Tag Archives: Sonny Red

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.

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ALTERNATIVE ENERGIES: ANDY FARBER’S SEXTET at SMALLS (May 5, 2012)

Saxophonist / composer / arranger / bandleader Andy Farber looked at me quizzically when I told him I was calling this blogpost ALTERNATIVE ENERGIES, but I’m sticking by it.

In this exhilarating session at Smalls (May 5. 2012), he casually proposed that we move the birthplace of jazz some eleven hundred  miles north and east (New Orleans to Detroit, according to Google Maps), and the energies that his Sextet generated were powerful and lovely.  Andy’s originals are meaningful — not just wanderings or new lines over very familiar chord changes.  He also gave some very pleasing attention to the compositions that his uncle, Mitchell Farber (more about him below**) — wrote for Donald Byrd.

The players were Andy, alto and tenor saxophones; Dominick Farinacci, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Xavier Davis, piano; Michael Karn, string bass; Ali Jackson, drums.  The rhythm section was delicious — three players listening to one another and to the horns.  I reserve my highest praise for Ali Jackson, who absolutely lifted me out of my seat through his wit, animation, and enthusiasm.  Had I not been anchored to my video camera, I would have been standing and cheering.  You’ll see why (especially on RECIPROCITY).  On both horns, Andy managed to offer a neat lyricism (with Pete Brown / Ben / Rollins grittiness) but he kept reaching forward to suggest phrases that were absolutely new but once heard, entirely comfortable.  Dominick can nimbly maneuver in the manner of Clifford Brown, but I also heard Harry Edison and Clark Terry — as well as a sweet yearning pathos on PENSIVE LEANING.  I knew Vincent Gardner from his intermittent appearances with David Ostwald at Birdland, and he did occasionally reach back into his own version of J.C. Higginbotham’s insistence, but more usually he took a rhythmic or melodic phrase and turned it up and down, delighting in it, having a wonderful time playing.

It is an extraordinary band, caught live, fresh, and vigorous in what I think is an extraordinary performance.

Andy began by calling WEST OF THE PECOS, a composition by altoist Sonny Red [Kyner]:

Then he tried out a new piece — a premiere! — with a title that has variant spellings, CHOTCHKES (meaning “trivial little things,” or “gewgaws” in Yiddish) — music for a hard-bop Tevye, perhaps:

Next, the blues!  But not the ordinary kind — no, this is a thirteen-bar blues in Eb minor, written by Mitchell Farber.  I think it has a distinct Middle Eastern flavor as well — illuminated from within by Vincent’s questions and implorings:

The first set closed with another of Andy’s originals, ROUTE 9A NORTH — the road you take to get to his house, although he didn’t provide more specific directions:

When the band returned, Andy pointed them into his own SCHMOOZEFEST, whose title is, I hope, self-explanatory (with fiery drumming from Ali).  Is it my fault that the opening motive reminds me of CARNIVAL IN CAROLINE?:

Mitchell Farber named EL DORADO for the Cadillac, not the far-off land, and wrote it for Donald Byrd.  Notice Michael’s double-stopping behind Andy, and the way these soulful performances come to resemble small symphonies, with a lyrical outing from Dominick.  You’ll hear Andy say that he and the band had decided that jazz really was born in Detroit.  A new idea, but the music certainly validated it for me:

Then, an absolute high point — not just for this session but perhaps for my recent years of live jazz experience — the eighteen-minute RECIPROCITY, delightfully propelled by Ali.  Mister Jackson is joyously ebullient, not afraid to be loud, but every accent and knocking-at-the-door has meaning and pleasure surrounding it.  I was watching his face — mobile, pleased, surprised, and thought, “He’s writing the punchlines to the jokes other players in the band start.”*  What Ali and Vincent create together is marvelous, and that’s not to take anything away from a wondrous Dominick – Michael duet.  Hear and see for yourself:

And Andy closed this glorious session with his own — quite relevant — question, OLIVE OR TWIST? (I didn’t get the pun until sometime today and that’s because Ricky Riccardi pointed it out to me):

If you don’t know why I proposed ALTERNATIVE ENERGIES as a title, your assignment is to go back and listen / watch very closely one more time.  The hints are this: 1) Detroit, and 2) if there’s ever an electrical outage in New York, I’m going to call Andy and ask him to get the guys together.  Wow!

May your happiness increase.

*A few more words about my new hero, Mr. Jackson.  At the end of the second set, I caught him for a moment — he was still wearing his hand-tied neat bowtie — and said, “I’m going to write a blogpost about this and put up the videos.  What do you think of this title: ‘ALI JACKSON COULD SWING THE DEAD BUT I HOPE HE NEVER HAS TO’?  And it amused him, too.  I also said, ‘My heroes are Sidney Catlett and . . . ‘ and before I could name anyone else, he said, most enthusiastically, ‘Mine too!'”  More than any other drummer I’ve heard these days, he suggests what it might have been like to sit eight feet in front of Big Sid — which is a splendid thing.

**About Mitchell Farber, from his nephew — the brilliant player who leads this Sextet.   “Mitchell Farber is my uncle, my father’s kid brother born in 1944.  He was a jazz saxophonist in high school where he spent his summers at jazz camp with people like Randy Brecker, Dave Sanborn, and Vinnie Ruggerio (the late drummer from upstate New York who was a Philly Joe Jones disciple).  Mitch met Donald Byrd at a summer jazz camp and worked with him on and off from the mid 1960s through the late ’70s. Donald recorded two of his tunes, “Eldorado” on Blackjack BLP 4259 (1967) and “The Uptowner” BST 84319 (1969).  In the 1960s, Mitch began to lean toward composition and studied with George Russell and Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau.  Mitch wrote and produced albums for Jackie McLean, Red Garland, Mark Murphy, Morgana King, Richie Cole, Pepper Adams, Walter Bishop Jr., and many others.  Some of his credits may be found here.  (Ignore the credits for guitar as that is another “Mitch Farber,” a guitarist in Florida.)   Mitch began a career in TV commercial underscore and jingle writing that lasted from the early 70s through the late 80s. He also wrote and/or orchestrated film scores with no credit or the wrong credit.   In the late 1990s he began teaching music is Ridgefield CT where he’s in his last year.   He recorded on album under his own name for Muse Records in 1983.”

Obviously someone we should know!  Talent, thy name is Farber.