Tag Archives: Sidney Catlett

IMPROV CLASSES (May 15, 1938)

“We improvise our way through life,” wrote the seventh-century philosopher Sammut of Malta. And perhaps that’s why jazz is such an enthralling wellspring of inspiration: even on a record that we know by heart, we get to hear musicians maneuver themselves into impossible corners and slither out.  Houdinis of Swing and Stomp.

These two Decca sides are seriously neglected, even though they feature three of the strongest players in the John Kirby Sextet: drummer / vocalist O’Neil Spencer (1909-1944, tuberculosis) and two musicians who coincidentally ended their days as members of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars: pianist Billy Kyle and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Even before Spencer gained some fame with Kirby, he had lifted up many recordings by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and was a valued session player for the Variety and Decca labels, recording with everyone from Jimmie Noone and Willie “the Lion” Smith to Maxine Sullivan, Bob Howard, and a host of forgettable blues singers.  These sides come from the only session Spencer was able to be given leader credit, and I think they are remarkable. Often I think of the Kirby band as expert but polished, with some powerful exceptions: these sides are much looser and to me extremely gratifying.

BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COM HOME? is usually played as a slow drag or medium opportunity to ask the musical question.  Here, the imagined speaker must have been terribly eager or impatient, for the tempo is unlike any other. What a good singer Spencer was, and how nimbly Buster maneuvers those turns at top speed before the splendid drum solo:

LORNA DOONE SHORTBREAD (had someone brought a box of cookies into the studio?) features Buster’s singular tone, swing, and phrase-shapes; Kyle’s sparkling accompaniment and solo, and that rarity, a full chorus for Spencer, who is his own person but sounding much like a hot hybrid of Catlett and Webb:

I like, for a moment, to imagine an alternate Thirties-universe, where O’Neil Spencer was a regular leader of small-group sessions for Decca, singing and rocking the band.  I wouldn’t mind another thirty or forty sides with him out front, instead of (for one example) having to lug Milt Herth through a song.

And something extra: AFTERNOON IN AFRICA by the trio, easy and lyrical, showing that clarinet / piano / drums did not have to imitate Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa:

These three players embody great freedom, courage, and joy: I celebrate them not only as musicians but as models, showing us how to do it.

May your happiness increase!

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HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL: “WINDY CITY SWING” (JON DOYLE, JAMEY CUMMINS, DAN WALTON, STEVE PIKAL, HAL SMITH and JOSHUA HOAG)

Hal Smith is someone whose music I’ve admired long before I was able to meet him and hear the magic he works from a front-row seat.  Dogs bark; cats meow; Hal swings, and I’ve never known him to fail.  Better than CPR.

Put it another way: I’ve had a driver’s license for decades, and am thus less comfortable in the passenger seat.  When I hear a performance with Hal at the drums, I can relax — the same way I do when Jo or Sidney or Wettling or Tough is in control: I know everything’s going to be all right.

A new CD with Hal is always a pleasure; the debut recording of a new Hal Smith band is an event, one to be celebrated.  SWING CENTRAL lives up to its title, and there’s more at work here than a) a quintet playing a swing repertoire and b) that the musicians all live in the Central time zone.

Those musicians — exuberant and focused at the same time are, besides Hal — Jonathan Doyle on clarinet; Dan Walton, piano; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Steve Pikal, string bass, and appearing on one track, Joshua Hoag, also on bass.

What makes this clarinet-plus rhythm group different and thus a treasure is vividly apparent from the first notes of the first track.  For one thing, SWING CENTRAL is aware that there is music not played by Benny Goodman.  Heresy to some, I know, and I treasure my Goodman records as much as anyone, but this band and this disc go another way. And that way is the endearingly individualistic way mapped out by Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Frank Chace, and Charlie Christian.  SWING CENTRAL is a hot band, but not an exhibitionistic one: on this CD or in performance, you won’t hear a ten-minute version of SEVEN COME ELEVEN that’s capped with a drum solo.  Hearing the disc again, I thought, “This band is playing for the music, not for the audience,” which is a beautiful and rare thing.  And the musicians know the records, but have absorbed them into their cell memory, so that they can play themselves, which is the only way to honor the innovators.  “Feelin’ the spirit,” as they used to say.

 

Now that you’ve gotten over the pleasant shock of the remarkable cover art by JP Ardee Navarro, hear and see the band in performance (Austin’s Central Market, 2016) for yourself:

LITTLE GIRL:

and Jon Doyle’s charming sweet original, HELLO, FISHIES:

Hal asked me if I would write something for this CD, and I was honored.  Here’s what I came up with: easy to tell the truth, and easy to express happiness in words.  (And in case what I’ve written seems to favor Jon Doyle and the leader, I will say only that I’d like to hear a CD led by Dan Walton, Jamey, or Steve.)

A MEETING OF KINDRED SOULS

A true story. Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were in a taxi, discussing “the beat”. Monk favored surprising shifts but Dizzy disagreed. “What would you do if your heart beat irregular? The steady beat is the principle of life.” My cardiologist would agree: healthy, happy organisms swing from the inside out. Hal Smith’s Swing Central is not only a wondrous cohesive group, inspired by the music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace, and friends, but it affirms joyous principles. From Austin, Texas, comes healing jazz.

Leader Hal tells how this band came to be:

I’ve known Jon Doyle since 2009. The first time I heard him warming up on clarinet, quoting Pres’ solo from “I Want A Little Girl,” the seed was planted for this band. Steve Pikal and I worked together in the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in 2010. Steve’s outgoing personality and propulsive bass playing is always a positive influence. Dan Walton introduced me to the Western Swing scene in Texas. We played together with Jason Roberts’ band and later with Dan’s own Jump Swing Imperials. He understands that “less is more” and it shows. Jamey Cummins has been in Austin for some time, and is finally receiving the attention he deserves. He plays wonderful Freddie Green-like time and inventive, highly rhythmic solos.

We decided not to pursue the familiar Goodman-based clarinet-and-rhythm repertoire but rather to explore the more introverted music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace. Jon Doyle took to the idea like a bat takes to the Congress Ave. Bridge. When we began, the musicians lived in the Central Time zone, so the band name suggested itself. (However, we are not going to add “Pacific” when a couple of our musicians have relocated to the West Coast!)

This was the easiest recording session I have ever done, and several other band members agreed. I think you’ll hear what a good time we had.

This quietly thrilling band reminds me not only of the three inspiring clarinet playing individualists, but of the possibilities of music that gently breaks down the barriers some listeners and journalists build, cubicles labeled “schools” and “styles.” Swing Central takes familiar songs and make them fresh and dewy; Jon’s compositions and reinventions are witty beyond their titles. And these players – happy rovers in the land of Medium Tempo, great ensemble players as well as inspiring soloists — go for themselves rather than copying.

About the repertoire. Listeners will hear the chord structures of SUGAR, MY GAL SAL, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and LADY BE GOOD reinvigorated. An answer key is available at the end of your workbook, but no peeking until you’ve handed in your finished pages.

BIG AL evokes Mr. Capone, who would have tipped Swing Central generously to keep playing his favorite song. Hal explains BATS ON A BRIDGE as “a real Austin phenomenon, and five of the six musicians here have deep roots in Texas’ weirdest city. http://www.batcon.org/index.php/our-work/regions/usa-canada/protect-mega-populations/cab-intro. HI, FISHIES comes from a sweet cross-species story. Ask Jon when you meet him on a gig. REPEATER PENCIL is for Lester, and for this band: artists who honor the innovators by being innovative themselves.

LONG-DISTANCE MAN owes its title to a Pres-and-Chace story recalled by Larry Kart: “[Chace] also told a very ‘Frank’ story about his encounter with Lester Young in 1957 in Pres’s hotel room in (I think) Indianapolis, where Frank was playing at a club and Pres was in town with a non-JATP package tour. The drummer in the band Frank was part of, Buddy Smith, suggested that they pay Pres a visit after the gig, and when they got there, Frank (‘I’m shy,’ he said), hung back while the other guys gathered around Pres. Having noticed this bit of behavior, Pres beckoned Frank to come closer, addressing him softly as ‘long-distance man.’ Probably a meeting of kindred souls.”

SHEIK OF AIRBNB is named thus because Jamey stayed in an AirBnB directly below the studio where the session was recorded. I MUST HAVE THAT MAN is from the band’s live gig at Central Market in Austin on Aug. 28, 2016. Josh Hoag (now with Asleep at the Wheel) filled in for Steve. The band decided that they must share this track with us: a lovely gift. When you are enjoying SUNDAY, don’t be surprised when the track fades out. Do not adjust your set. Hal explains, “Alex Hall’s reliable recording equipment may have been affected by a sun spot, or maybe one of Doyle’s blue notes. But we liked the overall feel so much — particularly Jon’s playing — that we decided to keep as much as possible and fade before the sudden ending.”

Sir John Davies, a Renaissance poet, wrote ORCHESTRA, his conception of a cosmos vibrating in symphonic harmony. If we are very fortunate, the world might vibrate as does Hal Smith’s Swing Central – tender, relaxed, urgent. We have a long way to go, but it’s a noble aspiration.

Here is the link to hear samples, purchase an actual disc, or a download.  Hal and SWING CENTRAL will be appearing at the Bix Festival on the first weekend of August in Davenport, Iowa. . . so you can have the mutual pleasure of buying CDs from the band there, also.  And here is the place to find out about all things Smith — the swinging ones, of course.

May your happiness increase!

“DIASPORA”: MICHAEL McQUAID, ANDREW OLIVER, NICHOLAS D. BALL

A few nights ago, I was sitting in my apartment, entertaining friends (one of them the fine guitarist Larry Scala) and I was playing 78s for them.  After a particularly delightful performance, which may have been the Keynote I WANT TO BE HAPPY with Roy, Emmett Berry, and Joe Thomas, or 46 WEST 52 with Chu Berry, Roy, and Sidney Catlett, I turned to them and quietly said, “Music like this is why some bands that everyone else goes wild about do not appeal to me.  I’ve been spoiled by the best.”

But there are glorious exceptions to my assessment of the present.  One of the shining musicians of this century is  Michael McQuaid — heard on a variety of reeds and cornet, even possibly breaking in to song when it seems right.  I first heard him live in 2010 and admired him powerfully, and although our paths don’t cross often (we meet every few years, not only in Newcastle but also in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and in New York City) he remains a model to me of what can be created within and without those venerable musics.  (Full disclosure: he quotes from JAZZ LIVES on his blog, but I simply take that as evidence of his good taste in literature.)

Michael, informally

If you’d like to read a brief biography of Michael, you can do just that here, but I will offer three salient facts: he is Australian by birth; he has been playing professionally for twenty years even though he is a mere 35; he and the lovely Ms. Anna Lyttle will take up residence in London in November 2017.

Michael, feeling the spirit

His newest CD, DIASPORA, is an exceptional pleasure.  It’s a trio CD — Michael’s first as a leader in this format — where he is nobly paired with pianist Andrew Oliver and percussionist Nicholas D. Ball.  When you click on the title above, you can hear selections from the disc, and if so moved, then purchase it from Bandcamp or CDBaby.

But enough commerce.  I’ve found it daunting to review this CD in a hurry, not, I assure you, because I had to dig for adjectives, but because each performance — none of them longer than a 12″ 78 — is so dense with sensation, feeling, and music, that I feel gloriously full and satisfied after each track.  I couldn’t compel myself to listen to this disc, stuffing in track after track at one sitting: too much glorious stuff was going on.  So I promise you that it will not only appeal at the first listening but for many more to come.  Michael, Andrew, and Nicholas D. are strong personalities but willing to merge their egos into a band, which in itself is a deep reward for us.

The music here is nicely contradictory: comforting but full of surprises, aesthetically familiar but never rote.  “Clarinet, piano, and traps,” as they would have written in 1928, lends itself to all sorts of formulae: the Goodman / Dodds / Noone “tribute” album.  Or, more loosely, “Chicago jazz.”  DIASPORA, it is true, nods affectionately to early Benny, Wingy, Leon, the Halfway House boys, Fats, Bud Jacobsen, Charles LaVere, and others, but it is not a series of copies: it’s as if Michael, Andrew, and Nicholas D. have made themselves so familiar with the individual songs and the idioms they came from that they are at ease and can thus speak for themselves.  There is so much shining energy in their playing: nothing seems forced or tense.  And although this would be marketed as “hot jazz,” some of the finest moments in this recital are sweet, rueful, tender: Fats’ CHELSEA, for one.

I asked Michael for his thoughts about the CD, especially because there are no liner notes, and he told me that he wanted to let the music speak for itself, and that DIASPORA has been on his mind for some time: “I wanted to do a project featuring my OWN playing rather than a larger group with a more democratic purpose. I also wanted to record in a very good studio, because I think the clarinet is rarely recorded well . . . it’s just me and my Albert system clarinet! And my colleagues, of course.”  [Note from Michael: the recorded sound is superbly natural.]

The songs Michael chose are admiring homages to various clarinetists without imitating them.  “For instance, ‘Do Something’ was imagined as a hypothetical Don Murray/Arthur Schutt/Vic Berton collaboration; ‘Tiger Rag’ asks ‘what if Rappolo and Jelly Roll made a trio side?’.”

I’d asked Michael about his original compositions.  “‘Black Spur’ takes its name from a treacherous mountain road to the north east of Melbourne, while ‘Diaspora’ is a Beguine/Jazz mix, paying tribute to the musical styles (and peoples) scattered widely throughout the world by the time of the 1920s/30s.  Of course, there’s a link there to the album title as well; an Australian, playing music of American origin (broadly speaking) with an American and a Briton, recorded and mixed in London and mastered in Helsinki!”

I hope all my readers take the opportunity to hear DIASPORA: it’s music that travels well.

May your happiness increase!

MORE FROM “HOT CLASSICISM” — KRIS TOKARSKI, ANDY SCHUMM, HAL SMITH — at SNUG HARBOR, SEPTEMBER 25, 2016

The trio of Kris Tokarski, piano; Hal Smith, drums; Andy Schumm, cornet and clarinet, called HOT CLASSICISM, is one of the most consistently satisfying jazz groups I know.

Here are a few more delights from their chamber recital in New Orleans last September.

A modern version of the Jelly Roll Morton – King Oliver duet on KING PORTER STOMP, scored for cornet and piano:

“Chicago style,” dirty but not unclean — fully realized on this rendition of MECCA FLAT BLUES:

PARKWAY STOMP (which, if my ears are right, is a very close cousin to Shelton Brooks’ DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL, and the 1928 recording originally featured Al Wynn, Punch Miller, and a very young Sidney Catlett).  In Big Sid’s honor, Hal “whips them cymbals” with precision and energy:

and, finally, for this interlude, an evocation of “the dear boy” from Iowa:

There will be more from this glorious compact inspired band to come.

May your happiness increase!

“BOUNCING WITH BEAN,” OR HIGH ADVENTURES at LOW PRICES (June 12, 2017)

“And how was your morning, Michael?”

“Quite good.  Of course my students can’t multi-task, so class was disappointing, but after that, I headed a few minutes east from my college to UNIQUE — a for-profit thrift store.  Mondays at UNIQUE are “Customer Appreciation Day,” where we get a twenty-five percent discount, so that adds to the overall thrill. Today I was looking for a plant pot with drainage holes in the bottom and was checking out the display of Hawaiian shirts, but I bought neither.”

“Why?”

“Exhibit A.”

“The records at UNIQUE are near the entrance, so I thumbed through the usual assortment of dull long-playing ones: Christmas music, Hugo Winterhalter, disco 12″ — but saw three that intrigued me: two by the singer Mavis Rivers on Capitol, and one by the otherwise unknown Pat Kirby on Decca — with orchestra conducted by Ralph Burns, always an encouraging sign.  $1.49 each.”

[Postscript: Pat Kirby turns out to be one of the finest singers I have ever heard. More about her as I learn more: the facts are few.]

“Then I saw one lonely 78 rpm record in a later-period yellow paper sleeve, and picked it up — the Andrews Sisters’ BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN — which, as my good friend Rob Rothberg would tell you, is a Bobby Hackett sighting of the highest order, especially on the original Decca issue.  I weighed that record in my hand, decided I didn’t need it, although it was a good omen, even at $3.99.  Then I saw more.

Perhaps another fifty 78s, nicely sleeved, in various places.  Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Gray, Erskine Hawkins, Benny Goodman . . . and the jackpot.  My thing.  Cozy Cole with Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins on Continental.  Bill Harris and J.C. Heard on Keynote.  Coleman Hawkins (as shown above) on Bluebird, which I now understand was a follow-up date to BODY AND SOUL and a kind of Henderson reunion, leaving aside Danny Polo and Gene Rodgers.  Horace Henderson on Vocalion.  And two sacred Commodore records: one featuring Chu Berry, the other Hawkins, both with space for Sidney Catlett:

Record-hunting, for me, always mixes uncontrollable excitement and melancholy.  Who died?  Who’s in assisted living?  Who will never hear J.C. Higginbotham again?  A few of the records had sleeves noting that they had come from one Peter Dilg of Baldwin, purveyor of antique phonographs.  Peter, where are you now?  And a postscript — written after I’d published this blogpost: someone who’d owned at least one of these 78s was a hot-jazz collector after my own heart, because on the paper sleeve of one [a different record, of course] in neat handwriting, he’d noted that Chick Bullock was the singer, and the band was a very nice swinging group — listing each member by name and instrument and giving the recording date.  Sir, where are YOU now?

But such melancholy thoughts are always balanced by the child, silently hollering LOOK WHAT I GOT!

So I walked around the shelves, clutching my records to my shirt-front with the ardor of someone who doesn’t want to put his treasures down for a moment. Usually I am alone when I look at records, but today, twice, I spied Brothers of the Collecting Urge, both gentlemen of my general age bracket.  One, with baseball cap and ponytail, pretended he didn’t see me when we were looking at the lps.  ‘Someone liked singers,’ I said — as an opening gambit, to which the response was a powerful albeit silent Do Not Come Near, Do Not Speak To Me.  When I had finished, another fellow — no ponytail this time — was looking at 78s I had been through.  I tried again.  ‘Lots of good jazz to your left, although $3.99 seems surprisingly high.’  ‘You want ’em, you take ’em,” was his encouraging response, and no more was said.  So much for the Brotherhood.”

But now, in my June-warm apartment, I can grade student essays to the finest accompaniment.  And although it might be presumptuous to think this, I feel gratitude to the Goddess for letting me be in that space and find these sacred relics which — as we know — still sound good in 2017.  Twenty-none dollars and some cents, if you’re curious.

And when I die, I hope my friends are around to divide up the musical bounty. What they don’t want will — if I am lucky in the spirit-world — will end up at some thrift shop, giving the next generation a story with equal pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

MR. CARNEY TAKES A HOLIDAY OR THREE

Regally, Harry Carney played baritone saxophone and other reeds in the Duke Ellington Orchestra from his adolescence to his death, a record of loyalty I think unmatched, even by Freddie Green with Basie.  But even he could be wooed into other people’s record sessions now and again. An early and glorious appearance is on this 1936 Teddy Wilson date, where he sounds positively limber on WHY DO I LIE TO MYSELF ABOUT YOU?

On this side, Billie Holiday sat out, or went home, but the instrumental performance of June 30, 1036, is priceless: Jonah Jones, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Teddy Wilson, Lawrence Lucie, John Kirby, Cozy Cole.

On this Edmond Hall session, Carney majestically states the melody of I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME at the blissfully romantic tempo I think is ideal for the song:

The date is from May 5, 1944.  An anecdote I cannot verify is that Hall wanted Tricky Sam Nanton to play trombone but that Nanton’s loyalty to Ellington so strong that he would not.  This record is an astonishing combination of timbres nonetheless, with Alvin “Junior” Raglin aboard as well.  And Sidney Catlett, for whom no praise is too much.

Finally (although I could offer many other examples) one of  Harry Lim’s wonderful ideas for Keynote Records — he also created a trumpet choir of Roy Eldridge, Emmett Berry, and Joe Thomas; a trombone one of Benny Morton, Vic Dickenson, Claude Jones, and Bill Harris — this extravaganza of sounds with Carney, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Tab Smith, Johnny Guarnieri, Al Lucas, Sidney Catlett, recorded on May 24, 1944.  Whether it was the tempo or the imposing members of the sax ensemble, Carney seems ever so slightly to lumber, like a massive bear trying to break into a lope, but his huge sound carries the day.  Tab Smith arranged for the date, and on this side he gives himself ample space: he sounds so much like our Michael Hashim here!

The inspiration for this blogpost — did I need a nudge to celebrate Harry Carney?– was, not surprisingly, an autographed record jacket spotted on eBay:

Wouldn’t it be so rewarding in whatever our line of work might be to be so reliable and sought-after as Harry Carney was to Ellington and everyone else?

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES CHARLIE SHAVERS and FRIENDS (April 21, 2017)

When Dan Morgenstern and I had concluded our first series of video interviews, he reminded me that we hadn’t spoken of Charlie Shavers, and I was also eager to do this when we met for a second time.  Charlie was an extraordinary trumpeter, arranger, and singer — someone not celebrated in this century as he deserves.

Why stardom seems to come naturally to one artist and not another is mysterious, but I hope that Dan’s wise, affectionate, and first-hand recollections will help people rediscover Mister Shavers:

“Smother me!” Charlie with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and Louis Bellson:

This is why sound film was invented, so that we could see and hear Charlie and Sidney Catlett have a delightful conversation — also John Kirby, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, and Russell Procope (or is it Charlie Holmes?) in 1947:

and late in life with Ben Webster, playing some “dirty blues”:

and the quartet that Dan referred to:

Previous interview segments with Dan can be found here.  And there are more to come.

May your happiness increase!