Phil Woods: Adiós Nonino

As prolific a recording artist as Phil Woods has been, many listeners may have missed his moving tribute CD to New Tango innovator Astor Piazzolla and the legendary Brazilian singer Elis Regina. Then again, some of Woods's more insular bebop fans may have looked upon this project as an oddity and simply passed it by. The only odd thing about it, however, is that Woods played clarinet exclusively on the Piazzolla tunes, and alto sax only on the Brazilian numbers dedicated to Regina. Also, with the prominent aid of Friedlander's cello, Woods emphasized the lyrical beauty of Astor's compositions in lieu of extended improvisations.

The famous "Adiós Nonino" was written by Piazzolla in 1959 shortly after the passing of his father, Vicente, who was affectionately known as Nonino. Piazzolla recorded it a year later with his very first New Tango Quintet. Woods's elegant clarinet sound graces Piazzolla's legato lament, touchingly enhanced by Friedlander's counterlines and Finck's resonant bass notes, as the three expressively delineate the piece's verse/chorus structure. Charlap, the lone soloist, contributes a delicately struck, understated gem. Woods then reverently articulates the main theme a final time. Woods first met Piazzolla in 1956, and some 40 years later created this very stylish salute to him.

September 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Gabriele Mirabassi: Madrugadero

Some will argue that Gabriele Mirabassi is not really a jazz musician, and to a certain extent they are right. His straight sound and tone still bear the mark of his breeding as a classical virtuoso, and he doesn't show any influence from such historical players as Barney Bigard or Benny Goodman. But then, his instrument has played such a small role in jazz's evolution over the past half century that it has allowed strong individuals with few strings attached to appear, at least in Europe. Indeed, Mirabassi mostly plays with Europeans, except for Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil, who by the way lives in Germany. On this record Mirabassi mostly plays his own tunes with his own group, an unconventional Italian-French quartet. This track sounds like a folk tune, and some purists may again doubt its qualification as jazz. But the way the four players carry this tune from a linear melodic unison between accordion and clarinet to a free rubato exploration around the tuba's growls has definitely more to do with jazz improvisation than with any other musical genre. This bears witness to Mirabassi's open mind and to the Europeans' open vision of today's jazz.

July 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Tony Scott: The Murmuring of the Mountain Stream

This recording from 1964 comes with a lot of baggage. It is the father of New Age music, some suggest, or maybe a cheesy type of bland background music. But we urge the listener to adopt the zen mind and LET GO OF THE BAGGAGE!

Put aside the dogma. Forget the liner notes by Alan Watts. Just listen to this track as a duet between clarinet and koto. Appreciate the give-and-take, the graceful interaction, the sensitivity to sound and space. This is breathtaking music, and very deep. Ten months after Scott recorded this LP, John Coltrane entered the studio to make A Love Supreme, and one would not be remiss in finding a connection between these two projects, despite their much different sonic textures. Scott, like 'Trane, was probing a spiritually-charged approach to improvisation, one that went beyond traditional definitions of the jazz vocabulary.

'Tis pity that the jazz critical establishment has forgotten this recording, or at times actually disowned it. Don't you make the same mistake. This is fresh, experimental music that still retains its pristine power more than four decades after its initial release.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Tony Scott: Is Not All One?

Some people will tell you that this album represents the birth of New Age music, back in 1964. Or is it a pioneering World Music collaboration between East and West? Or, as I prefer to see it, a forerunner of "Ambient Music" before Brian Eno coined the term? Alas, the jazz world has never taken much interest in this release, even though it represents collective improvisation of a very high order. Of course, the jazz folks have never really come to grips with Tony Scott in any shape or form. Here was a guy who thwarted all their expectations, spending time in all the wrong places to build a jazz career . . . from his early training at Juilliard to his time overseas immersing himself in Asian musical and mystical traditions; from his trips to South American and Africa to his final move to Italy. Another mark against Mr. Scott: he played the clarinet, championing it when almost every other reed player signed up in the camp of Adolphe Sax. Someday the jazz world will achieve blissful Zen enlightenment and figure out that someone this creative and daring should be championed as a hero of the art form. But you don't need to wait for that to happen. You can check out Scott's oeuvre, and this fresh, beautiful recording, right now. Happy satori!

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Jimmy Hamilton: Blues in My Music Room

The leader is primarily known for his long association with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He took over the clarinet/tenor chair from Barney Bigard in 1943, and remained until 1968. With Ellington's busy schedule, Hamilton didn't get many opportunities to record on his own, and these tracks (originally recorded for the Urania label in 1954) have a unique sound. The two-guitar lineup in the rhythm section, instead of the usual piano, is especially noteworthy. Galbraith stands out in his solo turn, and his ensemble riffing almost lends an R&B feel to this track, which is not strictly a blues.

June 27, 2008 · 1 comment


Soprano Summit: Chalumeau Blue

From 1972 until they disbanded in 1979, Soprano Summit was the finest traditional/swing band of its kind, in great demand at jazz festivals and other venues worldwide. They reunited occasionally years later as Summit Reunion, the name changed because Kenny Davern had by then abandoned the soprano, playing clarinet exclusively. As Soprano Summit, he and co-leader Bob Wilber both doubled on soprano and clarinet. Wilber was heavily influenced by Sidney Bechet, while Davern was more in tune with the eccentric style of Pee Wee Russell and the more modern approach of Steve Lacy. Indeed, Wilber had performed with Bechet, and Davern recorded with Lacy.

The chalumeau was an early single-reed wind instrument, the forerunner of the clarinet. The term "chalumeau" later defined the lower register of the modern clarinet. On Wilber's "Chalumeau Blue," the two clarinetists play the soothing, ingratiating theme with a loping, almost martial rhythmic backing, their lines intertwining delightfully in the lower "chalumeau" register. Davern's solo, however, is all upper-register virtuosity, his phrases darting and swooping in typically unpredictable fashion. Wilber remains loyal to the lower depths of his instrument for his more sedate but no less winning solo, before Davern – still in the upper register – joins him for a breathtaking dual improvisation. They meet again in "chalumeau" for a reprise of the melody. They just don't make groups like this anymore, or at least not nearly as good.

June 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Artie Shaw: Sweet Lorraine

This Lorraine is too sweet for my taste. The string arrangement creates a genteel, afternoon-tea type of mood. Listening to this tepid chart, one could easily forget that the Swing Era had kicked the previous year. There is not much swing on this track. Shaw offers a melodic solo, and when he gets a two-bar break with 25 seconds left in the performance, he tiptoes across it like he is carrying grandma's precious china. Shaw could be a compelling soloist when he was so inclined. But on this date, he never worked up a sweat.

May 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Ken Peplowski: Variations

This “clarinet choir” recording is an interesting workout for these players. The composition is by Greg Cohen, the bassist on the date, who does not play on this performance. I’ve interviewed Cohen, and this piece makes sense knowing something about his background, particularly his studying of contemporary classical music in his youth. He told me Peplowski does all the improvising here with the rest of the ensemble following the script. Highlighting these reed timbres and their interaction creates a great sound that you won’t hear in a larger context.

May 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Pee Wee Russell: That Old Feeling

Journalists in the 1950s adored Pee Wee Russell as much for his looks (think dyspeptic basset hound with a mustache) as for his musicianship. The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett, for example, found in Russell one of the 20th century's classic physiognomies. "When he plays, this already striking facial arrangement, which is overlaid with an endless grille of wrinkles and furrows, becomes knotted into grimaces of pain, as if the music were pulling unbearably tight an inner drawstring." With a face that was prose poetry just begging to be transcribed, is it any wonder that Pee Wee's musicianship became almost an afterthought?

Yet when he summons forth "That Old Feeling," Pee Wee demonstrates that while the clarinet may be a wooden instrument, it needn't be played woodenly. True, Russell stuck to the middle register, with an occasional dip into chalumeau waters, and his breathy tone and warbling vibrato would've rendered a clarinet teacher aghast. But like latter-day Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Pee Wee more than compensated for his technical limitations with savvy, grace and originality. Some artists are so transcendently expressive that their lack of virtuosity itself becomes a virtue.

"That Old Feeling" was introduced in the movie Vogues of 1938, by which time Russell was in his early 30s, had been recording for more than a decade, performed with such luminaries as Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke, and taken up residence at Nick's, the now-legendary Greenwich Village nightspot. Yet Pee Wee Russell himself was never really in vogue. He was an acquired taste whom most jazz fans declined to acquire, especially during the Swing Era, when such spectacular practitioners as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw ruled the roost. Decimated by alcoholism, Russell's health declined during the 1940s to near death in 1951. But Pee Wee slowly recovered. Eventually he found himself subject to renewed interest, thanks largely to his endearing fragility on CBS-TV's 1957 all-star special The Sound of Jazz, where—like a lovingly restored scarecrow—he kept wobbly company with, on the one hand, such trad veterans as Henry "Red" Allen, and on the other hand with his modernist alter ego, Jimmy Giuffre. Only 51 but looking 100, Pee Wee reminded us of the eccentric uncle in everybody's closet who is let out once a year to wow the neighborhood kids with rusty magic tricks half-remembered from his vaudeville days.

On this 1958 track, Pee Wee's stalwart sympathizers include the warmly lyrical tenorman Bud Freeman and sly-boots trombonist Vic Dickenson. These old smoothies could no more go wrong with "That Old Feeling" than listeners can with Pee Wee Russell.

May 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Dr. Michael White: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

This song may be better known as a gospel or folk or roots tune, and its origins can be traced back to British-born Christian tunesmith Ada Ruth Habershon. But it sounds like a Crescent City original in the hands of Dr. Michael White and company. White is one of the leading exponents of the New Orleans tradition walking the planet. Don't let his doctorate fool you: there is nothing academic about his trad jazz work. The style of performance here might be one hundred years old, but it wears it well, huh? The counterpoint of the horns is especially fine on this track. My only gripe is that the performance winds down after only 2½ minutes. If I were in the second line, I'd demand an immediate encore.

May 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman & Jimmy Rowles: Mean to Me

Every serious jazz fan has heard of the Benny Goodman Quartet and the Benny Goodman Trio. But what about the Benny Goodman Duo? This 1947 pairing with pianist Jimmy Rowles deserves to be far better known, and shows both of these players in fine form. A few months after this session, Goodman would embrace modern jazz, half-heartedly, in a band that brought the King of Swing face-to-face with some young boppers. But this gently swinging version of "Mean to Me" makes no pretensions to keeping up with the times. Rowles plays an unreconstructed stride bass, with a few nods to his hero Art Tatum. Meanwhile, Goodman's tone is sugar and spice and everything nice. Not even a bit of meanness on this "Mean to Me," just two masters at work.

May 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Michel Portal: The Sandpiper

French reeds wizard Michel Portal is an endless searcher and traveler. He is a respected clarinetist in the classical and contemporary music field, has been a session musician, a free jazz musician, a film music composer… and has always been eager to meet and exchange with U.S. musicians. Here he invites Tony Malaby on one of his typical compositions: a very simple, haunting, cyclic melodic pattern on which Portal’s bass clarinet solo followed by Malaby’s improvisation on the tenor sax build up a tension that climaxes with the dialogue of the two horns. This tune has some of the magic and beauty of Miles Davis's early-'70s pieces.

January 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Buddy DeFranco: Out of Nowhere

At this writing, DeFranco continues to be an excellent musician playing an instrument that fell out of favor early in his career. Although he was certainly on the level of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, DeFranco was never able to cash in on his incredible playing the way his heroes did. After stints with Tommy Dorsey (his clarinet solo on the recording of "Opus No. 1" remains a classic) and Boyd Raeburn, DeFranco fronted an excellent small group before trying his luck as a big band leader. The band only lasted a few months before DeFranco joined Norman Granz's stable of soloists who toured all over the world. This track comes from DeFranco's first MGM session with an all-star studio ensemble recorded before the touring edition was formed. Under a straightforward ensemble background, DeFranco states the melody in an equally straightforward manner during the first chorus. The improvised solo in the second chorus begins in the low register, and maintains this easygoing feeling until the 'B' section. Then DeFranco cuts loose in a breathless burst of bop for another chorus and a half, even throwing in a quote from "Fascinating Rhythm." The result stuns and grips the listener with the sheer virtuosity and melodic beauty of DeFranco's art. The record seems to be over before it has started.

December 27, 2007 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman: Memories of You

Much is made of Goodman the martinet, the stern taskmaster leveling The Ray to tyrannize his minions. Then there's Benny the eccentric, polishing his world-class clarinet technique by practicing in the nude. Less legendary is Goodman the romantic, the nearsighted nerd with the forced smile who wore his heart on his sleeve. What!? you ask, aghast. Benny Goodman? Romantic? If you can spare 3 minutes, you'll hear what we mean. With Hamp's vibes shimmering in the moonlight, Benny's gentle boat ride across a still lake on an unseasonably mild Thanksgiving eve proves as surprisingly endearing as a valentine in November.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments


Edmund Hall: Jammin' in Four

Hall was one of the great New Orleans clarinetists, but he was a fixture of the New York jazz club scene at the time of this recording. Don’t be fooled by the instrumentation of this drummer-less ensemble: this isn’t quiet chamber music, but a swinging romp driven by Crosby’s bass and Christian’s acoustic rhythm guitar. They back the unique sweet and sour sonic combination of Meade Lux Lewis pounding out boogie-woogie on celeste with Hall’s hard-edged clarinet blues. Christian’s four-chorus single-line solo reveals how this short-lived musician influenced generations of guitarists to come.

November 24, 2007 · 0 comments


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