Duke Ellington: Rockin' in Rhythm

This standard for the Ellington band came, as Duke said, "as close as an arrangement gets to sounding spontaneous," with the freely swinging style. It's also among the Ellington tracks that served as a clear precursor to the big band swing music of the later 1930s and early '40s. An interesting intro with piano and a deep, low-register, punched-out trombone phrase lead into lively, swinging playing of the distinctive main theme and variations, with sharp horn accents. This is mainly an ensemble piece. Crescendos effectively augment texture, feel and dynamics; and unison playing of the saxophones and clarinet add a further interesting dimension to the soundscape. A feature attraction, following a rumbling, repeated ensemble riff that nicely sets the scene for a sound contrast, is a siren song of a clarinet solo by Barney Bigard with his unique style and rich tone. But Duke Ellington the composer/arranger is the biggest star here, showing off his band's rich ensemble playing at its finest.

March 09, 2009 · 1 comment


Sidney Bechet: Blue Horizon

This is the ultimate mellow Sidney Bechet blues track. He gives us the richest, most sumptuous clarinet tone of his recording career, especially in the earlier going and at the end. In later parts of the song, his range of tone and timbre also adds wonderful nuance and texture. He offers one chorus after another of beautifully rendered and shaped lines, creatively developing one thematic variation after another. All the while, bassist Pops Foster, drummer Manzie Johnson and pianist Art Hodes keep a steady-stridin' rhythm at a slow tempo to provide a fine foundation. Trumpeter Sidney de Paris, trombonist Vic Dickenson, and Hodes, each a virtuoso in his own right, stick to subtle support tones, harmonies and contrapuntal lines.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Akousma: Live Again

Boston's Berklee School has long been a melting pot for the world's budding jazz musicians and a frequent bellwether for coming trends. One of its most recent products is this eclectic international confederation of talented players from, respectively, Switzerland, Greece, Japan, and Cyprus. While their debut album breaks no theoretical ground, it does show a glimpse of greater things to come.

"Live Again" is a plaintive, wistful bossa eschewing the more familiar sax or flute in favor of the velvet, flowing timbre of Linus Wyrsch's clarinet. Satisfying, laid-back improvisations by bassist Hiro Sakaba and guitarist Stavros Kartakis fit comfortably over an open, minimalist Latin feel. But it's the clarinet that stands out. With a depth of feeling that belies his disciplined classical technique, Wyrsch demonstrates why it's past time for this expressive but long-overlooked instrument to return to the fore.

All things considered, Akousma (presumably named after a Pythagorean precept) aptly illustrates the transcendent language of jazz and the universality of its elements in a rapidly shrinking global community.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet: Ain't Misbehavin'

With the one and only Sidney Bechet joined by the great pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, virtuoso cornetist Rex Stewart (a feature attraction of the landmark Ellington band), and that New Orleans original, co-Founding Father of jazz drumming, "Baby" Dodds, you might expect memorable results—and, baby, do they deliver! Clearly they were inspired by this Fats Waller tune that is one of the best and most loved songs ever written.

Earl Hines opens with a sparkling, bouncy rendition of the famous melody, using a little left-hand bass rumbling to let you know that the title says "ain't misbehavin'", BUT…. Next, like a musical relay, Bechet takes the handoff and plays a clarion, fairly straight version of the theme, then variations with verve, with Dodds pounding out drum rolls for additional texture. In turn, Stewart jumps in with a perfect response and follow-up to Bechet, using his muted cornet for a wailing first note, then further creative variations of the theme, with exquisite bluesy slurs and accents, until Bechet again follows suit. Hines next offers a beautiful rhythmic yet rhapsodic, virtuoso piano interlude, with Bechet's punctuating phrases behind him. That transitions into some Hines-Stewart exchanges, creating an interesting tonal and rhythmic dynamic. Then Bechet cuts loose with dramatic, blazing inventions and embellishments on the theme, with that inimitable tone and vibrato. Stewart again takes the handoff and launches into his own blazing lines, using muted cornet to wonderful effect, as his and the rest of the band's playing steadily grows in intensity and passion, yet never loses their playful element. Finally Bechet heats things up further, joining Stewart in a high- energy dual/duel back-and-forth ba-dah-dum, ba-dah-dum, ba-dah-dum, dah de dum ending that leaves you breathless.

This is glorious stuff, with tremendous momentum, the great jazz masters spurring each other on to a dramatic ending. This is truly movin' music! If the toes of the person listening next to you aren't tapping, check the pulse; they may need immediate medical attention. And if they aren't smiling up a storm after listening to this, they need another type of attention.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet: Wild Man Blues

This track has the feeling of an updated, matured, yet slightly exotic version of a classic New Orleans band performance. It presents a beautifully developed version of the original Crescent City polyphonic ensemble playing, with each key player contributing his own lines, stirring up a fine gumbo of moving jazz. Both the tune and the nature of its playing create a deep bluesy mood.

It opens with two simple Sidney Bechet phrases giving a taste of things to come, followed by the band's strong, march-like statement of the theme taken at a stately tempo, after which trumpeter Sidney de Paris adds a couple of his own clarion phrases. Next Bechet and de Paris (a favorite of Bechet) trade lead lines in frequent breaks, with de Paris offering excellent, lyrical trumpet work, and Bechet responding with ascending, ringing high-note playing alternating with creative melodic variations and a striking variety of clarinet tones, from the richest woody notes to those wailing highs (sounding like his soprano sax) to swoops down through the scale, and so on. Nobody could get the range of clarinet sounds and make such creative and expressive use of them, with just the right impact, as Sidney Bechet. Overall, this recording has excellent structural and thematic coherence, with passion and playing at a high level. Hearing it, we experience blues as fine art without losing the deep, soulful feel.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet: Perdido Street Blues

This track is from the notable 1940 recording reunion of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Some critics called the results "disappointing," but to my ears this track, at least, is terrific.

Bechet opens with a brilliant riff on clarinet, soaring at the start and adding a superbly crafted line, only to step downward with bluesy, slurred and bent notes to rich, low-register tones. Armstrong follows with equal brilliance, flowing through inventive lead lines with that inimitable trumpet tone and blues feel, punching out well-placed accents, and creating a beautifully structured solo. After adding subtle counterpoint behind Satch for a couple of bars, Sidney jumps in wailing with a further sparkling lead line on soprano sax. These two masters are already spurring each other to musical heights.

The fine pianist Luis Russell's mellow interlude follows, guitarist Bernard Addison adds atmosphere, and trombonist Claude Jones restates the theme before the storm. To set the final scene, Armstrong gives us three majestically punched-out climbing notes, then a smooth thematic variation at medium volume, as the band backs him with a rumbling, rolling repeated figure carried on from their earlier work. Satchmo cuts loose with a beaut of a line, building intensity, climbing to a series of high notes with blues slurs for a penultimate climax. He ends on a mid-range note, from which Sidney takes off for one last rollicking, soaring phrase to end it in compelling fashion.

This is "disappointing"?! Some critics needed their hearing aids checked.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Pee Wee Russell & Coleman Hawkins: 28th and 8th

The album title Jazz Reunion refers to the fact that Pee Wee Russell and Coleman Hawkins had not recorded together since the legendary Mound City Blue Blowers session of 1929. Those sides were most notable for Hawkins's feature on "If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)," which almost single-handedly established the performance parameters for the jazz ballad. (The same tune is revisited on this album.)

The 1960s marked a resurgence for Pee Wee Russell, finally given opportunities to perform outside the friendly confines of Eddie Condon Field and the various traditionalist revival settings in which he began to seem increasingly out of place. Later in the decade, he led a pianoless quartet whose repertoire included works by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman!

The first thing that strikes the listener about "28th and 8th" is how Russell's tune sounds as though it could have been written by Monk himself. It features an angular, leaping melody set against descending harmony in a manner reminiscent of Monk's "Skippy," though "28th and 8th" is a 12-bar blues. Bob Brookmeyer, in cup mute, solos first, his style pure valve trombone. To my ears the only analogy that comes to mind is maybe Rex Stewart down an octave. Russell, always a unique blues player, follows with a guttural, growl-inflected spot, after which Nat Pierce combines a Basie-esque lightness with some romping stride inflections. One unexpected pleasure of this album is the consistently fine solo work of Emmett Berry, a player best known for his big band work, who gets a rare chance to stretch out.

It has become somewhat fashionable to belittle Coleman Hawkins's blues playing, mostly due to his infrequent use of blues material in his repertoire and the absence of overtly bluesy mannerisms in his playing. That sounds to me like Lincoln Center Politburo propaganda, so please feel free to ignore it, and just listen to the music. If his solo here doesn't convince you of the speciousness of the anti-Hawk argument, check out his work on Abbey Lincoln's classic album Straight Ahead, also on Candid.

February 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Jimmy Giuffre: My Funny Valentine

A quick look at the instrumentation will explain why this is one of the more unusual versions of "My Funny Valentine." It's an odd mix of a classical woodwind quartet with a very jazzy and soulful ostinato bass part. Giuffre had studied composition with Dr. Wesley La Violette, and one wonders if this arrangement began as a homework assignment. Although none of the woodwinds plays in true classical style, the mix of jazz and classical doesn't quite work. Giuffre's subtone clarinet clashes with the strident sound of the double reeds, and while the performance has some level of emotion, it is all so reserved that one wonders about the point of the entire experiment. Giuffre's work deserves to be reexamined, as he created an amazing body of recordings. Unfortunately, this is not the most interesting example.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Eddie Daniels & Roger Kellaway: I'm Getting Sentimental Over You

In a flurry of joyful stride-like piano lines, Roger Kellaway sets the tone for this swinging little number. Establishing both the pace and feeling he is trying to portray, Kellaway's intro prods a dancingly joyful Eddie Daniels to add his tonally brilliant clarinet to the tune. These veteran instrumental masters venture into a kaleidoscope of ideas as they skillfully play off each other's phrasing, teasing one another down new roads of expression.

Kellaway is quite comfortable in the solo piano format, expressing a wellspring of ideas through a veritable encyclopedia of styles that nonetheless coalesce brilliantly into a unified statement. Inspired by Kellaway's adventures, Daniels offers his own equally daunting solo that explores both the tonal qualities of his instrument and the outliers of his ideas. The two seem to feed symbiotically off each other and create a stream of consciousness that is a wonder to behold, much to the joy of their respectful and appreciative audience on this live recording.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Eddie Daniels & Roger Kellaway: Blue Waltz

In the liner notes to this offering, Paquito D'Rivera talks of the "Miracle of the Lead Sheet." The lead sheet is a sparse musical outline consisting of the basic melody, chord symbols and cues used by the musicians, leaving them plenty of room to explore uncharted waters around the barest of structures. Using only lead sheets for this venture, Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway create spontaneously evocative music from their combined deep well of experience and musical rapport.

On Daniels's wonderful "Blue Waltz," the ease with which he evokes such strong emotional sounds from the uniquely woody sound of his clarinet bears witness to a master at work. This difficult lead woodwind was once revered for its immediately identifiable timbre and hauntingly hollow-toned fluidity. Put in the driver's seat by the likes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman, the clarinet subsequently took a back seat to the more immediate and urgent tenor sax. That is too bad, for in the hands of such an accomplished player as Daniels, the "licorice stick" rivals the most expressive of saxophones. Daniels's clarinet is unmatched in its purity of tone, and his flawless execution through the most challenging improvisations creates a unified mellifluous sound that is a unique voice in jazz.

Daniels's "Blue Waltz" is also the perfect vehicle for Kellaway's pianistic musings. His inventive excursions into melodic wonderland are always surprising. With a technique ranging from delicately tickling to harshly hammering, Kellaway is an inspired solo performer. He is also an accompanist par excellence as he masterfully and empathetically dances around Daniels's poignant notes in the most complementary way. Together these underappreciated titans of jazz are paired to great effect and to the joy of their grateful audience live at Los Angeles' Jazz Bakery. Thankfully this collaboration was captured for all of us to enjoy.

January 20, 2009 · 1 comment


Buddy DeFranco: A Bird in Igor's Yard

George Russell was born in 1923, became a drummer, and learned the basics of music theory and arranging while recovering from tuberculosis. In 1953, the first edition of his Lydian Chromatic Concept was published, and quickly became one of the most influential theoretical texts in modern jazz. Bill Evans, Art Farmer and Miles Davis were among the first to be impressed by the fertile musical materials available using the Lydian mode and scales based on it that were created by Russell. Russell opened the door to the use of modes in jazz and designed a way of thinking about music based on scale theory that was unique in world music. It is safe to say that Kind of Blue would not have been made if it weren't for Russell's concept, but concert composers such as Japan's Toshiro Mayuzumi also praised the concept and proved that it wasn't just to be used for the language of jazz. Russell's own compositions appeared on an album in the Jazz Workshop series on RCA Victor in 1956. Big band albums on Decca and small group sessions on Riverside were highly praised in the jazz press, but Russell's real triumphs were in Europe, where he lived, toured and taught for several years during the 1960s and '70s. Returning to the U.S. to teach his concept at the New England Conservatory, he continued to write challenging music for European ensembles, which often confounded his listeners. In time he became one of the world's most honored and respected musicians.

But back in 1949, he was finding his way, part of the group of musicians that included Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, John Carisi, John Lewis and Johnny Mandel who put together a rehearsal band later known as the Birth of the Cool. He'd already written "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" for Dizzy Gillespie, and was writing for the Claude Thornhill and Artie Shaw bands when he wrote "A Bird in Igor's Yard" for a record date led by clarinetist Buddy DeFranco with an all-star big band. The recording went unreleased for decades, and was one of those curiosities that was often discussed when Russell was leading his own groups. What did Russell's music sound like back in 1949?

In a word, unusual. Bird refers to Charlie Parker, and Igor refers to Stravinsky, one of the composers Evans & Co. studied and respected. (Some of the others were Ernest Bloch and Sergei Prokofiev.) It is hard to discuss this piece without a score, since there is so much going on. (I once tried to obtain a score of this piece from Russell, and he wanted an astronomical amount of money, too much for a 19-year-old to get then.) After an introduction by the band, DeFranco improvises over a contrapuntal background where lines bounce all over the band. The ensemble finally breaks out into a swing rhythm with DeFranco sailing over it. Al Cohn and Gene DiNovi have brief solos, and then the second part of the piece begins, where DeFranco improvises over a broken rhythm. The midsection of this part is an unusual musical line that is tonally based but does not sound like it. This line keeps repeating as the band plays layer upon layer on top of it. DeFranco reprises the beginning of the piece, and it finally ends on a minor chord.

This is an ambitious work that DeFranco later stated he should not have recorded, and Russell has not revived. It reminds me more of the music of Stefan Wolpe than of Stravinsky. (Wolpe was an influential composer and teacher whose students at that time included Carisi, Ed Sauter, Bill Finegan and Tony Scott.) Wolpe's music was way out for that time, and some is still difficult to listen to. That "A Bird in Igor's Yard" is not entirely successful in my view is not the point; it was an important statement in the growing vocabulary of the big band, and a stepping stone for more assured work by Russell. It certainly should have been heard, as it is hardly as loud and "out" as some of the recordings of Stan Kenton's band from earlier years. It does come with a strange footnote: the Duke Ellington collection houses a copy. Seems that composers sent Ellington their music all the time, and some very famous names are represented. In some cases, the only existing pieces from some big names can be found there.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Jimmy Giuffre: The Easy Way

The Easy Way was a transitional album for Jimmy Giuffre. By 1959, the ever-restless reedman had mostly drained his popular mid-'50s Swamp Jazz, but was not yet up to his ass in the avant-garde alligators that would soon ravage his popularity. A year earlier, the Jimmy Giuffre 3 had comprised Giuffre, his longtime collaborator Jim Hall, and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, forming one of the oddest instrumentations in jazz history. For this date, however, Giuffre reverts to his original 1956 trio format by enlisting Oscar Peterson's perennial bassist Ray Brown. Contrary to the liner notes, incidentally, nowhere on this album does Giuffre play the baritone sax. If he lugged his bari to the studio, it went unused. Instead he plays tenor sax on 3 of the 8 selections, clarinet on all others.

The easiest way to access The Easy Way is through its title tune, a bluesy, loping, quietly swinging Giuffre original that ropes you in as gently as an old cowhand lassoing a baby steer. The leader's breathy clarinet (think asthmatic Lester Young), Brown's bulwark bass and the willowy wallflower of Jim Hall's guitar (dig especially his bent notes around the 4:15 mark) perfectly complement one another. And, praise be, the proceedings were beautifully remastered by Kevin Reeves via 24-bit digital transfer in 2003. This is outstanding chamber jazz from a modernist master and two eminently sympathetic souls.

December 07, 2008 · 0 comments


Evan Christopher: Douce Ambience

You may not see much coverage of traditional jazz in the media (or even the jazz media, for that matter), but it is alive and well; and no sector of trad-ville is more vibrant than the gypsy caravan on the outskirts of town. Django has passed from jazz history and become a figure of mythic resonance: indeed, few jazz figures from before WWII have a more devoted following nowadays, or exert such a powerful ongoing influence on the current scene. (Jazz.com's Bill Barnes will give you an insider's look at this subculture here.)

Clarinet is not a common instrument in this style of jazz performance, which is heavily tilted toward the strings. But you wouldn't know it from Evan Christopher's deliciously languorous approach to "Douce Ambience." He elicits a rich, smoky tone from his horn, and puts such a personal stamp on his melody statement that you don't even need to wait for the solos to appreciate that you are in the hands of a master stylist. But please do wait for the solos. Christopher & Co. work their taut phrases over a dark, tango-ish swing and with no wasted energy. Très douce.

November 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Don Byron: I'll Follow the Sun

Multifaceted clarinetist Don Byron scores huge with this cover of Paul McCartney's divine "I'll Follow the Sun." His clear-toned clarinet a perfect representation of McCartney's charming tenor voice, Byron delivers the melody with ease above Frisell's ringing arpeggios and inimitable comping style. The sublime harmonic tension embedded in the chord progression elicits many lovely moments of resolution during Byron's engaging solo. Frisell references the melody, often cleverly implied or displaced unexpectedly, throughout his choruses. Gress provides firm support, and DeJohnette's delicate cymbal and snare work, selective hi-hat and rim-clicks are simply splendid (especially behind Frisell's solo). This fabulous track will bring a sunny smile to any listener's face.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Mort Weiss: Blue Monk

Now this is a match made in jazz heaven. Ron Eschete shows off his guitar mastery while Mort Weiss swoops his way through the swingin' chord solos. With the expanded sonic palette of the 7-string guitar, it almost seems like there are more than two musicians playing. What's great about this particular format is that it pretty much requires the musicians to assume nontraditional roles. It's that stretch of responsibilities that produces some great and unexpected results.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments


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