Nat King Cole & Lester Young: Tea For Two

Prez’s Aladdin sessions often sound like they were made in somebody’s garage, but they’re invaluable, documenting his music during a long reprieve from the Count Basie Orchestra. “Tea for Two” features two future stars, 26-year-old bassist Red Callender and 24-year-old pianist Nat “King” Cole, whose jobs are primarily to set Young up and stay out of his way—though Cole gets off a glittering syncopated variation. Young’s sax sound and phrasing, distinctive as ever through the static and tape hiss, is also as adventurous as ever. His mellow tones form startling abstractions that occasionally let a faint trace of the written melody through, but are simply on a higher level than his young journeymen are prepared for: When Young breaks into stop-time during the song’s final third, Cole hardly knows what to do.

Surely it’s no coincidence that the Lester Young Effect would soon dominate the music in that city, first nourishing young L.A. players like Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette and later Wardell Gray, then setting the standard for the scene’s new “cool” style. Here we find Lester delivering it to their very doorsteps.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: Time On My Hands

Although he was amongst the most celebrated jazz soloists of the era, Lester Young takes no solo on “Time on My Hands.” Instead, the song reveals him to be a remarkable accompanist. The song begins as a call-and-response duet between Holiday and trumpeter Eldridge, who gives an intro and then adds embellishments at the end of each of the singer’s lines. On the bridge, however, Eldridge falls away and Young enters: not with responses, but in countermelody. The weighty sadness with which Holiday already croons suddenly takes on new depth, with Young’s saxophone gently sobbing behind her. He’s also well off-mike, so that he amplifies Lady Day’s grief and sorrow without ever competing for the spotlight. Considering the stars he is competing against for space on the record—Eldridge and Teddy Wilson, both of whom turn in sterling solos—it’s quite a selfless act. Whether he did it for the record or for Billie, we can’t say…but it’s irrelevant, since his backgrounds make both of them better.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jack Teagarden (with Louis Armstrong): Stars Fell On Alabama

By 1946, when Jack Teagarden resurrected his career with Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, “Stars Fell On Alabama” had long been entrenched in the trombonist's repertoire. It was one of many features for Teagarden during his tenure in the Armstrong group.

The tune begins with his highly decorated trombone style, skillfully implying the melody while showing off his virtuosic technique. Teagarden weaves lines together with note values that aren't quite eighths, triplets or sixteenths, creating rhythmic tension which he resolves precisely at the end of each phrase. In the next chorus, he sings the melody in his deep, relaxed baritone. Teagarden's understated vocal style is a stark contrast to his adroit trombone playing. His intonation is excellent, and his reading conveys the restrained, nostalgic joy of the song's lyrics.

Also of note on this recording is Armstrong's work as Teagarden's temporary sideman. Even though it's his gig, Armstrong keeps the audience focused on Jack for the whole song, only complimenting him with well-placed interjections. He even lets Teagarden lead the brief, energetic buildup into his last chorus of trombone melody. Armstrong's only big moment comes at the very end of the song, when he leads the charge out of Teagarden's vocal into the last chord, which Teagarden smoothly punctuates with one last arpeggio.

July 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claude Thornhill (featuring Gil Evans): The Troubador (based on "The Old Castle" from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition")

I ask that you spend 99 cents and buy “Pictures at an Exhibition” (the orchestral version) orchestrated by Ravel, and get the part for "The Old Castle." That's what this is based on. You'll find the comparison to be very enlightening. People often assume that classical composers write more linearly than most jazz composers/orchestrators. Jazz tends to be chord conscious–many arrangers think vertically when they arrange. And when most people talk about Gil Evans music, they refer to the marvelous "voicings." I say phooey to that. The magic of Gil is so far beyond that. It's in the lines and layers, folks! There are so many layers displayed here it's just crazy.

The original begins with a bassoon line that is quite hypnotic and gives way to the melody. This bassoon line comes in again just briefly under the melody at the end of a phrase connecting us to the start of the melody again. In Gil's version, after an intro based on Promenade (the recurring main theme in between each part of “Pictures”...), he starts with a little rhythmic nudging figure in the low brass at 0:27. Then he adds the flutes in a repetitive cross-rhythmic staccato figure, creating another layer that will add to the overall feeling feeling of "play" in the otherwise staid 4/4 meter. Now enters Mussorgsky/Ravel's original bassoon line, but Gil orchestrated it as a low unison for two bass clarinets with French horn (0:37). Gil's differs in that he will greatly extend the line, weaving it into a counterline that endures and develops throughout much of the piece. All these layers are established before the melody even enters at 0:45 in a solo French horn. And they all work together without creating musical mud, because each idea or line is so firmly established in its own right that it's easy for the listener to hear clearly the full tapestry and delight in the exquisite layering and details. Listen to the beautiful woodwind line at 1:30. The high flute "swirls" (2:34) are both lovely and exotic. The way this large ensemble grows and grows, and then dramatically descends and dissipates (2:54–3:23) to tremolos (with harmonic twists and contortions unique to Gil) makes me leap up out of my chair! The colors (harmonic and timbral) are stunning. There's an interesting tuba line that creates a little shift in the overall harmony at 3:32. Listen to the subtle little shifts in harmony at 3:46–4:13 in the repeated brass riffs. 4:17–4:37 is so creative. Even though harmonically things get very tight, twisted and dark, still, all the original material is there, so it's a mud that you want to wallow in. The original doesn't grow and develop nearly to the degree that Gil's version does and there's far less counterpoint. Gil was a master of development and intricacy. I think Ravel would have flipped over this. Also, it's funny that the original uses alto sax for the melody, and Gil's arrangement, which might be considered jazz, doesn't use sax on that melody at all. Also, make note, there's no improvisation on this piece. It's just about Gil's spectacular writing. Everything Gil would develop in later years has its roots firmly planted in his Thornhill music. This is one beauty!

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claude Thornhill (featuring Gil Evans): Sorta Kinda

This recording has so many great Gil Evans arrangements that I'd easily qualify it as a must-own CD. I love this particular arrangement because it's just so swingin’ and hip (I know–very subjective words).

First of all, this is probably not the hippest song on the planet, and neither is the singing, but what Gil manages to create is extraordinary. The intro is quirky and wild, starting with the ascending sax line leading into the huge ensemble blast, then dropping off a cliff into a little piano moment. Contrast is a big part of the personality of this arrangement. It's very daring. Gil doesn't bring in the vocalist until after a full minute into the tune, and the whole piece is less than 3 minutes. He makes a very bouncy version of the melody with tight ensemble writing. After the intro, it feels very conventional, but rhythmically it swings like crazy. At the end of this first statement of melody between Gil's mid-range brass and piano, he creates a really unexpected transition and modulation. Listen to the bottom of the brass, the unison line against the quirky line in the trumpets. Also, this transition extends the form of the tune and creates an odd phrase that goes on longer than expected. The piece is full of surprises–the kind you want to experience again and again. I find it to be a hilarious moment when this wildly creative transition settles into a new key and the simple vocal entrance. As the vocal delivers the melody, Gil throws in some awesome counter-lines in the saxes and French horns, with great little brass hits–endless details that make the feel so lively! Then the band's full, concerted ensemble send-off to the tenor solo is superb line writing, creating a completely light and fluid full ensemble. Not easy to do, trust me! And the band is so swingin', too. Check out how hard the band swings and the great line in the ensemble right before the vocal returns. Man! Of course, Gil writes fantastic lines for every player so it's super-gratifying to play, and, with the inner parts so well written, it's almost impossible not to swing. Just when you think Gil's given you his last surprise, check out the last note. With a very dry delivery, he lands on an odd note (the relative minor key). How I wish I’d known this piece when I knew Gil. I'd have loved to listen to it with him. I know the exact look on his face and the laugh he'd make when he heard the last note himself. That man had some sense of humor and this is one fantastic arrangement. And to think it was recorded in 1947. Wow!

Just a side note: obviously Gil also realized how hip this arrangement was, because he would come to reuse a lot of this same ensemble passages almost 10 years later for his arrangement of “People Will Say We're In Love” with Helen Merrill on her wonderful album, arranged entirely by Gil, called Dream of You.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Mooney: Tea For Two

In September 1946, composer and critic Alec Wilder proclaimed in Downbeat that the Joe Mooney Quartet was one of the finest small groups in the history of jazz. Mooney built this intimate quartet after successfully translating the advanced harmonies of bebop to the accordion(!) A stylish, hip songwriter in his own right, Mooney loved creating humorous parodies of standard pop songs, as in this winning update of “Tea For Two”. While the opening chorus delights with lines like Do you long for oolong like I like for oolong, baby? the final chorus updates the story nearly 40 years in the future: Flash! 1983; See! Chick still on his knee .For all of its obvious values, the quartet may have been too intimate for its own good. Existing far before the days of jazz concerts, the understated style of the group couldn’t compete with the rowdy clientele of the average nightclub. Within three years, the quartet was no more.

For Mooney, it was another in a series of failures to catch the public’s attention. He had toured with his brother Dan as “The Sunshine Boys” in the early 1930s (the name was ironic since both brothers were blind). After the quartet’s demise, Joe switched his primary instrument from accordion to Hammond organ. He made recordings in 1952 (both on his own and with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra), then full LPs in 1957 and 1963-1964. Although he performed in New York nightclubs as a result of these recordings, he was never able to generate enough popularity to keep him in the Big Apple. When work dried up for him in New York, he retreated to his home in Florida where his local fans provided the loyal following that had eluded him up north.

July 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Les Brown: I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm

Les Brown had been in the band business since he led his Duke Blue Devils in 1936. When the band returned to Duke University, Brown remained in New York and free-lanced as an arranger. He returned to band leading in 1938 and led a good band that had the great fortune of having Doris Day as vocalist before and after World War II. The band got better and better throughout the 1940s, and eventually became the back-up band for Bob Hope’s radio show. This instrumental version of the Berlin standard was heard on one of Hope’s shows, and the audience reaction was strong enough for Brown’s record label, Columbia Records, to ask Brown to record it. “Look in your vault,” was Brown’s reaction. Sure enough, Brown had recorded it, but it had never been released. Skip Martin’s infectious treatment is still heard all over the world, and was one of the last big band instrumental hits. Brown recorded this arrangement several times over the years, but the original is still the classic version.

July 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck Octet: Curtain Music (Closing Theme)

This signature theme from the Dave Brubeck Octet—a short snippet from 1946—predates the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet by some two years. A few commentators have tried to portray Brubeck as a follower in the footsteps of Mr. Davis, but in truth the music of this ensemble resists pigeonholing of any sort. Even by Brubeck's eccentric standards, this group was an oddity. And if you push hard for a genealogy, you will end up finding more sources in classical music than in jazz. Brubeck discouraged my attempts to connect this music to Stravinsky's Octet from 1922. But he is not shy about making claims for this piece. "You'll have a hard time finding any other jazz piece in 6/4 from this period," he has remarked. My only gripe with this track (which is my same complaint about all of the Octet's work) is that there simply isn't more of it.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claude Thornhill: Snowfall

In the early 1940s, the opposite of "hot jazz" wasn't "cool jazz." The term "cool jazz" didn't exist at the time. A jazz fan at the time would have told you that the sweet bands were the antithesis of the hot swing orchestras. These sweet ensembles specialized in the tepid and sentimental, and didn't put much faith in cookin' tenor solos and smokin' chase choruses.

But how do we fit Claude Thornhill into this binary opposition? Jazz didn't get any more ethereal or mood-oriented than "Snowfall," his signature song. This is closer to Debussy than to Duke Ellington, and yet there is a ineffable quality at the heart of this music that resists assimilation into the sweet Guy Lombardo-ish camp. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this music anticipates the 'cool jazz' revolution of the 1950s, and it comes to no surprise that many of the artists associated with that movement either worked with or were influenced by Thornhill. These linkages would become even more apparent when the Thornhill band reformed after World War II. Gil Evans, who would serve as Thornhill's arranger, summed up the ethos of this music best when he commented: "The sound hung like a cloud."

May 11, 2009 · 1 comment

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Les Brown: Leap Frog

Tenor saxophonist/arranger Joe Garland is best known for "In the Mood," which of course became the anthem of the swing era for better or worse. What many people do not know is that he submitted another one of his catchy riff-based pieces to Les Brown sometime in the mid-1940s. Les once said that it took about a year to get around to finally playing it, but once the band did, it was never out of the book. He recorded it for Columbia Records in 1945 and it was an immediate hit, so much so that Les made it his new theme.

Fast forward to 1951; Les leaves Columbia and signs with the new Decca Records subsidiary, Coral Records. His producer is Sonny Burke, one of his classmates at Duke University back in the '30s, and a fine arranger in his own right. Les re-records his theme with the band he later called his finest, and the performance is nothing short of fantastic. Even though the band had played the piece thousands of times, they still make it sound fresh, and as good as the Columbia studio sound is, the Coral is even better. Dave Pell's has a brief solo, but the band is clearly the star. Who wouldn't want to spend an evening listening and dancing to this powerhouse ensemble?

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon & Wardell Gray: The Hunt

Two of Wardell Gray’s and Dexter Gordon’s tenor duels, “The Chase” and “The Hunt,” rank among the all-time highlights of west coast jazz. While “The Chase,” recorded a month earlier on June 12, was the seven-minute top-seller, “The Hunt” is an all-out 18-minute jam session where several Cali pioneers skip the melody altogether in order to roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty with their improvisations. This track represents so many things at once: bop that doesn’t really sound like Bird and Diz; a rare jazz performance where audience interaction plays an important role in the tune’s development; and two leading west-coast tenors proving that they can jam as hard as any of those dominant east coasters. The track’s importance is encapsulated by a singular moment of jazz history intersecting with another landmark of American cultural history, when Dean Moriarity himself, of Kerouac’s On the Road, remembers “listening to a wild bop record…’The Hunt,’ with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.” A historically significant track featuring Gordon at his most vibrant.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: Dexter Rides Again

Directly following performances with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in 1945, Dexter Gordon capitalized on his bop momentum by recording this classic date as a leader with the top-notch bop rhythm section of Bud Powell, Curly Russell, and Max Roach. Digging into the changes here more than ever before, Gordon’s solo on “Dexter Rides Again” strings together several genuine, stand-alone bebop lines without sacrificing a traditional overarching storyline. Check out 00:51-00:59 for one of the strongest developmental lines from the middle of his solo.

There are two other important points to note here. First, the true enormity of Gordon’s trademark wide-open tone is more evident here than ever before. Perhaps because the Pres aesthetic, the Hawkins/Jacquet-inspired strong tone, and the bebop vocabulary have finally coalesced into a unified “Dexter Gordon sound” for the first time here, there’s a jovial, declaratory quality to these proceedings. Fortunately, this atmosphere is not a one-time offer, as these magnetic Gordon characteristics govern all of his future sessions.

Finally, the famous “Jingle Bells” quote should be pointed out—not because it’s necessarily his most creative, but because it’s yet another example of a major Gordon mainstay. Not only does he find a witty quote that works, but, as all capable quoters do, he artistically alters the final few notes to begin a new improvised line over the next chord without missing a step. All things considered, “Dexter Rides Again” is an ideal three-minute encapsulation of the newly arrived and fully defined Gordon style.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: I've Found A New Baby

“I’ve Found a New Baby” is the first track listed on the first Dexter Gordon-led recording session in late 1943. Situated in time after Gordon’s period with Lionel Hampton and before his big band work with Louis Armstrong and early bop work with Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, these recordings present a young Pres disciple bursting at the seams with bouncy accents and sweet, bluesy lines. His entire solo here, but especially his first few phrases, are as cool as it gets—chock full of those dominating sixths and ninths that ruled the Pres-to-Bird era of harmonic development. This performance also proves that, aside from the overwhelming Pres influence, Gordon was also flirting with an earthy, aggressive tone that seemed part reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet, the latter being Gordon’s tenor partner in Lionel Hampton’s group. While there are a few hints of some rhythmically investigational playing here, Gordon is never one to push too far too fast, making “I’ve Found a New Baby” the prime example of swing-era trained musician developing the proper tools to make bop headway in the near future.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dizzy Gillespie: Blue ‘N’ Boogie

This vital track from early 1945 captures the various levels of bebop sophistication during its prime years of formulation. Pianist Frank Paparelli, who co-wrote this tune with Diz, is stuck between stations throughout his improvisation—trying his very best to create a bop-ish statement and…let’s leave it at that. Dexter Gordon comes next, and offers a mostly horizontal improvisation where he is fast approaching the creation of an inimitable bop statement without necessarily copping the double-timed rhythmic styling of Bird or Diz. The master-class is in session upon Gillespie’s blistering first line, and his comfort level with the bebop vocabulary is, of course, flawlessly executed and exciting as heck. No less crucial than Dizzy’s rightness, though, is Dexter’s overall approach and thought-process. His contrasting style offers the more discreet, minimalist, thinking-through-the-changes approach to bop that would come to define Gordon’s career and provide an enormous influence on the bop and hard-bop worlds.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Passion Flower

This was the first recording of "Passion Flower," performed by an Ellington small group nominally led by Johnny Hodges. The song was later scored for the full Ellington band and performed a good deal. It illustrates how Duke and his partner in composition, Billy Strayhorn, were by 1941 transcending simple ballads with pieces that were really shortish tone poems—this one written to feature Hodges.

The tune is mellow, atmospheric mood music, with subtle, nuanced playing. Some listeners will probably not be enthused because it doesn't have a distinct, prominently played, easily recognizable theme. Others will find it an interesting sound painting with a subtle passion. My rating is a mix of my general sense of how this composition stands in the works of Ellington & Co. and my own subjective assessment of its caliber. It is not, in truth, among my favorite Ellington pieces, even in the tone poem category; for the latter, I think "Isfahan" is a higher aesthetic accomplishment.

March 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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