McCoy Tyner: Searchin'

During a period when McCoy Tyner was playing and recording full time with John Coltrane, the pianist also found time to appear on many other memorable sessions, including an album of Duke Ellington covers. On this laid-back number, Tyner is in top form. The bluesy structure gives Tyner the perfect excuse to swing. He combines wonderfully timed blues lines with his well-known cascading melodic lines. Latin percussion is a welcome addition to this already amazing Coltrane-less trio of Tyner, Garrison and Jones. From this point on, Tyner would continue to release highly received solo albums, besides making significant contributions to albums by Wayne Shorter, adding further to the seeds planted on this recording.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Abdullah Ibrahim: In a Sentimental Mood

Ibrahim enjoyed the rare distinction, back in the early 1960s, of having his career take flight under the sponsorship of Duke Ellington. Here he returns the favor by interpreting one of Ellington's best known songs. But this track is a disappointment. The piano sound is murky, and though the recording engineer bears some responsibility, Ibrahim's pedaling and piano touch also contribute to the problem. Throughout this CD, and especially on this track, Ibrahim relies on a fractured rubato. Again and again, he hits a chord at the start of the bar, adds a very concise right hand phrase—the phrases here rarely cross the barline, as though it were some insurmountable obstacle—then the sounds die out while Ibrahim pauses to consider his follow-up move. Eventually the next bar starts, with another chord and another phrase stumbles out of the starting gate, only to fall to the ground before reaching the finish line. To add to the austere sensibility, Ibrahim has excised most of the recognizable elements from Ellington's original composition. There is neither much sentiment nor mood in this version of "Sentimental Mood." Some of the harmonic textures are interesting, but there is not enough substance here for them to cohere into anything substantial.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


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


Paul Whiteman: Blue Belles of Harlem

Paul Whiteman's final "Experiment in Modern Music" featured Artie Shaw, Whiteman's large orchestra, and a lot of new music written by old friends (Ferde Grofé) and new ones. Whiteman commissioned six composers to write pieces based on bells to be combined into a suite. Besides Ellington, contributions were made by Bert Shefter, Walter Gross, Fred Van Epps, Roy Bargy and Morton Gould. "Pops" took these concerts seriously (he was always hoping to discover a work comparable to Rhapsody in Blue, the standout of the first experiment back in 1924), and by including Ellington, Whiteman clearly believed Duke to be an important composer. As it turned out, "Blue Belles of Harlem" (aka "Blue Belle of Harlem") is a minor work at best; notice the spelling of "belles" not as noisemakers but as young women, a singularly Ellingtonian touch. A lead sheet of the piece was given to arranger Fred Van Epps to prepare for Whiteman's mammoth orchestra, and Charlie Teagarden, Al Gallodoro (one of the most technically amazing musicians of the 20th century), Miff Mole, Jack Teagarden and Sal Franzella are all heard playing bluesy written and improvised short statements at one time or another. (Whiteman certainly featured his all-star musicians at these concerts.) The piece would be substantially reworked by Billy Strayhorn into a mini-concerto for Ellington's piano and orchestra for the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert when Black, Brown and Beige was premiered.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Bobby Watson: Isfahan

Since 1987 was the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, Bobby Watson decided to assemble a 9-piece band for a tribute to the "Rabbit" himself, Johnny Hodges, which was recorded live at Cobi Narita's hospitable loft (now defunct) known as the Jazz Center of New York. The performance of the evocative Hodges feature "Isfahan," named after the Iranian city, was one of the evening's highlights. Utilizing an arrangement similar to the original from Ellington/Strayhorn's acclaimed Far East Suite, Watson alters his usual easily identifiable piercing tone to sound instead eerily like Hodges, a sign of respect for the great altoist, although a more personal approach might have worked just as well or even better. In any case, the Dukish voicings of the other horns, and Mulgrew Miller's Ellington-inspired piano embellishments, are gracefully executed as Watson tenderly plays the opening and closing readings of the theme. Even Watson's fills possess Hodges's characteristic economy and subtle punch. There are no solos to disrupt the prevailing sweet-tempered mood, nor are any needed.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Ernie Andrews: Don't You Know I Care

Ernie Andrews was part of the vibrant Central Avenue jazz scene in Los Angeles during the 1940s, which he and other talking (and singing) heads discuss in the 1989 documentary Blues for Central Avenue. His high school classmates included Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards, and while he had a couple of minor hit records early on, stardom eluded him despite recording with Benny Carter's orchestra in the '50s and Cannonball Adderley in the '60s. He began a comeback of sorts in the '80s, and 1992's No Regrets offers one of the better overviews of both his ballad and blues shouting styles.

"Don't You Know I Care" was introduced by Al Hibbler in 1944. Mance's winsome intro sets the stage for Andrews's authoritative and assured, drawn-out initial query: "Dontcha know ... I care ... or don't you care to know?" His voice seems to embody the best qualities of Hibbler, Big Joe Turner and Billy Eckstine, although Andrews himself cited Billy Daniels and Herb Jeffries as major influences. Person's obbligatos, as well as Mance, Drummond and Carvin's sensitive, unobtrusive support, help make this an essential Andrews track, not to mention the successive soulful improvisations by Person, Drummond and Mance. It is Andrews, however, who keeps the listener enthralled with his velvety smooth, naturally expressive delivery, down-to-earth yet sophisticated. A polished pro, who's still going strong today in his 80s.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Jerome Richardson: Warm Valley

Jerome Richardson was one of the best and most successful musicians on the New York scene during the last golden age of the recording industry. He combined a studio musician's versatility and professionalism with a jazzman's flexibility and intuition. In addition to being a recognized heavyweight among jazz flutists, he was seemingly the only saxophonist capable of playing first-rate jazz on all four saxes, from soprano to baritone, sounding like a specialist on each. His skills on the soprano inspired its use by Thad Jones, and thus Jerome can also be said to have indirectly had a huge impact on contemporary jazz arranging.

Jerome's baritone style combined a bebop-oriented harmonic conception with articulation and tone quality derived from Harry Carney. Though the Carney connection is thrown into bold relief by the selection of this Ellington masterpiece as a baritone feature, Jerome is totally his own man here. His sound employs a well-balanced combination of warmth and edge, and his articulation is crystal-clear in all registers, with none of the tubbiness that usually afflicts players who double on baritone. His solo is masterfully constructed, and his double-timing is fluent and always musical. His ability to combine boppish fluency with Ellingtonian warmth is beautiful to hear. Richard Wyands is his usual warmly lyrical self as both accompanist and soloist.

December 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Sun Ra Arkestra: Prelude to a Kiss

As it turns out, a rather strange, indefinable period in jazz history that lasted from the mid- to late '80s allowed for Sun Ra, one of its oddest, most indefinable characters, to come into greater view. But it wasn't simply a matter of timing that slightly but certainly widened Ra's fan base (or made some of his detractors loathe him a little less). Without ever sacrificing his complete and utter individuality, Ra definitely increased the accessibility factor come the 1970s and '80s – teaching a class at UC Berkeley, becoming a visible presence in his Philadelphia hometown, and incorporating classic jazz standards into his live repertoire. A prime example of a Ra-reinvented track is Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," recorded at Tokyo's Pit-In. Ra's deft stride piano and playful yet respectful arrangement prove that as far out in the cosmos as you get in the big band world, you're never more than a step from the Duke.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments


Tuck & Patti: In a Sentimental Mood

Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart met thirty years ago (through the intercession of my old bandmate Michael Stillman), and soon found their musical bliss in the relatively untapped format of jazz guitar and vocal duets. Fast forward three decades and this pair is still working as a twosome, and remain committed to the American popular song tradition. Not much has changed with their music but, frankly, who wants to tinker with such a winning formula? Tuck Andress is a brilliant guitarist who needs no bass and drums to anchor his efforts. The under-produced sound of this release is the perfect setting to appreciate his artistry. Here he hints at Duke Ellington's accompaniment to John Coltrane from their famous recording of this tune; but he also adds some bluesy touches of his own invention. Patti Cathcart continues to delight with her sweet, soulful voice. For music fans, Tuck & Patti are still a match made in jazz heaven.

October 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Rachael Price: Mood Indigo

So we're sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen table, me and TheWife. There's a large (but recently shrinking) pile of unopened review material sitting between us. I pop one fresh CD into my laptop and give bits and pieces of it a secret listen (earbuds can save a marriage, I tell you).

While I'm reading the liner notes, "that" look passes over TheWife's face. She has apparently noticed the photo of Rachael Price on the back of the digipack. So as to dissuade the notion that I'm in this purely for the pretty faces, I unplug the my earphones and let the voice drift into the room. Yes, she had to admit that there's definitely something going on there.

And so there is. While I don't normally lean toward being a skeptic, it goes without saying that maybe the jazz world doesn't need another take on "Mood Indigo." No, it needs this one. She might be 23 years old, but her voice goes far, far beyond that. With echoes of both Abbey Lincoln and (gulp!) Amy Winehouse, I was just mesmerized.

September 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Oscar Peterson: Things Ain't What They Used to Be

Miles Davis once famously suggested that Oscar Peterson sounded like he had to learn how to play the blues. To which I reply: dang, he certainly learned 'em. There are flashier blues by Peterson available on the marketplace—for example, check out "Blues Etude" if you want fireworks. But this version of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" shows that this pianist could also play a more subdued blues. This is Oscar in a Basie vein, just strutting over the changes. Bassist Ray Brown does not solo, but you will be forgiven if you find yourself focusing on his walking lines, as reliable as Greenwich Mean Time, and much, much hipper. The piano trio has changed a lot since this band recorded Night Train, but this music is timeless.

September 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Earl Hines: Warm Valley

Duke Ellington introduced "Warm Valley" in 1940 as a feature for Johnny Hodges with the outstanding Ben Webster-Jimmy Blanton edition of Duke's orchestra. According to Rex Stewart, the tune was inspired by Duke's gazing at a range of hills from a train window: "Just look at that, it's a perfect replica of a female reclining in complete relaxation, so unashamedly exposing her warm valley."

Although Earl Hines first met Ellington in 1925, and was a close friend of Johnny Hodges, he never played "Warm Valley" until the day he recorded it in 1971. Hines laid down numerous Ellington compositions in four sessions between 1971 and 1975, but was very selective. Some of Duke's tunes were just too orchestral in nature, or too dependent on a particular soloist, or too harmonically complex to learn on short notice, or were rare examples of Duke's own intimate solo piano pieces and better left alone. While "Warm Valley" was a challenge, Hines – one of the most important and creative pianists in jazz history – more than perseveres, despite a slightly tentative start. A probing intro leads to emphatic chords and a provocative interpretation of the lilting melody. His darting runs, ringing tremolos, touches of stride, and intricate, almost acrobatic two-handed counterpoint, make for an enthralling combination. There is a starkness and refreshing unpredictability to his attack, and after the sudden introduction of a waltz tempo, his approach becomes more regal and densely orchestral. Then he returns to more linear overlapping phraseology and an intermingling of lines. Hines's amazing final chorus clearly shows how much he directly or indirectly influenced pianists such as Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Monk, and even Cecil Taylor. Magnificent, and accomplished in only one take! Hines's "trumpet-style" piano is timeless.

September 09, 2008 · 0 comments


McCoy Tyner: In a Sentimental Mood

Musicians today have little sense of the pressure on jazz artists to jump on board the Free Jazz bandwagon during the late 1960s and 1970s. It was leaving town, turbocharged by the inexorable force of History with a capital H, and you didn't want to be left behind, stuck with old-fashioned chord changes. ("Chord changes, we don't need no stinkin' chord changes.") McCoy Tyner had helped set the Free Jazz movement in motion with his 1960s work alongside John Coltrane, but the pianist mostly remained within the bounds of tonality during his post-Coltrane career. Yet even an artist of this stature wrestled with the conflict between staying inside or moving beyond the harmonies.

No Tyner performance is more revealing of this tension than his solo piano rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood" from the memorable Atlantis live date from the summer 1974. There are long stretches here where Cecil Taylor seems to have taken over the keyboard, buzzing and hammering and obliterating the tonal center. Then Ellington's beautiful pentatonic melody will rise above the fray, like some towering monument to structure and order. But Tyner eventually moves beyond these external influences, and constructs his own rhapsodic vision of this song. This music is intense and beautiful by turns, and some moments are absolutely breathtaking. Solo acoustic jazz piano was making a comeback during this decade under the influence of Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Cecil Taylor and others, but even in an era of keyboard masterpieces this track stands out from the crowd.

September 04, 2008 · 0 comments


McCoy Tyner: Prelude to a Kiss

From the start of his career, McCoy Tyner had a knack for Ellingtonia. A few months before he recorded Ascension with John Coltrane, Tyner undertook an entire project devoted to Ellington compositions for the Impulse label. He would continue to turn to Duke's songs in later years, and his live solo piano performance of "In a Sentimental Mood" from his 1974 Atlantis recording ranks among the high points of his work under the Milestone imprimatur. Three years later he tackled "Prelude to a Kiss" for his Supertrios session with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Tyner starts out with a fairly straight melody statement that emphasizes the lush harmonies of Duke's ballad, but his solo is a bit schizophrenic. Tyner launches into some of his trademark licks, almost as if he is trying to impose a modal sensibility on this non-modal song; but then after a couple of bars he pulls up and shifts back into a more traditional vein. One gets the sense that the pianist is torn between paying his respects to a classic jazz tune from the past and tearing it apart and rebuilding into a 70s-era Tyner vehicle. The process is fascinating to hear, even if this track finally falls short of some of the pianist's other efforts from this period.

September 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Erroll Garner: I've Got to Be a Rugcutter

The contrast between Erroll Garner's left and right hands sometimes creates the aural illusion of two separate tempos. Despite this track's quick tempo, Garner takes his time on this Ellington gem. The composition was an early hit for Duke's band with vocalist Ivie Anderson and was featured in the 1937 film, The Hit Parade. Art Tatum's influence is evident here, but Garner makes every note his own. Fats Heard's masterful brushwork perfectly complements Garner, who varies pianistic styles from his standard left-hand chording to "locked hands," polyphonic contrary motion, and more orchestral, two-handed chordal passages.

August 19, 2008 · 0 comments


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