Art Tatum & Roy Eldridge: Night and Day

Art Tatum had performed with Roy Eldridge back in 1944 at a famous concert by the Esquire All-Stars, but their paths rarely crossed afterwards until Norman Granz brought them into the studio a decade later as part of the producer's "Group Masters" project. The idea of matching Tatum with top-notch horn players sounded fine in theory, but with some exceptions, found the pianist playing over rather than with his colleagues. Yet his outing on "Night and Day" with trumpeter Roy Eldridge coheres better than one might expect. Eldridge was no stranger to battles on the bandstand, but here he focuses on sheer swing rather than try to match Tatum note-for-note. Simmons and Stoller are energized by his presence, and create a more supple pulse than one usually finds on the Granz-Tatum projects. The pianist is hardly chastened by this change of affairs, and continues to throw out his baroque runs and elaborate reconfigurations, but even he is infused with the groove. This may not quite match the impromptu give-and-take that Tatum achieved after hours in casual jams, but it comes closer than most of his studio sessions to capturing that ambiance.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Lazy River

I don't know how "Up A Lazy River" ever made it past a music publishing editor. The melody line is dominated by awkward leaps and a very wide range. Trained voices have a hard time negotiating the tune (especially the younger singers who don't know the song from recordings), and it must be nearly impossible for a layman to sing or whistle the song accurately. Yet somehow this song became one of Hoagy Carmichael's biggest hits. I suspect Louis Armstrong deserves some of the credit. On this recording (which was a big hit for Louis), he uses the ultimate economy by reducing Carmichael's melody to a single (and oh-so-right) pitch. His opening trumpet solo hints at the melodic reduction to come, and when the saxes play the original melody, they sound terribly old-fashioned, and only Louis' vocal retorts make the passage listenable. In addition to reducing the melody's scope, Louis also changes the phrasing by omitting some words and barely stating others: Up...lazy river...where...th'old mill runs. We get a second vocal chorus on this one, which Louis starts with an arpeggiated line (just in case anyone thought that he couldn't sing the original melody) and melds into a scat solo. He seems pleasantly surprised by his vocal creation and he breaks out of a scat line with the spoken "Oh, you dog! Ha Ha. Boy, am I riffin' this evenin'? I hope somethin'." He scats a little more, references the song's title and then introduces pianist Charlie Alexander, whose break allows Louis to pick up his trumpet. The final solo isn't quite as majestic as others from this period, but it is powerful enough to bring the track to a satisfying close.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Douglas: Unison

The trumpeter Dave Douglas’s take on “Unison” is no match for Bjork’s sublime and bouncy original recording. Absent from his interpretation are the glitchy beats, and the string, harp and electronica parts that made the composer’s version so unique and other-wordly. That said, Douglas’s stab at the tune is a fine effort in and of itself, earthy and organic where Bjork’s music is highly programmed and produced. The leader’s muted trumpet solo darts in and out of all the right places, with ample support from Chris Potter’s subtle bass clarinet work, and James Genus’s deep and sparse bass playing.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Bye Bye Blackbird

Miles Davis' classic version of "Bye Bye, Blackbird" has long been considered one of the essential modern jazz recordings. However, the reasons why this particular recording became much more popular than similar recordings from Miles' discography are not so clear. One reason for "Blackbird"'s popularity was that it was recorded on his new label, Columbia, rather than on his old one, Prestige. Columbia had excellent distribution and the records were available for sale and commonly heard on the radio. And then there was the LP programming: At the start of Side 1 was the stunning title track "Round About Midnight" and at the start of Side 2 was "Blackbird", a jaunty yet sad setting of a old standard. Contrary to the myth, "Blackbird" was hardly a forgotten song: Tom Lord's "Jazz Discography" shows a steady recording history of the song up until Miles recorded it. The song was still familiar and loved by the older members of Miles' audience, and even if the song was new to you, it was easy to glean the wistful quality of the song through the Quintet's interpretation. Another key part of "Blackbird"'s popularity has to be in the solos themselves. Every solo on this track is eminently singable. Even Coltrane's runs can be sung with a little practice! For young musicians learning how to improvise, these solos were a gateway into modern jazz. And for the hipsters of the period, it was an easy way to show just how hip they were (or thought they were...) There are many wonderful little moments in this recording that make it special, but my favorite is near the end as Miles plays the final chorus. When he reaches the make my bed and light the light/ I'll be home late tonight lines, Red Garland plays the melody a third above Miles. It's a simple little gesture, maybe a little corny, but whenever I hear it, I can't help but smile.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: High Society

Louis Armstrong's 1933 big band recording of "High Society" is not only vastly different from his recording with King Oliver 11 years earlier, but different from just about any other version. The arrangement by Carl Russell includes complete strains that I've never heard in any other recording of the song. Louis offers a verbal introduction and promises a re-creation of a New Orleans street parade. Lawson starts a parade drum pattern on his snare and Louis plays the "horns up" motive, but when the band comes in, the modern chords don't sound anything like a New Orleans street band. The saxes fumble through a difficult passage and Louis covers them up with an upward slide, and then Keg Johnson offers the familiar first strain on trombone, with the band swinging the background riffs. Louis takes over from Keg to conclude the strain, but the next minute or so of the arrangement consists of original big band riff choruses that were never part of "High Society". When we finally arrive at the trio, Randolph or Whitlock plays the theme while the saxes have a go at the famous clarinet obbligato. The minor "dog-fight" interlude from the original march leads into a variation on the trio that provides a backdrop for Armstrong's high-register trumpet fireworks. While the arrangement is an interesting attempt to transform a New Orleans band standard into a solo vehicle, the effort isn't entirely successful, and it certainly falls short of the expectations we had from the introduction.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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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

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Art Farmer: I Love You

Art Farmer was perhaps the tastiest player in modern jazz. His exquisite note choices were accentuated by his use of mutes, which seemed to make his lines stand out. In the light of the often loud and discordant sounds of free jazz and fusion, he considered himself a traditionalist. But within the framework of modern jazz, Farmer was capable of great flexibility, subtly leading his listeners down paths they might not have expected. For example, the opening chorus of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” from the album Modern Art sounds like a trip into Miles Davis country, with Art playing a standard in a mute over a two-beat rhythm. All such fears evaporate at the opening of the second chorus as Bill Evans takes the spotlight. By this time, Evans was coming into his own and we can hear much of what became his style trademarks in this solo: the light touch, the nearly-inaudible comping and the careful sculpting of each line. Most of the solo is in single lines with parallel thirds, octaves and chords used sparingly but always to great effect. Benny Golson plays a note-gobbling solo that shows his roots in Lucky Thompson, while showing what John Coltrane learned from Golson. Farner, still in the cup mute, plays a flowing melodic solo, filled with long lines and, like Evans’ solo, featuring plenty of effective sequencing. It’s a little surprising when Golson returns for another 16 bars, but it turns out to be the beginning of a long set of exchanges which start at half-choruses and work their way down to 4-bar thoughts. Because of their different but complimentary solo styles, the two hornmen were fine collaborators and they continued to work together (most notably as co-leaders of the Jazztet) until Farmer’s passing in 1999.

September 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: It Could Happen To You

In 1956, with a new recording contract from Columbia (and several recordings already in the can for them), Miles Davis negotiated a deal with Prestige Records to wrap up his current contract: Miles and his quintet would record two marathon sessions consisting of the band’s current repertoire. The music would be recorded as a nightclub set, with little space between tunes, and no retakes unless absolutely necessary. The four resulting albums Cookin’, Relaxin', Workin' and Steamin’ were released over the next four years. Prestige got the albums they wanted, and Miles’ Columbia discography alternated classic small group dates with orchestral collaborations arranged and conducted by Gil Evans.

“It Could Happen To You” was released on Relaxin’ and the mood of the song certainly fits the album title. This is one of several standards in Miles’ book and the treatment is basically the same as on “Bye Bye, Blackbird” recorded for Columbia in the previous year. Miles takes the opening chorus in harmon mute over a bouncy two-beat from the rhythm section. John Coltrane enters next with a slashing “sheets of sound” tenor solo over a wide-open rhythm section in straight 4/4. Red Garland lightens the mood with his delicate piano stylings and Miles comes back to take it out. What makes this recording unique is what happens in each of these episodes: Miles’ solo includes several odd-length phrases which only make sense when they’re all put together, Trane balances his normally rough-hewn style with long and tender melodic phrases, and Garland finds the middle ground between Miles and Trane with a tasty mixture of short and long phrases. And how well the band communicates the spirit of the light-hearted warnings of the unheard lyrics! This was the best jazz group of its day and even a minor toss-off recording by them stands up very well 50-odd years later.

September 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Some Of These Days

With his classic big band recording of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the basic formula for Louis Armstrong's arrangements was set: melodic interpretation on trumpet, solo break by a member of the band, vocal solo, another solo break, then big final trumpet chorus. Now, there's nothing wrong with a working formula, especially—as in Louis' case—when you're the first person to do it. His version of the evergreen "Some Of These Days" was made fairly early in the series and in this case, the formula was turned inside out. It sounds like the band is reading a stock arrangement which means that there's more for them to do than just accompany Louis. Still, Louis gets all of the solo space he normally had, just in a different order. After the saxophone intro, he sings first, and since the song was fairly well-known, he takes a lot of liberties with it. In fact, it almost sounds like he's singing in the wrong key for the first half of his chorus, but he's just singing an adventuresome variation of the melody. After a clumsy break by Jimmy Strong, Louis plays his first trumpet solo. In contrast to the vocal, he's fairly conservative, using a set of symmetrical phrases and closing with a hoochie-coochie riff that was part of the arrangement. The saxes have a variation and the playing is about as clean as any of Louis' backing groups of this period. Louis' final solo is a dazzling display which covers the entire range of the horn and peaks with a sustained high D-flat. Louis didn't favor his low register much, and on the non-vocal take also included on the above CD, we can hear why: in the same spot, Louis moves to the lower register and he gets covered up by the saxes. Within a few years, recording techniques would improve and there would be less of these balance issues. What is surprising is that the non-vocal version was issued (mostly outside of the US) even with the balance problem. While not the equal of the vocal version, the instrumental take is worth a listen.

September 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz & Dizzy Gillespie: Lover Come Back to Me

Back in 1953 Getz and Gillespie battled it out at a very intense session, and it seemed like Dizzy was picking very fast tempos and deliberately trying to unnerve the cool school tenorist with an immersion into the boiling hot. Is it relevant that Dizzy, writing in his autobiography, griped that cool jazz was "white people's music," played by those "who never sweated on the stand"? Or is there no connection between that sentiment and the intense jousting that always took place when these two artists met in the frontline? In any event, if Dizzy tried to cut him in 1953, Getz did not bleed and fought back with some very aggressive playing of his own.

Fast forward three years, and Gillespie is ready for a rematch, and this time he brings along alto speedster Sonny Stitt to try to put even more pressure on Mr. Getz. Again the tempos are faster than normal, and Stitt sets the pace here with all of his usual double time licks. Gillespie follows, and though he is not quite as prepossessing over these changes as he would have been a decade before, he still makes a very strong statement. But Getz's playing here is the real revelation. Those who have only heard his bossa or ballad work may not know how much technique this artist had at his command, and how well he responded in pressure situations on the bandstand. I especially like Getz's overall sound on this track—his tone keeps its warmth and full body even when he increases the intensity of his attack. Give the nod here to Stan, who shows how deep his bebop roots went in this must-have performance for Getz fans.

August 31, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dicky Wells: Japanese Sandman

Even before the Quintette of the Hot Club of France started recording, Django Reinhardt was a first-call player whenever American artists recorded in Paris. Owing that Django could barely read and write his own name, let alone music scores, it was amazing that he achieved such a status. But his ear was precise and he could translate what he heard to the guitar with stunning accuracy, and that is a major part of his legendary reputation.

Trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dickie Wells were touring Paris as part of the Teddy Hill Orchestra when they recorded this session for Swing (Dizzy Gillespie was also with the band, and ironically, he was the only trumpeter from the band not invited to play at the session!) This delightful version of “Japanese Sandman” was the last song cut that day and it features remarkable solos by all three principals. Wells is up first, barely touching the melody before moving into his own invention. Yet he never loses sight of the opening motive and many of his ideas are related to that motive, either rhythmically or melodically. Coleman follows with his sunny, open tone. His first half-chorus features a set of perfectly-balanced phrases. Then the last phrase spills into the bridge and his phrasing shifts three beats off the form. Coleman keeps things that way until he ties it all up with a beautifully-played 6-bar phrase. Then Django steps up with a mostly single-string solo that features some intriguing harmonic choices in the 5th-8th bars. The rest of the solo is rather straight-forward harmonically, so it’s hard to know whether Django was fully aware of what he was doing and if he considered it a momentary mis-step (If Dizzy had been at the session, he would have known!). However, it was not an isolated incident and Django, who later expressed admiration for the harmonic innovations of Gillespie and Charlie Parker, would experiment again with advanced harmonies in the next few years—several years before bebop was born.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Brian Lynch: On the Dot

Known for his associations with Latin pianist Eddie Palmieri, Brian Lynch teams up with pianist Bill Charlap for this 2003 release. Lynch is really at home on this song and shows it with his expressive and vibrant playing. His solo is a constant barrage of swinging eighth notes that requires several listens to grasp his full range and vocabulary. For Charlap's solo, the pianist works in and around a similar rhythmic delivery as Lynch, but aids his solo greatly with subtle but effective left hand chordal chomps. At the end of this tune, the band trades fours and like the other tracks off of this disc, they show that they are some of best cats in New York right now playing straight ahead stuff. Although Charlap and Lynch play other styles than bop/post-bop, their command and execution is superb on this album and the magic captured here is probably what you would get if you went and saw this quartet live in the act. All around a pleasurable listen.

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Brian Lynch: Cheryl

On this great tune, Bill Charlap and Brian Lynch run a marathon around these changes. Charlap plays the best solo but Lynch is just as comfortable with his muted trumpet tone, which soars above the clouds. Joe Farnsworth lays down some solid swing and also accents the snare well. Rounded out by the bass playing of Dwayne Burno, the quartet swing in style, that New York club style that you don't seem to hear as often as you would have back in the 1990s. Overall the group does a good job of trading fours towards the end and they play straight ahead about as well as it can be played. Farnsworth finishes things off with a tasty little solo of his own. A really nice and solid track.

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sharkey Bonano: Royal Garden Blues

The celebrated maestro Arturo Toscanini, according to legend, once invited Sharkey Bonano to a rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic, asked him to play for the orchestra, and afterwards berated his trumpeters because they couldn't get as big and beautiful sound from their horns as the lowly jazz musician. I'm not sure if this ever happened, but Bonano certainly had a full-bodied tone, perfectly suited for New Orleans lead playing, which requires the trumpeter to cut through the layers of counterpoint, both working the melody line and swinging the band at the same time. Fans sometimes dismissed his musicianship because of his on-stage antics and skills as an entertainer. On this live recording, he is clapping and exhorting and setting the festive tone from the bandstand. But he works over "Royal Garden Blues" but good, and clarinetist Bujie Centobie gets in some hot licks too. Good enough for Toscanini; good enough for me.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Doc Cheatham: New Orleans

In the span of his long career, Doc Cheatham played with Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood (backing Billie Holiday), Machito, Tito Puente, and Wilbur de Paris, among others. But it was a stint with Benny Goodman's quintet in the mid-'60's (at age 60), that began Cheatham's true transition from accomplished lead trumpeter to a player both more capable and more confident as a soloist. During this self-imposed woodshedding period, Cheatham also took up singing for the first time, which enabled him to better rest his chops and pace himself as he further advanced in years. By the time of his first major label recording in 1992 (its title a take-off on The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake from 1969), Cheatham had been playing and singing at his regular Sunday afternoon gigs at Sweet Basil in New York for 12 years straight, and by then was considered the undisputed elder statesman among jazz trumpeters.

The group heard here on "New Orleans" is Cheatham's New York Quartet that appeared at Sweet Basil. Cheatham's initial treatment of the theme on trumpet possesses a majestic richness of tone and expression. He then sings Hoagy's lyrics in his ingratiating conversational, gentlemanly style, even rolling an "R" at one point. His sincere sentimentality is such that one might think he had been born and raised in The Big Easy, rather than Nashville. Folds' piano solo is wistfully restrained and bordering on impressionistic, which makes the trumpet blast announcing Cheatham's own solo all the more jolting. Doc's phrasing comes out of Louis Armstrong (who he subbed for in the '20's), but he imbues it with his own personality and originality. After another brief but welcome vocal, Cheatham ends with a brash fanfare that both evokes, and does justice to, Armstrong in his youth. And all this remarkably from an 87 year-old!

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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