Tag Archives: Stride piano

“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

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JOPLIN, JOHNSON, JELLY, and MAX: MAX KEENLYSIDE PLAYS (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, Sedalia, Missouri, May 31, 2018)

Max Keenlyside at the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival. Photograph by Stoptime Photo.

The young Canadian piano wizard Max Keenlyside is a fine player and composer, and we had a delightful brief meeting in person at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, where he played an untitled and incomplete Joplin piece that I’ve titled FRAGMENTS OF JOPLIN.  Music here:

I didn’t catch it all on video, but Max told me later that Joplin’s widow, Lottie, gave Brun Campbell a photo of Joplin at the piano, where there is visible part of an otherwise unknown Joplin composition, which Max transcribed, played, and amplified on.  (Max also told me that “the full story was written about at length, I think, by Chris Ware in an issue of The Ragtime Ephemeralist, which surely must now be as rare as hens’ teeth.”)

Max’s musical range is broad, as you will see and hear, and I think it’s splendid that he might allow audience members to pick the program from his list.  One he chose was James P. Johnson’s romp, RIFFS:

His next piece, Harold Arlen’s lovely IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, so captivated me that I posted it right after the Festival — but since I can’t be sure that everyone’s already enjoyed it, I post it here again.  Fats peeks in now and again, but it’s all Max:

Then, some Morton episodes, always welcome.  First, THE PEARLS, which encapsulates the Master at the piano:

and from the Library of Congress recordings, SPANISH SWAT

A properly vigorous TIGER RAG, complete with elbow:

To conclude the set, a new composition by Max, which he explains, THE RED MOON:

And not incidentally, the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will take place next year from May 29 to June 1, 2019.  I’ll tell you more about it as I know . . . because I plan to be in Sedalia, Missouri, for that weekend of joy.

May your happiness increase!

“WHAT A DAY!”: JANICE DAY and MARTIN LITTON’S NEW YORK JAZZ BAND, LIVE IN LONDON (September 19, 2018)

I’ve admired the wonderful singer Janice Day and pianist Martin Litton for some years now, in person, CD, and video.  They are remarkable originals who evoke the jazz past while keeping their originalities intact.  Martin is a splendidly inventive improviser, able to summon up the Ancestors — Earl, Fats, Jelly, Teddy — without (as they say) breaking stride.  But he’s not merely copying four-bar modules; he’s so internalized the great swinging orchestral styles that he moves around freely in them.  Janice is deeply immersed in the tender sounds of the Twenties and Thirties — from Annette Hanshaw forwards — and she is such a crafty impersonator that it’s easy to forget that she, brightly shining, is in the midst of it all.

 

 

Janice and Martin had a splendid opportunity, on September 19, 2018, to appear — as Janice Day with Martin Litton’s New York Jazz Band — at The Spice of Life, Cambridge Circus, London. The band is Martin Litton, piano and arrangements, Martin Wheatley on guitar, Kit Massey on violin, David Horniblow on bass sax, Michael McQuaid on reeds and trumpet. And here are two quite entertaining performances from the Annette Hanshaw book.

Here’s MY SIN:

and LOVER, COME BACK TO ME:

Just the right mix of wistful and swinging.  Twenties authentic but not campy, and did I say swinging?  I wish Janice and Martin and their splendid band many more gigs (and more videos for us).

May your happiness increase!

DALTON RIDENHOUR, POET-NAVIGATOR (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, May 31, 2018)

Dalton Ridenhour, photograph by Aidan Grant

I’ve heard the splendid pianist Dalton Ridenhour several times in New York City, although most often as a member of an ensemble — where, Hines-like, he glitters and surprises.  But this year’s Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival (in Sedalia, Missouri) offered more opportunities to savor his exceptional solo and duo playing — both deeply rewarding.

I said to him that he reminded me, at the keyboard, of a man who had built his own idiosyncratic, beautiful house, and was gently exploring it in the dark.  And, of course, inviting us along for the journeys.  He said the metaphor was about right.

Dalton can frolic and stomp, but he can also muse, and his playing is always animated by wonderful rhythmic impulses.  He takes familiar repertoire and through slight shifts — he’s never cliched — we visit old songs and hear them, tenderly liberated from decades of routine.  He doesn’t covet “innovation” for its own sake, but his performances reflect his deep self, no matter what the tempo.  Here he guides us, gently but with swinging intent, through four compositions either by or associated with Fats Waller.

I find it so reassuring to know that he and his music exist, and hope you share my delight.

Here’s MARTINIQUE, from Fats’ last show, EARLY TO BED.  I envision it as a hip-swinging chorus line dance: admire how Dalton’s variations within the form expand and extend it without ever undermining it:

SWEET SAVANNAH SUE begins close to the 1929 Waller version, but becomes even more spirited and playful as it goes along:

Another kind of sweetness, the Harry Warren SWEET AND SLOW, as a change of pace.  I love this song dearly, and hear Al Dubin’s always-clever lyrics in my head:

Finally, the Waller classic so often obliterated into a series of chords — but not here — HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, which Dalton turns into a stroll through familiar fields yet with surprising vistas.  And his shift into Uptown tempo halfway through still makes me feel uplifted:

How that young fellow can play!  And his imagination is broad and unfettered.

May your happiness increase!

SMITH and JONES, 1972-73

In my teens, I read MUSIC ON MY MIND, the autobiography of Willie “the Lion” Smith, and a sentence stuck in my mind, where the Lion mentioned a fifteen-minute duet he and Jo Jones had performed.  Jazz history is full of such remembered-but-not-recorded marvels, but this one haunted me, quite pleasantly, because I could imagine the two sounds blending magically.

Although I saw and was spoken to by Jo Jones several times between 1971 and 1983, the Lion had died before I could encounter him in person, and the closest I ever got to him was by spiritual transference through the eminent Mike Lipskin and a few television appearances.

This is the Lion, solo, and so pretty: for Mrs. Keenlyside, if she reads the blog.  The other voice, of course, is Albert Edwin Condon, and this is from one of the latter’s concerts, 1944-45:

Having Willie and Jo in duet only in my imagination, it was a lovely surprise to be record-hunting on Eighth Street in 1973 and find a new recording on the Jazz Odyssey label — THE LION AND THE TIGER, duets between my two heroes.  The two Elders were in generous sympathy, Willie, for the most part, eschewing the ferocious uptempos he liked in favor of sweetness, and Jo playing with great sensitivity.

When I saw Jo in person in his last years he sometimes played as if he were furious, wishing to annihilate musicians and audience, relying on his ride cymbal.  Here, even though the cover shows Jo at a full drum kit (possibly a photograph from Jazz Odyssey’s double-lp set, THE DRUMS) he stays, for the most part, on snare drum, a hi-hat, and his bass drum.  And much if not all of his work is wire brushes on the snare, his cymbal used for accents, and his bass drum a lesson in itself.  One exception — the closing JAM of under two minutes, a riotous TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME, proves that Jo brought his sticks and ride cymbal, but it’s a glorious mutual impromptu explosion.

I treasured that record, and found more than one copy in my travels.  There was a second volume, LE LION, LE TIGER, et LE MADELON, issued in 1975, that I also had and has now vanished.  And so had the Lion: it was his final recording.  Those two discs contained two dozen performances, perhaps eighty-five minutes of wonderful music.

But now!

Please note the enticing “2CD” top left.  Were this simply an authorized transfer of the two vinyl recordings to compact disc, it would be a delightful product.  But this new issue adds a good deal of previously unheard material, adding up to  more than forty tracks, including conversation between the two august participants, for a total of more than two hours of music.  And the notes tell us that four more performances will be issued on a future CD.

The record company, Frémeaux & Associés, is not devoted solely to jazz, but they have done chronological CD series devoted to Louis and Django, so they understand where north is.

Here is information about the new issue, comprehensible even to the monolingual.            .

The Lion and Jo worked together splendidly.  Both could, given less strong-minded players, lean into exhibitionism.  (Jo’s recordings in the same period when he was partnered with the organist Milt Buckner are high-intensity and high-volume proof.)  I sat through ten-minute drum solos from Jo: astounding but also exhausting, and the Lion was not modest, given the proper audience.  But on these sessions, Jo kept Willie on track in tempos, and Willie was not about to let Jo play his CARAVAN solo.  (When Jo begins one of his expansive displays, as on CAROLINA SHOUT, the silent awareness that Willie was sitting at the piano reins Jo in.)  They sent love to one another in every sixteenth note but there was brotherly restraint in the air.

Unlike some stride piano extravaganzas, these discs do not rely on displays of technique: in fact, the Lion’s affectionate rhapsodic side is more often on display: CHARMAINE, SWEETIE DEAR, and a 6/8 version of TROIS HEURES DU MATIN (for the last dance).  And the Lion’s dynamics are a lesson to all pianists: he loved to quietly meander in imagined meadows.  His dramatic sense is peerless: begin with a WOLVERINE BLUES that is a half-time sauntering rhapsody before becoming a stride romp with Jo playing sticks on his hi-hat and snare in stop-time passages. (And the notes tell us that four performances will be issued on a future CD.)

But these discs are not soporific.  There are riotous stomps — the second SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, the aforementioned JAM, JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS, CAROLINA SHOUT, and others.  Although the Lion’s voice occasionally sounds tired, his piano is exuberant and exact: the astonishing end of a fifty-year recording career.  And Jo’s playing is precise and masterful.  The second disc ends with a nearly ten-minute HERE COMES THE BAND which is, to me, as close to the fifteen-minute unrecorded duet as I and you will ever come.

It was a long way from 1936, but each man was, in himself, the very definition of swing.  Put them together and magic larger than magic was the result.  Again, details here.  So far, it is not available through the usual download purees, nor are there sound samples.  You’ll have to be a bit courageous to hear this music.  But it rewards the brave searcher many times over.

May your happiness increase!

TAKE IT FROM THEM: NEVILLE DICKIE and DANNY COOTS PLAY FATS WALLER (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival; Sedalia, Missouri; May 31, 2018)

One of the great pleasures of the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival was their Fats Waller tribute concert — guess who was second row center with camera and tripod as his date?  I will share videos of the Holland-Coots Quintet playing and singing superbly, but first, something rich and rare, the opportunity to hear Neville Dickie in person.  I’ve heard him on recordings for years, but how he plays!  Steady, swinging, inventive, and without cliche.

Some pianists who want to be Wallerizing go from one learned four-bar motif to the next, but not Neville, who has so wonderfully internalized all kinds of piano playing that they long ago became him, as natural as speech.  Eloquent, witty speech, I might add.

Some might think, “What’s a drummer doing up there with that pianist?” but when the drummer is Danny Coots, it’s impudent to ask that question, because Danny adds so much and listens so deeply.  And there is a long tradition of Piano and Traps.  I thought immediately of James P. Johnson and Eddie Dougherty, of Frank Melrose and Tommy Taylor, of Donald Lambert and Howard Kadison, of Willie “the Lion” Smith and Jo Jones, of Sammy Price and Sidney Catlett, of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Jimmy Hoskins . . . and I am sure that there are other teams I have left out here.

Danny’s tap-dancer’s breaks may catch your ear (how expert!) but his steady color-filled but subtle support is what I admire even more.  He’s always paying attention, which is no small thing no matter what instrument you play.  In life.

Here are the four selections this inspired duo performed at the concert: only one of them a familiar Waller composition, which is also very refreshing.  Need I point out how rewarding these compact performances are — they are all almost the length of a 12″ 78 but they never feel squeezed or rushed.  Medium tempos, too.

A NEW KIND OF A MAN WITH A NEW KIND OF LOVE comes, as Neville says, from a piano roll — but this rendition has none of the familiar rhythmic stiffness that some reverent pianists now think necessary:

TAKE IT FROM ME (I’M TAKIN’ TO YOU) has slightly formulaic lyrics by Stanley Adams, but it’s a very cheerful melody.  I knew it first from the 1931 Leo Reisman version with Lee Wiley and Bubber Miley, which is a wondrous combination.  But Neville and Danny have the same jovial spirit.  And they play the verse!  Catch how they move the rhythms around from a very subtle rolling bass to a light-hearted 4/4 with Danny accenting in 2 now and again:

Then, the one recognized classic, thanks to Louis and a thousand others, I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING.  Neville, who certainly knows how to talk to audiences, is a very amusing raconteur in addition to everything else.  And the feeling I get when he and Danny go from the rather oratorical reading of the verse into tempo!

Finally (alas!) there’s CONCENTRATIN’ (ON YOU) which I know from recordings by the peerless Mildred Bailey and Connie (not yet Connee) Boswell: I can hear their versions in my mind’s ear.  But Neville and Danny have joined those aural memories for me:

What a pair!  Mr. Waller approves.  As do I.  As did the audience.

May your happiness increase!

PLEASING TO THE EAR: KIM CUSACK and PAUL ASARO IN DUET (August 31, 2015)

It’s no doubt very archaic of me, but I like music to sound good: to paraphrase Eddie Condon, to come in the ear like honey rather than broken glass.  And this duet recital by Kim Cusack, clarinet, and Paul Asaro, piano and vocal, is just the thing.  I hadn’t known of it when it was new, so I hope it will be a pleasant surprise to others: recorded at the PianoForte studios in Chicago, introduced by Neil Tesser of the Chicago Jazz Institute.

Kim and Paul gently explore a dozen songs, with roots in Waller, Morton, James P. Johnson, Isham Jones, and Walter Donaldson, Maceo Pinkard.  It’s a set list that would have been perfectly apropos in 1940, but there’s nothing antiquarian about this hour-long session . . . just two colleagues and friends in tune with one another making music.

For those keeping score, that’s A MONDAY DATE; SUGAR; I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING; I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY (vocal, Paul); OLD FASHIONED LOVE; RIFFS (Paul, solo); ON THE ALAMO; MISTER JELLY LORD (vocal, Paul); WOLVERINE BLUES; YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY; BLUE, TURNING GREY OVER YOU; BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME.  All standards of “the repertoire,” but played and sung with subtlety, charm, and life.

Postscript: PianoForte Studios was also home to another wonderful duet recital, guitarist Andy Brown and pianist Jeremy Kahn in 2017, which you can enjoy here.

May your happiness increase!