Johnny Hodges: Medley – I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart / Don't Get Around Much Any More

This medley of two Ellington classics is a real delight of superb jazz playing. "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" uses Harry Carney on baritone sax for the lead playing, which makes for an interesting and somewhat unusual tone and musical texture to carry the melodic theme. Carney employs that rich, deep-toned baritone sax sound to wonderful effect, with an excellent rhythmic sense, on this much-loved hit song of Ellington from the late 1930s. Ray Nance adds a fine, creative solo on open trumpet. The all-star group provides excellent backing.

The medley transitions nicely into "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," which has one of Ellington's most memorable and delightful melodies. (It also has marvelous lyrics that speak so well to the experience and heart of so many people, though they aren't sung here.) Johnny Hodges opens this part of the medley with a simply sublime statement of the melodic theme, developing into creative variations. His playing here, as on "Everybody Knows" and "310 Blues" from the same 1964 Hodges-led recording session, show that his famous sumptuous tone, style, and bluesy feeling on alto sax were, if anything, even richer 36 years after he began playing with the Ellington band. A trombone break by Lawrence Brown adds a rich-toned dimension.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Johnny Hodges: 310 Blues

This tune was specially written for this recording session by Duke Ellington's composing partner and musical soul mate Billy Strayhorn. It is a lively blues, with good momentum and a series of superb solos. Hodges leads off with a statement of the theme and embellishments, perfectly playing off the ensemble backing, and employing his famous soulful and lyrical alto sax work, with special use of that sensuous, bluesy slur up to a note that was a Johnny Hodges signature technique.

Ray Nance provides a marvelous, intense, wailing solo on cornet with a mute, including great high notes and effective descending lines. He's followed by a tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves that is flowing, lyrical, and less intense, making a nice contrast to Nance's solo. Cat Anderson and Lawrence Brown offer solos on muted trumpet and trombone that use the "wah-wah" technique, making those instruments talk to you with soulfulness and power. There are also some fine Ellingtonian transitions. Hodges comes back for a final solo with that gorgeous tone, playing lyrical, deeply bluesy, creative lines with excellent ensemble backing. Such playing demonstrates why noted writer on jazz and blues Albert Murray once said, "Bessie Smith could hardly sing the blues better than Johnny Hodges."

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Johnny Hodges: Everybody Knows

The main theme of this tune is one of those catchy ones that keep doing instant replays in your head; it is played with verve and style by Johnny Hodges and his virtuoso pals from the Ellington band. This long track (almost 7½ minutes) includes superb trumpet work by Ray Nance and (later) by Cat Anderson with a mute, tenor sax playing by Paul Gonsalves, and trombone playing by Lawrence Brown. Hodges leads the festivities with his exquisite lyrical, sensuous alto sax playing, employing once again what is probably the richest tone of any alto player in jazz history.

The basic melodic theme and harmonic structure of the song lend themselves well to interesting variation and embellishment, and with these jazz masters at work, we have the best of creative music-making. The ensemble playing is done with perfect unity; all those years of playing together in Ellington's band paid off handsomely here, including the excellent use of dynamics. The tune keeps building its intensity and momentum, the voices of the band fill out the soundscape ever more richly, and it concludes with a rousing, inspiring ending. This jazz mini-symphony with soul is a real delight.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Greg Osby: The Single Petal of a Rose

For St. Louis Shoes, Greg Osby imaginatively scaled down for a quintet the orchestral arrangement of "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," and in opposite fashion brilliantly expanded upon the usual solo piano or piano-bass formats of "The Single Petal of a Rose." Duke Ellington, the composer of each, would probably have admired these two Osby tracks for both their conception and execution. "The Single Petal of a Rose" was part of Duke's Queen's Suite, which he recorded at his own expense in 1959, gifting the one and only pressing to Queen Elizabeth herself. The general public never heard it until the Suite's release on Norman Granz's Pablo label in 1976.

Osby imparts "The Single Petal of a Rose" with a satisfying fullness it could never quite attain as a Debussy-like piano miniature. Osby's lustrous alto takes the lead with Robert Hurst's long-toned arco bass, Harold O'Neal's shimmering piano arpeggios, and Rodney Green's delicate cymbal work adding agreeable depth to the recitation. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton then handles the bridge with great open-hearted feeling. Osby next skillfully deconstructs the theme with an emphasis on fluttering asides. Payton follows suit with a lyrical alteration of the bridge, before giving way to O'Neal's rhapsodic piano improv that hints only slightly at Ellington's pianistic style in some of its ornamental voicings. Osby and Payton return to engage in some warmly developed counterpoint, capped by the altoist's reprise of the melody while the trumpeter offers well-chosen embellishments. The ending can be characterized as a rather abrupt diminuendo, leaving the listener pleased but wanting more.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Passion Flower

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

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

March 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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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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Ornette Coleman: Klactoveesedstene

Recorded during a club gig several months after the sessions for his first commercial recording as a leader (Something Else! on Contemporary Records), this track is a fascinating historical document of Coleman's experiments in stretching the parameters of conventional bebop-based jazz performance. It proves that in the case of Ornette, the origins of so-called free jazz represented more of an evolution than a revolution.

The group is the classic Coleman Quartet plus pianist Paul Bley, and here they explore a Charlie Parker line based on "Perdido" changes. They faithfully include Parker's original intro and tag, and though the horns play a wrong note in the second bar of the A sections, they play it with conviction and repeat it each time. Ornette's solo here should put to rest for good the accusations that he (a) discarded chord changes completely, and (b) couldn't play changes anyway. A striking feature of his solo is how much of Bird's language he used and how well he understood it. It reminds me of the parallel experience of noticing how much verbatim Lester Young was contained in Parker's early work.

Since this was obviously a bootleg recording done on less than ideal equipment, the sound leaves something to be desired, especially as it affects the piano, obviously not a vintage Steinway to begin with. Bley contributes an energetic solo that includes some angular a cappella passages, but it would have been interesting to hear his comping more clearly, as he has always been a player who can exert an enormous amount of harmonic and rhythmic influence over any group he plays in.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Greg Osby: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo

Duke Ellington gave two differing explanations for the derivation of the title "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," his theme song for many years before "Take the 'A' Train." He told Stanley Dance that the title grew out of a sign the band would pass on the road while touring New England, "LEWANDO CLEANERS," which would inspire them to sing, "Oh, Lee-wan-do!" However, he also once wrote that the title concerned the "old Negroes who work in the fields year upon year," and at the end of the day walk home "with a broken, limping step locally known as the 'Toddle-O'."

For Greg Osby, the title simply reminded him of his teenage years in St. Louis, when he would cross the bridge on weekends to play R&B and funk in the after-hours joints of East St. Louis. His reinterpretation of Ellington's early classic mixes the traditional with the modern, as Nicholas Payton's brash New Orleans sound hints at Bubber Miley and Cat Anderson, while Osby's cool angularity rests squarely in the 21st century. Osby and Payton play the brooding, rather sinister-sounding theme, with Payton taking the expected trumpet lead. Bassist Robert Hurst bows the next section unaccompanied before Payton's choppily exultant hard bop-styled solo. Osby prances through an inviting improvisation that features short bursting phrases and cascading runs, his tone unquestionably more out of Dolphy than of Hodges. Osby's fresh, provocative arrangement, even with its fairly free contrapuntal interlude for alto and trumpet, still partially preserves the tuba-banjo oompah vibe of the 1927 recording, as Hurst's arco bass creates a resonantly deep foundation.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker: I've Got You Under My Skin

On April 4, 1952, an article appeared in Downbeat with the stark headline: "Granz Wouldn't Let Me Record With Parker, Says Roy Haynes." Looking back, there's no denying that during Roy's tenures with Lester Young (1947-'49) and Parker (1949-'53), producer Norman Granz typically chose Buddy Rich to record on his releases, even though Haynes was considered to be the "regular" drummer in both groups during the above-mentioned years. Thankfully, there are multiple alternatives to check out the interaction between Parker and Haynes, most notably on live recordings and this final Parker studio date.

This track begins with a rhythm-section vamp in which Haynes plays his classic hi-hat/snare-drum Latin groove recorded on hundreds of occasions (check out "Reflection" from his 1958 album We Three for the ultimate example). Upon Parker's entrance, Haynes delivers a classic performance of his trademark propulsive, polyrhythmic hi-hat, snare drum, and bass drum comping. As Bird begins improvising, Roy moves to the ride but plays less, allowing Parker to establish his solo within a deeper groove. After a few polyrhythmic runs throughout the melody's restatement, the track ends where it began, with the straight-eighths (but still swingin') Latin groove.

March 01, 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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Lee Konitz & Matt Wilson: Winding Up

Although Lee Konitz devoted one track on his 1967 duo album to performing with Elvin Jones, this 2002 session is Konitz's first album-length duet with a drummer. His choice of Matt Wilson, a younger (by 37 years) musician who played in Lee's Nonet as early as 1996, was wise because Wilson is basically a melodic drummer. This unusual situation also induces Konitz to play only new material, totally co-improvised (or roughly co-composed) with Wilson in the studio, instead of reworking standards as he often does. On this track in particular, it is obvious that the usual relationship between blower and drummer is inverted. Konitz starts with a melodic proposal and Wilson answers on drums, then cymbals, in a tentative way. Then he catches his own momentum and plays along with the reedman rather than "pushing" him, as lots of drummers do. As for Konitz, he carries on his melodic tack, developing new ideas while Wilson's drumming comments in a subtle way that's as musical as it is dynamic. A great lesson in free playing by masters of, respectively, "winds" and "gongs," who make their own rules and are unafraid to enter rarely trodden paths.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Waltz For Debby

The transitional Know What I Mean? is too often overlooked when assessing the résumés of Cannonball Adderley and his pianist on this session, Bill Evans. At the time, Adderley was enjoying the breakthrough success of his quintet with brother Nat, and Evans was leading his most famous and influential trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. Evans's initial, brief rendition of his tune "Waltz for Debby" came in 1956, and he would record it for the third time, definitively, live at the Village Vanguard with his trio in June 1961. What makes this interim version, created just three months earlier, additionally intriguing is the unexpected rhythm team of the Modern Jazz Quartet's Percy Heath and Connie Kay.

Evans lovingly plays his hypnotic theme with a rich and ringing tone, before Adderley contributes his own reading. Adderley sounds unusually prim, refined and proper, at least until he begins his solo, at which point he quickly reveals his more bluesy and soulful side, combined with technical polish, lucid lyricism and irresistible warmth. Evans follows only too briefly, as Adderley regrettably reprises the theme before the pianist can fully develop any ideas. As for Heath and Kay, they more than adequately complement Adderley and Evans, with Kay in particular supplying a very becoming and propulsive rhythmic framework. Adderley and Evans had come a long way since appearing together on Miles Davis's Kind of Blue two years before, and it could be that each was just hitting his stride at the time this track was recorded.

February 18, 2009 · 1 comment

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David Binney: Third Occasion

The title is from a passage in Graham Greene's novel The Heart of the Matter (1948). "To be a human being one had to drink the cup. If one were lucky on one day, or cowardly on another, it was presented on a third occasion." Reportedly, the author did not much care for his own book. Nevertheless, the themes of individuality, responsibility, pity and pride, and the role of government and the church in those areas, interested many people. A movie, starring among others a young Peter Finch, was filmed in 1953.

Greene's novel presumably made a strong enough impression on saxophonist David Binney to inspire a long, introspective and probing musical creation. The tune's introductory passages suggest doubt. Binney and the brass section play some captivating but brief melodic riffs. Bassist Scott Colley is the first to solo, his style traditional and pleasing, not quite as dark as some of the music that accompanies it. Binney offers plenty of angst in his own solo. Some tortured feelings exist, not in the sense of causing pain, but rather the torture of self-doubt. Binney's squeezed-out wails are the equivalent of primal screams. This is not upbeat music. Binney and his fellow musicians have produced a thought-provoking piece that can't help but move you in one direction or another. Your individual needs will determine which direction that will be.

February 17, 2009 · 2 comments

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David Binney: Squares and Palaces

Saxophonist David Binney's composition has an air of mystery and intrigue. It could make a good movie soundtrack for one of those slow nighttime chase scenes that take place on foot rather than in speeding prop cars. There are lots of corners and shadows to navigate in the dark city. One eye is always looking behind you while the other glances down to make sure you don't trip. This atmosphere is skillfully evoked by Scott Colley's tentative but wily bass. He is soon joined by Binney's short unison bursts. It is all quite surreptitious until drummer Brian Blade tries to lose the pursuer(s) by launching distracting fusillades. Binney and his band think some free jazz may throw the bad guys off the trail. Well, maybe that won't work. A calmer blues may be the best thing to do. You know. Let's confuse them. Maybe they will walk right past us. Yeah, that worked! Music that doesn't tell a story is not good. "Squares and Palaces" goes right to the plot without any opening credits. You may hear a different tale than me. But there are a thousand stories in the Naked City and mine is just one.

February 16, 2009 · 1 comment

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Lee Konitz & Franco D'Andrea: Love for Sale

Playing a moody, meditative paraphrase on the famous Cole Porter tune, Lee Konitz is alone for nearly 1½ minutes before Franco D'Andrea joins in. Once the pianist does enter, it is he who maintains the strongest connection with the theme through a highly rhythmic comping that lets the melody trickle through block chords or bits of single lines. Meanwhile, Konitz drifts apart, though never too far, as he often does in a strange and familiar way, like one who knows the melody and the harmonies so well that he can play anything inside or outside of them. With such a complete pianist as D'Andrea, whose strong touch and rich chords are at times evocative of Thelonious Monk for the former and Art Tatum for the latter, Konitz can wander anywhere without getting lost. All the same, the listener can follow him without ever losing track of the harmonic and melodic progression of the tune. This diving into the improvising process by one of the greatest melodic "drifters" of all time, coaxed by one of Europe's best masters of harmony, is fascinating. Inside Cole Porter? Inside Lee Konitz's art, too.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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