Oscar Peterson: C Jam Blues

In a sense, Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” is the jazz equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Both pieces are based on a pair of pitches, but the miracle is how much music is created from those two pitches. Oscar Peterson’s version of “C Jam Blues” is from his LP Night Train, and like the title track of that album, Peterson makes an arrangement for his trio rather than just blowing through a few choruses of blues and going on the next tune. The arrangement is rather modest, since Peterson solos through the entire track save for an 8-bar intro by Ray Brown. Peterson incorporates Ellington’s original 4-bar breaks at the start of his first four choruses (which is actually two more than we really needed—the effect gets a little tiresome). After a couple of choruses of straight playing, he incorporates a shout chorus figure which is quickly picked up by Thigpen. Peterson takes two more solo choruses then goes back to the tune, played first in block chords and then in single notes.

September 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Marshall Brown: Struttin' With Some Barbecue

On a single day in September 1967, Lee Konitz recorded an entire LP of duets with some of his favorite musicians. Some of his partners had recorded with him before (Jim Hall, Dick Katz, Elvin Jones), but most were new, including Marshall Brown, a pioneering jazz educator best known for leading the Newport Jazz Festival’s Youth Band. Brown’s meager discography was almost entirely devoted to traditional jazz, so it is no surprise that the Konitz/Brown duet is on a Louis Armstrong classic, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”. While there is no rhythm section present, Brown makes up for its absence by playing a jaunty bass line under Konitz’ acidic alto solo. Brown gets the spotlight in the second chorus although Konitz just leaves more space in his playing instead of attempting to play a bass part. Then, through the use of overdubbing, Konitz on baritone sax and Brown on euphonium play a stop-time background to an alto sax/valve trombone reading of Louis Armstrong’s classic solo from the original recording of 40 years earlier. The arrangement is simply delightful, but Konitz’ over-riding seriousness makes this much less fun than it ought to have been.

September 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie & His Orchestra (featuring Al Grey): Makin' Whoopee

Frank Sinatra's 1966 live album Sinatra At The Sands with Count Basie is remembered as one of his finest. Highlights from Basie's opening set (sans Frank) were issued on a Telarc CD a few years back, but this performance was issued on the original Sinatra double LP. Thad Jones’ arrangement of "Makin' Whoopee" was written to feature Al Grey, one of the most prominent soloists in the Basie band of that time. Jones’ brilliant underscoring adroitly sets off Grey’s unsurpassed ability with the plunger mute. The band gets its moment to shine too, during the hard-swinging shout chorus.

But it's Grey's wailing plunger work on the out-chorus that steals the show. He lays so far back into the groove that it's impossible to tell where he's feeling the beat; nonetheless, his unmistakable roar cuts through. His virtuosic flourishes are capped by a brief cadenza where—perhaps just to show that he could—he pops out a high F. Wow. The breathtaking finish serves as a reminder of Grey's virtuosity and his importance to the fabric of the 1960s Count Basie sound.

August 31, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Hello Dolly

A bystander at the recording session notes that Louis Armstrong shook his head in dismay when looking over the music to "Hello Dolly," an unknown song (at the time) that the trumpeter was simply performing to please long-time manager Joe Glaser. Glaser must have been repaying a favor to someone—certainly this repetitive tune with the simple-minded lyric from a Broadway show that still hadn't opened was no gift to Armstrong. Yet Louis was a consummate showman and seasoned veteran of many sessions, and delivered the tune with so much enthusiasm that one might have concluded that he was the one who had concocted the whole idea. Even the old-timey banjo, overdubbed by a producer looking to add a little more "period charm" to the song, can't detract from the charisma of New Orleans' most famous musical ambassador. A few weeks later the song was a hit, and by May a 62-year-old trumpeter had pushed the Beatles out of the top spot on the Billboard chart. This artist had never enjoyed such a big hit, and never would again. No, this is not Louis Armstrong's finest moment, and will merely distract newbies trying to understand why this artist had such a substantial impact on American music. Yet when a musician of this stature has a surprise commercial success, the only proper response for the rest of us is to cheer loudly. Louis at the top of the charts? Hey, it's so nice to have you back where you belong!

August 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans & Jeremy Steig: So What

When Denny Zeitlin was brought in by producer John Hammond to play piano on Jeremy Steig's 1963 debut recording, Flute Fever, as Zeitlin recalled in a recent interview (see Marc Myers' JazzWax blog), Steig "was very frank about his raw emotional approach to playing. He said to me, 'Sometimes I just like to have a tantrum out there.' " Bill Evans first met and heard Steig in 1964, and in his original liner notes for the 1969 What's New album wrote, "Jeremy's playing also has a side of intensity that occasionally might defy belief. I played flute and piccolo for fourteen years and therefore feel a justification for my high estimation of Jeremy's exceptional scope as a flutist." Evans, who had once recorded with flutist Herbie Mann (Nirvana), was well aware that Steig was taking the instrument to places untouched emotionally and technically by even Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It wasn't until 1968 that Evans and Steig played together, Steig sitting in with the Evans trio at club dates in New York, which logically led to their recorded collaboration on What's New.

Steig had already performed "So What" on his Flute Fever session with Zeitlin [see jazz.com review], and of course Evans had played it on the album that introduced the now jazz standard, Miles Davis' revered Kind of Blue. Evans and Steig essay a diverting free-form intro and play the theme together alongside Eddie Gomez's bass vamp. Steig's breathy tone and swirling, tenacious attack is encapsulated in his first brief solo, which gives way to Evans' lengthier improv. Evans' pronounced McCoy Tyner-like left-hand figures, two-handed unison exclamations, and unyielding momentum are all a far cry from the pianist's contemplative, subdued side. Steig's second solo seems to be propelled to greater and greater heights by Gomez's driving, variegated bass lines. The flutist's tonal inventiveness is boundless, including the use of overblowing, humming, and vocalized overtones. Even at his most possessed, however, Steig's phrasing retains logic and relevance. Gomez's feature prior to the theme restatement is an excellent early example of his deliberate yet elaborate modus operandi.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz (with João Gilberto): Desafinado

Getz's 1962 recording of this composition set the bossa nova craze in motion. But I prefer this 1964 version, hands down, with its authentic Brazilian rhythm section. Authentic? Perhaps historic is a better adjective. João Gilberto invented the bossa beat, and remains its greatest exponent even after a million other guitarists have tinkered with, adapted and outright stolen his stuff. And what could be better than having the composer on piano?

Getz, for his part, makes his contribution sound so free and easy, that it's easy to under-estimate his artistry; even he made light of his achievement—introducing this song in concert as "Dis Here Finado" (an coy allusion to the funky hard bop tunes "Dat Dere" and "Dis Here"), or joking that it was the tune that would put his children through college. But can you imagine another jazz tenorist of the era who could have played this music with such perfect sensitivity to its nuances and inner emotional life? Let 'Trane have his "Giant Steps" and Rollins his late night bridge heroics; ah, but beachfront property never loses it value, and there is a stretch of it down Copacabana and Ipanema way that Getz will always own.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz (with Chick Corea): Litha

Stan Getz's name is often linked with that of Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and other disciples of Lester Young who came of age in the period following World War II. But Getz always had a more daring temperament than these others, and greater willingness to put himself in unfamiliar settings, trusting that his musical instincts would guide him through unscathed. And, unfailingly, they did just that.

Getz's occasional collaborations with Chick Corea are a case in point. Corea was himself in the midst of a fertile period of experimentation and threw many curveballs at the tenorist, including proto-fusion and neo-Latin charts. Getz was on the heels of his own huge bossa nova success and could have easily continued in that vein indefinitely, but here he digs into Corea's intricate "Litha," which includes meter changes (6/8 to fast 4/4), modal interludes and some unconventional harmonic movement. Needless to say, nothing in Getz's formative experience with Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman or even Woody Herman prepared him for this. No matter . . . Stan positively flies over this chart as if he had written it himself.

This is exhilarating music. The rhythm section of Corea-Carter-Tate is as good as any Getz would ever employ; they challenge the leader at every step along the way, and he asserts himself in return. In short, there is not the slightest touch of saudade anywhere on this track. I wish Getz had undertaken more sessions of this sort, but I am grateful this one took place before Corea went off into fusion-land and the tenorist went through his own period of musical redefinition in the late 1960s and 1970s.

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Alice Coltrane: Ptah, the El Daoud

Alice McLeod Coltrane was essentially a bebop pianist who had even studied with Bud Powell in Paris in 1959, but she then became greatly moved and influenced by the music of John Coltrane, which she first heard on record (Africa/Brass) in 1961. She met Coltrane in 1963 at Birdland in New York while the pianist for Terry Gibbs opposite Trane's quartet, married him in 1965, andreplaced McCoy Tyner in his group in 1966. Just before his death the following year, John helped Alice land a recording contract with his label, Impulse!, and her second album, Ptah, the El Daoud, featured the delectable and perhaps only such pairing ever of the highly individual saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson.

The stirring 14-minute long title track is dedicated to the Egyptian god Ptah, "the beloved" (the El Daoud). The somber march-like theme is played by the two tenors, and is elevated by Coltrane's forceful chords, Carter's penetrating bass lines, and Riley's sharply struck drum accents. Henderson employs urgent cries, circular phrases, heated tremolos, and serpentine runs to flesh out his solo. Sanders in turn ranges from meditatively spacy to passionately intense, with dissonant raspy wails and a mindset more in keeping with very late period Trane than was Henderson's, although Sanders' phrasing is as much thematic as it is abstract. The pianist has played reverberating chordal patterns behind both tenor soloists, and her own improvisation is laden with pulsating arpeggios, possesses a rolling momentum, and is similar overall in texture to her spiritual harp and organ playing. Riley's finely sculpted, understated drum solo precedes the theme's fervent restatement.

July 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Horace Silver: The Cape Verdean Blues

The music of Horace Silver always referenced and sounded different than most other jazz. His music has a tinge to it that most other music doesn't have. He mixes swing and Latin better than most and had a gift for composition that few musicians possess. Silver wrote this title track for his father, who was born in Cape Verde, a small chain of islands located in the Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Africa. Silver was joined by trombone master J.J. Johnson and a stellar horn section that also included Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw.

This song has a great dance feel to it, as Humphries accents the hi hat on the off beat on the quarter note. The melody is also really playful and the sound is further enhanced as Silver doubles up the melody with the horns. He opens up his solo with strong block chords in his left hand and plays some blues licks with his right hand. This is an album, which sounds completely different than most jazz that was coming out in 1965. I like the fact that Silver was always looking for the groove and he sure found it with this track.

July 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz & João Gilberto: Doralice

While familiar, "Doralice" still sounds fresh today. This version, recorded for the seminal jazz album Getz/Gilberto, features straight ahead guitar chords, an understated atmosphere, and warmth that sounds carefully plotted out.

The musicians create a lot of space and their contributions remain equally important to the mix. Once Stan Getz's no-frills sax solo winds down, it trades places with Gilberto's vocals, and both sing out in a similar manner. Instruments are panned hard left and right, and the track was rendered in the best light possible due to the multifaceted talents of each participant. It is a session of international repute, and you are immediately aware of its importance from the moment the cut kicks in because of the familiarity of the players with each other's skills.

Even if you do not understand a word of Spanish, you will feel as if you are able to follow the lyrics and message, and the warm, romantic sensitivity that the players convey is the reason for the track's approachability. It is a standout cut on one of the most important Latin jazz albums of all time, and it effectively symbolizes what else occurs within the grooves of the Stone Flower CD.

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Horace Silver: Serenade to a Soul Sister

I have to be honest, there's not a single Horace Silver song that I don't like. So now that my biases are out front, Silver returned in 1968 with this hard bop masterpiece, Serenade to a Soul Sister. Joined by tenor giant Stanley Turrentine, the band might not be the most recognizable names in the history of jazz but that's the way I like it. This group of musicians flies under the radar, digging deep for those blues. Judging from the way Turrentine and Tolliver solo, I would've liked to known this soul sister. Silver's comping on this song is typical, very relaxed and to the point with a heavy use of chords in the middle register. What I enjoy most about Silver is his consistency as a soloist. He's not going to play note after note like a Tyner or Hancock would, he has a nasty pocket and plays accordingly. His solo is marked by some nice upper register, singular melodic ideas that are simple but groove perfectly with the song. Hats off to one of the best!

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Byrd: Book's Bossa

It's kind of astonishing the amount of jazz musicians that recorded and performed Bossa nova in the late 1960s. I guess Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto did their jobs! Donald Byrd, always one who defies easy categorization, came up with a catchy little Bossa, that's almost closer to samba at times, for this album. I like how Byrd sounds on this song and he is helped greatly by the wonderful piano playing of Cedar Walton, who moves up and down the piano with ease as he comps behind Byrd. Although this song gets a little boring after a few minutes, I still like it. I think that Byrd sounds stronger on funk oriented material and straight ahead stuff but he still manages to play some nice sustained lines. Not a bad song at all and very well worth listening to several times.

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Byrd: Slow Drag

Here we have yet another Bossa nova song disguised by a heavy piano bass and some bluesy changes. The opening to this song definitely sounds like it was meant for the opening sequence of a bad P.I. movie. Donald Byrd sounds good on this song as well as the rest of the album and I enjoy the changes to this tune better than the others. Byrd's playing is aided by the loose nature of the song and it grooves a little harder, especially on the turnaround, which sounds like they ripped it straight from a Hancock Blue Note recording. Byrd's trumpet style is very interesting to my ears, I can't figure out sometimes what he's going for and then all of a sudden he brings me back to table with some nice note choices. I recommend this song and the entire album for anyone that wants to get their teeth wet to some of the R&B/Bossa music of Blue Note from the late 1960s. You also don't want to miss the cool Billy Higgins vocal adlib towards the end of the song. Classic!

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Horace Silver: Que Pasa?

By the time Horace Silver had recorded his 1964 masterpiece Song for my Father, his impact at fusing Brazilian elements into jazz music were undeniable. Similar to the title track, "Que Pasa?" opens up with a root to fifth bass movement but the mood of the song is much darker. Roy Brooks plays some fitting tom rolls before queuing Silver's solo, which as always, is heavy in the blues. I've noticed that almost all of Silver's songs start off with him soloing first. I think that it sets the mood a little better than always having a horn player start off the song. Being a piano player, I could be a little biased but it's nice to get the vibe of the track down then have the horns rip it up. Overall this song fits in well with the rest of the cuts on the album, making this album one in which you never have to press the skip button. You might just want to hit repeat and let the Silver band take you to the river, or the ocean, or wherever you want to go. By far, Junior Cook's solo is the strongest on the song as he rolls up and down the tenor sax with accuracy and feeling.

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Country Son

Opening up with a slow but rewarding introduction, Miles Davis sounds like 1950s Miles Davis on this track. At first listen the tune sounds slow but then Williams, Carter and Hancock start playing a little funk groove with heavy drum rumbles and striking piano harmonies. Many of the songs off of this album point in the direction that Davis wanted to go in with his electric period but I still love to hear him swing. After two minutes into the song, the rhythm section begins to swing behind Davis, which they often did behind his playing and he accelerates swiftly. The warmness exhibited in Davis's tone is highly evident on this song and this is the reason I fell in love with his playing in the first place.

As Wayne Shorter begins his solo the band starts to open some moving into more free areas of improvisation but they return to the original funky form when Hancock plays a solid, blues inspired solo. This is a quality track from one of Davis's strongest bands. Highly recommended.

July 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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