The Best Jazz Tracks of the Month

Regular visitors to our domain—I just love the sound of that word; makes me feel like a feudal lord. . . . Anyway, regular visitors to our domain, know that we sift through the stacks of CDs released on the market, and pick 5 noteworthy tracks every week for our Song of the Day feature.

Matthew Shipp

Our selections from January include familiar names such as Matthew Shipp (today’s featured artist), Joshua Redman, Charlie Hunter and Keith Jarrett, but also lesser known musicians deserving of your attention.

Among my favorite "neglected gems" of the month:

•  Radio.String.Quartet.Vienna plays Joe Zawinul’s music with an aural palette that even Zawinul himself, that master of synthesized sound colors, would have found surprising.

•  Organist Brian Charette’s CD Missing Floor is a very exciting outing, and features Leon Gruenbaum on his ingenious samchillian—a cleverly constructed instrument that you simply must hear if you haven’t had the pleasure. (Musicians are encouraged to check out the video here.)

•  The Jazz Arts Trio realizes some Platonic ideal of tribute jazz by recreating piano trio recordings from the past in exacting detail.

•  Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze demonstrate that you can build fascinating music out of the unusual combination of kora and trumpet.

•  And, of course, there is “Blue Monk,” “Yellow Mountain,” and various other shades of the jazz rainbow.

Below are links to the reviews of this month’s batch o’ tracks. As always, the reviews come with full recording info, a pithy assessment, a rating from 0 to 100, and a link for (legal) downloading.

Featured Songs: January 2009

Matthew Shipp: GNG
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Keith Jarrett: You Took Advantage of Me
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Jazz Arts Trio: My Foolish Heart
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Mario Adnet & Rodrigo Campello: Morena Faceira (Naughty Brunette)
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Mort Weiss: Blue Monk
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Joshua Redman: Round Reuben
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Vinnie Cutro: Blues for Roy
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Gilfema: Morning Dew
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Adam Birnbaum: House Party Starting
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Ruslan Khain: For Medicinal Purposes Only
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze: Domain Domain
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

John Escreet: Somewhere Between Dreaming and Sleeping
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Brad Leali / Claus Raible Quartet: Puddin' Time
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Rick Frank: Yellow Mountain
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Donald Vega: Nostalgia
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Avishai Cohen: First Drops
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Radio.String.Quartet.Vienna: A Remark You Made
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Patrick Rydman: A Heartache on the Side
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Hot Club of San Francisco: Vendredi 13
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Charlie Hunter: Athens
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Brian Charette: Giant Deconstruction
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pat Martino at Sculler's



Roanna Forman covers the Boston jazz scene for jazz.com. Her recent articles here have included reviews of James Carter, Dominique Eade, Laszlo Gardony, and Roy Hargrove. Below she reports on Pat Martino’s performance last Saturday at Sculler’s. T.G.



Pat Martino’s wife, Aya, must be the luckiest guitar student in the world. Every morning the couple enjoy a daily ritual of tea, meditation, and a jam. They shared the latter with the audience to open Martino’s late set at Scullers Jazz Club on Saturday, January 24.

Maybe it was best left at home. Either Aya Martino has a very advanced sense of time, or she has problems with it. In the blues, ballad, and jaunty little tune they played together, Pat’s rock solid time and facile runs held the numbers together and breathed with the idiosyncratic rhythm guitar of his wife. She used, however, some beautiful voicings—complementing the musicality of her instructor.

Pat Martino Live at Yoshi's

Then he brought out the other members of his organ trio, Tony Monaco on B3 and Louis Tsamous on drums, and got down to business. Although Martino’s set of standards, ballads, and special old chestnuts overall lacked the fire of Live at Yoshi’s, which is arguably his most popping live recorded date, it was a genuine demonstration of “effortless mastery,” or, as Martino humbly said, “my most precious gift, which is fluency on this instrument.”

Before the music started, Pat, whose composure puts a blanket of calm around him until he channels it into his playing, talked a bit about the brain illness that once brought him to the abyss of total memory loss. When a tumor from Arterial Venous Malformation – congenital tangled masses in his brain arteries—caught up with him in 1979, his surgery left him with the tabula rasa of amnesia—including the ability to play the guitar. After some years he eventually decided to re-learn the instrument from computers, friends and his own recordings—revisiting his own mind—and, phoenix-like, resumed his career.

Martino is extraordinary to watch in performance—his sheer speed doesn’t seem realizable, but there it is. And I had never heard his buttery tone in person. On “Four on Six,” his lines sometimes sounded like keyboard note choices. His fills in between the changes on a shuffle feel of “Alone Together” reflected the very smooth sailing that is one of Martino’s trademarks. When he raced a line up and down the neck, anchoring it with a single note an octave below, as in “MacTough” on Live at Yoshi’s, or slalomed around the guitar with descending patterns, all the Berklee students there were craning their necks to see.

Martino’s emotional reach is deep, as in “Blue in Green,” whose essence he interpreted well, finishing the tune with a contrapuntal, classical-sounding cadenza. With the quirky, soulful “Goin’ to a Meeting,” Pat saluted mentors of his early youth, organist Don Patterson and drummer Billy James. He seemed to be visibly enjoying himself on this one—he’s a poker-faced player whose occasional facial expressions register strong feelings. It must have brought back great memories of the men who “taught me to treat this instrument like a fork or a spoon” when he was a teenager.

Tony Monaco is as demonstrative as Martino is deadpan. His facial expression changed with every riff, to the audience’s delight. Behind Pat’s active comping, he played with bite, chops and a solid bass. His blues sense is on the mark, and he knows all the tricks—repeated riffs; long, high held notes to climax a solo; fat, funky grooves. But he played it safe. Only on the fast-moving “Oleo” was he more adventurous He also was reading the changes to “Blue in Green,” which surprised me, because I don’t believe there were any unusual chords used. One would think that particular Miles tune would be standard repertoire for players on this level. With a musical and responsive drummer in Louis Tsamous, Martino has added cohesion to the trio. Kicks, rehearsed and felt in the moment, worked well, and Tsamous’s musical phrasing complemented the tunes.

Before the crowd went back out into the 13-degree walk-in freezer that is mid-winter Boston, they brought Martino back for “Side Effect.” Starting off the bouncy head in lock-step octaves, he flew over the chomp and bite of Monaco’s organ. Then they stopped on a dime, and raised everyone’s body temperature enough to brave that nasty cold once more.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman


January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Benny Golson at the Kennedy Center (Reviewed by David Tenenholtz)

Without Benny Golson’s gifts, hard-bop would have emerged far less abundant with charming straight-ahead standards than it did. Influenced as a writer by Tadd Dameron, and drawing inspiration from Swing Era saxophonist Arnett Cobb, Golson left an indelible brand on some legendary albums of small group jazz on Prestige, Riverside, and Blue Note Records—such as Art Blakey’s Moanin’ and Meet the JazzTet alongside Art Farmer. All over these seminal classics, Golson’s melody writing is cohesive. No superfluous note choices exist, and more loosely directional chord projections than one typically finds in standards supply the foundation. All of these elements lend Golson’s music a hipness that carries over into his attractive, sinewy improvisations.

Golson, who spent a large portion of his career away from the saxophone, has returned to the upper-echelon of touring jazzmen as he now turns 80 years young. It fell on many well-wishers at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to give him spirited hellos and reminiscence with a showcase evening. Hosted by Danny Glover, and featuring the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra in addition to other guests, the evening brought together a community of jazz stars to hear and recognize one of the most humble and amiable giants of this music as he led two small groups and soloed with the CHJO.

Video footage told the story of his rise to stardom from his early days in Philadelphia, and incorporated interviews with musical partners Curtis Fuller, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Heath, Carl Allen, and Golson himself. John Clayton conducted the CHJO demonstratively, and shaped the music with skill on familiar Golson compositions such as “Along Came Betty,” “Stablemates,” and towards the end of the program, the melancholy ballad “I Remember Clifford.” Golson’s two groups suited the favorite standards well, but also featured the intellectual, the precious, and the romantic within the composer’s muse.

This show also coincided with the release of two new CD’s by Golson, one of classic hits, and the other by The New JazzTet, featuring Golson, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Carl Allen. Concord has released both albums, The Best of Benny Golson and New Time, New ‘Tet in conjunction with the Kennedy Center performance.

Other than Golson, there were numerous National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters present on stage as well as seated in the house on Saturday. Besides Eugene “Snooky” Young in the trumpet section of the CHJO, Golson shared musical duties with Fuller, and bassist Ron Carter. Taking in the show were Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath, Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake, Dr. Billy Taylor, and many other marvels, including Kenny Barron, who subsequently received the Living Legends award from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation in a private ceremony after the program recognizing Golson. It was clear that on this evening, the community was organized, and the blessings of music filled the recently renovated Eisenhower Theatre.

Golson and his All-Star Quintet of Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Harewood, presented their relaxed, in-the-pocket soloing, and happily swung the standards “Fivespot After Dark” and “Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere.” Fuller began heating up by the second number, and inspired the other musicians on stage. The New JazzTet presented some surprises, full of challenging, if at times unnatural, writing. Golson’s love of romantic music runs deep, and he channeled the wellspring of two European classical masters with “Verdi’s Voice” (employing a waltz strain from an operatic melody by Verdi) and “L’Adieu” by Chopin. Surprising musical structures abound in these multi-strained pieces, and moments of clarity are offset by counterpoint, and occasionally, jerky transitions.

The odd, dreamy reflections illustrated by the New JazzTet were tempered by a more hip selection written by band trombonist Steve Davis called “Grove’s Groove,” displaying a Roy Hargrove-esque soulfulness. Closing out the first half, the CHJO was more enthused with playing on the unexpectedly pretty arrangement of the up-tempo “Stablemates.” Subsequently, the audience (and Golson as well) were treated to a pop-in appearance by another Philadelphian of note—Bill Cosby—who insisted that he wanted to play a tune he wrote when he was only four years old. With drums and bass á la Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Cosby banged and crushed the piano keys and got a few laughs before waving goodbye.

The addition of a lengthy solo piano work by Golson entitled “On Gossamer Wings,” performed by Lara Downes at the beginning of the second half, was a welcome addition in an otherwise straight-ahead blowing session. Further video footage supplied backstory on Golson’s switch from jazz performance to studio composition in Hollywood. Tributes also came from co-stars of the feature film The Terminal, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, in pre-recorded video. The New JazzTet swung “Whisper Not” with the addition of vocals by Al Jarreau, followed by The Uptown String Quartet, led by John Blake, Jr., which earned animated applause with their pizzicato arrangement of “Blues March.” Soloists with the most flare were pianist Mike LeDonne and trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and bassist Ron Carter. Golson, whose saxophone reed, as Cosby put it, had all the pliability of a “floor board,” also gave his all on each selection, making great strides with poised, yet intricate lines. The refined Golson seemed to have the most fun on stage, relishing the playing of bandmates like Fuller and Henderson, and as always, digging in with his own brand of well-measured, medium octane solos.

This blog entry posted by David Tenenholtz


January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Benny Golson at the Kennedy Center (Reviewed by Michael J. West)

The Eisenhower Theater is the smallest on the main floor of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, but that’s not to say it’s modest: the three-tiered theater seats 1,100 and is as grandiose as any stage in the venue. This was the site of the equally grandiose “Benny Golson at 80” on Saturday night, January 24.

Even by the Kennedy Center’s opulent standards, Golson’s performance was no mere concert, but a full-on gala. Hosted by Danny Glover, the evening featured the legendary tenor saxophonist and composer performing with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (CHJO) and leading two small combos—his new lineup for the Jazztet and an all-star quintet featuring trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Harewood—plus guest appearances by classical pianist Lara Downes, vocalist Al Jarreau, and the Uptown String Quartet. Not to allow a humdrum moment, sections of a specially produced documentary of Golson’s life were screened during transitions between bands. The performance of the program easily matched its ambition – oddly, however, its weakest element turned out to be Golson himself.

Partly the problem was a technical one. Through the first half of the show, Golson (who wore a snappy suit and a large, contented smile) was poorly miked; his levels were so muffled that he was barely distinguishable from the CHJO on the opening “Along Came Betty.” His quiet was a surprise, but not terribly disconcerting given “Betty’s” gentle arrangement. It wasn’t until Golson joined the all-star quintet to play “Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere” and “Five Spot After Dark” that something was clearly amiss: the volume on the microphones was too low.

Even so, in the small combos Golson seemed the only one not to compensate for the amplification. On “Five Spot,” for example, Fuller’s trombone was aggressive and swaggering, and Walton, though steely as ever, launched a galloping piano solo. The same proved true of the Jazztet pieces: In particular, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and drummer Carl Allen were consistently loud and energetic, and Steve Davis met their verve on his own “Grove’s Groove.” Golson, though perfectly deft and inventive in his solos, somehow felt detached—as though he’d just as soon be watching TV in his hotel room.

The technical glitch was fixed in the second act, the tenor in its rightful place as the dominant sound onstage. Its practitioner, however, still seemed uninspired, though less so, when the Jazztet returned for “Uptown Afterburn” (likely the best performance of the night, with the rest of the sextet firing on all thrusters) and were joined by Al Jarreau for “Whisper Not.” It wasn’t until Golson returned to the CHJO for “I Remember Clifford” that he was truly engaged—mindful of the tragedy of the song’s namesake, Clifford Brown (which had been recounted in the film), Golson’s horn suddenly bore all of the nostalgic sadness along with his standard virtuosity and imagination. This was the Benny Golson we’d been hoping to see.

If the honoree was having an off night, it wasn’t spreading. The other musicians were nimble, some downright stellar: Henderson and Allen went above and beyond in their performances, the trumpeter fierce but radiant in his lines and the drummer turning in strong and unendingly happy solos and fills. Another drummer, CHJO’s Jeff Hamilton, also did a superlative job, notably with his beautiful brushwork on “Clifford.” The guests’ performances were likewise difficult to impeach; Downes’ performance of Golson’s “On Gossamer Wings” was an anomaly—a throwback to Romantic-era piano solos—but beautiful, and Jarreau’s delivery of “Whisper Not” was even more clever and expressive than usual. The highlight of the entire concert, however, was the unannounced guest: Golson’s fellow Philadelphian, Bill Cosby, who joined the show to present Benny with a special performance at the piano, a few hilariously dissonant minutes of gibberish. (“I wrote this when I was four years old!” Cosby shouted off-mike.)

If anything, the other musicians’ enthusiasm should have been contagious, which makes Golson’s non-engagement that much more puzzling.

As a friend noted later, Golson is at his most comfortable when building a rapport with his audience, joking and telling stories. He’s a gentleman and a people person. This evening’s program, however, was tightly controlled; between the film, Glover’s speaking parts, and the transition between bands, Golson had little room to play to the crowd. “I Remember Clifford,” on the other hand, allowed him to share a personal moment with us, and may thus have provided the connection he (and we) sought.

At 80 years old, however, Golson’s chops are still beyond question, and there’s no doubt that in a venue more suited to his persona—an intimate venue—his performance would be incandescent. The venerable jazzman has plenty more to stories to tell.

This blog entry posted by Michael J. West


January 27, 2009 · 1 comment

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Joshua Redman’s Double Trio in Concert



Joshua Redman released his latest CD Compass on January 13, and is featuring the unconventional band—with no chordal instrument, but with two bassists and two drummers—from that recording in performance. Ralph Miriello caught the Redman "double trio" in concert at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan, and reports below. Check back soon for Ted Panken's interview with Mr. Redman in these virtual pages. T.G.




Joshua Redman's Compass

It’s a cold Wednesday night and my youngest son wanted to go and see some jazz with me before he returned to college this weekend. With a careful perusal of the available offerings we settled on Joshua Redman’s performance at the Highline Ballroom at West 16th Street in lower Manhattan.

Redman would be performing with his double trio group that he used to make his latest release “Compass,” recorded last year and released a few days ago. This would be only his second “live” performance with this assembly of musicians (the first was the previous night at Highline), and I was particularly interested in seeing what he was trying to accomplish with such an unorthodox musical line-up. In a recent interview Redman was quoted as saying “…initially I threw it out, thinking this is just a crazy, bad idea. But it kept popping back into my head, and at a certain point, I said even though reason tells me to stay away from this, it was an instinctual thing, and it was worth giving it a try.”

The Highline Ballroom was a fortuitous choice of venue, despite the three hundred seats that were billed as being available on a “first come first serve” basis, the place was packed and it was “standing room only” when we arrived at seven thirty for an 8:30 PM show. The Highline is a relatively large venue for a jazz concert with a generous elevated performance stage that easily measures forty feet across and fifteen to twenty feet in depth, judging from my perch. Just prior to the start of the show my son and I were able to team up with some other standing pairs and procure a table of six that had been reserved but luckily opened up.

Redman’s group consisted of Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers on upright bass, Gregory Hutchinson and Brian Blade on drums, and Redman on tenor and soprano saxophones. The opening number was a Redman composition titled “Identity Thief” from Compass, and the song featured Redman on tenor in a spirited and exuberant mood. His double trio played alternately; each bassist and drummer taking turns laying down the rhythm behind Redman’s explorations. Redman was almost giddy in his excitement as he played, occasionally raising his leg and twisting his body in a lithe, dance-like exhibition of enthusiasm. After the opening song it became apparent that his excitement was a combination of his being able to perform his music “live” with this group of fine musicians and the residual effects of the uplifting Obama inauguration from the day before. When the power-driven dual trio is allowed to let loose it presents an awesome display of rhythmically-charged poly-tonality. .

The second offering was a tune he wrote for drummer Gregory Hutchinson titled “Hutchhiker’s Guide” and here the group switches to the single trio format with Hutchinson on drums and Grenadier on bass. Redman, for his part, played his tenor mostly in the middle register and his skill resided in his loose and fluid melodic explorations. He is neither gruff nor screechy in his tone despite his ability to evoke honks and squeals as the mood suits him. It is no small feat to perform without a chordal instrument cementing the melody line and supporting the lead instrument’s exploration of harmonic possibilities. The task of keeping the melody alive lies squarely on Redman’s shoulders—or at times on one of the bassists—and they did a masterful job of keeping the music on course while still treading into outlying areas that extend to the limits of the songs melodic center.

On “Insomnomaniac”, a herky-jerky, stop-start adventure that brilliantly captures a dream-like excursion into musical restlessness, the trio exchanged bassists, with Reuben Rodgers now providing the alternating fast/slow oscillating bass lines and the hard driving Hutchinson demonstrating his Gatling gun-like snare and tom shots to great effect.

The difference between drummers couldn’t be more apparent than when Redman deftly changed to the floating Brian Blade for his eastern sounding “Ghost.” Redman switched to soprano here and Blade beame the texturalist that is his strong suit. It is a pleasure to watch Brian play as he dances over his drum set with a child-like joy instantaneously discovering what new percussive accent he can lend to Redman’s tune. Joshua’s emotional core came through clearer on his soprano work and he was wonderfully expressive when he played soprano on this and later on “Little Ditty.” Hutchinson’s strengths lie in his thumping, hard driving ability to lay down a definitive rhythm and break it at will in a commanding, jagged way. When the two drummers were driving together in “Little Ditty” it was his lead that drove the song.

The only two tunes that were not Redman originals were a wonderful rendition of Gil Evans’s “Time of the Barracudas”, where the band was in full swing, and the encore which was the Redman rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Serenade.” The latter was done in a slow, deliberate, almost somber chamber music-like way.

Besides the obvious comparisons that can be drawn when watching two musicians playing the same instrument on the same bandstand, perhaps the most interesting part of this evening was watching the two bassist and the two drummers feed off of each other so viscerally when they played together. This was not a competition or a demonstration of showmanship, but more a celebration united under the banner of Redman’s music. The musicians were clearly inspired by their counterpart and it was obvious to the appreciative audience that they were witnessing a sumptuous musical banquet.

Redman not only provided laudable leadership by daring to try such a musical adventure, but also provided a majority of the material that was used to bring this all together. He must be applauded for his fearlessness; although there were times when I found myself more engaged by the comparisons of the players and the nuances of their individuality than I was with Redman’s performance. Yet he must also be praised for his compositional acumen and his ability to orchestrate these disparate musical voices into a one unified musical statement. A rousing success by any measure.

This blog entry posted by Ralph A. Miriello.

January 26, 2009 · 3 comments

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Milli-men March on Washington



Last week, after watching history unfold on live TV, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon was shocked, SHOCKED to discover he'd been bamboozled by the spectacle of great musicians feigning their honorable craft. Now sufficiently recovered to scold all concerned, Alan Kurtz reminds us that jazz musicians have endured far worse than winter's chill to practice their art. Readers are invited to comment either below or by email to editor@jazz.com. But please, we cannot in good conscience accept prerecorded submissions.  T.G.



Promotional Photo: Ampex VTR (1965)

It's hard to decide what's worse. First, as witnessed by hundreds of millions across the globe, Chief Justice John Roberts bungles the simple 35-word oath of office with which he tries to solemnly swear in Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States. This transforms what should have been a dignified formality into an embarrassing, endlessly rebroadcast caricature of Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.

Then comes news that famed classical artists Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriella Montero and Anthony McGill faked their chamber-music moment in the noonday sun, pantomiming Milli Vanilli-style to a recording ostensibly because subfreezing temperatures at the outdoor Inauguration ceremony interfered with the tuning of their oh-so-delicate instruments.

What a bunch of sissies!

Jazz musicians have long performed under far worse conditions. A quick search of jazz.com's track reviews reveals dozens of unforgettable live recordings: some done in nightclubs, others at outdoor festivals, and all in less than ideal circumstances.

Paul Whiteman and The Experiments In Modern American Music

First, let's dispose of low temperature as a pretext for sham performances. You want cold, Itzhak? You want frigid, Yo-Yo? Well, try playing in Carnegie Hall on Christmas Day 1938, where Paul Whiteman pulled out Ellington's "Blue Belles of Harlem" live before one of the coldest audiences on record. Trust me, Yo-Yo, it was enough to turn your belles bluer than Babe the Ox.

In 1953, bebop giants Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach faced a different but no less onerous atmospheric challenge. Most fans know about how Bird flew in, sans his regular horn (which he'd characteristically hocked), and resorted to a Grafton acrylic sax. (Then retailing brand new for less than $100, Bird's toy-like plastic horn was sold at auction by Christie's of London in 1995 for $150,000.) Less well known is how Charles Mingus's bass was adversely affected by the unseasonably sultry May weather. Indeed, the humidity inside Toronto's Massey Hall (which, being Canadian, lacked air conditioning) muffled his sound so thoroughly that Mingus was compelled to later overdub his bass part on "Perdido," with calamitous results. But did Mingus consider prerecording his part that night and faking it onstage? Of course not! The 37 paying customers deserved better, and got it.

Or how about Erroll Garner, up to his elbows in crashing surf during 1955's Concert by the Sea live in Carmel, California? Did the diminutive pianist bail out with backstage tapes? Hah! Ever the trouper, elfin Erroll soldiered on, insisting bravely: "It's All Right with Me."

And don't forget Duke Ellington, fighting off a swarm of locusts at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival to make jazz history with "Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue."

Nor did Billie Holiday wilt under the high-intensity 12,000-watt glare of 1957's The Sound of Jazz, telecast live by CBS. Keeping her cool, Billie remained "Fine and Mellow" as always.

Similarly unfazed, Maynard Ferguson rejected entreaties to prerecord at Birdland in 1959 when that cellar club's notoriously fickle barometric pressure prevented him from reaching his customary notes above the melting point of tungsten. Maynard just put his lips together and blew "Oleo."

And for sheer heroism, nothing tops New York Swing sailing through "Till Tom Special" on the high seas during the 1996 Floating Jazz Festival. Even after a ruptured ballast tank flooded the main ballroom, forcing passengers into lifeboats as a precautionary measure, musicians John Bunch, Bucky Pizzarelli and Jay Leonhart refused to abandon their soggy stage. For them, as for jazzmen from time immemorial, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloomy sales could stay them from the swift completion of their appointed choruses.

Newsweek (July 30,1973)

Skeptics will no doubt accuse me of making a mountain out of an MP3 file. But bear in mind that as recently as 1974, deceptively misused audio technology brought down a sitting President. I'm not suggesting that the 2009 Inaugural charade of four pampered longhair musicians necessarily rises to that level of importance. But it should definitely be investigated. Justice and decency require no less.

When all is said and done, every musician worth his or her salt must be able to look us in the eye and say with conviction, "I am not a prerecording."


This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

January 25, 2009 · 7 comments

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Help Jazz by Helping David

David S. Ware

Jazz writer James Hale posts on his blog that tenor saxophonist David S. Ware needs a kidney transplant. Ware has undergone self-administered dialysis for several years, which has allowed him to continue to travel and perform. Lately, however, the situation has reached the point where a transplant is, according to Ware's manager Steven Joerg, "the only viable option for his survival."

Many of Ware's friends and family have come forward, but to this point none of them are a match. A viable donor must be under 60 years of age, cannot have diabetes or high blood pressure, must be in general good health, and must have type O blood (either O+ or O- is fine).

The transplant would take place at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Willing and able potential donors should get in touch with Joerg as soon as possible. He can be reached by telephone at 718 854 2387 or e-mail at aum@aumfidelity.com. He will then get them directly in touch with the Kidney Transplant Center at RWJU Hospital to begin the screening process.

Davis S. Ware is one of the strongest and most creative jazz musicians of our time. We need him to stick around. If you can help, please get in touch with Steven.

This blog entry posted by Chris Kelsey.



January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Can a Blog Have Greatest Hits?

I ask a simple question: if musicians can have a greatest hits collection, why not a blog? With that in mind, I look back at some of the more memorable jazz.com blog contributions from the last year.

Jazz and Hip-Hop: Can They Really Mix? Jared Pauley presented a smart mini-history of the courtship between jazz and hip-hop in this two-part article. And he also stirred up a mini-war on our blog pages. Alan Kurtz stepped in to annul this unholy union, responding with his typical rebarbative repartee in a memorable piece entitled Hip-Hop is to Jazz as Termitz R2 Wud. Both articles are well worth reading.

The Future is Punkt: Stuart Nicholson covered jazz events in a half-dozen or so countries for us during the year, and always seemed to find strange and interesting music. But I was especially intrigued by his account of the Punkt festival in Norway, where the fun starts after the concert, when the music you just heard is re-mixed live by DJs in the Alpha Room.



                       David 'Fathead' Newman
       Photo by Rick Gilbert (skyhookentertainment.net)

75th Birthday Bash for David “Fathead” Newman: With the death this week of saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, it is fitting to look back at a celebration of his career that took place while he was still around to enjoy it. Here Ralph Miriello describes the festivities at an all-star birthday bash for the saxophonist at Iridium Jazz which took place early last year.

Life on the Road: The Journal of a Traveling Jazz Musician: Frøy Aagre’s three-part article may be the most insightful account you will ever read about the realities of road life for most jazz musicians. It is not a pretty picture, but it was a story that very much needed to be told.

Life at Gypsy Jazz Camp: One of the most interesting developments in the jazz world is the great resurgence of interest in Django Reinhardt and Gypsy jazz. Bill Barnes took us into the heart of this subculture in his three-part article on his experiences at a jazz camp devoted to jazz Manouche.

Election Night with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra: A historic moment was at hand, and who better to celebrate it than Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra, an ensemble that has become famous for blending progressive music and progressive politics. Tim Wilkins turned off CNN in order to check out the gig at the Blue Note, and reported here on the proceedings.

Is New York Ready for This? In a three-part article, Eugene Marlow looked at George Gee’s ambitious attempt to launch a full-scale Swing Era extravaganza in modern-day Manhattan. This would have been an easy story to miss, but provided insights into the complex ways in which the jazz world deals with its own traditions, while also trying to deal with the economic realities of the marketplace.

Ornette: The Blue Note Years: In this two-part article, Chris Kelsey looked at a controversial period in Ornette Coleman’s career. Blue Note’s move into the avant-garde was a symbolic moment, and produced music that critics are still debating almost a half-century later.

Don’t Ignore Monday Night Jazz: While JALC and visiting stars at the Vanguard grab the headlines, a number of outstanding NY musician work in long-term Monday night residencies that get little attention from the jazz media. Eric Novod—who clearly does get out on Monday nights—alerts the rest of us to three artists worth hearing.

Where Copyright Goes Wrong: Jazz.com’s Alan Kurtz is best known for his curmudgeonly critiques and the controversies these engender. But he could have been a lawyer (or at least played one on TV) judging by this convincing assault on the current state of US copyright law.

The Nightfly Revisited: I wrote around 100 articles for the jazz.com blog during the last year, but this is the one that has gotten the most “clicks”—and oddly enough it was not about jazz . I looked back at a CD that has long been one of my favorites: Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly.

And along the way, there were important stories covered in the jazz.com blog that most of the jazz media ignored. . . such as Radio France Pulls the Plug on Jazz or Where is the Outrage Over Russ Garcia’s Denied Oscar? And finally, where else will jazz fans find Jazz Report from Estonia or The Saga of David Benoit or Jazz Fans, Show Us Your Tattoos or Buddy Bolden on the Holodeck?

There were so many other fine articles featured here—we have published more than 300 blog contributions since site launch in December 2007—but I need to stop somewhere. Even a greatest hits compilation can only go on so long. Before signing off, let me thank the two dozen contributors to this column who have constantly surprised and delighted me with their writing: Frøy Aagre , Scott Albin, Bill Barnes, Zoie Clift , Thomas Cunniffe, Roanna Forman, Will Friedwald, Chris Kelsey, Walter Kolosky, Alan Kurtz, Eugene Marlow, Ralph Miriello, Stuart Nicholson, Eric Novod, Ted Panken, Tomas Peña, Thierry Quénum, Sue Russell, Mark Saleski, arnold jay smith, Jeff Sultanof, David Tenenholtz, Neil Tesser, and Tim Wilkins.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Remembering Jan Savitt (Part Two)



Below Jeff Sultanof continues his re-examination of the music of bandleader Jan Savitt (1907-1948). Recently released CDs featuring mid-1940s radio broadcasts of Savitt’s band make clear that this ensemble deserves more respect and a second hearing—or perhaps “first hearing” would be a more appropriate term, given how few jazz fans today know about this unheralded artist. (For part one of this article, click here.) T.G.




For many years, the appraisal by critic and historian George Simon in his book The Big Bands was pretty much the only thing we knew about Jan Savitt's WWII orchestra, thanks to the AFM recording ban. By the seventies, the Savitt name was recognized by jazz historians, some fans, and the musicians who played for him. During that time, a label named Joyce released a few LPs from AFRS broadcast transcriptions of the period. I had one of these LPs, and the sound was so bad, it was hard to get an idea of how the group really sounded (it has subsequently been issued on CD). What made the Savitt group even more tantalizing was the fact that Frank Sinatra toured with the orchestra for live appearances at theatres, not once but twice. Even then, in the early days of his solo career, the Chairman of the Board worked with only the best (Sinatra was a pallbearer at Savitt's funeral).

Jan Savitt

But just recently, I became aware of an organization called Radio Archives, a company that has been creating a database of radio broadcasts and making several of them available. While they are certainly not the only company in business to sell old-time radio programs, they do have a number of items that are not as easily marketable by other companies. In their catalog are a few 10-CD sets of big band broadcasts from AFRS sources and network transcriptions (networks would routinely record programs off the air for various purposes. RCA has a batch of professionally recorded big band broadcasts in their vault made by their parent company, NBC. Many of these have now been released).

One of these collections had two Savitt broadcasts from the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco recorded on July 23 and 27, 1944. Another collection had a program from the Hollywood Palladium dated October 4, 1945. At $40.00 a set—which also includes such bands as Les Brown, Harry James, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnet, Bobby Sherwood, Boyd Raeburn, Lee Castle and Louis Prima—this was an easy purchase.

Finally, broadcasts of this Savitt ensemble are in active circulation in excellent sound, and the band can be heard in all its glory. I am now convinced that this was one of the strongest bands of that period.

As I imagined, information on the band is hard to come by. The often-unreliable Tom Lord discography has scant data on these broadcasts; one of them may be mis-dated, and the other two are not listed at all. For the Hotel St. Francis broadcasts, the vocalists are Buddy Lyons, Buddy Welcome and Helen Warren, Warren being the best of the bunch. However, a far better singer named Jo Anne Ryan graces the 1945 broadcast. Although there are no strong improvisers, the arrangements are routinely excellent, and the pity is that it is anybody's guess who wrote them. These broadcasts not only show off an excellent band, they give an indication of the repertoire played during a dance gig from that era.

The July 23, 1944 broadcast (Lord has this as June) was previously issued on Joyce in poor sound. The titles played are:

“On the Alamo”
“Apple Blossoms in the Rain” - vocal Lyons
“Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby” - vocal Welcome
"Poinciana"
“I'll Be Seeing You” - vocal Lyons
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”
“I'll Walk Alone” - vocal Lyons
“9:20 Special”
“Indiana” (Incomplete)

On July 27, 1944, the titles heard over the airwaves and for later rebroadcast by AFRS are:

“On the Sunny Side of the Street”
“The Song is You”
“Swingin' on a Star” - vocal Welcome
“Forget-Me-Nots in Your Eyes” - vocal Warren
“Indiana”
“Ten Days With Baby” - vocal Warren
“Baby, Won't You Please Come Home” - vocal Welcome
“Kansas City Moods”
“How Blue the Night” (Incomplete)

The October 4, 1945 Palladium broadcast is the best of the three musically. The war was over, the musicians were back from the fighting, and Savitt probably had his pick of excellent musicians. This band swings hard, and the song lineup is quite telling. Here it is:

“Exactly Like You”
“Autumn Serenade”
“Lilybelle” - vocal Jo Anne Ryan
“Lullaby of Broadway”
“Someone to Watch Over Me” - vocal Ryan
“On the Alamo”
“It's Been a Long, Long Time” - vocal Ryan
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home”
“Poinciana” (Incomplete - Dubbed from the July 23, 1944 broadcast).

Clearly, by 1945 the Savitt book is built on standards; there are a number of current pop tunes on the 1944 broadcasts, but these are not what the listener remembers after hearing all these performances. There are fabulous arrangements of “Indiana” (reportedly by Savitt himself), “Lullaby of Broadway” and “On the Alamo.” The one current song which is arranged quite well is “Poinciana.” To be sure, before the war, bands played hits from earlier times (these songs were not called standards then), but the record companies and publishers were so hit-crazy that most broadcasts were made up of current songs and already-established hits identified with the band. It is interesting that in 1944-5, the only piece of music Savitt played that was a pre-war recording of his was "Kansas City Moods," a Benny Carter composition.

While Savitt's was not the only band to play new arrangements of older material (Harry James' broadcasts were filled with new settings of older songs), publishers were clearly not knocking down his door to play their new songs by 1945, probably because he did not have a recording affiliation after the AFM ban ended. Why this excellent band was not recording for a major label is an intriguing question which will probably never be answered at this late date.

Or the opposite may have been the case: like Artie Shaw, Savitt may have been put off by the constant barrage of poor songs offered to him by publishers. Interestingly, Shaw's 1945 band book was also built on standard songs Shaw personally liked, and most of that book was recorded by RCA Victor.

Whatever the reason, by 1946, the strings were out and Savitt led a more conventional band, recording a few sides for the soon-to-be-defunct ARA label, and making a few films which are very difficult to see today. Savitt would have disbanded when many other leaders decided to do so, but he had tax problems and had to keep a band on the road to pay off the IRS. The Savitt story finally ended on October 4, 1948 when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on the way to a gig. He was only 41 years old.

It is tempting to think of what Jan Savitt would have accomplished had he lived. With his background, he was a natural for a music supervisory job at a network or a record label. And we are more certain of this based on the excellence of the ensembles he led, both on radio and on the road. There is no question that his WWII ensemble was particularly special, and the evidence is there so that anyone can hear it for themselves.

The gaps sometimes get filled in......the pieces of the puzzle keep turning up and fit together somehow. All we have to do is keep looking and know what to do with them when we find them.

This blog entry posted by Jeff Sultanof


January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Tragedy of Richard Twardzik (Part One)

The Eisenhower years, so Miltown-ized on much of the home front, were turbulent times for jazz. The revolutionaries of the early 1950s were themselves ushered aside by a new avant-garde before the close of the decade. Jazz was like one of those newspaper chess problems: move from bop to free in ten moves. Change was the byword, and it proved to be a cruel taskmaster. Even jazz stars who had perfected wondrous styles—Miles and Coltrane serving as the preeminent examples here—soon felt compelled to throw them overboard in pursuit of the next (and in itself transitory) new thing.

Yet the personal lives of the jazz elite were often even more tumultuous than the music itself. Critics and historians have danced around the issue of jazz and substance abuse, whitewashing and demonizing by turns, but a simple perusal of the names and dates on the tombstones tells you that something was seriously wrong with the masters of the art form during this era. Not everyone was a casualty, but even those who survived, often paid a price in other ways: time in prison, broken families, potential unrealized, financial security traded for a string of fixes.

 Bouncin' With Bartok by Jack Chambers

In the midst of this, it is easy to lose track of Richard Twardzik. This pianist, dead at age 24, never lived to see the release of his first leader date on the Pacific label. It was almost a miracle that this material was issued at all. Pacific only had 22 minutes of Twardzik's music on hand, and needed to package it with trio sides by pianist Russ Freeman in order to fill up an LP album. Over the years, other recordings of Twardzik's music have become available, usually featuring him in a sideman role; but none of these projects is well known outside an inner circle of jazz devotees.

It would thus be all too easy to forget Richard Twardzik. . . except that his music is anything but forgettable. Even before he had come to the attention of the Pacific Jazz label, Twardzik had stirred up the jazz scene in Boston. "There was this white cat," Cecil Taylor later recalled, "Dick Twardzik . . . He had destroyed some Kenton people by playing like Bud Powell first and getting them all excited and then going into his, at that time, Schoenbergian bag." I agree with those who hear Twardzik's influence in Taylor's early recordings. Twardzik also earned the respect of Steve Kuhn, another student of Madame Chaloff's and a keyboard prodigy. Kuhn has commented: "I admired Twardzik very much, particularly harmonically. He listened to all the modern European composers and was quite advanced."

Herb Pomeroy, a Boston jazz legend in his own right, has noted the impact of musicians encountering Twardzik's music for the first time. "After Dick died," he recalled, "there were a number of musicians I would come in contact with who had never heard of him, or had heard of him but had never heard his playing. I would play the trio recording and they would have a look of disbelief on their faces. I mean, it moves you to tears."

Now Jack Chambers, a jazz critic best known for his two-volume biography of Miles Davis, has written the first full-length biography of the pianist, Bouncin' With Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik, published by The Mercury Press. Chambers, who first heard Twardzik on record back as a high school student in 1956, has taken this mysterious figure from a bygone jazz era and brought him fully to life in the pages of this remarkable book.

Having spent a considerable amount of time myself researching the lives and times of departed musicians, I know how challenging a project of this sort is to complete. When a person has been dead for more than a half-century, firsthand accounts are hard to find. Informants, even if they can be found, often have faulty memories, and sometimes mangle the facts, sowing more confusion than clarity. And when the biographical subject in question was so young at the time of his death, and traversed as much ground—musical and geographical—as Dick Twardzik, the task only becomes all the more arduous.

Chambers overcomes all of these obstacles, and has uncovered a rich cornucopia of information on the pianist. He conferred with aunts and cousins, friends and acquaintances, commentators and colleagues. He tracked correspondence, followed up various trails, and puts together a complete account, satisfying both for its biographical rigor as well as the critical intelligence he applies to Twardzik's body of work.

This is the end of part one of Ted Gioia's article on pianist Richard Twardzik. For part two of this article, click here.

January 20, 2009 · 2 comments

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Exposed: The Plot to Keep Jazz Down!



Jazz.com refuses to report on Elvis sightings, abductions by aliens or evidence that the Apollo trips to the moon were faked by NASA. But even the jazz world needs a good conspiracy theory, and no one is better at providing it than Walter Kolosky. Read on! T.G.





                    Inaugural Jazz, artwork by Suzanne Cerny


Another blow to jazz fans came recently when XM Satellite Radio merged with Sirius Satellite Radio. As always happens with these asinine mergers some things had to go. It was decided that one of those things would be the XM channel 72 and its Beyond Jazz programming. Once again the jazz community is the victim. The continuing diminution of jazz outlets is no accident. There is something sinister going on my friends and it is time that someone exposes it.

Taking Beyond Jazz off the satellite radio network is just the latest of a thousand insults to jazz fans, and U.S. jazz fans in particular, that the mainstream has perpetrated over the last few decades. This is not just a trend. It is part of a carefully calculated and widespread plot among many people in power to quash jazz in our society.

Over the years, many more celebrities and important figures than you are aware of have shown their undying support for jazz music. But you’ve never heard much about it because their views have been either altered or even wiped clean from the history books. In an anti-jazz cabal the mainstream media, the vast right-wing conspiracy and even the liberal media have joined forces to keep jazz down. This must be investigated. I’ve gotten the ball rolling by uncovering important documents, obtained through the little known Freedom of Jazz Information Act, that prove that there has been a systematic cleansing of much of that history. You will read quotes from those documents further on in this blog. The degree to which these statements have been altered and accepted as fact over the years will outrage you. The new U.S. congress must make this matter a priority. Jazz was created in America. We must make sure that the “forces within” do not destroy the truest of all American art forms.

I am a realist. I know the first investigation will be a total whitewash. There is a lot of money on the other side. We will have to push and push to get to the bottom of this. There are very good reasons why certain elements in the United States would want to lessen the influences jazz music may have on the populace. Jazz poses a threat to their agenda. This music represents artistic freedom. These people hate our artistic freedom. These same folks are found hard at work every day trying their best to undermine all creativity in the arts and sciences. We must stop them. And we must start now.

The extent that enemies of jazz have gone to alter documents and edit audio and video records is astoundingly treacherous. It took a great deal of painstaking investigative research to locate and confirm the quotes listed below. At times during my investigative work bodily harm was a true possibility. But I would do anything for jazz and the country I love. After reading these quotes you will be as outraged as I am that they have been tampered with.

Original Quotes

Nathan Hale: “I only regret I have but one life to give for jazz.”

Winston Churchill: “Never have so few played so much jazz for so little money.”

Virgil Tibbs: “They call me Mr. Jazz.”

Marie Antoinette: “Let them listen to smooth jazz.”

Alexander Graham Bell: “Come here, Watson. I hear jazz.”

Goldfinger: “No, Mr. Bond, I want you to like jazz.”

Thomas Edison: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% listening to jazz music.”

Woody Allen: “Eighty percent of success is showing up for a jazz gig.”

Oliver Twist: “Please, sir. I want some more jazz.”

Benjamin Franklin: “Jazz is living proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.”

W.C. Fields: “On the whole, I'd rather be at the Newport Jazz Festival.”

John F. Kennedy: “Before the end of this decade, we will put jazz on the moon.”

Martin Luther King: "I’ve been to the mountain top and I have heard the promised jazz!"

Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for jazz music.”

Oprah Winfrey: “I still have my feet on the ground; I just listen to better jazz.”

Three Stooges: “Free jazz, five dollars. Free jazz, five dollars!”

Inspector Clouseau: “I thought you said your jazz does not bite.”

Ski Lodge Clerk: “That is not my jazz.”

Eubie Blake: “If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of my jazz record collection.”

Frank Zappa: “Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny.”

Patrick Henry: “Give me jazz or give me death.”

Yogi Berra: “I always thought that jazz record would stand until it was broken.”

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I may not be able to define real jazz, but I know it when I hear it.”

Rodney Dangerfield: “The only time I got any respect was when I was at a jazz concert.”

Marilyn Monroe: “Jazz is a girl’s best friend.”

Vince Lombardi: “ Jazz isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Pliny the Elder: “Home is where the jazz is.”

Groucho Marx: “A man’s only as old as the jazz he listens to.”

Barack Obama: “Yes, I pal around with jazz musicians.”

Unknown: “As goes jazz; so goes the country.”

This blog entry posted by Walter Kolosky.



January 19, 2009 · 3 comments

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Remembering Jan Savitt (Part One)



Few jazz critics know big band music better than Jeff Sultanof, a regular contributor to jazz.com. Below he makes a case for Jan Savitt (1907-1948), a Swing Era star rarely heard these days, but whose charts were first rate, and who was a pioneer in fronting an integrated band back in the 1930s. This is the first installment of a two-part article, which Jeff is dedicating to Gene Lees. T.G.




Jan Savitt

During the 1920s through the 1940s, jazz-based sounds made up much of the popular music of the United States and even many European countries through the medium of big bands. The great majority of these ensembles had soloists who improvised, and many of these men (and a few women) became important voices in the jazz world. Some went on to solo careers later on. Good art tends to retain its power through the years, and that is why the big bands continue to speak to many of us. Of course very few individuals back then thought of the music as art; listeners and dancers just liked it, some loved it. A few had disc or wire recorders and preserved it when the music was broadcast during the afternoon and late at night. Many wrote about it, accurately and inaccurately for magazines. Record labels flourished recording important and minor bands alike.

Although most readers of my commentaries on this website and elsewhere are aware that I write about, edit, conduct and preserve music from all eras, orchestral and chamber concert music as well as big bands and small jazz groups, the big band era has long been a fascinating puzzle for me, one where the pieces continue to come from new and old sources and fit into place in unexpected ways. It is continually proven to me that the big band era was the birth of the American composer on many levels (Ellington, Henderson, Carter, Burns, Rugolo, Sauter, Finegan, Russo and many others must be considered important composers, not just jazz composers), and even though I love quite a number of modern bands led by such diverse figures as Bill Holman and Sam Rivers, it is the ensemble music of the 1920s through to the 1950s that continues to warrant my attention, and the need for the clarity of its musical language and history must be a priority before all of the first-hand information about it disappears forever. Too many of its participants are already gone as it is.

When the U.S. entered World War II, the music industry was about to embark on a very dark period as well. Musicians were drafted, and bands decimated. In August of 1942, James Caesar Petrillo called a ban on commercial recording which very few musicians supported. He wanted more money for his musicians to compensate for the free use of recordings on local disc jockey shows. Even President Roosevelt tried to intervene, to no effect. Thanks to the ban, the documentation of a great deal of outstanding music was lost forever. The most well known ensemble for which there are no recordings was the Earl Hines band of 1943, which was a hotbed of modern experimentation. The musicians who played and sung in the ensemble make the blood race today: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Eckstine are the names that come to mind immediately. In addition, the bandleaders knew that without new records of new songs, the popularity of their ensembles would be hit hard, and something new would probably take their places. They were right.

AFRS disk

But by 1943, the U.S. Government got involved by recording many hundreds of broadcasts by bands known and unknown. They didn't do this to save the music. They did it so that the music could be re-broadcast overseas to servicemen and women to bring them a piece of home. They also distributed discs of well-known radio shows such as those hosted by Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, and Fred Allen. Bands often broadcast for no money to fill airtime; there were no commercials, and such shows were called 'sustaining.' Bands were happy to do these broadcasts because they were free publicity, especially since these broadcasts publicized a current gig at a hotel or ballroom. The organization known as the Armed Forces Radio Service recorded the broadcasts off the air, cut them down to fit 30-minute intervals, mastered them onto 16" vinyl discs, and pressed them for distribution around the world. Because the musicians were not paid for their efforts, these discs were supposed to be destroyed upon use. Luckily for us, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them survive. They preserve much music that helps to fill in the gaps of what was played for the listening and dancing public, thereby enhancing our understanding and appreciation of the ensembles as well as the popular entertainment of the day.

These discs have been fodder for bootleggers since the sixties. Some of the resulting LPs back in the days before the CD had excellent sound because the AFRS engineers did a good job, and the discs used as sources for the LPs were in great shape. However, in many other instances, the source discs would be in horrid condition, and the collector was faced with a dilemma. Even the labels which usually had good quality product occasionally released a real dud, but the band was well-known, or the band was not-so-well-known and this was one of the few broadcasts of it in existence. You took what you could get. In the mid-eighties, computer noise reduction programs such as No-Noise and CEDAR cleaned up many of the scratches, pops and digs found on the AFRS sources, and the sound would often be remarkable in comparison to the originals. And that is where my story about more new pieces of the big band puzzle commences.

For many of us, The Big Bands by George Simon was the book that opened this magical world for our discovery and enlightenment. From 1939 through 1955, Simon was editor-in-chief of Metronome magazine, but had been on the scene from the mid-thirties onward. He had known and written about every major and many minor bandleaders, and even though he was opinionated, his judgments were usually accurate. One of the bandleaders who warranted a full chapter in the book was Jan Savitt, a prodigy on the violin who seemed to be the last person who would lead a big band.

Savitt studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra by the age of nineteen. He led a string quartet and became a musical director at WCAU in Philadelphia, a CBS affiliate, leading a dance orchestra there. By 1937, he moved over to KYW, part of NBC. By that time, the orchestra had made its first records and Savitt would soon quit the radio station to make his band a national attraction. To be sure, reviews of the orchestra pointed out that it had a tendency to play too loud, but it was exciting, and its stylistic 'gimmick,' a shuffle rhythm played by the piano with the rest of the rhythm section playing in four, helped to popularize the band. Savitt also had a major attraction in the person of George Tunnell, professionally known as Bon Bon. One of the few black singers to sing with a white band for an extended time, the fact that he was called Bon Bon reflects the racist nature of things during that era. Tunnell suffered many indignities while with Savitt, but he loved the band and the band loved him.

Savitt's Bluebird recordings were good, but his Decca recordings from 1939-41 were even better. A CD of radio transcriptions from 1939 is available on Hindsight Records, and a CD of broadcasts on Jazz Band has also been released. Two comprehensive CD collections on Jasmine and Audiophonic are currently available, so this band is more than adequately covered for those who want to hear it. While not on the same tier as the Goodman, Shaw or Miller bands, Savitt had some big hit records ("720 in the Books" and "It's a Wonderful World" are the best known today) and played important venues. Since he was exempt from the draft due to high blood pressure, he could look forward to more years with the same format. But since he was an excellent violinist, and Harry James and Tommy Dorsey were now featuring large string sections, Savitt made his move. In July of 1942, he changed the sound of the band with the addition of a small string section, and managed to squeeze in a recording date for the band with vocals by none other than Gloria DeHaven. George Simon raved about this new ensemble, and the band continued to play the best theatres, hotels and ballrooms.

This blog entry posted by Jeff Sultanof. This is the first installment of a two-part article. For part two of this article click here.


January 18, 2009 · 1 comment

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New Jazz Bios: From Buddy Bolden to Sun Ra

Hidden away in the inner recesses of jazz.com is our ambitious Encyclopedia Project. Dozens of contributors have been working, under the leadership of editor Tim Wilkins, on creating a comprehensive collection of jazz biographies for our site. The project is far from completed—there are still many gaps to fill. But you can take a look for yourself at Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians. Just remember that it is still “under construction.” So please ignore the scaffolds and cranes, and remember to wear a hard hat.



                      Ray Brown (with Christian McBride)
                                 Photo by Ron Hudson


The encyclopedia was founded by Dr. Lewis Porter, and initially focused on currently active jazz musicians. Porter created a unique reference by actually approaching the musicians themselves for information. More than one thousand artists responded to his queries—many of them covered inadequately (or not at all) in other jazz reference works.

After the encyclopedia moved to jazz.com, Wilkins & Co. began adding commissioned entries on jazz greats from the past, as well as filling other gaps among current day performers. This reference work now has almost 1,700 entries—and is getting bigger and bigger with each passing month.

Below are links to a few recently published entries in the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians. If you are interested in contributing, or have comments or queries, send them to Tim Wilkins, at reference@jazz.com.

Toshiko Akiyoshi
by Jared Pauley

Lil Hardin Armstrong
by Will Friedwald

Tony Bennett
by Will Friedwald

Buddy Bolden
by Dave Krikorian

Ray Brown
by Eric Wendell

Ray Charles
by Jared Pauley

Joey DeFrancesco
by Jared Pauley

Al Foster
by Eric Novod

Roy Hargrove
by Jared Pauley

Woody Herman
by Will Friedwald

Harry James
by Frank Murphy

Lonnie Johnson
by Dean Alger

Thad Jones
by Eric Wendell

Stan Kenton
by Jared Pauley

Kenny Kirkland
by Jared Pauley

Steve Lacy
by Brad Farberman

Scott LaFaro
by Eric Wendell

Nellie Lutcher
by Will Friedwald

Herbie Mann
by Jared Pauley

Marian McPartland
by Jared Pauley

Jelly Roll Morton
by David Tenenholtz

Herbie Nichols
by Gene Seymour

John Patitucci
by Jared Pauley

Oscar Peterson
by Eric Wendell

Sun Ra
by Frank Murphy

Dewey Redman
by Eric Novod

Marc Ribot
by Brad Farberman

Dannie Richmond
by Eric Novod

Roswell Rudd
by Brad Farberman

Lalo Schifrin
by Doug Payne

Maria Schneider
by Jared Pauley

Woody Shaw
by Matt Leskovic

Matthew Shipp
by Eric Wendell

Nina Simone
by Eric Wendell

Zoot Sims
by Will Friedwald

Stanley Turrentine
by Doug Payne

Randy Weston
by Jared Pauley

Lee Wiley
by Sue Russell

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Master of Congolese Guitar (Part Two)



Below is the second installment of my two-part article on Franco and TPOK Jazz. For part one click here. T.G.




Franco was born as Francois Luambo Makiadi on July 6 1938 in the village of Sona Bata, and raised in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. He made his own guitar when he was seven-years old, and when his father died four years later, the youngster began earning money by playing in public. Franco's rapid ascendancy in the local music scene was little short of astonishing. By the age of 15 he had a recording contract. At his first session, he sang prophetically: "What a pleasure in this world to be famous."

 Franco (1977)

Franco had the good fortune to be playing guitar at a time when that instrument was coming to dominate popular music in other parts of the globe. Yet the way Franco (and his sidemen) played guitar had almost nothing in common with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and others who were changing the listening habits of youngsters in the West. Instead of raw single note lines, Franco built his band's style around crisp, open-chords—often only two notes—that happily bounced around the beat. Major thirds and sixths and other consonant intervals play the same role in this style of performance that blues notes fill in rock-and-roll, reflecting the essential personality of the music.

But the ambiance of soukous is much different from what one would find in Western popular music of the same era. Franco's sound has few dark shadows, and little of the threatening moodiness of rock. And though there may have been more technically accomplished guitarists than those who played with TPOK Jazz, few concocted a sweeter or more inviting sound.

Yet the guitar was only one ingredient in this music, which often relied on huge ensembles, far bigger than anything one would encounter in the world of rock-and-roll. Franco sometimes had as many as six vocalists on his payroll. And even a modest soukous band could find a place for several guitarists. But the horns also played an important role in Franco's musical vision. They might engage in upbeat dialogue with the guitar, or else set up hypnotic vamps that carried the song forward as on the crest of a wave. Sometimes they sit out most of a track, only to make a sudden entrance when you least expect it.

Jazz fans will probably be unimpressed with the horn work here, which is a few steps below Bird and Trane, to say the least. But it is hard not to perk up when the band engages in a sebene, a trademark of this style of music. Here dancing guitars fall into a shifting pattern beneath a solo or riff. This is one of the happiest sounds in the whole global village.

On the other hand, the percussion parts here are far more low key than one would find in the Cuban music that inspired the soukous masters. Franco's recordings almost always convey an atmosphere of relaxed sociability, even when the tempo accelerates. Percussion parts are a cushion supporting the band, rather than (as with so many commercial acts in the West) a prod to raise the energy level of the other players. We find this same quality in many other styles of contemporary African music and derives, I believe, from a cultural heritage in which the pulse of a performance was more focused on entrainment (the technical term for synching of brain rhythms and external rhythms) than entertainment. But that, I'm afraid, is a subject for another day . . .

Francophonic

The lavish new reissue from Sterns Music, Francophonic, Volume 1: 1953-1980, will no doubt open up the ears of many first-time listeners to this artist. But even those who have long been familiar with Franco will find this compilation worth checking out. One reviewer has noted that just the booklet alone makes the set worth purchasing—which is hardly an exaggeration given how little context previous releases of Franco's music provided. For the first time many listeners in the West will not only be able to enjoy this music, but also appreciate the circumstances that brought it to life.

Of course, you can groove to soukous without digging into its socio-historical setting. To many of its fans back in Kinshasa, this music was, I suspect, an escape from—rather than a response to—the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko, President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during most of Franco's career. And unlike other more overtly political artists in World Music, Franco preferred to avoid conflicts with authorities. His songs were an invitation to a good time, and not to a revolution.

And when he did address controversial issues it was often indirectly—Franco was skilled at what was known as mbwakela, the art of insulting or criticizing without be easily understood. For example, when he wanted to attack the Attorney General who had put him in jail (on obscenity charges), Franco did so in an ambiguous song about a tailor. In another song "Sansi Fingomangoma," he demands "Let me go, let me go"—words that apparently refer to a festive celebration, but then again maybe not. You can probe deeply into these songs, or just enjoy them on the surface level without paying attention to hidden layers of meaning.

In truth, this artist's music had such an optimistic tone that it was hardly suited for social criticism—certainly not like one might encounter in the work of, say, Fela Kuti or Caetano Veloso or Bob Dylan. When Franco took on the mask of a political commentator in a song such as "Bato Ya Mabe Batondi Mboka," the music is lackluster. Franco moves into the minor mode on this song, and even this small shift seems to enervate his music. It is hard to imagine this artist becoming quite so popular if he had seen his work as a focal point for dissent and discontent.

And it is this celebratory tone that reveals the limitations of the frequent description of Franco as "the James Brown of Africa." Certainly Franco—like Brown—thrived in live performance, and fed off the energy of the audience (check out some of the YouTube videos to get a sense of what TPOK Jazz was like in concert). But Brown was, recall, the hardest working man in show business, while Franco's music seems more about holiday jubilation than working up a sweat. It comes as no surprise that Franco was unimpressed when Brown visited Kinshasa in 1969. He thought that Brown "danced like a monkey" and showed insufficient respect for ancestral roots.

Franco is now himself one of the great ancestors of World Music, the symbol of a time-honored tradition. When he died in 1989, at age 51, President Mobutu ordered a four-day period of mourning. Many of his fans are still grieving. Franco was one of those artists—such as Carlos Gardel or John Lennon—who inspired such passion among fans, that his loss still feels fresh decades later. His legend has, if anything, grown with the passing years.

Of course, Franco was hardly known in the US at the time of his death, and though he enjoyed a larger following in Europe, his audience there was mostly immigrants from Africa. But World Music is now a viable commercial category, and any list of its leading lights must include this seminal figure. It is gratifying that this past master finally has his music made available in a setting that does it justice.

This is the end of part two of Ted Gioia's article on Franco and TPOK Jazz.



January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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James Carter in Boston



Neither snow nor rain nor a two drink minimum can prevent Roanna Forman from covering the Boston jazz scene for jazz.com. In recent weeks, she has reviewed Dominique Eade, Laszlo Gardony, Roy Hargrove, and the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival in this column. Below she reports on James Carter's performance at Sculler’s on Saturday. T.G.



James Carter is big—big in stature, and big in talent. The 39-year-old multi-instrumentalist put out a spit-polish early set at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston on January 10. But while this reeds wunderkind played wunderfully, his organist and drummer didn’t provide a rising tide to lift him higher.

Carter, who never saw a reed instrument he couldn’t play, including the entire saxophone family, and contrabass and bass clarinet, started at age 11. By 16, Carter apparently gave his music buddy at Michigan's Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, first tenor Kelly Bucheger, a near nervous breakdown when he eased past Bucheger as soloist while playing from the second tenor book. (Check out the details at “James Carter Ruined My Life,” from Kelly Bucheger’s Jazz Pages.) Carter would play and listen incessantly, Bucheger recalls, and yes, fall asleep with his sax in his mouth, while “trying to work things out.”

James Carter PresentTense

He’s still trying just as hard, and making great music. In his Boston show, switching between soprano, baritone, and tenor saxes and flute effortlessly, Carter promoted his new CD Present Tense along with other material during a mix of ballads, funk, (overly fast) bossa and high-energy grooves. The set, like Carter’s career, reflected a reverence for the past and a solid foot in the present. For instance: a 1993 alumnus of Julius Hemphill’s Five Chord Stud, Carter went on to include “1944 Stomp” and Ellington’s “The Stevedore’s Serenade” on his own CD a year later. In 1995, his Conversin’ with the Elders proffered a mini-jazz history course with composers from Benny Moten to Anthony Braxton.

Carter’s long-time admiration for Django Reinhardt, captured in his CD Chasin’ the Gypsy, continued in his latest release Present Tense with “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure,” the show’s first number. After a raspy solo opening on soprano, whose force was either stylistic choice or opening jitters, the saxophonist was smooth as silk, squawky as a pissed-off goose, and garrulous as William F. Buckley—all on command. Gerard Gibbs’s B3 solo on “Demeure” didn’t make musical sense to me—that he didn’t swing it was understandable, but he chose an almost music-box tone that undermined the song’s finesse. Carter put back the smoothness that this beautiful Django ballad needs when his turn came to play.

Gibbs, whose bass pedals were sometimes jarringly louder as he started, definitely got greasy on tunes that called for it, just the way you’d expect him to be sliding around on the B3. In “Theme in Search of a TV,” which dished out funk over a hard-hitting New Orleans fatback, he laid down some good runs and nice polyrhythms, with tasteful shouts and kicks by the trio. Leonard King added plenty of punch, but he is not a subtle drummer; I would have liked more colors and sometimes less cymbals. Then Carter came in with supple, intelligent lines on the baritone, melodic and funky at the same time, and he hit his stride. Beefy and deep but ready to wail, his baritone sax fits him best.

Picking up the flute on “Many Blessings” and Horace Silver’s “Silver Serenade,” Carter’s playing was pretty and precise—bluesy, sometimes breathy, always clean. He seemed to play the instrument, relatively small-looking in his large hands, in an off-handed way, dashing off lines that he’d physically and musically struggle to execute on the larger reeds.

Besides the B3, where he generally played with grace, grit, and fluidity, Gerard Gibbs also used electric keyboards. The crowd, unlike me, enjoyed his use of effects—“vibes” on “Silver Serenade” and “trumpet” on “Many Blessings,” which, despite their musicality, seemed tacky. Let keyboards be keyboards, I say.

Carter plays with intensity, and naturally the volume level rose with him, although sometimes subtleties were lost and I hope that the musicians could hear each other. Falling into the “volume trap” is a common problem in music today, even jazz. That’s a pity, because jazz turns on nuance. Carter’s players generally calmed down behind him, except in high-energy tunes like Gigi Gryce’s “Hymn of the Orient,” the last number, where you’d expect them to take it out, and up.

But the show, like the bandleader, was a crowd pleaser all the way. Carter is definitely a showman. Pulling the finish on “Demeure” up to a mighty high note, even for a soprano sax, or producing notes on a baritone that you’d swear come from a tenor, the theatrical, physical Carter characteristically demonstrated his prowess with his instruments—he’s one of those musicians who sets himself technical challenges, and, once met, proudly displays them in performance. Of course, you have to be careful that pyrotechnics don’t undercut musicality; Carter walks that line nicely.

A performer who gives 150% on the bandstand, Carter seemed to be exhorting himself in his final solo to keep pushing in each phrase as he reached for what he wanted. Just like when he was 16, trying to work it out. Might he be better served in that quest with players who stretch him more?

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman


January 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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5 Lessons Today's Jazz Labels Could Learn From Blue Note

Blue Note logo

I hate to spoil a birthday party. But the current celebration of Blue Note Records' 70th anniversary inevitably brings with it some invidious comparisons between the current jazz scene and the way it was back in the day.

I am not talking about nostalgia for the great Blue Note acts of yesteryear—although certainly there is reason to look back fondly on those past masters. (Fans looking to take a walk down memory lane, should click here or here.) Rather I am more concerned about the business side of the equation, and what it is doing to jazz music today.

 John Coltrane

With that in mind, I am offering a list (because, as you know, blogs must have lists) of the “Five Things Today's Jazz Record Labels Could Learn from Blue Note.”

(1) For heaven's sake, stand for something

Once upon a time, jazz record labels stood for something. The people who ran them had an aesthetic vision. Sometimes that vision was even more important than the bottom line. Labels had personalities. They might be quirky or eccentric or stubborn, but you always knew who they were.

But not any more.

I once knew what Concord stood for as a label. But today I have no clue. Is it a smooth jazz label? Is it a mainstream label? Was it bought out by Starbucks? Who knows? The same is true of Verve, which once had one of the most distinctive personalities of any label. But if you visit Verve’s web site today, and listen to the music playing for site visitors . . . well, let’s just say that you won’t be reminded of Norman Granz and J.A.T.P.

Yet at least those two labels have some heritage and lingering brand value, and are thus better off than most of the current outfits releasing jazz, who have less personality than an emoticon in nine-point font. Can anyone describe the personality of a Chesky or a Justin Time or a [fill in the blank] release? What a change from the indie tradition of the past. For a knowledgeable jazz fan, each of the following names has a resonance and meaning, a history and heritage: Soul Note, Pacific, ECM, Riverside, Commodore, Fantasy, Contemporary, Delmark, Muse, etc. Even tiny outfits, such as Discovery or Biograph or Nessa meant something. But how many current brands have that type of potency in their name?

Blue Note in the 1950s and 1960s had the strongest personality of them all. Yes, Blue Note could surprise you by signing artists outside of the hard bop idiom. But even these releases added to the allure of the label, and prevented the Blue Note sound from becoming a cliché. The end result was a tiny indie company that eventually had more clout in the jazz world than the majors.

This ability to project a personality is the single biggest advantage a small label has over the huge corporations that dominate the entertainment industry. The indie operations of today should learn from Blue Note and use this leverage.

(2) Build the careers of your artists over the long haul

Andrew Hill

How many labels today can match the long-term commitment that Blue Note showed to the musicians on its roster back during its glory years? Even an artist such as Andrew Hill—whose records sold poorly at the time—was able to record a dozen leader dates for Blue Note over the course of a decade, and also show up as a sideman on other projects for the label.

Don't minimize the importance of artists such as Hill or Grant Green or Tina Brooks in building Blue Note's reputation. Even fans who preferred Lee Morgan to Andrew Hill loved the label all the more because of its continued allegiance to something other than dollars and cents. Much of the Blue Note mystique today derives from those gritty records that never got much airplay, but made a statement nonetheless. Part of the statement was about integrity.

It’s hard to find that type of loyalty these days (although there are a few examples). The jazz world would be much better off if the corporate beasts that run the show had more allegiance to their artists. They call it a stable of artists for a reason . . . It is supposed to reflect stability. Judging by what I see, maybe its time to change the name to the “Unstable” of artists on the roster.

(3) Remember: It is no crime for a jazz record to sound good

I am suspicious of any approach to jazz that consistently disregards (or actually scorns) the enjoyment of the listener. Strange to say, many opinion leaders in jazz don’t have “listener enjoyment” on their list of key criteria for a good jazz record. In fact, there are some who actually think that a jazz record is all the better, the less it is enjoyed. (This latter viewpoint is slowly losing credibility in the jazz world, but the operative word here is “slowly.”)

Lee Morgan

Blue Note never had this problem. Blue Note was willing to stretch the ears of its fans, but it didn’t insult them. A fan could buy a half-dozen Blue Note LPs at random, and be assured that listening to them would mostly be a pleasurable experience. As a result, a lot of Blue Note music got significant airplay, and some songs even became hits.

Think about that for a second. Acoustic jazz instrumentals played by world class players that climb the charts? No you don’t see that very much these days. Then again, there aren’t many labels like Blue Note around any more.

(4) Don’t get caught up in the quest for glamor—jazz is not a beauty contest

I have noted elsewhere that good looks seem to play a disproportionate role in determining who gets a record contract these days. This was always true to some degree in the world of pop music, but didn't become a major problem until the rise of music videos. Then the infection even spread to jazz—which had been mostly immune to this way of evaluating "talent"—and over the last ten years it has become so pronounced that it is almost laughable.

Somebody should tell the music industry moguls that people still “listen” to music, and that the song on the radio doesn’t sound any better if it's Britney and not Ella. More to the point, the overall impact of this approach is a dumbing down of jazz (and other forms of music), the promotion of acts without career staying power, and the gradual distrust of the fan base—who are smart enough to understand what is going on. After all, if the record label doesn’t care enough to promote the best talent, why should the fan care enough to buy the CD. And if some jazz fan wants to ogle attractive bodies, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue costs about half of the going rate for a compact disk.

Art Blakey

Blue Note was, of course, the anti-glamor label during its heyday. Fashion models rarely found their way on to a Blue Note LP cover. Instead fans got to ogle hot, sweaty musicians. Heck, you hardly even got a color photo (those four-color separations cost money, folks). But no one complained. You didn't want to see those guys in high-def anyway. Get real . . . jazz fans knew that Hank Mobley didn’t look like Montgomery Clift. So what? (to borrow a useful jazz phrase).

When jazz artists start looking like Montgomery Cllift, then you need to start worrying. I think we need to start worrying.

(5) Earn the loyalty of your customers

Have you every purchased a recording without knowing anything about the artist—but just because you had so much trust in the values and integrity of the label? I have too. But not as often as I once did.

Only a few labels generate that type of loyalty. In my case, I can think of releases that I purchased from Blue Note, ECM, Folkways, Deutsche Grammophon, Arhoolie, and a few other companies . . . based solely on my confidence in the people running them, and their commitment to the music.

Loyalty of this sort requires a number of ingredients. But Blue Note had them all: musicianship, audio quality, creativity, a larger vision, a respect for the intelligence of its audience, etc. The type of goodwill this builds is incalculable, and this is why the Blue Note catalog continues to sell well even when the records are a half-century old. It’s funny how the labels that are so focused on maximizing the sale of records this week, this month, never make it to the half-century mark. There is a lesson in that.




Okay, go back to the birthday party. Have a drink; eat some cake. Let's sing a song in syncopated time for Blue Note, and wish the label 70 more prosperous years. But let's also remember the reasons why this label got to a venerable age in the first place. They haven't aged at all.

This is blog article was posted by Ted Gioia.



January 12, 2009 · 7 comments

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The James Brown of Africa (Part One)

My CD collection includes some cherished disks by a band called Franco & Le TPOK Jazz. These releases provide no list of personnel. They offer no recording dates or locations. There is not even a CD booklet, just a single sheet with simple cover art on one side, and blank white space on the other. There is no copyright notice, only an address in Paris, and a list of songs.

Until recently, this is how you typically encountered Franco's music in the West. And you were lucky to have even that much. I got these CDs back in the pre-Internet days, via a small mail order house that brought these disks into the country from God-Knows-Where to serve God-Knows-What market for this kind of music. The mail order house eventually went out of business.

 Franco & TPOK Jazz in the studio

                      Franco & TPOK Jazz in the studio


Yet Franco stands out as one of the leading exponents of African music in modern times, and his recordings still enjoy a cult following two decades after his death in 1989. This body of work certainly deserves to be better known, and under better circumstances might have found a larger audience even during the artist's lifetime—but Franco passed away before World Music emerged as an important commercial genre. During his career, he only enjoyed a small dose of the fame that might have come his way in today's global village. Franco made just one tour of the U.S., in 1983, and even that visit was a modest affair. For the most part, his music is still a well-kept secret.

Perhaps the release of Sterns Music's Francophonic, Volume 1: 1953-1980 will go some way toward rectifying this situation. This reissue finally presents Franco's work in a suitably grand setting: a lavishly produced two-disk reissue accompanied by a 46-page book.

Of course, the personnel on these recordings is still mostly a mystery. Francophonic tries to cast some light on the matter, offering a list of around 70 musicians who played with Franco at various points during his 35 year career. But don't expect a track-by-track rundown. As for recording dates: if you get a year, be grateful and don't expect more.

Francophonic

Yet the real mystery here is the music itself, which seems to defy the listener's expectations at every turn. Although Franco's band prominently displayed the word 'Jazz' in its name, the music is not jazz in any conventional sense. Record stores, to the extent that they stock Franco at all (hah!) will put his releases in the African music bin. But play a song of his to a random sampling of your friends, and most (perhaps all) of them will guess that it is Latin music. In fact, if you had to sum up Franco's soukous style in ten words or less you would say that it is the African music that sounds like it comes from Cuba.

A nice definition, but what a strange concept for listeners unacquainted with soukous. The idea of Latin jazz has grown familiar to us, but Latin-African music is something else altogether. I have speculated in other settings, that Latin and African cultural currents possess a residual affinity for each other that is leftover from the Moorish inroads into the Iberian Peninsula starting back in the 8th century. In other words, Latin music was stamped with an African sensibility almost from its birth, and later hybrids of these two musical languages inevitably show their family resemblance.

Still one marvels at the lineage that produced this Caribbean sound in Central Africa. For whatever reasons, Cuban bands such as Trio Matamoros and Sexteto Habanero found a receptive audience in the then Belgian Congo back in the 1930s. As indigenous commercial music styles developed in later years, these role models exerted a strong influence. When Franco began his music career in the 1950s, this Latin-inflected sound was pervasive in popular Congolese music.

But an African rumba is not exactly the same as what you would find in Cuba. On his hit song "AZDA"—inspired, strange to say, by a Volkswagen dealership—Franco builds the performance around a strange five-bar call-and-response pattern that would never fly in Havana. "Marie Naboyi," another long track, starts off with a typical Congolese rumba beat, but abandons it mid-song in a restless search for some other, more insistent groove—the music goes through four distinct moods before coming to an abrupt halt. Other songs, such as "Ku Kisantu Kikwenda Ko" draw on more overtly traditional African material. Yes, a vague pan-global Latin ambiance predominates in this music, but one that is distilled through the distinctive vision of Franco.

This is the end of part one of Ted Gioia's article on Franco and TPOK Jazz. For part two of this article, click here.



January 11, 2009 · 2 comments

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A Jazz.com Sampler: 25 Track Reviews

Is it really possible to review all the important jazz tracks recorded since the first story was told in Storyville? Well, you’ve got to aim at something, don’t ya? Fortunately, jazz.com has a crack team of expert reviewers on the job, and they are slowly working their way through stacks of recordings that would fill the storage room at Xanadu and spill on to the front lawn.

Below is a small sample of the reviews published in the last few weeks. As always, jazz.com reviews come with a pithy appraisal, a score on our proprietary hundred point scale, and whenever possible a link for (legal) downloading.

Happy listening!


Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: “Duke’s Place”
Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher


Art Ensemble of Chicago

Art Ensemble of Chicago: “Charlie M”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey


Sidney Bechet & Earl Hines

Sidney Bechet & Earl Hines: “Blues in Thirds”
Reviewed by Scott Albin


Hadda Brooks

Hadda Brooks: “Don't Go to Strangers”
Reviewed by Will Friedwald


Les Brown

Les Brown: “April Showers”
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof


Vinnie Colaiuta

Vinnie Colaiuta: “Bruce Lee”
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky


Dave Douglas

Dave Douglas: “Moonshine”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron



Bill Evans

Bill Evans: “So What”
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky


Gil Evans

Gil Evans: “Bird Feathers”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger


Reginald Foresythe

Reginald Foresythe: “The Melancholy Clown”
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof


 Kenny Garrett

Kenny Garrett: “Sing a Song of Song”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron


Elmo Hope

Elmo Hope: “Vi-Ann”
Reviewed by Scott Albin


Freddie Hubbard

Freddie Hubbard: “Delphia”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary


Lonnie Johnson

Lonnie Johnson: “Uncle Ned, Don't Use Your Head”
Reviewed by Dean Alger


Steve Lacy

Steve Lacy: “No Baby”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey


Ramsey Lewis

Ramsey Lewis: “Song of India”
Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher


Nellie Lutcher

Nellie Lutcher: “A Maid's Prayer”
Reviewed by Will Friedwald


Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny: “April Joy”
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky


Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan: “Deception”
Reviewed by Scott Albin


 David Murray

David Murray: “Ming’s Samba”
Reviewed by Scott Albin


Milton Nascimento

Milton Nascimento: “San Vicente”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia


Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter: “Adam's Apple”
Reviewed by Jared Pauley


Suarasama

Suarasama: “Fajar di Atas Awan”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia


World Saxophone Quartet

World Saxophone Quartet: “Sweet D”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey


Denny Zeitlin

Denny Zeitlin: “Blue Phoenix”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia


This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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A Giant’s Steps: John Coltrane on Atlantic (Part One)



Chris Kelsey, an editor and regular contributor to jazz.com, recently published a smart commentary in this column on Ornette Coleman's controversial Blue Note recordings (see here and here). Now he turns his attention to John Coltrane's work for the Atlantic label, an expansive body of work that is too often lost in the shadows of the tenorist's later recordings for the Impulse label. Below is the first installment of Kelsey's three-part article. T.G.




Coltrane for Kenyon by Michael Symonds

John Coltrane’s music was always a work-in-process. Most jazz musicians—even the greatest—spend their lives refining one style. Coltrane was an exception. He never ceased expanding and evolving. There were no stopping points in his music, only points of departure.

Some choose to see Trane’s development simply as a manifestation of the cultural tumult of the 1960s. It was, to some extent, but it’s a mistake to interpret it as being inspired by some ‘60s-radical desire to be seen as different. To imply as much, diminishes his accomplishments, makes it seem as if he were some jazz equivalent of Wavy Gravy or Timothy Leary.

Coltrane was no hippie; he was an inveterate explorer. Change was a constant in his music because he was hard-wired that way. Coltrane moved because he couldn’t stand still. There was too much to do, and—as he was to discover—not enough time in which to do it.

Naturally, his recordings reflect that state of constant flux. Coltrane’s ‘50s recordings with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk reflect tremendous growth, but his evolution began to truly accelerate in 1959—the year he began putting together his own band (a process that involved much trial-and-error), and began recording for Atlantic Records. It was a period of enormous change for Coltrane. By the time he had finished at Atlantic in 1961, he had metamorphosed from an ultra-progressive bopper to a musician concerned with redefining jazz’s very boundaries.

My Favorite Things

Among his more easily identifiable accomplishments during those 28 months: he conceived and recorded some of the mostly harmonically elaborate jazz compositions ever written; recorded a signature tune ("My Favorite Things") that became something of a hit song, and in the process helped popularize a modal concept of playing jazz; reclaimed a long-neglected instrument (the soprano sax) for jazz; made a significant move in the direction of the avant-garde by recording with free jazz’s top trumpeter, Don Cherry; refined saxophone techniques that would affect the way the horn would be played thereafter; and began incorporating techniques of world music into his concept. Pre-Atlantic, Coltrane was a potentially great, but relatively conventional, jazz musician. Post-Atlantic, he was well on his way to becoming one of the most influential jazz musicians of his or any other time.

By 1959, Coltrane was ready in every way to leave the employ of Miles Davis and form his own band. He was mentally and physically healthy. He was highly regarded by both critics and the jazz public. Most importantly, he had musical ideas he could only work on with his own group. Yet, while he’d led many recording sessions, mostly for Prestige, he had not yet taken the crucial step of leaving Davis and striking out on his own. Of course, leaving the most successful small group in jazz wasn't a decision he took lightly. Davis didn’t want him to go, and Coltrane surely enjoyed the financial security the gig provided. In any event, the end of his time with Davis overlapped with the beginning of his period at Atlantic.

Coltrane’s first recordings for Atlantic resulted in Bags and Trane, recorded on January 15, 1959 in New York City. Coltrane co-led the date with the Modern Jazz Quartet’s vibist, Milt Jackson. The album reflects the grittier sensibility Jackson usually adopted when playing apart from the more consciously refined MJQ. The repertoire consisted mostly of standards and blues, along with Charlie Parker’s up-tempo flag-waver, "Bebop"—a nod to a jazz era that was, by then, already receding into the mists. The leaders were joined by pianist Hank Jones, bassist Paul Chambers, and Jackson’s MJQ band mate, drummer Connie Kay. It’s a fine record, hard-swinging and full of top-notch playing. In terms of where Coltrane was at the time, however, it’s backward-looking. He’d been-there-done-that, and was manifestly ready to move on, as his next dates for Atlantic made clear.

Coltrane's Giant Steps LP

Giant Steps, Coltrane’s first actual release for Atlantic (Bags and Trane wouldn’t be issued until 1961), gave a more accurate picture of where he was as an artist. The recording of the album was actually a two-part affair. The first session took place on April 1, 1959 in New York City, with a band consisting of pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Lex Humphries. The quartet recorded several takes of three Coltrane originals—“Giant Steps,” “Naima,” and “Like Sonny”—but none were deemed satisfactory by Coltrane. The music from this session remained unreleased until several years after Coltrane’s death.

A second session was convened on May 4 and 5, 1959, with a substantially different cast. Paul Chambers returned, but Walton was replaced by Tommy Flanagan, and Humphries by Art Taylor. Over the span of two days the group recorded all six tunes that ended up on the album, plus one—“Sweet Sioux”—that was rejected and later lost.

Giant Steps was a landmark. Not only did it present the apotheosis of his experiments with harmonic complexity (“Countdown” and the title track); more than any of his prior albums, it showcased his compositions, among them “Naima,” a pedal-point-based ballad; “Cousin Mary,” an ingeniously altered blues; and “Mr. P.C.” a fast minor blues dedicated to bassist Chambers. The absence here of songs from the standard jazz repertoire is telling. Coltrane was much less interested in playing music written by others. Henceforth, he would mostly supply his own contexts, which would be inextricably linked to his evolving concept of improvisation.

This is the end of the first installment of Chris Kelsey's three-part article on John Coltrane's Atlantic years. Click here to read part two of this article.



January 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sonny Rollins, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Lennie Tristano on DVD



Thomas Cunniffe is an erudite commentator on matters jazzy, and our resident expert on the many jazz DVDs coming on the market. Below he looks at some recent releases featuring rare footage of various past masters in performance. T.G.



It’s a well-known axiom that the main problem in the music business is that the business usually gets in the way of the music. While very few have gotten rich by promoting jazz, it seems that someone is always trying.

Jazz Icons

Nonetheless, I shudder at some of the tactics used to lure potential buyers. Most notably, there is the concept of the “bonus disc”—otherwise unavailable music that can be had only by purchasing a large boxed set. Usually, the bonus material is very rare and/or of high musical quality, but it is saved for those with deep pockets and kept from those with meager finances. For those students studying the music’s history, such tactics seem unnecessarily cruel. (While Jazz Icons is the current focus of this criticism, they are far from the only culprits: Do we really need to spend a hundred bucks for Sony’s newest reissue of Kind Of Blue just to hear all of the music from these sessions?)

The bonus disc for Jazz Icons Series 3 features 2 three-song sets from Sonny Rollins’ 1959 tour of Europe, plus Rahsaan Roland Kirk in a 1963 program from Belgium and Nina Simone performing on a 1965 Swedish TV show. The Rollins represents the earliest video I’ve seen of the saxophonist, and ironically, it was one of the last recordings Rollins made before his well-known 2-year sabbatical.

The tour must have been an interesting one. From discographical information, we know that the tour started with Pete La Roca Sims on drums and Henry Grimes on bass. Grimes was on all of the airchecks and videos of the tour, but La Roca Sims missed at least two performances, an Aix-En-Provence date where Kenny Clarke sat in, and the Stockholm date that opens the DVD, where Joe Harris plays on what is presumably a borrowed drum set (the initials “E-J” are emblazoned on the bass drum). In the otherwise exemplary liner notes, there is no explanation about this personnel mystery.

Rollins is fully engaged in both performances. On “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” he starts by developing a two-note motive which later morphs into a longer version of the same idea. While Rollins’ thematic improvisation is always effective, I wonder if this performance happened after he had read Gunther Schuller’s Jazz Review article on “Blue 7” and was now consciously trying to develop motives in his solos. (The Schuller article was published only 4 months before this concert, and it was several months later that Rollins announced his frustration with Schuller’s article and made his promise to never again read reviews of his own performances.) On “Love Letters,” Rollins plays the entire melody chorus a cappella, and it almost feels as though he’d do the entire piece solo. Rollins had recorded a solo version of “Body & Soul” in the previous year, but his live marathon solo performances were still far in the future.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk DVD

Still, it’s Rollins with bass and drums—the same instrumentation as on the 1965 performance on the main Rollins disc from the set, and an obvious point of comparison between the performances. To do such a comparison, you have to jump between two discs (and of course, you have to have shelled out the money for the boxed set). The same point can be made for Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s performances. The bonus disc has a set using the same rhythm section as two of the sets on the main Kirk disc: George Gruntz, Guy Pedersen & Daniel Humair. Further, there’s another version of Kirk’s barn-burner “Three For The Festival” to compare to the two on the main disc. Why separate these recordings? We could all learn more about Kirk by hearing the progression of the performances. (After all, what made the Charles Mingus disc the highlight of the first Jazz Icons set was the short time frame between recording dates and the similar personnel of the performances.)

What you do discover about Kirk is that he was not as avant-garde as you originally might have thought. While there are certain elements of free jazz in Kirk’s playing, he was basically a mixture of hard bop and Chicago soul. His tenor sax had a burnished quality that could alternately conjure up Rollins and Gene Ammons, and his flute was pure and melodious, owing equal amounts to Yusef Lateef and Eric Dolphy. His flute style is best-known for his simultaneous singing and playing, but as annotator John Kruth points out, Kirk was not the first to employ the technique, but did more with it than anyone else. As for Kirk’s manzello and strich, both are used as contrast to his tenor sax, and when he plays several instruments at once, it’s usually for short punch figures and not for extended periods.

What is also surprising is that Kirk refrains from marathon solos. While others of his generation would play 15- to -30-minute solos, Kirk makes his statements in 2 or 3 choruses and keeps our attention by switching horns or by adding whistles, sirens or music boxes to the mix. And if his originality is in question, check out his up-tempo waltz treatment of “The Shadow Of Your Smile”: trust me, you can’t really imagine it, you have to hear it. Then you’ll wonder why no one else ever thought of it!

Lennie Tristano DVD

Another mis-categorized musician was Lennie Tristano. Usually lumped into the cool school, with a passing mention of his 1949 free jazz experiments, Tristano really belongs to the avant-garde, even if his early recordings did not influence the direction of the music. Tristano loved to stretch harmonies to their breaking points and on “Darn That Dream” from Storyville’s DVD The Copenhagen Concert, it’s nearly impossible to follow the chord progression through the improvisation. On many of the tracks, Tristano juxtaposes a walking bass line in the left hand with long, rhythmically complex lines in the right. In most cases, the rhythmic counterpoint between the two hands is the highlight, but on “It’s You Or No One” he suddenly breaks the rhythm and the mood by inserting a series of block chords which progress up and down the keyboard, then restarts the walking bass in a faster tempo. There’s precious little Tristano on video, especially solo piano, so this 1965 film is a must-have. And as we’re speaking of marketing these discs, Storyville came up with a brilliant idea: the notes for all 5 discs in the release fit into a single booklet which is placed into each disc box. So, while you’re scanning the booklet for the notes for your particular disc, you find detailed notes on the other discs available from the company. Now, THAT’S user-friendly!



JAZZ ICONS SERIES 3 BONUS DISC Jazz Icons (no catalog number) 60 minutes. Sonny Rollins (ts); Henry Grimes (b); Joe Harris (d). Stockholm; March 4, 1959. Interview; It Don’t Mean A Thing; Paul’s Pal; Love Letters.

Sonny Rollins (ts); Henry Grimes (b); Pete La Roca Sims (d). Laren; March (?), 1959. I’ve Told Every Little Star; I Want To Be Happy; You’re A Weaver Of Dreams.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (r); George Gruntz (p); Guy Pedersen (b); Daniel Humair (d). Belgium; 1963. Stolen Moments; Everything Happens To Me; Domino; Three For The Festival.

Nina Simone (p,v); Rudy Stevenson (g); Lisle Atkinson (b); Bobby Hamilton (d). Sweden; December 11, 1965. Love Me Or Leave Me; Interview; Mississippi Goddam.

RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK LIVE IN ’63 & ’67 Jazz Icons 2.119008. 80 minutes. Rahsaan Roland Kirk (r); George Gruntz (p); Guy Pedersen (b); Daniel Humair (d). Belgium; October or November, 1963. Moon Song; Lover; Three For The Festival; Yesterdays; Milestones.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (r); George Gruntz (p); Guy Pedersen (b); Daniel Humair (d). Amersfoort, Holland; October, 1963. Bags’ Groove; Lover Man; There Will Never Be Another You; Three For The Festival.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (r); Ron Burton (p); Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen (b); Alex Riel (d). Konisberg, Norway; late June or early July, 1967. Blues For Alice; Blue Ro; The Shadow Of Your Smile; Making Love After Hours; NY Theme.

LENNIE TRISTANO, THE COPENHAGEN CONCERT Storyville 26060. 41 minutes. Lennie Tristano (p). Copenhagen; October 31, 1965. Darn That Dream; Lullabye Of The Leaves; Expressions; You Don’t Know What Love Is; Tivoli Garden Swing; Ghost Of A Chance; It’s You Or No One; Imagination; Tangerine.

This blog entry posted by Thomas Cunniffe


January 06, 2009 · 2 comments

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Jazz Singing Versus Cabaret Singing



There are many hidden fault lines in the music world—conflicts between styles not always apparent to the casual fan. The average joe (plumber or otherwise) sometimes thinks that jazz piano is more-or-less-the-same as cocktail piano (heaven forbid!). Or that jazz fans listen to radio stations with Smooth Jazz formats. (Yarrggghhh!)

And then we get to that really contentious issue: the relationship between jazz singing and cabaret singing. These two factions are hardly on speaking terms, let alone singing terms. But here comes Sue Russell, who recently contributed a piece on twelve essential Mildred Bailey performances to jazz.com, attempting to arbitrate between these warring camps. T.G.



Several times a year I dust off my tiara and sing a few show tunes for a small audience of friends. I also write about jazz for websites such as this one. Lately I find myself caught between two worlds that, to me, really don’t feel all that different.



                   The Singer, artwork by Suzanne Cerny


On the one hand, I hear jazz singers and listeners bemoaning the “narcissism” or “preciousness” of cabaret. They might even get really down and dirty and say it’s a haven for has-beens who lack musical “chops.” On the other hand, my cabaret buddies stake their claim against jazz singers for taking liberties with the sacred lyrics and melodies of Mr. Rodgers, Mr. Sondheim, and Mr. Porter. They seem to feel that jazz singers live in a different universe in which songs don’t tell a story or words lose their meaning and are replaced by abstract sounds. I’d like to arbitrate in these turf wars so we can all get back to what really matters: great songs and great singers.

So let’s take a step back and compare definitions. Nobody wants to go out on a limb and say precisely what jazz is, but those who try to define it generally do so in musical terms, For example, Answers.com defines jazz as music with a “strong but flexible rhythmic understructure with solo and ensemble improvisations on basic tunes and chord patterns and…a highly sophisticated harmonic idiom.” Conversely, cabaret is generally defined as a place and not by the music (or other entertainment) that happens there. According to Webster’s, a “cabaret” (not cabaret itself, as a genre) is “a spot that is open late at night and that provides entertainment (such as singers or dancers) as well as dancing and food and drink.” Other sources cite historical examples under the heading of “cabaret,” like Café Society or the Blue Angel. Apparently you can visit a cabaret, but the entertainment you’ll find there is anybody’s guess, and nobody is saying anything about chord patterns.

So we have a little identity crisis in cabaret. If nobody else knows precisely who we are, how do we define ourselves? One thing we know, based on observation, is that cabaret performers are generally singers, so the comparison is not really between two genres of music but rather between two different approaches to singing. My contention is that a good deal of the time the approaches are really not so different, but the fact that we’re all singers means we share the singer’s unfortunate status as low man or woman on the musical totem pole. That stereotype of the “dumb singer,” or, more specifically, the “dumb chick singer,” is still present. That’s what happens when the voice is your instrument. If everybody else plays the same instrument without having to practice, it must not be a valuable commodity.

Whatever we call ourselves, as singers, we’re all in the same proverbial boat. We’re looking for respect and doing our best to earn it. Sometimes that push for respect may lead jazz singers to put down the cabaret artist, who must absorb the fallout, becoming, in effect, the “dumb singer” who’s not taken seriously by the boys (or girls) in the band.

And cabaret singers also find ways to prop ourselves up. We’re the proud children of Mabel Mercer. We pay homage to the Great American Songbook. We proclaim our sacred duty to the text. We distinguish ourselves from our friends in jazz by virtue of this devotion to the intimacy of the moment, to the connection between singer and song and singer and audience as if we’ve invented it ourselves.

But I can make a long list of singers and songs whose CDs or iTunes titles get labeled as jazz but whose performances are really indistinguishable from cabaret. For starters, I’ll name a few: Mildred Bailey singing “Heather on the Hill”; Lee Wiley singing anything by Gershwin or Porter; or Tony Bennett singing the rare Rodgers and Hart ballad, “This Funny World.” Cabaret singers, take a listen, and you’ll see what I mean. And once you’ve ventured into the jazz section, you may even surprise yourself by enjoying Betty Carter’s gleeful version of “The Surry with the Fringe on Top” or Little Jimmy Scott stretching a sentence to its breaking point in an old chestnut like Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful.”

Sue Russell

And jazz singers, bear in mind that the music of some of the all-time great practitioners unfortunately gets filed across the aisle under “easy listening.” Frank Sinatra may make it sound easy, but really it’s not. After all, Mabel Mercer taught him everything he needed to know about the lyric. He told us that himself. And all of you are, of course welcome to the cabaret. I’ll be the one with the tiara.

This blog entry posted by Sue Russell.

January 05, 2009 · 2 comments

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When the Best Singing Piano Man Was a Woman



Few critics have a more nuanced understanding of the vocal arts than Will Friedwald, whose works include the highly recommended books Jazz Singing, Sinatra: The Song is You, and Stardust Melodies. Below he writes about the largely unheralded African-American women who followed in the footsteps of Fats Waller. See also Friedwald's profiles of these women for the jazz.com encyclopedia: Cleo Brown, Una Mae Carlisle, Nellie Lutcher and Julia Lee. T.G.






                                Una Mae Carlisle

“How would you like to submit to a blindfold test, listen to a typical Fats Waller song, then when the bandage was removed find that seated at the keyboard, instead of the 200 pounds of brown-skinned masculinity you expected, was a light, slim, smiling girl?”

Those were the words of critic Leonard Feather, writing in 1937, describing his first experience hearing Una Mae Carlisle. At that time, Feather and his readers may have been surprised to make this discovery - but within a few years, it became obvious to listeners that Fats Waller’s most important followers were female.

It's hard to think of a major male singer-pianist who fills the gap between Waller, who lived from 1904 to 1942, and Nat Cole. From the late thirties through the forties, the best "singing piano man" was, more often than not, a woman.

In the 1930s, Waller sat at the helm of jukebox jazz, in which hundreds of records made by singing musicians were sent to tens of thousands of restaurants, bars, and road houses across the country. Collectively, these jukebox hits raked in millions of nickels, which helped create the modern recording industry.

Compared to the era's increasingly large big bands, it was cheap to hire a six- or seven-piece combo, which made these records big earners for labels, who, at the depths of the Great Depression, sold the discs to juke joints for twenty-five to thirty-five cents a throw. Juke records generally allotted a generous amount of solo space to instrumental soloists, flanked by a vocal chorus by the singing leader.

1934 was the year RCA Victor launched its “Fats Waller and his Rhythm” series, which reinvented the juke-joint genre from the ground up. The success of Waller's “Rhythm” discs, anchored in his jocular, powerful, personality, had a double-pronged effect: like Louis Armstrong before him, he inspired many instrumentalists—piano players in particular—to start singing.

But despite his success, Waller inspired few direct imitators. There was Putney Dandridge on Vocalion, and Bob Howard on Decca, who only occasionally played piano on records, although he was billed as “Fatso Howard” on one of his early recordings. Two of the era's hipper white bandsingers, Dick Robertson and Chick Bullock, also led their own long-running series on Decca and Vocalion, respectively.

Fats, however, did inspire a talented group of women: Cleo Brown, Una Mae Carlisle, Nellie Lutcher and Julia Lee. These four Afro-American women, one of whom—Lee—was actually two years older than Waller—made key contributions not only to juke music, but also to Swing, Big Bands, the Blues, and later the transformation of “race” music into rhythm and blues.

Like Waller, all four were exceptional pianists, and they sang in styles which could be traced back to Waller himself: Cleo Brown sang in a sweet, high voice that recalled Waller in his rare moments of unironic ballad tenderness. Julia Lee, contrastingly, had more of a guttural, blues-based style which suggests Fats at his downest and dirtiest. Like Waller, they were all consistently irreverent, and as much inclined to kid a love song, using humorous asides, as they were to sing it “straight.”

Cleo Brown came in hot on Waller's heels in March of 1935, and was the first of his disciples - male or female - to make a lasting mark on American music. The eighteen sides she recorded in 1935 and 1936 were highly influential, and she was rewarded when, in 1987, she was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of The Arts, the nation's highest honor for a jazz musician.

Una Mae Carlisle had an off-and-on romance with Waller, and sang with his big band at New York's Apollo Theater in 1935. But it was critic Leonard Feather who "discovered" her in Paris, and arranged for her to record with British Vocalion in May of 1938. She went on to compose several memorable hits and recorded with many of the Swing Era's greatest instrumentalists, including tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

However, neither of these Femme Followers of Fats could be considered entirely satisfying to listeners: the first fell short in terms of quantity, and the second, occasionally, in terms of quality. However, after World War II, two new heiresses took the stage almost simultaneously to claim Waller's mantle.

Nellie Lutcher box set

Julia Lee and Nellie Lutcher were distinct individuals, but were more alike than they were different. Both were products of the two greatest jazz scenes outside of the Northeast: Lee was from Kansas City, and Lutcher was from New Orleans. Each came to fame recording for Capitol Records in 1946 and 1947. Guided by producer Dave Dexter, himself a Kansas City native, between the two of them they provided Capitol with a steady stream of hits in the late 1940s, and helped established Capitol’s presence in the field then known as “Race Music.”

Lee and Lutcher both worked with groups modeled loosely after Waller’s Rhythm: Lee’s band was billed on the Capitol labels as “Her Boy Friends”; Lutcher’s group was literally credited as “Nellie Lutcher and her Rhythm.” They both also sang a mixture of blues and standards, and further, there was a high sexual content to their work, which was, however, expressed in rather different ways.

The pair were key players as Black music evolved from small group swing and the juke jazz style of the 1930s into what became known as "rhythm and blues." Unfortunately, by 1948, the year Billboard magazine's Jerry Wexler coined that phrase, both of their careers had already peaked.

Fortunately for listeners, the works of both have been reissued in lavish boxed sets from the German boutique label Bear Family Records, with elaborate booklets and excellent biographical essays by British scholar Bill Millar.

This blog entry posted by Will Friedwald.

January 03, 2009 · 2 comments

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Jazz Fans, Show Us Your Tattoos

Here at jazz.com, we pride ourselves on tackling the delicate questions you always wanted to ask about jazz, but never get answered in Downbeat. Let the rest of the music media cover what's happening at Jazz at Lincoln Center or the Village Vanguard, while we get down to the real pressing issues.

For example, where are all the jazz tattoos?

C'mon folks, where are you hiding them? Roll up your sleeves, pull up your shirt, let us take a look. As I survey the tattoos that come into my line of sight on a daily basis, I see plenty of flowers and skulls and Harley-Davidson logos, but where are the jazz musicians? Certainly there are some devoted jazz fans who are willing to undergo dermatological mutilation in celebration of America's classical music.

I know there must be someone out there with a Dave Brubeck tattoo, but where is it? Certainly one of our many site visitors has emblazoned "Bird Lives" on a body part that is suitable for presentation in a family-oriented blog? Surely someone has room on their body for Dizzy's capacious cheeks, or room on their cheeks for Dizzy's capacious body. Please send us your photos.

In the meantime, we are whetting your appetite, with a few choice samples. Here is tasteful image of a young Ornette Coleman.



And here is an inspired image of John Coltrane.



Miles is clearly a favorite of body artists, as demonstrated here.



Of course, Mr. Davis, the master of under-statement, would appreciate this equally low-key tattoo of his silhouette.



But we need more. If you have a jazz tattoo, please let us know. And if you don't, now might be the time to make the plunge. What better way to start the new year?

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

January 01, 2009 · 6 comments

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