Count Basie (featuring Lester Young): Oh, Lady Be Good

A sort of dry run for the recently signed, but not-yet-recorded Count Basie Orchestra, the “Jones-Smith” session unleashed what could be called the Lester Young Effect. The tenor sax had been hard-driven and cutting in the preceding era of jazz—the world according to Coleman Hawkins—but Young, in his first time at the recording microphone, sounded light and carefully plotted without sacrificing the instrument’s muscle. In truth, Young’s is just one of many innovations heard on “Oh, Lady Be Good”: Basie’s soft-spoken minimalism and Jones’ hi-hat-intensive drumming were also new ground. Still, it’s hard to get past Lester, weaving and bobbing his way through both comps and a featured solo like a helium balloon in the breeze. Jazz would never be the same.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: The Crave

"If you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes," Jelly Roll Morton famously asserted, "you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz." Here Jelly Roll demonstrates what he means at the keyboard with his sultry and simmering habanera classic "The Crave." Latin jazz was still in its infancy, but on the basis of this performance alone you could have predicted a promising future for this mode of trans-genre cross-dressing.

The composition is a gem, one of Morton's finest efforts, and I wonder why it isn't played more often. You could serve it up as a stylish encore at a classical piano recital or let it rip at a juke joint—it works either way. The hook comes with the hesitation in the breaks. Let's turn again to Morton's own words: "Without breaks and without clean break and without beautiful ideas in breaks, you don't even need to think about doing anything else; you haven't got a jazz band and you can't play jazz." Again he lives up to his own standards. And exacting standards they were. Let me remind you that Morton was the bandleader who pulled out a pistol at a session when trombonist Zue Robertson didn't play the boss's tune the way he wanted. (Let it be noted, for the record, that the next time, Zue delivered it perfectly, note-for-note.)

At a time when swing bands dominated the charts and war was looming on the horizon, many jazz fans dismissed Morton as a pathetic blowhard, a stale leftover from a bygone musical era. The parade has passed you by, old man. But make no mistake about it: these final recordings from the New Orleans master, and this track in particular, reveal one of America's greatest musicians at peak form—showing the way with his clean breaks, beautiful ideas . . . and that Spanish tinge.

August 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers: Dinah

Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers enjoyed long careers in pop music, but they were all influenced by jazz in their early years. “Dinah” starts out like one of Crosby’s pop records, with Crosby singing the melody with minor variations over a small orchestra with strings. Then the tempo jumps up, there is a jazzy trumpet break, the Mills Brothers enter, and most of the orchestra is silent for the rest of the recording. John Mills sings a tuba part under the three-part harmony of his brothers (John also plays guitar for the rest of the side). Donald Mills takes a scat break to finish the chorus, then Crosby takes over with a scat solo of his own. While Crosby sings even eighth notes on top of the beat, he varies the line with sharp rhythmic emphasis. Trumpeter Frank Guarante accompanies Crosby when he goes back to the lyrics at the bridge, and then again in the first half of the next chorus, but the solo at the bridge which follows is not a trumpet, but a vocal impression by Harry Mills. The side comes to an exciting conclusion as the Mills Brothers riff like a high-powered big band behind Crosby.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: Scat Song

Scat singing was not born when Louis Armstrong dropped the sheet music during a recording of “Heebie Jeebies”. Although Armstrong perpetuated the myth, he well knew that scat had been around almost as long as jazz itself. Jelly Roll Morton may have been the first person to set the record straight, and in his recorded reminiscences for the Library of Congress, he credits Joe Simms, “an old comedian” from Vicksburg, Mississippi, as the first person to scat sing. Morton’s most interesting claim comes right before his charming demonstration: in its original use, scat was not used for extended solos, but merely as a unique introduction for a song. We may never know how much Simms and how much Morton there is in the 1938 re-creation heard here, but the simple syncopations, light New Orleans swing and delightful “scoodle-ee-doo” syllables give us a good idea of the origins of scat.

(The MP3 link above is not from the Anamule Dance CD, which only includes the musical demonstration. Instead, the linked recording is from Morton’s The Complete Library of Congress Recordings–also from Rounder—which includes the spoken introduction. The recording begins with the final section of the Morton composition “Anamule Dance” and segues into the discussion of scat at 2:35.)

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Benny Carter: Nightfall

Jazz history books will tell you how Lester Young single-handedly forged a more lithe and fluid approach to the tenor sax, offering an alternative to the dominant Coleman Hawkins paradigm. But check out Benny Carter's tenor solo on his 1936 recording of "Nightfall"—recorded a half-year before Young's first studio session. You will find discover that another advanced musical thinker was already working on a lighter, more overtly melodic conception of jazz.

Carter's versatility made it easy to miss such achievements. He is usually remembered as an alto saxophonist. Or as a composer and arranger. Or as a trumpeter. But I assure you that if Benny Carter had just focused on the tenor sax, his name would be mentioned routinely when the major stylists on that horn are discussed. Then again, the composition here is just as intriguing as the sax solo, and is one of a series of pieces from this era in which Carter experimented with a relaxed style of quasi-chamber jazz. "Nightfall" (and other Carter gems from the mid-1930s) are seldom heard these days. But don't let that fool you into thinking that these aren't important works in the evolution of jazz. Few artists from the pre-WWII years anticipated the development of a cool jazz sensibility in the 1950s with more prescience than the wide-ranging Mr. Carter.

May 11, 2009 · 1 comment

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Kansas City Five (featuring Count Basie & Lester Young): Don't Be That Way

John Hammond, that extraordinary jazz entrepreneur, record producer, and scion of the Vanderbilt family organized and hosted the historic “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in late ’38. It celebrated the music of African-Americans and presented it in America’s premier concert hall. And if you’re presenting swing to the world, who better to have than Basie and the boys?!

After a couple of full band tunes, some songs were played by small groups from the Basie band; this was one of them. The track has distinctive opening bars in which on this special occasion, Count Basie plays more 'up front' than usual, with perhaps more power and dynamics. Lester Young (“Prez”) offers interjections and accents with his inimitable tenor sax tone. The Count and Prez continue at the forefront, doing a kind of piano-sax dance that excellently articulates the body of the tune’s music. A little past mid-way, Buck Clayton takes the lead on muted trumpet, at first in mid-range, using the mute for subtle effects, with a fine syncopated rhythmic feel. Then he soars higher and more dramatically to complete a very nicely constructed solo. Prez then takes the hand-off, blowing his sax in a more robust, deep-toned manner than usual (more like Coleman Hawkins), after a few bars transitioning back into a dual lead with Basie to end the song.

A live recording in 1938 was an iffy project, so the recording quality isn’t perfect; but for that time, it is more than well done. And it is a treat to hear Basie, Young, Clayton & co. playing live in that historic concert. Also, it’s an interesting tune that is a bit different than usual fare for Basie and the boys.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Teddy Wilson Orchestra (with Billie Holiday): I Must Have That Man

From the first line of her vocal, Billie Holiday uses her unique intonation, exceptional phrasing and rhythm, and expressive capacity with words to exquisitely create the mood of this genuine classic, as well as to offer the first explanation of why she “must have that man.” Teddy Wilson gives us a brief, fitting intro, and then provides the piano backing for Billie in a restrained but perfectly attuned, effective manner. When she sings that great line, “He’s hot as hades, a lady’s [perfect little pause] not safe in his arms when she’s kissed” with perfect rhythm, phrasing and emotion, we feel the simmering heat. And she finishes the verse singing the thematic phrase in a way that manages to be subtle and awesome at the same time, singing a syncopated descending line, dripping with feeling, “I… must… have… that…man;” it’s like the final lines in a profoundly moving novel by a master fiction writer set to great music. This is a strong candidate for Billie Holiday’s greatest vocal performance.

But there’s more. As in "He Ain't Got Rhythm," the other classic recorded in the same session, Lester Young (“Prez”) follows Holiday’s verses on his tenor sax with one of the most sublimely beautiful solos in all of jazz, one which perfectly captures the mood and spirit of the music that Billie, with the band’s backing, had just created. This solo is the ultimate example of how that unique light, floating, slightly breathy, but oh-so-soulful saxophone tone and creative lines made Prez a revered and influential musician. Benny Goodman adds a very nicely constructed solo, excellently suited to the music. Then Buck Clayton blows a brilliant smooth (“legato”) but powerful clarion call on his trumpet that reiterates the musical theme with superb subtle variations. And behind all this glorious “front line” playing, that all star Basie rhythm section of Green, Page and Jones provides a great foundation.

This is not just masterful jazz, it is pure magic; it doesn’t get any better than this.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Teddy Wilson Orchestra (with Billie Holiday): He Ain't Got Rhythm

Besides great jazz musicians playing superbly, this track is a sheer delight because of the lyrics, and Billie Holiday’s marvelously nuanced, whimsical and playful singing of those lyrics (the melody and words are by that classic American tunesmith, Irving Berlin). The verses are like Sinclair Lewis with a tragi-comic twist transmuted into jazz, as they tell the mock horror tale of this poor quintessentially drab, uncool middle class man who bends over his account books, and “he attracted some attention at the fall convention, but he ain’t got rhythm, so no one’s with him, the loneliest man in town.” With her intonation and phrasing, verbal emphases and her own perfect rhythm, Billie makes this musical short story come to life and makes it hugely enjoyable.

Meanwhile, Lester Young plays his virtuoso tenor sax in perfect complement to Holiday’s singing. This track is one of the ultimate demonstrations of how Young and Holiday had developed some kind of mystical, musical soul connection so that they were two parts making a completed whole. Benny Goodman adds another dimension here with outstanding clarinet work, starting in the intro with his just right, delicate, elegant yet sardonic statement and variations on the wonderfully catchy musical theme, the melody perfectly suiting the lyrics. Teddy Wilson lays down a lush but appropriately sprightly piano groundwork for Benny in the intro, and then comps excellently for the rest of the track.

But there was also Buck Clayton, who was a third exquisitely attuned voice with Holiday and Young on the series of recordings they made together, including the equally masterful track done in the same session as this one, “I Must Have That Man.” After Lester’s superb solo (one of his very best), Buck soars on his trumpet, characteristically playing powerful but smoothly lyrical lines that brilliantly complement and add to Billie’s singing and Lester’s sax work, with punched out accents adding to the expression and the excitement. And of course, with Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones from Basie’s “All American rhythm section” providing the foundation, you have the epitome of what that poor accountant lacks. This is must-have jazz, with delightful fun as a bonus.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Tootin' Through the Roof (1939)

For Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, 1939 was a transitional year. Billy Strayhorn and Jimmy Blanton came on board, setting the stage for the classic recordings that began in 1940 when Ben Webster also joined the band – selections that included "Jack the Bear," "Ko-Ko," and "Concerto for Cootie." In 1939, Ellington was still largely focused on capitalizing on the flourishing swing craze, with varying degrees of originality or artistry. Then again, Duke always mixed the commercial numbers with his more ambitious works; after all, he and his band members needed to make a living.

"Tootin' Through the Roof" is an exciting example of Duke giving the listening public what they most wanted to hear. The catchy riff theme is enhanced by the interweaving of brash trumpet outbursts and velvety saxophone lines. Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Brown play brief but attention-grabbing solos before Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams take center stage. Their intricate melodic exchanges, with Stewart primarily in the lead, culminate in a bracing high-note coda. "Concerto for Cootie" it's not, but "Tootin' Through the Roof" entertains from start to finish.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Johnny Hodges: Jeep's Blues

"Jeep" was the second of the nicknames Johnny Hodges had acquired ("Rabbit" being the first, from his youth). This was indeed Jeep's blues, with Hodges leading the musical movement from this small group session of members of the Ellington band. As Helen Oakley Dance said in her liner notes for the 1968 LP compilation of the 1938 and '39 sessions (she also supervised some of these recordings), "The small- band sound, the band-within-a-band, had captivated popular imagination, and Johnny Hodges's talents dominated the new trend." This track brought much admiration for the beautiful blues playing of Hodges. "Jeep's Blues" became a much-played tune; this version is my favorite of several I've heard.

The track opens with Johnny blowing the lovely and memorable theme in sublime bluesy style, including some wailing high notes on soprano sax that further deepen the impassioned playing. The small band offers perfect support, especially with full "chorus" voicings on further versions of the theme. Cootie Williams blows some searing, growling trumpet work with the mute, adding greatly to the blues feel and aesthetic texture. And Jeep's friend from his early Boston years, Harry Carney, offers a fine higher-range baritone sax break for another dimension to the musical mosaic.

March 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Django Reinhardt: Mystery Pacific

Was “Mystery Pacific” Django Reinhardt’s personal tribute to Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express”? There’s not enough similarities to call one an arrangement of the other, but there’s also no doubt of the influence. “Mystery Pacific”’s opening is an obvious nod to “Daybreak” as is the simple harmonic structure and for that matter, the form of the entire piece. However, Django must have realized that he would never be able to re-create the many colors of the Ellington band with his small group. Instead, he and Stephane Grappelli created a new piece tailor-made for the QHCF, which is as evocative of an express train as Ellington’s. Reinhardt goes a step further than Ellington by including spots for improvised solos by himself and Grappelli. The violinist is his usual elegant self here during his solo, but don’t miss his Doppler effect background during Django’s solo. And I am constantly amazed at how Django got so much music out of a guitar when his fretting hand was so badly deformed.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Daybreak Express

Unquestionably one of Duke Ellington’s masterpieces, “Daybreak Express” is one of the most thrilling train rides ever recorded. Almost entirely written-out (there is minimal improvisation by Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams), this was a showcase for the burgeoning talent of Ellington and his ensemble. In condensing an express train ride into three minutes, Ellington packs lots of musical details into his score. The opening, with the train starting from a standstill and gradually getting up to speed, is now a cliché, but is played here as if it were the freshest idea in modern music. Not content to simply use a train whistle, Ellington augments the whistle with horns from the band. As the train races along the countryside, the saxophones perform one of the most difficult ensemble choruses ever devised. Finally, Cootie Williams takes the role of engineer, encouraging the train on with his trumpet and then putting on the brakes as the train reaches its final destination. Although Ellington rarely played the work in concerts, it turns up in a 1937 Paramount short film, Record Making With The Duke and the Victor recording was used as background music for D.A. Pennebaker’s film Daybreak Express. Pennebaker’s film was first shown in New York before the feature The Horse’s Mouth (1958). The Criterion DVD recreates the billing and also includes a short introduction by Pennebaker.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Boswell Sisters: Shuffle Off To Buffalo

“Shuffle Off To Buffalo” was one of three Busby Berkeley song-and-dance productions in the film 42nd Street, released exactly one month before this Boswell Sisters version was recorded. Even for a song so new, arranger/vocalist Connie Boswell saw no reason to stick to the original song’s style or melody. The song’s herky-jerky train rhythm is jettisoned in favor of a fast streamlined express train sound, and throughout the introduction and first chorus, we hear only small pieces of the melody, and lots of variation all around it. Connie knew that she and her sisters Vet and Martha were a unique section in their own right and they could do riffs and shout choruses to equal the brass and reed teams of the big bands. On the opening and closing choruses, they perform remarkably intricate variations on the theme with stunning precision. Unexpected tempo changes were also a Boswell trademark, and on this recording the tempo slows down right in the middle of the verse, setting the stage for Connie’s solo chorus (which includes much more of the melody and probably provided some temporary relief to producer Jack “Where’s The Melody” Kapp.) Getting all of the elements perfect was an important part of the Boswells’ artistic success and it’s worth noting that there are two issued takes of this track available and the only audible difference between them was not in the vocal parts or execution of the arrangement, but in Dick McDonough’s improvised guitar responses within the verse.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Meade Lux Lewis: Honky Tonk Train Blues

With its insistent 8-to-the-bar rhythm, boogie-woogie piano is a natural match for a freight train. While there have been many train-inspired boogie compositions, none can match Meade “Lux” Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train” for exuberance and energy. Lewis’s Paramount version from 1927 was one of the earliest boogie recordings, but the 1936 Victor version is probably the best of the many versions Lewis recorded in his lifetime. His left-hand work is astounding: using a simple dotted-eighth/sixteenth pattern, he holds the train rhythm rock-steady and never loses intensity, despite the immense physical challenge that such a limited pattern invokes. Meanwhile, his right hand sends forth a dazzling array of musical images: clanging bells as the train passes, the whistle blowing across the trestle and the rush of the cars as they pass on adjoining tracks. Like Jelly Roll Morton, Lewis’s approach to the piano was as a band in miniature, and it’s easy to imagine a big band’s brass section punching out the strong off-the-beat syncopations that Lewis plays with his right hand.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Django Reinhardt: Low Cotton

Some of the finest but least-known small group recordings of the Swing Era were five tracks recorded in Paris in 1939 by the great guitarist Django Reinhardt and three members of Duke Ellington's Orchestra. The original 78s were issued in France billed as Rex Stewart and His Feetwarmers, and later in the U.S. as Rex Stewart's Big Four. To the best of my knowledge, they were unavailable for the entire duration of the LP era. This CD reissues them under Reinhardt's name.

"Low Cotton" is a 32-bar AABA form with changes similar to "I Want a Little Girl." The entire performance consists of two choruses preceded by Stewart's solo introduction, which sounds cool and majestic at the same time. Reinhardt and clarinetist Barney Bigard split the first chorus, with Bigard's rich, woody low- register sound contrasting nicely with Django's bright yet warm tone. The first half of the second chorus features a gorgeous single-string solo by Reinhardt, with Stewart taking the bridge. Rex recaps the theme backed by a sensitive but intense clarinet obbligato. This long-neglected classic is first-rate chamber music that transcends categories.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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