Ian Shaw: Alone Again, Naturally

Yes, that "Alone Again, Naturally," namely the one that Gilbert O'Sullivan, its singer and composer, made into a Top 40 hit in 1972. With syrupy string backing, and his unwavering, monotonous, and nearly cheerful delivery, who would have thought that O'Sullivan was singing about contemplating suicide after being jilted and also trying to cope with his parents' deaths? Irishman O'Sullivan claimed the lyrics were not of an autobiographical nature, and yet Welshman Ian Shaw--who was just 10 years old in 1972--is able to transform them into a convincingly personal testament three decades later. Since Shaw sings everything with an emotional commitment and understanding, his riveting performance of this unlikely tune should come as no surprise.

Shaw's own refined piano accompaniment only serves to enhance his interpretation. He is intimately conversational, free-flowing in his phrasing, and rhythmically unfettered. His pliant, restrained voice is moving, nuanced, and sophisticated,. nuanced, the difference if you will, between a jazz as opposed to pop approach--note his fleeting and tasteful scat-piano unison aside, for example. The clincher is his reading of the concluding words: "And when she passed away / I cried and cried all day / Alone again...alone again / Alone again, naturally." Shaw's two delicate chords cap a track that is unashamedly heartfelt and down-to-earth. It's a mystery why this fine, infinitely versatile vocalist doesn't get to record more often.

September 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Arun Ghosh: Aurora

Stuart Nicholson recently reported in these virtual pages how clarinetist Arun Ghosh captivated the audience at the recent Jazzahead festival in Bremen with his exciting brand of British-Asian jazz. The unknown artist sold dozens of copies of his self-produced CD Northern Namaste within a few minutes of leaving the stage. And I can understand why. Unfortunately US fans will have a hard time to tracking down this music—I couldn't find a single online retailer in the US who had stocked it, and needed to order it from Amazon's UK web site. But it is well worth going to the trouble to hear this band, and enjoy Ghosh's probing clarinet work. The basic formula is familiar—a medium-fast modal chart over a repeating rhythmic pattern. But Ghosh shows that even the old recipes have plenty of life in them, especially when played this well. The whole band gets high marks, but the leader is the clear star, and one of the most interesting reed players on the scene. I plan on keeping a close eye (and ear) on Ghosh. I just hope some retailer makes it easy for me by carrying his CDs.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Reginald Foresythe: The Melancholy Clown

Britain's Reginald Foresythe is little known today, but there were many musicians of stature who either collaborated with him or admired him during the 1930s and '40s on both sides of the Atlantic. His interesting compositions were played by Earl Hines, Paul Whiteman and Louis Armstrong. These syncopated little miniatures remind us that there were other composers besides Raymond Scott who wrote music to be played by jazz musicians that could not really be considered jazz, albeit they might sometimes feature improvisation.

I guess to illustrate the two conflicting emotions of a melancholy clown, a rhythmic figure is established by the clarinets at the start of the piece, but when the melody comes in two bars later, it is played in another key, creating an unsettling mood. That mood is suddenly broken by both clarinetists trading 8-bar solos, first Goodman, then Mince. (Interestingly, they would also trade solos 25 years later on Arthur Godfrey's radio show when Goodman was a guest and Mince was part of the house band.) The ensemble then takes over again, building on the musical material behind the soloists. Foresythe plays what sounds like a written solo while the bassoon plays figures behind him. Clark also solos, and then after some development, the piece recaps as it began, finally winding down with a strange chord and a last utterance from the bassoon.

January 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Reginald Foresythe: Dodging a Divorcee

Reginald Foresythe was a British pianist/composer/leader active on the both sides of the Atlantic during the 1930s. His music was admired by many, and he worked with major names such as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Paul Whiteman, and wrote and arranged Earl Hines's theme "Deep Forest." His interesting music (which is really not considered jazz so much as syncopated ensemble music) did not sell very well on record, and by the '40s his career had pretty much burned out. After his war service, there was not much interest in his new compositions, and he played dives until his early death in 1958.

"Dodging a Divorcee" was perhaps the most popular piece from Foresythe's musical world. He was so respected that he could attract the finest musicians in New York. Several were in Benny Goodman's big band, Johnny Mince was in Tommy Dorsey's band for years, and Sol Schoenbach would join the Philadelphia Orchestra and remain for years. The piece is a fun exercise featuring a mini-fugue in the middle, and the band tears into it with gusto. This certainly appealed to many listeners, as a number of bands played it during that time. For me, this original version is still the best.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments


John Escreet: The Suite of Consequence (Movement II)

A foreboding introduction ushers in "The Suite of Consequence (Movement II)." While "Movement I" was somewhat structured, "Movement II" is nothing of the sort. A somber and simultaneous chaotic atmosphere hangs in the air. Saxophonist David Binney and bassist Matt Brewer take turns trying to sound like each other in a slow and sad section. Pianist John Escreet and Binney follow by trying to fill the now present sound vacuum with some spatial texture. The doom and gloom continues as the volume and participation levels increase. Now all obvious structure is lost. A free jazz formlessness appears, then disappears. It turns out that there is form in the unformed. I am usually not a big fan of this free jazz stuff. But Escreet's music has the ability to maintain interest. Perhaps it is because it is a section of a larger piece, and you need to hear this to get you from here to there. At any rate, "Movement II" is quite engaging.

There are three parts to the overall suite. They are listed as separate cuts, but "Movement II" flows seamlessly into "Movement III" without any pause on the CD. It is a continuation of the substance of "Movement II." However, as the piece draws closer to its end, there is an increased amount of dynamic syncopation, stops and starts and unison playing. The suite ends with a dead stop.

This music will not be to everyone's liking. But those of you who enjoy listening to jazz musicians trying to meet the strong challenge of powerfully intricate music that is still somehow free will be very stimulated.

November 14, 2008 · 0 comments


John Escreet: The Suite of Consequence (Movement I)

Consequences is the debut recording from the John Escreet Project. Pianist Escreet is an English transplant to New York City. The album contains a collection of his original compositions played with earnestness by a group of talented musicians.

"The Suite of Consequence (Movement I)" is the first movement of a 3-part suite. The piece is classical in structure, as one would surmise from its title. This is very much a scored production that you could imagine being heard in a melodramatic movie soundtrack. If not for the PR material that accompanies the CD, you would question whether there was any improvisation at all. But with that knowledge beforehand, you can determine the improvised sections. Without exception they are played in such a way as to maintain the core identity of the piece. That identity clearly has serious intentions. There are no smiles on these faces. This is music that takes a studied effort to play and to listen to. The group's rhythm section is tight, and Escreet, saxophonist David Binney and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire are creative and lyrical players.

November 14, 2008 · 0 comments


Ted Heath: Henry IX

Ted Heath's Sunday Night London Palladium concerts gave him a chance to introduce new members of the band (vocalists Lita Roza and Dickie Valentine were first heard at these Sunday night bashes), try out new material and play concert music not appropriate for dancing. In particular, these evenings were a way to showcase his soloists, and such musicians as Lusher, Pratt, Horrox, Gilbert and Verrell were regularly featured.

Based on Henry Mackenzie's fabulous solo on his feature "Henry IX," he could go head to head with any of the top American clarinetists active, including Benny Goodman. Mackenzie's gorgeous sound and clean technique combined with a band clearly on fire playing for their diehard fans is an unbeatable combination.

July 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Ted Heath: Ladybird

By this time in its history, the Heath band's schedule was made up of tours, BBC broadcasts, recordings for U.K. Decca, and a series of sold-out concerts at the London Palladium. Heath wanted the most versatile band in England, and this recording is one of the band's first to embrace the new jazz called bebop. Shearing was already well known as a pianist, but he was an experienced big band arranger as well, playing his arrangements on the piano and having them transcribed for the instruments. An American bandleader of stature would have been thrilled to have had this creative, exciting arrangement in his band book. The trumpets have stunning Gillespie-esque figures, played as if they are the simplest parts in the world – typical of the Heath band's discipline. Armstrong and Simpson are the soloists; Simpson has clearly heard a few bop recordings. Reportedly Dameron liked this arrangement very much, and would contribute to the Heath book as well later in the year.

July 18, 2008 · 1 comment


Gordon Beck: Sagittarius

For about 1˝ minutes, the fiery tenor of Stan Sulzmann, supported only by bass and drums, tackles this fast post-bop tune in a way that shows us how much wider recognition this remarkable British saxophonist deserves. Then Gordon Beck's piano joins in, lending a strong harmonic dimension to his composition. Beck also displays his unconventional comping and soloing talents to great effect, reminding us of the pianist's tenure with Phil Woods's European Rhythm Machine some 40 years ago. Beck hasn't lost a bit of either his punch or his musicality, but outside the UK how many people are aware of it?

June 30, 2008 · 0 comments


Norma Winstone: The Mermaid

Norma Winstone is not just an essential singer; she is also a singer of essentials. Her songs dispense with empty trappings and flashy ornamentation. They are delivered with unadorned emotional directness, yet with conversational ease. This recording features an unusual combination. Bass clarinet fills in the lower register -- sometimes playing lines we would expect to hear from a string bass -- and the piano is played unconventionally, Venier starting by strumming the strings and apparently tapping out a bumpity-bump percussion accompaniment on the wood. Yet none of this sounds odd. As we usually find with Winstone, the music is pervaded by a sense that this is exactly how the song is supposed to sound. This striking composition by Venier is drawn from a Northern Italian fisherman's melody, with lyrics by Winstone.

May 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Ian Shaw: Dearly Beloved

Not many singers can take a standard like "Dearly Beloved" at such a breakneck tempo. But Ian Shaw is not any singer – far from it. This British almost-veteran first sets his perfect time and expressive diction on the words with only the bass as support, then is boosted by a team of American instrumentalists. Great solos by Soloff and Alexander are also part of the success of this swift version that definitely stands apart.

April 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Charlie Watts: Relaxin' at Camarillo

As kids, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts and his friend David Green longed to play with jazz great Charlie Parker. This notion preoccupied their days and nights. What fun that would be! As he grew up, Watts continued to revere Parker. In 1964, he published Ode to A High Flying Bird, a slim, greeting-card style fable in which childlike watercolor drawings and hand-lettered captions depict a potato-shaped bird named Charlie whose life tragically parallels Parker's. So, 27 years later, why not reaffirm Watts's devotion to Parker's music? The drummer reunited with boyhood friend Green, hired a saxophonist-leader and recorded From One Charlie. The CD was then marketed with a new printing of the book at an exorbitant price. Fortunately, the CD (with one of Watts's original 1964 drawings on its cover) also became available as an affordable single unit.

"Relaxin' at Camarillo" (mistitled "Relaxing at Camarillo" on the CD) is a relaxed bebop number that has Watts using his brushes. Lemon plays a lightly swinging piano. Green offers a short standard bass solo. King and Presencer do their best Bird and Gillespie. This is a pleasing interpretation you'd be happy to hear in any nightclub. No one is trying to capture the brilliance of Charlie Parker. The lack of pretense and a desire to do something just for the fun of it are what make this work.

April 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Mahavishnu Orchestra: John's Song #2

In 1999, producer Bob Belden came across the master tapes of what would become The Lost Trident Sessions. Belden had been working on the remastering of Birds of Fire when he spied the infamous tapes from the failed Mahavishnu Orchestra third studio recording attempt. At the time of those sessions, the original Mahavishnu Orchestra was well on its way to internal Armageddon. Belden immediately knew he had found the Holy Grail of fusion music. Within the year, the album was on the shelves and was popular enough to reach #2 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Charts. That is quite a feat when you consider the music had been recorded 26 years previously.

"John's Song #2" is the album's highlight. It sounds very much like the musical style that McLaughlin was to adopt for his new Mahavishnu Orchestra. In fact, it would have sounded right at home on Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Though not as rough around the edges as a typical MO tune, it is relentless in its drive. McLaughlin spews out notes furiously and adds rhythmic riffs behind Jerry Goodman's soaring violin. This is one of Goodman's best Mahavishnu performances. There is a lot of highly energetic intricate unison playing that, by this time, had become expected of the band. The tension mounts until it is released by a guitar riff that has been sliced-off clean by a knife.

Considering the tapes had been gathering dust for all those years, the sound quality is amazingly good. Still, the album was never finished. Any Mahavishnu fan can tell that. I mean, they never even got around to giving this tune a real name. One can only imagine how the band would have honed the pieces on the album had they all been getting along.

March 26, 2008 · 0 comments


Mahavishnu Orchestra: I Wonder

"I Wonder" was Jerry Goodman's chance to show his fine composing skills in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Unfortunately, those skills were not to be heard for 26 years because of the band's failure to get its act together during the recording of what was supposed to be its third studio album. The album never saw the light of day. Luckily, in 1999 Columbia released The Lost Trident Sessions, which included the tapes of the failed attempt.

The tune begins with a Goodman pizzicato played over a round-robin bass, drums and electric piano. This cycle continues throughout the entire piece. McLaughlin enters center stage wailing from moment one. The reverb is bouncing off the inside walls of your skull. After his offering and a major Cobham drum roll, Hammer's Moog does the same. Strangely, though at times Goodman mimics Hammer's lines, there is no violin solo. "I Wonder" slowly circles the drain before entering it.

This is a good piece and stands on its own merits. However, it is not really a Mahavishnu tune. It is a Jerry Goodman tune and belongs in his repertoire. It is little known that Goodman himself is a very fine guitarist. The vitriol that surrounded the members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at that time, and especially the stories, both true and untrue, of the anger at the original recording sessions has led to much myth. There was a story going around for years that Goodman actually played the guitar on "I Wonder." Goodman says that those stories are ridiculous.

March 26, 2008 · 1 comment


Mahavishnu Orchestra: Steppings Tones

In a move to ease dissension, John McLaughlin had agreed to allow other Mahavishnu Orchestra members to write some music for the band's upcoming third studio effort. What would later become known as The Lost Trident Sessions were tapes of that ill-fated studio attempt. The results from these tumultuous sessions would be released with great fanfare and commercial success some 26 years later.

"Steppings Tones" was bassist Rick Laird's composition, but he was not really happy with it. He had been rushed to write it and considered it unfinished. In fact, in the few concert appearances of the tune, it was used as an introduction to longer pieces. In that capacity, it is actually quite a successful piece.

Everyone seeing the title for the first time assumes it is a typo. In some instances, writers have even corrected it to "Stepping Stones." But they have been wrong. The legally published title is indeed "Steppings Tones." At the time, the band members were fond of playing a word game. They would take the first letter of a second word and add it to the end of the first word. They apparently had a lot of fun doing this. Things can get boring on the road. You probably had to be there. Even after Mahavishnu disbanded, Billy Cobham continued to play a variation of the game when he released his album A Funky Thide of Sings.

"Steppings Tones" is written in intervallic steps, which Laird loudly lays down as McLaughlin provides a panning arpeggio. Cobham adds the requisite fills. Goodman plays a repeating melody as Hammer comps with some electric piano. The theme repeats over and over as if running in place. The tune would make a good theme for a TV detective show. But Laird is right. It sounds unfinished. And this is one reason for The Lost Strident Essions. A more complete version of Laird's composition appears on the Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman album Like Children.

March 26, 2008 · 0 comments


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