Count Basie: Dark Rapture

“Dark Rapture” is a taut showpiece for singer Helen Humes that ranks among the glossiest productions of the early Basie years. Not coincidentally, it’s also among the least typical: There are no riffs, no blues, the call-and-response lines are reduced to short fills, and though Basie is listed as pianist, his trademark tinkling is nowhere to be heard. There are, however, two factors that inject some character into the proceedings: Humes’ exquisite control and enthusiasm, which together allow for some remarkable vocal gymnastics—check out her reading of the final line,The thrill that fills the still of a Congo night—and eighteen smoky bars by Lester Young that add a mysterious, noir-ish dimension to an already dark and dramatic performance. (In essence, he scores the scene in which Bogart would walk into the crowded but dimly lit nightclub and spy Lauren Bacall on the dance floor; the only thing missing is the movie.) Kansas City blues it ain’t, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Honeysuckle Rose

With Walter Page and Jo Jones standing firm behind him, Count Basie’s two stride piano choruses at the opening of “Honeysuckle Rose” tie the aggressive rhythms of Kansas City to the swinging life of Harlem. Then come the Count’s men, amping up the infectious upbeat and bringing in Midwestern riffs that sound suspiciously like “Tea for Two.” (The most danceable “Tea for Two” you’ve ever heard, that is.) Meantime, Lester Young demonstrates that his ethereal, hollow sound is as capable of charging through the swingers as it is of floating through the ballads and mid-tempos. Listening 70 years later, we can also hear how his solos rewrote the saxophone vocabulary: There are phrases in Young’s single chorus that were later borrowed and developed by Paul Gonsalves, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, all the way through Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman—and this inside less than 40 seconds of music. No wonder they called him the President.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gil Evans: The Barbara Song

When I first heard this arrangement, I was immediately in love with it. I thought of it as a "Gil piece," not an arrangement of something. One day, it occurred to me to check out Kurt Weill's original version. And there it was, the whole long and developed melodic contour that I was familiar with. Gil had simply laid it out, but he did it in such a way that made it feel improvised and continually evolving. The character Gil created was so completely different than that of Weill's original song, that I would have never guessed Weill's song had this lyric: "No you don't just smile and pull your panties down when you have the chance of saying no." Through the melody, Gil heard profound depth, and spun his own universe out of it. If you don't know these pieces, I recommend first listening to Gil's and then purchasing the original from the original cast album on iTunes. You'll hear how Gil's lines are just Weill's original melody, but wrung out at a slow, searing tempo. But then there's so much more to it.

How does Gil manage simply to take such a melody and make it entirely his? Well, here it starts with the combination of brushes, harp and bass flute, followed soon thereafter by a double reed, creating a combination of colors that few others would have used. Then there's the atmospheric texture of the rolling bass flute, and Gil's signature feeling of time and no-time all at once. (Gil is adept at creating a feel of imprecision by using very precise notation–an effect that no one I know can match.)

Also note Gil's gestures on piano that are as personal as a fingerprint. You'll also hear that ever-present tuba. The muted horn stab at 1:32 could only be his. But my favorite part starts at 2:10. He does a run-up to a high sonority, a sonority that then slowly shifts and descends like a long, slow exhale. In this passage, you'll hear the melody on top, and inside, a wonderful, slow, descending mostly-chromatic line that, when it stops descending, continues to hold its final note for another 20 seconds until we reach another similar passage. The line writing as this passage descends is beyond spectacular. No one can make “slow” more compelling than Gil, and he does it all with lines. At 3:21 the melody is voiced in a stark way which has the odd interval of the minor-ninth, an interval that's also evident in much of Gil's piano accompaniment here. That dissonant minor-ninth is a “no-no” in many arranging classes, but Gil built a world on that interval.

When Gil introduces Wayne Shorter's tenor solo we're already over five minutes into the piece, and that in itself is unique in the world of jazz arranging. Wayne plays gracefully over the low pyramids, and gesturally behind a crying flute and bassoon as they sing in unison double-octaves. This man finds endless colors in infinite combinations. The whole piece just weeps with beauty. I give this 500 points out of 100. It breaks through the roof of any point rating, because this is music that goes way beyond music.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gil Evans: Stratusphunk

I remember when I first heard this album during college. It had a huge effect on me. I loved the angularity, the humor, the sheer craziness of it. For starters, it likely influenced my conception of what a great bass trombone should sound like. Listen to Tony Studd play the opening melody as he plays alone with only the drums playing brushes. Technically it's a blues, but it takes a while before you realize that. One already knows from the intro that this piece is going to go to some pretty far-reaching places when you hear that big, high brass pyramid right off the bat. And what a great sound from the slap-tongued statement of the melody at 0:37 (apparently something conceived at the recording session). The bass trombone continues for a little bit before making a perfect decrescendo that melds right into the walking bass as he passes the baton. I love that Gil staggered these entrances and exits. It makes it wonderfully organic. The pitches of the melody become clearer as a few horns enter with edgy "color." Tony Studd comes back, and the wildness ensues as the two tenor trombones play bizarrely and harmonically ungrounded notes in the middle range between the bass trombone and the melody. There's a lot of character here, but one becomes really confused as to where they are in terms of key, form or pretty much everything else. It's quirky fun, and one relishes being lost.

The sudden full-shout ensemble (1:53–2:06) starts to ground us harmonically, rhythmically and phrase-wise to a more conventional place, and releases us in a very contrasting, sudden and humorous way to a blues guitar solo by Ray Crawford. At 3:33, Gil enters on piano for the first time with his quirky and personal way of comping. He's the perfect pianist for his own music. The trombones now play a riff similar to what Gil just played, and he starts to answer them. The guitar is still going as layers are added. At 4:24, more instruments enter the ensemble, which starts to move into a wild direction harmonically. It almost sounds like we're going to head into a new solo, maybe even a new key, but then it becomes clear that Gil is just playing with us as he brings us back down again to the understated guitar solo. At 4:50, a similar ensemble passage comes in, but much bigger, more intense and dissonant, wonderfully sloppy, and with a low, especially sloppy blast on the end. Then we're off a cliff again to a trumpet solo by Johnny Coles. He's one of my favorite soloists used by Gil on his music. These contrasts are off-the-scale! Soon we shift to the entire ensemble playing the tune in a thick mess of almost indecipherable harmony while the bass trombone is back on the bottom walking with the bass! I love Gil's little tremolo behind it all. This is sumptuous, fun music.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis-Gil Evans: Once Upon A Summertime

Quiet Nights was a record that neither Miles or Gil wanted to have come out. And in a way, I understand that, as it doesn't have a cohesive whole that even comes close to matching their other collaborations. But, that being said, there are some absolutely gorgeous things on this album—and again, it's just so hard to pick one cut. But I have to say, this one I've chosen KILLS me! It begins with a fluttering harp along with the woodwinds. How about that sudden cup mute zinger chord at 0:17? It's just SO Gil. After that, the chords simply hover almost motionless when Miles comes in so gorgeously on the melody. You can hear the lyrics in every note of his playing! The harp fluttering keeps just a little motion passing through the air, as does the slowly descending line in the inner ensemble. That descent creates a powerful feeling of yearning as it presses against the slow passing of time. Everything really feels as if it's hovering in the air, keeping us almost holding our breath in waiting, not only because of the harp, hovering chords and descending line, but also because there's no bass grounding us yet. Only at 0:52, when the bass begins playing pizzicato, do we start to get more settled. How did Gil manage to foresee and coordinate all these layers that create such a deep, deep expression? Did he know what he was doing? How I wish I knew then what I know now. How many questions I would ask! Ha, and Gil probably would have run out of the room!

OK, going on: Listen to the lovely tuba and bass clarinet with the bass at 1:04—what laziness and beauty! Another absolutely magical moment is the perfectly executed harp ritard at 1:21 that sets us into an even slower waltz tempo. Oh dear, now my heart is really aching. The inner lines in the bassoon at 1:35 to 1:50 are so compelling. 1:58 is just searing! Check out to those high voicings moving in parallel motion! Wow. And how did he think to suddenly bring in such high trumpets? What a brave move! Then there's the shift he makes in the sonic universe at 2:07. This is genius! And how great they played it! Listen to the inner descent at 2:30. Now at 2:47 you'll hear the intro recalled. What was in the woodwinds on the intro is now in the French horns, also with the harp fluttering as before. If this piece doesn't doesn't send you to heaven, then I can't help you.

Looking back to 1988, I'm recalling the time when on the phone Gil asked me to come over and discuss my music. It was not long before he died. Well, we never got the chance for that. It's been one of the regrets in my life. Listening to this and all of the pieces I'm analyzing, I have to say, I'm getting getting my chance now, because just about any lesson to be learned about music of any kind—and certainly mine included—is here.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis-Gil Evans: Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)

This is arguably the finest of Gil's and Miles' collaborations. There are countless details one could highlight, but I would like to touch on two particular points about this piece. It will be more deeply appreciated if you first take the opportunity to listen to the original guitar concerto as composed by Rodrigo. A comparison will illuminate Gil's unique gifts in writing all parts in a linear fashion. It's most notable that he manages to do this even in the bass line. The bass is never just relegated to playing roots, but rather lines—rich melodic lines. If you listen to the tuba line in the beginning, you'll catch one of these lines right from the start. And if you listen to the bottom parts throughout this work, you'll see that part of the translucence that Gil generally gets in his music is from freeing up the bottom and putting air in these low parts. Such attention to line-writing permeates every layer and can be heard throughout this piece. The amount of counterpoint exceeds the original by leaps and bounds. If you listen to both versions back to back, this will be very obvious without me pointing out a thing to you. This piece takes what Gil achieved in “The Troubador” (1947) to a whole other level. The path was certainly well laid in his work with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra.

Gil once expressed to me that the thing that most inspired him about Miles was his sound. This piece perfectly illustrates how beautifully he sets up Miles. Listen to the opening: lines are perpetually moving, the harp undulating in high register, and the castanets fluttering. But the moment Miles enters, sonorities suddenly freeze, motionless—all lines, all undulation, all fluttering stop. This sudden vacuum brings us to focus purely on Miles' horn. It's a stunning moment. It's long been my suspicion that the castanets were supposed to stop a couple of seconds earlier than you'll hear on your recording. And sure enough, if you listen to the out-take on the boxed set, they stop the moment Miles enters, as was most certainly intended. You'll hear many other moments in this piece that showcase Miles in a similarly stunning way.

One of my favorite places in this piece comes at 5:44. I love the low flutes with wide vibrato that play and hesitate (there's a bassoon, French horn and harp voiced in those chords too, with an almost inaudible timpani in the background giving the slightest hint of motion). It's a very rubato (without strict time) section. I love how Gil utilizes Miles’ lowest range on the instrument. It's utterly haunting. There's a wonderful shift of color to brightness when Miles goes to Harmon mute, with cup-muted trumpets and flutes voiced behind him (9:30) giving a tangy sound. When the French horns enter at 10:11, they sound so warm by contrast as they play in sonorous parallel moving triads. That kind of harmonic movement is one way Gil gets the smooth sound that we've come to associate with him. The subtle moan in their parts is so expressive (10:28). Now the cup-muted trumpets, harp and flute all take over before you hear descending lines that slow us down. Here, Gil starts to set up anticipation for the large ensemble passage that will soon become the climax of the entire piece. He leads up to it using parallel triadic French horns again, voiced with flutes and harp. There's a counterline in the bassoon, a wonderful color to be appreciated throughout this piece. The castanets are going along throughout, helping the build. At 12:46 the tambourine color enters, and we are overwhelmed by a wonderful full-ensemble orchestration of the main theme. You'll hear moments of parallel and then contrary motion. I particularly love 13:26, where you can especially catch the essence of the parallel triadic motion in all parts. Listen to the French horns inside the ensemble. That lead note reaches the very top of the instrument range in the lead French horn at 13:36, and it just soars! And the triadic 16-notes at 13:46 are just so exciting. Conducting this section and hearing it surround you in live concert is a trip. Every hair stands on end.

This is followed up by all sorts of detailed, muted, impressionistic "color" accompanying very low lines in the tuba and bass. It comes down to such spareness and fragility with just a lone tuba, harp and bass behind Miles at 15:32. I love the passing of lines from the bassoon, to the Harmon trumpet, and finally to Miles at the very end. Whew!

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis-Gil Evans: Bess, Oh, Where Is My Bess?

How does one pick a favorite piece from Gil's and Miles' Porgy and Bess album? Tough to do. I've chosen this piece because it so perfectly illustrates another unique aspect of Gil's writing. Sometimes when I listen to Gil, I get a spontaneous visualization of the inside of a watch: the perfection, the detail, all the little parts at work; nothing is there that doesn't contribute to the flow of movement and the perfect passing of time. Every gear attaches and locks another into motion. If you listen to this piece, you can envision a serpentine line being passed from instrument to instrument, color to color, whether it's behind Miles or in front when he's not playing. It's like a thread that never gets dropped. Let's start at the top with the French horns and alto flutes that are playing a flowing passage together. Then the horns hold while the flutes go on their own, giving way to the trombones, who take over, then the flutes pick up a line above them, and then soft brass (the trumpets are in hat mutes with French horns voiced with them). You can continue on through the piece and follow the slow-moving gears as lines pass around the orchestra. This piece also goes into a little swing section where the trombones take on Gil's signature comping role that the piano might have taken if there was piano on the record. That's a unique aspect to these Gil/Miles recordings. There's an absence of piano. It leaves all the harmonic background to the creative hand of Gil.

One further detail. Because these pieces are a suite, their connectivity is really important. Take note how the end of this arrangement suddenly introduces a very stark, open, spare sound. It contrasts all the lushness we've been hearing. That spare sound is achieved by utilizing open-fifth intervals in the ensemble. It also happens to be the same opening interval of the next movement, “Prayer.” So this ending is really more of a "transition" to “Prayer.” Much of the elegance of these collaborative recordings is how each subsequent piece begins with a feeling of inevitable arrival. Gil leaves no stone unturned.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gil Evans: Struttin' With Some Barbecue

This arrangement is a wonderful lesson in the art of building excitement. Gil opens simply and in the low register, with Bill Barber playing the melody on tuba. The accompaniment is warmly voiced and also in a low range. I'm guessing that the trombones are in hat mutes, playing along with the French horn. They play lovely little comping hits as if they're a piano, but with the warm glow that comes from the sound of combined French horn and hat-muted trombones. It's perfectly understated behind the tuba, and Philly Joe Jones plays super light and swingin' on the snare with brushes. Philly starts to open up the volume and adds a little more intensity after the solo trombone break by Frank Rehak. After Frank's first chorus, there's more comping behind him in the lower horns that gets increasingly rhythmically creative. There's also a great little sustained unison cup mute tone that begins at about 1:31. It holds for a good eight seconds.

Now we reach a harmonization of the melody that moves the tune to a higher octave and is harmonized for the first time. This ensemble section flies along with ease, and has a lovely counterline by tuba, trombone and bass clarinet that helps the ensemble feel like it's gliding. When this counterline hits 2:07, it starts making a stepwise ascent. From it, we get a feeling of yet more building, opening up, anticipation and general excitement. The range is now getting really high. It's great, because it heralds even more excitement that's soon to come in the form of Cannonball's entrance. Gil even keeps his creative hand in this solo break, as Cannonball, right at the end of the break, has to modulate and launch us into a new key, which serves to lift us to yet another level of excitement. The rhythms and lead lines of the ensemble comping just keep developing—no shortcuts taken here. The details are simply mind-blowing. At 2:45, Harmon mutes in the trumpets add another fresh new color. This whole piece is essentially passing from dark orchestrational color to bright.

Gil's spectacular sense of rhythm, fabulous feel for bebop, and refreshing sense of harmony is clearly evident at his ensemble passage that goes from 3:01–3:10. I love how he wanders to a rather unexpected corner harmonically and just sits us uncomfortably there for a hair longer than we'd expect, before he gently glides us out. Marvelous! His next two short ensemble passages also have wonderful little lilting cross-rhythmic figures. His rhythms are full of surprises but at the same time are very catchy. On the next figure the ensemble soars to its top and dramatically holds it for a moment before we suddenly drop all the way down to a low pedal tone that lasts to the end of the piece. Over that pedal, Philly Joe and Cannonball continue playing to the finish.

All parts collectively decrescendo in what feels like a big exhale after all the excitement. Gil's written a thousand tiny details into this piece, but each of them contribute to a common goal, and, for that reason, add up to a total experience, an emotional ride. In the hands of someone without such a sense of purpose, so much detail could easily add up to a whole lot of clutter. It never happens with Gil. That's one of the many marvels of this man's writing.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis-Gil Evans: My Ship

This cut is beauty personified. There's nothing seemingly complex or unusual, but even the simple half-note pads that sustain the harmony behind Miles have Gil's telltale linearity and instrumental color. It's also probably one of his best-known arrangements.

Starting with the intro, you'll hear three layers. There's the top pattern in the cup-mute trumpets that descends. On the very bottom there's the static repetitive bass figure that's also in the tuba. And then, the third layer works in contrary motion to the top line. If you read Miles Davis' autobiography, you'll probably remember him marveling at Gil's use of contrary motion. What it means, in this instance, is that while the muted trumpets have a figure that slowly descends, you'll hear a bass clarinet slowly rising, as if coming out of a mist. When it reaches a rather high range, it drops to a little figure then that sets us up for the tune, which is stated by the low brass. This statement is partly characterized by the warm French horns placed quite high on the melody, the bass clarinet with a lovely line on the bottom, and the sweep of all the ensemble parts in motion with the melody. The ensemble here is voiced in harmony that gives beautiful lines to each player. The passage is lush with a darkly hued color to it.

I remember one day while working with Gil in about 1986, I walked in the door and found him at the piano, totally frustrated as he was trying to figure out what he wrote on this piece. He threw up his hands and said, "I don't know what I wrote!" I was baffled and asked why on earth he'd need to transcribe his own music. That's when he told me how one day he just got tired of his music and threw it out. Ouch! I was dying inside when I heard that. It also got me thinking about how it could be possible that such perfect music could ever, from his perspective, be worth trashing. I also got to witness how, given the distance of years, he seemed to again appreciate its beauty. Thankfully much of Gil's music was found, albeit long after he passed away.

I think one of the stunning moments of this cut is when Miles enters. The chords just feel like they glide, and their brightness, created by the slightly pinched sound of mutes, makes Miles' flugel a beautiful open and dark foil. That's a moment I could loop a thousand times. The double-time feel passage from 2:27–2:45 is voiced in a way that allows it to move fleetly. That's another wonderful ability Gil has. This piece ends how it begins, except this time the rising line of the bass clarinet is now absent, and that makes sense because we're winding down. This piece immediately segues into “Miles Ahead,” another piece loaded with linearity, contrary motion, parallel motion and a light sound, despite a sometimes thick ensemble playing.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claude Thornhill (featuring Gil Evans): The Troubador (based on "The Old Castle" from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition")

I ask that you spend 99 cents and buy “Pictures at an Exhibition” (the orchestral version) orchestrated by Ravel, and get the part for "The Old Castle." That's what this is based on. You'll find the comparison to be very enlightening. People often assume that classical composers write more linearly than most jazz composers/orchestrators. Jazz tends to be chord conscious–many arrangers think vertically when they arrange. And when most people talk about Gil Evans music, they refer to the marvelous "voicings." I say phooey to that. The magic of Gil is so far beyond that. It's in the lines and layers, folks! There are so many layers displayed here it's just crazy.

The original begins with a bassoon line that is quite hypnotic and gives way to the melody. This bassoon line comes in again just briefly under the melody at the end of a phrase connecting us to the start of the melody again. In Gil's version, after an intro based on Promenade (the recurring main theme in between each part of “Pictures”...), he starts with a little rhythmic nudging figure in the low brass at 0:27. Then he adds the flutes in a repetitive cross-rhythmic staccato figure, creating another layer that will add to the overall feeling feeling of "play" in the otherwise staid 4/4 meter. Now enters Mussorgsky/Ravel's original bassoon line, but Gil orchestrated it as a low unison for two bass clarinets with French horn (0:37). Gil's differs in that he will greatly extend the line, weaving it into a counterline that endures and develops throughout much of the piece. All these layers are established before the melody even enters at 0:45 in a solo French horn. And they all work together without creating musical mud, because each idea or line is so firmly established in its own right that it's easy for the listener to hear clearly the full tapestry and delight in the exquisite layering and details. Listen to the beautiful woodwind line at 1:30. The high flute "swirls" (2:34) are both lovely and exotic. The way this large ensemble grows and grows, and then dramatically descends and dissipates (2:54–3:23) to tremolos (with harmonic twists and contortions unique to Gil) makes me leap up out of my chair! The colors (harmonic and timbral) are stunning. There's an interesting tuba line that creates a little shift in the overall harmony at 3:32. Listen to the subtle little shifts in harmony at 3:46–4:13 in the repeated brass riffs. 4:17–4:37 is so creative. Even though harmonically things get very tight, twisted and dark, still, all the original material is there, so it's a mud that you want to wallow in. The original doesn't grow and develop nearly to the degree that Gil's version does and there's far less counterpoint. Gil was a master of development and intricacy. I think Ravel would have flipped over this. Also, it's funny that the original uses alto sax for the melody, and Gil's arrangement, which might be considered jazz, doesn't use sax on that melody at all. Also, make note, there's no improvisation on this piece. It's just about Gil's spectacular writing. Everything Gil would develop in later years has its roots firmly planted in his Thornhill music. This is one beauty!

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claude Thornhill (featuring Gil Evans): Sorta Kinda

This recording has so many great Gil Evans arrangements that I'd easily qualify it as a must-own CD. I love this particular arrangement because it's just so swingin’ and hip (I know–very subjective words).

First of all, this is probably not the hippest song on the planet, and neither is the singing, but what Gil manages to create is extraordinary. The intro is quirky and wild, starting with the ascending sax line leading into the huge ensemble blast, then dropping off a cliff into a little piano moment. Contrast is a big part of the personality of this arrangement. It's very daring. Gil doesn't bring in the vocalist until after a full minute into the tune, and the whole piece is less than 3 minutes. He makes a very bouncy version of the melody with tight ensemble writing. After the intro, it feels very conventional, but rhythmically it swings like crazy. At the end of this first statement of melody between Gil's mid-range brass and piano, he creates a really unexpected transition and modulation. Listen to the bottom of the brass, the unison line against the quirky line in the trumpets. Also, this transition extends the form of the tune and creates an odd phrase that goes on longer than expected. The piece is full of surprises–the kind you want to experience again and again. I find it to be a hilarious moment when this wildly creative transition settles into a new key and the simple vocal entrance. As the vocal delivers the melody, Gil throws in some awesome counter-lines in the saxes and French horns, with great little brass hits–endless details that make the feel so lively! Then the band's full, concerted ensemble send-off to the tenor solo is superb line writing, creating a completely light and fluid full ensemble. Not easy to do, trust me! And the band is so swingin', too. Check out how hard the band swings and the great line in the ensemble right before the vocal returns. Man! Of course, Gil writes fantastic lines for every player so it's super-gratifying to play, and, with the inner parts so well written, it's almost impossible not to swing. Just when you think Gil's given you his last surprise, check out the last note. With a very dry delivery, he lands on an odd note (the relative minor key). How I wish I’d known this piece when I knew Gil. I'd have loved to listen to it with him. I know the exact look on his face and the laugh he'd make when he heard the last note himself. That man had some sense of humor and this is one fantastic arrangement. And to think it was recorded in 1947. Wow!

Just a side note: obviously Gil also realized how hip this arrangement was, because he would come to reuse a lot of this same ensemble passages almost 10 years later for his arrangement of “People Will Say We're In Love” with Helen Merrill on her wonderful album, arranged entirely by Gil, called Dream of You.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Clifford Brown-Lionel Hampton: Gryce Suite, Brown Skin

Brownie met and jammed with some members of the 1953 Lionel Hampton Orchestra in Atlantic City while he was playing a show there led by pianist Tadd Dameron. The young Hampton musicians were thoroughly impressed with Brown’s electrifying playing and affable personality, and one in particular, Quincy Jones, begged Hamp to hire the trumpet star. There were several like-minded modern jazz ‘young lions’ in the band, besides Jones, to whom Brown was attracted: Gigi Gryce, Art Farmer, Benny Golson and Jimmy Cleveland, to name a few. Brownie joined the band and played some dates at the Band Box in New York City directly prior to flying to Europe with the band for a three-month tour. The tour was highly successful, and has become legendary for the incredible amount of clandestine recording that took place in Sweden and Paris by most of the young modernists. Lionel (and wife Gladys) Hampton strictly forbade any outside recording by band members (if he wasn’t involved), under threat of denying passage back to the States. However, the studios clamored to record the young stars, and, fortunately for us, the edict was ignored. “Brown Skin” is a feature for Clifford by Gigi Gryce on the chord changes to “Cherokee.” I mention the above background, because once those recordings started to come out, Hampton was less likely to feature his sideman this prominently, as he didn’t want people to hear and record his band members behind his back. This performance was prior to most of the recording dates and subsequent releases.

After a brief announcement by Hamp, the band goes into a bombastic intro, the brass shimmering and drums rolling. This quickly relaxes into a sweet ballad presentation by Brownie. The arrangement is very forward-looking and something akin to what Stan Kenton was exploring. Clifford is smooth, effortless, and lush. After a terse fermata chord, Brown sets a bright tempo with a solo break, joined by the bass, and then the full band assists as Brown glides into a chorus of “Cherokee” changes. On his second chorus, band interchanges alternate with his brilliant solo statements, his long phrases leaving the listener breathless at times. The full band takes an interlude on the tune’s A sections and Clifford re-enters on the bridge, deftly quoting “Laura” in the upper register. He solos through the last A section as the band punctuates and concludes the tune with solo trumpet over Dawson’s high-hat time to wild applause from what sounds like a vast crowd in attendance.

Though the overall sound quality is, by modern standards, quite inferior, the strength and power of this great band is readily apparent. The minor deficiencies in ensemble work are supplanted by the energy of the group as a whole and certainly by Brownie’s never-ending musical palette. He expertly modifies his phrases in slight ways in order to retain continuity of ideas, which provides cohesion to his solo. Brown and nine others were ultimately fired from the band for their secretive recordings and found themselves back in the States in early December 1953 without employment. However, Brownie would soon become widely known to the music world through those recordings and those put out by Blue Note and Prestige.

July 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Les Brown: I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm

Les Brown had been in the band business since he led his Duke Blue Devils in 1936. When the band returned to Duke University, Brown remained in New York and free-lanced as an arranger. He returned to band leading in 1938 and led a good band that had the great fortune of having Doris Day as vocalist before and after World War II. The band got better and better throughout the 1940s, and eventually became the back-up band for Bob Hope’s radio show. This instrumental version of the Berlin standard was heard on one of Hope’s shows, and the audience reaction was strong enough for Brown’s record label, Columbia Records, to ask Brown to record it. “Look in your vault,” was Brown’s reaction. Sure enough, Brown had recorded it, but it had never been released. Skip Martin’s infectious treatment is still heard all over the world, and was one of the last big band instrumental hits. Brown recorded this arrangement several times over the years, but the original is still the classic version.

July 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ray Anderson: The Literary Lizard

It's fitting that the rambunctious and irrepressible trombonist Ray Anderson has recorded with both the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band and Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra. Only big bands of that adventurous nature--think also Carla Bley's Big Band and the Vienna Art Orchestra--could allow him free rein and thus properly utilize his immense talent. Big Band Record consists of nine Anderson originals performed by the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, including Anderson himself. The wacky tune "The Literary Lizard" had appeared on Gruntz's 1992 Beyond Another Wall: Live in China CD, with Anderson and Lew Soloff squaring off improvisationally. (The composition also is heard on Anderson's 1989 small group What Because, but with the title "Alligatory Crocodile.")

The 1994 version of "The Literary Lizard" expands on all the whimsical funkiness inherent in its swaying, boisterous theme, with a blending of horns--whether in unison or contrapuntally--that is both rich and joyful. After Gruntz's somewhat honky-tonk piano solo, and an edgy, piercing improv from altoist Giorgianni, Anderson and Soloff reunite in a frenzied dialogue that often makes it impossible to separate the two, except when Soloff reaches for the stratosphere and Anderson slides to the murky depths. Anderson then takes over and displays his amazing combination of technical command and fertile imagination both tonally and in his phraseology

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: Come Rain Or Come Shine

If I had to pick a favorite version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, it would be the Woody Herman version. Despite the 1970s trademark of electric piano and electric bass, it is a recording that sends chills up my spine every time I hear it. When I think of the song, it is always this version that comes to mind.

It begins innocently enough, sounding like an adaptation of Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’”. It seems content enough to just focus on the lovely shifting harmonies and to be a cushion for solos by Woody on alto sax and Dennis Dotson on flugelhorn. Yet near the end of the first chorus, we get our first taste of a restlessness growing below. There’s a big crescendo to the days may be cloudy or sunny line with the trumpets going up an octave on we’re in or we’re out of the money. But then Dotson appears and things calm down again. The tempo moves into a light double-time with minimal support from the horns. The block chords and shifting harmonies return with Dotson taking the lead.

Then suddenly, with the crack of a rimshot, the band comes together for a powerful statement of the final 8 bars, as if it were time to stop holding back and show their true feelings. But there’s still a bigger ending to come: a brief saxophone and flugelhorn figure temporarily brings the intensity down for a few seconds, but everything builds up again, climaxing with an impassioned figure based on the song’s main motive. The figure is taken up an octave by the trumpets, and then everything starts to dissipate, as if the sudden display of emotion was too much. Marin Alsop’s jazz string ensemble String Fever has an excellent version of this arrangement in their book, but Woody Herman’s original is an undisputed classic.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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