Hank Jones & Oliver Jones: What Am I Here For?

I am just pleased that the label didn't go for a cornier joke in the title. Have You Met Mr. Jones? Me and Mr. Jones? Keeping Up with the Joneses? After all, these are serious artists and among the eldest of the elder statesmen, the venerable Hank, a month shy of his 90th birthday when he made this recording, and the relative youngster Oliver, a spry 74-years-old at the time. The newcomer here is the song, a fine Ellington composition from his great early 1940s band which deserves to be heard more often. Matching up two jazz pianists is not always a smart idea. Twenty fingers can stir up plenty of commotion, and create murky new chord voicings that, like the sweet melodies in Keats's poem, are better left unheard. But when two gentlemen of the keys with such taste meet up, no clash and clang disrupts the proceedings. The Montreal native Oliver is up first here, followed by Detroit's finest Hank, and if there is any competition here, it is to see who can swing most effectively with the rhythm section. The Canadian entry is a bit more forceful, while the Motor Town alternative shines with a sweet touch. Call it a dead heat, and put it on a second time. What else are we here for?

October 26, 2009 · 0 comments


Charles Brown: I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)

Brown was one of the originators of the West Coast lounge or club blues style that was patterned after Nat Cole, but bluesier and certainly sadder and even a bit mournful at times. With his smooth, stretched-out vocal phrasing and hip, refined piano, Brown could really get under your skin. After a string of hits from the mid '40's to the early '50's, rock n' roll put Brown's mellow delivery on the back burner. Thanks to the PBS documentary All That Rhythm and Those Blues, and the encouragement and support of Bonnie Raitt and guitarist Danny Caron, Brown's career finally saw a major revivial in the "90's, resulting in numerous recordings and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation prior to his death in 1999. The best thing about many of his later albums may have been that they put an equal spotlight on his underrated, or certainly underappreciated, skill as a pianist.

For example, Brown recorded eye-opening solo piano versions of "Round Midnight" and "One Mint Julep" on a 1992 release (Blues and Other Love Songs), and this fascinating vocal-piano rendition of "I Got It Bad" on his 1994 These Blues. Brown's brief intro more than hints at a phrase from Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare." He then plays the theme with a blues-drenched sound and a semi-stride tempo. His attack, voicings, and overall emotional compass during his solo recall Mary Lou Williams as much as anyone. When Brown finally starts to sing, it's apparent that the resigned lyrics fit his sly, downcast vocal expressiveness to a tee. From this point on, his vocalizing alternates with more upbeat piano breaks (similar in mood to his comping), presenting an ingratiating contrast. Brown's purred handling of the words "My gal and me / we gin some / embrace some / and we sin some" is unbeatable, but then so is his eloquent keyboard work. If he'd never sung a note in his life, the classically trained Brown could still have easily succeeded as just a jazz/blues pianist.

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Oscar Peterson: C Jam Blues

In a sense, Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” is the jazz equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Both pieces are based on a pair of pitches, but the miracle is how much music is created from those two pitches. Oscar Peterson’s version of “C Jam Blues” is from his LP Night Train, and like the title track of that album, Peterson makes an arrangement for his trio rather than just blowing through a few choruses of blues and going on the next tune. The arrangement is rather modest, since Peterson solos through the entire track save for an 8-bar intro by Ray Brown. Peterson incorporates Ellington’s original 4-bar breaks at the start of his first four choruses (which is actually two more than we really needed—the effect gets a little tiresome). After a couple of choruses of straight playing, he incorporates a shout chorus figure which is quickly picked up by Thigpen. Peterson takes two more solo choruses then goes back to the tune, played first in block chords and then in single notes.

September 01, 2009 · 0 comments


Charles Mingus: C Jam Blues

Jazz composers usually bring their most polished and ambitious scores when they are invited to play at Carnegie Hall. Not Charles Mingus. He organized the loosest, most free-wheeling jam on the simplest changes for his January 1974 concert, and I'm confident no one demanded their money back after the show.

When the back room cutting contests are translated to the concert hall, they usually come across as hollow and staged, lacking the spontaneity that is essential to these kinds of performances. But not on this track, which ranks among the finest recorded jam sessions in the jazz annals. Handy starts out hot, and sets the bar high for the following soloists with a 15-chorus excursion over blues changes. Hamiet Bluiett takes a few steps outside the changes, but George Adams makes the plunge with an ear-scorcher of a solo that is a panzer attack on the authority of the tonal center. You may think that there is nowhere else to go at this point, but then Rahsaan Roland Kirk steals the show by dipping into Adams' own bag and playing it better than Adams himself. And that is just the appetizer for a whirlwind solo of heroic proportions. . .

If you had any doubt that this was a real cutting contest, the blood on the reeds should dispel any doubts. Rahsaan was notorious for these kinds of in-your-face attacks. Two years before this concert, he had pulled off a similar stunt at a Radio City Music Hall event amidst a high profile cast that included Dexter Gordon and Zoot Sims. "Rahsaan could be competitive," Steve Turre has commented. "Don't mess with him at a jam session because he didn't play just one way. He could shift gears on you and take it in another direction. He could destroy people at a jam sessions if they tried to get competitive."

Faddis and McPherson try to pick up the pieces and bring some decorum back to the blues. But by the time you get to the end of this 24 minute track, all hell has broken loose. C Jam Blues is done broke and don't wanna to go back to the key of C no more. Yet I'm sure the composer, who always brought his big scores to this hall, would have been on his feet screaming and clapping along with everyone else.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments


James Newton: Cotton Tail

James Newton's tribute album to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, The African Flower, is memorable largely because, as did Ellington, Newton wisely used musicians with distinctly individual sounds to help make his arrangements both personalized and unique. You might say that altoist Arthur Blythe is Newton's Johnny Hodges, cornetist Olu Dara his Bubber Miley or Cootie Williams, and violinist John Blake his Ray Nance, with Sir Roland Hanna at times simulating the Maestro at the piano. On top of this, Newton's own vibrant flute and Jay Hoggard's incisive vibes add instrumental colors rarely present in the Ellington harmonic palette.

"Cotton Tail" was introduced in 1940 by the celebrated Jimmy Blanton-Ben Webster edition of Ellington's orchestra, and featured Webster's famous tenor solo and a riveting unison interlude for the saxophone section. The combination of Rick Rozie's persistent bass line and Hanna's spiky keyboard clusters precede the ensemble's theme reading, with Newton and Blythe energetically splitting the bridge. Blythe's extravagant solo is pumped by Rozie's race-walking bass, playing the Blanton role. The altoist's wide vibrato accentuates the high-pitched squeals and shrieks that pepper the many riffs and subtexts that he succeeds in assembling into a coherent whole over the composition's "I Got Rhythm" changes. Hoggard and Hanna follow in a sparkling duet that gravitates from call-and-response mode to contrapuntal engagement, with modernistic Hanna here sounding very little like Duke. Newton's flute solo is one of his best on record in a straight-ahead, no-frills context, his marvelous tone and ample technique bringing to life his inventive, lucidly streaming lines. The theme's recurrence ignites brisk fills from Blythe and Newton, and then a concluding exultant flurry from the band.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Louis Jordan: Take The A Train

Louis Jordan, one of the original creators of R & B and a key influence on the development of rock 'n roll, is best remembered today for his irrepressible vocals on such '40's hits as "Caldonia," "Saturday Night Fish Fry," "Let the Good Times Roll," and "Five Guys Named Moe." But look past Jordan's jump band jive and you can't help but admire his alto saxophone playing, so swinging, piercing, and zestful. Let's not forget that he honed both his alto and vocal skills with Chick Webb's orchestra before breaking through on his own in the '40's with his Tympany Five. He was as much a jazz musician as an R & B or blues performer, and considered himself to be such.

Less than two years before his death in 1975, the then 65-year-old Jordan recorded this instrumental version of "Take the A Train" at a session in Paris, a track that was not released until the CD reissue in 1992. Listening to it, one wonders what Duke Ellington's orchestra might have sounded like with Jordan in the sax section and as a featured soloist (and singer!). The theme is taken at standard Ellington pace and harmony between Jordan's alto and Irv Cox's tenor, while Duke Burrell lays down some Dukish chords and phrases. Jordan enters his solo with a clarion call before suavely gliding through a series of interconnected and engagingly bluesy riffs, motifs, and exuberant shouts. His trades with drummer Archie Taylor are a little one-sided, as Taylor seems to be a better timekeeper than improviser. Burrell's fills during the horns' hearty reprise even top those of the pianist at the beginning of the piece, adding to the reverent authenticity pervading this small group treatment.

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Warm Valley

The sensuous, reverent "Warm Valley" was originally introduced by Duke Ellington as a feature for Johnny Hodges' alto, and has rarely been covered by pianists over the years. Playing solo, Williams interprets it memorably here. (See review on jazz.com of Earl Hines' performance, one of the other notable exceptions.) This is Jessica Williams the reflective balladeer, the other side of the often more uninhibited, effusive player. Those two sides complete an unbeatable master of jazz piano.

Williams' short intro is both glowing and majestic, and the same can be said for her treatment of the theme, highlighted by her clarion touch, gradational ornamentations, and a hypnotically serene and soothing pace. Some of her twittering arpeggios bear the stamp of both Ellington and Monk's pianistics, and a bluesy ambiance quite effectively and subtly pervades one of her choruses. However, it is the striking immediacy of her open-hearted articulation that is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this glorious interpretation, so fully captured by recording engineers David Baker and Ed Reed.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Solitude

"Solitude," which Ellington wrote in just 20 minutes under deadline pressure, was a key component of Duke's playlist from 1934 up to his death in 1974, when Ella Fitzgerald sang it movingly at his funeral. The tune has, of course, lived on to this day, but in the wrong hands can sound overly sentimental or wooden. Williams' version, on the other hand, seems at times to open up the standard to new possibilities, while also remaining refreshingly in the tradition. "Higher Standards" indeed, as Williams' first all-standards CD is entitled.

Williams begins unaccompanied and rubato, with headlong runs and filigreed arpeggios. Upon introducing the melody, she heartily embellishes it, going into stride mode for good measure. When Captein and Brown make their first entry, Williams reenters the theme with a quickly passing allusion to "Four" by Miles Davis, before briefly adopting Ellington's keyboard style, only to surge off into an up-tempo solo that we can imagine Duke would have "loved madly." The pianist's two-handed swing-fest contains blues-tinged angularity, technically impressive parallel lines drawn from her early classical training, her always welcome block chords, and intriguing left-hand adornments. Williams' exchanges with Brown delve into stride and Monkish inflections, and even include a quote from "Exactly Like You." The out-chorus is a take-no-prisoners romp that unexpectedly evokes Count Basie in its very last notes.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Johnny Hodges: Medley – I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart / Don't Get Around Much Any More

This medley of two Ellington classics is a real delight of superb jazz playing. "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" uses Harry Carney on baritone sax for the lead playing, which makes for an interesting and somewhat unusual tone and musical texture to carry the melodic theme. Carney employs that rich, deep-toned baritone sax sound to wonderful effect, with an excellent rhythmic sense, on this much-loved hit song of Ellington from the late 1930s. Ray Nance adds a fine, creative solo on open trumpet. The all-star group provides excellent backing.

The medley transitions nicely into "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," which has one of Ellington's most memorable and delightful melodies. (It also has marvelous lyrics that speak so well to the experience and heart of so many people, though they aren't sung here.) Johnny Hodges opens this part of the medley with a simply sublime statement of the melodic theme, developing into creative variations. His playing here, as on "Everybody Knows" and "310 Blues" from the same 1964 Hodges-led recording session, show that his famous sumptuous tone, style, and bluesy feeling on alto sax were, if anything, even richer 36 years after he began playing with the Ellington band. A trombone break by Lawrence Brown adds a rich-toned dimension.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Greg Osby: The Single Petal of a Rose

For St. Louis Shoes, Greg Osby imaginatively scaled down for a quintet the orchestral arrangement of "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," and in opposite fashion brilliantly expanded upon the usual solo piano or piano-bass formats of "The Single Petal of a Rose." Duke Ellington, the composer of each, would probably have admired these two Osby tracks for both their conception and execution. "The Single Petal of a Rose" was part of Duke's Queen's Suite, which he recorded at his own expense in 1959, gifting the one and only pressing to Queen Elizabeth herself. The general public never heard it until the Suite's release on Norman Granz's Pablo label in 1976.

Osby imparts "The Single Petal of a Rose" with a satisfying fullness it could never quite attain as a Debussy-like piano miniature. Osby's lustrous alto takes the lead with Robert Hurst's long-toned arco bass, Harold O'Neal's shimmering piano arpeggios, and Rodney Green's delicate cymbal work adding agreeable depth to the recitation. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton then handles the bridge with great open-hearted feeling. Osby next skillfully deconstructs the theme with an emphasis on fluttering asides. Payton follows suit with a lyrical alteration of the bridge, before giving way to O'Neal's rhapsodic piano improv that hints only slightly at Ellington's pianistic style in some of its ornamental voicings. Osby and Payton return to engage in some warmly developed counterpoint, capped by the altoist's reprise of the melody while the trumpeter offers well-chosen embellishments. The ending can be characterized as a rather abrupt diminuendo, leaving the listener pleased but wanting more.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Oscar Peterson: Night Train

In a recent interview, Diana Krall said that Oscar Peterson’s Night Train was the album that made her want to be a jazz pianist and specifically made her want to play with Ray Brown. That Ms. Krall achieved those goals and much more only adds to this album’s merits. Peterson seemed to hit commercial and artistic peaks at the same time, and the early sixties was one of those periods. The trio got tighter and more musical as the pressure for larger album sales increased from Verve, and sometimes the results were of the best trio in jazz playing dumbed-down songs to attract more listeners. While the worst offender was We Get Requests, Night Train has received its share of critical brickbats. However, the performance of the tune “Night Train” may be evidence that Peterson could balance the two factions without compromising either side.

Since “Night Train” is a blues, it would have been simple enough to just blow through a few choruses and call it done. But Peterson devised a marvelous arrangement instead, one so subtle that it’s easily missed by casual listeners. After the opening theme choruses, Peterson slips into a 2-chorus solo. Then the theme returns, and we realize that all the while, the band has gotten softer and softer. This leads into Brown’s solo, which is unaccompanied to start, and then adds, in turn, Peterson and Thigpen. When Peterson comes in for another chorus of solo, everything starts to build again. Peterson plays a boogie figure in the bass to build the intensity, and then the trio plays a simple but effective shout chorus and then goes back to the theme with a strong crescendo to nearly the end, with a traditional Count Basie tag to close the track. By using the basic elements of crescendo and diminuendo, and arranged sections to set off the parts, Peterson turns what could have been a throwaway into a minor masterpiece.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Sophie Duner: Caravan

In an industry looking for the next superstar cash cow, most singers have to become howling divas, pulsating hotties or angst-riddled yodelers in order to gain wide recognition. How many gifted musicians and singers get lost in the shuffle due to lack of funding or connections or are simply dismissed out of hand because they don't fit comfortably into an established genre? We will never know. Emerging artists in Europe may have an easier time of it, and seem to have a more receptive audience, along with a nurturing creative environment encouraging exploration and experimentation. Case in point: Swedish singer, composer and overall musical auteur Sophie Dunér. This remarkable talent wears many hats, including painter, poet and arranger. Known primarily for her bold modern classical-oriented vocal numbers backed by string quartet or orchestra, she is a prime example of this new wave of "culturanauts," hurtling over commercial barriers and breaking down conceptual doors.

Here Dunér demonstrates her range and flexibility by taking the reins of an Ellington favorite and driving it down the road less traveled. Backed by a surprisingly powerful New York-based acoustic trio, her sultry, controlled delivery and superb phrasing never sound contrived or forced. Guitarist Rory Stuart holds things together with judicious chord voicing and lean, well-constructed solo lines above Matt Penman's driving pulse and the explosive percussion work of Kahlil Kwame Bell.

Sophie Dunér may not be Ella, but her "Caravan" delivers the goods across the frontiers of what is increasingly becoming a wilderness of uncharted musical territory.

March 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Greg Osby: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo

Duke Ellington gave two differing explanations for the derivation of the title "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," his theme song for many years before "Take the 'A' Train." He told Stanley Dance that the title grew out of a sign the band would pass on the road while touring New England, "LEWANDO CLEANERS," which would inspire them to sing, "Oh, Lee-wan-do!" However, he also once wrote that the title concerned the "old Negroes who work in the fields year upon year," and at the end of the day walk home "with a broken, limping step locally known as the 'Toddle-O'."

For Greg Osby, the title simply reminded him of his teenage years in St. Louis, when he would cross the bridge on weekends to play R&B and funk in the after-hours joints of East St. Louis. His reinterpretation of Ellington's early classic mixes the traditional with the modern, as Nicholas Payton's brash New Orleans sound hints at Bubber Miley and Cat Anderson, while Osby's cool angularity rests squarely in the 21st century. Osby and Payton play the brooding, rather sinister-sounding theme, with Payton taking the expected trumpet lead. Bassist Robert Hurst bows the next section unaccompanied before Payton's choppily exultant hard bop-styled solo. Osby prances through an inviting improvisation that features short bursting phrases and cascading runs, his tone unquestionably more out of Dolphy than of Hodges. Osby's fresh, provocative arrangement, even with its fairly free contrapuntal interlude for alto and trumpet, still partially preserves the tuba-banjo oompah vibe of the 1927 recording, as Hurst's arco bass creates a resonantly deep foundation.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Lee Konitz & Albert Mangelsdorff: Creole Love Call

Notwithstanding their obvious differences, Lee Konitz and Albert Mangelsdorff have much in common. One is American, the other German; one plays a slow low instrument, the other a fast high one. But they were born hardly a year apart and, each on his respective side of the Atlantic, followed nearly parallel paths: fascination for Louis Armstrong, love of Lester Young and his melodic way of improvising, and interest in Lennie Tristano's ideas as an alternative to overwhelming bebop. Of course, Chicago-born Konitz was in the heart of things while Mangelsdorff got the information with some delay in Cologne, where he adapted Tristano-school phrasing to his trombone.

No wonder that when they first met in 1968 on an LP entitled ZO-KO-MA ("ZO" being Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller) to play mostly Tristano-inspired music, they felt like brothers who'd had the same teacher. Fifteen years later, Konitz and Mangelsdorff dig even deeper into their common bag and tackle an Ellington tune of the "jungle" period. And what can better do the jungle thing than Manglesdorff's trombone, with its deep, ever-melodic growls stuffed with his trademark multiphonics?

Konitz's alto flies like a bird over the trombone's thick carpet of sound. He phrases the melody in a totally relaxed way, clustering notes or playing long ones without ever giving the impression that he quickens or slows down. When Mangelsdorff gets hold of the melody, he presents it in a slightly more extroverted way, putting forward its blues aspects, while Konitz plays a quiet descant. In other words, this interpretation is based on an intelligent use of their instrumental differences, building on the contrast between their sound, phrasing, timbre and approach. Just like some haute cuisine dish mixing hot and cold, rough and soft, sweet and sour … to the utter delight of our aural taste buds.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Mulgrew Miller: Caravan

A full 10 years after its recording, The Duets, produced as a promotional CD for Bang & Olufsen, had still not been released commercially. The music salutes Duke Ellington, with 10 of 12 tunes composed by him. "Caravan" is a dazzling performance as Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen supports pianist Mulgrew Miller with an unbelievable virtuosic ostinato bass figure during the A-parts of the theme. The tempo is fast, making it all the more incredible that every note stands distinct in the sound picture. Throughout, NHØP plays with infectious drive and swing, both as accompanist and as soloist, which inspires Miller to great heights as well. A classic performance.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments


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