The Best Jazz Tracks of the Month

gold CD’s critics have reviewed close to 300 tracks during the last month, but only a handful are recognized as Song of the Day. This regular feature is updated five times per week, and highlights an outstanding performance from a recent CD, with the aim of giving jazz fans a short list of top-notch new music worthy of their attention. Below are links to the reviews of the tracks honored as Song of the Day during February.

If you spend some time with these tracks, you will be struck by the diversity and unpredictability of the current jazz scene. Some examples:

•  John Stetch is off in cartoon land, finding jazz inspiration in Elmer Fudd’s least favorite theme song.

•  Drummer Mike Clark gathers together a diverse crew (e.g., he is joined by Patrice Rushen and Christian McBride in the rhythm section) in order to make heavy funk in an all-acoustic band. S. Victor Aaron writes: “makes you wonder why Fender bothered to create an electric bass.”

•  Guitarist Nenad Gajin dishes out (in the words of Walter Kolosky) a heady mixture of “Serbian folk, city funk, R&B and fiery jazz-rock fusion” on a piece composed by Gajin along with keyboardist Bojan Zulfikarpasic (can I use that last name in Scrabble?).

•  Today’s featured song is from the recent 75 CD by the late Joe Zawinul, and captures the keyboardist a few weeks before his death from cancer in a moving duet with Wayne Shorter. The song will be a familiar one to jazz fans: “In a Silent Way,” which Zawinul and Shorter had recorded with Miles back in 1969.

•  Along the way, we find the latest offerings from well-known artists such as Benny Golson, Eliane Elias, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Derek Trucks.

Joe Zawinul

As always, reviews come with a frank assessment of the proceedings, a ranking based on our proprietary 0-100 scale, full personnel and recording info and a link for (legal) downloading.

Featured Songs: February 2009

Joe Zawinul & Wayne Shorter: In a Silent Way
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Sarah DeLeo: Stolen Moments
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Miles Stiebel: Midnight Fifty
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Seamus Blake: Darn That Dream
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Nenad Gajin: Kec
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Eliane Elias: Chega de Saudade
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Doug Johns: Scrumpt
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Derek Trucks: Maybe This Time
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Ede Wright: Shangrila
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

John Stetch: This Is It (Bugs Bunny)
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

La Tanya Hall: Bluesette
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Laïka: Strange Fruit
Reviewed by Thierry Quénum

Julia Hülsmann: Kiss From A Rose
Reviewed by Thierry Quénum

Jeff "Tain" Watts: Return of the Jitney Man
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Jason Rigby: The Archer
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Mike Clark: Loft Funk
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

David Dyson: Lovely One
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Marc Copland: Like It Never Was
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Benny Golson: Airegin
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Neil Haverstick: Birdwalk
Reviewed by Scott Albin

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

February 26, 2009 · 2 comments


Sonny Fortune in Greenwich

Ralph Miriello, a regular contributor to, was on hand for a concert by Sonny Fortune last Sunday at the Cole Auditoriium in Greenwich, Connecticut. Fortune will turn 70 in a few weeks, but the saxophonist maintains his high-octane approach to live performance, as Miriello makes clear below. T.G.

On a wet, cold, overcast afternoon people started to fill the Cole auditorium of the Greenwich Library in Greenwich for a free concert on a Sunday afternoon. The performance was part of the Peterson series of concerts given at the library, and weather was reason enough to take shelter in the warm, dry comfort of the auditorium. For those of us who love jazz it was a rare opportunity to see one of the living legends of the saxophone in an intimate setting.

Sonny Fortune

Alto powerhouse Sonny Fortune and his quartet were on hand to perform a few established standards, as well as some new material from his most recent release Continuum, to an attentive audience of about two hundred and fifty. Joining Sonny was pianist Michael Cochrane, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Steve Johns. Together they formed a tight, cohesive unit that allowed the powerful Mr. Fortune a backdrop to perform his vital and energetic music.

Sonny Fortune has a storied career that finds this Philadelphia native son performing over the years with jazz stalwarts such as Buddy Rich, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and of course Miles Davis. These jazz masters encountered in Mr. Fortune a consummate professional whose sound was born, by his own admission, out of the work of Rollins, Stitt, Adderley, Dolphy, Shorter and, of course, Coltrane. While sounds of each of these men can quickly be identified in his playing, Mr. Fortune has melted these influences in his own crucible and from these elements has extracted his unique style, one that is at once probing and reflective.

Mr. Fortune, now in his sixty-ninth year, looked trim and fit and wore a pair of gray pants with a matching vest and a white open collared shirt. His signature wide brimmed hat was missing. The set started out with a Wayne Shorter original “Footprints,” with Mr. Fortune on soprano sax conjuring up the exotic sound that can be elicited from this instrument. Sonny’s technique builds tension with repeating phrasings of multiple notes that he can hold indefinitely by employing circular breathing. He undertakes this repetition of ideas in a searching way that encourages the listener to pay attention to the nuances of how he is playing, rather than to the specific notes involved. When he seemingly exhausts one idea he moves on to the next, usually a tension releaser, that employs deliberative, extended concentration on one particular note. While he holds the note, he also delves into its timbre, often until it decays into a whisper.

On the second song, a self-penned piece dedicated to Wayne Shorter titled “Waynish”—and featured on Continuum—Mr. Fortune utilizes his bright brass alto saxophone. On this quick-tempo tune Fortune employs ascending and descending runs of notes in a seemingly inexhaustible ebb and flow of ideas. All the while he is gently but firmly pushed along by the piano comping of Cochrane, the contrabass lines of Cannon, and the energetic drums of Johns. Cannon was fresh from a gig with pianist McCoy Tyner the evening before and Sonny was instructing him as to what he wanted to play before the start of each song. Johns is a particularly potent player and his upbeat, smiling attitude proved infectious to Mr. Fortune. When Sonny wasn’t playing his horn he would pick up a cowbell and syncopate the beat along side Johns.

On the third song of the set, Mr. Fortune’s “Mind Games,” Johns picked up the brushes as Sonny moved to the flute. Fortune’s flute revealed a gritty sound on this bouncy tune. Cannon offered an expanded solo on his honey toned, Hungarian-made bass, which demonstrated a fluid mastery of the pizzicato technique and a harmonically probing sense of improvisation.

On Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” Fortune started out with a slow, flute improvisation that cleverly circumnavigated the song’s identity, which only became familiar to the audience when he broke into the memorable melody line. He once again explored the timbre of the sounds available to him on his instrument with various breathing techniques. He accentuated each note with a “tuh, tuh, tuh” sound that is not as pronounced as Jeremy Steig’s huffily talking-into-the-flute technique but is, nonetheless, deliberate in the purposeful way he employs his breathiness—reminiscent, to me, of Eric Dolphy.

Sensing his audience’s engagement with the Duke Ellington piece, Fortune followed with another Ellington orchestra classic, Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” Done up-tempo, the song featured Steve Johns in a cacophonous display of crashing cymbals, rolling toms and punctuated bass drum beats. Johns claims his influences are Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Steve Gadd, amongst others. and I could detect Gaddian type rolls in his extended solo work on this number. He played at all times with a broad smile across his face obviously enjoying himself with the proceedings. Mr. Fortune, this time on alto, displayed his mellifluous technique that relentlessly probed the heart of the melody with extended improvisation bursts of his firebrand playing.

After a brief intermission, where a grateful audience met with Mr. Fortune to purchase his CDs and get his autograph, the band started the second set with the tune “Awakening,” another Fortune composition. Here Sonny returned to the flute in an understated blues-tinged style with Cannon offering a creative solo on his contrabass.

The finale was a breathtaking display of virtuosity, kinetic energy and indefatigable endurance. Here the group took on the Coltrane classic “Impressions” at a breakneck speed. After the initial statement of the melody Cochran went off on an extended multi-minute solo. Canon and Johns managed the pace admirably and kept it from running off the tracks like a runaway train. When Mr. Fortune soloed on alto here he was transformed. His circular breathing allowed him to play endless waterfalls of notes in the Coltrane tradition and with that searching quality John was so revered for. It is quite entrancing to see Mr. Fortune bent over his horn and shuffling his feet back and forth in such an overt display of passion. As he continued to pour out his voluminous ideas throughout a full ten minute blistering solo, one look at the much younger rhythm section of Cannon and Johns bore witness to how physically challenging it is to play with such reckless abandon. The effect was mesmerizing and I for one felt like I had witnessed the reincarnation of Coltrane on some level. Surely Mr. Fortune was channeling the great tenorman’s spirit in this stunning performance and the audience was duly appreciative.

Sonny told me he was off the next day for a tour in Germany, Holland and Belgium and would be returning for a gig in his hometown Philly in about a month. When one experiences his music live, it becomes obvious what Miles, Elvin and McCoy all saw in Sonny’s playing Anyone who wants to see a living legend is encouraged to check out one of his upcoming performances.

This blog entry posted by Ralph A. Miriello.

February 25, 2009 · 1 comment


Jimmy Heath Still On the Trail at 82

Roanna Forman covers the Boston jazz scene for Her most recent review focused on Brad Mehldau's Harvard performance with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Now she turns her attention to Jimmy Heath, who performed at Scullers this last weekend. T.G.

                 Jimmy Heath, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Relaxed, nonchalant, at times gently clowning with his sidemen, Jimmy Heath thanked his audience for coming out to the early set at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston on Feb 21. “Otherwise,” he said, “I’d be in front of the TV somewhere.”

Good thing he isn’t. Now “retired and on the road,” this doyen of the saxophone is as burnished and clean-sounding as ever. Dyed in the wool jazzman that he is, Heath played with six decades of distilled experience, including an authoritative bebop replete with quotes from “Without a Song,” “And the Angels Sing,” and the hee-haw opening of Ferde Grofé’s “On The Trail,” from which the band played another section later on. He led the group through his own compositions, standards, and Blue Note classics.

The sound level wasn’t quite right for some reason; the bass in particular laid down a very loud bottom throughout the set, and although he could definitely be heard, Jimmy Heath’s mike could have been turned up louder. Why the soundman didn’t catch that is beyond me. Anyway, Jimmy sounded great. And the higher register of the soprano sax – from which Heath gets a very pure tone -carried better over the other instruments, in a lilting jazz waltz rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream.” Pianist Jeb Patton picked up on Jimmy Heath’s lazy, bluesy feel, adding rising and falling lines that sounded like an inchworm trying to crawl off the keyboard.

Patton has been with Jimmy Heath for 12 years, and he’s earned the status of “honorary Heath Brother,” the band leader said. A solid player who can complement ballads, swing, and funk-latin grooves with equal ease, he generally stayed within the parameters that the tunes called for. There were some nice lines interlocking arpeggios through the changes of “I’m Glad There Is You.” He took it out a little on a hard-driving uptempo arrangement of “If Ever I Would Leave You,” tossing in the progression from “Giant Steps” at one point. On bass, 26-year-old Corcoran Holt has the chops, kick, and rhythmic and melodic invention to go places, although I thought I heard some intonation problems on his pedal point on the ballad.

Both of the younger players are protégés of Jimmy Heath’s. You really sense him graciously passing the baton, not just by putting these players in his group, but giving them musical support on the bandstand. Whether he was fanning Jeb Patton’s hottest solos with a lead sheet, or listening thoughtfully, hand cupped in chin, to Corcoran Holt, you felt these were his sons, which, in a musical sense, they are. His real live brother Albert “Tootie Heath” was up there behind him, too. He’s not only still pumping it out and swinging hard, his solos provide nuances within the beat, like the riffs that fell from one drum to the other in “On the Trail.”

Glancing at his watch toward the end of the set, Jimmy Heath signaled the opening fatback for “Funjii Mama,” introducing the danceable Blue Mitchell tune “written by a colleague of mine.”

Which brings me to the most important point of the evening. Jazz audiences should see these performers, who are a living link to the music that’s developed since the 1940’s. Certainly out of respect for their accomplishments – Jimmy Heath’s work with Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Milt Jackson, and the Heath Brothers runs like a ribbon through jazz history. They should learn about the music from its source, in action. To paraphrase Milt Jackson, ain’t but a few of ‘em left.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

February 24, 2009 · 3 comments


New Jazz in London

Thierry Quénum, a regular contributor to these pages, covers the jazz scene from his home base in Paris, and is a jury member for the Django D’Or (France) and the European Jazz Prize (Austria). He reports below on the exciting results of an East London festival staged a few days ago by the 4-year-old Loop Collective. In an often challenging economic environment for jazz in the UK, collectives of this sort may be the major breeding ground for the leading jazz artists of the next decade. T.G.

Loop Collective

The situation of jazz in the UK is far from being the best in Europe, and it’s been this way for ages. Lots of British musicians—such as pianist John Taylor, saxophonist John Surman, or pianist Django Bates—make a living playing, teaching and recording abroad. The British scene itself is little known by the rest of the world. From the outside, it also looks pretty much divided into clans, such as the post-free players such as Evan Parker, the mainstream players such as Gerard Presencer, the pop-jazz players like Jamie Cullum, the British-Caribbean musicians like Courtney Pine, etc.

All of them try to survive in a mostly pop / groove / electro dominated musical environment. Still, anyone interested in European jazz knows that in the UK younger jazz players have recently tended to organize themselves in collectives in order to be stronger in a difficult environment. The best known among these is the F-ire Collective, and it has a younger 4 year-old-brother called the Loop Collective.

    Fraud at the Loop Festival (photo by Stéphanie Knibbe)

That this latter collective managed to get the government money to organize the first Loop Festival, held at the Vortex Jazz Club in East London last weekend is already a bold gesture. Loop also wished to invite some journalists and a festival director from France and Germany to this festival, and this was considered as a sign of openness and determination by yours truly and his continental colleagues. Indeed, who could have refused such an invitation to discover some of the groups that roam the young British scene, and to write about them for the rest of the world!

The new Vortex has a capacity of 80 some and is located in a small modern building, above a bar. The building itself and its surroundings have been built recently, which implied opening a new access street to the square opposite the Vortex. Since this street had no name, the Vortex owners suggested “Bailey Street” (not after “Old Bailey,” but as a homage the late guitarist Derek Bailey), which was accepted. Who says Britons only care for rock and pop music?

On these two nights (out of four that the Loop Collective Festival lasted in all) that I was able to attend, my first impression, beside the fact that the Vortex was packed, was that the audience was very young: late twenties to mid thirties, about the same age as the musicians onstage. And that was a good surprise and a good omen for the future of a music that can hardly hope to survive if it doesn’t appeal to the younger generations.

The Friday 12th late afternoon preview took place on the ground level, at the bar below the Vortex, with a guitar solo by Stian Westerhus, a Norwegian musician established in London, who was to play again later that night with a quintet called Fraud. Surrounded by an impressive set of pedals, Westerhus indulged in an intense 30 minute set, a maelstrom of noisy guitar that was both sonically breathtaking, physically demanding (for him) and musically very coherent. Using a whole array of technical devices and shaking his instrument in a way that might look excessively extroverted, he actually managed to produce a music that totally makes sense once you’ve admitted that it will not be “traditional” guitar . . . and that it will be loud. Although sometimes, mainly when he uses an arco, it’s even amazingly soft and melodic. A very interesting heir of Derek Bailey, Marc Ducret and some others, Westerhus is definitely and genuinely seeking something new on his instrument.

The two next concerts were comparatively disappointing: Dog Soup and the Ivo Neame Quartet (featuring vibist Jim Hart) are obviously beyond reproach as far as technical mastery is concerned, but the aesthetic field they have chosen (late sixties and early seventies Miles Davis for the former, any quartet with Gary Burton for the latter) has already been ploughed so often during the last few decades that it’s difficult to follow musicians who tread this path again in such a literal way. Of course, the young audience of the Vortex might never have had access to that type of music in a live context, which explains why these performances had a great success although they never reached beyond the level of a good final concert by students from a good music conservatory.

The two following groups, and actually most of those who played the next day, showed that one can expect more personality from young professional musicians, and bore witness to the fact that young British musicians can take chances and be more adventurous. Trumpeter Dave Kane and bassist Alex Bonney, for example, have an acoustic duo that is not only original in its sonic choices, but that values the musical exchange over the perfection of the form.

Kane obviously comes from Don Cherry, be it only by his frequent use of the pocket trumpet, but he carries on in the path that his model opened decades ago rather than just trying to imitate him. His pitch can be hazardous, but that’s the counterpart of his quest for sound in the immediacy of an improvised dialogue. Besides, the intensity and authenticity of his interaction with Bonney is so obvious that one wouldn’t think of quarrelling with them about pitch. The latter is a very melodic and rhythmic bass player and both his arco and pizzicato playing are perfectly accurate in the brief spontaneous exchanges he has with his partner.

Fraud, the last group of this Friday evening was much more plugged-in and loud but it displayed an idiosyncratic group sound that was as convincing as its predecessor. The deep, dark, thick timbre of James Allsopp, on tenor sax, already sets the atmosphere. This reedman comes straight from Coltrane, Ayler, Shepp and the likes, but he cannot be mistaken for an imitator. Beside the sheer power of his blowing, he masters a variety of nuances that are totally his own. Behind him, Phil Hochstrate’s keyboards create dreamy or noisy atmospheres, and Westerhus’s guitar confirms that it definitely has its own language. As for Ben Reynolds (who was to play again the next day with another band), being the only drummer of this set instead of the usual two, he showed that he could very well support the band on his own.

The quality and originality of the Saturday groups was basically as high as that of these two latter bands. In front of a Valentine Day audience that packed the house, Blink, a piano/tenor sax/drums trio, opened the show and almost stole it. Pianist Alcyona Mick, who writes most of the material, is a deeply original and very promising composer as well as a consistently interesting instrumentalist. She tends to play mostly in the lower register with a highly rhythmic approach that can conjure up memories of the late Mal Waldron. Her melodic vein is both obvious in her writing and her improvising and makes an intelligent use of space and silence.

       Outhouse at the Loop Festival (photo by Stéphanie Knibbe)

French born Robin Fincker (who was to play again later with his own band Outhouse) is a highly interesting tenorist, with a melodic approach to sound and improvisation that may come from his early practice of the clarinet. He shies away from the traditional tenor solo bravado and blends his lines with Mick’s comping and Paul Clarvis’s most musical drumming in a very efficient way. These three have developed a group sound that’s totally personal and fascinating.

Phronesis, another trio, followed with two musicians who’d played the day before in pianist Ivo Neame’s band: Neame himself, as a sideman this time, and Danish bass player and London resident Jasper Hoiby, in a leader position. Strangely enough, the rather dull quartet of the former night, left place to a much more interesting trio. This was partly due to the lack of the too overtly “Burtonian” vibraphone, that allowed Neame to demonstrate his ability as a main soloist, to the interesting compositions of the bassist and leader, and to the rich and highly stimulating drumming of Anton Eger, one of the three great percussionists that the Loop Collective Festival presented over those two night.

The third one was Dave Smith, who played with the following Outhouse, a stunning two tenors quartet that had composed a brand new repertoire for this special concert. Here are musicians who like to take chances. Their unit obviously hails from the Ornette Coleman / Dewey Redman combo, but their elders have merely inspired them to follow their own way, and they’ve worked hard to do so. The frontline’s sound, with Tom Challenger on second tenor, is thick, full of nuances, and avoids the overwhelming tenor solo routine as well as the theme-solo-theme formula. Their use of little melodies as basis for solo or dual improv manages to remain ever fresh and inventive, and Johnny Brierley’s bass masterfully holds its traditional support role while Dave Smith’s drums produce a dense carpet of percussive punctuations and melodic counterpoints. Outhouse fully deserves to get known outside of the British Isles.

Compared to them, the sound of Sam Crockatt’s tenor, leading his own quartet, is much more in a seductive bag. This is a very good band, and the presence of Gwylim Simcock on the piano (well known in British jazz for his own trio work) is one of its great assets. But compared to the few truly original bands of the early evening and of the day before, this quartet somehow brought us back to these perfectly trimmed bands that had begun the weekend—bands that could be heard about anywhere else, where there are good jazz schools that produce skilled postgraduate students, but bands that can hardly give any idea of the identity of young British jazz.

The fact that the Loop Collective presented both kinds of musicians on this first edition of its festival is a token of their open mindedness and of the diversity of a booming young scene that won’t let the poor economic conditions of their country prevent them from perfecting and showing their craftsmanship.

This blog entry posted by Thierry Quénum.

February 23, 2009 · 1 comment


A Cappella Kind of Blue?

Tomas Peña has conducted more than twenty interviews for since site launch in December 2007. But when he is not chatting with jazz musicians, he also goes to jazz concerts. Below he reports on a recent event celebrating the 50th anniversary of two classic jazz albums. The question is immediately raised: What do you do for a 50th birthday for the album that already has everything? Anyone up for an a cappella version of Kind of Blue?

How do you celebrate the 50th Anniversary of two of the most popular and revered jazz recordings of all time without falling victim to parody? That was the challenge for the powers that be at Jazz at Lincoln Center on the evening of February 12th.

The evening’s festivities began with actor, Wendell Pierce, the star of the television show, The Wire, who provided just enough information to make the evening interesting as well as enjoyable.

Giant Steps

According to John Coltrane, “Everything I did [on Giant Steps] was harmonic exploration and harmonic sequences that I wasn’t familiar with up to that point.” In keeping with that, four saxophonists—Ted Nash, Sherman Irby, Walter Blanding Jr. and George Garzone—backed by the rhythm section explored Coltrane’s music by playing bits and pieces of transcribed improvisations. They deconstructed and reconstructed Coltrane’s concepts with solos, duo and four-way improvisation. Of the four saxophonists, veteran George Garzone came the closest to articulating a deep understanding of Coltrane’s sound. But the star of the show was the collective, a well-oiled machine that was full of surprises and proved to be larger than the sum of its parts.

Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz album of all time and for many listeners it is the recording that lit their passion for jazz. As such, the album was interpreted by Take 6, a popular gospel and R & B a cappella group, who performed the album in its entirety by singing, scatting, harmonizing and at times imitating the sounds of various instruments.

Kind of Blue

Straight-ahead jazz is new territory for Take 6 and there were moments when it was apparent that the group was slightly out of its realm. But given the complex and moody nature of the material the group did a surprisingly good job of holding their own. For the last number of the evening the entire cast gathered on stage for a lively version of Miles Davis’s “Seven Steps to Heaven” and, by any measure, ended the show on a high note.

Kudos to Jazz at Lincoln Center for including the veteran drummer, Jimmy Cobb, who participated in the original recording sessions and whose chops are none the worse for wear. And congratulations to the House of Swing for rising to the challenge and turning what could have been a calamity into a memorable homage and an evening of jazz at its finest.

This blog entry posted by Tomas Peña.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Tracks 'r Us: A Sampler of 25 Recent Reviews

What a crazy idea! But somehow we got started on this project of reviewing all the great (and many not-so-great) tracks in the whole history of jazz music.

We are fortunate that our 50 or so reviewers are a hearty crew—the only stimulus package they need comes in tall-, grande- and venti-sized cups. They keep us advancing toward our goal even while their caffeine-free editor sleeps.

Below is a modest sampling of their efforts—25 reviews published during the last two weeks. As always they come with astute commentary, full personnel and recording info, and a link for fast (and legal) downloading.

Happy listening!

 Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley: “Waltz for Debby"
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert: “Lollipops and Roses”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Gato Barbieri

Gato Barbieri: “Last Tango in Paris”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet: “Wild Cat Blues”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

Theo Bleckmann & Kneebody

Theo Bleckmann & Kneebody: “At the River”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Willie Bobo

Willie Bobo: “Haitian Lady”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

James Carter

James Carter: “Odyssey”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Don Cherry

Don Cherry: “Remembrance”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Miles Davis

Miles Davis: “Full Nelson”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Blossom Dearie

Blossom Dearie: “My New Celebrity is You”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington (featuring Louie Bellson): “Skin Deep”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn: “Tonk”
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

 Bill Evans (sax)

Bill Evans (sax): “My Favorite Little Sailboat”
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell: “Strange Meeting”
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Dexter Gordon

Dexter Gordon: “Blues Walk”
Reviewed by Frank Büchmann-Møller

Alberta Hunter

Alberta Hunter: “Early Every Morn”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett: “Love No. 1”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

 Lee Konitz and Michel Petrucciani

Lee Konitz & Michel Petrucciani: “I Hear a Rhapsody”
Reviewed by Thierry Quénum


Lettuce (with John Scofield): “The Flu”
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

 Mulgrew Miller

Mulgrew Miller: “Caravan”
Reviewed by Frank Büchmann-Møller

Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson: “Jet Song”
Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher

Lou Rawls (with Les McCann)

Lou Rawls (with Les McCann): “Willow Weep for Me”
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt: “Low Cotton”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Mark Turner

Mark Turner: “Moment’s Notice”
Reviewed by Dane Orr

McCoy Tyner

McCoy Tyner: “Afro Blue”
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

February 19, 2009 · 0 comments


The King of Western Swing (Part 2)

Below is the second installment of my three-part article on Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, a pioneering ensemble in merging jazz and country music styles. The occasion for this essay is the release last month of The Tiffany Transcriptions, which captures some of the band's finest work from the post-WWII era. For part one of this article, click here. T.G.

Bob Wills, the great master of Western Swing, was not an overnight success. Born as James Robert Wills near Kosse, Texas in 1905, he was the oldest of ten children. The future country jazz star spent his early years picking cotton, and hopping trains from town to town. He trained to be a barber in his 20s, got married, and moved to Turkey, Texas, and then settled in Fort Worth in 1929. At an age when most pop music icons are strutting the stage, Wills was still offering a shave and haircut for two bits.

But he kept up his fiddling, which he had learned at home as a youngster. Wills' father, John Tompkins Wills, had been statewide champion fiddler, and the family had its own band that held dances in their home. "I've seen them move the furniture out of these four rooms into the kitchen and onto the porch," a neighbor told Wills's biographer Charles R. Townsend as she took him on a tour of the former family hone, "and dance in all four rooms."

Wills heard black music at a very early age and developed a taste for jazz and blues that clearly shaped his later work as a bandleader. Wills once rode fifty miles on horseback in order to see Bessie Smith perform. "She was about the greatest thing that I ever heard," Wills would later enthuse. "In fact, there is no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard." Wills also was a fan of dixieland jazz, and the key elements of this style—syncopation, improvisation, swing, and a marked informality and exuberance—became essential to his own conception of music.

In Fort Worth, Wills worked in medicine shows, and performed on the radio. Wills's band won a fiddle competition in front of an audience of 7,000, and he began to make a name for himself—not just for his musical skills, but also for his stage presence, his easy-going banter and sure instincts as an entertainer.

 The Tiffany Transcriptions

These qualities come to the fore on the recent CD box set The Tiffany Transcriptions, in which Wills keeps up a constant dialogue with his radio audience throughout each song. "Come in Brother Bernard," he announces in "Milk Cow Blues." "Ladies and gentleman that is Junior Barnard and his standard guitar. [Long pause.] That is, two more payments and it will be his."

During the 1930s, Wills' settings changed from time to time—fans would find him with the "Fiddle Boys" or "Light Crust Doughboys" and he eventually settled into a comfortable niche as leader of the "Texas Playboys." Wills also changed his home base, moving to Waco then to Oklahoma City and Tulsa. As the decade progressed, Wills' music became even jazzier. He added horns and drums, and paid close attention to the growing popularity of big band jazz. As American popular music got hotter and more swinging, Wills adapted the Playboy's stylings to match the prevailing mood.

Although drums have found their way into all styles of popular music, they were not common in country bands at the time Wills began relying on them in his rhythm section. A few years later he would cause a stir by bringing them to the Grand Ole Opry, where traditionalists were scandalized. The staff even tried to prevent him from bringing the drums on stage. Today country bands have drummers—so you can be the judge of who won that fight.

Wills built a loyal audience during the 1930s, but his big break came when the Playboys recorded "New San Antonio Rose" in 1940. He had recorded "San Antonio Rose" as a fiddle instrumental number in 1938, but this new version grafted a swing jazz sensibility on to the country foundation. This would prove to be the quintessential Western Swing song, and would become a million seller. For a brief moment it seemed as if jazz and country traditions—the United States' two most distinctive indigenous forms of popular music—were about to merge into some exciting new hybrid that would change the face of popular music.

The Tiffany Transcriptions capture Wills at his loosest and most informal. The band has shed most of its hornplayers (at its peak the Playboys boasted 23 members) and emphasizes the strings. But this is no return to the Carter Family. Wills is definitely plugged in, and we find him featuring electric guitar and electric mandolin and steel guitar. These days the idea that you can build a band around electric guitar is a commonplace, but in the 1940s electric guitar was still a novelty sound in American popular music. Wills, however, places it at the center of his music in these radio broadcasts.

There is some heavy irony here—namely that an artist many would have dismissed as too old-timey back when these sides were recorded, would be anticipating the music all the youngsters would be listening to a decade later. A few critics (most notably Nick Tosches) have tried to trace the country roots of rock-and-roll, but these postwar Wills recordings are a good place for fans to start in trying to understand the linkages.

Those who have spent some time with Wills' music will hardly be surprised to learn that when Chuck Berry recorded "Maybellene" in 1955, he looked back to a recording by the Texas Playboys for inspiration. Future rocker Bill Haley was also inspired by this style of music, and in the late 1940s led a band called the 4 Aces of Western Swing. And, yes, Bob Wills did make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but not until he had been dead almost 25 years. But better late than never.

What about the various jazz-oriented halls of fame, at Downbeat and elsewhere? Do they recognize Will's achievements? Maybe, it's better not to ask . . .

This is the end of part two of Ted Gioia's article on Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Click here for the third and final part of this article.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments


A Giant's Steps: John Coltrane on Atlantic (Part Three)

Fifty years ago this month, John Coltrane purchased a soprano saxophone . . . and the jazz world is still dealing with the fall-out. On his Atlantic recordings, Coltrane began developing his unique soprano sound and pushing his tenor work to the next level, yet these tracks are often obscured by Trane's later, more overtly experimental work for the Impulse label. Chris Kelsey looks back at this music below in the third and final installment of his survey, "A Giant's Steps." Click here to read part one and part two of this article. T.G.

As Giant Steps overshadows Coltrane Jazz, so does My Favorite Things sometimes seem to obscure Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays The Blues in the consciousness of contemporary jazz fans. Like Coltrane Jazz, however, both Sound and Blues have much to recommend them.

Coltrane's Sound debuts three original compositions that would be covered by countless jazz musicians over the decades—"Central Park West," "Equinox," and "Liberia." The album includes a definitive performance of "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," and a brilliant re-imagining of "Body and Soul." Also notable is a performance of Coltrane's composition "Satellite," on which Tyner abjures, as the saxophonist is accompanied only by bass and drums—something that was to occur with some regularity in coming years. Tyner also lays out behind Coltrane's solo on "26-2," a Coltrane tune based on the Charlie Parker original, "Confirmation." On "26-2," after playing the opening head and soloing on tenor, Trane changes horns in the middle of the stream and closes on soprano, an unusual choice at that, or any other, time.

Coltrane Plays The Blues is exactly that: a collection of blues performances by Trane—six total, all his original compositions. As concepts go, it's pretty minimal, but that's okay, because it places full attention on one of Coltrane's major strengths, his power as a blues player. The moods vary. There's the smoke-filled-bar ambience of "Blues To Elvin" and "Blues To Bechet"; the "Chasin' the Trane" precursor, "Blues To You"; the noir-ish "Mr. Sims;" the Latin-tinged "Mr. Knight;" and the idiosyncratic post-bop of "Mr. Day." Coltrane is in top form throughout, expertly combining agility and expression. We also hear Jones open-up, perhaps feeling liberated by the blues form. Following on the heels of the tuneful My Favorite Things and the sophisticated compositions and arrangements of Coltrane's Sound, Coltrane Plays The Blues goes down like a shot of good Kentucky bourbon. It burns so good.

Coltrane signed a new recording contract with the Impulse label in April, 1961. On May 23, he went into the studio for the first of two sessions that would result in his initial release for Impulse, Africa/Brass. He still owed Atlantic another album, however, so two days later, he entered the studio with Tyner and Jones, multi-reedist Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and bassists Art Davis and Reggie Workman. All of them also played on the Africa/Brass sessions, a huge project that included large woodwind and brass sections. The Atlantic record, Olé Coltrane, would be smaller in scale, yet similar to Africa/Brass, with its use of modality and the influence of Latin, African, and Asian musics.

The title track's 6/8 rhythmic vamp and use of the Phrygian mode give the tune a Spanish or North African cast. Several months after the recording of "My Favorite Things," we hear a rhythm section grown fully comfortable with the modal concept. Tyner and Jones play with greater assertiveness, and the dual basses of Reggie Workman and Art Davis (replacing Steve Davis) give the underlying groove a sharper rhythmic edge. "Dahomey Dance" is a blues taken in a modal direction. "Aisha" is a lovely minor-key ballad written by Tyner, and a thoroughly characteristic tune for this band. "To Her Ladyship" is a Coltrane-written ballad, highlighting his soprano work (his sound is uncharacteristically dry, but effective), Dolphy's mercurial flute, and Hubbard in a lyrical mood.

After finding first voice with My Favorite Things, Coltrane's Sound, and Coltrane Plays The Blues, Olé Coltrane shows Coltrane's new core group (Tyner, Workman, Dolphy, and Jones) reaching a high level of maturity; a maturity that would blossom further, later that year with the epochal Live at the Village Vanguard sets on Impulse!. Of all Coltrane's studio recordings, Olé might win the award for the most unfairly overlooked. Yet it's the culmination and—to that point—the fullest flowering of his classic collaborations with Tyner and Jones, signaling definitively the path he was to follow in coming years. As such, it's an essential release, and a perfect ending to Coltrane's superb series of recordings for Atlantic.

This is part three of Chris Kelsey's three-part piece on John Coltrane's Atlantic years. Parts one and two can be read here and here.

February 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Brad Mehldau and Anne Sofie von Otter at Harvard

Roanna Forman covers the Boston jazz scene for Her recent articles here have included reviews of Pat Martino, James Carter, Dominique Eade, Laszlo Gardony, and Roy Hargrove. Below she reports on Brad Mehldau's unusual classical-meets-jazz performance with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter which took place on Friday at Harvard's Sanders Theater. T.G.

            Brad Mehldau, artwork by Keith Henry Brown

The beauty of live music is that you can’t know what to expect (except if you’re at the Presidential inauguration or half-time at the Super Bowl). So I was intrigued at this out-of-the-ordinary pairing – an operatic singer and a jazz pianist/composer.

Unlike Brad Mehldau’s collaboration with soprano Renee Fleming in the reverential and heady album Love Sublime (largely a setting of “The Book of Hours,” Rainer Maria von Rilke’s meditations on God), his Friday night’s concert with the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter focused on renditions of several original Mehldau pieces and American popular favorites.

This was mostly an artistic mismatch. Partly the problem was the material. Mehldau was more invested, intellectually, spiritually, and musically, in the von Rilke poems, whose musical rendering was more demanding for performer and listener alike. The songs commissioned for the von Otter concert lacked that oomph, not merely because they were conceptually lighter fare–poems about love, from unrequited to consummated to lost. On those and the standards alike, the singer was framed with essentially unprovocative accompaniment, considering what Brad can do.

Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile performance, on a number of levels. In particular, the event showed a marked contrast between the more traditional “song recital” orientation of the first half of the program and the looser second. In the opening portion of the event, the refined Bengt Forsberg, an accomplished classical vocal accompanist who has worked with von Otter for some time, was situated at the piano. He watched every note he played, sitting with a page turner at his side.

In contrast, Brad Mehldau (b.1970, as the program indicated in the composer’s notes) set a different tone after intermission. He wore corduroy blaser and brown chinos, swaying, often lost in the music, eyes closed at a keyboard his hands preside over like a small kingdom. There were scored piano accompaniments in the classical portion; ears, memory, and improvisation in the second. Forsberg and von Otter had the complete synergy of years of performance experience and familiarity with the music, while the singer was new to Mehldau’s material, referring the scores on a music stand.

It was clearly the soprano’s show. If you wanted to see an artist in perfect setting for her genre, it was Anne Sofie von Otter in the pin-drop silence of Harvard’s acoustically exquisite Sanders Theatre. Unmiked, unfazed, von Otter and Forsberg ran the art songs of Sibelius, Schumann, and several French composers with a command of the full palette of the form.

Stepping into the next musical gallery after intermission, the singer and Brad Mehldau offered up Mehldau’s contemporary settings of poets Philip Larkin, Sara Teasdale, and e.e. cummings. To a large portion of the classically-oriented audience, Brad Mehldau was just some pianist. To me, he’s some pianist. But he apparently decided to keep within tight parameters of the musical context. He seemed not to want to throw the singer any curves, and the changes were standard fare, although there were some unusual intervals, voicings, and tensions on the endings. He did play, as always, with emotional commitment, more conviction than von Otter, although that may have been from lack of familiarity with the music – not having lived with it long enough. It appeared to be a staged replication of the tour; which is, of course, how classical singers perform. But not jazz players. Only on the encore, “We’ll Catch Up Some Other Time,” did Brad let himself go on the solo. (Often, the solos sounded like embellishments on the melody with fills – of course, they were Mehldau fills; this wasn’t “Piano Man.”)

The original songs, which I’d call contemporary classical, lacked the complexity and angularity of Love Sublime, and musically they weren’t all that memorable, more a centerpiece for von Otter’s gorgeous vocals. To her credit, von Otter changed vocal gears well on the relaxed, after-hours feel of the standards and pop tunes that finished the concert, closing down any throaty operatic throttle for a low idle rendition. Here, she sang from memory songs she knew and loved, especially lyric ballads like Michel Legrand’s “What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” Again, arrangements that for Brad were skimming the surface gave the singer the framework she needed. One surprising choice was “I Am Calling You” the haunting title song of one of the kickiest cult films ever made, Baghdad Café. The mezzo’s voice overpowered the song, and Brad was holding back. The audience ate up the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which Mehldau first arranged for piano in 1997. But my favorite was “Sakta vi ga genom stan,” Monica Zetterlund’s big hit in 1962.

Next time, Mehldau might switch from crossover to the intertwining of improvisational and scored music—clearly not unprecedented, but ground-breaking by its very definition. It would stretch each collaborator in new ways while drawing on their greatest strengths.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Is the Jazz World Recession-Proof?

That big elephant in the corner of the jazz club that no one is mentioning . . . is our current economic recession. Even in good times, the jazz world seem to on a shaky financial footing, but what will happen over the next 12 months. Jared Pauley, a regular contributor to, asks some hard questions about the bottom line. Readers are invited to comment below or by email to  T.G.

The entertainment industry has always been able to weather economic hardships from the Great Depression to the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s. With the current economic situation coming down hard on almost every sector of business, especially here in New York City, I pose the question: Is jazz recession proof?

Being an active musician and member of the community I get the feeling that the jazz scene here is going to be hit pretty hard in the coming months because of the economic climate. When Mayor Bloomberg is cutting the city budget by up to 10% across the board in 2010 I have to wonder when the club circuit here in New York is going to start really feeling the effects.

          Quartet Variations (2005), artwork by Jazzamoart

As the city faces a $4 billion shortfall and as tourism starts to decrease because of the global connection between financial markets, it’s only a matter of time before clubs start to curtail their business aspirations. I know many of you might be thinking that people in New York will continue to pay the ridiculous prices that the clubs charge but the majority of people that frequent clubs like the Blue Note are tourists. When I performed there I played for a house full of. . . Japanese and Danish tourists. Common sense suggests that since tourism is sliding so will the revenue for local New York City jazz clubs.

While music wrestles with its own fate amid the current financial crisis, is the Obama administration prepared to bail out the music industry? Within the more than one trillion dollars allocated for spending in both stimulus packages, how much of the money is being used for the arts? Both economically and particularly culturally the United States is at a standstill. The idea of being a working performance artist has become a joke in recent years. I often wonder how all of us are going to survive on just music in the coming years given the current rate at which the industry is sliding. Given how quickly politicians are mortgaging our future, it freaks me out to think where private and public arts are headed.

An acquaintance of mine that works at Jazz at Lincoln Center recently informed me of the struggles facing the famed NYC organization. While they haven’t been laying people off, overtime has been largely eliminated from the picture in the face of a decline in ticket revenue. If not for the annual subscribers, JALC would be in much more trouble with the decline in general ticket sales. Can I propose that Wynton Marsalis’ salary be capped just like the proposal to cap CEOs of Fortune 500 companies? Sarcasm aside, if an organization like JALC croaks, we’re in serious trouble my friends.

And when all of this business collapses, who feels the brunt of the impact? The musicians. Many of us in this small community realize how difficult it can be to make a living off of jazz music. I am not sure what the markets are like in Los Angeles, New Orleans, or Chicago but I would be interested to hear the specifics. If they are anything like NYC then we have some serious issues to address. Some of my friends and peers have resorted to playing Eastern Asia for month long engagements as opposed to struggling for survival in NYC. The money is a little better and the work is much more consistent and frequent. How has America come this far only to necessitate the export of our creative artists to another part of the world? Instead of Europe, now it’s China. Maybe some of these issues rest on the notion that people in the United States don’t consume music using the old business models. It seems with this change in aesthetic jazz music has been lost somewhere in the world of fictional translation.

How many people reading this have been to a jazz show recently in Manhattan? If you have, then you know the pains lying ahead for your wallet. Being a jazz fan in Manhattan can deplete your monthly entertainment budget in one night. When a fan has to shell out twenty-five dollars plus a two-drink minimum for one set of music, something’s wrong. First, the sheer amount is mind boggling compared to NYC in the early days. Second, even with the increase in covers and food/drink the musicians are still getting the short end of the stick. I feel like I am cheating the musician when I know how little of my money actually makes it into their pocket.

If you go across the East River to Brooklyn and enter the world of hipsters in Williamsburg, you experience the bitterest portion of the NYC musical market. Ask most musicians how much money they make playing in Williamsburg. Large majorities of people that reside in Williamsburg are notorious for not paying covers or giving support when the money bucket makes the round. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to encounter people splurging on fifty-dollar bar tabs. Where do the musicians fall in this wacky game of musical chairs? Club owners in both Manhattan and Brooklyn can act as if it’s an honor for musicians to have the privilege of gracing the bandstand of their establishment. Has the consumption level for live music changed so much here that there’s no turning back? Even though club owners and the upper class might not feel the full damage of financial collapse, the people who do are the high school kids and the twenty something undergraduates that have devoted their lives to music. What’s waiting on the other end for these kids when it’s their turn?

I personally challenge the jazz community at large to weigh our own collective fate. If the business model that’s in place now stays the way it is, jazz might very well be in its last years as a vital performance art. Other than private philanthropy or government intervention, how else can jazz music survive? Where does America’s music rank on the list along with terrorism, stock-market collapses, and Botox? Not too high and the people that lose out are the young generations that grow up missing out on their own culture because we failed to adequately preserve it. Hopefully our Miles Davis-loving president can do something in the coming years for the arts. It kills me to see how pitiful our culture has become given our rich history in the development of music.

This brief article is my small attempt as a musician and a writer to engage my community with open dialogue. I am really tired of having conversations about who plays better than whom or who did what the best. Let’s move onto to something more meaningful. The musical atmosphere is changing rapidly with each year. Are we as a community doing enough to make our voices heard? What can we do to ensure jazz music survives another fifty years? I know we can do something, what do you think?

This blog entry posted by Jared Pauley.

February 15, 2009 · 7 comments


Just Friend(U)s: Now Has a Facebook Page

Yes, now has a home-away-from-home at Facebook. And each of you is invited to become our Facebook friend.

To tell the truth, I'm a bit fuzzy on this Facebook stuff. I suspect that it's sort of a cross between a dating service and the Psychic Friends Network. But I am assured that serious jazz people congregate in the respectable neighborhoods of the Facebook site. In any event, Chris Kelsey, a frequent contributor and editor at, shares the details below. T.G.

If you're not hip to Facebook, you're missing out on the hottest social networking site on the Interwebs. Facebook is an invaluable tool for hooking up with everyone from that girl/guy who broke your heart in high school to fellow lovers of America's Greatest Contribution to World Culture (that's jazz, in case I'm being too subtle).

Several contributors are Facebook aficionados; we know that more than a few of our exponentially growing community of users must be, as well. So we've given a Facebook page of its own—a place for all of us to share our likes and enthusiasms about our favorite music. You can find it here.

If you haven't started your own Facebook page, it's easier than playing "I Got Rhythm." Just navigate over to to get started. Once you're signed up, meander over to the Facebook page and just "friend" us. We promise not to break your heart.

This blog entry was written by Chris Kelsey.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments


The King of Western Swing (Part 1)

Below is the first installment of my three-part article on Bob Wills, a pioneer in merging jazz and country music styles. The occasion for this essay is the release last month of The Tiffany Transcriptions, which captures some of Wills's finest work from the post-WWII era. T.G.

The last year has been a joyous time for fans of country-jazz fusion. Who would have thought that Wynton Marsalis would ever collaborate with Willie Nelson? Who could have anticipated that Charlie Haden would evolve from sideman with Ornette Coleman to the leader of a modern day Carter Family band (or Haden family band, in this instance)? But these were some seriously fun albums, and both made my list of the 50 best CDs of 2008.

What's next? Maria Schneider takes on the Merle Haggard Songbook? Cecil Taylor opens up a showroom in Branson, Missouri? Keith Jarrett stars on Hee-Haw?

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys

                      Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys

While you're waiting for the next milestone in cowboy jazz, you are advised to spend some time with the master of the genre: Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Wills, who was born at one minute before midnight on March 6, 1905 near Kosse, Texas, stands out as the leading star of the Western Swing movement that flourished in the post-WWII years. Indeed, he is one of most engaging figures in mid-century American music, and a grand entertainer on par with Fats Waller (born 1904) and Cab Calloway (born 1907) in any list of the charismatic populists of song from Wills' generation.

The Tiffany Transcriptions, a recent box set from Collector's Choice Music, is a treasure trove of Wills-iana. These ten CDs capture the Texas Playboys at the their creative peak in a series of recordings produced for syndicated radio show—more than 150 tracks that serve as a perfect introduction to this historic ensemble. Charles R. Townsend, author of the fine book San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills has suggested that "no single list reveals the incredible breadth of Wills' music and versatility of his band better than the Tiffany transcriptions."

"When I'm asked about the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the first thing that comes to mind are the Tiffany Transcriptions," rockabilly guitarist Ashley Kingman explains. "These are the recordings that really turned me on to this amazingly talented band. I even remember where I first heard a track off these recordings." Driving across New Mexico in an old Chrysler station wagon, Kingman only had a radio for entertainment. The reception was poor and the station faded out before the song was finished, but the joyous, informal sound of this music made a lasting impact.

 The Tiffany Transcriptions

Wills was one of the hottest acts in American music in the 1940s. At the close of World War II, his band was out-drawing Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and other leading Swing Era stars. In 1946, Time magazine reported that Wills annual earnings were $340,000—a fabulous sum considering the minimum wage was forty cents per hour during these post-war years.

Some jazz purists were quick to dismiss this music. "[Wills] is tired of being patronized by swing kings," Time reported, and the bandleader complained about people who said he didn't know what he was doing. Yet back in the 1940s, much like today, money talked and people listened in the music world. As a result, even city slickers were catching on to this countrified music. Deejay Cactus Jack (the colorful radio name adopted by Cliff Johnson) was promoting some of Wills' appearances on the West Coast, including a two-day engagement at the Oakland Civic Auditorium that drew almost twenty thousand fans. Only a short time before, Jack had paid little attention to Wills's music, but he caught on quickly to the financial potential it represented. Together with songwriter-businessman Clifford Sundin, Johnson plotted a syndicated radio show that would take advantage of Wills' star power.

The concept was to create a series of pre-recorded, pre-packaged radio shows that stations around the United States could broadcast. These stations would place their own advertisements with the "shows"—a familiar syndication formula nowadays, but far more cumbersome to implement in those days before podcasts, streaming media and satellite networks. Subscribing stations would receive 16-inch vinyl disks which featured five songs per side. The ambiance was similar to a remote broadcast from a ballroom or nightclub (a popular format at the time)—and no doubt many listeners thought they were hearing Wills' band in live performance.

These broadcasts were popular in the west and southwest. In Oklahoma alone, ten stations joined on as subscribers. But Tiffany could not get traction east of the Mississippi, where only one station (in Springfield, Ohio) carried the program. Tiffany would shut down in 1949, around the same time that Western Swing bands—and other types of Swing, for that matter—were falling out of favor.

But while they lasted, the Tiffany broadcasts created some memorable music. The distribution schedule put pressure on Wills to record dozens of songs, and cover a wide range of material beyond his band's familiar hits. Much of the interest of The Tiffany Transcriptions stems from the variety in the band's repertoire, and the obvious spontaneity of the proceedings. Wills plays the familiar jazz hits of other bandleaders: "Mission to Moscow" from the Benny Goodman band; "Take the A Train" from Duke Ellington; "Jumpin' At Woodside" from Count Basie; "At the Woodchopper's Ball" from Woody Herman. The Texas Playboys also take on old blues, pop standards, country songs, traditional tunes, and of course their own original compositions. Along the way, we get everything from "Red River Valley" to "Sweet Georgia Brown."

But the loose and easy atmosphere here is more than just a result of surprising song choices. Wills and the whole band capture a relaxed down home mood that let listeners feel like they are eavesdropping on some friendly folks making music for their own personal enjoyment. There may have been more virtuosic bands during this period. Certainly there were ensembles with a more experimental twist or a more piquant sense of the future of popular music. But for sheer fun, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were not to be outdone in these post-war years—a period during which the American public, in the aftermath of fifteen years of Great Depression and calamitous war was looking for precisely this type of lighthearted entertainment.

This is the end of part one of Ted Gioia's article on Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Click here part two.

February 11, 2009 · 3 comments


If Charlie Christian Had Lived Until the Age of Fusion . . .

Most critics look at CDs that are, and ask why. But only a few critics wonder about CDs that never were, and ask why not.’s Walter Kolosky shows once again why he definitely belongs in the second camp. Read on. T.G.

Here is the next in my series of fantasy reviews. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept under which I am operating please visit the introductory section of my John Coltrane fantasy fusion album review. You may read it here.

This time out I review a fantasy band that could have been a killer precursor to the fusion power trio. I hope you enjoy it.

Charlie Christian Electrified Trio
Boppin’ at Sweet Basil’s
(Dial 93017)

 Charlie Christian Fantasy Record

The latest bebop disk to hit the market is a Dial live recording of the unique Charlie Christian Electrified Trio featuring Charlie on electric guitar, dynamo Buddy Rich on drums, and Stan Clarke on electrified bass. This is Charlie’s first recording featuring his own band. Recorded during a radio broadcast, Bopping at Sweet Basil’s demonstrates that the “Genius of the Electric Guitar” is also the “Genius of the Bebop Style.”

Swingman Buddy “Baby Traps” Rich, having recently spent some time playing with Bird in Boston, seems at home playing the Bop. Stan Clarke, a remarkable young man hailing from Philadelphia, plays the new electrified bass.

The get-together had been in the works for some time. Apparently, Charlie had been impressed with some work Buddy had done with Dizzy. Rich has been bopping a lot lately. Rumor had it that Buddy had been itching to get out of a contract with a very famous swing leader. Eventually Buddy, a volatile character to say the least, found a way to get fired. Buddy learned about Charlie’s interest and the two agreed to hook up for a few shows to see how it would go.

Charlie had also heard about this kid who was playing the electrified bass and amazing the cats in Philadelphia. The story goes that Stan Clarke had sat in a few nights covering for his band’s sick electric guitarist. Mouths opened as he laid out some bebop melody lines on his homemade electrified bass. Charlie traveled out to Philly to hear Stan play and asked him if he wanted to go in with him and Buddy and form a new kind of electrified trio? Stan was stunned that the great Charlie Christian would come just to hear him play. As excited as he was, Clarke said he never heard anything Charlie was asking him, but found himself saying “yes” over and over again.

Of all the boppers, Charlie’s playing is truest to the cause. By now, most jazz audiences have become familiar with the electric guitar as a lead instrument. But while the shock may be gone, the amazement is not. Charlie’s soloing is the most beautiful in all of jazz. There is never a wrong note. Each strike of the string is perfect.

On this recording, Christian improvises effortlessly over a busy bass line and syncopated, but heavy drumbeat. The fact this is an amplified trio will threaten many in the jazz community, which always yearns for something new yet remains ever-afraid when it occurs. But it makes no difference to these players. To help replace the missing horns, Charlie has begun to intersperse his solos with some nice chords that add a new and welcome dimension to his well-known style. On several occasions, Clarke even adds some chord support on electrified bass that thrilled this listener!

The band ran several standards as tributes to some of their comrades. “Night in Tunisia” and “Salt Peanuts,” complete with non-sense vocals from Buddy, were dedicated to Diz and Kenny Clarke. The band also tackled Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple.” The band sounds particularly strong on several originals written by Clarke. Two tunes, “Philly Bounce” and “School Days,” are up-tempo pieces that feature some real hot playing. Clarke also wrote a beautiful ballad he calls “Quiet Afternoon.” For a change, Buddy quiets down on this number and gently rides his cymbals while Charlie plays the most luscious solo over a viola-sounding progression provided by Clarke. You can almost feel the crowd melt. The liner notes say that Clarke took a bow to his plugged-in bass for this piece. Clarke and his instrument may prove to be controversial, but clearly he is a very capable player and promising composer.

According to Dial, the latest electronic recording devices were used to capture this event. And truly, the sound is impeccable. It is appropriate that such modern equipment was used to record such a modern sound. Expect to hear more from this distinctive unit and especially keep your ears open for more from Stan Clarke and his wonderful instrument.

Charlie Christian Electrified Trio- Bopping at Sweet Basil’s: Night in Tunisia; Salt Peanuts; Philly Bounce; School Days; Quiet Afternoon

Personnel: Charlie Christian, electric guitar; Buddy Rich, drums; Stan Clarke, electrified bass

This blog entry posted by Walter Kolosky

February 10, 2009 · 2 comments


Nat Hentoff on Jazz: Remembering Nesuhi Ertegun and Joel Dorn is delighted to introduce Nat Hentoff as a new contributor. Few individuals have done more for the jazz art form than Mr. Hentoff. Hence, it came as little surprise when, back in 2004, he was the first non-musician to be honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Below Hentoff writes about two other important jazz advocates: Nesuhi Ertegun and Joel Dorn. T.G.

I've only had a few years of experience as a producer of jazz recordings. First, I worked for Lester Koenig's Contemporary label in the 1950s. Lester was a valuable teacher: "Let the musicians breathe," he said, "and the music will."

Then, for a couple of years, I had complete reign as the A&R man at Candid Records, where my releases included recordings by Charles Mingus, Booker Little, Otis Spann and Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite.

As a reporter on the jazz scene, I had watched in studios as some longterm producers—with their egos and sales figures in mind—acted as if the music had their bylines, considerably diminishing what Whitney Balliett described as jazz's "Sounds of Surprise."

Once a leader agreed to come to Candid, I didn't interfere with the music, except for the rare occasion when an arrangement was so thick the players got stuck in it. I'd suggest a free blues, and the players came back to life.

Nesuhi Ertegun

But over the years, I was privileged, as were listeners around the world, to have my spirits lifted by the work of the very model of a jazz musician's A&R man, Nesuhi Ertegun. At Atlantic Records, Nesuhi let Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ray Charles, Ornette Coleman, and many others, breathe naturally. Nesuhi understood that—as John Coltrane once told me—to jazz players, "this music is as important as life itself." And Nesuhi got to know the source of what he was hearing by connecting with musicians' lives. Said Yusef Lateef:

Talking to Nesuhi was like talking to a brother or a father. When I returned to the U.S. from Nigeria, it was because of Nesuhi that I was able to do an album that won a Grammy.

I often heard my friend, Charles Mingus, berate the unjustified hubris of the music business powers he had to deal with, but he was never critical of Nesuhi. As Sue Mingus, who keeps expanding her husband's legacy around the world, wrote in her memoir Tonight At Noon: A Love Story:

Nesuhi's warmth and friendship for Mingus lasted a lifetime… He gave him complete artistic freedom. Nesuhi had always come to his rescue without question when Charles needed a friend.

When Nesuhi died at 71 in 1989, too little notice was paid in the jazz world, let alone elsewhere. There were passing accolades, but when compared to the large-scale attention paid over the decades to his brother Ahmet, the chairman and cofounder of Atlantic, Nesuhi's profound impact on the jazz canon through his relationships with the musicians he recorded has been neglected.

At last, however, the scope and depth of what Nesuhi bequeathed to players as well as us non-musicians has been grandly released in a Rhino Handmade CD box set: Hommage à Nesuhi, subtitled "Atlantic Jazz, A 60th Anniversary Collection."

This tribute would not have come about had it not been for another master producer and historian, Joel Dorn. After yearning to work with Nesuhi, Joel became his assistant at Atlantic in 1967, and was instrumental in a number of their lasting creations.

Joel died in 2007 at 65. For years, he brightened my life with his stories of the lives as well as the music of the players he had worked with – and, like Nesuhi, with his unfailing integrity. Often sardonic, without a trace of political correctness, Joel had an infectious love of life. "I don't do things to do them," he told Marshall Bowden during a conversation on "I really only do what I want to do, which is a tricky way of living." But it's also a jazz way of living.

For a long time, Joel talked to me about what was to be his last major production—finally getting Nesuhi his due. I was honored, I kid you not, when he asked me to write a reminiscence of Nesuhi for the liner notes of the Rhino set – alongside others written by Sue Mingus, Michael Cuscuna, Ira Gitler, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Mirjana Lewis (John's wife), Gunther Schuller and David Ritz. Ritz recalled their first meeting, when he told Nesuhi:

"When I was a kid, your records made all the difference."

Nesuhi responded that he felt the same way, "but they weren't mine."

"You produced them!" David protested.

"'Facilitator,' Nesuhi answered, "is a more accurate term than 'producer'."

As Joel Dorn says in his contribution to the liner notes, "Nesuhi possessed a thundering lack of ego."

Among the jazz treasures Nesuhi 'facilitated,' which can be found in this Rhino collection for the ages—if the world survives not global warming, but massive inhumanity—are the following tracks, along with previously unpublished "decisive moment" photographs by Lee Friedlander:

Big Joe Turner's "Cherry Red;" Ray Charles's "I Got A Woman;" John Coltrane's "Giant Steps;" Charles Mingus's "Passions of a Man;" Milt Jackson's "The Spirit-Feel;" The Modern Jazz Quartet's "The Golden Striker;" Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin';" and Laverne Baker's "Empty Bed Blues."

The five-volume set is a limited edition of 3000, available through the Rhino website for $149.98. However, if there is a demand beyond that number, more sets will be made. I expect that once the word gets around, there will be more than 3000 listeners around the world who fill feel as intense a need to have this as Joel Dorn did to convince Rhino to issue it.

In his notes, Dorn, never one to dilute his passions, says: "If you ever wanna believe anything I tell you, believe this: Nesuhi was the soul of Atlantic Records back when Atlantic Records actually had a soul."

This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff

February 09, 2009 · 8 comments


Jazz's First Avant-Gardist

Half a century ago, Ornette Coleman bit into the Big Apple, turning the jazz world upside down, inside out, and every which way including sideways. Yet's resident curmudgeon now argues that the avant-garde did not begin with Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra or other seers of the 1950s.

Follow Alan Kurtz's tortured logic, and you arrive at a most unlikely candidate for granddaddy of the avant-garde. Even if you don't buy the argument (and if you do, we have some prime real estate for sale in the Everglades with a slight drainage problem), you may be perversely fascinated by this latest jailbreak of fugitive ideas from our web site's most twisted mind. Readers are invited to comment or nominate their own candidates, either below or by email to  T.G.

Paul Whiteman conducts (1928). Musicians from left to right: Wilbur Hall, Rube Crozier, Bill Rank, Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Margulis.

When I arrived at her modest bungalow around noon, my trusty medium Madame Bullshitsky was just opening for business. Naturally she claimed I was expected. What kind of psychic would be surprised to see someone? Ushered into her darkened parlor, I could soon make out the familiar disarray of tarot cards, rolling papers, and books on music theory.

After she'd settled behind her crystal ball (which she once confided to me was mostly for show, to impress the tourists; although she insisted it helped her focus), I explained my quandary. Since Wynton Marsalis is otherwise occupied, famed filmmaker Ken Burns has shrewdly retained me as a consultant on the jazz portion of his upcoming documentary, Avant-Garde: The Prequel. Naturally I accepted this important assignment with undue humility. The problem was, as my deadline loomed, I still hadn't identified jazz's first avant-gardist. Burns wanted a seminal figure on whom he could fixate as he'd done with Louis Armstrong in an earlier project, The Civil War: Between Jazz and Baseball.

To my relief, Madame B. didn't hesitate for an instant. "I know exactly what you need," she declared in her thick Bulgarian accent. "A séance with the appropriate phantasms will set you back $300." I assured her that price was no obstacle, since I'd already optioned an account of this adventure with "Ted Gioia will pick up the tab," I confidently predicted.

Lapsing quickly into a pre-tuned trance state, Madame B. exercised self-hypnotic regression to contact the spirit world. "Alright," she said when ready. "Where shall we start?"

Determined to probe deeper than the Cecil-Come-Lately experimentalism of the 1950s, I instructed her to work backward among recordings dating no later than 1949.

"I hear a clarinet," she muttered in due course. Clarinet? Avant-garde? In 1949? That couldn't be right. "Yes," she maintained. "The name comes hazily. George's … buddy." Of course! "A Bird in Igor's Yard" from April 1949, composed by George Russell and waxed by Buddy DeFranco. Highly advanced stuff.

Satisfied that we were on the right track, I urged her to go back farther in time. "Very strange," she said. "I hear a small combo, and they sound well rehearsed. But each man is playing in his own private key." That could only be Lennie Tristano, who did indeed wax "Wow" in March and "Intuition" in May of 1949.

Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delight (c. 1504)

I told her to continue regressing. Transfixed, she turned a whiter shade of pale. Fear grotesquely contorted her face. "A tall nobleman spreads his arms, as grandly as an eagle in flight. Loud music. Many brass. Much dissonance. Someone has orchestrated Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delight." No doubt about it: Stan Kenton conducting Bob Graettinger's "Thermopylae" (December 1947). Kenton's "Monotony" from that October was nowhere near as scary, but also quite progressive.

"Go back more," I instructed. As fright fled from her face, she groped for words to describe what next she heard. "Bop noir," she said uncertainly, then decided that was right after all. "Yes, bop noir," she reiterated with conviction. Surely she meant Thelonious Monk's original "'Round Midnight" (November 1947). Now we were getting somewhere.

"Keep going," I implored. Her mouth now assumed a wry grin, and she couldn't suppress a chuckle. "Oh, yes," she said knowingly. "I sense the Russian's hand alright. He has these fine musicians playing that which they do not understand. He demands cash on the barrelhead." Oh, so now we were up against the composer who'd sparked riots in Parisian streets in 1913 and whose less-than-riotous "Ebony Concerto" was recorded by Woody Herman in 1946. Igor Stravinsky himself. "He says it's pronounced Eye-gore," Madame B. sharply corrected me.

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn in the Barrelhouse - collage by Alan Kurtz Before I could fully process this, she'd moved on. "A peer and his sweet pea," said Madame B., "entertain roughnecks in a principality far from Carnegie Hall." Had to be the Duke & Billy Strayhorn rummaging through "Tonk" (1946), the quirkiest heirloom in all Ellingtonia—a wondrous anomaly.

"What's next?" I prodded. "Or rather, what's before?" Attending to her spectral familiars, my medium with a message began giggling. "More pranksters," she chortled. "They're pulling our legs. Or," she seemed to reconsider, listening closer to that distant music mere mortals could not hear, "possibly not. At first you think it's like a clown playing Hamlet. Then you realize it's a serious actor playing a clown playing Hamlet. The joke's on us." I'd seldom seen Madame B. so engaged. But then, Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" (1937) will do that to even the most stoical soul.

Suddenly she began gulping for air. "We are in the water," she gasped. "A cephalopod with eight arms is playing the marimba." That'd be Red Norvo's "Dance of the Octopus" (1933), an early case of surrealist jazz. For her own safety, I ordered Madame B. to return to land and go back farther in time.

She breathed easier at once. "Hot stuff coming," she advised, obviously on terra firma. "People hang from high windows tossing tickertape at a dashing young man with wings. A chubby bambino hits grapefruit with a bat. A mechanic smears grease on his face, then sings on bended knee about his jammies." Madame B. appeared to be losing her connection. "Disjointed music," she said. "Jagged edges. The Commissioner is displeased. He sharply claps his hands!" And with that, she fell instantly out of her trance. "Credit card or ATM?" she inquired.

This timely little visit was positively worth Gioia's $300. Fulfilling my quest for Artist Zero would now be just a matter of deciphering Madame B.'s somewhat cryptic clues. (She did offer an option with less crypticism, but that would've run $500, and I was not about to squander's money.)

Al Jolson: The Jazz Singer (1927)

Earnestly pledging that Doris would cut a check for the overnight pouch, I took the Madame's leave. On the clogged freeway to my office, I pondered her metaphors. The winged young man strewn with tickertape must be Charles Lindbergh. A chubby bambino smashing grapefruit with a bat was of course Babe Ruth. And the mechanic in greasepaint, singing on bended knee, could only be the deplorable Al Jolson. Yes, this was undoubtedly New York City in 1927.

However, the disjointed music that displeased the Commissioner left me momentarily stumped. It took me hours to unravel that one. But it was right there staring me in the face. The 1920s' most popular bandleader, a classical violinist turned symphonic jazz commandant, is best remembered today for commissioning George Gershwin's glorious Rhapsody in Blue, which he then presented (with its composer at the piano) at its premiere during An Experiment in Modern Music in 1924.

This same "commissioner," if you will, in the Year of Lost Chords 1927 hired pioneering jazz arranger Don Redman to orchestrate a Fats Waller tune. Alas, the commissioner's normally accomplished band, rushing the tempo and flubbing notes, butchered Redman's "Whiteman Stomp." Thankfully, that same year the legendary Fletcher Henderson recorded it to better effect.

Wacky as it sounds, then, jazz's first avant-gardist, the prophet who put experimentalism on the map and was so far ahead of his time that we still haven't caught up, turns out to be none other than (may I push the envelope, please?): Paul Whiteman.

Some will object that jazz was always avant-garde, and needed no Whiteman to set it free. Yet it's equally valid to say that jazz, however contemporary it may have seemed in the early 20th century, did not become musically modern until the advent of bebop. Indeed, we tend to forget that during the mid-'40s, before the descriptor "bebop" took hold, the emerging music was called Modern Jazz, to distinguish it from the earlier traditional forms.

Paul Whiteman with Maurice Ravel in New York (1928)

Which makes Whiteman's evolution from classical violinist to hot bandleader to symphonic jazzman to Impressionist devotee to avant-gardist all the more remarkable. Notwithstanding his enormous success during the Roaring '20s, Whiteman's artistic direction veered unexpectedly following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He abandoned his Impressionist phase—during which he'd introduced Maurice Ravel to "In A Mist," a composition for solo piano by Bix Beiderbecke (Whiteman's ill-fated cornetist)—and traveled to Hollywood to star in Universal Pictures' Technicolor musical King of Jazz (1930). On its face, that appeared to be a reversion to commercialism. But it was there that Whiteman fell under the influence (or was it spell?) of Universal's creepy import, Hungarian actor Béla Lugosi, who was just then transferring to the silver screen his Broadway sensation Dracula.

Oliver Hardy, Béla Lugosi & Paul Whiteman in Hollywood (1929)

Paul Whiteman thereupon himself caused a sensation. Adopting the nom de cinema "Oliver Hardy," the artist formerly known as Whiteman generated widespread confusion, especially among the fellow already named Oliver Hardy, by now well established as a comic actor. The fact that the two men, born two years apart, looked enough alike to be twins instilled further consternation. But this was exactly what the new Oliver Hardy intended. (To keep the story straight, I shall continue to call him Whiteman.) Assuming a comedic guise was tactically brilliant, since it disarmed bourgeois objections to his increasingly experimental music.

Laurel & Hardy: The Music Box (1932)

Whiteman's masterpiece during this period was unquestionably The Music Box (1932), a 29-minute film in which Laurel & Hardy (the real one) reenact the legend of Sisyphus. Cast as hapless piano movers, the comedians must trundle said instrument up an impossibly steep outdoor stairway to a hilltop destination, where it will be a young wife's surprise birthday gift to her self-important professorial husband who hates and despises pianos. The film's running gag is that L&H keep losing their grip on the castered wooden crate encasing the piano, which then careens out of control down the concrete stairs and comes to rest only when it reaches the faraway street at the bottom of the hill.

Somehow, Paul Whiteman's sly genius perceived in this cinematic setup an unparalleled opportunity to introduce millions of moviegoers—men, women, and children alike—to avant-garde jazz.

Whiteman did not concern himself with the script's diegetic music, namely solo piano renditions of old standbys "Turkey In the Straw," "Dixie" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." That pedestrian chore was handled by Marvin Hatley, longtime music director of the Hal Roach studio and composer of Laurel & Hardy's quaint theme, "Dance of the Cuckoos."

Rather, Whiteman created the jazzy cacophony emanating from within the crate as the piano—with its damper pedal set, for some unexplained but miraculous reason, to full sustain—repeatedly makes its jostling and jouncing way unescorted down the long stairs to the waiting street. Scored as a duet for piano and tubular bells, Whiteman's 12-minute piece "Losing Our Grip" was as bold in its visionary insight as it was stunning in its execution.

Admittedly one detects the influence of Whiteman's younger contemporary, ultra-modernist composer Henry Cowell. While still in his teens, Cowell had written " Dynamic Motion" (1916) to investigate the expressive possibilities of the solo piano tone cluster, an outlandish technique in which the keyboardist, like an untrained young child flailing for the first time at the family upright, uses flat-hand and forearm smashes to pound out massively dissonant secundal and chromatic chords. This innovation so impressed Béla Bartók that he tried unsuccessfully to secure its European patent. Truly, as his protégé John Cage would later remark, Henry Cowell was "the open sesame for new music in America."

Yet not even Cowell could've conceived Whiteman's most inspired stroke. For the soundtrack sessions, and at his own expense, Whiteman imported the incomparable Parisian jazz chimes player Quasimodo de Notre-Dame, who'd jammed with a juvenile Django when the Gypsy plectrist was still playing mostly banjo, as attested by their historic recording "C'est les Cloches, Vous Savez" ("It's the Bells, You Know"). The superbly inventive chimist, nicknamed Q., proved pivotal in realizing the full potential of Whiteman's piece.

Also contributing to the mix are the percussive sounds of an actual crate bounding over cement steps, recorded on location during filming. Whiteman ingeniously incorporates these noises into an overall rhythmic framework unmistakably derived from jazz.

Regrettably, what we hear is not a continuous performance, since it is necessarily interrupted by bits of comedic business from Laurel & Hardy. Yet "Losing Our Grip" is nonetheless the indisputable wellspring of avant-garde jazz, anticipating Cecil Taylor by three decades.

It's difficult to either describe my elation or fix the precise Eureka! moment upon realizing that I'd finally identified jazz's first avant-gardist. Candidly, I don't even recall phoning Ken Burns at what must've been for him an ungodly hour. All I know for sure is that when I got him on the line, I broke the news without preamble, saying simply and in a voice choked with emotion: "Mr. Burns, I'm ready for my close-up."

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

February 08, 2009 · 4 comments


Track Review Roundup published its 6,000th article yesterday—a total which includes more than 4,000 track reviews contributed by a team of 50 critics. It’s easy for site visitors to miss these reviews, so I have offered links below to 25 recent ones.

We can’t fit all of our new articles on the home page—and the selection below is only a little taste of the more than 250 reviews published during the last month—so site visitors who want to dig a little deeper are encouraged to make regular visits to our music page. There, in the sidebar, you will find links to our ten most popular reviews, our ten most recent reviews, and our complete review archive. This page also features a short list of tracks currently in rotation at

Happy listening!

Miles Davis

Miles Davis: “You’re Under Arrest”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Tony Bennett & Count Basie

Tony Bennett & Count Basie: “Old Man River”
Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher

 Steely Dan

Steely Dan (featuring Wayne Shorter): “Aja”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey: “Lonesome Road”
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

Chick Corea & Return to Forever

Chick Corea & Return to Forever: “Light As a Feather”
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Martial Solal & Lee Konitz

Martial Solal & Lee Konitz: “Stella by Starlight”
Reviewed by Thierry Quénum

Buddy DeFranco

Buddy DeFranco: “A Bird in Igor's Yard”
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard: “Innocence”
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

 Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti

Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: “Raggin’ the Scale”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

 Benny Golson

Benny Golson: “Whisper Not”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Art Ensemble of Chicago

Art Ensemble of Chicago: “Oh Strange, Pt. 2”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Roy Hargrove

Roy Hargrove: “Strasbourg / St. Denis”
Reviewed by Greg Marchand

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck: “Unsquare Dance
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Muhal Richard Abrams

Muhal Richard Abrams: “Blu Blu Blu”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Grachan Moncur III

Grachan Moncur III: “Thandiwa”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Art Blakey (with Keith Jarrett)

Art Blakey (with Keith Jarrett): “Secret Love”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Jan Hammer

Jan Hammer: “Red and Orange”
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

 Count Basie

Count Basie: “Speaking of Sounds”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim: “In a Sentimental Mood”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Arthur Blythe

Arthur Blythe: “Break Tune”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Michal Urbaniak

Michal Urbaniak: “Chinatown (Part 1)”
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Bob James

Bob James: “Feel Like Making Love”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Eddie Palmieri

Eddie Palmieri: “In Walked Bud”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Sam Rivers

Sam Rivers: “Cyclic Episode”
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith: “Open House”
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

February 05, 2009 · 0 comments


The Jazz World Loses Two Soulful Sax Masters

Two much beloved jazz saxophonists passed away in recent days—David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford. There was some sad irony in this alignment of the stars: both of these artists came to the fore while working with Ray Charles, and their paths crossed on a number of occasions in later years. Ted Panken, who interviewed the duo for a Downbeat article a few years back, offers his recollections below. T.G.

At the conclusion of a forward that appeared in program notes for the compilation CDs, Memphis, Ray and a Touch of Moody and It’s Mister Fathead (32 Jazz), each containing the proceedings of four 1960s Atlantic albums apiece by, respectively, Hank Crawford and David Newman, label proprietor and producer Joel Dorn offered a pithy, spot-on assessment of their place in the jazz timeline.

"If musicians had to pay royalties for using someone else’s sound the way they have to for recording someone else’s songs, Dorn wrote, David and Hank would be billionaires."

Often thought of in tandem because of their mutual association in Ray Charles’ top-shelf unit between 1958 and 1964, and various subsequent co-led projects, Newman, who died on January 20th, and Crawford, who died on January 29th, both raised in the black church, had different perspectives on their musical production.

Hank Crawford

Out of Memphis—where his generational contemporaries included George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Phineas Newborn, Harold Mabern, Charles Thomas, Booker Little, and Charles Lloyd—Crawford was as much a devotee of the populist, Johnny Hodges-influenced style of Louis Jordan and Earl Bostic as he was of Charlie Parker. He developed a minimalist, melody-oriented, vibrato-heavy solo approach rooted in gospel and the blues (in his trademark horn arrangements, Crawford framed his alto as “lead singer” over a backup chorus of horns), that earned him a reputation as exemplar of “soul alto,” which David Sanborn, among others, adapted and stamped onto the post-‘70s pop soundtrack.

David ‘Fathead’ Newman

A son of Dallas, Texas, Newman, who came up with Ornette Coleman, Cedar Walton, James Clay, and Dewey Redman, was a distinctive stylist on three instruments. He exemplified the “wide open spaces,” make-every-note-count tenor saxophone approach famously identified with the Lone Star State, and augmented it with a tart alto saxophone tone learned directly from Parker’s prime phrasing influence, Buster Smith, and a sere, piercing, prophet’s voice on flute. He made his share of commercial recordings, but he also liked to navigate modern harmony and contemporary rhythms, as documented on seven excellent recordings for the High Note label made between 1998 and 2007.

Still, the singular sounds that Newman and Crawford conjured, as identifiably unique to them as their fingerprints, will comprise their mutual legacy. Though they’re not the last of the line of African-American saxophonists raised in the exciting times directly following World War II—when interstates, jet planes, mall culture and television did not exist, when institutionalized segregation did, when people from different regions did things their own way—who internalized and never strayed far from the elemental principle that the horn is an analog for the human voice, the conditions in which they formed their sensibility are long past. In that light, there is a certain poignant symbolism in their passing on during the first ten days of the Obama Administration.

Both men learned the fundamentals from band teachers (Crawford from Matthew Garrett, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s father; Newman from J.K. Miller, who dubbed him “Fathead” for his penchant for memorizing music instead of reading it), and, while still in high school, began to earn a living from music. “Bebop was our classroom, the study period,” recalled Crawford, born Bennie, who took his stage name from Memphis altoist Hank O’Day. “We'd practice it all day at each other's house, but when we had to go out and play, we'd play a lot of blues. I walked bars and laid on my back on the floor with people dropping coins in the bell.”

Like Crawford an early devotee of Earl Bostic, Newman became a convert to the word of Bird after hearing “Koko.” As a teenager, he played with bebop saxophonist Red Connor, a local luminary whose “sound was more or less between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, and maybe even Don Byas." A frequent third horn was Ornette Coleman, then a tenor player. “Ornette would come and play on tenor saxophone, and I was on alto,” Newman told me. “We would play all of Bird’s tunes, and we both knew his solos note for note—as well as Sonny Criss and the other alto players. After we finished playing Bird, we’d do our individual thing, and Ornette would go to Ornette!

“We'd play bebop in jam sessions, and there was a club in South Dallas called the Log Cabin where we played together for the door. But you couldn’t earn a living playing bebop—the younger people would dance to anything we played, but the older generations, from the thirties on, didn’t take too much to it. So in order to make any kind of money playing music around the Dallas area and Texas, you had to play the blues. T-Bone Walker was from Dallas, and whenever he came through town, I would go on gigs in bands that Buster Smith put together to back him up. Lowell Fulsom lived in Fort Worth, and I'd work with him, as well as [pianist] Lloyd Glenn.”

At the time, Fulsom was featuring an alto saxophonist named Ray Charles who, Newman recalled, also sang in the styles of Walker, Charles Brown, and Nat Cole. “I have to think Ray liked my playing, because when he left Fulsom he started using me on one-nighters around Houston,” Newman told Charles biographer David Ritz in the program notes for his 2004 homage, I Remember Brother Ray. “I became a regular and I also became a friend. I joined his group in September 1954, playing baritone. When Donald Wilkinson, a great Texas tenor man, left the band, I asked if I could play the tenor book. Ray agreed. Fact is, Ray encouraged me to explore all the different reeds, including alto and flute. He became my biggest booster.”

Crawford joined the fold in 1958, replacing Leroy Cooper on baritone sax (Cooper, like Newman an alumnus of Dallas’ Lincoln High School and a member of Smith’s cusp-of-the-‘50s combos, passed away on January 24th), but he soon advanced to arranging chores. “I started trying to write a little bit when I was in high school, and in Memphis, almost every band that you played with was eight pieces, five horns at least, that gospel type of sound,” he told me. “There was a route of, say, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, that most road bands covered at that time. When they came through Memphis, they’d play at places like the Palace Theater, the Hippodrome, and Club Handy in Mitchell's Hotel. One of the good things about that era is that we got a chance to see a lot of the people who we later got to know, singers like Percy Mayfield, but instrumentalists, too. Sometimes they'd come through without a full band and pick up locals, and we would play for certain entertainers. Really, it was an era of everything going on. You had tap dancers, comics, shake dancers—shows. We played shows.

“When I went to Tennessee State, I formed a little group called the Jazz Gents. We’d play locally, and we’d get to Louisville, Kentucky, at the Top Hat, and then go up to Buffalo at the Pine Grill. During the summer, we’d play the southern route. I had some great teachers at Tennessee State in Nashville, which is where I started studying saxophones and reeds. W.O. Smith was one of my instructors; he's a bass player who was on the original recording of Coleman Hawkins' “Body and Soul.” Frank T. Greer was my band director, when Florida A&M and Tennessee State started doing the ‘hundred steps’—you’d be running down the field almost. I was fronting the campus band, a 16-piece band—I was writing then.

“I’d heard Ray—'Hallelujah, I Love Her So' and 'Drowning In My Own Tears'—and I was impressed by the sound of his small band. I heard something about David then; the solo he did on ‘Ain't That Love’ knocked me out. Also, a couple of my buddies had already joined Ray—a trumpet player, John Hunt, and a drummer, Milt Turner, both from Nashville. Anyway, Ray came through Nashville to the Club Baron. I think Leroy Cooper had taken a leave of absence, and they suggested to Ray that I would be the person to play that part. I went down, didn't even audition. I don't think there was even a rehearsal that day, because it was just quick notice. I went to the campus band-room, talked Mr. Greer out of the baritone, told him what it was for, so he agreed.

"I remember the band bus—at the time, it was a called a ‘wiener,’ red-and-white, long, airport style—pulled up in front of Brown's Hotel. I remember David getting out with this grin on his face. He kind of bowed and nodded at me, and I nodded back. That was the first time I actually saw him. Anyway, I played the gig that night, and that was the end of that. Three months later, I got a call from Ray’s manager to ask if I wanted the job. I never thought I'd stay as long as I did. I was glad, because I felt the music, and worked a lot, and saw the world. Ray was getting into his thing. He was really beginning to blossom at that time.

“Joining the band with Ray was an avenue for me to do a lot of things. To be honest about it, Ray and I clicked right away. I was directing and doing most of the writing for the small band, and when he got the big band I went to alto and got the job as music director, which I kept for three years. So I was with Ray Charles 24-7. He would call me to come over to his house, and I would sit there all day and sometimes all night while he would dictate and I would notate. Before Ray, I loved the sound of James Moody’s Octet, and I liked Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster, and Ellington—I’d take a bit from each arranger, but basically I was being myself. I think I found my own voice on the saxophone, too. I've always been a melodic player.”

As Crawford put it: “The secret of survival in this business is identity. You can play all of the notes, and there are a lot of musicians out there now, man, that can play—but nobody knows who they are. People buy identity. If they don't know who you are, you don't really sell. I've studied, man, and I can get off into some pretty hard bebop. But that's not just me naturally. I just play what I feel naturally, and it ends up that I'm better being myself. I'm not concerned about changing with what's in. For me, playing simple is almost a natural—I found my sound, and I'm going to stick to my guns. In this business, there's only one of one. Nobody's going to come to listen to one of my concerts or gigs to hear me sound like somebody else. That's the biggest mistake I can do, for somebody to come and pay $20 or $25 and come in the door, and here I am on the bandstand trying to be somebody else.”

Both old masters followed that individualist dictum throughout their long careers, and it served them well.

“This music is an incredible gift,” Newman told me. “It doesn't really come from me or from us; it comes through us. So I want to explore what I can do in all the different areas of music, and not necessarily stick to a certain form. I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me and as I feel it. I like to bridge the generations, because music is moving as time moves on. You put your particular touch onto it, your stamp, your feeling, and see what comes out.”

David “Fathead” Newman links:
Ben Ratliff
Tim Malcolm
Jon Thurber
Newman’s web site

Hank Crawford links:
Bob Mehr
Bruce Weber
Fresh Air interview (from 1998)

This blog entry posted by Ted Panken.

February 04, 2009 · 2 comments


A Giant's Steps: John Coltrane on Atlantic (Part Two)

Chris Kelsey, an editor and regular contributor to, continues his survey of John Coltrane's work for the Atlantic label. These recordings, often over-shadowed by Coltrane's later work for the Impulse label, include some of the tenorist's most historic and influential work. Click here to read part one of this article. T.G.

       John Coltrane, by MIchael Symonds

The contract John Coltrane signed with Atlantic guaranteed the saxophonist seven thousand dollars per year for its duration—not a king's ransom, certainly, but in 1958 a more-than-respectable sum. More importantly, it seems to have allowed Coltrane the luxury of time in preparing his record dates. No longer being paid strictly by-the-session must surely have allowed Coltrane to plan his record dates more thoroughly, resulting in music that was more reflective of his evolving musical personality (Giant Steps being a prime example).

The Atlantic contract might also explain his slimmed-down discography. In '57 and '58, Trane practically lived in the studio. In '59, he recorded much less often—as a sideman, only twice, not counting unofficial live recordings. In February he recorded Cannonball Adderley Quintet In Chicago for Norman Granz's Mercury label, and in March and April (just before and after the first Giant Steps session), Miles Davis's legendary Kind of Blue for Columbia.

After Giant Steps, Coltrane's next Atlantic sessions happened on November 24 and December 2, 1959, resulting in Coltrane Jazz ("Naima" from Giant Steps was also recorded at the latter session). For a rhythm section, Coltrane used his pals from Miles' band: bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Wynton Kelly, and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

Coltrane Jazz opens with Hoagy Carmichael's "Little Old Lady," a singsong-y trifle reminiscent of the unlikely show tunes Sonny Rollins excavates and transforms so brilliantly. Coltrane does a similarly fine job, imbuing the tune with a lilt and spirit befitting its light-hearted nature. Coltrane's original composition "Like Sonny" makes an explicit reference to Rollins, both in the title and in the Sonny-ish way it interpolates a slight melodic figure. Coltrane also makes good work of three blues originals, notably "Harmonique," a tune written in 6/4 time that features extensive use of multiphonics—a technique by which Coltrane produces multiple tones simultaneously, by means of false-fingerings and manipulation of his embouchure.

Coltrane Jazz wasn't a landmark recording in the mold of Giant Steps; it didn't address any gargantuan harmonic challenges, or otherwise introduce any radical shifts. To contemporary ears, Coltrane's choice of sidemen serves to make the record sound a bit like a Miles Davis record without Miles. However, it's an excellent work by any reasonable standard, and serves nicely as a sort of farewell by Trane to what was, at that moment, Davis' signature ensemble conception. Coltrane would not use Miles' rhythm section on subsequent record dates … although, for his next album, he would borrow sidemen from another noteworthy source.

On June 28 and July 8, 1960, Coltrane entered the studio, accompanied by members of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman's band: trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Ed Blackwell (bassist Percy Heath replaced Haden on the July 8 session). A year prior, the ingenious autodidact Coleman had rocked the jazz world with his own Atlantic recordings, and an appearance at the Lenox School of Jazz. Cherry was particularly adept at Coleman's free-floating, quasi-modal method of improvisation—a style that mostly retained bebop rhythms, but was otherwise centered on the nearly impulsive creation of melody, unbound by preordained harmonic constructs.

On the resultant album, The Avant-Garde, Coltrane willingly takes a "when in Rome …" tack, adapting to Coleman's method, and essentially letting his sidemen do their own thing. Coltrane and Cherry work remarkably well together, playing-down a repertoire of tunes by Coleman, Cherry, and Monk, articulating the oftentimes knotty melodies with the requisite loose precision. On "Cherryco," Coltrane's improvisation embodies his idea of starting in the middle of a sentence and completing it in both directions at once. Bereft of cliché, his solo abandons bebop rhythms for an unfettered style not beholden to the beat. On other tunes—for example, Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing"—he swings more explicitly, yet retains the element of rhythmic instability that keeps this listener on the edge of his seat. Cherry more than meets the challenge of playing with Coltrane, contributing some of his most inspired playing on record.

The rhythm section sounds a bit tense, and even tentative, at times. So does Coltrane, truth be told. We see in retrospect that this was a meeting of sympathetic if not altogether compatible musicians. Still, the performances are of a high caliber, and the album is nothing less than fascinating, especially as evidence of Coltrane's burgeoning interest in "free" music.

Contemporaneous to the recording of The Avant-Garde, Coltrane was in the process of forming a working band. Over several months in 1960, this quartet-in-the-making included Steve Kuhn or McCoy Tyner on piano; Steve Davis on bass; and Pete LaRoca (Sims), Billy Higgins, or Elvin Jones on drums. By late October—in time for his next Atlantic sessions—Trane had settled on a line-up of Tyner, Davis, and Jones. Those three sessions produced enough music for three-plus albums: My Favorite Things, Coltrane's Sound, and Coltrane Plays The Blues ("Village Blues" from Coltrane Jazz came from these sessions, as well).

My Favorite Things is one of those rare acoustic jazz albums—like Miles' Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck's Time Out—that scored widespread popularity with a general audience, thanks mostly to Coltrane's iconic cover of the title tune, taken from the 1959 Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musical, The Sound of Music.

Besides being an exceptionally beautiful piece of music, the title track is notable for other, more prosaic reasons. For one thing, Coltrane plays soprano sax, a horn he'd been woodshedding in private and (with the exception of "The Blessing" from The Avant-Garde, which would be released after My Favorite Things) had not played on a commercial recording. Additionally, the performance is based on modes rather than a series of chord changes, a harmonic strategy Coltrane would use with increasing frequency in coming months and years. Also significant is the track's length; "My Favorite Things" clocks-in at almost 14 minutes—an unusually long performance for that era. The extended playing time and the accompaniment's drone-ish harmonic scheme better-enabled Coltrane to build his solo in a dramatic arc: from simple to complex and back, both in terms of ideas and emotional intensity.

Elsewhere, "Summertime"'s simple minor-key harmonies allow a similar sort of organization. On his arrangement of the standard "But Not For Me," Coltrane takes the opposite approach, going for harmonic complexity in recasting the tune using "Giant Steps"-style changes. Coltrane takes out the soprano again on "Every Time We Say Goodbye"—something of anomaly in the context of his subsequent work, in that the tenor would remain his "ballad horn," for the most part.

The album's final revelation concerns its personnel. The teaming of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones sparked an extraordinary dynamic that was to animate this band in years to come. Already, Tyner's unique voicings and muscular style lend the music a sound unlike any in jazz at the time, and Jones' drumming—while not as overtly intense at it would soon be—is a pot of simmering polyrhythms on the verge of boiling over. The ensemble performance on My Favorite Things hints at conceptual changes to come (especially Coltrane's infatuation with free jazz), yet retains a palpable connection to the past. That quality of combining tradition with a vivid sense of exploration is likely part of what makes the album a perennial favorite of not only hardcore jazz fans, but also music lovers with only a passing interest in jazz.

This is the end of part two of Chris Kelsey's article on John Coltrane's Atlantic years. Part three can be read here.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Jamie Baum at Joe's Pub

Ralph Miriello, a regular contributor to, recently selected flautist Jamie Baum’s new CD Solace as one of his favorite recordings of last year. Now he reports on Baum’s performance at Joe’s Pub. T.G.

Flautist and composer Jamie Baum brought her septet to Joe’s Pub for a rare one-night performance featuring the music of her recent fine release Solace. Baum made it known that this performance was also a ten year anniversary celebration of sorts for the band—they have been working on this unique style of orchestrated improvisational jazz since 1999.


This was my first trip to Joe’s Pub and I found it a warm and inviting venue that probably holds close to one hundred and fifty patrons comfortably. It is part of Joseph Papp’s non-profit Public Theater on Lafayette Street on the lower east side of Manhattan. It prides itself on being a non-genre specific venue. Artists from the Cowboy Junkies to Lee Konitz (and now Baum) have graced this venue since the late nineties. The stage is elevated and the rear wall of the stage has an acoustical foam treatment that mimics the feel of a recording studio. Opposite the stage is a generous bar that is also elevated and in between there are tables and a section of comfortable looking upholstered lounges. All vantage points have a good view of the performance stage.

In today’s world, where music that is outside of the mainstream has fewer economic avenues to support it, Baum has been able to flourish within her self-defining niche. She is a recipient of a Doris Duke award that laudably commissioned her with a grant, allowing her to concentrate on the composition of this marvelous music without regard to commercial viability. Joined on stage with fellow musicians, George Colligan on piano, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Doug Yates on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, Chris Komer on French horn, Johannes Weidenmueller on upright bass and Jeff Hirshfield on drums, Baum plays both flute and alto flute, as well as composed all the music for this performance.

Baum is a slight woman who has a shy, almost academic air to her countenance. Contrary to the image she projects at first impression, she is a forceful composer and an impassioned player. She has the musical muscle to tame the talents of six musicians so that they all perform with her unified vision.

The set started out with a composition called “Inner Voices” which served as a good warm-up for the band and featured a French horn solo by Komer. Baum’s use of instruments that are out of the mainstream of jazz. Yates’s bass clarinet and Baum’s own alto flute-gives her compositions a unique chamber music sensibility.

On “Solace,” the title tune from her latest release, Colligan and Weidenmueller set the stage for this haunting melody. Baum has mastered the art of pairing the voicings of multiple instruments; on this tune Alessi’s trumpet and Baum’s alto flute. It seemed that she and Alessi were not quite in sync at first, nonetheless they moved through the brief miscommunication with grace before the additional voices of Komer and Yates were brought in, effectively complimenting the continuity of the overall piece. This is a superb composition using its feathery, gossamer qualities to sail through the melody gently. I am reminded of the sound of a light breeze rustling through the leaves of a stand of aspens that one hears in the solitude of an early morning ride on a ski-lift chair in the Wasatch mountains. This is impressionistic music at its best.

Baum introduced a new song this evening titled “Ants and Other Fateful Bugs” which she noted was inspired by the work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani devotional singer who has worked with Peter Gabriel, and whose vocal inflections are astounding. The composition showed promise but the performance revealed a creation that was still unfamiliar and a bit rough on the edges. Pianist Colligan took an athletic solo that combined elements of raw funk and heavy chord based poundings ala Cecil Taylor. Colligan is a dynamic inventive player and is prolific on the New York Musical scene. He is a fine accompanist but one senses that he may be straining to break loose from the confines of this format.

“Far Side,” another song from Solace, featured Baum on flute and Alessi on trumpet. Baum is a marvelous player in her own right. It was a little difficult to fully appreciate the nuances on her playing because of the way she was miked. Alessi has made some fine recordings and so I was anxious to see him perform in person. He did a yeoman’s job with most of the material although I found his solos a bit hollow and uninspired, perhaps just an off night.

Baum referred to her association with keyboard wizard Richie Beirach who encouraged her to write something rubato or shifting time. “Richie’s Lament” was her dedication to him and featured an exciting bass clarinet solo by Yates.

“Pine Creek” from Solace offered a hypnotic bass line by Weidenmueller with a nice call and response segment between Alessi and Baum. When Colligan was featured on piano he provided the most stirring musical animation of the evening, standing out with his creative explorations and powerful yet fluid technique. In watching the other front line musicians on the stage during his solo, they appeared somewhat disconnected from his efforts. Baum alone seemed to be engrossed in Colligan’s improvisational acumen.

Despite the longevity of this group, there seems to be a missing element not evident in the studio work. It is the nature of larger groups that they have limited viable opportunities to perform and thus play on a regular basis, developing along the way that empathetic language between musicians so vital to the energy of live performances. Most of these musicians have multiple opportunities and commitments of their own, which understandably makes scheduling a challenge. The prodding interplay that can be so compelling was in short supply especially in the improvised parts of the program.

Nevertheless this was a rewarding evening of music and Baum has successfully forged an appealing path with her work. This is music that is slightly askew of the mainstream but maintains a voice that demands to be heard for its sheer musical ingenuity and sophistication.

This blog entry posted by Ralph A. Miriello.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments


The Tragedy of Richard Twardzik (Part Two)

Below is the second (and final) installment of my article on Richard Twardzik, and the recent biography of the pianist by Jack Chambers. For part one, click here. T.G.

Richard Henryk Twardzik was born on April 30, 1931 in Danvers, Massachusetts. His first words were reportedly "nice music"—an auspicious beginning for a pianist's biography. He studied under Margaret Chaloff, a highly respected Boston teacher, and mother of baritonist Serge Chaloff (with whom Twardzik often gigged), and made his first commercial record with Charles Mariano on the LP The New Sounds from Boston released in 1952. Twardzik only appears on one track on this release, produced by Ira Gitler, but his solo on Mariano's bristly composition "Mariners" gives notice of his iconoclastic pianism.

Twardzik at this stage was not only absorbing the vocabulary of modern jazz, but also soaking up the sounds of contemporary classical music. Just as Brubeck, around this same time, had found a way of marrying his jazz inclinations with the sound universe he learned through his studies with Darius Milhaud, Twardzik was finding a similar source of inspiration in the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók and other leaders of the new thing in classical music. As Twardzik brought these elements into his combo work, he created a provocative hybrid, much more than mere imitation, but rather a fresh trail blazed in the annals of American music.

    Richard Twardzik with Peter Littman in the background
  Photo probably by Nick Dean (From the Twardzik / Thompson
   Archive, courtesy of Rosamond Thompson & Jane Sumner)

Others were taking notice of Twardzik by this time. Nat Hentoff mentioned him in a piece in Down Beat from December 1951, quoting Serge Chaloff's comments about an "amazingly mature young pianist" in his band. But the following year, Twardzik came to the attention of Charlie Parker, the living embodiment of jazz modernism at the time. Parker probably heard Twardzik playing intermission piano during Bird's March 3-9, 1952 engagement at the High Hat. If anyone in the jazz elite was capable of appreciating what Twardzik was all about it would have been Parker, with his own sensitivity to the significance of modernist classical composers for the jazz idiom. Bootleg recordings of Parker and Twardzik's work together have survived, but merely whet our appetite for more of the same.

It may be worth noting that Parker, during this same Boston engagement, praised Béla Bartók in a radio interview. "Bartók is my favorite, you know," was Bird's comment. Few, if any, jazz musicians of the day, had a better grasp of Bartók than Dick Twardzik, and one would give much to be a fly on the wall when these two modern jazz artists were conversing about matters musical.

The opportunity to travel to Europe with Chet Baker was both a great opportunity for Twardzik, but also set in motion the events leading up to his death. "Chet wanted me to go to Europe with him," Russ Freeman later explained to me, "but I could see where he was heading with the drugs." When Freeman turned down the gig, Baker hired Twardzik, who he had heard during an engagement at Boston's Storyville club.

Freeman also helped arrange for Twardzik's now legendary session for the Pacific label. "When I heard him play he sounded so unique and so different that I called up Dick Bock [producer for Pacific]," Freeman recounted to me. "I told him about this fantastic piano player I had heard. And Dick said 'Why don't you do a recording?' So we went up to New Jersey to Rudy Van Gelder's studio and did the album. I'm glad we did it, because it's one of the few things Dick ever recorded."

These recordings rank among the finest jazz piano trio sides of the era. On "A Crutch for the Crab," Twardzik starts with a sprightly on-the-beat march that gradually veers into a dark landscape of off-kilter rhythms, mutant stride piano excursions, and a conception of right and left hand integration well beyond what passed for progressive jazz in those days. The harmonic reconfiguration of "I'll Remember April," is brilliant, and the trading fours with the drummer toward the conclusion is volcanic in intensity. His interpretation of "Bess, You Is My Woman" is a case study in the jazz-ballad-as-art-song. This latter performance is worth hearing for the pedaling alone—and how often can you say that about a jazz track? But even more striking is his splashes of sound color—the term "voicings" hardly does justice to what Twardzik is doing with the changes.

Twardzik's music is especially noteworthy for his orchestral textures, which stood out in an era of sparse left hand voicings. But this pianist could also reveal new twists even when playing "conventional" right hand bop lines. On "Just One of Those Things," he shows how much he has learned from bop pioneer Bud Powell—in fact, Twardzik sounds as if he has paid close attention to the solo piano version of this song Powell recorded in February 1951. But on this rapid-fire track (oddly described by Chambers as a "ballad") Twardzik imposes unusual patterns, stretching them across the barlines in ways that Powell would never have done. The effect is exciting and very futuristic.

These tapes were still unreleased when Twardzik left with Baker overseas on an itinerary that included Paris, London, Geneva, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam, Stuttgart, Berlin, Milan, Rome and other locales. Here he made some additional recordings alongside the trumpeter that have added to Twardzik's posthumous reputation.

Dick Twardzik would never return home from this tour. He died of a heroin overdose on October 21, 1955. He was expected at a recording session with Baker, and when he didn't show, someone was sent to his hotel room. No one answered at the locked door, and when it was finally broken, Twardzik was found, already dead, with the spike still in his arm.

Some have suggested suicide, and note the locked door as evidence for this. But Chambers argues—persuasively, I believe—that Twardzik had not revealed any suicidal impulses, and his demise was simply the result of what is called "death by misadventure." Chambers notes that many addicts have close calls and survive. This was that time when the odds tilted in the other direction.

The release of Twardzik's trio work on Pacific created a buzz in the jazz world that has continued to the present day. Not many have heard this brilliant and forward-working artist, but those who do so inevitably walk away deeply impressed. Now thanks to Jack Chambers, a new generation of fans will be reminded of this large talent taken from us far too soon.

This is the end of the second and final installment of Ted Gioia's article on pianist Richard Twardzik. For part one, click here.

February 01, 2009 · 6 comments