Tag Archives: Stephane Grappelly

THESE COZY VIRTUOSI: EMMA FISK, JACOB ULLBERGER, SPATS LANGHAM, HENRY LEMAIRE at the MIKE DURHAM CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (November 4, 2016)

Violinist Emma Fisk — with a lovely dark tone, a romantic conception to match her fine technique — never disappoints and is always swinging.  Here she is with three of the best — Spats Langham on the right and Jacob Ullberger on the left, guitars, and Henry Lemaire, string bass — in a session celebrating Django, Stephane, and their work together both as the Quintette of the Hot Club of France and later.

This delight took place at the 2016 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party, held in Whitley Bay, England: this set comes from November 4, 2016.We begin with an incomplete performance — my fault — but I thought the remainder was too good to ignore.

COQUETTE:

I’M CONFESSIN’:

BELLEVILLE:

IF YOU ONLY KNEW (HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU):

DARK EYES:

As you can hear, Emma is a superb violinist, one not restricted to this particular genre.  She and guitarist James Birkett have formed a duo devoted to the music of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, and the delightful evidence — audio and video — can be found here.  I’ve heard rustlings that a new CD by the duo is on the way as well.  Emma and friends — what friends! — will be back for the 2017 Party, held in late October: visit here for details, videos, and more.  I won’t be there, but that will leave more room for you and yours.

May your happiness increase!

AN ORDER OF HOT CLUB FOR FOUR, PLEASE: EMMA FISK, SPATS LANGHAM, MARTIN WHEATLEY, HENRY LEMAIRE (Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party, Nov. 6, 2015)

Emma Fisk

Emma Fisk is a deep-rooted jazz violinist.  Here, from her website, is the story of how she became one.

I first encountered Emma at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, where in the past three years she has been called upon to honor Eddie South, Stuff Smith, Stephane Grappelly, Joe Venuti, and others — see her in action here and here. (Emma pops up here and there on my most recent videos from the Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party, and she’s always welcome.)  Then I heard the CD, featuring Emma, as part of the splendid small group aptly calling itself DJANGOLOGIE.

Fast forward to November 6, 2015, where Emma was leading a stellar quartet that she whimsically called “the Hot Club of Whitley Bay,” herself on violin, Martin Wheatley, Spats Langham, guitar; Henry Lemaire, string bass.  Here are the delights they offered us.

DINAH:

J’ATTENDRAI:

DOUCE AMBIANCE:

NUAGES:

MINOR SWING:

A sidelight: Emma is giggling through some of this set, and there’s good reason, if you see a youngish man sitting on the floor right in front of the band.  That’s no Quintette-obsessed fan, but the fine guitarist / banjoist Jacob Ullberger.  Emma told me, “I was laughing at Jacob coming to sit under a table to listen at the start of one of the songs. He looked like a little boy sitting cross-legged in the school hall, which tickled my funny bone. He told me afterwards that he wanted to come and hear the acoustic sound of the music.”

And quite rightly so.

Follow Emma (as we say in this century) on Facebook, where she is Emma Fisk Jazz Violin.

May your happiness increase!

HEROIC FIGURES IN THE SHADOWS

A friend recently asked me about a valued musician, now gone, who never seemed to get the honors he deserved. “Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to X?”  I recalled that X was always working in groups led by A Star, a powerful personality.  I have no idea if X wanted to lead a group and couldn’t, but he never said in public that he felt the opportunity had been denied him.

It made me think again about “being a leader” in jazz.  We celebrate the musicians whose names appear on the record labels and the marquees, in boldface in discographies.  Theirs are the sounds we know, and they do deserve our attention and our love. Think of a universe without Count Basie — the sky suddenly grows dark at the mere statement of such a void.

But the Stars rely on the often semi-anonymous players who keep the great ship’s rhythmic engines humming.  Consider Ed Lewis, Joe Muranyi, Fred Guy, Leo McConville, Bobby Tucker, Wendell Marshall, George Stafford, Tommy Thunen, Curley Russell, Dave Bowman — players who didn’t chafe to be center stage.  There is a special cozy corner of Paradise for those who didn’t have the urge to solo, but who created backgrounds and section sounds that delight us, that made the Stars sound so fine.

Although he was a famous leader and a notable Personality, I think of Eddie Condon in this respect, as someone who cared more about how the band sounded than whether he soloed. Dave Tough, Freddie Green, also.

Musicians will tell you that “being a leader” brings what we call “fame,” but this public place can be a nuisance.  Visibility brings recognition: no longer are you third alto in the reed section, one of the Wisconsin Skyrockets, you are THE Skyrocket, and people know your name and recognize you.

But that recognition also means that fans want to talk with you when you are on your way to the bathroom.  People who “just love your music” grab your upper arm.  Some have their own ideas about songs you should be playing, in what tempos, and who you should Sound Like.  Play the clarinet, and you are told about an admirer’s favorite Benny Goodman record.  Sing, and you hear all about Billie Holiday (“Tsk, tsk.  Those drugs.”) or perhaps Diana Krall.

If you are leading a group in a club, the club-owner heads directly for you when something goes wrong.  You have to get the gigs.  You have to handle the money.

You have to deal with the personalities in the band (A, late again; B, grimy again; C, in despair; D, texting when not playing; E, a model in all things but eager to point out the flaws of A, B, C, and D.)

You have to talk on the microphone.  You must encourage the crowd to put money in the tip basket or buy CDs.  You deal with requests, with people who drink too much and talk too loudly.

Often, when your musicians are upset, frustrated, or angry, they blame you, or they simply mutter. “Sixty bucks?  Is that all?”  “My shepherd’s pie is cold.”  I hate that song.  Do we have to play it?”

To paraphrase Judy Syfers, “My God, who would want to lead a band?”

So let’s cheer for the Invaluable Near-Anonymities, the wonderful professionals in the String section of Charlie Parker with Strings, the baritone wizard Charlie Bubeck, who anchored the Ozzie Nelson band — reed players talked of him reverently, but he never led a date; the fellows strumming behind Django and Stephane.  They may have looked deeply into “the music business” and said, “I’d rather drive a cab than lead a band.”

A brief, wholly improvised list:

Zilner Randolph, Les Robinson, Buzzy Drootin, Mary Osborne, Nick Fatool, Ed Cuffee, Bill Triglia, Danny Bank, Dick Vance, Max Farley, Frank Orchard, Bob Casey, Red Ballard, Mickey McMickle, Jimmy Maxwell, Cliff Leeman, George Berg, Al Klink, Lee Blair, Leon Comegys, John Simmons, Les Spann, Allan Reuss, Don Frye, Kansas Fields, Louis Metcalf.

And a thousand more.  And certainly their living counterparts.  (I’ve limited my list to the Departed because I thought that no one I know would like to see their name on a list of the Brilliant Shadowy Underrated.  You and I know the people who make jazz go . . . !)

These people don’t win polls.  They don’t have to stand still for autograph hunters.  But where would we be without them?

May your happiness increase! 

THEMES AND VARIATIONS: THE 2011 WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY

Now that I have posted about eighty video performances here — thanks to Flemming Thorbye, Elin Smith, Jonathan David Holmes, and Michael Stevens — I can write a few lines about the Classic Jazz Party in general, and why it was such a remarkable experience.

It wasn’t a formal occasion by any means — in fact, it was distinguished by the friendly, comfortable interplay between musicians and listeners, sitting down to breakfast with one another.  But the CJP was the result of a good deal of behind-the-scenes planning that blossomed forth in music.

All jazz parties and festivals require a great deal of work that the person listening to the bands is rarely aware of — planning that begins more than a year in advance and continues well after the particular party is over: lining up musicians, agreeing with them on times and dates and payment, making sure that they can get to the party and have suitable accomodations, taking care of last-minute crises and more.  When you see the person in charge of one of these events and wonder why (s)he has no time to stop and chat, to say nothing of sitting down for a meal or a set of music, these are some of the reasons.

But the CJP has a thematic underpinning — which is to say Mike Durham likes jam sessions, and one happened each night in the Victory Pub, but he has a deep emotional commitment to the arching history of jazz and an equal desire to see that no one is forgotten.  So rather than grouping six or seven able players and singers on the stand with no organizing principle in mind (thus, the blues in Bb, RHYTHM changes, and a series of solo features), Mike Durham has created — with the help of his equally enthusiastic and scholarly players — a series of small thematic concert tributes.

I will only list the names so that you can understand the scope of the CJP: Clarence Williams, Bix Beiderbecke, novelty piano, Jelly Roll Morton, Bennie Moten, territory bands, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelly, Lionel Hampton, Adrian Rollini, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Annette Hanshaw, naughty songs, multi-lingual pop songs, Chicago reedmen, Billie Holiday, percussion, the ukulele, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, King Oliver, stride piano, the tenor saxophone, Bessie Smith, the Rhythmic Eight, John Kirby, Jabbo Smith, Valaida Snow, the Rhythmakers.

You can thus understand why the weekend was both great fun and educational without ever being academic or pedantic.  An immersion in living jazz history — reaching back one hundred years but so firmly grounded in the present moment — loving evocations without any hint of the museum about them.

And there are more sets like those being planned for 2012.

Here is the estimable Flemming Thorbye’s tribute to the whole weekend — his evocative still photographs capturing aspects of thirty-three varied sets — with an Ellingtonian background recorded on the spot.  And don’t give up before it’s through, because Flemming has a delicious surprise at the end: a segment of the Friday night jam session in the Victory Pub, with Andy Schumm leading the troops ably through CRAZY RHYTHM, with Ms. Calzaretta shaking that thing to the beat:

Learn more about the delights in store this year here.

“JAZZ LIVES” GOES SHOPPING at AMOEBA MUSIC

More rewarding than going to the mall in search of the nonexistent record store (now replaced by a kiosk selling baseball caps you can have embroidered with your name, perhaps?).  More personal than bidding and clicking online, it’s my return to AMOEBA MUSIC in San Francisco!

It should say something about the impression this store (and its Berkeley branch) made on me this last summer that I can summon up “1855 Haight Street” without having to think about it.  And the flimsy yellow plastic bag I brought back to my apartment has not been used for any ordinary purpose.  Inside the store the view is awe-inspiring and not a little intimidating for those who (unlike me) collect broadly across the musical spectrum:

I knew where I was going and my path had only two main oases — leaving aside the cash register at the end.  One delicious spot is sequestered in a corner: several bookshelves filled with albums of 10″ 78 rpm records.  You’d have to be a collector of older music or someone of a certain age to be familiar with this display in its unaltered state.  It still thrills me but it has the odd flavor of a museum exhibit — although I know of no museum where you can purchase the exhibits and take them home.  See if this photograph doesn’t provoke some of the same emotions:

And what do these albums contain?  I’ll skip over the dollar 1941-2 OKeh Count Basie discs, the odd Dave Brubeck 78, the remarkable Mercer Records PERDIDO by Oscar Pettiford on cello, the Artie Shaw Bluebirds . . . for a few that struck particular chords with me:

That one’s to inspire my pal Ricky Riccardi on to his next book!

One of the finest front lines imaginable — a pairing that only happened once.

The right Stuff . . . for Anthony Barnett.

Milt Gabler made good records!

In honor of Maggie Condon, Stan and Stephen Hester . . . and I didn’t arrange the records for this shot.  When was the last time you entered a record store with its own Eddie Condon section?

It would have been disrespectful to confine myself to taking pictures and not buying anything (also, enterprises like this need some support to stay in business), so I did my part.

The reverse of a Johnny Guarnieri tribute to Fats Waller, autographed to “Ed,” whom I assume played a little piano.

The NOB HILL GANG might look like another San Francisco “Dixieland” band, but any group with Ernie Figueroa on trumpet and Vince Cattolica on clarinet demands serious consideration.

But wait!  There’s more!

A Roy Eldridge collection on Phontastic (source: Jerry Valburn) of Gene Krupa 1941-2 airshots plus the 1940 Fred Rich date with Benny Carter;

ONE WORLD JAZZ — a 1959 Columbia stereo attempt at internationalism through overdubbing, featuring a home unit of Americans: Clark Terry, Ben Webster, J. J. Johnson, Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones — with overdubbed contributions from Bob Garcia, Martial Solal, Stephane Grappelly, Ake Persson, Roger Guerin, Roy East, Ronnie Ross, and George Chisholm;

Marty Grosz and his Honoris Causa Jazz Band on Ristic / Collector’s Items — featuring unissued material and rehearsals from the HOORAY FOR BIX! sessions — featuring Frank Chace;

a double-CD set on the Retrieval label of the Rhythmic Eight, in honor of Mauro Porro, whose set at the 2011 Whitley Bay paying homage to this band was memorable;

a Leo Watson compilation CD  on Indigo — just because I couldn’t leave it there;

the Billy Strayhorn LUSH LIFE compilation on Doctor Jazz, with a fine small group whose horns are Clark Terry and Bob Wilber.

The end result at the cash register?  Forty-three dollars and some cents.  Worth a trip from just about anywhere.

BLINK AND THEY’RE GONE: GAUCHO COMES TO BROOKLYN (October 2011)

Who or what is GAUCHO?

Without a lengthy explanation, they are a wonderful small band — their main allegiance is to the music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly, but they aren’t Gypsy drones, running up and down the fretboard in defiance of melody and common sense.  Usually they have two guitars (solo and rhythm), an accordion, string bass, and friends.

Here’s a sample — GAUCHO performing AFTER YOU’VE GONE — Rob Reich on accordion, Ari Munkres on string bass, Dave Ricketts and Michael Groh on guitars,  with our own Tamar Korn:

San Franciscans are already used to having GAUCHO in their midst, and the first time I heard some version of this group was in 2005 on a visit to that city — I believe at Amnesia.

But for those New Yorkers who aren’t flying westward any time soon, GAUCHO has come to us.  Here are the dates (on short notice, for which I apologize):

Monday, October 3:
Pete’s Candy Store, 10 pm
709 Lorimer St, Brooklyn

Wednesday, October 5
Radegast Hall and Biergarten, 8 pm
113 N 3rd St, Brooklyn

Thursday, October 6
Downhouse Lounge, 9 pm
250 Ave X, Brooklyn

Saturday, October 8
Zebulon 8 pm
258 Wythe Ave

GAUCHO is slightly smaller than usual (you know, weight restrictions on airline travel).  The Brooklyn version is  Dave Ricketts (guitar); Rob Reich (accordion);
Ari Munkres (bass); Yair Evnine (cello, guitar).

And who knows who might want to sit in?  Miss Korn, her ethereal self, lives in Brooklyn.  GAUCHO swings mightily and tenderly, and they are worth seeing.  I guarantee it.

DON’T TELL A SOUL (HOW THEY SWING)

Another of JAZZ LIVES’ roving correspondents, Katy McGillicuddy, made all of us a present of a stunning video performance by the Hot Club of San Francisco.  The HCSF is Paul Mehling, guitar; Evan Price, violin, Isabelle Fontaine, guitar; Jeff Magidson, guitar; Clint Baker, bass.  Or so you thought.  In this performance of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, they play the most uplifting version of jazz musical chairs and instrument-swapping you might ever see.

Katy wrote, “I’m sending this along to JAZZ LIVES because I know people will enjoy it and it would be greedy to keep it all to myself, but since it’s an illicit video, taken under cover of darkness with my camera, I am asking you to not give away when and where I took it.  Say it was at a gig during the Hot Club’s recent tour of Romania?”

Notice that unlike some groups that purvey their own flashy version of “Gypsy jazz,” the HCSF knows that you have to let the music breathe (otherwise it dies), so they understand that Django and Stephane loved Louis and loved melodies, rather than attempting to make the air dark with notes.  Visit their website at http://www.hcsf.com/

MEET THE ROYAL GARDEN TRIO

The Royal Garden Trio's new CD (2010)

I have to come out with it: the seventy-five minute span of a compact disc is often too much for me.  So when I loaded the first of three discs by the Royal Garden Trio into the car player, I expected the outcome to be the same: restlessness halfway through.  No, the Beloved and I (she’s a stern critic herself) played the three discs nonstop during a six-hour drive.

They’re that good.

On these CDs, the RGT is made up of Mike Karoub (cello and string bass); Tom Bogardus (tenor guitar and clarinet), Brian Delaney (acoustic and electric 6-string guitars).  And they have eminent guest stars: Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet); James Dapogny (piano); Bess Bonnier (piano, heard on JITTERBUG WALTZ below); Chris Smith (sousaphone), Louis Caponecchia (ukulele / vocal); Jo Serrapere, Paul King, Melissa Brady (vocals); Gian Paulo (string bass), Rod McDonald (guitar), Donn Deniston (drums). 

What makes the Royal Garden Trio so delightful is their own restrained eloquence.  The world is full of enthusiastic Hot Club spinoffs — very capable musicians, inspired by Django and Stephane.  But often the result is “note for note,” which is amazing technically but less so aesthetically, or an overabundance . . . many notes, many choruses, fast tempos, dalling string virtuosity.  One part of the brain admires; the other portion asks (in Lester Young’s words) to be told a story. 

The members of the RGT have beautiful stories to tell.  They are virtuosic as well, but they know that too much is not a good thing.  So their solos are thoughtful speech, not diatribes; their notes ring and resound in the air.  Each player creates compelling melodies, and they work together like a swing version of the Budapest Quartet. 

Since I often find the heirs to Grappelli are given to excessive sweetness and high drama, I am thrilled by Karoub’s cello: earnest, dark yet lithe.  Mike’s conception is never overblown, but his solos can be majestic.  Delaney’s guitar is part Lang, part Lonnie Johnson.  Bogardus romps on his guitar and his clarinet playing is easy, fervent, balancing Dodds and klezmer.  And the trio works together to create something beautiful, varied, and cheering.  Their performances are marvelous vignettes, the guitarists switching lead and rhythm, Bogardus playing a chorus on clarinet; Karoub bowing and then plucking in a propulsive manner (across bar lines) that recalls Steve Brown.

And they swing — without even trying hard. 

Although much of the repertoire is familiar, the trio’s approach lifts it up: I never found myself saying, “Oh, another ST. LOUIS BLUES,” but was excited by what this band can do.  And the CDs offer some less-played material as well: Ellington’s SATURDAY NIGHT FUNCTION, LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE (for the home-improvement minded among us, but this time with the verse), THERE’LL COME A TIME, RAGGIN’ THE SCALE, I’M FOREVER BLOWING BUBBLES, GO INTO YOUR DANCE, a hidden track of APRIL KISSES, and some winding originals that sound like theme music for mid-Thirties screwball comedy films.

The RGT's debut CD, 2002

But you can hear and see the Trio for yourself courtesy of YouTube:   

HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN? (which Mike Karoub informs me was Moe Howard’s favorite song, a valuable fact):

JITTERBUG WALTZ (with the legendary Bess Bonnier on piano):

The RGT's second CD, 2005

To find out more, visit the Trio’s website: http://www.theroyalgardentrio.com/sched.html.  And if you feel moved to purchase all three discs (I recommend this) ask for the JAZZ LIVES discount.  These players (and their nimble friends) will bring joy, in or out of the car.

SWING OUT WITH PAYPAL!  ALL MONEY COLLECTED GOES TO THE MUSICIANS:

https://.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQASwww

MENAGE A TROIS: ROB, MIKE, and MISS BROWN

I’d known the work of swing cellist Mike Karoub from his appearance on Jon-Erik Kellso’s CD, CHAPTER TWO, so I was very pleased to encounter this gently swinging duet performance of SWEET GEORGIA BROWN by Mike and guitarist Rob Bourassa — delightfully swinging! 

Even for people like myself who have some nervous about the proliferation of “Hot Club of _____ ” groups, this is The Right Stuff!  Rob has his own YouTube channel — “robourassaguitarist” — with more enjoyable jazz.

TAMAR KORN / “GAUCHO” IN SAN FRANCISCO

In the jazz world, new “Gypsy Swing” groups seem to proliferate.  Gaucho is one of the best of the Django-inspired small swing groups, a San Francisco staple, inventive and rocking.  They’ve recorded three CDs, each one delightfully consistent.  They are Dave Ricketts, Michael Groh, g; Rob Reich, acc; Ralph Carney, reeds; Ari Munkres, b; Pete Devine – d, perc, and Cheek-O-Phone (TM) — the last something you’ll have to see and hear in person.  “Gaucho,” incidentally, is the band’s version of “gadjo,” the term a Gypsy would bestow on a non-Gypsy.   

Here are two neat video clips that I just found out about, recorded in atmospheric black and white and HD at AMNESIA in San Francisco a few months back.  The YouTube channel is “PortoFrancoRecords,” a label that will be issuing a new Gaucho CD in the fall. 

AND these two videos (and the CD to come) feature the eloquent and always surprising TAMAR KORN.  Need I say more?    

I associate “The Anniversary Song” with a lugubrious reading in waltz-time, and it has always been credited to Al Jolson, who (not surprisingly) did little to create it aside from recording it.  Here it’s offered in a lilting swing four-four, with Tamar singing, dancing (to the accompaniment of Ralph’s adventurous clarinet solo) and improvising with soprano riffs to conclude:

“I Surrender Dear” comes from Mr. Crosby and Mr. Armstrong, but Tamar makes it her own, as always, floating on Gaucho’s impasioned pulse and invention:

Thanks to Peter Varshavsky of Porto Franco Records, whose new website will have a variety of independent music from swing jazz to modern permutations: http://www.portofrancorecords.com/videoblog.  Peter tells me that many musical things are happening quite fast, so there will be more to come very soon!  And energetic YouTube surfers will a number of other clips of Tamar and Gaucho in performance from “charlestonalley,” a friend of swing jazz and swing dance.

HIDE AND SEEK (IN IRELAND)

The Beloved and I just returned from a week in Ireland.  Our itinerary included University College Cork and Dalkey (a suburb of Dublin where Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, Maeve Binchy, Bono, Van Morrison, and other notables live).   And the sun shone for all but one day. 

When I first visited Ireland, continuing my work on the short-story writer Frank O’Connor, I didn’t expect to find jazz.  In fact, in those pre-iPod days, I brought pounds of CDs, trying to prevent the deprivation that I was sure would befall me.  But jazz kept on popping up to surprise me.  I heard CDs by guitarists Louis Stewart and Hugh Buckley, and was invited to jam sessions featuring Toddy’s Hot Stompers and other congenial assemblages.  

So I shouldn’t have been surprised this time when I stumbled onto my favorite art form.   

But I was.  People who love this music are forever lamenting dwindling audiences, the closing of clubs, the names in the obituary pages . . . . with very good reason.  And the sweet ubiquity of jazz in my childhood — Louis and Duke on television, Jimmy McPartland playing a free concert in a Long Island park, Bobby Hackett on the radio — is surely nostalgia rather than current reality.  These days, I can expect to hear Ben Webster as dinner music only if I’ve put his CDs on while the chicken is roasting. 

ireland-for-blog-001

And yet . . . . there was Denise Connolly’s fascinating Cork bookshop.  It was a sweet, enlightened disorder of books of all kinds, opera records, and more.  But what caught my attention was the music coming out of Ms. Connolly’s mini stereo system: Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly playing “Limehouse Blues,” then “I’ve Had My Moments,” and more — vintage 1937.  When I told her how delighted I was by her soundtrack, she smiled and said that, yes, Django, Lionel Hampton, and Thelonious Monk were her favorites.  Visit Connolly’s Bookshop, not only for the jazz, but the books! 

And the HMV store on Grafton Street has sections devoted not only to Louis and Duke, but also to Bix Beiderbecke and Humphrey Lyttelton.

ireland-for-blog-0021 

It did my heart good.  Just when I thought jazz had gone into hiding, it poked its head out of the shadows and gave me a big wink.

“RIGHT ON IT!”

My title comes from the musicians’ expression for starting a song without an introduction, rather than easing their way in with a four-bar piano passage or eight bars of hi-hat cymbal from the drums.  And it’s the way that clarinetist Evan Christopher began the first song at the September 15 Sidney Bechet Society concert at Symphony Space.  Evan brought a cross-cultural version of his new group, “Django A La Creole,” with guitarists Pete Smith and Matt Munisteri, string bassist Sebastien Giradot, and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso.  This little band loosely followed the post-Stephane Grappelly instrumentation of Django Reinhardt’s Quintette of the Hot Club of France.  But Evan had more in mind that simply producing another version of Gypsy jazz: he is interested in the cross-currents between New Orleans jazz (with its Creole roots, drawing on Spanish, French, and Cuban rhythms) and Django’s music.

We attended the early show — for jazz musicians, a 6:15 concert is quite early.  Jazz players take a bit of time to warm up, even when their instruments are checked, tuned, oiled, and aligned backstage.  That warming up is not a matter of valves and reeds, but of comfort, individual and collective.  Artists have to be balanced midway between tension and relaxation; they have to get the feel of the hall, of the audience, of the lights, of their fellow players.  This is rarely accomplished on the first selection.  There wasn’t a note out of place in the opening performances, but the band took its time to be truly inspiring.  And the group grew more inventive, more playful, with each succeeding song.

Evan is someone to watch.  He has characterized himself as a New Orleans clarinet player, someone who knows and loves the tradition.  But that doesn’t mean he offers pastiches of what his forebears have already played.  A completely assured instrumentalist, he takes risks; his soaring lines dance.  So, as a matter of fact, does he; he never keeps still.  If you could only see him (as in a silent film) you would guess that he was putting his heart into his music and having a fine time doing so.  Unlike some other players, he is also comfortable when talking about the music, and last night he offered witty, engaging commentary on the proceedings.

Witty, dancing versions of “Flee As A Bird – High Society” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mamanita” opened the program, making it clear to listeners that there would be genre crossing from funeral music to street parade anthems to Creole – Spanish jazz.  Pete Smith, who seemed to have broken his foot (it was in a cast) turned in ringing single-string solos with some of Django’s declamatory fervor.
Evan turned the stage over to Jon-Erik, announcing his feature as “a romantic ballad.”  That was a fine joke, since the song was called “Funky Butt” when Buddy Bolden played it, cosmeticized into “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” for Morton’s Victor recording.  Two of the Ear Regulars (or Earregulars, depending on whether you’re Reform or Conservative) heated things up immensely.  Matt Munisteri, who always comes to a gig ready to play, was in wonderfully intense form.  I think of his work as No Note Left Unbent, and he dug deep.  For his part, Jon-Erik was vividly inspired, working hard behind his plunger mute, rendering this naughty song as a quiet, growling lullaby full of ascending runs and vocalized cries, protesting and cajoling.  It was an Oscar-winning performance without words and without a script.  The first set closed with a train-inspired “Farewell Blues,” Matt harking back to Django’s “Mystery Pacific,” in a performance that merged a Basie small group, the Hot Club Quintette, and a Wellman Braud solo from Giradot.  An intermission followed: we needed one.

The second half of the concert focused primarily on the magical jazz recorded in 1939 when Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, and Billy Taylor (the bassist), then members of the Duke Ellington band touring Europe, met up with Django Reinhardt.  I heard the original 78s for the first time around 1970 and they are still thrilling recordings.  On the moody “Low Cotton,” the thoughtful, lowdown “Solid Old Man,” and a romping “I Know That You Know,” the band outdid itself.  And Evan, telling the story about Django meeting the Ellingtonians, was as happy as he could be. (He has adopted some of Ed Hall’s nearly violent lyricism in the 1939 numbers, to great effect.)   The concert closed with a truly joyous romp on “Hindustan,” with the musicians changing key on every chorus, alternating between C and Eb, something they had done on their Arbors CD, BLUE ROOF BLUES, a classic recording.  (I learned some days later that they had done the title song, a Kellso composition about what Katrina and the U.S. government had done to New Orleans, at the second concert.  I’m sorry that I missed it, but urge readers of this blog to check out the CD.)

It was a thrilling evening of impassioned jazz.

Photographs copyright 2008 by Lorna Sass.

WITH DISPATCH AND VIGOR (Thursday Night at Chautauqua)

Seven months ago, when I edged into blogging and sat down to write my first post, I was immensely pleased that I could tell people that Jazz at Chautauqua would be held, once again, in September.  It came to pass!  And last Thursday night, we heard four sets of informal, joyous jazz.  The setting was as close to ideal as anyone could want: a well-lit room full of cheerfully listening people, with the musicians set up, informally, on the same level.  No stage, no suits; buffet food and a well-stocked bar.  Outside this room in the Athenaeum Hotel was a wooden porch with comfortable chairs, from where you could see an expansive lake.  And the staff at the hotel was happily always at the ready.  (Here they resemble a barbershop quartet, although they never burst into song.)

Things began in a sly, understated way when the “faux frenchmen” took up positions at one end of the room.  They are an earnest, supple quartet of players from Cincinnati who model themselves after the Quintette of the Hot Club of France.  Yes, the quartet follows Django and Stephane in their love of beautiful melodies and hot rhythm, but they aren’t committed to reproducing cherished records note-for-note, a good thing.  After an ambling “Bye Bye Blackbird,” they eased into a sidling, slow-drag “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and romping versions of “I Saw Stars” and “Limehouse Blues.”  Jazz party promoters here and abroad should take note: they’re a fine group.

The second set made me think I had died and gone to Heaven — no, strike that — to Jimmy Ryan’s, circa 1942, for one of Milt Gabler’s Sunday afternoon jam sessions photographed by Charles Peterson.  Led by Marty Grosz, guitar, vocals, and raillery, the band included Randy Reinhart, Duke Heitger, and Bob Havens on the brass, Dan Block and Bobby Gordon on reeds, Jim Dapogny on piano, and Arnie Kinsella on drums.  Generously filling a vacancy in the rhythm section, Andy Stein, most well-known for his Venuti-inspired violin capers, strapped his baritone saxophone on and took up a chair next to the piano, providing Rollini bass lines and climbing solos.  Marty was in good spirits, happy to be surrounded by friends, and took us back to 1936 with a jolly “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” which mixed a little Bing Crosby in Marty’s hot crooning with some Condon touches.  Usually sets are assembled so that the second song is slower than the opening rouser, but Marty kicked off a fast “Them There Eyes,” again singing the sweet, silly lyrics — inspiring Duke to great early-Louis flights of passion.  The Beloved, who had never seen Duke play before, leaned over and said, “His playing is clear as a bell!”

A trotting “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” followed, and the set concluded with a song Marty explained as the band’s tribute to Connie Francis, who, he said, had recorded a “maudlin, mawkish” version of it in her heyday.  I was momentarily mystified — Connie Francis isn’t usually hailed at jazz parties — but then the band swung into a ferocious version of “Who’s Sorry Now?” that owed its heart and soul to the Blue Note Jazzmen, nothing at all to Connie.  The soloists were so fine that it would take a whole page to celebrate them, but I still marvel at how Arnie’s thundering accents drove the band, how Dapogny’s right hand evoked the glories of Stacy and Hines, his left some of the magic of James P.  And the band worked hard — on the way out after the last song, a listener got up to shake Randy Reinhart’s hand, and I heard Randy say, “Now I can relax.”

A somewhat more pastoral set followed, with the front line of the inestimable Joe Wilder (now eighty-six!) on fluegelhorn and Bob Reitmeier on clarinet, whose easy lines complemented each other beautifully, making the most familiar pieces of jazz repertory, “Lady Be Good,” “Fine and Dandy,” and a ballad medley come alive.  Wilder continues to amaze: it’s not the simple matter of his age — playing a brass instrument is difficult for anyone — but the surprises he unfurls as he plays, his dancing, leaping phrases never going in predictable ways.  And he got the highest praise: when Joe was playing, Bob Reitmeier grinned at particularly felicitous inventions.

In one of those odd turns that jazz parties and jam sessions often bring, the elder statesman of the party (and of the brass world) was followed in the closing set by two immensely talented youths — Bix-inspired fellows from Wisconsin: Andy Schumm (cornet and piano) and David Bock (trombone), 22 and 20 respectively.

They were joined by players we know well: Rossano Sportiello on piano, Pete Siers on drums, and Dan Barrett on trombone.  Jon Burr, who had packed his bass, was prevailed upon to stay (another good thing!) and the session began.  It’s one kind of pleasure when a listener hears someone fine and familiar, another entirely when someone you’ve never heard steps onstage and proceeds to shine.  Schumm reveres Bix and can easily reproduce the nuances of that style, but he isn’t playing copies of the records.  Rather, he has somehow gotten inside the Bixian thought patterns, so that what comes out, alternatively hesitant and plunging, sounds like what Bix might have played had he been allowed to live into 1939.  On the one song the band played that was outside the Beiderbecke canon, “In A Mellotone,” Schumm drew upon a nicely tailored Mainstream approach, somewhere between Hackett and Harry Edison, always a reassuring combination.  His trombone playing friend, wearing a Gennett Records t-shirt, was more energetically rough-hewn, but he was no tailgater: his solos made Dan Barrett smile and applaud.  And Barrett was in fine form: not only playing smoothly and exuberantly, but taking an unexpected vocal, plaintive and casual, on “Louise.”

As the set was nearing its end, two moments happened that seemed to echo the great Hollywood fictions about jazz players in clubs — recall the scene in THE FIVE PENNIES where Danny Kaye, playing Red Nichols, comes back from drunken embarrassment to play extravagantly glowing phrases from the back of the speakeasy — phrases so compelling that he nearly steals the spotlight from one Louis Armstrong?  While the Wisconsin Bixians were playing, a once-exhausted Jon-Erik Kellso sat down next to me, put his horn together, and joined them, from the audience, moving on to the stage, on a very fast “Somebody Stole My Gal,” then leading the troops on an affectionate “Sugar,” and closing the set with “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”  At the same time, Dan Block was standing behind the piano, assembling his clarinet, joining the band in mid-chorus.  Wonderful additions to an already gifted band!  I had yet another occasion to note Kellso’s gentle, intuitive leadership.  He never says “Do this,” but he shapes a performance by suggesting riffs, backgrounds, and solos.  He is a great soloist with an architectural sense of the jazz band as small, flexible orchestra.  It’s the kind of thing Count Basie and Ruby Braff did so splendidly, and a band with Kellso in it has a certain loose-limbed intelligent order that it wouldn’t have otherwise.  When one player is soloing, the musicians don’t lean against the wall or tell jokes.  They become a living organism, and the music soars.

I’ll write about the highlights of the next three days (and there were plenty) in future posts.

P.S.  The inexplicable title?  That’s one of Marty Grosz’s stage jokes.  “We’ll do the next tune with dispatch and vigor,” he says seriously.  Gesturing to the left and right, to two musicians standing nearby, he then says, “That’s Dispatch, and that’s Vigor.”  English music-hall or Twenties vaudeville, I don’t know, but it makes me laugh every time.

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.