Charlie Johnson: You Ain't the One

This recording offers one of the very few aural glimpses we have of this fabled and pioneering Harlem big band. The composition, by Charlie Johnson and Arthur Porter and arranged by Benny Carter (one of his first on record) is an insouciant melody with a hip lyric almost irresistibly tossed off here by Monette Moore (with some engaging fiddling by Edgar Sampson behind her). Perhaps the thing most will remember about this recording is the stabbing, biting trumpet of Jabbo Smith, then only 19 years old and with so much to say musically. But we also should not ignore the inventive drumming of the little-recorded George Stafford. Uneasiness pervades, however, due to the band’s rushing the tempo. In just over three minutes, they pick up about 24 beats per minute by the end of the performance, a tendency heard also on their equally fine recording of “Charleston is the Best Dance After All.”

March 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy (Victor)

The second of Ellington's three 1927 "Black and Tan Fantasy" recordings disproves the adage that the Third Time's a Charm, since this is the one enshrined in Grammy's Hall of Fame. The performance is dated by Hardwick's smarmy alto sax, a taste best left unacquired. Plumber's helpers also abound, as Miley's growling trumpet trades rude noises with Nanton's whinnying trombone. And, yes, that's Chopin's "Funeral March" at the end. Yet whether intended as highbrow art music or floorshow underpinning, "Black and Tan Fantasy" still conjures phantoms after all these years. For, as one critic marveled at the time: "Beneath all its oddity and perverseness there was a twisted beauty that grew on me and could not be shaken off." Twisted beauty? That was undoubtedly Duke's idea.

January 20, 2008 · 0 comments


James P. Johnson: Carolina Shout

"Carolina Shout" is James P. Johnson's most famous composition, and mastering it was a major rite of passage for aspiring Harlem stride piano players. But no one played it better than Johnson himself, as demonstrated by this outstanding 1944 recording. Stride piano was long out of fashion by the time of this session, replaced by the more streamlined rhythms of Kansas City, the jitterbugging sounds of the Swing Era and the nascent pulse of bebop. But James P. Johnson paid little attention to these passing fads, and asserts his own powerful musical vision. Hear the granddaddy of all jazz keyboardists at top form, the man and the song that influenced everyone from Ellington to Monk. A classic of American pianism.

December 08, 2007 · 1 comment


James P. Johnson: What Is This Thing Called Love

Only a few months after Cole Porter launched this tune as part of his 1929 musical Wake Up and Dream, James P. Johnson records this cover version in a stride adaptation. Johnson aims to transform Porter's minor key lament into a boisterous rent-party number. Jazz fans who are familiar with these chord changes as a springboard for bop pyrotechnics will find this Harlem piano version of the song a bit strange. "What Is This Thing Called Love" is not the best example of James P. Johnson's artistry -- check out his "Carolina Shout" or his classical works if you are new to this artist -- but even this track demonstrates the pianist's ability to put his own personal stamp on a popular standard.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington (featuring Bubber Miley): The Mooche

Duke Ellington once described Bubber Miley as "the epitome of soul and a master of the plunger mute." In time, Miley's alcohol abuse and unreliability would lead to his departure from the Ellington band, and he was dead from tuberculosis before his thirtieth birthday. But no one, apart from Duke himself, did more than Miley to shape the early Ellington sound. His incomparable mute work helped transform "The Mooche," "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and "Black and Tan Fantasy" into classic statements of the jazz idiom. In an era in which jazz was increasingly focusing on virtuoso soloists, Miley remained true to King Oliver's philosophy that emphasized the quality of sound rather than the multiplicity of notes. With his arsenal of bends, moans, whimpers and growls, Miley could turn even the simplest melody into a deeply personal statement. Ellington, who always knew how to write to his band members' strengths, contributes one of his finest compositions of the decade.

November 26, 2007 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy (OKeh)

Ellington's growing musical maturity from the 1920s through the 1940s is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of jazz. At the time of "Black and Tan Fantasy," Duke was still in the early stages of this unprecedented evolution, but already we see his ability to craft a distinctive musical mood, to tell a story through the medium of his band. Here he presents a late-night dreamscape, both menacing and alluring, one that must have drawn many patrons back to the Cotton Club, where Duke had recently started his four-year stint leading the house band. Trumpeter Bubber Miley helped craft this memorable piece, both as composer and through his solo efforts. But on this date, 18-year-old Jabbo Smith -- a near-legend of 1920s jazz -- subs for Miley, and handles the trumpet chores with aplomb. One wonders what Smith might have accomplished had he accepted Ellington's offer to join the Cotton Club band. Duke completists will want to compare this track with the Brunswick and Victor versions, each featuring Miley.

November 24, 2007 · 0 comments


Fats Waller: Ain't Misbehavin'

He doesn't sing here, but Waller's skills as pianist and composer are amply displayed. While Fats didn't invent the Harlem stride style (usually credited to James P. Johnson), he was among its most prodigious practitioners. And whereas he didn't write all the best songs of the 1920s (a guy named Gershwin being no slouch), Fats contributed many jazz standards. Both in conception and execution, "Ain't Misbehavin'" personifies Waller's irrepressible mischief and merriment. Disporting the lilting melody with his effortless bubbly touch, he simultaneously goads the song with a vibrant sense of swing, producing a track as irresistible as Fats himself.

November 22, 2007 · 0 comments


Fats Waller: The Joint is Jumpin'

The reason Fats Waller was so huge (6' tall, 300 lbs., shoe size 15) was because there were two of him in there. One was a dazzling pianist and prolific songwriter. "The Joint Is Jumpin'" gives us the other Fats, a Pagliacci-type buffoon hilariously re-creating the raucous ambience of a Harlem rent party. Of Waller's death at 39 from pneumonia, Frederick J. Spencer, M.D., observes: "His alcoholic clowning endeared him to his fellow musicians and the public. But if he had stayed sober the world might not have been deprived so soon of one of its great pianists and entertainers." Duh!  If James Dean had been a safe driver, we'd have more James Dean films to watch. The problem is, if James Dean had been a safe driver, he wouldn't have been James Dean. If Fats Waller had stayed sober, he might've made a swell shoe salesman, but he wouldn't have kept The Joint Jumpin'. We are who we are.

November 16, 2007 · 1 comment


Duke Ellington: Jungle Nights in Harlem

"The grotesque spectacle of Harlem nightclubs for all-white audiences," historian Ted Gioia believes, "served to mitigate, however clumsily, the currents of racism that were running rampant in other social institutions. In America, music was the first sphere of social interaction in which racial barriers were challenged and overturned." The Cotton Club—an oasis of glamour in Depression-era Harlem—provided grotesquely spectacular context for Duke Ellington's "jungle music." Maintaining his dignity in this racially compromised setting made Ellington a star. Creating works of musical genius in the same setting, Duke exposed the inherent obscenity of relegating civilized people to imaginary jungles.

November 05, 2007 · 0 comments


Fats Waller: African Ripples

Fats Waller's combo sides sound like primal party music, recorded at the heat of the festivities, just before the police arrive at the door. But Waller's solo piano music is from another world entirely, with moments of delicacy, and rich with nuances that demand close listening. "African Ripples" ranks among Waller's finest solo outings, a heady mixture of Harlem rent party and concert-hall fare. In just three minutes, Waller explores a range of tempos and moods, closing with a powerful burst of stride piano that leaves us begging for more. A masterpiece of 1930s jazz that deserves to be better known today.

October 28, 2007 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy (Brunswick)

A timeless classic of early big-band jazz, this was perhaps the first Ellington tune to really capture the ears of the music industry. It reveals that much of Duke’s compositional character was already in place by 1927: the layering of multiple themes, shifting of moods and tempi, and plenty of freedom for players like Miley and Hardwicke to express their own personalities. This reissue is sullied by poor-quality, scratchy masters that GRP apparently didn’t bother to clean up, but that doesn’t take much away from the enjoyable performance.

October 22, 2007 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (OKeh)

The quintessential document of Duke’s "jungle music," this 1927 theme was so letter-perfect that Steely Dan paid it groveling homage nearly a half-century later. Bubber Miley’s hot, growling trumpet, the percussive drive of banjo and tuba, and swooning horns form the fabric of one of Ellington’s most memorable tunes. The roots of everything from Cab Calloway to the Art Ensemble of Chicago are audible in this primordial jazz masterpiece. Columbia’s dazzling remastering of such ancient material is a hallmark of digital sound technology; this is probably as close as possible to hearing the Washingtonians live.

October 19, 2007 · 1 comment


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