Max Roach-Clifford Brown: Love Is A Many Splendored Thing

Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street is one of the albums that I played along with the most when I was younger, and—along with Round Midnight by Miles with Philly, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, John Coltrane’s Crescent, and Horace Silver’s Silver’s Serenade, among others—it’s one of the classic albums that anybody who is interested in pursuing a career in the music really needs to check out. Even though it was only together for about a year, it’s one of Max’s most important bands, with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown on the front line. I love the arrangements and the way that band played together. The stuff was tight. It was a true band—a perfect example of the best. I hate to use that sort of terminology, but that’s the way I feel about it. These cats were executing at such a high level, and the music was so refreshing. It’s still refreshing, to this day.

This one starts off with a little, one-bar intro on the bell of the cymbal, and then they go into five, and then come the solos—Clifford, Sonny, Richie Powell, and Max. One thing that attracts me to this take is the way Richie Powell plays coming out of Max’s solo going back into the top of the song. It’s a seamless transition, like they’re coming together from different places, right into the theme.

It’s important that they were playing in 5/4 in 1956. In American culture most music is in four. It’s just those 5 beats, but with a little lopsided feeling. Now, if we were raised in India or Iraq, we would be accustomed to feeling those rhythms—but we’re not. So the fact that they were using it in “popular music” meant something in pushing the music forward—initiating something that hadn’t been widely accepted, as happened when Dave Brubeck did did “Take Five” a few years later. So this is an important document in terms of recorded history. Once an idea is documented, it becomes a possibility. If you were a younger musician in 1956 listening to this for the first time, it may have been the first time you’d heard someone do it, or play a different time signature—and the presentation is so beautiful. Max was part of so many movements where he was ahead of his time, or pointing to the future, part of the vanguard of musicians who always did something challenging.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach: Variation on a Familiar Theme

This is an amazing piece—another example of seamless transitions. It runs 2-minutes-20-seconds, and it’s a variation of “Pop Goes The Weasel.” Theoretically, the configuration is like a predecessor to M’Boom. I don’t know if that idea had anything to do with Max’s decision to pull these musicians together, but this was something completely different. He was just guest soloist with the Boston Percussion Ensemble. Harold Faberman did the arrangement.

Here Max is playing within the conventions of orchestral percussion, but from the first time you hear him on the brushes it’s unmistakably him—the same phrasing, the same sound out of the instrument. Regardless of the setting, the language was so indigenous to his person, you know it’s Max regardless of the setting. There are several sections. Max initiates some time with the brushes, then they come in with a theme, then they switch up from 4/4 to 3/4, and he makes that transition, too. A different theme is initiated, and then they transition back into four. This often happens in Western Classical music, but here it’s an interesting juxtaposition of time signatures and also of genre. It’s the “jazz feeling” or whatever, because Max is playing some time countered against what the orchestra is doing with the structure. He kind of solos in the piece, but he’s also weaving in and out of it, and he is used to accentuate certain portions. It amazes me that Max was so open and flexible and willing to put himself into so many different positions throughout his career.

I have a degree in music, but the way I learned the music was kind of on the street, watching my Pops play and so forth. I’ve never studied Western classical pedagogy. Now, Max went to Manhattan School of Music and studied it, but here it sounds like he’s using the techniques that he mastered from his experiences, not from the Western pedagogy. Within the framework of this piece, the music has a certain time feel. When I played with an orchestra, it was always challenging from the downbeat, because when I see the conductor come down, I’m thinking that’s the downbeat, but it’s not. Then it’s weird. It’s the downbeat-AND, and everyone’s responding to that. Visually, it was so challenging to de-condition yourself—in jazz, it’s always the downbeat, so everyone enters there, whereas in the orchestra the AND after the downbeat is the place. So the fact that Max was able to integrate what he does within that setting so seamlessly, to play the music so impeccably, was impressive—to say the least!

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum & Roy Eldridge: Night and Day

Art Tatum had performed with Roy Eldridge back in 1944 at a famous concert by the Esquire All-Stars, but their paths rarely crossed afterwards until Norman Granz brought them into the studio a decade later as part of the producer's "Group Masters" project. The idea of matching Tatum with top-notch horn players sounded fine in theory, but with some exceptions, found the pianist playing over rather than with his colleagues. Yet his outing on "Night and Day" with trumpeter Roy Eldridge coheres better than one might expect. Eldridge was no stranger to battles on the bandstand, but here he focuses on sheer swing rather than try to match Tatum note-for-note. Simmons and Stoller are energized by his presence, and create a more supple pulse than one usually finds on the Granz-Tatum projects. The pianist is hardly chastened by this change of affairs, and continues to throw out his baroque runs and elaborate reconfigurations, but even he is infused with the groove. This may not quite match the impromptu give-and-take that Tatum achieved after hours in casual jams, but it comes closer than most of his studio sessions to capturing that ambiance.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum & Ben Webster: My Ideal

Many superlatives have been lavished on the so-called "Tatum Group Masterpieces"—Norman Granz's mid-1950s recordings of the pianist in a range of jazz combos featuring many of the leading players of the Swing Era. Yet much of this work strikes me as the musical equivalent of an abattoir tour. Too many of these guest artists decide that they will match Tatum's speed and technique with their own best virtuoso devices, and the result is all too predictable. Not only can the pianist play faster and wilder, but he often refuses to wait for his own solo to prove it. His comping takes over the performance, leaving the rest of the band rattled and the listener dismayed. Tatum may walk away with the bloody victory, but at the expense of group chemistry and cohesion.

But Ben Webster knew how to deal with this situation. He refuses to play Tatum's game, but sets his own ground rules from the start. The pianist takes the opening melody statement, but when Webster enters he plays the melody again, and his rendition is gorgeous, full of the whispering and lingering tones that were the tenorist's calling cards. His solo is more of the same, and gets deep inside the inner meaning of the song—the lyrics are a bittersweet pledge of love to an imagined ideal partner who may never appear, or might possibly be waiting around the corner. I was so moved when I first heard this recording, years ago, that I learned the words and music of the song and added it to my repertoire.

Tatum came to every session with plenty of ammunition, but Webster has effectively disarmed him. The saxophonist has established a level of emotional honesty that forces the pianist into a completely different frame of mind. Strange to say, Art Tatum comes across more introspective and subdued here than on any of the other group sessions, and reveals aspects of his own musical personality that rarely surfaced on record. His comping stays in the background—never a given with this artist—and when it's time for his own improv, Tatum plays with a light swing that seems almost Nat-King-Cole-ish. This is not a characteristic performance by the pianist, but it is, nonetheless, one of his finest.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Irene Kral: Memphis In June

"Memphis In June" was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster, but the lyric veers close to Johnny Mercer's territory. The words set a scene of pastoral southern America with cousin Amanda makin' a rhubarb pie and Grandma sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. In this recording, Irene Kral captures the exact mood of the song with a vocal tinged with sweet nostalgia and home-spun warmth. Al Cohn's arrangement offers excellent support for Kral. In fact, everything is going just fine until the band comes in for its interlude. Jimmy Zitano plays a dramatic roll and suddenly all of the trumpets are playing in the stratosphere. All that Kral and Cohn have done to set a mood are completely wiped out within 8 bars. And then the band stops and we go right back to the pastoral mood of the opening chorus.

It's hard to puzzle out just how that odd 8-bar passage got into the middle of this arrangement, but here's a theory or two: First, Kral and Pomeroy were not well-known at the time, so the record company may have commissioned Cohn to write an "anonymous" arrangement that could be sung and played by just about anyone. Whether Cohn actually wrote the trumpets in the high register is questionable; the trumpet section might have decided to take it up an octave at the session. However, the high trumpets and a key part of Kral's resumé offer a clue to the second theory: that Cohn wrote this arrangement for Kral during the nine months when she sang with Maynard Ferguson's band, and Kral brought the chart to the Pomeroy session. Neither theory is air-tight (the other band parts seem to support the high trumpets during the passage, and Maynard carried only 6 brass players with his band, not the 8 heard with Pomeroy), but the shame is that the passage just doesn't work and it ruins the entire track. Irene Kral didn't record many albums (especially with big bands), so it's too bad that a momentary lapse in taste marred this otherwise exemplary recording.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Georgia On My Mind

Recorded about a year before Ray Charles changed everyone's approach to the song, Dave Brubeck's recording of "Georgia On My Mind" is a quiet, reflective take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard, featuring some of Brubeck's most sensitive playing from this period. Brubeck has the opening and closing choruses of the arrangement to himself, with only light accompaniment from Gene Wright's bass and Joe Morello's drums. Brubeck makes occasional minor changes to the harmony, but for the most part, he simply enjoys interpreting the song as is. While Brubeck favored a strong attack in many of his performances, he could always play with a light touch, caressing the melody instead of hammering it. Paul Desmond glides in with his wispy tone and spins one beautiful phrase after another. Later, he makes a dramatic pause before improvising on the bridge. Brubeck's ensuing solo stays in single lines for the first half, then builds slightly into chords before Brubeck eases back into the tune. There is a slight crescendo as Brubeck goes into an unaccompanied solo which brings the performance to an end with a simple collection of repeated ideas.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Carmen McRae: Baltimore Oriole

I think that Carmen McRae was born to sing "Baltimore Oriole". For one thing, she was one of the few singers that could make sense of the song. With its myriad obscure references (no, the Tangipahoa river does not run through Baltimore; it's runs through Mississippi, where she is bound for) and oddly shifting narrative focus, the tune flusters vocalists by the score. But because McRae's style combines cynicism and tenderness, and she could change from one to the other at an instant, she creates a definitive reading of the song simply by embracing all of its idiosyncrasies. McRae word-paints (drrrrragggin' her feathers around in the snow), depicts loneliness (leaving her mate, she flew straight to the Tangipahoa) then immediately moves to disdain (where a two-timin' blackbird met the divine Miss O. I'd like to ruffle his plumage). Throughout it all, Ralph Burn's misterioso arrangement provides the perfect atmosphere, and Ben Webster's tenor solo takes on the role of a frustrated and pleading lover, and his last notes sound like a bird trying to shake the water off its back. Easily overlooked in the structure of the arrangement is the work of the under-rated pianist Don Abney, who provides tasty obbligatos in both vocal choruses.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jeri Southern (with Marty Paich's Dek-tette): Lazy Bones

I suppose it was inevitable that the two most "homespun" of song composers, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, would eventually collaborate. The two worked together for several years and while the partnership created the masterpiece "Skylark", they also produced material like "Lazy Bones" where the folksiness gets laid on pretty thick (for example, the song talks about making corn meal!).

Jeri Southern included the song on her first Roulette album, Southern Breeze, and she captures the humor of the lyric perfectly, assisted by a splendid arrangement by Marty Paich. Paich's ever-flexible dek-tette, in its first recording without co-founder Mel Tormé, plays in a light and subtle manner, offering only the necessary support for Southern as she off-handedly berates the song's title character. Southern's cool, understated approach keeps the humor low-key, and her superb diction makes every word crystal-clear. The slow, relaxed tempo only allows for a chorus-and-a-half (even though Roulette was a jazz label, they still marketed singles, so all of the tunes on this album range from 2 1/2 to 4 minutes each). When Southern finishes the first chorus about two minutes in, she yields to the laconic tuba of John Kitzmiller, who moseys through the melody, set off by exaggerated accents from the dek-tette at the end of each phrase. After Southern finishes the last chorus and Kitzmiller returns for the tag, Paich tries to nudge him into action with a series of sharply accented punches from the brass. No luck, though as "Lazy Bones" rolls over and goes back to sleep.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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J.J. Johnson/ Kai Winding Trombone Octet: A Night In Tunisia

In April 1956, eight of New York's top trombonists joined an all-star rhythm section to record Jay & Kai + 6, an album that has become a must-have for any trombone lover's music library. The historic recording was an expansion of the immensely successful Jay & Kai recordings featuring J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. Like the quintet recordings, Johnson and Winding take turns as featured soloists with the ensemble. Johnson is up first with his arrangement of the bebop classic "A Night In Tunisia", and he sets the bar high for the rest of the album.

Candido Camero's congas set up a trombone groove anchored by Varsalona and Mitchell's beefy bass trombones. Johnson enters a few bars later, gliding smoothly over the others with his pure, dark tone. At the bridge, Urbie Green's screaming lead precedes Johnson's recapitulation of the melody. Johnson's solo soars over his tight, hard-swinging arrangement which builds up to his final cadenza. A bright, dissonant chord caps off the exciting finish, and Johnson leaves one last improvised flourish to remind us of his status as the top dog among the bebop trombonists.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herb Ellis: Tin Roof Blues

In October 1957, as the final tour of Jazz At The Philharmonic was winding down, Norman Granz brought many of the JATP musicians into his Los Angeles studios for a flurry of studio recordings. The Stan Getz/Oscar Peterson summit comes from this period, as does Ella Fitzgerald's "Like Someone In Love" (with Getz as major soloist), Ben Webster's "Soulville" and Herb Ellis' "Nothing But The Blues", a wonderful collection of original and classic settings of the blues. As the blues were (and are) the great common ground of all jazz musicians, the front line of swing master Roy Eldridge and cool icon Stan Getz was a very effective team and the piano-less rhythm section of Ellis, Ray Brown and Stan Levey fit together seamlessly. "Tin Roof Blues" was the oldest of the songs recorded for the album, and Ellis' melody statements consist of only the song's second strain. Ray Brown plays a scintillating vamp to open the track and after one chorus of melody, Eldridge (in cup mute), Getz and Ellis plays single-chorus solos that seem complete despite their brevity. Eldridge's solo starts simply and grows more complex as it goes, Getz elegantly works over an old blues riff, and Ellis plays a straight-forward primarily single-string solo with perfectly balanced phrase lengths. This tune was probably considered a quick throw-away that would go down in one take, but the musicians involved were such masters they could create a little gem like this with very little planning.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Tin Roof Blues

In his spoken introduction to "Tin Roof Blues", Louis Armstrong tells the crowd at Los Angeles' Crescendo Club that the song was made famous by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (correct), a group that was organized in Chicago (technically correct, but all of the main horn players were from New Orleans), and that they were before Louis' time "believe it or not". The last point is definitely correct as the NORK recorded "Tin Roof Blues" a month before Louis made his first records with King Oliver. In revisiting this jazz classic, Armstrong gave his fellow All-Stars a chance for some relaxed blowing on an old favorite. The All-Stars version follows the NORK's in its arrangement, with solos by trombone and clarinet between theme statements, and if there are a few attempts at "entertainment", it must be remembered that the All-Stars aimed for a wider audience than just jazz fans. There's nothing terribly gimmicky about anything that's played here, but one suspects (especially from hearing the verbal encouragements by the other band members) that these solos were probably worked out in advance and played the same at every show. The slow-drag feeling established by Barrett Deems and the growling trombone of Tyree Glenn did not create as elegant of a performance as the original NORK recording, but taken on its own, it is a fine version of a Dixie standard.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Carmen McRae: Bye Bye Blackbird

While the album's concept is a little hokey, Birds Of A Feather remains one of Carmen McRae's finest albums. Paired with Ralph Burns, who leads a splendid group featuring Marky Markowitz on trumpet and Ben Webster on tenor (listed as "A Tenorman" due to contract restrictions), Carmen sings songs about a dozen of our feathered friends. For many years, the original LP was a rara avis itself, as copies were hard to find, and the ones that could be bought were badly worn. A limited edition CD reissue came out a few years back; it's now out of print, but the entire album is still available for download.

"Bye Bye, Blackbird"'s popularity was boosted by Miles Davis' 1955 recording, and here Carmen, Marky and Ben all get a chance to solo on its changes. Burns gets a rich sound mixing the french horns with Marky's trumpet and Ben's tenor before Carmen comes in with the melody, mixing sassiness and wistfulness. Marky plays in a Harmon mute which emphasizes his exquisite lines, and then Ben saunters in with a lazy statement played way behind the beat and with a little growl at the end. Carmen comes in scatting, but then goes back to the words for a brilliant variation on the melody. She takes great chances with the rhythm, and when she gets to the last line, she quotes what Miles played at the same spot in his recording. Carmen scats over the band vamp as the track fades out.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Bye Bye Blackbird

Miles Davis' classic version of "Bye Bye, Blackbird" has long been considered one of the essential modern jazz recordings. However, the reasons why this particular recording became much more popular than similar recordings from Miles' discography are not so clear. One reason for "Blackbird"'s popularity was that it was recorded on his new label, Columbia, rather than on his old one, Prestige. Columbia had excellent distribution and the records were available for sale and commonly heard on the radio. And then there was the LP programming: At the start of Side 1 was the stunning title track "Round About Midnight" and at the start of Side 2 was "Blackbird", a jaunty yet sad setting of a old standard. Contrary to the myth, "Blackbird" was hardly a forgotten song: Tom Lord's "Jazz Discography" shows a steady recording history of the song up until Miles recorded it. The song was still familiar and loved by the older members of Miles' audience, and even if the song was new to you, it was easy to glean the wistful quality of the song through the Quintet's interpretation. Another key part of "Blackbird"'s popularity has to be in the solos themselves. Every solo on this track is eminently singable. Even Coltrane's runs can be sung with a little practice! For young musicians learning how to improvise, these solos were a gateway into modern jazz. And for the hipsters of the period, it was an easy way to show just how hip they were (or thought they were...) There are many wonderful little moments in this recording that make it special, but my favorite is near the end as Miles plays the final chorus. When he reaches the make my bed and light the light/ I'll be home late tonight lines, Red Garland plays the melody a third above Miles. It's a simple little gesture, maybe a little corny, but whenever I hear it, I can't help but smile.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Solitude

Ellington Indigos is one of my favorite Ellington albums. Recorded right after Such Sweet Thunder, it was designed to show the "dance band" side of the Ellington orchestra. But it is so much more: In arranging a program of standards mixing his songs with those of other composers, Ellington created wonderful new settings that were richly-colored and easily accessible. When it was recorded in 1957, stereo recording was still new (in fact, Indigos may have been the first stereo Ellington album). Like other albums of this period, there were occasional problems with the portable stereo recorders which necessitated using different takes on the mono and stereo versions of the LP. One track, "The Sky Fell Down" never appeared on the stereo LP, and in 2 other cases, not only were the solos different between the mono and stereo, but the orchestrations changed, too! After 50+ years with various tracks turning up here and there, the Jazzbeat CD above includes all of the music recorded for this album. It's about time.

While Ellington wrote several concertos for his musicians, he seldom wrote features for himself. "Solitude" is a wonderful exception to the rule. Ellington starts alone at the piano with a gentle, out-of-tempo rumination on the theme. After awhile, he adds a simple, slow stride pattern, but soon breaks away from the straight time for more rubato thoughts. He uses single note lines to convey loneliness, and as the solo continues, we wonder if the whole track will be an extended piano solo. Then with a strong entrance on the theme, he brings in the rhythm section. The saxes pick up the melody with Ellington offering sharply voiced chords in contrast. The brass comes in on the bridge and the arrangement continues to build even as Ellington moves away from his melody. The band kicks in hard as the arrangement reaches its climax. Then suddenly, Ellington breaks into a flashy arpeggio that runs up and down the keyboard, and there is a solo piano cadenza that brings the volume and mood back to its quiet beginnings. Ellington caught a lot of heat from the critics when he crossed into the sacred classical music area, but this recording shows the pianist in a seldom-seen context. Far from being pretentious, it is simply a beautifully-realized rendition of a classic song. I loved it when I first heard it 30 years ago, and I still love it today.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sonny Stitt: Blues for Pres, Sweets, Ben and All the Other Funky Ones

Sonny Stitt was in prime form during his 1959 recording session with the Oscar Peterson Trio, perhaps partly because of the planned nature of the set, as opposed to a totally spur-of-the-moment selection of overplayed tunes. Sonny pays tribute to Charlie Parker with "Au Privave" and "Scrapple from the Apple," to Count Basie, Ben Webster, and Lester Young with "Moten Swing," and sums up his salute to "the fine funky ones: Bird, Pres, Sweets, Ben, Louis, Basie and those," with the original composition spotlighted here. This was the last time Stitt would record with Peterson, and the two monster technicians subdue their egos and work in highly effective accord, anchored by the responsive, classic rhythm team of Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen.

Stitt's on tenor for this track, but while it allows him some distance from his ever-present Parker influence on alto, he still sounds very little like Young or Webster. Instead, saxmen like Gene Ammons, Wardell Gray and Paul Gonsalves come to mind as Stitt plays the Kansas City Swing / jump blues theme and navigates his relatively old-school, riffing solo, with his usual intricate bop vocabulary kept mostly under wraps. Peterson in his solo utilizes a lissome touch of the George Shearing variety, as well as sparse Basie-derived patterns, in order to retain the reverent approach initiated by Stitt. Brown and Thigpen in turn drive the action, the flawless drummer having only recently joined Peterson, with whom he'd remain for the next seven years. All this is heard with crystal clarity thanks to the superb remastering of Kevin Reeves.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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