Ella Fitzgerald: St. Louis Blues

While the majority of Ella’s discography was recorded in the studio, live recordings provide the most vivid studies of her art. In front of an audience with just piano, bass and drums, she came alive; it was what she lived for, and where the essence of her art was to be found. There is probably no finer example of this than her performance of “St. Louis Blues,” recorded in front of an enthusiastic audience at the Teatro Sistina in Rome. Part of a concert that lay undiscovered in Polygram’s vaults until it was released for the first time in 1988, it is memorable not only because Ella is in superb voice but also because the backing trio of Lou Levy, Max Bennett and Gus Johnson had, through regular performance, become a superbly cohesive unit. “St. Louis Blues” actually opened the concert that night, a stunning virtuoso tour-de-force whose whirlwind tempo, intensity and length (almost six minutes) could easily have been used to climax her set, rather than open it! The melodic construction of her scat singing is exemplary (including the aside “People are wondering what I’m singing. Believe it or not it’s ‘St. Louis Blues’”). This track ranks among the finest examples of vocal jazz, as Lou Levy reflected in 1990: “It was just great! So much spirit and drive on it. You could never get it if you went into the studio. If you tried in the studio it would be one chance in a million.”

February 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ella Fitzgerald: Every Time We Say Goodbye

Perhaps the most enduring song from the whole Songbook series, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” from The Cole Porter Songbook dispensed with the big band-isms that provided the backdrop to the series. Instead, the haunting sound of oboe and strings and Ella’s liquid vocal give this piece its timeless feel. Ella could never quite understand why it was one of her most popular songs with European audiences, and to this day it is regularly played on European radio stations – not least by the BBC. The Cole Porter Songbook set effectively launched Norman Granz’s Verve label, the famous “4000” series initiated with Ella in mind. Its subsequent success when released in 1956 – it went straight to 15 on the Billboard chart, and Down Beat listed it as the second best-selling jazz album – ensured Verve's financial viability and ultimately went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time, remaining almost constantly in print since its release.

February 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: I Remember You

Motion is a unique offering in Lee Konitz’s discography. It’s his first official trio record, and he chose to do it with fellow Tristano-ite Sonny Dallas, and with a musician that few people would have imagined him playing with at the time: Elvin Jones. Konitz himself admits that he was somewhat apprehensive at the idea of Coltrane’s drummer being associated with his own rather thin alto sound. He even rehearsed at length with Dallas and Nick Stabulas as a “sparring partner” (and these side sessions are more than satisfying, as shown on the 3-record edition of Motion) before facing Jones himself. In fact, the alchemy worked fantastically between Konitz, Dallas and Jones, and Motion is definitely one of Konitz’s major achievements. It’s also the first steps toward individual freedom for a soloist who was basically considered “cool” so far. From then on, Konitz was never afraid to confront his extraordinary improvising ability with any other musician, provided he thought good music would come out of the meeting.

January 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: All or Nothing at All

Norman Granz told me that although he once had to wind up a recording session with Billie because she was too drunk to continue, the greatest problem he had with her was getting her to learn new material. He said he wanted to return her to the informal jam session feel of the 1930s Columbia sides, which he considered her best work, but did not want to revisit the same material. By now the reckless vitality of youth had given way to a more melancholy spirit, increasingly trapped within the infinite loops of alcohol and drug addiction. Her voice had frayed, her range was smaller and the tonal quality of her voice deeper, but like all great artists she makes the most of her limitations -- here focusing on the lyric content and using her harmonic ingenuity to avoid notes beyond her range. She succeeds in personalizing and stylizing an unfamiliar song in her own special way. Her accompanists provide generous support, with Edison and Webster offering obbligatos behind her vocal and Rowles and Kessel providing tasteful solos that sustain the song’s drama. During Billie's time with Verve, Granz succeeded in coaxing a series of performances from her that at their best were moving, uniquely personal and fascinating cameos of the less-is-more aesthetic.

January 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans: Solo - In Memory of His Father

Two weeks before Bill Evans was scheduled to make a live recording at Town Hall, his father, Harry L. Evans, died suddenly in Ormond Beach, Florida. Evans considered canceling or postponing the concert, but instead went ahead with the event, but composed an extended solo work dedicated to his father to be premiered at Town Hall. The central section of this 14-minute composition later surfaced as the song "Turn Out the Stars," but Evans would never play it with more warmth or beauty than on this live performance. This pianist is well known for drawing on the inspiration of impressionist classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy, and in this setting these influences come to the fore. If you lifted out the improvisation, the rest of this piece could show up in a concert hall recital and most listeners would hardly realize that it was supposed to be jazz. No wonder the great interpreter of Ravel, Satie and Debussy, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, has added this Bill Evans composition to his repertoire. Evans was such a brilliant interpreter of popular standards and so prolific in his output, that it is hard to have many regrets about his recorded legacy; nonetheless, I am disappointed that he didn't do more extended works of this sort during the 14 remaining years of his life.

January 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Anita O'Day: Yesterdays

Decades before recycling became fashionable, Russ Garcia was doing his part, reworking an arrangement of "Con Alma," written for Oscar Peterson's Swinging Brass (1959), into a chart for another Verve album, this one by Anita O'Day. Thus did yesterday's Garcia arrangement become Garcia's arrangement of "Yesterdays." O'Day, however, had a tougher row to hoe, since she was stuck with the preposterous 1933 lyric by a former English professor. "Joyous, free, and flaming life," it goes, "forsooth was mine." Forsooth? Get thee uptown, Otto! Somehow, out of this emerges a hip and highly enjoyable track. Please recycle.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz & Oscar Peterson: Pennies from Heaven

Every cloud has a copper lining, according to this Depression-era song: "Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven." The sentiment must've appealed to Depression's child Stan Getz, especially in 1957, the year this perennial poll-winner declared bankruptcy. Reporting liabilities of $42,398.59 against assets of $86.11, Getz proved a $70-a-day heroin habit can eviscerate even a $1,000 weekly income. Amazingly, his "personal problems" (the jazz press' favorite euphemism) never clouded his musicianship, which remained invariably sunny. This track, for instance (notwithstanding a flub towards the end), has Getz in all his glory, which is as glorious as glory gets.

December 07, 2007 · 1 comment

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Billie Holiday: What's New

Do you prefer to take your Holiday earlier or later? Hard choice . . . The early Billie Holiday sings with more pop song panache and surface polish. Take a later Holiday, and the terrain is rougher, the emotional landscape dangerous but perhaps even more alluring. I tend to give the highest marks to the early collaborations between Billie and Lester Young, musical gems that will delight listeners a hundred years hence. But you could make a good case for the later Holiday on the basis of this poignant ballad. "What's New" was a perfect vehicle for Billie Holiday, circa 1955, a love song meant to be sung by a world-weary woman looking back on her past. Lady Day delivers a raw and beautiful performance, full of dark shadows. Benny Carter's fine sax solo, a sweeter take on the changes, offers just the right contrast.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Harry 'Sweets' Edison: How Deep Is the Ocean?

Browsing rival websites recently for good stuff to steal—or, make that transmute into high art—we found Sweets Edison described, for the umpteenth time, as a "journeyman." This makes our blood boil, for it denotes competence not mastery, dependability without distinction. While he wasn't as spectacular as Roy Eldridge or as innovative as Dizzy, no trumpeter was more distinctive than Harry Edison, and few were as crafty. Here, brandishing his familiar cup mute, Sweets sets a honey of a tempo, leads by solid example and concocts a confectionary delight. If Sweets Edison was a journeyman, Rembrandt was a housepainter.

December 05, 2007 · 1 comment

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Ben Webster: Tenderly

Hey, I'm only writing about jazz till there's an opening in Romance Novels. You may not realize it, but RNs generate $1.4 billion in sales annually. Plus, unlike jazz, they're recession-proof. I mention this because "Tenderly" strikes me as an RN in disguise. Ben Webster is an RN's dream, an archetypal hairy-chested brute with a soft spot for heaving bodices. His manly tenor ravishes with fluttery allusions to sighing breeze, trembling trees, mists, kisses and breathless caresses, interspersed with crashing waves, wet shores and lips taken willfully to keep those bodices heaving. (Excuse me, gotta run. Harlequin is calling!)

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Jazz at the Philharmonic: Blues

"Blues," composed by legendary linotypist Etaoin Shrdlu for the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, exposes everything wrong and right about JATP. Wrong: Illinois Jacquet's crowd-pleasing tenor-sax screeching established from JATP's outset its predilection for showmanship over musicianship. Right: Defying segregation, impresario Norman Granz's interracial troupe treated fans to such dream teams as Nat King Cole and Les Paul. Here, following solos by McVea, Johnson and Jacquet, Nat and Les engage in one of the most amazingly antic exchanges ever recorded—an improvisatory epiphany illustrating why we say jazzmen "play" rather than "work" their instruments. Forget histrionics; this is history.

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: Stormy Weather

Possessing neither the theatricality of Ethel Waters nor the stateliness of Lena Horne, Billie Holiday eschews "Stormy Weather" as a torch song, and instead makes it a saloon song. You might fear that Billie's quarter-to-three, no-one-in-the-place-except-you-and-me barstool confidential would detract from the lyrics; with such a distinctive artist, a mere song risks becoming more about her than about its intended subject. Think again. Nobody ever served "Stormy Weather" better than Lady Day, who affords a whole new appreciation of Ted Koehler's words. Songs are a form of storytelling. And jazz never had a wiser, more believable storyteller than Billie Holiday.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz & Gerry Mulligan: That Old Feeling – as heard in Woody Allen's <i>Husbands and Wives</i> (1992) and <i>Celebrity</i> (1998)

In the 1950s, owning a mere record player was not enough. Audiophiles grew so obsessed with turntables, cartridges, styli, preamps, power amps, woofers, tweeters and graphic equalizers that many dispensed with music altogether, preferring entire albums of sports cars in action. Fortunately, Getz Meets Mulligan in Hi-Fi retained "That Old Feeling" of two great jazzmen jousting one another, and it was sleeker than Jaguar jockeying with Ferrari at Le Mans. To justify the Hi-Fi tag, reverb is added to the horns, but it doesn't mar a performance in which both sax men play more robustly than usual. This is topflight 1950s modern jazz.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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João Gilberto: Bim Bom

While Jobim’s is the name most people associate with bossa nova, he himself attributed its creation to João Gilberto. Gilberto’s approach represents a clear break from the comparatively unsophisticated samba tradition. His style, which remains unique and instantly identifiable, is composed of his soft, smooth voice, with its signature lack of vibrato; his graceful rhythm guitar; and his impeccable time, which enables him to tinker with phrasing without sacrificing any swing. Essentially a one-man band, Gilberto’s singular artistry makes the bass and drums nearly superfluous on his playful little tune.

November 19, 2007 · 0 comments

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Lester Young: Ad Lib Blues

This 1952 session will undoubtedly quiet anyone who criticizes Lester Young’s postwar career. Inspired by Oscar Peterson’s hard-swinging combo, Young sounds as brilliant and confident as ever. His tone is focused and deliciously sweet. His lines wind gracefully around the beat and are presented with expert clarity and logic. Young avoids many of the clichés that characterized his later period, instead stringing together longer, flowing phrases that recall his days in Count Basie’s band. He really digs in during his second solo, building intensity through motivic development and riffing, though never sacrificing the melodic beauty inherent in his playing. A true gem in the Lester Young discography.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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