Tag Archives: swing

A MEETING OF KINDRED SOULS: KRIS TOKARSKI, HAL SMITH, JONATHAN DOYLE, LARRY SCALA, NOBU OZAKI at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 24, 2017)

Kris Tokarski, piano; Larry Scala, guitar; Nobu Ozaki, string bass; Hal Smith, drums; Jonathan Doyle, clarinet / tenor sax, with guest Katie Cavera, guitar and vocals. San Diego Jazz Fest, Nov. 2017

In the words of Sammy Cahn, “I fall in love too easily,” but not when the Love Object is a great artist or a collection of them.  There my devotion rarely plays me false.  This band, led by the quiet virtuoso Kris Tokarski, gave extraordinary pleasure at the November 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest.  I followed them happily and recorded (I think) five hour-long sets of the six they played.  Glowing music: heartfelt but beautifully expertly executed.  Somewhere Milt Gabler, Alfred Lion, and John Hammond are happily in the groove with all of us.  Here are the six posts I have already offered of the band’s great joyous surge — with guests Katie Cavera, Marc Caparone, and Dawn Lambeth: one and two and three and four and five and six.  (I did all that annoying hypertexting because I love my readers and I don’t want you stumbling around in the dark reaches of cyberspace.  Enjoy yourselves!)

Here are four brilliant performances from the band’s very first set at San Diego.  The first is a Jonathan Doyle original from 2016, called BATS ON A BRIDGE, dedicated to an Austin, Texas nature phenomenon, described here.  Jonathan has, to me, no peer at creating winding, clever witty lines based on the harmonies of “jazz standards,” and sometimes his lines are so irresistible on their own that I’ve found it hard to dig beneath to find the familiar harmonies. I’ll help you out here: the title of the song is exactly what Bithiah, otherwise known as Pharoah’s daughter, exclaimed when she saw the infant Moses in the bulrushes:

Next, a rarity at “trad” festivals, a purring reading of a ballad: in this case, YOU GO TO MY HEAD, which I believe Jonathan knew but had never performed in public.  Isn’t he marvelous?

Another Doyle original, from 2017, LONG DISTANCE MAN, whose source we get from the wise and observant Larry Kart — a story of the clarinetist Frank Chace’s meeting with Lester Young: [Chace] also told a very “Frank” story about his encounter with Lester Young in 1957 in Pres’s hotel room in (I think) Indianapolis, where Frank was playing at a club and Pres was in town with a non-JATP package tour. The drummer in the band Frank was part of, Buddy Smith, suggested that they pay Pres a visit after the gig, and when they got there, Frank (“I’m shy,” he said), hung back while the other guys gathered around Pres. Having noticed this bit of behavior, Pres beckoned Frank to come closer, addressing him softly as “long-distance man.” Probably a meeting of kindred souls.

The “kindred souls” create one of the finest blues performances I’ve heard in this century, beginning with Jonathan’s barks — part schnauzer, part Henry “Red” Allen, part walrus.  The only complaint I have here is that I wish the band had jettisoned the set list and just kept playing this, just kept on exploring the infinite spaces between the three chords, the tonalities, the steady swing:

As a set closer, the down-home classic, BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA:

You’ll notice I’ve avoided the game of Sounding Like (all praise to the late Barbara Lea for putting it so pungently): I hear murmurs from the admiring ghosts of Sidney Catlett, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Frank Chace, Omer Simeon, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Miller, Bud Freeman, Ike Quebec and others I haven’t named.  But they are quietly present.  The real and the truly brilliant voices I hear come from Tokarski, Doyle, Scala, Ozaki, and Smith.  And what glorious music they make. There will be more to come.

Festival promoters and concert bookers looking for noise and flash, circus acts and Vegas Dixieland, pass this band by with my blessings.  People who want to give genuine jazz and swing a venue [think of the San Diego Jazz Fest!], consider these heroes.

May your happiness increase! 

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“FORGED IN RHYTHM”: KEENAN McKENZIE with LAURA WINDLEY, GORDON AU, LUCIAN COBB, CHRIS DAWSON, JONATHAN STOUT, SETH FORD-YOUNG, JOSH COLLAZO (AUGUST 2017)

To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, “To one who feels the groove, no explanation is necessary. To one who doesn’t feel it, no explanation is possible.”

This new CD is just wonderful.  Listen to a sample here while you read.  And  that link is the easiest way to purchase a download or a disc.

The irresistibly catchy songs are TRANSCONTINENTAL* / MY WELL-READ BABY* / PARTS AND LABOR / LIGHTS OUT / IF I WROTE A SONG FOR YOU / CINCINNATI / DOWN THE HATCH / CALLOUS AND KIND* / BUFFALO CONVENTION / FORGED IN RHYTHM* / WHEN I’M HERE ALONE* / POCKET ACES / CITY IN THE DEEP / EASTBOUND / THE DWINDLING LIGHT BY THE SEA*.

I don’t write “irresistibly catchy” often, but I mean it here.  The lyrics are clever without being forced, sometimes deeply tender.  “Don’t send me names / Of potential flames,” is one tiny example of the Mercer-Hart world he visits. I emphasize that Mister McKenzie not only wrote music and lyrics, but arranged these originals AND performs beautifully on a variety of reeds.  He is indeed someone to watch, and admire.  He’s also a generous wise leader who gives his colleagues ample space, thus the CD is truly varied, each performance its own pleasing world.

The “tunes” themselves stick in the mind.  Some are contrafacts — new melodies built over sturdy lovable harmonic sequences (SUGAR BLUES, ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, INDIAN SUMMER, and BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA if my ears do not deceive me).  These hybrids work delightfully: it’s as if you’ve met beloved friends who have decided to cross-dress for the evening or for life: you recognize the dear person and the garb simultaneously, admiring both the substance and the wrappings.

The delicious band, sounding so much larger than a septet, is Keenan McKenzie, reeds; Gordon Au, trumpet; Lucian Cobb, trombone; Jonathan Stout, guitar; Chris Dawson, piano; Seth Ford-Young, string bass; Josh Collazo, drums; Laura Windley, vocals*.  You might not recognize all the names here, but you are in for compact explosions of joy when the music starts.

The soloists are playing superbly — and that includes players Gordon and Chris, whom I’ve been stalking for what seems like a decade now (my math is wrong but my emotions are correct) as well as the newer members of the Blessed Swing Flock.  Although they don’t work together regularly as a unit, they speak the same language effortlessly and listen contentedly to each other: Soloist Three starts his solo with a variation on the phrase that Soloist Two has just played.  That’s the way the Elders did it, a tradition beautifully carried forward here.

The rhythm section has perfected the Forties magic of seeming to lean forward into the beat while keeping the time steady.  Harry Lim and Milt Gabler smile at these sounds.  This band knows all that anyone needs to know about ensemble playing — they offer so much more than one brilliant solo after another.  Yes, Virginia, there are riffs, send-offs, and all those touches of delightful architecture that made the recordings we hold dear so memorable.  Without a vibraphone, this group takes some spiritual inspiration from the Lionel Hampton Victors, and you know (or should) just how fine they are.  “Are,” not “were.”

And there is the invaluable Laura Windley, who’s never sounded more like herself: if Joan Blondell took up singing, she’d sound like Laura.  And Joan would be thrilled at the transformation.

The lovely sound is thanks to Miles Senzaki (engineer at Grandma’s Dojo in Los Angeles, California; Jason Richmond, who mixed the music; Steve Turnidge, who mastered the disc).  The nifty artwork and typography — evoking both David Stone Martin and Al Hirschfeld — is by artist-clarinetist Ryan Calloway.

The disc is also available through CDBaby and shortly on Amazon and iTunes: check here for updates on such matters.  And here you can find out more about Keenan’s many selves, all of them musical.

I end on a personal note.  I first began to enjoy this disc at the end of the semester for me (I teach English at a community college) — days that are difficult for me.  I had graded enough student essays to feel despondent; I had sat at the computer for so long so that my neck hurt and my eyes ached.  But this disc had come in the mail, and I’d heard TRANSCONTINENTAL and MY WELL-READ BABY already, so, feeling depleted and sulky, I slipped it into the player.  Optimism replaced gloom, and I played the whole disc several times in a row, because it made me tremendously happy.  It can do the same spiritual alchemy for you, if you only allow it in.

May your happiness increase!

AN ABSOLUTE WOW: BROOKS PRUMO ORCHESTRA: “PASS THE BOUNCE”

Probably no one is asking forlornly, “Are the Big Bands going to come back?” because we once thought we knew the gloomy answer.  But hearing this disc, I feel bursts of swinging optimism cascading around me.  Brooks Prumo Orchestra has done the best magic: evoking past glories without imitating them.  If you heard this disc from another room, you might think, happily, that a new cache of Bill Savory’s discs has descended from Heaven (something that will, in fact, be true soon) — but these musicians are alive and ready to swing out on their own terms, in their own remarkable voices.

And speaking of voices, this is my first real introduction to Alice Spencer, who has one of the greatest voices I have heard in this century — supple, witty, multi-colored — and she knows what to do with it.

Artwork by Laura Glaess. 

The songs: BOLERO AT THE SAVOY / DICKIE’S DREAM / BENNY’S BUGLE / NOTHING TO DO BUT HANG WITH YOU / LOSERS WEEPERS / DINAH / JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID / SWING, BROTHER, SWING / SIMPLE SWEET EMBRACE / SIX CATS AND A PRINCE / PASS THE BOUNCE / ESQUIRE BOUNCE / JUMP JACK JUMP / I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME / THE LAST JUMP (A JUMP TO END ALL JUMPS – SILVER SHADOWS) / STARDUST.

And, lest you feel overwhelmed by words, you can go here and hear the CD.

Now, “a mission statement” from Brooks:

“The Brooks Prumo Orchestra was created for swing dancing.”

For me, big band music from the Swing Era is my favorite music for swing dancing. I wanted to put out an album only of tunes that were either original compositions, original arrangements, or remakes of tracks where the original version did not have a good recording. Please take a look at the inside liner notes for info about each track. Hopefully this release is a positive contribution to the world of swing music and swing dancing!  In addition to the tracks themselves, I also wanted to hit a wide range of tempos for dancing. This album has songs at approximately the following tempos: 235, 230, 225, 210, 190, 180, 175, 160, 155, 145, 140, 135, and 125 beats per minute.  Every single song on this recording holds a special place in my heart. I truly hope you enjoy it and thank you for your support!

The Musicians: Alice Spencer, vocal; Hal Smith, drums; Ryan Gould, string bass; Dan Walton, piano; Brooks Prumo, guitar; Marcus Graf, Adrian Ruiz, trumpet; David Jellema, cornet, clarinet; Mark Gonzales, trombone; Greg Wilson; alto sax; Dan Torosian, alto sax, baritone sax; Jonathan Doyle, tenor sax, clarinet; Lauryn Gould, tenor sax, soprano sax.

About the music: some of the names above will be familiar to you if you’ve heard The Thrift Set Orchestra, the Sahara Swingtet, or Jonathan Doyle’s groups.  And certain names in that personnel have well-deserved star status.  Worth repeating: musicians have praised Alice Spencer to me, but she comes through this CD like a gorgeous swing breeze, with a big wink, as if Joan Blondell had taken swing lessons and graduated at the head of her class.

The rhythm section of the BPO is just peerless.  And let us say “Hal Smith!” all together, reverently.

The sections hit together wonderfully, and the solos — often by Jellema, Doyle, Gonzales, Walton, Ruiz — although everyone gets a taste — are idiomatic yet free.  I know there are charts on this session, but the band and Alice swing out from their hearts.

The only side-effects from this music might be silly grinning and bouncing around one’s domicile, and these side-effects will persist after the disc is no longer spinning.  Don’t tell your doctor: tell everyone!

The repertoire draws on Basie, Goodman, Krupa, Shaw, with a few original arrangements and original tunes thrown into the mix — performances that evoke Commodore and Keynote sessions, Lester Young, Tommy Dorsey, Billie Holiday, Andy Kirk.  But the BPO is not a machine devoted to “playing old records live”: they sound wonderfully like a 1940-44 Basie small group with a few extra friends along for the joyride.

PASS THE BOUNCE contains highly seductive music.  Even though my ballroom dance instructor and my neurologist suggested — a decade apart — that I was not going to impress anyone on the dance floor, this CD makes me feel as if I can dance.  Even better, that I should be.  It’s that lovely and encouraging.

Make your holiday season rock . . . or any season.  This CD is seriously joyous.  Grab a few copies here — or if you prefer to download and stream (having it your way) that door is wide open as well.  And the BPOrchestra’s Facebook page is here.

It is more reassuring than I can say that such music is getting played and recorded: maybe the end of civilization as we know it can be postponed for a bit?

May your happiness increase!

KRIS AND HIS GANG: MORE FROM THE SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST: KRIS TOKARSKI, HAL SMITH, LARRY SCALA, JONATHAN DOYLE, NOBU OZAKI, MARC CAPARONE (Nov. 26, 2017)

Dawn Lambeth, Kris Tokarski, Larry Scala, Nobu Ozaki, Hal Smith, Jonathan Doyle, Marc Caparone at the San Diego Jazz Fest

Oh, how they swing.  This band is one definition of happiness.

See here for their version of MY GAL SAL which continues to bring great pleasure, with the same heroes: Kris Tokarski, piano; Hal Smith, drums; Larry Scala, guitar; Jonathan Doyle, clarinet and tenor; Nobu Ozaki, string bass; Marc Caparone, guest nobleman, on trumpet.

And Edgar Sampson’s fervent wish, IF DREAMS COME TRUE:

Don Redman’s CHERRY:

and Alex Hill’s I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU:

Not only might they do anything for us, or would do anything for us: they DO.  And so splendidly.  I recorded another four sets (if memory serves) so there might be a few more delicacies to come.  Such joy, such generosity of spirit, such art.

May your happiness increase!

“HAVIN’ MYSELF A TIME”: PETRA VAN NUIS, ANDY SCHUMM, DAN BARRETT, ANDY BROWN, SCOTT ROBINSON, FRANK TATE, RICKY MALICHI (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, Sept. 16, 2017)

Photograph by Bill Klewitz

My title comes from a wonderful, lesser-known song by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, from a minor Paramount Pictures comedy, TROPICAL HOLIDAY — with Ray Milland, Dorothy Lamour, Martha Raye (possibly playing a matador) and Bob Burns.

We know the song because it was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1938.

And it was performed anew by Petra van Nuis and Friends at the 2017 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party.

Petra had herself a time with some of the best players I know: Ricky Malichi, drums; Frank Tate, string bass; Andy Brown, guitar; Andy Schumm, cornet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Scott Robinson, reeds; Noah Won, piano.

Petra, if you are new to her or her work, can also be seen having a wonderful swinging time at Cleveland here on Sunday morning with an entirely different cast of luminaries: John Di Martino, Nicki Parrott, and Hal Smith.

Rather like our swing ideal Rebecca Kilgore, Petra doesn’t choose to drown herself in melancholy on the bandstand: even when she sings EVENIN’, the brisk tempo reminds us that the grim lyrics are only half the story.  Her outlook is optimistic, as you will see and hear in these four wonderful performances.

She began with an upbeat song, almost a century old, SAVE YOUR SORROW:

After that encouraging beginning, Petra moved to “an old Billie Holiday song,” but you’ll notice she doesn’t attempt to be the Lady — no meow, no rasp:

Another song identified with Billie and Basie (built on DIGA DIGA DOO, I now know by hearsay), SWING, BROTHER, SWING — also a policy statement from the van Nuis camp:

And finally, a real pleasure.  Petra is tall and svelte, but here she extends an affectionate embrace to those who, like me, ruefully are neither.  It’s Fats’ SQUEEZE ME, with the shade of Mildred Bailey in the wings, grinning:

It is so dreadfully unpopular these days to suggest that jazz of any kind is “happy music”; to some it conjures up nightmarish visions of striped jackets and straw boaters.  But Petra and a first-class band create joy.

And here is her website, where you can see other videos, learn all about her and the Recession Seven, and find out where she’ll be appearing next.

May your happiness increase!

“MAGIC FINGERS”: JIM TURNER’S TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY GUARNIERI (Solo Art SACD 172)

Here’s a sample of the technically inspiring, elegant music that pianist-composer Johnny Guarnieri created for half a century:

and one of his many other sides — the quietly irrepressible swinger:

and then there’s the audaciously gifted stride pianist:

and his variations on and venerable pop tune:

Guarnieri could marvelously become Fats, Tatum, Teddy Wilson, James P., Basie — all at once or in lovely little interludes — but after a few bars on any recording, you knew it was Johnny, which (to me) is the summit that improvisers strive for, influences melded into a recognizable self.

He started at the top, as they say, in 1939 as a member of the Benny Goodman band and the sextet with Charlie Christian, then as the harpsichord player with Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five as well as with the band, then numberless sessions with Ziggy Elman, Cootie Williams, Slam Stewart, Sammy Weiss, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Cozy Cole, Jerry Jerome (in the early Forties, Guarnieri seemed to be the house pianist for Keynote, Savoy, and other small labels) Yank Lawson, Ben Webster, Benny Morton, Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stewart.  He’s the pianist on the V-Disc sessions that brought together Louis, Lips Page, Bobby Hackett, Billy Butterfield, Jack Teagarden, Lou McGarity,Nick Caiazza, Ernie Caceres, Herb Ellis, Al Hall, Cozy Cole, Specs Powell; more sideman work with Don Byas, Joe Thomas, Buck Clayton, Hank D’Amico, Ike Quebec, Flip Phillips, J. C. Heard, Sidney Catlett . . . . and this recital of famous associations is only up until the end of the Second World War.

Guarnieri wasn’t famous, necessarily, in the way that Teddy Wilson was, but he had the respect of the best players, singers, and record producers in the music business.  And the long list of names — did I leave out Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, June Christy, or Dick Haymes? — means that if you have a favorite jazz or swing record from this period, chances are that Johnny was the pianist on it. In the Fifties and beyond, he went for himself as a soloist or led a piano trio or quartet, for the next thirty years, although he participated in the great revival of interest in the masters of the Swing Era, and could be found alongside Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, Buddy Tate, Slam Stewart, and others.

Perhaps because of his swing and his dazzle (stride faster than the speed of light, improvising in 5/4 and other eccentric meters) Guarnieri has been admired but never approached.  That is, until Jim Turner‘s new CD, in tribute to Johnny, Jim’s mentor and friend, aptly called MAGIC FINGERS.

Jim Turner

Jim hasn’t had the benefit of Guarnieri’s visibility and name recognition, but I knew of him for years as a convincing, graceful stride and swing pianist.  And anyone who begins his recording career in duet with Knocky Parker and has played concerts with Dick Hyman has to be taken seriously.

Here’s some evidence: POET AND PEASANT OVERTURE, performed in June 1986.  The video is murky, but the music is wonderful: we could have taken Jim uptown and he would have impressed the titans.  Better, he impresses now:

and here’s Jim beautiful version of James P. Johnson’s CAPRICE RAG:

What makes his playing remarkable is not its speed, but his gorgeous marriage of accuracy and warmth, his rollicking swing.  As fast as this performance is, it never feels mechanical (beautiful dynamics!) and it never outraces its jubilant rocking motion.

One more, because I can’t resist.  You might need to increase the volume, but it will be worth it:

But to the subject at hand, MAGIC FINGERS.

A tribute to Johnny Guarnieri by another pianist might get bogged down in layers of emulation, where the second artist, let us say, might decide that Johnny’s choruses on I NEVER KNEW or EXERCISE IN SWING were so fulfilling that the only thing one could do, as if they were a Chopin etude, would be to reproduce them beautifully.  But a CD of copies would not, I think, serve Johnny’s spirit and legacy all that well, especially since Johnny was always being his singular self even while some listeners might say, “That’s a Fats phrase! That’s some Basie!” — as if they were walking the beach with a metal detector looking for identifiable treasures.  (Incidentally, the perhaps apocryphal story is that when Johnny would launch into these pitch-perfect impersonations as a sideman with Benny Goodman, the King would tell him vehemently, “STOP THAT!” and Johnny would, although perhaps not as quickly as Benny wanted.)

The brilliance of MAGIC FINGERS lies, of course, in Jim Turner’s deep understanding of Johnny’s musical selves, and in Jim’s choice to create a disc devoted to his mentor’s ingenious, restorative compositions.  Each of the originals (well-annotated by Jim in his notes) has its own life, with great variety in tempo, key, rhythms, and approach.  A number of the pieces were written with a specific individual in mind — thus a tribute that collects many tributes! — and the ear never gets tired.

At no point in my multiple playings of this disc did I feel the urge to shout at the speakers, “STOP THAT!”  Quite the opposite: from the opening notes of GLISS ME AGAIN, I settled down in comfort for a series of endearing adventures — seventeen selections, all but three by Guarnieri.  Beautifully played and beautifully recorded — the real sound of a well-maintained piano in a large room.

I admire how Turner has not only managed to reproduce the wonderful features of his inspiration’s playing — the great glide of his swing, the impish romping, the energetic and varied stride — but has made them entirely personal and rewarding.  I’ve chosen to avoid a track-by-track explication (discover these pleasures for yourselves!) except to say that the closing track, THE DAZZLER, is a duet for Turner and the singularly eloquent clarinetist Ron Hockett.

I can’t offer the usual tech-inducements of seventeen sound samples or the like, but I assure you that this disc, as they used to say, satisfies.

A closing thought.  I recently had a conversation in cyberspace with a respected musician who plays “traditional jazz,” who lamented that this music was “a language” that modern audiences would not hear and, if they did, might not understand.  Maybe his dark assessment is right, but I would use MAGIC FINGERS as a test case: anyone who purchases this disc might feel encouraged to play one of the more leisurely pieces and then a romp for someone who didn’t know this music but was open to other genres.  I’d hope that the listener would say, “That’s really pretty,” of the slower piece and “That pianist really can play!” of the more acrobatic one.  I have faith in the music and in this CD — and, if it isn’t clear by now, in Jim Turner and in Johnny Guarnieri and the gifts that each offers so generously.

May your happiness increase!

A NIGHT AT THE BOMBAY CLUB (Part Two): KRIS TOKARSKI, JAMES EVANS, HAL SMITH (September 22, 2016)

bombay-clubYes, The Bombay Clubthat luxurious New Orleans hangout in the Prince Conti Hotel, home to good music, food, drink, and friendships.  I visited it for the first time on the date above, to hear Kris Tokarski, James Evans, and Hal Smith — my premiere offering from that session can be found here.

And here is Part Two: listen to the way this trio blends the three voices into a larger, delightful organism, with each member keeping his individuality.

An absolutely gorgeous SOPHISTICATED LADY:

GET HAPPY, thanks to Harold Arlen at the rehearsal piano:

JUST YOU, JUST ME:

TOP HAT, WHITE TIE AND TAILS:

Yes, there are several more joyous instant-classics from this session, and they will appear.

May your happiness increase!