Gerald Wilson: Detroit

A nostalgic, backward-looking quality permeates this late vintage work by veteran bandleader Gerald Wilson. And certainly Wilson, who celebrated his 91st birthday a few weeks before the Detroit CD was released, has plenty to look back on, and a fair portion of it centered in the city celebrated in this composition. Wilson is closely associated in the mind of fans with West Coast jazz because of his fine California-based bands, but he spent much of his early life in Detroit, where he graduated from Cass Tech, for many years the city's only magnet school, in the mid-1930s. The commission from the Detroit International Jazz Festival must have been a spur for him to look back at his own early years, and the result is a sentimental song rather than a musical evocation of auto assembly lines and other Motor Town symbols and signifiers. "Detroit" the song is languorous and melancholy, with exactly the emotional temperament one would expect from a composer mulling over le temps retrouvé. The solo from Kamasi Washinton on tenor is gentle, and perhaps too respectful at first, but cuts off just as he seems ready to get into the flow. Sean Jones delivers a sweet, polished flugelhorn improvisation. Nonetheless, the centerpiece here is the gray-haired bandleader, who has delivered a dreamy, eulogistic piece for a city on hard times but with a grand jazz tradition to which he is a significant contributor.

October 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Lazy River

I don't know how "Up A Lazy River" ever made it past a music publishing editor. The melody line is dominated by awkward leaps and a very wide range. Trained voices have a hard time negotiating the tune (especially the younger singers who don't know the song from recordings), and it must be nearly impossible for a layman to sing or whistle the song accurately. Yet somehow this song became one of Hoagy Carmichael's biggest hits. I suspect Louis Armstrong deserves some of the credit. On this recording (which was a big hit for Louis), he uses the ultimate economy by reducing Carmichael's melody to a single (and oh-so-right) pitch. His opening trumpet solo hints at the melodic reduction to come, and when the saxes play the original melody, they sound terribly old-fashioned, and only Louis' vocal retorts make the passage listenable. In addition to reducing the melody's scope, Louis also changes the phrasing by omitting some words and barely stating others: Up...lazy river...where...th'old mill runs. We get a second vocal chorus on this one, which Louis starts with an arpeggiated line (just in case anyone thought that he couldn't sing the original melody) and melds into a scat solo. He seems pleasantly surprised by his vocal creation and he breaks out of a scat line with the spoken "Oh, you dog! Ha Ha. Boy, am I riffin' this evenin'? I hope somethin'." He scats a little more, references the song's title and then introduces pianist Charlie Alexander, whose break allows Louis to pick up his trumpet. The final solo isn't quite as majestic as others from this period, but it is powerful enough to bring the track to a satisfying close.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: Tenderly

“Tenderly” is a fascinating song, originally written in three and often played in four. It has remained a standard all these years later, and has had quite a few recordings by pop and jazz artists, many of which sold in large numbers (I admit a weakness for Rosemary Clooney’s version, arranged and conducted by Percy Faith).

Sims, Getz and Cohn were gone, but Bill Harris was back, Gibbs was contributing wonderful solos, and Shelly Manne was aboard now that Stan Kenton had disbanded and was making plans to be a psychologist (!). But attendance at gigs was dwindling thanks to the infant television, and the final straw was the presence of drugs in many of the player’s systems. By November, Herman disbanded, later calling this edition of his band “an albatross.”

That didn’t mean that the quality of the music suffered. Hefti’s setting is so clever that you may not realize it is in three until it is pointed out to you, and his gift for re-harmonization and transition really shows here. Herman’s romantic alto sax reminds us of the wonderful ballad playing he was capable of, and solos by Harris and Ammons are equally lovely, as is the brief saxophones soli toward the end.

Hefti was also to change direction in a few short months. Wanting to simplify his style of music, he would create memorable melodies that Count Basie would eventually make world famous.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: The Goof and I

Woody Herman’s second of his many herds was the most bop-oriented of all of them, and when we take into consideration the many musicians who became stars in their own right later on, then this is truly an all-star band. Much of the band’s best work went unrecorded due to a recording band in 1948, but luckily there are several off-the-air live performances available.

The track under discussion, Al Cohn’s “I Got Rhythm” variant, was originally written for the Buddy Rich Orchestra, and while that setting was very good, this one is even better. Like the previous Herman herd, this ensemble could whip up an audience to a frenzy, and then play a soft, beautiful ballad. Cohn’s new arrangement features solos by Chaloff, Swope and the leader. The out chorus really shows off how well this band played and sounded, now with one alto, three tenors (“Four Brothers” was recorded on the same day).and baritone comprising the sax section (the usual setup was 2 altos, 2 tenors and baritone).

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quincy Jones: Killer Joe

According to an interview I saw with Quincy maybe 6 or 7 years ago, “Killer Joe” was the last straight-ahead tune that actually made the BillboardTop 100 Singles Chart in 1969. Quincy also said that this particular arrangement was specifically written with Ray Brown’s walking style in mind. As you can hear on the original recording, it’s just bass in your face the whole way through. It really is a lesson in everything that I think encompasses the golden standard in modern bass playing—how you can get the most harmonic, linear creativity from just two chords. It just goes back and forth from C-VII to B-flat-VII, and Ray Brown is milking these two chords to death. It’s swinging real hard. His sound... Well, actually (and I tread lightly when I say this), I was never a big fan of the bass sound on Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings once he started using the DI, once he started using the pickup on acoustic basses, which he started doing it around that time, ‘69-‘70. Somehow, Ron Carter was probably the only bass player who was able to get a decent sound from the DI in Rudy’s studio. But save for what I feel was sort of a muffled sound... You listen to Ray Brown on any other recording, then listen to him on Walking in Space. It almost sounds like there’s a towel over the bass, so you can’t really hear the clarity. But if you can get past that and just hear all of the magnificent notes and the force with which Ray Brown is driving the band, to me that’s a huge reason why that probably was the last straight-ahead jazz tune in the Billboard Top 100. You can’t help but dance when you listen to that. In a Downbeat piece a few months ago, I mentioned how the acoustic bass has this all-encompassing, encircling quality, like a big arm just surrounding the band. Ray really does that on “Killer Joe.” Definitely one of my favorites.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ray Brown-Milt Jackson: Lined With A Groove

This recording is with Oliver Nelson’s big band—Grady Tate is playing drums, Clark Terry is playing flugelhorn, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Hank Jones. It’s great to hear Ray Brown in this setting, because if I’m not mistaken, it was one of the first recordings---if not the first recording---that he made either as he was in the process of leaving Oscar Peterson’s Trio or had just left Oscar Peterson’s trio. He was starting to really focus on his development as a bandleader—or so he thought. That’s when he moved to L.A. and started becoming a studio ace on the West Coast. But it’s great to hear him play his tunes, and to hear the band sort of under his direction... Even though Oliver Nelson was the arranger-conductor on the date, somehow you got the notion that Ray Brown was running things! It’s also interesting to listen to Ray Brown during this period, because in the early to mid ‘60s you never really heard him play with too many other drummers other than Ed Thigpen. Now, you did hear him on a couple of sessions with Sinatra and people like that. But these were structured sections where he didn’t get much chance to stretch out. Now, this was one of the first times that Ray played with Grady Tate. It’s great to hear him hook up with somebody else, and you can hear that the hookup maybe wasn’t as instant as it was with Ed Thigpen. You can hear that there are some discrepancies in where the tempo might lay. But somehow, that blur in the tempo actually works. For some reason, I always liked hearing that. Ray always pushed. He was always ahead of the beat, just on the border of speeding up, and you can hear that Grady Tate is kind of in the pocket. You can feel this real hip tension, kind of like Ray going, “come on Grady...UNNH...” It’s fun to listen to.

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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Duke Ellington: Limehouse Blues

"Limehouse Blues" is not a blues, but it was inspired by the London neighborhood. When Duke Ellington recorded the song in 1931, the song was ten years old and Ellington was just two years away from his first trip to London. The introduction, with an odd clip-clop rhythm from Sonny Greer, sounds more like the Old West than the East End. Ellington must have liked the relaxed loping feel of this song, for he keeps the two-beat going throughout the arrangement. Ellington's setting is a feature for his three saxophonists, but all of the solo segments are in 8-bar pieces. After the theme chorus, a trumpet variation alternates with Johnny Hodges' alto sax. Hodges' early style is in full bloom here, but he (like Harry Carney later on) has problems trying to swing against the two-beat rhythm. Bigard is up next with a wild clarinet tremolo and complete rhythmic security. Carney decorates the melody and briefly tries his own kind of tremolo. Bigard starts his next eight with the same tremolo as if to show Carney how it's meant to be played, and Carney takes the hint and goes back to paraphrasing the tune. The brass have an easier time swinging the phrases in the final ensemble chorus, and Hodges and Bigard each get brief solo spots between the brass figures. At the end, Ellington makes a minor mis-step in bringing back his odd introduction, but not even the trumpet fills by Cootie Williams can make that music make sense.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington (featuring Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton): It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing

This rendition of "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" from the band's 1944 Carnegie Hall concert, is an updated version of the original 1932 recording. Despite the differences--Ray Nance taking the vocal chorus out front, the high-energy tenor solo from Al Sears and subsequent shout chorus-- the plunger mute work of trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton is what makes this track soar. His signature sound is the "ya ya" effect, but here he shows his musical growth beyond that plunger trick. He alternates between high-pitched, closed-plunger riffs and "ya ya" phrases as if having a musical conversation with himself. He also demonstrates a prodigious command of his upper register, which he uses for melodic contrast. Few musicians have been able to achieve the range of timbre in a single solo that Nanton does here. Sears starts his solo with a sense of understatement that provides excellent contrast before building it up into the climactic final shout section.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jimmie Lunceford (featuring Trummy Young): Margie

Although he is best-known for his work with Louis Armstrong in the 1950s and 1960s, trombonist Trummy Young made his name with Jimmie Lunceford in the 1930s. “Margie”was his most prominent feature as well as one of the band's biggest hits. Young both sings and plays on this swinging arrangement by Sy Oliver. Young's singing style is breathy and joking, his high-pitched tenor a perfect match for the light, jaunty feel of the piece. However, what really stands out is his trombone work. Young plays with unrivaled control of his instrument, staying mostly in the upper register, where he produces a smooth, bright tone. His breaks feature large leaps in pitch, which are very difficult to execute. To top it off, he ends the tune on a high F#, near the absolute top of the instrument's range. The overall effect is one of infectious, danceable swing as well as musical virtuosity. Young was a perfect fit with the Lunceford band and his exposure there helped him launch a long and successful career in jazz.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Benny Goodman: One O'Clock Jump

While his inter-personal skills left much to be desired, Benny Goodman cared about his band and was always interested in making his musicians sound good. When it came to programming the 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert, he must have realized that he and the band would be nervous, so Goodman programmed the opening set to get everyone comfortable as they got used to their new surroundings. First up was "Don't Be That Way", a song that swings well in almost any tempo, then a familiar Fletcher Henderson arrangement on "Sometimes I'm Happy", which the band had probably played every night of its existence. If that wasn't enough to calm everyone onstage down, there was a big band blues, namely "One O'Clock Jump". Picking this piece was a no-brainer: it was the theme song of the Count Basie Band, which was gaining popularity by the week, and Basie himself was at Carnegie that night to play in the jam session. Further, "One O'Clock Jump" was a good framework for a big band blues--the riffs were engaging and the key change from F to D-flat was a reliable way to raise the energy in the band. Jess Stacy's opening solo is an obvious homage to Basie, but Stacy wisely knew Basie's roots, and there is more stride in Stacy's tribute than Basie might have played himself. Babe Russin was no Herschel Evans or Lester Young, but he had listened to both tenormen and his solo has the tone of Evans and the light rhythm of Young. Vernon Brown plays a swaggering trombone solo followed by Goodman. The clarinetist gets the most solo room, but he makes great use of it, especially when he gets the rhythm section to bring the volume down behind him. Pulling off a simple but spontaneous musical gesture like that can change the course of a concert and inspire the musicians. It also showed any non-believers in Carnegie that jazz was not always loud and brash. After Goodman, Stacy gets another spot before Harry James steps up for a short but warm-toned solo. Krupa boosts the band up as they play through the final band riffs.

September 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie & His Orchestra: Exactly Like You

“Exactly Like You” has been a jam session staple for years, but when Count Basie recorded it on his second Decca session, it was still fairly new territory. Despite recordings by Louis Armstrong, the Casa Loma Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Trio, the song had failed to catch on with jazz musicians. However in 1937, the floodgates opened as several jazz groups recorded versions of the song. Basie’s was the first version made that year, and its joyful nature made it a classic. The arrangement is probably by Fletcher Henderson or Don Redman, but Basie’s band was not filled with talented readers and some of the section work is rather sloppy. But one didn’t listen to Basie for skillfully played arrangements; Basie’s was a soloist’s band, and many of the band’s stars play excellent solos on this track. After the band introduction, Basie plays the melody for a few bars before moving into a solo featuring his minimalist stride style. On the bridge, Jack Washington gets his first recorded baritone sax solo and we can hear that he could play as lightly as Lester Young, even on the bigger horn. The band plays the written parts for the next chorus and leads into Jimmy Rushing’s vocal chorus, and just as Washington had learned from Young, Rushing had learned from the band’s new female vocalist, Billie Holiday. This may the most Billie-esque chorus Rushing ever recorded. Like Billie, Rushing flattens out much of the melody to a single note, and then he rides that note in a great display of rhythmic vitality. Buck Clayton offers a running commentary along with the saxes, and by the time the chorus ends, the band is swinging mightily. And that’s when Lester Young enters with a dancing half-chorus that just adds to the excitement. Lester’s sound was still quite novel at this time—his first recording was made only 5 months earlier—but it is the placement of the notes rather than the notes themselves that make it such a catalyst for increasing the band’s swing. And while Bobby Moore’s brief trumpet solo is well-played, it sounds like he struggles to maintain the energy that Lester created. Nonetheless, there's plenty of energy left for the band to play a spirited coda.

September 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fats Waller: The Sheik Of Araby

Fats Waller led a big band for a short period in the late 30s. Like Ray Charles would do years later, he built the band around his existing small group. Usually, Waller’s arrangements were run-of-the-mill, but “The Sheik Of Araby” was a noteworthy exception. It begins with just Waller and Jones (Wallace might be playing too, but it’s hard to tell from the recording) and the mood is like an after-hours club in Harlem. Then, in an effortless segue, trombonist John Haughton solos on the melody with the saxes providing backup. Waller’s vocal starts out straight, but when he gets to “into your tent, I’ll creep”, he just can’t resist making fun of the song and the rest of the vocal chorus is a burlesque. Herman Autrey is the next soloist, but good luck if you want to focus on the trumpet, as Fats comments throughout, including a series of jokes about riding camels. As Fats exhorts the band on, the full brass section finally appears for the last chorus. Had Waller hired a staff of top-shelf arrangers, his band might have been one of the top draws in the nation. Of course, he did just fine with only his Rhythm.

September 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: C Jam Blues

Duke Ellington wrote “C Jam Blues” as a simple way to showcase his musicians. Its first appearance was in a “soundie”, a short film made for a video jukebox. In it, Duke walks into a café, sits down and starts playing. Gradually, more and more Ellingtonians show up (naturally with their horns in hand) and join in on the jam session. By 1959, when the present version was made for the LP Blues In Orbit, the tune had been in Ellington’s band book for 18 years. Yet, this version still manages to include a few surprises. Duke starts off the proceedings as usual, followed by the band playing the head in unison. Ray Nance steps up to the microphone with his violin, and something must have surprised the band members, because you can hear them laughing in the background. Nance makes effective use of double-stops both at the beginning and the end of his solo. When the break comes up (traditionally used to introduce the next soloist), Nance keeps playing! He takes up a figure from Ravel’s “Bolero” and Hodges joins in. Oddly, neither Nance nor Hodges plays the next solo. Instead, Britt Woodman plays on open trombone, and he is followed by Paul Gonsalves on tenor (Woodman’s and Gonsalves’ solo turns were cut for all releases except the expanded CD reissue above). Booty Wood was a specialist on plunger-muted trombone and his jocular solo is backed up by the saxes playing a fairly standard background riff. But what is Jimmy Hamilton playing back there? Just a set of octaves with the top note trilled, but those octaves are on D, which is the ninth of the chord, and they certainly sound strange in this setting! Hamilton drops the octaves in Wood’s second chorus, and then the clarinetist takes the final solo, soaring over the band in the final bars.

September 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Taxi War Dance

Perhaps his finest moment on record, Young is probably also (mostly) responsible for “Taxi War Dance’s” very simple head arrangement, though he only gets half the composer credit. The first of his solos is particularly ingenious: It begins sounding like a cohesive and hyper-lyrical 12-bar blues, but soon reveals itself to be “Willow Weep for Me” changes. Throughout this and his later solos (trading fours with the full band and Basie), he remains light as a feather—yet he continuously reaches outward with his phrasing and harmonies, and upward with his range until it’s genuinely hard to remember that Young isn’t an alto player. Sandwiched in is a superlative solo by trombonist Dickie Wells that nearly equals Young for lyricism; it feels like an aside, however, in what is clearly Prez’s show.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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