Sonny Stitt: I Got Rhythm

The two albums that Sonny Stitt recorded in 1972 for respected producer Don Schlitten's Cobblestone label were among the finest of the 150 or so sessions that Stitt led during his prolific career. Coming off a very successful international tour with the Giants of Jazz, a group that included Dizzy, Monk and Art Blakey, Stitt was in top form. Add a highly compatible rhythm section and a no-gimmick concept, and you were almost assured of hearing Stitt at full throttle, rather than on autopilot as was too often the case when he entered the studio.

What makes this over 9-minute version of "I Got Rhythm," originally from the Tune Up! release, so memorable is that it showcases at length Stitt's equally formidable proficiency on both alto and tenor. Stitt commences on tenor in a bluesy loping fashion, sounding almost like a big band sax section all by himself, before going up tempo with a clarion call. His swift, fresh extended lines, rhythmically varied attack, and artful resolutions continue throughout this exhilarating, romping improvisation that defies all expectations, in that it jumps from peak to yet higher peak. You may find yourself sitting there shaking your head from side to side in disbelief, while tapping your foot uncontrollably. Harris, Jones and Dawson are in rousingly tight formation behind him all the way, and Harris delivers an inspired, eloquent bop proclamation of his own before Stitt returns on alto for a second, shorter solo. Again, Stitt's dexterity and imagination are in perfect sync, with nary a wasted note. Stitt moves back to tenor for the winding down, a testifying, soulful ending to a masterpiece.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roland Kirk: Our Love Is Here To Stay

As quickly as some critics saw three saxophones around Roland Kirk's neck and howled gimmickry, was as quickly as Kirk won over nearly all their praises with his ability to pick up a single saxophone and lead a generation of expressive players. Not too long after this second Kirk session, he was not only critically acclaimed but had developed an exceptionally loyal cult following, a far rarer occurrence in the jazz world than one might think.

Kirk's take on this Gershwin standard is a fine example of his early hard-bop intensity on a single saxophone. While trumpeter Ira Sullivan guests on multiple tracks throughout the session, "Our Love is Here to Stay" is all Kirk. His improvisation takes off at the 1:25 mark and builds until the band develops a strong groove about a minute later. Throughout the solo, Kirk cleverly intersperses brief unexpected vertical maneuvers amidst his standard soul-jazz lines. Note the strong melodic bass work from Donald Garrett that triggers Kirk's solo development.

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell: Love Is Here To Stay

Larry Coryell's chops seem more indebted to residencies in posh jazz clubs than to either Tin Pan Alley or Shubert Alley, but Gershwin would be proud of this performance. The song is instantly familiar, yet this entertaining solo version stacks up against more established renditions by artists including Ella Fitzgerald. Featuring some of his most reverent playing on disc, the track's conscious conservatism is not a letdown. Ultimately, its success is in its fresh approach to music basic to the jazz lexicon. The melody remains unchanged, his embellishments are perfect, and it benefits from a high level of technical proficiency and excellence.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Take 6: Someone to Watch Over Me

Some things have changed with Take 6 since the vocal group's debut CD back in 1988. Instead of a cappella gospel music, we now hear a conventional rhythm section in the background and a repertoire featuring a big dose of pop and love songs. But some things don't change. This group still shows off its flawless execution, great intonation, and very smooth blending of voices. Even with guest Shelea Fraizer handling lead vocals, I find myself zeroing in on the impressive backup work of the six singing stars who make up Take 6. Jazz fans take note: although Roy Hargrove is on this track, don't expect to hear much of the trumpeter. Even so, this is a jazzy release, and Take 6 fans will want to own it. But those who haven't heard this group before may want to start with the earlier a cappella releases—timeless projects that still stand out as masterpieces of the genre.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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The Modern Jazz Quartet: My Man's Gone Now

Jazz.com recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the the most famous jazz adaptation of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, that of Miles Davis with Gil Evans in 1958. In 1965, however, the Modern Jazz Quartet presented their versions of seven pieces from the folk opera, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its 1935 premiere. This relatively obscure entry in the MJQ's discography has always deserved greater attention. The MJQ's intimate arrangements personalize the music to such an extent that it becomes as much theirs as Gershwin's, and Milt Jackson's theme readings and improvisations attain the same mesmerizing heights achieved by Miles Davis.

Their treatment of "My Man's Gone Now" is one of the most moving and memorable ever recorded by a jazz group. Heath's deeply resonant bassline and Kay's insinuating cymbals set up a steadfast rhythmic foundation for Lewis's insistent chords and, finally, Jackson's delicate, emotion-filled interpretation of the melody, with Lewis tenderly handling the bridge. The intertwining of Jackson's and Lewis's lines is both soothing and ingratiating. With a pickup in tempo (subtly varied from this point on), Jackson initiates an extended bluesy solo, the vibist's flowing phrases blossoming into cascading runs, and his radiant and singular vibrato accentuating his expressiveness. The support of Lewis, Heath and Kay is finely attuned, especially the bassist's plangent figures. The intricate reprise becomes a miraculous interaction between four individual yet totally compatible musicians. This music will linger in your mind for some time after hearing it, and then you'll want to hear it again.

September 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Erroll Garner: Love Walked In

Calling the solo piano section that begins this track an "introduction" is a great disservice to Erroll Garner. The through-composed, harmonically adventurous and seemingly unrelated introductions that are a hallmark of his recordings are augmented here, consuming half the track's length. Garner achieves his highest level of pianistic expression, displaying complete mastery of the keyboard while elaborating on the main theme with quasi-Romantic inclinations. Gently ushering in his trio, Garner settles into a beautiful, easy ballad. As in most Garner trio recordings, bassist and drummer play an ancillary role, allowing Garner's vision for the recording to proceed in a clear and truly masterful fashion.

August 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Erroll Garner: Strike Up the Band

Here, as he so often did, Erroll Garner performs a seemingly unrelated introduction. Punchy, dissonant, deceptively out-of-time gestures belie the straight-ahead swinging nature on which Garner's trio embarks in this rendition of the 1927 Gershwin standard from an eponymous musical. Even though the original production was unsuccessful, this song, along with "The Man I Love," proved to be hugely popular, and each in time became a standard. In his improvisations, Garner exercises remarkable contrast, at times appearing to trade eights with himself. Garner fans will appreciate how this track in many ways epitomizes his inimitable pianistic style, which proved consistently effective and popular throughout his career.

August 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Wallace: Fascinating Rhythm

San Francisco native Wayne Wallace continues to impress with his mastery of the Afro-Cuban idiom. His 2007 release The Reckless Search for Beauty was one of the neglected gems of the year, and his follow-up The Nature of the Beat is another small-label project that deserves to find a wider audience. This Gershwin tune is an unlikely candidate for Latin treatment -- its syncopated melody line is built on a rhythmic displacement that is more suited to prewar New York stylings than clave. But Wallace pulls out all the stops in giving a new flavor to this old song, crafting a crisp arrangement and even adding lead and background vocals in Spanish. Fascinating indeed!

August 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Grant Green: It Ain't Necessarily So

Some of Grant Green's most memorable recorded tracks happen to be of long duration, such as "Idle Moments" and "Nomad" (both from the sublime Idle Moments session) and "It Ain't Necessarily So." The latter wasn't released until 1980, a year after Green's death, on a vinyl LP titled Nigeria, even though it was recorded in 1962. It was one of Green's three quartet dates with pianist Sonny Clark, and the only time the guitarist recorded with the inspirational Art Blakey. Add the engineering acumen of Rudy Van Gelder, and the ingredients for a masterpiece were all in place.

As Ben Sidran so perfectly puts it in his liner notes, "Grant plays the head in a totally unexpected series of phrases, altering the original melody to such an extent that he might as well have called the song 'So It Ain't Necessarily' and taken the publishing for himself." Blakey starts out in a Latin mode, but quickly turns the rhythm into a bluesy shuffle. Green solos at length in typically linear fashion, with a piercingly metallic, twangy tone. He returns to certain runs and riffs that seem to serve as reference points for a highly animated improvisation, further stimulated by Blakey's propulsive backbeat and Clark's expertly crafted chords. When Green lets loose with a particularly unrestrained riff, Blakey responds vocally and can be heard grunting and shouting from that point on, even during Clark's ensuing solo. Clark blends concise runs, riffs and tremolos, as if taking his cue from Green, and when he eventually plays the Gershwin melody straight, it comes as a complete surprise after all that has transpired. Green then embarks on heated exchanges with the hammering and press-rolling Blakey before going back to the restructured theme that leads to a fadeout ending.

August 09, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jane Ira Bloom: Nearly Summertime/Summertime

Recorded during a summer in New York City, Jane Ira Bloom's version of "Summertime" is quite evocative of the season, and a brilliant example of the saxophonist's approach to standards. The recording opens with Jane's angular composition "Nearly Summertime" played in unison by saxophone and trumpet. Next the rhythm section enters with drum color, a bass solo and a piano vamp in dotted quarter notes (2 notes over 3 beats) that presages what will come later. Gradually, Werner, Priester and Bloom join into the ensemble before Bloom launches an ascending scale to introduce the Gershwin melody, set in 6/4 time. Behind the melody, the horns play long, hypnotic chords at half the speed of the piano vamp, and when Bloom takes over for her solo she leads with another ascending scale based on the same rhythmic pattern. Her sound grows more impassioned as she climbs higher in register, and as the performance grows in intensity you can almost feel the heat generating from the ground. The intensity doesn't let up until the end of the theme, when the horns suddenly dissipate and Hersch plays a rippling triplet figure that might signal a much-needed summer rainstorm.

July 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gunther Schuller: Summertime

The recording dates above are rather misleading, as it is the premiere performance of an arrangement written by Gunther Schuller in 1949. It was written for the Miles Davis Nonet but never recorded or broadcast by that group. Gil Evans famously described the Claude Thornhill sound (which he helped originate) as hanging "like a cloud," and Schuller's arrangement opens with hypnotic seesawing chords that create the same effect. An ominous countermelody in the tuba and baritone sax leads to the theme statement with cup-muted trumpet fronting a dance-band style background that maintains the chords from the opening for awhile, then gradually moves into more complex counterpoint. Then the mood breaks with a double-time chorus (with another double-time passage placed on top!). While the harmony remains Thornhill-esque, the overall style turns into straight-ahead bebop. And this passage, which seems completely unnecessary, probably did more to take this chart out of contention for recording by Miles than anything else. Still, for all it achieves, it is an amazing effort from the very talented Mr. Schuller.

July 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Eddie Jefferson: Summertime

In the mid-'70s, Eddie Jefferson was starting to get overdue recognition as "the Godfather of Vocalese," and his fame continued to rise until he was murdered outside a Detroit nightclub in 1979. The Main Man was one of Jefferson's finest albums, featuring definitive versions of classics like "Jeannine" and "Moody's Mood For Love." "Summertime" is unusual in Jefferson's repertoire in that it does not appear to stem from an instrumental solo; rather, it is Jefferson's loose interpretation of the Gershwin standard. Interestingly, it is sung in the same key as John Coltrane's groundbreaking version - D minor - and like Coltrane, Jefferson seems interested in stripping away all the sentimentality of the original song. The tempo is medium fast and the performance is quite aggressive. On the second time through the song, Jefferson takes great liberties with the lyric (for example, "Fish are jumpin' about on the lake, flop, flop, flop, tryin' to give the fishermen a break") and strongly accents the asides (the "flops" above). However, the recording does not entirely break with the past, as Slide Hampton lifts Gil Evans's famous background riff and uses it to back Jefferson.

July 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chris Connor & Maynard Ferguson: Summertime

Chris Connor and Maynard Ferguson worked together while in Stan Kenton's band, and when they both became jazz stars a few years later, they recorded two separate albums together, one for Ferguson's label, Roulette, and the other for Connor's label, Atlantic. Their version of "Summertime," which kicks off the Atlantic LP, starts with a highly rhythmic duet between the nearly slapped bass of Sanders and the tight snare of Jones, and things just build and build from there. Connor's opening theme statement sounds defiant and rhythmically sure, holding back just slightly in the opening chorus and building as the trombones, trumpets and saxes all join in with riffs that add to the growing intensity. Ferguson's trumpet solo continues the upward climb until the climax of the arrangement where trumpet and band exchange improvised ideas and written shout chorus passages. Then suddenly the volume comes back down for Connor's return. The gradual decrescendo from there to the end doesn't work nearly as well as the crescendo that came before, but the fadeout (usually the bane of jazz fans and critics) actually gives this arrangement a needed balance.

July 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Summertime

From the first note of this recording, you can tell that Coltrane's version of "Summertime" will be unique. Without any introduction, Coltrane kicks off the tune in D minor. While jazz versions of "Summertime" are played in a variety of keys, D minor sounds higher than the keys we usually hear for this song. When the rhythm section enters two beats later, the effect is complete, with Elvin Jones's slashing rhythms and McCoy Tyner's syncopated quartal harmonies. As on the album's title tune, Coltrane and Tyner reduce "Summertime" to a minimal modal harmonic base and focus on building emotional intensity. Dating from early in the Quartet's existence, this performance is not as intense as later recordings, but it shows that the group already knew which direction it would travel.

July 30, 2008 · 2 comments

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Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Summertime

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded two relaxed, swinging albums for Verve before Norman Granz had the inspiration to use them in a deluxe 2-LP set featuring 16 songs from Porgy and Bess. While not the first Porgy and Bess concept album, Ella & Louis's version is one of the best. Both were in top vocal form at the time of the recording, and while Louis's trumpet chops were not as strong as they had been in years past, he could still perform stunning solos. On "Summertime," Russ Garcia's arrangement adds a few subtle touches to the original orchestration. Armstrong plays a majestic first chorus on trumpet, followed by Ella's smooth and creamy vocal. After a subtle key change, Louis takes a solo vocal chorus. When Ella returns, she spins a beautifully conceived variation on the melody while Louis supports her with some of the tenderest scatting he ever recorded.

July 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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