Ray Brown Trio: F.S.R.

“F.S.R.” was one of the Ray Brown Trio’s most popular songs. The story is: It was a Milt Jackson record for Pablo called A London Bridge with Monty Alexander, Ray, and Mickey Roker, and they were recording “Doxy.” Ray, of course, always in arranging mode, came up with a shout chorus to play after the solos. Apparently, Ray and all of the guys liked the shout chorus so much they said, “Well, why play ‘Doxy’? Let’s just make the shout chorus the actual chorus.” Allegedly, Ray said, “Yeah, that’s right. F— Sonny Rollins.” So that’s where “FSR" came from. So this is Ray’s take on “Doxy.”

Once he made that transition as the teacher, always hiring guys like Keezer and Benny Green and Larry Fuller, and Kareem Riggins and Greg Hutchinson and George Fludas, it was great to hear Ray keep these cats on their toes---almost like Betty Carter and Art Blakey did. These guys would be sweating hard. They had that look on their face, like “I’d really better come through, or I’m gonna be flat on my ass.” This is a really good example of Ray just in the pocket with these young cats for a good 7 to 8 minutes, walking his ass off. It was beautiful to hear them pushing Ray, and Ray pushing them back, and this real hard-core swinging tension in the middle of it all.

October 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Ann Hampton Callaway: Skylark

As a bird, the skylark is indigenous to Europe, Asia and Africa. Yet, the bird is well known to the rest of the world due to the many poems that praise its song. A skylark's song can be heard on the ground even when the bird is flying 2 or 3 miles high. I don't know whether Hoagy Carmichael or Johnny Mercer ever heard a skylark in person, but their song "Skylark" is one of the masterpieces of American music. The melody seems to float over the time, so much so that even the most convoluted section of the bridge doesn't bring the melody back to the ground. The wistful lyric, in which a lover asks a bird for advice of the heart, is one of Mercer's finest creations.

Ann Hampton Callaway's stunning recording brings all of the elements of this standard to life. Bill Charlap's exquisite introduction brings on Callaway, and the two work as a duo for the first 16 bars of the opening chorus. In rubato time, Charlap ripples below as Callaway soars above on the melody. Callaway's rich, velvety voice envelops the melody, and her interpretation of the lyric starts conversationally and seamlessly moves into longer phrases. When the rest of the band enters on the bridge, Andy Farber provides a lovely accompaniment on tenor sax. Charlap plays a delicate solo in single lines with fine interaction from Peter Washington on bass. When Callaway returns, she makes a few well-chosen deviations from the melody, but we never lose the sense of the original line. At the coda, Callaway and Charlap are together again, and she brings her rendition full-circle by returning to the conversational interpretation where she started.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Fred Hersch: The Nearness Of You

Ned Washington's lyric to the Hoagy Carmichael song "The Nearness Of You" has always been a special favorite of mine. The thought of a person whose mere presence can be an inspiration speaks to the romantic artist in me. I suspect that Fred Hersch loves these words as much as I do. For even in his solo piano version of this song, the lyric's message comes through.

Hersch opens with an original introduction (not the original verse) and then he moves into the song with great tenderness, using a spare arpeggiated style in his left hand. While the left hand ideas grow in intensity as Hersch becomes more rhapsodic, they are never overwhelming, but are simply there to support the melody in the right hand. Hersch stays in a free rubato throughout the performance, but there seems to some underlying tempo as Hersch's ideas seem to ebb and flow in a rhythmic pattern. Early in his improvisation, he finds a wonderful little idea that he sequences through a number of keys before moving to another thought, which he also develops. He returns to the tune at the bridge and he emphasizes the end of that eight-bar section with held notes at either end of the piano followed by a dramatic pause, which reverts the mood back to that of the beginning.

So, how does all of this relate to the lyric? It's not easy to explain, but I get a tangible feeling that the passion found in this recording has extra-musical roots. The romantic intensity of the lyric is transformed into a spiritual feeling that breathes through every second of this music. Creative musicians live for moments like this, where all of the elements come together and the music is elevated to a higher level. Inspiration and complete mental focus are a big part of the equation, and it's nearly impossible to reach those heights by just going through the motions. Whatever Hersch's inspiration was, he created a very special musical moment on that October night at Jordan Hall. We are fortunate enough to share it.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Maceo Parker: Pass The Peas

This live cut of the James Brown classic “Pass the Peas” features his longtime horn section -- Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley -- at their absolute best. The group, a collection of James Brown alumni and other top-notch funk musicians, is much looser and improvisatory than the Brown band, and it's clear that each of the horn players relishes their musical freedom.

Fred Wesley kicks things off with the first solo, staking his claim as the funkiest trombonist of all time. Melodically, he rarely strays from the blues scale, but he builds a powerful and exciting solo by using short, rhythmically precise phrases and juxtaposing his ideas as if having a conversation with himself. By the time Maceo gets the crowd chanting "Fred! Fred!" his dark, juicy tone is sailing expertly over the groove.

Maceo adds his two cents afterward, and the group continues for nearly 12 minutes without losing that essential rhythmic feel. Guitarist Rodney Jones leads the way, and the crowd obviously eats it up. They finally build into a massive chordal explosion, giving the crowd a chance to cheer before moving on with the rest of their uncompromisingly funky show.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Henry Threadgill: Song Out Of My Trees

While Amina Claudine Myers has been a respected organist for decades (as a member of the AACM and Lester Bowie’s New York Organ Ensemble), she has also been a star on the piano (with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra). Frequently Myers gravitates back to piano, possibly to showcase her outstanding vocals. “Song Out Of My Trees”, although not a recent recording, was chosen to highlight her organ style within the avant-garde context, far removed from bop organists like Jimmy Smith, and closer to the searching style of late-period Larry Young.

Henry Threadgill’s animated alto sax and the searing guitar of Ed Cherry are supported by Myers on a skittering melody line. The Leslie is swirling fast from the introduction, and Myers holds sustained chords in the upper register for a stinging effect, while her relaxed walking bass provides a counter-balance. She plays a solo that leads off with sparse, bluesy statements, and she lets this sentiment settle before taking on heavier, harmonically rich ideas employing rapid-fire keyboard slaps. Her solo mixes in some choice gospel inflections, before Threadgill contributes a bright-toned, vocal-driven alto solo.

September 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Charles Brown: I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)

Brown was one of the originators of the West Coast lounge or club blues style that was patterned after Nat Cole, but bluesier and certainly sadder and even a bit mournful at times. With his smooth, stretched-out vocal phrasing and hip, refined piano, Brown could really get under your skin. After a string of hits from the mid '40's to the early '50's, rock n' roll put Brown's mellow delivery on the back burner. Thanks to the PBS documentary All That Rhythm and Those Blues, and the encouragement and support of Bonnie Raitt and guitarist Danny Caron, Brown's career finally saw a major revivial in the "90's, resulting in numerous recordings and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation prior to his death in 1999. The best thing about many of his later albums may have been that they put an equal spotlight on his underrated, or certainly underappreciated, skill as a pianist.

For example, Brown recorded eye-opening solo piano versions of "Round Midnight" and "One Mint Julep" on a 1992 release (Blues and Other Love Songs), and this fascinating vocal-piano rendition of "I Got It Bad" on his 1994 These Blues. Brown's brief intro more than hints at a phrase from Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare." He then plays the theme with a blues-drenched sound and a semi-stride tempo. His attack, voicings, and overall emotional compass during his solo recall Mary Lou Williams as much as anyone. When Brown finally starts to sing, it's apparent that the resigned lyrics fit his sly, downcast vocal expressiveness to a tee. From this point on, his vocalizing alternates with more upbeat piano breaks (similar in mood to his comping), presenting an ingratiating contrast. Brown's purred handling of the words "My gal and me / we gin some / embrace some / and we sin some" is unbeatable, but then so is his eloquent keyboard work. If he'd never sung a note in his life, the classically trained Brown could still have easily succeeded as just a jazz/blues pianist.

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Phillip Johnston: Hofstra's Dilemma

Johnston led the delightfully off-kilter swing/progressive Microscopic Septet from 1980 to 1992, during which time he and founding member John Zorn became two of the darlings of New York's underground music scene in lower Manhattan, for which the Knitting Factory became the key venue. In the '90's Johnston created two new groups, Big Trouble, which unlike the sax-based "Micros" featured trumpets, and the more chamber-like, drummerless Transparent Quartet. On the latter's The Needless Kiss album, Johnston's compositions once again exhibited the depth and breadth of his inspirations, from Captain Beefheart to Nashville, from West Coast Jazz to Chopin, from Raymond Scott to Steve Lacy. However, the only non-studio track, the outstanding "Hofstra's Dilemma," recorded live at the Knitting Factory, is an unusually straight-ahead and unadorned display of these four musicians' exceptional skills.

Johnston plays the boppish, dancing theme with a piercing soprano tone reminiscent of Lacy's, if not somewhat fuller and less dry. The tune's attractive harmonic structure and shifting changes provide Johnston in his solo with many points of impetus that he handles with adroitness and verve. Joe Ruddick is all over the piano in his feature, revealing a formidable technique as he executes rollicking arpeggios and slippery runs and glissandos--think Jaki Byard for its diversity of texture. Mark Josefsberg's vibes improv is played with a metallic Red Norvo sound, and like Ruddick, is appealingly unpredictable. David Hofstra's meaty bass solo is a concise but fully realized concoction. Johnston's reprise renews the listener's appreciation of his abilities as both a player and composer. He probably chose to include this track on the CD--recorded a year earlier than all the others--simply because it's so damn good. (Also check out the "Micros'" version on their Seven Men In Neckties compilation.)

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Oliver Jones: I Love You

Oliver Jones, who turned 75 this month (9-11-09), has always played second fiddle to Oscar Peterson amongst mainstream Canadian jazz pianists, although he's widely admired by his countrymen, winning several Juno Awards and the 1990 Prix de Oscar Peterson, among other honors. Like Peterson, Jones was born in Montreal, and even studied piano with Oscar's sister Daisy, as did Oscar himself. Jones didn't begin focusing on jazz until the early '80's, having been the musical director for the Jamaican pop singer Ken Hamilton from 1962 until 1980. The Northern Summit album is one of his many for Canada's Justin Time label, and the instrumentation on it resembles that of Peterson's trio in the '50's, with Herb Ellis simulating his role with Oscar and Red Mitchell taking the place of Ray Brown.

The rapport between these three musicians on the opening track, "I Love You," is exceptional. Jones bouncily expounds upon the Cole Porter theme with Ellis breezing lightly through the bridge. The pianist's solo is backed at first by a percussively tapping Ellis in the manner of Tal Farlow, as Mitchell churns out deeply resonant bass lines. Jones' richly voiced chords and shimmering runs show little obvious sign of Peterson, his acknowledged greatest influence. Ellis solos with his customary twangy tone and agile bluesy runs, bending notes for added color. The clearly articulated formulations of Mitchell's compelling improv explode from his specially tuned (in fifths) bass, with never an instance of hesitation or murkiness. Jones and Ellis exchange passages and then engage in elaborate contrapuntal weavings, and finally, after completing another thematic reading, a tirelessly inventive and jubilant out chorus.

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Peter Leitch-John Hicks: Duality

Soon after guitarist Peter Leitch left his native Canada and relocated to New York, he began a regular association with the late pianist John Hicks that was preserved on several of Leitch's CDs during the '80's and '90's, including their sole duo outing, Duality. Hicks' powerful attack served him well in his recordings with artists such as Oliver Lake, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and Pharoah Sanders, but the pianist's more tender and lyrical side is what made him such a complete player and helped ensure the success of this session with Leitch. The guitarist's relatively light tone and deceptively laid-back, sophisticated approach could have easily been steamrolled by a less sensitive partner.

As Leitch explained in the Duality CDs notes, the title track "has two sections, one of which is rather static, harmonically; it's modal. The other section contrasts with harmony that moves around a lot." Right away you notice the beautifully captured sounds of the two instruments, thanks to engineer Rudy Van Gelder. The two-sectioned theme is appealing melodically and in its rhythmic thrust. Leitch solos confidently and with relaxed yet finely detailed lines, as Hicks plays galvanizing chord patterns in support. Van Gelder's positioning of mikes directly on both Leitch's guitar and amp give his electric instrument a radiant acoustic quality. Hicks becomes less restrained in his solo, backed by Leitch's softly strummed adornments. The pianist's forceful phrasing and strong left hand accents are an irresistible combination. The theme's supple replay serves as a final especially satisfying release.

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Greg Osby: All Neon Like

It’s easy to see why a jazz musician might want to tackle Bjork’s “All Neon Like”. Consisting of little more than a sinister synth bass line, a simple electronic beat, and Bjork’s haunting voice soaring overhead, “All Neon Like” is pretty wide open—there’s a lot you can do with it. And so it became a mid-tempo burner for the alto saxophonist Greg Osby, an expressive player whose sharp sound and sense of drama owe something to the great tenor and soprano man Wayne Shorter. Backed by the sensitive and grooving rhythm section of pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Eric Harland, Osby meditates long and hard on this one, soloing for just about the entirety of the track. Moran shines with a few good runs towards the end though, taking things “out” for a moment, and keeping listeners on their toes.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Marian McPartland: When The Saints Go Marching In

As host of the long-running radio series Piano Jazz, Marian McPartland has played innumerable piano duets with some of the finest jazz artists on the scene. The piano duet concept was transferred to McPartland's 1998 CD Just Friends where she performed with Tommy Flanagan, Renee Rosnes, George Shearing, Geri Allen, Dave Brubeck & Gene Harris. The last track on the CD was Marian's alone, and it doubtlessly represented the duet she wished she could play, but could no longer. Subtitled "for Jimmy", her solo version of "When The Saints Go Marching In" is a heartfelt tribute to her late husband, Jimmy McPartland. She starts the performance with a simple single-line reading of "The Blue Bells Of Scotland" (one of Jimmy's favorite songs) then makes a smooth segue into "Saints". The tempo is slow and thoughtful, making us remember the words, forgotten after so many raucous Dixie renditions. Marian was always more advanced in harmony than her husband, but I suspect that Jimmy would have approved of the "pretty chords" that Marian plays here. I suspect that someday in the hereafter they will play together again, but for now, Marian's solo version is a profound tribute to her dear departed husband.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Ray Brown: Bass Solo Medley: Full Moon and Empty Arms/The Very Thought Of You/The Work Song

On The Very Tall Band, which is a quartet with Oscar Peterson, Milt Jackson, and Karriem Riggins, Ray Brown does a medley does a medley on this record with “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” “The Very Thought of You” and “Work Song.” To me, it’s a case study in how the bass can execute at the highest level of melody. Ray Brown was always known almost as a boorish type of bass player, a pile-driving bulldozer of a bass player. But when Ray Brown played a ballad, just playing the melody and soloing, playing it free, no time, it was crystalline and beautiful. You can imagine transcribing that to a piano and having Oscar Peterson put something to it, and it would sound absolutely gorgeous. I think it’s pretty marvelous.

It was interesting to hear Ray talk about tone production. When you talk about the other major bass players, the most influential bass players of his generation, Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus... Ray, of course, loved Oscar Pettiford, and he admittedly stole a lot of his ideas, stole a lot of his concept. But Ray said that one thing he always wanted to do differently than Oscar Pettiford was make his notes longer. He always felt that bass notes were too short. They came out as much more of a thud than a ring. A lot of bass players pulled their strings out instead of down. but Ray would pull them down, so almost his finger was hitting the finger board as he was pulling the string, which freed the string to vibrate up and down instead of side-to-side. That gave it that crisp, percussive sound. He always kept the strings at a comfortable height that was never too low, never too high, which gave him just the right amount of tension so he could get a nice chunk of flesh into the string, without (a) killing the bass or (b) killing his fingers. So I think he always had the perfect setup and he had the perfect concept to be able to make his notes ring, still keep that big sound, and not overplay. When I saw him play in person and discovered that’s what he was doing, it was a revelation. I had been used to either the low-action, high-speed guys, or guys my age who were raising their strings way-way up high off the fingerboard, trying to go for that old-school, 1940s or early ‘50s bass sound. Guys were getting gut strings, and they were just yanking the crap out of their basses. I was doing that for a little while, but then I saw Ray Brown and went, “Ahh! So that’s how it’s done. What am I doing?” I think Ray Brown was both a musical and a scientific master in learning how to get that perfect sound out of the instrument. Unfortunately, I never sat down and asked him directly about whether that was a conscious... I mean, “did you know that you were plucking this way instead of that way?” It just seemed so natural, I have a feeling that’s what he got to through trial-and-error.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Bill Frisell: Gimme A Holler

It’s ironic that Nashville, Bill Frisell’s farthest wander from recognizable jazz at this point in his career, recorded in 1995-1996 with some of bluegrass music’s finest players, was his first to earn him a Downbeat Critic’s Poll winner for Best Jazz Album of the Year and Best Guitarist of the Year in 1998. I suppose it’s one bold move complementing another – jazz’s principal magazine urging Frisell to continue focusing on simultaneous boundary obliteration and stylistic formation.

Frisell’s greatest achievement with Nashville may be that fans of country and jazz alike can both logically claim possession of the music heard throughout. This music, upon first listen, sounds like bluegrass, and with Jerry Douglass of Union Station fame trading licks with Frisell, it’s hard to argue that country music isn’t being played here. Yet Frisell’s own liner notes suggests another angle to view this music:

“Usually with my quartet, I write out my compositions. We start by reading the charts and then take a tune into different directions as we get familiar with playing it together. But I didn't present the music that way to the guys in Nashville. It was more of a challenge for me. I played the tunes and they all just reacted. It was exciting to see how quickly they learned the pieces.”

Executing a role reversal for the ages, Frisell rather ingeniously offered that somewhat of a jazz approach be taken to bluegrass music by infusing a collectively improvised, create-your-own-role atmosphere to a style where the dominating mindset is to know your role and stick to it. Hearing “Gimme a Holler” with this in mind completely changes the listening experience – it may sound like country, but the listening, the chance-taking, and the unpredicted moments of cohesion from quick interactions brings to mind the finest moments of pure jazz spontaneity.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Bill Frisell: Tales From The Far Side

A fan favorite and widespread critical success, Frisell’s foray into orchestral arrangements of his back catalog were first introduced on Quartet, featuring the strings of Frisell’s guitar and Kang’s violin and the brass of Miles’ cornet and Fowlkes’ trombone. You can tell how much fun Frisell had arranging these tunes, most of which were conceived as soundtracks to films, including this CD-opening homage to his good friend Gary Larson’s famous line of cartoons. An up-tempo, sweeping waltz in which the strings create a bed for the long-toned, two-horned melody, “Tales from the Far Side” retains and explores the sinister yet comical mood of Larson’s work. Bigger and bolder than most other Frisell arrangements, Quartet is a fun listen that, upon its release, the New York Times claimed, “just may be his masterpiece.”

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Motian Trio: Misterioso

During the first week of 2009, Motian, Frisell, and Lovano just completed their annual two-week run at the Village Vanguard. It's amazing to think that this group, originally documented in 1984 on their debut record, It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago [ECM], has existed for twenty-five years -- until, that is, you listen to their frighteningly high level of musical mind-reading. Bass-less and certainly not bound to a steady, consistent ride-beat from Motian, these three musicians explore the intersection of melody, harmony and rhythm as freely and beautifully as any jazz trio ever has.

Their stunning ballad readings and renditions of Paul Motian’s underrated compositions can yield another dozens-sized list of worthy tracks here, but I’ve never seen the group without hearing an extended rendition of a Monk tune, and “Misterioso” seems to be the favorite choice. This live take from the middle of this group’s recorded history is about as “straight-ahead” as the group gets – Motian is steadily swinging more here than he usually chooses to with this group. Seemingly excited by this prospect, Lovano and Frisell really turn it on, both taking extended solos that burn from start to finish. Frisell is a man possessed throughout his duet with Motian here, and amidst the onslaught of notes and sound effects, the playful Monk vocabulary that he incorporates suits his style perfectly, and reveals one of his chief influences.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


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