Thursday, October 31, 2013

New York Voices Christmas CD - “Let It Snow"

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

"New York Voices lives up to its reputation as the most exciting vocal ensemble in current jazz· to collect such quality voices in one group is rare enough, yet the real trick of New York Voices is how well they mesh·" - Boston Herald

"· full of life, teeming with energy and bursting with melody·a thoroughly entertaining experience·"_
- All Music Guide

I know that there are about two months before Christmas as I post this review, but one would hardly know it from the way the retail stores are decorated.  Everywhere I go, it feels like the holidays are imminent.

One of the nicest aspects of this time of year are the new Christmas albums that appear.

A few have grabbed my fancy and I thought I would bring them to your attention in a series of holiday blog features.

Let’s start with the latest from Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge, collectively known as The New York Voices.

In celebration of their 25th anniversary together, The New York Voices released Let It Snow on October 29, 2013 [Five Cent Records FCR-0001].

The selections on offer are listed on the following image of the CD tray plate.

Let It Snow finds New York Voices - Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge - celebrating a host of traditional and sacred holiday classics as well as secular favorites. With the assistance of Grammy Award winning producer and engineer, Elliot Scheiner (Steely Dan, Eagles, Manhattan Transfer, Fleetwood Mac), the quartet has fashioned an album that honors beloved songs, while incorporating sophisticated jazz and swing elements.  Settings vary; a cappella performances mingle with robust arrangements featuring big band and studio orchestra accompaniment.

The result is a diverse program of holiday standards, performed with surprisingly fresh treatments.  The close harmony style that New York Voices embraces is a perfect sound for the holiday season. While the bulk of the arrangements are by founding member and tenor vocalist Damon Meader, additional orchestrators include Don Sebesky, Jorge Calendrelli, Pat Hollenbeck, and Michele Weir.

Let It Snow is a long time in coming.  As Meader notes: "We started adding Christmas tunes to our December concerts many years ago.  At first it was just a handful, but over the years, our holiday repertoire expanded.  In 2005, we were invited to tour with the Boston Pops for a full Christmas season.  This is when our book really took off, and we've been planning to record this CD ever since.  It took awhile, but we finally found the time and opportunity to make it happen!"
The CD starts off with the high impact big band arrangement of "Let It Snow," followed by a pairing of lush ballads, "Christmas Song - Christmas Time is Here." "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" is then given an old school big band treatment, reminiscent of the Count Basie Orchestra sound. A number of a cappella performances are also featured, including "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."  The intimate voices-only settings bring the artful NYV sound into full focus, contrasting effectively with the large ensemble pieces.

Other highlights include a rollicking rendition of "We Three Kings," and a more traditional treatment of J.S. Bach's "Sleepers, Wake!," which serves as a warm diversion from the jazz-based harmonies of the majority of songs.  A moody "ECM-esque" rendition of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" features Peter Eldridge as lead vocalist, surrounded by full orchestra and lush complementary group vocals.  Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Kim Nazarian, are all featured as lead vocalists on "The Merry Medley," a collection of three holiday favorites:  "The Man with the Bag," "I'd Like You for Christmas," and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

"I Wonder As I Wander" was first recorded by NYV in 1991 as part of a "cast of thousands" GRP Christmas Collection.  "We've continued to perform this one through the years, and we've always wanted to re-record this arrangement," says Darmon.  "I added a big band accompaniment, in a somewhat Gil Evans-esque style, which adds to the introspective mood of the tune."

Let It Snow wraps up with a high-energy rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," followed by a serene a cappella rendition of "Silent Night."

The internationally acclaimed vocal group has become renowned for their excellence in jazz and the art of group singing. Like the great jazz vocal groups that have come before, such as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Singers Unlimited and Manhattan Transfer, the foursome of Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge have learned from the best and taken the art form to new levels. Time Out Chicago has said of New York Voices: "We dare say there may be no better way to understand the wit and wink of jazz harmony than via these Voices."

The group has released nine CDs on various labels including GRP, RCA, MCG Jazz, Concord, and Palmetto. The group has also starred on two Grammy award winning albums: Count Basie Orchestra with New York Voices, Live at MCG and Brazilian Dreams (Paquito D'Rivera featuring New York Voices & Claudio Roditi). They've earned wide acclaim for their performances throughout the world at venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Blue Note (New York and Japan) as well as the opera houses of Vienna and Zurich, as well as the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

In addition to their various college and high school workshops, the New York Voices hold an annual vocal jazz camp at Bowling Green State University every August.  All four members are also active as solo vocalists, and have each released numerous recordings.

You can find out more about The New York Voices as well as order information at their website and order information is also available there and through most online retailers.

Here’s a sampling of the music on the CD.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

John Coltrane – Supremely Loved and Loathed

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

"Tony Whyton has brilliantly revealed how it has become impossible to know
John Coltrane's A Love Supreme outside notions of race, spirituality, history,
authenticity, and nostalgia. For me, it's like hearing the music for the first
– Krin Gabbard, author of Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and
American Culture

"Smart and engaging, Whyton's study highlights the multiple and ever-changing interpretations of Coltrane's most famous recording. In the process, Beyond a Love Supreme serves as an important corrective to those efforts—however well-meaning—that might limit how we understand jazz and its people."
- David Ake, Jazz pianist and author of Jazz Cultures and Jazz Matters

In Mahayana Buddhism, which is practiced in many forms mainly in Southeast Asia, China and Japan, a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has gained entrance into Nirvana [an equivalent of “heaven”], but holds back [i.e.: stays in the world] to help others accomplish the steps necessary to attain it for themselves.

In doing so, the Bodhisattva makes the world a better place for all concerned by exemplifying the state of enlightenment which results from the devolution of the Self.

Although reasoning by analogy is full of pitfalls, one could say that for many Jazz fans, and especially, many tenor and soprano saxophonists, John Coltrane has been the Jazz equivalent of a Bodhisattva for almost a half century since his death in 1967.

Here, however, I must emphasize the word “many,” because there are those in the Jazz world who view John Coltrane as Mara, the Evil One; a sort of loose Buddhist equivalent of the devil.

Nat Hentoff, the distinguished Jazz author and critic explains it this way in his collection of essays entitled Jazz Is [New York: Limelight Editions, 1991]:

“Coltrane, a man of almost unbelievable gentleness made human to us lesser mortals by his very occasional rages. Col­trane, was an authentically spiritual man, but not innocent of car­nal imperatives. Or perhaps more accurately, a man, in his last years, especially but not exclusively consumed by affairs of the spirit. That is, having constructed a personal world view (or view of the cosmos) on a residue of Christianity and an infu­sion of Eastern meditative practices and concerns, Coltrane became a theosophist of jazz.

The music was a way of self-purgation so that he could learn more about himself to the end of making himself and his music part of the unity of all being. He truly believed this, and in this respect, as well as musically, he has been a powerful influence on many musicians since. He considered music to be a healing art, an "uplifting" art.

Yet through most of his most relatively short career (he died at forty), Coltrane divided jazz listeners, creating furiously negative reactions to his work among some. (‘Anti-Jazz’ was one of the epithets frequently cast at him in print.) He was hurt and somewhat bewildered by this reaction, but with monumental stubbornness went on exploring and creat­ing what to many seemed at first to be chaos—self-indulgent, long-winded noise. Some still think that's what it was.

Others believed Coltrane to be a prophet, a musical prophet, heralding an enormous expansion of what it might now be possible to say on an instrument.”

The line of demarcation for mainstream Jazz enthusiasts concerning their acceptance of Coltrane’s work seems to be the changes in his playing that coincided with the recordings he issued on the Impulse! label during the last half-dozen or so years of his career.

Prior to that time, Coltrane’s work on Prestige, Bethlehem and Blue Note, and especially his work as part of the Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet as recorded on Columbia, met with general approval, if not, occasional, outright admiration.

John was a tenor saxophonist who rankled those who preferred the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Lester Young, Don Byas, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins. They liked their Jazz soloist to have a melodic orientation and not the more harmonic one favored by Coltrane.  And then there was the matter of his sound – harsh, abrasive and grating – to his critics, not to mention the sheer number of notes that John played during his solos which prompted Jazz critic Ira Gitler to describe Coltrane’s style as “sheets of sound.”

In my recollection, one of John’s earliest Impulse! LP’s seemed to really set his critics off – A Love Supreme [CD# 05155-2]. Although Coltrane may have intended the recording to be a liturgical act of expression, his detractors had a field day with it. The recording provoked a storm of controversy that in many ways continues to this day.

At the time of its issuance in 1964, very few gave it the kind of acceptance and understanding contained in the following account from Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“The first records in Coltrane's career as a leader were the work of a man who had submerged himself in heroin and alcohol and who had mortgaged his physical health as a result. If, as super­stition and a measure of biological science suggest, people are transformed every seven years, then Coltrane is something like proof positive. Few spiritual breakthroughs have been so hard won, but he had also reinvented himself technically in that time, creating a body of music in which simplicity of materials gen­erates an almost absurd complexity of harmonic and expressive detail. This is quintessentially true of A Love Supreme. Its foun­dations seem almost childishly slight, and yet what one hears is a majestic outpouring of sound, couched in a language that is often brutally violent, replete with split notes, multiphonics and toneless breath noises.”

When A Love Supreme first appeared, the Jazz press, by and large, excoriated it and consigned its fate to some form of eternal damnation. [Does music have a Dante’s Inferno?]

Few realized at the time, that A Love Supreme, Ascension, First Meditations along with the remainder of Coltrane’s Impulse! output were to become a clarion call for future generations of young tenor saxophonists in much the same way that the work of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young influenced the tenorists of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

To modern-day saxophonists such as the late, Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, Bill Evans, Larry Schneider and myriad others around the world, Coltrane became the musical equivalent of a Bodhisattva. John’s modal, scalar and harmonic patterns, lengthy, liberated and laboriously-drawn improvisations, and mastery of multi-rhythmic song structures were their keys to Jazz “enlightenment.” John “spoke" to them and they became his followers.

It seems that A Love Supreme would never cease to illicit strong feelings – pro and con [mostly con].

Thirty years later, while starring out at the night lights of San Francisco from my balcony, the husband of a work colleague that I was meeting for the first time at our flat for dinner asked me what I thought of Coltrane’s playing on it.

When I mentioned that I hadn’t listen to A Love Supreme recently, but that I was planning on purchasing a CD version of it in order to do so [the world had switched from analog to digital], he rushed off to collect something from his jacket which was hanging in the living room and was back in a flash saying: “Here, please take mine. I can’t stand the thing!”

Since Coltrane’s death in 1967, there have been many books written about him and his music. I’ve read a number of them and have especially enjoyed those by Lewis Porter, Eric Nisenson and Brian Priestly.

Each has offered me different angles of acceptance from which to view Coltrane’s music.

Recently, another such work has allowed me a more specific prism in which to understand the music on A Love Supreme.

Published in paperback on June 18, 2013, by the always-Jazz-friendly Oxford University Press, the book is entitled Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album.

Authored by Tony Whyton, who is a Professor of Jazz and Musical Cultures at the University of Salford and the co-editor of the Jazz Research Journal, this “book takes us through Coltrane's creative process and examines A Love Supreme as a cultural artifact, leading us towards a deeper appreciate of jazz as a whole. As Whyton states, ‘Coltrane's music... continues to have currency today and provides people with a way of understanding the past as well as envisaging the future of jazz.’”

The Oxford University Press media release goes on to say:

“Commonly believed to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme has had a lasting influence on our culture. Recorded in 1964, by the 1970s it had sold nearly a half a million copies, an almost unimaginable number for a jazz musician today. Coltrane's free jazz style has become the industry standard, and popular musicians of all genres, like rock star Bono and guitarist Santana, cite A Love Supreme as being an influence on their work.

In BEYOND A LOVE SUPREME: jazz professor Tony Whyton provides us with a fresh, detailed analysis of this legendary, almost mythic album. Whyton discusses the deeply spiritual aspects of the album, the album's most common interpretations, and compares Coltrane's later work to this masterpiece album. He also explains how A Love Supreme challenged many of the traditional assumptions that still permeate jazz culture, such as the oppositions between improvisation and composition, black music and white music, and live performances and studio recordings.”

And this annotation is from the book’s dust jacket:

“Recorded by his quartet in a single session in 1964, A Love Supreme is widely considered John Coltrane's magnum opus and one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. In Beyond A Love Supreme, Tony Whyton explores both the musical 111    complexities of A Love Supreme and the album's seminal importance in jazz ill   history. Marking Coltrane's transition from the bebop and hard bop of his earlier recordings to the free jazz style perfected throughout the rest of his career, the album also embodies the deep spirituality that characterized the final years of his life.

The titles of the four part suite—"Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm"—along with the poem Coltrane composed for inclusion in the liner notes, which he "recites" instrumentally in "Psalm," reflect the religious aspect of the album, a quality that contributes to its mystique and symbolic importance within the canon of major jazz recordings. But Whyton also shows how A Love Supreme challenges many of the traditional, unreflective assumptions that permeate jazz culture — the binary oppositions between improvisation and composition, black music and white music, live performance and studio recording.

He critically examines many of the mythologizing narratives about how the album was conceived and recorded and about what it signifies in terms of the trajectory of Coltrane's personal life. Sifting through the criticism of late Coltrane, Whyton suggests ways of listening to these recordings that go beyond the conventional ideologies of mainstream jazz practice and open the music to a wider range of responses.

Filled with fresh insights into one of the most influential recordings in jazz history, Beyond A Love Supreme is an indispensable resource for jazz scholars, jazz musicians, and fans and aficionados at all levels.”

Totaling a little over 150 pages, Professor’s Whyton’s book is a relatively quick read, but nonetheless, a thought-provoking one.

Not only does it afford a deeper, socio-cultural context in which to view Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, but it also represents another example of how Jazz is becoming more and more, what the late pianist, educator and broadcaster Dr. Billy Taylor and the late, writer and critic Grover Sales once described as “America’s Classical music.”

Put another way, Jazz has evolved to a point where it is researched, studied and reinterpreted almost as often as it is performed.

What better example can there be of this emerging phenomena than Professor’s Whyton reference to Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s 2004 concert of their version of A Love Supreme?

Jazz, the music of spontaneity, forty years after the recording of A Love Supreme, becomes music that is scored [written out], conducted and orchestrated in much the same manner that the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms became canonized in the years following their deaths.

It is so odd to think that a half-century ago, books on the subject of Jazz would barely fill a living room bookcase.

And now it seems there are so many of them that they may very well fill the entire floor of a good-sized research library.

Books like Professor Whyton’s Beyond A Love Supreme will become invaluable to future generations of Jazz fans who were not around to witness and listen to John Coltrane’s music as it was being created.

For those of us who were, Dr. Whyton's work can serve to pull-the-lens back a bit and give us a wider angle from which to appreciate all of John Coltrane’s music.

Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album is available through online sellers and you can purchase it directly from Oxford University Press at

Sunday, October 27, 2013

George, Ira and Victor

Victor Feldman on vibes with Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums.

Stay with this one; it's a burner from beginning to end.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ben van den Dungen – Ciao City

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

“In my career I have recorded numerous albums, but I believe this recording might be the most memorable one for me. The atmosphere was so relaxed and there was nothing to disturb that. I am proud of this rhythm section. With these guys it's simply impossible not to stay focused and be inspired by the music. We have recorded a large amount of music in a small period, so there are quite a lot of tunes on this album, but you know, I just couldn't decide on the selection.”
- Ben van den Dungen

One of the great things about writing a Jazz blog is being introduced to old friends in new contexts.

“Old” in the sense of having heard their music on prior recordings and “new” in the sense of now being given the chance to listen them on their latest CD’s.

Such was the case recently when the Jazz and Worldmusic Agency contacted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles about our interest in a review copy of saxophonist Ben van den Dungen’s latest disc Ciao City.

I was familiar with Ben’s work from his association with Nueva Manteca, a fabulous Latin Jazz group led by pianist Jan Laurenz Hartong . This eight-piece band are a Netherlands-based Latin jazz outfit who produce a highly authentic distillation of Latin music and also embrace traditions such as Arabic, classical, Dutch Antillean and salsa. I’d also heard him on some quintet tracks with trumpeter Rik Mol, one of the more impressive young musicians on the Dutch Jazz scene.

If you love the big, round, full tone on tenor saxophone in the tradition of Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins then you are halfway home with Ben’s sound. And if your into the adventurous harmonics made famous by John Coltrane on both tenor and soprano saxophone, then you are all-the-way-there with Ben who manages to blend all of these together on the “big horn.”

Ben explains these influences this way in the sleeve notes:

“With all my love and appreciation I would like to thank all great musicians for their wonderful music and ideas. They have been - and still are - an enormous inspiration for me. They are with too many to mention, but be sure I carry them all around in my heart and in my music.”

Ben is no pardon-me-while-I-swing Jazz musician; he’s in your face with a big, blustery sound and a very forceful attack.

On Ciao City, he steps out in a quartet setting with a rhythm section of Miguel Rodriquez on piano, Marius Beets on bass and Gijs Dijkhuizen on drums.

Miguel Rodriguez is a name that is new to me, but bassist Marius Beets seems to be everywhere present on Jazz produced in Holland as a musician, producer and sound engineer [he served as the sound engineer on this recording], and Gijs is an up-and-coming drummer who I’ve heard play in a variety of settings, including those involving his brother, tenor saxophonist Sjoerd Dijkhuizen.

The media release accompanied the recording states:

“As often in the music of Ben van den Dungen, the music is made by an amazing combination of personalities that creates fresh music, inspired by the Jazz tradition and played with a lot of energy.”

After playing through the fourteen tracks on Ciao City, the impression that first came to mind was how well paced the music was and how diverse it was in terms of its construction.

The opening title track is an up-tempo burner based around a three-note bass vamp that hammers home with insistency due to the driving beat of Beets and Dijkhuizen. Both Ben and Miguel glide over this swinging pulse before Ben puts the brakes on and delves into an out-of-tempo cadenza to close the piece.

Next up is M&M, a blues that settles into a relaxed groove that features Ben on soprano, a difficult instrument to achieve an acceptable tone on, but one that sounds mellow given his control of its vibrato. Ben and Miguel achieve a John Coltrane-McCoy Tyner type of mood on this track, as well as, on Kenny Dorham’s rarely heard Escapade that features later in the disc.

The third track – The Mohican and The Great Spirit – is not often heard these days, although it was composed by Jazz great, Horace Silver. Played as a 9/8 ostinato [a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice], both Ben and Miguel really shine as they take advantage of the repetitive rhythmic phrase to build intriguing solos. Gijs get to let it out a bit as the band extends the vamp before closing the tune.

Next up is Ben’s Streetpeople, set in a blues-drenched-crawl of a tempo that really shows off Ben’s marvelous skills on soprano saxophone.

Cole Porter’s chord filled So In Love follows and is stylized by Gijs’ faced-paced Latin Jazz beat with the tempo exploding into a fast 4/4 clip for the solos. Both Ben and Miguel blast through the complicated chord progressions with reckless abandon creating an exhilarating, musical rollercoaster ride.

There is so much music going on in Ciao City that it is difficult to realize that at this point, you’ve only listened to five of the fourteen tracks on the CD!

In addition to a beautiful rendering of Thelonious Monk’s Pannonica, which shows off Ben’s saxophone mastery to full advantage, there is the aforementioned performance of Kenny Dorham’s Escapade, five more originals by Ben – The Pimp, Someone Like You, What About That, Don’t Hesitate, On The Flipside and two by Marius Beets, The Captain and Shuffle De Buffle, which can be heard on the video that concludes this piece.

Ben has also made available the first two tracks of the CD as Soundcloud audio-only files and we have included these as well to help give you a full appreciation of the wonderful music on Ben’s Ciao City.

If you are a fan of straight-ahead Jazz, you can’t do much better than the fourteen interestingly arranged and beautifully played tracks on Ben’s new recording.

Order information can be found at, and

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nueva Manteca - Saint Louis Blues/All Blues

Some of the best Latin Jazz you ever heard from a band based in - The Netherlands!

Click the directional arrows in the lower right-hand corner of each video and watch these nicely taped videos in full screen. They come to us courtesy of Nueva Manteca tenor saxophonist, Ben van den Dungen. Check out Ben's brilliant solo on All Blues.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles plans to have a review of Ben's new CD Ciao City posted to the blog in the coming days.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jim Hall: The Quiet Guitarist [From The Archives]

Jim Hall has been one of my favorite Jazz musicians since I first heard him with the drummer Chico Hamilton's original quintet way back in the 1950's.

I was delighted to find the lengthy Library of Congress interview with Jim on the video that concludes this piece.

There nothing like a Jazz musician talking about the highlights of a career and how they approach Jazz in their own words.

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

“Jim Hall is the perfect musical partner.”
- Joachim Berendt, Jazz writer and producer

Today [12/4/2012] is Jazz guitarist Jim Hall’s eighty-second birthday and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be nice to honor him on these pages with a profile that touches upon his many contributions to the music.

Jim Hall is such a quiet, understated and unassuming person that it’s very easy to overlook his many accomplishments in a career that has spanned almost 60 years!

Gene Lees wrote of him:

“Jim Hall sometimes is compared by critics to Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, but then probably every guitarist in jazz has a debt to Christian who, in his short life — he died in 1942 aged twenty-four — became the most important early explorer of amplified guitar as a solo instrument. However, Jim and his trom­bonist friend Bob Brookmeyer both cite the unsung Jimmy Raney among their influences. From Raney, they say, they developed their integrated and highly compositional approach to the improvised solo, the pensive development of motifs.

Jim started playing guitar professionally in Cleveland when he was in his teens, and he studied at the highly respected Cleve­land Institute of Music, from which he received a bachelor of music degree in 1955. He then settled in Los Angeles where he became a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, meanwhile studying classical guitar with Vincente Gomez. From 1956 to 1959 he was part of the Jimmy Giuffre Three. Then Jim moved to New York where he was for a time under the curse of his association with so-called West Coast jazz. That ended when one of the major jazz icons, Sonny Rollins, hired him.

Jim had close associations, too, with Paul Desmond, with whom he recorded a series of superb albums for RCA, and with Bill Evans. He and Bill recorded two stun­ning duo albums together, achieving a rap­port that at times was uncanny. Another close associate has been the bassist Ron Carter, with whom he has worked as a duo from time to time since 1984.”

Elaborating further on the duo albums that Jim made with pianist Bill Evans, author Peter Pettinger remarks in his Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings biography:

“One of the mysteries of music that defies analysis is the ability of two musicians to play especially well together, to feel and instinctively adapt to what the other is doing. The duet recording made by Evans and Hall, Undercurrent [and a latter collaboration entitled Intermodulation], exemplified this secret. In this sublime meeting, the artists shared a common ground of musical values, Hall confessing to having long been influenced by Evans. Both, too, had a strong feeling for chamber music: the interactive trio was the pianist's aspiration, and Jim Hall's small-group pedigree was high, especially within the intimate settings of the Jimmy Giuffre 3. Quality of sound encompasses a blending of timbres, in this case lovingly conjured; singing tone shines out from every note.

There is a hazard attached to combining piano and guitar, both essen­tially chordal instruments. Although jazz musicians use alternative chords with ease, the simultaneous choice of two valid but different chords may well not work. Evans and Hall had the intelligence and mutual awareness to escape this snare. And to avoid textural overcrowding, both were conscious of the value of space, every note being made to count in their joint tapestry.”

James Isaacs describes Hall’s value this way in his insert notes to Intermodulation:

“While Evans was bringing jazz piano to a new pinnacle of sheer beauty, Hall was spending the first half of the 1960's as. in the words of the German critic Joachim E. Berendt, ‘the perfect part­ner.’ He shared the front line with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and flugelhornist Art Farmer in two of the outstanding small groups of any decade, and recorded a series of debo­nair LPs with the late altoist Paul Desmond.”

Since the mid-1980s, thanks to long association with two labels, Concord and Telarc, Jim Hall has  performed and made recordings with some of the best and brightest musicians on the current Jazz scene including trumpeters Tom Harrell and Ryan Kisor, trombonists Conrad Herwig and Jim Pugh, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Chris Potter, guitarist Pat Metheny, and bassists Don Thompson, Rufus Reed, Steve La Spina, Scott Colley and George Mraz.

In one of his timeless and superbly written essays for The New Yorker magazine that have been collected in his American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, Whitney Balliett offered the following depiction of Jim Hall:

“Hall, though, doesn't look capable of creating a stir of any sort. He is slim and of medium height, and a lot of his hair is gone. The features of his long, pale face are chastely proportioned, and are accented by a recently cultivated R.A.F. mustache. He wears old-style gold-rimmed spectacles, and he has three principal expressions: a wide smile, a child's frown, and a calm, pleased playing mask—eyes closed, chin slightly lifted, and mouth ajar. He could easily be the affable son of the stony-faced farmer in "American Gothic." His hands and feet are small, and he doesn't have any hips, so his clothes, which are generally casual, tend to hang on him as if they were still in the closet. When he plays, he sits on a stool, his back an arc, his feet propped on a high rung, and his knees akimbo. He holds his guitar at port arms.

For many years, Hall's playing matched his private, nebulous appearance. When he came up, in the mid-fifties, with Chico Hamilton's vaguely avant-garde quintet (it had a cello and no piano), and then appeared on a famous pickup recording, "Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West," that was led by John Lewis and involved Bill Perkins, Percy Heath, and Hamilton, he sounded stiff and academic. His solos were pleasantly designed, but they didn't always swing. But as he moved through groups led by Jimmy Giuffre, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Art Farmer, his deliberateness softened and the right notes began landing in the right places.

Then he married Jane [in 1965; she is a psychotherapist], and his playing developed an inventiveness and lyricism that make him preeminent among contempo­rary jazz guitarists and put him within touching distance of the two grand masters—Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Listening to Hall now is like turning onionskin pages: one lapse of your attention and his solo is rent. Each phrase evolves from its predecessor, his rhythms are balanced, and his harmonic and melodic ideas are full of parentheses and asides. His tone is equally demanding. He plays both electric and acoustic guitars. On the former, he sounds like an acoustic guitarist, for he has an angelic touch and he keeps his amplifier down; on the latter, a new instrument specially designed and built for him, he has an even more gossamer sound.

Hall is exceptional in another way. In the thirties and forties, Christian and Reinhardt put forward certain ideals for their instrument—spareness, the use of silence, and the legato approach to swinging—and for a while every jazz guitarist studied them. Then the careering melodic flow of Charlie Parker took hold, and jazz guitarists became arpeggio-ridden. But Hall, sidestepping this aspect of Parker, has gone directly to Christian and Reinhardt, and, plumping out their skills with the harmonic advances that have since been made, has perfected an attack that is fleet but tight, passionate but oblique. And he is singular for still another reason. Guitar­ists are inclined to be an ingrown society, but Hall listens constantly to other instrumentalists, especially tenor saxophonists (Ben Webster, Cole-man Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins) and pianists (Count Basie, John Lewis, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett), and he attempts to adapt to the guitar their phrasing and tonal qualities.

In his solos he asserts nothing but says a good deal. He loves Duke Ellington's slow ballads, and he will start one with an ad-lib chorus in which he glides softly over the melody, working just behind the beat, dropping certain notes and adding others, but steadfastly celebrating its melodic beauties. He clicks into tempo at the beginning of the second chorus, and, after pausing for several beats, plays a gentle, ascending six-note figure that ends with a curious, ringing off-note. He pauses again, and, taking the close of the same phrase, he elaborates on it in an ascending-descending double-time run, and then skids into several behind-the-beat chords, which give way to a single-note line that moves up and down and concludes on another off-note. He raises his volume at the beginning of the bridge and floats through it with softly ringing chords; then, slipping into the final eight bars, he fashions a precise, almost declamatory run, pauses a second at its top, and works his way down with two glancing arpeggios.  He next sinks to a whisper, and finishes with a bold statement of the melody that dissolves into a flatted chord, upon which the next soloist gratefully builds his opening statement.”

Fortunately for all of his many fans, on March 30, 2009, the Library of Congress sponsored the following video interview of Jim Hall recounting the highlights of his career and his approach to Jazz guitar. Larry Applebaum moderates the discussion.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Remembering The Mastersounds [From The Archives]

Appearing as it did on 5/31/2008, this feature was one of the blog's earliest.

As was often the case in those "early days," the piece was posted without a video which exemplifies the music under discussion.

That has now been corrected with the addition of a not-very-easy-to-find montage of images of the group and its recordings at the conclusion of this profile.

It was always been a tough go to find enough regular work to keep a small Jazz combo with local or regional appeal going.

Given these circumstances, the miracle of The Mastersounds is that they lasted as long as they did and left such a relatively rich recorded legacy.

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

The Mastersounds were formed in 1957 and included Charles Frederick “Buddy” Montgomery on vibes, Richie Crabtree on piano, William Howard “Monk” Montgomery on bass [originally a Fender electric bass, but later an upright string bass] and Benny Barth on drums. The Montgomery Brothers were natives of Indianapolis, IN as was their more famous guitar playing brother Wes, who was to join with them on two of their group LPs.

Monk Montgomery developed the idea for the combo while living in Seattle after he got off the road with the Lionel Hampton Big Band in 1956. According to Ralph J. Gleason, a down beat columnist at that time: “Monk, from his experience in Seattle, was convinced a good jazz group would have a chance to work in that city and he was right.”

The Mastersounds opened at Dave’s Blue Room on January 14, 1957 for a successful three month engagement. However, a dearth of work followed prompting the group to pool its meager resources and send Monk Montgomery on a trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles looking for gigs and a recording contract.

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Monk Montgomery stopped by The Jazz Showcase, a then newly formed club on venerable Market Street with a unique “soft drink only” policy. Dave Glickman and Ray Gorum, owner and manager of the club, respectively, upon hearing the Mastersounds tapes Monk Montgomery had brought along, booked the group into the room beginning in September, 1957 for an unlimited engagement.

The fairy-tale quality of Monk Montgomery’s California trip was to get even better when he continued his ‘quest’ down to Hollywood. There he met fellow bassist Leroy Vinnegar whose immediate reaction to listening to the Mastersounds demo tapes was to call Dick Bock, president of World Pacific Records. Upon hearing them, Bock signed the group to a contract that would result in six albums being produced for the World Pacific/Pacific Jazz Series until The Mastersounds disbanded as a performing group in December, 1959.

Sadly, none of the Pacific Jazz recorded legacy of the Mastersounds has found its way onto compact disc. Ironically, the group reunited in the recording studios of Fantasy Records on August 10 and November 2, 1960 and the two albums that group made on these dates [Fantasy 3305 and 8862] have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds Fantasy FCD 24770-2. The cover art for this CD is by Ray Avery and is shown as the graphic lead-in to this article.

The CD tray plate annotations offers the following comments about The Mastersounds:

"Because their instrumentation of vibes-piano-bass-drums mirrored that of the contemporaneous Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the finest and most celebrated groups of all time, the Mastersounds may have been somewhat overlooked. Moreover, the Mastersounds best known members, vibist-arranger Charles “Buddy Montgomery [b. 1930] and William “Monk” Montgomery [1921-1982], who pioneered the electric bass in jazz, were the younger and older brothers, respectively, of Wes Montgomery, merely the greatest jazz guitarist of the post-bop era. (The ensemble was completed by drummer Benny Barth who, like the Montgomerys, was from Indianapolis and pianist Richie Crabtree). Still, the West Coast foursome’s coolly soulful, tastefully-arranged approach won them their share of fans, as well as the 1959 Down Beat Critic’s Poll for Best New Group."

At World Pacific, The Mastersounds first LP – Jazz Showcase … Introducing the Mastersounds [PJM-403] incorporated many tunes and arrangements that had become staples of their repertoire during the group’s tenure at the club including a spirited [an oft-requested] version of Bud Powell’s Un Poco LocoWes’ Tune by Wes Montgomery, and Dexter’s Deck by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. This debut album also offers intriguing Buddy Montgomery arrangements on such standards as Lover, If I Should Lose You, That Old Devil Moon and Spring is Here.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view, what followed this initial release were three Mastersounds albums on World Pacific which were intended to capitalize on the Jazz-Impressions-of-Broadway-Show craze that swept the country in the late 1950s.

In the span of about two years, Dick Bock was to release The King and I: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [PJM-405], Kismet: An Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1243] which included Wes Montgomery, and Flower Drum Song: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1252].

These three LPs were a commercial success for Dick Bock’s label and helped to enhance public awareness of the Mastersounds. Somewhat surprisingly, given the inappropriateness or unwieldiness of much of the material for Jazz treatments, each does contain some interesting music. 

The King and I offers intricate arrangements by Buddy Montgomery particularly on Getting to Know You and Shall We DanceKismet has a lovely interpretation of Baubles, Bangles and Beads and some fresh ideas on how to syncopate the usually stodgy Stranger in ParadiseFlower Drum Song with tunes such as Love Look AwayGrant Avenue, Chop Suey and I’m Going to Like it Here provide many opportunities to employ pentatonic scales, modal vamps and even a Max-Roach-tympani-mallet extended drum solo by Benny Barth.

It wasn’t until late in 1958 with the issuance of Ballads and Blues [WP 1260] that the Mastersounds returned to its jazz roots.

This album includes a captivating Blues Medley made up of Milt Jackson’s Bluesology, Dizzy’s rarely heard Purple Sounds, and John Lewis’ Fontessa, as well as, first-rate interpretations of Miles’ Solar and Dizzy’s The Champ.

In late 1958 and throughout 1959, the Mastersounds became a frequent fixture at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, while also appearing that year at the Blue Note in Chicago, Birdland in New York and Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival.

With their return to Southern California in 1959 for a stint at Jazzville in Hollywood, Dick Bock picked their April 11th concert at Pasadena Junior College to record an issue their only in-performance recording – The Mastersounds in Concert [WP 1269].

As C.H. Garrigues, jazz critic of The San Francisco Examiner at the time comments in his liner notes for the recording:

“From the opening of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ through the tongue-in-cheek sentimentality of ‘In a Sentimental Mood,” into the flying carpet of ‘Love for Sale,’ through the thoughtfully lyric development of ‘Two Different Worlds,’ … it would be difficult to find any area of sincere jazz feeling in which they are not at home.”

And, in celebration of their warm reception as artists-in-residence at their beloved North Beach San Francisco bistro, The Jazz Workshop, at the end of 1958, World Pacific released The Mastersounds Play Compositions of Horace Silver at the Jazz Workshop [WP-1282].

With their sensitive interpretations of Horace’s Ecaroh, Enchantment, Nica’s Dream, Doodlin’, [the-all-too-rarely-heard] Moonrays and Buhania, as Richard Bock points out in his liner notes:

“The music of Horace Silver provides a perfect vehicle for the Mastersounds to project their very earthy concept yet sophisticated jazz conception. The group has never been recorded in better form. …

The Mastersounds have reached a jazz maturity that has developed from over three years of playing together. This collection of the music of Horace Silver, one of Jazz’s greatest new composer-arrangers, represents a high point in the Mastersounds’ career.”

For a variety of reasons both personal and professional, the Mastersounds decided to disband as a performing and touring group in 1960, although the fact that they all took up residence in the greater San Francisco area after this decision made it easy for them to regroup later in the year to record the two sessions for Fantasy.

From the standpoint of what might have been, and to my great delight since these are their only recordings in a digital format, the Fantasy recordings made on August 10 and November 2, 1960 which have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds [Fantasy FCD 24770-2] show the group to be in exceptional form both individually and collectively.

The ensemble work is superb, the arrangements are intricately complex, and their improvisations are, to a man, their best on record, especially those of Benny Barth who had developed into a inventive and technically adroit drummer over the 4 year span of the group’s existence.

Unfortunately, the Mastersounds existed during a time when the World of Jazz, unlike today, basked in a surfeit of riches making their superb contributions to the genre all too easy to overlook.

And, with all due respect to Messer’s Jackson, Lewis, Heath and Kay, the Mastersounds during its brief life, were the equal musically, of anything offered by the MJQ with the exception of its longevity which, in and of itself is not always the ultimate standard of judgment.

The problem in any “Age of Excess” is that the star that burns the longest is not necessarily the brightest.

And yet, the existence of the Mastersounds made my formative days in the World of Jazz all the better for having not missed the opportunity to know them and their music.

It is always important to remember those who helped "make you as you go,” thus - a remembrance of the Mastersounds.

[The JazzProfiles editorial staff wishes to acknowledge Ralph J. Gleason, Russ Wilson, Nat Hentoff, Richard Bock and C.H. Garricules whose Mastersounds sleeve notes provided much assistance in the factual and interpretive material contained in this feature.]