Tag Archives: trumpet

A “PURE DARK TONE” TO EXPRESS BEAUTY

Since childhood, Sonny LaRosa, trumpeter, has given himself body and soul to the music he loves and creates.  Here he is, two years ago, at 88:

Photograph by Douglas R. Clifford.

Photograph by Douglas R. Clifford.

And here is the February 2015 newspaper story, how Sonny retired from 36 years of leading his own generous creation, America’s Youngest Jazz Band. But this is not a story about a frail nonaganerian.  This is not a tribute to a man who is, as they say, “resting on his morals.”  This is a salute to a glorious trumpet player . . . although he might have escaped your notice.

Sonny’s approach is a kind of trumpet playing you don’t hear often enough: a languorous, full-toned, loving approach to the melody.  He clearly is deeply affectionate: when he plays YOU GO TO MY HEAD or IMAGINATION, what you hear first is a beautiful act of reverence to the composer.  This isn’t to say that he is tied to the written manuscript.  No, he has a subtle rhythmic lilt, and when he improvises, you hear that he knows sophisticated harmonies.  Nothing’s formulaic or mechanical in his playing, and although his art is virtuosic, he doesn’t show off: no ascents into the highest register, no blurts of volume.

You wouldn’t expect anything else from a man whose father played him Louis records from age 4 onwards.  And even better — Sonny, in his early teens, met and spoke to Louis, who encouraged him and recommended a “good teacher,” who turned out to be Maurice Grupp.  Sonny had many teachers, but ultimately went his own way — away from the symphony, deep into the world of beautiful sounds.  He is one of those rare ambassadors of beauty, his music unfussy, humble, and loving.  His goal, he says, was to have “a pure dark tone,” and he’s succeeded nobly.

Sonny CD cover

Here you can hear Sonny play ANGEL EYES from his most recent CD, which is called THE HAUNTING SOUND, STYLE AND SOUL OF SONNY LA ROSA — and that title, to me, isn’t in the least hyperbolic.  When asked about his passion, he’s said, “I like that feeling of playing like somebody would sing . . . the way Sinatra would sing a song.  God gave me the gift of sound,” and that is no boast.

The CD offers twelve lovely standards: ANGEL EYES / IMAGINATION / MISTY / JUST ONE MORE CHANCE / BY THE TIME I GET TO PHOENIX / MY FUNNY VALENTINE / I GOT IT BAD AND THAT AIN’T GOOD / YOU GO TO MY HEAD / AUTUMN IN NEW YORK / SOLITUDE / CLOSE TO YOU / Theme from LOVE STORY — and two dazzling etudes at the end, KEEL ROW, played straight, and then as a Sonny-plus-Sonny duet which swings mightily. The backgrounds are very simple; the performances are unadorned explorations of song, and most of them end with a gentle fade, as if a beautiful sailboat was drifting into the distance.

If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you can hear a few more samples from the CD.

I have been enjoying this CD for its masterful yet quietly glowing trumpet playing — and I’ve also played it in the car for a friend who says “I don’t like jazz,” but who said, “Wow! That is gorgeous!  I like that!” so the CD works on many levels.

You can purchase the CD (and I encourage you to!) for $15, which includes postage, directly from Sonny.  Contact him here and tell him JAZZ LIVES sent you.  This world can be very dark these days.  I think of Sonny’s art as healing for our troubles.  It’s music that comes from his heart, and it will gently make its way into yours.

May your happiness increase!

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ENRICO TOMASSO’S “AL DENTE”: TASTY!

Rico CD front better

It has been my great good fortune to meet and hear trumpeter / singer Enrico Tomasso several times at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party.  Because of his deep understanding of jazz from the beginnings to the present, Rico has often been asked to “be” someone else: Louis, George Mitchell, or Roy Eldridge, for a variety of jazz repertory projects.  A versatile player, he has no trouble summoning up the great demigods, but in the process, his own personality — subtle yet powerful — shines through.  He’s delightfully versatile — like a compelling stage actor who can be Lear one week, Stanley Kowalski the next, without strain.  (He’s also a marvelous singer.)

Now, at last, he’s made a small-group CD under his own name — just Rico and rhythm — and it’s delicious.  (In keeping with the beautiful productions of Woodville Records, the sound is first-rate; excellent notes by Alyn Shipton, and fine photographs by bassist Andrew Clyndert.)

Rico CD back

Although many of the songs on this disc have strong associations with great trumpet players (Louis, Roy, Bobby Hackett, Clark Terry) what we hear is a mature artist — playfully taking chances — creating his own paths through familiar material.

Many compact discs topple under the weight of sameness, offering ten or twenty performances in a row that sound so similar, but Rico has always held variety as an artistic principle, so he manages to change the sound and mood from track to track — with the help of three very sympathetic players, John Pearce, piano; Andrew Cleyndert, string bass; Bobby Worth, drums.

Here’s a taste of Rico in person, being himself:

You can feel his exuberant personality from the first note, and that personality comes through on the CD, whether he’s being tender (THE GOOD LIFE), gently swinging (GONE AND CRAZY), or witty (BROTHERHOOD OF MAN).  His tone, glossy, whispery, or gritty, is always a pleasure.

And even if you own the “originals” of LITTLE JAZZ, THE GOOD LIFE, JUBILEE, or others, this CD will be a delightful introduction or re-introduction to a great musician.

If Rico had the publicity he deserves, jazz listeners worldwide would be speaking of him in the same breath with Ruby Braff and Warren Vaché.  His music — deeply emotional yet always swinging — is consistently superb.  AL DENTE (which I take to mean “perfectly cooked” rather than “chewy”) is a beautiful representation of his art.

May your happiness increase!

BUNK and WIGGS

 Names to conjure with — the classic monickers of two New Orleans brass giants, Willie “Bunk” Johnson (1879 or 1889-1949) and John Wigginton Hyman (1899-1977).  Bunk is widely-known; Wiggs should be.   

Two new compact discs present these men in very congenial settings. 

Let’s take “Johnny Wiggs” first.  Wiggs is yet another living proof that there are second and third acts in American lives: he recorded in 1927 and then not again for two decades (in the meantime, he had a successful career as a teacher and home-builder); he continued playing until his death.  Wiggs also fascinates me because of his deep lyrical strain: his early influence was Joe Oliver, but he fell under the spell of Bix Beiderbecke and (to my ears) he often sounds the way I imagine an elder Bix would have sounded: melancholy, introspective, singing softly to himself.

Wiggs has often been represented on record as the lead horn in a traditional New Orleans ensemble, and these settings haven’t always done him justice, because the energetic bandsmen have sometimes created a raucous good-time environment.  Best of all are his chamber sessions with only clarinetist Raymond Burke (another poetic soul), guitar (often Dr. Edmond Souchon), and bass — recorded on the Paramount label in the Fifties and I think impossible to find. 

But the Wiggs sessions collected on a new CD show his deep feeling and wide range.  Some of this music was issued on an lp — also called CONGO SQUARE — but this CD issue adds previously unissued material.  Here’s one of the original 78s:

 The music on the CD covers the years 1948-73, and was primarily recorded in New Orleans — one particularly exuberant small group includes Wiggs, clarinetist Bujie Centobie, tenorist Eddie Miller (their limpid sounds intertwining), and the Stacy-Bix pianist Armand Hug.  But to me the most interesting combination was suggested by the ever-inventive Hank O’Neal, who set up a date for Wiggs to record four of his own compositions . . . in New York, with a “New York” quartet of Dill Jones (from Wales), Cliff Leeman (from New England), and Maxine Sullivan (from Baltimore).  The results are special, making me wish that Wiggs had been transported out of his native element more often.  He’s worth discovering or rediscovering.

Bunk Johnson is a different case entirely: someone who has his own mythology, a figure with such a clearly defined identity that there were pro-and-anti Bunk forces at work.  I first heard Bunk on his earliest recordings, and was unimpressed: he seemed a rudimentary player doing his best but not always being able to break free from the near-amateur musicians surrounding him. 

It was only later when I heard his “Last Testament” recordings for Columbia in 1947 that I could hear what he was doing and revel in his beautiful melodic simplicity, the emotional directness of his lines, the delicacy of his embellishments. 

But it was clear to me (although some disagree) that Bunk was a more sophisticated musician than the contexts he was often placed in.  Put next to the vehemently competitive Sidney Bechet in Boston, he often held his own but sometimes sounded as if he had been dropped into the Golden Gloves. 

In front of a sympathetic, swinging band, he blossomed and relaxed.  He had just that setting in the recordings now issued on an American Music CD — a 1947 concert with cornetist Doc Evans’s rocking little band and the perfect support of pianist Don Ewell.

Ewell hasn’t been celebrated enough — certainly not sufficiently in his lifetime.  But he was an elegantly swinging pianist, his subtle approach encompassing Jelly Roll Morton’s ruffles and flourishes and the later swing of Hines, Stacy, Fats, and James P. Johnson.  It says a good deal about Ewell that he seemed to be the favorite pianist of both Jack Teagarden and Frank Chace.  And Bunk Johnson.  A year before this concert, Bunk, Ewell, and drummer Alphonso Steele had recorded as a trio in New York for American Music — playing pop tunes and old favorites: WHEN THE MOON COMES OVER THE MOUNTAIN, I’LL TAKE YOU HOME AGAIN KATHLEEN, IN THE GLOAMING, OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL, JA-DA, YOU’VE GOT TO SEE MAMA EVERY NIGHT, POOR BUTTERFLY, and WHERE THE RIVER SHANNON FLOWS. 

At the Minneapolis concert, there are vibrant full-band versions of traditional standards such as HIGH SOCIETY, THE SHEIK OF ARABY, and SISTER KATE, but there are also wonderful examples of the Bunk-Ewell partnership.  (One elaborately wayward performance after hours, where Bunk is trying to teach Ewell the harmonies to HEARTACHES, both of them having imbibed more than they should, has been preserved in the Jazzology book on Bunk: SONG OF THE WANDERER, by Barry Martyn and Mike Hazeldine, as is their IN THE GLOAMING.)

But this concert presents what is, to me, the clearest representation of what Bunk could do — out of the recording studio, having a wonderful time, inspiring and being inspired by a first-rate group. 

 And now for some compelling musical evidence (music also available from the George H. Buck family of labels):

Bunk, Ewell, and Alphonso Steele in New York City, 1946:

Wiggs with the legendary guitarist Snoozer Quinn in 1948:

To order the Bunk / Ewell / Evans CD, click here:

 http://www.jazzology.com/item_detail.php?id=AMCD-129

To order the Wiggs CD, click here:

http://www.jazzology.com/item_detail.php?id=BCD-507

REMEMBER TO CLICK HERE TO REPAY THE MUSICIANS:

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THE GOLDEN EAR(A) (Dec. 12, 2010)

I’ve heard live jazz in many settings here and abroad.  In New York City, I can think of the last Eddie Condon’s, Jimmy Ryan’s, The Cajun, Smoke, Cleopatra’s Needle, Gregory’s, The Cookery, Arthur’s Tavern, Smoke, Iridium, Jazz Standard, The Garage, Bradley’s, The Half Note, The Onliest Place, Banjo Jim’s, Your Father’s Mustache, Bourbon Street, Sweet Rhythm, Smalls, Fat Cat, and many more. 

With all due respect to these clubs that have provided lasting memories from the early Seventies onward, I can’t over-estimate the joyous resonance of the Sunday night sessions at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) which have been going on for nearly three and a half years now.

The EarRegulars — co-led by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet, and Matt Munisteri, guitar — have offered serene / hot chamber jazz by a quartet staffed by a changing cast of characters . . . with expansion possibilities up to a dozen strolling players. 

But Sunday night, December 12, 2010, was a high point: two brass, two rhythm.  That combination might have been challenging with other players, but when the two others were Joel Forbes, bass, and Randy Reinhart, cornet, I knew great jazz was in store.  Joel and Matt are a wonderful team — as soloists and a wasteless, energetic but never noisy rhythm section.  Piano?  Drums?  Not missed.

Jon-Erik and Randy are pals (as you’ll hear) and although an evening featuring two other trumpeters — even though Randy plays cornet — might turn into a competitive display of ferocity, an old-time cutting contest, nothing of the sort happened here.  The two hornmen sounded for all the world like dear friends having a polite but involved conversation.  They soloed without interruption; their contrapuntal lines tumbled and soared; they created great hot ensembles, each one handing off the lead to the other.

Deep music and rollicking fun as well.

How about two tributes to the forever-young man from Davenport,  the dear boy Bix, compositions that have become hot jazz standards, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and JAZZ ME BLUES? 

Written by Earl Hines, performed by Louis and Basie — some solid credentials for the song YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME:

What followed was a highlight of the evening — a deep, rocking exploration of DALLAS BLUES.  They’re on the right track!

Honesty counts, and candor is a great virtue.  So IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE, as Fats Waller told us:

Fidelity, even for a short period, is a great thing.  IF I COULD BE WITH YOU (ONE HOUR TONIGHT) is James P. Johnson’s wistful evocation of the desire for more than sixty minutes:

But everything in this life is mutable (root word: “muta”) and so THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE:

I’m so grateful that such music is being created where I and others can see and hear it!

JOE WILDER’S MAGIC

 Ask any musician, “Tell me about Joe Wilder,” and watch the warm smile that immediately emerges.  He’s a rare being — generous in person and in his music, warm and caring, whether the horn is up to his lips or he’s chatting over lunch, in a cab, or at an airport.  There’s no division between the public man and the private one: both are genuinely loving, open individuals.     

I met him in person perhaps thirty years ago at an outdoor concert in Glen Cove, New York.  Joe travels in the best company, so he was playing in a little band with Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Phil Bodner, and perhaps Bobby Rosengarden.  And I’ve gotten to know him better by seeing him at Jazz at Chautauqua for the past six years.  Joe never forgets a friend or a kindness, so although he knows thousands of people, he remembered me kindly.  

I had heard Joe on records for a long time — the golden arching phrases of his Columbia records of the Fifties, the warm balletic phrases of his Savoy session, his more recent work for the Evening Star and Arbors labels. 

But this was the first year I really accomplished what I’d hoped to do — catch Joe in performance with groups of his friends.  And here are two examples of Mr. Wilder’s subtle magic — in company with Keith Ingham, piano; Frank Tate, bass; John Von Ohlen, drums — as he approaches two familiar jazz standards, making them brand-new by his delight in playing.  Keith had his back to me, but he was grinning — and you can see the delight on the faces of Frank and John as well.   

Joe’s style is a wonderful mixture of the singing embrace of a melody — great ringing “lead” playing that would point the way for a big band or a symphonic trumpet section — mixed with a dancing harmonic and rhythmic subtlety worthy of the great modernists that would be impossible to notate.  Joe loves to play with what he’s given, and he is a born experimenter. 

He took great delight in something that I’d written in CODA: that I could hear him in solos getting into what other musicians would think of as traps or dead-ends, and then getting himself out without creasing his clothes.  His solos sound like the conversation of someone bursting with ideas whose straight-ahead expositions are always full of thoughtful, witty parentheses. 

And you can hear his whimsical embellishment at work on these songs, as if he was constantly amusing himself by testing his artistic ingenuity: “Can I get this rapid-fire reference to THE CONTINENTAL in this phrase and get out again without messing up in relation to the rapidly moving chords under me?  Wow, I can and I could!  What’s next?”  He’s always thinking while he’s playing, and his solos aren’t formulaic arrangements of familiar modules laid end to end. 

Here he is, dancing around HAVE YOU MET MISS JONES:

And being the perfect gentleman escorting that SATIN DOLL:

By the way: did I mention that Joe Wilder was born February 22, 1922? 

Don’t let the numbers fool you: he has the youngest and biggest heart I know — and he never closes it off to the music or to us.

HOLY RELICS (of LOUIS)

A Selmer trumpet in the collection of the Smithsonian, dating from the mid-Thirties or later:

And a characteristic autograph, circa 1950, courtesy of Bill Gallagher’s father, Jim.  Bill recalls, ” The Gallagher clan was on vacation in SouthernCalifornia and we were staying a night in Los Angeles.   We had just returned to our motel from dinner and, after getting settled in, dad left to go to the Roosevelt Hotel to listen to a set or two of the Armstrong All Stars.   The next day he showed us autographs from Louis, Jack, and Arvell.”

I hope my title doesn’t strike my readers as impious, but if these aren’t holy relics, I don’t know what might be.

“POTATO HEAD BLUES” (March 2010)

Here’s the High Sierra Jazz Band — recorded by Tom Warner at the March 2010 Monterey Dixieland Festival — performing their dazzling version of Louis Armstrong’s POTATO HEAD BLUES.  The band is made up of Pieter Meijers, reeds, co-leader; Howard Miyata, trombone; Bryan Shaw, cornet; Bruce Huddleston, piano; Stan Huddleston, banjo, guitar; Charlie Castro, drums; Earl McKee, sousaphone.  On this dazzling homage to Louis, the front line turns into a trumpet / cornet section.  What I need to know (and will probably never find out at this late date) is which of Louis’s Chicago or New Orleans pals apparently had a head that resembled a potato and was thus immortalized?  Whose physiognomy inspired this hot tune?

I wish I could have this performance on my clock radio — music to wake anyone up in the best way!

P.S.  Tom Warner’s YouTube channel is “tdub1941,” a cornucopia of good things.