Quintette du Hot Club de France: When Day Is Done

Django Reinhardt opens this version of “When Day Is Done” with a dramatic unaccompanied guitar cadenza. I suspect he was trying to emulate Louis Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues and indeed, one can imagine young guitarists being bowled over by the recording. It impresses me as well, but the solo that follows is quite special for what isn’t there. As the introduction has plenty of contrast between chorded sections and single lines, the ensuing solo is entirely comprised of single line melody and embellishment. The filigrees are tasty, the bent notes are heart-rending, and the atmosphere is so engulfing that it’s hard not to imagine yourself floating in a canoe down the Seine as Django and his friends serenade you. The mood breaks as Django picks up the tempo and Grappelli enters. While the final choruses are well-played, this time the disconnect is too great from what came before and this part of the recording just sounds like more of the same. Time to go back and listen to the first half of the record again!

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Hot Lips

“Hot Lips” must have seemed a strange choice for the QHCF. Although the song was only 15 years old at the time, it was certainly dated as a remnant of 1920s hot-cha. After a plethora of recordings in the twenties, the song went unrecorded by jazz artists for nearly five years. Significantly, the two recordings from 1935 and 1936 were made in London, and perhaps Grappelli or Reinhardt heard one of those versions and decided to try it with the QHCF. At any rate, this is a very pleasant medium-tempo version of the song. Grappelli starts off the proceedings with a fairly straight reading of the melody over the trademark chunk, chunk-a-chunk rhythm of the guitars. Django’s solo is marked by a long section in parallel sixths. Usually, Django avoided using the same sound for several bars, but here, there is a mild amount of experimenting going on, first to see how long he could maintain interest with the same voicing, and second, to see if a slight change would break up the monotony. As he finishes an eight-bar phrase, he fills in the note between the open sixth creating a chord voicing straight out of Alvino Rey! In fact, the figure he plays involves moving the voicing between chords a half-step apart, which is an easy effect to play on a slide guitar. The effect is a little corny and Reinhart didn’t use it much, but for an old obscure song, it worked well enough.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Shine

Django Reinhardt’s solo on “Shine” was one of his finest to that point in his career. In it, he forms a direct link to Wes Montgomery by using a similar concept in building his solo. Montgomery was fond of starting a solo with single lines, taking the next chorus in octaves and finishing with block chords. Reinhardt’s concept of solo construction was actually more complex than Montgomery’s, but I suspect that Montgomery heard this recording and learned a lot from it. Here, Reinhardt plays in single lines throughout the first chorus and moves to octaves at the beginning of the second. The block chords don’t come in until the end as Reinhardt is accompanying Grappelli. Although the building blocks are similar, the overall effect is different. As Reinhardt gained more experience, he became an expert in pacing his solos so they would make sense as a musical entity. Instinctively, he seemed to know the precise moment where block chords would properly set off his single lines. His mastery of pacing keeps our ears riveted to the guitarist in solo after solo. Another highlight of the solo occurs in the 12th -14th bars as Reinhardt blurs the lines by spontaneously turning a single line into a blistering run. In the final choruses, Reinhardt and Grappelli are basically a duet with the rest of the band humming along in the background. Reinhardt had refined his accompanying style, retaining its active stance in the music, but not stealing the spotlight away from Grappelli.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Les Double Six: Stockholm Sweetnin' (Un Coin Merveilleux)

“Stockholm Sweetnin’” was composed by Quincy Jones for an all-star recording session featuring Clifford Brown, Art Farmer and several Swedish jazz stars. Brown’s solo was one of his finest, and when he died in June 1956, Jones transcribed the solo and orchestrated it for his big band. This version by The Double Six of Paris was based on the big band version and Jones coached the group for this recording. Mimi Perrin’s French vocalese lyrics are about two lovers preparing a romantic getaway, but the most remarkable aspect of the recording is the Double Six’s meticulous re-creation of the big band version, not only in singing all of the notes, but also in the phrasing of the original soloists and ensemble. Christiane Legrand is the first soloist, singing Art Farmer’s solo from the remake, followed by Mimi Perrin, singing the alto saxophone solo by Phil Woods. The orchestrated Clifford Brown solo appears after Art Simons’ piano solo, and while the voices don’t attempt to re-create the orchestral timbres from Jones’ big band chart, the relaxed feeling of both the combo original and the big band remake is perfectly realized.

The Double Six recorded four albums under Mimi Perrin’s leadership, including recordings with Dizzy Gillespie and Jerome Richardson. However, the Double Six’s ultimate legacy may be as the birthplace of the Swingle Singers, which included four of above singers (Legrand, Swingle, Germain and Briodin). Even with the Swingle Singers' quick rise to international success, a look at the personnel for the later Double Six albums reveals that several of the singers were recording with both groups at the same time.

July 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Laïka: Strange Fruit

To sing and play "Strange Fruit" 70 years after a Jewish high-school teacher in the Bronx wrote it and an African-American singer in Greenwich Village sang it is no simple thing. Though "Strange Fruit" is one of Lady Day's most famous songs, it's far from being among the most sung or played because its words, about lynching in the USA in the 1930s, can hardly leave either singer or listeners indifferent. Although a song, it is more than a piece of entertainment; this is a work of art, whose interpretation cannot be reduced to its social implications.

Laika Fatien, a French singer with Jewish and African origins, understands all that and, while concerned with the thematic material, gives this song a deeply artistic rendering. Robert Glasper begins with an impressive rubato piano solo, whose staccato notes in the treble and low tones of the instrument become more and more ominous over the first minute, before the voice enters. Laïka's phrasing and diction, over Glasper's sparse, romantic chords and arpeggios, are deeply dramatic, yet her emotions never become theatrical or overdone. This will carry on another four minutes, and it's hard, when their duet is over, to continue listening to the rest of the album. Remaining silent and meditative, or playing "Strange Fruit" again, seem to be the most obvious options.

Today only the children and grandchildren of the former lynchers, or former spectators, survive. The President of the United States is an African American. But this song is a vital and necessary reminder. Its emotional impact may help prevent the return of barbarism, wherever it may appear, whatever form it may take.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: Corcovado

When Martial Solal played the Vanguard alone in 2007, he was the second pianist ever, after Fred Hersch, to be granted such a privilege. It's definitely an honor, especially for a European musician. But after more than a half century of playing and recording all over the world with an international reputation, it can't be considered undue. The press clips say that the Vanguard was packed every night, and the reviews were excellent. The record is, anyway, and on this track Solal plays a Brazilian standard he'd never recorded before, as far as I know. To him, all music is just music, so he won't really care if it's Brazilian or Norwegian; it's basically food for his brain and fingers.

He starts, as often, by getting at the theme from a side angle, with one hand, then two in unison. Next he exposes the theme with more and more rhythmic, harmonic and melodic alterations until hitting a brief stride passage followed by virtuoso scales. Here you may fear the worst, but the theme comes back and undergoes more metamorphoses, including a short coverage in the very low register that is surprisingly musical. And just when you are beginning to get used to Solal's way of dealing with a standard, suddenly it's over. Applause, laughs, speechless signs of surprise (one supposes) … That's about the diversity of reaction that Solal expects from a listening audience, and one wishes that all the musicians who played the Vanguard before him had found such a rapt and respectful reception.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: Cortancyl

Martial Solal loves writing for large ensembles and has done so as often as he could, which is not very often, at least on record. He led a big band in the early '80s, then his "Dodecaband" in the late '90s and early 2000, and was enticed to start again with a "Newdecaband" by the sound of his daughter Claudia's voice, which he decided to use instead of a sax section. Well, that's not the only difference between the Newdecaband and a traditional jazz orchestra, but isn't "difference" more or less Solal's middle name?

This track is actually a small piano concerto. Solal starts alone at a rather slow pace, then the brass blow a couple of riffs before the voice joins in and, along with the brass, sings intricate melody lines with drum punctuations. A trio passage segues, on the same melody that the brass and voice had played, and the rest follows more or less the same pattern of piano and rhythm alternating with voice and brass. It may all seem a bit formal—and it actually is in the beginning—but the overall sound is gorgeous and very original. Besides, the electric bass gives a punchy yet mellow feel to the whole thing, and the piano part is some high-level stuff: sound, touch, phrasing … Solal has often composed and played for contemporary music, and it shows in his jazz orchestral writing. But how can European musicians refrain from copying the American tradition if they don't search for their own ways? And, as on this track, find interesting paths.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: Triangle

When Martial Solal looks for American musicians as partners for a trio session, he goes for the best: Teddy Kotick and Paul Motian in 1963 at Newport, Johnson and Erskine here, Gary Peacock and Motian again in 1997 in Paris. Of course the virtuoso pianist's music is difficult to play and requires mature sidemen and consummate instrumental technicians. But everyone knows that a summit meeting can never guarantee an optimal musical result. On this track, which Solal penned specially for this record, the relationship between the three masters is good, but there's a slight sense of stiffness that prevents the music from flowing effortlessly. The song is interestingly melodic, with a somewhat Ellingtonian feel at times. Solal is in a comparatively discreet mood, refraining from his frequent virtuoso streaks. Johnson and Erskine have short solo spots, and are as musical as ever as accompanists. But one can't help thinking that if this studio session had been recorded after a couple of live dates, the empathy between the players and the intensity of the music would have benefited. A record producer's ideas are not always best.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: A Night in Tunisia

It's utterly impossible to predict how Martial Solal will play the most familiar standards. He's likely to start at the end, the middle, the second half of the beginning, put it upside down or play different sections with each hand. The man is totally unpredictable. He knows it, likes it, and so do we. From September 1993 to June 1994, France Musique, one of the French state radio channels, invited Solal to improvise every Sunday afternoon in one of their studios, in front of an audience, and these concerts were broadcast live and recorded. On this Dizzy Gillespie classic, Solal has all the fun he can get: heavily rhythmic chord clusters to begin, bits of melody among flurries of arpeggios, a true demonstration of piano pyrotechnics that would be overwhelming if the lightness of touch and the constant rhythm changes didn't continually keep our attention sharp. Then the theme becomes increasingly clear, the left hand maintaining a stride- like comping as the right frolics randomly. And we slowly realize that Solal not only does whatever he wants with whatever he wants, but has given us a lesson in jazz history by bringing the Gillespie theme backward to the prewar era, and forward to … himself.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal & Stéphane Grappelli: Nuages

Both are internationally known historical figures of French jazz. Each played with Django Reinhardt: Grappelli on their famed prewar recordings, Solal on Django's final 1953 studio session (where the Gypsy genius used an electric guitar). But they had never played together on record. What was to be expected from such a late meeting, taking place more than a quarter of a century after Django's death? The best! And it's obvious from the piano intro on. Solal wrote a dreamy impressionistic prelude to one of Django's most famous tunes, and when the violin enters on the theme itself, the piano alternates between this harmonic atmosphere, served by a beautiful touch, and a more rhythmic approach. Grappelli basically remains himself, halfway between a tradition that he comes from and a taste for innovation that has always been present in his improvisations and choice of partners. Solal also remains himself, playing around both the violin and the theme with respect towards each. He obviously has ventured farther from tradition than his elder, but his style is deeply rooted and can be highly melodic, as this track beautifully demonstrates.

January 19, 2009 · 1 comment

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Martial Solal: Cherokee

This truly is a reunion of European virtuosos. Solal, the French pianist, Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen, the late Danish bassist (with whom Solal had recorded a duet for the same German label two years before) and Daniel Humair, the Swiss drummer (who had been living in Paris for quite some time and by then was more or less Solal's regular drummer). Together they tackle the Ray Noble standard in a very "Solalian" way, which means that you'd better have the original melody and chord sequence well memorized if you want to recognize it. But even if you don't, you should have just as much fun if you like breakneck tempos, speedy turns and unannounced twists as much as these musicians do. NHØP opens with a swift 1-minute solo intro, then is joined by Humair for another minute before the leader joins in. Almost as soon as Solal has entered with a couple of fast arpeggios, the rhythm team leaves him on his own. He changes pace to a quiet ballad before switching again to a speedy tempo. Then his right hand introduces original melodic bits, a short quotation of "Take the 'A' Train" and even—believe it or not—a reworking of the Ray Noble melody that most listeners will have a hard time recognizing at this tempo and with these alterations. But if you never hear the original melody, don't be disappointed: Solal shies away from clichés (even his own) and never has more fun than when toying around with familiar chords or a timeless melody until he's made it totally his own. Here, obviously, he found two playmates totally attuned to his twist of mind.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: Accalmie

You can always count on Martial Solal for a pun. Many of his titles play on words that can't be translated from French into any other language. This album's title, for example, has to do with the unusual type of trio that Solal chose: piano and two basses. Literally in French the title means "without drum or trumpet." But it also means "unobtrusively, without any fuss," exactly the sort of double-entendre that Solal likes.

How about the music? Much less complicated than the wordplay may suggest. First it's a quiet piece, as it's title says ("lull," in English), and the gentle walking of the two basses while the piano plays simple chords in the beginning establishes the general atmosphere. Tempo changes, which Solal often favors, are rare here, going from slow to medium fast with an emphasis on melody that is unusual for the pianist. Obviously the context of two low and soft instruments helps him find other grounds to explore. Solal chose two basses in the first place because his drummer, then a substitute, had failed him for a trio concert. Thus pushed in new directions, Solal assembled a brand new repertoire for this group. But the trio sounded too new at the time in France, and Solal had to disband it after having recorded what he still considers one of his best discs.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal & Lee Konitz: Stella by Starlight

This track is a historical event: it was recorded during the first meeting between Solal and Konitz. It's also the only duet taped that afternoon, and the first of a long series the two musicians would subsequently play together onstage or in the studio. Indeed, as soon as they met, Solal and Konitz were like brothers, and still are more than 40 years later. This may seem strange, given the difference in their styles: Konitz's laconic, linear phrasing and rather thin sound as opposed to Solal's extrovert, baroque approach to the keyboard and his tendency to change tempo without notice. In fact their association works marvelously, as they drag each other onto one another's playground in a fascinating cat-&-mouse game. This playground is often founded, as here, on the standards they both love. To such familiar patterns they in turn bring the element of surprise. Indeed, the main common ground between Solal and Konitz may be that they hate to repeat themselves. Indeed, surprising themselves and each other is the engine that powers this unlikely but immensely likable duo.

January 19, 2009 · 1 comment

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Martial Solal: Suite pour une frise

Martial Solal had already recorded this "suite" the year before with his French trio, but to present this 11-minute piece to the Newport audience with sidemen who were unfamiliar with his playing was a bold gesture. In fact, though this music was actually played live on stage, this track, like all others on the album, was taped a few days later in a New York studio, with overdubbed applause. All the same, Motian and Kotick, who had to learn the themes by heart, must be praised for a great job. Solal hardly auditioned this former Bill Evans rhythm team, which was proposed to him on his arrival in the USA, where he had never before performed. But the French pianist was so familiar with American musicians either living in Paris or passing through that he felt totally at ease with pickup American sidemen. Solal's music may have seemed strange to them and to the audience, since virtually nobody stateside played like him back then. But in 1963 his main influences were still American, and it's more his synthesis of styles from Tatum to Phineas Newborn through Bud Powell, and the form of this lengthy tune with constantly shifting tempos, that may have surprised. Actually, the virtuosity and modernity of Solal's playing might leave some listeners dumbfounded even today.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jobic Le Masson: Hill

The title of this track has nothing to do with geography or landscapes. It's a dedication to the late Andrew Hill, one of Jobic Le Masson's big influences along with Thelonious Monk. And indeed, the angular yet beautiful melody the French pianist has composed is much in the style of those two masters, while having a personal twist. Which figures, since neither Le Masson nor his partners are youngsters. Though this is his first record as a leader, Le Masson is in his early 40s and lived, studied and played in the Boston area in the 1980s before returning to Paris. John Betsch and Peter Giron, fellow American expatriates in Paris, are both seasoned musicians. Besides, this trio has a long history of playing clubs in and around the French capital before they recorded. So naturally they don't sound like your average young hip trio that looks towards either EST or Brad Mehldau. These three know better than to go with the current flow. They have strong roots, tons of musicianship and a vision that goes far beyond the prevalent fads.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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