Quintette du Hot Club de France: Limehouse Blues

The Quintet of the Hot Club of France played a lot of songs about places they had never visited ("Chicago", "Charleston", etc.), but "Limehouse Blues" was about London and presumably all of the members had been there and knew that neighborhood. The Quintet recorded "Limehouse" twice in just under 8 months (both versions appear on the above CD) and the differences between them are quite astonishing. The first version was made for Decca in October 1935 and it moves along at a staid medium tempo and the solos are well-played but not too exciting. Something must have happened in the 8 months before the Quintet recorded the song again for HMV, for this time the tempo is considerably faster and the feeling is much rougher. Django's guitar murmurs a few dissenting thoughts during the relatively calm first chorus, but as the solos approach, Django and Stephane seem to momentarily fight over who will get the first solo. Stephane plays the solo while Django pushes the intensity with the guitars. To my ears, Stephane seems hemmed in by the simple chord sequence and his phrases, while of varied length, seem to all sound the same. Django has no such problem with the chords and he fires off a brilliant solo, using octaves and chorded passages to set off his ideas. As the solo progresses, his technique seems less polished as his octaves have a rough edge to them. In the ensemble chorus that follows, Django fills with reckless abandon. When Stephane takes back the solo spotlight, he's found his inspiration again, and in the course of his solo, he presages the descending ensemble part recorded by the Benny Goodman Quartet on "Avalon" in the following year. Was Benny listening to the Hot Club records in his off-hours?

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stuff Smith and Dizzy Gillespie: Rio Pakistan

The track "Rio Pakistan" first appeared on the 1957 album Dizzy Gillespie-Stuff Smith, and reappeared on the 1994 CD compilation that collected the three Stuff Smith sessions for Verve that enabled Norman Granz to revive the career of the by then largely forgotten--yet major--jazz violinist, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this summer (Aug. 14, 2009). Dizzy's "Rio Pakistan" was inspired by his band's State Department tour of the Middle East in 1956. As he related in his autobiography To Be or Not to Bop, "I learned a lot over there. I learned some scales and made some recordings with Stuff Smith using some of those scales in it that came out of Pakistan. ...The notes I used are from the scale, but I made up the lick from the scale. It's called a raga."

Add a samba beat, and "Rio Pakistan" makes for an unusual 11-minute aural experience, especially for 1957. Stuff plays the tantalizing theme with Dizzy's intricate embellishments and then the two reverse roles on the replay, both obviously comfortable with the non-Western melodic line. Smith's solo proves his adaptability, as he surges forward exuberantly and confidently with riffs, bluesy slurred sighs, and other tonal inflections that craftily adhere to the piece's essence. Dizzy's solo follows and benefits from Stuff's pizzzicato urgings. The trumpeter was in peak form circa 1957 (his summit meeting with Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt also came that year), and his brash, serpentine lines here are exhilarating. Wynton Kelly then eats up the "changes" in a soulfully eloquent improv, during which his provocative locked-hand constructs artfully capture the "raga" feel as well as anything played on the track. Stuff and Dizzy unhurriedly offer up the theme a final time to wind down this rather unique performance.

September 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Tea For Two (take 2)

“Tea For Two” must have been one of Django Reinhardt’s favorite songs at this period, as he recorded it five times between 1937-1939. Three of those versions were made by the QHCF in 1939 for the same label (All 3 of the 1939 versions can be heard on the above CD.) This version stands out from the others for its beautiful relaxed tempo and for Django’s amazing solo. The cut opens with Django and Stephane in duet on the verse. Grappelli is as elegant as ever, but Django is feeling rhapsodic and as he begins his solo on the tune, he goes into a breathtaking run, astounding not only for its length, but also for its asymmetrical architecture. Maintaining his penchant for single line solos, his second eight features a brilliant development of the song’s primary motive. In the next eight, he develops one of his own lines, but then returns to examining the original tune to finish his chorus. All of this is done so artfully that the casual listener can barely tell what’s going on. Django’s accompaniment style has also made a new development: there is a wonderful moment during Grappelli’s solo where Reinhardt hits a roll at full strength, but then immediately brings the volume down. In classical music, that’s known as a forte-piano, but it is rarely used in jazz. Here, it is a perfect way to balance the QHCF’s usual rough-and-ready style with the tender reading of a timeless standard.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Minor Swing

"Minor Swing" may be the most popular record Django Reinhardt ever made. Tom Lord's online discography lists it as being reissued on at least 30 albums and it has also appeared on several film soundtracks. And, after all, who can resist its catchy melody and pervasive minor harmonies? Certainly not I, and it has been one of my favorite Django tracks since I first heard it nearly 25 years ago.

The calm introduction (which is actually all there is of a melody) offers little clues to what follows, but it features a rare instance of a string bass solo on a QHCF record. But when the second bass break suddenly becomes very aggressive, Django kicks off the main tune, the group lays into the minor chord sequence, and we're in for a wild ride! Django's fiery solo stays in single-string for the first two choruses, achieving its passion through dramatic bent notes. Then in the third chorus, he combines a block chord, a roll and a glissando up and down the guitar, and his instrument roars like a lion. Grappelli picks up on the growing intensity and his violin solo builds and builds with each successive chorus. Eugene Vees and Joseph Reinhardt, who hardly got notice in the QHCF, are excellent on this recording--I still marvel at how they could create such a strong backbeat without a drummer behind them!

And then there's the talking. Django had quite a reputation for shouting verbal encouragements during recording sessions. According to Benny Carter, it was Django that shouted "Go on, go on" to Coleman Hawkins on their 1937 recording of "Crazy Rhythm". (The fact that Hawkins did go on--unheard of in those days--created one of the greatest recordings of the 78 rpm era). On "Minor Swing", we can hear Django egging on Stephane as the performance builds. It's only at the very end of the record, when the entire group says "Oh, Yeah" that we realize the QHCF has played a little joke on us and has brilliantly set the whole thing up during the course of the record.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Hot Lips

“Hot Lips” must have seemed a strange choice for the QHCF. Although the song was only 15 years old at the time, it was certainly dated as a remnant of 1920s hot-cha. After a plethora of recordings in the twenties, the song went unrecorded by jazz artists for nearly five years. Significantly, the two recordings from 1935 and 1936 were made in London, and perhaps Grappelli or Reinhardt heard one of those versions and decided to try it with the QHCF. At any rate, this is a very pleasant medium-tempo version of the song. Grappelli starts off the proceedings with a fairly straight reading of the melody over the trademark chunk, chunk-a-chunk rhythm of the guitars. Django’s solo is marked by a long section in parallel sixths. Usually, Django avoided using the same sound for several bars, but here, there is a mild amount of experimenting going on, first to see how long he could maintain interest with the same voicing, and second, to see if a slight change would break up the monotony. As he finishes an eight-bar phrase, he fills in the note between the open sixth creating a chord voicing straight out of Alvino Rey! In fact, the figure he plays involves moving the voicing between chords a half-step apart, which is an easy effect to play on a slide guitar. The effect is a little corny and Reinhart didn’t use it much, but for an old obscure song, it worked well enough.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Shine

Django Reinhardt’s solo on “Shine” was one of his finest to that point in his career. In it, he forms a direct link to Wes Montgomery by using a similar concept in building his solo. Montgomery was fond of starting a solo with single lines, taking the next chorus in octaves and finishing with block chords. Reinhardt’s concept of solo construction was actually more complex than Montgomery’s, but I suspect that Montgomery heard this recording and learned a lot from it. Here, Reinhardt plays in single lines throughout the first chorus and moves to octaves at the beginning of the second. The block chords don’t come in until the end as Reinhardt is accompanying Grappelli. Although the building blocks are similar, the overall effect is different. As Reinhardt gained more experience, he became an expert in pacing his solos so they would make sense as a musical entity. Instinctively, he seemed to know the precise moment where block chords would properly set off his single lines. His mastery of pacing keeps our ears riveted to the guitarist in solo after solo. Another highlight of the solo occurs in the 12th -14th bars as Reinhardt blurs the lines by spontaneously turning a single line into a blistering run. In the final choruses, Reinhardt and Grappelli are basically a duet with the rest of the band humming along in the background. Reinhardt had refined his accompanying style, retaining its active stance in the music, but not stealing the spotlight away from Grappelli.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: After You've Gone

After its initial recordings on Ultraphone and Decca, the QHCF moved to the HMV label. “After You’ve Gone” was recorded on their first session for the label and there seems to have been some growing pains. The balance is not as good as on the other labels, with especially weak recording of the bass. The opening chorus is by Grappelli this time around and he is immediately followed by the Louis Armstrong-inspired singing of Freddie Taylor. It seems that everyone is holding back in these opening choruses, and sure enough, as soon as Taylor is finished, the intensity goes up as Django goes into a finger-busting chorus filled with fast arpeggios and runs, and concluding with a chorded intro to Grappelli. The violinist takes charge, building the intensity with every chorus. The breaks, built into the tune at the end of each 16-bar section, seem to have little effect on Taylor, but each time Reinhardt and Grappelli hit them, they add to the growing excitement of the recording.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stephane Grappelli & His Hot Four: St. Louis Blues

Grappelli might have been the leader on this date, but Django is the soloist for all but the last minute of this record. For anyone of that time who was not aware of the guitarist, the unaccompanied introduction might make them think that they were hearing a classical player. Yet, as Django slides into a slow-walk tempo and the opening melody of “St. Louis Blues”, there is no doubt that his heart lies in jazz. He makes effective use of bent notes in the opening chorus, and his flashy but tasteful runs add dramatic contrast. When he goes to the tango section, he adds to the drama with strong lines in parallel octaves. The tempo picks up as the band returns to the blues choruses, and Reinhardt’s final chorus is marked by block chords and one of his trademarked guitar rolls. When Grappelli enters, Reinhardt steals the spotlight back with his unique accompanying style featuring choppy block chords and rolls at the turnarounds.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Oh, Lady Be Good

From the very first session of the QHCF, “Oh, Lady Be Good” shows the group still getting its bearings. The swing rhythms are still a little jerky, and part of the problem is Louis Vola’s two-beat bass pattern. On the occasions where he plays four beats to the bar, the rhythmic issues straighten themselves out almost instantly. After Grappelli & Reinhardt’s opening figure, the guitarist takes his first solo, paraphrasing the Gershwin melody as he goes. This was a typical setup for the early QHCF sides and Django was very adept at alternating between melody and improvisation. What is already present here is Django’s fine sense of sequencing and developing motives, as displayed in a superbly executed sequence near the end of his second chorus. However, he didn’t have a wide range of licks, and he had not yet developed a sense of solo structure. There is a hint of future developments during his second solo as he strongly chords to designate the surprise modulations. Grappelli seems a little less polished than we might expect, but he delivers two red-hot solos that raise the intensity of the performance.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Florin Niculescu: Light

Niculescu was born in Romania into a settled gypsy family, and after extensive classical training there on violin moved to Paris in the early '90's, eventually joining the New Quintet du Hot Club de France led by Django's son Babik Reinhardt. In 2001 Niculescu became a member of Bireli Lagrene's quintet The Gipsy Project, with which he recorded and toured. Based on this specialized background, it was only natural to find Niculescu recording a tribute CD in 2008, Plays Stéphane Grappelli, the same year that Grappelli would have reached his 100th birthday. Niculescu chose not to focus on the standards Grapppelli played so frequently, but rather selected some originals that Grappelli, unfortunately, rarely revisited, such as "Light," "Opportunity," and "Hesitation."

"Light" is a waltzing, playful theme that Niculescu executes with a tone similar to Grappelli's, but with not quite as pronounced or creamy a vibrato. His solo exudes Grappelli's swinging buoyancy, and his phrasing, inflections, and grace notes adhere closely to Grappelli's style. However, Niculescu displays his own personal idiosyncrasies as well, including two country fiddle-like modulated runs that pay homage to Stuff Smith. Peter Beets' lyrical, effervescent piano solo extends the mood (as does his and bassist Daryl Hall's and drummer Bruno Ziarelli's discerning support of the violinist throughout). Niculescu provides delicate and tasty embellishments as he performs the melody a second time, and the prepared climactic figure should sound familiar to most Grappelli devotees.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claude Williams: Cherokee

Claude Williams was the 85-year old senior member of the orchestra for the Black and Blue revue on Broadway when he was recorded live at J's jazz club in 1989. His first recordings, on both violin and guitar, came in 1929, and he won the Downbeat poll as "Best Guitarist" after playing on Count Basie's first Decca recordings, only briefly preceding Freddie Green's long reign in that chair with Basie, with whom Williams was also featured on violin. Williams worked frequently with Jay McShann in the '70's, and in 1980 began playing the violin exclusively. The taped Monday night sessions at J's showcased his distinctive Kansas City swing style on the instrument. This is jazz violin as "fiddle," more in keeping with the earthy, rawer approaches of Stuff Smith or Ray Nance than the more romantic, classically polished presentation of a Stéphane Grappelli. Williams had come a long way technically by 1989 from his earliest recorded violin solos some 60 years prior in 1929 with Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, which were described by Gunther Schuller in his The Swing Era as either "country-ish" or "rather tortured, uncertain."

Al McKibbon's relentless thumping bass, Akira Tana's prodding drum rhythms, and Ronnie Mathews' more laid-back, sparse comping provide Williams with the cushion he needs to navigate the changes of "Cherokee" with genuine feeling and vivacity. His long, smoking solo is both fleet and authoritative, packed with dissonant inflections, breakneck breezy lines, and rapidly bowed, almost boppish, riffs and modulations. Guitarist James Chirillo plays several fresh and nimble chrouses with a twangy, appealing sound. Mathews' melodious solo is equally well-executed, and unwavering in its development. McKibbon and Tana say their piece as well before Williams sails lustily through the familiar theme once again.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: How Would You Like to Have a Head Like That?

This song represents the only original composition from Ponty's 1970 album King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. An extended cut, the writing of the song fits in perfectly with the rest of the Zappa covers and the fact that several of the musicians on the recording went on to play with Zappa, adds more nice flavors to this musical cocktail. Ponty plays his usual blend of blues licks and melodic ideas that step inside and outside of the box but they're very effective. Ponty's playing is topped only by keyboard master George Duke who gets the job done 100% of the time with excellent musical ideas, both harmonically and melodically. I wouldn't say that this is the strongest cut on the album but I give it two thumbs up. The Jean-Luc Ponty band from the early 1970s plays this song much more ferociously from the live bootlegs but this version triumphs because it captured Ponty at a pivotal point in his career. Just before he was thrust into the musical madness of jazz-fusion.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Don't Get Around Much Anymore (1963)

This track, like "Take the 'A' Train" from the same album, employs an unusual instrumental mix to impart a unique sound and approach to a classic Ellington tune. Violinist Stéphane Grappelli plays with virtuosity undiminished from his historic 1930s recordings with Django Reinhardt; in fact, in depth of expression, it is enhanced.

The melody of this much-loved song is beautifully recognizable, and lends itself to creative thematic variations and rich embellishments. With spare, perfectly placed notes and chords, offering delicious tastes of the theme and aptly accompanied by a fine walking bass, Duke's intro sets the scene for Grappelli, whose extended lead offers a jazz-violin master class. He starts with a pair of 2-string, lower-range harmonic strokes played sharply so they slice through the air in an electrifying manner, then plays lower-range notes with rich tone, followed by soaring, brilliant high notes, and continues with beautifully creative lines taking off from the theme. Stéphane makes extraordinary use of the violin's deeply expressive capacities, including a full palette of single- and double-stop tonal colorations, creating a gorgeous French impressionist sound painting of the famous theme—with a dash of upward slurs to remind us of the blues foundation of all this jazz. Meanwhile, Ellington and the others provide superb support. This unusual and unusually fine music makes for outstanding jazz that also transcends jazz.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Take the 'A' Train (1963)

This track, like its even better companion from the same album, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," gives us fascinatingly different sound, texture, feel, approach and style on a classic Ellington tune because of the rather unique mix of instruments and musicians: Duke on piano, masterfully playing in a way that works well with the other musicians and instruments, as usual; French violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who teamed with legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt for historic recordings in the '30s; Ellingtonian multi-instrumentalist Ray Nance on violin; Svend Asmussen on viola; plus bassist and drummer.

With sustained hi-hat work providing perfect background texture, Ellington plays a stylish, characteristic intro that offers tantalizing hints of the main musical theme and sets the scene for the main course. That begins with Grappelli's striking entry, with his violin slicing through the musical air like a hot knife through butter, playing interesting, vivacious, creative variations on the theme. After a couple of full choruses, Ray Nance's violin, with a slightly darker tone, takes off from Grappelli's lines and plays some jazzy variations. An interesting bass interlude is next, with Shepard doing some cool talk-singing/scat (and sounding a bit like Dizzy Gillespie) in unison with his basslines. Grappelli returns for a beautiful final rendition of the theme. This is a unique and marvelous version of the Ellington theme song.

March 20, 2009 · 3 comments

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Eddie Palmieri: In Flight

The violin is not commonly featured in Latin jazz groups led by Eddie Palmieri or others, being more typically found in charanga bands such as Cuba's inimitable Orquestra Aragón. However, after Regina Carter's sensational guest performances on two tracks of Palmieri's Listen Here! CD, the pianist would undoubtedly have welcomed the talented violinist into his group permanently if she were available and so inclined.

"In Flight" is a jaunty theme played by Carter's ingratiating violin over a swaying salsa pulse. Her sweeping solo is a bountiful feast of appealing lyricism, zesty rhythmic variations, and catchy riffs, with the horn section's punctuations only escalating the dancing mood. The team of Brian Lynch and Donald Harrison succeeds her with a seamless trumpet/alto exchange of concise assertive declarations, enhanced by Palmieri's goading montuno and the interaction between Hernández's drums and Hidalgo's congas. When Carter reenters, she somehow heats up this already boiling atmosphere, horn riffs again accentuating her unrestrained, technically polished lines. This is a superb Latin jazz track, expertly and spiritedly arranged by Palmieri and his trombonist Doug Beavers. But Regina Carter steals the show.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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