Thursday, May 6, 2021

Thelonious Monk - Bemsha Swing

Blumenthal on Thelonious [From the Archives]

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

“He dealt in phrases with odd shapes, placed into odd niches on the bar line, stressed in odd places. Melodically, he created tight, stark nuggets that served as seeds for complete musical statements once cultivated through his surprising use of modulation and accent. Monk's strong, aggressive touch produced tones of hornlike boldness on the piano, and his rhythmic patience highlighted the rich overtones this attack produced.

When he worked with horns, this tonal character carried over to the rough-edged ensembles he preferred to bebop's characteristic unison lines. And there was Monk's dense and pungent harmonic palette, which Andre Hodeir likened to an acid bath when applied to popular material. These various techniques functioned so integrally as to seem inseparable.

These attributes of Monk’s music, so familiar to us now and more central to the ongoing evolution of Jazz with each passing day, took an uncommonly long time for the public to grasp.”
- Bob Blumenthal, Jazz writer, columnist and critic

During the many years that he wrote about Jazz for The Boston Globe, CD Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Downbeat and numerous other publications, Grammy-Award winning author, columnist and critic Bob Blumenthal became one of my most consistent teachers about all-things-Jazz

For his long affiliation with it and studied application of it, Bob knows the music.

Equally important is his ability to communicate this knowledge and awareness in a writing style that is clear, cogent and concise.

Bob’s a mensch and a mentor.

My first awareness of Thelonious Monk’s music was based on the LPs he recorded for Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records from approximately 1955-1960. The significance of these recordings was that they helped make the Jazz public of that period aware of Monk’s genius, such that Thelonious career was set on a path that would lead to fame and fortune.

The Riverside albums were a renaissance of sorts for Monk who, although he was one of the originators of modern Jazz along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Clarke and others from the Minton's Playhouse days of the early 1940’s, had largely become a forgotten man by the end of that decade.

In 1994, Blue Note Records issued a boxed set of the music that Thelonious had recorded for the label under his own name and as sideman on a 1957 date with Sonny Rollins as the leader. The set also includes the five tracks that were recorded by John Coltrane's wife Naima at the Five Spot in NYC during Coltrane's tenure with Monk's quartet in 1958.

This reissued set provided a sort of missing link in my quest to appreciate the early years of Monk’s music.

And if that wasn’t enough, wouldn’t you know that the insert notes to the four CD’s that make up Thelonious Monk: The Complete Blue Note Recordings [CDP 7243 8 30363 2 5] were written by none other than … you guessed it … Bob Blumenthal.

Bob has kindly granted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles permission to use the introductory portion of his Blue Note annotations on these pages.

© -  Bob Blumenthal, copyright protected, all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“Thelonious Sphere Monk inherited his striking name, yet it is doubtful that the collective energy of all the slogan-makers could have devised a more appropriate appellation. Never has a moniker so perfectly reflected someone's music. "Thelonious" announces imposing complexity and originality with roots in tradition, "Monk" signals abrupt angularity, and the rhythmic impact of the two in juxtaposition is indelible and unique. The rich internal detail was frequently lost on others in the past, who tended to fashion the first name as "Thelonius," mirroring the confusion that surrounded Monk's music (fortunately, misunderstandings of both types have diminished over time). Most revealing of all, though, is "Sphere," with its intimations of rounded, three-dimensional completeness, of a self-contained planet pursuing its own course in the musical universe.

That sense of fullness, together with Monk's brilliant use of sound, silence, dissonance, rhythmic surprise and melodic cogency, marked the music in this collection from its initial appearance as something exceptional. For many, musicians as well as listeners, it was also somewhat undecipherable when first released on a series of 78 rpm records taken from the six sessions that form the bulk of this collection. At the time, Monk was considered the jazz world's primary enigma, the farthest out of the far out. He was said to be one of the fountainheads of bebop, its "high priest"; yet his music did not sound like bebop. The breathless, arpeggio-driven virtuosity of bop that was already becoming cliche when Monk recorded his first sessions as a leader was replaced in his music by a concept of space that was poetic. He dealt in phrases with odd shapes, placed into odd niches on the bar line, stressed in odd places. Melodically, he created tight, stark nuggets that served as seeds for complete musical statements once cultivated through his surprising use of modulation and accent. Monk's strong, aggressive touch produced tones of hornlike boldness on the piano, and his rhythmic patience highlighted the rich overtones this attack produced. When he worked with horns, this tonal character carried over to the rough-edged ensembles he preferred to bebop's characteristic unison lines. And there was Monk's dense and pungent harmonic palette, which Andre Hodeir likened to an acid bath when applied to popular material. These various techniques functioned so integrally as to seem inseparable.

These attributes of Monk’s music, so familiar to us now and more central to the ongoing evolution of Jazz with each passing day, took an uncommonly long time for the public to grasp The uniqueness of his music was reinforced by the eccentricities of his personality. He may have been the "genius of modern music," as Blue Note proclaimed when it first reissued some of the enclosed performances on 10-inch IPs in the early '50s; but to many he was a mad genius, given to wearing odd hats and sunglasses and with what his wife Nellie once described as a "marvelous sense of withdrawal." When he cut his first session as a leader in October 1947, he was five days past his 30th birthday, a point at which too many of the music's innovators had exhausted both their creative and biological spans. By the time of his sixth and final Blue Note date as a leader in 1952, he was nearly 35 and, thanks to public indifference and his willingness to take a drug possession rap for a friend, seemingly even further from the acclaim that would put him on the cover of Time Magazine little more than a decade later and elevate him still further in the years following his death in 1982.

Of course, Monk was nothing if not patient. At the time of his first Blue Note session, he had been a key figure in the emergence of the modern style for years; yet all he had to show for his efforts on record were four titles cut in 1944 with Coleman Hawkins and some samples of the already legendary jam sessions at Minton's taped at the club and issued under Charlie Christian's name. As a composer he fared better, with Hawkins, Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell already having introduced several of his most famous compositions. The three sessions he led for Blue Note in a span of 38 days in 1947, which included 10 of his compositions, might be viewed as one of the greatest bursts of creative energy in history if Monk had not been waiting to unleash this brilliant music for a decade. On record at least, he began fully formed and more than ready.

Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and was named after his father. (His son, the drummer T. S. Monk, is actually Monk III.) His family moved to New York City in 1923, occupying a house on West 63rd Street in the San Juan Hill neighborhood that would remain Monk's home for much of his life. His musical career began typically enough for an African-American youth of the time: piano lessons at 11, rent parties and amateur contests three years later, and regular work in church, where he accompanied his mother. Despite excelling in math and science at Stuyvesant High School, Monk dropped out in 1934 to accompany an evangelist on a tour that ultimately took him to the Midwest. Mary Lou Williams, one of his earliest champions, heard him at the time and later reported that he displayed a fluid swing piano technique, with touches of Teddy Wilson.

Back in New York by 1936, Monk studied briefly at Juilliard and began taking the diverse gigs that are a young musician's lot. He also quickly immersed himself in the Harlem after-hours scene, landing a job in the house rhythm section at Minton's Playhouse in 1940. This was the period during which young musicians began developing a more technically advanced approach that went beyond the conventions of swing music, in clubs like Minton's and Monroe's Uptown House. At Minton's, Monk and his rhythm section mate Kenny Clarke jammed with such sympathetic contemporaries as Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

The pianist also began introducing his compositions to the sessions, and encouraged a second generation of even younger players, especially his protege Bud Powell. These efforts continued when Monk moved with Clarke to Kelly's Stables in 1942.

Gillespie and others have verified that Monk participated actively in the give-and-take of these sessions, and the music that evolved from this period expressed, especially in its harmonic approach, certain aspects of Monk's thinking. The rapid tempos and arpeggiated melodies generally identified with bebop are far removed from Monk's aesthetic, however, and he quickly distanced himself from the center of bop activity. Although he did some work with Lucky Millinder, Coleman Hawkins and both the early combo and big band of Dizzy Gillespie, much of his time in the remainder of the '40s was spent organizing his own groups, often with young players like the teenaged Sonny Rollins. A few jobs cropped up, but his bands spent much of their time rehearsing in Monk's kitchen (where he kept his piano), even after he began recording for Blue Note.

The notoriety of his accompanists was less important to Monk than their ability to learn his music correctly. He had little tolerance for complaints about his music's difficulty - he famously told Sahib Shihab at one of the Blue Note sessions, "You a musician? You got a union card? Then play it!" - his insistence on writing little down and forcing players to use their ears only heightened the challenge. Most responded surprisingly well, whether they turned out to be giants like Art Blakey and Milt Jackson, or obscure journeymen who would be totally forgotten if not for their role in the documentation of Monk's music.

Saxophonist Ike Quebec, a Blue Note leader and adviser to label owners Alfred Lion arid Francis Wolff, was

instrumental in bringing Monk to their attention when they expressed interest in documenting modern jazz. His input is most obvious on Monk's initial session, recorded on October 15, 1947, where Quebec takes composer credit on two of the four titles and where his 17-year-old cousin Danny Quebec West is the alto saxophonist. The other saxophonist, tenor man Billy Smith, is similarly unknown, while the remaining sidemen proved to have greater longevity. Trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, born Leonard Graham in 1923, worked in various big bands and combos before moving to Europe in 1961 and is still playing in 1994. Bassist Gene Ramey (1913-84) was a colleague of Charlie Parker's in the Jay McShann orchestra and became one of the most widely recorded players of the period. Art Blakey (1919-90), soon to be identified as Monk's perfect drummer, would begin his own career as a leader for Blue Note before the year was out. …”

At this point, Bob begins a session-by-session analysis of the tunes and musicians that make up the music on the four Blue Note CD’s and concluded his essay with the following observations about the importance of Monk’s music on Blue Note in the evolution of Monk’s own career and to the development of modern Jazz in the 1950s and beyond.

“Some might consider the lengthier tracks with Rollins and Coltrane extraneous additions to what otherwise would be a perfectly acceptable set of "complete" Blue Note Monk. Given that Monk's music grew and expanded, though, sounding ever more clearly in the ears of musicians and listeners, these later performances strike me as essential complements to the groundbreaking sessions of 1947-52.

They take us into the future, where Monk becomes more and more central to jazz of the late 20th century and where, in the years following the issuance of this collection, he will no doubt assume his rightful place as one of the greatest contributors to American culture.”

- Bob Blumenthal

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

"The Forgotten Ones:" Don Fagerquist - Gordon Jack [From the Archives]

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

Gordon Jack, author of Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective and a frequent contributor to JazzJournal “dropped by” the editorial offices of JazzProfiles recently with a generous offer to post his piece on trumpeter Don Fagerquist [1927-1974] to the blog.

Don was one of the musicians based on the Left Coast who always knocked me out.

He had one of the most beautiful sounds that I ever heard on trumpet; plus, he was one heckuva swinger, which always caught me by surprise. Here’s this lyrical, pretty tone, and the next thing you know the guy is poppin’ one terrific Jazz phrase after another.

The trumpet seemed to find him. His was one of the purest tones you will ever hear on the horn. In Don Fagerquist, the instrument had one of its clearest forms of expression.

Don never seemed to get outside of himself. He joined big bands and combos to work in that both complimented and complemented the way he approached playing the trumpet.

His tone was what musicians referred to as “legit” [short for legitimate = the sound of an instrument often associated with its form in Classical music].

No squeezing notes through the horn, no half-valve fingering and no tricks or shortcuts. Even his erect posture in playing the instrument was textbook.

If you had a child who wished to play trumpet, Don would have been the perfect teacher for all facets of playing the instrument.

He was clear, he was clean and he was cool.

His sound had a presence to it that just snapped your head around when you heard it; it made you pay attention to it.

No shuckin’ or jiving’, just the majesty of the trumpeter’s clarion call . When the Angel Gabriel picked trumpet as his axe [Jazz talk for instrument], he must have had Don’s tone in mind.

Here’s the full text of Gordon’s article which appeared in the July 2014 edition of JazzJournal. You can locate more information about JazzJournal by going here.

© -  Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Don Fagerquist’s distinctive trumpet sound graced the bands of Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and Les Brown as soloist and section leader for a number of years from the mid-forties. Although a prolific recording artist (Tom Lord lists 364 sessions)  he is almost unknown today and for that reason it is worth highlighting a few comments about him from former colleagues: “I loved Don’s playing” (Gerry Mulligan); “Marvellous. He was ahead of his time” (Herb Geller); “He was a genius – a class act” (Dave Pell); “A tremendous jazz player” (Arno Marsh); “He really is a player - he’s the best” (Les Brown) and “He was a great improviser…everyone liked him” (Phil Urso).

Carl Saunders one of the most in-demand trumpeters in Los Angeles has cited him as a primary influence along with Kenny Dorham and Freddie Hubbard. (Bill Perkins once told me that “Carl idolised him”). In 1956 when Leonard Feather conducted a poll exclusively for musicians, both George Shearing and Urbie Green listed Don as one of their favourite trumpeters. Despite these testimonials his name has rarely been included on a list of the music’s finest soloists except once in 1955 when he secured fifth place in Metronome magazine’s annual poll. Robert Gordon probably said it best in his book (Jazz West Coast) “Don Fagerquist (was) a much underrated soloist. No doubt he was largely ignored because he laboured so often in the commercial vineyards of the Dave Pell Octet.”

Don who came from a musical family was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on the 6th. February 1927. He joined the Mal Hallett orchestra in 1943 which was based in Boston, working along the eastern side of the United States. The band included Buddy Wise, Sonny Rich, Dick Taylor and John Williams and in an enthusiastic Metronome review in 1944 George Simon said, “17 year old Don Fagerquist plays most of the lead…and then lets loose with some impressive jazz.” Like many of his generation his primary influences at this time were Harry James and Roy Eldridge.

In 1944 he began a long association with Gene Krupa that lasted off and on until 1950. He recruited Buddy Wise and Dick Taylor from Hallet’s band for Gene and they can all be heard soloing on one of Krupa’s biggest hits, Disc Jockey Jump by the nineteen year old Gerry Mulligan. It has a standard  AABA form with an A section resembling Four Brothers although as Gerry once ruefully pointed out it was recorded  nearly a year before Jimmy Giuffre’s classic. Don was the featured trumpet soloist and he can be heard on numerous other titles with the band like Leave Us Leap, Up An Atom, Lover and Opus One which are all good examples of his work at that time. The latter featured Anita O’Day and Don took leave of absence from the band in 1949 to work with her small group for about six months. Tiny Kahn was on drums but unfortunately they were never recorded.

That same year Artie Shaw was having tax problems so he decided to return to the music business with a new big band to help pay his debt to the IRS. Don was recruited along with some of the very best of the young modernists like Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, Jimmy Raney and Dodo Marmarosa. The leader also commissioned writers like George Russell, Johnny Mandel and Tadd Dameron to contribute new material which was performed with his old hits like Frenesi, Begin the Beguine, I Cover the Waterfront and Stardust.  Don was heard not only with the big band but also with a fresh edition of the Gramercy Five which successfully revisited numbers like Summit Ridge Drive, Grabtown Grapple and Cross Your Heart.

He left the Shaw band in 1950 to re-join Gene Krupa for a while and then early in 1951 he took Don Ferrara’s place with Woody Herman who was beginning a month’s residency at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. In July that year Charlie Parker was recorded with the band at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City performing staples like Lemon Drop, Four Brothers, Caldonia, The Goof and I and More Moon. After the concert Don and Doug Mettome played with Parker at a local club. Fagerquist split the lead book with Conte Candoli and didn’t get too many solos but he can be heard on Celestial Blues, Moten Stomp and Singing in the Rain from a July 1952 recording session that was notable for a Woody Herman vocal on Early Autumn. A few months later after a Hollywood recording date he left Herman to join Les Brown who had a residency on the Bob Hope Show. He is prominently featured with the ‘Band of Renown’ on a double CD recorded at the Hollywood Palladium in 1953 on numbers like Rain, Happy Hooligan, Jersey Bounce and From This Moment On. This was when he and his family relocated to Los Angeles, eventually settling in Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley.

His instrument of choice was a Calicchio trumpet which he played throughout his career and by the time he joined Les Brown his mature lyrical style was in full bloom. Rather like Clifford Brown (another well- schooled musician) he had a thorough knowledge of harmony and he was able to negotiate every chord change in a sequence with an effortless flow of melodic creativity - unlike Chet Baker for instance who could read music but was an ‘ear’ player when it came to improvisation.

Early in 1953 Dave Pell formed an octet with sidemen from Les  Brown’s band like Ray Sims, Ronny Lang and Fagerquist which proved to be very popular commercially leading some critics to accuse it of playing ‘Mortgage-paying jazz’. The public could not get enough of Pell’s octet and according to John Tynan writing in Downbeat it became, “The busiest small group in California”. The arrangements were by some of the finest Los Angeles-based writers like Shorty Rogers, Johnny Mandel, Andre Previn and Marty Paich and most of the charts had a guitar doubling the lead giving the group a bigger sound than might be expected from eight pieces.  Don’s lyrical trumpet on lead or soloing was an essential ingredient in the success of the group. He made eleven albums with Pell who in an interview with Marc Myers once said, “He had chops to do anything he thought of…he would steal the album again and again”.

The mid-fifties until December 1969 was a period of intense recording activity for him and after years of being on the road, the security of regular studio work must have seemed particularly attractive. In 1956 he joined the staff at Paramount Studios where he eventually performed on 85 film sound–tracks. He also became a first-call trumpet for recording sessions with artists as diverse as Shelly Manne, Red Norvo, Mel Torme, Buddy DeFranco, Art Pepper, Georgie Auld, Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Junior Mance and numerous others. He was on several of Ella Fitzgerald’s celebrated Song Book albums and he did Sinatra dates after Harry Edison stopped making them. He can also be heard on Barbra Streisand’s hit On A Clear Day. He performed on Hoagy Sings Carmichael soloing on Skylark, Winter Moon, Rockin’ Chair and Ballad in Blue prompting sleeve-note writer George Frazier to claim that Don was a new name to him, which was a surprising admission for a former DownBeat contributor.

One particularly memorable session was the 1954 Jazz Studio 2 album with Herb Geller, Milt Bernhart and Jimmy Giuffre. It includes classic versions of two of the most sophisticated ballads in the repertoire (Laura and Darn That Dream) on a recording that would merit five stars except for the presence of John Graas on French horn. He was a fine instrumentalist who had been a member of the Cleveland Symphony but the horn has more than eleven feet of tubing making it unsuitable for swiftly articulated bebop choruses. It also happens to be the most difficult of the brass family with an unforgiving mouthpiece – smaller than a trumpet’s. The only performer who seemed able to overcome the horn’s inherent problems was Julius Watkins.

A year later Don and Charlie Mariano recorded with singer Helen Carr who began her short career with Charles Mingus in 1949. It is a particularly intimate date with interesting material like Not Mine, I Don’t Want To Cry Anymore and Moments Like This - numbers you don’t hear every day. It also includes Cole Porter’s delightful Down In The Depths Of The 90thFloor which is available on YouTube.

That same year he recorded four titles under his own name with a Four Brothers saxophone section including Zoot Sims, Dave Pell, Bill Holman and Bob Gordon. Jordi Pujol has released it on his Jazz City series as Portrait of a Great Jazz Artist - a title that does not overstate Fagerquist’s immense talent. Also included on the CD are performances with Russell Garcia, Heinie Beau and Les Brown.

Even better was his only other date as a leader in 1957 where he was able to stretch out on a selection of superior standards arranged by Marty Paich. As always he decorates his melodic lines with chromatic runs embellished with delicate grace notes revealing a soloist of rare originality and taste. His warm sound has echoes of the great Bobby Hackett who of course was one of Miles’s favourites.

Throughout the sixties he continued to be very much in demand with artists like Louie Bellson, Billy May, Jo Stafford, Sammy Davis Jr., Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Sarah Vaughan and Neal Hefti. His last recording was in 1969 with Charlie Barnet’s big band playing a selection of current pop songs arranged by Billy May. There followed an unexplained gap in his activities until 1973 when along with Dave Pell, Jimmy Rowles, Ray Brown and Frank Capp he worked on a TV show hosted by Tom Kennedy for several months.

Don Fagerquist died in Los Angeles from a kidney complaint on January 24th. 1974

For more on this unsung giant go here to locate 26 of his solo transcriptions with Les Brown, Dave Pell, Marty Paich and Mel Torme.


As Leader

Portrait of a Great Jazz Artist (Jazz City Series FSR 2212)
Eight by Eight (V.S.O.P. Records 4CD)

As Sideman

Gene Krupa: Drummin’ Man (Columbia 501647 2)
Artie Shaw: The Complete Thesaurus Transcriptions 1949 (Hep CD 89/90)
Les Brown: Live at the Hollywood Palladium (Jasmine JASCD 407)
Helen Carr (Bethlehem CDSOL-6085)
Jazz Studio 1/2: Complete Sessions (Lonehill Jazz LHJ 10145)
Dave Pell Octet: Jazz for Dancing and Listening (Jazz City Series FSR 2242)

I have selected The Girl Next Door track from the Fresh Sound anthology Don Fagerquist: Portrait of a Jazz Artist [FSR 2212] for the following video tribute to Don.

Russ Garcia did the arrangement which has Don stating the melody as a ballad [0:00 – 1:07 minutes], then doubling the time [1:08 – 2:30 minutes] to allow Don to show off his Jazz chops before restating the theme as a ballad [2:31 minutes]. You might want to especially listen for the very clever ending in which Don plays a remarkably hip cadenza [3:16 minutes].

Jazz has had many great trumpet stylists over its almost 100 year history, but I don’t think that anyone has even played the horn prettier than Don Fagerquist.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

See/Saw. Looking at Photographs, by Geoff Dyer

For as long as I can remember, Jazz and photography have been inextricably linked. 

I hear one and I see the other.

While not strictly speaking about Jazz photography - with one notable exception [Roy Decarava] - Christopher Irmscher’s review of Geoff Dyer’s new book See/Saw. Looking at Photographs [Graywolf 2021] reveals the many ways in which photographs are so powerful, both as an artform themselves, and in their relationship to other forms of art.

Like Jazz, “what a photograph documents is gone for good,”

Like the next Jazz improvisation, “... each photograph also inevitably points toward the future, to the next photograph or series of photographs [improvisations] about a similar subject.”

And like each photograph, each Jazz recording “ … mak[es] a distant past present again every time we look at [listen to] it.”

—Mr. Irmscher is the co-editor of the Od Review, an online journal for the photographic arts.

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

Appeared in the May 1, 2021, print edition as 'Every Picture Tells a Story.'

Geoff Dyer begins his rich new collection of essays with a consideration of “Saint-Cloud, 1924,” a magical picture by the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927), quietly reflective in the way some Rilke poems are. Here, claims Mr. Dyer with his trademark playfulness, Atget’s “Atgetness” is in full display. We see a landscape devoid of human presence: a broad, tree-lined promenade, divided by rows of ornamental shrubs, receding into a hazy, mysterious distance that, thanks to the camera’s off-center position, seems even farther away than it is. Marble statues preside over the emptiness. The time is early morning; no one except the photographer is up and about. Whatever life there is in this park—originally created for the brother of Louis XIV—appears to reside in the billowing trees on either side.

A photograph is “a witness of something that is no more,” sighed the French critic Roland Barthes in “Camera Lucida” (1980), a book that has cast its melancholy shadow over most recent writing about the medium. For Barthes, what a photograph documents is gone for good, like that misty morning in Saint-Cloud, or it will be gone soon. But where Barthes always felt the painful prick of his own mortality, Mr. Dyer’s “See/Saw” finds the delicate promise of new life: A photograph, like one of the silent statues in the royal gardens of Saint-Cloud (that’s Mr. Dyer’s comparison), endures, at least for now, making a distant past present again every time we look at it. We see anew what someone else once saw, a dizzying experience to which the clever title of the book alludes. Averse to jargon, Mr. Dyer never strays too far away from an ordinary viewer’s experience. A proud interloper in the compartmentalized halls of academe—an experience he has previously celebrated in the witty essay “My Life as a 

Apart from lifting the past into our present—allowing us, in the case of Atget’s Saint-Cloud photograph, to wander, with our mind’s eye, through a vacant park as if not a day had passed since 1924—each photograph also inevitably points toward the future, to the next photograph or series of photographs about a similar subject. If Barthes, somewhat exaggeratedly, dubbed photographers “agents of death,” Mr. Dyer celebrates them as active participants in an ongoing conversation—an idea reflected in the title of his brilliant 2005 book on the subject, “The Ongoing Moment.” Thus Atget’s austere street scenes live on in the impressions of Paris recorded during the interwar period by Ilse Bing (1899-1998), the “Queen of the Leica,” the deserted Southern plantation homes visited, during the 1940s, by Walker Evans (1903-75), or the recent reworkings of Google Street View by the photographer Michael Wolf (1954-2019).

In the preface to “See/Saw,” Mr. Dyer asserts, entirely too modestly, that writing about photography has just been a sideline for him. Not counting “The Ongoing Moment,” he has published prolifically on the subject, in prominent places such as the Guardian, the New Republic and the New York Times Magazine—enough for him to envision, tongue in cheek, a “deathbed or—yikes!—posthumous edition” of his collected photography essays. Fortunately, that grand finale still seems a long way off. In the interim, the 52 scintillating essays in “See/Saw” provide reassuring Despite the range and the staggering number of artists represented, most of Mr. Dyer’s essays remain focused on just one photograph, each of them beautifully reproduced by Graywolf Press. Intriguingly, the timeless statues of Saint-Cloud lurk behind many of Mr. Dyer’s choices, which reveal a predilection—handled with a degree of self-conscious irony—for impersonal structures, such as houses, streets, and monuments. Thus, Mr. Dyer praises the work of American photographer Bevan Davies (born 1941), whose photographs, in Mr. Dyer’s understanding, exemplify how buildings, if they had cameras, would take pictures of each other. And he admires the dreamy compositions of Oliver Curtis (born 1963), which show us what we, the visitors, would look like from the perspective of a monument such as the Taj Mahal—a bunch of scraggly, indistinct shapes milling around the famous Basin of Abundance.

The author of more than a dozen works of fiction and criticism [including But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz - 2009], Mr. Dyer has cultivated an unmistakable narrative voice, by turns lofty and self-deprecating, acerbic and arch, dismissive and sympathetic. A virtuoso example of his skill is his meditation on August Sander’s 1926 portrait of the forgotten writer Otto Brües (1897-1967). His head drooping like that of a sick bird, eyes watery behind thick, wire-framed glasses, Herr Brües sits hunched, as if imprisoned in his oversized black suit, his right hand resting idly on his right leg, an unhappy young man grown old before his time. Reflecting on Sander’s photograph, Mr. Dyer lets his imagination run riot: If Brües’s black-trousered leg, looming large at the bottom of the picture, looks like it could be a sort of writing desk, it reminds him also of the plinth of a statue—which would, jokes Mr. Dyer, make that entire portrait a “photographic memorial to the unknown writer.” Or, wonders Mr. Dyer, does that leg rather represent the dark, “swampy ooze” from which all intelligent life, including that of the prematurely petrified Herr Brües, once sprang?

If these ruminations strike you as a little overwrought, that is Mr. Dyer’s intention. His readings, entertaining, nuanced and irreverent, never pretend to uncover any single truth about a photograph. Instead, they are an attentive viewer’s creative attempts—always incomplete, often fantastical, sometimes wrong—to determine what a photograph might mean. Even cursory biographical research (which Mr. Dyer concedes he hasn’t undertaken) would have disclosed the unpleasant fact that, a few years later, Otto Brües joined eighty-seven other writers in signing a pledge of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. But such additional research would only have distracted from Mr. Dyer’s point—that a good photograph is always superior to the stories we tell about it. Anything truly relevant about Otto Brües’s life is already present in Sander’s sardonic memorial.

Among all the photographs gathered in “See/Saw,” the one likely closest to Mr. Dyer’s heart is a blurry black-and-white portrait of two jazz giants, Ben Webster and John Coltrane, taken in 1960 by the inimitable Roy DeCarava (1919-2009), with what must have been the slowest shutter speed possible. For Mr. Dyer, this picture is a monument of sorts, too, a commemoration of an intimate moment carved in such a way from the flux of time that, like the music of Coltrane and Webster, it remains alive today. With Webster’s giant hand wrapped around his jaw, Coltrane, his face visible only in profile, sinks into his older friend’s embrace. Topped by the inevitable hat, Webster’s head floats beside Coltrane’s, huge, like that of a benign god just come in from the mist. The two men’s closed eyes reflect the intensity of their hug, which spills beyond the frame into the viewer’s world. Webster was already past his prime then, but, thanks to DeCarava’s now iconic photograph, what could have been a melancholy leave-taking becomes also, as Mr. Dyer suggests, a new beginning for both men—one that, like a love supreme, lasts longer than a lifetime.”


Monday, May 3, 2021

(1962) Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays SIDE 1

One for the Ages - "Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays"

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Cole and Shearing were predestined to make beautiful music together. The two men were born just a few months apart (Cole in March 1919, Shearing in August) and both were among the preeminent jazz piano players of all time. Extending the parallel, both first came to the attention of the jazz public via the remarkable small combos that they led, the King Cole Trio and the George Shearing Quintet.”

  • Will Friedwald

“I ONCE INTERVIEWED GEORGE SHEARING regarding a completely different subject, but when he started thinking about his absolute favorite albums, he immediately began talking about Nat King Cole and "the album that we did together." He was very specific—he didn't just refer to it as "Nat King Cole and George Shearing" or something like that; he quoted the title exactly right in a way most musicians rarely would, as Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays. If he could have managed some Victor Borge-style phonetic punctuation, he would have pronounced the slash as well.

Shearing gave credit for the basic idea—for putting the two of them together—to Ralph, something that Carmichael never claimed for himself. "Ralph Carmichael had the idea. And it might have been either Dave Cavanaugh [Shearing's producer at the time] or Lee Gillette who started talking about it. And it didn't take very long to sell me on Nat Cole. Not only was he a marvelous singer, but he was also one of the most underrated jazz pianists I've ever met in my life. I mean, unfortunately or fortunately, probably his singing became such a big hit that not too many people around today know about the King Cole Trio and what great piano there was on that,"

The finished album would be co-credited to Gillette and Tom Morgan as producers, although Cavanaugh also helped pick some of the tunes. And while Shearing gave a lot of credit to Carmichael, many of the charts were worked up from quintet arrangements by Shearing himself. Carmichael's major credit was located on both the front and the back, as an extension of the album title: "Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays ... with String Choir Directed by Ralph Carmichael."

"We had some meetings, of course," said Shearing, "about what we were going to do." Carmichael remembered the pre-production meetings on that project very vividly. "It was in the Tower. And I had my score paper there and I was taking notes, and oh it was terrible! Because, we'd get everything set and then Nat would say 'Wait a minute, I think George should take the first instrumental break when we finish the first chorus.' So, I'd erase everything and put the new directions in, but then George would say 'Let's see, what key were we going to do it in? No, I don't want to do that in D flat—I think E flat is a better key for me.' So, I would have to erase and start again. Well, we spent about two hours up there, and when we finished, I don't think we had routined more than two or three tunes. It was just a waste of time."

Rather than talk it through, they decided they would set the routines— the basic outline of the arrangements—together in the studio, with Shearing at the piano. Carmichael found it was easier for the two to play and sing their way through the songs rather than plan them in the abstract. "And that way we could record all of those changes and all I'd have to do would be to go through about 30 or 40 minutes of talk, fast forward to the last two or three minutes, cause the final decision would be right there at the end, you see. So that worked out real good—we got all the keys and the routines. Wouldn't it be something to hear those tapes now? I don't know where they were, but it was a hoot 'cause I did listen to them after the fact, you know. I kept them around for quite a while. I don't know what ever happened to them, but I should be kicked in the britches for letting them get away."

This was the rare Cole project that didn't use any of the King's men, his regulars in his touring rhythm section. Rather, the whole point was to use Shearing's idiom, his sound, his approach, his guys—vibraphonist Emil Richards, guitarist Al Hendrickson, bassist Al McKibbon, plus a ringer on drums, Shelly Manne, the storied percussionist, already a bandleader to be reckoned with, who would make several guest appearances with the Shearing Quintet.

Cole and Shearing were predestined to make beautiful music together. The two men were born just a few months apart (Cole in March 1919, Shearing in August) and both were among the preeminent jazz piano players of all time. Extending the parallel, both first came to the attention of the jazz public via the remarkable small combos that they led, the King Cole Trio and the George Shearing Quintet. In 1950, Cole said of Shearing, "He's a fine player, and he's done more than anyone else in America to interest the ordinary people in modern jazz. Of course, he didn't think up the locked-hand style of playing; I guess Milt Buckner did that. But he did the music business a lot of good, especially in New York." (However, Shearing had probably learned the "locked-hand" style from Cole rather than Buckner.) Both Cole and Shearing achieved even greater fame and rewards by adding a pop dimension to their music, which they brought about by annexing orchestras and strings to their sound.

It was probably Cole's idea that the set should primarily consist of ballads. Both these men were originally known as jazz musicians, but at this point in their lives, they had love songs on their mind. The mood throughout is similar to The Touch of Your Lips, but despite an approximately equal number of strings and the addition of Shearing’s piano and his quintet, the sound is even lighter and, as musicians like to say, "transparent." The orchestral textures are completely open, beautiful but not syrupy, and enticing without being dissonant. In fact, even without the element of Cole's marvelous voice, these are some of the most attractive backgrounds ever written for Shearing's piano (quite a compliment, in that Shearing worked with Billy May and many other giants of pop-jazz orchestration, in addition to being a distinguished arranger himself). Carmichael would also write settings for the piano playing of Stan Kenton, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and pop star Roger Williams, but nothing would surpass his work here.

Cole / Shearing is a remarkable piece of work from start to finish: not one of the songs here is obvious or overdone, nor is the way they are sung, played and arranged. Just looking at the list of songs selected tells you that here were two major musical mavens looking for the best and most interesting material they could possibly come up with. There would be plenty of time to make hits, as Cole's catalog from this period attests, but the idea here was simply to produce the most exquisite music that it was possible for two great artists, working in collaboration, to make.

The album was taped over four dates, from December 19 to 22, 1961, about a week after Cole returned home from his winter run at the Sands. On the first date, Carmichael remembered, "What George doesn't know is that Nat always comes about 20 to 30 minutes late. Not because he doesn't care, but as a favor to me—he knows that gives me a chance to run a couple of the tunes and get the clams out. And so, he can walk in and we can go right to work without having him stand around while I'm making corrections, you see. So, George arrived on time, and as a matter of fact it was during that wait that he complimented me on the arrangements, how much he liked them, before that first date. Now on the second date, Nat is coming 30 minutes late, but George comes 45 minutes late! Now on the third date, we got to laughing, because we thought neither one of them would ever show up, because they were always trying to outdo each other. We finally got the album done, but it was fun to see the one-up-manship, how each one would want to come a little later than the other one."

The project seems to have been put together in that same spirit of friendly give-and-take; what you might call "coop-etition." For instance, George says, "How about 'Let There Be Love?'" He would know that one, since it was a British song from the early war period when he was one of the stars of the London jazz scene. Then Nat says, "How about 'There's a Lull in My Life?'" and I'll bet anything he remembered it from Duke Ellington and Ivy Anderson. The same thing goes for "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good"). And so on. Each collaborator also took the opportunity to include several songs from his own past. Apart from the parallels between the careers of the twin protagonists, the relationship between the two men and their material was equally organic. For Cole, there were two remakes, Otis Rene's "I'm Lost" (1943) and the Bishop's Wife theme, "Lost April" (1948). (One suspects that he was thinking about these older songs.)

It was Cole, Shearing recalled, who insisted on including Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up," which had been a signature song for the Shearing Quintet since they recorded it in 1950. "When Nat said, 'Let's do 'Pick Yourself Up,' well, I'll tell you, years after my original conception of 'Pick Yourself Up,' I was no longer that enamored of it." The pianist said, "I mean I still love the tune and the lyric; I was just tired of my 1950 conception of it. I did it at that fast tempo because I wanted to get that little fugue-thing in at the beginning. But I couldn't really see Nat doing it like that. But Nat said he had a new idea for it, and he hummed it for me. And that was the kind of inspiration that happened all the way through that album on those meetings, because if he initially had an idea that hadn't occurred to me, it took him precisely two seconds to sell it to me."

"Let There Be Love" makes use of a gospel-style choir of strings, and the countermelody they play is very similar to Bobby Timmons's hard bop classic "Moanin'." "Let There Be Love" became, over the years, the "hit" from the album, and the track one most often hears on the radio, an arrangement used as a template by other, later groups. As a representation of this particular Anglo-American alliance, several of the selections have international leanings: "Let There Be Love" is British, "Azure Te'' is jazz organist Wild Bill Davison's depiction of Paris, and "Serenata" by Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parrish is treated in a lightly Latin fashion that suggests that the three principals were already familiar with the bossa nova. 

Ellington's "I Got It Bad" was already a jazz standard and Bart Howard’s waltz "Fly Me to the Moon" was about to become one. "I Got It Bad" was normally done either bluesy and torchy, but Cole and Shearing take it more romantically, and that ain't bad at all—in fact, it's good. This is three years before the iconic Sinatra-Basie version of "Fly Me to the Moon''—and here, on the original album front cover, the song is listed under the original title "In Other Words," but on the back, it's given as "Fly Me to the Moon."

Cole / Shearing is also the album that made "A Beautiful Friendship" into a hip favorite; if the album had a title other than the names of its two co-stars, this should have been it. This was an outstanding song by the team of Kahn and Styne—not Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne—but Donald Kahn (the son of the famous Chicago-based lyricist Gus Kahn) and Stanley Styne (son of Jule). It's a beautiful song for Cole, and it's in the tradition of his great Trio numbers, winding up with what Scott Fitzgerald once called "a Saturday Evening Post ending," and it's a worthy successor to "The Best Man" and "I've Got a Way with Women."

The closest thing to a misstep on the original album is "Don't Go," a pleasant-enough song by two old pros Al Stillman and Guy Wood (another Brit), but not up to the other eleven on the LP. It's regrettable that the two principals chose "Don't Go" instead of Wood's authentic masterpiece of a song, "My One and Only Love." (We'll have to content ourselves with Sinatra and Johnny Hartman on that one.) Two absolutely stunning standards, "Everything Happens to Me" and "Guess I'll Go Home This Summer" had to wait another twenty-five years to be released. (The third "bonus" song is "The Game of Love," a tricky Latin tune by Shearing percussionist Armando Peraza that they were wise to leave off.)

Ralph Carmichael recalled one more incident that illustrated the camaraderie between himself, Nat, and George. (Incidentally, for those who may not know, this is a good place to mention that the late Shearing was blind.) "We were in the studio—it was the first date. And here again, Capitol had given me a few extra strings, because I asked for them. This was in the first twenty minutes or so, so Nat was not yet here. But George was sitting over at his piano. And George knows the layout of the studio—he knows where the mikes are, and how not to bump into things, and music stands, and all that. So we do this run through and the strings have a lot of stuff going on, and George is sitting a little bit behind me and to my right—probably a distance of twelve or fifteen feet. And we finish, and it's quiet in the studio. And I'm looking over at him and he's pushing his piano bench back, and he gets up and he shuffles over to me, puts his hand out, finds my shoulder, puts his face right up to my ear and he says, 'You're a son of a bitch!' That was his way of telling me he liked the chart! And then he turns around and shuffles back. That's the greatest compliment I ever had in my life!"

Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays was a milestone project in the careers of both stars. Shearing told me on several occasions that the one album he always wanted to make, but was never able to, was a collaboration with Sinatra. But of all the albums he actually did make, including team-ups with Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton, Carmen McRae, Mel Torme, and John Pizzarelli (The Rare Delight of You, 2001, which recreated the famous cover shot of the 1961 album), his favorite was Cole /Shearing.

"A Beautiful Friendship ?" Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays was all that and much more.”