Quintette du Hot Club de France: Honeysuckle Rose

In a way, this 1938 version of “Honeysuckle Rose” is a throwback to the earliest recordings of the QHCF. It is set in a bouncy two-beat, and Reinhardt takes the first solo, going back and forth between melody and improvisation. But closer listening shows that the group had come a long way in just over three years. First of all, Django’s style had evolved to primarily single-string solos. While his earlier recordings showed him to be a master of varying styles from single-string to chords to runs to maintain listener interest, his recordings from this period show a new confidence in the strength of his single lines. His “Honeysuckle” solo has only one little octave outburst, yet we are captivated by his solo. He is also more harmonically savvy, and the “outside” note choices he makes sound much more assured than on his Japanese Sandman solo of six months earlier. Grappelli’s rhythmic sense is more attuned than on the early sides and his playing displays elegance and fire simultaneously. The little ensemble figure Reinhardt and Grappelli play in the final chorus is simply delightful, and when Grappelli solos during the bridge, there is Django offering vocal encouragement.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Count Basie: Honeysuckle Rose

With Walter Page and Jo Jones standing firm behind him, Count Basie’s two stride piano choruses at the opening of “Honeysuckle Rose” tie the aggressive rhythms of Kansas City to the swinging life of Harlem. Then come the Count’s men, amping up the infectious upbeat and bringing in Midwestern riffs that sound suspiciously like “Tea for Two.” (The most danceable “Tea for Two” you’ve ever heard, that is.) Meantime, Lester Young demonstrates that his ethereal, hollow sound is as capable of charging through the swingers as it is of floating through the ballads and mid-tempos. Listening 70 years later, we can also hear how his solos rewrote the saxophone vocabulary: There are phrases in Young’s single chorus that were later borrowed and developed by Paul Gonsalves, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, all the way through Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman—and this inside less than 40 seconds of music. No wonder they called him the President.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong: (What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue (1955)

That remarkable songwriter, musician and world-class character Thomas "Fats" Waller wrote this tune for the 1929 Broadway musical of and performed by African Americans, Hot Chocolates. "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue" was originally the lament of a dark-skinned woman who lost her man to a lighter-skinned gal. In Louis Armstrong's hands, it was transformed into an anthem of complaint and powerful protest against racial discrimination, as well as a magnificent musical creation. It is a testament to the power of Armstrong's recordings of this song that they moved Ralph Ellison to talk of their impact and beauty in the beginning of his landmark novel, Invisible Man.

Satch Plays Fats, from 1955, was a match made in jazz heaven. This track opens with a kind of overture, the band playing subtle, soulful variations on the marvelous and memorable theme. The "overture" and beginning of the tune are played at modest volume, allowing for a gradual buildup of intensity, as well as tension, as this profound protest and cri du cœur unfold. Satchmo plays his heart out, employing his superb tone and capacity to construct such marvelous musical lines, and using slides, slurs and at least one glissando to convey further feeling and meaning. Trummy Young's trombone, Billy Kyle's piano, and Barney Bigard's clarinet provide perfect support and added dimensions to the musical mosaic. Particularly noteworthy, at the end of the main set of vocal choruses, is Bigard's exquisite swoop up the scale, portraying both mounting pain and rising expectations.

This recording also demonstrates something not discussed enough. Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are rightly praised as early jazz landmarks. But listening carefully to his singing on those late-'20s recordings, we hear vocal tone and approach that are still fairly crude, even though his rhythmic feel and coordination with the instrumental music was excellent—and was beginning to change popular singing forever. But by the time of this recording, Satch's vocal work had developed extraordinary depth of nuance and expressive capacity, and his timing and phrasing had become sublime, in addition to that celebrated combination of grit and soulfulness in the character of his voice. All this and his experience as an African American he drew upon to sing these lyrics with profound poignancy and power. This is not only great music, it is also a very important cultural expression.

Its timing puts this impassioned performance in context, coming eleven months after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In the months before and after, there were a series of brutal murders of blacks in Mississippi and elsewhere (most famously, Emmett Till); and in December '55, Rosa Parks sparked the prime active phase of the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat. Two years later, Armstrong spoke out sharply against President Eisenhower's reluctance to act when African-American teens were barred from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. All this was "in the air" at the time; Louis Armstrong and musical partners recorded an ultimate articulation of those concerns.

February 23, 2009 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet: Ain't Misbehavin'

With the one and only Sidney Bechet joined by the great pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, virtuoso cornetist Rex Stewart (a feature attraction of the landmark Ellington band), and that New Orleans original, co-Founding Father of jazz drumming, "Baby" Dodds, you might expect memorable results—and, baby, do they deliver! Clearly they were inspired by this Fats Waller tune that is one of the best and most loved songs ever written.

Earl Hines opens with a sparkling, bouncy rendition of the famous melody, using a little left-hand bass rumbling to let you know that the title says "ain't misbehavin'", BUT…. Next, like a musical relay, Bechet takes the handoff and plays a clarion, fairly straight version of the theme, then variations with verve, with Dodds pounding out drum rolls for additional texture. In turn, Stewart jumps in with a perfect response and follow-up to Bechet, using his muted cornet for a wailing first note, then further creative variations of the theme, with exquisite bluesy slurs and accents, until Bechet again follows suit. Hines next offers a beautiful rhythmic yet rhapsodic, virtuoso piano interlude, with Bechet's punctuating phrases behind him. That transitions into some Hines-Stewart exchanges, creating an interesting tonal and rhythmic dynamic. Then Bechet cuts loose with dramatic, blazing inventions and embellishments on the theme, with that inimitable tone and vibrato. Stewart again takes the handoff and launches into his own blazing lines, using muted cornet to wonderful effect, as his and the rest of the band's playing steadily grows in intensity and passion, yet never loses their playful element. Finally Bechet heats things up further, joining Stewart in a high- energy dual/duel back-and-forth ba-dah-dum, ba-dah-dum, ba-dah-dum, dah de dum ending that leaves you breathless.

This is glorious stuff, with tremendous momentum, the great jazz masters spurring each other on to a dramatic ending. This is truly movin' music! If the toes of the person listening next to you aren't tapping, check the pulse; they may need immediate medical attention. And if they aren't smiling up a storm after listening to this, they need another type of attention.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Ray Bryant: Ain't Misbehavin'

Ray Bryant made his mark in the jazz world with some very soulful piano playing, mixing a dose of modernism with a double helping of blues. So it comes as some surprise to find him focusing on old-fashioned stride piano playing on his 2008 CD In the Back Room. Here he performs solo versions of songs by James P. Johnson and W.C. Handy, as well as five Fats Waller tunes, including this rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'." Bryant proves that he is conversant with stride mannerisms, but his playing lacks the boisterous energy that the great masters of this style brought to their performances. This sounds the way stride might have been played if it had been transplanted from the Harlem rent parties to an academic setting. So it comes as no surprise to see that Bryant recorded this music at Rutgers University. Did the environment inspire a more subdued demeanor, Mr. Bryant? Some listeners may enjoy this more restrained approach to Fats Waller's music, but for my part I prefer a bit more misbehavin' in my Harlem stride.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Bob McHugh: Jitterbug Waltz

There's just something about that lovely series of descending notes in "Jitterbug Waltz" that gets to me. Though I'm known to be a kind of nostalgia freak, I have no history with this particular tune, so what gives? The song has not provided backup to any of my so-called "romantic moments," nor has it painted the mood along with any of my favorite film scenes. So why the attraction? Like many things musical, it seems that I must be content to allow the emotions to remain coated in my own mystery glaze. Bob McHugh's approach celebrates the spirit of Fats Waller while avoiding cloying sentiment – though I admit that such sentiment probably wouldn't bother me in the least.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment


Django Reinhardt: Ain't Misbehavin'

Grappelli states the melody with the effervescence and lighthearted swing that are his trademarks. Django starts his solo sluggishly here, and in the second eight bars either misses the chord or is trying for an unusual polytonal effect. But in the second chorus he takes flight, and dishes out choice phrases that build on very large interval jumps. Then come some wild and woolly guitar chords that sound—I kid you not—like a steam locomotive heading down the track. The band is so far out of the stratosphere by this point that they don't even reprise the melody. Forget the title—some serious misbehavin' is goin' down here.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Dizzy Gillespie: Jitterbug Waltz

When Norman Granz founded Pablo Records to help support "older" jazz musicians, Gillespie was a natural choice for a new project, based on the success of prior collaborations. Dizzy's Big 4 is Gillespie's first recording for Pablo. The piano's absence is hardly noticed, as Pass provides both harmonic backing and an additional melodic voice for the ensemble. This arrangement of the Fats Waller standard is notable for the rhythm section's introductory vamp and the refreshing changes of time signatures and grooves. Performances of this song can rely too heavily on the "waltz feel" to drive the arrangement. Here, however, the quartet succeeds in energizing the performance with an interactive inventiveness.

February 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Red Norvo: Honeysuckle Rose

In his day, Red Norvo recorded and gigged with everyone -- Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra, Charles Mingus, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Indeed, no other jazz musician of his generation had more diverse credentials. Norvo could flat his fifths with the boppers, or drink his fifths with Eddie Condon and the Chicagoans. But today he is unfairly ignored, dealt with as a modest footnote in the history of the music. What a shame! Few jazz bands in the 1930s were hipper than the Red Norvo Octet. Here in a rare integrated recording session from 1935, the xylophonist leads his band on a hard-swinging journey through "Honeysuckle Rose." What a strange, engaging mixture! The band tackles the song at a fast bop-like tempo, but by the end the horns are tossing out Dixieland counterpoint. A top-tier performance from an underrated ensemble that was always full of surprises.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments


Ralph Sutton: Honeysuckle Rose

Question: What's a 70-year-old white guy in 1990s upscale California doing with 1920s Harlem rent-party stride piano? Answer: Playing the hell out of it. Sutton was only 7 when Fats wrote "Honeysuckle Rose," but sounds like he was anointed in the Reverend Waller's Abyssinian Baptist Church. After a long, out- of-tempo intro, Sutton settles into a loping 4/4 to quote from "At the Codfish Ball." Did lowdown Ralph in highfalutin Berkeley feel like a fish out of water? No matter. Soon hitting his stride, Sutton double-times it to the finish line with such wit and wallop as did Waller wallow. Wow!

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Coleman Hawkins: Honeysuckle Rose

This arrangement of Thomas “Fats” Waller's classic opus is the unmistakable work of Benny Carter; the opening saxophone ensemble beautifully reflects his sensibility as an alto saxophone soloist. Also striking is his use of the tune’s original chord changes creating sonorities now long gone from the performance practice of standard tunes. Hawkins’s solo presages his earthshaking 1939 “Body and Soul” recording –- for example, measures nine through thirty-two. Another nice Carter touch is the sax background during Hawkins’s second chorus that sustains the opening G minor 7th chord without resolution during measures one through four (and similar places) -- adding a subtle tension of delight. The closing riff (decorated by Reinhardt’s well-recorded jaunty guitar), like the opening chorus, bears Carter’s timeless touch of brightness and class.

November 07, 2007 · 1 comment


Ethel Waters: Black and Blue

April Fool's Day, 1930. Ethel Waters covers a self-pitying song from Broadway's Hot Chocolates (1929) that Louis Armstrong had recorded with lyrics reworked to universalize the plight of being black in a white world. Waters, however, restores the original complaint of a dark-skinned woman shunned by "all the race fellows" who "crave high yellows" (pale-complexioned Negroes). Since "gentlemen prefer them light," Waters laments, "I'm just another spade who can't make the grade." An accomplished actress as well as a first-rate vocalist, Waters puts this across with conviction. But did she mean it? Let's hope she announced, when finished, "April fool!"

November 05, 2007 · 0 comments


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