Tag Archives: wire brushes

SPORTIELLO-METZ, UNLIMITED (Atlanta Jazz Party, April 27, 2014)

Rossano Sportiello, piano, and Ed Metz, snare drum with wire brushes, made up a fully satisfying combo / band / orchestra in their morning set at the 2014 Atlanta Jazz Party.  The music they made has resonated happily in my memory, and now I have the pleasure of sharing it with you.

Rossano began the set with a heartfelt BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL — which had a Strayhorn coloration at the start.  In an age of bright colors and high volumes, it is so reassuring to hear a Maestro like Rossano play a ballad — not in any hurry to get through, to speed it up:

From Basie to his teacher, Fats, for HANDFUL OF KEYS, joined by Ed:

Then, a long interlude-concert which allows both players to shine as soloists and as part of a wondrous duo.  The selections are MISTY, IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN, CHINATOWN (with a hand-drum solo a la Jo Jones), LUCKY TO BE ME, Liszt’s CONSOLATION #3, SHOE SHINE BOY — a full circle back to Basie:

Throughout this morning serenade, I was reminded of the beautiful sound of Johnny Guarnieri and Sidney Catlett, and I marvel at Rossano’s beautiful precision and the astonishing variety of sounds and textures Ed gets out of this most minimalist drum kit — and the duo’s apparently indefatigable swing. Proof, once again, that you don’t need a lot of volume to swing.

All this happened at the April 2014 Atlanta Jazz Party, and I have every expectation that equally beautiful music will be created there again this April. Details and registration information here.  And since — as is the custom in most parties — the earlier you register, the better your seating . . . carpe diem in a big way.

The players this year will be Ben Polcer, Duke Heitger, Bria Skonberg, Allan Vache, Tom Fischer, Dan Barrett, Russ Phillips, John Cocuzzi, Rossano Sportiello, Johnny Varro, Dalton Ridenhour, Eddie Erickson, Nicki Parrott, Paul Keller, Sean Cronin, Danny Coots, Chuck Redd, Darrian Douglas, Rebecca Kilgore.  Quite a varied and energetic crew.

May your happiness increase!

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SIDNEY CATLETT, EARLY AND LATE

Big Sid to you.

SIDNEY CATLETT with WIRE BRUSHES

“Good deal!”

The eBay seller  says that the photograph came from the Burt Goldblatt collection.  Goldblatt (1924-2006), whom we all know from album covers and famous photographs, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts — so I am guessing that this photograph of Sidney (late in his short life) might have been taken in a Boston club — Sidney worked in that city in 1950, after leaving the Louis Armstrong All-Stars due to heart disease.    

Perhaps this could be the soundtrack to this photograph:

Or this:

Every little breeze — if it’s a rhythmic one — whispers “Sidney!”

This one’s for Romy, MB, KD, and Brother Hal . . .

May your happiness increase.

HAPPY NEW EAR! (Jan. 2, 2011)

One of the regular features of JAZZ LIVES is my reporting on what delights occurred at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) on the preceding Sunday night.  Saying that I have a good time would be an understatement.   

But even I — expecting the finest kind of jazz synergy on a regular basis — was astonished by what happened on January 2, 2011.

The EarRegulars and their friends created extraordinary music last Sunday night as 2011 took hold.  I had the privilege of watching individual creative impulses coalesce into something larger, something casually magnificent — all only a few feet from my camera.      

If this seems overstatement, a kind of “witness to history” pronouncement appropriate only to breaking news, the music will explain my feelings.  I’m delighted to present some of the evening’s many highlights. 

The EarRegulars, for the first set, were a quartet of friends: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Nicki Parrott, bass; John Allred, trombone; Matt Munisteri, guitar. 

They began with OH, BABY! — a song beloved of Jazz Age Chicagoans and of Eddie Condon and friends.  Because of the season, this performance was full of sly references to wintry / holiday tunes, causing Matt to say it should have been called OH, BROTHER!  But now that I am safe from FROSTY THE SNOWMAN for another eleven months, I didn’t mind.  See if you can catch all the in-and-out jokes.  And see if you can keep from laughing at the musical frolics:

Another good old good one, AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL, reminiscent of Bix as well, could easily have been the title for this posting.  Enjoy the conversational games played so well by these four brilliant improvisers:

To cool things off a bit, Jon-Erik asked John to choose one with a trombone lead, and John suggested the timeless “rhythm ballad” THESE FOOLISH THINGS, a performance full of quiet feeling:

Early on in the evening, there were intimations of a jam session to come.  I had spotted trombonist Emily Asher sitting at one table, then saxophonist Lisa Parrott, then trumpeter Bria Skonberg.  To my right appeared (like a belated holiday gift) the cornetist Dan Tobias, who was invited to join the festivities for a romping FROM MONDAY ON:

When the first set had ended, even more musicians came in, among them the ever-faithful Dan Block, clarinet at the ready.  I chatted with another clarinet wizard, Pete Martinez, about the Albert system, Johnny Windhurst, Eddie Condon in the 1950s, Skeets Tolbert and his Gentlemen of Swing, and TISHOMINGO BLUES.  Where else but at The Ear Inn?

Later, Howard Alden came in — first to listen — and I eventually noticed the broad back of someone I didn’t recognize, but when he began to play wire brushes on the paper-covered table, I knew that he knew: it was Chuck Redd!

(In the break, the actor James Gandolfini had come in, had a drink or two, and decided not to stay — a grave mistake.  When Jeremy Irons had visited The Ear Inn some years back, he had the good sense to stick around for The EarRegulars!)

The second set was masterfully orchestrated by Maestro Kellso, who invited these friends up one at a time.  It swelled into a thirteen-piece ensemble for AFTER YOU’VE GONE (which — if you’re keeping score — began with the last eight bars — more accurately, the last sixteen played double-time, says Jon-Erik).  And please note how each jam-session performance levitates itself on a flying carpet of Kellso-driven riffs, some from Basie, some from Louis, all in the grand tradition:

Then, a more moderate approach to WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM, an unlikely prospect for both players and audience.  In F, please:

Seeing the three trombones, Jon-Erik suggested TIGER RAG — an ecstatic romp presented here in two parts, because I couldn’t bear to lose even the final thirty-five seconds:

The last little bit (good to the last drop!):

Writing about this experience two days later, I don’t think that this music — simultaneously ecstatic and expert — needs much explication.  But more was going on at The Ear Inn than musicians stopping by to play a chorus or two. 

It was the creation of an inspired, mutually supportive community, nothing less. 

Jon-Erik, Matt, Victor Villar-Hauser (behind the bar but so much more than a mere pourer of libations), and the owners of The Ear Inn have all worked without calling attention to themselves to make 326 Spring Street on Sunday nights a remarkable place. 

It’s that rare spot where jazz musicians know they will be allowed and encouraged to play their own music with their peers.  Those of us who value such an unusual occurrence come to the Ear as if on a pilgrimage  — and the musicians feel the same way.  (In the audience but not playing were Chuck Wilson, Barbara Dreiwitz, and many others.)

And there’s more. 

In our time, where texting offers itself as equal to experience, the creation of such a community is both beautiful and special.  The sense of separateness that underlies much of our daily life disappears while the music is playing. 

Here we are!” say the musicians.  “Come with us!”  The smiles of the players and the observers light the dark room.  And a singular cohesiveness blossoms, a solace we seek all through our waking hours without knowing it.

As the new year begins, may we all embody our work as beautifully as these musicians do.  May we  all wear our accomplishments with such easy grace.   

And while writing these words, I felt for a moment, “I have witnessed something that will never come again,” but who knows?  There’s always next Sunday at The Ear Inn, which is hopeful and uplifting. 

Eight o’clock (really seven-thirty or earlier if you like sitting). 

You come, too. 

Bring your appreciative self and something for the tip jar.  The EarRegulars will supply the joy.

JUST PERFECT, THANK YOU

As a long-time jazz listener, I find myself mentally editing and revising many recordings (silently, without moving my lips).  “Tempo’s too fast for that song, “”That side would have been even better if the tempo had stayed steady,” or “Why couldn’t he have taken just one more chorus?”  Since the musicians can’t hear my silent amending and since the recordings remain their essential character, I think I am permitted this fussy but harmless pastime.  Fruitless, of course, but amusing exercises in alternate-universe construction that serious readers of fiction know well: every close reader is by definition an unpaid and unheard editor.  

But there are some jazz recordings no one could improve on.  Here are two flawless sides.     

This music was issued on a non-commercial V-Disc (“V” stands for Victory) recorded during the Second World War especially for the men and women in the armed forces.  The musicians gave their services for free; the sessions were supervised by (among others) George T. Simon; the discs were 12″ rather than the usual 10″, allowing for blessedly longer performances.  And many sessions took place after midnight, when the musicians had finished their gigs, lending them a certain looseness; as well, the recording companies gave up their usual restrictions, so that musicians under contract to one label were free to cross over from the land of, say, Victor, into Decca. 

This October 1943 session was led by Teddy Wilson (itself a near-guarantee of success); it is a quartet taken from his working sextet, which would have also included Benny Morton (trombone) and Johnny Williams or Al Hall (bass).  Perhaps those men were tired after a night’s work; perhaps they didn’t want to record without getting paid.  But as much as I revere Morton and Williams or Hall, the men who remained made irreplaceable music. 

What follows is a series of impressionistic notes on the music: keen listeners will hear much more as they immerse themselves in the music, as I’ve been doing for thirty-five years. 

The four voices are powerful ones — Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, and Joe Thomas — but this quartet is not a display of clashing ego.  Of the four, Thomas is least known, but his work here is deeply moving. 

After the little end-of-tune flourish that brings on Wilson’s (scripted) introduction, his harmonically-deep, crystalline lines and embellishments float over Sidney’s steady brush tread (forceful but not loud.  I think of the padding of a large animal in slippers).  Wilson’s second chorus is pushed forward by a Catlett accent early on; the two men dance above and around the chords and rhythm. 

In the third chorus, Hall joins them: as much as I admire the Goodman Trio, how unfortunate that this group never was asked to record — Hall’s tonal variations are beyond notating, in their own world. 

Thomas’s entry, clipped but mobile, provokes Catlett into tap-dance figures.  No one’s ever matched Joe’s tone, velvet with strength beneath it, the slight quavers and variations making it a human voice.  The annunciatory figure midway through his chorus is a trademark, those repeated notes looking backwards to 1927 Louis and forward to a yet-unrecorded Ruby Braff.  (Thomas was Frank Newton’s favorite trumpet player, a fact I can’t over-emphasize.)  He seems to stay close to the melody, but the little slurs and hesitations, the dancing emphases of particular notes are masterful, the result of a lifetime spent quietly embellishing the written music, making it entirely personal. 

And then Sidney comes on.  The sound of his brushwork is slightly muffled and muddied by the 78 surface, but his figures are joyous, especially his double-timing, the closing cymbal splashes.  Try to listen to his solo and remain absolutely still: hard, if not impossible! 

Then the ensemble plays (with everyone facing in the same direction, not breathing hard) a variation on the melody — something taken for granted well before the official birth of bop — with a jammed bridge in the middle.  Notice how Catlett and Wilson ornament and encourage the line that the two horns share.  And the side concludes with a little jam session finish (Sidney urging everyone on) with Thomas recalling the “Shoot the likker to me, John boy,” that was already a familiar convention perhaps eight years before. 

Incidentally, the swing players had discovered HOW HIGH THE MOON as early as 1940: Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter, guest stars on a Fred Rich Vocalion session in that year, improvise on it.

As delightful as I find HOW HIGH THE MOON, the masterpiece –subtler, sorrowing — is RUSSIAN LULLABY.  Berlin’s melody was already familiar, and I wonder what thoughts of the Russian Front might have been going through the heads of these four players, what political or global subtext. 

Often LULLABY is taken briskly, but this version is true to its title.  After Wilson’s introduction, Joe essays the melody: if he had recorded nothing else than this statement, I’d hail his unique trumpet voice: his tone, his vibrato, his use of space, his pacing.  Hall sings quietly behind him — but that soaring, melancholy bridge is a creation that is both of the trumpet and transcending it.  I hear the passion of an aria in those eight bars, with little self-dramatization.   

Wilson, following him, is serious, his lines restating and reshaping.  (Some listeners find Wilson’s arpeggios and runs so distracting that they miss out on his melodic invention: he was a superb composer-at-the-keyboard, and his solo lines, transcribed for a horn, would seem even more stunning.  Not accidentally, he learned a great deal about melodic embellishment and solo construction from his stint in Louis Armstrong’s 1933 band.) 

Keeping Wilson’s mood, Catlett plays very quietly, although you know he’s there.  Hall’s approach is more forceful and Catlett follows suit. 

Then . . . a drum solo?  At this tempo?  Most drummers would have found it hard to be as relaxed, as restrained.  He quietly paddles along in between the horns’ staccato reduction of the melody, making it clear that he is a serious servant of the rhythm, the time, devoted to the sound of the band — until he moves to double-time figures and two cymbal accents.  Music like this is deceptively simple: a casual listener might think it is easy to play in this manner, but how wrong that mild condescension would be!  Wilson and Catlett join forces for a momentary interlude before the horns return — Joe, sorrowing deep inside himself, Hall soaring. 

How marvelous that we have these two sides! 

Thanks to vdiscdaddy for posting them on YouTube; his channel is full of music worth hearing that has been hidden from us.  Thanks of a larger sort to Wilson, Thomas, Hall, and Catlett — brilliant creators who knew how to bring their individual selves together to create something brilliant, immortal.  And I don’t use the word “immortal” casually.

P.S.  I first heard these sides thanks to the late Ed Beach, and then savored them on an Italian bootleg lp on the Ariston label, THE V-DISC.  In 1990, they came out on CD — with an incomplete alternate take of RUSSIAN LULLABY — on the Vintage Jazz Classics label (TEDDY WILSON: CENTRAL AVENUE BLUES, VJC 1013-2), a production that brought together, although not face to face, John Fell, Doug Pomeroy, and Lloyd Rauch.  I don’t think a copy of that CD would be easy to find today, though.

SIDNEY CATLETT AT 100

A  jazz blog like this one might easily become necrological– mourning the deaths of musicians and jazz scholars or sadly celebrating players who have been dead a long time.  It’s a battle to tear one’s eyes away from the rear-view mirror and focus on the present.  But since I do not expect to see the celebrations for Big Sid Catlett’s two-hundredth birthday, readers will forgive me. 

Sidney Catlett was born on January 17, 1910 and died before I was born.  I don’t believe in “the best,” but Big Sid might well be The Master — at least Max Roach thought so, as did Jo Jones.  Beyond legend, there is the recorded evidence: he could play propulsively and eloquently with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Mildred Bailey, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster . . . and those are only the recorded performances I can call to mind.

Ruby Braff remembered that when he listened to Louis Armstrong’s records with their creator, Louis said to him, “There’s that Catlett again!  Seems like he was on every swinging record I ever made.” 

But being versatile, in itself, is not enough: many musicians have been versatile without being particularly distinguished.  What made Sidney Catlett so special? 

For one thing, his instantly recognizable beat.  Even simply keeping time — using one of his seemingly numberless varieties of wire-brush sweep or playing the hi-hat — his time is identifiable.  Whitney Balliett, who first helped me to listen so closely to Sid, noted that Catlett played a fraction ahead of the beat — many drummers find the best and sit right down on it — but Sid’s time seemed to urge the band forward in the most jubilant way, although he didn’t ever rush.

Along with that beat there is his gallery — or galaxy — of sounds.  His drums sound alive.  The snap of his closed hi-hat.  The seductive come-with-me of his brushwork.  The thump of his tom-toms.  The masterful NOW! of a Catlett rimshot.  Drummers of the Forties and beyond tried to copy him and some came close to capturing the broadest outlines of his style — J.C. Heard for one — but their sounds are somehow flatter, narrower, more monochromatic.  So his sound is immediately identifiable — dance music, no matter what the context. 

As with all the great artists, much of Sidney’s mastery is not just in what he did — but what he wisely chose not to do. 

Many drummers, then and now, play at the same volume as the horns.  Sidney knew how to play very softly — which made his thundering climaxes so impressive.  Some drummers insist on filling up all the spaces.  Or they accent every note, enthusiastically but unthinkingly.  The result gets tiresome before a chorus is over, rather like a forest of exclamation marks or someone with a point to make who emphasizes every word. 

Sidney knew when not to play, when not to dramatize, when not to continue the pattern.  There were exceptions: I think of Lou McGarity’s bridges on Benny Goodman records, where Sidney, either enjoying McGarity’s exuberance or wanting to push him along, drives the rhythm section along with relentless accents that could fell a sequoia.  But Catlett understood space and variety, and surprise.  He was a great dramatist behind his drums. 

So his percussive world sounds undated — springy, elegant, and funky.  The listener says, “That’s Big Sid!” but that awareness isn’t because Catlett thrusts himself to the forefront; rather, it was because he makes his fellow musicians sound better than they themselves thought possible.

I’ve been admiring his playing for as long as I can remember — one of my earliest musical experiences was hearing Louis’s RCA Victor TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, and delighting in the way Sid pushed everyone along on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’.  Later, I heard him with the Blue Note Jazzmen and every jazz group I could find.  But he continues to amaze.

“Amaze?” you say.    

As an experiment, take any record on which Sid plays a particularly engaging, swinging part (that would be ALL of them) and listen to it once.  Admire the sounds he makes, the comments he provides, the support he gives to the band.  Then, play it again, and try to anticipate his shifts, his accents.  Experienced listeners will be able to divine some of the general motions — here, Sid will shift to the hi-hat; here’s a break coming up.  But if you try to play his accents along with him, it’s nearly impossible.  Sid’s pulsing work, his amazing accompaniment, is never rote.  I would suggest ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall and the Blue Note Jazzmen — his playing is stirring, as is his work on the recently discovered 1945 Town Hall concert with Bird and Diz. 

His music is amazingly generous.  He lived a very short life and his recorded career is only slightly over two decades.  But he gave so much to his fellow musicians and to us that it seems as if he played more — and at a higher level — than the musicians who lived longer.

And he mastered the problem of being a forceful individualist while serving the community with every breath.  A question of Ego, if you will.  Catlett shouts for joy, but he does it so the band is even more joyous as a result.   

He died backstage at a concert, his arms around Helen Humes, telling her a funny story.  An admirable death, I think.  A a life well-lived. 

Jim Denham, on his fine blog, SHIRAZ SOCIALIST, has just written a tribute to Sidney: http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/big-sid-b17-jan-1910-d25-march-1951/

Ricky Riccardi really understands the majesty of Sidney: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2010/01/celebrate-big-sid-catletts-centennial.html

And, or those seeking legal ecstasy, there’s a live ROYAL GARDEN BLUES from 1948:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/09/one-hot-garden.html

Ricky also sent this from British jazz drummer John Petters — information about BBC radio programs about Sidney:

 Here are two programmes about this sensational musician this Saturday:
The Late Paul Barnes @ 23:00 on BBC Cambrideshire, Essex, Kent, Norfolk, Northampton, Suffolk & Three Counties. (Paul celebrates the
Django Reinhardt Centenary next week)

The live link on line will be:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_norfolk/

and from Sunday until the following Saturday on Iplayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002mhdx

And Alyn Shipton discusses Big Sid with drummer Richard Pite on ‘Jazz Library’ on BBC Radio 3 at 16:00 on Saturday. This is from the Radio 3 website:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ps0sk

The show will be on the BBC iplayer following the broadcast

Big Sid Catlett was arguably one of the most naturally talented percussionists in jazz history. To celebrate Catlett’s centenary in January 2010, Alyn Shipton is joined by drum expert Richard Pite to pick the highlights of a recorded catalogue that includes work with the swing orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the original Louis Armstrong All Stars.

Big Sid Catlett – born 17 January 1910, Evansville, Indiana, USA, died 25 March 1951.

Coda: A word or two about the audio-visual aids.  The Drumerworld video (posted on YouTube, of course) brings together Sidney’s three main filmed appearances (leaving aside JAMMIN’ THE BLUES) — two quickly-made films from 1946-7, SEPIA CINDERELLA and BOY! WHAT A GIRL, with a guest shot by one Gene Krupa, as well as a Soundie of YOU RASCAL YOU by Louis.  I treasure these film clips but find that they need to be absorbed on two levels.  Since musicians were required to pre-record their music and then mimic playing it for the camera, what one hears and what one sees are always slightly out of step . . . so one must be able to adapt to this.  But the games Sidney and Charlie Shavers play . . . !  I have also liberally seasoned this blogpost with what might seem an odd phenomenon: YouTube videos of famous jazz records a-spinning.  For those who did not grow up with vinyl or shellac records, what could be more dull?  But I find it nostalgic in the best way — because I spent so many hours of my childhood and youth staring at the spinning label in a kind of happy trance while the music poured out of the speakers . . . very life-enhancing, and a way of getting Sidney’s sound into this post.