Tag Archives: Sonny Rollins

LIGHT-HEARTED MELODIC DANCES: ALEX LEVIN TRIO, “A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE” (ALEX LEVIN, PHIL ROWAN, BEN CLINESS)

I gravitate towards music that welcomes me in.  I approve of melodies.  I even love them, and I love those that I remember.  There!  I’ve said it.

And the pianist Alex Levin has the same affectionate relations with song: he’s not a prisoner of the written notes, but he respects what the composer has created, and his own original compositions have the gamboling pleasure of the great songs that some of us still hum in the car or in the grocery-store line.

I first heard (and heard of) Alex almost a decade ago, when he released his first CD, which I liked a great deal: you can read my review here.

And I like Alex’s new CD even more.

Here’s what I wrote, offhandedly, after hearing only two or three tracks through my computer’s speakers.

Some ninety years ago, jazz began to position itself as the delinquent of music.  In opposition to all those sweet bands with violins, playing the melody in harmony, tied to the notes in front of them, jazz took a puff on its Marlboro, abruptly stood up from its seat (frightening the kittens) and made unpredictable sounds.  That was HOT, a spiritual barrage against the apparent dullness of SWEET.  And jazz listeners followed the narrow often unmarked ideological path: think of all those 78s whose grooves remain black, shiny, unplayed except for the eight bars of Bix or Purvis or Jack.  Sweet was for Aunt Martha; hot was for rebellious enlightened  outsiders.  It created a pervasive false dichotomy: if you could hear the melody, was it true improvisation? 

And — to oversimplify (because Bird and Trane could play melodically with great art) jazz aimed at abstraction, sharp edges and magical paths into the labyrinth.  Thus, so many listeners tell themselves and others that they don’t understand jazz, as if  it became a subject one had to study for to pass the final.

But the great players and singers knew and still know that melody is at the heart of any musical expression, and that “sweetness” was, in itself, a goal rather than a trap.  Think of Lester Young, “I don’t like a whole lot of noise — trumpets and trombones…I’m looking for something soft. It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig?”

It is in this spirit of an apparent conservatism that becomes radical that I commend to you Alex Levin’s new trio CD, A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE, where the trio does more than glue themselves to the written notes, but they treat melodies with love and respect . . . the result being quietly affecting swing playing of the highest order.  Some might not be able to hear the lights and shadows, preferring instead the sounds of the piano dropped to the street below, but that would be their loss.

Because readers are sometimes hurried, you can hear samples, download the music, or purchase a CD here.  And I caution the unwary listener to not jump to conclusions: “It sounds too easy,” for as that great master of contemporary jazz, Ovid, was fond of saying, ars est celare artem [he recorded it for Clef], which Monk transposed into “Simple ain’t easy.”

Now back to our regularly scheduled basket of prose.

I left off there, because Life (the hussy) interfered, with her racket of parking tickets, laundry, dinner, recycling, and more — make your own list.  But I came back and listened to the CD in a sitting, my enthusiasm just as strong.

Some facts.  Alex, who has a light touch on a well-recorded piano, is accompanied — in the truest sense of the word — by the fine string bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Ben Cliness.  And they have the ease, intuitive comfort, and wit one would expect from a working band: they catch each other’s signals without having to be told to turn the page.  incidentally, I’ve seen a review of this CD calling it “modern” and “clever.”  I can’t argue with those terms, but to me it seems “heartfelt” and “playful,” which qualities are audible.

Alex has divided the repertoire on this disc between standards that, for the most part, got their greatest exposure in the Fifties: the title track (which, for those of us over fifty, has a yearning nostalgia — rather like THE THINGS WE DID LAST SUMMER — even though my adolescence came later), SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP, THE BEST THING FOR YOU (Would Be Me), WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? and I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR — which, for the purists in the audience, is a much older composition, but I would guess most memorably allied with jazz because of Sonny Rollins (although Annie Ross, Marian McPartland, and others returned to it).

And of course one could say, “There are a million piano trio recordings that draw on Rodgers, Berlin, Porter, and Kern,” but the other five tracks — all Levin originals — SWEETS, THE JETSETTERS, BLUES FOR WYNTON K., AT LEAST WE’RE TOGETHER, STROLLING THROUGH YONKERS — are strong jazz compositions on their own, with one foot delicately poised in the past, Alex not trying to hide that his heart belongs to 1956 Prestige, but moving around happily in this century.  His songs ARE songs rather than lines over slightly modified chord progressions; they have the breath of life rather than the aroma of the Xerox machine.

Convinced?  It’s music that befriends the listener, which is sometimes rare.  Hear for yourself here, and then download or purchase, as the spirit moves you.

May your happiness increase!

THE RESONANT KINDNESS OF SONNY ROLLINS (1994)

Some time back, browsing eBay, I came across this quite remarkable object for sale: a letter from Sonny Rollins to a younger fan / musician.  It’s no longer for sale (it sold for eight hundred dollars) but I share the text with you now.

Undated [November 23, 1994]. “Dear Mahlon – Playing music can be hard at times! No good gigs, no money etc. etc. But there is no joy like blowing your horn and if God has given you a gift hang in there with it as long as you can keep your self respect and dignity out here in this crazy world. I am behind you and am pulling for you and if you need to call on me please do so. Also you have a great friend in that beautiful young lady Shelby. Both of you keep on keepin’. We (our people, the planet) need individuals like you out here!! Yours sincerely, Sonny Rollins. P.S. Tour schedule on the way.” Together with the original envelope, addressed to the recipient’s friend Shelby Johnson, and postmarked November 23, 1994.

and more details:

still more:

and a final offering:

Kindness like this is a salve for the wounds we all have, and encouragement from a master is a priceless gift.  Perhaps you all could extend the same warm embrace to someone you know who needs it?  People need to know what love is.

May your happiness increase!

NEW ORLEANS JOYS: CLINT BAKER, BILL CARTER, JIM KLIPPERT, MONTE REYES, BILL REINHART, SAM ROCHA, J HANSEN at CAFE BORRONE (June 6, 2014)

A few nights ago, on Friday, June 6, 2014, Clint Baker and friends turned Cafe Borrone (1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, California) into a New Orleans dance hall for two sets from 7:30 to 10 PM. Clint and friends are usually known as Clint Baker and his Cafe Borrone All Stars; for this night, because of so many long-time friends and colleagues gathered together to make music, they were his New Orleans Jazz Band.  Appropriately!

“Hear me talkin’ to you!” Clint, trumpet, vocal; Bill Carter, clarinet, ensemble vocal; Jim Klippert, trombone, ensemble vocal; Monte Reyes, banjo, vocal; Bill Reinhart, guitar; Sam Rocha, string bass, vocal; J Hansen, drums.

PUT ON YOUR OLD GREY BONNET (with ensemble warbling):

CARELESS LOVE:

BUGLE BOY MARCH:

I’M ALONE BECAUSE I LOVE YOU (vocal by Sam):

THE SECOND LINE:

SOME OF THESE DAYS (vocal by Clint):

OLE MISS:

SWEET LOTUS BLOSSOM (vocal by Clint):

ICE CREAM (ensemble chorusing. no artificial ingredients):

“KEEP IT REAL” Bb BLUES:

JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE (that rocking carpe diem):

LADY BE GOOD (with Monte’s justly famous vocal):

A friend gave me a copy of the latest issue of DOWN BEAT — with nice coverage of Eric Alexander, Brian Blade, Sonny Rollins, even a review of a new Bucky Pizzarelli CD.  But no feature on Clint Baker or the wonderful happenings at Cafe Borrone.  Their loss.  What would it take to get DOWN BEAT to come down here? I would buy the reporter a nice plate of polenta, carrots, kale, and cauliflower, or something else from their good kitchen: you have my word.  Until then, if you can get down here, you won’t regret the trip; if it’s too far away, please share this blogpost with people you know who would like it.  Clint and his pals are creating hot, subtle delights regularly — and your attention is perhaps the best tribute.

 May your happiness increase!

LEON “CHU” BERRY (1908-1941)

A holy artifact from the Larry Rafferty Collection:

CHU BERRY REED

I can’t write the dialogue here, “Mister Berry, could I have one of your used reeds and could you autograph it for me?” but it obviously happened and it feels sacred to those of us who understand the power of Chu.

Because he has been gone nearly seventy-five years (victim of an automobile accident in 1941) Chu has been eclipsed.  But Charlie Parker named his firstborn son Leon in Chu’s honor, and Sonny Rollins has told young musicians asking for advice on tenor players, “Listen to Chu Berry!”

We can still do that: SITTIN’ IN, recorded for the Commodore Music Shop in November 1938, with Chu, his friend Roy Eldridge,trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Sidney Catlett, drums.  It’s based on a strain from TIGER RAG and — although very brief — allows us to hear Chu’s speaking voice as well as his energetic tenor style:

To think of his early death is so sad. Yet he left us so much, if we can only hear it.

May your happiness increase!

JOURNEY TO UNMAPPED PLACES: “JAZZ LIVES: TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART” by JAAP VAN DE KLOMP

JazzLives Blog

Between 2005 and 2008, the Dutch photographer and jazz scholar Jaap van de Klomp began a series of soulful pilgrimages in honor of the men and women who had created the music he so loves.

The result is the lovely and often sad book of photographs, JAZZ LIVES, which takes its subtitle, TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART, from the words chiseled into Lester Young’s gravestone.

Yes, gravestone.

Every jazz lover knows the familiar photographs of our heroes and heroines: Billie Holiday with her dog; Louis Armstrong snappily dressed in London; Charlie Parker on the bandstand.  But where are our idols now?

The two hundred and more pages of JAZZ LIVES document where their mortal remains lie: with elaborate gravestones, unmarked plots of overgrown land, monuments proud and forlorn.  Jaap took his camera across the United States and Europe to capture these landscapes, resulting in a heartfelt pilgrimage to shrines of the dead. Each photograph is accompanied by a concise biography by Scott Yanow, and the book is organized by instruments once played.

The gravestones sometimes speak of posthumous reputation and fame: huge blocks of costly stone or unmarked areas of grass.  A monument for Ellington and empty space for Bud Powell.  An essay by Dan Morgenstern opens the book; one by the jazz musician and writer Bill Crow closes it. A simply written but evocative essay by the photographer himself explains something about his travels.

But the graves say so much — by presence and absence, reality and implication — about Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Serge Chaloff, Vic Dickenson, Andrew Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Illinois Jacquet, Django Reinhardt, Jack Teagarden, Britt Woodman, Al Grey, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, John Carter, Russell Procope, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Dorsey, Eric Dolphy, Willie the Lion Smith, Gigi Gryce, Roland Kirk, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Wardell Gray, Stuff Smith, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Hank Mobley, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson, Herbie Nichols, Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Milt Hinton, Jimmie Blanton, George Duvivier, Jo Jones, Zutty Singleton, Denzil Best, Billy Higgins, Sidney Catlett, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Ivie Anderson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Johnny Hartman, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billy Strayhorn, Sun Ra, Bennie Moten, W. C. Handy, Tadd Dameron, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, and others.

To give some sense of the breadth of his searching, the gravestones of trumpet players included in this book are: Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Hot Lips Page, Henry Red Allen, Cootie Williams, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Lester Bowie.

Jaap, born in 1940, has been involved with the music and the musicians for more than half a century, including Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd, Kenny Drew, and Kenny Clarke among others.

But he is not only a person of great feeling and a fine photographer.  Jaap is one of those rare souls who wants to share what he has done.  He wrote this to me, “The book which is sold out in the Netherlands by now will not be reprinted and has been proven to be physically too heavy for worldwide distribution. In this form I still hope to reach more jazz enthusiasts with a book which was a great pleasure to make.and which is still a very dear project to me.”

He has offered to make his book available as a digital download — for free — to anyone who emails him at info@jaapvandeklomp.nl  with JazzLives in the subject line.  The whole book is about 150 MB and it might take a few minutes to download.

This is generosity without hidden motive, and it is a beautiful work of art and devotion.

May your happiness increase!

“PRESIDENT OF BEAUTY”: A FILM ABOUT LESTER YOUNG

Here is the link to what promises to be a beautiful film — Henry Ferrini’s documentary about Lester Young, PRESIDENT OF BEAUTY.

If anyone ever deserved a gentle celebration of his life — while the people who saw him are still on the planet — it would be Lester, and I look forward to this film.

May your happiness increase!

BENDING TIME DELIGHTFULLY: THE ANACHRONIC JAZZ BAND “BACK IN TOWN”

Some listeners believe jazz can be seen as a series of grassy plots, each sealed off and protected an electrical fence.  Thus, the Bad doesn’t infect the Good, the Impure is quarantined from the Truth.

“Old school” bands play GRANDPA’S SPELLS; “swing bands” play DICKIE’S DREAM; “modern” bands play “‘ROUND MIDNIGHT.”

This artifice was created and encouraged by writers, who believed that art could be conceptualized as a straight line, a flow chart, moving towards Progress or Decline.  Pres begat Bird who begat Trane . . .

Most musicians I know smile wearily when confronted with these stifling divisions.  They know that the distance between King Oliver and Bird doesn’t even exist.  In the Forties and Fifties, players trooped into recording studios to make music under these pretenses: HOT MEETS COOL, SWING MEETS DIXIE, and DIXIELAND GOES MODERN (real titles for actual recording dates).  But they knew that the names were simply journalistic devices to package music for consumers and to sell products: the music itself was not altered or harmed by the names.

Thirty and more years ago, I saw two discs in a used record store, by a French band I had never heard of, the ANACHRONIC JAZZ BAND.

From “anachronism,” I knew something interesting was happening, and even though my five years of French had eroded, I could figure out that this band was doing something deliciously unusual: playing “bop” and “modern” material in older styles — taking a Charlie Parker line and playing it in the style of a 1926 Jelly Roll Morton recording.

I bought the records in the spirit of “What could possibly go wrong?” — and they were immensely rewarding.

See for yourself in this 1977 performance of ANTHROPOLOGY:

First, you can’t miss the high good spirits here and the immense expertise: the Anachronics are deeply swinging and wonderfully precise but never stiff.

Second, the whole notion is hilariously wonderful, but not in the often mean-spirited way that comedy / parody / satire often operate (think of Chubby Jackson’s DIXIELAND STOMP, where “modern” musicians play “Dixieland” as a messy amateurish creation).  And it is deeply inquisitive — asking questions of jazz and its “styles” — rather than presenting a production of KING LEAR where everyone wears jeans and speaks in rap cadences.

The Anachronics aren’t satirizing Dizzy and Bird, Morton and Henderson.  Rather, their music is intensely witty play: “What would happen if we brought this composition into this world?  How could we honor both of them and have a rousing good time while doing it?”

The AJB began in 1976 and rolled along to great acclaim until 1980.  Although they apparently were based in the past, they were thrillingly original: no one was doing what they did!  But this post isn’t a nostalgic look back at something rich and rare that is now gone.

I am delighted to write that there is a new AJB CD, just out, and it is a rich banquet of sounds, feeling, and ideas.  Recorded in January 2013, it is called BACK IN TOWN — true enough!

The repertoire comes — initially — from Parker, Rollins, Shearing, Monk, Paul Desmond, Mingus, Chick Corea, Clyde Hart, Miles, Quincy Jones — with a few clever originals by AJB members.  The dazzling musicians on this disc are Philippe Baudoin, piano; Marc Richard, clarinet / alto; Patrick Artero, trumpet; Pierre Guicquéro, trombone; André Villéger, clarinet / alto / tenor; Jean-François Bonnel, clarinet / C-melody; Daniel Huck, vocal, alto; François Fournet, banjo; Gérard Gervois, tuba; Sylvain Glévarec, drums; Göran Eriksson, recorder.  (Arrangements by Baudoin, Richard, Artero.)

The soloing and ensemble work couldn’t be better, and each track is simultaneously a series of small delightful explosions and a revelation.  More than “listening to a record,” I felt as if I were perusing a collection of short stories . . . art that reveals itself more and more, a matter of shadings and gleams, on each hearing.

It has become an invaluable disc for me, and I hope it is the first of many to come.  See and hear for yourself: the Anachronic Jazz Band is truly back in town, and we are very grateful.

Here’s a sample of their recent work, captured by Jeff Guyot in July 2013: COOKIN’ THE FROG:

Here’s the band’s Facebook page.  And their website.

May your happiness increase!