Jaki Byard: To Bob Vatel of Paris

This version of “To Bob Vatel Of Paris,” from Empirical, is a favorite piece in my repertoire. I'm not sure who Bob Vatel is, but this is a lovely one on which to hear the unadulterated contemporary stride master. Jaki said his father sat him by the radio one day and said, “I want you to play like this guy.” "This guy" was Teddy Wilson. Jaki is big on history, and it's always evident in his sound. I love how his hands seem to roll through the phrases. Another piano student of Jaki’s, Eric Lewis, really has taken Jaki's techniques to new places. Jaki always talked about ways to make a song interesting, and one of the ways to do this was to modulate the piece. Jaki does this here before segueing into “Blues for Jennie,” a very slow blues. Then he returns to Bob Vatel briefly. The main thing I remember about Jaki and his music was that he always brought his joy to it. He wouldn't play it if he didn't enjoy it. And if he didn't enjoy it, he would let you know verbally.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Donald Lambert: Anitra's Dance

I believe this performance is technically impossible. I have heard (and now seen: YouTube! ) it many times but still refuse to accept it!

Lambert's left hand on up-tempo showpieces like "Anitra's Dance" makes me think of an old-time movie projector, flickering from still image to still image but nevertheless creating the impression of smooth motion.

Donald Lambert tombstone

Edvard Grieg's "Anitra's Dance" is a light classical staple always included in various "Best-loved Classics" anthologies found hidden away in most old piano benches. "Ragging the classics" was standard procedure for this era of pianists; Lambert's "Anitra's Dance" is surely the summit of this practice. There is a studio recording from the 1940s which is also amazing (and basically the same arrangement), but I chose this version since it seems to have more limitless fire.

Unfortunately, having a real gig like the one at the Newport Jazz Festival documented on YouTube was a rare triumph in the Lambert saga. At this point, Lambert was mostly an alcoholic barroom pianist forgotten in New Jersey with just a couple years to live. Instead of a conventional epitaph, Lambert's grave in Princeton has the musical phrase "In some secluded rendezvous" (from "Cocktails for Two") carved in granite.

January 12, 2009 · 1 comment


Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Echoes of Spring

The 'Lion' liked to act and talk real tough, but paradoxically he was the Harlem stride master most interested in gauzy, impressionistic harmony and classically structured piano pieces. Duke Ellington always credited Smith as an important influence.

"Echoes Of Spring" features an unforgettable melody floating over arpeggios before the heat gets turned up a little bit. Although Smith never really plays the requisite left-hand 'oom-pah' in this piece, the stride feeling is there somehow.

I'm not sure if we always get the real deal with Smith's records. While his compositions are supremely beautiful, there is something occasionally self-conscious, rushed and even sloppy about his performances. Not everybody records as easily as the next person, and I wonder if the Lion was really comfortable in the studio.

Highly recommended is my pal Spike Wilner's book of Willie 'The Lion' Smith transcriptions with accompanying essay (The Lion of the Piano: 8 Piano Compositions by Willie 'The Lion' Smith). These wonderful compositions are surely ripe for an interesting contemporary repertory project.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Fats Waller: Numb Fumblin'

Waller was the most overtly humorous of any serious jazz musician. Nothing could be more ironic than his title for this spacious, slowly paced but bouncing blues.

Waller had the best trills of any jazz pianist. He shows them off here not only as single notes but in double thirds as well. Waller said offhandedly that he studied with classical ĂĽber-virtuoso Leopold Godowsky; as far as I know, this is unproved, but the last chorus of high-register passage-work in "Numb Fumblin'" has a kind of effortlessly manic Art Nouveau elegance not far from Godowsky's world.

The emotion of "Numb Fumblin'" is perverse, joyous, and groovy. Classic Fats!

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


James P. Johnson: Keep Off the Grass

They called him the father of stride piano, the king of the Harlem rent party.

In terms of keyboard geography, the space between the "oom" and the "pah" is always very far in James P's left hand. This piece is also quite fast; few other jazz pieces from this era are as brisk. Everything considered, "Keep Off the Grass" is fearsomely difficult to play.

Part of the real Harlem stride style is how single notes do not dominate the melody; instead, constant constellations of double notes (and sometimes chords) brassily sing on top. The first strain of "Keep Off the Grass" has a mysterious chromatic "thumb line" (the lower note of the dyads and chords) that, if isolated, would be quite Monkish in nature.

The last (and most improvised) strain is composed of falling diminished chords. After nearly a century of increasingly advanced jazz harmony, it is hard to hear them as provocative today. In 1921, though, I'm pretty sure James P. would have meant those chain sequences of diminished chords to mean uncertainty and perhaps even sadness: the tear beneath the smile.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Fats Waller: My Feelings Are Hurt

Fats Waller's colorful story could start with his days as a teen prodigy winning his high school's talent contest playing James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout." Soon afterward, the dean of Harlem pianists (Johnson) took the younger man under his wing and taught him the ways of stride piano playing. He eventually secured Waller's first piano-roll and recording dates as well. This Victor side, made when the pianist was all of 25, is a slow stride blues with some fascinating turns towards Tin Pan Alley. Despite these beautiful digressions the blues is never far from the surface. "One never knows, do one?"

September 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Luckey Roberts: Complainin'

Small in stature, Luckey Roberts was a giant among Harlem stride pianists. Yet by the time of this 1958 session for Lester Koenig's revivalist Good Time Jazz Records, Luckey was among jazz's forgotten men. Moreover, his name notwithstanding, he'd suffered a series of personal mishaps, including an automobile wreck that shattered his hands and, only weeks before this recording, a stroke. Any one of these setbacks by itself would explain a poor performance; taken together, they'd excuse almost anything. But Luckey Roberts was, to quote Nat Hentoff's liner notes, "indomitable"—too talented and, yes, too damn proud to make anything less than memorable music.

So, if there was any complaining to do, Luckey would do it in song. "Complainin'," his own composition, is part Debussy, part Scott Joplin, and all Luckey. It's a delightful, bluesy yet dignified rag that, at a scant 3 minutes long, magnetically attracts your thumb to the Repeat button again and again. While his execution may not be letter perfect, Luckey Roberts raises "Complainin'" to an art through his irrepressible warmth, humanity and survivor's dignity. Indomitable indeed.

May 30, 2008 · 0 comments


Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Concentratin'

We tend to remember Harlem jazz for its rent parties or 'jungle music' at the Cotton Club. But there was a concert hall side to this music, drawing on classical influences, and aiming to craft a subtle merger between European and African-American currents. We see this in the large-scale compositions of James P. Johnson, Ellington's extended pieces, and in the impressionistic works of stride pianists, such as Waller's "African Ripples," and this offering from Willie 'The Lion' Smith.

Of course, the great William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith - okay, let's just call him 'The Lion' - never got too refined, and this work's concert hall polish may be closer to Zez Confey than Debussy. In any event, the leonine keyboardist puts aside the oom-pah stride bass for the first half of this number, and crafts a pastoral melody with a Celtic tinge. But he can't hold back the hot jazz forever, and in mid-song he shifts into fast and furious Harlem stride, tossing out some unexpected syncopations along the way. The end result is halfway between the Harlem rent party and Carnegie Hall -- sort of a tux and stogie event. And who better to serve as our host for some transgressive entertainment than 'The Lion'?

May 16, 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 60˝, 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


James P. Johnson: Carolina Shout

"Carolina Shout" is James P. Johnson's most famous composition, and mastering it was a major rite of passage for aspiring Harlem stride piano players. But no one played it better than Johnson himself, as demonstrated by this outstanding 1944 recording. Stride piano was long out of fashion by the time of this session, replaced by the more streamlined rhythms of Kansas City, the jitterbugging sounds of the Swing Era and the nascent pulse of bebop. But James P. Johnson paid little attention to these passing fads, and asserts his own powerful musical vision. Hear the granddaddy of all jazz keyboardists at top form, the man and the song that influenced everyone from Ellington to Monk. A classic of American pianism.

December 08, 2007 · 1 comment


Fats Waller: Ain't Misbehavin'

He doesn't sing here, but Waller's skills as pianist and composer are amply displayed. While Fats didn't invent the Harlem stride style (usually credited to James P. Johnson), he was among its most prodigious practitioners. And whereas he didn't write all the best songs of the 1920s (a guy named Gershwin being no slouch), Fats contributed many jazz standards. Both in conception and execution, "Ain't Misbehavin'" personifies Waller's irrepressible mischief and merriment. Disporting the lilting melody with his effortless bubbly touch, he simultaneously goads the song with a vibrant sense of swing, producing a track as irresistible as Fats himself.

November 22, 2007 · 0 comments


Ralph Sutton: Honeysuckle Rose

Question: What's a 70-year-old white guy in 1990s upscale California doing with 1920s Harlem rent-party stride piano? Answer: Playing the hell out of it. Sutton was only 7 when Fats wrote "Honeysuckle Rose," but sounds like he was anointed in the Reverend Waller's Abyssinian Baptist Church. After a long, out- of-tempo intro, Sutton settles into a loping 4/4 to quote from "At the Codfish Ball." Did lowdown Ralph in highfalutin Berkeley feel like a fish out of water? No matter. Soon hitting his stride, Sutton double-times it to the finish line with such wit and wallop as did Waller wallow. Wow!

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Fats Waller: African Ripples

Fats Waller's combo sides sound like primal party music, recorded at the heat of the festivities, just before the police arrive at the door. But Waller's solo piano music is from another world entirely, with moments of delicacy, and rich with nuances that demand close listening. "African Ripples" ranks among Waller's finest solo outings, a heady mixture of Harlem rent party and concert-hall fare. In just three minutes, Waller explores a range of tempos and moods, closing with a powerful burst of stride piano that leaves us begging for more. A masterpiece of 1930s jazz that deserves to be better known today.

October 28, 2007 · 0 comments


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