Karen Ristuben: Day Dream

Consider a small roadside bar with a blonde chanteuse singing to a bunch of beer-drinking flyboys and their molls on break from the nearby desert Air Force base that is home to that rare breed called test pilots. Some are dancing, some are simply enjoying the music. It could be a scene from back in the '50s where these classic rugged individualists, who would soon populate NASA's astronaut program, found respite from their hair-raising daily escapades through music that mixes the soft sleepy delivery of a laid-back era with embellishments of steel guitar and a twangy Fender telecaster, giving this Ellington composition its own unique western flavor. Ristuben's monotonic voice and her accomplished musical partners trigger this scene in my mind, with their oddly effective combination of sounds and approach. It's maybe not jazz per se, but certainly evokes a time past and a musical hybrid that combines elements of jazz, western instrumentation and torch singing.

July 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Paul Desmond: Things Ain't What They Used to Be

Desmond's live recordings at Toronto's Basin Street club, made less than two years before his death, rank among my favorite post-Brubeck performances by the altoist. He stretches out lazily over the songs -- the tracks from Basin Street all range from 7 to 12 minutes -- and plays with great relaxation and melodic inventiveness. Professor Desmond offers a textbook in thematic improvisation, playing without reliance on memorized licks or patterns, no scales or technical grandstanding. But you will be having so much fun you won't even realize that jazz school is in session. Desmond is the anti-Coltrane here, creating solos that are so lovingly constructed, phrase by phrase, that they literally serve as new melodies to old changes. On "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," as on many of the Toronto tracks, Desmond takes two solos, one immediately after the opening melody and a second following the bass improvisation, and it's hard to say which wins top honors. Both are taut and clever, without wasted energy. In between, listeners are treated to a lengthy excursion by the underappreciated Ed Bickert, a tasteful soloist who never disappoints. Ah, I wish we still had this band around to enjoy, but things truly ain't what they used to be.

July 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck: Perdido

"This is incredible music, jazz or whatever," a reviewer wrote in Down Beat when Jazz at Oberlin first hit the stores. To which I respond: "Whatever!" and turn up the volume. You are advised to do the same. Brubeck and Desmond recorded live in many settings during the 1950s and 1960s, but this 1953 concert ranks among their finest moments.

An odd dynamic imparted a piquant flavor to the proceedings: the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, founded in 1865, was a magnet for talented instrumentalists, but no jazz was studied within its walls back in 1953. Even Milhaud or Bartok would have been dicey, but bringing Milhaud's eccentric student Mr. Brubeck to campus was close to heresy. Nor were jazz concerts on college campuses common back in this era -- indeed, Brubeck did more than anyone else to pioneer this concept with events such as the Oberlin date. As a result, Brubeck & Co. had an audience packed with aspiring musicians who must have felt they were witnessing some aural samizdat that had somehow been smuggled into Finney Chapel. This serene Romanesque building had once featured Rachmaninov, but now it was "Man, you can't rock enough!"

More than 50 years have elapsed, but you can still pick up the powerful vibes on this recording. The audience is energized and the band feeds off their enthusiasm. Desmond is very loose yet also keyed up, and he stretches out with an electrifying solo. Brubeck follows with a wild improvisation, teasing with bits of polytonality, full of allusions to other standards, sometimes tinkling, more often booming with grandiose two-fisted chords. When Desmond returns to engage in counterpoint with the pianist, the chemistry between the duo is magical.

July 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Ella Fitzgerald: Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me

Jazz players often perform this song in a glib, jaunty manner. But this Ellington standard needs to be handled with care. The equivocal lyrics, which seem to suggest the admission of an infidelity ("some kiss may cloud my infidelity"), present a psychological labyrinth. They allow the singer to adopt a pose or dig in deep. Ella takes the harder path and chooses to probe the pathos behind the words -- a decision all the more commendable given the fact that this artist often slides along the surface of her songs. Here Ella shows how acute she could be as an interpreter of brokenhearted ballads. Of course, no vocalist of her generation had greater technical command than Ella, and when she marries her prepossessing skill to a deep penetration into the inner meaning of the material, the results are magical. All that said, Ben Webster plays a perfect solo that is every bit as brilliant as the vocal. This ranks among the finest of songbook performances.

July 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Stefon Harris: Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta

While Stefon Harris was in a Brooklyn studio during the last three days of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. How differently might Harris have arranged the three selections from Ellington's and Strayhorn's New Orleans Suite, which he recorded at that time, if he'd had the chance to observe and reflect upon the destruction of New Orleans by Katrina, and the disastrous aftermath?

Regardless, Harris produced moving and stunningly realized interpretations of these pieces, and the appropriately titled "Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta" is a prime example of his skills as both vibraphonist and arranger. His mix of clarinet, flute, viola and cello, with an additional trombone vamp, opens the track, sounding like a much larger orchestra. Harris plays the prayerful, proud melody over this evocative backdrop, his reading fervent, uplifting and blues-tinged. His reflective solo follows, in which his glistening lines, crisp articulation and gorgeous tone combine to stunning effect – there is such majesty and intelligence to his playing, with equal traces of Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson for good measure. Tardy's subsequent clarinet solo is both technically impressive and emotionally charged. The reprise, if anything, improves on the already memorable opening.

July 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Benny Carter: I Got it Bad (And That Ain't Good)

You could admire Benny Carter for many things -- his composing or arranging, or his work on a half dozen or so instruments. But this track will tell you why he is considered one of the finest alto sax soloists in the history of jazz. His improvisation on the Ellington standard has it all: a rich, creamy tone, fresh ideas, relaxed phrasing and a delicate sense of swing. Above all, the performance is perfectly aligned with the emotional landscape Ellington intended for this song. The rhythm section is packed with Hall of Famers, but they know to lay low and let Carter run the show. If you don't know Mr. Carter, this track is a perfect place to make his acquaintance.

June 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Stan Kenton & June Christy: Prelude to a Kiss

Stan Kenton is sometimes dismissed by his critics as the king of bombast. And in truth, Kenton often went for super-size when others would opt for Slim-Fast. But this session showcases the subtle side of Kenton, matched up in intimate piano-voice duets with June Christy. The setting gives us a chance to enjoy the pianist's rich harmonic palette, often lost amidst the juggernaut of his big band. At times on this track he sounds positively Ellingtonian. But Christy is the party who benefits most from Kenton's unilateral disarmament. Her voice blossoms in the open spaces and fresh air, and one can't help wishing that she had done more recordings of this sort. As it stands, the Duet project is one of her finest moments of the 1950s.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Dizzy Gillespie & Stan Getz: It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)

Whenever Getz and Gillespie shared the same stage, it was more than music . . . it was a battle. Was there some bad blood between these two jazz giants? I was around Gillespie and Getz back when the two long time friend-adversaries were planning an ill-starred mid-'80s live recording with Gillespie that—alas!—was torpedoed at the very last moment; and Getz's private comments at the time made it clear how much respect he had for Dizzy. Yet if you listen to the recordings they made together, you can't miss the combative atmosphere. Their 1953 and 1956 sessions for Verve rank among the most intense dates of the decade. One senses that Gillespie is calling tempos as fast as possible, and trying to disrupt the serenity of the king of cool sax playing. Dizzy's trumpet work on this track is fiery and unrelenting. Getz, for his part, refuses to back down, and plays with an aggressiveness and speed that was out of character for this disciple of Prez. The proceedings are further enlivened by one of the fastest rhythm sections on the planet, circa '53. By my scorecard, Gillespie wins by the narrowest of margins on this encounter, but Getz comes back strong and wins the 1956 rematch—which may be even more impressive, since he takes on both Gillespie and the speed racer of the alto sax, Sonny Stitt.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Gerry Mulligan with Marian McPartland: C Jam Blues

At this stage of his career, Gerry Mulligan was best known for leading a quartet without a piano. Yet here he is at the legendary 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, sitting in with a trio led by the future hostess of NPR's long-running Piano Jazz. As part of a day-long Ellington tribute, Mulligan and Marian McPartland jam on "C Jam Blues," a jam session staple since jamming originated, which was shortly after the note C was discovered. (It had been left unattended in a cave next to the Dead Sea Scrolls by a wandering harpist who, having tired of C, moved on to what she hoped would be the greener pastures of D. Little did she suspect what heathen dangers lurked therein!)

Unlike some bandleaders, who prefer the comfort zone of their own steady group, Mulligan relished playing with other musicians, and obviously delights in the present company. This happy-go-lucky 10-minute track also affords plenty of solo space for McPartland and bass giant Milt Hinton. (Drummer Ed Shaughnessy contents himself with swinging his butt off and occasionally rattling sleigh bells in quirky punctuation. Can you imagine the dedication required to schlep sleigh bells from New York City to Rhode Island in mid-summer?) If you're looking for an exemplar of the distinctively mid-'50s style that encompassed both traditional and modernist strains, go directly to M&M's "C Jam Blues." Melts in your ears, not in your hands.

May 25, 2008 · 0 comments


Clark Terry: Cotton Tail

As first recorded by Duke Ellington's 15-piece band in 1940, "Cotton Tail" tore through the cabbage patch quicker than rabbits repopulate. Seventeen years later and 9 musicians fewer, the bunny still hops—albeit at a more relaxed tempo. (Hell, we all slow down with age.)

Whereas Ellington's first litter cut straight to the chase, this sextet culled from Duke's mid-'50s band takes a moment for a short intro before stating the theme. After playing vibes on the bridge, Tyree Glenn shows his versatility by switching to cup-muted trombone for a mellifluous leadoff solo. Following a Woodyard drum break, tenorman Gonsalves assumes center stage, backed by Woodyard's trademark insistent rim shots on beats 2 and 4. Tyree Glenn, meanwhile, has returned to his Lionel Hampton-style vibes to comp behind the soloists. Clark Terry takes over next, coming on like a cat who's been drummed out of March King John Philip Sousa's band for playing too hip. Britt Woodman then provides a follow-up trombone solo using, unlike his predecessor Glenn, an open horn.

This "Cotton Tail" won't make anyone forget Duke's original, but it's still enjoyable, especially for Tyree Glenn's goof at the end. Whereas Duke's chart terminated in an unexpected low note played in unison by bass and baritone sax, this arrangement apparently meant to omit that last harrumph. Vibist Glenn, not quite on the same page as everybody else, nevertheless strikes one final, conspicuously solitary chord. In his solitude, the embarrassed Mr. Glenn offers a sheepish "Oh!" that reminds us what joys lurk in unrehearsed jazz.

May 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Mose Allison: Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me

Some folks call Mose Allison the "William Faulkner of jazz." But let's be honest, Absalom, Absalom! isn't half as much fun as a night out with Mose. Like Faulkner, Allison hails from Mississippi. But he espouses a bohemian, big-city, coffeehouse philosophy that has come a long way since his basket arrived in the bulrushes of Tallahatchie County back in the year of the Great Flood.

Allison has a way of imparting wry double meanings to lyrics, and this talent serves him well in interpreting Ellington's standard. These are strange lyrics, in which the singer practically admits to having an affair with another gal (True, I've been seen / With someone new . . .), but insists on a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for infidelities. Honestly, everybody in this tune should go see a relationship counselor. But while we are waiting for that, we can at least enjoy Mose's innuendo-laden delivery of this bit of musical philandering.

May 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Sarah Vaughan: In a Sentimental Mood

After Hours may finally have satisfied Sarah Vaughan's detractors. In an intimate setting with just guitar and bass accompaniment, Vaughan subtly embellishes the melodies throughout, with commandingly controlled tone and vibrato, limiting the glissandos that some saw as mere vocal tricks or acrobatics. Discerning listeners could still enjoy the way she emphasized certain words, or even just syllables, to enhance the meaning of the lyric and/or the beauty of the melody. In any case, in the early 1960s Vaughan was clearly coming into her own as a mature and complete jazz singer.

With the understated yet substantial support of the tasteful Lowe and Duvivier, Vaughan glides lovingly through "In a Sentimental Mood," picking her spots for improvisation, singing "every kiss" repeatedly to great effect, and toying with the word "divine" in each chorus, hitting a resonant bass note the first time around. She ends her interpretation with a wordless mini-coda, strikingly intoned. Vaughan's three short years as a Roulette recording artist were artistically superb, and After Hours may have been the high point. Whether she reaped much financial benefit is another story. She and other Roulette artists complained about the lack of royalties, among other problems.

April 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck: Jump for Joy

As part of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival's salute to Ellington, the Dave Brubeck Quartet presented six tunes associated with the Maestro, plus Dave's own tribute "The Duke" (1954). The younger pianist was a natural choice to honor his idol. As a student in the early '40s, Brubeck had finagled his way backstage to meet the Duke, but was so awestruck in the Maestro's presence that he couldn't utter a word. Ironically, by the time of this recording, Brubeck's fame rivaled Ellington's. Indeed, Dave's 1954 breakthrough on the cover of Time magazine predated Duke's belated appearance in that coveted spot by two years—much to the chagrin of Brubeck, who insisted Duke deserved the honor first.

Dave's set kicked off with the title tune from Ellington's flop 1941 musical revue. Considering that "Jump for Joy" was not in their regular repertoire, the Quartet's awkwardness is understandable. Desmond in particular seems ill at ease, producing an occasionally herky-jerky solo lacking the luster of silk-merchant Johnny Hodges on Duke's original. Brubeck, perhaps because of his deeper feeling for Ellington, better conveys the spirit of "Jump for Joy." Eugene Wright, by this time the Quartet's steady bassist, was for some reason replaced here by Joe Benjamin. Not to fault the latter, but he does not jell with drummer Joe Morello the way Wright did, much less the way Duke's rhythm team of Jimmy Blanton and Sonny Greer meshed. Overall, this track is a congenial tribute to Ellington, but unrepresentative of the 1958 Brubeck Quartet at its finest.

April 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Art Blakey: Caravan

Freddie Hubbard’s arrangement of "Caravan," with that impossible bridge, showcases his physicality and power as a trumpet player. The first declarative phrase sets the tone for the whole solo. Freddie played great with Art Blakey; he knew his style so well, and knew just when to either leave some space or play a phrase that would complement one of Bu’s patented fills. This solo has a real arc to it and yet remains fiery from the first note to the last.

By the way, another classic from this session is "Skylark." At 3:15 into it, listen to how Freddie comes back into at the bridge—another long and perfect ‘Freddie-phrase.’

April 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Joe Henderson: Take the 'A' Train

Joe Henderson's melodic tenor sax shines brilliantly in a duet setting. He has certainly performed several such over the years, and creates a seamless flow of musical expressions in this format, especially when spurred on by talented younger players. On this well-worn Ellington/Strayhorn standard, two musicians, their ages separated by nearly 30 years, form a magical partnership, with elder statesman Henderson propelled by a young but sensitive drummer. The tune's instant familiarity allows the listener to easily follow their explorations and even anticipate their direction. Hutchinson, for his part, plays brilliantly behind Henderson, making the listener aware of his thoughts but never upstaging the tenor journeyman. Taking an economical approach to a staple for the big bands of yesteryear, this duo proves surprisingly lively and enjoyable. Respect for the man, respect for the music is very obvious in this fine performance.

April 06, 2008 · 0 comments


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