Saturday, November 17, 2018

John Scofield - COMBO 66!

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


Multiple Grammy Award Winning Jazz Guitarist John Scofield Returns with New Album: Combo 66! - Released on Verve Records on September 28th

We received the following from Crossover Media and thought we’d share it with you. John has always been one of my favorite, especially when Bill Stewart is in the drum chair, and we are curious to hear Gerald Clayton as the latest member of John’s group on keyboards as he has always knocked me out on piano with the Clayton Brothers band.

A YouTube track from the recording is featured at the end of the text.

“Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist, band leader and composer, John Scofield is set to release his new album, Combo 66, marking his 66th birthday, on September 28 via Verve Records. The album, which features long-time drummer Bill Stewart, bassist Vincente Archer and pianist/organist Gerald Clayton, combines jazz with genre-defying elements, allowing Scofield to find new modes of expression.

Scofield has been on a serious roll since 2015, when his release, Past Present, earned a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. He followed the release with the 2016 album Country For Old Men, which earned him two Grammy Awards for both "Best Jazz Instrumental Album" and "Best Improvised Jazz Solo ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry")."

In 2017 Scofield joined forces with old pals Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier and John Medeski for the rural New York jazz band of the ages, Hudson, the quartet romping the world from Boise to Berlin and back again.

John Scofield keeps his talent and his trusty Ibanez AS200 guitar burning brightly on Combo 66, which finds the New York native with a new quartet and fresh compositions in celebration of his 66th birthday.

"I wrote all new tunes for this record, Combo 66," Scofield notes from the road. "I called it that because I'm 66! And 66 is the coolest jazz number you can get because if you hit 66 you're doing ok. Remember all the great records from the 60s? Brasil 66. 'Route 66.' It hit me that it would be poetic to use that title."

Born of searing groove, soul-touching melody, and kinetic improvisation, Combo 66 swings effortlessly to the condor-like rhythms of drummer Bill Stewart, Scofield's percussionist since 1992s What We Do. Scofield chose upright bassist Vincente Archer of Robert Glasper's Trio when it came to bass rhapsodies and called upon 34-year-old organist/pianist Gerald Clayton, son of bassist John Clayton of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra for keys.

"Guitar and keyboard is not always the easiest match," Scofield says. "Because of its percussive nature, piano is very similar to the guitar. But Gerald has a beautiful touch and though he is quite modern, his touch reminds me of Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan. And that really is a beautiful legato sound that works well with guitar. Even though he's got super roots in traditional jazz, he can do everything. I'm just thrilled to play with Gerald."

The album begins with a track called "Can't Dance" - we're not talking the Sinatra standard, but a late afternoon swinger imbued with a sense of urban danger. "It just has this kind of groove quality and since I can't dance, really, I thought I would dedicate it to myself," Scofield laughs.

"Combo Theme" recalls the spooky grandeur of a great Henry Mancini soundtrack melody, balanced by Scofield's wry guitar solo, the equivalent of a Hollywood noir thriller, while the track "Icons at the Fair" plays on chords and progressions of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.

"We really got some heat happening on this one," Scofield says of "Icons at the Fair." "Years ago, I did a record and a tour with Herbie Hancock, for his album, The New Standard. He had this arrangement of 'Scarborough Fair' and I really liked the chords. I used those chords and then wrote a melody which was reminiscent of a lick that Miles [Davis] used to play. So, between Herbie and Miles and Paul Simon's 'Scarborough Fair' I called this 'Icons at the Fair."

The conversational "Willa Jean" was titled for Scofield's granddaughter, followed by "Uncle Southern," a light-stepping ¾ dance which touches on his mother's Southern roots. "Dang Swing" is a swing tune with a bit country: a dab of the devil's music and "New Waltzo," melds waltz with rock.

Something he almost never does, "I'm Sleepin' In" is a ballad - a calming yet slightly mysterious number titled, as is most every track on Combo 66, by Scofield's wife, Susan Scofield.

"It's quiet and pensive, and I hope, sensitive," Scofield explains. "Susan's title seemed to reflect the feeling of the song. What's more sensitive than a human being when they're asleep?"

Combo 66 closes with the track "King of Belgium," dedicated to Belgian harmonica maestro, Toots Thielemans, a man of great humanity, and purportedly, a great sense of humor.

"If you can't have fun with the music, let's go home," Scofield says, alluding to his working credo. "I am so deadly serious about jazz, but the fact of the matter is jazz only works if you are relaxed and don't give a shit. If you try too hard it doesn't work. Humor really helps me to get to a better place with music."”


Friday, November 16, 2018

Randy Weston - Afrobeats - Gary Giddins

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


The editorial staff at JazzProfiles begins its retrospective on the musical career of pianist, composer and bandleader Randy Weston [1926 - 2018] with the following excerpt from Gary Giddins’ Vision of Jazz as it offers three important takeaways: [1] a concise analysis of the elements that make up Randy’s piano style, [2] a general overview of Weston’s recorded music and [3] a descriptive and informed view, by one of Jazz’s most distinguished critics, of the discography itself.

© -  Gary Giddins: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“In the educated European tradition, great composers mine their own ethnic backgrounds as a matter of course: Beethoven appropriates a drinking song, Liszt cavorts with gypsies, Bartok adapts the folk songs of Hungary and Ives those of America. And in the early decades of this century, many composers, including Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Milhaud, made a show of their demotic wit by borrowing from jazz. Copland opined that jazz's primary value was as source material, Paul Whiteman was praised for having made a lady of jazz by introducing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Gershwin himself called jazz a "very powerful" American folk music. Now, however, jazz's favorite dictum is that it is American classical music — not an ethnic or folk foundation for art but the thing itself.

So the question arises: If jazz is so cultivated, how does it explore its own roots? One obvious answer is via the songwriting fellowship that sprang from Tin Pan Alley. The irony here — predominantly white songwriters viewed as a kind of folk source (if you can imagine Jerome Kern as folk) for black performers — is bizarre, given who gets the money. A more obvious answer is via the blues: the only musical form to develop in the United States, a product of the African American experience, an apparently bottomless reservoir of inspiration for jazz musicians.

Even so, blues in jazz is primarily structural, not emotive. Those occasions when jazz embraces its rural roots, from Louis Armstrong recording with country shouters to Hannibal Peterson interpolating rural blues into his symphonic pageant, are rare. And although gospel is embedded in jazz's call-and-response, rarer still is the use of other African American folk musics, from work songs to spirituals (whose novelty appeal is surely one reason Charlie Haden's and Hank Jones's Steal Away found a receptive audience). White musicians are more likely to explore black musical traditions than their own. A few Jewish players have milked their ethnic backgrounds, from Benny Goodman's "And the Angels Sing" to John Zorn's band Masada, but a black musician, Don Byron, fully explored klezmer in a jazz context. In recent years, Asian American jazz musicians have begun to recover their own. But have Italian or Irish jazz musicians ever thought to exploit or interpret opera or reels as jazz?

The most wide-ranging and influential alliance between jazz and another musical culture is the Afro-Cuban movement, pioneered by Dizzy Gillespie and others in the '40s. Yet Latin jazz is an alloy, and while Chico O'Farrill is undoubtedly correct in observing that jazz influenced Cuba more than the reverse, it remains something of a third stream, that is, Latin clave and percussion aren't tangential influences, but partners in the mix. Another example of ethnic borrowing was Stan Getz's bossa nova. In a similar way, the worldbeat movement of the past twenty years has flavored jazz with a vast array of international fillips. In the early '70s, Ellington wrote a piece about the didgeridoo; a few years later, Craig Harris was playing one. For a while, tablas were almost as popular as congas, and there was an invasion of flutes and whistles and gourds, as well as kalimbas and bandoneons and other instruments with exotic names.

Not surprisingly, Africa exerted the most appeal by far. Always a part of jazz in song titles and vague musical references, it became a genuine musical influence, especially after its own pop music was successfully exported. Africa provided numerous allusions for jazz in the '20s, when it was widely considered the adventurer's last playground and Marcus Garvey's last hope. In New York, Ellington's Jungle Band indulged in faux Africanisms with growly brasses and sexy dances; in Paris, Josephine Baker, nude but for a string of bananas, incarnated the fabled lure of primitive eros. If Gillespie looked to Africa by way of Cuba in the '40s, the following decade produced real interest in the mother continent. Folkways and other companies released field recordings, musicologists traced the African influence on blues, and Afrocentric pride was reasserted.

Randy Weston once observed that it was Thelonious Monk who alerted him to the link. But it was Weston who developed it. And though he didn't travel to Nigeria until 1961, he was premeditating an African American alliance much earlier, before he began recording. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, he witnessed firsthand the development of jazz's Afro-Cuban nexus, which jibed with the Afro-Caribbean rhythms and melodies that flourished in his neighborhood and were part of his own heritage. In the mid-'40s, he forged lasting relationships with musicians who would appear on his recordings a decade later, including baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, trumpeter Ray Copeland, and bassist Sam Gill, who made a serious study of African and Middle Eastern musics and, in the '50s, adopted the Muslim name Ahmed Abdul-Malik. In those apprenticeship years, Weston became fascinated with Monk, whom he heard with Coleman Hawkins. After he was discharged from the army in 1947, he visited Monk at his home and began to spend time with him, absorbing his spare and percussive attack and his devotion to the blues. Weston was the first pianist to craft a distinctive keyboard approach that derived from Monk.

He was also the first modern musician to record for Riverside Records. At his second Riverside session, in 1955, he debuted "Zulu," a percussive riff that might have been called "Thelonious," and in 1958, he followed with "Bantu Suite" and his breakthrough composition, "Little Niles," a piece actually written in 1952, in which an engaging jazz waltz is given a North African twist with an undulating figure that reappears in much of his music. Weston's '50s recordings for Riverside (expertly supported by Cecil Payne), Dawn, Jubilee, Metro, and United Artists are among the most charmingly anomalous in the postbop era. His penchant for triple time, pentatonic melodies, and a shrewdly rhythmic piano attack, heavy on bass, was established before he went to Africa and developed further during the course of two tours of Lagos, Nigeria, in 1961 and 1963, and a 1966 state department visit to fourteen African countries. By 1969, he had settled in Morocco, living in Rabat and Tangier, where he operated the African Rhythms Club. At the same time Weston's South African counterpart, Abdullah Ibrahim, was bringing Cape Town rhythms to the United States, Weston was bringing jazz to Africa.

Weston recorded sporadically after 1960, mostly for independent and obscure labels (when American musicians relocate abroad they become invisible no matter how widely acclaimed they were before the move); the theme of Africa remained resolute in his music. A couple of his pieces, "Hi-Fly" and "Little Niles," had become jazz standards, and Weston, who has always been community minded, performed in schools, libraries, and churches. A towering and congenial man, he offered workshops and musical lectures. But now he sought a larger musical canvas that combined jazz, poetry, African song, and rhythmic pageantry. The result, in 1960, was Uhuru Africa (Roulette), a collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes, employing a griot-like narrator, trained concert singers, a big band, and an international percussion section including Olatunji, Candido, Max Roach, and others. The work feels dated now, its exuberance ersatz, its ambition didactic, except when the jazz elements take over (as in "Kucheza Blues"). It proved most significant in affirming Weston's flair for large ensembles and his musical bond with arranger and trombonist Melba Liston. Liston had previously arranged a sextet and trombone choir for Weston, but Uhuru Africa was the first of their many big band projects (they revived it at a 1998 concert in Brooklyn). A former writer for Gerald Wilson and Dizzy Gillespie, she was ideally suited to expand Weston's engaging themes for a full complement of brasses and reeds.

A second, less flamboyant big band album, Music from the African Nations (Colpix, 1963, reissued as Highlife on Roulette), received less attention but is the more rewarding work, and the more important compositionally: several pieces became standard in his repertory, including two by African composers (Bobby Benson's "Niger Mambo" and Guy Warren's "The Mystery of Love") and his own "Congolese Children" and "Blues to Africa." Liston's seductively dissonant arrangements are layered over buoyant rhythms that were way ahead of their time and sound surprisingly fashionable today. Weston's anchoring piano is well recorded, and the soloists, especially the great tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, are less forced and more forceful than those on Uhuru Africa. Still, it stirred little interest. A year later a frustrated Weston went into the studio on his own and self-produced an irresistible album, The Randy Weston Sextet; finding little interest in the industry, he created a mailorder label, Bakton, to release it. With excellent playing by Ray Copeland and the urgently distinctive Ervin, the band offers defining performances of two signature Weston themes, "Berkshire Blues" and "African Cookbook," and engendered enough enthusiasm for the Monterey Jazz Festival to book the sextet plus Cecil Payne in 1966.

Weston's career should have taken off; instead, he took off for Africa, a timely flight considering the dark days that lay ahead for jazz as the rock juggernaut flattened even its most celebrated musicians. During the next eight years, he recorded hardly at all: two 1965 sessions (solo and trio) were released by Arista Freedom in 1977; the 1966 Monterey set was not issued until Verve bought the tape in 1996. The occasional albums he recorded in Europe had titles like Afro-Blues and Randy Weston's African Rhythm, as did most of his new compositions. After six years, he returned to the United States and enjoyed an improbable hit with Blue Moses (CTI), a funky big band compromise, arranged by the meretricious Don Sebesky with Weston on electric piano. He returned to form in 1973 with Tanjah (Polydor), reuniting with Liston, resurrecting "Hi-Fly" and "Little Miles," and introducing notable new pieces, including "Tanjah" and "Sweet Meat," the latter featuring altoist Norris Turney. An Ellingtonian flavor is palpable not only in the specifics — Turney's appearance, Jon Faddis' high-strung, high-note trumpet, the undulating melodies — but in the broader achievement of tackling and extending what Ellington coyly described as the Afro-Eurasion eclipse.

Again his career should have taken off, but while Tanjah enjoyed respectable sales, Weston's big band projects were put on hold for the next fifteen years while he recorded almost exclusively as a piano soloist, mostly for exceedingly obscure labels (Cora, Arc), until 1987, when he and David Murray attained a meeting of minds on The Healers (Black Saint). Two years later he was signed by Antilles/Verve, and for the first time in two decades he came fully alive as a recording artist, making up for the lost time with one or more releases a year throughout the '90s. These records are among his best and they represent a remarkable accomplishment: the crafting of a Brooklyn-Moroccan connection that is now as natural as any idiom in contemporary jazz.

In 1989, he recorded three volumes of "portraits" with a quartet (piano, bass, two percussionists). The subjects are Ellington, Monk, and himself, and taken together they acknowledge his primary influences and illuminate what he has made of them; on the Monk especially, he manages to be radical and reverent at the same time, though there are passages where the extra percussion sounds more like a gratuitous overlay than an integral component. Two enormously satisfying albums with Melba Liston led to the brilliant small band, African Rhythms, which is a culmination of everything he has achieved. The Spirits of Our Ancestors (1991) introduces the musicians who would make African Rhythms one of the most exciting touring bands of the day: the seasoned trombonist Benny Powell and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper and Weston's prize discoveries, alto saxophonist Talib Kibwe and bassist Alex Blake. Once again he recycles his repertory, salvaging "Blue Moses" from the fusion era and refashioning "The Healers," "African Cookbook," and others.

Weston never made a more blithely entertaining record than Volcano Blues (1993), on which he and Liston finally share equal billing. (Jazz arrangers, like Hollywood screenwriters, get only as much respect as they can wrangle. Benny Goodman's tributes to Fletcher Henderson were unusual in their day; Gil Evans never did split a marquee with Miles Davis until he was dead.) With a cast ranging from veteran Los Angeles tenor saxophonist and composer Teddy Edwards (who is masterful on a definitive trio performance of Guy Warren's "Mystery of Love") to urban blues singer and guitarist Johnny Copeland (on a revival of Basie's "Harvard Blues"), Weston presides over a chameleonic celebration of the twelve-bar sonnet that provokes and amuses and deepens with every hearing. But Volcano Blues could only exist as a record. Saga is an accurate reflection of the African Rhythms septet Weston debuted in New York in 1995.

Coming after its rousing predecessor, Saga may seem relatively staid, but its power emanates from the casualness of its virtuoso cultural blend. The balance between ensemble — arranged by musical director Talib Kibwe — and soloists is riveting and the rhythm section flawless, with guest Billy Higgins on drums, Neil Clarke on percussion, and the remarkable bassist Alex Blake, who pushes the beat with robust double-stops. Weston's piano is at the center, binding all the elements, and his playing is imbued with an unmistakable sense of delight. As usual, many of the compositions are old, reworked to suit this band and these rhythms.

Unlike a good many Afrocentric musicians, Weston never changed his name, and a similar lack of camouflage graces his musical borrowings. Some of his rhythms are so familiar one doesn't necessarily think of them as African, and that may be his point: a link exists, the family is more closely settled than previously thought. Nor does he fold in African instruments or chanting. In short, he hasn't gone native; he's taken what he can use to amplify his own music. That consists chiefly of African rhythms that lend a vivacious spark to jazz rhythms without overpowering them. On Saga, Weston plays in three, four, five, six, and eight — Africa accommodates him.

"Loose Wig" originated as a trio on the 1956 LP The Art of Modern Jazz (Dawn) and is given a ravishing face-lift in the 1995 septet version, with an extended bridge and unison scooped notes; its rhythms are heightened at every turn by Blake, who has developed a strumming/ slapping/plucking technique that rocks the ensemble, and Billy Harper plays with impregnable authority. The classic swinging poise of "Saucer Eyes," a better-known piece from the '50s, is now underpinned by carnival rhythms and unfolds as a saxophone battle. One of Weston's most attractive melodies, "Tangier Bay," was a memorable piano solo on Blues to Africa (Arista Freedom, 1974); with Kibwe playing the seductive forty-bar theme over a jubilant vamp, it is completely refurbished. Perhaps the most impressive revision of all is the piano treatment (he's recorded it at least twice before) of "Lagos," in which Weston works in and out of rubato with unswerving equilibrium, lending the piece a rare and stately enchantment. More recent pieces include "F.E.W. Blues," a piano-trombone dialogue with an introduction that leads you to expect an old-fashioned blues, though Benny Powell and Weston use altered changes and textural devices to circumvent every expectation, and "The Three Pyramids and the Sphinx," a piano-bass duet with a strong, piquant melody.

Not everything is equally successful, but Saga is a formidable addition to a canon that, after more than forty years, is still subject to neglect. At New York's Iridium, with slightly altered personnel, Weston played to a full and eager house, yet he often seems an outsider, showing up in clubs sporadically, whether he is domiciled in Brooklyn or Morocco. Perhaps his most distinctive quality also undermines his appeal and that is his temperance. Weston's powerful hands relish the ringing of overtones between notes. Like Monk, he plays rests. Saga is a beautiful example of his restraint. Colorful, melodic, rhythmic, it borrows merely the seasonings of ethnicity to define Randy Weston's own archetypes.”


Thursday, November 15, 2018

Count Basie by Alun Morgan - Part 6

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


Born in Wales in 1928, Alun Morgan became a Jazz fan as a teenage and was an early devotee of the bebop movement. In the 1950s he began contributing articles to Melody Maker, Jazz Journal, Jazz Monthly, and Gramophone and for twenty years, beginning in 1969, he wrote a regular column for a local newspaper in Kent. From 1954 onward he contributed to BBC programs on Jazz, authored and co-authored books on modern Jazz and Jazz in England and wrote over 2,500 liner notes for Jazz recordings.

Chapter Six

“The new Basie band was a musical success on and off records and did good business around New York but its nationwide tours were disappointing in terms of financial return. The breakthrough came in the summer of 1953 and it was probably coincidental that a change took place in the reed section around this time. Frank Wess joined the band on tenor as a replacement for Paul Quinichette then, a few weeks later on July 27, Frank Foster took over from Eddie Davis and stayed for exactly eleven years.

Metronome magazine published a very perceptive review of the band at this time: 'This is obviously the way a big band should sound; with an even attack, a brace of excellent soloists, a dedication to the beat and a library of arrangements that permit the soloists and the sections to keep the rhythm going always…. This is not the incubator of jazz of the future as the first Basie band was. It is unlikely that a Pres will emerge out of this group to shape a whole new era of jazz. This is rather a band that sums up, that shows how it is done and how it is played, what was good and what still is good in the jazz of twenty years ago and of today. In the other arts, it is always those who sum up, who demonstrate the enduring in the past and present, who make the great artists'.

The essential rightness of these opinions was to be proved time and again during the next three decades for no barrier-breaking soloist was to emerge from the Basie ranks, rather it was a band which became the curator of jazz big band tradition. During the years Basie spent under contract to Norman Granz the impresario tried to arrange a recording session at which Charlie Parker was to have been featured with the band. (Granz had both men under contract at the time.) Parker refused because, he said, Basie would never let him sit in back in Kansas City in 1936. Count, for his part, probably found the sixteen-year old Parker too wild and unschooled a musician in the Reno Club days; a pairing on record in 1953 or 1954 might well have resulted in some extremely interesting music.

The arrival of Frank Wess was to give the band an additional tone colour for, as well as playing excellent tenor, Frank was a flutist, a not too common 'double' in jazz at the time. In fact Basie was unaware of Wess's second instrument for some weeks. 'It wasn't until Frank had been in the band for some time before Don Redman said to me one night, "Frank played any flute for you yet?" I said I didn't know he played it. So a few nights later I said to Frank, "Why didn't you tell me you play flute?" and he said "you didn't ask me!" so I said, bring your flute tomorrow night'.

Thus began a long line of flute features including She’sjust my size, The midgets, Flute juice and Perdido. In Frank Foster, Basie had not only an excellent tenor soloist rooted in the Wardell Gray and Sonny Stitt tradition, but also a most workmanlike arranger. In fact the quality of the scores produced by men within the band equalled that of the more experienced outside writers.

Neal Hefti, a man with a considerable reputation gained from his work for the Woody Herman Herd, had enhanced his reputation with his scoring for the septet and octet then followed it with more writing for the new big band. Johnny Mandel, who played bass trumpet with Basie from June until December, 1953, wrote about ten arrangements for the Count of which only Straight life seems to have been recorded. Manny Albam, Sy Oliver, Buster Harding, Don Redman and Nat Pierce were the most prominent of the 'outside' arrangers.

The band recorded material in 1953 which Granz put together as a ten-track album called Count Basie Dance Session; it was greeted so enthusiastically by critics and public alike that Count Basie Dance Session No.2 was soon in the shops. The albums were important in two respects, apart from their great musical value. Firstly, the titles showed the public that Basie still considered himself to be the leader of a band which played music for dancing and secondly, the very fact that the LPs were given titles was something of an innovation. Previous Basie albums tended to be made up of 78rpm titles simply programmed as ten-inch or twelve-inch discs. The Count's Dance Session LPs were referred to as such by critics and public both at the time and even years later when the discs were reissued. Subsequently the practice of giving albums generic titles was to become the norm and in Basie's case his best-known LPs, for example The Atomic Mister Basie. On My Way And Shoutin' Again  etc., have become part of jazz history.

In March, 1954 Count made his first trip to Europe, touring Scandinavia, France, Switzerland etc. but missing out the United Kingdom due to the lingering dispute between the musicians' unions of the two countries. Back home business was good and the band was finding its feet, financially, but it needed just one extra effort to take it to the top. The missing ingredient was a singer with a commanding personality and on Christmas Day 1954, that singer arrived on stage with the big band for the first time, Joseph Goreed Williams, born in Cordele, Georgia, raised in Chicago, and just two weeks past his 36th birthday. Joe was an immediate success to the point where Granz rushed out his versions of The comeback and Everyday as a 45 rpm single suitable for the jukebox operators. This was followed by the band's Alright, okay you win and When the sun goes down-, with that rich voice well to the fore. At the recording session in May, 1955 when Williams's hits were taped (Frank Foster and Ernie Wilkins provided the scores) Basie recorded another best selling title, April in Paris. This was arranged by organist Wild Bill Davis and it was the original intention for Davis to record it with the band. Unfortunately Wild Bill's vehicle broke down on the way to the studio and what turned out to be a best-selling record was made without him. 'I sure fixed Bill's truck that day!' joked Basie years later.

The purists sneered at the Joe Williams vocals and the April in Paris record, with its 'one more time' ending and its Pop goes the weasel quotation in Thad Jones's trumpet solo but the fact remained that Basie, at long last, had financial stability. The payroll to keep sixteen men swinging got bigger each year and although the relationship between Count and his men was more cordial, relaxed and closer than that of any other band, it did not prevent the sidemen taking the leader to the union when they felt they had a case on matters such as overtime payments etc. As Nat Hentoff wrote in his revealing essay in his book The Jazz Life, 'Basie is quite conservative concerning money. He has to be pressured into giving a rise, and he deals with each man in the band individually in a divide-and-conquer technique that lessens the possibility of mass mutiny with regard to Basie pay. This absence of collective bargaining exists in many other bands. Basie was not always so close, but he has been mulcted outrageously in his years as leader'.

With his fortunes now on an upward trajectory, Basie made a change in the band which some of his men disagreed with; he sacked drummer Gus Johnson. 'I was in the band until December 22, 1954' Gus told Stanley Dance. 'On the 23rd, I was in hospital with appendicitis. I was there ten days or so when Basie wrote me to say he had got Sonny Payne and that he was doing a good job. Basie liked a lot of flash, and some of the fellows in the band though Sonny was better than me because he was more of a showman. Charlie Fowlkes told me later on that he (Charlie) fell and broke his kneecap and Basie didn't hire him back either. The same thing happened to Marshall Royal when he had to go into hospital. Moral: Don't get sick!'

Sonny Payne, who had worked with the Erskine Hawkins band and was the son of drummer Chris Columbus, was expert at juggling sticks and generally playing to the audience when the occasion demanded (and sometimes when it was not demanded). As Nat Hentoff described Payne, he was 'inclined to send up rockets when the music called for indirect lighting'. He also had a tendency to rush the beat and, for a time, Freddie Greene kept a long stick with which he poked Sonny when the time started to go awry. Gus Johnson was the very finest drummer Basie had, after the departure of Jo Jones, but the employment of a showman on the drum stool was part of the change which the band was experiencing.

More and more the bookings were for concerts and less for dancing. Audiences paid to see and hear the band as a band and Basie, who probably recalled those years in vaudeville, loved the reaction of a crowd to pure showmanship. This did not, of course, lower the band's musical abilities in any way, in fact some of the new scores called for a degree of musicianship which previous line-ups would have found too demanding. In 1956 Norman Granz released an album on which Basie and Joe Williams shared equal billing. It was clear thai Joe was now one of the band's biggest assets. Most critics damned Williams with faint praise, accusing him of not being a true blues singer and of using material which was weak, pallid and generally unsuited to the context. It is highly likely that Count smiled benignly at such criticisms as he turned to check the full list of bookings which the band was enjoying. To Count, Joe Williams was always 'my favourite son' and it is not difficult to see why he was held in such esteem for his addition to the band moved Basie into a new strata as far as fees for engagements were concerned.

In 1956 the band took off on another European tour (again missing out Britain; the inter-union problem had still to be finalised) and Granz recorded the band in concert at Gothenburg. The resultant LP came out misleadingly titled Count Basie In London but at least it gave us the opportunity of hearing how the band performed in front of an audience. Apart from the expected Joe Williams favourites, the programme also contained a new and attractive work by Frank Foster, Shiny stockings, which the band had first recorded in the studio at the beginning of the year. To be fair to Basie, he was also recording more challenging works including the extended Coast to coast suite by Ernie Wilkins.

In April, 1957 Count Basie paid his first visit to Britain and met with a most enthusiastic response wherever he played. So great was the demand for the band that arrangements were immediately put in hand to bring Basie back in the October of that year. In between the UK bookings, Count made a considerable impact on the 8,000 audience at the Newport Jazz Festival. The final concert was held on Sunday, July 7th and for the occasion John Hammond came on stage to effect the introductions. After the regular band had played its opening number a quartet of distinguished Old Boys made their appearance to be featured with the band. Lester Young, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing and Illinois Jacquet added their own special magic and excitement to the occasion and on the final One o'clock jump trumpeter Roy Eldridge also joined in. Granz taped almost the whole of the Newport Jazz Festival that year and the two albums on which Basie may be heard from this event were the last under his contract with Clef/Verve. In the autumn he signed with the comparatively new Roulette company and commenced his new affiliation with an album of Neal Hefti compositions which, rightly, has become a classic by any standards, The Atomic Mr. Basie.

A few days after completing the album the band flew to Britain where they performed a number of the new Hefti works including the slow and beautiful Li’l darlin and the hectic Whirly bird. So great was the response and so outspoken were British musicians in their claims that they had no chance to hear the band (as the concerts were held, naturally, while other musicians were working) that a special concert was arranged, commencing at midnight. The Roulette recording contract lasted for five years during which time Basie made some 20 albums for the label, the majority of which are excellent. Not only are they musically brilliant but the recording quality is outstanding, thanks to the experienced Teddy Reig who produced most of the LPs. While the Clef/Verve issues were acceptable some sessions, noticeably those which went into the making of the Dance Sessions albums, suffered from a slight muddiness. With The Atomic Mr Basie the music jumped from the speakers, even in mono, with a degree of separation and perspective which the Count had never previously enjoyed.

Before the European tour in the autumn of 1957 Basie made some changes, two of them to tighten discipline within the band. Bill Graham had been playing alto in the band since the early part of 1955 when he took Ernie Wilkins's place and his departure was not unexpected. As Nat Hentoff tells it 'Billy Graham, an extrovert and prankster, "played himself out of the band" as one of his fellow roisterers puts it. "Billy was not only too playful, but he used to get a little too familiar with the Chief himself. He'd even heckle Basie on the bandstand. As usually happens when a guy goes, Graham got the news during a layoff! When we came back, he just wasn't there" '.The other man to go about the same time was trumpeter Reunald Jones; born in 1910 he was older than anyone else in the band, apart from the Count himself Hentoff again: 'Seated at the extreme left end of the trumpet section, Jones was always one level higher than his colleagues. He played with one hand, as if in derision of the simplicity of the music. When the rest of the section would rise in unison, Jones invariably remained seated. His expression - no matter how much joking was going on among the men - was constantly sour. Jones's childish campaign of passive contempt was in protest at the fact that Basie never assigned him any solos. Jones was fired finally because, as a section mate says with satisfaction, 'he drank too much water'. Jones was a clubhouse lawyer, and occasionally complained to the musicians' union about overtime matters. He went to the union one time too often'. These two incidents give an insight to the extra-musical problems facing a band leader and although Basie tried to distance himself always from internal troubles, the final decision had to be his.

The other side of the coin was the excellence of the music which the band was placing on record for Roulette. Neal Hefti wrote the music for two albums, Quincy Jones another and Frank Foster was responsible for all the music on Easin' It. And Benny Carter, the master of orchestration, came up with two suites, -Kansas City Suite and The Legend; on the latter Benny sat in the reed section at the recording session. And the band was recorded 'live' to very good effect at Birdland (with Budd Johnson taking some virile tenor solos) and again down in Miami.”

To be continued

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Randy Weston [1926-2018] In Memoriam

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


The following article,  Randy Weston In Memoriam by Robert Ham which appeared in the November 2018 issue of DownBeat prompted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles to dig through the Jazz literature on Randy Weston at its disposal and to use the material that it found to create a compilation of writings about Randy that will appear on these pages in a series of subsequent postings. It’s our small way of attempting to do justice to Randy’s career in music, one that spanned almost 70 years. Not many artists are fortunate enough to be productive for almost three quarters of a century!


The following will be among the featured writings on Randy and his music:


  • “Randy Weston (Afrobeats)” and essay from Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz
  • “Randy Weston Interview,” in Len Lyons, The Great Jazz Pianists
  • Liner Notes to the New Faces at Newport [1958] Metro Jazz LP [E1005]
  • Liner Notes to The Modern Art of Jazz Dawn LP [DLP-1116 reissued as Dawn CD-107 by Fresh Sound Records]
  • The insert notes from the booklet to the Mosaic Select Randy Weston 3 CD set [MS 004]
  • The relevant excerpts on Randy and his music from The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.; Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner, ed.; The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Barry Kernfeld, ed.
  • “Randy Weston interview” in Art Taylor, Notes and Tones
  • Ira Gitler, “Randy Weston, Downbeat, xxxi/6, (1964), p. 16
  • Mark Gardner, “Randy Weston,” Jazz Monthly, xii/11 (1967)
  • Larry Birnbaum, “Randy Weston: African Rooted Rhythm,” Downbeat, xlvi/15, (1979)
  • Ted Panken, Randy Weston DownBeat Interview, August 2016.


As is our custom, once these postings have appeared on the blog, singularly or in combination, we will collect them and repost them in one comprehensive feature on Randy and his music.


Of course, now with the added advantage of so much music being available of YouTube, we will include as many musical examples of Randy’s oeuvre as possible in each of these features.


“IN 2016, WHEN PIANIST RANDY WESTON was inducted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame, he said that he viewed his life's work as a kind of musical recipe.


"You take the black church, the calypso, the blues. Duke, Basie, Art Tatum, put them in a pot and stir them up, and add Africa: that's Randy Weston," he said in an article that initially ran in the August edition of the magazine that year.


It's a fairly apt summation of the elements that impacted the way Weston — who passed away on Sept. 1 at the age of 92 — approached his chosen instrument and the music to which he devoted his life. As with most mottos, though, it doesn't fully capture the depth of feeling and acuity in his playing, formed from years of study of the jazz and classical canon, as well as his longtime advocation of the African roots in all modern music.


Bassist Christian McBride, who recorded with Weston on the 1997 album Earth Birth, put it this way: "While many naively spoke of the connection between African and African-American heritage, he was someone who actually spent extensive time playing, studying and maintaining a business in Africa — experiencing many cultures there first-hand and bringing those experiences back to America to share with all of the musicians who learned from him. He was one of the only musicians many of us knew who could seamlessly thread the sounds of the Yorubas to bebop."


Weston's interest in both the music and history of Africa was ingrained in him at an early age. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, his parents — mom, a domestic worker; dad, a restaurateur originally from Panama — encouraged him to study his ancestral homeland at the same time he was taking piano lessons. And they supported him as he started his music career following high school and a stint in the Army.


Along the way, he found notable mentors, including his neighbor Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and jazz scholar Marshall Stearns. Through their friendship and teachings, Weston began to develop his singular playing style: a fluid, yet reserved, approach that built a percussive, angular flow off of a stride-blues foundation. He could swing with the best of them, but seemed most comfortable blending with the steady polyrhythms of the Gnawa music of Morocco or the spirited throb of highlife from Ghana.


His interest in blending the sounds of modern jazz with African rhythms began in earnest during the late '50s and flourished on early albums, like 1961's Uhuru Afrika, which included poetry from Langston Hughes, and 1963's Music From The New African Nations. Around that time, he also was conscripted to tour the western and northern parts of the African continent by the U.S. State Department. He often would return there during his life, including spending a few years living in Morocco, where he taught and helped run the African Rhythms Cultural Center.


"His association with African musicians and the time he spent traveling the continent gave him a wealth of information," remembered trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, who performed with Weston on and off during the past four decades. "A lot of other guys did similar kinds of things, but didn't seem to absorb it the same way. Randy would hear the balafon [a percussion instrument that originated in Mali] and understand that it was as much a piano as the piano was."


Weston kept up a steady output of recordings and performances throughout his long life, including his most recent work, The African Nubian Suite, a live large-ensemble album captured in 2012 at New York's Skirball Cultural Center that aimed to trace human evolution back to its African roots in the Nile River delta. He also was playing concerts until very recently, with his last appearance occurring in July in France.


In addition to his induction into DownBeat's Hall of Fame, Weston received other honors, including a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, and honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory of Music and Brooklyn College.


Above all else, according to Bridgewater, Weston will be remembered for being one of the most gregarious and kind artists in jazz.

"He treated everybody well — even the Gnawa musicians he got to know became family to him. Yesterday at Randy's funeral, somebody said, 'I never heard Randy say a bad thing about any musician or anybody,"' Bridgewater recalled after attending a Sept. 10 service at Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. "That was his nature. He welcomed everybody."
—Robert Ham, NOVEMBER 2018, DOWNBEAT, p. 17.