Duke Ellington: Warm Valley

This track is a prime example of Ellington writing for the nature and musical strengths of one of his great soloists. In this case, it's a vehicle for the rich tone, exquisitely flowing lines, and creative artistry of alto sax master Johnny Hodges. "Warm Valley" was not about earth topography, but rather about womanly contours and feelings (in both senses). And the ability of Johnny Hodges to blow the most sensuous lines was well employed.

The song is described as a ballad, and is a beautiful one. But it also takes a step in the direction of subsequent pieces that really transcended ballads to be more like tone poems featuring the glorious alto playing of Hodges. The following year's "Passion Flower" was among the first of them. Here, Johnny's sublime alto work is complemented by fine muted trumpet lines and fulsome, lovely ensemble playing from the full band, with several crescendos in the right places adding beautifully to the feel of the tune. Some would probably give this a higher rating; for me, it simply isn't the most thrilling sort of tune, though the pure aesthetics are appreciated.

March 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Things Ain't What They Used To Be (1941)

This song was written by Duke's son, Mercer, and features the great Johnny Hodges as the lead guy for a small group offshoot from the full Ellington band. The tune eventually became quite popular. The track opens with the distinctive, memorable theme played ravishingly by the full (small group) band. Hodges then does a beautiful bluesy thematic takeoff that deepens the tune's soulful feel, and follows up with additional excellent, deep-felt alto. Duke plays a stylish piano interlude, adding interesting harmonic dimensions and emphases, after which Ray Nance offers sultry trumpet variations and embellishments with superb blues slurs and accents. Soon the full band richly fills out the theme. This is an excellent addition to the Ducal music library, with the genius, gorgeous tone, and style of Johnny Hodges at the forefront.

March 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Happy-Go-Lucky Local

Duke Ellington’s “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” was originally the final movement of his Deep South Suite premiered at his 1946 Carnegie Hall concert. A completely different concept than “Daybreak Express,” “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” runs twice as long and has about a third of the writing as its predecessor. Yet this composition stayed in the Ellington book for years and there are several live recordings available. The present version was recorded shortly after the premiere and issued on a 2-part 78. Unlike “Daybreak Express,” which seemed in a hurry to get to its destination, “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” soulfully lopes along. The principal soloists are Russell Procope on alto sax, Ray Nance (I think) on trumpet and Oscar Pettiford on bass, with shorter spots for Harry Carney on baritone sax and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet. Pettiford is the real solo star with several spots sounding similar to the Ellington/Jimmie Blanton duets from a few years earlier. The written parts fit together exceptionally well, and Ellington artfully combines the themes, mixing new material with music we heard 2½ minutes before. When the “Night Train” theme shows up in part 2, it seems the most natural development of what we’ve already heard. For the finale, Ellington brings out the newest addition to his band, high-note trumpet specialist Cat Anderson. While Anderson’s playing is part of the Ellington sound as we now know it, imagine how it must have been to hear it for the first time in 1946!

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Barnet: Skyliner

Charlie Barnet’s dual-themed “Skyliner” emulates the sound of a fast-moving modern express train, with the jabbing brass line characterizing the train’s rhythm in its undercarriage and the elegant long lines of the saxes representing the sleek aerodynamic outer design. Musically, it may also be the inspiration for Ray Wetzel’s triple-themed composition “Intermission Riff” as performed by the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Billy Moore’s arrangement focuses on the ensemble, and he makes small but significant changes in the piece to maintain the listener’s attention. Note that the pyramid chord tag of the first two A sections is replaced the third time around with a variation (beautifully played by the Barnet trumpet section). When the A section returns, the brass play a simplified but effective variation of their original line. Then the trombones play a fine set of exchanges with Barnet’s solo thoughts. The second bridge with the brass playing yet another variation against Dodo Marmarosa’s piano solo is, for me, the highlight of the entire record. The rhythm section is a model of Swing Era cohesion, yet within a couple of years three members of that section would be working within a new model with a new set of rules: bebop.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bud Powell: Wail (Alternate Take)

Though he'd already garnered a solid swing-to-bop reputation during his stint with Lester Young, Roy Haynes's ensuing run with bebop pioneer Bud Powell largely defined his highly interactive, "snap-crackling" drumming style. Max Roach and Charlie Parker would soon both take notice and visit him during his '49 stay at the Orchid Room (with Powell and Sonny Stitt) to recruit him for the soon-open drum chair in Bird's group.

It's hard to beat the brilliant Rollins, Navarro and Powell solos from the classic master take of "Wail," but the alternate take reveals a classic Haynes performance. His startling ability to sense how a soloist will develop his statement is evident in all of the brief solos here – it's as if the drummer absorbs the player's first few lines and knows what's coming next. Also note how Haynes plays differently underneath each soloist. There is a lot going on in Rollins's statement, so Haynes pushes him along with an aggressive swing without breaking rhythm too often. For Navarro's more structured solo, Haynes predicts the trumpeter's lines and spaces, creating a déjà vu feeling that he's somehow heard this solo before.

Finally, Haynes's creative drum break, located before the band plays the final head, is one of his most exciting. He begins with a brief motive, unpacks it in the next few measures, and then concludes with a terrific run of offbeat 16th notes that begins and ends a beat earlier than you'd expect, a common "keep-them-on-their-toes" move. It's a good thing this band was filled with only the finest players – otherwise the reentrance might have completely crashed and burned!

March 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lester Young: Blues 'n' Bells (Take 3)

After beginning his New York professional career with a 2-year stint in Luis Russell's orchestra (1945-'46), Roy Haynes joined Lester Young in 1947. The next two years would serve as an ultimate education and period of stylistic transformation for the 24-year-old drummer. Early on, Haynes swung consistently, tastefully, and largely unobtrusively, as per Pres's request. As the run progressed, however, as this June '49 session reveals, many of Haynes's trademark bebop bombs and propulsive, offbeat rhythmic phrases had been developed and gently incorporated into the Lester Young group.

Note the comping fill Haynes plays behind Pres from 00:43-00:46. It begins as a common rhythmic phrase, but where one expects the run to end with a bass drum on the "and" of beat 4, instead continues to a barline-blurring additional bass drum on the "and" of beat 1 of the next measure. Also note the next fill between 00:48 and 00:50, where Roy plays a double-time fill that startlingly ends one full beat before the next section begins – responding to his previous fill but actually creating more tension in the process! These two connected musical moves exemplify the aforementioned offbeat rhythmic phrases that have come to define Haynes's comping style.

As to Pres himself, while sessions from this period yield uneven levels of improvisational sharpness, his lines here are thoughtful and inspired. Check out the second and third runs through the blues form (00:17-00:49) for a textbook example of logical, beautiful solo development.

March 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Blue Horizon

This is the ultimate mellow Sidney Bechet blues track. He gives us the richest, most sumptuous clarinet tone of his recording career, especially in the earlier going and at the end. In later parts of the song, his range of tone and timbre also adds wonderful nuance and texture. He offers one chorus after another of beautifully rendered and shaped lines, creatively developing one thematic variation after another. All the while, bassist Pops Foster, drummer Manzie Johnson and pianist Art Hodes keep a steady-stridin' rhythm at a slow tempo to provide a fine foundation. Trumpeter Sidney de Paris, trombonist Vic Dickenson, and Hodes, each a virtuoso in his own right, stick to subtle support tones, harmonies and contrapuntal lines.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: The Sheik of Araby

This is Sidney Bechet's historic "one-man band" recording of a popular 1920s Tin Pan Alley tune with the first-ever overdubbing of instruments, all played by Bechet. After hearing from a technical person that it was possible, Sidney decided to give it a whirl. He worked hard for weeks to get the parts down on his various instruments before the session. The result, while interesting as a technical experiment, does not come off particularly well as pure music.

He begins with a cool rhythmic riff on the theme using tenor sax, and follows by successively adding other instruments. The tune is performed in sprightly, fairly engaging fashion. But the primitive overdubbing at times produces a somewhat odd overall sound and problems with balancing: the piano, bass and drums are so faint they seem hardly present at all. And beyond its audio deficiencies, this track proves that, when it comes to jazz, there is no substitute for the stimulating interaction with other musicians.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Subconscious-Lee

This tune, which Lee Konitz would re-record several times during the following decades, is particularly interesting in its primal version from the altoist's first session as a leader. Konitz was then 21, still studying and playing with Lennie Tristano, whom he enlisted as pianist in this recording quintet. While its title may stem from Tristano's interest in psychoanalysis, the song is actually based on the chord sequence of "What Is This Thing Called Love," played at swift tempo and with a new melody. Such reworking of standards was frequent among beboppers and Tristano-ites alike, and Konitz definitely did a fine job in penning the sinuous new melody line. After the theme is exposed by sax and guitar in unison, Tristano has the first solo, indulging his virtuoso linear improvising technique accompanied by an efficient, highly rhythmic left-hand comping. Then guitarist Billy Bauer, another Tristano disciple, choruses in a very lyrical way, his rich sound and brisk phrasing just great. Konitz is the final soloist. His swift imagination and perfect time are breathtaking, including melodic gems during the short fours that he, Tristano and Bauer trade before briefly restating the theme. The impetus and sheer joy of these three soloists, along with the tonic support of Shelly Manne and Arnold Fishkin, suggests that pigeonholing this music as "cool" or even "cold" at the time must have been the result of misunderstanding. Although this alternative to bebop's dominance was advocated by a musical minority and badly received by the rest, 60 years later it's clear that these virtuosos recorded some of the most beautiful music of the 1940s and '50s.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Save It, Pretty Mama

The tune begins with a slow-tempo, beautifully balanced ensemble thematic statement, delivered almost delicately, like an old formal dance stepping along. Then pianist Earl Hines enters with gorgeous, rolling variations, employing superb dynamics and accents, followed by Rex Stewart's muted cornet sliding and punching out some sublime blues lines spiced with perfect slurs. Next the drama and intensity take a leap upward with a characteristic soaring, wailing solo by Sidney Bechet. The last section brings everybody together for a marvelous rhythmic, bouncing ensemble ending, with all the instrumental voices contributing just the right tone, momentum and spirit, in excellent balance, resolving things nicely. This is sweet stuff from a great group of jazz masters.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Ain't Misbehavin'

With the one and only Sidney Bechet joined by the great pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, virtuoso cornetist Rex Stewart (a feature attraction of the landmark Ellington band), and that New Orleans original, co-Founding Father of jazz drumming, "Baby" Dodds, you might expect memorable results—and, baby, do they deliver! Clearly they were inspired by this Fats Waller tune that is one of the best and most loved songs ever written.

Earl Hines opens with a sparkling, bouncy rendition of the famous melody, using a little left-hand bass rumbling to let you know that the title says "ain't misbehavin'", BUT…. Next, like a musical relay, Bechet takes the handoff and plays a clarion, fairly straight version of the theme, then variations with verve, with Dodds pounding out drum rolls for additional texture. In turn, Stewart jumps in with a perfect response and follow-up to Bechet, using his muted cornet for a wailing first note, then further creative variations of the theme, with exquisite bluesy slurs and accents, until Bechet again follows suit. Hines next offers a beautiful rhythmic yet rhapsodic, virtuoso piano interlude, with Bechet's punctuating phrases behind him. That transitions into some Hines-Stewart exchanges, creating an interesting tonal and rhythmic dynamic. Then Bechet cuts loose with dramatic, blazing inventions and embellishments on the theme, with that inimitable tone and vibrato. Stewart again takes the handoff and launches into his own blazing lines, using muted cornet to wonderful effect, as his and the rest of the band's playing steadily grows in intensity and passion, yet never loses their playful element. Finally Bechet heats things up further, joining Stewart in a high- energy dual/duel back-and-forth ba-dah-dum, ba-dah-dum, ba-dah-dum, dah de dum ending that leaves you breathless.

This is glorious stuff, with tremendous momentum, the great jazz masters spurring each other on to a dramatic ending. This is truly movin' music! If the toes of the person listening next to you aren't tapping, check the pulse; they may need immediate medical attention. And if they aren't smiling up a storm after listening to this, they need another type of attention.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Wild Man Blues

This track has the feeling of an updated, matured, yet slightly exotic version of a classic New Orleans band performance. It presents a beautifully developed version of the original Crescent City polyphonic ensemble playing, with each key player contributing his own lines, stirring up a fine gumbo of moving jazz. Both the tune and the nature of its playing create a deep bluesy mood.

It opens with two simple Sidney Bechet phrases giving a taste of things to come, followed by the band's strong, march-like statement of the theme taken at a stately tempo, after which trumpeter Sidney de Paris adds a couple of his own clarion phrases. Next Bechet and de Paris (a favorite of Bechet) trade lead lines in frequent breaks, with de Paris offering excellent, lyrical trumpet work, and Bechet responding with ascending, ringing high-note playing alternating with creative melodic variations and a striking variety of clarinet tones, from the richest woody notes to those wailing highs (sounding like his soprano sax) to swoops down through the scale, and so on. Nobody could get the range of clarinet sounds and make such creative and expressive use of them, with just the right impact, as Sidney Bechet. Overall, this recording has excellent structural and thematic coherence, with passion and playing at a high level. Hearing it, we experience blues as fine art without losing the deep, soulful feel.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Perdido Street Blues

This track is from the notable 1940 recording reunion of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Some critics called the results "disappointing," but to my ears this track, at least, is terrific.

Bechet opens with a brilliant riff on clarinet, soaring at the start and adding a superbly crafted line, only to step downward with bluesy, slurred and bent notes to rich, low-register tones. Armstrong follows with equal brilliance, flowing through inventive lead lines with that inimitable trumpet tone and blues feel, punching out well-placed accents, and creating a beautifully structured solo. After adding subtle counterpoint behind Satch for a couple of bars, Sidney jumps in wailing with a further sparkling lead line on soprano sax. These two masters are already spurring each other to musical heights.

The fine pianist Luis Russell's mellow interlude follows, guitarist Bernard Addison adds atmosphere, and trombonist Claude Jones restates the theme before the storm. To set the final scene, Armstrong gives us three majestically punched-out climbing notes, then a smooth thematic variation at medium volume, as the band backs him with a rumbling, rolling repeated figure carried on from their earlier work. Satchmo cuts loose with a beaut of a line, building intensity, climbing to a series of high notes with blues slurs for a penultimate climax. He ends on a mid-range note, from which Sidney takes off for one last rollicking, soaring phrase to end it in compelling fashion.

This is "disappointing"?! Some critics needed their hearing aids checked.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Sidney's Blues

After Sonny White's fine rolling piano, rather like a simplified pre-boogie, sets the mood, Sidney Bechet takes a rare turn singing, in a pleasing lower to mid-range tenor. He swings along for three choruses in a marvelously jivin', jazzy, cool '40s-style vocal, with great phrasing, soulfully drawing out key words, the rest of the band comping in support. Next Bechet grabs his clarinet for a soulful, sliding run, then quickly switches to soprano sax for a scintillating, soaring solo to wrap things up. This is most enjoyable music, especially the rare treat of Bechet's vocal. Some superb instrumentalists are lousy singers and shouldn't be on record (boogie pianist Roosevelt Sykes comes to mind), but Bechet acquits himself admirably.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn: Tonk

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn in the Barrelhouse - collage by Alan Kurtz The word "tonk" is a slang contraction of honky-tonk, an 1890s term for a cheap, often tawdry nightclub or dancehall. By the 1920s it also denoted piano music as typically found in such low-class establishments, stylistically postdating ragtime but predating boogie-woogie.

Here "Tonk" gets updated to the mid-'40s. Since Duke was reluctant to record its original orchestration for full band, Billy Strayhorn adapted his adventurous piece for two pianos, played by the close collaborators better known for sophistication than for experimentalism. Not surprisingly, then, this quirky Ellington/Strayhorn foray into avant-garde jazz is more refined than what, say, Thelonious Monk was then doing. Indeed, with echoes of "The Trolley Song" (1944) and "The Band Played On" (a hit for Guy Lombardo just five years before), "Tonk" has more in common with "An American in Paris" (1928) than with "'Round Midnight" (1947). The similarities are most evident when listening to Gershwin's tone poem as arranged for 4-handed piano roll by Frank Milne in 1993.

Yet while Gershwin sought to evoke the sights and sounds of Paris in the '20s, Ellington & Strayhorn draw an impressionistic portrait of an American honky-tonk from that same era. Naturally tonks weren't as tony as La Ville-Lumière, but that's undoubtedly what appealed to Duke & Strays. The energy of honky-tonks was African-American, not European. Accordingly, instead of Gershwin's lavish watercolor splashed across a 16-minute canvas, "Tonk" is a 3-minute sketch in charcoal that would never appear in a major exhibition but still provides a tantalizing glimpse of what Robert Frost called The Road Not Taken. Confronted by diverging paths in the artistic thicket of mid-'40s jazz—one strange but rich in artistic possibility; the other well tramped and commercially proven—Duke Ellington chose the familiar route, leaving the one less traveled to younger, more intrepid explorers. One can only imagine what inroads he and Strayhorn might have made if, instead of Taking the "A" Train, they'd tramped around more in the dissonant, herky-jerky delights of "Tonk."

February 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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