band: Harry Allen, Bill Allred, John Allred, Bill Crow, Steve Johns, Michael Weiss — and they launched into IT’S YOU OR NO ONE and then a medium-tempo CHEROKEE, full of energy and smiles passed around from player to player and to us.

We then saw a series of clips of an interview done with Joe (the source I copied down was http://www.robertwagnerfilms.com) — where he spoke of his experiences, both hilarious (sitting next to Dizzy in Les Hite’s band) and more meaningful (his perceptions of race).  What struck me was the simple conviction with which he said — and clearly believed — “I couldn’t have had a better life.”

Joe’s trumpet colleague from the Symphony of the New World, Wilmer Wise, told a few tales of the man he called “my big brother.”

Jimmy Owens stood in front of us and spoke lovingly of Joe, then took his fluegelhorn and played a very touching THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU (has Harry Warren’s song ever sounded so true?) ending with subterranean low notes, and an excerpt from NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I’VE SEEN.

Hank Nowak, another trumpet colleague (who met Joe at the Manhattan School of Music in the Fifties) spoke endearingly and then played a beautiful selection from Bach’s second cello suite — as if he were sending messages of love to us, with exquisite tone and phrasing.

Ed Berger told stories of Joe — whom he knew as well as anyone — and ended with some of Joe’s beloved and dangerously elaborate puns.

More music, all sharply etched and full of feeling: Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub duetted all-too briefly on TANGERINE; Dick Hyman and Loren Schoenberg played STARDUST, and were then joined by Steve LaSpina and Kenny Washington for PERDIDO.

Jim Czak told his own story, then read a letter from Artie Baker (swooping down gracefully at the end to give the letter to Joe’s daughter Elin);.

Jimmy Heath (who spoke of Joe as “Joe Milder”), Barry Harris, Rufus Reid, Gene Bertoncini, and Leroy Williams took wonderful lyrical paths through I REMEMBER YOU and BODY AND SOUL.

Jim Merod, who knew Joe for decades, was eloquent and dramatic in his — let us be candid and call it a lovely sermon — about his dear friend.

Wynton Marsalis spoke softly but with feeling about Joe, and then played a solo trumpet feature on JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE that (no cliche here) had the church in a joyous rhythmic uproar.

Russell Malone and Houston Person played ANNIE LAURIE with great sensitivity, just honoring the melody, and Russell created a delicate IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING; Rufus Reid and Kenny Washington joined them for IN A MELLOTONE. Ken Kimery of the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra spoke of Joe’s mastery and generosities. Warren Vache brought his horn in a wonderful duet with Bill Charlap on what he called “Joe’s song,” COME ON HOME, and then with Steve LaSpina and Leroy Williams, offered a quick MY ROMANCE.

Bill Kirchner took the stage with Bill Charlap to present a searching SHE WAS TOO GOOD TO ME.

It was nearing nine-thirty, and I knew my demanding clock radio (it shakes me awake at five-forty-five most mornings) had to be obeyed, so I stood up to go, as Warren was encouraging any musician in the house who hadn’t yet played to “jam for Joe” on SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.  Among the musicians he announced were Bria Skonberg and Claudio Roditi, and cheerful music enwrapped me as I walked out into the night air.

I am sorry I couldn’t have stayed until everyone went home, but I felt Joe’s presence all around me — in Warren’s words, a man so large that each of us could take a little of Joe with us always.

A pause for music. Something cheerful and playful — from 2010:

Now a pause for thought, whether or not you were able to attend the memorial service.

How can we honor Joe Wilder now that his earthly form is no longer with us?

We could purchase and read and be inspired by Ed Berger’s wonderful book about Joe, which I’ve chronicled here — SOFTLY, WITH FEELING: JOE WILDER AND THE BREAKING OF BARRIERS IN AMERICAN MUSIC (Temple University Press).

We could buy one of Joe’s lovely Evening Star CDs and fill our ears and houses with his uplifting music.

Or, we could act in Wilderian fashion — as a kind of subtle, unassuming spiritual practice.

Here are a few suggestions, drawn from my own observations of Joe in action.

Give more than you get.  Make strangers into friends. Never pretend to majesties that aren’t yours.  Fill the world with beauty — whether it’s your own personal sound or a (properly room-temperature) cheesecake.  Act lovingly in all things.  Never be too rushed to speak to people.  Make sure you’ve made people laugh whenever you can. Express gratitude in abundance.

You should create your own list.

But “Be like Joe Wilder in your own way” isn’t a bad place to start.

 May your happiness increase!

PETER VACHER’S SUBTLE MAGIC: “MIXED MESSAGES:

The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility.  Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us.  This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling.  Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t.  Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.

Vacher

MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good.  The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly.  But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself.  One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).

Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude.  They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent.  The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling.  New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography.  Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.

But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories.  (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.)  Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.

Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:

He was a pretty self-centered guy.  Kinda selfish.  When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show.  He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were.  He’d say, “People come to see me.  I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.”  He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.”  I’d say to myself, “Good show!  I feel like crying.”

Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:

. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix.  He said, “Why don’t you turn to music?  You can get more girls.”  He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.” 

Trumpeter John Eckert:

I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965].  A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups.  Louis ended the concert.  I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded.  I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.

To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.

May your happiness increase.