Willie Nelson: Blue Skies

So many famous artists have performed this song—Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong Count Basie, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson, Art Tatum, and Bing Crosby, among others—yet a quick check of the Amazon charts shows that one version out-sells the rest. I can't imagine many people at Columbia got excited when Willie Nelson decided to record an album of old pop tunes, all but one composed before World War II. Yet the execs clearly celebrated the results: a triple platinum album that spent more than two years on the charts.

There are no frills here. Strings are kept in the background, and if they were mixed in any softer you wouldn't even notice them. When the guitar takes a solo, it simply states Irving Berlin's melody. There's nothing to hold your interest . . . except one big thing. Yes, it's hard to pay attention to anything here except Nelson's raw and compelling voice. I have heard critics tell me that there is no such thing as authenticity in music, and that recordings and performances are all deeply coded cultural constructs, a process in which authenticity can play no part. But I can only surmise that they never heard this particular record, or they wouldn't be saying that. This is the real deal, sung by a veteran of many gigs who puts his heart and soul into the words and melody. A more calculated album would never have had the impact of this one, and Mr. Nelson's success is proportional to his indifference to those same deeply coded constructs.

Shortly after the guitar solo, we get a key change and, toward the end, the tempo is cut in half, which is usually a bad move when recording a pop tune, but by then Nelson has the audience at his beck and call, and wherever he takes them—to F# or the moons of Jupiter—they will come along willingly. Even smug jazz artists, who think they have a special relationship with these old songs, one that outsiders can never match, might learn a thing or two from listening to this milestone performance by the man from Fort Worth.

September 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman: Blue Skies

The star of this performance is Fletcher Henderson's chart. The intro starts with an Ellingtonian growl that morphs into a fanfare. From the opening A theme statement, Henderson coyly plays with Irving Berlin's melody, adding syncopation and fills that could serve as a classroom model for "jazzing" a melody. Before long he is constructing a fresh variations, new ways of looking at those blue skies. The section work is excellent, and the rhythm section wisely underplays to let the horns stand out all the more. All in all, it's a great moment in swing, and one that deserved its moment on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

September 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Art Tatum: Blue Skies

Art Tatum’s solo sides for Capitol were recorded on three dates in July-September 1949. Except for a few old favorites like “Sweet Lorraine”, the tunes he recorded were new to his repertoire. Surprisingly, “Blue Skies” was one of the pieces he had never recorded before, and save for a 20-second live snippet on a Storyville CD, his only other recording was part of the marathon solo sessions recorded for Norman Granz. On the Granz recording, Tatum creates a wonderful re-harmonization of the song, but he is plagued with fingering problems throughout. The Capitol version is breezy and confident, but not as daring. While Berlin’s lyric is as carefree as one can imagine, his melody is in minor. Tatum brings out the minor tonality in his slightly menacing introduction, but lightens the mood as soon as he starts playing the melody. In the first 24 bars, he presents the melody interspersed with minor filigrees and subtle reharmonizations. But in the final 8 bars of the first chorus, the melody is obscured amidst Tatum’s dazzling runs. Tatum wants to keep his listeners with him, so in the next 2 choruses, he refers back to the melody in the first 2 A sections, moves away from it in the bridge and barely touches it in the final A. Throughout the performance, Tatum keeps everything in balance, with lighter textures in the first A of each chorus, long runs in the second A, call-and-response set figures in the bridges and more aggressive improvising in the final A. In the final half-chorus, the bridge he offers a fine variation on the tune, and the final eight includes a quote from the children’s song “In & Out The Window”, which also appeared in the Granz recording. Not an undiscovered masterpiece, but a lovely reading of a great American standard.

September 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Chris Connor: Let's Face The Music and Dance

What makes the 1986 Classic one of Chris Connor's best albums was probably best summed up by the vocalist herself at the time: "I haven't changed my approach, although my voice has gotten deeper and stronger, and I don't experiment as much." Her smoky, deceptively languid tone is still evident, but her aggressive approach on the very first track, "Let's Face the Music and Dance," is anything but the reserved "cool" of her well-known sides from the '50's, such as "all About Ronnie," "Lush Life," and "Lullaby of Birdland," or even that of the warmly emotional "Laura" or "Blame it on My Youth" on Classic.

Perhaps it's partly due to Richard Rodney Bennett's killer arrangement and the zesty horns of Paquito D'Rivera and Claudio Roditi, but Connor soars on "Let's Face the Music and Dance" as she has rarely done on record, particularly on the repeat chorus, where she thrillingly sings the words "teardrops to shed" by jumping up an octave from the first to the second syllable of "teardrops," and then hitting and holding a resonating low note on "shed." Other highlights of this action-packed merely 2½ minute performance include Connor's opening captivating duet with Rufus Reid's walking bass, the piercing and sizzling miniature solo spots by D'Rivera and Roditi, and the rather jolting written horn motifs inserted here and there, most fervidly at the very end. This is a consummate work of art that draws you back for further tastings.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Ella Fitzgerald: Blue Skies

“Blue Skies” was originally recorded for (and eventually omitted from) The Irving Berlin Song Book, and it was first issued as part of an all-star jazz compilation album created by Playboy magazine, and later appeared on a Verve compilation of assorted bits and pieces from Ella’s many sessions for the label. The recording is still not well-known, but it features one of her finest extended scat solos. Like her famous “Oh, Lady Be Good” recording 9 years earlier, the big band arrangement exists only to support Ella, and she’s never asked to interrupt her improvisation for ensemble figures. Ella opens with 4 virtuosic cadenzas, and then jumps to a medium tempo for the opening chorus. Harry Edison provides pithy commentary during the melody statement, and then Ella launches into a two-and-a-half chorus scat solo. She starts out by adapting the saxophone riff playing behind her, and as the solo continues, she repeats and develops ideas with uncanny fluency. Encouraged on by the magnificent accompanying group, Ella builds her solo in a natural and unforced manner. There are plenty of quotes (“Here Comes The Bride” near the beginning, “Rhapsody In Blue” as the solo peaks), but mostly this is Ella, joyously creating music on the spot and spreading that joy to her audience.

July 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Teddy Wilson Orchestra (with Billie Holiday): He Ain't Got Rhythm

Besides great jazz musicians playing superbly, this track is a sheer delight because of the lyrics, and Billie Holiday’s marvelously nuanced, whimsical and playful singing of those lyrics (the melody and words are by that classic American tunesmith, Irving Berlin). The verses are like Sinclair Lewis with a tragi-comic twist transmuted into jazz, as they tell the mock horror tale of this poor quintessentially drab, uncool middle class man who bends over his account books, and “he attracted some attention at the fall convention, but he ain’t got rhythm, so no one’s with him, the loneliest man in town.” With her intonation and phrasing, verbal emphases and her own perfect rhythm, Billie makes this musical short story come to life and makes it hugely enjoyable.

Meanwhile, Lester Young plays his virtuoso tenor sax in perfect complement to Holiday’s singing. This track is one of the ultimate demonstrations of how Young and Holiday had developed some kind of mystical, musical soul connection so that they were two parts making a completed whole. Benny Goodman adds another dimension here with outstanding clarinet work, starting in the intro with his just right, delicate, elegant yet sardonic statement and variations on the wonderfully catchy musical theme, the melody perfectly suiting the lyrics. Teddy Wilson lays down a lush but appropriately sprightly piano groundwork for Benny in the intro, and then comps excellently for the rest of the track.

But there was also Buck Clayton, who was a third exquisitely attuned voice with Holiday and Young on the series of recordings they made together, including the equally masterful track done in the same session as this one, “I Must Have That Man.” After Lester’s superb solo (one of his very best), Buck soars on his trumpet, characteristically playing powerful but smoothly lyrical lines that brilliantly complement and add to Billie’s singing and Lester’s sax work, with punched out accents adding to the expression and the excitement. And of course, with Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones from Basie’s “All American rhythm section” providing the foundation, you have the epitome of what that poor accountant lacks. This is must-have jazz, with delightful fun as a bonus.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Junko Onishi: Blue Skies

Japan's Junko Onishi was one of the most promising jazz pianists to emerge in the '90s, her series of five Blue Note releases, plus one led by Jackie McLean, showcasing her already formidable pianistics, as well as hinting at her potential as a composer and arranger. Then she virtually disappeared, and apparently hasn't recorded in the new millennium.

Onishi's two Village Vanguard CDs were both recorded on the same three nights in May 1994, with Wynton Marsalis's rhythm team of Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley offering impeccable support. These are absorbing live sessions, whether the trio is interpreting Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Monk, or standards like "Blue Skies." On the Irving Berlin tune, Onishi clearly reveals her refined precision, relentless drive, firmly swinging pulse, and ability to expand on a well-known melody through the use of fresh vamps and other creative elaborations. Onishi begins with a pianissimo tolling intro that gradually evolves into the theme. One is struck by her thoughtful clarity of vision and classically trained and nuanced touch, both remindful of John Lewis, and when she goes into overdrive you are swept along as she goes from one inventive peak to another. She alters her rhythmic attack frequently, and wisps of Horace Silver and Oscar Peterson pass by, the latter especially in her very effective alterations of the dynamic level. Not a note wasted here, nor a note not enjoyed. We await her return.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments


McCoy Tyner: How Deep Is The Ocean

McCoy Tyner essentially adapted Coltrane's vision to the piano, and thus influenced countless young pianists in much the same way as impressionable saxophonists (and other instrumentalists) were inspired by the power, challenging technical mastery, and spirituality of Coltrane's playing. As the years passed after Coltrane's death, it appeared that Tyner was "mellowing," while in reality he was simply returning to a broader stylistic approach, one that was already evident at times during his early '60s stint with Coltrane. Examples would include Tyner's work on Coltrane's Ballads and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, as well as on his own Impulse albums such as Nights of Ballads and Blues and Plays Ellington.

For Tyner's second solo piano release, and his first since his Coltrane tribute Echoes of a Friend 16 years earlier, producer Michael Cuscuna wisely recorded him in an empty, acoustically ideal Merkin Concert Hall in New York. Thanks to the exceptional quality of Tyner's playing and the superior sound engineered by the esteemed David Baker, Revelations is a standout item in the pianist's vast discography. Tyner's version of "How Deep is the Ocean" is fascinating for what it reveals about his own influences as much as for how he can reinvent and refresh a well-known standard. He begins with some tolling dissonant notes alternating with cavernous chords, before entering the theme and embellishing it with jabbing phrases and potent left-hand figures. You are struck by how his penetrating sound seems to be fully resonating throughout the intimate venue in which he's playing. Tyner's solo mixes intriguing motifs and pounding chords with quick flourishes and runs, and he even takes his attack into exhilarating overdrive leading up to the final exploration of the melody, which he ends with a fittingly Monkish "trinkle tinkle." As you listen, glimpses flash by of Monk's quirkiness, Tatum's extravagance, and even Earl Hines's dexterous 2-handed unpredictability, all wonderfully endearing and gripping, if at times nearly overwhelming.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Kate McGarry: Let's Face the Music and Dance

Vocalist Kate McGarry just gets better and better with each CD. And ever more daring! Fred Astaire would hardly recognize this version of one of his trademark themes. This is more film noir-ish than all-singing-all-dancing, full of a late-night moodiness that is deeply affecting. McGarry is absolutely heartrending - she puts her whole soul into this performance. But this is more than just an emotional lament; her melodic lines are brilliantly conceived and executed. Yet even without the vocal, this track would be worth hearing just for Donny McCaslin's sax solo, where every phrase sounds spontaneous and loose and free. The whole band shines here, floating effortlessly yet also raising the intensity level at just the right junctures. McGarry moves into the big leagues with this impressive release.

June 30, 2008 · 1 comment


Sonny Rollins: Change Partners

Sonny Rollins takes a quartet through a pleasant rendering of this Irving Berlin classic written for the 1938 film Carefree. Fred Astaire introduced the song for that feature, and the giant of the tenor makes his way through this performance with dancer's finesse. That robust creamy tone is in evidence here as the leader pushes the edges of the harmony, all the while keeping the original melody close to your ear. Pianist Scott plays a particularly warm solo completely apropos to the melancholic yet joyful feeling of this recording.

June 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Mad Duran: How Deep is the Ocean?

Mad Duran has long been admired among the San Francisco jazz insiders for her first-class alto work, and though she has been featured alongside her husband, Bay Area guitar legend Eddie Duran, on previous recordings, this is her first solo leader date. Fans who check out this release will wonder why she waited so long. Her playing is distinguished by smart linear improvisations, free from cliché and played with a rich, full-bodied tone, as supple as a '94 Napa cabernet.

The rest of the band adds to the festivities. Great rhythm sections begin at home . . . well, they do when you are married to Eddie Duran, who reminds us here of his mastery of the six strings. And the proceedings are enlivened by the further addition of Ray Drummond and Akira Tana. The result is a fresh and creative reworking of Irving Berlin's famous standard. In short, Simply Mad is simply fine.

May 28, 2008 · 1 comment


Tobias Gebb: How Deep Is The Ocean?

Judging by the name Trio West, you would think that Gebb's band had honed its craft in Hollywood and near various L.A. beach haunts. Not so fast . . . this group got its name from the Upper West Side, and made the CD in Brooklyn. But a cool jazz ambiance permeates the tracks on An Upper West Side Story, helped along by the leader's exceptional drum work. Gebb reminds me of Vernell Fournier and Chico Hamilton in his ability to swing hot with a light touch. This version of the Irving Berlin standard is a gem, with the band alternating between 5/4 for the first half of each chorus, and 4/4 for the last half. But this odd meter doesn't sound odd, just fresh and spicy with plenty of momentum. Won't somebody give these guys a ticket to a Hollywood?

April 03, 2008 · 1 comment


Tony Bennett: Steppin' Out With My Baby

Among the stars slouching through the first four seasons of MTV Unplugged—the popular cable series where normally amplified rock or rap artists performed all-acoustic sets—were 10,000 Maniacs, Aerosmith, LL Cool J, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Naturally the fifth season would include Tony Bennett.  SAY WHAT? You know, Tony Bennett, the crooner who left his heart in San Francisco (1962). His strictly acoustic and stylish black-&-white "Steppin' Out With My Baby" video (1993) scored in MTV rotation, so why not give the kid a shot? At 67, the jazzy, snazzy Bennett was out of place, but delightfully in step.

March 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Uri Caine: Cheek to Cheek

Even if he does let us recognize bits of this evergreen, Uri Caine toys with it from the beginning with little regard for the melody. The piano dives into the improvisation process right away, and the rhythm team pushes him along with great vigor. When Caine finally slows down and lets Perowky solo, it comes as a welcome relief after more than five minutes of breathless virtuosity. This performance is obviously remarkable, but its 9-minute length and intensity are typical of what the listener can appreciate much better live than at home.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Carol Sloane: Let's Face the Music and Dance

Sloane can indeed be called "a singer's singer," possessing a gorgeous vibrato, impeccable taste and keen interpretative ability. She takes this standard at a more languid pace than usual, which only plays to her strengths. She wants to tell a story and always wants the listener to appreciate the lyrics. At 6:48, there's generous space given for masterful solos by Charlap and Alden, two players always worth hearing.

January 30, 2008 · 0 comments


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