Donald Lambert: Anitra's Dance

I believe this performance is technically impossible. I have heard (and now seen: YouTube! ) it many times but still refuse to accept it!

Lambert's left hand on up-tempo showpieces like "Anitra's Dance" makes me think of an old-time movie projector, flickering from still image to still image but nevertheless creating the impression of smooth motion.

Donald Lambert tombstone

Edvard Grieg's "Anitra's Dance" is a light classical staple always included in various "Best-loved Classics" anthologies found hidden away in most old piano benches. "Ragging the classics" was standard procedure for this era of pianists; Lambert's "Anitra's Dance" is surely the summit of this practice. There is a studio recording from the 1940s which is also amazing (and basically the same arrangement), but I chose this version since it seems to have more limitless fire.

Unfortunately, having a real gig like the one at the Newport Jazz Festival documented on YouTube was a rare triumph in the Lambert saga. At this point, Lambert was mostly an alcoholic barroom pianist forgotten in New Jersey with just a couple years to live. Instead of a conventional epitaph, Lambert's grave in Princeton has the musical phrase "In some secluded rendezvous" (from "Cocktails for Two") carved in granite.

January 12, 2009 · 1 comment

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Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Echoes of Spring

The 'Lion' liked to act and talk real tough, but paradoxically he was the Harlem stride master most interested in gauzy, impressionistic harmony and classically structured piano pieces. Duke Ellington always credited Smith as an important influence.

"Echoes Of Spring" features an unforgettable melody floating over arpeggios before the heat gets turned up a little bit. Although Smith never really plays the requisite left-hand 'oom-pah' in this piece, the stride feeling is there somehow.

I'm not sure if we always get the real deal with Smith's records. While his compositions are supremely beautiful, there is something occasionally self-conscious, rushed and even sloppy about his performances. Not everybody records as easily as the next person, and I wonder if the Lion was really comfortable in the studio.

Highly recommended is my pal Spike Wilner's book of Willie 'The Lion' Smith transcriptions with accompanying essay (The Lion of the Piano: 8 Piano Compositions by Willie 'The Lion' Smith). These wonderful compositions are surely ripe for an interesting contemporary repertory project.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fats Waller: Numb Fumblin'

Waller was the most overtly humorous of any serious jazz musician. Nothing could be more ironic than his title for this spacious, slowly paced but bouncing blues.

Waller had the best trills of any jazz pianist. He shows them off here not only as single notes but in double thirds as well. Waller said offhandedly that he studied with classical ĂĽber-virtuoso Leopold Godowsky; as far as I know, this is unproved, but the last chorus of high-register passage-work in "Numb Fumblin'" has a kind of effortlessly manic Art Nouveau elegance not far from Godowsky's world.

The emotion of "Numb Fumblin'" is perverse, joyous, and groovy. Classic Fats!

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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James P. Johnson: Keep Off the Grass

They called him the father of stride piano, the king of the Harlem rent party.

In terms of keyboard geography, the space between the "oom" and the "pah" is always very far in James P's left hand. This piece is also quite fast; few other jazz pieces from this era are as brisk. Everything considered, "Keep Off the Grass" is fearsomely difficult to play.

Part of the real Harlem stride style is how single notes do not dominate the melody; instead, constant constellations of double notes (and sometimes chords) brassily sing on top. The first strain of "Keep Off the Grass" has a mysterious chromatic "thumb line" (the lower note of the dyads and chords) that, if isolated, would be quite Monkish in nature.

The last (and most improvised) strain is composed of falling diminished chords. After nearly a century of increasingly advanced jazz harmony, it is hard to hear them as provocative today. In 1921, though, I'm pretty sure James P. would have meant those chain sequences of diminished chords to mean uncertainty and perhaps even sadness: the tear beneath the smile.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fats Waller: My Feelings Are Hurt

Fats Waller's colorful story could start with his days as a teen prodigy winning his high school's talent contest playing James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout." Soon afterward, the dean of Harlem pianists (Johnson) took the younger man under his wing and taught him the ways of stride piano playing. He eventually secured Waller's first piano-roll and recording dates as well. This Victor side, made when the pianist was all of 25, is a slow stride blues with some fascinating turns towards Tin Pan Alley. Despite these beautiful digressions the blues is never far from the surface. "One never knows, do one?"

September 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Luckey Roberts: Complainin'

Small in stature, Luckey Roberts was a giant among Harlem stride pianists. Yet by the time of this 1958 session for Lester Koenig's revivalist Good Time Jazz Records, Luckey was among jazz's forgotten men. Moreover, his name notwithstanding, he'd suffered a series of personal mishaps, including an automobile wreck that shattered his hands and, only weeks before this recording, a stroke. Any one of these setbacks by itself would explain a poor performance; taken together, they'd excuse almost anything. But Luckey Roberts was, to quote Nat Hentoff's liner notes, "indomitable"—too talented and, yes, too damn proud to make anything less than memorable music.

So, if there was any complaining to do, Luckey would do it in song. "Complainin'," his own composition, is part Debussy, part Scott Joplin, and all Luckey. It's a delightful, bluesy yet dignified rag that, at a scant 3 minutes long, magnetically attracts your thumb to the Repeat button again and again. While his execution may not be letter perfect, Luckey Roberts raises "Complainin'" to an art through his irrepressible warmth, humanity and survivor's dignity. Indomitable indeed.

May 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Fats Waller: Your Feet's Too Big

Here is the Harlem rent party side of Fats Waller. Full-bodied stride piano is mixed in with singing, shtick and comedy, but jazz is the key ingredient, the glue that holds everything together. Waller imitates some heavy, feet's-too-big footsteps for the keyboard intro, and Gene Sedric takes a hot and sweet clarinet solo at the midpoint, but most of this track is Waller's fast and loose delivery of a novelty song transformed into an iconic moment in American music. A taste of New Orleans counterpoint closes the proceedings. Well, it's not really the close, since Waller caps it off with a final bit of monologue: "Your pedal extremities really are obnoxious. One never knows, do one?"

May 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lucky Millinder: When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)

Harlem bandleader Lucky Millinder had a big hit with this World War II ballad, which reached #1 on the R&B charts and #14 on the pop charts in 1942. This was a love song with a patriotic twist: the lights mentioned in the title would "go on again (all over the world)" when the war-imposed blackouts of potential bombing targets were no longer necessary. Millinder was a "crossover" act before the term even existed, mixing rhythm-and-blues and other commercial elements into his music. Yet his band, which had residencies at the Savoy and later the Apollo, was a breeding ground for modern jazz talent, and featured at various times Dizzy Gillespie (who appears on this track), Thelonious Monk, Sir Charles Thompson and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis. Millinder, for his part, could neither read music nor play an instrument. This performance goes easy on the jazz, but provides insights into other currents active in 1940s Harlem musical life.

May 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Harlem Air Shaft

This composition may not be as well known as "Satin Doll" or "Mood Indigo," but make no mistake about it: this is one of Ellington's finest moments on record and a landmark of jazz writing. Duke never had a better band than this historic unit, and he contributes a brilliant chart, full of surprising twists and turns. The repeated fake-out shift into half time, jarred back into hot swing by Greer's drumming, still gets me jazzed every time I hear it. And the soloists play with fire -- yet how could they not with such great writing and playing behind them.

Ellington has described the inspiration for this work in vivid terms. "You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft," he explained. "You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring." To convey this diversity of activities in sound, Ellington has expanded his palette and opened up his structure beyond the typical confines of 32-bar song form. And for a brief moment in American history, an art song with this type of intricacy could also be a commercial recording for a popular band. We may never see the like again.

May 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chick Webb: Liza

Jazz fans all know Ella Fitzgerald's hit recording of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" -- but how many have checked out this version of "Liza" on the flip side of the 78? Yet you would need to look far and wide to find a better exhibition of Swing Era drumming. Webb drives the band with a double dose of what Alan Greenspan might call "irrational exuberance." But you can't resist this beat -- no wonder the dancers stomped so hard at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where Webb & Co. presided over the spirited proceedings. Listen and enjoy the band that defeated the Benny Goodman ensemble, the most famous jazz group of the age, at a heated Harlem battle a few months before this session. Webb would be dead, at age 30, before the close of the decade, but this track serves notice that he was one of the finest talents the jazz world has produced.

May 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Cab Calloway: Tarzan of Harlem

Who could possibly follow the Ellington band at the Cotton Club? Only Cab Calloway, the heppest cat on the third planet from the sun during the 1930s. In fact, Calloway may be the slickest entertainer the jazz scene has ever known; even serious boppers such as Dizzy Gillespie (who sits in the trumpet section on the track) learned how to handle an audience from the 'Hi De Ho' man. And if white audiences out slumming wanted authentic "jungle music," Calloway would cook up something hot and funny, like "Tarzan of Harlem." Cozy Cole stirs up things on the drums, and Calloway gives out several hollers that put Johnny Weissmuller to shame.

May 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Concentratin'

We tend to remember Harlem jazz for its rent parties or 'jungle music' at the Cotton Club. But there was a concert hall side to this music, drawing on classical influences, and aiming to craft a subtle merger between European and African-American currents. We see this in the large-scale compositions of James P. Johnson, Ellington's extended pieces, and in the impressionistic works of stride pianists, such as Waller's "African Ripples," and this offering from Willie 'The Lion' Smith.

Of course, the great William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith - okay, let's just call him 'The Lion' - never got too refined, and this work's concert hall polish may be closer to Zez Confey than Debussy. In any event, the leonine keyboardist puts aside the oom-pah stride bass for the first half of this number, and crafts a pastoral melody with a Celtic tinge. But he can't hold back the hot jazz forever, and in mid-song he shifts into fast and furious Harlem stride, tossing out some unexpected syncopations along the way. The end result is halfway between the Harlem rent party and Carnegie Hall -- sort of a tux and stogie event. And who better to serve as our host for some transgressive entertainment than 'The Lion'?

May 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten: Harlem Drag

From the middle of the Jazz Age to the depths of the Depression, Charlie Johnson's band graced the stage at Small's Paradise Club in Harlem. Only a handful of stalwart fans remember this band nowadays, but along with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, Johnson was a pioneer in forging the big band sound that would eventually transform American popular music. Few jazz bands from the 1920s had a more modern conception of swinging section work, and though Johnson himself was not a scintillating soloist, he always had hot players in the band (such as Jabbo Smith and Benny Carter) ready to take a chorus. In this instance, Sidney De Paris does the honors, dishing up some of the rough-and-tumble trumpet work that must have put spring in the dancers' steps . . . and also served notice that Bubber Miley wasn't the only master of "jungle style" horn playing in Harlem.

May 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jimmie Lunceford: Harlem Shout

Jimmie Lunceford is the odd man out in jazz history. This bandleader made no waves with his musicianship—his preferred instrument was the conductor's baton—and he possessed neither the elegance of Ellington nor the hipster hauteur of Calloway. But Lunceford knew how to entertain an audience, and he led one of the finest jazz bands of the 1930s. When Lunceford's ensemble took a booking at the Cotton Club, following in the footsteps of Cab and the Duke, dancers would hardly have missed a beat. "Harlem Shout" demonstrates the core virtues of this orchestra: its swinging riff-based charts, its hot and polished section work, and (another calling card of Lunceford's bands) high-note trumpet theatrics, provided here by Paul Webster. Like a hearty band of soldiers, this ensemble always maintained discipline under fire, and there was inevitably plenty of hot stuff around when folks like Sy Oliver and Eddie Durham were handing out the parts. Perhaps if Lunceford had lived longer—he died, reportedly of a heart attack (although under suspicious circumstances), at age 45—he might have been fêted as elder statesman of jazz. But, as it stands, he is little more than a half-remembered name for most younger jazz fans. Tis pity, 'cause this band was sublime.

May 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Echoes of Spring

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s is justly celebrated for its flowering of African-American artistic and intellectual accomplishment, in which white Eurocentric models were demoted in favor of black indigenous cultural expression. Jazz musicians, however, proved problematical to this movement. No less a dignitary than Duke Ellington labored on the Cotton Club plantation, catering to all-white patrons with jungle-themed floor shows that reinforced racist stereotypes of "darkies" in their native habitat.

Another gifted jazzman, with closer ties to the hoi polloi, was even more marginalized. Stride pianist Willie 'the Lion' Smith made the nightly rounds of rent parties, born of necessity in segregated neighborhoods where housing demand so exceeded supply that exorbitant rents were charged for squalid tenements. Given his talent and charisma, the cigar-chomping, derby-wearing Lion soon became a star attraction at such hat-passing events. But a piano player whose fee was $10 and all he could eat wasn't exactly the "New Negro" idealists had in mind.

Not that it mattered to Willie, for the Lion was blessed with abundant self-esteem. The only one who lionized Willie 'the Lion' Smith more than his fellow musicians did was Willie 'the Lion' Smith himself. He also possessed a wry wit, which he brandishes on this live track. Introducing what he jokingly calls "one of my latest tunes" (actually decades old), the Lion offers his audience in that 1950s bastion of WASP affluence—Newport, Rhode Island—a traditional Yiddish toast: Zei Gesund ("To your health").

His listeners laughed, but only at the incongruous language and not at the reference to his "latest tune," which to most festival goers probably was new. Following the Lion's own first recording in 1935, "Echoes of Spring" (then titled "Echo of Spring" ) was seldom covered by other pianists, commencing a neglect that persists to this day. Why such a fine composition is so rarely rendered is unfathomable. Like Ellington's "Black Beauty" (1928), Gershwin's "Prelude No. 2" (1926) and the same composer's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924), "Echoes of Spring" is both a classic Jazz Age piano piece and an indispensable slice of Americana.

Admittedly, this particular performance, while charming, is far from flawless. At age 60˝, the Lion was no longer King of the Cutting Contests, as he'd been 30 years before. Yet through his occasional sloppiness shines the loveliest and most enchanting obscurity in the jazz literature. If the Lion, who died in 1973, is reading this on the high-speed Internet in Jazz Heaven, we extend our salutations and offer a hearty toast: Zei Gesund, Leib.

April 16, 2008 · 2 comments

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