Sunday, July 31, 2011

Louis Prima – Show Time!

Thanks to liberalization in the attitudes of some of the music companies who hold the copyright to Jazz and popular music from the "Golden Age" [circa 1925-1975], the video that appears at the end of this feature is once again available in all countries with the exception of Germany [Heaven knows why this is the case].

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles that it would celebrate the lessening of this stricture with a re-posting of this feature on one of the grand musicians from Jazz's early era who went on to fame and fortune as a leading entertainer in the Las Vegas casino lounges.

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

“In 1954, after a few years of scuffling, he and his new vocalist Keely Smith (by this time his wife) joined together with saxophonist Sam Butera to form an act that set Las Vegas on fire. Prima did for Vegas what he had done almost 20 years earlier for 52nd Street [at the Famous Door] — opened the door to a whole new era of entertainment. Every hotel in Vegas began to book big name acts for their casino lounges in the wake of Prima and Smith's success.”
- Lloyd Rausch

“Though Louis Prima recorded widely and well throughout the '30s, achieving great popularity and visibility, his name is often conspicuous by its absence from standard jazz histories. Dealing with him seriously means confronting one aspect of New Orleans jazz which chroniclers, almost as a point of honor, seem to find distasteful.

That, of course, is the matter of showmanship. The flamboyance of Prima's latter career, in which his identity as a trumpeter became almost totally subor­dinate to his role as a high-energy showman, seems to offend those who would represent jazz as an art music of solemnity and unstinting high purpose. The Las Vegas image, the raucous sound of Sam Butera and the Witnesses, the risque badinage with singer Keely Smith—such make it all too easy to mistake this showbiz aspect of Prima for the creative substance, ignoring his past achievements and core musicianship.

Far from being exclusive to such as Prima, the idea of hot music as an arm of highly commercialized show business runs throughout the early years. It's present in the singing, dancing, and impromptu comedy skits of the dance bands, including those that prided themselves on their dedication to jazz. Its absence is a root cause of the failure of the great Jean Goldkette orchestra, an ensemble which either stubbornly resisted advice to "put on a show" or acquiesced in a manner landing somewhere between perfunctory and downright hostile.

For New Orleans musicians, especially, showmanship was—and remains—a fact of life. Was it not Louis Armstrong, above all, who understood the relation­ship between music and entertainment, and never wavered in his application of it, even in the face of critical hostility? "You'll always get critics of showman­ship," he told British critic Max Jones. ‘Critics in England say I was a clown, but a clown—that's hard. If you can make people chuckle a little; it's happiness to me to see people happy, and most of the people who criticize don't know one note from another.’

Prima, in common with his two hometown friends Wingy Manone and Sharkey Bonano, accepted—as had Nick LaRocca before them—that they were, above all, entertainers; they might now and then get together for their own enjoyment, and even (as in the case of the 1928 Monk Hazel titles) make music to suit themselves. But where the public was concerned, the paying customers always came first. By his own lights, and by the laws of the box office, Prima was doing what he properly should be doing, and with resounding success. It is only re­grettable that the nature of his fame in later years has drawn attention away from his skills as one of the most accomplished, often thrilling, of New Orleans trumpet men.”

- Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords:White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 [p. 80, emphasis mine]
A-zoom, a-zoom, a-zoom, a-zooma or some such onomatopoeia.

Shuffle beats; rim shots; plenty of triplets and cymbal crashes.

Boogie woogie piano rumblings; bar-walking tenor saxophone licks; trumpet, trombone and sax unison, “shout choruses” to close out the tunes.

False song endings; surprise endings; stop-and-start endings.

Hand-clapping, finger-poppin’ and foot-stompin;” sometimes even sing-a-longs if the melody was a familiar one [most were].

Laughter, smiles-all around and much joy and happiness in listening to the music all served up in an atmosphere of watered-down cocktails, stale smoke with not a clock in sight - anywhere.

A good time was had by all despite the fact that the “3 Shows Nightly” generally took place at 11:00 PM, 2:00 AM and 4:00 AM, respectively.

Pack away the cymbals, put a cover over the drums and join the other members of the band for a breakfast of steak and eggs before going “home” to sleep all day, which was just as well given the torrid, daytime heat of the desert sun.

This is a brief description of what it was like to play in one of the Show Bands that were everywhere apparent on the Las Vegas strip before the town gave itself over to the bigness and big business wrought by corporate America and “live” music virtually disappeared as one casualty of profitability.

The Sands, the Flamingo, the Tropicana, the Sahara, the Desert Inn, Harrah’s, The Barbary Coast and a host of other casinos featured show bands in one or more of their lounges as free entertainment for those punters who wanted a break in the action. Some came by with a date or to have one-more-for-the-road.

The entertainment in these lounges was generally free and it was often of the highest quality.

The King of the Show Band leaders was Louis Prima who re-made his career in music at The Casbar Lounge of the Sahara beginning in 1954.  Along with vocalist Keely Smith and tenor saxophonist Sam Butera and The Witnesses, Louis Prima’s act was the act that all of the other acts caught when they performed in Las Vegas.

On any given evening [morning?], one could find Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, and many of the major comedians who played Las Vegas taking in one of Louis, Kelly and Sam’s sets.

For the next ten years or so, Louis’ lounge act was the talk of Las Vegas and was responsible for spawning a generation of show bands that employed a similar style in supper clubs, night clubs and restaurants all over the country.

Twenty-six tracks from the heyday of Louis’ time in the Las Vegas lounges have been issued as a Louis Prima Collectors Series Capitol Records CD [CDP 794072 2] and they are a treat.

Scott Shea’s insert notes offer a nice recap of the details of Louis’ career as well as a broad overview of the music on the CD.

© -Scott Shea/Capitol Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"To think that these notes could possibly cover the musical career (let alone life) of Louis Prima would be to believe the impossible. There could never be enough space, enough pages, to do either of those topics full justice with anything less than a fairly large sized book. When that book gets written it will be a terrific read, for Louis Prima was truly one or a kind: trumpeter. singer, composer, humorist; band leader, husband (several times), father (ditto), sportsman, son of Italy, and entertainer par excel­lence, besides many other things, which separately could never describe him, but togeth­er come close.

His musical career spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s. His time at Capitol Records came at the height of his glory in the mid 1950s to early 1960s, when he, along with singer and then-wife Keely Smith and Sam Butera and the Witnesses, was the hottest lounge entertainer in Las Vegas. That heady plateau came in a later incarnation of Prima's career; the road he traveled to get there was a long one.

Louis Leo Prima was born on December 7, 1910 on St. Peter Street, at the edge of New Orleans' notorious Storyville dis­trict. His parents, Anthony and Angelina, were second-genera­tion Sicilians who encouraged Louis and his older brother Leon to learn music. Louis and Leon started with violin and piano respectively, but soon Leon switched to trumpet, the better to emulate the new sound being formed by the local musicians (among them Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong), later to be known as Dixieland Jazz.

Leon took to the road for touring gigs and left Louis a trumpet: by the time Leon returned Louis had switched instruments and was fronting his own band. He dropped out of high school to become a musician full-time.

An early stint with the house band of a Jefferson Parish gam­bling club ended when the band leader, piqued with Prima's bur­geoning trumpet style, fired him. Louis soon had another job play­ing in the pit band at New Orleans' Saenger Theater. Band leader Lou Forbes recognized Prima's talent and ambition, and drafted arrangements to feature Prima's playing as well as his singing. Always restless, Prima formed his own jazz combo to play New Orleans clubs and speakeasies,

In 1934 (following a stint in Red Nichols' Orchestra), Guy Lombardo caught Louis' performance, and encouraged him to venture to New York City. He auditioned at a 52nd Street club. Leon and Eddie's, which turned him down. Undaunted, he soon found work at another club on 52nd Street with his newly formed group, The New Orleans Gang.

He scored a huge hit at the open­ing of New York's Famous Door club in 1935. and took his Gang to Hollywood the following year to open the west coast version of the club. While there, he per­formed with Martha Raye and appeared in several shorts and musicals, among them Rhythm On the Range, with Bing Crosby, and Rose of Washington Square, with Tyrone Power and Alice Faye.

During this period Prima had sev­eral hits on the Brunswick label, including "The Lady In Red" and "In a Little Gypsy Tearoom". His biggest success in the thirties came when Benny Goodman recorded his composition "Sing, Sing, Sing", giving Goodman a hit and turning the song (and Goodman version of it) into a classic.

In 1939 Prima followed the trend, broke up his Gang, and formed a big band, which he kept into the late 1940s. By now Prima's repertoire had turned away from jazz, and moved towards pop and dance numbers, with a decidedly Neopolitan tilt: "Angelina (which he wrote for his mother), Felicia No Capicia", and "Bacciagaloop (Makes Love On the Stoop)". Needless to write, Prima had no problem with humor.

Louis kept the band going in World War II, but had some difficulties replacing musicians who enlisted. In this period he scored modest hits with "Robin Hood" "Civilization", and "I'll Walk Alone", and composed the hit "A Sunday Kind of Love" for Jo Stafford and Fran Warren. Major success, however, contin­ued to elude him.

In August, 1948. Prima replaced his singer, Lily Ann Carol, with a 16-year old from Norfolk, Vir­ginia, (Dorothy) Keely Smith. Her smooth phrasing and clear tones could not have contrasted more with Louis' heavy, bellowing delivery.

They developed a rou­tine in which Louis would attempt to break down Keely's deadpan stage persona with ad libs, jokes and distractions. When they sang together, improb­ably, they blended.

Louis and Keely remained as a performing duo after Prima ended his big band in 1949. In 1952, Keely became Prima's fourth wife. The couple called attention to the large disparity in their ages for comedic effect on stage. They continued to perform on the club circuit until the fall of 1954, when the gigs started to dry up.

In desperation, Prima phoned Bill Miller, an old friend, who was then running the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Prima plead­ed with Miller for a booking, and Miller gave them a two-week engagement in the hotel's lounge, starting on November 24, 1954.

Before heading for Vegas. Louis and Keely had shared the bill at Perez's Oasis Club in Metairie, Louisiana with tenor saxophonist Sam Butera and his band, The Night Trainers. Butera, a skilled jazz player and arranger, had been packing in crowds in New Orleans area clubs, and had had some local hit records.

Prima told Butera of his Vegas plans, and promised Sam that if anything happened in Vegas, he would get back in touch. "About three months later I was working at the Monteleone Hotel, and he called me and said. 'You better come out here, ana bring three guys (musicians)'," says Butera. ‘He wanted me to join him on Christmas Day, but I told him I'd join him the day after Christ­mas.’

The group that took the stage with Prima at the Sahara on December 26, 1954 had not even had a chance to be introduced to him. When it came time in the show to introduce the sidemen, Louis asked Sam who they were. Sam hollered, "The Witnesses!" Thus are legends born.

The combination of Louis Prima with Keely Smith, and Sam Butera and the Witnesses, was a smash hit in Las Vegas. They became a fixture in the Sahara's Casbar Lounge, performing five shows a night. They would be soaking in sweat when they final­ly left the stage at dawn.

For its era, the Prima-Smith-Butera show was considered risqué (Time called it "doggedly vulgar"). The banter between Louis and Keely was not without its share of innuendo and off-color references (Sonny and Cher later borrowed much of it to re­establish their career on televi­sion in the 1970s).

Surrounding the jokes and gags, and keeping everything jumping, were Butera and the Witnesses, supplying a wild, relentless, driving beat that punched through the lounge's smoke and chatter and left crowds in awe. There was noth­ing like it, which was why it ' became known as "The Wildest Show in Vegas".

"Everything sounded sponta­neous," says Butera. "but we were well rehearsed, with Louis' laughter and Keely's presence and great singing, the group always looked like we were hav­ing fun, and we were, really."

It was at this point that Prima signed with Capitol in 1956. Pro­ducer Voyle Gilmore's intent from the start was to capture as much as possible the live feel of Prima's group. The liner notes for Prima's first Capitol album, The Wildest, claim that Prima remarked, "That's us, man! That's us!" upon hearing the tapes (Capitol recorded Prima live on many subsequent occasions, as is evidenced by some of the selec­tions on this disc). Much of the material had been performed by Louis and Keely for years previ­ous, but Butera re-arranged all the selections to make them swing, and they do.
The selections on this disc abound with Prima trademarks: sudden tempo shifts into and out of Prima's patented "shuffle beat"; tarantellas interwoven with Dixieland jazz; medleys of re-worked standards; altered lyrics befitting Prima's dialect, and numerous passages of Louis own inimitable scat talk.

Keely shows she can hold her own with Louis in the jive talk department on "The Lip,” and displays her skills as a fine ballad singer (or tries to) on "Embraceable You"/"I Got It Bad".

Sam takes the lead vocal on one of the group's classic numbers. "There'll Be No Next Time": "I heard it on a 45, and brought it to Louis... he listened to it and said we had to change some lyrics and make it longer so we could do it on stage. Louis wrote about 80 percent of the lyrics we used on that."

Louis also re-wrote other lyrics when certain numbers were recorded because he thought the live versions were too suggestive. For example, the recorded ver­sion of "The Sheik of Araby" sub­stitutes the words "turban" and "jumpin’" for "pants" and "naked" in the live version. A switch of two words gives the song an entirely different meaning!

This disc also features re-record­ings of earlier Prima hits ("Oh Marie", "Buona Sera", "Angelina"/"Zooma Zooma"), songs from movie appearances ("Hey Boy, Hey Girl* "Banana Split For My Baby", "Twist All Night"), and Louis and Keely's two most mem­orable hits, “That Old Black Magic", and "I've Got You Under My Skin".

Probably the oddest selection on this disc is "Beep! Beep!", from a 1957 single which Louis recorded in recognition of the Sputnik launch earlier in the year. It is the only selection on this disc to contain an overdub, made neces­sary for the sound effect.

By 1961 Louis and Keely had moved from the Sahara's lounge to the main showroom at the Desert Inn. Prima also moved from Capitol to Dot Records, for an extremely lucrative recording deal. Later that year problems in the marriage caused Keely to file for divorce, thus also ending her professional affiliation with Prima. Louis later replaced her with his fifth wife and singing partner, Gia Maione.

Prima enjoyed his last hit at Dot with a version of "Wonderland By Night", then moved back to Capi­tol in 1962 for one further album, The Wildest Comes Home. Louis and Sam's no-holds-barred ver­sion of "St. Louis Blues", taken from that album, rounds out this collection.

After his final departure from Capitol Prima continued per­forming in Vegas and elsewhere (but always on the mainland; a strong fear of flying precluded overseas performances), and recording. In 1967 he made an acclaimed cameo in Walt Dis­ney's animated film, The Jungle Book, providing the voice of King Louie the Orangutan, and a duet with Phil Harris on "I Wanna Walk Like You".

In the early 1970s Prima, along with Butera, moved the band to residency at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter. In November 1975, Prima underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. He never regained consciousness after the operation, and remained in a coma until his death on August 24. 1978 at New Orleans' Touro Infirmary.

Keely Smith also returned to Capitol to record several albums (perhaps Capitol will release a Keely Smith Collector's Edition CD: she certainly deserves it), and continues performing to date.

Sam Butera regularly performs worldwide and records with his band, The Wildest ‘’’’ Though he has drifted more to jazz in recent years, he still performs some Prima favorites in his sets.

Says Sam of Prima: "He was one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived - he was an entertain­er's entertainer." Anyone who lis­tens to this CD will have to agree.

Liner notes by Scott Shea”

Friday, July 29, 2011

Eddie Harris – Eddie Who?

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

Don’t know much about multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer, Eddie Harris?

Just click on the image below and he’ll tell you all about himself.

Eddie makes me smile; he has fun with the music. Can you tell?

According to the following excerpt by Gene Lees, it seems like he always has.

© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The late Bud Freeman, a native of Chi­cago and one of that city's most ardent loyalists, argued that jazz was invented not in New Orleans but in Chicago. It's debat­able, of course, but if you accept that jazz is an art of stellar improvising soloists, then Bud had a point, because it was in Chicago that Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone and Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman (only Goodman a native) matured and honed their craft, and set the direction of the music.

I lived in Chicago from 1959 to 1962, the period when I was editor of Down Beat, and the city was (as it is now) an extraordinarily fertile garden of jazz, madly florid with talents both native and imported. Eddie Harris was one of the natives. He was unknown outside the city at that time. I have delightful memories of cruising from one club to another with Eddie to visit our friends. I thought he was an outstanding musician, an original com­poser, and a fine player on several instru­ments. He was fascinated by all sorts of sonorities, experimenting with trombone fitted with reed mouthpieces, tenor saxo­phone fitted with trombone mouthpiece, and more. He'd show me these tricks at his house, and we'd laugh. Tenor, though, was his main instrument. He made an album for the small Chicago label called Veejay. One of the tunes he recorded was the theme from the film Exodus, which became a huge hit, and launched Eddie as a national and later international name.

Eddie moved to Los Angeles and recorded with all manner of the best jazz musicians. In 1969 he teamed up with pianist and singer Les McCann. They gave a performance at the Montreux Jazz Fes­tival, the recording of which cranked both their careers a notch higher.

Eddie once told me that he had asked the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young a question about embouchure. Pres told him, "I can only tell you about my mouth­piece in my mouth. I can't tell you about your mouthpiece in your mouth.”

Eddie used to improvise satires on the blues as we'd ride around Chicago in his car, laughter trailing in the night.” [John Reeves and Gene Lees, Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, p. 128]

More of Eddie’s fun music is on tap in the following video. The tune is Ambidextrous. Stay with this one as Eddie really turns it loose after Ralphe Armstrong’s fine bass solo.

And here is a video tribute to vocalist Madeline Eastman in tandem with the art work of the great Modigliani that features her performance of Eddie’s most famous composition – Freedom Jazz Dance.

Are we having fun, yet?

I certainly hope so as Eddie and others who perform his music obviously did. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ed Thigpen – The Drummer as Colorist and Percussionist

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

“ … everything he played had this beautiful sound, profound swing and great sense of orchestration. It was amazing to watch his hands—he was so powerful and yet, at the same time, he was able to coax all these subtle colors from the set.”
- Mark Dresser, JazzTimes, March 2011

In 1959 Ed joined the Oscar Peterson Trio.
The Trio still considered by many musicians and the public to be the greatest piano-bass-drums trio in the history of Jazz.  Ed recorded more than 50 albums with Peterson before he left the group in 1965 and toured with Ella Fitzgerald.
- Drummer World Biography

In terms of making it big in the Jazz world, nobody ever had it more difficult than Ed Thigpen.

The gig that brought him fame also brought him infamy – at least, initially.

Perhaps, “infamy” is too strong a word for the reaction of many in the Jazz world when pianist Oscar Peterson decided to forsake the guitar in 1959 and add a drummer to the trio he had formed with bassist Ray Brown almost a decade earlier.

Jazz purists thought that guitarists Barney Kessel and later Herb Ellis had kept the overall sound of the trio light and melodic while doing nothing to diminish the intensity of its swing.

Aside from taking away another melody voice, they argued that drums would harden the sound of Peterson’s trio and make its rhythm more pronounced and aggressive.

Jazz drummers push; they drive the time or the meter of the music. It’s what they do.

Some musicians contend that drummers are always moving you in directions you don’t want to take so you eventually wind up competing with them and becoming less musical as a result.

But nobody ever pushed the late Oscar Peterson [“OP”] anywhere, let alone a drummer. He had a presence at the piano that was virtually overpowering.  If you were lucky, Oscar would let you come along for the ride.

And so it was in 1959 when OP welcomed ET into his trio.

This act of grace on Peterson’s part and the fact that Ed always wanted [?!] to perform with Oscar and Ray’s trio made it difficult for any of us fellow drummers to have any sympathy for him when the gig came his way.

Ed explains it this way.

"I always wanted to be with Oscar's group, even when Herb was with that band. I told Ray in Japan [while I was stationed there during the Korean War and they were in Tokyo performing with the Jazz at The Philharmonic tour], 'The only thing wrong with this group is you need a drummer.' Ray said, 'Well, y'never know, kid.' I said, 'I need to play with this group. I love this group.' And they went out and proceeded to swing so hard I thought, 'Well, maybe I'll miss it, but I still would like to play with the group.' So it was four years later that I joined them. Yeah, it was a lot of pressure though. It was. Because whatever insecurities I had... I was in awe of those guys, I loved them, I really loved them, and when it's like that, you give everything you have. They were so heavy, so fantastic and, obviously, so acclaimed, that I was in awe of both of them. Ray was very kind. All the time. He just took me under his wing and saved me." [Gene Lees, Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, p. 143]

Oscar never considered Ed as only a drummer. To mix metaphors, OP thought of him as someone who broadened the canvas on which the music took place and added colors and textures to it with the strokes of a percussionist.

Additionally, as he describes in the following excerpt from Gene Lees insert notes to the Verve double CD anthology, The Will to Swing [847 203-2], he viewed the challenge of working with a drummer from an entirely different perspective.

"The trio with Ed and Ray" Oscar said, "that was six years of unbelievable music. Again you had a tightness and a cohesiveness between members of the trio. I seldom had to call tunes ... Ed Thigpen was a very reflective yet complete percussionist. He wasn't really a drummer, he was a percussionist. He had that feeling . . . that it wasn't just drums he was sitting at. It's the way he thinks. He sees his drums as a complete, not instrument, but orchestra.

"Ed Thigpen has a touch on the drums that you seldom hear. Jo Jones had that same thing. Ed was not the gorilla Bobby Durham was. Ed came in another door altogether. And if you mixed that with Ray Brown! At that time, there was a question of, Oscar can't pull all that off, it's all right to do that with the guitar, because it's light, it's up here. You can skim over the keys and all that.' When we brought in Ed, it was a chance to prove that I play the way I play, that's it.…"

There’s more about Ed Thigpen’s character and ability in this vignette by pianist Dr. Billy Taylor. Ed was a member of Billy’s trio before joining Oscar:

"’In 1958," said Taylor,’ … ‘I was musical director of a show called The Subject Is Jazz on National Public Television. At the end of the thirteen weeks, I was asked by the producers to make a prediction: where is jazz going?’ I said, 'There's a young man who's just recorded a piece written by a friend of mine. I'm not good at predicting, but I believe this is one of the directions that jazz is going. George Russell has just written this piece called Billy the Kid and the soloist is Bill Evans.' I said, 'We don't have sufficient time to rehearse a work of this difficulty, so why don't we bring in the guys who did the record?' So we brought the band in and for some reason the drummer on the record date couldn't make the TV date. So Ed Thigpen, who was my drummer, read the son of a bitch at sight! I mean, sight read the son of a bitch! And played the hell out of it. He's one of the damnedest musicians on earth.’" [As quoted by Gene Lees in Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, p. 142]

Ed primarily used a scaled down drum kit. With only a 5” inch deep snare drum, an 8” x 12” mounted tom tom, a 14” x 14” floor tom tom and a bass drum that was 20” in diameter, his emphasis was on quickness and lightness.

He once said at a drum clinic that I attended words to the effect that although trying to move Oscar was like trying to move a freight train, he wasn’t kicking any big band, so he wanted his drums to have a bright quality about them.

He also used small cymbals. Ed was one of the few drummers that I ever saw play on 13” hi-hat cymbals [most use 14” and some use 15”]. Both his ride and his crash cymbals had a dishy and swishy quality to them that cut through Oscar’s full bodied piano sound.

At the clinic, Ed commented further that given some of the fast tempos that Oscar set, the last thing a drummer needed were big, tubby sounding drums that were unresponsive and had to be “played down into.”

As you will see in the video feature that concludes this piece, Ed added more drums to his kit over the years, but I would suspect that this was because he could thanks to all of the free samples from drum manufacturers.

Ed prided himself on his brush work. Many drummers shun these because they are much harder to play than drum sticks. Not Ed: to him, if you could play it with sticks, you could play it with brushes.

Given how high Ed liked to hold his left-hand in relation to the snare drum – almost at a 45 degree angle to the snare drum - it was remarkable how fast he could play with brushes. I have no idea how he developed speed with brushes from this starting point.

But then, it seems, that Ed never sought the easiest way.

Few other drummers could have achieved what he did. Six years and 50 recordings as a member of Oscar Peterson’s trio is a creative accomplishment to rival any in Jazz.

While others demurred and declined, Ed sought out Oscar. It was his destiny and he handled it beautifully.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Teddy Edwards – Jazz Tenor Saxophonist of Importance

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

“Right from the beginning, Edwards’s recordings have been of consistently high quality, testimony to his likeable and no-nonsense approach. … Though he has had his ups and downs, Edwards’s relaxed, imperturbable manner has sustained him well; ‘steady with Teddy’ has been the watchword.”
- Richard Cook & Brain Morton, The Penguin Guide To Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Sometimes I think that the “Los” in LOS ANGELES is an abbreviation for “Land of Obscure Saxophonists.”

How else to explain the relative lack of attention garnered by Harold Land, Sonny Criss, Curtis Amy, Jimmy Woods, Jack Montrose, and a number of other excellent saxophonists whose careers took place primarily in the City of Angels?

Teddy Edwards is another name that also seems to belong to this list of unheralded, Los Angeles-based saxophonists.

Thankfully, Les Koenig at Contemporary Records and Richard Bock at Pacific Jazz provided Teddy with a number of recording opportunities which helped document his excellence as a tenor saxophonist and composer.

In Teddy’s case, the initial reasons for his lack of public recognition may lie in the following explanation by Ted Gioia who writes:

“Although many West Coast musicians of Edwards's generation were beset by personal tragedy, few suffered more from pure bad luck. A series of recurring medical afflictions—gall bladder trouble as well as several oral surgeries necessitated by problems with his teeth—haunted Edwards throughout the 1950s, often sidelining him for months on end. When he was able to play, Edwards distinguished himself by being in the right place at almost the right time. At the start of the 1950s Edwards stood out as the most prominent member of the Lighthouse All-Stars, and his compo­sition "Sunset Eyes" was the band's most requested number. Yet right before the All-Stars' rise to fame through a series of widely heard record­ings, Edwards was dismissed by leader Howard Rumsey when a group of ex-Kenton players suddenly became available for active duty. Rumsey's decision was marked with eventual success, but Edwards was the unfortu­nate casualty of the affair. Nor was this all. In 1954, Edwards turned down an opportunity to go on the road with the Max Roach/Clifford Brown band because he had recently married and felt that the time was not right for an extended road engagement. The Roach/Brown band went on to be- come the most celebrated bop quintet of its day. Edwards never got an­other chance at such a high-profile gig. The tenorist's life during the hey­day of West Coast jazz is an extended account of just such missed opportunities and misfortunes.” [West Cost Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, pp. 130-131].

Les Koenig, owner-operator of Contemporary Records, offered this overview in the insert notes to his Together Again!!!!  Contemporary album [Contemporary 7588; OJCCD-424-2] which features Teddy with his long-time musical associate and friend, trumpeter Howard McGhee:

“Edwards, …, continued to work in California, where musicians have long considered him to be one of the top tenor men in the country. However, it seems next to im­possible for a jazzman to make a national reputation on the West Coast. If Horace Greeley were passing out advice to jazzmen today, he'd have to say, "Go East, young man!" For personal reasons Teddy preferred to work closer to his home and family; and so, it is all the more remarkable that despite the geographical handicap Teddy is regarded as one of the very best tenor men by critics, musicians, and jazz fans at home and abroad. In 1960 and '61 he was active in the recording studios, and his Teddy's Ready! (Contemporary M3583, stereo S7583) received exceptional reviews. Stanley Robertson, who has followed Teddy's career for many years, wrote in the Los Angeles Sentinel, ‘Teddy Edwards must be considered one of the major voices in jazz.’

Bob Gordon had this to say about Teddy and Howard’s work on Together Again!!!!:

“Together Again remains a very satisfying album - it wears like a comfortable pair of sneakers. Howard McGhee and Teddy Edwards were at the cutting-edge of jazz when they first got together in the late forties. By 1961 they were considered in the mainstream rather than the avant-garde, but both had continued to progress and increase the mastery of their horns. Backed by an exceedingly able rhythm section [Phineas Newborn, Jr. on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums], they prove that good jazz, like a fine wine, improves with age.” [Jazz West Coast, p. 212] 

Writing in 1998 as the producer of the CD re-issue of Teddy’s Sunset Eyes Pacific Jazz album [CDP 94848]:

“Teddy Edwards is a superb tenor saxophonist whose probably best known for his Dial duets with Dexter Gordon, the live recording by the first incarnation of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quartet and decades of wonderful small group recordings under his own name. But his career includes big band and film studio work, arranging and even songwriting (Louis Jordan, Nancy Wilson and Lorez Alexandria are among those who've recorded his songs). At 74, he stills writing and playing beautifully.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lenny Breau – Magical Guitarist

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

“What I am trying to do is make impressions. I think of myself as a colourist, adding different coulours and shades by using different techniques and touching the guitar in different ways. I like to play sounds you can see if you’ve got your eyes closed. I’ll always be a student because I think of music as never ending.”
- Lenny Breau

“I approach the guitar like a piano. I’ve reached a point where I transcend the instrument. A lot of the stuff I play on the 7-string guitar is supposed to be technically impossible, but I spent over twenty years figuring it out. I play the guitar like a piano, there’s always two things going on at once. I’m thinking melody, but I’m also thinking of a background. I play the accompaniment on the low strings.”
- Lenny Breau

“A kind of modern-day Django Reinhardt, Lenny Breau was enigmatic, unpredictable, and wide-ranging in his life and music. Largely unrecognized except by the select few who are touched by his sphere of brilliance, he improvised and innovated kaleidoscopic fusions of styles and techniques that continue to amaze and confound. With his genius itensely focused on the guitar’s labyrinth of strings and frets, the result was the stuff of legends.”
- Jim Ferguson, Jazz guitar historian, writer and Grammy nominee

The sound of the guitar has been present in our family for as long as I can remember; Italo-American social life wouldn’t be the same without it.

It’s beautiful sound usually came from a classic, Gibson played acoustically, although at times, a basic amplifier was employed.

Later, when recordings came into my life, sometimes “the sound of the guitar” would be strummed as a rhythm guitar by Freddie Green in Count Basie’s rhythm section while at other times Charlie Christian picked and plucked it as a solo instrument in Benny Goodman’s sextet or Barney Kessel both strummed and soloed on it in Oscar Peterson’s classic trio with Ray Brown on bass.

And then there was the discovery of the instrument’s Jazz virtuosos: Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass and Bireli Lagrene along with what Neil Tesser refers to as the “… softer tone and less pronounced attack of Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney and Johnny Smith” [I still can’t stop listening to the gorgeous recordings Johnny made with Stan Getz in the early 1950s]. One could also add Jim Hall and John Pisano to the latter group.

Guitar players have always fascinated me.

Which brings me to the night in 1968 that I walked into Shelly Manne Hole and encountered guitarist Lenny Breau.

I had no idea how to categorize his style, but he just captivated me. I sat there, spellbound through the entire set and absorbed as much of it in as I could.

Although he was accompanied on the gig by bass and drums, it was his solo guitar work that just blew me away. His work that night was a magical tour de force; I had never heard anything like it before and rarely since.

Much to my delight, RCA issued an album in 1969 of Lenny’s gig at Shelly and acquiring it gave me access to the following liner notes by guitarist Johnny Smith that helped me to understand a bit of what was on offer that night:

The Electric Guitar Rises to New Levels of Musical Excellence in the Hands of Lenny Breau

“In the relatively short career of the electric guitar as a prominent solo instrument there have been many excellent players but com­paratively few guitarists who have contributed new styles and ap­proaches to the instrument.

Lenny Breau has created a new concept and direction for the electric guitar that should remain far beyond the short life-span of a musical fad. He is a young man with a musically inquisitive mind for new thoughts and devices that give his playing a refreshing and com­manding quality. His technique and performance on the instrument encompass a wide variety of tonal colors and styles that range from sitaristic slurs to some excellently executed flamenco passages. His melodic concepts of jazz are harmonically sound and denote depth of musicianship. The unaccompanied solos are captivating and intrigu­ing with a neoclassic flavor and employ some interesting Chet Atkins-inspired harmonics and amplifier-induced sustained pedal tones.

Drummer Reg Kelln and electric bassist Ron Halldorson contribute to the excellence of this recording. Their constant communication with Lenny is evident in the spontaneous mood and rhythmical changes that occur throughout the performance, which is a refreshing de­parture from some of the over-arranged or completely disjointed "free style" groups.

There will, no doubt, be self-appointed critics who will say that Lenny at times is too exuberant on the guitar and inserts too many dif­ferent thoughts and styles into a song, but, no matter what the criticism, the reservoir of musical knowledge, musicianship and the technique to produce are there and should do nothing but improve and contribute to a higher and higher standard and acceptance of the electric guitarist.

- Johnny Smith”

Thanks to CD re-issues, over the years I have been able to acquire a number of Lenny’s recordings and these covers along with some photos of Lenny are featured in the following video tribute to him.

See what you think of Lenny’s solo guitar stylings on the version of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy that forms the audio track to the video.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Steve Wilkerson – Sure Enough!

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

“Steve Wilkerson swings hard one moment and lyrically mesmerizes the next; he is beautifully showcased by the writing of Sandy Megas and nine swinging musicians. Swinging new music for the swinging new millennium. Bravo!!”
- Pete Rugolo, composer-arranger

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has a very dear friend who lives nearby and with whom it meets periodically to have “coffee and a nosh” and to talk about Jazz.

He is a fountain of knowledge on the subject, along with being one of the nicest human beings that you’d ever want to meet.

During one such chat and chew a number of years ago, the conversation turned to Jazz baritone saxophonists.

After listing our many favorite players on this bulky piece of plumbing, my Jazz buddy brought up – “Steve Wilkerson” - a name that I had never heard associated with the instrument before.

When the look-of-the-unknown-Jazz-musician crossed my face, one of satisfied delight came over his and he said: “I’ll send you a Steve Wilkerson album.”

True to his word, a few days later, Shaw ‘Nuff, a CD that was self-produced by Steve and his Jazz vocalist wife, Andrea Baker, arrived in my mailbox.

Listening to it for the first time was a jaw-dropping experience.

During fifty plus years of listening to recorded Jazz, I’ve heard a lot of great instrumentalists.

Steve Wilkerson’s performance on this recording was right up there with the best of them.

What made listening to the album even more enjoyable were the arrangements that Sandy Megas scored for the nine-piece group accompanying Steve.

It was comparable to hearing Marty Paich’s arrangements for alto saxophonist Art Pepper + Eleven forty years later.

In other words, I experienced the equivalent of a musical feast while listening to Steve and the other fine musicians on Shaw ‘Nuff  play on Sandy’s charts.

Pianist George Shearing once said that the hardest thing about improvising Jazz was “… getting it from your head into your hands.”

Listening to Steve Wilkerson execute his ideas on the rather cumbersome baritone saxophone, you’d think that he had never heard of the difficulty that Shearing describes.

Steve’s playing just flows – idea after idea, swinging phrase after swinging phrase – an uninterrupted torrent of musical expression done at the very highest level all aided and abetted by Sandy’s beautifully crafted charts.

For fear of hyperbole, there are times when it’s best to let a musician’s playing “speak” for itself, and this is one of those times.

If you wish to garner more information about Steve and Sandy’s respective backgrounds and recordings, each has a website which you can locate by going here and here.

In the meantime, you can experience the pleasure of Steve’s artistry in the following video tribute to him featuring his performance of Sandy’s arrangement of  Horace Silver’s Nica’s Dream.

See if you can pick-up the manner in which Sandy has trombonist Greg Solomon playing trombone in unison with Steve’s baritone saxophone on the tune’s melody and then switching to playing in harmony with him –[0:53] - from the tune’s bridge and on to the closing repeat of the melody.

Pianist Marc LeBrun takes the first solo and Steve’s solo kicks in at 2:53 minutes.

In addition to Steve, Greg and Marc, the other musicians in the group are Gary Halopoff [tp], Ray Reed [ss/as], Jim Quam [as/fl], Terry Harrington [ts], Andy Simpkins [b] and James Gadson [dr].