Tag Archives: Tommy Bryant

“LOVE THEM MADLY”: KANAN, FOSTER, & ARNEDO TRIO PLAYS ELLINGTON AND STRAYHORN

Some music you have to work hard to embrace, and many listeners relish the labor.  But other music, no less subtle or rewarding, opens its arms to you in the first four bars.  A new CD by Michael Kanan, piano; Dee Jay Foster, string bass; Guillem Arnedo, drums, is a wonderful example of love made audible.

If these names are new to you, please put down whatever you’re attempting to multi-task (on or with) and listen to this leisurely reading of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE from a live performance in 2017:

This trio also knows how to relax, thus, that rarity, a picture of jazz musicians taking their ease outdoors:

You might know that Michael Kanan is one of JAZZ LIVES’ heroes, not only in this country, but internationally.  And the lineage is very pleasing: the saxophone master Joel Press introduced me to Michael, and (aurally) Michael introduced me to Guillem and Dee Jay.  For the past decade, Michael spends part of each summer as artist-in-residence at the Begues Jazz Camp, where he’s forged deep musical relationships with these two musical intuitives.  The CD came out of a series of concerts the trio did.  As Michael says, “There is space, swing, surprises and lots of love. We have tried to capture the spontaneity of the moment in time – a good conversation between the three of us.”

Instead of the usual liner notes, the CD offers splendid artwork by Maria Pichel, who combines bright colors and delicacy to mirror the music within.  So here are a few (unsolicited) lines from me.

The late Roswell Rudd told me in 2012, “Playing your personality is what this music is all about. . . . You know, this is a music where you are playing off other people, and you really have to be listening and responding and respecting and complementing what’s going on around you.”

The personalities that come through so clearly here are gentle and intense at once: musicians inspired by the originals but aware that reverent innovation is the only tribute.  The magnificent Ellington and Strayhorn compositions are an indelible offering.  They aren’t obscure or at least they shouldn’t be, and that asks contemporary artists the question, “All right — what are you going to say about these pieces?”

One approach is reverence taken all the way: a 2018 piano trio could do its best to replicate Ellington, Blanton, Greer, or Strayhorn, Wendell Marshall, Woodyard.  Conversely, the improvisers could take the originals and, after one reasonably polite chorus, jump into outer space, perhaps never to return.  The Kanan, Foster, Arnedo trio modifies these extremes by creating statements showing their affection for the strong melodies, harmonies, rhythms — but they know that “playing their personalities” is what Ellington and Strayhorn did, and would approve of.  So the CD is a series of sweet variations on themes, where (to borrow from Teddy Wilson), “it’s the little things that mean so much.”

In the quiet world of this CD, even a slight tempo change means that listeners have found themselves in a new space, as if you’d come home to find that your partner had repainted the light-gray living room walls a gray with a blue undertone.

What I hear on this disc is the confident playful assurance of musicians who know each other well, are respectful but also relaxed and brave.  Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem are melodists who work together in kind fraternal fashion, so the lead gets passed around, one player moves into the spotlight and the others are happy for him to shine.  No cliches; no showboating; no tedious quoting; no formulaic playing or threadbare trademarks; the total absence of post-modern irony; no sense that swing is out of date.

The result is a series of sustained explorations that are full of sweet surprises: the wonderful swinging assertiveness with which C JAM BLUES starts; the touching coda to ISFAHAN; the slightly faster tempo for I LET A SONG that neatly contradicts the self-pitying lyrics; the exposition of LOTUS BLOSSOM would make anyone want to listen with bowed head, and the slightly altered rhythmic pulse that follows made me hear it as if for the first time; JOHNNY COME LATELY is perfect dance music — I defy anyone to stay motionless, even if the dance is happy nodding one’s head in time; Michael’s solo ALL TOO SOON is half-lullaby, half question yearning to be answered; the faster-than-expected I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT reminds me happily of Fifties Jo Jones with Ray and Tommy Bryant, for the trio’s swing is light yet insistent, and the rocking mood continues on through LOVE YOU MADLY; DAY DREAM, the concluding track, also seems a series of questions, some of them with answers.

I would tell any listener, “Play the disc over again, after you’ve let it settle in your mind, take up a comfortable space in your heart.  Play it for people who have ears.  Let them share the pleasure, the loving inquisitiveness.”

Because I have admired Michael’s playing for some time, I might have over-emphasized his contribution, but Dee Jay and Guillem are the equal of anyone with a more famous name, whether Elder or Youngblood: they play their instruments with honor and grace, avoiding the excesses that lesser players fall into.  Forget the snide jokes about bass solos; Dee Jay’s phrases are deft and logical, his time and intonation superb; Guillem, for his part, has such a swinging variety of sounds throughout his kit that he is marvelously orchestral without ever being overwhelming. The beautiful recorded sound, thanks to David Cassamitjana, is reassuringly warm and clear, putting us there, which is where we want to be.

You can hear the music here, on Spotify or iTunes, or purchase that endearing archaic object, an actual physical disc by clicking on “TIENDA” at the same site.

Even if you have as complete an Ellington-Strayhorn collection as possible, this is an essential disc: warm, candid, and gratifying.

And if you’d like to hear more from Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem in a different but quite uplifting context, visit here also.

May your happiness increase!

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DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES CHARLIE SHAVERS and FRIENDS (April 21, 2017)

When Dan Morgenstern and I had concluded our first series of video interviews, he reminded me that we hadn’t spoken of Charlie Shavers, and I was also eager to do this when we met for a second time.  Charlie was an extraordinary trumpeter, arranger, and singer — someone not celebrated in this century as he deserves.

Why stardom seems to come naturally to one artist and not another is mysterious, but I hope that Dan’s wise, affectionate, and first-hand recollections will help people rediscover Mister Shavers:

“Smother me!” Charlie with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and Louis Bellson:

This is why sound film was invented, so that we could see and hear Charlie and Sidney Catlett have a delightful conversation — also John Kirby, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, and Russell Procope (or is it Charlie Holmes?) in 1947:

and late in life with Ben Webster, playing some “dirty blues”:

and the quartet that Dan referred to:

Previous interview segments with Dan can be found here.  And there are more to come.

May your happiness increase!

SMILING JO JONES

As a high school student, I supplemented my intermittent jazz record purchases by listening to the records available at my local public library.  One of the librarians was hip.  Someone had good taste!  The collection included Ellington and George Lewis, Jimmy Rushing and Vic Dickenson, Benny Goodman and “The Sound of Jazz,” among others.  On those records — particularly the Vanguard sessions supervised in the early and middle Fifties by John Hammond — I first heard the sound of Jo Jones, his swishing hi-hat cymbals, his emphatic rimshots, his irresistible swing. 

I had already fallen in love with the propulsion and pure sounds of Catlett and Wettling, but Jo was a revelation: I can still hear the way he brought the band in on Vic’s RUNNIN’ WILD, or the three perfectly placed accents (all different) he used to propel Tommy Ladnier in a fast WEARY BLUES at the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.  And, a little later, when I bought my first Billie Holiday records, the Kansas City Fiva and Six, the Decca Basie band . . . I wanted to hear every record Jo Jones had ever been part of.   

Here is Jo — exuberant, explosive, grinning, soloing at the end of a fast blues, on a 1957 Nat King Cole television show devoted to Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe.  This clip begins at the end of Roy Eldridge’s solo (in mid-scream) and at the end Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown are visible:

But that clip gives way to my own memories of Jo in person, onstage and off. 

This post is motivated by a recent conversation I had with the Beloved about the subject of retiring from one’s job, leaving a career behind.  I told her one of the stories below and she said, astonished, “You spoke to Jo Jones?  Smiling Jo Jones?” hence my title. 

Not only did I speak to Jo Jones: I took this photograph of him in 1981:

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

True, the shot is amateurish: a head is in the way, my flash’s explosion is visible, the overall hue suggests Halloween . . . but Jo’s slow-motion mallet, on its ways down, pleases me greatly.  And the photo evidence that I was there, capturing this moment, which is no small thing.

Many other moments come back to me now. 

My friend Stu Zimny found out, sometime before 1972, that one could see Jo at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop.  We decided to go there, as if we were making a pilgrimage to some sacred place.  Was Jo holding court there, as befits an artist and aristocrat, or was he making a few dollars in a job unworthy of him, as I have read?  I don’t know.  I do remember buying a pair of 5B parade drumsticks from him — to practice with — and snippets of this conversation. 

In person, Jo was animated, inscrutable, vehement.  Something in his manner and approach defied easy explanation.  It felt as if we were speaking to a character in a play — and only Jo had the script.  There was also some element of unpredictability, even of danger, as if he might suddenly get furious at you in the middle of a conversation, as I saw happen with Ruby Braff.   

(Ruby, incidentally, told us a wonderful story about working with Jo at Storyville, almost twenty years earlier: Jo would never say, “Let’s play ROSETTA,” but start a rhythmic pattern and tempo on his hi-hat or snare and leave it up to the musician to guess which tune might best go with that tempo.  Ruby shook his head in disbelief when he recalled, somewhat in desperation, picking some song that he thought might be fine at that tempo, and Jo saying, “That’s it!  You got it!” as if Ruby had telepathically found the answer.  “I don’t play with him any more.  He’s nuts,” said Ruby.) 

Even when speaking to people he knew and liked, Jo had a particular tone of voice that in someone else might have been ironic verging on contemptuous.  But with him it was a form of emphasis.  You could hear capital letters, boldface, italics in his voice.  And he had a fierce energy in his speech: a conversation with him was like being strapped into a centrifuge, an untiring monologue, rising and falling. 

Spotting Jo at Ippolito’s, I imagine that we introduced ourselves as jazz listeners, fans, admirers.  And then one of us asked Jo where we could hear him play.  Was he gigging anywhere?   

He looked at us with weary resignation, two innocent Caucasian college boys who had asked a silly question.

“I’m re-ti-red,” he said, by way of explanation.  “I don’t play the drums anymore.  Leave all that to the kiddies,” he continued.  We couldn’t believe it, and asked him again.  He wasn’t playing any gigs, no festivals?  All he would say was that he was “re-ti-red.”  If we needed a drummer, he suggested that we call Buddy Rich.  Stu points out that Jo offered no contact information for Buddy.  

We went away from that encounter half grieving, half amazed.  We had gone to the mountaintop to meet one of the elders, to receive counsel and inspiration, and the elder had said he had packed it in.

The sequel to all this is that some months later we saw Jo’s name prominently advertised as one of the musicians who would appear in the Newport-New York Jazz Festival.  I think, now, that he had been putting us on.  But perhaps in his own head he had decided to retire.      

In the next decade, we had the opportunity to see him in a variety of situations: concert halls and jazz clubs.  He drove Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS at their 1972 concert appearance (a band that included Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and an out-of-tune Bernard Addison) and took a long solo in the middle of SLEEP — a virtuosic exercise that stopped the song and the show.  Two years later, he appeared at the Newport “Hall of Fame,” as part of a quintet with Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Wilson, and Hinton, his playing was immaculate, sensitive, not showy — Hackett turned the last bridge in “Body and Soul” over to Jo, who filled the air with urging, whispering brush strokes and accents.  

Tom Piazza, then a student at Williams College, arranged a concert of the jazz elders — when such things were still possible: Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton, Budd Johnson, Claude Hopkins, and Jo.  Stu and I went there, armed with a heavy tape recorder, and (in the face of numerous obstacles: an inebriated Budd, a student running the sound board who turned the record level up and down for no reason, an over-exuberant audience) we focused on the band.  Jo traded eights and fours with Milt on a leisurely STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and did his volcanic version of CARAVAN, with every grimace, every surprise firmly choreographed. 

He smiled incessantly when he played: he glowed.  But when we saw Jo in clubs, at close range, he often appeared to be brimful of some barely contained anger.  And though we had come to the gig hoping to hear something delicate, witty — that magical hi-hat sound, those quietly insistent brushes that had levitated so many recordings — he would beat out the time loudly, indefatigably, on a brassily resonant ride cymbal.  It was clear that there were two Jonathan David Samuel Joneses: one, the player we had heard on records, lifting the band with what Donne called “gold to airy thinness beat”; the other, furious at something, wanting to control it by pure sound and pure volume.  Stanley Dance told me about producing a 1961 session that paired Jo with some Ellington alumni — Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Ray Nance, Sir Charles Thompson — and Jo being infuriated about something, then playing as loudly as he could. 

I recall several instances of this irritation-translated-into-music.  When there was a ragtag band of “Basie alumni” assembled at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage: sic transit gloria mundi), Jo walloped the ride cymbal as if wanting to drown everyone out.  At a short-lived spinoff of the Half Note, “The Onliest Place,” a venture that lasted only a few weekends, Jo led a little band one night.  If I remember correctly, it included bassist Tommy Bryant, Ben Richardson on clarinet, Skeeter Best on guitar, and one or two other players.  They embarked on a nearly forgotten Thirties pop tune, CALL ME DARLING, which was not terribly familiar, and some members of the band got lost.  I can hear Jo shouting, “The middle!  The middle!” although I am not sure that this advice averted chaos.  Irritability and delighted in-jokes always characterized his appearances with “The Countsmen,” a group that included Doc Cheatham, Benny Morton, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Chuck Folds, Franklyn Skeete, and Jo.   

Jo could play magically in clubs, though.  I remember going to Gregory’s, a tiny room, to hear Ellis Larkins and Al Hall.  That duo played splendid embroidered jazz for one set and then Jo walked in, unfurled his newspaper, took out a set of folding wire brushes, spread the paper on a chair, and played with elegance, amusement, and grace.   

At the West End Cafe, thanks to Phil Schaap, Jo had a fairly steady gig: “Jo Jones and Friends,” which was most often a quartet of Harold Ashby on tenor, a pianist (sometimes Don Coates), and bassist John Ore, who had played with Monk.  One rainy night in particular stands out.  It was time for the band to begin and Ore had not arrived.  Jo began his sets with a medium-tempo blues in G, and, muttering to himself, he set the tempo by tapping his snare drum with his fingers.  Ashby soloed; the pianist soloed, and when it came to the two or four choruses that would have been taken by Ore, Jo grimaced, muttered loudly and incomprehensibly to himself, and played choruses of accompaniment — as if Ore had been there — with the tenor and piano silent.  It was mildly eerie.  Ore came in soon after, apologized for being late (he lived in Brooklyn), but it took the rest of the night for Jo to become calmer.      

One summer on Long Island, I read that Buddy Tate would be bringing a band, including Jo, to play a free outdoor concert somewhere miles from Manhattan on the North Fork.  It may have been Southold.  We drove out there and saw Tate’s outfit play the first half of the concert, with some of their members, including Jo, missing.  Jo’s son may have subbed for his father on drums.  Eventually, much later, a fire engine drove up, with a few cars following.  Jo came out of one of them.  They had gotten lost and asked directions at a firehouse.  I would like to report that the Tate band, plus Jo, played magnificently, but that wasn’t the case.  The group reassembled itself, and Jo demanded his feature on CARAVAN.  It went on, no nuance or flourish omitted, for something like eleven minutes.  After that, there was only time for Tate to play a hasty LESTER LEAPS IN, and the concert ended.  Perhaps it was because of episodes like this that when we mentioned Jo’s name to musicians of a certain era, their expressions grew wary and guarded.  “He’s crazy, man,” was the response we got from more than one well-established player.

But he could be politely accessible to fans.  I recall approaching him at the West End, before the gig had started, with a new vinyl copy of a record, FOR BASIE.  I had bought it that afternoon and hoped that Jo would autograph it for me.  Recorded in 1957 for Prestige-Swingville, it brought together Shad Collins on trumpet, Paul Quinichette on tenor, Nat Pierce on piano, Walter Page on bass (one of his last recordings), and Jo.  The cover picture showed Jo in a heavy flannel buffalo-plaid shirt with wide suspenders over it, and he grew animated and showed the other musicians at the table.  “See that?” he demanded of them.  “That is style!” he insisted, happily.  And he autographed the back side of the cover in a large ornate hand.  When he was through signing, he said to me that he had never heard the music.  I could take a hint, and offered him this copy (I had another at home).  I hope that it gave him pleasure. 

At another, later West End gig, I had with me a new record, OUR MAN, PAPA JO! — on the Denon label, which had a picture of Jo in full glower at his drum set, on the cover.  Thinking that one can never have too many Jo Jones signatures, I asked him to autograph this one also.  He stared at the cover, held it at arm’s length.

This will keep the burglars from your house!” he gleefully told me. 

In 1981 and early 1982, he was getting more frail and having more difficulty.  Jo played with great delicacy at a “Salute to Pres” concert, offering his familiar dancing trades with Milt Hinton — but he had to be helped up on the drum throne.  At the last West End gig I recall, playing was becoming more and more arduous for him.  When I heard about him next it was the news of his death in 1985.

Photographer Richard H. Merle was at Jo’s funeral, and he caught this poignant moment of Max Roach at Jo’s coffin — the flag draped over the back because Jo had served  — with great reluctance — in the Army in World War Two. 

 

Jo Jones Funeral

Jo Jones’s body has been gone for almost twenty-five years.  Yet his sound remains, and his smile — like the Cheshire Cat’s — has never been effaced.  

Copyright 1985 by Richard H. Merle.  All rights reserved.

RAY BRYANT IS THRIVING

I can’t recall the first time I heard a recording of pianist Ray Bryant — perhaps because he was captured so often and so well during the Fifties and onward.  Was it with Miles or Sonny Rollins?  No, more probably it was as a member (along with brother Tommy) of the Jo Jones Trio.  Or as a sideman on any number of Prestige swing-to-bop sessions.  I even recall finding a used copy of his Columbia record THE MADISON TIME, which featured Buddy Tate and Benny Morton, among others.  Then he made some records for Norman Granz (a solo album, one with Zoot Sims, among others) but he didn’t have as high a profile as other pianists.  That struck me as odd, because Bryant’s approach to the piano was expertly orchestral, without any narrow definitions.  He struck me as a musician, a pianist rather than someone limited to a single approach. 

ray-bryant1Thus it is a great pleasure to report that there is a new solo piano CD by Bryant and that it is even better than I thought it would be.  It’s called IN THE BACK ROOM and appears on the Evening Star label — a label known for its beautifully done CDs featuring Benny Carter, Joe Wilder, Phil Woods, Randy Sandke, among others.  Prodcer Ed Berger has a long association with the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University– he is one of the finest jazz scholars we have — and all of the twelve performances on this CD were recorded at the university in 2004 and 2008, some during a Fats Waller Centennial celebration.  Five tracks are Waller compositions, and one is IF I COULD BE WITH YOU, by his teacher James P. Johnson.  The other tracks include EASY TO LOVE and ST. LOUIS BLUES — and, most importantly, four Bryant compositions.   

Most pianists have the same difficulty considering Fats Waller’s music that trumpet players asked to pay tribute to Louis do, I assume: the musical personalities are so strong, their effect so definite, that the musician paying homage might be tempted to imitate the model.  This isn’t terrible in itself: if I knew someone who could play POTATO HEAD BLUES or AFRICAN RIPPLES at will, I would have them come to my apartment often.  But the wiser course might be to honor the durable melodies as improvisatory material and go from there.  With Waller, however, the risks are immense: what can a player bring to HONEYSUCKLE ROSE that is reasonably authentic and still new? 

No one need worry.  Bryant is a mature artist, wholly comfortable with his own identity so that he relaxes into his own style — which, one notes immediately, is not built on well-worn figures and pianistic cliches.  Rather, he seems to love the way the piano can be made to sound, full and rich, without straining for effect.  He is happy to play the melody, to ornament its harmony subtly.  His solos sing; his rhythm is relaxed yet consistent.  And he is a master of the small variations possible within medium tempo. 

Although Bryant is known for his deep immersion in the blues and his originals such as “Little Susie,” the most moving music on this CD comes when he plays his own compositions.  One of them, “The Impossible Rag,” is a tour-de-force that pianists might find it hard to reproduce, but Bryant’s virtuosity is more a matter of deep feeling.  It comes out most strongly in “Lullaby and” “Little Girl” (the latter dedicated to his wife Claude).  “Little Girl,” an almost grieving meditation, sounds cantorial in its minor harmonies: in it, we hear someone considering the possibilities of simple melodic motifs — eloquently and sorrowfully.  I didn’t think of jazz when I heard it; rather, of Dvorak.  “Lullaby” also takes an apparently simple idea and explores it, gently and sweetly — with contrasting brief sections balancing against each other.  Both pieces stayed in my memory for a long time, which says a good deal about Bryant’s powers to evoke emotions.  Even if you think you know Bryant’s work, this CD is worth searching out.  And if the Evening Star label is new to you, delights await.  Visit http://www.bennycarter.com/common/eveningstar/