Too Blue Lou and the Groove: Blue in Green

According to the April 19, 2033 newspaper article located inside the CD case, this album represented the first instance of a new form of music that would become known as Hip Bop. Soon-to-be-famous music writer Gregory George Aston calls it a "unique blend of groove-oriented improvisations, scat vocals and rap, played over heavy beats and a traditional walking bass." He goes on to claim that this music would help spawn a whole new jazz dance movement. Indeed, as I write these words, my young daughter is dancing to the music unprovoked.

I am not particularly a fan of hip hop or rap. It seems the best music from those genres is made only when infectious music samples or popular hit song melodies are used in the mix. That mix occurs in the opposite way on The Birth of Hip Bop. The beats of rap, hip hop, scat singing and rap vocals are heard here. But they are still mainly seasoning. The main ingredient is some very fine jazz playing with interesting compositions and arrangements.

I prefer the album's pure instrumentals. The best of the bunch is an absolutely inspired take on "Blue in Green." Too Blue Lou and the Groove have turned this classic ballad into a true progressive jazz anthem. As far as I know, "Blue In Green" has never been approached from this aggressive angle. We usually want to hear how beautiful the piece is played, rather than thinking of the tune as a great power showcase. This performance has propulsive rhythmic force and melodic imagination. Though the whole band is in the groove, saxophonist Huff is especially impressive. This is a performance worthy of hitting the repeat button.

Since 2033 is still a few decades off, Too Blue Lou and the Groove have plenty of time to prove the words in that newspaper article are true. I am not so sure, though, that there will be newspapers in 2033.

June 30, 2008 · 0 comments


Toots Thielemans: Blue N' Green/All Blues

In some ways the great Toots Thielemans has been overlooked by the jazz world. That can happen when your main ax is a harmonica. Harmonicas and accordions are forever to be outsiders never let into the club in which overwhelming virtuosity on an instrument is highly admired by legions of aficionados. It doesn't help that Toots is also a guitarist, a superlative whistler or that he had a hit tune with "Bluesette." These seem not to have added enough to his bona fides. There is a big difference between being called "the greatest jazz harmonica player" instead of "one of the greatest jazz musicians." Thielemans is both and jazz people in the know, know it.

For all intents and purposes, "Blue in Green" (listed here as "Blue N' Green") serves as a prelude for Thielemans's take on another Miles Davis classic, "All Blues." The medley begins first with pianist Fred Hersch and Thielemans taking wonderful solos extolling the thoughtful melodic virtues of "Blue in Green." Their measured but expressive endeavors serve as a melancholy introduction to "All Blues." The band goes up-tempo as Johnson and Baron propel the piece. Hersch and Thielemans once again take turns playing over the rapid changes. After several minutes of high energy, the two slow the number down with some touching counterpoint and a loving restatement of the theme. Thielemans's harmonica is as expressive as any mainstream instrument could ever hope to be.

Being a jazz harmonica virtuoso and a jazz whistler has some advantages. You don't have too much competition. You get some nice movie soundtrack jobs (Midnight Cowboy among others). A TV commercial can come your way here and there (Old Spice). And you can become known as perhaps the greatest jazz harmonica player/whistler ever. That will have to do for now.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Jonas Hellborg: Blue in Green

Early in his career, many fans compared Jonas Hellborg to bass superstar Jaco Pastorius. Musically, this was silly. They were both very great but different players. Hellborg was much more into chord playing than Jaco. This set Hellborg apart from about 99.9% of other electric bassists at the time. He also employed a unique string-slapping technique, though he overused it from time to time, which would soon become a standard sound in the bass lexicon. Jaco didn't slap.

The comparison to Jaco would be an apt, however, if fans were talking about the expected fame Jonas would soon acquire. But Jonas has made decisions that would not allow that popular recognition to take hold. He has said on more than one occasion that he does not care about fame or an historic career. He is interested only in playing music he wants to play. Over the years, he has certainly stayed true to that philosophy by releasing mostly noncommercial music on his own labels and eschewing the moniker of "Bass God."

Elegant Punk is a perfect example of Hellborg's immersing himself into the music rather than image. At the time of this solo recording, he was becoming well known for his wild fusion excursions. He would have sold many more records had he continued that type of sound on Elegant Punk. Instead, with one or two notable exceptions, he focused on the beauty of the bass guitar and demonstrated why it can be used for so much more than just bottom-end timekeeping.

His version of "Blue in Green" is a tasteful example of bass as rhythm, accompaniment, and melodic lead. It is full of subtle chords and evocative soloing. In a nutshell, he approaches the bass as if it were a guitar. That requires some serious thinking and even more serious finger-stretching to reach and play those impossible chords.

March 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly: No Blues

Recorded "live" performances usually fail to generate the excitement that actually being there gives a listener. In this rare exception, we are propelled back to that night in 1965 when a very special musical experience was delivered. Backed by one of the most underrated rhythm sections Miles Davis ever assembled, Wes Montgomery performs some of his most stirring guitar wizardry. This band swings throughout the whole album, but Wes's solo on Miles's tune "No Blues" is a masterpiece. Rhythmically driven by Chambers's anchored and relentless basslines, Cobb's beautifully sympathetic trap work, and Kelly's inimitable comping, Wes lets loose sans the lush orchestrations of his later work in a way that was rarely captured on record. His creativity still impresses after all these years. As the album notes indicate, Wes was so inspired that Wynton lays out for a spell just to marvel at the guitarist's virtuosity and enthusiasm. This is one of the finest examples of a live, smokin' performance by a quartet that obviously enjoyed playing together. It really shows.

February 17, 2008 · 0 comments


John McLaughlin: No Blues

McLaughlin's organ trio group The Free Spirits released its one and only album, Tokyo Live, in 1993. It is not one of my favorite McLaughlin groups because I was never really happy with the sound of John's guitar. In person and live it was a great band because you could see John playing. But on record, his sound was too close to Joey DeFrancesco's organ to tell them apart during unison playing. With that caveat out of the way, the band, with Dennis Chambers on drums, did a killer version of "No Blues." With unison playing less of a role in this tune, McLaughlin's blues chops are front and center. They are somewhat traditional in sense of form, but his bending of the notes downward in pitch and not upward creates yet another John McLaughlin trademark sound.

January 26, 2008 · 0 comments


John McLaughlin: Blue in Green

Miles wrote it! No, Bill Evans wrote it! For some, the argument goes on and on. (Evans credits Miles on his album, so I will go with that.) At any rate, McLaughlin has had two passes at this piece over the years. His solo acoustic interpretation on My Goal's Beyond is marked as a favorite by many. But the superior version is to be found on Live at Royal Festival Hall. McLaughlin, using a new acoustic guitar with midi effects, not only twists the tune around crooked, he challenges the concept of the space-time continuum while he's at it.

January 26, 2008 · 0 comments


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