George Garzone: Have You Met Miss Jones

Garzone is of course best known as a member of the legendary Boston trio The Fringe, which he co-founded in 1972. For his 1996 CD away from that group, Four's and Two's, he was joined by Joe Lovano, whose then recently released CDs Quartets and Rush Hour were helping to further establish him as one of jazz's rising stars. As can be heard throughout Four's and Two's, and perhaps most vividly on the seemingly always inspiring standard "Have You Met Miss Jones," the lesser-known Garzone more than holds his own with Lovano, the two backed by an airtight rhythm section.

Garzone's captivating LennieTristano-like reharmonization, or countermelody, with Lovano weaving in wisps of the original melody, stunningly launches this essential track. Garzone's solo is typically complex, as he appears to be conducting a responsive dialogue with himself between intriguing constructs played alternately in the upper or lower registers of his horn. (A transcription of this terrific solo is included in the CD's notes.) Calderazzo follows with a swinging, driving pulse that animates his impressively formed and delivered runs. Like Garzone, Lovano's improvisational approach is oblique, his meaty phrasing and tonal variations plunging deep into the heart of the tune's attractive harmonies. After John Lockwood's brief Paul Chambers-sounding bass interlude, the two horns again engage in the swirling in-an-out revision of the theme.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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George Coleman: Have You Met Miss Jones

Coleman has long had a liking and affinity for Richard Rodgers' compositions, going back to the saxophonist's enduring contribution to "My Funny Valentine" in 1964 while he was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. Essentially a diligent "changes" player with a sophisticated harmonic sense, Coleman's muscular, expansive approach has always been best suited to standards, be it an up-tempo flag waver or a pensive ballad. Coleman's tribute CD to Rodgers grew out of his acclaimed participation in a 1997 Carnegie Hall Jazz Band concert that focused on the music of the team of Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Harold Mabern's gorgeously lyrical prelude, with its hints of "You Better Go Now" and the verse to "I Cover the Waterfront," precedes Coleman's sensitive yet meaty delivery of the theme of "Have You Met Miss Jones." During Coleman's solo, one notices his self-possessed ability to finish off his phrases and maintain a persistent and engaging continuity amidst surging, sometimes densely packed extended lines. Mabern's lavish connecting passages link the end of Coleman's improv to the tenor's graceful reprise and coda. The pianist's efforts, as well as the understated, attuned support of Jamil Nasser and Billy Higgins, help to elevate this interpretation to the level of a classic.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ellis Marsalis: The Surrey With the Fringe On Top

It usually happens the other way around. Think Dave Brubeck and his sons Dan and Chris, or John Coltrane and Ravi. In the case of Ellis Marsalis, recording dates and overall recognition outside of New Orleans were hard to come by until the success of his sons Wynton and Branford. Heart of Gold was Ellis's first of several releases for Columbia in the '90's, after a similar trio date for Blue Note a year earlier. It presented a straight ahead pianist with apparent influences ranging from Oscar Peterson and Nat Cole to Wynton Kelly and Tommy Flanagan, with little if any indication of his New Orleans roots. A swinging, thoughtful, and lucid lyricism pervades his playing.

"Surrey with the Fringe on Top," from Heart of Gold, finds Marsalis elucidating the familiar melody with a gentle, lilting touch, and at a leisurely pace that continues for his ensuing solo. His improvisation contains some sliding runs, occasional bluesy inflections, and mainly a series of neatly delineated, distinctly separated single note lines. Some of his voicings are clearly derived from Peterson, while his lightly floating sound comes more from Kelly or Flanagan. Brown's bass solo is, as usual, the resonant aural equivalent of a concise and enthralling short story. Marsalis returns for an adamant two-handed chordal interlude that eventually gives way to Higgins' tersely communicative drum break. The reprise swings blithely, and the prearranged piano-bass ending is cleverly conceived and adroitly executed.

June 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Rondi Charleston: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

Charleston has taken an unusual career path. Leaving Juilliard to become an opera singer, she then went on to study journalism and developed into an award winning investigative reporter for Prime Time Live, where she worked with Diane Sawyer for six years. During that time, she gravitated to jazz and eventually decided to become a jazz singer full-time. In My Life is her third CD, and comes packaged with a separate DVD of a live performance at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York.

Possessed of a limited middle-range voice, Charleston wisely chooses tunes that both fit her voice and have a tale worth telling: "What drives me is my passion to breathe life, honesty and integrity into every song and story." She's at her best on numbers like Lennon-McCartney's "In My Life," Evans-Lees' "Waltz for Debby," and the standard "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." The latter features Bruce Barth's lovely intro and Charleston's silky rich and expressive renditions of the verse and chorus, which are graced by Joel Frahm's breathy obbligatos and Barth's sensitive asides. Charleston captures our attention completely through her heartfelt approach. This vocalist doesn't scat or take great liberties with the melodies that she sings, but she really doesn't need to. Frahm's tenor solo is further evidence of his emergence as one of today's top young saxophonists. Charleston's moving reprise and Frahm's delicately spun, complementary coda conclude this highly recommended track.

June 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine

“My Funny Valentine” made such a strong impression on me when I first heard it. I understood how standards could be opened up and played in many different ways, using many different grooves and a flexible approach in choosing chords and harmonic substitutions. It starts as a duet between Herbie and Miles, and Herbie uses very extended chords, substituting new chords for the song’s original chords. The pianistic touch and textures he brings in are so beautiful, and create a lot of contrast in his accompaniment to Miles. Some chords that he uses behind Miles might have two notes, while others are richer and denser, often implying polytonality; he superimposes different chords, which gives the song a lush, impressionistic harmony. Then when the whole group starts to come in and swing, Herbie responds to whatever events occur. Sometimes he lays back or plays against Tony Williams’ polyrhythms. In comping for the soloists, sometimes he leads them on, but he also uses a lot of harmonic abstraction. His own solo is very creative and emotional —he hints at the harmony and uses a lot of substitutions, so it has a fresh, unexpected sound, And when he starts to swing, it is intense! You could say that he might be coming out of a combination of Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, but the actual sound is so distinctive as to be immediately identifiable as Herbie. I think that this piece influenced a lot of pianists, first of all, in how they reharmonized standards, and also towards using much more advanced type of harmony for the time—what he did was really special.

It’s hard to pick just one tune on which Herbie is playing with Miles. I also love how creatively he plays on "All of You," where each soloist ends the solo with an extended tag in Eb. Another great recording that I listened to endlessly are all the sets from the Plugged Nickel. Of course, Herbie is operating as part of a very innovative rhythm section, so it’s not just him. For example, Tony Williams was changing the parameters of how drummers play with the group, because he would switch up the grooves so much and could swing in so many tempos and feels. This rhythm section instantly adapts to any little hint of change. If it seems like Miles is going to start swinging, they swing. If it feels like he wants to slow down and make it a ballad, they slow down and make it a ballad. If they want to go into sort of a Latin feel, they do that. Each person in the rhythm section, either Herbie or Ron or Tony, can initiate the move, because they’re listening so closely to each other and to the soloist. It led to a much more interactive concept of group playing than what had been happening, where the rhythm section would keep the rhythm going in one way, and the pianist fed the chords to the soloist. But I think Miles was encouraging them to experiment that way. Any one of them could take the lead, or drop out, or play strong, or sort of take the lead. Playing a standard but opening it up to a wide range of mutating possibilities instead of playing head-solos-head gave the music a different dynamic—the tune itself could be taken through all these different feels and emotions, imparting freshness and an unexpected quality.

March 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Margie Notte: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

I seem to be on some sort of hot streak when it comes to hearing really good female jazz vocalists. While I appreciate that, it's not my favorite genre. I don't go out of my way to see lady jazz singers perform or buy their albums. (As I write, I realize the same is true regarding their male counterparts.) I am of the opinion that the jazz vocal repertoire has become somewhat stale. It doesn't interest me. There is nothing really new about the song selections on Marge Notte's Just You, Just Me either. On the surface we would seem to be in store for yet another singer interpreting the classics.

Well, there is "interpreting the classics" and "Interpreting the Classics!" Tired repertoire or not, this artist deserves the highest praise. She is a wonderful singer and song stylist, surrounded here by top-notch jazzmen who would go over with this live audience whether or not Notte was singing. But this CD is about her. On "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," she sounds like a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. It took about 10 seconds of listening for me to realize that. The lower register is all Ella. The similarity is especially clear at the end of her phrases. The higher register and a bit of the sunny attitude is Doris Day. (Don't let anyone tell you that Doris Day couldn't sing!) Anyhow, comparisons are used to describe, not define. Margie Notte's voice is an original instrument. She could take the stalest ballad and turn it into magic. As far as I am concerned, she can sing whatever she wants to.

February 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Desmond: My Funny Valentine

Sometimes I'm amazed at the good music I found in my high school days when I was just starting to learn about jazz. I bought this double-LP set when it first came out, and instantly fell in love with this version of "My Funny Valentine." Thirty-four years later, it still makes my heart flutter. Not even the Miles Davis versions (1956 and 1964) eclipse this one for establishing and maintaining mood. Desmond's tender reading of the melody and impassioned solo, Bickert's understated comping, Thompson's active (but always nuanced) counterpoint and Fuller's glorious brushwork are all part of the mix, but there's more than the ingredients at play. These were musicians who understood each other and instinctively knew what to play in order to make this performance greater than the sum of its parts. And as is true with much of Desmond's solo work, it's all so quiet and understated that you could just lose yourself in the music and miss all that happened.

January 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1964)

Without a doubt, this is an essential Miles Davis recording. Full essays have been written about this performance, and there's no way to do it justice in a couple hundred words. So, assuming you already know that Miles and his second quintet perform one of the most amazing transformations of a popular song, let's focus on a pair of important highlights. First, there's Miles and his sound. Unlike the tightly controlled Harmon-muted sound of his Prestige recording, here he plays through open horn with a tone that seems … bruised. If the earlier version sounded like the nervous anticipation of a new love affair, the later version is the pained sound of a messy aftermath. It is well documented that Miles was having a tough time in his personal life during this period, and it's not much of a stretch to feel that pain reflected here. The other important highlight is the sensitive work of Tony Williams. He was 18 years old in 1964. Now think of every 18-year-old drummer you've ever heard (are you cringing?), and then listen to Tony on this recording. Not only did he play with extreme taste and restraint, he knew when not to play! In fact, during about 5 minutes of this 15-minute recording, he doesn't play at all. Would there be more musicians with that amount of good sense.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1956)

Miles's first recording of "My Funny Valentine" was made at the end of a marathon session designed to complete his contract with Prestige Records. All the music on the Cookin' / Relaxin' / Workin' / Steamin' sessions was part of his quintet's working repertoire, and every issued recording from the sessions was a first take. Despite this casual approach to posterity, Miles's quintet turned out one masterpiece after another, capped by this version of the Rodgers & Hart standard. With the benefit of hindsight, we know how Miles eventually transformed "Valentine," but the Prestige version was not simply a reference point. Indeed, had Miles never performed the song again, the Prestige version would still be one of the great jazz classics.

Miles's fragile muted trumpet invokes the unheard lyrics even as he moves away from the melody. Paul Chambers's bass dances along in obbligato, offsetting Miles's melancholy. And as Red Garland's joyful piano solo takes the spotlight, Philly Joe Jones lifts the performance with a subtle move to double-time. As with Miles's later versions, what amazes is what's not there: while John Coltrane might have provided a remarkable contrast to Miles's statement here, Miles must have felt that the performance was better balanced without him, and consequently this track is the only one on the first session where Coltrane sits out.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jim Hall: My Funny Valentine

This is an astounding attempt to use the duo concept from the Bill Evans/Jim Hall 1962 recording of "My Funny Valentine" and translate it into a trio version. If it doesn't quite match up to the earlier version, that is no criticism of the musicians involved, who are listening and responding as intently as Evans and Hall did 26 years earlier. Indeed, there is an incredible amount of interplay in this recording, and intriguing harmonic avenues are explored. But the medium tempo, while quicker than most versions of "Valentine," doesn't quite jell the way Evans/Hall's quick tempo did, and the necessary spark needed to re-create such a masterpiece is missing. Still, this is a solid performance that works well on its own terms.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Giuffre: My Funny Valentine

A quick look at the instrumentation will explain why this is one of the more unusual versions of "My Funny Valentine." It's an odd mix of a classical woodwind quartet with a very jazzy and soulful ostinato bass part. Giuffre had studied composition with Dr. Wesley La Violette, and one wonders if this arrangement began as a homework assignment. Although none of the woodwinds plays in true classical style, the mix of jazz and classical doesn't quite work. Giuffre's subtone clarinet clashes with the strident sound of the double reeds, and while the performance has some level of emotion, it is all so reserved that one wonders about the point of the entire experiment. Giuffre's work deserves to be reexamined, as he created an amazing body of recordings. Unfortunately, this is not the most interesting example.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Shirley Horn: My Funny Valentine

While Miles Davis tribute albums are legion, none is more heartfelt than Shirley Horn's I Remember Miles. Horn got one of her first big breaks from Davis in 1961, when the trumpeter insisted that the then-unknown singer open for him at the Village Vanguard. A Davis sketch of the two adorns the cover, and a vintage photo (presumably taken at the Vanguard) appears inside the package. One imagines that those images were in her mind, if not in the studio, as she made this album. Throughout, it's as if Horn is singing directly to her late friend and supporter. Her version of "My Funny Valentine" starts with a stark reading of the bridge before settling into her patented slow groove. As the performance grows in intensity, Horn makes us think about every word, and each melodic variation seems to emphasize the lyric. And when she reaches the word "stay," everything stops so she can make the most out of the last line, repeating it several times to bolster the final point. Perhaps that final word ("stay") was Shirley's wish that Miles— who'd passed away six years before—would never truly leave us.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ruby Braff & Ellis Larkins: My Funny Valentine

Because the lyric is gender-specific and character-driven, the verse to "My Funny Valentine" is rarely performed. Yet Ellis Larkins plays it as an introduction to this austere duet version. (Aside from a couple of instrumental recordings featuring Tubby Hayes, I've never heard another recording of the verse.) On this track, Larkins's rubato reading of the verse leads to Ruby Braff's glowing reading of the melody, which is also out of tempo. Braff might have been labeled as a traditionalist, but few musicians could sing through their instrument as he could. When Larkins takes the solo spotlight, he establishes a walking tempo with his beautifully flowing version of stride piano. When Braff comes back, the tempo recedes and disappears, and the cornetist shows his rhapsodic side to close the recording.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sarah Vaughan: My Funny Valentine

As her voice became deeper and richer, Sarah Vaughan's interpretive powers grew even more profound. As Gunther Schuller has noted, she had "an arsenal of vibratos, ranging from none to a rich throbbing, almost at times excessive one, all varying as to speed … size and intensity at will." Further, she could move freely from one part of her voice to another, performing leaps that would shred a lesser voice. This remarkable version of "My Funny Valentine" was recorded live, and there is a concentrated intensity by both performer and audience as Vaughan completely reconstructs the classic song. Her interpretation goes far beyond basic variations and represents an aesthetic towards her material that was different from any other singer now or then. While it's possible to point out specific harmonic and melodic risks she takes (and there are many), it is more important to hear Vaughan's statement as a whole. Almost more Vaughan than Rodgers & Hart, it is unparalleled in the history of vocal jazz.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: My Funny Valentine (1953)

While Chet Baker was widely known for his vocal versions of "My Funny Valentine," he first recorded the song as a trumpet feature with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Both the Fantasy and Pacific Jazz versions were recorded live, but the Pacific Jazz is the longer and better take. Bunker's opening tom-tom roll announces a dramatic start, and suddenly it is only Baker with Smith's spare bass backing. But listen again, and faintly in the background are the unison singing voices of Mulligan, Smith and Bunker! Baker's plaintive solo displays his natural sense of melody and phrasing. He says so much with the simplicity of his ideas and the burnished sound of his horn. Mulligan was a superb ballad player as well, and his more complex solo acts as a fine counterpoint to Baker's statement. And this time, Baker leads the vocal background, which in keeping with Mulligan's multi-noted solo is more intricate than the backgrounds for the trumpet solo.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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