Benny Goodman Quartet: I Got Rhythm

If you just heard the record, you might think this performance was taped surreptitiously at some back room jam session. But, yes, this is Carnegie Hall, and a transgressive moment when swing music—unapologetic and racially integrated—was allowed on to its venerable stage. Goodman was so unfamiliar with the setting that, when asked how long he wanted for an intermission, he replied 'I dunno. How much does Toscanini get?"

But if these four musicians are intimidated by the house Andrew Carnegie built, they don't show it here. The tempo, a blistering 320 beats per minute, is fast even by the standards of the Swing Era. This is one of Krupa's finest moments, and he clearly relishes the "go for broke" attitude of the moment. Bebop didn't exist when this concert took place, but you can tell how performances of this sort—loose, fast, aggressive—made its arrival inevitable. There is only a tiny distance between Teddy Wilson's solo here and what Bud Powell would be doing a few years later. Goodman, for his part, also seems to need only a nudge here to become a bopper; if he would only add a bit more chromaticism and float more over the ground beat, he would be ready to shake things up at Minton's Playhouse, which would be opening its doors in a few days.

The marvel is that a performance that starts out with such fire can actually build to something bigger. But the last ninety seconds here get about as bacchanalian as anything you will have ever heard at Carnegie Hall. And judging by the roar of the crowd—so loud that, finally, you know this isn't some backroom jam—they realize they've just heard something special.

September 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Billie Holiday: Love is Here to Stay

Because of the prominent inclusion of this song in the Oscar-winning biopic on Holiday, it has become closely associated with her. But Lady Day did not sing it at a recording session until shortly before her death. By then this upbeat tribute to eternal romance was strikingly out of synch with both her private life and public persona. Yet Holiday delivers a moving and believable performance of the Gershwin standard. Hear how her phrasing accentuates the meaning of the lyric—she elongates the 'going a long, long way' while the 'crumble' and 'tumble' get the more abbreviated treatment. This singer will always be associated with saxophonist Lester Young, but her Verve pairings with Ben Webster are also deserving of high praise. Webster takes the opening melody statement on this track, and by the time Holiday enters, the mood is already established and there to stay. No, Holiday didn't often sing this song, but she puts her claim on it here, and i don't see another vocalist wresting it away from her.

September 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Quintette du Hot Club de France: Oh, Lady Be Good

From the very first session of the QHCF, “Oh, Lady Be Good” shows the group still getting its bearings. The swing rhythms are still a little jerky, and part of the problem is Louis Vola’s two-beat bass pattern. On the occasions where he plays four beats to the bar, the rhythmic issues straighten themselves out almost instantly. After Grappelli & Reinhardt’s opening figure, the guitarist takes his first solo, paraphrasing the Gershwin melody as he goes. This was a typical setup for the early QHCF sides and Django was very adept at alternating between melody and improvisation. What is already present here is Django’s fine sense of sequencing and developing motives, as displayed in a superbly executed sequence near the end of his second chorus. However, he didn’t have a wide range of licks, and he had not yet developed a sense of solo structure. There is a hint of future developments during his second solo as he strongly chords to designate the surprise modulations. Grappelli seems a little less polished than we might expect, but he delivers two red-hot solos that raise the intensity of the performance.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments


João Gilberto: S'Wonderful

There were many reasons why this track shouldn't work. João Gilberto abandons Portuguese to sing in English. He switches from Jobim for a Gershwin song from 1927. And he buries his distinctive guitar work in the sometimes saccharine orchestral colorings of Mr. Claus Ogerman, a man who never saw a lingering major seventh chord he didn't like. The result should have been one more forgettable attempt to dilute Brazilian music for mass consumption by the chardonnay and brie set in the US. But someone forgot to tell Gilberto that he was supposed to imitate Carmen Miranda and ham it up for the Yanks. As a result, he leaves the antioxidant-enriched headgear behind, and sings this song with a delicacy and confessional honesty that are deeply touching. S'marvelous? You bet! But João, I'll tell it to you straight: your six strings are the only ones you need to bring to the next session.

August 07, 2009 · 0 comments


Charlie Byrd/Herb Ellis/Tal Farlow: Embraceable You

Even though this version of George and Ira Gershwin's "Embraceable You" is credited to the guitar trio of Byrd/Ellis/Farlow, Tal Farlow pays most of the respects to the two legends of American song here. Minimal contributions from the other guitarists on the bill are made, but they exist, and, even though they are spare, they are important to the overall presentation. At 3:24, some artificial harmonics are played on the guitar and prove that the point of the entire evening-that is, classic jazz tunes such as this one can be infused with advanced instrumental techniques that add great variety to the original composition.

Farlow references North Carolina in his introduction, restating the title as "Embraceable Y'all," but the tune does not deviate much from the spirit of the inaugaral version. The changes are lovingly preserved, the solo sections are boxed into them, and the spirit of innovation is present even though the tune is ancient. The audience's reaction is proof of the power of the track, and, surely, the distinctly wistful melody is left intact, and, because many dimensions are added to the mix, anyone interested in great jazz improvisation on guitar should check this track out.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Denny Zeitlin: They Can't Take That Away From Me

This album marks Denny Zeitlin's first time playing with Buster Williams (b. 1942) and Al Foster (b. 1944). The results were so fruitful that Williams in particular has continued to work with Zeitlin for more than a decade.

Zeitlin's approach to standards typically involves reharmonization, and such is the case here. His interpretation of this Gershwin evergreen, though, goes beyond that. After playing the theme with Zeitlin, Williams and Foster lay out while the pianist plays a chorus that makes fleeting references to both stride and Art Tatum. The tempo then doubles, and the three leap into a double-time improvisation worthy of Bud Powell at his best.

All of this is done without a trace of pastiche. Zeitlin has always been an eclectic, and that quality has been borne out most of all in his approach to repertoire. Here he gives us a welcome insight into his pianistic roots.

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Lillian Boutté: Embraceable You

Although one of the finest gospel, jazz, blues, and R & B singers to ever come out of New Orleans, the versatile Boutté is probably best known--outside of the Crescent City itself--in Great Britain and Europe. Early in her career Boutté was a back-up singer on various Allen Toussaint projects, then starred for four years with a touring company of the jazz-based musical One Mo' Time, after which she and her husband, German saxophonist Thomas l'Etienne, spent most of their time performing together overseas. However, in 1986 she was named "New Orleans Musical Ambassador," a title only previously bestowed on none other than Louis Armstrong. Boutté's appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival have always been highly anticipated and rewarding.

Boutté's The Jazz Book CD focuses on her jazz-oriented singing style, and the ballad performance "Embraceable You" fully displays the polished, understated beauty of her voice and approach. Beginning with the piano intro so well known from Charlie Parker's classic 1947 version, Boutté then follows with her rich, controlled vibrato, singing the words with a reserved, appealing quaver that nearly turns this interpretation into a gospel paean, rather than a secular acknowledgment of love. Leroy Jones' commanding trumpet solo is patterned after Clifford Brown, exhibiting a similar well-rounded, glowing tone, lyricism, and precise phrasing. His obbligatos enhance Boutté's spiritual reprise, as does pianist Edward Frank's deliberate, unassuming chord placements. Lloyd Lambert and Søren Frost add greatly to the success of this track with their sensitive--and clearly recorded--rhythmic support.

June 12, 2009 · 1 comment


Zoot Sims and Oscar Peterson: The Man I Love

Here we have another Gershwin tune that has been recorded hundreds of times. But when a tune is that good and you have master musicians moving each other to make a great recording, the result is a fine addition to recorded jazz. That certainly is the case here.

It starts with that magnificent maestro of jazz piano, Oscar Peterson, playing simply sparkling lines that introduce the tune; that opening piano work is so good, you'll want to play this intro again. We are then treated to about six minutes of Zoot playing exceptionally fine variations and embellishments on the theme with great verve, dynamics and tone, adding excellent accents, with superb support by the others. After several choruses, Joe Pass then takes a solo, matching Sims with creativity and verve, though with more modest dynamics. Then Peterson gives us some more of that sparkling piano work, before Zoot takes it out.

This quintet plays so beautifully together, one would think they had toured as a group for years. Led by Zoot Sims, they produce a marvelous extended exploration of this Gershwin music and the artistic possibilities of the tenor sax.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Zoot Sims and Oscar Peterson: How Long Has This Been Going On

The melody of “How Long Has This Been Going On” is one of those tunes that’s so fine and memorable it keeps replaying in our heads, with a marvelous associated feeling. This little gem of a track (2:11) begins with Joe Pass subtly setting the mood and harmonic structure with a rich chord presentation on his guitar, and then backing an exquisite, slow, soulful opening statement of the theme by Zoot on his tenor sax, with nicely creative variations, lingering meaningfully on key notes, and using rhythmic pauses to perfection. Sims continues the lovely, slow-jazzy rendering of the song with superb sax tone, slightly breathy, but well-used in the service of added feeling and texture, and with very nice vibrato endings to phrases.

Oscar Peterson plays basic piano support, unlike his sparkling piano intro and subsequent work on the superb companion track from this CD, “The Man I Love.” The bass and drum work by Mraz and Tate is very tasteful and wonderfully attuned to Zoot’s lead work and the support from Peterson and Pass. All of this produces one of the most beautiful and moving versions of this classic Gershwin tune on record.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Gary Bartz: But Not For Me

Gary Bartz began his career in the '60s with the groups of Max Roach/Abby Lincoln, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, and finally Miles Davis in 1970-71 (check him out on Live-Evil), before forming his popular NTU Troop and subsequently losing his way with more commercial, unfocused projects. By the '90s, Bartz was back in the land of hard and post bop for good, now considered an altoist with an individual and fully formed stylistic approach, if no longer thought of as a potential great on his instrument as had once been the case in his youth.

This ballad feature presents a clear picture of Bartz's influences, most prominently Coltrane, Rollins, McLean and Stitt, although it's also evident that Bartz has transcended these role models. (Coltrane's version from his My Favorite Things album comes most immediately to mind.) Bartz's perfectly rounded, succulent tone enhances his presentations of both the verse and main theme, as well as his many original ideas expressed during an effervescent, technically polished solo. Bartz is also not reluctant to coarsen or add dissonance to his sound in order to make a more emotionally intense point. Pianist Mulgrew Miller follows with a stirring solo of his own, only to be topped by bassist Dave Holland's remarkable in-the-pocket virtuosity immediately thereafter. Bartz returns for the theme and the beginnings of a heated out-chorus before a fadeout at the 9:25 mark. This is a saxophonist one wouldn't want to foolishly try to challenge or top at an otherwise friendly jam session.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea: Liza

It’s hard for me pick between “Liza” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” on this record, but I will pick “Liza.” Herbie is always so open to playing with other people in different situations. One challenge of duo piano playing is that if either of the pianists takes up too much space, it doesn’t give room to the other person. It’s a real test of how interactive you can be. Yet, on the other hand, the more you go for it in terms of setting up something that the other pianist has to react to, then the more the music can go in different places. I remember seeing Herbie and Chick play live at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, when they came out on tour. It was very strange, because a lot of the crowd showed up expecting a fusion concert from the advertising, and when two guys came out and just played acoustic piano, there was a lot of stirring—they weren’t so happy with it. But I was thrilled, because I couldn’t believe they were just playing standards—and really playing their asses off! I also remember that Herbie and Chick played on a local TV show in Philadelphia called The Mike Douglas Show to promote their gig. Mike Douglas was a sort of crooner who had a talk show but it was an incredible show—you can see great videos of Sly Stone and Muhammad Ali on his show. He would invite Yoko Ono and John Lennon. People would come down to Philadelphia for a week, and he would let them dominate the show. Anyway, Herbie and Chick went on the show and accompanied him on “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and then each took an incredible solo. He just let them play and the music went so many places. That’s what happens on this song—at first they’re playing very impressionistically, in a free rubato style, where there’s not really a lot of time; then they start swinging, and accompany each other in a more straight-ahead feel; and then they start trading, and the trades get more and more outrageous in how far they’re taking it out. Herbie would play something that almost recalled a stride thing, Chick would answer with something stride and then play some really out stuff, then Herbie would answer with out stuff. To see how two people with different styles, both virtuosos, were able to accompany and complement and push each other, and also how hard they were listening to each other, made a strong impression on me as a pianist, game me a real feeling of joy and uplift. One of the attractive things about Herbie is the lack of what I guess you could call ego—showing off virtuosity for its own sake. He’s really in the music all the time. I think it’s great playing by him as well as by Chick. Both Chick and Herbie have distinctive solo styles, and they’re both pushing each other. They both have enormous range, not just as ensemble players, but also as soloists. It’s an obscure record in Herbie’s total discography. But it’s stuck with me, and I’ve listened to it a lot.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Rita Edmond: Our Love Is Here To Stay

Rita Edmond's rendition of this Gershwin classic is up-tempo and energetic. In contrast to other tunes on Sketches of a Dream, vocalist Edmonds spends this song in the middle and high registers. That could be a result of the song's quick pace. There is also a touch of nasal quality not employed on the other cuts. The band is kicking from the start. There is a wonderful vibe created that takes you back to the days of the song's earliest jazz interpretations. (Contrary to popular belief, that was not when Harry Connick Jr. sang the song for When Harry Met Sally.) You can visualize Edmond & band really cooking in a nightclub. You can see the smiles on the patrons' faces as they tap their fingers on the tablecloths. Edmond's voice is a real gift. She has obviously been surrounded by the right gift-wrapping.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Wynton Marsalis: A Foggy Day

The opening bars seem to herald a relaxed rendition of an old standard. But thirty seconds into the track, bassist Hurst briefly superimposes a five-beat pulse on the underlying 4/4, and the games begin. Wynton & Co. had been experimenting with odd metrics on the albums leading up to Standard Time, and the band displays here that they could apply these progressive techniques to the traditional repertoire. But the most impressive thing here is the subtlety with which the cross-rhythms are employed. A casual listener might not hear anything out of the ordinary, and put this track on for light background music. Send that tin-eared transgressor to jazz re-education camp forthwith! The combo playing here is happening at a very high level and has earned a place at the forefront of your attention. Marsalis's sidemen challenge him at every step, but the trumpeter stays in total control of the proceedings. Check out the placement of his phrasing against the rhythm section starting at the ninety-second mark and continuing for ten scintillating seconds . . . and then go back and enjoy it again. Just a tiny snippet, but it sounds like a mariachi band joining Monk during the last set at the Five Spot, and each ensemble asserting the primacy of its own conception of time. Then the music settles down again at the top of the form . . . but nothing is ever settled for very long on this performance. This is how you keep the old sentimental songs sounding fresh and unbridled fifty years after they were composed. By the time we get the coda, the band is changing meters so often, even Lovely Rita couldn't keep up with them. Meanwhile, the fog has dissipated and the sun is shining everywhere.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Jacqui Naylor: Summertime

I'm going to begin with a caveat: I love jazz and I love blues. I love R&B. I even love good, honest rock 'n' roll. But when I'm sent a jazz album, I want to hear good, honest jazz, played and sung by artists who are willing to fly without a net.

Jacqui Naylor is a talented, beautiful and obviously marketable singer. She can approximate a reasonable facsimile of blues affectation and has a cadre of solid, competent studio musicians on this effort. She has received a goodly amount of media buzz thanks to a combination of the aforementioned factors. But, in this cloying rehash of classic rock 'n' roll, blues and disco, I find little evidence of deep understanding or sensitivity towards the art of jazz.

Case in point: her hybrid arrangement of "Summertime," crammed into a rather lackluster shell of the Allmans' breakthrough 11/8 rocker, "Whipping Post." Cute idea, nice execution. Still, I would rather hear Duane Allman's tortured riffs and brother Greg's heartfelt growling instead of this lukewarm, contrived effort. And Gershwin deserves much better.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Sheila Jordan: Lady Be Good

Sheila Jordan, who is celebrating her 80th birthday on the day I am writing this review, frequently apologizes for her "senior moments" during the course of her live recording in Montreal Winter Sunshine. But there is more sunshine than winter in Jordan's music these days. Except for an occasional note-bending exercise that seems to hover precariously outside of consonance, her phrasing is supple and inventive; if anything she sings with more relaxation here than she did back in the day. Her version of "Lady Be Good" is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, who put an ineradicable stamp on this tune, but Jordan feels no compulsion to imitate the First Lady of Song. She takes Gershwin's warhorse at a very slow tempo—a real departure for this standard, which usually is played with a brisk, swinging pulse. Along the way, she tells about Ella, and throws in some bits of her own personal history. Mid-song she insists that she won't try to scat like Fitzgerald, but instead she scats like Sheila Jordan, and with such winsome charm that no one in the audience has any right to complain. This lady be great . . . and it is heartening to see her finally getting some of the honors (most recently a lifetime achievement award at an star-studded event at the Kennedy Center this past May) that have long been her due.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments


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