Sonny Rollins: I'm an Old Cowhand

Even before I got a chance to really thoroughly understand what Ray Brown was doing, if there was one record everybody knew, and knew well, it was Way Out West. That was kind of the gold standard for pianoless saxophone trios. I remember Wynton Marsalis was the first one who told me about that record. He pointed out, which rings very true to this day, that if you listen to Ray Brown’s basslines, he outlines the chords so well, you don’t miss the piano. Most of the time, when bass players are playing without a piano, it exposes the weaknesses or shortcomings of their harmonic vocabulary. In four notes, you have a chord for one measure and you have four beats. Sometimes, two out of those four notes make perfect sense. Sometimes, three of those four notes make perfect sense. But rarely do we hear all four notes, every bar throughout the song make perfect harmonic sense, almost like a baroque piano piece, like a Bach piece, a two-part invention, where these bass lines not only are outlining the chord that you’re playing at that particular bar, but also setting up and anticipating the next chord. I think “I’m An Old Cowhand” is a case study of the way Ray Brown is using these passing tones, these leading tones, and I think Ron Carter---who in terms of harmonic evolution is the next step after Ray Brown---picked up on the way he perfectly constructed these basslines. I can just imagine Ron Carter listening to that recording, going, “Ok, there’s something in there I’m going to really focus my style on,” and that was building these perfect basslines that kind of go through the chords. They are not so much in the chord, but they’re through the chord. You can hear the chord that you’re playing, but it also sets up the next chord very, very well.

December 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Wessell Anderson: African Cowboy

Anderson was a key member of the Wynton Marsalis Septet in the late '80s and early '90s, and he then played an integral role in Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for about 10 years. His noteworthy Live at the Village Vanguard CD, his last in the '90's, should have led to many more this decade, but was only followed by new ones as a leader in 2006 (Space) and 2009 (Warm it up, Warmdaddy!). Although he studied with Alvin Batiste in Louisiana, and his fat, vocalized sound and Marsalis association might lead you to believe he's from the trumpeter's home state, Anderson was actually born and raised in New York City.

The track "African Cowboy" shows the uninitiated exactly what Anderson is all about, and why he's called "Warmdaddy." A cowpoke/square dance introductory refrain is played by pianist Xavier Davis, with Jaz Sawyer's sympathetic galloping rhythm. The train-whistle-derived theme is handled almost tongue-in-cheek by Anderson's alto and New Orleanian Irwin Mayfield's wah-wah trumpet. Anderson's solo is typically linear, inventively and tirelessly rearranging and altering the melodic content with an irresistible urgency. His clever riffs and variety of wailing tonal inflections make for a heady mix, and his tumbling, headlong runs only add to the excitement. Think Cannonball Adderley at his most inspired and playful, with an extra dose of near-maniacal glee. The concluding tag by the two horns, after they revisit the theme, is joyfully appropriate and crowd-pleasing.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Bill Frisell: Billy the Kid

William Bonney, known as "Billy the Kid," was a young punk who wreaked havoc in Lincoln County, NM. His bad reputation, though, was jarringly altered when quintessential Americana composer Aaron Copland wrote his high-stepping music for the ballet Billy the Kid. Then another Billy wreaked his own happy havoc on Copland's multi-part composition--William Frisell, always cheerfully eager to string-shape or guitar-warp standards, folk songs, pop tunes, and originals alike.

The work opens and closes peacefully, with guitar, clarinet, accordion, and rhythm all sticking close to the chart. In between, sixshooters (well, five) blaze from hell to breakfast as Don Byron burbles and slips, Guy Klucevsek squirts and wheezes, and the rhythm section manages to hold it all together while simultaneously knocking everything sideways. And Bill? The grinnin' guitar kid sounds like he never had more fun, whether sliding or chiding, yearning, or burning a hole through the score.

Billy the Kid launches the CD; the trad tune Billy Boy ends it. The album is Frisell's impish self-portrait.

May 07, 2009 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck: Ode to a Cowboy

The first track on the first Dave Brubeck Jazz Impressions album (released in early 1957) cheerfully proclaimed what became a career-long vocation: composing jazz tunes occasioned by the sights and sounds – and travails – of global travel. But Brubeck's journey of many thousands of miles began with one small step, the tune "Ode to a Cowboy," which vaguely saluted the American West (and possibly Dave's ranch upbringing), but by way of the Argentine pampas!

A quasi-tango rhythm announces this lanky gaucho, with Brubeck's staccato melody offering a faint ghost of some "Old Cowhand" or other. Then Desmond's lonesome alto sings to the night herd over a loping 4/4, followed by Dave at a typical sidestepping trot as bass man Bates walks on – till all the hands are reined in by that dislocated tango once more. Morello's sticks gallop off, horsing around to the very end. (Enough with the wordplay. Other than by title, if this number is really owed to a cowboy at all, I'll eat my Stetson.)

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: Basin Street Blues

Bob Wills's syndicated radio show distributed by Tiffany Music in 1946-47 found his Texas Playboys tackling a wide range of material, encompassing country, jazz, blues and traditional songs. Here they deliver a carefree "Basin Street Blues" with a Dixieland sensibility. Tommy Duncan impresses with his conversational vocal delivery—was there was ever a more plainspoken jazz singer? Wills interrupts with his usual shtick, but can't dislodge Duncan's poker face. Louis Tierney, for his part, sets down his fiddle to fiddle with the sax and Alex Brashear offers up some credible New Orleans trumpet. But the highlight here is Noel Boggs's steel guitar, which sounds like it just came back from a luau. Is there a Basin Street in Honolulu? Put some pineapple on my po' boy, and please play that record one more time.

January 17, 2009 · 1 comment


Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: Twin Guitar Special

This performance, coming at almost the same moment that Charlie Christian was recording "Air Mail Special," shows that Benny Goodman wasn't the only major bandleader of the day who understood the potential of electric guitar. Bob Wills is often remembered for his endearing "Western Swing" classics, but he also played an important role in establishing the guitar as a key component of jazz and country bands. Of course, Eldon Shamblin and Leon McAuliffe are doing the heavy lifting here, and clearly deserve a tip of the cowboy hat—not to mention more recognition in the music history books. The mixture of electric guitar and steel guitar with Louis Tierney's fiddle works like a charm. This is one of the great combo sounds in mid-century American music.

January 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: Take Me Back to Tulsa

This song had been a part of Bob Wills's repertoire for quite some time before this session—he had performed it as "Take Me Back to Texas" when he was with the Light Crust Doughboys. But after Wills changed his home base to Oklahoma, the song got a new name. When Wills beefed up his Playboys with jazzy reeds and brass, this downhome song not only stayed in his book but became one of his most popular songs—Wills's performance of it in the 1940 movie Take Me Back to Oklahoma certainly helped. Here the band dispenses with horns and shows off its guitar talent. But the real star is vocalist Tommy Duncan, who puts his stamp on this song with his confident, affable delivery. At a time when thousands of people from Tulsa, and elsewhere in Oklahoma, had moved to other parts of the U.S. in search of stable employment, this song must have reminded many of them of the life they left behind. You can still pick up those sweet longings in this music today.

January 17, 2009 · 1 comment


Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: Take the 'A' Train

Just take the A Train, if you want to get to a hoedown in a hurry. . .

On the Tiffany Transcriptions, which capture Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys on a series of post-WWII radio broadcasts, the band goes beyond its "Western Swing" stylings and shows off the full range of its repertoire, covering signature songs from Count Basie, Benny Goodman and this swing tune from Duke Ellington's orchestra. This is a lighthearted version of "Take the 'A' Train" with hoots and hollers and a running commentary from Mr. Wills, who comes across like the caller at a square dance. Like many of the Tiffany tracks, this one emphasizes the strings to good effect, and the end result is like a cowboy version of Django's band, an expanded Quintette du Hot Club de Texas. I didn't know the New York subway line went that far, but this is one ride that's worth an extra token.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson: Can Country Music and Jazz Peacefully Co-Exist?

Today Blue Note releases an unusual collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson. The CD, entitled Two Men With the Blues, represents a unique moment in both artists’ careers, and spurs some reflection on the rich history of jazz-and-country collaborations.

Cowboy jazz

Well, to be honest, this history is not very rich. Jazz and country stars rarely meet up – not in the saddle, not in the saloon, and certainly not in the recording studio. You probably never really considered Willie Nelson a likely Blue Note recording artist. Close your eyes and try to picture Willie hanging out with Rudy Van Gelder in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Nope, I can’t either.

But don’t underestimate Mr. Nelson, who has made a career out of breaking through stereotypes and genre clichés. Check out his “almost lost” reggae sessions or his recording of Gospel Favorites to get an idea of this artist’s willingness to stake out new territory. Of course, Nelson’s Stardust is one of the best selling albums of American popular song standards ever recorded.

There are a small number of happy precedents for the Marsalis-Nelson collaboration. Back in 1930, Louis Armstrong got together with country legend-in-the-making Jimmie Rodgers to record a memorable blues. This song, a rarity in both artists’ discographies, is especially noteworthy for Armstrong’s decision to play an under-stated solo that reminds us of the work of his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver. Rodgers, for his part, was an effective blues singer . . . and could yodel much better than Bessie Smith. This collaboration promised a glorious future for the union of jazz and country.

Cowboy jazz

Ah, that promise has rarely been realized in later years. Listen to Bing Crosby tackle “The Last Roundup” three years later, and it's hard to keep a straight face. (To give Crosby his due, he did a better job with country songs in other settings.) Most of the leading jazz singers simply avoided material of this sort. The vocalist with the greatest potential to bridge the worlds of jazz and country, Ray Charles, never really committed to either camp, although he lingered in both. Charles’s personal reinvention of country music shows how African-American currents could invigorate the Nashville sound, yet his work in this vein stands out mostly as a curio in the annals of American musical history.

Cowboy jazz

The single most promising movement to merge country and jazz remains the Western Swing craze of the 1940s. Bob Wills “New San Antonio Rose,” from the start of the decade, was a million seller, and inspired follow-up hits by Wills and a host of imitators. This style effortlessly blended down-home fiddlin’ with big band swingin’, and with so much success that exciting new developments seemed just around the corner. If big band jazz could merge with country music, what about country hard bop or Nashville cool jazz or other hybrids of this sort? Western Swing pointed to an exciting new union between the jazz and country traditions -- something more than just a passing fad or short-lived novelty sound.

Yet this style faded from the scene during the Truman administration. No, not completely . . . its lingering influence can still be occasionally felt in a later recording. But, for all intents and purposes, its promise of a world-changing détente between two very different musical styles was never completely realized.

Cowboy jazz

By the time Louis Armstrong recreated his Jimmie Rodgers collaboration forty years later, on October 28, 1970, with Johnny Cash (you can watch it on video here), things had hardly progressed much beyond where they stood back in 1930. The 1970s would prove to be a great period of jazz fusion, but the fusion would be with rock and not country. Yet one wonders what might have happened if Miles had concocted Bitches Moonshine instead of Bitches Brew; if John McLaughlin had moved to Nashville for a year; or if Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter had invited Chet Atkins to join Weather Report. (Okay, I'm kidding . . . but not entirely.)

Now we have one more intriguing collaboration between jazz and country, with the most famous exponent of each style stepping forward to share the same stage. The results are . . . surprisingly entertaining, and very relaxed. Hearing Nelson and Marsalis together is “good fun” (as my British friends would say). And as some of you may remember, I have long been an advocate of the “Fun Principle” in jazz (see my more philosophical comments on the subject here). There are no hidden agendas, or unhidden agendas here – just two artists letting loose and having a good time. And that, after all, was the starting point for both the jazz and country traditions. It only got heavier and heavier with the weight of the passing decades.

Too bad this CD didn’t come out in time for Fourth of July. I would have recommended it for the holiday BBQ. But it’s never too late for fun. With that in mind, “Stardust,” from the new Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson CD, has been selected as the Song of the Day at Read the full review here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

July 08, 2008 · 4 comments


Bing Crosby: The Last Roundup

Despite his enormous fame, Bing Crosby has still never received the recognition he deserves as a jazz singer. He has sometimes been called "the first hip white person" -- a not inappropriate label. But Bing's credentials as a cowpoke are less credible. His delivery of "Git 'long little dogies" on "The Last Roundup" sounds like it was delivered by an Ivy Leaguer in a tweed coat with patches on both elbows. Crosby tried his hand at down-home fare many times during his career, and sometimes with reasonable results. (He does a decent "Home on the Range" and an acceptable "Clementine.") But don't let the cattle hear this song . . . they might stampede!

July 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: New San Antonio Rose

Musical schizophrenia . . . the first four bars sound like a big band record from the Swing Era; then we make a sudden U-Turn into down-home cowboy music. But at the end of the intro we switch back to jazz. Welcome to the crazy world of Western Swing! Yet this record sold a million copies and made Bob Wills into a national star. For a time, Western Swing was a big money-maker . . . and Wills needed a bundle of cash to support a touring band that sometimes boasted as many as 23 members. In truth, he needed to have the equivalent of two bands -- a country unit and a jazz ensemble -- to pull off this strange hybrid. But even jazz cats paid attention. (Bing Crosby quickly released a cover of this song which scored even better on the charts than Wills' version.)

Western swing never really disappeared, but its force as a commercial style was mostly exhausted by the late 1940s. Wills, for his part, had only one top ten hit after 1950. Yet for a short period, jazz and country seemed to have found a fertile meeting ground. One wonders what prodigies might have seen light of day if later jazz players had focused on jazz-country fusion with the same energy that they brought to, say, jazz-rock fusion. We will never know. But at least we still have the Texas Playboys to give us a glimpse of how cool and swingin' cowboys could get.

July 08, 2008 · 1 comment


Jimmie Rodgers & Louis Armstrong: Blue Yodel #9

Can jazz and country music coexist? If these two divergent styles of music ever find a happily-ever-after relationship, they can look back nostalgically at this first serious date. Certainly there were sparks in the air when Louis Armstrong joined Jimmie Rodgers in a Hollywood recording studio back in 1930. Armstrong was then the most exciting trumpeter on the planet -- it's a shame his recordings from the early 1930s are not better known. Jimmie Rodgers was 32 years old and at the peak of his abilities, too -- his yodeling blues performance here is first rate; yet he would be dead less than three years later, a victim of tuberculosis. In a all-too-brief career, Rodgers would change American music and earn his reputation as "the Father of Country Music." But there is another 'Pops' on this date, and he surprises us on his solo. Instead of the pyrotechnics and high-note hi-jinks, characteristic of his work at this time, Armstrong digs back into a King Oliver bag, reminding us of his New Orleans mentor's classic "Dippermouth Blues" solo from 1923. How odd that one of Armstrong's truest evocations of the old New Orleans style would take place on a country music recording. Louis no doubt wanted to avoid a grandstanding solo that might usurp the spotlight from the singer. Yet this understated contribution still risks stealing the show. What a strange and beautiful moment in 20th-century music!

July 08, 2008 · 3 comments


Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis: Basin Street Blues

Wynton Marsalis's credentials as an exponent of New Orleans jazz are well known. But Willie Nelson sounds like he has spent a fair amount of time on "Basin Street" too. His relaxed, behind-the-beat delivery is very jazzy, and the whole band gets into the mood on this track. I am favorably impressed by Mickey Raphael's harmonica contribution here, and elsewhere on this live date. But Marsalis threatens to steal the show with his stop-time solo. I wish he had taken another chorus, or maybe two or three. In short, this meeting of the reigning monarchs of jazz and country turns out to be a celebration of mutual respect and brotherly love. Visitors to Basin Street today are often surprised to see monuments to Simón Bolívar, Benito Juárez and Francisco Morazán. Maybe it's time to add Willie and Wynton to the mix.

July 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis: Stardust

This Hoagy Carmichael song may be a venerable jazz standard, but country star Willie Nelson has recorded a version that has probably outsold all the covers by living jazz artists put together. Yet Wynton Marsalis is no stranger to this territory, having put his own mark on this song in previous studio and live dates. (Check out a memorable version here.) But can these two visions of "Stardust" coexist in the same galaxy? I am happy to report that no destructive supernova resulted, although the gravitational pull in contrary directions must have been palpable on the stage when these two stars crossed paths. I'm not sure whether a 20-something Wynton would have known how to match up with Willie Nelson to such good effect, but it is a sign of his maturity as an artist that he fits so comfortably into this setting, supporting his illustrious guest visitor to Jazz at Lincoln Center, while also making such a strong statement of his own musical principles. This is a fun and fanciful performance proving that country cousins and city slickers can, at least for a brief interlude, make beautiful music together.

July 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Frank Macchia: Down in the Valley

Frank Macchia likes the old songs, and I'm not talking about George Gershwin and Cole Porter. I mean the really old songs, like "Shenandoah" and "Sidewalks of New York." Half of the tracks on his new Landscapes CD are in the public domain. (Sorry ASCAP and BMI!) But Macchia dresses up these old melodies in cool jazz garb. By the time he is done with "Down in the Valley," it has been transformed into a 6/8 blues, reminiscent of "All Blues" with a dose of Getz's Focus. Macchia's orchestral writing is excellent, and he avoids the risk (ever present with songs such as "Down in the Valley") of falling into empty Copland-esque flourishes or unconscious mimicry of Western film soundtracks. Macchia's last CD Emotions garnered a Grammy nomination, and he looks to have another winner with this release.

January 28, 2008 · 0 comments


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