Claude Williams: Cherokee

Claude Williams was the 85-year old senior member of the orchestra for the Black and Blue revue on Broadway when he was recorded live at J's jazz club in 1989. His first recordings, on both violin and guitar, came in 1929, and he won the Downbeat poll as "Best Guitarist" after playing on Count Basie's first Decca recordings, only briefly preceding Freddie Green's long reign in that chair with Basie, with whom Williams was also featured on violin. Williams worked frequently with Jay McShann in the '70's, and in 1980 began playing the violin exclusively. The taped Monday night sessions at J's showcased his distinctive Kansas City swing style on the instrument. This is jazz violin as "fiddle," more in keeping with the earthy, rawer approaches of Stuff Smith or Ray Nance than the more romantic, classically polished presentation of a Stéphane Grappelli. Williams had come a long way technically by 1989 from his earliest recorded violin solos some 60 years prior in 1929 with Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, which were described by Gunther Schuller in his The Swing Era as either "country-ish" or "rather tortured, uncertain."

Al McKibbon's relentless thumping bass, Akira Tana's prodding drum rhythms, and Ronnie Mathews' more laid-back, sparse comping provide Williams with the cushion he needs to navigate the changes of "Cherokee" with genuine feeling and vivacity. His long, smoking solo is both fleet and authoritative, packed with dissonant inflections, breakneck breezy lines, and rapidly bowed, almost boppish, riffs and modulations. Guitarist James Chirillo plays several fresh and nimble chrouses with a twangy, appealing sound. Mathews' melodious solo is equally well-executed, and unwavering in its development. McKibbon and Tana say their piece as well before Williams sails lustily through the familiar theme once again.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Sharel Cassity: Cherokee

I didn't know they offered classes in hot and heavy swing at Juilliard. Shows you how much things have changed since the days when Miles Davis battled with William Vacchiano (who later commented that Miles was merely "a decent student"). Conservatory graduate Sharel Cassity plays with the kind of fire that normally comes from the school of hard knocks where no degrees are given. She certainly burns up this oft-played modern jazz anthem, and shows her mastery of the bop vocabulary. Even more than the licks, her devil-may-care attitude stands out here. And I especially like her tone, which is sweeter than one typically find with alto speed demons. In truth, her conception of the horn is definitely pre-Trane—which you might consider as blasphemy or find refreshing, depending on your allegiances. But if you believe that musical excellence can be achieved without copious borrowings from the Slonimsky Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, Cassity is an artist you will want to hear.

May 24, 2009 · 1 comment


Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio: Cherokee

American enthusiasts of the Hot Club Swing Revival all face the same challenge: where do you find a truly hot Gypsy jazz/hot-swing group this side of the Atlantic? If you're in New York, you have a few options, but none hotter than this sizzling trio, led by the smoldering Mark O'Connor, whose confident technique and chops evoke the spirit of Eddie South as well as that of Stéphane Grappelli. Captured live in a warm, clean and faithful recording, O'Connor delivers the goods with solid support by the remarkable Jon Burr and Frank Vignola, one of the best jazz guitarists in a town crawling with great jazz guitarists.

Mark O'Connor's accomplishments span several genres; his compositions have been performed by classical artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Sharon Isbin, and have been choreographed by contemporary dance legends Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp. But his metamorphosis into a jazz violinist began with his discovery of swing fiddle pioneer Benny Thomasson, and continued under the tutelage of Stéphane Grappelli. Listening to this rendition of "Cherokee," it's obvious that his classical training and clear understanding of the Grappelli esthetic give him the power and depth to own this music. His authoritative lines soar effortlessly, never seeming frantic or edgy, even when playing at this breakneck tempo.

Guitarist Frank Vignola demonstrates a clear understanding and command of Djangospeak, but is as modern and deadly in his attack as Biréli, Angelo or Stochelo, his Sinti contemporaries across the pond. Even though the trio lacks a rhythm guitarist to provide a pompe platform during his solo, the playing here is so strong you don't really miss it.

My one complaint is that the track ends too soon. Still, this is a high-octane "Cherokee," all the more remarkable for being served up in a flawless live performance by a powerhouse jazz Manouche trio and a fiddler who is definitely off the roof.

January 27, 2009 · 1 comment


Martial Solal: Cherokee

This truly is a reunion of European virtuosos. Solal, the French pianist, Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen, the late Danish bassist (with whom Solal had recorded a duet for the same German label two years before) and Daniel Humair, the Swiss drummer (who had been living in Paris for quite some time and by then was more or less Solal's regular drummer). Together they tackle the Ray Noble standard in a very "Solalian" way, which means that you'd better have the original melody and chord sequence well memorized if you want to recognize it. But even if you don't, you should have just as much fun if you like breakneck tempos, speedy turns and unannounced twists as much as these musicians do. NHØP opens with a swift 1-minute solo intro, then is joined by Humair for another minute before the leader joins in. Almost as soon as Solal has entered with a couple of fast arpeggios, the rhythm team leaves him on his own. He changes pace to a quiet ballad before switching again to a speedy tempo. Then his right hand introduces original melodic bits, a short quotation of "Take the 'A' Train" and even—believe it or not—a reworking of the Ray Noble melody that most listeners will have a hard time recognizing at this tempo and with these alterations. But if you never hear the original melody, don't be disappointed: Solal shies away from clichés (even his own) and never has more fun than when toying around with familiar chords or a timeless melody until he's made it totally his own. Here, obviously, he found two playmates totally attuned to his twist of mind.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Don Byas: Cherokee

A veteran arranger I know used to refer to Don Byas as "The Stone Age Coltrane." Byas was an important figure during the time of jazz's transition from swing to bop. Like all soloists at the time, he was a product of big bands, notably those of Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, and Count Basie, and was also a member, with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford, of the first bop group to appear on 52nd Street.

Byas's style in 1945 was an unusual combination of swing and bop elements. He employed a big, warm sound with a deep vibrato à la Hawkins and Webster, and his rhythmic placement was mostly on the beat as per common Swing Era practice. His harmonic approach was quite a bit more advanced, though he was basically, like Hawkins, a vertical player. His ace in the hole was his dazzling technical command, which let him take a back seat to no one at handling fast tempos.

This performance is shaped by the wide disparity in harmonic and technical command between Byas and the workmanlike rhythm section. The blazing tempo forces the bassist to play in 2 throughout while the others hang on for dear life as Byas eats up the changes. Though his solo eventually takes on the character of a technical etude, it is still a dazzling virtuoso display. A couple of choruses even include some chromatic II-V substitutions in the first four bars, as if "Cherokee" didn't already have enough chord changes, though these passages were obviously part of a set routine rather than a spur-of-the-moment inspiration.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Wynton Marsalis: Cherokee

Putting aside our collectively diverse opinions on Marsalis's extra-musical contributions to jazz, it is nearly impossible to listen to Wynton's playing with the Jazz Messengers in the 1980s and his seven-disc boxed set from the Village Vanguard in the 1990s and not marvel at his technical and musical prowess. On this track from Disc 1 of the Vanguard box, Marsalis absolutely rips through "Cherokee" at a predictably blistering pace for nearly seven minutes, combining his classical chops with a noticeable homage to the masters who have previously recorded this classic.

March 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Charlie Parker: Cherokee

Five months after Count Basie recorded "Cherokee" in 1939, Charlie Barnet covered it and wound up with a massive hit. By the early 1940s, Kansas City swing bands were using the tune to showcase soloists’ chops and stamina. In Jay McShann’s band, that task fell to Parker, who would improvise effortlessly on chorus after chorus. This demo recording of "Cherokee" was likely made at a Kansas City music store sometime during the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban of 1942-1944. As Bird imaginatively weaves in and out of the song’s melody line, you literally hear bebop being born.

March 04, 2008 · 0 comments


John Pisano & Billy Bean: Cherokee

There is no good reason why Billy Bean is so little known, except that he didn't record much. So this 7½-minute duet with John Pisano is an excellent opportunity to discover his playing alongside a good – but not outstanding – partner on the same instrument. Even before Bean takes the second solo, the inventive way in which he plays basslines or comps behind Pisano already tells us something special is about to happen. He soars at 2:25 with a beautiful round sound, clear horn player-like phrasing, and a flow of melodic ideas taking him far from the formalism often attached to this set of chord progressions. Indeed, his guitar flies like the hawk over the prairie, and it's a mighty thing for our ears to behold!

January 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Dianne Reeves: Cherokee

This is not an easy song to sing, and indeed its most famous versions are by instrumentalists. But Dianne Reeves's voice tackles this difficult set of chords with such ease that one wonders why she doesn't have more competitors. A great vocal performance by one of the greatest stylists of our times, and an interesting arrangement too, which gives the song a funny Latin twist towards the end. Not to mention Bobby Watson's fiery alto solo, reminding us that, among instrumentalists at least, there definitely is strong competition when it comes to "Cherokee."

January 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Charlie Barnet: Cherokee

In becoming a bandleader, millionaire playboy Charlie Barnet defied his family but wound up making more money than as the white-shoe lawyer they'd have preferred. His biggest hit, "Cherokee," would serve as the basis for bebopper Charlie Parker’s “Ko Ko” (1945), but otherwise holds scant historical interest. Evidently meant to evoke the largest Native American tribe through hokey wah-wah and tom-tom effects that were beneath even Hollywood's casual indignity, Billy May's arrangement is little more than tedious commercialism, unredeemed by Barnet's dilettantish saxophone. 1939 was among jazz's greatest years, crammed with classic recordings. "Cherokee" ain't one of them. Don't waste your wampum.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Clifford Brown & Max Roach: Cherokee

The clarity of ideas and ease of execution of Max Roach’s playing warrant his reputation as one of jazz’s most influential drummers. Taking Jo Jones’ and Kenny Clarke’s landmark transitions a step forward, Max blurred barlines, interacted with soloists, and added deceptively complex ideas and polyrhythms to the bebop drummer’s vocabulary -- and all with impeccable cleanliness. After years of landmark recordings and performances with Bird and Diz, Max’s two-year partnership with Clifford Brown marked one of the essential collaborations in jazz. Max’s drum solo on “Cherokee” brilliantly represents the idea of a melodically constructed drum solo with a beginning, middle and end.

October 27, 2007 · 0 comments


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