Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Metropole Orkest - Jerry van Rooyen/ Come Fly with Me

Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw - Henk Meutgeert/Riffs n Rhythms

The Dizzy Gillespie Story – Spending Time with The Writing of Max Harrison

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Those of you who scroll the columnar or left-hand side of the blog may have come across Max Harrison’s singular comments about Tadd Dameron’s recording of Fountainbleau as reprinted from A Jazz Retrospect which is made up of a selection of his 1950s/60s reviews from the Jazz Review and Jazz Monthly magazines.

Max belongs to a select group of original thinkers that include Philip Larkin, Benny Green, Martin Williams and Stanley Crouch, to name a few, who speak their minds very directly about their likes and dislikes about Jazz, often in a style that is as much caustic and acerbic as it is literary.

The editorial staff thought we’d bring more of Max’s writing up on JazzProfiles, this time with a feature on the early recordings of Dizzy Gillespie.

© -Max Harrison/Jazz Review, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Gillespie's innovations long since passed into the life blood of jazz and it scarcely is necessary to discuss the elements of his style now. Yet although the extent of his influence cannot be questioned, his position in the music has for many years been quite different from what it was just after World War II, when bop made its first impact. For non-American listeners that impact was initially felt through the records he made, several with Charlie Parker, for obscure, long-defunct com­panies such as Guild or Musicraft in 1945-46. To have gone on listen­ing to these for some thirty years has been a considerable enrichment because, although on first acquaintance they seemed to possess a rather contrived audacity, they have retained a power to delight, even astonish. Uneven in musical quality they certainly are, but all contain great moments, and it long ago became obvious that the finest of them are among the classics of recorded jazz, their value as unlikely to diminish in the future as it did in the past.

Many factors went into the making of postwar jazz: some were the creation of individuals and some were the result of a cross-fertilisation of ideas; some had been for years developing in the jazz of the 1930s, even of the late '20s, others had come from spontaneous insights. The early Gillespie records were the first attempt at a synthesis of all the playing and thinking which had gone on, but if by 1945 the key musicians were ready, the record company supervisors were not. It took them a while to grasp that something fresh had occurred, and so on many sessions boppers were confronted with players whose ideas had been completely formed in the 19305. In view of the new music's deep roots this was not too damaging, but unquestionably these early performances, in terms of style, are less than completely integrated.

Melancholy baby, Cherokee and On the Alamo, recorded under the clarinetist Joe Marsala's name, are representative here, setting Gillespie in a tight, jivey late-swing framework. He sounds like a disci­ple of Roy Eldridge—not in the negative sense of a Johnny Letman, mechanically echoing the mannerisms, but as one who has divined further possibilities within that idiom and can see where they might lead. His continuity already is better than Eldridge's, his use of the upper register less illogical. Blue and  boogie, the first item recorded under Gillespie's own name, finds him in comparable circumstances but achieving more positive results. The underlying pulse is wrong, and his execution is less immaculate than it soon became, yet the lengthy trumpet solo, although loosely put together, includes features of melodic invention, rhythmic structure, harmonic thinking and tone-colour that were to remain characteristic. Everything else in the per­formance is made to sound redundant, and, the 1944 recordings of Parker with Tiny Grimes and Thelonious Monk's with Coleman Hawkins notwithstanding, this improvisation is the earliest fully-fledged statement that we have from a major postwar jazz musician.

Soon Gillespie recorded with a more apt personnel, including Parker and Clyde Hart, who pecks out the chord changes with discre­tion and sympathy, and was among the few pianists qualified for this sort of music in 1945. Grooving high and Dizzy atmosphere are typical of the boppers' initially rather drastic renewal of the jazz repertoire, and are fertile ground for improvisation, their themes packed with musical incident yet enigmatically honed to bare essentials. Parker, indeed, is especially fluent, revealing a side of his musical personality not much represented on studio recordings: his tone has an airy, singing luminosity reminiscent of Benny Carter, and the alto saxophone solos on both these pieces are full of grace and elegance. This delicacy again characterised his work on the 1946 Ornithology session, and, to a lesser degree, the Relaxing at Camarillo date of the following year, but it was always rare.

Gillespie has two solos in Grooving high the first of which begins strikingly but collapses with a miscalculated descending phrase which leads into a bland guitar solo by Remo Palmieri. Later the tempo halves and he plays some beautifully shaped legato phrases that would then have been quite beyond any other trumpeter; this passage later provided the basis for Tadd Dameron's fine song If you could see me now. On the faster Dizzy atmosphere he takes a daring solo which conveys the essential spirit of the bop solo style and in itself is almost enough to explain the commanding position Gillespie held in the immediate postwar years. After the solos there is an attractive unison passage for trumpet and alto saxophone which flows into a deftly-truncated restatement of the theme—a neat formal touch.

The date which produced Hot house and Salt peanuts had a still better personnel, including Al Haig at the piano. Using the chord sequences of popular songs as the basis for new compositions was common during this period (though not an innovation, as so often claimed), and Dameron's Hot house is a superior instance of the practice, supplanting the usual AABA pattern of four eight-bar phrases with one of ABCA. Gillespie's solo here is effectively poised over Haig's responsive accom­paniment, and, as on One bass hit part 1, contains definitive illustrations of the bop use of double-time. Parker digs deeper than at the previous date and shows himself well on course for his great Koko session, which took place a few months later and is dealt with on an earlier page.

Salt peanuts is a good, rather aggressive theme based on an octave-jump idea, and this arrangement, which includes some interesting harmonic touches, draws from the two-horn ensemble a fuller sound than usual. Parker seems less assured than before, yet Haig is good and Gillespie better. His entry could scarcely be more arresting, and emphasises as clearly as any moment on these recordings the absolute freshness of his imagination at this time: surely nobody else would then have dared to attempt this passage on the trumpet. The rest of his improvisation is played with equal conviction, but in another version of this piece, recorded soon after, some of the intensity is replaced with a sharper clarity of organisation.

Although Parker's work was uneven almost throughout 1945, there is no doubt of the added emotional depth he gave to these recordings, and Gillespie noticeably dominates more in his absence. Twelve months after the Salt peanuts date the trumpeter led a session on which—at last—all the participants were bop adepts. Sonny Stitt, who shared with Sonny Criss a reputation (which really belonged to John Jackson) of being the first man to emulate Parker's style, has a fair sixteen-bar solo in Oop bop sh'bam that is close to the master in tone yet far simpler in melodic and rhythmic concept. Its effect is completely obliterated, however, by Gillespie. The trumpeter did other fine things at this date, such as his solo on That's Earl, brother and his imaginative accompaniment to Alice Roberts's singing in Handfulla gimme, but on Oop bop sh'bam he plays with unrelenting intensity and perfect balance between detail and overall form that produce a masterpiece of jazz improvisation, worthy to stand beside Louis Armstrong's stop-time chorus on Potato head blues of almost exactly nineteen years before.

Despite the originality of their small combo work, to which almost equally powerful expression was given on several other titles in this series, including Confirmation, Bebop and Shaw 'nuff, the boppers were unable to establish a comparable orchestral idiom. In fact, due to its intimacy and relative complexity, bop, like New Orleans jazz, was inherently a music for small groups. The harmonic vocabulary, which scarcely was more advanced than Duke Ellington's of several years before, could easily have been written into band scores, but melodic and rhythmic subtleties derived from the leading soloists' im­provisations could not. The linear shapes of the reed and brass scoring in Gillespie's earlier big bands, like that of Billy Eckstine which preceded them, did incorporate some new ideas, but included no innovations of ensemble texture comparable to those then being carried forward by Gil Evans with Claude Thornhill's band which are discussed elsewhere in this book. The boppers were able only to adapt their style to the big band rather than the converse.

Their best arranger was Gil Fuller, who, while possessing a good sense of traditional swing band style, and having an acute awareness of any large ensemble's requirements, managed to sacrifice fewer of the new ideas, to compromise less with the old. In fact, his scores, which are less subtle of mood and texture than Ellington's but more complex than Count Basic's, seem, in their use of the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument, to descend from Sy Oliver's work for Jimmy Lunceford. Marked differences arise because of Fuller's wider melodic, harmonic and rhythmic vocabularies, yet both men used their orchestras as vehicles for dazzling ensemble display, with sudden contrasts that, however aggressive, never descended to Kentonesque melodrama. Fuller's imagination, like Oliver's, was disciplined, in a sense almost conservative, and his scores are characterised by clarity of texture, an exceptional fullness of sound whether loud or soft. And yet if there are orchestral scores which at least partially embody the spirit of the little bands of the mid-19405 they are Gerald Wilson's Grooving high, Oscar Pettiford's Something for you, both of 1945, and Fuller's 1946 Things to come, an adaptation of the small combo Bebop. Unfortunately they were all played too fast in the recording studio to produce their complete effect, and Fuller got this conception over more successfully in The scene changes, which he recorded for the obscure Discovery label three years later.

On neither Things to come nor One bass hit part 2 are Gillespie's solos at all happy (in fact he does better on Pettiford's Something for you). His inventive power is as evident as before, yet it is as if he had difficulty in shaping his material in relation to the heavier sounds and thicker textures of this setting—which is surprising in view of his prewar ex­perience in swing bands. The above comments on the orthodox nature of his orchestra's library are borne out by a conventional statement of Dameron's excellent Our delight theme or by the saxophone writing in One bass hit part 2, but on the former, and also in Ray's idea, Gillespie responds to the themes' melodic substance with masterful solos that are better aligned with their accompaniment. On Emanon, basically a rather old-fashioned powerhouse blues, there are uncommonly forceful exchanges between leader and band, some agreeably pungent ensemble dissonance, a piano solo by John Lewis, and a striking passage for unaccompanied trumpet section. There seems no escaping the fact that in such relatively backward-looking pieces as this the boppers' attempts at orchestral jazz succeeded best.

It was also in 1946 that Gillespie made his first recordings with strings. These were of Jerome Kern melodies and remained unissued for many years because of object ions made by that composer's widow to the allegedly bizarre treatment to which they were subjected. Dur­ing 1950 he made another attempt and recorded eight miscellaneous titles which suggest that Mrs. Kern may have been right, even if for the wrong reasons. Eddie South, on some delightful records made in Paris with Django Reinhardt during the late 19305, proved that the violin is a fully viable jazz instrument, but this lead has never been followed up (least of all by the crudities of Stuff Smith). En masse, certainly, strings have been a consistent failure in this music, and it has been widely accepted that they cannot be employed in jazz due to their inherent sweetness. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a large number of works by twentieth-century composers, such as Schoenberg's String Trio, Bartok's Quartets Nos. 4 and 5, Xenakis's ST/4, or Boulez's Livre, which prove that this whole family of in­struments can yield sounds as invigorating, indeed as harsh, as any found in jazz. In short what is wrong with the use of strings on jazz dates is the incompetence of the arrangers employed, and never was this more so than with Gillespie's 1950 attempts, where they were only one of a number of apparently irreconcilable factors.

For Swing Low, sweet chariot Johnny Richards wrote an absurd light-music introduction for the strings and then established the rhythm with—of all things in a Negro spiritual—Latin American percussion; a male voice choir sings not the rather sultry original melody but a commonplace new one, presumably also by Richards; Gillespie's trumpet solo has better continuity than we might expect in these circumstances, but a final touch of incongruity is provided by a return of the strings' introduction. On Alone together and These are the things I love the strings interrupt less often, and he manages a few dashing phrases in Lullaby of the leaves, but he never really sounds involved and it is impossible to understand his enthusiasm for this project, which was carried through at his instigation. On the Alamo typifies the whole enterprise, for although Gillespie blows with real power here, the trumpet passages are separated by interludes of quite offensive gen­tility from piano and strings —light music at its heaviest. If Interlude in C, a tasteless hodge-podge on a theme from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, seems to have the thinnest string writing of all it may only be due to comparison with that composer's far richer alternative being unavoidable.

The virtually complete musical failure of these 1950 items with strings may seem unimportant until we recall that already the previous year, with his conventionally-instrumentated band, Gillespie had recorded such inanities as You stole my wife, you horse-thief. A random sampling of his small combo recordings from about this period tells the same tale, and shows an almost catastrophic decline from the master­pieces of just a few years before. The champ, an excellent theme, gives rise to a fine trombone solo from J. J. Johnson, but Gillespie merely reshuffles his mannerisms, and the other players are frankly exhibitionistic. Tin tin deo or Birk's works, also from 1951, are only negative in their restraint—despite some good moments from Milt Jackson's vibraharp on the latter and Stardust, which features the trumpeter throughout, is distressingly pedestrian. The reunion session with Parker compelled Gillespie to make an altogether exceptional effort (e.g. his solos on take 2 of Relaxing with Lee or take 4 of An oscar for Treadwell), but the overall impression left by most of his records from this time is of an artist who no longer wishes to dominate, or even to control, his surroundings. And rarely did he ever again. Perhaps the reasons for this were psychological as much as artistic, but Gillespie's rarely swerving downward path from the classic small combo recor­dings he made during the immediate post war years was among the most saddening features of the jazz landscape in the 1950’s.

Jazz Review, November 1959”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Stella by Starlight" - The Maynard Ferguson Orchestra

This arrangement of Stella by Starlight is by trombonist Slide Hampton who also solos on it along with Jimmy Ford on alto saxophone and Maynard on trumpet. Featuring Frankie Dunlop's propulsive drumming, the chart ends with six notes that span five octaves.

Since "stratospheric" was a word that was often associated with Maynard trumpet work, we asked the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD to use images appropriate to this moniker while developing the following video.

They placed Maynard in the stars - where else?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Casa Loma Orchestra and the Beginnings of The Swing Era

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Sometimes it is troubling to realize that my life has more history to it than future.

On the other hand, there are instances when it’s nice to have such a lengthy time span from which to review developments that have occurred in My World.

Or, as Mark Twain once explained: “When I was fourteen [14], I thought my father was the dumbest man in the world. When I turned twenty-one [21], I was surprised at how much he had learned over the last, seven [7] years!”

As is implied in the Twain anecdote, perhaps with the gathering of years comes some improved judgment and a tad more wisdom thanks to the additional information and knowledge we acquire along the way.

Some of these “smarts” may also have to do with learning from one’s mistakes and failures, and I have certainly had my share of these.

Thankfully, Jazz has been a part of my life since my early teens.

Over the “history” of my life, Jazz has changed from a casual, almost informal form of musical expression into an institutionalized art form.

As the writer and critic Grover Sales described it, Jazz has become America’s “Classical music.”

My initial Jazz world consisted of listening to recordings which helped me decide that I wanted to learn an instrument so that I could play this music. This led to performing the music in various settings including rehearsals, clubs and concerts.

When I was coming of age in the music, playing Jazz consisted largely or listening, observing and asking lots of questions and then applying the results of these activities to long hours of practice.

There were no curriculums, study programs or tenured teachers devoted to Jazz. If one was lucky enough to encounter it, there might be a Jazz appreciation class, but it would have been the exception rather than the rule.

Most of the Jazz performers who helped shape my first experiences with the music in the 1950s and 60s had not as yet had books written about them, let alone been the subject of technical retrospectives of their work.

In many cases, the ready source of information about these early musical heroes were the liner notes that graced their LPs as written by such luminaries as Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler and Nat Hentoff, among many, many others.

Formalized scholastic research was at a minimum as were institutes, collections and museums devoted to Jazz and its makers.

Most of the originators of the music were still performing in the 1950s and 1960s and too busy earning a living to spare the time to invest in their musical legacies.

And then, just like that, the years had gone by and it seemed as though every major Jazz figure during the first 50 or so years of the music’s existence was receiving a full length book treatment.

Most of it is good stuff, too, and contains tons of information to help Jazz fans develop a more thorough view of select Jazz artists and their music.

For example, I always assumed that The Swing Era Big Bands era was initiated by the accolades that Benny Goodman’s orchestra received from admiring young Jazz fans of the 1930s.

But after reading the following excerpt Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans Out of the Cool His Life and Music [Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2002], while preparing the recent two-part profile on Gil Evans which you can locate here and here in the blog archives, not only did I gain an insight into one of the major influences on Gil’s music, but I also derived a newfound understanding of the role the Casa Loma Orchestra played in the advent of The Swing Era Big Bands.

“The Casa Loma band, all but unknown today, was the most influ­ential white jazz-oriented band of the early 1930s, when the broad sweep of the Swing Era was still a couple of years away. The band, based in Detroit, had a dashing, dapper appearance (impeccable tails and white tie was the look), and their enthusiasm was infec­tious.

It adopted many of the musical elements of the best black dance bands led by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Bennie Moten, whose popular Kansas City-based band later gave rise to the Count Basie Orchestra. Moten's swinging, riff-based, call-and-response arrangements were a huge influence on Gene Gifford, Casa Loma's chief arranger and guitarist. Gifford emulated Moten's arrangements but wrote with his own colleagues in mind and polished the southwestern style to a sheen. Gifford's scores "required a very high level of expertise... and this the Casa Loma band possessed in abundance."9 [Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz, p. 190].

Casa Loma developed its own precise, snappy style and pro­jected an energetic unified swing sound. The band played catchy instrumental arrangements of tunes such as Wingy Manone's "San Sue Strut" and "Casa Loma Stomp"; interspersed in the up-tempo numbers were romantic ballads—such as "Smoke Rings," the band's theme song—that were ideal for close dancing.

Casa Loma's frequent radio broadcasts helped create a large, mostly white, collegiate audience for the band, particularly in east­ern cities where swing already had a foothold in ballrooms and nightspots, but the band also had a following in small towns around the country. "In 1930 the average small-town white boy who loved jazz heard only the Casa Loma band... on phonograph records, in ballrooms and on the air," wrote jazz and jazz dance historian Marshall Stearns.10 [The Story of Jazz, p. 205]

Gunther Schuller, in his comprehensive book The Swing Era, called Casa Loma "the band that set the stage for the Swing Era, the first white band consistently to feature jazz instrumentals and pursue a deliberate jazz policy."11 [p. 632]

With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD, we were able to put together the following video tribute to the Casa Loma Orchestra which features the band on Maniac’s Ball.

Since their isn’t much that any of us can do about the passage of time, itself, perhaps we can devote a little of the time that remains to today’s Jazz scholarship which is shedding more and more light on the formative years of Jazz’s development.

After all, our immortality resides in the minds of others.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ray Brown: “The Will to Swing”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Has anyone ever had a more illustrious career in Jazz than Raymond Matthews Brown?

By the time of his passing in 2002, it seems that Ray Brown had worked with anyone and everyone of significance during the Jazz scene of the second half of the Twentieth [20th] Century.

The list of Ray’s musical associates is as impressive as it is unending, beginning with an offer to join Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1945 on the very first day that he arrived in New York City from his native Pittsburgh!

Over the years, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles met Ray on a number of occasions.  It was almost impossible not to as he was everywhere on the Hollywood musical scene: in the studios, at clubs and in concerts.  You couldn’t miss him if you tried.

We never met anyone who enjoyed playing Jazz more than Ray Brown.

We once remarked to him that he reminded us of Ernie Banks, the outstanding shortstop who played for the Chicago Cubs baseball team from 1953-1971.  Ernie loved the game so much that he often said: “It’s a great day for a ball game, let’s play two!”

Upon hearing this analogy, Ray just smiled, giggled and nodded in agreement.

The giggle and the smile were as infectious as his enthusiasm for all things Jazz.

We were reminded of Ray recently when we read the following description of him as recounted by pianist Oscar Peterson to Gene Lees in the insert notes to Oscar double CD – The Will to Swing [Verve 047 703 2]:

“Although he would record in many formats; with a string section, with a big band, as a soloist, and as a sideman in dates featuring various of the great soloists contracted to the Granz labels; Peterson did most of his work in a trio format. But his first American recordings were in a duo with Ray Brown, who would become as close to him as a brother.

Oscar has described Ray as ‘the epitome of forethought. Sympathetic forethought,’ He said. ‘His talent is almost ethereal... He is a walking sound. Ray has a sound that he walks around with that he can't even describe . . . The fact of having the instrument under his hands makes him approach it that way. There are very few people like that. I think Dizzy's like that with a horn.’

‘And the other thing that Ray has is an innate mechanism, something within himself, that will adjust him to any situation; and consequently he will adjust that situation to what he thinks it should be. Ray has that mechanism within him, like a tuning fork, that keeps him straight.’

‘I think the reason I worked with Ray and can still work with Ray is that I challenge him. I challenged him at every level, just as he's challenged me. I tried to stay on top of Ray, and he'd say, “Go ahead. You press all you want. I'm gonna be there.” And that was a good feeling between us.’

Peterson and Brown stayed together without interruption for fourteen years — longer, as Ray put it, ‘than most cats stay with their wives.’”

The following video provides a sampling of Ray’s powerful bass work. As one of the seminal bass players in Jazz once described to Gene Lees: “My heart is in that sound.”

Joining him on this trio version of Irving Berlin’s Remember are pianist Benny Green and drummer Jeff Hamilton.  The track is from Ray’s BassFace Telarc CD [CD-83340].


Friday, June 17, 2011

Chet Baker: The Comeback

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I always thought that for Chet Baker, playing a beautiful, melodic solo was as easy as putting the trumpet to his lips.

It seems, however, that there was a time during his career when placing the trumpet against his lips was more excruciating than musically rewarding.

The cause of this agonizing pain was the dark side of drug addiction which caught up to Chet one night in 1968 when a group of San Francisco San Francisco junkies “… relieved him of his dope money and his teeth and made him decide he’d have to give up heroin or die.”

Doug Ramsey continues the story in his insert notes to the 1974 CD, She Was Too Good To Me [CBS Associated ZK 40804; LP originally by Creed Taylor for CTI Records].

Recorded in 1974, this was “… Chet’s first major recording since the night in San Francisco in ’68 …” when Chet encountered every brass player’s nightmare – losing one’s teeth!

Or as Chet explains to Doug: “Believe me, when a trumpet player has had his teeth pulled, it is a comeback.”

“Baker says that with the lack of self-pity that is as characteristic as the absence of hyperbole when he evaluates his artistry, past and present.

Of those early triumphs in the polls, he says, ‘I never really believed that I deserved it. As far as my playing now, I believe I have progressed conceptually, which is the important thing. At the time I won the polls, my style was very lyrical, a style the average person could listen to and understand without being overwhelmed with technique. I can still play that way, very cool, few notes, lots of empty spaces. I can also play very fly, very hard. I believe I play ten times better now than I did then. And I don't want to lose people, I want them to understand what I play on my horn.’

In this album, you’ll hear Chet play both ways, cool and “very fly." The lyricism is intact. The tone, if anything, is deeper and fuller. The celebrated similarity between Baker's instrumental and vocal phrasing is vividly displayed on those two gorgeous ballads of regret, "She Was Too Good To Me" and "What’ll I Do." The sense of loss expressed by the lyrics has never been more poignantly interpreted. And you’ll surely be able to "understand what I play on my horn" in the 16 bars of trumpet between the vocal sections of "She Was Too Good To Me." It's a classic melodic statement, in a league with Bobby Hackett's 1939 "Embraceable You," Jack Sheldon's bridge on "Then I’ll Be Tired Of You" with the Hi-Los, and Chet’s own "My Funny Valentine."

On the faster pieces, the springiness of phrasing; the floating, easy swing; the intelligent lines; the high personal sound with a touch of added brilliance; all of these elements testify to the continued vitality of an important trumpet artist. …”

With the assistance of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has developed the following videos to demonstrate both “the fly” and “the lyrical” aspects of Chet’s playing on She Was Too Good To Me.

The first video features Chet on Hank Mobley’s Funk in Deep Freeze while the second spotlights him on Rodgers and Hart’s She Was Too Good To Me. Assisting Chet on the first performance are Hubert Laws on flute, Bob James on electric piano, Ron Carter on bass and drummer Steve Gadd.  Don Sebesky arranged the strings and conducted the orchestra for the music on the second video.

Artistic perfection is something that every musician strives for.

With Chettie, even with broken teeth, artistic accomplishment seemed to occur as though he was in a continual state of grace and the Jazz Gods had shined a ray through him.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

George Shearing, 1919-2011: A Tribute

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For a variety of reasons, February 14th is a very significant date around our place. 

Unfortunately, this year added another basis to its significance as pianist George Shearing died on February 14, 2011.

George has been the subject of two previous features on JazzProfiles which you can locate by going here and here.

Sir George Shearing [he was knighted in 2007] had been one of our Jazz heroes for many years, again, for a variety of reasons including the unusual [for the times and since then, too] instrumentation of his quintet with its front-line of vibraphone and guitar, the block chording of what came to be known as “The Shearing Sound” [explained both in the previous features and in the following obituary], his wonderful wit, often applied at his own expense, his engaging way with an audience [he actually talked to them, although he could never see them as he was blind at birth], his intricate and intriguing compositions including Lullaby of Birdland, Conception and From Rags to Richards [a play on words involving the surname of his long-time vibist, Emil Richards], his marvelous albums with vocalists including Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme and John Pizzarelli, his longevity and his humanity.

The phrase “what a guy” becomes an understatement when applied to Sir George Shearing.

In the 1940s and 1950s, his early years in Jazz, George was often criticized for limiting the length of the solos played by his group.

At a time when many soloists were “stretching out,” sometimes to the point of playing lengthy and utterly boring solos, George would state the theme, give each member of the group one chorus, himself two, re-state the theme and end the tune.

In some cases, if the tune was taken at a very fast clip [tempo], the recorded track would be over in two or three minutes.

In talking with musicians who have worked in George’s quintets over the years, to a person, each of them stated that George’s shortened approach to soloing was a challenge that they welcomed.

Creating a good solo in a short period of time is not the easiest thing to, but when it is done well, it becomes a musical gem.

You can hear an example of George’s attenuated style of playing Jazz in the soundtrack to the following video tribute to George.  The tune is pianist Ray Bryant’s “Pawn Ticket.” Sadly, Ray, also died this year on June 2nd.

I think that the musicians on this recording comprise one of the very best quintet that George ever put together: Jean “Toots” Thielemans on guitar, Emil Richards on vibes, Al McKibbon on bass and drummer Percy Brice.

The video is followed by George’s obituary as it appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald March 22, 2011. It is a modification of one that appeared earlier in The Los Angeles Times.

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“George Shearing started playing piano at the age of five but didn't receive formal training until his teenage years at a school for the blind. Shearing, the elegant pianist who expanded the boundaries of jazz by adding an orchestral sensibility and a mellow aesthetic to the music, has died aged 91.

A prolific songwriter, Shearing once introduced Lullaby of Birdland - written in 1952 in celebration of the fabled New York nightspot and its radio show - by saying: ''I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two-hundred-and-ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.''

Shearing, who was born blind, first came to the US from England in 1946. His first job was intermission pianist at a New York club during a Sarah Vaughan engagement. He took a similar post at another club during an Ella Fitzgerald engagement and sometimes filled in for her pianist, Hank Jones.

He continued as a struggling, unknown until early 1949, when he hit on a formula that would establish his jazz identity.

Leonard Feather - the jazz critic, producer and composer who discovered Shearing in 1937 - suggested the pianist add a guitarist and a vibraphonist to the standard rhythm section to make up a quintet. The personnel in that first group were diverse, both in race and gender, and included John Levy on bass, Denzil Best on drums, Marjorie Hyams on vibraphone and Chuck Wayne on guitar.

The group went into the recording studio and came out with September in the Rain, which sold nearly 1 million records. Their first New York engagement came in April 1949 at the Cafe Society Downtown. They then went on a national tour and by the end of the year, Shearing's group was voted the No.1 combo in a reader poll by jazz magazine Down Beat.

With this group, Shearing developed what came to be known as ''the Shearing Sound'', which involved not only the make-up of the band - vibes and guitar generally were not both found in quintets - but also the style in which he played the piano. He used the ''block chords'' technique to create a big, lush, orchestral sound.

In his book The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era, Feather wrote that Shearing ''developed a new and unprecedented blend for his instrumentation''.

In that technique, a New York Times writer noted some years ago, ''both hands play melodies in parallel octaves with a shifting cloud of chords in between''.

Shearing worked primarily with his quintet for much of the next three decades. The personnel shifted but over the years included some of the finest names in jazz, including Cal Tjader and Gary Burton on vibes and Joe Pass and Toots Thielemans on guitar.

From the early 1950s on, Shearing had steady work in recording studios, first with MGM, where he was under contract from 1950 to 1955, and then with Capitol Records for 14 years. With Capitol, he recorded albums with some of the best singers of the day, including Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and Nat King Cole, and achieved substantial chart success in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Though the commercially successful quintet was his bread and butter, Shearing began to feel limited by it and grew tired of life on the road. At one point, he told New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett that his quintet played 56 concerts in 63 days.
''George drives himself harder than you notice,'' bassist Al McKibbon once told Feather. ''One night in Oklahoma City, I saw him literally fall asleep in the middle of a chorus of Tenderly. He woke up with a start and carried right on.''

Shearing disbanded the group in 1978. For most of the rest of his career, he appeared mainly in solo, duo or trio settings.

His work in duos and recording contracts with Concord Records and then Telarc in the 1980s seemed to revitalise him. He recorded five albums with singer Mel Torme that were successful both critically and commercially.

His autobiography, Lullaby of Birdland, was published in 2004.

Born August 13, 1919, in the Battersea district of London to working-class parents, Shearing was one of nine children. He started playing piano and accordion at the age of five but didn't receive any formal musical education until he spent four of his teenage years at Linden Lodge, a school for the blind.

It was there that he learnt Bach, Liszt and music theory. It was also during this time that he became interested in jazz, listening to recordings by American pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Earl Hines, Art Tatum and Fats Waller.

At Linden Lodge, Shearing showed enough potential to earn a number of scholarship offers from universities. But after graduating, he went to work in a local pub where he earned about $5 a week and tips for his playing. Within a year, he joined Claude Bampton's big band, a 15-piece unit made up of blind musicians.

Feather discovered Shearing playing as a swing accordionist in a London jam session. He quickly arranged for Shearing to record for English Decca and, although that recording date was not Shearing's first, it was the one that set his career in motion.

With Feather's help, Shearing got a regular radio program on the BBC. He had a Dixieland band and was also his country's leading boogie-woogie pianist. He was soon being called Britain's answer to the great American pianist Teddy Wilson and for seven consecutive years was chosen most popular jazz pianist by Melody Maker magazine.

While playing in an air-raid shelter, Shearing met his first wife, Beatrice Bayes. They married in 1941 and had one daughter before divorcing in the early 1970s. He later married Eleanor Geffert, who survives him, as does his daughter.

Over the years, he played for three US presidents - Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - as well as the Queen. He was knighted in 2007.

An anecdote he related to Feather said much of his sharp wit: ''When we were preparing to be received [by the Queen], I was told the directive is: 'Do not extend your hand until the Queen extends hers.' I said, 'Well, either somebody's going to have to cue me or she'll have to wear a bell.' But somebody did cue me.'”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Julie London, Bobby Troup and The China Trader

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The China Trader is not there anymore.

Originally located at 4200 Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake, Ca, it was a Chinese restaurant that had a South Sea islands and nautical theme with lots of tiki heads and bamboo sprouting from every nook and cranny.

For a time it was best known for being the birthplace of the Hawaiian Eye drink [think Mai Tai].

The '60s detective, ABC television show Hawaiian Eye was filmed at Warner Bros. studios in nearby Burbank, CA and The China Trader was the after-work hangout of its stars, Robert Conrad, Connie Stevens and Anthony Eisley and of many members of the crew.

The Hawaiian Eye drink was concocted there in their honor.

The Falcon Theater is in The China Trader’s place today.

Toluca Lake is a very upscale community located between Burbank and North Hollywood, CA. Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures studios are only a few miles away. A 10 minute ride over the Barham Pass takes you into Hollywood.

There really is a lake in Toluca Lake and it is surrounded by very fashionable homes and a country club that offers access to a marvelous golf course.  Bob Hope is probably the best known of Toluca Lake’s many long-time residents, but numerous luminaries associated with the entertainment business live in the community.

For many years, composer, pianist and vocalist Bobby Troop held forth at The China Trader in Toluca Lake.  He and his wife, actress and song stylist, Julie London, were residents of nearby Studio City. Since his piano was already stationed in the lounge, Bobby could and did walk to work on some of the nights he appeared at The China Trader.

Throughout most of the 1970s, Bobby and Julie were in the cast of the hit NBC TV show, Emergency!.  The popularity of the show only served to enhance the gatherings at The China Trader when Bobby was appearing there.

Bobby appeared solo on Thursday and Sunday nights and with a trio on Friday and Saturday nights.

Given his low-key temperament, unassuming personality and acerbic wit, Bobby always kept the atmosphere in the bar relaxed and cordial.

Julie dropped by occasionally and when she did, their were always numerous pleadings for her to sing, but she rarely did.

Bobby was one of the most comfortable-in-his-own-skin musicians I ever knew.  I first met him in 1962 when we were both involved with the Surfside 6 television show; he as an actor, and me as a member of the band that recorded the soundtrack for the series.

Over the years, I kept in touch with Bobby as The China Trader was a stone’s throw away from my home.  I even subbed as the drummer is his trio on a few occasions.

With 40-plus movie and television appearances to his credit and a slew of royalty checks coming in from songs he wrote like Route “66,” Daddy and Lemon Twist, Bobby was a very busy guy and a fairly well-off one, too. Good for him; not too many musicians make more than a few schimolies in the music “business.”

He was very pleased and proud of writing the tune – The Meaning of the Blues.

Interestingly, when Julie was in the mood to sing during her visits to be with Bobby at The China Trader, she invariably sang this tune.

And to close here's excerpt from James Gavin’s insert notes to her album All About the Blues which Bobby produced for Capitol [7243 5 38695 2 6] which aptly describes one of Julie's many gifts:

“LPs were her true medium. The queen of the make-out album, London recorded over 30 for Liberty between 1955 and 1969. Supported by a goose-down blanket of strings or just guitar and bass, she sounded so intimate that she seemed to be breathing into your ear. Men drooled over the cheesecake covers, which showed her snuggled in bed, posed in an alley as a scantily-clad courtesan, or seated backwards in an Eames chair, legs pointed up in a V. ‘I'm sure she hated all that,’ says Arthur Hamilton, the songwriter who wrote Cry Me A River, her breakthrough hit of 1955. ‘That wasn't Julie at all. She wasn't trying to seduce her audience; she just blotted them out. She hid inside the song. She didn't like to perform, she didn't like getting dressed, she didn't like that image she had to live up to.’”

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The H2 Big Band: You're It!

H2 Big Band: You’re It!

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Big bands are Jazz’s answer to symphony orchestras.

At one time, they were everywhere, performing in ballrooms, pavilions and supper clubs across the United States.

Some big bands like those of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington even played in that one-time bastion of legitimacy and privilege – Carnegie Hall.

Today, most of the big bands have gravitated to academic institutions, rehearsal halls and occasional appearances at concerts and festivals.

Some mark their debut with the release of a new compact disc.

Such is the case with the H2 Big Band which gets its name from its co-leaders: trumpeter Al Hood and pianist, composer, arranger, Dave Hanson.

The above video will introduce you to the band’s new recording – You’re It which will be available for purchase on June 12, 2011 at www.jazzedmedia.com.

As always, Graham Carter at JazzedMedia is to be commended for all that he does for the music, the musicians who make it and the fans who dig it.

Here’s the media relations information that Graham sent along:

The H2 Big Band You're It!

CD JM1053              UPC 700261322278                       

Release Date: June 12, 2011

• Features jazz trumpet legend Bobby Shew playing on all 11 tracks as either a soloist, lead player, or section trumpeter—the latter two roles being something he hasn't done much of at all in recent years!
• Stellar new arrangements and compositions by pianist Dave Hanson and featuring co-leader Al Hood on trumpet.
• World-class soloists and players from Denver (including Al Hood, Brad Goode, Nelson Hinds, and Ken Walker) and beyond (Glenn Kostur & Bobby Shew from Albuquerque, Jason Carder from Miami, and Mike Rodriquez from New York). Features veterans from the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ray Charles, Phil Collins, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, and more!

Blue Brews
You're It!
Singing In The Rain
For Glaus
Big Spender!
Double Doubles
Blue in Green
Al's Well
Joy Spring

There is indeed an emphatic flow of big bands. A prime example of one which possesses the attributes which jazz lovers seek is certainly the H2 Big Band.

It has the distinction of immediately blowing you away! It stimulates a large appetite for more, without apology. This exceptional band is a collaboration of trumpeter Al Hood and pianist/composer/arranger Dave Hanson, prominent jazz educators and performers armed with heavily laden credentials.

Their co-leadership is recognized in the name of the band: both of their surnames begin with "H" accounting for the unique name. Both Al and Dave articulate a wonderful like-mindedness and aesthetic temperament, revealing their synergies on many levels.

Special remarks from Bobby Shew are pertinent: "It's an excellent band. Dave's writing is praiseworthy and is perfect for the group. Al Hood is such a powerful player, a phenomenon - he's the Paul Bunyan of the jazz trumpet! The whole trumpet section is a killer!"

It doesn't take a long audition of You're It! to realize this is an extraordinary recording. I invite listeners to savor the fresh imagination and emotional heat of the swinging interpretations that showcase Dave's portraits, and the strong individualities of the standout soloists. Add the trumpet magic of guest Bobby Shew and the chemistry is complete. The H2 Big Band is a dynamite big band template. They're definitely "it!" -Dr. Herb Wong, Menlo Park, CA

CD available at www.JazzedMedia.com

Press/Radio Promotion: Graham Carter, Jazzed Media 303-933-0550 Distribution by Allegro Corporation 1-800-288-2007