Christian Scott: Died In Love

Any musician can express sorrow and anger in his music, but it takes a really good one to express it effectively where there are no lyrics, and in front of a live audience. Christian Scott wrote this lament to a close friend who, along with his new bride, was shot down in cold blood.

The chord progression is dirge-like and varies slightly with each round. Pianist Aaron Parks's relentlessly repeating notes and Matt Stevens's growling guitar add a dramatic effect. For nearly the entire song, Jamire Williams's drums stutter like a shooting victim trying vainly to hang onto life. Scott himself begins with sorrowful notes, which turn over the course of the song into despair, anger and back to sorrow again. With his trumpet, he articulates emotions over the senseless, sudden loss of his buddy that words couldn't convey nearly as well.

"Died In Love" is an example of where Christian Scott's vast technical abilities as a soloist are matched by the sentiment he can express through his horn.

November 11, 2008 · 2 comments


Dizzy Gillespie (featuring Mary Lou Williams): Selections from Zodiac Suite

Zodiac Suite was the first of many long-form compositions Mary Lou Williams produced during her lengthy and distinguished career. By its 1945 premiere at New York's Town Hall, however, Williams had finished just three of Zodiac's projected 12 parts, each intended as a tonal portrait of her musician friends born under that respective sign. The under-rehearsed and poorly attended concert left Mary Lou traumatized, but the event nonetheless transformed her reputation from, as she herself noted, "Boogie Woogie Queen" to "musicians' musician."

Twelve years later, having essentially retired from public performance, the introspective perfectionist had to be coaxed by Dizzy Gillespie to appear with him at the Newport Jazz Festival—for a more musicianly than queenly fee of $300.

In these three selections, arranged by trombonist Melba Liston, an upbeat "Virgo" (The Virgin) depicts "more intellectual than emotional personalities" among Williams's circle. "Libra" (The Scale) honors such well-balanced lovers of art and beauty as her fellow pianists Tatum, Monk and Powell, plus Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. (The idea that Monk, Powell and Parker might be considered well balanced speaks volumes about astrology.) "Aires" (The Ram) signifies "moody pioneers" Billie Holiday and Ben Webster.

This live recording is a mixed bag. Gillespie's overlong spoken and ultimately instrumental introduction consumes nearly 2½ minutes of a 10½-minute track. Once Zodiac Suite finally begins, its sole soloist Miss Williams sounds not the least rusty after her long absence from the stage. But the Newport piano is not as well tuned as it could've been, and the overall audio quality is less than ideal, even by 1957 standards. Moreover, as with most Dizzy Gillespie-led big bands, loudness is equated with macho conquest. Even so, this signaled a comeback of sorts for Mary Lou Williams, and everyone involved must be commended.

Thanks to what astronomers call "precession of the equinoxes," the 12 zodiacal signs in Western astrology no longer correspond to the original celestial coordinates of their constellations, meaning any link between a sign and its presumed divinatory functions is hogwash. Fortunately, you don't have to subscribe to the horoscope to appreciate Zodiac Suite.

June 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Gerry Mulligan with Marian McPartland: C Jam Blues

At this stage of his career, Gerry Mulligan was best known for leading a quartet without a piano. Yet here he is at the legendary 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, sitting in with a trio led by the future hostess of NPR's long-running Piano Jazz. As part of a day-long Ellington tribute, Mulligan and Marian McPartland jam on "C Jam Blues," a jam session staple since jamming originated, which was shortly after the note C was discovered. (It had been left unattended in a cave next to the Dead Sea Scrolls by a wandering harpist who, having tired of C, moved on to what she hoped would be the greener pastures of D. Little did she suspect what heathen dangers lurked therein!)

Unlike some bandleaders, who prefer the comfort zone of their own steady group, Mulligan relished playing with other musicians, and obviously delights in the present company. This happy-go-lucky 10-minute track also affords plenty of solo space for McPartland and bass giant Milt Hinton. (Drummer Ed Shaughnessy contents himself with swinging his butt off and occasionally rattling sleigh bells in quirky punctuation. Can you imagine the dedication required to schlep sleigh bells from New York City to Rhode Island in mid-summer?) If you're looking for an exemplar of the distinctively mid-'50s style that encompassed both traditional and modernist strains, go directly to M&M's "C Jam Blues." Melts in your ears, not in your hands.

May 25, 2008 · 0 comments


Miles Davis: Fran-Dance

Miles Davis's celebrated appearance at 1955's Newport Jazz Festival had marked his official comeback (meaning the jazz press finally caught up with reality) from what Miles himself called a "four-year horror show" of heroin addiction. Miles actually got his act together in 1954, as evidenced by his influential recording of "Walkin'." But taking center stage at Newport earned him jazz's Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Now, three years later, the Approved Good Housekeeper returned, leading a sextet that many now consider the greatest small combo in jazz history.

Regrettably, when Bert Stern filmed his feature-length documentary of the '58 NJF, Jazz on a Summer's Day (released 1960), he shot no part of Miles's performance. "Personally," Stern explained, "I didn't like Miles Davis. He's too far-out for me." Yet while Stern's glib paraphrase of Arthur Godfrey's 1947 hit "Too Fat Polka" ("I Don't Want Her, You Can Have Her, She's Too Fat For Me") may have explained Miles's omission, that hardly excused it.

Certainly there's nothing far-out about "Fran-Dance," Miles's 4/4 reworking of "Put Your Little Foot Right Out," a childlike waltz from the Hollywood movie San Antonio (1945). Five weeks after the same group's better-known and frankly superior studio recording of this tune, Adderley and Evans solo to advantage, but Coltrane overloads his Sheets of Sound turn with pointlessly fleet finger exercises. Even so, wouldn't it have been wonderful to see this group on film? As missed opportunities go, Bert Stern's dismissal of Miles Davis as "too far-out" must rank among the most blockheaded decisions of all time. I'd like to Put My Little Foot Right Up Bert Stern's Arriflex.

April 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Ray Charles: The Spirit-Feel

Ray Charles

In 1958, R&B demigod Ray Charles appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival among such other big-name non-jazz performers as Chuck Berry and Mahalia Jackson, all part of impresario George Wein's habitual attempt to attract customers who couldn't care less about jazz. Yet as shown in film- maker Bert Stern's feature-length documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day, neither Berry nor Jackson tried to blend in with any honest-to-goodness jazz artists who may have accidentally found their way onto the bill. Doing "Sweet Little Sixteen," Chuck Berry remained as oblivious to the Swing Era stalwarts reluctantly backing him as they were unhelpful to his rock 'n' roll. And the sole connection of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson's reverential "The Lord's Prayer" to jazz was as an inadvertent reminder of trumpeter Harry James's famous quip that, appearing with Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in 1938, he felt like "a whore in church." Miss Jackson at the NJF must've conversely felt like an abbess in a brothel.

Ray Charles, by contrast, unwisely adjusted his act to suit his surroundings, which perhaps explains why he's not in the movie. "The Spirit-Feel," a jazz tune, was first recorded by its composer, vibist Milt Jackson, on Atlantic Records in early 1957, but was not covered on either of Milt's subsequent collaborations with Atlantic's superstar Ray Charles: Soul Brothers (1957) and Soul Meeting (1958). Nevertheless, Charles saw fit to present it at the Newport Jazz Festival, where presumably at least some infinitesimal segment of the audience might actually know how a jazz number is supposed to sound. In Charles's hands, "The Spirit-Feel" becomes a ragged warm-up exercise. Absent a trombone, the horns in Ray's R&B septet have no midsection, and it shows. The soloists, excepting tenorman David "Fathead" Newman but including Charles himself on alto sax, are at best amateurish. Simply put, this band had no business playing jazz. When you go to a hoedown, you oughta dance with the one what brung you.

April 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: Prima Bara Dubla

Whole careers, it was said, could be rejuvenated with a single triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival. Case in point: Duke Ellington in 1956. Never mind that, far from languishing in the doldrums before causing a sensation at Newport that year, Duke had grossed, according to the ever-materialistic Time magazine, between $500,000 and $700,000 annually, with his sidemen collecting "the highest pay in the business." Despite its untruth, the myth of a faded star magically rehabilitated amidst Newport's sea air, trees, history and haut monde set journalists to salivating like Ulanov's dogs (not to be confused with Pavlov's pooches, who wouldn't have known Duke Ellington from the Duchess of Windsor).

Following Duke's 1958 NJF appearance, Columbia Records tried to make lightning strike twice by issuing mostly in-studio retakes, plus overdubbed canned applause, a technique with which they'd successfully duped consumers two years before. Thankfully, for the 2007 reissue of Newport 1958, Mosaic Records restored the undoctored retakes sans phantom audience, and coupled them with six live tracks actually recorded at Newport. Among the latter, "Prima Bara Dubla" stands out.

In 1958, jazz's two most significant baritone saxophonists were unquestionably Harry Carney, longtime heart of Duke's nonpareil sax section, and Gerry Mulligan, who'd helped Miles Davis give birth to the cool and subsequently spearheaded the early '50s West Coast Jazz phenomenon. Pairing the two saxophonists in a new Ellington/Strayhorn piece composed expressly for them was one of those inspired ideas not even Columbia Records could botch.

Ellington & Strayhorn wrote to each baritonist's strength, capitalizing on Carney's low-note majesty and Mulligan's upper-register mastery, although both men play equally well across the bulky horn's entire range. Guest stars didn't always mesh well with Duke's band, and one-off festival arrangements were too often throwaways. But throughout his career, Mulligan demonstrated not just an eagerness to play with jazzmen of earlier generations, but an uncanny ability to fit in with them without sacrificing his own essential modernism. And of course, even a one-off festival arrangement is likely to be memorable when the names Ellington/Strayhorn adorn the score.

"Prima Bara Dubla" is a droll, lilting, mostly two-beat treat that sinuously showcases Harry & Gerry but also makes deft use of the full band. It's a worthy addition to the discography of either Ellington or Mulligan. To the dual discography of Ellington and Mulligan, it is joyfully unique.

April 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck: Jump for Joy

As part of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival's salute to Ellington, the Dave Brubeck Quartet presented six tunes associated with the Maestro, plus Dave's own tribute "The Duke" (1954). The younger pianist was a natural choice to honor his idol. As a student in the early '40s, Brubeck had finagled his way backstage to meet the Duke, but was so awestruck in the Maestro's presence that he couldn't utter a word. Ironically, by the time of this recording, Brubeck's fame rivaled Ellington's. Indeed, Dave's 1954 breakthrough on the cover of Time magazine predated Duke's belated appearance in that coveted spot by two years—much to the chagrin of Brubeck, who insisted Duke deserved the honor first.

Dave's set kicked off with the title tune from Ellington's flop 1941 musical revue. Considering that "Jump for Joy" was not in their regular repertoire, the Quartet's awkwardness is understandable. Desmond in particular seems ill at ease, producing an occasionally herky-jerky solo lacking the luster of silk-merchant Johnny Hodges on Duke's original. Brubeck, perhaps because of his deeper feeling for Ellington, better conveys the spirit of "Jump for Joy." Eugene Wright, by this time the Quartet's steady bassist, was for some reason replaced here by Joe Benjamin. Not to fault the latter, but he does not jell with drummer Joe Morello the way Wright did, much less the way Duke's rhythm team of Jimmy Blanton and Sonny Greer meshed. Overall, this track is a congenial tribute to Ellington, but unrepresentative of the 1958 Brubeck Quartet at its finest.

April 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Ben Webster & Billy Strayhorn: Chelsea Bridge

In his autobiography, Music is My Mistress (1973), Duke Ellington fondly recalls that in 1933, London became the first overseas city he and his band visited. "To me," he reflects, "the people of London are the most civilized in the world. Their civilization is based on the recognition that all people are imperfect, and due allowances should be and are made for their imperfections. I have never experienced quite such a sense of balance elsewhere." Ellington also loved the city's picturesque landmarks, including Chelsea Bridge across the River Thames.

In 1937 a sweeping new bridge replaced an earlier span on the same site, and in 1941 Ellington's protégé Billy Strayhorn composed a tribute despite never having seen Chelsea Bridge. Inspired instead by 19th- century English landscape artist J.M.W. Turner's painting of the nearby Battersea Bridge (also thereafter rebuilt), Strayhorn's pastel-shaded portrait was recorded that fall by Duke's Blanton-Webster band, as the now-legendary unit became known. Featured among others were tenorman Ben Webster, Strayhorn sitting in for Ellington at the piano, and drummer Sonny Greer. Seventeen years later, all three re-create the number live as part of the '58 Newport Jazz Festival salute to Ellington. They are joined by Duke's mid-'40s sideman Oscar Pettiford—the original "Chelsea Bridge" bassist, Jimmy Blanton, having died of tuberculosis in 1942.

This mature version is slower, more wistful and far wiser, as Strayhorn's Impressionistic chords and filigreed arpeggios float cloudlike behind Big Ben's sturdy-as-a-bridge balladry. Playing impromptu but tapping into reservoirs of experience, Ben and Billy achieve that elusive sense of balance that Duke extolled, like two great painters alternately adding brushstrokes to create a picture both inspired and inspiring. Anyone who thinks jazz is an insensitive art is directed hereto for proof to the contrary.

April 17, 2008 · 0 comments


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 60½, 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


George Shearing: George in Brazil

The producers of this CD faced a Hobson's choice. In Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, the sequence "George in Brazil" runs slightly more than two minutes. Even at that, it's only a fragment of the original performance. To make matters worse, the soundtrack's first 40 seconds contain voiceovers that for technical reasons could not be erased from atop the underlying music. The dilemma, then, was whether to retain the voiceovers, to which musical purists would surely object, or trim the track to a scanty 1½ minutes. The producers elected to trim.

Bad decision. Of course, the voiceovers are still in the movie. But missing from the CD is the delightful Donna Larsen, roving radio reporter. "What do they say," Donna asks her unseen listeners rhetorically, "the joint is really jumping? I think that's kind of passé by now." If not, it became so at that moment. She goes on to interview NJF co-director Elaine Lorillard, then married to a descendant of Pierre Lorillard, founder of the Lorillard Tobacco Company. Only a year earlier, Lorillard had introduced its best-selling Newport brand of menthol cigarettes. "I brought along a heavy leather coat," gushes chatterbox Donna, "and I don't think I'm going to need it at all." Mrs. Lorillard, her upper-crust baritone hinting that she may have already smoked a few too many packs of her family's products, readily concurs. "No, I don't think so, either." Naturally she pronounces it eye-ther. "I have a sweater that I've tucked away in my bag."

Believe it or not, this banal banter is actually more entertaining than "George in Brazil," which so belabors a simple vamp that you wish Elaine Lorillard had tucked away some extra chord changes in her bag, right next to that sweater she didn't need.

April 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Mahalia Jackson: The Lord's Prayer

According to British scholar Martin Halliwell's American Culture in the 1950s, most reports identified gospel singer Mahalia Jackson as the star of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. In particular, Professor Halliwell cites "The Lord's Prayer," with which she closes Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the '58 NJF. "Jackson's contralto voice and religious devotion," Halliwell contends, "is a powerful spiritual counterpoint to the secular coolness of the Festival's jazz rhythms."

Miss Jackson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as The Jackson Five (perhaps voters thought she was related?), seems to have been all things to all people. It's a stretch, however, to contrast her indisputably powerful spiritual force with "the secular coolness" of Newport '58. The NJF's marquee that year boasted such certifiably hot performers as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Maynard Ferguson (whom few would mistake for Chet Baker). Even such cool pioneers as George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan appear in the film serving hot fare—Shearing's Latin-jazz "George in Brazil" and Mulligan's frenetic "As Catch Can." Another '50s cool figure, drummer Chico Hamilton, is represented by "Blue Sands," an exotic drum feature more ethereal than secular. Among the dozen headliners in Jazz on a Summer's Day, only the Jimmy Giuffre 3 can legitimately be characterized as embodying "secular coolness."

In any case, Mahalia Jackson didn't so much contrast with preceding acts in Jazz on a Summer's Day as culminate a head-spinning hodgepodge running the gamut from Louis Armstrong's "When the Saints Go Marching In" and collegiate Dixieland from Eli's Chosen Six (which included future avant-gardist Roswell Rudd playing tailgate trombone) to Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk." On the heels of this incoherent mishmash, a soothing gospel song was as welcome as the calm after a storm.

Yet without impugning Miss Jackson's devoutness, there remains a tinge of Show Business in all this, as if Jazz on a Summer's Day had been stage-managed by CBS-TV's reigning ringmaster of masscult entertainment, Ed Sullivan. Ending a jazz film with The Gospel According to Mahalia was equivalent to following an Alaskan dancing bear, a Catskills comic and a troupe of Chinese acrobats with an aria from some hefty coloratura soprano on loan from the Metropolitan Opera. This, we suspect, was NJF impresario George Wein's calculated showman's piety capping the secular crassness of a Really Big Shew.

April 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong: Rockin' Chair

The costliest part of Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's $115,000 documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, was Louis Armstrong's lofty $25,000 fee. Stern rationalized thus expending 20% of his budget because Louis was (a) the biggest star on hand and (b) the most important artist in jazz history. It's hard to quarrel with Stern's rationale. But as with Ken Burns's epic documentary Jazz (2001), devoting so much of one's resources to an overarching colossus necessarily meant skimping in other areas. (There is another, equally telling parallel between Bert Stern and Ken Burns. Each was a non-jazz fan who relied on musical advice from a single source—for Stern, it was Columbia Records executive George Avakian, and for Burns, Wynton Marsalis. At the mercy of one sage apiece, the filmmakers virtually guaranteed errors of omission.)

Still, it would take a heart of granite to deny the timeless and universal appeal of "Rockin' Chair" as rocked and chaired (no doubt for the umpteenth time) by Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden. At $25,000, this was a bargain.

April 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Chico Hamilton: Blue Sands

"Blue Sands," composed by flutist/saxophonist Buddy Collette for the original Chico Hamilton Quintet (1955), was part of a long tradition of jazz exotica dating at least as far back as Ellington's "Caravan" (1936). In 1956, Collette recorded an especially insinuating "Blue Sands" with The Lighthouse All-Stars, featuring Bob Cooper's atmospheric oboe. In Chico Hamilton's band, however, "Blue Sands" became a set piece showcasing the leader's mallets on tom-toms, where he would tenaciously repeat a single rhythmic pattern, maintaining hypnotic interest merely by varying dynamic level. This display would go on at length and, like all drum solos, was fascinating to watch but less entrancing on a record, absent its visual flair.

By 1958's Newport Jazz Festival, where "Blue Sands" was preserved for posterity in filmmaker Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Chico Hamilton must have performed this tune hundreds of times, necessitating untold thousands of repetitions of that single rhythmic pattern. Amazingly, under the circumstances, the piece retains considerable excitement. Moreover, it served as an icebreaker for such later explorations of monotony as John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" (1960). Casually listen once or twice, and you won't get it. Put it on automatic repeat, and gradually—indeed, almost imperceptibly—you'll be as surely sucked in as a probe approaching a black hole. And we all know what lies at the center of a black hole. Blue sands.

April 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Chuck Berry: Sweet Little Sixteen

Impresario George Wein believed that if each major jazz style (traditional, swing, modern) could attract a small audience, then a festival presenting all those styles ought to draw decent numbers. Moreover, if the playbill were expanded beyond jazz, why, enough fannies to fill an outdoor venue might materialize! Accordingly, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, subject of Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), booked Hail Hail Rock 'n' Roller Chuck Berry. When the brown-eyed handsome man blew into town in a purple Cadillac with a pair of white girls at his side, he raised more than a few eyebrows. In tony 1950s Rhode Island, purple Cadillacs were considered inexcusably gauche.

Onstage, the Rock 'n' Roller was accompanied, more or less, by a pickup group of Swing Era jazzmen who mostly stood around with thumbs up their behinds looking bewildered and patronizing—the latter being especially unwarranted considering their ineptitude backing "Sweet Little Sixteen," Berry's sly variant of Nabokov's Lolita (1955). Journeyman clarinetist Rudy Rutherford at least tries to get in the spirit, but his strident solo is embarrassing proof that jazzmen were as clueless about youth music as Humbert Humbert was about the laws governing statutory rape.

April 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Big Maybelle: I Ain't Mad at You

In a typically misguided attempt at crossover appeal, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival strayed far afield (and went far awry) with blues shouter Big Maybelle. Judging from Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), the personable performer pleased the crowd. But of course holiday jazz-fest attendees have never been notably discerning. The ad hoc backup band manages to swing without an arrangement, and Buck Clayton's trumpet solo is presentable enough. Yet there's no escaping the vocalist, who sounds like she'd gargled with Dr?no before stepping onstage. We'll never know how many moviegoers in 1960, or VHS and DVD viewers in subsequent decades, naïvely mistook "I Ain't Mad at You" for jazz simply because it's part of Jazz on a Summer's Day. But this track has less to do with jazz than snowballs do with July.

April 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Previous Page | Next Page