Fred Simon: Same Difference

To those in the know, one of Chicago's secret pleasures is native pianist/composer Fred Simon. On “Same Difference” the exquisite multi-instrumentalist Paul Mc Candless joins him to create this memorable piece of pastoral cross-genre music. McCandless, of Oregon fame, worked together with Simon previously on Premonition, Mc Candless’s 1992 album, where the two undoubtedly found they had kindred spirits.

Simon’s approach on this ballad is delicate and low-keyed. He avoids playing too much, preferring his composition to speak for itself. The interplay between the soprano saxophone and the piano is almost telepathic creating a glowingly warm conversation. Mc Candless' uplifting solo joyfully elevates the music, releasing it from its predictable path while spiriting it to a higher level. Together these two create a memorable piece of “chamber style” jazz that raises the spirit with warmth and beauty without becoming sentimental.

September 27, 2009 · 0 comments


Branford Marsalis: Royal Garden Blues

For the title track of his album Royal Garden Blues, Branford Marsalis demonstrates how to re-invent a classic song. While he could have re-arranged the tune into something barely recognizable, he keeps the song intact and dutifully plays the theme from beginning to end before jumping into his improvisation. Pianist Larry Willis drops out as soon as the theme ends, and Marsalis (with the amazing rhythm team of Ron Carter and Al Foster) launches into a free-bop solo. Without the piano, Marsalis implies all sorts of extended harmony that would have surprised the original composers. Marsalis uses bits of the melody all through his solo and displays incredible control on the straight horn. Willis' single-line solo is much more straight-forward, but still offers stretching of the harmonies. Foster is full of fireworks throughout the performance, while Carter's interactions are quite subtle. The biggest shock is when the tune comes back at the end: the improvisations have been so adventurous that if the theme had been edited out on each end and the recording given an original title, jazz fans and critics would have argued endlessly about the harmonic source of the piece.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet/Muggsy Spanier Big Four: That's A Plenty

The pairing of Sidney Bechet and Muggsy Spanier was the brainchild of Steve Smith, the president of the Hot Record Society. HRS was a conglomeration of record store, record label and publisher, and the original 124 sides they recorded are now treasured collector's items. By the time their co-led band recorded in 1940, Bechet had, like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, returned to the States after an extended stay in Europe. Spanier, meanwhile, had recorded a series of 16 sides with his "Ragtime Band", which despite the name, was quite progressive in its mix of Dixie and swing styles. In a way, the Bechet/Spanier group was a refinement of the Ragtime Band. By leaving out the piano and drums, which seemed to be the clunkiest parts of the Ragtime Band's rhythm section, the group had a streamlined rhythm team of guitar and bass, superbly manned by Carmen Mastren and Wellman Braud. While bassist Braud was from New Orleans, he was well-trained in swing during his tenure with Duke Ellington. Mastren was a superb guitarist who had worked with Spanier before as well as with Tommy Dorsey. The Big Four (as the Bechet/Spanier group was billed) recorded 8 sides in two sessions, and only "China Boy" and "That's A Plenty" could really be considered Dixie standards. On "That's A-Plenty", we hear a fascinating mix of current and old styles with Bechet and Spanier playing traditional Dixie horn roles over the smooth swing style of the rhythm section. Bechet starts off the side on clarinet and takes the first solo with Spanier offering simple counterpoint. Bechet is clearly inspired by the burning tempo and I suspect he would have played longer if not cut off by Spanier and restricted by the length of the recording (and this is on a 4-minute 12-inch 78!). After the interlude, Spanier quickly pops a mute on his horn and blows a fierce chorus. While we're wondering how Spanier managed to set that mute so quickly, Bechet does a quick change of his own and suddenly he's playing soprano sax in the background! Braud walks one before Bechet takes over. While his trademark vibrato is the same on both horns, his rhythmic feel is quite different with a choppy arpeggiated style on clarinet, and a broader, long-lined approach on soprano. As the side comes to a close, Spanier becomes more aggressive and the solo turns into a duet with both hornmen playing contrasting but driving lines.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Branford Marsalis: Sidney in Da Haus

The Sidney of the title is Sidney Bechet, the Creole clarinet (and soprano sax) master of early New Orleans jazz. Usually Branford's brother is the Marsalis sibling who plays the role of jazz museum curator, but perhaps Wynton's presence as a sideman here inspired this historically-charged performance. You probably already know that Branford Marsalis can construct thematic improvisations like Rollins or unleash modal assaults like 'Trane, but what about his Bechet bag on soprano sax? His breaks on this track are pure New Orleans, delivered with a coy "gosh, look at me" attitude that is quite endearing, and Branford follows with four picture-perfect blues choruses. Then the trumpeter in the family steps to the forefront and offers his own forceful history lesson. Only one track on I Heard You Twice the First Time features this outstanding band. 'Tis pity. I'm sure I'm not the only jazz fan who is disappointed that Wynton and Branford don't record together more often, and this track reminds me of the sparks that fly when the orbits of these two stars coincide. Oh . . . and don't miss out the New-Orleans-counterpoint-on-steroids in the opening and closing sections.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Anat Cohen: Washington Square Park

Anat Cohen’s main instrument might be clarinet, but for the around-the-world antics of the self-penned “Washington Square Park,” she shows just as much ability on soprano sax. Beginning with a perky, Middle-Eastern rhythm marked by a single piano note played in staccato, Cohen conjures up twisting lines for herself and blazes right through them with a light touch. The song changes in mood, slowing down and speeding back up again to a funkier tempo. Cohen never stops creating from her horn, sometimes exchanging phrases with Hekselman, which only adds to the playful mood. Linder spends most of the time doubling up on Avital’s bass pulses, but unexpectedly whips out a vintage synth to solo with near the end of the song.

“Washington Square Park” is zestful, a bit exotic and peppered with little surprises. What’s there not to like?

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Steve Lacy: Work

A mere three or four years before the recording of Soprano Sax, the teen-aged Steve Lacy had been a Bechet-enthralled Dixieland soprano saxophonist and clarinetist. A subsequent association with Cecil Taylor opened his eyes and ears, and by 1957 he'd ditched the clarinet and was playing soprano full-time in the most modern contexts. This take of "Work" was a precursor of Lacy's eventual preoccupation with Thelonious Monk, an interest that would soon lead to the formation of a group (with trombonist Roswell Rudd) that played only Monk tunes. Lacy is accompanied here by two cohorts from the Taylor band—bassist Buell Niedlinger and drummer Dennis Charles—and a ringer on piano: sideman-to-the-stars Wynton Kelly. The music swings hard, with the rhythm section laying down solid if conventional backing. Lacy is, of course, the wild card, his laconic take on bop harmony and phrasing unlike anything that had been played on the soprano. Only 23 when this was recorded, Lacy's most productive years as a great composer and improviser were ahead of him. As an example of the soprano sax emerging as a legitimate modern jazz vehicle, however, this is an important document.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Wayne Shorter: Super Nova

It's hard to remember a time when Wayne Shorter didn't play at least as much soprano sax as he did tenor, but he came to the smaller horn relatively late, at age 35: after playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; after recording most of his early Blue Note masterpieces; and after making his mark with the classic Miles Davis Quintet of the mid '60s. It wasn't until late 1968 that he began recording on soprano, first with Miles (on the In a Silent Way sessions), and later on this title track from his own 1969 Blue Note album.

Shorter might have found the soprano late, but he hit the ground running. Based on a slight, endlessly transmutable motiv, Shorter's lissome soprano solo seems to throw into relief the quickness he always exhibited on tenor. Everything seems sped up here—the tempo, the horn's sound, Shorter's remarkably precise manner of articulation (something that would become ever more pronounced over the years). Backed by a smoking rhythm section, "Super Nova" is a highly-chromatic music that eschews conventional bop or even modal harmonies, yet retains the explicit swing element. The soprano's small size allows it to be played at higher velocity, making it the ideal horn for Shorter and younger hyper-agile freebop players (Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman being two of the best) who would fall under his spell over the next thirty-plus years. Few of those younger players would ever capture the same air of spontaneity, however, nor would they evince as much originality as Shorter, who would remain one of the dominant voices on the horn for decades to come.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Keith Jarrett (featuring Jan Garbarek): The Windup

Beginning in the '70s, some of the most consistently interesting soprano saxophonists could be found in Europe. One of the first and best was Jan Garbarek. Initially inspired by the expressionist tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, Garbarek recorded with composer/theorist George Russell in the mid-to-late '60s. By the mid '70s, Garbarek had evolved into a disciplined, post-bop melodist, recording a series of fine leftward-leaning albums under his own name for ECM. However, some of his best—-and jazziest—work came as a member of pianist Keith Jarrett's "European Quartet," with whom he recorded this track. "The Windup" is driven by Jarrett's gospel-ish piano vamp and drummer Jon Christensen's chattering snare, which lead into a cheerful odd-time melody played by Garbarek on curved soprano. Garbarek's sound is less like that of a straight soprano than it is the musette sometimes favored by saxophonist Dewey Redman. Nasal in character but full-bodied, it's one of the most distinctive soprano sax sounds in all of jazz. After Jarrett's solo, Garbarek enters unaccompanied. His solo is almost Ornette-ish in character. Singing and melodic, strongly rhythmic but harmonically unfettered, it's a joyful sound, not least because of its sheer individuality. Not many soprano saxophonists took the route suggested by Garbarek here, which not coincidentally adds to the music's appeal.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Zoot Sims: Moonlight in Vermont

Not many swing or bop saxophonists have put the soprano to good use—few if any during the '30s and '40s, when those styles were gestating. However, in the '60s and '70s a few veterans picked up the horn and made good music with it, among them Phil Woods, Jimmy Heath, Dexter Gordon, and Zoot Sims. The latter recorded an especially attractive album of soprano performances in 1973. Sims transported his suave, deftly swinging style from tenor to soprano, lock, stock, and barrel, with great success. On the ballad "Moonlight in Vermont," Sims highlights the horns sweeter qualities. His soprano sound is an extension of his tenor sound—slightly breathy, smooth and effortless, without a hint of the nasal quality that seems to naturally infect the playing of many more modern players. And oh how he swings! It's enough to make one regret that the horn didn't find wider acceptance back in the day. Who knows how the horn would've sounded in the hands of the great swing era saxophonists? Until someone uncovers some long-lost recordings of Lester Young playing the soprano, this is as close as we're likely to get.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Jane Ira Bloom: I Got Rhythm But No Melody

The talented and self-reliant Jane Ira Bloom emerged in the late '70s, producing and releasing albums on her own Outline label. Mighty Lights is her third album, and first for an outside label. She's joined on this track by an estimable rhythm section: former Ornette Coleman confreres Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums.

Given the presence of Haden and Blackwell, one might expect more of an Ornette-ish influence, but the up-tempo "I Got Rhythm But No Melody" has none of the down home qualities characteristic of a Coleman composition. It is, rather, a knotty, harmonically vague and altogether "out" tune, more like something Sam Rivers at his most hyperactive might've concocted. As an improviser, Bloom is busy and not especially lyrical. She sounds a bit callow in contrast with her veteran band mates (her time is not always sure, nor do her ideas always come to a reasonable conclusion), yet she's already exhibiting a pronounced streak of originality. She has a bit of Steve Lacy's dryness of tone and disinclination to play long strings of eighth notes. Rather, like Lacy, she breaks up her line, going in and out of time in a pleasantly unpredictable fashion.

At the time this was recorded in the early '80s, Bloom was establishing herself as a soprano specialist, then as now (and seemingly forever) a rara avis. Since then, she's grown both as an artist and in renown, becoming a perennial poll-winner and one of the most well-respected soprano saxophonists in jazz. This is a fine example of an exemplary artist just coming into her own.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Johnny Hodges: Jeep's Blues

"Jeep" was the second of the nicknames Johnny Hodges had acquired ("Rabbit" being the first, from his youth). This was indeed Jeep's blues, with Hodges leading the musical movement from this small group session of members of the Ellington band. As Helen Oakley Dance said in her liner notes for the 1968 LP compilation of the 1938 and '39 sessions (she also supervised some of these recordings), "The small- band sound, the band-within-a-band, had captivated popular imagination, and Johnny Hodges's talents dominated the new trend." This track brought much admiration for the beautiful blues playing of Hodges. "Jeep's Blues" became a much-played tune; this version is my favorite of several I've heard.

The track opens with Johnny blowing the lovely and memorable theme in sublime bluesy style, including some wailing high notes on soprano sax that further deepen the impassioned playing. The small band offers perfect support, especially with full "chorus" voicings on further versions of the theme. Cootie Williams blows some searing, growling trumpet work with the mute, adding greatly to the blues feel and aesthetic texture. And Jeep's friend from his early Boston years, Harry Carney, offers a fine higher-range baritone sax break for another dimension to the musical mosaic.

March 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: The Blues With a Feelin'

"The Blues With a Feelin'" is an apt title for this track. With the Ellington band's usual fine backing, there are superb solos from "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Johnny Hodges, and presumably Arthur Whetsol. The tune opens and ends with lovely clarinet duet lines. After the opening, Nanton plays a higher-range, very melodious trombone solo with gorgeous tone and some punch. That effectively sets the stage for a soaring, soulful soprano sax solo by Johnny Hodges that is nicely constructed, with well-placed use of bluesy slurs. The impact of Johnny's inspiration and mentor of a few years earlier, Sidney Bechet, is especially evident here, right down to the intense, Bechet-style vibrato. Whetsol (or is it Miley?) contributes some fine muted trumpet lines that carry on perfectly, in tone and style, from the Hodges solo. This track is an excellent example of how the sophisticated gentleman Ellington, with key-note help from his superb soloists, could offer up soulful blues. Especially with Johnny Hodges, this is, indeed, "the blues with a feelin'."

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Jacques Gauthé & The Creole Rice Jazz Band: Blues for Bechet

For many years, one of the unexpected pleasures of visiting New Orleans was discovering the masterful Jacques Gauthé, either while he was sitting in with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band or leading his own Creole Rice Jazz Band at its home base for many years, the plush Meridian Hotel on Canal Street. Gauthé, who passed away in 2007, was born and raised in France and inspired to take up the clarinet by a Sidney Bechet concert he attended in Paris as a young boy in 1951. He moved to New Orleans in 1968, and worked as a chef before turning to jazz fulltime in 1984, whereupon he began doubling on soprano sax.

In 1997, New Orleans took part in the Centennial Celebration of Sidney Bechet's birth, a perfect time for Gauthé to record a tribute to his idol. In addition to recording 15 tunes Bechet had written and/or played, Gauthé included his own noteworthy composition "Blues for Bechet." Gauthé's stirring soprano, with its wide vibrato and rich, fully rounded tone, unavoidably evokes Bechet. The piece shifts from a melancholy, almost dirge-like opening theme played by Gauthé, to an upbeat, more joyful quality when the horns join him – a structure reminiscent of the two faces of a New Orleans-style funeral procession. A string of solos featuring Owen's vibrant trombone, Heitger's vigorously buoyant trumpet, Pistorius's honky-tonk piano, and Edegran's delicately articulated acoustic guitar, all prove that this is no one-man band. Gauthé soars on the out chorus, as the full band drives home its message with both authenticity and verve.

February 26, 2009 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet: Petite Fleur

This track is tough to rate, both because it is not really jazz and because I'm an American and the tune is quintessentially French. I review it because it represents the last major period (the 1950s) in jazz master Sidney Bechet's life, which he spent in France. Americans might recognize the tune, though, since it has served as background to French scenes in various movies.

Bechet uses his famous intense soprano-sax vibrato here to create striking aesthetic effects and express throbbing emotion. He also uses slides and swoops up and down the scale, conveying a roller coaster of feelings. The tune is really a French romantic melodrama in miniature, blown through Bechet's horn, with support from his band members; a nice piano break in the middle adds a dimension.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet: The Sheik of Araby

This is Sidney Bechet's historic "one-man band" recording of a popular 1920s Tin Pan Alley tune with the first-ever overdubbing of instruments, all played by Bechet. After hearing from a technical person that it was possible, Sidney decided to give it a whirl. He worked hard for weeks to get the parts down on his various instruments before the session. The result, while interesting as a technical experiment, does not come off particularly well as pure music.

He begins with a cool rhythmic riff on the theme using tenor sax, and follows by successively adding other instruments. The tune is performed in sprightly, fairly engaging fashion. But the primitive overdubbing at times produces a somewhat odd overall sound and problems with balancing: the piano, bass and drums are so faint they seem hardly present at all. And beyond its audio deficiencies, this track proves that, when it comes to jazz, there is no substitute for the stimulating interaction with other musicians.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments


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